Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Progressive Diminishment of Man

Rebecca Bynum of the New English Review authors a fine essay titled The Progressive Diminishment of Man. Her piece is reminiscient of C.S. Lewis' Abolition of Man and offers many good insights into the dehumanization of modern man. I have only two minor quibbles with it.

I think she could have been a bit more clear that the problem is scientism not science. She does say this, but the point needs more emphasis, I think, than she gives it. Nor do I think the rejection of the monistic materialism naturalism, or scientism, entails is a sufficient remedy to the problem. In my view nothing short of an explicit acknowledgement that there exists a personal Creator in whose image we are fashioned will suffice to address the "diminishment" Bynum so skillfully exposes.

But these quibbles are insignificant compared to her overall case. Start with these paragraphs:

In the space of a few short generations, man has descended from seeing himself as a little less than the angels to king of the beasts to nothing more than a complex machine. The effect this has had on culture, on art and literature, has been devastating. For as the essential importance of man has decreased, so has his ability to portray life in anything other than absurd terms.

[L]iterature has been reduced to a prolonged and tedious exploration of the aberrant....Indeed, the importance of human life has been so reduced that certain philosophers argue, with dead seriousness, that it is actually immoral to prefer human life over than the life of an animal.

The high priests of scientism, from Stephen Hawking to Richard Dawkins, argue that given enough time, science will eventually answer all questions, and implied is the idea that science, and science alone, contains all truth. However, upon examination, we find great areas where science has already abdicated. Science cannot, for example, explain the difference between a living and a dead organism in purely scientific terms. Scientists observe the elliptical movements of the planets and the mathematical precision of the orbits of electrons around the atomic proton, and postulate the existence of forces to explain these motions, but they cannot tell us what these forces actually are. For example, science can describe the effects of electricity, but it cannot tell us what electricity is any more than it can tell us what life is or what gravity is.

This is an excellent point. Scientism is the belief that science has all the answers to life's most important questions and any question that science can't answer isn't really worth asking. Yet as Bynum points out, science really can tell us very little. Not only does it not know what a force like gravity or magnetism actually is, neither can it tell us what matter is, what energy is, or how they interact. It can't tell us what a mind is, what an idea is, how we experience sensations like color or sound, what consciousness is, or even what life is. It can not give us a satisfactory explication of moral obligation, it can't tell us what our purpose is or give meaning to life. Nor can it explain why truth matters. It can discover the principles that enable us to build cars, televisions, i-pods, computers, and nuclear weapons, but it can't tell us how these things should be used. We could go on, but I think the point is made. Science can describe what happens when one bit of matter comes close to another, but it cannot tell us much else of importance about life.

Bynum goes on:

[I]t is my contention that even the possibility of exploring the non-material realm of mind has been effectively blocked by the overwhelming consensus of modern science that we live in a meaningless material universe and only the weak-minded would say otherwise. It is because science has progressively diminished man in his own eyes that philosophy has been stunted. We stand dumb in the face of confident Islamic assertions because we long ago abandoned the search for an effective and modern philosophical response to materialism. Islam is, in essence, an extremely materialistic religion with many similarities to secular materialism: both remove human dignity and envision man as a slave.

The reinvigoration of Western culture must include the restoration of man to a place of dignity in a meaningful universe. The first step must be to restore mind to a level of reality, not illusion, otherwise meaning and values cannot be considered to be real. If mind is not real, then all of man's knowledge and all his finest accomplishments in art and science are as nothing and the Muslim designation of the fruits of our culture as worthless jahiliyya would be justified. Perhaps it is time to revisit the works of Kant, Descartes, Aristotle and Plato and recognize that the banishment of mind from the realm of reality has not necessarily been wise. For without mind, where is will? and without will, where is freedom? Let us restore man to his proper and dignified place in a meaningful and thus mind-filled universe. One may even assert that in mind, we live, move and have our being.

By quoting Paul (Acts 17:28) Bynum is apparently tip-toeing up to the suggestion that though the reassertion of the dignity of man and a meaningful universe requires a restoration of the belief in mind (or soul) that in itself is not enough. We need to see the universe as the palette upon which God is painting a beautiful picture. We need to see human beings as being precious in the eyes of their Creator. Nothing less will afford us a basis for thinking man has any genuine dignity or worth. Nothing else can serve as a basis for human rights.

Anything less than a full-blooded acknowledgement of this metaphysical truth will prove ineffectual in restoring man to the exalted status Bynum rightly and eloquently calls us to reclaim.


Wallis Throws Down on Beck

Jim Wallis of Sojourners' issues a challenge to talk radio host Glenn Beck to debate him on whether the Bible obligates governments to engage in social justice (i.e. social welfare programs). Beck won't do it, of course, but I wish he would. Wallis is miffed at Beck because Beck has claimed that there is no such mandate in the Bible and that, in fact, the rubric of social justice has been used by fascists, communists, nazis, and socialists of all stripes throughout the 20th century to justify their aggrandizement of centralized power.

Here's Wallis being interviewed by Stephanie Miller:

I'm afraid that Wallis, not to mention Miller, misses the point here. Beck isn't saying that Christians shouldn't care for the poor. What he's saying, I think, is that there's nothing in Scripture that makes such care a responsibility of government. The Biblical imperatives enjoin individuals to help the poor. The Bible leaves it to those individuals to decide whom they will help and how much. Nowhere, as far as I'm aware, do they say that government has the duty or right to take property from one person to give it to others.

When government assumes the responsibility of caring for the poor then such care quickly becomes a right. So the poor have a right to food, education, heating fuel, and now to health care. By what logic can they be denied a right to a house (or at least home insurance), a tv, air conditioning, and a car (or at least auto insurance)? And if they have a right to all those things then their fellow citizens - you and I - have a duty to provide them. Should government be permitted to seize the property you work hard to earn and build in order to provide all these benefits for those who can't, or won't, work for them themselves?

Wallis says yes, Beck says no. I'm with Beck.