Monday, June 23, 2008

Lee, McClellan and Kierkegaard

The key to understanding the American Civil War is.... Soren Kierkegaard.

The reader may be familiar with Kierkegaard's three stages of existence - the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious. I will not be concerned with the religious stage of existence in this post. What will concern me is the aesthetic and ethical stages, and specifically one essential difference between them. The ethical man is the man who lives within the concept of duty; and duty is the existential expression of one who lives within history rather than (falsely) above it or outside it. To the aesthetic man, if he has a concept of duty, it is not duty as known by a truly ethical man. The duty of the truly ethical man seems vulgar and anti-intellectual to the aesthetic man. One must first understand history and its meaning before one can know one's duty within that history, or so the aesthetic man thinks. "Duty" for him means constructing a personal theory of history and then putting himself in a relation to that history. Duty for the truly ethical man involves no speculation about history; it reflects his knowledge of what he owes his neighbor, his family, his country, and his God. The aesthetic man views himself as superior to history. He does not exist within history but is history's spectator and judge. He participates in history to the extent he judges that a positive outcome may result from his participation, but he always tempers his commitment in the knowledge that his judgment is fallible and may need to be revised.

General George B. McClellan was the commander of the Union Army of the Potomac during the critical battles of 1862; he was essentially an aesthetic man. General Robert E. Lee was the commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during much of the same time; he was essentially an ethical man. It was Lee's character as an ethical man that was the key element in his military superiority over McClellan.

As an aesthetic man, McClellan attempted to overawe history with his own personality. McClellan had his own understanding of the historical meaning of the Civil War and he "placed" himself in it. That place was, naturally, that of "Savior of the Union." Every decision McClellan made was made with one eye on the military situation and another eye on his place in history. This was the source of his famous caution. A serious military defeat, McClellan knew, could result in his dismissal, an event McClellan considered more calamitous for the Union than any military setback. Since he was history's designated Savior of the Union, what would happen to the Union without him? Obviously, the Union could only fall if McClellan were not around to save it. When Lincoln eventually did dismiss McClellan, McClellan's greatest lament was for the poor Union that would no longer have the benefit of his historically necessary services. Lincoln was right in more ways than he knew when he called the Army of the Potomac "McClellan's Bodyguard."

Lee, on the other hand, had no interest in the grand meaning of history. His decisions were all driven by his sense of duty. Offered command of all Union forces by Lincoln, Lee carefully considered the question and eventually sided with the South on the principle that his first duty lay with his home state of Virginia before it lay with the Federal government. His military decisions were driven strictly by military concerns. His disinterest in speculative history gave him a clear sight of immediate reality, and that clear appraisal of the immediate situation gave him a decisive advantage in battle over McClellan. Lee had no concern for his personal place in history; this was the source of his remarkable daring in battle. Lee never wondered whether the South could survive without him. In fact he offered his resignation after the defeat at Gettysburg in 1863.

Now this wouldn't be a Kierkegaard post without a little irony. The irony of the aesthetic man is that his obsession with universal history causes him to have no historical significance, or at least not the historical significance he desired. McClellan did not go down in history as the savior of the Union, but as someone who came close to losing it. The irony of the ethical man is that, by leaving the historical significance of his life to God and concentrating on duty, he may end up having a deep historical significance, probably one he never could have imagined.

In Lee's case, Lee was in large measure responsible for the successful reintegration of the South into the Union in the decades after the war. After the surrender of his Army of Northern Virginia, there were voices who wished to continue an indefinite guerrilla war against the Union forces, something that was very possible. In effect, the South could not win its own nation, but could nonetheless destroy the Union. Lee, with his sense of duty, quickly dismissed any such ideas. The defeat of the South was the judgment of God, Lee thought, and it was the duty of Southerners to do their best to become good citizens of the reunited Union. Lee's military exploits had made him legendary and given him a unique authority with Southerners. Only Lee had the stature to order Southerners to end their hopes of independence and become American citizens again.

