Humus Sapiens, Part III

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Do-it-yourself DNA kit Whence telos?

We have seen (previous essays on this page) that a sufficiently complex and highly ordered arrangement of elements and molecules, gathered into pattern-carrying structures of proteins, enzymes, genes, DNA, cells and so on, can display the properties of consciousness and thoughtfulness.  “Thinking dust”, we called it-humus sapiens.

Our abilities to think, reflect and be conscious of ourselves and others would seem to be distinctive capacities which make us “human”.  According to evolutionary theory, these complex capacities and behaviors have emerged over time, as biological organisms became more and more highly ordered.  Through countless iterations of mutation and adaption, the biological structure of humus sapiens eventually became sufficiently highly organized to support emergent properties like consciousness, thought, and even “soulishness”.[1]

 Neurobiology and theology agree that this “soulishness”, whatever its origins–whether derived from divine inspiration or emergent from chance mechanistic mutations–is a trait of humans, a property of this being we call humus sapiens.

 And from experience we know that this “soulishness” gives us the ability to discern meaning in the world around us.  We discern patterns and purpose in our surroundings, both in the impersonal realm of nature, as well in our behaviour and relationships.  Order is there to be seen.  We can think about it, describe it, study it, measure it, admire it, paint it, even write a poem or sonata to display it.  But toward what end?  Toward what direction?  Toward what purpose?

 This is the “teleological” question–the question of “ends” (telos).   This is also a fundamental question of ethics–by what ultimate purpose, goal or end (telos)  shall we evaluate the choices and direction of life?

 Since the order seems to be built into the creation, we may sensibly look at the “orders of creation”, and ask what we find there.  There are patterns to be seen.  Sometimes the patterns seem obvious, like the crytalline structure of a snowflake, and sometimes they seem hidden, like the problem of innocent suffering.  Our inclination however, is to look for patterns wherever can find them.  This pattern-seeking exercise seems to be the motivation underlying scientific pursuits of knowledge in every category of exploration, from physics to sociology. 

We proceed in intellectual pursuits by recognizing and analyzing patterns (order) in our natural surroundings and our personal experiences. But what gives those patterns meaning?   Meaning and prupose (telos) seem to lie outside the realm of the pattern itself.  Meaning demands a context within which to interpret the pattern. 

Whence meaning?  Whence telos?  Here is where religion comes in, again, as a distinctively human behaviour.  What has religion got to do with it? Michael Polyani answers this question well:

The representative element in all religious orientations portrays the world as meaningful; that is, it portrays the world as something more than a conglomeration of physical and chemical interactions issuing, to no purpose whatsoever, in whatever ephemeral globs the equilibration of forces renders necessary or probable.[2]

 Religion gives meaning because it explains the world as more than a chance happening, a collision of atomic particles without purpose.  More on this in the next essay…

 (Did you spot a pattern or find meaning in the photo above?  It’s a do-it-yourself DNA kit.)

[1] Neuroscientist Warren Brown describes these as “emergent levels of causal efficacy.”  In other words, the soul does not really exist as an entity; but rather, the property of “soulishness” emerges as a trait of the highly organized biological entity. W. Brown, “Neurobiological Embodiment of Spirituality and Soul”, in From Cells to Souls-and Beyond: Changing Portraits of Human Nature, ed. by Malcolm Jeeves (Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 58-76, esp. 65-7.  Brown attempts, with questionable success, to show that his understanding of human “soulishness” is a theologically tenable idea because it is compatible with “the potential of an embodied physical person to be cognizant of a nonmaterial world and to experience relatedness to the divine”, p. 76.

[2] Michael Polanyi & Harry Prosch, Meaning (University of Chicago, 1975) p. 161.

Humus Sapiens, Part II

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  creation-handsWhat are man and woman made of?    What makes them alive?


       These are very different questions.  The first can be answered in a word, dust,[1] or in a long string of words that amount to as much.  We might, for example, describe a human as “a physical arrangement of chemical elements and molecules, arranged into pattern-carrying structures of proteins, enzymes, genes, DNA, cells and so on…”    Now, this is a highly complex bio-physical structure, to be sure, and it displays remarkable talents; nonetheless, it’s still just dust, of one form or another, and death proves that point.  Humans and animals are made of the same stuff, and they all return to dust.

But the second question–What brings life to this dust?– is not so easily reduced to the barest elements.  Sure, the human body is made of dust, but what makes this complicated structure of dust come to life?  This second question requires a different sort of answer.  Mere physical description isn’t enough.  Nouns and adjectives don’t seem to be able to define what makes a human being human.  The answer to the second question seems to require the use of some verbs, which complicates things, of course, because verbs implicate relationships between subjects and objects.

 When you hide your face, they are terrified;  when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust.

