One of the nicest things about working in an international school is that in every class there are students from all over the world, bringing with them their different cultures, expectations and assumptions.
Last year, a student requested that I include some Chinese philosophy in our philosophy and ethics course, and I’ve been happy to oblige. This week, my year elevens and I have had a fascinating go at comparing the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis with the creation story described in the Mencius, a Chinese classic in the Confucian tradition. The contrast between these two stories is one which, I would argue, goes right to the heart of many philosophical debates.
According to the account in Genesis, God creates the heavens and the earth in the first line, and then spends six days organising and ordering this creation. The thrust of the story is the view that there is a God-given order to the world, a logic to creation. It is illuminating to bear in mind that it is thought that the words ‘logic’ or ‘logos’ have their roots in a proto-Indo-European word that means ‘to collect, gather’. This is precisely what God does: he gathers and separates the light and the darkness, the heavens and the earth, the land and the sea. All plants and animals are made ‘according to their kind’, and these various groups are appropriately labelled up. It feels as if this story is describing someone doing an epic cleaning job on their shed – putting up shelves, buying a job lot of Ikea storage boxes and dividing up the screws and bolts and nails.
The account in the Mencius, by contrast, describes creation as fundamentally chaotic. There is no order, flooding waters inundate everything, the animals and plants press upon humankind. It is up to Yao, a human, to bring order to it all. It is Yao that directs the rivers, and organises the growing of the five grains, and who teaches others how to tame creation. In this Chinese tradition, any order, if it exists, is not God-given but human-given. It is not a necessary metaphysical order, but a probabilistic, pragmatic human order based on ‘what appears to work’.
We can see similar tensions between metaphysical and pragmatic conceptions of order running throughout philosophy and science: Plato saw the concept of ‘the good’ as being related to an eternal form, an eternal logos, whereas Aristotle describes a more pluralistic vision, and he argues moral virtues are such because of their tendency to produce good. Leibniz refers to universal and necessary truths especially of mathematics, whereas Locke argues that even these are written onto a ‘blank slate’.
There is a foolish modern tendency to believe that the creation story of Genesis directly contradicts science, but to believe this is to misunderstand the projects of some of our greatest scientists and mathematicians. Newton, for example, did not believe that he was merely describing probabilities with his laws of motion – they were laws – written into the fabric of the universe. Einstein, disgruntled by the probabilism inherent in quantum physics famously proclaimed to Max Born that he believed that God did not ‘throw dice’. For Einstein and Newton and Leibniz, and indeed any physicist who thought or thinks that we will eventually discover a ‘grand unified theory’ the order which they were trying to discover was a metaphysical order, a given order.
Whilst this may all sound very abstract and far removed from everyday life, a Chinese student made a very interesting observation that I think brings it all back down to earth. She related this belief in a ‘divine order’ to the different expectations students had of completing homework. If, for example, a homework relied upon using the internet, some students would use the fact that their internet at home wasn’t working as an excuse to not complete their work. It was as if, since things were not as they were meant to be, the student could not be held responsible – as if it were an act of God. If she were in this situation, on the other hand, she would have no such expectation that the internet ought to work and would do her best to find a solution regardless – going to use the Wi-fi in a McDonalds, for example.
She was not trying to impose bold cultural generalisations, she was simply making the point that she was struck by how frequently, in Europe, she came across beliefs about how things are meant to be, how things ought to be. For her, such a sense of necessity was a rarity.
How often do we come across assumptions that a thought is obviously or necessarily wrong or right? Where does this sense of certainty come from?
Our discussions concerning these texts were wonderfully wide-ranging and fascinating, and most students and myself concluded that each view has its place. It somehow seems inappropriate to say, for example, that the judicial execution of the innocent is merely probably wrong, yet it is the height of hubris to believe that one is somehow privy to the mind of God (and indeed this point is made over and over in the Old Testament). We can only ever humbly do our best and nothing is guaranteed, yet, as Simone Weil wrote, our expectation that good and not evil will be done to us is surely something sacred.
I don’t know how to marry these two views together, and I don’t know whether such a marriage is needed. I do know, however, that I feel eternally grateful for being able to spend time with children grappling with such questions.