The Rise of Materialism and the Roots of Despair

A Philosophical Survey of the Death of God

The following essay is the first chapter of what I originally intended to be a book-length work of intellectual history detailing the impact of philosophical skepticism upon the emergence of Secular Humanism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. By surveying the major developments in Western epistemology, I tried to show how the waning credibility of ancient and Christian metaphysics during the Enlightenment contributed to the ascendency of materialism, clearing a path for Secular Humanism.

My ultimate aim, however, was to demonstrate how materialism deprives us of the philosophical resources needed to corroborate the value of the activities we consider quintessentially human. Our ethical commitments, aesthetic ambitions, and devotion to civil ideals lose their logical force and allure when subjected to the constraints of materialism, and if Secular Humanists wish to live authentically and with intellectual integrity they must recognize the limitations their uncompromising view imposes upon our activity.

To demonstrate how materialism impoverishes our lives and robs us of the rational means of defending our most prized moments, I provided in this opening chapter a summary of the philosophical transitions accounting for the gradual demise of ancient metaphysics and the rise of atheism. Beginning with Plato’s seminal theory of Forms, I explored the volatile debates of subsequent centuries surrounding the philosophical status of reason and its role in securing knowledge. By evaluating the works of major Western philosophers, including Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant and Nietzsche, I portrayed the radical decline in the perceived efficacy of reason to deliver accurate knowledge about human nature and the world beyond appearances. From Descartes’ failed attempt to establish indubitable first principles to Kant’s denial of metaphysics’ role in adjudicating religious propositions, reason suffered a series of defeats that fostered skepticism about the existence of the immaterial entities that were once thought to give our prized institutions and experiences their value. After Darwin, Nietzsche combined these skeptical implications with a mechanical conception of biological diversity to emphasize the tragedy of human ignorance and the contingency of our ethics. Unlike his modern-day counterparts, Nietzsche considered the figurative death of god and the metaphysical impotence of reason a catastrophe that vitiated human dignity and purpose, and his uncommon honesty provides a more genuine portrait of atheistic integrity than contemporary academic atheists.

As even this hasty philosophical survey reveals, Secular Humanism is as much the product of a denial of reason as it is a testament to the scientific confidence inspired by the Enlightenment. Inundated by the same intellectual sea changes that swept aside the Judeo-Christian world picture, the resources needed to establish the merit of our experiences now stand discredited. After Nietzsche, concepts such as truth appear to offer no more than elastic linguistic conventions incapable of substantiating our deepest ethical and aesthetic commitments.

It’s doubtful whether I’ll finish the work, as my attention has turned elsewhere. But I make it available here for anyone interested in the subject.



The Heaviest Weight: Atheism and the Roots of Despair



“A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.”

 – Thoreau

 “If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what would life be but despair?”

 – Kierkegaard



This is a book about despair. Unlike other discussions of the subject, the arguments here are meant to induce despair, not assuage it. Why read such a book?  Our time is precious, and you may think it better spent in the service of more agreeable pursuits. In my defense, I appeal to your intellectual conscience, your preference for the truth over comforting illusions. Failing that, I appeal to your sense of justice. We have been misled, and the time for reckoning is long overdue.

The idea for this book grew out of a series of conversations with atheists over the course of a decade, both in and out of university settings. The conversations varied in complexity and philosophical sophistication, and involved professional academics working in the sciences and humanities as well as lay people in other walks of life. Though my dialogue partners represented a diverse range of backgrounds, interests, and specializations, they largely agreed about one aspect of their atheistic world picture. Atheism, they thought, demanded very little in terms of personal sacrifice when measured against theistic alternatives. The trend toward secularism in the Western world was a welcome one, they maintained, and any concerns over what we have lost in a post-Christian culture reflects the lingering influence of our theistic heritage, nothing more.

When comparing themselves to theists, my interlocutors considered their lives fortunate. No longer was there a need in their minds to shackle themselves to puritanical notions of personal propriety or to esteem an imaginary deity; they were free to pursue an enlightened ethic purified of superstition and informed by scientific discovery. More importantly for my purposes, they believed atheism afforded them access to the kinds of experiences promoting fulfilling, meaningful lives. They viewed atheism as a life-affirming alternative to theism granting as much or more enjoyment of life as religion.

This outlook troubled me, not merely because I wanted these atheists to reconsider religion, but because they were unwilling to acknowledge that so radical a shift in cultural norms – the move from widespread religious belief to increased skepticism and secularism – must have enormous consequences for the way we live our lives. The suggestion that atheism rids us of unwanted baggage but leaves intact everything desirable seemed to defy atheism’s internal logic, so I set out to learn whether all atheists maintained so optimistic a view and to measure atheism’s full impact.

This book is the fruit of that inquiry. What I discovered were philosophers who accept atheism as true but who understand it to entail consequences most of us would consider devastating. Unlike the atheists with whom I had corresponded, these thinkers promote atheism without concealing its damaging affect upon all we cherish most as humans. The moral institutions and meaningful experiences we believe vindicate life are, they argue, contingent accidents without objective validity or value. I came to view despair, not relief, as the proper response to atheism, and this paper is an effort to catalogue unbelief’s most troubling implications.

That atheism is costly does not mean it is untrue. But we cannot reject religion while maintaining that the experiences pursued by a religious people remain open to us in a secular age. The ground beneath our feet has shifted, and the articles of faith once thought to enable those experiences are no longer deemed credible by growing percentages of the world’s population. Intellectual integrity demands that atheists put aside their disdain for religion long enough to recognize the limitations their worldview imposes upon our scope of activity.

Nowhere in what follows do I make a case for despair dependent upon our subjective experiences of hardship. No doubt many of our experiences attest to the horrors of existence, but I’m aware that some people go through life without encountering serious difficulties, and it would be absurd of me to hang my argument upon our common exposure to misery. As an autobiographical aside, however, I will note that midway through the writing of the first chapter I was suddenly diagnosed with a brain tumor and underwent a successful craniotomy to remove a benign, egg-sized mass. Tragedy may strike our lives at any moment, and our ability to cope with grief and illness relies in large part upon the soundness of our reasons for enduring suffering. Much more than abstract exercises in philosophical speculation, debates over the existence of values and meaningful experiences affect our lives in ways few other discussions can. But for those fortunate enough to avoid the worst sorts of existential calamities and who lead lives of relative enjoyment, the task becomes less about assessing reasons for enduring hardship than about determining the genuineness of the experiences we consider pleasurable. While those who suffer are perhaps in a better position to appreciate the urgency with which I take up the question of despair, I write with the expectation that most people will dismiss the subject as obscure or unrelated to their happy lives. That is why, rather than take the negative approach of pointing to the horrors of life, I have adopted the opposite strategy of targeting pleasures that are almost universally recognized as making life worth living. In this way, I hope to convince even those who are free of torment that they cannot, on atheism, escape despair.

I am grateful to the instructors, peers, and disputants who urged me to delve more deeply into these matters. No one deserves recognition more than my parents, who taught me the value of truth.





Chapter 1: A Disenchanted World


“Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”[1]

– Bertrand Russell


So writes one of the most respected and influential atheist philosophers of the twentieth century. It’s an arresting proposition given its pessimism. That so prominent an intellectual should promote “unyielding despair” ought to give us pause. What are the truths to which Russell refers, and why does he think that despair constitutes the only firm foundation on which to build the soul’s habitation? Isn’t despair too extreme, too dour a response to life by so eminent a thinker?

In this book I defend Russell’s assertion that despair alone affords us the proper point of departure for any serious investigation into humankind’s status in the universe. I maintain that Russell’s scaffolding of truths – his comprehensive philosophical picture of the world – is nothing other than the foundational truths of atheism properly understood, truths that when soberly considered should lead us to despair over our unenviable plight on this planet. Rather than avoid despair, I argue with Russell that embracing despair is among the prerequisites for an intellectually honest response to the human condition. Without it we cannot begin the work of formulating a philosophically credible assessment of our existence, nor, in Russell’s figurative words, of constructing the soul’s dwelling place in the hostile environment that is life.

Despair is our distinctive inheritance as rational animals, but we have too often denied our proper birthright in an effort to ennoble and enlarge our meager estate. The New Atheist movement, championed by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett, adopts an all too sanguine attitude towards atheism despite affirming many of the facts prompting Russell to designate despair a necessary response to our predicament. As polemicists cataloging the offenses of religion, the New Atheists work tirelessly to promote atheism while dismissing its many unsavory consequences. In their disdain for religion they obscure the bitter truths that would engender despair.

One need not venture far afield to discover more daring atheists of the highest caliber who, like Russell, identify despair as a necessary outcome of any honest appraisal of our collective fate. In fact, the history of Western philosophy is replete with examples of atheists who argue that the absence of god entails catastrophic consequences for humankind. My aim in this book is to canvas their works with an eye towards, not bolstering arguments for god’s existence – that would require a sustained inquiry into the specific claims of theism – but encouraging a more intellectually honest adoption of atheism.

Atheists in the twenty-first century are on the whole bad atheists in that they have accepted the premises of atheism without fully absorbing their implications. This failure to acknowledge atheism’s detrimental impact stems from two types of negligence. The first type is characteristic of the group of trained academics and intellectuals I mentioned above. The New Atheists and their supporters recklessly suppress the truth about atheism to promote their anti-religious agenda, and in doing so project a misleadingly favorable picture of atheistic life. Take for example the British Humanist Association that, with the support of its patron Richard Dawkins, placed advertisements on London buses with the message, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” In defiance of Russell’s admonition, the Association portrays atheism to be a carefree and liberating philosophy of contentment, not despair.

The second type of negligence follows from genuine ignorance of atheism’s logical corollaries. Naïve of their philosophical heritage, non-academic atheists are unaware of the cost one must pay for rejecting theism. This book supplies arguments from atheist philosophers demonstrating atheism’s effect upon the human activities, traits, and institutions we believe lend our lives significance. Once we demonstrate atheism’s impact upon these prized arenas of human experience, the reason behind Russell’s insistence on despair becomes clear.

What do I mean by despair, exactly? In his novel Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre portrays a man anguished by a meaningless universe and tormented by despair. Sartre’s protagonist, Antoine Roquentin, suffers from crippling uneasiness and nausea in the presence of an impenetrable, absurd reality. In a moment of clarity, Roquentin pinpoints the nature of his loathing:

The essential point is contingency. I mean that by definition existence is not necessary. To exist is simply to be there; existences appear, let themselves be encountered, but you can never deduce them. Some people, I think, have understood this. Only they tried to overcome this contingency by inventing a being that was necessary and self-caused. But no necessary being can explain existence: contingency is not a delusion, an appearance which can be dissipated; it is the absolute and, therefore, perfectly gratuitous. Everything is gratuitous, this park, this city, and myself. When you realize this, your heart turns over and everything begins to float . . .

