All I want to say here is that none of this makes atheism untenable in any final sense. It may be perfectly “rational” to embrace absurdity; for, if the universe does not depend upon any transcendent source, then there is no reason to accord the deliverances of reason any particular authority in the first place, because what we think of as rationality is just the accidental residue of physical processes: good for helping us to acquire food, power, or sex but probably not very reliable in the realm of ideas. In a sense, then, I am assuming the truth of a perfectly circular argument: it makes sense to believe in God if one believes in the real power of reason, because one is justified in believing in reason if one believes in God. Or, to phrase the matter in a less recursive form, it makes sense to believe in both reason and God, and it may make a kind of nonsensical sense to believe in neither, but it is ultimately contradictory to believe in one but not the other. An honest and self-aware atheism, therefore, should proudly recognize itself as the quintessential expression of heroic irrationalism: a purely and ecstatically absurd venture of faith, a triumphant trust in the absurdity of all things. But most of us already know this anyway. If there is no God, then of course the universe is ultimately absurd, in the very precise sense that it is irreducible to any more comprehensive “equation.” It is glorious, terrible, beautiful, horrifying—all of that—but in the end it is also quite, quite meaningless. The secret of a happy life then is either not to notice or not to let it bother one overly much. A few blithe spirits even know how to rejoice at the thought.
It should be noted, though, just out of fairness, that the emergence of fundamentalism in the last century was not some sort of retreat to a more original or primitive form of faith. Certainly the rise of the Christian fundamentalist movement was not a recovery of the Christianity of earlier centuries or of the apostolic church. It was a thoroughly modern phenomenon, a strange and somewhat poignantly pathetic attempt on the part of culturally deracinated Christians, raised without the intellectual or imaginative resources of a living religious civilization, to imitate the evidentiary methods of modern empirical science by taking the Bible as some sort of objective and impeccably consistent digest of historical data. It is of course absurd to treat the Bible in that way—though, frankly, no more absurd than thinking that “science shows that God does not exist”—but it is also most definitely not the way the Bible was read in the ancient or mediaeval church.
If philosophy had the power to establish incontrovertible truths, immune to doubt, and if philosophers were as a rule wholly disinterested practitioners of their art, then it might be possible to speak of progress in philosophy. In fact, however, the philosophical tendencies and presuppositions of any age are, to a very great degree, determined by the prevailing cultural mood or by the ideological premises generally approved of by the educated classes. As often as not, the history of philosophy has been a history of prejudices masquerading as principles, and so merely a history of fashion. It is as possible today to be an intellectually scrupulous Platonist as it was more than two thousand years ago; it is simply not in vogue. Over the last century, Anglo-American philosophy has for the most part adopted and refined the methods of “analytic” reasoning, often guided by the assumption that this is a form of thinking more easily purged of unexamined inherited presuppositions than is the “continental” tradition. This is an illusion. Analytic method is dependent upon a number of tacit assumptions that cannot be verified in their turn by analysis: regarding the relation between language and reality, or the relation between language and thought, or the relation between thought and reality’s disclosure of itself, or the nature of probability and possibility, or the sorts of claims that can be certified as “meaningful,” and so on. In the end, analytic philosophy is no purer and no more rigorous than any other style of philosophizing. At times, in fact, it functions as an excellent vehicle for avoiding thinking intelligently at all; and certainly no philosophical method is more apt to hide its own most arbitrary metaphysical dogmas, most egregious crudities, and most obvious flaws from itself, and no other is so likely to mistake a descent into oversimplification for an advance in clarity. As always, the rules determine the game, and the game determines the rules. More to the point, inasmuch as the educated class is usually, at any given phase in history, also the most thoroughly indoctrinated, and therefore the most intellectually pliable and quiescent, professional philosophers are as likely as their colleagues in the sciences and humanities (and far more likely than the average person) to accept a reigning consensus uncritically, even credulously, and to adjust their thinking about everything accordingly. Happily, their philosophical training often aids them in doing so with a degree of ingenuity that protects them from the sharper pangs of conscience.
