Sunday


Mathis Gothart, Isenheim Altarpiece, Resurrection panel (1512–1516)

Easter is one of the central religious holidays of the Christian calendar — if not the central religious holiday of Christianity — and thus one of the central symbols of Christian civilization. In the period of a single week we pass from Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to his betrayal, trial, execution, entombment, and eventual resurrection, which, by any measure, must be something of an emotional roller-coaster for those who celebrate the holiday in a participatory spirit, that is to say, for those who engage in the prescribed rituals as a means of participating in the myth, as when pilgrims travel to Jerusalem and walk the Via Dolorosa, commemorating the Stations of the Cross.

I have often cited Joseph Campbell to the effect that a ritual is the opportunity to participate in a myth, so that all rituals are, in a sense, participatory forms of faith. Rituals are also what J. L. Austin called performatives, i.e., that very act of ritual participation is a religious observance; religious value is inherent in the act of participation.

For the Christian, the ultimate performative is to follow in Christ’s footsteps, a practice that in medieval Christendom was called imitatio Christi, the imitation of Christ. In the hope of resurrection and the life everlasting the individual Christian also hopes to extend the imitatio Christi to the next world; the resurrection of Christ is the model for the resurrection of the believer in Christ. The Christian believer, too, can experience resurrection, and this destiny of the individual soul is understood to be a function of salvation.

Recently I have been thinking about the relationship between soteriology and eschatology in the Christian tradition. It strikes me that soteriology and eschatology are tightly-coupled in Christianity — more tightly-coupled than in the other Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Islam, and much more tightly-coupled that the non-Abrahamic faiths. The events and the symbolism of Easter embody this tightly-coupled Christian tradition of soteriology and eschatology. Though tightly-coupled, there is, however, an asymmetry: soteriology is voluntaristic, but eschatology is not; we will all be judged, but we will not all be saved.

In Christianity, salvation is salvation from death, and the substitution of a life eternal in Christ for a worldly fate of dissolution and personal extinction. Compare this, for example, to the Hindu tradition, in which the transmigration of souls is a central doctrine. Superficially, the eternal life of the transmigrating soul can be compared to the eternal soul of the Christian tradition, but this is misleading. The transmigrating soul casts off bodies like a snake casting off its skin, while the resurrection guarantees the believing Christian not only an eternal life in Christ, but even the possession of the body that the soul seems to cast off upon death.

If soteriology and eschatology are tightly-coupled in the Christian tradition and loosely-coupled in other religious traditions, what are the limits on the possible relations between the two? To what extent are soteriology and eschatology ideally separable from each other? Is it possible to have soteriology in isolation from eschatology, and eschatology in isolation from soteriology? It is arguable that the practical faiths that have focused on human actions in this world, with little or no reference to a life beyond death or a world beyond this world, are soteriological in essence without a significant eschatological element. Judaism is like this to a certain extent, and Confucianism to a much greater extent. When asked by a disciple about life after death, Confucius was supposed to have said, “We have not yet learned to know life. How can we know death?” That the question was asked points to the human preoccupation with death, and that it was dismissed in the way that it was dismissed, points to the distinctive Confucian response to the human condition.

There is another possibility. I can’t think of any existing religious tradition that embodies this approach, but it is equally possible that a system of belief might focus on a grand scheme of cosmological eschatology and be more or less indifferent to soteriology. Indeed, if contemporary science were a religion, or even a religious surrogate (some would argue that it is the latter; I would not so argue), it would perfectly fit the bill in this respect. The Copernican principle is frequently invoked as a punishment of human pride, demonstrating our insignificance before the universe. Human salvation here is unimportant, and so left unaddressed. Positivists, in general, are satisfied with this state-of-affairs, but most human beings are not. One cause for anti-scientific sentiment among the general public is precisely this scientific indifference to the human condition.

If a naturalistic soteriology could be joined to the naturalistic eschatology of the scientific worldview, this would be a powerful combination. It might even be possible to advance toward a civilization with science as a central project, or some central project derived from science, such as the exploration of the cosmos, if some soteriology were emergent from science. But I cannot think of any ideas derived from science that could adequately serve this function. There is the idea of humanity as one — the ultimate unity of the species — and the idea of mere humanity — a quasi-religious sense of human exceptionalism — or even humanity’s responsibility for itself as a moral imperative. However, I don’t see any of these as effective substitutes for soteriology.

The distinctive characteristic of Axial Age belief systems is the discovery of a universal human nature, the definition of the human condition in terms of this human nature, and the identification of a particular destiny for humanity in virtue of human nature and the human condition. The tribal gods, appropriate to tribal chiefdoms but falling short of the needs of large-scale social organization, were content to be worshiped as a god among gods, and made no special claim to a privileged knowledge of the human heart. The gods of the Axial Age surpassed these tribal gods, and they demanded more in turn. It wasn’t enough simply to build a civilization, to erect great monuments, to foster bustling cities and their commerce, to conquer the cities of rival powers, in other words, the ordinary business of life was not enough. Something more was called for. This something more turned out to be a sacrifice demanded in exchange for salvation.

Christianity could be said to belong to the second generation of Axial Age faiths, descended with modification from the Axial Age innovations of Mesopotamia, if we distinguish a sequence of the original Axial Age faiths, the second generation of faiths that grew out of the original Axial Age faiths, and the third generation of faiths that grew from the earlier two. Each later generation of Axial Age faiths evolved under the selection pressure of the earlier generation of Axial Age faiths, and of the societies that these earlier Axial Age faiths shaped. Part of this evolution became the individual taking personal responsibility for their salvation, but also being the beneficiary of personal salvation. The earlier Axial Age faiths had focused much more on the social whole, but Christianity raised the stakes and introduced a dialectic between the individual and the community. The individual was given new importance, but was also expected to act on behalf of the brotherhood of mankind, selflessly if necessary.

The the survival of early civilizations was at stake in religiously-constructed communal identities, as I noted in All Believers are Brothers, where I wrote:

“Religion facilitates the construction of indefinitely expandable kin networks far more extensive than any exclusively biological kin network. A society that originates as a biological kin network can transcend the natural limitation that checks the growth of a biological kin network through displacing its biological culture into a religious framework. There is, then, no absolute distinction between kin selection and group selection among human beings, because what begins as kin selection can be extended to group selection through an in-group identity rooted in biological origins but later extended to individuals not within the immediate (biological) kin network.”

This principled conflation of differences was the foundation of an identity that made large-scale civilizations, and so already looked beyond the regional civilizations of the Axial Age, in a way not unlike how the regional civilizations looked beyond the tribal chiefdoms they supplanted. This is an example of the continual self-transcendence of civilization that I have remarked on elsewhere. The particular Christian solution to the problem of communal identity was to have tightly-coupled eschatology and soteriology, and it is at least arguable that this tightly-coupled sense of destiny and salvation persists in a secularized form today. But the secularized form is a bastardized theology, and we would do better, for the future of our civilization, if we could find a scientific soteriology to couple with our scientific eschatology, rather to than to continue play out the limited options of a theology that no longer knows itself to be such. The survival of our civilization is no less at stake today than it was during the Axial Age.

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Hearts and Minds

21 December 2013

Saturday


vietnamese_buddhist_monk_1963

“…what could be more excusable than violence to bring about the triumph of the cause of oppressed right?”

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, translated by Gerald E. Bevan, Part 2, Chapter 4


How are hearts and minds to be won? And how are they lost? These are questions that have become central to the practice of war in our time. In an age of declining peer-to-peer conflict the military environment is increasingly that of asymmetrical warfare, and there is a tension in the environment of asymmetrical warfare between the methods necessary to wage and to win a counter-insurgency and the methods necessary to win the hearts and minds of the people for whom insurgents claim to be waging an armed struggle.

Not only do we live in an age of declining peer-to-peer conflict and increasing asymmetrical warfare, but we also live in of age of popular sovereignty. In an age of unquestioned popular sovereignty, winning the hearts and minds of the people (or losing them) has not only immediate practical consequences but also far-reaching political and ideological ramifications that cannot be ignored. Terrorism today cannot be cleanly separated from insurgency, and insurgency cannot be cleanly separated from the ideal of national self-determination and popular sovereignty. Popular sovereignty means that the hearts and minds of the people rule the state, so that winning or losing hearts and minds is the difference between decreasing or increasing incidents of terrorism. Thus the question of hearts and minds becomes a question of terrorism.

Terrorism — especially terrorism occurring in the context of an insurgency — is one of the great security issues of our time, and the causes and motivations of terrorism constitute one of the great sociological problems of our time. Why do people commit acts of terrorism? What do they hope to gain by the use of terror? Who becomes a terrorist? How do terrorists understand their actions, and how are these actions understood by others? (Some of my earliest blog posts here were concerned with the subject of terrorism — The Future of Terrorism and Terrorism and the evolution of technology — as I had at that time recently read Caleb Carr’s Lessons of Terror — and I have continued to occasionally post on terrorism, as in The Apotheosis of Terrorism.)

The self-understanding and self-justification of the terrorism typically takes the form of an elaborate and detailed extremist ideology, and this extremist ideology is usually found in the context of a broader ideological tradition, of which the violent militant’s faction is a refined and carefully crafted set of beliefs that hangs together coherently and provides an explanation for all things, including the necessity of terrorism and militancy. Often, but not always, this extremist ideology is a set of religious beliefs specific to a particular religious community, in which the ethnic and social community is indistinguishable from the ideological community; in other words, there is an identification of a people with a set of beliefs that define this people. Not all of the people within this community may assent to extremist militancy, but most are likely to assent to the religious ideology that provides the identity of the people.

