Schopenhauer’s Logically Self-Destructive Philosophy of Pessimism

Rereading Schopenhauer

When I learned that a family member of mine was likely struggling with the philosophical pessimism of Schopenhauer, I felt like it would be a good idea to revisit his work. I wanted to familiarize myself with his writing, just in case I was asked for my thoughts as a Christian who has spent some time thinking through philosophical systems and ideas. And upon rereading his work, I quickly remembered how effectively the man could make you sink to his level of despondency and depression. He does this, in part, by abusing his readers. What do I mean?

Well, he alternates between giving the reader hope and then snatching it away almost as quickly as he has given it. This results in the reader entertaining a hope that there is perhaps some light at the end of Schopenhauer’s morbidly bleak tunnel of ruminations, although there is none.

Thankfully, however, I also recognized just how logically self-destructive his philosophy is when scrutinized in light of itself. Below, I’ll give my reasons for thinking this to be the case.

1. Appearance vs. Reality

The first glaring problem is that Schopenhauer’s metaphysics differentiates between the world-in-itself and the world-for-us, that is to say between what is actually the case and what we perceive to be the case. The world-in-itself is a unity; the world-for-us, however, is diverse. What this means is that the suffering and the pleasure upon which Schopenhauer waxes for pages and pages and pages is, well, an illusion. Because suffering is part of the world-for-us, and is not the world-in-itself, it is merely a representation of the underlying unity of all experiences and objects. The world-in-itself is merely a pulsating will, as it were, that cannot be said to be good, bad, painful, or pleasurable.

It just is.

This means that the entire focus of Schopenhauer’s pessimism has no foundation in his beliefs about what reality is, namely a single unconscious, a-rational, a-logical Will. And this further de-fangs his pessimism, seeing as the unity of the world-in-itself lacks teleology (i.e. a goal toward which it is tending), moral value, emotion, and reason. It needs to be remembered that we are part of this world-in-itself. Consequently, whatever we think is teleological, moral or immoral, emotive or apathetic, and rational or irrational is illusory. If Schopenhauer is right about the world as Will and Representation, then he is wrong. This is self-contradictory and, therefore, false. His metaphysics destroys his pessimism, rendering all of his claims about the futility and pain and pointless of human existence false.

2. Observation as Epistemological Authority

Schopenhauer, moreover, cites his observations as the authority that justifies his claims about suffering and pain and futility and death. However, given that Schopenhauer makes universal claims about the nature of reality, the nature of pain, the nature of pleasure, human nature, animality, time, psychology, and many other subjects, his citation of observation only serves to show that his observations do not justify his claims as true. While he may talk about individual experiences that he has observed, he has no ground for asserting that because of his observations he can make universal claims about the subjects I mentioned. Why? Because universal claims can only be evidentially justified, i.e. proven to be true by evidence, if the evidence for them is total, lacking no other pieces of evidence. For example, if Schopenhauer says that upon the basis of his observations he has concluded that all of human existence is ultimately suffering, he is either claiming to have observed human existence at all times and in all places and under all conditions, or he is claiming to know something he could never observe, namely human existence at all times and in all places and under all conditions. Schopenhauer isn’t speaking the facts, as he claims, but his opinion based upon his limited observations. He is overextending the legitimate applicability of his observations to his system of philosophy.

3. Existence is Pure Goodness, According to Schopenhauer

For anyone whose read the old, disgruntled codger, it might be surprising to see that Schopenhauer identifies existence as pure goodness. This is because Schopenhauer harps on and on about human existence being a mistake, an accident, and ultimately purely comprised of suffering and evil. Yet his own metaphysics makes this impossible. If the nature of reality is one, an indivisible throbbing Will that has no emotions or morals or reasons – then it follows that it is just as true to say that all of human existence is Jell-O Pudding as it is to say that all of human existence is suffering.

