Even I, by nature a timid conformist lower-second if ever there was one, gained my skin-of-the-teeth first in 1953 by telling a member of the viva committee that he was completely wrong about the last two stanzas of Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale and demonstrating his error by effective off-the-cuff quotation. Tolkien, who chaired, was said to have observed as the door closed behind me, “I rather like the cut of that young fellow’s jib!”
–Geoffrey Hill, “I know thee not, old man, fall to thy prayers”
Three names I would not have expected to see together.
At the climax of Martin Scorsese’s new film Silence, as of the novel by Shusaku Endo upon which it is based, a Jesuit missionary in Japan faces an apparent choice between an act of blasphemy and the death of his followers. I say apparent, because I do not think that there can ever arise a situation in which such a choice presents itself; and I think that this impossibility tells us something important about how persecution works. (In case it needs to be said: spoilers follow.)
Why can it not occur? Setting aside for a moment the book and film, let us imagine what such a situation might look like.
Suppose Bob’s friend Alice is trapped behind a door that has been accidentally sealed shut, and he will suffocate before help will arrive. The door has painted on it a sacred Christian image, to destroy which would, in Bob’s eyes (for Bob is Christian) be an act of blasphemy, at least under ordinary circumstances. But again, Alice will die if Bob does not break through the door. What should he do? “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil? to save life, or to kill?” (Mark 3:4) Jesus is not saying that one may break the sabbath in order to save a life; rather, he is saying that saving a life is not breaking the sabbath at all. The analogy between sabbath-breaking and image-breaking is not exact, but the same logic would apply here. Breaking down the door would not be a justified act of blasphemy, it would be no blasphemy at all.
What if Bob learns that the door sealing shut was no accident—someone wanted Alice to get trapped, so that he would be forced to destroy the sacred image? “They watched him, whether he would heal him on the sabbath day; that they might accuse him” (Mark 3:2). The malevolence of a third party does not change anything: Bob breaks through, saddened that he was forced to do so, but without regret.
Let’s change up the situation. Bob and Alice have gotten lost in the desert, and she will soon die of thirst. He has no way to signal for help other than by burning the sacred image he has been transporting. This scenario differs from the first in that destroying the image no longer contributes directly to saving Alice’s life; rather, it shows her location to another person, who then must decide to take action. It is an act of communication. An important difference—but not, yet, a relevant one. Any means of signalling would have worked, and it was pure bad luck that destroying the image was the only way to create such a signal. Bob may do so entirely free of blasphemous intention.
And what if he learns that getting lost in the desert was no accident—someone means to force him to burn the sacred image? The same applies as in the earlier scenario—the malevolence of a third party does not change the nature of the act. Bob lights the fire and wait for help to arrive.
But what if the only help that could arrive would come from whoever has trapped Bob into burning the image? Well, this might make no difference—if they would save her no matter how he signalled them, then the sacredness of the image does not contribute to the act of communication achieved by destroying it. In this case, Bob’s situation would no longer be pure bad luck, but still, all could be set right through the small miracle of finding something else to fuel the fire. He doesn’t need a ram caught in the thicket, he just needs a thicket. Others might disagree, but I don’t think this would be blasphemy.
Such indifference on the part of Bob’s tormentors does not, however, sound very likely. They have put him and Alice in the desert to force him to destroy the sacred image. Surely they already know where they are, and need no signal to know that Alice needs rescuing—they hold back solely because Bob has not yet destroyed the image. If by some miracle he manages to signal for rescue without doing so, will they accept this lying down? Or, as soon as they realize that he has not destroyed it (and assuming the miracle does not so impress them that they let them go) will they not leave them again in the desert, or try some other tactic to elicit blasphemy?
In such circumstances the sacredness of the image destroyed is not accidental to the act’s efficacy, but rather essential. Alice is not rescued due to Bob lighting a fire with what happens to be a sacred image; rather, she is rescued because Bob destroys a sacred image. Such an act must count as blasphemy if anything is to do so.
