Hart on philosophy and progress

I’ve been on a David Bentley Hart kick these past few weeks. Here’s another quote.

This passage concludes a criticism of the state of philosophy (as a discipline). I think it’s equally applicable to general social dialogue (inasmuch as that concept might be said to exist) about contentious, and indeed perennial, problems.

…one should never be too naive regarding the quality of the current philosophical culture, or imagine that the most recent thinking is in any meaningful sense more advanced or more authoritative than that of a century or a millennium or two millennia ago. There are certain perennial problems to which all interesting philosophy returns again and again; but there are no such things as logical discoveries that consign any of the older answers to obsolescence. Certain classical answers to those problems endure and recur, sometimes because they remain far more powerful than the answers (or evasions) produced by later schools of thought. And, conversely, weaker answers often enjoy greater favor than their rivals simply because they are in keeping with the prejudices of the age.

I particularly like his implicit critique of the religion of the present—an unshakeable belief that’s the present is better than the past, and that what the future has in store will be, by definition, “progress.”

That’s simply not the case. It is an assumption that we need to examine.

All of this reminds me of my high school headmaster’s parting message to my class when we graduated. He exhorted us to consider that we don’t leave the past behind when we move forward in time (referring as much to world history as to our parents and schooling). Rather, we follow in the footsteps of those who’ve come before—we trail behind history, and our most important job is not to build and create, but to remember and preserve.

From the perspective of an all-powerful being, who stands outside of time, we are not “progressed.” If anything, we’re recessed—the furthest removed from the foundations of the earth.

Materialism is not a fact of experience

From David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions:

There is after all nothing inherently reasonable in the conviction that all of reality is simply an accidental confluence of physical causes without any transcendent source or end. Materialism is not a fact of experience or a deduction of logic; it is a metaphysical prejudice, nothing more, and one that is arguably more irrational than almost any other … Richard Dawkins does not hesitate, for instance, to claim that “natural selection is the ultimate explanation of our existence”. But this is a silly assertion and merely reveals that Dawkins does not understand the words he is using. The question of existence does not concern how it is that the present arrangement of the world came about, from causes already internal to the world, but how it is that anything (including any cause) can exist at all. This question Darwin and Wallace never addressed, nor were they so hopelessly confused as to think they had … Even the simplest of things, and even the most basic of principles must first of all be, and nothing within the universe of contingent things (not even the universe itself, even if it were somehow “eternal”) can be intelligibly conceived as the source or explanation of its own being.

Beyond the boring limits

Selected quotes from David Bentley Hart’s Religion in America.

For, if we succumb to post-Christian modernity, and the limits of its vision, what then? Most of us will surrender to a passive decay of will and aspiration, perhaps, find fewer reasons to resist as government insinuates itself into the little liberties of the family, continue to seek out hitherto unsuspected insensitivities to denounce and prejudices to extirpate, allow morality to give way to sentimentality; the impetuous among us will attempt to enjoy Balzac, or take up herb gardening, or discover “issues”; a few dilettantish amoralists will conclude that everything is permitted and dabble in bestiality or cannibalism; the rest of us will mostly watch television; crime rates will rise more steeply and birth rates fall more precipitously; being the “last men,” we shall think ourselves at the end of history; an occasional sense of the pointlessness of it all will induce in us a certain morose feeling of impotence (but what can one do?); and, in short, we shall become Europeans (but without the vestiges of the old civilization ranged about us to soothe our despondency). Surely we can hope for a nobler fate. Better the world of Appalachian snake handlers, mass revivals, Hispanic Pentecostals, charismatic Catholics, and millenarian evangelicals (even the Gnostics among them); better a disembodied, violent, and even dionysiac hunger for God than a dispirited and eviscerate capitulation before material reality; and much better a general atmosphere of earnest, if sometimes unsophisticated, faith.

…material circumstances (unless they are absolutely crushing) possess only such gravity or levity as one’s interpretation of them; and how one interprets them is determined not merely by one’s personal psychology, but by the cultural element in which they subsist.

Either the material order is the whole of being, wherein all transcendence is an illusion, or it is the phenomenal surface — mysterious, beautiful, terrible, harsh, and haunting — of a world of living spirits. That the former view is philosophically incoherent is something of which I am convinced; but, even if one cannot share that conviction, one should still be able to recognize that it is only the latter view that has ever had the power — over centuries and in every realm of human accomplishment — to summon desire beyond the boring limits marked by mortality, to endow the will with constancy and purpose, to shape imagination towards ends that should not be possible within the narrow economics of the flesh.

The sway of ideological legacy

Regarding the ultimate nature of reality, at least, neither the general consensus of a culture nor the special consensus of a credentialed class should be trusted too readily, especially if it cannot justify itself except by reference to its own unexamined presuppositions. So much of what we imagine to be the testimony of reason or the clear and unequivocal evidence of our senses is really only an interpretive reflex, determined by mental habits impressed in us by an intellectual and cultural history. Even our notion of what might constitute a “rational” or “realistic” view of things is largely a product not of a dispassionate attention to facts, but of an ideological legacy.

-David Bentley Hart