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  • Morality and the Floundering Philosophers

    Posted on May 26th, 2018 Helian No comments

    In my last post I noted the similarities between belief in objective morality, or the existence of “moral truths,” and traditional religious beliefs. Both posit the existence of things without evidence, with no account of what these things are made of (assuming that they are not things that are made of nothing), and with no plausible explanation of how these things themselves came into existence or why their existence is necessary. In both cases one can cite many reasons why the believers in these nonexistent things want to believe in them. In both cases, for example, the livelihood of myriads of “experts” depends on maintaining the charade. Philosophers are no different from priests and theologians in this respect, but their problem is even bigger. If Darwin gave the theologians a cold, he gave the philosophers pneumonia. Not long after he published his great theory it became clear, not only to him, but to thousands of others, that morality exists because the behavioral traits which give rise to it evolved. The Finnish philosopher Edvard Westermarck formalized these rather obvious conclusions in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas (1906) and Ethical Relativity (1932). At that point, belief in the imaginary entities known as “moral truths” became entirely superfluous. Philosophers have been floundering behind their curtains ever since, trying desperately to maintain the illusion.

    An excellent example of the futility of their efforts may be found online in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy in an entry entitled Morality and Evolutionary Biology. The most recent version was published in 2014.  It’s rather long, but to better understand what follows it would be best if you endured the pain of wading through it.  However, in a nutshell, it seeks to demonstrate that, even if there is some connection between evolution and morality, it’s no challenge to the existence of “moral truths,” which we are to believe can be detected by well-trained philosophers via “reason” and “intuition.”  Quaintly enough, the earliest source given for a biological explanation of morality is E. O. Wilson.  Apparently the Blank Slate catastrophe is as much a bugaboo for philosophers as for scientists.  Evidently it’s too indelicate for either of them to mention that the behavioral sciences were completely derailed for upwards of 50 years by an ideologically driven orthodoxy.  In fact, a great many highly intelligent scientists and philosophers wrote a great deal more than Wilson about the connection between biology and morality before they were silenced by the high priests of the Blank Slate.  Even during the Blank Slate men like Sir Arthur Keith had important things to say about the biological roots of morality.  Robert Ardrey, by far the single most influential individual in smashing the Blank Slate hegemony, addressed the subject at length long before Wilson, as did thinkers like Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen.  Perhaps if its authors expect to be taken seriously, this “Encyclopedia” should at least set the historical record straight.

    It’s already evident in the Overview section that the author will be running with some dubious assumptions.  For example, he speaks of “morality understood as a set of empirical phenomena to be explained,” and the “very different sets of questions and projects pursued by philosophers when they inquire into the nature and source of morality,” as if they were examples of the non-overlapping magisterial once invoked by Stephen Jay Gould. In fact, if one “understands the empirical phenomena” of morality, then the problem of the “nature and source of morality” is hardly “non-overlapping.”  In fact, it solves itself.  The suggestion that they are non-overlapping depends on the assumption that “moral truth” exists in a realm of its own.  A bit later the author confirms he is making that assumption as follows:

    Moral philosophers tend to focus on questions about the justification of moral claims, the existence and grounds of moral truths, and what morality requires of us.  These are very different from the empirical questions pursued by the sciences, but how we answer each set of questions may have implications for how we should answer the other.

    He allows that philosophy and the sciences must inform each other on these “distinct” issues.  In fact, neither philosophy nor the sciences can have anything useful to say about these questions, other than to point out that they relate to imaginary things.  “Objects” in the guise of “justification of moral claims,” “grounds of moral truths,” and the “requirements of morality” exist only in fantasy.  The whole burden of the article is to maintain that fantasy, and insist that the mirage is real.  We are supposed to be able to detect that the mirages are real by thinking really hard until we “grasp moral truths,” and “gain moral knowledge.”  It is never explained what kind of a reasoning process leads to “truths” and “knowledge” about things that don’t exist.  Consider, for example, the following from the article:

    …a significant amount of moral judgment and behavior may be the result of gaining moral knowledge, rather than just reflecting the causal conditioning of evolution.  This might apply even to universally held moral beliefs or distinctions, which are often cited as evidence of an evolved “universal moral grammar.”  For example, people everywhere and from a very young age distinguish between violations of merely conventional norms and violations of norms involving harm, and they are strongly disposed to respond to suffering with concern.  But even if this partly reflects evolved psychological mechanisms or “modules” governing social sentiments and responses, much of it may also be the result of human intelligence grasping (under varying cultural conditions) genuine morally relevant distinctions or facts – such as the difference between the normative force that attends harm and that which attends mere violations of convention.

    It’s amusing to occasionally substitute “the flying spaghetti monster” or “the great green grasshopper god” for the author’s “moral truths.”  The “proofs” of their existence work just as well.  In the above, he is simply assuming the existence of “morally relevant distinctions,” and further assuming that they can be grasped and understood logically.  Such assumptions fly in the face of the work of many philosophers who demonstrated that moral judgments are always grounded in emotions, sometimes referred to by earlier authors as “sentiments,” or “passions,” and it is therefore impossible to arrive at moral truths through reason alone.  Assuming some undergraduate didn’t write the article, one must assume the author had at least a passing familiarity with some of these people.  The Earl of Shaftesbury, for example, demonstrated the decisive role of “natural affections” as the origins of moral judgment in his Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit (1699), even noting in that early work the similarities between humans and the higher animals in that regard.  Francis Hutcheson very convincingly demonstrated the impotence of reason alone in detecting moral truths, and the essential role of “instincts and affections” as the origin of all moral judgment in his An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections (1728).  Hutcheson thought that God was the source of these passions and affections.  It remained for David Hume to present similar arguments on a secular basis in his A Treatise on Human Nature (1740).

    The author prefers to ignore these earlier philosophers, focusing instead on the work of Jonathan Haidt, who has also insisted on the role of emotions in shaping moral judgment.  Here I must impose on the reader’s patience with a long quote to demonstrate the type of “logic” we’re dealing with.  According to the author,

    There are also important philosophical worries about the methodologies by which Haidt comes to his deflationary conclusions about the role played by reasoning in ordinary people’s moral judgments.

    To take just one example, Haidt cites a study where people made negative moral judgments in response to “actions that were offensive yet harmless, such as…cleaning one’s toilet with the national flag.” People had negative emotional reactions to these things and judged them to be wrong, despite the fact that they did not cause any harms to anyone; that is, “affective reactions were good predictors of judgment, whereas perceptions of harmfulness were not” (Haidt 2001, 817). He takes this to support the conclusion that people’s moral judgments in these cases are based on gut feelings and merely rationalized, since the actions, being harmless, don’t actually warrant such negative moral judgments. But such a conclusion would be supported only if all the subjects in the experiment were consequentialists, specifically believing that only harmful consequences are relevant to moral wrongness. If they are not, and believe—perhaps quite rightly (though it doesn’t matter for the present point what the truth is here)—that there are other factors that can make an action wrong, then their judgments may be perfectly appropriate despite the lack of harmful consequences.

    This is in fact entirely plausible in the cases studied: most people think that it is inherently disrespectful, and hence wrong, to clean a toilet with their nation’s flag, quite apart from the fact that it doesn’t hurt anyone; so the fact that their moral judgment lines up with their emotions but not with a belief that there will be harmful consequences does not show (or even suggest) that the moral judgment is merely caused by emotions or gut reactions. Nor is it surprising that people have trouble articulating their reasons when they find an action intrinsically inappropriate, as by being disrespectful (as opposed to being instrumentally bad, which is much easier to explain).

    Here one can but roll ones eyes.  It doesn’t matter a bit whether the subjects are consequentialists or not.  Haidt’s point is that logical arguments will always break down at some point, whether they are based on harm or not, because moral judgments are grounded in emotions.  Harm plays a purely ancillary role.  One could just as easily ask why the action in question is considered disrespectful, and the chain of logical reasons would break down just as surely.  Whoever wrote the article must know what Haidt is really saying, because he refers explicitly to the ideas of Hume in the same book.  Absent the alternative that the author simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about, we must conclude that he is deliberately misrepresenting what Haidt was trying to say.

    One of the author’s favorite conceits is that one can apply “autonomous applications of human intelligence,” meaning applications free of emotional bias, to the discovery of “moral truths” in the same way those logical faculties are applied in such fields as algebraic topology, quantum field theory, population biology, etc.  In his words,

    We assume in general that people are capable of significant autonomy in their thinking, in the following sense:

    Autonomy Assumption: people have, to greater or lesser degrees, a capacity for reasoning that follows autonomous standards appropriate to the subjects in question, rather than in slavish service to evolutionarily given instincts merely filtered through cultural forms or applied in novel environments. Such reflection, reasoning, judgment and resulting behavior seem to be autonomous in the sense that they involve exercises of thought that are not themselves significantly shaped by specific evolutionarily given tendencies, but instead follow independent norms appropriate to the pursuits in question (Nagel 1979).

    This assumption seems hard to deny in the face of such abstract pursuits as algebraic topology, quantum field theory, population biology, modal metaphysics, or twelve-tone musical composition, all of which seem transparently to involve precisely such autonomous applications of human intelligence.

    This, of course, leads up to the argument that one can apply this “autonomy assumption” to moral judgment as well.  The problem is that, in the other fields mentioned, one actually has something to reason about.  In mathematics, for example, one starts with a collection of axioms that are simply accepted as true, without worrying about whether they are “really” true or not.  In physics, there are observables that one can measure and record as a check on whether one’s “autonomous application of intelligence” was warranted or not.  In other words, one has physical evidence.  The same goes for the other subjects mentioned.  In each case, one is reasoning about something that actually exists.  In the case of morality, however, “autonomous intelligence” is being applied to a phantom.  Again, the same arguments are just as strong if one applies them to grasshopper gods.  “Autonomous intelligence” is useless if it is “applied” to something that doesn’t exist.  You can “reflect” all you want about the grasshopper god, but he will still stubbornly refuse to pop into existence.  The exact nature of the recondite logical gymnastics one must apply to successfully apply “autonomous intelligence” in this way is never explained.  Perhaps a Ph.D. in philosophy at Stanford is a prerequisite before one can even dare to venture forth on such a daunting logical quest.  Perhaps then, in addition to the sheepskin, they fork over a philosopher’s stone that enables one to transmute lead into gold, create the elixir of life, and extract “moral truths” right out of the vacuum.

    In short, the philosophers continue to flounder.  Their logical demonstrations of nonexistent “moral truths” are similar in kind to logical demonstrations of the existence of imaginary super-beings, and just as threadbare.  Why does it matter?  I can’t supply you with any objective “oughts,” here, but at least I can tell you my personal prejudices on the matter, and my reasons for them.  We are living in a time of moral chaos, and will continue to do so until we accept the truth about the evolutionary origin of human morality and the implications of that truth.  There are no objective moral truths, and it will be extremely dangerous for us to continue to ignore that fact.  Competing morally loaded ideologies are already demonstrably disrupting our political systems.  It is hardly unlikely that we will once again experience what happens when fanatics stuff their “moral truths” down our throats as they did in the last century with the morally loaded ideologies of Communism and Nazism.  Do you dislike being bullied by Social Justice Warriors?  I’m sorry to inform you that the bullying will continue unabated until we explode the myth that they are bearers of “moral truths” that they are justified, according to “autonomous logic” in imposing on the rest of us.  I could go on and on, but do I really need to?  Isn’t it obvious that a world full of fanatical zealots, all utterly convinced that they have a monopoly on “moral truth,” and a perfect right to impose these “truths” on everyone else, isn’t exactly a utopia?  Allow me to suggest that, instead, it might be preferable to live according to a simple and mutually acceptable “absolute” morality, in which “moral relativism” is excluded, and which doesn’t change from day to day in willy-nilly fashion according to the whims of those who happen to control the social means of communication?  As counter-intuitive as it seems, the only practicable way to such an outcome is acceptance of the fact that morality is a manifestation of evolved human nature, and of the truth that there are no such things as “moral truths.”

     

  • On the Purpose of Life

    Posted on January 29th, 2018 Helian 9 comments

    There is no purpose to your life other than the purpose you choose to give it.

    Is your goal the brotherhood of all mankind?  Is your goal human flourishing?  Is your goal a just and democratic society?  Is your goal to serve some God or gods?  The first cause of all of these goals, and any others you can think of, may be found in innate emotions and predispositions that exist because they evolved.  They did not evolve for a purpose.  They exist because at some time that was likely quite different from the present, they happened to increase the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  They are the foundation that gives rise to every single human aspiration, no matter how noble or sublime that aspiration is imagined to be.

    There is no objective reason why the goals and aspirations of a Plato or a Kant are more worthy, more legitimate, or more morally good than the goals and purposes of a thief or a murderer.  In the end, every human being on the planet is merely seeking to satisfy emotional whims that he has interpreted or tried to make sense of in one way or another.  Any individual’s assumption that his goals are intrinsically superior to or more right and proper in themselves than the goals of others is a delusion.  The universe doesn’t care.

    What does that imply concerning what our goals should be, or what we really ought to do?  Nothing!  Nothing, that is, unless we are speaking of what some individual should do or ought to do to satisfy some idiosyncratic whim that cannot possibly be objectively more legitimate or praiseworthy than the whim of any other individual.

    How, then, do we choose what are goals and purposes will be.  After all, we will have them regardless, because it is our nature to have them.  In the end, all of us must decide for ourselves.  However, in choosing them I personally think it is useful to be aware of the above fundamental facts.  The alternative is to stumble blindly through life, chasing mirages, clueless as to what is really motivating us and why.  Again, purely from my personal point of view, that does not seem an attractive alternative.  Blind stumbling tends to be self-destructive, not to mention inconvenient to others.  I personally find it incongruous and disturbing to witness the spectacle of emotions and passions inspiring people to pursue ends that are the precise opposite of the ends that account for the existence of those emotions and passions to begin with.

    I personally pursue goals and purposes that seem to me in harmony with the fundamental reason that my goals and purposes exist to begin with.  In other words, my basic goal in life has been to survive and reproduce.  Beyond that, I seek first to promote the survival of my species, and beyond that the survival of biological life in general.  These goals seem noble and sublime enough to me personally.  Our very existence seems to me improbable and awe-inspiring.  Think of how complex and intelligent we are, and of all our highly developed senses and abilities.  Look in a mirror and consider the fact that a creature like you could have evolved from inanimate matter.  Think of the mind-boggling length of time it took for that to happen, and the conditions that were necessary for it to occur in the first place.  Stunning!  We are all final links in an unbroken chain of life that began with direct ancestors that existed billions of years ago.  There are millions of links in the chain, and all of those links succeeded in generating new links, so that the chain would remain unbroken through all that incredible gulf of time.  Under the circumstances, my personal purpose seems obvious to me.  Don’t break the chain!

    There is no objective reason why these purposes of mine are any more good, legitimate, or worthy than any alternatives whatsoever.  They are not intrinsically better than the purposes of an anti-natalist, a suicide bomber, or a celibate priest.  However, for personal reasons, I would prefer that, as others pursue their purposes, they at least be aware of what is actually motivating them.  It might lead them to consider whether blindly breaking the chain, destroying themselves and harming others in the process, is really a goal worth pursuing after all.

  • “Dangerous” by Milo Yiannopoulos; A Review

    Posted on July 16th, 2017 Helian 2 comments

    Back in February the legacy media was gloating over the demise of Milo Yiannopoulos.  Apparently the Left’s faux outrage machine had successfully smeared him over some unguarded comments he made about his sexual relationships as a young teenager.  These were construed as “support for pedophilia,” which they decidedly were not as anyone can see who listens to what he actually said.  No matter, Simon and Schuster cancelled his book deal, CPAC rescinded their speaking invitation, and even Breitbart caved, accepting his resignation as their technical editor.  It would seem Milo’s enemies gloated too soon.  He self-published his book, which currently sits at number two on the New York Times list of best sellers for combined ebook and print nonfiction.

    What to make of Milo, his book, and the public reaction to it?  When it comes to human behavior, the answer is always the same; go back to Darwin.  Forget the futile game of arguing about who is “good” and who is “evil.”  These categories exist only as subjective mental constructs, and are manifestations of emotions, not reason.  In short, they are figments of our imaginations.  Instead, look for the evolved emotional traits and predispositions that are driving the behavior.

    For starters, it’s always a good idea to look at ingroups and their associated outgroups.  They are a universal and fundamental aspect of human behavior, and they will always be there, along with all their associated loyalties and hatreds, as well as the dual system of morality human beings apply depending on whether they are speaking of one or the other.  They are also one of the most “dysfunctional” aspects of human behavior.  The innate traits responsible evolved at a time when the ingroup consisted of the relatively small group of hunter-gatherers to which one belonged, and the outgroup almost automatically became a similar group living in the next territory over.  At that time ingroup/outgroup behavior obviously increased the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  However, our brains became bigger, and we began associating in ever larger groups.  Our powers of imagination expanded with our brains, and we became capable of identifying our ingroups and outgroups based not merely on physical proximity, but on race, religion, class, ethnicity, ideology and a host of other criteria.  There is no reason to believe that such “modified” versions of the behavior will accomplish the same thing now that they did then.  In fact, there is good reason to believe they will accomplish exactly the opposite.

    In this case, Milo makes it easy for us to identify the relevant ingroups.  They are each identified in the title of a chapter of his book, and Milo has the honor of belonging squarely in the outgroup of every one of them.  They include feminists (chapter 4), Black Lives Matter (chapter 5), Muslims (chapter 9), and so on.  Many of them either overlap or have some affinity with the most significant of them all, the Progressive Left (chapter 1).  The Progressive Left is an ingroup that defines itself according to ideology.  In other words, the boundaries of its “territory” consist of a set of ideological shibboleths.  As set forth by a member of this ingroup in a review of Dangerous, these shibboleths are supposed to promote a “fair, multicultural, egalitarian society.”  A fundamental theme of Milo’s book is that, in fact, the Progressive Left is creating a profoundly unfair, divisive society that, far from being egalitarian, is based on a rigid hierarchy of identity groups.  In his words,

    We live in an age where one side of the political spectrum would like all debate, all challenge to their viewpoints, all diversity of thought to be snuffed out.  Why?  Because they’re scared.  Scared that their political, social and cultural consensus, carefully constructed and nurtured over the past few years, with its secular religions of feminism, enforced diversity, multiculturalism, and casual hatred for straight, white men, is built on a foundation of sand.

    The response of the Left to this assault on its ideology has been typical of ingroup responses that transcend species.  They have made a furious rush to defend their ideologically defined territory, filled with rage towards this presumptuous outgrouper, for all the world like a pack of howler monkeys defending its turf.  In a word, Milo is right.  They do hate him.  Leftist reviews of the book include such well-reasoned responses as,

    America now faces greater problems than the mean-spirited shitposts of a preening hack.

    Why any troll, racist, sexist, or teenager would pay for the version of Dangerous this draft presents when it exists on 4chan in endless supply is a mystery. At least the hatred there is more interesting.

    He’s a clickbait grifter who has made a name for himself spewing hate speech.

    Read them and you will find claims that the book is boring (it’s not), that it’s not selling (it sold out almost immediately on Amazon), that it discusses issues that are so yesterday (they aren’t yesterday for people who don’t happen to be obsessed with social media), and, of course, the de rigueur claims that the book is racist, sexist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, and so on.  What you won’t find, or at least I haven’t found so far, are well-reasoned arguments against any of the major themes of the book.  That’s not surprising.  The Left has now controlled the media, the academy, and the arts for so long that its ability to engage in rational argument has begun to atrophy.  Instead, it seeks to bully, vilify, and bludgeon its opponents into submission.  Conscious of its power, it has become increasingly authoritarian.  Hence its fury at the “deplorables” who dared to defy it in the recent election, and its determination to refuse legitimacy to the results of that defiance.

