Christian Existentialism Part 4: The Boiling Point of Water

One of the strange aspects of the critique of the Necessity of intellect made by both the existentialists and other scholars like Spengler is that it didn’t seem to occur to them that there was another way to use the intellect, one which is not reductionist but exploratory.

Take one example. 2 + 2 = 4 is often cited as the kind of iron-law of Necessity which seems to exclude all possibility. And, yet, there is a hidden assumption in the statement. 2 + 2 = 4 in Base 10. If you’re counting in Base 3, 2 + 2 cannot equal 4 because there is no 4. What seems like Necessity is not necessarily so.

In this post I’d like to demonstrate an exploratory use of intellect based on the idea of finding hidden assumptions in statements. When you use intellect in an exploratory fashion, there are no right or wrong answers and, as a result, there is no necessary “payoff”. There is no guarantee that you will discover anything interesting and that it will be “worth your while” to do the exercise.

This is one reason why our education system does not encourage the exploratory use of intellect. Rather, we demand to separate right from wrong and we want education to “pay off” by producing people who can produce right answers. We then put those people in positions of power so they can produce “right” outcomes. At no point do you get rewarded for asking “right” questions. But asking questions is almost the entirety of exploratory intellect.

I don’t have a catchy name for this exercise so let’s just call it the Hidden Assumption Exercise. You take a statement and try to unpack all the hidden assumptions in it, just as there is a hidden assumption in the statement 2 + 2 = 4.

Let’s use a really obvious statement to demonstrate the exercise: Water boils at 100 degrees.

The Hidden Assumption Exercise tends to be quite personalised by nature. For the statement water boils at 100 degrees, your initial understanding will depend on how much science you remember from school or if you work in an area that requires more advanced knowledge. Nevertheless, even for people with a deeper understanding, the exercise should yield some interesting results as it’s about forcing yourself to ask questions even when you think you know the answer.

Note that I only ever did high school physics and chemistry and I’ve probably forgotten a large share of what I learned, so my approach to this particular statement will reflect that level of understanding. I’d be interested to hear what those with more advanced knowledge think of the discussion below.

The way I do the Hidden Assumption exercise is to begin by separating the statement into parts. In this case we have “water”, “boils”, “at 100 degrees”. Using each part as a point of focus, you then just ask a heap of questions about it. No question is wrong or silly. In fact, asking really basic questions like a child would ask is one of the best ways to go about it.

It’s usually a good idea to give a preliminary answer to each question as this can lead to further questions. If you’re doing it well, answers will lead to new questions which will lead to new answers about old questions and you create a kind of web of understanding which you can then give more structure to later.


Let’s start with “water”. Here’s a list of questions that occurred to me:

We can see that most of these questions centre around trying to define precisely what is and is not counted as water. If we were going to empirically test the statement “water boils at 100 degrees” and we wanted our results to be reproducible, we would need to be very specific about such questions.


Let’s move on now to the second word “boils”, which is where most of the interesting discussion lies.

We can see from this series of questions that the word “boils” is a generalisation and we need to be specific about what type of boiling we are talking about. The hidden assumption is that we are talking about nucleate boiling. But even then, in most empirical situations, water will not nucleate boil at 100 degrees, even at sea level!

Furthermore, the temperature is only one variable that may affect boiling. General atmospheric pressure will play a role. But localised pressure gradients determine the formation of bubbles. Here is another important hidden assumption and this is something new that I learned doing the exercise. It turns out that the vessel used makes a difference because a perfectly homogenous vessel inhibits the formation of bubbles and leads to a phenomenon known as superheating. This means there is another variable at play called “surface tension”.

Note also that we can see bubbles forming in heated water before boiling occurs. So, boiling is really about the movement of bubbles which will rise to the surface of the liquid and release into gas. Boiling itself seems to be a continuous process rather than a discrete state change. The more I think about it, the less clear it is how we can determine the exact moment when boiling starts and stops. That leads nicely to the next set of questions.

at 100 degrees

Let’s now turn to the final chunk of our original statement “at 100 degrees”.

(Note: temperature is one of those concepts we take for granted but when you start to dig in to what it actually is, there is a deep mystery at the centre of it. I’ll leave out the more philosophical questions here.)

Many more questions could be asked. In such exploratory exercises you usually call it quits when you get sick of it or when you run out of time. Nevertheless, we can see from the discussion above that there is far more complexity involved in boiling water than most people would imagine. Importantly, we have found several hidden assumptions that we can now append to the initial statement to make it more accurate.

Instead of “water boils at 100 degrees”, we should say “water of a conventionally-determined purity nucleate boils at 99.97 degrees at sea level in a vessel of conventionally-determined depth and size which has surface impurities so that superheating does not occur”.

What all this shows is that there is a wealth of complexity beneath the surface of a simple, everyday statement like “water boils at 100 degrees”. An exploratory use of intellect, mostly just asking lots of questions, opens up the complexity.

The world does not generally reward us for using exploratory intellect. A big part of the reason is that many things in life are decided by convention or agreement and by asking questions you implicitly challenge the agreement. Many things in science are the way they are simply because we agreed to standardise around some value. We could just as easily have standardised around a different value. The value itself is not important, it’s the agreement that is important. But “agreement” very quickly turns into authority and authority into Necessity. That’s one reason why science becomes Necessity.

We live in an age where it has never been easier to very quickly explore the complexity of any given domain. The internet allows us to form an overview of the issues once we have learned how to ask the right questions. Nevertheless, much of the internet is filled with vitriol and anger. Why? This brings us back to Kierkegaard’s assertion about Necessity – it implies resignation, fear and coercion.

