On Nihilism and Rampage Murders

A recent kudos on a Salvo article from the latest issue:

I think it is one of the best summaries of the “rampage murders” and I wish more people would read it.   I read it twice and he makes many important connections, that legislation for mental health and gun control will not fix the problem.  It is much deeper – a culture that lacks any transcendence. Existential nihilism is a logical conclusion to our cultures obsession with contraception, abortion, and inability to integrate faith in God.

You can read the article here: The Zombie Killers: Nihilism Threatens Us with the Walking Dead by Regis Nicoll. From the article. Could Mr. Nicoll be onto something here?…

The increase in zombie-like murders is gut-wrenching. But if we think we can thwart the perpetrators with the silver bullets of executive orders and congressional action, we would do well to recall Prohibition and the War on Drugs. Those efforts failed—and to the extreme—because legislation and law enforcement, by themselves, cannot imbue a moral sense into the heart of the offender, or renew the moral climate of society. Only a Transcendence that speaks to the deepest yearnings of the human spirit for wholeness, meaning, and significance can do that.

Unless the nihilistic worldview is abandoned for one that recognizes such a Transcendence, we can expect a rise in the number of walking dead and their devastating crimes. We must teach students and young people to reject what some of the supposedly brightest minds today are selling them—that the universe is meaningless and without purpose or supervision. Such nihilism only deadens the soul, which, after all, was created for communion with the living God.

The Argument of Tears

USAF Cellist

by Terrell Clemmons

A typical crowd of tourists, seniors, and schoolchildren on field trips was mulling around the large lobby of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. when a young man, wearing full military dress and carrying a cello, walked toward a chair curiously placed in the center of the large room and sat down. He took up his bow in one hand, stretched his other arm to adjust the sleeve, and began playing with calm, expert finesse.

After the opening measures, another soldier musician approached with a standup bass and joined in. A small riser was brought out, and a graying maestro removed his overcoat and accepted the conductor’s baton from an assistant with a cordial salute. An oboe came in with the melody, followed by strings, brass, clarinets, flutes, even a harp.

Mothers holding children swayed with the music. Faces broke into smiles and wonder. A few people started recording the flash concert on their cell phones.

The crowd has stopped mulling around; the rockets, space capsules and bi-plane hanging from the ceiling are forgotten. “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” composed by the great Johann Sebastian Bach and performed by the US Air Force Band under the direction of Colonel Larry H. Lang, Commander and Conductor, is enough to render these museum artifacts, sophisticated as they were in their time, as just so much scrap metal.


Then come the vocals:

Jesu, joy of man’s desiring,
Holy wisdom, love most bright …

If you look carefully, you can see a few museum-goers wiping away tears while other faces appear close to tears. In fact, you may find yourself reaching for a tissue as you watch.

Now why is this? Why is it that, all those bystanding technological accomplishments notwithstanding, this music has the power to slip right past the intellect and, drawing from unseen wells of emotion we didn’t even know were there, summon the heart to come forth and behold something greater?

Or to phrase the question in the language of science, what is the explanation for this universal phenomenon we call joy? Or rapture? Hold that thought.

Several years ago, I had an interesting conversation with an atheist named Ken. A medical doctor, Ken is very intelligent and articulate. His mother had passed on a few weeks prior, and the conversation turned to his reaction to it. “I was walking down the street Tuesday,” Ken said, “by an antique shop. And I had looked for a particular kind of double-striped cranberry glass that my mother collects. It’s very rare. And every time I go by this antique shop I look to see if they’ve got any in the window. I’ve never seen it. And I realized as I walked by that I never really need to look for that — and here his voice broke away. An emotional wave had struck him, seemingly, out of nowhere, and he couldn’t finish the sentence, I never need to look for double-striped cranberry glass again…

He changed the subject and soon afterward ended the conversation. It made me want to cry for him – not so much for the loss of his mother, but for the loss of his ability to grieve the loss. He feels something very deeply, but he’s cut himself off from both the source and satisfaction of that longing. Ken has rejected belief in God for lack of evidence, yet he misses the evidence that springs from the emotional wells of his very soul.

C.S. Lewis wrote about the innate desire for something beyond. That desire is also a form of nascent knowledge. “Most people, if they had really learned to look in their hearts, would know that they do want, and acutely, something that cannot be had in this world.” The human soul was made to enjoy some objects that are “never fully given — nay, cannot even be imagined as given — in our present mode of subjective and spatio-temporal experience.” He called it joy; he also called it longing. A literary critic, he even at times called it Romanticism. This desire, Lewis wrote, is distinct from others in that it is itself desirable. “To have it is, by definition, a want: to want it, we find, is to have it.”

To want to have what? Look at the rest of the words of the first stanza of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” penned by Robert Bridges to be sung to the masterpiece:

Drawn by Thee, our souls aspiring,
Soar to uncreated light.

Souls aspiring to do what? To soar to uncreated light.

