Open Journal of Philosophy
2013. Vol.3, No.4A, 32-40
Published Online November 2013 in SciRes (
Open Access
Measuring the Horizon: Objectivity, Subjectivity and the Dignity
of Human Personal Identity
Francis J. Ambrosio1,2, Elisabetta Lanzilao2
1Department of Philosophy, Georgeto wn Un ive rsity, Washington, DC, USA
2Department of Liberal Studies, Georgetown University, Washington , DC, USA
Email: am bros i f @ g e o e
Received October 7th, 2013; revised November 7th, 2013; accepted No v ember 14th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Francis J. Ambrosio, Elisabetta Lanzilao. This is an open access article distributed under the
Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any
medium, provided the original wor k is properly cited.
It is argued in what follows that “culture warfare” is symptomatic of an imminent threat to the continued
sustainability of human culture as a whole. The nature of this threat can be characterized as trauma in-
duced paralysis of the human cultural imagination, without which cooperative adaptation to potential
credible dangers of self-induced species or even planetary life extinction is impossible. The structure of
this paradoxical “possible impossibility” as the destiny of humanity is examined here within the context
of an interpretive framework which is broadly characterized as “cultural genetics”. On the basis of a
schematic and preliminary outline of that framework, a suggestion is made regarding the direction in
which hope of avoiding that destiny might be sought.
Keywords: Quantity; Quality; Objectivity; Subjectivity; Worldview; Culture-War; Hero; Saint; Secular
Saint; Cartesian Anxiety; Meaningful; Freedom; Responsibility
The Rise of Quantitation
The pioneering idea that the act of “measuring” discloses the
possibility for the conjunction of the two realities of “Quantity”
and “Quality”, otherwise indifferent to each other, was firstly
launched by G. W. F. Hegel. In his monumental Science of
Logic (Hegel, 1812-1816), he defines “measure” as “the im-
manent quantitative relationship of two qualities to each other”,
where Quantity is conceptualized as “pure Being” in a sense of
a character external to being, indifferent to it and superseding it,
and Quality as the “character identical with Being” corre-
sponding to its very essential substance. As Hegel maintains,
measuring starts with the objective process of determination,
and moves eventually to include the subjective component of
human interpretation. Hegel’s synthetic ambition, however, has
not been widely favored in the historical evolution of cultural
traditions since he wrote, wherein Quantity and Quality contin-
ued to be dominantly regarded as separate “absolute” concepts,
functioning as matrices of alternative, mostly competing para-
digms, each orienting itself along lines consistent with its tacit
core assumptions about reality as a whole. The systematization
of Quantity as an aspect of Nature had been conceptually inau-
gurated by Aristotle and articulated mathematically with the
ultimate purpose of codifying the experiential observation of
physical science and translating it into a measurable and
countable, and thus intelligible and comparable data set. With
the advent of the enlightenment, the opportunity that this notion
opened up for an objectively standardized quantifiability of the
objects of inquiry of the physical sciences quickly came to be
celebrated as the primary vehicle for the advancement not only
of science and the evolution of human knowledge through sci-
entific method, but also as the primary means of progress for
society as a whole.
Additionally, Quantity and quantifiability gained further
traction with the rise of Marxist theory of Historical Material-
ism and the unquestionable centrality which accorded to “social
capital” thereby making the measurement of social forces and
the covert effects of alienation and the dominance of class
structures accessible to methods of empirical investigation. Far
from being an antagonist in this development, the rise of eco-
nomic theory as a social science in support of capitalism itself
served to buttress the centrality of quantitation as a vehicle of
objective analysis that could be applied directly to questions
formerly regarded as the sole province of qualitative standards.
Finally, the speed of technological advances and the pervasive-
ness of their application to an increasingly broad range of do-
mains also rely, today at the time of the first technological
revolution, on the same notion of quantifiability and standardi-
zation of data, fully subsumed as the premise of social sciences’
methodology of analysis as well.
Even so a broadly and incompletely sketched portrait of the
historical trajectory of the rise of Quantity as the standard
measure of the objectivity of cultural norms of human well-
being confirms that the wide spread common sense prejudice in
favor of Quantity over Quality, together with the opposite and
almost equal counter-prejudice, are both historically and cultur-
ally grounded in the widely acknowledged reliability of stan-
dardized data as the methodological prerequisite for any kind of
deliberation involving rational decision making. From policy
making to business strategy among the most blatant cases,
Utilitarianism has become established as a well-respected deci-
sion algorithm. In a utilitarian approach, the value of an object
or action is estimated in terms of its utility, where the utility
here considered is measured in terms of the “greatest happiness
for the greatest number”. Utilitarianism openly demonstrates
that Quality implications inevitably arise in the realm of quanti-
fication. Nevertheless, the examples of the unsustainable ex-
cesses of contemporary fiscal and monetary policies, as well as
the progressive degradation of the natural environment, clearly
demonstrate that the adequacy of adopting quantitation as the
regnant decision-making paradigm to comprehensively assess
all the factors determining the quality of human experience is
highly arguable. Rarely are qualitative differences in terms of
human values adequately appraised by quantitation, and even
when such quantity valuation is applied to encompass quality
parameters, the relevance of the latter is inevitably reduced to
the narrow scope allowed by statistical analyses and their con-
sequent objectification.
The strategic approach offered here to this apparent dilemma
proposes a transposition of the horizon against which the di-
lemma is profiled, rather than championing yet another rab-
bit-out-of-the hat solution to the problem. Indeed the primary
point of what follows could be adequately, albeit cryptically,
summarized as the need to recognize that the apparent dichot-
omy of Quantity and Quality arises precisely from a failure to
recognize the horizon which in fact they necessarily share, and
as a result, to become trapped in a type of reductive fallacy that
portrays a structural necessity of human experience, its media-
tion in and as language, as a problem could be resolved by the
illusion of a preferential choice. More specifically, the proposal
made here is that the characteristics and inter-relations of the
notions of Quantity and Quality can be more effectively ex-
plored and understood when they are situated within the more
inclusive horizons of Objectivity and Subjectivity respectively,
and the characteristics of which we can outline starting from a
contemporary example of long standing traditions of cultural
confrontation between equally self-referential and legitimate
truth claim appeal to highly polarized and irreconcilable hori-
zons of meaning.
