Last night's Breaking Bad finale brought to an end one of the truly great series on broadcast television, and did so in a way that was thematically appropriate and narratively satisfying. After the debacles that were the series ends of The Sopranos and Lost, I will admit that I was somewhat concerned that Breaking Bad would not fulfill the promise of its early episodes. (By the way, there will be spoilers for the entirety of Breaking Bad in what follows. You've been warned).
Let me note that, while I had been intrigued by the premise of the show from the beginning, I had never really invested myself in Breaking Bad until the last month or so, when I watched the whole show in a period of about two or three weeks, anticipating the final few episodes. This is, I think, the best possible way to watch the show, since it allows you to appreciate just how concentrated its narrative time-frame is, and just how rapidly Walt's descent into the moral quagmire actually takes place. It also makes it much easier to detect the show's themes when you catch them coming at you in large chunks, rather than spread out over a period of five years.
As I watched the show, I was particularly interested in what its moral message might be. Was it an expression or celebration of nihilism, or in some way a glorification of its anti-heroic protagonist, or did it seek to plumb some deeper dimensions of the moral life? While, for example, The Wire kept us rooting for its assorted anti-heroes almost always until the moment of their endings, Breaking Bad seemed, from the beginning (indeed, from its title), to be aware that there is something "broken" in Walt. He's broken. Bad. Not just because of his cancer, though that's an apt metaphor for his moral decline. Not just because he has stowed away resentments for the whole of his adult life which seep out of him when he is desperate. These are aspects of his story, but they are not, as I view the show, what it's finally about, morally speaking. Walt is broken because Walt has no sense that there is any higher moral or spiritual order to the world he inhabits.
This is exemplified in the clip above, where he and Gretchen are calculating the chemical components of the human body. Once they've added it all up, it seems ... somehow lacking. As Walt says, "it feels like there should be something more." When Gretchen proposes that perhaps they've missed the soul, Walt's reply encapsulates the entirety of his worldview: "There's nothing here but chemistry."
But if that is true -- if there is in fact nothing here but chemistry -- then, I think the show is suggesting, why not cook meth? It's a variation on Dostoevsky's question: "If there is no God, why not commit suicide?" If in the end human life can be said to be nothing more than the manifestation of material processes -- physical, chemical, biological -- then, if you are in Walt's situation, what's to prevent you from making meth? I would suggest that any possible answer to that question that you could propose -- the harm it would do, the greater good, the Categorical Imperative, the damage to Walt's virtue, or his reputation, or his self-image, can all be neatly swept under the carpet by Walt's self-justification, and his insistence that, after all, once he's dead, there will be no Walter White left to suffer the consequences of his horrific deeds. And if there is no Walt (except perhaps in the wholly chemical materially determined memories of those he leaves behind), then his best course of action is to try to leave them with material security and fond memories of him.
Of course, his justifications are hollow, as he finally admits to Skyler in last night's episode. "I did it for me," he acknowledges. But allow him his self-justification for one moment and attempt to answer the question: If you are Walter White, and believe as Walter White does that "there's nothing here but chemistry," what morally compelling reason can be given not to do what he's done? We know, having seen the series, that Walt's schemes inevitably and disastrously spin out of his control, but at the moment he makes that initial decision, in the absence of the knowledge of where it will lead, could any moral argument dissuade him?
Morally speaking, there has to be something more to human life than chemistry. Morality is, I believe, the definitive refutation of a radically materialist brand of metaphysics. Even people who purport to believe that all of existence is nothing but matter in motion almost never behave as if they believe it. If they did, then they would be moral monsters, just as Walter White becomes. As human beings, we have to at least act as though there was more than just chemistry to human life. Because if we actually acted as though all of our motivations were merely the manifestations of our "selfish genes," then there would be no compelling reason not to act in ways that would make Ayn Rand's repugnant philosophy of self-interest look like Mother Theresa's Guide to Ethical Living.
Indeed, the other iconic scene from the series illustrates this point powerfully. Jesse, guilt-ridden over his murder of Gale Boetticher, seeks some form of solace in the recovery group that he had tried to exploit as his potential meth clients. Finally sick of the leader's shallow insistence that they needed to learn to accept themselves and refuse to judge, Jesse explodes:
"If you just do stuff and nothing happens," Jesse asks, "what does it all mean?" Jesse recognizes that his actions exist in the context of a larger moral framework, or at least, that they should. Otherwise, life really is just one damn thing after another. If our actions don't matter morally, he suggests, then there is no reason to believe that his murder of Gale is anything to be troubled about. The group leader's inane bromides about self-acceptance and "owning our actions" are an evasion of responsibility.
