Should liberals try to understand conservatives?

Sometimes intra-liberal debates can be fun to watch.  Remember that spat some years back between the evolutionary psychologists and the feminists over whether there is an evolutionary explanation for rape?  The ev-psych guys were throwing out their usual “just so” stories, and feminists were outraged, saying that any natural explanation of rape would somehow justify it.  To understand is to approve, so if something is bad, we must try not to understand it.  Now there’s a similar argument going on in the halls of liberaldom about whether or not they should try to understand a phenomenon that most of them would put on a moral par with rape–political conservatism.

Jonathan Haidt is a Leftist psychologist who tries to plumb the reactionary mind.  As always, the Chronicle of Higher Education is the place to go:

To Haidt, the evolution of morality can help make sense of modern political tribes like this one. And in that evolution, the big question is this: How did people come together to build cooperative societies beyond kinship?

Morality is the glue, he answers. Humans are 90-percent chimp, but also 10-percent bee—evolved to bind together for the good of the hive. A big part of Haidt’s moral narrative is faith. He lays out the case that religion is an evolutionary adaptation for binding people into groups and enabling those units to better compete against other groups. Through faith, humans developed the “psychology of sacredness,” the notion that “some people, objects, days, words, values, and ideas are special, set apart, untouchable, and pure.” If people revere the same sacred objects, he writes, they can trust one another and cooperate toward larger goals. But morality also blinds them to arguments from beyond their group.

How much of moral thinking is innate? Haidt sees morality as a “social construction” that varies by time and place. We all live in a “web of shared meanings and values” that become our moral matrix, he writes, and these matrices form what Haidt, quoting the science-fiction writer William Gibson, likens to “a consensual hallucination.” But all humans graft their moralities on psychological systems that evolved to serve various needs, like caring for families and punishing cheaters. Building on ideas from the anthropologist Richard Shweder, Haidt and his colleagues synthesize anthropology, evolutionary theory, and psychology to propose six innate moral foundations: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation….

And the six moral foundations are central to how Haidt explains politics. The moral mind, to him, resembles an audio equalizer with a series of slider switches that represent different parts of the moral spectrum. All political movements base appeals on different settings of the foundations—and the culture wars arise from what they choose to emphasize. Liberals jack up care, followed by fairness and liberty. They rarely value loyalty and authority. Conservatives dial up all six.

This is not bad.  Note that he’s explained conservatism in a way that isn’t manifestly derogatory.  Some attempt is being made to understand conservatives’ motivations, to understand us on our own terms, even if he doesn’t accept those terms himself.  It’s better than Corey Robin version that we conservatives just want to rob our workers and rape our wives.

As I said, Haidt is a Lefty himself.  His primary concern is to understanding these moral cues so that the liberals he approves of can more effectively manipulate the populace.

Now Haidt wants to change how people think about the culture wars. He first plunged into political research out of frustration with John Kerry’s failure to connect with voters in 2004. A partisan liberal, the University of Virginia professor hoped a better grasp of moral psychology could help Democrats sharpen their knives. But a funny thing happened. Haidt, now a visiting professor at New York University, emerged as a centrist who believes that “conservatives have a more accurate understanding of human nature than do liberals.”

So far Haidt hasn’t had much luck interesting political types in his ideas. He reached out to Democratic politicians in his home state of Virginia, like Mark Warner and Tom Perriello, as well as to the Center for American Progress, a liberal research group tightly wired to the White House. But folks in Washington strike Haidt as too fixated on dodging daily bullets to think about the long-term future of liberalism. The few political people who gave him any time seemed more interested in tapping behavioral science for fund raising, or simply too busy to engage with his ideas.

Needless to say, the intelligentsia is outraged that someone is trying to understand conservatives–as opposed to simple condemning them–even if he’s doing it in the interests of liberalism.  One must not admit that there are any moral arguments for conservatism, even invalid ones.

But even as Haidt shakes liberals, some thinkers argue that many of his own beliefs don’t withstand scrutiny. Haidt’s intuitionism overlooks the crucial role reasoning plays in our daily lives, says Bloom. Haidt’s map of innate moral values risks putting “a smiley face on authoritarianism,” says John T. Jost, a political psychologist at NYU. Haidt’s “relentlessly self-deceived” understanding of faith makes it seem as if God and revelation were somehow peripheral issues in religion, fumes Sam Harris, one of “the Four Horsemen of New Atheism and author of The End of Faith.

