Briefly looked over the *97* draft blog posts in my backlog. But am I finishing or discarding any of them? Noooo! I’m drafting another one! Right here, right now!
I’ve previously mentioned the froo-froo snacks thing we have going at my place of employment. The company supplies all kinds of free goodies in each of two nice kitchenettes – one upstairs, one down. This bounty includes sodas, bottled waters, fruit nectars, greek yogurts, single-serving cheeses (3 kinds) along with nuts, party mix, granola bars, fresh fruit and on and on. For an office with around 20 people in it.
We’ve recently upped the ante from this already embarrassing bounty by adding ‘healthy’ snacks from a service that supplies them in a cute cardboard box/display every couple weeks. I am weak – I tried some: they range from pretty good (e.g., coconut something-something bars – yum!) to weird (e.g., ‘jerky’ that ended up being limp sticky maple flavored bacon – huh? Bacon = good; this = weird.), as you might expect.
But I do draw the line somewhere. I have nothing against kale, per se, even if I have occasionally and with some
justification referred to it as ‘a weed with a marketing department’. But
I’m not even going to try a snack leading with ‘Blueberry-Vanilla-Kale’ in big print. I have some principles.
Also, the Gucci snack industry’s crack delivery system mutation division can’t seem to settle on terminology: are these oh-so-hip snack units bars? cookies? skeet? pucks? I’d go with ‘wads’ – ‘a delicious wad of vanilla- infused blueberries enveloped in a healthful duvet of the finest kale’ – I might try THAT, once, anyway, out of sheer cussedness.
My daughter and I sometimes kid about efforts to be holy, in what I hope is a light and not-asking-to-get-struck-down-by-lightening way. We once came up with ‘redemptive mockery’ in response to the use of the term redemptive suffering for every little inconvenience: one might piously help out a fellow sinner by mocking them relentlessly, for their own good! Look at all the humility and patience to be gained! In a similar vein, living out here in California, we get pretty touchy-feely at Mass. People tend to hold hands at the Our Father, sometimes forming circles of people so joined. I refered to this as ‘redemptive kindergarten’ to said daughter, and had the satisfaction of watching her spend the next few moments fighting off a giggle fit. At Mass. Bad Daddy! Bad!
This may have to be my default GIF from here on out:
Politics? Education? Religion? Hey, the dumpster fires have to burn themselves out eventually, right? Right? PLEASE?!?
If you want to die at home, my advice would be, don’t go to a hospital. Perhaps this will strike gentle reader as a remark overweighted on the side of the obvious; but there is some method in some of my madness. So I will begin with a careful qualification: my advice holds for Canada, and the United Kingdom, but not for all of those Natted States. (I realize there are other jurisdictions.) And even there, the impossibility of fixing “Obamacare,” without further extending its “entitlement” provisions, shows the end is coming, soon. But in Canada and UK, the future has been here for some time.
The reason, of course, is that at these higher latitudes we have so-called “single-payer” “healthcare” systems in which, as we have been reminded lately, all decision-making is concentrated in the caring-sharing State, or as I prefer to call her, Twisted Nanny. Once the paperwork is complete, and the customer has progressed from the outer to the inner waiting rooms, he is entirely in her power. He may, after reviewing her apparatus (both surgical and managerial), want to go home and die there. But she is unlikely to release him, and it will require the assistance of loyal friends and family to effect the equivalent of a prison break. (Tip: staff tend to be at their least attentive during the conventional sleeping hours.)
You see, Twisted Nanny likes to watch people die. She can become quite annoyed when others appropriate this privilege. She also likes to kill people, and has gone to considerable trouble to establish a monopoly in this regard. And given her latest powers, under legislation for “euthanasia,” she prefers to do it in her own facilities. She doesn’t make house calls, the way they do in Red China.
Don’t want to start out too critical of what very well might be legitimate efforts to understand the brain and how people make decisions, but The Brains Behind Behavioral Science article from a mag called Behavioral Scientist seems to offer observations about as profound as Lu Yan’s comments to Jason Tripidikas in Forbidden Kingdom referenced above, but without the intention of making a joke. For example:
Crucially, by predicting—instead of passively registering—our environment, predictive coding allows our brain to conserve cognitive resources and guide our perception and action in a fast and efficient way. But this also means that what our brain notices and attends to is heavily determined by what we already know.
Ooooh-kay. In English: we tend to look for and notice familiar things in familiar environments. Since that would be what makes a familiar environment familiar, I’m not sure we got anywhere here.