The greatest irony, of course, is that Lee, in the end and in a very real sense, became the savior of the Union that McClellan always took himself to be.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Fierce Catholics

You may have seen the Drudgereport story about the Gloucester girls who made a pact to become pregnant and raise their babies together. There is a comment on the story at the First Things blog.

What kills me is the Time statement that Gloucester is a "fiercely Catholic enclave." Ha! Are there any fiercely Catholic enclaves left in the United States? Take it from me, there aren't any on the North Shore of the Boston area, or anywhere else in Massachusetts. This is the state that made Ted Kennedy a senator-for-life and rolled over for gay marriage. Ted polls as well in Gloucester as anywhere else.

But you don't need me to tell you that. The facts from the story are enough. Remember that the use of contraceptives is a sin for all Catholics. You'd think that in a "fiercely Catholic enclave" the idea of handing out contraceptives to adults would be a non-starter, let alone high school students. But the debate in Gloucester is precisely over how hard to push contraceptives on schoolkids. Apparently, only a "fierce Catholic" would have any qualms about it.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Humility and Eugenics

This is a continuation of my commentary on Jim Manzi's article from the June 2, 2008 National Review.

In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton remarked that the problem with the modern world is not that it is vicious, but that its virtues have been "let loose", and "the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrific damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone." With respect to the virtue of humility, Chesterton says this:

"Humility was largely meant as a restraint upon the arrogance and infinity of the appetite of man. He was always outstripping his mercies with his own newly invented needs. His very power of enjoyment destroyed half his joys. By asking for pleasure, he lost the chief pleasure; for the chief pleasure is surprise. Hence it became evident that if a man would make his world large, he must be always making himself small. Even the haughty visions, the tall cities, and the toppling pinnacles are the creations of humility. Giants that tread down forests like grass are the creations of humility. Towers that vanish upwards above the loneliest star are the creations of humility. For towers are not tall unless we look up at them; and giants are not giant unless they are larger than we... But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to doubt - himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt - the Divine Reason."

Traditionally, humility followed from what man knew. He knew that there is a God; he knew that his own existence is but an undeserved gift from God. He knew that besides God, there are gods, and some of these gods are hell-bent on his destruction. In other words, man knew himself to be a "middle creature," greater than the beasts but less than the gods and certainly less than God. His "middleness" was also characterized by the peculiar synthesis of good and evil in man. Man was capable, like an angel, of the greatest goodness; but he was also capable, like a demon, of the basest evil. Most peculiarly, the individual man himself, through sin, embodied the dialectic between good and evil. The humble man did not doubt that all this was true. In light of its truth, what he did doubt was his own ability to "make a difference in the world", or "make the world a better place" through his own personal vision and work. For man's vision and work is always infected by sin, and it is not man but God Who makes the world a better place, through man's humble and faithful submission to God.

What I have just written may strike the ear of the reader as antique, obscurantist, and even a little blasphemous. A dogma of the modern world is that we can and should charge out and "make the world a better place." Our Churches have even embraced this vision; how many times have I heard in song and sermon that on leaving Mass, I should "make a difference" in the world? What has happened in the modern world, as Chesterton says, is that the virtue of humility has left the organ of ambition and settled on the organ of conviction. We doubt the existence of God or of any beings greater than man; this leaves man the greatest thing in the world, with no giants or gods to look up to. And we have left off doubting our own ambition, our ability to "make a difference in the world." And why not? If man is the greatest thing there is, how will things get better if not through his vision and work? And if man is to improve things, then certainly improving man himself will top the list... which brings me to eugenics.

Eugenics is wrong because man is a middle creature, one who did not create himself or determine his own destiny, and one who is thoroughly infected by sin. Eugenics is the attempt to usurp the role of the Creator, to create man in man's own image and establish his destiny as a matter of arbitrary will. It is a consequence of the sin of pride, and as an attack on the fundamental ontological relationship between God and man, can only have the most evil and serious consequences.

