Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, an oncologist, writes at The New York Times today that you should get an annual flu shot and a colonoscopy every ten years, but skip annual physicals.
He says there is no evidence that they save lives. None. 182,000 people participating in various randomized trials over many years have revealed no difference in mortality between those getting annual physicals and those who only go to physicians for specific complaints.
No, it’s not the beginning of a joke, but it made me smile. Naturally, before Preston Smith, an atheist, got started on his invocation, a number of the pious council members of the fine city of Lake Worth, Florida, split the scene.
Listening closely to theist arguments–and Aquinas. As an agnostic, I’m not sure whether God exists or not, nor whether Thomas Aquinas’s metaphysics is wholly correct, but I’m also not the sort of person who is interested in practicing confirmation bias (counting the hits, but not the misses, for my pet theories; never reading the books of those whose views are different from my own, etc.). When I lean toward a thesis, and the issue is important to me, I try actively to seek out evidence and arguments against my thesis, and not be too fast in dismissing the views of others. The following quote of Spinoza’s ought to be better known: “Non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere.” (Not to laugh, not to lament, not to curse, but to understand.)
So though an agnostic, I’m interested in understanding exactly why the most articulate theists are certain that God exists (or, at least, think it’s highly likely). And the most articulate theist who has ever lived is Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).
Edward Feser. The strongest contemporary proponent of God’s existence, in my view, is the Thomist philosopher, Edward Feser, and in his book, Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide (2009), he has a superb chapter–chapter 2–introducing the metaphysics upon which Aquinas based his arguments for, well, everything–including God’s existence. Feser stresses repeatedly that you can’t really understand Thomas Aquinas without understanding his metaphysics.
Feser’s chapter on Aquinas’s metaphysics, however, is long–53 pages–so what I thought I would do is digest some of the key ideas from the chapter. If you want to go deeper, you can get Feser’s book here. My examples and elaborations will tend to be my own, not Feser’s, and if a Thomist thinks I’ve botched a concept, or illustrated it with an improper analogy, blame me, not Feser.
Ontology: the study of being. An especially helpful thing in Feser’s metaphysics chapter is his definition of ontology, and it’s a good place to start. Here’s Feser (31):
Aquinas, following Aristotle, regards metaphysics as the ‘science which studies being as being,’ rather than (as other sciences do) studying some one particular kind of being among others (In Meta IV.1.529). (For this reason, metaphysicians in the Thomistic tradition have often preferred the label ‘ontology’–from the Greek ontos or ‘being’–as an apt name for their discipline.) Act and potency, form and matter, essence and existence, substance and accident, and the like are all merely aspects of being, and thus their study gives us greater understanding of it.
OK, so we’ve got the first step in getting our heads around Aquinas’ metaphysics: it’s the study of being, not non-being or particular beings, and Aquinas, usually following Aristotle, treats being as consisting of paired aspects: act and potency, form and matter, etc. These conceptual pairings can assist one in thinking clearly about the nature of being from an Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) perspective.
Act and potency vs. being and nothingness. If ontology is the study of being, what about non-being? Why don’t Aquinas and Aristotle–like, say, Buddhists–start their philosophizing with non-being–with emptiness or nothingness–instead of being?
The reason is that Aquinas and Aristotle think that the Presocratic philosopher, Parmenides (c. 515-450 BCE), gets something fundamentally wrong. Parmenides argues that change is an illusion, for “the only thing other than being is non-being, and non-being, since it is just nothing, cannot cause anything” (9). For Parmenides, in other words, non-changing being is always non-changing being. It always already exists, and there’s nothing with the power to change it. We don’t experience it this way, but Parmenides claims that this is how it really is. “Nothing can come of nothing” (to quote King Lear in Shakespeare)–and so being, having nothing external to move it, doesn’t change.
Aristotle and Aquinas don’t respond to this as a Buddhist might. A Buddhist, following the Indian philosopher Nagarjuna (c. 150-250 CE), would likely say something like this: non-being (emptiness, nothingness) opens up a space for things to happen; things can change into other things because they’re essentially empty, a nihil, nothing. “No flower in the flower,” says the Dalai Lama. It’s through nothingness that transitory things can exist at all, and it’s because transitory things exist that nothingness is known. Neither being nor non-being is prior to the other; there is a middle way between the ideas that nothing really exists and everything really exists. Every particular thing that exists actually has no substantial essence or permanent existence, but is an unstable, spontaneous, and mutually interdependent arising out of the dynamic emptiness. And reality is thus non-dual because there is no thing that exists in the flux that is independent of all the other things in the flux. Particulars arise, ripen, and pass away, but they add up to nothing. Unstable interconnection and emptiness make way for change.
But this isn’t Aristotle and Aquinas’s tack concerning change. They agree with Parmenides (and King Lear) that nothing can come of nothing–but contra Parmenides, to get non-illusory change, they posit that whatever exists possesses two aspects: act and potency (actuality and potential). A living cat, for instance, actually exists and has the potential to change into a dead cat if an external agent moves it in the direction of that potential (as when a car runs over it). Act and potency–actuality and potential–are the dual aspects of the cat’s being. It’s what the cat is. And the potential of the cat is, as it were, in the cat, in its nature; its very being.
So that’s how Aristotle and Aquinas posit that change can occur within being itself: it has two aspects (act and potency), not one, and it can be moved by an external being that is itself in motion (think of a line of dominoes enacting their potential for knocking one another over).
Contra the Buddha and Nagarjuna, then, non-being need play no role in getting change to occur because the car that threatens to drive over the cat also possesses act and potency (the actuality of existing and the potential for movement). The car is really real; it’s not nothing. And in this instance, if it were to begin rolling, it could become the external source that moves the cat from being alive to being dead. Likewise, gasoline would be one of the reasons the car got rolling in the first place. Everything that exists, in short, is accompanied by potencies that can be realized when an external source acts upon them. No thing moves of itself, it needs an external cause. So on Aquinas and Aristotle, this is how being changes. Chains of causation move the world. Causation is central to A-T metaphysics.
But what does it mean to say that the cat is not only actual in this moment, but has, in its very being, other potential ways of being? Where do these potentials–these potencies for change–reside? Can we bring them out of the cat that we might see them?
Essentialism. We can’t place the cat’s potentials on a table like they’re material objects and literally see them before they manifest, but according to Aristotle and Aquinas they’re in the cat just the same, and we can imagine them. The cat, for example, might be sleeping in a sunny spot on the table, but it nevertheless possesses the power to wake and scratch. It’s part of the cat’s nature to do such things. In asserting this, Aristotle and Aquinas are, like Plato, realists, not nominalists, in that they think we actually discover our abstractions about what cats are–we’re not just making them up as we go along (as a nominalist might suppose). Our conceptualizations concerning what a cat is, and is capable of doing and becoming, are not arbitrary. They’re not mere conventions of language or ideas solely serving human purposes, but real. The cat possesses a real essence (it is a domesticated carnivore), and this essence is manifested in its properties (it eats meat; it has instincts for hunting), potencies (it has the power to scratch), and potentials (it is inclined to sharpen its claws on furniture on awakening, and it might do so when it awakens).