The major contention, OK as a basis of scientific exploration as long as accompanied by awareness of the limits of such a view, is that the mind (human behavior standing in, in this case) is the way it is because the brain is the way it is. As a working hypothesis, such a notion might allow something to be discovered about the relationship of thought and volition to the physical state and capacities of the brain. Not bloody likely, but maybe. Such a view does not allow one to pass metaphysical go, nor collect 200 Kantian thalers, real or otherwise.
The essay continues:
From this perspective, it is easy to see how predictive coding explains our tendency to spot confirming evidence more readily than disconfirming evidence. And because most of these predictions are performed unconsciously, we are unaware of how our prior beliefs blend with new information from the real world. When it comes to explaining cognitive quirks like the confirmation bias, the brain is basically an engine of prediction.
That word – easy – I don’t think it means what you think it means. Also, the mind and perhaps the brain boggles at the notion of demonstrating the brain’s nature as a predictive engine. Basically, thoughts as an expression of brain activity is a tricky concept, to say the least. That materialists want it to be so doesn’t make it any less tricky.
By using neuroscience to prune behavioral concepts to relevant brain substrates (! – ed.), we can rationalize the zoo of biases. The outcome would be a simpler framework, with a map of behaviors observed in different situations linked to core cognitive functions. Such simplification has already begun and could both help communication among behavioral scientists and lead fundamental and applied research in new directions.
Our suspicions are confirmed. “Rationalize a zoo of biases.” Hmmm. Note that the writer is a behavioral scientist (whatever that might be) expressing her hope that the “zoo” – the diverse, animated collection of biases that seems to be her subject matter – can be rationalized, by which she clearly means organized in a more understandable way, by use of simple principles to be discovered through neuroscience. Note that this hope is expressed as a simple fact: “we can rationalize…” not as the more sane and scientific “we just might maybe be able to rationalize…” Nope, by applying the same sort of neuroscience by which we have gained rich insight into the inner spiritual life of dead salmon, we will – not may, not might – we WILL “prune behavioral concepts to relevant brain substrates.”
She gives this example:
For instance, by studying the way brains change as we age, neuroscientists can help address one of the major challenges for the next generation of behavioral scientists: how to target behavioral interventions for the vastly different brains of people of different ages, cultures, and socioeconomic levels.
Apart from the mere woolly incoherence of the above quotation, I for one would really not want the sort of thinker who could emit such a thought doing any sort of “behavioral interventions” on me under any circumstances.
It gets worse:
To assess differences among individuals, one objective alternative is “neural indexes.” Neural indexes are brain signatures of specific behaviors. Modern neuroscience has demonstrated that we can now use neural indexes to spot behavioral biases in different populations. Many cognitive biases (like risk aversion, the endowment effect, or framing effects) have already been reduced to specific brain structures or networks, enabling neuroscientists to expand the samples to people of different ages.
Aaaaand – the reference is a link to yet another fMRI study. TL;DR much past the pretty pictures. I will give them this: in the opening paragraphs I did read, the researchers use the word ‘suggests’ to describe certain much-to-be-hoped-for conclusions. Very consistent with proper scientific restraint in the face of the massive, hulking, shadow-casting unknowns that haunt the scientific mind (even one as modest as mine) when contemplating what is being claimed. Contrast this with the casual confidence mentioned above. I merely note that unless some breakthrough has happened in the last 2 years that I’ve completely missed – unlikely – fMRI studies make phrenology look hard-science-y by comparison. Dead salmon, and all.
So perhaps some restraint would be in order, a little shadow of doubt?
Moving on, saw this on Twitter, I think. It seemed appropo:
Yet, here’s another Twitter grab (I must figure out how one embeds these things!)
See here for my basic take on the often desperate looking attempts to distract people from the ongoing fraud that is sociological and psychological ‘research’ – poorly defined questions researched via dubious protocols and never replicated are published as ‘studies’ – that then, as the writer above notes, become the basis of public policy and popular culture.
