By now, of course, the Western history of our glorious rise and equally inglorious fall is well known. Long considered the proverbial apple in the eye of God, humanity only further buoyed its already swollen ego with the advent of humanism in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, finally doing away entirely with the need for any form of external approval to justify this self-perception. But “reality is harsh to shadows,” as C.S. Lewis once said, and our glimmering aggrandization of the Human was dealt a severe blow with the rise to predominance of science. One scientific discovery after another prompted our reconceptualization of the cosmos as a wholly deterministic process, mechanically governed by the interactions between physical, but unfeeling motes and forces. Humanity witnessed the speck of its own frail mortality vanish as the predominately lifeless universe inflated to a comparatively infinite expanse. And while a nihilistic apathy now taunts each individual as she grapples with the experience of this realization, the world offers little in the way of salve or consolation. Nature has been rendered impartial, at best; red in tooth and claw, otherwise.
Having indisputably demonstrated its staying power and relevance, the scientific enterprise exists as a forceful arbiter of conceptual legitimacy, with other fields of inquiry risking much—indeed, sometimes all—when they fail to take heed of the world as specifically portrayed by science. Not surprisingly, then, the last century has seen a resurgence of naturalism in American philosophy, but this becomes problematic in the face of a universe as humbling and impersonal as that depicted above. Whereas human ideals once stood in unparalleled and enduring triumph, one now questions even the possibility of their existence as anything more than mere illusions perpetuated by the electrochemical activity of neurons. Arguably some of the most pressing questions, however, become about how to best avoid the apathy—if it is, in fact, even possible to do so entirely—that commonly accompanies the severely deterministic landscapes emerging from more reductive forms of naturalism. While the world religions have historically shouldered much of this burden, providing humanity with a deep wellspring of existential comfort and strength in the face of hardship, most varieties of naturalism breed a deep suspicion of the transcendent that threatens to undermine this provisioning. The potential consequences of this loss are vastly widespread, potentially implicating the overall state of our species (not to mention the surrounding biosphere as a whole), and it has also recently gained personal significance for me when circumstances necessitated a rather prolonged separation from my wife and young son. Given this, the following discussion explores the possibility of finding an alternative source from which to draw consolation in the absence of any transcendent domains. More specifically, this paper considers the confrontation with paradox, as articulated by Søren Kierkegaard, to argue that a similar commitment is no less necessary beyond the boundaries of Christianity, perhaps helping to ensure the continuing presence of existential comfort and strength in the world, even from within a thoroughly naturalistic framework.
For our present purposes, I define the notion of comfort as any event, entity, or experience that enables the individual to endure some otherwise overwhelming hardship. As this constitutes a purposefully narrow definition, it clearly falls short of exhausting the concept and any number of alternative characteristics could certainly have been picked out. One might have loosened the association with suffering, for example, choosing instead to emphasize more explicitly physical aspects; comfort as that which facilitates a state of “being comfortable.” The chosen definition lacks normative specificity, as well, thereby avoiding any preconceptions about the precise set of axiological terms that a given individual might associate with the things he find comforting. Of course, definitions employed with other objectives in mind certainly might have benefited by including such values. No characterization should be taken to exist wholly independent of the others, to be sure, but the definition proposed has been chosen for its potential to generate more points of contact with precisely those dissociative tendencies and feelings of encroaching despair that are the focus of our concern. Defined as it has been above, the relationship between comfort and strength is readily apparent, as is the connection of both to a sense of hope. With our terminology thusly in order, a consideration of what it is that transcendent realms have to offer—and, more to the point, what it is that we stand to lose when such realms begin to dissipate—should help to further clarify exactly what is at stake here. It is toward this end, then, that our discussion now plunges into the roiling universe of Kierkegaard's infinite pathos.