The argument I have just made is a "positive" argument; it is an argument that eugenics is positively wrong based on philosophically known truth. But suppose we wish to make an argument against eugenics that will appeal to the "modern" ear. The modern mind doesn't put much stock in philosophy; it finds it ambiguous and "iffy." What the modern mind believes in is science. Can we make an argument against eugenics in scientific rather than philosophical terms?

Jim Manzi attempts such an argument in his June 2 article, in the only way possible. Such an argument can only be an argument from ignorance rather than an argument from knowledge. For in a world where science is held to be the final arbiter of truth, the greatest thing in the world is necessarily scientific man, the voice of science and therefore of truth. What will be the brake on the ambition of scientific man? The traditional brake is gone, for scientific man is not a "middle creature;" his science acknowledges nothing greater than itself and therefore nothing greater than the scientific man who thinks it. We can only propose to scientific man that he doesn't know all he thinks he knows, and hope that the sense of his own ignorance will temper his ambition. In other words, we will move the virtue of humility from the organ of ambition to the organ of conviction. Jim formulates the argument this way:

"Despite their confidence in predicting future discoveries, however, our ignorance about humanity runs deep, and the complexities of mind and society continue to escape reduction to scientific explanation. This ignorance is one of the most powerful arguments for free-market economics, subsidiarity, and many of the other elements of the conservative worldview. Science may someday allow us to predict human behavior comprehensively and reliably, so that we can live in Woodrow Wilson's 'perfected, co-ordinated beehive.' Until then, however, we need to keep stumbling forward in freedom as best we can."

Put simply, the argument is that we should not conduct eugenics because we do not (yet) know enough to do it right. I noted in an earlier post that the freedom supported by this argument is merely a "freedom of the gaps", a temporary and illusory freedom that will disappear as soon as science has filled in the blanks in determinism. Neither is the humility supported by the argument true humility, but a "humility of the gaps." For it is not based on a positive appreciation of our place in the universe, but merely on our temporary inability to fulfill our eugenic ambitions.

But the problem with eugenics is not that, in our present ignorance, we are incapable of wisely conducting it. The problem is that the eugenic vision is itself one of Hell rather than Heaven. Woodrow Wilson's vision of a 'perfected, co-ordinated beehive' should fill us with a deep horror, not wistful longing for that which we cannot currently obtain. (The classic, schlocky 1976 sci-fi "B" movie Logan's Run plays on the theme of the eugenic utopia that is really a hell.)

The unfortunate fact is that eugenics works. And you don't need a deep knowledge of genetics to make it work. Man has been successfully selectively breeding animals for thousands of years, most of that time in utter ignorance of genetics. There is no doubt that man can selectively breed himself as well. You breed tall men with tall women and you get tall children. You breed intelligent men with intelligent women and you get intelligent children. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and the eugenicists of the early 20th century were not wrong because their eugenics program didn't work; they were wrong because, even if it did work (and it does), the attempt itself is damnable. The reasons it is damnable, however, are philosophical and not scientific.

There is no scientific argument against eugenics, for even if we are too ignorant right now to make eugenics work, we may be knowledgeable enough in the future. Rather than retarding eugenic efforts, the appeal to ignorance is a spur to investigate them further, for science thrives on the challenge of the unknown. Ignorance is no barrier to eugenics; the only true barrier is knowledge, a knowledge of man's true place in the cosmos, and for that we finally need philosophy and not science.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Determination, Genes, and Explanation, and Eugenics

I commented on an online article by Jim Manzi here. Jim has another recent article, this time from the June 2 edition of the paper version of National Review, which you can get (if you pay for it) here.

The June 2 article has the promising title "Undetermined: There is danger in assuming that genes explain all." The title may lead the reader to suspect that the article will refute genetic determinism. While the article does punch holes in certain grandiose claims made in the name of genetic science, it unfortunately does not really address determinism at all; and this because it conflates the notions of determined and explained.

