Category: contemporary

London School of Philosophy – Summer School Conference

I decided to spend three of my vacation days on the London School of Philosophy’s “Summer School” conference, this week. The theme of the conference was “Philosophy: Past, Present, and Future”, and the talks focused heavily on the broad questions like the nature of philosophy, it’s role and purpose in society, it’s place in history, its relationship to art and literature, and the implications drawn from consideration of these questions, for the future.

Day One: The End In The Beginning

The first day carried us into the past, to ask the question “where did we come from?”. The day opened with a lecture by Tom Rubens on Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Representation, and ended with a lecture by Tim Beardsmore-Gray, on Nietzsche’s theory of Eternal Recurrence. These two lectures functioned as profound book-ends, framing the picture of the entire day. The never-ending quest to understand ourselves, the universe within which we must take our place, and the significance of that role as self-aware and self-examining creatures, was a quest taken up with great gusto by the German half of the Enlightenment project, and they provide a powerful signpost in the history of philosophy. Though the German outlook was deeply pessimistic in character, it was also deeply optimistic in its ambitions, and this sense of conflicting attitudes about the past, present, and future, seemed to resonate throughout the conference.

The dualistic character of the day was made almost comical, by the juxtaposition of Dr. Hurley’s lecture on the history of Truth, and development of theories of truth, directly with Dr. Golob’s discussion of the nature and evolution of stupidity. Questions of what we can justifiably say that we know, when certainty transforms into absurdity, how we can tell the difference, and what implications this has in practice, are as old as philosophy itself. While stupidity might seem to be one of those common sense “I know it when I see it” problems, Dr. Golob made it amusingly clear that the answer is not so simple after all. Likewise, famously, the problem of defining Truth, was humbly demonstrated by Dr. Hurley. For all our progress, philosophy still struggles with the most fundamental questions, it seems.

Into this mix, entered Descartes, and the problem of the self. Grant Bartley’s lecture walked us through the core problem in Descartes’ Meditations – the problem of what we can know without doubt, including ourselves, reminding us of the need of philosophy to continually renew and remake itself – and in the process, remaking ourselves. As Iris Murdoch puts it in her essay, “The Idea of Perfection”:

“I think it is an abiding and not a regrettable characteristic of the discipline, that philosophy has in a sense to keep trying to return to the beginning; a thing which is not at all easy to do…”

Jane O’Grady carried this notion forward in her outline of the project of the Enlightenment, showing its central characters to be the embodiment of what Iris Murdoch, again, described as the “two-way movement in philosophy… toward the building of elaborate theories, and… back again toward the consideration of simple and obvious facts…” Dr. O’Grady suggests that this movement is how best to understand the Enlightenment, and offered Theodore Adorno’s book, “The Dialectic of the Enlightenment” as a guide to the way the process might work.

This idea of a cyclical ebb-and-flow, or recreation, of philosophy and of the self, reached its crescendo and resolution in the talk by Tim Beardmore-Gray, on The Eternal Recurrence. It would be easy to view Nietzsche’s idea as an attempt to achieve some sort of Transcendence without calling it Transcendence. But, I think the more correct interpretation is one in which Nietzsche is trying to find a path to the resolution of all of philosophy’s great dualisms. Self-creation and the embrace of the eternally returning past, is not just an embrace of suffering for the sake of the good, it is an acknowledgment and acceptance of all the Heraclitian oppositions of existence, and experience (an opposition itself), and an awareness of their necessity to each other. But this view carries us beyond what Beardmore-Gray is likely to ascent to. My views are my own, of course.

Day Two: Transcendence, Order, Chaos, and Pessimism

The second day of lectures, addressing the question, “where are we now?”, opened with the triumphal optimism of Dr. Steinbauer’s seminar exploring what philosophy is, and what it can be. At issue in this talk, was nothing less than the nature of philosophy itself, and how we ought to regard ourselves, as philosophers, partaking of that nature. Are we scientists? Are we theologians? Are we something else entirely? Ultimately, Dr. Steinbauer eloquently argued that what it means to be a philosopher today, is to be a catalyst for understanding, both of the world and of ourselves. The right path seems to be, for Dr. Steinbauer, somewhere between the ancient Greek love of wisdom, and the modern mechanistic notion of philosophers as Conceptual Engineers.

As if on cue, John Heyderman then offered up an attempt to unify the notion of wisdom traditions and conceptual engineering, in the form of Spinoza’s pantheistic monism. According to this view, mind and body are two sides of the same coin. Heyderman explained that Spinoza saw all of reality as a consequence of the activity of the mind of God. To put it more succinctly: the universe is an idea in the mind of God, and by analogy, the body of man is an idea in the mind of man. This, perhaps, takes Descartes’ speculations about the sustenance of real experience (as a consequence of God’s goodness) to another level, by suggesting that his goodness is not enough. It is his existence that makes all of existence possible – his existence is as a mind, which as ideas. God, on this view, could be said to be the ultimate conceptual engineer.

Professor Fiona Ellis, later in the day, seemed to borrow from Heyderman on the basic idea of Spinoza, but painted the picture in a more naturalistic light. On her model, the universe of facts – the universe explained to us by modern physics and chemistry – is the correct view, but not the complete view. She described a reality in which various features of existence are co-mingled: Nature, Value, and God, all count as aspects to be reckoned with, and modern science is only capable of addressing the first. The specter of the fact-value dichotomy, and the is-ought problem, loom large in this picture, and Professor Ellis struggled to elaborate a coherent reconciliation of these distinctions. She invoked Levinas, in her own defense, who apparently argued that attempting to know God is attempting total control of reality, which is nothing less than deluding ourselves. Professor Ellis, in addition, argued inspiringly for a kind of knowledge of God as an experience had in essential relationships. Something that is not quite “God is Love”, but akin to the notion.

Returning to earth, Kieth Barrett gave what I believe to be the highlight lecture of the conference. His, was a tour de force defense of the idea of philosophy as a sense-making apparatus, extracting rational order from the chaos of existence around us. To open the discussion, Dr. Barrett provided two fascinating conceptions of order. One Transcendent, and one Immanent. The transcendent order comes to us from the ideal, and is realized by careful study and contemplation. This is the order of Plato’s Republic or Augustine’s City of God, it is static and uniform. The immanent order is not revealed, but discovered in patterns of essential characteristics made apparent through consistent observation. This is the order of Aristotle’s Organon.

Dr. Barrett’s bridging synthesis of the thesis of Transcendence, and its antithesis of Immanence, is the Enlightenment. Here, he argues, the modern natural philosophers take their inspiration from Aristotle, but their ideological commitments from Plato. The science of the Enlightenment, says Barrett, is not a genuinely empirical endeavor, because it goes far beyond the justifiable claims of sense experience, and posits a completely new conception of Transcendent order in the mathematics of Newton, and the abstractions of the presocratic Atomists. This, then, coupled with the Judeo-Christian ethical tradition of the 17th and 18th century, forms the basis of the Enlightenment worldview, and the construction of “The Rational Subject”, as posited by Zaretsky, in Secrets of the Soul. Dr. Barrett concludes his case by outlining Zaretsky’s evolution of the self, as a primary feature of the evolution of the Enlightenment, ultimately arguing, in a similar vein as Professor O’Grady earlier, that the Enlightenment never really ended, it has simply evolved into new forms in the present. The Rational Subject of Descartes, in synchrony with this transformation, has itself transformed into the Situated Subject of Freud, and finally the Deconstructed Subject of Levinas.

Which brings us up to the (philosophical) present, and all the political chaos it presently entails. Mark Fielding’s contribution to this effort, was a view of the present political landscape through the lens of Hannah Arendt’s famous “Truth and Politics” essay of 1967. Here, the opposition presented is between Truth as a value and Power as a value, and the implications of that choice. This talk was, by far, the most confounding to me. The argument seems to run something like this: politicians are expected, as a normative condition, to be liars. The polity loves to be lied to. Successful politicians, then, are the best at offering the lies that the polity most want to hear. The most successful liars are the ones who are best able to lie to themselves, especially. However – so goes the rest of the argument – it is also the case that truth is necessary for making sense of the world, and power is the capacity to get things done in the world.
The implications of this paradox are peculiar. If the most successful politicians are indeed the most successful liars, then either those politicians are not actually getting anything done in the world and thus have no real power, or the truth is somehow not necessary for making sense of the world or getting things done within it.

It is utterly unclear how this conundrum is to be solved. But I would venture a guess that the first implication is the correct one – albeit counterintuitive. Political power is one of the most illusory powers on earth. It often seems as though politicians are getting loads of things done in the world, but when you watch what they do, rather than listen to what they say, you begin to realize that the world of politics is great deal of sound and fury signifying nothing at all, and that the vast majority of politicians actually do not in fact, get anything done in the world. This suggests that Arendt was right to recognize the lying, but failed to see its impotence, as manifest in political power, because she could not square impotence with political power. But, had she remembered her Plato, she might have recalled the story of Archelaus from The Gorgias, and Socrates’ judgment of him as the least powerful man in Macedon, or his discussion with Glaucon or Thrasymachus in The Republic, on the nature of the truly just man. Perhaps Arendt found these unconvincing, but if Fielding’s reading is correct, it is hard to see why anyone would find her convincing.

The night was capped off by adding bitter herbs to this simmering broth of pessimistic cynicism. A four man panel was convened to discuss “Philosophy in a Post-Truth Age” (whatever that means). The discussion centered primarily around “fake news”, “free speech”, and the overwrought political dialogue of the popular press. The opening speeches were awkward, curt, and uninteresting, and the room was more or less paralyzed by an overarching anxious malaise that prevented any real discussion from taking place. I left the conference on the second night, wondering whether I should come back or not. The contrast from the morning’s lecture by Anja could not have been more stark, in terms of the pessimism, and I seriously questioned whether philosophy could — let alone did — have any traction in the “real world”. The chaos of the present has just about scrubbed away most the enthusiasm for the orderly universe engendered over the course of the rest of the day.

Day Three: Idealism, Utopianism, and The Disintegrating Self
Day three of the conference purports to address the question “where are we going?”, beginning with a deep discussion of who we are, and want to become. The final lecture of Thursday night, “Human and Robot Minds”, by Richard Baron, and the opening lecture of Friday, “Philosophical Zombies”, by Rick Lewis, examined the problem of consciousness from the opposition of internal and external perspectives. Robot minds, it turns out, force us to look inward to discover what matters most about being human, meanwhile Zombies force us to look outward and face the possibility that there may not actually be anything significantly different. A key point raised by Lewis, is Chalmers’ conceivability criterion. Chalmers invents the Zombie as a means of asking whether it is conceivable that a creature emptied of whatever it is that makes a human special, but behaved in every way the same, could fool us into thinking it was the same. This is the mirror image of the Turing Test, really, and we are now getting to the point where in some settings, it is difficult to distinguish between a machine brain, and a human mind. The point is that it is now conceivable that, in the distant future, philosophical zombies could exist – as robot minds. At that point, how would we tell the difference? And, if we can’t, then what is it, exactly, that defines the human experience? As dazzlingly futuristic and apparently escapist a topic as this seems, it is profoundly distressing because it suggests that the mind-body problem resolves not into only mind, but into only body. Perhaps the hard determinists and physicalists are correct, and there are only bodies in motion. Maybe Sam Harris and his ilk are correct, and the self is just a complex delusion, required for the survival of the human organism.

But, the intractability of the subjective, first-person, conscious experience (what “it is like” to be “me”), is a problem only for the empirical disciplines. Notice how all the tests require a third-person perspective, and the sort of data that cannot tell you what you want to know anyway. From the perspective of science, it is an unfalsifiable problem, and as such, is not a scientific one. But it does not follow logically that the “self doesn’t exist”. This is a physicalist presupposition similar to the old business management maxim: if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t matter. But conscious experience does matter. In humans, it is the one thing that seems to matter the most, of all our characteristics. What is needed, is a new toolset, or some new methodology, which is capable of accounting for subjective conscious experience. In the absence of such a thing, philosophers will have to continue to do battle in the realm of speculation, mytho-poetics, and moral philosophy.

The next round of speakers for the day all moved us beyond the self, pressing the problem of the relation between the individual and society. Christian Michel, John Holroyd, and Sam Freemantle, each addressed this problem in ways that were simultaneously naively optimistic and yet weighed down by skeptical wariness born of experience. Christian Michel offered a defense of Nozick’s conception of a property-based anarchist utopia. Christian buoyed us with his deeply moving memories of post-WWII France and Charles de Gaulle, and provided a powerful critique of the property-less communist ideal of French intellectualism of that time. But his exposition of the alternative, while enthusiastic and inspiring, was nonetheless unconvincing because of its superficiality. There are hundreds of critiques of Nozick’s book, and numerous treatments of the problems of a stable property-rights regime in an anarchist world, that once understood, render this dream somewhat stale. His particular lecture was especially poignant and frustrating for me, because I have my own experience of just this sort of enthusiastic zeal on first discovering the likes of Mises and Rothbard, Nozick and Nock, Friedman and Hans-Hoppe. There is no question that the nation-state, as we presently experience it, is not quite right; that something needs to change, and — if you’re disposed to think as I do — the most likely improvement is going to be in the direction of minimalism and decentralization.

John Holroyd, by comparison, was much more circumspect in his aspirations. Holroyd’s talk offered interesting perspectives on the problem of localism and sense of community, in an increasingly globalized world. He highlights Michael Ignatieff’s book “Ordinary Virtues”, as a possible approach to thinking about these problems, and the book contains many allusions to the earlier iterations of globalization (before and during WWI, for example). Next, he takes on the question of “trans-humanism” – the movement eager to expand the conception of the improvement of human life through medical technology, to include things like cyborg augmentation (e.g., Neuro-link), and life-extension. The problem here, for Holroyd, is how to maintain a sense of humanity in all this augmentation, and what we do about the unintended consequences such changes are likely to have on quality of life and our sense of fulfillment. Lastly, Holroyd wants to tie the answers to these problems to an education system geared toward more human contact. The idea seems to be that, as technology begins to crowd out more and more of our time and attention, a conscious effort is going to have to be made to incorporate a more “organic”, local, human-to-human social culture.

Sam Freemantle’s talk purported to address the question of the future of Liberalism. This may be the most important political question of our age. We are literally on the precipice of ending Liberalism as a political project, and without any serious consideration, that death is likely to come all too quietly. Dr. Freemantle’s talk was useful, in the sense that he rightly pointed out many of the biggest problems posed by Liberalism’s reliance on traditional Utilitarianism, and he rightly lamented several failed attempts to rescue Utilitarianism from itself (namely, in the form of Rawls’ Theory of Justice). However, this talk left me feeling painfully aware of just how much more work needs to be done to revive the Classical Liberal tradition in the mind of the popular demos. Dr. Freemantle only offered tantalizing sketches and suggestions, and while one can’t be faulted for not having “The Answer” in a single one-hour talk, it remains to be seen whether anyone will ever have a sufficient answer. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing, but unless someone can explain how something could come out of the slow death of English Liberalism, I remain fearful for the future on this front.

Putting It All Into Perspective
There were a few folks whose talks I did not mention here, but this should not be construed to mean they were not worth attending, or that they were not germane to the theme of the convention. On the contrary, it would be difficult to say that any of the talks “didn’t belong”. The problem, as I see it, is that the subject matter is so broad and so deep, finding ways to integrate it all into a summary such as this, and still do it all justice, is a task for a much better writer than myself. Also, there seems to be an analogy here, to the problem of the discipline of philosophy itself. Socrates takes Gorgias to task for being unable to answer the question of what subject rhetoric is “about”. In a sense, philosophy itself suffers from this problem. Plato wanted to answer the question by asserting that it was Justice and Truth, as such. But, we seem to have collectively rejected that conception throughout history, as simultaneously too narrow, and too ill defined. What philosophy is “about”, and what it is “for”, is not something I can tackle in this post. And perhaps it is too big a question for any one conference, no matter how thorough or lengthy it is.

As is the case with most philosophical inquiry, this conference generated more new unanswered questions, than it answered. Some argue that philosophy is a tool for sense-making, finding the rational order in the chaos of existence, or seeking understanding. Indeed, it seems even I made overtures to such an explanation earlier in this post. But I think now, that maybe the main job of philosophy is not so much “sense-making”, as it is just discovering what the right questions are, in any given age. This, it seems to me, is a task that is needed now, more than ever. We are awash in a sea of noise, from the internet, from the political sphere, and from our various social spheres. One good question can pierce that noise, like a siren in the fog. If this conference has managed to accomplish that, then it was well worth the effort to organize, and well worth the effort to attend. I have indeed heard several sirens throughout the course of the last three days, and as such, count this conference as a rousing success.

Book Review: The Art of The Argument, Stefan Molyneux

This weekend I had a little extra time on my hands, because of the bank holiday. It’s been quite a while since I’ve looked at any work by the growing cadre of freelance internet philosophers. So, I decided to have a look at the latest offering by Stefan Molyneux. Not a man to shy away from dramatic overstatement, the book is titled, “The Art of The Argument: Civilization’s Last Stand“.

The basic thesis of the book is that “sophists” – described as those who manipulate language and appeal to emotion to gain power for themselves – are undermining the basic capacity for good people to negotiate terms amongst themselves in good faith, and that without this capacity to engage in rational debate, civilization itself will descend into a chaos of brute force misery and destruction. He has taken it to be his task, then, to recruit and educate the new generation of soldiers in the war of the rational against the “relativist” and the “sophist”, and to train them up in the art of ‘The Argument’.

Some have confused the purpose of this book, because of it’s title. Several reviewers on Amazon took it to be an attempt at a layman-accessible textbook or tutorial, and have heavily critiqued the book in ways that, though largely correct, are far too stringent for a polemical tract of this kind, and fall directly into the trap Stefan sets for them, in his preface (hilariously titled “Trigger Warning”):

’The Art of the Argument’ is an outright battle manual, not a prissy abstract academic paper… As we approach Western Civilization’s last stand for survival, loftily lecturing people on arcane terms is a mere confession of pitiful impotence…

That ought to give some context as to what to actually expect from this book. Stefan thinks he’s distributing a basic survival manual in a state of impending cultural apocalypse (cue the picture of Patton standing in front of the flag). What of those who actually care to be precise, methodical, and try to practice a little epistemic humility? Well, Stefan just thinks they’re “whining”, and “turning logic into wingdings”.

I Am Absolutely Certain

Still, precision and clarity is precisely what one would want if one were arming people for an ‘intellectual battle’, and it is true that his explanations of deduction and induction are rushed straw-men that, at times, are incoherent or just plain wrong. He is telling readers that he is equipping them with broad-swords, but handing them broom handles instead. We’ll get to examples of all this shortly, but first, a note about Stefan’s main object of un-ironic attention in the first part of the book: absolute certainty. Unlike most of us, who’ve come to understand that such a thing probably doesn’t exist, and that believing one has obtained such a thing is dangerous to the point of precipitating wars and genocides, Stefan on the other hand, has come to see absolute certainty as a special place one can go, to escape the “relativists”:

if you surrender to the peace of absolutism – if the premises are correct, and the reasoning is correct, the conclusion is absolute and inescapable – you will quickly find it a beautiful place to be, and that relativists are trying to deny you the peace, Zen, and beauty of the paradise called certainty.

Rather than understanding, or self-knowledge (something he used to talk a lot about), or curiosity, or mindfulness, it is the absolute certainty of deductive rigor that will get his readers to the truth, and it is absolute certainty that will make his readers the winners of The Argument.

It is this fixation that sets the tone for the opening explication of deductive and inductive reasoning. He rightly describes inductive reasoning as the method of reasoning to probabilities, and deductive reasoning as the method of reasoning to certainties. But because certainty is king, inductive reasoning plays only a secondary submissive role in Stefan’s jungle story known as the The Argument, and he equates probabilistic thinking simply with ‘rank relativism’:

A predator must be absolute in its reasoning. The lion must correctly identify and stalk the zebra, must calculate speed and interception without error, must attack and bite accurately, and must persist until the prey is down. All this must serve the conclusion: the meal. However, prey has a different set of calculations because a predator can see the prey, but the prey usually cannot see the predator – at least until it is too late… Dominant life forms revel in absolutes and fight hard against any encroaching fumes of rank relativism. A tiger cannot hunt if it doubts the evidence of its senses. The life of a zebra is a life of doubt, of fear. [emphasis added]

This zeal for absolute certainty traps him in something of a bind later. When describing the scientific method, he has to characterize it as fundamentally deductive:

The Scientific Method is absolute – deductive – but individual hypotheses are usually conditional… inductive reasoning must be subject to the absolutes of deductive reasoning…

While it’s true that deductive reasoning plays a significant role in evaluating hypotheses and the research products of scientific disciplines, it is wrong to assert that deduction is a primary in all cases. Deduction and induction play complementary roles in the methods of science, and which has primacy depends on the method and the context (though, for Stefan, The Scientific Method is just one thing).

Stefan says, “All valid hypotheses must conform with – and predict – empirical observations“. Embedded implicitly in this assertion, is an idea never explicitly referenced, but clearly implied by his rhetoric about the scientific method. He wants to use Popperian falsificationism as a proxy for deductive certainty. While its true that Popper sought a way to give scientific conclusions a certainty akin to those of deductive arguments, he would never have pretended that falsification was equivalent to deductive certainty. The point was not to inject the absolutism of Augustinian faith declarations into scientific conclusions. Rather, it was to reduce the potential for catastrophic error – a brick wall into which Molyneux seems determined to drive himself.  All of this effort comes on the heals of labeling deductive reasoning “alpha”, and inductive reasoning “beta”. He needed a way to rescue sissy science from the beta-cuck basement; and the way he does it, is by making it the twee Robin beside the manly Batman of deduction.

But why is absolute certainty so important to Stefan? Because, for him, no rational action is possible without it:

The lion stalking the zebra is engaged in proactive behavior, and thus, by initiating the encounter, is in far greater control of the variables… Initiating action requires the certainty of deductive reasoning, and control over variables increases that certainty… The pursuit of the lion is the initiating action, the flight of the zebra is the reaction.

Deductive lions are proactive, and inductive zebras are reactive. Neither act at all, without having achieved the absolute certainty of empirical verification. But is this actually how we act? I would argue that it is not. There are many things we do, day to day, without the absolute certainty of a deductive conclusion. In fact, most things we do are this way. He offers the example of deciding to bring an umbrella. But one could easily imagine deciding which arguments to deploy in a debate as well. The fascination with certainty also seems to run counter to Stefan’s commitment to free will, as well. The kind of certainty he describes could easily be imagined as the kind of certainty that results in perfect prediction (something akin to what he says above about hypotheses). Does this not imply some sort of threshold determinism? Given this, why, if I were an adherent of some common-sense conception of the free will, would I want to believe this was the only way I could act? Buried in this fixation, is the need to be morally justified, in order to act. For Stefan, acting without certainty is acting without the necessary moral authority. To act instead, as most of us do, on varying degrees of confidence in beliefs, is moral corruption. He needs to be certain, because he needs to be good. If I am absolutely certain, then your condemnations of me are like arrows bouncing off a tank.

What’s The Argument?

