Sunday, January 20, 2008

A Womb, Not a Factory

Movie Morphogenesis

Way back in 2005 when I reviewed The Island, I left off a discussion of the film's hypothetical technology for "manufacturing" human clones (a process that fills in some of the details for a fictional cloning process hinted at in Blade Runner).

In the film, the clones are grown to adulthood in plastic wombs. This process is interesting to examine. As good film-making practice recommends, it is not so much discussed as shown.

(I found a couple of those photos in a thorough review of the film; h/t via Google image search)

They look like the plasticized cadavers from Body Worlds, don't they? The first shot inside the Incubation Silo shows clones at various stages of development. The plastic wombs are fed by umbilical tubes. The succeeding shots show successive stages of development. (You can click through some of the images to see larger versions.) The premise seems to be that if you're going to produce immediate adults, that you have to grow them from the inside out, starting with the circulatory system then moving to the skeletal system, the muscular system, and finally the skin.

Since the whole point of life is achieving the mature, adult form, doing so as quickly as possible would certainly be advantageous. We get a hint that there's something wrong with this movie morphogenesis for the reason that, if such a process existed, nature would have discovered it.

Before we get to a more precise analysis of the reasons this movie morphogenesis is purely fictional, we need to look more closely at what makes a living thing different from a non-living—even animated—thing.

An Organism, Not a Machine

A well-written article in latest issue of Touchstone elaborates on the point of how organisms are not human constructions or artifacts. A machine, like a Corvette, is constructed piece-by-piece by an external agent.

In construction, the form defining the entity arrives only slowly, as it is added from the outside. In development, the form defining a life (that which a major Christian tradition calls its "soul") is within it from the beginning....

Life is not formed or defined from the outside. Life defines and forms itself. Its form or nature is there, in its activated genes, and begins to manifest itself from the very first moment of its existence. The only things embryos need are food, oxygen, and protection from external hazards, not form. They don't need to be molded into a type of being. They are already a definite kind of being.

In other words, the womb doesn't assemble the new organism, but gives it the proper environment to allow it to develop itself. He defines development "as the continual presence but gradual appearance of a being." In other words, the being already exists but slowly unfolds or manifests itself fully.

Excellent. The only reservation I have is his implication that the embryo's form resides (exclusively) in the genes. No, the form resides in the whole of the zygote, with the genes being the primary organ of the form. (Most notably, maternal determinants, factors already present in the cytoplasm of the ovum, play a significant role in development.) Similarly, the human being is the whole of the body, with the brain and nervous system simply being the primary organs of the body's humanity.

It's worth contrasting the modern knowledge of ontogeny with the ancient speculation. Aristotle thought that the male's semen formed the embryo, which only acquired life after it had reached a certain point of development ("quickening"). We now know that development is much more organic than Aristotle thought (and thus more faithful to Aristotle's core ideas like natural form and matter).

The article illustrates the idea of development with an apt analogy.

Suppose you have taken a Polaroid picture of a jaguar darting out from a Mexican jungle. The jaguar has now disappeared, and so you are never going to get that picture again. As you are waiting for it to develop, I grab it and rip it open, thus destroying it. When you get angry with me, I just say blithely, "You're crazy. that was just a brown smudge. I cannot fathom why anyone would care about brown smudges." You would think I was the insane one. Your photo was already there. We just couldn't see it yet.

That is just what pro-lifers think when people say, "How can a microscopic dot have the same rights as a reader?" That microscopic embryo is a human being in the first stage of its development. We each started off looking like that. But we each have been the same organism and the same kind of being at every stage of our development.

The author points out that some object to abortion only because of the idea that it destroys something that will become valuable, not because it destroys something that is already valuable. The former and latter positions coincide with regard to late-term abortion, but diverge as the hypothetical intervention becomes earlier, and are most at odds at life's earliest stages, when issues like implantation and cloning are important. Some abortion opponents' fail to appreciate that a living thing is not like a machine.

