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!)
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.
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.
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
A certain kind of thinker reads this poem, and grows angry. I’ve heard people protest that Whitman is anti-intellectual; that Whitman has no business, as a poet, to come waltzing into the lecture-room and tell scientists how the world is — both reactions smack of both insecurity and irony.
Whitman is in no sense anti-intellectual. The man loves words, language, and the contest of ideas. Nor does Whitman devalue science, as some scientifically-minded intellectuals are wont to say. Rather, Whitman’s romantic rebellion against scientism amounts to an opening of the mind, to a recognition that, though science has brought us unimaginably far, we ought not sacrifice our imagination for petrified sentences.
In the lecture-room, closed off from the open night sky, some men fancy that they have captured, or are well on their way to capturing, the right set of sentences to represent reality. They fancy that our language is sufficient to capture reality. Especially, they fancy that so-called scientific sentences are the best for capturing the universe, and cramming it into a lecture-room.
But this is all to make the universe small, stale and stiff. Romantics would have us love the lecture-room, but to love more the door; and did a lecturer lock that door, romantics would have us revolt, and bust the door down. The universe cannot fit into a classroom; tomorrow cannot fit into yesterday’s ideas. There remains ever the silent unknown, which would dazzle us.
When I teach this poem, and especially when I teach this poem to science students, I love to use a particular scientist’s experience and analysis to lend support to Whitman’s poem. But before I get to her, let me draw your attention to the structure of the poem.
The poem is contains eight lines, the first four of which begin with the word when. This poetic device—repeating several lines with a single word or phrase—is called anaphora. Significantly, the word when connotes time. In the lecture-room, all who are present belong to a time. This poem was written in 1900, just before the revolutions of physics and astronomy which were to come. The people in this lecture-room are learning nothing timeless and eternal, but are learning the charts and diagrams which belong to a historically conditioned paradigm. Yet they persist in the illusion that they have it.
Whitman knew better. Not only did these scientists not have it in any ultimate sense, but simply in a historical and contingent sense, they did not have a privileged monopoly on all we could call knowledge. Having knowledge of how to write poetry well, for example, can have just as profound an effect on the human condition as the knowledge of how to write mathematical proofs. Whitman’s poetry in particular has done much to help America imagine what social equality looks like. And Whitman knew that yesterday’s poems would not suffice for the new America we are still busy imagining.
In poetry, and no less in the sciences, we must leave the door on the classroom unlocked, so that we may walk outside, so that we may walk out of our historically conditioned and contingent knowledge, to look up at romantically timeless stars, and imagine, in silence, what might be.
The first eight lines of this poem connote the historical conditions of the lecture-room, which is a product of civilization. Notice also the building, and expanding tension of the lines. The first is short, and each of the next three is longer than the one before it. This expanding quality brings the poem to nearly burst out of itself at its climactic moment, almost as the poet would break out of his historical condition, and into a timeless realm. It is as if he breaks out of his paradigm. Yet here, there is nothing to say.
The last four lines, paradoxically, describe this silent, timeless moment. He enters into a place of solitude, out of the inter-subjective objectivity of his time. Here, there is nothing said, nothing yet to say, and nothing here can be contained in the classroom. No matter how large we make the classroom—even in our post-modern world with high speed internet access in the classroom—, we cannot fit the stars therein; nor can we fit what scientific paradigm we might dream up tomorrow in yesterdays ideas; for it will always be the case that what fits in a textbook is at once conservative and yesterday’s ideas. The dreamers must step out of the classroom in order to step beyond it.
But let’s now return to the particular scientist I wrote of above. I like to suggest to students that this poem is structured like our brain. This poem, like our brain, can be divided neatly into two parts.
The left hemisphere can be thought of as a serial processor, or as organizing our experience into linear structures and categories. The first four lines, with their whens, and with the charts and diagrams, adding and dividing: these are analogous to the left hemisphere. Further, the left hemisphere is the primary center for language. It is this language which makes up the intersubjective objectivity which makes the lecture-room possible.
In contrast, the right hemisphere can be thought of as a parallel processor, or as organizing our experience as objects or images in space. The last four lines are composed without implying any goals, and are filled with words of silence and peace. These lines are analogous to the right hemisphere. The language of these four lines transcend the intersubjective objectivity of the lecture room. Here, the language is not dry and abstract; but here, the night is living, and mystically moist.
The scientist I would like to present to you is a brain scientist. In the middle of her career, she had a stroke. The stroke was in the left hemisphere, and took her ability to use language away from her. What she discovered in this process was this silent, mystical moist night to which Whitman points us.
Again, I will emphasize that neither Whitman nor I imply that science is not one of the supreme achievements of humanity. Rather, we both hold that we must leave the lecture-room door open, and imagine that tomorrow will somehow be greater than yesterday’s ideas.
I hope you enjoy this video of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s “Stroke of Insight.” The link is below.
It does not follow that without an objective foundation for morality that we do not have a morality; further, it does not follow that if we do not have an objective foundation for morality, and yet have a morality, that that morality is by default a subjective morality.
Theists and metaphysicians ask that we would have a non-human foundation for morality. They employ words like “objective” and “subjective” to forward their case. But we have no access to anything which is non-human and yet would give us sentences upon which to place our morality.
Perhaps it is true (though I affirm that it is not) that God gave his word to a privileged few; but we have no objective ground to judge if these speak true, even if they speak honestly.
But God is not the only means by which to argue an objective ground. Kant did this by positing an a-historical condition called human reason, and created an objective morality thereupon.
Yet I do not accept that there is an objective ground for reason, if by objective we mean not historically conditioned.
I demand a thoroughly naturalized morality, in keeping with Rorty, which entails we drop the words “objective” and “subjective.” These words belong to theology and modernity; yet their utility has waned.
There is no non-circular justification for morality.