Monday, May 29, 2017

Haircut for a new semester

As my barber told me yesterday (barbers are a little known but highly reliable source of wisdom), the founding fathers were remarkable men, far from perfect to be sure, of course, but impressive in their knowledge and perception. And they left us with an incredible legacy, in the Declaration of independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, ... - not only as political documents, but as triggers to activate our thinking and our education, and, crucially, the education of all the generations of our children - education about the fundamental principles of liberty and the proper role of government. For the founders' generation and those immediately following, these were the key issues of the day.
Sadly this component of our general and formal education has been diminished, dumbed down, marginalized as irrelevant to current concerns. The common folk of today, intelligent and otherwise, are strangers to the contemplation of the dangers of big intrusive government, and complacent about its perpetual expansion.
This then is what defines my professional mission - to stimulate a willingness among the unaware to question what seems to be normal, to awaken that spirit of independence and curiosity that led our founders to the conviction that individual autonomy is precious but fragile - that, indeed, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. There is never a shortage of those who would promise the earth in exchange for individual rights - they are not the problem. The real problem is the lack of understanding about the cost of delivering those promises and the determination to resist them.
This I have to remember when, at the start of each semester, I am confronted by a pathetically small number of my students who even recognize the phrase "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" never mind know where it comes from - college students, and graduate students! One of the reasons we repeat the mistakes of history is that we don't know the history.
One person, student, friend, associate, ... at a time.

100 years later

Travel back in time to 1917 to talk to a starry-eyed Bolshevik in the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution. Tell him that you are sorry to have to tell him that the brave new world he imagines communism will usher in, is an illusion - a horrible illusion; that in the next six decades 100 million people will die as a result of the excesses and failures of communism, 20 million in the Soviet Union alone; that the next Soviet leader will ally with a German dictator who will exterminate over 10 million (6 million of whom are Jews); that there will be a massive world war in which millions more combatants and innocents will die; tell him this, and he will tell you you are mad, delirious and dangerous.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Jonathan Sacks selling the belief in God

On my Facebook recently I linked to this important and inspiring address to the parliament of the EU by Jonathan Sacks – former chief rabbi of the UK, now a prominent, highly respected international commentator. I agree with pretty much every world of that address. It exposes the lie of those  who claim to be anti-Zionist but not anti-Semitic – the polite hypocrisy of Europe’s leftist intellectuals. I very much admire Sacks’s intelligence, courage and communication skills. But this blog is about something else – a criticism that I have of another aspect of his work, a mild criticism, but one I feel compelled to register.

Johnathan Sacks was educated as a philosopher in the world’s most prestigious universities. He obtained his Ph.D. at Cambridge studying under the eminent philosopher Bernard Williams. He also studied philosophy at Oxford and Kings College, London. One may certainly expect that he has a deep understanding of the logical rigors of philosophical discourse. This is part of the reason I found a recent book of his so disturbing. I refer to his The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning, published in 2011, and widely admired. I think the book is deeply flawed.

Originally I intended to critically review the book, examining its contents in detail in the review. But, I now think that this is unnecessary and, in any case, might strike the wrong tone. The problem with the book, and with related work and pronouncements by Sacks, can be summed up by clarifying and exposing just one basic logical flaw, and that is the purpose of this blog.
As I interpret him, Sacks’s position (in this book and in many other places) can be summed up in two separate propositions. The propositions are not actually related, but he makes it seem as if they are.

  1. There is no contradiction between religion and science– hence no contradiction between religion and modernity.
  2. We need religion to keep modern societies from imploding.

Both might be valid propositions, and I believe they are if, but only if, the second is interpreted in a very different way from the way that Sacks intends it.However, he then proceeds, mostly implicitly, to a  third proposition

      3. Therefore we should embrace religion – we should embrace its beliefs and its rituals.

Number 3 is already clear from the Introduction in his book, where he attacks the “new atheists’. “It makes sense to believe in God” (11). And chapter 14 (entitled "Why God?"), to which this refers, is an extended argument for believing in God.

