WASHINGTON, August 6, 2012 — Black holes are mysterious places in the universe where the pull of gravity is so strong that even light cannot escape its grasp.
They are hard to conceive. In our mind’s eye we “color” them black, but in truth they are blank – an absence – and as a result, quite literally cannot be seen. Indeed we would never have known of the massive black hole at the heart of our own galaxy if it weren’t for some brilliant theoreticians. Alerted to its presence, we can still only detect it through the effect it has on its surroundings.
Travel inward from the vastness of space to the heart of the human condition and we find there an insecurity that is in some ways comparable; wise men have alerted us to its presence, but it escapes our view. If we look carefully though, its presence can also be detected by its effects: Ideas with merit find themselves consigned to paupers’ graves because of it; realms of enquiry are stalled as a result.
Our most revered thinkers have taught that the essence of our insecurity lies in our conflicted state. They don’t mean we are surrounded by conflict (although we certainly are); they mean that within us there is conflict between that part which is good, and that part which is bad, and we are unable to reconcile the two.
Make no mistake, if ever there were a place where angels fear to go it is here - which possibly makes me a fool - but if I do venture, it is only in order to trace those wise men’s footsteps. To do otherwise would be folly: The implications flowing from our conflicted state are like dark and dangerous waters, and an unwary person could easily drown.
The mightiest of philosophers, Plato, described our condition as driving a chariot led by two mismatched horses, one noble, the other mean and unruly. First they would pull one way, and then the other, and pity the poor charioteer.
For a philosophical description it is hard to find its match, and Plato is rightly revered – indeed, his Republic has been voted the greatest work of Philosophy ever. However there is another store of insight into our condition which eclipses even Plato’s, and that is Christianity.
All the books of the Bible reveal insight into our condition, it is a condition of canonization. However it is in Genesis, and the story of Adam and Eve in particular, where the elements of our plight are most clearly depicted. Though the narrative is common to all the Abrahamic Religions, it is only Christianity that then combines it with the doctrine of original sin to create the most powerful metaphor for our condition.
The story recounts Adam and Eve’s creation, their original innocence, and their eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge - the bitter choice that lead to their fall from grace. Their fallen state, as the doctrine of original sin makes clear, is now our common birthright. The Catechism of the Catholic Church interprets it this way:
By his sin Adam, as the first man, lost the original holiness and justice he had received from God, not only for himself but for all humans. Adam and Eve transmitted to their descendants human nature wounded by their own first sin and hence deprived of original holiness and justice; this deprivation is called “original sin”.
It is worth noting that the English word “holy” derives from its Old English meanings: uninjured, sound, healthy, entire, complete. The etymology reinforces both Plato’s allegory and the story of Adam and Eve – once we were holy/whole, but with our fall we became divided; now Cain and Abel war within our breast. Paul bore witness to this inner conflict:
“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7.15-24)
The answer of course is that deliverance lies through Christ; but though His love offers us infinite compassion, I humbly suggest that deeper understanding of our conflicted state remains ours to find. Without it, we can only be insecure about those aspects of ourselves that are less than ideal.
While as individuals it is easy to think we are alone in our suffering, the condition described by Plato and Moses is universal. Despite its many faces, our personal experiences stem from the same cause; it is the human condition after all.
Because it is universal, applied en masse, our insecurity has the ability to exert an influence on the broader stage. One of the ways it does this is to affect the way that ideas are received, particularly ones that bring our subterranean insecurity into focus; which are exactly the type I have been guilty of raising in the previous posts.
A quick reprise illustrates their confronting nature: the prospect of altruism being innate reflects poorly on our selfishness; de Chardin’s certainty that the universe is progressing toward unity confronts us with our disunity; Prigogine’s scientific underpinning of the same only accentuates the point; and the Christian ideals require us to be honest about our fallen state.
Similarly the historical response to each demonstrates a desire to avoid being confronted: Science has discarded with altruism by recasting it as veiled selfishness; de Chardin was ostracized; Prigogine mocked; and Christianity continues to goad some scientists to fury.