For most people, the exploratory use of intellect is seen as a waste of time and energy. There is a physiological truth to this. Exploratory intellect requires energy just like physical exercise requires it. If you’re using most of your energy to earn a living, it stands to reason that you don’t want to engage exploratory intellect at the end of the day just like you don’t want to run 5 kilometres if you’ve just spent 12 hours working down a coal mine. The doctrine of Necessity has a basis in energy conservation.

However, we live in a time where most people in western nations have a surplus of time and energy. That’s why people can spend so much time on social media posting vitriol. So, perhaps there’s something else going on.

This is where Kierkegaard’s existential explanation may provide an answer. Exploratory intellect opens towards infinity but infinity and nothingness are two sides of the same coin. That’s exactly what the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing claimed. Nothingness and infinity both seem to lead to disintegration. In between nothing and infinity is the finite. The finite wants certainty. Reductionist intellect gives us the appearance of certainty. Exploratory intellect, with all its annoying questions, does not.

All posts in this series:
Christian Existentialism Part 1: The Confrontation with Nothingness
Christian Existentialism Part 2: The Worship of Idols
Christian Existentialism Part 3: Necessity vs Faith
Christian Existentialism Part 4: The Boiling Point of Water
Christian Existentialism Part 5: From Luther to Feynman
Christian Existentialism Part 6: The Rise of the Irrational

Christian Existentialism Part 3: Necessity vs Faith

In the last post in this series, we contrasted the German romanticism of Spengler with the Christian existentialism of Dostoevsky. We’ll continue to use this opposition in this post since these two thinkers give us a way to elucidate another of the main themes in existentialism which is the contrast between Necessity and Faith.

The doctrine of Necessity is tied up in philosophical ideas around eternal truths that go back to the ancient Greeks. Spengler, following Nietzsche, actually made a very similar critique of Necessity as Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard. We can use Kierkegaard’s formulation as a summary. He said, what lay behind the doctrine of Necessity was resignation, fear and coercion.

We don’t need to worry about the philosophical arguments that led Kierkegaard to this conclusion because we have all just lived through exactly what he was talking about. At a psychological level, corona was driven by a combination of resignation, fear and coercion.

At the same time, our governments offered us the doctrine of Necessity in its modern form. We were told to trust the experts. We were told that our government would be a single source of truth. Here in Victoria, we were even told by our Premier that a supercomputer was on the job crunching the numbers.

Never fear, the supercomputer’s here!

Of course, anybody with a basic understanding of how empirical science works knew that this was a lie. Science was hijacked during corona just as it has been hijacked in general in our culture. It has been hijacked in just the way needed to turn it into the doctrine of Necessity i.e. to make it be able to deliver old-fashioned laws: thou shalt take the vaccine which is safe and effective.    

It was these laws and this Necessity that Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky railed against in the domain of philosophy. Part of what made their job difficult was because Necessity enjoys a good reputation. As we saw during corona, people are drawn to the aura of authority which Necessity gives. This is true not just in times of crisis.

Within the philosophical tradition, Necessity is tied up with the question of eternal and absolute truths. Ever since the Greeks, what was “true” had to be whatever was true for all time irrespective of finite and transient conditions. It also had to be true for everybody and therefore any element of truth related to specific persons or groups had to be ruled out and called subjective.

Spengler provides his own argument against Necessity at the beginning of the second volume of Decline of the West. Following Nietzsche, he contrasts the eternal, timeless truths of Necessity with life. Life is always in a state of becoming and so the desire for eternal truths can be seen as an escape from the fear of life and death (note that this was literally true in relation to corona).

The aim of thought is called “truth”, and truths are “established” – i.e., brought out of the living impalpability of the light-world into the form of concepts and assigned permanently to places in a system, which means a kind of intellectual space. Truths are absolute and eternal – i.e., they have nothing more to do with life.

Nietzsche had diagnosed the doctrine of Necessity as “decadence”. For him, consciousness is built on top of instinct. In fact, consciousness is largely driven by the deeper structure of instinct. This is very similar to Jung’s ideas around the Unconscious. The escape into eternal truths is an escape from instinct. But this escape can never be achieved and this is why Necessity has always been a lie, according to Nietzsche.

Following this line of thought, Spengler contrasts the philosopher from the man-of-action who operates via instinct:

The active man who does and will and fights, daily measuring himself against the power of facts, looks down upon mere truths as unimportant. The real statesman knows only political facts, not political truths.

In Nietzsche and Spengler, the “truths” of Necessity, which are so beguiling to humans beings, are no longer the highest good. In fact, those truths are damaging because they turn us away from the business of living.

The will-to-system is a will to kill something living, to “establish”, stabilise, stiffen it, to bind it in the train of logic. The intellect has conquered when it has completed the business of making rigid.

Although the language is very different, Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky would have broadly agreed with this critique. But although their diagnosis was the same, their remedy was very different. For existentialism, the remedy is Faith. For Spengler and Nietzsche, the remedy was physiological. What was required was a “stronger” type of person who would have no need of the deceptions of eternal truths but would operate on instinct and intuition.

It’s no small irony that both Spengler and Nietzsche were sickly men who died young. Were they projecting their own physiological inadequacies into their thinking? Nietzsche was self-aware enough to realise this. In fact, his philosophy explicitly admits it. Every philosophy is a self-confession on the part of the philosopher, he said. This idea grounds much of the irony in Nietzsche’s later works, in particular his quasi-autobiography Ecce Homo which contains chapter headings like Why I am so Wise and Why I am a Destiny.

