The Ethics of Nostalgia

Similar to the ethics of regret, what occurs in nostalgia appears, initially, to be no different. A human being contemplates a particular thought (or a set of thoughts)—which occurred in the past—and enters a sentimental state of longing for it. The human being may spend minutes or hours thinking about the particular thought. At some point, the philosopher in us asks the question: what’s the point of reminiscing about the past?

For some of us, thinking about the past serves as an escape mechanism. You are presently in a not-so-good state, and so you attempt to escape the present by reminiscing about the (better) past. You leave your depression behind, so to speak.

But then there are some of us—myself included?—who do not feel that way about nostalgia. I walk away, often times it seems, more depressed. “God,” I think to myself, “If only I were able to go back in time. Scoop up the past like a heap of ice-cream and savor it. Just one more time.” But you realize that such an event is highly unlikely. No amount of contemplation brings you a millimeter closer to the past. You dwell in bittersweet waters. You contemplate the past—wade in deep nostalgia—to be fully cognizant of the fact that the past is past.

Despite the depressing notion that nostalgia serves no real function (that is, it does not really take you back to the past), nostalgia does serve some function: it makes us aware of who we are, who we’d like to be, and where we would like to go. In reminiscing about a friend, for example, you realize that that particular friend is whom you miss dearly. Such nostalgia stimulates activity, ethical activity. You pick up the phone and call the friend. You write a letter, hoping to hear back. You spend some time looking for the particular friend. Everything you do in the present is intimately tied to the past. In a state of nostalgia, the past is absolutely determining the present (and, possibly, the future). Nostalgia causes one to rethink the point of one’s life. Nostalgia is a state in which an existentialist perpetually finds oneself. The existential thinker is always concerned with his own being. The existentialist is always concerned with the meaning of existence. And nostalgia fosters meaning. It helps us reevaluate where we want our lives to go. It allows us to recalibrate our actions. Nostalgia gives us a second chance at life. It speaks directly to us—for the past is where we have all come from. Nostalgia gives us the experience of the past in order to better our future. Blessed are those who wade in nostalgia, for they shall inherit a better future.

[Unrequited]