In what follows, I shall first move through a consideration of Kierkegaard by focusing on three elements of his philosophy, in particular: the existing individual; transcendent hope; and confrontation with the paradox. Each of these elements will then be considered in terms of how they fare within a naturalistic framework and, finally, the discussion will close with a brief reflection upon the possible implications of this comparison for both the transcendent and the secular alike.------------------------------------
Kierkegaard discovers what he describes as a dialectic operating at the very heart of existence, a foundational interplay that develops when the existing individual—that is, an individual as existing in time, fully immersed amidst the chaotic flux and unpredictable spontaneity of worldly phenomena—shifts her gaze inward and finds a region of otherworldly stillness, a space of the eternal. Thus, Kierkegaard situates the central locus for much of this activity internally and, not surprisingly, subjective experience plays a tremendously important role in much of his work. The existing individual, sometimes referred to as the subjective thinker, “has the task of understanding himself in his existence…The subjective thinker is an existing individual and a thinker at one and the same time; he does not abstract from the contradiction and from existence, but lives in it while at the same time thinking it” (Kierkegaard 1846, 314). Here, Kierkegaard begins to develop a rich portrayal of human activity as authentically lived, depicting the manifold nature of our experience as temporal beings of deep interiority and dimensionality. Specifically, he means to oppose the type of systematic philosophy which aims to turn its object of attention (possibly us!) into a static abstraction, frozen in time.
Similarly, the ideal of objective knowledge and generally all orientations toward the external world are minimized as little more than abstractions from authentic existence, themselves mere accidents of contingency and wholly irrelevant so far as the existing individual is concerned. In a striking reversal of our more commonly posited justification for truth claims, the highest truth attainable for an existing individual becomes “an objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness…When subjectivity, inwardness, is the truth, the truth becomes objectively a paradox” (ibid., 182-83). Degrees of assurance are no longer measured by the extent to which a claim garners assent across individuals in the public sphere, but rather by the extent to which it is sheltered from such external support. Every genuine journey in the universe constructed by Kierkegaard is a solitary and incommunicable affair, an endeavor of self-discovery—or, more precisely God-discovery—that is always and everywhere undertaken alone. As he relates, “It is this that makes it possible that perhaps all men are in truth genuinely religious individuals; because true religiosity is the religiosity of the secret inwardness, the secret inwardness in the religious individual, who even employs all his art in order that no one shall notice anything special in his demeanor” (ibid., 424). A constant theme throughout Kierkegaard, this wholesale focus upon interiority and the unparalleled authenticity that he ascribes to subjective experience both have a profound influence on where he is ultimately able to discover a source of existential comfort, or hope.
Indeed, Roe Fremstedal offers an interpretation of hope as it is found in the work of Kierkegaard, describing two distinct forms in this regard: general hope and specific hope (referred to in Kierkegaard as Christian and natural, respectively). While specific hope is formulated on the basis of rational analysis with the aim of calculating the probability for attaining some mundane happiness or reward, general hope embodies a widely encompassing trust in the future that is alone capable of defending against the paralysis of despair. Not surprisingly perhaps given the author, much of the material concerning this topic in Kierkegaard revolves around suffering, which largely stems from our perpetual failure to fulfill specific hopes, predicated as they are upon the fickle contingencies and fleeting goals of worldly existence. Eventually forced to abandon such hopes, a consequent sense of despair motivates the individual to pursue something more enduring; that is, the general hope associated with religiosity. This abandonment is construed as an indication of diminished trust in the external world and, as Fremstedal relates, “Man must die to the world and loose [sic] all trust or hope in human assistance before there is the hope of Christian faith…The hope of eternity is planted in man—it is hidden in his innermost being” (2012, 54). Significantly, the primary locus of activity is once again couched deep amidst interiority. Although frustratingly vague on this point, Fremstedal goes on to describe hope from a different angle, as a state in which one is in possession of a task, the object of which is typically understood to be the Kingdom of God. Defined as such, measures must be taken by Kierkegaard to defend against the possibility for an individual to actually attain the object of hope in her lifetime. Otherwise, “If the object of general hope were something we could attain in this world…this would mean that our situation could be hopeless—in the sense of lacking a task or lacking prospects. This seems to imply that general hope can only be maintained consistently if its object is something transcendent” (Fremstedal 2012, 55). By characterizing the endpoint of this task as transcendent, Kierkegaard guarantees the task's everlasting presence in the world, along with the motivational influence that is so instrumental for inspiring humanity to take action in life. With this addition of a transcendent goal, in fact, a somewhat similar opposition to that considered previously emerges, only this time it occurs between the empirically verifiable specific form of hope and the general form that “involves hoping for divine assistance against understanding.”
