Evidence of Things Unseen

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

Since our dear old country is already descended into rank tribalism, I suppose it makes a certain kind of sense to go ahead and take sides. I’ve been tacitly taking sides for years now, so I might as well put certain cards on the table.

As usual, I begin with a true confession. I have stacked the deck in my favor by claiming the high ground from the outset. By training and inclination, I am a philosopher, and if you break that word up into its ancient Greek parts, it means “lover of wisdom.” So I’ve got that going for me.

Now some people emphasize the poetic, emotive aspect of this term, inherent in the word love. It suggests a romantic picture of us philosophers as always in a swoon.

The man I first learned philosophy from, though, parsed the meaning of philosopher differently. He emphasized that love was essentially a desirous reaching out toward an object and only incidentally a way of feeling. He said what was crucial to being a philosopher was motivation–the unyielding search for wisdom, regardless of whatever emotional response the quest elicited. Whether you worked yourself into a high, operatic dudgeon over the meaning of life or kept your mind laser-focused on the dispassionate logical analysis of the meanings of words, what distinguished the philosopher was her commitment to keep doggedly seeking truth. Wisdom might never be achieved, but a true philosopher kept chasing after it. It was a duty.

The philosopher’s foil was the sophist, the person who thought she already possessed wisdom. There was no need to go on a lifelong quest for it, according to the sophist; wisdom was readily available to the clever. The sophist’s measure of wisdom was the ability to argue both sides of a thesis with equal conviction. The business applications of this skill were pretty sweet in ancient Athens. A good sophist could win a lawsuit or keep a rich young man out of military service, for example, which could earn high wages. Today the best sophists make excellent trial lawyers, wealth managers, politicians, ad men and so forth.

It has always been easy to disparage us philosophers. The thing that seems to get under most other folk’s skin about us is our bland acceptance of human incompleteness. We acknowledge that humans will never know everything there is to know, and that we will never perfect even our most cherished institutions–family, state, law, what have you–because they all depend on knowledge. Philosophers also fail, for what it is worth, to believe that humans will graduate to a magical kingdom after death in which all this missing information will be provided (or made otiose by an eternal spectacle of bugling and praise-singing and bedding of virgins and sadistic voyeurism).

But on we trudge: we stick to our quest nonetheless, and this makes us look quixotic, a literary term for pathetic. The novelist Milan Kundera called the trudging frame of mind the Long March. From Europe’s angry young men of 1848 to the American civil rights movement to Occupy Wall Street, reformers have a thing about manning the barricades and getting out to march for some higher ideal. It’s an attitude that can too easily become a pose, and that’s what Kundera scorned about it. He makes great fun of latte liberalism in the last part of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. To be sure, Kundera felt the allure of the Long March himself at various times in his life. He had grown up behind the Iron Curtain and thought humans were capable of pursuing better lives than the ones designed for them by the Soviets.

The American writer James Baldwin referred to the trudging frame of mind as the quest to “achieve our country.” He believed that if humans could appreciate their mutual vulnerabilities as living things and their common destiny as dead things, they could  form a union aimed at reducing cruelty and humiliation for the short while we are here. The irony was, Baldwin was born into a country that thought it already was this place but really was far from it.

Baldwin thought we Americans weren’t even headed in the right direction to achieve our country, despite the pious claptrap preached to us in history and civics class about being a city on a hill. He thought we were still holding on to the old country, which was based on willful ignorance of our immense, proven capacity for cruelty. Our democratic city on the hill had been founded by violent, intrepid marauders, armed to the teeth, tended by slaves, and willing to break any promises whatsoever to gain more land, power or wealth. These vices were typical for European “discoverers,” but Baldwin thought it was a little rich to base the conception of our country on believing the opposite. Our “memories” of how uniformly great and noble our forbears were were pure hogwash.

Kurt Vonnegut retells our founding story as a kind of corrective that Baldwin would have cheered, I believe. It is brief:

The teachers told the children that [1492] was when their continent was discovered by human beings. Actually, millions of human beings were already living full and imaginative lives on the continent in 1492. That was simply the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill them. . . .

Actually, the sea pirates who had the most to do with the creation of the new government owned human slaves. They used human beings for machinery, and, even after slavery was eliminated, because it was so embarrassing, they and their descendants continued to think of ordinary human beings as machines.

