Some time ago my good friend Jason Tse wrote a blog post concerning his political views, and asked that I do the same. I protested that it is impossible for me to consolidate my political opinions into a concise and comprehensible bullet-list of precepts; yet he insisted that I would be able to, and I thus set out now, months later, to fulfill his request and prophecy.
Here is Jason’s post:
I find myself in some degree or other of agreement with each of Jason’s six principles. In particular, I align myself with the paradoxes of points one and two and points three and four, the precept of point six, and generally the ideal of point five (though I take this last one as a given, and factor it into my aesthetic and cultural tastes rather than my political understanding.)
Perhaps it would be fruitful for me to exhibit my influences, codes, and models.
The two primary sources of my political information are a Texan geopolitical think-tank, called Stratfor, and a centrist-rightist magazine that comments on American politics and policy, called The American Interest. I take from both their analyses and their worldviews.
The American Interest:
Two codes which have generally shaped my view on things are as follows.
I am, in strategic terms, generally of the Realist school, but a blend between traditional power-balancing Realism and its American brother, a more maritime, international-system-maintaining Realism. Hans Morgenthau’s Six Principles of Political Realism, particular its first four precepts, strongly inform my views.
Temperamentally, I am of that odd mix of conservatism and progressivism that historians will one day define as ‘Liberal’ but my conservative intuitions far outweigh my progressive ones. This, by the way, is not the contemporary American idea of conservatism, but a far subtler and more stately notion of it. Russell Kirk’s Ten Conservative Principles, particularly the first, fourth, sixth, ninth, and tenth, are endemic within my thought.
So far as models are concerned, I have many. But there are two in particular, who, however much I disagree with them on a wide array of philosophical and governmental issues, generally exhibit the broad ideas I deem necessary for the proper political ends. These are Alexander Hamilton and Theodore Roosevelt.
Now that the reader has a general context and plenty of resources, I shall detail the points I believe to be salient to my political understanding:
A. Political Philosophy
- There is good and evil in all things, and thus all things should be seen as morally neutral- neither perfect goodness nor total evil on Earth.
- Balance and Progress are the two principles which govern the world of politics. All political entities have forces within them driving their development, not necessarily towards a specific end or good- this is Progress. All political entities face a variety of internal forces and outer constraints, in relation to themselves and in relation to each other- this is Balance. These manifest politically in the Balance of Power and in Political Development.
- Correspondingly, Prudence and Vigor are the two principles which can bring Balance and Progress under control. Prudence weighs all entities and interests to find the proper place and proportion of each in relation to all others, thus attaining Balance. Vigor keeps all entities developing at their natural maximum speeds, harnessing their natural power and keeping them moving, thus attaining Progress.
- It is primarily by internal drives and external constraints that political activity is influenced and determined. No political entity can be considered without also a consideration of its physical and political environment. Thus political evils tend to produce political goods, as territorial insecurity leads to a drive for territorial consolidation. Men are rather irrational, but they are rational enough that they know how to pursue their interest.
- Human beings are flawed and imperfectible, self-interested and self-justyifying. They indeed have potential, and indeed can improve; but their capacity should not be overestimated. These qualities are present among all humans, regardless of race, class, religion, personality, or station. Human Nature is of critical importance for political study.
- A series of objective laws governs the universe and governs human nature, while a series of moral laws is perceived by human nature. These laws do not change, though circumstances and manifestations always do change. They form the foundations of human society.
- There is no moral progress among human collectives- only complexification and simplification.
- Though all manifestations of human activity- economic, intellectual, social, cultural, etc- affect politics, the primary factor has always been and will always be power.
- There is no “Ideal Society.” The closest representation of one might be one where the largest possible number of individuals are reasonably safe, reasonably healthy, and reasonably wise. Clearly, these evolve with history, and no set definition can create the ideal for which all posterity ought to strive.
B. Contemporary Policy
- Maintain unity, order and stability within the boundaries of the United States.
- Maintain favorable balances of power with neighbors, to preclude all political threats to the homeland.
- Maintain favorable balances of power around the world, to preclude the rise of any powers which could potentially threaten the homeland. Where a balance of power is threatened, intervene either actively or passively, through force or through manipulation; use whichever tools would be the most prudent and the most effective in each situation.
- Maintain the Anglo-American international trading and cultural system.
- Seek out opportunities to better the American geopolitical situation when possible.
- Seek the proper level of economic regulation, to keep conditions safe for consumers, without stifling enterprise.
- Seek the proper level of vigorous investment in technology and infrastructure, the chief means of economic stimulation.
- Encourage private enterprise and innovation.
- Conduct systemic reform of bureaucracy in the interest of effective governance.
- Encourage localism in governance in all matters save those better served by national governance. Give people a stake in the governments that direct them. These need not necessarily be democracies or republics.
- Encourage public virtue.
As can be seen, I am no policy wonk, and have much to learn. But these form the cores of my political thought.
“Igitur qui desiderat paccem, praeparet bellum.”
“If you want peace, prepare for war.”
At the level of the political entity and the private individual, hard times are a blessing in disguise, for they demand discipline, prudence, daring, to be weathered and survived. And such traits invariably shape the individual or entity in question, causing them to be more effective and competitive, able to more truly appreciate the value and reality of life. Shelter is only a blessing when one is fragile or broken. It is in fire that gold is tested, and in the flames that all useful tools are forged.
“It is from their foes, and not their friends, that cities learn the lesson of building high walls.” And of all the cities of the ancient world, which were the most splendid, the most glorious, but those so desirable to conquest that their rulers were forced to encase them in walls? The state which weathers invasions and famines invariably develops a more effective governing apparatus than the state which is comfortably surrounded by mountains and rivers and fears neither war nor hunger. The former will be hardened, and upon an encounter, will tend to make short work of the latter, coming out with plenty of booty and a new vassal.
Yet those factors which made the statelet great are, paradoxically, removed as it becomes greater. It is vulnerability which makes security dear; as the borders expand, as wealth accumulates, as the fears of yesterday subside, a comfortable standard is reached in which the people do not desire protection, but gratification. It is their appetites which do their thinking for them, and their imaginations run wildly. As preparedness is gradually taken over by those more able to dedicate themselves to it, those they protect grow fat and content within the walls, and decadence reigns above all semblances of virtue. Fairness and Happiness are adored; the Greater Good, and Prudence, soon are forgotten. And in this petty, softened state, the nation is weakened and made vulnerable, precisely because it was strengthened and made invulnerable. When the Sword of Damocles is removed from the ceiling, kings and nations tend to operate with impunity.
Now experience shows a multitude of situations in which safe, comfortable nations were yet strong and virtuous, and in which weak, vulnerable nations remained weak and licentious. In the latter case, this is to be expected, as men are men. And when pressures are too great, problems too insurmountable and no gain at all achievable, then the wretched Hobbesian anarchy will remain the status quo. Stability, Prosperity, and Security must all be POSSIBLE in order for the blessed combination of the three to be attained, and whenever any one of them remains elusive, the other two do not help to repel disorder and poverty and insecurity. Thus the poorer nations in the more anarchic regions of the world are unfortunate plants unable to take root, for they exist among hostile rocks and hungry birds. In the former case, great powers which are safe, orderly, and rich are only ever virtuous to a degree- decadence is rather endemic to society, and it is only ever partially that they maintain the virtues and efficacy necessary to remain great. Perhaps these customs of greatness are due to great individuals; perhaps they are due to finely tuned tradition; but whatever their source, they are rare examples of preparedness maintained, in lands where such is waning.
The same principle tends to hold true among individuals, though the presence of commanding wills and iron self-control render it somewhat easier for individuals to resist decadent temptations and remain graceful and esteemed even in those times when their blessings are without number, their curses nowhere to be found. And innumerable are the instances of those facing great hardship who cave in its face and submit to the devils of their spirits. But for the mass of Mankind, and especially those who are at all worth their salt, hard times make for hard men with stiff lips and strong handshakes; adversity and uncertainty make them greater
Machiavelli lauds the Prince who never rests in times of peace, and trains himself always for times of war. The body, the wit, the spirit, tend to grow fat and useless if not used, and nothing uses them more punishingly than activity and experience. And when these faculties are at the lowest, one’s vulnerability to uncontrollable vicissitudes multiplies exponentially, and those with any pride snap in pain when their state so descends. And nothing encourages sloth and apathy more than good times devoid of trial and struggle.
It is the strength of will which conquers both the good times and the bad; the bad times with all their pain, and the good times with the shame that rises from their encouragement of laziness. The most successful are not those who can weather harder, sadder days; nor are they who can effect by their smiles and cheeriness good times when times are bad. They are those who always at war in their souls and in their lives, always struggling to conquer themselves, always striving forth nobly. And in their eternal war, they find their peace.
The great individual and great statesman hold the same mindset toward the affairs of the world. They know what they know and what they don’t know, and with deep powers of judgment and sharpened spontaneous will, they stride forth and do great things. Unaware of what tomorrow will bring, they live in their moments, learning from their pasts, gravely preparing for their futures. Their long-term plans are realistic and tenable, allowing for every contingency which life might bring, yet glorious and improbable, appearing to mere mortals beyond the reach of human effort. They know that they serve causes far higher than the particular inclinations of any moment, and act therefore with dignity and honor. They are driven by their convictions and their duty; all else is aside.
They create themselves, and become themselves. And no soil is so fertile for the roots of their greatness as the plot of dirt full of intractable times which is our life in this universe.
Here is the response requested of me on a Facebook conversation I posted recently. I had posted an article and asked for discussion; many people pointed out its obvious flaws and came to the support of TED, while a few agreed that the article had salient points. Then I was asked to reply, and so I did. The link to the article (and a quote encapsulating the point of the article, if you have not the time or are too lazy to read it) follow, and my response follows the picture.
“TED Talks are designed to make people feel good about themselves; to flatter them and make them feel clever and knowledgeable; to give them the impression that they’re part of an elite group making the world a better place.”
All right so everyone has made good points about the deficiencies of this article (it was published in New Statesman, which ranks among Time and Newsweek as the weekly periodical junk of the Earth.) I am in agreement with most of the points concerning the author’s hypocrisy, the basic negativity and lack of alternatives offered, and the basic goodness and idealism of the TED idea. In fact, I’ll be one of the planners for USC’s upcoming TEDx, and were I to condemn TED talks universally I would be the face of hypocrisy (much moreso than I already am.)
There are a lot of things I like about the TED idea. Free and reasonably intelligent content, for the first thing, is always a blessing. I have never been big in the sciences and as the majority of TED talks tend to focus on technology and the natural and physical sciences, it’s a cheap and easy way for me to catch up. And lastly, any entity that encourages the development of knowledge and the progress of technology is fundamentally doing some good.
But it is the mindset of TED and its impossible desires that irk me. I see TED as unhealthily infected with scientism, that dangerous yet all-too-common belief that the progress of science can solve all problems worth solving. One of the talks I’ve been sent most, because it involves the social sciences, is one by a sociologist who takes all the major countries of the world and graphs them according to standards of living, and concludes by the end that living standards around the world will continue to progress towards that of Switzerland until they are pretty much there, and we’ll all be one big happy human family and we won’t have to kill each other anymore. Other talks I’ve seen (or seen snippets of) discuss space colonies, cures for deadly diseases, new robotic technologies, and quite basic self-help tricks for neurotics like me.
And after I watch each and every one of these talks, I either shake my head at a futurist whose desired perfection is unattainable, I applaud a great new idea that will surely bring about great good (and likely some evil with it,) or I sit puzzled as to why everyone thinks such a quite basic idea is so original and penetrating. The ideas TED shares are good, I do not contest that- but they are never, EVER the fundamental-issue-resolving silver bullets they are cast as, and for the most part never approach anything nearly that interesting. I, for one, have never seen any product or service or even any idea put it into practical use, attributed to TED; have any of you?
Now as a forum, it’s about as useful as a forum can be- it spreads ideas to people who have the power to use those ideas, and moreover it spreads ideas to the global interested middle-and-poor classes. But even this, I am suspicious of, to a degree. I mentioned earlier TED’s mindset irks me. It sees solutions to the problems that science itself has not found answers to, and presents them as though they were simple common sense. It downplays the complicated situations of the real world and suggests that we move on to an ever materially and morally brighter future. It fails to mention, I believe intentionally, the negative uses and side effects of any given scientific or intellectual advance, all of which have consequences. And it gives the watcher a sense (a dangerous one, in my opinion) that they just watched the cutting edge of human thought solve another problem and bring us closer to a happy and orderly world in which everything will be more or less fixed.
There are no great dilemmas, there is no tragedy, in this approach; everything is neatly solved, and the actual dilemmas that leaders deal with, and the actual realities that people deal with in general, are left out. One is fed the notion that they are helping to make the world a better place- a notion that I have serious problems with. People aren’t gods, nor are they perfect or perfectible- in a nutshell, my problem with TED is that it leaves the opposite as the necessary conclusion.
Bear in mind, I have no vendetta against science or progress, only scientism and the belief in social moral Progress. I am the one who advocates energy expansion down every possible avenue, improvements in all sorts of transportation technology, the shifting of our economy away from the failing industrial economy to a hip and techy new information-based society (which i, by the way, would flail about horribly in,) investment in the biological and geological sciences, expanded conservation efforts to preserve biodiversity, an integration of certain social science methods with classical political thought, and the expansion of human colonies to other moons and planets. I think I can justly say that I am the last one to oppose progress and science.
