…by Jonas E. Alexis
Much of what French philosopher Michel Onfrey has said in his recent interview with Russia Today about France’s foreign policy is true. France, he said, has been in cahoots with the US with respect to invading other countries for a long time, and virtually nothing good has come out of this alliance.
The West’s double standard, Onfrey argued, can be easily detected. Terrorism, he moves on to say, is no different than using fighter jets to kill innocent men, defenseless women and children. In a sarcastic way, Onfrey declared,
“Knives are bad, and swords are bad as well, but fighter jets are good, though they can kill as many as 200 people, including women and children.”
Onfrey moved on to assert:
“When we want money for our football team, we are friends with Qatar, or when we are looking for a buyer for our beautiful buildings in Paris, we’re friends again. If we’re looking for a person to give him the Legion of Honour order, we are friends with Saudi Arabia. Though we know for sure that these three countries [including Turkey] cooperate with ISIS.”
So far, Onfrey is doing all right. Saudi Arabia and Turkey, as we have argued elsewhere, are terrorist cells. And the United States continues to give them a free pass to bomb civilians in places like Yemen.
Which brings us to an important point here: the so-called war on terror is a smokescreen, and it has been used by the oligarchs to destroy countries, cities, and livelihood in the Middle East. Daniel L. Davis, an analyst on national security and foreign policy and a retired Lt. Col. after 21 years in the US Army, including four combat deployments, declared:
“The default foreign policy mentality of using lethal military power to solve violence and instability overseas has been exposed as a near-total failure. While no strategy can guarantee success, there are common sense alternatives that offer a rational hope for success. It’s time to stop doing what we know doesn’t work and try something that has a chance.”
We strongly support Onfrey whenever he is deconstructing perpetual wars in the Middle East. But his assessment is logically inconsistent with he has propounded for years in his books. We must emphasize that Onfrey is a child of the Enlightenment. In fact, he admits quite openly in his A Hedonist Manifesto: The Power to Exist:
“I want to continue to logic of the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. Those ideas are not just archeologically valuable; they can serve as trans-historical models.”
What, then, is “the logic of the Enlightenment”? Well, man is just matter and chemistry and nothing more. This was propounded quite aggressively in La Mettrie’s L’Homme Machine—Man: a Machine and D’Holbach’s System de la Nature. Though Voltaire was known to be a flaming infidel during the French Revolution, he was not prepared to tread on d’Holbach’s path, maintaining that nature seems to suggest that there is an intelligent engine or metaphysical cause behind the creation.
Foundational to D’Holbach’s philosophical speculation is the primitive idea that matter is not only eternal but the cause of all that exists. We now know that this is scientifically risible. Even Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose stated back in 1996 that “almost everyone now believes that the universe, and time itself had a beginning at the big bang.”
If the universe and time had a beginning, then obviously matter cannot be eternal. Obviously D’Holbach died too soon—or maybe he should have picked up a copy of Thomas Aquinas’ assessment on this very issue.
D’Holbach, one of Onfrey’s intellectual siblings, started with his materialistic idea and forced it upon reason and science. Other philosophes did the same thing. Aldous Huxley wrote that the reason La Mettrie formulated his materialistic worldview was not primarily because of intellectual reasons, but because his “predominantly erotic” desires compelled him to do so, as indicated at the end of L’Homme Machine. The same thing could be said of Diderot’s Les Bijous Indiscrets.
The French Revolution was, to a large degree, an attack on practical reason. Granted, people like Diderot and La Mettrie pretentiously used reason to advance their ideology, but when all was said and done, La Mettrie and others ended up dancing outside of rational and sober thought. In fact, many of them ended up orbiting around the sexual order and never submitted their appetite to it. Scholar Sharon A. Stanley writes that Diderot himself was interested in “the joy and festivities surrounding sexual awakening on Tahiti,” and he scorned at sexual ethics.
