This last weekend I was able to participate in a debate with Kristi Winters on the subject of “the sexual revolution”. The debate video can be found here:
The after-action report can be found here:
The full oppo research file can be found, here.
This last weekend I was able to participate in a debate with Kristi Winters on the subject of “the sexual revolution”. The debate video can be found here:
The after-action report can be found here:
The full oppo research file can be found, here.
On the waterfront of Eliot Bay, tucked beneath the “Alaskan Highway”, and a block before the beginning of Seattle’s famous Pikes Place Market lies a wayside boutique called “Ye Ol’ Curiosity Shop”. The shop is undeniably a tourist trap, tacky to the extreme, it is the type of place where a wandering tourist on the wharf might find a plastic snow globe of the city skyline or press a penny into a copper plate with the words “Seattle” on it. True to form, the shop specializes in pirate and mermaid-themed merchandise, even though, to my knowledge, no pirate has ever set sail on the sound and I am yet unaware of any local mermaid sightings, or even legends for the that matter. But “Ye Olde Curiosity Shop” itself has roots that go deeper than its exterior might imply, and it remains, to this date, a touchstone to my memories of the city that I now call home.
Ye Olde Curiosity shop does have a history, or at least as much of a history as an American West Coast city will allow. Founded by an Ohioan pioneer at the end of the Klondike gold rush, one J.E. “Daddy” Standely, the shop originally served as a clearing house for memorabilia, artifacts, and forgeries. Standely, himself a notorious indian trader (in both sense of the word), made a practice of obtaining, and often times manufacturing, relics that might be passed off on prospectors and tourists. In addition to his wheeling and dealing, the man was also an avid collector of rare items and made a point of buying any number of oddities (fake or not) that passed through the Puget Sound region in the first half of the 20th century. To this day, many of these items still remain in the shop. No longer for sale, the objects serve chiefly as windows into the strange fare on offer by a snake-oil salesmen in early Seattle. Most prominent in this collection are two human mummies. Called “Sylvester” and “Sylvia” by the shopkeepers, the bodies were procured (and possibly mummified) sometime in the mid-1800s when such traveling oddities were at a premium and poaching bodies was not out of the question. No longer identifiable, the human remains now stand on display behind glass, serving as unofficial mascots of the establishment.
I remember encountering this macabre pair, while on a childhood vacation to the city decades before I lived there as an adult. Then – being about 12 at the time – I was keenly interested in collectible trinkets and oddities, and after completing a rather underwhelming tour of the neighboring wharf, I took a detour into the shop found my way to “the main exhibit”, where Sylvia and Sylvester stood book-ending a 19th century harmonium and a section of a pacific-style totem pole.
Having never seen a “mummy”, I initially found the exhibit rather anti-climactic. These mummies, and indeed most mummies, do not look authentic. Regardless of how “well-preserved” they are in an archaeological sense, they seem less like dead people, and more like the stain of human likeness after all remnants of bodily and spiritual life have been blasted beyond recognition. I remember, there, trying to search for the humanity in the pair. Perhaps, I could piece together what the mummies must have looked like in life, adding on hair, muscle, and flesh in my imagination and until the figures looked like recently deceased corpses. The effort proved to be futile, but as I lethargically ambled towards the exit, a visceral sensation seized my mind. I now find it hard to explain, but at that moment an image of the larger mummy, Sylvester, became immediately visible; not as a desiccated husk, or even as a recently deceased corpse, but as the man that he must have been once in life. And then it seemed as if there was an essence, as alive as any of the shop patrons, trapped within his dried and mangled form. An uneasy feeling took me as I exited the shop.
This vision persisted long into the evening that day, returning later as a nightmare. Though I only have a vague recollection of this, I remember that in the dream I had taken the place of Sylvester behind in the glass display, paralyzed, with a frozen gaze peering out across the shop. However, this time, something was very different. The image I saw before me was hardly the lively boutique I had experienced in my waking state. Instead, the patrons were frozen in place with glassy-eyed stares, and it was as if the entire outside world had been coated in a thick waxy pollution that robbed even the woodwork, earth, and outside sky of life. In the true nature of role reversals, just as my life had was now inside the mummy, the lifeless process of mummification had seized the rest of reality and drained it of its essence.
