than even a circus
elephant very tall-
er than would a tree pine;
farthermore reaching than
a snaking-river’s strike,
God’s tarantuala hands
are climbing up and up
and up the string holding
most: Earth is a balloon
(in the X
-ant climbing the mountain
That I Am
As anti-theological as my philosophy is, I would not make the strict argument that religion and philosophy should not mix. There is, for example, a branch of philosophy which is called the philosophy of religion. My philosophy of religion is such that I have ruled out the very distinctions which positing a god presupposes.
Specifically, I have ruled out the appearance/reality distinction, for both epistemological and political reasons. In matters of epistemology, the claim that there is an unseen, untestable reality — which is at the heart of the appearance/reality distinction — is a dangerous claim, as it is not verifiable, let alone falsifiable, and so threatens freedom. That is, it is not the kind of claim that I can check out for myself — at least, it is not the kind of claim that is suitable for a public claim.
Perhaps I can have that kind of experience. But I never have. All I have is the testimony of others, which fail to stand up to scrutiny. Some person of authority simply tells me something is so, and I am expected to accept and abide by this other’s judgment?
Then suppose I do have this kind of experience. Why would I presume that others should just accept my claim, not having themselves had this experience? That would be an unethical presumption. I do not have the right to force others to follow anything that they have not been able to verify or examine themselves.
At the heart of the matter is the famous “problem of induction.”
To hold that there is another reality, different from what appears to be the world, rests on a mighty shaky induction. What evidence do we have that there is a hidden reality? Perhaps it is better to naturalize the problem, and say that where we have discovered that the world is different than we thought is simply to say that we just thought about it in a wrong or insufficient way — there is nothing to support the claim that there is another reality, except a strange induction.
God supposedly dwells on the other side of the appearance/reality distinction, and people expect that we should live according to what He tells us, though we have not spoken with Him directly. This is a formulation for tyrannical structures, a demand that we submit to unfounded authority.
If authority rests on nothing more than this, what limits a privileged few, who claim to know God’s will, from hijacking — the allusion to 9/11 is deliberate — the culture, nation, or world?
Theology is inherently anti-democratic. It is slavish, cowardly, and stupid. But this does not disqualify it from being philosophy. There are plenty who would argue for a religious philosophy, and I respect their right to have their own philosophy.
But science is a different matter. There is no room in science for religion, for the assumptions of religion will cause science to break down.
(It is funny, though, how many scientists take the priest-like position of having a special position to tell us what reality is — behind the appearances. Fools, the lot of them!)
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.
Kierkegaard (1813-55) is the father of existentialism, which is a philosophy which takes the individual as its central concern. It asks what it means to exist, and how we are to make our way through this world in which we find ourselves. Most existentialists take being to be without justification, to be absurd. They take it that God is dead, that the universe itself is without meaning and absurd, and that the only way to have a meaningful life is to give life a meaning ourselves. Our existence is without meaning until we give it a meaning. But not all existentialists are atheists. Kierkegaard is himself profoundly religious and a christian. Indeed, his family name Kierkegaard means “church yard.”
The advancement of the sciences did much to remove God from the center of European life as it had removed the Earth from the center of the universe. This decentered modern man. He had lost himself, and wandered now about estranged and a stranger to himself.
The triumph of modern science was a triumph of Reason, whose laws appeared universally applicable, valid, and necessary. “God said ‘Let Newton Be!’ and all was light” wrote Alexander Pope. It appeared that Newton had discovered the laws on which the grand system of nature operates. It was only a matter of time that western philosophy, drunk with Reason, would lose modesty and proclaim with Hegel, “The Real is the Rational, and the Rational is the Real.”
Reason and being were consubstantial. The universe became itself the outward expression of the inward principles of Reason. Then to know Reason itself is to know the universe itself. Hegel claimed to know the structure of Reason through and through, such that he had Absolute Knowledge. There was nothing, it appeared to him with his mastery of Reason, which his philosophic system could not explain and subsume. His system was universal and universally valid.
In Hegelian thinking, the individual is an expression of the impersonal forces of history. The individual is but a specific instance of the universal laws of Reason historically expressed. Indeed, individuality dissolves in Hegel’s system, and an individual is only a part of a whole, and the whole is more real than the part. The Rational is universal; and only what is Rational is Real.
Kierkegaard takes this view to be patently false. Human existence is never universal, but is always individual. In Hegel’s system, and particular case is countered antithetically, and both this particular and its implicit other-than-itself are taken up in a third logical category: the synthetic.
