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

11 thoughts on “Christian Existentialism Part 3: Necessity vs Faith”

  1. While I eschew anti-intellectualism, I think we should heed what I’d call basic Christianity, that is, the generally clear lessons to be drawn from Jesus’s life, and basic Marxian analysis and practice, rarely found as is challenges/confounds “-isms”[largely a Latin American phenomenon ]
    These outlooks are existential,in my view, and probably still help large numbers to survive despair and live decently in regard to their neighbours. The monstrous manipulations of 20th Century tyrants and , of course, nice democratic chaps like Obama ,were facilitated partly by using the black kind of reason which Spengler and at least some respected “moderates”- like Milton Friedman- promoted [scapegoating, racism, false idols such as Greed,etc]
    I am pleased to see your comments on civilisation [the Andrews sisters sang “They’ve got things like the atom bomb, So I think I’ll stay where I om. Civilisation ! I’ll stay right here” in their c.1950 ode to the Congo] and on the heart – we all know, I hope, what Pascal, a sort of archaeo-Christian existentialist had to say about the heart and reason.
    It seems appropriate to rank the world’s false idols – I wonder if you could have a straw poll of readers on this ? I would put Comfort very high, and, naturally [!]the State.
    Perhaps a reference to “essentialism” would also be useful ?
    Kierkegaard describes Christianity as the most humorous philosophy of life, and this is an area where ,say,Sartre and, so far as I know, Dostoyevsky let us down.
    Incidentally, a timely tribute to Milan Kundera, of the Unbearable lightness, who has just died.

  2. David – the author of The Cloud of Unknowing is quite clear that reason/intellect has its place. So, even mysticism isn’t a denial of intellect. It just posits that there is something beyond it. I see it as an extension of the mind-body problem i.e. spirit-mind-body. There is a seeming discontinuity that cannot be resolved. False idols? I’d put laziness and fear at the top. Oh, didn’t know about Kundera. That’s a book that’s been on my to-read list for ages too. I might get round to it now as it’s relates to the subject of these posts.

    The subject of eternal recurrence/cycles of history is a funny one. People have widely different reactions of it. The Greeks apparently learned about it from the Babylonians and they thought it was a great idea since it meant the heroes of the past (Achilles etc) would live again.

  3. Simon – sorry to harp on about McGilchrist, it’s just that he’s researched & written about left- & right-brain modes so comprehensively, but as is so often the case w/ your posts, the theme of hemispheric contrast is evoked – here, by the idea of the modern attachment to reason & logic (left brain) due to fear of the spiritual or Nothingness, i.e., what’s beyond the intellect (right brain).

    Re false idols… safety & convenience? Both of which get in the way of – or negate – any genuine spiritual practice. 🙂

  4. Shane – does McGilchrist have a concept of the unified brain where left and right are sub-parts that feed into a whole that is greater than the sum? It sounds like he thinks of them as quite separate.

  5. Regarding the intellectual vs instinctual worldviews, I think both can be hijacked by interested parties, and this is true also for faith and maybe spiritualism (I don’t know much about spiritualism so I can’t say).
    This seems to me the present situation, and the covid reaction is a good example, when intellectuals were convinced by scientific jargon and apparent rational explanations, while instinctual were conducted to herd reaction and to comply with authority in time of existential threat.
    I can’t see how it is possible to choose a general way of thinking, before we find a way to avoid deception, explicitly, to abolish the current powers that be, and replace them with some honest people.
    Honest people are not a guarantee to success, but at least we can trust they mean what they say, there are not hidden motives, and we are not cheated.
    In the current situation, I feel that whatever path you choose, it was already designed to lead you into the trap.

  6. Nati – we live in a world very different to that in which our instincts developed. So, I agree, instincts can lead us off track quite easily. Meanwhile, rational thought creates a model of the world which is always inaccurate given that the world is always changing and the model lags behind. I agree faith can be hijacked. But that’s also why the existentialists focus on the “negative” aspects of faith because to focus on the positives will draw in people looking for easy benefit. So, there seems to be a right and a wrong way for instinct, reason and faith and maybe you have to be burned by the wrong way before you can see the right.

  7. ” we live in a world very different to that in which our instincts developed”
    No doubt on that!!

  8. Simon – how I interpret McGilchrist is that what you’re calling the unified brain consists of a relationship between the hemispheres, which are no more separate than any pair of entities that need each other to fulfil their distinct roles. So I’m guessing that a unified brain would be what could’ve evolved if we hadn’t developed dual hemispheres. McGilchrist contrasts & explores the tensions between their differing world views.

  9. Shane – yes, but does he give a name to the relationship? An obvious one would be “mind”, “mind” being the system consisting of the two components of the left and right brain hemispheres.

  10. Simon – your question is a great example of what the left hemisphere does so well, given its orientation to naming/classifying, counting, organising. I think McGilchrist would say that ‘mind’ is a process – rather than a ‘system’, to the extent that ‘system’ implies a thing or an entity – so the brain is where mind meets matter. His emphasis is on how we pay attention to the world, which for me made his doorstop worth reading – not because he’s ‘right’ but because the process was mind-expanding; it altered my consciousness, not just my ideas about the brain & its hemispheric functions.

  11. Shane – that’s what I meant, mind as process 😛 Anyway, he’s on my to-read list along with 5 thousand other things!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *