Near the end of Richard Weaver's essay, "Life Without Prejudice," he quotes Milton:
I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world; we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by that which is contrary.
The passage bears comparison with Theodore Roosevelt's remarks about being in the arena.
I like especially the last sentence of the Milton quotation. We are born corrupt, not innocent. We are not here (mainly) to improve the world, but (mainly) to be improved by it. The world's a vale of soul-making. Since this world is a vanishing quantity, it makes little sense to expend energy trying to improve it: when your house is burning down, you don't spruce up the facade. You don't swab the decks of a sinking ship. It makes more sense to spend time and effort on what has a chance of outlasting the transitory. This world's use is to build something that outlasts it.
But this will, pace Milton, require some flight from the world into the cloister where perhaps alone the virtues can be developed that will need testing later in the world.
The greatness of man is so evident that it is even proved by his wretchedness. For what in animals is called nature we call wretchedness in man; by which we recognize that, his nature now being like that of animals, he has fallen from a better nature which once was his. For who is unhappy at not being a king except a deposed king? Who is unhappy at having only one mouth? And who is not unhappy at having only one eye? Probably no one ever ventured to mourn at not having three eyes; but anyone would be inconsolable at having none.
Yes indeed, man is wretched and only man is wretched. Man's wretchedness is 'structural': man qua man is wretched. Wretched are not merely the sick, the unloved, and the destitute; all of us are wretched, even those of us who count as well off. Some of us are aware of this, our condition, the rest hide it from themselves by losing themselves in what Pascal calls divertissement, diversion. We are as if fallen from a higher state, our true and rightful state, into a lower one, and the sense of wretchedness is an indicator of our having fallen. We are in a dire state from which we need salvation but are incapable of saving ourselves by our own efforts, whether individual or collective.
Well, suppose you don't accept a word of this. And suppose you don't lapse into nihilism either. What option is left? The illusions of the Left and the notion of the perfectibility of man by his own doing? Then I recommend this passage from Reinhold Niebuhr also quoted by Oakes:
The utopian illusions and sentimental aberrations of modern liberal culture are really all derived from the basic error of negating the fact of original sin. This error . . . continually betrays modern men to equate the goodness of men with the virtue of their various schemes for social justice and international peace. When these schemes fail of realization or are realized only after tragic conflicts, modern men either turn from utopianism to disillusionment and despair, or they seek to place the onus of their failure upon some particular social group, . . . [which is why] both modern liberalism and modern Marxism are always facing the alternatives of moral futility or moral fanaticism. Liberalism in its pure form [that is, pacifism] usually succumbs to the peril of futility. It will not act against evil until it is able to find a vantage point of guiltlessness from which to operate. This means that it cannot act at all. Sometimes it imagines that this inaction is the guiltlessness for which it has been seeking. A minority of liberals and most of the Marxists solve the problem by assuming that they have found a position of guiltlessness in action. Thereby they are betrayed into the error of fanaticism.
I refuse to lapse into nihilism and I refuse to be suckered by the illusions of the Left, which illusions have been amply refuted by the horrors of the 20th century. That is why I take original sin seriously. But I reject Biblical literalism with its tale of a first man and a first woman in a garden. And of course I reject the idea that I am guilty because of what some other people did. So this leaves me with the task of articulating the doctrine of original sin/original ignorance in a way that is philosophically respectable.
I liked the interesting argument that the consequences of belief and nonbelief in original sin are both bad and thus evidence of our fallen natures. But I do wonder what either original sin or fallenness mean in a Darwinian world . . .
Jeff has posed an excellent question which I must try to answer.
1. I begin with what it can't mean. It cannot mean that our present fallen condition is one we inherited from Adam and Eve if these names refer to the original parents of the human race. And this for two reasons.
