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  • Of the War on Christmas and the Thinness of Leftist Skins

    Posted on December 20th, 2014 Helian No comments

    ‘Twas the month before Christmas, and Bill O’Reilly launched his usual jihad against the purported “War on Christmas.” It drew the predictable counterblasts from the Left, and I just happened to run across one that appeared back on December 4 on Huffpo, entitled “A War on Reason, Not on Christmas.” I must admit I find the “War on Christmas” schtick tiresome. Conservatives rightly point to the assorted liberal cults of victimization as so much pious grandstanding. It would be nice if they practiced what they preach and refrained from concocting similar cults of their own. Be that as it may, I found the article in question somewhat more unctuous and self-righteous than usual, and left a comment to that effect. It was immediately deleted.

    My comment included no ad hominem attacks, nor was it abusive. I simply disagreed with the author on a few points, and noted that the political Left has an exaggerated opinion of its devotion to reason. The main theme of the article was the nature of the political divide in the U.S. According to the author, it is less between rich and poor than between “reasonable” liberals and “irrational” conservatives. As he put it,

    Before imploding in the face of his sordid extramarital trysts, presidential candidate John Edwards based his campaign on the idea of two Americas, one rich the other poor. He was right about the idea that American is divided, but wrong about the nature of the division. The deeper and more important split is defined by religiosity, not riches.

    The conflict between these two world views is made apparent in the details of our voting booth preferences. Religiosity alone is the most important, obvious and conclusive factor in determining voter behavior. Simply put, church goers tend to vote Republican. Those who instead go the hardware store on Sunday vote Democrat by wide margins.

    He then continued,

    Those who accept the idea of god tend to divide the world into believers and atheists. Yet that is incorrect. Atheist means “without god” and one cannot be without something that does not exist. Atheism is really a pejorative term that defines one world view as the negative of another, as something not what something else is.

    This evoked my first comment, which seemed to me rather harmless on the face of it. I merely said that as an atheist myself, I had no objection to the term, and would prefer to avoid the familiar game of inventing ever more politically correct replacements until we ended up with some abomination seven or eight syllables long. However, what followed was even more remarkable. The author proceeded to deliver himself of a pronouncement about the nature of morality that might have been lifted right out of one of Ardrey’s books. In a section entitled, “Secular and Religious Morality,” he writes,

    Traits that we view as moral are deeply embedded in the human psyche. Honesty, fidelity, trustworthiness, kindness to others and reciprocity are primeval characteristics that helped our ancestors survive. In a world of dangerous predators, early man could thrive only in cooperative groups. Good behavior strengthened the tribal bonds that were essential to survival. What we now call morality is really a suite of behaviors favored by natural selection in an animal weak alone but strong in numbers. Morality is a biological necessity and a consequence of human development, not a gift from god.

    Exactly! Now, as I’ve often pointed out to my readers, if morality really is the expression of evolved traits as the author suggests, it exists because it happened to enhance the chances that certain genes we carry would survive and reproduce in the environment in which they happened to appear. There is no conceivable way in which they could somehow acquire the magic quality of corresponding to some “real, objective” morality in the sky. There is no way in which they could assume a “purpose” attributed to them by anyone, whether on the left or the right of the political spectrum. Finally, there is no way in which they could acquire the independent legitimacy to dictate to anyone the things they “really” ought or ought not to do. So much is perfectly obvious. Assuming one really is “reasonable,” it follows immediately from what the author of the article says about the evolved origins of morality above. That, of course, is not how the Left is spinning the narrative these days.

    No, for a large faction on the secular Left, the fact that morality is evolved means not merely that the God-given morality of the Christians and other religious sects is “unreasonable.” For them, it follows that whatever whims they happen to tart up as the secular morality du jour become “reasonable.” That means that they are not immoral, or amoral. They are, by default, the bearers of the “true morality.”  In the article in question it goes something like this:

    The species-centric arrogance of religion cultivates a dangerous attitude about our relationship with the environment and the resources that sustain us. Humanists tend to view sustainability as a moral imperative while theists often view environmental concerns as liberal interference with god’s will. Conservative resistance to accepting the reality of climate change is just one example, and another point at which religious and secular morality diverge, as the world swelters.

