Independence Day in the U. S. is Worth Celebrating

And here is why:

About the Declaration [of Independence] there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.

— Calvin Coolidge, July 5, 1926

Moby Dick and the Navel of the Milky Ocean

Gazing ever up into heaven’s majestic dome one cannot help but to feel a penetrating awe. For some, the Great Deep that is heaven produces reverence, reflection, and humility. One could say that the “[starry sky] and meditation are wedded forever” (MD 13). For others, an infinite curiosity arouses–a wanting to know–about self, other, and cosmos. Such a moment is like a baptism in water where one is initiated into a new life. For what is the sparkling night sky if not a reflection of the glittering ocean deeps? Both are filled with mystery, life, and inexhaustible possibility. One is a reflection of the other, and just so, is not the ocean—heaven brought down to earth?

We live between two eternal deeps: Heaven and Ocean.

We live between two eternal deeps: Heaven and Ocean.

Certainly in Melville’s classic, Moby Dick, the imagery of sea is pronouncedly everywhere. But curiously, so likewise is the imagery of stars; in so many places the two images blend together as a co-mingling of waters: “the firmaments of air and sea were hardly separable in that all pervading azure…” (MD 442). We are also told that Queequeg’s people believed “that the stars are isles, but that far beyond all visible horizons, their own mild, uncontinented seas, interflow with the blue heavens; and so form the white breakers of the milky way…” (MD 396). Likewise and repeatedly, Melville gives the image of oceans cosmic themes, calling them “wide-rolling prairies… [where] millions of mixed shades and shadows, drowned dreams, somnambulisms, reveries; all that we call lives and souls, lie dreaming…” (MD 399).

No less, the water’s chief inhabitant, the great white whale, is also a cosmic image wedded to celestial powers. Thus, we are told that most mortals believed Moby Dick to be “ubiquitous” and “immortal” and that his whiteness could be seen “gliding at high noon through a dark blue sea, leaving a milky-way wake of creamy foam, all spangled with golden gleamings” (MD 158-9). Moby Dick was a creature that had “moved amid this world’s foundations… O head! thou hast seen enough to split the planets and make an infidel of Abraham” (MD 264). Furthermore, the whole worldview of whaling was intimately bound with heavenly (deified) associations. Thus, when the cook preaches a sermon to the gorging sharks he explains: “You is sharks, sartin; but if you gobern de shark in you, why den you be angel; for all angel is not’ing more dan de shark well goberned” (MD 251). And when Ishmael processes the spermaceti of the whale he reflects: “In visions of the night, I saw long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti” (MD 349).

The White Whale is a symbol of the above and the below; of the without and the within.

The White Whale is a symbol of the above and the below; of the without and the within.

Behind Melville’s epic sea-tale is an underlying (and overarching) cosmogony. The tale is as much about the creation of cosmos and the soul that can abide in the starry depths as it is anything else. The soul’s place is heaven, thus Ishmael not only seeks, but is drawn to the ocean, heaven’s counterpart (MD 12). Ishmael’s most trusted companion is the dark skinned Queequeg, who is his protector and friend (literally his bed mate), and therefore is an image of his own soul. It is no coincidence then that Queequeg’s skin is covered, head to toe, with tattoos, imprinted upon him by one of his people’s seers and prophets; those tattoos were “hieroglyphic marks… a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth” (MD 399). In Queequeg, Ishmael carries the heavens with him.

Queequeg's skin is covered with the cosmic glyphs of eternal truth. He remains a reflection of Ishmael's soul.

Queequeg’s skin is covered with the cosmic glyphs of eternal truth. He remains a reflection of Ishmael’s soul.

This is markedly different than the rest of the souls upon the Pequod. The Pequod itself is an image of earthly exile, lives adrift in the midst of starry cosmos. And nailed to the Pequod’s center mast is its soul, its hieroglyphic mark and treatise of truth, a gold doubloon! This is no idle comparison, for this doubloon is covered with ancient symbols of the “partitioned zodiac” whose “keystone sun” rose in the “equinoctial point at Libra” (MD 359). The doubloon was the ship’s “navel”, or axis-mundi (MD 363). Thus a chief juxtaposition is made between the zodiac and heavenly marks tattooed upon Queequeg and the zodiac and ancient glyphs of the doubloon for which everyone else sought the white whale.

For all souls who seek the  gold doubloon, the white whale is certain terror. The Pequod remains the materialistic soul of the world.

For all souls who seek the gold doubloon, the white whale is certain terror. The Pequod remains the materialistic soul of the world.

If this analysis is correct, then Moby Dick becomes a tale about the creation and tending of the human soul in a cosmic context. For Ishmael, the soul is ennobled and given new life through an infinite bond of love, friendship, work, and duty (as reflected in his relationship with Queequeg). Ishmael is not concerned about killing the white whale (itself an image of the cosmic soul), nor is he interested in the tender and soul of the world–the gold doubloon. Ishmael goes to sea “as a simple sailor”, to be paid an honest wage, and for “exercise and pure air” (MD 14-5). As a result of this simple and honest worldview and living, everywhere Ishmael turns he sees balance and harmony in the cosmos. Even when the Pequod is destroyed by the white whale, it is the tattooed ark of the starry firmament that becomes his own life preserver against the infinite deep. Ishmael again, carries the heavens with him.

Whereas, for all others who made the golden zodiac their sun, moon and stars, their ship failed them. It was broken apart from the energy and laws of the cosmic navel who abhors the self-centered brute. So it is that the white whale cannot harm the person acclimated to the whale’s environment, but for all others, their meeting is certain death.
Works Cited

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1967.

Science and Religion: What is Science?

Both Science and Religion are words and concepts that are widely used but rarely defined. This is purposeful; the more amorphous a concept is the wider its application can be. This is also accidental; after a while the amorphous use of words become the blurry definitions people employ when they use them. If you go to any college campus and ask only the professors of the Science Department to define “science,” and the professors of the Religion Department to define “religion,” you will get a wide array of ideas, few of which will completely agree with the other in total. This is very problematic, as the drifting meaning of words can have huge consequences in how they are used in politics, law, and culture.

Let’s begin with science. It is always nice, when assessing the meaning of a word, to look it up in a dictionary, or these days, on Wikipedia. The dictionary gives several definitions linked to a branch or system of knowledge. This, however, is a dated and colloquial definition and is not how modern scientists use the word to describe what they are doing. Wikipedia’s entry is more exact: “Science […] is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about nature and the universe.” This definition is good, but requires some unpacking. Below I list several aspects of what modern science is and is not.

Proposition 1: Science is not just a body of knowledge, but specifically knowledge gained by reliable, predictive rules gained by repeatable and controlled experimentation. 

This definition is a modern construction, and it should be noted that the idea of science has evolved over time. Aristotle is often called the Father of Science, simply because he is the first human being who records in writing (that we know of) a systematic approach to the gathering of knowledge and the formulation of theory. But for Aristotle, the gathering of knowledge was always a subset of philosophy. Aristotle defined science as “knowledge of the ultimate cause of things.” Aristotle’s science was highly speculative and was rooted in philosophical principles for which the gathering of knowledge was employed. Instead of performing repeated and controlled experiments testing a theory in hopes of disproving it or improving it, Aristotle would start with a philosophical first cause and then collect data that showed his philosophy to be correct. In other words, this approach is almost the exact opposite of modern science.

