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Solipsism is the philosophical idea that only one’s mind can be sure to exist.
It begins with the very real recognition that one’s mind and its consciousness are an inheritance and not a certainty. We have written about this before in the very first post we did this for website, as this pertains to a questioning of the fundamentals of consciousness.
To consider solipsism it is necessary to recognize that everything we think about and do in life begins with an assumption of consciousness. You first moments are ones of consciousness, and every moment after that you depend upon your consciousness to experience life. When you’re asleep, unconsciousness, or dead you have presumably have no means to the same experience.
This is a huge problem for science, or more specifically, those who consider science as a philosophy or way of life. There are certain thinkers such as Richard Dawkins, Bill Nye, Neil de Grass Tyson, and others who claim that “proof” is what matters. Science and in particular the scientific method offers us a means for ascertaining facts. And that’s the measure we need to find truth.
But can science prove that our consciousness is reliable?
The answer is no.
This is because all scientific experiments assume the consciousness of the observer. We must exist in order to ask the question. If we assume with certainty that we exist, like Descartes (“I think therefore I am”) reasoned, then we can indeed continue with the scientific method. But this is an assumption – and act of faith in consciousness – and not a proof.
C. G. Jung, in his work The Undiscovered Self recognizes this dilemma and according to him it should bring us to humility. Jung rejects the assurance of modernity based upon what he calls the “limits of cognition,” and turns to a study of the unconscious mind and spirituality for relief. Jung lectures modern thinkers, telling that the one thing they refuse to admit is that we as humans “are dependent on powers beyond our control (p. 121).”
Indeed we are, and this should be jarring for those who belief life to be self-justifying. But for the religious and especially Christians, solipsism is a helpful reminder. As Acts 17:28 claims, “Fort in Him we live and move and have our being.”
In our faith we have therefore already recognized that our consciousness is a gift; like life and existence itself our very sustainment is in God who is greater than us.
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One of the most difficult things for me about Marvel and DC films is the same underlying theme that I see in almost every one of them. It’s a concept known in philosophy as the dialectic.
By dialectic I mean the notion of viewing history as essentially a conflict between two opposing forces. This theory has been espoused by many different philosophers and in many different ways. Socrates and Aristotle both developed it in antiquity, St. Augustine used a form of it in City of God, and Karl Marx radicalized Hegel’s notion in his concept of class struggle. In each of these concepts a fairly static and straightforward notion of good versus evil exists. Whether it’s the enlightened versus the sophists, the saved versus the damned, or the proletariat versus the bourgeois in the dialectic there is always two polarized forces locked in an ongoing struggle.
In modern American politics you hear the dialectic often from leaders like Bernie Sanders, who almost constantly makes reference to a conflict between “the 1%” and the rest of us. Sanders characterizes politics as civic warfare between these two groups, and he frequently urges his followers to unite against the rich and fight for themselves.
Use of the dialectic, of course, isn’t limited to liberals or leftists. Many libertarian philosophers, most notably F.A. Hayek, have utilized some form of the dialectic to group their opponents (what Hayek called “statists”) and unite their followers (under the banner of freedom for libertarians). Conservatives have used it as well. Candidate Donald Trump himself often utilized the dialectic in making sharp distinctions between illegal immigrants and natural born citizens of the United States.
So what’s wrong with the dialectic? Christianity, some might think, is a natural fit for the this line of thinking. After all, don’t we as Christians believe in an epic and ongoing struggle between good and evil? Don’t we believe in angels taking on demons in Revelation? The church taking on a secular and unbelieving world through evangelism? Christ versus Satan?
If you’ve spent any time in church, you’ve probably heard at least one pastor talk this way. And these are all indeed conflicts present in Christianity and the Bible. However, when you look deeper into the Word of God you begin to see that there is far more than the dialectic at work.
For one thing, the Bible shows us that all human beings are complex creatures made up of both good and bad. Genesis shows us that we were constructed in the image of God and gifted with a reflection of his essence. The rest of the Bible shows us just how deeply He treasures and prizes us as his creation. Simultaneously, however, the Bible illustrates in graphic detail the truth that every person has a fallen nature. From the first human beings to those closest to Jesus, we see that every man and woman is fundamentally broken by the presence of sin and inequity in the world. Try as we might, we may subdue but we cannot exterminate the evil within us.
Secondly, readers of the Bible have long recognized that the origin of evil is a topic largely unanswered in Scripture. The serpent that tempts the first humans in Genesis spontaneously appears, and its motives for wanting to corrupt humanity go largely unexplained. Revelation, several other Biblical books, and traditional Christian theology give us more to the story as we recognize that Satan is as a fallen angel rebelling against God.
These elements of Christianity make for a very confused dialectic, if there is one at all. Instead of diametrically opposed heroes and villains, we understand human beings as at all times existing in different moral states and constantly undergoing a flux between good and evil. And instead of a hero and villain locked in epic and equal conflict, we have God – the source of not only good but existence itself – opposing a being that He Himself created, sustains, and permits to function in the universe.
As a result good and evil aren’t polar opposites in Christianity, nor are they matched in some sort of tit-for-tat or reciprocal struggle. Good stems from the creator in Christianity, while evil is an unexplained defect that only God Himself understands.
