Tag Archives: morality

Continuing Toward a New Ontology

As should be obvious by this point, I have been having a great deal of difficulty with the ongoing Ontology project. Mallory has repeatedly stressed to me a need to move past the fine details and begin working out the bigger picture, which I am now endeavoring to do.

So, allow me to briefly sum up the argument so far. The biggest feature of this project has been the assertion that the Subject is total and indivisible. It cannot be broken into its component features and retain the qualities which it possesses as a subject. Indeed, the Subject, once resolved, is no longer composed of constituent units, but is totalized into a single, coherent whole. In short, the Subject is irreducibly complex. Now, I recognize that term derives from the largely spurious Creation Science movement, and I am not using it in that context. Biology as a science has sufficiently explained the means and mechanisms through which complex structures develop from simpler antecedents. In this context, I use the term irreducible complexity to describe the resolved Subject as that emergent property which cannot reduced to the structures from which it resolves. Indeed, I think this is the only fashion in which a concept like irreducible complexity can be made sensible: as volta. The resolution of the Subject is the volta which transfigures the prior system into something radically different and new. The Subject is irreducibly complex because it is no longer the sum of its parts, but a new emergent being.

Of course, the emergent Subject is reliant upon its substrate: the physical structures are necessary preconditions for the emergence of the Subject. Indeed, when we speak about the sanctity of human life, is this not what we are speaking of? The reduction of this argument to mere cells has produced a cacophony of nonsense arguments and sophistry which are no longer attached to the underlying issue (why ban abortion and legalize capital punishment? The murder of political adversaries is just as egregious if it is the mere cells which we privilege. After all, we’re all made of the same stuff, full grown humans just have more of it than fetuses, so surely, by weight alone, killing an adult is worse than killed a kidney bean sized cluster of cells).

Prior to the emergence of the Subject, there is nothing that would sufficiently differentiate the human body from other complex physical systems. The human body varies from other objects only in scale. Solar systems, atoms and the human body are all of equal importance prior to the emergence of the Subject, due to their engagement within the same network of formal relations. The network itself determines all relations even as it is determined by the totality of its constituent units. Value is not an objective quality.

It would sound as though, at this point, that I am working toward a justification of the soul, or some other ethereal substance unique to human being. Well, after a fashion, I suppose I am. This uniqueness I have been calling the Subject. The reflexive, interior spaces which certain beings inhabit, the realm of the Subject, is what we seek to preserve in our honoring of human life. The emergence of the Subject radically alters the formal network relations. The Subject suddenly emerges as a locus of intent, previously unknown in the formal network. The Subject destroys the equality of objects.

The next important piece is the Subject/Object divide. Subjects are differentiated from objects by the aforementioned interiority. Subjects contain themselves within their subjectivity: subject withdraw into themselves, whereas objects are in relation only to the network in which they are entrenched. Subjects are in relation to themselves in reflexive unity with the network. The network itself is a necessary precondition for the emergence of the Subject, the action of the Subject is primordially reflexive. The reflexivity between Subject and object partially allows for the Subject’s self-recognition as Subject.

I had previously leveled a critique at this project, aiming to entrench it firmly in ontology, as ontology, differentiated from theology need not produce a morality. I have come to feel that I was incorrect in making this claim. While I still hold to the sharp distinction between ontology and theology, I do believe that already we have here the beginnings of a moral concern. If we are concerned with the Subject, our concern must then spread back to the necessary preconditions for the Subject’s resolution. The substrate and the network become vitally important, and both must be maintained in order to ensure the development and flourishing of the Subject.

As this project continues, I intend to further develop these themes, as well as return to the tangled concept of the soul and its complex intellectual history.

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Towards a New Ontology, Part 3

Again, I present another digression before moving on with the discussion at hand. I apologize for the crawling pace at which this discussion is proceeding, but at nearly every step I encounter a more quandaries which I feel I must address before moving forward.

Before beginning this series, I emailed Emjay about it asking her permission as well as sending her a draft of the first post. The two of us do, I admit, rather ominously, have further plans involving this theory, but I thought that it was important for my own understanding of it to begin working through it and presenting it here. In that initial draft, I had a throw away line which I then excised before posting, about how I felt Emjay was irritated with me for my final hesitation. She clarified, saying that she was not irritated with me, simply confused.

She suggested to me the reasons for my balking, and I do believe that her analysis of my reaction was correct. Our ur-theology is terribly open ended. That was, of course, the intent. And yet… Emjay suggested that I am too uncomfortable with a theology that tolerates all moralities, including those which I, I feel justified in claiming, find to be reprehensible and destructive. I feel like part of our disagreement stems from our views on the purpose of theology. I personally feel that it is quite important to keep a sharp line between ontology and theology, as I feel that they have very particular domains.

Emjay and I have since engaged in a rather truncated discussion of the role of theology in morality (mostly do to both of our schedules and our erratic response time to emails).  She, scolded me for implying that theology plays a vital and formative role in morality. In a message to her I said, “Ontology shouldn’t produce morality, but theology should. Have we produced a theology or an ontology? I do think that the ontology is secure, but if the theology cannot function to produce a faith, then it kind of fails. Isn’t morality part of spirituality? Are they not somehow linked? I don’t mean to say that one must know god to have morals, I believe one can derive them entirely humanistically, but isn’t that still an appeal to transcendance, merely human rather than divine?” I am not comfortable quoting Emjay’s response here, as I haven’t asked her permission, but I will summarize her rebuttal. Her response was that morality is not linked to theology (and that such a position was dangerous, as it allows for religious culture warriors to claim to have the only true rights to morality) but culture. Further, such a position invalidates Humanist and secular moralities.