Aristotelian science reigned for centuries, but today Aristotle’s approach is no longer considered science. This is an important point to make, because today many people, even educated people, still employ the Aristotelian method and call it science. We shall have more to say of this below in Proposition 4.

So, according to this definition, science is the act of obtaining predictive rules, or highly informative statements which can be proved and repeated. Science does not seek generalities, but particulars. Anybody can say that it will rain next month, but this is not of interest to science. Science seeks to show that it will rain in Chicago tomorrow afternoon by 1 pm. This is a high information statement that can be proven false or true. The method by which we come to this statement must be repeatable and continue to predict high information statements.

Proposition 2: Science is NOT truth.

Science does not concern itself with truth, because truth is connected with ultimate causes and eternal principles. Truth also concerns itself with generalities. Vague statements that are true are not useful to science. False statements that are precise are useful. Science does not establish the permanency or the universality that truth seeks to establish. It is an established fact that all past scientific theory and propositions have eventually been replaced with different and very often better scientific propositions. What was thought to be true in one decade is disproved in another. Science therefore does not concern itself with truth, but with testing propositions in an attempt to disprove or improve them.

Furthermore, it should be noted that many false statements have truth content. Many false scientific theories have led to the discovery of many true scientific facts. One can disprove a person’s premises, but still have not disproved his conclusions, for in fact, the premises might be wrong but the conclusions right. In fact, most of science progresses in this way: from flawed ideas and premises to more precise conclusions as the experimentation seeks to test the premises.

Proposition 3: Science is NOT induction.

It has been taught for a very long time that the scientific method consists of gathering data, and after collecting the data, summarizing a theory from it. This is called induction, and it is complete fiction. People first put forth a theory, and then seek to prove or disprove it using the data and experimentation. Science is at all times hinged to current pre-established theories, and this is why it cannot be called truth and why it can (and does) change and improve upon itself. The invention of a new theory reorients the collection of data and the way that data is interpreted.

 Proposition 4: Science concerns itself with falsifiability. That which is falsifiable is science, that which is not, is not science.

A collection of highly informative statements that cannot be tested or experimented upon is not science. A theory which explains everything is not science. Science must be able to falsify, through experimentation, a set of statements or theories. Mind you, the statements or theories may turn out to be correct, but they must be falsifiable nevertheless. All scientific progress is rooted in falsifiability.

This is a hard parameter for people to understand, for as it turns out, this parameter disqualifies most things modern people think of as science as actually being real science. There are many large scale systems (often irreducibly complex) for which there are universal theories that are used to explain them. These universal theories are thought to be scientific, but many are not falsifiable, and therefore cannot be science.

Statistics, Economics, and Psychology are three fields which are imbued with the veneer of science, but often are couched in paradigms that cannot be experimented upon or falsified. Any current statement that says, for example, that by the year 2030 the GDP will have increased by 10% due to this or that economic policy or this or that statistical analysis cannot be falsified because the year 2030 cannot be experimented upon. These are socio-political statements and not scientific ones. When Freud introduced the concept of sexual repression as the basis of all neurosis, or when Jung introduced the idea of the collective unconscious and psychological archetypes, they proposed universal theories that cannot be falsified. They in fact can explain any data that comes into them. Therefore, their paradigms cannot be called science.

Cosmologies are enormously difficult to falsify because they are generally couched in truth statements that seek to explain everything. Geocentrism was eventually falsified, but this took centuries because of the cosmological truth statements that everyone believed in. The idea that the circle is the most perfect geometric form and therefore all things in heaven must move in circles is falsifiable, though everyone for centuries was proving that everything in heaven moved in circles (all those epicycles of Ptolemy for example). Yet the idea that the Earth is God’s grand creation and therefore exists in the center of the universe is non-falsifiable because it deals with truth statements that cannot be experimented upon (God’s grand creation).

As it turns out, we cannot experiment on or falsify the original particle from which the universe is said to have expanded in the Big Bang, and this is why the Big Bang must always be called a Theory. We can only infer the origins of the universe. Is the Big Bang Theory science? Well I think everyone at NASA would say yes, but the question is posed is it falsifiable? Actually, it is not, at least as framed, and therefore cannot be science.

The difference is this. What can be called science in BBT cosmology is all the principles and mathematical equations that can be tested. The Cosmic Microwave Radiation Background is something that can be tested and something that can help explain the BBT. However, a flawed premises can still have correct conclusions. What cannot be tested is the conceptual framework of the origin of the universe itself. A single particle that contains all the matter in the universe is not falsifiable, and therefore must remain philosophy.

What about Climate Change?  As science it must be experimented on, debated, refuted, proved, etc. Many mathematical models are being employed to do just that. However, any contrary models are being expunged. As an environmentalist, I support smart environmental policy. As an academic, I cringe when good scientific method is shortchanged by cultural and political expediency. History has shown that, even if the science is right, shortcuts in science lead to terrible suffering. Many academic papers trend to incorporate all data within their own frameworks, and as a result all weather events are made to explain climate change. This is dangerous, for it makes the theory unfalsifiable, and according to Science 101, this turns the theory into philosophy. Wed to political expediency, such a philosophy can take wide and destructive turns.

By now you can see that I am getting into real trouble. And yes, there are scores of educated academics that would disagree. But science doesn’t care. Science does not concern itself with truth. Science does not concern itself with values. Science does not concern itself with policy. Human being do, and they should. But science is simply a method of investigation which requires strict adherence to data collection and experimentation  which is always trying to disprove itself. We human beings almost always do the exact opposite, we are always trying to prove our views. There are no sacred cows in science, despite the fact that so many scientists have sacred cows and call them science.

I am not saying that science should not be used to examine our truth claims, or our values, or to inform our social policies. Of course it should. What I am saying is that science is a methodology to gain knowledge; it is not a worldview, nor is it a system for its social application. This is where philosophy, ethics, and religion comes in. Science can help build the worldview, but the worldview itself is something different than science, because worldviews have mixed within them all sorts of value statements that ultimately cannot be tested, proved, or remain un-examined.

Why is any of this important? Because, in our post-modern age, people in every sector of society are claiming that their worldviews are the ultimate truth and are doing so in the name of science. It is a good thing to know, right up front, that science has no claim on the ultimate truth.

 

Science and Religion, A Brief Historical Tour

Science has become a buzz word. It is now used as a sort of universal adhesive to glue “validity” to almost any opinion, as long as it sounds or looks “scientific.”  That is to say, we can look educated; we can sound educated; we can hold certificates of education; we can obtain rank of office requiring education—and none of it means we are truly educated. In modern secular society, what passes for education is not the grit and hard labor of critical thinking, but the veneer of science. Like “religion,” the word “science” has been co-opted by fundamentalists to coerce opinion. This dynamic has been going on for a long time, and is at the root of the narrative to the secular age.

The irony in the debate between science and religion lies in the total misapprehension of means and ends as applied to both. Science and religion are means to an end. Science is an empirical methodology that seeks to answer “How do we do what we want to do?” Religion is a metaphysical methodology that seeks to answer “Why or Should we do what we want to do?” And the corollary: “Is what we want good, beautiful, and true?” Both address the human condition in substantively different ways, but never have they been natural opposites of each other. On the contrary, the technical How and the moral Why are complements of each other, and science and religion are two complimentary methodologies to address human capacity and potential.

So how did they get to be traditional opposites in our cultural understanding? Well it’s simple: Politics. Politics is the methodology of ends, and in the history of the world, it is Politics that has been the natural enemy to Science and Religion.

