Friday, July 17, 2009

Man, the [adjective] Animal

Omissions, corrections

Aristotle may have gotten a lot wrong, but I have to join MacIntyre in recognizing the Nicomachean Ethics as presenting a fundamentally sound way of approaching ethics. This is why I was profoundly disappointed by the way After Virtue dismissed the discussion of human nature and human goods found in book 1 of the NE. MacIntyre points out (rightly) that it is neither practicable nor desirable for a modern to accept Aristotle's teleological biology, but fails to offer any sort of replacement or updated biology--the tradition takes on the role that the biological teleology had.

This is a serious error. Aristotle did not open his discussion of ethics with a discussion of human nature for no reason and at random. He clearly and distinctly understood that a discussion of human goods has to begin with what humans are--if humans were something else, what is good for us to do would likewise be different. I am strongly tempted to generalize this and say that all ethical systems begin with, are underpinned by, and presuppose some particular view of what humans really are. Figuring out whether this claim holds up would be quite a challenge, but if it does, I think that it might elucidate in a yet clearer way why modern moral debates are in such disrepair--e.g., why it is so difficult to find a compelling reason to prefer utilitarianism over deontology or vice versa. But I digress.

In doing a bit of research and reading for this post, I was gratified to find that MacIntyre has changed his tune on this topic. In the introduction to his latest book, Dependent Rational Animals, (Thank you, Google Books!) MacIntyre falls back from this error, and outdoes himself in correcting it, spending the next 150 pages or so sketching out the philosophical importance of understanding that we are, in fact, animals. (And animals dependent on others, frequently subject to pain and illness) I regret that I have not yet found the money and time to acquire and read this book.

The various Paganisms each have their own approaches to answering what sort of thing a person is, and there are significant variations along with commonalities. Not all of these answers are equal; some are quite insightful, and some are thoughtless and perhaps even a bit dangerous.

The task of laying out exactly what humans are--what makes us distinctly "human"--is by its nature quixotic. Even to ask the question is to commit to certain epistemological and ontological ideas that could easily come under question. And while many of the aspects and faculties of humans are obvious and not very controversial, their relative ranking of importance to the human constitution (if there be such a thing) and how they are related to each other and to the whole are not at all obvious. And perhaps especially depressing, nearly every attempt to date to answer the question of what a human is has been astoundingly narrow, universalizing aspects of a particular culture to all humans.

Nonetheless, I would like to take this task in hand and give at least a broad answer.

We're Animals

I think MacIntyre is right in exploring the philosophical implications of our "animality." For millenia, philosophers have downplayed this aspect of ourselves, but it almost disappears from the philsophical consciousness of the West in the modern period. For Descartes, all bodies extended in space and time were passive, only reacting to external action, either fr0m other bodies or from mind. Animals, he believed, utterly lacked mind, and were nothing more than complex machines.

Still later, Immanuel Kant went even further, going so far as to say that all true ethics must be grounded in an understanding of personhood that has absolutely nothing to do with what kind bodies we have. What is moral for a human is the same thing that would be moral for space aliens, computer intelligences, or spiritual beings like angels.

Such short-sightedness is appalling, but not to be entirely unexpected. After all, preceding the modern period was the Medieval period, in which the Christian cosmology dominated the world. In the creation of the world, the animals were made on the fifth day, and humans on the sixth. Only to humans were given the gift of souls and eternal life, and the world would someday be destroyed and remade to give the righteous humans a place to live, while all animals would perish. In the wake of a milieu so pervaded with human exceptionalism, it is not surprising that Aristotle's simple observation, that man is an animal, was given little place.

Like on the Discovery Channel

Few thinkers have given due attention to this most fundamental aspect of ourselves. Even speaking about us as "embodied" is misleading; it almost implies a subterranean suspicion that we are in fact fundamentally disembodied, that we only have bodies, and are minds, in a kind of Cartesian dualism. I know of only a few modern thinkers who have given due consideration to it, particularly Merleau-Ponty (with whom I am less familiar than I would like). John Gray's Straw Dogs, for all its faults, is grounded in a keen awareness that we are animals.

Even so, when the awareness that we are animals arises, it is always with the consciousness that there is something different about humans, something exceptional. There is always some adjective. Man is the rational animal, the social animal, the spiritual animal. Man is the game-playing animal or the laughing animal. Man is the tool-using animal.

