Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Masters of Atlantis

That faint, muffled, oh-so-distant sound you hear is the Eternal Form of Plato having a hearty laugh.

Plato was, of course, a big kidder. That’s something the majority of his modern interpreters don’t seem to understand, but it’s undeniable. Some scholars acknowledge it in a sort of humorless way by talking about “Socratic irony,” but that concept does little justice to Plato’s true jocularity.

Some of the modern thinking about his ideas could only cause Plato frustration and exasperation, of course. The way people want to reduce the Republic, for example, to a treatise on political systems must be truly infuriating. Expostulations on politics were a dime a dozen in Plato’s day, and what is totally missed by modern interpreters is the extent to which the Republic satirizes those polemics. Children taken from their parents and raised by the state, men and women exercising together (naked!) in the Gymnasium? Bada bing, but seriously folks.

OK, here’s another one: In two dialogues, Republic and Laws, Plato apparently proposes that legislators who want to make new laws must write them in verse and then sing (and dance!) them before the assembly.

One could come up with all sorts of theories about why Plato would recommend such a thing – for example, maybe if they had to put them in verse, lawmakers would think harder about the laws they impose on the rest of us – but there’s actually a really simple explanation: The Greek word for “law,” nome, also means “melody.” It’s a pun, the purpose of which – it seems to me – is to point up the absurdity of the whole legislative process. (Not that our modern legislators need any help in making their absurdity obvious.)

But what I’m thinking Plato must be laughing about now is the latest claim that someone has found the “Real Atlantis.” There have been stories about it in the media for a week or so, part of the drumbeat of publicity for a documentary about the “discovery” that’s being broadcast on TV tonight.

And while I have no doubt that the team of archeologists who made this discovery have in fact discovered something, and perhaps something significant, I am certain that they have not discovered the Real Atlantis, though claiming to have done so might boost their TV ratings and, perhaps, their funding.

It’s one thing to go into Plato’s dialogues looking for the passages in which Atlantis is mentioned and to try to connect those mentions to places or events in the actual, historical world. It’s quite another thing to study Plato in some real sense, to read at least, say, a half-dozen of the dialogues all the way through and give serious thought to what they might mean.

The most common mistake people make in reading Plato’s dialogues is to assume that some statement or line of argument within a dialogue is Plato’s statement of what he’s trying to say. Most often, people want to select something said by the character of Socrates as the articulation of Plato’s position. But in fact, it’s the dialogue as a whole that expresses Plato’s position.

With that in mind, I’m convinced that to anyone who has seriously studied Plato, it’s blindingly obvious, crystal-clear, transparently apparent – in short, very easy to see – that the whole Atlantis story is something Plato just made up to make a philosophical point.

Consider, first, that the two dialogues in which Plato discusses Atlantis, Timaeus and Critias, are the second and third installments in a trilogy of dialogues that begins with Republic.

In Republic, the participants have agreed to construct in words a perfectly ordered society. As I suggested above, there are pitfalls in taking anything about this dialogue literally.

In Timaeus, the discussion on the morning after the conversation recorded in Republic begins with Socrates’ wish that he and his companions could set their ideal society in motion and watch its unfolding in real time and space. The notion of Atlantis is introduced (but not in isoloation, as will be discussed further below) as a story that can be told that would, perhaps, satisfy Socrates’ wish. But to tell the story properly, we must first go all the way back in the unfolding of events to explain the origin of the universe itself. That explanation then occupies the remainder of the dialogue, and is remarkable for its opacity to the modern mind.

In Critias, finally, we are to expect the full unfolding of the story of Atlantis. But it is not just the story of Atlantis; rather, it is the story of a war between Atlantis and a long-ago version of Athens, an Athens that once flourished as brilliantly as Atlantis did, though for different reasons, but which vanished so completely that the Athenians of Plato’s time had no idea it had ever existed – just as no one then living was familiar with the existence of Atlantis.

Plato tells us that his ancestor, Solon, one of the Seven Sages of ancient Greece, learned of these matters on a journey to Egypt, the only society where knowledge reached back into such remote times, something on the order of 10,000 years before. The priests of Egypt told Solon the story that Plato is proposing to relate about the war between this long-forgotten, primal Athens and the equally forgotten Atlantis.

The dialogue then goes on to tell us something about each of these societies and the reasons for their flourishing – and then stops. The dialogue Critias was never finished. The promised account of the war between Athens and Atlantis was never set down in writing.

From what was set down, it seems clear that Plato planned to tell a tale that would contrast the two civilizations in a way that would help illuminate the point(s) he was making in Republic and Timaeus. Based on my own interpretation of those dialogues and Plato’s teachings in general, my guess is that the story would tell us that it didn’t ultimately matter which country won the war, both were going to vanish: Atlantis suddenly, the primordial Athens gradually. Maybe.

As far as the modern search for the Real Atlantis goes, my main point is this: If you believe Plato was talking about a real place in reference to Atlantis, then why aren’t you also digging deep, deep down under present-day Athens to find the 10,000-year-old city that Plato also described? I’m not talking, obviously, about some Neolithic village where people at most had learned to make pottery and not to eat each other; I’m talking about a city that was advanced enough to make serious war against the putatively oh-so-advanced Atlanteans.