But the difference between my thought and what I perceive to be TED’s thought, is that were TED to sell any of the things I just listed, they would leave their audience thinking it would be perfect, that it would represent an end of history rather than history’s continuation. But I would never leave a fellow human being so naive.
In response to the incessant elite Western praises of the peoples of the Third World for using their voting ‘rights’ in the face of poverty and war, (as though their votes did anything to alleviate those ills, or even showed a resolve to build democracy) it is worthwhile to examine what must come before a vote has any meaning.
Voting in a nation that is not ready to vote is about as effective as having three-year olds manage their parents’ financial and legal affairs. This isn’t saying anything about the intelligence or maturity of the citizens of democratizing countries- this is saying lots of stuff about the health and condition of the societies and states within those countries, which for the most part is never at the standard it must meet in order for democratic governance to become viable.
Look around at the truly successful democracies and democratic republics of the world- the United States, Australia, Britain, a lot of Europe, etc- and note their common characteristics. (None of these are perfect and all of them deal with their own critical fractures and imbalances, but they all at least meet a definite societal and political standard.) Can the democratizing nations of Africa and Asia and the Middle East at all compare?
Generally, there’s a hierarchy of political goods that goes something along these lines: first security must be achieved against external forces. Then internal order must be maintained, and all serious threats of disunion and anarchy tamped down. Then a certain level of physical prosperity, enough to produce dynamism and development, must be reached. Then society must develop to the point where there is a common stake in the maintenance of security, order, and prosperity- in other words, a civil society complete with its own culture, values, and traditions must be maintained. And finally, once all these are present, the method of politics can be discussed. If democracy will work, then democracy ought to be pursued. If technocracy is more effective, so be it. If oligarchy and aristocracy can maintain the necessary goods, then they are best. If a confederacy of autocracies works best, then it should be embraced.
Security, Order, Prosperity, Society- and then, only then, perhaps Democracy! This is the natural order of political development, if democracy is to be attained, and though it is assuredly possible to pursue multiple ends at once, it is utterly foolish to pursue lower ends without first having established higher ends, or at least entered the process of pursuing them. Those individuals and governments working to promote democracy in the undeveloped regions of the Earth are doing those peoples no favors, for a vote cannot buy protection from vultures, insurance against parasites, a lifetime’s worth of bread, or one’s place between Heaven and Earth.
The true heroes of all developing countries, who ought to be unreservedly praised, are those working for the four higher goals- the ones seeking territorial integrity and political security, the ones campaigning for order and rule of law, the ones striving to produce and maintain sustainable wealth, the ones seeking to build society and community from the first possible levels. These are the ones with their nations’ interests before their eyes, upon their hands, and within their hearts. Alas, these, also, tend to be the ones viewed as villains by the West, and indeed many times they must conduct villainy in order to pursue the ends necessary. Many times, too, they are indeed detestable individuals. But their actions serve the highest interest of their peoples- civilized life- and, though we may cringe, we must not forget that the development of our civilization endured, even required, too, such atrocities. The vague appeals of the democratizers, by contrast, do next to nothing, if they do not in fact hurt the efforts of the movers and shakers aforementioned.
It is interesting that the ends necessary to make a people fit for democracy may render them, in the end, and over time, less fit for it. For the safety brought by security and order brings with it a lazy apathy, a forgetfulness that danger is real. The wealth produced by prosperity encourages avarice and material dependency, upon which all peoples grow soft and fat. The moral certainty espoused by civil society tends to render public thought homogenous and insipid, and discourage creativity and ambition. Thus it is well that all nations, even the most happy of democracies, periodically undergo trials and tribulations, which in all ages have the effect of replenishing the manliness and self-reliance required for self-rule and civilization. Were their blessings never to be called into question, it is not clear that the inhabitants of advanced states would be any better off than the inhabitants of struggling ones. The only thing worse than anarchy is decadence.
In no way are the nations of the West superior to the poorer regions of the Earth, and in many ways they are far inferior. They have, for the most part, forgotten true pain, and indulged in a material resplendence which shines forth in their publications and media. In many instances they have slowly lost the ethics of community, and hyperindividualized to dangerous levels. The family has degenerated, and social values have reached a point where they are very nearly merely utilitarian and subjective. Consumer homogeneity threatens the ancient and varied customs which gave true identity to former generations. Most importantly, they have in many instances forsaken the notion of their own imperfectibility and limitation, and acted out as though they were the gods. In every way here listed, traditional societies around the globe are far superior to their counterparts in the West. It is not clear that those of the West will even be able to maintain their own societies, much less their democracy.
But it cannot be doubted that there are definite benefits to life in societies fit for democracy, chief among them individualism, various freedoms, mobility, high material standards of living, and the capacity for unlimited achievement in accordance with individual effort. And it is an honorable effort of the leaders within the poorer nations of this world to develop their societies further, that they might one day match or surpass the societies of their Western neighbors. But the advocates of democracy- the ones who most dearly want to see the sort of life just described, and therefore promote democracy- are doing the least to realize that vision.
It is interesting that among the academe and within American political culture in general, democracy-worship and democracy-exportation are so profoundly revered. It makes sense, I suppose, given our heritage and idealism. But democracy-globbering is an activity unfit for a mature empire, and I pray that with time and experience our people- and more critically, our leaders- will accept that truth and act upon it.
I copy here, in full, the text of a debate I held with my good friend and fellow blogger Jacky Chen over Christmas break. The catalyst was an essay by Walter Russell Mead in his annual Yule Blog series; I have provided the link to that piece at the beginning for context. I have copied the text of our following conversation as it existed in comments, without edits or abridgments. This conversation is useful fresh. Two other thinkers of different views hopped in at various times, and I have kept their arguments in to maintain continuity.
I am not sure that there was a winner to this debate (though it would be Jacky by default, as he had the last word.) But I don’t think it’s so important whether or not there is a winner; the ideas discussed here are timeless, worth pondering by those who wonder, and in any case I think both of our arguments reveal critical influences on our thought. Readers, enjoy.
Walter Russell Mead- “Personal Meaning”
Very well written and the guy has great insight on being a Christian. While he was explaining the two ideas, he kind of placed Theists in front by saying that they are not only these things that the Atheists are but they are also these things. I strongly believe in the natural truths (justice, love, freedom) but I believe in these not as an individual, like this article seems to suggest, but I believe in the idea that all people are naturally driven towards valuing them. God may or may not exist. It’d be cool if he did but it’s fine if he doesn’t because I believe in humanity. I believe in humanity’s (maybe even high conciousness’) connection with these values and in the idea that this connection will guide humans to survive and do great things. With the powers of technology, our potential might as well be limitless. I think that religion is a good thing and it certainly makes many behave better they otherwise would. It definitely provides a pure idea for many people to put, with pure intentions, enormous amount of faith into. I also think that, if this faith could be generated without religion, it could be placed into oneself. After all, if you truly believe in these ideals so much, can’t you throw yourself wholly in support of them? I’m saying rather than go to church every week, wouldn’t it be more beneficial to volunteer at a shelter every week? or rather than living well (being a good person and doing good things on earth) and waiting for a heaven that you believe has already been created for you, why not poor your intentions and faith in creating a better world now? Walter Mead said that Theists believe that these natural truths have a source and that source is God. People will still act upon this and do good but it is in the name of another. They are not fully responsible for it. I ask, “Why not believe that the source of these natural truths is in all of us humans? Why not take full responsibility for what is happening and use these truths to guide us to betterment?”
Jacky: Your ideas are powerful.
I interpret the article as suggesting that the things which atheists and theists share (feelings of spiritual value/tendency to see truths) are true for all humans in general, rather than only for those who choose to accept them; therefore your assertion that human beings naturally discern them seems to me to be a basic truth about human beings. But the difference between those who believe in a God and those who don’t lies in the interpretation of these scientifically untenable phenomena.
Mead argued that non-believers see these as basic parts of life, not to be questioned or examined particularly deeply save for personal meaning, while believers see them as keys and clues to understanding the metaphysical structure of the universe and thus to the meaning not only of an individual life but of all reality. You, on the other hand, argue for a utilitarian usage of these pieces of reality- a constant striving for a better, more perfect world, harnessing the drive for betterment inherent in us to create a heaven on earth.
Please forgive me if it sounds like I am trying to slander you in the following sentences, for I assure you that I am not.
Someone told me once that ‘The Light, the Truth, and the Way’ can all be found by self-reflection and experience. I have found this to be partly true, but I have been cautious to take it so far as to suggest that I, on my own, can do anything that matters. Before the next century turns, I’ll be dead. Before the next millennium turns, I’ll be either bastardized into a figurehead for schoolboys to read about, or more likely, completely forgotten in the minds of men, and remembered by nothing in nature. I am of the opinion that those things that are most truly meaningful are not those things that are fleeting, but those things which endure- and what is Man but fleeting? In studies of politics and philosophy, I have always been encouraged to view everything as a manifestation of things that once were- the notion that ‘there are no new ideas,’ that ‘there is nothing new under the sun,’- for among human beings, within human nature, there is no progress. Our technology progresses, certainly, but societies, and more particularly individuals, all follow the same story of birth and death. They are subject to the same passions and divisions and restrictions which drove their ancestors and which will drive their descendants. I am thoroughly critical of the notion that any Man can create something that will last forever, though I do not doubt that Man can create things that will be of meaning to those around him, who live in his time.
But what IS enduring? Life- the Universe- certain principles, some of which have been discerned and proven by science and history, others which can only be discerned by personal reflection and never proven- in short, a great many things which are far, far greater than my life or yours, or any human life.
We sense that these things are imperfect, and that we are imperfect. Yet we cannot improve, and barely otherwise influence, these things. We CAN improve ourselves. But although we can improve ourselves, we will die. These things won’t.
I think the reason why so many people cast their lots into a greater metaphysical truth, rather than into themselves, is because they sense that the permanence of that truth renders it more valuable than their own meager and finite human lives. To them, it is a thing of humility to cast your lots with God, and the utmost act of hubris to believe yourself to be the source of goodness in the universe.
To answer your idea “the source of these natural truths is in all of us humans” :
You are completely correct, that goodness and justice and righteousness would most likely not be exhibited in a world unpopulated by humans, and were not particularly widespread concepts before our species came to be. (I understand many animals display kinship and affection, and some intelligence, but I think the capacity to truly understand and practice these virtues for their own sake lies in humans alone.)
At the same time, they’re not in our DNA- it has been established that these virtues are scientifically untenable, and even irrational in certain situations. Being good, sometimes, means getting walked on and sacrificing for others.
If it’s not built into our genetic makeup, where could it exist? We are left with those nebulous portions of the heart and mind that often defy comprehension and make people do weird, beautiful things.
By this analysis, yes- goodness and honor and righteousness are in us humans and come into the world through us.
But when you’re good, can you really say you’re creating goodness? Doing goodness, for sure- giving it life through your action, maybe- but creating it? It seems to me that we are EXHIBITING it, but I’d say that’s a far stretch from being the ultimate source. The source on Earth, definitely. The end source?
Humans evolved. Our bodies evolved, and thus did our minds and spirits evolve. Our intellects and passions evolved, for we are complex beings. But to no end but random convenience? I will never have any sort of way to prove or advance this argument- and that is what faith is for- but I am of the opinion that we see the laws governing the universe as unfair (pain, a natural part of life, is caused by them, and people are generally inclined to see unnecessary pain as unfair) because the goodness, the uprightness in us, sees and desires a greater perfection than any this world can provide. As we are not content in this world but yearn for a better one, I am of the opinion that we have a little bit of what I call God in us, and that God wants that essence of himself in us for whatever reason he has. And therefore I see the fountain of goodness not within my own breast, but in God’s.
In regards to the question of whether it would be better to volunteer for an hour a week rather than go to Church-
First off, anyone in the Church worth his salt would tell you it’s better to help people than to go to Church, because that’s displaying virtue and goodness far more than merely partaking in ritual does.
At the same time, there are deep spiritual benefits in attending Church, but those are at a theological level I don’t want to get into at the moment. Long story short, you win that one.
I hope I don’t sound like I’m trying to suggest that belief in God is necessary for a good life. You, as well as a good number of my closest, closest friends, are profound evidence that it is possible to lead a good life and be a good person without acknowledging the existence of a God. In fact, my agnostic friends are, in most cases, far better individuals than the indecorous multitude of Church-goers who are both apathetic in their faith and careless in their conduct and virtue.
However, I have problems with your metaphysics. Improvement in this life is a good thing, a great thing. But it is not the only thing, nor is it the most important thing. Peace with God, an understanding of one’s own place in this universe, amongst the temporal and the eternal, is just as critical, in my view.
Please forgive me that this came off condescending and caustic in parts; I am running on far too little sleep.
Also, disclaimer, I disagree with Mead on some of his points and I am not very Christian in that I don’t buy the idea that love is the hinge around which the world revolves, and I disagree with Christianity on a whole bunch of its teachings.
There’s nothing to forgive ha. We have these conversations too often for me to actually take offense. If you can convince me of your point, than I will believe. I’ll just go down the list of your points I guess. Don’t take offense either (this is all for the sake of intellectual discussion) and get some sleep.
