To say we are bird-brained is not so much to scramble as to fry a truth overeasy.
Yet we’re not so different from the crow, who avoids that garden with the great-horned plastic owl perched at its gate. Like that scared crow, some part of the human brain mistakes counterfeits of nature for nature, and takes flight.
When my children were younger — about two and three years old — we’d go shopping for clothes. I’d get a kick watching them react to mannequins. Sometimes, the mannequins modeled dresses, and my kids would sneak up, lift the dresses, and peek. I’d check over my shoulder, blush, laugh, and redirect their attention. Look, over there! It’s Dora The Explorer! And off they’d go.
(Come to think of it, they never once asked if this or that Dora was the real Dora. And a monkey in boots never once troubled them. Little literalists, they, believing as they did in The Map. What they’d see is what they’d get, and that’s the way it was — our childhood is more ancient than we suppose.)
I’m really not so different from my children, though I’m a bit less literal, a bit less inclined to pull up a mannequin’s dress. Still, I’ve noticed that I’m wired to do something quite the same, and as literal — but in the yoga-pants aisle. Passing those well-muscled mannequins, perched as they are above an ancient garden, my eyes, of their own accord and disobedient, peek.
I mean, I catch myself, and I avoid gawking. (I am, afterall, a grown and civilized man, who does his best not to embarrass his family.) Yet my eyes, my eyes the windows of a soul much older than my own, duck-like, take flight without me, in the direction of an ancient objective, blind to the fact that these yoga-pants but cover a well-placed decoy. And unlike my eyes — or that unconscious part of my brain which has intention but not volition — I know this world to be filled with duck blinds, behind which hunters take aim at our wallets, treating our credit cards like sporting clays.
Our modern world is much made up of such plastic illusions. Just as in a dream, during which that part of us sleeps that might call the dream a dream, we mistake our visions for reality; so in waking, we respond to what we see, in part, as it were the Great-Horned Owl itself, perched at the gate. Part of us does not distinguish between the real and the unreal. For that part of us, what we see is what we get. For that part of us — as old as the most ancient of fish — it is all real. (It is not for that other, newer part of ourselves to distinguish between light and shadow, but to distinguish between meals, lures, and lies.)
Once, in Costco, approaching Halloween, pushing my then four-year-old daughter along in a shopping cart, I spotted decorations — pumpkins, skeletons, scarecrows — and grew excited at the prospect of decorating our home for all the little trick-or-treaters who were to come for candy. But as we rounded the corner, my daughter panicked, crow-like, on spotting three life-sized witches stirring their wicked brew in a wicked cauldron while laughing their wicked laughs, with their eyes lighting red, and with lightning flashing against a backdrop of night.
One of the trio turned her head directly to my daughter, chanting Double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble! My little girl burst immediately into tears, screaming for me to turn around, which I did, after what was for her a forever moment.
But, being a dad, and curious, I got no farther than the underwear aisle, when I got bored, and found my eyes taking flight, bat-like; and the cart’s wheels found themselves following, slowly, slowly, until we could hear a witch laughing again: I come, Graymalkin! My daughter’s eyes turned to me, her protector, as if to ask, Really, Daddy? Are you fucking with me? We’re going back there?
Of course we were.
But as we again approached the corner, and she began to cry, I told her not to worry, that the witches are not real, that they are just plugged-in plastic, a superstition. What she said next exactly defines what separates us from fishes, birds and bats: “I know they’re not real, Daddy! But they scare me anyway!”
When the very old man with enormous wings falls from the sky and lands in Pelayo’s courtyard, Pelayo and his wife, Elisenda, figure that the old man is a Norwegian sailor. His dialect is unintelligible. Yet they want to make the unknown known. So they force their best conjecture upon the old man, ignoring the inconvenient fact that the old man has wings. Norwegian sailors don’t typically have wings. Yet Pelayo and Elisenda are satisfied with their explanation, and ignore the inconvenient fact. They prefer to know, that this world would wax intelligible, rather than to endure the ambiguity of not knowing.
The substance of their conjecture is supplied by children’s books. With this bit of evidence — the very old man with enormous wings — they can substantiate the narrative they’ve been telling one another in their more private hours of drudgery and monotony. In these hours, they have imagined a wide world of adventure, filled with ships and pirates, in which escape is possible. They have contorted fact to fit fantasy.
Ironically, they miss what is infinitely more interesting: very old man with enormous wings has fallen from the sky and has landed in their courtyard.
A wise woman who knows everything about life and death lives next door to the couple. She does not ignore the old man’s anomolous wings. She draws the obvious conclusion: the very old man is the angel of death. He has come for Elisenda and Pelayo’s sick baby, to carry the child away into the dark shadows of death. So the old man must be clubbed to death.