The cat may also have accidental features not essential to its nature as cat qua cat, such as the color of its fur. Feser quotes Aquinas as making the essence-accident distinction in these words: “What makes something exist substantially is called substantial form, and what makes something exist accidentally is called accidental form” (13-14). In other words, if you change something essential about a thing (turning a carnivorous cat into a vegetarian), it’s a substantial change, and if you change something non-essential (the color of the cat’s fur), it’s a trivial, non-important, accidental change. Here’s Feser: “Those features deriving from the essence, such as Socrates’ ability to learn languages, are…referred to as ‘properties,’ since they are proper or necessary to a thing in a way that its purely contingent features (like Socrates’ being in Athens or having been a soldier) are not” (25). Put another way, if we identify and define Socrates’ substantial form as most essentially that of being a rational animal, the sorts of properties that go with that substantial form are such things as humor and the ability to learn languages, not whether Socrates wears blue or green socks.
But where, again, does the essence of Socrates or a cat reside? From where do these properties and potentials manifest? Is the Dalai Lama right that there is, ultimately, “no flower in the flower”–no essence of Socrates really in Socrates, and no cat really in the cat–or are Aristotle and Aquinas right that there are real essences that can be known and that truly exist somewhere beneath the appearances of things?
Hylemorphism (from the Greek words hyle–matter–and morphe–form). Aristotle and Aquinas are certainly not Buddhists or nominalists–they think things really and truly exist. Nor are they Platonists in the sense that the essence of the cat–the perfect cat–resides in a Platonic heaven of ideal forms (alongside the perfect chair, the perfect triangle, etc.). Instead, Aristotle and Aquinas are hylemorphists.
Hylemorphism is a term out of classical philosophy (first used by Aristotle, later picked up by Aquinas) where a designer takes raw material and uses her mind and hands to impose purpose and form on it, as when St. Paul writes, “Shall the clay say to the potter, why have you made me thus?”
A blog post, for example, is a hylemorphic project, where the matter of words is ordered by the author into a very definite form. As is a poem. Or a building. The soul of a thing–its essence–is its matter and form combined with the intention of its author.
So both Aristotle and Aquinas believe in hylemorphism. They believe that essences reside in an inseparable combination of two things: matter and form. If you want to know where a cat’s animal soul, nature, essence, potentials etc. reside, they’re not in its matter–the organic chemistry of which the cat is composed–nor in its heavenly form (the ideal cat), nor in some part of its body or head (such as in the brain), but in its matter and form as a whole when combined. That’s what it means to exist.
Think again of St. Paul’s clay pot. The pot is not just its matter (the clay), and not just its form (the pot’s shape). It’s the combination of the two that makes it what it is. Likewise, the matter and form of the cat are composite. Its existence is its substantial form combined with a body. And we, as rational beings, can apprehend and comprehend its existence; the very nature of its being, whose substantial form is at once everywhere “in” the cat–and no place in particular. Like the clay pot.
If it is correct, then, to say that we can abstract the essence of the cat–its substantial form–and hold it in our minds, what a superpower we are endowed with! It means that we are akin to God in our rational faculty, our intellect. We can reach to the depths of things–to the very ground of their being–and name them accurately. And when a human apprehends the essence of a thing, the form of that thing is now located in two places–in the thing itself and in the mind that contemplates it. How wild a thought is that? Perhaps there’s something to the intuition that photography achieves a kind of soul catching.
But for Aquinas, there’s an exception to existence as matter combined with substantial form that doesn’t necessarily hold for Aristotle. For Aristotle, when your matter and form break up, that’s the end of you. As a compounded being, your matter and form are what you are, and you don’t reside anywhere outside of your matter and form. But for Aquinas, that’s not always the case. Here’s Feser: “Anything compounded of form and matter is also compounded of act and potency, but there are compounds of act and potency that have no matter” (13). Feser is referring to angels here. For Aquinas, angels have existence and potencies to act, but their existence is non-corporeal, non-material. Like God, they lack bodies, yet still exist. And humans, being just a little beneath the angels in the hierarchy of being, can go on, unlike animals, after death. They retain the form of their intellects and wills at death, where they go to God and await the time when their essential forms–their souls–are finally reunited with their bodies (at the resurrection of the dead and Final Judgment). From the Final Judgment forward, each individual will go on existing in his or her resurrected body-soul (matter with form) everlastingly, enjoying heaven–or burning in hell. Aristotle probably wouldn’t have accepted this narrative, but Aquinas does.
Final causation. If things generally change because being itself manifests as composites of matter and form, act and potency, substance (essence) and accident, what causes movement to get going in the first place? In answer to this, Aquinas follows (once again) Aristotle in identifying four causes for existence, movement, and changes in quality, quantity, and substance. As can be surmised from all that’s been written above, causation is extraordinarily important to A-T metaphysics, and three of Aristotle’s four causes have already been touched upon. Those three are the following:
The three causes above are fascinating to contemplate, but so is Aristotle’s fourth cause–his notion that things have final causes–ends, purposes, goals to which they are inclined to be drawn by their hylemorphic (matter-form) natures.
A pen, for example, consists of matter and form that, if pushed by a hand across a page in a certain way, is inclined, should it possess ink and not otherwise be broken, to make marks on paper. It’s the end to which it inclines because it is of the matter and form that it is. It’s not conscious of this end, of course, but being of the matter and form that it is–being what it most essentially is–it’s going to tend toward this end should a hand initiate its potential.
Thus if an alien ever came to Earth and encountered a pen, it could probably work out what the pen is for without any human instruction. It could just start playing with the pen until its matter and form revealed its best, most efficient, and most natural use: to make marks on paper laid on a hard and flat surface. In no time at all, the alien could also work out what the matter and form of desks and chairs are most efficiently and naturally used for as well.
It’s important to emphasize that it’s the matter and substantial form of a thing that tells you its end; it doesn’t have to be conscious, nor does it need to have been designed by a conscious being to have an end. Things incline to certain ends according to their hylemorphic natures–their substantial forms combined with particular types of matter. Thus, if you go out of doors, you can identify what an acorn’s chief end tends toward (making oak trees), and if you open a body, you can see what the heart’s chief end tends toward (pumping blood). A thing tells you, depending on the context it has been put in, what it will tend to move toward–which needn’t necessarily be its chief end. Put an acorn in the ground, and it will be inclined to make a tree–its chief end–but put it in a fire–not its preferred environment–and it will be inclined to crackle, darken, and ultimately experience a substantial change, turning into pure carbon.
So matter combined with a substantial form expresses itself in different contexts. Put a person–an animal with rational faculties–in a monastery with no books other than religious ones, and he or she will tend toward the contemplation of God. There is something in the nature of humans that inclines them toward God contemplation as opposed to, say, making a nest of the monastery’s available paper (as a bird might do). Put that same person in a disco, and he or she might tend toward bobbing the head and dancing, while a bird might seek escape out a window. The end and true nature of a thing–and its properties and potencies–are revealed, and sometimes concealed, by context. But with just the right conditions, you stand a good chance of finding out exactly what a thing’s ultimate end most truly inclines toward. In the right conditions of soil and light, for example, a great and mighty oak is the acorn’s ultimate end.
Thus the regular inclinations and therefore predictability of matter-forms suggests that what science is actually up to is discovering real essences inclining toward ends dictated by their natures. And so Feser writes the following (49):
[Science is] in the business of uncovering the hidden natures or powers of things. Actual experimental practice indicates that what physicists are really looking for are the inherent powers a thing will naturally manifest when interfering conditions are removed, and the fact that a few experiments, or even a single controlled experiment, are taken to establish the results in question indicates that these powers are taken to reflect a nature that is universal to things of that type.
