This is a pretty big deal. Pope Francis has succeeded in getting Archbishop Romero of El Salvador canonized. Here’s a quote from an excellent summary, at The New York Times, of Romero’s life–and murder:
Archbishop Romero was shot and killed at the altar as he celebrated Mass in San Salvador in 1980. His assassin was from one of the death squads propping up an unholy alliance among rich landowners, the army and sections of the Catholic Church as the country moved toward civil war. The archbishop’s crime was to order soldiers to stop killing innocent civilians. The far right elite saw him as an apologist for Marxist revolution — a defamation that highly placed individuals in the Vatican nurtured for three decades, and that Pope Francis has now finally squelched. The chief concern of these critics was that his canonization would be an effective endorsement of liberation theology, which they feared would allow Communism to infiltrate Latin America. This was a willful caricature of the movement that maintained that the Gospels carried a “preferential option for the poor”…
Interesting that secular liberals could see the blessedness of this man long before many of the (self-described) blessed.
Sam Harris is sexy, right? Perhaps you agree. But think again. How you answer this question says a lot about your orientation.
Not your sexual orientation. Or at least not just your sexual orientation. It reveals something about how you swing philosophically–whether to the East or West.
Nagarjuna vs. Thomas Aquinas. The second century Indian philosopher, the Buddhist Nagarjuna, by reason of logic alone, and having never laid eyes on Sam Harris, would say that he is not sexy. Not sexy. And if you swing East philosophically, even if you’re a heterosexual woman with a thing for intellectual atheists, or a gay male for whom images of Sam Harris perk you up, you’re nevertheless likely to agree with Nagarjuna–or at least with his argument. Sam Harris is not sexy.
But the 13th century Italian philosopher and theologian, the Catholic Thomas Aquinas, would beg to differ. Simply on being informed by trusted witnesses (imagine a time machine here) of the beguiling and mesmerizing powers of Sam Harris over some people’s imaginations, Aquinas would say–though he had never seen him himself, and by means of logic alone–that Sam Harris must be sexy.
So which is it? Sexy or not sexy? What’s going on here? Why would these two heavyweight logicians–the greatest classical logician of the East and the greatest medieval logician of the West–arrive at opposite conclusions as to whether or not an intellectual celebrity is sexy?
It could be that the disagreement exposes a flaw with logic started from metaphysical premises–and why we ultimately need science to settle speculative questions. It can be argued that, in metaphysics, where you start and stop an argument ultimately entails some sort of question begging: “Why did you start there and stop here?” Metaphysics can be too much like a machine for making sausage. Garbage in, garbage out.
But let’s set our cynicism aside for a moment, assume good intentions on the parts of both Nagarjuna and Aquinas (they’re not merely motivated reasoners, but are trying to get at the ultimate truth of matters), and give these two philosophers a fair shake.
Let’s start with Nagarjuna.
Nagarjuna: the first great ecologist. Nagarjuna begins his reasoning with an ecological insight: emptiness. What Nagarjuna means by emptiness is that nothing has an essential and independent existence. Echoing the poet John Donne, no person or thing is an island–and therefore can never just be. Everything that exists does so on the condition that other things be present. Therefore, no person is sexy. No individual can be anything at all. Not essentially. No flower in the flower; no Sam Harris in Sam Harris.
Put another way, when you dig into a flower, you don’t find a flower. You find the veins of its leaves, the silky fibers of its petals, the green ooze coming from the cut stem. What you don’t find is the self-same flower through and through. You find parts that, combined, you call a flower.
Likewise with Sam Harris. Follow him down through the pupils of his eyes, and you don’t find him behind there–only ocular equipment and a brain. Where’s Sam? He depends utterly on a very particular set of circumstances that are not Sam; he emerges (Venus-like?) out of the Great Sea of Prior Conditions, but not of himself. He is not something all by his lonesome, but dispersed into the system of contingent relations–including perceptual relations. Absent the right bodily, environmental, and perceptual conditions, Sam Harris is not the self-same Sam Harris he is at this moment. He’s empty. Change conditions and perceptions, and you change Sam.
Nagarjuna: Derrida of the East. Now if this sounds like an Eastern version of Derrida’s play of signifiers made flesh, you’re on to something.
Think of what Derrida would say about the dictionary and you’ve got a handle on what Nagarjuna is saying about the cosmos. Derrida would claim that no word in the dictionary is an island; that no word means anything absent the system of words in which it is embedded. Words are defined by other words.
And for Nagarjuna, it’s the same with individuals and things. Just as no single word means anything apart from all the other words in the dictionary–a dictionary is a catalog of self-referential signifiers–so individuals and things don’t mean anything apart from everything else. They’re in the play of signifiers–and signifieds. Not just Jesus, but all of us, are akin to words made flesh. If no word is an island, no flesh is an island either. We are not sexy of our own accord. We have no independent power of sexiness that we cast upon others like a warlock casts a spell.
The Tao of Nagarjuna. For Nagarjuna then, we should regard things, in ultimate terms, as: (1) empty (mutually interdependent arisings that are in constant and unstable flux); and (2) non-dual. Nagarjuna would thus like the first purport of the Tao Te Ching (in Steven Mitchell’s translation):
The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.
The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.
Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.
Though these lines come from a Taoist text, the last line is especially important from a Buddhist vantage, for it means that if you can arrest the chain of conditions that bring about a particular desire, you can change what manifests to perception. Desire colors perception. Change the perception part of the mutually interdependent arising equation, and, because all things are ultimately empty and non-dual, you literally change what they are in that moment–at least in relation to you.
So Nagarjuna puts the power of discernment and discrimination–the chopping power of conceptualization–in your hands. Existence is non-dual and a continuum. Think of the yin-yang symbol here, but smudge the line between the black and white fish. How you now cut the fish into two is your call: here’s where the white fish starts and the black fish stops, and here’s where the environment stops and Sam Harris starts. Like Solomon, you can divide your babies any way you like: Baby White divides from Baby Black here, Baby Go from Baby Stop there. But ultimately, there’s no dividing white from black, go from stop, up from down, etc. They’re all one; they’re non-dual; they’re relational; they often manifest along a continuum; and they’re empty.
