Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Mind and God as Philosophically Known, part II

Part I of this thread can be found here.

Etienne Gilson tells us that a philosopher can be great even if he is wrong in his fundamental conceptions. What makes such a philosopher great is the depth, consistency and honesty with which he carries through the logic of his basic convictions. Such a great philosopher will find the deepest implications of a certain line of thought, and his legacy will be the monument "if you choose to think this way, it is here where you must eventually end up." Such a philosopher's thought has a timeless quality to it, as is shown when later thinkers presume to have "gone beyond" or corrected the philosopher, but in the process demonstrate that they have actually yet to reach him. Kierkegaard spent a career exposing modern thinkers who thought they had moved decisively beyond Socrates, but were miles behind him.

Immanuel Kant was such a great philosopher, and the line of thinking he explored begins with the conviction that math, the empirical sciences, and "pure reason" (i.e. thought abstracted entirely from empirical data) are the only true ways to know the truth of things. Specifically excluded from legitimate thought is metaphysics as classically conceived. In other words, Kant had fathomed the implications of the prejudices of modern thought almost at their historical origin. 

One of Kant's timeless conclusions is that, if his initial convictions are correct, then a "science of the mind" that might fathom the depths of the human mind is an impossibility. Such a science is restricted to exploring the empirical mind, which is the mind as it appears as an object for scientific investigation. But the a priori mind, the mind that creates, conducts and judges empirical science, and before which the empirical mind appears, is forever beyond it (or, rather, forever behind it.) 

The greatness of Kant as a philosopher is seen in the examples of modern researchers of the mind who think they have understood and corrected Kant, but only prove that they have yet to reach him. I gave a few examples in the last post in this thread; another instructive example is Steven Pinker in his book The Stuff of Thought. Pinker's book is particularly good for these purposes because he apparently shares Kant's initial convictions - that math, the empirical sciences, and pure reason are the only ways to truth - and also specifically calls out Kant on the points where Pinker and others think they have improved on him.

Pinker gives a good summary of Kant on page 157:

"Real observers, Kant concluded, must live in a world of whatness, whereness, and becauseness, imposed by the way that a mind such as ours can grasp reality. Our experiences unfold in a medium of space and time, which isn't abstracted from our sensory experiences (the way a pigeon can abstract the concept of redness when it is trained to peck at a red figure regardless of its size or shape) but rather organizes our sensory experiences in the first place. We are not just a passive audience to these experiences but interpret them as instances of general laws couched in logical and scientific concepts like 'and', 'or', 'not', 'all', 'some', 'necessary', 'possible', 'cause', 'effect, 'substance', and 'attribute'..."

He then goes on to critique Kant this way on page 159:

"This is not to say that Kant himself is a reliable guide to our current understanding of the nature of thought and its relation to the world. Many philosophers today believe that Kant's rejection of the possibility of knowing the world in itself is obscure, and most physicists dispute his blurring of the mind's experience of time and space with our scientific understanding of time and space. Contrary to everyday experience, our best physics holds that space is not a rigid Euclidean framework, but is warped by objects, may be curved and bounded, is riddled with black holes and possibly wormholes, has eleven or more dimensions, and measures out differently depending on one's reference frame... In all these cases our best scientific understanding of time and space is wildly out of line with the mind's inclinations."