To secure a place for themselves in the face of such radical contingency, humans impose a hierarchy of values upon a recalcitrant universe. In his newly awakened state, Roquentin discerns the impotence of these arbitrary human designations: “Of these relations (which I insisted on maintaining in order to delay the crumbling of the human world, measures, quantities, and directions) – I felt myself to be the arbitrator; they no longer had their teeth into things.” The realization drives him to contemplate suicide. “I dreamed vaguely of killing myself to wipe out at least one of these superfluous existences. But even my death would have been superfluous . . . I was superfluous for eternity.”

In accepting his contingency and the arbitrariness of human value relations, Roquentin’s purpose escapes him. This is despair: the horror of discovering that all values – including propositions related to ethics, aesthetics, and meaning – amount to nothing but subjective preferences without any necessary connection to our place in the universe. Roquentin reaches this conclusion while pondering the nature of a tree root, but the rest of us are less likely to be so dramatically affected by encounters with familiar objects. To shake ourselves free from an unwarranted reliance upon human values, we must methodically undermine their validity. We must demythologize them.

I have chosen seven categories as representative of the types of things we value most about being human and that appear to make our lives worth enduring: ethics, beauty, wonder, knowledge, justice, freedom, and meaning. This is by no means an exhaustive typology of things that contribute to life’s enjoyment, but without these necessary features we would struggle in vain to locate purpose in our daily routines. If our moral convictions, sense of self, and scientific achievements were shown to be fraudulent delusions, it would shatter our confidence in an orderly and knowable reality and threaten our place within it. Likewise, were we to discover facts about human nature that made it impossible to defend basic principles of political order, we would abandon efforts to promote international agreement about what constitutes a just and equitable society. In short, discrediting these categories should provoke despair over our inability to live fulfilling, peaceful lives. I say should because not everyone will immediately appreciate the magnitude of loss attending their devaluation, and we must allow people of different intellectual temperaments to react differently. That said, whether one keenly feels the loss has no bearing on the actual scale of damage done. To invalidate the first six of these categories would vitiate the sources of human joy, dignity, and purpose and deprive us of the seventh category, meaning. Without meaning humankind cannot with integrity long evade the clutches of despair.

To build my case for the inescapability of despair, I will draw directly on the work of atheists who, unlike the New Atheists, confront head on the problems posed by a godless universe. Chief among these thinkers are David Hume, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, and the aforementioned Jean-Paul Sartre, but I will also refer to many philosophers recently deceased or still living. By adhering scrupulously to the parameters of the atheistic world picture, these atheists deny that the experiences falling within my seven categories afford us the consolation we so often grant them. In the absence of consoling experiences, we have no choice but to re-evaluate the fundamental character of our lives.

In each chapter I follow a similar method to illustrate how atheism affects the categories. Guided by the work of atheists, I subject the philosophical constraints of atheism to the topic in question to determine its ability to confer value upon life. Strict atheism leaves no facet of existence untouched and, I will argue, ultimately robs our most treasured activities of significance. The absence of value in these categories – which I consider to be the best candidates for meaning-laden experiences – suggests a total absence of value, and though not every philosopher I cite judges despair to be the only intellectually honest response to a valueless universe, the cumulative force of their arguments speaks to the futility of ever deriving hope from life’s goals and activities.

One may doubt whether the procedure I describe is feasible. After all, atheists disagree about many things, and no one group – not even the New Atheists – speaks for the whole of unbelievers. Atheism encompasses non-theistic outlooks as diverse as Buddhism and Unitarian Universalism, and in its most basic formulation entails nothing more specific than the refutation of a deity. Without a common orthodoxy it would be difficult to assess atheism’s impact upon human experience. Fortunately, very few atheists in the Western world profess mere non-theism. Secular humanists and naturalists, two influential and growing factions of atheists, hold an uncompromising commitment to materialism that permits one to systematically gauge the consequences of their beliefs upon life. Both groups are ontological materialists in that they believe everything that exists in the universe consists of physical matter. They are in this respect highly reductive, maintaining that all types of experiences derive from physical processes susceptible, at least in theory, to scientific evaluation. In short, ontological materialists insist that everything explainable about existence can be explained in terms of matter and energy.[2] This policy allows me to conduct a precise inquiry into whether ontological materialism can account for the putative value of experiences in my seven categories. If ethical virtue, encounters with beauty, and the pursuit of justice are to offer genuine value they must, according to the ontological materialist, do so on the basis of material phenomena. If we can find no such possible phenomena, the materialist cannot lay claim to the experiences as genuine sources of joy, satisfaction, and fulfillment.

It is true that some prominent atheists reject ontological materialism in favor of methodological materialism, a more modest claim about the nature of the universe. Unlike dogmatic materialists, methodological materialists adopt no absolute prohibition against the existence of non-material objects, but limit themselves to the scientific methods they claim yield the most reliable knowledge. For instance, New Atheist and author Sam Harris grants that the existence of non-material entities is logically possible but considers it unlikely and evidentially unfounded. Science can only elucidate observable interactions of matter and energy, and speculative theories about divine providence and miracles, for instance, fall outside the purview of scientific verification. In the absence of falsifiable empirical data, the methodological materialist remains skeptical. My claim throughout this book is that if the experiences in my categories possess genuine value they must possess it in virtue of some non-material qualities, qualities that neither the dogmatic materialist nor the methodological materialist can countenance. The former rejects them out of hand as philosophical impossibilities while the latter refutes them on the basis of rigid methodological commitments. The outcome in both cases is the same: the experiences we rely on to ward off despair are rendered meaningless illusions.

The arguments in this book are addressed to anyone who finds the existence of immaterial entities unlikely, regardless of which type of materialism he or she favors. Secular humanists fall unambiguously into the ontological materialist fold, but I suspect other atheists in the West also doubt the existence of non-material entities or causal forces. The ascendency of secular humanism and the dominant role it plays in promoting atheism over religion accounts in part for atheism’s materialistic leanings. Atheistic religions such as Buddhism, while popular among some Western sub-cultures, do not command the influence of secular humanism, and Buddhism’s acceptance of non-material entities does not appear to have dramatically impacted the secular intellectual landscape. Secularism is an overwhelmingly materialistic affair, and in writing to materialists of one sort or another I am confident that I address the majority of atheists living in the West.

Why did materialism gain the upper hand in secular intellectual communities? Before examining how materialistic atheism affects the experiences in my seven categories, it will be helpful to spend the rest of this chapter sketching the philosophical transitions accounting for its popularity. Materialism is as old as philosophy itself, but it has not always commanded the respect it now enjoys. Retracing the developments contributing to its ascendancy will help us appreciate the force of materialism’s objections to the existence of immaterial objects and better understand how it threatens to undermine the value of our experiences.

Our summary will pay special attention to transitions in epistemology, the philosophical sub-discipline concerned with theories of knowledge and human reason. Over the course of Western philosophy, thinkers have advanced different theories about the scope of possible knowledge and the efficacy of reason, which have influenced the willingness of serious-minded people to entertain the existence of immaterial objects. The credibility of these objects significantly impacts other areas of philosophy, as they serve as foundational building blocks of more elaborate theories in ethics and ontology. Many philosophers worry that until we define the limits of human knowledge our pronouncements on ethics and the basic constitution of reality remain tentative and susceptible to skeptical assault, and a central task of philosophy historically has been to overcome doubts over the trustworthiness of human reason. Ancient and medieval thinkers, enjoying the confidence their age placed in reason, anchored their ethics and ontologies by reference to immaterial objects such as the human soul or ideal forms. But the empirically-minded critics of later centuries dismissed these entities as unfounded speculations. From the Enlightenment onward the catalogue of prospective value-bearing objects diminished as the philosophical community adopted the methods of the natural sciences, leaving fewer theoretical resources to account for the authenticity of our experiences and the reliability of our ethics. As Western philosophy’s conception of reason changed, so too did the types of justifications open to it. Our summary will track these transitions, beginning with Plato’s metaphysically generous epistemology and concluding with the more restrictive attitudes of postmodernity and the twentieth century. By the end of our story we shall be in a better position to appreciate why there are so few reasons for believing the experiences in our seven categories supply genuine compensation against the cruelty and suffering of life.

Value and knowledge in the ancient world

 While it would be foolish to portray the history of philosophy as a linear development of ideas, each supplanting the last, the story of philosophy from the ancient Greeks to our time may be told in terms of the declining influence of Plato’s epistemology and his famous theory of Forms. Since its inception in the fourth century B.C.E., Plato’s account of how humankind acquires knowledge and attains virtue has played an enormous role in shaping subsequent debate. So influential was Plato’s framing of perennial philosophical questions that a prominent twentieth-century atheist and colleague of Bertrand Russell’s labeled the entire European philosophical enterprise a series of footnotes on Plato.[3] “Plato is philosophy, and philosophy, Plato,” wrote Emerson. Plato’s influence cannot be overstated, yet in many respects materialism is the antithesis of Platonism, and its rise in stature signals Plato’s waning practical relevance. Platonism’s decline also corresponds with the discrediting of the metaphysical resources needed to fend off despair. Plato established the basic philosophical model from which Christianity drew inspiration in the early centuries of the Common Era, and similar to the way that Christianity postulates a spiritual reality beyond the physical world to account for the true value of life, Plato posits an immaterial reality to account for the value of our most precious experiences and civic institutions.[4] Eliminating this immaterial dimension eliminates the sources of value, leaving us to contend with the hollowed-out husks of our material surroundings. To grasp precisely how materialism threatens value requires a better grasp of how Plato attempted to secure it.

Like so many efforts in philosophy, the specter of skepticism lent urgency to Plato’s project. While debate persists over the extent to which particular pre-Socratic philosophers influenced Plato’s thought, his pupil Aristotle reports that the enigmatic works of Heraclitus made a lasting impression.[5] Heraclitus famously held that the world remains in a constant state of flux, with the basic constitutive elements of matter perpetually changing despite the static appearance of things. On Plato’s interpretation, this instability precluded the possibility of ever establishing a reliable theory of knowledge rooted in the physical composition of reality.[6] Throughout his dialogues we find Plato grappling with the inadequacy of matter to serve as the basis for genuine understanding, and he deploys various strategies for transcending the uncertainty of a world in flux to secure knowledge of permanent truths.