A. The first is that nothing imputable to a person, nothing for which he is morally responsible, can be inherited. For what I inherit I receive ab extra by causal mechanisms not in my control. (It doesn't matter whether these mechanisms are deterministic or merely probabilistic.) That which is imputable to me, however, is only that which I freely bring about. It is a clear deliverance of our ordinary moral sense that a person is morally responsible only for what he does and leaves undone, not for what others do or leave undone. This deliverance is surely more credible than any theory that entails its negation. So one cannot inherit sinfulness, guilt, or desert of punishment. Therefore the actual sins of past persons cannot induce in me a state of sinfulness or guilt or desert of punishment. And that includes the actual sins of our first parents if there were any.
This amounts to a denial of originated original sin. It does not amount to a denial of originating original sin. The distinction is explained in greater detail here. So there can still be original sin even if sinfulness, guilt, and desert of punishment cannot be inherited.
As I said elsewhere, we must distinguish between the putative fact of original sin and the various theories one can have of it. Refuting a particular theory does not amount to refuting the fact.
B. The second reason is that there were in actual historical fact no original parents of the human race who came into existence wthout animal progenitors. We know this from evolutionary biology which is more credible -- more worthy of belief -- than the stories of Genesis interpreted literally. In any conflict between the Bible so interpreted and natural science, the latter will win -- every time. So if one takes both Bible and science seriously, the Bible must be read in such a way that it does not conflict with our best science.
2. To take this whole original sin problematic seriously one must of course assume that in some sense or other 'Man is a fallen being.' I warmly recommend the study of history to those who adhere to such delusions of the Left as that of human perfectibility or the inherent goodness of humanity. Once you disembarrass yourself of those illusions you will be open to something like human fallenness or Kant's radical evil. I am not saying that the horrors of history by themselves entail man's fallenness. Our fallenness is certainly not a plain empirical fact as G. K. Chesterton and others have foolishly and tendentiously suggested. Chesterton's "plain as potatoes" remark was silly bluster. It is rather that a doctrine of the fall is reasonably introuduced, by a sort of inference to the best explanation, to account for man's universal wretchedness and inability to substantially improve his lot. The details of the inferential move from what could count as plain facts to a doctrine of a fall is not my present topic.
3. Now to Jeff's question. If the Genesis stories cannot be read as literally true accounts of actual historical facts, if we accept the findings and theories of evolutionary biology as regards the genesis of human animals, then what can human fallenness mean? There are various possibilities. I will mention just one, which derives from Kant.
What we need is a theory that allows us to embrace all of the following propositions without contradicting any deliverance of natural science or any deliverance of our ordinary sound moral sense:
a. There is a universal propensity to moral evil in human beings which is radical in that it is at the root of every specific act of wrong-doing. b. This propensity to evil is the best explanation of the fathomless horrors of the human condition. c. The radical propensity to moral evil is innate in that it not acquired at any time in a moral agent's life, but is present at every time precisely as the predisposition to specific evil acts. d. The propensity is imputable. e. The propensity is not inherited. f. Imputable actions and states are free and unconditioned.
Here is a quick and dirty sketch of Kant's theory, a theory which allows one to affirm each of the six propositions above.
Man enjoys dual citzenship. As a physical being, and thus as an animal, he he is a member of the phenomenal world, the world of space-time-matter. In this realm determinism reigns: everything that happens is necessitated by the laws of nature plus the initial conditions. But man knows himself to be morally responsible, and so knows himself to be libertarianly free. Since everything phenomenal is determined, and nothing free, man as moral agent is a noumenal being who 'stands apart from the causal nexus.'
Kant sees with blinding clarity that nothing imputable to an agent can be caused by factors external to the agent: only that which the agent does or leaves undone freely and by his own agency is imputable to the agent. It follows that sinfulness, guilt, and desert of punishment cannot be inherited: there is no originated original sin. For what is inherited is caused to be by factors external to the agent. So (e) is true. But the predisposition to moral evil is nonetheless innate in the sense that it is not conditioned by events in time. It is logically prior to every action of the agent in the time-order.
How is the predisposition imputable? It is imputable because it is the result of a free noumenal choice. And so there is originating original sin. Each of us by an atemporal noumenal choice is the origin of the radical evil which is at the root of each specific evil act. So (d) is true.