Paralyzing Culture—Warfare
In The God Delusion (Dawkins, 2006), Richard Dawkins
makes a sustained and urgent case that religion is the instigator
of myriad social ills and the cause of widespread harm to hu-
man beings. Dawkins’ diagnosis of the cancerous pathology of
religion is that it originates in one disastrous mutation in the
human cultural genome, the emergence of the “faith” meme,
which predisposes its carriers to take as real that for which no
objective evidence can be adduced, but which nonetheless is
perceived as offering some significant survival advantage in the
form of the promise of salvation from death.
Effectively Dawkins is arguing that modern science has pro-
gressively demonstrated that rationality should be recognized as
having the authority to rule out belief and value claims which
cannot, at least in principle, be subjected to rigorous standards
of empirical objectivity and fully explained within the limits of
scientific naturalism. As an ethologist and evolutionary biolo-
gist, Dawkins recognizes the reality and significance of human
subjectivity as the source of the rich coloration of human ex-
perience with the hues and tones of meaning that ultimately
makes life worth living. Nonetheless, he believes that unless
subjectivity is disciplined and bounded by the limits of objec-
tive inquiry, it risks deluding and betraying human beings into
destructive fantasies of the type that have historically thrived
and proven so virulently contagious within the context of reli-
gious culture.
To put Dawkins fully into perspective, however, requires ex-
tending the horizon here by introducing one of his more formi-
dable adversaries in the war of worldviews, Francis Collins,
author of The Language of God (Collins, 2006). At first glance,
Collins offers an interesting counterpoint to Dawkins, because
his stature of Director of the Human Genome Project is argua-
bly comparable to Dawkins in the field of genetics which they
share. Against this backdrop of unquestionable expertise in the
same scientific field, one cannot help but be arrested at least
momentarily by the fact that Dawkins champions atheism and
Collins, with equal fervor, champions theistic religion.
As the father of the BioLogos (“Life through Word”) theory,
Collins claims that evolution and biological complexity pro-
ceeded by Darwinian natural selection after a creationist prin-
cipium ascribable to a supernatural Creator who astonishingly
tuned the physical parameters for life. Interestingly, however,
he then resorts to the dignity accruing to the human person, the
existence of a universal moral law and the spontaneous search
for God invariably recurring in all cultural traditions as the
objective evidence for his claim of privileged authority faith
claims. He maintains that the acknowledgment of human dig-
nity cannot be adequately accounted for exclusively in natural-
istic terms, i.e. as the product of any process of evolutionary
natural selection. The genuine universality of an absolute1 in-
violability of human dignity requires positing a transcendent
reality of the sort that theistic religion generally affirms God to
Profiled against this polarity of belief regarding the existence
of God, what emerges as even more striking upon reflection is
that the line of argumentation which each protagonist deploys
reveals a way of thinking that is even more consequential, hu-
manly and intellectually, than the polar opposition of their
stands on religion. Both of them are ultimately reductionists,
though of different kinds.
With regard to truth and value claims concerning fundamen-
tal questions of reality as a whole and especially of human ex-
istence, a reductionist is one who holds that, despite the legiti-
mate and productive diversity of “perspectives” that might be
taken on the broad spectrum of these human questions, there is
nonetheless one perspective which in the end “trumps” any
other perspective with regard to its authority finally to adjudi-
cate such claims. For Dawkins, the perspective which provides
the criteria against which all other questions can ultimately be
judged is the objectivity of the natural sciences. The privileged
perspective to which Collins has final resort is what he identi-
fies as the objectivity of the universal moral law, not in the
form of any specific code of morality but in the more general
sense of innateawareness of right and wrong, a sort of “golden
rule” which is reflected across the spectrum of almost all relig-
ions and cultural value systems, from the Code of Hammurabi
to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The Dawkins-Collins confrontation illustrates with dramatic
and sobering clarity, why the “culture wars” have become an
accelerating cause for concern, rapidly approaching the level of
a humanitarian crisis in contemporary American society and
throughout the world. As urbane and intellectually sophisticated
as their standoff appears, there is good reason to think that be-
1Far from the metaphysical perspective of a trans-historical and universal
connotation, the concept of absoluteness here concerned should be regarded
as a “fun ctional” and “ heuristic abso lute” within th e horizon of an inescap-
able existential finitude, which nevertheless can bring great examples o
human digni ty.
Open Access 33
neath it lies the same psychic death-Terror2 that is the genera-
tive cause of the various forms of terrorism that characterize
our world today and are symptomatic of this historical epoch as
an Age of Terror brought on by the still largely subliminal but
nonetheless consequential awareness of self-induced species
extinction as an increasingly realistic possibility. The concept
of “Culture-warfare” implies in fact a sustained and pervasive
condition of societal polarization regarding truth claims (“God
does/does not exist;” “there is/is not a universal moral law;”
“Human activity does/does not play a major role in environ-
mental degradation”) and value priorities (“democracy is over-
all a more humane form of government than communism”
“capitalism is more beneficial overall than socialism”) based on
the premise that at least in principle a reasonable person should
be able to decide that one or the other element of each disjunct
is objectively the correct answer. If rational agreement fails in
identifying the objectively correct answer, the cause for that
failure should be sought in some aspect of subjectivity, which
prevents some or all of the participants from recognizing its
correctness. As long as either party in a polarized pair of cul-
ture-warriors firmly believes that their unwavering conviction
of correctness necessarily means that those holding the opposite
conviction are incorrect, then there are only two strategic paths
available, aggression or conciliation.