Pinker needs to read his first paragraph more carefully. The "space" and "time" that Kant talks about in his transcendental aesthetic are not a matter of experimental verification or falsification; they are the condition of any empirical experience whatever, be it everyday, scientific or otherwise. Physicists may come up with a novel, empirical concept of "space" that is useful in science, but that concept is derivative of Kantian space, not a rival to it. Thus, when Pinker talks about the physicist's space, he must use words like "warped", "curved", "bounded" and "riddled", words which are grounded in friendly old Kantian space, not the physicist's novel space. And physics itself, whatever conclusions about space might be drawn from it, is still conducted in the Kantian space that is the condition of human experience. Similarly, physicists may conclude that reality has eleven, twelve, or a thousand dimensions, but their experience still comes to them in the same three dimensions that it did to Aristotle, Bacon, or Kant. Whatever meaning they might attach to those extra dimensions, is conditioned by and derives its meaning from the permanent three dimensions of Kant's transcendental space. If the physicist's space were "wildly out of line with the mind's inclinations", then no one would be able to make sense of it, including the physicists. (They do use the mind to understand physics, don't they?) There is no "leaping over" or "getting beyond" the transcendental aesthetic, short of a leap beyond the human condition itself. And if Kant's initial premise that "space" and "time" are conditions we impose on experience rather than derive from experience is at all acceptable, then his conclusion follows - that anything we conclude from our empirical investigation of events in space and time applies only to our experience of them (that is, appearances) rather than the things as they truly are in themselves (that is, reality.)

If Kant is wrong, then he is wrong at the start, as I believe. It won't do to accept Kant's account of the human condition - the one that makes traditional metaphysics worthless and grants to empirical sciences the privilege of knowing reality - then think that empirical science can somehow transcend the conditions of its own possibility and do what the old metaphysics was supposed to do: Know reality as it is in itself. This is thinking you have gotten beyond Kant without really reaching him.

But as Gilson wrote, the desire in man to know being and not just the appearances of being is deep, permanent and just as much a part of modern philosophers as it was part of Aristotle. Kant recognized the same thing, calling metaphysics a necessary illusion, a temptation that must continually be fought against. But Steven Pinker doesn't want to write a book called The Appearances of the Stuff of Thought; he wants to write The Stuff of Thought, or what the mind is really like, even if his Kantian start makes such an achievement nothing less than a miracle.

And we get a miracle of a sort in the last chapter. Summing up the book, he writes:

"In this book I have given you the view from language - what we can learn about human nature from the meanings of words and constructions and how they are used... How might the proverbial Martian scientist - in this case a Martian linguist - characterize our species, knowing only the semantics of our language?"

He then goes on to state a number of conclusions in the voice of abstract science:

"Humans construct an understanding of the world that is very different from the analogue flow of sensation the world presents to them. They package their experience into objects and events... Human characterizations of reality are built out of a recognizable inventory of thoughts. The inventory begins with some basic units, like events, states, things, substances, places, and goals. It specifies the basic ways in which these units can do things: going, changing being, having... Humans recognize unique individuals, and also pigeonhole them into categories... When humans thank about where an entity is, or what it is, or how it changes and moves, they tend to conceive of it holistically, as a blob or point without internal parts... When humans see the world or visualize it in a mental image, they situate objects and events in a continuous medium of space... Humans see some things as just happening and others as being caused" etc.

The adoption of the viewpoint of a fictional Martian is, of course, a rhetorical effect to trick the reader into granting Pinker a viewpoint that transcends the human condition; as though, by pretending to be a Martian, he can really think like a Martian would think and not a human. But it's still a human thinking about what a Martian would think of humans. Nor would things improve if we speculated a Klingon thinking about Pinker thinking about what a Martian would think of humans. For it would still be a human at the beginning of the chain thinking about the Klingon thinking about the... you get the point. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

Unfortunately, Pinker's thinking about humans, or humans through the rhetorical device of a Martian, is limited by all the limitations he lists for humans. His thinking must be packaged into objects and events; it is built out of a recognizable inventory of thoughts; he tends to think of things holistically; he must situate objects in a continuous medium of space and time. His book is not written from a standpoint transcending the human condition through science, but from within the constraints of that condition itself, as it must be for every human being, including every scientist. 

And so we finally reach Kant. What is fascinating about Pinker's concluding chapter is that it owes virtually everything to the Critique of Pure Reason and almost nothing to empirical science. This is as it must be. The Critique of Pure Reason is an a priori analysis of human experience from the inside. "Human characterizations of reality are built out of a recognizable inventory of thoughts" is not a conclusion that can possibly be made from empirical science, for science assumes it in its constitution, being itself a human characterization of reality built out of a recognizable inventory of thoughts. Similar points hold for all of Pinker's other conclusions.