When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.    [Psalm 104:29-30]

The verbs used in the Psalms to answer the question of life include “send”, “create” and “renew”.  And then there’s “breath”, which of course comes from the verb, “breathe”.  Breath is a crucial word in the poetry of the Psalms, because the same ancient Hebrew word for breath (ruach), which here refers to “that activity which makes creatures alive”, is the same biblical word for the Spirit of God, their creator.  Thus, the difference between death and life is the literally the breath of God.

 Since dust–that is, material, physical stuff–can be studied in a scientific laboratory, whereas the breath of God cannot, some people prefer to believe that the material, physical stuff is all there is.  Donald MacKay calls this idea, “Nothing Buttery”.[2]  In other words, a person is “nothing but” dust.

 As it turns out, the “nothing buttery” idea is not as simple, nor as easy to live with, as might be desired.  “Nothing buttery” ideas have a hard time explaining life, thought, human relations, and human behavior.

 Take religion, for example: Why does religion seem to be so human?  And perhaps the tougher question is: Why would creatures evolve to believe in something that doesn’t exist? What is the evolutionary advantage of believing a lie?  Some researchers are thinking up answers to that question, and the latest ideas suggest that “religion is an inescapable artifact of the wiring of the brain” which evolved over time due to the advantage of having gullible children who would believe what their elders wanted them to believe.[3]  Thus, the gullibility of creatures to believe in the lie that there is anything meaningful in life turns out to be an evolutionary advantage.  Based on this explanation, Richard Dawkins claims that “slavish gullibility” emerged as an advantageous hereditary selection in the origin of our species.[4]

 If that’s the case then the better name for our species homo sapiens would not be humus sapiens, as I suggested previously, but rather, humus perfidiaens.[5]  It kind of makes sense.  After all, can dust really amount to anything? Of course, that would mean that faith, hope, love, humanity, culture, morality, religion, and yes, even science, which is based on the belief that our minds can discern reality, are all nothing but a meaningless pack of lies,as worthless as dust, and as meaningless as a random pile of it. Hmmm.  Really? How gullible can a person be?

[1] See “Humus Sapiens, Part I” below.

[2] Donald MacCrimmon MacKay presented the 1986 Gifford Lectures, and wrote widely on the mutual implications of brain science, theology and metaphysics. He presented a paper in 1976 for the American Scientific Affiliation titled, “Basic vs. Piecemeal Integration; Economy vs. Nothing-Buttery; The Deterministic Bogey”.

[3] Michael Brooks surveys current research on this topic in “Born Believers: How your brain creates God”, New Scientist, 4 February 2009.  If Dawkins is right about this, we can only praise him for his valiant publishing efforts to reverse the tide of natural selection which has so favored gullible creatures as to place them at the top of the food chain.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Latin for faithless, treachery or falsehood

Please permit me a flight of fancy if you will, for I would like to indulge in a moment of preposterous anachronistic dialog.  You see, I should like to stand up and speak in defense of poor Euthyphro.  Euthyphro, you may recall, was the noble young Athenian whom Socrates encountered outside the court of justice. Being himself on trial, and old enough to be Euthyphro’s father, Socrates is rightly shocked by Euthyphro’s determination to bring down the heavy hand of judgment upon his own father, for having murdered a serf.  The young man confidently claims to be acting in all piety, showing no mercy on his father.  In Plato’s telling of the dialog Socrates makes a mince pie of Euthyphro’s self-righteous claim to know right from wrong with “exact knowledge of all such matters.” [1]  Euthyphro bases his claim on perfect knowledge and perfect righteousness on his understanding of piety as “that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is that which is not dear to them.”  At this point Socrates proceeds to finely grate Euthyphro’s piety into a pile of empty phrases.  Deftly deploying his famed ‘Socratic method’, he points out the logical flaws in Euthyphro’s position, mired as it is in the incoherent idea that perfect piety can be found in the contradictory wills of the pantheon of Greek gods.  Socrates frames the decisive question thus-

 “whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods?”

 Of course this is the age-old question of whether divine command theory can carry any water as a viable theory of moral philosophy.[2]  I have to say, I find the contemporary philosophical treatments of this question rather dry reading, compared to the following long-lost scrap of anachronistic, ancient-future dialog, which I have just discovered lurking in the flickering synapses of my imagination.  Plato’s publishers no doubt would have considered such stuff sacrilegious, and cut it out, but here for the first time we can read the rest of the story…

SOCRATES: Well it seems justice will sadly elude me once again, for poor Euthyphro cannot seem to answer the dilemmas inherent in my question, ‘whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.’

 EUTHYPHRO’S ADVOCATE [played by me]: Very good, Socrates; you have given me the sort of question which I wanted.  But whether what you say is true or not I cannot as yet tell, although I make no doubt that you will prove the truth of your words.

 SOCRATES: Of course.

 EA: Come, then, and let us examine what we are saying. Piety must be defined in terms of two extreme opposites defined within arguments forbidding the excluded middle?  Was not that said?

