There is much, much less intellectual diversity now than there was one hundred years ago. It is impossible to imagine someone like Oswald Spengler arising in the intellectual world of today, much less his becoming a cultural sensation. The Overton window has not merely shifted Left but drastically narrowed. Even Leftists were much more interesting and diverse one hundred years ago–one cannot imagine a character like Georges Sorel in today’s world either. One hundred years ago, the ideological landscape was a dizzying array of communists, Fabian socialists, anarcho-syndicalists, guild socialists, laissez faire classical liberals, nationalist liberals, distributists, agrarians, and Carlists. And when I say that these groups existed, I mean not as a couple of isolated dissidents unable to propagate their doctrines, the way dissidents exist today, but rather that they had significant followings and were able to participate in the great debate about how society should be organized. The metaphysical debate, too, was much more open, as it was an age of positivist, but also of spiritualism, Bergsonianism, and the neo-scholastic revival. Today, we have a consensus with enthusiastic support from nearly all writers, and the few whose support is less that enthusiastic know that it is professional suicide to openly question it.

Continue reading

Rousseau vs. the cosmopolitans

From The Imaginative Conservative. Rousseau may be another enemy thinker whom I haven’t given enough credit.

Rousseau refers to the commercial man as a “bourgeois” whose existence hinges upon the thin and shallow ethic of “politeness.” [13] Politeness epitomizes both falseness and hypocrisy. Polite citizens, Rousseau quips, possess the “appearance of all the virtues without having a single one.”[14] The polite, bourgeois individual desires to get ahead, so he pretends to care about the needs of others, even if he harbors contempt for them in his heart.

Commercial individuals only live together in society incidentally and share no common attachment to their Fatherland. Indeed, Enlightened commercialists possess more loyalty to their specialized profession than to their country. “We have Physicists, Geometricians, Chemists, Astronomers, Poets, Musicians, Painters,” Rousseau complains, but “we no longer have citizens.”[20] In the absence of a fatherland, these pseudo-citizens turn their gaze to all of humanity. Rousseau posits that this attention to “humanity” is a thinly veiled effort on the part of individualists to dispense with any meaningful civic duties that may threaten their private pursuits. “Distrust the cosmopolitans,” he admonishes, “who go to great lengths in their books to discover duties they do not deign to fulfill around them. A philosopher loves the Tartars so as to be spared having to love his own neighbors.”[21] A principal issue with the Enlightenment, Rousseau proclaims, is its institutionalization of this very cosmopolitanism: “National hatreds will die out, but so will the love of the Fatherland.”[22] A healthy political society would recognize the unique habits, customs, morals, and beliefs that make its regime distinctive. Cosmopolitanism, in contrast, makes “for a mixture of all peoples that must inevitably have destroyed the morals and customs of each of them.”[23]

Time, free will, and the first person perspective, Part IV

It’s interesting to consider why Breuer’s and Popper’s arguments fail when applied to God. How is it that God can have complete self-knowledge? The reason is that our usual model of knowledge fails in His case. For finite subject A and object X, we think of A’s knowledge of X as an internal state of A, the presence within A’s mind of a representation of X, this knowledge being a proper part of A and ontologically distinct from X, indeed which may or may not even correspond to the truth about X. However, God is completely simple, so He has no internal states. In this case, we are told not regard God’s self-knowledge as a proper part of His mind (from which one could show that it must be incomplete) but as identical with His being.

It is unacceptably anthropomorphic to think of God as having a perspective on the world. This would make Him part of the universe, rather than its transcendent principle. God has no internal mental state corresponding to his perspective on the universe; His knowledge of the universe is rather a property of us–one might almost say that it is us. The scholastics used to put it that we have real relation to God but not vice versa. If there is a global, third-person view from nowhere, it has nothing in particular to do with God’s knowledge. It is not one degree closer to His omnipotence than our partial, first-person views.

Here is another way to reject the idea that this global view makes our first-person views to be falsehoods. Just as your perspective and my perspective are just two partial views compared to the global perspective, our perspectives and the global perspective are just three finite creations compared to God’s absolute transcendence.

In the Middle Ages, it was generally believed that a hierarchical universe was most neatly congruent with monotheism. Given the universal human symbolism of heaven and the sky god above, we should always speak of this intuition with respect. But it was challenged, first by Nicholas of Cusa, precisely on grounds of theological appropriateness. Cusa thought a universe without center or privileged perspective and with a number of indeterminate features more fittingly expressed God’s complete transcendence. We have now grown used to the idea of the Earth as just one more celestial body flying through space and can’t appreciate the disorientation such ideas must have caused at the beginning of the Renaissance.

