Monday, November 25, 2013

Is the Examined Life Worth Living?

At Prof. Larry Arnhart’s blog (here: I pose a question in the comment section that is, perhaps, unfair in its length.  Here I will attempt to answer my own question.

Like many questions, the answer implies questions:  In this case two, namely the chief philosophic questions of 1) reason vs. revelation and 2) the philosophic life vs. the non-philosophic life (or the philosopher vs. “the gentleman,” or philosophy vs. “the city”).  These two questions are related, in that the non-philosophic life is commonly, if not always, also religious.

Since reason (i.e. philosophy and science) can never disprove theology, and since theology and revelation do not explain through proof, there is an unresolvable mystery, conflict, or tension at some basic level between the two.  

In Arnhart’s extended argument, a human desire for religion is natural, and human happiness comes from leading a good life, one that is overall in accordance with what is best for us by nature over the arc of one’s life.  He lists twenty natural desires, of which one (number nineteen) is this desire for religion.  I will add here, that I find the argument reasonable and empirically cogent.

However, it is still uncertain how this works logically.  How can reason, science, show that human nature desires religious belief - while remaining agnostic itself by necessity - without discussing the truth of the religious belief, and hence without undermining religious belief?  Or, put another way, who leads the fuller and hence happier life in this formulation, the religious believer, or the scientist/philosopher who makes the argument that, among other things, religious belief is one component of a happy life, while at the same time not believing (even if not denying belief)?

Even if we leave the question of reason vs. revelation aside and approach these natural desires (and true human happiness) from the standpoint of reason alone, we do not avoid paradox (I would suggest).  As I claim in my original question, our natural sense of justice typically desires a support that is not fully supplied by reason alone (even if nihilism itself is avoided).  Who then is happier, the just and moral non-philosophic man, or the “philosopher/scientist” who understands better the natural basis for morality (again, within this argument)?  This too would seem to be unresolvable.  Certainly human reason cannot prove itself to be an inferior way of life, using its own tools, or that would simply be a peculiarly circular form of self-destruction.  But how exactly does one show that humans have a natural desire for justice - and then claim that true natural justice is more limited than our desire often demands – yet prove the superiority of living with this understanding (as compared to the simpler but seemingly more fulfilling sense of justice that is innate)?

This question about the superiority, or lack thereof, of the philosophic way of life, is not new, of course, but is coeval with the beginning of the philosophic way of life.  Arnhart has addressed it explicitly on his blog several places, such as here: and here:

Update 9/2015

Very tardy here, but I should update the above post to note that six months ago Prof Arnhart in responding to my second comment on this post:  addresses a version of my long question from 2013 that is the first link at the top of this post:

WB:  "Is it possible that - rather than being Nietzschean - Strauss was open to something akin to your extended argument as being true, but still a "deadly truth" at that? (Even, of course, if you reject this conclusion).

You have written that a virtue ethics based on our human nature is narrower than a “cosmic” morality. However, one could argue that when we consider truly ghastly and heinous crimes our natural moral sentiments seem to desire such a cosmic morality, or at least something closer to it. If this is true, then it is our evolved human nature itself that desires a morality grander in scale than can be supplied by the natural right based on that human nature alone.

Perhaps Strauss could have accepted the broad bases of your argument (as he hints at them in the introduction to NRH), but would have been skeptical of them as being a sufficient ground for most "non-philosophers'" conception of justice? "

LA:  "That's a good suggestion. As you indicate, Strauss did say that the lack of cosmic support for what we care about was "the most terrible truth," and a Darwinian natural right would teach that terrible truth.

Similarly, the Nietzsche of "Human, All Too Human" thought that Darwinian science would not satisfy those human beings who needed a metaphysical purposefulness for life."

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