What made Kant great is that he had the self-discipline to not attempt a miraculous transcendence of the human condition through the impersonation of a Martian or, even worse, think that empirical science might transcend its own conditions. He understood deeply the implications of the premisses of modern thought. Among those conclusions is that the mind must ultimately be opaque to itself; the mind may analyze its own appearances, but those appearances are necessarily conditioned by the structures of human thought. The real mind behind those structures must forever be a mystery to us.

Unless, of course, Kant was not right in his initial convictions...

The next post in this thread can be found here.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Mind and God as Philosophically Known, part I

The mind and God have this in common: They are both things that cannot be known directly through something like scientific investigation. If they are known at all, then they are known through modes that transcend science; they are known philosophically. I wonder if this is why modern atheism, which tends to be driven by a restriction of knowledge to the empirical sciences, tends to end up denying the mind as well as God.

Let us take the mind first. The nature of the mind is to be a knower or comprehender of the world. When the scientist takes the mind as an object for his investigation, he necessarily turns the mind into an object in the world comprehended by his own mind. Therefore, in the very exercise of his science, he manifests a mind that must transcend the nature of whatever mind he concludes from science. The mind he investigates through science - "mind as object in the world of science" - is only a pale replica of the true mind - "mind as comprehender and judge of science." Therefore science can never fully fathom the mind, as science itself testifies in its very exercise.

One of the joys of philosophy is that one can know eternal and immutable truths through it, truths that are more certainly known than scientific truths, not less. The fact that the scientist, in the conduct of his science, manifests a mind that transcends the mind as it appears as an object of science, is one of these eternal and immutable truths. It must happen with iron metaphysical necessity, just as a body, when it moves to there, must depart from here. Yet many scientific and philosophical practitioners of the investigation of the mind fail to understand this point. They think a comprehensive account of the mind is available to science, at least in principle. And when they fail to discover any immaterial, world-knowing mind through science, they dismiss it as a myth concocted by the ignorant past.

The unintentional irony of all such efforts, of course, is that they manifest the world-knowing transcendent mind in the very act of denouncing it. They must do so. The fun in reading such works is finding the moment when the investigator performs an act of the mind denied by his science. Take for example, V.S. Ramachandran in A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness. This is a fascinating work of popular neuroscience in which we get scientific explanations of everything from phantom limbs to the purple numbers of the book's subtitle. But then Ramachandran sums up his research this way:

"Our brains are essentially model-making machines. We need to construct useful, virtual reality simulations of the world that we can act on."

Now this may be a true statement in the scientific sense, that is, as pertaining to minds as they appear as objects before neuroscience. But it can't be true of Ramachandran's mind as the comprehender of neuroscience. Or, if it is, then the statement means something other than what Ramachandran apparently means by it. For if brains are essentially model-makers, and this includes Ramachandran's scientific brain as well as his subject's, then neuroscience isn't really about the brain at all. It's about the virtual reality simulations scientists make of a reality that is in itself as unknowable to scientists as it is to the rest of us; for scientists have no way of stepping outside their own model-making minds and comparing the models to reality. Not only couldn't we know if our models of brains accurately represent real brains, but we couldn't know whether reality actually had anything in it corresponding to "brains" at all. But, of course,  there is an implicit exemption in Ramachadran's statement, for he obviously intends the statement to be about what brains are really like, not merely about his personal virtual reality simulation. And if the statement is about real brains, then not every brain can be merely a model-maker; in particular, Ramachandran's can't be.

Another example can be found in the work of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio:

"These various images - perceptual, recalled from the real past, and recalled from plans of the future - are constructions of your organism's brain. All that you can know for certain is that they are real to your self, and that other beings make comparable images. We share our image-based concept of the world with other humans, and even with some animals; there is a remarkable consistency in the constructions different individuals make of the essential aspects of environment (textures, sounds, shapes, colors, space). If our organisms were designed differently, the constructions we make of the world around us would be different as well. We do not know, and it is improbable that we will ever know, what "absolute reality" is like."