In other words (to echo Hillary Clinton), you can’t know how far a frog will jump until you poke it–revealing its potential. And once you remove the confounding variables for why the frog jumps one distance the first time, and another distance the second time, you close in on the nature of the frog’s jumping powers, and what those powers are directed toward–what Feser calls those “states of affairs beyond themselves” (50).
But why do combinations of matter and substantial form naturally orient and incline to “states of affairs beyond themselves”? It sounds mysterious. Spooky. What is it about the magic of putting matter/form together that, like striking a match, it thereby breathes fire into matter/form’s existence, inclining it toward one set of regularities, but not another?
And think of our thoughts. Even though they have physical correlates in our neuronal processes, they are not experienced as being physical, but mental states. Nevertheless, they have the same characteristic of physical matter/forms insofar as they orient to “states of affairs beyond themselves.” Isn’t it strange that this is so? From the most lowly rock to the human mind, there appears to be no escaping existence as inclinations, regularities, and ends. When you’re conscious, you’re always conscious of something. Your awareness moves out and toward. As Feser observes (50-51):
When you think about the Eiffel Tower, say, your thought is ‘directed towards’ [inclined towards] something beyond itself in a way analogous to the manner in which a match is, on the Aristotelian analysis, ‘directed towards’ the generation of flame and heat as a final cause. Similarly, when you reason through an argument, your thought process is ‘directed towards’ the conclusion as the end towards which the premises point.
In other words, we appear, in our mental activity, to be mirroring what matter-form does in the physical world: arrange itself toward this or that end, or revealing a particular, regular, and predictable potency in response to being acted upon. And so Feser writes (51):
From human thought and action to the world of biological phenomena in general to inorganic natural cycles to the basic laws of physics, final causality or teleology thus seems as real and objective a feature of the natural world as Aristotle and Aquinas took it to be.
No rest for the existent.
What this means for God. The questions of God’s existence, and how we ought to live if God exists, are not subjects that the second chapter of Feser’s book explores (these questions are addressed in the book’s subsequent chapters), but given the A-T metaphysics outlined above, it’s not hard to sketch from here the subsequent argumentative moves of Aquinas:
You get the idea. Tidy. Very near to mathematics. The conclusions, like clothes from a flipped laundry basket, tumble out naturally from their premises, all doubts supposedly giving way to metaphysical demonstration. Who needs telescopes? And that’s Aquinas in a nutshell.
One atheist’s pushback. Jean Paul Sartre’s famous three-word retort to the Thomistic essentialism outlined above is the following: “Existence precedes essence.” In other words, human imagination, cunning, openness, variety, and freedom precede any essentialist definition that one might impose upon a thing in advance. Sartre says that if God is dead or not speaking, we can work freely with a thing, if we wish, and make what the original designer supposedly considered marginal about it, central (or make the central marginal).
Fashioning and definition can be democratized and taken from God and the theologians.
So if we’re free–if our existence as free beings precedes essences–we can use the penis for pleasure (for example). We needn’t let the inertia of a thing’s supposed essence foreclose in advance our options. You can use a thing differently from that to which it is usually inclined. In each moment, you can make something new. That’s Sartre. That’s existentialism. That’s post-World War II pushback against hylemorphic and authoritarian essentialism. And after the Holocaust, it certainly appeared to Sartre and other intellectuals that the God thesis (God exists and is a being who is attentive to us, and all good and powerful) was done–or ought to be done.
And once God is considered dead, or to have gone silent and thereby given the clay its freedom, asking “What’s the clay for?” loses its force. Humans become the measure of all things. Our existence precedes essence. We decide what to make important about a thing; what we will call a thing. Like Adam in the Garden, we assert our prerogative to name the animals for ourselves.
Sartre rather nicely accords with evolution, whereas Aquinas is in a decidedly awkward relation to it. Though Aquinas is almost certainly correct that things display identifiable inclinations based on their unique combinations of matter and form, evolution doesn’t recognize essential species categories; it works with variety along a continuum, making things new. What, for example, is an individual human from the vantage of evolution, but a variation cast into the next round of dicing selection? Time waits for no definition of man–not even Aquinas’s.
Who assumes the power of meaning maker? So if God exists, you can argue, as Aquinas does, that God should cut the card deck of meaning, purpose, narrative, and definition. But if God doesn’t exist or isn’t talking, we cut the deck. Whoever has the authority to cut the deck (or shape the clay, or name the animals) is in the role of the designer, the fashioner, the definer, the meaning maker. Matter and form can have inclinations, but to possess ultimate meanings, there must be a meaning maker. And if the ultimate meaning maker, the unmoved mover, doesn’t exist–or doesn’t exist in the manner we imagine (all good, conscious, attends to human beings, etc.)–then we make our own meaning, and define what’s important.
So does existence precede our essence, as Sartre claims? Or is Aquinas right that essence precedes existence? Which side are you on?
A really good evolution education video via the University of California at Berkeley. We’ve evolved to be more like bonobos than sharks, and it’s one reason why I’m not worried that the decline of religion will lead to deteriorating moral behavior among humans.
Something especially fascinating to me here is the idea that prolonged childhood puts selective pressure on our species to nurture offspring, and to experience the full range of nurturing emotions. These emotions are then extended to adults and distant others as well. Very interesting. Prolonged childhood leads to social bonding.
So if you find yourself sympathetic towards others, thank your children. If they did not take so long to reach maturity and independence, our species might be far less socially cooperative and gregarious than we are. It’s fascinating to contemplate that global civilization, trade, and solidarity exist because our children have evolved to be dependent upon us for so long–and that we have evolved to love them.
Imagine an island off the coast of a continent. Two birds from the continent–a male and a female–get swept up by a storm and find themselves stranded on this island. They go on to mate and a new species of bird evolves. They’re the Adam and Eve of that particular species on this particular island.
But wait. What if six birds are swept over to the island, and they begin interbreeding? Over time, mutations swap in all sorts of directions between the descendants of those six, and those mutations add up to a new species specially adapted to that island.
Which couple is the Adam and Eve of the new species now? Answer: there was no Adam and Eve for that species. There was a population that got isolated down to six–that bottlenecked at six–and those six combined their genetic inheritance to generate and swap genes to make the new species, and the variety of genetic diversity it possesses today.
Population geneticists would know that there were six individual birds from which the species branched, not two, based on the amount of genetic diversity displayed by the contemporary members of the group. They would know this for the same reason that population geneticists know today that the contemporary diversity of humans indicates that our species has never bottlenecked at a figure of less than about 12,250, and that the Khoisan tribe in Africa possesses the most divergent genetic profile of any group of people on the planet.
But what if those birds evolved a civilization and had a religious text that told them that their species started with a couple, and they read it literally? Then you could posit that of those six original birds, two of them were given one mutation–a spiritual mutation–in which God put an eternal soul into them. This is not something traceable by genetics, but it would be reasonable to assume that if the soul mutation was advantageous, then it would likely spread to all the descendants of the six birds over time (by interbreeding).
The birds could even posit (if they wanted to), that their Adam and Eve soul mutation started on the continent, and spread among many birds before it ever came to the island, and that all six original inhabitants of the island had souls (because their moms and dads had souls back on the continent).
In other words, there’s a way around the genetics. If you’re prepared to treat a soul change as a species change that confers benefits to the possessors, you’re home free.