Even after this dream left me, my mind lingered on the fearful notion that what I had seen was prophetic and that this sort of living death in which all of reality is frozen in eternal lifelessness might be what waits for all sentient creatures at the moment of their demise.
I remember toying with this masochistic idea over the course of the years to come. Perhaps some this persistence owes to a certain amount of self-inflicted psychological morbidity common to teenagers, but aside from this, I found the scenario altogether plausible. I even found the motif repeated in the popular movie “American Beauty”, albeit their notion of this frozen existence was far more euphoric than mine. Gradually, my speculation evolved from a state of eternal living death to the even more terrifying notion that the mind, after cessation, would descend into complete sensory deprivation in full possession of all of its rational faculties. Lost in an abyss of meaningless, measureless time, that would consume the consciousness with madness. It was chilling to think that all humans, by virtue of their life, stood on the shores on an endless abyss that was destined to consume them entirely.
And even years later, I have found myself returning to these scenarios as a point of reference for the examination of the human condition. The reduction of the human brain to an eternal state of sensory deprivation, despite its terror, creates a platonic state pliable for philosophical questions. Certainly scientists have done sensory deprivation exercises for a few hours (resulting in euphoria) and for several days (resulting in depression, hallucination, and memory loss), but what would occur when such an experience stretched out to an indefinite time horizon. Might a mind reach some absolute state where its last memory was dismissed as delusion? And even after the mind re-emerged from madness would rationality be preserved? Would even the self? These questions seemed altogether inscrutable and so I shifted to easier ones. If not FULL sensory deprivation, what about near sensory deprivation? A mind with access to a gentle binary input but still in possession of its rationality. What might a brain without experience or memory do with such a simple but consistent input. And with this thought, my mind returned to the image of Sylvia and Sylvester encased in glass at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop and I was brought, rather impulsively, to produce a new philosophical extension to my story.
Suppose through some bizarre circumstance, Sylvia and Sylvester are not totally deceased but instead live in a state of rationality separated both from their memories of life and any stimulus of the outside world. However, we might imagine that their darkness is periodically broken as each mummy experiences a mild electrical sensation whenever a human makes eye contact with their exterior form. Due to the age of the establishment and its popularity, the mummies’ eternal silence will be frequently punctuated by these tiny shocks. We could even imagine that the pair would welcome the sensations as miraculous wards against the emptiness that would otherwise consume their minds. In fact, in recognition of this centrality, the pair would likely deploy their rationality to the task of modeling the phenomenon. Of course, due to its regularity and repetition this task would quite tractable. The inputs could be fit with normalized statistics; paired with a cyclical model to account for daily variation, and a regression model to account for the changes in the shops popularity. With this such a model the sensations themselves would become explainable, predictable, and even expected. The mummies would have developed a complete and satisfactory explanation of their universe. One from which their mind never needs to be roused. And to this end, the sudden sensations of contact would seem less miraculous and more like expected happenings pouring forth from a fully specified set of equations. So, even though predictability has been achieved, a certain placidity of existence will have set in.
But then, apropos of nothing, an extraordinary event occurs. And just like my own experience 18-odd years ago, one of the mummies, Sylvester, is beset by a sensory explosion, his mind is displaced and thrown jarringly into the universe of human observation. For a brief moment he is no longer in darkness and instead sees the lively bustling reality of Ye Olde Curiosity Shop. Human communication, sensory perception, the sights and smells, all become immediately apparent to him. And for a moment he realizes the nature of his previous position and the confines of his former existence. But, these sensations are fleeting, and after a few brief moments, Sylvester is once more lowered into the darkness of his previous state. The revelation has departed, never to return again.
