Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Pilate's Question

Last chance for gas

There are two critical points to be drawn from the Thomas Lessl essay.  This is one:

Religious culture, by contrast, must then be shown to exhibit features which make it unsuited for survival in a changing human environment.

This is the other:

...the values that are championed in the Galileo legend are shared with the broader culture of modernism.  Modernity looks to the scientific culture as a kind of moral exemplar which upholds in some ideal fashion its values of rationalism, liberalism, and individualism.  The more general culture of modernism is similarly unlikely to protest such aberrations of historical consciousness because it shares with science a belief in binary oppositions between reason and faith, knowledge and authority, and between Scripture and the light of nature.
Part of the historical irony here is that the very idea of rationalism was one promoted and preserved by the church through the so-called "Dark Ages."  The survival of Plato and Aristotle, the two pillars of Western civilization to which all Western philosophy (including science) is still just a footnote, is due to the church.  Two of the fundamental scientific theories today, genetics and the Big Bang Theory, originated with Catholic clergy.  Even the atheist Bertrand Russell had to acknowledge the supreme reasoning ability of Thomas Aquinas, a man whose work, it has been fairly said, we are still catching up with.  All of this, of course, must be swept aside in favor of the narrative that religion=superstition, and science=truth.

Rationalism, liberalism, and individualism, are all products of Christianity in Western culture.  If you doubt it, read Socrates' argument for why he must be executed in "Crito."  Consider the arguments against Antigone's actions in the eponymous play.  There was no room for the sacred individual, the Thoreau defying a poll tax, the MLK accepting arrest to prove a greater moral point, in ancient Greece.  The idea was not only unthinkable, it was anathema.    If Socrates is an heroic figure in Plato's telling, it is because he accepts the death sentence of Athens, not because he nobly escapes what he knows is an unfair verdict (even the citizens of Athens say so).  It was Christianity which taught us the virtue of the individual, however lowly.  Chaucer's Wife of Bath is notable because she isn't noble; and yet her virtues make her laudable.  It would take Thomas Gray and finally William Wordsworth to overturn the Great Chain of Being more suitable to monarchic rule and to usher in the Day of the Individual, the Byronic hero:  but without the groundwork of Christianity, the emphasis on the worth of the least among us, the example of the Creator of the Universe born in a manger, that shift in emphasis is almost unimaginable.

It certainly didn't happen anywhere else in the human world.

The idea that man is set apart by virtue of reason is a Greek ideal, but it was championed by the Church throughout the collapse of civilization after Rome fell, and carried on into the Renaissance, where the Church was the greatest patron of both the arts and the sciences.  Why else is all the greatest Renaissance art religious art?  As for liberalism, what is more "liberal" than the Protestant Reformation, which began the turn toward local control, first with the princes in Germany who supported Luther, and then with the cities like Geneva, and even the Puritans of the 17th century who wanted to be free of the British crown to worship as they saw fit, and live as they wished.   The American experiment didn't spring from the brow of Jefferson, Franklin, and Madison: its roots were in Christianity as much as anywhere else.  If it was reason that guided the "Founding Fathers," it was a form of political* reason championed by Protestantism for centuries before the Enlightenment caught up with it.

But it is the "changing human environment" which is the most interesting part of the narrative.  That changing environment, at least since the Industrial Revolution, is largely the product of science.  Global warming, weapons of mass destruction, industrialization which has exacerbated poverty anew in large portions of the world and made weapons as ubiquitous as sunlight; all can be laid at the feet of science, the triumph of modernism.  Fundamentalism itself is a reaction to modernism.  To think even more modernism is needed to eradicate fundamentalism is to think what will extinguish the fire  is more kerosene.

Which returns me to the question:  what is science doing to alleviate the conditions of poverty?

E.O. Wilson thinks it's all about "the meaning of existence."  E.O. Wilson is a fool.  His argument is rooted in the very ignorance and false dichotomy Lessl examines.

I think it’s time to be audacious. The central questions of religion and philosophy are three in number: Where do we come from, what are we, and where are we going? Usually these are just the beginnings of long discussions, but that’s no longer the case. We now have a pretty good picture of how humanity arose in Africa, what intermediate forms existed, the rate at which these forms evolved, and the circumstances in which they evolved.

So I can say, right now, that of those three great questions, we have most of the answer for where we come from. And in this book I take up the question: What are we? We’re starting to close in on that one. We need to know where we came from and what we are to have the self-understanding to sensibly plan where we’re going. Right now, we don't have any idea where we’re going.
First, if you're going to be audacious, know what you're talking about.  His idea of "the central question of religion and philosophy" (notice how he dismisses both by lumping them together. Away with abstract thought!  Science has acquired truth, and banished ambiguity!) wouldn't survive contact with an Introduction to Philosophy course at a community college (I know; I taught that course for a few semesters).  Starting from a definition that favors his conclusion, he quickly erects a structure we used to call "Castles in the Air."  We used the term derisively, and always attached the warning:  "Don't try to move in!"

