Curse of the Pyramids

(Thoughts not yet fully formed follow. Like that’s anything new.)

When diagramming out some issue using a pyramid, we are invited (if not forced) to think hierarchically, in terms of a foundation, middle stories built on that foundation, and a crowning achievement/reward at the top:

We have food pyramids,

USDA Food Pyramid
If you carb-load, then eat your fruits and veggies and top them off with a cheese burger, you have proved your virtue and may then have sweets! 

Maslow’s Hierarchy,

Image result for maslow hierarchy of needs pyramid diagram
“Breathing, Food, Water, Sex, Sleep, Homeostasis, Excretion” – Hmmm – which one of these is not like the others? (Homeostasis in this context is a largely redundant catch-all for all the others – except one.) 

Management hierarchies:

CEO Pyramid
I think this is a joke. I hope it is a joke. At the very least, except for a few very highly specialized businesses, it should be way wider at the bottom, narrow rapidly and come to a pointy-point. 

 

Even hierarchies of disagreement:

Image result for disagreement  pyramid diagram
So, we’re to base our disagreements on name-calling, and then work our way up through ad hominem past gainsaying and then finally arrive at something like reasonable discussion? Seems an unlikely progression. 

A moment’s reflection should reveal, I think, that except when applied to construction of large monumental structures, such pyramid thinking is very unlikely to apply to anything in the real world. Imagine, for example, a pyramid describing a bee hive:

Bee Hive Hierarchy

Or maybe:

Bee Hive Hierarchy II

Does either one of these make any sense at all? Of course not. Placing these relationships in a pyramid all but forces us to assume a hierarchy that isn’t there. Even the names – queens, drones, workers – are blatant anthropomorphizing. The queen isn’t commanding the workers any more than the workers are enslaving the queen.

In a similar way, all the examples given are nonsense. Our food habits aren’t hierarchical – we don’t build upon a base of carbs to support an apex of sweets and fats. Maslow’s diagram hides an important truth: that it’s belief in and desire for the good that often motivates people to accept less fulfillment or show no concern for lower levels, sometimes, because we are not defined by them. There are many accounts of brilliantly happy saints who went hungry, voluntarily eschewed sex, lived in times of turmoil, did not have a place to lay their heads, were shunned and mistreated by their contemporaries – and achieved a level of ‘self-actualization’ beyond anything known to Maslow’s philosophy.

In the flat moral universe I’m often on about here, the temptation is to see the world as a series of pyramids, where there’s a bottom level of oppression and mistreatment to be escaped, upper levels holding lower levels down with bad intent, and a struggle to invert the pyramid, somehow.

In almost every case, such an understanding is poor. Relationships are both more complex and subject to much more variety than can be even roughly approximated by layer in a triangle.

Pyramid thinking: a bad idea.

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All Cases Make Bad Law

(Half-formed thoughts, subject to revision. More than usual, I mean.)

Two anecdotes:

As a  young man, worked briefly in the insurance industry, for a while as a personal lines (auto, home, that sort of thing) underwriting analyst. The particular company I worked for had a marketing strategy by which they would approach certain groups – the California Teacher’s Union being the biggest – and offer them some special deals if they’d agree that we were their official insurance company and let us market directly to their members that way. A very interesting business model, and how I came to have a small bit of personal contact with the uppity-ups in the Teacher’s Union. One part of the typical deal was an appeals board that included some actual union members, that people insured could make appeals to if they didn’t like how the insurance company treated them. (1)

One task we with the Underwriting Analyst job title would do is look over the more crazy, out there claims and issues, including stuff that had been appealed to these boards. One time, we were discussing a case where a dreaded Young Male Driver was appealing non-renewal (when the insurance company says ‘no thanks’ to another year of coverage). Over the previous year or so, he had multiple moving violations to the point where his licence was near being revoked, and had made a couple of claims (those things do go together). He was shocked and claimed it was totally unfair of us to not renew his policy – that his driving record was no worse than anybody else he knew. For all I know, he was completely sincere.