(This reminds me – there’s a blog draft in the folder where I trace a particularly egregious example of ‘nothing to see here, citizens, move along’ through its permutations over time, where a study that had very publicly been used to beat conservatives was shown to actually have found the exact opposite conclusion – and so now needed to be poo-pooed into dissipating vapors. Need to finish that one…)
Now on to cheerier news:
Here is updated the story of honeybee hive collapse, a cautionary tale about needing to understand the problem before panicking and formulating drastic solution. This is perhaps a good one to point out for my own sake, since I failed to think it through myself, and thus missed the obvious point: honeybees are livestock, animals domesticated, bred and cared for by people. ‘Wild’ honeybees, such as the hive we used to have in our front yard, are really feral – their ancestors escaped at some point from domesticated hives first brought over by English settlers 3 or 4 centuries ago.
Thus, the solution to hive collapse is not to be found, generally, in improving the natural environment, but in improving the applicable animal husbandry. And so it has happened: if hive collapse is reducing honeybee populations by up to 40%, then apiarists are going to breed more of them to make for it – because bees are raised to pollinate crops and produce honey. As a bee farmer, I’m going to do what I can to have the right numbers of bees available for my business.
So we can pretty much stop panicking over hive collapse. Keep an eye on it, just don’t panic.
While evil never sleeps, and there’s plenty wrong with the world, it serves no positive purpose to ignore real gains in the material basis for general human happiness. Real, concrete problems correctly understood can call forth real, concrete solutions that actually solve something – this chart is, I think, a monument to just such thinking. But focused problem-solving won’t bring the revolution any closer, and just might cause it to be postponed indefinitely – so it must be avoided and ridiculed at every step in the eyes of certain interests.
I’ve said that I’d never let my kids try a 10-day (unsupervised European trip – ed) in college, because what if what could have been for me comes true for them? What if they get lost, or mugged? What if they make a poor decision, choose the wrong stop, and get stranded outside an airport in a blizzard? What if they need help and can’t find it?
That one major snafu on our 10-day happened at the end, when we missed our flight back to Rome because we got off the train at the wrong stop. The airport in Brussels wouldn’t let us spend the night inside, so we huddled against the building instead, trying to stay out of the snow. The only thing we had to eat was a backpack full of Cadbury chocolates that my roommate had gotten in London.
As a parent, this story is terrifying. But it’s one of my favorite memories. We made it back to Rome cold, tired, sick of Cadbury, but alive and newly aware of our own resilience (and of the importance of navigational skills).
Ironically, protecting our kids from the pain of failure is itself a failure. It’s failing to let them experience the life we know is coming at them, the life we can’t protect them from forever.
Real choices matter to the kid, are supported by the family, and have real consequences. Leave out any of those three things, and the choosing is an illusion.
One final thing to add: kids also need to see adults sticking with the results of their own decisions. If mommy and daddy are running away – from their responsibilities, their spouses, their own kids – it becomes pretty much a given that the kids will grow up into bitter, whiny irresponsible brats. We wouldn’t want that to happen.
B. Another chart showing something or other:
It’s from Pew, whose methodology is both widely respected and, to give them the benefit of the doubt, hopelessly flawed. In general, unverified self reporting by the sort of people willing to take polls, with no concern wasted considering if the responder is at all motivated to tell the truth. (1) The questions tacitly assume that the world really does fall into convenient polar positions on virtually every subject. Which would be really, really convenient – for pollsters. So don’t give Pew polls much weight, in general.
By happenstance, about the same time I saw this I read a quip somewhere, to the effect that ‘Sir,’ Ma’am,’ and ‘Thank you’ will get you farther than a bachelor’s degree. Had to wonder: what’s the overlap between those red bars above and people who would nod at the folk wisdom of that quip? I’d quibble that a bachelor’s in something real PLUS the proper use of sir, ma’am and thank you is the real winning strategy. Nevertheless, with Pew, is often not difficult to see which of the two either/or points of view they’re hammering the world into they want us to consider enlightened.
I’ve wondered since the election about the reported 8% of blacks who voted for Trump. I believe the number was based on exit polls. Now, imagine, in the general atmosphere of the last election, if a black person would feel completely comfortable telling a stranger with a clipboard that he’d just voted for Trump. Not saying one way or the other about what the results show – just that the method used is ignoring a pretty big potential issue when it fails to account for social pressures, or just assumes they cancel out.
C. Something stupid for your possible amusement:
Something about rabbits and chickens, creatures with largely unearned reputations as pacifists, going all Wild West there’s-a-new-sheriff-in-town that cracks me up a little. One struggles a little coming up with the proper Darwinian just-so story that explains such odd behavior away. Why are the chickens not content to let the rabbits kill each other if they want to? Have they adopted them, somehow?