There isn’t much irony in Spengler, however. He was deadly serious. In Spengler, history belongs to destiny, fate and “blood”. You don’t reason about it, you “feel” it. This new history would not pretend to objectivity. It was “strong” enough to dispense with the hypocrisy of the philosophers of the past who had not been honest with themselves. Thus, the Spenglerian position was not against the coercion of Necessity. On the contrary, it embraced coercion.

Spengler sums it up in the inimitable style of German romanticism at the very end of the first volume of Decline of the West:

For us…whom a Destiny has placed in this Culture at this moment of its development…our direction, willed and obligatory at once, is set for us within narrow limits, and on any other terms life is not worth living. We have not the freedom to reach to this or to that, but the freedom to do the necessary or to do nothing. And a task that historic necessity has set will be accomplished with the individual or against him.

Meet the new Necessity, same as the old Necessity. In this short paragraph we see the resignation, fear and coercion that Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky had railed against on full display. All Spengler had done was swap the coercion of intellect for the coercion of instinct.

We also see the rejection of the individual. For Spengler, only collectives have destiny and fate. The individual is either part of the collective destiny or they are nothing at all and may be ground into the dirt. (It is on this point that Spengler most clearly diverges from Nietzsche).

As I have noted several times in this series already, existentialism is concerned with the individual and places the subjective above the objective whether the objective is in the form of eternal philosophical truths or the collective instinctual movements of a herd of people. Thus, although Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky diagnosed the same problem as Spengler, their solution was very different because it was concerned with the problem of Necessity as it affects the individual. Their solution was Faith. Rather than go into detail about what they said, I’d like to take an alternative and less obvious route.

One the things that Spengler’s reliance on “instinct” and “blood” is supposed to achieve is the overcoming of scepticism. This is not scepticism for scepticism’s sake. It is scepticism rooted in the Problem of Induction. Yet again, this is where Toynbee is a useful foil for Spengler because Toynbee knew that the Problem of Induction applies just as much to comparative history as to any other field of knowledge and simply appealing to instinct doesn’t get you off the hook.

David Hume

The problem of induction was raised most clearly in the modern tradition by David Hume and then taken up by philosophers of science such as Karl Popper. It says that no matter how many times you have reproduced a certain outcome, this cannot give you certainty that the next test will produce the same result.

A common example given for this is the chicken who learns by inductive reasoning that the farmer is the provider of food. For hundreds of days in a row, the farmer kindly feeds the chicken. The empirical evidence available to the chicken supports the conclusion that the farmer is their friend all the way up until the day where the farmer decides it’s time for a Sunday roast. Hypotheses are inductively proven by evidence until they are not.

Note that this dovetails quite nicely into the question of cognitive dissonance we discussed in the last post. Having your (usually unstated) hypothesis proven wrong by empirical evidence is a leading cause of cognitive dissonance.

In relation to the cycles of history, the Problem of Induction is magnified because comparative history is intrinsically complex and it’s not obvious what the basic categories are. In addition, we have a limited number of civilisations that we can study, we lack reliable data about those civilisations, and what data we do have is incomplete and shows variation. The Problem of Induction is valid even for simple and repeatable scientific findings. It is much more of a problem in an inherently complex domain like history.

In relation to civilisation, there is also the problem that what we call civilisation is a new arrival on the scene. In the broader scope of human history, civilisation arrived only yesterday. What’s more, it is not a universal. On the basis of empiricism, we might even treat civilisation as the anomaly and not the rule. Far from being grounded in fate and destiny, we might say civilisation is just a temporary aberration.

The Problem of Induction tells us that we should be sceptical about any generalisations we draw about comparative history. Toynbee acknowledged this while Spengler brushes it aside in the name of a Necessity grounded in instinct. I don’t think it’s an accident that Toynbee raises Christianity at the end of his Study of History because, perhaps counterintuitively, Christianity has more to do with scientific empiricism than it does with Necessity.

The Christianity I am talking about is not the doctrines of the Church. As I have already noted, the Church in Europe was the carrier of both the Classical and the Magian traditions inherited from Rome. It has been an enthusiastic exponent of the doctrine of Necessity for pretty much all of its history.

The Christianity I am talking about is the Faith of Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky. One format this takes is the idea that anything is possible for God. This is part of an old debate from scholasticism about whether God himself is bound by the logic, reason and the laws of nature or whether he can act outside those laws. If we take this debate in a more abstract and symbolic fashion, we can interpret it as a variation on the Problem of Induction.

We humans are just a bunch of neotenous chimps who fell out of the trees. What right do we have to claim that we could ever discover the eternal “laws of nature” whether through intellect or through instinct? By positing a God “above” intellect, we are implying that there is a higher power than intellect and, by extension, that intellect can be wrong. This should be an obvious fact and yet what Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky realised was that the doctrine of Necessity has a hypnotic attraction to humans. We desire certainty and we will invent whatever doctrines are necessary to give us the illusion of certainty. Faith is the opposite of certainty. Faith is possibility and freedom.

In the 14th century work of Christian mysticism, The Cloud of Unknowing, the anonymous author posits a level of being above the intellect called the spiritual. The book outlines a simple meditative exercise by which people can connect with the spiritual. But this connection cannot be achieved through reason. That’s why there is a cloud of unknowing between us and the spiritual which cannot be penetrated by the intellect (or the instinct) but only by the heart.

