Saturday, December 23, 2017

But science cannot serve in the place of religion because it cannot generate an ethics or a morality. It can give us no reason to prefer a child to a dog, or to choose honorable poverty over fraudulent wealth. It can give us no grounds for preferring what is excellent to what is sensationalistic. And this is more or less where we are now.

"Medieval People Set Aside December 24 As The Feastday of Adam and Eve."

Of course I believe in evolution, or, rather, that the physical evidence as subjected to modern physics and geology and genetics and cladistic analysis points to it as the most likely means by which the present day and past diversity of life came about.  That's a far cry from avowing that on the basis of what was known about that in Britain in 1859, which filled in just about everything from that list of science - excepting contemporary geology and a different system of classification than is used now  - with the atrocity of Malthusian economics and the greatest wishes of the aristocratic class under the British caste sytem that controlled science got it right in natural selection. 

I say that because it is certain that all right thinking secular, moderny people will be scandalized, shocked and infuriated by what Marilynne Robinson said at the end of her great and long essay, "Darwinism" from her great book,  The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought.  I worked my way back from the ending and the essay is so great, such a brilliant line of thinking, it was hard to decide where to break into it.  I started here. . .

I am sure I would risk offending if I were to say outright that modern thought is a failed project.  Still, clearly it partakes as much of error as the worst thinking that it has displaced.  Daniel Dennett scolds Judeo-Christianity for Genesis 1:28, in which humankind is given dominion over all the earth,  as if it licensed depredation [I will post more about that after Christmas].  Notions of this kind go unchallenged now because the Bible is so little known.  In the recapitulation of creation that occurred after the waters have receded in the narrative of the Flood (Genesis 9:1-4) people are told, as if for the first time, that they may eat the flesh of animals.  It would appear the Edenic regime was meant to be rather mild.  And of course the most reassuring images of the lordliness of God in both Testaments describe him as a shepherd.  Over against this we have Darwin and Nietzsche and their talk of extermination. 

If it is objected - and there would be grounds for alarm if it were not objected - that the passages I have quoted from Darwin and Nietzsche are misread by those who take issue with them,  their defenders must make some little effort  to be fair to the context of Genesis.  It may be true historically that people have justified brutal misuse of nature on the authority of Genesis 1:28, but it is surely true that they have taken a high hand against the whole of creation on the pretext offered them by "the survival of the fittest" or "the will to power."  The verse in Genesis 9 that permits the eating of animals is followed by a verse that forbids the shedding of human blood, pointedly invoking the protection of the divine image  This is the human exceptionalism which Dennett and the whole tribe of Darwinians reject as if on a moral scruple.  But its effect is to limit violence, not to authorize it. 

In nothing  is the retrograde character of modern thought more apparent.  These ancients were never guilty of the parochialism of suggesting that any ambiguity surrounds the word "human," or that there is any doubt about human consanguinity, though such notions would be forgivable in a people surrounded by tribes and nations with which their relations were often desperately hostile.  To say this is to grant what is clearly true,  that they often failed to live up to their own most dearly held beliefs.  This can be looked at from another side. however.  They were loyal over many centuries to standards by which they themselves (though less, no doubt, than human kind in general) were found guilty and wanting.  This is a burden they could have put down.  It is the burden Western civilization has put down, in the degree that it has rejected the assertion of human uniqueness.  Darwin's response to objections to the idea of kinship with monkeys was, better a monkey than a Fuegian, a naked savage. 

History is a nightmare, generally speaking, and the effect of religion, where its authority has been claimed, has been horrific as well as benign.  Even in saying this, however, we are judging history in terms religion has supplied.  The proof of this is that,  in the twentieth century, "scientific" policies of extermination, undertaken in the case of Stalin to purge society of parasitic or degenerate or recalcitrant elements, and in the case of Hitler to purge it of the weak or defective or, racially speaking, marginally human, have taken horror to new extremes.  Their scale and relentlessness have been owed to the disarming of moral response by theories authorized by the word "science," which quite inappropriately, has been used as if it meant "truth."  Surely it is fair to say that science is to the "science" that inspired exterminations as Christianity is to the "Christianity" that inspired Crusades.  In both cases the human genius for finding pretexts seized upon the most prestigious institution of the culture and appropriated the great part of its language and resources and legitimacy.  In the case of religion, the best and the worst of it have been discredited together.  In the case of science, neither has been discredited.  The failure in both science and religion are effectively lost to us in terms of disciplining or enlarging our thinking. 

