Friday, November 25, 2005

Religion and Fascism

I was recently reading an essay entitled "Productive Noncontemporaneity" by Johann Baptist Metz, the Catholic theologian with links to the Frankfurt School, which describes among other things how three social systems respond to religious "noncontemporaneity," i.e., religious thought and practice that stand apart from, and are often critical of, contemporary culture. (In a different context, one might translate "noncontemporaneous" as "prophetic.") The three social systems are 1. bourgeois-liberal society ("liberal" in the Lockean sense of universal natural rights, representative government, individual sovereignty, etc.), 2. Marxist socialism, and 3. fascism. In the first case (bourgeois-liberal society), religion is privatized--the legacy of Schleiermacher. Where Marxist socialism (the second case) has not simply dismissed religion as pernicious alienation, the religious dimension of social life has entered into the dialectical process of a socialist history of liberation. The messianism present in Marx's writings is no doubt involved here. Finally, with fascism we find the following: "time and again it has attempted to politicize and exploit its populist manner of cultural and political resentments often bottled up in a religion owing to its noncontemporaneity, such as its latent animosity toward enlightenment and democracy."

Does the converse of each conditional hold as well? For example, if the society is bourgeois-liberal, then religion will be privatized; does that mean that if religion is privatized, then our society is bourgeois-liberal?

More to the point, if a society is fascist, then the political leaders will politicize and exploit the dominant religion's cultural prejudices especially its latent animosity toward enlightenment and democracy; does that mean that if the political leaders are politicizing and exploiting the dominant religion's cultural prejudices especially its latent animosity toward enlightenment and democracy, then our society is fascist? If so, it would seem that we are living in a fascist society.

Positive Interpretation

The Medium Lobster at Fafblog offers some hermeneutical leverage for our situation in Iraq:
Indeed, since the war has no clear objectives, its objectives can be adjusted to have already been met at any point. A successful terrorist attack becomes a sign of weakness and desperation in the enemy; an eruption of insurgent violence becomes part of a brilliant flypaper strategy. Consider the following dire sentiment:
If America stays bogged down in Iraq, the country's deterioration into sectarian violence and partition may become inevitable, even as the sustained military commitment leads to the collapse of the U.S. armed forces as we know them.
Grim, yes. But let's take a look at this pig wearing the bright, shiny lip gloss of victory!
If America stays the course in Iraq, the country's advancement into sectarian friskiness and partition may become a success, even as the sustained military commitment leads to a transformation of the military for the twenty-first century.
Ah, that's more like it!

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Evolution and Subjectivity (3291 words)

In contemporary philosophy, we are finding more and more attention being paid to evolution as the principle of explanation. Evolutionary theory is now frequently applied to many branches of philosophy. In philosophy of mind, evolutionary theory is used to explain the development and nature of mental content and consciousness; in ethics, it is used to explain altruism, care, and responsibility; in epistemology, it is used to explain the development of doxastic practices and justificatory schemes; in aesthetics and political philosophy, it is used to explain the development and dissemination of "memes"; and so on. Evolutionary theory, it seems, can be used to explain almost anything. Regardless of the explanandum, the explicans remains evolutionary theory. This trend in philosophy represents the latest chapter of a longer trend of naturalization and disenchantment. Lately, however, there has been a revival of a Post-Kantian idea: inner teleology. Kant’s retrieval of Aristotle’s teleology in the form of “purposiveness without a purpose” became a guiding theme for many post-Kantian philosophers, and now it seems to be resurfacing in the complexity sciences, including in particular Stuart Kauffman’s work on self-organization. Where evolutionary theory once occupied the position of ur-explanatory theory, emergence is now usurping that ultimate explanatory role. In the following, I plan to situate Kauffman's suggestion in the context of Charles S. Peirce's work, then follow up on the Hegelian echoes present in it, and finally offer some concerns about how emergence theory might function in contemporary philosophy of mind.

