Sunday, June 17, 2007

Gnosticism and Existentialist Conservatism

Opposition to Darwinian explanations of human nature is rooted primarily in the idea of the "transcendental self"--the idea that human beings have some psychic or spiritual capacity that sets them apart from and above the rest of nature. Against this idea, Darwinian science explains human beings as fully within the order of nature and thus at home in the universe.

The transcendentalist rejection of Darwinism can be either religious or secular. Religious transcendentalism affirms the uniqueness of human beings as created in God's image and thus set above the rest of creation. Secular transcendentalism affirms the uniqueness of human beings as having the capacity through reason or culture to create themselves as belonging to a realm of freedom beyond the realm of natural causality. Religious conservatives often adopt the first form of transcendentalism. Secular liberals often adopt the second.

The transcendentalism that denies Darwinian naturalism assumes a radical dualism of mind and matter that follows not from orthodox Christianity but from the Christian heresy of Gnosticism. The Gnostics believed that the natural world was a prison into which the human soul had been thrown by the evil god of the Old Testament. The escape from this worldly prison required Gnostic enlightenment by which the redeemed could leave the natural world for their true home beyond the cosmos. Matter is evil. Only spirit is good. Therefore, the Gnostics believed, Jesus as divine was pure spirit without body (contrary to the orthodox Christian doctrine of incarnation). (On this and other points, the depiction of Gnosticism in Dan Brown's novel THE DA VINCI CODE is erroneous.)

Hans Jonas wrote one of the classic books on Gnosticism--The Gnostic Religion. His studies of Gnosticism allowed him to recognize that the modern existentialist tradition--from Pascal to Nietzsche to Heidegger--rested on the Gnostic idea of human beings as aliens in the universe, transcendent selves seeking to escape their imprisonment in nature. He saw this modern existentialist version of Gnosticism as a reaction against the modern Cartesian conception of the universe as a material mechanism without mind or spirit. The existentialist attack on modern natural science as a materialistic reductionism that denies human dignity and freedom was a modern restatement of the Gnostic image of human beings as aliens in a world of dead matter.

This Gnostic attack on modern science and appeal to the transcendent self is evident in the writing of Walker Percy--particularly, his book Lost in the Cosmos. Percy rightly argues that symbolic thought and conceptual speech are uniquely human. But to suggest that natural science cannot explain this, because it is some kind of mysterious miracle that shows a transcendent self beyond nature, ignores the possibility that the human capacity for symbolic thought evolved from the non-symbolic thought of apes.

Percy's existentialist Gnosticism has been the basis for Peter Augustine Lawler's existentialist conservatism. According to Lawler, all human beings are "aliens" in the universe, because their true selves transcend the natural order of the universe, and thus natural science can never truly account for the alienated spirit of humanity. Darwinian science, in particular, denies this reality of the transcendent self. Lawler has been an influential voice among conservatives who reject Darwinian science as a reductive materialism. Some of my posts on Lawler can be found here, here, and here.

These existentialist conservatives fail to see how Darwinian science actually refutes any Cartesian reductionism that separates matter and mind. Although it initially looked like the final triumph of materialism, Darwinian evolution actually rejected the terms of modern materialism by denying the absolute separation of objective matter and subjective mind. Jonas developed this point well in his essay on "Philosophical Aspects of Darwinism" in his Phenomenon of Life. By showing how the human mind could emerge out of nature and by affirming the continuity of human beings and other animals as conscious beings, Jonas indicated, Darwinian science denied the radical transcendence of human beings as set apart from nature. But it also thereby elevated the whole living world by presenting it as the meeting place of matter and mind, and thus it overcame the Cartesian conception of human beings as isolated and alienated thinking beings in an unthinking world. Darwinian science exposed the absurdity of Cartesian dualism as denying organic reality and our psychophysical experience as bodies in which mind emerges naturally.

Darwinian conservatism rejects the existentialist conservatism of Lawler and others who follow the Gnostic tradition of radical dualism in which human beings as transcendent selves feel themselves to be aliens thrown into a cosmic prison.

The secular transcendentalism of the Left shows the same Gnostic dualism in which matter and mind must be forever separated, and any Darwinian explanation of human nature arouses abhorrence as a degrading denial of human freedom and dignity.

Against this Gnostic, transcendentalist assumption that human worth requires that we set human beings apart from nature as if they were aliens from another world, the Darwinian conservative would say that we have not been thrown into nature from some place far away. We come from nature. It is our home.

