CAT | philosophy
That’s the title of John McWhorter’s excellent piece at The Daily Beast. He looks at the rhetoric of the Blacks Lives Matter movement and its acolytes and finds all the trappings of a new and only nominally secular religion. It’s essentially liturgy, as he explained in a recent Bloggingheads convo.
Fans of writer Sarah Perry and her musings on the sacralization of politics will see similar themes at work in McWhorter’s article.
In an admiring review for The Week of theologian David Bentley Hart’s new book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, Damon Lineker writes that it “demolishes” the “straw man Atheism” of those who treat “God as if he were the biggest, most powerful object or thing in, or perhaps alongside, the universe”:
But, of course, the major world religions don’t view God in this way at all. They treat God, instead, as the transcendent source, the ground, or the end of the natural world. And that is an enormous — actually, an infinite — difference.
And one, I suspect, that may be lost on many of their followers.
Back to the review:
[God] is certainly not one of the many contingent causes within the natural world. But neither is he the first contingent cause, setting off the Big Bang from some blast-resistant fallout shelter lodged, somehow, outside of and prior to the universe as we know it.
On the contrary, according to the classical metaphysical traditions of both the East and West, God is the unconditioned cause of reality — of absolutely everything that is — from the beginning to the end of time. Understood in this way, one can’t even say that God “exists” in the sense that my car or Mount Everest or electrons exist. God is what grounds the existence of every contingent thing, making it possible, sustaining it through time, unifying it, giving it actuality. God is the condition of the possibility of anything existing at all.
This can be a difficult concept to grasp [possibly because it is, at its core, a cop-out], but Hart does an exceptionally good job of explaining it — as he does the way this classical idea of God makes sense of the experience and unity of consciousness, as well as the ecstatic longing for the good and the beautiful that lies at the heart of moral experience.
It does? “Ecstatic”? Really?
In a move sure to enrage atheists, Hart even goes so far as to argue that faith in this classical notion of God can never be “wholly and coherently rejected” — and not only because it may very well be self-contradictory to prove the nonexistence of an absolute, transcendent ground of existence.
“Enrage”? I doubt it. A gently raised eyebrow would suffice.
And then comes the inevitable Hallmark moment, some sweetener thrown in to what looks to me like very thin gruel:
The deeper reason why theism can’t be rejected, according to Hart, is that every pursuit of truth, every attempt to be good, every longing for beauty presupposes the existence of some idea of truth, goodness, and beauty from which these particular instances are derived. And these transcendental ideas unite in the classical concept of God, who simply is truth, goodness, and beauty. That’s why, although it isn’t necessary to believe in God in some explicit way in order to be good, it certainly is the case (in Hart’s words) “that to seek the good is already to believe in God, whether one wishes to do so or not.”
The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates has just been reading Tony Judt’s Postwar (which I have yet to tackle, but plan to) and cites that book, together with Tim Snyder’s Bloodlands (which I reviewed here) for a grander thesis about the failings European civilization. There’s a lot to take issue with there, to put it mildly, but I did like this:
I don’t have any gospel of my own. Postwar, and the early pages of Bloodlands, have revealed a truth to me: I am an atheist. (I have recently realized this.) I don’t believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice. I don’t even believe in an arc. I believe in chaos. I believe powerful people who think they can make Utopia out of chaos should be watched closely.
Coates then lets what seems like despair grip him as a result of this discovery (odd, as if that is how things are, it’ll be a bit of a relief):
I don’t know that it all ends badly. But I think it probably does.
Not necessarily. Chin up!
But then he brightens:
I’m also not a cynic. I think that those of us who reject divinity, who understand that there is no order, there is no arc, that we are night travelers on a great tundra, that stars can’t guide us, will understand that the only work that will matter, will be the work done by us.
And gets it:
Or perhaps not.
The Wall Street Journal has interviewed “eminent bioethicist” (itself a contradiction in terms) Leon Kass. The trigger was the Gosnell trial, but it was this aspect of Kass’s remarks that drew my attention:
Dr. Kass sometimes finds himself at odds with [anti-abortion] advocates. The movement’s narrow focus on nascent life, he worries, blinds it to the fact that “abortion is connected to lots of other things that are threats to human dignity in its fullness.”
“Pursuing perfect babies, ageless bodies and happy souls with the aid of cloning, genetic engineering and psychopharmacology,” he thinks, are among the most significant of those threats.
Not that, again. Of course, we need never to forget the terrible lessons of early twentieth century eugenics, but re-read those comments and what you see emerging beneath those soothing words about “dignity” is a morbid and sentimental attachment to suffering, and a profound contempt for the human mind:
“Killing the creature made in God’s image is an old story,” he says. “I deplore it. But the new threat is the ability to transform that creature into images of our own choosing, without regard to whether the new creature is going to be an improvement, or whether these so-called improvements are going to sap all of the energies of the soul that make for human aspirations, art, science and care for the less fortunate. All of these things have wellsprings in the human soul, and they are at risk in efforts to redesign us and move us to the posthuman future.”