In addition to this Heraclitian debt, the fifth century Sophists influenced Plato’s development. Traveling teachers of rhetoric and oratory, the Sophists were ridiculed by Plato and Socrates for charging a fee for their services, a habit Socrates considered unbecoming of true philosophers. Scholars credit Protagoras, an influential Sophist and the titular character of Plato’s dialogue, with promoting the view that “man is the measure of all things.” While various interpreters read Protagoras as advocating more or less severe forms of relativism, Plato understood him to issue a challenge to the fundamental aims of philosophical inquiry.[7]  While conceding that the world perceived by the senses provides no assurance of a stable reality, Plato rejected Protagoras’ claim that human opinion constitutes the only source of value, and he persisted in seeking objective methods of obtaining knowledge that could guide human action and shape civil society.

To solve these skeptical dilemmas, Plato adopts a radical epistemological position. He divides the world into two spheres of unequal importance: the immaterial realm of permanent and abstract universals and the mundane realm of particular objects we daily inhabit. He gives the former realm priority over the latter, claiming the immaterial realm constitutes the repository of perfect models, or Forms, that account for the value and identity of individual, imperfect things in the physical realm. For instance, Plato holds that red objects in the material world derive their redness by participating in the Form of Red, itself not a thing located among physical objects. Redness is an ideal paradigm that imbues particular, imperfect instantiations of redness with its attribute and makes reference to red things coherent and meaningful. Likewise, particular instantiations of moral goodness found in persons or actions derive their quality from the Form of the Good. Individual good things and persons possess their goodness, Plato thinks, to the extent that they participate in the source that is Goodness itself. These immaterial ideals, Redness and Goodness, serve as the basis for comparison that allows one to speak objectively – that is, without circularity or arbitrariness – of Goodness and Redness per se. Even though one might not know with absolute certainty how to define the Good, Plato’s theory allows one to speak sensibly of standards of moral excellence that transcend particular situations and subjective interpretations. In any given debate over what constitutes Redness or Goodness there is a fact of the matter about who is right and wrong. Only if we learn how to acquire knowledge of the Forms, Plato says, can we judge wisely.

Our scientifically accomplished age treats the tangible objects of the physical world as the most reliable sources of knowledge, but Plato thinks just the opposite. Perceptible objects are, he argues, inferior and derivative imitations of the Forms and cannot provide true knowledge about reality. Our judgments remain vulnerable to skeptical attack until we grasp the unqualified, pure sources of predicate attributes that justify our knowledge. Only philosophers, claims Plato, “are able to grasp the eternal and unchangeable,” and their distinctive vocation is to break free from sensory enslavement to particular objects and pass into the presence of the Forms.[8] It is the immaterial human soul, Plato tells us, not the mind, that enables the philosopher’s ascent into the supersensory. Plato describes the soul as having a life before its union with the body, during which time it beholds the Forms in their true natures without the corrupting influence of the senses. When joined to the body, the soul temporarily forgets its knowledge of the Forms until we recollect it through persistent philosophical inquiry. Working together, the intellect and the soul contribute to our remembrance of the Forms and our apprehension of the Good, which for Plato is the beginning of true wisdom and virtue.

To modern ears, Plato’s account of knowledge is too fantastic to be taken seriously. We do not share his skeptical worries and so do not feel the need to resort to claims about disembodied souls or immaterial Forms. But questions about the basis of human knowledge continued to plague philosophers throughout the following millennia, and Plato’s approach to the problem proved foundational. Plato’s crucial contribution was to explore the distinction between our perception of reality and reality itself, a contrast his predecessor Parmenides had introduced to Greek philosophy and that every subsequent thinker was forced to confront. Philosophers after Plato also had to acknowledge difficulties in accounting for the difference between individual things and the types of things to which they belonged. Each had to answer questions such as What is the nature of the relationship between the type of things called Good and individual good things? and How, if at all, can we use knowledge of the type to accurately identify individual instances of the type? If one rejects Plato’s contention that perfect models exist beyond the physical world, then how else should we confirm the accuracy of our judgments? More urgently, how do we advocate for ethical responsibilities when nothing in nature appears to supply guarantees that our moral intuitions are reliable? If Protagoras is correct and man is the measure, then our opinions about ethics and truth constitute the only basis for our understanding of reality, and we are left without an authoritative standard when disagreements arise about how we should conduct ourselves.

Regardless of our opinion about Plato’s solution to these problems, his enduring merit lies in the fact that he took seriously the skeptical problems arising when we question the reliability of our senses in supplying accurate knowledge of the world, and his framing of the issues shaped the development of Western philosophy for the next two thousand years.

Aristotle and the turn to immanence  

Despite Plato’ influence, his successors wasted no time in straying from his commitments. Aristotle, the other giant of Greek philosophy, made the first move away from the metaphysical grandeur of his teacher towards a more naturalistic solution to epistemological problems, especially ethical ones. While he did not wholly abandon Plato’s reliance upon immaterial Forms to account for the identity and value of things, Aristotle reimagined Forms as immanent essences embedded in matter, not disembodied entities floating in a remote realm of existence. Whereas his philosophical predecessors had focused on clarifying the basic composition of matter and, in the case of Plato, the unique Forms that distinguish one type of matter from another, Aristotle expanded his field of inquiry to include an account of the initial causes that bring things into existence and the final aims towards which those existences tend. Considered together, Aristotle’s four causes – the material, formal, efficient and final – offer a more comprehensive picture of an entity’s nature than any thinker before him. Every living and inanimate thing, says Aristotle, derives its qualities from these four constitutive elements: the basic material stuff out of which it is composed (material cause); the Form or blueprint that imposes the distinctive shape and attributes onto its material makeup (formal cause); the initial impetus that results in its creation (efficient cause); and the purpose its creation and attributes satisfy (final cause). Cats are unique types of creatures, thinks Aristotle, in that each cat possesses an immaterial, immanent blueprint explaining why it looks and behaves as it does. There is no abstract ideal Cat from which we must derive knowledge about particular cats – only embodied Forms that account for each cat’s traits. This eliminates the need for an elaborate epistemology explaining how we learn about remote Forms and relocates the focus of philosophical inquiry back to physical objects, thereby promoting sense perception to a reliable and indispensable faculty of the understanding.

On Aristotle’s epistemological model, the outward manner by which organisms exhibit their immanent Form and the behaviors through which they pursue the fulfillment of their natural needs reveal their ideal function and moral purpose. We can easily observe what sorts of behaviors benefit cats without consulting a metaphysical ideal of feline goodness. Observation alone confirms that a cat’s final cause – the purpose towards which its nature tends, or its “cat-ness” – requires it to eat, play and reproduce. Cats are happy and content only under these conditions, and happiness for Aristotle is the hallmark of genuine flourishing and virtuous action. Likewise, we shouldn’t seek some disembodied notion of Goodness to learn what we the rational animal should do, but must attend to our essential natures to identify the human good. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that the distinctively human attribute, our rational capabilities, indicates that the pursuit of human goodness involves the virtuous application of reason and philosophical contemplation. When human beings exercise their unique abilities as rational animals they achieve the good suitable to their natures. They flourish.

While a seemingly subtle revision of Plato’s theory, Aristotle’s transference of Forms to immanent objects entails consequences that only became fully apparent centuries later. In rejecting Plato’s position that true knowledge requires understanding of unchanging Forms, and in focusing attention on the embodied essences of organisms, Aristotle connected moral epistemology to biology in ways that would prove problematic. After Darwin in the nineteenth century, scientists turned to evolutionary accounts of adaptation to explain organisms’ physical characteristics, leaving little room for the influence of immaterial Forms. By gaining advantages through beneficial mutations, the fittest members of a species thrive in the contest for finite resources and pass the favorable mutations on to subsequent generations.

This still dominant account of biological diversity complicates Aristotle’s and Plato’s vision of moral goodness. Responding to contingent environmental factors, the evolutionary process forbids the possibility of a fixed correlation between an organism’s biological attributes and an eternal standard of goodness. If, as Darwin says, the engines of biological adaptation are spontaneous mutation and environmental pressures, we cannot expect physical and behavioral attributes to remain static over the course of a species’ natural history. After all, we can imagine life evolving under much different conditions than those common to Earth’s history, and in a few hundred million years our evolutionary progeny will look and behave differently than we do. If, as Aristotle suggests, an organism’s essential characteristics are the best means of inferring its good, then goodness is subject to continual change and we must abandon Plato’s idea of a fixed Form of Goodness. Much like Heraclitus’ notion of eternal flux, Darwinian evolution describes an unstable physical world incapable of furnishing the epistemological basis for a permanent moral order. By locating the indicators of moral excellence in organisms’ embodied attributes, Aristotle exposed ethics to the contingency of Darwinian biology and established a tension between ancient ethics and modern science. He also invited criticism of Forms and other immaterial entities by shifting emphasis towards the physical characteristics of organisms. Darwinism provided a plausible theory for why life appears to behave purposefully that obviated the need for metaphysical explanations, offering secular-minded critics a scientifically credible approach to grounding moral obligations. If physical attributes determine moral character, then why not dispense with metaphysics altogether?

As an accomplished natural scientist, Aristotle was less concerned with proving the reliability of our senses than he was with the orderly and logical application of reason to empirical observation. By looking to the observable world for clues as to what constitutes the good for particular organisms, he inaugurated a tradition in Western philosophy of relying upon scientific understanding to determine ethical norms. While himself not a materialist, Aristotle prepared the way for a thoroughgoing empiricism that would embolden the materialists of later centuries.

Christianity and the Middle Ages

Aristotle’s devotees could not have anticipated that his innovative interpretation of the theory of Forms would shake the foundations of ancient ethics centuries later. Had his philosophy fallen out of favor and not dominated for thousands of years, the tension between Aristotle’s moral epistemology and Darwinian evolution would hardly matter to us today. But like Plato’s philosophy, Aristotle’s ideas factored crucially in the formation of moral theories shaping the course of Western history. The founding principles of the United States, articulated in the Declaration of Independence, bear witness to the abiding impact of Aristotle’s moral reasoning, especially in their invocation of self-evident natural rights meant to ensure the equality of all people. We are, for better or worse, inheritors of these Greek legacies, and the validity of our society’s moral edifice relies upon competing elements of Plato and Aristotle’s epistemologies.

Understanding how modern institutions preserve ancient Greek philosophy helps explain why materialism threatens to erode our value commitments today. Because Plato and Aristotle drew on immaterial entities to defend their theories of moral goodness – and because their ideas contributed so dramatically to the formulation of Western ethical systems – conflicts between ancient ideas of virtue and modern scientific consensus remain troubling. Once we recognize that the foundations of our moral thinking derive from sources sympathetic to Greek epistemology, we can more readily perceive the disastrous consequences of removing the objects of knowledge authorizing them. To appreciate the true extent of our indebtedness, we must turn to the early Christian church.

