Blogging Orthodoxy 6 : Eternal Inevitability and the Idealist Revolution

Blogging Orthodoxy continues with…..

Chapter 7: The Eternal Revolution

Orthodoxy can be quite idealistic at times. This is probably no surprise coming from a man like Chesterton who preferred to talk about fairies over general elections. The preference was not simply fanciful. To Chesterton, it always was more worthwhile to discuss ideals. Ideals were more honest. I know this can alienate modern  readers who prefer realism to discussions over first principles. Probably many people get this far in Orthodoxy and wonder what Chesterton’s assertions aboutChesterton loyalty, optimism, and pessimism have to do with real-world policy. In the chapter The Eternal Revolution, Gilbert addresses this point of practicality. The key, to practical success, Chesterton says, is to have a clear and unchanging ideal. Only with a fixed and abstract vision of the good can anyone ever get anywhere.

Though frustrating to realists, I think most people will agree that an unchanging ideal is the first step to reform. First we have an ideal vision and only then can we work diligently towards its realization. Regardless of how hard, if we persist we will get closer to seeing our ultimate goal finally realized. But modern society has made two blunders that have clouded this common sense approach to reform. The first is to imagine that “progress” is inevitable. The second is to assume that if something has failed many times then it cannot rightly be considered ideal. Though these conceptions are looked on as “progressive” they are in fact huge bulwarks against any reform. Certainly if we are evolving inevitably, no action would ever need be taken. Moreover, if the standard of progress itself were changed every time difficulty was encountered, society would remain practically immune to alteration. Reform can only proceed when we understand a common and unchanging vision of what the future should be like.

Our reading group seemed more or less content with this definition of reform. But of course what type reform? Even the emergence of “reform” as topic in the context of the Catholic Church briefly sparked controversy. This, I think, embodies the first and foremost objection that a skeptic would raise to Chesterton. Reform towards who’s ideal? A skeptic might rightly ask. People speak about having a common vision but when it comes down to it, there is no agreement. For now I will not directly answer this objection; but I offer that our own group’s disagreement, while adamant, did not indicate a true division. The argument like most arguments, was actually an indication of a common ideal.argue

In fact, it didn’t take more than a few reminders that we all sought the same thing –  a Church carrying forward the teachings of Christ – to bring the argument to a close and move the litigants to a renewed feeling of comradery. Of course, we all knew that the disagreement still stood but ultimately what was being argued over wasn’t the ideal but the means to achieve that ideal. In fact, if there was no shared ideal, the disagreement never would have taken place. I would submit that one can only really argue with people who share common core values. When we argue over means to achieve an end, we can, in the heat of the argument, accuse our opponents of being obtuse and regressive. But when the fundamental values are not held in common argument itself cannot be mustered. We usually just scratch our heads in incomprehension.

Chesterton predicts that any loss of common values will lead to social and political to stagnation. Certainly this is in keeping with common political complaints from both the left and right in modern times. It is easy to see how two sides, unable to properly communicate about ends, will never come together to forge a political means. But here I must disagree with Chesterton’s concern about the endpoint of a society unable to believe in unchanging ideals. Rather than stagnation, I have come to anticipate the exact opposite; a sort of implicit and unthinking progress where the human race gradually slouches into an easy future that no sane person in their right mind would endeavor to create.

Though rare, there are those that believe that the principles of right and wrong can change. I used to believe this myself. It seemed only logical at the time. If human society were to evolve, the morals and principles of humanity should evolve with it. I had only a vague notion of what it would mean for core principles to  “evolve” (since there would be no principle by which to judge its evolution). Still, the idea seemed logical enough. Since all other human qualities could be improved upon, and our ideals were among human qualities, our ideals themselves could therefore be improved. I didn’t finally come to interrogate this idea until I found myself face to face with those who held it more consistently than I ever could. 