I am arguing that it is natural to follow through with these “natural truths” so humans will end up doing good. As long as people strive to understand themselves and make themselves aware of how others are being affected by their actions, it is something that will happen naturally, I don’t have to convince people of it. This aligns with the “unquestionable laws” idea that you used to characterize non-believers but it flushes out the definition more.
On the, “what is enduring” portion, I get that one person won’t be remembered but what I know is that the smallest actions, given time, can have great affects, whether it is recognized or not that those actions contributed to the end result (butterfly affect). If we create good now, than the affects can last “forever”. We won’t ever know about all the details of how we made the world better but I have faith that I did. Just an example, I was watching a TED video about charity. The best charity to donate to is Against Malaria. For $5, you can help them buy a mosquito net that will last almost a decade. That mosquito net could save a child’s life. That child could go on to live a great life. His whole family tree can exist because you did one simple good thing. By this definition, you can have “everlasting affects”.
I don’t think that we can really capture emotions or morality in DNA haha. Maybe the codes just come with consciousness. Consciousness at a basic level is understanding what is happening around you. At higher levels of consciousness, you can begin to see what is happening in others around you. By the natural process of consciousness, I think the golden rule makes sense for everyone. I don’t know if there is a source or even if there has to be a “source”. All I know is that, for me, it makes sense and that is good enough. If it makes sense for me in a natural way, than I want to believe that it makes sense for others too. Why is knowing the source/knowing if there is a source so important? I can definitely see the humility aspect but it doesn’t have to be made a big deal. And once an individual takes responsibility for it, they will no longer be bound by the thought that someone greater will take care of it for them. They will become responsible.
I believe that religion is a good thing. People are bound by these natural truths but it is very hard for most to be very conscious of their surroundings. Religion makes it so that they don’t have to be. They can follow some well thought out rules and often behave much better because of this. They can be moved to do good things because they believe that they are part of something greater and some everlasting good will be done for them. I just question if this is necessary. If believers are correct, than I have been a good person in my life and it would make sense for me to receive the same benefits that they do (You really think an all-powerful, all-knowing being would strike you down for doing good things but not believing in him because a book written thousands of years ago told you to?). If they are wrong, than I can still be joyful in the thought that I have helped promote goodness in the world by following my naturally driven to do. Win-win.
Side note (Amusing thought): If Atheists are right, than that would mean that the hundreds of religions on Earth have all been created by some very smart people who thought the world would benefit from their ideas. They knew that it would be hard to convince them without a “higher power” so they invented a God or gods to really drive home the points. Those would some great story-telling skills haha and it would all still make sense how they had such insight because of the “natural truths” concept.
Jacky, I don’t think early Religion came out of smart people who thought the world would benefit from the ideas. Many early religion sprouted from simple ignorance which could not be blamed on these people. Think about it, our species as been around for tens of thousands of year, probably even more. They did not know what the sun was, why it gave off heat, or how it rose in the sky. What made rivers move, and what was fire? Humans have never been the sort of species to be satisfied with not knowing the answers to things. So we simply personified the things we could not explain. That’s what the majority of early deities were natural things. Sun, Moon, Stars, Animals, Trees, etc.
The first religions were primitive by any definition. For reasons of limited population, communication, and plain old geography, they never grew to be anything other than a local concern. But religions mutate in time and grow in sophistication as each generation of holy men learn what works and what doesn’t. When populations grew due to the slow but steady growth of knowledge, as if confronted by a bumper harvest, the religions went into an arms race with each other. From gods of wind and thunder and sea, the threats, incentives, and claims of power escalate until every dominant organized religion has a god that is all-powerful, all-loving, all-seeing, and words like “infinity” and “eternity” are deployed cheaply.
Tyler, I was more referring to most of the major religions of the world today that are based on books such as the Bible, the Quran, the story of Buddha, and Bhagavad Gita. Today, the foundation of religions such as Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism are founded in the books I’ve listed. I don’t really know the details of all the stories but I know they are significant to the religion. Based on this, somebody had to write those stories (all which have good moral lessons) and, since the humor is based on the idea that the source isn’t coming from something higher, they were pretty smart about it cuz obviously millions have benefited from their story today. That is all I was saying. I didn’t really consider religions that don’t hold a huge following today. Either way, the personifying thing still applies to people telling stories. They basically told people, “This is how it is.” That doesn’t necessarily make the world better but it does set up the basis for a power structure that could be used for good or bad. Whether the story tellers knew this or not, it happened.
Hinduism has hundreds if not thousands of gods. Some choose to favor one of the gods but not all of them do. There is one could be said to be “all-powerful” but he is not the center for all worshipers like in Christianity. Buddha isn’t all powerful. He’s just “awakened”, a state that Buddhists attempt to achieve. I don’t know about Islam and I don’t really know these two religions too well so correct me if I’m wrong. I just knew enough about them to refute your claim.
I am in no way attempting to convince you to believe in God, nor is it my right to strive to bring about the conversion of anybody- that is a dialogue that must take place only within any individual’s own soul. My goal here, aside from intellectual discussion, is to convince you (and, honestly, myself to a degree- this is an internal dialogue i have a lot) that religion is not merely a particular route to virtue and self-improvement, but a useful pathway for exploring mysteries unsolvable by reason alone.
I will proceed by the point-by-point basis too.
“Your actions can have everlasting effects.” You have a good argument but I don’t think it reaches anywhere near the true definition of ‘everlasting effects’ if we are being fully honest with ourselves as to what ‘eternity’ and ‘universality’ mean.
To be clear, I believe in people as moral agents- such is necessary to have any faith in humanity at all. But in the grand context of things, what does it matter that you donated that net, and that that child lived? Your soul was a little bit better for it, and a new line of people was preserved, perhaps for millennia- but when Man is extinguished from the Earth and only the silent stars remain looking down, what will that good have mattered? Has the moral fabric of the Universe changed one bit? The eternal principles still reign supreme, and your quiet advance towards righteousness has been lost to the sands of time. Of course the good is still good; but in the context of the universe it is so MEANINGLESS, if goodness only matters to mortal and unperfectible humans.
Add a deeper spiritual reality, add something eternal that humans have a connection to in some mysterious way- then good acts might have some eternal and universal meaning. (I have faith in the importance and necessity of good action too, just not on Earth.)
“Why does there have to be a source?”
Do you hear what you’re saying??? “It makes sense and that is good enough… Why is knowing if there is a source so important?”
A dear friend of mine who, like you, is a dynamic, virtuous, ethical, all-around true person, and a non-theist, phrased it yet more succinctly: “Why does there have to be a why?”
Is not the search for the reasons behind things not the basic force driving all inquiry, be it scientific, logical, or philosophical? And is that not the force that has driven your own personal development in understanding not only the rational and practical things in your life, but also in your values, in your aspirations, and in the things you hold to be true?
Yet if you cease to search after discerning only the things you can prove beyond a doubt, you do the greatest possible disservice to the spirit of inquiry and, in my opinion, your own development. If you discover that there are transcendent truths like justice and righteousness, that there is a deeper spiritual reality that you can feel but not fully understand, that it is possible and necessary to become a better person- and then you accept that all these are true, and cease to speculate upon these things’ origins- then you are honest and humble in your admittance of your inability to comprehend the incomprehensible, yet you grow stagnant in your search for ultimate meaning, and refuse to make a freeing leap of faith. If you say “These things are the way they are because because,” it seems to me that you miss out on the spellbound wonder enjoyed by those who speculate beyond what they can prove in the realm of the metaphysical. I suppose I ought to put it this way- if these principles by which you drive your life are truly the most important, truest things, why do you not concern yourself with discerning their source?
This is one of my favorite parts about your thought, that you believe in the power of individuals to live morally and hold themselves to higher standards so long as they strive truly to become the best possible versions of themselves.
But I think it puts too much faith in people, and that borders on pride.
A good friend of mine once told me “It is not good to be too strong.” Too firm a reliance on oneself, one’s own power, sets one up for failure, for people fail. By our nature we are cracked, unperfectible. That does not excuse us from the quest to become the best possible versions of ourselves- we must still be strong- yet we must acknowledge our weakness. Human potential is not limitless, even with all the benefits of technology and psychology and modern philosophy. For one day we each shall die, and none of us shall ever create something from nothing. And it is the acknowledgement of our weakness and reliance on things we can’t control that the hubris of man is checked. In my personal case that translates into a firm faith in the protection of a God and the superiority of his plans over mine. In your case it translates to a simpler humility.
We both can fail, and we both can become corrupted. But there is a standard that does not change with us.
“You really think an all-powerful, all-knowing being would strike you down for doing good things but not believing in him because a book written thousands of years ago told you to?”
Not at all, and moreover, anyone who believed that nonbelievers who live good lives go to Hell simply for their nonbelief are probably the people on this Earth most assuredly guaranteed spots in Hell, for they equate their own self-righteousness with holiness. The truth behind it is no one alive has any idea what happens when we die, much less what will happen to other people when they die. I’ve told you that I don’t think belief is necessary to live a good life and be a good person; I’m not sure that God thinks it is necessary, either.
But it has its benefits.
That would make plenty of sense- if the atheists were right.
And, in general, I think it’s probably right. Every religion is, in fact, a human invention, fraught with all the blessings and curses, benefits and flaws, endemic to all things human. All religions are conditioned by literature, science, culture, geography, philosophy, personalities, and a thousand other temporal Earthly factors. But they all share a fascination, and an attempt to explain, those spiritual realities which we cannot know in full. The difference between the believer and the nonbeliever, my friend, is that the nonbeliever is content to accept the existence of spiritual phenomena and leave it at that. But the believer dares to delve into those phenomena further, seeking a deeper understanding through inquiries in questions they can never prove, nor ever answer.
I’ll just tell you briefly why I believe in God.
1) I was raised that way, in a Catholic household. This conditioned a lot of my thought and habits; however, it was more a background than a planting of a seed. Had later events not happened, I would now likely at closest be a lukewarm Catholic who didn’t care much for his ‘faith,’ or at furthest have rejected the Church in favor of Deism or a naturalistic humanism similar to yours. But later events happened.
2) I sought, in my political understanding, a philosophical background for unchanging, immutable eternal truths causing the wretchedness of our world, condemning men to the cruel political fate they have known for all eternity. And in my inquiry I discerned that the similarities in fields so far removed as politics, biology, physics, psychology, all the human and natural sciences- not to mention, even, the selfsameness of the universe across time and space- supposed a series of eternal, universal, all-powerful principles governing the activity and existence of all things in this universe. These I determined to be the ultimate reality of this universe, yet I could not accept that they were true simply because they were true. Something must hold them to be true; something must give them their power; whatever it was must have been more powerful than any of them or all of them combined, certainly far superior to anything in this universe. And in this I conceived of the necessity of a lawmaker of the universe, a first cause, from which all reality flows. All my thought is based upon this.
3) I endured needless suffering, and learned what it feels like to lose all hope and all faith in everything I had held to be true. And in seeking salvation from this wretched state I learned the comfort that comes from trusting in the irrational when all else seems lost. In the flames of life my faith in God was forged.
Over time I noticed that the people in my life who were the most profoundly religious, who most emanated their beliefs, were the ones who had endured similar ordeals- mental illness, broken families, irrational insecurity, and various other traumas- and had only grown strong in their faith after having experienced these.
I reasoned that all mankind is condemned to intense and needless suffering, if not yet then sometime later in their lives, for wars and chaos will never end, and even if they did, everyone will one day die, and most of us will lose the people they love. The comfort of trusting in the irrational seems to be a more or less natural impulse when such times come, as the high rates of faithfulness in the Third World, and much lower rates of faithfulness in the First World, seem to exemplify. Therefore I discerned that comfort in the arms of God was not mine alone, but available to all those enduring hardship.
I forever cherish and appreciate our conversations and discussions, never taking offense and always learning something new, and gaining a deeper understanding. I apologize again, profusely, that my prose and attitude have come out caustic and self-assured in these paragraphs- regarding my personality, my pride is my greatest flaw, the one most capable of destroying me, and I sincerely apologize that it pollutes my words and makes things I hold dear sound like the banterings of crusaders and other similarly self-righteous individuals.
Again, no need to apologize haha. You make me feel like I should apologize which I do if you take offense.
On the topic of “Everlasting”:
The Earth will last a long time and, as long as humans don’t kill themselves, we could probably survive for much longer than you might hope (thought: your good deeds could potentially prevent humans from killing themselves). On the basis of surviving a long time, human technology will eventually allow humans to colonize the universe. Based on that idea, our survivability increases even more since we’ll spread across many planets and galaxies. In the grand scheme of things, we could (if enough good deeds are done haha) end up lasting out till entropy tears the universe apart and there is nothing left. There will be nothing (except for God if you believe in him). Does it matter that our deeds don’t survive any further than when God will be the only one around? There will probably have been something like trillions of years of humanity lived. There have been countless people that one’s good deeds have helped. Countless people have enjoyed life. They have soaked up what the universe has had to offer until there is nothing left and they have found joy in it. Yes, in the end, everything will scatter and give way to nothing but I hardly think that trillions of years of experience, made possible good deeds, is a waste. It’s only meaningless if you skip to the end. If you take the time to look at what has happened throughout, I feel like you would be able to find so much meaning. I know some people are dead set on the end result but take a look around, feel the beauty, feel… God or “God”. No matter what the source is, there is something amazing about the emotions we have. I choose to accept it as our consciousness reacting to the universe.