In Peirce's essay "The Architecture of Theories," he claims there that "the only possible way of accounting for the laws of nature and for the uniformity in general is to suppose them results of evolution." This is an interesting claim--that the laws of nature are the results of evolution. To see laws as the product of evolution is to presuppose that they are not absolute. This allows for the aleatory which is observed in the minute discrepancies involved in any application of the laws to reality. As Peirce claims, there is always a "certain swerving of the facts from any definite formula," and this is not always and only due to the imperfections of our techniques of observation.

The consequence of this view is that the laws of nature cannot be absolute (true in every instance of reality) or deterministic (based on mechanical principles). Peirce's reasons for this are: 1. purely mechanical laws presuppose an extraneous cause beyond the process; 2. law results from evolution, not the other way around; 3. mechanical laws can only explain homogeneity, not heterogeneity; and 4. mechanical laws are reversible, but growth is not.

Let me focus on the third and fourth points for a moment because they are especially relevant to a discussion of Stuart Kauffman.

According to Peirce’s third point, it would be illogical to treat natural laws as absolute and deterministic because doing so would fail to address the heterogeneity of the universe. Only homogeneity can result from exact law, whereas experience shows us an abundance of arbitrary heterogeneity. In Darwinian terms, we need accidental variations with each iteration of the selection process. In another sense, Kolmogorov complexity seems to be involved here: that the complexity of information (in the form of a string) can be--and mostly is, according to Gregory Chaitin--as complex as the program which generated it. That is to say, there is much heterogeneity in the world which cannot be captured by anything simpler than a program of equivalent "heterogeneity" or complexity.

According to the fourth point, the conservation laws amount to the reversibility of mechanical operations; thus, growth would not be explicable by such operations. This connects to one of Peirce’s arguments against strict determinism. According to the determinist, Peirce writes, chance is unintelligible because it demands the acceptance of arbitrary givens without disclosing "to the eye of reason the how or why of things." In response to this charge, Peirce argues that determinism requires no less swallowing of arbitrary givenness in the form of "immutable and ultimate facts" for which no account can be offered. The only difference is that in this case the facts are all given up front at once--a bitter pill that can be swallowed and then forgotten only at the expense of self-delusion. Instead, Peirce suggests we acknowledge the immense amount of change in the universe and recognize the implications of it: "the history of states, of institutions, of language, of ideas . . . paleontology . . . changes in stellar systems. Everywhere the main fact is growth and increasing complexity." Peirce cites Hegel in this connection: “Hegel,” he writes, “discovered that the universe is everywhere permeated with continuous growth (for that, and nothing else, is the ‘Secret of Hegel’).” (I’ll return to the Hegel connection in a moment.) From these facts of change and growth all around us, Peirce infers that "there is probably in nature some agency by which the complexity and diversity of things can be increased; and that consequently the rule of mechanical necessity [determinism] meets in some way with interference." This agency in nature that interferes with strict mechanical necessity can be understood as Kauffman’s addition to Darwinian evolution. The random mutations involved in the process of natural selection are important. As we have seen from Stuart Kauffman’s work, however, such processes require a further agency beyond random mutations to explain the growth and increasing complexity of the universe, and so Kauffman introduces self-organization in order to explain the emergent properties of a complex system.

Kauffman’s explanation of this idea hinges on the notion of the “adjacent possible.” The adjacent possible in a complex system consists of those states which are not members of the actual system but are one reaction step away from the actual. Once a new state has been achieved in the system by realizing one member of the current adjacent possible, a new adjacent possible, accessible from the expanded actual that now includes the additional member, becomes available. Thus, the adjacent possible is indefinitely expandable, but each stage has a definite framework within which new novelties may appear (Stuart Kauffman, Investigations, p. 142).