Well, if we can't know what absolute reality is like, then all that Damasio has just written is not about reality, but only a construction he has made about a reality that is in itself unknowable. And that includes constructions of what our minds can and cannot do. Damasio may write that all you can know for certain is that images are real to yourself, but that statement is but a construction he puts on reality; reality may be that my mind really can go beyond images to the real nature of things. In fact, if Damasio intends his writing to be about what brains and minds are really like, which seems clear, then the human mind must be capable of knowing more than merely its own images.

Immanuel Kant thoroughly explored the logic of this kind of thinking a few centuries ago in the Critique of Pure Reason.  If you wish to understand the meaning of the contemporary investigation of the mind, Kant is the philosopher to read, for he understood the meaning of any possible empirical science of the mind long before they began to be practiced. Like many thinkers today, Kant held that the positive sciences are the only way of knowing empirical reality. But he also understood that the positive sciences are creative products of the mind of man; man creates science in order to force nature to explain itself in categories amenable to his understanding. The science-creating and science-judging mind is therefore invisible to the science it creates, because it is always behind the science as its ground and never in front of it as an object. The scientist who tries to "get behind" the mind through science is like the man who thinks he can get behind his own shadow by stepping over it.

This isn't to say that the empirical investigation of the mind is without value; far from it. But it is to say that the empirically known mind is necessarily less than the full story of the mind. The full story can only be known by a philosophy that acknowledges that the empirical sciences do not exhaust our ways of knowing empirical reality. The realist philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas is such a philosophy.

The Thomist philosopher, in contrast to the scientist, does not attempt to understand the mind as an external object on which he can perform tests and experiments. Instead, he attempts to understand his own act of knowing in the very act of knowing. St. Thomas calls this the "intellect knowing itself through itself." This is not a paradoxical, mind-boggling or anti-scientific concept. It simply means that the philosopher reflects on what happens to himself when he goes from a state of ignorance to knowledge. Since it is the mind reflecting on its own act, this is the mind knowing itself through itself. It is the mind knowing itself as "a knower and comprehender of the world",  not as "an object for science" that implies a transcendent mind lurking in the background.

A consequence of the Thomistic approach is that the philosopher cannot produce a "theory of the mind" so beloved by empirical scientists, one that would permit anyone to know the mind simply by reading a result out of a book. The best the philosopher of mind can do is aid other minds in coming to know the way he as come to know; that is, in coming to know their own minds through themselves. This is, in fact, the rule of Socratic midwifery that holds for philosophy in general.

Part II of this thread can be found here.

Chesterton on Potter?

And as if on cue, up pops a pro-Potter post on the blog at the American Chesterton Society.

I'd say that GKC is rolling over in his grave, except that I hope he is resting in peace and stays that way. I'm not sure a man of Chesterton's size would be able to roll over anyway.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Harry Potter: "pretty good books?"

J. Bottum has an article at First Things praising recent children's literature and, in particular, the Harry Potter series. 

With respect to Harry Potter, I feel like I am in a horror movie (say, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) where I discover some terrible thing happening, but everyone else says things are just fine, including people whose judgment I respect (like J. Bottum.)  Am I insane, or is everyone so under the spell of this dreadful series that they cannot see that it is... pure crap?

I am not talking about its religious and moral content, which is objectionable enough. I mean on a purely literary level. This is a series with cliched, superficial, lazy and repetitive writing, and formulaic plots. Does anyone wonder why kids who have shown no interest in reading can suddenly power their way through a 400 page book in a couple of days? Are the Potter books so magical that they can suddenly increase the reading ability of children? Or are the books written at such a superficial level that even the laziest reader can skim through them with no problem?