On the topic of “Source”:
I should really edit the things I type so that people don’t misunderstand ha. Sorry about that. On the topic of “source”, I defined source as something beyond yourself when I asked the question because that was how you referred to it previously. I also quickly went through the logic of how any conciousness could make its way to the “natural truths” in my previous comment. Therefore, my “source” is within the reasoning of consciousness itself.
On the topic of “Responsibility”:
Simply because we are imperfect does not mean that we can’t be responsible. You can point to failures in human government but you can also point to successes of human government. Humans fail but failure is key to learning and improving. Also, we don’t necessarily have to die in the future at least not for a very long time. Technology, even a century in the future, might surprise you haha. I acknowledge that we can’t create something from nothing but this isn’t necessary if you don’t focus on the end goal (argument from first paragraph).
The idea of a creator of Physical Laws is probably the best reason that you would want to believe in something bigger, a Law Maker. Who chose the Gravity constant or the speed of light or pi? This is where your “why” argument would stump me. Scientists still need to work on defining this better. I know that Gravity and Light move at the same speed. That makes sense. Newton’s Laws make sense in our environment. Feynman said in an interview once that he disliked when people ask him “why” because they would never actually be able to keep up with the full answer. Perhaps science will be able to unravel it all one day. Till then, I will simply accept the physical laws as they are because that is my reality.
I only continue to apologize out of a consciousness of the self-assuredness that pervades my writing, a self-assuredness which might easily be received as arrogance by, if not you, our other readers both now and in the future; for I truly do not seek to obtain victory over you in this argument, merely hold conversation, and I can easily see my words misconstrued by quite reasonable minds into declarations of my ‘all-knowing wisdom,’ a potentiality I would like to defuse so far as possible.
I take no offense to what you are arguing.
Trust me- more than most other people, I have pondered and pondered the historical effects of our expansion into space, and what that will do to our legacy, and ultimately I am in agreement with you, that it can only bring great things, transfer our history to a greater network of worlds, and expand our species’s life span. But in the context of an eternity, even were we to last trillions of years, that is still just a blink of an eye.
As for the significance of good deeds, do not think I mean they don’t matter at all- for it can make all the difference in the world if you make someone’s day and fill the world with joy rather than with suffering. Life can be spent in nothing better.
But i think we have reached the end of the road on this particular issue, and must agree to disagree- You see good as intrinsically good within itself, a meaning in the midst of chaos, while I see it as good so far as it aligns an individual with what is eternally true in this world and the next. Yours is easily the more defensible argument.
No need to apologize, as I pushed you into a corner there, and did not ask the question fairly.
That said, I can only ask the obvious next question- what is the source of consciousness? From whence does it arise? Scientifically, I know you can give me an answer- from the random development and evolution of life, in these particular circumstances on this particular planet, apparently unique to human beings in the degree which we know it.
But I take it a question further.
If this is all our consciousness is- the result of billions of years of random evolution, with no deeper meaning but what illusion our dopamine and seretonin convince us of- how can we be convinced of its intrinsic worth? Certainly, we can say we become more greatly aligned with who we are, and what we are- but suppose the natural laws in our breasts and consciences told us that dominating others and seeking pleasure for ourselves was acceptable, moral? (I am not sure that they don’t.) Is the only reason why our feelings and our convictions can be said to be important, because they are NATURAL to us?
I mean to say, you put quite a bit of faith in the goodness of human consciousness. Is that all there is? Can there be no force in this universe more powerful, Jacky, than your own mind, or the mind of one of your fellow human beings?
If science cannot provide an answer for why we die, I am loathe to believe science can provide a solution to it. Death is real. I think the age-old quest to find the secret to immortality through worldly means is nothing more than a validation of a fear in our mortality manifested, occasionally, by those who would cut against the grain. The improvement in living standards which this results in is a wondrous thing. But its fundamental cause, I think, is futile. There are things- life, thought, war, trade, family, understanding, passion, myth, death- which are different across their manifestations for different human beings in different places and different times, but at their core, they do not change, and are always present. We cannot be rid of them. They are the human experience, why we are the same people our ancestors once were. There is no conquest of them.
You are right that failure is key to improvement- I don’t think that anyone would doubt that- but this goes beyond the Karate-Kid style trope of failure and into something far more profound. As individuals we will fail, learn, and recover and blossom into something greater. But we will never attain anything close to the perfection we see behind our eyes, unless we are either incredibly arrogant or have incredibly low standards and drive. In comparison to the perfect laws and principles by which this universe is run, I’d call that an essential failing- especially considering that we die at the end. But here, too, it seems that we will have to accept to disagree- you see no limits to the human potential but those we impose upon ourselves, while I see our potentials bounded on all sides by certain impossibilities, pervaded throughout by our final death, our highest imperfection.
Two thoughts on responsibility I very much want to hear your responses to:
1) My personal moral compass is actually not very informed by the Catholic Church or my belief in God. It has been formed by reading ethics and wisdom, by Boy Scouting, by reason and contemplation, by emulation of people I admire, and by general social experience. On very few issues does my Catholic faith wholly affect what I think about virtue. Most of my ethics have been given to me by life, or by my conscience, or I have chosen them as I have determined what I want to become. I do not do right because of a desire to get into Heaven- “What would Jesus do?” and “What if God sees me?” are two questions I have literally never asked myself when confronted with a moral choice.
While not claiming myself to be ‘responsible,’ I strongly believe you would characterize me as someone on the path to responsibility, someone who has internalized virtue and ethics, someone who ‘gets it.’ By this definition, my religion and my belief in God are merely superfluous. I could be everything I am, do everything I do, without them, and so could all people like me. How true do you think this is? Can you see any other useful purpose of religion, than merely a tool of fear to keep mischievous humans in line?
2) In Christian theology, and much other monotheistic theology in general, an extreme emphasis is placed on being ‘One with God.’ “I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me” is the victorious prayer of a saint living well and serving others. It is taught that there is a seed of the Divine in every human soul, that we have part of the goodness of God inherent in us, part of him internalized, and that it is our purpose to cultivate that part and ‘do God’s work on Earth.’ The idea of the ‘Body of Christ’ looks, in model, shockingly like a mystical treatise out of some Eastern religion- the connectivity of all souls to the spirit of God, all of them being a part of its objective virtue and love, and all of them, by exemplifying its precepts becoming superior people.
A lot of your opposition to the necessity of a God in this universe seems to spring from your interpretation being that that God would be a figure entirely separate from this Universe and entirely separate from human beings, a moral law-writer with a whip and a lightning bolt to strike down those who did not do good. Yet this is not at all what the Christians who know their faith perceive of when they talk of God- Their God lives both above them and in them.
In light of this, is it possible that one might believe firmly in God, and in the notion that virtue comes from God, yet simultaneously believe that virtue comes from within themselves?
Perhaps I should publish the essay I wrote on what science cannot solve a few years ago, and put it on my blog.
You know far better than me that the trend of things is the more science discovers, the more it finds that it does not know.
It would seem, I think, from your view, that the science argument for God could be refuted if enough could be discovered about the workings of the universe to explain it all. But do you really believe that such an understanding will ever be known by our descendants, a trillion trillion years down the road from now? Do you think they will solve all the questions there are to ask? Suppose all the physical laws we know were compressed into one basic principle explaining all of them and their relationships to each other. The next question would be “what is the source and origin of this principle? Why is it true?” It could not be answered from within itself- “Because because” is never satisfactory to the human mind. The truth would likely be infinitely more complex, and science would continue, discovering grand new truths about the universe and applying them to better life for human beings.
I think if there is anything science teaches, it is that the Universe is so infinitely complex, that we will never know all the answers to everything. And there is a single question in particular which I think will never be justly answerable- why is all this here?
Response to Source:
Animals care about each other too. We might simplify it to surviving but an animal is not going to think about which behavioral(!) trends that contribute to its survivability. A threat will obviously make the animal align its immediate behavior with surviving but I don’t think they plan out their long term behavior ha.
I think there is definitely a balance between the many motives of a person and it is up to that individual’s to decide what is right. I am of the opinion that, in an ideal situation, people would act much more logically but that world is pretty chaotic. I am putting faith in consciousness itself, not just human consciousness. What you call “powerful”, I think of as naturally occurring. There is no power in it, it simply is. When thinking of politics and laws, I see where you would draw the word powerful from but, in my shoes, I don’t believe there is a higher law maker. I don’t believe there are laws at all. I believe in consciousness and its ability to draw conclusions. We are not acting on laws, we are acting on conclusions. Funny side note again haha (Think about the idea of freedom if there was a higher being creating our “natural truths”).
Response to Responsibility:
An MIT Professor said something like, “I am sad to be among the last generation of humans to have to die.” Just saying that the “age-old search for immortality” can not be even closely compared to what we are doing today. Just think about it. Death is important and will still happen but whether it will become a choice in the future is not completely unheard of (at least consider it).
I already said perfection isn’t necessary. The fact that we want it and strive for it is what matters more. Good doesn’t have to be perfect. Opinion?
(1) I used to be like you. It’s a fine situation. Religion is good. As long as you don’t become complacent and rely on it as the only thing that you are putting your efforts into, you aren’t really losing anything. My best friend was atheist before I was. He’d ask “why?” and I’d reply “why not?”
(2) Haha, sure. Basically my answer for #1 ha. God is something that we can’t really prove but we also can’t disprove it.
Response to Physical Laws:
True. I also asked impossible questions. I was just leaving room for a perspective far beyond our’s. Who knows what we will know if a trillion years pass. Remember your original argument though, it is the action of “asking why” that is so human, not the answer.
Hey guys! I am really impressed by the conversation that you are having, and it sounds like it has happened before. I would like to express perhaps a few different perspectives on Christianity that Luke may not have expressed.
go for it! this is open to all!
1. I believe that we are not sanctified by the things we do, good or bad. I don’t believe that I am going to heaven because of the life I lead or the things I do.
2. I don’t say that I follow Christ either because I want to go to heaven. Sure that’s a great promise of the future, but I do it more significantly because I believe that God is the creator of the universe and who is there better to follow? Certainly no human could live up to that claim or authority.
3. Talking about religion is a difficult thing. I consider myself to be religious, but at the same time there is a great separation between religion and my relationship with God. Religion for Christians is the church and all the things that go along with it. It is a structure through which people who share the same relationship with God can learn from one another, share the good news about Christ, and in fact do some very good things.
4. One thing about the bible. I don’t believe that it created or is the basis of the Christian faith or religion. I think that the cornerstone of the Christian faith is Jesus. If you read the gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) you can read it as a history book. These people wrote these accounts of Jesus’ life with a level of historical accuracy that is incredible. And when you read these accounts you can look back on the journey of the creation of the church through Jesus and his disciples who spread the word throughout the world, not by passing out bibles, but by performing miracles, evangelizing, and relating to the innate knowledge of something greater that people have. The bible is the divinely inspired word of God, and it is a basis of the Christian faith today, but it is important to remember where it started, and where the center of the Christian faith is, and that is in Jesus.
These were a couple of things that I thought were left out in the conversation you guys were having, or at least it is a Christian perspective on a couple things. I didn’t respond to everything that was said, but if you have any questions about what I think, I would love to share with you.
Thanks for the input Matt.
1. Just wondering about what makes you go to heaven/hell then? Is it the mindset? the baptism?
3. Good point to make. On that definition, it seems like we’ve mostly been discussing the relationship with God part.
4. You said “the bible is… a basis of the Christian faith today”. It is a key part and, even though Jesus’s message may have made it to the present day without the bible, I don’t think that Christianity would be the same today if the bible did not exist. My definition of basis was simply referring to how people see the religion today, not what is actually most important in the religion. I agree with you that Jesus is the center of the faith.
To refer you to something more eloquent and succinct than I could be, read John 3:16. That basically sums it up.
I have often been faced with the animal consciousness argument before and not quite been sure what to do with it (my family treats Jingles like a person, after all.) But I put it this way- humans and animals of all sorts do seem to share together compassion, fraternal love, creativity, perhaps even honor of a sort. But can animals feel awe? Can they ask the purpose of their existence? Can they grow anxious if they see no meaning in their lives? Ultimately we can never know. But so long as we do not, I think it is a leap of faith at least the same distance as the leap from laws to a lawgiver, to argue that animal consciousness is anything like human consciousness.
Consciousness and Laws:
I don’t see power as anything mystical. I see it simply as the ability to do things. That being said, I ask again- is it possible that there is any force in this universe capable of doing more things, being more real, than the human mind? Can you conceive of it?
On “I don’t believe there are laws at all.” – You have argued eloquently that consciousness, when fully individuated, naturally pushes towards certain standards and ideals. This heavily, heavily implies that there is either internal programming within consciousness that causes it to strive to manifest those ideals, or something about the nature of consciousness that makes it attracted to those ideals and move toward them outwardly. Either way, consciousness does not make up morals on its own. It has either a drive or an attraction. “We are not acting on laws, we are acting on conclusions.” Why is it that those conclusions, independently reached, happen to be of the same sort from person to person, if manifested slightly differently? Because they are ‘right?’ The word ‘right’ means nothing if it is not in reference to a certain standard, either absolute or relatively absolute. I am not suggesting that the hand of a higher being guides our minds through reason to truth. I am merely trying to stress, that right and wrong would mean nothing if they were pegged to no standard.
