Friday, February 9, 2007

Biological research v. ancient philosophy & religion

I recently read an article in The American Scholar online about the way literary theory has tried to kill-off the love of good stories.

The article, available at, spend most of its time making a biological and evolutionary argument against the assumptions of (what is alleged to be) the dominant literary-theory ideas in university English departments.

I loved the challenge against theory, and the way it was done, yet I struggled with the reductively biological view of humans that supported the challenge.

I emailed the link to a group of friends, and after some of them had a chance to read it, I offered them these thoughts:

I'm actually still holding out some hope for metaphysics to make a qualified comeback. The article's author gave reasons why we have customs -- so our species can keep its signals clear. Confucius would have said that the Tao was pre-existing and transcendent, and we are at our best (keeping our signals clearest) when we correspond to it via proper customs.

The Stoics were similar, with Logos (universal reason) in place of the Tao, and proper reasoning as the expression of the presence of Logos instead of customs. Before the Stoics, Socrates seemed to think we could dialectically get to something that was true and pre-existing (maybe similar to Logos), and sought to trim away the unclear signals (artifices) of the species, and died for it.

Jesus presented the Law and the Prophets as the transcendent standards, and then added a human-relationship element to them -- hate is murder; love; forgive -- and died for it. I'm unfamiliar with the Hindu and Buhddist teachings.

But the point being, in light of these ancients, it's hard for me, just being the thing that I am, to reduce the transcendent points of reference of these ancients to the outcomes of biological trial-and-error over a kijillion years. One book I read actually mapped the commonality in moral and ethical teachings across Norse, Babylonian, Confucian, Judaic, Greek, Christian, Egyptian, Roman, Hindu and Anglo-Saxon cultures -- a real skewer in the "local" of theory, huh?! To what do we assign this unity among diverse cultures?

Well, I readily acknowledge that the strictly biological view, which one might call reductive in light of the ancients, is exactly where the expertise is, where the cutting-edge thinking and research is happening, and it is very compelling. We just keep peeling away at the brain through scientific advances. People still read these ancients, yet research constantly recasts them, constantly fosters new questions. So I remain,
Colin Burch

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