One of the themes that appears repeatedly in the work of Sam Harris is that religious moderates provide cover for religious extremists, so while religious moderates don’t commit ghastly crimes in the name of religion, they implicitly facilitate ghastly crimes committed in the name of religion. Here is the passage in The End of Faith where Harris introduces this theme:

“…people of faith fall on a continuum: some draw solace and inspiration from a specific spiritual tradition, and yet remain fully committed to tolerance and diversity, while others would burn the earth to cinders if it would put an end to heresy. There are, in other words, religious moderates and religious extremists, and their various passions and projects should not be confused. One of the central themes of this book, however, is that religious moderates are themselves the bearers of a terrible dogma: they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others. I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance — born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God — is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.”

Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005

For Harris, religious moderation is not a welcome respite from fanaticism, but a pretext for reasonable people who are vague about their religious beliefs to make excuses for unreasonable people who are clear and unambiguous about their religious beliefs. Ideological moderation provides cover for ideological extremism, and ideological extremism provides cover for militancy. I haven’t read anything In Harris’ work in which he identifies this as a principle, but it is a principle, and, like many principles conceived to explain some particular aspect of the world, it can be generalized as a explanation across many other aspects of the world.

Thus in the same spirit of Harris’ principle that religious moderates provide cover for religious extremists, we can generalize this principle such that ideological moderates of any kind, subscribing to any set of (vaguely held) beliefs, provide cover for ideological extremists who are willing to put their beliefs into practice in an uncompromising form. I will call this the principle of facilitating moderation, since, according to the principle, moderates facilitate the beliefs and actions of extremists. This, as we shall see, is the great stumbling block in winning hearts and minds.

The generalization of Harris’ principle from religion to any ideology whatsoever makes it easier to understand extremist ideologies like communism and fascism (or even simple nationalism) in terms of the same principle without having to argue that such non-religious ideologies are surrogate religions. (I do not disagree with this argument; I have, in fact, made this argument in Mythologies of Industrialized Civilization, but I also know that many people reject the idea of religious surrogates, and as this is not necessary to the argument in the present case, I need not make that argument here in order to make my point.)

Another theme that appears repeatedly in Sam Harris’ lectures is that different religions are adaptable to a greater or lesser extent to being transformed into a suicide cult; some religions are very easily exapted to this end, while others are not at all easily exapted to this end. (Harris makes this point repeatedly in his lectures, but I did not find this explicit argument in his books.) In other words, not all religions are alike in the danger than they pose as pretexts for violent militancy, and Harris goes on to explicitly single out Islam as especially vulnerable to being exapted for violent militancy.

It is a moral “softball” to discuss Islamic suicide terrorism, as this is a topic on which almost all Westerners are in a agreement. It is more morally problematic — and therefore perhaps will better challenge us to sharpen our formulations — if we consider the relative peaceableness of Buddhists and their institutional representatives — a group which Harris explicitly singles out as much less likely to engage in religiously-motivated militancy than Muslims. The way to make intellectual progress is to take a problem at its hardest point and to seek the solution there, avoiding easy answers that cannot hold up in extreme circumstances. (Does this make me an intellectual extremist? Perhaps so.)

Harris contends that it would be much more difficult to transform Buddhism into a suicide cult than Islam, and I want to explicitly say that I do not disagree with this, but… one of the most powerful moments in the Viet Nam war that demonstrated that the US was not only not winning hearts and minds, but was rather disastrously losing them by its support of the Ngô Đình Diệm government, was when Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức burned himself to death in Saigon in 1963 to protest the treatment of Buddhists by the government of Ngô Đình Diệm. While the self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức harmed no one but himself, it would be difficult to imagine a more “inflammatory” symbol of political protest (and please forgive me for that unfortunate formulation).

It would be difficult to identify self-immolation as anything other than an act of extremism, and it is ideological extremism that motivates ideological militancy. Buddhist monks who protest by self-immolation (and there have been many) represent an extreme form of violence, though as violence turned against oneself it causes no direct harm to others. In practical politics, however, spectacular violence toward oneself — a category that includes suicide bombings — may have the same effect as spectacular violence toward others. Buddhist monks who have spent a lifetime in meditation on the human condition should know well the reaction of the ordinary person to such a spectacle, and it is not likely to be peaceful.

The act of violence in the context of a mostly non-violent community, which latter seeks only to retain its identity and to go about with the ordinary business of life, presents a fundamental problem for counter-insurgency. In any effort to win hearts and minds it is essential to distinguish between those who assent to a given ideology, no matter how extreme, but who make no effort to engage in an armed struggle (or to aid and support such an armed struggle) and those who do engage in militancy, acting upon calls for violent intervention. Terrorism follows from militancy, and militancy follows from extremism, but if strong ideological views are tarred with the same brush as militancy there is the danger of pushing peaceful ideologues over the threshold of militancy and joining in armed struggle.