In order to propound their own revolutionary movement, the French Encyclopedists largely used Freemasonry, though they gave the impression that “reason” was their ultimate goal. As intellectual historian Reinhart Koselleck puts it, the Enlightenment (most particularly in France) was marked by primarily two main currents: the Republic of Letters on the one hand, and the Masonic lodges on the other. Other scholars have said similar things.
Onfrey, like his intellectual antecedents, does not seem to understand that ethics cannot be invented but discovered. It is discovered either through practical reason or through conscience or the moral law within every single human being. Kant subtly put it this way:
“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more oftener and the more steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”
Viewing Kant, Plato and other metaphysicians with scorn, Onfrey writes,
“A new civilization cannot create values without availing itself of the right to invent its own ethics, metaphysics, ontology, politics, and so forth.”
Onfrey here has locked himself in his own philosophical deadness. If every “new civilization” has to “invent its own ethics, metaphysics, ontology, politics and so forth,” how can we judge one civilization from another? If every civilization is entitled to its own ethics, isn’t it presumptuous of Onfrey to criticize past civilizations or even the French government? Why is he imposing his own values and metaphysics on the French government? And isn’t he implicitly saying that ethics and metaphysics transcend civilizations themselves?
Onfrey, of couse, does have the intellectual sophistication to understand the problem his own philosophy poses, but he doesn’t seem to have a viable option because his atheism cripples his intellect and does not allow him to reach his full potential as a serious thinker. He writes, “I believe we should turn our back on fictions and fables and drive ourselves truly toward philosophy.”
I believe if we turn our back on fictions and fables and drive ourselves truly toward philosophy, we will realize that Onfrey’s atheism, like Richard Dawkins’ and Daniel Dennett’s sophomoric reasoning, is like a room full of smoke. Following La Mettrie, D’Holbach and others, Onfrey believes that ethics “proceeds from the brain, not the mists of conscience.”
One needn’t be a philosophe to realize that this formulation is preposterous and intellectually worthless. It assumes that the brain has the capacity to think and reason. But as Nobel laureate Sir John Eccles pointed out years ago, the brain cannot think on its own. There is “a ghost” in the “machine” which uses the brain as a conduit to bring about rational thought.
In other words, the real person inside does the thinking and tells the brain what to do. Hence the old saying “Use your brain,” not “Let your brain use you.” Ignoring this vital deduction, Onfrey asserts,
“I am my body, nothing else. Morality proceeds from there….Ethics is not given but produced and constructed. Like contemporary art, it exists as an artifact.”
In the very next sentence, Onfrey says, “The brain acts as a digital hub, so we need to train the neurons and imbue the nervous system with ethics.” Who’s “we”? Isn’t Onfrey following La Mettrie, who perpetuated that man is just a machine? There is no “I” or “We” at all, if man is just a machine. Richard Dawkins makes the same logical mistake in his widely read book The Selfish Gene. He writes:
“We are survival machines, robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.”
Yet, in the same book, Dawkins undermines his own mines by saying:
“We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination…We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”
Dawkins, Onfrey and others are trying to have it both ways. Machines cannot have the free will to turn against their creators. In fact, Dawkins himself denies that human beings have free will.
G. K. Chesterton would have almost certainly called Onfrey and others “the new rebel” because their intellectual feet are firmly planted in midair. It gets worse. Onfrey literally kills his entire philosophical project by saying:
“Good and bad, true and false, just and unjust, beautiful and ugly are all human judgments that are contractual, relative, and historical. Those forms do not exist a priori, only a posteriori. In order to exist, they have to be written into the neuronal network. There is no morality without the neuronal connections that permit it.”
Good and bad are relative, but Onfrey thinks that France is wrong in supporting terrorist states like Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Onfrey also declared elsewhere that “some cultures are better than others.” How does that line up with the relativistic principle Onfrey has articulated in his book?