Greek philosophy became engrained in modern Western culture through Christian intermediaries who exerted tremendous influence upon the ethical and philosophical development of Europe. Theologians in the early centuries C.E. and throughout the Middle Ages praised Plato, seizing upon opportunities to lend their faith greater intellectual credibility by adapting theological doctrines to the lexicon and logic of respected Greek philosophy. These Christians didn’t think an association with Plato would weaken the authority the Bible, but viewed commonalities between the pagan Greeks and Christianity as proof of a shared comprehension of god’s orderly world. Through the application of divinely bestowed wisdom, Plato had struck upon truths that only Christianity could fully illuminate but that philosophy could help popularize among Roman audiences. This attempted synthesis between Christianity and Greek philosophy accounts in large part for the impact of Plato and Aristotle upon the formation of the Western world.

The adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire in the late fourth century C.E. would rapidly promulgate Christian ideas, among them interpretations of Plato by early church fathers Justin Martyr and Saint Augustine. As Christianity spread it bore traces of Platonic influence with it, especially the distinction between appearances and reality that Christianity understood in terms of separate material and spiritual realms. In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas drew on the newly rediscovered works of Aristotle to defend the notion that the whole of humankind perceives god’s moral order through natural intuitions about what actions complement the human essence. Aspects of these two strains of thought – the Platonic commitment to an otherworldly existence and the Aristotelian conception of immanent natures – took root in Christian Europe and, eventually, North America. The objects of knowledge enabling these epistemological systems, including Plato’s immaterial soul and Aristotle’s embodied essences, became enmeshed in the very fabric of the Western moral consciousness through their incorporation into Christian apologetics.

While deeply indebted to Greek philosophers, Christian theologians would do more than assimilate existing theories from classical sources. Throughout the Middle Ages, Christians developed their own innovative arguments for theological claims. Around 1078, Anselm of Canterbury devised an ontological argument for the existence of god based upon the idea of a supreme being in possession of every possible degree of perfection, including existence. Two centuries later, Aquinas offered his own seminal assessment of arguments for god’s existence in the Summa Theologica. In their confidence in the human intellect’s ability to ascertain truths about god, these Christian philosophers venerated reason as a powerful instrument of human understanding capable of discerning truths imperceptible to the senses. By relying upon reason to reinforce and clarify their faith commitments, theologians of the Middle Ages modeled themselves after their Greek forbearers and carried the ancient tradition of rational inquiry into the modern era.

But by the eighteenth century, these theological perspectives came under assault by an increasingly skeptical philosophical community. As Christianity’s philosophical credibility began to wane, so too did the credibility of its Greek counterparts and the objects of knowledge supporting their epistemologies. It became increasingly difficult for metaphysically-minded philosophers to cite the immortal soul or immaterial essences as plausible explanations for how we gain access to ethical and ontological truths. The remarkable expansion of scientific knowledge, especially in physics, appeared to leave little need for belief in unchanging realities beyond the reach of empirical investigation. With the rejection of metaphysical foundations, the traditional moral principles shaping our civilization began to lose their logical force.

Worse still, the efficacy of reason itself came under attack by Enlightenment philosophers as they became skeptical of its application to theological inquiry. What began as a celebration of reason ended in deep-seated mistrust of the rational excesses of Greek and Christian metaphysics, and by the end of the Enlightenment even some Christian philosophers began to embrace a more rigid empiricism than their Greek and medieval predecessors. By the nineteenth century, a few bold atheists rejected reason’s reliability altogether.

This denial of reason emerged from a series of epistemological debates beginning in the seventeenth century. As the so-called rationalist philosophers of the early modern era struggled to devise more credible methods of grounding human understanding than those provided by ancient Greek and Christian sources, they established conditions of knowledge that Enlightenment thinkers found impossible to accept. The inadequacy of rationalist methods cast doubt on the credibility of all human inquiry, and Enlightenment thinkers responded by denying that reason could secure the type of knowledge philosophers had historically sought. The early modern period was the last golden age of metaphysical speculation, and its perceived failure to deliver on the promise of reason led many philosophers to abandon metaphysics and commit themselves to the empirical model provided by the natural sciences. Understanding the failure of the rationalist project and the crisis of confidence that ensued helps account for the rise of skepticism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the popularity of secular humanism today.

Modern philosophy and the collapse of reason

Intellectual historians customarily cite two seventeenth century thinkers as inaugurating the modern period of philosophy: the Frenchman Rene Descartes and the Englishman Francis Bacon. Both men were dissatisfied with the Aristotelian logic dominating academic philosophy, and each sought better ways of obtaining reliable knowledge about the world. Their approaches to solving epistemological problems varied dramatically, however, and their unique solutions deepened the divide between two developing schools of philosophical investigation, empiricism and rationalism. Descartes’ rationalist approach signaled a return to the skeptical mindset characterizing much of Greek philosophy before Aristotle, and like Plato he sought metaphysical foundations for epistemological first principles. Bacon adopted a more scientific orientation, insisting that ancient philosophy relied too heavily on abstract reasoning while neglecting to carefully observe the phenomena in question. By stressing the importance of classification, Bacon greatly advanced modern scientific method, while Descartes, himself a scientist of astonishing achievement, turned to rational abstraction as a means of grounding knowledge. Over time, Bacon’s approach would prove the more durable, especially among Anglo-American thinkers who shared his commitment to empirical confirmation. Descartes’ ambitious plan to verify the reliability of reason through the aid of indubitable first principles, on the other hand, failed to convince influential figures in the following centuries. The shortcomings of Descartes’ methods triggered a crisis of epistemology, provoking philosophers to drastically reconceive the nature of knowledge and to reject reason’s purported ability to provide answers to fundamental questions about religion and human purpose. In denying reason’s traditional role, philosophers of the Enlightenment restricted access to truths beyond appearances and imposed harsher criteria on what qualified as genuine knowledge.

In many ways, Descartes’ motivations for assessing the reliability of human understanding mirror Plato’s. Like Plato, Descartes recognized the presence of widespread disagreement among experts in every scholarly field and doubted whether sense perception could resolve the conflicts. Educated at the elite Jesuit school at La Flèche, Descartes excelled early in mathematics, and his appreciation of mathematical accuracy led him to lament the imprecision of other disciplines. If so many of his school masters disagreed about basic issues confronting human experience, and no reliable procedure existed among the liberal arts to prove the certainty of our judgments, what ensured that our opinions were valid? Many of the convictions Descartes held as a younger man he later concluded were false, and the possibility that his remaining ideas were also misguided drove him to search out a method of confirming his beliefs. After a period of service in the military and almost a decade spent traveling in pursuit of worldly diversions, Descartes left France in 1628 for the intellectual and religious freedom of Holland to evaluate the reliability of his opinions.

To begin his inquiry Descartes subjects to radical doubt everything he cannot prove with absolute certainty, including his sense perception. By assuming his opinions and senses are liable to error, Descartes seeks a more reliable foundation on which to build his knowledge about the world. Too frequently we depend on unexamined presuppositions that appear to confirm our knowledge, Descartes warns, and before we can accurately gauge the reliability of our understanding we must put aside all prejudices coloring our judgment, even those that seem most intuitively certain. In Meditations on First Philosophy, published in 1641, Descartes writes, “I am forced to admit that there is nothing among the things I once believed to be true which it is not permissible to doubt.”[9] It is at least theoretically possible, Descartes notes, that conditions outside our awareness render our apparent grasp of reality illusory. We cannot rule out the possibility, for instance, that we are ensnared in a dream-like state of permanent slumber, living out our daily experiences in delusional solitude. Nor can we deny the possibility that an evil god deceives us by flooding our minds with false experiences completely at odds with the true nature of things. How, given these unlikely but logically possible scenarios, can we confirm our convictions about the world and ourselves?

Through a series of inferences, Descartes discovers what he considers to be an incontrovertible fact about our existence. Even if we are deluded by a malicious deity or languish ignorantly in perpetual slumber, our consciousness vouches for our existence. For though we might perceive wrongly about the nature of our bodies or the specific character of our lives, the fact that we perceive at all constitutes evidence of our mental being. “Cogito ergo sum,” or “I think therefore I am,” provided Descartes a logical argument in support of his existence and anchored his entire epistemological doctrine, but it also introduced a problem. For though Descartes had established rational grounds for his existence, his proof only accounted for the immaterial mental essence of his personhood. The status of his body and the physical objects around him remained unaccounted for, and to ascertain their reality Descartes turned his attention to the origins of his ideas about himself, the world and god.

How do we acquire our ideas, asks Descartes, and can they be trusted? To test whether our ideas correspond to realities independent of our minds, Descartes subjects them to a criterion drawn from his understanding of the relationship between cause and effect. No effect, thinks Descartes, can exceed in power or reality its cause, so there must be a cause equal to every idea we possess in our minds. While we can easily account for the presence in our minds of ideas pertaining to everyday objects such as trees, tables, and other people, the idea of god is unique, in that nothing about our experience suggests the possibility of an infinitely powerful being. God himself must have implanted the idea, concludes Descartes, as he is the only cause equal to the effect, and his having instilled the idea of himself in my mind is proof that he created and sustains me in my knowledge about the world. Only the existence of a benevolent god who refuses to deceive me can account for my possession of innate ideas such as perfection and for the accuracy of my judgments about other objects. A good god, Descartes maintains, rewards persistent inquiry into the nature of the universe and will empower those who seek out “clear and distinct” knowledge of his creation.

In the short space of the Meditations, Descartes believed he had successfully proven the reliability of human knowledge and the existence of god. But though he aimed at eradicating doubts about the authority of human understanding and sought to elevate humankind to “masters and possessors of nature,” the practical consequence of his efforts was to force a skeptical wedge between human subjects and external objects that later philosophers struggled to reconcile. By defining knowledge as correspondence between the immaterial mental awareness of human observers and the physical realities of exterior objects, Descartes was forced to introduce a mediating agent – god –  to close the gap and ensure the accuracy of our judgements. Descartes’ entire defense of human knowledge depends on him having proved god’s existence. But as Hume and Kant would argue, his proofs fail, leaving only the gap separating human subjectivity from the objects of inquiry. By doubting the veracity of basic human judgments and erecting almost insurmountable boundaries between immaterial subject and physical object, Descartes established a model of human understanding requiring supernatural intervention. But his deity could not withstand the high standard of certainty demanded by his system, and in the end Descartes’ skepticism infected his whole project. Despite his efforts to defend knowledge, Descartes inadvertently strengthened the case for skepticism and further discredited metaphysical approaches to authorizing human understanding.

The Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume would exploit these skeptical vulnerabilities a century later in his devastating critique of rationalism. Descartes had overstepped the boundaries of logical inference, Hume objected, and his system relied upon a misunderstanding of the relationship between cause and effect. Reason prohibits outright contradictions between what Hume refers to as relations of ideas – such as contradictions arising between geometric and numerical values – but all other propositions must be evaluated a posteriori, or on the basis of experience. The proposition “the sun will not rise tomorrow,” while perhaps outlandish, involves no logical contradiction and nothing in our rational arsenal can rule out a priori, or prior to experience, the possibility of a cataclysmic departure from the celestial norm. To discover the fact of the matter about the rising sun we must walk outdoors and see whether the Earth’s rotation brings the star within view.

Descartes had tried to deduce a matter of fact – the existence of god– from a logical argument about the relationship between causes and effects. God must exist, he argued, as he is the only cause equal to the idea we possess of him in our minds. But the reverse of Descartes’ proposition, that our idea of god enters our minds spontaneously and unaided involves no logical contradictions and cannot, Hume argues, be dismissed a priori as irrational. Any proposition that does not violate reason by contradiction must be evaluated on the basis of experience.

Descartes’ argument seems at first to accord with the spirit of Hume’s empirical demands, as everyday experience would appear to support Descartes’ intuitive suggestion that a potent idea requires an equally potent cause. But in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume overturns this commonsensical way of thinking about causality. He writes, “No object ever discovers, by the qualities which appear to the senses, either the causes which produced it, or the effects which will arise from it; nor can our reason, unassisted by experience, ever draw any inference concerning real existence and matter of fact.”[10] Cause and effect relationships are not facts discoverable in the same manner as other types of attributes. Try as we might, we cannot scrutinize a rock to learn in advance, or a priori, that releasing it from a height of three feet will result in it falling to the Earth and leaving a depression in the ground. Furthermore, dropping the rock will produce knowledge of the effects, but only knowledge of this single release. We cannot draw on our experience of the first release to predict the outcome of a second with logical certainty, Hume claims, because experience provides no proof of a necessary connection between causes and effects. Despite our impression that cause and effect events are conjoined in predictable patterns, the content of experience offers no assurance that the next time we release a rock it will fall down rather than rise up into space.

Hume thinks we routinely make similarly unauthorized judgments about other common types of interactions. He gives the example of billiard balls. When we observe a cue-ball strike the eight ball and propel it towards a pocket, we intuitively draw inferences about the tendencies of all billiard balls. We conclude that the constant conjunction of ball strikes and movement constitutes a logical relationship enabling us to make predictions about future strikes. But our knowledge about objects and their behavior originates with experience, not reason, Hume argues. We must evaluate each cause and effect as unique occurrences undetermined by past experiences or rational necessity. Otherwise, “If we reason a priori,” Hume writes, “anything may appear able to produce anything.” This is the radical crux of Hume’s strict empiricism: reason may circumscribe the range of possible experience by eliminating a priori contradictions arising between mathematical relations of ideas, but we are wholly reliant upon experience to determine all matters of fact, including the existence of god.

In a single stroke, Hume crippled Descartes’ method and challenged the efficacy of a priori reasoning, a cornerstone of philosophical speculation for thousands of years. All theological and metaphysical claims not rooted in experience must be committed to the flames, Hume famously proclaimed, including arguments purporting to demonstrate god’s existence from abstract logical considerations. Not only does a priori reasoning fail to extend our knowledge beyond experience into matters concerning god, the soul and other spiritual entities, it falters whenever it violates the limits of its legitimate purview, the “sciences of quantity and number,” which Hume considers “the only proper objects of knowledge and demonstration.” We may treat ethics, politics, theology and aesthetic criticism as important mediums for expressing human emotion and subjective preferences, Hume argues, but not as sciences directed by reason. “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them,” Hume writes. Our selection of values is governed by our irrational passions, not by sober assessment of the facts.

The debilitating consequences of Hume’s critique were not lost on him. In his first major work, A Treatise of Human Nature, the 27-year-old genius writes, “The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probably or likely than another.” Yet Hume didn’t allow his skeptical conclusions to trouble him too deeply. Natural human inclination, he observed, “cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium.” Philosophical exercises in epistemology cannot shake our intuitive faith in the reliability of human faculties, Hume thought. Ordinary life rescues us by supplying ample diversions. Hume writes, “I dine, I play a game of back-gammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hour’s amusement, I wou’d return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain’d, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.” Hume didn’t doubt the theoretical havoc wrought by his philosophy, but he did doubt whether it had practical consequences for the way we live our lives.

Other philosophers were more distraught, and philosophy on the continent of Europe took a decisive turn in response to Hume’s analysis. Faced with the debilitating implications of his skepticism, a group of German thinkers led by Immanuel Kant devised ingenious methods of evading the most damaging of Hume’s conclusions, but at a cost. These revolutionary theories negotiated a compromise between Descartes’ assured rationalism and Hume’s resigned empiricism, conceding much more to the latter than the former. Transcendental Idealism, the name given by Kant to his ambitious epistemological project, salvaged the objectivity of human judgments and the reliability of scientific investigation while admitting of reason’s severe limitations. After Hume, skepticism became a central assumption of a major thread of Western philosophy, and while Kant and his supporters successfully answered Hume by establishing new theoretical foundations for human knowledge, there could be no return to the rational optimism so amenable to religious speculation.

Like Hume, Kant denies that speculative reason, that is, non-empirical and non-moral reasoning, can prove the existence of god. In fact, Kant devotes much of his most famous work, The Critique of Pure Reason, published in 1781, to dismantling reason’s ability to confirm theological propositions. As a theist, Kant was alarmed by the corrosive effect of Hume’s empiricism on theology and sought to protect religion by neutralizing speculative reason’s metaphysical authority. If reason couldn’t prove religious propositions, it couldn’t refute them, either. “Thus,” Kant writes, “I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.” But in rejecting speculative reason’s ability to discover answers to the most fundamental questions confronting humankind, Kant introduced a strain of irrationalism into the European philosophical tradition that in the next century would threaten much that he sought to protect.

Kant’s Copernican revolution and the thing in itself

Kant begins his counterattack against Hume by demonstrating that some of the knowledge Hume accepts as certain requires more justification than Hume’s system can provide. To prove this, Kant refines Hume’s terminology, further distinguishing between types of a priori knowledge. While difficult to grasp, these distinctions help clarify exactly what’s at stake in the disagreement and give defining character to Kant’s project. They also help explain why, after Kant, religious speculation lost much of its philosophical credibility.

In The Critique of Pure Reason and a later work, Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics, Kant argues that Hume grants the reliability of a field of a priori knowledge that his refutation of metaphysics expressly forbids; namely, the “sciences of quantity and number.” Hume believes the legitimacy of mathematics depends upon our ability to derive numerical and geometric concepts from mathematical terms. These concepts are thought by Hume to be a priori principles discovered through analysis of mathematical definitions.[11] The term “triangle,” for instance, defines a three-sided figure whose interior angles equal 180 degrees, and we need not consult sense perception to grasp the geometric significance of a triangle because the definition includes an adequate description of the concept. All mathematical principles are known in a similar manner, according to Hume, and the scope of mathematical knowledge constitutes the full extent of legitimate a priori cognition.

Kant labels this type of knowledge analytic a priori. Consistent with Hume’s nomenclature, Kant classifies it a priori because it does not rely on sense perception, but he further designates it analytic because it contains the information required to make valid judgments without consulting experience. An analysis of the definition of the term bachelor, for instance, reveals the data necessary to make accurate judgments about what constitutes an instance of the concept, namely, an unmarried man. Hume thinks this is how we arrive at mathematical knowledge. The definition of a triangle is, for Hume, a sufficient condition for making mathematically accurate judgments involving triangles.

But Kant rejects Hume’s assertion that analysis secures adequate knowledge of mathematical concepts to account for the science’s efficacy. We cannot glean the necessary facts about mathematical principles by probing the definitions of the terms. For instance, nothing in the definition of a straight line reveals the well-known fact that lines constitute the shortest distance between any two points; we require some additional conceptual framework before the definition of a line takes on that necessary attribute. Yet we do somehow manage, independent of experience, to reach that judgment; it’s axiomatic and a priori, for it would be preposterous to suggest we must measure every distance between two points before asserting its universality. Kant calls this type of knowledge – the kind reached independently of experience or definition and that amplifies rather than merely clarifies our knowledge – synthetic a priori. Kant thinks that this type of knowledge, which Hume overlooked, offers evidence of our ability to transcend the limitations of immediate sense experience and make valid judgments based not on definitions, but on the necessary conditions of human cognition. Once we acknowledge these conditions, Kant thinks we can give an account of the fundamental structure of human understanding that can authorize judgments about causality that are so essential to the way we make sense of the world.

Despite Kant’s objections to Hume’s mischaracterization of mathematical knowledge, he shares Hume’s opinion of the poverty of experience. The content of experience does not enable us to predict the outcome of causes or draw logical inferences that justify the efficacy of science and mathematics. Sense perception delivers a series of impressions lacking unity and logical connection to things or ourselves and cannot anchor our scientific understanding. It was Hume’s incisive analysis that roused Kant from his “dogmatic slumber” and alerted him of the need to account for the basis of our scientific knowledge. If humankind wishes to lay claim to synthetic a priori knowledge – the sort needed to do science and mathematics – it must explain how human understanding can extend beyond knowledge of individual experiences and make universal judgments about objects not immediately present to a human subject.

To solve the dilemma, Kant reverses the dominant epistemological model enshrined by Descartes’ method. Rather than depict knowledge in terms of a human subject passively receiving information via sense perception about the outside world, Kant portrays human cognition as making an active contribution to our understanding. Synthetic a priori judgments don’t depend upon sense perception capturing the logical interconnectedness of external events and objects, argues Kant, but gain their universal validity from the way human understanding imposes a uniform structure upon the raw data of experience. In other words, the objectivity accounting for scientific judgments resides internally, in our minds, and isn’t a quality indwelling in external things.

Kant describes the conceptual framework needed to account for the possibility of synthetic a priori knowledge in two parts: the forms of intuition and the categories of the understanding. The forms of intuition are the mediums through which we perceive the world, the receptive filters that structure experience into orderly segments, and consist of space and time. Space and time aren’t entities existing outside us that we discover through sense perception, but are the very conditions of any perception at all, the colored glasses that imbue experience with its uniformity and consistency. We can’t abstract ourselves from space and time to perceive the world apart from it, nor can we even conceive of a world independent of space and time; they are fundamental to our way of knowing.

