Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Man: Miracle or Monster?

Hmm. As our president is fond of saying of his Straw Man of the Day, I reject this false choice!

I read Chesterton's The Everlasting Man several weeks ago, and remember being impressed at how he was able to apprehend certain ideas of mine before I was even born. Later we will get into the metaphysics of clairvoyant plagiarism and eschatological theft, but right now I want to set my bitterness aside and review what I discovered. I'll even be magnanimous and say "co-discovered."

Readers who have been with me from the beginning will recall one of our central principles -- that our cosmos has not been subject to just one bang, but several. And indeed, the later bangs are even more inexplicable than the first, since it is always possible to imagine that there was something prior to that initial one -- a big suck, for example.

What I mean is that the Big Bang of cosmology is not necessarily a case of creation from nothing, whereas this is not true of the subsequent bangs. They truly are creatio ex nihilo -- or, to be precise, there is nothing from the past that can explain them. They are cases of radical novelty that can in no way be reduced to their antecedent conditions.

Specifically, there is nothing we know about matter per se that allows us to entertain the notion that it might suddenly come alive, or play host to life. Frankly, it is the last thing in the world we would expect of matter, which is, after all, material. That's why we call it matter: because it is dead. You could stare at a pile of dirt and wait for it to start moving around of its own accord, but this is like watching paint dry and expecting it to turn into a painter.

Likewise -- and this will be the main subject of our post -- there is nothing about living (subhuman) animals that would permit us to see in them a budding Mozart, or an Aquinas struggling to get out. Nothing.

To the extent that scientistic types do see something, that constitutes literary backshadowing of the most naively childish kind -- similar to (as in yesterday's comments) foolish progressives who look at Christopher Columbus and see Josef Stalin. In short, we cannot understand a past reality with knowledge that was unavailable at the time. We cannot look at animals from the perspective of a reality totally unknown and unknowable to them. Truly, we have no idea what it is like to be a bat (or any other animal, for that matter), nor they us.

In other words -- and this is the nub of the gist -- there is not a line between animals and man, but an infinite and unbridgeable gap. To be sure, we may discern some some horizontal/material lines, but the gap between Bach and birdsong is as wide as the one between matter and life. No one with knowledge of birds only would anticipate symphonies.

If we are honest with ourselves, we see that "man is not an evolution, but a revolution" (Azar, from the introduction). Take those paleolithic cave-paintings, for example: "Nowhere do we find pictures of dogs drawn by cats," nor paintings of men produced by monkeys. Thus, "art is the signature of man." If we see it, we know without question that a man produced it.

But this self-evident observation has profound implications, first, "that man is not only a creature, but a creator as well" (ibid). And ultimately -- and I would say self-evidently, if we follow the logic to its end -- this is because man is in the image of the Creator.

In other words, man does not create creativity, so you can stop pondering how all the novelty got here, and forget about trying to shoehorn it all back into matter and necessity. Truly, doing so is precisely analogous to shoving the cosmos back into the singularity of 13.7 billion years ago and saying "that's all it is." Or, it is to equate the oak and the acorn and insist that only the latter is really real.

The game is easy to play, and is a favorite pastime of the progressive ignorantsia: for example, a human being is just selfish genes, the global economy is just the white man's greed, human nature is a war on women, etc. Each case involves the weird compulsion to auto-castrate and render oneself spiritually and intellectually infertile. True, it makes the mystery of man go away, but at the cost of genocide. And make no mistake: the real genocides of this world wouldn't have been possible without first making man less than what he is. Doing so isn't a sufficient condition for genocide, but it is a necessary one.

The attributes that define man are not to be found in the past, in antecedents. We alluded to one of them above, creativity. Others include freedom, speech, love, objectivity, and the apprehension of beauty.

To paraphrase Chesterton, Man either stands among the living as a miracle or a monster. For the left, man is a monster that they propose to "cure" or reform through state-sponsored coercion. For us, man is a kind of fallen miracle who may heal and elevate himself through a living relationship with what surpasses him, with his vertical source. In other words, man is the measure of things to the extent that he is in turn measured by something above and beyond, not down and back (otherwise he has unexplained himself and therefore his measurements).

Returning to the question of real creativity: again, it always has an element of appearing "from nothing." For example, there is no reason to believe that Shakespeare's plays would have come into existence in the absence of Shakespeare. And where he got 'em, no one knows. But this is true of all genuine creativity. As Chesterton writes,

"Nobody can imagine how nothing could turn into something." And more to the point, "Nobody can get an inch nearer to it by explaining how something could turn into something else." Do you see the point? We can well understand decay. We can also understand lateral translation, like a Marxist into a global warmist. But creative transformation from one thing to another -- like a progressive into a conservative? To call this "evolution" is to beg the question entirely, the question being "how is this even possible?" How does the higher emerge from the lower?

For something to occur -- and this is a truism -- it must first be possible to occur. And if something is possible, then we must say that its principle is somehow implicated in its antecedents.

Thus, for example, we now know that life is implicit in matter, but this knowledge also happens to undermine everything we think we know about matter, or at least reorders it. For as far as I am concerned, the most important property of matter is that it is susceptible to this weird thing called "living," and you can't get to life from physics. Man explains physics, not vice versa.

One can, of course, choose to go from life to matter, but that's what we call suicide.

To be continued...


Gagdad Bob said...

Are my posts too long? I read somewhere that more than 600 words is beyond the pale for blogging, and that one was over 1,100, and I'm sure most are at least that long. I always feel like they're too short, but I'm probably in the minority.

julie said...

