Sunday, January 29, 2006

Ideas and Cosequences Part 2 - the "common" mistake of philosophy

To continue with Feser's essay:

The varieties of conservatism

If you are still with me after all that, you have no doubt already begun to see the relevance of metaphysics to conservatism, and in particular the relevance of the classical realist tradition to Weaver’s brand of conservatism. “Realist Conservatism,” as we might call it, affirms the existence of an objective order of forms or universals that define the natures of things, including human nature, and what it seeks to conserve are just those institutions reflecting a recognition and respect for this objective order. Since human nature is, on this view, objective and universal, long-standing moral and cultural traditions are bound to reflect it and thus have a presumption in their favor.

But this does not necessarily entail a deference to the status quo, for since human beings are by their nature free and fallible, it is possible for societies to deviate, even radically, from the natural law. When this happens, it is the duty of the conservative to “stand athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’” (as the editors of National Review so eloquently put it many years ago). Such yelling ought of course to be done with tact and wisdom, but if the cause of the Realist Conservative should end up a lost one, unlikely to win elections, that is irrelevant. What matters is fidelity to the True, the Beautiful, and the Good.

Here Feser unwittingly tips us off to the weaknesses of the realist argument. To begin with, the effort to inculcate morality in human society has long been recognized as an effort to encourage men to rise above their natures. If the objective order is embodied in human nature, than to base morality on this objective order is to confuse "is" with "ought". It no better proscribes morality than a materialist, evolutionary view does. But the materialist does not make this mistake.

The second weakness to Feser's argument is that as he recognizes the fallibility of human reason and the possibility that societies will go astray from the objective order, then the conservative standing athwart history yelling stop is as likely to be stopping progress towards the objective order as he is to be preventing the regress away from that order. Assuming that there is an objective order to things is not the same as knowing what that objective order is. Conservativism of this kind, embedded in the notion that the current order is the correct order, is merely reactionary and no better a guide to moral decision-making than a coin toss or onesies-twosies.

What then are the other two varieties of conservatism I promised to identify? Here another, and much briefer, excursion into the history of philosophy is in order. I noted that realism had as its great rival nominalism, but there is also a third position on the nature of universals -- “conceptualism,” which might be thought of as a kind of middle ground between realism and nominalism. The conceptualist does not quite deny that universals exist (as the nominalist does) but he does insist, contrary to the realist, that they exist only subjectively, in the human mind. If they are real, then, they are something other than what the realist takes them to be; though their existence isn’t exactly denied, they are nevertheless “reduced” to something less grand, and certainly to something less than eternal and unchanging.

Here Feser makes an aesthetic judgment. Grandeur is in the eye of the beholder. I fail to see how aesthetics should have any say in the debate over the nature of reality, yet it often does both in the realm of theology as well as science. I tend not to take any scientific argument seriously if the scientist making the claim says that it is an "elegant" solution. For one thing, seeing elegance or inelegance in a mathematical equation takes a very strange mind to begin with, but where is there any scientific merit in the claim that truth must be beautiful? That's another bit of Platonist nonsense that I won't get into here.

The debate between realists, conceptualists, and nominalists manifests a pattern that one finds repeated frequently in other areas of philosophy: where X is some object of philosophical interest, some philosophers (the Realists) say that X is real and just what it appears to be, others (the Reductionists) say that X is real but not what it appears to be, and a third group (the Anti-Realists) says that X is not real at all, but at best merely a convenient fiction (and maybe not even that). In the debate over universals, the conceptualists are the Reductionists and the nominalists are the Anti-Realists (the realists, of course, being the Realists).

Another example of this pattern in the history of philosophy would be the debate over the relationship between mind (or soul) and body. The Realist view in this case would be “dualism,” which holds that mind and body (and mind and brain, for that matter) are completely distinct, and in particular that the mind is something non-physical or immaterial, just as it seems to be to common sense. A Reductionist view would be “identity theory,” which says that the mind is real but that it is really identical to the brain -- in other words, that the mind is, contrary to common sense, just one physical object among others. An Anti-Realist view would be “eliminative materialism,” which says that the mind does not really exist at all: strictly speaking, there are no such things as thoughts, experiences, beliefs, desires, and the like, but only neural firing patterns, hormonal secretions, behavioral dispositions, and so on and so forth.