Or perhaps we can. Suppose it should turn out that we must accept the Everett interpretation of quantum mechanics after all. Wouldn’t that take Cusa’s program of equalizing perspectives to a whole new level?

That’s not the common good

F. A. Grabowski at Crisis is understandably perturbed by an excerpt from Pope Francis’ book Let Us Dream (yes, he really wrote a book with that title) on the New York Times. I have no stomach to read the source myself. I will respond to quotations on the Crisis article which may not completely capture Pope Francis’ thought but which give me a chance to note some widespread deficiencies of public discourse.

“Looking to the common good is much more than the sum of what is good for individuals. It means having a regard for all citizens and seeking to respond effectively to the needs of the least fortunate.”

The first sentence is a true and important point, but it is completely undermined by the second. The needs of the least fortunate are still individual goods. Unfortunately, this seems to be what people usually mean by “common good”, which means that the idea of a distinctively common good has been lost. The common good in pre-conciliar Catholic social thought meant primarily the irreducibly common good, that which can only properly be said of the community and belongs to its members only by their participation therein. Things like being a high-trust society, the fact that everyone in the neighborhood knows one another, a long established Christmas tradition that the whole town cherishes, and things of that sort. I suppose a certain distribution of resources could count as a properly common good (not what the poor have, but the quality of the community that ensures it), but this is a severe materialistic impoverishment of the original idea which included material but especially spiritual goods. (Spiritual goods are particularly apt to be common.)

In contrast to healthcare workers and other “antibodies to the virus of indifference” are those who have protested the lockdowns, refused to distance, and marched against travel restrictions.

These protesters, whom Francis regards as “selfish”, are the pandemic’s bad actors.

We have also lost the ability to speak of competing goods and trade-offs. It would be one thing to say that personal livelihoods, small businesses, personal liberties, community social life, and the corporate worship of God are precious goods, but that in the current emergency they must be sacrificed for an even greater good. This would be to say that protestors are wrong while acknowledging the legitimacy of their concerns, preserving the dialogue and mutual respect that are a large part of the social common good. People don’t argue like that anymore. When a trade-off must be made between two sets of goods, one set is declared “selfish”, meaning it has no legitimacy at all. No compromise is acceptable between legitimate and illegitimate goods; a categorical choice is demanded. This is so even if the same goods are recognized as legitimate in other contexts. For example, Pope Francis thinks that native workers are selfish for wanting freedom to move within their home town in order to keep a job, but he insists that third-worlders are absolutely righteous in moving across countries (illegally if necessary) to get that same job. Francis would never call migrants “selfish”. Nor should he, really, because it is legitimate to pursue one’s self-interest (within the limits of law and morality). In many contexts, we are expected to think of a group of people pursuing their common interests as admirable.

Time, free will, and the first person perspective, Part III

We emphasize again that the conflict is not between science and religion or between competing philosophical schools. All global viewpoints–scientific, religious, philosophical–clash with what I’ve called “the first person perspective”. This can and has been used to argue that the latter is simply false. Indeed, I myself have claimed that certain conceptualizations of personal experience, when carried over as objective statements about the world, are false, or rather meaningless. However, it does not follow that the manifest picture of the world, our lived experience with it, is simply invalid.

The assumption is that our partial viewpoints can be contrasted with some global omniscient viewpoint, and that the latter would then be the ultimate standard of truth. However, there might not be any such global view from nowhere. Or, equivalently, the global perspective might just be the union of all partial perspectives.

An example of how this would work is Carlo Rovelli’s relational interpretation of quantum mechanics, which assigns a distinct state vector/wavefunction to every system relative to every other system.  Such theories would recognize states of systems relative to various other systems, but no perspectiveless “true” state. This is a more radical form of something we have already learned to live with from the theory of relativity.  Even in Galilean kinematics, each observer has his own standard of rest, and it is meaningless to ask which is truly at rest.  Clocks on the ground run slightly slower than clocks in orbit.  Which is right?  Both:  they both correctly measure proper time along their worldlines. One must settle for answers to such questions, because that’s all there is.  Could it be possible that all physical processes–including those in our brains–are slowing down at an equal rate so that we would never notice?  No, because ideal clocks are defined to keep uniform time.  As Aristotle said long ago, time just is the measurement of change, one thing relative to another.