The theory frustrates some. Patricia S. Churchland, a philosopher and neuroscientist, has called it a nice list with no basis in biology. Jost, the NYU psychologist, feels Haidt makes a weak case for defining morality so broadly. Philosophers have long considered whether it’s “morally good to favor members of your own group, to obey authority, or to enforce standards of purity,” Jost says. “And they have come largely to the conclusion that these things don’t have the same moral standing as being fair to people and trying to minimize harm.” Following leaders can lead to horrific consequences, he notes.

Haidt acknowledges that the same beelike qualities that foster altruism can also enable genocide. But as a psychologist, not a philosopher, he generally sees his job as describing moral judgments, not advising what is right and wrong for individuals.

So, court theologians of the liberal establishment insist that their’s is the one true faith.  Imagine that.  Given how incredibly flawed consequentialism is as an ethical system, I would say that philosophers who prioritize “being fair to people and trying to minimize harm” to the extent liberals do should have a reduced “standing” on our attention.

36 Responses

  1. It’s not really a question of “should.” I mean, in an ideal world, yes, they should. One should always try to see the world from one’s opponents’ point of view. The thing I’ve been trying to get it with my series of posts on “spiritual autism” (the most mature expression of which can be found here: http://collapsetheblog.typepad.com/blog/2012/01/on-spiritual-autism.html) is simply that they *can’t* do that. In fact, the discussions I’ve had in the comments section of several recent posts demonstrates that pretty perfectly.

    I’ve tried on numerous occasions to explain the basis for conservative thought re: issues like abortion or homosexual “marriage.” I am universally greeted with blinking and shameless misapprehension. (In fact, I’ve had to ban several liberal/atheist commenters from my blog for precisely this reason; treading old ground over and over again gets simply wearisome after a while). Granted, I’m not the best person to be communicating an entire worldview, but I’m far from the worst. There is something foundational that’s simply missing there. They are ignorant even of their ignorance.

    I like the last few lines of the first block quote, which I see as demonstrating another thing I’ve been harping about for a while: namely, that what passes for “ethics” on the left is a crippled and amputated thing, and a product of their relentless reductionism.

  2. So, conservatives are just putting “a smiley face on authoritarianism”. Leave it to the Libs to give us the authoritarianism without the smiley face!

    Your semi-bio of Haidt actually echoed my first thought as I read the first paragraph about him: he is too fair minded and intelligent to remain a Leftist. He will soon join the Right. Apparently he has already “emerged as a Centrist”, which means that his is basically on the far Right of the academic culture he walks in daily, the very edge brim of the allowable discourse.

  3. Right. Contrast his reactions to that of Harris, Jost (a Soviet-style psychologist, out to diagnose all his enemies as victims of psychopathology in need of treatment), and Churchland (the eliminative materialist). Compared to those three, Haidt seems positively delightful company.

  4. Apropos your recent post on liberal bias in the university, the reporter for the Chronicle does’t appear to have a single conservative in his Rolodex. Wouldn’t it have been nice to hear from someone who doesn’t equate authority with blind obedience, or who could defend purity as an un-reducible good.

    One thing none of the quoted academics mentions is the seemingly obvious connection between conservative morals and experience. Certainly some conservatives simply advocate opinions they have received through primary socialization, but this is no less true of liberals. The “mugged by reality” conversion story is also, however, very, very common. I’ve known children who were raised conservative who became liberal in their teens or early twenties, when their experience of life was fairly limited, but I’ve never met anyone who chucked conservative morals in his forties or fifties. Middle-aged conversions to conservatism are, however, very common. Now there are lots of flippant ways to explain these conversions away, but the most probable explanation is that life tends to confirm conservative values and disconfirm liberal values.

  5. If you were a termite, would you want Orkin to employ competent entomologists passionately committed to understanding termite life or would you want Orkin to employ Stanley Fish? Here’s hoping for Haidt’s prompt recantation, public contrition, and banishment to a monastery (or community college or whatever).

