Sunday, October 18, 2015

Book Review: Born Bad

Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World
James Boyce
Philosophy, theology, intellectual history

Consider the following argument.

The classic Warner Brothers "Road Runner" cartoon series is fundamentally shaped by the Catholic doctrine of Original Sin. The Coyote could end his suffering at any time by ceasing to pursue his carnal desires--but he is fundamentally incapable of doing so. He places his reliance on the products of human ingenuity, in the form of an unending series of Acme gadgets; yet these gadgets inevitably fail, causing the Coyote further pain. 
The point is driven home by the fact that the Coyote is not even named: he is instead given a pseudo-Latin label ("Carnivorous Vulgaris", "Famishus Famishus", etc.--Latin, of course, being the language of the Church), which refers to his animal nature and his insatiable appetites. He is not an individual with the power to change his fate. He is a prisoner of his nature. Appetite is not for him a choice; it's part of his definition.
The Road-Runner, then, represents the unattainable state of grace. The Coyote's devices are earthbound, but the Road-Runner defies the laws of physics. He zooms through a tunnel painted on a cliff, while the Coyote bounces off. He can race across thin air in a cloud of dust; the Coyote plummets as soon as he realize that he has stepped off, his feeble faith unable to sustain him.
James Boyce doesn't actually make that analogy, but some of his assertions are hardly less strained. Born Bad is one of those frustrating books where the author, having gotten hold of an interesting idea, proceeds to beat it to death by insisting that it applies everywhere.

Actually, Born Bad is two books. The first half is a history of the idea itself, and of responses to it. This is pretty interesting, and to a non-theist like myself it's also very informative. Boyce argues that original sin is not a Biblical concept per se, but a creation of St. Augustine and his followers. It's a particular inheritance of Western (not Eastern) Christianity. Nor has it ever been uncontroversial; in Boyce's telling, there's always been an intellectual undercurrent eating away at the absolutist position.

In the second half, Boyce starts talking about the doctrine's effect in shaping western non-religious thought. I can see, for example, an intellectual connection with the U.S. Constitution's view of human nature ("If men were angels, no government would be necessary" — James Madison). Similarly, Adam Smith's view of capitalism frankly acknowledges that humans are fundamentally greedy and self-interested. These men were Enlightenment thinkers, and prided themselves on being rational; but Boyce is probably onto something when he detects the influence of the original-sin dogma.

Thereafter, however, Boyce goes off the rails. He starts applying his idea into various areas, such as the physical sciences, where it's prima facie far-fetched. Nor does he ever trouble to substantiate his notion that this mental armament is a specifically Western one. To do so he would have to look at non-Western ideas of human nature and non-Western thinking in general, and he makes no effort to do so. 

Even if he had, I suspect he'd have managed to find what he was looking for. E.g.: Boyce diagnoses "original sin thinking" in the empiricist/materialist philosopher David Hume. And yet: another author can read the same texts and speculate that, rather, Hume was influenced by Buddhism. I would say that humans are by nature subject to confirmation bias, except that Boyce would insist that, in so saying, my thinking was fundamentally shaped by the precepts of, yes, original-sin.

No doubt I am a soulless reductionist. Nonetheless, it seems to me that if you're going to make large statements, you should have large evidence supporting them. Otherwise you're simply playing with words.

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