Naked Apes Again!

Naked Apes Again! (Reductionism (science) Versus Metasticism (religion))

            In that both science and religion depart from human reality, historical, cultural, and linguistic, they are each in error regarding our shared ontology. Haidt’s recent book, The Anxious Generation, attempts to make an argument for the necessity of play for healthy persons, but bases it upon strained sociobiological figments that even as analogies are weak. Animals ‘play’ by instinct; it only looks recreative due to their offspring’s smaller size and limited capabilities. Animals do not play in any human sense of the term, even if we too are gradually preparing ourselves for adult roles as lensed through the imagination of the child. The key difference is that our roles are wholly social and historical in scope, and not based upon inherited traits or instincts. There is no single or singular ‘human nature’; the phrase, much-touted by the lazy or the ignorant, is a contradiction in terms.

            While decorated with what at first glance appear to be pedagogically sound indictments upon the virtual generation, the reduction of human personality and human health to animalian nature is not only wrong-headed, it is also morally wrong. To suggest that the base fact we are mammals and that this is the ultimate source of our sensibilities and needs is to aver any ethics, as well as to disavow any morality, no matter in what culture it originated. Yes, it is debilitating to sociality to exist in a virtual space overlong. But it is also cowardly, and this is the ethically more profound critique that needs be in place if we are going to mount a counteroffensive against the ubiquity of cyberspace and the so-called social media. We need not ask, ‘do animals use the internet?’ The very premise is ridiculous. Just so, we need not look to our distant mammalian cousins for inspiration regarding alternatives. We humans have created both virtual reality and social reality, and the former is a part of the latter. Only in a mythical ‘matrix’ are their roles reversed.

            Haidt sidesteps the fact that virtual life has in part been invented to increase control over children – even though he expressly states that children should not have ‘smart-phones’ before age 14, and makes numerous other social control statements, as if he is the newly self-proclaimed neo-conservative scientist, perhaps hoping that the sciences can belatedly compete with the parent-pandering mastery of the evangelicals – especially regarding both their nascent sexuality and how they interact with information in general. The latter funnels specific ideas to today’s young minds, narrowing them, much in the same manner as did television do to their predecessors’. The internet screen is a child of the television’s after all. The former, ‘cybersex’, ‘sexting’, or virtual sex, is the epitome of a chaste cowardice combined with a vicarious voyeurism, and indeed, if one is going to argue for children’s play and its theatrical realities, such also must include the play of sexuality, something sociobiological proponents often seem to neglect. The authentic critique of virtual space is not that it is ‘unnatural’, or even ‘unreal’, but rather that it presents a far too easy way around the challenge of both becoming a selfhood as an individual person, and joining the human species as a member of an historically mutable and culturally constructed consciousness.

            Beyond this, proposing scientific arguments over against those religious is a complete waste of time, for the acolytes of Godhead do not respect the data or, more importantly, the methods, of science in the first place. Science itself might as well be the devil’s pet bait, for all they are concerned. The ‘culture wars’, apologies to Susan Sontag once again, occupy the center stage in many political regions mostly due to media interest and stoking. Haidt’s recent appearance on ‘Good Morning America’ is merely one case of thousands, hailing from both science and religion, wherein the same tired statement is made: Nature versus God. The Secular against the Sacred. The World contra the Spirit. Ho hum, dear reader, ho hum. The reality of our human condition cannot be discovered by either the reductionism of the sciences – how far are we expected to regress? Does the quantum frequency by which the microtubules in our neurons vibrate contain the essence of being human? – or the metasticism of religion – how closely to we resemble the Imago Dei? Does the merely human view of the cosmos generate the objectively divine? – simply due to the presence of finitude as our universally shared lot. Finitude is itself an existential outcome of a being who at once is in history and who makes their own history.

            Consider once again that we are born without our choice, and we die outside of all the weight of our personal and human agency. Even choosing the timing of our demise by suicide, state-sponsored or no, does not obviate the essential facticity that we must die, at least in our current state of evolution. Just as virtuality is an ongoing evolution of the projection of human imagination into the world – the arts, photography, sound recording, radio, film, TV and so on – so too is science, the source of all of this projective technology, an ongoing process which begins with religion. Calling to mind Freud’s comment that Judaism is the religion of the father, Christianity that of the son, one can simply add that religion itself is the projection of the premodern, as James alluded, and science that of the modern. That one metastasizes humanity and the other reduces it merely introduces an inauthentic discreteness between them. We are in reality no more a God than we are an animal, and Nietzsche’s sly comment to this regard is well-taken. Note though that he only includes the ‘intelligent man’ in his acerbic ace.

            The APA, the US Surgeon-General, Desmond Morris and all the King’s horses to boot can’t put this simulacrum of Humpty Humanity back together. Why so? Because it was never either a divinely created or a scientifically evolved whole in the first place. We have many guiding images of what a human being might be like, but for each puzzle box-top several key pieces are missing. Creation involves an infinite regress, evolution an ironic leap of faith. God transcends His own cosmic cycle, the fossil record brushes aside its own gaps, and everyone is happy. Historicism ignores transhistorical concepts, notably that of the sacred itself, whilst historical materialism ignores the perduring power of ideas from and dwelling within the creative ambit of the human imagination. But the bevy of philosophical positions can at least be argued; they are, by definition, open to their own errors. Not so science, not so religion. Even within the former’s self-correcting method, one must work from the outside-in to force a change of perspective. Science does have an advantage over religion in that it is, with time and test, sometimes able to shrug off its self-created dross. Ironically, sociobiology, the bastard child of eugenics and Victorian evolutionary theory, appears healthy enough.

            The mainstream media celebrate a Haidt, or correspondingly, the lesser media of Canada tout one Mae Martin – again, making a ‘natural’ case for gender diversity is going to get you nowhere; the entire scientific discourse is voided by your opponents before any specific installment of it airs, that aside from it being just one more feeble-minded exemplification of reductionism, the scientific version of the ‘devil made me do it!’ – while studiously ignoring any serious philosophical effort to engage in discursive dialogue. Shall we then all herald the ascension of the neofascist whose avatar is either an authoritarian God or a narrow nasty Nature? Far better sources would include Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, Erikson’s Identity and the Life Cycle, and Ricoeur’s Oneself as Another. The considered responses, the serious efforts at understanding, the august confluences of human reason and imagination do exist, so why let media, which profits from artificial conflict and unreasoned artifice alike, why let politicians, who prostrate themselves before any base sensitivity in order not to lose franchise, or why let ambulance-chasing authors promoted in the name of publishers’ avarice direct your research?

            An appropriate image has Francis Galton and Bernard of Clairvaux turning aside in their graves, only to discover each is masturbating vociferously to the clamor and claxon of our inauthenticities. If we the living turn aside from the entire history of consciousness, either by giving it up to an abstract and ever-distanciated Godhead, or throwing it down into some primordial soup that lies bubbling at the bottom of an evolutionary pit, then we shall surely and wholly avoid the most essential questions of our shared humanity. And in this, any criticism of an alternate reality, be it virtual or gendered or monastic or yet Gileadic is also but a decoy, a competition amongst avoidance behaviors, a manner by which to reject anything of the human essence, and also, perhaps more fatally, to regress in the face of our overwhelming present need to make that essence more humane.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 59 books in ethics, education, health, social theory, religion and aesthetics, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over twenty years.