    It’s wonderful, really. The Left has always been addicted to moralistic posing, and now they don’t have to drop the charade! Now they can be as self-righteous as ever, as devotees of this secular version of morality that has miraculously acquired the power to become a thing-in-itself, presumably drifting up there in the clouds somewhere beyond the profane ken of the unenlightened Christians. As it happens, at the moment my neighbors are largely Mormon, and I must say their dogmas appear to me to be paragons of “reason” compared to this secular version of morality in the sky.

    Of course, I couldn’t include all these observations in the Huffpo comment section. I merely pointed out that what the author had said about morality would have branded him as a heretic no more than 20 years ago, and evoked frenzied charges of “racism” and “fascism” from the same political Left in which he now imagines himself so comfortably ensconced. That’s because 20 years ago the behavioral sciences were still in thrall to the Blank Slate orthodoxy, as they had been for 50 years and more at the time. That orthodoxy was the greatest debacle in the history of science, and it was the gift, not of the Right, but of the “reasonable” secular Left. That was the point I made in the comment section, along with the observation that liberals would do well to keep it in mind before they break their arms patting themselves on the back for being so “reasonable.”

    The author concluded his article with the following:

    There is no war on Christmas; the idea is absurd at every level. Those who object to being forced to celebrate another’s religion are drowning in Christmas in a sea of Christianity dominating all aspects of social life. An 80 percent majority can claim victimhood only with an extraordinary flight from reality. You are probably being deafened by a rendition of Jingle Bells right now. No, there is no war on Christmas, but make no mistake: the Christian right is waging a war against reason. And they are winning. O’Reilly is riding the gale force winds of crazy, and his sails are full.

    I must agree that the beloved Christian holiday does have a fighting chance of surviving the “War on Christmas.” Indeed, Bill O’Reilly himself has recently been so sanguine as to declare victory.  When it comes to popular delusions, however, I suspect the Left’s delusion that it has a monopoly on “reason” is likely to be even more enduring.  As for the deletion of my comment, we all know about the Left’s proclivity for suppressing speech that they find “offensive.”  Thin skins are encountered in those political precincts at least as frequently as the characteristic delusions about “reason.”

  • Joshua Greene’s “Moral Tribes”: The Minting of a New Morality

    Posted on January 24th, 2014 Helian No comments

    Joshua Greene is a professor of psychology at Harvard.  In reality, he’s not proposing an entirely new morality, but an updated version of John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism.  Greene refers to it as “Deep Pragmatism.” He describes his goal in writing Moral Tribes as follows:

    This book is an attempt to understand morality from the ground up.  It’s about understanding what morality is, how it got here, and how it’s implemented in our brains.  It’s about understanding the deep structure of moral problems as well as the differences between the problems that our brains were designed to solve and the distinctively modern problems we face today.  Finally, it’s about taking this new understanding of morality and turning it into a universal moral philosophy that members of all human tribes can share.

    I won’t go into too much detail about Greene’s version of utilitarianism, or his rationale for proposing it.  Suffice it to say that Greene is familiar with Darwin.  He knows that our moral emotions exist because they promoted our survival and procreation.  In other words, they evolved, as he puts it, as a solution to the Tragedy of the Commons, familiar to students of philosophy.  However, while they solved that problem by promoting cooperation within groups, they did nothing to solve the problem of hostility between groups.  In Greene’s words,

    Our moral brains did not evolve for cooperation between groups (at least not all groups).  How do we know this?  Why couldn’t morality have evolved to promote cooperation in a more general way?  Because universal cooperation is inconsistent with the principles governing evolution by natural selection.

    In other words, Greene knows about ingroups and outgroups.   He refers to this lack of universal cooperation as the “Tragedy of Commonsense Morality.”  As he puts it,

    Morality did not evolve to promote universal cooperation.  On the contrary, it evolved as a device for successful intergroup competition.  In other words, morality evolved to avert the Tragedy of the Commons, but it did not evolve to avert the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality.