    Allow me to provide a brief tutorial on how such a rational argument might actually look.  In his book, Milo cites statistics according to which blacks are responsible for a disproportionate level of violence and crime in our society.  A rational response would be that the statistics are wrong, and that levels of violence and crime among blacks are comparable to those among other ethnic groups.  Concerning the gender pay gap Milo writes,

    Study after study show the wage gap shrinks to nonexistence when relevant, non-sexist factors like chosen career paths, chosen work hours and chosen career discontinuity are taken into account.  They key word is chosen… The wage gap is almost entirely explained by women’s choices.  Men prefer technical jobs; women prefer people-oriented professions.

    As Christina Hoff Sommers says, “Want to close the wage gap?  Step one:  Change your major from feminist dance therapy to electrical engineering.”

    A rational response would be to cite studies that demonstrate a systematic pay gap between men and women in identical jobs, or evidence of verifiable attempts to discourage women from choosing careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.  Regarding Islam, Milo writes,

    Islam is not like other religions.  It’s more inherently prescriptive and it’s much more political.  That’s why I, a free speech fundamentalist, still support banning the burka and restricting Islamic immigration… Everywhere Islam exists you find political tyranny.  Islam is as much a political ideology as a religion, which is why limits on it are perfectly compatible with religious freedom and the First Amendment… Every noble principle the Left claims to uphold, from rights for women to gay liberation, even diversity itself, dies on the altar of its sycophantic defense of Islam.

    A rational response would be to demonstrate that the Muslim religion doesn’t inject itself into politics, that the states in which it prevails tend to be secular democracies, that Muslim theocracies are tolerant of gays, and they promote equal rights for women.  I have seen no such responses in any of the many attacks on Yiannopoulos and his book.  Instead, they tend to confirm his claim that,

    The practitioners of the new political correctness are not equipped for a world in which individuals can disagree with what is deemed appropriate thought.  They rely on silencing the opposition with hysterics, instead of winning with superior ideas… Purposefully or unwittingly, a generation of Americans now exists that is terrified of critical thinking.

    In other words, the Progressive Left seldom meets the arguments of Yiannopoulos or anyone else head on.  Instead they rely on the illusion that they occupy the moral high ground, and seek to vilify and anathematize their opponents.  Unfortunately, outside of the subjective consciousness of individuals, there is no such thing as a moral high ground.  Claims to moral superiority can never be objectively legitimate.  They exist in a realm of fantasy where good and evil exist as independent things.

    In spite of the Left’s anathemas, Dangerous is well worth reading.  Yiannopoulos is a very intelligent man, and his book reflects the fact.  He is well aware of the role of innate emotions and predispositions as drivers of human behavior.  In particular, he is aware of the fundamental importance of ingroup/outgroup behavior, or what Robert Ardrey called the “Amity/Enmity Complex.”  As he writes in Dangerous,

    Since the 1970s, social psychologists have been aware that emphasizing differences between groups leads to mistrust and hostility.  In a series of landmark experiments, the psychologist Henri Tajfel found that even wearing different-colored shirts was enough for groups to begin displaying signs of mistrust.  So guess what happens when you tell everyone that their worth, their ability, their right to speak on certain subjects and – shudder – their “privilege” is, like original sin, based on what they were born with, rather than any choices they’ve made or who they are?

    Like the men’s health gap, the black murder gap is very real, and simply isn’t discussed by black activists.  I suspect it’s a matter of tribalism, or ingroup/outgroup psychology, a common occurrence in politics.  Like feminists who blame their everyday grievances on an invisible “patriarchy,” or Wi-Fi enabled Waffen-SS wannabes who think Jews are responsible for everything bad, or Democrats who blame the Russians for Hillary losing the election to Daddy.  It’s very easy to dodge responsibility if you have a boogeyman to lump the blame on.

    These quotes reflect a level of awareness that most leftists never reach.  They also allude to the reason that the utopias they are in the habit of concocting for us have never worked.  An ingroup can be as egalitarian as it pleases, but the assumption that the identity groups they invite to inhabit their multicultural world will necessarily be similarly altruistic is delusional.  Ingroups and outgroups will always exist, and they will always hate each other, as demonstrated by the bitter hatreds leftists themselves tend to wear on their sleeves.  Until the innate behavioral traits responsible for ingroup/outgroup behavior and the dual morality inevitably associated with it are understood, accepted, and a way is found to effectively control them, they will continue to be as dangerous as ever.

    The book is an interesting read for many other reasons.  Its detractors dismiss discussions of such controversies as Gamergate as water under the bridge, but they should be of interest to readers who aren’t obsessed with the very latest twists and turns in the culture wars.  Such readers may also have heard little or nothing of the many contemporary thinkers mentioned in the book who, like Yiannopoulos, are challenging the dogmas of his opponents.  Their work is seldom found in newspaper columns, and the book is a useful guide on where to look for them in contemporary social media.  Other than that it includes some thought provoking comments on Andrew Breitbart’s dictum that “politics is downstream from culture,” the reasons for the counterintuitive nexus between the Progressive Left and radical Islam, the remarkable cultural similarity between current “conservative” and “liberal” elites outside of superficial political differences revealed to the surprise of many in the recent election, the many contradictions between the avowed ideals of the Progressive Left and the other “haters” called out in the book and the various forms of racism, sexism and bigotry they practice in the real world, and so on.

    Perhaps the greatest weakness of the book is something it has in common with virtually every other similar work you’re likely to find, whether it comes from the left or the right of the political spectrum.  It tries to counter claims of moral superiority with claims of its own moral superiority.  One can “win” such a contest by being more effective at manipulating moral emotions than ones opponents, but in the end it is an irrational, dangerous, and futile game.  Consider what is actually being manipulated – innate emotions and predispositions that have no intrinsic purpose or function, but exist merely because they happened to improve the odds that certain genes would survive and reproduce.  There is certainly no guarantee that they will even accomplish the same thing in an environment so radically different from the one in which they evolved as the one we live in today.  On top of that, those who seek to manipulate them often do so in pursuit of goals that have little if any connection to the reasons they exist to begin with.

    The only way our species will ever manage to get off of this merry-go-round is by finally learning to understand the fundamental drivers of behavior, moral and otherwise.  An individual who is fully conscious of the nature of the emotions that are the motivators for all the goals and aspirations he sets for himself in life will also be an individual who is capable of discarding the illusion of objective moral laws as a rationalization for those goals and aspirations.  I don’t oppose the Progressive Left because it’s immoral.  In the end, I oppose it for the same reasons that are actually motivating Milo.  I don’t like to be bullied by people who assume they have some imaginary “moral authority” to tell me how I should behave and think.  We could “win” by beating the leftists at their own game, and seizing the “moral high ground.”  It would be a hollow victory, though.  As has happened so often in the past, we would end up by becoming clones of the monster we had just slain.  We need to stop playing the game.  There has to be a better way.

  • On the Practicality of Non-Lethal Methods of Updating Morality

    Posted on May 18th, 2017 Helian 3 comments

    Character is destiny.  Societies tend to thrive when there are well-understood moral rules that are obeyed, or, in cases where they are not obeyed, the disobedient are punished so as to prevent their disobedience from doing harm to others.  There are no objective moral truths, so it follows that the moral rules referred to above cannot be based on such truths.  However, if the statements above are true, they will remain true whether there are objective moral truths or not.

    It does not follow from the absence of objective moral truth that everyone “should” be allowed to rape, murder, and pillage, or do anything they please, for the simple reason that if there are no objective moral truths, there can be no objective “shoulds” either.  It may not be objectively bad to rape, murder, and pillage, but it is not objectively bad for the members of a society to punish or eliminate from that society those who do such things, either.  They do so by establishing moral rules, sometimes made explicit in the form of laws, and sometimes not.

    Moral rules will exist whether the individuals in a given society have religious beliefs or not, whether they believe in the existence of objective moral truths or not, and whether they subscribe to any given philosophy or not.  Our societies have moral rules because it is our nature to experience moral emotions.  These emotions incline us to believe that there are ways that we and others ought to behave, and ways that we and others ought not to behave.  As noted above, these beliefs manifest themselves in the formulation of moral rules.  We experience these rules as absolute, objective things, even though they cannot possibly be absolute, objective things.  At the moment, the contradiction between this emotionally derived belief and reality is becoming increasingly acute.  In the first place, the religious beliefs that once supplied a rationalization for the existence of absolute moral rules are declining in some parts of the world.  It is also difficult to accommodate a belief in objective morality with the increasing realization that moral emotions are innate, and must therefore have evolved.  Finally, thanks to the vast expansion in our ability to examine and communicate with other cultures that has occurred in the last few hundred years, we have learned that, while there are significant commonalities across all moralities, there are also profound differences between them.  If moral rules are objective and absolute, it seems to follow logically that no such differences could exist.

    It is a tribute to the power of our moral emotions that these contradictions have had little impact on our moral behavior.  Most of us still imagine that moral rules are absolute, or at least behave as if they were, regardless.  However, as a result of changes to the social environment such as those referred to above, individuals in our societies experience changes in their perceptions of what their moral emotions are trying to tell them as well.  They imagine that new “objective” moral rules must exist, and that old ones were never valid to begin with.  Occasionally enough of them experience the same illusion to force changes in the moral paradigm.  This process has certainly happened in the past.  Moralities have evolved as new religions became dominant, or new heresies and orthodoxies arose in old ones.  Now, however, it is occurring at an increasingly rapid, if not historically unprecedented rate.  The result has been moral chaos.  Deep fractures are opening in our societies between ingroups that prefer traditional versus those that favor updated versions of “absolute” morality.

    Ingroups of the type referred to above typically define themselves ideologically, on the basis of a particular version of morality.  They recognize others who don’t agree with their ideological narrative not just as individuals who are wrong about particular facts, but as members of outgroups.  It is our nature to experience hatred and disgust in response to outgroups, and to vilify their members.  We seek to arouse moral emotions in others that cause them to hate and despise the outgroup as well.  We see the results of this process in action around us every day.  Obviously, they do not promote social harmony.  History has demonstrated the likely outcomes of the process over and over again.  In the past these have included mass murder and warfare.  We will continue to experience these outcomes until we recognize the problem and come up with more rational ways of dealing with it.  My own preferred method of dealing with it would include coming up with a better way to formulate our “absolute” moralities.