D. Apologies. This is plain stupid. This is what an adolescent sense of humor, + <45 seconds of web searching + <10 minutes of MS Paint will get you:
Got a week on-site with a customer next week doing new product roll-out, Diablo Valley School’s graduation and year-end party (20th anniversary!) on Saturday, while my beloved and overworked wife is getting grandma settled and providing huge amounts of care (grandma needs help to stand, sit, get dressed, etc. – prayers for both of them appreciated) so I have no excuse to be blogging – here are some links:
A: Climate Science here and here via TOF’s blog. The comments are enlightening.
B. Dear to my heart, an explanation of how a non-scientist can nontheless tell that the current climate change panic is bogus, by the estimable John C. Wright. His explanation is from the perspective of a lawyer (although I strongly suspect his experience as a newsman plays a part as well). My perspective is similar, but, since I’m not a lawyer, flavored more strongly by my life-long love of science. This love includes the realization early on that the claims of science are conditional, limited, and only as strong as the challenges they are able to survive. Planck’s quip – that science advances one funeral at a time – reveals a deep truth about people: that we are not likely to give up beliefs, especially those upon which our careers and livelihoods are built, just because somebody poses a question or provides evidence that doesn’t fit. Since facts can always be understood in more than one way, even, often, contradictory ways, our default behavior as human beings is to choose a way to understand the facts that doesn’t require us to abandon what we hold dear.
The foregoing is how I account for the true believers who are actual scientists. There really don’t seem to be many of those – real scientists preaching unfettered panic and insisting on the institutions of global controls that can only be called totalitarian. Instead, we have scientists in love with their babies – oops, models – who can’t accept the reality of the failure of those models. The existence of multiple models is, in itself, a nearly definitive proof that the science is not settled – what it would settle on, if it were settled, would be one basic model reflecting one nearly complete and useful theory. This, I should think, is blindingly obvious.
What the truth about human nature expressed in Planck’s quip does not account for are the easily-impressed rabble (scientifically speaking – I trust these folks are decent enough where it matters, are kind to their pets and call their mothers often) who, in the words Robert Bolt places in Henry VIII’s mouth, will follow anything that moves. They do not understand science well enough to notice that Sagan, deGrasse Tyson, or even Bill Freakin’ Nye (1) are cheerleaders, whose pronouncements are not science and as often as not, could not be science in principle. As Belloc said:
…it is the mark of modern insufficiency that it can conceive of no other form of certitude save certitude through demonstration, and therefore does not, as a rule, appreciate even its own unproved first principles.
Finally, we have a few (I sincerely hope) of the fine moral specimens exemplified by Rahm Emmanuel: those who not only won’t let a good crisis go to waste, but will eagerly foment one when it serves their purposes. These Machiavellians find the previous two groups useful, and therefore fan the flames. Our obligations as lovers of truth are to fight these last, seek to inform the vast crowd in the middle, and, I suppose, mourn appropriately at the funerals of the first.
D. And Then I Popped Him One is interesting, and reflects what I once read somewhere that Raymond Chandler said: a fight scene can’t go by too quickly in a story, or it will disappoint the reader. If you’ve spent 50 pages working up to it, it can’t go by in a paragraph. This brought to mind the wonderful opening to Farewell, My Lovely,which is one of the most perfect noir detective opening I’ve ever read. The bar scene, while not the climactic fight scene, it sets the stage for all that follows.
A man, described by Chandler as “…a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck” recently released from prison stops by the bar where his girl, Velma, worked when he was put away 5 years ago. In the intervening years, the bar had become a ‘colored’ bar, an obvious fact which nonetheless escapes his notice. He asks after Velma, who of course no one there has heard of, and encounters the bouncer:
The bouncer frowned. He was not used to being talked to like that. He took his hand off the shirt and doubled it into a fist about the size and color of a large eggplant. He had his job, his reputation for toughness, his public esteem to consider. He considered them for a second and made a mistake. He swung the fist very hard and short with a sudden outward jerk of the elbow and hit the big man on the side of the jaw. A soft sigh went around the room.
It was a good punch. The shoulder dropped and the body swung behind it. There was a lot of weight in that punch and the man who landed it had had plenty of practice.
The big man didn’t move his head more than an inch. He didn’t try to block the punch. He took it, shook himself lightly, made a quiet sound in his throat and took hold of the bouncer by the throat.
