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The elimination and ratification of belief

The problem of nihilism is also the problem of belief. If our highest values have corroded and our firmest foundations have been removed from beneath us then the question is “what is left to believe in”. Even deeper than this crisis in belief is the crisis of belief itself that issues from the ferocity of eliminativism’s dismissal of the “folk psychology” that counted belief among its terms. So we know longer know what to believe in and find even the category and phenomenal experience of believing to be illusory (at the least). In the first instance we find the possibility of taking up a belief but also the possibility of refusing to do so. This is the common horizon of theism and atheism; the territory on which the belief in God and the lack or refusal of belief in God stand. There is a long, exhausting and bloody history that has carved out the geological morphology of this territory that stretches further back than our histories record up until our questioned modernity. The acid of eliminativism is like an asteroid on collision course with the planetary of belief and unbelief, which threatens to pulverise both into the dust of history.In what follows I want to discuss how this collision perversely ensures the resurrection of a weakened form of belief, a belief that corresponds to a faith in the empty space of God.

Insofar as “belief” is taken to be a kind of element or entity in our inner mental life, eliminativist materialists like the Churchlands consider them to be false theoretical representations of what is really going on. By now we all know that eliminativist materialism reduces mental states to brain states and calls for the literal elimination of concepts like belief from our theoretical repertoire. The crux isn’t that a representation like a belief (“God is real”) doesn’t happen but that we ought not suppose that the belief is itself the whole story but instead regard such a representation as the outcome of an elaborate neurocognitive process. It is not so much the case that the experiential phenomena of having a belief is false, but that the explanation that sees the belief as the depth rather than the surface level of the engineering of such a belief.

Thus the fact of experiencing oneself as having a belief says in place but the empirical reality of the belief itself is called into question. In seeking to support the eliminativist programme that folk-psychology is false, Paul M. Churchland lists a host of phenomena that it cannot but ought to be able to explain: sleep, learning, mental illness and perceptual illusions. To take the example of mental illness we can see how the claim that a delusion is a false belief that is not amenable to rational falsification in the mind of the deluded merely describes the situation that a paranoid schizophrenic may find herself in without actually explaining it (although I’d point out that no naturalist theory has been successful either). That the deluded has a “false belief” only opens up an abyss of epistemological problems regarding the truth and falsity of belief that are associated with the deeply problematic theory that the evaluative criterion for belief is the correspondence-theory of truth.

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The Undeath of God. 

God is dead: If there is a more paradigmatic, concise, and ecstatic expression of nihilism it has yet to be uttered. God is dead: there are no transcendent values, no eternal grounding for our laws, nowhere and no one to appeal to in order to give the world meaning, purpose, reasons. In The Gay Science Nietzsche is unequivocal about what the consequences of this are: it is the collapse of ‘the whole of European morality’. The whole of European morality. The entire edifice of European values, and with it the grounds for such an enterprise. This is not simply the end of a moral system, it is the exhaustion of metaphysics. The Christian God, the God who is dead, is the God who is present everywhere, at all times, to all depths. This God who is present, this immanent God, really the Catholic God, is the God who has died. At other points Nietzsche will call Him the Moral God, a phrase that immediately draws up the image of Old Testament wrath, but must no less refer to the Incarnated God who stood on the mount and rebooted the Ten Commandments in that one simple command: love thy neighbour. We stand without foundations, without any exterior assurances, and in the cold shadow of the recession of presence. Among the philosophical inheritors of this death, among those who dwell on this death, and who attempt to make it shine, to be seen and heard as Nietzsche put it, is obviously Derrida. The Derridean deconstruction of this metaphysics of presence amounts to the idea that things (bodies, events, incorporeals like time and language) never fully disclose themselves, always remain shy about standing-forth, moving fully into the open, and presence remains divided from itself.

I am racing ahead. It is impossible not to race ahead. We must return to Nietzsche before tumbling forward. The famous scene in which the madman, running through the streets holding a lantern, first makes the untimely declaration:

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Religion is a beautiful multimedia poem
by Grayson Perry

“God is dead and man has no need of the myths and false consolation that religion offers. That’s the battle-cry of Richard Dawkins and other tough-minded critics of religion. And yet millions cling to their faith, finding value and meaning in the concepts and rituals they adhere to. But is this dichotomy all we have to choose from — prostration or denigration? Some would argue that there’s another way, that it’s possible to remain an atheist and still make use of certain ideas and practices of religion that secular society has failed to engender — the promotion of morality and a spirit of community, for example, and the ability to cope with loss, failure and our own mortality. But is this “religion for atheists” something that would ever catch on? Without belief in the numinous and some form of authority wouldn’t it all fall apart?” – Grayson Perry