    Through thousands of years of recorded history, we have never come up with a perfect form of government.  It is not to be expected that we will suddenly come up with a perfect way to formulate morality, either.  In fact, it would be impractical to even make the attempt unless the members of society, or at least a majority of them, understood and accepted what morality is, and why it exists.  That knowledge is a precondition if we would escape the prevailing moral chaos.  Supposing that society ever achieves that state of enlightenment, I offer the following suggestions as an Ansatz for establishing a rational morality.  I offer them not as infallible nostrums, but as suggestions.  In the event that a serious attempt is ever made to implement them, experience will certainly make it obvious whether any of them are practical or not, but we have to start somewhere.  With those reservations in mind, here is what I suggest for a possible “morality of the future.”

    It should be minimal, limited to only those situations where it is indispensable.  It is indispensable in situations where it would be impractical to apply careful, logical thought.  Examples are day to day interactions among individuals.

    It would have the support of the majority of those to whom it apples.

    It would maximize the freedom of individuals to pursue whatever goals in life they happen to have, free from harm by others or excessive regimentation by government.

    It would be possible to change it, but only at infrequent though regular intervals, according to an established procedure accepted by a majority.  Changes would not be made without thorough vetting beforehand, nor without the support of a majority of those affected.  Each change would require explicit recognition of the moral emotions driving it, and whether it would enhance the odds of survival of the responsible genes or not.

    It would be in harmony with human nature.  It would not contradict or be in conflict with human moral emotions.

    It would be sequestered from politics and other areas in which the possibility exists to examine different courses of action rationally and evaluate them based on explicit recognition of the behavioral predispositions/emotions driving those courses of action.

    In keeping with human nature, once established, the moral rules would be treated as absolute.  those breaking the rules, that is, acting “immorally,” would be punished in accordance with the severity of the breach.

    The moral emotions that are responsible for the existence of morality evolved because they enhanced the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  Therefore, no decisions affecting society at large would be made without explicit recognition of the impact those decisions will have on the genetic survival of the individuals to whom they apply.  If they will not promote the genetic survival of the members of the society to whom they apply, a rational explanation will be required for why the action is still considered desirable.

    Attempts to arouse moral emotions to accomplish political ends would be discouraged and/or punished.  To this end, it would be necessary to suppress the human predisposition to cast every decision and action in moral terms.  In other words, it would be necessary to act against human nature.  Obviously, this could not be done without carefully educating the members of society about the reasons why this is necessary, based on the disconnect between the environment in which the predispositions motivating the behavior in question evolved, and the environment we live in now.  It would be necessary for them to understand that behavior that evolved because it enhanced the odds of survival long ago now is more likely to accomplish the opposite in the radically different societies we live in now.

    Attempts to arouse moral emotions with the goal of altering the moral law independently of the established procedures for doing so would be discouraged and/or punished.

    Attempts to harm or shame others by arousing moral emotions other than those explicitly sanctioned by the existing moral law would be discouraged and/or punished.

    Again, these suggestions would fall flat absent recognition of the evolved and innate origins of morality by the people capable of implementing them.  They will certainly require revision in practice, and are not intended as an exhaustive list.  However, I think they represent a step forward from the old fashioned way of updating moralities by mutual vilification, occasionally culminating in mass murder and warfare.  Although the old fashioned way has certainly been effective, at least for some ingroups, I think most of my readers would agree it has been somewhat unpleasant in practice.  Perhaps we can find a better way.

  • Vignette of a Moderate Leftist

    Posted on May 10th, 2017 Helian No comments

    Scott Alexander is a U.S. psychiatrist and proprietor of Slate Star Codex, which he describes as “a blog about science, medicine, philosophy, politics, and futurism.” He considers himself a moderate liberal. In a recent post entitled Neutral vs. Conservative: The Eternal Struggle, he discussed Donald Trump and the rise of tribal epistemology, an article published by David Roberts on Vox, the burden of which was that truth, justice, and moral rectitude are all under assault thanks to the rise of ideological tribalism on the right. In Roberts’ words,

    Over time, this leads to what you might call tribal epistemology: Information is evaluated based not on conformity to common standards of evidence or correspondence to a common understanding of the world, but on whether it supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders. “Good for our side” and “true” begin to blur into one…Now tribal epistemology has found its way to the White House…

    Conservative media… profits from… a constant state of mobilized outrage.

    This is the culmination of the right’s long campaign against media: a base that only trusts tribal news from tribal sources.

    I suspect that if Roberts seriously expects us to believe that the traditional media don’t (or at least didn’t used to) support leftist tribal values and goals, that it is uncommon for leftist ideologues to be in a constant state of mobilized outrage, and that leftists commonly seek sources of news outside of their usual echo chambers, then clearly he has a pair of tribalist blinkers ensconced firmly at the end of his own nose. Of course we all do. We are a profoundly tribalist species, perceiving the world in terms of just and good ingroups and evil and deplorable outgroups. But that’s beside the point. The point is that Roberts suffers from the delusion that he’s somehow immune to tribalism. In fact, however, he wears the insignia of his tribe on his sleeve.

    The article is full of ideologically slanted claims about conservative delusions spawned by conservative media misinformation.  Roberts clearly lacks even an elementary capacity to detect the slant in his own sources. To give just one example among the many, he cites “studies” according to which Fox viewers are more misinformed than those who rely on the traditional media. Even a cursory glance at the things they are misinformed about reveals that they are carefully chosen to insure that conservatives are more prone to “delusions.” For example, they were more likely to believe that “’weapons of mass destruction’ had been found in (Iraq) after the U.S. invasion, when they hadn’t,” they “were less likely to say the Earth’s temperature has been rising and less likely to attribute this temperature increase to human activities,” and were liable of a host of false beliefs about Obamacare. I could easily stand these studies on their heads by simply loading the questions with bits cherry-picked from the narratives of the Left instead of the Right. For example, the questions might include, “Are there significant differences in intelligence between different human ethnic groups?” “Is human biodiversity real and significant?” “According to Muslim teaching will most Christians burn in hell forever or not, and are women inferior to men or not?” “Did Michael Brown have his hands up and shout ‘don’t shoot’ when he was killed?”  “Was Hillary Clinton’s use of private computer resources to handle official government business a significant violation of federal regulations and the law?”  And so on.

    Roberts goes on to promote doubling down on his tribe’s warfare against its conservative outgroup under the rubric of a return to the “traditional” techniques of supplying the public with information, concluding with the grim comment that,

    There’s no other choice. In the end, if tribal epistemology wins, journalism loses.

    I have news for Roberts. Tribal epistemology won a long time ago. All the evils he wrings his hands about are the inevitable result of marginalizing and vilifying the tribe that lost.

    Which brings us back to our “moderate” leftist, Scott Alexander. Alexander doesn’t disagree with Roberts about tribalism on the right. He just prefers a different approach to dealing with it. He is St. Francis to Roberts’ Torquemada, if you will. He would rather bring erring conservatives back to the True Faith with a kid glove rather than an iron fist. For example, he suggests that some of the “studies” Roberts relies on to portray conservatives as deplorable might conceivably be affected by a liberal bias. He even admits that mainstream media outlets like CNN “lean liberal,” but claims they are not as liberal as Fox is conservative. That’s debatable. You can demonstrate that to yourself by simply turning on CNN every half hour or so over any six hour period. I can pretty much guarantee that the majority of time, and probably the vast majority of the time, you will be watching something that reflects negatively on Trump. Fox certainly opposed Obama, but was never as afflicted with single-minded hatred as CNN. Alexander thinks that CNN’s bogus pretense of neutrality is a feature, not a bug. I beg to differ. I prefer a news outlet that is open about its agenda to one that blatantly lies about it.

    As we read further into the post, we find Alexander painting a rosy picture of the past. He tells us that there was once some kind of a Golden Age when, “the two parties had much more in common, and (were) able to appeal to shared gatekeeper institutions that both trusted.” Maybe, but it must have been long before my time. Now, however, all that has changed. In his words, “Right now, the neutral gatekeeper institutions have tried being biased against conservatives.” I rather think that “the neutral gatekeeper institutions have tried being biased against conservatives” for a lot longer than he imagines.  Conservatives just weren’t as effective in pushing back then as they are now. Among other things, they lacked the means to do so. Now they have the means. Both Roberts and Alexander agree that this is a deplorable situation. They concur that the outgroup, the “other” tribe is evil, and must be defanged. This ingroup/outgroup aspect of human nature, what Robert Ardrey called the “Amity-Enmity Complex,” should already be familiar to readers of this blog. The process by which Alexander manages to convince himself that the “other” is, indeed, evil is interesting in itself. He begins by continuing with his “kid glove” approach, debunking Roberts’ claim that, “the right has not sought greater fairness in mainstream institutions; it has defected to create its own,” rightly noting that,

    This is a bizarre claim, given the existence of groups like Accuracy in Media, Media Research Center, Newsbusters, Heterodox Academy, et cetera, which are all about the right seeking greater fairness in mainstream institutions, some of which are almost fifty years old… The way I remember it, conservatives spent about thirty years alternatively pleading, demanding, suing, legislating, and literally praying for greater fairness in mainstream institutions, and it was basically all just hitting their heads against a brick wall. They then defected to create their own.

    However, “creating their own” turned out to be the original sin.Here’s how Alexander describes the process:

    A couple of years ago, Reddit decided to ban various undesirables and restrict discussion of offensive topics. A lot of users were really angry about this, and some of them set up a Reddit clone called Voat which promised that everyone was welcome regardless of their opinion.

    What happened was – a small percent of average Reddit users went over, lured by curiosity or a principled commitment to free speech. And also, approximately 100% of Reddit’s offensive undesirables went there, lured by the promise of being able to be terrible and get away with it.

    Even though Voat’s rules were similar to Reddit’s rules before the latter tightened its moderation policies, Voat itself was nothing like pre-tightening Reddit. I checked to see whether it had gotten any better in the last year, and I found the top three stories were:

    SJW Awareness is a Steam curator that warns you about SJW games.

    Africans describe their extortion schemes.  They put babies in ovens and hot showers.  They’re now migrating to EU.

    “The Phantom,” and black serial killer who targeted blond haired white children, has been freed from prison and roaming streets of same city he terrorized.