Christmas NightTo rise up to God, to be united, or re-united, with our Maker. Why is Ken moved at the remembrance of his mother? Because God made both him and his mother for eternal relationship, and those relational bonds transcend death. Why are museum-goers moved by beautiful music? Why are we moved by beautiful music? Because God himself is beautiful, and he made us to dwell with him in glory and beauty. It’s part of the created order. We long for it, and we know it.

The tears tell us so.


A Refreshingly Old Take on Identity

In the Winter 2011 issue of Salvo, Tom Gilson writes about the reductionist interpretation of neuroscience findings:

In 2007, Scientific American reported on “Your Brain in Love,” including this wisdom:

Researchers have revealed the fonts of desire by comparing functional MRI studies of people who indicated they were experiencing passionate love, maternal love or unconditional love. Together, the regions release neuro­transmitters and other chemicals in the brain and blood that prompt greater euphoric sensations such as attraction and pleasure.4

Apparently no poet, artist, novelist, or philosopher ever knew where the fonts of desire were to be found. How could they? They didn’t have functional MRI (fMRI) machines.

There is a predictable reductionist sameness about these articles. You or I could almost write them before we read them: Brain researchers study human experience y, and discover that human experience y is nothing but some region x lighting up in our brains. Admittedly, I’m taking a rather reductionist approach of my own: I’ve reduced all this research and journalism to a neat little formula.

. . .

1. Ethics and morality reside in the brain.
2. We look in the brain, and we find regions lighting up under stimuli.
3. Therefore, ethics and morality, at their core, are probably nothing but parts of the brain responding to stimuli.

. . .

This article came to mind while I was reading a conversation between Alan Saunders, host of The Philosopher’s Zone, and John Finnis, Emeritus Professor of Law at University College Oxford and a professor at the University of Notre Dame in the States. They discuss how human beings regarded such things as the self, the mind, and free will before MRI machines were around. Excerpt from the “Shakespeare, Identity and Religion” transcript over at the Radio National website:

. . . .

Alan Saunders: But let’s turn to Aquinas, because we’re going to talk about personal identity. Can you outline his theory of personal identity?

John Finnis: Well, neither Aquinas nor Shakespeare use the term in that sense, and that’s one of the interesting things, I think, about Shakespeare, and indeed about Aquinas, that they have concepts which we know of and use ourselves with different terms. I think that’s a philosophically interesting and important point, that one can have a concept without having a term that locks onto it one-to-one. In both Aquinas and Shakespeare you find a conception of personal identity expressed in terms of other concepts; in the case of Shakespeare like the thing I am, or the self, and similarly in Aquinas you have a very, very strong conception of self-determination by free choice. That’s, I think, the master concept in Aquinas.

Alan Saunders: So…

John Finnis: One’s choices last in one’s, what we would call, character, in one’s, what we would call, identity.

Alan Saunders: So presumably I have an identity that is something to do with who I was born as, but the rest of it is my choice?

John Finnis: Yes. I’m part author of myself, and partly not author of myself, but constituted, what I am, by my birth as a member of the human species, and I have the identity I have, according to Aquinas, because of the material basis, the bodily basis, of my existence, and because that is informed and shaped and active by virtue of my human soul. So, I have this body and soul unity which is me, a human being, and that’s my nature as it’s given to me, and then there’s the nature that I…the sort of second nature, that I establish by my choices.

Alan Saunders: Returning to bodily matters, Shakespeare never loses sight, does he, of the fact that the personal identity that each of his characters has, that character has by being this living body rather than that living body?

John Finnis: No, he never does. He of course is capable of playing around with the idea of spirits, fairies and so on in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but he always brings us back to that bodily reality.

Alan Saunders: On ABC RN you’re with The Philosopher’s Zone and I’m talking to John Finnis, Professor of Law at Oxford and at the University of Notre Dame in the States about Shakespeare, religion and identity. John, despite one’s bodiliness, for both Aquinas and Shakespeare one can, as it were, be present to oneself, can’t one?

John Finnis: Yes, that’s an extremely important concept and dialectical, argumentative device in Aquinas. Aquinas’s controversies with the radical, partly Islamist, Aristotelians of the University of Paris are marked by his appeal to this understanding of oneself, this presence to oneself, which identifies one as oneself and not others, and not simply a fragment of some vast single soul, which was the concept of the radical Aristotelians. The idea of presence to oneself, of course, everyone knows is there in Shakespeare, in the form of the soliloquy, and you get soliloquies like the soliloquy of Richard III just before his final battle and death at Bosworth in which he talks in a remarkable way about the self and it’s his conscience in this case and his struggle with his conscience, all expressed in terms of myself.

. . . .

Friendly Debaters: Hitchens and Taunton

We are hard at work on the next issue of Salvo. Subscribers will be familiar with the “Blips” department where we offer some short notes on books and movies of interest. Also included in the Blips section is a full-page review on a book or movie we think is of particular importance.

This time for the featured Blip, Salvo contributing editor Terrell Clemmons reviews a book by Larry Taunton. You’ll have to wait to get the full report, but I did want to share this with you. I came across it while searching for more info on Taunton. Apparently, he debated the late Christopher Hitchens a number of times and the two became quite good friends. You can read what he has to say about Hitchens here:

My Take: An evangelical remembers his friend Hitchens

I first met Christopher Hitchens at the Edinburgh International Festival. We were both there for the same event, and foremost in my mind was the sort of man I would meet.