My point in this blog is simply that proposition number 3 is nonsense. Or, more accurately, it is arguing in a nonsensical circle. So now I explain.

Consider proposition 1. Indeed, there is no contradiction between science and religion, as long as religion is understood to be about one’s values, about what one believes is right and wrong, good and bad. A religious person believes that these values come from that entity we call God. It is one of a set of deontological belief systems, systems that are grounded in fundamental beliefs taken to be revealed to us somehow and that are not open to question – they are treated as self-evidently true, whether we feel able to explain them in terms of some other values or not. They  are the values we appeal to when considering  what ought to be done, or how we ought to act in any given situation. But, and this is important, being fundamental, we believe them because we believe them, not because we can justify them in terms of some other value we believe. If we believe they are God’s words that is enough for us.

Science has essentially nothing to do with this, unless we are talking about the facts of revelation and affirming or disputing these facts. It is clear that beliefs about revelation by the faithful are pretty much insulated from critical scientific examination. There are foolproof methods for reconciling these beliefs with any scientific finding. God could have put the fossils there to make us think they were millions of years old being one example. So, these matters aside, science is about how the world works, about what the consequences of any action will be. Religion is about what we ought to do. Science is about how things are. Religion is about how they ought to be. These are entirely separate matters. They operate in different realms. As David Hume pointed out a long time ago, you cannot get an ‘ought’ from and ‘is’. Ought statements are normative statements. Is statements are positive statements. To know what to do, we need both. We need the empirical discoveries of science to inform us about the consequences of our actions and we need some way of deciding which consequences are good, bad or ugly; that is, we need some way of evaluating consequences.

In that sense, Sacks may be right, religion and science are partners. But, being right, he is not original. As a philosopher he certainly knows that Hume made this abundantly clear. And Sacks’s treatment is definitely inferior and more obscure than Hume’s. But that is not the real problem. The real problem is that he proceeds to confuse matters more with propositions number 2 and 3.
Proposition 2 is a positive statement. That is, it is a statement about how the world works, not about how it should work. It is an assertion about reality. What is this assertion? Sacks sees Europe and many other parts of the world caught in moral decline. He sees the miraculous European civilization, the result of centuries of painful social evolution, as slowly decaying, the reemergence of anti-Semitism being a prominent, but only one, manifestation of this. And he diagnoses this as the result of a “loss of religion”. Religious belief provides secure moral boundaries, a framework for moral action that guards against excess and  profligacy. It is well known that modern Europeans are often openly hostile to religion, to its practice and to its influence in any form. They revere the anti-religious secular state. Sacks sees this as the key problem.

As I intimated above, I think, in one sense, he is right. I think he is right in thinking that belief in the secular state is the problem. This belief is responsible for the erection of the European welfare-state with punitive taxes, ubiquitous regulation, and high levels of dependence on state-sponsored services. It has, as Sacks notes, encouraged the erosion of individual accountability and  responsibility for the consequences of individual actions. It has blunted incentives for innovation and entrepreneurship.

Where one might differ with Sacks of course is in diagnosing why this has happened. Certainly it is a kind of idolatry – a belief in the supernatural powers of the state government fueled by the good intentions of powerful individuals, and a loss of belief in spontaneous (external) supra-individual processes. It is a fatal conceit to think that powerful individuals can achieve a social utopia. And, certainly, a belief in God as  usually understood, might have prevented this conceit (though, judging by liberation theology, it might not have). But, more fundamentally surely, the problem is a loss of belief in the sanctity of individual property rights under a universal rule of law. If you want to call that belief a “religion” then we can agree with proposition 2. We certainly need renewed faith in the values of classical liberalism (and these include the separation of religion and state, the right of individuals to practice their religions peacefully) if we are to arrest the economic and social decline of European civilization. He seems to come close to this when he realizes that Christianity is a force for freedom, but only when it is not an instrument of a powerful state (witness the Inquisition and the Crusades).