Mr. Wilson, of course, does.  After all, like Daniel Dennett who has already explained consciousness, in one short summary of his trilogy of books, he explains that science has, or soon will, answered all of those questions.  QED!  Empiricism ergo sum!  Thus did Samuel Johnson refute Berkeley!

Nobody except a few places on the internet is taking Wilson seriously.  He is right about one thing:  we don't have any idea where we're going; and if he is going to be our guide, God help us.

Remember the Dove ad from the SuperBowl about caring Dads, which gets us to "Dove Men Care," the line of products being sold by Dove?  If it were being presented for humor, that kind of confusion of definition would be a pun.  English is an enormously flexible language:  we use the same word, despite the huge fund of words available to us, to mean different things in different contexts.  Care for your child is not quite the same thing as care for your skin.  We know that.  Here Wilson argues we all want to know "where we come from."  His answer?  Africa.

Next question?

If I point out that's not exactly what the question asked, Wilson undoubtedly will dismiss my question as irrelevant and return to insisting the only valid answer to the question is:  "Africa." He doesn't continue the confusion; he doesn't answer that "where we are going" is back to Africa; or to any point in space or time at all.  He plays the game of words as it suits him, but pretends he's not playing any game at all.

Not exactly what Wittgenstein meant about "language games," but close enough; and at the same time, precisely the problem.  Wilson is apparently as ignorant of the work of Wittgenstein and other modern philosophers, as he is of religion.  In fact, he's proven himself ignorant of these two great realms of human thought.  Knowing nothing about them, he doesn't need to know anything.  His knowledge is complete, and being complete it is supreme.  Like Dawkins, Wilson is content to believe what he knows is all that needs to be known, and all other human knowledge is just so much nonsense which he doesn't need to clutter his beautiful mind with.  But leaving his mind so carefully uncluttered, he makes mistakes which would doom a student in that Intro. Philosophy class; and in fact, mistakes that make his entire argument farcical.

Did I ever tell you the story of a doctor who bought some land in the country, to build his second house on?  It's a true story; the lawyer who the doctor had to come to told it to me.  Doctor went out to the property, pointed to a lovely spot on his land that would be perfect for the house, and ordered construction to begin.  Construction duly began, and when it was finished, the property owner of the contiguous lot brought maps to the doctor proving at least half of the house was on the next lot.  The doctor came to the lawyer, desperate to know what his legal option were.

He didn't have any.  He either got the landowner to sell that much of his lot to the doctor; or he tore down at least half of his new house.  He was a very good M.D.  He was a very bad land surveyor and lawyer.  Had he spent 10 minutes consulting people with knowledge he didn't have, he'd have saved himself a lot of grief.

We don't know where we're going; and we're in a rush to get there.  I've seen the wisdom of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospels denigrated as "Bronze Age thinking."  The same people making that argument rely on Plato and Aristotle to even construct a kind of thought they consider "reasonable."  They also use a lot of the thinking of Aquinas, from the 13th century, without realizing it.  The Renaissance designated the "Dark Ages," but without the scholasticism and the monks and the Church, the Renaissance would have had no knowledge to rediscover; it would have been as lost as the library of Alexandria (and let's not forget it was the Muslims who saved Aristotle for the 13th century to rediscover).  I used to think it was peculiarly American, this rush to consider the generation before us ignorant and benighted, and to believe true knowledge only began with our ignorance.  I've come to see it's universal, and the very idea of "progress" is laughable.

Where are we going?  With people like E.O. Wilson and most of the chattering classes of the world to guide us, we're going around in circles.  The truly radical nature of the gospels and the Hebrew scriptures those gospels are rooted in:  the unbrokered kingdom, the first last and the last first, freedom for the captive and release of the prisoners, the year of Jubilee and care for the widow and orphan; justice beginning with how much care we show to the least of us, and how we are all in this together, strangers and aliens all:  that nature is rediscovered in pockets every generation, by people who really do read the Bible.  Not just the "Biblical stories" or the stories of war and slaughter, but the whole magnificent record:  that is how it is known, and it is known in the community for whom it is valued, to whom it speaks.  If it is rooted in the Bronze Age, then so are we all, even in the Atomic Age or the Internet Age.  The environment has changed only on the surface:  just beneath that surface, nothing has really changed at all.

If that truly radical nature of the Scriptures is hidden again and again, perhaps we should ask why.  Perhaps we should examine deeply why the preferential option for the poor disturbs us so.  Perhaps we should reconsider what justice really means.  Perhaps we should think more about what we can do for others, and less about what we can do for ourselves.  Perhaps we should think about why it is so hard to think about that.  It's a much more important question than Pilate's question:  and that is the question E.O. Wilson, and so many others, are asking.  Just by asking it, they cannot get the answer:  because truth is not known or defined:  truth is lived.

That's the great secret of the scriptures.  "How should we then live?"  Ask that, and you are nearer the truth than anyone who thinks truth is reducible to three silly questions that are, in fact, just more abstractions.

*Political in the sense Aristotle meant:  having to do with the "polis."  Not "political" in the common modern sense:  having to do with partisanship.


