Great artists don’t like it when their works fall short of the mark.
By Gary Scarrabelotti
The Sydney Morning Herald’s Mark Kenny crowed. Australia’s “self-appointed conduits to the metaphysical” – its Christian clergy – have been overthrown.
In the same-sex marriage plebiscite, our great Aussie churched and unchurched laity rebelled against the men of God and the “nation feels demonstrably better about itself.”
So, according to the plebiscite, whatever churchmen might say about gender, sex and marriage, that has nothing to do with us. We make our own reality.
This confident, feel-good assertion of autonomy may not, however, survive unscathed a collision with reality.
The revolution that Kenny salutes is neither essentially anti-clerical nor anti-church. What’s driving the revolt against biology and the quest for same-sex marriage is an anti-God thing.
The other day, I offered here what would be called a “natural law” argument against SSM.
A philosopher I am not. What I tried to do – and I’m sure you do it too – is to follow where common sense leads. And common sense conclusions drawn from the way things are is what “natural law” is all about.
The principles we can deduce, however, from the “givens” that frame our existence have lost credibility in the thought of our contemporaries.
A mighty blow – so it seemed – was struck against such exercises of common sense by the Enlightenment era Scottish philosopher David Hume. With a single lapidary paragraph in his fat tome A Treatise of Human Nature (1739)1 Hume cut the connection between what exists and what is moral.
Ever since, his position has been distilled down to this: you can’t get an ought from an is.
Hume, however, never actually said it – he was much too subtle – nor did he prove it. What he did, rather, was to raise a fog of doubt, in such splendid mellifluous language, that it only seemed as if he had wielded the glinting axe of logic and severed what is from what ought to be. It was magnificent rhetoric, but it wasn’t philosophy.
Meantime, ‘Hume’s axiom’ remains pithy, witty and devastating. It’s music to atheist ears and reassuring for less courageous souls of a liberal bent.
Hume himself was not an atheist. Rather, he was a deist who was persuaded, interestingly enough, by the Argument from Design that a creator-god existed.
The god of deism is something of an odd god, however. He makes – or rather engineers – the universe, kicks it into play, then wanders off the pitch into the remote fastness of infinity never more to concern himself with his handiwork.
So here’s this artist-engineer and he makes this infinitely complex, astonishing universe and then just walks away. Strange, wouldn’t you think?
I mean, artists and that sort usually love their work, love it to bits: to the point, in fact, of rejecting it when it doesn’t come up to scratch. So they’ll tear up the canvas or burn the manuscript when it falls short of mark. Nikolai Gogol burned what is believed to have been Part II of Dead Souls in 1852 and Claude Monet destroyed 15 paintings, which had been chosen for exhibition, in 1908. Both took the view that their works didn’t cut the mustard.
Artists are deeply engaged with their work, so there’s something that doesn’t ring true about David Hume’s god. An artist who doesn’t care doesn’t create anything, least of all something wonderful. An engineer who couldn’t be bothered doesn’t build anything, least of all something that endures. Yet the universe and all it contains is a marvel to behold and its glories are perennial. Our world is splendid beyond the reach of science to describe, so we turn to poets, painters and musicians; we speak of its “eternal hills”. And, despite his often dreadful history,
“What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in
faculties! in form and moving how express and admirable! in
action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the
beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!”
(Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act II Scene II)
Hume’s bored, indifferent god is really not up to the work of creation. It calls for something – or someone – rather different: for a maker, like a Gogol or a Monet, who throws himself into his works.
“Spare us,” I hear you protest. “You’re forcing a god upon the universe. The whole shebang – us included – is the result of nothing more than blind material forces.”
An artist who doesn’t care doesn’t create anything, least of all something wonderful.
Let’s take that assertion seriously. It contains the idea that matter generates its own design, even if only by accident.
But does it?
Hand up: has anyone spotted an atom of carbon turning itself into a lump of coal?
Of course you haven’t. That would require both heat and pressure to be applied to the carbon from outside of itself and by forces beyond the control of the carbon itself. True, if carbon wasn’t what it was, then the heat and pressure couldn’t turn the carbon into coal. But what carbon is – its nature – is not something that carbon gave to itself. Peer as intently as we like at a carbon atom, we won’t find a self-generating principle or a power of self-design. So it is for every other bit of matter we care to think of.
So a creative accident can’t happen. It’s impossible, not just statistically but in principle. Even if the most propitious set of conditions were, improbably, to exert themselves upon on the most favourable combination of materials, no universe- or life-creating event could occur since matter, by its nature, lacks a principle of design within itself.
That design, therefore, has to come from without – from a designer or creator, in just the same way that without Gogol there would never have been Dead Souls or without Monet there would never have been any Water Lilies.
The same goes for us. We are not our own creation. We can’t even attribute our “making” to our parents because giving birth is not the same as making. Even the power of bringing us to birth did not originate in our parents. They themselves received it and their parents before them. And so this reception regresses back through the generations: no ancestor can be found that gave themselves the power to bring new life into the world, not even the first. By its nature it is a power received. It existence demands a creator.
Such a creator, moreover, not only creates stuff, he also imparts purpose to it.
Let’s take the cabinet maker. He makes all kinds of tables. The height of their legs, the surface area and shape of their table-tops, and other features determine their purpose.
For this particular table he chooses light-weight timber for the table-top; cuts it to impart a small-area top surface; turns out four short, slim and elegant legs; and glues it all together: it’s a coffee table.
For another, he chooses heavier timber and adopts a more robust construction; makes the top surface a little larger; supplies it with much longer, thicker legs; then, to make it hardier and more practical for its intended purpose, he binds the legs and table-top together with a set of drawers: it’s a writing table.
For yet another, he selects even heavier timber and forms it into a weighty table-top of generous proportions, sweeping oval shape and high polish; for support he provides it with two robust pedestals with splayed carved feet: it’s a dining table.
The characteristics imparted to each determines the purpose of each: defy the respective purposes and the tables risk damage and possibly ruin. Habitually use the coffee table as a foot rest and it will soon come apart. Regularly use the writing desk for feeding the family and the incommodious jostling of diners will eventually split the legs from their fastenings. Use an uncovered dining table as a study desk and soon the spillage of ink and scratching of pens will destroy its noble gleam. Here we encounter right action. It is a way of acting that conforms to the maker’s purpose: and the purpose is a solid, objective reality built into the craftsman’s work.
Just imagine that the craftsman has become your friend and sometime after buying all three tables from him you invite him round for dinner. In through the door he comes and there’s your lout of a son lounging in front of the TV, his work-booted feet on the coffee table, its legs all askew; the wife has served up on the now rickety writing desk and is squeezing the guests impossibly into place; meanwhile, the kids, who have already eaten, are sprawled with pen and ink over the ruined surface of dining table.
Do you think your craftsman friend will go away happy with you?
Doing a Gogol
Well, its like that with us and our sexual biology. There is no escaping its purpose: it’s designed for the principle biological purpose of bringing children into the world.
What do you reckon its Creator would do when He sees His purpose thwarted by boy-on-boy or girl-on-girl sex?
He could hold His breath – so to speak – and I’m told He often does. But being the consummate artist he might one day exhale and, with a mighty roar, do a Gogol or a Monet.
Honest, I wouldn’t want to risk that.
This article is an expanded version of that originally published in The Spectator Australia under the title The God Question.
1 “In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connect’d with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention wou’d subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceiv’d by reason.” In David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature …: 2 vols., edited by TH Green & TH Grose; London, Longmans Green & Co, 1886; Vol II, Part I, Section I, pp. 245-246.