Sunday, October 17, 2010

 

The Garden of Earthly Morals



Primatologist Frans de Waal has an interesting article, entitled "Morals Without God?," at the New York Times that has, as a "hook," the fact that de Waal was born in Den Bosch, the city after which Hieronymus Bosch, the painter of "The Garden of Earthly Delights" shown above, named himself.

For a primatologist, like myself, the nudity, references to sex and fertility, the plentiful birds and fruits and the moving about in groups are thoroughly familiar and hardly require a religious or moral interpretation. Bosch seems to have depicted humanity in its natural state, while reserving his moralistic outlook for the right-hand panel of the triptych in which he punishes — not the frolickers from the middle panel — but monks, nuns, gluttons, gamblers, warriors, and drunkards.

de Waal does a good job of cutting to the chase:

Five centuries later, we remain embroiled in debates about the role of religion in society. As in Bosch's days, the central theme is morality. Can we envision a world without God? Would this world be good? Don't think for one moment that the current battle lines between biology and fundamentalist Christianity turn around evidence. One has to be pretty immune to data to doubt evolution, which is why books and documentaries aimed at convincing the skeptics are a waste of effort. They are helpful for those prepared to listen, but fail to reach their target audience. The debate is less about the truth than about how to handle it. For those who believe that morality comes straight from God the creator, acceptance of evolution would open a moral abyss.

This is well illustrated by the Undiscovery Institute's latest project, the conference at Biola (Bible Institute Of Los Angeles) University and a book, both entitled "God and Evolution," that are supposed to "set the record straight about the broader implications of Darwin's theory." You don't have to be an obsessive follower of the advocates of Intelligent Design Creationism to know that de Waal is absolutely correct that the DI's claim that "[o]ur main focus remains on the science," is most charitably described as disingenuous.

de Waal then describes Casey Luskin to a tee:

Deep down, creationists realize they will never win factual arguments with science. This is why they have construed their own science-like universe, known as Intelligent Design, and eagerly jump on every tidbit of information that seems to go their way.

de Waal has a lot of interesting things to say about the evolutionary origins of morality, altruism and the sense of fairness but he then beards the lion:

Over the past few years, we have gotten used to a strident atheism arguing that God is not great (Christopher Hitchens) or a delusion (Richard Dawkins). The new atheists call themselves "brights," thus hinting that believers are not so bright. They urge trust in science, and want to root ethics in a naturalistic worldview.

While I do consider religious institutions and their representatives — popes, bishops, mega-preachers, ayatollahs, and rabbis — fair game for criticism, what good could come from insulting individuals who find value in religion? And more pertinently, what alternative does science have to offer? Science is not in the business of spelling out the meaning of life and even less in telling us how to live our lives. We, scientists, are good at finding out why things are the way they are, or how things work, and I do believe that biology can help us understand what kind of animals we are and why our morality looks the way it does. But to go from there to offering moral guidance seems a stretch. ...

Other primates ... strive for a certain kind of society. For example, female chimpanzees have been seen to drag reluctant males towards each other to make up after a fight, removing weapons from their hands, and high-ranking males regularly act as impartial arbiters to settle disputes in the community. I take these hints of community concern as yet another sign that the building blocks of morality are older than humanity, and that we do not need God to explain how we got where we are today. On the other hand, what would happen if we were able to excise religion from society? I doubt that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good. Any framework we develop to advocate a certain moral outlook is bound to produce its own list of principles, its own prophets, and attract its own devoted followers, so that it will soon look like any old religion.


Comments:
I read that earlier today, and wondered when anyone last heard an atheist self-referencing as a "bright." It's a minor point, of course, but the term never really caught on, and virtually died out years ago.

I think he mistakes the center panel of Bosch's triptych as well. I'm no expert on medieval art, though, so I'll let another say why he's likely mistaken:

At first glance the panel appears to portray another scene of Earthly perfection, yet upon a more detailed inquiry the viewer notes the preludes to the age of sin soon to come. A cat devours a mouse.(4) Several small, evil beasts are shown crawling from the Fountain of Life. The owl of witchcraft sits high in the boughs of the trees, watching all that happens in the garden. Eve, still asleep, is presented in a seductive pose to the reawakened Adam. As one critic says, "Everything in this peaceful garden seems to breathe serenity and innocence, but in reality it is marked with the stigma of unnaturalness and corruption."(5)

The first panel, in other words, is a symbolic representation of the sin which is inherent in humanity, a recognition that in its very essence the human is evil.

The center panel illustrates humanity after the expulsion, a massive metaphor for, "eroticism, gluttony, rhythmic movements, [and] open-air revels."(6) Bosch is illustrating the pleasures of the flesh, using explicit multiple metaphors to condemn the sensuality which Bosch sees as inherent in the human character. A few critics have argued that Bosch was not criticizing the sensuality of the Adamites, but rather was exalting them, promoting a heresy quite to the contrary of his other works and the ultra-Catholic nature of his greatest patrons, Phillip II of Spain.(7) Furthermore, if Bosch was not condemning the sensuality of humanity through his super-metaphor of the left and center panels, then why would he include the right panel, which includes one of his most graphic and powerful portrayals of Hell?


http://www.smithsbluebook.com/bosch.html

After all, the triptych is a progression, from paradise, presumably into sin, then to hell for those sins.

I'm not sure where the owl in the tree is, but there are at least two owls I can see, one on a unicorn's horn, and another being embraced by a woman.

What the center panel really means also is largely an aside, however. Overall, the article is a good one, both with respect to creationism/ID, and to morality and its evolution at large.

My caveats are because any IDiots are likely to pounce on them, rather than to deal with the substance, and I want to say that we (most of us?) know about them, and they do not change the meaningfulness of de Waal's article in the main points.

Glen Davidson
 
I should note that the quote included in my comment above starts out discussing the first panel, not the center panel--which I didn't realize at first.

The evil is even in paradise, in Bosch's mind.

Glen Davidson
 
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