The bouncer tried to knee him in the groin. The big man turned him in the air and slid his gaudy shoes apart on the scaly linoleum that covered the floor. He bent the bouncer backwards and shifted his right hand to the bouncer’s belt. The belt broke like a piece of butcher’s string. The big man put his enormous hands flat against the bouncer’s spine and heaved; He threw him clear across the room, spinning and staggering and flailing with his arms. Three men jumped out of the way. The bouncer went over with a table and smacked into the baseboard with a crash that must have been heard in Denver. His legs twitched. Then he lay still.
“Some guys,” the big man said, “has got wrong ideas about when to get tough.”
Makes we want to go reread a bunch of Chandler.
Of the three, NdGT is at least a prominent scientist in real life, meaning I’d pay rapt attention to what he has to say – about the science of which he is a prominent practitioner. Sagan was a work-a-day college professor whose ambitions are better measured in Q-rating than in scientific achievement, and Nye holds less of a claim to being a scientist than I do. Failure to parrot whatever these clowns have to say about anything at all is, nonetheless, seen as being anti-science.
This video is amazing. It seems the natives in the isolated mountains of Papua New Guinea have learned to build airstrips, so that people with airplanes will land there. Such contacts with the West bring wealth unimaginable to the people there, after the manner that created the Cargo Cults in the Pacific.
Trouble is, it’s the mountains, and so these airstrips are INSANE – well, watch the video. Little patches of cleared and very roughly flattened land on mountain ridges, with pronounced slopes and a cliff at one end and a mountain wall at the other. Pilots have got to have serious nerve to even try to land.
It took the natives 14 years to build the strip. That’s how important contact with the west is to them. I love how the pilot is embarrassed by the gift of chickens, which are worth a lot to the locals, but takes them anyway so as not to insult them.
Sure hope he comes back with lots of goodies. Imagine he or somebody else will – otherwise, what is the point? Other than proving you’re a manly-man Chuck Norris-level pilot.
In 1996, Stanley Fish wrote an article for First Things called Why Can’t We All Just Get Along, a link to which was washed up on my beach via Twitter. This fairly dense and densely reasoned essay touches upon a subject of some interest here on this blog: how did our colleges and universities arrive at the disastrous state we’ve reached today? I’m going to have to pick a few of many worthy thoughts to comment on, since this is a blog post and I don’t have a week to research and write a reply. Please read the whole essay, as I am not going to be able to do justice to the full scope of his very interesting argument. The reasoning here will not be as tight as the subject deserves, for which I apologize to Dr. Fish and my readers. The line of challenge and pursuit is I think important to get out there, however imperfectly.
First, Fish is a college professor, and thus, when he talks about how Americans think, he’s talking about how people in colleges and the penumbra of colleges think. When this battle was being fought back in the 19th and first half of the 20th century, less than 10% of the population attended college; as late as 1945, less than 30% graduated high school. As late as Harry Truman, America could elect as president someone who attended no college – and not feel particularly bad about it.
I mention this because Fish doesn’t concern himself with the downward push of these ideas from the university to the vast bulk of the citizens. That these ideas were cultivated among a small and very self-conscious elite and inflicted on their presumed inferiors is, I think, an important and telling aspect of the process, as is the fundamental difference in mindset between the children and grandchildren of Calvinist Puritans who founded Harvard and a typical American farmer. (Most Americans lived on farms until almost 1900, and most lived in close proximity to farms until maybe 1940.) Employing the sort of reasoning prefered by Fish, it could be said that certain unconscious assumptions made by a farmer and by a Harvard grad would be mutually unintelligible, and thus kill the possibility of free discussion a-birthing. I would add: minds are not that open; minds simply cannot be that open and remain rational. Thus, what is to be imposed is not rationality, but a belief system.
But Fish’s essay is not about how liberal open-mindedness got promulgated and eventually swept the field, but rather is about its dogmatic intolerance. He gets close to the heart of the matter when he notes that no reasoning can begin without premises, and that such premises cannot be the result of reasoning. Thus, he rejects the idea that articles of faith can be judged by their reasonableness, and calls no less a witness than Augustine.
Is this true? That I’m asking this question reveals my own premises, most important of which are that truth matters, is knowable and can be reached or at least approached by reason. Fish calls Augustine to the stand to defend the idea that articles of faith are by their nature unreasonable (or, perhaps, a-reasonable, after the immoral/amoral distinction) and thus sticks to the Platonic side of the pool. By omission of the arguments from the Aristotle/Thomist (deep) end of the pool, Plato stands as the type of the only line of reasoning to be considered.