But what can Sylvester glimpse from this experience? One might think it might upset his reality, and upend the way he had formed his explanations earlier. Perhaps he might recast his limited sensations as something grander then he originally thought. He might realize that his incredible experience was a window to a much larger existence beyond anything he could have thought possible and that his mundane sensations were but a shadow of this larger life that he could only catch a the briefest view. But of course, in all likelihood, he might just as easily dismiss all of this. All previous thoughts, all his previous understanding of the universe, indeed his very model of existence was predicated on an observation occurring with consistency and repetition. The extraordinary experience that beset his senses in that one moment will not conform to that standard and its very singular nature would precludes its incorporation into Sylvester’s original model. As grand as the revelation , it cannot be recast as a data-point. And in fact will not even possess predictive power when it comes to the task of describing the mundane system of sensations that make up his ordinary existence. And so, as powerful and as important as it seems to us, this brief glimpse into a wider universe might be easily dismissed and cast into the dust bin of delusional mistakes that might beset a mind encased in eternal darkness.
At this point, I am sure, my more astute readers will chuckle upon noticing that I have inadvertently traced the steps of one ancient Athenian in a torch lit cave. Nonetheless, for my own purposes, I have found this modern update helpful in its own right; not necessarily for its capacity to illustrate, as Socrates intended, the limitation of the human senses. But rather, and I am want to do, its ability to contextualize the teleology of the human mind.
The confinement to a living death of eternal sensory deprivation, holds a transfixing and terrifying power for a reason. That is that, it forces the function of rationality, and indeed personality, to confront an existence where its own nature is eternally futile. Inside a word free of sensation there is no substance to be grasped or dealt with, no experience that can be raged against or even embraced. And as such, any semblance of personality would be obliterated through contact with that gaping chasm of meaninglessness.
But might not something similar be said, for that mind so confidently in possession of a totalizing model of the universe? A model where everything is either predicted or dismissed as random deviation from that prediction? I used think that there was a massive distinction between this state and that total oblivion, but the thought because it seems this path is as sure an excuse to marry the human mind to an inertia it would have otherwise resisted. In other words, man’s rationality is no less defeated if it is swallowed up by simplicity than if it is swallowed up by darkness. And though we might find simplicity useful for prediction, it can become a jailer the moment it drives out the meaning of that prediction.
At one point in my life, I did think that the development of such a totalizing and simple model of the universe to be the goal of humanity. Of course like most moderns, the complexity and difficulty of obtaining such an end, masked its limitation. And since, I have come to see this project of as not only as impossible but also as foolish.
Human beings define themselves through their contact with raw experience. With surprise, with astonishment, with wonder. The points in time where we are want, or indeed must, toss out our previous modes and replace them with something higher and better. And whether we appreciate these jarring moments of discontinuity that interrupt our existence, they are indeed the key to our humanity. We do not maintain our own existence in anticipation of eternally repeating patterns, or an unchallenged life of stimulus and response. We exist for those moments when reality invades our minds stronger than ever before and tears those petty models asunder. Call them “miracles”, or if you prefer the modern neologism “black swans” ,but whatever we choose to call these moments, they etch the boundaries of our human recollection and personality. And I have long speculated that the true desire of mankind is to stand before this fountainhead of existential wonder, in full possession of our rational personalities.
I will stop myself before this essay diverts into spiritually, but I have to wager that most people, at any some moment of their lives have been taken back by a strong impression that a person, or even an object, before them is much more than the material that constitutes its physical existence. They will then see something in that moment that contains a hint of the eternal, something that cannot so easily be tamed by our pattern-seeking and model-building brains, and something that calls them to a higher type of existence. I am certainly not the first thinker to speculate about how human existence might be much elevated if but we could go through our daily lives with these types of revelations intact in our conscious wills. But due whatever human frailty, they are fleeting. And men and women continue to gloss over these interactions with the transcendent, dismissing them as curiosities, like the human form itself, sitting lifeless among the myriad dross in a wayside city boutique.
“Experts” can agree on one thing. 2016 is a populous moment in America. But really, this just means that our proclivity to complain about problems has momentarily surpassed our delusion that American leaders are interested in solving them.