    In proposing a solution to this problem, Greene introduces us to a metaphor that appears repeatedly throughout the rest of the book.  He compares the human moral machinery to a camera that has both an automatic, point and shoot mode and a manual mode.  It’s basically just a revamped version of the old reason versus untamed emotion dichotomy that has busied philosophers since Plato’s allegory of the chariot.  In general, the automatic mode is fine for dealing with problems within groups.  However, as Greene puts it,

    …the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality is a tragedy of moral inflexibility.  There is strife on the new pastures not because herders are hopelessly selfish, immoral, or amoral, but because they cannot step outside their respective moral perspectives.  How should they think?  The answer is now obvious:  They should shift into manual mode.

    In other words, we need to stop and think.  However, as he points out, “reasoning has no end of its own.”  I other words, he explicitly agrees with Hume, who wrote that reason is a “slave of the passions,” noting that “reason cannot produce good decisions without some kind of emotional input, however indirect.”  And what is that emotional input to be?  Basically, the desire for “happiness,” that sine qua non of utilitarians everywhere, combined with impartiality, which Greene claims is the “essence of morality.”  Now, of these two, impartiality is the only one that really has anything to do with human moral emotions per se.  Assuming for the sake of argument that happiness, and particularly the esoteric version in which utilitarians take such delight, is something we all want, it can hardly be said that people who are unhappy are also evil, and vice versa.  Focusing on impartiality, Greene writes,

    First, the human manual mode is, by nature, a cost-benefit reasoning system that aims for optimal consequences.  Second, the human manual mode is susceptible to the ideal of impartiality.  And, I submit, this susceptibility is not tribe-specific.  Members of any tribe can get the idea behind the Golden Rule.  Put these two things together and we get manual modes that aspire, however imperfectly, to produce consequences that are optimal from an impartial perspective, giving equal weight to all people.

    Here I can but wonder what species Greene is talking about.  It certainly isn’t ours.  I could cite dozens of passages in his own book that demonstrate that he himself has anything but an “impartial perspective.”  In any case, the result of brewing together happiness and impartiality to create what Greene refers to as a new “metamorality” is predictable.  It stands human morality completely on its head.  Divorced completely from the reasons it evolved to begin with, this new utilitarian morality, which Greene likes to refer to as “Deep Pragmatism,” insists that we reject the “inflexible, automatic mode, moral gizmos” that belong to the normal human complement of moral emotions whenever they don’t promote “happiness.”  We are not referring to our own happiness here.  Rather, we are to become servants of the happiness of all mankind.  As Greene puts it,

    Utilitarianism is a very egalitarian philosophy, asking the haves to do a lot for the have-nots.  Were you to wake up tomorrow as a born-again utilitarian, the biggest change in your life would be your newfound devotion to helping unfortunate others.

    We can excuse Mill for promoting such a philosophy.  He wrote before his philosophy could be informed by work of Darwin.  As a result, even though he was aware of contemporary theories claiming an innate basis to moral behavior, he rejected them.  In other words, he was a Blank Slater, though certainly not in the same sense as the ideologically motivated Blank Slaters who came after him, or the religiously motivated Blank Slaters, like Locke, who came before him.  As a result, he believed that the human mind could adopt virtually any morality, and concluded that the best one would be that which was also most useful.  Clearly, he realized that, if morality were innate, it would have profound implications for his theories.  As I have written elsewhere, I think it highly probable that, if he had lived in our times, he would have put two and two together and rejected utilitarianism.

    Not so Greene.   As he puts it,

    We can, for example, donate money to faraway strangers without expecting anything in return.  From a biological point of view, this is just a backfiring glitch, much like the invention of birth control.  But from our point of view as moral beings who can kick away the evolutionary ladder, it may be exactly what we want.  Morality is more than what it evolved to be.

