04 April 2008

Thoughts on A Secular Age from Seattle

Arriving in Seattle today for a talk at the University of Washington, I'm posting a portion of my forthcoming review of Charles Taylor's book, A Secular Age.

A Secular Age
is a polemic. Exceptionally drawn out and mild though they may be, serious arguments are at work in it. If successful, they would vindicate a number of highly controversial philosophical claims about the nature of morality and the good life. Unfortunately, Taylor’s controversial philosophical views are neither clearly identified as such nor justified through rigorous argumentation. Instead, they often surface only in his rhetorical framing (Taylor chooses to describe humanism as “exclusive” rather than “self-sufficient,” and to talk of a “Great Disembedding” instead of a “Great Liberating”), in the hues of his prose, or in the mood that hangs over the book. That mood is, in a word, ennui:
Almost every action of ours has a point; we’re trying to get to work, or to find a place to buy a bottle of milk after hours. But we can stop and ask why we’re doing these things, and that points us beyond to the significance of these significances. . . . The issue may arise for us in a crisis, where we feel that what has been orienting our life up to now lacks real value, weight. . . . But the sense of emptiness, or non-resonance, may arise in a quite different way. It can come in the feeling that the quotidian is emptied of deeper resonance, is dry, flat; the things which surround us are dead, ugly, empty; and the way we organize them, shape them, arrange them, in order to live has no meaning, beauty, depth, sense. There can be a kind of “nausée” before this meaningless world.
The cost of the secular age is this malaise of modernity, the malaise of immanence. We moderns are “restless at the barriers of the human sphere.” We have “deeply felt need” for something more, something beyond our ordinary flourishing. We are haunted by the thought that the suffering all around us is irredeemably pointless. If Taylor were sitting in a café this Sunday afternoon, he’d be the one gazing dejectedly while his tea goes cold, thinking, Is this all there is?

Taylor explores several different cultural responses to the perceived malaise of immanent humanism. Alongside the reactions by traditional, transcendental religion, Romantics sought transcendence in nature or beauty, rescue from the alienation of instrumental reason from the sensual world. And an “immanent counter-Enlightenment”—exemplified by Nietzsche—indicted the morality of humanism for denuding life of the heroic, tragic, and Dionysian by valuing equality and universal happiness above all. In its most virulent expressions, neo-Nietzschean anti-humanism gives meaning to suffering by embracing it, and deals with death by becoming the death-dealer. Believers and humanists might align against neo-Nietzscheans to affirm the worth of mercy and justice, while neo-Nietzscheans and believers converge in thinking that humanism’s vision of life is lacking in some crucial dimension.

Is humanism missing something? What are we to make of these feelings of emptiness, or the specter of irredeemable suffering? Can we continue to find sense in our moral strivings for a better world? What are we to do with these longings for a transcendent good? For those of us who are moved by such questions at all, I see three possible strategies.
Fast. We acknowledge the hunger for the transcendent and we resolve not give in to it until it can be satiated in some good beyond life, perhaps The Good. We accept no substitutes.

Diet. We acknowledge that the hunger for the transcendent is real, but because we also realize that it cannot be satisfied in any way we can live with, with we learn to live with the hunger. We sometimes get pangs, but we perceive them for what they are.

Feast. We recognize the hunger for the transcendent, and while we see that it cannot be met by some good outside of life, we find that it can be nourished by others goods, by forms of transcendence within life.
Taylor takes the Fast approach. Of course, any Faster needs to explain why his favored good is the only kind that can successfully stave off transcendent hunger. Although he devotes zero space to analyzing the concept of transcendence in A Secular Age, Taylor characterizes it as “the full-hearted love of some good beyond life” or “some goals beyond human flourishing.” Why think that these goals must be found in traditional religion, let alone in a relationship to the God of Abraham, as Taylor hopes?

