Friday, November 21, 2008

An Ethical Universe

One's first attempt at theology is always one's best and one's worst. Best because every subsequent act of theology will function as an act of reflection on that moment. Worst because every subsequent act of theology will hopefully improve upon reflection. Well, or so we think. Hopefully, one of the things I will lay out as this blog experiment progresses is an argument against natural progress. But I get ahead of myself. :)

So where should I start this theological experiment but my foundation. Ethics. I can already sense some of my more "theistic" friends objecting that my foundation is not God. Hold on just a moment. What excludes ethics and God from being synthetic? Regardless, the foundation I will lay out will not be nearly as firm as any traditional view of God. I actually view that as a benefit. I can also sense some of my more "atheistic" friends objecting that such a foundation is going to be pretty shoddy. After all, isn't ethics just another subjective entity like God? If we are to build a foundation, why not build it on something sturdy and objective like science? Science will have a part in my system, but in the end, objectivity will reveal itself to be an illusion. Stories are always trying to reach at becoming extended (i.e. to move beyond our subjective perspective). However, objective claims are attempts to circumvent this "reaching" in an attempt to assert the universality of one's subjectivity. This can cause some serious problems... the self, oddly enough, is not universal.

So why ethics? Why something so subjective... something so relative... something so weak? Well, for starters, I think that upon reflection it becomes pretty obvious that "ethics" functions as a foundation for most people. I am presenting as an image for "ethics" that which we value, that which we believe to be "right" and "wrong," the "push" by the potential we visualize in the world. Perhaps this is a broad stroke, but it will serve here. As much as the Western world preaches subservience to a scientific objective world, even we are servants to our ethical values.

To make my point, imagine a possible world where "metaphysical" knowledge (knowledge about the world) would result in those "knowing" human beings being more likely to function in unethical ways (whatever those might be). Such a possible world might sound odd, but it wouldn't be too tough to envision a world where an evil god created such to be true. Perhaps as we learned more about the world around us, such knowledge would encourage us to care more for our self than our companions. Specifics are not necessary. Now imagine we live in such a world. How many people would seek objective, "metaphysical" knowledge if they were aware of such a curse to it? In fact, today we pursue "metaphysical" knowledge because we believe it to be ethical, we don't pursue ethics because we believe in to be "metaphysical." Hmm... perhaps metaphysics should be a part of ethics and not the other way around. But I digress.

For the record, I don't actually believe that we live in a world where a majority of "metaphysical" knowledge (if there is such a thing) actually causes us humans to be more likely to act unethically. However, my thought experiment is merely an attempt to show that human beings value ethics over other considerations. Of course, we instantly run into a problem...

The modern escape from subjective concerns was largely a reaction against nihilism and purposeless. After all, subjective questions appear to be unresolvable. Is it right for the government to pay for the food and health care of those who choose willingly not to work? For all the claims of Randianism, we cannot make something objective simply by declaring it so. If the history of ethics (and other subjective concerns) has shown us humans anything, it is that we will utterly fail if we attempt to establish an objective foundation for our ethics. Ultimately, following Camus, as we reflect, we'll realize that all our concerns, beliefs and values are ultimately absurd. We have confronted the infamous existential void. Can we survive it?

So ultimately, our foundation (ethics) is absurd? I hope Camus would forgive me for breaking from his favorite word, but perhaps "unstable" is a better word here. Our ultimate foundation (ethics) is unstable at its very heart. Can we live on uncertain, unstable ground? Is a ghost of ethics enough? Perhaps... perhaps not. But, ultimately, it is all we have. Whether we like it or not, unstable values make up the ground we stand on. As Canada Bill would say, it is the only game in town. Aware of our shaky foundations, let us make the gesture anyway. Let us affirm meaning and ethics in the moment, even as we are aware that we stand on sinking sands. After all, there is too much suffering in the world to simply let us all sink without a fight. Whether it is enough to save us or not, I do not know. But let us try to stand anyway. Let us stand on unstable ground.


Ryan Langrill said...

I'm bringing some Randian philosophy back with me from Baker. I'll take the hit of reading Spectres of Marx in return.

Tim Urista said...

First, the general comment section is ill-equipped to make comments directly in response and in the margins of your work, so alas I'll just work around that.

Second, this statement is curious to me. "Stories are always trying to reach at becoming extended (i.e. to move beyond our subjective perspective)"

Do you mean subjective perspective in the sense of extending towards something like history, or a kind of objective perspective? Because that could be true.

But do you mean a deeper sense of extension, purely that stories deepen in and of themselves, in which case I don't really think its a question of "moving beyond" a subjective perspective as if there were this transient beyond, but sometimes its moving deeper into subjectivity. In Melanctha by Gertrude stein a word like wander shifts its meaning to mean both an exciting sexual promiscuity in the community and also a very lonely and isolating feeling evoking tragedy and sadness for us. This is stretching the meaning, and so much so that we are very unsure of its given context, but it also does incredible things to the story, so that the world infuses that word with a particular life outside of its preposed lexical meaning.

What I would say about poetry and writing is that sometimes stories can have their entire causational foundation a-temporally, ie take place within a pure subjectivity, or the mind of the author, or like Stein's book they can play with propositional meaning in deep complex ways.

This is probably a purely technical point, because I want to still reach for that ethical grounding but leave room for an ideal/ a transient theism, or a pure event (if u ever read Badiou). Stories are also great because they do this too, they move us not because it's about a single person or a single perspective but it speaks of course in a plurality that has a kind of shape, texture and structure. It has the power to evoke feelings, thoughts and desires calling us into action, and it lays bare its tailored and heavily doctored physique (unlike that prostitute history, OK maybe a lil harsh).

Still, I wanna see how exactly this subjective element fits into the overall scheme of the moment which we talked about on saturday.


Wildflower said...


My apologies for the comment section, Tim. Unfortunately, as far as I know, there isn't anything I can do to fix it. I'll try to find out though.

By subjective desires for extension, I actually meant then a reaching for something beyond momentary subjectivity. That can occur by way of history/apocalypse (temporal extension), objectivity (identity extension), or a number of other extensions.

As far as I follow you, I'm not sure I'd be willing to go as far as you. From what I know of Badiou, certainly, his pure event is simply too concrete, too absolute for me. Deeper subjectivity sounds interesting to me, but it sounds a bit precariously close to a contrast between real/imaginary language (i.e. there is a fake shallow subjectivity and a real deep subjectivity) which I reject. Such contrasts are simply too dangerous for my liking. I really do enjoy your points on shifting semantic meaning though, and what stretching meaning can do to a story. I think your point does a lot to strengthen my argument for the contradictions of storytelling and valuing. I just don't know if that brings us to the point of a-temporality. Ultimately, though, I'm unsure if I followed your point.

I am really interested in finding creative methods for channeling the human desire for extension in more helpful ways than the way I see our typical methods of objectivity or a-temporality do. Perhaps community-extension? Inter/Intrasubjectivity? Certainly, extension is possible in a finite domain. As such, I think it is possible to reinscribe our desires for extension within a finite, momentary domain. Perhaps, anyway.