In addition to the poor analogy to lions and zebras, and the failure to provide a stable definition of truth (or ‘virtue’, or ‘happiness’, or a half-dozen other things) Stefan never takes the time to explain what propositions are, or what makes them a proper part of an argument. This, to me, seems like it would not be too big a leap of effort, even for his readers. Clearly, he knows what they are, because he provides lots of them in this book. But he is terribly inconsistent about it. At one point, late in the book, he even seems to confuse validity and truth, and incorrectly marks out a single proposition as an argument:

‘Ice cream contains dairy’ is an argument, since it claims to describe a property objectively measurable and testable…

Being “objectively measurable and testable” does not meet the definition of an argument by even the most rudimentary general definition, as a ‘collection of reasons supporting a conclusion’. What’s worse, it doesn’t even meet Stefan’s own initial definition, as being:

an attempt to convince another person of the truth or value of your position using only reason and evidence.

All we have here, is an asserted conclusion in the form of a subject-predicate proposition. There are no reasons supporting it, and no evidence offered to ‘verify’ it’s ‘objective reality’. Even if we take the colloquial presumptions, and accept that the subject ‘ice cream’ does refer to something in reality, and that the predicate ‘contains dairy’ accurately modifies this subject with – as he puts it – “a property objectively measurable and testable”, it still remains that a measurement must be made, and the result of that added to this proposition, in order to make it an argument. So, perhaps something like:

  1. Ice cream is made with milk
  2. Milk is a dairy product
  3. Therefore, ice cream contains dairy

Note that this is a standard example of the transitive property applied to the propositions of a logical argument. If Stefan were trying to outfit his army with a sharp argumentative blade, then this was definitely a missed opportunity.

A bit later, he wants to say that ’inequality is bad’ is not an argument, and he tries to sustain this claim by way of this newly minted definition of an argument (its needing to be “objectively measurable and testable”). But rather than argue that “bad” is not “objectively measurable”, which would be the obvious thing to do given the new definition, he says this is because “bad” is a false-substitute for a preference claim, e.g., “I don’t like inequality”. But this only makes his explanation inscrutable. Surely, I can objectively measure a man’s preferences. Even if we reject self-reporting as acceptable, one could still measure pleasure responses neurologically, to obtain the truth of his statement, and in doing so, show that “bad” is an acceptable substitute for “dislike”.

But it turns out that’s not why Molyneux makes this turn in the story. Instead, he wants to lodge an entirely new complaint about how personal preference isn’t a reasonable standard for moral judgment. On this point, I might be in agreement (were I to see an argument), but the problem is that it’s not germane to the explanation of what is and is not an argument. He’s lost visibility of the form of his argument, because he’s utterly distracted by the content. Perhaps those “wingdings” would come in handy about now?

Getting An Ought From An Ought…

Now, we move beyond the logic lessons, and on to some specific content problems with this book. There are dozens of inaccuracies, exaggerations, and hyperbolic misreadings to be found littered across the pages of this book. I am going to focus on just three instances. First on the list (the most challenging to untangle) is his ham-fisted attempt at a refutation of Hume’s Is-Ought dichotomy. He states Hume’s case this way:

David Hume, the famous Scottish philosopher… introduc[ed] the concept of Humean scepticism, or the idea that you cannot get an “ought” from an “is.” While it is true that cutting off a man’s head will kill him, there is nothing in the basic biology that tells us we ought not to do it: in other words, there is no morality in physics.

This is a common simplification of the is-ought dichotomy, and it suffers from the common problem of misunderstanding Hume’s logic problem as a reification problem (that “moral” properties are “real”). His rebuttal to this formulation amounts to two objections. First, predictably, that the is-ought problem is a non-problem (“irrelevant”, in his words):

There is no such thing as logic in material physics either, but we do not think that logic is unnecessary or irrelevant or subjective.

This argument fails, because it doesn’t actually prove the case of irrelevance. Rather, he beats down the straw-man of reification. There is no “logic in material physics” (by which, he means ‘physical reality’), because logic (loosely speaking) is a set of rules defining a means of describing certain features of physical matter (as in, Aristotle’s three laws). Likewise, there is no “morality in material physics”, because morality (loosely speaking) is a set of rules defining a means of evaluating certain features of human character and behavior. The problem is to be found not in where any properties lie, but in the two words I highlighted: “describing” and “evaluating”, and their usage in arguments. Molyneux is aware of this difference. It is a key component of his opening claims about arguments. We’ll recall, that there are two kinds, according to him:

Truth arguments aim to unite fragmented and subjective humanity under the challenging banner of actual reality… Value arguments aim at improvements in aesthetic or moral standards… A truth argument can tell us who killed someone. A value argument tells us that murder is wrong.

So, it’s clear that we have two different categories of argumentation, and that they need to be accounted for independently (indeed, justified independently), and reconciled. Which gets us to Stefan’s second objection:

…considering Hume’s argument that you cannot get an “ought” from an “is,” we can easily see that the mirror of The Argument destroys The Argument. If we cannot get an “ought” from an “is,” then anyone who tries to argue that we can is wrong. In other words, we “ought not” get an “ought” from an “is.” Arguing that we cannot derive universally preferable behavior from mere matter and energy argues that it is universally preferable behavior to not derive an “ought” from an “is.” If we cannot derive an “ought” from an “is,” this means that we can derive an “ought” from an “is,” which is that we ought not try it: a self detonating argument.

There are two major problems with this argument. First, contrary to popular misconception, Hume never actually asserted that one cannot not derive an ought from an is. Second, Molyneux is exemplifying in his prose, precisely the problem that Hume was actually describing in his Treatise. Let’s take a look at Hume’s actual words:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprized to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. (Treatise 3.1.1)

This may seem too subtle for a general overview, but Hume is not saying you “cannot derive an ought from an is”. He’s saying exactly what I said above: there appears to be two categorically different kinds of reasoning, and authors are mixing them in their writings, without explaining how the relations work. The relation is simply assumed, without justification. That is a problem that is hardly irrelevant to philosophy. Here is a rudimentary example:

  1. Some humans go hungry in winter
  2. Those with food ought to feed the hungry in winter

Just like Stefan’s example of murder above, we have one proposition that is in the ‘descriptive’ category, and one that is in the ‘evaluative’ category (or, in this case, injunctive which – loosely speaking – implies normative evaluation). By what laws of logic can the second proposition be transformed into a conclusion from the first? Or, at lease, how can we show logical linkage between proposition 1 and proposition 2? That is what Hume was asking his reader to consider. In order for Hume to sustain the broader positive assertion that “one cannot derive an ought from an is”, he would’ve had to construct a theory of deduction that categorically (and absolutely, ironically) excluded evaluation statements or injunctions as meaningful propositions (in the true/false sense of meaning). He didn’t do that.

But what of Stefan’s clever turn? If we take the colloquial assertion as read (regardless of what Hume was saying), does Molyneux successfully refute it? I still don’t think so. First, note his usage of the word “wrong” in that passage:

If we cannot get an “ought” from an “is,” then anyone who tries to argue that we can is wrong.

Does he mean “incorrect”, or does he mean “bad”? Fortunately, Molyneux provides a clarification:

In other words, we “ought not” get an “ought” from an “is.”

Is saying that we cannot derive an ought from an is, the same as saying we ought not derive an ought from an is (i.e., that it would be ‘bad’ for us to do this)? On broad broad reading, Molyneux may have a point. The rules of logic are often described as normative as well as descriptive (see Guttenplan, for example). In other words, the rules ‘guide good behavior’ in argumentation, in some sense, in addition to simply describing the methods of thinking. But that’s not what’s going on here. As I pointed out above, nobody is saying that it is morally wrong to derive an ought from an is, merely that it doesn’t seem possible, given the present theories of logic available to us. The task would be to build a logical system that incorporated normative evaluation and injunction into the system (in other words, to somehow provide a truth-bearing meaning for those sorts of statements). Not an easy task, but also not necessarily an impossibility.

In any case, to make this objection stick, and condemn the dichotomy, Stefan has to appeal to his own moral theory (known as “Universally Preferred Behavior”):

Arguing that we cannot derive universally preferable behavior from mere matter and energy argues that it is universally preferable behavior to not derive an “ought” from an “is.” If we cannot derive an “ought” from an “is,” this means that we can derive an “ought” from an “is,” which is that we ought not try it: a self detonating argument.

