Progressive Progresses to Nihilism

The purpose of this post is to extend the previous post’s defense of progressive morality to defense of a progressive philosophy of life. I defend this philosophy as persuasively as possible for it is the philosophy which I must set aside to justify the theistic philosophy which supports the divine command morality I am presenting.

I think that I am entitled to present this secular progressive philosophy of life. I have lived with it since I started university study sixty four years ago, forty of which were as a philosophy faculty member at secular universities. It lies deep in my soul. It haunts me every day.

However, be aware that this is, a perhaps idiosyncratic, portrayal of philosophy by an undistinguished emeritus professor of philosophy.

I use “philosophy of life” to abstract the progressive stance on the significance of human life from the other topics investigated by philosophers. Philosophy has been a mix of giving guidance for a well-lived meaningful life, outlining a theory about the origin and structure of all that is, viz., metaphysics, developing and criticizing solutions for apparently irremediable conceptual confusions, e.g., “Is Socrates sitting the same as Socrates standing?” and critique of whether and to what extent any of those three tasks are possible. Plato did all of this.

Critique, primarily after Hume and Kant, has established as the dominant belief in philosophy, as I have practiced it, a belief that knowledge is gained only through the methods of natural science. This belief is called “positivism” or now “scientism.” Positivism denigrates development of metaphysical schemes to support claims about how to live as mere opinions- soft thinking- not worthy of philosophical thought.

Of course, no critique could stamp out grappling with conceptual confusions. Philosophical problems are too much fun -they are the play of lively minds. Regardless of its merits towards leading a good life, acquaintance with philosophical puzzles should be included in university education. It is intellectual fun for its own sake. Play, including intellectual play is a basic human good. It is part of a well lived life.

But back to the topic of a progressive philosophy of life.

Careful positivists do not make the self-referentially inconsistent claim that they know that only science gives knowledge. Careful positivists admit that they only believe that all knowledge comes from natural science. Positivism is not known to be true. Here we find a philosophy of life “hiding in plain sight.” It is a life-guiding background belief.

Usually implicitly, but sometimes explicitly, philosophy education at secular schools is regarded as a missionary activity to free students from any strong beliefs in fixed moral principles and some divinely set purpose for their lives. Acceptance of positivism certainly does undercut such beliefs.

Implicitly, positivism is regarded as a moral belief. (In mid 20th century positivists set aside emotivism to accept that moral language has proper use in guiding behavior.) So, how do careful positivists defend their philosophy of life? They defend it in the way progressives defend any moral claim: Justification is replaced with explanation. Or: Argument is replaced with a narrative to induce belief and then acceptance of the induced belief is justified as a proper response to reality by explaining how human nature causes the belief in response to the narrative. This is different from justifying a belief as correctly representing reality.

Pay attention to the facts which include scientific accomplishments and the failures and follies of religions and other ideologies. This narrative might take a few years of schooling to be given. What you hear will cause you to think that believing in positivism is most likely to produce the greatest satisfaction of human desires. That will cause you to think that everyone ought to believe in positivism.

The defense of positivism by defending it as moral progressives defend moral beliefs protects positivism from logical fallacies and inconsistencies. (A good criticism of a view states the view is a way free from procedural errors such as inconsistency. We want to criticize a view as wrong about the topic.)

Effective teachers can lead consideration of facts to be very effective in causing acceptance of positivism.

But human concerns are facts to consider.

The positivist philosophy of life does not really support progressive morality in so far as it promises no moral progress toward greater cooperation and less cruelty. It supports moral progress only in so far as it replaces traditional morality. It promises nothing for humanity. Nuclear war, climate change, fertility failure due to birth control and abortion could all lead to extinction of homo sapiens.

If you look at the facts, you will be caused at first to lose all faith in a purpose for your life or for the existence of homo sapiens. Part of seeing this hopelessness is a sense of horror at the prospect of a meaningless life. And it is a proper response to distract oneself from considering it too much. Giving our own meaning to our life and distracting ourselves from the fact that we invented it rather than being given it is morally permissible if not obligatory because distraction diminishes human anguish.

But realization that we are distracting ourselves from nihilism causes hope that positivism is not worthy of belief.