Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Unashamed anthropocentrism

I’ve been discussing with Donigan this conflict between rationalism and supernaturalism. While we both agree that rationalism is the only sensible approach in our modern age, I have been pondering whether we can, in fact, wholly relinquish the hold that supernaturalism has over us. The debate was provoked by a quote from Eric Voegelin suggesting that, with the secularisation of life since the Enlightenment and since Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God, political religions such as National Socialism have grown and will continue to grow in that place where religion used to dominate. Voegelin also suggested:

...the world finds itself in a severe crisis [in 1938], in a process of decay that has its origin in the secularization of the spirit and the separation of a therefore merely worldly spirit from its roots in religious experience.

This, in itself, is not a new thought. Nietzsche held that the aims of the French Revolution – equality and liberty – were merely secular interpretations of Christian thought and saw the revolution as the beginning of a new historical period of religion without God. Before him, de Tocqueville said much the same thing. What we have then, it seems, is a change in society wrought by the enlightenment and the age of reason which has created in man a new rationalism, but left a spiritual void which, unconsciously, he seeks to fill with something else. It is an interesting argument, and it links in with Richard Dawkins’ suggestion, on the basis of evolutionary psychology, that there may be something in our evolutionary make-up, some mis-firing gene, that predisposes human beings to seek a supernatural order of things.

The state of crisis that Voegelin rightly saw in 1938 seems scarcely to have diminished in the following seven decades. Indeed, there seems to exist, in the current climate, a whiff of fin de siecle, a millenarianist mood reminiscent of that described by Norman Cohn in his study of fifteenth century religious madness, The Pursuit of the Millennium. Whether or not one subscribes to Huntington’s clash of civilizations theory – and in truth Huntington establishes a confrontational thesis and then casts around for apparent proofs to justify it – there seems to be some crisis in the world at present. Our financial systems have failed, our geo-political management has gone awry, religious and cultural tensions have been allowed to proliferate. Society is changing. Could Voegelin be right and all this tension is down to a lack of a spiritual base in our lives? Could Dawkins’ view that we unconsciously seek a god figure still be obstructing our progress? As a rationalist, I would hope not.

Principally, however, this seems to me to be only a side-issue of the key question. For that, we must look not at gods, but at man himself and, more specifically, man’s place in the cosmos, because where we place ourselves gives a pretty good indication of how we see ourselves. Our place, of course, is ever-shifting, embracing traditional religion, Copernican science, questions of immanence and transcendence and the nature of what it is to be human. Even so, by now it should all be quite straightforward; we live in a rational age, we should be comfortable with ourselves and our place in the scheme of things, and yet for some reason that isn’t the case. We still seem to hanker after the comfort and security of our ancient mythologies; we still seem beholden to a religion based on the assumption of original sin and the hope of supernatural redemption; and, even in those areas where a supposed secularism exists, instead of man assuming a place at the centre of things we are again being shunted off to the side, in deference to our new religions, be they Voegelin’s political religions or the new earth religions of deep ecology and radical environmentalism. Let’s look at each in turn.

Reinforcing the suggestion that some spiritual dimension has been lost in our lives, people like Karen Armstrong (whose work does a good job in popularising the more academic research of Mircea Eliade), promote the importance of myth. Myth is the conscious expression of a spritual dimension in our lives; thus, in all cultures there are creation myths and paradise myths, depicting a time when life was better and humanity and divinity co-existed, and suggesting a way in which we should conduct our lives. These myths formed a link between the mundane and the transcendent, between the sacred and profane, between spirit and matter. For Armstong, ‘perhaps the most significant… result of [westernised civilisation] was the death of mythology. Western modernity was the child of logos.’ In other words, reason ruled, and the vital links highlighted by Armstrong were lost, and in its place our modern society was created. She explains:

...the West developed an economy that seemed, potentially, to be indefinitely renewable. Intead of looking back to the past and conserving what had been achieved, as had been the habit of premodern civilisations, Western people began to look forward. The long process of modernisation, which took Europe some three centuries, involved a series of profound changes: industrialisation, the transformation of agriculture, political and social revolutions to reorganise society to meet the new conditions, and an intellectual ‘enlightenment’ that denegrated myth as useless, false and outmoded.

That, I suppose, is one interpretation, and it clearly links to Voegelin’s contention or, even, Nietzsche’s view of the French Revolution, but behind it there appears to be this belief that things were better with the old ways. There is a touch of Rousseau’s noble savage about it, and even Rousseau realised that pining for the old days in this way was futile. So Armstrong’s contention is not wholly plausible. Nietzsche suggests an alternative view, when he points out that:

It is the fate of every myth to creep by degrees into the narrow limits of some alleged historical reality, and to be treated by some later generation as a unique fact with historical claims.