But even if we ignore this glaring contradiction, for the sake of argument, and grant his irrational belief to him about reality being comprised of suffering and futility, what do we see? Well, in a word, we see that all of existence is tending toward death, which is the cessation of physical and conscious experience, including experiences of pain and suffering and futility. And this is precisely what goodness is, the absence of pain and suffering and futility, according to Schopenhauer. How, then, can he say that the universal movement toward death – and note that this is another universal claim he cannot justify by an appeal to his senses or observations – is a bad thing? If the end result of all of existence is death, then the end result of all of existence is a state of perfect goodness in which pain and suffering and futility have come to an absolute end.

Not only this, but part of our pain and suffering in this life comes from being consciously aware of our eventual and inevitable death, as Schopenhauer claims, and death is the end of pain and suffering and futility, then it follows that our conscious awareness of our eventual and inevitable death is not a cause of suffering and pain, but one of pleasure, seeing as by contemplating death and obsessing over it, as Schopenhauer does, we are actually contemplating and obsessing over an eternal state of goodness in which there is neither pain nor suffering nor futility. How is the contemplation of an never-ending goodness, a never-ending state of deathlessness and painlessness and futility-less-ness not pleasurable?

Even Schopenhauer recognizes that human being’s can derive a great deal of pleasure from hoping for a state of goodness that they have no experiential access to. Does it not, therefore, follow from Schopenhauer’s own philosophical assumptions that the contemplation of one’s own death is equivalent to the contemplation of the overarching goodness of the whole of reality, which is constantly striving toward eliminating pain and suffering and futility?

It does follow, and inexorably so.

Schopenhauer’s belief here reduce to absurdity. For if pessimism is true, then it is false.

Soli Deo Gloria
-h.

P.S. I may at some time in the future address Schopenhauer’s immensely ignorant comments about the Scriptures and the Christian faith.

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Conspiracies and the Christian Worldview: A Brief Reflection

If Induced, then Defeasible

paranoia

While there is much fruitless speculation when it comes to just about every subject you can think of, there is also “out of the box” thinking that often contributes to the expansion of our knowledge. This is because inductively drawn conclusions are always open to revision. This means that even the most widely subscribed to idea, if it has been inductively inferred, is subject to amendation and, in many cases, rejection. The possibility of outright rejection of an idea that seems established by physical data is inconceivable to many in our day. But the fact of the matter remains – unless you are omniscient, all inductively drawn conclusions are tentative conclusions, defeasible propositions which may or may not be true.

Some have argued that coming to the truth by induction is possible by means of specification. The idea is that we can safely inductively infer conclusions if we have a very rigidly defined set of constraints on our field of inquiry, its relevant moving parts (as it were), and so on. But this doesn’t help the situation, seeing as we are still assuming that the limitations we have placed on our inquiry are true. The most we can get from setting up rigid constraints is the conclusion –

y follows x, iff constraint set P is true.

Whether or not P is true is the problem. We can’t know whether or not it’s true by means of induction, since this would necessitate that we set up another set of rigid constraints, P’, in order to safely inductively infer conclusions. This would lead to an infinite regress, and make knowledge impossible.

So What?

If you’re wondering what this has to do with “conspiracy theories,” let me explain. When we investigate an event, let’s say, we are looking at an incomplete set of data, and trying to safely infer from that data a conclusion which is true. Our conclusions, therefore, are always tentative, defeasible. The tighter the constraints on an inquiry are, the more sure we can be that y follows x, iff constraint set P is true. But whether or not P is true is something that can’t be determined by inductive reasoning. So when an “official story” about an event is relayed by a media outlet, this does not settle the matter of what actually happened.

epsitemological trainwreck

It could, of course, be true that the “official story” is true. But given the fact that we are separated by degrees from the data available to the authors of the “official story,” we are at a greater disadvantage than those who set up the initial constraints on their inquiry, and subsequently acquired the data relevant to their investigation. Regarding the relationship of epistemic disadvantage to the formulation of, and/or belief in, various “conspiracy theories,” some authors have identified a “crippled epistemology” as an underlying cause. Cass R. Sunstein writes –

Many people who accept conspiracy theories suffer from a crippled epistemology. Their beliefs are a function of what they hear. For that reason, isolated social networks can be a breeding ground for conspiracy theories.

-Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas, 31-32.

So when does one have a “crippled epistemology”? When one “knows relatively few things, and what they know is wrong” (Sunstein, 12). In other words, those who deviate from the “official story” and speculate as to what may have really occurred, in some given context, do so because they are lacking information requisite to understanding the “official story.” So the problem is rooted in inductive reasoning, which is necessarily defeasible.

Ironically, Sunstein notes that a “crippled epistemology” is universal, and not limited to so-called conspiracists. He writes –

All of us have, at least to some degree, a crippled epistemology, in the sense that there is a lot that we don’t know, and we have to rely on people we trust. We lack direct or personal evidence for most of what we think, especially about politics and government. We are often confident in what we believe, but we don’t have reason to be. Much of what we know can turn out to be badly wrong.

-Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas, XI. (emphasis added)

In just a few sentences, Sunstein has completely undermined one of the key concepts used in his (psycho)analysis of conspiracists and the people who think they’re on to something. If having a “crippled epistemology” is one of the root causes of being a “conspiracy theorist,” and we all have a crippled epistemology, then upon what basis can one claim that one explanation is the truth, while another explanation is merely a “conspiracy theory”?

Sadly, Sunstein lacks epistemological self-consciousness, it seems, even while he attempts to empathize with his “low-information” conspiracists. On the one hand, he wants to identify deviations from the “official story” as being potentially harmful opinions based on no, little, or “bad” evidence. On the other hand, however, he openly admits that we are all epistemologically crippled. And it doesn’t help any for Sunstein to qualify his assertion by adding that we all are epistemologically crippled “at least to some degree,” since he further states that “we lack direct or personal evidence for most of what we think. In other words, “official stories” and “conspiracy theories” are all, ultimately, theories. Barring one being omniscient, therefore, all conclusive reports concerning a given subject of inquiry are tentative, defeasible working theories that, to quote Sunstein, “can turn out to be badly wrong.”

What Hath Christianity to Do with “Conspiracy Theories”?

If what we know can turn out to be “badly wrong,” then we didn’t know what we thought we knew. Rather, we believed that a proposition, or a set of propositions, about some subject of inquiry was true, but learned that we were wrong. Our inductive reasoning needs to be constrained by the truth regarding the subject of inquiry, its relevant and irrelevant factors to be considered as evidence or discounted, etc. We need a divine truth, or some divine truths, to show us how to constrain the otherwise infinite pool of data from which we seek to reconstruct the truth.

The Word of God contains such constraints, but the world rejects the Word of God. In the place of the authority of the omniscient Triune God, ignorant humans who agree with one another become the authorities regarding any given subject of inquiry. This is not a conspiracy theory, btw; this is reality. We have two options set before us – Either we can submit to the authoritative words of fallible men, or we can submit to the authoritative Word of the Infallible and Omniscient Trinity. Without these constraints given by God, all conclusions regarding any subject of inquiry are merely theories in competition with one another.

logos

As Christians, we can justifiably identify explanations about a given subject of inquiry as being good, bad, plausible, implausible, right, wrong, poorly reasoned, well reasoned, and so on. We can justifiably draw a distinction between the most plausible explanation and a borderline insane conspiracy theory. Contrary to the hackneyed claims of atheists and agnostics, Christianity forms the basis of free thinking, critical inquiry, and epistemological generosity. Apart from the Logic of God, Christ Jesus, we can do nothing. And with him, we can come to possess truth. In Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3). And this is important to remember, Paul tells us, so that “that no one may delude [us] with plausible arguments” (Col 2:4).

Our thinking is to be geared toward finding the truth by means of the truth revealed to us by God. Questioning the “official story” or a “conspiracy theory” is well within our freedom to do as those who have been called to love the Lord our God with all of our hearts, soul, mind, and strength. In doing so, we may contribute to a better understanding of some subject of inquiry, or at least be able to identify those theories – either those “officially” or unofficially declared to be the case – as false conclusions harmful to the acquisition of the truth.

Soli Deo Gloria
-h.