Consider all. Test All. Hold on to the good.

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Flew, Miracles and History

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Basinger responds to Anthony Flew’s contention that: “the historian must maintain with respect to any alleged miracle that the event did not in fact occur as reported”. Basinger concedes that Flew’s argument has merit, but argues that it ultimately fails. And by the way, to save a trip to dictionary.com, “nomology” is the science of laws. Basinger concludes: “The fact that an alleged occurrence is incompatible with current nomologicals must indeed be seriously considered when the historian rules on its historicity. However, Flew has failed to demonstrate that a seeming counterinstance must be shown to be consistent with current nomologicals before the historian can justifiably rule that it can be known to have occurred. Alleged ‘miracles’ cannot be dismissed this easily.”

The Problem of the Criterion

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“The problem of the criterion” seems to me to be one of the most important and one of the most difficult of all the problems of philosophy. I am tempted to say that one has not begun to philosophize until one has faced this problem and has recognized how unappealing, in the end, each of the possible solutions is. I have chosen this problem as my topic for the Aquinas Lecture because what first set me to thinking about it (and I remain obsessed by it) were two treatises of twentieth century scholastic philosophy. I refer first to P. Coffey’s two-volume work, Epistemology or the Theory of Knowledge, published in 1917.1 This led me in turn to the treatises of Coffey’s great teacher, Cardinal D. J. Mercier: Critériologie générale our théorie générale de la certitude.2 ¶ Mercier and, following him, Coffey set the problem correctly, I think, and have seen what is necessary for its solution. But I shall not discuss their views in detail. I shall formulate the problem; then note what, according to Mercier, is necessary if we are to solve the problem; then sketch my own solution; and, finally, note the limitations of my approach to the problem.

Kai Nielsen and the Nature of Theistic Ethic

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Theists frequently argue that nontheists must affirm the following: (1) If there is no God, each person must define “good” and “evil” for herself. (2) If each person must define “good” and “evil” for herself, there can be no objective moral standard. (3) God does not exist. (4) Therefore there can be no objective moral standard (i.e., all moral principles are relative). Some nontheists agree (e.g., Sartre) and attempt to live with the implications of (4). Others deny (2), claiming that the existence of an objective moral standard is not dependent on religious commitment. Kai Nielsen is one of the best known and most outspoken members of this group. Nielsen argued that “the nonexistence of God does not preclude the possibility of there being an objective standard on which to base [moral] judgments.”

Must God Create The Best?

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Is God obligated to do all within his power to maximize the quality of life for each individual in our world? Let us consider the following principle: (P1) A necessary condition for the actualization of any possible world containing sentient, self-determining beings is that God do all he can within the legitimate constraints inherent in this world to maximize the quality of life for such beings. Since many, if not most, versions of the problem of evil are based on the contention that a perfectly good God would do more to rid our world of pain and suffering, all parties agree that P1 is a very important principle, perhaps the most important of its type. It might be argued initially that P1 stipulates an impossible task for God. Just as there can be no ‘best’ actualizable world, someone might maintain, there can be no maximal state of existence for any given individual since for every state of existence we might identify as such, there would, in principle, always be another state of existence with even higher quality that God could (or attempt to) produce.

The Way

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Lewis continues his train of thought from “Men Without Chests”, criticizing the project of subjectivizing value. Lewis thinks the stakes are as grave as they can be: “the destruction of the society which accepts it”. But immediately, Lewis notes, such grave consequences do not make it false. And besides, there are “theoretical difficulties” as well. Those who advocate the subjectification of value, in this case the pseudonymous Gaius and Titius, presume some greater end even as they undercut traditional values. “In actual fact Gaius and Titius will be found to hold, with complete uncritical dogmatism, the whole system of values which happened to be in vogue among moderately educated young men of the professional classes during the period between the two wars. Their scepticism about values is on the surface: it is for use on other people’s values; about the values current in their own set they are not nearly sceptical enough.” But if Gaius and Titius have some ultimate ground for value in mind, which cannot be so debunked, what might that be? Lewis considers whether “instinct” can ground human value, but notes that instinct is itself contradictory and cannot warrant the leap from is to ought. One will be inexorably forced back to some objective law that presents itself to our conscience as self-evident and obligatory. “This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgements.” ~ Afterall

The Funeral of a Great Myth (of Popular Evolution)

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There are some mistakes which humanity has made and repeated so often that there is now really no excuse for making them again. One of these is the injustice which every age does its predecessor; for instance, the ignorant contempt with which the Humanists (even good Humanists like Sir Thomas More) had for mediaeval philosophy, or Romantics (even good Romantics like Keats) felt for eighteenth-century poetry. Each time all this ‘reaction’ and resentment has to be punished and unsaid; it is a wasteful performance. It is tempting to see whether we, at least, cannot avoid it. Why should we not give our predecessors a fair and filial dismissal?

Such, at all events, is the attempt I am going to make in this paper. I come to bury the great Myth of the nineteenth and early twentieth century; but also to praise it. I am going to pronounce a funeral oration.

By this great Myth I mean that picture of reality which resulted in the period under consideration, not logically but imaginatively, from some of the most striking and (so to speak) marketable theories of the real scientists. I have heard this Myth called “Wellsianity”. The name is a good one in so far as it does justice to the share which a great imaginative writer bore in building it up. But it is not satisfactory. It suggests, as we shall see, an error about the date at which the Myth became dominant; and it also suggests that the Myth affected only the “middle-brow” mind. In fact it is as much behind Bridges’ Testament of Beauty as it is behind the work of Wells. It dominates minds as different as those of Professor Alexander and Walt Disney. It is implicit in nearly every modern article on politics, sociology, and ethics.