  6. Insofar as the Left is intrinsically evil, it cannot understand the Right; as Sauron cannot understand Gandalf, Galadriel and Aragorn, but judges them by his own standards.

    But although Religious Reactionaries *can* understand the Left – as Elrond says of Saruman – “It is perilous to study too deeply the arts of the enemy, for good or ill.”

  7. It seems to me that Haidt exemplifies the principle that in order to know the truth one must allow oneself to be formed thereby. He is grappling honestly with the data, and finds himself changed in the process. How, for the love of God, could it be otherwise? It’s a *good* thing. It’s Science as it should be. If he continues honest and unafraid, a true philosopher, he’ll be a trad soon enough. I wish him well, by God. What he has done so far takes great intellectual honesty, great courage. It also provides to Haidt the reward of intellectual virtue: i.e., delight, delectation at the enjoyment of beauty. May Truth allure him ever more, and more.

    @bgc: the Left is not intrinsically evil, any more than the Prodigal Son was intrinsically evil – or any less. So, and, the Left *is* intrinsically evil, for they are tainted with Original Sin. As the Prodigal Son was tainted with Original Sin, so is the Left. But, so likewise are we. Intrinsic evil is not the exclusive property of our adversaries; one of the errors of the Left, and weaknesses, is to believe the contrary.

    Having said all that, you are nevertheless absolutely right: The Light shone in the Darkness, and the Darkness comprehended it not.

    My, my, it does get complicated quickly, does it not? So, the palmary evangelical act is, must be, charity. If we religious reactionaries can understand the Left – as indeed I think we truly can, for we inhabit a world that is larger and more coherent than theirs, and that includes their poor depraved twisted little world as a sane man’s world includes that of the schizophrenic – it is only because we have seen through the lies we used to tell ourselves, and the falsehoods we once believed.

    But, then, o then: what are the lies and falsehoods under which we now travail, heavy laden, that we have not yet understood as such? We think we know better now than once we did, and very likely it is that we do. But, by that same token, what have we failed as yet to understand, or even to understand that we don’t understand, about the situation that confronts us, or about the nature and depth of our inadequacies thereto?

    The most thoroughgoing skepticism is the one that comes with faith. [The skepticism of the Skeptics is but jejune cocksure self-absorption by comparison. That’s why Pelagianism is (so far as the mature perspective of the Church is concerned) such a deadly heresy, despite the fact that to the Pelagian himself, as to the modern Skeptic, his heresy seems like plain common sense.] For, who can tell how often he offends? Cleanse me, Lord, from my secret faults – from my faults that are secret, even from me.

    I am sorry. I don’t for a moment mean to criticize bgc, who is, indeed, a model for me, a man whom I admire and would emulate if I could. It is just that I am feeling particularly bloody minded this evening. The disgusting dirtiness of sin is peculiarly present to my mind at this moment, even as I prosecute it, *because* I prosecute it. Make me a clean heart, O God.

  8. @Kristor

    Healthy debate merely!

    I am distinguishing between people and positions, and on this basis the Left is intrinsically an evil position, the Right not necessarily so.

    The question of the relative good/ evil of individuals is quite separate – except insofar as someone might choose to make themselves a servant of evil (a ringwraith or ‘the mouth of Sauron’) .

    I think we can now say that the Left is intrinsically evil because of the ‘coming to a point’ of the world – this evilness was not apparent, or at least not so obvious, 100 years ago – the left is secualr, materialist, hedonic. It is a strategy of purposive evil – I stand by that!

  9. Will S. over at Patriactionary has just posted a link to a post by libertarian blogger Lester Hunt which comments on Haidt’s article: http://lesterhhunt.blogspot.com/2012/01/this-is-very-interesting-article-on-ows.html What Hunt finds most interesting is that “equality” is not one of Haidt’s six moral foundations, but fairness, which means proportionality rather than equality, is. Note the epiphany in Hunt’s final paragraph.

  10. Many of the evildoers on the Left like to imagine themselves being as important a figure as a Ringwraith or a Mouth of Sauron.

    But the truth is, most of them are merely a scoffing Ted Sandyman or a sneering Bill Ferny.