Kant's theory has its problems which I have no desire to paper over. But it does provide an answer to Jeff's question. His question, in effect, was what original sin or human fallenness could mean if Darwinism is true. Kant's theory counts as an answer to that question. For on Kant's theory there is no need to contradict evolutionary biology by positing two original parents of the human race, nor any need to accept the notion that moral qualities such as guilt are biologically transmissible, or the morally unacceptable notion that such qualities are in any way (biologically, socio-culturally) inheritable.
1. Let's start with the word 'mortal' and remind ourselves of some obvious points. 'Mortal' is from the Latin mors, mortis meaning death. That which is mortal is either subject to death, or conducive to death, or in some way expressive of death. Thus when we say of a human being that he is mortal we do not mean that he is dead, but that he is subject to death. My being mortal is consistent with my being alive and kicking. Indeed, if I weren't alive I could not be said to be either mortal or immortal. Spark plugs are neither mortal nor immortal. Some will say of a car that it has 'died.' But that is a loose and metaphorical way of talking. Only that which was once alive can properly be said to have died.
We also apply 'mortal' to wounds and sins. A mortal wound is not one that is subject to death but one that has a high probability of causing the death of the body of the one whose wound it is. A mortal as opposed to a venial sin is one that is conducive to the death of the soul in the sense of the separation of the soul from its ultimate good, God. Thomas Nagel has a collection of essays entitled Mortal Questions. These questions are neither subject to death nor conducive to death, but they are questions raised by mortals especially insofar as they are mortal. Thus the first essay in the collection is appropriately entitled "Death." And an excellent essay it is.
2. Although 'mortal' applies to all living things, what interests us particularly is 'mortal' as a predicate of human beings. To be mortal in this sense is to be subject to death. But this phrase has at least two senses, one weak the other strong.
WEAK sense: X is mortal =df X is able to die, liable to die, has the potential to die. Mortality as posse mori.
STRONG sense: X is mortal =df X has to die, is subject to the necessity of dying, cannot evade death by any action of its own, is going to die, will die in the normal course of events. Mortality as necessitas moriendi.
Correspondingly, there are strong and weak senses of 'immortal':
STRONG sense: X is immortal =df X is not able to die.
WEAK sense: X is immortal =df X is able to die, but is kept alive forever by a factor distinct from X.
3. Let's run through some cases to illustrate the distinction. God is not mortal in either the weak or the strong sense. It is built into the divine nature (essence) that he cannot die. 'God is dead,' taken literally is nonsense. (Of course, that is not the way Nietzsche intended it to be taken; he was making a cultural point.) God is a necessary being, a being that exists in all possible worlds and at all times in those worlds containing time.
Your humble correspondent is mortal in both senses. Not only can I die, I must die, I cannot do anything to avoid eventually dying: I am subject to the necessitas moriendi. Cryogenics won't help for reasons I won't belabor at the moment. It is worth noting that, according to Christian doctrine, my having-to-die is a contingent attribute of me unlike my being-able-to-die. My having-to-die is punishment for original sin and is as contingent as that sin. My being-able-to-die, however, is grounded in my nature as a soul-body composite, and I am essentially such a composite. Thus it is not my nature to be immortal (in the strong sense), whence it follows that if I achieve immortality (in the weak sense) it is due to a supernatural gift: God freely grants me immortality; I don't have it apart from free divine donation. In this sense I am not naturally immortal: I am not immortal in virtue of my nature or essence the way God is.
Prelapsarian human beings are mortal in the WEAK sense but not in the STRONG. Unlike God, there is nothing in the nature (essence) of such beings to prevent them from dying if they should will to die. But if they do not will to die, God grants them unending life. Postlapsarian human beings, however, are mortal in both the weak and the strong senses.
4. Now what about Jesus Christ? He is one person in two natures; fully man and fully God. But all men are mortal in the weak sense: they can die. So Christ is mortal in the weak sense. But he is not mortal in the strong sense: he is not subject to the necessitas moriendi. He freely chose his death.
So is Christ a counterexample to 'All men are mortal'? It depends on what is meant by 'mortal.' Taken in the weak sense, Christ is not; taken in the strong sense, he is.
