Sunday, September 22, 2019

conferatur: The Human Evasion

Edvard Munch, Angst (1896)

As a supplement to the last post, I'd like to submit some excerpts from Celia Green's The Human Evasion (1969). If you were paying attention, you might have found a hyperlink to an etext of that book.

I know I've posted links and quoted excerpts of The Human Evasion before. It's a very old favorite of mine—even if I take issue with a lot of its contents, and I can't say I've ever much jived with Green's radical libertarian politics. Green is in any case an exceptionally luculent writer, and she's on point (though perhaps unduly contemptuous) where she describes humanity's "pathological" interest in itself.

Green terms this so-called pathology "the human evasion," identifying it with the psychological syndrome called "sanity." Any discussion of anthropocentrism (or "humanism," as per Hartshorne) undertaken without consulting Green's diagnostic notes would be incomplete.

Observe that Green takes as a given that reality is "inconceivable," whereas Hartshorne insists that it is (or can be made) "intelligible." I suspect Green would give Hartshorne some credit for at least thinking about reality, while criticizing the lack of imagination (or abundance of sanity) he evinces by arranging it such that it looks something like a socially concerned anthropic entity.

She wouldn't hear any disagreement out of me.

Society begins to appear much less unreasonable when one realizes its true function. It is there to help everyone to keep their minds off reality. This follows automatically from the fact that it is an association of sane people, and it has already been shown that sanity arises from the continual insertion of 'other people' into any space into which a metaphysical problem might intrude.

It is therefore quite irrelevant to criticize society as though it were there for some other purpose——to keep everyone alive and well-fed in an efficient manner, say. Some degree of inefficiency is essential to create interesting opportunities for emotional reaction. (Of course, criticizing society, though irrelevant, is undeniably of value as an emotional distraction for sane people.)

Incidentally, it should be noticed that 'keeping everyone alive and well-fed' is the highest social aim which the sane mind can accept without reservation or discomfort. This is because everyone is capable of eating——and so are animals and plants——so this qualifies magnificently as a 'real' piece of 'real life'. There are other reasons in its favour as well, of course, such as the fact that well-fed people do not usually become more single-minded, purposeful, or interested in metaphysics.

It has been seen that the object of a sane upbringing is increasingly to direct all emotion towards objects which involve other people.

*          *          * 

To the sane mind, even aggression against people is infinitely better than aggression against infinity. And it is the chief defect of sane society that it is boring. It is so boring that even sane people notice it. And so, from time to time, there is a war. This is intended to divert people's minds before they become so bored that they take to some impersonal kind of aggressive activity——such as research, or asceticism, or inspiration, or something discreditable of that kind.

In wartime, rather more purposeful activity than usual is permissible. Even sane people relax their normal beliefs that nothing matters very much, and some time next week is soon enough for anything. This is regarded as justified because the war is always about something connected with other people, and may be regarded as an assertion of the belief that the thing that matters most is politics.

*          *          *

It will be convenient to have a name for that part of reality which is not emotionally regarded as 'real' by the sane person. We shall call it the Outside.

The Outside consists of everything that appears inconceivable to the human mind. In fact everything is inconceivable to the human mind (if only because it exists) but not many people notice this.

In religious and philosophical writings it is often difficult to eliminate all reference to the Outside. There are a number of ways of dealing with this problem. One of the most successful is to generate a distinctive kind of ambiguity about the meanings of crucial words.

Consider the following passage in which the words 'being' and 'existence' are used.

'The term 'being' in this context does not designate existence in time and space.... (It) means the whole of human reality, the structure, the meaning and the aim of existence.'
It is tolerably clear that at least when Tillich first uses the word 'existence' he means by it what I also mean when I use the word. It seems that what we both mean by 'existing' is 'being there'.

However, Tillich then explicitly repudiates this sense and goes on to define the word 'being' in a second sense. The term 'being' means the whole of human reality, Tillich says. The meaning of this phrase is not obvious.

Perhaps Tillich means the sum total of the mental content of all humans——illusions and all? What humans think is real? Or that part of reality which is accessible to the human mind?

The last seems to be the best we can do. So let us suppose that 'human reality' does mean that part of the mental content——actual or potential——of humans which is actually in accordance with what exists.

'Human reality' is then placed in apposition with 'the structure, the meaning and the aim of existence'. What is to be understood by this? The 'aim of existence' seems at first sight to be clear, unless 'existence' has made an unannounced change of meaning since it was first used. It would seem that this phrase must mean 'the purpose for which everything exists'.

But this is difficult, because 'the aim of existence' is in apposition with 'human reality' which certainly does not include the purpose of existence.

This leads us to a distinct suspicion that when Tillich talks of 'the structure, meaning and aim of existence' he does not mean 'existence' at all, but 'human life' instead. If he does mean this, there seems no reason why he should say so——except that it would rob what he is saying of a status it does not possess. And if he does mean this, we have arrived at the following definition of the word 'being' ——'whatever happens to be realistic in the mental content of humans; the structure, the meaning and the aim of human life'.

In fact, we may suggest this paraphrase of what Tillich is saying: 'When we talk of 'being' we do not mean the Outside. We mean the Inside.'

This example illustrates a standard procedure for appearing to take the Outside into consideration without actually doing so. The rules for this kind of writing are very simple and roughly as follows.