And the corollary of this paranoid, mystical nonsense about a “new threat” is that the state, aided and abetted doubtless by a self-appointed (and sometimes taxpayer-funded) coterie of wise men, will decide that they know best where scientific inquiry should go.
Galileo, phone your lawyer.
Writing in the TLS David Runciman explains:
But between the political parts [of Leviathan] – the first two sections and the final one – come parts three and four, which are concerned with religion. This bit of the book, which makes up nearly half the total, is entirely uncompromising. Hobbes uses it to demolish all those claims to religious authority that he despised, whether coming from Presbyterians or Catholics, bishops or Bible-bashers. He deploys a combination of selective biblical citation and his own materialist philosophy to lay into every absurd religious idea he can find: demons, fairies, the holy spirit, the life everlasting, the immortal soul. Life, for Hobbes, means motion, and when motion ceases, there is only death.
This all-out assault on religious superstition and stupidity is what makes Leviathan a very different book from De Cive, which contains no equivalent. Hobbes’s urgency in 1649–50 derived in large part from his fear that a new political order might provide a fresh opportunity for the peddlers of religious charlatanry to get their hooks into the state.
Machiavelli’s cardinal achievement is his uncovering of an insoluble dilemma, the planting of a permanent question mark in the path of posterity. It stems from his de facto recognition that ends equally ultimate, equally sacred, may contradict each other, that entire systems of value may come into collision without possibility of rational arbitration, and that not merely in exceptional circumstances… but (this was surely new) as part of the normal human situation.
For those who look on such collisions as rare, exceptional, and disastrous, the choice to be made is necessarily an agonizing experience for which, as a rational being, one cannot prepare (since no rules apply). But for Machiavelli, at least in The Prince, The Discourses, Mandragola, there is no agony. One chooses as one chooses because one knows what one wants, and is ready to pay the price. One chooses classical civilization rather than the Theban desert, Rome and not Jerusalem, whatever the priests may say, because such is one’s nature, and—he is no existentialist or romantic individualist avant la parole—because it is that of men in general, at all times, everywhere. If others prefer solitude or martyrdom, he shrugs his shoulders. Such men are not for him. He has nothing to say to them, nothing to argue with them about. All that matters to him and those who agree with him is that such men be not allowed to meddle with politics or education or any of the cardinal factors in human life; their outlook unfits them for such tasks.
…If what Machiavelli believed is true, this undermines one major assumption of Western thought: namely, that somewhere in the past or the future, in this world or the next, in the church or the laboratory, in the speculations of the metaphysician or the findings of the social scientist or in the uncorrupted heart of the simple good man, there is to be found the final solution of the question of how men should live. If this is false (and if more than one equally valid answer to the question can be returned, then it is false) the idea of the sole true, objective, universal human ideal crumbles. The very search for it becomes not merely utopian in practice, but conceptually incoherent….
After Machiavelli, doubt is liable to infect all monistic constructions. The sense of certainty that there is somewhere a hidden treasure—the final solution to our ills—and that some path must lead to it (for, in principle, it must be discoverable); or else, to alter the image, the conviction that the fragments constituted by our beliefs and habits are all pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, which (since there is an a priori guarantee for this) can, in principle, be solved; so that it is only because of lack of skill or stupidity or bad fortune that we have not so far succeeded in discovering the solution whereby all interests will be brought into harmony—this fundamental belief of Western political thought has been severely shaken. Surely in an age that looks for certainties, this is sufficient to account for the unending efforts, more numerous today than ever, to explain The Prince and The Discourses, or to explain them away?
…If there is only one solution to the puzzle, then the only problems are first how to find it, then how to realize it, and finally how to convert others to the solution by persuasion or by force. But if this is not so (Machiavelli contrasts two ways of life, but there could be, and, save for fanatical monists, there obviously are, more than two), then the path is open to empiricism, pluralism, toleration, compromise.
Well, yes. That’ll do very nicely, very nicely indeed.
H/t (and thanks to) Andrew Sullivan
. . . My true love gave to me a book on pop metaphysics.
Yes, I read Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist? over the weekend. It’s light stuff: A journalist ─ though a more-than-usually intelligent one ─ talks to philosophers and physicists with interesting opinions on the title question.
Precisely halfway through, though ─ pp. 150-153 ─ the author deftly inserts a personal story guaranteed to tug the heart-strings of dog lovers. My wife, who is of that breed, and not the least bit interested in metaphysics, actually cried when I read it to her. AND the dog story manages to include a curious theorem about prime numbers!
Altogether a pleasant holiday-weekend read.
So far as the title question is concerned, there is not much of a conclusion. How could there be?
