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.
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.
Here in Korea, my science students tell me that though on any corner you can see half a dozen red neon crosses reaching for heaven; that though not even in the corner of your living room are you safe from missionaries magically transubstantiating your doorbell into a church bell; that though here Bible thumpers everywhere corner you and thump their Book with more zeal than thump traditional Korean drummers their buk; that, despite all this, Creationists will not corner Korea. They tell me that all the students here learn evolution without theological qualms; and they tell me that, despite the universal, catholic, eternal and unchanging truth claims of Abrahamic theology, omnipresently valid, the likes of which not even Jonah could escape, that there is no tension here, locally, between science and religion. Creationism, they tell me, is an American disease. When they tell me this, I stand back askance, and sidle to the nearest window to see if God again has stopped the Sun, if not all critical thinking, that Joshua may win his battle.
My science students tell me that the roots here are very different than those of the United States, which has again shown its old worrisome tendency towards theocratic puritanism; and they tell me that their sindansu roots protect these old rain-worn Korean mountains from land-sliding into old Creationist abysses. They tell me that Korean mythology does not celebrate a creator of the universe so much as it celebrates and venerates clan lineages and leaders, who teach the people how to live upright and virtuous lives.
To an extent, what my students tell me makes sense. Korea does have a unique mythology which is latent in their formative and regulative concepts. We can see this mythical dynamic expressed in the god-status of North Korean leaders whose sons are given to rule. We can also see this in South Korean capitalism, where the fathers like Samsung or Hyundai naturally give their sons to rule. Here, Abraham’s sacrifice makes less sense. Yet Korea’s sons’ are now increasingly tied upon Abraham’s alter by an organized and zealous minority who would presume the godly authority to “correct” biology text books and “delete” the error of evolution. Would that Korean science educators sent us an angel, the likes of a Carl Sagan, to abort this sacrifice. Would that a Korean angel lit a scientific candle in this dark, demon haunted world. Would that The Society for Textbook Revise [sic] learned to read. First lesson: of fruit and metaphor. Eat up, boys.
Korean origin myths are different than Genesis. They don’t begin at The Beginning. Rather, they establish how Koreans came to be and are staged in an already existing world. In philosophical parlance, these myths are not concerned with the speculative question, Why is there something, rather than nothing? Korean mythology is not concerned with the infinitely regressive and speculative problem of how Being came to be. Rather, Korean mythology is concerned with establishing a unifying narrative, and in establishing a practical foundation for a Korean civilization and ethics.
Consider the Korean island of Jeju, and its unique culture. It has a rich array of cultural myths. Among these is the founding myth of Samsonghyol, in which three divine men emerge from three holes near the already existing Mt. Halla. These men are the ancestors of the three family names: Go, Yang, and Bu. The people of Jeju have traditionally traced their historical narrative back to these three divine men. Neither do the people of Jeju fear that Darwin would threaten their unique island culture; nor do they rally behind the battle flag of the king of kings–well, not until recently, when many among them enlisted in The Army of The Lord, and found a peculiar admiration for Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son’s scientific education.
Jeju also has a story about the origin of people, which is infinitely more naturalistic than the story of Genesis. In this myth, the two giants Maitreya and Sakyamuni fight in an already existing world. Maitreya kills Sakyamuni and makes earth out of the corpse; and the maggots which form on it become people. In this, we can clearly see one species changing into another: maggots to people. Clearly, one might think, Darwin will have less of a problem here; for who is so attached to maggots as to become a zealot? Who on this myth would suppress science education? Who for maggots would stop the Sun, and declare Truth changeless?
Peninsular Koreans have the myth of Dangun to establish their origin and ancestral lineage. In this story, a heavenly prince named Hwanung looks down on an already existing world. He wishes to possess it and to rule over the mortal men who live there. His father Hwanin knows that Hwanung will be a good ruler and will make the people happy; and so this father sends his son down to earth, setting him on Baekdu Mountain; this father sends his son down to earth, not in order to sacrifice him, but to establish the holy city of Sinsi. Moses-like, this good god-son establishes laws, moral codes, and the cultural order.
Later, a male tiger and a female bear pray to Hwanung in order that they would become human. So he tells them to spend a hundred days out of the sunlight, in a kind of maternal cave, with only the sacred foods mugwort and garlic to eat. (We can deduce from this that fruit is among the oral pleasures forbidden them.) Naturally, the male tiger gives in to temptation and is delivered to evil. He leaves this maternal cave a kind of oedipal miscarriage, while the female bear manages to supress her natural desires and oral fixation; thus she is transformed into a human who knows, a Lacanian might observe, le-nom-du-père. (After all, every person has to get beyond the oral attachment to mother’s sweet breast milk in order to become a healthy human citizen.)
This obedient and virginal Eve-bear lacks a husband, and so naturally prays for one at a sindansu tree. Though no serpent tempts her, Hwanung is happy to answer her prayer, and blesses her with a son named Dangun, who is given to rule, who establishes a walled city near Pyongyang, and who thus begins the old kingdom of Gojeosan and Korean history in about 2333 BCE.
Nearly four thousand years later, in 1603, just thirty years before the Inquisition would jail Galileo for his scientific heresy; and just eighty-nine years before the Salem Witch Trials condemn nineteen Americans to death for witchcraft, justifying this on sound theological grounds; just four thousand years later, I say, a Korean carries an atlas of theology into Korea, and Korea begins to learn a new but already dying story, and to help ensure their children might one day inherit the wind, flatulent a wind though it may be. The scent of history is rank; when on disguised theological grounds creationists suppress science in the classroom; when on theological grounds tired old judges burn witches or burn books to forward their drive for wealth and power. Vive la suppression!
Yet it was not until the mid 1960s, some forty years after Tennessee put John Scopes on trial, and but a thin decade after the Korean War, that the number of Korean Christians spiked and began to outnumber adherents of traditional religions. Interestingly, this spike parallels the radical westernization of South Korea; there is a common causal link between sightings of both Ronald McDonald and sweet Jesus–forsooth, man cannot live on garlic and mugwort alone!
My students are right to point out that, like mad cow disease, the conflict between science and religion is not native to Korean soil; yet the infection is here. There is nothing in the traditional Korean mythology which claims eternal authority on an unchanging and otherworldly Truth; yet the infection is here. The Korean mythos tends to be pragmatic, not speculative, not worried about eternal and unchanging Truth, not inclined to mud-over cracks in the fortress of theology, not inclined to suppress science education. Yet unscientific creationists are getting into the business of science text books.
Korean philosophy is traditionally Confucian, which tends toward creating social order and to defining virtuous living. It is less concerned with the ultimate structure of reality. Even in Buddhism, metaphysical speculation is seen to be a waste of time and effort, to which point we have the parable of the poison arrow.
“Suppose,” the Buddha says, “that a man is shot with a poisoned arrow, and the doctor wants to remove it immediately. Suppose the man refuses to let the doctor remove the arrow until he knows who shot it, what his age is, who his parents are, and why he shot it. If he waits to answer all of these questions before removing it, he may die.”
Korean science expresses this pragmatic tendency, and a kind of economic urgency, trying to pull out a poison arrow called poverty; wherefore Koreans tend to fund well the applied sciences, which have helped to build such economic giants as Samsung; and they tend to underfund speculative science, which does not fit well into practical economic structures and does not quickly fill empty rice bowls.
One consequence of this is that Korean scientists have not, as a whole, taken a keen interest in Darwinism as a question of ultimate origins, and have been able to ignore the profound zero-sum contradiction between modern science and the Abrahamic religion–Abraham, who is usurping Dangun’s claim for mythical origins. In place of a virtuous and chaste she-bear, Koreans are increasingly meditating on Eve and Mary; and for their love of Christ, they are increasingly denying empirical science, biting the hand which feeds it. And Korean scientists, going about their daily business, have been caught flat-footed, thinking, like my students, that there is no need to worry.
There is need to worry; and the sovereign mind of free-thinking Koreans, who would do right by their country to practically solve real problems; indeed, the sovereign mind of free-thinking people everywhere; this sovereign mind of a first born, I say, risks to become a blood sacrifice to an Abrahamic Metaphor.
I love gospel music. I love the literature, the art, and the architecture of Christendom. Yet I would not lock myself in a church, reading but one book, staring at but a few images, while listening alone to gospel music, however tempting that may be. I love bird songs and sunshine too much to spend my Sundays inside.
e.e. cummings wrote that little birds are the secrets of living, and that whatever they sing is better than to know. Yet it is hard not to know; it is hard to quiet the mind enough to really hear what the birds are singing.