Analysis of the Hypothetical Development Process

The fallacy in The Island's version of morphogenesis is evident in the observation that life is dynamic: it is as much as about the concrete process of development as it is about the end product. You can't carve an organism out of marble. Each part of your body is alive because it was formed through a concrete process of morphogenesis (body formation). Indeed what makes an organ an organ is that it is part of an organism. To bring about that body part (or a whole body) through a different process would make it something quite different. I suspect that it would be different even if the result looked the same, as the interaction of the parts in morphogenesis speaks to how the parts interact in the mature form: the organism is a whole not only at any given time, but throughout its life. Organisms are characteristically renewing their parts constantly; the process of forming the parts is of a piece with what allows the organism to maintain itself and renew damaged parts.

As we've seen, an organism is not a machine. It is the same being through every stage of its development, and all the various tissues in an organic body develop together interdependently. Think about it: not only do bones need the circulatory system to bring them nutrients for growth, but also the circulatory system cannot retain its shape without bones (for tissues to grow appropriately, nutrients need to be moved to the appropriate places). It's impossible to grow one without the other. The film treats the human body as if it were a machine that can be assembled in discrete parts or tissue types. It becomes more human as more is added, just like a car becomes more a car as parts are added.1

In a real organism, its form precedes any of its component parts. The particular parts (this cell or this molecule) are irrelevant: the organism only needs particular kinds of cells or molecules. Notice that you existed as you before your body had any of the cells in your present adult form. In movie morphogenesis, the parts precede the form, just as they do for a machine.

At the very least, to get a body to develop in this way would require major tinkering with the genetic signaling pathways that lead to the development of the adult. In actual morphogenesis, the original or stem cells begin completely unspecialized, but their daughter cells increasingly specialize in successive generations (e.g., central or endodermal cells differentiate into various digestive organs, and to the specialized tissues of each organ). In movie morphogenesis, it seems that cells begin as specialized (circulatory) and then bring forth tissues with different specializations (e.g., bone, muscle, skin). Or else there's some sort of reservoir of undifferentiated cells that are gradually fed into the plastic womb and somehow figure out where to settle and how to differentiate without a complete corporeal context.

The film apparently treats the organism's cells as passive and only capable of growth. Animals cells are famously mobile in early stages of embryogenesis, and are known to migrate around the developing blastocyst: they aren't simply delivered, or just grow from pre-existing tissue. The film treats the human cells more like plant cells, which in their passivity are similar to components of a machine.

The screenplay draft by Caspian Tredwell-Owen (completed writing credits shared with Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci) posted online is rather different from the film. In it, the doctor making the sales pitch comments on the early failures in cloning:

So what do we learn from our mistakes? That human parts cannot grow outside a human body. That human bodies cannot grow outside nature's grand design.2 (20)

Exactly. Nature's grand design: a womb, not a factory.


1. In The Island, the customers (and the government) refrain from protesting the cloning process because they are told that the (adult) clones are kept in a vegetative state. The natural question to ask: why would this make any difference? Does someone's lack of consciousness make them less than human? If lack of consciousness impaired a person's rights, anesthesia would make murder legal. But equally neither should age or state of development: the organism is the same being at all stages of its development.

A less obvious question to ask: if the clones are grown like machines, to what extent are they truly organisms and thus truly human?

2. It may be significant that the doctor's name is Sanger. The sequel to these comments makes provocative sci-fi reading:

SANGER: I said the problem with a clone is it doesn't survive infancy. The solution is to find a different starting point. Why sow the seed when you can create the fruit? Or what we like to call... an "agnate".

An agnate is sequenced from a point on the cellular timeclock. It is spawned post-maturate. It is `created' adult. Of course, its brain is still vestigial so for the first three years we keep it in suspension. During which time we use data impression to supply a template for functionality - a process we call "foundation" . After foundation we transfer the agnate into "containment" where it enters the conditioning process . An ongoing series of quality controls designed to test and maintain its functionality. After a minimum of two years conditioning, the agnate becomes eligible for harvest...

What any of this actually means is anyone's guess. "Sequenced" sounds scientific, but what does it mean? Can one "sequence" the state an entire cell? No. The assumption seems to be that the DNA represents completely the state of development of the cell... and of the whole organism!

Richard Stith, "Arresting Development: Human Beings Don’t Roll Off an Assembly Line," Touchstone 21:1 (Jan-Feb 2008), 32-35.

Michael Bay, The Island (Dreamworks SKG, 22 July 2005).

