Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Eric Gans: Transcendence is a Human Fact

The intellectually curious should not miss the latest essay from Eric Gans: Chronicles of Love & Resentment CCCLVI, which takes on the dialogue of the deaf between the currently fashionable camp of atheist polemicists and the defenders of religion.

What neither side has, as Gans never tires of pointing out, is an adequate anthropological account of how our shared human consciousness or transcendence works, or could have first come into being, something that Gans' Generative Anthropology (GA) serves to hypothesize. To those of us familiar with GA, it is clearly a superior way of approaching the question of transcendence, and yet the science vs. religion polemicists keep on fighting, showing little interest in GA's way of minimizing the difference between the two camps. GA is founded on an "originary hypothesis" concerning the minimal conditions for the simultaneous origin of human language, religion, and our transcendent consciousness, and GA's work is to continually refine this hypothesis:
I am currently in the preliminary stages of a project that will address the question raised by the current wave of anti-religion books and the replies they have received from the faithful. Now that I've read a few works in both categories, I am able to provide an update. At this point I will not address the specific points raised in these works. Although eventually I will have to respond to their chief arguments, such as they are, my readings confirm my conviction that no one conceives which I shall call the question of transcendence in anything like the same terms as GA.

As might be expected, although the common assumptions of both sides exclude consideration of the originary hypothesis, the arguments in defense of the transcendental are more congenial to it. As a rule, those who attack religion assume that the universe can be understood as composed entirely of matter and that the human does not put into question this overall materialist ontology. The a priori exclusion of a transcendental realm, which reduces representations to forms of matter associated with other forms, more complex but not ontologically different from the strands of DNA that are "expressed" in bodily traits or functions, makes the construction of a hypothetical originary scene a waste of time. In contrast, for those who defend God or the "spiritual," the originary hypothesis can be understood as a minimal reading of a scene of creation, and even if the defense drifts off into the cosmos, the human battleground remains the essential one. What these defenders do not do, however, is propose a minimal hypothesis of their own. Either they accept in some sense a specific religion's account of creation or, more commonly, they avoid discussing origin altogether, since the "spiritual realm" is simply assumed to exist independently of humanity. Neuroscientist Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary's The Spiritual Brain (HarperSanFrancisco 2007) is the best example I have seen of this kind of argumentation. This book's claims for "spirituality" are not in real contradiction with the principles of GA, but there is no expressed concern for restricting these claims to the domain of anthropology.

Of the atheists' various theories of how religion came into existence, the most serious are founded on evolutionary psychology. If religion is widespread despite its costliness in time and energy (not to speak of its absurdity, criminality, imbecility, etc.), it must somehow be adaptive, so we may assume there exist for its central traits genes, or brain modules, or complexes of "memes"--unless religious activity is merely a "spandrel," an indirect consequence of genuinely adaptive traits, such as our love for stories. As for what might make religion adaptive, perhaps the best guess is that it satisfies our (or our children's) tendency to attribute intention to ostensible agents, whether truly animate or not, including the dead, whose agental status we tend to prolong as their bodies decay. Aside from the pseudo-scientific vocabulary, most of these arguments are not measurably more sophisticated than the 19th-century figure of "primitive man" bowing down to the god of the thunderstorm. In perhaps the most serious of these explorations, Daniel Dennett's insufferably long-winded Breaking the Spell (Viking 2006), the set of possibly useful analogies with which the author begins his investigation includes such things as our excessive fondness for sugar and behavior influenced by parasites. The idea that a complex institution bound up with the whole of human culture can be approached by means of such analogies is a category error of astounding intellectual arrogance. Concerning those works that dispense with both diatribes and evolutionary speculations and limit themselves to philosophical demonstrations of the Impossibility or merely the Improbability of God--the titles of two collections of philosophical essays--they commit a less dramatic version of the same category error by discussing the God-concept independently of its necessarily anthropological context.

