Monday, April 23, 2018

Aspiring to the Life of the Mind

In an interesting - and rather unusual - piece in First Things Paul Griffiths gives advice to young people aspiring to the intellectual life. He lists and discusses four requirements of such a life. The first three are these:

1. The aspiring intellectual must choose a topic to which he or she can devote his or her life. Just as one might fall in love with another, so, too, does one often fall in love with an idea or question.

2. An intellectual must have time to think. Three hours a day of uninterrupted time. No phone calls, no texts, no visits. Just thinking and whatever serves as a support for thinking (reading, writing, experimenting, etc).

3. Anyone taking on the life of an intellectual needs proper training. This may involve university study, but it may not.

What Griffith has to say about each of these is interesting, but the most interesting part of his essay to me is what he says about the fourth requirement. One who aspires to the life of the mind must have interlocutors, i.e. people with whom one can share ideas. He writes:
You can’t develop the needed skills or appropriate the needed body of knowledge without them. You can’t do it by yourself. Solitude and loneliness, yes, very well; but that solitude must grow out of and continually be nourished by conversation with others who’ve thought and are thinking about what you’re thinking about. Those are your interlocutors.

They may be dead, in which case they’ll be available to you in their postmortem traces: written texts, recordings, reports by others, and so on. Or they may be living, in which case you may benefit from face-to-face interactions, whether public or private. But in either case, you need them.

You can neither decide what to think about nor learn to think about it well without getting the right training, and the best training is to be had by apprenticeship: Observe the work—or the traces of the work—of those who’ve done what you’d like to do; try to discriminate good instances of such work from less good; and then be formed by imitation.
Very well, but such people are not easy to find. Most people don't care at all about the things that fascinate and animate an intellectual. Most people are too preoccupied with the exigencies of making a living and raising a family to care overmuch about ideas or the life of the mind.
Where are such interlocutors to be found? The answer these days, as you must already know, is: mostly in the universities of the West and their imitators and progeny elsewhere. That, disproportionately, is where those with an intellectual life are provided the resources to live it, and that, notionally, is the institutional form we’ve developed for nurturing such lives.

I write “notionally” because in fact much about universities (I’ve been in and around them since 1975) is antipathetic to the intellectual life, and most people in universities, faculty and students included, have never had and never wanted an intellectual life. They’re there for other reasons. Nevertheless, on the faculty of every university I’ve worked at, there are real intellectuals: people whose lives are dedicated to thinking in the way I’ve described here....If you want living interlocutors, the university is where you’re most likely to find them.
Griffiths adds this:
You shouldn’t, however, assume that this means you must follow the usual routes into professional academia: undergraduate degree, graduate degrees, a faculty position, tenure. That’s a possibility, but if you follow it, you should take care to keep your eyes on the prize, which in this case is an intellectual life.

The university will, if you let it, distract you from that by professionalizing you, which is to say, by offering you a series of rewards not for being an intellectual, but for being an academic, which is not at all the same thing. What you want is time and space to think, the skills and knowledge to think well, and interlocutors to think with. If the university provides you with these, well and good; if it doesn’t, or doesn’t look as though it will, leave it alone.

The university’s importance as a place of face-to-face interlocution about intellectual matters is diminishing in any case. Universities are moving, increasingly, toward interlocution at a distance, via the Internet. This fact, coupled with the possibility of good conversation with the dead by way of their texts, suggests that for those whose intellectual vocation doesn’t require expensive ancillaries (laboratories, telescopes, hadron colliders, powerful computers, cadres of research subjects, and the like), they should be one place among many to look for interlocutors.

You should, in any case, not assume that what you need in order to have an intellectual life is a graduate degree. You might be better served by assuming that you don’t, and getting one only if it seems the sole route by which you can get the interlocution and other training you need. That is rarely the case....
Here's his conclusion:
And lastly: Don’t do any of the things I’ve recommended unless it seems to you that you must. The world doesn’t need many intellectuals. Most people have neither the talent nor the taste for intellectual work, and most that is admirable and good about human life (love, self-sacrifice, justice, passion, martyrdom, hope) has little or nothing to do with what intellectuals do.

