The following is an intellectual regurgitation, no thesis has been formed, no outline followed, just a string of thought.
The science writer Tom Bethell once announced “[It is] an article of our secular faith that there is nothing exceptional about human life.” This is quite a statement. It subsumes and degrades nearly 4000 years of western civilization’s trademark of endurance, that life means something and is worthy of reverence, and especially human life. This sentiment is something new, that human beings possess capacities that are complex enough to make such a statement should be refutation enough; but the late paleontologist Stephen J. Gould demands that we must find a difference of “kind” rather than a measure of “degree” between us and everything else if we are to be justified in our “cosmic arrogance.” But if we are just to look around and notice that humans have been to the moon, whereas cows have not, perfectly content to eat grass all day and appearing to have the constitution to do nothing but eat grass all day, we must assay Gould’s demand with a suspicious eye. Let us walk this course.
Nothing, and I mean it, nothing about the physical world suggest that there is “nothing exceptional about human life.” Mr. Bethell rightly claims that it is a statement of faith. In all its moribund cynicism, it is an exceptional curiosity to observe that humanism has now found itself sullen and hollow, that the great achievements of our secular enterprise have been found wanting somehow, that it has produced nothing but anguish and loathing, and that this is our greatest article of faith. This belief, though, has an exceptional ability to ignore evidence, much more so than many religious ones, and it finds itself expressed in magazines, news media, politics, and other mass media dispersions, a low rhythmic hum, a drone really, dropping over the species as it advances from one futility to the next, infinitum ad infinitum.
That human life is exceptional is much more to the point and an inference much more consistent with the evidence. It is the belief and wisdom of the ancients, of Hericlitus’ oration, “You could not discover the limits of soul, even if you traveled by every path in order to do so; such is the depth of its meaning,” which possess the impermeable fortification of a life worth living. A pre-Socratic, Hericlitus was a rationalist, without doubt. He did nothing and saw a great deal. Those glimmering scenes of the Aegean enough to convince him that his perception of it was not something to be taken for granted, and not something amenable to explanation, “such is the depth of its meaning”. We now, us, do a lot more, say a lot less, and perceive almost nothing, yet we desire everything.
The ancient Greeks and Romans had succumbed to this great shadow once — nothing exceptional — and they paraded the globe conquering, raping, and pillaging in attempt to find themselves, at least, to be something exceptional. The king of Macedonia, having made it to Egypt, realized upon his entrance that he was, in fact, a god. They called him “the great.” A few centuries later the aging and embattled Caesar lamented that he was nothing compared to this Alexander, vini vidi vici.
Roman politicians were eager to please the masses with sport; the coliseum being the site of their collective catharsis, thousands of human beings died in an orgy of blood and guts as the crowd jeered and cheered. The smell of blood was so strong that people would become sick from it. You don’t say? The pantheon of gods, the great Jupiter and his anthropomorphized minions representing the ejection of roman narcissism into the ideal, a metaphysical projection of their own debasement, condoned such orgiastic festivals.
Thus Tom’s sentiments are, in fact, nothing new. I have to retract the above. However, today, we still have retained most of the propriety bequeathed to us by the ancient Israelites, thus the absence of the new coliseum, providing a buffer in which Tom can engage in his buffoonery. However, we find our projection of meaninglessness appearing in its most visceral in post war existentialist thought. The bomb and the holocaust having ended any remaining philosophical eroticism with a scientific utopia, malaise set in; the courageous Camus eagerly chiding the sunken Sartre to give him a reason not to kill himself. The pretext, its form, was first introduced by Tolstoy, his Confessions exerting the impression on the reader that this man had written his last letter before, but had the fortitude to tell the enlightenment’s greatest myths — Sisyphean in character, yet sold as hope — to go back from whence it came, to a hades full of libertine pursuits promising truth and freedom.
The genesis of Mr. Bethal’s evocation is to be revealed in Renaissance thinking; Machiavellian statecraft taking hold over that of the sacred, humans once again were disposable. “Disposable” is a term that was not to be found in Christendom’s lexicon; it had its battles and enemies, its savage atrocities, but the concept of human life being data points on a graph, or a census number, was alien. The church, undoubtedly, received this tradition from those Judean sages, who, still to this day, don’t even count themselves to establish a Minyan for prayer. Counting Jews has always been forbidden; once a number, addition and subtraction can be easily carried over into the political. Humans are infinitely valuable in Jewish thought, and thus immeasurable, bequeathing the Talmudic admonition that “he who destroys one life, is as if he had destroyed an entire world.” Compare and contrast.