The overused and highly imaginative narrative that the Catholic Church and its religious sensibilities were the things that sought to destroy Galileo and his scientific sensibilities has been long discredited. Of course, you wouldn’t know it by listening to pop culture, or even the “educated” pop culture. How  quickly we forget that in the days of Galileo the Church was the State and the University was the Church. This fact has huge consequences which the secular world no longer bothers with. In an era where theocracies reign it is easy to show just how blind religion can be. But mixing religion with politics has always been disastrous. Read Jeremiah in the Bible. His whole argument was that the politics of the State was destroying the faith of Israelite religion. His solution was to give up political gamesmanship and desires for world power and live the authentically religious life. And the King and the Priests killed him for it. It’s pretty much the same story with Jesus. And Ghandi. While the story of Galileo is different, the events exist within the same dynamic.

There were many people in the Catholic Church who supported Galileo’s ideas than just opposed them; who worked to rally his insights into the wider cultural arena than suppress them. Galileo’s most strident opponents were the one’s who stood to lose the most if the old cosmology were diminished. They were the professional cosmologists, and in our textbooks they are called “Priests.” No one seems to bother calling them academics, which is exactly what they were, or the arbiters of science, which is exactly what they were defending. It is true, the Pope and several Church committees eventually came down hard on Galileo, accusing him of heresy. It is also true that the Pope in many ways had more political and economic power than the King, and much to lose politically if Galileo’s abrasive charges were left unchallenged. Meanwhile, the various Church committees were zealously defending religious doctrines while secretly dreading the end of tenure.

When there is no separation between Church and State the Church gets all the blame for what the State is doing. Fair enough, but when the State seeks final resolve over the Church, it must have an authoritative basis to gain control, and in the secular world we have been indoctrinated to think that religion is a crutch and science is the cure. In this indoctrination there is never a demarcation between church and religion, which is very telling. In the story of Galileo, the church was a political structure which used religion as its reason for using its power. The downfall of the church was the politicization of its religion. Just as in the days of Jeremiah, it turns out that church and religion were opposites.

The secular world has not overcome this paradox. Indeed, when Science and State are in bed together, the end result is often disastrous.  The Nazi final solution was rooted in scientific argument: intelligence was a biological function rooted in evolutionary processes. If society eliminated the biologically weak, then the new generation would become the ubermensch. Millions would go to the slaughterhouse in the name of scientific progressiveness. The most talented cadre of intellectuals in the world, the German academics, joyfully marched to the tune of the Nazi ideal while donning the accouterments of the new age—lab coats. Droves of American academics fawned over the rise of the National Socialists, declaring that they were the opening act to the new Age of Reason. Only slowly, and with begrudging despair, did they admit they were mistaken, and this not because of the arguments of science, which they had been using the whole time, but because of the ash falling out of the sky.

Of course, there were a great many German and American academics who were opposed to the whole charade, but the entire episode interrupts the meta-narrative of modernism that science and religion are opposed. On the contrary, when a political system seeks ultimate power at any cost, it will use whatever means it can to achieve its ends. In a theocracy, the State uses religion for the sake of its power. In a secular age, the State uses science for the same ends.

The complimentary proposition holds true. Authentic science concerns itself with authentic religion, because how we do a thing is fundamentally linked to why it must be done. Religion is more than ethics, however, but a philosophy of relationships rooted in the “divine self” or human-being as it ought to be. It is not enough to ask, “Should we do this?” We must also ask, “If we do this, how ought it be done?” In a world of dynamic relationships the cold efficiency of science is often insufficient for its own application. Religious morality is a necessary partner to scientific truth. It is one thing to know how to split an atom. It is another thing entirely to split an atom on another’s head.

The modern tensions between science and religion turn out not to be new. This is a critical point that is also skipped in our history books. The meta-narrative of modernity not only pits science and religion against each other, but also places true science as a completely modern and novel idea breaking forth out of countless millennium of religious superstition. It is a self congratulating point of view that simply does not hold.

In the West, according to our histories, true reason begins around 600 BCE when a man named Pythagoras founded a school in Greece. Pythagoras worked out the mathematical relationships in musical tones, and began describing the world not as the forces of arbitrary gods, but by number. It is a marvelous narrative that entirely skips the fact that the school of Pythagoras was closer to a temple cult than a Western academy. Oh, and that the world had been described by number far before Pythagoras, but such descriptions were veiled behind the mythological tropes of the gods. Irony to be sure.

Still, Pythagoras was an intellectual giant. And so were Heraclides, Plato, Erastosthenes, Aristotle, and scores of other Greek intellectuals, all of which would never consider a natural division between science and religion. For them science and religion were synonymous. Like Isaac Newton, arguably one of the greatest minds in human history, and who wrote more on religious subjects than on all of his works on calculus, physics, and optics combined, all were as interested in religion as science. Modern notions sidestep this reality by asserting that while all these men were great intellectuals and laid the foundations for the Scientific Revolution and the modern age of reason, they were also steeped in a religious world that would take centuries to rise out of. If they had been born today, so the thinking goes, they would have sided with the pro-science and anti-religion crowd. This viewpoint is untenable.

A few generations after Pythagoras and Parmenides the Sophists had taken over education. These were the high intellectuals who traveled around Greece teaching the secrets of the universe to anyone who could pay their high fee. The late Sophists were the “Renaissance Men” of Greece: sophisticated, knowledgeable, critical, elitist, and highly condescending to religion. They were the self-anointed culture-bringers who accused all those who disagreed with them as “flat-earthers,” despite the fact that most of them believed in a flat earth. Indeed, their science looks so childish and pithy to us today, with all their talk of hot and dry, breath and winds, earth, fire, air, and atoms. But this was the high science of the times, and creation could be explained by such things without talking about the gods. Our modern science has changed a great deal, but the dynamic between the materialists and the non-materialists has not changed at all.

Men like Anaxagoras, Hippocrates, and Protagoras, were insistent that there was no such thing as the supernatural, and that religion was a crutch and science was the cure. They were not alone in making these arguments; in fact, they were in the majority. Socrates sums up the spirit of the times when he says, “When I was a young man I was wonderfully keen on that wisdom which they call natural science, for I thought it splendid to know the causes of everything, why it comes to be, why it perishes and why it exists” (Phaedo 96a-b). Socrates hoped that the sciences could explain everything. Yet, after Socrates scoured through all the scientific literature he realized that it was all a front, and that the scientists knew about as much of the real nature of things as the country peasant who still believed in satyrs and cyclopes.

Socrates, however, was one of only a few who were holding the line between religion and science. Plato writes that the common opinion among educated academics was that nature produces creation spontaneously without any intervention of the gods, and that all things could be explained by the natural sciences (Sophist 265c, for example). Classical Greece was filled with atheism, and both Socrates and Plato will have none of it. At the very end of Socrates’ life, he scolds the wisest and most knowledgeable scholars of the day, and declares that when it is all said and done, a life lived as promoted by these scholars, a life without authentic religion, is worthless (Gorgias 527b-e). This was not a reflection, but an accusation against the spirit of his times. Like Jeremiah and Jesus, Socrates was sent to his death by the fundamentalists of his age, accused of impiety. Our modern history books labels these authoritative crowds as religious mobs, but in each case the people sending the high thinkers of the age to their deaths are the academically trained intellectuals promoting not only the best politics of the day, but also the best science.