Beyond Voltairean religion-bashing that has no bearing on the question of transcendence, the bottom line of the atheistic side's arguments is that what we know about matter and its organization gives no evidence of a creator-designer, that is, a world-creating mind gifted with intentionality. Everything from the big bang to the emergence of life to that of humanity can be reasonably attributed to matter's self-organizing properties, as manifested in particular in the Darwinian evolution of life.

My claim is that this line of argument is simply irrelevant. It fails to address the real question at stake, which should not be posed--by either side--in terms of the existence or non-existence of a "designer." Religion is about the human, and God's existence in realms not inhabited by humanity is of at most allegorical significance. Christianity makes this explicit with John's "In the beginning was the word," rewriting what was already strongly implicit in the Genesis original, where God creates the universe with language. Speculating on what God was or was not doing at the big bang, or whether he created just one universe or a zillion alternative ones (to respect the "anthropic principle") is the contemporary equivalent of counting angels on pinheads. As for the "proofs" of God's impossibility or improbability, it suffices to say that if God exists, he is no doubt capable of arranging things as he likes, including dealing with the logical impossibility of being at once omnipotent and omniscient. To suggest, as some do, that if God really existed, he would almost certainly have made the world differently reflects the cosmological arrogance that scientists display whenever they forget that to present quantum indeterminacy and the decomposition of matter into quarks as the definitive ontology is to declare the end of (scientific) history.
Our possession of representations is the central feature of what we call our "consciousness." Animals have intentions and make calculations, but they lack a "theory of mind" that allows them to understand and predict not merely the actions but the intentions of other beings. As Richard van Oort has pointed out, based on Michael Tomasello's studies of chimpanzees, even the highest animals, although clearly able to react to the intentions of others (as a prey animal avoids its predators), are unable to attribute intention to their fellows, for example, in teaching/learning a new technique. From this we may conclude that these creatures lack a theory of their own mind and cannot attribute intention to themselves. Humans acquire an intuitive grasp of others' and their own intentionality through the shared use of representations. Unlike the tool-like actions of chimpanzees, speech acts are intrinsically intentional--intentionality is all they are. We are able to guess each other's intentions because they can in principle be formulated in language.

A familiar point against the materialist denial of human specificity is that a robot or computer has no internal mental state. Computers use signs, but they are our signs; to the computer, they are so many bytes--in fact, there is no "to the computer" at all. As Beauregard and others point out, the claim that our mind is nothing but the activity of our brain is an act of faith, not a scientific truth. What the originary hypothesis adds to this debate is to clarify what it is that humans share with respect to the use of representations: their creators' originary and subsequently virtual community. The individual brain does not "contain" the representations it uses; it borrows them from a communal source to which they always remain attached. It is their dependence on the human community that distinguishes the signs of language from the indexical signs employed by our animal forebears. Whereas animals' signaling systems are rooted in individual, genetically inherited behavior patterns that have been refined by evolution to arouse the appropriate reaction in their fellows, requiring at best some postnatal training, humans invent, use, and modify language in a collective setting. Each use of a word or symbol takes place before this virtual community, whose members' mutual recognition as fellow language-users is ultimately dependent on a shared sense of the sacred. The virtual presence of the human community generates the scenic space within which we become conscious of ourselves.

The arguments given above do little more than summarize, with some added refinements, ideas I first put forth on this subject in 1981 in The Origin of Language. I am prepared to continue repeating and refining these same ideas--in dialogue with the handful of free spirits who take them seriously--while I am able to think at all.

So long as the two sides in the public debate agree to disagree about "the existence of God," there will be no progress. It is only when both sides come to accept the fact that--as I think Derrida realized in his last years (see Chronicle 340)--the distance between the faith of the possessor of human language and that of the believer in sacred revelation is vanishingly small, that the understanding of what these two "believers" have in common can become the focus of a way of thinking about the human that will finally be worthy to be called anthropology.

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