But this perennial problem has been compounded. After decades of mindless culture and plummeting collective intelligence, the nation has finally descended into a state somewhere in between degenerative brain disease and Stockholm syndrome. And, like an intoxicated Titania stumbling towards an unsuspecting Bottom, our country has now fastened its gaze on a motley crew of senile-lunatics and conmen that we call Presidential contenders. It’s all the farce of an Elizabethan drama, with none of the comedy.
It would be one thing if this panoply of pusillanimous politicos had a single idea as insane as their hairstyles, but uniformly their proposals are the same microwaved earwax run through the anal-retentive strainers of every focus group this side of Jupiter. Want yet another round of tax cuts paired with entitlement expansions? How about more drone strikes? Oh – and get ready for a new round of health-care reforms, whether it’s Crazy Cruz-flavor, Hairbrained Hillary-style, or the patented “Yuge Trump” edition.
Frankly, it has been obvious to everyone with a neckline unbruised by their own sphincter that these endlessly propounded policies don’t work worth a hill of beans. Everyone has a different take on why, but for my two-cents, it is nothing less than political cowardice. Our leaders don’t really have the gumption to take on new ideas, so instead we get ever more grandiose versions of the same tired tripe. Surgical strikes not working? Let’s have carpet bombing! Don’t like Medicaid? Well, let’s expand it to everybody! Social security not solvent? Oh well, I guess that will have to be the next generation’s problem.
But there are indeed simpler solutions available to leaders with more robust constitutions. We don’t need confiscatory tax rates, we don’t need to slash regulations and entitlements, and we don’t need draconian new immigration policies.
We just need to ban birth control.
Or, at least ban birth control for people who make over $200,000 a year. For the rich, illegalize it all! Abortion, the pill, condoms, the sponge, it all must be sent into the cleansing fire of reform. Let the contraceptive-flames blaze ever higher!
Trust me. If you want a path to the golden unicorn-filled fields of true equality, if you want America to once again climb the silver-lined mountains of national greatness, this is the only way. It’s time to loose the latex from the laps of luxury and pry the pill from the palates previously occupied by silver spoons. Yes, that means you Koch Brothers! George Soros and Bill Clinton, don’t think I’m letting you off the hook!
But seriously, let’s take our nation’s problems head on. Do you want growth? Do you want generous and solvent entitlement programs? Do you want an unending era of American innovation and military dominance? Well then we need more young people and that means more children. And who better to have said children than those with the ample resources to raise a new generation? Heck, we already know from Tiger Woods and Amy Schumer that the copulation habits of the wealthy can hardly be contained. Take a bite out of their contraception cache and watch the progeny of the prosperous pour forth faster than cocaine from Lil Wayne’s duffle-bag unzipped at customs. I bet the economic boom on baby products alone will be a driving force in our economy within the month.
And that doesn’t begin to cover the cultural benefits. How many times have you heard about the impossibility of balancing work and family life? Well, this is because contemporary corporate culture is designed by billionaires who are uninterested in raising more than a single designer baby. But, those mindsets will be forever banished by my new policy. No more Sheryl Sandberg books labeling a 70-hour workweek “leaning in”, more new Sheryl Sandberg books about balancing the demands of corporate leadership with a family life that includes 5 kids. And need I mention the likely surge in demand for hyper-educated Mary-Poppins style super nannys? Employment crisis be gone!
But before I get carried away, I will admit that there are some drawbacks. I am certainly not looking forward to Kim Kardashian becoming the next Octomom (though I suspect she will name her new children East West, South West, Due West, Key West, Best West, and Kanye West West). The government would also need to implement extensive enforcement to keep the contraceptives out of the hands of mistresses and other unorthodox outlets. But I believe that this too might be overcome with zealous policing, improved paternity tests, and child support laws ramped up on steroids. In the end, philanderers like Bill Clinton may well have a bumper crop of bastards in tow; but they could always be put to work on Hillary’s campaign.She would appreciate the help at this point.
But I can already hear the whining from the naysayers- “It’s not faaiirr….muh social justice!”