I call it a myth because it is, as I have said, the imaginative and not the logical result of what is vaguely called ‘modern science’. Strictly speaking, there is, I confess, no such thing as ‘modern science’. There are only particular sciences, all in a state of rapid change, and sometimes inconsistent with one another. What the Myth uses is a selection from the scientific theories — a selection made at first, and modified afterwards, in obedience to imaginative and emotional needs. It is the work of the folk imagination, moved by its natural appetite for an impressive unity. It therefore treats its data with great freedom — selecting, slurring, expurgating, and adding at will.

The central idea of the Myth is what its believers would call ‘Evolution’ or ‘Development’ or ‘Emergence’, just as the central idea in the myth of Adonis is Death and Re-birth. I do not mean that the doctrine of Evolution as held by practising biologists is a Myth. It may be shown, by later biologists, to be a less satisfactory hypothesis than was hoped fifty years ago. But that does not amount to being a Myth. It is a genuine scientific hypothesis. But we must sharply distinguish between Evolution as a biological theorem and popular Evolutionism or Developmentalism which is certainly a Myth. Before proceeding to describe it and (which is my chief business) to pronounce its eulogy, I had better make clear its mythical character.

We have, first of all, the evidence of chronology. If popular Evolutionism were (as it imagines itself to be) not a Myth but the intellectually legitimate result of the scientific theorem on the public mind, it would arise after that theorem had become widely known. We should have the theorem known first of all to a few, then adopted by all the scientists, then spreading to all men of general education, then beginning to affect poetry and the arts, and so finally percolating to the mass of the people. In fact, however, we had something quite different. The clearest and finest poetical expressions of the Myth come before The Origin of Species was published (1859) and long before it had established itself as scientific orthodoxy. There had, to be sure, been hints and germs of the theory in scientific circles before 1859. But if the mythopoeic poets were all infected by those germs, they must have been very up-to-date indeed, very predisposed to catch the infection. Almost before the scientists spoke, certainly before they spoke clearly, imagination was ripe for it.

The finest expression of the Myth in English does not come from Bridges, nor from Shaw, nor from Wells, nor from Olaf Stapledon. It is this:

As Heaven and Earth are fairer, fairer far
Than Chaos and blank Darkness, though once chiefs:
And as we show beyond that Heaven and Earth
In form and shape compact and beautiful,
In will, in action free, companionship,
And thousand other signs of purer life;
So on our heels a fresh perfection treads,
A power more strong in beauty, born of us
And fated to excel us, as we pass
In glory that old Darkness.

Thus Ocean, in Keats’ Hyperion, nearly forty years before The Origin of the Species. And on the Continent we have the Ring of the Nibelungs. Coming, as I do, to bury but also to praise the receding age, I will by no means join in the modern depreciation of Wagner. He may, for all I know, have been a bad man. He may (though I shall never believe it) have been a bad musician. But as a mythopoeic poet he is incomparable. The tragedy of the Evolutionary Myth has never been more nobly expressed than in his Wotan; its heady raptures never more irresistibly than in Siegfried. That he himself knew quite well what he was writing about can be seen from his letter to August Rockel of 1854. “The progress of the whole drama shows the necessity of recognizing and submitting to the change, the diversity, the multiplicity, the eternal novelty, of the Real. Wotan rises to the tragic height of willing his own downfall. This is all we have to learn from the history of Man — to will what is necessary and to bring it ourselves to pass.”

If Shaw’s Back To Methuselah were really, as he supposed, the work of a prophet or a pioneer ushering in a new Myth, its predominantly comic tone and its generally low emotional temperature would be inexplicable. It is admirable fun: but not thus are new epochs brought to birth. The ease with which he plays with the Myth shows that the Myth is fully digested and already senile. Shaw is the Lucian or the Snorri of this mythology; to find its Aeschylus or its Elder Edda you must go back to Keats and Wagner.

This, then, is the first proof that popular Evolution is a Myth. In making it, Imagination runs ahead of scientific evidence. “The prophetic soul of the big world” was already pregnant with the Myth: if science had not met the imaginative need, science would not have been so popular. But probably every age gets, within certain limits, the science it desires.

In the second place, we have internal evidence. Popular Evolutionism or Developmentalism differs in content from the Evolution of the real biologists. To the biologist, Evolution is a hypothesis. It covers more of the facts than any other hypothesis at present on the market, and is therefore to be accepted unless, or until, some new supposal can be shown to cover still more facts with even fewer assumptions. At least, that is what I think most biologists would say. Professor D.M.S. Watson, it is true, would not go so far. According to him, “Evolution is accepted by zoologists not because it has been observed to occur or… can be proved by logically coherent evidence to be true, but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible.” (Watson, quoted in Nineteenth Century, April 1943, “Science and the BBC”.) This would mean that the sole ground for believing it is not empirical but metaphysical – the dogma of an amateur metaphysician who finds “special creation” incredible. But I do not think it has really come to that. Most biologists have a more robust belief in Evolution than Professor Watson. But it is certainly a hypothesis. In the Myth, however, there is nothing hypothetical about it: it is basic fact; or, to speak more strictly, such distinctions do not exist on the mythical level at all. There are more important differences to follow.

In the science, Evolution is a theory about changes: in the Myth, it is a fact about improvements. Thus a real scientist like Professor J.B.S. Haldane is at pains to point out that popular ideas of Evolution lay a wholly unjustified emphasis on those changes which have rendered creatures (by human standards) ‘better’ or more interesting. He adds, ‘We are therefore inclined to regard progress as the rule in evolution. Actually it is the exception, and for every case of it there are ten of degeneration.’ (“Darwinism Today, Possible Worlds, p.28.) But the Myth simply expurgates the ten cases of degeneration. In the popular mind the word ‘Evolution’ conjures up a picture of things moving ‘onward and upwards’, and of nothing else whatsoever. And it might have been predicted that it would do so. Already, before science had spoken, the mythical imagination knew the kind of ‘Evolution’ it wanted. It wanted the Keatsian and Wagnerian kind: the gods superseding the Titans, and the young, joyous, careless, amorous Siegfried superseding the care-worn, anxious, treaty-entangled Wotan. If science offers any instances to satisfy that demand, they will be eagerly accepted. If it offers any instances that frustrate it, they will simply be ignored.