The books were painful going when I read them. Pages and pages of dialog barely rises to the level of pre-teen text messaging:

"' Unbelievable!' beamed Seamus.
 'Cool,' said Dean.
 'Amazing,' said Neville, awestruck."


"'Cool, sir', said Dean Thomas in amazement." (Dean Thomas says one and only one thing whenever he appears in the series: "Cool." He's one of my favorite characters.)


"'Moody!' he said. 'How cool is he?'
 'Beyond cool,' said George, sitting down opposite Fred.
 'Supercool,' said the twin's best friend, Lee Jordan..."

and on and on it goes. Kids can read these books all day for the same reason they can sit and read Instant Messaging text all day. And it's no problem adding a new book to the series. Change "cool" to "supercool" and you've got a whole new episode.

One of the annoying aspects of the series is Rowling's heavy use of childish adjectives, words you scold your child for using but somehow become fine literature when they appear in Potter books. "Stupid", for example, appears with depressing regularity. As something to occupy my mind while I slogged through The Sorcerer's Stone, I documented all the occurrences of "stupid" in the book. It occurs 22 times, starting with "stupid new fashion" on page 3 followed by "being stupid" on page 4, to "completely stupid" on page 10. I was thrilled on page 31 to see the clever skill with which Rowling manages to find two uses for "stupid" in one sentence:

"... Malcolm, and Gordon were all big and stupid, but as Dudley was the biggest and stupidest of the lot, he was the leader."

Is this what people mean when they call the Potter series "pretty good books?" My favorite use of "stupid" occurs on page 105 in a magical incantation by Ron Weasley:

"Sunshine, daisies, butter, mellow, turn this stupid, fat, rat yellow."

When the spell doesn't work Weasley dismisses it, without irony, as.... "stupid." It's only the unintentional hilarity of Rowling's terrible writing that makes the books bearable at all. And even such a master of "stupid" as Rowling eventually runs out of novel uses for the word and begins repeating herself. The "Don't be stupid" that appears on page 33 reappears on page 275, and the "so stupid" on page 242 rises from the dead on page 291. 

I was told that the series improves as it goes along, so I cracked open The Chamber of Secrets in the hope that perhaps J.K. Rowling had grown as tired of "stupid" as I had. But then why mess with success? If "stupid" sells, then give 'em stupid and more stupid. As if in answer to my question, it says on the first page of Secrets: "Do I look stupid?"

Here is an exercise for the reader: "Stupid" is not the only childish word repeated ad nauseum in the Potter series. "Funny" is another one. Count the number of times "funny" appears as an all purpose adjective ("he had a funny feeling", "funny way to get to wizard's school", etc.) in the Potter book of your choice. This is just lazy writing that allows an author to crank out 500 page books on an annual basis.

Another lazy characteristic of Rowling's writing is her incessant use of superlatives. Harry Potter is always running into the greatest things he's ever seen. If it isn't "the largest pumpkins Harry had ever seen", its the "best house I've ever been in", "the glummest face Harry had ever seen", "the strangest classroom he had ever seen", "Harry had never seen her look so angry", "had never been in a worse fix,"  or "the scariest thing I've ever seen in my life", etc. The length of the Potter books would decrease by 20% if you merely deleted "stupid", "funny" and "had ever seen."

The Potter books feature virtually the same plot in every book. They open with some scenes of Potter's terrible life with the Dursleys before the Hogwarts school term opens. Potter has some adventures on the way to school. At school, strange things (even for Hogwarts) begin to happen and Harry wonders if some evil plot is in the offing. Harry gets in trouble with the school authorities for breaking rules, usually because he is investigating the unusual happenings or because of a misunderstanding. Harry is involved in an ongoing school tournament of some kind (e.g. Quidditch or the Triwizard Tournament) that will climax at roughly the same time as the nefarious plot. The book reaches its climax as a teacher at Hogwarts is unmasked as a secret disciple of Lord Voldemort and Potter faces down Voldemort himself. Potter is as lucky as James Bond in his villains insofar as they never kill him outright but always indulge in an elaborate procedure accompanied by long-winded explanations that gives Potter time to turn the tables. Unlike Bond, who faces new villains every episode, Voldemort is always the villain and makes the same mistake every book. Voldemort is always defeated but never destroyed, to return with a similar plot that fails in a similar way in the next book. The school term ends and Potter returns to the Dursleys. By the fourth book we have seen the plot enough to know that the only new elements in the next book will be the exact details of how Voldemort will use the Goblet of Fire to get at Harry and which of the Hogwart's staff will be exposed as Voldemort's disciple in disguise.