    Kick away the evolutionary ladder?  Turn morality on its head?  Such notions are delusional unless you believe in some kind of objective “moral truth.”  Greene claims that he’s “agnostic” when it comes to the idea of moral truth, and it doesn’t really matter as far as utilitarianism is concerned, but that’s nonsense.  There has to be some reason for rejecting normal human “automatic mode” moral emotions in favor of some “meta-morality” that serves purposes that are diametrically opposed to the reasons that moral emotions evolved to begin with, and I can think of no other reason than an irrational faith in some kind of objective moral truth.  And in spite of his disclaimers, one can cite dozens of passages in his book that demonstrate that he does embrace what Mill referred to as “transcendental morality.”  For example,

    (referring to someone in a fine Italian suit that will be ruined if he wades into a pond to save a drowning child) Is it morally acceptable to let this child drown in order to save your suit?  Clearly not, we say.  That would be morally monstrous.

    Utilitarianism says that we should do whatever really works best, in the long run, and not just for the moment.  (Implies that there is a universal standard of what is “best.”)

    Happiness is the ur-value, the Higgs boson of normativity, the value that gives other values their value.

    We’ll dispense with the not especially moral goal of spreading genes and focus instead on the more proximate goal of cooperation.

    In other words, dangling before Greene’s imagination is a Morality that has nothing to do with the reasons that led to the evolution of moral behavior to begin with.  I have different goals.  I don’t hide them behind a smokescreen of “meta-morality.”  They are, first, to promote the survival of my own genes, second, to promote the survival of my species, and third, to promote the survival of terrestrial life.  I do not consider my conscious mind anything but a transitory, evolved aspect of my phenotype, but to that mind there is something sublime and majestic in being the link in a chain of life that has existed for billions of years.  The idea that I will be the last link in that chain is repugnant to me.  Serving as a “happiness pump” for a huge colony of happy ants that has no perceptible reason for existing except to “flourish” and be “happy” is completely repugnant to me.

    Greene, of course, is of a different opinion.  I agree that it may be possible to sort out such differences in “manual mode,” but one that is based as much as possible on reason and that takes as little account of morality as possible.  As far as I’m concerned, nothing could be more selfish than attempting to tart up my own whims as a “meta-morality.”  The result of such attempts in the past should serve as a sufficient deterrent from trying it again, even with a philosophy as transparently impractical to implement as utilitarianism.  Greene is well aware of these potential drawbacks.  He writes,

    History offers no shortage of grand utopian visions gone bad, including the rise and (nearly complete) fall of communism during the twentieth century.  Communists such as Stalin and Mao justified thousands of murders, millions more deaths from starvation, and repressive totalitarian governments in the name of the “greater good.”  Shouldn’t we be very wary of people with big plans who say that it’s all for the greater good?  Yes, we should.  Especially when those big plans call for big sacrifices.  And especially, especially when the people making the sacrifices (or being sacrificed!) are not the ones making the big plans.  But this wariness is perfectly pragmatic, utilitarian wariness.  What we’re talking about here is avoiding bad consequences.  Aiming for the greater good does not mean blindly following any charismatic leader who says that it’s all for the greater good.  That’s a recipe for disaster.

    So Greene thinks that the whole Communist debacle, with its gestation period of well over a century, during which time its development was carried forward by a host of convinced theorists, many of whom were neither charismatic themselves nor particularly attracted to charismatic leaders, could have easily been avoided if its adepts had just been “pragmatic,” and had been more circumspect in their choice of leaders?  Sorry, but I think a better way to avoid such catastrophes in the future would be to stop cobbling together new “meta-moralities” altogether.

    We cannot dispense with morality, at least at the level of individual interactions.  We’re not smart enough to do without it.  That said, we can at least attempt to understand its evolutionary roots and the reasons for its existence, and, in the realization that the traits we associate with moral behavior evolved at times utterly unlike the present, do our best to keep our moral emotions from blowing up in our faces.  Greene’s utilitarianism will never be a miraculous solution to the “Tragedy of Commonsense Morality.”  There will always be ingroups and outgroups, and they will always be hostile to each other, manual mode or no manual mode.  What could possibly be more manifest than the furious hostility of Greene’s own liberal tribe to their conservation outgroup?  If we are to survive, we must learn to manage this hostility, and creating yet another new moral system seems to me an extremely unpromising approach to the problem.