The last element to be explored in the work of Kierkegaard is his notion of the paradox, already alluded to above in the form of an inner dialectic. Recalling that truth is subjectivity, this paradox develops when the eternal truth interacts with an existing individual or otherwise enters into temporal existence. As the eternal truth is largely alien to this reality and of a nature intrinsically foreign to our world, when it is perceived objectively—that is, as a thing existing in the world—it manifests as objective uncertainty, a repulsive quality that tends to impel the individual back towards inwardness. Moreover, the paradox specifically associated with the eternal truth, the absolute paradox, is wholly incomprehensible. Even the slightest attempt to understand or quantify its nature alters the paradox, so what is then being analyzed has become something of a replica but not actually the absolute paradox, itself. Rather, one must choose to wholeheartedly accept the paradox, objective uncertainty and all, or forego the entire opportunity. Once accepted, however, the relationship between an individual and the paradox must be actively maintained, an incredibly strenuous task that requires full and continuous concentration. Thusly demanding near everything from an individual, the choice to embrace the paradox constitutes faith in its most authentic form. Faith therefore becomes equivalent to subjective truth, as defined above, which is measured by an individual's passionate embrace of the infinite. Helping to kindle this passion, the eternal truth's quality of objective uncertainty has a tendency to stir up anxiety and generate tension with the mystery of its hidden unknowables. According to Kierkegaard, “the subject merely has, objectively, the uncertainty; but it is this which precisely increases the tension of that infinite passion…I contemplate the order of nature in the hope of finding God, and I see omnipotence and wisdom; but I also see much else that disturbs my mind and excites anxiety. The sum of all this is objective uncertainty. But it is for this very reason that inwardness becomes as intense as it is” (Kierkegaard 1846, 182).
Looking back, Kierkegaard presents us with the sheer pathos of existence, distastefully paradoxical engagements with God and all. Regarding the three elements considered and in light of the present discussion, specifically, his framework (i) promotes a fullness of reality, dynamically experienced by the individual in touch with their own existence; (ii) provides hope and comfort in the form of a motivational target, along with its associated eternal reward; and (iii) possesses a mechanism for cultivating impassioned experience. Having investigated the function performed by a transcendent domain in Kierkegaard, then, the discussion now turns to consider how naturalism fares with regard to each of these three elements.------------------------------------
Today, we live in a world that is profoundly different from that encountered by Kierkegaard, a fact that demands both serious attention and a responsible level of (self)-critical inquiry to ensure that our philosophy keeps pace with our science. Not then but now, we live in a reality populated by mirror neurons and black holes, the unconscious and “spooky action at a distance.” One of the most prevalent, if not universal, features in any form of naturalism is a commitment to ensuring its own scientific commensurability, and much of the following material draws upon our current understanding of the world in light of recent research. To begin, then, a number of fields in modern science are considered for their ability to shed some light upon the legitimacy of such a high premium associated with subjective experience above. Indeed, the disproportionate emphasis found in Kierkegaard drastically limits the number of locations available in which to discover a source for existential comfort and leaves him with little other choice but the existing individual. An examination of naturalism may prove less restrictive, however, revealing alternative options not available previously.
Ecology and developmental psychology—along with a host of other fields including general systems theory, epigenetics, and even quantum mechanics in its description of entanglement—have contributed much in the way of fostering our appreciation for the immeasurably intricate webs of connectivity that traverse our universe. Scientists working in these areas have revealed a world of staggering intimacy, blurring the lines between categories and forcing us to question some fairly longstanding and once seemingly obvious concepts (e.g., that of the “individual” and, relatedly, what it means to be autonomous—indeed, if it even continues to mean anything at all). Perhaps the most ambitious and widely popularized of such perspectives, the Gaia hypothesis advanced by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis portrays the earth in its entirety, organic and inorganic constituents alike, as a single, self-regulating complex system where even the smallest contributor plays a vital role in maintaining the planet's life-sustaining conditions. Somewhat closer to home in the fields of neuroscience and developmental psychology, research suggests that certain higher cognitive faculties, so central to how we perceive ourselves as a species, are incapable of developing naturally on their own in the absence of enough social contact beginning shortly after infancy. Drawing upon this evidence, Lynn and Jack Nelson maintain that our “acquisition of a first language is a developmental process that requires extensive interpersonal interaction—however prepared the infant brain is to learn and embrace language” (Shook and Kurtz 2009, 223).