Again, for the scientist Evolution is purely a biological theorem. It takes over organic life on this planet as a going concern and tries to explain certain changes within that field. It makes no cosmic statements, no metaphysical statements, no eschatological statements. Granted that we now have minds we can trust, granted that organic life came to exist, it tries to explain, say, how a species that once had wings came to lose them. It explains this by the negative effect of environment operating on small variations. It does not in itself explain the origin of organic life, nor of the variations, nor does it discuss the origin and validity of reason. It may well tell you how the brain, through which reason now operates, arose, but that is a different matter. Still less does it even attempt to tell you how the universe as a whole arose, or what it is, or whither it is tending. But the Myth knows none of these reticences. Having first turned what was a theory of change into a theory of improvement, it then makes this a cosmic theory. Not merely terrestrial organisms but everything is moving ‘upwards and onwards’. Reason has ‘evolved’ out of instinct, virtue out of complexes, poetry out of erotic howls and grunts, civilization out of savagery, the organic out of the inorganic, the solar system out of some sidereal soup or traffic block. And conversely, reason, virtue, art and civilization as we now know them are only the crude or embryonic beginnings of far better things — perhaps Deity itself — in the remote future. For in the Myth, ‘Evolution’ (as the Myth understands it) is the formula for all existence. To exist means to be moving from the status of ‘almost zero’ to the status of ‘almost infinity’. To those brought up on the Myth nothing seems more normal, more natural, more plausible, than that chaos should turn to order, death into life, ignorance into knowledge. And with this we reach the full-blown Myth. It is one of the most moving and satisfying world dramas which have ever been imagined.

The drama proper is preceded (do not forget the Rhinegold here) by the most austere of all preludes; the infinite void and matter endlessly, aimlessly moving to bring forth it knows not what. Then by some millionth, millionth chance — what tragic irony! — the conditions at one point of space and time bubble up into that tiny fermentation which we call organic life. At first everything seems to be against the infant hero of our drama; just as everything always was against the seventh son or ill-used step-daughter in a fairy tale. But life somehow wins through. With incalculable sufferings (the Sorrows of the Volsungs were nothing to it), against all but insuperable obstacles, it spreads, it breeds, it complicates itself; from the amoeba up to the reptile, up to the mammal. Life (here comes the first climax) ‘wantons as in her prime’. This is the age of the monsters: dragons prowl the earth, devour one another, and die. Then the irresistible theme of the Younger Son or the Ugly Duckling is repeated. As the weak, tiny spark of life herself began amidst the beasts that are far larger and stronger than he, there comes forth a little, naked, shivering, cowering biped, shuffling, not yet fully erect, promising nothing: the product of another millionth, millionth chance. His name in this Myth is Man: elsewhere he has been the young Beowulf whom men at first thought a dastard, or the stripling David armed only with a sling against a mail-clad Goliath, or a Jack the Giant-Killer himself, or even Hop-o’-my-Thumb. He thrives. He begins killing his giants. He becomes the Cave Man with his flints and his club, muttering and growling over his enemies’ bones, almost a brute and yet somehow able to invent art, pottery, language, weapons, cookery, and nearly everything else (his name in another story is Robinson Crusoe), dragging his screaming mate by her hair (I do not know exactly why), tearing his children to pieces in fierce jealousy until they are old enough to tear him, and cowering before the terrible gods whom he has invented in his own image.

But these were only growing pains. In the next act he has become true Man. He learns to master Nature. Science arises and dissipates the superstitions of his infancy. More and more he becomes the controller of his own fate. Passing hastily over the historical period (in it the upward and onward movement gets in places a little indistinct, but it is a mere nothing by the time-scale we are using) we follow our hero on into the future. See him in the last act, though not the last scene, of this great mystery. A race of demi-gods now rule the planet (in some versions, the galaxy). Eugenics have made certain that only demi-gods will now be born: psychoanalysis that none of them shall lose or smirch his divinity: economics that they shall have to hand all that demi-gods require. Man has ascended his throne. Man has become God. All is a blaze of glory. And now, mark well the final stroke of mythopoeic genius. It is only the more debased versions of the Myth that end here. For to end here is a little bathetic, even a little vulgar. If we stopped at this point the story would lack the highest grandeur. Therefore, in the best versions, the last scene reverses all. Arthur died: Siegfried died: Roland dies at Roncesvaux. Dusk steals darkly over the gods. All this time we have forgotten Mordred, Hagen, Ganilon. All this time Nature, the old enemy who only seemed to be defeated, has been gnawing away, silently, unceasingly, out of the reach of human power. The Sun will cool — all suns will cool — the whole universe will run down. Life (every form of life) will be banished without hope of return from every cubic inch of infinite space. All ends in nothingness. ‘Universal darkness covers all’. True to the shape of Elizabethan tragedy, the hero has swiftly fallen from the glory to which he slowly climbed: we are dismissed ‘in calm of mind, all passion spent’. It is indeed much better than Elizabethan tragedy, for it has a more complete finality. It brings us to the end not of a story, but of all possible stories: enden sah ich die welt.