At the (mild) risk of caricature, Dawkins, as an enthusiastic
and battle-hardened veteran of the contemporary culture wars,
argues that atheists are culturally oppressed by totalitarian re-
ligion. He therefore pursues the strategy of counter-aggression,
contending that religion necessarily involves “bad faith” and as
such is guilty of a variety of “war-crimes” including social and
moral terrorism and child abuse, both physical and psychic. It is
interesting to notice that the same conclusion, that is, the un-
conditional repudiation of any sort of religious belief and, ulti-
mately of the very possibility of the existence ofGod, was
paradoxically reached by Jean Paul Sartre, the most influential
figure among existentialists and, along with Dawkins, one of
the most radical atheists over the last two centuries. Conceiving
the possibility of reality and meaning phenomenologically, that
is, only and strictly in relation to human consciousness, Sartre
articulates his “rejection of God” as a refusal to make any ap-
peal whatsoever to the absolute otherness of all that is not the
self, so that the self alone must bear full responsibility for deci-
sions concerning its humanity and freedom. Collins, on the
other hand, pursues the strategy of conciliation, based on the
asserted full compatibility of religion and science as long as
freedom of individual conscience is unfailingly respected. Fol-
lowing this path, religion and science will be able to work to-
gether toward an effective synthesis, a “unified field theory”
providing reciprocal enrichment and generativity by means of
the complementarit y of th e two perspectives.
Both of these strategies are, however, fatally flawed and in
the end must prove unsustainable. The reason, as noted earlier
in the specific case of Dawkins and Collins, is that both strate-
gies are reductionist, and as such inevitably fail to take the full
measure of the realities (Reality) with which they have to do.
Each strategy is, of course, independent of the position it is
employed to uphold. Dawkins’ strategy could be, and obviously
frequently is, pursued by religionists, and Collins’ by atheists.
It is neither the proponent nor the position that is the primary
cause of the conflict. It is rather the structure of disjunctive
polarity itself, the either/or of reductionism, with its implied
assumption of objectivity as an irreducible value to which all
other “subjective” forms of value must be subordinated, that
instigates a conflict which can neither be won nor pacified, an
impossible situation. That which must be opposed is the para-
lyzing effect of cultural warfare that results in the inability to
address real-life challenges and dangers which, left unresolved,
place human beings at immediate risk of significant harm.
Traits of Cultural Worldviews
The reason for this situation of impossibility that is charac-
teristic of the state of “culture-war” is the all-encompassing
nature of human cultural reality. Where there is genuine culture,
that culture is the enactment of a “worldview”, a complex set of
ways of understanding and actively engaging the whole sphere
of both actualities and possibilities with which human existence
is confronted. The concept of Weltanschauung (Hegel, 1910;
Kant, 1914) originally emerged in reference to a type of over-
arching framework generated and eventually co-determined by
meaning and value structures articulated within the dynamic
context of the cultural history of human societies. Within the
context of phenomenology, the notion of worldview became
linked to the corresponding notion of “horizon”, the indistinct
“vanishing point” against which every standpoint and perspec-
tive acquires depth of field, so that whatever can become visi-
ble is situated and positioned in relation to a horizon. More
specifically, the study of the development, variation and decline
of the major world cultures in the Western tradition and their
social functioning provides an extensive and detailed historical
record of a significant analogy of these dynamics to the evolu-
tionary and genetic processes of human biological genome.
Random variation, natural selection, replication, mutation, and
adaptation of value structures throughout thousands of years of
human searching for meaning lend support to the vital role that
meanings and values play in assuring human survival. There is
a profound truth to the recognition that cultural worldviews,
which structure the socio-psychological component of human
beings, are as fundamental to and reciprocally influenced by the
integrity of individual and social life as are human interactions
with their cohorts and with the environment into which they are
nested. By definition, a worldview is a comprehensive totality,
and as such necessarily exhibits a dynamic which is appropri-
ately termed “totalitarianism”. Despite the pervasively negative
connotation of “totalitarianism” in general usage, it must be
recognized that the very function of a “worldview” and the
culture to which it gives rise is to be holistic and, insofar as it is
possible, to lend to human experience a sense of equilibrium
and integrity, of psychological homeostasis that is, arguably, as
genuine a condition of psychic survival as food, drink and sex-
ual reproduction are biological conditions.
2The notion of death-Terror introduced here and further developed below
has been explored in depth by Ernest Becker in works such as The Denial o
eath and The Escape from Evil. Becker’s work has wide- reaching implica-
tions for every aspect of human endeavor, particularly the social sciences,
and bears importantly on the issues of the interrelation of subjectivity and
objectivity, as well as on the role and limits of quantification as a normative
element of social science research and the authority afforded it in guiding
cultural development and problem solving.
The culture wars are symptomatic of an historical state of
cultural evolution which credibly threatens the onset of global-
ized Terror, triggered by the paralysis of the evolutionary ad-
aptation mechanisms exhibited in human beings primarily as
the ability to cooperate in the face of a shared danger. Histori-
cally, the vital role of this adaptive mechanism is more basic
Open Access
than and functionally indifferent to the polarities of atheism and
religious belief, objectivity and subjectivity, human and divine,
and even to the polarity of life and death. The consequence,
then, is that totalitarianism as a characteristic of cultural world-
views has a radically ambivalent field of meaning, stretching
out in tension between what might, for want of better terms, be
designated “positive” and “negative” poles: positive in that the
totali zing dynamic make s possible a meaningful coherence and
consistency of experience as a whole; negative in the sense that
the totalitarian dynamic is necessarily self-limiting and pro-
gressively exclusionary in the process of self-identification3.
Every historical identity, individual or communal, depends
on both distantiation from and communicative engagement with
the Other as such. Hence the polarity characteristic of confron-
tational opposition is internally related to and inseparable from
a second structural dynamic which necessarily complements it.
This second dynamic might be identified as the notion of dia-
logical cooperation which in phenomenological terms is char-
acterized as the “hermeneutic circle”. Hermeneutic circularity is
the process of dialogical circulation which continually resists
the short-circuit of reducing one pole of any relational structure
to its oppositional other, and so holds open the possibility of
keeping the question that originates dialogue alive by working
to enact the conditions, both intellectual and social, necessary
in order to render the circulation sustainable.