Like Augustine, Thomas would reject the idea that one could reason his way to the Resurrection (to stick with Fish’s example), but he would consider it completely correct, required, even, to understand that the claim that Christ is Risen is not unreasonable. One who holds to the Perennial Philosophy would expect all revealed truths to be confirmed by all other truths however arrived at. They would expect all Truth to be One.
A book or two would be required to spell out how, say, knowing the melting point of iron points to the Incarnation. For now, it is enough to insist that rational discussion is not possible if we admit the idea of multiple contradioctory truth into the arena. I contend that the fundamental premise that all truth is one, that no truth arrived at one way can stand unchallenged by a contradictory truth arrived at some other way, is not only tacitly assumed by people with any claim to being reasonable, but is required for any rational discourse whatsoever. Contradictions are not acceptable. Something’s afoot. We must look harder.
Avram: (gestures at Perchik and Mordcha) He’s right, and he’s right? They can’t both be right.
Tevye: You know… you are also right.
My fundamental objection to Fish’s otherwise sympathetic analysis is his shying away from examining which premises support the activity of rational discourse, and which defeat it or, rather, preclude it. In this regard, I find it odd that Marx gets mentioned indirectly and in passing once, and Hegel not at all. Yet I think it indisputable that the premises of Hegel and Marx have replaced the Enlightenment premises as expressed by Jefferson and company as the foundation upon which the current ideas of open-minded discussion, so called, are built.
The answer has many components, including the Jeffersonian project of softening sectarian aggressiveness and establishing a general religion of peace, reason, and morality, the identification of common sense philosophy with Christian morality within the assumption that each supported the other, the rise of the cult of the expert whose skills and authority were independent of his character or religious faith, and the substitution for the imperative of adhering to an already-revealed truth the imperative of continuing to search for a truth whose full emergence is located in an ever-receding future.
This last was particularly important because if truth was by definition larger and more inclusive than our present horizons declared it to be, obedience to traditional norms and values was no longer a virtue, but a fault, and a moral fault at that.
“The higher truth was an ever progressing ideal toward which the human community . . . always moved, yet never reached. Since truth was by definition always changing, the only thing ultimately sacred was the means of pursuing it. No religious or other dogmatic claim could be allowed to stand in its way.”
It is not the business of a university, declared Charles Eliot of Harvard, “to train men for those functions in which implicit obedience is of the first importance. On the contrary, it should train men for those occupations in which self-government, independence, and originating power are preeminently needed.” (Or, in Satan’s more succinct formulation, “self-begot, self-raised.”)
We see here Hegel’s idea of the Spirit unfolding itself through history, an idea that conquered Harvard in the early 19th century, and infused all top-down educational efforts from that point forward. This idea – that men are not given to know divine truths unless and until the Spirit comes to know them in concrete History – held great appeal to Protestant and recently Protestant minds. Rather than an indictment, they could reframe the radical fracturing of Protestantism over time and space as the necessarily messy workings of the Spirit, and the Church’s claim to being the repository and defender of unchanging Truth to be the height of ignorance and hubris.
Princeton’s Francis Patton declared that “the rationality or rather the reasonableness of a belief is the condition of its credibility.” That is, you believe it because reason ratifies it, a view Augustine would have heard with horror, one that John Webster, writing in 1654, rejects as obviously absurd. “But if man gave his assent unto, or believed the things of Christ . . . because they appear probable . . . to his reason, then would his faith be . . . upon the rotten basis of human authority.” By the end of the nineteenth century, human authority has been put in the place of revelation; or rather human authority, now identified with the progressive illumination afforded by reason, has become the vehicle of revelation and of a religion that can do very nicely without any strong conception of personal deity.
This realization was not instantaneous nor universal by any means. Up until the early 20th century, it was not uncommon for various Protestant leaders (Francis Patton, for example) to cry anathema on other Protestants and Christian sects for the heresy of disagreeing with established dogmas. These firebrands still believed that there were revealed truths that *required* our assent if we were to be saved. Since then, and especially over the last 5 or 6 decades, it has become moot to wonder what an American Episcopalian or Lutheran, say, would have to do to be a heretic by the lights of the leaders of their own denominations. Still, among the sheep, there are those who believe that it is possible to be wrong – but, practically, among the leadership? I’ve seen no evidence.