Plato made up a lot of stuff in his dialogues that philosophers and historians of philosophy happily admit was always intended to be myth. Indeed, the French philosopher Luc Brisson has written a book on the subject, Plato the Myth Maker, which notes among other things that Plato was the first writer to distinguish between myth and history. And Atlantis clearly is not the latter.

The myth of Er that concludes the Republic and the stories of winged souls and two-horsed chariots in Phaedrus are perhaps the best-known examples of Plato’s talent for describing more-or-less concrete images to illustrate metaphysical concepts. It’s a fault of our modern attitudes, not of Plato’s insights and skills as a philosopher and writer, that we want to take the concrete image as the reality and miss the real point.

Monday, March 7, 2011


Readers of these posts will have noticed that I’m no fan of atheism, and likely will have inferred that I’m what people are prone to call a “theist.” It’s interesting to note that no one in the world, as far as I’ve heard, goes around proclaiming, “I’m a Theist!” The term, or whatever it represents, exists purely to stake out a position in debate: If there are atheists, there also must be the opposite, theists. In fact, “theism” exists purely as a sort of placeholder, filling a necessary position in a presumptive logical relationship. That relationship turns out to be a false dilemma.

The basis of the atheism-vs.-theism polarity is presumed to be the nonbelief or belief in God, a god, gods, etc. An atheist, by this standard, is someone who denies the existence of any such thing, and a “theist” is someone who affirms the existence of some such thing.

It’s worth noting in connection with this that the Greek word at the center of the discussion, θεος (theos), was never to the ancient Greeks a proper noun. Rather, it was a quality or category shared by certain beings: Zeus was θεος, Apollo was θεος, etc. In short, the “theo” in theology, the “the” in “theism” and “atheism,” doesn’t refer to a specific being or personification, it refers to whatever might be shared by gods and goddesses: “divinity” would be a likely translation.

But the real problem with suggesting that atheism and “theism” are equivalent but opposite positions is that it lumps together a very large number of very different belief-systems and gives them a single label based on what is really just one characteristic of each system, and not necessarily the most important. It then posits the so-labelled “theistic” systems as one monolithic mass in opposition to what is really just another belief-system, albeit one in which the salient belief is in disbelief.

This is actually the great error that Plato warned against in the practice of dialectic: When you divide things, make sure you’re dividing them where they truly differ and where the difference truly matters. For example, if you want to categorize "living things," you probably won’t get useful results if you start by dividing them into “things that call me by my nickname Mongo” and “things that don’t call me by my nickname Mongo.”

This is exactly what is going on when we divide people into “those who don’t believe in God, a god, gods, goddesses, spirits, angels, etc. etc. etc.” and “those who believe in any of the above.” The don’t-believe/do-believe dilemma forces us to suppose that one of those two positions is the only true one, instead of allowing us to scope out the full range of possibilities.

Another way of trying to say what I’m trying to say is that the differences among the putatively “theistic” belief-systems are as real and important as the difference between this theoretical “theism” and atheism. For example, fundamentalist Christianity and Taoism – is there a significant difference? Only someone totally ignorant of one or both would say no. Yet both must fall into the “theist” category, enabling the atheist to claim victory over both if he can refute either one.

This is one reason for my conviction that, as I asserted in my last post, the argument really is “not between science and religion but between naturalism and supernaturalism or between physicalism and metaphysicalism.” Because, of course, atheists aren’t only atheists, they’re holders of a worldview that includes (or perhaps requires) a denial of anything supernatural or metaphysical, but which embraces a lot of do-believes in addition to the one don’t-believe, and the unspoken do-believes would require a lot more intellectual firepower to defend.

Let’s suppose that instead of a God/no-God dichotomy, we’re actually talking about a spectrum or continuum of belief. Belief in what? must be our first question, and the answer is crucial. It seems to me that what we’re really talking about is how we explain the source(s) or cause(s) of the cosmos in which we live (and ask these questions).

The physicalist/materialist position gives us a starting point at one extreme: Everything in the universe can be explained in terms of physical cause and effect, and there is no need to believe in any transcendent cause for anything in the universe or, indeed, the universe itself.

If that’s our anchor on one end of our spectrum or continuum of belief, the opposite extreme clearly must be the fundamentalist claim that the universe exists because of a one-time act of miraculous creativity by a deity who happily violated all the laws of time, space, matter and energy to create an illusory cosmos. By this reckoning, the physical facts, the seeming relationships of physical cause and effect, are traps for the intellectually arrogant, and the true laws of existence can be known only by study of one miraculously perfect book.

What’s in between these extremes? Basically, everything that makes sense. Take your pick, study Taoism, Buddhism, classical Philosophy, “higher theology” in Christianity, mysticism in all its forms in all traditions, and even the perhaps-boring but not destructive teachings of the mainline Christian denominations and their equivalents in Judaism and Islam.

