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« Italian for Beginners | Main | Der Hund (part 2) »
Wednesday
Jun022010

Secular Knowledge not a Principle of Action

We have already belabored the back-and-forth between those who believe in something greater than themselves and those who think themselves the jewels atop evolution's crown, and readers of these pages know how I stand, not being able to do anything else.  The universe, say the men of science, is a vast mystery in which there is little room for divine revelation, yet we have discovered one hundred billion planets (or perhaps one billion galaxies each with one billion planets, the number is as fluid as the authorities that count).  What may or may not have happened two thousand years ago in a warm and intellectually rich desert land is a legend perpetrated by a long list of global conspirators, but the progression of those prehistoric monsters who died millions of years before we became sentient is as clear as the microscope used to examine their fossils.  And the universe itself, that bulging mass of infinite energy, decided one day that it should be, and exploded into what would become our world a long time down the line, so thinking that the universe is actually a stage designed by an Author would be the most preposterous mistake ever committed.  If you are convinced fully by these arguments, please proceed to your nearest popular bookseller and find your reading material in the largest and brashest displays scattered at strategic points throughout the store.  If, however, the more you consider these asinine gourds of leaking potions, all of which have the same bitter chemical aftertaste, the more you find the whole concoction a vile emetic, you may want to order your books from less complacent sources.  Which brings us to this short essay.

There is a basic principle in Newman's works that cannot be rephrased only reiterated, and it involves the concepts of assumption and assent.   The casual thinker − he knows who he is − may flip through a few pages of this masterpiece and conclude that the whole premise is based on religious faith, and he would only be wrong in his flipping.  Casual reviewers of the same work have commented that Newman's approach jettisons the medieval and ancient philosophies for something terribly modern, at least modern by the standard of the nineteenth century, but again this conclusion is the result of too much flipping and too many conclusions.  A simpler approach may be as follows.  Let us say that you believe your girlfriend to be loyal and loving − for the vast majority of us an assumption which a relationship can and should predicate.  You ask yourself time and again why you think this way, and are led to a number of observations that buttress and cancel each other in rather tawdry existential fashion.  First you assume that she loves you because you love her and love is as natural as the morning dew, as the morning itself, as oxygen.  You decide that this is so on the evidence of the hypocorisms and affection you exchange; you are supported in your sensations by our omnipresent and omniscient men of science who boldly proclaim that love, like chocolate and fear, is a chemical reaction illuminating a certain part of your brain as if it were a pile of links of a staggered Christmas tree light display.  You discard this sentiment when its hollowness begins to repulse you and then conclude that she loves you because she has made a decision to love.  You just happen to be the person with whom she is now as if life were a roulette wheel and she fell on your number.  This approach also has its drawbacks, namely that her willpower has been transformed into a justification for affection, which to both the logical and emotional mind cannot possibly be love.  So you entertain a third notion, love as destiny, as preprogrammed methodology on the part of natural selection or divine proportion, and understand that you must accept your lot as it is handed to you because otherwise your existence will henceforth be mired in regret.  At length you come to the fourth conclusion in your eternal square, that of deception, and now I should mention the essay in the title.

Newman does not believe in any conclusions, he believes in what he modestly calls a beginning.  He tells us that many people will risk their lives for dogma, but never for a conclusion; he knows that people die for realities not calculations.  The rather gauche modern films and novels that describe suicidal characters as keeping a tally of their world in neurotic detail should not perish because of that detail, but because that detail has now replaced their entire reality (an instructive point made in this fine novel).  He has nothing horribly against science, as no one who believes in better living standards and health for humanity should, but he has something very much against a life of perpetual deduction which begins, appropriately enough, ex nihilo:

Life is not long enough for a religion of inferences; we shall never have done beginning, if we determine to begin with proof.  We shall ever be laying our foundations; we shall turn theology into evidences, and divines into textuaries.  We shall never get at our first principles.  Resolve to believe nothing, and you must prove your proofs and analyze your elements, sinking further and further, and finding "in the lowest depth a lower deep," till you come to the broad bosom of scepticism.  I would rather be bound to defend the reasonableness of assuming that Christianity is true, than to demonstrate a moral governance from the physical world.  Life is for action.  If we insist on proofs for everything, we shall never come to action: to act you must assume, and that assumption is faith.

We may cast aside the criticism that life is not really for action, because to come to that assumption much action must already have been taken.  It is perhaps for that reason that a skeptic who has been treated with the cold, callous end of life's rod can be more justified in his mistrust of the world, and, for his insufferable ignorance, a young brash fool who thinks himself a god with two feet and lungs all the more chastened.

Whatever you may think of Newman, you will have to conclude that conclusions are based on assumptions (or perhaps that assumptions only end in further assumptions).  As silly and ultimately contradictory as it is to postulate that we may separate ourselves from the stream of time and ethics to reach some petty captions on our own, we must also understand that youth for natural reasons needs to rebel.  It needs to think itself invincible because only once it has been disabused of this notion can it weigh life's value and our cobweb of aging and loss.  If religion "has never been a message, a history, or vision," we can assert without fear of perjury that these are precisely the three elements common to all periods of youth.  We learn about ourselves and the world through our parents and their history, and we envision our future most often through the paradigms herein established, the future as an anagram of the past.  Yes, this can be said of faith, except that all future, past and present scenarios and thoughts are but anagrams of some greater meaning still.  That, if anything, is motivation enough to live what has been given us and to love.  And for what is love if not assent to the transcendental?

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