    I agree that behind it all is “a strategy of purposive evil,” but most of the people on the left are what Lenin called useful idiots. The Enemy has quite cleverly conditioned them to react with orcish cynicism, sarcasm and mockery whenever anyone speaks up on behalf of the Way, the Truth, and the Light.

    They’re blinded by their own hipsterism. Like Bilbo when he came at last to the point of giving up the Ring, they don’t like parting with their sinfulness at all, and they don’t really see why they should.

  11. @Corky – “But the truth is, most of them are merely a scoffing Ted Sandyman or a sneering Bill Ferny.” etc

    That’s brilliant!- indeed the whole comment made my day.

  12. Well, Bonald, it’s nice to complain. You just must remember that if you want your complaints to be taken seriously by, you know, thinking adults, you should provide the basis for your grievances. Which you fail to do.

    I have not read the linked article, but that is irrelevant. You complain that Haidt tries to understand you poor, misunderstood conservatives, and the mean liberals attack him for that effort. Then you cite as examples… critiques of Haidt that have nothing to do with conservatives. Bloom, Jost, Churchland and Harris all have issues which do not touch on the supposedly taboo subject of “understanding conservatives”. As someone who claims to be in a scientific field (a claim I find incredible in light of posts like this) you should have at least a vague understanding that any new scientific idea is going to be attacked by critics. This is tenfold true in social sciences, where interpretation is far less precise than in hard sciences. Therefore either you don’t understand how the vetting process works in the real world, or you’re playing the “victim” card while being fully aware that this is at best disingenuous.

  13. Welcome back fafsa,

    The point is not that Haidt is being criticised, but why. None of the quoted critics claim that he has misunderstood conservative motivations, which, as a social scientist, is all he’s trying to do. What they complain about is that he’s stated what he takes to be conservatives’ motivations in a non-condemnatory way. The exchange between Haidt and Churchland is particularly revealing, I think, in how they talk past each other. The latter complains that some of the “clusters” of moral concern don’t deserve to be put on the same list as others–a philosophical/ethical claim. The former sticks with the purely empirical claim that people do in fact use the other clusters. His only philosophical presupposition is that these other clusters–the ones conservatives use and liberals don’t–aren’t reducible to the ones used by everyone, an assumption that no one in the article disputes.

    He hasn’t claimed that people should use these other modes of practical reason; he’s just said that they do, while abstaining from calling such people “fascists”, at least for the duration of his analysis. And that’s what his fellow academics find objectionable.

  14. Would you agree that Haidt’s project is descriptive? He’s attempting to describe the character of conservative moral thought. Critical commentary on a description should, in any vetting process, complain that something has been left out of or wrongly added to the description. It should not criticize the thing described. If you described liberals as compassionate, a responsible critic would remark that this was or was not true. An irresponsible critic would use it as an excuse to lambast “bleeding heart liberals.” Bloom et al were irresponsible critics.

  15. Bonald,

    This is my exact point. Haidt is NOT being criticized for “trying to understand conservatives”. He had a theory about effect of evolution on certain moral characteristics. This theory, among other things, allowed him to classify conservatives and liberals. And this theory came under attack from various directions for various reasons. However, not one of those reasons had to do with what you’re complaining about, namely “how dare he try to understand conservatives!” So YOUR thesis of “liberals think that trying to understand conservatives means to approve of conservatives, therefore we must not do it” finds zero support in your own post. Critiquing what one perceives to be the shortcomings of a theory does not at all imply a criticism of what this theory attempts to do. I’m not saying that your theory about us liberals is wrong (though I very much do think so), I’m merely saying that you have failed to provide any support for it. If you ever do, then we can debate it on its merits.

  16. If it’s wrong to characterise conservatism in terms of categories conservatives themselves would recognise–which is precisely what Churchland was criticising Haidt for doing, because conservative categories are too illegitimate–then it is wrong to understand conservatives. The only way to understand an ideology is from the inside. Jost says that even entering into conservatives’ heads like this is “putting a smiley face on authoritarianism”. The only legitimate way to understand conservatives, it seems, is from the perspective of liberalism, i.e. from the outside. I claim that this blocks any genuine understanding of any nonliberal position.