So Nagarjuna would also like the second purport of the Tao Te Ching (again, in Stephen Mitchell’s translation):
When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
others become bad.
Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.
Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
And Nagarjuna, in the seventh stanza of his Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness (translated by Tenzin Dorjee and David Komito), writes this: “Without one there cannot be many and without many it is not possible to refer to one. Therefore one and many arise dependently and such phenomena do not have the sign of inherent existence.”
Do the one and the many, and being and non-being, really depend on each other to exist? Aquinas would say no, and so Nagarjuna’s non-dual claim exposes a fault line between East and West. Nagarjuna and the Tao Te Ching agree that you can’t have being without nothingness, and therefore even the ultimate–the One or the Tao–is itself empty. Nothing, not even God as the ultimate being (if God exists), has existence independently and essentially–and emptiness itself has no existence apart from beings.
So that’s the last stop on Nagarjuna’s (and the Tao Te Ching’s) logic train. Even emptiness is empty.
All aboard? Not Aquinas.
Where Aquinas and Nagarjuna part ways. It’s at these last two train stops–God is empty and emptiness is empty–that Aquinas and Nagarjuna lose their connection, for though Aquinas agrees with Nagarjuna that all created things are subject to change and contingent upon specific conditions to exist, he can’t agree that Ultimate Being (God) is in the same absurd, vulnerable, and ironic dilemma. God does not need emptiness to exist–nor, for that matter, darkness or evil. Before there was darkness, God was all light; before there was evil, God was all good.
The most existent being–God–is in need of nothing at all. Indeed, nothingness placed into God in a yin-yang manner as a condition of his Being, making him ultimately empty of a single and undivided essence, undermines God’s perfect existence and makes him not God at all. The Ultimate has to be unconditioned by anything–including nothing–to really be His Utmost. God is the necessary Being grounding contingent beings–and nothingness. And the contingent forms that do exist, first existed in the mind of God.
So Aquinas starts his reasoning, not with emptiness, but form.
Aquinas on form. There may be prior conditions out of which forms emerge, but for Aquinas this doesn’t make them empty. So long as they exist, forms are real–they possess real essences–and they consist of two things: actuality and potentiality (or, in Thomistic jargon, “act and potency”). God alone is perfect actuality, not needing to fulfill any potentials within himself. Aquinas’ God is a perfect being; the self-same throughout, lacking in nothing. But not created things.
Once all the conditions for a created form are in place, that form really exists, and the form has actual powers that are independent of its component parts. The form is an emergent property from conditions–but that doesn’t make it any less real. And the form has potencies. The form possesses, by the very nature of its being and form, powers that, though hidden now, manifest in the presence of certain conditions.
So just as a match has the potential for burning wood, you have the potential in your form to set certain people on fire sexually. Your “sexy power” resides in a potency that becomes actual under the right conditions.
In analyzing phenomena, Aquinas thus starts from an essentialist premise, with God as the most existent and essential Being. Nagarjuna starts from an ecological premise: you can never be free from interconnection, and therefore from emptiness. Emptiness haunts being.
So who’s right here?
Aquinas and Nagarjuna: they bleed on both sides. For Aquinas, God has to be transcendent. The first Being has to be prior to all subsequent existence and nothingness–and then remain in some sense apart from dynamic creation. But logically, Nargarjuna insists that being can’t even be conceived independent of nothingness, and therefore anything that exists–including God–has to be empty of essence. This point bloodies the nose of Aquinas’ position. If God is the Ultimate Pot, then, to exist, he needs form and emptiness exactly as white needs black, one needs zero, and good needs evil.
But Nagarjuna bleeds as well. Aquinas would insist that Nagarjuna needs to fix his infinite regress before claiming a victory for emptiness over being: where did the First Pot–the first emptiness–emerge from in the first place? Has it always existed? How can that be?
So both Aquinas and Nagarjuna draw blood when they come into contact most directly at the ultimate mystery–call it The Pot of Mystery. They both climb to the lip of The Pot of Mystery from opposite sides (Aquinas climbs up along the outside of its form; Nagarjuna climbs up along the inside, where the emptiness is). But both come to stillness and silence at reaching the lip of the The Pot. Before them, light falls upon clay that surrounds a dark and empty circle. It is here that logic and words fail them both.
Mountains are really mountains. Zen master Ch’ing-yuan Wei-hsin reached the same impass, and framed the faultline between emptiness and form as a process of alternation: accepting common sense, doubting common sense, accepting common sense (Quoted in Maseo Abe’s Zen and Western Thought, University of Hawaii Press, 1985, p. 4) :
Thirty years ago, before I began the study of Zen, I said, “Mountains are mountains, waters are waters.”
After I got an insight into the truth of Zen through the instruction of a good master, I said, “Mountains are not mountains, waters are not waters.”
But now, having attained the abode of final rest [awakening], I say, “Mountains are really mountains, waters are really waters.”
In other words, every thing that emerges out of the empty and non-dual cosmic network is interconnected with everything else–even as it obtains its own unreproducible identity in the now. Every thing is means and ends in the present. Being and emptiness are akin to looking at two sides of the same coin: mountains are not really mountains–and yet they are. Alternations in time (mountains, not mountains; mountains, not mountains; mountains, not mountains) prevent us from seeing the whole truth at once in a single vision: the non-dual nature of reality.
Rock or pot: essence or ecology? So what’s the right metaphor here? Is God or the Ultimate akin to a rock (the self-same through and through and in need of nothing, transcending even the non-dual) or a pot (incapable of manifesting form without emptiness)? Do forms, at bottom, emerge and exist essentially or ecologically?
Perhaps to reconcile Aquinas with Nagarjuna, we might say that what we call God or the Ultimate is the non-dual (the one and zero are inseparable, inaccessible to logic absent the other, and only approached at the same time, if at all, by stillness and silence).
Aquinas, curiously, went silent toward the end of his life, and Nagarjuna deployed logic to bring his interlocutors to mystery and silence, showing that every logical starting point in metaphysics derails at some point in a contradiction.