Am I the last one on Earth who recognizes this junk for what it is? Should I just go along with it, having been promised that it will be all right once I go to sleep and wake up?

I must stay awake.... stay awake....

Friday, November 21, 2008

Aristotle on Obama

Here is Aristotle, from Ch. 5 Book V of the Politics, on how democracies fail. Does Obama fit the description of Aristotle's popular leader of unprincipled character? One thing seems sure: Obama's plan of expropriating the wealth of notable citizens and spreading it around has had predictably bad results for at least 2500 years:

"In democracies the most potent cause of revolution is the unprincipled character of popular leaders. Sometimes they bring malicious prosecutions against the property-owners one by one, and so cause them to join forces; common fear makes the bitterest of foes cooperate. At other times they openly egg on the multitude against them. There are many instances of the kind of thing I mean. At Cos the democracy fell when the popular leaders deteriorated, the more notable citizens combining against them. Similarly at Rhodes, when the democratic politicians provided pay for naval ratings and tried to stop refunding to naval commanders the expenses which they had incurred. These, therefore, weary of incessant law-suits, were obliged to form an association and put down the democracy. At Heraclea too the democratic party was brought low just after the foundation of the colony - and all because of their own leaders, whose unjust treatment of the upper-class citizens caused these to leave the city one after another; finally the exiles gathered forces, returned, and put down the democracy.  The democracy at Megara was dissolved in a similar way: here the popular politicians, in order to have money for doling out to the people, banished many of the notable citizens; this went on until the number of those thus exiled became so large that they returned, won a battle against the people, and established an oligarchy. Sometimes, in order to win the favour of the multitude, they oppress the leading citizens and cause them to unite; methods of oppression include forced capital-levy, as well as a levy on income for public services; another method is to bring slanderous accusations against the rich with a view to getting their money transferred to the public purse."

Science and the failure to reach philosophy.

A recurring theme of Kierkegaard is the fact that modern thought, despite its belief that it has moved decisively beyond ancient philosophy, has yet to even reach it. 

A case in point is this article from the Nov. 2 issue of the Boston Sunday Globe, about which I have been meaning to blog but just now have found the time to do so. The article from Science on which it is based is here, but it will cost you ten bucks to read it if you don't already subscribe to the magazine. I plunked down the ten bucks for the purposes of this post, but the original article doesn't add a lot that isn't already in the Boston Globe summary.

The article, like all of its type, is sophistical in the technical sense. It plays on the varying meanings of a word, proving something when the word is taken in one sense, and then applying the conclusion to the word taken in another sense. In this case, the word is politics

Now politics can mean the immediate, perhaps unreflected opinions we have about issues involving our common lives. Are you for or against gun control? How about the torture of political prisoners? Do you think it is too easy for illegal immigrants to enter the country? Any one can have an opinion about these questions whether they have thought about them or not. And those opinions will have some causal origin; if not in considered rational thought, then in our environment or perhaps the peculiarities of our individual natures (e.g., people easily startled and naturally fearful will tend to favor a strong natural defense and gun ownership.) This is common sense. We can conduct scientific studies, of course, and generate numbers and plot graphs that document the correlation between things like a fearful nature and support for strong national defense. This is what the scholars cited in the Boston Globe did, and there is nothing in their results that should surprise anyone of common sense. 

