Ideas and People
Ideas and people, at least when people are motivated by ideas, are easier to understand than things. Consider the case of two professionals that are consulted, in part, for their knowledge of their subject matters. An accountant is expected to know the ins and outs of the Internal Revenue Code, as well as the regulations and informal procedures through which the Code is administered. He knows who to call and what he can say to them that is likely to get your case resolved favorably. He knows, as you do not, what does not have to be volunteered and what will not be asked. He knows which other people to call if his first set of calls does not work. So it is fair to say that he understands the system and so is capable of doing his job even though negotiations can break down. There is still an art and science of negotiation, one that has been recognized at least since Abraham argued with God about how many honest men must be found if Sodom and Gomorrah were to be saved. The accountant’s job is therefore knowable and known.
Now consider your physician. He may know a lot about how your heart works, given that it is a relatively simple organ: basically a pump that has to keep operating continuously for eighty years. Any stoppage is life threatening, while pumps in cars get replaced all the time. But the heart is still a foreign object in that there may be principles whereby it operates that are not yet known to science. Does it build plaque only because you eat fatty food? Why can’t it repair itself or does it? These are open questions. How much more numerous and open are the questions concerning your pancreas or your liver, much less the ones concerning your brain, where we do not even know enough to link mental illnesses to particular abnormalities in brain activity. Your physician wrestles with his ignorance, applying what he does know in the hope that what he does not know will not get in the way.
I was reminded of this when I reacquainted myself with Adolf Harnack’s The History of Dogma. That nineteenth century theologian and historian of religion is must reading for anyone interested in intellectual history: either the idea of it or its results. Harnack makes a brilliant point in the first few pages of the second volume—and then, obviously pleased with himself, repeats the point a dozen times in the next ten pages. The point he makes is that the Christian Church in the course of its second century became a body of doctrine that was administered and enforced by a hierarchy of authority which made it quite different from the Christian Church of the First Century, which was a set of disparate communities of believers who had different takes on the experience of being Christian. This is certainly a very Protestant take on the matter of Church origins in that it does not give sufficient credit to how old are the procedures of the Mass or of the very early attempt, seen in the Pauline letters, to give some Roman like order to the variety of the Christian congregations. These people were trying to get organized early on.
Controversial or not, we understand that Harnack is pointing to something real rather than something merely fanciful. He is invoking the distinction between organizational orderliness and whatever is seen as operating by a different principle: community or personal religious experience. This is a bit of knowledge about how the social world works that everyone has even if most people may not give it a name. Moreover, Harnack is invoking a logical or at least a deep existential distinction between that of which people are self-conscious and that about which people are not self-conscious. The second century Christians were just coming to grips with the fact that they had a doctrine on their hands and that their religious experience was in large part a matter of ascribing to that doctrine. Harnack may not pay sufficient attention to the fact that making a doctrine pivotal is the easy way out when a religious movement fails to provide a savior that survives, but he is certainly on to something in recognizing that making a doctrine rather than a text or a superstition or even a story about a martyred messiah the center of a religion is a radical step in the history of religion. It makes religious authority apply to doctrine and is no longer just about the authority of the religious figure. You obey the Church because you ought to and because it has explained to the best of your capacity why you should be in accord with its systematic view of the way the supernatural world works, while you obey Jesus simply because you love him. Whether this is a forward step or not in the history of human freedom is another question entirely.
This is pretty deep stuff but it is perfectly comprehensible. We all have experienced the division between the things of which we are aware and the things of which we are not aware; we have all experienced the feelings associated with looking at social situations and experiences as “subject” to objective laws which therefore have to be “enforced” the way traffic laws are enforced rather than looking at objective laws as things that do not need to be enforced, any more than the laws of physics have to be enforced, or else dispensing entirely with looking for abstract descriptions and settle instead for the particularity of the moment, of the person, of the historical concatenation of forces that produced some unique event. We all do both all the time. Harnack moves us forward by allowing us to say to ourselves, “Yes, I can figure out what he is talking about even though he puts the matter more sharply than I ever would without his help.” The validity of what he says doesn’t come from having reviewed his sources with anything resembling the care he used; it comes, instead, from the clarity of his presentation and the dependence of that clarity on what everybody knows. It is true because it is plausible.
That remains the logic of the humanities. They are after the experience of the particular and finding words to describe that particularity, whether it is the feel of the Fifties or why Joe McCarthy got as far as he did before being brought down. Facts are mobilized so as to support one or another appreciation of a culture or a historical event. You don’t ask Peter Brown to reduce what he has absorbed about the late Roman world to a set of propositions even if he trots out any number of propositions onto which to hang his appreciation of the age. The humanities are arts, not sciences.
Compare that to the point of view laid out by Anaximander in the Sixth Century B. C., which the author of a new book about him, Carlo Rovelli, physicist turned humanist, reminds us was a period of great and widespread intellectual achievement. There was Sappho and Hesiod and the Iliad and the Odyssey already two centuries old. Not to mention, which the author doesn’t, that this was the century during which the Five Books of Moses was first compiled and that Isaiah preached of turning swords into plowshares. But what Anaximander and his predecessor Thales did was earth shattering and unprecedented. They proclaimed that the natural world was subject to its own laws and not just human laws.
The author sums up that point by saying that Anaximander believed that everything that is material comes from something else that is material. This is the breathtaking idea that there is a conservation of matter and energy principle working in the natural world. People may create things out of ideas; people can invent things that didn’t exist. But the new things in the world are made out of other things that have become those things. This is the basic idea of natural science. It makes no appeal to a god outside the machine.
There is another way to put that point. Everything is caused in that everything that comes into being can be explained by reducing it to what it is made of and the processes that were in operation on the ingredients. There is no need of a god to inspirit the item with its power as a shield or the power of a harvest to be fecund. That means, in turn, that you can always ask for a reason. Moreover, there is no absence of such reasons until you get back to the basic fact of that most general formula that everything is made out of something else. That is totally different from the religious principle which suggests that there is an end of reasons in the will of a god or gods, and so an end to the questions that one can ask. A modern believer may apply science to the development of cellphones, but there is no point in asking why there is evil. It is just god’s will.
The Old Testament does not have a single book devoted to the natural world even though the Old Testament is a library or compendium of books and stories composed over a period of, let us say, six hundred years. That Joshua stopped the sun is a way to suggest how important this battle was to God though not even the redactor of that story could have thought it other than a metaphor in that there are no astronomical implications of that act mentioned in the story, something that would have occurred to the Babylonians who did not live that far away. Even the Genesis story of the Creation, however philosophical it might seem because it arranges a logical progression of what would have to come before what came after, puts it into a narrative, and so a history, of what God was up to. But the Greeks, from Hesiod to Lucretius, were invested in a natural world having to do with crops and illnesses and how pretty people were rather than a natural world that was to be found in just the stars or in geometrical forms. What was so mundane as to not even be noticed as a literary subject by those who composed the Old Testament becomes a central concern of thinkers.
Nature is foreign to human experience in that it is not a feature of the experience of being a human being. It is external to the consciousness even if one cannot very well imagine what a consciousness would be like if it were devoid of a nature to live amidst. Otherwise, we would not have our senses and our emotions. A soul imagined as in heaven is one without qualities, just memories. No one can strictly speaking be said to be alive in heaven. But people know things independent of the fact that they exist in nature. I know I look at the tree; the tree does not know I am looking at it. Nature answers to itself which is no one, which is a horrible thought that is also very liberating because people can make nature answer to the human power to describe it.