If Onfrey cannot see that his philosophical calculus is patently contradictory and therefore incoherent, then we can’t rescue him from intellectual oblivion. Onfrey did not help is cause when he endorsed the French Revolutionary Communist League back in 2002. This was “a Trotskyist political party in France,” which got its start back in 1974.
So, Onfrey needs to address some of those issues in order for us to take him seriously. He needs to quickly turn his back on fictions and fables and drive himself truly toward philosophy. Only then will he be able to see things the way they really are. Onfrey stated elsewhere that he is “a philosopher of the Enlightenment who thinks the Light is preferable to the Darkness…” Then he should have the intellectual courage to go where the evidence leads.
 “‘We shouldn’t look up to the US’ – philosopher Michel Onfray to RT on France’s foreign policy,” Russia Today, June 3, 2016.
 For a recent development, see Alex Emmons, “John Kerry Gives Saudis a Big Pass on Indiscriminate Bombing of Civilians in Yemen,” The Intercept, June 4, 2016; “‘Saudi violence in Yemen can’t be ignored any longer,’” Russia Today, June 4, 2016.
 Daniel L. Davis, “The Days of Perpetual War Must End,” National Interest, June 1, 2016.
 Michel Onfrey, A Hedonist Manifesto: The Power to Exist (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 32.
 See Julien Offray de la Mettrie, Machine Man and Other Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
 See Max Pearson Cushing, Baron D’Holbach: A Study of Eighteenth Century Radicalism in France (New York: Columbia University Ph.D. dissertation, 1914), chapter 3.
 See for example John D. Barrow, The World Within the World: A Journey to the Edge of Space and Time (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); John D. Barrow and Frank Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).
 Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose, The Nature of Space and Time (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 20
 Onfrey, A Hedonist Manifesto, 34.
 Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means: An Enquiry into the Nature of Ideals and into the Methods Employed for their Realization (London: Chatto & Windus, 1946), 272.
 See for example Sharon A. Stanley, The French Enlightenment and the Emergence of Modern Cynicism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 60-63; Michel Delon, ed., The Libertine: The Art of Love in Eighteenth-Century France (New York: Abbeville Press, 2013).
 Stanley, The French Enlightenment and the Emergence of Modern Cynicism, 60.
 Reinhart Koselleck, Critique and Crises: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988), 62.
 For further studies, see William Doyle, Oxford History of the French Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 64-65; Roger Chartier, The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 163; Peter McPhee, The French Revolution, 1789-1799 (New York: Oxford university Press, 2002), 31. Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution (New York: Henry Holt, 2006).
 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason (New York: Classic Books International, 2010), 163.
 Onfrey, A Hedonist Manifesto, 32.
 Ibid., 34.
 Atheist philosopher Michael Ruse compares Dawkins to “a first-year undergraduate.” Michael Ruse, “Dawkins et al bring us into disrepute,” Guardian, November 2, 2009.
 Onfrey, A Hedonist Manifesto, 42.
 Sir John Eccles, The Neurophysical Basis of Mind (Oxford: Clarendon, 1953), 285; for similar studies on this, see Nancey Murphy and Warren S. Brown, Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?: Philosophical and Neurobiological Perspectives on Moral Responsibility and Free Will (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).
 Onfrey, A Hedonist Manifesto, 42.
 Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 215.
 Ibid., preface.
 G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1996), 52-53.
 Onfrey, A Hedonist Manifesto, 43.
 Onfrey’s Atheist Manifesto—like Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, and Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape—is so filled with factual, logical and historical errors that one can write an entire book on them. I honestly think that Onfrey could have done a better job.
Jonas E. Alexis has degrees in mathematics and philosophy. He studied education at the graduate level. His main interests include U.S. foreign policy, the history of the Israel/Palestine conflict, and the history of ideas. He is the author of the book, Kevin MacDonald’s Metaphysical Failure: A Philosophical, Historical, and Moral Critique of Evolutionary Psychology, Sociobiology, and Identity Politics. He teaches mathematics in South Korea.