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A Philosopher’s Salvation

Posted on 21 June 2020, 13:47

The word salvation is seldom met in a work of philosophy, but Luc Ferry, a celebrated French philosopher with a wide following and best-selling books to his credit, thinks he has found it—but not in the usual places. Can we learn from him something new, something we’ve missed that might be helpful in these trying times?

In A Brief History of Thought, he claims that we fear death mostly because death entails losing our precious loved ones, either because they die before us or we before them. Salvation is a means of removing this fear—I should note that he says nothing about going to God. How can such fear be quashed? He considers two contenders—the two best possible, as he sees it—before developing his own soteriology (or theory of salvation). The first of these comes from Greek Stoicism, the second from Christianity.

1. Stoicism. Let us see how Stoic salvation, as Ferry defines it, stacks up. The Stoic trains himself to accept whatever happens with graceful resignation. He or she has witnessed the misery that grief brings to a parent who loses a child and has taken steps to avoid it. But how? By not permitting himself to become attached. He practices the art of living fully in the present, refusing to grieve over the tragedies of the past or to hope for blessings in a future beyond his control. He accepts, even loves, the world as it is, as it presents itself to him moment by moment, whether for good or ill. As Ferry puts it, “the good life [for the Stoic] is a life stripped of both hopes and fears.” Grateful for whatever comes, he lives his life, in the words of the great Stoic sage Marcus Aurelius, “untroubled and dispensing kindness.” When death comes, eternity follows. In the words of Ferre, Stoics acknowledge that “we lose everything that constitutes our self-awareness and individuality,” but that is all right. For we become one with and immersed in God (Logos), like a water drop falling into the great ocean. Armed with such beliefs, death is no longer frightening. Salvation is secured.

2. Christianity. Ferry is not persuaded by Stoic doctrine, for there is no escaping the sad fact that we lose our loved ones forever at death. Does Christianity do a better job? Ferry writes, “Whereas the Stoics represent death as a transition from a personal to an impersonal state of existence without consciousness, the Christian version of salvation promises us nothing less than individual immortality”—not only that, but the individual’s “soul, his body, his face, his beloved voice—as long as he is saved by the grace of God.” This, for Ferry, is an idea that “is not easy to resist.” Believing in it would be as good as salvation can get.

But he rejects the Christian solution. “Religion,” he explains, “is the prime example of a non-philosophical quest for salvation—given its assumption of God and a need for faith—rather than by means of human reason.” In our age of science, in which all authority is questioned, the Christian model of salvation, he says, ceases to be credible “for anyone of a critical and informed disposition.” The philosopher Nietzsche, he tells us, took it upon himself to smash all the “fine ideals of politics, ethics, and religion.” Nietzsche viewed Christian salvation as a fable. So does Ferry.

3. The philosopher’s salvation. At the end of his book, Ferry gives us his view of salvation—typical of the living philosophers I have read and known personally. Bear in mind that salvation for him is a system of thought that succeeds like no other in removing the bleakness and heartache of losing to death the people we love. For Ferry no one survives death—death means extinction. But this bleak fact need not occupy too much of our attention.

“We can learn to live and love as adults,” he says, “even if this means thinking of death every day. Not out of morbidity, but to discover what needs doing, here and now, with those whom we love and whom we shall lose, unless they lose us first.” To do this, to realize salvation in this sense, “is the crowning achievement of a humanism released finally from the illusions of metaphysics and religion.”

I am not one to denigrate such a worldview if it helps a person deal with the death of a loved one. But there is no denying that it would be depressing if we could do no better, especially in these times when death lurks everywhere. I believe we can do better, not on the basis of authority, not on the basis of the Bible or any other ancient scripture, but of contemporary research on transcendental states of consciousness. Forty years of research have convinced me that our deceased loved ones are very much alive and that the pessimistic conclusions of contemporary philosophy overlook this vitally important evidence. It is essential that we redefine humanism in a way that leaves intact the basic optimism of the human spirit—something that Ferry’s “salvation” does not do.

Stafford Betty, Professor of Religious Studies, CSUB

Author of When Did You Ever Become Less by Dying? and Heaven and Hell Unveiled. Stafford’s latest novel, The Afterlife Therapist will be published by White Crow Books later in 2020.