Churches are too stuffy and self-righteous, clanging the pots and pans of their opinions, even to hear the music. And secularists are too fed up with theological debauchery to even come near to a church, where some cool birds might roost and sing.
Me, on my clearer days, when my mind is calm, and my heart full of spirit, I like to come near to a church, but to come no nearer than to stand on the lawn, free from the congregation. There, standing outside, I can on a sunday hear the songs, and know that, no matter how wrong the theology, the sound is right.
There, on the lawn, I can hear the music, smell the fresh cut grass, feel the warm moisture evaporate and permeate the air, almost as it would itself suspend the music. And when the song ends, I can, without disturbing a soul, walk nearer to the lawn’s edge, nearer to the forest, and listen to the ancient bird songs, and wonder when dinosaurs began to sing.
“Henry, squatting over the fire and settling the pot of coffee with a piece of ice, nodded. Nor did he speak till he had taken his seat on the coffin and begun to eat.” –Chapter 1
In Jack London’s White Fang, the second law of thermodynamics reigns king. Life is an entropic struggle, a struggle against entropy, a struggle for survival. It is the struggle of highly organized systems battling against the universal process of entropy, which is the tendency for all things to disorganize and dissolve. Indeed, this is much the reason why Schrodenger called life negative entropy.
The concept of entropy rests squarely on the second law of thermodynamics, which states that, in a closed system, heat cannot transfer from a cooler body to a warmer one. If, for example, we pour hot water into a bucket of ice, the heat will transfer to the ice. The ice will absorb the heat, and the hot water will cool, until all that is left is water of one temperature.
Ice is more organized an less random than is water. By adding the hot water, the ice becomes a liquid, and the whole system thereby increases its overall level of entropy. It is less organized than before, more random.
Though we have looked at the bucket as if it were a closed system, a bucket is not a closed system. No system is closed, except the universe itself. The heat of the hot water disorganized the ice, and the temperature equalized; but, assuming the room still cooler than the water in the bucket, this process towards equalization will continue, until at last, at some moment ages and ages hence, the universe itself will disorganize to a state of perfect simplicity, utterly undifferentiated — Nothingness.
But until that happens, particular systems can increase in complexity. But this increase in complexity is finite, and the overall level of entropy is toward perfect and simple equilibrium. For example, we can build a freezer, and make ice cubes. But to make these stable little cubes, we must burn, perhaps, coal, and by the time we have ice cubes, there is less overall structure in the universe. That is, we lose energy and heat in creating the ice cubes. Simply feeling the warmth behind the freezer can confirm this. There is much more heat behind the freezer than was extracted from the water to decrease its randomness and make it stable ice.
Our flesh is like the ice, and the life we eat is like the coal. Turning plants and animals into complex proteins adds to to level of entropy in the universe. That is, though we ever evolve into more complex structures, we have to disorganize other structures, and the over all level of entropy is always increasing. Life struggles to maintain itself, as against the flow of a great cosmic glacier.
We can think of the earth as a single system, finite but not self-contained. The earth itself can increase in complexity, but the universe as a whole will move towards disorganization and extinction. The sun radiates energy as its entropy increases. The heat of the sun moves out into the cold, black deep. The earth absorbs some of that heat. Plants gather light, and photosynthesize it, gaining the energy to fold matter into complex patterns. Rocks and dirt also absorb the heat, just as ice will absorb heat. But the earth will not hold the energy if the adjacent system is cooler.
During the day, the earth gains energy, but it is only day on one side of the earth. On the dark side, energy radiates out into the dark deep. Indeed, even where it is dawn, the earth still loses energy. It takes several minutes for the light of day to reverse the trend, and for the sun to reverse the process, which is why the coldest time of day is just after dawn.
In what London calls “the savage, frozen-hearted Northland,” the dawn comes late in wintertime, and the sun replenishes adds very little energy to the system during the day, so that in the winter, there is more loss than gain. Then, life is most cruel, most hungry, most savage.
In the savage, frozen-hearted Northland, every calorie matters. Negative entropy, like a freezer, needs energy to organize. A mouthful of food is the difference between motion and absolute stillness. In this frozen-hearted Nothland — in this bucket of ice — we meet two men and their six dogs, who depend absolutely on adding energy to their own negatively-entropic system in order to counter the entropy, and keep from melting, like so many ice cubes, into their environment, into the belly of the universe, and becoming indistinguishable from it.
In order to keep from death, these men must keep an orderly and calculated system, which is symbolized by the circle of safety around their campfire. The campfire itself symbolizes their complex intelligence, and also the process which Heraclitus described thousands of years ago, when he called the universe by the metaphor of fire.
“This universe, which is the same for all, has not been made by any god or man, but it has always been, is, and will be an ever-living fire, kindling itself by regular measure and going out by regular measures.” –Heraclitus
Early in White Fang, when it is dark and hard to see except by the light of the campfire, one of the men goes to feed the six dogs with six fish, but notices that one mouth goes unfed. A dog-like wolf had broken their circle, had acted as one of his dogs, and has stolen some of their energy: one fish. That night, one of the six dogs disappears, is eaten, metabolized, and turned to protein and steaming dung. Thus the circle grows smaller, colder, quieter, with less organized mass and less organized energy.
The dog-like wolf who breaks the line of the camp circle and steals a fish to eat, and who later lures out a dog to eat, is herself a member of another cooperative and organized system — a larger circle, a wolf-pack. This larger circle encompasses this smaller camp-circle, almost as a stomach would enclose its meat. This larger circle is like the belly of the universe itself; it is that which would draw all energy to equilibrium, all movement to stillness, all noise to silence, through its snake-like digestive tract. The circle of life is Ouroboros, the snake consuming itself, forming a circle as it eats its own tail. Life feeds on life.
The hunger and drive to gain energy is a consequence of life’s futile struggle against entropy. Recall that entropy is a measure of the amount of disorder in a system. Now recall our bucket of ice. The bucket of ice had a certain level of organization, and when we added hot water to the ice, the amount of entropy in the system increased. That is, the ice molecules had a certain level of organization and structure. But the energy we added turned the ice into liquid. Liquid is more chaotic than ice. So, the overall state of the system, with the added energy, is more chaotic, less organized, and has more entropy, and radiates heat.
Now think of the wolf as an isolated system, like the bucket itself. This system has a high level of organization. Indeed, it is an organism. The wolf eats meat. The meat is itself highly organized, like the ice. The wolf’s stomach adds acid and churns the meat, which is the equivalent of adding hot water to the ice. The meat digests and changes from a solid to a liquid, or from a lower to a higher entropic state. A byproduct of this digestive process is heat, which is still less organized than liquid.
As digestion continues, the digestive processes transport the nutrients and energy around the wolf’s body, and integrates the energy and nutrients into its own flesh and activity. It reorganizes its meal into its own flesh. The more chaotic and less organized liquid is organized and folded according to genetic patterns. Yet the sum of this process leads to greater, not less, entropy. That is, the wolf itself is not a closed system. The wolf only transforms a part of the meat into a more organized state; much order is lost in the form of heat and stool. The wolf itself is a process is negative entropy; it is creating a high state of order out of disorder; but the whole system–wolf, prey, and environment–has a net gain in entropy. The universe, by a tiny fraction, becomes less organized than before.
Watching the action in the beginning of White Fang, we can see behind the language and action entropy and negative entropy. In terms of entropy, we can see in London’s negative language the process of order moving to disorder. Heat moves to cold, motion to stillness, sound to silence. But complex life, in a futile struggle against this entropic process, must consume energy and other life, like Ouroboros, the snake which forms a circle consuming itself, in order to maintain itself.
As the dogs and men move as an organized unit toward their village, the wolves move as an organized unit in order to consume the meat, which the men and dogs are. As one at a time the she-wolf, with her cunning and highly complex mind, calculates and lures out less complex and less intelligent dogs; as this she-wolf, with her canine theory of mind anticipates the sex the male dogs desire and so lures them out and traps them; as this she-wolf lies to these dogs and makes them her meal, the circle becomes smaller and smaller until only one man and two dogs remain.
The last man’s circle grows smaller and smaller. He chooses, as a last defense, to not burn his fire in the middle of the circle, but to rather make the perimeter itself the fire; and in so doing burns the last of his available wood, disintegrating his circle. When the man is as near to total annihilation as a man can be; when the wolves are charging him from every angle; the man is surprised that the wolves leave their prize behind. The man is saved by another, well-organized circle, which is greater in cunning and available energy than is the wolves’ circle: his comrades.
