Life perspective. Sunset on Mars, taken by Curiosity.
On Monday, NASA is going to have a big press conference (probably announcing the discovery of water beneath Mars’ surface).
Life perspective. Sunset on Mars, taken by Curiosity.
On Monday, NASA is going to have a big press conference (probably announcing the discovery of water beneath Mars’ surface).
Steven Cohen, at The New Republic, concisely slices and dices the Republican dilemma surrounding Hispanics:
Republican elites believe that they can stave off this racialized fissure with bilingual campaign ads and half-hearted appeals to pragmatism. What they ignore is not simply the extent to which they themselves have deliberately encouraged the accommodation of white supremacy within their ranks, but the likelihood that those elements actually have a more coherent vision for the future than they do. Latinos are not a one-issue monolith. Polling shows their views on key issues such as climate change, social welfare, and the minimum wage are out of line with GOP policy. Whites, meanwhile, still make up over 70 percent of voters. It’s entirely possible, likely even, that scaring enough white voters away from the Democrats to win a general election represents a more manageable task than moderating the Republican Party on almost every major issue. So while Santorum stands no better chance of becoming the next president than Graham does, his strategy of pitting working class whites against immigrants at least has the prospect of electoral success. Consciously or not, the Republican Party has decided to put it to the test.
Got that? The Republican Party has a choice between “scaring whites” or “moderating the Republican Party” (that is, moderating GOP policy positions in such a way that the most conservative whites still vote in large numbers; they don’t sit on their hands on election day).
At first glance, the “scaring whites” path looks far more likely to be a winning strategy for Republicans in 2016, but look again: the more you ramp-up white conservative energy, you also ramp-up white liberal energy (like mine). It may be that the Republican Party has reached its high water mark in getting the white vote with Mitt Romney in 2012 (70% and he still lost), and now it’s just a matter of gravity. Go further to the right, and more whites peel off than peel on.
There’s probably no escaping the fact that Republicans have to win more non-white votes than they did in 2012 to capture the presidency (or hope non-whites stay home on election day).
So this is also an interesting paragraph in Cohen’s essay:
What we are seeing now is more than just the usual dash to the right in the Republican primary. It is the end stages of a long fight for the soul of the party itself, the “tug of war,” as New Republic’s Brian Beutler has written, “between its own ego and its conservative id.” It may be tempting to dismiss Trump’s fearmongering (“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”) or Bobby Jindal’s fascism (“immigration without assimilation is invasion”) as outlandish and politically untenable, but Santorum’s appeal to the anxieties of “workers” is in keeping with a demonstrated decades-long migration of white lower and lower-middle class voters to the Republican Party. Taken together, they are articulating a coherent strategy to win back political power, one predicated on the supposed threat that immigration poses to the security, cultural purity, and economic stability of white America.
Here’s Lindsey Graham in debate with Rick Santorum doing an especially good job summing up the Republican dilemma (worth watching to the end for his comment on Strom Thurmond):
Imagine applying for a government job in which one among the many duties listed in the job description is to lead a group once weekly in the Pledge of Allegiance, and being told that, if you are an agnostic or atheist, you still have to say, “Under God.” If you refuse to do so, you will be provided no designee to discharge the activity, and will be fired if you persist in not carrying out this duty. I don’t think the answer you would give to the atheist or agnostic is, “Don’t like it? Apply for another job.” That would be an undue burden on the atheist’s or agnostic’s conscience.
Likewise with Kentucky clerk and fundamentalist Christian, Kim Davis. We liberals should not be forcing her conscience, and she was right to do a Thoreau and accept jail as an alternative to compliance.
Gay and lesbian marriage should not be a zero-sum game where gays and lesbians secure a human right and religious traditionalists have their own human rights eroded. The free exercise of conscience is a human right.
I think her reasons for opposing gay and lesbian marriage are ludicrous, and her fear of hell if she signs the license is idiotic, but when I see her, I think of Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener (of “I prefer not to” fame), and say, “You are a nice reminder not to take shit from anybody. And though I don’t think your reasons for refusal are rational, I do recognize your gumption as a human being, and the heroism inherent in asserting your inner integrity. I understand what it means to feel one’s conscience violated.”
And empowering the state to put an undo burden on conscience means not learning from history (that state power easily metastasizes): “First they came for the fundamentalist Christians, but because I wasn’t a fundamentalist Christian…”
Kim Davis is thus right to stay in jail until the Kentucky legislature is shamed into passing a law that carves out protections for conscientious objection to gay and lesbian marriage for state employees–even as it also provides for legal designees without objections to process the marriage licenses of gay and lesbian couples.
Gays and lesbians aren’t going away, and neither are religious traditionalists. A win-win path to protected rights for all is available here, but partisan perches have to be surrendered to make that happen.