All of these traditions have value, which makes it all the more saddening when some evangelists of atheism caricature all belief as something like the “flying spaghetti monster,” which obviously was invented by someone who had been smoking copious amounts of pot and had no knowledge of religion, philosophy or much else besides his own ego.

As I said in my last post, “It’s blindingly obvious that the people who are participating the most energetically in the science-vs.-religion debate are woefully unequipped for a real philosophical discussion.” Some of the participants just want to show off their smartest-guy-in-the-room status, and truth be damned.

Let’s stop asking, “Do you believe in God?” and start asking instead, “What do you believe?”

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Argumentum ad Nauseam

Looking back over my posts here the past few years, I see I’ve devoted what some people might view as an inordinate amount of verbiage to what is popularly (and inaccurately) referred to as the “conflict between science and religion” (or vice versa).

One reason I’ve focused (or maybe obsessed) on this “debate” is because, as a student of Philosophy, I’m looking at the discussion from somewhere in the middle, seeing merits and demerits on both sides. Another is that from my perspective, the debate appears to be defined – in the popular media at least – by the extremists on both sides: Christian fundamentalists on the one hand and hard-core atheist-materialists on the other.

As is the case any time extremists get involved in a discussion, sober and rational examination of the issues gets shouted down by sophistry and propaganda and the basest kind of appeals to emotion. We are all invited to choose sides, but then we’re presented with loads of overheated rhetoric and logical fallacies as a basis for making that choice.

Much of the problem, as I’m sure I’ve said before, is that the current debate or conflict is not between Science as such and Religion as such but between certain narrow, and to some degree disingenuous, constructions of the two. The atheist-materialists represent that their worldview is synonymous with science, though it is not, and attack Fundamentalism as a straw-man proxy for all religion. And the fundamentalists are all too happy to concur that their own idiosyncratic approach to religion is, indeed, the only valid one.

It’s important to keep in mind when evaluating the claims of the self-styled advocates of Science that what they’re advocating is never science alone. Science is not, in itself, a comprehensive understanding of reality; it is simply a tool, a way of investigating reality, and nowadays of investigating only one aspect of reality, the physical/material. The claim that physical/material reality is the only reality is, of course, not a scientific statement, but a philosophical assumption. In other words, the promoters of Science over Religion are in fact promoting Science plus an unacknowledged and largely unargued philosophical stance.

Recognizing this, we ought really to regard the debate as not between science and religion but between naturalism and supernaturalism or between physicalism and metaphysicalism (if there is such a word). But of course that would put the debate into the realm of philosophy, and it’s blindingly obvious that the people who are participating the most energetically in the science-vs.-religion debate are woefully unequipped for a real philosophical discussion.

It’s all very unfortunate indeed, I think, because I’m convinced that a wholesale rejection of either science or religion is a serious mistake, with serious consequences not only for each individual but for society and the world at large.

In my day job as a journalist, I regularly see what I firmly believe are the destructive consequences in individual lives and in society of the absence of a middle ground on these issues. On the one hand, we have an ethical vacuum in which materialism encourages us to believe that physical security, well-being and especially pleasure are the only goods toward which we can realistically aspire. On the other hand, we have a chorus of doubtfully trustworthy men and women (but mostly men) hectoring us to believe that if we don’t adhere to an archaic and fossilized set of externally imposed laws, of which they are the sole reliable interpreters, we will be consigned to eternal torture.

As a result, I see people almost daily who have made astonishingly bad choices because on the one hand they are driven to satisfy their physical desires – whether for money, pleasure, command of other people, social success, adulation, etc. etc. etc. – and on the other, they affiliate with a form of religion that encourages them to make a verbal profession of faith without supplying them any means of making that faith a real part of their lives, or, indeed, of suggesting that they really need to.

To put it bluntly, every day of the week, “good Christians” are being put on trial for crimes of all sorts, not to exclude rape and murder. I’m not suggesting that they commit these crimes because they are Christians (even fundamentalist Christians) but rather that the readily available forms of Christianity in many communities don’t give them sufficient reason not to commit them.

And nor does the prevailing “intellectual” paradigm, as is evident from the ease with which, for example, the titans of Wall Street justify to themselves, and to our lawmakers, the plunder of their clients and the pillage of the national treasury. In fact, prevailing economic theories based on “rational agents seeking to maximize their personal good” are nothing more than a pretext for financial predators to excuse their predations.

It may be arguable whether the polarized and largely fraudulent debate over “science vs. religion” is a cause or an effect relative to our increasingly fragmented and angry society. But it certainly isn’t helping. A reframed, more realistic, more sincere discussion of these issues might draw us together as humans instead of dividing us, and help heal some of our social and personal ills. I won’t be holding my breath waiting for that to happen.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Triumph of Folly

Not quite 2,000 years ago, a new religious movement arose in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. There was nothing especially startling about this – it was an age that spawned religious movements at a prodigious rate. And this particular movement had little at the outset to set it apart from all the rest, except perhaps for a couple of fairly serious handicaps.

