Josh’s post about the Hitchens / D’Souza debate reminded me of Tobias Wolff on his wicked stepfather: “[A]n atheist of the Popular Science orthodoxy. (Jesus hadn’t really died, he had taken a drug that made him look dead so he … Read More

By / October 25, 2007

Josh’s post about the Hitchens / D’Souza debate reminded me of Tobias Wolff on his wicked stepfather: “[A]n atheist of the Popular Science orthodoxy. (Jesus hadn’t really died, he had taken a drug that made him look dead so he could fake a resurrection later. The parting of the Red Sea was caused by a comet passing overhead. Manna was just the ancient word for potato.)” I’m in sympathy with Josh, but his neuroscience is of a piece with this triumphalist literal-mindedness:

Descartes believed that somewhere in the brain there was a driver’s seat for the soul—the site where “you” make the decision to act, whether morally or immorally. But the “I” that so many take for granted is known to be nothing more than the brain’s interpretation of its own complex functioning. Multiple things occur in the brain that the “I” isn’t aware of and couldn’t control no matter how hard it tried. . . . Whence did the soul of the “I” come into being in terms of human evolution? And how can something be transcendent if it can be surgically removed?

That last question certainly begs the question: In order to take Josh’s point, one has to take it on faith that the soul or the moral will can be surgically removed. This is hardly so apparent as he makes it seem. Evelyn Waugh, asked how someone as horrible as himself could claim to be a Christian, supposedly retorted, “Were it not for my religion, I would scarcely be a human being.” In God Is Not Great, Hitchens takes this idea and runs in the wrong direction with it. Some interviewer has just wondered how an atheist can possibly lead a moral life. Hitchens notes rather astutely that what the interviewer is really wondering is how he himself would lead a moral life without religion.

I no longer have my copy of the book—I liked it so much that I gave it to a family member. As I recall, and readers should correct me if I’m wrong, Hitchens regards this slip merely as proof of the interviewer’s moral turpitude. Don’t ask me why: I was fascinated by it, as I’ve always been by the story about Waugh, because it reminds me that people often force themselves to behave contrary to their nature, whether by reason or unreason. It’s nothing short of miraculous that one can use his brain against itself. My own neurological configuration, for instance, gives me the desire to smash the headlights of the guy who steals my parking space, but it also taketh it away. I see this as evidence that my brain is in working order.

But suppose I do smash those headlights. Suppose the gentleman in turn beats me into baby food—thus putting the moral reasoning center of my brain out of commission. Does this mean my soul has been “surgically removed”? A carpenter doesn’t cease to be a carpenter because he can’t use broken tools. Perhaps the soul is the carpenter, not the tool—the one who exercises the will, not the will itself. (I promise that this isn’t a coded Jesus reference, just the first analogy that came to mind.) This is by no means my own view of the conundrum, but the ease with which it presents itself suggests that the matter isn’t closed just because our understanding of the brain has deepened.

I can’t hope to address the question of the soul in the space of a blog post. What I hope to address is the lack of curiosity on both sides of this debate. Now, as Josh rightfully points out, D’Souza is by far the guiltier party. I first suspected that D’Souza was a lazy, thoughtless fraud when I read this post by James Wolcott about an advance copy of The Enemy at Home:

D’Souza makes a tired Buchananite reference to Piss Christ, so tired that its creator is misnamed as Jose Serrano. It’s Andres Serrano, of course, which any philistine should know. Perhaps the name will be corrected when the book is published, but there is no way to correct falsehoods such as labeling “Jose Serrano” a “liberal hero,” because these are fancies lodged in the penny arcade of D’Souza’s dim imagination.

Serrano’s work, despite its artistic deficiencies, wasn’t meant to be anti-Christian, but this fact does nothing to advance D’Souza’s paranoid views and must be ignored. No surprise there. D’Souza’s mind is so childish that when criticized by Scott Johnson in The New Criterion, he resorted to schoolyard taunts. Josh zeroes in on D’Souza’s accidental auto-refutation, to hilarious effect:

D’Souza actually made this point himself accidentally when he reminded us that in absence of evidence of unicorns he feels no need to speak out for their non-existence but simply lives as if there are none. I’d have liked to have heard Hitchens remind him that a) the belief in absurdity is offensive on its own b) that if part of the unicorn myth involved the sanctioning of murder in the name of one’s unicorn tribe, it would become necessary to fervently attack the belief in unicorns and that c) if Dinesh understands this principle with regard to unicorns, his willingness to suspend it for the Christian God proves his hypocritical selectivity . . .

This “hypocritical selectivity” and lack of curiosity reminded me of a letter sent to The New Criterion by a prominent and, for my money, breathtakingly brilliant Eastern Orthodox theologian, in response to my Hitchens review: “[I]n agreeing with Hitchens that the ‘argument from primary cause’ is infinitely regressive . . . he commits a very basic logical error. The one thing the idea of a primary cause cannot be is regressive.” Well, he’s right. He’s also pretending not to grasp my very basic objection, which is that believers choose the “vanishing point” of this regression to suit themselves. In Catholic high school it was presented to us very simply: “What caused the Big Bang, then? It must be God.” But the Big Bang could just as easily be the “uncaused cause,” as any schoolboy can see, and Young Hitchens would surely have demanded to know what brought about God.

Even the smartest guys in this knock-down, drag-out fight cling to their irrational prejudices and untested hypotheses. We can be thankful for that: It forces us to see that none of us really has it figured out. And we can take comfort in the fact that no matter what their faults, at least they’re not Dinesh D’Souza.

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