Below is a quote from Franz Kafka on the value of actively seeking out disconfirming evidence, counter-life perspectives, and counter-arguments contrary to your own beliefs, proclivities, and biases. A nice retort to the squeamish who won’t read books that “trigger” them out of their religious or political comfort zones (as recently happened when a Christian university student publicly declared that he wouldn’t read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, which was included on a university reading list of recommended books). Here’s Kafka:
Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, at a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.
The below quote startled me. It comes from a conservative writer who locates the signal in the noise as to what Donald Trump really means for American politics: the Europeanization of the Republican Party. In other words, Trump is riding an emerging wave of populist blood and soil nationalism before our very eyes, moving the party ever more explicitly toward white racial politics of the sort usually associated with the European right:
A classically liberal right is actually fairly uncommon in western democracies, requiring as it does a coalition that synthesizes populist tendencies and directs such frustrations toward the cause of limited government.
Put another way, a growing number of Republicans increasingly don’t want smaller government and free trade, but stronger protectionist government that is ever more heavily militarized and suspicious of the outside world–and led by a strong white man not deterred by moderating courts or legislatures (an American Putin; an American Mussolini).
This recent quote from Rush Limbaugh surprised me:
If you want to find the future of the Republican Party and the country, look at California. There isn’t a single Republican in statewide office. There never will be in the future. It’s not gonna happen. The Republican Party practically doesn’t exist statewide.
The quote surprised me because its admission suggests a non-conservative conclusion: the Republican Party had better stop bashing Mexican immigration. It mustn’t make the mistake in 2016 that Republicans made in California in the 1980s and 90s, promoting policy positions akin to those found in the now notorious 1994 anti-immigration ballot measure, Prop. 187.
But this isn’t the conclusion Limbaugh draws. The lesson he takes from Republican decline in California is that Republicans in the 80s and 90s weren’t militant enough; weren’t anti-immigrant enough. They should have used their political power at the time to stop Mexican immigration dead in its tracks:
You can tie the end of the Republican Party in California to 1986, and that was the Simpson-Mazzoli amnesty immigration bill. We’re talking back then 3.9 million illegal aliens granted amnesty. Since then it’s been curtains for the Republican Party, which means constant victory for the Democrat Party.
In other words, conservatives losing on the Simpson-Mazzoli immigration bill in the 1980s tells contemporary conservatives like Limbaugh that they mustn’t lose on the border fence in 2016. The winning Republican strategy isn’t to make nice with Mexican Americans as a constituency, as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio might want to do, but to arrest outright Hispanic immigration with a southern border fence extending from sea to shining sea:
People are a combination of angry, scared. And there isn’t a single candidate for president addressing the issue in a way that resonates with the American people, particularly Republican primary voters, not one, until Donald Trump comes along. […] Trump wants to build a wall and have Mexico pay for it. He wants to deport all undocumented immigrants. They have to go.
Put another way, Limbaugh is talking Custer’s Last Stand for conservatives here. 2016 will mean stopping and reversing Hispanic immigration to America–or witnessing America’s demographic Californication:
When politicians talk about ‘immigration reform’ they mean: amnesty, cheap labor and open borders. The Schumer-Rubio immigration bill was nothing more than a giveaway to the corporate patrons who run both parties.
Talk about drawing a line in the sand! Or, rather, a Great Wall in the sand. If ethnic Chinese can keep foreigners out, why can’t white Americans use their collective majority to staunch Hispanic immigration before it’s too late?
[L]ook at the Chinese. Look at their wall. They got a Great Wall. They built it, how long is that wall? If they can do it, we can do it. If they got the Great Wall, we got the greatest wall. We can build a greater wall, we can do anything we want. We can do it. Who says we can’t do it?
Aside from being racist, this is a politically unachievable and utopian strategy for dealing with America’s ongoing demographic shifts. It’s an escape into pure imagination. In terms of demographics, Californication of the nation as a whole is ongoing, and national Republicans today are repeating the errors of California Republicans of thirty years ago, alienating a fast-growing constituency.
Thomas Jefferson is a Southerner, but he is not the Confederate Flag. I understand why the contemporary Democratic Party would backbench the two white males (Jackson and Jefferson) who founded the Democratic Party, but I still love Jefferson. His words sing. He was the Anglo-French Enlightenment come to America–and you wouldn’t have America absent the Anglo-French Enlightenment. In terms of early Americans, he towers over even Lincoln.
Here’s Lincoln on Jefferson:
All honor to Jefferson–to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth [all are created equal], applicable to all men [and women] and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.
What we lose when we backbench Thomas Jefferson. The logic of Jefferson–his affirmation of science and skepticism; of the separation of church and state; of the right of assembly and free union organizing; of university learning; of equality; of democracy; of liberty; of progress; of freedom of speech; of the unhindered pursuit of individual happiness worked out by the individuals themselves, not dictated by the State–is the very logic of America, and (one might go on presuming and hoping) the Democratic Party.
But it’s also true that Jefferson never freed his slaves. And yet it’s also true that without his early theorizing and soaring vision of democracy and equality when the intellectual ground was still hard against these, there would be no Lincoln, no Elizabeth Cady Stanton (who echoed Jefferson in her 1845 Declaration of Rights and Sentiments with these words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal,…”), no Martin Luther King.