Of particular interest, given the first post in this series, is the author’s assertion that the spiritual is experienced as Nothingness by the intellect.

Leave aside this everywhere and everything, in exchange for this nowhere and this nothing. Never mind at all if your senses have no understanding of this nothing;…this nothing can be better felt than seen; it is most obscure and dark to those who have been looking at it only a very short while.

It’s precisely because we are so attached to reason and logic (Necessity) that the journey to the spiritual is traumatic. We must renounce our usual methods of understanding and that feels like Nothingness. This is the reason that Kierkegaard stated that fear is tied up with the idea of Necessity. The rational and logical feels safe to us in comparison with the seeming darkness of the spiritual.

For Kierkegaard, the resignation to Necessity, whether by intellect or Spenglerian instinct, is driven by the fear of Nothingness. The coercion associated with Necessity has the same origin because those who are fearful are liable to lash out. The Christian mystical tradition acknowledges that fear is part of the process of connecting with the spiritual domain and the author of the Cloud of Unknowing even states that many give up on the exercise because of the discomfort it causes.

The existence of a spiritual domain which supersedes the intellect therefore allows for a similar recognition of the limited powers of the intellect as does the Problem of Induction. This is normally seen in a negative light. If we cannot predict the future based on past experience, that means that we cannot stop destructive or harmful events from happening.

That’s the negative side. The positive side is that can also expect to be pleasantly surprised by new experiences that we cannot foresee. Faith acknowledges both of these outcomes. Yes, there will be times when we are blindsided by events to our detriment. But there can also be magic moments of bliss and ecstasy. What Dostoevsky implies in The Brothers Karamazov is that you cannot have one without the other. To be open to possibility is to experience the bad as well as the good. The only way we can encounter the magic moments is to retain our childlike sense of faith.

All of this is consonant with the light-hearted, sceptical and empirical approach to life which is, in my opinion, what “real science” is founded upon. This is the spirit of science when one does not deny the Problem of Induction and does not demand certainty via eternal laws or animal instinct. Nietzsche summed it up best: scepticism implies faith.

All posts in this series:
Christian Existentialism Part 1: The Confrontation with Nothingness
Christian Existentialism Part 2: The Worship of Idols
Christian Existentialism Part 3: Necessity vs Faith
Christian Existentialism Part 4: The Boiling Point of Water
Christian Existentialism Part 5: From Luther to Feynman
Christian Existentialism Part 6: The Rise of the Irrational

Christian Existentialism Part 2: The Worship of Idols

Existentialism implies a focus on the individual and the primacy of subjective over objective truths. Both of these are unusual traits not just in a philosophical sense but in the broader sense that human nature seems hardwired for the opposite. Obedience to the collective and its objective truths is the norm, which makes sense since human beings are herd animals by nature.

It’s not a surprise, therefore, to find that existentialists tends to live on the outer fringe of society and are usually at odds with the zeitgeist of their time. Often this involves a dramatic break early in their life. Thus, Nietzsche broke with Wagner. Kierkegaard broke off his marriage. Luther broke with the Church of his day. Dostoevsky and Shestov broke with the Russian society of their time. It’s not hard to see why Christianity leads naturally into existentialism since Jesus was at odds with the society of his time, so much so that they put him to death.

For this reason, existentialism can seem to be a depressing body of thought that focuses on despair, darkness and death. A more modern concept which we can add to that list is cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance manifests in the brain in almost the same way as physical pain. Just as we try to avoid physical pain, we are incentivised to try and alleviate the pain of cognitive dissonance. One way to do that would be to change our mental models to accommodate the new information that is causing the discomfort. But that takes time and energy. So, people look to a variety of other strategies. One of the most common is to shoot the messenger. Another is scapegoating. That’s why one of the main tasks of the mainstream media is to character assassinate anybody who represents a threat to the status quo.

Existentialism implies a willingness to deal with cognitive dissonance and this is perhaps why most of the existentialists had gone through some traumatic experience that changed their life. Having overcome the extreme cognitive dissonance of a life-threatening episode, the everyday pains of life like annoying people or being an outsider seem to pale into insignificance.

Avoidance of cognitive dissonance is hardwired into our cognition. Another way to say that is that we have a built-in conservatism. Having constructed our mental models of the world, we are loathe to change them. But most of our mental models come from the society around us. We are unconsciously influenced by others and it takes a good hard dose of cognitive dissonance to break the illusion.

Let me give an account from my experience which is worth telling in this case because it will let us explore a couple of the main themes of existentialism. It involves one the most influential thinkers in that realm, the Russian writer, Dostoevsky. The story also includes another thinker I have written about extensively on this blog: the German historian, Oswald Spengler. It’s the story of Christian existentialism versus German romanticism.

When I was reading Spengler’s Decline of the West for the second time, I had the experience that many readers of Spengler have of getting caught in his spell. I use the word spell here deliberately. Spengler’s monumental work of history shows us a new way of looking at the world and our own place in it. He re-enchants our world by giving it a new and dramatic historical perspective that is especially alluring for those of us living in the disenchanted world of modern industrial capitalism.

Part of the reason this works is because Spengler had enchanted himself; the best salesman is the one who believes their own sales pitch. It’s for this reason that the British historian, Toynbee, is such a useful foil for Spengler because he explores many of the same themes but without getting carried away in flights of fancy. This makes Toynbee’s work more methodical and categorical, although admittedly less exciting.