5. But there is still a Christological problem that wants solving. If Jesus Christ is God (or, to be precise, the Second Person of the Trinity), then JC is strongly immortal. But if JC is fully human, then he is not strongly immortal, but weakly immortal. How can one and the same person have contradictory attributes?
1. An important distinction for understanding the doctrine of original sin is that between originating original sin (peccatum originale originans) and originated original sin (peccatum originale originatum). This post will explain the distinction and then consider Immanuel Kant's reasons for rejecting originated original sin. It is important to realize that Kant does accept something like original sin under the rubric 'radical evil,' a topic to be explored in subsequent posts. It is also important to realize that Kierkegaard's seminal thoughts about original sin as expressed in The Concept of Dread were influenced by Kant, and that Reinhold Niebuhr's influential treatment is in turn derivative from Kierkegaard.
2. So what's the distinction? According to the Genesis story, the Fall of Man was precipitated by specific sinful acts, acts of disobedience, by Adam and Eve. The sins of Adam and Eve were originating original sins. They were the first sins for the first human beings, but also the first sins for the human race. Their sin somehow got transmitted to their descendants inducing in them a state of sinfulness. The sinfulness of the descendants is originated original sin. This originated original sin is hereitary sin: it is inherited and innate for postlapsarians and so does not depend on any specific sin of a person who inherits it. Nevertheless it brings with it guilt and desert of punishment. Socrates, then, or any post-Adamic man, is guilty and deserving of punishment whether or not he commits any actual sins of his own. And so a man who was perfectly sinless in the sense that he committed no actual sin of his own would nonetheless stand condemned in virtue of what an earlier man had one. This doctrine has the consequence that an infant, who as an infant is of course innocent of any actual sin, and who dies unbaptized, is justly excluded from the kingdom of heaven. Such an infant, on Catholic doctrine at least, ends up in limbo, or to be precise, in limbus infantium. A cognate consequence is that a perfectly sinless adult who lives and dies before Christ's redemptive act is also excluded from heaven. Such a person lands in limbus patrum. (See here for the Catholic doctrine.)
3. The stumbling block is obvious: How can one justly be held morally accountable for what someone else has done or left undone? How can one be guilty and deserving of punishment without having committed any specific transgression? How can guilt be inherited? Aren't these moral absurdities? Aren't we morally distinct as persons, each responsible only for what he does and leaves undone? There might well be originating original sin, but how could there be originated original sin? It is worth noting that to reject originated original sin is not to reject originating original sin, or original sin as such. There could be a deep structural flaw in humans as humans, universal and unameliorable by human effort, which deserves the title 'original sin/sinfulness' without it being the case that sin is inheritable.
Again I revert to my distinction between the putative fact of our fallenness and the various theories about it. To refute a theory is not to refute a fact.
4. Kant rejects the Augustinian notion of inherited sin. Sinfulness, guilt, desert of punishment -- these cannot be inherited. So for Kant there is no originated original sin. Of the various explanations of the spread of moral evil through the members and generations of the human race, "the most inept is that which describes it as descending to us as an inheritance from our first parents." (Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, trs. Greene and Hudson, Harper 1960, p. 35) But this is not to say that Kant rejects the notion of original sin. He himself speaks of peccatum originarium, which he distinguishes from peccatum derivatum. (26) For Kant, original sin is a propensity in us toward moral evil which is universal and logically prior to specific immoral acts. I hope to say more about this in a subsequent post.
5. But what is Kant's argument against hereditary guilt and originated original sin? Kant as I read him accepts it as a fact that in all human beings there is radical moral evil, a peccatum originarium that lies deeper than, and makes possible, specific peccata derivata. What he objects to is the explanation of this fact in terms of a propagation of guilt from the original parents. The main point is that a temporal explanation in terms of antecedent causes cannot account for something for which we are morally responsible. If we are morally responsible, then we are free; but free actions cannot be explained in terms of temporally prior causes. For if an action is caused, it is necessitated, and what is necessitated by its causes cannot be free.