So are you with Aquinas or Nagarjuna–or is this like asking, Do you want the vase, or the empty part of the vase? Is Sam Harris sexy?
How about Marilyn Martian?
At this point in my life, I think there are three things that are true–the first one being rather obvious: I am a limited being, embedded in the system I’m trying to explain. This means I cannot be wholly confident that I’ve got a handle on the ultimate truth (though I can speculate). On the plus side, I can get a handle on my phenomenological experience. That’s something.
The second thing I think is true is not quite as obvious, but in our democratic age it’s also probably not terribly controversial: The truth is the whole. In other words, I can’t bracket off small concerns from larger ones and still have the whole truth. If God exists (for example), God’s ultimate truth doesn’t negate my phenomenological truth. Time and space; center and margin; metaphysics and history–they’re all important; they all go together. You can’t really order what’s important about them into a hierarchy–or even hold them in a single vision. What’s good from one point-of-view is problematic (or even lacking sense) from another, and what is means from one vantage is ends from another. Perspective is plural.
Put another way, this moment in time and space, as I experience it, is means and ends to the whole cosmos up to this point. It’s of central importance now (at least to me), and also of utility to some future now.
Does that sound narcissistic? Well, maybe it is. But T. S. Eliot captured this narcissism (if it’s fair to call it that) quite astutely in “Burnt Norton” (1935):
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.
And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
And this brings me to the third thing I think is true: the now is important. This is why Buddhist meditation and reading poetry is probably worth one’s time.
I think meditation and poetry have value because they are, in part, about training a person in habits of waking up to what’s present now; to seeing and experiencing truth and wonder in each moment, as when the poet Wallace Stevens writes of time being the emperor of ice-cream (which is an end in itself–yum!–and also melting away):
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
So a key aspect of suffering is missing the moment because we are discontent with some aspect of it. We make the discontented moment subservient to a craving, which leads to shunning this moment and grasping for a different moment, then holding tight to that better moment–which leads in turn to disappointment when it passes. It’s a vicious cycle; the Wheel of Samsara. Stepping off from the Wheel entails following William Blake’s admonition to see “eternity in an hour.” Along the way to something else, in our obsession with shoring up a boundary, we lose the moments.
Likewise with the truth. The truth is Nietzsche’s mobile army of metaphors; the turning of a non-symmetrical diamond that we can never stop rotating. There’s always more truth on the other side; always another vantage. It’s when we try to freeze the diamond of truth in mid-turn and say–“This is the one vantage on the diamond that should be taken as the ultimate truth”–that we start to feel unease. Our truths won’t stay fixed because we’re always leaving something out. Language fails.
Language fails because truth is akin to a hyperobject (a thing too large to wholly get one’s head around–such as an iceberg, world history, the complexity of a cell, or a galaxy with a billion stars). It’s also something ultimately non-dual–which is the first purport of the Tao Te Ching (in Steven Mitchell’s translation):
The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.
The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.
Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.
Existence, being ultimately non-dual, makes for difficulties to comprehension because we are evolved and speaking animals–and biological evolution and language are concerned with noun and verb, subject and object, cell wall and environment, what’s in and what’s out. Locally and pragmatically, language and evolutionary boundary-making (I compete here and cooperate there; I don’t care here and empathize there, etc.) are important–you can’t say anything or survive without them. But ultimately, existence is non-dual and on the move; it’s a continuum, an interconnection, an emptiness–and these can’t be put into words; into tidy genus-species-specimen categories.
So no man or thing is really an island. Not ultimately. No thing has self-existence. Being and non-being are dependent on one another–which makes for a sense of conceptual emptiness and mystery (no flower in the flower, and yet–here’s a flower!).
So we should get comfortable with emptiness. The pot is inseparable from the form of the pot. You can’t have emptiness without the pot, nor the pot without emptiness. But we split them up–because we have to for speech. “This clay part here–that’s the pot. This empty part inside the pot, that’s not the pot.” We do the same with ourselves in relation to our environment.
And this brings us to the breath in meditation, for our lungs are pots–forms encompassing emptiness. What are you going to inhale (intellectually and emotionally)? What are you going to exhale? What in this moment will you notice and make important–and what will you make unimportant? What will you breathe in, and what will you breathe out?
It’s about accepting and letting go; making room for the new; relaxing. Will you see the truth in this moment in the sense of it being both an end and a means–or will you push it away for some other truth from the past or out in the future? Will you take Emerson’s advice in his essay, “Circles,” to “make the verge of to-day the new centre”?
That, to me, is the problem of our relation to truth: given our existential situation, what will we notice; what will we make important right now? If the ultimate truth eludes us because of the limitations of language; because the doors of our perception are conditioned by our habits, our evolution, our cultural zeitgeist, our desires, our embeddedness–we nevertheless have this moment. Are we noticing it, accepting it, resisting it–or simply missing it? What’s our relation to the truth in this moment–this moment of truth?
I’m not talking about just our relation to an uncertain truth out in the future–something we may have inferred or abstracted incorrectly–but to this moment right now. Means and ends are here. The kingdom of heaven is within, without, and now. In the great halls of truth, where does this kingdom of now reside–this play of matter and imagination in the present–but in ourselves most broadly conceived? Whitman wrote in “Song of Myself”:
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
Do we believe Whitman? What room will we make for the emperor of ice-cream? Because the realm of the emperor of ice-cream is the truth too.
Emptiness shadows theism. With regard to Thomas Aquinas’ method for grounding existence in being as opposed to change or emptiness (as the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna did), what I find interesting is how, despite himself, emptiness nevertheless shadows Aquinas’ theism. What I mean is that Aquinas’ deity, when push comes to shove, appears empty–and in Catholicism, the negative theology of its mystics (“God is not this, not that, etc.”) also seems to suggest this. I think it’s quite interesting that Aquinas went silent toward the end of his life, apparently abandoning words–and perhaps even an ongoing interest in apologetics.
So these are starting points of suspicion for me, but this doesn’t let Nagarjuna off the hook.