An individual always implies its opposite, which is otherness. Neither of these opposites is in itself Absolute, and so neither is finally Real. Only the synthesis is true and real: the drop-and-the-ocean is truer than either the drop or the ocean; and the individual-and-the-state is more true than either the individual or the state. And in the final analysis, all things subsume under a universal and unifying law.
This Hegelian way of thinking functions on a concept we may call the “both-and.” Truth is not this OR that, but synthetically both this AND that. Yet this concept does not measure up to what we meet with concretely in our finite human lives. This Hegelian theory may work out very well on paper, no matter how badly written; yet it cannot account for the utter specificity of subjective existence.
Philosophy had gotten so caught up in abstractions that it had utterly lost contact with concrete existence, which is that world we must deal with. And when we find ourselves in the world, it is radically subjective and concrete, utterly finite and specific. When you or I make a real choice, we don’t make a “both/and” choice. We must choose one road or the other. To be an individual is a choice. Authentic, concrete existence is ever faced with an “either/or.”
Kierkegaard rightly saw that the modern situation endangered to smother the individual. Mass communication was just beginning to become a reality, and the public was growing to be and indistinguishable and impersonal mass in which the individual could literally lose him or herself. Society was industrializing, systematizing, and institutionalizing human existence. In our own age, we recognize well that what we might call an individual is little more than a statistical average. Individuals have become little more than the Unknown Citizen for whom a marble monument is erected by the State, as envisages W.H. Auden.
In Kierkegaard’s own time, he saw not only public life turning into a massive and depersonalized system, but he also saw his beloved Christianity becoming but an institution, wherein Christians were but actors before an anonymous public. People did not choose their Christianity authentically, but attended church casually, not living up to the full demands of authentic religiosity. People attended church to act a part, living as performers, externalized, without the inward reflection which is required of an authentic person before the “yawning abyss of eternity.”
Science had given modern man a false sense of mastery and control. It had given laws which appeared to be certain, necessary, and objective, universally applicable. Consequently, the modern society which developed out of this attitude, took it, as did Hegel’s student Marx, that the march of history unfolds according to the impersonal dialectical laws of change. In Marx, we get the sense that social revolution is inevitable, certain, and that we will come to realize a classless society where our differences are no longer an issue, and we will find the this resolution of all differences to be a paradise on earth.
Marx’s history has proved wrong, though he gave us a great many insights. Yet the effect of the Hegelian philosophy did result in paving over of our individual differences. The massive bureaucracies of Marxist societies indeed negated the individual by turning him into an abstraction which expressed a universal system. Marx had merely materialized Hegel’s system, inverting Hegel’s idealism, while maintaining the premise of the primacy of abstract universals. It was for Kierkegaard to invert the abstract universal into a concrete particular: the individual.
The movement of the system through history does not care for the particular concerns of the individual, which are primary for the individual. Our concerns are for a future which is utterly personal and of ultimate concern. We must decide what kind of person we are to become, and to make this choice again and again, and forever again, if we are to live authentically in concord with our personal concerns. “Life”, he tells us, “can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” That is, we must understand from where we have come individually, and life to an utterly unknowable future.
Individuals have no knowledge about the future, except on the basis of what has happened before. What you or I will become after today is speculative, but of concrete concern. What we choose determines what we will concretely become; and every choice is an either/or, not a both/and. Either I attend this university program, or I do not; either I marry this person, or I do not. The difference is all; and the difference between any two options is never certain. In the words of Frost:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood and I–
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
We cannot know beforehand what future awaits us. We cannot know who we will become. We cannot know what undiscovered country which Hamlet feared came after death as he contemplated the ultimate question of his existence: “To be, or not to be.” We are utterly uncertain of our future, and must yet choose what we are to become. And in this concrete and utterly personal understanding that we each must face the undiscovered country alone, and face the yawning abyss of eternity alone, then enters into our reality fear and dread. Every choice is a leap into the abyss, a leap of faith.
To leap into the system and follow the public is inauthentic, since the individual alone must face his mortal truth concretely. The individual will die; and to live an authentic life, she must face this alone. Every choice is to decide which kind of life she will have lived. Death is the backdrop against which she must decide her fate. And it is not enough simply to fall into doing as one does for a public; it is not enough to be but an actor; it is not enough to put on nice Sunday clothes and go to church, which is a dishonest theatre–at least theatres know and say what they are: theatres. Churches are public theatres in which all don costumes, but none there do know they but play a play.