Now, an underwriting analyst has access to much accumulated insurance wisdom. Using this wisdom, I know I am a fairly typical driver: in 40 years of driving, I’ve had 2 at fault accidents (both in the first year of driving, when I was a dreaded Young Male Driver myself) and 1 moving violation. That averages out to 0.05 accidents and 0.025 tickets per year. Having more than one ticket in a year is very unusual, and raises a lot of red flags, because getting tickets and costing the insurance company a lot money do go together. This kid was a phenomenal outlier and probably a menace. But he was sure he was typical, and no amount of information could convince him otherwise.

Second anecdote:

Almost the last time I listened to NPR was years ago, a Terry Gross interview of some legal scholar. They were addressing the issue of how real life changes faster than laws can get written, so that judges are faced with cases laws never anticipated and for which there are not any really valid precedents. Their conclusion: of course judges must make the law! With a strongly implied ‘how could anybody seem so stupid as to imagine otherwise?’

Instead of discussing the need for balance – the need for the written law to be respected and weighed against the occasional need to rule on a situation that lies outside the written law – we just chuck the written law! What could be simpler?

A common thread in the above is how a a thing, a ‘this’ in Aristotle’s way of talking, presents itself for consideration. In insurance, a thing might be a claim; in law, it might be a case. As a claims adjuster or a judge, the units of interest to you arrive to your awareness prepackaged, as it were, by rules and laws, assumptions and theories – as facts, as things made, in a traditional configuration. Yet what’s missing, what is critical to making wise decisions, is the knowledge of the wide cultural and moral context within which the claim or case is made.

Such a moral and cultural context is not strictly objective, in the sense that it’s not something to be learned merely by looking at how things are at some time and place. It includes, at least in the West, recognition of imperfectly realized ideals. Without this cultural context taken in the widest possible sense, a sense that includes Jewish reverence for the law of God, Greek logic, and Christendom’s ancient sense of salvation history, not just hard cases, but all cases make bad law.

This is where case law gets tricky. If we look to precedent, what we are doing should not be just sussing out how other judges judged and seeing if their judgement applies to the facts in this case. We should also try to to understand that constellation of moral and cultural beliefs that made that judgement seem just to that judge.

Image result for oliver wendell holmes supreme court
Righteous mustache, I must admit. 

I’m not a lawyer, and have felt only the slightest attraction to that profession(2). But I love philosophy. I’ve read just enough (very little) of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr to be dangerous.  OWH Jr assures us that law is, in its essence, philosophy (3). Well, then! Here we go.

If I understand justice to be essentially something eternal and unchanging, along the lines of a Platonic form, more or less, I will look at case law as perhaps revealing something true about justice. At least potentially, all those decisions will reflect all the judges’ best cogitations on the same truth. Like science, it would be acknowledged up front that all such attempt are provisional, that something that comes along later might require reexamination of assumptions. But the basic shape of the process is also like science – it assumes the existence of an objective reality to which our best efforts are an approximation. Over time, we should hope that the approximation gets better. In the meantime, we get useful gadgets and useful rulings.

Hegel, whose influence, fell and dread, was strong on OWH Jr, teaches that the methods of science is not suitable for true philosophers. By this, he does not mean the (real and true) limitation of modern science to things that can be measured. Rather, he refers to the logical processes that underlie not only science but all prior philosophy. Science works by ‘propositional logic’, moving step by careful step from premises stated and restated to be as clear as possible, using logic as beloved by Aristotle and Thomas to reach valid conclusions. Hegel dismissed such efforts as something engaged in by the little people – not by true philosophers like himself.

True philosophers use speculative reason, a phrase redefined away from its traditional meaning by Hegel to mean insights gained by whatever it is that Hegel does to get insights.

The most fundamental of all realities to Hegel are not immutable truths, but Progress. The Spirit reveals and comes to know itself through an endless series of revelations. Reason that relies on logic as an immutable foundation is thus never going to get it right – people wedded to logic, to the notion that true things need to make sense on some level, will reject the latest revelation on the grounds that it is irrational – that it is self-contradictory. To Hegel, this is both of the nature of revelation – it wouldn’t be a revelation if it made sense – and the reason to reject *logic*, at least in philosophic discourse.

