Sunday


David Hume

Today I had a new comment on a blog post that I wrote ten years ago. The comment was from Luke Thompson, and the blog post in question was Counter-Cyclical Civilization. I had to re-read my ten-year-old blog post to remind myself of what I had written, and of course I don’t recall in detail what I had in mind ten years ago.

In my ten-year-old post I discussed how the scientific revolution and the industrial revolution (what I would subsequently come to call the Three Revolutions, of which these constitute two) have changed the pattern of previous civilization, which seems to have more-or-less exemplified an organic model of civilization, such that civilizations behave like biological individuals and pass through predictable life cycles from birth to growth to maturity to decline to death. I argued that the scientific revolution and the industrial revolution had disrupted this pattern and thus suggest that the organic model of civilization is inadequate to describe civilization as we know it today. These revolutionary forces are “counter-cyclical” to the predictable cycle of the organic model of civilization.

Mr. Thompson asked what exactly I had meant in that blog post where I had written, “…this time around, the pattern has been interrupted. New forces are at play, and the result must be as unprecedented as the circumstances.” In my response I offered a number forces present in the modern world that apparently work counter-cyclically to the predictable forces of decay and disintegration that begin to break down a civilization when it has run its course and started on its decline.

In my recent post David Hume’s Book Burning Bonfire I described the “dark underbelly of the Enlightenment,” that is to say, the aspects of the Enlightenment that we are less apt to discuss, like Hume’s eagerness to burn the books of “school metaphysics” (by which he meant Scholasticism). Reflecting on this in the light of reading my old post about the organic model of civilization and counter-cyclical forces working against cyclical decline, I see now that I could have (had I remembered) characterized the Enlightenment era interest in book burning and clearing away of the relics of the past as a predictable force in history. When a new kind of civilization appears in the world — in this case, Enlightenment civilization — it is on the rise as the traditional form of civilization is on the decline. Thus Enlightenment civilization, as it emerges, engages those familiar forces of the organic model of civilization, hastening the decline of its predecessor so that it can more rapidly take its place in history.

The high-water mark of communism in the twentieth century similarly sought to eliminate the traces of traditionalist civilization in Russia and China, and in the domains controlled by these superpowers during their communist phases, so that that communist millennium could all the more rapidly take its place as a new communist civilization. During the twentieth century, when communism was the revolutionary ideology par excellence, the transition to a communist social order was seen (and was theorized by Marx to be) the inevitable outcome of historical progress, and all the devices of historiography and philosophy were mobilized to make it seem so. One of the examples I like to cite in this connection is the idea of a new “Soviet Man,” Homo sovieticus, that would mark a new stage in the development of humanity, and not merely a new stage in the development of history.

As catastrophic as the Enlightenment willingness to preside over the destruction of the medieval past, Soviet purges, and the Cultural Revolution were each to the past of the relevant society, these disruptions of the historical record must be considered little disruptions in history, because the intent of those engaged in these historical projects was to continue civilization, but to continue in a radically new direction. This meant that some of the ground had to be cleared in order to make way for the new civilization, but it did not necessarily demand that the entirety of the past be erased.

Radical disruptions in history sometimes do call for the complete effacement of the past and as the necessary step toward clearing the ground for a new civilization that will rise de novo from the ashes of the former civilization. The early Christians and some Muslims today often have this attitude to the past. Some revolutionary groups have this attitude to the past. The most radical communist groups, like the Khmer Rouge, who emptied out cities and sought to force the population into utopian rural agrarianism, had this attitude to the past.

This distinction between limited effacement (like Hume’s book burning) and radical effacement of the past (as in the collapse of Roman civilization) may be useful in theorizing the scope of historical disruption, and it could be employed to further articulate the organic model of civilization in relation to non-organic conceptions of civilization.

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Tuesday


David Hume, philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment and advocate of book burning.

The Dark Underbelly of the Enlightenment

There is a well known passage from the final paragraph of David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

“When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, XII. “Of the Academical or Sceptical Philosophy”

In the dialectic that is human history we would expect that a dominant paradigm — like the Enlightenment today — would alternate between its benevolent expression and its malevolent expression, sometimes showing to a world a bright and cheerful aspect, while at other times betraying a dark and sinister aspect. This is not distinctive to the Enlightenment, it is a function of human nature, with its ever-present shadow side that we attempt to suppress and obscure and ignore. We can find this dialectic in all stages in the development of human civilization, and in all civilizations in all parts of the world. There are inspiring moments of brilliance, and devastating moments of horror, both flowing from the human heart in all its complexity and mendacity.