    The moral of the story is: if you’re against witch-hunts, and you promise to found your own little utopian community where witch-hunts will never happen, your new society will end up consisting of approximately three principled civil libertarians and seven zillion witches. It will be a terrible place to live even if witch-hunts are genuinely wrong.

    In the first place, this is anecdotal evidence.In the second, at least two of the above blurbs are true. If Alexander doesn’t think that there are video games that come drenched in crude leftist propaganda, he must not have played many video games. If he did, he probably wouldn’t be too annoyed at discovering that his game was actually a leftist morality play in disguise, but some people are. As can be confirmed on Google, a black serial killer who targeted blonde haired white children actually was freed from prison in the same city where he committed his crimes. I would certainly deem this information useful if I had young children and the killer was released in my neighborhood. It would seem, then, that Alexander doesn’t think Voat is a “terrible place to live” because it is full of lies. Rather, its “seven zillion witches” are publishing truths that clash with Alexander’s preferred narrative, and he equates truth that clash with his narrative as evil.

    After supplying us with this somewhat shaky evidence that Voat is inhabited by witches, Alexander reaches the dubious conclusion that all other right-leaning media outlets must therefore also be inhabited almost exclusively by witches as well. For example, it turns out that Fox was the unholy spawn of a similar process:

    FOX’s slogans are “Fair and Balanced”, “Real Journalism”, and “We Report, You Decide”. They were pushing the “actually unbiased media” angle hard. I don’t know if this was ever true, or if people really believed it. It doesn’t matter. By attracting only the refugees from a left-slanted system, they ensured they would end up not just with conservatives, but with the worst and most extreme conservatives.

    No doubt Alexander would find anyone who kicked at the ideological planks that form the box his tribe lives in “bad” and “extreme.”He challenges some of the more crudely biased “studies” cited by Roberts, but doesn’t neglect to virtue signal to his readers that “Fox is horrible.” Noting that Breitbart, Drudge, and the rest are just as horrible, he adds,

    I think it’s right that this situation is horrible and toxic and destroying the country, and it’s really good that someone has pointed this out and framed it this clearly.

    I don’t see it that way. I could care less whether Alexander’s tribe considers Fox and the rest “horrible.” They’re either making a moral judgment that lacks any legitimate basis and is nothing more significant than an expression of their emotional whims, or they’re suggesting that these alternative media do not supply useful information, which is false. The mainstream media will occasionally lie or manipulate facts to alter their meaning. Usually, however, they simply suppress any news that doesn’t fit their narrative. Conservative media supply these often significant facts, which are only “horrible” because they contradict that narrative. As a result, the United States has a more genuinely free press than many other countries where similarly powerful and influential alternatives are lacking.

    For example, I happen to follow the German media fairly closely. They have no equivalent of Fox, and to an outside observer the media there are as similar to each other as so many peas in a pod, all flogging almost exactly the same political line when it comes to any issue of overriding significance. Among other things, this vanilla approach to journalism convinces citizens that they are much better informed than they actually are. When it comes to the United States, for example, they are fed a dumbed down version of the U.S. mainstream media narrative, typically much cruder and more extreme than anything you’ll find in this country. That’s exactly what we would have here lacking credible alternatives like Fox, Breitbart, Drudge, Instapundit, etc., whether Alexander imagines they’re full of scary witches or not. Alexander concludes his article with the following three paragraphs:

    Look. I read Twitter. I know the sorts of complaints people have about this blog. I’m some kind of crypto-conservative, I’m a traitor to liberalism, I’m too quick to sell out under the guise of “compromise”. And I understand the sentiment. I write a lot about how we shouldn’t get our enemies fired lest they try to fire us, how we shouldn’t get our enemies’ campus speakers disinvited lest they try to disinvite ours, how we shouldn’t use deceit and hyperbole to push our policies lest our enemies try to push theirs the same way. And people very reasonably ask – hey, I notice my side kind of controls all of this stuff, the situation is actually asymmetrical, they have no way of retaliating, maybe we should just grind our enemies beneath our boots this one time.

    And then when it turns out that the enemies can just leave and start their own institutions, with horrendous results for everybody, the cry goes up “Wait, that’s unfair! Nobody ever said you could do that! Come back so we can grind you beneath our boots some more!”

    Conservatives aren’t stuck in here with us. We’re stuck in here with them. And so far it’s not going so well. I’m not sure if any of this can be reversed. But I think maybe we should consider to what degree we are in a hole, and if so, to what degree we want to stop digging.

    I agree that leftists like Roberts and Alexander are in a hole, but they can’t stop digging. Their ideology constrains them to keep those shovels flying. The only real way to stop would involve them challenging their own ideological preconceptions. However, their tribe is defined by ideology, so to challenge the ideology would mean ostracism – banishment from the tribe. Alexander admits he has already been denounced as a traitor and a sellout merely for advocating a milder approach. The lightening is poised to strike even though he hasn’t dared to lay so much as a finger on the fundamental shibboleths of his ingroup. There is no significant ideological difference at all between Roberts and Alexander. They only differ on how to guide the erring sheep back into the fold of the True Faith. That’s the problem. To actually stop digging, the leftists would have to admit that they may not be 100% right all the time, and that the conservatives may actually be right about some things. They can’t do that because of the way they define membership in their ingroup.  It would be something like St. Francis (or Torquemada) admitting that Christianity is mostly true, but the pagans might have a point about the existence of some of their gods. If the leftists, who are anything but “neutral,” want to lay down their shovels, the only solution is to leave their ingroup. However, it is usually very painful and traumatic for members of our species to do that.  They’re likely to be down there a good, long time.

  • A Few Hints from Philip Hone on the Cause of the Civil War

    Posted on March 19th, 2017 Helian No comments

    Slavery.

    But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Who was Philip Hone?  Well, he was born in 1780, died in 1851, and lived in New York City.  He was the son of a German immigrant who became wealthy in the auction business.  He was active in the Whig Party, and even claimed he supplied it with its name.  However, his real gift to posterity was a very entertaining and informative diary covering the years from 1828 until his death.

    Do you have trouble remembering even the names of all those Presidents who were in office between Monroe and Lincoln, not to mention anything they actually did or stood for?  Philip Hone can help you out.  He knew some of them personally and had much to say about them, both good and bad.  He was as much in awe about the railroad, steamship and telegraph as we are about jet travel and the Internet.  He gives us an insiders look at the economy and culture of New York in the early 19th century, as well as vignettes of some its most distinguished visitors.  He also confirmed what most people other than Marxist historians and southern elementary school teachers have known all along; the Civil War was about slavery.

    It’s odd, really, that so many people are capable of denying something so obvious.  The northerners who lived through the events in question thought the Civil War was about slavery.  The southerners alive at the time thought it was about slavery.  Foreign observers were in virtually unanimous agreement that it was about slavery.  Source literature confirming it is available in abundance.  It doesn’t matter.  As I’ve pointed out in earlier posts, ideological narratives, no matter how ludicrous, can trump historical facts with ease.  So it is with slavery and the Civil War.

    I know I’m not likely to open closed minds, but as my own humble contribution to historical integrity, I will help Mr. Hone spread the word.  There are many allusions to the slavery question in his diary.  In the entry for November 17, 1837, we learn that passions were already running high nearly a quarter of a century before the first shots were fired at Ft. Sumter:

    The terrible abolition question is fated, I fear, to destroy the union of the States, and to endanger the peace and happiness of our western world.  Both parties are getting more and more confirmed in their obstinacy, and more intolerant in their prejudices.  A recent disgraceful affair has occurred in the town of Alton, State of Illinois, which is calculated to excite the most painful feelings in all those who respect the laws and desire the continuance of national peace and union.  Alton is situated on the left bank of the Mississippi, and opposite the slave-holding State of Missouri.  An abolition paper was established there, called the “Alton Observer,” which, becoming obnoxious to the slaveholders, was assailed and the establishment destroyed, some time since, by an ungovernable mob; an attempt was recently made to reestablish the paper, which caused another most disgraceful outrage, in which two persons were killed and several wounded.

    In the entry for October 22, 1939, Hone set down his thoughts on the famous “Amistead” incident:

    There is great excitement in relation to the arrest of two Spaniards, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez, the owners of the revolted slaves who were taken on board the “Amistead,” and are now in prison in Connecticut.  This outrageous proceeding is the work of the abolitionists, who, in their officious zeal, have obtained affidavits from the wretched Africans, who, ignorant of our language, probably knew not what they were swearing about.  These affidavits, charging their owners with assault and battery, were made the grounds of this arrest, and the Spaniards are in prison.  Writs of habeas corpus have been issued, and the subject is now submitted to the judges, who, it is hoped, will see reason to discharge the men who escaped so narrowly from the conspiracy in which the lives of other white men were sacrificed.  The fanatics are working day and night to make this bad matter worse; under the specious cloak of an abstract opposition to slavery, they are blowing up a flame which may destroy the Union, and light up a civil war between men who have no interest so strong as to belong to a brotherhood of patriots.

    Hone disliked slavery, but disliked the abolitionists even more.  To him they represented a gratuitous threat to the Union.  Speaking of the Whig convention to nominate a candidate for President on December 9, 1839, he writes,

    The accursed question (slavery, ed.) is destined to mix up with all national questions, and in the end to alter the essential features of our government, if not to cause a separation of the States and a dissolution of the Union.  The opposition to Mr. Clay from this quarter is so strong, that even if nominated he could not (in the opinion of a majority of the convention) have been elected, and it was perhaps good policy to take (William Henry) Harrison, who may succeed if the friends of Mr. Clay exercise that magnanimity which it appears they could not calculate upon from a portion, at least, of the friends of his rivals.

    Speaking of the famous battle over the right to petition Congress against slavery in 1842, we learn that the South wasn’t the only source of agitation for disunion.  Indeed, it came from none other than a former Yankee President as well – John Quincy Adams:

    The House of Representatives presents every day a scene of violence, personal abuse, and vulgar crimination, almost as bad as those which disgraced the National Assembly of France in the early stages of the “Reign of Terror.”  Mr. Adams, with the most provoking pertinacity, continues to present petitions intended to irritate the Southern members, and by language and manner equally calculated to disgust his friends and exasperate his enemies, and does something every day to alienate the respect which all are disposed to render to his consummate learning and admirable talents… Among other insane movements of the ex-President, he has presented a petition praying for a repeal of the Union, because the petitioners are deprived of the privilege of agitating the terrible question of slavery; and their right to bring forward a proposition so monstrous, and his to be their organ of communication with the Congress of the nation, is enforced with the indomitable obstinacy which marks all his conduct of late.