Also of interest: Jonas on Philosophical Biology

Note: I'm headed to the March for Life in DC this week and probably won't get a chance to post again until I'm home. Hopefully the posts from last week will be enough to keep you busy.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A Chimp Is Not a Person

Matthew Hiasl Pan has three names like a human person, but is only a chimpanzee, according to the Austrian Supreme Court. The AP tells us

It's official: In Austria, a chimp is not a person
Animal rights group had sought personhood for soon-to-be-homeless chimp

Sanity has prevailed in the face of a ridiculous legal strategy by activists, however admirably aiming to aid the animal. The activists have yet to come to grips with the reality that chimps are not just hairy humans without pants, and have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

As far as the ECHR is concerned, all bets are off. In the rarefied air of EU institutions, there's likely to be much more faulty philosophizing based on Darwinian abstractions than actual observation of chimps (or humans—we don't want to pre-judge what species Eurocrats belong to).

But seriously, an older article explains,

The Association Against Animal Factories says it's not trying to get Pan declared a human, but rather a person, which would give some legal status. Otherwise, he is legally a thing. "The question is: Are chimps things without interests, or persons with interests?" Balluch said. (USA Today)

Plants and amoebae have interests too. In fact all life has interests.1 If we declared bacteria persons, we'd have to illegalize the human immune system.

The AP story reads: "Organizers said they may set up a foundation to collect donations for Matthew, whose life expectancy in captivity is about 60 years. But they argue that only personhood will ensure that he isn't sold outside Austria." What I can't understand is why they can't simply buy the chimp and entrust him to another shelter or zoo, or sell him to a good owner, as they would any other animal. Besides, what's so special about this particular chimp? Not to mention all the hundreds of chimps presumably in captivity in Europe. And let's not forget the "homeless" chimps of Africa.2

Of course the good of this chimp is not the point of this suit. As a commenter on the Reason blog correctly surmises, "this was a test case by some animal rights activists trying to get personhood for an animal."

This suit is the nose of the camel under the tent flap. Another Reason commenter posts a link to more insanity: the Declaration on Great Apes, which animal-rights activists associated with Peter Singer are campaigning to have the U.N. pass to "extend to non-human great apes the protection of three basic interests: the right to life, the protection of individual liberty, and the prohibition of torture." Oh-boy.

A proponent of chimpanzee rights explains

In my mind, chimpanzees are beings. They are beings with needs, desires, and predictable patterns of play and food gathering. They have social contact and structure. All of this can be gathered up under the term "interest." On the basis of science, many, including myself, believe that they are morally and ethically relevant. If we accept all of the positive things that science and ethics suggest to us about chimpanzees, the next questions are, "What is their status within the legal arena? What ought it to be?" It is imperative to turn to the legal system, because there are clearly humans who have no ethical concern for chimpanzees, and the only way to overcome their ignorance and lack of concern is by adopting laws that acknowledge and protect chimpanzees from abusive humans.

Aren't lemurs morally and ethically relevant? And if not lemurs, why not squirrels? And if not squirrels, why not mice? And if not mice, why not lizards? You see where I'm going: there's no end to the number of creatures to which we can grant rights.3

The Underlying Fallacy

Die-hard Darwinist that he is, Richard Dawkins points out “our evolutionary continuity with chimpanzees and, more distantly, with every species on the planet.... there are no natural borderlines in evolution.”4 (The God Delusion, pp. 300-301)

He is right: Darwinian biology provides no real basis for the notion of "species." Of course Darwinism is the biological consummation of Newtonian mechanism, which describes the universe is the result of particle interactions. The laws are purely extrinsic to the natures of the things—in other words, things' motions do not grow from what they are, but are imposed from outside. Forces work on bodies from the outside. Organisms mutate because external mutagens and natural selection is the environment operating on individual organisms.

Newton and Descartes's mechanical philosophy was itself a triumph of philosophical nominalism. Nominalism was a school of thought that developed in the late Middle Ages, when Scholasticism became decadent. Nominalism, most simply described, is the denial that universals point to realities in the world. To a nominalist, "cat" is simply a useful label to group a bunch of particulars that have no real commonality, so that there is no way for the intellect to grasp the essences of things in order to form universals. Whether or not something is a "cat" is arbitrary (cf. Dawkins's claim that humanness is arbitrary).