We prefer to focus on the novel and edifying aspects of the Enlightenment, and to pass over in the silence the destructive and sinister aspects of the Enlightenment, but both aspects are fully present in the Enlightenment no less than in other historical periods and other intellectual movements. The Enlightenment not only promoted a set of humanistic values, it also anathematized a set of traditional values associated with a form of society that preceded the Enlightenment.

There is another passage from Hume (which I earlier quoted in The Illiberal Conception of Freedom) that drives home the Enlightenment imperative not only to advance its own program, but also to extirpate tradition:

“Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues; for what reason are they everywhere rejected by men of sense, but because they serve to no manner of purpose; neither advance a man’s fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment? We observe, on the contrary, that they cross all these desirable ends; stupify the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy and sour the temper.”

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, 1777, Section IX, Conclusion, Part I

Hume has here lined up all virtues given pride of place during the Middle Ages (admittedly honored more in the breech than the observance) and roundly condemned them as being counter to human interests and therefore to be cast aside in favor of the values and virtues of the Enlightenment. For Hume, it is not enough merely to promote the rationalism and humanism of the Enlightenment, it is also necessary to extirpate rival moral systems.

When Hume wrote his philosophical works, the memory of the burning of heretics and witches was still fresh in European memory. Indeed, the Enlightenment was largely a reaction against the excesses that followed the Protestant Reformation, and especially the Thirty Years’ War. No doubt Hume saw the representatives of celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, and solitude as responsible, in whole or in part, for the atrocities of the religious wars that had so devastated early modern Europe. The book burning advocated by Hume has a spectacular theatricality that invokes both the auto-de-fé of the Inquisition and the Bonfire of the Vanities in Florence under the brief rule of Savonarola. One good bonfire, it seems, deserves another.

The motives that led Hume to advocate book burning were not qualitatively different from motives that led earlier and later ideologies to advocate book burning and equivalent forms of censorship and the destruction of a former tradition now believed to present an obstacle to the construction of the kind of society that is to be built. During the Protestant Reformation, the furnishings of Catholic churches were looted and destroyed. Perhaps there were cases in which there was a desire to profit from this, but the many damaged sculptures and paintings demonstrate that there was also a desire merely to destroy for the sake of destruction, and to do so with a clear conscience because one was destroying in pursuit of a higher good.

I have previously quoted Montaigne on destructive enthusiasms excused by religious fervor in Transcendental Humors:

“The mind has not willingly other hours enough wherein to do its business, without disassociating itself from the body, in that little space it must have for its necessity. They would put themselves out of themselves, and escape from being men. It is folly; instead of transforming themselves into angels, they transform themselves into beasts; instead of elevating, they lay themselves lower. These transcendental humours affright me, like high and inaccessible places; and nothing is hard for me to digest in the life of Socrates but his ecstasies and communication with demons; nothing so human in Plato as that for which they say he was called divine; and of our sciences, those seem to be the most terrestrial and low that are highest mounted; and I find nothing so humble and mortal in the life of Alexander as his fancies about his immortalisation.”

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Essays, Book III, “Of Experience”

The Soviets destroyed countless Orthodox churches and monasteries, as the Chinese have destroyed many Tibetan Buddhist temples and monasteries, as the Taliban destroyed the legacy of Buddhism in Central Asia, and the Saudi government has presided over the destruction of almost all pre-Islamic monuments in Mecca (though it should be pointed out that the Saudis, in their enthusiasm for iconoclasm, also routinely destroy sites associated with early Islam). Clearly, this iconoclastic impulse as part of a desire to found a new social order is not distinctive to the Enlightenment or to western civilization. What is interesting here is not a presumption of uniqueness that can be shown to be false, but rather the similarity of the Enlightenment to other movements that look to humanity starting over again with a clean slate. In other words, it is the non-uniqueness of the Enlightenment that interests me in this respect.