  • Steven Pinker, Science, and “Scientism”

    Posted on August 17th, 2013 Helian No comments

    In an article that appeared recently in The New Republic entitled, “Science is not Your Enemy,” Steven Pinker is ostensibly defending science, going so far as to embrace “scientism.”  As he points out, “The term “scientism” is anything but clear, more of a boo-word than a label for any coherent doctrine.”  That’s quite true, which is reason enough to be somewhat circumspect about self-identifying (if I may coin a term) as a “scientismist.”  Nothing daunted, Pinker does just that, defending scientism in “the good sense.” He informs us that “good scientism” is distinguished by “an explicit commitment to two ideals,” namely, the propositions that the world is intelligible, and that the acquisition of knowledge is hard.

    Let me say up front that I am on Pinker’s side when it comes to the defense of what he calls “science,” just as I am on his side in rejecting the ideology of the Blank Slate.  Certainly he’s worthy of a certain respect, if only in view of the sort of people who have been coming out of the woodwork to attack him for his latest.  Anyone with enemies like that can’t be all bad.  It’s just that, whenever I read his stuff, I find myself rolling my eyes before long.  Consider, for example, his tome about the Blank Slate.  My paperback version runs to 500 pages give or take, and in all that prose, I find only a single mention of Robert Ardrey, and then only accompanied by the claim that he was “totally and utterly wrong.”  Now, by the account of the Blank Slaters themselves (see, in particular, the essays by Geoffrey Gorer in Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu), Robert Ardrey was their most effective and influential opponent.  In other words, Pinker wrote a thick tome, purporting to be an account of the Blank Slate, in which he practically ignored the contributions of the most important player in the whole affair, only mentioning him at all in order to declare him wrong, when in fact he was on the same side of the issue as Pinker.

    Similar problems turn up in Pinker’s latest.  For example, he writes,

    Just as common, and as historically illiterate, is the blaming of science for political movements with a pseudoscientific patina, particularly Social Darwinism and eugenics.  Social Darwinism was the misnamed laissez-faire philosophy of Herbert Spencer.  It was inspired not by Darwin’s theory of natural selection, but by Spencer’s Victorian-era conception of a mysterious natural force for progress, which was best left unimpeded.

    Here, as in numerous similar cases, it is clear Pinker has never bothered to read Spencer.  The claim that he was a “Social Darwinist” was a red herring tossed out by his enemies after he was dead.  Based on a minimal fair reading of his work, the claim is nonsense.  If actually reading Spencer is too tedious, just Google something like “Spencer Social Darwinism.”  Check a few of the hits, and you will find that a good number of modern scholars have been fair-minded enough to actively dispute the claim.  Other than that, you will find no reference to specific writings of Spencer in which he promotes Social Darwinism as it is generally understood.  The same could be said of the laissez faire claim.  Spencer supported a small state, but hardly rejected stated intervention in all cases.  He was a supporter of labor unions, and even was of the opinion that land should be held in common in his earlier writings.  As for “Victorian-era” conceptions, if memory serves, Darwin wrote during that era as well, and while Spencer embraced Lamarckism and had a less than up-to-date notion of how evolution works, I find no reference in any of his work to a “mysterious natural force for progress.”

    Pinker’s comments about morality are similarly clouded.  He writes,

    In other words, the worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science… The facts of science, by exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, force us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet.  For the same reason, they undercut any moral or political system based on mystical forces, quests, destinies, dialectics, struggles, or messianic ages.  And in combination with a few unexceptionable convictions – that all of us value our own welfare and that we are social beings who impinge on each other and can negotiate codes of conduct – the scientific facts militate toward a defensible morality, namely, adhering to principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings.