My blessed love!
O, how I miss you! I sit here and think about you all the time. My mind wanders and gets lost whenever I imagine you. I wish I could wrap my arms around you and caress you gently. How I long to express myself to you. I hope that, one day, I would be able to tell you how I feel. I feel…like a clock that is broken, a machine with rusted-through gears, a handcuffed policeman, a lover without his love.
I am so restless.
I do wish that you would give me a chance to get to know you; a chance to allow myself to become visible to you. I hope to wrap my arms around you and I hope to embrace you whole. To know that you are safe from all others, me included. I am exhausted. You are the only love to which I go back to. I have tried to forget you—but it never works. I am sending you these flowers in the cold gloom of September. They are yellow lilies. Yellow for they are to bring sunshine to your life. I dream to make you smile. I beg for you to give me a second of your time. That is all that I ask for. I do not have much else to tell you but this: I am yours. It matters not to me what comes. I have placed my heart, soul, and mind on you. And you alone. I know that you will never read this letter of mine. I have hidden myself like an idiot beneath layers of facades. I have tried my hardest to hide any goodness I have. I did this for you. You see, I don’t believe myself to be a good…—I could never be a regular person. I will never serve society the way most people do. I hid for I gave you up, my Regine Olsen. I gave you up, my Isaac. You are the pearl of great price. I sold everything—I sold and betrayed my pride! I made myself out to be an evil man. For you have I done this. I sold my soul for you. Not because I gained riches; no, but because I have fallen for you. I have found no one else who could replace you, my muse. You are the one who had inspired me. And yet. I should have been kinder to you—I should have been myself! But how could I? I would make you fall in love so easily.
I am probably insane.
This is now the fifth bouquet of flowers that I am sending you. The mark of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, according to Albert Einstein. I have sent you flowers before and have not received a response. I assume that you see me as some kind of Frankenstein. And, by all means, that was my whole plan. I spent months perfecting it. I examined myself in these past couple of months and have found myself wanting—wanting you! Maybe this obsession is the end of me. Maybe. But I cannot help myself. I have tried. Believe me, I have tried to let you go. Do you really believe that this is easy for me? I beg you to see me as a mere weakling human being. I am dust and ashes. But, oh, how I love! You would be taken care of. All that I have would become yours. Every breath I breathe is for two—for me and for you. I am restless. Please respond to this letter as soon as you receive it—for I will never send it. I am a man, funny, of immense faith. I have faith in you, my love. Tenderly do I love you and gently. Patiently do I wait for you—like Jacob and Rachel. You are my Rachel. I have found you alone to be my delight. You brighten my mind and my heart! You alone make me want to live—you make me want to go on. I hope in you. I hope that God would bring you to me. May his blessing be upon us. (There I used that mystical and unifying term “us.”) I know that, as of now, you do not feel anything towards me. The reason being that I frightened you. I am sorry. I have trouble expressing myself sometimes. Had you given me a chance! One second of your life for mine—and I would convince you! I would convince you of the authenticity of this calling. Like Abraham, I am (and already have) taking a leap of faith. You are that leap. I hope that this bouquet would set your spirits right. I hope that they make you smile, L———. You know, you are my one and only. Forgive me for failing to express myself to you in person. I am much too shy of a person. Please forgive me and my passion. If this letter ever finds you, may it be like the dew of Zion upon the deserts of Arabia. May this letter bring you joy to know that someone else is thinking good thoughts of you. I remember you like an ever-present memory, so are you to me. I see you in my mind’s eye like yesterday. You are so lovely. Your dirty blonde hair falls upon your slender shoulders. Your green eyes shine forth like candles from a citadel. Your hands are coy and they hang there like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Ah, but your smile—it is of infinite importance to me. I am forever yours. I still remember everything. You are standing there, a hundred or so feet away from me, leaning against the wall, surrounded by all of your friends. Your dress is green, like the sea, matching the eternal depth of your eyes. Your curly hips betray an irresistible temptation. Your voluptuous lips are moist and pregnant with absolute lust. Words simply cannot describe the attraction. Every fiber in me wants to be with you; wants to be in you. Your cheekbones remind me of suicidal cliffs (if I fall into temptation)—if I place my lips and graze upon your mountains, I will surely die. Who has returned from that journey? Is there anyone, my precious, who could resist you? I surely cannot! But I do. I stand in your presence, far from your presence, shy and weak.
I could never be your seducer.
I could never be the one who rejuvenates you with his fountains. But to drink of you! To be the one who dips his lips in the fullness of your rich mouth. I would caress you tenderly with seducing hands. I would graze upon the hills of your milky breasts. My tongue would never tire as it explores trails which lead to your mountainous peaks. Your breasts would satisfy me at all times. But that is all me. My imagination. You would never see me in the way that I see you. My desire is great for you, my love. Give me a chance. Give me a second of your time. But you are unapproachable. You are surrounded by people who pretend to pay attention. They are your distractors, keeping you from me. Suffice it to say that you are mine. I have claimed you. I hope that you can understand me when you meet me. For meet me you will! C’est la vie!
Ah, but the object of my affections—so we meet again!
You know, my love, you are, quite literally, the object of my love. I look at you and imagine what we could be like. I imagine us together and think about all the things that we could do. Somewhere, someplace where the sun never sets; where the wind is always warm; where the fires of love never fail; where the sand wrinkles softly against your toes.
Ah, I imagine.
I see us walking hand in hand along a sunset beach; where nothing but your hands matter; where nothing but your gentle embrace sets acres on fire. Ah, then there is your gaze. You look at me through your velvet green eyes—eyes that observe nothing but goodness. The hair falls over your temples, covering the radiant beauty of a part of your face. There. That is how I want to remember you best. I don’t want anything to taint you, my Mona Lisa. Your architecture is of stunning quality; your architect is a talented one. You alone have been given the gift of beauty. I have set my eyes on you. My heart has chosen you; my sense of beauty has been consummated in you. You lack nothing, my love. There simply is no flaw in you. All of the world’s beauty finds perfection in you—not a single atom remains untouched and unconsumed by you. You, my love, are beyond comparison. The gods had a field day when they formed you—yet they created me, too, your committed lover. You lack nothing—but this you do not know. For you lack one thing: me. In lacking me, you lack everything. For it is I who see you. It is I who notice you. My eyes have been created to see you as you are. My eyes hold the keys to your beauty. I alone am able to discover you. You are mine, for I have chosen you. My heart still aches and churns for you—I age for you. So much ambivalence! I seek to understand myself and merely find my reflection in you. I seek to let you…but you have consumed me whole. There are no words left for me to write. I have lost all the consonants. I am not sure. Will I ever be able to convince you with my letters? Will you ever take the time to read them? Will you ever, in your fairy tale life, choose me as I have chosen you? Don’t you see me? I crave you.