The explicit and purposeful destruction of a legacy in order to begin anew from scratch points to an important aspect of contemporary iconoclasm: the blank slate is not a description, but a prescription. If we are to bring forth a new order, we must utterly destroy the old order, because the new order must be brought forth in all its purity and innocence, uncontaminated by the errors of the past. A blank slate is the necessary condition of building the brave new world the revolutionary dreams of founding. The blank slate given an epistemic exposition by Locke during the Enlightenment is thus seen as a moral precondition for the mind of the future, and not a description of the mind of the present. Locke is here engaged in what Nietzsche described as philosophy as the confession of its originator.

Today iconoclasm is viewed as a necessary prerequisite for every undertaking, and the idea of the blank slate continues to wield tremendous influence. I find it frightening that the future is regarded by many as a blank slate, upon which we project our ideals of a better and more just society. These are admirable motives, but they have been the motives of every revolutionary force that has demanded the indiscriminate demolition of all traditional institutions for the sake of a better tomorrow. Most worrisome of all, the lesson of history is that the focus of righteous wrath is usually fixed upon anything that represents a past ideal, as this ideal represents a rival conception of the good that cannot be tolerated. We must expect, then, that that which we have most valued will be most insistently targeted for destruction.

With renewed interest in space exploration in recent years, we are also seeing renewed interest in humanity establishing itself off the surface of Earth, and this interest has contributed to a growing discussion around space settlements. I intend to address these ideas elsewhere, as they are intrinsically interesting, but in connection with the above discussion of Enlightenment iconoclasm I want to focus on just one motif that recurs repeatedly in the discussion of human expansion beyond Earth. This motif is the idea that space is a blank slate for human beings where a new social order can be constructed that leaves behind the problems that have dogged the human condition on Earth. There are those who believe that human beings simply should not leave Earth (and these must be distinguished from those who believe that we cannot leave Earth, because the problem of human space settlement is intractable), but there are also those who do not specifically object to the expansion of humanity beyond Earth, but believe that we should wait until we clean up our act on our homeworld (a position that I call the waiting gambit), or that when we do move out into the solar system, and eventually to other stars, we must do so according to a new social template. In other words, we must abandon the past in order to create new institutions for this new frontier.

Given what has been noted above in respect to Enlightenment iconoclasm, we can see that his conception of humanity’s expansion beyond our homeworld being contingent upon a planetary-scale iconoclasm directed at the entire tradition of human civilization up to the present time is truly a disastrous conceit, and if we attempt to put this into practice, the result will be misery and suffering proportional to the extent that this conceit is realized.

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Wednesday


On 17 April 2018 French President Emmanuel Macron gave a speech to the EU parliament in which he stated, “There is a fascination with the illiberal, that is growing all the time.” Since being elected French president Macron has campaigned passionately and tirelessly for reforms in the EU, and while Macron seems to be pretty “woke” to the actual problems facing the EU, his “solution” to this problem is not anything controversial from an EU standpoint, but rather the familiar EU talking point that, if the EU isn’t working quite as well as way hoped, then the solution is more EU. In other words, Macron is doubling down on the EU. To be fair, Macron is also insisting upon changes in the EU that might make a small difference, but at a time when closer European unity is so controversial that EU leaders don’t dare put it to a popular vote, Macron’s reforms are too little, too late. Nevertheless, he gets a gold star for trying.

Macron’s 17 April 2018 speech wasn’t the only speech in which he cited growing illiberalism as a concern. In his speech to the US Congress on 25 April 2018 he said the following:

“Together with our international allies and partners, we are facing inequalities created by globalization; threats to the planet, our common good; attacks on democracies through the rise of illiberalism; and the destabilization of our international community by new powers and criminal states.”

Last year on Hallowe’en, Macron gave a speech at the European Court of Human Rights which included this:

“We are witnessing a resurgence of authoritarian regimes or a fascination in many parts of Europe for illiberal democracies; in my opinion, it is here that the coherence and strength of the responses to the challenges just mentioned must be built.”

Earlier in the same speech, in speaking of the, “traumatic experience of Europeans” (i.e., the Second World War and its aftermath), Macron said:

“Who could seriously claim that the worst is behind us and that we can afford to dilute the strength of the universal principles which bind us? Who could consider that these risks of illiberal democracy, an inward-looking approach and a surreptitious or assumed undermining of our values and our principles are now far behind us?”

This passage is especially interesting for its explicit contrast of Enlightenment universalism with illiberal democracy, and the connection of illiberal democracy with an “inward-looking approach.”