I grew up believing in this Myth and have felt — I still feel — its almost perfect grandeur. Let no one say we are an unimaginative age: neither the Greeks nor the Norsemen ever invented a better story. Even to the present day, in certain moods, I could almost find it in my heart to wish that it was not mythical, but true. And yet, how could it be?

What makes it impossible that it should be true is not so much the lack of evidence for this or that scene in the drama or the fatal self-contradiction which runs right through it. The Myth cannot even get going without accepting a good deal from the real sciences. And the real sciences cannot be accepted for a moment unless rational inferences are valid: for every science claims to be a series of inferences from observed facts. It is only by such inferences that you can reach your nebulae and protoplasm and dinosaurs and sub-men and cave-men at all. Unless you start by believing that reality in the remotest space and the remotest time rigidly obeys the laws of logic, you can have no ground for believing in any astronomy, any biology, any paleontology, any archeology. To reach the positions held by the real scientists — which are taken over by the Myth — you must, in fact, treat reason as an absolute. But at the same time the Myth asks me to believe that reason is simply the unforeseen and unintended by-product of a mindless process at one stage of its endless and aimless becoming. The content of the Myth thus knocks from under me the only ground on which I could possibly believe the Myth to be true. If my own mind is a product of the irrational — if what seem my clearest reasonings are only the way in which a creature conditioned as I am is bound to feel — how shall I trust my mind when it tells me about Evolution? They say in effect ‘I will prove that what you call a proof is only the result of mental habits which result from heredity which results from biochemistry which results from physics’. But this is the same as saying: ‘I will prove that proofs are irrational’: more succinctly, ‘I will prove that there are no proofs’. The fact that some people of scientific education cannot by any effort be taught to see the difficulty, confirms one’s suspicion that we touch here a radical disease in their whole style of thought. But the man who does see it, is compelled to reject as mythical the cosmology in which most of us were brought up. That is has embedded in it many true particulars I do not doubt: but in its entirety, it simply will not do. Whatever the real universe may turn out to be like, it can’t be like that.

I have been speaking hitherto of this Myth as of a thing to be buried, because I believe that its dominance is already over; in the sense that what seem to me the most vigorous movements of contemporary thought point away from it. Physics (a discipline less easily mythological) is replacing biology as the science par excellence in the mind of the plain man. The whole philosophy of “Becoming” has been vigorously challenged by the American “Humanists”. The revival of theology has attained proportions that have to be reckoned with. The Romantic poetry and music in which popular Evolutionism found its natural counterpart are going out of fashion. But of course a Myth does not die in a day. We may expect that this Myth, when driven from cultured circles, will long retain its hold on the masses, and even when abandoned by them, will continue for centuries to haunt our language. Those who wish to attack it must beware of despising it. There are deep reasons for its popularity.

The basic idea of the Myth — that small or chaotic or feeble things perpetually turn into large, strong, ordered things — may, at first sight, seem a very odd one. We have never seen a pile of rubble turning itself into a house. But this odd idea commends itself to the imagination by the help of what seem to be two instances of it within everyone’s knowledge. Everyone has seen individual organisms doing it. Acorns become oaks, grubs become insects, eggs become birds, every man was once an embryo. And secondly — which weighs very much in the popular mind during a machine age — everyone has seen Evolution really happening in the history of machines. We all remember when locomotives were smaller and less efficient than they are now. These two apparent instances are quite enough to convince the imagination that Evolution in a cosmic sense is the most natural thing in the world. It is true that reason cannot here agree with imagination. These apparent instances are not really instances of Evolution at all. The oak comes indeed from the acorn, but then the acorn was dropped by an earlier oak. Every man began with the union of an ovum and a spermatozoon, but the ovum and the spermatozoon came from two fully developed human beings. The modern express engine came from the Rocket; but the Rocket came, not from something under and more elementary than itself, but from something much more developed and highly organized – the mind of a man, and a man of genius. Modern art may have “developed” from savage art. But then the very first picture of all did not “evolve” itself: it came from something overwhelmingly greater than itself, from the mind of that man who, by seeing for the first time that marks on a flat surface could be made to look like animals and men, proved himself to exceed in sheer blinding genius any of the artists who have succeeded him. It may be true that if we trace back any existing civilization to its beginnings, we shall find those beginnings crude and savage; but then, when you look closer, you usually find that those beginnings themselves come from a wreck of some earlier civilization.

In other words, the apparent instances of, or analogies to, Evolution, which impress the folk imagination, operate by fixing our attention on one half of the process. What we actually see all round us is a double process – the perfect “dropping” an imperfect seed which in turn develops to perfection. By concentrating exclusively on the record of upward movement in the cycle, we seem to see “evolution”. But if we are to be guided by the analogy of Nature as we now know her, it would be reasonable to suppose that this evolutionary process was the second half of a long pattern — that the crude beginnings of life on this planet have themselves been “dropped” there by a full and perfect life.

The analogy may be mistaken. Perhaps Nature was once different. Perhaps the universe as a whole is quite different from those parts of it which fall under our observation. But if that is so, if there once was a dead universe which somehow made itself alive, if there was absolutely original savagery which raised itself by its own shoulder strap ito civilization, then we ought to recognize that things of this sort happen no longer, that the world that we are being asked to believe in is radically unlike the world we experience. In other words, all the immediate plausibility of the Myth has vanished. But it has vanished only because we have been thinking it will remain plausible to the imagination, and it is imagination which makes the Myth: it takes over from rational thought only what it finds convenient.

