April 19, 2012

"Conservatism by inertia"

I recently stumbled upon an old nut I'd squirreled away, by Orrin Judd from 2003. He's writing on a piece by Roger Scruton, Decencies for Skeptics: Is religion necessary to make a moral society? No; but reverence is. (Roger Scruton, City Journal)

I think I liked the term "conservatism by inertia," but never got around to blogging it and remembering it...

Mr. Scruton represents that worthwhile but tragic strain of British thought that combines skepticism and nostalgia to produce a kind of conservatism by inertia--we can't believe in anything, but Britain was great when we did, so let's not get rid of everything we had then, let's act as if we still believe in something. This is the Right's version of "freeloading atheism".

But rational skepticism has a fatal flaw--one that renders it quite dubious as the basis of a political philosophy--it ultimately disproves itself and reason entirely. Having once denied that we can know anything with certainty about reality through the exercise of pure reason, one has denied the reality, reason, and the self. They can only be recouped by the exercise of faith. So the great response to the skepticism of Hume and Berkley is not an elaborate theory but Samuel Johnson kicking a large stone and exclaiming: "I deny it thus". No matter how taut their theory may be, no one will choose to live their life by it. We all believe certain things to be real, most especially ourselves, and, therefore, accepting their proof as valid, we all proceed from a stance of faith. That genie too is out of the bottle.

When Mr. Scruton then argues, quite accurately, that reason can offer no coherent basis for morality, that only religion can, we must ask: so what? Reason couldn't prove that you and I exist, but that does not truly make us doubt that we do. And when we turn to look at all of humanity today and all of human history, if we perceive, as we must, that you and I are rather insignificant, but that morality matters greatly, who is so self-absorbed that they would argue that faith is sufficient to prove our own measly existence but we can have no recourse to it to prove that the morality upon which decent human society depends likewise exists? The claim that I can utilize personal faith in order to know myself to be real but that any faith I disagree with, including (especially) one shared by billions of my fellow men, is necessarily illusion, because mere faith, is nought but egomania.
Posted by John Weidner at April 19, 2012 8:10 AM
Having once denied that we can know anything with certainty about reality through the exercise of pure reason, one has denied the reality, reason, and the self.

That's where it goes off the rails. As an engineer I just laugh at that. You should to. You can't know with certainty that the plank you cut is 3.5 inches long but the existence of a cabinet refutes the quoted claim that you need to do so in order to function in reality.

I see this a lot and don't understand where it comes from, the dichotomy that we must either perfectly perceive reality or utterly fail to understand it. Why is an imperfect, but sufficiently accurate, understanding not a valid position?

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at April 19, 2012 9:23 AM

You are confusing two different reference frames. You are speaking from inside the thing we might call "physical and material reality." That's what we all do all day long. And that reality looks perfectly real to any test we can apply.

BUT, you have no way from within to test whether that reality is in fact real. (As opposed to a dream or a delusion or something that is just not what it appears to be.) No system can validate itself. You. Do. Not. Know.

So when you say a board is is 3.5 inches long, what you are really saying is, "I will make a leap of faith and assume the the physical world and my senses are giving me an accurate picture of what is, and thus venture to assert that the board is 3.5 inches long." You can dispense with those caveats in your day-to-day life, but if you ponder the big questions, you will instantly be on shaky ground.

I stupidly tried to argue with some atheists recently who asserted that they didn't believe in God because they have no physical evidence. I suggested that they need to have some skepticism about their own skepticism. What they were really saying was, "We have made a leap-of-faith and assume that the physical world is real and is a valid test of God's existence, so we can deny your leap-of-faith in believing in God." Which is not a useful statement.

No modern philosopher has found a way past this problem.

[Christianity and Judaism, by the way, do have a way around this issue, because we claim to have a position outside the material cosmos (revelation by God) from which to look at our reality and validate it. I would think that even the bitterest of skeptics would at least be intrigued by that possibility.]

Posted by: John Weidner at April 19, 2012 12:38 PM

AOG, speaking of old BroJudd pieces, do you know if David Cohen is still writing anywhere? I used to think highly of him..

Posted by: John Weidner at April 19, 2012 2:02 PM

Well, you know I'm an engineer -- so if something can't be validated but doesn't matter I don't worry about it. As it is written in my field "don't check for error conditions you can't handle". My point was not that I know such things, but that I don't see why I need to. It is (wait for it ...) immaterial to my purposes.

Anyway, I would object that the leap of faith is not so much accuracy but repeatability. These are not the same thing. Whether it's "really" 3.5 inches doesn't matter nearly as much as "every time I measure it I get 3.5 inches". I actually wrote some about this in my doctoral thesis with regard to models of reality being functionally correct (produce repeatable, useful results) vs. structurally correct (model reality itself). Bottom line, you only need functional, not structural. That's good enough.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at April 19, 2012 6:36 PM

As for David Cohen, he wrote here for a while but has tapered off. One must credit OJ with dedication that is far beyond our abilities.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at April 19, 2012 6:37 PM

Interesting Cohen blogging, but it looks like burnout to me, poor chap. I'm a bit that way myself. Blogging doesn't feed one with much encouragement and shots in the arm, unless you are in with the in-crowd.

"Anyway, I would object that the leap of faith is not so much accuracy but repeatability. "

I'm probably wasting my scarce electrons, but, no. Accuracy and repeatability are useful metrics within the realm of our material universe. They work very nicely. Repeatedly. But the philosophical problem I'm trying to push your nose into is that you have no way of knowing whether what you perceive as the material universe is not actually, say, some sort of dream or illusion where accuracy and repeatability hold sway and give consistent results.