 SOCRATES: It was.  Well,…  um, I think.

 EA: Good heavens, Socrates! And is your knowledge of religion and of things pious and impious so very exact, that, supposing the circumstances to be as you state them, you are not afraid lest you too may be doing an impious thing in prescribing the epistemic ground rules of morality upon which the gods are permitted to play for the prize of your pleasure?

SOCRATES: The best of Socrates, and that which distinguishes him, Honorable Advocate, from other men, is his exact knowledge and privilege in all such matters. What good could I possibly have been to my student Plato without such assured speech?

 EA: Indeed, many will be sure to listen to such a silver tongue as your able pupil Plato has given you.  There was a notion that came into my mind while you were speaking; I said to myself: ‘Well, and what if Socrates does prove to me that all the gods regarded the epistemic ground rules to be just as he has stated them?  What if he really does have privileged knowledge of the nature of piety and impiety?’  Such notion should give me pause.


 EA: Yet, as I recall you saying just a moment ago, did you not admonish dear Euthyphro that “Any state of action or passion implies previous action or passion. It does not become because it is becoming, but it is in a state of becoming because it becomes; neither does it suffer because it is in a state of suffering, but it is in a state of suffering because it suffers.” Do you not agree that you said this?


 EA: Yes, and did you not also speak truly in saying, “That which is loved is in some state either of becoming or suffering?”


 EA: And so, it is true, as you said, that “the state of being loved follows the act of being loved, and not the act the state”?  Is that right?


 EA: Then does your argument necessarily rest on the presumption that the act of loving, and the existence of the thing which is loved, belong to two distinct categories, each definable apart from the action or essence of the other?

 SOCRATES: Certainly.

 EA: Dear Socrates, have the gods revealed that presumption to you?

 SOCRATES: Certainly not. Why should I entrust them with such duty?

 EA: Indeed.  And yet, what if the gods were not susceptible to inconsolable disagreements, and mired in analogies of human reason, but rather were united in one being even while maintaining their healthy discourse, yet in a manner which bespoke meaning into the terms of discussion, even creating the terms of discussion, we might say, in a fashion which simultaneously conferred and admired with spontaneous affection the presence of each other?  And what if we could also be so loved, even as they loved each other?

 SOCRATES: That indeed is an idea which no human myth has ever conspired to propagate into the realm of logic and jurisprudence.  Why in such a case, we should have to call all our quarreling gods a sacrilegious cabal and turn instead to worship a wholly other kind of god in spirit and in truth.

 EA: Quite.  And how might you express the nature of such a God?

 SOCRATES: I really do not know, dear Advocate, how to express it. For somehow or other our arguments, on whatever ground we rest them, seem to turn round and walk away from us. [Sighs.]

 EA: Would that your silver tongue could further expound in this vein, for you are quickening my spirit and anticipation of something quite profound.  What say you?


 EA: oh, and Socrates, one other notion came into my mind during your silence just now…  Might not the existence of such a God render the whole notion of the excluded middle in such matters wholly irrelevant to God’s very being?

Third Sunday of Advent

 [1] Plato, Euthyphro, in Benjamin Jowett, trans., The Dialogues of Plato, vol. 1. New York: Random House, 1937.  Also:

 [2] William J. Wainwright, Religion and Morality (Hants, England: Ashgate, 2005). See especially chapter 5.

Further reflecting on the difference between the “corridors of faith” depicted by William James and C. S. Lewis (see my “Hall Pass”, 17 September 2008), I wonder what life would be like in the “rooms” leading off the halls of James’s and Lewis’s imaginations. What would be their distinctive marks of character?  Would I enjoy living there?  Or would they be “nice places to visit, but not to live?”

At first glance, we notice that both James and Lewis acknowledge wide variation in the rooms leading off their corridors.  As James said, it matters not what takes place in the rooms, whether they be places for atheism or prayer or chemistry or metaphysics.  And Lewis’s hall similarly leads into very different sorts of rooms, where language, aesthetics, norms and customs vary widely.  Nonetheless, the rooms of each corridor do share common traits, and we must look to what characteristics they hold in common if we are to understand the significance of either James’s mere ‘pragmatism’ or Lewis’s mere Christianity. We must peer into the rooms and discern their quality of life, for it is in the rooms that life is lived; it is in the rooms that the fruit of our labors is produced and harvested.

 Perhaps the most obvious difference between James’s and Lewis’s depictions is that James’s rooms are private rooms, peopled by individuals pursuing their independent sciences, philosophies and worldviews.  Lewis’s rooms, however, house communities of people sharing life.