Something is determined when its nature and destiny are entirely the result of non-rational, physical causes. Given a certain physical state of a system and the universe in which it exists, the future state of the system follows of necessity from the initial state (at least in a statistical sense.) Something is explained (in a scientific sense) when its present or future physical states can be analyzed and predicted in terms of its past states. It is possible for something to be determined yet unexplained. This happens when the problem of analysis becomes intractable.

Such intractability happens all the time. In fact, in physics and engineering, the vast majority of physical problems are intractable. Take a simple coin toss. The trajectory of the coin is entirely determined by the physical forces on the coin. Yet predicting the result of a coin toss based on analysis of the forces is extremely difficult. There are just too many factors involved and even tiny variations in the parameters of the problem can change the result. So, as far as predicting the result of a coin toss, we are at no advantage to ancient Greeks who never heard of Newton. They knew as well as we do that a coin toss is a 50/50 proposition; but we cannot predict the result of an individual coin toss any better than they could. The intractability of many simple physical problems is what keeps Las Vegas in business. Casinos allow players to place roullette bets even after the ball has been sent rolling on the rim and the wheel spun. Given the velocities and locations of the ball and wheel, shouldn't a player be able to predict where it will land? In theory, yes; in practice, no. The problem is way too sensitive to the precise parameters involved and what happens when the ball falls off the rim and bounces around the number slots. The roullette wheel is entirely determined but also entirely unpredictable.

What about determinism with respect to ourselves? Jim Manzi talks particularly about genes, but the philosophical problem is the same whether it is proposed that we are determined by genes, the environment, some combination of the two, or even if we take the ancient view that we are determined by the stars. (Determinism is thought of as a modern philosophical development, but it is really a return to an ancient mode of thought.) If we are determined by non-rational causes (genes, the environment, evolution, the stars, black cats, etc.), then our nature and destiny are entirely functions of those causes. Whether we can explain or predict our destiny by analysis of those causes is entirely another question. A demonstration that such prediction is practically impossible does not answer the claim that we are determined.

The popular belief in genetic determinism, Manzi tells us, comes from the media loosely speaking "of things such as a 'happiness gene', a 'gay gene', or a 'smart gene.'" The inference that there are genes for every aspect of our nature, and that our nature can be engineered through those genes, naturally follows. "Seeing this momentum, it is natural to assume that eventually we will have explained all human behavior, not just diseases caused by one or a small number of interacting genes." But Manzi cites two reasons why such a conclusion is unjustified. One reason is the "correlation vs. causation" problem. The causal relation between two things does not follow directly from their correlation. In Bertrand Russell's famous example, it would be a mistake to conclude from the correlation of umbrellas opening and rain falling that opening umbrellas causes rain to fall. In the genetic case, a gene may be correlated with a certain trait yet not be the cause of it. Chinese people, for example, may possess a certain gene and also be susceptible to a particular disease, but the cause of the disease may be due to peculiarities of Chinese culture rather than genes. It is very difficult to disentangle environmental from genetic causes because of this problem. This point is of little moment, however, because the precise physical basis of determinism is incidental to its philosophical implications. Whether it is environment, genes, or the stars, the philosophical implications of determinism remain the same.

The more interesting reason Jim cites is something called "epistatic interaction", or the fact that many traits are caused by interactions between several genes rather than a single gene. Some traits are caused by the interaction of many genes. It doesn't take many genes interacting to make the problem of prediction intractable, as Jim points out:

"Consider a simplified case in which some personality characteristic - aggressiveness, for example - is regulated by 100 genes, each of which can have two possible states ('on' or 'off'). The combinatorial math is daunting: There are more than a trillion trillion possible combinations of these gene states. Thus we could sequence the DNA of all 6.7 billion human beings and still not know which genes are responsible for aggressiveness."

