Posted on July 29th, 2012 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.
Posted on August 18th, 2010 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.