Most people, no matter how strongly they believe in a given ideology, do not engage in militant action but are willing to work within the established framework of society to attain their ends. Such individuals, and the groups that represent them and speak on their behalf, must not be alienated in any counter-insurgency campaign. On the contrary, they must be cultivated. It is this moderate majority whose hearts and minds must be won if peace is to be established and militants marginalized.

However, it is also this moderate majority that, according to the principle of facilitating moderation, make it possible for extremist ideology and militant groups motivated by extremist ideology to persist. And if the moderate majority are alienated, they are likely, at the very minimum, to give their support to violent militants. Chairman Mao, who came to power through guerrilla warfare and knew a thing or two about it, famously said that, “The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.” In other words, Mao clearly understood the principle of facilitating moderation, given that the guerrilla is the militant who moves among moderates who support and sustain him. Some alienated moderates may also pass beyond disaffection and support of violent militants and may become active militants themselves.

The inherent tension in the relationship between the non-violent majority and the violent minority who turn to militancy is held in check by a shared vision of the world, the common ideology of militant and non-militant, and this means that while individuals may disagree on ways and means, they are likely to agree on the end in view. I wrote about this previously, coming from a slightly different angle, in Cosmic War: An Eschatological Conception:

Because a cosmic war does not occur in a cosmic vacuum, but it occurs in an overall conception of the world, the grievances too occur within this overall conception of history. If we attempt to ameliorate grievances formulated in an eschatological context with utilitarian and pragmatic means, no matter what we do it will never be enough, and never be right. An eschatological solution is wanted for grievances understood eschatologically, and that is why, in at least some cases, religious militants turn to the idea of cosmic war. Only a cosmic war can truly address cosmic grievances.

Sam Harris makes a similar point:

“In our dialogue with the Muslim world, we are confronted by people who hold beliefs for which there is no rational justification and which therefore cannot even be discussed, and yet these are the very beliefs that underlie many of the demands they are likely to make upon us.”

Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005

This fundamental tension between winning hearts and minds and successfully combating violent extremists whose hearts and minds overlap to a significant degree with the non-violent majority cannot be wished away; there will always be a trade-off between placing more emphasis on fighting an insurgency or winning hearts and minds. The generality of this result is suggested by the fact that I first formulated this idea in Anti-Technology Terrorism: An Upcoming Global Threat?, and the generality of this result suggests to danger to which we are exposed.

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Friday


Fourth in a Series on Existential Risk

I traveled to Palermo specifically to see this great fresco of the Triumph of Death.

I traveled to Palermo specifically to see this great fresco of the Triumph of Death.

“The human race’s prospects of survival were considerably better when we were defenceless against tigers than they are today, when we have become defenceless against ourselves.” Arnold Toynbee, “Man and Hunger” (Speech to the World Food Congress, 04 January 1963, quoted on the Anthropocene Blog)


Readers, I trust, will be aware of existential risks (as well as global catastrophic risks) since I’ve recently written several recent posts on this topic, including Research Questions on Existential Risk, Six Theses on Existential Risk, Existential Risk Reminder, Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk, Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty, and Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty. The idea of the “Death Event” is likely to be much less familiar, so I will try to sketch out the idea itself and its relationship to existential risk.

Edith Wyschogrod

Edith Wyschogrod

The idea of the “death event” is due to philosopher Edith Wyschogrod, and given exposition in her book Spirit in Ashes: Hegel, Heidegger, and Man-Made Mass Death. Wyschogrod took the title of her book from an aphorism of Wittgenstein’s from 1930: “I once said, perhaps rightly: The earlier culture will become a heap of rubble and finally a heap of ashes, but spirits will hover over the ashes.”

spirit in ashes

In defining the scope of the “death event” Wyschogrod wrote:

“I shall define the scope of the event to include three characteristic expressions: recent wars which deploy weapons in the interest of maximum destruction of persons, annihilation of persons, through techniques designed for this purpose (for example, famine, scorched earth, deportation), after the aims of war have been achieved or without reference to war, and the creation of death-worlds, a new and unique form of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life simulating imagined conditions of death, conferring upon their inhabitants the status of the living dead.”

Edith Wyschogrod, Spirit in Ashes: Hegel, Heidegger, and Man-Made Mass Death, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985, p. 15.

Wyschogrod’s conception of the “death world,” also given exposition in the text, is introduced in conscious contradistinction to the late Husserlian conception of the “Lifeworld” (Lebenswelt). (Cf. Chapter 1, Kingdoms of Death) I cannot do justice to Wyschogrod’s excellent book in a few quotes, so I will simply encourage the reader to look up the book for himself, but I will give a couple more quotes to locate the “death event” in relation to the larger picture of our civilization. Wyschogrod sees a relation between the “death event” and the peculiar character of industrial-technological civilization:

“The procedures and instruments of death which depend upon the quantification of the qualitied world are innovations deriving from technological society and, to that extent, extend its point of view.”