The problem with encyclopaedic works of scholarship which make reference to countless different data points is that we the reader don’t have the time or the inclination to verify them for ourselves. Spengler is particularly bad in this respect since he presents numerous conclusions without providing any reasoning as to how he got there. Because these conclusions are tied up into a larger story that is exciting, the grand arcs of history, we are apt to go along without questioning.

It wasn’t until a couple of hundred pages into the first volume of Decline of the West that I experienced the cognitive dissonance that snapped me out of my dogmatic slumber and made me start to question Spengler more critically. Prior to that, I was unable to criticise the book because I had no point of reference to do so. If Spengler says that the use of a particular technique in ancient Middle Eastern architecture is symbolic of the Magian world feeling, I had no grounds to disagree because I had never seen the buildings myself and don’t know enough about architecture to form an opinion either way.

I may not know anything about ancient Middle Eastern architecture, but I do know a thing or two about Dostoevsky. He’s been one of my favourite writers ever since I stumbled across a copy of Memoirs from the House of the Dead in my local library when I was a teenager. Dostoevsky is one of my favourite writers and The Brothers Karamazov is my favourite Dostoevsky novel. So, when Spengler made reference to The Brothers Karamazov on page 195 of his history, I experienced an acute case of cognitive dissonance.

“First impressions count” goes the saying. What happens in life is that we put people, places, ideas into certain mental boxes and once a person or an idea is in a box we really don’t like to change it. Cognitive dissonance is what forces us to make that change. It occurs when we learn something new that makes us question the mental box we’ve put someone or some idea into. Spengler had captivated me with a new idea and presented a couple of hundred pages of what seemed like good analysis in support of it. I had placed Spengler in the “interesting thinker/possibly a genius” box.

Once we have put somebody in a box, we tend to overlook all kinds of “warning signs” that they don’t belong there. This is another basic fact of life. We’ve all had friends, romantic partners, family members or business associates who we thought were on our side. We put them in the “good guys” box. Then something happens that breaks up the relationship and we see the person in a whole new light. All the warning signs become obvious in hindsight and we marvel at how we could have been so blind that we ever thought they were on the same page as us.

The incident that caused my re-evaluation of Spengler came when he talks of the “immeasurable difference” between the Faustian the Russian souls. In support of this immeasurable difference, he references The Brothers Karamazov as follows:

“That All are responsible for all – the “it” for the it in this boundlessly extended plain – is the metaphysical fundament of all Dostoevsky’s creation. That is why Ivan Karamazov must name himself murderer although another had done the murder.”

For those who haven’t read the novel, Ivan Karamazov is the middle brother. The father, Fyodor Karamazov, is murdered in mysterious circumstances. The second half of the novel deals with the subsequent events as the eldest brother, Dmitri, is charged with the crime. In the process, Ivan comes to realise that he is responsible for the murder indirectly. Spengler attributes Ivan’s feeling of guilt to the metaphysical fundament of brotherhood that he posits is a central component of a hypothetically emerging “Russian soul”.

This is a preposterous claim. It glosses over some of the most dramatic parts of the novel including Smerdyakov (the murderer) directly confronting Ivan, blackmailing and manipulating him, and Ivan’s subsequent descent into madness. Ivan feels himself to be responsible for the murder because Smerdyakov tells him that directly and Ivan knows it is true in his own heart. Spengler ignores the basic facts of the novel and somehow finds evidence of brotherhood in murder and blackmail.

But even if we want to give Spengler the benefit of the doubt and be more abstract and symbolic in our analysis, his explanation still makes no sense. If there really is a Russian soul that requires the brothers to take responsibility for a murderer, Ivan is the least likely character to represent such a soul. Dostoevsky deliberately paints Ivan as the brother who has been infected with the latest ideas from Paris and Berlin. Not only is Ivan not symbolic of the Russian soul, he is symbolic of the exact threat to the Russian soul which Dostoevsky saw in the modern ideas of atheism, nihilism, socialism etc. Spengler’s analysis is not just a little bit wrong, it’s 100%, exactly wrong; the opposite of the truth.

When you become a connoisseur of cognitive dissonance, you learn that there are degrees of dissonance. Most of the time in life, we disagree about little things and those disagreements are easily glossed over because we assume we are still on the same page about the important things. The ultimate in cognitive dissonance is when somebody or something is exactly wrong. It’s very rare to be exactly wrong and it’s a sign that something fundamental is at stake.

Cognitive dissonance forces us to re-evaluate our understanding. If Spengler got it so wrong in relation to Dostoevsky, a subject I happen to know something about, how can I trust anything he says about subjects that I don’t know anything about like ancient Middle Eastern architecture? The answer is that I can’t. But until the cognitive dissonance forced a re-evaluation, I was happy to go along with his analysis passively accepting its truth.

Not blindly trusting people based on a presumed “authority” is one of the key themes in existentialist thought. We are hardwired for blind trust and we are always slipping back into the dogmatic slumber that blind trust engenders. Cognitive dissonance wakes us from our sleep and forces us to pay attention. More symbolically, every case of cognitive dissonance is a death and resurrection. Our old view of the world dies and a new one is born. Again, we see the influence of Christianity on existentialism.

The fact that Spengler was 100% wrong about Ivan Karamazov is a sign that something fundamental is at stake. And indeed there is. There is a bitter irony at play in Spengler’s error.