So we come full circle: the nominalists tell us things have no knowable essences. Their mechanist successors explain the universe with motions that are not intrinsic to the natures of things. Darwin explains life using purely mechanical laws. Finally we find that because Darwin's vision of life is purely mechanical, there are no distinct species—in other words that living things have no knowable essences. Our elites teach us this science tells us how the world actually is. Every culture inevitably bases its common life and laws on its vision of nature. Without essences, we have nothing substantial on which to base them.

The current chimpanzee case is the first of many: how long can our legal institutions resist the inevitable moral consequences of nominalist "ontology"? In the Middle Ages as now, the whole knot is a disaster for discovering any path to happiness based in nature (i.e., a natural moral law), and we're seeing in slow motion the train wreck it's causing for our own moral and legal systems.

Next stop: Massachusetts residents "marrying" chimpanzees.5


1. In the common understanding of the term, which may have some specialized legal meaning in Austria. The problem with modern "rights talk" is that it is detached from any derivation in a preceding responsibility.

2. Perhaps Europe's tortured laws necessitate this legally extreme measure? Clearly the journalists involved are more interested in reporting an apparently sensational story than in probing beneath the ridiculous appearances.

3. One of the errors of nominalism and mechanism is that all living things lack intrinsic ends ("interests"). Non-human life truly has its own ends, but not in the additional, conscious sense that humans do.

4. Genetic similarity is one common basis for the the claim that chimpanzees are just like humans. Jonathan Marks of UC-Berkeley points out that we haven't been doing genetics long enough to understand what differences are significant:

But there is a bias of history here. We’ve been studying chimpanzees for 300 years, but DNA sequences for barely 20 years. We are far more familiar with apes than we are with DNA. Consequently, the appropriate way to compare these data is not to contrast the genetic and anatomical comparisons through modern eyes, but to compare the genetics today with the anatomical comparisons when those were as new and as exciting as DNA comparisons are today.

And what you find is that the leading scholars of the 1700s, the leading philosophes, were struck by the overwhelming physical similarity of ape and human. Rousseau and Monboddo were struck by the humanness of the ape, and declared it to be a variant human.  Linnaeus famously classified the apes as both Homo troglodytes or nocturnus – a different kind of human – and as Simia satyrus, a different kind of monkey.

5. Agreed: California could be first.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Martyr for the "Faith"

I thought football was big in Texas until I moved to New Hampshire. Even the women swear allegiance to the Patriots (and the Sox).

Against all odds, 14-year-old Anna Grant had just out-punted, out-passed and out-kicked the top four (of 32) national finalists to win this year's NFL Pepsi Punt, Pass & Kick title for her age division.

But when the Stratham champion stood on the field Sunday in Indianapolis to be honored before the fourth quarter of the Colts-Chargers game, she found out it's tough to be in enemy territory.

Sporting a Patriots jersey, she was roundly booed by thousands of Colts fans. Anna took it in stride.

Did she have to wear the jersey? Of course she did: she's a New Englander.

If only New Englanders took their religion so religiously!

Clare Kittredge, "Boos don't bother NH football champ," Manchester Union Leader (January 15, 2008), p. 1.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Getting back to the Things: Business Management

How we carry ourselves and the way we live our lives have profound philosophical implications. Take for example the latest installment of Peter Day's BBC program Global Business:

This week’s programme explores an intriguing proposition: that craftspeople know better than most business people how organisations ought to be run. Peter Day explores the mystery of crafts and speaks to a big thinker, who believes that good craftsmanship – knowing the practicalities of the job – lies at the heart of good business. (Source: ZenCast)

Mr. Day interviewed sociologist Richard Sennett of London School of Economics and NYU about the value of craftsmanship. Sennett says,

I'm thinking about craftsmanship as trying to do a good job for its own sake.... rather than trying to find a niche in the market.... The last thing you want to do if you want to achieve quality in an organization: separate people with power from people with knowledge.... You can have a very profitable company and do very poor work in the short term. My argument is that in the long term, craftsmanship is quite economic.