Intellectual skill, and even intellectual greatness, is as likely to be accompanied by moral vice as moral virtue. And the world—certainly the American world—has little interest in and few rewards for intellectuals.

The life of an intellectual is lonely, hard, and usually penurious; don’t undertake it if you hope for better than that. Don’t undertake it if you think the intellectual vocation the most important there is: It isn’t. Don’t undertake it if you have the least tincture in you of contempt or pity for those without intellectual talents: You shouldn’t. Don’t undertake it if you think it will make you a better person: It won’t.

Undertake it if, and only if, nothing else seems possible.
There's a lot of wisdom in all of this.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Speaking Biologically

As a follow-up to yesterday's post, let us for a moment assume that naturalism, the view that nature is all there is, is correct and that humanity is the product of a long process of blind evolutionary development. If so, let's further consider the question of what men and women are for.

That is, given that we're just evolutionarily advanced mammals what "purpose" do we fulfill? Of course, I put "purpose" in quotes because on the view we're considering there actually is, nor can there be, any genuine purpose for humanity, but let's play along with the idea anyway.

Well, speaking purely biologically, male humans have evolved to serve two primary purposes: First, to spread their genes as far and wide as they can and second, to fight for territory and resources. Any reading of history will confirm that these have always been, and still are, the two main drivers of male behavior.

In modern times, in what we call the civilized world, these behaviors have been sublimated somewhat, but they still underlie most of male behavior.

What about females? Speaking purely biologically - and on naturalism that's pretty much all there is - women have evolved to attract males for mating and to bear and raise the young that result.

This is, of course, a horrid claim in today's PC climate in which any suggestion that the sexual subordination and even oppression of women is natural is guaranteed to provoke howls of outrage, but it's nevertheless correct all the same. That is, it's correct if naturalism is true, and there's a piquant irony in this.

Many of those who would be most repulsed by this description of male and female roles hold to a naturalistic worldview even so. They reject the only metaphysical position which could grant a greater dignity and purpose for both men and women. They reject the traditional theistic view that we are created not solely by natural forces, but by a God in whose image we are.

Having rejected this view they're left with naturalism and are therefore left with the evolutionary view whose consequences they ironically deplore.

Moreover, on naturalism, there's no basis for charging any behavior with being immoral since there's no moral law to be violated. Thus no matter how distastefully men may behave toward women, the most we can say about that behavior is that it offends certain social conventions. We can't say that it's morally wrong.

So, if naturalism is true men who sexually exploit women are simply following an unpleasant evolutionary imperative. Modern women may not like it, but it's hard to see what grounds they have for complaint as long as they themselves continue to adhere to the naturalistic, evolutionary paradigm.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Objectifying Women

Opening the newspaper we're often confronted with what seems to be an epidemic of mistreatment of women in our culture. Stories of a campus rape culture, spousal abuse, and other examples of terrible violence perpetrated against women seem to abound, but the question this all raises is "why?". Why do more men today, more than in previous generations, seem to hold women in such low esteem? Why are women so much more likely to be objectified today than in our grandparents day?

I think a strong case can be made for the claim that the problem is a result of the moral revolution that took place in the 1960s and 70s concerning our attitudes toward sex and violence.

During those decades pornography was mainstreamed and with the advent of the internet it became easily accessible to adolescents. Three generations of young men have thus been raised on ubiquitous pornographic images. This has likely had several undesirable effects. First, it has desensitized men to sexual stimuli. A hundred years ago a glimpse of a woman's lower leg was stimulating. It no longer is because now there's so much more to be seen just about anywhere one looks than merely a shapely ankle.

Consequently, men require stronger and stronger stimuli in order to achieve the same level of arousal as someone who's not exposed to the constant barrage of sexual images. Because of this need for ever more erotic stimuli many men want their women to be more like the women they see portrayed in salacious movies, magazines, and online - they want their women to be sexually voracious playthings, and that desire often has a dehumanizing effect on women. A lot of women simply don't feel comfortable in that role, and that incompatibility can create tension in their relationships. The man feels cheated, the woman feels cheapened and trouble results.

