Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A tomato to snuff a cigarette?

Why not? Who says a tomato is not an ashtray?

Instinctively, it seems wrong to waste a perfectly good cherry tomato by snuffing out a cigarette against it. Is that sense of waste, as an ethical fault, merely a result of natural selection pressures, or is it tied to a deeper truth about living well and truth as such?

I got on of this bizarre train of questions after reading a portion of Frank Sheed's "God? Of Course!" I found a Chinese translation last week and finished it today. One point Sheed makes (on pages 13–14) really struck me. Since I only have a Chinese translation, I will post the characters as they are and then offer a translation.

除非你知道某物的目標是什麼,它是為何而存有的,否則你不能理性地使用它。 ...[某人]根本不知道它的作用是什麼,但覺白白把它丟棄未免可惜。 ...要確知一物的正確用途,我們就必須向裝造者求問。 這一切適用於人。 我們不能善用自己,或幫助別何人善用他自己,但如果我們知道我們的被造的目的,我們就能善用自己。

Unless we you know the point of some object, why it exists, you can't make rational use of it. [Sheed then imagines a thermometer in the hands of someone completely ignorant of such an object.] … [He] simply has no idea how to use it, but he thinks it would be a pity to throw the thing away. … To be certain of an object's exact use, we need to consult its maker. The same holds for human life. We don't know how to perfect ourselves, nor how to help some other person perfect himself, but if we know what we were made for, then we can perfect ourselves.

How many people live with this confusion at the base of their lives? On the one hand they deny "purpose" and "meaning" in the world, since these concepts seem like outdated, weak-minded throwbacks to religious immaturity. On the other hand, though, they rise each day, pursue goals, amend their behavior, and adjust their goals in light of higher values like truth, beauty, and virtue. But ultimately, if the world they believe they inhabit has no proper end, does not, by extension, their own life have no proper end? How often do we really face the elemental question, "What am I living for?" It is easy, psychologically, but not philosophically, to claim "the cosmos" lacks any proper ends. It is easy to be indifferent about the apparent lack of purpose "in the world," since this shifts the emphasis from oneself to "reality as such."

Imagine a child raised being told every day that his life has no end better than any other. Imagine a child being told there is no better or worse way to spend his days, since there is simply no "proper" way for time to be spent in the first place. Be a druggie or be a Nobel laureate––whatever, it's all good. Without a clear aim, all his young vital energies would increasingly unravel and, most likely, spin into a maelstrom of sociopathic anomie. His parents would surely be culpable of abuse. Their surest defense would be to blame the world: How can they be blamed for depriving their child of a sense of purpose when the world itself is devoid of purpose? They are just calling it like they see it.

Now imagine an entire culture of children raised under that demonic incantation: a society of aimless zombies in pursuit of proof that their is no proof of higher aims. Surely it should give us pause that one of the harshest forms of insult is that which deforms one object or action into another, much cruder object or action. "Is that your voice or did I die and go to hell?" "Is that your face or did your neck throw up?" "Will you stop talking or are you going to waste more of my air?" "Girl, don't you think it would be easier on us all if you stopped all that talking and walking and just lay back to open port to the world?" Just as nothing ennobles a person more than aligning him with his proper end, so that his vital energies and experiential wisdom flow as one stream in one direction, so nothing degrades a person more than the destruction of his sense of purpose. Being told you were abandoned and then adopted pales in comparison as a rude surprise to being told you were a coital accident and only barely scraped past being aborted. You weren't "meant" to be here, kid––none of us was––but I guess I can't tell you get out now. Now go play.

It is, as I say, an easy psychological task to deny "cosmic purpose" compared to the difficulty inherent in making a philosophical defense of this anti-teleologism in one's own lived life. The very act of denying human action has proper ends is itself an action driven by an implicit goal, namely, truth. "Every being loves its own perfection," says Fulton J. Sheen in The Life of All Living (New York: Image Books, 1979). "The plant loves sunshine," Sheen continues, "for it is its perfection; the bird loves its food; for it is its perfection; the eye loves color, for color is its perfection; in the strict sense of the term the intellect loves truth, for truth is its perfection."

Sheen's eloquence stands, as always, as a powerful antidote (and scandal) to the willfully aimless aims of our decadent secular culture. "The mind," Sheen asserts, "by the very necessity of its operation is driven to seek unity" (p. 53). If this were not so, why are you trying at this very instant to make unified sense of Sheen claim as either jibing or clashing with the rest of what you know and believe at the moment of reading his assertion? Your mind is compelled to integrate each claim you encounter with the rest of the claims that inhabit your cognitive world. This is why we even have a category of "not-right-now" topics, which we can "shelve" until we can properly affirm or debunk them. Even in their uncertainty, such claims have a specific place in the "unitropic" operation of the human intellect. They can, for instance, be invoked at a later date as either "random" examples or counter-examples to some other claim.