I certainly do not disagree that morality is a social function. It is in operation within the social sphere and has a strong component, perhaps, honestly, the strongest component, of social concern. However, I think that it is also important to recognize that theology serves a similar function, in its embedding within society. Here I think we see a parallel evolution, theology and morality grow alongside and influence the development of each other. I think it would be a mistake to sever all linkages between morality and theology. While one may not precede the other in origin, each inflect and disturb the other through their growth. Thus, theology and morality are organically linked in the roles they play not only within society but within each other. After the fact, however, or perhaps even during, theology is viewed as the dominant partner in the relationship. Retroactively the social forces which shaped morality are shifted in the domain of theology. Taboos previously established because of social factors become divine edicts. Thus, theology serves to reinforce and preserve moral codes. Religion acts conservatively, resisting social pressures and maintaining a particular moral code of conduct. While theology is flexible, I would argue that social and culture forces are much more protean, especially in the contemporary world. Therefore, the function of religion in the moral sphere is to resist cultural and social pull. So, theology is likely not the dominant player in a society’s moral development, but it certainly has a hand in the longevity of any particular morality.

So, religion, as the theological institution, becomes an institution of morality. I use the indefinite article quite purposefully here, as I see no reason why there cannot be manifold institutions of morality, or perhaps, more controversially, moral institutions. Religion has historically been viewed as the dominant moral institution, though it is by no means the only one. Platonism in its pure form is largely unconcerned with religion and spirituality, indeed, Plato’s writings have a largely secular focus, and yet Platonism has served as a moral institution for centuries in various forms. Stoicism as well, which stands directly opposed to the metaphysical, is a philosophical movement caught up entirely with morality. Again, a moral institution which derives its force not from appeals to divine transcendence, but from appeals to lived experience and rationality.

Modern Secular Humanism owes a great debt to Stoicism in particular, I feel, for its approaches to morality. Thus, Secular Humanism functions in the moral realm in a way quite similar to religion, merely with different derivations. In place of theology, Secular Humanist moralities derive from philosophy. I hold that neither is necessarily incompatible with the other. Theology first places authority in divinity, while philosophy privileges human reason. Neither need contradict the other. Difficulties emerge when particular theologies and philosophies denounce the privilege of their peers. A particular theology or philosophy may instantiate a flawed morality, but this does not contradict the functioning of morality within the class of institutions deemed moral, be they secular or religious.

Must morality be institutionalized, then? There is a great danger in answering yes to the question, as then morality is removed from the individual and implanted within the group. As such, there would be no individual accountability, all moral force is transferred to the group, for good or for ill. Thus, no single person is responsible for their actions, as their actions are merely reflections of the collective’s morality. One is moral or immoral in as much as the group is moral, and moral judgements can then only be made from outside that group, as each constituent actor would be acting in accordance with group morality, thus nullifying moral judgements as a class and defining them instead as forms of cultural warfare. I propose, then, that moral institutions serve not as the moral actors, but as libraries of morality. Moral institutions preserve and disseminate moral knowledge (which, of course, is heavily inflected by the social and cultural forces of the group in which such institutions are embedded). Moral knowledge is not, however, predicated on the presence of such institutions.

Morality, I suggest, is praxis. All that is absolutely necessary for the presence of morality is a theory from which it derives. The motion from theology to morality is exactly analogous to the motion from theory to praxis. The same motion, of course, occurs between philosophy and morality. Morality is the active practice of theology or philosophy within the social sphere. Therefore, the individual is entirely responsible as a moral actor. The individual is responsible for the derivation or acceptance of any theory or worldview presented, and thus responsible for the moral choices which proceed from that theory. Morality, while linked to society and institutions remains foremost within the individual and actions which that individual engages in in relation to others. Morality proceeds through the actions of the individual from the underlying theory.

I do not believe that I am mistaken in my desire to establish a strong link between theology and morality. Of course, the project which Emjay and I have engaged in is fundamentally different from the model I described above. We are not dealing with an organically developing theological/moral matrix. We are creating a theology out of whole cloth. What, then, is incumbent upon such a theology? How does such a theology relate to morality: how must it relate in order to preserve its position as theology, rather than drifting into mythology (which can still be immensely powerful, but differently so)? These are questions which I am still very much engaged with and as yet unable to answer to my satisfaction.

Thus, I have been very purposeful in this project in my selection of the term ontology: the study of being, emphatically not the study of god. So far this project has not even touched upon Divinity. Nearly every other essay I’ve written here references the Divine in some sense, and I am not decidedly not bringing that concept into play here. There simply is no room for it. This discussion rotates around the Subject. This discussion takes place before God, it precedes and anticipates Divinity, but it is emphatically not addressing the Divine. The Divine must relate to, must be of the Subject, and until the Subject there is no Divine. So, ontology, not theology. I am here merely defining the ground out of which a theology may emerge, and, eventually, I hope present why the theology which Emjay and I have developed progresses logically and consistently from this ground.

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