James explicitly describes his “rooms” of pragmatism in terms of individual pursuits-“In one you may find a man writing an atheistic volume; in the next someone on his knees praying for faith and strength; in a third a chemist investigating a body’s properties…”, and so on.  And this makes perfect sense, given that the individual pursuits matter not.  Indeed one person’s pragmatic pursuits and beliefs must not hold sway over any other person’s pursuits or beliefs, for that would open the door to dogma and dogmatic teaching.  James’s corridor of pragmatism can thus lead to any pursuit, any worldview, so long as it “works”, so long as it suits the individual pursuing it.  James’s corridor thus is perfectly suited to the postmodern mantra of “whatever works for you.” Relativism rules, because relativism is the antidote to noxious dogma. In this regard James truly was ahead of his time, for his “Whatever!” trumps “credo.”

 Lewis, on the other hand, makes it quite clear that life takes place in community.  The “rooms” in his metaphor are all communities of faith. There is no room for solitary confinement.  Much as people can and do disagree in his rooms, even on important matters of faith and dogma, people will also be held accountable to their community and to their shared faith, and even in an important sense people in each room are accountable to the others in all the other rooms.

Herein lies a sharp challenge for faith: How can a faith community tolerate internal disagreements over dogma, let alone find a way to get along with the secular community around them?  Such disagreements are decidedly impractical, are they not?  The Christian life therefore stands as antithesis to pragmatism.  It is patently impractical, non-pragmatic, and even non-conformist, by the standards of James’s ‘mere pragmatism.’[1]  No wonder James held such antipathy toward Christianity! Yet, this will be a defining mark of Christian faith, if Christianity is true-communities of faith will live out their beliefs by honoring God above all, even above dogma.  And they will find a way to do it that invites others in to share their fellowship; in Lewis’s metaphor, people will perennially invite outsiders into their particular “rooms” of community and faith.

The Christian life therefore presents the world with something strange-a community of belief that holds something as more important than, shall we say, more sacred even, than their own ability to articulate a shared dogma.   This will be the defining mark of Christian faith, over and against pragmatism, and it can only be expressed in the form of witness among a worshiping community.  Barth rightly explains why Christian belief is inseparable from life lived as a witness to belief-

Because the election of Jesus Christ is the truth, then the difference of those who are chosen in Him (their calling) is the witness to the truth besides which there is no other. There and there alone the truth is testified-there and there alone it finds expression…[2]

And what will this witness look like?  How will this nonconformist, zealous Christian life appear to others who are both inside and outside the faith community?  Strange?  Yes, but strangely human:

It is thus most striking that he [a Christian] presents himself to other men of the world as a nonconformist, as one who is zealous for God’s honor, as a witness to what he, who is also a man of the world, has to advocate to others of his kind.  He does this by offering to them the image of a strangely human person. [3]



[1] Karl Barth elaborates on this impractical and non-conformist character in The Christian Life: “Hence he can have not practical use for enterprises that still compete with the knowledge of God in the world”, (Eerdmans, 1981; T&T Clark, 2004) p. 203.

[2] Barth, K., Bromiley, G. W., & Torrance, T. F. (2004). Church Dogmatics, II/2 (345).

[3] Barth, The Christian Life, (Eerdmans, 1981; T&T Clark, 2004) p. 204.

  Traversing the Corridors of ‘Mere’ Pragmatism & ‘Mere’ Christianity

“The Corridor” by Suman,   William James and C.S. Lewis make an impressive duo, being two of the most widely published authors of the past century, who came at the big questions of life from strikingly different directions.  In a fascinating coincidence, they each hit upon the same metaphor to depict the core of their beliefs: a corridor with many doors leading into rooms.  Apart from sharing this apt poetic device, their views were diametrically opposed.  

James takes credit for bringing the idea of ‘pragmatism’ into prominence.[1]  He claims that pragmatism is a method of knowledge capable of rescuing philosophy, metaphysics and religion from dogmatic rationalism, and from all dogma in general.  Pragmatism “has no dogmas, and no doctrines save its method.”[2]  He claims that pragmatism stands “armed and militant” against dogmas.  Pragmatism thus serves as the path to true knowledge, and in this regard, it is like a corridor through which one may walk on the path toward discovering meaning and truth in experience:

[I]t lies in the midst of our theories, like a corridor in a hotel. Innumerable chambers open out of it.  In one you may find a man writing an atheistic volume; in the next someone on his knees praying for faith and strength; in a third a chemist investigating a body’s properties.  In a fourth a system of idealistic metaphysics is being excogitated; in a fifth the impossibility of metaphysics is being shown.  But they all own the corridor, and all must pass through it if they want a practicable way of getting into or out of their respective rooms.  No particular results then, so far, but only an attitude of orientation, is what the pragmatic method means.  The attitude of looking away from first things, principles, “categories,” supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts.[3]

Thus, James is interested not in what takes place in the rooms, whether they happen to be laboratories of scientific discovery or temples of idealistic absurdities.  The rooms contain an infinite variety of different pursuits and topics.[4]  The only thing that matters is the corridor itself-the pragmatic approach to the rooms.   The door of each room must be reached through the corridor of pragmatism.  The corridor is the place which matters, not the rooms where the activities take place.  The corridor represents the method of pragmatism, which presumes that all dogma is meaningless.  In other words, the content of any room is meaningless if not entered through this particular corridor.