    As Hone’s life nears its end, references to the “accursed question” become more frequent.  The entries for 1850 include the following:

    The great South Carolina senator (John C. Calhoun, ed.) died in Washington, on Sunday morning, March 31, of a disease of the heart… the South has lost her champion; slavery, its defender; and nullification and (we are compelled to say) disunion, their apologists.

    The dreadful question of slavery which has cast an inextinguishable brand of discord between the North and the South of this hitherto happy land, has taken a tangible and definite shape on the question of the admission of the new State of California into the Union with the Constitution of her own framing and adoption.  The flame is no longer smothered; the fanatics of the North and the disunionists of the South have made a gulf so deep that no friendly foot can pass it; enmity so fierce that reason cannot allay it; unconquerable, sectional jealousy, and the most bitter personal hostility.  A dissolution of the Union, which until now it was treason to think of, much more to utter, is the subject of the daily harangues of the factionists in both Houses of Congress.  Compromise is at an end.

    When will all this end?  I see no remedy!  If California is admitted with the prohibition of slavery which themselves have adopted, or if the national district is freed by the action of Congress from the traffic in human flesh, the South stands ready to retire from the Union, and bloody wars will be the fatal consequence.  White men will cut each others throats, and servile insurrections will render the fertile fields of the South a deserted monument to the madness of man.

    One can find more or less the same sentiments in literally thousands of source documents.  The Civil War was fought over slavery.  I know that learned history professors, Confederate heritage zealots, and southern school teachers will continue to gasp out their denials even if they’re buried beneath a dump truck full of diaries.  I can only offer the humble, and probably futile suggestion, that they return to the real world.

    Aside from his comments on the slavery issue, Hone’s diary is a trove of observations and anecdotes about a great number of other happenings of both historical and personal interest.  For example, for those interested in comparing the news media then and now,

    There is little dependence upon newspapers as a record of facts, any more than in their political dogmas or confessions of faith.  If they do not lie from dishonest motives, their avidity to have something new and in advance of others leads them to take up everything that comes to hand without proper examination, adopting frequently the slightly grounded impressions of their informers for grave truths, setting upon them the stamp of authenticity, and sending them upon the wings of the wind to fill the ears and eyes of the extensive American family of the gullibles.

    Hone was convinced that early instances of election fraud proved that universal suffrage would not work, or at least not in big cities;

    The affair is an unpleasant one… It discloses a disgusting scene of villainy in the conduct of our elections, and proves that universal suffrage will not do for great cities.  It proves also the necessity for a registry law, which is a Whig measure, and has been violently opposed by the very men who are now so sensitive on the subject of illegal voting, when it works against them.

    The astute author has some good words to say about my own alma mater:

    In the list of noble young fellows whose gallant conduct, indomitable bravery, and military accomplishments in the Mexican war redound to the glory of West Point, their military alma-mater, there are several New York boys, sons of our friends and associates, who, if they ever get back, will come to their homes covered with glory, jewels in our city’s treasury, the pride of their parents and the children of the Republic.  These are the fruits of a West Point education.  Shame on the malignant demagogues who have labored to overthrow such an institution!

    Hear, hear!  When it came to sports, they didn’t believe in half measures in those days:

    The amusement of prize-fighting, the disgrace of which was formerly confined to England, to the grief and mortification of the moral and respectable part of her subjects, and the disgust of travelers from other countries, has become one of the fashionable abominations of our loafer-ridden city…  One of those infamous meetings took place yesterday on the bank of the North river in Westchester, the particulars of which are given at length in that precious sheet (The New York Herald, ed.) and others of a similar character.  Two men, named Lilly and McCoy, thumped and battered each other for the gratification of a brutal gang of spectators, until the latter, after one hundred and nineteen rounds, fell dead in the ring, and the other ruffian was smuggled away and made his escape from the hands of insulted justice.

    As they say in the blogosphere, read the whole thing.  You’ll find much similar material as seen from a somewhat different perspective than you’re likely to find in your average high school history book.


  • The God Myth and the “Humanity Can’t Handle The Truth” Gambit

    Posted on May 12th, 2016 Helian 5 comments

    Hardly a day goes by without some pundit bemoaning the decline in religious faith.  We are told that great evils will inevitably befall mankind unless we all believe in imaginary super-beings.  Of course, these pundits always assume a priori that the particular flavor of religion they happen to favor is true.  Absent that assumption, their hand wringing boils down to the argument that we must all somehow force ourselves to believe in God whether that belief seems rational to us or not.  Otherwise, we won’t be happy, and humanity won’t flourish.

    An example penned by Dennis Prager entitled Secular Conservatives Think America Can Survive the Death of God that appeared recently at National Review Online is typical of the genre.  Noting that even conservative intellectuals are becoming increasingly secular, he writes that,

    They don’t seem to understand that the only solution to many, perhaps most, of the social problems ailing America and the West is some expression of Judeo-Christian religion.

    In another article entitled If God is Dead…, Pat Buchanan echoes Prager, noting, in a rather selective interpretation of history, that,

    When, after the fall of the Roman Empire, the West embraced Christianity as a faith superior to all others, as its founder was the Son of God, the West went on to create modern civilization, and then went out and conquered most of the known world.

    The truths America has taught the world, of an inherent human dignity and worth, and inviolable human rights, are traceable to a Christianity that teaches that every person is a child of God.

    Today, however, with Christianity virtually dead in Europe and slowly dying in America, Western culture grows debased and decadent, and Western civilization is in visible decline.

    Both pundits draw attention to a consequence of the decline of traditional religions that is less a figment of their imaginations; the rise of secular religions to fill the ensuing vacuum.  The examples typically cited include Nazism and Communism.  There does seem to be some innate feature of human behavior that predisposes us to adopt such myths, whether of the spiritual or secular type.  It is most unlikely that it comes in the form of a “belief in God” or “religion” gene.  It would be very difficult to explain how anything of the sort could pop into existence via natural selection.  It seems reasonable, however, that less specialized and more plausible behavioral traits could account for the same phenomenon.  Which begs the question, “So what?”

    Pundits like Prager and Buchanan are putting the cart before the horse.  Before one touts the advantages of one brand of religion or another, isn’t it first expedient to consider the question of whether it is true?  If not, then what is being suggested is that mankind can’t handle the truth.  We must be encouraged to believe in a pack of lies for our own good.  And whatever version of “Judeo-Christian religion” one happens to be peddling, it is, in fact, a pack of lies.  The fact that it is a pack of lies, and obviously a pack of lies, explains, among other things, the increasingly secular tone of conservative pundits so deplored by Buchanan and Prager.

    It is hard to understand how anyone who uses his brain as something other than a convenient stuffing for his skull can still take traditional religions seriously.  The response of the remaining true believers to the so-called New Atheists is telling in itself.  Generally, they don’t even attempt to refute their arguments.  Instead, they resort to ad hominem attacks.  The New Atheists are too aggressive, they have bad manners, they’re just fanatics themselves, etc.  They are not arguing against the “real God,” who, we are told, is not an object, a subject, or a thing ever imagined by sane human beings, but some kind of an entity perched so high up on a shelf that profane atheists can never reach Him.  All this spares the faithful from making fools of themselves with ludicrous mental flip flops to explain the numerous contradictions in their holy books, tortured explanations of why it’s reasonable to assume the “intelligent design” of something less complicated by simply assuming the existence of something vastly more complicated, and implausible yarns about how an infinitely powerful super-being can be both terribly offended by the paltry sins committed by creatures far more inferior to Him than microbes are to us, and at the same time incapable of just stepping out of the clouds for once and giving us all a straightforward explanation of what, exactly, he wants from us.

    In short, Prager and Buchanan would have us somehow force ourselves, perhaps with the aid of brainwashing and judicious use of mind-altering drugs, to believe implausible nonsense, in order to avoid “bad” consequences.  One can’t dismiss this suggestion out of hand.  Our species is a great deal less intelligent than many of us seem to think.  We use our vaunted reason to satisfy whims we take for noble causes, without ever bothering to consider why those whims exist, or what “function” they serve.  Some of them apparently predispose us to embrace ideological constructs that correspond to spiritual or secular religions.  If we use human life as a metric, P&B would be right to claim that traditional spiritual religions have been less “bad” than modern secular ones, costing only tens of millions of lives via religious wars, massacres of infidels, etc., whereas the modern secular religion of Communism cost, in round numbers, 100 million lives, and in a relatively short time, all by itself.  Communism was also “bad” to the extent that we value human intelligence, tending to selectively annihilate the brightest portions of the population in those countries where it prevailed.  There can be little doubt that this “bad” tendency substantially reduced the average IQ in nations like Cambodia and the Soviet Union, resulting in what one might call their self-decapitation.  Based on such metrics, Prager and Buchanan may have a point when they suggest that traditional religions are “better,” to the extent that one realizes that one is merely comparing one disaster to another.

    Can we completely avoid the bad consequences of believing the bogus “truths” of religions, whether spiritual or secular?  There seems to be little reason for optimism on that score.  The demise of traditional religions has not led to much in the way of rational self-understanding.  Instead, as noted above, secular religions have arisen to fill the void.  Their ideological myths have often trumped reason in cases where there has been a serious confrontation between the two, occasionally resulting in the bowdlerization of whole branches of the sciences.  The Blank Slate debacle was the most spectacular example, but there have been others.  As belief in traditional religions has faded, we have gained little in the way of self-knowledge in their wake.  On the contrary, our species seems bitterly determined to avoid that knowledge.  Perhaps our best course really would be to start looking for a path back inside the “Matrix,” as Prager and Buchanan suggest.