  1. I have a few scattered comments:

    The survival of Plato and Aristotle, the two pillars of Western civilization to which all Western philosophy (including science) is still just a footnote, is due to the church.

    When I first read this, my immediate reaction was "what about Islam?" ... I notice you do mention that later in this post. It doesn't change your larger point about religion, though, does it?

    If Socrates is an heroic figure in Plato's telling, it is because he accepts the death sentence of Athens, not because he nobly escapes what he knows is an unfair verdict (even the citizens of Athens say so).

    Not to be too snarky or bigoted here, but isn't that also true of (the admittedly fictional) Billy Budd? And my High School English teachers told us that Billy Budd was a Christ-like figure. Certainly the idea that accepting an unfair verdict, even if that verdict is death, is heroic and venerable is ingrained as much in certain Christian traditions (e.g. the veneration of the martyrs) as it was amongst certain elements of ancient Greek society. One could even turn your argument that Romantic individualism owes its existance to Christianity around and say that the interpretation of Jesus' message as one of "individuals matter" is itself a product of Romanticism.

    Of course, whichever way you stand on that argument, certainly the "scientific" vision of the New Atheists is grounded in Romanticism. Indeed

    The central questions of religion and philosophy are three in number: Where do we come from, what are we, and where are we going?

    I do hope E.O. Wilson is smart enough and well read enough to realize he's quoting John Ruskin, inspiration for and influence on Christian socialism as well as the settlement movement ... which, well, involved actually doing something to alleviate poverty.

  2. I should probably go back and include Islam more clearly in that first statement about Plato and Aristotle. I should also include the importance of literacy which is a hallmark of Judaism, and far more influential in Western civilization than often acknowledged.

    And, yes, individuals matter because of Romanticism (Billy Budd is part of American Romanticism, so thus do I square the circle! We could also bring Bartleby in here, to widen the conversation, so to speak. ;-) ). And yes, Socrates was re-imagined as a Christ-figure (let's try not to get too much Northrop Frye in this, mkay?).

    It's a bit anachronistic, in my analysis, though. The point is really more sharply made in 'Antigone,' where her defiance of Creon's law about burial of the rebellious son (I always forget which one!) is upheld by the Chorus, if only because Creon is king. There are no Thoreaus or MLKs in ancient Athens, because that way lies anarchy. One needs a sense of government and morality as something apart from temporal human society to argue for a civil disobedience that doesn't destroy the foundations of the law.

    Ruskin and the oikos: hmmmm. That's another common thread of discussion among seminarians and theologians (some of them, anyway): the oikos as the bedrock of the basileia tou theou. Thanks; I need to read up on this topic again.

  3. Ruskin and the oikos: hmmmm. That's another common thread of discussion among seminarians and theologians (some of them, anyway): the oikos as the bedrock of the basileia tou theou. Thanks; I need to read up on this topic again.

    Perhaps I am as poorly read as I wonder if E.O. Wilson is. Could the quote from Wilson that I have always seen attributed to Ruskin actually be from someone else? FWIW, Hugh Thomson Kerr attributes it to Ruskin: http://www.forgottenbooks.com/readbook_text/The_Highway_of_Life_and_Other_Sermons_1000621039/33

  4. Sorry, my bad: I followed your Wiki link and found Ruskin commenting on the oikos, which triggered seminary memories, which prompted me.....

    But, serendipity! We have the Ruskin quote in full, now. Many thanks for that.

    The oikos is yet another matter. ;-)

  5. I was so busy nitpicking other things, I missed this:

    Fundamentalism itself is a reaction to modernism.

    Fundamentalism is not just a reaction to modernism, but (religious) Fundamentalism is part of modernism and requires modernism to exist: for example, as many have pointed out, you cannot have Orthodox Judaism without the printing press making the Shulchan Aruch affordable so that way every Jewish home could have a copy and thus know exactly how to be Jewish; you cannot have the Great Awakening and its emphasis on signs of conversation without Enlightenment era empiricism; and the chronological emphases of the Scofield Reference Bible reflects a very modern view of how time and history work. Perhaps both religious Fundamentalists and Atheists might each be at pains to draw a distinction between Fundamentalism and (secular) Modernism, but Fundamentalism is as much a movement of modernity as the New Atheism.

  6. You are quite right. I always marveled at the hard-shell Baptists I grew up among, who would adopt the latest technology in their lives while insisting the world was only 6000 years old, who made their money drilling for oil while certain there was a literal heaven and a literal hell (even Dante knew he was dealing in metaphor and symbolism).

    And frankly, I can't slip a piece of paper between "New Atheists" and fundamentalists. They remind me of the characters from Star Trek, half-black and half-white, the distinction being which side is which color: and locked in mortal combat when they are the only two of their species left.

  7. I wish Alberich still did his blog, I learned so much from it, just as I do from this blog. Alberich led to me looking into the nearest Conservative Synagogue for a while. Any recommendations of other blogs of the Jewish and Protestant traditions for a unchurched Irish Catholic to learn from?