  17. If it’s wrong to characterise conservatism in terms of categories conservatives themselves would recognise–which is precisely what Churchland was criticising Haidt for doing, because conservative categories are too illegitimate–then it is wrong to understand conservatives.

    Mularkey. You don’t have to subscribe to the categories that a group self-selects in order to understand this group. For instance, I don’t need to break Scientologists into OT levels the way they do in order to be able to classify or analyze them and their belief system. In fact, self-classification is vastly more susceptible to bias than outside classification.

    The only way to understand an ideology is from the inside.
    I see. Well, you might want to inform all the social scientists in the world that they should all go home — their disciplines are illegitimate. You should probably break it to them gently.

    Jost says that even entering into conservatives’ heads like this is “putting a smiley face on authoritarianism”.
    While that is ONE of his objections, your own post indicates that he has a much bigger issue with the theory — namely that he “feels Haidt makes a weak case for defining morality so broadly”. You may or may not agree with that criticism, but this part of Jost’s critique has nothing to do with conservatives. The authoritarianism part is the only one of your post that actually provides you with a leg to stand on.

  18. Hi fafsa,

    You’re right. I do think there’s something seriously amiss in the way the social sciences operate. That would be a good discussion for all of us to have sometime.

  19. Jost doesn’t want to dignify conservative intuitions about morality with the word morality because even using that word grants them some legitimacy. But the plain fact is that these intuitions are about morality. Its not that conservatives just like or don’t like certain stuff, they feel in their soul that it’s right or wrong. And furthermore there is a plausible use for these intuitions, even on purely liberal terms, in suppressing free riders. That’s what makes this work an anathema to more dogmatic liberals.

  20. Jost doesn’t want to dignify conservative intuitions about morality with the word morality because even using that word grants them some legitimacy.

    Please provide evidence for this assertion. As I mentioned, I did not read the original article, so you might be right, but I fail to find any support for your claim in the quotes bonald provides.

    Its not that conservatives just like or don’t like certain stuff, they feel in their soul that it’s right or wrong.

    I was not arguing against that. You may, indeed, feel what you claim to feel. I have no truck with your sincerity (at least not yet), though I do have my own opinions as to the source of that sincerity.

    That’s what makes this work an anathema to more dogmatic liberals.

    LOL. Obviously you don’t read enough “dogmatic liberals”. Many of them believe people like you are totally brainwashed. In that case they do not at all question your sincerity. After all, just because you feel something “in your soul” does not mean it corresponds to reality.

    Bonald — yes, discussion about the validity of social sciences is a topic for another day. However, in your post you implicitly assume that there exists at least some validity to these sciences — otherwise why even bother to write this post? But yes, social sciences are notoriously… squishy.

  21. Fafsa is providing us with a fascinating glimpse into the “liberal” mind, isn’t he. To be “liberal,” we see, is to believe that anyone who disagrees with liberalism is a deluded and dangerous fool who is the victim of brainwashing. The liberal feels no obligation to “understand” the man with whom he disagrees (in the Weberian sense), but confines himself to expressions of shock and self-serving “analysis.” What ever happened to the liberalism of the live-and-let-live or I-might-be-wrong variety? I’ll give fafsa credit for honesty, though. He doesn’t even pretend to think that liberalism is a neutral arbiter between worldviews or comprehensive systems. It is an intolerant and dogmatic doctrine.

  22. Really, JMsmith? Are you this high, this early on in the day? Wow.

    Fafsa is providing us with a fascinating glimpse into the “liberal” mind, isn’t he.
    Apparently liberal minds are at least able to use correct punctuation, aren’t they*?*

    To be “liberal,” we see, is to believe that anyone who disagrees with liberalism is a deluded and dangerous fool who is the victim of brainwashing.
    Apparently to be “conservative” is to pull crap out of your nether regions and present them as diamonds. Where exactly did you get this excrement-covered idea, JM?

    The liberal feels no obligation to “understand” the man with whom he disagrees (in the Weberian sense), but confines himself to expressions of shock and self-serving “analysis.”
    Oxymoron much? “Liberals don’t want to understand, they want to analyze”. How about before you type online you get a hold of a dictionary?