As with aesthetics, so with common sense. I would disagree that common sense dictates that the brain and the mind are separate - I would argue just the opposite. But here is where I fault Feser's argument in particular, and metaphysical philosophy in general. Common sense is not a good way to determine truth. Common sense says that the world is flat. Common sense says that heavy objects fall faster than light objects. Common sense says that there must be something holding the world up.

Common sense is truer the closer it is to real, common experience. It is a guide from experience, basically. We don't all have the same experiences, but we have enough in common to support this notion that there are some things that we just all know. Common sense says don't poke a beehive with a stick. Common sense says don't fall for an offer that sounds too good to be true. Common sense says don't try to put something in your mouth that is bigger than your fist.

The problem comes when you try to extrapolate from common experiences to unknown phenomenon using the notions that seem right to the mind, but aren't supported by experience. This is basically what is left to philosophy after the scientific method took over all investigation of physical phenomenon amenable to empirical analysis. Aristotle's ideas about the natural world, derived from mental notions, proved how useless such unemprical noodling with notions of common sense to answer questions really were. Why do rocks fall and smoke rise? Because, thought Aristotle, each element wished to return to its origin, the rock to the Earth, and the smoke from fire to the Sun.

Philiosophy is now about constructing propositions about unknowable phenomenon based on mental notions extrapolated from experience. It is a shot into the dark based on Kentucky windage where the target is not even visible. Commmon sense is useless here. All sense is useless here. The soul cannot be measured, it cannot be put under a microscope. It only exists as an idea in the mind, a notion.

Now it seems to me that the distinction between Realist, Reductionist, and Anti-Realist positions in philosophy might usefully be applied to a demarcation of various brands of conservatism.

I have already described Realist Conservatism as committed to the existence of timeless and unchanging essences from which derives a natural law that applies to all human beings in all circumstances. Reductionist Conservatism, then, might be defined as a variety of conservatism that agrees with Realist Conservatism in affirming that there is such a thing as human nature and that it is more or less fixed, but which would ground this affirmation, not in anything like an eternal realm of Forms, but rather in, say, certain contingent facts about human biology, or perhaps in the laws of economics or in a theory of cultural evolution. The Reductionist Conservative is, accordingly, more likely to look to empirical science for inspiration than to philosophy or theology. He is also bound to see grey in at least some areas where the Realist Conservative sees black and white, since facts about economics, human biology, and the like, while very stable, are not quite as fixed or implacable as the Forms. But he is less likely to see grey than is the Anti-Realist Conservative, who might be characterized as someone doubtful that any relatively fixed moral or political principles can be read off even from scientific or economic facts about the human condition. Whereas Realist and Reductionist Conservatives value tradition because there is at least a presumption that it reflects human nature, the Anti-Realist Conservative values it merely because it provides for stability and order. The closest thing we have to an objective moral order, in the view of the Anti-Realist Conservative, are whatever principles happen to be embodied in the history and practice of a particular society. Since those principles can change, though, the conservative ought, in the view of the Anti-Realist, to be willing to change with them.

So call me a reductionist conservative.

