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Oct/18

18

Fantasies, facts and values

The Western cultural tradition, which combined various elements (religious, intellectual, scientific) into a rich and resilient and trans-national framework of thought and practice, is all but dead.

Witness, for example, the increasingly propaganda-ridden media environment, the absurdities of identity politics where whims and fantasies routinely trump objective reality and, more generally, the self-righteous and narrow dogmatism of the progressive left.

The deep causes are not just ideological, but ideas and ideology play a role.

The notion that the world of which we are a part is a certain way and that we can have objective knowledge of that world is a crucial tenet of Western thought. Closely associated with this idea is the distinction between factually-based and values-based claims.

For all sorts of reasons the fact/value distinction needs to be maintained. It is basic to a sensible, modern view of the world. Unfortunately many philosophers and other intellectuals have in recent decades sought assiduously to undermine it. In so doing they have (wittingly or unwittingly) given cover and support to those who reject the idea that the sciences and rigorous forms of scholarship (coupled with common sense and ordinary observation) reveal an objective reality which is not at the mercy of our whims and preferences and prejudices.

Philosophies like Pragmatism are very popular these days, largely because they blur the fact/value distinction. William James had a religious view of the world, and his form of Pragmatism supported it. John Dewey had strong social and political commitments to which his form of Pragmatism lent a spurious intellectual authority.

Richard Rorty was another influential (and politically motivated) Pragmatist. He incorporated elements of Romanticism into his thinking and, unlike Dewey, disparaged and tried to undermine the status of the sciences.

Rorty wrote clearly and well, by and large avoiding the jargon-dense obscurity of the Continentals. He should also be given credit for seeing as totally futile much of the self-perpetuating philosophical and metaphysical discourse which was produced by analytic philosophers in the late 20th century. But his anti-science attitude, driven by the same general forces which drove many literary men and women before him — a kind of donnish snobbery bolstered by Romantic notions — was unfortunate.

Sure, it is sometimes difficult to disentangle the potentially factual from the value-related aspects of a statement or claim. But an ability to do such disentangling is one of the most important things that a basic education should develop. Not much chance of this when educators’ heads are stuffed full of postmodern fantasies. What they seek to encourage in their students is not independent thinking or real creativity (which is always based on actual competence) but rather a witless conformity masquerading as creative self-expression and a blind adherence to a mishmash of liberal or progressive dogmas, clichés and slogans.

The silliness and emptiness of all this is evident to many, of course, and not just to old fogeys and traditionalists. ZeroHedge reports:

The “weaponized autists” at 4Chan have done it again, because they can; a new meme suggesting that liberals are soulless idiots who can’t think for themselves has gone viral. The concept compares Democrats to “nonplayable characters,” or NPCs – the recurring characters in video games with repetitive lines and limited knowledge. Lack of an “inner voice” is a dead giveaway that someone may be an NPC… The NPC meme [is] meant to ridicule the post-election perpetual outrage culture in which liberals simply parrot the latest talking points from their favorite pundits, who do their thinking for them… The 4chan version is a simple greyed out, expressionless face known as “NPC Wojak” – which has triggered the left so hard that Twitter conducted a mass-banning campaign for accounts promoting the meme, and the New York Times wrote an entire article trying to figure it out.

I acknowledge that education, especially in the early years, is largely about imparting values, practices and myths. Values are an important part of education. The question is, which values?

A rudimentary education in science and/or some form of rigorous scholarship (disciplines which are dependent on virtues such as attention and patience) is crucial, in my opinion, for giving students a sense of objective knowledge. Such disciplines are always in a healthy tension with mythmaking on the one hand and ideological conformity on the other.

We can’t escape myths and ideologies. But if a good part of our thinking is grounded in objective reality we are at least less likely to be consumed by them.

 

 

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Jul/17

22

Machine Trumps Ghost

It is—time flies—now thirty years since the appearance of The Closing of the American Mind, an anniversary noted by Alexander Riley in The American Conservative.

The whole thing is well worth reading, but this passage caught my attention:

Some elements of Allan Bloom’s analytical framework are frankly inadequate.  He is too perfunctory in dismissing the contribution made to knowledge about human nature by the sciences, and his Great Books/Thinkers list is missing a figure the right makes a grave mistake in ignoring:  Darwin.  Rigorous evolutionary thinking connected to empirical research into the foundations of human behavior and social order offers some of the sturdiest support for conservative politics, and the right would do well to embrace these findings.

The book’s second section (“Nihilism, American Style”) lays out the complex intellectual history undergirding Bloom’s description of the state of the university, and its obscurity for readers not already thoroughly grounded in the ideas it presents is only its most obvious weakness.  Too much is made to depend on the lasting importance of the insights of Locke and Rousseau on human nature, and too much in contemporary behavioral science shows that their systems will not bear that weight.  Locke thought human beings were essentially unmarked at birth by our animal nature, and Rousseau believed it was only social institutions that make us selfish and competitive.  The Darwinian evolutionary perspective tells us considerably more of lasting importance about what we are and what the social world likely can and cannot do to alter that.