Being shadows Buddhism. As with Aquinas, Nagarjuna also appears to have a problem–but in reverse. Nagarjuna’s deconstructions and logic chopping appear to bring one to a sense of mystery as to where emptiness actually gets its extraordinary power to fructify in the first place. Being shadows Nagarjuna. His arguments bring one to mystery, stillness, and silence as well.
So this too makes me suspicious. Are Nagarjuna and Aquinas converging on non-being and being in such a way that they’re looking at different sides of the same coin? It seems that less separates them than initially meets the eye.
The cosmos is shadowed by emptiness. God, if God exists, made a cosmos that appears empty and without inherent meaning–and I don’t just mean that God made a cosmos that possesses vast spaces between the randomly scattered stars and galaxies, and contains (at least on our little planet) creatures that suffer and die. I mean empty as in: no self in the self that exists; no thing in the thing that exists; no cosmos in the cosmos that exists. Nothing has an independent existence. For Nagarjuna, everything is empty because it is interconnected, transitory, conditioned, contingent, and consists of parts–no flower in the flower.
By contrast, Aquinas grounds this emptiness with the positing of a necessary, first, independent, and unconditioned Being. This Being does not consist of parts, and guarantees, as the ultimate Being, that what appears empty, interconnected, transitory, and conditioned does in fact have substance–some sort of salvageable being in the midst of change–and in some cases (as with humans), an eternal being that can go to heaven and be with God.
So everybody admits–even Christians and Muslims–that there looks to be no net beneath the flight of appearances; that things like the Holocaust and dark matter (95% of the known universe) seem to make the cosmos quite absurd and random–but the theist claims there’s a deity who underwrites the empty, contingent, conditioned, changing, interconnected, time and space bound things of which the universe consists, assuring with his own Being their full and independent existence.
But I’m not so sure if Aquinas’ necessary Being thesis isn’t whistling in the dark. Nietzsche was also not so sure about this. (Okay, Nietzsche was actually quite contemptuous of the necessary Being thesis.) And God, in any case, has a problem. A big problem.
God himself appears empty. It’s not just the universe, but God himself, who appears empty.
In other words, even in positing a necessary Being, that Being takes on problematic characteristics. Emptiness hounds God. God is supposed to be ultimate Being–not empty, not contingent, not conditioned, not changing, not interconnected or dependent on other things in time and space. God is supposed to exist (have Being, or rather, be Being itself; be transcendent; be One). Yet, in terms of personality, God sure seems to like interconnection, emptiness, the transitory, and diversity–for he made so much of these things. If one didn’t know better, one might conclude that the many and transitory are all that is. That’s certainly all we see. We don’t know why God made a cosmos of evolution, vast time and space, emptiness, and multiplicity, but–if he exists–he did.
And God never actually shows himself; never actually reveals his independent Being. It makes one wonder. Aquinas would say that the many are in need of the One to exist–to have being–but perhaps it goes the other way as well. Maybe, to really exist–to have being–the One also needs the many.
So when you take a hard look at the idea of God, he is said to be Being Itself, yet he appears to be indistinguishable from Nagarjuna’s prolific emptiness, from nothingness. He seems in need of the cosmos to exist to ground him; he seems in need of a non-dual solution to his own being–which would make him as empty of essence as everything else.
And even Thomas argues that God can only be analogized–never described, captured, or seen. The best response to him is stillness and silence. Not even Moses can look at God and live. And in the end, Thomas gave up talking of him. God has attributes that make him completely Other from what we know. It’s hard therefore to say what it means to declare, “He exists.” He’s more mysterious than Oz, beyond space and time, not consisting of matter, and yet The Most Existent Being, unconditioned, grounding all other beings. Quite strange, paradoxical, and unsettling.
Maybe God’s not there at all. Because there’s actually much less distance between Nagarjuna and Aquinas than might first be imagined–at least with regard to the apparent facts, that the cosmos appears empty and bereft of meaning–this suggests that there’s less distance between atheists and theists as well. The old joke that an atheist just believes in one less god than the monotheist is actually quite telling, for it implies that the difference between Nagarjuna and Aquinas consists of a similar irony: Nagarjuna just believes in one less non-empty Being than Aquinas.
Does the Emperor have clothes? It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that there would be dissenting non-theists in the crowd saying, “Um, let’s stop the pretend. The Emperor has no clothes. The empty cosmos is what we see–and what is. We can let the ontology go.” But this generates panic; an earthquake in the religious believer. “Whattt!!! God has to be the clothing that gives form to the transitory cosmos! We simply can’t bear to live in so naked and empty a universe! It means Nietzsche; it means Buddhism! Absent an ultimate Being, we, as humans, are groundless and without a compass–so we need to believe in God–if, for no other reason, to get our bearings on morality, reason, and sanity.”
Is emptiness bliss or nightmare? Buddhists like Nagarjuna and Dogen, and atheist philosophers like Nietzsche, tend to shrug at theist nerviness and hysterics about the death of God, pointing to emptiness as the clue for living in the now. “No, we don’t have a permanent or independent essence, but wow-wee–just look at what’s going on right now!” They treat emptiness as the space for interconnection, possibility, light, jazz, play, relief–and even happiness. But for Aquinas and other theists, an empty cosmos–and a deity indistinguishable from nothingness–is grounds for a nightmare. We need solidity and “rocks in place”–to echo Thoreau.
But the reality is that there is no solid footing anywhere. Only the merest gossamer gown of ghostly adornment separates Nagarjuna and the atheist from Aquinas and the theist.
From 16% to 23% of the American population. That’s how fast the religiously unaffiliated have risen in America over the past eight years. Stunning.
The Republican Party and the Internet have ruined Christianity in America. Republicans have politicized religion, and the Internet has made it impossible for the religious to isolate their claims from widespread (and withering) critique and scrutiny. The result: the religiously unaffiliated (agnostics, atheists, and those who declare “nothing in particular”) now number more people in the United States than Catholics–and they virtually match evangelicals in raw numbers. No major religious group is gaining in significant numbers as a percentage of the population. Not even Muslims. They’re either basically static, or in decline. Only those who declare themselves unaffiliated are significantly on the rise.
