Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Courage of One's Convictions

Leon Wieseltier, The New Republic's literary editor, begins his review of Alex Rosenberg's The Atheist's Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions with a list of very serious questions followed by smug, quite unserious answers that derive from the same book:
Is there a god? No. What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is. What is the purpose of the universe? There is none. What is the meaning of life? Ditto. Why am I here? Just dumb luck. Is there a soul? Is it immortal? Are you kidding? Is there free will? Not a chance! What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them. Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral. Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or sometimes obligatory? Anything goes. What is love, and how can I find it? Love is the solution to a strategic interaction problem. Don’t look for it; it will find you when you need it. Does history have any meaning or purpose? It’s full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing.
He continues:
I take this cutting-edge wisdom from the worst book of the year, a shallow and supercilious thing...The book is a catechism for people who believe they have emancipated themselves from catechisms. The faith that it dogmatically expounds is scientism. It is a fine example of how the religion of science can turn an intelligent man into a fool.
After this, you read on thinking perhaps you've found an ally in the ongoing struggle against the Left's stubborn secularism. Not so:
Not long ago the prestige of science was nastily contested by American politics, as conservatism’s war on evolution, environmental science, and other forms of empirical research threatened to confound the American sense of reality. It was George W. Bush against Francis Bacon. Against this obscurantism—which has long held sway over significant portions of the American electorate—it was necessary to offer a ferocious defense of the premises, and the blessings, of scientific inquiry. Unfortunately, the defense of science became corrupted in certain quarters into a defense of scientism, which is the expansion of scientific methods and concepts into realms of human life in which they do not belong.
First, I'm sorry, but skepticism about "evolution, environmental science, and other forms of empirical research", all of which from the Left's point of view have profound political consequences, does not make one an "obscurantist." (I didn't think the Left used that old charge anymore, preferring instead the more contemporary and loaded "fundamentalist.")

Nevertheless, Wieseltier is right to censure Rosenberg for writing a "shabby book" as he senses that something is very wrong about its simplistic endorsement of what the author calls "nice nihilism."

Nihilism, Rosenberg seems to think, is tame after all. By embracing it, one can finally enjoy the frisson that is genuine liberty. (How many times have we heard that before?) He pretends that he has faced the questions Wieseltier poses at the beginning of his review and the glib answers he offers are sufficient. But those answers are not sufficient as they beg, scream actually, yet another question: Can a human live under such conditions? That is, is it really possible to live a human life without some sense of meaning, if not before or after, at least during one's existence?

Wieseltier's problem is that his review may be almost as smug as Rosenberg's book. Before harrumphing too loudly and confidently, I think he might do well to read some Hume and especially Nietzsche, both of whom stuck their noses out over the nihilistic abyss about as far as anyone can without actually taking the next step. 

Wieseltier, like so many others on the Left, imagines he can successfully weave a Third Way, a via media, between theism and thoroughgoing materialistic atheism. But I'm afraid his secularism will inevitably lead him to the same place it does Rosenberg. I suspect, however, that once there, his moral seriousness at least will save him.

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