For Lack of a Because

Violence in movies is not the problem. Violent stories are as old as fiction. Likewise, the realism of cinema and video games may be new, but in prior eras people didn’t need the visual aids. The livestock bled when slaughtered; the forest road was menacing in a way that needed no symphonic score.
The problem isn’t even that the Dark Knight’s Joker had a point. The forces of darkness have had a point since the snake in the garden. Human beings are flawed; Creation can be brutal.
The problem is that the knights no longer have a because.
In a 1996 essay titled “Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died,” Tom Wolfe summarized Friedrich Nietzsche’s prediction a century earlier that a society of Godless people, in Wolfe’s paraphrase, “would loathe not only one another but themselves.” As a result, the coming generations would see “wars catastrophic beyond all imagining.” The human need that God once filled would be inflated with the less transcendent, more manipulable meaning supplied by factions and nationalism.
Surface quickly from these depths to Batman. The justification for Bruce Wayne’s superhero persona was, essentially, that his vision for humanity was better than the degraded society that crime begets. Heath Ledger’s Joker casts the battle as one between chaos and order. And he has a point in that the difference is largely aesthetic in their world.
As religion has faded, Western civilization has striven to maintain its fumes and hold back the darkness with a vague sense of a human community. Batman has faith in the people of Gotham. That is his community — indeed, readers would be hard-pressed to separate the two — and he is bound to it as part of his identity.
Ay, there’s the rub.
For all the analysis already set to drift in the public reflecting pool, the matter of the Aurora killer’s field of study has yet to find its candle. Is it too terrible a thought to mention? Neuroscience.
The self, as even passive recipients of science news may have heard by now, is mere illusion — a narrative that the sparks of the brain generate in order to organize the stimuli of life. If that’s the truth, then a question naturally arises: What community can Gotham be if Bruce Wayne himself is not?
There is an answer to the riddle. The peculiarity of this era’s philosophical battle is that investigation of the universe has fostered a mechanistic view as oversimplified as any attributed to the rigid theologians of yore. The materialists make a model and call it reality. “My two dimensions are sufficient; yours are a comforting illusion.”
Evolution, that venerable old god-killer, is a process of stimuli’s effects on the malleable medium of life, but the stimuli must come from elsewhere. Perhaps neuroscience will map the processes of the evolved brain into a fine and useful model, but promoting that model as more than a limited sketch will be a potentially cataclysmic experiment in how the social minds — real human beings in four-dimensional action — respond to the stimulus of finding themselves to be fiction.
The problem is that scientists have a narrow species of imagination and are insufficiently careful about propounding on their findings. The problem is that philosophy has become a sadomasochistic litany of narcissistic poses. The problem is that storytellers have seduced themselves with the quick fixes of sex and violence, and what philosophy they have, they lift from the philosophers’ bloody bed because the stickiness has the tactile sensation of an intelligence they lack. And the problem is that plenty stand to profit, in government and business and society, by this degradation.
The nihilistic killer in Colorado may prove not to have thought of himself as acting from the conclusions attributed to neuroscience, or any conclusions at all. To be sure, we see in him most markedly a metastasized mental illness.
Nonetheless, we should take the lesson. Evil will find its lever, and it is no less monstrous when accomplished through normal and natural biological processes. While chemical imbalances may provide the mechanism by which an idea becomes horrific action in an individual, sustained moral decline requires the idea partly to be, “Why not?”
Human society evolved to its present state on the strength of our heroes’ because. When even the men who shielded their dates and died on that terrible movie night are explained away as acting from biological necessity, it may not be long before the decision whether to murder or to protect comes down to the toss of a mad culture’s coin.

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Dan
Dan
9 years ago

Justin – Religion has been used as a manipulative control mechanism between human beings as long as there has been religion. Most wars in human history were fought between religious nations, each firmly believing that their god or gods would lead them to victory. The only difference I see between the totalitarian Marxist states of the 20th and 21st centuries and the thousands of “divine right” kingdoms of years past is that the concept of societal need, as determined by the political elite, has come to replace the ever more questionable notion of a celestial authority figure with whom the religious elite communicate. The control mechanism has evolved over time with humanity, but fundamentally, it remains the same. I suggest that the solution, to the extent that there can be a solution to a flaw so clearly ingrained in our nature, is a cultural emphasis on the value of individualism and voluntary relationships between people.

Justin Katz
Justin Katz(@justin)
9 years ago

The point is that the various anchors for morality are not equivalent, as you assert. Clearly, nationalism and racialism is more prone to manipulation, because they are (1) defined by differences between people, and (2) have no broader basis for coherence beyond the statements of those who have managed to speak for the group. In the case of religion, especially a religion that emphasizes a personal relationship with God and acknowledges the reality that human beings can err grievously, even those who guide the faith, the anchor is transcendent.
The real point of this essay, though, is that individualism and voluntary relationships aren’t sufficient for any sort of moral structure, especially as science proposes in ever-finer detail explanations that take all of the humanity out of humanity.
Like many libertarians, you begin with the basic belief that control is inherently the problem. I disagree. But even if I didn’t, I’d suggest that your assertion to own property (for one thing), and to have the government exert control over others in order to preserve that claim, has a very tenuous anchor if we’re all just evolved meat whose consciousnesses are illusions, and you just happened to fall into the right circumstances to allow you to thrive.
(Let me emphasize that I don’t believe that to be the case.)