For one thing, it was a sub-sect of a national or tribal religion that already had gained a fairly widespread reputation for rebarbativeness, Judaism. The people of Judea, and their compatriots scattered throughout the empire, were widely seen by their pagan neighbors as alien, rather odd, and at times even atheistic. They declined to eat certain tasty foods, they worshipped an invisible god, they refused to recognize or respect the gods of the pagans, and they had a custom of refusing to do any work at all on the seventh day of each week.

The new movement also suffered, in the eyes of pagan critics, from a serious lack of distinctiveness. Its central narrative involved a god-man born of a virgin, who underwent a severe trial, was killed, and rose from the dead as a savior for those who believed in him. This was very old hat indeed: Pagan mystery cults centered around virtually identical dying-and-resurrected-god narratives had existed for centuries already by the time this new movement came along – those, for example, of Dionysus (Bacchus), Orpheus, Adonis, Attis and, probably most successfully, Osiris/Horus (i.e., the mysteries of Isis).

On the other hand, in a time when originality was valued much less than tradition, the new movement suffered from the very fact that it was, indeed, new. The other mystery-cults could claim chronological precedence and the authority lent by “the test of time.”

A further obstacle faced by the new movement was the philosophical and rhetorical sophistication of the cultural leadership in the world where it was attempting to grow. It was one thing to preach a visionary and emotional message of “good news” and a coming reversal of status to the illiterate and laboring classes; it was quite another to get anyone in authority, political or cultural, to take it seriously.

Largely because of these factors, the first wave, so to speak, of this movement left nary a ripple on the historical record, except for a few letters written by one (or possibly a few) of its most articulate adherents. This letter-writer had experienced first-hand the humiliation of facing pagan sophistication without adequate dialectical firepower (Acts 17:18-33) and perhaps as a result began to preach the virtues of becoming a “fool” for his savior-god and rejecting the counsels of the “wise.”

As time passed, however, the new movement adapted to its environment. Significantly, it distanced itself as much as possible from its roots in Judaism, especially after that nation rebelled against Roman authority and suffered a comprehensive and cataclysmic defeat. It began to put its teachings into writing, and in those writings it declared a hostility to Judaism that matched that of the empire that it increasingly sought to woo to its cause.

In those writings, the new movement also sought to build a case for its philosophical validity – indeed, its superiority – by claiming a sort of vicarious chronological priority. It might be true, they argued, that their founder had lived and died in a very recent time, but his life had been foretold long, long ago – much longer ago, indeed, than any of those other savior-gods had lived and died (and lived again).

The groundwork for this argument had been laid by a Jew, Philo of Alexandria, who lived at roughly the same time as the new savior-god but whose project was to demonstrate that Moses – to whom, in keeping with tradition, he attributed the authorship of the foundational texts of Judaism – was in fact a philosopher – indeed, the greatest of philosophers – whose teachings represented a sort of quantum leap above the pagan philosophers because 1.) Moses lived much longer ago than they did, and 2.) his philosophy originated not from human reasoning but from divine revelation, and so was complete in a way that the merely human conclusions of pagan philosophers could not be.

The advocates of the new religious movement – apologists, as they’re called – happily adopted Philo’s rhetorical strategy and conclusions, and then took things much further.

Yes, they said, the writings of Moses and the Jewish prophets are much, much older than anything you pagans can offer (except perhaps the Egyptians, and no one understands their stuff anyway). But unbeknown to the Jews, their texts were foretelling the coming of our savior-god. In fact, their account of the history of the world from its very creation is really secretly an account of God’s plan to save humankind through the life, death and resurrection of our savior-god.

Now, plainly, this interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures required a certain amount of intellectual squinting. The apologists had to patch together widely separated verses and create a lot of doubtful equivalences, chief among which was the equating of the new movement’s savior-god with the hoped-for “messiah” of the Jews. This was a rather dubious enterprise, seeing as how the messiah clearly was expected to be a temporal, political leader who would “restore Israel” to its rightful independence and prominence among the nations of the world; while the movement’s savior-god had died ignominiously and obscurely without the slightest direct effect on Israel’s status as a nation.

What the apologists did to overcome this objection was to declare – and to inscribe into their own “scriptures” – that what the messianic prophecies had foretold, and what their own savior-god had accomplished, was the institution of a spiritual, “heavenly” kingdom that superseded the earthly kingdom of Israel.

That’s a neat rhetorical trick, and nothing more, and not many people early on were taken in by it, least of all the bulk of the Jewish nation. But the apologists had an even better trick up their sleeves that also didn’t fool many people at the time, but which they continue to play even today, and surprisingly with better results now.

It’s a variation, or more accurately an extension, of the prophetic claim. The early apologists argued (if you can call it an argument) that the Hebrew scriptures told a story that the authors themselves didn’t understand. The authors thought they were telling the story of the relationship between Yahweh and his chosen people, but “we know better” – they were really telling the story of how God knew humankind would blunder into a state of unredeemable sinfulness, and he would enter into human existence at a certain time and place and fix the whole thing.