At the same time that pornography exploded in the 60s and 70s, the advent of birth control pills allowed sex to become disconnected from marriage and commitment. Many women were perfectly willing to live with men and give them all the benefits of marriage without demanding of them any kind of permanent obligation. This suited many men just fine. When men could have sex without having to bond themselves to a woman, women were more likely to be objectified and used by men who reasoned that there was no sense in buying a cow as long as the milk was free.

People who give us what we want may be popular as long as the benefits keep coming, but they're not respected. Respect may be feigned, of course, as long as the benefit is imminent but when the benefit no longer seems all that novel or exciting respect often ebbs and the woman often finds herself treated accordingly.

Men are naturally promiscuous, they have to be taught to subordinate their natural impulses and to value hearth and family, but our entire culture has conspired in the last forty years to minimize and deride that lesson. So, when many a modern man, unfettered by any profound commitment to a particular woman and children, grows accustomed to the woman he's "dating" she'll begin to bore him, and it won't be long before his eye is cast elsewhere in search of another potential source of sexual excitement.

Along with the decline of traditional sexual morality in the 60s and 70s was the emergence of a radical feminism that castigated the old Victorian habits of gentlemanly behavior. It became quaint, even insulting, for a man to give a woman his seat on a bus or to open a door for her. Men who had been raised to put women on a pedestal - to care for them, provide for them, and nurture them - were told they were no longer necessary for a woman's happiness. In Gloria Steinem's famous phrase "a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle."

The more vocal feminists also made it clear that women no longer appreciated being treated differently than men. Thus our entertainment culture began depicting women in movies as just as raunchy, coarse, and proficient at killing and mayhem as men, and the idea of a woman being an object of special respect and courtesy because she needed male protection and care became risible.

Some women, oddly, have seemed eager to reinforce this corrosive image of themselves as being just as coarse and vulgar as men - a phenomenon we witnessed in the Women's March on Washington after Donald Trump's election. This, too, dehumanized women by continuing the erosion of the esteem in which their gender had once upon a time been held among men.

As with sex so with violence. The inclination to violence in the male population follows a Bell curve distribution. At some point along the tail there is a line to the left of which lies the segment of the population which represents men who are violent. Most men sublimate and control their natural inclination to violence, but when they are exposed to it over and over as young men, when they amuse themselves with violent movies and video games, when they immerse themselves in violent imagery and themes, they become desensitized to it and tolerant of it.

When they're no longer horrified by violence the population of males undergoes a shift toward that line, spilling many more men onto the other side of the line than would have been there otherwise.

This affects women as much as men, if not moreso, because women are often the victims of male violence. As men become more inclined to violence, as they lose respect for women, as our culture portrays women as sexually insatiable playthings, women become increasingly the victims of male lust, anger and aggression.

It would be well for any young woman who is beginning to get serious about a young man to find out how much of his time he spends on violent movies and computer games and what he thinks about pornography. She'll learn a lot of very valuable information about him if she does.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Hitting the Wall

Science writer John Horgan at Scientific American explores the topic of whether scientific discovery has finally "hit a wall". Horgan wrote a book on this question several years ago titled The End of Science, and he observes that important discoveries are diminishing even as research efforts are multiplying.

It's as if science is approaching an asymptote.

Perhaps mankind has indeed come to the end of what can be learned, but historically the belief that something couldn't be known was often overturned in surprising was soon thereafter. In the 19th century French philosopher August Comte wrote that the chemical composition of the sun would be forever unknowable to us.

A few years later the development of spectroscopic analysis enabled researchers to discover that the sun was mostly hydrogen. This was followed by the discovery of a completely new element on the sun, helium, which led to the realization that the process of nuclear fusion was the source of the enormous energy the sun was producing.

Examples like this and others should make us cautious about predicting the end of discovery.

Perhaps a better way to think of the diminution of scientific progress is not in terms of hitting a wall but in terms of having taken the wrong exit off the interstate and winding up in a cul-de-sac.

Think of the interstate as the metaphysical highway which facilitated so much of the progress of the last five hundred years. Science prospered for centuries because it was nourished by the assumptions of a theistic worldview – that the universe was intelligible because it was created by an intelligent Being and therefore might yield its secrets to reason, that it was not itself sacred and was therefore a fit object of study, and that being a gift of God it was worth studying.