Kierkegaard saw that there were freethinkers who did not believe in Christianity, and he took these thinkers to be something better than people who profess to be Christians though they are not. Hegel called himself a Christian, but Kierkegaard tells us that Hegel is no Christian. Hegel’s brand of abstract Christianity claims to know universal truths, and in so claiming, loses the heart of Christianity: the individual who alone must take the leap of faith. To have faith is a way of being, not an abstract. Faith is a fundamentally subjective affair. To this end, Kierkegaard calls himself a “subjective thinker,” as counter distinct from a philosopher who concerns himself with abstract and theoretical universals. Existence is concrete, not theoretical; authentic choice is always subjective and concrete.
Kierkegaard points out that Christianity is an Abrahamic Religion, and thus takes its start from the individual. Abraham, you will recall, is asked by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, in order that Abraham demonstrate his faith. This choice is symbolic of the individual’s predicament. Abraham alone can decide what is right to do; and what is required of faith may appear to the public to be insane and unethical–and this, the ethical, is what must needs be transcended in the authentic choice.
Kierkegaard describes a certain kind of inwardness which faith and authentic existence requires. Existential choices require an intense sort of introspection. We must go inward, away from the prying impersonal public, in order to make the kinds of choices which have ultimate significance for our being–that concrete existence we are. And for that being we concretely are, we alone are responsible. The weight of eternity rests on our choices; the weight of being, the weight of our our concrete being, the weight of the existence we are and will become–all this rests on what we ourselves choose: and the public will not lead us to this place of authentic inwardness.
To describe the journey inwards, Kierkegaard begins by describing the aesthetic, who takes his present experience to be the point of it all. This aesthetic, childlike and naive, takes sense experience and pleasure to justify existence, though he does so without reflecting on it. For him, a flower is a supreme pleasure; but when the flower wilts, he can fall into despair, and seek frantically to find some replacement for what he has lost. The aesthetic can be the man who would lose himself in the pleasures of the flesh, and so would, like Don Juan, lose himself in a woman. But he tires of this woman, and seeks in despair another. This seeking for the aesthetic pleasure of the flesh can go on until the last of his days, at which end his life has apparently been to no end but pleasure, which is fleeting as a shadow.
But Kierkegaard expands this more commonplace way of examining the aesthetic to include intellectuals, who find ideas to be like women but pretty playthings. They take to thinking as were but entertainment, and they take ideas to be either interesting or boring; which, in the end, turns out to be a bankrupt kind of thinking, justified fleeting pleasures, which are but the shadows of an academic theatre–fundamentally an inauthentic way of being and thinking.
The person who would turn away from the outward world of sensual pleasures does so in order to become an ethical person. This is an either/or choice. Either one stays attached to the sensual pleasures of living and aesthetic life, or one becomes ethical, and begins to look a little inward. To be ethical is to live the life of an ethical citizen, considering what one ought and ought not to do. To be ethical entails that we sometimes or often deny ourselves base sensual pleasure.
Yet the ethical life is not yet the life of an authentic person, as it is caught up in universal judgments. One should behave as one would have others behave; and in the ethics of universality, there is not yet the conditions out of which an individual would choose. Ethical systems can tell us what not to do collectively; but ethics cannot help us to make intensely personal choices, such as if I should or should not marry a person. Nor can they tell us how to make choices, each of which alternative would contain some evil, and which would drive a person to despair.
This leads on to the most inward of the three stages, which Kierkegaard calls the religious. When faced with the choice of whether or not to sacrifice his son for God, Abraham represents the authentic individual caught between two alternatives, each of which entails profound loss: either the loss of his faith and his soul, or the loss of his son. No universal ethical system can tell him how to choose. He has to decide first if the message is indeed from God; and second, whether to obey that voice. If he stays at the level of the ethical, which can deal with only universal conditions and not particular and concrete specifics, he will be paralyzed.
In order to make the leap of faith, he has to make what Kierkegaard calls “the teleological suspension of the ethical.” In short, in order to make this kind of seemingly impossible choice–which seems all the more impossible to the person of deep faith–he must suspend his universal judgement, his ethical judgement, and stand himself before that yawning abyss, and choose. This he does individually, in fear and trembling.
Teleology is the study of final ends, and the person of faith would have to take it that God has for the person some end which is of higher value than what our common ethical systems can give us guidance for. Ethically, it is wrong for Abraham to kill his own son. Yet, as a man of faith, Abraham has to suspend his common ethical judgement and in faith submit to the will of God. In this is a concept of a hero, who would act at tremendous sacrifice for a good which is beyond his ability to know.
Abraham makes his choice with no measure of certainty, with no assurance that God will prove himself a worthy God. But nor can God know Abraham a worthy man unless he test his resolve to act on his faith; and nor can Abraham move to that innermost center of religiosity without this leap of faith.