This argument, too, has merit. What begins as a reflection of innocent spirituality becomes bound, in time, to the prevailing rule of the age. Natural law becomes moral law, and moral law is reckoned by those who dispense it to be universal; this is denounced by Nietzsche as a slave state which seeks to justify itself by refusing to acknowledge the validity of any different approach. It is not, he says, a belief system based on positive morality so much as on negation of any opposition. The original myth, and any truths held within it, become bastardised. They are subsumed by religion. Any light or truth they once held are lost. We are left with negatives, with a philosophy based on fear and failure. Take this, from Blaise Pascal, for example:

When I see the blind and wretched state of men, when I survey the whole universe its deadness, and man left to himself with no light, as though lost in this corner of the universe without knowing who put him there, what he has to do, or what will become of him when he dies, incapable of knowing anything, I am moved to terror, like a man transported in his sleep to some terrifying desert island, who wakes up quite lost, with no means of escape. Then I marvel that so wretched a state does not drive people to despair.

Or we could look at St Augustine, the father of modern Christianity, who suggests:

Many [people] perished in all sorts of gruesome ways. Even if one must bemoan this, it is still the common lot of all who are born into this life. As far as I know, no one died who would not have had to die sometime anyway.

So that’s alright then. They had it coming to them. The mythology, and the religious truths held within that mythology, are translated into action, and that action becomes a perverse negation of the humanity that was at the root of the whole process. And, in establishing this transcendent God, man’s place in the cosmos is firmly fixed, mundane and sinning and waiting, praying for redemption. This was what we sought to destroy with the death of God and yet, somehow, it hasn’t happened. Why not?

Somewhere along the line there seems to have been a failure of nerve. This may be the process that Dawkins identifies coming into play – man subconsciously seeking a supernatural order on which to base his daily discourse. Further, though, it may be argued that our focus has shifted so that, while we accept secularism, and while we reject religion, we elevate secular notions to the realm of religion. Again, this may refer to Voegelin’s political religions. Also, though, it could attain to the new cult of ecology which is coming to dominate public debate in the current era. It even has a name – Gaia, the earth goddess – although James Lovelock did not coin the term himself (William Golding did) and he would eschew any notion of the earth being a literal god. Nonetheless, an radical ecology has taken hold, to the extent that we now appear to think more of the planet than we do of ourselves, which is a nonsensically unsustainable state of affairs. Naturally, not looking after the planet is a foolish, indeed suicidal thing to do, but there is a fanaticism to some of the discourse which is eerily reminiscent of religious dogma. People like Aldo Leopold, who holds that humans are ‘plain members of the biotic community’, or Arne Naess, whose conception of deep ecology sees man as merely playing a part in the ecospheric whole, are taking the wise work of Lovelock and others and pursuing it to untenable lengths. What is happening as a result is that nature is being elevated in importance alongside humanity, which is no longer allowed to claim dominion over it: a radical anti-anthropocentrism is taking hold. And in this way poor old mankind, having booted its sky gods out of the picture and claimed centre stage for itself on account of its reason and intellect, is suddenly thrust back into the wings again, subservient to the new god nature.

Bearing this in mind, I was pleased to read a recent article by John Lukacs which touches on the very subject. Lukacs is someone I approach warily: some of his ideas on liberal democracy against populism are worthwhile, and his interpretation of Nazi Germany strikes me as highly persuasive and his dismissive treatment of David Irving exemplary, but nonetheless his Catholic social policy is not something I subscribe to. Nor do I agree with his Rousseauian view of the depravity of the modern world or with the dangers of the permissive society: truths can be stretched to become dogma. However, his latest article, which has the feeling of a valedictory about it, touches on useful material. He discusses the idea of knowledge in our scientific age, and how it impacts on our understanding of history. He asks:

Did — does — matter exist independent of the human mind? It did and it does; but, without the human mind, matter’s existence is meaningless—indeed, without the human mind, we cannot think of its existence at all. In this sense it may even be argued that mind preceded and may precede matter (or what we see and then call “matter”).

This is important. It begins to place man where he should be, at the centre of things, man as master of natural science. Without man to interpret it, to seek to understand it, the whole natural process on earth would still be there in its glory, certainly, but it would cease to be beautiful or worthwhile: beauty relies on both the observed and the observer, while worth can only be determined through interpretation. And only mankind, with its intellect, is capable of this.

