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Friday, August 01, 2008

The power of beliefs and ideas

Beliefs are a powerful motivator of human action. We are at the core moral believing animals. Our beliefs shape the culture and the culture shapes our beliefs. People will believe in something, sometimes anything. Bret Stephen offers us this :

None of this seems to trouble Mr. Gore. He thinks that simply by declaring an emergency he can help achieve Stakhanovite results. He might recall what the Stakhanovite myth (about the man who mined 14 times his quota of coal in six hours) actually did to the Soviet economy.

A more interesting question is why Mr. Gore remains believable. Perhaps people think that facts ought not to count against a man whose task is to raise our sights, or play Cassandra to unbelieving mortals.

Or maybe he is believed simply because people want something in which to believe. "The readiness for self-sacrifice," wrote Eric Hoffer in "The True Believer," "is contingent on an imperviousness to the realities of life. . . . All active mass movements strive, therefore, to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. They do this by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth nor certitude outside it. . . . To rely on the evidence of the senses and of reason is heresy and treason. It is startling to realize how much unbelief is necessary to make belief possible."

Sometimes reconsidered ideas and notions allow us to adjust our beliefs as suggested in this :

Of the farm's whole New Age mission, Tim remarks: "The error was, I think, imagining that there was somewhere new to go, someone new to be. It became increasingly clear that a closed system of myth did not jibe with the world as it really was." Looking later at the outside world, Tim saw "a system formed less from malice than from a kind of natural order, less from inordinate greed than from longings much like our own for privacy, comfort, individual freedom, and one's familiar or chosen way of life."
A nice insight that would be helpful to many people!

Herb Meyer reminds us that sometimes the distortions provided by existing notions and beliefs totally disable our ability to perceive things realistically:
Now, imagine that half of you were looking at me through a prism - one of those long, triangular bars of glass. A prism refracts and disperses light, so everything you see through a prism is distorted. Those of you looking at me through a prism might see a tall man with purple skin. My sports jacket might look green instead of brown, and my shirt might look red instead of white. In short, if you're looking at me through a prism you'll get everything wrong.

Well, just as there are real prisms -- those long, triangular bars of glass - there are intellectual prisms, in our minds. And if you're looking at the world through an intellectual prism, you'll also get everything wrong.
He applies this idea to an observation:
Let me put this as starkly as I can: What's going on today in our country isn't normal politics. In normal politics honorable people will disagree, sometimes fiercely, about how best to deal with the issues that confront us - national security, border control, healthcare, education, energy, the environment, and all the rest. What's going on today is a kind of domestic Cold War -- a seemingly endless standoff, with the occasional hard skirmish -- between those of us who see the US for what it really is, and those of us who are seeing the US through a prism. And remember, unlike real prisms these intellectual prisms -- or, if you prefer, these political prisms -- are invisible. If you're looking at the US through a political prism, you don't know you're seeing through a prism and you won't believe anyone who tries to tell you that you are.

This is why Americans who see our country and the world through a prism are impervious to facts.

32 comments:

Bret said...

From the Bret Stephen excerpt: "It is startling to realize how much unbelief is necessary to make belief possible."

What's even more startling is to realize just how much belief and unbelief is required just to make it through the day. We're each bombarded with enormous amounts of information, some good, most bad, that requires our belief and unbelief filters in order to be able to make any sense of it. Otherwise we would be overwhelmed and unable to act.

From the Herb Meyer excerpt: "If you're looking at the US through a political prism, you don't know you're seeing through a prism and you won't believe anyone who tries to tell you that you are."

Everybody looks at everything through "prisms". That's what brains do. They filter and distort raw sensory data into something that can be acted upon or at least remembered. Herb apparently thinks that his perception is crystal clear and apparently won't believe it if you tell him that he too is looking at the world through a prism.

I think that a lot of the "domestic Cold War" Herb refers to is due to the fact that all sides fervently believe that their views represent objective truth and that the other side is deluded. The opposite is the case. We're all deluded (by the constraint of having to look through prisms) and instead of objective truth, it's just our distorted, subjective preferences we're arguing over. If we realized it was all subjective, we might not be so adamant about our positions.

Howard said...

Everybody looks at everything through "prisms".

Yeah, I don't know if Herb would deny this or just say that some beliefs have shown better adhearance? to reality...

I tend to be Zen about things that seems nonsensical unless they would cause me great harm. Since I have made a point of being adaptable other people will often cry uncle to their own foolishness before the effects are unbearable to me.

aog said...

You want to be a little careful there (my PhD thesis touched on this topic). What is favored are not better approximations to reality, but better functional adaptation, i.e. prisms that "work better" with reality. That may be the same as a closer approximation, but it might not. And you have strange loops because for humans, much of reality is human created, so the "works better" criteria must account for working with other prisms.

Hey Skipper said...

"The readiness for self-sacrifice," wrote Eric Hoffer in "The True Believer," "is contingent on an imperviousness to the realities of life. . . . All active mass movements strive, therefore, to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. They do this by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth nor certitude outside it. . . . To rely on the evidence of the senses and of reason is heresy and treason. It is startling to realize how much unbelief is necessary to make belief possible."

The most time honored riposte of religionists against the areligious is the predation, a la communism and nazism, that comes without belief in god. (While they conveniently forget the Reformation)

This quote demonstrates that riposte is an own goal. Just because communism did not have a supernatural god does not mean it wasn't a religion.

Bret said...

hey skipper,

I'm not getting why it's an own goal. Isn't the concept that most people are going to have a set of beliefs and unbeliefs and the set based on god is less harmful than those based on non-god?

Hey Skipper said...

bret:

It is an own goal for several reasons: as a matter of historical fact, a matter of the pot calling the kettle black, and a failing to understand what religious belief is.

Ever heard of the Albegansians? How about Anabaptists?

I recently read The Gods of War: Is Religion the Primary Cause of Violent Conflict?, written by a Christian apologist. The thesis is that the case against religion as a cause of war is very much overblown. In that, he succeeds to a certain extent.

In the book, he almost immediately resorts to the time honored riposte, noting the millions killed, which amounted to some 6% of the population. Then, not fifteen pages later, he discusses the Reformation, noting whole areas of Europe experienced mortality rates of up to 50% in the quest to impose orthodoxy of one sort or another. He specifically cites religious direction to kill everyone: men, women, children, babies at the breast.

The Communist attempts to impose orthodoxy killed huge numbers, no doubt. But they were pikers when it came to rate.

How he could accuse "secularism" -- scare quotes, because he used the term with astonishing flexibility -- of unique savagery, while, within the space of ten minutes reading, not level the same charge at religious slaughter far more extensive and indiscriminate came as quite the shock.

(Almost as much a shock as in one chapter refuting the charge communism is a religion, yet several chapters later calling it "... a religion in all but name.")

In much more recent times, neither the Srebrenica nor Rwanda can possibly be laid at the feet of a godless creed.


It is also an own goal because it amounts to saying true belief is bad, but is even worse without God. Hardly a ringing endorsement.

Finally, it is the matter of true belief itself that stands accused: fact proof screens interposed between the faithful and the realities of the world. Adding a supernatural being as an excuse for the fact proof screen is no help, the fact screen is there nonetheless.

What do you suppose would happen if Islamists got their hands on a few nuclear weapons?

Bret said...

hey skipper,

In my opinion, you're overly focused on death rates without: (a) controlling for variables; and (b) taking other factors into consideration. Man is inherently a war like animal, so war, death, and slaughter aren't very good criteria (in my opinion) to determine the success of a belief system.

First, consider the overall success of the belief system in terms of longevity. Except for minor remnants: communism - around a century; nazi fascism - 15 years; Judeo-Christianity - 3,000 years and counting.

Next, consider the vibrancy and progression of society under those belief systems. It looks to me that Judeo-Christianity compares favorably.

Next, comparing the barbarism of the 13th century with the atrocities of civilization during the 20th century is pretty weak. The whole point is that society did advance between 1200 and 1900 so it's difficult to compare the slaughters of the two periods and the resulting death rates directly.

If you had the choice to live under a 20th century Christian theocracy or either German fascism or communism, which would you pick?

I would pick the theocracy. It's much easier to pretend beliefs and restrict certain behaviors and then get on with the rest of my life.

I'll have to admit that if the choice were between a islamic theocracy and communism, the choice would be harder.

Hey Skipper said...

Bret:

In my opinion, you're overly focused on death rates without: (a) controlling for variables; and (b) taking other factors into consideration ...

When religionists resort to the time honored riposte, they are asserting that while man is inherently a warlike and savage animal, religion acts to ameliorate both.

That is ahistorical nonsense. A religious edict to kill everyone, and that results in a mortality rate among the population far in excess of what even Pol Pot got up to gut-shoots their argument. And that is before taking other factors into consideration, such as the lack of industrial-age technology putting grasp largely beyond reach. Nearly all wars of religion (absent the one with Islamism) happened when racking up a head count required a great deal of manual labor.

A factor which religionists never take into consideration.

There seems to be a pattern whenever any active mass movement strives to interpose a fact proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world: slaughter, followed by consolidation.

Whether the Catholics against the Albigensians, or Lutherans against Catholics, or Calvinists against Catholics, everyone against Anabaptists, establishing Islam, or communism wherever it as gotten a foothold, imposing orthodoxy always involves a period of killing.

Comparing the barbarities of the 13th (and 14th and 15th) centuries is entirely valid, unless you are willing to assert that absolute truth belief systems were characteristically different then than in the 20th century. You can't, and it is a dodge. Belief in absolute, universal truth systems always produces the same results, regardless of whether some god is instantiated as a reason. Religionists excoriating communism et al is a perfect example of the pot calling the kettle black.

Religionists insisting "secular" (by which people who use the term either maliciously, or sloppily, mean a supernatural deity free fairy tale) ultimate and absolute truth systems are somehow worse in this regard are, a perfect antidote to those who have a problem with the meaning underlying the phrase "pot calling the kettle black."

(BTW, This has nothing to do with a belief system's longevity, or lack thereof. Whether that is a proxy for success -- is Judaism 1000 years more successful than Christianity? -- is a subject for another thread.)

If you had the choice to live under a 20th century Christian theocracy or either German fascism or communism, which would you pick?

Man, do you ever need to think about the terms of your question before asking it.

First, the riposte is any "religion" against any "secularism". So, since there are no 20th Century Christian theocracies, your question fails at the outset. Re-ask it: would you rather live in Taliban Afghanistan ca 2001, or communist China at the same time? I know which I would take, and it would not be the religion option.

Perhaps better yet, you could re-ask it in directly comparable terms. Would you (ignoring the absence of modern dentistry) rather live in Stalinist Russia, or Reformation-era Lutheran Germany?

I'd call it a draw.

Finally, there is the little matter -- universally ignored by religionists -- that if secularism is inevitably so bloody, how the heck does one explain, say, modern Europe?

Religious observance is at an all time low.

And do is, last time I checked, widespread slaughter.

Peter Burnet said...

I'd call it a draw.

Skipper, let me share a story. In the mid to late eighties, I was doing a guest stint with the Canadian foreign ministry on international Arctic issues, which sent me travelling a lot to Washington, the USSR and Scandinavia. Once I spent several days in Stockholm on the return from an initial exposure to Moscow, which was chilling and awful. In the Swedish pubs at night (hey, I was young), I first encountered the opinion from a comely lass that there was no difference at all between the USSR and the USA. Hear me? NO DIFFERENCE. I was disombobulated and appalled the first time, but on successful evenings in other pubs (like I said, I was young) I encountered the exact same view from many different people of various ages, education and...umm...presentation. So frequently and resolutely I might add that by the end of my stay I was actually craving for someone to tell me he/she preferred the USSR. No such luck--the citizens of that benighted land, whether they had visited either country or not, were all completely convinced that they were both exactly the same.

Moral: Anyone with fewer that ten doctorates in Renaissance and Modern History who believes he is capable of making qualitative comparisons between life in 17th century Germany and Stalinist Russia is a man of very profound faith.

Hey Skipper said...

Anyone with fewer that ten doctorates in Renaissance and Modern History who believes he is capable of making qualitative comparisons between life in 17th century Germany and Stalinist Russia is a man of very profound faith.

As it happens I have also been to Moscow and Leningrad.

Both Stalinist communism and Reformation-era Lutheranism were totalitarians attempting to interpose a fact proof screen between the faithful and reality, while claiming to possess absolute truth. In other words, the the distinction between the two carries no difference, and claims that the God fearing kind is somehow less lethal than its evil twin too quickly dismiss, if they ever acknowledge, all the reasons why that isn't true.

Obviously, I don't have ten doctorates, but I have read some history. Some sort of demonstration why a 50% lethality rate means the imposition of god based religious orthodoxy is somehow a less awful thing than the same exertions on behalf of a non-god based orthodoxy really requires something more than an appeal to authority.

IOW, your moral, when you get right down to is, is an ad hominem attack.

So, by all means, instruct me on how not being a Lutheran during the Reformation would be any less awful than not being a communist during the Stalin era.

Peter Burnet said...

Because the wars of religion were wars between the armies of competing states and princes and not an expression of totalitarianism. Stalinism was a society devouring its own. Bret has laid out the objection clearly. Stalinism was about terror and genocide from start to finish, as were most other marxist regimes. Try as you might, you can't begin to say that about Christian nations and societies writ large. Would you suggest three hundred years of New England Protestantism was somehow the equivalent of China since 1949?

Your example is a little like two fellows arguing about whether Nazi Germany or the U.S. was a better country to live in, with one saying it was a tie because there was little to choose between living through the bombing of Berlin and the burning of Atlanta.

BTW, arguments attacking far-fetched moral equivalencies made across huge swaths of time, culture and geography are not ad hominem arguments no matter how many doctorates are held.

Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

Anyone with fewer that ten doctorates in Renaissance and Modern History who believes he is capable of making qualitative comparisons between life in 17th century Germany and Stalinist Russia is a man of very profound faith.

Is, in fact, an ad hominem attack; it is the exact opposite of an argument from authority. Based upon your weakness for arguing from analogy, no matter how inappropriate or unnecessary, you have dismissed my argument not because of its contents, but rather due to some lack of qualifications which, in and of themselves, have not heck all to do with the matter at hand.

Since you have strayed some distance from the original point, let me restate it:

All active mass movements strive, therefore, to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. They do this by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth nor certitude outside it. . . .

Which substantiates a point I have long made: when religionists use Nazism and Communism to tar secularism -- a word they use with the same assiduous attention to meaning that has made OJ famous -- they are actually smearing themselves.

Nazism and Communism are modern day examples of what all mass movements hope to attain, they are not case studies in how adeism, or secular humanism are incompatible with morality.

So, when Bret, in response, asks whether I would live under a 20th century Christian theocracy on the one hand, or Nazism / Communism on the other, he is demonstrating that either he hasn't thought the question through, or is not serious in asking it.

First, there are no 20th century Christian theocracies; his question amounts to two choices, where one is a null.

Secondly, he makes the same mistake that religionists do: historical amnesia. When Christianity was last able to act as a theocracy, in roughly the 16th century, it, in its variants, attempted to impose orthodoxy in precisely the same way as communism and nazism did five hundred years later.

Relieving the historical amnesia does not require even one doctorate, let alone ten.

As it happens, I am nearly through reading William Durant's book on the Reformation.

Based upon it alone, I do not need anything more than basic reading comprehension to conclude that I would rather have been a Jew in the Stalinist Soviet Union than been a subject of any Christian theocracy during the 1500s.

The choice would be far harder if the option was nazism; however, if you were to actually take the time to read the chapter entitled The Jews from that book, I doubt very much you could come away thinking supernaturally based theology provides for some kind of morality deserving of any sort of recommendation. You should also note Durant's conclusion to that chapter: the nearly straight line from the vicious anti-Judaism of the Reformation to the ovens of the third reich. There is simply no escaping it, yet religious apologists act as if the Holocaust erupted out of whole cloth.


Similarly, you could read the chapters on Luther and Calvin to discover just how viciously totalitarian both mass movements were, and the impossibility of merely [pretending] beliefs and [restricting] certain behaviors and then [getting] on with the rest of [Bret's] life.


Because the wars of religion were wars between the armies of competing states and princes and not an expression of totalitarianism.

You have your wars of religion confused. Understandable, perhaps, given that there have been so bloody many of them.

I am talking about the Reformation. From The Gods of War, written by a Christian apologist:

Worst of all, during the late sixteenth century were the bitter civil wars in France, and saw the attempt by the French Reformed to secure the elevation of a Calvinist prince to the throne, and hence the Protestantization of France. These wars were frequently savage, and the occasions of massacre of one side by the other. Most notorious was the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572, in which at least 3,000 Parisian Protestants were killed by their Catholic fellow citizens, and a similar number were slain in the provinces. A survivor ... recalled in old age a Catholic informant telling him that "the order was to kill every one, down to the babies at the breast."

But even these horrors were to be outdone by the sheer scale of killing during the first half of the following century. The Thirty Years War, from 1618 to 1648, fought between the German states adhering to the Protestant Union and the forces of the emperor and the Catholic league. The conflict devastated central Europe, killed a higher proportion of Germans than were to perish during WWII, and reduced the population of the Czech lands by 50 percent and those of many other districts by lesser, though still shocking, amounts.

... successive Popes, Urban VIII and Innocent X insisted that no compromise or agreement was possible with heretics.


Emphasis added.

So, when I say that there is scarcely anything to tell between nazism / communism on one hand, and theocratic orthodoxy on the other, I am very much making the argument they are morally equivalent, for precisely the reason that attempting to impose fact proof screens pretending possession of absolute truth always requires the same means to the end.

Whether God is in the mix is of no import whatsoever; impeaching adeism on account of nazism or communism is as clear an example of a self-refuting argument as I have ever seen.

Bret said...

hey skipper wrote: "So, when Bret, in response, asks whether I would live under a 20th century Christian theocracy on the one hand, or Nazism / Communism on the other, he is demonstrating that either he hasn't thought the question through, or is not serious in asking it."

There are a couple of other possibilities as well: (3) that you'd be able to imagine the sort of society I meant by a 20th century Christian theocracy; and/or (4) I'm under the impression (from my recollection, perhaps faulty, or some comments and posts at the Daily Duck) that you think the United States is on the verge of theocracy and will become one if it moves only a tiny bit in the direction of having more religion in the public sphere. I was obviously mistaken that you would follow one of those possibilities and for that I apologize.

hey skipper also wrote: "When Christianity was last able to act as a theocracy, in roughly the 16th century, it, in its variants, attempted to impose orthodoxy in precisely the same way as communism and nazism did five hundred years later."

In my view of the development of civilization, societies developed from primitive and very barbaric tribal entities to an amazingly complex and intricate extended order. In addition, the development has been accelerating over time. From this view, it follows that you can't apply the same level of criticism to older societies that you can to newer societies. In other words, the 20th century ideologies were 500 years more barbaric than the 1500s ideologies if they imposed "orthodoxy in precisely the same way".

hey skipper also wrote: "...viciously totalitarian both mass movements were..."

I was under the impression that pretty much everything was totalitarian at that point in time. And fairly vicious too!

hey skipper also wrote: "...attempting to impose fact proof screens pretending possession of absolute truth always requires the same means to the end."

We all have fact proof screens. Children make ten symbol associations per second, adults one or two per second. The vast majority of the information coming in (and the potential resulting associations) is garbage. If we didn't have fact proof screens with a few absolute truths we could not function.

It's only when people: (a) don't even realize they do have fact proof screens; and (b) stray from tried and true ideologies; that they become dangerous and you get things like nazism and communism.

Hey Skipper said...

Bret:

There are a couple of other possibilities as well: (3) that you'd be able to imagine the sort of society I meant by a 20th century Christian theocracy

That is what I meant by a nullity. Christianity is of the West. Nowhere in the west do religious fact screens have sufficient power for there to even be a theocracy. You were asking me to choose between a historical fact and an implausibility (in my mind) or some hypothetical construct containing whichever qualities you choose to ascribe to it. That is, you could arbitrarily create a 20th century theocracy that would allow you to make some minimalist gestures towards fealty and allow you to go on your merry way. Heck, why not?

(4) I'm under the impression (from my recollection, perhaps faulty, or some comments and posts at the Daily Duck) that you think the United States is on the verge of theocracy ...

Certainly faulty. IMHO, the US is the perfect example of a secular state: completely neutral, without being antagonistic, towards religion. My statements have always been against the claims religionists make. There are things I, on occasion, lay awake nights worrying about. The US becoming a theocracy and global warming are not two of them.


From this view, it follows that you can't apply the same level of criticism to older societies that you can to newer societies.

If you were to carefully re-read my comments on this thread, I doubt you would find any criticism whatsoever of societies, old or new.

Rather, it is a criticism of the religionist claim that "secular" ideologies, as evidenced by communism and socialism, prove that religion is essential for morality.

When religionists make that claim, though, they are making at least two serious mistakes:

1. focussing on the instantiation of a supreme being, instead of what is really going on -- the establishment of a mass movement fact proof screen claiming ultimate and absolute truth.

2. Historical ignorance (or extremely selective memory) compounded by emphasizing raw numbers over rate, and while wholly disregarding the contributions industrial age technology have made to the terrorism accompanying state imposed orthodoxy.

To repeat, I am not criticizing the societies of 500 years ago, but rather the claim that somehow monotheistic orthodoxies are any more moral than any other mass movement orthodoxy.

We all have fact proof screens. ...

NB: I am talking about active mass movements claiming possession of absolute truth and then imposing that orthodoxy.

Whether people establish their individual fact proof screens is arguable -- particularly since, outside the MAL, most people will change their minds when faced with sufficient countering evidence -- but entirely beside the point I am trying to make.

Yes, it is a bad thing when people refuse to acknowledge that they do, in fact, have fact proof screens. It would be a wonderful thing if religionists around the world would acknowledge that.

However, your claim that subsequent straying from tried and true ideologies lead sot things like nazism and communism is true, but wildly incomplete. It also leads to the Taliban, Wahabbism, the Iranian theocracy, Sunni - Shia / Muslim - Hindu intercommunal slaughter, all the horrors attending the Reformation, and the rather striking absence of Albigensians.

Bret said...

hey skipper wrote: "... prove that religion is essential for morality..."

I see. Peter introduced the word "morality" into the discussion and produced a bit of a fork in the topic. I was more focused on what sort of ideological systems lead to general progress, which in my book means leading to an ever more complex and productive extended order. I don't much worry about morality, at least not over large swaths of history - morality is what works, though generally, in modern times slaughter is bad for the extended order so should be avoided for that reason.

From my observations (though certainly through my own prisms and/or fact proof screens) a successful ideological system must have at least some of the following components:
1. Must be stable over the long haul (thousands of years)
2. Must be somewhat adaptive over the long haul (there must be a balance between 1 and 2).
3. Must provide the correct prisms and fact proof screens for 1 and 2 so the common person need not constantly re-invent the philosophical wheel.

Most of the major religions (which happen to be deity-based) provide this (though Islam is currently hundreds of years behind Christianity).

Secularism does not.

Hey Skipper said...

Secularism does not.

What do you mean by secularism?

Why do you think morality is any different than economics?

After all, free market activity is an excellent example of a complex self ordering system.

Morality is the same -- absent attempts to impose orthodoxy, where have the great moral failures been?

Morality in the US is just like free market activity: another complex self-ordering system.

During the Reformation, rulers believed that religious orthodoxy was essential to a well ordered society.

Well, the US has conclusively proved that notion wrong.

I see. Peter introduced the word "morality" into the discussion and produced a bit of a fork in the topic.

It is late, and I'm halfway through my second martini, but I think the fault for the introduction of morality is mine.

Among other books I just finished reading (I'm beginning to think I'm channeling Harry) is The Delusion of Disbelief.

The book is intended as an antidote to Hitchens, Harris, et al.

In that regard, it is a total failure. Once eliminating the ad hominem attacks and stampeding misconceptions, there is little left except for the assertion that religion is essential for morality.

That, combined with the quote in the post, is what got me going.

Bret said...

hey skipper asks: "What do you mean by secularism?"

That's an important question, for sure. Here's the one I'm thinking of:

1. secular spirit or tendency, esp. a system of political or social philosophy that rejects all forms of religious faith and worship."

There are shades of gray. No society is, or has ever been, completely secular by this definition, though some communist regimes came close and isolated parts of modern Europe begin to approach it. I'm more concerned with the trend towards secularism, not so much the current attainment of it.

hey skipper wrote: "During the Reformation, rulers believed that religious orthodoxy was essential to a well ordered society. Well, the US has conclusively proved that notion wrong."

Maybe. Maybe not. There is a lot of religious orthodoxy in the United States.

The functioning and progressing of the extended order relies on various institutions. My firm belief (probably held behind a fact-proof shield :-) is that one of those institutions is a moral code that people be "good" and follow internally such morals as not stealing and not coveting thy neighbor's ox.

I don't believe it's enough just to codify such concepts legally and not rely on and underlying moral framework. Especially since laws are subject to change.

Moral restraint against stealing doesn't just happen. There's no rational reason to not steal something if you're certain not to get caught. Of course you want everybody else not to steal things, but there is no reason for you personally not to steal things. For example, in the Netherlands where I frequently travel for business, there is very little, if any, moral prohibition on stealing (for example, "[a]bout 700,000 bikes were stolen in the Netherlands last year").

So therefore, we have to make up an irrational reason for not stealing. Thus, religion evolved. The deity is always watching, therefore you're always caught, therefore don't do it.

Can a truly secular society maintain a morality conducive to the progression of the extended order for centuries?

Maybe, but I'm very skeptical.

hey skipper also wrote: "I'm halfway through my second martini..."

Ahh. Not we arrive at a truly important topic: martinis!!!

My favorite variety is Kettle One Vodka with a splash of clear Creme de Cacao - a chocolate martini (I'm a serious chocoholic). What's yours?

Hey Skipper said...

Bret:

Unfortunately, your choice of definition for "secular" leaves you at sea when attempting to describe someplace like, say, the US.

Which is my problem with the various uses of the word "secular". Your choice of definition is not wrong; rather, there are so darn many that the word deserves the dumpster. (In The Delusion of Disbelief, the author uses the term in at least six different, mutually exclusive ways, without once acknowledging any distinction)

For your use of the word, "anti-religious" is a far more precise substitute. Anti-religion, of course, seeks to impose its own fact-free orthodoxy.

For my use of the term, "areligious" clearly describes a society that increasingly is free from the influence of any particular religion, yet exhibits no hostility to any, or none.

The US is far more areligious now than even forty years ago.

Maybe [the US has conclusively proved the need for religious orthodoxy wrong]. Maybe not. There is a lot of religious orthodoxy in the US.

Correction: there are a lot of religious orthodoxies in the US, the inevitable consequence of a free market in religious ideas.

But that is not what I am talking about. During the reformation, rulers and clerics both believed orthodoxy, in the sense of absolute religious uniformity, essential to an orderly and moral society. The US has proved that notion completely wrong.

Moral restraint against stealing doesn't just happen. There's no rational reason to not steal something if you're certain not to get caught. Of course you want everybody else not to steal things, but there is no reason for you personally not to steal things.

Has there been any society at any time where in-group theft has been applauded?

No.

Just like there has never been a society that has denigrated reciprocity.

There are in fact rational reasons not to steal, and to reciprocate. Both actions give the appearance of benefiting the individual. However, that is only over the short term, and the benefits accrue to the individual only to the extent that such behavior is not widespread.

Rationally speaking, which society would you rather live in, one in which there was no theft and universal reciprocity, or one in which theft is universal and reciprocity absent? In a competition between societies, which is going to be more fit, the former or the latter?

If your answer is the latter -- which I will bet it is -- then there is in fact a rational reason not to steal, just as there is a rational reason to reciprocate. Both notions are inherent in humans because we live in social groups.

In the Netherlands, bike theft is common in largely because bikes are so common. Here, as in so many cases, rate is the more important number. How does the rate of bike theft for the Netherlands compare with that for, say, the entire New York metropolitan area?

Because the number of bicycles actually used for transportation in the Netherlands is probably at least two orders of magnitude greater than that for New York (or any other US area of similar population) simply citing a raw number says nothing.

Can a truly secular society maintain a morality conducive to the progression of the extended order for centuries?

At this point, there is no knowing for certain. However, there are no signs that it is impossible. Anti-religious Europe got that way because of immoral abuses of clerical power and the predations of religious orthodoxy. However, despite teh near absence of religion, there is no particular breakdown of public morality.

Yes, before you type, I am completely aware of the chav culture in the UK, with all its consequences. However, that must be balanced against obvious moral goods such as the near elimination of anti-Judaism and significant racism / sexism.

I don't disagree that religion can be a very effective means of transmitting cultural values across generations. However, it isn't the only one, nor is it essential. (My kids, raised on nothing more than notions of reciprocity and the phrase "which part of 'NO' do you not understand?" are morally indistinguishable from their Christian schooled peers. If religion is essential for morality how can that be?)

++++

My favorite Martini recipe?

I must admit to a stodgy lack of originality here. Tanqueray with a whiff of Martini and Rossi.

My wife is very partial to lemon drop martinis. Since she loves chocolate, I am going to have to give your recipe a try in our house.

Bret said...

hey skipper wrote: "During the reformation, rulers and clerics both believed orthodoxy, in the sense of absolute religious uniformity, essential to an orderly and moral society."

It seems to me that there is still a core orthodoxy across Christians. If your point is just that there can be some flexibility in dogma, then sure, the rulers and clerics were probably wrong (though I can't sign up to your level of certitude on this one - ask me again in 100 years).

hey skipper asked: "In a competition between societies, which is going to be more fit, the former or the latter?"

But rationally speaking, I wouldn't choose either of those. Best of all is for everybody else not to steal and for only me to steal (and not get caught). Then I enjoy the full benefit of a cooperative society and also benefit from what I can steal. Note that we're not talking about "in group" stealing - I'd steal from strangers only.

On the other hand, I'd be a fool if everybody else was stealing what they could and I didn't.

Except in one of the following cases:
1. I believed in a watchful God who would ultimately punish my transgressions or grew up in a society with a widespread belief like this and had the non-stealing custom inculcated by those with such a belief.
2. We all put huge effort and/or cost into protecting our things.
3. Legal penalties are hugely severe for stealing.

(2) and (3) have a pretty big cost on society. (1) is much more efficient.

I have a hunch you'll claim that (1) can be effected by non-religious people passing their culture on as well as religious people. In the short term (a few generations), yes, but in the long term I'll have to disagree - I think that morality will degrade, indeed has degraded in places like the Netherlands.

hey skipper wrote: "...simply citing a raw number [of bicycles stolen] says nothing..."

Hmmm. The population of the Netherlands is under 17 million so that's just under 1 bicycle stolen per 20 people. Is there anything in the U.S. that's stolen at that rate anywhere?

Also, it's just an example. I'm there a lot for business and the fact is that a substantial number of Dutch don't think there's much wrong with stealing.

hey skipper also wrote: "My kids, raised on nothing more than notions of reciprocity and the phrase "which part of 'NO' do you not understand?" are morally indistinguishable from their Christian schooled peers. If religion is essential for morality how can that be?"

My question and worry is not whether or not morality can be mostly maintained across a single generation, or even a few generations. I have no doubt it can. What I wonder is whether or not the morality required for the extended order can be maintained across dozens and hundreds of generations without a deity based religion.

I have my doubts.

Harry Eagar said...

Some beliefs are believable. For example, Instapundit leads me to a Megan McArdle tirade about profits.

Sez Megan: 'China is proving that American companies will throw freedom of speech out the window if the price is right.'

American companies act to maximize profits? The shame of it all!

I'd love to see the Hayekian analysis that shows that this behavior is either 1) unexpected; or 2) undesirable.

Peter Burnet said...

I don't want to interrupt the flow of this down-and-outer between Skipper and Bret, but both of you are making a fundamental error of first principle that I am constrained to rush in and correct:

Green Apple Martini:

1 1/2 oz green apple vodka
1 1/2 oz apple liquer
large shot of corn syrup

Shake ingredients and ice in shaker until very cold and pour into martini glass rimmed with organic cane sugar.

OK, carry on.

Howard said...

Harry,

Wonderful example of the effect of viewing things through different prisms! The mainstream media(NBC in this case) is not a particularly strong advocate for liberty. There are instead many historical examples of the media being sympathetic towards the left and even being apologists for authoritarians of the left. Their behavior is thus consistent with past behaviors, advocacy of their worldview and the profit motive. Totally unremarkable. It would require reference to morals to characterize this as undesirable behavior. Something not neglected as important in an extended order of human cooperation. Just out of curiosity, which works of Hayek have you actually read?

Harry Eagar said...

None. But if you're arguing that morality should trump markets, I'm all for it.

Now tell me, whose?

aog said...

Mr. Eagar;

What can we do to persuade you that none of us nor Hayek claim that free markets preclude all undesirable behavior? Free markets are least bad, not all good. Do you refuse to use any software that has bugs in it because those cause undesirable or unexpected behavior? If, despite the bugs, you use a software package anyway, why? And if you can articulate why, could you conceive of someone supporting free markets, despite its bugs, for the same reason?

Hey Skipper said...

Bret:

It seems to me that there is still a core orthodoxy across Christians. If your point is just that there can be some flexibility in dogma ...

During the Reformation, clerics and rulers believed absolute orthodoxy to be essential; none of this core stuff for them.

Remember, though, my point goes back to this:

All active mass movements strive, therefore, to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. They do this by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth nor certitude outside it. . . . To rely on the evidence of the senses and of reason is heresy and treason. It is startling to realize how much unbelief is necessary to make belief possible.

Religionists insist upon posing nazism and communism as secular bogeymen, proving by contrast the superiority of religious belief. Unfortunately, through historical ignorance and intellectual myopia, willful or otherwise, they fail to understand that there is no meaningful difference between a religion and communism / nazism, et al. To the extent they become mass movements interposing fact proof screens and claiming absolute truth, their tendency towards monstrous behavior is identical.

As it has happened, Christianity has not been able to engender such a mass movement since the Reformation, so comparing contemporary Christianity against nazism and communism is ridiculous. Comparing contemporary Islamism, though, gets far closer to validity.

But rationally speaking, I wouldn't choose either of those. Best of all is for everybody else not to steal and for only me to steal (and not get caught).

Of course, that would be wonderful for you. However, we are dealing with the real world, where thieves (and philanderers) do, in fact, get caught. You simply cannot pretend that threat does not exist.

As well, you over egg the deterrent effect of a watchful God. Not only do you give too much credence to human risk assessment, you ignore theology. Some sects (Calvinism, for one) believe in predestination. Others insist that accepting Jesus as your personal savior is enough to absolve you of all your sins. For those fact proof screens, what mortal action is a bar to heaven?

I disagree that we put a huge effort or expense into protecting our things. As a percentage of my families annual budget, locks, keys, passwords et al are a fair way to the right of the decimal point.

The rate of bike theft in the Netherlands does, indeed, seem high. However, I remember reading in the not too distant past about how bad that very same problem is in NYC.

Which, in turn, raises its own problem for those who insist religion is indispensable to moral behavior: contrast the NYC of the 1970s with that of today. Which religious revival was responsible for that?

++++

Peter:

Sounds great, but organic cane sugar?

I'm going to run out of space for ingredients.

I'm wondering if one's martini preference has any correlation to personality.

Harry Eagar said...

I don't agree free markets are 'least bad.'

From my experience, well-regulated markets (as, for example, banking as modified by Glass-Steagall) are far superior free markets (as, for example, the disaster of unregulated banking we're living with now).

Not least of the drawbacks of unrestrained free-marketeering, from your point of view, will be that in a democracy, free markets are punished for their cruelties and in November the punishment is going to be named President Obama.

Continuing to assert that free markets are the answer to every economic problem, along, of course, with lower taxes, keeps people from observing what's going on out there.

Sorry, I'm paid to observe, and what I see is not pretty. You should study the world free market in bananas and get back to me about moral adjustments. (Hint: the moral adjustment was made, the free marketeers refused to accept it and impoverished a lot of helpless people. To date, I haven't heard one word of regret, nor, of course any meliorist suggestions. Absolutely not! It's the market at work. Whatever the result was, it was the only approvable result.)

aog said...

"I don't agree free markets are 'least bad.'"

I know, believe me, I know. But, my question was whether you could conceive of other people believing that, accept that as an alternative world view. Apparently not, since you immediately went back to the straw man of "It's the market at work. Whatever the result was, it was the only approvable result.". That's not what some one who thinks of free markets as "least bad" would think, but it's consistently how you think they think.

Ah well — as you note, you're paid to observe, not to envision alternate view points. I will note that is what many of us see as an essential flaw in modern journalism. Not the lack of reporting of other view points, but an inability to even realize they exist.

Peter Burnet said...

Skipper:

I'm wondering if one's martini preference has any correlation to personality.

Definitely. As sure as God made the little green apples.

(But full disclosure: It's my wife's drink, which apparently I make better than anyone. Can't stomach the stuff myself. Whiskey man.)

erp said...

"... the disaster of unregulated banking ...".

That's a joke, no?

Harry Eagar said...

Well, in the banana example, the victims WERE told that the free market demanded that they be deprived of their livelihood and that there was no appeal.

So, I can IMAGINE that free marketeers would admit that what they were doing was bad, but I cannot SAY that I have seen them do so.

Yes, erp, disaster of unregulated banking. Even if we manage to come out without having the entire system collapse, the minimum cost is going to be a trillion dollars. I'd call that a disaster.

erp said...

Banking isn't unregulated.

Harry Eagar said...

The part of banking that created the disaster has never been regulated.

And even the relevant regulations that helped restrain the suicidal free market tendencies of the commercial banks were repealed in 1994.