    In other words, Pinker has bought in to the Sam Harris “human flourishing” mumbo-jumbo, and thinks that the “facts of science” can somehow become material objects with the power to dictate that which is “good” and that which is “evil.”  Here Pinker, in company with Harris, has taken leave of his senses.  Based on what he wrote earlier in the essay, we know that he is aware that what we understand as morality is the expression of evolved behavioral traits.  Those traits are their ultimate cause, and without them morality would literally cease to exist as we know it.  They exist in the brains of individuals, solely by virtue of the fact that, at some point in the distant past utterly unlike the present, they promoted our survival.  And yet, in spite of the fact that Pinker must understand, at least at some level, that these things are true, he agrees with Harris that the emotional responses, or, as Hume, whom Pinker also claims to have read, puts it, sentiments, can jump out of our heads, become objects, or things in themselves, independent of the minds of individuals, and, as such, can be manipulated and specified by the “facts of science.”  Presumably, once the “educated” and the “scientists” have agreed on what the “facts of science” tell us is a “defensible morality,” at that point the rest of us become bound to agree with them on the meanings of “good” and “evil” that they pass down to us, must subordinate our own emotions and inherent predispositions regarding such matters to “science,” and presumably be justifiably (by “science”) punished if we do not.  What nonsense!

    “Science” is not an object, any more than “good” and “evil.”  “Science” cannot independently “say” anything, nor can it create values.  In reality, “science” is a rather vague set of principles and prescriptions for approaching the truth, applied willy-nilly if at all by most “scientists.”  By even embracing the use of the term “science” in that way, Pinker is playing into the hands of his enemies.  He is validating their claim that “science” is actually a thing, but in their case, a bête noire, transcending its real nature as a set of rules, more or less vaguely understood and applied, to become an object in itself.  Once the existence of such a “science” object is accepted, it becomes a mere bagatelle to fix on it the responsibility for all the evils of the world, or, in the case of the Pinkers of the world, all the good.

    In reality, the issue here is not whether this imaginary “science” object exists and, assuming it does, whether it is “good” or “evil.”  It is about whether we should be empowered to learn things about the universe in which we live or not.  The opponents of “scientism” typically rail against such things as eugenics, Social Darwinism, and the atomic bomb.  These are supposedly the creations of the “science” object.  But, in fact, they are no such thing.  In the case of eugenics and Social Darwinism, they represent the moral choices of individuals.  In the case of the atomic bomb, we have a thing which became possible as a result of the knowledge of the physical world acquired in the preceding half a century, give or take.  What would the opponents of “scientism” have us change?  The decision to build the atomic bomb?  Fine, but in that case they are not opposing “science,” but rather a choice made by individuals.  Opposition to “science” itself can only reasonably be construed as opposition to the acquisition of the knowledge that made the bomb possible to begin with.  If that is what the opponents of “scientism” really mean, let them put their cards on the table.  Let them explain to us in just what ways those things which the rest of us are to be allowed to know will be limited, and just why it is they think they have the right to dictate to the rest of us what we can know and what we can’t.

    It seems to me this whole “science” thing is getting out of hand.  If we must have an object, it would be much better for us to go back to the Enlightenment and use the term “reason.”  It seems to me that would make it a great deal more clear what we are talking about.  It would reveal the true nature of the debate.  It is not about the “science” object, and whether it is “good” or “evil,” but about whether we should actually try to use our rational minds, or instead relegate our brains to the less ambitious task of serving as a convenient stuffing for our skulls.

  • Ben Franklin Channels Karl Marx

    Posted on July 29th, 2012 Helian No comments

    Before implementing radical social theories as the Communists tried to do in Russia in 1917, its always a good idea to try them out on a modest scale that doesn’t involve murdering anyone.  That goes double if the radical social theory in question has a strong appeal to those whose tastes run to saving the world.  The speed at which human reason runs off the track varies in direct proportion to the complexity of a hypothesis and the lack of repeatable experiments to confirm it.  Unfalsifiable hypotheses are born off the track.  Data in support of the above may be found in a letter Benjamin Franklin wrote to Robert Morris in 1783, when he was serving as our Minister Plenipotentiary in France.  Referring to some resolutions against taxation adopted in town meetings he wrote,