Another source of strength in the Myth is what psychologists call its “ambivalence”. It gratifies equally two opposite tendencies of the mind, the tendency to denigration and the tendency to flattery. In the Myth, everything is becoming everything else: in fact, everyting is everything else at an earlier or later stage of development – the later stages being always the better. This means that if you are feeling like Mencken, you can “debunk” all the respectable things by pointing out that they are “merely” elaborations of the disreputable things. Love is “merely” an elaboration of lust, virtue merely an elaboration of instinct, and so on. On the other hand, it also means that if you are feeling what the people call “idealistic”, you can regard all the nasty things (in yourself or your party or your nation) as being “merely” the underdeveloped forms of all the nice things: vice is only underdeveloped virtue, egotism only underdeveloped altruism, a little more education will set everything right.

The Myth also soothes the old wounds of our childhood. Without going as far as Freud, we may yet well admit that every man has an old grudge against his father and his first teacher. The process of being brought up, however well it is done, cannot fail to offend. How pleasing, therefore, to abandon the old idea of “descent” from our concocters, in favour of the new idea of “evolution” or “emergence”: to feel that we have risen from them as a flower from the earth, that we have transcended them as Keats’ Gods transcend the Titans. One then gets a kind of cosmic excuse for regarding one’s father as a muddling old Mime, and his claims upon our gratitude or respect as an insufferable Stammenlied. “Out of the way, old fool: it is we who know how to forge Nothung!”

The Myth also pleases those who want to sell things to us. In the old days, a man had a family carriage built for him when he got married, and expected it to last all his life. Such a frame of mind would hardly suit modern manufacturers. But popular Evolutionism suits them exactly. Nothing ought to last. They want you to have a new car, a new radio set, a new everything every year. The new model must always be superseding the old. Madam would like the latest fashion. For this is evolution, this is development, this is the way the universe itself is going; and “sales-resistance” is the sin against the Holy Ghost, the élan vital.

Finally, modern politics would be impossible without the Myth. It arose in the Revolutionary period. But for the political ideals of that period, it would never have been accepted. That explains why the Myth concentrates on Haldane’s one case of biological “progress” and ignores his ten cases of “degeneration”. If the cases of degeneration were kept in mind, it would be impossible not to see that any given change in society is at least as likely to destroy the liberties and amenities we already have as to add new ones: that the danger of slipping back is at least as great as the chance of getting on; that a prudent society must spend at least as much energy on conserving what it has, as on improvement. A clear knowledge of these truisms would be fatal both to the political Left and to the political Right of modern times. The Myth obscures that knowledge. Great parties have a vested interest in maintaining the Myth. We must therefore expect that it will survive in the popular press (including the ostensiby comic press) long after it has been expelled from educated circles. In Russia, where it has been built into the state religion, it may survive for centuries; for

It has great allies.
Its friends are propaganda, party cries,
And bilge, and Man's incorrigible mind.

But that is not the note on which I would wish to end. The Myth has all these discreditable allies; but we should be far astray if we thought it had no others. As I have tried to show, it has better allies too. It appeals to the same innocent and permanent needs in us which welcome Jack the Giant-Killer. It gives us almost everything the imagination craves – irony, heroism, vastness, unity in multiplicity, and a tragic close. It appeals to every part of me except my reason. That is why those of us who feel that the Myth is already dead for us must not make the mistake of trying to “debunk” it in the wrong way. We must not fancy that we are securing the modern world from something grim and dry, something that starves the soul. The contrary is the truth. It is our painful duty to wake the world from an enchantment. The real universe is probably in many respects less poetical, certainly less tidy and unified, than they had supposed. Man’s role in it is less heroic. The danger that really hangs over him is perhaps entirely lacking in true tragic dignity. It is only in the last resort, and after all lesser poetries have been renounced and imagination sternly subjected to intellect, that we shall be able to offer them any compensation for what we intend to take away from them. That is why in the meantime we must treat the Myth with respect. It was all (on a certain level) nonsense; but a man would be a dull dog if he could not feel the thrill and charm of it. For my own part, though I believe it no longer, I shall always enjoy it as I enjoy other myths. I shall keep my Cave-Man where I keep Balder and Helen and the Argonauts; and there often revisit him.

The Poison of Subjectivism

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One cause of misery and vice is always present with us in the greed and pride of men, but at certain periods in history this is greatly increased by the temporary prevalence of some false philosophy. Correct thinking will not make good men of bad ones; but a purely theoretical error may remove ordinary checks to evil and deprive good intentions of their natural support. An error of this sort is abroad at present. I am not referring to the Power philosophies of the Totalitarian states, but to something that goes deeper and spreads wider and which, indeed, has given these Power philosophies their golden opportunity. I am referring to Subjectivism.

After studying his environment man has begun to study himself. Up to that point, he had assumed his own reason and through it seen all other things. Now, his own reason has become the object: it is as if we took out our eyes to look at them. Thus studied, his own reason appears to him as the epiphenomenon which accompanies chemical or electrical events in a cortex which is itself the by-product of a blind evolutionary process. His own logic, hitherto the king whom events in all possible worlds must obey, becomes merely subjective. There is no reason for supposing that it yields truth.

As long as this dethronement refers only to the theoretical reason, it cannot be wholehearted. The scientist has to assume the validity of his own logic (in the stout old fashion of Plato or Spinoza) even in order to prove that it is merely subjective, and therefore he can only flirt with subjectivism. It is true that this flirtation sometimes goes pretty far. There are modern scientists, I am told, who have dropped the words truth and reality out of their vocabulary and who hold that the end of their work is not to know what is there but simply to get practical results. This is, no doubt, a bad symptom. But, in the main, subjectivism is such an uncomfortable yokefellow for research that the danger, in this quarter, is continually counteracted.