The adjective always refers to our advanced mental abilities, our perception and logic, our complex social arrangments or the subtle spectrum of human emotion. This is the realm at which morality, for the most part, operates. Advanced moral capability is at the very least part and parcel of our sociality and rationality. But we must be careful. All too often, in our moral reasonings and social negotiations, we forget entirely that we are animals--or at the very least, we fail to come to terms with some of the implications.

The whole range of implications is too broad for this post, which has already grown too long, so I will narrow my focus. I first want to clarify one thing that is not an implication: the importance and value of our cultural creations, philosophies, religions, and so on. Art is no less beautiful, the transport of mystic insight no less significant, that they are done by animals. We need to rid ourselves of the idea of "just" an animal. The Darwinian discovery that we share our ancestors with the rest of the living world ought not tell us that we are less valuable; rather, we ought to recognize that the plants and animals around us literally are (however distantly) our cousins, aunts, and uncles and treat them accordingly.

The implication I want to focus on is that we must take seriously that humans are just one element in a larger ecology, that we occupy an ecological niche and depend on the web of life to sustain us. If the virtue of justice is to be considered as giving to each his due, there is much that is due to the non-human world. Without necessarily advocating for their position, I want to point out the deep ecologists as an example of one way to work out this revised understanding of justice.

But how does this relate to Paganism? How can a polytheistic or earth-centered religion work this out? I'll see if I can put the pieces together in something like a coherent way in the next post in my series on MacIntyre.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Idolatry of Monotheism

I'm not yet done with MacIntyre, but I'm putting it on hold for a post or two.

There is something a little off about Aquinas' famous distinction between the truths of faith and the truths of reason. In the latter category, one finds those truths known to the ancient Greeks--especially Aristotle--while those peculiar to Christianity are to be found in the former. While certainly not all theologians would agree with Aquinas' system of classification, its profound influence in Christian theology since then indicates, I think, that it points at something profound at the heart of Christianity.

The very names of the categories are suggestive Christianity is not, at bottom, a rational religion. The most one can say is that it is compatible with reason--at least, with certain conceptions of reason. This is not unique to Christianity, but it is in Christianity that it becomes a problem to grapple with, a dilemma that demands a solution.

I believe this is a dilemma at the heart of all the great monotheisms. And I believe I have an inkling as to why.

The Language of the Cosmos

Mathematics is the most universal language that we know of. Every culture seems to have had some form of it, however primitive or advanced. The striking thing about it is that, no matter how old a mathematical proof might be, it will never--if it is indeed a real proof--be overturned or denounced by experts in the field. Mathematics is the only field which can find anything like this certainty. Though ambiguities, I am given to understand, seem to present themselves at the more abstruse and difficult levels, this is probably to be expected given the complexity of the subject and the relative feebleness of the human mind.

Mathematics is indeed so universal that it may well be the language of the cosmos. At the very least, the physical world seems to be governed by mathematics at the deepest depths we have plumbed. Though mathematics, humans have been able to make and interpret measurements up from estimates of the relative weights of protons and electrons to the vast distances between the galaxies.

It is no accident that mathematics is the most rational language we have, as well. There seems to be a direct relation between how universal a discourse is--or at least, how universalizable--and how rational it is. Though Chinese philosophers might be in many respects less fully rational than the ancient Greeks, the same logical principles underlie many of Confucius' arguments that Aristotle categorized and and formalized. And unless certain rational elements were found in nearly every society, it would be almost impossible for us to communicate and live together, let alone come to anything like a mutual understanding.

Against this rationality the irrational and particularistic elements of our nature work. I was raised on standard American fare, so I usually prefer hamburgers to sushi--for no good reason, that I can tell. Likewise, I'm more likely to say "um..." when deciding what to eat than "etto..." I would sacrifice a kidney for my mother, but probably not your mother, even if yours needs it more.

Our irrational, particularistic, and tribal sides are not to be gotten rid of. They are what make community possible. Nor is reason to be gotten rid of; tyranny and warfare will inevitably result. But there is a conflict between them--a creative conflict if we manage it well. While not all human universals are rational, and not all irrational aspects of us are particularistic, it seems to be overwhelmingly the case that rationality and universality are intimately linked, and irrationality and particularity are likewise, if less strongly, linked.

The Irrational God

Religion seems to be one of those areas where particularity and irrationality are most strongly linked. The religious practices of one era or people can seem strange or even laughable to another. The Greeks were astonished by Egyptian religion, and those certain aspects seem to have garnered great respect, many Greeks scoffed what they took to be the worship of animals, creatures lower even than humans.