Rodney Stark has written that of the fifty two most productive scientists at the start of the scientific revolution fifty of them were Christians and the majority of these were devout. I doubt that the same could be said today and perhaps the difference in worldview makes a significant difference in one's approach to science.

These theistic assumptions and others were the metaphysical drivers of the work of those who sought to “think God’s thoughts after Him”, and even after Christianity fell into disfavor in the West in the 19th and 20th century the intellectual momentum it had created carried scientific discovery well into the present era.

But as people like Horgan tell us, that momentum seems to be dissipating, and it could well be because naturalism lacks the metaphysical resources to sustain the scientific enterprise, largely because it rules out apriori the possibility that the world is intelligently, intentionally designed. It rules out the possibility that mind, not matter, is the fundamental reality.

Sometimes in science a shift in the way one looks at problems or looks at the evidence can be exceedingly fruitful. Perhaps a shift in our assumption that materialism is the correct metaphysical foundation for science would be like backing out of the cul-de-sac and getting back out on the highway of scientific progress.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Creepy Infiltration

Progressives are all aflutter at the idea of racially or ethnically diverse neighborhoods. They love the idea of Arabs and Asians, blacks, Hispanics and whites all living harmoniously together, grooving to the varied rhythms of the multicultural mosaic and basking in the glow of their own broad-mindedness and self-righteous virtue.

Well, that is until the mosaic includes a business that's associated with those "distasteful" Christians. Then it's, "There goes the neighborhood".

A recent essay in the very upscale glossy The New Yorker sets a new standard for supercilious bigotry and hypocrisy among elitist progressives. The piece is written by Dan Piepenbring who bemoans the "creepy infiltration" into Manhattan by Chick-fil-a restaurants.

What Piepenbring finds intolerable about Chick-fil-a is that its late founder S. Truett Cathy was explicitly Christian and the Christian ethos filters down through, and permeates, the entire corporation. This insufferable fact makes Piepenbring forget all about diversity and tolerance and multiculturalism and all those other admirable progressive virtues. Piepenbring writes:
[T]here’s something especially distasteful about Chick-fil-A, which has sought to portray itself as better than other fast food: cleaner, gentler, and more ethical, with its poultry slightly healthier than the mystery meat of burgers. Its politics, its d├ęcor, and its commercial-evangelical messaging are inflected with this suburban piety.
So why is "suburban piety" a bad thing? Evidently because it consists of a set of values at variance with those of the aristocrats at The New Yorker who, under any other circumstances, would declaim on their love for diversity.

Piepenbring spends time, for instance, criticizing Cathy's opposition to gay marriage, Chick-fil-a's emphasis on community, and, believe it or not, their unconscionable exploitation of cows in their ads, but his and his magazine's ultimate disdain seems directed at the fact that all of this has Christian overtones. Piepenbring and his editors are, when all else has been said, repelled by the notion of a Christian business in Manhattan.

A tweet from the New Yorker makes this pretty clear:
Chick-fil-A’s arrival in New York City feels like an infiltration, in no small part because of its pervasive Christian traditionalism.
Yikes! "Infiltration". And "creepy" infiltration, no less, according to the title of the article. And "Pervasive Christian traditionalism", too. Is this a reference to the "distasteful" values of the sort found in every community in this country for the last two hundred years? Why is "pervasive Christian traditionalism" so alarming to the snobbish elites at the magazine?

They don't clearly say, and perhaps I'm making too much of their banal article, but on the other hand ask yourself this question:

If a restaurant chain run by Muslims, Jews, African Americans or Hispanics moved into Manhattan would The New Yorker ever dream of headlining an article on this development by calling it a "creepy infiltration"?

I don't think so either. The business would doubtless be hailed as a wonderful addition to the community mosaic and anyone who thought otherwise would be assumed guilty of bigotry.