Nonetheless, the nature of scientific advance, particularly quantum physics, makes it increasingly difficult for non-scientists to understand what is happening around us. Moreover, Lukacs observes that what is now undeniable is that ‘for the first time in the history of mankind, men have acquired the power to destroy much of the earth and much of mankind, potentially even most of it.’ Lukacs, of course, is of a pessimistic bent and I try to remain positive, but he is quite right. We have at our disposal truly astounding capabilities, which bring with them enormous risks. Lukacs’ response, however, is not pessimistic. ‘We must rethink the very idea and meaning of “progress,’ he tells us:

We must recognize, contrary to all accepted ideas, that we and our earth are at the center of our universe. We did not create the universe, but the universe is our invention, and it is, as are all human and mental inventions, time-bound, relative, and potentially fallible.

This places a huge responsibility on us, he concludes:

This insistence on the centrality and uniqueness of human beings is a statement not of arrogance but of humility. It is yet another recognition of the inevitable limitations of mankind.

We and the earth on and in which we live are again at the center of the universe—a universe that is, unavoidably, an anthropocentric and geocentric one.

This is where I began, and where I end. Time and again, it seems to me, man has had a habit of removing himself from the centre of the cosmos where he belongs. If it is not religion relegating us, it is a well-intentioned environmentalism, skewed at times to a degree which is almost post-humanist. Enough, Lukacs says. Without the human mind, without our intervention, existence would be meaningless, so let us embrace the primacy of mankind. It is a fine starting point for a new debate. He could perhaps usefully have moved further by overcoming his pessimism about society and expanding on the notion of the human community as a means of progress. Not to do so runs the risk, in Keith Ansell-Pearson’s neat formulation, of accepting Nietzsche’s ‘amoral solipsism of the overman.’ In all this debate, throughout the uniqueness of the human experience, there must remain at its heart a community. Nietzsche is wrong to equate community with the herd, or to express ‘common’ as a pejorative term. ‘All things in common’ was a great Diggers’ cry, and it resonates still.

And so we have it: a human community, a world that is viewed through the prism of humanity, where humanity is at the centre of everything we believe in and aspire to. It is best summed up for me by that man of contradictions, Nietzsche, who defined the self-affirmation required to overcome the resentment which roots us in a destructive cycle of history:

Anyone who manages to experience the history of humanity as a whole as his own history will feel in an enormously generalized way all the grief of an invalid who thinks of health, of an old man who contemplates the dreams of his youth, of a lover deprived of his beloved, of the martyr whose ideal is perishing, of the hero on the evening after a battle that has decided nothing but brought him wounds and the loss of a friend. But if one endured, if one could endure this immense sum of grief of all kinds while yet being the hero who, as the second day of battle breaks, welcomes the dawn and his fortune, being a person whose horizon encompasses thousands of years past and future, being the heir of all the nobility of all past spirit – an heir with a sense of obligation, the most aristocratic of old nobles and at the same time the first of a new nobility – the like of which no age has yet seen or dreamed of; if one could burden one’s soul with all of this – the oldest, the newest, losses, hopes, conquests, and the victories of humanity; if one could finally contain all this in one soul and crowd it into a single feeling – this would surely have to result in a happiness that humanity has not known so far: the happiness of a god full of power and love, full of tears and laughter, a happiness that, like the sun in the evening, continually bestows its inexhaustible riches, pouring them into the sea, feeling richest, as the sun does, only when even the poorest fisherman is still rowing with golden oars! This godlike feeling would then be called – humaneness.

Humaneness. Indeed.


Donigan said...

This far exceeds my capability of reading from a computer monitor, but I got through it anyway. I am also not capable, able, or willing (not sure which is most appropriate) to come up with an appropriately detailed response.

I will just say this for now: I believe that in this statement --Could Voegelin be right and all this tension is down to a lack of a spiritual base in our lives? -- is completely backwards, and thus, your entire series of speculations here are topsy-turvy, moves the point aside.

The comment is rendered more accurately by replacing "a lack of a" with "the."

Not a one of the problems with human existence can be attributed to secularism or rationalism or critical thinking, but instead to just that odd, anachronistic craving for gods and supernatural determinants. All attempts to suppose otherwise is no more than a whole big bucket of red herring.

As long as so many human beings need to assuage their fears and reassign their responsibilities to some unknowable notion, then there will always be this impenetrable barricade to clear thinking.

It is this utter ignorance that makes of the world a dark and dangerous place.

Tom Conoboy said...

Hi Donigan, yes it was a bit of a mouthful wasn't it? Once I start I can't stop. Too many words for reading from a computer...

I believe that in this statement --Could Voegelin be right and all this tension is down to a lack of a spiritual base in our lives? -- is completely backwards, and thus, your entire series of speculations here are topsy-turvy, moves the point aside.