Whether that book is the Koran, the Bible, or Das Kapital, engineering societies based on books of principles can lead to ludicrous ‘solutions.’ Rationalism gone amok can seem hilarious, if not tragic. Saudi Arabia is organized around the theories of Salafist Islam, which is a form of hyper-rationalist Islam which takes as its axioms a particular interpretation 7th century Muslim folkways. More concretely this rationalism has been subsidized by the windfall of oil revenues. Without the petro-economy Saudi Arabia would have had to stay poor and principled. But as it is the petro-economy has allowed for the emergence of a techno-feudal society constructed along the lines of Salafi rationalism. Ergo, Saudi Arabia developing all-woman cities:
In a bid to offer more women career opportunities without running afowl of Sharia law, the Saudi Arabian government is putting together a group of all-women cities.
According to Russia Today, construction on the first new municipality, an industrial hub slated to be part of the city of Hafuf in the eastern part of the country, is slated to begin next year, under the direction of the Saudi Industrial Property Authority (Modon).
Officials say the new hub will focus on the textile industry and create about 5,000 jobs, with women figuring in in both managerial roles and working on production lines.
Salafism leading to Herlandia? Such as the ways of excessive rationalism.
National Review has a piece up, The Party of Civil Rights. In it Kevin D. Williamson makes the case that everything you thought you knew about the relationship of the Democrats and Republicans to Civil Rights is wrong. There is a place I think for this general flavor of argument from the Right, broadly construed. For example, many Left-liberals are blithely not aware that the nadir of American race relations and the imposition of Jim Crow were in many ways a social revolution imposed from on high by the state and other assorted collective bodies with coercive power. Further back in history the rise of the “White republic,” and the imposition of universal white male suffrage and the revocation of the right to vote from non-whites in the early 19th century was in large part the work of populist Democrats who were forces for progress in their day.
But overall I think that Williamson’s piece is not true to the facts on the ground in relation to how the conservative movement viewed Civil Rights in the 1960s. Taking this as a given, does that make conservatism and skepticism of social change illegitimate on the face of it? No, not at all. In hindsight the American consensus is that Civil Rights was right and proper. It is natural that conservatives now want to claim that legacy, but the reality is that American Communists have a greater substantive claim than American conservatives to this issue. This should be no surprise if conservatism is oriented toward maintenance of traditional structures. Some of those structures will be unjust. And some of them will be useful, even necessary, for human flourishing. As humans do not have omniscient powers we do not always know which customs are worth keeping, and which are best discarded.
Progressives and Left-liberals have their own problem in this area, as they have long avoided addressing their movement’s connections to eugenics and racial hygiene, when that was the progressive stance. Previous Left-liberal admiration for the command economy, or enthusiasm for the massive growth of government via the Great Society, also went down the wrong path. But let’s go to something more shocking: the North American Man Boy Love Association has its roots in a particular sexual counter-cultural radicalism which was on the margins of the mainstream gay rights movement of the 1970s. For obvious reasons over the past few decades gay rights organizations have been purging any association or connection with groups like NAMBLA, conceding that the extreme radicalism of the 1970s fringe when it came to age of consent laws was neither useful nor justifiable on moral grounds.
My point is that sometimes we need to let history speak, and not try reach back into the past and impose the present upon it. The past made errors, and from the perspective of the future the present is also making errors. But there are also areas where the future will be thankful for the present that it preserves the past. Whether you are a liberal or a conservative is partly contingent on whether you are comfortable with error of adherence to wrong old ways, or with error of espouse of wrong new ways. But in either case the past is littered with mistakes.
My thanks to Polichinello for highlighting this rather good Salon article by Michael Lind on secular humanism. I thought it made a useful supplement to an earlier Corner contribution by Derb/Bradlaugh, and posted accordingly:
Derb, in some respects Michael Lind’s entertaining demolition of secular humanism in Salon echoes a number of your points about the use that our species often makes of, to borrow your phrase, “pretty lies.” Here is an extract:
“The secular humanist movement avoids the difficult question of the coexistence of in-group altruism and inter-group rivalries by imagining, with John Lennon, that conflicts would vanish if only people stopped being religious and patriotic…Unfortunately for Humanist Lennonism, evolutionary biology does not provide much hope for the sort of altruistic personal commitment to planetary solidarity that secular humanists want to encourage…To the extent that natural science can inform the way we think about politics and economics, it undermines the view that human beings are, or could be, rational actors devoted to the common good, rather than emotion-driven, semi-rational cousins of chimps and gorillas. On this point the secular philosophers Hume and Hobbes are more convincing than Bentham, Dewey and Kurtz.
Our simian psychology has obvious implications for naive models of democracy, in which a neutral, rational public listens dispassionately to all sides before making up its hyperlogical collective mind. And it has implications as well for naive models of economics, in which consumers and producers perceive, think and act with computer-like accuracy.
The skepticism about human rationality that science inspires should not be taken as support for authoritarianism or paternalism… On the contrary, it should render questionable all claims to wise and disinterested leadership, including those of America’s own altruistic progressive technocrats who propose policies to “nudge” the unenlightened masses into doing the right thing. It makes more sense to think of our leaders and intellectuals as half-crazed hooting howler monkeys — just like the rest of us.
Science can tell monkeys where they came from, and technology, informed by science, can build a cleaner and safer monkey house. But a knowledge of science cannot turn monkeys into something that we are not.”
We are what we are.