Christians and other conservatives who criticize Hollywood for its hostility to theism (and, especially, Christian theism), should pay closer attention, for the entertainment industry not infrequently, even if inadvertently, subverts the very atheistic worldview that it affirms.
As Michel de Montaigne remarked back in the 16th century:
“Whatever hits you affects you and wakes you up more than what pleases you.”
More thoughtful entertainers, like, say, Woody Allen, though himself the embodiment of the “New York limousine liberalism” against which conservative commentators routinely rail, and though himself a self-styled “teleological existential atheist,” treats with admirable seriousness in his work those questions of “ultimate concern,” as existentialist philosopher Paul Tillich referred to them, those issues with which believers in God are themselves preoccupied.
Allen, to his credit, has cranked out numerous films within which such perennial philosophical and (inescapably, theological) problems as the meaning of life, evil, and the existence of God have been pursued. Granted, these issues are never resolved along the lines that Christians and other theists have been resolving them for centuries and millennia. In fact, while it is impossible not to discern Allen’s own irreligious prejudices, what resolution he offers is of a provisional character, a tentative answer that beckons the audience to continue the conversation that the human species has been having with itself for thousands of years.
Still, as noted, Allen is, as he self-describes, an “atheist.” Specifically, he is a “teleological existential atheist.” However, besides being unclear—I think Allen meant to say that he is an “existentialist” atheist—this description is a contradiction in terms.
First, a teleologist is one who believes, as the ancients and medievals believed, that the universe is inherently rational, that it is intrinsically purposeful and meaningful. “Telos,” after all, is translated into English as “end,” “point,” “purpose.” The teleologist believes in, as Aristotle called them, “final causes.”
This belief in final causes, though, this belief in teleology, is inseparable from the belief in universals from which it is inferred. A “universal,” for the teleologist, is a nature, an essence. There is a human telos, a human nature or essence, a point or function that distinguishes humans from all non-humans. There is a dog telos, a bird telos, a plant telos, and so on and so forth for each and every type of thing that exists.
During the high middle ages, though, this belief in universals, in final causes, came under fire (most prominently by such leading 14th century Christian figures as William of Ockham). Universals were not metaphysical realities, it was argued, but, rather, either subjective concepts in the mind or simply names that we contrive in order to group like things. With the advent of the modern era, the campaign against universals accelerated exponentially and the cosmos with which the mainline of theorists now concerned themselves was divested of all teleological structures.
No essences or natures remained.
This little walk down memory lane is necessary in order to understand that the 20th century existentialist philosophers and literary figures to whom Allen turns, those whose names he drops in his films and from whom he clearly derives inspiration—names like those of Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean Paul Sartre, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and even Martin Heidegger—explicitly and emphatically rejected all talk of teleology, final causes, natures, essences, etc.
“Existence precedes essence.”
This pithy formula is Sartre’s, but the idea that it encapsulates is endorsed by all existentialist philosophers. What exactly does it mean?
Traditionally, essence was assigned ontological primacy. Essence was considered to be more fundamental, the immutable and universal reality shared by all who partake of it and that defines the individual’s identity. For example, what makes this or that individual human being a human being is precisely that which makes any and all other human beings human beings: human nature, or the human essence.
So, in other words, traditionally, philosophers have affirmed that essence precedes existence.
The existentialists reject essence. For the existentialist, there is only the individual, his or her bare existence or consciousness. Values of any kind are most decidedly not part of the “furniture of the world,” so to speak. They are not objective, lying in wait of being discovered.
All values are subjective. They are created by the individual.
As Sartre remarks, the human being’s condition is one of “abandonment.” By this, he explains, is simply meant “that God does not exist, and that we must bear the full consequences of this assertion.”
Sartre takes to task his fellow atheists who have wrongly assumed that it is possible “to eliminate God as painlessly as possible,” that “nothing will have changed if God does not exist,” that we “will encounter the same standards of honesty, progress, and humanism” even though we “have turned God into an obsolete hypothesis that will die quietly on its own.” This is delusion.
Without God, gone forever is so much as “the possibility of finding values in an intelligible,” of “any a priori Good,” i.e. of any and all absolute, objective moral standards. This is because there is “no infinite and perfect consciousness to conceive of” any such standards. In other words, in the atheist’s world, there is not and cannot be any objective value:
“Nowhere is it written that good exists, that we must be honest or must not lie, since we are on a plane shared only be men.”