Okay, a lot of people (Christians all) have accepted this reading of the Hebrew scriptures over the centuries. But the apologists pushed this line of argument even further. In their time, there were lots of texts besides the Hebrew scriptures that were regarded as spirtually informative, from the deliberate writings of Plato to the recorded spontaneous utterances of the Pythoness of Delphi and the Cumean Sybil. There were all those mystery-cults, there were the long-standing and highly respected religious traditions of Persia (Zoroastrianism), Babylon, Egypt, and the native cults of every nation from Armenia to Greece to Rome to Gaul to Britain.

The adherents of the new movement acquired a bad reputation early on for frontally assaulting everyone else’s beliefs. But as time went on, they got a bit more subtle. They began acknowledging that the various pagan belief-systems contained an element of truth. But they went on to claim that any such kernel of truth served only to mislead.

You see, only when the movement’s own savior-god descended from timelessness into earthly manifestation did the full truth about existence become knowable. So anyone who sought to find truth before that could only have discovered a partial, and therefore untrue, truth – at best a “foreshadowing” of the full truth, just as the Hebrew scriptures “foreshadowed” the savior’s coming.

Worse, the eternal enemy of truth, Satan, was at large in the world long before the savior made his descent. But Satan knew that moment was coming (I’m not sure how; maybe the idea is that God told him to “test” us) and so he made it his business to confuse people’s minds by creating false precursors – anticipatory parodies – of the true savior.

Overall, the message of the apologists was this: The one and only god has made his one and only entry into material reality at this one and only time and place, and everything that anyone said or will say about divinity or spirituality is either a prediction of this one event or a lie intended to make you overlook it.

These were neat rhetorical tricks, but they didn’t fool many people in ancient times. The new movement remained very much a minority sect – its members far outnumbered by the devotees of Isis, certainly, and probably those of Mithras as well – until the Emperor Constantine threw the weight of his rule and his army behind it in the mid-fourth century.

Following this development, the apologists for the new movement came up with yet another sophism that still affects thinking about these things today: The fact that the new movement eventually gained enough power to crush all of its competitors demonstrates that God wanted this movement to “triumph” over all the other religious tendencies of the age.

The movement in question has of course splintered over the intervening centuries, but it’s interesting to note how much the various factions still rely on the same sophisms in their continuing project of dominating or eliminating the competition. That competition has broadened in ways that no one could have imagined in Constantine’s time, to include Islam and Buddhism and, perhaps most dangerously, the naturalist-materialist worldview.

If today’s apologists would just back away from some of their pointlessly but insistently held dogmatic positions – especially the claim to an exclusive, unique knowledge of divine truth – we might all make more progress toward real spiritual growth and social harmony. But alas, I fear that the apologists and their churches really have little regard for such things, and are really interested mostly in worldly power, and always have been.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Forget Darwin

My last post took a pretty hard swipe at science, so in the interests of balance I want to take hold now of the other horn of the contemporary culture-wars bull.

The term “fundamentalist” was invented by conservative Christians in the late 19th century as a self-description intended to identify themselves as the true bearers of the real principles of the uniquely true religion. Part of their self-conception was the claim that they were merely carrying forward ideas that were “fundamental” to Christianity from its beginning.

This claim is false, of course, because they were parsing their scriptural sources in an anachronistic way to come up with answers to the challenges raised in their own times. The concerns of the people who wrote the Bible were not the same as the concerns of late-19th-century Christian pastors, who were mainly appalled by the then-new doctrine of “Darwinism.”

What the original fundamentalists were responding to, however, was not just Darwinism but “modernism” in general, including especially the text-critical and historical-critical approaches to Bible scholarship. Studies in these disciplines had severely undermined a naïve belief in the Bible as “the Word of God,” and in many ways this was a more exigent challenge to faith than the findings of physical science.

Darwin’s theory, however, hit people on a more emotional level than arguments about source-texts and exogenous influences. On a gut level, many people just didn’t like the idea that they were cousins of chimpanzees. And we are still dealing with that reaction.

Scientists and their groupies are of course endlessly exasperated by all this. As far as they’re concerned, the theory of the origin of species through natural selection is “settled science,” and everyone should just accept it and get over it. And they’re probably right, though some of them seem inclined to extend this hypothesis to cover matters far beyond the biological where its applicability seems very dubious, as in the logically and morally questionable doctrines of Social Darwinism.

However, the ongoing argument over Darwin vs. the Bible or Darwin vs. God, though it seems to provide people on both sides with some sort of pleasure, is ultimately misconceived.

Even the most fundamentalistically inclined televangelist makes use every day of the theories and discoveries of physics: Their pleas for money are beamed to homes around the world by way of radio waves to satellites in Earth orbit and back again to the TV receivers of their fans. And every step of the way, their broadcasts rely on the laws of motion and electromagnetism and relativity and so on that were discovered and described by science.

For anyone with the slightest intellectual integrity, there’s a hair-raising degree of self-contradiction in this: Fundamentalist preachers are taking advantage of the discoveries of physics to broadcast the message that physics is a lie.

All the quibbling about how to interpret the age of bones and why there are seashells on top of the Alps pales into insignificance when someone asks why we’re able to see stars and galaxies that are millions or billions of light-years away.

