Thoughts on Faith and Reason

I find myself being confronted repeatedly lately with the distinction between what we can prove (science) and what we just believe for no reason at all (religion). It seems there is a popular notion that we can either choose to look for a proof of a given belief, or just believe it. Reasonable people will presumably do the former; stupid or religious people (the suggestion is that there’s no a difference there) will do the latter.

I don’t think there’s much to be said for this picture – in fact, I think some very basic philosophy is enough to refute it. In this post I want to try to make this explicit, setting out some of what I think are the basics on faith and reason. My immediate motivation is the unconsidered nonsense I keep seeing on this subject from the militant atheist crowd, but I’m also trying to get my own thinking here clear. My basic claim is this: faith is everywhere, always. Everyone operates on the basis of things nobody can prove, and this is true all the time. Accordingly, the question is not whether we’re going to “just believe” or whether we’re going to develop a view of the world by demanding a reason for every claim. Rather, faith is built into every rational account of the world, and the question is how we’re going to decide where exactly to put our faith.

Perhaps I should say a word about myself. I’m not religious, and never have been; I had an utterly secular upbringing. But I’m also not anti-religious: I’ve never been atheist, but rather agnostic, and I’m ever less inclined to regard militant atheism as a reasonable position, for reasons that should become clear below.

I’m going to focus on two problems for knowledge: doubts about the existence of an ordered physical world, and doubts about the utility of reason. After that, I’m going to describe how I think we get past these two problems. The punchline is that it seems to me that the sort of faith we need to get going with science proceeds in the very same way as the foundation of religion.

Also, my aim here is not precision, but rather to give a general view; and if the topics I touch on here are vast, with ample room for additional considerations, still my basic point here seems to me difficult to dislodge (and please do let me know if you think you can do that).

(1) Doubting an Ordered Physical World

Back at the dawn of the scientific revolution, there was a fellow named Descartes, and he had some doubts that seemed to undermine the claim of science to knowledge. As modern science grew into an ever more impressive artifice, philosophers became ever more concerned by their inability to respond to the problem. Descartes’ doubts, of course, pointed to our difficultly in knowing that an objective physical world exists at all. This can be quickly explained as follows: you’re probably reading this piece on some computing device, say, a laptop. How do you know your laptop is actually there? You can see it, you can feel it, maybe you can even hear it – but how do you know your senses aren’t deceiving you? How do you know that your laptop isn’t an illusion? For that matter, how do you know that everything you see, hear and feel is not just an illusion? How you know that anything physical exists, even your own body?

Philosophers, then, became rather worried about this problem because it seemed to undermine any claim science has to produce knowledge. After all, the whole of empirical science rests on the assumption that there actually is a physical world, but if we can’t know that there actually is anything physical, then it might seem that science can’t really know anything. (Descartes’ answer to this problem involved God, so it’s not palatable to a lot of people today.)

Descartes, of course, pushed his doubts farther than this, going as far as to question his own existence. After all, how do you even know that you exist? At this point it seems to be possible to start giving answers: do you doubt that you exist? If so, then you’re thinking, and you can’t think if you don’t exist: “I think therefore I am.” Many have taken this to be the one certain starting point for further inquiry – we each know of our own existence – but in fact there are problems even here…

(2) Doubts about Reason

Antiquity had deeper sceptics than Descartes, sceptics who denied that you could affirm anything at all (many today call themselves ‘sceptics’ simply because they deny the existence of God, but real scepticism goes much farther than that). One way to this denial is to note that Descartes’ answer to his doubts about his own existence rely on reason. To him, this does not seem to have been a great problem, but it is possible to doubt whether we should accept reason – and if we don’t accept it, we might as well say, “I think, therefore I don’t exist.” In fact, the question of how we can come to accept reason is a difficult one: can we give a reason to accept reason? Surely if we do, we’re already assuming what we need to prove – and yet if we refuse to provide any kind of proof of reason, we seem to be behaving irrationally. These theoretical difficulties find an empirical counterpart in evolution: we’re evolved to survive, not to perceive or think about the world as accurately as possible. It could be that reason, as we have evolved to grasp it, doesn’t really tell us anything about reality.

One response to this sort of problem is to say we don’t believe in reason, rather we use reason (e.g., as Steven Pinker or Jerry Coyne have said). I want to say a word about this because I have come across it repeatedly recently. The idea is that reason seems to work, it seems to deliver results, and so we keep using it: our use of reason has a basis in a kind of ongoing experiment. We remain open to the possibility that reason might fail at some point, and the moment we discover that irrationality, or something quite different, offers better results than reason, we’ll start making use of that other approach.

I think this is an obfuscation rather than an answer to the problem. I don’t think the distinction between ‘use’ and ‘believe’ gets us anywhere. I use a spoon rather than a knife to eat soup because I believe a spoon is more useful for this than a knife – it seems to me that we believe in everything we use. Moreover, the sort of experimental approach implied by this ‘use-not-believe’ approach implies a faith that the world has a certain order and stability, so that things that have happened in the past can be a guide to what will happen in the future. In an utterly irrational world, everything would just be luck, so there would be no point in experimenting to see what works.