The identification of totalitarianism as the ambivalent, inter-
nal relational dynamic characteristic of worldviews as such
carries with it a further consequence: the historically evolved
worldviews of major cultural traditions can be incommensur-
able with one another in important ways. The term “incom-
mensurability” is being used here in the sense of a characteristic
of the relationship between rival worldviews at the highest level
of generality such that there will always be substantive and
significant truth and value claims which can be validly asserted
within one worldview that cannot be adequately articulated in
terms of their meaning nor objectively adjudicated in regard to
their validity in the other world (Kuhn, 1962) .
The difference between Collins and Dawkins can help us
clarify the notion of incommensurability. Each takes himself to
be making claims for or against religion, and more generically,
for a distinctive horizonal worldview on the basis of objective
evidence, namely the objectivity of science (Impersonalist) as a
trans-historical and universal paradigm of physical laws in
Dawkins’ perspective, and the objectivity of moral law as as-
cribable to the universal inviolability of human dignity (Per-
sonalist) for Collins. A potential dialogue yielding genuine
understanding between them will consistently be short-circuited
by their mutual failure to recognize that the objectivity which
each preemptively claims is legitimate only within the world-
view with which each is personally identified. Since those
worldviews are incommensurable with one another, however,
the claim to objectivity must be viewed in the context of the
other worldview as being not so much incorrect as meaningless,
a peculiar kind of “category mistake”. Hence it is not possible
for one set of arguments to defeat the other on rational objec-
tive grounds, because the basic assumptions of the rational
objectivity each one claims are sufficiently divergent that they
cannot be translated into a shared language, or synthesized into
a common framework of judgment.
The Hero and the Saint
Personalism and Impersonalism are basic characteristics of
incommensurable worldviews and, as such, are genetically
related in a cultural sense first suggested by Dawkins himself.
Each characteristic is complexly composed of a set of “memes”
that are the basic structural components of a worldview as a
meaning-structure or interpretive framework. The memes dis-
tinctively associated with either characteristic derive from a
historical “meme-pool” that can be shared by a variety of spe-
cific worldviews, but which are hereditary descendants of a
common ancestor. For example, this common ancestor might be
understood as an early evolving worldview in which reality is
viewed as fundamentally and ultimately impersonal in nature.
Impersonalism as the dominant characteristic of a worldview
has as its primary implication the notion of reality as a whole in
which persons or groups of persons, their interests, hopes, fears,
gains or losses, lives and deaths are of no lasting or fundamen-
tal significance. “No design, no purpose, no evil, and no good,
nothing but blind pitiless indifference” (Dawkins, 1995): Real-
ity in this view is governed by laws of chance and necessity,
which as such, are purely indifferent to the weal or woe of per-
sons, whether human or divine. The world of Impersonalism is
not created for personal beings, and their fate within it is of no
consequence, a matter of indifference except perhaps to them-
selves. Within such a worldview, the final goal of human ex-
perience must be understood as the self-enjoyment of whatever
limited integrity, wholeness and qualitative life experience is
attainable within the boundaries of its inescapable finitude. This
worldview is clearly evident in the inherited meme-pool of the
Greco-Roman humanist cultural tradition and in all the primary
cultural institutions that arose and flourished within it, for ex-
ample, the notion of science and scientific knowledge, phi-
losophy and ethics, the conceptions of citizenship and the rule
of law among others.
Within the Impersonalist worldview a conception of human
personal identity arises that articulates what can be identified as
“human excellence (areté)” the best that a person can, with
effort, do to fulfill her/his individual destiny (moira) if fate and
fortune are properly aligned: that is, a vision of excellence
which is properly designated as “heroic”. Within a given cul-
ture this excellence will be embodied in characters as diverse as
Hercules, Theseus, Achilles, bodacious, Orestes, Oedipus, An-
tigone and Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Alexander, Aeneas,
Caesar, Augustus and Marcus Aurelius. Central to all heroic
identity, however, is its standard of self-assessment and its
motivating force: honor, or self-esteem. The self alone is the
origin and measure of heroic meaning and value. As such,
whatever the hero does is done out of a desire not to yield to
any external force, no matter how superior to one’s own. Be-
nevolence, loyalty, even love and compassion are all possible
for the Hero, but only in so far as they are motivated by and
directed toward what is one’s own: one’s own city or people,
one’s own family, friends, comrades, one’s fate in so far as that
can be known. The Hero honors the Other, even one’s enemy,
in so far as the Other is one’s own other, the necessary com-
petitor in the game of life, the one who is needed so as to pro-
vide the occasion for one to overcome and surpass oneself.
3Although the suggestion would require further elaboration, it seems useful
to note that the tension between the expensive and exclusionary dynamics o
homeostasis correspond broadly to the existential notions of transcendence
and finitude, central to the human search for meaning.
Clearly in these terms Dawkins’ position is unrelentingly
heroic. Its ascription of normative authority to the objectivity of
Open Access 35
scientific naturalism as the highest realization of rationality
(impersonal) reveals him as a sterling specimen of the purest
hereditary strains of the heroic meme-pool. He is undoubtedly
deeply concerned with the real harms done to human beings in
the name of religion, but at bottom, that concern must be un-
derstood to be ultimately rooted not in compassionate love, but
in the same murderous wrath which motivated Achilles to aven-
ge the death of Patroclus at the hands of Hector. For Dawkins,
religionists are the implacable enemies of his own cultural kin.
Freedom within the Impersonalist worldview means the inal-
ienable prerogative to avenge one’s losses and to fight to the
death, to never yield despite the impossibility of victory within
the human situation, an impossibility which is never effaced by
the benefits of culture enjoyed by some in a fleeting time of
Collins is another matter, however. As a scientist with an
unquestionable adherence to the Impersonalist norm of objec-
tivity, his hybridized identity is nevertheless determined by the
conflation of both subjective and objective components. He is a
passionate proponent of the complementarity and viable syn-
thesis of science and religion as ultimately rooted in the abso-
luteness of human dignity. Collins’ stance expresses then an
alternative worldview, affirming by contrast the primacy of
personal identity. This cultural frame arises from a Reality that
is characterized by love and compassion, within which personal
identity is the basic structure for meaning and values. It as-
sumes a fundamental relational dimension, within which the
individual identity becomes meaningful only as related to the
absolute Other. Freedom proceeds from this relationality, oc-
curring as the open mutuality of personal identity uncondition-
ally exchanged in the circularity of gift-giving and receiving.
The total mutuality and reciprocity of this circulation consti-
tutes the quality of responsibility (to the Other as such) which is
characteristic of Personalism and as such forms the substance
of “conscience”—the knowledge of oneself as existing (only)
with the other. In this context, each person owes her/his identity
to the Other, who is both human and divine. Personalism is the
paradigmatic feature of this worldview that can be metaphori-
cally symbolized by the “Saint” as profiled in the monotheistic
scriptural religions, the one who lives for the love of the Other,
and all the others.
Faith in God, the all-powerful, beneficent, “One True God”
who is the unique source of all life, is the path that the Saint
chooses as her or his way of pursuing the search for meaning4.
Being in question and striving for meaning are indeed the pri-
mary conditions of self-consciousness, the traces of the revela-
tion throughout human history of the powerful and dynamic
mystery of human existence. Both the heroic and the saintly
worldviews are inevitably confronted with the enigmatic rela-
tionship of human existence to the whole of reality. Each must
recognize and accept the elusive condition of human existence
in the face of “Mystery” and its immutable state of being in
question as the originating impulse of its vital and self-sus-
taining meaning and value, it’s “dignity”, in other words. For
the Saint, however, rather than conforming to blind necessity,
reality is ultimately structured by the implications of a covenant
relationship between freedoms based on the reciprocal promises
and unconditional trust that a covenant absolutely demands.
Abraham’s destiny as the “chosen one”, singled out from
among all the others by virtue of an unexplained design and, by
force of the same elusive de sign, called to the ul timate sacri fice
of his own son, exemplifies the saintly archetype and its Reality
of totalizing Love, that is, the mutual exchange of “gifts” en-
acting the relationship through which both parties give and
receive their identities.
Like Abraham, Collins chooses the faith in God and em-
braces the saintly worldview of religion as the articulation of
his Personalist worldview with its privileged horizon of the
human dimension and the celebration of human dignity, based
primarily on its natural, innate, and putatively, universal sense
of moral righteousness. Asserting the uniqueness of human
experience, he clearly relates its privileged position in all crea-
tion to a superior design transcending human finitude that is
ultimately responsible for a moral sense of respect for human
dignity which is not the product of evolution. Collins, in other
words, does not situate the human psyche, or at least the moral
dimension of the human psyche, within the dynamics of evolu-
tion. For this reason, his scientific perspective does not interfere
with his sincere belief and religious commitment, but rather
enhances his awareness of Mystery and the greatness of the
creationist design, leading him to engage by faith in the recog-
nition of a pre-existing supernatural Creator who triggered life,
set the path for its evolution and differentiation, and is con-
stantly present to it. Tellingly, however, the “objective evi-
dence” for the totalizing claims of the Personalist worldview
lies in the universality of the normative demands of the moral
law, which for Collins does not evolved but is implanted within
the human heart by the hand of God directly. In this way,
Collins mistakes for “objectivity” a phenomenon which can
only be accounted for on the assumption of Personalism as the
ultimate character of reality as a whole, a petitio principi iso-
morphic to the one committed by Dawkins.
Both the Hero and the Saint embody the memetically en-
coded, ancestral human endeavor of pursuing a meaningful
existence recurring throughout the history of human cultural
traditions which taken together, it is argued here, constitute a
kind of “double-helix” that is the basic structural element of the
human cultural genome. Within each worldview, important
claims can be clearly articulated with powerful conviction,
since both express self-referential universes of meaning built
upon an endogenic rationality in terms of which such claims
can be fully legitimated. Regrettably for both the aggressive
and the conciliatory strategies, however, in the very compre-
hensive self-referentiality associated with the heroic and saintly
traditions lies the core of their incommensurability as polarized
frames that altogether resist synthesis and assimilation.
A Commitment to Questioning
4It is important to recognize that the figure of the Saint as described
here is indigenous only to the worldview of Personalism and hence to
the religions of scriptural monotheism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Therefore, there is no intention here of overlooking other major world
religious traditions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism and many others.
Rather, this stipulative but non-arbitrary limitation of the type of the
Saint to one religious “family” only underscores that like all other
major aspects of human culture, the realm of religion is ambivalently
shared by the Personalist and Impersonalist worldviews.
An inevitable choice between or beyond the two paths is thus
imposed on the individual who decides affirmatively to face
Mystery and bear the weight of an existence devoted to seeking
authentic meaning and identity, a choice of a kind that Aristotle
classified as belonging to the realm of phronēsis, or “practical
wisdom” (Bernstein, 1983; Gadamer & Fantel, 1975). Unlike
technē and episteme, the alternative forms of knowledge identi-
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fied by Aristotle, however, phronēsis requires understanding
historically situated human beings, as opposed to permanent
universal laws (episteme) or changeable material situations
(technē). Phronēsis functions neither as a decision algorithm
nor a technical protocol, but rather as deliberative judgment,
entirely fallible, but existentially final. With regard to world-
views, phronēsis requires an ongoing process of deliberate
judgments by which one identifies oneself through responsible
action with one or other worldview, without the implication
that such identification is either permanent or progressive.
Phronēsis demands a constant shifting back and forth between
the two incommensurable worldviews which in their pure form
are disposed at the extremes of a spectrum of human possibili-
ties which require mediation between the general and the par-
ticular through application and a concrete human situation. The
inherent risk and uneasiness of a deliberated decision may be
ascribable to any number of factors including the absence of
sufficient knowledge, the unpredictability of circumstantial
conditions or the unreliability of human agency as well as many
more, but in the end, all such imponderable factors derive from
the mysterious reality of human finitude. In the end, it must be
acknowledged that the problem of “measuring horizons”, or
discriminating between primordial worldviews by means of
phronēsis, implies that that ultimately the questions of utmost
human importance must remain undecideable, even though
concrete decisions must be taken at every step along life’s way.
This is at least one reading of what Kierkegaard meant by “fear
and trembling”, in the face of divine mystery, whether that
mystery be called God or not. It now becomes clear that for
Aristotle, phronēsis meant practical wisdom in the sense of
making choices that bear not on the production of things, but on
the formation of character, or in an even broader sense, per-
sonal identity. The choice of a worldview through which to
relate oneself to one situation amounts to the existential choice
which decides who one will be in that situation. Identity is the
responsibility of freedom, not of reason, as Aristotle contended,
because Aristotle did not have access to the sweeping historical
perspective of cultural evolution.
Both Sisyphus’ and Moses’s destinies arguably produce
promising, “sustainable” experiences of human dignity affirm-
ed at its highest level. The possibility of Sisyphus’ happiness,
as Albert Camus notes, is in fact concretized through the full
lucidity that Sisyphus achieves while endlessly pushing the
rock uphill and hence facing the limit of his futile existence
(Camus, 1965). His freedom to possess himself and fulfill his
own destiny against any adverse fate is as complete as Moses’
freedom, commanded by God to flee Egypt leading his people
—God’s people—out of captivity towards the land of promise
which he personally won’t reach. Moses the shepherd is called
to the destiny of prophet, king and priest, to accept the deferral
of the covenant fulfillment while remaining faithful to the
promise regardless of contingent misfortunes. Sisyphus the
King was called from out of the land of the living into the realm
of the dead, and as punishment for his disobedient refusal to
pass over, was condemned to futile enslavement to capricious
gods whose weight of authority depended on the adamantine
necessity of the rock, from which he could never escape but
against which he could always rebel through contempt for his
“No algorithm for theory-choice, no systematic decision pro-
cedure” (Kuhn, 1962) could support human deliberation be-
tween the two disjunctive metaphors of Hero and Saint, since
there is no rational basis for discrimination between one world-
view as opposed to the other, or for the subordination of one to
the other. Rationality operates within a worldview, and the
choice between worldviews is a judgment that, by directly con-
fronting Mystery, exceeds the competence of rationality. The
historical patterns of cultural evolution clearly reveal a funda-
mental undecidability, supported by the intuitive recognition
first, that the major cultures arising out of each worldview have
survived and thrived over centuries, producing ways of life,
institutions and artifacts which exhibit the highest levels of
enduring excellence; and second, that both individuals and
societies past and present clearly do not to fit uniformly within
one or the other worldview, but rather exhibit patterns of hy-
bridization which testify to the choice to supplement the
strengths of one set of genetic characteristics with those of the
other. Even more to the point, however, the very recognition of
the Mystery which envelops human existence itself disallows
the possibility for any comfort that even theoretically might
derive from a claim to possess either the ultimate Truth or
Good of reality, since the recognition of mystery makes inau-
thentic any claim, either by reason or by faith, to possess it
securely. Mystery has no truth, has no good; mystery is beyond
both, beyond existence itself. Mystery is precisely that which
silences the human capacity for language altogether, let alone
for affirmation or negation. Even when language miraculously
gestures toward Mystery, it can do so only metaphorically, in a
way that is fraught with the tension between “same” and “dif-
ferent”, between known and unknown, between life and death,
and that must always resolve itself again as a question that re-
mains finally undecideable, despite the fact that the finitude of
human situation absolutely requires that an authentic decision
be made if the dialogue is to begin again anew and sustain it-
Hence, beyond the dissonance and the irreconcilability of
these juxtaposed archetypes, earnestly committing to a mean-
ingful life implies an indefatigable effort towards the affirma-
tion of human dignity, which finds its origin and destiny in
freedom. Freedom here does not mean liberty of choice, which
is always situational and derivative. To guarantee liberty of
choice is the proper goal of human cultural institutions, whether
religious, political, economic, social, or psychological. Free-
dom, however, is beyond situational or circumstantial con-
straint, beyond conferral or withdrawal. In a sense close to what
might traditionally be termed freedom of conscience, it is the
basis for human identity and authentic responsibility, in so far
as conscience is directed solely toward taking responsibility for
who one is, for one’s identity, not simply for what one does, for
the “how” of choice rather than the “what”. Freedom is the
source and measure of all value claims, and demands the deci-
sion to take authentic responsibility for one’s own identity.
Bernstein’s concept of “Cartesian anxiety” (Bernstein, 1983)
conveys the widespread, even familiar feeling of hesitancy and
doubtfulness posed by the incommensurability predicament,
especially when it goes undiagnosed: Cartesian anxiety arises
from the threat of loss of freedom resulting from the necessity
to respond to the inevitable choice between the objectivist path,
on the one hand, grounded on stable, enduring constraints
which offer a certain apparent security for our existence, and
the way of relativism, on the other hand, claiming that no fixed
points can be discerned in human existence capable of keeping
life from floundering in chaotic variability, except for those
established by convention or arbitrary stipulation.
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Beyond Undecidability: The Secular Saint
Culture wars exemplify a stubborn refusal to recognize the
reality of genuine undecidability. Consequently, they function
as a syndrome that inevitably degenerates into the “either\or”
dichotomy of Cartesian anxiety driving individuals and groups
to push for an unambiguous decision in the name of “truth” or
“values”. One who deliberately decides uncritically to embrace
either of the worldviews which stand behind the two poles in-
directly but necessarily asserts the falsifiability of the alterna-
tive, although neither verification nor falsification is available
as a possibility in such a case. Such resolute errancy fosters a
paralyzing incommunicability between the two horizons meta-
phorically represented by the Hero and the Saint, which fatally
inhibits the social cooperation that is necessary condition for
the integrity of human dignity and the survival of human socie-
ties. The case of opting for one of the two worldviews and in
full conscious awareness of entanglement of freedom with
Mystery is, in contrast, profoundly different and less injurious
to the human dignity because it acknowledges such choices to
be situated in the realm of conscience, because the self-identi-
fication with one cultural tradition here proceeds on the basis of
phronēsis toward a practical decision about how to resolve
one’s personal responsibility for one’s own identity in the face
of Mystery. The recognition that identifying oneself wholly
with one worldview, whether saintly or heroic, rest on personal
responsibility for one’s own identity rather than on the basis of
any form of objectivity is not, therefore, an admission that the
basis for such a decision is purely or even primarily subjective.
Responsibility encompasses both subjectivity and objectivity
comprehensively and exceeds both, recognizing that as a matter
of personal conscience responsibility ultimately transgresses the
scope of either worldview and as such cannot be held as norma-
tive beyond its implications for one’s own identity.
The radical irreconcilability of the heroic and saintly world-
views, however, also opens up a third, and it is argued here,
preferable option that rests on an authentic openness to the
Mystery, but ambitions a value even more elevated than that of
absolute respect for the inviolability of human dignity based on
freedom of conscience. It ambitions alleviating the misery of
human affliction when that dignity is violated. This ambition
pursues neither the strategy of counter aggression nor concilia-
tion urged by Dawkins or Collins respectively. Rather it em-
braces the minimalist principles of refraining wherever possible
from doing avoidable harm and of nonviolent resistance to
violations of human dignity. Such a strategy might be meta-
phorically labeled as pursuing the identity of a “Secular Saint”.
The Secular Saint embodies an equally totalizing commitment
to search for meaning simultaneously along both paths, in full
conscious acceptance of their incommensurability and of the
resulting psychic tension which must inevitably result from
attempting “to serve two masters”. Such a commitment hopes
to gain a richness of value and understanding otherwise inac-
cessible from within either framework alone. But it is a path
which transgresses of the boundaries of reason flouting both the
principle of non-contradiction and the principle of sufficient
reason. As a result, the path of the Secular Saint can only be
pursued on the basis of a hope which rests on an unshakable
faith in the inviolable and absolute dignity of human personal
existence itself. This paradoxical construct symbolized by the
hybridized archetype of the Secular Saint, eventually eschews a
polarized stance and refuses to privilege or exclude either the
saintly or the heroic identity. The Secular Saint is the person of
the late 20th and 21st century, who bears the weight of an his-
torically heightened cultural awareness of the dignity of the
human person in the face of the forces of terror that lacerate and
paralyze our era in the wake of the sequence of the two World
Wars morphing into the Cold War and now the war on terror,
exacerbated by the hurtling forward rush of globalization and
the imminent threat of species self-extinction due to environ-
mental degradation. Among many possible epigones of secular
sainthood, arguably including figures as diverse as Martin Lu-
ther King, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela and others,
the voice of Simone Weil unequivocally expresses this complex
identity, rooted in a startling evolutionary adaptive response to
the trauma inflicted on the human cultural imagination by the
combination of unremitting violence and addictive fixation on
consumption of every sort, both heightened to an unprece-
dented degree by technological saturation. Despite Weil’s pro-
foundly intimate love for the for the person of Jesus as por-
trayed in the Gospel and an underlying faith commitment to the
inviolability of human dignity which oriented her whole life,
Simone Weil resolutely refused to be baptized a Christian, in
keeping with her rejection of any claimed totalization of reli-
gious belief—in her case, the Catholic religion in particular—
into the realm of secular society, derived as it is ultimately from
the memetic heredity of the Hero. The unavoidable violence of
institutionalization led, she believed, to the inescapable exclu-
sion of some components of humane religious aspiration and
cultural expression which should be respected rather than sub-
ordinated to the mechanics of collectivism and totalitarianism.
Despite her recognition of the impossibility of reconciliation of
the religious and secular dynamics of cultural evolution, Weil
resolutely withstood the temptation to betray either her personal
faith or the dignity of universal human solidarity.
The metaphor of the Secular Saint refers then to a new
awareness of the profundity and scope of human dignity func-
tioning as a finite historical absolute within the sphere of hu-
man evolution development from the purely biological level to
the psychic level of personal identity. The borderline between
these emergent realities is demarcated by the development of
linguistic behavior. In a broadly hermeneutic sense, at the level
of psychic identity, reality is composed of meanings rather than
things or objects, so that hermeneutic understanding operated
with the context of ontology of language, rather than a meta-
physics of Being. As Hans-Georg Gadamer points out, one
consequence of this shift is that, “just as an individual is never
simply an individual, because he is always involved with others,
so too the closed horizon that is supposed to enclose a culture is
an abstraction” (Gadamer, 1975). Being dichotomized in terms
of alternative incommensurable worldviews need not imply for
human beings the finality of an “irreducible conflict grounded
in human plurality”. Incommensurability does not imply in-
communicability, but it does require a dialogical commitment
to the hermeneutic circularity of inquiry and deliberation in
which every arrival demands a return to its original “other”.
Both the objectivist ambition of cultural traditions as trans-
historically (metaphysically) grounded, and the relativist per-
spectivalism of subjective variations determined by historical
contingency disregard a fundamental genomic trait of human
existence. At the level psycho-linguistic identity personhood
shares in the ontological character which derives from its uni-
versal mediation through the center of language: the character
of a mediated, dialogical reciprocity governed by the logical
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principle of “Both\And” rather than “Either\Or”. Human-be-
ing-in-the-world is at one time both historically finite and al-
ways “in medias res” (Bernstein, 1983) at the absolute center of
the universal circulation of meaning through which all reality
passes in the intimate exchange of relational identification.
“Cultural pluralism” is a condition of human cultural reality,
not a strategy for personal fulfillment or societal flourishing.
Affirming Freedom through Responsibility
Hence the imperative necessity to assume personal responsi-
bility for one’s decisions and choices as one’s own, as constitu-
tive of one’s human identity, one’s absolutely unique response
to the question of the “meaning of life” requires that in each
instance one confront and overcome “Cartesian anxiety”, the
“either\or” habit of mind with regard to meaning and value
structures. Cartesian anxiety, Bernstein underscores, must be
“exorcized” as dangerously misleading and downsizing the ran-
ge of human options to a fearsome, but falsely framed dilemma.
Cartesian Anxiety as Bernstein diagnoses seems to be symp-
tommatic of what has been previously referred to here as Terror.
“Terror” as used here does not refer to the dichotomy between
Self and Other which lie at the center of all human experience
and of reality itself, and is a structural condition of both
self-consciousness and meaning. Rather it refers to what Ernest
Becker has masterfully analyzed as the paradoxical construc-
tion of human identity as a “vital lie”, vital in the sense that the
drive to self-expansive activity at the level of animal instinct
necessarily passes over into the psychic level as the will to live
and the will to power (and meaning) a lie; in that the denial of
death implicit in the life force carries with the guilty awareness
not simply only of the biological necessity of physical demise,
but also of the pervasive interpenetration of every aspect of
human existence and cultural achievement by death as its final
limit. For Becker, Terror is the necessary “other” of Joy, and
their interrelation in human experience sets up the psychic dy-
namics of hope and despair. Becker makes clear that all genu-
ine terror is death Terror, and that Terror is altogether different
than fear. Fear can be specified and, in a certain sense, quanti-
fied. Terror is beyond measure or analysis by cause and effect.
Terror, like Joy, is paradoxical in the same way that human
existence: it arises entirely out of the finite, historical dynamics
of human existence, yet equally and at the same time transcends
those dynamics by carrying a significance which is absolute
and universal with regard to every possible worldview and
culture. In the simplest terms, Terror and Joy are inseparable
possibilities within each worldview because life is meaningless
apart from death and death is equally meaningless apart from
life. This implies that rather than being seen only as the “de-
stroyer of worlds”, and the enemy of meaning and value, death
must also be acknowledged to be on partner in humanity’s pa-
rental dyad. This recognition requires in turn a worshipful rev-
erence for human dignity and an unconditional commitment as
a “finite absolute” stretching out at a maximal level of tension
throughout one’s whole existence in order to come to a minimal
level of familiarity with the identity of the Secular Saint. Such a
person intentionally strives to make himself or herself at home
in a condition of permanent dialogical tension between the two
polymorphic poles of the mystery of existence, consciously
registered as paradox.
But the issue here is not primarily the search for “heightened
consciousness” as a path to personal fulfillment or salvation,
whatever that might mean. The immediate issue here is less
aspirational, yet more urgent, than that. It is, rather, the most
basic obligation of responsibility: to respect human dignity by
attempting to forestall or contain crimes against humanity by
neutralizing to some extent the paralyzing effects of culture
warfare on the human imagination functioning through adaptive
cooperation with others to stem violence and curtail the inflic-
tion of avoidable harm and misery on individuals, cultures, the
environment and species, including our own. Paradox, rooted as
it is in the structure of freedom itself, is irremediably ambigu-
ous. As a consequence, even while culture warfare progres-
sively paralyzes us, the tension underlying it might prove itself
effective in allowing an uninterrupted circulation of meanings
and values on the basis of which a “stable pairing” of the sub-
jective and objective exigencies of experience, yield a psychic
culture of sustainability as the prerequisite for a public culture
that is both capable and committed to the goal of living famil-
iarly at peace with the paradox which is human existence and
the source of its dignity.
A final analogy might help to clarify this unceasing meta-
phorical exchange: starting from a purely phenomenological
perspective, Sartre describes the human conscious experience
of the world as a constant exchange between the dynamic of
objectivity and the dynamic of subjectivity, corresponding to
the two poles of object awareness and self-awareness, where
each pole is meaningless if excluded from this interchange.
Relationality is once more highlighted as the essential condition
for meaningful existential experience, although characterized as
an unstable flux between the two figurative extremes, where
“instability” denotes a dynamic variability which is contextual,
that is dependent upon the “intentionality structure” framework
or worldview within which the exchange takes place. This ex-
ample interestingly recalls some characteristic traits of quantum
mechanics, such as its fundamental relationality seen in the
complementary and uncertainty principles, which together im-
ply the same property of incommensurability which is here
attributed to the Impersonalist and Personalist worldviews.
It is “Limited, finite”, but also “changing, fluid” (Gadamer,
1975). Gadamer’s definition of a horizon essentially frames the
intrinsic ambiguity not simply of human existence and experi-
ence but also of the reality which is the mysterious rather of
that existence. The coexistence of the two notions of Quantity
and Quality and their related parameters and values as defined
along this analysis within the Impersonalist and Personalist
worldviews is then finally assessed as indispensable, de spite its
inevitable entanglement in a dynamic of continuous, ambivalent
mutual co-determination. It is the relation which is ambivalent
and as such the elements of the relation participate in that am-
biguity as an existential absolute. This is basis of the histori-
cally peculiar predicament in which contemporary human be-
ings find themselves situated. Following in the wake of the still
contentious appropriation of Darwinian evolutionary theory and
genetic understanding, the reality of cultural genetic evolution
is gradually becoming more apparent. At the same time, the
human futility of totalitarian worldviews unchastened by the
correlative realization of the finitude of very truth and value
claim without exception weighs upon us ever more disturbingly.
In this situation, the suggestion put forward here is that perhaps
the greatest gift offered by an unqualified affirmation of human
dignity as the origin and final referent of every such claim of
truth and value might reside in the realization that authentic
hope is possible only in the face of Mystery and at the price of
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taking upon ourselves the paradoxical character of human exis-
tence which excludes defeat even as it does victory. To be sure
this is a “humiliated hope”, a hope that, even as it would soar,
finds itself tethered to the earth so that its feet must always
remain on the ground. But to ask, “Is this enough?” brings us
back again to the single conclusion toward which we have all
along been underway here. There is always only one answer to
the question, “Who is to say?” and that answer is: oneself, the
one claims the dignity to be allowed to say “I” and saying so
becomes responsible for the identity which the “I” impossibly
promises. No objectivity has the authority to lift the burden of
responsible freedom; no subjectivity has the stature to bear
freedom’s dignity.
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