What Jim has shown, of course, is that genetic explanation may be impossible; what he has not shown is any reason to dismiss genetic determinism. Indeed, the tone of the article seems to concede determinism without a fight. He ends the article with the following:

"Science may someday allow us to predict human behavior comprehensively and reliably, so that we can live in Woodrow Wilson's 'perfected, co-ordinated beehive.' Until then, however, we need to keep stumbling forward in freedom as best we can."

Determinism is a necessary but not sufficient condition for physical explanation. That is, we "may someday" be able to predict human behavior comprehensively only if human behavior is in fact determined, whether we can explain it now or not. And if human behavior is determined, then we are not free, whether anyone can predict our behavior now or not. If scientists someday come up with that comprehensive and reliable explanation of human behavior, they will not kill freedom at the moment their theory is complete; they will have shown that freedom was an illusion all along. But it isn't even necessary for scientists to come up with that comprehensive theory for freedom to die. The acknowledgment of the possibility of such an explanation is already to concede the philosophical battle to determinism, for such explanations are only possible if human behavior is in fact determined. The truth of determinism is the ground of the possibility of a comprehensive scientific explanation of man.

Jim's argument amounts to a "freedom of the gaps." The reader may recall the famous "god of the gaps" - the god who is conceded to exist as an explanation for those things science has yet to explain. As science advances, the god of the gaps recedes, for there is less and less for him to do. Jim grounds our freedom on the present ignorance of science, and hopes that science will not advance sufficiently to wipe out freedom completely. But the freedom of the gaps, like the god of gaps, is a poor imitation of the original.

Freedom is philosophical, and the reasons for sustaining true freedom in the face of determinism are philosophical rather than scientific. Human nature and behavior cannot possibly be determined by any set of non-rational causes (the only causes of which science is cognizant), for the simple reason that we are rational, or knowing, beings. Through knowledge, we transcend what we know, and break free of its determinations. Science, for instance, is itself an example of human behavior. Any scientific theory that attempted to comprehensively and reliably explain human behavior would have to include scientific behavior itself in the account. It would have to predict the behavior of scientists in their laboratories and in their theorizing. But such prediction assumes that the scientists can't discover anything radically new that is not already accounted for in the deterministic theory. In other words, the only way a comprehensive and reliable prediction of scientific behavior is possible is if science has come to an end, for only if it is at an end can we be sure that a scientist won't discover something that upsets our comprehensive deterministic theory of man. The comprehensive deterministic theory of man, then, must be the Final Theory of Everything, leaving nothing in the universe out of account that might possibly be a discovery of the future.

But even if someone managed such a Final Theory of Everything, he would still find one thing left out of his theory: Himself. His theory cannot account for his own understanding of the theory, for his understanding of the theory doesn't exist until he has finished it. And once he has finished it, he has created a novel human behavior that is not yet accounted for by the theory; the discovery of this particular Final Theory of Everything. So there cannot possibly be a comprehensive and reliable deterministic explanation of man, for the explainers themselves will escape the deterministic explanation.

The argument can be put another way: Any claim of determination must cite the non-rational causes that are the ground of determination. We are determined by genes, evolution, the stars, whatever. But the very argument for non-rational determination is itself an example of rational causation that transcends the set of non-rational causes. The geneticist may propose a "happiness gene", but he never proposes a "genetic theory gene"; in other words, a gene that causes someone to propose the very genetic theory he is proposing. But unless there is such a gene (or epistatic interaction of genes), then his deterministic theory cannot be a comprehensive explanation of man.

In the end, I agree with Jim's title. We are indeed "undetermined." But the reasons we are undetermined are philosophical, not scientific, and the best Jim's scientific argument can show is that we are (currently) "unexplained", not that we are "undetermined."

The title of this post mentions eugenics, but I will save that for a coming post...