I have spent some time deconstructing the secular side of this argument because it is the argument that is made in secular culture. It is easy to point out religious fanaticism and fundamentalism, but few people seem to understand that such things are not a product of religion, but of human nature, and the secular crowd does not get a pass. It could be said that fundamentalism is the art of obtaining moral authority in conformity. The fundamentalist wants people to think and act as he does, and often puts up strict punishments for any departure from the official path. One must tow the party line or else.

And this is the point. There is a party line, and it need not be religious. Clearly the church committees railing against Galileo were fundamentalists, but so were the Sophists in the days of Socrates. There are two things one CANNOT do on an American university campus: argue with an evangelical that the Bible contains myth and the earth is not seven thousand years old; or question a secular progressive on the hypothesis and methodology of Climate Change. The irony here is, the first will accuse you of impiety and may suggest that your soul is not saved, but the second will actively seek to silence and banish you from campus. While the first reaction is intolerant, the second is far more similar to the methodology of the late church committees censuring Galileo. And no one seems to get the joke.

The tension then, was never between authentic science and authentic religion. The tension has always been between a socio-cultural point of view embedded in human nature: the material versus the spiritual, the profane versus the sacred. This tension is exasperated by the fundamentalism adopted by both sides of this argument as they try to control the other side. Suffering has always been the result. Meanwhile, a true scientists does not disparage religion lest he turns himself into a theologian who despises only his own caricature of religion . Even as a true disciple of faith seeks out scientific progress at every turn of the scriptural page. Culture and politics are the only things that corrode this relationship.

 

Science and Religion, Bibliography

In the past week I have had two associates of mine ask me about my own take on the tensions between science and religion. I know this subject has been discussed thoroughly from multiple points of view, but these intelligent and highly educated associates still grapple with the tensions between these fields of knowledge. And rightfully so.

I thought I would simply add a reflection on the subject I have had over the past few years as I listen to people discuss the interrelation between these two fields of study. I will do this in a couple of posts. This one presents a bibliography of good books to read. And the next post will discuss the nature of science and religion. The last post will discuss cosmology, which has always been a mixture of both.

First off, I have my own bibliography I have studied in this field. There are many other books and essays one can read, but I suggest the following:

1. Science and Religion, by Ferngren (Editor).  This is a recent compilation of essays by leading scholars and historians of science and religion. It is well written and shows the complexity of historical interpretation between science and religion. Highly Recommended.

2. The Logic of Scientific Discovery, by Popper. This is a dense tome but well worth the read. Popper is one of my favorite historians of science, though often he writes to an audience who is already deeply immersed in scientific language and tradition (and, admittedly, is sometimes over my head). Popper shows what science is, its limitations, methodologies, and products. His argument that a thing that cannot be falsified cannot be called science, and his insights on the highly metaphysical nature of cosmology, is worth the price of the book and the labor of the read.

3. Philosophy and the Real World, by Magee. This is an introduction to the ideas of Karl Popper (above) and is a much easier read. So, if you are new to the subject, read this one first.

4. The Measure of God, by Witham. This is a great overview of the different fields of science and how they interact with religion as revealed in the Gifford Lectures, or series of lectures given by leading scholars. It is more of a history of ideas set within the science and religion debate context.

5.  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Kuhn. A classic. Kuhn shows that science often evolves very unscientifically, and that the road to scientific consensus is “extraordinarily arduous.” Social, cultural, and philosophical influences walk side by side in the quest for scientific discovery.

6. Darwin, Norton Critical Edition, by Appleman (Editor). So very often the conflict of science and religion falls into the arguments of human identity, and thus biological evolution. This books presents the writings of Charles Darwin, with an absolutely fantastic section of essays from different perspectives about the writings of Charles Darwin. I know this is revealing, but as it turns out, I could not put this book down.

7. The Origins of Scientific Thought, by de Santillana. I read this book twenty years ago and it had a profound influence on me and my view of history. His introductory chapter on the science before the Greeks was the first bit of history writing that challenged everything I had learned about history before the Greeks. I cite him often in my upcoming book Mythos and Cosmos.

If you only have time to read one book, read the first one on the list. If you are interested in the history of science, read the last one on the list. If you are interested in the philosophy of science (which is necessary to understand if one is going to assess it with religion) read any in the middle.

 

Whale of a Tale

The epic tale of Moby-Dick is told through the perceptions of Ishmael, the tale’s narrator, who reveals that he must go to seaward whenever he feels bored and caged in ashore. He joins a whale hunt, with the whale itself being highly symbolic. As in the myth in which Jonah is swallowed by a whale and gets another chance at life when he is vomited up from the whale’s belly, here the hero separates himself from his land-life obligations that swallow him up to go seaward and begin his life anew.

Perhaps the whale hunt for Ishmael is a symbolic crossing through a reflective waterway, and is a profound life-centering and life-renewing act. Seen in this way, the epic tale is perhaps symbolic of the individuation process, an image that seemimgly represents a conscious surrender to the power of the unconscious.

Left the only survivor once the boat of his sojourn sinks and all else are gone, it is only his words, his information, that leaves a trace. As Ishmael’s sea journey is symbolic of an individual’s need to find or redefine his or herself, he faces the monster from within, symbolized in the hunt for the great white whale. Instinctually then, he heads out to sea, straight toward that which could hold the key to his calling or destiny.

While some find and stick to a path and never reassess and redirect their course, others respond to the call for a rebirth into new ways of being, as is conveyed in Ishmael’s call and journey. When the boat sinks, the only trace from the epic tale’s initial call to its end is the storyteller’s mark, offering the hope that even from tragic events there is value, as long as even one survivor escapes to tell their stories.

Distopian Trends in Culture

SLC Comi-Con Panel: Distopian Futures

One of the great panels at this year’s Comi-Con in Salt Lake City (rumored to have rivaled San Diego’s event in ticket sales!) was on the distopian trend in movies (aka Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Giver). The panel moderator was David J. Butler, an author, attorney, and quite possibly a Renaissance Man. Butler began with certain basics, such as defining a distopia from its Greek roots: dis-topos or “bad place,” as opposed to a utopia ou-topos meaning “no place.” A distopia is a place, generally set in the future, where there is little freedom of choice and government powers seek to control not only the actions of its citizenry, but also its thoughts as well. George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World are some of the best examples of distopias in literature. A utopia is “no place” because it is a depiction of a perfect world, which really exists nowhere on earth. A utopia is simply the social ideal. Plato’s Republic is perhaps the first literate attempt to describe a utopia, though the word itself was coined by Sir Thomas Moore in his essay of the same name.

Thereafter Butler referenced two articles published recently.  One article asserted that modern distopian literature and film is really nothing more than right-wing clap-trap. The second article lamented distopian literature and cinema because it made people afraid of technology. The moderator then opened up the panel to discussion, including audience participation, on each article and subject.

For all the nerdy geekdom that Comi-Con is known for, and rightfully so, this panel was surprisingly philosophical and well thought out. While panels down the hall were talking about the latest zombie apocalypse, or the newest in video games, this room was home to some heavy deliberating by both panelists and audience members alike.  Social, economic, and governmental issues were in play. It became clear that the room had both “right wing” and “left wing” adherents, but what surprised and even satisfied me the most was that both sides of the political spectrum came to the conclusion that both right and left wing policies and philosophies can lead to distopian realities. As a silent observer I breathed a sigh of relief as the room cogitated this conclusion. In our modern era, where every idea is suppressed and repackaged underneath political fundamentalism, people seem to forget than any ideology, left or right, can and usually does end in various forms of tyranny. History does not prove this point; history is this point.