What is true of actions is true of moral character insofar as moral character is something for which one is morally responsible. Therefore our radically evil moral character which predisposes us to specific acts of wrongdoing cannot be explained in terms of temporally antececent causes. Hence it cannot be explained by any propagation of guilt from the original parents to us. Thus there is no originated guilt. Our being guilty must be viewed "as though the individual had fallen into it directly from a state of innocence." (36) Thus all actions which make us guilty are original employments of the will. All original sin is originating original sin.
Perhaps we can put it this way. Adam has nothing over Socrates. It is not as if Adam went directly from a state of innocence into a state of sin while Socrates inherited sinfulness and was never in a state of innocence. If there is such a thing as original sin then both are equally originative of it.
The Genesis account gives us a temporal representation of a logical and thus atemporal relationship. The state of innocence is set at the temporal beginning of humanity, and the fall from innocence is depicted as an event in time. But then we get the problems raised in #3 above. The mistake is to "look for an origin in time of a moral character for which we are to be held responsible . . . ." (38) We make this mistake because we want an explanation of the contingent existence of our radically evil moral predisposition. An explanation, however, is not to be had. The rational origin of the perversion of our will "remains inscrutable to us." (38)
6. Kant thus does accept something like original sin. We have within us a deep propensity to moral evil that makes us guilty and deserving of punishment. But there is no deterministic causal explanation for it. So while there is a sense in which our fallenness is innate, it is not inherited. For it is morally absurd to suppose that I could be guilty of being in a state that I am caused to be in. Each one of us is originally guilty but by a free atemporal choice. This makes the presence of the radical flaw in each of us inscrutable and inexplicable. The mystery of radical evil points us to the mystery of free will. On Kant's view, then, there is only originating original sin. Each of us by his own free noumenal agency plunges from innocence into guilt!
We shall have to continue these ruminations later. Some questions on the menu of rumination:
Q1. Is Kant's account with its appeal to atemporal noumenal agency really any better than Augustine's biological propagation account?
Q2. How can guilt be innate but not inherited, as Kant maintains?
Q3. Why believe in radical evil in the first place? If the evidence for it is empirical, how can such evidence show that radical evil is both universal (and thus inscribed in man's very nature) and ineradicable by human effort?
It is important to distinguish between the putative fact of human fallenness and the various theories and doctrines about what this fall consists in and how it came about. The necessity of this distinction is obvious: different philosophers and theologians and denominations who accept the Fall have different views about the exact nature of this event or state. I use 'fact' advisedly. It is unlikely that we will be able to peel back to a level of bare factuality uncontaminated by any theory or interpretation. Surely G. K. Chesterton is involved in an egregious exaggeration when he writes in effect that our fallen condition is a fact as "plain as potatoes." (See here for quotation and critique.) But while it is not a plain empirical fact that we are fallen beings, it is not a groundless speculation or bit of theological mystification either.
It is widely recognized that there is something deeply unsatisfactory about the human condition, and that this deep unsatisfactoriness is both universal across time and space and apparently unameliorable by anything we do, either individually or collectively. Indeed, the prodigious efforts made in amelioration have in notable cases made things vastly worse. (The Communists, to take but one example, murdered 100 million in their ill-starred attempt at fundamentally improving the human condition.) This sort of 'ameliorative backfire' is a feature of our fallenness as is the refusal of many to admit that we are fallen, not to mention the cacophany of conficting theories as to what our fallenness consists in. We are up to our necks in every manner of contention, crime and depravity. One would have to be quite the polyanna to deny that there is something deeply wrong with the world and the people in it, or to think that we are going to set things right by our own efforts. We know from experience that there is no good reason to believe that. The problem is not 'society' or anything external to us. The problem is us. In particular, the problem is not them as opposed to us, but us, all of us.
So that's an important first distinction. There is the fact or quasi-fact of fallenness and there are the various theories about it. If you fail to make this distinction and identify the Fall with some particular theory of it, then you may end up like the foolish biologist who thought that the Fall is refuted by evolutionary biology according to which there were no such original human animals as Adam and Eve. To refute one of the theories of the Fall is not to refute the 'fact' of the Fall.