From Newton to today, science has discovered the laws of motion and gravity, the values of universal constants like the speed of light, the ways in which bits of matter and energy interact, and so on and so on. Even if science hasn’t come up with a convincing explanation of why all these things are what they are, it’s undeniable that it has come up with stuff that works. Any quibbles one might have about the details of quantum theory seem largely irrelevant if you’re talking with a resident of Hiroshima.

Fundamentalists need to forget Darwin and worry instead about Newton and Faraday and Einstein and Niels Bohr and the rest. They need to explain how the very same science that enables them to generate electromagnetic signals and put satellites into Earth orbit and draw electricity from nuclear generators is wrong about the size and age of the universe.

After all, we can see objects in the sky that, based on measurements using the same physics that enable them to broadcast their appeals for money, are millions or billions of light-years away, when, according to their supposedly Bible-based belief, the universe is only several thousand years old.

This leaves us with only two options: One is that every object in the sky is within 6,000 to around 10,000 light years of Earth, and only appears falsely to be farther away. But this means that all the matter in the universe is contained within a space with a radius of roughly 10,000 light years; based on the laws of physics, it all should have collapsed into a black hole long ago.

The other option, and the one that fundamentalists tend to fall back on whenever challenged, is that it’s all a “test of faith.” God created the universe on that fateful day in October of 4004 B.C. (or some other day, but within the past tens of thousands of years), and when he did, he scattered the stars and galaxies across the sky in such a way as to make us believe that they were farther away and older than they really are.

This is the one that really bothers me, because it says that God is a liar and the whole fabric of the universe is a deception. It says that no one who is not a human being on this one planet, Earth, can ever know the truth about existence, because it’s only here that we have this book, this Bible, that explains the hidden truth behind the falsehood that is the universe.

That is the real “fundamental” idea: Challenged by serious and thoughtful investigators of life, the universe and everything, a certain group of Christian pastors decided that the answer was to declare the Bible unarguably true and everything that contradicted it false.

But before conservative Christians invented fundamentalism, even before there was such a thing as Christianity, there were many who understood that the universe was much more “the Word of God” than anything written down in ink. We talk about trees being chopped down to make paper for books; one living tree tells as much truth as all the books ever written.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Amoral and the Immoral

One night recently, I was watching “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and was introduced to a writer named Sam Harris who was plugging his new book, The Moral Landscape. The discussion indicated that the topic of the book is Mr. Harris’ claim that science can be used to produce or discover moral facts or principles, and should replace or supersede religion as a source of moral understanding.

My immediate response was, “Bunkum!” or some less nice words to that effect.

I haven’t read the book, nor have I read any of Mr. Harris’ previous works, though I have learned by visiting his website that he is one of those people who believe religion is bad, science is good, and the two are opposed, and that he has received praise from, among others, Richard Dawkins.

From what I read on Mr. Harris’ site, it appears that he agrees with Dr. Dawkins that religion is an unnecessary excresence on human history and we would all be much better off if it would just go away. (Dawkins, of course, has expressed the opinion (in The God Delusion) that religious belief only persists because of bad parenting, and if “we” could just stop people from propagating these erroneous beliefs, religion would indeed just go away, and we could all go forward with an ideal life in a science-ruled world. More about that later.)

I also learned from a column that Mr. Harris wrote for the Huffington Post that he is dismayed by his observation that many scientists agree with many religious believers (including me) in concluding that science simply is not equipped to deal with moral principles: It can study what people say and do about morality, but it can’t say what is or is not truly moral.

This is in fact the most serious roadblock that the pro-science crowd has found to its agenda of eliminating religious belief and basing all social, political and personal life on scientific principles. My impression – and I must reiterate that it’s based on the one interview and a fairly speedy reading of the online sources – is that Mr. Harris has written his new book precisely in order to try to knock down this obstacle and clear the way for the Golden Age of Scientific Rule.

I don’t plan to read the book itself because I think I have better things to do with my time than waste it reading something I already know is an exercise in futility. That may sound narrow-minded, but in fact it’s based on a thoroughly rational appraisal of the prospects. As it happens, there’s an airtight and surprisingly simple argument:

1. “Nature,” by which I mean the aggregate of physical data that modern science restricts itself to studying, is inherently amoral. There is no moral good or bad in the physical cause-and-effect processes that materialist scientists insist are the sum total of what the universe is. Ultimately, it’s all random.

2. “Rationality,” by which I mean in this instance the use of more-or-less-formal logic, is also inherently amoral. Logical analysis says nothing about whether a conclusion is morally good or bad, only whether that conclusion is based on a valid argument.

3. “Science,” then, if defined as the application of rationality to natural phenomena, is inherently amoral: Its objects of study and its manner of study offer neither moral content nor moral analysis  (AIAO: Amorality In, Amorality Out).

Thus, if a scientist is proposing moral principles or advocating a course of action as morally positive, he or she must be basing this proposition or advocacy on something other than science. In practice, of course, the moral principle generally is inserted into the discourse at the beginning as an assumption. (Harris seems to be assuming that a scientific morality would somehow be “more moral” than one based on religion, because science is better than religion as an understanding of reality.)