As the discussion developed Butler would occasionally ask probing questions or make interesting comments, that neither countered nor applauded where the discussion was going; rather, he simply presented ideas as intellectual turning points in the discussion. From quoting Rousseau’s ideas of the Social Contract to interjecting paradoxical ideas of logic and morality leading to distopian constructs, Butler kept everyone on their toes.

Even as the first article was debated with some fervor, the second article seemed to elevate the intellectual and emotional playing field. In this article’s point of view, distopian themes make people afraid of the “all seeing eye” of big brother, or the possibility of artificial intelligence taking over the world. The author disparages such thinking, even as the NSA has been caught “wiretapping” pretty much the entire planet, and as Facebook has been caught doing their own creepy social experiments. Again, everybody in the room, left and right, seemed more than concerned about these trends, and both admitted that technology is not the thing to be afraid of, but the use to which it is put. This of course is the NRA’s argument with guns. An argument that satisfies many on the right and drives many on the left nuts. Yet, replace the gun with technocratic monopolies and both the right and the left go nuts. And rightfully (or leftfully) so.

I found this discussion even more interesting as I had just finished a book by Neil Postman entitled Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology. I do not think the author of the debated article would approve of Postman’s work, though it is expertly argued and has frightening consequences of thought. Postman deliberates that cultures go through various technological stages, identified as “tool-making” cultures, where technology is directly employed to the problems at hand, to technocracies, where the tools suddenly become essential components in the thought world of the participants. In the words of Postman, “New technologies alter the structure of our interests: the things we think about. They alter the character of our symbols: the things we think with. And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop” (20).

Of deep interest to this discussion is Postman’s third stage of techno-cultural development–the technopoly. A technopoly is where technology becomes the culture: “Technopoly is a state of culture. It is also a state of mind. It consists in the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology” (71). Of prime concern of a technopoly is information processes. A school in such an environment is not a place to explore radically different ideas in a widening arena of information; rather, it is simply a tool for information control. The highest product of a technopoly is the meta-bureaucracy, bureaucracies are needed to manage bureaucracies, in which they not only solve problems, but create problems to be solved. More dangerously, meta-bureaucracies seek to control not just technical problems, for which they were created, but also all moral, social, and political problems as well. A meta-bureaucracy has no moral underpinnings and seeks only processing information which perpetuates the bureaucracy, and where individual participants “have no responsibility for the human consequences” of their decisions, as such responsibility is swallowed up by the bureaucratic machinery (86-7).

While perhaps further afield than the panel discussion at Comi-Con, the danger of technology to culture has always been real, and this is one of the essential themes in distopian literature. And this is why it is liked by all peoples across the social and political spectrum, for everybody outside of the meta-bureaucracy, right or left, inherently knows, senses, and sees its amoral structure and product.

Such was the discussion in this panel at Comi-Con. Quite frankly, it was more interesting than many of the graduate school lectures I attended, many of the religious services I have witnessed, and almost all of the entertainment programs offered within the technological buffet of TV land. The fact that it was attended by people dressed up as Thor, the Cheshire Cat, or the Brown Coats, only made the discussion all the more interesting.

 

The Hope of Evil: Faustian Themes in Modern Cinema

Faust has returned to the movies. He is no prop or backdrop character, but has taken center stage in a cornucopia of images, versions, and mediums. In Jan Svankmajer’s award winning Czech rendition of Faust (1994), the menacing and mysterious figure is portrayed by actors, puppets, and animation, all in a surreal universe crafted in darkness and shadow.

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Jan Svankmajer’s Faust (1994)

Darkness and shadow become the wardrobe of Faust in modern cinema, as seen in the central motif of the most famous hero of the night: Batman. In Christopher Nolan’s much popular Batman Begins (2005) the life changing scene for young Bruce Wayne is the opera house where Boito’s Mefestofele is being performed. Bat-winged creatures swarm the stage in one scene disturbing young Wayne to the point where he must leave the theater. This decision becomes the catalyst ending in the murder of his parents and the deal Wayne himself has to make with the Devil. This is no idle set up. Batman becomes Faust in a cape, incorporating secret knowledge and even forbidden arts in his arsenal and identity.

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Batman Begins (2004) Batman is a version of Faust

Faust even shows up on Saturday morning cartoons, where a bold and nearly unstoppable Felix Faust appears in an episode Paradise Lost of the Justice League (2002). The caped crusaders rarely find an opponent they cannot easily overcome, until an ancient magician sacks the home island of Wonder Woman and puts all the League in a spell. Indeed, the only being who can overpower Faust is Mephistopheles, who betrays him in the final scene allowing the League to escape with their lives.

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Felix Faust, Justice League (2002)

The story of Faust touches on something in the human psyche which makes the tale both repugnant and endlessly alluring. Perhaps this is so because the Faust tale addresses humankind’s relationship with evil. Why are we so fascinated by the forbidden? Why do we cling to evil when there are other choices? Why do we show more cunning than compassion? And what tips the scale in human consciousness allowing for a quest for the good and beautiful over and above evil? These are just some of the questions which haunt the darkness and shadows of the psyche. Questions which we as a species must reflect upon.

In the modern medium of cinema these questions are asked and re-asked through parallel dramas, tragedies, and comedies with the essence of the questions of evil in mind. For example, John Lyden reflects in Film as Religion on the 1991 film Silence of the Lambs. Lyden sees why evil can be tempting, even when it is portrayed in its purest form:

Anthony Hopkins essentially plays [Lecter] as Faust’s Mephistopheles, who tempts the heroine with greater knowledge in exchange for participation in his evil. In being able to deal with Lecter, Clarice (like Faust) confronts and deals with evil in order to be better able to contain it–to attempt to stop her private lambs from screaming, even though she knows they will never stop, for evil will always exist. All victories over evil are partial, it is shown, and there is also a recognition that the potential for evil is within us all, […].” (245)

Clarice’s connection with the mass killer Lecter is both repulsive and attractive. Ironically, Lecter is a character who is steeped in knowledge and the world’s wisdom. Indeed, in the movie sequel Red Dragon (2002) Lecter is a much touted professor giving lectures on obscure, ancient rituals and arcana (involving acts of death of course). He is more than just super-smart, filled with eclectic trivia. Lecter is Mephistopheles incarnate. He kills ritualistically, without mercy, and even eats his victims. There is a perverse religiosity to his sins, for Hannibal Lecter shows the hypocrisy and vanity innate in all his victims, and in the world in general. Clarice is also super-intelligent, and she sees through Lecter how is actions, in an inept and topsy turvy world, conform to their own morality. Furthermore, and as Lyden observes, Clarice seeks out Lecter in her own search in understanding evil, not rooted in Lecter, but in herself.

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Hannibal Lecter is Mephistopholes

The story of Hannibal Lecter, in many ways, draws upon the nineteenth century, German drama Faust. This was a play where the very question of human identity was posed not in context of the Age of Reason, or the Reformation Movement, or the Industrialization of modern civilizations, but rather in the context of evil, through the character Mephistopheles, whose dominion and power ran through and over Reason, Christianity, and Industrialization.