Kauffman qualifies the difference between the adjacent possible in classical physics and his use of it in describing biospheres. In the former case, e.g., in the case of a jar of atoms, all states in the adjacent possible can be easily described in principle. However, in the case of a biosphere, there is no finite way to pre-describe all the adjacent possible states. “We cannot say ahead of time all the possible constellations of matter, energy, process, and organization that is a kind of ‘basis set’ for a biosphere in the sense that the atomic chart of the elements is a finite basis set for all of chemistry” (131). We could never finitely pre-state the adjacent possible adaptations for any configuration space of a biosphere. As a consequence, Kauffman claims that the task of biology has changed:
Biologists tell stories. If I am right, if the biosphere is getting on with it, muddling along, exapting, creating, and destroying ways of making a living, then there is a central need to tell stories. If we cannot have all the categories that may be of relevance finitely prestated ahead of time, how else should we talk about the emergence in the biosphere or in our history—a piece of the biosphere—of new relevant categories, new functionalities, new ways of making a living? (134)
Thus, stories must take the place of, or at least supplement, the traditional form of scientific explanation, i.e., subsumption under laws of causal necessity.

Kauffman, it seems, is not alone in this view. The neuroscientist and complexity scientist J. A. Scott Kelso implicitly agrees with this point and claims as a result that it is not useful to “talk about the laws of physics as if the workings of our minds and bodies are controlled by well known fundamental laws.” Thus, Kelso contends that with the emergence of new levels complexity, “entirely new properties appear, the understanding of which will require new concepts and methods” (J. A. Scott Kelso, Dynamic Patterns: The Self-Organization of Brain and Behavior, 24). In self-organizing complex systems, Kelso explains that novel content emerges from the “systemic tendency of open, nonequilibrium systems to form patterns,” and he concludes that “intelligent behavior may arise without intelligent agents—a priori programs and reference levels—that act intelligently” (34).

Getting back to Peirce, he uses the term “habit” to capture much of what these contemporary scientists are describing as self-organization. Where Kauffman and Kelso might discuss the “laws of self-organization,” Peirce discusses the “law of habit.” For Peirce, the universe is an evolutionary development in which habits successively emerge. The term "habit" here denotes regularities or patterns not simply in nature but already in conceptual form; thus, it is an idealist term, as I will explain further below. In any case, Peirce claims that everything is part of an ongoing process and can be explained as the outgrowth of an earlier stage. This all happens according to the laws of evolution, but, of course, even these laws are habits which have been forged (or self-organized) within the process. In rejecting deterministic physical laws, Peirce instead opts for the idealist position according to which matter is "effete mind, inveterate habits becoming physical laws." Peirce goes on to argue for objective idealism. Thus, he can write elsewhere, "My philosophy resuscitates Hegel, though in a strange costume" (Peirce, 1.42).

* * *

Before we get carried away with the idealist notion of “effete mind” and begin thinking of a “re-enchanted nature” or start making comparisons to Hegel’s occasional flirtation with the understanding of nature as implicit or “sleeping” spirit, we should consider the following. About Hegel, it should be noted that he also sometimes calls nature “spiritless.” More importantly, spirit or Geistis not simply a product of nature even if it is also not non-natural or immaterial. That point would take some considerable time to unpack. Let me just quote two passages that would get us started. First, Hegel states, “Spirit is usually spoken of as subject, as doing something….” Second, Hegel claims to the contrary that “it is of the very nature of spirit to be this absolute liveliness, this process, to proceed forth from naturality, immediacy, to sublate, to quit its naturality, and to come to itself, and to free itself, it being itself only as it comes to itself as such a product of itself.” There is a lot being said in this passage, and much of it is rather mysterious. Spirit “proceed[s] forth from naturality” and yet is “a product of itself.” Let me try to offer two alternative readings of this claim by turning to John McDowell and then Robert Brandom.

If, as Kauffman suggests, biologists must tell stories now, so too are philosophers of mind offering narratives to explain how spirit or mind can “proceed forth from nature.” Such stories can take evolutionary theory to be sufficient, as is the case with Daniel Dennett, for example. However, for philosophers of the post-Kantian type, the key is to state how the human spirit can eventually free itself from a self-understanding wholly tied to nature. For the philosopher John McDowell, the discussion follows this latter path, but not all the way to the end. Instead of leaving nature behind altogether, McDowell’s analysis of the problem terminates in what he calls second nature. Let me explain. For McDowell (and Peirce as well as Kauffman would agree), the root of the problem is our inveterate conception of intelligibility, understanding, and explanation as tied to subsumption under deterministic causal law. McDowell argues that this conception of nature as the “realm of law” is too restricted. It makes the development of what Wilfrid Sellars calls “the space of reasons” seem, prima facie, impossible. How could the natural beings that we are come to act as purposive and reason-giving agents as we do? According to McDowell, this is really the Kantian problem of finding a way to fit together our receptivity with spontaneity and so see the coordination of sensibility and understanding.