This should raise a red flag. Because, again, Hume isn’t making a moral condemnation of the traversal from descriptive to normative. He’s asking how it’s possible to do so in moral theories, given the normal rules of logic. What’s more, even if we granted the normative complaint, it’s still a stretch to say that all normative evaluations are moral evaluations, and therefore, must be held to the same definitional standard – and in doing so, ruling out moral complaints about evaluative language in logic. In other words, to make the objection from UPB work, Stefan has to commit exactly the same sleight of hand that Hume was complaining about: “ instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not”.

Democracy Is For Dummies

The second example is a straw man the size of the Wicker Man. For a man with both a BA and an MA in history, I am continually in awe of Stefan’s utter disregard and contempt for it. Often, he actually seems proud of the contempt he sprinkles liberally throughout this book. One breathtaking example of these random turds can be found here:

Less intelligent people invented democracy (more intelligent people invented Republics), because, being less intelligent, they could not influence society through the brilliance of their writing and oratory. But naturally they wish to have such influence, and therefore invented the concept of “one adult, one vote.” This makes their political perspectives equally valuable to the greatest genius in the land. In other words, they get the effects of genius, without the genetics or hard work of becoming a genius. From an amoral, biological standpoint, who can blame them?

Setting aside the comparative confusion (“less intelligent” than whom? “more intelligent” than what?), I have to wonder why this was even included in the book. It’s one of the most cartoonishly ignorant and cynical descriptions of the invention of democracy I’ve ever read (and I’ve read some bad ones). But, let’s entertain the possibility, for the moment. Is it reasonable to suppose that Solon, Cleisthenes, and Ephialtes were indeed low-IQ, genetically inferior parasites who, unable to “influence society through the brilliance of their writing and oratory”, still somehow managed to convince the population of Athens over a generation, to divide themselves into classes, and organize themselves around a complex system of representative bodies like the Ecclesia, the Boule, and the Areopagus? In a book touting the power of The Argument, dare I ask for An Argument for this claim? What would such an argument look like? What sort of society would have replaced early Greek democracy, had these intellectual inferiors not succeeded to transform their society? Stefan doesn’t bother to elaborate. Rather, he wants this assertion to stand on its own, as a stepping-stone in a chain of shallow reasons he thinks cinches the case for the moral superiority of high intelligence.

But it’s not even a good reason to think that. For a man who is constantly pounding his chest in honor of “empirical evidence”, he never seems to leave any room for that evidence when making claims such as this one. For anyone who has read any serious history on ancient greek society and politics, it should be obvious: there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that the founders of Greek democracy were “less intelligent” than their social peers. What’s more, far from being incompetent writers and orators, the Athenians were some of the most accomplished writers and orators in the Hellenistic world. It’s precisely because of how accomplished they were, that we can talk about them at all, now. In other words, the evidence stands in direct opposition to this claim. And he doesn’t seem to notice.

This is a problem throughout this book. There really is no good reason for the inclusion of the brief line of “reasoning” within which this claim is couched. It’s arbitrary and random. It neither sustains his primary claim – that reasoned debate is essential to stable civilizations – nor offers a challenge to it that he can respond to. In fact, it’s such an outlandish and distracting empty assertion, that it damages his main case. It’s not an argument. There are other places where similar interruptions are not nearly as damaging (such as the parenthetical mention of “abduction” at the end of his explication of induction and deduction). Which leads me to believe this book probably would have really benefited from a good editor.

Consequences And Principles

The last example may seem too subtle for some. But I raise the objection here, because I think it’s important to point out that Stefan claims the mantle of a “public intellectual”, and has been, ostensibly, hard at work as an “internet philosopher” for at least 10 years. Why is this important? Because lay-people who read this book will take the misreadings as more-or-less correct, and find themselves with their pants down, when faced with someone who knows better. In particular, I’m referring to his mischaracterization of Consequentialism, as a ‘pragmatic’ (meaning ‘unprincipled’) doctrine:

Atheists also tend to prefer consequentialism, or outcome-based moral standards. That which produces direct and immediate benefits in society is considered the good: the greatest good for the greatest number, and so on. These are not principled arguments, but pragmatic arguments. The principled argument against the welfare state is that it violates property rights (thou shalt not steal). The consequentialist argument for the welfare state is that it immediately reduces the amount of poverty in society. If your goal is consequentialist, principled arguments often stand in your way.

I am certainly no fan of consequentialist ethics, as readers of this blog will know. But to simply dismiss the theory out of hand as “unprincipled” or “pragmatic” is a weak approach at best. Mainly, because consequentialism is not unprincipled. Since Stefan has made indirect reference to Mill’s Greatest Happiness principle, I will then let Bentham and Mill speak for themselves:

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we can make to throw off our subjection, will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it. In words a man may pretend to abjure their empire: but in reality he will remain subject to it all the while. The principle of utility recognizes this subjection, and assumes it for the foundation of that system, the object of which is to rear the fabric of felicity by the hands of reason and of law. Systems which attempt to question it, deal in sounds instead of sense, in caprice instead of reason… By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words to promote or to oppose that happiness. (Jeremy Bentham, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation)

And:

The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure. To give a clear view of the moral standard set up by the theory, much more requires to be said; in particular what things it includes in the ideas of pain and pleasure; and to what extent this is left an open question. But these supplementary explanations do not affect the theory of life on which this theory of morality is grounded— namely, that pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends; and that all desirable things (which are as numerous in the utilitarian as in any other scheme) are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain. (JS Mill, Utilitarianism)

Now, it is certainly reasonable to question the correctness of this principle. For example, why is happiness directly equated with pleasure? Or, how do you address the objections in the Protagoras? Or any number of other complaints I, and other more skilled philosophers have raised in this blog and elsewhere. The Utility Principle is notorious for its myriad problems. But, not being a principle is not one of them. Perhaps Stefan should have taken the time to give us a definition of “principle” before proceeding with a condemnation of consequentialism as “unprincipled”.

Later on, he tries to extend the meaning of consequentialism itself, in order to heap more scorn on it:

As the influence of women in society has grown, so has pragmatism, which can also be called consequentialism, which is the idea that an argument can be judged by its effects. If the effects are negative, The Argument is “problematic” or “inappropriate” or “offensive.”

Here, he is attempting to equate the fallacy of appeal to consequences with the moral theory of consequentialism. This is a profound category error. He lays blame for the fallacy of the appeal to consequences almost entirely at the feet of women (which also includes the only research paper he quotes – but doesn’t cite – in the entire book). But, setting that silliness aside (yet another distraction), he fails to provide an explanation for how consequentialism as a moral theory says incorrectly that propositions can be judged true or false as a result of the desirability of their effects. In this small, but incredibly disingenuous two-sentence passage, he’s managed to throw pragmatism, consequentialism, women, and The Argument under the bus.

Summary Conclusion (My Amazon Review)

I yearned for this to be a better book than it was. I sympathize with the sentiment that reason is beleaguered in modern society, and crave a good book on the topic. Alas, this is not the book. For all his railing against sophistry, confirmation bias, and appeals to emotion, Stefan relies heavily on an audience so steeped in its own prejudices, that it won’t notice the factual errors, logical incongruities, or interpretational biases littered throughout its pages. What’s worse, is that Molyneux attacks the disingenuous debater so strenuously in this book, that he often ends up recriminating himself for his own sloppiness.

Molyneux’s book reads like a personal journal that was transcribed directly into print. It is haphazard, overwrought, and at times, stream-of-consciousness. If you’re not already familiar with the lingo of internet Libertarianism, you’ll be completely confused by numerous passages. If you’re not already rehearsed in, and in agreement with, the arguments and positions of right-leaning anarchism (“anarcho-capitalism”), you’ll find the presumption of foregone conclusions scattered throughout the book to be irritating at best.