Each example above poses a significant challenge to the understanding of existence found in Kierkegaard, calling into question his sweeping disregard for the legitimacy of objective knowledge. More specifically, a number of rather dubious assumptions run through much of his work; one about the untrammeled human potential and another about its self-motivated, majestically autonomous, mobile human-body housing. In contrast to animals and their compulsory acceptance of inherited nature, Kierkegaard retorts, “As if spirit were a character belonging to the race and not to the individual, a supposition which is…ethically abominable. Spiritual development is self-activity…If an individual of a subsequent generation is to reach the same development he will have to attain it by means of his own activity” (Kierkegaard 1846, 309). Unfortunately, this position clearly stands against the evidence just discussed concerning cognitive development in humans. In fact, assuming that our perception of interiority is mediated by the brain, the results of this study actually go further to necessitate the incorporation of objective information into Kierkegaard's system. That is, of course, unless we're not concerned about the realization that something beyond an existing individual's control is tampering with his Subjectivity Center. Donald Crosby further underscores the influential role played by external reality in the development of an individual, observing that “self, no less than world, is a construction or interpretation of the dense plenum of experience that selects out aspects of experience and gives them distinctive character…Throughout life, self and world continue to be differentiated within this field of experience” (2002, 75). Thus, we discover yet another example of profound appreciation for not only the entangled universe that we live in today but its dynamic nature, as well. By contrast, the position espoused by Kierkegaard begins and ends with the notion of a self as isolated and autonomous.
So far as alternatives to replace Kierkegaard are concerned, something useful might be found in the works of Crosby and Mark Johnston. Working on a theory of perception, Johnston reaffirms the intrinsic potency of objects, releasing them from their longstanding imprisonment in the pale, peripheral reality of noumena. For him, in other words, the entity itself is responsible for giving its presence to our senses—or, rather, we access that mode of presentation most suitable for our particular biological constitution. These modes are entirely objective characteristics of the entity, and different animals will be equipped to access different modes, presumably with a great deal of overlap. According to Johnston, “We are not Producers of Presence; it is not that our mental acts make things present. We are Samplers of Presence; our mental acts are samplings from a vast realm of objective manners of presentation” (2009, 152). Meanwhile, Crosby develops a relational approach that focuses predominately upon the human experience as a living participant in the planetary biosphere. Very much in line with the ecologically oriented introduction to this section, he describes the full immersion of humanity amidst nature and portrays each of us as embodied organisms who retain in those bodies a direct linkage to both the organic and inorganic elements of the surrounding environment. Indeed, for Crosby, the human species is fully integrated into the encompassing network of nature. Responding to the customary example of culture used to definitively set us apart from other organisms, he relates, “The difference between humans and other social species in this regard is one of degree, not of kind, showing that it makes more sense to regard highly developed human cultures as a gradual outgrowth of natural processes than it does to view them as something wholly human and nonnatural” (Crosby 2002, 93).
Summing up, the shortcomings underlying Kierkegaard's employment of subjectivity have been appraised in light of modern science and alternatives have been found in Johnston's theory of perception and in Crosby's philosophical consideration of human existence in nature. Reflecting back upon the functional roles fulfilled by the transcendent in Kierkegaard, subjective interiority was thought to “promote a fullness of reality, dynamically experienced by the individual in touch with their own existence.” From this, Johnston seems to cover the “fullness of reality” relatively well considering his affirmation of objective substantiality in the world. Likewise, Crosby easily fulfills the latter requirement with his relational existence, wholly engrossed as it is amidst a natural realm constantly in flux. Indeed, the gateway into our external world appears to be ajar, and naturalism can now be considered for its capacity to provide an alternative form of hope to those discussed in above.