Yet no God means no human nature or essence. “When we think of God the Creator, we usually conceive of him as a superlative artisan.” Thus, “the concept of man, in the mind of God, is comparable to the concept of a paper knife in the mind of the manufacturer: God produces man following certain techniques and a conception, just as the craftsman, following definition and a technique, produces a paper knife.”
So, each human being is created according to the template, the human essence or nature that exists first in the mind of God. But “since there is no God to conceive it,” Sartre concludes, “there is no human nature [.]”
What does all of this mean? Because there is no God, “we will encounter no values or orders” that can “legitimize our conduct.”
Thus, “in the luminous realm of values,” we find no “means of justification or excuse.”
Things are not looking up: “We are left alone and without excuse.”
This is the variety of existentialism to which Woody Allen subscribes (minus the dogmatic tone with which Sartre conveys it).
And this is why the character-type that consistently features in his films is invariably ridden with angst, despondency, despair.
What Allen does not consider, though, is that both his answer to the question concerning the place of values and meaning in the world as well as the question itself turns on another, more fundamental question:
How is it that there exists self-conscious beings both capable of and willing to inquire into whether value and meaning are objective features of the world?
In other words, whereas most discussions regarding “the meaning of life” focus principally on the world or, rather, our questions about the world, they should begin with the brute—and startling—metaphysical fact that we can even raise them. We take for granted that in what appears thus far to be a largely lifeless cosmos we exist.
Like the fish who fails to notice the water within which it lives and upon which it depends, we too fail to recognize how otherwise incredible it is that on planet Earth, i.e. what amounts to an infinitesimal point, a grain of sand orbiting just one of the one billion trillion suns constituting the observable universe, there dwells hairy, warm-blooded bipeds possessing (varying degrees of) intelligence, rationality, and imagination, strange entities that think and talk (and fight) with one another over such things as good and evil, truth and falsehood, and the meaning of life.
Presumably, if the existentialists are correct and there is no purpose, meaning, or rationality in the world, then we couldn’t know any of this, for we are capable of determining that a phenomenon is random, unintelligible, or irrational only because we already know what it means for something to be purposeful, meaningful, and rational. To put it another way, only if we first accept, even if just implicitly, standards of purpose, meaning, and reason can we discern deviations from them.
In a genuinely purposeless, unintelligible, brute cosmic fact of a universe the ideas of purposeful and purposeless, intelligible and unintelligible, rational and irrational would be inconceivable.
If, as Sartre unequivocally underscores, there are no objective values, then even this statement would not be true. Truth, bear in mind, is a value, an objective value—and, yes, everyone, irrespectively of how skilled in sophistry they may be, knows damn well that objectivity is as essential to the concept of truth as being unmarried is essential to the concept of bachelorhood. “Objective truth” is meaningless by reason of redundancy: it’s tautological. “Subjective truth” is also meaningless, but because it is a contradiction in terms. To be certain, Sartre presents existentialism as a true account of the world. As for its competitors, he rejects them as false accounts.
But if Sartre is correct, then he is neither correct nor incorrect, for truth and falsity are both values, objective, i.e. discoverable, values.
Existentialism, of the type represented by Sartre and, in modified form, Woody Allen, is ultimately self-contradictory.
All of this means that if there is a problem of evil for such atheistic existentialists as Sartre and Allen, then they have another problem, what we may call the Problem of Good. After all, good and evil are also values. In an atheistic universe that happened to give rise to human beings, actions and character traits could be useful and useless, pleasurable and painful, evolutionarily advantageous and disadvantageous—but most emphatically, most certainly not good, bad, or evil.
That Woody Allen features characters that struggle over these questions proves that, though unbeknownst to him, he’s already gotten the answer to them, the answer of which the questions are actually a reflection.
And the answer is that atheism and/or atheistic existentialism is false: The world is indeed infused with value and meaning, with truth, beauty, and goodness (If not, Allen wouldn’t be able to conceive of these notions, much less dialogue over them with others).
And since value is objective, a reality that transcends our wishes, preferences, beliefs, and mores, it points inescapably to a Ground of being that is, necessarily, conspicuously absent from the world inhabited by Sartre, Woody Allen, and all atheistic existentialists.