Indeed.

Machine trumps ghost.

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Rod Dreher at The American Conservative – which could easily be referred to as the “Rod Dreher Show” given his incredibly productive posting habits (he’s reportedly responsible for about half the site’s traffic) – writes that SJWs (Social Justice Warriors), like churches, need to commit to Truth over Social Justice. There is no splitting the difference:

[Social psychologist Jonathan] Haidt’s insight is also true for churches today. If we diligently seek Truth, and seek to conform our lives as much as possible around what we believe to be True, then we will inevitably achieve a form of Social Justice. But there can be no Justice, social or otherwise, without Truth. And Truth can never be what serves a pre-determined goal — the Revolution, the party, equality, the nation, the family, the temporal interests of the Church, nothing.

But in a 2014 piece entitled “Evolution & The Culture War,” Dreher was singing a different tune. On the implications of the truth of evolution, he wrote:

I flat-out don’t trust our species to handle the knowledge of human biodiversity without turning it into an ideology of dehumanization, racism, and at worst, genocide. Put another way, I am hostile to this kind of thing not because I believe it’s probably false, but because I believe a lot of it is probably true — and we have shown that we, by our natures, can’t handle this kind of truth.

Dreher went on to claim that “forbidden knowledge” is rightly forbidden.

Am I saying that we should ignore reality? I suppose I am.

Well there you have it. Perhaps Dreher has more in common with SJWs than he realizes. Religiosity will do that to you. At least many a SJW will tell you outright that they don’t hold to some vague Enlightenment adherence to truth come what may. They have blatantly tribal, and hence blinkered, commitments. Christian Dreher OTOH wants a bite of that sometimes bitter, realist truth pie without swallowing.

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An interesting criticism of the notion of “Islamophobia,” translated from French, has made an appearance at Charnel House, a Marxist blog that’s nearly equally fascinated by architecture. (They say the last remaining Marxists are to be found in English departments, but that’s not the only place, perhaps.) Dubbed “On the Ideology of Anti-Islamophobia,” the piece by Alexandra Pinot-Noir (heh) and Flora Grim is  an interesting window into the thinking on a part of the left that is far from in vogue in 2016.

Some excerpts:

Even though the term “Islamophobia” probably dates back to the early twentieth century, it only recently came to designate racism against “Arabs” in its widespread use. Through this artifice, religion is assimilated to “race” as a cultural matrix in what amounts to a “cultural mystification… by which an entire cross-section of individuals is assigned, on the basis of their origin or physical appearance, to the category of ‘Muslims.’ Any criticism of Islam is perceived not as a critique of religion, but as a direct manifestation of racism, and thus silenced.” […] We mainly recognize the specter haunting the left as third-worldism [emphasis added], which entails uncritical support for the “oppressed” against their “oppressor.”

The authors likewise point to the phenomenon of the New Right and its “identitarian” orientation as being in perfect solidarity, so to speak, with the general framework used by the “culturalist” left, e.g. in their essentialism that links anyone who’s Arab with Islam; hence Islamophobia, hence racism.

The position of far-left anti-Islamophobes regarding political Islam is, to say the least, ambivalent. They want to bar any criticism of the Muslim religion, a practice they say is racist. This moralizing outlook reveals a lack of analysis of how political Islam has evolved in the world since the 1979 Iranian revolution and, for some, a denial of its very existence. Nor does jihadism disconcert these anti-Islamophobes. After each attack perpetrated by jihadists in Europe — adding to their long list of atrocities, especially on the African continent and in the Middle East — they worry mainly that it might lead to fresh outbreaks of “Islamophobia” and repressive measures, with good reason. So they ascribe sole responsibility to Western imperialism.

Or in the case of some of among the trendy hoi polloi, a denial that the attacks are even Islamic.

For these worthy anti-Islamophobes, the issue is quite simple: the Muslim religion must be viewed with exceptional benevolence as the “religion of the oppressed.” They apparently forget that social control is the function of all religions and that political Islam in particular proclaims everywhere its determination to keep tight control over the society it intends to govern.

Read the rest, but don’t be surprised to find yourself rolling your eyes at points, when the class talk rears its head. These are Marxists after all…

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Nov/15

25

They Like Murray Bookchin, Not Murray Rothbard

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Here’s an interesting piece on Kurdish Syria, wherein the influence of American far-left thinking on the region’s secular politics is explored. Specifically, its influence on Kurdistan Workers’ Party co-founder Abdullah Ocalan, who is currently languishing in a Turkish prison:

One of his supporters gave Ocalan his first book by an obscure Vermont-based philosopher named Murray Bookchin. After Ocalan read it, he requested everything Bookchin had ever written. Oliver Kontny, a translator and P.K.K. sympathizer who was working for Ocalan’s lawyers at the time, told me that Ocalan let ‘‘all of us know that he was working on a paradigm change based on what he learned from Bookchin.’’