In my last post on Orthodoxy, I recalled a discussion I had with an atheist who firmly believed that he would live forever due to technological extensions on life span. Surprisingly enough, as I grew familiar with the atheist community, I learned that these sentiments were not uncommon. The followers of similar ideas called their coming utopia “The Singularity”. There is much to say about this concept, but in a nutshell it recommends the construction of a omnipotent and omniscient AI that can solve all known problems in the world. This AI will then hee1bestow immortality and unlimited pleasures upon the human race. The only thing holding this grand vision back? You guessed it, Christianity, religious superstition, and naive humanistic values that restrain “progress”.

I remember being taken back by this idea, though at the time, I couldn’t put into words why. I answered snarkily to one adherent that if the future AI were advanced enough to change human biology, it might more easily remove the survival instinct and eliminate the human race. It is one thing to make humanity live forever. It is much cheaper to make them no longer care about death. But again quite strangely, my interlocutor seemed unshaken by this response. He simply stated that If the AI master exterminated humanity this would simply be the course of evolution and any sentimental attachment to our existence was simply naive primitive ethics.Of course, the other members of the group greeted this answer as being very “evolved” (whatever that means) and I remember being caught speechless and flatfooted by the entire situation. I still haven’t thought of a good counter to the argument that humanity should be exterminated by malicious AI and I don’t expect to find one soon.

But the bizarre anti-humanist techno-utopianism of the Singularity wasn’t even the end of the matter. There also was a sort of Luddite equivalent called the Voluntary Human Exctinction Movement. Born from a sort of uber-Malthusian environmental sentiment, this movement dreamed of a utopia that would be born when the human race was, not just reduced, but completely exterminated. Nature would then reclaim the planet. The members would go about encouraging self sterilization (and sometimes even suicide) all in the name of the rebirth of some garden of Eden sans Adam and Eve. Again, what I felt was not exasperation but a sort of non-verbal befuddlement.

In the imagination of the Singularity Movement and the Voluntary Extinctionists the visualizend point of the universe was bleaker than any dark age. It was an endless morass dominated by nothing that could feel compassion, wonder, joy, gratitude, or love. The vision of utopia had been so streamlined that the dreamers themselves had whitewashed themselves out of it. But there was one caveat. Even when talking to the radicals themselves, they seemed very unenthusiastic about the ultimate outcome of their journey. A much more passionate topic was how “inevitable” their vision of the future was and how they were “more evolved” for embracing this philosophy before everyone else was brought to heel by the merciless force of history. Frankly, I couldn’t help thinking of an enslaved native bragging to his still free brethren that he was the first to wear the shackles that the master would inevitably clasp on every one of them. It certainly would be a bitter victory.

I don’t want to represent the Singularity crowd or the Voluntary Human Extinctionists as representative of the atheist community at large; but in some way they have taken the conception of the evolutionary philosophy to its logical conclusion. Most atheists are very devoted to an idea of evolutionary progress. They start with the humanist morality taken from Christianity (and earlier pagan religions) and then claim that this ethic has evolved to its current state and will continue to evolve beyond its modern incarnation. The goal of humanity, on this account, is to push this force of progress forward, evolving ethics to its necessary and inevitable culmination.

But the members of the Voluntary Human Extinction and Singularity Movements have called this bluff. They have evolved past humanism. The less advanced atheists tell people to embrace the ultimate goal of progress because it is inevitable. The advanced atheists of the Singularity Movement have made the final leap and have embraced what they see as inevitable as the ultimate goal of progress.

And here we come to the core of all naturalistic and “evolutionary” argumentation: inevitability. I make no claim to know whether humanity is inevitably doomed to be destroyed by a super-powerful AI or inevitably doomed to be destroyed by a natural catastrophe and the earth is reclaimed by vegetation. But I can say, quite firmly, a future so devoid of human struggles and joys would be quite disappointing to my own values. We have made a giant mistake by imagining our ideals are something simply natural. Of course they may have developed from nature, but in our hands they are much more than simply nature.