For Lewis, the corridor also represents knowledge, but in a distinctly different sense.  On Lewis’ view, what happens in the rooms does matter; it matters very much, and so he says, 

“And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best…”[5]

Lewis and James also have far different ideas in mind when they describe their corridors.  For James, the corridor represents an epistemological method-the practice of ‘pragmatism’ which rules out dogma.  For Lewis however, the corridor is not a method, but a place representing knowledge of ‘mere’ Christianity.  It is to explain what he means by the term ‘mere’ Christianity that Lewis devises the metaphor of a hall:

…I hope that no reader will suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions-as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else.  It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms.  If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted.  But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals.  The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in.  For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable. 

 For Lewis, then, the corridor is a conduit for creeds-the beliefs that Christian churches have used to represent orthodoxy over the centuries.  James would declare this anathema to the very concept of pragmatism, because creeds and dogma embody the idea that beliefs are important, that they actually matter in and of themselves.

The difference between James’s and Lewis’s corridors is profound-Lewis’ corridor is a place of knowledge leading into rooms where knowledge matters; James’s corridor is a method devoid of knowledge, which cares not what content is being discussed in any of the rooms.

Despite this stark contrast, one more profound similarity remains in these metaphors-both James and Lewis invite us into faith.  Lewis’ faith is clear: it is stated up front, it is confessed in creeds, and practiced in rooms where it comes to life, where “there are fires and chairs and meals”.  It is a living faith that cannot ultimately survive in the corridor, but must be invited into a room where there is life.  James likewise extends an invitation into faith: he has faith in pragmatism.  But James’s faith resides in the corridor itself, independent and outside of what might be taking place in any of the rooms.  James’s faith can survive forever in the corridor, unlike you or I, who if we were to lock ourselves out of the hotel room some night, would eventually need some help to get back into a room sometime to find sustenance (and hopefully that help would arrive before we were embarrassed to be seen wandering about in our pajamas day after day).

Thus James and Lewis both espouse faith.  The salient difference seems to be that

James never explicitly recognized that his corridor was an embodiment of faith.  James’s corridor of pragmatism contains epistemological presumptions that determine the significance of every step taken through the corridor, and hold the key to every room.  Lewis’s faith on the other hand makes its presumptions explicit, even articulated in the form of creeds.  James’s denial of dogma turns out to be a dogma in itself,[6] and the faith served up by ‘mere’ pragmatism turns out to be a mere illusion.

[1] James, “What Pragmatism Means”, Lecture II in Pragmatism: New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, (Courier Dover Publications, 1995), pp. 18-19.[2] Ibid., p 21.[3] Ibid., pp. 21-22.

[4] To extend the metaphor, James is keenly interested to classify and provide a taxonomy to help explain people’s predilections for religious “rooms” in his classic, The Varieties of Religious Experience.

[5] Lewis, Mere Christianity, xvi.

[6] Stanley Hauerwas reminds us of the important pretext to James’s metaphysics found in his “deep moral objection to Christianity”, and his belief that modern scientific method, and especially Darwinism, had rendered the Christian belief in God unintelligible”. Hence James’s obvious disdain for dogma.  Hauerwas, With the Grain of the Universe: the Church’s Witness and Natural Theology, (London: SCM, 2002), p. 78.

 The Economist (22/03/2008) reports that the 2-million-Euro European scientific collaboration known as “Explaining Religion” is the largest-ever scientific study of the subject. Scholars from 14 universities will collaborate on the 3-year project. Why? “Religion cries out for a biological explanation,” declares The Economist.putting God to the test?

Denis Alexander spoke recently at the University of St Andrews on the topic of science and religion, and posed some challenging questions for the scientific study of religion:

So how do we go about the process of comparing rival metaphysical beliefs? In science you can do very specific experiments to get precisely the data you need in order to decide whether your theory is correct or not. But what happens when we’re looking for coherence in response to the bigger questions of life: why are we here? Does life have any meaning? Is there a God?[1]

The bigger questions seem to suggest there are limits to what science can study. I wonder how the scientists on the “Explaining Religion” project address these limits in their work? If they are trying to submit the creator God to inspection via their laboratories they may be disappointed.  The desire to study the physical operation of the human mind is well founded, but that is far different from studying the relationship of the human person with a living God. Hence, the modern interest in the “mind/body problem” brings science and theology into dialog in exciting new venues.

One interesting experiment reported in The Economist subjected Christians and non-Christians to PET brain scans while they each recited the 23rd Psalm. Interestingly, the results surprised the researchers. The experiment indicated the main difference in the mental function of the subjects was that the Christians’ brains demonstrated “increased activity in three areas of the frontal and parietal cortex”, while the control groups’ brains did not. These are the areas of the brain associated with rational thought.