So the truth is complicated. It always is.
And while it’s true that Jefferson was a slave owner, it’s also true that there’s a straight line from this in Jefferson (“…whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government…,”) to this in Martin Luther King (“One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws”).
Complicate the messenger, don’t shoot him. It’s one thing to render more complicated the historical figures we otherwise admire, rounding them out as characters and treating them with nuance, and another to re-render them into flat and two-dimensional forms again, but just from another angle, enacting feigned offense at their sins, engaging in self-righteous and Puritanical purging, and indulging in iconoclasm.
Someone so emotionally and intellectually complex as Jefferson, who said, “I cannot live without books,” does not deserve this.
Thomas Jefferson shouldn’t get the John the Baptist treatment. It’s a huge error for the Democrats to hand Jefferson over to the Republican Party with his head, as it were, on a platter. Republicans will simply appropriate Jefferson to their own ends–and that quite gleefully. What a gift to lay in their laps!
We don’t need the Second Coming of Thomas Jefferson draped in the ludicrous ideological garb of Ted Cruz and the Tea Party. And the American flag and America’s founders don’t belong to the Republican Party either. How ironic Jefferson would have regarded such a turn on his fate: his abandonment by the very party he started.
Obama and Jefferson. President Obama certainly has never ceded Jefferson to the Republicans. In May of 2010, he quoted and commented on Jefferson–a slave owner, let me again emphasize–before a group of graduates at a historically black university (Howard), speaking the following words:
Years after he left office, decades after he penned the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson sat down, a few hours’ drive from here, in Monticello, to write a letter to a longtime legislator,…’If a nation expects to be ignorant and free,’ he [Jefferson] wrote, ‘it expects what never was and never will be.’ What Jefferson recognized, like the rest of that gifted generation, was that in the long run, their improbable experiment – America – wouldn’t work if its citizens were uninformed, if its citizens were apathetic, if its citizens checked out, and left democracy to those who didn’t have their best interests at heart. It could only work if each of us stayed informed and engaged; if we held our government accountable; if we fulfilled the obligations of citizenship.
Why did Obama deploy a quote from a slave owner at a historically black university? Because Obama is an intellectual–a Constitutional law professor–and was modeling nuance for the students graduating. The world is complicated and grayscale, rarely black and white. Competing goods are grappled with in intellectual life. The good and the bad are acknowledged and kept in conversation–not sublimated, not buried.
That’s the way the Democratic Party should deploy–rather than dispatch–its founder, Thomas Jefferson.
Marco Rubio thinks “The Constitution of the United States” necessarily forces women to bring to term fetuses conceived against their will by rape and incest. Wow. He really fucked himself here.
The Muslim Brotherhood is every bit as dangerous for Egypt as the Nazis were for Germany. And recall that Egypt, like Germany in the 1930s, has a vulnerable minority, readily susceptible to terrorist violence (in Egypt’s case, Coptic Christians make up 10% of its population). The United States should open greater opportunities for immigration to Coptic Christians.
Marco Rubio signals that he’s anti-environmentalist and anti-feminist in the same (poorly worded and incorrectly punctuated) tweet: “Look at all this outrage over a dead lion, but where is all the outrage over the planned parenthood dead babies.”
And they would have been astonished–astonished!–at how thoroughly atomism has vanquished Platonism–and supernaturalism generally–from the story of cosmic creation, evolution, and our origins.
Also, I notice that, toward the end of the video, Neil deGrasse Tyson sounds for all the world like he’s been contemplating Spinoza: “We are not simply in the universe, we are part of it; we were born from it. One might even say we’ve been empowered by the universe to figure itself out.”
We are a part of God thinking herself?
Hume hearts Buddha. In Hume Studies (Volume 35, Number 1&2, 2009, pp. 5–28), Alison Gopnik has a fascinating essay–“Could David Hume Have Known about Buddhism?”–in which she writes the following:
Hume’s argument in the Treatise, like Nagasena’s “chariot” argument, points to the fact that there is no evidence for a self beyond a collection of particular psychological parts.
In other words, Gopnik is saying that, just as Nagasena, the Kashmir Buddhist sage from 150 BCE, noticed that a chariot dissolves into parts under close inspection–into wheels, a carriage, etc.–so Hume, in his Treatise, on looking into his own self, discovered no evidence of anything permanent or substantial, but rather noticed that the self too is something that actually dissolves into parts under close inspection.
Hume gives a dharma talk. Put another way, for Hume, as for the Buddha, there is no essential and independent self apart from the rest of “the music of what happens” (a phrase from Seamus Heaney’s poem, “Song”). That is, the self is emergent, as a mirage of water is emergent from sun-baked asphalt. To get the mirage, you need its confluence of conditions–and these, like a mirage, are aflame; the mirage is ever-shifting with conditions. “Oh bikkhus,” said the Buddha, “the world is on fire!”–and Hume would agree.
