Wednesday, November 26, 2008


On Slate, Emily Yoffe had an article in October (‘Well, Excuuuuuse Meee!’, here).

She makes the good point that people who behave utterly and purely rationally are brain-damaged, quoting Antonio Damasio in “Descartes’ Error”. “Patients who have suffered injuries to the areas of the brain that control emotion, but who retain their intellectual abilities, end up acting in socially aberrant ways.”

So emotions are essential to healthy human functioning. So far so good. Nor is it necessary to go the Men Are From Mars route, mixing things up in the ‘intellectual’ and ‘conceptual’ elements of Identity Politics’ long march through American culture. Emotions are important, and contrary to the broad-stroke agitprop, there has probably never been a culture that taught its people – male or female – that feelings are alien to humans. Yes, the Spartans – for example – realized that in some ways and in some situations one has to suppress emotions in order to get a particularly distasteful or difficult task done, but nobody who’s changed baby-diapers could argue with that.

Efforts to utterly repress or even excise emotions have not worked out well. Even the vaunted Nazis found that when executing victims by firing squad, the troops required substantial doses of alcohol before and after the exercise, which in the long run did nothing to enhance their overall military efficiency. I read somewhere recently that the Nazis also found that with very few exceptions, dedicated and active Party members were not the best candidates for extermination duties since their habitual emotional investment in the Party rendered them more labile and excitable, ensuring some form of emotional recoil after such activity.

Of course, this leads one to wonder if there isn’t some built-in human aversion to exterminating non-threatening humans; which starts to point toward some sort of in-built moral template, which of course is gall and wormwood to certain influential strands of modern, Identity-friendly thought. ‘In-built’ starts one toward the heresy of ‘essentialism’, ‘moral’ starts one on the path to ‘judgmentalism’, and – worse – suggests a Creation template, or at least a pre-birth ‘factory’ where some of this stuff is installed by the manufacturer (capital-M .. ?). The only politically-correct response to any of this is to rend one’s garments and look for a handy stone, all the while uttering loudly either ‘Eeeeeeeee-yewwwww’ or ‘Gack!’ or ‘Fie!’ or ‘You just don’t get it’.

But Yoffe goes on to reference the work of Marc Hauser at Harvard: just as children are able to pick up speech so readily because there is they “are born with” an “intrinsic language-learning ability”, so too children can build upon their already note-worthy “instinctive feelings of right and wrong” because “a moral template is already there”.

Nice how the prof – or at least Yoffe – doesn’t actually put the exact words together on the page for public consumption: children are born with a moral template. Rather: in children, a moral template is … ummmmm … already there. But hey – I accept that you have to be careful, given the current state of affairs. Such is Our modern American reality. You don’t get to keep your union card by just ‘saying’ things, no matter how accurate they may seem to be. We recall that the veterans of the Lincoln Brigade, who went over to help the Spanish (socialist) government against the Fascist-backed Franco-led military revolt were not – in 1940 after they had returned to this country after Hitler and Mussolini tipped the scales in favor of Franco – considered reliable enough to serve in the urgently-enlarging US military because they had been … “premature anti-Fascists”, i.e. in the military mindset if you are that capable of independent thought and initiative, you’re going to be a problem for the highly organized, hierarchical life of the soldier. Americans concerned about ‘militarization’ of civil life here today and perhaps enamored of the ‘efficiency’ of military justice would do well to take note.

The contents of the template are handily proposed as “the three R’s”: Respect, Reputation, and Reciprocity. Not a bad beginning; one might indeed almost call them ‘virtues’ (small ‘v’). And huge that these are in-built; that the ‘unit’ (surely no more mechanistic and reductionist than ‘blastocyte’) comes with such characteristics factory-installed. Not that I am going all metaphysical on you here; such characteristics and capabilities evolved in humans, in response to the pressures of living socially with others of their kind. But once you’ve gone back this far and this deep, there’s no real way to ‘prove’ that there is no ‘factory’; I’m just sayin’.

‘Nature’ as the factory and the builder is also quite tenable. Although, whether Nature is fronting for something else, or is a tool of something (or someone) beyond it, again – we’re getting beyond scientific proof here … but so what? Just a thought.

Which leads to fresh thought as to whether Hobbes (man is a solitary savage) or Rousseau (man is a solitary noble) really got it right about us humans. Yoffe tellingly notes Frans de Waal’s observation in “Primates and Philosophers” that if humans were not social beings, then ‘solitary confinement’ would not be the worst punishment other humans could inflict.

DeWaal ‘s further conclusion is that human beings never existed as free and equal, but rather – to the extent that any starting point is discernible at all – always existed as “interdependent, bonded, and unequal”.