If humanity is reduced to simply nature, no human can be free. Nature is completely deterministic and if we enslave morality to naturalistic justifications then we will eventually discover we have exchanged a real mode of reform for a truism that excuses any random emergence as either “natural” or “evolutionary”. Once we say “the good is inevitable” we are only a short way away from saying “the inevitable is good”. The tyranny of determinism will have secured its final victory. But before one stares to long into the abyss of determinism, we should remember that nothing in the future is actually inevitable. We only have to work for an ideal and the future can be exactly what we make of it.

Humanity’s ideals can define them apart from nature, but only if we conceive of those ideals as above nature. If indeed the values that guide us are supernatural then we can shake our fist at any future apocalypse however likely. More and more I believe  the eternal state of humanity may be to stand on the precipice of certain doom.liberty Of course, the believers in deterministic extermination will talk all they want about the course of “natural progress”. But as strong as their inevitability is, it can be shattered by a single ideal that stands beyond nature’s power to alter it. All that is needed is one supernatural dream and we can wage an eternal revolution against the tyranny of the inevitable.

Blogging Orthodoxy 5: Why do the Heathen Rage?

Blogging Orthodoxy continues with:

Chapter 6: The Paradoxes of Christianity

There are chapters of Orthodoxy that require a certain amount of self-examination, especially for Christians. So it’s ironic (and a bit relieving) that The Paradoxes of Christianity has very little to do with Christianity itself. More its opponents. Though one can learn quite a bit about a creed from its enemies, there are problems with this approach. It is often easy to set up straw men that ultimately illuminate nothing. Here, I think Chesterton avoids the pitfall by making the examination of atheism autobiographical. Like many in the church (myself included), Chesterton knows the opponents of Christianity since he had for so long been among them.

The Paradoxes of Christianity documents how Chesterton’s own disillusionment with atheism was achieved through many of the inconsistencies of its adherents. Certainly all creeds, including Christianity have their fair share of hypocrisy. But in the attack on Christianity, Chesterton notices a particular frenzy of critiques whose inconsistencies are not so easily explained. The critics seem less interested in damming the faith for a particular vice than using any given vice as a reason for objecting to the faith’s very existence.  As Gilbert writes: It looked not so much as if Christianity was bad enough to include any vices, but rather as if any stick was good enough to beat Christianity with.

Of course the disorganization of the opposition does not make Christianity necessarily right. But the nature of the atheist objections suggest a quality in Western anti-theism that cannot easily be explained by the skeptic narrative. There seems to be a strong desire to replace Christianity with a brand of secular humanism. Atheists, by in large, seem to have less a problem with Christianity’s qualities than Christianity’s place at the heart of Western ethics. A place atheism itself would like to occupy. In fact, there seems an underlying conspiratorial quality in the endeavor of  modern anti-theism. It is less a argument for the abolition of the monarchy and more a battle to replace the sitting king with a rival claimant.kindown

But strangely enough, as Chesterton is quick to notice, even in victory, atheism seems unable to make use of the crown it has pried off the head of the Christian Church. It is, as if, once the king had be dethroned, his detractors remained orbiting the empty throne each unwilling to take the seat themselves and yet unable to continue as they had done before. Once again, the situation would not immediately support the original claimant, but it would make any onlooker ask himself some very particular questions about the rightness of the original conspiracy to unseat the monarch.

I know many cradle Catholics in the reading group who have never left the faith; whose Catholicism comes handed down in an unbroken chain since the 6th century. Needless to say, they got very little from The Paradoxes of Christianity. Still, I have long had a difficult time in general communicating to people with no experience of apostasy. Just as for Chesterton, the experience of non-belief was so central my journey that it remains very hard to discuss without a similar frame of reference. But I digress, while I can’t speak for others in the group, The Paradoxes of Christianity seemed to perfectly encapsulate my own experience with unbelief. It certainly wasn’t clear to myself why faith had a place in modern life without an involved experience with atheism.