And when it comes to miracles, you can do anything you want. You can put the eternal soul mutation anywhere along the continuum of our evolutionary lineage. All bets can be off. Population geneticists can’t prove the birds’ religious story is wrong, but the birds can never know whether or not they’re deluding themselves.
But imagine if the birds had experts in literature and the study of bird culture, the overwhelming majority of whom saying, “The Adam and Eve bird story in the Old Book is an etiological narrative (a campfire story about origins). It doesn’t need to be read literally.”
Now things get complicated again. Would it be wise of the birds who are religious and accept evolution to go against both the geneticists and the cultural and literary academics of their species? Or would it be best for them to say, Let’s read our Adam and Eve bird story as a good campfire tale, and leave it at that?
Which conclusion is in accord with empiricism and Occam’s razor? Can the birds’ religious orthodoxy, like the birds themselves, evolve to accommodate the deliverances of their reality testing or not?
Some good news. We are basically living in the most peaceful and prosperous moment in human history. Ever. Here’s Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator:
A study in the current issue of The Lancet shows […] Global life expectancy now stands at a new high of 71.5 years, up six years since 1990. In India, life expectancy is up seven years for men, and 10 for women. It’s rising faster in the impoverished east of Africa than anywhere else on the planet. In Rwanda and Ethiopia, life expectancy has risen by 15 years. […] The World Bank’s rate of extreme poverty (those living on less than $1.25 a day) has more than halved since 1990, […] Just over a century ago, a period of similarly rapid progress was coming to an abrupt end. The Belle Époque was a generation of scientific, medical and artistic advances, which, then, felt unstoppable. John Buchan summed up this mood in his 1913 novel The Power House. “You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilisation from barbarism,” one of his characters says. “I tell you: the division is a thread, a sheet of glass. A touch here, a push there, and you bring back the reign of Saturn.” So it was to prove. Nothing is irreversible. And there will be a great many people for whom life is tough, and looks set to remain so for some time. We still have a lamentably long list of problems to solve. But in the round, there’s no denying it: we are living in the Golden Era. There has never been a better reason for people the world over to wish each other a happy and prosperous new year.
I don’t want to downplay the real good here for the poorest of the poor. But isn’t it interesting that the prosperity isn’t felt in terms of most people’s personal immortality projects? In other words, most people are subjectively more or less happy, secure, and satisfied–or unsatisfied–with their attempts at meaning making as they’ve always been.
The unease and restlessness persists. Things can get substantially better materially, yet nothing works. You know what I mean. Why is that?
First, there was never a bottleneck of two people that accounts for the diversity of humans living today.
Second, geneticists tell us that the diversity of contemporary humans derives from no less than 12,500 black African ancestors, 2,500 of whom left Africa to populate the rest of the globe between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago. That’s as narrow as the bottleneck ever gets.
Third, the probability that Y-chromosome Adam (120,000-350,000 years ago) and mitochondrial Eve (140,000-200,000 years ago) were of the same reproductive age at the exact same window in time, were located close to one another geographically, and actually had children together, is vanishingly small. (If you want to chuck a miracle into your first-couple thesis, I suppose that would be the place to do it.)
But, in any case, there was no first couple. There was not even a first human. There is only the continuum of an evolutionary lineage that goes all the way back to the first cell.
In other words, like thumbing slowly from one page of a cartoon flip book to another, a single offspring does not tend to dramatically vary from its parent.
Just as one cannot pinpoint the moment when a tadpole becomes a frog, or a toddler a child, so there was no moment that a Homo heidelbergensis couple gave birth to the first “true” Homo sapien. These classifications are for our convenience, but at the boundaries they’re not meaningful. If you’re going to refer to the “first” Homo sapien, he or she spent its first nine months in the womb of a Homo heidelbergensis mother, and could just as easily have remained designated as one of those as one of us.
Introducing the miraculous insertion of souls into a first couple, and positing that that first couple’s offspring slowly displaced the soulless, doesn’t help, for their genetic markers would still accompany them, and geneticists say that our contemporary genetic diversity is too large to be explained by a bottleneck of two people. There never was such a dramatic, two-person, genetic bottleneck.
So Occam’s razor here suggests something much simpler than the bestiality hypothesis: Genesis 2 and 3 should not be read literally.
Like the Iliad, the Genesis story has beauty, poetry, and psychological power, but strictly speaking, it’s not true. There was no first man formed from inorganic dust, no first woman drawn from his rib, no special garden between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where they lived, no forbidden tree they ate from by which death and sin entered the world, and no children they produced that went on to colonize the planet.
It’s okay to treat an etiological narrative as an etiological narrative. It’s okay to correct a genre category mistake (mistaking a figurative narrative for a literal one).
Occam’s razor, baby, Occam’s razor.
30 years of work on string theory without experimental verification has not deterred Columbia theoretical physicist Brian Greene. He’s still betting on string theory. Money quote from his January 2015 article in Smithsonian magazine:
I’m gratified at how far we’ve come but disappointed that a connection to experiment continues to elude us. While my own research has migrated from highly mathematical forays into extra-dimensional arcana to more applied studies of string theory’s cosmological insights, I now hold only modest hope that the theory will confront data during my lifetime.
Even so, string theory’s pull remains strong. Its ability to seamlessly meld general relativity and quantum mechanics remains a primary achievement, but the allure goes deeper still. Within its majestic mathematical structure, a diligent researcher would find all of the best ideas physicists have carefully developed over the past few hundred years. It’s hard to believe such depth of insight is accidental.
I like to think that Einstein would look at string theory’s journey and smile, enjoying the theory’s remarkable geometrical features while feeling kinship with fellow travelers on the long and winding road toward unification. All the same, science is powerfully self-correcting. Should decades drift by without experimental support, I imagine that string theory will be absorbed by other areas of science and mathematics, and slowly shed a unique identity. In the interim, vigorous research and a large dose of patience are surely warranted. If experimental confirmation of string theory is in the offing, future generations will look back on our era as transformative, a time when science had the fortitude to nurture a remarkable and challenging theory, resulting in one of the most profound steps toward understanding reality.
I don’t know. Maybe.
In our bodies, oxygen and glucose are transformed by protein machines in our cells into the molecule ATP.
ATP is the bomb. It’s what stands between you and “the point of no return.” Shakespeare seems apt here (from Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy):
Who would these Fardels [bundles, in this case, of woes] bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn
No Traveler returns, Puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of.
So long as you are alive, ATP is what’s keeping you from “The undiscovered Country,” the realm of irreversible entropy.
Thus when somebody says “Show me the money!” with regard to what’s alive or what’s dead, ATP is the money. It’s the energy currency that circulates throughout the body. You need money to make the mare go–and chemical money, ATP, to make the body’s economy function.
ATP–not neural electricity, the soul, or a vital essence (see vitalism)–is what’s actually maintaining your body’s current order–and when your ATP molecules have ceased to function, you’re officially off line.
No more Facebook for you.
Unless, perhaps, you get frozen really, really fast. In the below TED education video, biologist Randall Hayes explains ATP and speculates on whether resurrection may be possible in the future by freezing the dead (or nearly dead) now, and then reintroducing ATP into their cells via nanobots later (essentially picking up where their bodies left off).
Hmm. A great little TED video.