Here are the numbers:
The latest numbers:
Below is The New York Times on this:
After Charlie Hebdo and Pamela Geller, Prophet Muhammad drawing is amusingly dealt with below by Saturday Night Live. In a picture drawing game, what could a blank canvas be inferred to be–but the Prophet Muhammad himself?
So was the Prophet Muhammad represented by the white square of butcher paper–or not? It strikes me as a way to imply that a person has been represented–even as you take that representation back at the same time (much like a politician who resorts to plausible deniability after making an inflammatory statement without explicitly making it).
So again: does the white sheet constitute the “drawing”–the framing–of the Prophet Muhammad, or not? And if not, why did the contestant get the right answer?
Darwin and genetics have blown up the idea that Adam and Eve had a special creation physically. No new species tends to bottleneck down to two (unless perhaps two stray birds get isolated on an island and start a new species). In any event, geneticists tell us that humans have never had such a species bottleneck. So, if you’re a fundamentalist or religious traditionalist, what can you do to save Adam and Eve?
The Thomist philosopher Edward Feser has a solution: make Adam and Eve have an undetectable special creation of souls. In other words, to save Adam and Eve we need a singular mutation–a soul mutation–to demarcate a new species boundary that is undetectable by geneticists.
That is, Feser posits an event that is beyond any appeal to evidence.
Yes, he’s that brazen.
Recall that an evolutionary lineage (such as from bacteria to you) knows only a continuum, but a literal Adam and Eve can have a discontinuous moment that demarcates them as the beginning of a new species in possession of a power that evolution could not have evolved in them naturally: a soul power. This soul power gets spread to their offspring. (And because Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, think original sin here–and Augustine’s idea that their offspring inherit it.)
So geneticists can be correct materially (humans evolved), but incorrect spiritually (Adam and Eve had a special soul implantation that set them apart from all other members of their species).
Physically, no geneticist says, “With this single mutation, I now declare a new species boundary.” There are numerous mutations from all across a population before one says, “This is different enough to declare a new species.” There’s no single couple so wildly different from their parents, because of a singular mutation, that a new species is declared straight off from that one event.
But theologians don’t have this limitation. They can have God enter the scene and implant souls into two soulless primates that magically transforms them into Adam and Eve–the first true humans. And souls can then spread to their offspring without material detection. Problem solved.
Ed Feser’s Thesis. On gay marriage’s advance to date, the Thomist philosopher Ed Feser writes the following: “How have we descended into such Orwellian insanity?…Part of it has to do with the fact that what is at issue here concerns sex.”
That’s comforting to believe. Horny sex-libbers don’t think clearly.
But that’s not the big reason gay marriage has gained traction. It’s not even a significant reason. Here are the really big reasons: love and history.
Big Love and Big History. Love that once dared not speak its name has asserted itself, and empathy (a form of love) is now coming from the broader community.
So that’s Big Love; a soul force (to put it in Gandhian terms).
And here’s the Big History: for millennia, gays and lesbians have been terrorized by threats of hell, silenced, humiliated, demonized, dominated, imprisoned, rendered invisible, burned at the stake, marginalized, manacled, rounded up, tortured, murdered, pathologized, closeted, isolated from organizing, fired from jobs, banned from professions, blackmailed, mocked, and shunned.
So attitudes are changing because of a recent historical move of compassion. Gays and lesbians are seen as Christ figures (despised and rejected of men), and many are aroused by empathy for them. It’s exactly the dynamic that accompanied Martin Luther King’s nonviolence–and Gandhi’s. The opponents of gay marriage ignore this dynamic, blaming a degenerate culture. But it’s actually a sign of the culture’s health and vitality.
So when traditionalists bash gays, even just rhetorically, they’re bashing Christ; they’re bashing Gandhi and King. (“When you’ve done it to the least of these…”)
Therefore, Big Love and Big History are key things that traditionalists like Feser fail to emphasize. They make it about sex, but it’s about love; about self-definition; about a redress of historic grievances–and the empathy of the larger community determined not to let longstanding wrongs persist.
So even if many people don’t have an out-of-the-closet gay or lesbian relative or friend, they see them in pop culture and say, “These are not bad people. Too much is being made of their private lives.”
Thomas Jefferson and Charles Darwin, meet Harvey Milk and Justice Anthony Kennedy. Gay marriage is also about the Anglo-French Enlightenment, science, and the Supreme Court. If you don’t like gay marriage, blame Thomas Jefferson and biologists like Alfred Kinsey, one of the first to study homosexuality and place it along a continuum of normal human sexual behaviors. Kinsey was an evolutionary entomologist and taxonomist before he was a sex researcher. He knew that evolutionary taxonomy is about studying irreducible behaviors along a continuum, not trying to match them to an ideal average or Golden Mean (as, for example, Thomistic essence/accident presumes to do, separating the “normal” from the “abnormal”). He recognized that evolutionary change is driven by the appearance of variety in a species, not conformity.
So biological research and the logic of the Anglo-French Enlightenment as epitomized in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights are now on a collision course this summer with Reagan court appointee, Justice Anthony Kennedy. It’s not some product of the cult of Mao that’s going to ring in gay marriage in all fifty states, but the cult of Reagan.
Madison, Wisconsin recently added atheists to its non-discrimination ordinance. Here’s a quote from the AP article:
Todd Stiefel, the president of Openly Secular, which helps non-religious people become open about their absence of faith […] said people who tell their employers or family members that they are not religious face rejection and harassment. He said he’s heard from atheists who were fired the day after sharing their non-religious views with their employers or disinherited by their parents after opening up about their lack of faith. “It boils down to the misinformation and prejudice that gets passed down generation to generation. People have been raised being told that atheists are evil and they eat babies and they can’t be trusted.”
The AP article played this news story like it was: (a) unnecessary; (b) some sort of freak show idea coming out of a liberal city; and (c) a political hot potato that almost no other city would dare touch–but I’d like to see ordinances protecting atheists go viral. It’s time. As people in increasing numbers define themselves in secular terms privately, more and more of them will also want to come out of the closet about it, and such ordinances would nip in the bud public discrimination.