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Evolution, Philosophy, and Science

An interesting article by Jim Manzi on National Review Online on the relationship between science and conservatism. Manzi is anxious to distinguish between the facts discovered by science and the ethical and political conclusions drawn from them. Conservatives, he thinks, make the mistake of attacking science when their real target should be the philosophical conclusions drawn from science. He argues this way:

"Science has replaced religion as the pinnacle of serious knowledge in the Western world. In response, many educated people have invested scientists — and more often, popularizers of science — with the right to be taken seriously as they pontificate about morality and public policy. The argument tends to take this form: Scientific finding X implies liberal political or moral conclusion Y. Important contemporary examples include the assertions that evolution implies atheism, and the fact that CO2 is a greenhouse gas implies that we must reduce carbon emissions rapidly and aggressively."

Manzi is not quite right that science has replaced religion as the "pinnacle of serious knowledge." In the first place, there is no such thing as "serious" knowledge, anymore than there is "unserious" knowledge. There is just knowledge and its opposite, ignorance. In the second place, what science has replaced is not so much religion as philosophy. The fact that we tend to see the conflict as one between "science and religion" rather than as a disruption in the relationship between empirical science and philosophy is an indication of how unphilosophical we have become. But things are what they are, and philosophy has priority with respect to empirical science, whatever the opinions of scientists and biblical scholars.

Empirical science is not a self-defining enterprise. What makes an endeavor "scientific" is a question that is not itself scientific but rather philosophical. The possibility of the philosophical question "What makes something genuinely scientific?" is enough to establish the priority of philosophy with respect to science. It is amazing how many otherwise intelligent people fail to understand this point or fail to see its significance. Science cannot be the one source of true knowledge because science is not capable of answering the question of its own constitution. Either there is some other source of knowledge beyond (or better, prior to) science or we have no knowledge in the true sense at all.

Furthermore, if "serious knowledge" is only scientific knowledge, then we have no culturally significant answer to the question of what is science and what is not, since the question is by nature philosophical rather than scientific. Yet the question of what is truly scientific is one of the most important we face, since whatever carries the blessing of "science" carries tremendous cultural clout as "true knowledge." A question of overriding significance that has no legitimate mode of answer can only be answered one way: Politically. This is the real source of the increasing entanglement of science and politics. We have eliminated any cultural space or weight to the true judge of science, philosophy, and so the task of judging science has devolved to politics.

It is interesting that Europe does not have the same sort of creation/evolution controversy that we do. Part of the reason is that they are further down the road of secularism than we are, and so are not as disturbed by the atheistic conclusions sometimes drawn from evolution. But it is also true that philosophy carries much more cultural weight in Europe than it does here. Europeans tend to judge science by philosophy rather than philosophy by science. The writings of recent Popes on the subject reflects this. JPII wrote a famous encyclical dealing with evolution in which he acknowledged the legitimacy of evolution as an explanation for the material origin of man, but firmly cautioned that it could never of itself become a total explanation of man. Man has aspects to his being that cannot possibly be explained by a material theory of evolution. Americans tended to read JPII's last point as a "religious hedge." The Pope is Catholic, after all, and so he must, for religious reasons, leave a place for God in the explanation of man. Restricted to reading the Pope's writing under either the lens of "science" or the lens of "religion", Americans of both secular and religious bent missed his point entirely. American atheists, reading it under the "science" lens, saw a half-hearted concession to science followed by an irrational appeal to faith. American religionists, reading it under the "religious" lens, saw a fatal compromise with atheist materialism followed by a half-hearted appeal to faith. But the Pope was writing neither scientifically nor religiously; he was writing philosophically. And certain philosophical facts about man are obvious and stand in judgment of science. Among these facts is the fact of science itself. Man, the creator and judge of evolutionary science, by that very fact will never have his being entirely captured by evolutionary science. This is a philosophical point that is both true and impervious to scientific criticism. Europeans, still retaining a respect for philosophy, get it; Americans usually don't.