I will be blunt here. This policy IS justice, or at least as close to justice as a political proposal will get. In fact, banning contraception for the rich, is the only solution that stabs at the great hearts of modern hypocrisy. Hypocrisies that persist, no matter how our media tries to ignore them.
The first great hypocrisy is that our perennial efforts at redistribution – be they taxes, regulation, inflation, or confiscation – never really upset the position of the powerful. This is because our current elites do not depend on liquid assets. They store their privilege in social networks, education, and other intangibles not easily seized by authorities. Taking wealth – true wealth- away from the powerful is near impossible in our era of global capital, and privilege can only be undermined with the cooperation of the privileged themselves.
But what better way to voluntarily lighten the entitlement of our elites than afflicting them with their own fecundity? No birth control means bigger families and bigger families mean diminishing-returns on privilege. An Ivy League might accept one family member as legacy, but ten? Get ready to buy Yale a new football stadium, Daddy. And as 2-centuries of British comedy as well as the career of MC Hammer attest, nothing drains a bank account like a pack of perfidious poor relations. An endless supply of grasping grandchildren is enough to send even the most flush silicon valley billionaire running to his private chambers to count the family doubloons. If that isn’t poetic justice, then I don’t know what is.
And that brings me to the second great hypocrisy of our age. It is a fact that the poor never shared in the sexually-liberated utopia promised by the birth control pill. This has been obvious to anyone who’s perused the demographics of fatherlessness and suicide among America’s lower classes in the last 40 years. In fact, it has taken all the intellectual power of our academy to ignore that plain truth.
Effective birth control depends on lifestyle choices and upward mobility. In short, you need stability to effectively contracept and this is something that the poor have never had access to. Observe that not many rich people need Planned Parenthood and don’t expect Mark Zuckerberg’s daughter to ever be in danger of single-motherhood. The sexual revolution was a project of the privileged and -short of sterilization (reversible or otherwise)- there is really no way for poor people to participate.
But before my brief allusion to sterilizing the poor causes the followers of Peter Singer to spontaneously salivate, could I point out the last and possibly most delectable irony of my simple solution? It would -for once in human history- invert the pattern of wealthy people dictating to the poor, the structure of family life.
We’ve seen this a thousand times in the 20th century. Between the forced sterilizations of India, the one-child policy of China, and the recent campaign to shove birth control pills down the throats of Africans, elites have have never once tired of forcing their reproductive preferences on the impoverished. But perhaps it’s time to turn the tables. The wealthy can check their privilege, punt their progesterone pills, and ante up to a lifestyle where they’re no longer in complete control of their reproduction. It might be vindictive, but it certainly smells like fairness to me.
And don’t feel too bad for those rich people. Given the populist rage brewing across the globe, we might be doing them a favor. Who knows, this radical measure might be the only stopgap to a complete revolution, and, in condemning the wealthy to a life of caring for toddlers today, we might be sparing their necks from the guillotine tomorrow (though from my understanding this might only be a marginal improvement). Still, as their descendants multiply, those same scions might be at a loss for what to do with such a great number of children. A difficult question indeed. But if things ever get too confusing, I suppose they could always eat them.
I recently recorded three of my favorite essays by G.K. Chesterton.
First “A Piece of Chalk”, a reflection on the little ironies in creation.
Second, “On Man:Heir of All Ages”, Gilbert’s perspective on the inheritance of history and religion.
Lastly, “The Medical Mistake” where Chesterton famously answers the question”What’s wrong with the world?”
Last month, I came across a link for Doxacon, a convention for Orthodox and Catholic speculative fiction enthusiasts that is held yearly on both the west and east coasts. The event looks pretty neat, especially if you have a thing for priests in cassocks paired with Jedi Knights and lightsabers.
I certainly regret having missed the first two. Luckily enough the full audio of the event is now online. The podcasts are well worth a listen, especially for people interested in speculative fiction and classic Christian philosophy. Some gems that shouldn’t be missed:
Those interested in the Seattle event might also want to check out the lecture discussing the relationship between communities and role-playing games given at the west coast event. I am not sure that I agree with the analogy between a role-playing game and the sixth-day of creation, but it’s an entertaining comparison.