Lev Shestov, the Russian existentialist and irrationalist, has an interesting theory which it is the purpose of this post briefly to characterize and criticize. I take as my text an address he delivered at the Academy of Religion and Philosophy in Paris, May 5, 1935.
Start with the 'fact' of deep, universal, unameliorable-by-us unsatisfactoriness. Is this unsatisfactoriness inscribed into the very structure of Being? Is it therefore necessary and unavoidable except by entry into nonbeing? Shestov thinks that for the philosophers of West and East it is so: "In being itself human thought has discovered something wrong, a defect, a sickness, a sin, and accordingly wisdom has demanded the vanquishing of that sin at its roots; in other words, a renunciation of being which, since it has a beginning, is fated inevitably to end." (p. 2) Buddha and Schopenhauer serve as good illustrations, though Shestov doesn't mention them. Shestov, of course, is one of those for whom Athens and Jerusalem are mortal enemies ever at loggerheads. And so it comes as no surprise that he opposes the revealed truth of the Book of books, the Bible, to the wisdom of the philosophers. For the philosophers, the deep wrongness of the world is rooted in its very Being and is therefore essential to it; but for the Bible the world is good, as having been created by a good God, and its deep deficiency is contingent, not necessary:
What is said in it [the Bible] directly contradicts what men have found out through their intellectual vision. Everything, as we read in the very beginning of the Book of Genesis, was made by the Creator, everything had a beginning. But this not only is not seen as a precondition of the decay, imperfection, corruption, and sinfulness of being; on the contrary, it is an assurance of all possible good in the universe. (2)
Since the source of all being, God, is all-good, to be, as such, is good. But whence then evil? The Bible-based theist cannot say that being itself harbors imperfection and evil; so where did evil come from?
Scripture gives a definite answer to this question. God planted among the other trees in the Garden of Eden the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And He said to the first man: "Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." But the tempter . . . said: "No, ye shall not die; your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing." Man succumbed to temptation, ate of the forbidden fruit; his eyes were opened and he became knowing. What was revealed to him? What did he find out? He learned the same thing that the Greek philosophers and Hindu sages had learned: the "it is good" uttered by God was not justified—all is not good in the created world. There must be evil and, what is more, much evil, intolerable evil, in the created world, precisely because it is created. Everything around us—the immediate data of consciousness—testifies to this with unquestionable evidence; he who looks at the world with open eyes," he who "knows," can draw no other conclusion. At the very moment when man became "knowing," sin entered the world; in other words, it entered together with "knowledge"—and after sin came evil. This is what the Bible tells us. (p. 3, emphasis added)
Whence the horrors of life, the deep-going unsatisfactoriness that the Buddha announces in the first of his Noble Truths, Sarvam dukkham? The answer from Athens and Benares is that being is defective in itself, essentially and irremediably. And it doesn't matter whether finite being is created by God or uncreated. Finite being as being is intrinsically defective. The answer from the Bible according to Shestov is that "sin and evil arise from 'knowledge,' from 'open eyes,' from 'intellectual vision,' that is, from the fruit of the forbidden tree."
This is an amazing interpretation. Shestov is claiming that the Fall of Man consists in his embracing of philosophy and its child science, his discovery and use of reason, his attempt to figure things out for himself by laying hold of law-like and thus necessary structures of the world. The Fall is the fall into knowledge. Like his mentor Kierkegaard, Shestov rails against the hyper-rationalism of Hegel who "accepts from the Bible only what can be 'justified' before rational consciousness" (p. 5). "And it never for a moment entered into Hegel's mind that in this lies the terrible, fatal Fall, that 'knowledge' does not make a man equal to God, but tears him away from God, putting him in the clutches of a dead and deadening 'truth.' (p. 6)
My first problem with this is the substitution of 'tree of knowledge' for 'tree of the knowledge of good and evil.' I don't find any justification for that substitution in the text under examination. Surely moral knowledge, if knowledge at all, is but a proper part of knowledge in general.