To be sure, often what we need to be told, in the words of Paul Tillich, is to "accept Acceptance." But, perhaps just as often, we need to be told that we are unacceptable. So when Jesse finally pushes the group leader to admit that Jesse is unacceptable to him, Jesse takes that not as rejection but as triumph. It means that, in some kind of moral framework, his actions really do have consequences.
The question though is, what kind of moral framework could that be? The materialist worldview, where nothing exists but matter in motion, has no potential to provide any framework that is more compelling than unabashed self-interest. Well, you might say by way of response, there is the social context in which you reside, or there is the greatest good for the greatest number, or there is your own happiness or the happiness of those most proximate to you. But against the backdrop of a universe as vast as ours, and a time-frame as enormous as ours, there is no form of temporal happiness or communal good that can definitvely override self-interest, particularly not, if like Walt, your own personal clock is rapidly running out.
And, arguably, most of the most awful characters on the show are seeking, through their misdeeds, some approximation of happiness, at least of a personal, if not a social sort. Walt seeks the happiness of finally being the acknowledged expert, the best in his field. Skyler seeks the happiness of domesticity. Jesse seeks some escape from his personal demons. Mike seeks to secure the happiness of his granddaughter. Even Gus Fring (at least according to Giancarlo Esposito on last night's Talking Bad) is seeking to elicit human excellence from those whom he mentors, whether it's Max, Gale, Walt, or Jesse. (As a side note, the incredulous reaction of Jonathan Banks, the actor who played Mike, to Esposito's argument was a priceless moment in the aftershow).
I don't think, despite my own religious perspective, that the answer to this question has to be religious. There are many moral frameworks besides religious ones that do not depend on a materialist metaphysical framework. And in the end I think one of the great insights of Immanuel Kant is that ultimately, the metaphysical form of the world is completely unknowable to us, making any attempt to definitively describe it completely fruitless. But regardless, if one were looking for a non-materialist, and non-religious metaphysic to embrace, there are many candidates out there.
That said, I do think that Vince Gilligan has some kind of religious perspective in mind as he contemplates Walt's actions. From the teddy bear's eye that looks up accusingly at Walt over the course of many episodes, to his final desperate prayer in his stolen car in last night's finally, there does seem to be some form of divine presence existing on the edges of the narrative. Gilligan once described the teddy bear's eye as "the Eye of God" and one could read Walt's unlikely discovery of the keys as a form of divine providence, offering Walt a final opportunity to seek some form of redemption before the end.
So, does Walt achieve redemption? Given the amount of evil he did, it is hard for me to say yes to that. If he did, he was perhaps to be found nowhere but in the moment of tenderness that he shared with his sleeping daughter before embarking on his final conflagration. I have disagreed with those who have said that Walt is a psychopath. It's been clear to me from the beginning, or at least from the moment that he brought a sandwich to Crazy 8 in season one and asked for a reason not to kill him, that Walt had to work to overcome his moral instincts. Indeed, I think that the point of introducing Todd as a character is to show what a genuine psychopath really looks like. Walt needs to justify his actions in the name of some higher purpose. He never wholly escapes the moral realm, even at his worst, where as Todd never enters that realm to begin with. Walt becomes a monster; Todd is a monster. So that moment when he strokes Holly's hair, saying what he knows to be his last goodbye, and knowing that there were no possible words he could offer to his family that would convince them of his good intentions, having abandoned all of his self-justifications, may be as close as he could come to redemption.
And, when he dies, his enemies scattered before him -- even Lydia, done in by a stevia packet and her own predictable nature -- he dies surrounded by the tools of his trade, a chemist to the end. Is it possible that he had come to realize in the end that there is not in fact "nothing here but chemistry"? I doubt it, but if he came to realize that there was a larger moral world to which he was accountable, and was prepared at the end to make that accounting, then perhaps some faint glimmer of redemption is possible for Walter White.
Today at Salon.com, Curtis White excerpts his new book, entitled The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers. In his excerpt he makes several criticisms of Christopher Hitchens that I've made myself from time to time, and offers some detailed critique of the metaphysical question-begging in which Hitchens indulges along the way:
I’ll begin with Hitchens’s metaphysics. Of course, a large part of his book is devoted to denouncing the stupidity of religious metaphysics, especially the idea that God is an entity outside of the ordinary workings of nature. But Hitchens has his own metaphysical claims, claims for which he seems not to feel any need to create arguments. In opposition to religion he proposes Enlightenment reason. What is “reason” for Hitchens? Your guess is as good as mine. Is it the rules of logic? Is it the scientific method? Is it Thomas Paine’s common sense? Some combination of the above? Hitchens seems to feel that, of course, everyone already knows what reason is and there is no need to elaborate its function or its virtues. But this “of course” is the marker of ideology, and the ideologist resists examining his own assumptions because to do so would be to make vulnerable his claims to authority. So eager is Hitchens to get on to the next item in his concatenation of religious insults to reason that he can’t be bothered to say what he means by the term. The one thing that he does seem to be sure of is that reason is something that shouldn’t be “outraged.” Nevertheless, there is no real difference between Hitchens’s outrage to reason and an evangelical’s outrage to God.
