Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Antiquity, Christianity and Modernity on The Sanctity of Human Life

A friend of mine recently posted a link to a video of a sermon by Mike Erre in which he highlights the strain of thought present in Greek antiquity which displays calloused disregard for human life that is 'defective'--meaning, primarily, the mentally or physically disabled--along with an intense glorification of all things triumphant, beautiful, and well-proportioned about humanity. He then asks whether this Hellenism is still alive today, pointing to our culture's obsession with body image, abortion of the disabled, and the practice of eugenics as evidence that it is, at least to some degree.

The stirring video reminded me of David B. Hart's phenomenal essay on John Paul II's Theology of the Body. Where the message from Erre focused primarily on antiquity and whether the Hellenistic aspect of it persists, Hart turns his attention to the ethos of modernity and finds a similar, but distinct, strain of anti-humanism--or at least anti-'defective'-humanism-in-service-of-a-greater-humanism, as a proponent of this point of view might prefer to have it.

Hart also draws our attention to eugenicists but makes a very bold claim; while most bioengineers, abortion advocates or proponents of unfettered embryonic stem cell research would likely claim to abhor eugenics and other 'extreme' manifestations of their discipline or belief system, Hart argues that eugenics, euthanasia, forced sterilization, selective breeding, infanticide, and genocide all follow logically and properly from the post-Christian, 'rationalist', Darwinian ethos of modernity, and that the moderate moderns just aren't as steadfast in their convictions as the eugenicists. Which is a fancy way of stating the rather obvious; that a rejection of Christ--the creator, sustainer and redeemer of all human life--is a rejection of the inherent beauty and sanctity of all human life.

Hart, visa-vis John Paul II, rejects outright the notion that bioengineering, bioethics, eugenics, stem-cell research or any of these distinctly modern issues require any nuance or subtlety on the part of a Christian engaging with this cultural phenomenon.

To one who holds to John Paul’s Christian understanding of the body, and so believes that each human being, from the very first moment of existence, emerges from and is called towards eternity, there are no negotiable or even very perplexing issues regarding our moral obligations before the mystery of life. Not only is every abortion performed an act of murder, but so is the destruction of every “superfluous” embryo created in fertility clinics or every embryo produced for the purposes of embryonic stem cell research ... Even if, say, research on embryonic stem cells could produce therapies that would heal the lame, or reverse senility, or repair a damaged brain, or prolong life, this would in no measure alter the moral calculus of the situation: human life is an infinite good, never an instrumental resource; human life is possessed of an absolute sanctity, and no benefit (real or supposed) can justify its destruction.

For the Christian there seems there should be very little grey area. For many in Antiquity there was not much grey area (either you were a defective or you weren't). For the fully dedicated post-Christian Modern there shouldn't be any grey area either. Either human life (all of it quite defective in one sense, as Mike Erre rightly points out) is disposable or it isn't. Which is it?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

David B. Hart on Terrence Malick

One of my favorite current writers and thinkers, David Bentley Hart, mentioned one of my favorite living filmmakers, Terrence Malick, in a recent book review, and I was happy to learn that he's also a big fan. As I eagerly anticipate the release of Malick's Tree of Life, set to drop in a month or so, Hart's words have inspired me to revisit Malick's oeuvre. Here's the excerpt:

It may seem like a trivial question, but I cannot help wondering whether the title of this book [All Things Shining] has been lifted from the closing lines of Terrence Malick’s 1998 film adaptation of The Thin Red Line. It would make a kind of sense, given the themes of Malick’s films, and Malick’s Heideggerean background, and the way Heidegger seems to haunt this text like a genial specter. If so, then it seems to me that Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly might have done well to learn a few lessons from Malick—and from his mesmerizingly beautiful pagan-Christian-gnostic peregrinations—about the nature of the human longing for the divine, about its terrible ambiguity and urgency, and about its openness to both nature and grace. Because, in the end, All Things Shining is an oddly empty book: It asks so many seemingly deep questions, and then provides such incandescently shallow answers.

- David B. Hart.
Whooshing Through Life, First Things, March 2011.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Can Science Determine Moral Values?

This is a pretty interesting exchange between Russell Blackford and Sam Harris on the topic of Harris' new book 'The Moral Landscape'--in which Harris argues that science can determine human values. Harris recognizes that he is in an extreme minority on this issue. Almost all religious people would disagree, and the vast majority of secular scientific-minded types would also disagree, he acknowledges. But he claims that morality is essentially the 'science of human flourishing' or well-being, and since science can determine certain activities are worse for human flourishing than others (via sociology, economics, neurobiology etc.), it can therefore determine human values. That is the central argument of the book.

Harris wrote a piece responding to critics in general, but focused on Blackford since he felt he was the most thorough and insightful. Harris' response is thorough in that he doesn't really evade Blackford's points, but his responses either completely miss the point, or dismiss a point as insignificant, when it isn't.