All I mean to urge here is that one should never be too naive regarding the quality of the current philosophical culture, or imagine that the most recent thinking is in any meaningful sense more advanced or more authoritative than that of a century or a millennium or two millennia ago. There are certain perennial problems to which all interesting philosophy returns again and again; but there are no such things as logical discoveries that consign any of the older answers to obsolescence. Certain classical answers to those problems endure and recur, sometimes because they remain far more powerful than the answers (or evasions) produced by later schools of thought. And, conversely, weaker answers often enjoy greater favor than their rivals simply because they are in keeping with the prejudices of the age.
Our primordial experience of reality is an immediate perception of phenomena—appearances, that is—which come to us not directly through our senses, but through sensations as interpreted by thought, under the aspect of organizing eidetic patterns. We do not encounter the material substrate of things, but only the intelligible forms of things, situated within an interdependent universe of intelligible forms, everywhere governed by purposes: organic, artificial, moral, aesthetic, social, and so forth. We know, also, that those forms are not simple structural aggregates of elementary physical realities, as if atoms were fixed components stacked one upon another like bricks until they added up to stable physical edifices; the forms remain constant, while atomic and subatomic reality is in perpetual flux and eludes that sort of local composition altogether. Phenomenal forms and the quantum realm upon which they are superimposed do not constitute a simple, unilinear, mechanical continuum.
Dutton inventively suggests ways in which artistic achievement, like every other form of achievement, may have some foundation in our need to display ourselves (to attract mates, for the most part), but he does not even begin convincingly to explain how aesthetic values as such should appear within nature at all (after all, being stirred or excited by broad shoulders, shapely hips, displays of physical prowess, and so forth is not the same thing as being moved or fascinated by a particular alignment of hues, or a haunting refrain, or a happy poetic image). Moreover, he excludes far too much of aesthetic experience from his story because he is at such pains, necessarily, to explain the experience of beauty in terms of the material conditions of affective pleasure. For instance, he points out that the most popular sorts of photographs in calendars are of landscapes that supposedly carry us back to our remote evolutionary beginnings in the savannahs of Africa, or at any rate to the sort of watery and lush landscapes our distant evolutionary progenitors would have sought out. This may be true, but it is an observation irrelevant to our experience of beauty. We may enjoy pictures of certain landscapes that are agreeable to us at a purely physiological level, but what we find beautiful is, as a rule, almost entirely unrelated to material conditions of that kind. The form of a representation often seems to enthrall us far more than the objects represented. A magnificent photograph of an uninhabitable desert can delight us in ways that a competent but uninspired photograph of a sapphire lake amid emerald tussocks and flowered rills cannot. It is that difference—elusive, mysterious, formal rather than concrete—that constitutes the qualitative distinction between physiological and aesthetic pleasure. Our sense of what is appealing to us is surely rooted to a great degree in our animal nature, but the actual motive of aesthetic desire is a striving toward the absolute. It is nothing less than our desire for the whole of being, experienced in the form of disinterested bliss.
Today, there are seemingly rational persons who claim that our belief in the reality of our own intentional consciousness must be validated by methods appropriate to mechanical processes, mindless objects, and “third person” descriptions. The absurdity of this becomes altogether poignant when one considers that our trust in the power of scientific method is itself grounded in our subjective sense of the continuity of conscious experience and in our subjective judgment of the validity of our reasoning. Even the decision to seek objective confirmation of our beliefs is a subjective choice arising from a private apprehension. At some very basic level, our “third person” knowledge always depends upon a “first person” insight. In a larger sense, moreover, most of the things we actually know to be true are susceptible of no empirical proof whatsoever, but can only be borne witness to, in a stubbornly first person voice. We know events and personalities and sentiments better and more abundantly than we know physical principles or laws; our understanding of the world consists in memories, direct encounters, accumulated experiences, the phenomenal qualities of things, shifting moods, interpretations formed and reformed continually throughout the course of a life, our own tastes and aversions, the sense of identity each of us separately possesses, and innumerable other forms of essentially personal knowledge.