Peak Left? Playing off the idea of peak oil, Walter Russell Mead, in The American Interest, declares this moment in Obama’s presidency to be “Peak Left” for the United States. The tide is going out for liberalism, says Mead, and we’re heading back to the domestic and foreign policy priorities of the Bush years:
The post 9/11 Bush foreign policy led to two long and unhappy wars. America had lost the trust of its allies without defeating its enemies. At home, the Bush tax cuts led to an exploding deficit, and the orgy of deregulation (admittedly, much of it dating from the Clinton years) led to the greatest financial crash since World War II and the most serious economic downturn since the Great Depression.
“Could a set of political ideas be more discredited?” liberals ask. The foreign policy failures of the Bush years, they believe, should have killed conservative ideology about America’s role in the world, and the financial crisis, they are certain, should have driven a stake through the heart of conservative economic doctrine. Yet: Here we are, six years into the Age of Obama, and the Tea Party is alive and Occupy is dead.
In other words, Mead (a conservative) acknowledges that the Bush era looks disastrous in retrospect, and yet the far right is more energized than the far left (Tea Party vs. Occupy), therefore it’s a sign we’re headed back to the Bush years.
But does this analysis really make sense? Does it follow that, if the most extreme wing of a political party is animated, it’s a sign of a party’s strength? 1968 and 1972 suggest different. In both of those presidential election cycles, the Democratic Party had a radical activist wing in the streets constantly, and a Republican still won the presidency with relative ease. So perhaps the Tea Party’s energy is indicative of a well-financed, but broken, wheel that is squeaking loudest. But here’s Mead pushing his case:
[F]rom a practical point of view, it is almost inconceivable, despite the cries of “Run, Elizabeth, Run!” emanating from the gentry left, that someone more liberal than President Obama will be sent to the Oval Office anytime soon. It took the unique circumstances of two wars and a financial crash to open a path to the White House for Barack Obama; absent similar circumstances, successful candidates are likely to come from his right for the foreseeable future.
Well, yes, of course, but how far to Obama’s right will the next president be? “Hillary far” or “Cruz far”? Obviously the more likely answer is “Hillary far.” And wait for the essay from Mead should Hillary win. Suddenly she’ll show herself to be, in his estimation, “worse than Obama.” She’ll be the new fright face for American conservatives to hate; the symbol of the godless (and now lesbian) march to European socialism.
But for now, declares Mead, it’s high tide for “left-leaning Democrats,” and “the country has already moved on.”
Moving on or moving back? For conservatives, moving on, of course, means moving back to the good ol’ days of the Bush-era foreign and domestic policy crusades circa 2001-2008, which means fresh wars on:
And of course, don’t forget the war on gays. By Mead’s logic, that long and tiresome war will be back. The politics of gay bashing shall return.
Is there really a liberal to conservative language shift in progress? Beyond the far right, there’s little evidence that any of the above issues, or the way conservatives talked about them between 2001 and 2008, are in a state of revival. They seem, in fact (with the exception of financial regulation), to be in a slow but steady retreat. None of them seriously animate the majority of people’s fervid anxiety–or are even likely to. The country talks differently. America, in the Age of Obama, has calmed down. It talks more liberal. If the way conservatives talked in the 2001-2008 period was a corporation, its market share would be in slow, but unmistakable, decline.
Other Bush-era attitudes that aren’t coming back either. During the Bush years there was no war on the national debt (the debt to GDP ratio is still a serious problem). That issue got ignored until a Democratic president could be made the lightening rod and scapegoat for it. Now that the economy is growing, the issue has receded from attention again. It will be back.
And let’s not forget the Bush era wars with weapons (real weapons, not just media and cultural ones). We had two of those inspired by Bush’s doctrine of preemptive war, and they were accompanied by the crassest sorts of anti-Muslim hysteria and illegal torture. Obama, thankfully, reversed course on preemptive war, the demonizing of Islam qua Islam, and torture.
Walter Russell Mead, by the way, in his essay, puts torture, bewilderingly, in scare quotes, as if it’s something he’d be happy to see return to American foreign policy after Obama leaves office.
2016. Evidence that we have not reached “Peak Left” is that our next national election is going to take place under enormous pressure on both parties to have women and minorities on their presidential tickets. And what will decide the next election won’t be which candidate will go farthest in promising to reverse Obama’s courses, but which will promise to modify, consolidate, and (in some cases) extend them. Both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates will say it differently, but at bottom they’ll be promising to mend the Obama Age, not end it. They’ll tweak (a little more or less health care, a little more or less pressure on Russia, etc.), but not disrupt, Obama’s general courses.
Whoever will be the next president won’t win because they promised to torture terror suspects, bomb Iran, break diplomatic relations with Cuba, reverse gay marriage, or re-criminalize marijuana in Colorado. They’ll win because they’ll come across as non-Bush era moderates mixing liberal and conservative ideas that please a sufficient number of constituents to reach a majority of the vote. Exactly like Obama did.
Two issues, post-Obama, we can’t “move on” from. Two festering issues going forward, and which may or may not get addressed adequately in 2016, are how we’re going to get our debt to GDP ratio down to something sustainable (say, 60% rather than the current 100%), and how we’re going to prevent a repeat of the financial crisis. Regulation of banks is eroding again, the stock market looks to be moving into bubble territory (if it’s not already there), and the next recession will surely hit before 2020, putting fresh strains on the debt. These are issues larger than left vs. right, and from which we don’t have the luxury to “move on.”
What is hylomorphism? Hylomorphism is a term out of classical philosophy (first used by Aristotle, later picked up by Aquinas) where a designer takes raw material and uses her mind and hands to impose purpose and form on it, as when St. Paul writes, “Shall the clay say to the potter, why have you made me thus?”
A blog post, for example, is a hylomorphic project, where the matter of words is ordered by the author into a very definite form. As is a poem. Or a building. The soul of a thing–its essence–is its matter and form combined with the intention of its author.
This, at any rate, is what a hylomorphist believes. Hylomorphists, such as contemporary Thomist philosophers, claim that you can look at the matter and form of a thing and infer its essential purpose–the purpose the designer shaped it for. For the Thomistic hylomorphist, all things created by God have essential purposes, and we can discern them. The form of the penis, for instance, tells you that its essential usage is for the vagina. That’s what God made it for. You aren’t to use it in the ass or mouth–and no jerking off! These are its “accidental” (non-essential) usages. The Designer’s obvious purpose for the penis is for reproduction, not pleasure.
Thus if your cum isn’t being used to make babies, you aren’t using it in accord with the Designer’s purpose. So straighten up! (But not in that way.)
Existence precedes essence. Jean Paul Sartre’s famous three-word retort to this sort of theological reductio ad absurdum–reasoning to an absurd conclusion–was the following: “Existence precedes essence.” In other words, human imagination, cunning, openness, variety, and freedom precede any essentialist definition that one might impose upon a thing in advance. Sartre says we can work freely with a thing–if we wish–and make what the original designer might have considered marginal about it, central (or make the central marginal).
Fashioning and definition can be democratized.
So if we’re free–if our existence as free beings precedes essences–we can use the penis for pleasure. We needn’t let the inertia of a thing’s supposed essence foreclose in advance our options. You can use a thing differently. In each moment, you can make something new. That’s Sartre. That’s existentialism. That’s post-World War II pushback against hylomorphic and authoritarian essentialism. Once God has gone silent, or died, or given the clay its freedom, asking “What’s the clay for?” loses its force. Humans become the measure of all things. Our existence precedes essence. We decide what to make important about a thing; what we will call a thing. Like Adam in the Garden, we assert our prerogative to name the animals.