Sennett cites W. Edwards Deming, who helped set up Toyota-Honda autoworks, as a predecessor in this approach.

As Mr. Day prompts, "There's something about the fingertips..., the touch...." even in management. Sennett picks up on this with an idea that has implications for how we approach nature (and life in general):

The point I'm making to you is a much larger one: it's that we don't think in the abstract. We think through instances, through particulars, through touching things, even if those things we touch are a particular person's character, a particular task they do, and so on.

He continues with the human application of this idea1:

If you don't have a sense of the craft of focusing on other people and their needs and helping them focus, you're running a business where you're not doing everything yourself, your business will run down. You don't proceed by principle to particulars.... You start with a bit of wood or a particular problem in the office....

(Mr. Day likewise interviewed Richard Taylor in New Zealand, who did the effects for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Mr. Taylor's ideas are very similar to Prof. Sennett's.)

Sennett and Taylor's ideas run against professional management model around which businesses are organized today, presided over by an army of MBAs. An article in the Atlantic Monthly revealed the vacuousness of that degree. The article recounts how, at the last turn of the century, Frederick Winslow Taylor applied mathematics to managing workers and called it "scientific management." In a roundabout kind of way this was appropriate, because his ideas reinforce the prevailing philosophical climate that's grown in the shadow of science, but that actually have very little to do with real science:

At the same moment was born the notion that management is a distinct function best handled by a distinct group of people—people characterized by a particular kind of education, way of speaking, and fashion sensibility. Taylor, who favored a manly kind of prose, expressed it best in passages like this:

… the science of handling pig iron is so great and amounts to so much that it is impossible for the man who is best suited to this type of work to understand the principles of this science, or even to work in accordance with these principles, without the aid of a man better educated than he is.

From a metaphysical perspective, one could say that Taylor was a “dualist”: there is brain, there is brawn, and the two, he believed, very rarely meet.

So Sennett is essentially opposing a practical instance of philosophical dualism.

For decades, we've been laboring under the illusion that one needn't know anything about the particularities of business to manage it. So, when you really sit down to think about it, the resulting short-term thinking comes as no surprise. It's no wonder, for example, that management looks to the bottom line instead of employee loyalty: it's not as if the employee is a spiritual creature with intelligence and free will. Rather the employee is seen as an interchangeable unit of production, to be disposed of at management's pleasure. Never mind that quality of work diminishes when experienced employees move on.

The result is shoddy work, but more ominously people instrumentalizing other people. Can today's pitiful moral climate be any surprise?

This interesting article discusses Professor Sennett's ideas on the design of cities.


1. The ordering of Sennett's procedure here appears to be the reverse of that he is advocating. The difference is that he's doing so in explaining an idea, whereas his approach is about discovering the world.

Peter Day, "Crafts," Global Business (08 Jan 08).

Matthew Stewart, "The Management Myth," Atlantic Monthly (June 2006). [subscription required for full-text access]

Richard Sennett, The Craftsman (Allen Lane, 2008).

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Hume: Miracles Are Possible

Dinesh D'Souza has an excellent article on the possibility of miracles in the January Columbia.1 He starts off with the point that atheist rat-pack authors like Dawkins and Hitchens cite David Hume's as the strongest argument against miracles.

In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume argued: 1) A miracle is a violation of the known laws of nature; 2) We know these laws through repeated and constant experience; 3) The testimony of those who report miracles contradicts the operation of known scientific laws; 4) Consequently, no one can rationally believe in miracles.

D'Souza turns Hume's skepticism against him to argue for miracles:

Interestingly, Hume's argument against miracles can be overthrown using his own empirical skeptical philosophy. In short, we may observe that: 1) A miracle is a violation of the known laws of nature; 2) Scientific laws are on Hume's own account empirically unverifiable; 3) Thus violations of the known laws of nature are quite possible; 4) Therefore, miracles are possible.

Pretty much, Hume's saying empirical laws are all inductive and we can never be entirely sure about such conclusions. All we have are experiences that provide associations, and we really cannot argue based on cause and effect. We don't know that matches cause fire, for example, but we simply associate striking a match with a subsequent fire. A skeptical point of view indeed. This means that whatever laws we come up with are not based on any real causality, but merely on association.