A journalist and polemicist, his reputation as a critic of religion, politics, Britain’s royal family, and, well, just about everything else was unparalleled. As an evangelical, I was certain that he would hate me.

When the expected knock came at my hotel room door, I braced for the fire-breather who surely stood on the other side of it. With trepidation, I opened it and he burst forth into my room. Wheeling on me, he began the conversation as if it was the continuance of some earlier encounter:

“The Archbishop of Canterbury has effectively endorsed the adoption of Sharia law. Can you believe that? Whatever happened to a Church of England that believed in something?” He alternated between sips of his Johnnie Walker and steady tugs on a cigarette.

My eyebrows shot up. “‘Believed in something?’ Why, Christopher, you sound nostalgic for a church that actually took the Bible seriously.”

He considered me for a moment and smiled. “Indeed. Perhaps I do.”

read the full article . . .

This friendship between Hitchens and Taunton exemplifies a sentiment expressed by Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Juriprudence at Princeton. HT: This quote was brought to my attention by way of a Facebook post from a friend of Salvo.

Quote of the Day from Robert P. George on friendship and civility with those whom we disagree with:

“I have always found Lincoln’s closing words of his First Inaugural Address to be profoundly moving–and true: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.”

Our culture is divided today, just as it was in Lincon’s time, by differences over profound moral issues. Yet, even as we fight for what we believe in, as in conscience we must, with energy and determination to win, we are morally obligated to treat those with whom we disagree as we would have them treat us: with civility and respect.

This is what I try to do, though not always with perfect success, and, as you know, what I preach to my students. Deep moral differences can be gravely dangerous to social solidarity and cohesion. Those differences cannot, however, be eliminated without destroying liberty–a “cure” worse than the disease.” So we must learn to live with them and manage them. Maintaining friendships across the lines of division is, I believe, part of how we do that. The moment we think that maintaining such friendships constitutes a “sell out” of the causes to which we are dedicated, we are in deep trouble. There are very good reasons we must not “break our bonds of affection.”

They’re Stacking the Deck. And With Good Reason.

One more thing on the Reason Rally. A few days ago Signs of the Times featured a post about how its organizers refused to host a debate between Richard Dawkins and William Lane Craig. Now, if they don’t want any Christians there defending themselves, that’s their right I guess. It’s their party. However, by then turning around and inviting the *Westboro Baptist Church protestors to be there (which they did), they’re revealing their strategy. It’s not hard to see why they would want to do it this way. It’s a lot safer for them represent “religion” with a sideshow circus act than it is to have an actual (and intellectual) main event.

*Click here to get an idea of what Reason Ralliers wish religious people were like.

I Decided to Understand that I Can’t Understand My Decisions . . . Or Did I?

Dr. Jerry Coyne explains:

. . .

The absence of real choice (ed: or free will) also has implications for religion. Many sects of Christianity, for example, grant salvation only to those who freely choose Jesus as their savior. And some theologians explain human evil as an unavoidable byproduct of God’s gift of free will. If free will goes, so do those beliefs. But of course religion won’t relinquish those ideas, for such important dogma is immune to scientific advances.

Finally, on the lighter side, knowing that we don’t have free will can perhaps temper our sense of regret or self-recrimination, since we never had real choices in our past. No, we couldn’t have had that V8, and Robert Frost couldn’t have taken the other road.

Although science strongly suggests that free will of the sort I defined doesn’t exist, this view is unpopular because it contradicts our powerful feeling that we make real choices. In response, some philosophers—most of them determinists who agree with me that our decisions are preordained—have redefined free will in ways that allow us to have it. I see most of these definitions as face-saving devices designed to prop up our feeling of autonomy. To eliminate the confusion produced by multiple and contradictory concepts of free will, I propose that we reject the term entirely and adopt the suggestion of the cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky: Instead of saying my decision arises from free will, we might say, “My decision was determined by internal forces I do not understand.”

. . .

I wonder if there are greater implications to this discovery that we’re not considering here. Tom Gilson explained in the last issue of Salvo:

Science journalists must love this reductionist story; they keep telling it over and over again. Four years ago, for example, the Washington Post reported on brain research and ethics, telling us that when volunteers thought about donating money to charity, their brain scans revealed that

the generosity activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable.2

The article went on to wonder about the “troubling questions” this gave rise to:

Reducing morality and immorality to brain chemistry—rather than free will—might diminish the importance of personal responsibility. Even more important, some wonder whether the very idea of morality is somehow degraded if it turns out to be just another evolutionary tool that nature uses to help species survive and propagate.

See: Hunter-Gatherer Nut Cases: Let’s Just Reduce Our Altruism, Morals & Love to Brain Waves by Tom Gilson from Salvo 19 Winter 2011.

***Ok, I couldn’t help myself. This title made me think of Conspiracy Keanu.