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Tuesday, December 07, 2004
 
Let's check a piece of this argument, propounded by a Mr. Slavoj Zizek, by replacing a few key words:
According to a possible Roman Catholic counter-argument, the true danger is that, in engaging in biogenetics, we forget that we have immortal souls. This argument only displaces the problem, however. If this were the case, Catholic believers would be the ideal people to engage in biogenetic manipulation, since they would be aware that they were dealing only with the material aspect of human existence, not with the spiritual kernel. Their faith would protect them from reductionism. If we have an autonomous spiritual dimension, there is no need to fear biogenetic manipulation.

And now, another verision, replacement text in bold:
According to a possible Roman Catholic counter-argument, the true danger is that, in engaging in murder, we forget that we have immortal souls. This argument only displaces the problem, however. If this were the case, Catholic believers would be the ideal people to engage in murder, since they would be aware that they were dealing only with the material aspect of human existence, not with the spiritual kernel. Their faith would protect them from reductionism. If we have an autonomous spiritual dimension, there is no need to fear murder.
This exercise is a little unfair, but I think that it points out the problem with this interpretation of dualism. The Church does not (with a few exceptions) say, "You are an immortal soul, and therefore may commit murder." It says, "You are an immortal soul, and therefore may not." The material world is important; it just isn't the only one.

Moreover, I think he's laboring under a misapprehension about the nature of the soul. A man is not a body wrapped around a soul, but a body and a soul. The soul is the form of the body, and although it is obviously possible to separate the two, and although we believe that the soul continues after death, I think it fair to say that the soul is less perfect without a body. A man is the combination of soul and body; neither can comfortably exist without the other.

I don't believe that anyone would claim that the soul could not be influenced by the body. The sudden understanding of how to do it better seems to me irrelevant. Further on:
Again, we see it as perfectly justified when someone with a good natural singing voice takes pride in his performance, although we're aware that his singing has more to do with talent than with effort and training. If, however, I were to improve my singing by the use of a drug, I would be denied the same recognition (unless I had put a lot of effort into inventing the drug in question before testing it on myself). The point is that both hard work and natural talent are considered 'part of me', while using a drug is 'artificial' enhancement because it is a form of external manipulation. Which brings us back to the same problem: once we know that my 'natural talent' depends on the levels of certain chemicals in my brain, does it matter, morally, whether I acquired it from outside or have possessed it from birth?
What if the person with the singing voice takes pleasure in it not because of pride, but because it's a lovely voice? Mr. Zizek is so fixated on society's approval that he can't seem to see that a person can enjoy a talent not because they possess it, but because it is enjoyable. C. S. Lewis, in the Screwtape Letters, has the eponymous character say on this subject that "the Enemy wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another." This selflessness, oddly, has no place in the philosophy of Mr. Zizek, where self is an amorphous product of a "network of social relations and material supplements".

If a person takes steroids because they need to be strong in order to complete some moral task, that seems to me a moral action. If they take them in order to beat someone else's home run record, that seems selfish and immoral. How hard is that? The question of record-keeping is best left to sportscasters, not philosophers.
To further complicate matters, it's possible that my willingness to accept discipline and work hard itself depends on certain chemicals. What if, in order to win a quiz, I don't take a drug which enhances my memory but one which 'merely' strengthens my resolve? Is this still 'cheating'?
Produce a drug which "strengthens resolve" and we'll talk. I am completely unable to imagine such a thing. I find that lack of will is not due to the weakness of my will, but instead the strength of various wills which I call mine, each pulling in a different direction. One will wants me to do something productive, another wants me to comment on irritating articles, another wants me to have a chocolate chocolate chip oatmeal cookie (not a typo; I love my wife), and another suggests a little self-discipline. Will this drug strengthen all these wills? That seems unhelpful. Will it merely strengthen one of them, the conscious one? This seems limiting and possibly tragic.

There is no question in my mind that drugs can make us stronger, smarter, faster, and concentrate on our schoolwork instead of staring out the window. What they cannot do is strengthen our will. And we should be clear about why we take them: it is not because we want to be strong, but because we want the world to be weak. We do not want to wrestle with the angels; we prefer tossing a grenade from a safe distance.

This dream of a weak world is, I think, behind any number of superhero fantasies. The impression one gets from, say, Spiderman, is not that Peter Parker has become strong, but that rather, his opponents have become weak. The bully is suddenly powerless, his (Peter's) surroundings are more malleable, and the girl is more easily approached.

And the importance of biological manipulations in this movie is no accident. Peter Parker, through changing his genes, suddenly has little to struggle with. Even the "super-villain" is no match for him in a clean fight. The Green Goblin must prey on Peter's human, all too human, weaknesses. If Peter had truly become strong, he'd have no difficulty making the decisions necessary (and wouldn't have needn't the plot device of remote-control treachery to kill the Goblin). He hasn't. The same would be true for any of us. So we're all stronger? With comparison to what? In the end, we tire of the endless Nietzschean struggle of will against will. We instinctively, and correctly, seek for something truly strong with which to wrestle. We seek to test our strength against that which makes all things strong.

I have little to say about the rest of the article. If I should have a wire stuck in my head which allows distant villains to control my actions, I am quite sure that I am not the agent responsible for them. Why this is considered a philosophical conundrum is beyond me, but then I'm not a dialectical-materialist. Oops! Sometimes the old ad hominem just slips out.

I'm going to steal an entire post from another blog that encapsulates the problem perfectly.
I don't need to be smarter than I am. I only want to be smarter than I am because I'm lazy, and smarts facilitate laze. But, thing is, I want to be not lazy even more than I want to be smart. 'Cause once I figure the trick of that out, I'll have enough to occupy me so that I won't feel the lack like I do in idleness. And that's living. So hop to. Hup hup hup. Argh.
I wish I could find the formula for industry. I'd bottle it and make a million dollars. But laziness or industry themselves are not the moral issue. They are only important there for what they can tell me about the state of my soul. My soul wants a cookie.

Original article found via Mr. Andrew Sullivan.


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