While Hume goes too far in arguing against our knowledge of causes, he has a point. Reason (modern) science is uncertain in that it argues by affirming the consequent, which means that we only confirm a hypothesized rule by confirming its consequences. To claim that such arguments provide certain knowledge is to succumb to a fallacy.2

Let's take as an example the principle "if it has rained, the sidewalk is wet." I find that the sidewalk is wet, so can I validly conclude that it has rained? No, there are plenty of other possible causes for the sidewalk's humidity. A garden hose, for example.

D'Souza's scientific example is the supercession of Einstein's physics over Newton's. Newton's laws provided the correct results for centuries in countless contexts, but none of that success guaranteed they were absolutely true in all contexts.

There is nothing wrong in all this [taking scientific laws as provisionally true], as long as we realize that scientific laws are not "laws of nature." They are human laws, and they represent a form of best-guessing about the world. What we call laws are nothing more than observed patterns and sequences. We think the world works in this way until future experience proves the contrary.

So the laws of physics seem to rule out miracles only because we unduly inflate the power of these laws.

Recently, philosophers like Nancy Cartwright have championed anti-realism, the belief that scientific laws do not represent reality, or do so in only a very limited way.

I propose a simulacrum account of explanation. The route from theory to reality is from theory to model, and then from model to phenomenological law. The phenomenological laws are indeed true of the objects in reality—or might be; but the fundamental laws are only true of objects in the model. (4)

Although I claim that a successful causal explanation gives good reason to believe in the theoretical entities and theoretical properties it postulates, I have repeatedly said that I do not believe in theoretical laws. (8)

I can't claim to be able to evaluate Cartwright's stance at this point, as am not yet able to understand how one can believe in theoretical entities but disbelieve in the theories that propose them. Much of what she says strikes me as true, but I suspect that she goes too far in questioning the veracity of the laws of physics.


1. I get two Columbia magazines. On might say there's a slight difference of perspective between the one published by the Knights of Columbus and the one published by Columbia University.

2. Aristotelians claim that certain knowledge is possible of the sensible world. The latest philosopher to support this cause is William Wallace. See his The Modeling of Nature (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1996).

Dinesh D'Souza, "What's So Great about Christianity: Why Miracles Are Possible," Columbia 88:1 (January 2008), 21-22. [the online version doesn't bear much apparent relationship to the printed version]

Nancy Cartwright, How the Laws of Physics Lie (New York: Clarendon Press, 1983).

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Making God an Alien

In putting together last month's post on the Nature Institute, I was doing a little research on Lewis, Barfield, and Steiner and I came across this Kjos Ministries page of excerpts and commentary on C.S. Lewis's The Abolition of Man.

The page exemplifies an unfortunate presumption that has developed among some segments of the Christian community: that the the Fall so completely alienated creation from God that He has absolutely no claim on us apart from Christian faith.

Take a look at a selection from this page that quotes passages from chapter 3 of Lewis's The Abolition of Man. (I'm quoting everything here verbatim, leaving in place all emphases and brackets.)

Apparently, the Chinese Tao replaces the Bible as ultimate authority and guide for our lives -- and for the common good:

Either we are rational spirit obliged for ever to obey the absolute values of the Tao, or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasures of masters who must, by hypothesis, have not motive but their own 'natural' impulses. Only the Tao proves a common human law of action which can overarch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery."

"In the Tao itself, as long as we remain within it, we find the concrete reality in which to participate is to be truly human: the real common will and common reason for humanity, alive, and growing like a tree, and branching out, as the situation varies, into ever new beauties and dignities of application. While we speak from within the Tao we can speak of Man having power over himself in a sense truly analogous to an individual's self-control. But the moment we step outside and retard the Tao as mere subjective product, this possibility has disappeared."

"I hear rumours that Goethe's approach to nature deserves fuller consideration  -- that even Dr. [Rudolf] Steiner [occult founder of Waldorf Schools] may have seen something that orthodox researchers have missed."