Manzi goes on to argue that we should accept the scientific conclusions of evolution but balk at philosophical conclusions:

"I have argued at length that the philosophical claims Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and others make on behalf of evolution are unsupported by any science. This was hardly an original observation. As early as the 19th century, Anglican theologian Aubrey Moore made the same basic point in a different way, and many, many others have made it since. Most major religious denominations in the Western world accept evolution as a scientific finding.

Evolution is a scientific paradigm of immense beauty, power, and practical significance, but it doesn’t really tell us much about the existence of God. The theory of evolution assumes pre-existing building blocks — everything evolves from something else — and therefore leaves the First Cause problem unaddressed. As far as we can tell, all scientific findings will have this problem."

Notice that Manzi starts out talking about philosophical claims, then refers to their scientific support, and finally ends by saying that many religious denominations accept evolution. This is a natural way of expressing the American view that we must judge philosophy by science rather than vice versa, and that religion and philosophy name the same rather than different intellectual modes. We must use science to judge philosophy because it is only science that gives us true knowledge. Since neither religion nor philosophy are science, both are sources of opinion rather than knowledge, and as opinion they are indistinguishable. So Americans tend to use the words philosophy and religion interchangeably, and judge both by science.

Evolution doesn't tell us much about God because it is not about God, but about man. The point of thinkers like Dawkins and Dennett is that evolution can give us a complete explanation of man, in the fullness of his being, within the confines of material causation. God may or may not be necessary as a remote first cause, but he is an utter irrelevance when it comes to understanding man, his nature, and his destiny. This is just the point disputed by JPII that Manzi seems happy to concede. And if we are ultimately concerned about ethics and politics, it is man in his nature and destiny that we need to know, whatever the final nature of the First Cause. If that nature and destiny are fully explained by evolution, then Dawkins and Dennett are right that evolution must be the ground of all ethical and political thought.

There is an ambiguity in Manzi's second paragraph that is typical of those not sure of the relationship between science and philosophy. He writes that the theory of evolution leaves the "First Cause problem unaddressed." And so it does. But he does not ask the natural follow-on questions: What does address the First Cause problem? What sort of answers does it give? The First Cause problem is a metaphysical problem; that is, it is a pure question of philosophy. And philosophically, we know more than merely that "as far as we can tell, all scientific findings will have this problem." We know that all scientific findings must have this problem, by their very nature. The "as far as we can tell" is a hedge by someone afraid to judge science by philosophy.

The ambiguity continues in the next paragraph where Manzi writes "Just as science can’t answer moral questions, it’s of limited use in the field of politics." This is a strange way to begin the paragraph in any case, since the First Cause problem just referred to is not a moral question but a metaphysical one. In any case, Manzi avoids the natural question: If science can't answer moral questions, just what can answer moral questions? Traditionally, the answer to that question was "philosophy", including philosophy as occasionally enlightened by religion. But that answer is not available to those who think that only science gives true knowledge. Manzi does not ask the question because the answer is unpalatable: If science can't answer moral questions, then nothing can truly answer moral questions.

Manzi winds up with the following:

"Conservatives would feel a lot less threatened by science if they were more engaged with it. De-mystification of science would be a good thing for all concerned. Science is a very practical discipline. It enables the development of reliable rules that we can employ to do things like build airplanes and develop medicine. In the end, we grant science authority because airplanes generally stay up. Pretension and prestige aside, science is a first cousin to engineering, but a very distant relation to philosophy."

I heartily agree that demystification of science would be a good thing. The first thing to demystify is the unfounded belief that science is the one and only source of knowledge. It is a measure of how far we have come (or gone) that Manzi finds philosophy only a very distant relation to science. At one time, knowledge was holistic and empirical science was considered to be a part of philosophy, "natural philosophy." No one felt "threatened" by science because everyone understood the place of science in the vision of human knowing as understood by philosophy. And science was granted authority for the only reason that any intellectual endeavor should be granted authority, because it is true. Now philosophy and science have split, being only distant relations barely speaking to each other. And since science is no longer led by its rightful guide, philosophy, it is led by a less understanding master - politics.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Suicide Attacks and the Incarnation