Also, I believe you have interpreted my definition of ‘laws’ to mean something like the physical laws of science, which would create a sort of naturalistic determinism among people and eradicate entirely the possibility of free will or responsibility. I think nothing could be further from the truth. I distinguish various sorts of laws- the natural positive laws, unchanging constants like the laws of physics, which in humans manifest in the urge to eat, the urge to procreate, etc; and the natural normative laws, which, in my opinion, form our conscience as our consciousness grows. The thing about natural normative moral laws is WE DO NOT HAVE TO FOLLOW THEM but something tells us they are there, and that, I think, is why consciousness invariably reaches the same sorts of conclusions about respect, self-improvement, honesty, and those other universal morals.
Funny Side Note on Freedom:
I’m sure you recall Loki’s speech to the kneeling Germans about the futility of freedom. I am generally in agreement with him; man was not born to live free, but to live on his knees, constrained on all sides by this world’s imperfections, and his own freedom.
I do not see any meaningful difference between freedom and power, unrestrained. All sorts of constraints bound us in, certain impulses drive us forward, and occasionally people cry for the removal of obstacles in their way to enhance their freedom. When they say this, I hear them clamoring to enhance their power. There is nothing wrong with this- power is a morally neutral thing, usable for good or bad, and generally something we want to have over ourselves and over what other things we can so we can have a semblance of control over our own self-interest. But we should not delude ourselves, I think, into thinking of freedom as some mystic quality, some ability to do precisely as we please. What do successful people do with freedom? They live on their knees- they bound that freedom through discipline, to make themselves better.
This being said, I assume when you said to think of the concept of freedom if our natural truths were written by someone else, you meant to say “how can we truly be free if we are not the source of our own truths? If there is a lawmaker, we are simply either doing what he programmed us to do, or living up to his values!” And to that I say, yes-we are not free. In a physical aspect we are enslaved to these bodies of ours; in a moral aspect, the truths we strive to reach, though of us, are unchangeable by us. Freedom has nothing to do with it- only the power to strive, to learn, to grow, as individuals in the face of the pressure of the universe.
If someday we gain the ability to live forever, to transfer our consciences into nanochips and regrow our bodies with biotechnology, and this becomes not mere automatonic drudgery but true eternal life, then I will consider it. I hope if someday we both die and discover that we have immortal souls in a perfect world, you will consider mine.
I’m not sure that our thoughts on this are all that different, actually. We both see goodness in the world as being imperfect but worth working up towards.
“You aren’t really losing anything.”:
You deftly avoided answering my question. I promise I’m not going to get offended. I ask again: Is my religion, and my belief in God, entirely superfluous, as I clearly could be a good person without it?
At the moment, “You aren’t really losing anything” sounds like my religion ‘does me no harm,’ so therefore there is no reason for me to discard it. However, do you think it does me any good to follow it?
“It is the action of asking why that is so human, not the answer.”
To clarify, I do not suppose that “God did it” is the answer to everything. For one thing, that bears another question along my same line of reasoning: “Why did God do it?” And others would assuredly follow. For another thing, something not provable by any scientific or logical means would not provide any actually usable answers.
But that is the beauty of faith. The purpose of religion is not to answer unanswerable questions- it is to provide a forum for pursuing them further, and to open the way for faith in the unprovable, an irrational phenomenon that is, as you know, wonderful in its own right. If anything, this enforces in the faithful a wise humility.
Other points I’d like to bring up:
Faith only in the things we can be certain of is in some fields a very wise and prudent policy. That’s certainly how I think about politics; you have probably not seen me argue against human rights, just war theory, international morality, world government, and a thousand other madly unprovable and frankly bullshitted ideas about how politics ‘ought’ to work, but you will. Wisdom in politics requires a clear analysis of what is clearly true, and therefore I make a point of never referencing anything vaguely supernatural or theological save for rhetorical purposes, when considering how things work in political relations among men.
But in considering one’s place in the universe, and how one ought to view his life, I think faith in the irrational and unprovable becomes no less than critical if we are to move on. You have it; I have it; the man who does not have it probably neither has hope.
It’s been a while haha but I’m back.
On Animal Conciousness:
I was using animals as an example of conciousness’ natural inclination to care once it reaches a certain level. I was pointing out what you said about my faith about human consciousness is not specific to humans but covers all consciousness “I mean to say, you put quite a bit of faith in the goodness of human consciousness.” Yes, a less intelligent animal may not care about the deeper things in the universe but they can still show empathy. Also, I wouldn’t rule out the possibly of intelligent aliens haha.
Conciousness and Laws:
To your first question, yes, there could be other beings out there but the existence of a God by your definition is that he is not tied down by the laws of physics. He literally controls everything which doesn’t make too much sense to me. To your second, I’m not sure what you are saying by “more real”.
I believe that consciousness reaches the natural laws as a reaction to being conscious of others AKA empathy. Therefore, it does not seem far fetched for every consciousness to develop this as they interact with others throughout their lives. You are right about the ideas of “right and wrong” being subjective. If you think about consciousness the way I do though, all of that subjectivity is driven by empathy and will, if thought through with enough consideration, reach the same conclusion. Although, right and wrong As a metaphor, even things such as mass, temperature, and speed can be argued to be subjective. I know this is quite a difficult argument to make but if you sit and think about it and give it a chance, perhaps I can try. We have created many different measuring systems for each of these qualities but they can all relate to one another. In the end, they define a general truth. The measuring systems themselves were all subjectively created (metric vs US) but they can be compared. Once compared, they yield the same result. In the same way, consciousness is a different experience for each of us but in the end empathy makes sense (unless you’re a sociopath or psychopath I guess haha but even if they lack the ability to empathize, they can still recognize it (different argument)). I think we are actually in agreement in your last statement for this part.
I think you made a bold statement when saying freedom and power have no meaningful difference. I agree that freedom is always power but power is not always freedom. It’s one of those square is a rectangle but not the other way around things. Just a small thought and a different argument.
I think freedom has quite a bit more to with it than you have stated. Humans naturally want to be free. They want to be able to do what they want. What you have suggested seems to be a great irony unless you believe humans enjoy being controlled (I get that the idea of God is someone who is worthy of being controlled by but still). What is the point of an all powerful God programming us to be imperfect but forcing us to chase “perfection” in what comes naturally to us (“in striving, in living, in growing”)? It’s almost comedic.
Of course haha.
Benefit of Religion:
Many people definitely benefit from religion but it’s a benefit that depends on the individual. However much they allow themselves to be comforted by the religion is how much they get out of it (prayer). Also, most likely, a stronger belief will probably lead to stronger actions which yield stronger results. It’s also nice for creating a space for human connections.
I want to point out a statistic that you’ve mentioned to me though. 3rd world countries have higher percentages of religious people than 1st world countries. Think about why. Many non-believers from 1st world countries have most likely found other things to believe in that serve to replace the role of religion (not a direct replacement but something/things that also comforts them).
Faith is an interesting and wonderful thing. That said, I don’t believe it pursues the answer further, at least not according to the scientific approach. It’s like saying that shiny thing in the sky is the god Mars and the other one is Venus and that is why it is up there. How’d they come into being? O, well this origin story shall clarify that detail… Even in this example, you can see how you are right. People would then go on to have faith in how the gods Mars and Venus came into being. I probably misunderstood what you meant here though so it’d be nice if you could clarify the benefits of what you mean by “providing a forum”.
Humility is always good no matter how you end up getting it. You don’t particularly need religion to learn humility though.
“But in considering one’s place in the universe, and how one ought to view his life, I think faith in the irrational and unprovable becomes no less than critical if we are to move on. You have it; I have it; the man who does not have it probably neither has hope.” – I find this sentence quite fascinating. Please elaborate the details so I can follow your thought process here. I find hope in myself and other people around me. People are irrational all the time but that isn’t the point. They obviously exist but are they defined as an irrational thing to have faith in?
By this point, a few days before either of us headed back to college, I had been so swamped with various bits of work and meetings with friends from home that I had no time to craft an adequate reply, which is unfortunate- among the last points Jacky brought up were some which I would have and will in the future have a grand time arguing against, and explaining my position. This conversation has no answer, no solution, and will doubtless pop up in various forms every once in a while. When it does, I will make sure to publish our further discourses.
I apologize, again, for the sheer lapse of time between when you sent me the last two messages and now, when I am replying to them. A lot has happened in my life since then, and I presume that a lot has happened in yours; but despite the fact that an altered mind composes this letter to you, I assure you that it is not so altered as to deviate fundamentally from the mind that composed the last letter. My metaphysical ideas have evolved some, but they are still essentially those which you read so many months ago.
On The Natural World:
You understand me correctly. To reiterate, I see a universe which is constant throughout, full of infinite diversity, yet somehow predictable and understandable in its unity. Sun Tzu says it better than I can:
“The musical notes are only five in number but their melodies are so numerous that one cannot hear them all.
The primary colors are only five in number but their combinations are so infinite that one cannot visualize them all.
The flavors are only five in number but their blends are so various that one cannot taste them all.
In battle [symbolically, in life] there are only the normal and extraordinary forces, but their combinations are limitless; none can comprehend them all.”
Adjust it for differences in the musical, artistic, and culinary understandings of Warring States China and Information Age America, and the principle remains the same. There are certain timeless and universal truths- Natural Laws, or Eternal Principles, or Divine Commands- which are objective in their existence, and in their combinations and interactions with each other, all the phenomena of our universe spring forth. They both drive things and constrain things. They are like Plato’s forms- they are perfection in this universe, for they are the only things which can neither be disobeyed nor defeated, neither by us nor by time. (This has implications for the fact that human beings see the realities the laws create as imperfect; more on that later.)
I take a leap of faith from here, in asking from whence these eternal principles come. Perhaps a satisfactory answer might be “They simply ARE.” Acceptance being necessary for maturity, everyone must eventually come to terms with reality as it is, understanding that there are some things they cannot change.
But instead I will defer to a famous apologist’s argument. Assuming causality is generally a trustable concept (not to a wholly deterministic level, perhaps, for uncertainty and chance and conscious caprice must be paid their due) it follows that all events have their causes. Trace the chain of causes and effects far back enough, like a near-perpetual line of fallen dominoes, and where must you arrive?
At the beginning.
But all the events in the history of the universe could not have been initiated by themselves; they could not self-initiate. It follows that there must have been an initiator, a First Cause, that could not have been one of the dominoes- a finger.
That finger is what we mean by God, when we speak of God as the Mover of the Universe. Similarly, if you trace the line of fallen dominoes back to the point when the eternal principles are the only things in existence, the question beckons- from whence did they come? There must have been a cause which brought them into existence. And it would seem that this cause must be similarly eternal, similarly immutable, similarly universal, yet all the more powerful, since it could bring these basic laws of reality of existence. This cause is what we mean by God, when we speak of God as the Lawmaker of the Universe.
Now this is not anywhere near proof for the personal, loving, flesh-materializing God the Christians believe in. But it does seem to be proof- granted, proof requiring a profound leap of faith- of a powerful force outside of our universe responsible for the creation and function of our universe. It is not verifiable, but it seems to make sense to imperfect minds. Were it provable, faith could not be faith.
I understand that you do not find my initial bit of data- the selfsameness of the universe- to be particularly inspiring, nor would most people. But it is the spirit of inquiry to search for the reasons behind all things, however meaningless or mundane they might seem.
On whether or not I am still a Catholic:
I suppose the answer to this question has been made obvious by recent events. I am indeed still a Catholic.
But in telling you that I am still a Catholic, I am not telling you much. I’m sure you have heard the immortal quip, “The only good Catholic is a dead Catholic.” (Meaning, of course, that the rules and regulations of the faith are so stringent and severe that no human being shackled within their resource-consuming, passion-inflaming, pleasure-desiring, waste-producing human body, and within their whimsical, capricious, mischievous, self-righteous human mind, could adequately say “I have not sinned” til their spirit had escaped to Elysium.) That applies to every living Catholic from myself to Pope Francis. Yet it goes beyond behavior into belief. Do you think it is possible that a billion broken Catholics worldwide could be so disciplined and faithful as to hold true in their hearts and minds even the narrowest range of fundamental beliefs, let alone complicated scriptures and doctrines? Someone very close to me was in confession recently. She told the priest that, in light of what she saw as unjust, unnecessary suffering, she had often found herself doubting the existence of God. “Well,” replied the priest, “I doubt whether there’s a God all the time! Join the rest of us!” There is a spectrum of devotion ranging from the apathetic Christmas-and-Easter churchgoers to the most rabidly judgmental and fanatical believers, to the humblest, most saintly and serene orders of monks and nuns. “Catholic” indeed has an objective meaning, but in itself says very little.
In my personal case, I am an active Catholic, in that I attend mass weekly, try to help in some way (choir and lecturing have been very rewarding,) and attend theological discussions because I find them interesting. I am a devout Catholic, in that I find sanctity in prayer and beauty in the sacraments, and find myself talking to and thanking God all the time.