For example, in response to the central critique of the argument of the book--that Harris presupposes, rather than demonstrates, that 'human flourishing' or 'well-being' is an ultimate good while human misery is evil--Harris essentially says "well, yeah, I did that, but I'm allowed to do that, and must do that. There's nothing wrong with that presupposition." Yes you're allowed to, but the point of Blackford, and all the critics of the argument, is that it's the philosophical presupposition that is determining the value NOT science. Science can only (in theory, anyway) let us know the best way to achieve our ends, once we have determined our values. Harris seems to completely miss the point, or not understand it. He even says "The fatal flaw that Blackford claims to have found in my view of morality could just as well be located in science as a whole -- or reason generally." -- Which is of course true, and science and reason are subject to the same critique. But science and reason, as abstract entities, didn't falsely claim that they could determine moral values, Sam Harris did. Harris seems oblivious to what his own argument even is, namely that science can determine human values, and the fact that his critic just demonstrated this to be false and Harris just conceded that it was false!

Also, his analogy to health does nothing to advance his case because, similarly, the objective knowledge about how best to be healthy is not the same as saying we must value health primarily, ultimately, or at all. The knowledge of how to be healthy doesn't demand ascent as to the value of our health. Some think it's very important, some think it's pretty important, some think it's mildly important, some don't think it's important. Science can not evaluate these opinions, it can only say "health is important if you want to live a long time" for example, but that isn't 'determining a value', it's evaluating a value that is already given. If I value 5 cheeseburgers a day, video games and a short lifespan over a healthy diet, exercise and a long lifespan, science can say nothing about this health value system of mine.

Anyways, Harris' response is ultimately pretty terrible and Blackford's review is overly positive, if anything, but good. One other interesting aspect of Harris' response to critics is his complaining that many hadn't read the book (either admittedly, or seemingly). Which is kind of silly when you're out giving hour long lectures at TED about the argument of the book, and doing a huge publicity tour where you lay out your argument thoroughly. People can, in good faith, engage your argument without reading the book. Though they shouldn't label their engagement a 'review' of the book as Deepak Chopra did. But when the foundation of your argument can be gleaned from reading the book jacket, or even just the subtitle, and it's blatantly fallacious, critics shouldn't really be expected to delve much further.

Monday, February 14, 2011

'The Sunset Limited' - Review

In a move that eschews any pretense of subtlety, the two characters in 'The Sunset Limited'--a film based on the play by Cormac McCarthy--are simply named Black and White. In a postmodern world that increasingly sees all things in shades of grey, McCarthy intends to revert to bold, stark dichotomy. At least as it relates to the big questions of God and the meaning (or meaninglessness) of existence.

Black is an evangelical ex-convict played by Samuel L. Jackson and White is an atheist professor played by Tommy Lee Jones. Black has just rescued white from a suicide attempt; White attempted to jump in front of a speeding train, and Black stopped him. Somehow the two end up back at Black's apartment and a discussion about life and God ensues. The entire film is essentially a single scene in the apartment with the two talking to each other. While that description is guaranteed to keep Generation ADHD away, the film is actually widly entertaining if you enjoy big ideas and discussions about them.

The characters, true to their monikers, espouse worldviews that are in direct opposition. Black is a cheerful, optimistic, and uneducated man who "doesn't know anything that isn't in [the Bible]", while White is a pessimistic, gloomy and highly educated man who has come to realize that life is pointless. It seems fairly obvious that, to some extent, these characters are also ciphers, intended to embody particular worldviews.

Most atheists, I imagine, would object to the atheist being portrayed as suicidal when the vast majority of atheists are not suicidal or utterly nihilistic in their worldview. This objection misses the point as the character of White is not merelyan atheist; he is atheism. He represents the inexorable end of a rejection of God, which must be nihilism, if that rejection is carried to its logical conclusion. If there is no absolute Good, no grounding for existence, then there can be no source of value that isn't ultimately arbitrary and meaningless. The movements of human will, just and unjust, good and evil, are all just movement. Doing 'good' can not be any better than 'bad', any more than a tree swaying to the left in the wind can be 'better' than it swaying to the right.

While the vast majority of atheists don't embrace a thoroughgoing nihilism of this sort, for various psychological reasons, the point being made is about the necessary ethos of atheism as such, not about individual atheists. Most Western atheists, knowingly or unknowingly, attempt to navigate some 'middle way' between the values of Christianity, and pure nihilism--this middle way is often called 'humanism'--but McCarthy seems to reject that such a middle way even exists. Hence the names of the characters. This line of reasoning follows the intellectual tradtion of the likes of Nietszche, Heidegger and Dostoevsky.

McCarthy's writing style is most often compared to William Faulkner, and for good reason--he was clearly influenced by Faulkner--but 'The Sunset Limited' is McCarthy at his most Dostoyevskian. Most of Dostoevsky's writing lends itself to stage; dialogue dominates and the thoughts and words of the characters are primary while elements such as physical descriptions are minimized. Also, a recurring theme in his writings was his own Christianity, and the rising tide of atheism and the nihilism that must follow it. Lastly, Dostoevsky also often used his characters as embodiments of particular ideas. McCarthy has voiced admiration for Dostoevsky in the past, and with 'The Sunset Limited' the influence is at its most pronounced.