Human beings struggle to come to grips with these revelations, struggle to shed the previous rigid thinking we’d settled into after we’d incorporated the last revelation into our consciousness. Those who cannot incorporate the new revelation – those unable to suspend the contradiction within a dialectic synthesis – are left behind, are on the wrong side of history, or, worse yet, are trying to turn the clock back.

Hegel has never been accused of being clear.

We see a meeting of soul-mates. This is not a coincidence. Hegel was a conventional Lutheran. For 300 years, Lutherans and Calvinists and Protestants in general had asserted the rational superiority of their beliefs to Catholicism. Yet both Calvin and Luther famously denigrated reason – ‘that whore’, as Luther called it. I suppose that’s one of those contradictions subsumed in a synthesis, a contradiction in creative tension.

If you define ‘rational’ as ‘falling under the purview of the methods of Aristotle and Thomas’ the teachings of Calvin and Luther will lose that argument (4). That’s why Philosophy since 1630 or so has been exclusively devoted to dismissing or ignoring Aristotle and Thomas. Just as Holmes’ inherited convictions from his Harvard crowd about how the good and holy Puritans Unitarians secularist progressives should be in charge survived his rejection of the God upon the understanding of Whom such claims of superiority were initially based, the efforts to find some other way – any other way! – to think about reality than using Aristotelian logic survived the Academy’s rejection of all things theological. The lust for power survives any particular justification for it.

To be continued.

  1. Aside: you’ll sometimes hear an insurance company tout its 97% customer satisfaction rate with its claims services. Duh. About 97% of the time, the claim is obvious and any half-way respectable insurance company will promptly pay it – reasonable people are pretty satisfied with that. The other 3% includes the very rare hard case,  where it’s not clear at all that the insurance company should pay, a few fraud cases, but mostly, I’d guess about 3% of the population simply does not want to be satisfied no matter what. I suspect we all know people like that, and thus suspect anything over a 97% satisfaction rate doesn’t include a representative sample of humanity.
  2. Taking my father’s oft-stated belief that education was for getting a better job, I couldn’t see law as anything but a job that claimed to be a vocation that has no justification outside of working for justice. In other words, a lawyer making money is a sell-out by definition. Of course, a couple of my college roommates became a judge and a worker’s rights lawyer, which kinda works…
  3. And, in the course of assuring us of this, dismisses the vast bulk of lawyers as just journeymen of a craft, with no real understanding. This goes back, I would think, to his bedrock Harvard/Boston/essentially Puritan roots, institutions founded on the belief that people like him – the smart, good people – should be in charge of the less smart, less good people. Even losing his faith in God didn’t damage his faith in his own Brahmin class’s meritocracy and fitness to rule.
  4. The Catholic Encyclopedia, whose side in this dispute should be obvious,  says of Robert Bellarmine: “In 1576 …the lectures thus delivered grew into the work “De Controversiis” which, amidst so much else of excellence, forms the chief title to his greatness. This monumental work was the earliest attempt to systematize the various controversies of the time, and made an immense impression throughout Europe, the blow it dealt to Protestantism being so acutely felt in Germany and England that special chairs were founded in order to provide replies to it.” Thus began Catholic attempts to make sense of the mish-mash of Protestant claims and arguments. That there are so many conflicting claims and arguments has always testified against them – Does human will count for anything? Does a plowboy need any help understanding Scripture? Do we need baptism or not? Once, or more than once? What, if anything, does the Eucharist represent? And on and on and on. It is obvious that, if these claims represent superior rationality, that rationality cannot be based on the belief that the Truth is One. Thus, Aristotle and Thomas must be rejected.

Science! Attempts to Destroy Itself

And we should help. Here we go: Daryl Bem Proved ESP Is Real.  Money quote:

If you bought into those results, you’d be admitting that much of what you understood about the universe was wrong. If you rejected them, you’d be admitting something almost as momentous: that the standard methods of psychology cannot be trusted, and that much of what gets published in the field—and thus, much of what we think we understand about the mind—could be total bunk.