I've never thought your posts were too long. Anyway, wouldn't it all depend on the subject and the context? If you found yourself carrying on like Mojo Jojo or Matt Walsh, then yeah, obviously they'd be too long. But they don't, and I never find myself skimming to get to the end, so they're probably just fine.

I do that with a lot of people, by the way, even when the writing is pretty good and the points are interesting.

Hey waitaminnit - isn't this the internet equivalent of asking if those shorts make your butt look too big?

julie said...

For as far as I am concerned, the most important property of matter is that it is susceptible to this weird thing called "life," and you can't get to life from physics. Man explains physics, not vice versa.

Along those lines, I was just reading commentary recently somewhere - probably by Vanderleun's efforts - that physicists tend to become more religious, while biologists tend to become more atheistic. The reason being that physicists, understanding something about matter, know how ridiculously unlikely (essentially impossible) life is, while biologists spend all their time deconstructing life to its constituent parts.

Gagdad Bob said...

Yes: one side looks up, the other down. If biologists only knew that what they look down to is looking back up...

EbonyRaptor said...

I'll echo what Julie said - it depends on subject and context, but generally I find myself wanting more than thinking it's too long.

That's an interesting comment regarding biologists tend to become more atheistic. With the latest discoveries in micro-biology I would expect the pendulum to start swinging the other way ... but then for many/most it's their religion so not easily cast aside.

Gagdad Bob said...

Probably more intelligent people go into physics, too.

mushroom said...

No, your posts are not too long. Short posts are for people who have nothing to say. Mine, for example, are usually under 500.

Gagdad Bob said...

Here it is in explicit terms: this is the anthropocene era, of Man the Monster:

"People are changing Earth so much, warming and polluting it, that many scientists are turning to a new way to describe the time we live in. They're calling it the Anthropocene — the age of humans."

Maybe anthropobscene would be better.

"Steffen, one of the main leaders of the Anthropocene movement, said in an email that the age of humans is more than just climate change. It includes ozone loss, disruption of nitrogen and phosphorous cycles that are causing dead zones, changes in water, acidification of the ocean, endocrine disruptors and deforestation."

mushroom said...

"Nowhere do we find pictures of dogs drawn by cats," or paintings of men produced by monkeys. Thus, "art is the signature of man."

My first thought was that it's because we have thumbs then I remembered that Joni Eareckson painted with a brush in her teeth. Meanwhile, with two perfectly functional hands, the only thing I can paint is the house, but my dropcloth does sometimes resemble a Jackson Pollack.

mushroom said...

Anthropocene -- Woohoo! We bad! Eat it, Gaia.

I'm just wondering who we should let run it.

Cockroaches or politicians? Baboons or academics? But I repeat myself.

Van Harvey said...

"You could stare at a pile of dirt and wait for it to start moving around of its own accord, but this is like watching paint dry and expecting it to turn into a painter."

Summed up, factored and square rooted all in One.

Gagdad Bob said...

It reminds me of a bit Letterman used to do when the show first started, of movie reviews from a "limited perspective" -- for example, by a dentist who would discuss only the teeth in the film.

Van Harvey said...

"Are my posts too long?"


"...and that one was over 1,100"

[Ah... that's cute]


[Wanders over to own blog, gets word count from current post and two picked at random from past posts.

Totals word count.... ehmmm....
Divides by three...]


Avg. word count: 13,181.33

"I read somewhere that more than 600 words is beyond the pale for blogging..."

[Runs off cackling madly into the blogosphere]

Van Harvey said...

As Julie mentions, context matters. According to this fellow at Viper Chill, posts on Gadgets average 181, Politics at 465, Health at 666 (uh-oh), and yours of 1,100 are just a touch under average length for 'Personal Development' which weigh in at 1,400.

So there.

Tony said...

Too long?

Not at all.

"Nobody can imagine how nothing could turn into something."

After all, what does nothing have to offer?

ted said...

Your blog is not too long, but some of the books you suggest are.

Michael Marinacci said...

Your posts are not too long. You're dealing with complex, nuanced thoughts and ideas, and need to spell them out in detail to properly express them. In other words, you're using verbiage to get people to think -- the exact opposite of the meme/soundbite culture, which uses terse, glib slogans to STOP people from thinking.

Van said...

600 words is a comment.

Van's Thought Balloon said...

That wasn't Van. That was me -- Van's Thought Balloon.

John Lien said...

Too long? No.

Van Harvey said...

Van's Thought Balloon said "600 words is a comment."

Pshaw. 600 words is a quip.


Rick said...

"Nobody can imagine how nothing could turn into something."

And not just nothing into any ol' something -- but into EVERYTHING!

(big difference)

really big

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Not too long for me. Besides, it's best to leave your audience wanting more.
Not chinese food wanting more but substantial steak n' lobster wanting more, which I find is the case in your posts.

Skully said...

Stay thirsty my friends.

Joan of Argghh! said...

Posts too long? Hardly.

Van Harvey said...

So you're saying size doesn't matter?


Just in case that's not entirely true... I've decided to split my current post into three parts, beginning with last night's "Gwyneth Paltrow & Moral Mondays: The Recognition of Progress begins with its absence - Progress or Regress pt.4a", and continuing with two other parts, coming tonight and tomorrow, which brings the word average down to a nice palatable... bite size... average of 2,500 words a post.

For this one/three, anyway.

Never let it be said that I don't care for the concerns of the people.