    Money justly due from the people, is their creditor’s money, and no longer the money of the people, who, if they withhold it, should be compelled to pay by some law.  All property, indeed, except the savage’s temporary cabin, his bow, his matchuat, and other little acquisitions absolutely necessary for his subsistence, seems to me to be the creature of public convention.  Hence the public has the right of regulating descents, and all other conveyances of property, and even of limiting the quantity and uses of it.  All the property that is necessary to a man for the conservation of the individual, and the propagation of the species, is his natural right, which none can justly deprive him of; but all property superfluous to such purposes, is the property of the public, who, by their laws, have created it, and who may, therefore, by other laws, dispose of it whenever the welfare of the public shall desire such a disposition.  He that does not like civil society on these terms, let him retire, and live among the savages!  He can have right to the benefits of society, who will not pay his club towards the support of it.

    Of course, in the meantime we’ve carried out numerous repeatable experiments that seem to demonstrate quite conclusively that government policies intended to implement such ideas are undesirable because they don’t work.  In the end, they don’t serve the “welfare of the public” because they fail to take the behavioral idiosyncracies of our species into account.  Does that mean that Franklin was stupid?  Far from it.  As his experiments with electricity demonstrate, he had the mind of a true scientist.  The comments in his autobiography about influencing others to accept new ideas might have been lifted from a 21st century textbook on moral psychology.  More importantly, his combination of brilliance and common sense were an invaluable guide and support to our Republic in its infancy.

    The point is that even the most brilliant human beings can easily delude themselves into believing things that are not true, and even things that in the light of later experience seem palpably silly.  We are not nearly as smart as we think we are.  The next time some wildly popular messianic scheme for saving the world inflicts itself on mankind, it’s “enlightened” proponents would do well to keep that in mind.

    As for old Ben, the quote above was more the product of exasperation than sober thought.  Robert Morris was the great financier of our Revolution.  Read the fine biography of him by Charles Rappleye, and you’re bound to wonder how we ever beat the British.  Morris used all of his great intelligence, experience, and personal credit to somehow keep Washington’s army fed and clothed, in spite of the fact that the states whose independence he was fighting to win refused to be taxed.  His reward for all his tireless work was to be viciously vilified by pathologically pious super-revolutionaries like Arthur Lee and his brothers, men who deemed themselves great defenders of liberty, but who actually provided more “aid and comfort” to the British than Benedict Arnold ever dreamed of.  Franklin was well aware of their mendacious attacks on Morris, and their bitter resistance to any attempt to create an effective national government capable of collecting the taxes necessary to support the war effort at a time when the paper money we had relied on in the early years of the Revolution had become nearly worthless.  Their type should be familiar, as there are still ample examples among us today.  The fact that they provoked such a cri de Couer from Franklin should come as no surprise.


  • The “Limits of Reason” Meme

    Posted on August 18th, 2010 Helian No comments

    A number of papers have turned up in the scientific literature lately concerning innate aspects of human mental processes that can impair our ability to discover truth, such as this one by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber. Not unpredictably, the human mental processes described in these papers have been conflated with “reason,” spawning a meme about the limits thereof. A representative artifact of the phenomena recently appeared in Newsweek, entitled “Limits of Reason.” Expect more of the same. No matter that there are obvious differences between “reason” defined as a systematic method for discovering truth and “reason” defined as a mental process specific to human beings, the notion that there are “limits to reason” is so seductive that many people are unlikely to notice. For example, blind religious faith becomes more justifiable if “reason” is useless. Moral biases of every stripe can be fobbed off as “legitimate” if the power of “reason” to challenge them is denied. The “Age of Reason” itself can be dismissed with a hand wave as an effort in futility.

    Well, memes eventually run their course, and I doubt this one will be any different. Meanwhile, I will continue to favor reason as the most effective, albeit occasionally flawed, means of discovering truth. So far no one has come up with anything that is demonstrably better.