I certainly will be at the 2016 Doxacon to blog if my schedule allows. Until then, it does look like there is more than enough content to chew on.
A reconceptualization of the classic distributist logo:
Perhaps more realistic than the original
A recent discussion I had with Damien Athope on ethics and objectivity. This talk largely traced similar ground to a previous discussion that I had with Jersey Flight. Still, it might be of some interest.
The second half of the discussion that addresses the history of ethics and contemporary issues will follow shortly.
I while back I started a series called “Blogging Orthodoxy” which documented my Newman Center’s reading group as we worked our way through Chesterton’s grand treatise, “Orthodoxy”. This series dropped off during my blog’s long hiatus but now that I have finally gotten around to blowing the dust off all my old posts, it feels only right to finish the series.
In fact, all that remains is to put a capstone on the project and I can easily do that in the hour I have before I head out to my parish’s annual retreat. Here it goes….
Chapter 9: Authority and the Adventurer
It is hard to overstate the effect that a book like Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” has had upon my life. Of all the books that gradually took me back through the doors of the Church, this was the lynch pin. The point at which I knew that something had to be done. Faith had to be lived. Passivity was no longer an option.
Even revisiting the book seven years later, Chesterton’s conclusion was powerful. Reading the last lines, I could feel my group intently anticipating the inevitable finale. But this time, as the conclusion came, those same words felt very different.
The words that shocked me as a non-believer fell lightly this time around. Chesterton’s conclusion was still profound but it was no longer abrasive. When once the image of the mirthful Christ had come into my imagination like an thundering army, it was now like a returning hero being welcomed home. I could feel the same emotions all around.
In fact, there was very little discussion of this final section within the group. It felt as though nothing more needed to be said. The book had ended and we were left with a sense of anticipation. Something was about to happen. And, in fact, it did.
A year passed. Spirituality grew. Friendships formed. Our patron, an inimical Dominican Friar, was able to raise up a thriving young adult community that would be the envy of a much larger parish. Even our weekly reading session grew to become a bit of an institution among the Catholic young adults in North Seattle. Much has been learned and looking back, I find myself reflecting on where it began, our reading of “Orthodoxy”.
Much has been said about the line that ends “Orthodoxy”, and certainly the image of God’s levity is what I remember when thinking back on the book. However, among all the very spiritual images conjured by the author, perhaps the plain message of the chapter is lost; the message that, in order for our struggles to transcend our own personalities, we must first acknowledge an authority over ourselves who competent to judge us. Our lives might be adventures but only if we acknowledge One greater still who can act as an author.
At one point in my life I would have balked at this sentient. I am a natural contrarian and the concept of authority does not come easy to me. But I think that it was this lesson that I did indeed learn over my last year working with the Newman center. There is a time for trust. There is a right place for faith. Once one accepts the authority of the spiritual, the worldly struggles that were at one point meaningless and setbacks that at one point seemed insurmountable become simple features in a larger story. When one wanders aimlessly even the slightest breeze feels like a cruel and irrational blow. Once a person has the right direction even the strongest headwinds can be braved with ease.
I return to the question of authority today, as my Parish bids farewell to the Dominican Friar who had been our group’s leader and the founder of our book group. Certainly it has been the pattern of modern Christian communities to crumble once their founder is reassigned and I can sense that there is a similar fear that our community will slowly break once separated from its founder.
Far from me to be an optimist but I am more encouraged than most. The spirit that brought our community together and animated it is more than the force of one saintly soul. The authority that directs us forward is much older. The adventure that has bound us together is much deeper. We hear the great laughter Chesterton described and its prospect is as terrifying as it is terrific. We are traveling for that end alone and the force of that prospect binds us together as a community even if we do indeed physically drift apart.
And so, the task is set. The path is before us. The adventure is upon us and I believe still that we have the courage to see it through to the end.
Off to retreat….
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 about 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.
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 bestow 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 end 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. 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 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.
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.
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.
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 :
At that point no answer was forthcoming, though, like Chesterton, I was following quickly down the path of something greater.