The sea pirates were white. The people who were already on the continent when the pirates arrived were copper-colored. When slavery was introduced onto the continent, the slaves were black.

Color was everything.

Here is how the pirates were able to take whatever they wanted from anybody else: they had the best boats in the world, and they were meaner than anybody else, and they had gunpowder, which is a mixture of potassium nitrate, charcoal, and sulphur. They touched the seemingly listless powder with fire, and it turned violently into gas. This gas blew projectiles out of metal tubes at terrific velocities. The projectiles cut through meat and bone very easily; so the pirates could wreck the wiring or the bellows or the plumbing of a stubborn human being, even when he was far, far away.

The chief weapon of the sea pirates, however, was their capacity to astonish. Nobody else could believe, until it was much too late, how heartless and greedy they were.

(from Breakfast of Champions)

Well, whether or not you take as bleak a view as Baldwin about how far we’ve come since the days of the sea pirates, if you are a philosopher, you believe, as he did, that we are still chasing wisdom, still trudging after the object of our hunt. We are making only the tiniest of incremental gains in knowledge; we are not on the cusp of achieving our country, not even close. But it’s still worth pressing forward. This is the core truth that keeps the Long March alive.

(By the way, another old professor of mine thinks philosophy has come about as far as it can in the quest for the kind of socially useful knowledge that actuates the Long March. Science, not philosophy, has produced so many of our species’ recent incremental gains in knowledge, it is now time to recognize that scientists have displaced philosophers as the leaders of the Long March. My professor talks about this idea in his latest book, as philosophers do.)

So today we have two tribes. One tribe thinks we Americans have already achieved our country, and what the country most needs is protecting from bloodsuckers, degenerates, terrorists, and other kinds of bad hombres trying to get across our borders. We are just fine as we are, and we don’t want the diseases such people would bring into our country. Or their ideas or work habits.

I leave it to nobler, more magnanimous allies to come up with a polite name for this tribe. For me, it is the Reactionary Mob.

The Reactionary Mob finds people like me demoralizing because we appear unable to shut up about what a rotten place America is. Love it or leave it, they tend to say. Indeed the president they love tried to make the oozing of patriotic affection a literal requirement for immigrating here when he said anyone coming to America needed to profess a deep love for our country. As recently as the 2000-aughts, conservatives and other fans of small-government would have heckled this move as nakedly totalitarian. Who but Orwell’s Big Brother would try to manage the private content of the people’s hearts and minds? Times change though. Many conservatives also seem to like Trump’s big-government idea of having a storm trooper strike force, another acquisition from the Big Brother rummage sale.

But from my tribe’s point of view, America is not really a rotten place at all. In fact it is a wonderful place. We believe it can rise to the beautiful ideals that its highest heroes have preached–the words of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass, Eugene Debs, Martin Luther King Jr., and, yes, James Baldwin. America just has not achieved itself yet. It is still on a quest for better ideas, better institutions, and an ever more perfect union. It won’t get there by willful blindness, but only if it keeps its eyes wide open, even to the painful truth of its past.

Which brings me back to those cards I said I would lay on the table. As the tribal dividing lines deepen, it occurs to me there is a crucial test for determining which tribe you belong to. It’s a kind of Jeff Foxworthy device: “You might be a progressive [or insert whatever else here] if you believe in the existence of . . . .”

No one actually needs this test, of course; everyone already knows which tribe they belong to. But a suggestive distinction has been knocking around in my mind for several months now, and it might be useful to get it out.

The idea crystallized for me last night as I read that some folks these days enjoy offending my tribe by modifying the machinery of their cars to produce more, or at least more visible, exhaust. Expel a poof of black smoke, goes the thinking, and “own the libtards.”

So this is the idea that had been buzzing in my bonnet even before I read this: America’s tribes can be distinguished by the kinds of invisible entities in which they believe and invest power. The Reactionary Mob tends to believe that carbon atoms and its derivative molecules, for one thing, either don’t exist or are so irrelevant as to be ignored. The deliberate pluming of car exhaust is meant to ridicule people who believe otherwise.

Well, since it is the mob that has suggested this kind of identity marker, let us compare.