Of course, anyone sane and conversant in the scientific method would find the idea that “much of what you understood about the universe was wrong” to be nearly a truism, and “that the standard methods of psychology cannot be trusted, and that much of what … we think we understand about the mind—could be total bunk” to be a revelation on the order of “the sun rises in the East.”

These two ideas go together. While it is important – very important – to recognize that science, especially applied science, has produced a large number of very useful and valuable insights into how the world works, that’s not the same as thinking science has gotten to the bottom, or nearly to the bottom, of How Things Are. It is yet another truism that each scientific answer generates an unlimited supply of additional questions. This state of an ever-receding bottom is in addition to the metaphysical questions the answers to which are both essential to the very concept of science and outside the methods of science to answer.

Science should be a humbling exercise, the thrill of discovery balanced with the inescapable reality that there’s more to figure out than will ever be understood. While egomaniacs can be found in all areas of study, it seems there’s an overall bias: the softer the science, the more play there is for ego, the more ready people are to blow their own horn and take offense at legitimate questions.

Back to the article. There’s a useful recap of what happened in parapsychology in the late ’80s. James Randi had made a name for himself by showing, essentially, that parapsychologist are gullible rubes, or, more generously, that scientists are not trained to expect Nature to try to pull one over on them, leaving them vulnerable to frauds. With careers to consider and funding money on the table, this state of affairs must be addressed.

A raft of reforms were proposed and implemented. Experimenters were advised to be wary of the classic test for “statistical significance,” for example, since it could often be misleading. They should avail themselves of larger groups of subjects, so they’d have sufficient power to detect a real effect. They should also attempt to replicate their work, ideally in adversarial collaborations with skeptics of the paranormal, and they should analyze the data from lots of different studies all at once, including those that had never gotten published. In short, the field of parapsychology decided to adopt the principles of solid scientific practice that had long been ignored by their mainstream academic peers.

“the principles of solid scientific practice that had long been ignored by their mainstream academic peers.”  Let that sink in. Psychology is a field where Freud remains among the top handful of most cited sources. For those who have not had the pleasure of reading ol’ Siggy, he perfected and took to new extremes the approach of answering critics *of* his theories from *inside* his theories – typically, any attempt to point out flaws in his theorizing (and they are patent and legion) was answered by the accusation that the critic was obviously repressed. Jung counts on the same dynamic – reflexive dismissal of critics as simple unenlightened – but has vaguer, less vulgar theories and so appears nicer about it. And so, down the lineage of ‘great’ psychologists to this day.

Success in such an environment hinged more on titillating the undergrads and keeping a straight face than on anything remotely related to science.  All serious and fundamental criticism was summarily dismissed – it had to be, or we’d have never heard of these jokers, who, based on the merit of their theories alone, would hold the same intellectual position as Rosicrucians. Instead, they got paying gigs on the public teat at our great universities, and positions of influence over our young.

Not that things never changed. After Skinner and all the rat running (1), it became popular to use cook-book level statistical analysis in studies. To do this, one needs to assign numerical values to data, ignoring that much, maybe most, things that count as data in psychology do not admit of valid numerical values (on a scale of 1 to 5, how happy are you right now?). Low p-values became the ultimate validation that what you were doing was real, just like the real scientists.

Further, in order to get those p-values, it became common practice to follow many paths, ignore the ones that didn’t ‘work’ and report on those that did. This is an example of an old-style scam (not that the researchers were always aware that scamming was what they were doing – could be enthusiasm + ignorance): send a prediction to 1000 people on who will win that week’s big game – 500 predicting the home team, 500 predicting the away team. Next week, discard the 500 you got wrong, and send out 500 more to those you got right on this week’s big game – 250 predicting the home team, 250 predicting the away team. Repeat a few more times. Then send a note to the remaining people who have received an amazing string of predictions that proved right, saying you’ll send them predictions for the upcoming week for a mere $1,000. How could they resist? You’ve never been wrong before!

To Slate’s credit, this is all explained fairly well in the article.

Bern submitted a paper for publication to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the most prestigious and rigorous journal in his field. An E. J. Wagenmakers read it.