Ivan Karamazov is the brilliant but unknown scholar who has ingenious ideas based on the intellectual fashions of Western Europe at that time – atheism, materialism, socialism and nihilism. When he wrote the first volume of Decline of the West, Spengler was a brilliant but unknown scholar pursuing ingenious ideas based on the fashionable intellectual trends of the time – atheism, materialism and nihilism. In other words, Spengler is exactly the kind of person Dostoevsky was warning about when he wrote the character of Ivan Karamazov!

Just as Spengler can captivate us with his ingenious ideas, so Ivan Karamazov captivates his half-brother, Smerdyakov, with his ideas. Ivan is later made to realise that he is indirectly responsible for the murder of his father precisely because Smerdyakov took Ivan’s ideas to heart, including the notion that if God is dead, anything is permissible (even murder). Not only that, Ivan missed all the warning signs that Smerdyakov gave him because he was not paying attention. He was off with the fairies in the abstract fields of Reason and not focusing on the “real” world around him.

The character of Ivan Karamazov is a brilliant portrait of the dangers of disconnected Reason. It was written at a time when the real effects of disconnected Reason had not yet manifested. But the 20th century would prove Dostoevsky right. The technocrats of the Politburo with their decision-by-committee caused the deaths of millions of people because they were disconnected from reality on the ground just as Ivan Karamazov was disconnected from the world around him and failed to stop the murder of his father.

But there is a second meaning to the tragedy of Ivan Karamazov that is directly relevant to Spengler. Smerdyakov is filled with hatred and resentment. He uses Ivan’s idea as an intellectual cover to commit an atrocity. And that’s exactly what later happened to Spengler. The Nazis were filled with hatred and resentment. And, just like Smerdyakov, they latched on to Spengler’s ideas and used them for intellectual cover to commit their atrocities. As if to highlight the correspondence, Smerdyakov commits suicide in the novel just as Hitler and other high-ranking Nazis did in 1945.

This is the bitter irony of Spengler’s misunderstanding of the meaning of Ivan Karamazov. Spengler might have seen his own soul in the character of Ivan. Instead, he saw only the Russian soul. Dostoevsky had placed the warning right before his eyes and Spengler missed it. He inserted an “immeasurable distance” between himself and the one character who was almost identical to him.

Spengler was reading with his brain, not with his heart. Disconnected Reason will project onto the world whatever it wants. It will find things that are not even there. By contrast, reading with the heart is about empathy and connection. The Brothers Karamazov needs to be read with tears in your eyes. The fact that it can be read that way shows not the “immeasurable distance” between us but rather our shared humanity.

That leads to the final irony. Spengler was actually right. The Brothers Karamazov does contain a vision of brotherhood. If Spengler wanted to find that vision, he should have turned to the very last pages of the book where Alyosha gathers the young boys after the funeral of their friend. The brotherhood Dostoevsky had in mind is not based around a shared culture or a Russian soul. It is not based around Nietzschean amor fati (love of fate). It is based on love itself. Dostoevsky was presenting a variation on Christian mysticism – the idea that God is Love.

Spengler could never have seen that because he was too busy worshipping his own god: the great god of History. Spengler gave his god all the properties that Dostoevsky warned against: materialism, atheism, fatalism. Spengler’s god led to despair on a grand scale. It still does. It is the god of Necessity. We’ll explore that concept more in a future post in this series.

All posts in this series:
Christian Existentialism Part 1: The Confrontation with Nothingness
Christian Existentialism Part 2: The Worship of Idols
Christian Existentialism Part 3: Necessity vs Faith
Christian Existentialism Part 4: The Boiling Point of Water
Christian Existentialism Part 5: From Luther to Feynman
Christian Existentialism Part 6: The Rise of the Irrational

Christian Existentialism Part 1: The Confrontation with Nothingness

Long-term readers would know that I have a habit of starting a series of posts and trying to figure out what I want to say as I go. Well, here’s another just like that. But in this case I am extra-justified in following this strategy since we’re going to be talking about Christian Existentialism, a body of thought which has always set itself against the systematisers of philosophy – the Aristotles, the Kants and the Hegels; the ones who like to create neat little systems that explain everything. Existentialism, by contrast, embraces the messiness inherent in reality.

I’m calling it Christian Existentialism since the main thinkers we’ll be looking at are all from the Christian tradition, even the ones who railed against Christianity. The main names we’ll be referencing are Luther, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Shestov and Nietzsche. I include Carl Jung and the Australian author Patrick White in this list too even though they probably didn’t think of themselves as existentialists.

What all these thinkers have in common is that they experienced a momentous event in their life that changed everything. Dostoevsky has perhaps the most memorable story of the group. He was sent to Siberia and sentenced to death by hanging. They led him out onto the platform, put the rope around his neck, then pardoned him at the last minute. Dostoevsky had been convinced he was going to die. Every moment after that was a blessing, even the ones spent in a prison camp.

Kierkegaard’s turning point was less dramatic and more psychological. He seems to have had some kind of nervous breakdown that led to him breaking up with the woman he loved, Regina Olsen. Nietzsche’s turning point was his break with Wagner. Shestov lived through the Russian Revolution and eventually had to leave Russia as a result. We all know of Luther’s 95 theses getting nailed to the church door. Jung had a series of psychological episodes prior to WW1 which led him to believe he was going mad and represented a turning point in his life and his psychology.

Dramatic events like this can, and often have, been viewed within a religious context. For example, a while ago I was reading the story of a French priest in the early 19th century who found himself in a life and death situation. Despairing for his life, he prayed to the Virgin Mary to intervene on his behalf. He survived and came to believe that the Virgin had saved him. After that, he started a religious sect in her name.