Space and time establish the context within which experiences unfold, but to make accurate judgments about the world we require additional conceptual resources beyond what experience provides. These are the twelve categories of the understanding, says Kant, an internal storehouse of a priori logical tools that link together chaotic sense data into coherent and sensible impressions. For any object or experience to become the subject of a human judgment, Kant argues, certain conditions must obtain. For instance, the efficacy of science – which Kant accepts as axiomatic – requires that we differentiate between subjective series of temporal impressions, such as our arbitrary visual scanning of the outline of a house, and objective sequences of events, such as a boat’s successive passage down a river. Our experiences must conform to certain rules innate to our mode of knowing, thinks Kant, and these rules account for our ability to discern the difference between random sequences directed by our imagination, which are logically reversible, and actual events occurring in time that cannot be re-sequenced. To explain our ability to track the objective progress of a boat floating down a river, Kant thinks there must be a rule according to which our understanding recognizes one position of the boat as following necessarily from its preceding position. Kant identifies this rule as the category of causality, an a priori concept of the understanding that guarantees some cause is responsible for every effect and that logically authorizes us to make empirical inquiries into such causes.

Kant’s response to Hume’s skepticism, then, is to identify the necessary conditions of experience and present them as inviolable rules shaping every perception delivered by the senses. There can be no experience without both sense perception, or what Kant calls intuition, and the formative influence of the categories. He writes, “Thoughts without content [sense intuitions] are empty; intuitions without concepts are blind.”[12] We can therefore know in advance, or a priori, that every experience answers to certain logical conditions established by the categories, knowledge which in turn enables us to make predictions about future events. The efficacy and universality of science rests not on the perceptiveness of our senses, but on our ability to project our knowledge of the categories and the forms of intuition ahead of ourselves to anticipate their impact on new experiences. Because we know how space and time and the twelve categories structure sense intuitions, we know in advance that a line is the shortest distance between any two future points.

Kant believes he has revealed the basis for synthetic a priori judgments and laid bare the foundations of science, but he also thinks he has drawn the limits of reason’s fruitful application. The forms of intuition and the categories are not derived from experience, but they apply only to experience. Hence the application of speculative reason to subjects beyond the scope of experience can only stimulate human inquiry by establishing goals for its ideal organization and hypothetical completion, but it cannot provide what Kant calls constitutive knowledge about the existence of particular entities. When applied to metaphysical questions such as the existence of god, speculative reason runs aground, becoming ensnared in contradictions. At the end of the Critique, Kant dismantles the classical proofs for god’s existence, including those advanced by Descartes, claiming reason violates its purview by treating the ideal of a deity as an actual object of experience rather than an abstract principle around which to organize our knowledge. Hume was therefore right to dismiss Descartes’ proofs for god’s existence. On the other hand, Kant thinks reason’s ineffectiveness in resolving metaphysical questions bars Hume from disproving the existence of god and therefore preserves the plausibility of theological propositions.

Metaphysics is not the only sphere of human inquiry transformed by Kant’s epistemology. Ordinary experience, too, takes on a fundamentally different character in the wake of his analysis. In attempting to explain the efficacy of mathematics and physics, Kant affected an epistemological revolution analogous to the upheaval in astronomy precipitated by Copernicus’s breakthrough two hundred years prior. Just as Copernicus shattered Ptolemy’s geocentric paradigm and dislocated the Earth from the center of the solar system, Kant displaced the object of knowledge as the locus of human inquiry, substituting instead the human subject as the determinative variable in our quest for understanding. To solve the problems raised by Descartes’ epistemological model, Kant vitiated the opposition between subject and object and relocated the crucial interplay of the understanding into the interior of the thinking human, thereby diminishing barriers hindering agreement between external objects and our judging faculties. Human intuition needn’t cross the Cartesian divide of mind and object to discover the temporal characteristics or causal origins of things; these attributes are given to the object by the categories.

But by interposing the structure of the understanding between the human observer and the world, Kant shrouds the object of experience behind a veil of human distortion, forever obscuring its true nature from our grasp. “The senses,” he writes, “never and in no single instance enable us to cognize things in themselves.”[13] We cannot know the object, or what Kant calls the thing-in-itself, apart from what we bring to it in the forms of the intuition and the categories of the understanding. “We can cognize of things a priori,” he writes, “only what we ourselves have put into them.” Our capacity to predict the character of future experiences rests on our recognition of the inherent structure of our understanding, not on our knowledge of the thing as it exists independently from us. In characterizing knowledge as a synthesis of human cognition and external phenomena, Kant deprived human nature of direct access to the world.

Despite Kant’s efforts to salvage scientific understanding, some of his contemporary critics believed he had trivialized knowledge by defining it as a mere reflection of our cognitive architecture. In the years following the publication of the Critique, Kant worked hard to counter accusations of dogmatic idealism and skepticism, and in subsequent publications he repeatedly emphasized his belief in the real existence of objects outside the human subject. The world wasn’t just a construction of our minds as it had been for his predecessor, the Irish idealist Bishop Berkley, he insisted, and empirical investigation could uncover truths about how the world operated. Still, Kant was read by many as affirming some of Hume’s most unsettling propositions. After all, Kant admitted that humankind can never employ speculative reason to discover the true causal forces at work in the universe; it must satisfy itself with the knowledge that our minds process sense information in predictable, orderly sequences that necessitate the attribution of a preceding event or cause to every experience. Whether the forces or agents we judge to be responsible for events do in fact – in the realm of things-in-themselves – account for those transformations, we can never know. And while Kant suggests that moral reasoning offers a more reliable alternative for obtaining knowledge of elusive metaphysical realities, the damage done to speculative metaphysics cast a discrediting shadow across the whole of human rationality and lent strength to a growing irrationalism that in the next century would threaten not only metaphysics but the relative security of the empirical sciences.

The catastrophic influence of Kant’s epistemology on the German poet Heinrich von Kleist provides dramatic evidence of its corrosive impact among some of his contemporaries. A true believer in the promise of the Enlightenment and the boundless utility of reason, Kleist interpreted Kant’s characterization of knowledge as a devastating setback in his quest for truth. Writing to his fiancé, Kleist offered this interpretation of Kant’s philosophy: “If all men had green glasses instead of eyes, then they would have to judge that the objects they see through them are green – and they would never be able to distinguish whether their eye shows them the things as they are, or whether it does not add something to them which belongs not to them but to the eye.” Truth was unattainable, Kleist reasoned, if human cognition distorted our reception of the world. “My sole and highest goal has vanished,” he wrote. “Now I have none.” Deprived of his aim, the poet took his life in 1811 at the age of 34.

Kleist is an extreme example of an emotionally vulnerable man reacting violently to unproven philosophical hypotheses, but his demise illustrates how Kant eroded confidence in reason’s capabilities and contributed to an intellectual climate conducive to skepticism. The very conditions ensuring the efficacy of science established the boundaries of metaphysical knowledge, and while science momentarily gained better theoretical footing, religious speculation lost much of its credence among men and women of philosophical learning. Though his aim was to buttress faith by neutralizing reason’s applicability to metaphysical matters, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that Kant deprived humankind of a reasonable faith, at least of the sort of reasonableness involving logical rigor and inferential certainty. By denying reason’s grasp of religious realities, Kant paved the way for secular thinkers to further discount purported religious insights as unfounded speculations.

It was in response to Kant and during the critical juncture of the nineteenth century that skepticism and secularism began to gain widespread acceptance and take on the character familiar to us in the twenty-first century. Kant’s Transcendental Idealism spurred two divergent philosophical responses. On the one hand, a group of German Romantic philosophers rallied to defend and perfect Kant’s basic epistemological model. This group included Fichte, Hegel, and Schelling, who attempted to avert the disaster of skepticism by further condemning any opposition between subject and object and advancing theories of an ontological Absolute that could vouchsafe our knowledge of the world. Some of these efforts were appropriated by secular philosophers and cultural critics such as Karl Marx, who stripped Hegel’s philosophy of its fantastic metaphysical elements to articulate a materialistic account of the historical struggle between the classes. On the other hand, a few German atheists embraced the irrational implications of Hume and Kant’s epistemologies, crafting perhaps the most trenchant, penetrating analyses of the philosophical consequences of skepticism in human history.

It is to this latter group of thinkers, which includes Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, that we owe the intellectual credibility of modern atheism. Though his works are seldom referenced by modern atheists and his views are considered by many too extreme, Nietzsche is our most insightful secular forebear. Uncompromising in his commitment to illuminating even the most alarming of atheism’s implications and condemning all metaphysical ambitions, Nietzsche mounted a merciless assault against Christianity that in many respects serves as the model for current anti-religious sentiment. What the New Atheists do, Nietzsche does better, providing a more persuasive case for secularism by refusing to sterilize the abolition of god of its unattractive consequences. He is celebrated by melancholy university students, but ignored by “serious” atheists who blanch at his solemn rejection of traditional values. A consummate atheist of astonishing learning, Nietzsche can teach us to view the history of philosophy and its gradual rejection of god as a calamity of unprecedented scale, a catastrophe that demands we change our lives or risk intellectual dishonesty.

The death of god and Nietzsche’s heaviest weight

With Nietzsche atheism becomes, for the first time in the modern age, tragic. Unlike Hume who shrugs off the bewildering loss of certainty following his skeptical conclusions and recommends a game of Backgammon as a reassuring diversion, Nietzsche plunges his reader into an abyss of despair, insisting we acknowledge the consequences of atheism even while promoting a joyful response to life’s meaningless suffering. Nietzsche understood better than anyone the devastating impact of Darwin’s materialistic account of biological diversity – published first in 1859 with The Origin of Species and again in 1871 with The Descent of Man – and he accurately gauged the withering blow dealt to human certainty by Hume and Kant. Anticipating the collapse of values that must inevitably follow widespread acceptance of reason’s metaphysical impotence, Nietzsche invested tremendous energy in promoting new ethical orientations founded on aesthetic self-assertion. Christian values, he argued, were the exhausted relics of a weak people intent on denying life’s awful reality. To restore Western culture to its former, pre-Christian brilliance, Nietzsche advocated a return to the brutality of a bygone era, to a pitiless social order organized around a single ambition: enabling artistic achievements capable of revitalizing our relation to a life stripped of meaning. Nowhere was this tendency more fecund, more inspiringly embodied than in ancient Greece, and Nietzsche spent his whole career extolling the merits of our cultural ancestors and their commitment to artistic excellence.