But as far as alignment with the Church’s teachings goes, I am a very, very, very bad Catholic indeed. While I do not very much question whether or not God exists, (God being central to my metaphysics) I do question most of the Bible. I do not entirely agree with the Christian perception of a God of pure love (though I increasingly find more and more reason why that perception makes sense) and I have so many problems with the Gospels, not to mention the Old Testament, that most Christians would not call me Christian at all. Most importantly, my understanding of politics has led to my formulation of a worldly method of morality and discipline which is very, very far removed from the ways of Christ, the Beatitudes. I acknowledge the goodness of Christian living (you may disagree but in all honesty, I think with Ben Franklin that the life of Jesus Christ was morally the most commendable life ever lived, the best possible guide for a practical- or rather, impractical- system of morality,) but I do not choose to live it. As for the mysteries of the passion of the Christ, I believe in them emotionally, but cannot bring myself to believe in them rationally. I believe, emotionally, in my soul, that Jesus came to save me and all Mankind from our sin; but I cannot integrate this belief into my understanding of how the universe works.
I hope that helps you understand whether or not I am Catholic. Now, as to WHY I am Catholic (or more interestingly, why I believe in God) that is another story.
On the Arrogance of the Catholic Church:
I think you are exactly correct on this matter. One of the problems I’ve always had with the Catholic Church is its assertion that Man can know objective truth as it is. Now I am not a subjectivist; I do not believe that reality is only what we can perceive. I believe that there is a natural world, a natural law, and a moral law, all of which are objective in the sense that they exist independently of our minds. But, our minds being a part of that natural world, I doubt the assertion that we can know these things objectively- we see objective things through a subjective lens. That is, we can tell that there are things that are true, but we cannot comprehend or communicate in full accuracy that truth.
Everything- from the conditioning of the mind to the subjective construction of language to the creation of measures for making comprehensive order we can use for measurements- that we can perceive is at least in part influenced by our minds. And therefore I do not believe that the Bible I read is the Word of God, or even the intended meaning of the original writer. I stress again, this does not mean that objective truth does not exist- it merely means that I do not think we can comprehend it as it is.
So yes, I see the assertion of the Church that it knows truth as it is as an arrogant and dangerous principle. That is part of the reason why I do not take everything the Church teaches at face value. At the same time, a good many of the Church’s perspectives seem accurate to me, and I have faith in the things it teaches.
On Continued Revelation:
First, I am not quite sure what I think about Revelation in the first place.
But as regards religious practice revealing further truth to individuals, I must say that I see enough evidence to believe in it. There have been saints, there have been holy men and women, in the Catholic faith, and in all religions. And a study of the lives of these individuals brings forth the conclusion that they, by immersing themselves fully in the practice and contemplation of their religion, by dedicating themselves fully to their faith, attained higher and higher understandings of life and the universe, and emulated this in their lives and works. It is mysterious, and a lot of it doesn’t seem to make sense; but it is undeniable.
I have never been particularly interested in studies of the development of self-knowledge and consciousness and the like, but I believe they are the place to look when seeking to understand these lives. Yet it seems that many times, these lives begin to transcend things understandable by neuroscience and psychology, and just get plain weird, plain mysterious.
The big thing that I think is important to understand, however, is that this deepening of understanding is primarily a thing of the individual. The individual undergoing the process of living a dedicated and holy life might start seeing truths, but only so far as can help their own holiness. The most this can do at a level beyond the individual is provide inspiration for others, maybe a justification for further faith. I don’t think, however, that this provides ‘revelation’ in the sense that it can engender much further development in the religion or its doctrines. My second-to-most-recent blog post- “Man as an Analogue to the Universe”- details more fully my ideas about the moral capacities of individuals and incapacities of collectives.
On “Why does there have to be a ‘Why?’”:
Whitest Kids You Know can answer this better than I can:
“Would you LISTEN to yourself?!?!”
It is in our nature to ask questions which we cannot find provable answers to, at least answers provable to our minds. The nature of inquiry is that we seek to find answers; the nature of human life is that we seek to find meaning. We have never stopped at “Because because.”
You may be right; it may be true, in fact, that there is no satisfactory answer to the question of why our universe exists. The existence of a Deity would not be a satisfactory answer, because such a state could not be proved by scientific or logical means, and the level of uncertainty and doubt would be unacceptable to a mind seeking to be satisfied. But it is the very nature of faith, that it must be an unsatisfactory answer- for if we could find true, indisputable proof of anything, we’d have no need for faith.
On Why and How Humanity Differs from Animals
This is one of the weakest points in my argument, as you well know, and I can provide you with no satisfactory and defendable answer as to why humans are different from animals. After all, my family treats Jingles like a human in many ways. I stand with John Muir on many, many aspects of the philosophy of nature, and it is as clear to me as it is to him that humans are clearly inferior in the face of the might of nature, in ways in which the animals are clearly our betters. And as regards the study of consciousness there is no way for me to prove (and only a few more ways for me to assert) that our consciousness is intrinsically different from that observed in other tissue.
Nonetheless, the fundamental difference of humans is a principle I hold true in the same way as I hold true the principle “I exist;” I have no way to prove it, and can easily be counter-argued against it, but someone who did not hold the principle in acceptance could not possibly understand why or how I held it. It is an instinctual intuition. Now, as you have posed to me several times in other conversations, instinctual intuitions- hunches- are never, ever reasonable or logical or defensible platforms to base positions off of. But I think they have the potential to be truer than most more defensible truths, as the great questions of virtue and ethics, when boiled down and debated over and over again until the cows are safely home, tend to be justifiable as ‘real’ by nothing more than similar hunches.
However, a lecture I read recently by the classicist Harvey Mansfield (a very unfair and biased lecture in some ways, yet a profoundly illuminating one in others) http://www.neh.gov/about/awards/jefferson-lecture/harvey-mansfield-lecture contains some bullet points on the subject of humanity-vs-animality expressed better than I can. “But the discovery of chimpanzee religion has not yet been reported. Chimps receive names from human beings with equanimity, but do not give themselves names. These are items yet to come in the imputed progress of chimpanzee civilization. Their greatest triumph, however, will be the achievement of science. For science, according to science, ought to be the most important attribute of human beings.”
There you have it. Three factors, three behaviors, which separate the human from the animal- the exploration and formulation of religion (and by extension, general philosophy,) the naming of individual beings, and the pursuit of dominion over nature through understanding. The first two certainly, and the third one arguably, at least in some instances, seem to me to indicate that what separates humans from animals is that we crave MEANING. Imagination, practicality, compassion, suffering, any slew of other behaviors could be exhibited among animals, I do not doubt. And not only these, but the heartless viciousness endemic to our nature, the ridiculousness expressed in our comic dramas from millennia of social thought, and the all-conquering fear in our hearts- these, too, I do not doubt, are present among animals, and we share with our brethren-in-organicity many good and ill qualities and tendencies, alloyed in our physical frames and fundamental urges and limitations and tendencies.
Sigmund Freud (drive for pleasure) and Alfred Adler (drive for power) do not, therefore, exhibit what makes us human. It is Viktor Frankl, who lived through Auschwitz with his psychiatric training and personal considerations intact, who identified the drive within us that makes us different from all the rest- and that was the drive for meaning. He attributed this to no divine fount, though he neither eliminated that such a fount might be the source. He, like you, and like so many of my good agnostic and atheist friends, merely took what he saw before his eyes, and reasoned that it must be integral to our human condition. In his personal life he believed devoutly, but so far as his science went he asserted nothing he could not prove. And he endeavored to prove that Man is Man because Man wants to mean something.
And the three factors listed by Mansfield seem to me to be emblematic of this drive for meaning. (Frankl’s own ideas state that meaning can be found through creating, through loving, and through suffering- incidentally, the three believed actions of the Christian God- but Mansfield’s are critical to the issue of human-animal difference so I use them here.)
Chimpanzee religion and philosophy- so far as we can tell, chimpanzees don’t ask the questions we ask. I don’t look for chimpantheons and chimpanzealots- I merely seek to know, does the ape wonder what the man wonders? (“Jingles, did you know that you exist?” “Mreow.” “I’ll take that as a yes.”) And the pessimist’s answer would be “No,” as chimpanzees display no outward signs of human awe and mysticism, which the earliest human remains certainly display. The optimist would say “We cannot communicate with chimpanzees sufficiently yet to know; but give science time, and we will know! It may be that they are far more profoundly spiritual than we are!” Now I am certain that you would argue to me that there is nothing special about us humans- that we are merely further along the evolutionary path than apes and pigs and dolphins and octopi. Intrinsic to this argument is the notion that consciousness evolves, and we are merely the MOST conscious of all beings at this present moment. Our animal friends may, with time, grow as wise or wiser than us. While a commendable argument and one not disprovable, I view it with caution. I think the knowledge of one’s own existence, and the accompanying search for meaning, are not simply things which come with sufficient development- hopeful though the positive futurists might be, I sincerely doubt the eventual capacity of artificial intelligence to seek meaning for its existence, regardless of how far advanced it may get in computing and logic and algorithms and all the rest. And I share the same doubt for animal consciousness- while again, there is nothing I can do to further or prove my point, I do not accept the notion that consciousness simply moves forward, eventually to reach the level we humans have reached and presumably to continue further into mystic individualism, to a future sunrise when all fully self-aware bacteria may bask in their own virtue and wisdom, accepting full well that they exist, are condemned to oblivion, and are the highest intelligence in the universe. Simply put- the organized search for meaning, something we humans engage in every day, does not seem to be something, I think, which other forms of life engage in, or would someday engage in given sufficient development, because I hold it to be intrinsic to humanity for whatever reason.
Chimpanzee naming- I think Mansfield touches on a really weird but nonetheless critical point here. Why are names so important? Why is it that, of all things human individuals have possessed throughout the ages, among the most sacred was the name? That appellation which held significance for his place among his fellows, which held significance for his life’s given purpose, which held significance for his own personal will (especially when he chose, for whatever ceremonial or personal reason, to CHANGE his name) and which he identified with perhaps more than any other single phrase? I think it is no mere coincidence that the taking-away of names has been, throughout recorded history, symbolic of removing the very humanity of individuals, and the bestowing of names has been symbolic of their elevation to a new purpose, a higher plane. You recall the conversation between a vengeful young Magneto and two ex-Nazi expats he hunted down in Argentina:
Magneto: “What brings you to Argentina?”
Nazi 1: “Climate. I’m a pig farmer.”
Nazi 2: “Tailor. Since I was a boy. My father made the finest suits in Dusseldorf.”
Magneto: “My parents were from Dusseldorf.”
Nazi 2: “What was their name?”
Magneto: “They didn’t have a name. It was taken away from them by tailors, and pig farmers.”
(cue incredibly badass double-murder-in-a-bar scene)
What is more, every human individual gets a name. I have written elsewhere of the basic unimportance of human individuals, their basic purposelessness and wretchedness when seen in the greater context of human events, moral principles, indeed the vastness of the universe itself. I have also written of the morally inviolable dignity of the human person and the general aspiration of human individuals to meaning and purpose. https://abiasedperspective.wordpress.com/2013/12/24/my-answer-to-the-problem-of-evil/
This dichotomy, this contradiction- meaninglessness and meaningfulness- finds its greatest expression, I think, in the fact that the human individual- a useless speck in a magnificent cosmic universe, yet capable of self-realization and great things- gets a name unto their own. More, we DESIRE names, we desire identity! Nowhere in Animalia do we find such self-identification and individual aspiration to significance. Is the drive to meaning nowhere more fully expressed?
Chimpanzee science- This is the concept I am least fit to discuss, but I will offer thoughts anyway. It is clear that since time immemorial, Man has sought through various means to understand the world of nature around him, and utilize it for his own purposes, and that science has been his most successful means of doing that. And it is clear that if this were a mere utilitarian imperative, seeking the greatest pleasure or happiness or what have you, then there would indeed be no difference between Man and Animal. The toolmaker ape and the cooperative ant, in their own ways superior in the art of technology to the human being, exhibit it profoundly.
But again- the outer exhibition of these traits, among animals, does not seem to indicate that they value such exploration for anything more than its practical means. They build no temples; they venerate no idols; they admire not the stars and create not things in those stars’ image.
Man, by contrast, wonders. He is irrational because he sees his existence and his lack of complete understanding of his existence as irrational in themselves, and seeks to find reason, find order, find meaning in this life. And he does not only do this within his head, but he expresses himself through his works, through the tools available to all the animals and him. But no other animal uses the tools the way he does.
More directly related to science, our pursuit of knowledge of nature is not strictly utilitarian. And where it is not, it is not strictly astrological, either. Is it any wonder that science as we know it developed, both in China and Greece, in correlation with philosophy? Is it any wonder that its original name “Natural Philosophy” implied that it sought to discern the greatest reality of things, and man’s place in this universe, through a systematically rational inquiry into the natural world around us, of which we are a part, yet which we clearly are somewhat apart of?