It is sobering, but the evidence is that our insecurity is stymieing our progress. If we consider Natural Selection as an example, obviously the arc of evolution leads from simplicity to complexity, and obviously natural selection should be taught within this context – instead our academic institutions teach it as a random process. The reason, it seems to me, is not due to the merit of the respective ideas, but in this instance because the truth of teleology or increasing order reflects poorly on that ‘ignoble’ part of our nature that chafes at unity, and so we are forced to shun it.
Our great Christian faith has succored us and guides us in our lives, but the only thing that can remove the great insecurity is a complete and penetrating understanding of our condition. As rational beings, nothing less will serve.
If understanding is to be found, then it is to be science that provides it; rational understanding is after all science’s metier. As it happens this may not be a forlorn hope. There are rumblings from the scientific world that answers are at hand; and if it is not, then there is at least we can take comfort from the fact that science has at last returned to the fray.
I say returned because the journey has been a round one. Science as a discipline originally sprung from the bosom of philosophy, that most Greek of endeavors meaning ‘love of wisdom’. The pursuit of wisdom, as practiced by Socrates and Plato was not then (and nor is it now) an empirical pursuit; to be sure there was a necessity to understand the workings of the world, but only to the extent it helped meet philosophy’s charter, which was to find ‘the best way for a man to live’.
While still in the service of philosophy, science was merely the term used to denote the knowledge that resulted from the pursuit of wisdom; however its nature was to change dramatically with the coming of Aristotle.
Aristotle was of a different caste of mind to Plato and Socrates in that he believed that in order to understand the world you must first understand its parts. Not for him a system that began with the contemplation of perfect forms. Theories had their place, but let them come later: ‘One must start’ he declared ‘with what is known to us’. (Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1).
As a result of Aristotle’s influence, science soon divorced itself from philosophy and the question of man’s place in the universe, and instead devoted itself to understanding the mechanisms of the visible world as an end in itself. Everything can be understood by reducing it to its parts - this is the creed of reductionism upon which modern science is based, and it stands in stark contrast to Plato’s holistic approach.
The human condition in turn found itself the subject of more speculative fields of inquiry, known broadly as the humanities. They encouraged holistic thinking, but lacked science’s hard empirical edge. It was an absence that was keenly felt, because any theory without science’s reductionist underpinnings could only remain speculation.
Darwin’s theory of natural selection provided the foundation that science at last needed to apply its empirical method to human behavior, and following its publication we find that science’s dispersed streams slowly began to turn once again to the problem of the human condition.
Social Darwinism was born and in quickening succession socio-biology, selfish gene theory and evolutionary psychology followed. We are born selfish they said, and our good impulses are merely a genetic sleight of hand hiding deeper selfish imperatives. With noticeable haste they sought to simply dissolve our goodness like a piece of chalk in acid, so that the discord that Plato and Paul had born witness to would trouble us no more.
It was obviously not satisfactory, and failed to win the hearts and minds of the public. You see, the human condition is unique – we are all experts in it, and when science says that the internal conflict is not real, and that guilt is just an evolutionary trick to make us more fitting mates, well then, we just say that is very clever, but it doesn’t ring true – I will stick with the Book of Genesis or Plato’s Phaedrus, and in the meantime it is back to the drawing board with you.
So science went back, ever more focussed on the issue of the human condition, and it was only a matter of time before someone stated what had become obvious, which was that the human condition was now the most important frontier of the biological sciences. As it happens, that man was E.O. Wilson.
E.O. Wilson is probably the most famous of contemporary biologists and his thinking represents the cutting edge of science’s thinking on the issue of the human condition. Indeed, many are trumpeting that with his release of The Social Conquest of Earth earlier this year, the “heir to Darwin” may have produced the long-sought understanding of our conflicted state and as a result we may be privy to the dawn of a new era in understanding the human condition.
As the source of such claims, Wilson’s latest work is worthy of its own post. I propose to examine it and see how it accounts for our fallen state, and our wayward chariot. My unreserved hope is that it unlocks our insecurity, and makes visible this black hole within us, because while it remains unresolved, even unseen, it will continue to hold us hostage.
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