Pelayo and Elisenda then decide to cram the old man into a chicken coop. After all, this very old man has wings; and things with wings belong in chicken coops. He is a foreigner; he is the angel of death; he is a chicken: he belongs in a box.
We know these people, their presumptions, their prejudices. The priest, however, knows better.
Father Gonzaga, whose knowledge of the world is supplied by the Good Book, learns of the disconcerting news. Rumor has gotten out to the villagers about the angel, and they have begun to charge a fee to view this very old carnival freak. Father Gonzaga knows better, much better. He is a man of God.
When he arrives, he notes that the very old man has parasites in his wings. The old man is therefore too human to be an angel. Angels are more than human, he knows, and are no metaphor of what we are or could be. An angel’s is a fey grace.
Father Gonzaga is right that the others are wrong. He is right that the very old man is not an angel. But he is wrong that the very old man is not an angel. The very old man is not an angel, but he is not not an angel.
Ganzaga’s vocabulary is wholly inappropriate for the problem — indeed, his vocabulary covers and conceals Being itself.
Father Gonzaga’s deep learning and reliance on authority have blinded him and have masked the truth from him, which simply is that before him is a very old man with enormous wings.
Father Gonzaga, reliant on authority, sends a letter to Rome to get an official verdict from the Pope. But Rome doesn’t get back to him. Meanwhile, the carnival grows and grows, and Pelayo and Elisenda get rich at the expense of the very old man, treating him like a zoo animal.
But a zoo animal in a cage is not itself. A lion in a cage is not a lion, and a very old man with enormous wings in a chicken coop is not a very old man with enormous wings. It is a chicken.
Soon enough, the fickle villagers grow tired of the very old man with enormous wings, and a new freak show comes to town: the spider woman, who was changed to spider for having disobeyed her father.
You can find the story at this link:
what have Rivers
to do with Mountains?
and what the Sun
(the Scientist taps
the Hiker steps
In the Morning
Tucks an apple
In my bag and
Plucks a kiss
From my cheek;
Leaves fall and
Its The Fall
And I leave
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.
“Never does nature say one thing and wisdom another.” –Juvenal
Eyes see but light and shadow; the mind gives form. But not all forms or ideas we impose on nature belong to her; nor do all minds have wisdom. Nature’s curves and contrasts are more subtle; her steps and strides are more savvy than the common mind.
Commonly, a mind foolishly assumes one of two things. The cocky common mind assumes that it, bespectacaled by a book or two, has knowledge and knows what or whom he sees. Religious books, philosophical books, even the arguments and experiments of Science can blind.
- sweet spontaneous
- earth how often have
- fingers of
- prurient philosophers pinched
- , has the naughty thumb
- of science prodded
- beauty, how
- often have religions taken
- thee upon their scraggy knees
- squeezing and
- buffeting thee that thou mightest conceive
- to the incomparable
- couch of death thy
- thou answerest
- them only with
by: e.e. cummings (1894-1962)
The second mistake of the common mind is that he or she is not up to the task, is too stupid, is better off leaving the important questions of life to other, more worthy thinkers and teachers.
Both of these positions–the pompous assumption of knowledge, and the cowardly assumption of incompetence–are the very antithesis of a mind in which wisdom finds a home.
Wisdom is not being clever. It is not being bookish or erudite. These qualities are useful for wisdom, provided that the assumption of knowledge does not paralyze. But the want of these qualities does not preclude that wisdom will find a comfortable home in such a head.
Wisdom loves the open and aware mind. Neither openess nor awareness are directly dependent on ideas, though certain ideas can chase them out and down the road, can even lynch them, leaving ignorance in their stead: a lonely home filled with leased furniture and hoarded comfort.
- HE Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls
- are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds
- (also, with the church’s protestant blessings
- daughters,unscented shapeless spirited)
- they believe in Christ and Longfellow, both dead,
- are invariably interested in so many things–
- at the present writing one still finds
- delighted fingers knitting for the is it Poles?
- perhaps. While permanent faces coyly bandy
- scandal of Mrs. N and Professor D
- …. the Cambridge ladies do not care, above
- Cambridge if sometimes in its box of
- sky lavender and cornerless, the
- moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy
- by: e.e. cummings (1894-1962)
Rather than assume widely accepted things and imposing these garments on nature, wisdom empties himself, becomes open. Wisdom watches, notices nature, and lets her suggest a question; he does not blindly assume or suppose; he does not impose prefabricated or rehearsed one-liner questions. This would assume an improper familiarity, or would suggest tawdriness .