As a footnote, I should say that there is a lot of scholarly debate these days over the accuracy of Jonas's account of Gnosticism. Some scholars of early Christianity now argue that labeling the Gnostics as "heretics" obscures the similarities between Gnosticism and "orthodox" Christianity. Some of this debate was surveyed last year in an article by Richard Byrne ("The End of Gnosticism?") in The Chronicle of Higher Education (May 5, 2006).


Paul Allen said...


Thanks for your blog. I happened to be reading SCience, Politics and Gnosticism yesterday by Eric Voegelin. I suspect that you are onto a similar insight as Voegelin developed from his somewhat different stance of anti-totalitarianism. Have you read it? I highly recommend it - this seems to be acase of mutual complementarity. Voegelin's context is one of the philosophy of history whereas yours is an approach to nature and biology. The same anti-gnostic philosophy is necessary in both fields to counter similar misinterpretations of human freedom.

Paul Allen

Larry Arnhart said...

Yes, I generally agree with Voegelin's assessment of gnositc thought.

Broken Yogi said...

Opposition to Darwinian explanations of human nature is rooted primarily in the idea of the "transcendental self"--the idea that human beings have some psychic or spiritual capacity that sets them apart from and above the rest of nature. Against this idea, Darwinian science explains human beings as fully within the order of nature and thus at home in the universe.

I would agree that dualistic schools such as gnosticism are indeed hostile to darwinism, but not all schools advocating a "transcendental self" are dualistic. Vedanta and Buddhism come readily to mind. In Vedanta, for example, the notion of a transcendental Self is seen in non-dual terms, and is not seen as "apart" from nature, nor are natural processes such as evolution seen as antithetical.

In fact, the non-dual schools of Vedanta are quite in synch with such views as are found in Darwninian evolutionary theory. They do not consider God to the be creator or designer of the universe, but merely the intrinsic "nature" of the universe. Thus, no supernatural agent is required to explain life and evolution. It is assumed that the appearances of nature are fully self-contained and self-explanatory. Rather than seeking God as the external, objective "creator" of the universe, they see God as the internal, subjective, "Self" from which creation springs, and which exists within the realm of nature only as the transcendental "Witness" of nature, not found within nature as an active participant, but always removed from nature in the position of conscious witnessing.

I think this is an important point to make note of. Not all religious or spiritual viewpoints are hostile to science or Darwinism, but some are even complementary and supportive of it.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, the schools of thought on gnostic christianity can be wide open and personal for the person on that path, just as their were many schools of gnostic thought. I would argue that when experts define it, they are performing an act of orthodoxy by imposing a dogma on it. From my perspective, Gnosticism implies some pantheistic notions, not that the material universe is part of the Supreme Being, but that all mankind is. Therefore we must work for not only our own personal freedom but freedom for all mankind.

This is heresy to a church that promoted aristocracy not only of the hierarchies of the church, but the political authority of Fuedal Lords and Roman Emporeres. The birth of Jesus in the reign of Augustus being significant in that the Roman Republic failed. If the orthodox maintained authoritarian rule, the Gnostics surely opposed it. As for Darwin, no doubt Jesus would have laughed at ID and approved of Darwin while still poking his finger in the eye of Saklas, the Unitelligent (UD) Creator.

Bernard Lonergan said...

Percy "ignores the possibility that the human capacity for symbolic thought evolved from the non-symbolic thought of apes."

Well no in fact. Percy's whole point is that there is no possibility of sybolical forms arising from non-symbolical forms. Colours cannot arise from sounds because they are qualatively different. Chemical laws are not deriveable from physical laws, biological laws are not derivable from chemical laws, sensuous phychological laws are not derivable from biological laws, rational phychological laws are not derivable from sensuous phychological laws, although each set may well be dependent on the lower sets. To equate such dependence to identity is extra scientific. Natural selection as a theory is extra sceintific and as such bad science.

Anonymous said...

I don't think Gnosticism is anti-Darwin. If anything, the flawed (ie. Pain filled) system of natural selection would be seen as part of an imperfect creation by Gnostics. I was reading an interesting view yesterday that the 'demiurge' of Gnosticism is the big bang, physics, the natural laws and processes of the universe because what came 'before' the big bang was, in a sense, perfected (nothingness?) and the universe as an emanation - via the big bang - couldn't be any other way than what it is. In some respects - poetically - the universe is 'fallen' in that it is imperfect compared to the alternative - unity/nothing/absolute reality - so I don't think gnosticism is anti-Darwin. It doesn't even consider the material universe 'evil' just imperfect.