Kim Lee Homme, Author
KSA of KAIST
Busan, South Korea
Layne Hartsell, Corresponding Author
Sungkyunkwan University and Seoul Global Study Group
Seoul, South Korea
Paul Ryan argued this past August, “Our rights come from nature and God, not from government.” At face value, the statement is not shocking. Social conservatives all too often argue that our rights come from God, though it’s an impossible argument to defend philosophically. Still, it is an interesting statement, especially the part which holds that our rights stem from Nature.
With these words, Paul Ryan does more than pander. He unwittingly represents an old argument which yet lives, though in need of dentures. Still, his argument that our rights stem from nature and God is fully modern. It is well we knew its roots, though it is doubtful he does. For a vice presidential candidate of the most powerful state in history to not have a full understanding of the values which underlie the U.S. Constitution is unnerving.
Including Nature alongside God as a source for our rights echoes the central contradiction of modernity: the Cartesian split between res extensa and res cogitans, which associate, respectively, with matter and mind. Mind associates with the theologically laden word soul, and in turn with God. In traditional theology, God grants souls rights, not nature.
Though himself no philosopher king, Ryan stands guard at the gate of a modernized fortress of theology, which traditionally sees nature to be a Platonic shadow: insubstantial, illusory, and corrupt. The import of Aristotle’s work into Christianity through Aquinas’ medieval philosophy notwithstanding (for even Aristotle plationizes), this phenomenal world, this world of mere appearance, this sensual world, is not realized as God’s perfect Idea. In this sense, nature is not as a source for our rights, but something impure. In this sense, nature is body, not soul; sin, not salvation.
At the end of the Dark Ages, Western Philosophy was riddled with conjecture and superstition, even more than the GOP today. It was an epistemic nightmare, filled with fairies and phantoms, where knowledge danced with angels on the head of a pin.
In this dark age, Knowledge was integrated into a teleological system, and was expressed in the calendars. But the Church noticed that Christmas and Easter were on a collision course. If these two holidays were ever to land on the same day–well, let’s just say this anxiety led them to a little investigation, and the truth set us free.
Copernicus (1473-1543) wrote a wicked little proposition, threw the Earth from the center, and an entire age into maddening doubt. So far into doubt did it fall that doubt became the very method out of the madness. Out of this time, out of this doubt, out of this madness, Reason, not Revelation, became the arbiter of timeless and eternal Truth. In the age of Copernicus, Enlightenment philosophers elevated Reason to the throne, a juster ruler.
“Doubt thou the stars are fire; Doubt that the sun doth move; Doubt truth to be a liar;” wrote Hamlet to his Ophelia in 1600, “But never doubt I love.” Doubt, I say, became the method out of doubt, the method out of the madness, the method to discover one indubitable truth: “I think; therefore, I am.”
In the age of Nikolai Copernicus, the Sun ascended his rightful throne, and the age of Claudius Ptolemaeus fell into eternal night.
King Claudius: How is it that the clouds still hang on you?
Hamlet: Not so, my lord. I am too much i’ th’ sun. (I,ii)
In the age of Copernicus, each individual’s right to reason things out individually began to dawn, independent of the church and ancient authorities; and Liberty’s rosey fingers began to stretch just over the horizon.
Hamlet of the gravedigger in the churchyard: “By the Lord, Horatio, these three years I have taken a note of it; the age is grown so picked that the toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier, he gaffs his kibe.” (V, i)
“Let me speak,” says Horatio at the end of Act V, “to the yet unknowing world how these things came about.” Let us speak, I say, of how our rights came to be constitutionally protected. Let us thoroughly contradict Mr. Ryan and the GOP, these fishmongers, who would prefer to pander our rights for office. “Ay, to be honest, as this world goes,” Hamlet tells Polonius, “ is to be one man picked out of ten thousand.”
Three decades later, Descartes (1596-1650) proved to have the ‘madness,’ the ‘cunning,’ and a way with words, words, words, to split the universe in two. On the one side of the split he placed God, the soul, and the Church; on the other he placed Nature, matter, and Science. This separation between church and science leads eventually to Jefferson’s Wall.