Now that ‘unequal’ is interesting. It’s not how the American Constitutional vision quite sees it. Nor the old Christian vision: as children of God, all human beings, regardless of their gifts and individual endowments and/or placement in society, share a fundamental and primary equality – as God’s children and in God’s eyes. The Enlightenment tried to keep the ‘equality’ without getting too Goddy about it, and the Founders tried to lock in the fundamental political equality without letting the clowns run the circus and run the whole thing into the ground (sort of like has happened nowadays, as it turns out – though the clowns turned out to be the elites, which still says something unflattering about how We have let things slide).

It’s interesting to imagine that Christianity – and not just Christianity – in its best work – and there was a lot of it – was building upon certain human ‘givens’, seeking to create a supportive structure for deeply natural skills that are fundamental to a full humanity, to a full humanness.
If so, then a lot of baby has been thrown out with the bathwater recently. And a lot of human beings these days are trying to make life work without actually understanding the ‘machinery’ they’re trying to operate. And that’s not a thought that gives any cause for consolation or confidence. A civilization is supposed to provide a framework for ‘civilized’ humans, for humans operating ‘out of the higher end of their range’, as the social workers say. If it does otherwise, less than that, other than that, then it fails as a civilization.

It cannot be a coincidence that if We are failing as a civilization, We shall also fail as a Constitutional Republic – the Founders build the latter on the basis of the former.

Of course, science can’t account for ‘sin’ – for the incomprehensible capacity of the human to deny its best self.

Nor can science itself address the apparent human sensibility towards, need for – perhaps – a Beyond. Some ‘science’ tries to reduce that Beyond to the proverbial ‘undigested bit of beef’, or assign a purely this-dimensional explanation. There is no ‘proving’ that such theories are wrong. But there is no ‘proving’ that other-dimensional connections, perhaps sources, are non-existent, either.

Thus ‘religion’, when honed and operating at its highest capabilities, serves humanness without being its pit-bull. A matured religion, like a great wine, will do something that rubbing-alcohol won’t do, can’t do.

Nor can efforts to reduce ‘religion’ to its lowest operational possibilities, thereby depriving humans of its highest gifts, yield anything in the end but catastrophe for a civilization.
Nor will efforts then to define degraded life and Flattened selves as a ‘new’ civilization end well.

Yoffe moves along smartly: “Many of the researchers studying the origins of human moral emotions and behaviors say that religion does not create morality; it is building on pre-existing patterns.” This is, I would say, a worthwhile though scientifically un-fulfillable line of thought. If the initial assumption is that an understanding of the functional origins of moral behavior automatically rule out any further source of causation, further back beyond the veil of this dimension, beyond the ability of science to inquire or pursue – then it is possible that We have brought a knife to a gunfight. There may be a whole lot more goin’ awwnnn, and We have defined Ourselves out of the loop. We have, in the words of British general General Ironside chuckling over Hitler’s ‘failure’ in 1940, “missed the bus”. Tee-hee indeed.

It has been a rocky road for Christianity in this country. In the welter of interactions with ‘democracy’ its efforts to join with people drew it down into its lower ranges as it made its compromises with their lower ranges, a risk inherent in any religion’s engagement with humans; in the engagement with ‘science’ it has tried to learn without being seduced, and without taking the easy path of simply relinquishing its own responsibilities and coasting along – not often successfully maintaining its own integrity; in the engagement with government it has tried to prove itself useful – far too successfully; in the engagement with social movements, it has tried to make the best and do the best, in the torturous road toward a better life and a better civilization.

Science cannot allow itself to be inveigled into non-scientific activity; government has its own purposes; social movements are never complete.

Science has tried to define its purview as the ultimate reality, ignoring the awefull question as to whether its natural limits actually define as well the limits of the range of human existence. Government has tried to become for all practical purposes the most significant object of human life – as Mussolini declared it to be; social movements have in too many cases presumed their own agendas to be not only undeniable but illimitable.

All have turned on ‘religion’, using examples of its lower-quality performances to justify their desire to supplant what it represents in the inchoate but deeply embedded and stubborn longing of the people for some higher ‘above’ in themselves and some Beyond ‘out there’.

With the current tremendous ‘embarassment’ of both the government’s brass-plated agenda and some of the more outrageous of the social movements’ agendas, there exists an opportunity for religion to contribute its best gifts to the present difficult situation.

The developments noted in this article, respectable and quite interesting in themselves as scientific research, might help a science-minded citizenry to see what value might lie in ‘morality’ and the religious sensibility. The science cannot go further than that, and shouldn’t.
But science was never a religion. Or never should try to be one.

We, on the other hand, as individuals, seem to possess a range above and beyond – but built upon – what science can usefully ‘discover’ and study.

So … We should do something about that. Do something with that. Or else We will be denying Ourselves the use of capabilities and competencies that – especially nowadays – We most desperately need, as individuals, as members of a society and a civilization, as The People.

For such gifts and competencies We may do well to give Thanks this season. And give life to such ‘thanksgiving’ by buckling down to develop and deploy those gifts. Maybe even those Gifts.

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