So a Buddhist might put Hume’s position this way: No flower in the flower. No chariot in the chariot. No self in the self. If you’re dwelling in ignorance (avidya), you’ve mistaken the self that is non-dual, empty, impersonal, contingent, impermanent, and interdependent for something dual, essential, personal, permanent, disconnected. You’ve mistaken a rope for a snake; a composite chariot for a simple, self-existent, and self-same chariot. You’re under the spell of one side of a figure-ground illusion.
So here’s Gopnik quoting Hume sounding for all the world like he’s giving a dharma talk:
There are some philosophers who imagine we are every moment intimately conscious of what we call our self….For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. When my perceptions are removed for any time, as by sound sleep, so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist…I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement (T 1.6.4, 1–4; SBN 251–53).
Hume’s insight here marks a break with traditional western monotheism, with its notions of immortality and a self that is simple and not consisting of parts. But if Hume’s view of the self is a break with the dominant classical and medieval philosophical threads of the western past, it also anticipates the innovations in art and physics that came out of western culture in the early 20th century–most directly represented by Picasso and Einstein.
Hume hearts Picasso and Einstein. Like Hume, Picasso discerned that when we really linger with a thing, it quickly unravels into parts; into things we zoom-in on and give weight to, making them important–even distorting their objective relation, out-sizing them to match thoughts, desires, and aversions. And in art, Picasso saw that he could then juxtapose these heavy and lingering blocks of attention in novel configurations, generating a surprising and fresh way to represent things. Against mere objective mimesis (imitation) in art–the best picture looks like a photograph–Picasso juxtaposed the broken image; fragmentation. He returned the subject to art; the wayward, surprising, and ever shifting attention of the individual awareness to art. The subject perspective, for Picasso, was not marginal to the truth, but intertwined with it. Likewise, Einstein also discerned a shifting relativity to perception, conceptualizing space and time from the vantage of the ever shifting subject. As George Johnson, in a book review for The New York Times puts it:
From our blinkered perspective we see qualities called space and time. But in relativity theory, the two can be combined mathematically into something more fundamental: a four dimensional abstraction called the space-time interval. Time and space vary according to the motion of the observer. But from any vantage point, an object’s space-time interval would be the same — the higher truth that can be approached only from different angles.
Einstein’s insight here is in stark contrast with essentialists like the Nazis. Here’s Johnson again:
It’s no wonder Nazis hated relativity. They lived in a world of absolutes. There was a master race with one true religion and one true language, with a music and literature that celebrated its glory. There was a true German empire, sliced up by the arbitrary boundaries of concoctions called nation-states. With absolute might the Fatherland would regain its proper position in space and time.
Now comes this Einstein. Without even the benefit of a proper German education, he was fiddling with numbers and symbols and through some kabbalistic magic conjuring a universe in which it was impossible to say where you were. You could only describe your position in relationship to something else — which could only describe its position in relationship to you.
In Einstein’s cockeyed scheme you couldn’t even say with authority what time it was. Again, your time was relative to their time and their time was relative to yours. This was from his Special Theory of Relativity. The sequel, General Relativity, was even weirder. Gravity is the curvature of some four-dimensional mind stuff called space-time. It was a trick of the Elders of Zion, some philosophical disease. “Scientific Dadaism,” a prominent German scientist called it.
Einstein hearts Hume–as do professional contemporary philosophers. In his A History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell writes that “Albert Einstein admitted that he could not have the gumption to oppose Newton’s immortal status without reading Hume,” and in polls of professional contemporary philosophers, Hume always manages to be at the top–or near the top–of lists of favorite and important philosophers.
So if Hume seems to reach back to Buddhism, as Alison Gopnik claims, he also reaches forward to modern art, physics, and culture. Were Hume our contemporary, it’s not difficult imagining him delighting in what the scientific, philosophical, and art worlds have become–and bumping into his large and robust frame at a meditation class–though maybe not a yoga class!
But however he took his exercises, I think Hume would be gratified to discover that he and Buddhism appear to have won the future over Aquinas, the Nazis, and monotheism.
Buy land in Canada now?
This is crazy. Wow. Climate scientists discuss their angst and frustration with Esquire over being ignored about global warming. They’re obviously seeing themselves as today’s Noahs, sounding the alarm–and like Noah, they’re not being heard.
And if you don’t listen to Noah, what does Noah do?
A number of our contemporary Noahs are confessing to actively contemplating bug-out scenarios for their families (moving to Canada and Greenland are the main contenders, it appears). That’s how bad the climate science is starting to look to experts.
So they’ve got private ark ambitions.
The irony is that there may be many Americans, blowing off climate change and resentful of Mexican immigration today, contemplating their own desperate immigration to Canada in the future.
Will Canada need a wall? The Great Wall of Canada? Keep the Americans out?
Robbed, killed, raped, enslaved–all in the name of God. Ain’t monotheism grand?