    What ever happened to the liberalism of the live-and-let-live or I-might-be-wrong variety?
    Well, that type of liberalism exists in the real world. To find it, you might have to stop listening to voices in your head first.

    He doesn’t even pretend to think that liberalism is a neutral arbiter between worldviews or comprehensive systems.
    Didya take another puff of the good stuff before this claim? Man, it works FAST!

    JMsmith — if you cannot debate with adults, maybe you should leave it to those of us who can. My posts were directed to bonald and The Man Who Was who, for all my disagreements with them, are at least fairly capable of reason. I will not respond to any more posts from you, you might want to find somewhere else to defecate.

  23. Yet more fascinating glimpses into the liberal mind. A little pedantry, a little scurrility, a little scatology, and then he scoops up his marbles and goes home. Liberal argument in a nutshell, I say.

  24. May God bless and keep fafsa.

  25. Well, He wasn’t planning on it, but now that Kristor has typed the magic incantation on an obscure blog, I’m sure God has no choice but to obey. Whew. Thanks Kris. I dodged a close one.

  26. I see we need to add a little blasphemy to the list.

  27. You may have your personal definition of “blasphemy”, but ridiculing someone for imagining that he is going to change the mind of the creator of the Universe doesn’t count as blasphemy in the rest of the world.

  28. BTW, bonald, I think it’s pretty clear that while I try to offer logical, productive critiques, it is your fan boys who turn to ad hominem and to patronizing tripe on the dime. That does not speak well of your following. Again.

  29. Hello fafsa,

    I do appreciate your criticisms and input. It does bespeak an admirable open-mindedness that you keep coming back, on the chance that someday, somehow, I’ll say something intelligent.

    Hanging around Christians does entail the danger that people will try to bless you. Just remember that we’re trying to wish you well in our own way, even if–as you believe–that way is thoroughly misguided.

  30. Blasphemy is showing contempt or irreverence for the sacred.

    Ridiculing the efficacy of prayer is certainly that — especially when the prayer is as well-intended as Kristor’s.

  31. bonald — oh, I don’t mind well-meaning blessings. At all. I went to a Catholic school (for the education, I was an atheist then too) and joined a youth group (for the friends, still an atheist there). I have no problem with religious people wishing me well in the best way they feel they can. I have nothing but gratitude for them, even if I don’t share their opinion that their a could in any way affect reality. I think, however, that it’s pretty clear that Kristor’s “blessing” was snarky and intended to needle me, rather than wish me well. If that was not the case, I apologize.

  32. @ fafsa: no snarkiness intended, honest. I’m praying for you, and wish you well. It seems to me that you are trying your hardest, in the way that seems best to you.

    My prayer was not meant to change God’s mind about anything. Christians don’t believe that’s really possible, as you must know, remembering your education. We believe God is *already* blessing and keeping you. If he wasn’t, you would not exist.

    We do however believe that intentions are causally efficacious, whether that efficacy is mediated by muscles, or by more attenuated field interactions. We believe actions – even thought actions – matter. I.e., thought is one way or another materialized. The prayer, then, is intended to affect *you*; God is as it were the postmaster and perhaps amplifier for the message, the best way we know to get the benefit of the prayer to its intended recipient, in the most appropriate way.

    But, we don’t think there is anything weird or odd about prayer; at least, it is not more odd than the fact that intentions move muscles. We think God is also the medium of our prayers to our muscles. We think he is the medium of everything.

    So, when I pray to God that he bless and keep you, my hope is that the benison of my prayer – having been delivered to you in just the right way through the mediation of the Field of all fields, who knows your heart better than you do – might, by subtly salving your wound at the margin of your suffering, allow you to understand your life as a gratuitous blessing. I intend, i.e., myself to love you. If this all works – there are any number of reasons why it might not – you might then also find the emotional wherewithal to understand us your interlocutors as fellow seekers after truth, however misguided. Then, you might want to share with us some of your own hard-won insights.

    If that should happen, we could all learn from each other, instead of hurting each other more and more.

    I hope you are happy, and feel yourself at bottom a welcome, well-beloved son.

    Thanks for your intelligent comments. However hurtful they have often been, they are also generally quite funny.