I have often wondered how anyone could get through their adolescents without questioning faith. I certainly couldn’t. Even setting aside the numerous rules and miracles that my adolescent-self so detested, I remember rebelling against religion’s sonorous and self-righteous tone. The stiff wording of “thou”, “sin” and “heathens” seemed antithetical to critical thought and I was certain that, regardless of any incidental wisdom contained in Christian doctrine, no original ideas could be communicated in the laborious language of the Bible.

For seven years I remained an agnostic. However, as the years of the second Bush administration drew to a close, I found it more comfortable to identify with a kind of atheistic-skepticism popular to students of the sciences. I liked the cool attitude of de-bunkers like Penn Gillette and the increasing insatiable violence displayed by Islamic radicals in the wake of the Danish cartoon scandal solidified my opinion that faith was either soft-headed, violent or, very likely, both. I felt, more than ever, that what was needed was a strong skeptic movement that could confront the sloppy thinking of Christianity and the violent indifference of Islamism.

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It was in late 2006 that my hopes were answered by the emergence what would soon be called the New Atheist movement. Richard Dawkins published the God Delusion and this book was followed swiftly by similar fare by Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. Naturally, I devoured these tomes, but, in spite of my hopes, I was deeply disappointed. In place of a reasoned skepticism I found the most simplistic arguments against faith I had heard since my years in Catholic middle school. Perennially fascinated by every misdeed of the Catholic Church, the atheists had blinders over any atheist massacre from Mao to Robespierre; all the while failing to elucidate any positive principle that could separate them from past atheist failures. Even from my anti-theistic perspective at the time, the objections from Dawkins and Hitchens seemed tainted with a kind of poisonous vain glory only found in tirades against rival religious groups.

But, despite being negative, it was, quite ironically, hard to determine what the New Atheists were against in principle. Fundamentalism to be sure, but beyond flogging the specter of Intelligent Design (which had been dead for years) or the Religious Right (which had been in decline for decades) the atheists, with possible exception of Christopher Hitchens, made only mumbled objections to the Islamic violence that had gripped the world between 2005 and 2006. The silence was made even more ironic in the wake of Pope Benedict’s address at Regensburg where a pontifical call for religious peace was criminally mangled by Islamic Clerics to sponsor an anti-Christian pogrom in the Middle East. Eagerly I awaited push back from the skeptic leaders. However, despite being the news regularly, Dawkins had no words against Islam, only condemnation for the Pontiff who at the time was making every effort to procure a reasonable end to the violence.

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Here I found myself in much the same place as G.K. Chesterton a century earlier. The atheist hypocrisy was so glaring it could not easily be explained by skepticism. If Dawkins were upset with religious violence generally, why the focus on the crimes of Christianity? I had to ask myself whether the atheist objections were in fact more political than principled. The relative silence of progressive atheists towards Islam had the same cynical undertone of the infamous non-aggression pact between the USSR and Nazi Germany. It seemed Atheism was less a new idea than old rival faith seizing an opportunity to displace the ruling creed. For both radical Islam and radical atheism, eliminating Christianity was the first step in securing their dominance. Their rival in this endeavor, however detestable, could be ignored.

The problem only reemerged later when, attending a debate on God, I was able to talk to some of the new atheists converted in the wake of Dawkins book. I must confess that the interaction only confirmed my worst suspicions. In addition to voicing only the most juvenile stereotypes of believers (a group I was not yet associated with), the atheists seemed enthralled by a sort of magical thinking all their own. I met a group who sincerely believed that if religion were abolished (and here they meant Christianity) a new golden age of science would immediately erupt; a sort of atheist messianic age. I even met an atheist who, upon hearing a discussion of death, un-ironically commented “By the time I’m eighty death will likely be cured. I expect to live forever”. Atheism, it would seem, had its own millenarian afterlife. Once again none of these absurdities led to my reconversion, but I could feel many of my distastes for the old traditions creaking in their foundation.

One night, having these very frustrations much on my mind, I retired with a book of short stories. Clumsily thumbing through the volume, I chanced on a preface citing Psalm number two and written in the long archaic tone of the King James Bible. This time however the language, instead of offending, gave voice to my frustration. The old speech made the words ageless and carried with it the brevity of an avenging prophecy. The Psalm reads :

Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?