Existentialists tend not to seek recourse in the institutions of religion or society in general. In fact, existentialism rejects the authority of those institutions. Hence, existentialism implies individuality and subjectivity. According to the existentialist, the “truth” of our experiences is always fundamentally subjective and personal. Attempts to form general truths are always falsifications. These falsifications are highly alluring. Since Adam and Eve, man has been tempted away from the fruit of the Tree of Life and towards the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

Kierkegaard noted that existentialism begins with despair. Most people try at all costs to avoid despair. Kierkegaard’s book The Sickness Unto Death is a kind of catalogue of all the means people employ to avoid facing despair. We seem to be hardwired to avoid despair and so it is only people who are forced to confront death and madness, the Dostoevskys and the Jungs, who are able to advocate for the existentialist point of view.

Since we’re talking about the subject, it seems fitting that I should relate an account of an experience I had which fits the existentialist mold. At age 16, I began having a series of psychological “episodes”. At that time, I hadn’t heard of Jung, Kierkegaard or existentialism in general. But even if I had, I doubt I would have connected the dots between my episodes and the existentialist philosophy. In fact, it’s only in the past few years that I’ve made the connection, a process which began with my readings of Jung.

An important point of context in my story is that there is a history of schizophrenia in my family. For me, the idea that I might have been going crazy was not an abstract notion but a real possibility. This is also the main reason why I did not raise the issue with my family as that would have almost certainly resulted in a trip to the psychiatrist’s office and being pumped full of whatever drug was fashionable at the time. I was very keen to avoid that and so I suffered in silence. My life may have worked out very differently if I had turned to the “wonders of modern medicine”.

How can I describe the experience of my episodes? They lasted about 30 seconds each. They always occurred when I was in bed falling asleep. There would be a sudden feeling of “falling” accompanied with what I can only call “terror”. But the nature of this falling and this terror were completely disembodied. That is, there was no physical sensation at all. Whatever was going on, it was entirely psychological (or maybe we should say spiritual) in nature.

The closest experiences to these episodes I have had in “real life” are the shock response and the fight or flight response. Anybody who’s had either of these knows that they are triggered automatically and subconsciously. Physiologically, the body releases adrenalin and this acts to shut down the pain receptors. That’s why people who have just been in a bad traffic accident can often get up a walk even though they have broken bones. They are in shock and are not feeling pain. A similar thing occurs with the fight or flight response. You are not acting consciously. Rather, the conscious experience is of being swept up in a force that comes from within.

My episodes were similar to shock and fight or flight in that they were involuntary and seemed driven by an internal force I didn’t consciously understand. The big difference is that there was no cause in the external environment. Some external thing always triggers the shock and the fight or flight response and you know what that thing is. But there was no trigger for my episodes. I was just lying in bed and then suddenly I had this non-physiological feeling of “falling” accompanied by an extreme fear. The fear was simultaneous with the experience. I wasn’t scared because I thought I was falling. I knew I wasn’t falling. The fear had no object.

Just as there was no cause in the immediate environment which triggered the episodes, neither was there anything going on in my life which was obviously to blame. I had a stable and loving family life. I was a healthy and active 16 year old who played sports and mucked around with friends. Yes, I was bored out of my brain at school, but that’s not unusual.

Similarly, the episodes did not cause any effects. I suffered no other physiological or psychological problems as a result of the episodes. Anybody viewing my external behaviour would have noticed no difference and assumed nothing was happening.

Because of all this, I wasn’t able to give any meaning to the episodes. It never occurred to me to pray to the Virgin Mary. I hadn’t yet heard of Jung or Kierkegaard. I wasn’t able to talk to my parents about it for fear of the schizophrenia link and I certainly wasn’t going to raise the matter with my friends since that would only result in the endless teasing that 16-year-old boys give each other. I suffered in silence.

Even though I am writing in a calm fashion here, I should stress that these episodes were terrifying. But how do you describe a terror that has no cause and no object? What does it mean to be terrified of nothing? Dostoevsky was terrified because he thought he was about to be hanged. Kierkegaard was terrified because his life had been destroyed due to his own internal demons. I was terrified about nothing. Literally nothing.

The episodes continued for about 6 months. Then they stopped. At that point, I was grateful to know that I wasn’t going schizo. I got on with my life. I wasn’t able to make sense of the episodes but I also never forgot about them. It wasn’t until I read Carl Jung’s The Red Book several years ago that I finally had a framework to begin to understand what had happened.

Jung had also thought he was going crazy because he too had a series of terrifying psychic episodes that had no obvious cause or meaning. But Jung had worked as a psychiatrist for many years. He knew a thing or two about the subject.

“If you take a step toward your soul, you will at first miss the meaning. You will believe that you have sunk into meaninglessness, into eternal disorder. You will be right! Nothing will deliver you from disorder and meaninglessness, since this is the other half of the world.”

In my episodes, I had the feeling of falling. Jung uses similar metaphors in the Red Book: the spirit of the depths, sinking into meaningless and disorder. What Jung came to believe was that the confrontation with the spirit of the depths is the discovery of the soul.

“Therefore the spirit of the depths forced me to speak to my soul, to call upon her as a living and self-existing being. I had to become aware that I had lost of my soul.”

The Red Book is Jung’s account of his discovery of his soul.