Wagenmakers finally managed to get through Bem’s paper. “I was shocked,” he says. “The paper made it clear that just by doing things the regular way, you could find just about anything.”

and:

“Clearly by the normal rules that we [used] in evaluating research, we would accept this paper,” said Lee Ross, a noted social psychologist at Stanford who served as one of Bem’s peer reviewers. “The level of proof here was ordinary. I mean that positively as well as negatively. I mean it was exactly the kind of conventional psychology analysis that [one often sees], with the same failings and concerns that most research has.”

This was all happening way back in 2010. As a result, there is a movement to tighten up research practices. The article neither mentions nor have I read elsewhere any movement to disavow all findings under the previous method, after the manner in which companies recall batches of product that have poison in them. Calling this a ‘replication crisis’ is dramatically underselling the problem: we have a ‘this is a stinking pile and needs to be shoveled out of here’ crisis. But no one in the field will say that. Instead they will say limp-wristed things like ‘these issue call some earlier findings into question.’ Right. (2)

The article, which is in general commendable and full of useful information, still attempts early on the standard ‘science is hard’ spin I’ve found so often in places like fivethirtyeight: any inclination you might have toward dismissing the entire field of psychology must be resisted, because science is hard!

The replication crisis as it’s understood today may yet prove to be a passing worry or else a mild problem calling for a soft corrective. It might also grow and spread in years to come, flaring from the social sciences into other disciplines, burning trails of cinder through medicine, neuroscience, and chemistry. It’s hard to see into the future. But here’s one thing we can say about the past: The final research project of Bem’s career landed like an ember in the underbrush and set his field ablaze.

Note the not so subtle inclusion of medicine, neuroscience and chemistry as other fields that might be affected by these methodological problems. These three fields do not stand in the same relationship to scientific method as the the social “sciences”. If by neuroscience the author means the wild approaches that lead to MRI studies of dead salmon, then, yes, neuroscience is in exactly the position of psychology. Medicine, on the other hand, has always been a combination of art and science, and has always had a lunatic fringe very similar to mainstream psychology in its approaches and conclusions. But medicine also has results – epidemics prevented, successful surgeries, recoveries from formerly fatal conditions – much more measurable and important. Finally, chemistry is wonderful in that it either works or it doesn’t, so that if you make a claim with any real-world implications, incompetence and fraud will soon out.

No, Slate, there’s no chance this is “a passing worry or else a mild problem calling for a soft corrective.” Nor is it likely to have much effect on fields where hard, objective results are routinely demanded.

There is no replication crisis. There is a this is utter BS crisis, to be resolved once people in general conclude: the social sciences are purveyors of utter BS.

Why, yes, I am a little grumpy today. Why do you ask?

  1. Long quote from Feynman’s famous and oft quoted Cal Tech commencement speech:All experiments in psychology are not of this type, however. For example, there have been many experiments running rats through all kinds of mazes, and so on–with little clear result. But in 1937 a man named Young did a very interesting one. He had a long corridor with doors all along one side where the rats came in, and doors along the other side where the food was. He wanted to see if he could train the rats to go in at the third door down from wherever he started them off. No. The rats went immediately to the door where the food had been the time before.

    The question was, how did the rats know, because the corridor was so beautifully built and so uniform, that this was the same door as before? Obviously there was something about the door that was different from the other doors. So he painted the doors very carefully, arranging the textures on the faces of the doors exactly the same. Still the rats could tell. Then he thought maybe the rats were smelling the food, so he used chemicals to change the smell after each run. Still the rats could tell. Then he realized the rats might be able to tell by seeing the lights and the arrangement in the laboratory like any commonsense person. So he covered the
    corridor, and still the rats could tell.

    He finally found that they could tell by the way the floor sounded when they ran over it. And he could only fix that by putting his corridor in sand. So he covered one after another of all possible clues and finally was able to fool the rats so that they had to learn to go in the third door. If he relaxed any of his conditions, the rats could tell.