Macron’s warnings of illiberalism got me to thinking. It would probably be fair to say that I am fascinated with illiberal ideas, so when I heard this coming out of Macron’s mouth it really got my attention. Macron didn’t name names — perhaps he was thinking about Viktor Orbán in Hungary, or perhaps he was thinking about how Hitler came to power democratically — when he warned of “illiberal democracy,” but we can ask ourselves, from a principled standpoint (in contradistinction from particular historical examples), what an illiberal democracy would be. Could we even ask, what an illiberal democracy ought to be? Can we even speak in terms of “ought” when we are talking about something that is being derided as a danger?

Thinking about the possibility of illiberal democracy led me to think about what could be called the illiberal conception of freedom, and with this we find ourselves in the presence of an ancient idea in western thought that has been a touchstone of western civilization — but a touchstone that has been among the traditions that the rise of the Enlightenment has at very least occluded, when it hasn’t actually openly attacked the illiberal conception of freedom. So this is important. This is a crucial point at which the Enlightenment project parts ways with the most ancient sources of the western tradition, and in so far as the Enlightenment project is the central project of contemporary civilization (an argument I intend to make elsewhere, but have not yet formulated in detail), this is one of the points at which the Enlightenment represents a rupture with the past and a new form of civilization derived from this preemption of the previous central project of western civilization.

What is the illiberal conception of freedom? I happened to find a perfect evocation of it in Isaiah Berlin’s essay on Herder, in which Berlin, discussing the Protestant Pietists, writes of, “…above all their preoccupation with the life of the spirit which alone liberated men from the bonds of the flesh and nature.” (Vico & Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas, New York: Vintage, 1977, p. 152) There you have it in a nutshell. The traditional conception of human nature is that it is in slavish bondage to the flesh, to nature, to the world, and can only be freed from this bondage through the cultivation of the spirit.

The illiberal conception of freedom is implicit in Plato’s critique of democracy in Book VIII of the Republic. Democracy, according to Plato, in seeking to place personal freedom above and before all else, inevitably degenerates into tyranny because it places demagogues in power who ultimately destroy the institutions that raised them to high office. Freedom thus issues in its opposite. Thucydides’ description of revolution on Corcyra (modern Corfu) in his History of the Peloponnesian War is eerily reminiscent of Plato’s more abstract and theoretical account of the collapse of democracy into tyranny. The Platonic critique of democratic freedom is often formulated as a distinction between true freedom and mere license (which latter is presumably what leads to the ruin of democracies). For a treatment of the positive content of Plato’s conception of freedom cf. Siobhán McLoughlin’s The Freedom of the Good: A Study of Plato’s Ethical Conception of Freedom.

The illiberal conception of freedom is one of the central themes of Spinoza’s Ethics, Part IV of which is “Of Human Bondage,” in which Spinoza seeks to demonstrate (and I do mean demonstrate) that the human will is in bondage to emotion (which in most translations is rendered “affects”). Spinoza opens Part IV with a forthright statement of this thesis:

“Human infirmity in moderating and checking the emotions I name bondage: for, when a man is a prey to his emotions, he is not his own master, but lies at the mercy of fortune: so much so, that he is often compelled, while seeing that which is better for him, to follow that which is worse.”

In Part V of the Ethics, Spinoza attains remarkably heights of eloquence and intellectual nobility in praising the life of the man who can overcome the bondage of his emotional life through the exercise of the intellect. While Spinoza’s formulations are thoroughly rationalistic, his message is essentially the same message of his contemporaries the Pietists, about whom Isaiah Berlin was writing in the passage I quoted above, and who expressed these ideas in a spiritual form rather than a rationalistic form.

With the arrival of the Enlightenment, the idea of a spiritual discipline leading to an inner freedom seemed, if not merely quaint, to be actually opposed to “true” human freedom. Hume, one of the great representatives of the Enlightenment, ridiculed the traditional forms of spiritual discipline in the western tradition:

“Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues; for what reason are they everywhere rejected by men of sense, but because they serve to no manner of purpose; neither advance a man’s fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment? We observe, on the contrary, that they cross all these desirable ends; stupify the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy and sour the temper.”