But the scientists think they have found something novel and startling, something that carries significant implications for our political life. They think this because they have applied their results - results that apply to the meaning of politics discussed in the last paragraph - to the other meaning of the word politics. This second meaning is the one used by classical philosophers like Plato and Aristotle when they discuss politics.

Aristotle was aware that everyone has opinions about man's communal nature. The cave man who ruled his immediate family with a club had an opinion: He rules because he is the strongest. The barbarian tribesman has an opinion: The chief rules because he has the strongest magic or knows the secrets of the dead or some such thing. The average Greek has opinions: He supports the Spartan military society because it has made Sparta the strongest city, or the Athenian democracy because it made Athens the wealthiest city, or any number of such opinions.

But such opinions are not yet politics in the philosophical sense. They are not political because they make no effort to transcend immediate circumstances and grasp the rational truth about the nature of man's communal life as such. They make no effort to search for the causal origin of the structure of communal life, or to search for a transcendent standard against which to judge cities. Politics is not merely a set of opinions regarding men's life together; it is the quest to ground man's communal life in reason and truth. Politics starts when we refuse to be satisfied with opinion and demand that man's communal life be grounded in an understanding of its causes and end. "We are accustomed to analyse other composite things till they can be subdivided no further; let us in the same way examine the state and its component parts and we shall see better how these differ from each other, and whether we can deduce any working principle about the several parts mentioned." (Aristotle, Politics Book I ch. 1).

Is politics as just defined possible? In other words, can reason transcend immediate circumstances to grasp the truth as such? Or are environment and, perhaps, nature determinative of political opinions? This is an old question, although the Boston Globe seems to think it was just recently taken up: "In the 20th century, scholars began to explore the influence of culture, economic status, and other environmental factors on the development of political opinion." So Karl Marx was unaware that economic status had any effect on political opinion? The French revolutionaries saw no relationship between Catholic culture and the divine right claims of Louis XVI? At least Lenin and the earlier French Jacobins could think more clearly than, say, Prof. Hibbing of the University of Nebraska:

"Simply knowing that our political preferences have physiological sources 'may make us a little more humble, a little less quick to say, 'My opponent is simply stupid, ' ' Hibbing said."

We won't say they are stupid because there is no point in saying anything to them at all, their political views having already been determined by some non-rational cause; whether that cause is genes or environment or space aliens is really of no account. How then shall our political differences be settled, if not by argument, for settled they must be? Robespierre, Lenin and Mao had a ready answer to that question. The Globe writes that "When we debate issues, in other words, we do not so much argue a political position as assert who we are." The Guillotine and the Gulag are very effective ways of asserting yourself.

Either the great questions are susceptible to rational argument or they are not. If they are not, then we should all grab our guns as quickly as possible. If they are, then we may acknowledge that pre-rational political opinions may be decisively influenced by genes, environment, upbringing, or the bad fish you ate the night before. Politics in the true sense starts with the acknowledgment that we all have opinions that have obscure origins in our nature or environment. It moves on from there to examine those opinions in the light of reason, and discard or modify opinions that have no firm rational foundation. This is just what Aristotle does in the Politics. The University of Nebraska scientists have not gone beyond Aristotle in their research; they have finally reached a point where they may profitably read him.

And, finally and as usual, the Globe writer and the Nebraska scientists do not seem to grasp that their way of thinking is just as destructive of their own science as it is of political thought. If  in politics "we may imagine that our choice is based on a thoughtful consideration of the issues" when, really, it is powerfully influenced by genetics, why not in science as well? I am sure I could take 50 random people from the street, ask them the question "Do you think political opinions are determined by genetics?" while they are hooked up to all manner of probes and electrodes, and discover some correlation between physiology and a yes or no answer to the question. Then I could conclude that all scientific opinions are determined by genetics, and that scientists only think they are debating issues, when really they are just asserting who they are. 