This "unitropic" tendency of the human mind is not circumstantial to the world that forms it and which it seeks to know. "All life reveals itself as a process of unification," Sheen argues later (p. 123): "To make unity out of multiplicity; homogeneity out of heterogeneity; the same out of the different; the permanent our of the passing––that is the fundamental movement of life" (p. 123). And good thing, too, for, continues Sheen, "This world would be like a gigantic puzzle-picture if there were no unifying force to put the pieces together. A mosaic is unintelligible if it is seen only in its details, but it takes on a new beauty when seen in its unity. … Life is beautiful only when it is reduced to unity" (p. 123). I would also point out that the very act of calling a mosaic "a" mosaic assumes its existence is only meaningful as an intelligible whole towards which all the parts are ordered.

To those, of a more scientific mind, who find such rhapsodizing mere theological bluster, let us recall the current golden fleece of science is a Theory of Everything, a total picture of everything that reduces all phenomena to a simple, unified, and therefore beautiful, whole. Even the effort to pluralize the universe––to universalize its universality, in other words, to trivialize its specific importance––by positing a multiverse requires positing "a" multiverse for the claim to be an intelligible improvement over the passé universe. I would even go so far as to say that "the multiverse" is but a lame bluff to scare "the universe" out of modern discourse (just as "meme" has tried, lamely, for decades to make "idea" and "concept" appear antediluvian). Even the most austere scientific theory of matter and motion is, in the end, a human construction, and therefore even the most rigorously reductionist, formal-mathematical explanation of the world is insuperably anthropocentric. The universe only makes sense by virtue of the intelligible human articulation of that discovery. This does not, however, entail that the world's sense is a purely human construct. It simply means that the universe's intelligibility expresses itself most potently in the human articulation of that intelligibility.

Although intellectual fashions seem to change as fast as the universe expands from its fiery origin in nothing, certain truths persist, one of them being that man, as homo loquens, only speaks because he believes his words refer intelligibly to something beyond his mere speech organ. This belief can in no way be proved without first being avowed. In the very moment he denies that the world has meaning, the somber skeptic is asserting a truth about the whole world, that is, giving a complete meaning to his life's disparate observable elements. "Language itself," argues Walter Burkert in Creation of the Sacred,

"as a signifying system, seems to be in need of an 'ultimate signifier,' the absolute, god. This may also serve the function of the algebraic x to solve the conflicting equations of life. … To introduce the unseen is to interrupt the closed functional chain of events––which also means that religion is never fully integrated into any system of society but retains some character of 'otherness.'

"Basic categories of being, of causality, and of goodness are reflected in the traditional predicates of gods or god as immortal or timeless, creator of the world, and the ultimate end of human destination. Even these a priori categories have been linked to biological evolution by the evolutionary theory of knowledge. They have been developed in the measure that they proved successful in managing an increasingly comprehensive objective world" (chapter 1, p. 27).

The very act of speaking about the world is based on faith that there is a world, and that it really makes sense from some ultimate perspective. And, as our knowledge of the world grows, even if we deny it some "higher" meaning, our love for the world grows. Our basic instinct to survive grounds our desire to know as much of the world as we can before we die, a desire which, in turn, sharpens our love for the world we are privileged to know in our short span of life. In other words, to cite Sheen again, the "three fundamental inclinations or tendencies in the life of every human being … are for life, for truth, and for love" (p. 137).

Only a suitably rich worldview does justice to these awesome human instincts, and only the Christian Gospel provides a rich enough worldview by which man may remain truly human. "As all creation revolves about man,"––the mineral transposed and unified in the plant, the plant transposed and unified in the animal, and the animal transposed and unified in the human––"so too, man revolves about Jesus Christ. Man is the pivot about which the whole order of nature swings; Jesus Christ is the pivot about which supernature swings. … [W]ithout Christ this world of ours loses its intelligibility and meaning" (p. 132).

Which brings me back to my questions about tomatoes and cigarettes.

If the universe as a whole is not "made for" anything, then neither is any thing in the universe "made for" anything. At most, various things stands in tighter or looser spatiotemporal causal proximity with other things. It would be no violation of the "cosmic" or "natural order" if I and some mates were to waste baskets of tomatoes inside a pub by smashing cigarette after cigarette into them. It would the rankest sentimental anthropocentrism for someone to protest that those tomatoes would be put to "better use" by stamping out the hunger in the bellies of the poor begging outside the pub. A tomato, like anything else in the godless comsos, is not more "designed for" any action or object than for any others. Cigarette-snuffing is just as much an "intrinsic end" of tomatoes as is "hunger-ending", since, of course, neither is an intrinsic end. But, as William P. Young put it in The Shack, "If anything makes sense then everything makes sense." Once, however, you admit a tomato, by virtue of its created structure, really does have some more "proper" ends than others, you invite the vampire of teleologism into your philosophical abode, whereupon he will patiently but ruthlessly suck dry the hordes of disingenuous "whateverisms" that pessimistic secularism has let inside the gates.

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