If the purpose of this paper is to assess the ability for naturalism to satisfy needs that have traditionally been met with the help of a transcendent domain, then the current task is going to prove tremendously difficult. Nevertheless, as Kierkegaard bases hope upon the promise of an idealized ethical community, ethics seems as good a place as any to begin a search for something similar that naturalism might provide. In what follows, then, a number of ethical approaches to naturalism are evaluated to see how well the promised results of each stack up against the promise of eternal happiness.
Surveying the current state of religious naturalism, Michael Hogue provides a fantastic appraisal of the field as a whole and spends a good amount of time covering the most recent activity taking place in ethics. Specifically, he summarizes the work of Loyal Rue, Jerome Stone, Ursula Goodenough, and Donald Crosby. There was one element in particular that received univocal accord from all four scholars concerning the need for its incorporation into any ethical system coming out of religious naturalism; namely, mythos or mythic narrative. Thus, for Rue, a “naturalized general theory construes religions as mythically integrated, affectively compelling accounts of how things really are and what really matters. Through aesthetic, ritual, and institutional strategies this mythic conjugation of reality and value functions to bring the lives of religious adherents into harmony with reality in ways that adaptively serve personal wholeness and social coherence” (Hogue 2010, 143).
Rue also advances a system of morality that is potentially relevant to the search for hope. His system is oriented around one governing standard, its highest motivating ideal, which he characterizes as “objective, universal, and ultimate.” This ideal, viability, refers to the tenacious determination of a being to continue living and to reproduce. As an ideal, it may be just general enough and may operate on a level of existence that is just fundamental enough to render it functionally comparable to the “Kingdom of God” described by Kierkegaard. While acknowledging the qualitative distinction separating these terms, there are a number of reasons for comparing this concept to the Kingdom and for believing that the former might prove capable of playing this motivational role. For one, both terms are purposefully vague, ensuring their ability to attract a greater variety of individuals, and both can utilize this emptiness to encourage projections of more personally significant content on the part of each individual. Moreover, both resonate with powerful associations, conjuring images of deep history, vital energies, and fecund creativity. Finally, while viability may not be responsible for driving existence as a whole, it is responsible for generating what is perhaps the most bizarre and important part yet discovered. Properly idealized and supported by the right kind of mythic structure, it seems plausible that a natural concept such as viability could function as a kind of motivational locus much like that engendering hope for Kierkegaard.
Recall from above that the transcendent domain “provides hope and comfort in the form of a motivational target, along with its associated eternal reward.” While attaining anything quite as persuasive as the Kingdom is highly unlikely, of course, any concept associated with the life-force of existence—so fundamental in general and so vital for us, specifically—should be capable of attracting some attention, even if to a diminished degree. Moreover, the motivational target becomes more persuasive once it is associated with the more meaningful and specific context of a mythic narrative. But as we saw in Kierkegaard, part of what it means to have hope is to be in possession of a task. In light of this, Goodenough works with Terrence Deacon to articulate an element of intentional directionality that develops in living systems once a sufficient degree of complexity has been attained. As quoted in Hogue, the creation of greater complexity through emergence “is the incursion of purpose in nature…third-order emergence defines the onset of telos on this planet and, for all we know, the universe. Creatures have purpose, and their traits are for that purpose” (ibid., 171). With the inclusion of such powerful images as these, a narrative mythology could offer the individual a purposeful life, identified as a process of moving towards or intentional becoming. Following the subsequent incorporation of variability into the structure, naturalism should have no problem finding a source for hope.
Observing the world, J.N. Findlay writes, “Every manifestation of bodies to the senses likewise always emerges out of, is surrounded by, and again passes away into an indefinitely extensive unmanifest background” (1966, 87). Existence moves through a textured reality—or, at least, insofar as it is a reality for us—where glimpses into obscure depths are shortly followed by moments of brilliant clarity. Through it all, one has a sense for the shadowed vagaries that flitter about in the fringes of awareness. Elsewhere, the interstices of perception open into unknown, perhaps even unknowable, dark hollows. One intuits the invisible presence of an undulating frontier encompassing reality—at times unbearably confining, generously expansive at others—beyond which the world falls into murkiness. Like a thick fog, there seems to be some form of intrinsic nebulosity that drifts throughout human experience. Freud confronted it lurking deep in our minds. Heisenberg wrestled with its microscopic denials. Derrida rejoiced at discovering its residence at the heart of social activity. Of course, it's been the bread and butter of phenomenologists for some time now. And the list could go on almost indefinitely. Indeed, the explorer seems to have barely ventured beyond the tip of her nose before things began to get very complicated, conceptually speaking. In fact, it may be at the very nose itself and only there that existence presents in a straightforward fashion, as one does not need to move very far behind the nose either before falling into an equally perplexing morass.