Goethe’s Faust begins with a discourse between the Devil and the Almighty, not unlike the deal struck between the two in the Book of Job: “And Satan answered the Lord, and said, Skin for skin, yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life. But put forth thine hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face. And the Lord said unto Satan, Behold, he is in thine hand; but save his life” (Job 2: 4-6). The figure of Job is an antithesis to the figure of Faust, however. Job is saintly, pure, and dedicated to the Lord from the first flash of sunlight, even declaring in the gall of his bitterness, “Though he [the Lord] slay me, yet will I trust in him […]” (Job 13: 15).

Faust, on the other hand, holds his virtue as the knowledge of the earth and all things above and below, and not in his relationship with God. In fact, Mephistopheles chides God for this very fact, “[Men] would be better off, in life at least, Had you withheld the spark of celestial light; he calls it reason, using it as right to be more animal than any beast” (11). The Devil simply reveals what God already understands: humankind is a flawed creature. Yet the Almighty retorts: “Do you know Faust?” (11). Mephistopheles is surprised the Lord would mention such a creature. But God assures the Devil he has plans for this bent soul, “Although he serves me now bewilderedly, I soon will lead him where the light is clear” (12). Thus, the Lord and Satan strike a deal, “What do you wager?” poses Mephistopheles (12). Nothing but Faust’s soul will do of course, and the Almighty agrees, “As long as he remains on earth–agreed! Nothing is forbidden you contrive; Man errs so long as he will strive” (12).

It is an interesting deal struck between these two antipodes of the cosmos. Unlike the case of Job, whose virtue and valiance is placed in the scales of judgement, Faust has his “celestial light” of reason placed in the scales. Faust in no Job. He is a worldly man of letters. “I’ve studied all Philosophy, Medicine, Jurisprudence too, Also, to my grief, Theology […]. I’m cleverer than all that tribe–Doctor, Lawyer, Parson, Scribe; All doubts and scruples I dispel, I have no fear of devil or hell […]” (14). Doctor Faust has no fear of evil or superstitions. Perhaps this is why the Almighty allows Mephistopheles the wager. In the case of Job, God knew his virtue would win out. In the case of Faust, God foresees that Faust’s uncompromising will of reason will eventually lead him to virtue. This is an irony of ironies, for Faust has ascended all earthly ranks of intellectual honor and station, yet recognizes the insignificance of it all, “I’m Master, Doctor, and I’ve found for ten long years, that as I chose I’ve led my students by the nose. First up, then down, then all around, to see that nothing can be known” (14).

Faust’s seemingly unlimited knowledge has brought him to the revelation that human understanding has its limits, and apparently those limits are rather short. Perhaps this is why the theme of Faust in modern movies and television is recurrent. Maike Oergel, in Culture and Identity: Historicity in German Literature and Thought 1770-1815, interprets Faust clearly in the context of the failures of human reason, even in the ultra-rational world of the Scientific Revolution. “The primary focus [in Faust] is not, as has often been claimed, on a universal human identity, but on the emergence of a modern identity” (225).

For Oergel, the character Faust is not so much an intermediary figure as he is an introductory figure of modernity. He is a character who has surpassed the initial fascination with modern technology and science to find that on the other end of it all is, still, an endless and even answer-less quest for meaning in life. Modernity has not brought paradise, but only has exasperated the realization of its absence. Faust is a man fully caught up in this realization, and thus is a primal character for our times. Christopher Falzon writes about this paradox in Philosophy Goes to the Movies:

The catastrophic events of the twentieth century, including the technologically efficient carnage of two world wars, Nazi atrocities committed in the heart of an “enlightened” Europe and a nuclear arms race that at one stage threatened the very existence of humanity, have brought this faith in reason and science into question. The impact of technology and industrialization on everyday life has by no means been unequivocally positive; […]. Overall, it is no longer so clear that there is a necessary link between science and progress. Instead a range of concerns and anxieties have emerged about the role and effects of science and technology on human existence, along with more pessimistic, dystopian visions of the future. (158)

As Falzon notes, “early expressions of this anxiety” are introduced in two literary works: Goethe’s Faust and Shelley’s Frankenstein (158). Faust, disgusted with the disappointments and anxieties of modernity, turns to magic, “No dog would stand this any more! Therefore I’ve turned to magic lore, so that, through supernatural force, I’ll trace many a secret to its source” (15). This theme is picked up in a recent film release, The Prestige (2006), where two magicians (illusionists) vie for power and control over each other in 19th century Europe. Both Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Borden (Christian Bale) have an engineer contriving their tricks. This person is the model of modern Europe, using science and mathematics to create unending illusions. Of course, this is Faust’s complaint of the scientific revolution, modern reasoning has brought nothing but eye wash and special effects. Modernity is a magic show where the true questions of life are still pushed into the back of consciousness.

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Angier as Faust, The Prestige (2006)

So it is, that the film begins with Angier on a quest for answers to see what is behind science. “Cypher. Engima. A search. A search for answers,” writes Angier in his notebook as he travels towards Colorado (07:50). In Colorado Springs works a man who has built a machine for each magician. His name is Tesla, the inventor, or rather technocrat of AC electrical current. Tesla plays the role of Mephistopheles, the grand, worldly wise, true magician who can fabricate things beyond science and technology. However, for Borden Tesla fabricates an electric device that simply provides special effects to his already planned illusions. Angier wants something more: “Magic. Real Magic!” he exclaims when seeing Tesla light up a field of electric light bulbs with no wires (44:30).

Indeed, Angier pays Tesla an enormous amount of money to build a machine that is real sorcery. “I need something impossible,” Angier tells Tesla, who responds, “Have you heard the phrase, ‘Man’s reach exceeds his grasp?’ It’s a lie. Man’s grasp exceeds his nerve. Society can only tolerate one change at a time” (50:42). Tesla, true to his Mephistophelean morality, inquires “Have you considered the cost of such a machine” (51:30)? Angier replies that price is no object, but Mephistopheles understands what he is asking, “Perhaps not, but have you considered the cost” (51:38)?

Ultimately, when any character who represents Mephistopheles asks such a question there can be no doubt that the true cost is one’s own soul. Money is irrelevant; it is nothing but a cog in the clockwork of the world. One’s soul, on the other hand, is beyond cogs and gears and all the modern estimations of life. Thus here is the central theme and question beyond the reach of any mundane approach in any age of history, regardless of the sophistication of one’s science and technology: what is the soul? And how does one fulfill its natural desire to transcend the mundane? And what will one exchange for his soul? The answers to the latter question is why evil is no illusion, for there is an endless list of obsessions for which humankind will always pursue at the cost of soul and with the engagement of evil.

For Faust, the obsession is ultimate knowledge. Already admitting that nothing can be known, there must be some ultimate reality beyond the world that can be obtained, even perhaps dominated? What is beyond this life? Ultimately, what is life’s purpose? In the Age of Reason human beings find only disappointment in the answers to these questions. The modern philosopher of disappointment–Nietzsche–quotes Schopenhauer, “What gives to everything tragic […] the characteristic tendency to the sublime, is the dawning of the knowledge that the world and life can afford us no true satisfaction, and are therefore not worth our attachment to them. In this the tragic spirit consists; accordingly it leads to resignation” (10, italics his).

Modern disillusionment retraces the Faust story in daily life. Individuals seeing that all their technologies, degrees, cable channels, and entertainments do not solve their most pressing problems within, simply give up trying to resolve the questions of interiority, thus making the deal with the Devil simple: give me whatever this life can afford and you take care of the rest! This certainly is the theme of the most recent Academy Award winning film The Departed (2006). Costello (Jack Nicholson) plays the part of Mephistopheles, whose first line and the first words of the film represent the movies entire theme which is the hope of the disillusioned:

I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me. Years ago we had the church. That was only a way of saying – we had each other. The Knights of Columbus were real head-breakers; true guineas. They took over their piece of the city. Twenty years after an Irishman couldn’t get a fucking job, we had the presidency. May he rest in peace. That’s what the niggers don’t realize. If I got one thing against the black chappies, it’s this – no one gives it to you. You have to take it.

