Tuesday, August 26, 2014

What the 20th century's most influential philosopher thought about scientism

Ludwig Wittgenstein
There have been a number of recent skirmishes on the issue of scientism in the last couple of years. In most of these altercations, critics of scientism offer a clear and meaningful definition of the term and then apply to people who practice it, who, in their turn, either question the term 'scientism' altogether, ignoring the clear definitions and claim that it doesn't mean anything, or who deny that their positions fit the meaning despite the fact that they do.

And then there are a few, like the philosophically-challenged Jerry Coyne, who alternatively deny they are practitioners of scientism and engage in it depending on the issue and the day of the week.

Raymond Monk authored one of if not the best biographies of Ludwig Wittgenstein, a philosopher whom Monk, among others, considers the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. I think by "greatest," Monk means "most influential," but I may be wrong about that. In any case, I'm closing in on the end of the book and it is truly fantastic.

Monk weighs in on the scientism issue by pointing out Wittgenstein's view of it, which could be summarized as "dim." Wittgenstein helped to spawn, unintentionally and ironically, logical positivism, a scientist school of philosophy that proposed the verification principle of truth. Wittgenstein influenced the Vienna Circle, the group of intellectuals who birthed it, but was never a part of it, and never really endorsed the program, although there are parts of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that the reader can be excused for interpreting as scientistic.

But Wittgenstein was never really a positivist. Partly this is because he was a mystic as well as a philosopher. he believed you couldn't say anything meaningful about God or the transcendental, but he never made the leap to the belief that, because of this, they don't therefore exist.

There are a number of interesting points in Monk's article in the recent issue of Prospect Magazine, but the most basic is just the description of what scientism and why it is fundamentally flawed:
Scientism takes many forms. In the humanities, it takes the form of pretending that philosophy, literature, history, music and art can be studied as if they were sciences, with “researchers” compelled to spell out their “methodologies”—a pretence which has led to huge quantities of bad academic writing, characterised by bogus theorising, spurious specialisation and the development of pseudo-technical vocabularies. Wittgenstein would have looked upon these developments and wept.
There are many questions to which we do not have scientific answers, not because they are deep, impenetrable mysteries, but simply because they are not scientific questions. These include questions about love, art, history, culture, music-all questions, in fact, that relate to the attempt to understand ourselves better. 
Read the rest here.

Monday, August 25, 2014

A critique of the patron saint of libertarianism

John Stuart Mill is the patron saint of libertarianism (a word Americans use for what Europeans more correctly--and historically--refer to as simply "liberalism"). Mill's Enlightenment rationalist view of freedom has exercised a mischievous influence of American political thought.

The always excellent Imaginative Conservative has an excellent critique of Mill:
As long as there have been “libertarians,” there has been hero worship of John Stuart Mill. This Nineteenth Century utilitarian author, most famously of On Liberty, has been looked to as a kind of fount of holy writ for individualism. And Mill was an individualist. Unfortunately, he was not a supporter of liberty in any meaningful sense.
It is somewhat odd, frankly, that Mill should enjoy the reputation he does, given the depth and breadth of the written record of his opinions and proposals advocating an administrative state with unchecked power to regulate people’s daily lives. What is more, excellent studies by Joseph Hamburger and, more recently, Linda Raeder, have shown the character and statist intentions of his life’s work. Still, some of the many passages so frequently quoted from his works might give evidence, to those who do not read more and with moderate care, that he was a friend to individual freedom and reasoned, principled service to mankind ...
Read more here.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

What the Redskins controversy is really about

Now that religious religion is unfashionable, we have to have secular replacements for it. With the cultural decline of traditional religion, we get, as substitutes, either some kind of vague, New Age religiosity or, if you are of a more scientific rationalist bent, you can go in for New Atheism, which makes a religion out of opposing religion.

You can either go to lectures by the Dalai Llama, become a vegan, practice yoga, and advocate for animal rights, or you can take up the Global Warming cause, fight creationism, harass smokers, and go post monosyllabic insults against Christians on P. Z. Myers' blog. Both stem from the same fundamental impulse, which is religious and which, when repressed, manifests itself in any one of the various moralistic secular crusades, all of which involve some cause for which the follower can at least pretend to sacrifice, a cause whose detractors can be plausibly treated as heretics.

In fact, these secular enthusiasms become more extreme and supercilious the less formally religious they are. Having no way to meet their deeper spiritual needs, their acolytes become all the more preachy and intolerant.

Detractors are not just wrong, they are "homophobes," or "sexists," or "IDiots." The gay rights movement is full of it. So are some environmentalist sects.

The irony is that so many of these people profess, not only to be irreligious, but to be ethical relativists at the very same moment that they demand the absolute and unconditional submission to their secular dogma at the cost of cultural ostracism.