But still Bob does not face a choice between blaspheming and saving Alice’s life. He cannot save her life at all. The “because” in the previous paragraph is misleading. As mentioned earlier, Bob’s destruction of the image will not lead directly to Alice’s rescue, but rather indirectly, by means of communicating something to a third party—although what is communicated, now, is not her location (so that she can be saved) but rather his blasphemy (so that he can be damned). Bob has no power at all over Alice’s life—if he did, then a miracle could help him save it without blaspheming. But in the scenario we have sketched, no miracle could help him save her (though of course a miracle could save them both by removing them from the situation entirely).
This is because Bob is not at all faced with a choice between blaspheming and letting Alice die; rather, he is faced with his tormentors, who threaten his friend in order to persuade him to blaspheme. The tormentors hope, of course, that Bob do not notice this. The illusion of a choice between blaspheming and causing suffering is achieved by effacing those who create the necessity for such a choice.
In Silence, whose final scenario is identical in structure, though not in details, to that we have been considering, the various agents of persecution quite deftly avoid any suggestion that they have anything to do with it. “The price for your glory,” they tell Fr. Sebastião Rodrigues, “is their suffering”; “Do you have the right to make them suffer?” As if Fr. Rodrigues, rather than their tormentors, were the cause of their torment. At the same time, the persecutors insist to Fr. Rodrigues that trampling on the “fumi-e”—a small metal image of Jesus—is “only a formality.” Meaning, not that it will have no real effect (for Fr. Rodrigues, it will determine everything), but rather that the effect, not the intention, is what matters. They do not care if Fr. Rodrigues blasphemes in his heart, but only that he apostatize—visibly renounce his faith—by way of an act of blasphemy.
In other words, the persecutors will treat blasphemy like pushing a lever on a bureaucratic machine (no accident, perhaps, that trampling on the fumi-e looks something like pressing a car’s brake pedal). We are all used to the idea that, when we check the box saying we have read the agreement, we needn’t have actually read it in order for the law to treat us as if we did so. Trampling on the fumi-e, according to the persecutors, will not say anything about Fr. Rodrigues’ soul, but it will have the effect of him living under Japanese law as if he has abandoned his faith. Is there any difference between the two? “Is a candle brought to be put under a bushel, or under a bed?” (Mark 4:22) Scorsese’s film seems to think so; Endo’s novel is, I think, less sanguine about the possibility of invisible Christianity. To live a life of pure formality, just “going through the motions,” is incompatible with an evangelical faith unless one denies the humanity of those with whom one lives.
I have been referring to Fr. Rodrigues’ persecutors with the collective “they,” but both novel and film do much to differentiate their characters, particularly the Translator, Inquisitor Inoue, and Fr. Ferreira. In trampling on the image, Fr. Rodrigues tells these three men that he does not believe, and so abandons any hope of their hearing the Gospel and converting. He does not think that he is doing so, of course. He is not thinking about his persecutors at all; he thinks that he is risking his own soul in exchange for the lives of his followers. He sees it this way, however, only because they have convinced him to do so. They have become invisible. In one of the films’ darkly comic scenes, Fr. Rodrigues demands to be taken to Inquisitor Inoue, not realizing that his demand is addressed to—Inquisitor Inoue.
Inoue makes himself invisible through words, but also through actions. Most importantly, he tortures Fr. Rodrigues’ friends in order to make him—not them—convert. This horrifying indifference to human life—torture without even a pretense of justice—is meant to show Fr. Rodrigues that Inoue cannot be swayed, and cannot be saved. Formalities, after all, can be dispensed with, if the other party is willing. If the other party refuses despite the inhumanity of the form, that inhumanity begins to color the other party as well.
Ought Fr. Rodrigues to trample on the image? If so (and setting aside the possibility of special and incomprehensible revelation), it is because the souls of Fr. Rodrigues’ persecutors do not outweigh the lives of his Japanese followers. I do not see how this could be the case unless, by torturing the innocent, they have placed themselves beyond the pale of forgiveness—but Christ, at least, did not think that an impassible barrier. “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Instead of trampling the image of Jesus—or, at the very least, in addition to it—Fr. Rodrigues ought to pray for Inoue’s soul. We see no indication that he does so; he cannot even recognize Inoue when he sees him.