According to McDowell, this starting point of viewing nature as the realm of law forces us to oscillate between two undesirable positions: the first McDowell terms “bald naturalism” and the second he calls “subjectivism” or sometimes “frictionless coherentism.” If our receptivity becomes controlling and the world simply determines what we can say about it, our agency is reduced to differential responsiveness to external stimuli—all subsumed under the realm of law. Then the immediacy of our sensibility can only play a causal role in our claims rather than justifications. To reference Sellars again, the "Myth of the Given" yields mere exculpations rather than reasons. That is the upshot of bald naturalism—“to domesticate conceptual capacities within nature conceived as the realm of law” (John McDowell, Mind and World, 73). On the other hand, if we abandon the notion of “world-directed” normative constraints, we may end up with a coherent conceptual scheme spinning in the void, unanchored by the way the world is—in Hegelian terms, autonomous spirit being “the product of itself.”

McDowell’s solution to this problem is less a solution than it is an “exorcism,” a diagnosis which rids us of an unhealthy conception. If we can cure ourselves of the limited conception of nature as the realm of causal law, we may begin to recognize something like what Peirce was calling the “law of habit.” For McDowell, we must recognize and make use of Aristotle’s notion of “second nature,” i.e., the socialized development of practical wisdom. Instead of needing to appeal to some non-natural property or capacity as the source of conceptual capacities, McDowell offers a “reminder” of the “partially re-enchanted” nature we live in, whereby our sensory contact with the world is “already conceptual.” Thus, we have some overlap of the space of reasons and the realm of nature. By way of our second nature, our responsiveness to the world is always already a responsiveness to reasons. In the language of emergence theory, the emergence of second nature makes possible the emergence of what McDowell calls "objective purport," i.e., meaningful content in thought.

Robert Brandom takes this point further, arguably too far for McDowell. Brandom articulates a semantic theory based on inferential practices which themselves are established by a prior normative pragmatics. His theory turns the direction of supervenience on its head: “the facts about having physical properties are taken to supervene on the facts about seeming to have such properties” (Robert Brandom, Making It Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment, 292). Brandom qualifies the pragmatist’s commitment to this phenomenalist position by noting that semantic content is not exhaustively accounted for by the assertional uses of such “facts about seeming,” but he nevertheless endorses a reorientation of supervenience so that “natural facts” (along with the concomitant treatment of truth as a property of them) do not ground the discussion of them in all discursive practices. This is not simply a reversal of Galileo’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities but a deeper understanding of the social constitution of both types and of that distinction itself. In Hegelian language, the distinction between nature and spirit is itself a geistig distinction; in other words, it is a distinction that spirit makes possible.

Brandom’s pragmatist approach is to treat the discursive practices of a society as primary and to treat semantic theory as the secondary task of making explicit the norms embedded in the discursive practices by drawing out the implicit inferential practices operating in those discursive practices. Thus, Brandom’s approach offers a “deflationary” theory of truth. First and foremost, this theory is deflationary in so far as it denies that there is a property of truth or a relation of reference. It also denies that there is a way to state the “semantic facts” in a formal way independently of the way in which they are deployed in social practices. Such normative features of linguistic practices derive from and are embedded in the proprieties of social practices so that the only way to make them explicit is for them to “precipitate” out of the social practices. Thus, Brandom’s fundamental insight is that “semantics must answer to pragmatics” (83).