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has addressed these issues in considerable detail in Sources of the Self and has shown that the adherents of the atheistic/materialistic/secular-humanistic worldview(s) are unable to account, using their own logic, for the moral principles they espouse. Their moral imperatives exist as part of our Western cultural legacy, having entered the cultural stream from religious sources, but are treated as “self-evident” because the proponents of this view can't allow themselves to acknowledge the original religious source.

In general, what the atheist/secularist crowd espouses are the “Enlightenment” values of individual liberty and humanitarianism. And certainly there’s nothing wrong with them as values. But based on their own materialist-rationalist principles, the atheists-secularists can’t explain why these things are worth valuing.

Absent such an explanation, it becomes easy for some people to conclude that they aren’t truly worth valuing. This then allows them to proceed to behave with disregard for others’ liberty or well-being, as in Social Darwinism, Objectivism, Straussianism, etc.

Harris’ approach apparently relies at least in part on “human flourishing” as a yardstick of value, but Taylor has already shown the inadequacy — indeed, the danger — of that standard.

Obviously, how one defines “flourishing” has a major effect on what one wants to propose as a moral good. If “flourishing” means mere physical well-being, for instance, the argument must tend toward the kind of hedonistic, consumeristic society we already live in, and which so many of us find objectionable on various levels, including the environmental and the spiritual.

Which raises another objection: Obviously, if one automatically rejects religion as a moral source, one is rejecting spirituality as a moral value. So any moral system one constructs on that basis will offer no satisfaction for anyone who believes in the reality of spiritual rewards. And it will automatically denigrate any system or society that does accord value to spirituality, while overrating a system or society that ignores spiritual value or meaning and looks instead at physical well-being as a standard.

Of course, the pro-science crowd delights in detailing the many abuses that have been committed in the name of religion, and there certainly is no denying that terrible abuses have occurred, and continue to occur. But the advocates of science as a standard are far less inclined to take note of the rather unencouraging track record of science and scientists on moral issues in the relatively short time they’ve had the upper hand.

Individuals pursuing an amorally conceived science have, notoriously, placed their work at the disposal of morally dubious governments such as those of Nazi Germany and the USSR. (And one might note that the USSR was ruled according to an atheistic-materialistic ideology, which didn’t prevent it from killing as many as 60 million people (Solzhenitsyn’s estimate) in programs of collectivization, forced migration and forced labor.)

Then there are the morally dubious projects of governments regarded in the West as more legitimate, such as the recently revealed deliberate infection of 696 men and women in Guatemala with syphilis by U.S. researchers in the 1940s. Add that one to the Tuskegee experiments, the eugenics projects in which women were sterilized based upon their race and class, the CIA experiments in mind control using LSD and God knows what else, and let us not forget the atomic bomb, poison gas and biological warfare.

None of these things could have proceeded without the willing participation of scientists. What it all ultimately demonstrates is the obvious fact that the amoral includes the immoral.

No doubt, the researchers in all these projects argued that their work helped save American lives, thus serving a “greater good.” This is precisely why utilitarianism is worthless as a moral source: In the pursuit of the “greatest good for the greatest number,” everything depends on who decides what the “greatest good” is and how they decide it, and how much evil they’re willing to inflict on the lesser number. A less "scientific" view of morality might propose that inflicting horrible suffering on even one person is wrong.

Scientists go where the funding is, of course. When the funding is provided by the government, they do the work the government wants, such as creating weapons of mass destruction. Today, of course, they mostly are placing their work at the disposal of profit-seeking corporations, sometimes because that’s where the government funding (i.e., yours and my tax dollars) is being funneled. That’s one reason why the pharmaceutical industry has grown so huge.

And here is an example of amorality serving amorality. The “science” of economics — according to some of its practitioners, generally those who are viewed most favorably by large corporations — informs us that one reason governments must not try to regulate business is because doing so injects moral considerations into markets that will “flourish” best by operating unimpededly according to “nature.”

As Taylor’s work shows, modern science and the worldviews it has most strongly influenced are geared toward the control and exploitation of Nature, including human nature. And there have been many people in the past couple of centuries who sincerely believed they were part of a movement toward the overall improvement of human life through that type of manipulation. And improvements obviously have been made by some measurements, though there also have been obvious losses.

But for every selfless philanthropist or courageous existentialist (a la Camus’ Dr. Rieux, admittedly a fictional character), there have been multitudes of social-Darwinist, para-Nietzschean scoundrels and bullies whose only interest in science is determining how it can help them increase their wealth and power.

Time and again, the resistance to such people and their bogus ideologies has come from people motivated by religious belief — because it’s only because of such belief that we can arrive at a point of view that sees something better or higher than the things of this physical world.

I don’t believe religion, or religious aspiration, can be eradicated. Unlike Dr. Dawkins, I don’t think it’s a purely cultural-educational phenomenon. I think it’s a basic constituent of human nature, because the divine is a basic formative and ordering principle of reality.

But it does worry me that there are people who believe it can and ought to be eradicated, people who are involved in creating drugs and machines that can do great harm to our minds and souls, and who have considerable clout with our lawmakers and sociocultural opinion-shapers.