This last observation may strike the reader as obvious, but in all the discussion of the film that I have read, I have not seen it. It is easy to focus on Fr. Rodrigues’ internal dilemma, caught between blaspheming and watching his followers die. Doing so can, as many have observed, prevent us from seeing the heroism of other characters—the Japanese martyrs, Fr. Garupe—who undergo a more conventional martyrdom. It can also, however, prevent us from seeing the humanity of other characters, like the Japanese persecutors. Unless we see the humanity of Inoue, and refuse (contra Inoue himself) to believe that it is unsalvageable, it is difficult to understand how refusing to trample on the fumi-e could be an act of charity. It comes to look like a prideful preservation of one’s own sanctity at the expense of others’ lives. In the face of human suffering, such pride is difficult to maintain. If, on the other hand, we see Inoue as a possible (if unlikely) recipient of the Christian Gospel, the importance of resisting him becomes easier to see. One should resist blasphemous demands because the blasphemy demanded would harm even the one demanding it.
My favorite Christmas carol has long been “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” Its was written by Charles Wesley, but the first two verses, especially, have been heavily modified. (Songs, unlike poems that sit inert on the page, tend to be transformed in the mouths of their cantors.) I almost wish the first line had been retained, if only for the wonderfully English word “welkin” (which means sky, celestial sphere, etc):
HARK how all the Welkin rings
“Glory to the Kings of Kings,
“Peace on Earth, and Mercy mild,
“GOD and Sinners reconcil’d!
Joyful all ye Nations rise,
Join the Triumph of the Skies,
Universal Nature say
“CHRIST the LORD is born to Day!
I also like the emphasis on the welkin, rather than its angels. It reminds me of Giotto’s Adoration of the Shepherds—though this is something of an historical accident; much like the sky itself compared to the earth, the blue paint has retained its riches where the other colors have succumbed to the ravages of time.
I realized recently that I often make use in my own thought of a distinction that isn’t commonly recognized: that between evolution and development. So I thought it would be worthwhile to set down what I mean by these two terms.
I derive this distinction in part from John Henry Newman’s Development of Christian Doctrine. (Incidentally, when papal encyclicals in the late 19th century condemned the view that doctrine evolves, many took this to be a condemnation of Newman’s book—but Newman’s theory of doctrinal development is now considered to have been foundational for Vatican II, so if there is any continuity at all between the pre- and post-Vatican II Church, this distinction better hold water!) In that book Newman distinguishes between the development of a single entity over time, and the replacement of that entity by another, related entity. Take Newman’s example of the Roman Republic: it developed in various ways over a span of several hundred years, and then in the time of Augustus was replaced by the Roman Empire. An entity can change, and indeed must change, so long as the changes do not change the entity’s substantial nature. The changes, moreover, have a direction: a frog does not turn back into a tadpole.
Newman’s book is all about how to recognize the identity between frog and tadpole; he offers little theorizing about what is going on when Empire replaces Republic. Here we look to Charles Darwin, and his theory of evolution via natural selection. The key thought is that there never exists an individual in a vacuum; rather, there exist many, competing individuals, all members of the same species, but all slightly different from one another; and when a new individual comes into being, it is related more closely to some individuals than to others. Over time, the characteristics that predominate in the group, turn out to be the characteristics of those individuals who managed to outcompete the others by producing the most offspring. Unlike development, the “subject” of evolution is not the individual, but the species. But, of course, a species can also be considered as an individual, just an immaterial one, and immaterial v material is not the key difference here. Rather, the key difference is that, for Darwin if not for Aristotle, a species has no nature of its own, but rather is defined only as a set of biological individuals are able to reproduce with one another. Given enough time, a group of rats could be made to evolve into a group of monkeys, and (a point not always recognized) that group of monkeys could be made to evolve into a group of birds, or crocodiles, or anything, really, if the circumstances are correct. We can posit that the group retains its identity across time because it would always be possible to draw a chain of heritage and potential interbreeding between any two members, but no other characteristics of the group are necessarily preserved.