Op. cit., p. 25

And again,

“…the world of the camps is both distinct from and tied to technological society, so too the nuclear void is embedded in the matrix of technological society but not related to it in simple cause and effect fashion.”

Op. cit., p. 29

Perhaps at some future time I will consider Wyschogrod’s “death event” thesis in relation to what I have called Agriculture and the Macabre, which is the particular relationship between agricultural civilization and death, but whether or not the reader agrees with me or not (or with Wyschogrod, for that matter) I will acknowledge without hesitation that the character of the macabre in agricultural civilization is very different from the place of the death event and the death world in industrial-technological civilization.

Wyschogrod focuses on death camps and industrialized warfare, but of course what shocked the world more than anything were the nuclear bombs that ended the war. A considerable bibliography could be devoted to the books exclusively devoted to the anguished reflection that followed the atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many of them written by and about the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project and made the bomb possible. Many of the most eminent philosophers of the time immediately began to think about the consequences — both contemporaneously and for the longer term human future — of human beings being in possession of nuclear weapons.

Bertrand Russell wrote two books on the possibility of nuclear war, Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare (1959) and Has Man a Future? (1961) Recently in Bertrand Russell as Futurist I discussed Russell’s views on the need for world government in order to prevent the annihilation of human life due to nuclear weapons — a view shared by Albert Einstein.

Karl Jaspers

Karl Jaspers

In 1958 Karl Jaspers published Die Atombombe und die Zukunft des Menschen, later translated into English as The Future of Mankind. What all of these works have in common is struggling with what Jaspers called “the new fact.” Of this new fact Jaspers wrote:

“The atom bomb of today is a fact novel in essence, for it leads mankind to the brink of self-destruction.”

Karl Jaspers, The Future of Mankind, Chap. I, p. 1

And…

“the atom bomb is today the greatest of all menaces to the future of mankind… The possible reality which we must henceforth reckon with — and reckon with, at the increasing pace of developments, in the near future — is no longer a fictitious end of the world. It is no world’s end at all, but the extinction of life on the surface of the planet.”

Op. cit., p. 4

The fact that fear of nuclear Armageddon was felt viscerally as an all-too-real possibility for our world points to the fact that this was not merely the appearance of a new idea in human history — new ideas appear every day — but a fundamental shift in feeling. When the awful reality of the Second World War, which saw man-made mass death on an unprecedented scale, received its finale in the form of the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we had acquired a new object for our instinctual fear of annihilation.

The larger meaning of the “death event” — testified not only in Edith Wyschogrod’s explicit formulation, but also in the work of Bertrand Russell, Karl Jaspers, and a hundred others — is that of formal, reflexive consciousness of anthropogenic existential risk. We not only know that we are vulnerable to existential risk, we also know that we know. It is this formal, reflexive self-consciousness of existential risk that is the differentia between human history before the “death event” and human history after the “death event.” The “death event” was a crystallizing event, a particular moment in history that was a watershed for human suffering that placed that suffering in the naturalistic context.

Earlier catastrophes in human experience did not have this character — or, if they did have this character for a few individuals who realized the larger meaning of events, this formal, reflexive consciousness of human vulnerability did not achieve general recognition. Partly this was a consequence of the non-naturalistic and teleological assumptions that were integral with the outlook of earlier epochs of human civilization, before science made a naturalistic conception of the world entire conceivable. If one believes that a supernatural force will intervene to continue to maintain human beings in existence, there is no reason to be concerned with the possibility of human extinction.

The eschatological conception of history is predicated upon the efficacy of supernatural agents.

The eschatological conception of history is predicated upon the efficacy of supernatural agents.

Prior to industrial-technological civilization (made possible by the scientific revolution, which is particularly relevant in this context), the “end of the world” could only be understood in eschatological terms because eschatologies derived from theological cosmogonies were the only “big picture” accounts of the cosmos that had been formulated and which had achieved any degree of currency. (There have always been non-theological philosophical cosmogonies, but these have remained marginal throughout human history.)

Until science provided an alternative, the only big picture conceptions of the world were traditional cosmogonies, to which the least imaginative among us still recur.

Until science provided an alternative, the only big picture conceptions of the world were traditional cosmogonies, to which the least imaginative among us still recur.

The situation in regard to “big picture” conceptions of the world is closely parallel to that of biology prior to Darwin’s theory of natural selection: there were no strictly biological theories of biology prior to Darwin, only theological theories that were employed to “explain” biological facts. With no alternative to a theological account of biology, it is to be expected that this sole point of view was the universal point of reference, just as where there is no alternative to the theological account of history, this theological account is the sole point of reference in history.