I suggest there are several ways to “explain” this outcome. One explanation would be to say that since rational thought is a positive contribution to survival of the species, there must be some evolutionary advantage to religion, since it seems to promote rational thought, and presumably the development of the frontal and parietal cortex. On the other hand, it’s possible that such an explanation is a tautology based on the fideistic belief that since we have survived as a species, the patterns exhibited in our biology must have contributed as positive reinforcements to our survival. An alternative explanation, albeit one that is perhaps untestable in the lab, is that the thoughts of the 23rd Psalm are true.

[1] Denis Alexander is a molecular biochemist and Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion.  On 27 February 2008 he gave a public lecture titled, “Has Science Made Religion Redundant?”

Pruning the Landscape

Planet Earth      Physicists refer to the realm of multiple universes as the “landscape” of the cosmos.  Let’s return to the hypothetical realm of the multiverse (see Part I below) and survey this idea of  landscape for ethical implications.

The most incomprehensible feature of this landscape is that if you were to look long enough and far enough, you would eventually find anything and everything happening.  Of course that would presume that you were capable of stepping beyond the bounds of your own “bubble” universe (i.e. your own constraints as a being existing in time and space) to survey the surrounding landscape.  Perhaps only God could have such a vantage point, to be able to step outside the stream of time and the fabric of space in order to view multiple “universes.”    From such a vantage point, God would be able to see you and me doing every possible thing

It seems to me this would render ethics a meaningless concept, because people with minds identical to yours and mine would at this moment be doing and believing any number of radically different things, for better or worse.  In a landscape of infinite universes, free will would turn out to be an illusion of our confinement to a random bubble of existence.  Every possible decision would obtain, for better or worse. We might imagine that we were exercising free will, but so would our spitting images in other universes who were making different choices.  Choice then turns out not to be a logical determinant of freedom.

Of course this is a ridiculous metaphysics which renders the idea of ethics incoherent.  There is however one way God could redeem ethics within the landscape of a multiverse — he could intervene in every specific universe and personally reveal ethics.  Of course in order to do that, it seems he would have to reveal himself in person; otherwise, the revelation could be just one more random fluctuation of the landscape, and then it would be no different from all the other meaningless fluctuations, for every fluctuation would have equal authority.

To give ethics any meaning, God would need to intervene in a specific, non-random mode of being, within the history of that universe; otherwise, there would be no source of reality which carried any more meaning than a random fluctuation of matter.

What we discover in this thought experiment is that nothing less than a personal intervention by God could salvage reality and free will, and thereby also provide meaning to ethics.  We have now wandered far afield from the practice of physics, and even beyond the realms reachable by metaphysics and philosophy.  We have now turned to ‘God-talk’ — theology — to make sense out of this mathematical idea.  I find this conclusion rather interesting.  This idea —  that the God of the universe would step into human history to redeem it and give it meaning — does not drop out of the equations; but in this particular universe (the only universe as far as we know) it turns out to describe just what he has done.

What makes a human? “Psyche Opening the Golden Box” by John William Waterhouse (1903).
The answer will depend on the deepest core of being which gives a person an identity.  Let’s give this “core-of-human-being-ness” a name; let’s call it the “soul.”  Whether this thing called “soul” is real or imaginary, physical or spiritual, experiential or mental, or even beyond these categories, matters not for the moment.  Whatever the shape of the soul, it will surely be the place where the deepest tensions of life reside-the human spirit’s search for meaning, the tension between eternity and finiteness, conflicting passions and acts of conscience. We can think of the soul then as the place where the deepest experience, ponderings, and tensions of life reside.  That much at least we can say about the soul.  That much at least has been said since the dawn of human intellect.  We can read of it in books that precede even Socrates; for example, the sage Qoheleth blames this tension on God:
“He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”               [Ecclesiastes 3:11]
Thus we see that tension dwells in the heart of the soul.  To discern the shape of the soul then, we will need to understand the essence of tension.  We turn to art for help.  Art has played this role through all history and prehistory, expressing the drama in the tensions of existence. Aesthetics provide a language for tension. As Kierkegaard insightfully notes, we learn from the earliest Greek plays that “concealment [is] the element of tension.”[1] Aristotle names the two parts to be found in the drama of myth:
“…indeed, two parts in the myth, namely sudden change of fortune and recognition”   (duo men oun tou mythou meri, peri taut’ esti, peripeteia kai anagnorisis)
-Aristotle, Poetics (Ch.II)
Recognition (anagnorisis) is essential.  Why?  Because the drama turns on tension and the recognition of that tension in a sudden change of some kind in the life of the main character(s).  Recognition of what?  Of that which is concealed.  And in the moment of recognition, is the concealment resolved?  Not in the best dramas, no.  The tension is only heightened for Psyche when the identity of her mysteriously concealed husband Cupid is revealed in the night.[2] The recognition of that which was concealed only intensifies the mystery and tension.
It’s the same for recognition of the soul-the tension and mystery, in either art or the soul, are not removed, as though they had been inconsequential all along; rather, the moment of recognition creates a new and deeper tension that assimilates that which was concealed.  If it were otherwise, the concealment would have been a meaningless mistake of ignorance, and the tension would turn out to not lie at the core of the being.  If it were otherwise, art would not be art, the soul not a soul.
Thus, recognition of the soul is a movement in which the most deeply concealed core of a person is plunged into an even deeper mystery. The soul remains cloaked in mystery, even as it is being recognized for what it is (perhaps we should say, because it is being recognized for what it is).
What type of recognition is this?  What type of knowing is required to know a soul?  This is not scientia, not the type of knowing expressed in formulas or studied with calipers and microscopes.  This is rather the type of knowing that requires a walking along in relationship with the object.  This type of knowing is a “walking-along-with”, a cum scientia, or conscientia, to use the philosophical term.
Thus we see the benefit as well as the limitations of scientia to study the soul scientifically.  Scientific study of the soul and the mind/body problem are necessary for neuroscience to give assistance to knowing the soul, and to discern the chemical, biological and genetic determinants of brain function which help to sort out the root causes of mental illness and relieve people of suffering which stems from mistaken ideas of responsibility for the misfiring synapses that take a toll on their psyches.  But this scientific (scientia) study of the soul is not, and cannot be, the same thing as knowing the soul. That takes a far different kind of knowing.  The path to knowing the soul passes over the trails of scientia, but does not ultimately find its way by them.  That path to knowing is a journey of relationship that marks its progress by moments of recognition which do not trust in the quantifiable units of scientia for their precision.