    All I can say is that, speaking as an individual, I don’t plan to take that path myself.  I has always seemed self-evident to me that, whatever our goals and aspirations happen to be, we are more likely to reach them if we base our actions on an accurate understanding of reality rather than myths, on truth rather than falsehood.  A rather fundamental class of truths are those that concern, among other things, where those goals and aspirations came from to begin with.  These are the truths about human behavior; why we want what we want, why we act the way we do, why we are moral beings, why we pursue what we imagine to be noble causes.  I believe that the source of all these truths, the “root cause” of all these behaviors, is to be found in our evolutionary history.  The “root cause” we seek is natural selection.  That fact may seem inglorious or demeaning to those who lack imagination, but it remains a fact for all that.  Perhaps, after we sacrifice a few more tens of millions in the process of chasing paradise, we will finally start to appreciate its implications.  I think we will all be better off if we do.

  • Even More Fun with Free Will

    Posted on January 17th, 2016 Helian 8 comments

    That inimitable and irascible physicist Lubos Motl, who blogs at The Reference Frame, sought to vindicate the existence of free will in a recent post entitled Free Will of Particles and People.  To begin, he insisted that he must have free will because he feels like he has it:

    The actual reason why I am sure about the existence of free will (and I mean my free will) is that I feel it.

    Well, I feel it, too, but human beings have been known to feel any number of things that aren’t true, so I don’t find that argument convincing.  Lubos’ second argument is based on the fact that the universe is not deterministic in the classical sense.  We live in a quantum universe, and quantum phenomena appear to be random.  Since free will, at least as defined by Lubos, exists at the level of atomic and sub-atomic particles, and single particles can change the state of cells, and single cells can change the state of the human brain, then we, too, must have free will.  I’m not so sure about that one either.  True, the outcome of a measurement at the quantum scale is unpredictable, and therefore appears to be random, but we don’t really know that it is.  We can never measure exactly the same thing twice.  We can repeat experiments, but we can never measure exactly the same particle at exactly the same time in exactly the same place twice.

    Then there’s the problem of what all this stuff we’re measuring really is.  We know how matter behaves at the atomic scale in great detail.  The fact that the atomic bomb worked demonstrated that convincingly enough.  We can use Maxwell’s equations and the Schrödinger Equation to make particles of matter and energy jump through hoops, but that doesn’t alter the fact that we don’t really know what they are at the most fundamental level, or even why they exist at all.  In short, I have a problem with making positive claims about things we don’t understand.  Positive claims about free will assume a level of knowledge that we just don’t have.

    On the other hand, I have no problem at all with assuming that we do have free will.  As Lubos says, it certainly feels like we do, and if we actually do, then we are merely assuming something that is true.  On the other hand, if we don’t have free will, then assuming that we do couldn’t change things for the worse, for the very good reason that, lacking free will, we would be incapable of changing anything.

    Arguments against the existence of free will are absurd, because they imply the assumption of free choice.  If there is no free will, then there is no point in arguing about it, because it can’t possibly change anything in a way that wasn’t pre-programmed before the argument started.  True, if there is no free will, than the one making the argument couldn’t decide not to make it, but the fundamental absurdity remains.  What could possibly be the point of arguing with me about my assumptions regarding free will if I have no choice in the matter?  The future will be different depending on whether a robot tightens or loosens a screw.  However, if the robot is pre-programmed, and has no choice in the matter, it won’t alter a thing.  Nothing will shake the future out of its predestined rut.  In spite of that, I suspect that the most insistent deniers of free will don’t really believe their arguments are pointless.  And yet their arguments would be completely pointless unless they believed in their heart of hearts, either that they could make a free choice to argue one way or the other, or that the person listening could may such a choice.

    If there is no free will, then my assumption that there is won’t change a thing.  If, on the other hand, we do have free will, and my assumption that we do despite my lack of any proof to that effect actually represents a free choice, then it seems to me that it’s a choice that is likely to make life a great deal more pleasant.  Where’s the fun in being a robot?  As far as I’m concerned, the assumption is justified if I can relieve even a single person of the despair and sense of futility that are predictable responses to the opposite assumption.

    We can certainly debate the question of free will as stubbornly as we please.  However, I would contend that we lack the knowledge necessary to decide the matter one way or the other.  Perhaps one day that knowledge will be ours.  If it turns out we actually don’t have free will, then it will be illogical to blame me for my assumption that we do.  If, on the other hand, we discover that we actually do have free will, then it seems that those who argued furiously that we don’t will look rather foolish.  Why take the risk?

  • The Alternate Reality Fallacy

    Posted on September 18th, 2015 Helian 1 comment

    The alternate reality fallacy is ubiquitous.  Typically, it involves the existence of a deity, and goes something like this:  “God must exist because otherwise there would be no absolute good, no absolute evil, no unquestionable rights, life would have no purpose, life would have no meaning,” and so on and so forth.  In other words, one must only demonstrate that a God is necessary.  If so, he will automatically pop into existence.  The video of a talk by Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias included below is provided as an illustrative data point for the reader.

    The talk, entitled, “The End of Reason:  A Response to the New Atheists,” was Zacharias’ contribution to the 2012 Contending with Christianity’s Critics Conference in Dallas.  I ran across it at Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True website in the context of a discussion of rights.  We find out where Zacharias is coming from at minute 4:15 in the talk when he informs us that the ideas,

    …that steadied this part of the world, rooted in the notion of the ineradicable difference between good and evil, facts on which we built our legal system, our notions of justice, the very value of human life, how intrinsic worth was given to every human being,

    all have a Biblical mooring.  Elaborating on this theme, he quotes Chesterton to the effect that “we are standing with our feet firmly planted in mid-air.”  We have,

    …no grounding anymore to define so many essential values which we assumed for many years.

    Here Zacharias is actually stating a simple truth that has eluded many atheists.  Christianity and other religions do, indeed, provide some grounding for such things as objective rights, objective good, and objective evil.  After all, it’s not hard to accept the reality of these things if the alternative is to burn in hell forever.  The problem is that the “grounding” is an illusion.  The legions of atheists who believe in these things, however, actually are “standing with their feet firmly planted in mid-air.”  They have dispensed even with the illusion, sawing off the limb they were sitting on, and yet they counterintuitively persist in lecturing others about the nature of these chimeras as they float about in the vacuum, to the point of becoming quite furious if anyone dares to disagree with them.  Zacharias’ problem, on the other hand, isn’t that he doesn’t bother to provide a grounding.  His problem is his apparent belief in the non sequitur that, if he can supply a grounding, then that grounding must necessarily be real.

    Touching on this disconcerting tendency of many atheists to hurl down anathemas on those they consider morally impure in spite of the fact that they lack any coherent justification for their tendency to concoct novel values on the fly, Zacharias remarks at 5:45 in the video,

    The sacred meaning of marriage (and others) have been desacralized, and the only one who’s considered obnoxious is the one who wants to posit the sacredness of these issues.

    Here, again, I must agree with him.  Assuming he’s alluding to the issue of gay marriage, it makes no sense to simply dismiss anyone who objects to it as a bigot and a “hater.”  That claim is based on the obviously false assumption that no one actually takes their religious beliefs seriously.  Unfortunately, they do, and there is ample justification in the Bible, not to mention the Quran, for the conclusion that gay marriage is immoral.  Marriage has a legal definition, but it is also a religious sacrament.  There is no rational basis for the claim that anyone who objects to gay marriage is objectively immoral.  Support for gay marriage represents, not a championing of objective good, but the statement of a cultural preference.  The problem with the faithful isn’t that they are all haters and bigots.  The problem is that they construct their categories of moral good and evil based on an illusion.

    Beginning at about 6:45 in his talk, Zacharias continues with the claim that we are passing through a cultural revolution, which he defines as a,

    decisive break with the shared meanings of the past, particularly those which relate  to the deepest questions of the nature and purpose of life.

    noting that culture is,

    an effort to provide a coherent set of answers to the existential questions that confront all human beings in the passage of their lives.

    In his opinion, it can be defined in three different ways. First, there are theonomous cultures.  As he puts it,

    These are based on the belief that God has put his law into our hearts, so that we act intuitively from that kind of reasoning.  Divine imperatives are implanted in the heart of every human being.

    Christianity is, according to Zacharias, a theonomous belief.  Next, there are heteronymous cultures, which derive their laws from some external source.  In such cultures, we are “dictated to from the outside.”  He cites Marxism is a heteronymous world view.  More to the point, he claims that Islam also belongs in that category.  Apparently we are to believe that this “cultural” difference supplies us with a sharp distinction between the two religions.  Here we discover that Zacharias’ zeal for his new faith (he was raised a Hindu) has outstripped his theological expertise.  Fully theonomous versions of Christianity really only came into their own among Christian divines of the 18th century.  The notion, supported by the likes of Francis Hutcheson and the Earl of Shaftesbury, that “God has put his law into our hearts,” was furiously denounced by other theologians as not only wrong, but incompatible with Christianity.  John Locke was one of the more prominent Christian thinkers among the many who denied that “divine imperatives are implanted in the heart of every human being.”

    But I digress.  According to Zacharias, the final element of the triad is autonomous culture, or “self law”, in which everyone is a law into him or herself.  He notes that America is commonly supposed to be such a culture.  However, at about the 11:00 minute mark he notes that,

    …if I assert sacred values, suddenly a heteronymous culture takes over, and tells me I have no right to believe that.  This amounts to a “bait and switch.”  That’s the new world view under which the word “tolerance” really operates.

    This regrettable state of affairs is the result of yet another triad, in the form of the three philosophical evils which Zacharias identifies as secularization, pluralism, and privatization.  They are the defining characteristics of the modern cultural revolution.  The first supposedly results in an ideology without shame, the second in one without reason, and the third in one without meaning.  Together, they result in an existence without purpose.

    One might, of course, quibble with some of the underlying assumptions of Zacharias’ world view.  One might argue, for example, that the results of Christian belief have not been entirely benign, or that the secular societies of Europe have not collapsed into a state of moral anarchy.  That, however, is really beside the point.  Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that everything Zacharias says about the baleful effects of the absence of Christian belief is true.  It still begs the question, “So what?”