Anyway, why assume that having God around will relieve ennui? Given all that we know about human beings, why not instead expect that if there were a heaven, someone would be sitting there this Sunday afternoon thinking, Well then, is this all there is? So long as we remain persons in the next world, such questions may be inescapable. And inasmuch as we do not remain persons, we literally have nothing to look forward to. I’ve decided that if there are any goods worth wanting in the next world, they will turn out to be goods that we already have in this one—goods like love, knowledge, and beauty. Can the Fast approach conceive of some other-worldly values so different in kind from this-worldly values that they promise a nourishment of a different order?

What should further weaken the will of the Faster is the fact that there are plenty of naturalistic explanations for the transcendent urge. To the extent that we find sources of this urge in inescapable features of the human condition, we stop seeing them as the stamp of a real supernatural realm, and we become inclined to Diet rather than Fast.

For example, as Thomas Nagel has observed, the occasional impression that our deepest pursuits somehow lack metaphysical heft might be explained by a simple fact about persons, that we are capable of seeing our lives at once from the subjective point of view and from the objective point of view. From the subjective point of view, the view from the inside as it were, our concerns strike us as real and important; they are always splashed across our psychic foreground. But our cognitive equipment also permits us to regard ourselves and our lives as objects, and in this view our concerns disappear into the uniform grain of the physical cosmos. When these two frames of reference collide, the effect is absurdity, much as when a head of state slips and falls off a stage in mid-address. The absurdity, and, often, humor, spring from the sudden juxtaposition a frame of reference appropriate to persons—with the dignity of intentional agency and responsibility—and a frame of reference appropriate to objects—inert players in the slapstick of Newtonian dynamics.

Astonishingly, Taylor neglects empirical scientific explanations for transcendent longings. He seems to think that Freud’s discredited psychodynamic accounts are still the state of the art in this field, ignoring decades of new literature on the evolutionary psychology and neuroscience of religious and moral experience. He does mention the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who in The Fragility of Goodness cautioned against the impulse to “transcend humanity,” locating the root of that impulse in our discomfort and anxiety about our own bodily finitude, neediness, and vulnerability. But Nussbaum is not opposed to stepping beyond the bounds of ordinary experience. She points towards a Feast strategy, which embraces the kinds of going-beyond of which we are capable: “There is a great deal of room, within the context of a human life . . . for a certain sort of aspiration to transcend our ordinary humanity.” We can seek and cherish transcendence of an “internal and human sort.”

Taylor gives an extended hearing to the Feast strategy, but in the end fails to show why it is inadequate. He presents Luc Ferry’s exploration of “le sens du sens”—the meaning of meaning:
[Ferry] sees in the succouring of human life and well-being universally a goal which really transcends the ordinary ambit of life. And he cites moving testimony how service in organizations like Medécins Sans Frontieres has effectively given a strong sense to life for many young people. It is as he argues a kind of transcendence of our ordinary existence, but one which is horizontal, not vertical. He even wants to use the term sacred . . . but this doesn’t take us outside the human domain; on the contrary, it is very much part of the human life-form to propose such ends which transcend the ordinary.
Horizontal transcendence delivers us from the small, cramped world of the self and its hide-bound concerns. And by calling us to impartial, universal moral regard for well-being, it gives meaning to suffering and injustice: they are our enemies. What is wrong with Feasting? Should we not celebrate the worldview that makes possible these secular people who find self-transcendence and le sens du sens in extraordinary service to others? Is something still missing? How could the ascendance of immanent humanism be considered a defeat for humanity, let alone “a victory for darkness”?


Geoff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Geoff said...

Dammit; I must have missed this. When and where is the UW talk? Did I miss it?

Ophelia said...

Geoff - you missed the one yesterday but there is another at the Green Lake branch library tomorrow (Sunday) at 1 p.m. It's a meeting of the Seattle Atheists - but open to the public.

Scruples said...

I am right in the middle of Taylor's Secular Age. Did you really read the book or did you skim through a few chapters for the necessary fodder with which to dismiss it? Too bad secular philosophers haven't the courage to explore secularism with the thoroughness that Taylor does. Probably it is because they can't face the truth about "the utter flatness and emptiness" of their position.