This is a problem for monotheistic religions. The mono-God of the Christian and other traditions do have elements that are rational and/or universal in character--omnipotence, omniscience, ubiquity, and so on. But at the same time, there are particularist and irrational elements essential to the character of particular monotheistic religions. Thus, Aquinas perceived so keenly the need for a distinction between truths of faith and truths of reason.

By their nature, reason cannot convince people of the truths of faith--whether that faith be Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. Yet this presents monotheistic religions--or at least Christianity, Islam, and a few more recent faiths--with a problem; their doctrines are by nature universalistic, intended to apply to all people in all places. All people, eventually, are to bow before Allah. Christ commissions his followers to preach to all the nations.

The practical consequence of this is that the religion spreads, not through the rational appeals that give, e.g., Platonism and many forms of Buddhism their power to convince, but through an exertion of the will over the minds and hearts of others. Whether through bribes, persuasive speech, or force and intimidation, the religion is spread by whatever means necessary. Frequently, competing religions are condemned and sanctions are placed on their followers--up to and including death for attempting to practice or spread their religion. I can think of no better way to characterize the hegemony that Christianity gained over Europe, or Islam over the Middle East, than as the exercise of the will of the religious leaders over the minds of the people.

I don't mean to say, of course, that all conversions to a monotheistic religion are impelled by others in this way. But I do not think that the tremendous success that these religions have had in imposing themselves across multiple cultures is attributable, as many of their proponents would have us believe, to the persuasive power of the religion rather than the zeal of inquisitors and devout rulers.

So much for one major practical consequence. There is also a theoretical consequence: idolatry.

Bait and Switch

While it is entirely beyond my (or anyone's) ability to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt otherwise, it does not seem credible to me to say that the source of all being (however we might characterize it) has the sort of special relationship to humanity posited by Christianity and, to a lesser extent, Islam. In both religions, the final destruction of the world is centered around humans; in both cases, humans alone are resurrected. The point of the destruction is the creation of a new world in which the righteous will be blessed and rewarded. In Christianity, humanity is even further elevated; the Supreme Being deigns to incarnate himself as human.

This strikes me as improbable in the highest degree--nearly unthinkable, I had better say. However, the common objection I have heard from Christians to this judgment is that I am illicitly presuming that God must follow my own limited human notions about what God must be like. I find this response rather astonishing from people who believe that the world will one be destroyed for the sake of humanity, who believe that God himself took on human form--and only human form, and only once. I understand that this apparent illogic is the result of the cultivation of an attitude of submission to Christ (of which a part is submission to the doctrines of the faith), but that does not make it any more reasonable; it only makes it somewhat more believable in a practical, living faith.

If idolatry is to be understood as replacing a grand truth with a shoddy image, easier to perceive and understand, then surely the religions that cry the loudest about idolatry--that created the concept as a category of sin and wrongdoing--are the very religions that commit it the most blatantly. It is one thing to suggest that there are divinities below the highest and most divine creator that have dealings with humans (and if one looks at, for instance, Platonism, the relationship is further and further subdivided, as gods do not communicate with humans directly, but use daemons as intermediaries). It is quite another to say that the font of existence is personally concerned with our species above all others.

Final Thoughts

I do not want to be misunderstood. I am not saying that the irrational has no place in religion. But it is in our personal relationships and our particularity that it has its place. It is in the way we relate with the world and have dealings with it. But I would follow innumerable thinkers in noting that, to understand the divine, to attain all its qualities, one must attempt to abandon human limitations--one must liberate oneself from human assumptions and prejudices. So it is that the great contemplatives of India have ever sought to look behind Maya, the world of merely human perception, action, and emotion. But for everyday religion, for living religion, the irrational is indispensable. Without it, I don't know if any social projects would succeed.

I also want to praise modern Paganism for a recognition that few (if any!) of the ancient Paganisms seem to have made in rejecting the total centrality of man in the world. The recognition of the immanent divine in the natural world, in the complex interrelation between plants, animals, the soil, bacteria, etc., in the great web of a living ecosystem, utterly explodes the hubris of both ancient and modern society. We are not simply a halfway point between the lower animals and the gods above; we are on an even footing in fundamental ways with the rest of life, and the highest attainments are to be found at least in some significant part in how we harmonize and reconcile ourselves with the rest of the world, as a peer and not as a dominator and exploiter.