So I say yes. What say you?
Too this, too that. Theatrical, but moving. Might bring tears.
Watching Jade Beall’s TED talk on body hatred recalled for me the general problem of human suffering described by John Koller in Asian Philosophies (2007, p. 9, fifth edition):
Two fundamentally different approaches to the problem of suffering are possible. Both approaches recognize that suffering is the result of a gap between what one is and has, and what one wants to be and wants to have. The solution to the problem seems obvious: what is and what is desired must be made identical.
But how can this identity be achieved? One approach to the solution is to try to attain what one desires. […] The second approach consists in adjusting one’s desires to what one has.
I especially like the phrase, “what is and what is desired.”
Grasp or let go.
A wedding ceremony needn’t consist of drama–unless someone objects. “Speak now, or forever hold your peace.”
If someone objects, then the Greek drama starts. As in the conflict in Sophocles’ Antigone, in which King Creon feels he has to stop the eccentric love of his son for Antigone because it is contrary (as he imagines) to the will of the gods and good order, so it is with the traditionalists in relation to gay and lesbian marriage.
In 21st century America, traditionalists have placed themselves in the role of the rigid and angry father–as in the last five minutes of The Graduate (when Dustin Hoffman carries off Katharine Ross, and they escape by bus to Simon and Garfunkle’s “The Sounds of Silence”).
So the drama will end over gay marriage–not like Antigone–but like The Graduate.
Why? Because empathy from the larger community and love between individuals are stronger than the will of the would-be restrainers. The black civil rights movement also won by appeals to love and empathy–as will gay and lesbian marriage equality in our day. Traditionalists find themselves belated, behind the times–and holding a bag of metaphysical arguments that have been absented of love and empathy.
Pharisees don’t win in a democratic era. Marriage was made of humans, not humans for marriage. Experiment wins.
Time is passing the traditionalists by, and time waits for no (definition of) marriage or man.
With regard to bakers who might balk, out of conscience, in making a cake for a gay wedding, I think many of us who are heterosexual and support gay marriage have a problem: our empathy goes all in one direction–toward gays and lesbians, but not religious traditionalists.
I think we should carve out narrow legal spaces for traditionalists who don’t want to have anything to do with gay weddings–and I say this out of empathy (imagining myself in another’s shoes).
Just as with gays and lesbians, I think increasing the circle of empathy to religious traditionalists needs to happen here–and that empathy in general should be more broadly and systematically taught in the larger civic culture.
How so? In the reading of good imaginative literature; in the cinema and television; in public schools as a civic virtue (to walk in the shoes of others, most especially those who oppose you; to reflect on the historic victims of utopian ambitions).
Teaching students about the Holocaust and the cult of Mao, for example.
Public opinion shifted on gay marriage largely from media portrayals of gays and lesbians, and gays and lesbians coming out of the closet.
But empathy is a two-edged sword: if you feel empathy for somebody, and you discover a group that doesn’t display empathy for what you now love, you’re going to start feeling hate for the resisters.
And that’s the start of wars. Traditionalists hating and fearing secular liberals; secular liberals hating and fearing traditionalists.
It’s a failure of imagination. But blessed are the peacemakers. It takes work to step over into the shoes of others; to increase the circle of empathy enough to at least tolerate what makes you angry or uncomfortable. For a while, I was strongly against the coverings of Muslim women in secular spaces. It felt like an upending of feminism. It still feels that way. But I’ve come around to saying: let people express who they are.
I have a circle of secular friends who, when one of them recently jumped in with a snarky comment about the Indiana legislative carve outs for religious conscience, I retorted that I didn’t support the broad nature of Indiana’s proposed law, but I nevertheless supported some limited carve outs for conscience (and why). That set everybody back on their heels–accompanied by some pushback, then more or less silence.
I got them thinking. If a few in a community speak up against the knee-jerk group think, it can shift the tone. A little rudder moves a ship.
I believe that once a local community communicates its red lines to the larger community, the larger community better have super good reasons for crossing those lines (immunization of children in public schools is a good reason to cross one of those lines, wedding cake inconvenience is not).
The energy with which evangelicals have responded to the wedding cake issue tells me that a red line is being crossed for a lot of Christians who might otherwise take a live-and-let-live approach to gay marriage and the gay community generally.
So I think intellectual religious traditionalists have a role to play in communicating concerns to the broader community:
It’s not enough to win the abstract and intellectual argument. The empathy component has to be worked at as well. If you’re an American traditionalist, and don’t show any concern for the historic plight of gays and lesbians, or for gays and lesbians in Uganda, Russia, and Muslim countries today, then why is it surprising that others don’t show much concern for your red lines and sublime projects?
I’m not saying that’s right. I’m not saying the traditionalist has to go first. But somebody has to go first. Who’s on first? You are. I am.
In terms of free will, I don’t think we have contra-causal free will (free will that actually interferes with and pushes around determinate matter). I think our brains are modular, governed by often contending impulses, and that sometimes–or even characteristically in some people–one part of the brain predominates over the other.
And so a person who is, by temperament, hyper-religious, may find in herself (when she introspects) a powerful will to override the sexual siren coming from the same brain. She imagines herself, in the narrative of herself, being quite righteous–and this very thought motivates her still more to hold down her sexual siren–but, as Blake, says, “Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.” So one part of the modular brain dominating another part is hardly evidence of free will (let alone contra-causal free will).
I like something the novelist Don DeLillo writes in his novel White Noise:
Who knows what I want to do? Who knows what anyone wants to do? How can you be sure about something like that? Isn’t it all a question of brain chemistry, signals going back and forth, electrical energy in the cortex? How do you know whether something is really what you want to do or just some kind of nerve impulse in the brain? Some minor little activity takes place somewhere in this unimportant place in one of the brain hemispheres and suddenly I want to go to Montana or I don’t want to go to Montana.
I would add to DeLillo’s notion of desire driven by brain chemistry the notion of imagination driven by brain chemistry (another part of our modular brains): the illusion of free will is caused by our ability to imagine logically possible futures, and to imagine how we might choose one of those futures over the others. We then notice in ourselves a desire to choose one of those imagined futures. We follow that desire. But at no point in the process have we actually violated the deterministic cosmos; the swerve of atoms. We just imagine that we have.
