“Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke, you gotta understand
It’s just our bringin’ upke that gets us out of hand
Our mothers all are junkies, our fathers all are drunks
Golly Moses, naturally we’re punks”
When Steven Sondheim wrote these lyrics for West Side Story, he was satirizing the liberalism of the post-war years. The play (and the song) appeared in 1957, just two years after Bill Haley introduced Rock ‘n’ Roll with Rock Around The Clock. Nine years earlier, Dr. Spock (the psychologist, not the Vulcan) had revolutionized child-rearing by insisting that children be treated with affection.
The issue broached by Sondheim goes much deeper, however, than some west -side “punks.” A slew of post-war theorists were on their way to demolishing the Enlightenment notion of human beings as the autonomous agents we think we are. Social-work theory was explaining deviant behavior as an understandable reaction to forces beyond the individual’s conscious processes – a trend that began with Freud. A lesser known influence, rooted largely in Marxism, gave us a giddy glob of “isms” — post-modernism, structuralism, deconstructionism, postcolonialism, and certain strands of feminism, all of them schools of thought that cast doubt on the possibility of any kind of certainty whatever. What once seemed like truths were redeployed just as “narratives,” ways of seeing the world that served certain interests rather than being objective description of facts. These “narratives” attracted less savory titles in the various “isms”: rationalization (Freud), epiphenomena (Marx), discourse (Foucault) and so on.
Meanwhile, scientific materialism was reducing us to reactive animals anyway – human versions of Pavlov’s dogs who might think we had undergone quantum leaps of evolution but who were just a more complex version of the stimulus/response mechanism.
Under the onslaught of these attacks, it seemed we didn’t have to die to decompose. Only our bodies waited that long. The rest of us – the human mind and conscience — were being decomposed already, exposed as mere illusions.
The real issue isn’t whether the West Side Story punks are autonomous agents but whether any of us are. What is the point of religion in a system where we are all just victims of psycho-social forces beyond our control or just bundles of neurons salivating at psychological bells?
What an about-face this is from the Enlightenment’s insistence on human beings as responsible individuals: with rights, reason, and responsibility. We believe we have minds that think, consciences that make moral choices, and souls that somehow define us as we ultimately are. Are any of these ideas salvageable?
We should start by taking seriously the critique that says we are very much the product of forces beyond our ken. We ought similarly to admit that none of the three terms (mind, conscience, soul) are scientific entities – that is, none of them are material objects capable of being affirmed in a laboratory. Indeed, some scientists would reduce all human endeavor to brain function: the exchange of electrical impulses over synapses that separate neurons.
So here’s the question, restated: How can we believe in a “self” with a “mind,” “conscience” and “soul” when social science and philosophy of the last fifty years demolishes personal objectivity and science reduces our sense of human elegance to brain function alone?
The answer lies in understanding the levels at which we regularly speak of complex phenomena. Philosopher John Searle (Minds, Brains and Science, p. 20) uses the example of a desk with a glass of water on it – like the one I am using now. On the one hand, he says, we have the obvious “solidity of the table [and] liquidity of the water.” On the other hand, we know that “actually” (= scientifically), both table and water are made of micro-particles that are neither. Any particular atom of water is not itself “wet,” and the atoms that constitute the desk have more empty space within them than they do solidity. Individually, that is, the micro-articles explain the larger systems that we call desk and water, but reducing the desk and water to their micro-particle essence does not do them justice.
Similarly, if we limit our understanding of human beings to the physicality of our brains, we do the larger system of “selves” an injustice. “Brains” are to people as atoms are to desks and water. When we want a scientific approach to human existence we speak of the way that brains operate within us. But there is still the larger system to account for, the “us” in which our brains function. In that case, we expand the topic to include mind, conscience and soul, each of which says something extra about the larger entity that we label a sentient individual.
As individuals, we are subjects of our own identity, our own story (if you like), the life we lead that someday gets a eulogistic summary by those who remember us. Literary theorist Jonathan Culler (Literary Theory, p. 110) notes the dichotomous way we speak of a person as “subject.” On the one hand, we say we are “subject to” influences – exactly what Freud, Marx and the others have been insisting. On the other hand, when we say that something is the subject of a sentence, we mean it is the independent focal point about which we rightly attribute actions and characteristics. An individual is a subject in both senses: we are indeed formed by influences beyond ourselves; but we are equally autonomous subjects with stories of our own.
Religion is the system of thought and practice that tries to find meaning in the larger systems that we know ourselves to be. It transcends the Freudian or Marxist systems that explain our foibles and our fashions; even as it does the scientific system that describes our brains.
Each system generates its own set of concepts with which to think its topic through. Freud and Marx need rationalization and epiphenomenon. Brain science needs neurons. Religion needs minds, consciences and souls. The language we choose reflects the system we have in mind. All three systems are real.