Evolution. Sartre nicely accords with evolution, whereas Aquinas is in a decidedly awkward relation to it. Evolution doesn’t recognize essential species categories; it works with variety along a continuum, making things new. What, for example, is an individual human from the vantage of evolution, but a variation cast into the next round of dicing selection? Time waits for no definition of man–not even Aquinas’s.
Evolutionary lineage is akin to a tall deck of cards. Richard Dawkins, in his book, The Magic of Reality, likens our evolutionary lineage to a deck of picture cards stacked up. At the very bottom is the first card, the first cell. We the living are the most recent cards to have been added to the evolutionary deck. We’re on a continuum. So it’s arbitrary–and therefore up to us–where we put our family and species boundaries in relation to our own lineage. Who, for example, was the last Homo erectus and the first Homo sapien? Being provocative and counter-intuitive, Dawkins quips, “There was no first human.”
In other words, when we impose a species boundary on our lineage–“Here is the first human, here is the second, etc., and you are the last human to date in the series, and this species boundary tells you essential things about you as an individual that you mustn’t attempt to change”–the question that begs to be asked is this: why have you imposed that form on this matter? Why did you begin there, exactly?
Why has the card dealer cut the deck thus?
Overthrowing God. So in our evolutionary lineage, what there is is matter and change, which we can visualize as snapshots in time; a deck of picture cards that reaches to the moon, that, if it could be flipped through, would reveal how we got from the first cell to where we are today. But when we chop that deck up, we’re in the role of God, imposing a model of meaning on the deck exactly as a potter imposes form upon the clay, or a narrator form upon a sequence of events. Once you see that the deck can be cut in any number of ways, you realize that there’s nothing essential about the definitional species boundary without your input; without your design; without your narration.
You’re playing God; you’re making the meaning; you’re telling the story. Without you, the deck of cards is just a deck of cards. If there’s anything essential about it, it’s anchored by your declaration alone. Hume said, “Nature doesn’t speak, we speak.” That’s also true of God. God doesn’t speak, we speak.
Who cuts the deck, makes the rules. Defining a thing, or declaring something essential, is a power play. Our arguments about God’s relation to justification, purpose, and ethics enact a power game. Without someone from the outside to impose order on the card decks of justification, purpose, and ethics, we can chop them up any way we want. We become God. Nothing is essential except what we declare to be so.
If we want to call gay marriage, marriage, it is so. Let there be light.
But this is true only if God does not exist. If God exists and possesses purposes for creation, then there really and truly are essential aspects to things that we cannot change. God’s narrative and definitions trump human narratives and definitions. If God exists, God has the power to declare. And yet here’s the irony: even if God exists, God is utterly silent as to how (S)he cuts the decks of definition and tells the cosmic story to Herself. So if we think God exists, we still have to guess what God is up to. But how do finite minds know what an infinite mind might be up to?
Going back to the penis example, if God is love and wants humans to delight in pleasure, and is primarily concerned with that, then God cuts the deck one way. (Imagine God shouting merrily in an Olde English voice: “Use thy penis, squire, for thy pleasure!”) But if God is concerned with procreation and the use of sex organs in a certain way, then God cuts the deck of definition quite differently from a ribald Elizabethan. (Imagine God as Lenin, frowning, and saying, “Serve the Party–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit! No masturbation! No gay coupling! Use the penis for the Party; for reproducing members that will serve the Party!”)
The matter, in other words, receives its form and definition from the one doing the narrative molding and definitional chopping. And since ultimate justification can only come from God, everything else is question begging (St. Paul’s, “Why have you made me thus?”–or the definitional question, “Why did you chop there?”).
So God has to exist to ground and essentialize any molding or chopping. Or God has to be a determinist, not giving humans free will. Otherwise, we wear the daddy pants. We do the chopping.
Kangaroos among the beauty. So if we want, we can see each individual of our species as unique, not essentially bound by what came before. Each of us can be defined as Emily Dickinson defined herself: “a kangaroo among the beauty” (a contingent oddball). We can emphasize the individual over the inertia of the group or of history. Each person can be seen as a unique “card” in our human lineage; as someone sui generis (one of a kind). The deck of lineage cards can be cut any way you want if you have the authority of the deck-cutter, including designating each card its own species.
And if individuals want to assert their right to define themselves, that’s an assertion of their power.
Who assumes the power of meaning maker? So if God exists, you can argue that God should cut the deck of meaning, purpose, narrative, and definition. But if God doesn’t exist or isn’t talking, we cut the deck. Whoever has the authority to cut the deck (or shape the clay, or name the animals) is in the role of the designer, the fashioner, the definer. Matter, to have meaning, must be given form by a meaning-maker. And if the ultimate meaning-maker, God, doesn’t exist, then we make our own forms, and define what’s important about them.
Our existence precedes our essence. That’s Sartre over Aquinas. Which side are you on?
In Summa Contra Gentiles, Book IV, ch. 52, here’s what Thomas Aquinas says is the sufficient reason for God withdrawing and withholding his protection from the descendants of Adam and Eve, leaving them exposed to dissolution (coming apart), degeneration, death, and human and natural evils:
“[We Chrisians] affirm that man was, from the beginning, so fashioned that as long as his reason was subject to God, not only would his lower powers serve him without hindrance; but there would be nothing in his body to lessen its subjection; since whatever was lacking in nature to bring this about God by His grace would supply.”
In other words, it’s Adam and Eve’s fault. Thomas says God made the composite bodies of the first parents naturally subject to dissolution, decay, violence, and death–but that God’s grace would miraculously protect them from ever experiencing these so long as their “reason was subject to God.”
But their reason stopped being subject to God when Eve gave Adam the apple, and “he ate thereof.”
So out of Adam and Eve’s first sin, God withdrew his grace from them. No do-overs for the first parents. No second chances. One strike, and they were out.
And that’s why we, their descendants, are now beings unto dissolution. God has abandoned us. The descendants of a couple once under God’s grace are now under a curse. We are children of wrath; children whose bodies are left to go on their own natural course; beings unto death.
God is mad at us, so he lets us follow our natural course through the world; to suffer and die. That’s Aquinas’ thesis in a nutshell.
Is this even remotely plausible? The solution to the problem of evil? Set aside the fact that biology tells us there were no “first parents” of humanity living in Mesopotamia 10,000 years ago as Thomas thought. Just deal with the logic.
Does God’s withdrawal and withholding of protection from Adam and Eve, for a first sin they could barely have comprehended, justify the ongoing collective crucifixion that is history (including its anxieties, genocides, wars, plagues, and earthquakes)?
Julia Sweeney once said, “Jesus had a really bad weekend for your sins.” Shouldn’t that have been enough? If God was mad, and expressed his wrath upon his son’s body (a pretty creepy thought), aren’t we done? The apostle Paul thought the logic of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension would be a swift return (in Paul’s lifetime) to make a new heaven and earth. So where’s the “coming quickly” part of this equation? Why 2000 more years of ordeal, including the Holocaust and the 2004 Christmas tsunami? What’s the sufficient reason for all of this?
Does God still have anger issues? What about Jesus?