    Now, from a scientific standpoint, that is an A-number-one experiment. That is the experiment that makes rat-running experiments sensible, because it uncovers the clues that the rat is really using–not what you think it’s using. And that is the
    experiment that tells exactly what conditions you have to use in order to be careful and control everything in an experiment with rat-running.

    I looked into the subsequent history of this research. The next experiment, and the one after that, never referred to Mr. Young. They never used any of his criteria of putting the corridor on sand, or being very careful. They just went right on running rats in the same old way, and paid no attention to the great discoveries of Mr. Young, and his papers are not referred to, because he didn’t discover anything about the rats. In fact, he discovered all the things you have to do to discover something about rats. But not paying attention to experiments like that is a characteristic of cargo cult science.

  2. There are, of course, people who were thrilled at Bern’s results, and accepted them with unfiltered enthusiasm:  “But for Bem’s fellow members of the Parapsychological Association, the publication marked a great success. “He brought a lot of attention to the possibility that this research can be done, and that it can be done in a mainstream establishment,” says Marilyn Schlitz, a sociolinguist who studies psi phenomena and has an appointment at the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Petaluma, California.

Stanley Fish: Why Can’t We All Just Get Along

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.

Image result for tevye
Horse sense? 

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.

And I think Fish agrees, on some level. Discussing George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief , Fish says

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.

Win-win.

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.

More Poll Results

We’ve beaten this one up before, but it rears its mindless head as if it’s never even *heard* of this blog! Is outrage! So, like people building a civilization, like Charlemagne ruling from the saddle, we are riding off to smack down the Saxons of Ignorance (nice band name!) One. More. Time:

Someone tweets (I really need to give that horrid 140 character god up) this chart from surveys done last year:

Let’s play classroom: Without even going to the Pew site, who can spot problems with this? As with all such rhetorical questions, the foregoing serves one purpose only: to reinforce the teacher’s authority by showing who the good students are – those who supply the answers the teacher wants! Oh, sorry, digression city. Moving on:

The footnote says that these scientifilicious results were obtained via a survey (using an ‘instrument’ no doubt) whereby people were asked such totally non-loaded, non-judgmental questions as: what race are you? How much money do you make? City slicker or country bumpkin? And, BTW, how many books did you read over the last year?

Suppose I’m a hipster city slicker living in Manhattan. I don’t read. But last year, there was some graphic novel all the other cool cats were talking about, so I leafed through it and looked at the pictures.

Well? Did I read one book? Why/why not? Defend your answer!

More important, does the pollster get into a discussion with the hipster over just exactly what qualifies as a ‘book’ and ‘reading’? Oddly, we can answer this: professional or well-trained pollsters do not (I’ve tried to engage pollsters – it just confuses them). The role of leading the witness is left primarily to the writers of the ‘instrument’ – the pollsters themselves see it as their high duty not to, as if their restraint will make this exercise any less ludicrous than it already is.

The same sort of issues exist for almost all the questions: I’m something like 1/32 Cherokee – well? Mixed race? Indian? White? Other? Say I graduated from barber college – is my education level high school? some college? college graduate? I live on the outskirts of the suburbs, so that my nearest neighbors on one side are farmers, but I’m 3 blocks from an art house theater and espresso bar – rural? suburban? Heck, urban?

Another layer: I’m a troublemaker. I ask myself: what degree of honesty do I owe to some schmuck who interrupted my dinner with a phone call the ultimate purpose of which is to establish the Pew Center and its supporters and sycophants as the Smart People with All the Answers? (See what I did there? The answer you get depends a lot on how you ask the question.)

So: Yep, I’m a full-blooded Inuit nuclear physicist making low 7 figures from my career as an underwear model – and I read at least 1,000 books a year from my mountain redoubt.

Prove I’m not.

Bottom line here: if we did not learn from the last election that polls are, at best. treacherously misleading when they are not out and out tools of manipulation, my little essays aren’t going to clear it up.

But those punk Saxons are asking for it.

Uncertainty in Scholarship

Not talking Science! here today, just more mundane scholarship.