The author (probably Berit Kjos) fails to acknowledge that Lewis is not directing people away from the Gospel, but making common cause with other traditions against "scientific" secularists whose flat view of nature permits them to manipulate the natural world and their fellow men. He uses the Tao as a name for the natural law accessible to a limited degree by all men, but made most perfectly manifest in Judeo-Christian revelation. As he writes in chapter 1,

The Chinese also speak of a great thing (the greatest thing) called the Tao. It is the reality beyond all predicates, the abyss that was before the Creator Himself. It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road. It is the Way in which the universe goes on, the Way in which things everlastingly emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time. It is also the Way which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar. 'In ritual', say the Analects, 'it is harmony with Nature that is prized.' The ancient Jews likewise praise the Law as being 'true'.

This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as 'the Tao'.

In essence, the Tao is another name for the law that the Bible teaches (i.e., the Ten Commandments).1 That Christianity teaches that there is a natural moral law open to all men is explicit in Scripture. Surely a "Biblical Christian" like Kjos is familiar with St. Paul's Letter to the Romans:

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. (1:19-20; of course this a paraphrase of Wisdom 13)


When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (2:14-16)

In other words, man can know of God through His creation and God's law is written on the heart of men even in their falleness. (It would hardly be just for God to condemn men who had absolutely no way of knowing Him or His law.2)

In chapter three of Jesus through the Centuries, Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan reviews how early Christian apologists used the elements of pagan culture as sign-posts to Christ:

While messianic hope and messianic prophecy had been the peculiar feature of the history of the Jewish people, they were not the exclusive possession of the history of Israel. "Even in other nations," Augustine said, "there were those to whom this mystery was revealed and who were impelled to proclaim it." Job, Jethro the father-in-law of Moses, and Balaam the prophet were three such "Gentile saints," spoken of in the Hebrew Bible, with whose existence both rabbis and the church fathers had to come to terms. Armed with such biblical warrant, Christian apologists found in Gentile literature other evidence of messianic prophecy that pointed forward to Jesus. (35)

Not to mention those quintessential Gentile saints, the Magi, who arrived to worship Jesus on the Epiphany, the feast we celebrate today; their Zoroastrian religion prepared the way for them to recognize Christ. (Of course Zoroastrianism also brings to mind Cyrus, of whom Scripture goes so far as to call the anointed or messiah—see Isaiah 45.)

With the exception of the death of Socrates, the most striking example of Jesus' prefigurement in pagan literature is in the second book of Plato's Republic. As Pelikan recounts it, Glaucon tells (Plato's character) Socrates,

let this one "righteous man, in his nobleness and simplicity, one who desires, in the words of Aeschylus, to be a good man and not merely to give the impression of being a good man," now be accused of being in fact the worst of men. Let him, moreover, "remain steadfast to the hour of death, seeming to be unrighteous and yet being righteous." What will be the outcome? The answer, for whose gruesomeness Glaucon apologized in advance to Socrates, must be (and to preserve the neutrality of language, this translation is that of Gilbert Murray) nothing other than the following: "He shall be scourged, tortured, bound, his eyes burnt out, and at last, after suffering every evil, shall be impaled or crucified." (44-45)

Another Kjos page on Tolkien and Lewis comments revealingly:

Lewis was wrong in calling the gospel "a true myth" that works "on us in the same way as the others." The gospel is made alive in us by the work of the Holy Spirit, not by human imagination. God's mercy has always reached out to pagans around the world through the sacrificial lives of faithful missionaries. But His gift of salvation comes through His Word and Spirit. Believers who were formerly oppressed by occult forces were transformed in spite of, not because of their pagan beliefs.

Kjos certainly is correct that occult forces of themselves do not lead to truth. But notice the unfortunate opposition drawn between the Holy Spirit and the human imagination: as if the Holy Spirit couldn't work in and through the imagination and other human faculties. The implication is that God comes in solely from the outside: as if our omniscient Creator couldn't work with our native faculties.3,4 The implication is that the world is not just wrong, but completely wrong and contains no elements of truth. It is to the core rotten: grace doesn't build on creation but negates nature, or merely covers it over.