I don’t think highly of confidence men, especially on matters of metaphysics. I’m not at all confident, for example, that everything can be reduced to physical causes, as the confidence atheist proclaims.
Maybe there are two worlds–a physical and a spiritual world, and that God exists–exactly as the confidence theist proposes.
I lean, probability-wise, toward the view that everything can be reduced to physical causes (80%), but I’m not sure. If you forced me to bet $100,000 dollars on it, I’d vote for the idea that we live in a strictly physical world.
The following analogy is one reason I’d offer for thinking that the world is, at bottom, material before it is mental: water emerges from H20 molecules, and it might be that mind emerges from clumps of neurons.
This analogy seems plausible to me. Very different microscopic constituents evoke large scale phenomena that are quite different from those constituents. Why couldn’t this be the case with neurons and the mind? Certainly, we know of no mind acting in the world absent neurons.
But this line of argumentation doesn’t make me a confidence atheist. Perhaps the analogy seems plausible to me largely because it’s simple, and I’ve just reached for a nearby availability heuristic, taking up the first and most readily graspable idea that came to my mind. Maybe my brain is wired in such a way that I can make these sorts of simple analogies, but I’m not really capable of grasping the complexity of the brain-mind issue.
And here’s the important point: it’s okay not to know. I’ve always liked Thoreau’s quoting in Walden of Confucius: “To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.”
I have other reasons for thinking mind might emerge from matter, and for thinking that God doesn’t exist (the Holocaust being an obvious problem for the God-exists thesis), but I also see good reasons for thinking otherwise (unvarying physical law is surprising on atheism, for example, as is mind in the material cosmos).
I like the scene–I believe it’s in Annie Hall–where Alvy “Max” Singer (the character Woody Allen plays in the film) asks his father whether he believes in God, and his father says, “I don’t know how my toaster works!”
So I don’t know if, at bottom, it’s really all just atoms and void. I want to know, but I realize that epistemic humility is wise here.
In the spirit of Alvy Singer’s dad, I’ll highlight a personal example: I’ve picked stocks I thought were reasonably good bets that went south, so I’m not at all confident on a question like how the brain relates to the mind, or whether God exists. I’ve known myself to be mistaken so very many times in my life. That has to be taken into account in my own present expressions of confidence. I need more evidence, I await the deliverances of scientists, and I continue to weigh the new arguments and evidence that come my way.
What more can I reasonably do?
One key here is to keep Galileo’s telescope active (metaphorically). There are people who reach a conclusion and never revisit it. They’ve brought, in other words, Galileo’s telescope down. They no longer think grayscale. They don’t ask themselves, “On a scale of 1-100, my confidence concerning x is what?” And they don’t ask two other key questions:
In short, confidence men become very entrenched in their commitments. They express 100% certainty to those who might inquire of them, and, without any apparent twinge of conscience, indulge in confirmation bias (counting the hits–but ignoring, making excuses for, or setting aside the misses–surrounding their pet theories).
I think it’s always an error to stop looking, thinking, and talking. It’s the way to self deception. Instead, using grayscale reasoning, we should apportion our beliefs to the evidence, keep Galileo’s telescope pointing, and stay in dialogue with those who disagree with us. Two heads are better than one, and two heads that disagree are better than two that agree.
Thomas Aquinas was the Leninist of his day; he was a Party man. For Aquinas, nothing should be done without reference to The Party. All focus should be on The Party.
The Party is the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost). Aquinas was perfectly willing to hijack his own organism into the service of The Party, and he did all of his reasoning from there.
And evolution, of course, has made hijackers of us all, not just Aquinas. Using our clever brains, we can disrupt the normal course of things to our purposes. Imagination before essence. That’s our evolutionary strategy; our superpower (just as the eagle’s superpower is strong wings, claws, and vision).
Aquinas’s hijacking of the imagination was directed toward orienting life to the Trinity. Aquinas, like Lenin, was a hedgehog, not a fox. (“The fox knows many things, the hedgehog one big thing.”)
The hedgehog, ideological impulse characteristic of Thomism and Leninism is to deploy hijacking in a very particular way. It pretends to make of a singular hijacking strategy a universal law: everyone ought to hijack their purposes to the Trinity, or the Communist Party, or whatever. Single vision and universalist hijacking subsumes a diversity of human evolutionary functions to one overriding goal that everyone should strive toward. “You ought to be a Communist,” or “You ought to orient to the God of Christianity.” The flies change, but the Big Shit is the same. The Big Shit is taken to be the highest good. Those who don’t orient to this Bigger Shit, however imagined, are deviant.
It makes for a difficult atmosphere for eccentric joys and interests, dissent, imagination, play, art, and science (as Michelangelo discovered in relation to Savonarola, Galileo in relation to the Inquisition, and Trotsky in relation to Stalin).
So ideological thinking is not ecological thinking; it’s not the way of Walt Whitman’s “variety and freedom” (the democratic insights he drew from Nature and evolution).
Absolutist ideologies of the Thomistic and Leninist varieties are very unstable absent harshness, powerful carrots and sticks, violence. Absent force, you need a lot of powerful psychological techniques to make people stay put ideologically. If you can’t force people, you’ve got to spell-cast them with words, not swords–otherwise diversity will assert itself again. That’s why ideology gets subverted by time, ecology, and evolution. Ecology and evolution accord with entropy and the diverse productions of time.
And it’s why there’s such turbulence within the Catholic Church today over masturbation, women priests, contraceptive technologies, gay marriage, divorce, remarriage, dogs going to heaven (!), and the new Pope’s liberalism. We’re multiple, and Thomistic ideology, resisting Nature, is singular.
I’m an antitheist. I don’t think, on balance, that religion functions as a force for good in the 21st century. Seven reasons:
Better, I think, is to get to a place in life where you value what you value, and think what you think, and you don’t care what Jesus values or thinks, or God values or thinks, or your co-workers value or think, or the majority in this or that religion values or thinks. That is, you derive your values and thoughts from engagement with your own inner resources.
As an alternative to theistic seriousness, I like Emily Dickinson’s irony, play, independence, and blasphemy in the poem below. It nicely represents the emotional place one can get to where it’s okay to talk about religion in a non-cowed manner (call her an anti-theist if you like as well):
God is indeed a jealous God
He cannot bear to see
That we had rather not with Him
But with each other play.
Two horses–look again–
Winged, like cherubim–
Watering at a marble trough,
Ivy in riot about them.
Reality? Silence, bones
Saline, a coffin–not a trough–
And a tale in the main that
Had been uneven, rough, harsh.
I’d have done it differently.
This cemetery makes me hard.
I want to know the Lord who
Stalls, and kill Him. I want
To ride His horse to heaven.
If you look around you and find that you’re the only person who values a particular thing, you need to have the self esteem to say, “It still has value for me.” And if you don’t value what others value–or what God supposedly values–fine. Let them value it. If it has value for them, it needn’t have value for you.
Bandwagon appeals–“Everybody’s doing it!”–externalize values. They’re manipulative of our desire to belong, outsourcing values to other people. They work most effectively on those lacking in inner confidence.
And the contention between values is typically a war over who will be in the subject, and who in the object, position. (Or, to put it in Hegelian terms, who will be Master and who slave–the Master-slave dichotomy.)
Drop this dynamic with people altogether–and even with God. You don’t have to submit your values to others for their approval, and they don’t need your approval either. You don’t need to be a Hegelian tool fit to some other person’s purposes–or even to God’s purposes. Let people and God take care of themselves.