In the latter days of the Soviet Union, the authorities found it expedient to classify dissidents as psychologically aberrant rather than politically unorthodox, and to confine them in mental hospitals instead of labor camps. It seems to me that the biggest difference between here and there, now and then, is that in the United States we’re letting ourselves be persuaded into self-medicating ourselves into irrelevance, into letting “the system” decide what’s best for everyone.

When we live in a world where resistance to abuse or stupidity can be “diagnosed” as “oppositional defiant disorder,” we really need to think carefully about what we value and how we can know what is truly good or evil.

Thursday, September 2, 2010


I’ve written a lot in this blog about my belief in the fundamental connectedness of people, of living beings in general, of things in general. And I suspect it has been a waste of time. There are only two likely reactions anyone might have to this notion at this point in history: “Duh, who didn’t know that?” or “Are you insane?”

If you look at the world around us right now, it certainly doesn’t look like what one might call “an organic whole.” The level of social fragmentation and conflict appears to be historically high and increasing, as does the level of conflict between human beings and Nature. No one seems to be able to agree about anything, especially in reference to how we might solve any of these problems –we can’t even agree what the problems are – but everyone seems to be ready to fight to the death to push the solution they like. It’s a situation I’ve taken to summing up like this: Where there’s a will, there’s a won’t.

Philosophically, theologically, ecologically, there’s widespread acknowledgment that everyone and everything is interconnected; that, indeed, all is one. But there’s also widespread antipathy toward that idea, widespread efforts to divide and conquer, to impose some form of absolutism or exclusivism, which means the conversion or eradication of everyone who believes in anything else: My way or the highway.

Even among people who say they believe in the kinship of all humans, the unity of existence, you don’t find many who behave accordingly. On the contrary, mostly they’re just promoting another absolutist/exclusivist ideology and contributing to the general fragmentation.

Now, if I suggest that the real solution to this problem involves each person looking inward and disengaging from mass culture and mass thinking, it might seem as if I’m promoting an even more intense degree of disintegration. After all, everyone else seems to think the answer is for everyone to unite, to join up, to enlist in some movement or other. But that’s just an invitation to choose sides in the war of exclusivisms.

Real unity begins at home, so to speak. People who are fragmented inwardly cannot bring about any kind of world except one that is likewise fragmented. Conversely (contrapositively, actually), a unified world can be brought about only by people who are personally unified.

This is, of course, the overall message of Plato’s Republic (see esp. 443d-444a), and it is a theme that has remained constant in the Western tradition from that time to the present. Plotinus, for example, reiterates:
“Know Thyself” is said to those who, because of their selves’ multiplicity, have the business of counting themselves up and learning that they do not know all of the number and kind of things they are, or do not know any one of them, not what their ruling principle is or by what they are themselves. (Enneads VI.7.41. Trans. A.H. Armstrong, Loeb Classical Library/ Harvard University Press.)
The message remains fundamental right through the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, as evidenced by a statement of the alchemist Gerhard Dorn (quoted several times by Jung): “Thou wilt never make from others the One that thou seekest, except there first be made one thing of thyself.”

And of course it’s a basic principle in the synthesis offered in the 20th century by Gurdjieff and Ouspensky: “First of all, what man must know is that he is not one; he is many. He has not one permanent and unchangeable ‘I’ or Ego. He is always different.” (P.D. Ouspensky, The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution, First Lecture.)

The tradition is, of course, full of advice and techniques for the individual to attain self-unification, but the overall idea is presented beautifully in my favorite passage from Plato’s Phaedo:
Now we have also been saying for a long time, have we not, that, when the soul makes use of the body for any inquiry, either through seeing or hearing or any of the other senses — for inquiry through the body means inquiry through the senses — then it is dragged by the body to things which never remain the same, and it wanders about and is confused and dizzy like a drunken man because it lays hold upon such things?
But when the soul inquires alone by itself, it departs into the realm of the pure, the everlasting, the immortal and the changeless, and being akin to these it dwells always with them whenever it is by itself and is not hindered, and it has rest from its wanderings and remains always the same and unchanging with the changeless, since it is in communion therewith. And this state of the soul is called wisdom. (Plato, Phaedo, 79c-d; trans. by Harold North Fowler. Available online at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/.)
In today’s world, in which we are barraged 24 hours a day by stimuli from our immediate environment and even more from our expansive electronic environment; in which we imagine ourselves constantly “connected” with our friends, family and business associates by our wireless devices and other kinds of electrical umbilical cords; in which we turn our attention incessantly from one outrage to another, from the latest missing child report to the latest natural disaster to the latest celebrity scandal to the latest political uproar to the latest phony “reality” show development to the most recent “friend” update on our favorite social networking site – each one of our “interests” is just one more fragment of our soul torn off and sucked into the diffuse cloud that constitutes what we imagine to be our identity.

Strange as it may sound, the cure for this condition – and it is truly a sickness, of the soul – is to care less, to care about fewer things, to stop wasting our attention and our life-energy on things that don’t matter and which we can do nothing to change, and to focus on the one thing that is truly within our power to alter for the good: our own minds.