The problem. Here’s the reality: Darwin upended special creation, leaving basically just one plausible chess move to anyone who accepts evolution and posits a literal Adam and Eve: the miraculous insertion of a soul into an already evolved species of animal (perhaps Homo heidelbergensis).
Without the special creation of our biological species, one needs to posit the special creation of souls–souls that enter the world via an already evolved species. This means at least two miraculous births–from two separate animal mothers.
Put another way, there must be a soulless hominid Mary and a soulless hominid Elizabeth of the Stone Age, and one has to give birth to Adam, the other to Eve–creating the first couple with actual human souls (miraculously placed there, presumably, by God).
Who will Cain and Abel marry? Once you’ve got Adam and Eve and their offspring going, there’s still another problem. You’ve got the non-souled, native population to deal with. They either have to be displaced or assimilated by interbreeding.
Yes, that means bestiality.
If you’re going to trace all of humanity today, and original sin, to a first couple, then Adam and Eve’s soul mutation had to spread somehow through an already existing population of non-souled hominids (exactly the way a biological mutation spreads through a population–it starts with one and works its way out to the whole group).
But now things are getting quite complicated.
Drop evolution and return to biblical literalism? By contrast with the messiness of evolution, special creation is simple. It starts everything with two (two lions, two people, etc.). It doesn’t cloud up the boundaries between species, and doesn’t set ancestry along a continuum (as evolution does). God snaps his fingers, shapes dirt, or says abracadabra, and there things are. Easy. Magic. No mixing. No hybridity. No fuss.
God rests on the seventh day, everything is in its place, and it’s all good.
But with evolution, all is restlessness, mixing, competing goods, and ongoing negotiation–akin to democracy. No rest for the wicked. Life starts with the first cell that divided three billion years ago–and, like Lot’s wife, it never really looks back. Lineages from that point forward are along a continuum (species divisions along the same lineage are for our convenience).
And with messy evolution, species populations almost never bottleneck at two, then recover again. Ours certainly never did (if contemporary geneticists are to be believed).
A sharp break with the past. So for both evolution and the Adam and Eve thesis to go together, the soul mutation has to be treated in a way that no single biological mutation is treated: as the defining event separating one species from another.
Again, this sort of dramatic break between the parents of Adam and Eve, and Adam and Eve themselves, is necessary only because Darwin threw a wrench into the special creation thesis. In nature, a single mutation spreads through a population, but geneticists don’t, from that single mutation, identify a new species from it.
Geneticists tend to look for the build-up of a lot of mutations in a population as a whole before saying, “We’ve got a new species here.” Because evolutionary lineages are, in truth, along a continuum, these scientific declarations are judgment calls; designation for our convenience, not objective demarcations in nature.
So, according to geneticists, the truth is this: there was no first human–or first human couple. (See the video at the end of this post for an explanation of this.) There was, instead, a lot of spreading around of mutations among a diverse breeding population–never just two–and we, the people living today, are the most recent iteration of that large group process.
Put another way, even if each mutation started with only one individual, each species itself–including the human species–is the product of a pool of mutations derived from many individuals, not just one (or an Adam and Eve couple).
So if a person is going to define Adam and Eve–because of a single mutation, the soul mutation–as a different species from their hominid parents, and that mutation is going to spread, then we’re talking about displacement or assimilation of soulless hominids by interbreeding with the souled. Which, again, means bestiality.
Breaking the spell. If you don’t regard Adam and Eve’s single and miraculous soul mutation as sufficient to mark a new species, then you’re talking about Adam and Eve as just another single point variation within the same species, and this won’t do for biblical literalists and traditionalists.
So Darwin and contemporary geneticists have got those committed to a literal Adam and Eve boxed into taking positions that are difficult to defend.
But how about just breaking the spell of literalism altogether, denying that Adam and Eve ever existed? You can do this by simply treating the creation stories in Genesis as campfire etiological narratives. This is what most naturally fits the evidence.
But going with what most naturally fits the evidence also means giving up on original sin and Jesus as the second Adam. This, arguably, constitutes the end of traditional Christianity itself. So allegorical interpretation takes time to get used to. Galileo also had a simpler theory–in his case, surrounding the heavens—but had to wait, while under house arrest, on his church to play catch-up. “Your idea works in practice, but what about in theory?” Rome wasn’t built in a day–nor fundamentalist forms of religion dismantled.
The cake God bakes. In Genesis, to get a community with souls, God has a simple recipe. He:
Whoomp! There it is! A man, a woman, two souls–and a Mesopotamian garden to get chucked out of for sin. Human beings cool and ready to serve–and with the sexual equipment for making more offspring with the soul mutation. From the first couple, you get the ensouled human community we see today.
That’s Occam’s razor, baby.
But then science comes along.