On the one hand, I am grateful for all the endless effort many men and women of great talent and perseverance have put into the scholarly investigation of many fascinating topics. I’m counting on R. A. Lafferty, for example, to not mislead me about the Visigoths and Romans, because a) I’ll never live long enough to do the level of research he has done, and b) ditto on learning the languages he seems to know (Classical Latin, at least).

So I trust him. I’ve trusted, more or less explicitly, hundreds and thousands of scholars over the years – the people who have written the books I’ve read, as well as the other scholars those authors have used as well.

On the other hand – where to start? How about toward the deep end: when I read a scholar such as Menand, I am very nearly seduced by his excellent prose and feigned (I think now) sympathy with ideas that might not fly at a typical Manhattan cocktail party. Then he will write, as he recently did, apologetics for Marx – a subject I know enough about from other sources (say, Marx’s own writings!) to see for the craven propaganda it most definitely is.

Image result for Marx
See? A kindly hippy-dude who only wishes peace! Just like Menand himself!

But I so want to trust him on other subjects! Because he writes so beautifully and points out things I find fascinating. Yet, he’s clearly willing to lie (most likely unconsciously, and to himself first, I’m willing to assume) about Marx. So, should I believe him about Harvard and early 19th century America, because I find his take more palatable? And because he pointed me toward topics I’ve since read more on, and found even more palatable? Or am I just playing his game in reverse? Picking and choosing from among the things Menand says, and paying attention to and judging true only the parts I like?

The only solution, it seems to me, is to read broadly enough that one can at least weight the opinions of the scholars relative to each other; study philosophy and logic so that the nature and structure of the arguments can be made clear; and read history – what has happened – to get some context.

Unlike the deconstructionists and other relativists, I don’t think such an approach is completely circular; the philosophy and logic parts allows one to at least eliminate utter nonsense, which then will cause the collapse partial or full of the ideas built upon that nonsense. In this regard, trying to get to the bottom of even a little Hegel makes a lot of the modern world and its addictions much more clear.  It is not man’s lot to understand with complete clarity and conviction, but the world does admit of better and worse degrees of knowledge.

The trouble is even so meager and humble a scholar as I am is still, evidently, an extreme outlier. Do 10% of people actually read, reason, compare, analyze much of anything in life? 1%? 0.1%? I really don’t know, and perhaps the actual life most people are living has much in it that is too important for such digressions. Family, friends, God and neighbors spring to mind.  But unless we are protected by the sort of education and life epitomized by Samwise Gamgee, this lack of interest tends to make us pliable, gullible fools – more so, I mean, than we all are by default already.

On the other hand, back on the shallow end, we – by which I mean I – have the recurring experience of having to listen to people tell us this or that MUST be TRUE since this or that group of scholars have reached that opinion. Often, this undue confidence is mostly harmless. Recently heard a homily in which the lovely priest, for whom I thank God daily, mentioned as fact that the Apostle Peter didn’t write 1 Peter. Now, that’s possible, and has certainly been an opinion I’ve heard before (not as much as with 2 Peter, which all the right people are stone certain could not be the work of Peter).  But the certainty with which such an idea should be expressed is very, very slight – the claim seems to hang on a) not having sufficiently old manuscripts, and b) not seeming like the work of a fisherman from the Levant.  In other words, the oldest manuscripts seem to come from decades after Peter’s death, and the Greek in which the letter is written seems pretty sophisticated from some dumb fisherman.

That these are not particularly strong arguments, and have been shot down repeatedly by other arguments at least as strong (it’s a bit of a miracle that we have ANY ancient documents , and a bit of a crapshoot which are saved and which not, Peter used a scribe, who would have gussied up the language as a matter of course. Tradition as old or older that any manuscripts assigns authorship to Peter.)  And – here’s the point – in and of itself, it doesn’t matter much. But in context, it matters because it spreads the ideas that modern smart people have, once again, overturned what all those ancient dumb people thought. This is pernicious, dishonest – and an assumption upon which the Modern World since at least Hegel has made.  Much woe has resulted.

This is hardly restricted to religious texts. Just about all of the modern ‘soft’ ‘sciences’ depend on this misplaced trust in scholarship to turn, in the best cases, poorly supported claims into hard and fast facts.