And as science stands today, (pardon my crude understanding, as I am no scientist as you are) if I am not mistaken, it generally views the greatest human exploit to be the pursuit of understanding of the natural world, the conquest of nature. Implicit in this understanding, though I doubt many would admit it, is that humans have a special purpose somewhat above all that which they observe. Now the humble scientist, again, would not admit it- but is not seeking to understand nature, seeking power over nature, an admission of one’s partial separateness from nature, and a will to meaning and purpose on its own? Hear me out- I do not posit that we are angels or in any way superior to the natural world we inhabit- but Man, it seems to me, is a conglomerate of the physical and the spiritual, and among the spiritual components of us are things which are understandable only as an irrational will to meaning and belief in a metaphysical place for humans a little above the animals and a little below the angels- physical bodies with a seed of heaven implanted within the spirit.
On the supposed discussion between the scientist, the philosopher, and the theologian:
You are right on target as regards the relative ability of the philosopher and theologian to answer, with certainty, questions which the scientist cannot: They can’t. It is simply the nature of questions of the impossible sort that they cannot be satisfactorily answered and written as objective fact in encyclopedias, for so far as truths go in this alley, they can only be known subjectively. The reasoning I used for the theologians in the previous message looks suspiciously like “Truth is here => God did it” and I apologize for the lack of any particularly biting reasons why anyone would want to believe, or find it rationally useful to believe.
I find it interesting that a lot of scientists, in particular, don’t believe in God. I mean, it makes SENSE that alternative methods of explanation of things, a general penchant for only the objectively provable, and a history of conflict between science and religion do not help the case of religion much at all; at the same time, many of the greatest scientific minds in the course of history, as you well know, were profoundly religious men! And more critically, there is nothing in reasonable religion that goes at all against the methods and conclusions of science in general! A good many of my friends who are incredibly scientific-minded also do not believe in God; thus the sciences are an area where I will have to direct more of my future studies, both for personal reasons and in hopes of understanding this phenomenon.
You are only one of a whole slew of good, dear friends of mine who either actively believe there is no God or see no particular reason to believe in a God, and are incredibly ethical, incredibly vivacious, incredibly dynamic, and are all-around better people than the vast majority of religious believers I know. I believe a question on one of the political ideology quizzes we all took back in high school went “Is it necessary to believe in God to have morals?” I have confirmed, empirically, through the lives of so many good friends of mine that the answer is a flat-out NO! It is not important, at all, to believe in God to have a good moral compass, because embedded within the human person and present within human society are all the factors necessary for the development and maintenance of that spark of celestial fire called conscience within the human breast. It is not easy to be a good person, but the will can do it. Certainly it seems that religion CAN serve as a motivator to good action, but it by no means is the ONLY motivator.
And moreover, your viewpoints on what religion claims to do that nonbelievers are able to do, too, are undeniably empirically true. As many people (even, I’d say, probably the majority of religious believers) don’t feel the need to ponder ideas of the metaphysical in order to be able to tap into the spiritual, it makes perfect sense that the belief in God is nowhere near necessary for goodness and success in life, or for practical explanations of meaning. That’s just objective, how things are on the ground. The evidence around us shows that you don’t need to believe in order to live well, and if we were simple-minded we would leave it at that.
But I don’t think either of us is simple-minded.
I will turn the spotlight onto myself. Personally, my Catholic faith and belief in God do not inform my practical moral conscience very much. My ethics are based on experience and reasoning, social conditioning, the work and art of Western Civilization, a series of larger-than-life role models, and the inescapable presence of the Boy Scouts of America. When I come to a moral dilemma, “What would Jesus do?” never crosses my mind, nor does “Is God watching?” Yet I believe fervently in God and his providence. Therefore my life serves, for me, as testimony that virtue is not reliant upon religion and faith. To a degree, we carry it with us.
I know that I could quite easily be a good person, and do all I do, if I did not believe in God.
Yet I do believe in God, for three main reasons. The first is basic, I grew up that way. My family is a devoutly Catholic family, so it became a norm for me. If it were not for certain events and conditions in my life, however, I probably would have chosen to renounce Catholicism, or at the very least, would have grown stagnant in my faith and uncaring about great metaphysical issues. But certain events did happen.
Second, in my zeal to attain a political understanding surpassing that of all my peers, a zeal fueled by anger at the world, I found that my previous orderly assumptions about the unity of Mankind and the ability to govern it by laws were cracked all over. Hobbes, Machiavelli, and the darkest minds of contemporary political thought enlightened me to the cruel state of affairs in which Man has forever lived and in which Man will forever live; these same thinkers taught me of the darkness and fickleness inherent to human nature, inherent within me. I was no ideologue- I did not read these and accept them as truth just because they particularly resounded with me. (It took me several months to overcome my moral repulsion with their ideas.) With time and a viewing of the world around me through the political lens I now wore, I gradually came to realize its general accuracy in foretelling and explaining why on any given day we do not live in a utopia. Naturally I sought to formulate the principles of my political understanding, and in doing so, arrived at the ‘Natural Laws’ conclusion you have seen me argue already. Here I first asked the question “Why?” when considering an objective set of laws which clearly creates so much pain alongside joy. Fresh on my mind was the realization that systems and plots to alter or change these laws- think Fascism, Communism, Neoconservatism, Modern Liberalism, Jacobinism, Theocratic Fundamentalism, etc- resulted only in greater chaos and at times bloodshed than the laws themselves engendered. An acceptance of them, a working within their world, was necessary for political prudence, and so was an understanding of them. A voice in my head cried, and still cries, that the political mindset requisite for successful political maneuver is cruel and by some accounts evil. And in that timeframe, I realized that if Man is shackled to his interests, and therefore incapable of following moral principles he sets, then Man must not be the ultimate moral authority- certainly, there must be a great moral authority not subject to the petty squabbles of men (and let’s be honest, we are ALL subject and party to the petty squabbles of men.) So I discerned what I believe not only to be the source of the general principles of reality, but the cosmic arbiter of justice, ensuring that men think with their consciences and look upon themselves (as a species) in shame, never supposing themselves to be morally superior beings when clearly, they are not. I did not accept that there can be no perfect, utopian world, until I accepted this.
My third reason for believing in God is far more personal than my second, but at the same time I believe more closely linked to the reason why devout believers believe. In a nutshell, I have suffered needlessly. Now I won’t go about complaining about my lot in life, as I have certainly lived a much better, more comfortable, more fulfilled life than the majority of people who have ever lived. But first-world problems are real, and I have suffered. I have mild OCD, severe General Anxiety Disorder, and a tendency towards Depression, and over the course of my adolescent life these have manifested themselves from mental self-deprecation to self-deprecatory self-mutilation to paralyzing social anxiety to needless anxiety in relationships to compulsory mantras to a suicide attempt. Dragging this chain and ball with me for so long, and struggling so hard to fight it, it should not surprise you that I have completely lost faith in myself and in everything and everyone I hold dear multiple times. Losing all hope is an odd event to describe, but I could say it’s like pornography for the hands- you know it when you feel it. Anyhow, when you’re in a certain low for long enough, enduring enough psychological trauma (and I’m sure you have felt what I describe to you before) you reach a certain point when you’re willing to believe anything, to make any bargain, to make the pain go away. It is as natural as Winston crying for his tormenters to feed Julia to the rats, so long as he might be saved; the human spirit reaches a breaking point when it craves rescue. When you’re there, the irrational can be the only thing that seems safe, that seems permanent; when you come near death, it’s quite easy to see the hand of God. If it scares you enough then you start to appreciate things more, and see blessings where you hadn’t previously. Reverence starts to matter. Now I’m not saying this happens to EVERYONE who goes through trauma. But enduring pain and being hopeless certainly is a situation where the idea of a God becomes less than crazy, and such hopelessness is not solely the property of myself and my fellow mentally ill; it is available and unstoppable to all Mankind, who, living in this broken Earth, in these bodies that will die, will someday lose the ones they love, or see the things they love destroyed, literally or figuratively. A perplexing paradox, that loss might reveal to us that which is never lost. Again- not everyone interprets this spiritually so vigorously as I do. But I believe it is an important part of human life.
Anyone of any faith who is truly honest with themselves about their faith and mind must concede that they are, to some degree, an agnostic- for as has been iterated by both of us time and time again, there are things one can never prove, nor disprove. The paths of reason and the experiences of life might push us either direction at any time, but in the end, as regards cosmic matters, we know NOTHING. Yet we possess, still, the drive to explore the great questions. I choose to explore them from the context of a great religious tradition, from the side of belief in God. I have told you my reasons.
I’m sure many following the American domestic culture wars have raised their eyebrows at the most recent incident, a legal battle concerning the legality of a Ten Commandments display on the grounds of the state capitol building in Oklahoma City.
All the classic elements of such church-and-state scuffles are present. A Republican legislature commissioned a statue of the Ten commandments on the lawn, the American Civil Liberties Union is suing to get it removed, and Fox News deifies one faction while MSNBC lionizes the other. But there’s a twist this time, a random event that seems to have fallen out of Heaven (or Hell.)
Satanic Temple, one of the various atheistic satanist groups surprisingly active and well-followed in this country, has announced plans to submit a proposal to the Oklahoma State Capitol to erect a Satanic statue of Baphomet, the devil-goat, Satan himself, upon the grounds, as testimony to the universal religious freedom enshrined in Oklahoma’s (and America’s) constitution.
Yup, those are children smiling admiringly at the Steward of Hell. Supposedly his lap’s supposed to double as a seat of contemplative joy on the proposed statue.
Conservative Christians are predictably incensed, and the ACLU opposes the proposal out of an honorable consistency: it opposes ALL state-funded religious expression, believing it to go against the principles of church-and-state. Devotion to one’s faith against the cosmic antagonist of that faith, and fidelity to universal values- two perfectly justifiable reasons to oppose the placement of the statue. However, I can think of one yet more critical reason why the Baphomet statue ought not be erected.
The Satanic Church, it seems, is a recognized religious organization. Now there is a tradition in local and state politics in the United States, of religious groups placing religious monuments like crucifixes and saint statues on public grounds such as courthouses, libraries, and other various government turf. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it- this is simply too widespread a tradition, I think, for it to be desirable to eradicate it, as the ACLU seems to intend. When public opinion is generally hospitable to religion, it makes sense that the servants of the public would allow religious expression on their territory, the public’s territory, if for no other purpose than to satisfy general public sentiments. Thus the monuments of various denominations of Protestants, and Catholics, and at times even Jews. It gets a little hairier when religious minorities desire a monument placed, but public recognition and funding of Muslim and Hindu and Eastern Orthodox monuments is neither unthinkable nor unheard of.
But the Satanic Church is a different story (and it is not the Roman Catholic in me saying this.)
To be clear, while there are undoubtedly those kooks who DO worship the Devil, and practice various occultish rites in the hopes of being possessed by the Prince of Darkness, most “Satanists” in the modern United States are not satanic at all. They are not even theists.
Put very simply, the modern Satanist movement, as it has existed since the 1960s, celebrates Satan as a SYMBOL of free will, expression, the search for truth, the acceptance of the body’s imperfection, and various other nice-sounding ideals generally endorsed by secular humanism. There’s nothing particularly mystical about it.* Satanists might be better called secular humanists with a penchant (or an upside-down pentagram) for symbolism.
Now there is nothing particularly bad about this. A good atheist friend of mine has argued, quite convincingly, yet imperfectly, that Satan represents some of the most fundamental freeing drives of human nature. I perused the website of this ‘religious group’ and found their ethics quite commendable, and their metaphysics actually quite beautiful, even inspiring. But it is important to note that everything supernatural, Satanic Temple treats as PURELY SYMBOLIC. That is, the official ‘theology’ of the movement is a good-natured agnosticism, fraught with symbolism.
That is not a religion (though it may be a philosophy,) and whoever thought it would be a logically coherent policy to grant this group a ‘religious group’ legal status messed up terribly. In general, religions require the mystical*, a supernatural order of things beyond this earthly sphere. They require transcendence past the mere spirituality humans are capable of experiencing on Earth, and a belief in greater truths than justice and righteousness and existence. I have argued that to believe in God (and religions do not necessarily require Gods, just superior metaphysical and spiritual realities) you must merely “believe in a greater spiritual reality which preceded and created the universe, and that you, as a human, have a special part of that spiritual reality within you, which nothing else in the universe shares.” But it is clear, looking at the beliefs and tenets of Satanic Temple, that the group treats Satan as a symbol for human striving rather than an existent deity. This would be like if Christians believed that Jesus were merely an example of how one ought to live- but the fundamental belief of Christianity is that Jesus came to save the souls of all men, and Christians therefore hold him not as a moral teacher, but as the salvation of the human race, their path to eternal life.
In their own words:
“The Satanic Temple seeks to separate Religion from Superstition by acknowledging religious belief as a metaphorical framework with which we construct a narrative context for our goals and works. Satan stands as the ultimate icon for the selfless revolt against tyranny, free & rational inquiry, and the responsible pursuit of happiness.”
“Seven Fundamental Tenets:
- One should strive to act with compassion and empathy towards all creatures in accordance with reason.
- The struggle for justice is an ongoing and necessary pursuit that should prevail over laws and institutions.
- One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone.
- The freedoms of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend. To willfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forego your own.
- Beliefs should conform to our best scientific understanding of the world. We should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit our beliefs.
- People are fallible. If we make a mistake, we should do our best to rectify it and resolve any harm that may have been caused.