In physics we have learned to live with perspectival relativism without it leading to incoherence or pure subjectivism.  One notices that physics has been quite a bit more successful with this than continental philosophy.  Post-modernism promises to deliver us from the tyranny of metanarratives but immediately imposes its own obnoxiously tyrannical metanarrative.

How did physics avoid the fate of postmodernism? First, abstract truths (mathematics) as well as the contingent laws of physics are taken to be universally valid. Second, partial truths become absolute truths when the necessary indexicals are attached. Other observers may see things differently than observer A, but they all agree on what it is that observer A observes. Third, every observer can explain every other observer’s observations from its own perspective and the same universal laws of physics. Fourth, the framework explaining how different observers/frames/system perspectives relate does not surreptitiously adopt one particular perspective the way postmodernism, contrary to its own principles, adopts the metanarrative of oppression as universal and absolute truth.

On the other hand, perhaps there is a global, all-encompassing “view from nowhere” which presumably would not involve features such as a flow of time or libertarian free will. Would that be a problem? Well, one could presumably reconstruct any and all of the partial views from the global view, while no single partial view could recover the global view. Does that not mean that the global view would be more true?

The situation is analogous to the case of emergence. Macroscopic substances are made of atoms. From the configurations of all the atoms, one could infer the state of the macroscopic object, but since that state is a course grained description, the reverse is not true. Does that mean that atoms are more real than the things they compose? This seems to be a common philosophical belief. However, in this time of anti-metaphysical skepticism, the idea of one existing thing being “more real” or “ontologically prior” to another existing thing should be treated with more suspicion than it usually gets. What does it really mean? An object either “really” exists or it doesn’t. Wholes can’t exist without their parts, but parts can’t exist without forming some sort of whole.

Similarly, we should question whether a perspective that is more complete is therefore more true. If a global perspective exists, it may be true that partial perspectives can only exist given its framework, but it is certainly true that there could be no global perspective without there also being partial perspectives (because each constituent of the universe globally conceived is a particular perspective, cf. Leibniz again). If anything, it is the partial perspectives that here are in the role of atoms. Of course, just as in the case of emergence we compared existing atoms to existing composites, we are here comparing the global viewpoint (if there is such a thing) to valid first-person perspectives. False beliefs held in the first person perspective are not equal in truth to a correct global perspective, or for that matter to a correct partial perspective. I am assuming there is a correct apprehension of the world from my point of view.

But wait a minute. Don’t we know that there is a global perspective? Isn’t that God’s perspective?

To be continued

Time, free will, and the first person perspective, Part II

From a global, third-person perspective, free will and the flow of time make no sense. That goes for any global perspective–scientific, religious, or philosophical. The best that can be said for free will is what Kant said: we must treat ourselves as free agents when we are making decisions. However theoretically incoherent, free will seems to be an unavoidable pose for practical reasoning. “I will do whatever I am causally determined to do” (or “I will make a nondeterministic random choice”) may be true, but doesn’t help when we are in the midst of making a decision.

Laplace asserted that a demon with complete knowledge of the universe at one instant in time could, using the laws of Newtonian mechanics, predict the entire future and infer the entire past.  Karl Popper later realized that this couldn’t possibly work if the demon is itself part of the universe.  Then the demon would have to be able to predict his own future choices.  But suppose he decides to do the opposite of whatever he predicts he will do? We have a paradox. Paradoxes related to self-reference like this were used by Russell to critique “naive” set theory and can be used to prove the undecidability of the Halting problem over Turing machines.

It has been argued by Thomas Breuer that no observer can perform a complete measurement of the state of a system of which it is a part.  For the proof, a self-measuring system consists of a total system with its list of possible states, the measuring apparatus with its list of possible states, and an inference map that associates sets of apparatus states with sets of total system states.  Breuer makes an assumption of “proper inclusion”, i.e. that the apparatus is a proper part rather than the whole, and interprets this to mean that there are distinct system states with the same apparatus state.  Given this, the conclusion is unsurprising.  Notice how the problem is set up.  One could, I suppose, identify the measuring apparatus and the system itself, and then say that the system perfectly “measures” or “knows” itself simply by being itself and in whatever state it’s in. Clearly this is not measurement or knowledge as normally understood, which requires a duality between subject and object and a representation of the latter in the former.