  33. Kristor — I apologize for doubting your sincerity. In my (very partial) defense, it was a somewhat knee-jerk reaction, inductively based on previous treatment I have received from many commenters on this blog. Now to address some of the points you make:

    My prayer was not meant to change God’s mind about anything.
    Fair enough.

    We do however believe that intentions are causally efficacious, whether that efficacy is mediated by muscles, or by more attenuated field interactions. We believe actions – even thought actions – matter. I.e., thought is one way or another materialized.
    I’m a bit confused here. I will leave aside the obvious idea that thoughts are materialized via an organism using its nervous system to put these thoughts into action because no one can physically materialize an ephemeral thing such as “good luck” or “god bless”. If you mean that thoughts are materialized in a realm other than physical, then it seems that this is the supernatural realm of your god, who, according to you, doesn’t change his mind. So…. how do these intentions become materialized then?

    We think God is also the medium of our prayers to our muscles. We think he is the medium of everything.
    That would be fine but, again, you just stated that you believe that god does not change his mind. So what you have is a situation where the “medium” has a mind of its own, and is in no way responsive to the prayers or any other thought-related intentions. This basically counteracts the very idea of a “medium”, whose job it is to simply traduce signals from a generator (neural system, in this case) to the executor (muscles, etc.). So either your description of god is inaccurate, or he is not a medium in any sense.

    If this all works – there are any number of reasons why it might not – you might then also find the emotional wherewithal to understand us your interlocutors as fellow seekers after truth, however misguided. Then, you might want to share with us some of your own hard-won insights.
    I would love nothing more. You many have noticed that usually my first comment on a post here deals with the subject at hand, although frequently in a critical rather than supportive manner. Nonetheless I try to critique the argument or opinion presented, and only later does this attempt degenerate into sarcasm / ad hominem.

    Thank you for your kind words, and thank you for blessing me, regardless of my own feelings about the efficacy of the latter.

  34. fafsa, thanks for your courteous and engaging response. You ask a number of really good questions, some of which are difficult to answer without a prior explanation of a good deal of metaphysics, a project incommensurate to a comment. But I’ll try my best to answer economically.

    “… no one can physically materialize an ephemeral thing such as “good luck” or “god bless””

    Until they have been materialized, intentions are all equally ephemeral – or, to be more precise, immaterial. Explaining the materializations of intercessory prayers is no more difficult, in principle – or easier – than explaining materializations of volitions in voluntary movement. How do we materialize the intention to get out of bed? Under any modern – i.e., post-Descartes, pre-Planck – metaphysic, it is difficult to see how such a thing could happen. But for either Aristotle or Whitehead and their disciples, not so hard. Whitehead and Aristotle provide metaphysical room for intentions and their material effects. Even for them, however, there is an irreducible nub of mystery at the core of the process, not different from the mystery about how novel things come into existence. The mystery does not strike us so much with our translations of our intentions into our movements, but only because we take such translations for granted, and they almost always work out as expected. We notice them only when they don’t work out so well. But intercessory prayers are different, because unlike volitional prayers, that are directed to our bodies, they are directed to God, and ipso facto to the whole system of things that he subvenes. Because it is virtually impossible for us to comprehend the whole system of things, so it is virtually impossible for us to gauge the effect of our intercessions upon that system.

    Let me nevertheless explain how my prayer for you has been materialized in the world. Set aside the obvious material effects it has had – on memory registers, pixels, your brain, everything that happened on account of my having expressed my prayer with my muscles and keyboard. What if my prayer had been entirely interior, and never expressed publicly? How would it then have been materialized?

    First, it would have left a material trace in my brain. Trivial as that worldly effect might have been, it would nevertheless have the consequence that the world as a whole – the *physical* world – was more favorably disposed toward you after my prayer than it had been before. And the change in my disposition toward you would spread, just as any causal effect spreads; and it would steer subsequent events in ways that had effects of their own. You might not ever have noticed the resulting change in your environment, but that would not make it unreal. You don’t notice the gravitational pull of the moon, either, but it affects you in all sorts of ways. If thousands and thousands of people were praying for you, you might then notice a subtle change.