Descartes, being a subtle thinker, could see the central struggle and impasse of the age. Being both practical and clever, he convinced the Church Fathers against their own views that the New Science was correct, and that it was no threat to their claim on the soul. But to do so, he was forced to compromise, and tore the world in twain. We still hear the argument echoing this compromise, holding that the materialistic methods of science can tell us nothing about morality or rights. This argument is wrong, though it holds captive the popular imagination, much as the Church did Galileo at the end of his life.
Significantly, Paul Ryan in part admits that nature can inform our morality and rights, and so gives a tacit nod to science, crossing the Cartesian line of demarcation, to promote his politics. Since Descartes’ time, we have learned to look to nature to argue for rights, though these rights be but the best ideals we can imagine. We have learned that the best we can imagine is a world without cruelty. And cruelty, mind you, is measurable in the natural world. Therefore, science can help us to write better laws; which, in turn, the social democratic government and not God, can help us to enforce.
Descartes was unable to explain how mind and matter could have a causal relationship. How can I, a mind incarnate, decide to lift my arm, and then my arm would lift? We might ask the GOP, then, how is it that one zygote can split into two souls? Or that two zygote-souls can merge and become one person? How many homunculuses can dance on the head of a pin? Let’s maintain Jefferson’s Wall and protect our hard-won women’s rights from this moldy metaphysics.
Spinoza (1632-1677) argued that there are not two substances, but only one. Spirit and matter end up being two words for the same thing, like two sides of one coin, and so coins the famous phrase, “God or Nature.”
In effect, Spinoza removes the theologians’ authority over the soul, gaining even more political freedom for the individual, opening even wider the way for the democratic revolutions to come in the 18th century. Russell wrote that, Spinoza is perhaps the most loved of all of the philosophers, elegant he was, but was the most vilified during his lifetime, and died rejected and as a pauper. Social democracies today would not treat such an elegant man so grossly. Afghanistan–well, that’s another story.
Unlike Spinoza’s phrase, God or Nature, Ryan’s phrase is disjunct: Nature and God. It retains something of the old Cartesian compromise. This disjunct dualism cannot give a causal account of how God would interact with nature, let alone give us our rights, except on claims of Revelation–but Revelation remains mysterious and unaccountable.
Revelation is not knowledge, but faith. Only fools, tools, and slaves accept authority claims justified on revelation. Nor should we who love liberty trust in just any inner voice claiming to be God’s, no matter what is printed on the almighty dollar. Still less should we legislate on revelation.
In the spirit of individual liberty, Spinoza subjected the Bible to a radical new criticism, arguing that the Biblical authors were limited to the knowledge of their age, such as is evident to the post-Copernican: Psalm 93, “the world also is stablished, that it cannot be moved.” Or again, as is apparent to the post-Darwinian: Genesis 1:27, “So God created man in his own image”.
Mr. Ryan, tear this dualism down! This unmoving Biblical Earth is unstable ground on which to “stablish” our rights. The only thing we ‘mericans need to keep ‘stablished’ is Jefferson’s Wall.
Both Descartes and Spinoza justify their systems on what is called the ontological argument for God, which they take to be self-evident. Kant later destroys the ontological argument, leaving Jefferson bricks and mortar.
Yet, Descartes and Spinoza did much to secure reason and ensure our secular freedoms. Descartes opened the way for secular science . He won the Church’s approval of independent reasoning by justifying it on God. He taught us to look for “clear and distinct” ideas on which to found our ideas. In this spirit, Jefferson found certain “truths to be self-evident,” and declared Independence. And Spinoza argued for the freedom of speech we take for granted today, and this a full generation before Locke, whom the founding fathers mention by name.
Descartes and Spinoza took it that we could look inward and find self-evident truths. From these, we can reason our way to truth. John Locke (1632-1704) saw things differently. This empiricist would have it that we do not get knowledge of anything, let alone of God, by looking inward to Reason. Rather, he denied the doctrine of innate ideas, and held instead that there is nothing in the mind which was not first in the senses. We must look outwards.