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, 1777, Section IX, Conclusion, Part I

It is interesting to compare this famous passage from Hume with a remarkably similarly passage from Spinoza, also in Part IV of the Ethics:

“…it rarely happens that men live in obedience to reason, for things are so ordered among them, that they are generally envious and troublesome one to another. Nevertheless they are scarcely able to lead a solitary life, so that the definition of man as a social animal has met with general assent; in fact, men do derive from social life much more convenience than injury. Let satirists then laugh their fill at human affairs, let theologians rail, and let misanthropes praise to their utmost the life of untutored rusticity, let them heap contempt on men and praises on beasts; when all is said, they will find that men can provide for their wants much more easily by mutual help, and that only by uniting their forces can they escape from the dangers that on every side beset them: not to say how much more excellent and worthy of our knowledge it is, to study the actions of men than the actions of beasts.”

We can see from these two passages that Spinoza and Hume are, at least in some respects, closer to each other than any simplistic contrast between liberal freedom and illiberal freedom would suggest. Spinoza and Hume might find common ground if their shades could discuss the question, but the social context of freedom has radically changed both from that of Spinoza and that of Hume. While the world that Spinoza knew is entirely lost, we can also say that what the Enlightenment was in Hume’s time was not yet what the Enlightenment project has become for us today.

Especially since the middle of the twentieth century, the idea of freedom has come to mean “doing your own thing,” which Plato would have called “license” and which more or less involves indulging the individual’s appetites to their limits and beyond. From a superficial perspective, the liberal conception of freedom has triumphed, and as it has triumphed it has trapped us in the idea of realizing our own “authenticity” (in the language of existentialists) and “self-actualization” (in the language of psychology and psychiatry). And yet, for all the authenticity and self-actualization we have lived through, the psychoanalysts have also diagnosed a condition of the “existential void.” That an existential void would attend the indulgence of human appetites would not have surprised any of the theorists of the illiberal conception of freedom.

Is there any place for or possibility of the illiberal conception of freedom today? Should we regard the illiberal conception of freedom as a relic of traditionalism of which we are best rid? Or is there any perennial wisdom in the idea that may have some applicability to the world today? Has the world changed too dramatically for the individual today to seek inner spiritual perfection (and hence spiritual freedom)? Is the illiberal conception of freedom a retreat from the world, an admission of defeat? Is it necessary to turn from the world in order to cultivate the life of the spirit, or can one remain engaged with world and also with the life of the spirit? I will leave these questions for another time.

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Wednesday


crowd

Is it possible for human beings to care about the fate of strangers? This is at once a profound philosophical question and an immediately practical question. The most famous response to this question is perhaps that of John Donne:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, XVII. Nunc lento sonitu dicunt, morieris. Now, this bell tolling softly for another, says to me: Thou must die.

Immanuel Levinas spoke of “the community of those with nothing in common,” in an attempt to get at the human concern for other human beings of whom we know little or nothing. More recently, there is this from Bill Gates:

“When I talk to friends about global health, I often run into a strange paradox. The idea of saving one person’s life is profound and thrilling. But I’ve found that when you talk about saving millions of lives — it sounds almost meaningless. The higher the number, the harder it is to wrap your head around.”

Bill Gates, opening paragraph of An AIDS Number That’s Almost Too Big to Believe

Gates presents this as a paradox, but in social science it is a well-known and well-studied cognitive bias known as the Identifiable victim effect. One researcher who has studied this cognitive bias is Paul Slovic, whose work was discussed by Sam Harris in the following passage:

“…when human life is threatened, it seems both rational and moral for our concern to increase with the number of lives at stake. And if we think that losing many lives might have some additional negative consequences (like the collapse of civilization), the curve of our concern should grow steeper still. But this is not how we characteristically respond to the suffering of other human beings.”

“Slovic’s experimental work suggests that we intuitively care most about a single, identifiable human life, less about two, and we grow more callous as the body count rises. Slovic believes that this ‘psychic numbing’ explains the widely lamented fact that we are generally more distressed by the suffering of single child (or even a single animal) than by a proper genocide. What Slovic has termed ‘genocide neglect’ — our reliable failure to respond, both practically and emotionally, to the most horrific instances of unnecessary human suffering — represents one of the more perplexing and consequential failures of our moral intuition.”

“Slovic found that when given a chance to donate money in support of needy children, subjects give most generously and feel the greatest empathy when told only about a single child’s suffering. When presented with two needy cases, their compassion wanes. And this diabolical trend continues: the greater the need, the less people are emotionally affected and the less they are inclined to give.”

Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, Chapter 2

Skip down another paragraph and Harris adds this:

“The fact that people seem to be reliably less concerned when faced with an increase in human suffering represents an obvious violation of moral norms. The important point, however, is that we immediately recognize how indefensible this allocation of emotional and material resources is once it is brought to our attention.”

While Harris has not hesitated to court controversy, and speaks the truth plainly enough as he sees it, by failing to place what he characterizes as norms of moral reasoning in an evolutionary context he presents us with a paradox (the above section of the book is subtitled “Moral Paradox”). Really, this kind of cognitive bias only appears paradoxical when compared to a relatively recent conception of morality liberated from parochial in-group concerns.

For our ancestors, focusing on a single individual whose face is known had a high survival value for a small nomadic band, whereas a broadly humanitarian concern for all human beings would have been disastrous in equal measure. Today, in the context of industrial-technological civilization we can afford to love humanity; if our ancestors had loved humanity rather than particular individuals they knew well, they likely would have gone extinct.

Our evolutionary past has ill prepared us for the perplexities of population ethics in which the lives of millions may rest on our decisions. On the other hand, our evolutionary past has well prepared us for small group dynamics in which we immediately recognize everyone in our in-group and with equal immediacy identify anyone who is not part of our in-group and who therefore belongs to an out-group. We continue to behave as though our decisions were confined to a small band of individuals known to us, and the ability of contemporary telecommunications to project particular individuals into our personal lives as though we knew them, as if they were part of our in-group, plays into this cognitive bias.

While the explicit formulation of Identifiable victim effect is recent, the principle has been well known for hundreds of years at least, and has been as compellingly described in historical literature as in recent social science, as, for example, in Adam Smith:

“Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.”

Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part III, chapter 3, paragraph 4

And immediately after Hume made his famous claim that, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them,” he illustrated the claim with an observation similar to Smith’s:

“Where a passion is neither founded on false suppositions, nor chuses means insufficient for the end, the understanding can neither justify nor condemn it. It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. It is not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me. It is as little contrary to reason to prefer even my own acknowledgeed lesser good to my greater, and have a more ardent affection for the former than the latter.”

David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book II, Part III, section 3

Bertrand Russell has well described how the expression of this cognitive bias can take on the conceit of moral superiority in the context of romanticism:

“Cultivated people in eighteenth-century France greatly admired what they called la sensibilité, which meant a proneness to emotion, and more particularly to the emotion of sympathy. To be thoroughly satisfactory, the emotion must be direct and violent and quite uninformed by thought. The man of sensibility would be moved to tears by the sight of a single destitute peasant family, but would be cold to well-thought-out schemes for ameliorating the lot of peasants as a class. The poor were supposed to possess more virtue than the rich; the sage was thought of as a man who retires from the corruption of courts to enjoy the peaceful pleasures of an unambitious rural existence.”

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, Part II. From Rousseau to the Present Day, CHAPTER XVIII “The Romantic Movement”

Russell’s account of romanticism provides some of the missing rationalization whereby a cognitive bias clearly at variance with norms of moral reasoning is justified as being the “higher” moral ground. Harris seems to suggest that, as soon as this violation of moral reasoning is pointed out to us, we will change. But we don’t change, for the most part. Our rationalizations change, but our behavior rarely does. And indeed studies of cognitive bias have revealed that even when experimental subjects are informed of cognitive biases that should be obvious ex post facto, most will continue to defend choices that unambiguously reflect cognitive bias.

I have personally experienced the attitude described by Russell (despite the fact that I have not lived in eighteenth-century France) more times than I care to recall, though I find myself temperamentally on the side of those formulating well-thought-out schemes for the amelioration of the lot of the destitute as a class, rather than those moved to tears by the sight of a single destitute family. From these personal experiences of mine, anecdotal evidence suggests to me that if you attempt to live by the quasi-utilitarianism advocated by Russell and Harris, others will regard you as cold, unfeeling, and lacking in the milk of human kindness.

The cognitive bias challenge to presumptive norms of moral reasoning is also a profound challenge to existential risk mitigation, since existential risk mitigation deals in the largest numbers of human lives saved, but is a well-thought-out scheme for ameliorating the lot of human beings as a class, and may therefore have little emotional appeal compared to putting an individual’s face on a problem and then broadcasting that face repetitively.