This little thought experiment shows the game that is being played. There is a difference, of course, between opinions about science, which anyone can have, and scientific opinions, which are more than mere opinions because they are held by scientists who have an understanding of the causes involved, an understanding that manages to transcend the limitations of nature and environment. It is sophistical to make an argument that confuses the two meanings, just as it is sophistical to conclude that political opinions are determined by genes because opinions about politics show some correlation with genetic constitution.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Obama as the Incarnation of History

It's been almost a month since I've blogged... but then I try not to blog for the sake of blogging, and only write when I think I have something to contribute that is not already being said by others. My thoughts on the recent election have mostly been stated by others (Peter Hitchens, for example) better than I could have stated them myself. 

One thing about Barack Obama I think people are missing concerns the idea that he thinks of himself as some sort of Messiah. This doesn't really get it. A Messiah, including the Messiah, is a man on a mission under orders from a higher power. "For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me." The Messiah is not an independent operator; his power and authority are defined by the mission on which the Higher Power has sent him. He lives in a world of metaphysical absolutes that define his world.

History (since the birth of Christ) is the record of the response of men to the Messiah. The Messiah grounds the meaning of history, but He is not history itself. The distinction between the Messiah and history creates the space in which the freedom of men can exist, and in which men become free co-creators of history with the Messiah. Christ allows men to crucify Him, if they so chose, so that the distinction between Himself and history will endure; history goes on, its meaning secure, even when the Savior is killed and is buried.

Barack Obama, in contrast to Christ, deliberately collapses the distinction between himself and history. Uniquely among American politicians, he does not really sell ideas or policies. His ideas are stale socialist drivel from the 1930's, ideas that would get a politician laughed off the platform were they stated by anyone other than Obama. But no one cares about the ideas, because what Obama is really selling is himself as the incarnation of history. To support Obama is to be swimming with the tide of history; to oppose him is to be worse than wrong, it is to be ahistorical. Christ heralded the advent of the Kingdom of God; Obama heralds the advent of the City of Man

What defines the City of Man is that history replaces metaphysics as the foundation of the world. It doesn't matter that Obama can't explain his abortion absolutism, his terrorist friends, or his crazy pastor, or even offer a coherent account of what he would do as President. Things will be different once he is elected, are different now that he is the President-elect. Philosophical debates about the beginning of life or the morality of revolutionary terrorism belong to the old world, the world of metaphysical absolutes like God and human nature. Obama never claimed to transcend these debates; what he claimed to do is "move beyond them," and the temporal nature of his assertion is exactly right. 

John McCain was the perfect representative of an old world of absolutes - of honor, duty, and country - too weak to defend itself against the magic spell of Obama's historicism. The election post-mortem revealed that McCain himself sensed the "historic destiny" of the Obama campaign and wondered if it was right for him to stand in the way. His doubt caused him to pull his punches and leave the obvious arguments against Obama (e.g., that his politics are reheated garbage from 1933) off the table. If McCain really understood the old world, then he would have understood that metaphysical absolutes judge history, not the other way around. Something is truly "historic" only to the extent that it has a foundation in the true, the good and the beautiful; that is, ultimately in God. The true and the good do not stand aside as history marches on.

What will become of our freedom in the new historical epoch allegedly opened by Obama? There is no space for freedom in our new world, since Obama's destiny and history are one and the same. This is the reason that Obama so casually tosses aside old friends and even family members ("typical white person") and no one seems to care. To be in Obama's way is to be in history's way, and no one has standing before history, not even John McCain. 

The Constitution, once revered as the law of the land, has served its purpose in bringing us to this historical moment, the advent of Obama. It is now a relic of a bygone age, one that will retain some hold over the current generation but little over the succeeding ones. Certainly Obama will not feel constrained by it.

We religious folk will be tolerated, but only so long as we do not stand in the way of history by proclaiming our metaphysical absolutes. Obama-world does not have space for philosophical or religious arguments. These arguments will not be answered because they won't be seen to even rise to the dignity of being wrong; they will be denounced as unfortunate efforts to take us back to the "old debates of the past", efforts that must be resisted rather than answered.

I don't think it will go well for us.