There are a number of words and phrases which may mean something about existence or something about humans. For example: 'existence', 'depth', 'ground of being', 'ultimate concern', 'meaning', etc. Whenever what you really mean is 'human relationships' or 'day-to-day living' you should replace it by some existential-sounding combination, such as 'the depth of being'. It is a good idea to use compound phrases ('the depth of historical existence', 'the ultimate ground of meaning') as a considerable degree of obscurity can be created by summating the uncertainty of a number of uncertain terms.

It is usual to define these terms as little as possible. But if you wish to appear to do so, it is best to use a series of phrases in apposition (as in the example just considered: 'the whole of human reality, the structure, the meaning and the aim of existence'). This gives a very good effect of struggling to define something difficult with precision while actually generating ambiguity (on the principle of summation of uncertainty already mentioned). The device of apposition itself introduces an additional modicum of doubt, since if you appose two such phrases as 'the depth of meaning' and 'the inmost structure of reality' no one will be sure whether the two phrases are ways of saying the same thing, or whether they are intended to complement one another.

*          *          *

Tillich maintains that God is the 'ultimate concern' of every man. I think all modern theologians would agree. However, the question is whether you take 'God' as defining 'man's ultimate concern', or take 'man's ultimate concern' as defining 'God'. Naturally, in this democratic age, the latter procedure is usually followed. (There is only one of God whereas there are a number of human beings; it would obviously be undemocratic to take God as a standard.) I am happy to see the old opposition between God and man has all but vanished from modern theology. There is now the most extraordinary sympathy, not to say identity, of outlook.

We must——even if it seems 'dangerous'——affirm that the glory of God and the glory of man, although different, actually coincide. There is no other glory of God (this is a free decision of his will) than that which comes about in man's existence. And there is no other glory of man than that which he may and can have in glorifying God. Likewise God's beatitude coincides with man's happiness. Man's happiness is to make God's beatitude appear in his life, and God's beatitude consists in giving himself to man in the form of human happiness.
So far we have only considered the modern kind of theologian, who does not believe in God. This should not be taken to imply that the human evasion has only just started to operate in this area.

Even when people believed in God you may remember that there was a certain difficulty in driving any metaphysical argument with them beyond a certain point. They would suddenly round on you, with or without a sweet smile, and say, 'Ah, but the important thing is that God is a person.' This effectively prevented any further discussion of his possible existence or attributes, particularly as the concepts 'person' and 'personality' appeared to defy analysis.

It is, of course, entirely compatible with the human evasion that it should suddenly interpose the 'personal' and the reason for existence——by whatever name it calls it. It is no less compatible with it that the people who disbelieve in God should do so on the grounds that he was a personal God. 'It is evident', they say, 'that when people believed in God they were thinking of something like a human being with whom one could have emotional interactions. This is Freudian. It is obvious that there is no Outside because when people thought there was, they treated it like a person. I am well-adjusted and do not need a God to have emotional interactions with. I can have them with other people. Consequently there is no Outside.'

*          *          *

However, frightened and muddled though the sceptical philosophers may have been, once some aspect of the total uncertainty had been plainly stated, it could never subsequently be refuted and it became a permanent piece of philosophy.

One of the aspects of uncertainty that became firmly embedded in philosophy was that there were no absolutes.

What was originally stated was that there was no way of finding out if there were any absolutes. Everything could only be assessed by reference to a specific standard, and the only available standards were finite ones.

The human race, in its anthropocentric way, took a particular interest in the conclusion that there was no moral absolute. There was no way of saying what was 'good' or 'evil' except by referring to the only standards available——which were the opinions of human beings about what constituted a desirable life. These were obviously very subjective.

The human race eagerly responded to this finding by rejecting all former sets of opinions about the desirable life and developing a new one. The new one stated that heroic and extremist ideals were always based on foolish beliefs and prejudices, so that the thing to do was to seek pleasure, comfort, and security in a moderate and unheroic way.

Moreover, this finding gave rise to a feeling that it had now been proved that absolutes did not exist——there were no standards other than human ones.

This last is an interesting conclusion, if you remember that the original statement was to the effect that whatever might be absolute, human standards certainly were not.

*          *          *

So we all accept that reality is blurry and that the laws of nature are statistical. (Not——'our descriptions of nature are statistical', you notice.) This brings us to statistics.

Emotionally, if not indeed intellectually, statistics is no longer felt to provide description, but explanation. It is not difficult to see why it should be so appealing. It is, as you might say, democratic (in every sense). It depends on counting, which is fair and equitable (why should one electron be singled out for special attention?)——and then again, counting is a thing nearly everyone can do.

There used to be a philosophical error known as 'reification', which was what happened when people forgot that abstract nouns were not things, and imagined Truth sitting in state in a scarlet robe, for example. This is a very, very unfashionable kind of mistake to make today (because sometimes when people did it, it was a sign that they were taking the Outside too seriously).

So no one has noticed the reification of statistical concepts that goes on, and physicists talk of a thing being 'caused by chance' as if 'chance' sat there pushing the right proportion of electrons to the left. If an electron chooses to turn left, this is either caused by something, which may or may not be known to the human race at present, or it is caused by nothing, which is shockingly inconceivable. In neither case is it caused by a cosy little homebody figure called 'Chance'.

*          *          *

The question is whether anyone has ever been, in any serious way, not sane.

I have examined the history of the human race with care. Kant gives the impression that he liked the inconceivable, but his books are too long; Einstein was interested in the universe, but bad at psychology; H.G. Wells saw that research consisted of taking risks, but declined into sociology.

My best candidates, therefore, are Nietzsche and Christ. It may be objected that their ideas cannot possibly be of interest, since one went mad and the other was crucified. However, I think we should not hold this against them.

They may have felt a trifle isolated.

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