At bottom, the main problem with this book, is that it doesn’t appear to have an audience. The dismissive and sneering tone taken toward the political left will put them off. The appeals to the political right will (and has) earned him podcast interviews, but they certainly aren’t interested in philosophical inquiry beyond their own prejudices. The academic community has already shunned him as a lightweight at best, crackpot at worst. The book is too polemical and doctrinaire to appeal to the mainstream (many of whom fear him as some sort of cult leader already). So, who is this book for?

He will say, of course, that it is for the ‘true philosophers’. But any true philosopher will find this book terribly disappointing at best, perniciously self-defeating at worst. His explication of logic is amateur and incomplete, and at times just plain wrong. He takes Popperian falsificationism as a given, as if it were just a fact. He makes a sophomoric straw man of consequentialism, misreads Hume, offers only common-sense intuition explanations for complex topics like virtue and happiness, and deftly shifts from normative to descriptive usages of “right” and “wrong”, where it suits him.

In the end, as near as I can tell, the audience for this book was himself, and the handful who share whatever psychology it is that produced this work. The only person who will be most convinced by this work, is his own faltering conscience. He is defending heavily against the anxiety of uncertainty; the vulnerability and insecurity of having more questions than answers – and nowhere to look for them.

For centuries, the medievals also sought the same security in the reified power of deductive logic which Stefan is groping so desperately for in this book. On that count, I surely sympathize with him. The seduction of certainty – its comforting, self-soothing lullaby of finality and the archimedean lever it offers against those who would use doubt and curiosity to hurt, to plunder, and to oppress, is something I have been drawn to at times in my own life.

But for those of us afflicted by the daemon of Socrates, these islands of comfortable absolutism will never make a permanent home. Eventually, the urge to set sail again on the sea of uncertainty – on the path to discovery – will overtake the fear of being unmoored, and away we will voyage, come what may.

Stefan’s book is one such island of comfortable certitude, for some. The philosophers may visit, but they won’t stay long. What concerns me, though, are those who end up shipwrecked on one of these islands, before they’ve even had an opportunity to understand the voyage they set themselves on.

I will close this review with a few quotes from Stefan, that I would like to offer as chastening advice to Stefan himself:

There are only two ways to achieve certainty: dogma and philosophy. Dogma is by far the easiest choice, of course, and while it may give you the illusion of certainty, it does not give you the reality of knowledge. Dogma arises, like most dysfunctions, from a greed for the unearned…

If The Argument begins with the conclusion, it is neither an argument, nor a proof of any kind…

Indeed.

Addendum: Making Stefan’s Case For Him

In researching for this review, I stumbled across this review of the book, by Alexander Douglas, a philosophy lecturer at St. Andrews in Scotland. On reading this review, I couldn’t help but cringe. Dr. Douglas has volunteered to make himself into precisely the boogy-man that Stefan points to as an example of why he’s so right, and everyone else is so wrong. As he says: “When the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the loser”.

If you are a professional philosopher, and you think Stefan Molyneux is not worth wasting a single breath on, then why write a “review” like this? Why acknowledge him at all? He’s not a professional philosopher, and only on the periphery of the political debate online, which itself, is already a periphery. If you do think he’s worth the effort to review honestly, then why this sort of silly screed, that only serves to entrench his fans, and (as they would put it) “virtue signal” to yours? Why fall into this trap at all?

This is one of the reasons I decided to proceed with this review (I considered abandoning it several times). There needs to be somebody reviewing Stefan Molyneux in an honest way, with rigor and discipline, who doesn’t have an axe to grind. People hovering in the orbits around the personalities of the “internet right”, need to be able to find genuine criticism, in order to be able to make rational decisions themselves. It’s the only way out of the morass.

Book Review: The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt

Is it better to be truly just, or merely to seem so? This is the question put to Socrates by Glaucon in The Republic. Jonathan Haidt, in his book, “The Righteous Mind”, counts Glaucon among the cynics for putting this challenge to Socrates. But Haidt is missing a subtle and very powerful nuance in Plato’s story. Socrates had just finished embarrassing Thrasymachus for his weak defense of cynical egoism. Glaucon and Adeimantus were certainly entertained, but they were not satisfied with Socrates. They sought much stronger reasons for accepting the conclusion that true justice is preferable to appearance, because they did not want to merely seem to agree with Socrates. They really wanted to believe that genuine justice was better, and giving Socrates the strongest possible objection that could be mustered is the only way an honest man (if he is honest with himself) can do this.

Socrates’ initial response to Glaucon was not the description of the ideal state that the story has become famous for. Rather, it was a likening of the soul to the body. Repeated abuses and illnesses corrupt and degrade the health of the body over time, until at some point it is no longer possible to experience vigor and vitality. Likewise, says Socrates, repeated vices and injustices committed in pursuit of wealth or power or honor will eventually render the soul so degraded and corrupt that it will no longer be capable of achieving eudaemonia (aka ‘contentment’, ‘happiness’, or ‘flourishing’). This is the fate of the man who pursues a life of politics, without first tending to his soul.

Haidt seems almost proud of his “Glauconian cynicism” – a socio-biological view in which he believes he can show that, regardless of which is better, seeming just is what we humans actually seek. Haidt claims explicitly and confidently not to be offering an argument for what ought to be, only what is. But the enthusiasm with which he reports this supposed scientific fact suggests that he also thinks that what is, just is what ought to be. But this is precisely the challenge posed to Socrates by Glaucon: it certainly is true that many people (perhaps even most) are cynical and self-serving. So, why oughtn’t they be? Haidt’s response to this recurring implicit question seems to be to just keep reasserting the fact, in ever more sophisticated and complex ways.

Near the end of the book, in spite of already offering an explicit refusal to address the problem of normative ethics, Haidt tosses off a flippant endorsement of Utilitarianism as if this view has already settled the normative question, or simply to signal to the reader that the question just isn’t interesting enough to bother investigating. But this has profound implications for how seriously one can take some of the claims he makes in this book. The tension between what is and what ought to be plagues this book, and any reader eager for insight into the gap between descriptive and normative ethics will find it profoundly frustrating.

The Basic Theory, and It’s Problems

Haidt’s basic theory of the “Righteous Mind” comes down to two hypotheses. First, that the human brain has evolved for both “tribal” and “hive” social structures. To put it in his terms, “we are 90% chimp, and 10% bee”, and a special “hive switch” in the brain is flipped, when conditions are ideal, that suppress our self-interested “groups” psychology, and make us more altruistically “hive-ish”. It’s not quite clear what sort of mechanism this “switch” is, what causes it to flip, and how it gets reset. But he offers a lot of anecdotes from his research that describe evidence suggesting its presence.

The second, and much more complex portion of the theory, is his six-dimensional model of moral psychology. His system is powerfully reminiscent of David Hume’s own four-pole system of moral emotions (Pride-vs-Humility / Love-vs-Hate). But there is one extremely significant difference. Hume’s theory was one meant to describe morality as a system of “passions” (special kinds of emotions). These passions derive from a natural propensity for pleasure, and a natural aversion to pain (he presages the Utilitarians in this respect). What’s more, moral judgments are not reasoned, but felt. Morality, for Hume, just is emotions expressed. Haidt’s theory, on the other hand, describes six dimensions of values, not emotions: Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity, and Liberty. Haidt says that all human beings have this six-dimensional system built-in as a consequence of thousands of years of socio-biological evolution. He argues that the “sensitivity level” at which each of these is not permanently fixed, but is set to “defaults” at birth, and adjusted over a lifespan by experience. How, precisely, this happens and by what mechanism, is a bit murky, but again, he offers loads of anecdotal examples (and data from his studies) to show how each of these dimensions is expressed by individuals.