For the impossibility of complete self-knowledge, it doesn’t matter whether the knowing being is deterministic or not. Descartes realized correctly that consciousness involves privileged knowledge of itself. In the 20th century, we realized that a being’s perspective necessarily also involves a certain ignorance of itself.

I am a unique perspective of the whole universe, as Leibniz taught us. (To quote Wittgenstein “I am my world.”) This distinctive perspective is necessarily partial. In particular, some degree of knowledge of myself is only possible from an outside perspective. (Wittgenstein again: “The subject does not belong to the world but it is a limit of the world.”)

This, I believe, is what greater minds than mine have found troubling. If the flow of time and freedom of the will are necessarily connected to a limited perspective, can only be conceived from a combination of knowledge and ignorance, then doesn’t that mean that my first-person perspective is an illusion, is a lie? And that the only truth is the third-person perspective of science and religion?

To be continued

Time, free will, and the first person perspective, Part I

It’s not just that I disagree with the popular ideas that time “flows” and that human beings have “free will”. These ideas are just meaningless; they’re not even wrong. But when even great philosophers have embraced nonsensical ideas, they must at least be placeholders for something very important.

What could it mean for time to flow–with respect to what could it flow? Yes, time advances with time, but this is trivially true. (Cf. latitude increases with latitude as well.) Past events don’t exist now, but they exist at their own times. (Cf. other latitudes aren’t present at my latitude, but at their own.) If the past were somehow destroyed, as the A theorists believe, then all statements about the past would be undetermined or false, or they would be statements only about our memories. It’s not even necessary to invoke relativity, as if the A theory would make any more sense in a Newtonian or Aristotelian universe.

Nor can I make sense of a mode of causality that is neither deterministic nor random. I am baffled that others claim to have a direct experience of possessing such a power. I myself am not aware of any internal assurance that from a given prior mental state I ever could have willed other than I did. I don’t even know what that would feel like. If “free will” made any sense, it would be heresy. Christianity clearly teaches predestination and slavery to sin. Fortunately, “freedom of the will” in any sense other than compatibilism is nonsensical, so insufficiently coherent to impute heresy.

Can we find some common ground? I agree that the spacetime metric locally has Lorentzian signature and that causality operates within light cones. I agree that deliberation and choice are part of the causal chains involving people. You will say “if that’s all you mean by the flow of time and free will, then clearly you don’t believe in them.” So be it.

That can’t be the end, though. There must be a reason people are so drawn to such beliefs even when it is difficult to reconcile them with both science and religion.

To be continued

Practically unfree

We often speak as if freedom means absolute rights to be unimpeded in certain activities. It then appears a problem that one can always imagine some extreme circumstance under which speech, assembly, religious practice, etc. would be curtailed. From whence then came the impression that “it’s a free country”? From the fact that, practically speaking, people have been able to do most of the things they were inclined to do and that their culture had informed them to expect to be the sort of things a person ought to be able to do. The sense of freedom is a congruence between society’s constraints and its members’ desires and expectations. Zippy used to make this point, and I took it as a criticism of the theory of liberalism. It is that, but that doesn’t mean that this congruence is objectively unimportant; it matters more to peoples’ happiness than theoretical absolute rights. When we grew up, it was a “free country” because people could publicly espouse any widely held opinion without reprisal, could associate in any of the ordinary and expected ways without impediment, could arm themselves in ways most people thought reasonable, etc. One could claim that this counts for nothing in principle when the very unpopular was not equally protected, but it counted for a great deal in practice.

Today, our freedom practically counts for nothing. If I’m not allowed to have a friend over for dinner, and won’t be able to for the foreseeable future, and when I am allowed to again I will not be able to expect it to last for long, the state’s theoretical preference for freedom of association doesn’t count for anything. Likewise my freedom of religion doesn’t amount to anything. Even a communist government wouldn’t object to me praying at home. The point is not that my rights to assemble and practice religion should trump all other considerations–of course they shouldn’t!–but that the practicalities have switched. Once, the restrictions in extremities would have been theoretical; now the allowances themselves are. And we have been promised that it will only get worse and worse, that it is selfish even to complain.

There is no meaningful freedom of speech when expressing an opinion shared by half the country, an opinion that ten years ago was hardly uncontroversial, is a firing offense in most professions. The fact that punishment for dissent is carried out by the corporate rather than the governmental enforcement arm may matter theoretically to some people, but it has limited practical importance. To me, it just means that we are not protected by rights afforded by the legal system. I would much rather we were persecuted by the government, and then entitled to a trial on specific charges, protected from double jeopardy and self-incrimination, and so forth. This also will only get worse.

