Sartre’s Atheism Once Again

3 October 2009


The arch-atheist Jean-Paul Sartre

Despite having posted on this twice recently in A Note on Sartre’s Atheism and More on Sartre’s Atheism, I haven’t yet finished with this (as though one could ever be finished with an idea!).

I have, in a couple of posts, quoted a line from Sartre’s “Existentialism is a Humanism” lecture that ends with I must confine myself to what I can see:

I do not know where the Russian revolution will lead. I can admire it and take it as an example in so far as it is evident, today, that the proletariat plays a part in Russia which it has attained in no other nation. But I cannot affirm that this will necessarily lead to the triumph of the proletariat: I must confine myself to what I can see.

For corroboration from a fellow Frenchman and a fellow novelist consider this from Balzac’s Louis Lambert (not his most admired novel, but perhaps his most philosophical novel), delivered by the novel’s protagonist:

“To think is to see,” he said one day, roused by one of our discussions on the principle of human organization. “All science rests on deduction, — a chink of vision by which we descend from cause to effect returning upward from effect to cause; or, in a broader sense, poetry, like every work of art, springs from a swift perception of things.”

Honoré de Balzac, Louis Lambert, translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley, Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1889, p. 39

Fellow Frenchman and philosopher Descartes offers more than corroboration: he stands at the foundation of the tradition from which both Balzac and Sartre come. In his most systematic work, the Principles of Philosophy (Book I, ix), Descartes presents an all-encompassing conception of thought, as is appropriate for the philosopher who is the locus classicus of the cogito:

By the word thought, I understand all that which so takes place in us that we of ourselves are immediately conscious of it; and, accordingly, not only to understand (INTELLIGERE, ENTENDRE), to will (VELLE), to imagine (IMAGINARI), but even to perceive (SENTIRE, SENTIR), are here the same as to think (COGITARE, PENSER). For if I say, I see, or, I walk, therefore I am; and if I understand by vision or walking the act of my eyes or of my limbs, which is the work of the body, the conclusion is not absolutely certain, because, as is often the case in dreams, I may think that I see or walk, although I do not open my eyes or move from my place, and even, perhaps, although I have no body: but, if I mean the sensation itself, or consciousness of seeing or walking, the knowledge is manifestly certain, because it is then referred to the mind, which alone perceives or is conscious that it sees or walks.

On the one hand, one can view these accounts as tributes to the visible and the tangible, except that Descartes, who stands at the origin of the tradition, can in no way be assimilated to materialism. On the other hand, and more interestingly, all of these accounts can be understood as expressions of various degrees of constructivism — mostly unconsciously formulated constructivism, but nevertheless an awareness that our thought must be disciplined by experience in a rigorous way if it is not to go terribly wrong. This is also a Kantian orientation, as we observed in Temporal Illusions, and Kant is counted as an ancestor of contemporary constructivism.

Skeptics have always demanded that truths be exhibited. We saw this in our previous posts about Sartre’s atheism, taking Doubting Thomas as the paradigm of the skeptic, who must needs touch the wounds of Christ with his own hands before he will believe that it is the same Christ who was crucified and subsequently risen.

It is a feature of constructivist thought, and most especially intuitionism, to reject the law of logic that is called (in Latin) tertium non datur or the Law of the Excluded Middle (LEM, or just EM). This simply states that, of two contradictory propositions, one of them most be true (“P or not-P“). Intuitively, it seems eminently reasonable, except that we all know of instances in ordinary experience that cannot be adequately described in a black-or-white, yes-or-no formulation. Non-constructive reasoning makes unlimited use of the law of the excluded middle, and as a consequence holds that all propositions have definite truth values even if we haven’t yet determined the truth value or even if we can’t determine the truth value. This can lead to strange consequences, like the famous Aristotelian example of the sea fight tomorrow: either there will be a sea battle tomorrow or there will not be a sea battle tomorrow. We don’t know at present which is true, but if we accept the logic of non-constructive reasoning, we will acknowledge that one of these propositions is true while the other is false.

The law of the excluded middle implies the principle of bivalence — the principle that there are two and only two logical values, namely true and false — and bivalence in turn implies realism. Realism as a philosophical doctrine stands in opposition to constructivism. Plato is the most famous realist philosopher, and believed that all kinds of things were real that common sense and ordinary experience don’t think of as being “real,” while at the same time disbelieving in the reality of the material world. Thus Plato is something of an antithesis to the kind insistence upon the tangibility and visibility upon which the skeptic and the materialist rely.

It is interesting, then, in the context of Sartre’s atheism and his insistence upon relying upon the seen, which we have now come to recognize as a kind of constructivism, to contrast the very different viewpoint represented by William James. One of James’ most famous essays is “The Will to Believe” in which he lays down the criteria for legitimate belief even where sufficient evidence is lacking. William James offers, “a defence of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, in spite of the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced.” Among the criteria that James invokes is when a choice is forced, which he describes like this:

…if I say to you: “Choose between going out with your umbrella or without it,” I do not offer you a genuine option, for it is not forced. You can easily avoid it by not going out at all. Similarly, if I say, “Either love me or hate me,” “Either call my theory true or call it false,” your option is avoidable. You may remain indifferent to me, neither loving nor hating, and you may decline to offer any judgment as to my theory. But if I say, “Either accept this truth or go without it,” I put on you a forced option, for there is no standing place outside of the alternative. Every dilemma based on a complete logical disjunction, with no possibility of not choosing, is an option of this forced kind.

Logical disjunction is another name used for the law of the excluded middle. Here James reveals himself as a realist, if not a Platonist, in matters of the spirit, just as we saw that Sartre revealed himself as a constructivist, if not an intuitionist, in matters of the spirit. The point I am making here is that this is not merely a difference of belief, but a difference in logic, and a difference in logic and reaches up into the ontology of each and informs an entire view of the world. People tend to think of logic, if they think of logic at all, as something recondite and removed from ordinary human experience, but this is not the case. Logic determines the relationship that we construct with the world, and it organizes how we see the world.

Nietzsche wrote in a famous line (or, perhaps I should say, a line that ought to be more famous than it perhaps is) that the nature and degree of an individual’s sexuality reaches into the highest pinnacles of his spirit. I agree with this, but I would add that the nature and kind of an individual’s logic — be it constructivist or non-constructivist — also reaches into the highest pinnacles of his spirit and indeed informs the world in which his spirit finds a home… or fails to find a home.

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