Nietzsche’s admiration of Greek culture contributed to his high estimation of art, but so did his early devotion to Schopenhauer. In The World as Will and Representation, published in 1818, Schopenhauer had combined the skeptical principles of Kant’s epistemology with the otherworldliness of Plato’s theory of Forms to develop a philosophy granting extraordinary importance to art. A life-long misanthrope, Schopenhauer deemed existence fundamentally inscrutable and miserable. He left no doubt of his judgment of life: “the longer you live,” he wrote, “the more clearly you will feel that, on the whole, life is a disappointment, nay, a cheat.” Unlike Kant who maintained we could never gain access to the realm of things-in-themselves, Schopenhauer thought our self-awareness granted unmediated insight into the underlying force animating all of life – the will. The will lay at the heart of reality, beneath the appearances of Kant’s phenomenal world, and urged us towards the fulfillment of insatiable desires. Hunger and sexual impulses were manifestations of the will, but so too was the metaphysical compulsion to comprehend our place in the universe. So long as the will, irrational and tireless, dominated our lives, we were destined to remain unhappy. Schopenhauer saw Plato’s theory of Forms as offering the only way of escaping the will’s unrelenting grip, and he identified art, especially music, as the medium through which we could break free of the individualized illusions of the phenomenal world to become absorbed in the unity of universal archetypes. Only aesthetic contemplation and blissful self-negation, thought Schopenhauer, afforded humankind an avenue of escape from the tyranny of desire.

Building upon Schopenhauer’s basic outlook, Nietzsche maintains a similarly gloomy appraisal of life. In his first major work, The Birth of Tragedy, published in 1872, Nietzsche recounts a Greek myth to dramatically illustrate his low estimation of human existence and to emphasize the philosophical significance of art. In the myth, King Midas hunts down the satyr Silenus, a devotee of the god Dionysus, and demands that he disclose his secret wisdom. After persistent questioning, Silenus relents and divulges his terrible knowledge:

Suffering creature, born for a day, child of accident and toil, why are you forcing me to say what would give you the greatest pleasure not to hear? The very best thing for you is totally unreachable: not to have been born, not to exist, to be nothing. The second best thing for you, however, is this — to die soon.

This unhappy revelation, Nietzsche claims, lies at the heart of Greek vitality. Life is indeed a miserable cheat, as materialism and evolution reveals, and humankind’s unique capacity to apprehend the horror of its contingency guarantees it will suffer disproportionately. But rather than evade a confrontation with Silenic wisdom, the Greeks embraced it. “The Greek knew and felt the terror and horrors of existence,” Nietzsche writes. By granting the meaninglessness of life the Greeks took the first necessary step towards responding positively to its burden. Acceptance of life on its own terms must precede any effort to overcome its terror, thinks Nietzsche, for anything less is tantamount to a denial and distortion of life. But recognition without compensating consolations would crush human beings, and every Greek understood the need to embrace myths that shielded him from life’s terror. “[I]n order to be able to live at all,” writes Nietzsche, “he [the Greek] must have placed in front of him the gleaming dream birth of the Olympians.” The Greeks understood the need to erect aesthetic buffers to absorb the impact of life’s senseless brutality, and the sublime sagas of Homer and the engrossing dramas of the Olympic deities masked the horror of existence and provided occasions for aesthetic self-assertion. Unlike Christian metaphysicians, the Greeks didn’t mistake their mythologies for comprehensive philosophical theories capable of explaining life’s mysteries. Rather, they adopted the imaginative tales as artistic creations capable of infusing their difficult lives with purposeful narratives and value schemes. For Nietzsche, the closest humankind comes to deity is through participation in artistic activity that affirms the chaos of existence while equipping us to endure it, and the Greeks are his example par excellence.

Nietzsche would eventually deviate from some of Schopenhauer commitments. Rather than suppress the will through Platonic contemplation, Nietzsche came to view art as a means of actively harnessing the will to affirm this embodied life. Later in his career, Nietzsche attempted a “trans-valuation of all values” in which he encouraged independent minds, or “free spirits” as he called them, to cast off inhibiting traditions and posit new value systems to challenge Christianity’s life-denying emphasis on an afterlife. But his indebtedness to Schopenhauer’s pessimism and aesthetic orientation remains evident throughout his career, as does his honest exploration of post-Kantian irrationalism. Hume and Kant had denied reason’s access to religious truth. But rather than destroy confidence in Christianity, their skepticism was overshadowed by the success of the natural sciences which ushered in an age of comfortable complacency. Humankind had developed an inauthentic relation to truth, Nietzsche claimed, favoring the predictable old moral order over the difficult work of overcoming defunct Christian metaphysics. To combat this decadent complacency, Nietzsche continually contrasts the life-affirming function of art, especially its capacity to advance new ethical outlooks, with the nihilistic implications of “truth.” By Nietzsche’s reckoning, humankind’s quest for truth originates not with an honest impulse for knowledge, but in an unconscious instinct to amass facts that elevate human nature above the meaningless fray of the animal kingdom. Thoroughgoing Darwinism and materialism preclude any such preferential treatment, and Nietzsche repeatedly stresses the absurdity of viewing human nature as the crowning achievement of evolutionary development. We are just animals whose consciousness enables unique suffering, and all our scientific achievements cannot conceal the futility of our activities or the inevitability of our fates. In fact, all such striving after “truth” merely masks the human preference for untruth, for distortions that obscure rather than clarify the reality of our miserable condition.

In a key essay written in 1873 entitled “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,” Nietzsche gives this disheartening depiction of human knowledge:

Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of “world history,” but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die. One might invent such a fable, and yet he still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist. And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no additional mission which would lead it beyond human life. Rather, it is human, and only its possessor and begetter takes it so solemnly-as though the world’s axis turned within it. But if we could communicate with the gnat, we would learn that he likewise flies through the air with the same solemnity, that he feels the flying center of the universe within himself. There is nothing so reprehensible and unimportant in nature that it would not immediately swell up like a balloon at the slightest puff of this power of knowing.

For all its accomplishments, humankind cannot claim to have achieved more than the humble gnat. That we prize our endeavors above all other species is indefensibly anthropocentric, as such a judgment privileges human attributes without warrant. From the universe’s perspective, no qualitative distinction between animals and humans justifies our sense of superiority, for though we may deem our rational and critical thinking faculties to be the more advanced adaptive traits, other species flourish without them. Only when rational abilities are given priority does the human species appear worthy of special approbation, and it’s exactly these traits that Nietzsche condemns as illusory and self-serving.

In The Gay Science, published in 1882, Nietzsche writes, “We simply lack any organ for knowledge, for ‘truth’; we ‘know’ (or believe or imagine) just as much as may be useful in the interests of the human herd, the species.”[14] Nietzsche isn’t denying our ability to collect scientific facts about nature, but he does challenge our willingness to incorporate scientific facts honestly into our understanding of the world and our place within it. Science teaches Silenic wisdom – uncompromising materialism, determinism and atheism –and burdens humankind with knowledge of its contingency and insignificance. To protect itself from the corrosive effect of that terrible knowledge, humans invent fables to compensate for our vulnerability. Over time, we forget that our aesthetic reimagining of the world originates with a need for convenient untruths, and we begin to believe in the objectivity of claims elevating humankind to the center of the universe. Nietzsche reminds us that the methods by which humankind enforces its anthropocentric re-evaluation, including language, morality, logic, and religion, have no truthfulness beyond the utility they provide in perpetuating the myth of human superiority. “We have arranged for ourselves a world in which we can live – by positing bodies, lines, plans, cause and effects, motions and rest, form and content; without these articles of faith nobody now could endure life. But that does not prove them.”[15] We need fables to make life livable, but we mustn’t forget that “the true nature of the world is in all eternity chaos.” For Nietzsche, acceptance of humankind’s fate must precede efforts to overcome it, and he condemns the willful ignorance of his age, especially its refusal to recognize that the collapse of Christian metaphysics has opened a dangerous void. The reasons that once gave humankind confidence in its uniqueness and purpose lie discredited, but decadent Europe refuses to confront the debilitating consequences. Nietzsche believes it’s only a matter of time before the seeds of nihilism planted by skepticism engulf Europe. “If Kant should ever begin to exercise any wide influence,” Nietzsche writes, “we shall be aware of it in the form of a gnawing and disintegrating skepticism and relativism.”[16] Though he loathes what he perceives to be the life-negating otherworldliness of Christian morality, Nietzsche recognizes the need for some substitute, potentially more daring and life-affirming, to take its place. Rather than stave off the catastrophe, Nietzsche works to hasten its arrival. Only then can the work of rebuilding begin.

In the famous Madman passage of The Gay Science, Nietzsche depicts a prophet of Silenic wisdom reprimanding a crowd gathered at a marketplace. The madman cries out “I seek God!” to the alarmed bystanders. Hardened skeptics of the Enlightenment who venerate science and who have long ago abandoned faith in unseen deities, the crowd scoffs at his ludicrous question. The madman demands they answer for the most improbable of all crimes, the figurative murder of god at the hands of philosophical skepticism. “’Whither is God?’ he asks. ‘I will tell you!’ We have killed him – you and I. All of us are his murderers.” Uncomprehending, the crowd listens as the madman describes the disorienting absence of moral guidance resulting from the discrediting of Christian values: “Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing?” A tremendous historical alteration has occurred – humankind has disavowed knowledge of god and abandoned the theistic hypothesis, turning to science as a more reliable means of achieving its ambitions. But it has yet to recognize the peril in which such a tumultuous upheaval places them, and Nietzsche and his madman try to rouse a sense of urgency. Unlike other animals, Nietzsche writes, “man has to believe, to know, from time to time why he exists; his race cannot flourish without a periodic trust in life – without faith in reason in life.”[17] Unless something replaces the value system vacated by discredited Christian metaphysics and morality, humankind will wither under the weight of nihilism. Despite the existential magnitude of his message, Nietzsche knew he was unlikely to reach a receptive audience. The madman too realizes that news of god’s death has not yet reached the crowd. “I have come too early,” he says. “This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars – and yet they have done it themselves.”