The Cartesian view is that we should look inward to Reason in order to find indubitable ideas from which to make deductions. Rejecting this view, Locke denies certainty. He argues that we gain our knowledge by experience, and make inductions about the world. No induction is certain. The very best of our knowledge is perpetually subject to error. Hence, we must always be ready to revise our so-called knowledge.
From this follows an ethics of liberty. Where certainty is wanting, to that degree lacks the justification on which to make demands of others. It is immoral to force our religious beliefs on others, as these are matters of faith, not knowledge. A just government’s role is to preserve our rights to believe, think, and speak as would help us to secure “life, liberty, and the pursuit of property”–which is the fruit of one’s own labor, so long as one does not steal another’s fruit. In this latter point we find the proper stuff of politics: what constitutes stealing.
Locke’s philosophy is without coincidence consistent with the values of modern and progressive science, which is always open to revision. This is central to the founding father’s thinking. And the later Kant, the greatest thinker of the modern age, takes Locke’s vision of liberty to be fundamentally correct, and then shows with profound force and depth what the limits of knowledge and justification are, securing the secular state’s foundation.
Both Locke and David Hume (1711-1776) hold that knowledge comes by gathering experience and systematically analyzing it. In a rather simplistic way of putting it, we do not get Truth by Reason secured by God, but rather, these British Empiricists would have it, we get knowledge by our experience of Nature. (It is little wonder, then, that British Romantics would later turn their musings to Nature; it is little wonder, then, that Darwin would be born British, and go a-sailing the wide watery world in 1831. And what evidence he collected!)
By the time David Hume presses the empiricist’s model of knowledge to its logical conclusion, he leaves us with a skepticism and a state of doubt even profounder than Descartes’. By his analysis, we have no knowledge, only habits and expectations. Descartes’ self ends up to be nothing but a bundle of associated sensations. Reason turns out to be but noodley-appendages of definition, and certainty the sauce. Whereas Descartes had difficulty showing how matter and mind could have a causal relationship; Hume could find no ground for saying even that billiard balls have a causal relationship, let alone to say that our rights come from God. Sorry, Mr. Ryan, saying it is so don’t make it so. Justifying rights is hard work.
David Hume showed us that modern reason was without foundation, and showed us that the so-called truths of reason were but definitions. For example, we may define that a bachelor is an unmarried man. Then, if we meet a man–straight or gay–who claims to be a bachelor, we can know by definition that he is not married. Or, if we define marriage as between one man and one woman, we can know by definition that lots of gay men will remain available.
Hume destroyed everything, and left us only grounds for tolerance. Both science and religion were without foundation owing to Hume’s empirical drill. To this day, nothing remains of Theological Knowledge, except holes. Nothing. There remain no epistemic grounds on which we could theologically justify anything, let alone an amendment to a secular constitution. Science has done better.
Hume famously awoke Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) from his “dogmatic slumber.” After reading Hume, Kant took to synthesize the rationalist and the empiricist traditions in a new kind of transcendental philosophy, in which philosophical knowledge begins with experience, but arises out of Reason. His influence on the American experience is profound.
American Romantic Literature expresses Kant’s transcendental synthesis, the greatest examples of which are Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman. In their art, Nature is the expression of the Divine; and knowledge arises from within as we experience nature. Nature for these Romantics becomes the outward revelation of an inward subject. This American subject is reliant on no king, on no prophet, on no priest, but is self-reliant; and thus they shun the inequality implicit in traditional theology as they express the democratization of Reason.
“The world is nothing, the man is all; in yourself is the law of all nature, and you know not yet how a globule of sap ascends; in yourself slumbers the whole of Reason; it is for you to know all, it is for you to dare all.” –R.W. Emerson
“Philosophically considered,” Emerson writes, “the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul.” This is a romantic and Kantian synthesis of the Cartesian split. This synthesis and these transcendentalists did much to expand our rights, even as they fought to free the slaves, and fought for women’s suffrage, the other slavery. In their writings, nature is not finally other than the soul, but consubstantial with it, which what Spinoza was getting at all along.