Dear Stafford,

You are very welcome.  I’ve appreciated your writings on discarnate reality for some years now.  To your statement, a matter of intellectual history worth pondering deeply is that, at the beginning of the Scientific Revolution, most of the leading scientists were Theists or, minimally, Deists, whereas today, most of the leading scientists are atheists.  What changed?  A contemporary scientist might argue that our increased scientific knowledge has driven this change in outlook.  But is this a defensible position?  Consider the following, which could readily be expanded upon.  In Darwin’s time, the basic unit of life – the cell – upon which the proposed mechanism of natural selection could have purchase to drive biological novelty was considered a kind of unstructured blob.  Today, science has revealed that the cell is something like a city in miniature with multiple, mutually interacting domains of sophisticated specialization.  Looking to physical cosmology, the Anthropic Principle speaks to the multiple physical constants that, were they minisculely different in value, could not give rise to a universe supportable of life as we know it.  Looking to consciousness, we know vastly more regarding the brain and its mapping to different types of conscious states, but are no closer in the slightest to understanding how consciousness could arise from matter, while the ruling assumption that mind is a ‘product’ of brain is no better an understanding that the ‘filter theory of consciousness’ that Myers proposed more than a hundred years ago.  So, in various important ways, contemporary science points more strongly to the insufficiency of Taylor’s “immanent closure” than an earlier science was capable of.  And yet, that same immanent closure has become more hegemonic, to the point where a distinguished, paid-up, suitably atheistic member of the modern intelligentsia could be, without hesitation or apology, metaphorically pilloried, as was the case with Thomas Nagel following the publication of “Mind and Cosmos”.  I will repeat again here what I wrote in a comment to Michael Tymn’s prior post, that “the Baconian methodological enterprise begets an epistemology, which in turn begets a metaphysics and that, in essence, we are faced with a methodological constraint elevated to the status of a metaphysical claim.”  That is why the Big Bang, as you sardonically and ironically observe, “couldn’t have been because a vastly intelligent and powerful Being set it in motion.”

Paul, Wed 1 Jul, 01:14

The most remarkable conclusion drawn from the mesmerizing picture you describe is that the Big Bang happened without any intelligent orchestration. However it happened, it couldn’t have been because a vastly intelligent and powerful Being set it in motion.

Thanks, Paul, for your comment.

Stafford Betty, Mon 29 Jun, 00:42

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, in his masterful “A Secular Age”, has termed the worldview under which your author is confined the “closed immanent frame” and has traced in considerable detail the historical process of secularization that has led to a state such that “it [was] virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable.” (p.25) However, the acceptance of immanent closure, such that it appears obvious, natural or given, is based not so much upon careful argumentation as upon a general narrative or set of narratives. As Taylor has noted:

The narrative dimension is extremely important, because the force of [the immanent frame] comes less from the supposed detail of the argument (that science refutes religion, or that Christianity is incompatible with human rights), and much more from the general form of the narratives, to the effect that there was once a time when religion could flourish, but that this time is past. The plausibility structures of faith have collapsed, once and for all, irreversibly. … And the same kind of supposition is widespread today, now in favor of atheism, or materialism, relegating all forms of religion to an earlier era. In a certain sense, the original arguments on which this narrative rests cease to matter, so powerful is the sense created in certain milieux, that these old views just can’t be options for us. (p.590)

Commenting specifically on the dominance of a particularly constrictive or closed sense of the immanent frame within Western academia, he has further noted:

In general, we have here what Wittgenstein calls a “picture”, a background to our thinking, within whose terms it is carried on, but which is often largely unformulated, and to which we can frequently, just for this reason, imagine no alternative. As he once famously put it, “a picture held us captive.”... Our predicament in the modern West is, therefore, not only characterized by what I have called the immanent frame, which we all more or less share… It also consists of more specific pictures, the immanent frame as “spun” in ways of openness and closure, which are often dominant in certain milieux. This local dominance obviously strengthens their hold as pictures. The spin of closure which is hegemonic in the Academy is a case in point. (p.549)

The Catholic philosopher Edward Feser, in his “Scholastic Metaphysics”, in the course of reviewing the philosophic objections to scientism, has noted similarly:

Now if scientism faces such grave difficulties, why are so many intelligent people drawn to it? The answer—to paraphrase a remark made by Wittgenstein in another context—is that “a picture holds them captive.” Hypnotized by the unparalleled predictive and technological successes of modern science, they infer that scientism must be true, and that anything that follows from scientism—however fantastic or even seemingly incoherent—must also be true. (p.23)

Paul, Mon 22 Jun, 14:46

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The Hidden Door – Introduction by Peter and Elizabeth Fenwick – Accounts of dreams are as old as human history. People have always been fascinated by their own dreams, and have always looked for significance· in them. From the most ancient civilisations of Assyrians and Babylonians through to Biblical times it was believed that dreams brought messages from the gods in the form of warnings, omens and portents. In ancient Greece they were seen as prophecies, or instructions from Zeus. Read here
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