[1] S. Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, Problema III.

[2] Apuleius’ (c. 125-189 AD) myth is retold marvelously by C.S. Lewis in Till We Have Faces.

The Temptation of Christ(ianity)

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Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. [Luke 4:1-2]

What’s going on here in Christ’s temptation?  More than we can ever ask or imagine, I’m sure, but since I’m doing theology right now, my thoughts run to the temptations encountered there.  One job for theology is to explain, and herein lies a temptation, because there follows quickly on the heels of explanation the temptation to cast aside any mystery or paradox that gets in our way.

Indeed this is one of the temptations embodied in Jesus’ encounter with the devil in the wilderness.  In saying ‘no’ to the devil, Jesus refused to purge his existence of paradox. The Grand Inquisitor[1] was right in his accusation: Jesus is guilty-

…guilty of refusing the chance he had to make his divinity clear enough for all to see.  The Grand Inquistor performed at Chekhov International Theater FestivalMight we ask, along with the Grand Inquisitor, “Jesus, why did you not turn the stones into bread?  You could have fed the world.  You could have eliminated suffering. You could have solved the problem of pain.”  No.  “Jesus, why did you not take the glory and power which are rightfully yours? You could have brought justice and ended war for all time.”  No.  “Jesus, why did you not soar through the sky with the angels, for all to plainly see that you are divine?”  A third time, no.  “Jesus, you’ve left us in misery and doubt and paradox, and you are the greatest paradox of all.”

“The god has made his appearance as a teacher.  He has taken the form of a servant…   …this is not an idea that has arisen in any human heart.”

 – Johannes Climacus[2]

No indeed, this is not the way we would have invented god from our own hearts.  We can never explain this type of God.  He is the God who chose not to arise as a thought in human hearts.

It strikes me that this is exactly the temptation Christ faced in the desert-to reveal his divinity in such a way that the ambiguity and paradox would be wiped away.  Turn these stones into bread; i.e. eliminate suffering, both yours and all people’s.  Bow down and worship me; i.e., abort the Father’s intent to give his people true freedom to accept him or deny him.  Cast yourself down from the steeple top; i.e., make your heavenly identity crystal clear in a spectacle so that all can see and believe.  Had Jesus succumbed to Satan’s gambit and accepted any of these three opportunities, he could indeed have rescued us from the distress of ambiguity and paradox.  Why, Jesus, did you leave yourself a mystery to us?  Why did you leave behind a paradox that drives us in philosophical quests?  Couldn’t you see the impeccable logic of the Grand Inquisitor?  Then you could truly have saved us from that which nags incessantly at our souls-the despair of doubting and wondering how you could possibly be the one who was sent into the world to dwell with us, and die with us, and live among us.

… no philosophy (for it is only for thought), no mythology (for it is only for the imagination), no historical knowledge (which is for memory) has ever had this idea…[3]     – Climacus

[1] “The Grand Inquisitor”, a short story within a chapter of Dostoyevski’s The Brothers Karamazov, is the most famous allegorical literary treatment of the temptation of Christ.[2] Philosophical Fragments, written by Søren Kierkegaard under the pseudonym Johannes Climacus, translated by Howard V. Hong, (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1962).[3] Fragments, 109.