Two supports for this view. The first is Albert Camus. Camus surmised that neither God nor Nature answer to our human longings, and therefore existence is absurd. We can respond to the absurdity with suicide, but we needn’t do that. Instead, if neither God nor Nature will value us, we can do it. We can value ourselves. We can be a rebel for meaning and value against suicide and the absurd (the lacking in care for us of God and Nature). Add people’s disapproval, cruelty, and indifference to us, and we can use Camus’ idea of rebellion against the absurd on them as well. Just as we refuse suicide in the teeth of God’s and Nature’s indifference, so we refuse to internalize the indifference of others. God, Nature, and others might not affirm or save us, but we can affirm and save ourselves. From the absurd, Camus took his rebellion, freedom, passion, and solidarity. Nothing and no one else needed to authorize his values, but himself.
Following Camus, this means we don’t need God, Nature, or others to authorize our values or to give us hope for the future. We don’t need to treat this trinity as our patrons (as being in the caring and rescuing business on our behalf). Instead, we can deal with reality exactly as it appears, and see ourselves for what we are: beings toward death (Heidegger). We can replace future hope with passion for our present projects (which may include art or compassionate solidarity with other people in the same bad existential situation that we are in–two of Camus’ examples). Put another way, we can align ourselves with people who need and want to align themselves with us, and we can take care of ourselves, and choose what we value. We can be adults at play. (Taking up values needn’t always be a serious affair.)
The second support for locating the warrant for what you value in yourself alone is evolution. Walt Whitman, writing after Darwin and long experience meditating upon Nature, wrote in the first sentence of his essay, “Democratic Vistas” (1871), that Nature’s lessons are two: “variety and freedom.” To put it in Darwinian language, there are lots and lots of ways that an organism can be in the world, and lots and lots of evolutionary strategies for surviving (from strategies of cooperation to selfishness; of displaying to hiding). Values, from the vantage of Nature, are an open field with lots of diversity. In fact, that’s how things change. Through dicing diversity. Whatever works.
So if you value a thing, it doesn’t need to diminish in value for you because others don’t value it. And when you say, “You ought to value what I value,” or “I ought to value what someone else (or God) values,” try to recall, when you say such things, that you’ve lapsed into a power play of subject-object, Master-slave.
Then try this instead. With Emily Dickinson (and in the light of Camus, Whitman, Darwin, and evolution), say, “I am ‘a kangaroo among the beauty’!–a contingently evolved oddity with contingent values that belong to me–and perhaps only to me.”
That might free you up a bit to be what you want–and to value what you want.
If you like a particular subject in school, or a particular political cause, go for it. If you like art, get into art. Be free. You are free.
God didn’t prevent the Holocaust, but we would have. And God didn’t prevent the 2004 Christmas tsunami that killed over 100,000 people, but we would have. And Nature doesn’t care if death is the engine of evolution, but we do.
So we’re much, much better–more kind, purposeful, and sensitive–than either God or Nature, and our relationship to these larger entities is therefore absurd. They do not answer to our kindness, purposefulness, desires, or sensitivities.
Here’s Albert Camus from The Myth of Sisyphus (1942): “I derive from the absurd three consequences: my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the sheer activity of consciousness, I transform in a rule of life what was an invitation to death—and I refuse suicide.”
In other words, Camus is saying that an unblinkered encounter with the universe–its indifference toward us, its apparent lack of purpose, and the suffering and death in it–leads us to the conclusion that we are in an absurd situation (neither God nor our environment answers to our longings). Yet this needn’t be an invitation to suicide. In such a situation, we can still lead a vital and moral life. It is our refusal of the absurd–and our outrage against it–that can affirm and energize a human existence: one of rebellion, freedom, passionate caring about our projects, and solidarity with others.
These are the qualities lacking in God and Nature, but present to us in experience.
So once you confront your fate directly–that you are a being toward death (Heidegger) in a cosmos that doesn’t care; that Nature is not ultimately holistic and purposeful in any meaningful sense; that God is dead, hiding, indifferent, or evil–and pass through the nihilism and dark night of the soul that accompanies this confrontation, then there is still the possibility for you to make a meaningful life. It can be private or public; it can be focused on aesthetic projects or others, but it can have value. It is possible.
How so? Look in the mirror. The meaning that you’ve been searching for can be found right there in front of you. You’re it. Meaning needn’t reside in religion or imagining yourself as one with the cosmos, but in you, in me, in other people. That meaning can be present because you can imagine it as present; because you are present.
So in our collective outrage at suffering being met with indifference by God and Nature, we can meet suffering with a compassionate imagination. Since nobody else—and nothing else—will value us, we can value each other and ourselves. If God and Nature will not speak, we will speak. The value of human life can come exclusively from us, and we can feel empathy for those who are in the same bad situation that we are in (again, as a being unto death). In Camus’ novel, The Plague, for instance, the heroic Dr. Rieux, though an atheist, doesn’t flee the plague city, or commit suicide in despair, but values the sick and distressed, and stays with them. That’s part of the rebellion of human consciousness against an indifferent universe: our affirmation of the value of others to us. Against a vast cosmos that doesn’t care and a God who is dead, we can care and live–and give.
As Camus wrote in “L’homme révolté”: “The solidarity of humanity is based on the revolt, and the justification of the revolt is man’s solidarity with others.” In other words, human connection and solidarity are justified by our revolt against the absurd. No one else, and nothing else, justifies it—or needs to justify it.
Camus’s atheism thus constitutes a robust and moral humanism grounded in outrage at the absurd nature of our private and collective experiences. We don’t need God or environmental holism for meaning, we need only the absurd existence we know; the existence of our evolved, contingent, and pitiful primate selves.
So we are (in Emily Dickinson’s phrase) kangaroos among the beauty—contingently evolved oddities—and in our contingent oddity, we can value ourselves individually and collectively, and extend to one another love, mutual understanding, and solidarity.
But our moral vision does not hold together in a single vision. That’s part of the absurdity of our situation, and a key to our rebellion. If God existed and was talking, or we could read our morals off of Nature (which David Hume told us is not really possible: no is makes an ought), then we would have an external hierarchy of values to point to as to what we should do (as Moses pointed the children of Israel to the Ten Commandments).
But we don’t have Moses’ luxury. In the 21st century, that’s not the way it is for us. God and Nature don’t speak, we speak. And yet we are constantly confronted with competing goods, not straightforward verdicts that we can draw between good and evil. No one can tell us what to do, or how, Solomon-like, we should split our “babies” (the things we value).
Human dilemmas of choice between competing goods are part of the absurdity of our existential situation, and are explored in tragic literature, such as in Sophocles’ Antigone. Antigone has to make difficult choices between her family and the demands of the state. Likewise (also in Antigone), King Creon has to make difficult choices between law and mercy.
The dilemmas of competing goods are also explored in the writings of philosophers like Isaiah Berlin and Richard Rorty.
So this is our human condition: to be sensitive beings in a world where God is not talking and the environment we’re embedded in is not meaningfully holistic. Nature really is red in tooth and claw, and things fall apart. The center does not hold because there is no center.
And this means we’re free. Free to choose from among competing human goods; free to cut the deck of definition and value exactly as we please. Free to decide what’s going to be important to us, and what’s not. A decidedly mixed blessing. And Camus in a nutshell.