The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology: A Brief Summary and Evaluation of Alvin Plantinga’s Argument

In his article “The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology,” Plantinga argues that the Reformed tradition has had a tendency to refuse to succumb to natural theology. The reason being that the Reformed tradition views the idea of God as properly basic. By properly basic, Plantinga means that this belief (i.e., the idea of God) is not grounded nor supported by anything else—it merely is (with or without arguments). A properly basic belief is a belief that is not contingent upon anything else; it is not a belief that needs an argument or a proof to support it. Most people throughout history had believed in God—with or without evidence. This seems to suggest that the idea of God is a “natural” starting point for most humans; it is the “default position” with which most of us function in the world.

Plantinga begins his article by mentioning briefly the diverse views the Reformed tradition has had towards natural theology. Citing Herman Bavinck, Plantinga summarizes his anti-natural theology view: “[A]rguments or proofs are not, in general, the source of the believer’s confidence in God” and “[A]rgument is not needed for rational justification; the believer is entirely within his epistemic right in believing that God has created the world, even if he has no argument at all for that conclusion.”[1] Plantinga, as a Christian himself, also points to the Bible as a template for how natural theology should be done: it shouldnt. He writes, “There is nothing by way of proofs or arguments for God’s existence in the Bible; that is simply presupposed.[2] The Bible itself does not respect natural theology. If so, why should we?

John Calvin, the reformer of reformers, writes that “we conclude that it [belief in the existence of God] is not a doctrine that must first be learned in school, but one of which each of us is a master from his mother’s womb and which nature itself permits no one to forget.”[3] What about those who are “naturally” atheists and unbelievers, what explains there predicament? Calvin has a ready-made answer for that: sin. Our minds have been clouded by sin so much that some of us no longer even have this allegedly “properly basic belief” in God. Plantinga, summarizing Calvin’s views, bitingly suggests that “one who doesn’t believe in God is in an epistemically substandard position—rather like a man who doesn’t believe that his wife exists, or thinks she is like a cleverly constructed robot and has not thoughts, feelings, or consciousness.”[4] Ouch! It seems that all atheists potentially may be denying not only God’s but even their spouses’ existence! So much for those who reject properly basic beliefs. He who has this so-called properly basic belief doesn’t hold belief in the existence of God as being made rational by virtue of supporting arguments, be they the teleological, ontological, or cosmological arguments; no, “he doesn’t need any argument for justification or rationality.”[5]

Plantinga then goes on to speak of epistemic foundationalism. He defines classical foundationalism as being a noetic structure in which belief B is founded upon belief A; where beliefs can be right or wrong; where there are “responsibilities and duties that pertain to believings as well as to actions…”[6] In classical foundationalism, “[t]o criticize a person as irrational, then, is to criticize her for failing to fulfill these duties or responsibilities.”[7] However, the problem with classical foundationalism is that some of our beliefs are, well, properly basic. For example, “I believe that 2+1=3…and don’t believe it on the basis of other propositions.”[8] Moreover, one can believe one loves another human being on the basis of nothing—I can meet a girl I’ve never seen before and have such feelings for her that may be rationally unjustifiable. I can feel pain in my body and not have to believe that I have the pain because of something else—I simply believe I have the pain without resorting to arguments for or against such a properly basic belief. Plantinga also mentions how some of our properly basic beliefs have different “depths of ingression.” Some of our beliefs—like the belief that I have pain in my neck—will not have any repercussions if, say, I awake and find the pain was an illusion. Losing such a properly basic belief will not cause me to undergo a paradigm shift.