 (Evolutionary Ethics, Part II)

And I will place within them as a guide


                              – Milton, Paradise Lost (III: 194-5)

St Thomas AquinasWhat is Conscience?  And where does it come from?

Is it built into us, as a basic bit of human nature?  Perhaps Darwin got it right when he said, “any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts,… would inevitably acquire a moral sense of conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed as in man.”[1] On this view, conscience might be merely a word we give to the natural feelings we have when we confront certain types of choices requiring us to choose between selfish behavior and behavior that cares more for other members of our species.

Or it could be that God deliberately stitched conscience into our human fabric, as Milton implied in his poem above.  Both these views have been around for a long time-Milton’s since before the rise of medieval philosophy, and Darwin’s since…, well, since before Darwin. 

In philosophy there is a long-standing tradition of presuming that conscience is built into our human nature, akin to the faculty of reason, and that conscience serves as a kind of moral compass which we use to discern the right direction from the wrong.  Aquinas (1224/6-74) gets credit for articulating this view.  He saw the conscience (conscientia) as a practical application of reason, a natural ability to make moral judgments based on our understanding of right and wrong.  For Aquinas, this conscience was not perfect; it could make mistakes, for example by faulty reasoning, or by relying on false beliefs.  The important thing for morality however, was to act in concert with reason; this was the function of conscience:

In connection with human acts the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are applied on the basis of a comparison to reason, because… a human being’s good is existing in accordance with reason, while what is bad for a human being is whatever is contrary to reason.

(Summa Theologiae IaIIae.18.5c)

This association of conscience with the judgment of reason remains very much alive among philosophers today,[2] for example Richard Swinburne sounds the same note in saying,

To be guided by one’s moral beliefs is to be guided by one’s conscience.[3]

This view of conscience seems pretty compatible with the goal of evolutionary ethics to explain morality in terms of evolutionary forces (see Part I, below).  The logic of evolutionary ethics says that morality must provide some advantage in terms of survival of the fittest, in order to give a competitive advantage to individuals having genetic instincts for moral behavior. Such an evolutionary force would naturally favor survival of those individuals who had an innate moral reason, in other words, conscientia.   Thus moral reason, conscientia, would become a genetically favored trait. 

Of course this was not what Aquinas had in mind 750 years ago.  Aquinas seems to have been more concerned with accommodating the Bible than with accommodating evolution.  The challenge he faced is that the word conscientia does not appear in the Bible; rather, the Bible uses the Greek word syneidesis in the New Testament, and this is the word most English Bibles translate as “conscience.”[4]  This biblical word for conscience is much more complicated than the philosophical ideal of practical moral reason represented by conscientia. In order to avoid the complexity of the biblical word perhaps, Aquinas stuck with philosophical terms.  He had to employ another Latin word not found in the Bible, synderesis, to explain his theory of moral reasoning. This word refers to the understanding of moral truth as universal natural laws.  By analogy, we could simplify Aquinas and the medieval philosophers who followed him by saying that synderesis is like knowing true north, and the human faculty of conscientia is like our ability to find our way in the woods.

For Aquinas, the absolute moral truths involved in the operation of synderesis came from God.  For evolutionary ethics, they come from nature.  Other than that, the philosophy of conscientia seems to work pretty well in both cases.  The basic premise is that there are fundamental ethical principles that lead to survival, and the built-in function of the human conscience (conscientia) is to make reasonable judgments about how to apply those fundamental ethical principles.[5]

Yet, there remains a disconnect between Aquinas’ view and the view of evolutionary ethics.  The problem is that Aquinas notices the tendency of moral reason to error.  He calls such an error an “act of  will against reason.”[6]  This happens when people act in ways that go against their conscience, whether in the sense of defective moral reasoning (underdeveloped conscientia), or in the case of misapplying moral truths (synderesis).  

These errors present a challenge for evolutionary ethics, in that such errors would presumably be eliminated from the gene pool over time.  Perhaps we have just not waited long enough for nature to take its course. 

[rev. 21/11/07]

[1] Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, second edition, John Murray, London, 1875, p. 98.

[2] This premium on reason seems to be an important idea for philosophers over the millennia, and I suspect this may be because they tend to be people who are quite good at it, or at least good at teaching it.  I have a nagging suspicion in my more cynical moments that this might be a bit like footballers teaching skill on the pitch as an ultimate good (of course, there is some truth to both these schools of thought.)

[3] Richard Swinburne, Responsibility and Atonement (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989), 13.

[4] For example, Hebrews 9:14-” How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death,?? so that we may serve the living God!”

[5] Unfortunately, Aquinas never fully explained how conscientia and synderesis relate to one another, as Swinburne rightly acknowledges, op. cit., p. 39.

[6] Summa Theologiae IaIIae.19.5.

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