Charles Darwin, in formulating a thorough-going scientific biology, gave the world its first non-theological formulation of biology.

Charles Darwin, in formulating a thorough-going scientific biology, gave the world its first non-theological formulation of biology.

In regard to traditional eschatologies, it would be just as apposite to point out that a supernatural agent might intervene to bring about the end of civilization or the extinction of all human beings (in contradistinction to supernatural interventions intended to be to our benefit), regardless of all human efforts made to preserve themselves and their civilization in existence. The point here is that once we recognize the efficacy of supernatural agents in human history, human agency in shaping the human future cannot be assumed, and in fact the idea of “destiny” (especially in the form of predestination) may come to prevail over conceptions of the future that allow a greater scope to human agency. This is why, in my post The Naturalistic Conception of History, I defined naturalism as “non-human non-agency,” i.e., the absence of supernatural agency.

Four conceptions of history, political, eschatology, cataclysmic, and naturalistic.

Four conceptions of history, political, eschatology, cataclysmic, and naturalistic.

To formulate this from the opposite point of view, we could say that it was only the essentially naturalistic assumptions of our own time, assumptions built into the structure of industrial-technological civilization (because it is dependent upon science, and science cannot systematically expand in the way that science has expanded in recent history without the working philosophical presupposition of methodological naturalism), that made it possible for human beings to understand that no deus ex machina was going to emerge at the end of the human drama to save us in spite of our failure to secure our own future.

We once thought that Atlas carried the weight of the world on his shoulders; now we know that we are the ones who carry the world on our shoulders.

We once thought that Atlas carried the weight of the world on his shoulders; now we know that we are the ones who carry the world on our shoulders.

Once human beings realized with fearful clarity that they possessed the power to annihilate civilization and possibly also all human life, it is only a small step from this consciousness of human vulnerability to come to a similar consciousness of human vulnerability whether or not the existential threat is anthropogenic or non-anthropogenic. A sufficient number of ill-advised and irreversible choices (choices that result in action or inaction, as the case may be) could mean the extinction of human beings, or the reduction of human activity to a level of insignificance. That is what we now know to be the case, and it shifts a heavy burden of responsibility onto human beings for their own future — a burden that had once been carried on the shoulders of gods.

It is only in the past few decades of contemporary science that we have begun to look at the long antiquity of man with the thought of our existential vulnerability in mind, retrospectively placing our fingers at the nodal points of our past, for there have been many times when we might have all been extirpated before any of the many thresholds of development that have brought us to our present state at which we can adequately conceptualize our existential risk came about.

In this way, existential risk mitigation efforts not only provide a kind of clarity in conceptualizing the human future, especially in so far as we abide by the moral imperatives imposed by existential risk, but also by giving us a novel perspective on the human past.

One of the guiding principles of contemporary thought on existential risk is to focus on those risks that human beings have no record of surviving. In order to make good on this principle, we need to understand what existential risks human beings have survived in the past, and to this end we must acquire a better knowledge of human evolution in a cosmological context, which is, in a sense, the particular concern of astrobiology.

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Grand Strategy and Existential Risk: A Series:

1. Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk

2. Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

3. Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

4. Existential Risk and the Death Event

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Marxist Eschatology

13 January 2012

Friday


Why do I keep writing about Marx? I have already discovered that repeatedly writing about Marx confuses people. Indeed, it confuses some people so completely that if you write a long, detailed criticism of some Marxian idea, those who don’t take the time to read or don’t have the capacity of understand simply assume you’re a Marxist because you’re writing about Marx. Why not get “Karl Marx” tattooed across my knuckles, then? It’s a fun idea. People who read me, but don’t read me closely, sometimes think I’m a Marxist, while people who see me but don’t look closely sometimes think I’m a John Bircher. Really. I was in a coffee house in a trendy part of Portland some years ago having a long and detailed conversation about logic with a friend, and someone asked us if we were from the John Birch Society. I guess it must have been due to our clean-cut looks and the moral earnestness of our discussion. I once asked one of my sisters why people often mistake me for a reactionary, and she said I wasn’t “flying the flag,” and that if I wore my hair in dreadlocks and dressed the part, people would probably think differently. I realized later how right she was.

For my part, I continue to write about Marx because Marx is the greatest exemplar of a perennial tradition of human thought that has been with us from the beginning and which will be with us as long as civilization and human life endures. This tradition wasn’t always called Marxism, and it won’t always be called Marxism, but the perennial tendency will remain. There will always be individuals who are attracted to the perennial idea that Marx represents, and as of the present time Marx remains the most powerful advocate of these ideas. And so it is necessary to grapple with Marx. I might even be willing to go so far as to say of Marx what Hegel said of Spinoza: To be a philosopher, one must first be a Marxist.