These are not the worst consequences, however.   The modern fable is that science exposed religion as a delusion and more or less supplanted it.  But science cannot serve in the place of religion because it cannot generate an ethics or a morality.  It can give us no reason to prefer a child to a dog, or to choose honorable poverty over fraudulent wealth.  It can give us no grounds for preferring what is excellent to what is sensationalistic.  And this is more or less where we are now. 

"Worship" means the assigning or acknowledging of worth.  Language, in its wisdom, understands this to be a function of creative, imaginative behavior.  The suffix "-ship" is kin to the word "shape."  It is no wonder that the major arts in virtually every civilization have centered around religion.  Darwin, always eager to find analogues and therefore inferred origins for human behavior among the animals, said that, to a dog, his master is a god.  But this is to speak of religion as if it were mere credulous awe in the face of an apparently greater power and wisdom, as if there were only one natural religion, only the Watchmaker.  The relationship between creation and discover - as Greek sculpture, for example, might be said to have discovered the human form, or mathematics might be said to have discovered the universe - is wholly disallowed in this comparison .  

Religion is inconceivable because it draws on the human mind in ways for which nature, as understood by Darwinists, offers no way of accounting.  Collaboratively, people articulate perceptions of value and meaning and worth, which are perhaps right and wrong, that is, profoundly insightful, or else self-interested or delusional at about the rate of the best science.   We forget that it is only fairly recently that the continents have been known to drift.  Until very recently the biomass of the sea at middle and great depths has been fantastically underestimated,  and the mass and impact of microbial life in the earth has been virtually unreckoned.  We know almost nothing about the biology of the air, that great medium of migration for infections agents, among other things.  The wonderful Big Bang is beset with problems.  In other words, our best information about the planet has been full of enormous lacunae,  and is, and will be.  Every grand venture at understanding is hypothesis, not so different from metaphysics.  Daniel Dennett attributes the brilliance of J. S. Bach to the fortuitous accumulation of favorable adaptations of his nervous system.  Bach, of all people, is not to be imagined without a distinctive, highly elaborated conception of God, and life in a culture that invoked the idea of God by means of music.  That is why his work is profound, rather than merely clever.  And it is profound.  It is not about illusion, it is not about superstition or denial or human vainglory or the peculiarities of one sensorium. 

We try now to establish  value in economic terms, lacking better, and this has no doubt contributed to the bluntly mercenary character of contemporary culture.  But economic value is extraordinarily slippery. Buying cheap and selling dear is the essence of profit making.  The consumer is forever investing in ephemera, cars or watches that are made into symbols of prosperity, and are therefore desirable because they are expensive.  So people spend a great deal of money for the advantages of being perceived to have spent a great deal of money.  These advantages are diminished continuously by the change of styles either toward or away from the thing they have bought, which is either commonplace or passé.  

Or manufacture is taken from a setting in which adults work for reasonable wages and there are meaningful protections of the environment, and moved into a setting where children work for meager wages and the environment is desolated.  This creates poverty among workers in both settings and destroys the wealth that is represented in a wholesome environment - toxins in the air or water are great destroyers of wealth.  So economic value is created at a cost of the economic value of workers who are made unable to figure as consumers, and of resources that are made unsuitable for any use.  A few people may get rich, but the transaction altogether is a loss, perhaps a staggering loss.  A global economy organized on these principles will be full of poor, sick,dispirited people, and shoddy goods, since they will be cheapened to suit the dwindling prosperity of the workforce, who are also the buying public.  An objective accounting of value would find disaster here.  Human limits to the exploitation of people would solve the problem, but that would interfere with competition which is the great law of nature, supposedly, and which therefore functions as a value, because "science" has supplanted religion. 

How much misery and premature death (most of it out of sight, granted) do we agree to when we accept this new economic order?  Is it in any way an advance on colonialism?  Do we imagine, as the colonists sometimes did, that we are bringing benefits of civilization to the far reaches of the world?  Are we not in fact decivilizing ourselves as we decivilize them?  Why is there no outcry?  Is it because we have cast off the delusion of human sanctity?  I think we should study our silence for insight into other momentous silences of recent history. 