In solitary confinement, Ocalan studied Bookchin’s magnum opus, ‘‘The Ecology of Freedom,’’ at once a sweeping account of world history and a reimagining of Marx’s ‘‘Das Kapital.’’ In it, Bookchin argues that hierarchical relationships, not capitalism, are our original sin.

Bookchin favored what he called the ‘‘Hellenic model’’ of democracy, the type of direct, face-to-face government once practiced in ancient Greece.

Fascinating.

As W.E.I.R.D. as both Bernie Sanders’ supporters and libertarians are, the former really are less parochial.

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Nov/15

15

Cognitive Dissonance in Paris

After reading this piece from Haaretz dubbed “In Paris Neighborhood Heavily Hit by Terrorists, Residents View Attackers as Victims,” one wonders if the idea of the “liberal mugged by reality” is itself more fantasy than real-life:

They aren’t angry, at least not at the perpetrators. “They’re stupid, but they aren’t evil,” their friend Sabrina, an administrative worker in one of the theaters in the 11th arrondissement, said. “They are victims of a system that excluded them from society, that’s why they felt this doesn’t belong to them and they could attack. There are those who live here in alienation, and we are all to blame for this alienation.”

The cliche of the left that the right holds – that it’s always “society’s fault” –  is around for a reason: it’s accurate. This amorphous responsibility-generating entity called Society can be blamed for all ills (despite it being difficult to actually hold it accountable for anything).

One member of the group said they had come to the square to demonstrate “unity,” but they didn’t seem to feel solidarity with the victims of the last wave of terror. There were signs calling for unity, but it wasn’t clear what they were meant to unite around.

Indeed. Submission 101.

No one wanted to talk about Islamists or the Islamic State, even after it took responsibility for the attacks and French President Francois Hollande announced that the group was behind them.
It was hard to find anyone at this gathering who would say a bad word about the attackers, and expressions of patriotism were restrained. Perhaps it should be no surprise in this part of town. Most residents of the 11th arrondissement are what the French call “bobo,” bohemian and bourgeois, middle-class academics in their 30s and 40s with clearly leftist leanings.

“Bobo”? I thought David Brooks invented that.

Remember when it was in vogue to condemn the attackers but not their religion? Even that’s too much to ask, apparently, in 2015. I suppose it’s a step in a more honest direction, sparing certain platitudes and coming clean with the the fact they don’t feel much of anything in the wake of the attack. What’s the French word for “Meh“?

It’s a tolerant area, where migrants and minorities feel safe walking around. Among those who had assembled were several mixed-race couples. Now the restaurants and bars that they frequent every night were attacked and some of their friends were killed and wounded, and they were having a hard time reconciling this with their worldview.

But friends killed and wounded? That definitely provokes an emotional response, hence the cognitive dissonance.

As much of the left sees it, the likes of Marine Le Pen and “Islamaphobia” are to blame for the attacks, and the alienation they allegedly bring about. But missing from the official ISIS statement on Friday’s horror is any mention of xenophobia, Le Pen, or the dangers of the far-right. No, it’s just a bunch of premodern Temptations-of-Babylon-style talk about Paris as the center of “perversions” and “abominations.” And of course lots of stuff about infidels. If fear of being “othered” by white nationalists is inspiring ISIS, there’s no evidence of it from the terror group itself. Indeed, we get bluster and supreme confidence instead, and talk of demon rum.

The left is clearly living in a different rhetorical universe from those they seek to defend. Or at least explain. Somehow.

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Aug/15

2

‘Antiracism: Our Flawed New Religion’

That’s the title of John McWhorter’s excellent piece at The Daily Beast. He looks at the rhetoric of the Blacks Lives Matter movement and its acolytes and finds all the trappings of a new and only nominally secular religion. It’s essentially liturgy, as he explained in a recent Bloggingheads convo.

Fans of writer Sarah Perry and her musings on the sacralization of politics will see similar themes at work in McWhorter’s article.

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Jan/14

19

Everywhere is Nowhere

God, Adam etc.In an admiring review for The Week of theologian David Bentley Hart’s new book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, Damon Lineker writes that it “demolishes” the “straw man Atheism” of those who treat “God as if he were the biggest, most powerful object or thing in, or perhaps alongside, the universe”:

But, of course, the major world religions don’t view God in this way at all. They treat God, instead, as the transcendent source, the ground, or the end of the natural world. And that is an enormous — actually, an infinite — difference.