Of particular interest, I think, is White's analysis of Hitchens' conception of the idea of conscience. He writes:
After all, what is a conscience? Does it light up on a brain scan when we think virtuous thoughts? And if it is innate (and just what exactly does it mean to be innate?) why was Crassus’s crucifixion of six thousand Spartacans lined up along the Appian Way from Rome to Capua in 71 BCE thought by the people of Rome to be an expression of Roman vertù and a very good reason to honor Crassus with a full triumphal procession back into the city? Are we to imagine that the citizens of Rome threw garlands in the path of the conquering hero against their better judgment? Are we to imagine that after the celebration the citizens were stung by conscience and were unable to sleep at night? Or did Crassus merely confirm for Rome that it was what it thought it was, a race of masters?
Religion is of course neither a garauntor of morality nor is its absence an indicator that morality is absent, but the key moral question of any society is whether its morality is simply a reaffirmation of its own self-conception, or whether it contains within it resources of self-critique that allow it to grow in the direction of greater and more expansive conception of the moral good and who is permitted to partake of it. As we have seen this week in the rulings of the Supreme Court, progress happens, but it is by no means either even nor inevitable.
The problem with the neo-athiest confrontation with religion is not that, as a movement, it does not make many important and valid points about the shortcomings of religion, but by engaging in virtually worthless and fundamentally dishonest forms of strawman argumentation, they both weaken their own case and fail to give religious arguments their due in a way that would lead to any kind of genuine undersatnding either of religious history, or philosophy, or doctrine.
Of course, Hitchens was never interested in producing light when he could generate heat, or of creating understanding when he could engage in polemic.
Redstate.com's Eric Erickson went on Fox Business the other day and made some rather ... amusing ... comments about the scientific evidence that men are supposed to be the "breadwinners" in the family because ... birds, I suppose.
In response, Ed Kilgore made a very astute observation about the nature of the world that conservatives think we should all go "back" to, a world where the men do the working and the women raise the kids (which is, not work?). Ed wonders what the policy implications should be of desiring such a world:
And this is really the crux of it. Conservatives have a mythic view of society, one that doesn't conform to any actual society that's actually existed, but which is best understood by imagining that all conservative policy is based on watching repeated Leave It To Beaver marathons.
If you are a conservative misogynist who doesn’t believe in using government to achieve desired social means any more than is necessary, it gets tough .... After all, many women are in the work force instead of staying home to be “full-time moms” not because they are lacking the beneficent servant-leadership of a man, but because the menfolk can’t earn enough to support a family alone. An economy characterized by high and growing inequality isn’t terribly conducive to large families and stay-at-home mothers outside the very privileged classes. And anyone saying “it used to work” might want to consider the kind of collective bargaining agreements, minimum wage laws, and subsidized housing arrangements we “used to have”—back before we all understood that those items were socialistic and hence un-American.
One of the perennial arguments that I've seen made by gun control opponants in my arguments about guns these past months is that gun control legislation won't, apparently a priori and by definition, work. Of course, there's actually a lot of data out there to the contrary, but how do you publicize it?
Well, that leads me to this post, and however many subsequent posts I can manage on this topic. Whenever possible, I will list one or more studies on the topic of firearms control that demonstrates, to a greater or lesser degree, the ways in which gun control is effective. I'll provide links to full texts whenever possible, but in a lot of cases I may only be able to provide links to abstracts. Either way, I invite readers to go and read the studies for themselves. Feel free to leave (civil!) responses in the comments.
First up then:
The purpose of this study is to statistically and empirically evaluate the effectiveness of the gun control laws that have been adopted by states and municipalities. States are divided into two groups: states with no restrictions as to gun use and states with restrictions (e.g., waiting periods, license, etc.). Multiple linear regression models are used to evaluate the relationship between the number of gun related deaths in 1990 and sets of determinants which include state laws and regulations governing the use of firearms. The study results indicate that gun control laws have a very mild effect on the number of gun related deaths while socioeconomic variables such as a state's poverty level, unemployment rate and alcohol consumption, have significant impact on firearm related deaths. These findings suggest that any reduction in resources spent on social programs tied to the Crime Bill may be counter-productive.