God’s cake collapses. Scientists have discovered that God didn’t bake up humans the way the author of Genesis imagined. They tell us that humans came from organic matter (flesh), not inorganic matter (dust). They say that the very carbon atoms of which humans are made required the birth and death of stars to produce, and that took a long time. And once Earth had organic matter, it took even more time for the organic matter to organize itself into hominid forms (roughly three billion years). And when those hominids finally appeared, they didn’t exist in Mesopotamia along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, but in Africa.
So that’s three strikes against Genesis. The amount of time to create a human is wrong, there was no direct creation of the first man from inorganic matter, and the first man and woman didn’t get their start out of Mesopotamia.
Oh, and our first ancestors, according to scientists, were black Africans, not lighter-colored Mesopotamians or Europeans (as routinely depicted in racist religious art).
But although that’s now more than three strikes against the author of Genesis, let’s keep the batter up there for a bit longer.
Here comes the next pitch.
Our species has never bottlenecked down to two individuals. Geneticists tell us that the human genetic diversity on planet Earth today is not derived from a single couple that had sex together, say, 200,000 years ago. They derive instead from mitochondrial Eve and genetic Adam–two Africans who never actually lived at the same time, and therefore never met. The human population responsible for the diversity among humans that we see today has never bottlenecked down to two parents.
Now that’s yet another pretty dramatic strike for Genesis. Retire the story? Are we done? Well, we can’t be done, because now we’re talking about Jesus.
That last strike threatens the whole infrastructure of Christianity. Judaism can endure that last strike, but Christianity can’t because, if there is no first couple in a garden somewhere, there can be no first act of disobedience–no original sin. If you don’t have Adam, Eve, and original sin, you don’t need the second Adam to pay the debt for that original sin.
The second Adam being Jesus.
Enter the Thomist philosopher Edward Feser to pinch hit for the faltering writer of Genesis.
The thesis Feser endorses for saving Adam and Eve. Writing at his blog, Feser offers up an idea that he thinks just might save the day for Adam and Eve. Here it is: Maybe, just maybe, Homo sapiens came about exactly as geneticists tell us, via evolution, but the God of history–Jesus–hopped directly into the evolutionary process at the last crucial moment, marking our species’ beginning by inserting souls into two non-humans!
I kid you not. That’s the proposal that Feser takes seriously. The African hominids who were ancestral to our species didn’t have souls, but two of their offspring did–the first humans, which we call Adam and Eve. They were the first ensouled hominids, courtesy of the direct intervention of God into history.
That’s how Feser saves Genesis and original sin. In other words, the very, very last step in the evolution of our species from soulless hominids entailed a deus ex machina–God arriving out of the blue, from the rafters of the cosmic stage, to do something surprising and magical: put souls into two naked, upright walking apes, one male, the other female.
But this still doesn’t account for the genetic diversity of our species according to geneticists (once again, our species, in its evolution, never bottlenecked down to two organisms), so how does Feser solve that part of the equation?
Bestiality. Feser posits–hold your seat here–that the new, soul-filled couple’s children fucked the soulless upright apes living in their midst, bearing offspring with them. This is how the soul mutation spread. One act of bestiality at a time.
Now, hybridity is not unknown to evolutionary anthropologists, but not to spread souls. Feser proposes a thoroughly new twist on human origins.
The human soul mutation spread until there were no longer any soulless naked apes left–only ensouled naked apes–which would be us.
I’m not making this up.
So here we are. Every human being living today has an eternal soul (according to Feser). Our soulless hominid ancestors, as with the fate of all soulless beasts, are long gone. They will never be resurrected–but we will because we have the soul mutation; we go on after death. But, of course, this is a double-edged sword: we’ll either end up living forever in heaven with Jesus, or burning forever in hell with Satan.
Aren’t we lucky to have inherited the soul mutation?
And isn’t Jesus lucky as well–lucky to have Feser, that is? Jesus, after all, not only saves us, but Feser saves him. With Adam and Eve saved (intellectually), original sin can be saved (intellectually), and Jesus–the Second Adam–can be saved (intellectually).
What a happy ending! A home run in the bottom of the 9th for Professor Feser! It’s logically possible, after all. Geneticists can’t disprove the bestiality thesis for spreading souls, nor the insertion of souls in two hominids by God. Souls, after all, can’t be measured. And that’s all the religious believer–determined to believe absent evidence–really needs to declare a win–and carry on with business as usual.
But my question is: why would anyone want to win in this way? Why not just abandon a convoluted thesis? Once you have to take such a torturous route to maintain a thesis, isn’t that the moment you at least start thinking about letting it go?
Who’s being the coward here? Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and an unapologetic young Earth creationist, plays rough with secretly atheist clergy members who have talked in confidence to Daniel Dennett’s The Clergy Project, writing at his blog the following:
The Clergy Project is a magnet for charlatans and cowards who, by their own admission, openly lie to their congregations, hide behind beliefs they do not hold, make common cause with atheists, and still retain their positions and salaries.
