Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Crisis of Reason, II: The Source of the Problem

A few thousand years ago the Roman poet Horace said that you can chase Nature out with a pitchfork, but she always comes back.  The point, of course, is that you can’t really go against nature.  Once the pressure is off, things always get back to normal.

Horace: Nature always reasserts itself.
The problem is that these days there are two very strong “pressure points” keeping things from getting back to what is consistent with nature, that is, “normal,” and preventing people from being honest, even with themselves.  One is the drift (sometimes a gallop) into moral relativism in civil, religious, and now even domestic society.  That is, people’s conceptions of both what the State, organized religion, and the Family are, and their respective roles have become so confused that fewer and fewer people every day can even define “State,” “Church,” or “Family” with any accuracy.

The other “pressure point” is what, in our opinion, led to the drive toward pure moral relativism in the first place: the growing wealth, income, and power gap, which is itself traceable to the failure to incorporate sound principles of economic and social justice into our institutions.  As a result, much of modern “social science” has been obsessed not with working to discern the true principles on which a just social order must be based, but with justifying either the status quo or whatever panacea they propose.

Adler: You can't have your cake and eat it, too.
This, in turn, means that people spend their time trying to avoid the unavoidable consequences of their acts.  As the Aristotelian-Thomist philosopher Mortimer J. Adler explained,

“The positivism or scientism that has its roots in Hume’s philosophical mistakes, and the idealism and critical constraints that have their roots in Kant’s philosophical mistakes, generate many embarrassing consequences that have plagued modern thought since their day.  In almost every case, the trouble has consisted in the fact that later thinkers tried to avoid the consequences without correcting errors or mistakes that generated them.”  (Mortimer J. Adler, Ten Philosophical Mistakes.  New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1985, 100.)

Or, in plain English, many of today’s problems result from the fact that people insist on having their cake and eating it, too.  Anything — anything — can be justified if the goal is to avoid being proven wrong about a fundamental principle or treasured application of a principle.  All it requires is that you surrender any claim to intellectual honesty.  As G.K. Chesterton pointed out,

Chesterton: Modern philosophy is trapped in its own bad assumptions.
“Since the modern world began in the sixteenth century, nobody’s system of philosophy has really corresponded to everybody’s sense of reality; to what, if left to themselves, common men would call common sense.  Each started with a paradox; a peculiar point of view demanding the sacrifice of what they would call a sane point of view.  That is the one thing common to Hobbes and Hegel, to Kant and Bergson, to Berkeley and William James.  A man had to believe something that no normal man would believe, if it were suddenly propounded to his simplicity; as that law is above right, or right is outside reason, or things are only as we think them, or everything is relative to a reality that is not there.  The modern philosopher claims, like a sort of confidence man, that if once we will grant him this, the rest will be easy; he will straighten out the world, if once he is allowed to give this one twist to the mind.”  (Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox”.  New York: Image Books, 1956, 145-146.)

Demonstrating that intellectual dishonesty is not a monopoly of religious people and philosophers, the late physicist Richard Feynman detailed some of his experiences with shoddy physical science in his essay, “Cargo Cult Science.”  As he related,

Feynman: Wished he really was joking. But he wasn't.
“Now it behooves me, of course, to tell you what they’re missing. . . . It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty — a kind of leaning over backwards.  For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid — not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked — to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

“Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them.  You must do the best you can — if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong — to explain it.  If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it.  There is also a more subtle problem.  When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

“In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.”  (Richard P. Feynman, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” Adventures of a Curious Character, As Told to Ralph Leighton.  New York: Bantam Books, 1989, 311-312.)

Our leaders in Church and State rail about the problems of modern society, and — at the same time — insist on displaying egregious intellectual dishonesty, sometimes outright moral relativism.  Is it any wonder that in Ireland, for example, the electorate thumbed its collective nose at the Catholic Church and voted to approve what a generation ago would have been unthinkable, or that U.S. citizens under a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” have lost faith in their government — which means, ultimately, in themselves?


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