How do you know that that's not the case? If you are dreaming, how can you know whether what you perceive is real or a dream? Imagine you had a dream of extreme clarity, in which all your tests and experiments yielded results consistent with your dream-reality. With repeatability. Every test would seem to tell you that you are in "reality."

I'm not saying we are in a dream, my point is that we can't know whether "reality" is real. You can't know.

You probably don't care. Most people don't. The happy few who are hungry for truth will care, with restless energy.

Posted by: John Weidner at April 19, 2012 10:26 PM

"reason can offer no coherent basis for morality,"

Sufficiently coherent for running a republic, I should say.

"It is still possible for us, in modern conditions, to cultivate a habit of piety, while being skeptical toward religious doctrine."

Piety is a moral virtue, and moral virtue are harder to instill than intellectual virtues and in this age, among moral virtues, piety is harder. Piety is in fact diametrically opposed to innovation and entrepreneurship.

Posted by: Gian at April 19, 2012 10:31 PM

In all seriousness, if we can't know, why should we care? Even for philosophers the motive is putatively to increase knowledge, not engage in futile debate.

I would note that the fact of repeatability is knowledge about the system, since we might be in a simulation or dream that doesn't provide that. It's another variant of the Anthropic Principle.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at April 20, 2012 5:48 AM

Well, I wasn't meaning that we can't know, but rather that we can't know from inside the system. That is, in this case, the system that is our physical material universe.

Actually that's true for any system of thought or existence. If you are, say, a historian, you labor inside your discipline using its standards and techniques and arcane traditions. But you can't know if these really make sense unless you somehow stand outside that thought-world, so that you can compare and criticize using other standards.

So, OK, there's no easy way to "stand outside" our entire physical cosmos, and see if our doings make sense, or even really exist. But there is one respect-worthy "realm" that claims to do just that. The Judeo-Christian thought-realm claims explicitly to know some of the answers, answers that come from a realm that is above and outside our realm. (Perhaps there are other realms with considering that I have not encountered.)

Why should you care? Well, I don't know. Why care about anything beyond mere survival? To me, this stuff is self-evidently cool and fun and important. To me it is profoundly exciting—I want to KNOW!! Maybe I'm alone. Feel free to tune me out.

Posted by: John Weidner at April 20, 2012 5:24 PM

AOG, you might take a look at Wittgensteins Logicus Tracticus:http://www.kfs.org/~jonathan/witt/tlph.html
Wittgenstein & Russell were working on the problem of relating our mental modeling of the universe to the reality outside of that model.
The anthropomorphic principle affects the way we think, not just our perception through our senses. Men, unlike the universe, have a beginning, a middle, and an end. What do we focus on when we study the universe? The beginning, the middle, and the end of things.
Another philosopher, Owen Barfield, worked on the same problem as Wittgenstein and Russell from another direction -- language as literature.

Posted by: Terry at April 22, 2012 1:12 PM

"reason can offer no coherent basis for morality"

On the contrary, Reason is the organ of morality and to recognize a duty is to perceive a truth.
From A Discard Image by CS Lewis.

Posted by: Gian at April 26, 2012 2:06 AM

Gian, you are confusing two very different things. Lewis was not saying that reason can be a basis for morality. That is, he is not saying that you can concoct a successful system of morality by just using your reason. (An absurdity often put forth by liberals or libertarians.)

Once you possess the moral law, however, reason is crucial in applying it. Many moral questions are not cut-and-dry. For instance I have a moral right to defend myself, but every real-life situation is different, and it is up to me to use my reason to distinguish how far I can go before I am using excessive force.

Posted by: John Weidner at April 27, 2012 7:34 AM

How do you know you have a right to self-defense?
You know only because of you are rational.
This is precisely what CS Lewis was getting at:
Moral truths are intellectually grasped i.e. through Reason in a wider sense.

The Natural Law is not concocted but grasped through Reason i.e. Intellect and then reasoned through by Ratio.

The principles of limited government are all Natural Law. Prof Hadley Arkes is very illuminative here and says that Natural Law offers a better grounding to Limited Govt than Originalism.

Posted by: Gian at April 29, 2012 11:34 PM

"How do you know you have a right to self-defense?
You know only because of you are rational."

You are being slippery with words. "Being rational" is not the same thing as deriving an idea by the use of reason.

I know I have a right to self-defense because the Church says so.

Posted by: John Weidner at April 30, 2012 6:26 AM

Maybe a bit off topic from David Kaiser's latest blog.

"The middle of the twentieth century, we can now see, was the climax of a development in western civilization that had been proceeding for the better part of three centuries: a faith in reason, and in particular, in the application of reason to solve human, as well as scientific, problems"

Posted by: Richard Magner at April 30, 2012 12:01 PM


(Just FYI, every individual blog-post has its own URL. Some like Kaiser's, or mine, are found by clicking the time-stamp at the bottom. Others you click the title.)

Thanks, Kaiser's post is very interesting to me, because I think he has things all wrong. (In fact I'm saving it, because if I ever find time to complete my own book, that will be the sort of thing I can re-read to clarify my thoughts.)

He sees our world as having been changed by the Vietnam War. I think the war was just a bit of froth riding on top of the vast wave of change that was (is) the transition between Industrial Age and the Information Age. And that that change was first of all a change in how people thought, well before things like PC's or the Internet arrived.

Similarly, he labels Eisenhower as "conservative." That's the standard academic view, but it's a retrojection from the vastly altered viewpoints that arose after the changes in thinking of the 60's. Eisenhower (and Nixon and Ford, and mostly Reagan too) all accepted the basic model of the world that came out of the New Deal era (What Mead calls the Blue Model.) And did an even better job of applying it than the Dems ever did.

I hope to blog bits of what will be my book, if anyone is interested. Like this. It should only take a few decades.    ;-)

Posted by: John Weidner at April 30, 2012 1:59 PM
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