- Every tenet is a guiding principle designed to inspire nobility in action and thought. The spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice should always prevail over the written or spoken word.”
The paragraph above (italics mine) and the seven principles below it form what appears to be the core of Satanic Temple’s beliefs. And nowhere, nowhere, nowhere, is any belief in the supernatural imposed. As a guide for life, as a code of conduct, it is, as I noted before, quite a commendable one; but the modern secular idea of religions as chiefly codes of conduct, paths to virtue, is not a good or accurate one. There must be an element of faith in a structure greater than this universe and a spiritual reality accessible by the human spirit, and Satanism appears to display none of these.
Moreover, I post here the apparent founding myth of Satanic Temple:
“God is supernatural and thus outside of the sphere of the physical. God’s perfection means that he cannot interact with the imperfect corporeal realm. Because God cannot intervene in the material world, He created Satan to preside over the universe as His proxy. Satan has the compassion and wisdom of an angel. Although Satan is subordinate to God, he is mankind’s only conduit to the dominion beyond the physical. In addition, only Satan can hear our prayers and only Satan can respond. While God is beyond human comprehension, Satan desires to be known and knowable. Only in this way can there be justice and can life have meaning.”
It is important to read this with the symbolic nature of the word “Satan” in mind. Coupled with the teaching that “The Satanist harbors reasonable agnosticism in all things,” it seems that this founding myth is viewed as that- mere myth- and not believed to be seriously the origin of the world.
I repeat: religions are organized systems of belief which acknowledge a greater metaphysical reality deeper than mere spirituality, and seek to connect human beings to those realities. The forced agnosticism and absent theism of the beliefs of Satanic Temple lead me to conclude that the group is not, in any way, truly what could be called a “religious group” (though they are probably dedicated and passionate people anyway.) As they are not a religious group in any meaningful sense, they should not have been accorded legal status as that, and they should not be given the opportunity to place their monument alongside religious monuments to be treated as an equal. To allow it would be like allowing a statue of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to be placed.
* “A religion without mysticism is a philosophy.” -Pope Francis
An old adage says “Every tool is a weapon,” and the implications of this wisdom are evident to anyone with a realistic understanding of the art of politics.
But it is not only in politics that powerful things prove themselves to be two-sided swords, with handles that command and blades that cut. For in all things, it seems there are certain general principles that hold true. In medicine, and biology in general, there are ample examples of this tendency. I share here insights from an article recently published in the New York Times.
After quickly cross-checking with several friends of mine who are on the track towards medical school, I have confirmed that the following depiction of cancer is reasonably accurate. I would paraphrase, but Mr. Johnson’s words need no embellishment:
“…there are reasons to believe that cancer will remain… most resistant. It is not so much a disease as a phenomenon, the result of a basic evolutionary compromise. As a body lives and grows, its cells are constantly dividing, copying their DNA — this vast genetic library — and bequeathing it to the daughter cells. They in turn pass it to their own progeny: copies of copies of copies. Along the way, errors inevitably occur. Some are caused by carcinogens but most are random misprints.
Over the eons, cells have developed complex mechanisms that identify and correct many of the glitches. But the process is not perfect, nor can it ever be. Mutations are the engine of evolution. Without them we never would have evolved. The trade-off is that every so often a certain combination will give an individual cell too much power. It begins to evolve independently of the rest of the body. Like a new species thriving in an ecosystem, it grows into a cancerous tumor. For that there can be no easy fix.
These microscopic rebellions have been happening for at least half a billion years, since the advent of complex multicellular life — collectives of cells that must work together, holding back, as best each can, the natural tendency to proliferate. Those that do not — the cancer cells — are doing, in a Darwinian sense, what they are supposed to do: mutating, evolving and increasing in fitness compared with their neighbors, the better behaved cells of the body. And these are left at a competitive disadvantage, shackled by a compulsion to obey the rules.
As people age their cells amass more potentially cancerous mutations. Given a long enough life, cancer will eventually kill you — unless you die first of something else. That would be true even in a world free from carcinogens and equipped with the most powerful medical technology.”
The implications of this are stunning.
In a world where ‘cancer’ is a scary word to most, the word immediately connotes the last unconquered pinnacle left for modern medicine to master. We have all seen flyers soliciting donations to contribute to “finding the cure for cancer,” but it appears that this is not simply difficult but literally impossible- for the process by which cancer occurs is the same process by which a healthy diversity of genes in our species is ensured, the same process by which we have adapted and will continue to adapt to changes in our environment. It is a hearth in the home- the provider of the blessings of warmth, the heater of food and spirits, yet if untended and unkept, a blazing inferno which will destroy the abode and all within.
If it really is true that cancer is like no other condition which medicine attempts to combat, but rather is written into our very human condition, then it appears that it is necessary for us to accept a truth that is awkward and uncomfortable for we moderns to accept: that the source of our dynamism can be the source of our destruction, that we cannot conquer death but must be resigned to our fate. Enlightenment models of perpetual progress face a roadblock.
In all actuality, I don’t believe this is too hard of a concept to accept- most religions are founded on premises that life is unperfectable anyhow, and the only truly disappointed individuals would probably be enlightened positive futurists eagerly awaiting the Singularity and eternal physical life- but it is if anything an unspoken truth which is often buried under the optimism and progress-worship which pervades our culture.
But if it is so easy to accept that one day we will die, and that everything we do in life will be a mix of positive and negative inputs, and positive and negative outputs, it would certainly be wonderful if the elites driving information and thought in research and academia would acknowledge that. The very naming of certain academic journals of international affairs- the Journal of Peace Research* is one of the more obvious titles- suggests very tellingly that a do-gooder optimism exists among many in the academe, and that the notion that human rights, democratic governance, economic development, international stability, and Kumbayah memorization all come with each other, with no serious side effects, dominates thought among the movers and shakers. This latter conglomerate is mere progressive politics masquerading as objective social science research, and the friends of Mankind would do better to acknowledge the pain and corruption inherent within human life than to simply wish for more agreements and fewer questions. The idea of a golden model of socio-political development, rising slowly from squalor and terror to a shining city upon a hill, laughs in the face at annals and annals of historical evidence and the wisdom of the ancients.
I am none to attempt to summarize history into a few short sentences, but my point is this- the shining cities of the present day are built upon the blood and sweat of the vanquished, and so are the rotting ruins of old. Stroll through any high-rise banking district, any commercially viable zone studied by economists a world away, and take note of the glamor and cleanliness of your surroundings. Chances are, more likely than not, you are not more than a few short miles (oftentimes a few short blocks) away from unimaginable squalor, living conditions so rancid that one no longer questions why, over the course of the 20th Century, all those with the financial means fled the cities to the suburbs. Development comes with a cost, but only part of that cost is capital. The part that is human is always much higher indeed, and it is never paid in full up front- though that tends to be terrible indeed. But in the process and aftermath of development, maintenance never fails to exert a high toll, and those who fault capitalism for “keeping the rich rich and the poor poor,” while not right, are neither wrong.
But it is not only in economics that the cost of development is easily discernible. There are certain principles which must be attained before any civilized development is imaginable, and the most ephemeral and epic of those is order. And the story of the search for order is the oldest in the history of mankind, the very stuff of politics. I will not even go into modern notions of sovereignty and self-determination and legitimacy, for although those are interesting debates, they do not cut to the root of the problem (indeed, they becloud many who use them as the primary avenue to solve problems of power.) The basic object of study ought always be the nature, division, and balance of power in any given situation, and in every situation this is an ugly sight. Let us take, first, the most modern, developed, advanced nations of the early 21st Century- for our purposes, these include the United States, most of Western Europe, and Japan. Rule of law generally commands the respect of the masses, and governments hold their respect by popular sovereignty. But what is the unspoken truth behind the existence of these regimes, the single biggest pillar upon which they rest? Why, it is Weber’s definition- the monopoly of force! Hobbes’s Leviathan is alive and well in the cores of the civilized world, as strong-state institutions (possessing massive militaries, intelligence and law enforcement apparatuses, and most importantly, the means of national redistribution of resources and labor) provide the backbone of order in the world’s valleys of democracy. To be clear, healthy civil society and established cultural norms render politics more tolerable in all these places, but let us not deceive ourselves into thinking that these regimes could survive upon the cultural norms and civil society alone, if they lost their instruments of hard power. The Machiavel himself stressed that, if both love and fear cannot be maintained, then love must go.
The other strong states which, possessing hard power but lacking the accoutrements of civil society and cultural agreement, are more suspect to the ire of their peoples, are nonetheless reasonably secure in themselves: China and Russia come to mind first, as well as dozens of other reasonably well-to-do powers which, though facing occasional internal tumults, are able to put them down with ease. Their machinery of state survives, if in an ugly fashion.
But what of those states and societies around the world where Leviathan does not reign supreme?
A brief survey around the globe at the beginning of 2014 shows the price of anarchy: Syria, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, Mali, Nigeria, Sudan and South Sudan, the Central African Republic, the Congo and the Great Lakes of Africa in general, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Caucasus, Myanmar- in the last year all of these lands have suffered the price of anarchy. Not long ago Sri Lanka, Kyrgyzstan, the Balkans, Mexico, Colombia, and yet more familiar names joined them on that litany. The empirical evidence, on the surface it least, is clear: strong states with developed institutions, and preferably strong internal cohesion, are the best defense against anarchy.
Yet what is the result of the natural development of such states?
Look to the East, where a game of thrones rages silently across the vast steppes and mountains of Asia, and the stormy surges of her seas. Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Russia, the Philippines, Pakistan, Myanmar, Malaysia, the United States, Australia, and to a lesser extent the Central Asian republics, engage in strategic competition which at the turn of the century most thought to be henceforth unthinkable. The strongest of these powers, and sometimes the most vivacious, have occasionally come close to rows if not blows, and no international organization seems capable of staying their hands. The South Asian tensions between two halves of a dismembered body carry on, as New Delhi and Islamabad, prospective for new opportunities as America leaves the Hindu Kush, plot and plan. Meanwhile the cradle of civilization convulses in the midst not only of stateless sectarian massacres, but of great-power maneuvers and geopolitical shifts of enormous scope. The Saudis and Israelis form a new axis against the rising arc of the resurgent Persians, while the Turks, nestled on their peninsula, grow silently, awaiting their day. And in Europe, where the modern state as we know it was conceived, no fewer than two contests of great scope draw onward. The Russians, for their part, extend their influence to the lost gems of their modern and ancient empire, twisting arms to protect their underbelly from the adventures of unborn conquerors. And the dream of a united Europe, one whole from the Black Sea to the Baltic, from Gibraltar to St. Petersburg, fades as it becomes painfully clear that the mechanisms of the union are becoming little more than tools for German power. In reaction, radical movements rise up across France, Italy, Greece, Hungary. Poland, for its part, works to secure its own domain, while the insular Brits remain aloof from the rubble of the mainland, pondering their next move.
The very institutions meant to guard against internal anarchy tend to perpetuate it outside themselves, in the broader context of the community of nations. Moreover, it is not clear that anything can be done about this, as the history of Earth reveals, if nothing else, that the seeds of war are planted as firmly in the human breast as the kiss of death itself.
Couple this inevitability with the sobering realization that war has driven probably about one-third of our innovation in all of our history (another third has probably been driven by trade, and the last third, by various factors, none anywhere near approaching the sheer criticality of war and trade) and it begins to appear obvious that the human tendency towards competition and bloodthirstiness engenders another human tendency, toward order and peace. Yet the attainment of these blessings at one level does not preclude the return of competition and bloodthirstiness at another, higher level, nor their expungement from our blood. And further discover, that trade is perhaps as critical to our social and political life as is war, and realize, then, that we are both social and competitive creatures, seeking both to coexist with others, and preserve our own existence at others’ expense. A dizzying complexity fraught with contradiction and thoroughly unreasonable, incompatible motives and actions- this is human life. Reason is there, but it does not rule, and though it may seem to rule individuals, and at times drive or even pervade policy, it does not rule at any higher level.
I hope my analogy is clear. Just as cancer is integral to the process of evolution, so are war and weaponized injustice endemic to the process of political development. There is no escaping it. And just as all human exploits are finally subject to death, so all collective human exploits are ever subject to the grips of the imperfection which taints our existence. A general and collective principle, likely unjust in the worldview of most, though one which could easily be said to “build character,” seems to be at play here. Striving brings temporal blessing, but is ultimately doomed to decay. The natural motion towards order brings with it a creative destruction as terrible as the chaos which preceded it. Yet amidst the inferno, life goes on.
1- It still weighs on me that I have neither the time nor energy to pursue biology alongside politics. A long time ago I might have chosen the former over the latter, but did not, and this has influenced every aspect of my thought. At present, I have time to keep, at best, a crudely amateur interest in the various biological and ecological fields, and this is sufficient for pondering the metaphysical implications inherent to science. I hope, however, that I find in my future time and opportunity to indulge that curiosity more.
2- Of war, there is more I can say; for consistent with the general principle of curses and blessings, blessings and curses, there are various benefits, unseen gifts, that come with war, along with all its horrors. But that is another inquiry.
*I have no problems with the Journal of Peace Research, and am not acquainted with its publishing practices. I merely use it for the implications of its naming; I could just as easily have used any number of dozens of other, similarly Whiggishly named academic and professional journals.