Jarring. Violent. Gritty. Intolerant. These are the values of Costello’s world that work. Not unlike Enron executives who are Lords of the Corporation. Or scandal ridden board rooms of the stock houses who are Lords of Wall Street. Or the corruption engulfed conspirators of the mortgage markets who are Lords of Suburbia. Our modern world is full of Costellos whose prime motivation in life is completing the Devil’s deal by “taking it.” In The Departed Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Collin Sullivan (Matt Damon) play the fated Faust character in duo fashion. Each make a deal with a devil. Costigan makes his deal with the cops to live and work for Costello. Like Clarice in Silence, Costigan is immersed in a world of evil where he must tenuously walk a rigid line between life and death, evil and more evil. Sullivan is a cop who makes a deal with Costello, a spy for the Italian maffia who ascends to the highest levels of law enforcement. In the world of “You have to take it!” everyone dies. In the ending of this film there are only funerals, showing that not even the Mephistopheles’ of this world come out ahead.

Curiously, the modern psyche forewarns humanity that no amount of modernity can change this scenario. Indeed, in the special effects ridden and futuristic techno-tale of Star Wars III: The Revenge of the Sith (2005), George Lucas retells the Faust story in full as a message for our day. Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christiansen) is the ultimate in Faustian roles, for he is a Jedi Knight not only versed in the learning of the universe, but trained in the magical arts. In Revenge of the Sith Anakin makes a deal with Mephistopheles who posits: “If one is to understand the great mystery one must study all the subtleties of the force, even the dark side. […] Only through me can you achieve a power greater than any Jedi” (1:03:30). Anakin betrays the noble priesthood of the Jedi and destroys their temple all in an exchange for knowledge of the “mysteries” underneath his new tutor, Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) who promises to reveal to him the knowledge of eternal life. This is a ruse of course, as Palpatine does not know it. In a twist of fate at the end of the film, with the Jedi completely undone, Yoda trains Kenobi in the ways of eternal life!

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Anakin Skywalker is Faust, Revenge of the Sith (2005)

In any case, Lucas’s film is a foreshadowing that no amount of technology in his futuristic world can replace probing the true questions of life dealing with evil. It’s as if to say, the soul, no matter where it is found, in whatever era or cosmos, must find its own relationship with evil. We all must turn into Faust. But how to make it through? Certainly not as the Devil (Costello) or as one obsessed with power (Angier) or personal demons (Clarice) or vengeance (Bruce Wayne) or even forbidden knowledge (Anakin). But then how?

Interestingly, the answer to this question is revealed in all the works mentioned. In The Prestige Angier and Borden begin their journey not with Tesla, but in and through the presence of the feminine. Indeed, when Angier’s wife dies in a magic trick gone awry, and most likely caused by the wrong knot tied by Borden, Angier’s soul is permanently scarred. After his wife’s death, Angier is obsessed with outdoing every part of Borden’s life, and eventually to seek it. Ironically, Angier is the far more talented magician between the two, and when another assistant named Olivia (Scarlet Johansson) comes to Angier’s aid and offers him her love, he rejects it, blinded by his obsession to outdo Borden, or in other words, blinded by his flawed relationship with evil as revealed in his relationship with the feminine. In fact, the moment Angier dismisses Olivia, sending her to Borden as a spy, is the moment Angier loses what is left of his soul. Borden, on the other hand, takes Olivia in and falls in love with her. But Borden has a secret–a twin brother–who is the basis of his most spectacular magic tricks; for no one knows of Borden’s other half. So it is that Borden’s other brother also plays Borden, and he is married and very much loves his wife Sarah (Rebecca Hall). The brothers never reveal their identities to their lovers, and Sarah suspects her husband is having an affair with Olivia. In short, this lack of honesty by both Bordens and Angier shown to the women who love them is the poison which causes the loss of soul in each of them.

In a film with so many doubles, the machine Tesla builds Angier clones any object that is placed within it. Angier uses this machine in an act of vengeance, setting up Borden for a false murder charge by both cloning himself and then murdering his clone with Borden as the fall guy. Here at least is the difference between the two magicians: Angier kills his clones as part of his magic trick while Borden uses the other Borden as the magic trick. In the end however, one Borden hangs for the crime of killing Angier (who is just a clone mind you). The other Borden kills the real Angier in the final act of vengeance.

All this death and at its root one’s relationship with the feminine. It’s as if the twin brother of Borden and the clones of Angier are really the images of the psyche, the true individuality of each of them–their souls–each trying to grasp at the powers of the world while blinded to the feminine who would authentically empower them.

This relationship is consistent throughout all the works discussed. The turning point in Goethe’s Faust is when the great Doctor meets Gretchen. Up until this point Mephistopheles has provided anything Faust desired, but none of it impressed him in the least. Yet, what does the world of a cold, calculating man of learning know of the world of woman? When Faust meets Gretchen for the first time he feels his soul lost, and can only confess, “Fetch me something the angel wears! Take me to her place of rest! Fetch me her garter as a token–fetch me the kerchief from her breast!” (96). But Faust’s first relationship with Gretchen is not authentic. He wants her for passion’s sake. And in truth, with Mephistopheles’ aid, he eventually takes Gretchen to his bed. Once lovers, and parted from the counterfeit world of culture and science, Faust comes to his primal revelation: “Now fully do I realize that man can never possess perfection! With this ecstasy which brings me near and nearer to the gods […]” (123).

This revelation comes with a terrible price. The good Doctor impregnates Gretchen , then is forced to leave her. Her honor despoiled, her brother Valentine seeks revenge, but to no avail, for in a duel he is slain by Faust. In sheer torment Gretchen holds her dying brother exclaiming, “My brother! This is the agony of Hell!” (146). His response is cold, “Dry those useless tears, I say! You dealt my heart a fatal blow when you flung your honor away” (146). In his dying breath he accuses Gretchen of slaying his real self, his inner soul, by the loss of her honor. This realization overcomes the poor girl, who at this point is alone and pregnant. Eventually, imprisoned for killing her own illegitimate child, Gretchen can find no peace, “Dear God! Dear God! They’re coming! O bitter death!” (176).

Only these turn of events can change the heart of Faust. And, as the Almighty knew all along, it is Faust’s heart (his compassion) that needs changed before his mind (reason) can do him any good. When Faust realizes what he has done to his lover, when he sees his true relationship with the feminine, he finally understands his relationship with evil, as he confesses to his trusted companion Mephistopheles: “Imprisoned! Lost in hopeless misery! Delivered over to evil spirits and to the pitiless judgment of men! And meanwhile you lulled me with insipid distraction, you concealed from me her increasing misfortune and allowed her so slide hopelessly into ruin!” (171). This is the changing point for Faust, who now seeks a completely different course in his life and has a fundamentally changed relationship with his tutor the Devil, who can only acquiesce, “It is the way of a tyrant to destroy the innocent opponent who crosses his path when he seeks a way out of his dilemma” (173).