A few questions and objections arose for me, about these two hypotheses, as I read through the book, that never seemed to get a satisfactory answer. First, on the six aspects: are they like adjuster knobs on a sound board? Or, are they merely barometer needles reporting varying pressure levels set by environmental impacts on a biological system? If the former, then surely there are “optimal” positions for each of these knobs (even if only circumstantially optimal)? In that case, then there is indeed an opening for a normative ethical theory, describing these optimums. However, if the latter is true, then it is hard to understand how there could be any such thing as an “ought” at all, much less a system prescribing them. Haidt is constantly nudging up to the edge of this Humean is-ought cliff, and retreating from it just when things start to get interesting.

Second, Haidt never quite explicitly acknowledges that he’s describing a system of values, rather than a moral psychology. One might object that a system of values could be said to be a variety of moral psychology, but I would reply that by the time we get to values, we’re already one layer above fundamental psychology. Why these six, and not others? Indeed, in the book, Haidt explicitly acknowledges that some early reviewers of the book objected to the lack of “equality” as a value on his list of “aspects”. If “liberty” counts as a foundational psychological value, then why not “equality”? It has just as long a history, after all. More importantly, to talk of values at all, you’re once again in flirting in the realm of the normative. I would have to look more closely at the research he used to back this section of the book, but how do we know he didn’t just happen to find the set of six values that he and his team were particularly focused on already? That is a normative selection process: “these values are more important than those”.

Third, returning to the “hive switch”, Haidt emphasizes the “dangers” of too much hive-ishness or too much groupishness. But he never quite explains how there could be any such thing as a “right amount” of either, in the absence of a normative theory. Without any idea of what an ideal amount of either would look like, why would the horror of the Hobbesian anarchy or Stalinist oppression even count as “bad”? Lower primates seem perfectly satisfied with brutal inter-tribal conflict, and ants are obliviously willing to destroy themselves en masse for the sake of colony and queen. What’s worse, is that there’s no clear explanation for how the “hive switch” and the six-dimensional moral psychology fit together. Do certain knob settings produce hives instead of tribes? Do others produce tribes instead of hives? What are the right tension levels between the two modes? If the knob settings do influence this, how do we know what those should be? None of this is discussed in the book, except in passionate warnings to beware of extremes. A laudable sentiment, but so what?

Lastly, while Frans de Waal is largely an asset to Haidt’s book, there is one key notion from de Waal that highlights the primary problem with Haidt’s “Glauconian moral matrix”; de Waal captured it in a rather pithy phrase: Veneer Theory. In his book, “Primates and Philosophers”, de Waal uses the phrase to criticize Huxley and Dawkins for uncritically accepting a view of human nature that is Hobbesian without providing an explanation for how a self-serving egoist gets to altruism all on his own. Haidt’s book suffers from a similar problem. Though he does a great job of bridging the gap between egoist and “group-altruist”, what he fails to do is explain how the “Glauconian cynic” becomes a genuinely caring being. Haidt has concocted his own variety of Veneer Theory by redefining it as a complex inter-subjective social delusion that we all agree to participate in. He takes this as an answer to the problem of a “veneer” layer. But it only makes his own set of theories seem like a Rube Goldberg machine. Haidt makes a strong case for the biological and psychological reality of moral experience as a genuine phenomenon. But this works directly against the idea that we merely wish to appear to care, or to be virtuous. Why layer a “moral matrix” on top of a perfectly reasonable explanation of genuine moral emotions? More to the point, why would evolution tolerate such an expensive and convoluted cognitive load, such as layers of delusion, on top of the already demanding task of navigating the social world in real time? Even more curiously, why would we count the primitive primate morality of chimps and bonobos as “actual” or “genuine”, while regarding our own as a mere matrix-like delusion?

Final Thoughts

Anyone who has read the entirety of The Republic has to come to terms with a powerful dissonance in Plato’s tale. Either Socrates truly misunderstood human nature (perhaps he confused it with his own psychological projections), or he didn’t actually believe what he was saying. Some philosophers argue for the latter theory: that the ideal state was ideal intentionally. Socrates was never going to convince the Athenians to drive all the old folks out of the city in order to start afresh, or convince the educated classes to surrender their private property holdings to the commons, or convince them to put their women and children into a breeding commune to be tended by specially bred and trained guardians. He must have known that. What was really going on here? Remember that the tale was written by Plato, long after Socrates’ execution. Plato was engaging in his own bit of cynical rhetoric, grounded in bitterness. He wanted to demonstrate the utter impossibility of the larger task: convincing men to love virtue for its own sake; to be just, rather than simply to appear just. He had given up on the possibility, and the Republic was his way of showing this. It is hard to blame him, on one level. He’d watched these people destroy his master and teacher; a man for whom Plato had given up a promising life as a poet, in order to follow him in philosophy. Haidt, on the other hand, embraces his cynicism with zeal, because he believes the data tells him he must, and he refuses to even entertain the possibility that we might just be better than that. In effect, he takes Plato’s implicit condemnation of man and turns it into a simple matter-of-fact. But recasting the condemnation as mere description doesn’t change the moral reality; it just hides it behind a veil of cynicism.

ISP Launch Event: Three Talks On Three Philosophers

This weekend I attended the launch event for the International School of Philosophy here in London. Three Talks on Three Philosophers was intended to showcase the kind of thought one could expect from the new school, as well as provide an opportunity for philosophical learning to the local community (greater Islington, mainly). Sam Freemantle, the founder of the new independent school, provided the first of the three lectures, in the form of an overview of his Phd thesis, “Reconstructing Rawls”. Following Sam, Adrian Brockless offered a passionate argument for a more thoughtful kind of education grounded in Socratic questioning. Lastly, Professor Ken Gemes of the University of London treated us with an extended version of his talk on Nietzsche’s Death of God.

Serendipitously, I also listened this weekend to a new reading of the introduction to Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind” (a book I read years ago). I say “serendipitously”, because it turns out to be a powerful lens through which to interpret the messages coming out of Saturday’s lectures. In particular, the lectures of Professor Gemes and Mr. Brockless, which were laden with themes that could easily have been attributed to Bloom. The erosion of truth and goodness as absolute values (both in society and in the academy), the corruption of the academy to purposes other than the pursuit of the good life, the need for a renewal of these core values, the seemingly intractable challenge of re-establishing them in an educational environment so democratized and demoralized that even the hint of such an effort will raise accusations of elitism. All of these were core concerns of Allan Bloom, and his voice was clearly resonating in the words of both Professor Gemes and Mr. Brockless. Though, I suspect neither of them would agree.

For Professor Gemes the worry is societal, and spans generations. He began his talk with the story of the madman from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, which illustrates the central problem for Nietzsche, as Gemes sees it: absent the catalyzing mythology of christianity, why would we continue to cling to it’s core values of truth and goodness? Given that the values of honor and glory held by civilization before Christianity seem more seductive, why wouldn’t we return to these, and abandon truth and goodness, in the absence of a dogma that focused us on them? According to Professor Gemes, Nietzsche believed we were clinging to truth as a value, by way of some sort of “hangover” from Christianity, and he wanted to know why. I think Nietzsche may have been disadvantaged by his proximity to the downfall of Christianity in the west. Over a century on now, in the “post-truth” era, it appears we have indeed begun to abandon truth and goodness as ultimate values, and have indeed begun replacing them with honor and glory once again.

Nowhere is this shift more clearly and startlingly present, than in the academy. Mr. Brockless highlighted this inadvertently, I believe, in his lecture. Using the Socrates of Gorgias and The Republic as a mentor, Brockless crisply argued for a conception of higher education that differentiates itself from the contemporary academy, by focusing on the pursuit of truth through “authentic” learning that exposes students to “meaning and understanding of the human condition”, rather than on the career advancement goals and academic advantages of its students. This plea explicitly demands that truth be reseated in our minds as an absolute value, pursued for its own sake. Although Mr. Brockless’ lecture came before Professor Gemes, his is a direct response to Nietzsche, in the form of a resounding and explicit affirmation of truth and goodness, above honor and glory, at least as far as the academy is concerned. To that end, Brockless counseled a return to the ancient classics, and glowed with a reverence for the Socratic dialogues themselves, even recommending them as a starting point for students.