Conservatism is dead. But liberalism is even deader.

cross-post: Friedrich Nietzsche as anti-prophet

What I find intolerable about the current year is the mindless, self-righteous, hysterical, ceaseless moralizing–just reading the word “justice” makes me sick. So I thought it would be a nice time for Nietzsche, and in particular reading Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morals with my distinction between priestly and prophetic religion in mind. Recall, priestly religion consecrates an existing order, while prophetic religion critiques and alienates from it. Nietzsche himself does not make this distinction–he uses “priest” and “priestly” rather indiscriminately–but I think it helps clarify his writing. For example, the slave morality critiqued in the first essay of On the Genealogy of Morals is clearly not quite the same thing as the ascetic morality critiqued in the third, and these correspond roughly to prophetic and priestly modes, respectively.

What is distinctive, indeed thrilling, about Nietzsche is not that he attacks religion (that’s what’s boring and conventional about him), but where he attacks it, on the very quality that Christians and atheists agree is good and in fact argue only over who exemplifies it best. I mean, of course, the prophetic quality: “speaking truth to power”, confronting the powerful, compassion for the weak and suffering. Nietzsche sees all of this as a mask for resentment, hatred for the strong and happy, the frustrated will to power of sick, warped souls. He also points out, as we often do here, that the speakers-of-truth-to-power are themselves the power, and have been for a very long time. Nietzsche hates prophetic religion almost as much as I do.

His critique of its priestly aspects must be more subtle. The resentment of life’s losers seeks a scapegoat. The role of the “ascetic priest” is not to stoke or express this urge to blame and punish but to redirect it inward as guilt and contrition. Insofar as this inhibits outward scapegoating, Nietzsche acknowledges its usefulness, but he argues that it can never cure the losers’ spiritual sickness, but must make it worse. The will to punish and limit oneself is still an expression of the will to power, but an unhealthy one because turned inward.

The “ascetic” priestly ideal is deeper and more subtle than most realize; Nietzsche accuses scientists and atheists of espousing a particularly pure form of it insofar as they would still subordinate themselves to an objective standard of truth. Nietzsche does not believe in an absolute truth, only multiple perspectives, and the philosopher’s job is to pick–or, better, to create–one.

One might regard Friedrich Nietzsche as the first and greatest of the anti-prophetic atheists (a very small minority of atheists, but the most philosophically interesting), who, in order to resist the alienation from the world taught by the prophets, defend the world by rejecting anything that might be thought to transcend it, any outside standard that could be invoked to condemn it. The idea of eternal recurrence is a spiritual discipline–can you accept the world as it is enough to embrace the thought of it recurring forever? The atheist anti-prophets are able to be less inhibited and go farther than religious anti-prophets (meaning, primarily, Catholics); the latter don’t wish to criticize those Old Testament fanatics. In fact, the atheist anti-prophets go too far. Without standards of truth and morality that transcend–if not the world, at least us–it’s hard to see what grounds one has to object to the triumph of slave morality and its sickly, hatred-filled partisans. Have they not proven themselves stronger than the happy and noble blonde beasts and their will the more indomitable?

Yesterday’s cant

Nothing is as dead as yesterday’s cant.

One hundred years ago, how men thrilled to the thought of a coming religion of man. Ten years ago men cried for tolerance. The slogans that age the worst are tricks, attempts to turn the conservative instincts of the masses to Leftist ends. The religion of man was to enlist the piety of the masses to masonic ends. Tolerance also appeals to conservative instincts, because obviously conservatives are much more temperamentally tolerant than progressives–the boast of the latter is that they want to change the world and will not abide those aspects of it which they do not approve; conservatives used to accuse progressives of being utopian, of trying to “immanentize the eschaton”, while progressives accused conservatives of being complacent, cynical, i.e. tolerant.

Tricks like this seem clever to the midwits of the day, but they never live up to their hype. It always turns out to be simpler for the Left to just crush a culture’s conservative instincts and get its way without the trick. Today, why would anyone bother about religion? And why would the Left settle for tolerance of what it likes or suffer tolerance for what it doesn’t? I predict that in another ten years diversity will have outlived its usefulness, when we have moved on to forthrightly minimizing whites.

Another obsolete bit of cant Catholics of my generation will remember: the consistent ethic of life.