The nihilism of scientific materialism

Here is an interesting article called the “Gospel of Scientific Materialism”.  The article goes a long way toward explaining why I find “literary atheism” (Nz, Camus, etc) so much more interesting than scientific atheism (Dawkins, etc).  The latter resides in complete self-forgetfullness, they are incapable of asking the “human questions”.  Nz and Camus are wrong, but they are not self-forgetful and they indeed do ask the human questions.

An excerpt:

“The basic thrust of a reductive science of the mind involves a move from cultural categories—“I have an obligation to care for my children”—to biological ones—“I only feel an obligation because human DNA has evolved to promote species survival.”

It is a way, in other words, to deny the reality and authority of culture.One belief unifies a great deal of social theory and philosophy of the last one hundred years, and it’s the belief that culture crushes and deforms us. Max Weber called it “the iron cage.” Jacques Derrida used fancier words, but the so-called “Metaphysics of Presence” amounts to the same thing.

This belief has been reinforced by the fact that most have located the vitalizing powers of human existence in destabilizing thrusts and eruptions that undermine established cultural patterns. Michel Foucault provides perhaps the perfect example. He was fascinated by explosions of erotic desire and vivid scenes of violence.

Duty, logical coherence, settled or inherited patterns of behavior—these are among the bad motifs in our postmodern anti-culture. Self-expression, transgression, unmasking, madness, smashing the system—they are the good motifs. The bad motifs are all associated with laws, norms, and principles that discipline the soul. The good motifs suggest an anti-discipline, a liberation of desire.

… I’m not surprised by this postmodern anti-Sinai. The old motifs put stress and tension into life. The Socratic maxim—know yourself—animated St. Augustine just as much as Albert Camus. They disagreed about the meaning of life—Augustine sought the uncertain requirements of God’s will, Camus proposed misty notions of an authentic life—but both agreed that we need to enter into ourselves. We must carefully examine our lives so that we can weigh, assess, correct, repent, and renew our efforts to live as we should.

Self-examination turns out to be endlessly painful and difficult. Therein lies the appeal of reductive explanations. They release us from the task of self-examination and the need to discipline our errant desires and disobedient wills. What matters is something impersonal, something working at a deeper level than culture and its soul-shaping agenda: the Laws of History or Physics, the Unconscious or Natural Selection. We shouldn’t underestimate the appeal of this release—and the pleasing rest it provides.”


Author: Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

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