Almost anything, however trivial and inconsequential, can serve this secular religious purpose. The most recent example, of course, is the effort to force the Washington Redskins to change their name.

There is very little at stake in this Politically Correct crusade other than the establishment of one's liberal bona fides. There is no rational basis for concerns about the name. There are very few actual Indians who are upset by the mascot, and Washington fans root for the Redskins, not against them. Not a single Indian (Oops, were we supposed to say "Native American"?) will suffer from the sports franchise continuing to use the name and not a single one will benefit from its removal.

Indians, like every other minority, serve as a Politically Correct totem: They are one of the sacramental objects that gives meaning to the lives of secular liberals. The Redskins controversy simply offers another occasion to strike a secular sacramental pose.

When it's over, there will be something equally meaningless to fill the spiritual vacuum.

Friday, August 22, 2014

This is Your Culture on PC: Abortions for men

It gets weirder and weirder:
A Texas pro-abortion organization, Fund Texas Women, has announced that it is changing its name to Fund Texas Choice.  This is because the reference to “women” excludes trans-sexual individuals who now identify as “men” but who still have female reproductive organs and who may thus get pregnant and “need” an abortion.  This is from the announcement
HT: Gene Veith

Since males and females are now interchangeable, surely men have some kind of right to abortion too.

Kalb Speaks: What do traditionalists and progressives really disagree about?

James Kalb, author of two excellent books of political and cultural analysis―The Tyranny of Liberalism and Against Inclusiveness―is one of those rare people who can tell you why people think the way they do. He has another excellent essay on the divide between traditionalists and progressives in the always excellent Crisis Magazine:
A recent account of moral sentiments, proposed by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon, 2012), has attracted attention for its explanation of the difference between progressives and traditionalists.
According to the account, moral judgments typically have to do with six dimensions of concern: care versus harm, fairness versus cheating, liberty versus oppression, loyalty versus betrayal, authority versus subversion, and sanctity versus degradation. Surveys show that progressives, by and large, are concerned with the care, fairness, and liberty dimensions, while traditionalists are concerned with all six. So it appears that the “culture wars” have to do with the moral status of loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Traditionally minded people accept them as morally important, while their more progressive fellows do not.
But why the difference? It appears, although Haidt’s concerns lie elsewhere, that the difference lines up with the opposition between the modern tendency to view man as radically free and the world as technological, and the traditional, classical, and religious view of man as social, and the world as pervaded by intrinsic meanings, natural ways of functioning, and natural ends.
Read more here.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Pro-police demonstrations in Ferguson spin out of control

As soon as new evidence leaked out that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson was viciously beaten by Michael Brown after Brown had robbed a store, the streets of Ferguson, Missouri began to clear and residents enjoyed a brief moment of calm. But just as it seemed peace was setting in, a new firestorm of protests hit the town, this time from supporters of officer Wilson.

The pro-police demonstrations soon spun out of control. Nicely-dressed police supporters, many of them from out of town, took to the streets and, marching in neat rows, politely called on justice officials to take their time, conduct a careful, deliberative process to find out exactly what had happened, and added that these were just suggestions and that they were in no way trying to force their beliefs on anyone else.

The protests  took a turn for the worse when several national religious figures arrived to show solidarity with the protesters.

Joel Osteen, taking time away from his church in Texas, grabbed a bullhorn and softly announced to the crowd, "God knows your value; He sees your potential. You may not understand everything you are going through right now. But hold your head up high, knowing that God is in control and he has a great plan and purpose for your life." He then urged everyone to join hands and sing "Kumbaya."

Nervous police in riot gear stood by with tear gas at the ready in case the shallow sentimentalism got out of hand. Several people reported seeing police in a canine unit having trouble restraining their dogs, who appeared more and more out of control with each succeeding life fulfillment principle.

The police were then pelted with what they first thought were rocks, but which turned out to be hundreds of "30 Thoughts for Victorious Living" tracts.

One protester reportedly confronted a police officer, yelling, "It’s vital that you accept yourself and learn to be happy with who God made you to be." The officer responded by threatening the man with his gun. The officer was immediately called back to headquarters and given a promotion. He has since been taken off the streets and given two weeks of extra vacation time.

Billy Graham too made a brief appearance. When the 96 year-old evangelist was wheeled up in front of the crowd, he slowly stood up from his wheel chair, raised a shaky fist into the air, opened his mouth, and then keeled over sideways.

Residents of Ferguson, many of whom had watched the earlier anti-police demonstrations with fear and trepidation, responded to the new demonstrations by quickly throwing a few essentials in their cars and permanently leaving town. "Molotov cocktails are one thing," said one fleeing resident, "but if I hear one more way to become a 'better you', I think I'll throw up." "Yeah," said an elderly woman in response. "Bring back the looters."