But it is worse than this. Shestov thinks of God as a being for whom all things are possible. This is connected with his beef with necessity and with reason as revelatory of necessity. "What handed man over to the power of Necessity?" (p. 12) He quotes Kierkegaard: "God signifies that everything is possible, and that everything is possible signifies God." But this leads straightaway to absurdities -- a fact that will of course not disturb the equanimity of an absurdist and irrationalist like Shestov.
If God is defined as the being for whom all is possible, then nothing is necessary and everything that exists is contingent, including God, all truths about God, and the moral laws. And if all things are possible, then it is possible that some things are impossible. Therefore, possibly (All things are possible & Some things are not possible), whence it follows that it is possible that some contradictions are true.
So the position Shestov is absurd, which fact will not budge him, he being an embracer of absurdities. But it does give us a reason to ignore him and his interpretation of the Fall. So I consider his theory of the Fall refuted.
An archeologist who claimed to have uncovered the site of Plato's Cave would be dismissed as either a prankster or a lunatic. There never was any such cave as is described in the magnificent Book VII of Plato's Republic. And there never were any such cave-dwellers or goings-on as the ones described in Plato's story. And yet this, the most famous allegory in the history of philosophy, gives us the truth about the human condition. It lays bare the human predicament in which shadow is taken for substance, and substance for shadow, the truth-teller for a deceiver, and the deceiver for a truth-teller.
The reader will have guessed where I am going with this. If the allegory of the Cave delivers the truth about the human predicament despite its falsity when taken as an historical narrative, the same could be true for the stories in the Bible. No reasonable person nowadays could take Genesis as reporting historical facts. To take but one example, at Genesis 3, 8 we read that Adam and Eve, after having tasted of the forbidden fruit, "heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the Garden . . . ." Taken literally, this implies that God has feet. But if he has feet was he shod on that day or not? If shod, what was his shoe size? 10 1/2? Obviously, nothing can have feet without having feet of a determinate size! And given that the original parents heard God stomping around, then he had to be fairly large: if God were the size of a flea, he wouldn't have made any noise. If God were a physical being, why couldn't he be the size of a flea or a microbe? The answer to these absurdities is the double-barreled denial that God is a physical being and that Genesis is an historical account. I could give further examples. (And you hope I won't.)
This is why the deliverances of evolutionary biology do not refute the Fall. (I grant that said deliverances refute some doctrines of the Fall, those doctrines that posit an original pair of humans, without animal progenitors, from whom the whole human race is descended.) Indeed, it is quite stupid to think that the Fall can be refuted from biology. It would as stupid as to think that the truths about the human condition that are expressed in Plato's famous allegory can be negated or disconfirmed by the failure of archeologists to locate the site of Plato's Cave, or by any physical proof that a structure like that of Plato's Cave is nomologically impossible.
And yet wasn't that what Jerry Coyne, the University of Chicago biologist, was quoted as maintaining?
I’ve always maintained that this piece of the Old Testament, which is easily falsified by modern genetics (modern humans descended from a group of no fewer than 10,000 individuals), shows more than anything else the incompatibility between science and faith. For if you reject the Adam and Eve tale as literal truth, you reject two central tenets of Christianity: the Fall of Man and human specialness.
I suppose this shows that the wages of scientism are (topical) stupidity.
Addenda (10 September 2011)
1. I said that the Allegory of the Cave "gives us the truth about the human condition." Suppose you disagree. Suppose you think the story provides no insight into the human condition. My point goes through nonetheless. The point is that the truth or falsity of the story is unaffected by empirical discoveries and nondiscoveries. Anthropological and archeological investigations are simply irrelevant to the assessment of the claims being made in the allegory. That, I hope, is perfectly obvious.