And one, I suspect, that may be lost on many of their followers.

Back to the review:

[God] is certainly not one of the many contingent causes within the natural world. But neither is he the first contingent cause, setting off the Big Bang from some blast-resistant fallout shelter lodged, somehow, outside of and prior to the universe as we know it.
On the contrary, according to the classical metaphysical traditions of both the East and West, God is the unconditioned cause of reality — of absolutely everything that is — from the beginning to the end of time. Understood in this way, one can’t even say that God “exists” in the sense that my car or Mount Everest or electrons exist. God is what grounds the existence of every contingent thing, making it possible, sustaining it through time, unifying it, giving it actuality. God is the condition of the possibility of anything existing at all.

This can be a difficult concept to grasp [possibly because it is, at its core, a cop-out], but Hart does an exceptionally good job of explaining it — as he does the way this classical idea of God makes sense of the experience and unity of consciousness, as well as the ecstatic longing for the good and the beautiful that lies at the heart of moral experience.

It does? “Ecstatic”? Really?

Lineker:

In a move sure to enrage atheists, Hart even goes so far as to argue that faith in this classical notion of God can never be “wholly and coherently rejected” — and not only because it may very well be self-contradictory to prove the nonexistence of an absolute, transcendent ground of existence.

“Enrage”? I doubt it. A gently raised eyebrow would suffice.

And then comes the inevitable Hallmark moment, some sweetener thrown in to what looks to me like very thin gruel:

The deeper reason why theism can’t be rejected, according to Hart, is that every pursuit of truth, every attempt to be good, every longing for beauty presupposes the existence of some idea of truth, goodness, and beauty from which these particular instances are derived. And these transcendental ideas unite in the classical concept of God, who simply is truth, goodness, and beauty. That’s why, although it isn’t necessary to believe in God in some explicit way in order to be good, it certainly is the case (in Hart’s words) “that to seek the good is already to believe in God, whether one wishes to do so or not.”

Okey dokey

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Jan/14

5

On The Random Walk

Vaganskovoye Cemetery, Mar 93 (AS)The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates has just been reading Tony Judt’s Postwar (which I have yet to tackle, but plan to) and cites that book, together with Tim Snyder’s Bloodlands (which I reviewed here) for a grander thesis about the failings European civilization. There’s a lot to take issue with there, to put it mildly, but I did like this:

I don’t have any gospel of my own. Postwar, and the early pages of Bloodlands, have revealed a truth to me: I am an atheist. (I have recently realized this.) I don’t believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice. I don’t even believe in an arc. I believe in chaos. I believe powerful people who think they can make Utopia out of chaos should be watched closely.

Oh yes.

Coates then lets what seems like despair grip him as a result of this discovery (odd, as if that is how things are, it’ll be a bit of a relief):

I don’t know that it all ends badly. But I think it probably does.

Not necessarily. Chin up!

But then he brightens:

I’m also not a cynic. I think that those of us who reject divinity, who understand that there is no order, there is no arc, that we are night travelers on a great tundra, that stars can’t guide us, will understand that the only work that will matter, will be the work done by us.

And gets it:

Or perhaps not.

H/t: Andrew Sullivan

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Apr/13

21

Such Sweet Suffering

galileotrial2The Wall Street Journal has interviewed “eminent bioethicist” (itself a contradiction in terms) Leon Kass. The trigger was the Gosnell trial, but it was this aspect of Kass’s remarks that drew my attention:

Dr. Kass sometimes finds himself at odds with [anti-abortion] advocates. The movement’s narrow focus on nascent life, he worries, blinds it to the fact that “abortion is connected to lots of other things that are threats to human dignity in its fullness.”

“Pursuing perfect babies, ageless bodies and happy souls with the aid of cloning, genetic engineering and psychopharmacology,” he thinks, are among the most significant of those threats.

Not that, again. Of course, we need never to forget the terrible lessons of early twentieth century eugenics, but re-read those comments and what you see emerging beneath those soothing words about “dignity” is a morbid and sentimental attachment to suffering, and a profound contempt for the human mind:

“Killing the creature made in God’s image is an old story,” he says. “I deplore it. But the new threat is the ability to transform that creature into images of our own choosing, without regard to whether the new creature is going to be an improvement, or whether these so-called improvements are going to sap all of the energies of the soul that make for human aspirations, art, science and care for the less fortunate. All of these things have wellsprings in the human soul, and they are at risk in efforts to redesign us and move us to the posthuman future.”

And the corollary of this paranoid, mystical nonsense about a “new threat” is that the state, aided and abetted doubtless by a self-appointed (and sometimes taxpayer-funded) coterie of wise men, will decide that they know best where scientific inquiry should go.

Galileo, phone your lawyer.

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