She is not his, is not a plaything, is her own, will answer only perceptive questions given rise through clean and clear eyes. She will only answer specific questions about her, not about a class of things into which category she belongs. She is not just an example of one among many. She is always original and unique, always new.
And where she would appear to resemble another, this is not a case of her being one among many members of a class, but rather of the self-same beautiful girl peaking from around an arras, now here and now there, flirting playfully, trustingly. To wisdom alone does she tell her one and only secret, which wisdom will never betray. To her, he is ever faithful.
Dawkins opens his book, The God Delusion, with a quote of Douglas Adams. “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”
This quote cuts to the bottom, and finds dirt. At which point, theists or theistically leaning agnostics are wont to say that atheistic concepts of the universe are dreary, melancholy, pessimistic, and hopeless conceptions, even as if this were sufficient grounds for rejecting such conceptions.
But that dirt were all that supported a garden, and that garden were beautiful, then would not dirt be laden with the stuff of amazement? Need we gods to acknowledge beauty? That there were no god, beauty were then but a cruel illusion?
This is most perplexing, a most immature habit, a want of sensibility. If dirt supports the blossoming of a carnation or a sunflower, then so much more is dirt!
But flowers die, as we do, and return to dirt. Corpses rot. And so, would that a life had meaning, we assert a soul, and an immaterial, imperishable realm: spirit, the unseen, the eternal, the abode of soul and god. This soothes our anxieties, and seems to guarantee that our short lives would have meaning. We build our lives around such concepts, though the best of evidence for it is as solid as the water upon which Christ purportedly walked, as sound as the words uttered by a . . . snake?
Granted, a great many believers do not take these stories at face value. They read them as metaphors, which is somewhat more understandable. But these do not serve as proofs. They are objects of meditation, from which understanding is to be gained, and perhaps even wisdom. And there are those who reject the texts completely, yet must keep the concept of a god in their conception of the universe, which brings us back to the original point.
If one is to reject the semitic religions, the monotheistic religions which so plague the western mind and which are infecting ever more widely the world, why then retain a theistic conception? The theistic conceptions of the semitic religions use as their evidence the texts they call holy, and some anecdotal evidence. I’ve never been presented with anything other than these two, save the so-called proofs of reason, all of which have been destroyed under critical analysis, to support the retention of a god.
Yet people insist on retaining the conception of a god. When I press them to discover their reasons, they invariably make one of two moves in the end. And these two moves may turn out to be fundamentally the same.
The first move–if it can be properly so called–is to sustain the argument as long as they are able, and then they crumble under the weight of their emotional attachment to the concept of a god–which is really an ego attachemnt. And then I am the bad guy for pressing them to dig so deeply. But I’m not out to hurt anyone’s feelings. I’m only pressing people to examine their lives and the values upon which they form their lives, and, where I can, get some glimpse into the truth of the human condition.
Then the darkness sets in. A garden without fairies at the bottom is nothing but dirt, not beautiful. And I, accused of forwarding this pessimistic thesis, am a sordid kind of fellow.
But I forward no such thesis. I am an atheist. I see a world filled with both suffering and beauty. But I see no reason to keep a god in my philosophy.
The second kind of response I get when I enter into the questions of fairies in the bottom of the garden is overtly intellectual. This tends to be a more honest kind of conversation, though in most cases there is a kind of emotional clinging to a god, if only to hedge their bets.
Often the conversation goes to evolution. This kind of person understands full well that the established theories of science have a mountain of evidence kissing the very sky. They grant that the earth is very, very old. They grand evolution, but insist that some kind of god simply must have started the whole process. It is too complex and amazing to have started by chance.
Anyone who has examined this issue knows that this position is riddled with flaws and misunderstandings. First, evolution by natural selection does not function by chance, though chance is one concept contained in the theory. But this is not the place for that analysis. Second, the theory of evolution does not explain the origin of life, though some scientists are doing their honest best to understand this profound question.
But the final point I’d like to discuss is of their use of the word “must.” They argue that since the fundamental building block of life–the cell–is so complicated, it could not have just happened without God to kickstart it. Yet there is nothing in the concept of complexity from which it follows that there must have been God to bring the specimen into existence.
There is simply the feeling of awe.
Theists from here feel justified in retaining a concept of God, though there be nothing in the issue to suggest to the impartial mind which is not emotionally crippled by the concept of a God who guarantees that life is meaningful. This is a kind of ego attachment, rooted in the fear of annihilation, which keeps the argument alive. There is nothing in the evidence that even remotely suggests the existence of God. Nothing.
But there is nothing in the evidence which suggests that a garden is not beautiful, or that dirt cannot bring the imaginative mind into a profound state of awe.