So, to summarize the distinction—which, happily, coincides with the etymologies of the words—evolution (=rolling on) means “altering the composition of the group in accordance with changed external circumstances”; development (=folding out) means “unfurling the nature of the substance according to fixed internal principles”.
According to Newman and Darwin, both forms of change are produced by internal conflict: evolution, through individuals competing against one another to populate the set; development, through individual parts competing against one another for control of the whole. But these are different kinds of conflict, and they generate change in different ways. For Darwin, the conflict is accidental. Even if two members of a species compete directly with one another for a given resource, the conflict is about that resource, not about the species of which both are members. Members conflict with one another in just the same way they conflict with non-members, and we can see that their conflict is “about” the species only in that it affects the species’ trajectory, and can even, if there ever occurs a large enough divergence between subpopulations, lead to speciation. For Newman, on the other hand, the conflict does not just happen to determine, but is actually about what the organism will do next. It is best understood as a form of productive tension. Absent a connection to be tensed, the conflict makes no sense, and so if the two parties to the conflict ever reach the point of having nothing in common, the organism has not been split in half, it has ceased entirely to exist—it has died.
I’ll close with some examples of evolution and development:
Biological species, as already discussed, evolve through competition between their different members, while biological individuals develop through the tension established between various body parts. When the members of a biological individual begin, not just coming into productive conflict, but actually competing, we call that cancer. And when any subset of a biological species stops competing, we start thinking of it as analogous to an individual—for example, in a beehive.
The civitas terrena evolves: different regimes in different lands rise, fall, war with one another, and inspire one another’s politics. The civitas Dei, on the other hand, develops: the Church is a single organism, and its parts may strain to move it in different directions, but any civil war within it would be a scandal. This is, incidentally, the reason why federalism can be good idea in secular politics, but not in ecclesiology. Evolution requires experimenting and seeing what works, with little any imposition of top-down authority. Development, on the other hand, cannot abide experimentation: the activity of every member affects every other member, and it is impossible to just “do one’s own thing” without damaging the unity of the whole.
Economic markets evolve. Economic agents, even “fictional” agents like corporations, develop. Attempts to establish an artificially selective environment in corporate settings tend to backfire, since it encourages workers to compete against one another directly, as individuals, rather than to come into conflict only when they disagree as to the good of the firm. Of course, a corporation can undergo many transformations, beginning as a small-town soap manufacturer and ending as a global conglomerate. This is perhaps because corporations are only analogous to agents, and so can undergo transformations that would mean death for any substantial individual. Or perhaps it reveals the true essence of that particular structure of corporation, as a pure profit maximizer. But either way, we still need to draw a distinction between this kind of transformation, which is at worst a perversion of development, and evolution, which is another thing entirely.
This somewhat rambling post is an attempt to think about the two things in the history of the universe which have in some sense evolved: life, and thought.
Walter J. Ong was an English professor and theorist of information technology, that is, of the different modes of consciousness brought about by orality (speaking), chirality (handwriting), printing (which really should have a Latin word!), and, now, the various electronic media. As I read, I found myself persuaded of the existence of these differences—for example, orality emphasizes memorability, while printing emphasizes visual organization—but skeptical of the claim that these modes followed one another in a teleological sequence. Why should that be? I was particularly skeptical of his claim that electronic media are the next step in said sequence. To be sure, it is difficult to envision writing being invented before speaking, or printing before writing, or computers before printing. But it’s also easy to imagine any of these being invented in a slightly different way and so leading to an entirely different future. “Electronic media,” in particular, is a black hole: why assume that telegraphy, telephony, radio, television, computers, and the internet share some common essence, rather than being disparate inventions with disparate implications for the human psyche?