I have on many occasions written about the eschatology implicit in Marx, which is a pretty straight-forward secularization of pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die. Recently in Missing the point I used this famous phrase to describe the dead-end ritualism of mass labor under advanced industrialized capitalism, but it is just as true of Marx’s original vision. Some time ago I quoted a famous passage from Bertrand Russell to this end (Mythologies of Industrialized Civilization). This post was cited in a discussion on The Rational Responders web site. No one told me about the discussion; I found it by following the links back from hits to my post. Some seemed to agree with me, while others thought I got it all wrong, and Russell too.

It was one of the central features of Karl Löwith’s philosophy of history that modernity itself consists of a number of secularizations of originally theological concepts, and Löwith clearly implied that this rendered much modern thought essentially illegitimate. This implication was sufficiently clear that Hans Blumenberg wrote a long book, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, in order to rebut Löwith. Unfortunately, Löwith and Blumenberg are not well known in Anglo-American analytical philosophy, so their works are little discussed. Marx seems to slot in well with Löwith’s secularization thesis, but if secularization is a legitimate historical process, what’s the problem?

I just argued yesterday in Areté and Selection that the medieval world was the direct ancestor of modernity, and if this is indeed the case, then no one should be surprised that many modern concepts of our secular civilization are secularizations of medieval concepts derived from a primarily theological civilization. This is just what happens when a theological civilization gives way to a secular civilization. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, and I think that I will begin referring to that which preceded industrial-technological civilization as religio-philosophical civilization.

In any case, to get around to my main point of today’s post, I was thinking about Marx’s own conception of Marx’s communist millennium that would be a worker’s paradise in which:

“…nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”

Karl Marx, The German Ideology, Part I: Feuerbach. Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook, A. Idealism and Materialism

Marx was careful to be vague about the coming worker’s paradise under communism partly because he didn’t want to held to any overly-specific predictions, and partly because he wanted to avoid being called a Utopian. In social science circles, to be called a Utopian is the end the discussion with one’s exclusion as a serious thinker. Marx knew it, dismissed other social theorists himself as utopians, and forcefully argued that communism would come about as a result of inevitable historical processes, not in order to fulfill our dreams of a more just social order in the future.

In other words, Marx’s conception of communism is closely parallel to the line I have consistently argued about the industrial revolution, and, by extension, globalization, since I have also argued that globalization is simply an extension of the industrial revolution — its continuation, and eventually, some decades hence, its completion and fulfillment.

The industrialization of the world’s economies has not come about because of utopian plans for a better, healthier, and more just society, and it did not come about as the result of the nefarious plotting of hidden powers who pull levers behind a curtain. The industrial revolution came about as an historical process that escalated due to a feedback loop of science, technology, and industry. This process is still incomplete. As the process continues its march around the globe — again, not as the result of utopian dreams or evil conspiracies — it creates what we now call globalization, as institutions that first appeared in Western Europe begin to appear elsewhere in the world. But the institutions are symptoms, not causes. People who see only the surface of things see the institutions of industrialized societies as the causes of changes; they are not the causes; these institutions follow from deep structural changes in economic organization.

I don’t think that Marx would have disagreed with me too strenuous only this, and I don’t think that he would disagree all that much with the next claim I will make. I have called the industrial revolution a macro-historical revolution, as it initiates a new stage in human history. There have only been two previous fundamentally distinct forms of human society, and these were hunter-gatherer nomadic societies, and settled agricultural societies. If communism had come about as Marx believed it would come about, then this too would have qualified as a fundamentally new form of human society, and communism would have inaugurated a new macro-historical division. The material conditions of life would have changed for the greater part of humanity. This is simply to put Marx’s idea in my terminology.

I have also argued that Marx’s theory has not really received its experimentum crusis, because the industrial revolution has even in our time not yet been completed. We cannot say that Marx was wrong in his essential argument until globalization has transformed the world entire into an industrialized economy, and then, under these conditions, no communist revolution occurs that expropriates the expropriators. People who still argue today about whether Marx was right or wrong, whether he has been refuted or validated by history, are missing the point: the conditions do not yet obtain under which Marx can be judged to be right or wrong. Thus Marxism must remain an open question for us if we are going to maintain our intellectual integrity.

Given, then, that the fulfillment of Marx’s prophecy is still a live option for history, I ought to count it among the macro-historical possibilities that I began to delineate in Three Futures, where I identified singularization, pastoralization, and extraterrestrialization as historical forces that could sufficiently transform the basic organization of human societies to the point that a new macro-historical division is defined by the transformation. I ought, then, to speak of four futures, except that I am working on another possibility that I hope to discuss soon, which would define five futures — or, better, five strategic trends that suggest transformation on the civilizational level if extrapolated to a sufficient degree.