This is why it is often difficult for me to relate to many superhero films that come out these days. Occasionally you get more morally mixed protagonists and relatable ethics, but more often you get a fairly shallow concept. Rarely do I find many of these films doing more than scratching the surface of true ethical interplay. The narratives that truly drive the heart -- those key stories that film is capable of depicting in splendor -- require a better understanding of the way God fashioned existence.
In the end superhero films are a lot like candy. Corey Latta and Armond Boudreaux do much to had some needed beef and philosophical reflection in their excellent work Titans. But the genre itself remains only good for the occasional treat. When it comes to your true needs, you may still find yourself craving something more.
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Students of political theory on today’s college campuses will inevitably be introduced to “the moderns.” Niccolo Machiavelli, students will be told, is the chief founder of political science. His short work The Prince provides a concise framework for realpolitik and modern political action. Those students desiring a more intellectual basis in philosophy will be given Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. State of nature theory will be offered as unquestionable, and as a rule students will accept the impetus man has to cultivate the earth and subdue it to his own designs.
Those looking for an alternative narrative will find little on the outskirts of the college mainstream. They may find, through her long novels and archived videos, the Russian-American writer Ayn Rand and her alternative philosophy known as Objectivism. Should students venture into their economics department they may also study libertarian writers such as Ludwing Von Mises, Frederick Bastiat, and Frederich Hayek. Despite some differences, such authors will all labor to convince students that freedom is the elixir of mankind’s ills. And despite each proclaiming their own uniqueness, they will all take and build far more upon John Locke’s distinctly modern worldview than any cares to admit.
Against such a narrow understanding of the world stands the conservative philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke. Burke wrote his masterpiece, Reflections on the Revolution in France, at a time when the Western world was enthralled with the French Revolution and an abstract understanding of liberty. During those days many intellectuals desired change at any cost, and they applauded the ferocity of the French revolutionaries who aimed to overthrow the king and destroy any evidences of the monarchy. As Burke had long argued for restraints on the British monarchy and even praised the colonists of America, many French revolutionaries believed that he would be partial to their cause.
Burke’s pamphlet is a refutation of that assumption and an outlining of his political philosophy. He begins the work by dissecting liberty as an abstract principle and dismissing it as an ideology unto itself. He writes that “the effect of liberty to individuals is, that they do what they please,” and that instead of praising any free action we should “see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations, which may soon be turned into complaints (p8).” In doing so Burke deflated liberty as an ideology and reduced it to a principle that could result in anything from profound goodness to savage chaos. He took this effort in defiance of the libertarian perspective which commonly sees liberty as a singular prerequisite for mankind’s success. Instead, Burke understood that liberty simply serves to unleash human nature. This can be for better or for worse depending on the level of virtue compelling those who are free.
With such liability toward evil, Burke concluded that freedom alone could not satisfy the nature of man. He claimed that humanity’s true nature was of “the greatest possible complexity,” and therefore no simple government or single ideology could satisfy man’s needs. Neither could any government or earthly power change that nature or force people to be anything “other than God, and nature, and education, and their habits of life have made them (p34).” To provide for this nature was indeed the solemn and sacred task of government, but to do so government needed assistance, and more assistance than any simple political ideology could provide.
As a guide for action Burke argued that politicians and administrators should turn to tradition and the experience of past generations. He argued that no matter how smart an individual was, his “private stock of reason” was small and meager compared to “the general bank and capital of nations and of ages (p74).” Taking advantage of this knowledge would educate men of the present, showing them that history proves the siege of human vice upon the pretexts of higher morality. The conservative steeped in tradition understands that evil is a permanent fixtures of the human condition disaffecting both himself and society at large. Success requires eternal vigilance and confrontation to forge growth and virtue out of struggle.
This obligation was what led Burke to criticize and side against the French revolutionaries. Though he sympathized with their concerns about the monarchy and absolutist power, he could not bring himself to engage in support for their bloody overthrow of the king. He saw many vices in monarchy, but he was under no illusions that democracy would be preferable if it were unrestrained and equally violent. He argued instead for the British path which had undertaken the Glorious Revolution as a means “to preserve our ancient indisputable laws and liberties” rather than set up a new government without any deference to the past.
In doing so Burke defined the concept of prudence as an important feature of conservative political philosophy. Burke claimed that “a disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman (p133).” Rather than building politics out of self-interest, conservatives should reach back to the past and take account of the wisdom of the ages in setting the course for the future. In doing so they must recognize that the future will be different from the past, for “a state without the means of some change is without the means for its conservation (p19).” To craft it judiciously they must apply a nuanced, meticulous view of institutions which aims to sort out the good from the bad. The success they cultivate would therefore reflect the order of the world, not by nostalgia but by recognition of truth, order, and society’s place in time.
In articulating these views Burke distinguished himself greatly from the modern viewpoint that pervades our college classrooms. Rather than Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau who considered man in an abstract sense, Burke contextualized man in time and space. He saw society as natural to man, and he defined the social contract as existing between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born (p82).” Because men of the present have been given an inheritance, they owe it to their ancestors to preserve its strengths and, equally, to their children to improve upon its imperfections. Rather than philosophers telling students to purse freedom at the expense of all other motivations, Burke gives us a view of a man existing in mature tension with others and inculcated with both rights and duties. The follower of Burke has an obligation to preserve and improve upon that true and circumstantial liberty, to carry out his duties and obligations to others, and to labor from his heart in order to satisfy the deepest aspects of his own human nature.
Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France (Yale University Press: 2003).
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