“If you have built your castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put foundations under them.” –Thoreau
To understand how Kant came to so deeply influence American Individualism; to understand how his with his radical new metaphysics he shattered what had hitherto been taken rigidly and dogmatically to be knowledge; to understand what opened the way for the free flight of the of the American Romantic Imagination; to do all this, we have to take a non-technical look at Kant’s new kind of foundation, his transcendental foundation, by which he limited knowledge in order to make room for faith and the imagination, and by which he describes how it is possible that we experience Nature at all.
Kant recognized the importance of Hume’s criticism; put an end to all knowledge claims about God; and put an end to any ethics founded on unknowable and silent God. In order to get us to a more stable foundation for our rights, Kant, for once and for all, destroyed the foundation on which both Descartes and Spinoza had justified their philosophies: the ontological argument for God.
This move took away all justification for Ryan’s claim that our rights come in part from God. Yet this move saved God. Kant put God beyond the reach of Reason. Ryan and the GOP can keep God. They can play with voodoo dolls for all we care. That’s their right. And it’s a right worth protecting. But they cannot use God to justify human rights, except rhetorically.
Kant’s influence on the Bill of Rights is profound, particularly in matters separating church from state, and in matters of free speech. In the United States, we retain the right to worship freely; or to worship not at all; and to freely express our thoughts on all matters. To claim this right stems from God is insidious to these rights; for God is an absolute concept which leaves no room for contradiction. Claiming our rights in God threatens ever the consistency which equality requires. We are a nation open to all faiths and non-believers. Ours is an open society with an open road to liberty.
Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me, leading where I choose.
–Whitman, “Song of The Open Road”
Kant helped to found this open road, and to make it wide enough to carry knowledge from one city to the next. Yet he made it narrow enough to prevent traveling circuses, like so many Tea Party fanatics, from freely traveling the way while failing to yield to uphill traffic, thinking that the city atop that hill belongs to them alone, though they would exempt their churches from paying a penny to help pave this road. We all want to get to that city shining upon a hill, and it is a hard climb. We would have it be a cosmopolitan city, a shining example for the world: secular, not sectarian; egalitarian, not elitist.
In order to pave this new and open road, Kant had to find in Reason a solid metaphysical foundation, not founded on eternal God, and not founded on contingent experience. He had to show that, in the first place, God is not a proper object of knowledge, that God is beyond the reach of Reason, in turn implying that no one has the right to legislate on theological grounds, though theologians have every right to their personal journey, provided they do not infringe on others’ rights to do the same.
To do so, his profound philosophy defines phenomena–the objects we find in nature–to be the proper stuff of reason and science; and he defined noumena as that which reason cannot reach without absurdity and contradiction. In this dark realm, beyond time, beyond space, and beyond the reach of reason, faith alone can light a candle.
One may freely justify one’s personal choices as choices of faith, so long as these choices do not limit others’ rights. God is an entirely private affair, incommunicable; and so God has no justification in the public sphere as a matter to be forced. On this view, universalized and generalized Reason alone is the foundation for a social ethics and the rights entailed therein. And Reason, not justified by God, is justified on a new kind of metaphysics, by which Nature appears to us as it does owing to a transcendental subject. On this view, Reason is alone communicable between subjects within a well governed and cosmopolitan society of liberty.
A shining society of liberty is founded on a hill called Reason; upon whose height we have got a universal, general and secular view. From this hill we have derived our form of government, our laws and rights, our scales, our checks and balances. Through the democratic process and rational assent, we do our best to guarantee and enshrine our rights. We must, history and wisdom tell us, ever be on guard against the forces of unreason and tyranny, to which and to whom Ryan panders. Those votes for which he panders are tragically ironic.
We have learned much since Kant. Christians often claim that Truth is unchanging, as once they claimed the earth to be fixed and firm. Likewise, they claim the ground on which our rights are based is unchanging, as God is eternally true. And there is much in Kant’s pious and puritanical philosophy which retains this ahistorical changelessness. Not even Kant could transcend his ahistorical Protestant roots.