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Thursday


A few days ago in Politicized Anger I mentioned that I have been studying How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror by Reza Aslan. In the book, Aslan mentioned that he took the idea of cosmic war mentioned in the title of his book from Mark Juergensmeyer’s book, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, Chapter 8 of which is concerned with the idea of cosmic war. Juergensmeyer is a well-known scholar in religious studies who began his career at the Union Theological Seminary, studying to become a Methodist minister, there a student of Reinhold Niebuhr.

When I first saw Aslan’s How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror — for I happened upon it browsing the shelves of a library; I hadn’t read any reviews or even heard of it before I saw it — I was immediately interested and intrigued as I could see right away that a cosmic war clearly falls under the umbrella of the eschatological conception of history.

The eschatological conception of history assumes non-human agency in the world, and any human agency under this conception is mediated by non-human agency.

In several posts — Three Conceptions of History, Revolution and Human Agency, and The Naturalistic Conception of History, inter alia — I have been developing a general framework for understanding the overall conceptions that people bring to their understanding of history. This framework is based upon differing conceptions of human agency in the world. That is to say, the framework for understanding how people understand their history is based on how they understand their role in history. Are we helpless before the events of the world? Can we make of our lives anything we desire? Must we seek to supplicate unseen powers? Is human being-in-the-world no different in essentials from a tree’s being-in-the-world? A “Yes” to one of these questions places you, respectively, under the catastrophic, political, eschatological, or naturalistic conception of history.

Juergensmeyer in his above-mentioned book discusses several contemporary examples of religiously-inspired terrorism and war, saying that the religious militants have been “driven by an image of cosmic war.” He goes on to say:

“I call such images ‘cosmic’ because they are larger than life. They evoke great battles of the legendary past, and they relate to metaphysical conflicts between good and evil. Notions of cosmic war are intimately personal but can also be translated to the social plane. Ultimately, though, they transcend human experience. What makes religious violence particularly savage and relentless is that its perpetrators have placed such religious images of divine struggle — cosmic war — in the service of worldly political battles. For this reason, acts of religious terror serve not only as tactics in a political strategy but also as evocations of a much larger spiritual confrontation.”

Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, Chapter 8, pp. 149-150

Aslan in his book follows Juergensmeyer closely in these formulations. Aslan says of the 11 September hijackers:

“They were engaged in a metaphysical conflict, not between armies or nations but between the angels of light and the demons of darkness. They were fighting a cosmic war, not against the American imperium but against the eternal forces of evil. A cosmic war is a religious war. It is a conflict in which God is believed to be directly engaged on one side over the other. Unlike a holy war — an earthly battle between rival religious groups — a cosmic war is like a ritual drama in which participants act out on earth a battle they believe is actually taking place in the heavens.”

Reza Aslan, How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror, Introduction, p. 5

I find this very interesting, but I would like to see it developed with much greater care and rigor. Both Juergensmeyer and Aslan are rather cavalier in their language. I heartily approve of Aslan’s careful distinction between holy war and cosmic war, but I would also suggest that in the interests of analytical clarity we should also distinguish cosmic war and metaphysical war, with the latter as the broader category, while the former is a particular kind of metaphysical conflict, and especially a supernatural kind of metaphysical conflict. This is important, as one could characterize the crusading spirit of early twentieth century communism (or even the French Revolution earlier) as exemplifying a metaphysical conflict of an explicitly materialistic (perhaps naturalistic) metaphysic.

I would myself prefer to speak in terms of eschatological war as being an expression of the eschatological conception of history, but it is just as well with me to speak in terms of cosmic war. The point I want to make in this connection is that the idea of cosmic war does not exist in an intellectual vacuum. It is part of a way of seeing and understanding the world; it is part of a Weltanschauung. This is relevant to some of Aslan’s claims.

Twice in his book, near the beginning and near the end, Aslan writes that the only way to win a cosmic war is to refuse to fight one. We are to decline eschatological combat. Aslan is right when we says that cosmic wars are unwinnable, and therefore also unlosable (p. 8). But Aslan also claims that aggrieved communities have legitimate grievances, and that these need to be addressed. I agree with this, but I also know from my reading of history the near hopelessness of this task. What task? The attempt to “help” people in utilitarian and pragmatic ways when their grievances are not expressed in utilitarian and pragmatic terms. Many efforts of the US around the world have come to grief on this rock.

Because a cosmic war does not occur in a cosmic vacuum, but it occurs in an overall conception of the world, the grievances too occur within this overall conception of history. If we attempt to ameliorate grievances formulated in an eschatological context with utilitarian and pragmatic means, no matter what we do it will never be enough, and never be right. An eschatological solution is wanted to grievances understood eschatologically, and that is why, in at least some cases, religious militants turn to the idea of cosmic war. Only a cosmic war can truly address cosmic grievances.

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