Meanwhile, I’ve been mulling over Eliezer Yudkowsky’s thoughts about natural selection (which are intended as an analogy for how artificial intelligence will bring about a new paradigm of self-optimization, and so are also, in a way, about that vague category “electronic media”). I’m still not sure what I think of AI GO FOOM!, but I am attracted to the more restrained form of teleology his approach suggests. Each innovation, he says, happens by accident, but each innovation also makes possible new innovations by opening up a new “search space,” so it begins to look teleological, when really it is just a question of dependencies.
The other development Eliezer thinks comparable to AI GO FOOM is human rationality, i.e. civilization. Here we come to the reason for this post: though Eliezer doesn’t talk about it, there exists a noteworthy homology between the various innovations which contributed to evolution, and those which contributed to civilization. The (roughly) three evolutionary developments Eliezer thinks “notable” are:
- Cellular integrity (and DNA is basically an extension of this): The point, Eliezer says, is to “Force a set of genes, RNA strands, or catalytic chemicals to share a common reproductive fate”
- Multicellular organisms: Of course this depends on cellular integrity. Eliezer says that “the key here is the controlled specialization of cells with an identical genetic heritage”; in other words, the cells aren’t bound together in the organism the way genes are bound together in cells, but rather the the cell itself comes to contain more genes which now express themselves only in special circumstances; the point is again to allow for more complex blueprints
- Sexual selection: Eliezer doesn’t go into detail here, and it’s difficult to sum up what sexual selection does. The Red Queen hypothesis suggests that, once sexual reproduction comes into being, sexual replicators can change more quickly and so outcompete non-sexual replicators; hence it being advantageous even for some single-celled organisms. But true sexual selection can exist only when the individual replicator has something like a “desire” to reproduce, which leads to competition between possible mating partners. Best-case scenario, this accelerates natural selection by having organisms be attracted to what will make them more fit; worst-case scenario, it leads to weird feedback loops and the peacock’s tail.
Evolution, per Dawkins, optimizes genes; human reason, meanwhile, optimizes memes. If memes exist wherever there is learning, then the memetic equivalent of the first time a molecule copied itself (i.e. of the first gene), was the first time an animal got the idea to do something by looking at what another animal was doing—at that moment was born the first meme. Of course, like a free-floating molecular replicator, such memetic replication is quite weak. It takes further developments to get to things that seem really interesting. And these developments are in many ways analogous to those that took place in the history of genetics:
- Language seems a lot like cellular integrity. The point of language is to tie together a bunch of different memes in the vocabulary of the language itself, allowing them to be transmitted together (you can’t learn just one word of a language), and so allowing more complex memes to form than otherwise would have been possible.
- Writing is like multicellular organisms. It allows for the controlled specialization of thinkers who share an identical memetic heritage. Without writing you cannot have a division of labor between domains of knowledge, you can only have the received wisdom of your culture. Put differently, without writing, it’s difficult to develop jargon.
- Printing is like sexual selection. Writing did, of course, allow for communication between disparate regions, but it’s primary purpose was to pass on information within a society. Printing allowed for the development of vast communication networks, and so to the cross-pollination of ideas. It also seems reasonable to say that it edges out writing-sans-printing through something like the Red Queen hypothesis. Finally, printing can, in fact, exist without writing—printing just means pressing a single pattern onto multiple receptables. But it only gains it’s innovative power when it is combined with writing, ie with specialized thinking, at which point it produces something like the scientific revolution.
What, if anything, is “electronic media” like? Of course we can’t answer this question until we know what “electronic media” means: is Ong right that the most important aspect of it is that it allows for instant communication, or is Eliezer right to emphasize the way it allows a feedback loop in the designing of machines? If Eliezer is right that AI GO FOOM, then it doing so resembles nothing so much as the origin of life and thought themselves. In which case it’s silly to think about electronics as a stage in human consciousness, just as it’s silly to think about the origin of human consciousness as a stage in the history of evolution, rather than the stage at which biological evolution ceases to be the most interesting thing going on.
I’m suspicous of this way of thinking, of course, but not so suspicious that I’m willing to dismiss it entirely.