Interestingly, a popular new voice has also converged on this question. I’ve recently seen a lecture by Jonathan Haidt of New York University, in which he suggests that a “new schism” ought to take place in the modern university, involving the realignment of ultimate values. In his view, these divergent ultimate values are “truth” versus “justice” (actually, “social justice”, which he contends is unjust at times). But rather than pressing for the conquest of truth over social justice, Haidt advocates for an amicable divorce. Haidt centers his lecture on a vision of education very similar to Brockless, in which universities that adopt truth as a core value dedicate themselves firmly to free expression, and open dialogue and debate in which no idea is off the table. In other words, the Socratic tradition. The same tradition Brockless described during the question and answer period of his lecture.

Allan Bloom’s book was a vanguard in this discussion, I think. Some might suggest that perhaps there really is no problem, and this is all just varying degrees of predictable conservatism occasionally surfacing above the white noise. After all, these sorts of complaints have been around for almost 50 years, and yet the generations leaving university then and now don’t seem to be too much different from each other. But are they really so much the same? Bloom (and proteges like E. D. Hirsch) would point to the degradation of “dead white males” in the academy, and their gradual replacement with relativist and anti-absolutist dogmas (in addition to the impulse toward radical activism) — and the pervasive cultural ignorance and growing hostility to truth of new students — as certain indicators. I’m not sure that Haidt, Brockless, or even Gemes would necessarily agree with that. But one thing that all of these voices seem to agree on, regardless of the reasons grounding it, is the loss of truth and goodness as guiding star values in our overall culture, and most profoundly, in the academy.

The question is what, if anything, should we do about it? Brockless and Haidt have slightly divergent opinions on this. One suggests lobbying to reestablish the traditional mission of all higher education, the other recommends a more “free market” answer (if I can call it that), by bifurcating the institution into two competing organizations, one focused on truth, the other on justice. Neither of these speakers’ solutions are entirely satisfying to me. I think this problem is bigger than all of us, and may be inevitable. I wonder if Nietzsche thought so, too.

Philosopher Kings And SmartPhones

”When a man’s knowledge is not in order, the more of it he has, the greater will be his confusion” Herbert Spencer

Today, I attended a lecture by Derek Bates hosted by the Conway Hall Ethical Society, in London. I call it a lecture perhaps too generously. You’ll see why in a moment. The event was billed as one man’s attempt to provide a reasoned defense for the efficacy of a more direct democracy, and to propose a technological solution to the logistical problems inherent within it:

Derek Bates will argue that we should be able to properly engage with our elected representatives using modern communication and internet technology, have a “live” influence on our futures and express our opinions – effectively crowd-sourcing innovative policy and direction… A million brains could just be a whole lot better than one!

Given the nature of this topic, I am always immediately somewhat skeptical. Futurists have been falling all over themselves since the 1980’s, to explain how computers and networks would ultimately dissolve all of the logistical barriers of having large, diverse, geographically dispersed populations weigh in on a steady diet of public policy matters from the small (like when to repave the street in front of my house), to the large (such as whether or not to allow Iran’s government to engage in nuclear research). But a very rare few of them have been willing to address the founding principles behind such changes, even at a basic level like the problem of two wolves and a sheep.

So, eager to engage, I packed up my intellectual suitcase with every scrap of skepticism and critical thought on the subject I’ve ever collected, and I headed off to the hall expecting to be schooled by someone far older and far wiser than myself. I could not possibly have been more misinformed, or more disabused of my mismatched expectations, than by Derek himself.

It’s Not About What It’s About

Originally, I wanted this post to be about the problems of direct democracy, and about our continuing love affair with it, as a concept. I wanted to engage the content of Derek’s arguments as an example of this phenomenon. But I can’t do that, now, in good conscience.

You see, Derek didn’t actually have any arguments. What he did have, was a long list of banal, pedestrian complaints, and demands for more “training” of elected officials (whatever that means). His entire presentation had quite literally all intellectual depth and sophistication of a bad pub rant. And sadly, due to Derek’s unfortunate lack of podium presence, it was devoid any of the redeeming entertainment value usually found in such rants. The whole of the argument over the first hour literally boiled down to: “Politicians are ignorant and corrupt; someone needs to train them.” I honestly felt embarrassed for the man, alongside my own disgust and anger at having wasted two hours on a gorgeously sunny Sunday morning.

Derek did inspire me, however. I realized something, watching this train wreck of a slide deck: Derek is the problem. Allow me to explain.

The Hubris Of Politics

In his professional life, Derek has the scientific method on his side. He’s clearly used that to good effect, as a welding engineer and a materials scientist, in the petrochemicals industry and elsewhere. It’s highly likely that he’s actually solved quite a few very complex and very difficult problems with this training. I certainly wouldn’t dare attempt to challenge him in that realm.

Somewhere along the line, Derek has decided that his mastery of materials engineering, and the good it has brought the world, somehow now qualifies him as an expert in any number of other disciplines, including Philosophy, Sociology, Politics, Ecology, and Agriculture. Derek has become so enamored by the voluptuous beauty of his own intellect that he’s enthusiastically unshackled it from the ugly, sweaty rigors of any actual research, reading, or formal argumentation. Worse, he’s replaced those uncomfortable constraints with nothing but fantasy and a will to power.

In short, Derek is becoming a politician. But lacking the professional discipline and manipulative cunning of a career politician (or technological bureaucrat, or public policy “expert”) he’s relegated to making his one-man pitch to local ethical societies on Sunday mornings.

The War Of All Against All

But this isn’t just about Derek. It’s about all of us, and about the nature of democracy itself. Derek just happens to be a really good example of how dysfunctional we all are. Every time we step into a voting booth, or answer a political survey taker, or listen to a political speech, we’re thinking about ourselves: what gets me what I want; who do I like; how do I want to live; what makes me happy; what can someone else do for me.

This is the true nature of the pub rant. It is an expression of a broken psychology; one crying out in despair at the lack of something essential to itself, and bemoaning the inability to achieve enough mastery over the physical world to attain that desire. It rarely has anything at all to do with the external target of the verbal diarrhea, except that the target may fit some emotional template for the ranter. In a nutshell: I am owed something, and justice demands that someone be obligated to give it to me.

This is an angry child crying out for a parent. And, really, the state itself is nothing more than a collective expression of this dysfunction. Only, as adults, we have real power to do real harm in the process. Democracies of all forms and styles – in fact, monolithic institutions of power of all kinds – are fundamentally two things: Firstly, a weapon. But more importantly: the implicit social approval to use that weapon to threaten or harm others to get what you want. Political philosophers of all stripes have recognized this fact for eons, actually.

They’ve also identified another fundamental problem with the State as a form of social organization: How do you decide who gets what they want? Developmental psychologists will also point out that this is a common subterranean struggle within families, as well. Children are constantly vying for their parents’ attentions. And it’s not uncommon for siblings to attempt to manipulate parents to gain advantage over each other. Thus, it is with the State as well.

Knowing When To Quit

I don’t have an answer to this problem. How could I be expected to? I’m a 25 year veteran of the I.T. and software industries, not a political philosopher. But, then again, I don’t go around offering lectures claiming that I do have that answer.

And this is where I come back to Derek. It’s not impossible for a scientist to have something useful to say about political philosophy, just as it’s not impossible for a political philosopher to have something useful to say about science. After all, Herbert Spencer (for example) was able to bring both to heel fairly effectively, during his own lifetime.

But if you’re going to make this kind of professional leap, you really need to do it from a position of humility and curiosity — that is, if you’re not simply trying to get what you want at others’ expense. And, really, when was the last time you exhibited a politician behaving with the humility and curiosity of a scientist? Yet, this is precisely what Derek is expecting, in his demands for “better training” of politicians. Which, it seems to me, marks Derek as a pretty typical politician, himself: naive, untrained, and driven by egotistical fantasies about philosopher kings and smartphone apps.