The scientific discoveries of the 19th and early 20th centuries were enough to convince the academics that they knew it was all meaningless, “we killed God,” a remarkable conclusion considering the complexity and stunning cosmic choreography it revealed. This emanation has since latched itself to the intellectual’s every pursuit. Philosophic thinking has now split down a very severe fault line, the analytical on the right, and the post-modern on the left. Analytic philosophy is deeply indebted to the scientific enterprise, mathematics, and logic. Precision of thought is sought after to such an extent that many in the field have found that they are incapable of saying much, preferring instead to attack the other side, inducing a rather amusing intellectual spectacle.
Analytical philosophy has been unable to emerge from its moorings in positivism to any appreciable degree, thus it has been reduced to merely repeating what the scientists say. Scientists say a lot; the FMRI, like the oracle at Delphi, is believed to reveal every human perception and emotion, casting a reductive net over anyone who maintains that we are immeasurable selves. Cosmology boasts, constantly and annoyingly and wrongly, that we are on the precipice of a great breakthrough, we just need a nudge. A very large nudge is needed. Any philosophical speculation outside the bounds of materialism is swiftly meet with invigorating criticism from the scientific establishment. Materialism or shut up they say! The scientific community resembles more of a soviet politburo, than a community dedicated to the dispassionate pursuit of truth. They desire to reduce every single human experience to the random interaction of particles and chemicals, ignoring Hericlitus’s admonition.
Post-modernism, or continental philosophy, has said a lot of things as well. In fact, they have said a lot about science, and none of it is too congenial. Post-modernists prattle incessantly about oppression, construction, deconstruction, critical theory, and other various “theory.” Logic is almost nonexistent and the language employed is designed to admit only the faithful. They also seek an explanation of every single human experience, not in the material, but in the psycho-sexual predominantly, Freudian thought excreted from the pores of every single intellectual exertion.
The man in the middle — me mostly, I have looked around and have seen very few comrades — notices that science and reason has rendered obsolete many of the post-modern existential musings, and that science and logic itself has left a lot of the extra scientific materialist credo in tattered ruins.
“What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel…”
In apprehension how like a demon, to put the pious Hamlet in modern terms, the reduction of human faculties to discover its own meaninglessness. How like a sordid dream those midnight ruminations revealing to the passive logician that the works of the science, and the musings of the philosophers, has ended our string of good luck.
Psychologist find themselves incensed when plain speaking men and women find it enough to say that mental disorders don’t actually exist. They are so put off by such an assessment of things that they are unwilling to notice the demon in their midst. An empirical science has informed the debate; human behavior is the datum by which judgments are made. And they are made sparingly. Obvious paranoid schizophrenics are classified as ill because no mechanism or remote theory as to how such a diminished sense of being arises has been shown, or ,concomitantly, how any sense of being arises; but if we are to say that paranoia is wrongheaded, then list a string of fancy words to describe the behavior of the subject, classifying it as an illness, then what is to keep us from concluding that the various aberrations in otherwise mentally healthy people’s behavior is not the result of temporary or acute illness? Nothing at all. In fact, an entire legal industry is now predicated on the “abuse excuse.” It is the overuse of scientific language in pseudo-scientific fields that leave humans diminished as rational agents, and as legally or criminally liable. The materialist analytics, circling the cage waiting for the first protestation, are more than happy to rip the limb off anyone who still “believes” that we have any modicum of “free will.” As much as psychologist like to proclaim that behaviorism is dead, terrorism is justified as a reaction to oppression, mass murder to sexual abuse, and pedophilia to again abuse. This is not a cycle of analysis that leaves anyone except for the psychologist impressed. Let us leave the details to those who cherish them.
It is the confluence of these great forces, the philosophical, scientific, and psychological that informs “it is an article of our secular faith…” As much as it informs, it alienates and dispossess the human from who he really is; this is as plain as day: as we become less exceptional we become less exceptional, morality and ethics recede and law and force remain, power is the new god — utilitarianism is all that remains,that is, usefulness. It is quite a wonder to observe that the scientific field would talk of usefulness as an ethical imperative while leaving its necessity out. This is quite a mystery, “such is the depth of its meaning.”