Realist Conservatives respect religion because it shores up obedience to the natural law, but especially because its teachings are either explicit or implicit affirmations of the very same metaphysical truths knowable through philosophical inquiry. The Realist Conservative also respects science, but sees it as less fundamental in the order of knowledge than is philosophy (and, for some Realists, theology), and insists that its results be interpreted in the light of more basic metaphysical truths. Reductionist and Anti-Realist Conservatives also respect religion, but only because it serves as a bulwark of social and moral order; and the Anti-Realist Conservative is just as likely to see it as a potential danger when its adherents threaten to upset social order in the name of purportedly timeless truths. Reductionist and Anti-Realist Conservatives also tend to regard science (including, for some of them, social sciences like economics) as the paradigm of knowledge, indeed perhaps as the only thing that even deserves the name of knowledge. But the Anti-Realist Conservative is less likely to see in it a source of moral and political insights that might replace the insights traditionally promised by philosophy and theology. For the Anti-Realist, it is ultimately the values that have (for whatever reason) come to prevail in a culture, rather than any objective philosophical or scientific truths, that determine what we should do. Pragmatism is his only unchanging principle.

Now this classification is an idealization, and many real world conservatives probably exhibit elements of more than one of these tendencies of thought. It seems pretty obvious, though, that religious conservatives, whether they are simple believers or intellectuals of the sort associated with journals like First Things, are paradigm Realist Conservatives. It is either realist metaphysical principles of the sort I’ve described, or the will of God, or some combination of these, that define their conservatism, and this gives it an unmistakably Realist character.

Reductionist Conservatism predominates among secular conservative intellectuals who find in social science or evolutionary psychology the ingredients for a reconstruction of the older conservative conception of human nature in more purportedly “scientific” and “up to date” terms.

I think I've done a thorough job of shredding this notion of metaphysical truths knowable through philosophy. The rest of the article is more discussion of the Anti-Realist conservative type, as embodied by Jeffrey Hart in his recent essay "The Burke Habit":

Hart trouble

This brings us to Prof. Hart’s recent essay. Hart is himself a prominent conservative. He tells us that “what the time calls for is a recovery of the great structure of metaphysics, with the Resurrection as its fulcrum, established as history, and interpreted through Greek philosophy.” This might seem to mark his conservatism as of the Realist variety, but as every good Platonist knows, appearances can be deceiving.

The part of his essay that has provoked the most controversy concerns abortion, for Hart calls on conservatives to abandon the pro-life cause. This position itself seems to have been less controversial, though, than the reasons he gives for it. For Hart appeals in his defense to the “powerful social forces” favoring abortion, such as “the women’s revolution.” He tells us that the pro-choice consensus ought not to be challenged, because it is “the result of many accumulating social facts, and its results already have been largely assimilated.” Roe v. Wade must be accepted, in his view, because it reflected “a relentlessly changing social actuality” and “the reality of the American social process.” Indeed, the conservative mind itself, Hart tells us, is “a work in progress,” and ought to be guided by “skepticism” and “the results of experience.”

Here Prof. Hart’s jargon is clearly not that of Plato or Aristotle, Augustine or Aquinas. If anything, it is that of the pragmatist (and decidedly anti-realist and unconservative) philosopher John Dewey. And lest this seem an odd thing to say about a conservative, let it be noted that Hart almost admits as much himself when he proposes Dewey’s fellow pragmatist William James, of all people, as a model for conservatives to emulate. For the Realist, abortion is either wicked or it is not, and finding out which is all that matters. But for Hart (as for Dewey) such questions are trumped by “social forces,” “social processes,” “social actuality,” “revolution,” and “progress.” God and the philosophers, tradition and reason can have their say, but it is only when The People Have Spoken that every conservative must bend the knee. If this is conservatism, it is certainly not Realist Conservatism, or even Reductionist Conservatism, but it might be Anti-Realist Conservatism.

Anti-Realist Conservatism also seems to be the working ideology of many conservative politicians and activists, for whom assimilating principle to political expediency is always a temptation. It also appears common among populists who oppose liberalism only where it happens to offend the current sensibilities of “the folks,” but who are more than happy to give up their opposition when said “folks” decide to bring formerly avant-garde attitudes and practices home with them to the suburbs

I bolded Hart's quote above mainly for the irony factor that a prominent religious conservative can succumb to moral relativism. What is this world coming to, when people won't act according to form? Can someone send me a program, I can't tell the players apart anymore.