Methinks Mohler here doth protest too much, for isn’t it also cowardice that drives the believing clergyman to sublimate, by a leap of faith, an honest confrontation with his own doubts? Additionally, isn’t it charlatanism for a clergyman to then enter the pulpit on a weekend morning, and know that what he says may not be true, and yet he says it (with the confidence of faith) anyway? Mark Twain famously wrote that “faith is believing things you know ain’t so.”
So faith isn’t being brave, it’s being in denial. It’s the let’s pretend game. Let’s pretend we know things we don’t–and pass that off as knowledge shared with courage.
But acting like you have knowledge and courage isn’t the same as actually having knowledge and courage. It’s playing the confidence man–the charlatan–the very thing Mohler accuses the atheist clergyman of being.
A double-bind on atheist clergymen (and women). Let’s give closeted atheist clergy their due. They’re in pain, and the Clergy Project gives them a place where they can talk in private about their conflicted lives. The clergy member who makes use of the Clergy Project is at least admitting her inner truth to someone somewhere. She’s at least not practicing self deception and cognitive dissonance (like so many of her believing colleagues). It’s a first step.
And think of the callous logic of Mohler’s position. He’s basically saying that once you’ve committed yourself intellectually and vocationally to the ministry, you can’t be like Lot’s wife and start looking back. You’ve got to just keep plowing forward in faith, perhaps for decades, and then, if you find yourself losing your beliefs, you’ve got to cut bait and get out. There’s no middle ground to negotiate, only either/or, black or white.
Put another way: Get with the program, stay with the program, don’t doubt the program. That’s Mohler’s alternative to the Clergy Project.
And if you’re going to be a Judas, what you do, do quickly. This means coming out all at once to friends, family members, and one’s supervisors within your religious organization, and walking away, abandoning your source of income (which may be supporting kids in college, etc.).
How many people are really capable of such a traumatic bridge-burning gesture? Probably only very few.
Thus Mohler, by laying the scarlet letter C (for cowardice; for charlatan) on those who contact the Clergy Project, is putting his fellow clerical colleagues in a double-bind: if you doubt your vocation, and secretly contact Dennett’s group, you’re a coward; if you don’t talk to Dennett’s group, and your doubts persist, you’re expected to man-up, confess your sin to everybody of significance to you, and hit-the-road into the secular wilderness, bereft of support.
Call them Ishmael. So if you’re a member of the clergy, you’ve been forewarned. Confess your doubts to unbelievers, and you will not get sympathy or emotional support of any kind from your clerical colleagues. Choose ye this day which team ye are on. Here’s Mohler in the same blog post:
Pernicious doubt leads to unfaithfulness, unbelief, skepticism, cynicism, and despair. Christians — ministers or otherwise — who are struggling with doubt, need to seek help from the faithful, not the faithless.
Pernicious doubt. Did you catch that? Doubt is framed by Mohler as something that causes subtle harm; it’s not a positive virtue. It’s something to be tamped down. If you’re going to get sympathy for your doubt, you have to bring it to your fellow clergymen; you’ve got to keep it in the guild, and your intent must be to kill the infant of doubt in its cradle. It’s Damian; it’s Rosemary’s Baby.
But to treat doubt in this way means the objective truth doesn’t really matter, for doubt leads humans to the truth. Doubt is the bloodhound of truth; the seeker-of-truth’s best friend. Mohler is thus giving his fellow clergymen very narrow parameters for their doubts to chase the truth. They must send forth their doubts in such a way that: (1) institutional religion is not harmed in reputation; and (2) confirmation bias toward one’s religious faith remains in tact. The bloodhound of doubt must pass through “the faithful, not the faithless.”
Which may not get you to the truth at all.
Doubting, Thomas? At the end of his essay, Mohler puts on a brave face as to what the Clergy Project means for religion: “Christianity has little to fear from the Clergy Project. Its website reveals it to be a toothless tiger that will attract media attention, and that is about all.”
And as for squishy liberal members of the clergy who don’t preach red meat superstitions (like a literal Noah’s ark and the rapture) and orthodox doctrines (like Jesus’ virgin birth and physical resurrection), Mohler puts them all on notice as well, writing in the last sentence of his essay the following: “The greater danger to the church is a reduction in doctrine that leaves atheism hard to distinguish from belief.”
Got that, liberal doubting Thomases? Blessed are those who have not seen, yet believe.
Half Dome in Yosemite isn’t really on fire here, it’s just a cloud being hit by sunlight, but I like this photo because it: (1) illustrates aspect seeing (as in psychology textbooks, where the eye can’t decide if it’s looking at a vase or two faces); and (2) raises the issue of chance in photography. If enduring photographs outside of the studio are contingent on lucky captures, can they still be considered art? If you take 5,000 photos, and one of them is as good as, say, a photo by Vivian Maier, do you then get to send it to an exhibit and, on having it accepted for display, declare yourself a photographic artist? Does it matter that Gary Winogrand took thousands of photos for each one of his lasting images? How much of what he achieved should we attribute to skill and genius, and how much to persistence, angle practice, obsession–and just plain dumb luck?