We therefore confuse the tight coupling of imagination, desire, and action with free will. Our lives, in other words, run on a huge correlation-causation fallacy. Imagination, desire, and action seem to be in a causal relation to one another absent chemistry, but they aren’t. They’re only coincident. We make a narrative of them. We think we’re pushing the world around–making it break our way, in accordance with our purposes. We think we’re disturbing the universe, collapsing the wave function of logically possible worlds down to our single world–the world of our choosing. Actually, we’re just being puppeted by the swerve of atoms as we dream (as we run tapes in our heads of mental images of the future) and act on the desires that come to us. In short, we’ve got going a great narrative of ourselves as existential actors because we can imagine alternative futures. But that’s all it is. A story. In terms of the actual causal processes at work, we’ve got them completely backwards.
And in the biggest picture, I think we have to think about the multiverse. There’s little doubt among physicists that our universe is essentially infinite in an inflationary sense–and it may also be infinite in the quantum sense as well (splitting in each moment into different possible futures ala Schrodinger’s Cat).
It’s also plausible that we live in a big bang cosmos that got its laws and physical constants out of a random quantum flux from a larger multiverse. But whatever is going on exactly, from all the logically possible ways that our known cosmos could have banged at the big bang, it banged in just one way. It’s how the cookie crumbled.
And each new big bang cosmos produced by the multiverse is a fresh swerve of atoms blasting forth to cool and impact one another in a novel, yet determinate, manner. Lucretius intuited this well two millennia ago:
For myriad atoms sped such myriad ways
from the All forever, pounded, pushed, propelled
by weight of their own, launched and speeding along,
joining all possible ways, trying all forms,
whatever their meeting in congress could create,
that it’s no wonder if they all tumbled
into such patterns and entered on such orbits
as those that govern our cosmos and its changes. (V 187-194)
And, again, we aren’t in any way disrupting these material atoms in their determinate courses. Each of us consists of some of those atoms, and we’re all along for the ride. There is no such thing as contra-causal free will (minds disrupting the course of causally determined atoms).
That’s my thesis. What’s yours?
What would it be like to be a dog? I think of Blake’s binding and loosing of energies here. Wouldn’t it be great if life could always be this energetic, free, joyous, and simple? At the leap, notice the sun–and call this dog Icarus.
I like these lines from a Jack Gilbert poem:
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.
Because I’m a nominalist, chopping up the world without divine guidance, a theist might think any reference I might make to “humanity” can’t possibly mean anything, but is something arbitrary. Therefore, I might just as well be an “it”–and treat others like an “it.”
Absent God’s existence, why not?
But there is a way for an atheist or nominalist to ground moral behavior and orient in the world absent God, and want to go on living and being moral after losing belief in (or doubting) God’s existence.
I don’t need an elaborately worked out metaphysics to do this, only my relation to awareness and God.
Yes, I said God. Exactly like the theist, I need God to ground my morality, but not in the way that the theist does.
How so? My disappointment.
In other words, my very awareness of my own pain that God probably doesn’t exist, and that I am bereft in the cosmos, elicits in me compassion for those who I think are in the same boat.
So my disappointment, and an attribution of awareness in another person, is all I need. Once I attribute awareness to another–awareness like I have–I feel solidarity with that person (whether she believes in God or not). I want the best for me and I want the best for her, and I’m sorry we can’t have that. I feel empathy. I think we will both die, and not go on after death, and I can see that we both feel pain–and I wish it was different for both of us.
Buddha, for example, didn’t step out from under the Bodhi Tree with a conviction that God exists, only that he’d figured out a way to arrest the cycle of human pain. His compassion for other beings with awareness like his own was enough to motivate him to speak and act in the world.
I think this is enough for any evolved social animal with powerful social emotions to go on living. Suddenly, I want to say, “Well, here we are in the same bad situation. God isn’t talking, we feel pain, and will one day die. What do we do together? What sort of society do we want? Is the game worth the candle? If we say yes, and want to go on living, then let’s make the best of it.”
Think of Taylor (Charlton Heston) in the original Planet of the Apes. He is stranded on a strange and uninhabited planet (so he thinks), but then he encounters others who he recognizes as aware, who feel pain, and who will die exactly like him. He enters into solidarity with those he recognizes as seeing in him the same thing.
Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, and gay marriage. The wisdom we take from evolution is the same that a good economist takes from the Invisible Hand: absent really good reasons, let things be. Don’t be hubristic; don’t interfere too much with markets or an individual’s inherited characteristics. Make room for people’s sirens (their inner calls); for expressions of novelty and experiment.
Our temperaments, our sexual preferences, our energy levels, etc. all have important biological components; they all occur along inherited continuums. Twin studies attest to this. Let them be.
If we live in a society that values the individual and freedom, then we’ll have a bias against hastily putting the kibosh on biologically inherited behavioral variation; we’ll be reluctant to force individuals into conformity absent very, very good reasons to do so.
This reluctance is grounded in our knowledge of how evolution works (by variant gambits). It’s not because we imagine ourselves helping evolution along or taking moral cues from evolution. It’s just deriving wisdom from the way things are and the way they change, Grasshopper.
Plato against the individual. If we don’t value individuals qua individuals or freedom qua freedom, then we won’t care what biology and evolution tell us about variation. The facts on the ground won’t matter. We’ll run roughshod over individuals on our way to achieving our version of an ideal society (as Plato did in the imagining of his perfect republic).
But once we say we value individuals and freedom, our quest for the ideal society relaxes a bit. We see the individual’s autonomy as a competing good with our utopian schemes, and we want to be informed by biology in making decisions that impact people with variant behaviors.
Biology and evolution help us to see the individual; to wisely and compassionately recall that, just as we don’t want our own biologically influenced and contingent siren calls of conscience, reason, or passion blocked by social coercion, so we shouldn’t want to block these calls in others absent very compelling social reasons for doing so.