While atheists might object to their worldview being portrayed as necessarily leading to an abyss of despair, I think Christians have more legitimate cause to object to this particular depiction of their faith. Black is portrayed as willfully myopic intellectually, relying largely on emotional arguments to make his point. He appeals to 'happiness' as a reason to believe in God, when the Bible pretty clearly says that 'happiness' is far from guaranteed for a follower of Christ (though joy is). When White contrasts the Bible with 'legitimate' history, White doesn't even protest. Black also seems to reject the authority of scripture. I could go on. While all of these tendencies can easily be present in a single believer, it doesn't make for an accurate portrayal of faith in God as such. The end result is that faith is portrayed as a means of having a reason to live and to be happy, without much serious regard for the truth. Which is not what Christianity is.

Reading the characters in extremely broad strokes you get the impression that faith is a kind of blissful ignorance while unbelief is tragic realism. I don't think McCarthy's point is quite as simplistic as that, but to the extent that this idea is present I wholly reject it.

With these reservations in mind, the portrayal of Black as a Christian, rather than as Christianity, is extremely favorable. Black is simply a loving Christian who is interested in honestly meeting White where he is and engaging with him out of concern. He wants to know who he is, what he believes, what brought him to this and how he can help him. On this level Black is an extremely accurate portrayal of the action part of Christianity. If we are to be known by our love, which is to say by our actions, then Black is easily recognizable as a Christian.

The film would have been slightly more interesting to me if both sides had been given better arguments, but as it is they largely engage each other on a visceral level, which is intriguing in its own way. The rapid-fire exchanges by the two actors are akin to a verbal tennis match. Real life discussions are rarely this neat; they never really talk past each other or misunderstand each other's points. There is a true meeting of the minds. This makes for much more exhilirating drama than a hyper-realist take, which would probably feature many awkward pauses, evasions, misunderstandings and changes of subject. Instead Black and White converse as fluidly as if they were the inner voices of a conflicted mind.

McCarthy seems less interested in which perspective is true than exploring the nature and consequences of belief and unbelief. This is a fruitful exploration as investigating the consequences of each can give us insight into the likely truthfullness and inherent value of the competing claims. But the value of Christianity is inextricably linked to its claim to truth. If it's a nice, coherent moral system, but it is untrue, then it's of no ultimate value. Though it makes some sense-- at least in an artistic expression rather than in an book, essay or dissertation--to defer the question of truth. The subject here is the questions, not answers, and how the competing worldviews approach them. Who was Jesus? Is existence meaningless? Can one find meaning in cultural things like democracy, freedom, music and art like White did at one time? Or is that all just so much rubbish on the trash pile of history, all destined to burn? While the truth of these matters is very important, contemplation always precedes understanding and it's the proper role of art to encourage and spark contemplation and reflection. By that standard 'The Sunset Limited' succeeds marvelously.

The Sunset Limited starts playing on HBO On Demand today, February 14th, and continues for the rest of the month.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Anonymity, Social Filters and Facebook

One hallmark of most internet haunts is anonymity. If you want to leave a comment on a Youtube video, on a political website or on your favorite message board you can usually be fairly certain that whoever reads the comment won't know who you are in real life (or 'IRL', as you would say on the internet). And you can be entirely certain that whatever reaction someone has to your comment, you won't have to see their face at the moment they read it.

Anyone who frequents these comment sections, and compares them to everyday conversation, will immediately be struck by the fact that most discourse that takes place there is much more antagonistic, blunt, vile and coarse. This isn't a particularly puzzling phenomenon. When commenting to a group of strangers with complete anonymity many of the social filters that are present in physical interactions with others are stripped away, and our id's are free to spew at will. Without any immediate feedback, or lasting impact, our consciences are set free.

With the invention of Facebook this phenomenon largely dissolves, I have noticed. When your comments and statements can be viewed by your mother, your grandmother, your pastor, your co-worker, your wife and your friends, with your real first and last name, you not only don't have anonymity, you have the exact opposite. Of course Facebook comes equipped with privacy settings, so you could re-produce the anonymity to some degree if you wanted to, but my feeling is that most people don't. And for that reason Facebook's social environment can be sharply contrasted to much of that on the internet, and usually for the better. It reproduces many of the aspects of live physical interaction; what you say can be seen and heard by people that you know well, who know that it's you saying it, and they can have an impact similar to if you had said it aloud to someone. Which is to say it reproduces a semblance of accountability and restraint that are probably healthy things.

Reading Adam Gopnik's piece in this week's New Yorker about the internet in comparison to other revolutions in information and communication made me realize that we probably do tend to exaggerate the extent to which technology affects or defines us, when it is actually always us defining and informing it. However, the medium is also the message, and technology does affect the nature and content of our interactions, to the extent we choose to let it. It seems the people at Facebook don't want to let it do so as much as the rest of the internet does.