Yes, I think you're right. I was trying to see it from Voegelin's perspective, but I agree with your next point that none of the problems we encounter are down to rationalism.

But it's a way of thinking that is very typical of religious thinkers, isn't it? They say 'because you are not like me, or think like me, or behave like me, you must be the cause of all problems. I don't think like you, I am not the cause of the problems, so therefore the cause of the problems must be you.' Cue the next crusade...

Mark said...

A decade or so ago Wendell Berry said something to the effect that the great division in the world will be between those who wish to live as machines and those who wish to live as humans. I very much like this post. Your thinking is humane.

A few clarifications though. Naturally Lukacs believes that we invent the world *after* God created us. Hence: sum, ergo cogito, ergo sum. I exist (because God created me), therefore I think, which opens a new dimension of existence. And so, for Lukacs at least, the man centered-universe is such due to God.

You write, "Nonetheless, the nature of scientific advance, particularly quantum physics, makes it increasingly difficult for non-scientists to understand what is happening around us."

This is a statement with which Lukacs would never agree. Lukacs would suggest not that quantum physics has made the happenings of the world utterly inscrutable to us, but that it has perhaps shown the scientists' construction of our world is no "truer" than our own common-sensical interpretations. The sun rises in morning, yes? Newtonian physics said no with great certainty in the objective accuracy of their construction of the world.

Perhaps the last hundred prove not that in "objective reality" the operation of the world is even more complicated than we thought, but that our earlier constructions ("the sun rises") are truer in a sense than the constructions offered by science.

Tom Conoboy said...

Hello Mark, thanks for your comments and clarifications. Very welcome.

"Nonetheless, the nature of scientific advance, particularly quantum physics, makes it increasingly difficult for non-scientists to understand what is happening around us."
This was a - no doubt hamfisted - attempt to paraphrase some of the things Lukacs said in his article (which I meant to link to in my post; I will go back and do so now). For example:

"At the same time consider the increasingly passive reactions of people to the ever more and more complicated machines in their lives. Few know how their machines are built or how they actually function. (Even fewer are capable of repairing their machinery.)"

But your comments certainly help put into context other of his comments in the article, for example:

"Whether we call it uncertainty or indeterminacy or complementarity; whether we refer to quantum physics or nuclear physics or subatomic physics or particle physics, their practitioners found that the behavior of small particles (for instance, of electrons) is often considerably unpredictable, and that this kind of uncertainty is not a result of inadequately precise measurements but may be proved by experiments."

I think that amplifies the point you made.

thanks again


Mark said...

I think I understand your point better and agree--that the practical functions of most of things we do on a daily basis are beyond the comprehension of most of us.

Tom Conoboy said...

That reminds me of a quote many years ago by Laurie Anderson - around the time that O Superman was becoming one of the most unusual hit records ever - that there is something wrong with a society where people can turn on a light switch and not have the remotest idea how or why a light comes on.

I can empathise with that point. The how I can follow - I can recite the basic science involved. But I still don't really understand why it happens.

Mark said...

See, and this is another Lukacs-esque point, I think that the why is all tied up in the how, and that epistemologically how is more important than why: not the how of mechanical causality (the third-person scientific method explanation divorced from context) but the historical how. Why is it that now turning on a light, using the Internet and a computer and an iPod, are all utterly unremarkable? You have to ask how it happened. Generally we tell that story as one of heroic progress, speaking in hushed tones about the inevitable march of mankind upward and onward... obviously, I am not so convinced, which is not to say I'd willingly hand over my iPod or MacBook.

Tom Conoboy said...

Well, perhaps not heroic – there’s much in our history that is certainly not that – but progress certainly, and I do think that this progress is generally positive. We need it. Without it there would be stagnation. I guess the danger with denying our progress is that you end up retreating into a Rousseauian longing for the noble savage. This, I imagine, is what you mean, and what you’re trying to avoid, when you talk about understanding the historical how? I think you’re right about that – understanding how we came to be where we are is essential. But I do believe in progress, and I do believe – just – that we are progressing.

Mark said...

You seem to have pretty badly conflated progress and change. I don't disbelieve the science of evolution, but I most surely disbelieve the philosophy that preceded and accompanies it.

And, yes, I believe thinking historically tends to demolish both myths: progress and the noble savage. The more one honestly looks at history the more astonishing it is how much has changed and how much never seems to.

Tom Conoboy said...

You seem to have pretty badly conflated progress and change.
Yes, quite possibly. That's one of the dangers of idealism, I think, and I'm fatally infected with that.