But one has to wonder: if the flesh were completely evil, how could God come in it? To say that the flesh is completely corrupt is a subtle denial of the Incarnation. Rather, our Creator became our Savior to rebuild the goodness that He had made and that Sin could not completely destroy.5

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God. This is the spirit of antichrist, of which you heard that it was coming, and now it is in the world already. (1 Jn 4:1-3)

Kjos seems a sincere believer. She rightly repudiates the gnosticism of Steiner (that she thinks is also present in Tolkien and Lewis). The irony is that by going to the other extreme, by turning God from our Creator into an Invader, she has in fact made God an alien, and thus slipped into a subtle form of gnosticism. As in Hans Jonas's The Gnostic Religion: the Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity, the gnostic god is "acosmic" and has no real relationship to creation, except perhaps to negate it.

Beloved, do not believe every spirit,
but test the spirits to see whether they are of God.

It is no wonder that this is the sort of extrinsic god that Philip Pullman, the atheistic author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, thinks Christians believe in: an old killjoy, that is, a Creator who seeks to frustrate His creation. Pullman is right to reject such a God, but wrong to think that it is the real Christian conception of God. In reality the Judeo-Christian conception of God is like a gardener, who prunes his garden to help it grow better. Our "natural" inclinations require discipline so that they work together to the good of our whole nature, not just some narrow slice of it on which we obsess.


1. It may sound that Lewis is placing the Tao before God; this is true in the order of discovery (we know nature before we know God), and not the absolute order of things (God is prior to all in His creation). Of course, Christians identify the Torah or Law with the Logos: understood so, the Tao is uncreated.

2. Alas, integral justice isn't the issue for some Christians, so much as being decreed "just" through forensic or nominal justification.

3. God in this view isn't so much a creator (responsible for the integral being of every thing) as a maker, which is to say, one who simply re-arranges pre-existing matter.

4. I sincerely doubt that Mrs. Kjos is a feminist, but this extrinsic notion of God makes an interesting parallel with some feminist doctrines that portray the masculine element as completely foreign to the female: as if the female weren't made for the male and didn't find fulfillment in union with the male. (Lest I fall afoul of feminists out there, let me point out that I don't mean to imply that the male in our created world isn't completed in the female.)

5. In the first millennium there were seven ecumenical councils (meetings of all the world's bishops) to repudiate heresies about who Jesus was and is. Many of the early heresies taught that Jesus was either not truly God or truly man. One of the early heresies was monothelitism, the belief that Jesus had only one will. In reality, Jesus had a human will as well as a divine will. Through the Incarnation, God rectified the human will and didn't merely replace it with a divine will. God fixes our faculties and doesn't destroy them.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Greatness in Smallness

A quotation appropriate for this final day of the Octave of Christmas1:

But, we think, in an age when we know how infinitely different things are, how unimportant the earth is in the vast universe and consequently how unimportant that little speck of dust, man, is in comparison with the dimensions of the cosmos—in an age like this it seems an absurd idea that this supreme being should concern himself with man, his pitiful little world, his cares, his sins and his non-sins. But although we may think that in this way we are speaking truly appropriately about God, in reality we are in fact thinking of him in a very petty and only too human way, as if his retention of a general view involved making a choice. We thereby imagine him as a consciousness like ours, which has limits, must somewhere or other call a halt, and can never embrace the whole.

In contrast to such limited notions the aphorism with which Hölderlin prefaced his "Hyperion" will serve to recall the Christian image of the true greatness of God: "Non coerceri maximo, contineri tamen a minimo, divinum est" ("Not to be encompassed by the greatest, but to let oneself be encompassed by the smallest—that is divine"). The boundless spirit who bears in himself the totality of Being reaches beyond the "greatest", so that to him it is small, and he reaches into the smallest, because to him nothing is too small. Precisely this overstepping of the greatest and teaching down into the smallest is the true nature of absolute spirit. At the same time we see here a reversal in value of maximum and minimum, greatest and smallest, that is typical of the Christian understanding of reality. To him who as spirit bears up and encompasses the universe, a spirit, a man's heart with it ability to love, is greater than all the milky ways of the universe. Quantitative criteria become irrelevant; other scales become visible, reckoned by which the infinitely small is the truly embracing and truly great.

The Immortal became mortal, the Almighty became powerless, the Boundless bounded himself.


1. Of course the twelve days of Christmas don't end until the 6th.

Joseph Ratzinger, trans. J.R. Foster, Introduction to Christianity (New York: Herder and Herder, 1970), 101-2.