Brandom, therefore, argues for the “ontological primacy of the social” (Robert Brandom, “Heidegger’s Categories in Being and Time,” The Monist 66 (1983): 387-409). He follows a post-Kantian trajectory in understanding the peculiar status of the human being not in ontological terms but in deontological terms. Brandom contends that Hegel, similarly, argues for the possibility of meaning as arising from a form of “sociality,” namely, the participation in spirit or Geist. In avoiding the use of ontological terms (traditionally construed) for understanding spirit, Brandom chooses to define Geist in the Kantian idiom of deontic statuses. Thus, Geist is “the emergence of [a] peculiar constellation of conceptually articulated comportments” (Robert B. Brandom, Articulating Reasons: An Introduction to Inferentialism, 33). Thus, like McDowell's account of "second nature," spirit names the dispositions and potentialities which can be actualized only by a process of socialization, but this process goes far beyond anything that might be explicable by reference to natural events and properties even as it involves nothing non-natural or supernatural.

In juxtaposing McDowell and Brandom this way, we see that McDowell’s concern to retain our answerability to the world now shifts to Brandom’s emphasis on answerability to each other. The constraint of the world on our space of reasons shifts to collective self-constraint. For McDowell, this may raise the specter of frictionless coherentism, but Brandom’s social pragmatism avoids the possibility for the bald naturalist to theorize McDowell’s story of the development of second nature as a mere process of training and self-organization so that second nature finally can collapse back into first nature. To be sure, McDowell acknowledges that there needs to be a distinction between a description of what the species does under particular circumstances, the way in which it flourishes and avoids dangers, on the one hand, and, on the other, that which could function as reasons for an individual when facing such circumstances. In other words, the individual needs to be able to disobey the dictates of nature, e.g., the evolutionary process, and so fail to meet the natural tendencies. This is the burden of Kantian self-legislated autonomy. If second-nature becomes an account of merely habituating certain dispositions and potentialities to respond to such situations with what practical wisdom dictates, then we have not yet told a story about spirit “quitting its naturality” or “freeing itself,” much less being “a product of itself.” We only have a story about the development of means-end reasoning. For Hegel (as for Kant), autonomy means that we subject ourselves to laws (or reasons) so that we can thereby "stand behind" them and thereby mean them. Only by telling such a story would we have narrated the arrival of McDowell's "objective purport." While Brandom’s reversal of supervenience goes a long way to achieve this narration, the question for Brandom’s social pragmatist theory is whether the “precipitation” out of social practices also vitiates the Hegelian account of spirit’s freedom.

In any case, both McDowell and Brandom offer emergence accounts of semantic content that avoid, or at least attempt to avoid, the reductionism prevalent in many applications of evolutionary theory to philosophy of mind or ethics. A broader question raised by their story-telling is whether and how the story of the emergenge of second nature or Brandom's conceptually articulated comportments is aided by Stuart Kauffman's notion of self-organization or Peirce's notion of habit. Furthermore, what ought to count as a sufficient explanation now that some story must be told in place of a more traditional scientific account?

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Jeeves of the Absolute Idea

Sometimes when reading secondary works on Hegel, I suspect the author may be describing the "world in front of the text" more than anything else. For example, Michael Forster sees evidence of eliminative materialism in Hegel's Phenomenology! Many such contemporary readings of the opaque author are either brilliantly perspicacious as interpretations or brilliantly creative as fictions. I just ran across Anthony Quinton's description of Schlomo Avineri's work on Hegel which captures the essence of my suspicion.
Avineri is the Jeeves of the Absolute Idea. To Hegelian equivalents of such Woosterisms as "dash it all, a conk on the noggin is a bit of a facer" he responds with something like "I agree, Sir, that a sharp blow on the head is a cause for concern."

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Church Intimidation

The IRS is investigating a prominent liberal Episcopal Church, potentially threatening its tax-exempt status, because of a sermon that questioned the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war. Churches are not permitted to make political endorsements if they wish to remain tax-free. In response to this news, Amy Sullivan sarcastically remarks,
No word on whether the agency is also going after the Baptist church that kicked out members who voted for John Kerry. Or the churches that helped out the Bush/Cheney campaign last year by sending in their membership directories. Or the Catholic priests who told parishioners it would be a sin to vote for Kerry.

French Riots

This is the best thing I've read about the recent French riots.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Biology and Theology in Life of Pi (2283 words)

(The following are comments on Yann Martel's Life of Pi, prepared for a panel discussion of the Literary Society at [blank] University where I work.)