Plantinga points out that when the Reformers rejected classical foundationalism, they were not, by any means, rejecting everything these guys taught. Rather, they rejected the idea that all our beliefs needed to be grounded (read: founded) upon something else. All of our beliefs need reasons, arguments, justifications, other beliefs, etc., in order to be “rational.” One may call such Reformers “weak foundationalists.”

An objection here could be made to Plantinga’s claims. He foresees this and finishes his article by dealing with “the great pumpkin objection.” The objection goes like this: if people have properly basic beliefs, how do we know which beliefs they are? For example, what if someone were to argue that belief in the great pumpkin is basic? How do we go about arguing with that? Planting believes that we must inductively decide whether beliefs are properly basic or not. Of course such a method is not definitive—it is by no means deductive. “We must assemble examples of beliefs and condition such that the former are obviously properly basic in the latter, and the examples of beliefs and conditions such that the former are obviously not properly basic in the latter. We must then form hypotheses as to the necessary and sufficient conditions of proper basicality and test these hypotheses by reference to those examples.”[9] In other words, if you see another human being walking towards you, and you are not on any known hallucination-inducing medications, you’re probably right in thinking there really is a person there. Finally, there is no way we’ll even reach a consensus. People will simply disagree regarding which beliefs are basic or not. Most of us, as history has shown, will simply take belief in God as properly basic, whether other people agree with us or not.

I, myself, find Plantinga’s argument, overall, as being rather convincing for several reasons. First, Plantinga is right in concluding that we’ll probably never reach a consensus regarding what is basic and what is not. After seeing many, many debates throughout my life, I only get the feeling—which is now bordering on certainty—that human beings are not capable of consensus in regards to that which is or is not “rational.” We have inherent differences in the way we reason. Foundational principles for some of us are entirely different than those around us. What for some passes as “self-evident,” passes as “self-delusion” for others; what one sees as “rational,” another sees as empirically and logically “irrational.” Certainly, our brains are structurally different—we have brain-prints that are simply unique; we each have brains full of neurons wired differently from the wiring of the next person standing next to us. No two of us agree on everything. And those of us who don’t agree, clearly are in the right and are rational! It is that one who is not rational. Therefore, the belief in a universal logic or a universal foundational principle is absurd—the empirical evidence has been in for thousands of years in human history, and humans are guaranteed one thing: they will disagree (while arguing that their side is more “rational.”). I will have nothing to do with a utopian belief that a universal rationality exists—I remain thoroughly unconvinced by philosophers who argue otherwise.

Second, there is hardly a reason to think that logically a universal logic exists. Kurt Gödel, surely, had shown the “impossibility of proof” even within such a stringently certain field as mathematics. Even math has axioms which remain self-referential. If self-referential, there is no way to ultimately prove them—all one can do is assume they are true. One can only say that 0 equals 0—all the while believing one understands what 0 actually means (since, in the example, it is self-referential). Elements of paradox and, potentially, faith exist even in formal logic. Given the reality of Gödel’s two incompleteness theorems, I believe it’s fair to extend the implications to rationality as commonsense. What one deems is rational in one’s own subjective logical “noetic structures,” may be the very thing that another—subjectively—rejects as axiomatic. For example, in thinking about what constitutes proof, some of us—both “rational” theists and “rational” atheists—disagree. On the one hand, the theists take for granted some key axiomatic beliefs, such as the critical belief that there exists something potentially outside the empirical world of our senses. The atheists, on the other hand, are uncritically accepting of the empirical senses. While they may (or may not) reject some aspects of their empirical certainties, most uncritically assume that what they see is really true and real. Given these realities, realities in which I see different noetic structures operating on vastly different and unabashedly contradictory faith-based unprovable axioms, it is impossible—at least for me—to uncritically accept and sustain the untenable belief that universal rationality and a “universal logic” exists. With that, I must remain in complete agreement with Plantinga: there are properly basic beliefs, and we will never agree on them.

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Alvin Plantinga, “The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology,” in Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, eds. Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger, 5th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 208. Italics original.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 209.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 211.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 210.

[9] Ibid., 214.