Although I could certainly appreciate Jung’s concept of the spirit of the depths, I realised that his ideas around the soul didn’t work for me. Jungian psychology hinges heavily on the appearance of symbols in dreams and imagination. I remember most of my dreams, yet I can’t recall having had a single dream involving a Biblical figure or a sacred animal such as a lion or a snake. Neither have I ever had experience with ghosts, spirits or similar phenomena. I don’t have any problem believing that such things can exist. It’s just that I’ve never experienced them. So, while Jung gave me the impetus to start to make sense of my episodes, the psychiatric approach didn’t resonate with me.

Kierkegaard said that existential philosophy begins with despair. But this despair is not necessarily in opposition to knowledge or law. In fact, knowledge and law are built on despair. What lies behind knowledge and law is hubris and hubris is a response, a coping mechanism, a way to avoid the confrontation with despair. Jung also made reference to hubris (pride):

“The spirit of the depths has subjugated all pride and arrogance to the power of judgement. He took away my belief in science, he robbed me of the joy of explaining and ordering things and he let devotion to the ideals of this time die out in me. He forced me down to the last and simplest things.”

The two primary streams that run through modern European civilisation are the Greeks and the Jews; Athens and Jerusalem; the Classical and the Magian. The tradition of philosophy, science and knowledge comes to us via Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. This is the “joy of explaining and ordering things”, of making sense of the world.

Science and philosophy have been opposed to the tradition of revelation, faith and “freedom” that comes from the Bible. The tension between these two has been a constant in modern European thought since the beginning. That is why existentialism can properly be called Christian Existentialism even in thinkers like Jung and Nietzsche who no longer used Christian concepts.

Jung invokes this distinction in his quote above. He had followed the “Greek” path; the materialism that was popular in the second half of the 19th century. But the spirit of the depths took away the joy he had in materialism and science, the “ideals of this time”. Jung had ended up in despair, the starting point of existential philosophy.

I don’t know if Jung had ever read Luther, but Luther’s beliefs about faith are very Jungian. Consider this quote:

“The gospel leads beyond…the light of law, into the darkness of faith, where there is no room for reason or law.”

Here again we contrast the light of law, reason and science against the darkness of faith. This matches Jung’s idea that we find the soul not above in the light but below in the darkness. If that sounds unpleasant, that’s because it is. Faith begins in despair. Faith is not easy. Following the law, doing what you are told, trusting the experts, that is what is easy.

What our modern atheists won’t tell you is that the Christian Church was the conduit for the light of reason and science in early modern European history. It carried both traditions – Athens and Jerusalem. The battle between the two was waged inside its walls. Luther’s break with the Church came when he believed the Church had chosen Athens over Jerusalem. It had become the lawgiver, the light of reason.

Luther made it his job to remind everybody that faith was born in the darkness, not in the light. One of his central doctrines is sola fide – justification by faith alone. The Church could no longer declare a sinner to be righteous either through payment or through works. Faith would redeem. But faith is a subjective experience. It requires one to delve into the darkness and that can only be done alone.  

For Kierkegaard, “darkness” is a metaphor for Nothingness. The fear of the dark is the fear of Nothingness. Fear is to Nothingness what warmth is to the sun or wetness is to water:

“If we ask what the object of fear is, there will be only one answer: Nothingness. Nothingness and fear accompany each other.”

Darkness, nothingness and despair, these are the starting points of existential philosophy, not the end points. Existential philosophy does not offer conclusions, it opens up possibility. But possibility can seem like chaos. It can seem like the ground under your feet is giving way.

Kierkegaard ties fear and Nothingness back to the Biblical story of the Fall. Why did Adam and Eve eat the apple from the Tree of Knowledge? The snake made them afraid. He whispered the fear of Nothingness into their ear and then held out the apple as the solution to the problem. The snake is still with us today. Every politician plays the same game: carrots (apples) and sticks.

Would you like the apple…
…or the stick?

In fact, the apple and the stick are the same. The light of reason can be pleasurable like an apple. But behind the scenes lies the stick in waiting. Reason and law are the stick. The stick is despair, the starting point of existential philosophy.

So, it was Luther and Kierkegaard who finally gave me the answer to what I had gone through during my episodes when I was 16. Kierkegaard describes it thus:

“Psychologically speaking, the Fall always takes place in a swoon.”

That is an exact description of what I had experienced. The “swoon” is the feeling of falling. The fear is the primal spiritual fear of Nothingness. The Fall has been associated with other concepts like sin and guilt. But the Fall was also the first experience of fear and therefore Nothingness.

These considerations led Kierkegaard to a radical idea that he could not fully accept. All history, philosophy and knowledge, all civilisation is born out of fear. They are the temptations of the snake who wants us to give up our freedom. We enchain ourselves spiritually and mentally before we ever enchain ourselves physically. Faith then becomes the antidote; the way to conquer fear and regain freedom. But faith can only be won by facing fear directly.

All of this is directly relevant to the world we live in now. In case you hadn’t noticed, our society is having its own confrontation with madness right now. So, it’s a fitting time to talk about these ideas. Madness and despair occur when the rational mind reaches the end of its tether. This may lead us to insanity and barbarism. But the existential philosophy offers another possibility: despair is the necessary stage on the path to faith and freedom.

All posts in this series:
Christian Existentialism Part 1: The Confrontation with Nothingness
Christian Existentialism Part 2: The Worship of Idols
Christian Existentialism Part 3: Necessity vs Faith
Christian Existentialism Part 4: The Boiling Point of Water
Christian Existentialism Part 5: From Luther to Feynman
Christian Existentialism Part 6: The Rise of the Irrational