We have all heard that the past is the foreign county, and that they do things differently there. (This line comes from the 1953 novel The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley.) We are the past of some future that has yet to occur, and we will in turn be a foreign country to that future. And, by the same token, the future is a foreign country, and they do things differently there. Can we care about these foreigners with their foreign ways? Can we do more than care about them, and actually change our behavior in the present in order to ensure on ongoing future, however foreign that future is from our parochial concerns?

In Bostrom’s paper “Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority” (Global Policy, Volume 4, Issue 1, February 2013) the author gives a lower bound of 1016 potential future lives saved by existential risk mitigation (though he also gives “a lower bound of 1054 human-brain-emulation subjective life-years” as a possibility), but if the “collapse of compassion” is a function of the numbers involved, the higher the numbers we cite for individuals saved as a result of existential risk mitigation, the less will the average individual of today care.

Would it be possible to place an identifiable victim in the future? This is difficult, but we are all familiar with appeals to the world we leave to our children, and these are attempts to connect identifiable victims with actions that may prejudice the ability of human beings in the future to live lives of value commensurate with our own. It would be possible to construct some grand fiction, like Plato’s “noble lie” in order to interest the mass of the public in existential risk mitigation, but this would not be successful unless it became some kind of quasi-religious belief exempted from falsification that becomes the receptacle of our collective hopes. This does not seem very plausible (or sustainable) to me.

Are we left, then, to take the high road? To try to explain in painstaking (and off-putting) detail the violation of moral norms involved in our failure to adequately address existential risks, thereby putting our descendants in mortal danger? Certainly if an attempt to place an identifiable victim in the future is doomed to failure, we have no remaining option but the attempt at a moral intervention and relentless moral education that could transform the moral lives of humanity.

I do not think either of the above approaches to resolving the identifiable victim challenge to existential risk mitigation would be likely to be successful. I can put this more strongly yet: I think both approaches would almost certainly result in a backlash and would therefore be counter-productive to existential risk mitigation efforts. The only way forward that I can see is to present existential risk mitigation under the character of the adventure and exploration made possible by a spacefaring civilization that would, almost as an unintended consequence, secure the redundancy and autonomy of extraterrestrial centers of human civilization.

Human beings (at least as I know them) have a strong distaste for moral lectures and do not care to be told to do anything for their own good, but if you present them with the possibility of adventure and excitement that promises new experiences to every individual and possibly even the prospect of the extraterrestrial equivalent of a buried treasure, or even a pot of gold at the of the rainbow, you might enlist the selfishness and greed of individuals in a great cause on behalf of Earth and all its inhabitants, so that each individual is moved, as it were, by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.

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danger imminent existential threat

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Existential Risk: The Philosophy of Human Survival

1. Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk

2. Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

3. Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

4. Existential Risk and the Death Event

5. Risk and Knowledge

6. What is an existential philosophy?

7. An Alternative Formulation of Existential Risk

8. Existential Risk and Existential Opportunity

9. Conceptualization of Existential Risk

10. Existential Risk and Existential Viability

11. Existential Risk and the Developmental Conception of Civilization

12. Developing an Existential Perspective

13. Existential Risk and Identifiable Victims

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The Limits of Science

3 December 2014

Wednesday


P. F. Strawson called his twentieth century exposition of Kant The Bounds of Sense. I have commented elsewhere what a appropriate title this is. The Kantian project (much like metamathematics in the twentieth century) was a limitative project. Kant himself wrote (in the Preface to the 2nd edition of the Critique of Pure Reason): “…my intention then was, to limit knowledge, in order to make room for faith.” Here is the entire passage from which the quote is taken, though in a different translation:

“This discussion as to the positive advantage of critical principles of pure reason can be similarly developed in regard to the concept of God and of the simple nature of our soul; but for the sake of brevity such further discussion may be omitted. [From what has already been said, it is evident that] even the assumption — as made on behalf of the necessary practical employment of my reason — of God, freedom, and immortality is not permissible unless at the same time speculative reason be deprived of its pretensions to transcendent insight. For in order to arrive at such insight it must make use of principles which, in fact, extend only to objects of possible experience, and which, if also applied to what cannot be an object of experience, always really change this into an appearance, thus rendering all practical extension of pure reason impossible. I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith.”

