Saturday, August 9, 2014

Derbyshire and the Red Pill

John Derbyshire's latest column is an interesting example of what happens when an intelligent but non-philosophical mind bumps up against some realities that can only be addressed philosophically.

The most fundamental of these realities is that most people live non-reflectively and accept uncritically whatever the conventional wisdom tells them. One reason this happens is that it is simply easier to live as one of the crowd ("the herd" as Kierkegaard put it). Challenging the conventional wisdom, the established ways, is perceived by the crowd as a threat to the stability of the established order (which, in truth, it may very well be); so the critical thinker will naturally find his life more difficult than one who just goes along with the prevailing wisdom. As Derbyshire puts it:
It is also antisocial. Who wants to hear you say that the emperor has no clothes, when everyone else they know—including all the cool people!—says otherwise.
Those who follow the crowd are known as the "well-adjusted."  In the terms of Derbyshire's column, they have taken the "blue pill", an apparent reference to the film The Matrix (which I haven't seen). The far fewer people who take the "red pill" are the "realists", the ones who take the truth as it is and damn the consequences. Naturally, Derbyshire includes himself in this latter group. (How can one be sure which pill you actually took? Maybe the red pill is just a blue with some food coloring on it.)

Derbyshire finds demoralizing the fact that most people are non-reflective, and so not open to the truth he wants to tell them. He consoles himself that there are still, in fact, some redoubts of reason left in the modern world:
Crazy as the social and political worlds undoubtedly are, looking at things realistically, reason still holds its fort. Mathematics, the homeland of reason; science, the mostly-well-behaved offspring of math; and technology, the child of pure science, continue to produce wonders and enlarge our understanding.
Noticeably absent from the list of citizens Derbyshire welcomes into the fortress of reason is philosophy. But without philosophy, the fortress of math and science will not last long, for the question of the value of math and science is a philosophical one, not a scientific one. No wonder he is depressed. His own canon of reason is in effect a form of unilateral disarmament in the face of those who would undermine the things he loves.
Putting yourself outside the circle of reason would make anyone gloomy. Yet Derbyshire's occupation - writing pop math books and opinion columns - qualifies as neither math, science nor technology, and so does not qualify as reason under his requirements. This gives Derbyshire's columns their peculiar flavor: He desperately wishes that everyone would take the red pill and deal with reality, but can't make an argument to that effect since no such argument is possible in terms of math or science. All he can do is lament the fact and report that he, unaccountably, prefers the red pill to the blue pill.

The fact that most people do not prefer to face the truth, and resent those who would reveal it to them, is no recent discovery. It is, in fact, one of the original insights of philosophy and is memorably allegorized (yes, that is a word) in Plato's parable of The Cave. The difference between Plato and Derbyshire (or, at least, one of them) is that Plato didn't simply throw up his hands in light of this situation, but thought deeply about it and its implications for the practice of philosophy. The result was The Republic, one of the great philosophical documents of Western culture, in which Plato makes the argument that the city in which philosophers rule is not only ideal for the philosopher, but for everyone else as well. Plato's ideal city was never realized in fact (and, indeed, even in The Republic he acknowledges that it was never really practical), but that doesn't mean the work was without influence. The alternative to crowning the philosophers kings is to make kings, to the extent it is possible, philosophers. Another way of saying it is that it isn't necessary that the mass of people become philosophers - it is only necessary that the influential ones become philosophers. That has happened in history - Marcus Aurelius comes to mind - but most notably in the founding of our own nation. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are nothing if not documents claiming to found a nation on reason.

Derbyshire ends his column with a note of demoralization, lamenting the fact that he is on the red pill:
I want to believe the pretty lies. I’ve had enough of depressive realism. I want to take the blue pill. Where’s the nearest retail outlet?
It's a little hard to take Derbyshire seriously in his melancholy, for there is about him a bit of what G.K. Chesterton called the "boyish delight in the grim and unapproachable pose of the realist." In any event, the answer to depressive realism is more realism, not less, and we can only hope that Derbyshire's depression might drive him to the point of reconsidering the scientistic (not scientific) dogmas that prevent him from thinking truly philosophically.

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