    Baleful effects do not spawn alternate realities.  If the doctrines of Christianity are false, then the illusion that they supply meaning, or purpose, or a grounding for morality will not transmute them into the truth.  I personally consider the probability that they are true to be vanishingly small.  I do not propose to believe in lies, whether their influence is portrayed as benign or not.  The illusion of meaning and purpose based on a belief in nonsense is a paltry substitute for the real thing.  Delusional beliefs will not magically become true, even if those beliefs result in an earthly paradise.  As noted above, the idea that they will is what I refer to in my title as the alternate reality fallacy.

    In the final part of his talk, Zacharias describes his own conversion to Christianity, noting that it supplied what was missing in his life.  In his words, “Without God, reason is dead, hope is dead, morality is dead, and meaning is gone, but in Christ we recover all these.”  To this I can but reply that the man suffers from a serious lack of imagination.  We are wildly improbable creatures sitting at the end of an unbroken chain of life that has existed for upwards of three billion years.  We live in a spectacular universe that cannot but fill one with wonder.  Under the circumstances, is it really impossible to relish life, and to discover a reason for cherishing and preserving it, without resort to imaginary super beings?  Instead of embracing the awe-inspiring reality of the world as it is, does it really make sense to supply the illusion of “meaning” and “purpose” by embracing the shabby unreality of religious dogmas?  My personal and admittedly emotional reaction to such a choice is that it is sadly paltry and abject.  The fact that so many of my fellow humans have made that choice strikes me, not as cause for rejoicing, but for shame.

  • Notes on “A Clergyman’s Daughter” – George Orwell’s Search for the Meaning of Life

    Posted on September 2nd, 2015 Helian No comments

    A synopsis of George Orwell’s A Clergyman’s Daughter may be found in the Wiki entry on the same.  In short, it relates the experiences of Dorothy Hare, only daughter of the Reverend Charles Hare, a “gentleman” clergyman with a chronic habit of living beyond his means.  Dorothy’s life is consumed by a frantic struggle to maintain respectability in spite of a mountain of debt owed to the local tradesmen, a dwindling congregation, and a church gradually decaying to ruin for lack of maintenance.  There’s also a problem so repressed in Dorothy’s mind that she’s hardly conscious of it; she is losing her Christian faith.

    Eventually the pressure becomes unbearable.  At the end of Chapter 1 we leave Dorothy exhausted, working herself beyond endurance late at night to prepare costumes for a children’s play.  At the start of Chapter 2 we find her teleported to the Old Kent Road, south of London, where she wakes up with a bad case of amnesia and only half a crown in her pocket.  A good German might describe this rather remarkable turn of events as an den Haaren herbeigezogen (dragged in by the hair.)  In other words, it’s far fetched, but we can forgive it because Orwell refrains from boring us with explanatory psychobabble, it’s in one of his earliest books, and he needs some such device in order to dish up a fictional version of the autobiographical events described in his Down and Out in Paris and London, published a couple of years earlier.

    Eventually Dorothy is rescued from starvation and squalor by a much older cousin, who sets her up as a school teacher at Ringwood House, which Orwell describes as a fourth rate private school with only 21 female inmates.  At this point the astute reader will discover something that might come as a revelation to those who are only familiar with Animal Farm and 1984.  Orwell was a convinced socialist when he wrote the book, and remained one until the end of his life.  Mrs. Creevy, the woman who runs the school, is a grasping capitalist, interested only in squeezing as much profit out of the enterprise as possible.  The girls “education” consists mainly of a mind-numbing routine of rote memorization and handwriting drills.  Dorothy’s attempts at education reform are nipped in the bud, and she is eventually sacked.  In Mrs. Creevy’s words,

    It’s the fees I’m after, not developing the children’s minds.  It’s not to be supposed as anyone’s to go to all the trouble of keeping a school and having the house turned upside down by a pack of brats, if it wasn’t that there’s a bit of money to be made out of it.  The fee comes first, and everything else comes afterwards.

    Orwell later elaborates,

    There are, by the way, vast numbers of private schools in England.  Second-rate, third-rate, and fourth-rate (Ringwood House was a specimen of the fourth-rate school), they exist by the dozen and the score in every London suburb and every provincial town.  At any given moment there are somewhere in the neighborhood of ten thousand of them, of which less than a thousand are subject to Government inspection.  And though some of them are better than others, and a certain number, probably, are better than the council schools with which they compete, there is the same fundamental evil in all of them; that is , that they have ultimately no purpose except to make money.

    So long as schools are run primarily for money, things like this will happen.  The expensive private schools to which the rich send their children are not, on the surface, so bad as the others, because they can afford a proper staff, and the Public School examination system keeps them up to the mark; but they have the same essential taint.

    Recall that the book was published in 1935.  The Spanish Civil War, in which Orwell fought with a socialist unit not affiliated with the Communists, began in 1936.  In that conflict he had his nose rubbed in the reality of totalitarianism, socialism that had dropped the democratic mask.  The experience is described in his Homage to Catalonia, which is essential reading for anyone interested in learning what inspired his later work.  There he tells how the Communist legions attacked and destroyed his own division, regardless of the fact that it was fighting on the same side.  Totalitarianism has never recognized more than two sides; the side that it controls, and the side that it doesn’t.  He saw that its real reason for existence was nothing like a worker’s paradise, or any other version of “human flourishing,” but absolute, unconditional power.  The nature of the system and the power it aimed at was what he described in 1984.  When A Clergyman’s Daughter was published, that revelation still lay in the future.  It may be that in 1935 Orwell still thought of the socialists as one big, happy, if occasionally quarrelsome, family.

    Be that as it may, the real interest of the book, at least as far as I’m concerned, lies at the end.  There, more explicitly than in any other of his novels or essays, Orwell takes up the question of the Meaning of Life.  While down and out, Dorothy had lost her faith once and for all.  In spite of that, after Mrs. Creevy sacks her, she finds her way back to the family parsonage, and takes up again where she left off.  She suffers from no illusions.  As Orwell puts it,

    It was not that she was in any doubt about the external facts of her future.  She could see it all quite clearly before her… Whatever happened, at the very best, she had got to face the destiny that is common to all lonely and penniless women.  “The Old Maids of Old England,” as somebody called them.  She was twenty-eight – just old enough to enter their ranks.

    She was not the same women as before.  She had lost her faith, and yet, she meditated,

    Faith vanishes, but the need for faith remains the same as before.  And given only faith, how can anything else matter?  How can anything dismay you if only there is some purpose in the world which you can serve, and which, while serving it, you can understand?  Your whole life is illumined by that sense of purpose.

    Life, if the grave really ends it, is monstrous and dreadful.  No use trying to argue it away.  Think of life as it really is, think of the details of life; and then think that there is no meaning in it, no purpose, no goal except the grave.  Surely only fools or self-deceivers, or those whose lives are exceptionally fortunate, can face that thought without flinching?

    Her mind struggled with the problem, while perceiving that there was no solution.  There was, she saw clearly, no possible substitute for faith; no pagan acceptance of life as sufficient unto itself, no pantheistic cheer-up stuff, no pseudo-religion of “progress” with visions of glittering Utopias and ant-heaps of steel and concrete.  It is all or nothing.  Either life on earth is a preparation for something greater and more lasting, or it is meaningless, dark and dreadful.

    Here we see that, even in 1935, Orwell wasn’t quite convinced that the Soviet version of a Brave New World really represented “progress.”  And while democratic socialism may have later given him something of a sense of purpose, it wasn’t yet filling the void.  Dorothy considers,

    Where had she got to?  She had been saying that if death ends all, then there is no hope and no meaning in anything.  Well, what then?

    At this point, the true believers chime in.  They know the answer.  Bring back faith, and, voila, the void is filled!  So many of them honestly seem to believe that, because they feel a need, the thing needed will automatically pop into existence.  They need absolute moral standards.  Therefore their faith must be true.  They need a purpose in life.  Therefore their faith must be true.  They need human existence to have meaning.  Therefore their faith must be true.  They must have unquestionable rights.  Therefore their faith must be true.  And so on, and so on.  Orwell is having none of it.  Dorothy muses on,

    And how cowardly, after all, to regret a superstition that you had got rid of – to want to believe something that you knew in your bones to be untrue.

    Orwell provides us with no magic solution to this thorny problem.  Indeed, in the end his answer is singularly unsatisfying.  He suggests that we just get on with it and leave it at that.  As Dorothy glues together strips of paper, forming the boots, armor, and other accoutrements required for the next church play, she has stumbled into the solution without realizing it:

    The smell of glue was the answer to her prayer.  She did not know this.  She did not reflect, consciously, that the solution to her difficulty lay in accepting the fact that there was no solution; that if one gets on with the job that lies to hand, the ultimate purpose of the job fades into insignificance; that faith and no faith are very much the same provided that one is doing what is customary, useful and acceptable.  She could not formulate these thoughts as yet, she could only live them.  Much later, perhaps, she would formulate them and draw comfort from them.

    and, finally,

    Dorothy sliced two more sheets of brown paper into strips, and took up the breastplate to give it its final coating.  The problem of faith and no faith had vanished utterly from her mind.  It was beginning to get dark, but, too busy to stop and light the lamp, she worked on, pasting strip after strip of paper into place, with absorbed, with pious concentration, in the penetrating smell of the gluepot.

    Orwell didn’t want A Clergyman’s Daughter to be republished, unless, perhaps, in a cheap version to scare up a few pounds for his heirs.  No doubt he considered it too immature.  We can be grateful that his literary executors thought otherwise, else we might never have known of his struggles with the Meaning of Life problem so early in his career.  He didn’t spill much ink over the problem later on, but we must assume that he had found some more inspiring purpose to strive for than just “getting on with it.”  Weak and in pain, he fought to complete 1984 on his death bed with incredible tenacity and dedication.  It was a gift to all of us that didn’t follow him to the grave, but lived long after he was gone as the single most effective literary weapon against a threat that had materialized as Communism in his own day, but will likely always lurk among us in one form or another.

    And what of the Meaning of Life?  That’s a question we must all provide an answer for on our own.  None of the imaginary super-beings we have dreamed up over the years is likely to materialize to trivialize the search.  And just as Orwell wrote, whether we care to deal with the problem or not, there is no objective solution.  It must be subjective and individual.  It need not be any less compelling for all that.