But this just reinforces my idea that assuming that an objective moral order exists is of no help in determining what that moral order is.


Blogger Brit said...

Another great article, Duck. There's a lot in there to think about, so it's difficult to know where to start.

You make an interesting point about 'common sense'.

Conservatives are keen on common sense, in its meaning of 'the antithesis of the Big Idea'. (I once wrote on Bros Judd that when it comes to government, leftists value the ideals most highly, conservatives value common sense, while civil servants value the rules above all else and are loathed by everybody.)

And I've sometimes thought that much of western philosophy - eg. Descartes onwards - is an attempt to use pure reasoning to prove that our common sense is right after all (it is often forgotten that Descartes only doubts everything except cogito ergo sum in the first Meditation. The rest of them work back to 'prove' that everything he has just doubted is in fact true).

But as you point out, common sense can only take you so far. For most of human history, it would indeed have been common sense to think the world was flat. But once you've found out about gravity and orbits and seen some satellite photos, it's a different matter. If a Flat Earthist informs you that all that stuff is an elaborate hoax, common sense tells you to ignore him.

And not all common sense is common to all. Some people believe in a Creator and a soul because it just seems obvious 'common sense'. Others take an opposite view:

By simple common sense I do not believe in God - Charlie Chaplin.

January 30, 2006 8:16 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Yes, the world is a perfect example of how experience tends to upend people's understanding of common sense. We have experiences now that prove the true shape of the Earth, so these experiences are factored into what passes for common sense now. It is a moving target.

But it is amazing the extent to which people will declare opinions on this or that phenomenon, of which they have little or no experience, based on this notion of common sense. They have a picture in their mind of how they think this or that works and are willing to ascribe an amazing amount of surety to their opinion given their ignorance of the matter. We give all too much credibility to this sense, based on its track record throughout history.

January 30, 2006 9:36 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

A couple things, beyond those Duck already mentioned, rather stick out.

“Realist Conservatism,” as we might call it, affirms the existence of an objective order of forms or universals that define the natures of things, including human nature and what it seeks to conserve are just those institutions reflecting a recognition and respect for this objective order.

Granting that I am a libertarian conservative, with somewhat more emphasis on the last half of that label, that kind of assertion can't go without some attention to the details underlying the generality.

Like the time honored treatment of female human nature. Is that a part of history to which universals insist we return?

In general, the current order deserves some deference, because the entering argument is that it became the current order for some good reason. But unless there are some deeper, order invariant, principles, then we are powerless to distinguish time-honored from mere habit. (not that Duck hasn't pointed this out)

Many hold God as the order-invariant principle. That would be a vastly more persuasive argument if God, or, more accurately, human invocations of God, weren't themselves so order dependent.

Several posts Duck has made over the last several weeks, both here and at BrosJudd, have made that case, but using concepts slightly different than I would.

I would base the order invariant principle on a quality we recognize primarily in humans, and, to a much lesser degree in other mammals: sentience.

It is the massively hyptertrophied sentience humans possess which makes us unique from all other animals (albeit possibly more in significant degree than in kind), and it is the quality that makes us all essentially identical, the sense in which we are all created equal.

No matter what one thinks of a soul, or the manner of our creation.

There is a point I'm trying to make, or at least I think there is. But it is 10pm, and I was up at 4am. I'm flat out of useful consciousness.

January 30, 2006 7:04 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

You've persuaded me.

Not that I care. As a strict materialist, all this is so many angels dancing on the heads of so many pins to me.

In America, at least, 'conservative' is a word almost without meaning.

We don't conserve much. A hundred years ago, Mencken cracked that it was already becoming difficult to find anybody willing to fight over infant damnation.

When Americans say 'conservative,' especially when they say it about themselves, they mean 'reactionary,' but back to something that scarcely existed in history.

Imaginary reactionism.

Anyhow, I'm in awe of anybody who could follow Feser that long. I couldn't keep the different kinds of conservaties straight.

January 30, 2006 10:19 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home