Unfortunately (at least, for those who find it problematic), it is highly unlikely that this element of existence will ever be eradicated. Crosby touches upon this point, in fact, immediately following a rather nice description of the overall state of affairs. He writes, “Take world away, and self collapses. Each requires and depends upon the other, and both are inferences from dim but insistent awareness of a teeming, suffusing field of experience that forever eludes full understanding or complete conceptualization…There is no prospect of a final fathoming of the mysteries of the world, because all knowing is perspectival and therefore partial” (Crosby 2002, 76). Strikingly, the situation just described bears a number of similarities to the nature of paradox, as described by Kierkegaard. Consider the following quote, which could have just as easily been referring to our experience of reality: “But what is this unkown against which the understanding in its paradoxical passion collides and which even disturbs man and his self-knowledge? It is the unknown. But it is not a human being, insofar as he knows man, or anything else that he knows. Therefore, let us call this unkown the god” (Kierkegaard 1844, 39). It is hard not to notice how accurately this quote is describes the intellectual history of humanity's relationship with the world for thousands of years. Moving through existence, each of us encounters a world that is simultaneously diffuse and concrete, even temporal and eternal. Quite frankly, we encounter a paradoxical reality and insist upon solving the riddle.
Naturalism can use these similarities between the paradox and our perception of existence to help maintain a proper orientation toward the world. Employed in this way, the paradox reminds us to engage—to put down our magnifying glasses, turn off our photon emitters, and simply allow ourselves to sink back into the lived experience of an existing individual. Whereas before we insisted upon colliding with (i.e., investigating) the paradox, now we “put an end to all this everlasting prating” and make the decision to just accept that it exists, wooly edges and all. The passion that is subsequently generated promises to intensify the mystery (and other aesthetic facets) that emerges from the dark, interstitial crevasses and hazy borders of awareness. Ultimately, human existence will become more intriguing, more meaningful; it will become suffused with value. The universe is overflowing with strange and unusual phenomena, the most peculiar of which are typically just (or quite near) as foreign to our sensibilities as any deity—indeed, given our propensity in the West to vainly people the skies with anthropomorphic beings, assuredly more so. As such, the individual should have no problems locating a space in experience that is thick enough to hang a paradox upon.------------------------------------
The paradox articulated by Kierkegaard is an incredibly powerful concept, capable of comprehending the Janus-faced human as a conjunction of the temporal and eternal, the animal and biped, the instinct and freedom. In the midst of all these resonances, ever so faintly, a whispered uproar of contention can be heard surrounding the mind-body problem. Crosby notwithstanding, the paradox captures the commonly shared feeling of being somehow in this world but not of it. It signifies a diffuse and haunting awareness of radical difference from everything around us. You are alone on the playground, it says. Whether our actual degree of separation from other forms of life is ultimately found to be this severe (unlikely), the fact remains that we often do feel this way and perceive this to be the case. As the above has hopefully managed to demonstrate, however, one should not despair in the face of such experiences. The naturalist can turn to his philosophy for safe haven from this helter-skelter world.
 Although not primarily a critique, the paper must at least demonstrate why a naturalistic framework is justified in turning to the external world when Kierkegaard has been so vocally opposed to it.
 After quantum mechanics, of course.
 The “paradox” is an incredibly technical term that is used by Kierkegaard in very specific ways, and any attempt to apply it elsewhere is rightly met with suspicion. But true to its origins, the objective relevance of this application to experienced reality is far less important than the subjective authenticity of an individual's engagement with it. The use of this conceptual tool either works or it doesn't. Personally, I believe the depths of reality do present to us as paradoxical enough to incite the type of passionate tension that is used so productively by Kierkegaard.
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