This is not the worst of it.  Now that the mystery of motive is solved - there are only self-seeking and aggression, and the illusions that conceal them from us - there is no place left for a soul, or even the self.  Moral behavior has little real meaning, and inwardness, in the traditional sense, is not necessary or possible.  We use analysts and therapists to discover the content of our experience.  Equivalent trauma is assumed to produce more or less equivalent manifestations in every case, so there is little use for the mind, the orderer and reconciler, the artist of the interior world.  Whatever it has made will only be pulled apart.  The old mystery of subjectivity is dispelled; individuality is a pointless complication of a very straightforward organic life.  Our hypertrophic brain, that prodigal indulgence, that house of many mansions, with its stores and competences, and all its deep terrors and very rich pleasures, which was so long believed to be the essence of our lives, and a claim on one another's sympathy and courtesy and attention, is going the way of every part of collective life that was addressed to it - religion, art, dignity, graciousness.  Philosophy, ethics politics, properly so called.  It is a thing that bears reflecting upon, how much was destroyed, when modern thought declared the death of Adam. 


  1. "Daniel Dennett attributes the brilliance of J. S. Bach to the fortuitous accumulation of favorable adaptations of his nervous system."

    Why do people like Dennett (a lightweight among philosophers, at best, anyway) think a reductio argument is so compelling and dispositive?

    1. I remember when I was in college, one tweed-wearing, Dr. in her own right, faculty wife humorously nagging someone for exhibiting the declassé habit of Aristotelian thinking instead of the, apparently, more refined Platonic habit of thought.

      I think more than a little of the scientism of people in academia and those who would like to be taken as educated is based on snobbery, atheists having talked people into associating their ideology with science and, as Robinson hinted at, the prestige of science. I think Dennett is a particularly hard case, in so far as he's supposed to be a philosopher, because he asserts Darwinian reductionist arguments, elevating natural selection into places where it can't logically be sustained, in contexts in which natural selection would be impossible and for phenomena in which it makes no sense at all. Memes, in a silly word.

      I was listening to a discussion between a guy trained in the cognitive sciences and David Bentley Hart and the cog-sci guy, though an atheist and more credulous about such stuff than I can respect, nevertheless admitted that even dedicated materialists have had to admit they can't find a basis for consciousness, thought, ideas, etc. in materialism. I'd been aware of some of it, the panpsychism that's either growing out of or replacing the last attempt to make that happen in emergence, but I agree with Hart, no matter what they do they're still stuck with the problem that you can't find an origin of consciousness in matter and what you'll get stuck with are either things that don't work or the absurdity of the eliminationists like Paul and Patricia Churchland - how they can have kept jobs in academia while debunking everything academia claims to do - train minds that the Churchlands say are a delusion, only shows how stupid modernism is.

    2. Explanations for consciousness (which Dennett thinks he has explained) still comes back to Clarke's "Dial'F' for Frankenstein" thesis: connect enough phones, you somehow get consciousness (replicating neural brain connections). Of course, with global communications, cell phones and the internet, it still hasn't happened. Yet even animals, with smaller brains and so fewer neural connections than humans, exhibit consciousness. And where does consciousness go in Alzheimer's patients? And where does consciousness come from, if not the critical mass of enough neural connections? But babies have consciousness, yet form neural connections for decades. So, whence does it spring?

  2. I have yet to know of a phone that dialed up my number all by itself. Hart points out that the super-duper computer that played Kasparov depended on a vast database of games that had been played by people - which, I gather master players study but they're people studying what other people have done, the computer isn't studying what other computers have done, it isn't doing anything, it's the people who programmed the computer who are doing it.

    I have witnessed the phenomenon of terminal lucidity in someone with very advanced dementia who, on the morning they died, woke up and amazed their family members by being all there where they hadn't been for a long time, for several hours until they died suddenly.

    It's that same problem I brought up with the idea that our ideas are the product of biology making structures in our brain, if the idea, itself, isn't there to instruct the brain on what to make, how to make it, that it has made the right structure to "be" the right idea and to start off the process by telling the brain that a new idea that isn't there needs to be made - all in the real time it takes for us to think of every, single new idea we have in a day, including our continuous perception that we react to and behave about - how does the brain even get started.

    No, if there's one thing I'm absolutely certain of, our minds are not the same thing as our brains, our minds use our brains and, in the analogy to a radio, when the equipment is compromised the connection is faulty but it's not because the thing it demonstrates isn't there in the same room. How terminal lucidity overcomes that, I have no idea except I think our minds, as non-physical entities, would have to have qualities that don't correspond to any describable physical phenomena, they must be able to overcome the limitations of the physical mechanism in extreme necessity.