Of course God sends an angel just at the moment Abraham has committed fully to his faith, and prevents Abraham from killing his own son, thus revealing himself a worthy God; just as Abraham has shown himself to be an authentic man of faith, profoundly courageous.
To us, who are outside of the problem Abraham faces, the act of killing his own son appears unethical, and we are right to judge it so. But Abraham, facing deeply an issue which is beyond the scope of everyday ethics, the consequences of which are of ultimate significance–Abraham shows himself to be the kind of hero for the individual who must choose his own life, which cannot be accounted for on any system.
I cannot personally see any justification for Abraham’s action; but then I am an atheist, and take it that did I hear God’s voice, I should seek medical help. Yet looking at Kierkegaard, I think we can learn something of value.
First, he points out quite rightly that to be an authentic Christian requires a subjective leap of faith, and that no objective analysis of the facts can assure who would take that leap that it is not just taking a flying leap. A relationship with God is intensely personal; just going to church on Sunday is not what it means to be a Christian.
Second, philosophers like Hegel who objectively justify their kind of Christianity on universal and rational grounds miss the essential feature of Christianity, which was founded on the act of faith of an individual. He lived forward, to a final end, whereof he could have no knowledge; and were there knowledge in the first place that he were right, it were no act of courage. Hegel takes it to be a matter of Absolute Knowing that he is a Christian, and so cannot know the fear and trembling which is under the armor of faith.
And we would do well to contrast Kierkegaard’s teleological suspension of the ethical with Nietzsche’s Ubermench, who acts above mere morality in order to be the bold creator of his own existence. Nietzsche in the end preaches that we say yes to nature as we find it: a will to power. And so Nietzsche preaches that whoso would be a man must not be weighted down by the gravity of the herd morality.
No. Kierkegaard takes a less assured stance, and yet would have us to act. His Christianity is a bold and daring act of faith, which at its heart has the sacrifice of a son, and would teach that we would recognize that every deep choice is some kind of sacrifice.
We all have to make such kinds of sacrifices. Every choice worthy of struggle and courage excludes some good and entails some evil. Kierkegaard himself famously chose not to marry a woman whom he loved for his love of her. He did not want to burden her with himself. And yet he chose not to marry her so that he could become that he had it in himself to become: a great writer and thinker. In order to become the brilliant subjective thinker we study today, he sacrificed his love and joy, and it pained him to the end. At the end of his life, he willed to her, though she had married another man, the small amount of money he had.
Every day, Kierkegaard would teach us, we must choose what we value against other things we would value. Good things are not for us a universal singularity, but a multiple as we have it in ourselves to be. Life is an either/or, each road of which leads to a different good, a different way of existing. The Good is not One; and choice is not a both/and.
This last spring, the Society for Textbook Revise [sic] managed to sneak up on us and attack evolution theory as it was presented in South Korean high school textbooks. In effect, they got through security and hijacked the secular word science by means of the sectarian adjective creation. With passports thus forged, creation scientists presumed it proper to put a dead pilot in the cockpit, since He, they claim, drew up the flight plan in the first place.
(Aboard His plane, there are to be no science textbooks sporting profane pictures of cross-dressing dinosaurs, like Archaeopteryx. Birds were created birds, and fossils sporting fashionable feathers are, well, inconvenient–even downright embarrassing.)
Having got around security, and having got their “scientifically” licensed Pilot into the cockpit, The Society for Textbook Revise [sic] expurgated from Korea’s science textbooks both the feathered Archaeopteryx example, and the example of the horse’s evolution. They created, in effect, a Family Darwin, in which nothing is added, but those things are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.
On that fateful day of the hijacking, the weather was fair, and Korea’s scientific community was, as usual, busy doing a certain secular something behind laboratory walls, which they call “double-blind experimentation.” Thus busy and blindfolded, the scientists did not see the coming of this bold and brazen Bronze Age attack.
Who woulda thunk it possible? I mean, there are children in those school houses! Even twins! Such attacks, these scientists thought, happen only in “backwards” nations like America; if not in New York, then in Tennessee. But who would bring down the textbooks?
But out of the blue, they came. Textbook terrorists.
Yet there is good news. But let’s pause first. As a US citizen, it is with some measure of irony that I call the US “backwards.” I love that my country’s core values include freedom of speech, which is necessary in order that we have freedom of thought. Paradoxically, it is in the US that creation science was conceived as a political movement. And this movement is a threat to the separation of church and state. It threatens this separation by fusing theology with science.
Science, like the US Constitution, is a product of the Enlightenment, and depends on the free exchange of ideas. This requires that we defend the freedom of speech, and that we erect a wall of separation not only between church and state, but also between church and science–both in the US and in here in Korea.