At that point no answer was forthcoming, though, like Chesterton, I was following quickly down the path of something greater.

Philosophy, Literature, and the Varieties of Atheist Experience

Richard Dawkins provided an interesting quote in last Thursday’s New York Times that made me think of other recent atheist comments on the relationship of literature and the humanities to general science.

“Why is the Nobel Prize in Literature almost always given to a novelist, never a scientist? Why should we prefer our literature to be about things that didn’t happen? Wouldn’t, say, Steven Pinker be a good candidate for the literature prize”

Well, certainly there have been some non-fiction writers that have won the Nobel Prize in Literature (most notably Winston Churchill and Solzhenitsyn). It certainly wouldn’t be out of the question for a science writer to win the award too; however, to this date, the Nobel committee has favored philosophers and historians for the prize. I always assumed this was a conscious decision on the part of the Nobel committee to mark literature and humanities as distinct from the sciences. Dawkins believes that this very distinction is mistaken at its inception.

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I think Dawkins highlights a common attitude among the new atheists that the separation of science from the humanities is the main source of sloppy or “magical thinking” in academia. I found echoes of this in Steven Pinker’s recent article in the New Republic:

“And as with politics, the advent of data science applied to books, periodicals, correspondence, and musical scores holds the promise for an expansive new “digital humanities.” The possibilities for theory and discovery are limited only by the imagination and include the origin and spread of ideas, networks of intellectual and artistic influence, the persistence of historical memory, the waxing and waning of themes in literature, and patterns of unofficial censorship and taboo.”

Leaving aside Pinker’s Pollyanna-ish perspective on the effectiveness of data mining on soft-datasets, he paints a picture of a humanities field on the verge of being folded into general science (If one can simply mine a book for meaning and arrive at a deterministic result, what is the point in reading it?). I think perhaps, the most brazen claim yet has come from Sam Harris, who has recently claimed that he has solved man’s 3000-year-old conundrum and developed the perfect set of ethics that can be scientifically verified as sound (though Sam Harris’s scientific ethics bare a strange resemblance to those favored by east-coast liberals living in the early 21st century United States)

Despite having a strong interest in both science and the humanities, I have a profound distaste for the ambition to totally merge the two into a superior composite. Not that I think the application of good scientific technique to the study of humanities isn’t important. However, I find the new Atheists description of what they imagine for a scientific humanities to be fundamentally dishonest. Several key caveats are never mentioned. Attempts to merge the humanities with the sciences are not new, have yielded very poor results in the past, and due to the necessary differences in the standards of evidence between fields, lead naturally to the corruption of one of the parties involved.

But I am hardly the first to mention any of these objections to the Dawkins-Pinker-Harris project. For instance, I think many, not necessarily religious, people will balk when the neo-atheists’ ambitions to unify ethics under science comes to a head. Not to mention the many atheist literature professors who will object to data-mining as a replacement to textual analysis. Depending on how far the current ambition of the new atheists goes, new attempts to merge science with the humanities may in fact mark another point for a major atheist schism. Will a progressive atheist literature-enthusiast interested in social justice feel more in common with Pinker’s scientism than he will with a liberal Episcopalian? It’s hard to say.
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I have been interested in the development of atheism ever since reading Christopher Hitchen’s God Is Not Great. As most atheists will tell you, there is no common core of values inside of atheism aside from the non-belief in God. However, I find the neo-atheists insistence that atheism itself is a unifying force (as opposed to religions that divide) stands in contradiction to this first contention that Atheism has no ideological content. If atheism is ideologically and ethically empty, it has absolutely no unifying power and any consilience universally felt among atheists is due to cultural/demographic coincidence.

I think we may be on the verge of seeing, what I like to call, an “Atheist Babylon”; a schism where atheists previously housed under one edifice divide into communities more antagonistic to each other than to ideologically similar believing groups. This idea is too long to develop within this blog post. But I hope to write more about it in the coming days.