Results from past research on the effectiveness of gun control legislation have been mixed. This study posits that one of the reasons for these conflicting results is the use of individual laws as the major variable. Instead, this study uses a holistic and comprehensive measure of state gun control laws, grouping states into extreme and lax gun control states. A multivariate linear regression analysis is used to investigate the relationship between a set of determinants, including the holistic gun control measure, and firearm deaths per 100,000 inhabitants of each state. The results show that comprehensive gun control legislation indeed lowers the number of gun-related deaths anywhere between one to almost six per 100,000 individuals in those states that have the most extreme gun-related legislation. Our study also reveals that socioeconomic and law enforcement factors play equally important roles in containing gun-related fatalities. These findings suggest that gun-related deaths have a variety of causes and that attempts to legislate a solution to this problem will need to be correspondingly complex and multifaceted.
These are the first two peer-reviewed studies I was able to find on a quick search of the issue. I intend to continue digging and post what I find here. But what these studies indicate is that a) gun control legislation is effective, but it is clearly not a panacea. Other social factors enter into the equation and must be dealt with alongside reasonable gun-control legislation.
Far from supporting the contention that gun control laws are ineffective then, then evidence seems to suggest that they do exactly what they are intended to do: Reduce firearm injuries and deaths. But by themselves, they won't result in massive overall improvements. That leads me to conclude that legislation is necessary, but is only part of the larger puzzle of solving the problem of gun-related violence.
As I find peer-reviewed studies that pertain to the issue, I'll post them here, along with any studies that offer a dissenting point of view. Again, feel free to offer civil commentary, including links to peer reviewed studies that offer the other side of the argument.
Conor Cunningham offers a critique of the kind of "ultra-Darwinist" materialism, in particular its epistemological incoherence:
As Cunningham points out, if everything we believe in is an illusion, including not only our understanding of God or our sense of self, but anything that we believe to be true about our world. It creates a self-destructive paradox: Materialism is in this regard no more a "true" description of the world than religion is, it is simply one meme among others, and gives us no more reliable a guide to the way that the world "really" is. Materialism this throughgoing, Cunningham points out, "fatally undermines itself.
Perhaps it is for this reason that so many materialists are so eager to keep the full implications of metaphysical materialism under wraps.
Via Andrew Sullivan, a conversation between cognitive scientist Joshua Knobe and psychologist Kurt Grey, on the subject of how our perception of another's moral agency affects our interpretation of their moral action: In particular, the idea that we tend to judge moral agents more harshly than moral victims. In other words, if we know others to be capable of goodness, we are more likely to condemn them when the fail to be so.
I would like to see science fiction used to explore what it would mean if Calvinism were true. I’m talking predestination. TULIP. The works.
For those unfamiliar with the acronym, TULIP — outlined indelibly by the great George C. Scott here — stands for total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints.
That framework is only sustainable, I think, because our knowledge is incomplete and imperfect. Calvinists know that some few are among the elect, and that Jesus’ atonement is not for all/most. But Calvinists have no way of knowing, with certainty,who the elect might be.
If that knowledge were available — if it were obvious and certain — then Calvinism would not last another generation. It would collapse partly due to ethical incoherence and partly due to ethical horror.
Fred of course has been dealing for years with the pain of inept world-building in his massive review of Left Behind (a task for which there really should be an award of some kind). So the idea of asking how the world would be different if you tweak one dimension of reality is a genuinely interesting prospect.
The best science fiction of course is great because it creates a compelling world in which its characters can dwell. Tweaking it in a theological dimension could yeild some very interesting results.
In The Chronicle of Higher Education Tom Bartlett looks at attempts by evolutionary biologists to move beyond neo-atheist claptrap and consider the question of the role religion plays in the process of human evolutionary development. The neo-atheists, such as Dawkins and company, of course, simply believe religion is bad, full stop:
The implication—that religion is basically malevolent, that it "poisons everything," in the words of the late Christopher Hitchens—is a standard assertion of the New Atheists. Their argument isn't just that there probably is no God, or that intelligent design is laughable bunk, or that the Bible is far from inerrant. It's that religion is obviously bad for human beings, condemning them to ignorance, subservience, and endless conflict, and we would be better off without it.
But would we?
Before you can know for sure, you have to figure out what religion does for us in the first place. That's exactly what a loosely affiliated group of scholars in fields including biology, anthropology, and psychology are working on. They're applying evolutionary theory to the study of religion in order to discover whether or not it strengthens societies, makes them more successful, more cooperative, kinder. The scholars, many of them atheists themselves, generally look askance at the rise of New Atheism, calling its proponents ignorant, fundamentalist, and worst of all, unscientific. Dawkins and company have been no more charitable in return.
There are of course many dimensions to the conversation about the social and biological utility of religion, and the article considers some of the prominant theorists on the biological front. But the idea that religion serves an important social function, irrespective of the truth of its metaphysical claims, is by no means a new theory, and is given sociological form in the work of Max Weber and Emil Durkheim and their followers.
The article is well worth reading in its entirely, if for no other reason than to get a sense of both what these scientists are arguing about the evolution of religion, and how poorly they've been received by some of their fellow evolutionary biologists.