    If we think of history as the world’s traversal of a terrain in configuration space, that has some relief to it, then the path of the world across that terrain will be in part a function of the local slope thereof, toward this or that attractive basin. Ditto for fafsa as he traverses the configuration space of fafsa-in-the-world. Where the slope of the terrain has been changed at all by materialization of an event, the likely path of the world or of fafsa through the configuration space will somehow change. When I increase my desire for your good, the *world’s* desire for your good is thereby increased, and the slope of the terrain you traverse is thereby tilted toward the good. So, you are more likely, by a tiny bit, to traverse paths that are good, in which you do good, and in which good things come to you; for the effect of my prayer will be to improve the world’s disposition toward you.

    Just how my prayer affects the world’s disposition toward fafsa is in principle no more difficult – or easy – to explain, than it is to explain just how my mass contributes to the net inertial effects upon you of the world. Just how does mass curve space? In the end, the answer turns out to be something like, “mass *just is* curvature of space.”

    “If you mean that thoughts are materialized in a realm other than physical, then it seems that this is the supernatural realm of your god, who, according to you, doesn’t change his mind.”

    We don’t think God is the only supernatural being. It is possible to be supernatural without being eternal. Some supernatural beings, then – indeed, all of them other than God – are capable of moving from potential to act.

    “… you believe that god does not change his mind. So what you have is a situation where the “medium” has a mind of its own, and is in no way responsive to the prayers or any other thought-related intentions. This basically counteracts the very idea of a “medium”, whose job it is to simply traduce signals from a generator (neural system, in this case) to the executor (muscles, etc.).”

    I should think that the less a medium interfered with a signal, the *better* it would be, qua medium. So if God is really in no way responsive to intentions, but just passes them along, that would make him perfect as a medium.

    But of course, Christians do not think that God does not respond to prayers. We just think that his response is not a change in him (even though it might seem to a temporal creature as though it is). It is the way he is eternally. It’s very hard to explain how this could be so without a long, long discussion about time versus eternity. I could get into that if you like, but it would probably be better for us to discuss it privately. If you would like to do that, so would I: I’m still wrapping my head around it, and I always learn from such discussions. I’m sure Bonald would be willing to forward your message to me.

    Fafsa, I want to close by giving you some feedback. In doing so, I want to emphasize again that I am working at loving you, and willing your good – i.e., not attacking you. You do indeed generally begin commenting on a thread by addressing the issue under discussion, but you may not have realized that the way you express yourself in doing so is, not just critical – no one would cavil at criticism – but quite unfriendly, to real people like me and Bonald, as opposed to a class of people like conservatives in general; and is therefore almost bound to provoke an unfriendly reaction.

    Look at your first comment in this thread. You begin by telling Bonald, with apparent sarcasm, that it is nice for him to complain, as if the main thing that motivated his blog post was the scratching of some irrational itch he had been feeling, rather than an interest in exposing false conclusions as such, the better to limn the truth.

    You go on to imply that no thinking adult could take Bonald’s blog post seriously. This is to say that Bonald himself, in taking his own musings seriously, cannot be considered a thinking adult. You then proceed to call his scientific bona fides into question.

    Maybe you did not intend to be sarcastic, or insulting. But that’s how you sounded. It’s not a great way to have a conversation. You would have been treated quite differently on the thread if you had begun with the attractively irenic and inquiring tone you took in your last response to me. Like this:

    “Bonald, I don’t get it. What is the basis for your complaint about the liberals criticizing Haidt? Surely this is just the normal sort of criticism of new ideas that takes place in any discipline, especially the social sciences.”

    Do you see what I mean? As my Czech father in law likes to say, “You catch more bees with honey.”

  35. To my mind, it’s a question of depth versus speed of mind.

    Conservatives consider more factors in the same amount of time liberals use to explain one.

    If you notice liberal media, it tends to be very much point-to-point where conservative media (other than Fox) tends to wrap many factors into a single conclusion.

    Morality is the same way. Liberal morality considers the individual feeling and social perception. Conservative morality considers that and long-term consequences, and idealized and optimized results, and balances those.

  36. […] a while in that vein: bonald irenic and responsive, fafsa derisive and responsive. Eventually, I commented, “My God bless and keep fafsa.”  Fafsa responded: Well, He wasn’t planning on it, but now […]

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