Nietzsche’s solution to the death of god and philosophical skepticism can at first seem paradoxical. On the one hand, he places the utmost value upon truth, insisting his reader see life for what it is, a terrible accident without dignity or purpose. On the other, he promotes the creation of new values – no more truthful than the old – to supplant life-denying Christian morality. The apparent inconsistency is superficial and can be resolved by recognizing the sort of truthfulness Nietzsche privileges. Nietzsche’s enduring merit lies in his devotion to uncovering every prejudice blinding us to the terror of life. He doesn’t think human values possess worth beyond their utility to enable coping, and he refuses to characterize the instrumental value of his own moral prescriptions as truthful per se, as if they were the product of some deep metaphysical insight. Instead, he castigates all who rest comfortably in their inauthentic confidence, and actively undermines the passive nihilism he sees enveloping Europe in the second half of the 19th century and which persists today. Like the crowd who scoffs at the madman, the New Atheists perpetuate a similar sort of inauthenticity by preaching comfortable indifference to the most devastating event in Western history, the death of god. Nietzsche would find their composure appalling. The New Atheists betray the poverty of their philosophical outlook by advocating atheism without acknowledging its impact upon human life and with their mindless allegiance to a now defunct Christian morality. While they openly disavow Christian ethics, they still live as though beholden to Christian metaphysics, which provides at least the semblance of order and stability. To truly embrace atheism would require denying the validity of the old moral order and exploring new ethical horizons, a move far too radical for the mild-mannered New Atheists. Their suggestion that science, which teaches nihilistic atheism and materialism, might somehow direct humankind beyond reliance upon god exposes the New Atheist’s failure to apprehend the nature of the dilemma.

What would a more honest response to atheism look like? For Nietzsche, an authentic response to the death of god requires intellectual integrity and the courage to accept Silenic wisdom. In The Gay Science, he offers a litmus test for intellectual honesty that reveals the poverty of the New Atheist position. In a passage entitled “The Heaviest Weight,” Nietzsche poses a thought experiment involving a quasi-scientific theory he refers to as Eternal Recurrence. Eternal Recurrence is Nietzsche’s radical interpretation of the cosmological implications of materialism. If the universe, which is governed by the mechanical laws of physics, were given enough time, it would reproduce the same persons and events an infinite number of times. Acceptance of this terrible possibility, Nietzsche argues, is the beginning of intellectual integrity:

What, if some day or night, a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life, as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh… must return to you—all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again—and you with it, speck of dust!’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god, and never have I heard anything more divine!’ If this thought were to gain possession of you, it would change you as you are, or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “do you want this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

For the thought experiment to deliver Nietzsche’s desired effect, the reader must bear in mind the terror of Silenic wisdom. Could you, knowing that it was full of meaningless suffering, give life the ultimate seal of approval by wishing it to repeat for eternity? Could you wish the Holocaust and the gulags and the killing fields over and over? Unless you answer yes, Nietzsche thinks you cast judgment on life and expose your Platonic and Christian prejudices. Only those “free spirits” who accept life as irrational, purposeless, and terrible are in a position to respond honestly to the collapse of metaphysics and the death of god and are worthy of combating nihilism through the creation of new, life-affirming value systems.

With Nietzsche’s theory of Eternal Recurrence we come full circle to Bertrand Russell and the twentieth century. We opened this chapter with a quote from Russell: “Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.” How should we view Russell’s endorsement of despair in light of the history of philosophy we have just reviewed and Nietzsche’s response to the death of god? The quotation comes from Russell’s essay “The Free Man’s Worship,” published in 1903, and contains a fable of creation and destruction bearing striking similarities to Nietzsche’s parable of human knowledge in “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense.” Both essays portray the universe and the emergence of humankind in mechanical, materialistic terms, and it’s worth quoting Russell’s essay at length in order to draw out the parallels. Russell begins by describing the earliest stages of the universe prior to humankind’s arrival:

For countless ages the hot nebula whirled aimlessly through space. At length it began to take shape, the central mass threw off planets, the planets cooled, boiling seas and burning mountains heaved and tossed, from black masses of cloud hot sheets of rain deluged the barely solid crust. And now the first germ of life grew in the depths of the ocean, and developed rapidly in the fructifying warmth into vast forest trees, huge ferns springing from the damp mould, sea monsters breeding, fighting, devouring, and passing away.

Then humankind emerges accidentally and without divine purpose, and invents transcendent meaning as a survival instinct:

“And from the monsters, as the play unfolded itself, Man was born, with the power of thought, the knowledge of good and evil, and the cruel thirst for worship. And Man saw that all is passing in this mad, monstrous world, that all is struggling to snatch, at any cost, a few brief moments of life before Death’s inexorable decree. And Man said: `There is a hidden purpose, could we but fathom it, and the purpose is good; for we must reverence something, and in the visible world there is nothing worthy of reverence.’”

But humankind’s god wreaks havoc upon creation, sending it back into darkness:

“And God smiled; and when he saw that Man had become perfect in renunciation and worship, he sent another sun through the sky, which crashed into Man’s sun; and all returned again to nebula.”

Russell then reflects on the whole meaningless affair in the passage containing our original quotation:

Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins–all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

As the passage reveals, Russell stands with Nietzsche in affirming Silenic wisdom – the awful contingency of human existence and the futility of its striving – as an inescapable corollary of materialistic atheism. Furthermore, Russell recognizes that humankind cannot simply evade or deny its miserable contingency, but must work through it, embracing despair as a necessary condition of intellectual integrity and existential endurance. Like a stage of grief, we must accept our awful fate before considering possible responses.

Over the course of the twentieth century, Nietzsche and Russell’s unforgiving honesty has made modest headway in transforming our philosophical assessment of atheism and truth. Some thinkers of the postmodern period, as our age is usually referred, have recognized that the collapse of traditional metaphysics leaves us without justification for defending the objective validity of our experiences and values. French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard characterizes the shift from faith in reason to the philosophical skepticism of postmodernity: “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.” Metanarratives were the traditional types of theories deployed by philosophers who believed reason could draw together the whole of our experiences – moral and scientific –  into a synthesized, systematic account of life. Lyotard continues, “To the obsolescence of the metanarrative apparatus of legitimation corresponds, most notably, the crisis of metaphysical philosophy and of the university institution which in the past relied on it.”[18] Metaphysicians such as Plato and the Christian Scholastics of the middle ages tried to uncover the truth as it existed apart from faulty human faculties of perception, but as Nietzsche and other postmodern thinkers argue, no plausible notion of truth exists beyond our subjective experiences of it. With the perceived failure of reason to penetrate beyond the world of appearances, metanarratives were relegated to the status of mystical fantasies. We are not discoverers of truth, claims postmodernity; we are its inventors. Morality and science are human creations whose value depends upon our esteeming them as useful or desirable. Another twentieth-century philosopher, Richard Rorty, writes, “Anybody who thinks that there are well-grounded theoretical answers to this sort of question – algorithms for resolving moral dilemmas of this sort – is still, in his heart, a theologian or a metaphysician. He believes in an order beyond time and change which both determines the point of human existence and establishes a hierarchy of responsibilities.”[19] After Darwin and Nietzsche, any such metaphysical conjecture seems to many naïve and unfounded. Truth is now frequently thought to be what we humans make of it, and so is considered relative and open to subjective interpretation. To quote Nietzsche, “What is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms; in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions – they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force.”[20] Ideas that prove beneficial gradually gain a permanent status, but the intuition that truth might transcend cultural customs and epochs is an illusion.

Why have I troubled you with this rather detailed and sometimes technical history of philosophy, a history that by any intellectual historian’s estimation falls far short of comprehensiveness and impartiality? I have done so because I suspect the average secular humanist has little familiarity with the reasons for secularism’s philosophical ascendency and, its deficiencies notwithstanding, I hope my retelling of the crucial intellectual debates surrounding secularism’s growing popularity places the reader in a better position to appreciate at what cost secularism has won acceptance. Not only the god hypothesis suffers at the hands of skepticism – our entire world must submit to its restrictions. The phenomenology of our daily lives remains identical; that is, the outward character of experiences remains unaltered by these philosophical transitions. Art remains pleasurable. Altruism continues to gratify our desire for justice. But the underlying reality, including the meaning and value of these experiences, must kneel to materialism’s strict prohibition against immaterial entities and these limitations have far reaching consequences.

Where then has this long journey – beginning with the metaphysical confidence of Plato and concluding with the collapse of reason and truth in the postmodern age – led us? I suggest that it has led us to a position where we can no longer defend philosophically the value of our experiences. The words we use to describe our moral, aesthetic, and scientific aspirations, as well as the civil institutions we prize as liberal Western nations, no longer “have their teeth into things,” to use Sartre’s phrase. The world spins, and we should begin to feel nauseated. This inability of language to locate and corroborate a nexus of value reveals more than a semantic incongruity between our espoused moral and aesthetic preferences and the world as science reveals it; it attests to an ontological disparity. With the dissolution of metaphysics, there simply are no more philosophically compelling reasons for thinking value exists. That we happen to value some things over others does not commend them as worthy of universal esteem, and we are at the mercy of anyone stronger than us who demands we adopt other loyalties. There is no higher authority, no reason or revealed religion, no immutable Forms, on the basis of which to adjudicate contending value claims. Power, it seems, determines value and is capable of conscripting allegiance. Protagoras appears victorious; man is indeed the measure. And the strongest man, nation, or tribe is the author and enforcer of truth.

The geo-political implications of value relativism are striking, but what of our personal experiences? How does materialism effect the quality of our daily lives? In the following chapters, I evaluate seven types of activities against the backdrop of the preceding philosophical history to determine what value, if any, they can possibly maintain in light of materialism’s opposition to immateriality. Can we, like Nietzsche, confront the truth about our values and bear the weight of despair? Or will we join the ranks of the New Atheists, who like the crowd gathered in the marketplace mock the madman and his untimely message? Whatever our response, we can no longer remain indifferent to the threat of despair without risking our intellectual credibility.




[1] From “A Free Man’s Worship”

[2] Take for instance The Council for Secular Humanism’s characterization of secular humanism as “philosophically naturalistic” in that “It holds that nature (the world of everyday physical experience) is all there is, and that reliable knowledge is best obtained when we query nature using the scientific method.”

[3] Alfred North Whitehead

[4] 2 Cor 4:18: “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

[5] See Aristotle’s Metaphysics

[6] For Socrates’ interpretation of Heraclitus, see Cratylus 402a

[7] See especially the Theaetetus

[8] Republic Book VI

[9] Meditation 1 §21

[10] Section IV, Part I

[11] Hume held in his Treatise that mathematics was derived from experience, but in the Enquiry he defended it as analytic a priori. This is the text Kant was most familiar with. For more, see Beiser’s German Idealism.

[12] Critique, B75

[13] Prolegomena, Main Transcendental Question, First Part, Note II

[14] The Gay Science, 354

[15] The Gay Science 121

[16] Schopenhauer as Educator

[17] The Gay Science 1

[18] The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge

[19] Contingency, Irony and Solidarity

[20] “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s