Perhaps the same could be said, then, of the attitudes expressed in Piepenbring's silly column.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Aristotle and Nietzsche

Most ethical systems in our contemporary world can probably be subsumed under the names of either Aristotle or Nietzsche. Aristotle thought that human beings had a telos. There was something that man was for, a purpose or an end, for which he was on the earth. Virtuous acts were those which help men achieve their telos. The good life was a life which conformed to the cardinal virtues - prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice - which were objectively right to live by.

Nietzsche, on the other hand, denied that there was any overarching purpose to being human and thus there was no objective moral right or wrong. Morality was all a matter of perspective. It's a matter of how we see things, a matter of individual subjective preference. Thus the ubermensch or overman creates his own values. He rejects the "slave moralities" of theism and embraces the "master morality" of the Promethean man. This is what makes men great, and great men define their own good.

Neither Aristotle nor Nietzsche believed in the existence of a personal moral law-giver which fact makes for an odd state of affairs. Aristotle's telos makes no sense unless the purpose or end of mankind is somehow conferred upon man by a transcendent moral authority. Otherwise, where would such a purpose come from? But if there's no personal law-giver or telos-giver then neither humanity nor individual men have any purpose, and the "virtues" are just arbitrary conventions.

Nietzsche is right that in the absence of a transcendent, personal law-giver what constitutes a virtue is just a subjective choice. On Nietzsche's subjectivism the virtues extolled by the Nazis are no more wrong nor right than those embraced by St. Francis of Assisi. They're just different.

If theism is correct, however, if there actually is a God who creates man and endows him with a telos then the moral law and the classical virtues, really are objective and obligatory.

So, the way the theist sees it, Aristotle, by denying a transcendent, personal God, was inconsistent but nevertheless right about there being objective moral duties, and the atheist Nietzsche was consistent but wrong in his denial of objective moral right and wrong.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Father of Modern Progressivism

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was an English thinker who wrote during the turbulent period of civil strife and struggle for power between King Charles I and Parliament. His thoughts on the best political system for avoiding the calamitous consequences of war were put down in a book titled Leviathan (1651).

Leviathan is one of the first books of modern political philosophy. Hobbes' central concern was peace, more specifically how to avoid the calamities of civil war. He began with two principles or axioms from which all else follows:
  1. Men are all engaged in a constant struggle for power over others.
  2. Men try to avoid death with all their might.
The word "leviathan" means great beast and is used to describe the state or commonwealth as Hobbes saw it. Hobbes' book, historian Peter Ackroyd observes, has been called "the only masterpiece of political philosophy in the English language."

Be that as it may, Hobbes wrote that the worst calamity to befall men is war. In one famous passage he wrote these lapidary words:
In such condition [i.e. civil war], there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
In a primitive state of nature, He argues, in which there is no government, the condition of man ...
...is a condition of war of everyone against everyone, in which case everyone is governed by his own reason, and there is nothing he can make use of that may not be a help unto him in preserving his life against his enemies; it followeth that in such a condition every man has a right to every thing, even to one another's body. And therefore, as long as this natural right of every man to every thing endureth, there can be no security to any man, how strong or wise soever he be, of living out the time which nature ordinarily alloweth men to live.

And consequently it is a precept, or general rule of reason: that every man ought to endeavour peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek and use all helps and advantages of war.
Men in a state of nature are in a constant struggle each with every other for power and each lives in constant fear of violent death. Hobbes' solution is for all men to yield their own individual sovereignty and rights to that of one sovereign (or a committee) of rulers, whose will would govern all.

Once yielded that sovereignty can never be rescinded. There would be in Hobbes' state no such thing as liberty of conscience, which only leads to conflict and violence. The state will determine what religion people will follow. Justice and truth are whatever the sovereign determines them to be. Nothing the sovereign does can be said to be unjust.

This, of course, is big government on steroids. It's the blueprint for the totalitarianisms of the Nazis and communists of the 20th century, and it's the logical endpoint of liberal progressivism, even if many progressives would balk at going so far.

Progressivism is a faith that a government run by highly educated elites will naturally be the best way to prevent conflicts and protect individual rights. The bigger, more massive the bureaucratic state the more power it has over individual lives, the better able it will be to provide for the security and welfare of its citizens.

Government is the progressive's religion, and its book of Genesis is Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan.