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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The heart of the matter

Towards the end of a recent Ian Tuttle column on NRO about the Chattanooga shooter he writes:
What induces a person to shoot up a military recruiting center in middle America is surely a complex of factors. But the same network of politicians and media who absurdly attributed Dylann Roof’s murder to the presence of a flag on state property 120 miles away — that is, to the deep and abiding menace of structural racism, “interpersonal and structural . . . current and historical . . . explicit and implicit . . . articulated and silent,” in Charles Blow’s perfectly nebulous formulation — are hesitant to blame terrorism on any “structure” or “institution” not amenable to a stimulus package.
He concludes:
 The hold of religion is deep, and does not acquiesce to jobs programs or tax credits. Until our leaders acknowledge that squarely, we’ll continue to blame earned income for the problems of Islam — and continue to be surprised that we’re in the crosshairs.
Ed Driscoll has an interesting post on the hold of religion that includes the following:
Nietzsche killed God in 1883, but man is hardwired to believe in something. Which explains why much of the 20th century was a search for alternate religions: The State, environmentalism, feminism, hallucinogenic drugs, and virtually all other aspects of the left take on religious aspects as they become more and more radical. But then, as Tom Wolfe wrote in “The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening,” “It is entirely possible that in the long run historians will regard the entire New Left experience as not so much a political as a religious episode wrapped in semi military gear and guerrilla talk.”

All keen observations, but the penultimate paragraph really caught my attention:
 But, as the literary critic Irving Babbitt observed in his 1924 book Democracy and Leadership: “When studied with any degree of thoroughness, the economic problem will be found to run into the political problem, the political problem in the philosophical problem, and the philosophical problem itself to be almost indissolubly bound up at last with the religious problem.” Talk about lack of jobs, if you like — or rampant inflation, unaffordable housing, &c. — but eventually you have to go deeper. Marx was wrong. Men are not explained solely by their economic circumstances.
(emphasis mine)

An economics without consideration of people is not real world economics.  Studying the matter with enough depth and breadth in a "if you give a mouse a cookie" manner, purely material explanations are clearly insufficient.  My own intellectual experience is in accord with that of Irving Babbitt.


Returning to the hold of religion and non-material explanations of the world,  Law Professor David Skeel has written a book,  True Paradox.  He makes a case for what religion offers  people:
Skeel’s work is both philosophically weighty and engagingly brief. The essence of his case for Christianity (or at least monotheism) is that humans seem inexorably drawn to normative ideas about truth, beauty, and justice, all of which are better explained by a created order than by random materialistic chaos. As a lawyer, he especially notes how people – reformers, activists, and politicians – seem unable to get away from normative ideas of justice, and seek to implement just systems. Paradoxically (one of a number of paradoxes he notes), we have a strong sense of justice and yet seem unable to manifest and or even approximate justice in most societies. This speaks to our innate notions of morality and fairness, yet highlights our inability to overcome the debilitating effects of sin and the Fall.
 ...
 Skeel’s apologetics do perform a service for Christians, of course, as I walked away with greater assurance that my faith really is philosophically satisfying in the face of the toughest questions. But I hope, as Skeel (an elder at Philadelphia’s Tenth Presbyterian Church) hopes, that non-Christians will read this book, too. If they don’t find certainty, those with eyes to see and ears to hear will at least realize that Christianity has coherent, powerful answers to many of humanity’s enduring conundrums.

Another reviewer concludes:
“True Paradox” is written by a Christian in defense of Christianity, but most nonbelieving readers will not find it off-putting. Mr. Skeel expresses great respect for those with whom he disagrees—a good deal more respect, in fact, than some prominent materialists have accorded their believing interlocutors. Which may be precisely what this subject needs.

But it really depends upon whether or not one is willing to study matters with the intent of improved understanding or merely to support already held beliefs.

25 comments:

Harry Eagar said...

'humans seem inexorably drawn to normative ideas about truth, beauty, and justice, all of which are better explained by a created order'

Hmmm. So the Chattanooga shooter was (I presume) a monotheist. He must have been as full of normative ideas as an egg is of meat. Durned if I can figure out where you are going.

If I were a woman, I don't think I'd be all that enamored of the ideas of justice taught by the monotheistic religions.

It is not enough to have ideas. They should be good ones.

Peter said...

I admit to being impatient with describing causes like environmentalism and feminism as religions. The whole notion of a "secular religion", in addition to being an oxymoron, ends up as a one-size-fits-all term of disdain. But it is certainly true that we are drawn inexorably to idealisms and that they are all inconsistent with the notion of a random, purposeless existence.

One of the greatest acts of successful philosophical and cultural legerdemain of the late 20th century was drawing a connection between atheistic evolution/Darwinism and Western liberal values. Before WW11, Darwinism was a brutal, winner-take-all theory, and in the wake of the Holocaust and Jim Crow (both of which had more intellectual support than many like to remember), it was an embarrassment outside biology labs for several decades. Then, enter Dawkins with his theory of the altruistic gene, whose elegance and popularity was lessened not at all by the fact that it doesn't exist. I mean, think about it. Our genes might be grubby, amoral little bullies, but that doesn't mean we have to be. From there we moved seamlessly to equating survival with cooperation and Pinker's absurd claim that we're all "evolving" to be more peaceful. Who da' thunk evolution was so fast and malleable that in less than a hundred years it would take us from "nature red in tooth and claw" to the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights?

Ethically, it's all a house of cards, but it's believed widely because it's widely believed. We barely notice when we hear yet another expert pronounce that some everyday, mundane aspect of human behavior is explained by evolution from that secular stand-in for the Garden of Eden, hunter-gatherer times. (Even Driscoll falls prey to this by describing us as "hardwired to believe in something". Sorry Ed, we're not wired at all and you never would have used the metaphor before the invention of the computer.) Throw in a little Gaia, dream a few utopian dreams, convince yourselves that the root of all injustice lies in "unnatural" religion and Bob's your uncle.

This, I believe, is a problem for secular conservative free-marketers and libertarians, many of whom are suspicious of idealism and share the basic party line about evolution. Many of them seem to believe that economic prosperity by itself will vindicate them. But prosperity alone is ultimately boring to those who take it for granted and are touched by the siren call of "a better world".

Barry Meislin said...

...And in search of that better world, let's destroy civil (i.e., bourgeouis, eurocentric) society, starting with the universities:

http://www.the-american-interest.com/2015/07/30/salem-on-the-thames/

(Well, it's a start.....)

Bret said...

Peter wrote: "I admit to being impatient with describing causes like environmentalism and feminism as religions."

Being probably the worst offender here, I apologize. I hadn't really considered that and I can see why you'd find it annoying or worse.

I'm also going to apologize in advance, because I'm going to keep doing it. Why? Because the people in these movements have huge disdain for religion (which I don't) and I think it's important to point out that their belief structure has an awful lot in common with religious belief structure. For example, consider the movement concerned with carbon dioxide emissions (whatever they call themselves this moment). The deity is Gaia, the pope is Al Gore, the cardinals and priests are environmental scientists, the dogma is not allowed to be questioned, and heretical skeptics are dealt with mercilessly. To someone like me, it looks a great deal like a religion. The fact that it's narrower in focus than religions and doesn't have the same focus on a deity doesn't change that in my perception.

So, sorry.

Peter wrote: "Pinker's absurd claim that we're all "evolving" to be more peaceful."

Do you not agree that we are becoming less violent per capita over time? "Becoming" and "evolving" are sorta synonyms in this case. I'm not under the impression that Pinker believes the decline in violence is strictly or even substantially due to genetic evolution. I may be mistaken. If so, do you have a link to set me straight?

Peter wrote: "...hardwired to believe in something..."

Are you saying there's not a tendency for the human animal to "believe in something" or are you just annoyed with the metaphor? To me, the brain and nervous system are fundamentally a type of wiring.

Peter wrote: "This, I believe, is a problem for secular conservative free-marketers and libertarians..."

The libertarian position has problems for sure, but I don't think that is one of them. The libertarian position is perfectly compatible with religion, by the way. Indeed, libertarians want freedom from the control of the central authority precisely because they want to be able to pursue their own better world and ideology free from the shackles of everybody else. For some that will be secular ideologies, for others, not.

Libertarianism is the ideology that enables people to pursue their own personal ideologies with other like-minded people.

erp said...

Peter, conservatives/libertarians are the most idealistic. We believe that everybody is equally capable of living their lives in their own way with only the most basic constraints, e.g., like the FF's set out for us.

You don't really think the left is idealistic, do you? The notion is ridiculous.

It's all about money and power with them, except for a few naifs like poor old Bernie Sanders and Harry who still believe the party line.

Peter said...

No need to apologize, Bret, I respect your freedom to be wrong and to persist doggedly in so being in the face of the dictionary. I realize, of course, religion and religious are often used in a popular sense to mean any all-consuming, excessive passions ("Football is his religion"), but we intulleckshuools should be more rigorous in our use of language. Words matter. The vast majority of people who adhere to a religion are not religious in the sense you are using.

I confess to wrongly pegging Pinker's theory on evolution when it's actually based more on its close cousin, the Enlightenment myth. But no, I do not believe we are becoming less violent "over time", which suggests a progression from a violent there to a peaceful here. In fact, I find it astounding anyone would make such a claim in light of modern history. Furthermore, I wouldn't know how to argue the point without liberal recourse to cherrypicked evidence and more anecdotes than a debate on gun control between Harry and Skipper.

the brain and nervous system are fundamentally a type of wiring.. Nah, they are "fundamentally" a type of internal combustion engine. Or maybe "fundamentally" like weather patterns? "Fundamentally" an abacus? Hey, this is fun. Nature, nurture and free will have been duking it out in philosophy debates for a long time and determinisms come and go. These metaphors and analogies may be unobjectionable in small descriptive doses, but to the extent they are used to imply that our natures were somehow "programmed" long ago to accommodate the exigencies of a misty pre-history and that we (at least those of us who don't have Ivy League educations) are still controlled by them despite their unsuitability to our modern world is fantasy. But a very widespread one, I admit.

Finally, The libertarian position is perfectly compatible with religion

It certainly is, Protestantism above all. But religion is not a necessary component of libertarianism and my point addressed the potential of such a mundane (in the literal, descriptive sense) philosophy by itself to appeal to a population impelled to idealism.

Just so we are clear, I hold no brief against idealism per se. In fact, I basically agree with what I think Howard's post is about. Like love, it's inevitable. Like love, it can be both glorious and very destructive.

Bret said...

Peter wrote: "I respect your freedom to be wrong and to persist doggedly in so being in the face of the dictionary."

Hmmm. I guess those there Canadian dikshunarees are different than the dikshunaree I use for religion:

religion

[ri-lij-uh n]

noun

...

2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects

6. something one believes in and follows devotedly; a point or matter of ethics or conscience

...

I'm pretty sure my use falls under definition 6 and probably 2, no?

Peter said...

Say, Bret, you wouldn't mind if I called the particular brand of individual political and economic conservatism you believe in a religion, would you? It'll help me add a lustre of unquestioning faith to it when I disagree with you.

Bret said...

Peter,

I wouldn't mind at all. Indeed, that's the point - that little of what I do and believe is based on reason and rationality and most of what I do and advocate for is based on assumptions and beliefs. That's my religion, my ideology, my narrative, my whatever you want to call it, but religion is a perfectly good way to describe it.

I've found during my decades that intellect and rationality are terribly overrated. Oh sure, if I'm developing a robot algorithm, then they're useful. For living life? Not so much.

Peter said...

I guess we'll just have to find a new word to describe belief in a god or gods or, alternatively, an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods. Hopefully it will do good service for a few years before you come along and insist it also describes a belief in low taxes and limited government.

Harry Eagar said...

So,what the hell were Howard and NRO getting at by combining monotheism and the Chattanooga shooter?

I agree with erp that rightwingers are idealists; and with Isaiah Berlin that idealists are dangerous.

Berlin had more reason to know that than I have.

Howard said...

So,what the hell were Howard and NRO getting at by combining monotheism and the Chattanooga shooter?

The parenthetical reference to monotheism was from a review of True Paradox, not from NRO. Had I realized that you would be so easily distracted, I would of edited that remark. Peter had no such problem:

Just so we are clear, I hold no brief against idealism per se. In fact, I basically agree with what I think Howard's post is about. Like love, it's inevitable. Like love, it can be both glorious and very destructive.

Furthermore:

Ethically, it's all a house of cards, but it's believed widely because it's widely believed. We barely notice when we hear yet another expert pronounce that some everyday, mundane aspect of human behavior is explained by evolution from that secular stand-in for the Garden of Eden, hunter-gatherer times.

We are enactors of moral order - moral, believing animals. Simply rejecting traditional morals is not the end of that story. That is a major point.

I don't see anything terrible about having an ideal as something to be aspired to even if it is never fully realized. Collectivists can be all about the power, but when they are idealistic they can also be on fire.

Hey Skipper said...

[Peter:] I admit to being impatient with describing causes like environmentalism and feminism as religions. The whole notion of a "secular religion", in addition to being an oxymoron, ends up as a one-size-fits-all term of disdain.

I admit to being impatient with people who don't understand that "religious belief" describes a way of thinking, although thinking is perhaps the wrong word.

Except for shifting the godhead into the material world, there is nothing to distinguish communism from any religion you might care to mention. Revealed text, priesthood, rituals, etc. The essential similarity is the unquestioning acceptance of Truth, no matter its adherence to reality. (Which makes Harry's diatribes against religion sweetly ironic.)

AGW is a religion. It has it's revealed texts, courtesy of the IPCC and "papers". It explains everything (although in so doing it really explains nothing). It has the apocolypse. And it is completely resistant to contradiction -- remember how Katrina was the harbinger of more frequent and severe hurricanes to come? The exact opposite happened. Only religious belief is that resistant to reality.

But no, I do not believe we are becoming less violent "over time", which suggests a progression from a violent there to a peaceful here. ... In fact, I find it astounding anyone would make such a claim in light of modern history.

Read the book. You are wrong. Pinker spends a great deal of time trying to explain that which should be glaringly obvious: violence of all kinds has dramatically decreased over the last several hundred years. In Europe, the 20th century saw fewer people (as a rate) die violent deaths than any century preceding it. And not by just a little bit, either.

When the CRA crashed the US economy, plenty of sociologists were predicting a resurgence of crime.

Didn't happen. Contrary to all expectations, crime continued to fall.

Pinker is straightforward in admitting he doesn't know why. The last half of his book is focused on potential explanations. His most persuasive (IMHO) is the feminization of society. Those countries whose societies have most feminized are the least violent, and their violence has decreased in consonance with feminization.

I guess we'll just have to find a new word to describe belief in a god or gods or, alternatively, an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods.

Why?

There are spiritual religions, and materialistic religions. Communism, and AGW, which appeal to nothing outside the sensible world, are materialistic. The essentially identical, in terms of their characteristics, belief systems to which you reserve the term "religion" differ only in that they find their imprimatur in a plane outside the material world.

Distinction without difference.

Peter said...

Well, Skipper, if you insist in using the word religion to describe any passionate dogmatic belief that is "resistant to contradiction" and involves "an unquestioning acceptance of Truth", then there are millions of people in this world who would describe themselves as religious, but aren't. Do you think we should tell them how they are misusing the word?

As to Pinker, I am aware of all his reservations, caveats, ambiguities, etc. Indeed, if you add them all up, it becomes an open question whether he is saying anything interesting at all. But as the title makes evident and the text shows, he is clearly suggesting some kind of progression in human nature from a more violent past to a less violent present, and he is using raw per capita figures (and more than a little good ol' Western ethnocentrism)to make his case. I don't know if you've ever added up the number of global deaths from war, intentional famine, totalitarian policing, genocide, etc. in the 20th century, but the number is shocking and chilling and far, far in excess of any previous century. Are you really going to suggest that, because the global population rose dramatically, the per capita figures show a change in our natures? If the Romans had gathered four times a year in the Coliseum to kill precisely 2,000 Christians each time, would you argue that the increase in Rome's general population over time was evidence the Romans were evolving steadily into a more peaceful people?

What has changed is the efficiency with which governments control and police their populations. That has meant a decline in spontaneous, localized bloodlust and self-help in dispute resolution. The settling of the Old West is a microcosm. In Romania in WW11, anti-Semitism exploded into unorganized massacres that were so fevered and bloodthirsty they shocked the occupying Germans. "Listen, old chap, that's no way to do genocide." Then, like a medieval pogrom, it all abruptly stopped long before the war ended. Would you make the argument that showed the Germans were a less violent people than the Romanians? The one genuine accomplishment of the Soviets in Russia and Eastern Europe was to cap the internecine ethnic feuds that had soaked the soil of those unhappy lands with blood for centuries, but look what happened when the Soviets fell. Wasn't the huge mistake we (including yours truly) made in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East buying into Sharnansky-type idealism about how everybody is evolving towards democracy and we were helping them along that path by deposing tyrants?

I have this fantasy where I am arguing with Pinker about why traffic deaths and accidents have declined so dramatically per capita. He brushes aside radar, traffic control, breathalyzers and penalties for drunk driving, cameras, automobile design, seatbelts, insurance consequences, etc. and suggests something in their natures is causing Americans to evolve into safer drivers.

Hey Skipper said...

[Peter:] Well, Skipper, if you insist in using the word religion to describe any passionate dogmatic belief that is "resistant to contradiction" and involves "an unquestioning acceptance of Truth", then there are millions of people in this world who would describe themselves as religious, but aren't. Do you think we should tell them how they are misusing the word?

IMHO, there is a category of belief that is characterized by adherence to received doctrine, has canonical texts, a clericy, explains everything, and is resistant to contrary evidence. Let's call that type of belief Ernie. There are many instances of Ernie: Catholicism, Islam, communism, AGW.

So let's use Ernie instead of religion, then. Doesn't really matter, in that in terms of the characteristics, they are all the same. Of course, the details vary wildly, but at the Ernie level, the details don't matter much.

I don't think one can look at AGW, materialistic though it may be, as anything other than an instance of Ernie, just as Islam is.

As to Pinker, I am aware of all his reservations, caveats, ambiguities, etc. Indeed, if you add them all up, it becomes an open question whether he is saying anything interesting at all ... Are you really going to suggest that, because the global population rose dramatically, the per capita figures show a change in our natures?

What I will suggest is this: If you wished to die of natural causes, your odds were far greater in 20th century Europe than at any century preceding. Further, the odds of dying of natural causes have gotten progressively better over at least the last thousand years in Europe. To me, that is the number that matters (And also points out the problem of arguing by analogy. Unless the analogy analagous, and simplifies the point at hand, then it fails. Just so here. You pose a hypothetical, neglect to note that the actual situation applies to the entire population, not just a subset. And choosing to focus on totals, rather than odds, neglects that you can only die your own death once.)

So Pinker is trying to figure out why the odds of dying naturally have gotten so dramatically better, and continue to do so. Compare the first fifty years of the 20th century to the last fifty, or the 25 years since 1990 to the 25 before that.

Pinker, the same guy who wrote the Blank Slate, believes that humans have fixed (at least over human time spans) natures, so changing nature can't be the problem.

So it must be something else. Feminization of society seems likely, as does the difficulty of ideologs to prevail in the face of widely available contrary evidence. If Islamists were to suddenly disabuse themselves of the notion that they posess Absolute Truth, things would get a lot more peaceful; no change to human nature would be required.

erp said...

I pose the question:

Why does anyone, least of all you guys, give a tinker's darn (pun intended) about what this guy has to say?

The name is a plethora of puns. Pinker: lefter of center or maker of zigzag cuts or more girlie man or less well done or ... this is fun.

Peter said...

erp, Skipper and I both have a lifelong mission to out-argue the other to his grave. If Pinker is today's platform, then Pinker it shall be.

Skipper, there are so many erudite takedowns of Pinker I don't know where to begin. For starters, his use of statistics is both historically suspect and irrational---in Pinkerland, a modern nation of fifty million that kills a million of its citizens is a less violent place than a traditional Inuit community of 50 where two die in a fistfight. Don't you think the fact that infant mortality has plummeted dramatically and life expectancy is much greater might mean a much greater percentage of modern populations simply don't fight? And on and on...

It's ironic that in the very same thread that you trash religion for its putative dogmatic resistance to evidence, you back Pinker's faith-based belief in the Enlightenment myth when he himself admits he can't explain this and has no evidence for that, etc. and you are having a grand old time musing about feminism. There is much evidence right before our eyes that suggests external factors and very little that backs the notion humans are on some straightline progression to a less violent character or nature. I'll let the quirky, but brilliant, John Gray take over from here.

Clovis e Adri said...


That link is quite interesting, Peter. His final paragraph deserves a quote:

"Pinker’s attempt to ground the hope of peace in science is profoundly instructive, for it testifies to our enduring need for faith. We don’t need science to tell us that humans are violent animals. History and contemporary experience provide more than sufficient evidence. For liberal humanists, the role of science is, in effect, to explain away this evidence. They look to science to show that, over the long run, violence will decline—hence the panoply of statistics and graphs and the resolute avoidance of inconvenient facts. The result is no more credible than the efforts of Marxists to show the scientific necessity of socialism, or free-market economists to demonstrate the permanence of what was until quite recently hailed as the Long Boom. The Long Peace is another such delusion, and just as ephemeral."



I am inclined to believe we are getting more peaceful. Not because we are "evolving", but because wealth is growing even in the backwater places, and that brings some changes, to which your link makes the point those are not hard to be reversed.

Anyway, I'd say at this point, Advantage Peter.

Peter said...

Thanks, Clovis, but if I know Skipper, he isn't done yet.

It seems to be both the glory and the bane of Westerners to gravitate to straight line, steady, "from A to B" thinking to explain both the past and the future. Christendom, the Enlightenment, science and rationalism, technological progress, civilizing missions, socialism, democracy, futurism, free markets, peace, much economic forecasting, racial and gender equality, etc. all hold out the promise a better, even Eden-like future if only we hold firmly to the course and never waver, although they are mirrored by a lot of dystopic, doomsday thinking that posits a steady straight line in the opposite direction if we don't "fundamentally change the way we do things". It makes us restless and creative and the agents of much change for the good, but we can certainly be naïve and destructive too.

erp said...

Peter, my point is, Pinker isn't worth arguing about.

Peter said...

And my point in reply is, when it comes to Skipper and me, anything is worth arguing about. Some men argue endlessly about sports, but we have more ethereal tastes.

erp said...

... is that what they're calling it now? :-)

Bret said...

Peter wrote: "What has changed is the efficiency with which governments control and police their populations. That has meant a decline in spontaneous, localized bloodlust and self-help in dispute resolution."

I wrote about the geometric aspect of that a long time ago.

erp said...

That was a good post and I miss the old crowd.

Clovis e Adri said...

Bret,

I've read your 2006 post, a good one indeed.

I have a few updates:

- The blue whale population has been bouncing back and its population may be around 5.000 or more nowadays.

- To help you out with your creation myth, let me tell you that even though we don't know how the primitive populations behaved, it is a good guess they were much like our untouched tribal populations of nowadays. So here goes one anecdote:

In Brazil we have a Federal government agency, FUNAI, that exists solely for the purpose of dealing with (and "tutoring") our near 1 million of original Indians. As all things Governmental have their main offices and operations in Brasilia (the city I live in), a lot of Indians come and go to be treated in hospitals and centers around the city, brought by FUNAI workers. (It may happen to you to take an airplane, in a big Brazilian city, and be seated near a handful of semi-naked Indians allocated in the middle of all the men in suits who usually fare in such Skipper's heavy machines).

A few years ago a missionary I've met told me he was bringing a couple who came from a nearly untouched Indian tribe, and the moment they arrived, upon seeing the city from the sky (their first view of a big one), their first comment was like:

"I don't see the plantation fields. How can they feed so many without a much bigger field???"

The missionary tried to explain, to no avail. As it happens, the surface-to-perimeter geometric law was very ingrained in our ancestors minds.