My tribe tends to believe in several kinds of invisible entities. Some are so small they can’t be seen, like the individual potassium nitrate molecules that Kurt Vonnegut’s sea pirates mixed into gun powder.

Or, to take up the exhaust-pluming example, we believe quite strongly in the existence and power of carbon particulates. Our species expels them from our machines, and they choke up the atmosphere, locking in gases–other invisible things–that warm up the planet.

The methane molecule is another invisibly small thing in which we believe. Scientists discovered last year that polar-region permafrost is melting at an unprecedented rate, releasing lots more methane into the atmosphere than current global-warming models include. Which means faster global warming.

The mob, which disbelieves in global warming (and sometimes the invisible mechanisms that account for it), tends to believe in a divine cosmic plan that will protect human life, come what may. There is no need to go looking for atoms, molecules or other voodoo, they say, because almighty God has created the universe in such a way that it cannot be harmed by puny, fallen man.

And if that doesn’t work for you, you may help yourself to a fatalistic myth about the foreordained end of the world. If we are ruining our planet, it is not due to reversible human foolishness but rather the irreversible will of God. He is using ecological disaster to end the world in the way he has always foreseen.

saints

There is also a cheery religious diversion from the apocalypse–the grinning idiocy of preachers like Joel Osteen who say there is a benevolent, God-given reason for everything that happens in one’s life. If you embrace this deeply narcissistic idea, you will achieve happiness and prosperity, despite whatever horrors might bring the world to an end. It has certainly worked for Osteen, who is fabulously wealthy. The approaching Horsemen of the Apocalypse appear not to disturb him at all on his yacht.

Instead of an ethereal, eternal soul, progressives tend to believe in humanized algorithms. Anything with a large enough brain has some combination of thoughts, feelings and perceptions, which influence our actions. Humans have some of the biggest brains around, which grew and developed by an evolutionary process that played out over millions of years. Increasingly, we are discovering that our mental algorithms are largely a product of adaptive pressures. Much of what we think, perceive and feel is attuned to help us survive in the animal kingdom–or, better, was attuned to help our forebears survive for millions of years. The deeply encrusted patterns we’ve inherited are not always optimal for peace or other kinds of conviviality, which presents challenges in a world that has only enjoyed civilization for the last few evolutionary seconds.

We humans are also filled with microbes, invisible things that–surprise!–help form systems that are very much us. Our guts are filled with friendly bacteria which, among other things, carry out the optimal functioning of our gastroenterological systems. Get rid of them, and you are not you anymore, or at least you are not the you you think of as yourself. Imagine that. In the days of Descartes, many learned people thought we had a soul inside us that actually had physical weight. Nope. Turns out what we really have is about two or three pounds of useful microbes.

We also depend famously on genes–and their four constituent amino acids, which we all learned in the seventh grade–for making us who we are. This week I heard a story on the radio about a group of doctors who try to diagnose rare, uncategorized diseases. Two of their patients were young brothers in California who were normal except for lacking the capacity for muscular development. All they could do was lie in bed.

They passed the time playing video games and of course talking to each other and their parents, who loved them very much, but they knew they would die young. Human brains and other key organs develop in concert with musculature, and the boys’ systems would collapse after a few years because they could not move their muscles enough to produce key developmental inputs. How did they receive this slow-moving death sentence, an unbearable agony which their parents must share with them every moment of every day? One of the amino acids in their genes was out of sequence.

Now I won’t be so philistine as to suggest that religious people cannot believe in genes and other scientific facts. Francis Collins, one of the world’s leading geneticists, is a Christian. But Collins also believes we are beasts, fantastic products of evolution. It must be very complicated for him.

But if you ask the Mob, the grinning idiots of the Olsteen camp, they’ll say the two boys’ condition was brought about by a personal choice made by a loving God. God gave them a gift whose benevolence is so mysterious that most of us just can’t discern it and actually see it as something horrible. I think it is profane and evil to encourage people to believe this kind of thing. Let them believe in reality instead. Both fantasy and reality will eventually deliver us unwelcome messages, but at least the latter will not turn us into ghouls.

Like my old professor who wrote about science recently, I am all talked out about philosophy. I wanted to add the Invisible Hand and the Laffer Curve as two more magical items on the Mob’s list of invisible wonders, but I think you get the point by now.

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