“The real disturbers of the peace are those who, in a free state, seek to curtail the liberty of judgment which they are unable to tyrannize over.” –Spinoza, 1670
By the Enlightenment ideal, nothing is beyond the reproach of criticism–not even Darwin. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of free-thinking minds. No blasphemy is too profane in the pursuit of knowledge. No one is special: not you, not me, not Jesus, not Mohammad. All people, and all ideas get a shot. The best ideas–the ideas which work–get put down in textbooks.
I say much here which does not settle well with my more religious fellows, whose right to worship even my blasphemy defends. Allow me my mindless babblings, and I’ll you yours. Where we cannot find common ground, let us to the impartial judge: science.
Now, to the good news. The Society for Textbook Revise [sic] failed to sway a special government panel which recently convened to review the changes. Before the panel, Korean scientists showed reason and restraint. They did not rally up a coalition of the willing and invade Texas, where such plots are planned. They did not invade and leave lone-star education board members’ mouths agape with a scientific display of shock and awe. No, these scientists did better; and we have the Enlightenment vaccination program to thank for it. This Enlightenment vaccination program had pumped up and prepared their immune system with critical-thinking skills.
Let’s look more closely at this assault on reason, and see how disaster was averted.
The Society for Textbook Revise [sic] scouted for years, looking for weaknesses in the security system. They found legitimate scientific debates. They found ways distort these legitimate debates in order to suit their messianic mission.
In particular, they isolated two textbook examples of evolution: the evolution of the horse, and the example of the Archaeopteryx as a transition species.The horse example, the Society argued, is too simplistic, and is unreliable evidence of evolution. There is, they say, a wholesome “alternative” explanation, which does not involve sexual selection. And the Archaeopteryx, they claimed, is an unsettled issue, and therefore should be excluded and dismissed as scientifically invalid.
But the kicker is that the Society did not consult with experts in the field. Rather, they snuck through security with their creation-science passports, and hijacked the scientific process. They went directly to the publishers.
With their distorted evidence, political pressure, and perhaps some friends on the inside, they successfully got the textbook publishers to exclude the examples. Presently, they began to work on omitting examples of human evolution. We are, after all, not bonobos.
Therefore they disguised their motives, repressed them; and, if you will forgive me for shifting metaphors, they put these repressed motives into the horse example, and snuck their trojan arguments into Troy–as a Greek gift: ΙΧΘΥΣ.
When the Korean experts in the field of evolution got word that their city-wall had been breached, they organized and set the antediluvian fossil record straight. The publisher will now retain the Archaeopteryx example, and has rejected the creationists’ argument as invalid. Go figure. The horse example they have agreed is too simplistic and not convincing enough. So, with tongue in cheek, the scientists have now prepared for Jonah a Great Fish, and look to substitute the horse example with an even more convincing example. Hast seen the white whale?
“Be it known that, waiving all argument, I take the good old fashioned ground that the whale is a fish, and call upon holy Jonah to back me. This fundamental thing settled, the next point is, in what internal respect does the whale differ from other fish.” –Ishmael from “Moby Dick,” 1851
You can also read my previous piece on the topic: Buffoons of Truth: Evolution Under Attack in South Korea.
The hijab, along with its other, more oppressive, counterparts, is a symbol which belongs to a particular vocabulary; in which, what is man and what is woman is defined in a way antithetical to the vocabulary of equal rights; and to use the vocabulary of human rights in order to justify this symbol is paradoxical and absurd as to use democratic systems in order to elect a tyrant.
Yes, I support, in principal, that a woman would have a choice to wear or not wear the hijab, just as I support, in principal, that a person would have the choice to practice this or that religion freely. It does not follow that I would not criticize this or that religion; and therefore, I criticize the wrong-headedness of those who would speak of the freedom of the hijab.
The hijab implies a set of gender roles in accordance with a system and model of the universe, human nature, and government, which is incompatible with the human rights I take to be the greatest achievement of humankind.
Yes, the argument is riddled with paradox: the freedom to wear what would negate that freedom. I get it.
Part of the problem with the veil, which is more oppressive than the hijab, is that it is a community value, a symbol in a mode of community, and mode of communication itself; and these communities are seeking to become a part of a newer mode of community which would not have the woman so defined, as we have found that there are profound benefits to understanding gender differently.
Then, these kind of arguments go to push these vocabularies into the dusty old shelves of antiquated lexicons–lexicons which worked on binary oppositions, and set one term of each opposition as less worthy, as more object than subject.
This I wrote in response to this article.