If, on the other hand, the views of scholars were presented as informed opinions that might be of interest but must be always be recognized as necessarily carrying a large load of doubt, we might, however unlikely, learn to weigh such opinions with broad scales – to include in the balance however wide a range of items as might be applicable.

It spirals out of control from there: somebody heard Beloved Expert X say that such and such a thing has been proven or disproven by scholars, and then repeats it as fact, which then becomes common sense or at least common knowledge, so that disagreeing make one an ignorant fuddy-duddy at best and a willfully ignorant hater at worst.

Wish I could believe this has all come about through more or less innocent human weaknesses, not cold calculation.

Science! Secret Science Reform

It’s been too long since we’ve done any Science! here at YSotM. Let’s get to it!

Over at the grave and ponderous, yet jig-dancing John C Wright’s blog, a discussion broke out over Secret Science Reform:

“Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) reintroduced a bill known as the Secret Science Reform Act that would prohibit the EPA from “proposing, finalizing, or disseminating regulations or assessments based on science that is not transparent or reproducible.”

Now, an appealingly innocent person, still moist aft of his auricular helices, might wonder why such a law would be needed, let alone controversial. Ha, we old guys gently guffaw. Here is what I posted there:

Eisenhower’s farewell address is remembered for his ‘military-industrial complex’ warning, a warning beloved in my youth by all opposed to any military growth or action, but strangely forgotten in the age of cruise missiles and drone strikes – at least, when it’s their guy doing the bombing. But in the very next section of that address:

“Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades. In this revolution, research has become central, it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocation, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded. Yet in holding scientific discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.[1]”

In less flowery terms (if only our presidents spoke even this well!): he who pays the piper calls the tune. That’s why citizens should insist on honest, open and tested science, and carry an extra dose of skepticism toward the claims of government-funded science. While privately-funded science has its risks as well, there’s just vastly more money and power and thus more temptation and opportunity for abuse with government funding.

Image result for knife to the throat movie
Funny how suddenly logical and convincing your Science! has become, now that you can kill me. Or at least, kill my career.

Some, whose good intent we will of course assume, tried to make the point that transparency, and therefore replicability, is often not possible for areas where the EPA is called upon to rule. To this I replied:

I hardly know where to start, so let’s start at the beginning: an honest man owes loyalty to the truth, and thus owes a provisional loyalty to scientific findings because the represent an honest, open, tested effort to get closer to the truth of things.

Insofar as ANY of those conditions fail – the effort is not honest, or open, or tested – an honest man owesd NO loyalty to the claims. There is too much detail involved in showing how a nonspecialist can still offer criticism and judge the validity of a claim made in the name of science to cover in a comment, but let it suffice for now to point out that a little bit of philosophical education allows an honest man to judge the overall structure and nature of any claims made in almost all science even if he may not have the technical expertise to judge the details. There are things that might be true, but require X, and things that can’t be true because of Y. Our host has often explored issues of this type.

So, calling science on a claim when a) the political climate is charged (bringing honesty into question); b) the methods are hidden; and c) your critics cannot duplicate your results is, simply, FRAUD. No, personal and financial records don’t enter into it, as others have pointed out. No, you don’t get a pass because your work is so, so important that we need to act NOW. Tyrants always need to act now.

If the EPA is doing stuff where they HAVE TO make rulings but CANNOT reveal the science behind it, then those are exactly the activities an honest man and patriot wants stopped. Now.

So, still waiting for anything like a serious argument why the EPA needs the ability to, effectively, enact laws and bring the police power of the state to bear on people without having to first back it up with actual science. Then I remember (think I might have even blogged on it) a case where a True Believer rejected technological solutions to CO2 accumulation on the grounds that then we wouldn’t need a global totalitarian government – not in those exact words, of course, but that was the gist of the nub. I’m expecting that an argument along the same lines will be made for the requirement that the EPA show its cards and submit to scientific rigor before passing bans and shutting people down – because then it would not be able to ban stuff and shut people down unless they can prove it is necessary! Oh no!