Evangelicals question evolution. On the surface, there is no problem with this. It is critical thinking, and we ought to promote critical thinking. Our democracy works better when we think critically, and vote after we have thought.
Yet I hear secularists criticizing evangelicals on this account, that evolution is beyond question. It is not beyond question; it’ll never be finally confirmed. It is impossible to finally confirm a theory, as Karl Popper taught us.
Yet there are good questions, and there are bad questions. The old schoolroom wisdom that there are no bad questions is quaint. Not all questioning is worthy of respect, especially when the questioning is no questioning at all.
The evangelical “questioning” of evolution is not an open and objective questioning. It is a rejection of a theory without having understood it. It is counter critical, and is not honest thinking. The word question thus used is an abuse of language , since the word has departed from its understood meaning. The evangelical use of the word means something more like privileged rejection
Before evangelicals are granted the right to assert public policy on scientific issues, they must learn the issues and the method. They may question every step of the way, so long as they can formulate their questions clearly, and the word question is not so fuzzy as to mean nothing at all.
When public figures, such as we see in the GOP debate, claim that they question evolutionary theory, and present themselves as critical thinkers, they deserve all the mocking they get. They present themselves to be monkeys and apes, who know nothing of the art of thinking.
Yet when secularists present themselves so as to say that evangelicals are fools for even questioning evolution, they also use language foolishly. Evolution is always in question, otherwise science would fail and cease to be science. Scientists work to falsify their claims, which is to say they question their propositions. This is the essence of science, to test or question hypotheses, and to try to make them fail. Where is the weak spot?
Yet evolution has stood the test. More than one hundred years of questioning evolution, with the full force of the brightest minds civilization has yet produced, and the stubborn proposition will not fall. We must question evolution, if even to refine the theory. We each benefit from this mode of doubt and questioning. The evangelical use of the word question is inimical to the whole project.
What evangelicals call questioning is a sloppy use of language. Did they learn the theory, and did they learn what question is and what questioning is not, then their questioning would be welcomed. As it stands now, the evangelical questioning of evolution is beyond question absurd, sloppy, and not worthy of respect.
And anyone running for office who thinks thus sloppily does not deserve the honor which is holding office.
We owe Death a profound debt, and shall not default.
Did we not die, we could not have evolved our most humane attributes. Thought, Art, Music, Compassion, Love: all these are strictly indebted to Death and his cold, churlish claws. Without Death, the very faculties which make the sweet fruits of civilization possible could not be.
We have made our way from simple, single-celled organisms to complex, self-aware and infinitely creative beings who even long for immortality. But it is not to be. No individual has the right to default on our great debt.
The birth of one individual child, of one beautiful child, is dependent on the death of trillions of generations which struggled and adapted to survive and procreate. Slowly, generation after generation, century after century, millennium after millennium, age after age, the simple cell–without a single break in the biological chain between it and the child–moved from the simple to the complex; it moved from simple reactive behavior to the reflections of Kant; it moved from the calls of lower primates to the poetry of Shakespeare; it moved from mating calls of beasts to the music of Beethoven; it moved from scraping the walls of caves to the art of Van Gogh; it moved from the first dream to the science of Einstein. Onward it goes, this simple, single-celled odyssey.
Seeking refuge from death, we have procreated and shed less clever and less brilliant forms until at last we learned how to live for something, not merely to live running from death. We have learned to love, the greatest of all evolutionary adaptations. And maybe now we can learn to respect death in a new way, and learn to be somehow thankful.
At the heart of love is the infinite vulnerability, which is mortal through and through. Without this vulnerability, without our mortality, our need for care would be no need at all. Nor would we have learned to care for those who would show us also love. Death is at the heart of beautiful love, just as the birth of a baby implies the pending death of loving parents. Without death, love is not possible.
And the hope that parents have for their beloved children! For children embody our deepest longings. They embody our struggle for immortality, to survive beyond death; or, more properly, they are born that we will be survived. And we hope that our children will rise to the greatest blessed and immortal height that evolutionary adaptation has made possible. What will the child give? Will that child be an artist? A philosopher? A healer? Kind?
Kindness also latently imlplies death’s cold shadow: eternal night. Kindness is the warm fire built this night, around which we invite our blessed friends to stay warm, to share in a conversation, to share a story, even to sing a song that our breath will rise and reach for an eternally mysterious canopy of stars.