Evolution and private v. public. No “is” needs to dictate your personal bucket list of “oughts.” Given that evolution plays every gambit–cooperative to selfish, etc.–what generalization could you make from it in any case?
As a contingent and variant creature, you may surmise that your own inner logic and private sirens are calling you away from any Golden Mean or evolutionary strategy adhered to by the herd.
That’s you on the private level.
But on the social level, in the weighing of competing goods, we should use biology and evolution to inform public policy.
How so? By letting evolution function as a source of wisdom. It reminds us that individual siren calls exist along a continuum, and they frequently have a significant biological basis. This ought to bring us to greater empathy in our decision making.
I’ve had a modest insight: the dividing line that I’ve been trying to articulate between Thomists and myself surrounding gay marriage can actually be pretty succinctly stated: Thomists take clues from the nature of form to guide them in how an issue ought to be navigated, and I’m arguing that we should take clues from the nature of change.
Whether it’s woman’s “end” or the penis’s, both appeal to aspects of nature that we actually observe, but one leads to an argument for heterosexual conformity (follow the given, or an ideal derived from the given, or a Golden Mean), while the other appeals to allowances for nature’s dicing of diversity (variant expression along a continuum).
The Thomist position is grounded in hubris (one can know the right thing to do; one size fits all); mine is grounded in epistemic humility (we don’t really know how the contingent inner logic of a variant might actually benefit the organism in its contingent environment, and thus how the future might play out if we take a hands-off or “let it be” approach to its expression).
Both of us are reasoning from how we take nature to be most essentially (form v. evolutionary change), and are deriving, from our particular emphasis, an ought (generally follow the Golden Mean vs. generally allow for the Invisible Hand of evolution).
In practice, of course, both form and change come under consideration whenever we try to navigate a situation. Just like we, in a mixed economy, leave capitalism to itself unless it’s obviously running over a cliff (such as with the banking crisis), so we do the same with evolutionary diversity (pedophilia as a sexual variation along the human continuum of sexual preference is a “Big No,” gay marriage is a “Tolerable Yes” that we can be presumptively neutral about; let the experiment take place, as with marijuana legalization, and see how it plays out).
Or at least I think gay marriage should be a yes.
Conservatives sometimes ask why gay marriage has to be called “marriage” at all. Why not, for example, stick with “civil unions”–or adopt some other distinctive name?
But there already is a serviceable name distinction: civil marriage v. religious marriage.
Gays and lesbians, as taxpaying citizens, don’t regard themselves as being in an inferior position to other tax paying citizens. When they go to marry, they seek the same civil marriage certificate from the registrar/recorder as heterosexuals. They don’t want separate but equal, and so a name distinction will not do in the civil realm.
If conservatives would not conflate civil marriage with religious marriage, there would be less friction here, but it’s in the interest of conservatives to conflate them. It’s disingenuous; a way of making it seem that the definition of marriage is being “taken over” by a freakish (to them) minority.
But there has never been only one definition of marriage. Catholics, for example, don’t recognize Mormon marriages beyond the civil realm. And it is only the civil definition of marriage that is being expanded to include same sex couples. No religious definition is impacted in the least (unless the religious group wants that).
With regard to natural law theorizing (what constitutes rational or natural behavior for an individual), contemporary Thomists are not, in my view, taking proper account of the fact that, in the higher species of animals, form does not drive the evolution of behavior, behavior drives the evolution of form.
Put another way, if a population of animals only took its cue to behavior from its existing form, its evolution would stall.
Whether it’s the flamingo’s “smile,” the panda’s thumb, or the bonobo female’s huge clitoris (which most characteristically gets rubbed on other females for pleasure and group bonding, countering male power in the species), behavioral variation–not playing to type or form–drives the evolution of form. Behavioral variation drives morphological change, not the other way around.
This is one of the cardinal rules of evolutionary biology. It’s been known for more than a century.
Put yet another way, if you behave differently from your given form, and that behavior proves beneficial to the species, it puts evolutionary pressure on the form to adapt to the new behavior (as with the bonobo’s ever enlarging clitoris).
Another example: before you’ll get shallow sea-dwelling creatures with their flat bellies oriented to the sand, you might first get fish swimming sideways. A disorder, you might say, but perhaps not from the vantage of evolution. In the right environment, it could prove to be an advantage that drives morphological reorganization.
Yet another example: before you’ll get a whale, you’ll first get a hairy land mammal oriented in an obsessive and uncharacteristic way (in relation to its form) to winning pleasure and food from the sea. The first step in the process might be little more than behaviorally dropping an aversion to water. The variations without the aversion might do better over time.
So when Thomas Aquinas proposed 700 years ago that the clues to one’s behavior should be read off of one’s forms–the penis is for reproduction only, etc.–he didn’t know Darwin. He didn’t know the role behavioral variation plays in driving the evolution of forms.
We now know that Aquinas had essence/accident turned exactly the wrong way around in relation to how a new species actually comes into existence. A lot of offspring have to play against type. There is no golden mean of form to conform to; there are only irreducible contingent variations in behavior along a continuum, many of them tugging at the most common usages of form in that species.
Nature doesn’t miss a bet. Behavioral variation is how nature keeps its bets open.
So when the natural law theorist says it’s irrational or unnatural to not play (or conform) to an average or characteristic type, he’s not taking proper account of how God, if God exists, plays against type–against form–to bring about new species.
Aquinas couldn’t have known this. Contemporary Thomists don’t have that excuse.
And this bears directly on irreducible sexual variation along a continuum. What’s rational and natural in sex cannot reasonably be said to be confined to a narrow and golden mean–the penis is for reproduction; the clitoris for stimulation only in the missionary position, etc. Evolution is more complicated than reading a narrow range of behaviors off of an attenuated and impoverished definition of form.
In architecture, form follows function. As a business or family’s needs change and behavior patterns change, rooms might be added to an existing building, and in a way that suits the surrounding environment.
In evolutionary biology, form follows behavior.
What I’m suggesting is that Thomistic essence/accident should be substituted with form follows behavior–and in humans, “form follows imagination.” No golden mean or average to conform to, but forms following contingent pursuits of imagination and passion.