The poet Wallace Stevens wrote, “The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly.” Yann Martel in Life of Pi attempts to prove this claim or at least make it palatable enough to entertain and entertaining enough to be palatable. In other words, Martel tries to make sure that the readers of his secular, scientific culture do not fail to recognize not only the plausibility of religious belief but also its benefits in coping with suffering, in making sense of life, and, especially, in appreciating the world we live in aesthetically. As such, I would call Martel’s theology an aesthetic theology. Its principal concern is how we see the world, the attitude with which we view it, and the attendant emotional uplift that this “divine consciousness” brings with it.

Martel’s opponent in the book is not the atheist, but rather the agnostic. The difference between the atheist and theist is merely superficial; both share a passion for the world, an openness to experience, and, most of all, an imaginative capacity that enriches life immeasurably. So close is their proximity that the atheist is, therefore, open to the possibility of a deathbed leap of faith. The agnostic, however, refuses to be unreasonable and will only doubt but never affirm and certainly could not passionately love anything. Immobilized by doubt and paralyzed by loveless dispassion, the agnostic never ventures far from the secure boundaries of his sense of self and is, thus, “beholden to dry, yeastless factuality,” as the protagonist Pi puts it. In the end, it is the agnostic’s lack of imagination that leads him to “miss the better story.” The better story, of course, is the one that addresses all the same facts but accompanies them with consciousness of God. As the narrator interrupts the story to tell us, this divine consciousness brings with it “moral exaltation; … elation, joy; ... a moral sense … more important than an intellectual understanding of things; a realization that the founding principle of existence is … love; … a trusting sense of presence and of ultimate purpose.”

To make this consciousness of God vivid and “real” to the reader, whom Martel presumes to be an agnostic living in the disenchanted world of modern science and technology, something sudden and extreme needs to occur—some event that will shatter our ordinary sense of experience, disrupt the reasonable and self-centered calculations of our secure bourgeois Western existence, and launch us beyond the horizons of foreseeable expectations. In other words, something unforeseeable and overwhelming needs to happen. Being forced to live for 227 days on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker qualifies as just that. The theologian Paul Tillich describes this sort of jarring experience as “ontological shock”—an overwhelming recognition of the relative insignificance of most concerns in life as the overriding fact of one’s imminent death sinks in. But there’s more to the image of being stuck in a lifeboat with a tiger than an abstract recognition of one’s own mortality. This is an encounter with what the philosopher Immanuel Kant calls the sublime. The sublime can take two forms: immense size and immense power. The ocean and the tiger provide trauma-inducing quantities of both.

As the protagonist Pi takes stock of his predicament when the ship Tsimtsum sinks in the storm and he hangs on to an oar suspended from the lifeboat’s bow with the tiger in front of him and sharks circling in the water below, he restates the theological theme of the book in saying, “Had I considered my prospects in the light of reason, I surely would have given up and let go of the oar, hoping that I might drown before being eaten.” Faced with this sort of impossible situation, the reasonableness of the agnostic would only lead to despair. Pi clings to life in spite of the seeming impossibility of survival, maintaining hope in the midst of a hopeless situation. Later in the journey, however, Pi notes the paradox of hope and hopelessness: too much hope can actually fold into hopeless despair by raising expectations which result in ongoing disappointment. Thus, Pi says, “You might think I lost all hope at that point. I did. And as a result I perked up and felt much better.” There is a sort of liberation that comes with hopelessness, that accompanies the realization that Pi makes a few pages later: “I am going to die.” Pi’s recognition of what philosophers call his being-toward-death issues forth in quite practical advice for those who wish, as he did, to survive. Pi states, “I had to stop hoping so much that a ship would rescue me. I should not count on outside help. Survival had to start with me. In my experience, a castaway’s worst mistake is to hope too much and do too little.” Reasonable hope makes no sense in an unreasonable situation. Instead, biology and theology begin to merge as his instincts for survival—rather than religious symbols and rituals--begin to express the religious dimension of his experience.