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, Preface to the Second Edition

What lies beyond the bounds of sense? For Kant, faith. And Kant’s theological agenda drove him to seek the bounds of sense so that speculative reason could be deprived of its pretensions to transcendental insight. Thus Kant gives us an epistemology openly freighted with theological and moral concerns. Talk about the theory-ladenness of perception! It is, however, non-perception — i.e., that which cannot be the object of possible experience — that is the Kantian domain of faith.

The 1791 Döbler portrait of Kant.

Of course, this is the whole Kantian project in a nutshell, is it not? It is Kant’s design to show us exactly how perception is laden with theory, the theory native to the mind, the a priori concepts by which we organize experience. Kant propounds the transcendental aesthetic and the transcendental deduction of the categories in order to demonstrate the reliance of even the most ordinary experience upon the mind’s a priori faculties.

Kant was, in part, reacting against the empiricism of Locke and Hume — especially Hume’s skeptical conclusions, although Kant’s own rejection of metaphysics equaled if not surpassed Hume’s anti-metaphysical stance, as famously described in the following passage from Hume:

“When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, “Of the academical or sceptical Philosophy,” Part III

For Hume, the bounds of sense and the limitation of reason entailed doubt; for Kant the bounds of sense and the limitation of reason entailed belief. There is a lesson in here somewhere, and the lesson is this: from a single state of affairs, multiple interpretations can be shown to follow.

David Hume is the source of the empiricism in philosophy that eventually became contemporary scientific naturalism.

Are the bounds of sense also the bounds of science? It would seem so. In so far as science must appeal to empirical evidence, and empirical evidence comes to us by way of the senses, the limits of the senses impose limits on science. Of course, this is a bit too simplistic to be quite true. There are so many qualifications that need to be made to such an assertion that it is difficult to say where to start.

It should be familiar to everyone that we have come to extensively use instruments to augment our senses. Big Science today sometimes spends years, if not decades, building its enormous machines, without which contemporary science could not be possible. So the limits of the senses are not absolute, and they are subject to manipulation. Also, we sometimes do science without our senses or instruments, when we pursue science by way of thought experiments.

While thought experiments alone, unsupplemented by actual experiments, are probably insufficient to constitute a science, thought experiments have become a necessary requisite to science much as instrumentation has become a necessary requisite to science. Sometimes, when our technology catches up with our ideas, we can transform our thought experiments into actual experiments, so that there is an historical relationship between science properly understood and the penumbra of science represented by thought experiments. And thought experiments too have their controlled conditions, and these are the conditions that Kant attempted to lay down in the transcendental aesthetic.

There is also the question of whether or not mathematics is a science, or one among the sciences. And whether or not we set aside mathematics as something different from the other sciences, we know that the development of unquestionably empirical sciences like physics are deeply mathematicized, so that the mathematical content of empirical theories may act like an abstract instrument, parallel to the material instruments of big science, that extends the possibilities of the senses. Another way to think about mathematics is as an enormous thought experiment that under-girds the rest of science — the one crucial thought experiment, an experimentum crucis, without which the rest of science cannot function. In this sense, thought experiments are indispensable to mathematicized science — as indispensable as mathematics.

At a more radical level of critique, it would be difficult to give a fine-grained account of empirical evidence that did not shade over, at the far edges of the concept, into other kinds of knowledge not strictly empirical. Empirical evidence may shade over into the kind of intuitive evidence that is the basis of mathematics, or the kind of epistemological context that is the setting for our thought experiments. Empirical evidence can also shade over into interoception that cannot be publicly verified (therefore failing a basic test of science) or precisely reproduced by repetition, and which interoception itself in turn shades over into intuitions in which thought and feeling are not clearly distinct.

Where does Kant’s possible experience fit within the continuum of the senses? What is the scope of possible experience? Can we make a clear distinction between extending the senses (and thus human experience) by abstract or concrete instruments and imposing a theory upon experience through these extensions? Does possible experience include all possible past experience? Does past experience include phenomenon that occurred but which were not observed (the famous tree falling in a forest that no one hears)? Does it include all possible future experience, or only those future experiences that will eventually be actualized, and not those that already remain merely shadowy possibilities? Does possible experience include those counterfactuals that feature in the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum theory? Explicit answers to these questions are less important that the lines of inquiry that the questions prompt us to pursue.

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