2. There is another point that I thought of making but did not because it struck me as too obvious, namely, that the Allegory of the Cave is clearly an allegory, and is indeed explicitly presented as such in Chapter VII of the Republic (cf. 514a et passim), whereas the Genesis account is neither clearly an allegory, nor explicitly presented in the text as one. But that too is irrelevant to my main point. The point is that biological, anthropological, and geological investigations are simply irrelevant for the evaluation of what Genesis discloses or purports to disclose about the human condition. For example, at Gen 1, 26 we are told that God made man in his image and likeness. That means: Man is a spiritual being. (See my post Imago Dei) Obviously, that proposition can neither be established nor refuted by any empirical investigation. The sciences of matter cannot be expected to disclose any truths about spirit. And if, standing firm on the natural sciences, you deny that there is anything other than matter, then you fall into the easily-refuted mistake of scientism. Furthermore, Genesis is simply incoherent if taken as presenting facts about history or facts about cosmology and physical cosmogenesis. Not only is it incoherent; it is contradicted by what we know from the physical sciences. Clearly, in any conflict between the Bible and natural science, the Bible will lose.
The upshot is that the point I am making about Genesis cannot be refuted by adducing the obvious difference between a piece of writing that presents itself as an allegory and a piece of writing that does not. Plato's intention was to write an allegory. The authors of Genesis presumably did not have the intention of writing an allegory. But that is irrelevant to the question whether the stories can be taken as reporting historical and physical facts. It is obvious that Plato's story cannot be so taken. It is less obvious, but nonetheless true, that the Genesis story cannot be so taken. For if you take it as historical reportage, then it is mostly false or incoherent, and you miss what is important: the spiritual, not the physical, meaning.
3. The mistake of those who think that biology refutes the Fall is the mirror-image of those benighted fundamentalists and literalists who think that the Fall 'stands or falls' with the historical accuracy of tales about original parents, trees, serpents, etc. The opposing groups are made for each other. The scientistic atheist biologist attacks a fundamentalist straw man while the benighted fundamentalist knocks himself out propping up his straw man. Go at it, boys! The spectacle is entertaining but not edifying.
You will be forgiven (by me, anyway) for finding the doctrine of Original Sin (OS) in its Augustinian form absurd. For it seems to entail a logical contradiction. The originality of OS seems to conflict with its sinfulnness.
To start with the sinfulness part. If my having done (or having failed to do) X is a sin, then my having done (or having failed to do) X is something for which I am morally responsible. But I am morally responsible for an act or omission only if I could have done otherwise. But if I could have done otherwise, then it cannot be essential to me (part of my nature as a human being) that I sin (or be in a sinful condition, or be guilty). Whatever guilt accrued to someone in the past (Adam or anyone else) in virtue of his misdeeds is his affair alone and is not chargeable to my moral bank account.
To put it anachronistically, there was a Kantian follower of Pelagius by the name of Coelestius who maintained that man cannot be held responsible for keeping a law or achieving an ideal if he lacks the capacity to do so. As Reinhold Niebuhr (The Nature and Destiny of Man, 1941, p. 247) writes:
Thus the Kantian "I ought therefore I can" is neatly anticipated in the argument of Coelestius: "We have to inquire whether whether a man is commanded to be without sin; for either he is unable so to live and then there is no such commandment; or else if there be such a commandment he has the ability."
On the other hand, if there is such a thing as original sin, then sinfulness is essential to me, 'inscribed into my very essence' as a French writer might put it. For original sin is not the sin of Adam and Eve only, but the sin of all of us. Adam is just as much Man as a man; Eve is just as much Woman as a woman. We are all guilty of original sin.
And so OS seems to entail that sinfulness both is and is not essential to me. And that is a contradiction.
We might essay a Pelagian escape route by modifying our understanding of the doctrine in the following way. OS is not, strictly speaking, a sin but refers to a sort of structural flaw or weakness, one to be found in each and every human being, which predisposes us to actual sin but is not itself a sin or a state of sinfulness for a postlapsarian man or woman. This predisposition might be ascribed to the hebetude of the flesh or the inertia of nature. Whatever its source, it is not in our power. Hence we are not responsible for it and not guilty in virtue of it. It does not interfere with our free will or make impossible self-perfection. There is no inherited guilt. Perhaps the structural flaw under which we all labor is the result of someone's sin in the past; but if it is we are not morally responsible for it.