Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Theism and emotional attitudes to adversity

Here are two three possible emotional attitudes towards great adversity:

  1. Judaeo-Christian: hope

  2. Stoic: calm

  3. Russellian: anger/despair.

Now consider this argument:

  1. The appropriate attitude towards great adversity is Judaeo-Christian or Stoic.

  2. If naturalism is true, the appropriate attitude towards great adversity is Russellian.

  3. So, naturalism is false.

The reason for (1) is the obvious attractiveness of the hopeful-to-calm part of the emotional spectrum as a way of dealing with diversity.

The reason for (2) is that emotions should fit with reality. But as Russell argues, a naturalist reality does not care about us: we came from the nebula and we will go back to the nebula, and the darkness of our life makes Greek tragedy the supreme form of human art. The most we can do shake our fist at the injustice of it all.


Alex H said...

I'm curious why the naturalist cannot respond to great adversity with calm like the Stoics. If reality, according to the naturalist, does not care for us, then it seems reasonable to respond with calm to adversity. After all, one could not truly expect things to go otherwise. Reality just is what it is, so calm acceptance of one's fate seems like an acceptable response that fits with a naturalist reality.

Zsolt Nagy said...


I would consider myself a naturalist accepting Nature, as it is, calmly.
But sometimes I'm at the depth of despair and anger while witnessing a supposedly not just self acclaimed mathematician and philosopher proposing and suggesting Newtonian Mechanics and with that associated ordinary differential equations to be false because of them being incompatible with discontinuous positions and discontinuous functions.

"Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe."
maybe or maybe not from Albert Einstein,
but certainly from a wise man

Alexander R Pruss said...


Emotions should reflect reality. Distress, sadness, anger and other negative emotions are the appropriate attitudes to unredeemed evils, just as joy, gladness and other positive emotions are the appropriate attitudes to non-undermined goods. The world is full of evil. If naturalism is correct, we do not expect this evil to be redeemed. On the contrary, on naturalism, we expect the ultimate destruction of everything of human value (the Russellian return to the nebula). Negative emotions are the right attitude, then.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I should add that not everyone thinks that there is such normativity to emotions. I accept the Socratic view that emotions are a way of perceiving normative features of reality. Thus fear is a way of seeing a potential future bad, etc.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Alex (P)

Emotions should reflect thé reality that there are things nobody van do anything about.
Why on earth should anybody feel angry, distressed etc. about that?

Anyway, I don't feel that way and nobody has the right to Tell me how I 'should' feel.

Alexander R Pruss said...

My Socratic view is that emotions have a truth-directed proper function much like the senses do. Our skin's thermal sensors sense temperature in our physical proximity. If on a hot day I don't feel hot, my thermal sense is malfunctioning. This is true even if it there is nothing I can do nothing about the heat and the feeling is inconvenient. Similarly, our irascible faculty senses injustice in the relevant context. If an injustice becomes contextually relevant and we feel not the slightest anger, our anger sense is malfunctioning. This is true even if there is nothing I can do about the injustice and the feeling is inconvenient.

You may well just not share this truth-directed picture of emotions. If so, the argument will probably do nothing for you--premise (2) will unsupported. But I think it is an attractive picture of emotions that helps with ethical epistemology by explaining how it is that emotions can appropriately epistemically bear on ethical questions.

On this view, to say how someone should feel anger in some situation is just as appropriate as saying that one should feel hot when the temperature is 110F, or that one should have a perception of green when looking at healthy grass in daytime, etc. These are facts about proper function that we just discover as we go through life, and they are universally applicable.

Walter Van den Acker said...


I do share a truth -directed picture of emotions.
But the truth is that there is no 'injustice' and ,to borrow your language, we 'should' accept this.
So, my emotions are truth-directed, but yours aren't.

Michael Birdwell said...

I don't see how stoicism wouldn't be a proper response. If the stoic maxim is to be unperturbed by that which is out of your control, then surely it would be a fitting response to an indifferent or uncaring universe?

Alexander R Pruss said...


Because it's the wrong view of the cognitive content of negative emotions. Bads outside of one's control are just as bad, and sadness is a response to badness, not to just to badness-in-one's-control.

In fact, I think on the Stoic view, sadness would never be appropriate. Any past or present bad is now out of our control, and hence sadness would not be appropriate. For future bads out of our control, sadness would not be appropriate. And for future bads in our control, well if they are in our control, then we shouldn't be sad because we may yet avoid them. But the idea that a basic emotion is never appropriate is implausible.