But when we turn to practical reason the ruinous effects are found operating in full force. By practical reason I mean our judgement of good and evil. If you are surprised that I include this under the heading of reason at all, let me remind you that your surprise is itself one result of the subjectivism I am discussing. Until modern times no thinker of the first rank ever doubted that our judgements of value were rational judgements or that what they discovered was objective. It was taken for granted that in temptation passion was opposed, not to some sentiment, but to reason. Thus Plato thought, thus Aristotle, thus Hooker, Butler and Doctor Johnson. The modern view is very different. It does not believe that value judgements are really judgements at all. They are sentiments, or complexes, or attitudes, produced in a community by the pressure of its environment and its traditions, and differing from one community to another. To say that a thing is good is merely to express our feeling about it; and our feeling about it is the feeling we have been socially conditioned to have.

But if this is so, then we might have been conditioned to feel otherwise. “Perhaps,” thinks the reformer or the educational expert, “it would be better if we were. Let us improve our morality.” Out of this apparently innocent idea comes the disease that will certainly end our species (and, in my view, damn our souls) if it is not crushed; the fatal superstition that men can create values, that a community can choose its “ideology” as men choose their clothes. Everyone is indignant when he hears the Germans define justice as that which is to the interest of the Third Reich. But it is not always remembered that this indignation is perfectly groundless if we ourselves regard morality as a subjective sentiment to be altered at will. Unless there is some objective standard of good, overarching Germans, Japanese, and ourselves alike whether any of us obey it or no, then of course the Germans are as competent to create their ideology as we are to create ours. If “good” and “better” are terms deriving their sole meaning from the ideology of each people, then of course ideologies themselves cannot be better or worse than one another. Unless the measuring rod is independent of the things measured, we can do no measuring. For the same reason it is useless to compare the moral ideas of one age with those of another: progress and decadence are alike meaningless words.

All this is so obvious that it amounts to an identical proposition. But how little it is now understood can be gauged from the procedure of the moral reformer who, after saying that “good” means “what we are conditioned to like” goes on cheerfully to consider whether it might be “better” that we should be conditioned to like something else. What in Heaven’s name does he mean by “better”? He usually has at the back of his mind the notion that if he throws over traditional judgement of value, he will find something else, something more “real” or “solid” on which to base a new scheme of values. He will say, for example, “We must abandon irrational taboos and base our values on the good of the community” — as if the maxim “Thou shalt promote the good of the community’ were anything more than a polysyllabic variant of ‘Do as you would be done by’ which has itself no other basis than the old universal value judgement that he claims to be rejecting. Or he will endeavor to base his values on biology and tell us that we must act thus and thus for the preservation of our species. Apparently he does not anticipate the question, ‘Why should the species be preserved?’ He takes it for granted that it should, because he is really relying on traditional judgements of value. If he were starting, as he pretends, with a clean slate, he could never reach this principle. Sometimes he tries to do so by falling back on “instinct.” “We have an instinct to preserve our species”, he may say. But have we? And if we have, who told us that we must obey our instincts? And why should we obey this instinct in the teeth of many others which conflict with the preservation of the species? The reformer knows that some instincts are to be obeyed more than others only because he is judging instincts by a standard, and the standard is, once more, the traditional morality which he claims to be superseding. The instincts themselves obviously cannot furnish us with grounds for grading the instincts in a hierarchy. If you do not bring a knowledge of their comparative respectability to your study of them, you can never derive it from them.

This whole attempt to jettison traditional values as something subjective and to substitute a new scheme of values for them is wrong. It is like trying to lift yourself by your own coat collar. Let us get two propositions written into our minds with indelible ink.

  1. The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of planting a new sun in the sky or a new primary colour in the spectrum.
  2. Every attempt to do so consists in arbitrarily selecting some one maxim of traditional morality, isolating it from the rest, and erecting it into an unum necessarium.

The second proposition will bear a little illustration. Ordinary morality tells us to honour our parents and cherish our children. By taking the second precept alone you construct a Futurist Ethic in which the claim of “posterity” are the sole criterion. Ordinary morality tells us to keep promises and also to feed the hungry. By taking the second precept alone you get a Communist Ethic in which “production,” and distribution of the products to the people, are the sole criteria. Ordinary morality tells us, ceteris paribus, to love our kindred and fellow citizens more than strangers. By isolating this precept you can get either an Aristocratic Ethic with the claims of our class as sole criterion, or a Racialist Ethic where no claims but those of blood are acknowledged. These monomaniac systems are then used as a ground from which to attack traditional morality; but absurdly, since it is from traditional morality alone that they derive such semblance of validity as they possess. Starting from scratch, with no assumptions about value, we could reach none of them. If reverence for parents or promises is a mere subjective by-product of physical nature, so is reverence for race or posterity. The trunk to whose root the reformer would lay the axe is the only support of the particular branch he wishes to retain.

All idea of “new” or “scientific” or “modern” moralities must therefore be dismissed as mere confusion of thought. We have only two alternatives. Either the maxims of traditional morality must be accepted as axioms of practical reason which neither admit nor require argument to support them and not to “see” which is to have lost human status; or else there are no values at all, what we mistook for values being “projections” of irrational emotions. It is perfectly futile, after having dismissed traditional morality with the question, ‘Why should we obey it?’ then to attempt the reintroduction of value at some later stage in our philosophy. Any value we reintroduce can be countered in just the same way. Every argument used to support it will be an attempt to derive from premises in the indicative mood a conclusion in the imperative. And this is impossible.

Against this view the modern mind has two lines of defence. The first claims that traditional morality is different in different times and places — in fact, that there is not one morality but a thousand. The second exclaims that to tie ourselves to an immutable moral code is to cut off all progress and acquiesce in stagnation. Both are unsound.