I've been reading Twin Powers, Politics and the Sacred by Thomas Molnar. In the first chapter, Molnar discusses the differences between the sacred languages of Christianity and Islam:

"Islamic sacred language is different: it does not refer to an incarnate God at its spiritual center. Perhaps for this reason it is less intellectual, as the amorphous plan of the mosque also suggests. Burckhardt sees in the arabesque 'a surface transformed into a tissue of colors, a vibration of light and shadow' behind which there is a religious intention. The endless intertwining of the lines 'hinders the mind from fixing itself on any particular form, from saying 'I' as an image says 'I.' The center of an arabesque is everywhere and nowhere; each affirmation is followed by a negation.' In other words, while Christianity tolerates a great amount of anthropomorphism and calls attention to the self as the center of creation and as itself a creator as well as the locus of mediation, Islam humbles the self, melts it down, so to speak, in the rhythm and pulsation of the world as ordained by Allah."

This passage brought to mind the practice of Muslim suicide-bombing, and the question of why suicide attack is an occasional feature of non-Western warfare but is virtually unheard of as a tactic of Western war. Those of us raised in the allegedly "post-Christian" West, in fact, cannot but find something creepy, even unholy, in the idea of suicide attacks. Molnar, I think, gives us a clue to the spiritual origin of the Western taboo on suicide attacks. The Christian Incarnation, in which God became Man, grants a special dignity to the individual human being; individual man no longer finds his meaning and purpose solely in his place in the wider community of men, like a bee in the hive, but also in his own nature and his personal relationship with God. The individual man has become something holy in his nature, for in light of the Incarnation, God Himself shares his nature. To reduce the individual man to a pure instrument of the larger human community, then, is to commit an act of sacrilege. And this is what suicide attack demands in the starkest terms. It is a brutal expression of the nullity of the individual man before collective humanity.

Kierkegaard pointed out the paradoxical nature of Christian man. Man, Kierkegaard says, is the only animal for whom the individual is higher than the species. The bee exists for the hive, the bird for the flock, the fish for the school, but man does not exist for the city, at least in Christendom. The Christian city exists for man and his individual relationship with God; to demand, then, that the individual destroy himself for the sake of collective man is to contradict the very purpose of the Christian city and is, indeed, sacrilegious.

I am not talking about the merely rational calculation of self-interest. The Western tradition has regularly demanded military feats that offer only a small chance of survival. But it is part of that tradition that any military mission, no matter how dangerous, must offer some chance for survival, however small. To have as the goal of the mission the destruction of the self crosses a line that has always been clear in the West.

A good example of this is the Nazi Sonderkommando Elbe compared to Japanese Kamikaze. In a desperate attempt to stem the Allied bombing attacks at the end of WWII, the Germans called for volunteers to perform ramming attacks on Allied bombers. Pilots were to literally fly their planes into B-24s and B-17s. These attacks may seem very similar to kamikaze attacks, but there was a crucial difference. The German pilots wore parachutes, opened their cockpits, and either bailed out just before the collision or hoped the collision would throw them free of the cockpit. This was the "small chance of survival" demanded by the Western military tradition. In fact, a number of Sonderkommando Elbe volunteers survived their missions. Japanese kamikaze, in contrast, were not supposed to survive their missions. In fact, it was considered a disgrace if they did somehow survive. There were legitimate veterans of Sonderkommando Elbe attacks, but no legitimate kamikaze veterans. Now the Nazis were not Christians, but they were heirs to the Western military tradition, which was ultimately inspired by Christianity.

I agree with the thesis that the West is now "post-Christian." But post-Christian means that some Christian impulses linger on in the West... one of these impulses is the unease with which we view suicide attacks, although we can no longer name the source of this unease. When the day comes that we in the West no longer feel disturbed by suicide attacks, or even embrace them ourselves, then our post-Christian trajectory will be nearly complete.