As the tale of his ordeal of physical survival unfolds and the struggle gradually induces a form of savagery in him, the religious elements of Pi’s civilized life begin to recede into the distant background. At the beginning of the book, Pi dabbles eclectically with various symbol systems producing a concoction of beliefs and practices that could only occur in India, and yet Martel’s French-Canadian background influences this discussion insofar as such cafeteria-style choices of religion could only seem possible in a Western consumer-oriented society. In any case, based on his upbringing as the son of a zookeeper, Pi makes an interesting assessment of religion in the modern secular world (which is really the world of Canada more than India): religion is perceived the same way that zoos are. Both impose artificial limits on the freedom of their inhabitants or adherents, and furthermore these limits are harmful. This view, according to Martel who is speaking through Pi, is mistaken. The problem with the modern view of freedom is that it is finally nothing more than the reign of terror.

This point is first explained with respect to zoos. Zoos are what might appear to us as a source of unending boredom, but to animals they actually provide a comforting environment of steady routine and security. For example, zoos help establish the elaborate social hierarchy among animals which stabilizes the life of an animal. As Pi writes, “Until it knows its [social] rank for certain, the animal lives a life of unbearable anarchy.” By contrast, the supposed freedom of living in the wild forces the animal into a life of “compulsion and necessity within an unforgiving social hierarchy in an environment where the supply of fear is high and the supply of food low and where territory must constantly be defended and parasites forever endured.” For the animal, the freedom of living in the wild comes at the price of living in terror. They don’t call it “the wild” for nothing. For human beings, religion provides the equivalent sort of structure to tame the anarchy and chaos of experience. In the end, zoos and religion are ways of making the residents of the world feel at home. If we miss the better story, we will be homeless.

Back in the story, the naïve young Pi adopts an idiosyncratic blend of religiosity—a mixture of Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism—and he then defends his pluralistic view to some skeptical adults when he disarmingly blurts out, “Bapu Gandhi said, ‘All religions are true.’ I just want to love God.” In some sense, the story of Pi’s adventure on the lifeboat makes the point that the Japanese philosopher Kitaro Nishida once made about religion. He compared religions to rafts floating on an endless sea. That is, religions are human creations that exist within something much more expansive and mysterious, and we must be careful not to mistake the raft for the ocean. We often take our religious symbols too seriously, mistaking them for the greater reality which they were originally intended to signify. Martel wants us to take stories seriously and recognize their power to transform us, but not too seriously that we miss the reality they are meant to open up for us.

This point becomes clear when Pi is stuck on the lifeboat. He occasionally acknowledges the fact that his earlier religious beliefs and practices have become remote and largely inconsequential. For example, he notes that the few remnants of traditional religion that persist during his ordeal are often curtailed by his weariness, despair, desolation, anger, and his understandable difficulty in continuing to love God. For the most part, the demands of physical hunger crowd out the spiritual yearnings that occupied much of the first part of the book. The journal he tries to keep—until his pens run out of ink—attempts, as he puts it, “to capture a reality that overwhelmed me,” but it turns out to be mostly full of practical stuff such as details about the weather, the pursuit of food and water, the techniques for taming a tiger in close quarters, etc. (It turns out a whistle and a turtle shell are very helpful.)

More importantly, once Pi is thrust into his adventure of physical endurance, the moral and religious boundaries that defined his previous existence gradually disappear. Although he initially experiences moral disgust as he witnesses the hyena literally eat the injured zebra alive, his revulsion at the injustice (which Richard Parker, the tiger, will soon rectify anyway) quickly passes as he observes, “When your own life is threatened, your sense of empathy is blunted by a terrible, selfish hunger for survival.” This guiltless, sixteen-year-old vegetarian quickly learns to kill fish and turtles with a hatchet or even his bare hands. The first killing was difficult. Pi says, “I wept heartily over this poor little deceased soul. It was the first sentient being I had ever killed. I was now a killer. I was now as guilty as Cain. I was … a harmless boy, bookish and religious, and now I had blood on my hands.” But he later notes a simple and brutal fact: “a person can get used to anything, even to killing.” Over time, Pi observes his gradual transformation from the civilized boy who acts according to principles of human dignity to his new form of sheer animal existence. One day while eating, for example, he notes, “I ate like an animal … this noisy, frantic, unchewing wolfing-down of mine was exactly the way Richard Parker ate.” Pi becomes accustomed to killing and even drinking turtle blood, but his progressive loss of human dignity culminates when out of utter desperation he eats a bit of Richard Parker's dung. (It tasted like shit.) Much of what we think of as essential and indispensable about ourselves, when put to the test of living in extremity, turns out to be so much cognitive pith and egotistical conceit.