Let us take the second one first. And let us strip it of the illegitimate emotional power it derives from the word ‘stagnation’ with its suggestion of puddles and mantled pools. If water stands too long it stinks. To infer thence that whatever stands long must be unwholesome is to be the victim of metaphor. Space does not stink because it has preserved its three dimensions from the beginning. The square on the hypotenuse has not gone moldy by continuing to equal the sum of the squares on the other two sides. Love is not dishonored by constancy, and when we wash our hands we are seeking stagnation and “putting the clock back,” artificially restoring our hands to the status quo in which they began the day and resisting the natural trend of events which would increase their dirtiness steadily from our birth to our death. For the emotive term ‘stagnant’ let us substitute the descriptive term ‘permanent.’ Does a permanent moral standard preclude progress? On the contrary, except on the supposition of a changeless standard, progress is impossible. If good is a fixed point, it is at least possible that we should get nearer and nearer to it; but if the terminus is as mobile as the train, how can the train progress towards it? Our ideas of the good may change, but they cannot change either for the better or the worse if there is no absolute and immutable good to which they can recede. We can go on getting a sum more and more nearly right only if the one perfectly right is “stagnant”.

And yet it will be said, I have just admitted that our ideas of good may improve. How is this to be reconciled with the view that “traditional morality” is a depositum fidei which cannot be deserted? The answer can be understood if we compare a real moral advance with a mere innovation. From the Stoic and Confucian, “Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you”; to the Christian, “Do as you would be done by” is a real advance. The morality of Nietzsche is a mere innovation. The first is an advance because no one who did not admit the validity of the old maxim could see reason for accepting the new one, and anyone who accepted the old would at once recognize the new as an extension of the same principle. If he rejected it, he would have to reject it as a superfluity, something that went too far, not as something simply heterogeneous from his own ideas of value. But the Nietzschean ethic can be accepted only if we are ready to scrap traditional morals as a mere error and then to put ourselves in a position where we can find no ground for any value judgements at all. It is the difference between a man who says to us: “You like your vegetables moderately fresh; why not grow your own and have them perfectly fresh?” and a man who says, “Throw away that loaf and try eating bricks and centipedes instead.” Real moral advances, in fine, are made from within the existing moral tradition and in the spirit of that tradition and can be understood only in the light of that tradition. The outsider who has rejected the tradition cannot judge them. He has, as Aristotle said, no arche, no premises.

And what of the second modern objection — that the ethical standards of different cultures differ so widely that there is no common tradition at all? The answer is that is a lie – a good, solid, resounding lie. If a man will go into a library and spend a few days with the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics he will soon discover the massive unanimity of the practical reason in man. From the Babylonian Hymn to Samos, from the Laws of Manu, the Book of the Dead, the Analects, the Stoics, the Platonists, from Australian aborigines and Redskins, he will collect the same triumphantly monotonous denunciations of oppression, murder, treachery, and falsehood, the same injunctions of kindness to the aged, the young, and the weak, of almsgiving and impartiality and honesty. He may be a little surprised (I certainly was) to find that precepts of mercy are more frequent than precepts of justice; but he will no longer doubt that there is such a thing as the Law of Nature. There are, of course, differences. There are even blindnesses in particular cultures — just as there are savages who cannot count up to twenty. But the pretence that we are presented with a mere chaos – though no outline of universally accepted value shows through — is wherever it is simply false and should be contradicted in season and out of season wherever it is met. Far from finding a chaos, we find exactly what we should expect if good is indeed something objective and reason the organ whereby it is apprehended — that is, a substantial agreement with considerable local differences of emphasis and, perhaps, no one code that includes everything.

The two grand methods of obscuring this agreement are these: First, you can concentrate on those divergences about sexual morality which most serious moralists regard as belonging to positive rather than to Natural Law, but which rouse strong emotions. Differences about the definition of incest or between polygamy and monogamy come under this head. (It is untrue to say that the Greeks thought sexual perversion innocent. The continual tittering of Plato is really more evidential than the stern prohibition of Aristotle. Men titter thus only about what they regard as, at least, a peccadillo: the jokes about drunkenness in Pickwick, far from proving that the nineteenth-century English thought it innocent, prove the reverse. There is an enormous difference of degree between the Greek view of perversion and the Christian, but there is not opposition.) The second method is to treat as differences in the judgement of value what are really differences in belief about fact. Thus human sacrifice, or persecution of witches, are cited as evidence of a radically different morality. But the real difference lies elsewhere. We do not hunt witches because we disbelieve in their existence. We do not kill men to avert pestilence because we do not think pestilence can thus be averted. We do “sacrifice” men in war, and we do hunt spies and traitors.

So far I have been considering the objections which unbelievers bring against the doctrine of objective value, or the Law of Nature. But in our days we must be prepared to meet objections from Christians too. “Humanism” and “liberalism” are coming to be used simply as terms of disapprobation, and both are likely to be so used of the position I am taking up. Behind them lurks a real theological problem. If we accept the primary platitudes of practical reason as the unquestioned premises of all action, are we thereby trusting our own reason so far that we ignore the Fall, and are retrogressively turning our absolute allegiance away from a person to an abstraction?

As regards the Fall, I submit that the general tenor of scripture does not encourage us to believe that our knowledge of the Law has been depraved in the same degree as our power to fulfil it. He would be a brave man who claimed to realize the fallen condition of man more clearly than St. Paul. In that very chapter (Roman 7) where he asserts most strongly our inability to keep the moral law he also asserts most confidently that we perceive the Law’s goodness and rejoice in it according to the inward man. Our righteousness may be filthy and ragged, but Christianity gives us no ground for holding that our perceptions of right are in the same condition. They may, no doubt, be impaired; but there is a difference between imperfect sight and blindness. A theology which goes about to represent our practical reason as radically unsound is heading for disaster. If we once admit that what God means by “goodness” is sheerly different from what we judge to be good, there is no difference left between pure religion and devil worship.