To see this ahistoricism in Kant, we should see in him Descartes’ subject, the I-think or cogito. This subject is necessarily true, and is not dependent on temporal conditions. Kant’s cogito is the transcendent subject, which becomes in turn Emerson’s Over-Soul. Emerson’s Over-Soul expresses the founding American ideal: E Pluribus Unum.
“We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul.” –Emerson
This Over-Soul is logically prior to phenomena, to Nature. It is Spinoza’s evolved natura naturans, or nature-naturing. This subject, itself Nature, cannot see itself, as an eye cannot see itself, except in the mirror of Nature. It appears to itself as other than itself. It comes to know itself by projecting the most basic categories of reason. It comes to know itself through space and time. But the subject is itself logically prior to space and time, timeless and eternal.
By Kant’s account, we can only know of the subject that it is as a subject for predicates, which, paradoxically, are spatiotemporally constructed. Nothing more of the subject is knowable; for, to describe that which is logically prior to spatiotemporal predication results in an absurd claim, almost as if to say that which produces the shadow is itself shadow. In short, it begs the question. Better stated, this subject transcends question, and is logically prior to all the categories which are presupposed by any question.
This subject then, being itself logically prior to temporality, cannot be said to change. The categories by which the first man made sense of his experience are the same as those of our own, just as his rights, though of them he would have been ignorant, as yet not having unearthed his Reason, eternally at one with “the starry heavens above, and the moral law within.”
By the time Kant’s philosophy evolves into the nineteenth century, philosophers like Hegel begin to understand that Truth is historical and it evolves. In keeping with his century’s genius, Darwin shows that the human subject itself has evolved. It follows that Reason is not timeless, but is a result of blind evolution. There is no timeless source for our rights. Indeed, the Bible itself is a narrative of evolving notions of righteousness.
We can no longer say that our rights are rooted in God, for there is no way to prove his existence. And, we can no longer say that our rights are rooted in timeless Reason, the laws of which are discoverable through meditation on phenomenal nature. We must now argue that our rights have evolved out of environmental pressures acting with innate genetic and epigenetic structures–but we cannot expect the GOP to bring this realization into their rhetoric. They continue to deny Darwin a fair hearing.
Our rights are sacred, even if secular; and they are hard won. They are not timeless, but historically contingent. We can prefer them as a people of our time, as a people who would not want to regress into the timeless dogmas of the past, knowing what cruelties can stem out of such authoritarian structures. We prefer the rights we have won, and would prefer to win more, while at the same time not eroding or taking away those of others.
Our rights are not guaranteed by God. Nor are they rooted in nature. Like many, I have watched enough of National Geographic to know Nature’s cruel blood thirst. Let lambs protest. Eagles will dive all the same.
Our rights are not guaranteed at all, except that we would develop them and enshrine them in Law, which a government–kept in check by the sacred freedom of speech and rule of law based on justice and normalization–can help us to guarantee. Democracy is dynamic, ever evolving, ever reaching for the promise of a more perfect union.
Our rights are best understood historically, humanistically, scientifically, and not theologically. The evidence of history has shown how cruel theology can be toward our marginalized citizens: women, minorities, homesexuals, and children. The very point of rights is to rid ourselves of cruelty, to respect the humanity of the other, as we ourselves would be respected. Of intolerance alone should we be intolerant.
Theocratic authoritarianism is just under the surface of many of the GOP’s social positions, and would have us be one nation under God. But this theocratic vision cannot stave off the naturalist’s empirical investigation. Ryans’ statement already contains the contradiction which Spinoza attempted to remedy just a short century before the philosophical revolution of Kant, and two round centuries before Darwin’s deliverance of philosophy from other-worldliness.
For all we know, we are alone in the universe. None but ourselves can help us. This fact greater than theology justifies that we would embrace the Christian Ideal that is part of our heritage. Let us create the Brotherhood of Man. And let yet widen this circle to include also our sisters, our homosexuals, all our creeds, religious or atheistic. Let us yet build that shining city upon our hill cosmopolitan. Let admit that all are born equal. Let us make room for our universal and evolving citizen.