Once Christianity fades entirely and Hegel’s Spirit is laughed off the stage, Marx substitutes his strangely efficacious History into the Spirit’s slot (it fits once Hegel is flipped on his head). Marx renounces Hegel’s considered modesty: we, in the person of Marx, no longer need to wait for Spirit/History to unfold itself, it has unfolded itself to the end! We know where we’re going – and the only foolishness is to be on the wrong side.
Hegel considers what he calls ‘propositional reason,’ which is what Fish is calling simply reason in this essay, to be useful to the little people such as scientists and mathematicians, but of no use to real philosophers doing the hard thinking of real philosophy. For such lofty person pursuing their high and lonely destinies, the law of noncontradiction does not apply, neither do they attempt to work from true premises using valid logic to new states of knowledge. No, like Freud attacking his critics from within his theory (they only disagree because they are repressed, you see), reason is based on some form of unassailable enlightenment. It doesn’t have to be consistent; it doesn’t have to make sense. In any case, it is beyond the reach of mere logical discussion.
The attentive reader will note that such premises are not only as dogmatic and more than anything claimed by Calvin or Luther, but that they serve at least as well the purpose of ending discourse, or hope of discourse. You either get it, or you don’t.
It’s not like people didn’t notice, even at the time:
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Yale’s Noah Porter scoffed at the supposed neutrality and evenhandedness of secular educational theory, which, he pointed out, was its theology: “The question is not whether the college shall or shall not teach theology, but what theology it shall teach”theology according to . . . Moses and Paul or according to Buckle and Draper.” By the beginning of this century it was all too evident which of these directions had been taken by American education. In tones recently echoed by conservative polemicists, the editors of Cosmopolitan magazine complained in 1909 that
In hundreds of classrooms it is being taught daily that the decalogue is no more sacred than a syllabus; that the home as an institution is doomed; that there are no absolute evils . . . that the change of one religion to another is like getting a new hat; that moral precepts are passing shibboleths; that conceptions of right and wrong are as unstable as styles of dress.
“The neutrality we have,” thundered William Jennings Bryan in 1923, “is often but a sham; it carefully excludes the Christian religion but permits the use of the schoolroom for the destruction of faith and for the teaching of materialistic doctrines.” From a quite different perspective, Walter Lippmann agreed: “Reason and free inquiry can be neutral and tolerant only of those opinions which submit to the test of reason and free inquiry.” What this means, as Marsden points out, is that “two irreconcilable views of truth and education were at issue”; but of course the issue was never really joined, because the liberal establishment thought of itself as already reconciled to everything and anything and therefore was unable to see how exclusionary its policy of radical in clusion really was: “Groups that were excluded, such as Marxists and fundamentalists, often raised the point that they were being excluded by liberal dogmatism, but they were seldom heard.”
That they were not heard is hardly surprising, since what they were saying was that a state of “warfare” existed, and warfare ”deep conflict over basic and nonnegotiable issues” was precisely what liberalism was invented to deny; and it manages that denial by excluding from the tolerance it preaches anyone who will not pledge allegiance to the mimicry of tolerance.
The point being missed: an Hegelian or Marxist will very easily “pledge allegiance to the mimicry of tolerance.” They have already done it. They’ve been doing it for a century. They are doing it now, most notably at Berkeley. War is Peace. Speech is Aggression. Beatings and Intimidation are Freedom. Gramsci and Alinsky would nod approvingly.
On an intellectual level, we must challenge the premises that preclude rational discussion. While on a strictly logical basis, Fish is correct that premises cannot be chosen rationally – you have to have premises to reason in the first place. But the logical outcomes of our premises can be examined, and contradictions can invalidate certain combinations of premises as being incompatible. Thus, I cannot defend open-minded discussion without some sort of assumption that truth matters, that truth is knowable at least to some degree, and that words carry meanings that can be communicated between interlocutors.
It is not merely a question of this or that indifferent premise being enforced because we like it better for pre-rational reasons, so to speak. Some premises support conversation and some defeat it. Any society worth defending supports the free expression of ideas. To do so, it must hold up to scorn and refuse to enshrine in law or custom any premises that defeat communication by their nature.
Things have only gotten worse since Dr. Fish wrote this essay. When we allow thugs to shut down speech, when we are ‘tolerant’ of views that defeat the very idea of tolerance, when we cede the field to those who claim the very idea of logical consistency is irrational, we are not furthering this grand experiment. We are less, not more, free.