Tommy Cranston
Tommy Cranston
9 years ago

Wolfe’s paraphrase, “would loathe not only one another but themselves”.
Posted by Justin Katz
I can’t think of 8 better words which would more succinctly describe the modern white “progressive” of the Western world.

Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
9 years ago

As it happens, I am reading a history of the Crusades and the Knights Templar. I admit it may be difficult to separate greed and religion, it is amazing that the Middle East is not still red with the blood of the faithful. The Sunnis slaughter the Shiites, the Assassin murder the Caliphs, the Templars agree to slaughter them both (not usually very successfully); depending on which side they were temporarily allied with. Meanwhile the air rings with “Allah Akbar” and “God wills it”.
All of this in a time of far greater religiosity than we now enjoy. The Pope absolved all sins of the Crusaders in exchange for their promise to slay Muslims. Islam lacked the central authority, but was still able to declare “Jihad” and promise rewards in heaven such as orgasms that would last 1000 years (Gibbons, Decline and Fall). Has this really ended? When Hitler invoked pre-Christian gods and mysticism, his public recognized the allusions.

Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
9 years ago

“While chemical imbalances may provide the mechanism by which an idea becomes horrific action in an individual,”
This may be more common than thought, I have heard that 15-20% of truly violent behavior results from “brain chemistry”, lesions, tumors, etc. We know little of the brain, so these estimates may be very high, or very low.
This theory seems to fall apart when we consider that 4% of the population, black males between 15 and 26, commit about 50% of the truly violent crime (murder, rape). That is a lot of brain lesions.

Tommy Cranston
Tommy Cranston
9 years ago

4% of the population, black males between 15 and 26, commit about 50% of the truly violent crime (murder, rape). That is a lot of brain lesions.
Posted by Warrington Faust at August 20, 2012 6:41 AM
In the progressive dictionary of Orwellism’s truth is defined as “ray-zism”.

ANTHONY
ANTHONY
9 years ago

Excellent thoughtful post Justin. Seems like the further society drifts from a spiritual God it does at it’s own peril. Our arrogance that we “know it all” leads us astray and into the mine field. Our spiritual “leaders” assume to be all knowing as they lead the lemmings into the ocean.

Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
9 years ago

The materialists make a model and call it reality. “My two dimensions are sufficient; yours are a comforting illusion.” “Dimensions” brings to mind another problem with a “Supreme Being”. That is the problem of the “parallel universe”, or “multiverses” as some physicists call them. Since we have achieved a knowledge of photons, the apparent existence of a parallel universe is fairly easily proven. At least to the extent that it cannot be disproven. Until it can be disproven, the question of why God would create parallel universes arises. While I recognize the organizing value of religion, I am disturbed that it appears to have moved away from its base and improved by association with sinners. Perhaps I should be heartened. 1000 years ago (or, 1000 years closer to God on earth by the Christian reckoning) we had a great deal more religiosity, and a great deal more of what man fears. Random violence, lack of freedom, “Divine Right of Kings”, an almost total lack of “human rights”. While this situation prevailed, it was supported by the church(es), “God wills it”, “in sha’Allah”. In the intervening years man has moved away from this. It would seem that the church followed more often than it led. It would seem that they decided to be “with the people” only after they lost control over secular rulers. It would seem that theologians have become “collared” philosophers. Occasionally, they select a portion of scripture that will support their current viewpoint. The very existence of the Nag Hammadi gospels prove they are not playing with a full deck of testament, or rather that they have stacked the deck. Perhaps they are moving toward becoming an “Eastern Religion”. Those seem to me to be more a “moral philosophy”, with little reliance on the avenging power of a… Read more »

helen
helen
9 years ago

Warrington,about the horrific crime rate by black people,I think it’s the result of Communist agitation.
Well,I might get a tin foil hat award from this,yet I believe it’s true. Very hard to discuss this issue.

helen
helen
9 years ago

Justin,what the heck? Evolution a god killer? Human beings in four dimensional action then finding themselves to be fiction?
I live in what I believe to be three dimensional physical reality. I am not a fiction,I don’t make up stories. Yeah,I know there’s some thought that we create a fiction for ourselves. That ourselves are fictional. My response to that is the story about the Rabbi and the student:
A student goes away to college and comes back on vacation. He tells the Rabbi that he can prove anything by debate. So the Rabbi says can you prove you have a nose? The student says of course and proceeds to prove through argument that he has no nose.
The Rabbi then punches him in the nose and says,”What hurts?”

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