The other objection is much more formidable. If we once grant that our practical reason is really reason and that its fundamental imperatives are as absolute and categorical as they claim to be, then unconditional allegiance to them is the duty of man. So is absolute allegiance to God. And these two allegiances must, somehow, be the same. But how is the relation between God and the moral law to be represented? To say that the moral law is God’s law is no final solution. Are these things right because God commands them or does God command them because they are right? If the first, if good is to be defined as what God commands, then the goodness of God Himself is emptied of meaning and the commands of an omnipotent fiend would have the same claim on us as those of the “righteous Lord.” If the second, then we seem to be admitting a cosmic dyarchy, or even making God himself the mere executor of a law somehow external and antecedent to His own being. Both views are intolerable.

At this point we must remind ourselves that Christian theology does not believe God to be a person. It believes Him to be such that in Him a trinity of persons is consistent with a unity of Deity. In that sense it believes Him to be something very different from a person, just as a cube, in which six squares are consistent with unity of the body, is different from a square. (Flatlanders, attempting to imagine a cube, would either imagine the six squares coinciding, and thus destroy their distinctness, or else imagine them set out side by side, and thus destroy the unity. Our difficulties about the Trinity are of much the same kind.) It is therefore possible that the duality which seems to force itself upon us when we think, first, of our Father in Heaven, and, secondly, of the self-evident imperatives of the moral law, is not a mere error but a real (though inadequate and creaturely) perception of things that would necessarily be two in any mode of being which enters our experience, but which are not so divided in the absolute being of the superpersonal God. When we attempt to think of a person and a law, we are compelled to think of this person either as obeying the law or as making it. And when we think of Him as making it we are compelled to think of Him either as making it in conformity to some yet more ultimate pattern of goodness (in which case that pattern, and not He, would be supreme) or else as making it arbitrarily by a sic volo, sic jubeo (in which case He would be neither good nor wise). But it is probably just here that our categories betray us. It would be idle, with our merely mortal resources, to attempt a positive correction of our categories – ambulavi in mirabilibus supra me. But it might be permissible to lay down two negations: that God neither obeys nor creates the moral law. The good is uncreated; it never could have been otherwise; it has in it no shadow of contingency; it lies, as Plato said, on the other side of existence. It is the Rita of the Hindus by which the gods themselves are divine, the Tao of the Chinese from which all realities proceed. But we, favoured beyond the wisest pagans, know what lies beyond existence, what admits no contingency, what lends divinity to all else, what is the ground of all existence, is not simply a law but also a begetting love, a love begotten, and the love which, being these two, is also imminent in all those who are caught up to share the unity of their selfcaused life. God is not merely good, but goodness; goodness is not merely divine, but God.

These may seem fine-spun speculations: yet I believe that nothing short of this can save us. A Christianity which does not see moral and religious experience converging to meet at infinity, not at a negative infinity, but in the positive infinity of the living yet superpersonal God, has nothing, in the long run, to divide it from devil worship; and a philosophy which does not accept value as eternal and objective can lead us only to ruin. Nor is the matter of merely speculative importance. Many a popular “planner” on a democratic platform, many a mildeyed scientist in a democratic laboratory means, in the last resort, just what the Fascist means. He believes that “good” means whatever men are conditioned to approve. He believes that it is the function of him and his kind to condition men; to create consciences by eugenics, psychological manipulation of infants, state education and mass propaganda. Because he is confused, he does not yet fully realize that those who create conscience cannot be subject to conscience themselves. But he must awake to the logic of his position sooner or later; and when he does, what barrier remains between us and the final division of the race into a few conditioners who stand themselves outside morality and the many conditioned in whom such morality as the experts choose is produced at the experts’ pleasure? If “good” means only the local ideology, how can those who invent the local ideology be guided by any idea of good themselves? The very idea of freedom presupposes some objective moral law which overarches rulers and ruled alike. Subjectivism about values is eternally incompatible with democracy. We and our rulers are of one kind only so long as we are subject to one law. But if there is no Law of Nature, the ethos of any society is the creation of its rulers, educators and conditioners; and every creator stands above and outside his creation.

Unless we return to the crude and nursery-like belief in objective values, we perish. If we do, we may live, and such a return might have one minor advantage. If we believed in the absolute reality of elementary moral platitudes, we should value those who solicit our votes by other standards than have recently been in fashion. While we believe that good is something to be invented, we demand of our rulers such qualities as “vision,” “dynamism,” “creativity,” and the like. If we returned to the objective view we should demand qualities much rarer, and much more beneficial — virtue, knowledge, diligence and skill. ‘Vision’ is for sale, or claims to be for sale, everywhere. But give me a man who will do a day’s work for a day’s pay, who will refuse bribes, who will not make up his facts, and who has learned his job.

Letter from Birmingham Jail

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My Dear Fellow Clergymen: While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

John F. Kennedy on the Separation of Church and State

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Reverend Meza, Reverend Reck, I’m grateful for your generous invitation to state my views. ¶ While the so-called religious issue is necessarily and properly the chief topic here tonight, I want to emphasize from the outset that I believe that we have far more critical issues in the 1960 campaign; the spread of Communist influence, until it now festers only 90 miles from the coast of Florida — the humiliating treatment of our President and Vice President by those who no longer respect our power — the hungry children I saw in West Virginia, the old people who cannot pay their doctors bills, the families forced to give up their farms — an America with too many slums, with too few schools, and too late to the moon and outer space. These are the real issues which should decide this campaign. And they are not religious issues — for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barrier.

A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart

Go The greatness of our God lies in the fact that he is both tough minded and tender hearted. He has qualities of austerity and qualities of gentleness. The Bible is always clear in stressing both attributes of God. It expresses his tough mindedness in his justice and wrath. It expresses his tender heartedness in his love and grace.