Police Chief Tom Jackson told the media that the new protesters posed a different kind problem for his force. "Within seconds of issuing a curfew," he told reporters, "Every single one of them left the area instantly, pausing only to pick up any trash they might have left on the ground." Many of the protesters, in fact, thanked the officers on the scene and apologized profusely for any inconvenience they may have caused. "No one can be this law abiding," said Jackson, "We think this is a trick."

Meanwhile critics of the new demonstrations, after having spent recent days criticizing Ferguson police for being too aggressive in dealing with anti-police demonstrations, called on local law enforcement to deal more aggressively with the pro-police demonstrators. "The cops need to start cracking some heads," said Al Sharpton to CNN's Anderson Cooper. He called for more military-style equipment for the Ferguson police force.

"This is a defining moment for this country," he said. "These demonstrators are going to give protesting a bad name."

Mob justice in Ferguson

Rich Lowry at Politico:
The chant “no justice, no peace” is an apt rallying cry for Ferguson, Missouri, where protesters don’t truly want justice and there has been no peace. 
What justice demands in the case of the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson in disputed circumstances is a full and fair deliberative process that goes wherever the evidence leads. But is anyone marching so that Wilson can go free if the facts don’t support charging him?
Read more here.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Journalists brave hail of earplugs in Ferguson

Courageous journalists on the front lines of Ferguson brave hail of earplugs to get their story, says Michelle Malkin:
The J.V.'s have been hailed for their "courage" on the "front lines" -- like veritable 21st-century versions of Audie Murphy and Ernie Pyle! Of course, Audie Murphy and Ernie Pyle would know real bullets when they saw them. But Reilly revealed his abject cluelessness this week when he hysterically tweeted a photo of what he thought were "rubber bullets." They turned out to be high-capacity... ear plugs.
Read more here.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Ferguson: When enforcing the law is "bad optics"

An example of "good optics"
Protesters in Ferguson, Missouri have experienced another night filled with a lack of sympathy for their irresponsible hooliganism and unjustified criticism for their violent and hysterical reaction to a questionable police shooting.

Many Americans apparently think the problem in Ferguson is out-of-control violence and threats to the safety of the local law-abiding population, when, in fact, the problem is a widespread lack of understanding for the needs of looters and bomb throwers.

Thankfully, more and more commentators on television news and talk radio are beginning to stand up to the larger public and are pointing out the inordinate attachment most people seem to have for safety and order.

Protesters in Ferguson (most of whom admittedly have no connection whatsoever with the alleged victim) are clearly upset about the shooting and have a need to express their feelings by throwing Molotov cocktails and stealing from convenience stores. Surely we can find it within ourselves to understand how they feel. Let's be honest: Think of all the times we have looted a store when we were were down or thrown a gasoline bomb at the local police when we woke up on the wrong side of the bed.

It is astounding how little understanding now only we, but the authorities in Ferguson are willing to give these protesters and how little of their pain the local police are willing to feel.

To make things worse, state and local law enforcement officials seem to think the problem is, well, the problem, when, in fact, the solution is the problem. As the defenders of the protests have argued, the reason for these protests has little to do with the fact that there are a bunch of hoodlums using the shooting as an excuse to destroy things and endanger other people's lives and a whole lot more to do with how prepared the police seem to be to deal with it.

Just what do the police in Ferguson think they are doing with riot gear and tear gas? When would they ever have to use that?

As Newsweek magazine has pointed out, the real problem is the "militarization of the police force." As it turns out the police in Ferguson have weapons. Real guns. As many liberal commentators have observed, it is a basic principle of law enforcement that crime is directly related to a police force's ability to deal with it should it happen.

In short, the better prepared you are to deal with crime, the likelier it is to happen.

Seen from this perspective, crime is a justified response to the preparations police have made to respond to it. It just so happens there is a theory called the "Elaborated Social Identity Model." It even has an acronym, ESIM―proof that it is scientific. ESIM, says Newsweek's Kurt Eichenwald , "is the leading scientific theory on managing a boisterous horde of people."

And what more accurate description than "boisterous" is there for is a bunch of fire bomb-throwing hoodlums?

Here's the idea, says this Eichenwald person:
What the ESIM shows is that an angry crowd can be driven to riot if they believe they are being treated unfairly—for example, by being confronted by cops decked out with military weaponry. When police treat a crowd justly and humanely, the chance of an uproar decreases and participants trust law enforcement more, the research shows.
If the police in Ferguson were only up-to-date on their knowledge of modern law enforcement theory, they would know that the equipment police need to deal with violence is not a response to violence but that, instead, violence is a response to the possession by police of the equipment they need to deal with it.

