Sunday, April 26, 2009

"The Examined Life"--The Spectre of Nihilism

Few feature films interview philosophers. They are typically neither photogenic nor entertaining. But "The Examined Life" interviews several philosophers, who speak in various nonacademic settings, usually while they are walking around. The interviewer says little or nothing. It is usually a monologue spoken while the philosopher is moving about. I cannot give an adequate assessment of all the ideas put forth. Instead, I offer a few reflections, not covering all the philosophers.

The film begins well with a tall and hunched over Cornell West philosophizing passionately in the back seat of a car. Ironically, the most animated character in the film is cooped up in a small car talking to the driver (the producer) and camera. West is the only philosopher to appear in three different segments.

Things go south rapidly as a dour, self-important, and nonsensical philosopher (who I had never heard of and have no interest in knowing about) named Avital Ronell. She serves up mounds of recycled postmodernism: there is no objective meaning; to think so makes one a fascist, serious people have a bad conscience (unlike Bush who kills people without regret and for no reason); and so on ad infinitum, ad nauseum. What a long ten minutes that was. Of course, if there is no objective meaning, nihilism follows. If nihilism is true, then anything goes...and why not be a fascist or anything else? Next.

Michael Hardt is interviewed while rowing a boat in a large pond. He, like many of the philosophers, seems uncomfortable. He speaks of yearning for "the revolution" and wondering how it might come about in America. Hardt co-authored Empire (2001) with Antonio Negri, a domestic terrorist who was in jail in Europe when the book was released. The book made a splash until 9/11 eclipsed it. Hardt is a warmed-over Marxist who doesn't believe there is an objective human nature; it is all determined by historical, social, economic forces. As soon as I heard this I thought, "What a recipe for totalitarianism!" And so it is. If there is no normative human nature, then there is no good life to discover and encourage. Therefore, "revolutionaries" who are whimsically upset with the present order--usually through resentment--can destroy as much as they want to bring about their constructed new model of humanity (which has no determinative nature). One wonders if Mr. Hardt has learned anything from history. Over a hundred million human beings were murdered in the Twentieth Century at the hands of "revolutionaries" of like mind. Utopia has been deferred once again. Perfection awaits the Messianic Eschaton. Those who labor to create heaven on earth will, given their false and futile philosophies (see Colossians 2:8), only kindle more hell and inspire more hellions such as themselves.

Peter Singer strolls through New York's opulence explaining his idea that developed nations owe the rest of the world far more help than they ever give. He clearly explains his ideas, which were first laid out in 1971 in an essay much anthologized and which I teach in my introduction to ethics courses. This should trouble our conscience, since so many suffer needlessly. But Singer disavows any religious motivations, saying we do not need religion to be moral. True, people may do good things and have legitimate moral concerns without religious belief. However, the deeper issue is whether we can find a coherent account of any objective morality or our knowledge of it or give an adequate motivation for living the moral life apart from God as the personal-infinite source of moral and the author of human nature made in his image. Singer has repudiated not only God, but many of the moral entailments that follow from theism. Humans as a species have no special moral standing, he asserts. He supports infanticide if the infant is killed before he or she reaches a sense of self-interest. One can also lose the right not to be killed if one loses certain functions; so, he supports active euthanasia--at least in principle. He continues to support his own senile mother. Singer also tolerates bestiality (if it is consensual...). Of course, the film does not mention these items. Nor does it mention that Singer is banned from speaking in Germany, since his ideas--that there are many human lives not worthy to be lived--are all too close to Nazi ideology.

Martha Nussbaum articulates her moral, political vision while walking and talking more briskly than anyone else. She can lecture on her feet quite well. She argues that we should move beyond social contract theory--with its emphasis on individuality, power, productivity, and danger--and embrace a "capability ethic" that includes and honors all people, however much or little they "contribute to society." (She says nothing about the unvalued unborn, who are aborted at the rate of over one million a year in the United States.) Nussbaum also likes the idea of "the nanny state," since this recognizes maternal values for politics. I am not sure what all the implications of Nussbaum's view may be, but "the nanny state" does not trouble me because it is maternal, but because it is statist. The state is not the family; neither is it the church. But for many secular thinkers (libertarians notwithstanding), the state becomes the only hope for justice, fairness, and even utopia (as mentioned earlier). As such, it becomes an idol.

Judith Butler (another postmodernist who has written on gender as socially constructed) and a disabled young woman move about the streets of San Francisco for the last long segment. The young woman speaks of her orientation to life and how the non-disabled need to respect and understand the plight of those different from themselves. I enjoyed her calm and insightful comments; but I was repulsed by Butler, whose demeanor was caustic and arrogant. Butler is a lesbian who has tried to evacuate herself of anything feminine. She has nearly succeeded, if appearances are to be trusted; but the fact that she is a woman who denies being a woman is rather unnerving. Christians should be compassionate on those who are not heterosexual, but those who claim that gender is constructed and that it fits no normative structure should be criticized. Butler says that "there is no normative morphology" (concerning disability) and no normative sexual behavior: we simply do different things with our bodies. She unhappily fills in the gaps with respect to homoerotic activities. She also takes a swipe at "creationists." No wonder, since she denies any transcendent moral authority.

The fallacy of Butler's approach is that physical disability is not on same order as non-heterosexual orientations: homosexuality, bi-sexuality, or transsexuality. Yes, they are all effects of the fall, the fragmentation of creation due to human sin (see Genesis 3). But the disabled person must live within their physical and/or mental limits, such as the young woman being confined to a wheel chair. The nonheterosexual may find sexual healing through the power of God if he or she becomes a Christian. There are many happy stories to this effect, and organizations such as Exodus International exist to offer such help. But a person does not need to act out of one's disordered and wounded sexual orientation--just as one prone to addiction need not engage in behaviors that put him at risk of addiction. But postmodernists such as Butler believe that human norms are entirely contingent and constructed; there is no normative pattern for human sexuality. If so, lesbianism (and just about anything else) is permissible--and should be honored. But, of course, it should be honored only if there is some objective moral truth to that effect. But given postmodernism, there is no such objective moral truth, since truth is constructed all the way down. Therefore, sexual behavior--and any response to it--is merely conventional and circumstantial. Imperatives and virtues in any objective or binding sense are nowhere to be found. Nihilism returns.

The film ends with West crammed into a car and articulating madly about tragedy and hope. He several times refers to himself as "a Christian," but never spells out what this means. He does say that we should transcend romanticism by recognizing that even our failures may be "gifts." I wish he would have developed that idea, but he did not. If life is truly a gift, then there is a Giver, who transcends our aims, ideas, and fallibilities. If so, the nihilism that haunts this film would be overcome by theism: a worldview that offers objective meaning, value, and morality; a metaphysic that gives all humans dignity and hope for redemption; a perspective that neither promises a political utopia nor gives up on history as linear and meaningful because it ultimately fulfills the purposes of the Triune God, who invaded it and changed it forever through the Incarnation.

If we examine life more deeply, we find at its center a Cross, a Lamb, and a Lion. Nihilism is overcome by the Nazarene.


Daniel said...

Great post, I love the last sentence!

Yossman said...

Excellent analysis. Really appreciate it. It is quite baffling in my opinion that there are so many philosophers who pride in their ability to think logically and yet have such obvious flaws at the foundation of their thought structures.

Maybe the noetic effect of sin is worse than I thought.