So it is that Bruce Wayne’s own inability to deal with the death of his mother and the loss of his boyhood girlfriend provides the real grist for his vengeance. It is not evil that turns Wayne into Batman, it is the loss of the feminine. Castigan and Sullivan both vie for the same woman in The Departed, neither with great success. But it is the more authentic relationship of Castigan with Madolyn (Vera Farmiga) which provides his impulse to overcome all the temptations of Costello and Costello’s world. In the end, it is Castigan who is awarded the highest medal of honor for maintaining his appropriate relationship with evil through his relationship with the feminine. And of course, it is Anakin’s illegitimate relationship to Padme (Natalie Portman) which seals his decision to join the dark side of the force, just as it is his legitimate relationship with his own daughter Leia (Carrie Fisher) in Return of the Jedi (1983) where he finds the courage to defeat Palpatine and vanquish the sinister side of the force permanently.

In simple terms, what the movie goer learns is what Goethe’s Faust learns: without the authentic feminine in one’s life one is lost. Furthermore, no science, no technology, no amount of money, fame, privilege, or property, and especially not even real sorcery, can heal the soul. The soul’s quest is the quest for authentic individuality, which, ironically, must be done with the proper balance with the “ultimate other” that takes the identity of the divine feminine. Thus, one’s relationship with evil is one’s relationship with the authentic feminine. How these relationships play out is how we find our hope or our doom.

 Works Cited

The Departed. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Perf. Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2006.

Falzon, Christopher. Philosophy Goes to the Movies: An Introduction to Philosophy. Florence, KY: Routledge, 2002.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. Faust. Trans. by Alice Raphael. Norwalk, CT: Easton Press, 1980.

Holy Bible. KJV. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company, 1998.

Lyden, John. Film as Religion: Myths, Morals, Rituals. New York: New York UP, 2003.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999, pp. 3-116.

Oergel, Maike. Culture and Identity: Historicity in German Literature and Thought 1770-1815. Hawthorne, NY: Walter De Gruyter Inc., 2006.

The Prestige. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Perfo. Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Cane, Scarlet Johansson. Touchstone Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures, 2006.

Silence of the Lambs. Dir. Jonathan Demme. Perf. Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Anthony Heald. Orion Pictures Corp., 1991.

Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith. Dir. George Lucas. Perf. Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christiansen, Ian McDiarmid, Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Lee. Lucasfilm Ltd., 2005.

 

Hats Off to Toni Morrison

Memories in Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved “are embodied, substantial, have a shape and a form to them” (Slattery, Wounded 213) and, like the ghost of a murdered daughter, cannot be left behind. Pass it on or not, a story with a character like Beloved who climbs over rocks or obstacles to emerge will not die.

The central figure in the novel by the same name, Beloved quietly slips in—as a memory remembering itself. The ghost, the murdered, in a tale in which slavery is perhaps a metaphor for that which wounds and consumes us (207), enters without an introduction: “She walked out of the water, climbed the rocks, and leaned against the gazebo. Nice hat” (Morrison xviii). Like paint transforming a blank canvas, these words bring her image into view. As she rises out of water, or the collective unconscious, she comes forward giving her memory life.

Jung speaks of a dreamer who, upon leaving a social gathering, “puts on a stranger’s hat instead of his own” and with that, assumes the personality the hat imparts, as a doctor’s hat imparts dignity (Jung, Dreams 121-2). Later, the dreamer throws off the hat realizing he has come to identify with it as his self. A hat is one of the many defining symbols in Beloved with Beloved easily merging into the landscape as the girl with a nice hat (Morrison xix), bestowing upon her the personalities and promises of the dreamers. She arrives an almost “storyless creature” who “offers to those in her midst what they desire but feel they need to repress” (Slattery 221), like exchanging hats.

Wearing a hat, Beloved is bestowed with her mother’s unresolved guilt and shame on the one hand and, on the other, the millions of lives lost to slavery demanding and deserving memory and justice. While she steps out of water, symbolically bringing memories into consciousness, the story of which she is a part ends with a blatant decree: “This is not a story to pass on” (Morrison 324). Though the characters might try to suppress their story, it is integral to their lives and passing it on is their only option.

As Beloved brings memories into focus “with the capacity to begin healing the wounds of injustice” (Slattery 210), so the wisdom and beauty of Morrison’s novel by the same name provides humanity with enhanced perspectives for viewing ourselves in the world. Hats off to Toni Morrison!

 

Reflections: The Sea

The alluring “watery part of the world” (Melville, Moby-Dick 18) can soothe or stir the soul and awaken within people their desired and feared journey into the Self. Ishmael, like many of us, goes to the sea where he can get beyond the thin veil of his identity to reach the primary springs of human life and thought, the key to the soul’s destination.

In Ishmael, I confront an archetypal image that intrigues me, as I also am drawn to water and the sea. Ishmael, the voice of our own knowing, goes to the sea whenever he needs to be revived and refreshed or, as he puts it, when he finds himself “growing grim about the mouth.” For him, getting to the sea is essential for survival, a “substitute for pistol and ball” (18). At the sea, he can engage the soul for, as he asserts, “meditation and water are wedded for ever” (19).  For Ishmael, water contains the “image of the ungraspable phantom of life; […] the key to it all” (20). For as a mirror or polished stone, the water reflects and reveals truth; its transparency enables us to see it and see through it.

Rather like Ishmael, I often must leave my work to go for a sail or jump into a pool for a refreshing swim. Doing so, I reflect upon Ishmael, the embodiment and archetype of the nuclear Self setting himself apart from the masses of land dwellers to “get to the sea” to imagine the depths and meaning of existence and soul (18). Reading Moby-Dick, I reflect upon how I seek avenues for separating and freeing myself from e-mails, ringing phones, and life’s obligations. I go to the sea, pool, shower, and bath to be cleansed by and reconnect with the water, the womb, my psyche, my soul, and my Self.

An insightful narrative voice, a character both enigmatic and decisively clear, like the waters of the sea, is Ishmael. The story begins, “Call me Ishmael” (18) and readers are at once engaged; as Jung suggests, human experiences tend to form themselves into story or mythological characters. Ishmael goes to the sea, not as a captain or cook with a defined purpose and care-giving responsibility; he goes instead as in reduction mode from schoolmaster to a “simple sailor” that is, at least, paid for the privilege of being at sea, unlike passengers that pay fares (20-21). He goes to the sea for the wholesome exercise, pure air, and the triumph of catching the first winds on the foredeck (21). So the epic begins with Ishmael, almost at once as spiritual seeker and guru, who yearns for and seeks the sea, as if the pending whaling voyage is fated and at the same time knowing that he goes out of free choice, “unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment” (22), proclivities that could also be his fate.

According to Jung, there is a universal longing to return to the womb, a longing for reconnection to one’s potential wholeness, Self, and collective unconscious. This may be an aspect of Ishmael’s need to go “waterward” (24). The theme is reiterated at the epic’s end when Ishmael, the sole survivor, in the words of Job: “…escaped alone to tell thee” (427). A coffin life-buoy surfaces at his side for him to safely hold until the “devious-cruising Rachael” (427) in search of her missing children, signifying a search of self‑discovery, rescues Ishmael like a mother finding a son.

The lure of the sea resonates within us all, giving expression to the impulse to complete one’s Self, destiny, and god within. As Jung suggests, consciousness is but a small boat within a sea of unconsciousness and rather than be masters of their own ships, people are ruled by creative and destructive forces and energy sources operating through them. Like other myths, this epic suggests universality and ways to understand the shared human experience and truths that transcend time and place.