It's science.

Not only that but, as has been pointed out by liberal commentators, the police force's resort to tear gas and dogs doesn't look very good on camera. It's not nearly as great viewing as, say, watching some guy on a security cam walking out of a store with an armful of goods he hasn't paid for.

As it turns out, actually enforcing the law is "bad optics."

If we're going to use tear gas and rubber bullets, they ought to be used on the complacent civilian population that does not care about the rights of violent protesters who clearly need to be brought into line.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Why libertarianism is not conservatism

Thomas Hobbes
It's not hard to imagine why it is that more and more conservatives are converting over to libertarianism.

For one thing, it's a whole lot easier to be a libertarian. Like every other ideology, libertarianism dispenses with all other principles than one. It eliminates the need to think about anything other than the one political doctrine. In many ways, it's the path of least resistance.

Libertarians are the political world's One-Note Johnnys: Johnny can only sing one note/And the note is this: freedom of choice.

Freedom of choice has the political advantage of being a procedural belief. It is mechanical rather than organic. It is a political and social mechanism into which you can put a substantive belief on one end, and automatically get a specific policy prescription out the other. In this respect it is in complete alignment with the scientistic spirit of our time.

Classical conservative political philosophy requires thought and wisdom, but libertarianism, as a fully Hobbesian position, involves no real substantive thought at all, only a political calculation.

This position has gotten popular recently because by lopping off any substantive principles addressing the common good (such as those concerning marriage and the family) from their body of belief, they are absolved from having to engage in the difficult job of defending these essential institutions. Freedom of individual choice alone is insufficient as a basis for their defense and from this perspective marriage and the traditional family can be thrown to the political wolves with perfect political consistency and in seeming good conscience.

It also dispenses with the need for any intellectual heavy lifting.

Libertarianism cannot be considered a conservative political philosophy. A conservative political philosophy cannot be reduced to one axiom, to which all other considerations are subordinate.

Reductionist in its essence, libertarianism is an ideology, not a philosophy. In this respect, it is closer to American liberal socialism than to conservatism. In socialism's case, the one exclusive note is social justice (or, rather, their version of it) and to that one note the rest of their song must submit.

Libertarians are stillborn conservatives―as are socialists. This is what Allan Bloom meant when, in The Closing of the American Mind, he referred to "right-wing liberals" and "left-wing liberals." Libertarians are not conservatives at all: They are right wing liberals.

Libertarianism differs from conservatism in that it considers the freedom of the atomistic individual as an end; whereas conservatism considers freedom a means to the end of the common good. Libertarianism is John Locke for the non-thinker; it is Thomas Hobbes for Dummies.

The other means by which the common good is brought about include, among other things:
  • a belief in an permanent and perennial moral order that transcends the individual;
  • that tradition and custom are better indicators what is and what should be because they reflect the wisdom and knowledge of men over time and cultures rather than the narrow perspective of those who happen to be living now;
  • that political solutions require long-term thinking, not just a surrender to the individual whims of the hour;
  • that what works in one time and one place may not be the best thing in another time and another place;
  • that man is morally flawed and therefore Utopia is impossible;
  • that economic freedom presumes the respect for private property;
  • and that a properly operating society requires more than just the government and the atomistic individual, but also voluntary associations like the family, the church, and the civic group
These are, of course, restatements of Russell Kirk, the father of the modern conservative movement. But the Russell Kirks of conservatism have disappeared or fallen silent in the United States, and their place has been taken by the libertarian ideologues.

But libertarianism is an universal political solvent that will eventually destroy itself, largely because to justify itself it cannot depend on a calculus. It must have a substantive reason to ground its belief that the interest of the atomistic individual is supreme, but it cannot supply it.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

On Nature and Grace: The Role of Reason in the Life of Faith

St. Thomas' view of reason:
Reason should minister to faith, that is, serve faith. How does it do this? The simple answer is that it engages in theological science. Theology has many functions. It clarifies first principles and strictly distinguishes them from the conclusions drawn from faith. It removes apparent absurdities and obstacles to faith. It raises and seeks to answer questions that believers might have. It clarifies the content of faith and so gives the believer a detailed account of what he believes. It generates plausible but erroneous or at least partially true opinions in order to expose their shortcomings. In this way, it staves off various heresies. Theology inculcates in believers the habit of thinking clearly about the most important thing in their lives. It serves as a check on emotionality and sentiment, which tend to warp our judgment and lead us astray in matters of faith. Finally, it is a check on self-appointed reformers within the Church, who seek to remake sacred doctrine in the image of their own ideologies, whether theological, social, political, or economic.
The post On Nature and Grace: The Role of Reason in the Life of Faith appeared first on The Imaginative Conservative.