It is proposition 3, as I suggested, that is the real problem. This is a normative statement, but a complex one. It is a recommendation, a prescription for “action”. But, it is complicated by the fact that it is predicated on a prior positive statement. It is what we call an “if … then” statement – to wit – if proposition 2 is true, then proposition 3 follows. So, if it is true that a loss of “religion” is what  explains the European decay, says Sacks, then to reverse this we need to reintroduce religion – reestablish religious beliefs and the enervating discipline that comes with them.

There are multiple problems with this. The least is the meaning of “religion” as already explained. We can leave that aside – although clearly Sacks would probably not agree that secular classical liberal convictions are the necessary and sufficient elements we seek.

More important is the structure of this proposition. It is a  call to believe, because belief is good. You see the problem? How do we know belief in God is good? What  is the standard by which we judge here? If we know what is good because of what God tells us, then we are saying nothing more than we ought to believe in God because God says so, which makes no sense. It assumes you already believe in God.

But that is not what Sacks means. He means we should believe in God because then we are more likely to get the kind of society we want. In other words he is justifying this belief on consequentialist grounds. He is saying belief in God is good because it brings good consequences (will prevent the moral decay of society). But hang on, how do we know what “moral decay” is? Don’t we already need to believe in God for that so that we can consult his revealed word to determine that? You can’t have it both ways. You can’t claim that belief in God is the basis of all other moral beliefs and argue that we ought to belief in God because it is more likely to give us what we already believe is desirable.

Let me put it another way. I am an agnostic on matters of cosmology. There are things that  appear to me to be beyond our knowledge and comprehension. But I do not believe in revelation – there is nothing in any revelation story that is even remotely persuasive to me. Certainly I do believe in certain values as self-evidently true. I do believe in the values of classical liberalism, in the autonomy of all individuals, and equality before the law, etc. This belief is a combination of simple intuition (deontological) and consequential (it brings the kind of society I prefer – which also has an empirical (positive) component to it). Sacks is saying to me, if you want to stem the moral decay of Europe then believe in God and support others embracing that belief. How ridiculous is this? How does one suddenly decide to believe something that one doesn’t believe? Of course, one can pretend to believe and act as if one believes, perform the rituals, etc. Is this what he wants? What exactly does he mean by “Why God?”?

Belief is not the direct result of a choice, of an action. One cannot choose at any moment to consciously believe what one does not believe. One can choose to keep an open mind, to resolve to examine rival claims and assertions no matter how unlikely they may seem. But, surely one should do this anyway, as a result of belief in productive scholarly discourse.

In the final analysis Sacks’s arguments on this are sadly, and surely unforgivably given his impeccable qualifications, incoherent.  

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Primacy of the Primal

Jonathan Haidt: "Because of flagrant "concept creep," however, almost anyone who is politically right of center can be labeled a racist or a fascist, and the promiscuous use of such labels is now part of the standard operating procedure. The call to shut down Mac Donald’s talk asserted, without evidence, that her agenda is "racist, anti-Black, capitalist, imperialist, [and] fascist." As with accusations of witchcraft in earlier centuries, once such labels are attached to someone, few will dare to challenge their accuracy, lest they be accused of the same crimes.....
The human mind evolved for violent intergroup conflict. It comes easily to us, and it can be so emotionally rewarding that we have invented many ways of engaging in it ritually, such as in team sports. But the tribal mind is incompatible with scholarship, open-minded thinking, toleration of dissent, and the search for truth. When tribal sentiments are activated within an academic community, some members start to believe that their noble collective ends justify almost any means, including the demonization of inconvenient research and researchers, false accusations, character assassination, and sometimes even violence. Anyone not with the movement is against it, and its enemies — students, faculty members, administrators — are often intimidated into acquiescence. This is how professors and students are increasingly describing their campus climate, at least at elite four-year residential colleges."