But I exaggerate. There is a modicum of humanity left in Pi even as the necessities of survival force him to bestiality. For example, he describes one evening at sea when a lightning storm erupted. Richard Parker, acting on well-founded instinct, cowers fearfully beneath the cover of the tarpaulin as the bolts of lightning flash and strike the sea with tremendous power. The splash from one bolt even scalds Pi’s bare skin, but he reports a fearful yet fascinated sense of awe as this transpires. “The effect on me … was something to pull me out of my limited mortal ways and thrust me into a state of exalted wonder.” It is this ability to transcend himself that reveals the religious character of Pi. Pi has what the philosopher Thomas Nagel calls the “ambition for transcendence,” the ability to “reach a conception of the world which does not put us at the center in any way.” To make this point, Pi describes his feeling of transcendence as follows: “For the first time I noticed—as I would notice repeatedly during my ordeal, between one throe of agony and the next—that my suffering was taking place in a grand setting. I saw my suffering for what it was, finite and insignificant…. My suffering did not fit anywhere, I realized. And I could accept this. It was all right.”

This ability to transcend his own finite perspective, if only momentarily, confirms what many philosophers claim to be the essential characteristic of human beings. Contrast this with an animal’s total absorption in experience, its inability to stand back from itself, to detach itself from the onrush of sensations and reactions that fill its experiential field, to reflect on itself. Pi witnesses this distinctive animal capacity in the tiger Richard Parker one day during the flying fish episode. As the fish flew out of the water and bonked hapless Pi on the head, he watched Richard Parker react fluidly to this surprise--gracefully catching and eating the fish as they suddenly hurtled through the air. “Actually, it was not so much the speed that was impressive as the pure animal confidence, the total absorption in the moment. Such a mix of ease and concentration, such a being-in-the-present….” It is funny that we might worry about animals being bored in the zoo. They cannot be bored. Boredom requires a certain detached distraction, a whistling tunelessly at the airport while repeatedly glancing at the departure times and feeling restlessly unable to concentrate on one’s book. This is the negative side of our “ambition for transcendence.” If there is a plus side, it is the way fiction can help us transcend our loveless agnostic tendencies so that we do not miss the better story.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Great Pumpkin

Month 20 028

Vice President for Torture

Giorgio Agamben couldn't make this stuff up:
VICE PRESIDENT Cheney is aggressively pursuing an initiative that may be unprecedented for an elected official of the executive branch: He is proposing that Congress legally authorize human rights abuses by Americans. "Cruel, inhuman and degrading" treatment of prisoners is banned by an international treaty negotiated by the Reagan administration and ratified by the United States. The State Department annually issues a report criticizing other governments for violating it. Now Mr. Cheney is asking Congress to approve legal language that would allow the CIA to commit such abuses against foreign prisoners it is holding abroad. In other words, this vice president has become an open advocate of torture.

His position is not just some abstract defense of presidential power. The CIA is holding an unknown number of prisoners in secret detention centers abroad. In violation of the Geneva Conventions, it has refused to register those detainees with the International Red Cross or to allow visits by its inspectors. Its prisoners have "disappeared," like the victims of some dictatorships.

...The senators ignored Mr. Cheney's threats, and the amendment, sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), passed this month by a vote of 90 to 9. So now Mr. Cheney is trying to persuade members of a House-Senate conference committee to adopt language that would not just nullify the McCain amendment but would formally adopt cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment as a legal instrument of U.S. policy.... As for Mr. Cheney: He will be remembered as the vice president who campaigned for torture.