The Republicans’ ongoing racism problem. Even after what just played out over the Confederate flag in South Carolina, there are now racist Republican Congressmen–Congressmen!–who want to shift the battle to Congress. They want Confederate flags displayed on federal lands. Wow. And at cemeteries. Cemeteries.
That is so unpatriotic, disrespectful, and racist. I don’t even know what to say. Do they wish Lincoln had lost the Civil War?
What is the relation between God belief and ignorance? I have a colleague in the science department at my college who said this to me yesterday (I’m paraphrasing): “I’m less sympathetic to the young Earth creationist of today than the one from, say, four hundred years ago because the latter was simply in ignorance, but the former is in willful ignorance.”
I thought this was a wonderfully sharp distinction, and it got me to thinking: what is the relation between ignorance and religion generally?
Hyperactive agent detection and God. Three things that evolutionary psychologists tell us are the following: (1) as well as being integrated, the brain is also modular, and among its modules is an agent detection system; (2) natural selection works by selecting among variations in organisms along a continuum, which means that different people have evolved different set points for their agent detection systems (some are more hyperactive in detecting agents in phenomena than others); and (3) the brain’s agent detection system is generally biased by natural selection toward the hyperactive side of the continuum (it tends to be better to assume that a rustling in a bush might be a large cat, like a lion, and be anxious about it, even if it’s usually just the wind).
So agent detection systems that are biased toward assuming potentially threatening agents are behind just about everything may account in some significant measure for the evolution of religion, conspiracy belief, and superstition generally.
God belief and over-arching conspiracy theories are obvious examples of an overactive agent imagination, for they unify our agent detection proclivities at the grandest scale. They are the ultimate superstitions; the last superstitions; all superstitions rolled up into One. If it’s not God, it’s the Illuminati or the Bilderbergers. Paranoia is next to godliness.
Perhaps this is why Pascal’s Wager is such a pervasive and effective evangelism tool: in your present state of ignorance, you’ve got a lot to lose. Even if there are only hints that God might exist, you better believe–just in case. You don’t want to end up in hell, do you?
This appeal exploits and hijacks to religious ends one’s hyperactive agent detection complex, which has always been a form of fire insurance.
From ignorance to knowledge. If a bush rustles, we might approach it with caution, but once we’ve investigated, and find there is no large predator behind it, we have moved from ignorance to knowledge. Our hyperactive agent detection system initially biased our approach to the bush when we were in a state of ignorance and anxiety, but it can now stand down. When we investigate, we learn what is in fact the case, and we no longer are in need of engaging our agent detection system on that particular matter.
Something like this is what has happened to us collectively, within global culture, over the past 400 years (since the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution that accompanied it). When we were in broad ignorance concerning the nature of the world, religion and superstition were the sources for our first theses about it, and these theses were grounded in hyperactive agent detection. There were presumed to be devils, gods, angels, ghosts, and systems set in place by divine agents–and these were lurking behind all that we saw.
We are no longer in ignorance.
That means we can now see how far our pre-scientific era religious and superstitious theses veer from reality. And it isn’t pretty.
Wind things and contingent things vs. agent things and conspiracy things. Because religion and superstition have had such an atrocious explanatory track record, we now tend, in the 21st century, to make science our go to source for our first theses concerning what’s going on around us. This isn’t “scientism,” it’s pragmatism; it’s the habit of skepticism. We have science now. There are many things on which we no longer have to speculate. We know. And where we don’t know, we’re skeptical of supernatural agent explanations because they’ve failed so spectacularly in the past. They’ve always brought us to a dead end.
So if we tend to cling to agent detection explanations even after scientists have discovered more “wind things” than “agent things” at work behind natural objects–and historians have discovered more “contingent things” than “conspiracy things” behind history–then we are being superstitious–and willingly so. We’re ignoring what science and historiography have worked out over the past four centuries.
Put another way, no reasonable person can pretend to unspill the milk of the scientific revolution. We have moved from innocence to experience. And this brings us to intellectual religion–the last refuge for superstition.
Lions and tigers and bears! Oh my! Science has not yet looked behind all of our anxious bushes yet, and so supernatural agent detection theories frequently take on the form of intellectual religion, retreating ever further to the boundaries of our knowledge. Intellectual religionists can always say, “Of course we no longer believe in Noah’s ark on Ararat, and Adam and Eve in a garden in Mesopotamia, but beneath it all is still a supernatural agent, beyond empirical access. This is the Ultimate Agent: a personal, all-knowing designer God who makes everything work to his purposes (there are no accidents). This Being wants our absolute submission and obedience.”
But we don’t really know this, and if history is any indication, it’s probably an incorrect thesis. (And notice how similar the all-knowing and controlling God thesis is to the all-knowing and controlling Bilderberger thesis.)
So I submit that we believe in God (the last superstition) because we were once afraid of lions. The dreaded lion in the bush has become, in the 21st century, God behind the Oz curtain. Both are the targets of an evolved and hyperactive agent detection system born of ignorance and fear.