Perhaps the easiest way to get to the problem here is to consider the following scenario. Imagine I have one dollar, and I go into a casino and bet that dollar on red 23 on one of those roulette machine-things. Say I win, and now I have $100. I bet that on red 23 and win again. Now I have $10,000. I bet that on red 23 and win again. Now I have $1,000,000. Just as I’m getting ready to bet that on red 23, and friend suggests it’s not that wise to believe I’ll always win with red 23. To this I respond, “I don’t believe in red 23, I’m using red 23.”

Now how could you prove to me that reason, or anything else in the whole of experimental science, doesn’t stand on the same footing? How do we know that the whole of science isn’t just luck? (And before you appeal to statistics here, note that we have to confront the same problem there as well.)

I don’t think any scientist actually uses reason without believing it to be useful, and if we believe reason is useful in understanding the world, we are also committed to certain beliefs about the nature of the world. In particular, we believe that science enables us to make predictions. After all, we’ve got planes in the air, drugs being injected into people’s bodies, and nuclear power plants in operation. If you use reason without believing in it, then you are committed to the view that getting on a plane is no different than betting everything on red 23. I think there is a difference, because I think science tells us something about the world – and I think that because I believe that the world is sufficiently ordered that experimenting on it helps us understand it. The point is that the word ‘believe’ is crucial here: we take the leap of faith that the world is the sort of thing that is amenable to a rational approach, and that experimentation will therefore be an aid to our understanding.

Or here’s another thought: let’s say we have understood the world to a very considerable degree, that it actually is the sort of thing amenable to experiment – but all that is going to change next Tuesday at 3:17 pm, when logic, math, and all the laws of physics are going to go out of force. This might mean we all die (but only might, for reasons that should now be obvious). How do you prove to me that this won’t happen next Tuesday? Absent such a proof, we can only have faith that it won’t be the case.

(I’m no specialist in the epistemology of science, but last time I checked in there, the quest for simple certainty had not yet borne fruit.)

(3) Believe, That You May Understand

So here’s where we are: some faith is necessary to accept reason; on the basis of that faith, we say ‘I think, therefore I am.’ Some further faith is needed to believe that a physical world exists, and we need faith again to believe that world to be the sort of thing amenable to rational investigation, and thus to experiment. Only on the basis of all that faith can we get started with science – and note that these moments of faith are all constantly in operation. It’s not like we come back and prove them later. Every time you fly, you believe it’s not just luck that the plane will stay in the air. Every step you take is taken in the belief that the ground won’t explode like a landmine the moment you step on it; every breath you take is based in the faith you won’t inhale poison gas. Strictly speaking, if you eliminate faith entirely, you don’t know that things will go well in any of those situations.

If we were strictly rational creatures, in the sense of believing in nothing we can’t prove, we wouldn’t believe in a physical world, or that science tells us anything at all about that world. In light of this reality, consider the words of Steven Pinker (Enlightenment Now, p. 30): “to take something on faith means to believe it without good reason, so by definition a faith in the existence of supernatural entities clashes with reason.” By this standard, the whole of modern science clashes with reason, for we’ve seen that science requires that we take a good deal on faith. So I don’t think the view he takes of faith and reason does a good job of explaining what’s going on.

Of course, I do believe in reason, in a physical world, and in the value of experimenting on that world. But what do we do about the fact that we apparently need blind faith to accept all this? How can that be reconciled to our desire to think as rigorously as possible about everything?

Here I think a change from a strictly logical to an existential register is helpful. What do I mean by that? Well, in point of actual fact, we don’t decide at birth to believe in an ordered physical world. Nobody imagines doubting the existence of that world until he’s lived in it for years: our belief in it is utterly arbitrary from the point of view of logic, from the point of view of what we can prove, but not from the point of view of the lives we have already lived. And by the time we get around to doubting the physical world, we have also found that we can trust it to an extraordinary degree: water always feels wet; when I drop a ball it falls; when I lick a metal pole in winter, my tongue gets stuck on it (actually, I don’t think many people do that more than once). We learn to take this world to be a radically ordered place: by interacting with it, we seem to be able to come to understand it better.

So we have what might be called a soft reason for believing in an ordered physical world. We can’t prove it exists – we have to believe in it – but we’ve already experienced that we seem to be able to interact with it in meaningful and consistent ways. Logically, we have no reason to believe; from the point of view of the lives we are already living, we do have a reason (i.e., with this particular faith, we can start to understand our lives). We believe, that we may understand.

I think the notion of trust is helpful here. As we go through life, we get to know many people, and discover that there are people we can trust, and people we can’t. In no case do we attain certain knowledge on this point, for that is the nature of trust: it always involves a certain amount of faith. I think it makes sense to think about the physical world in the same way. We don’t know it’s an ordered, objectively present thing, but we have a relationship of trust with it, in which our faith in it is constantly confirmed, and modern science deepens this trust immensely. If we refused to enter in to this relationship of trust, we would never get anywhere.

Now here’s what this is all building up to: the basis I’ve set out here for a scientific worldview could apply just as easily to religion. In fact, the phrase “believe, that you may understand” (crede, ut intellegas) comes from Saint Augustine, and he meant by it something along the lines of what I’ve just set out. He was focused on ancient scepticism, which, as I explained above, was rather more sceptical than Descartes, refusing as it did to affirm anything. Of course, scepticism stands at the doorway to philosophy: if you want to understand anything at all, you simply cannot get away from faith.

By this point, I hope it is clear that the terms ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ have come to point to something rather different from what people commonly suppose them to mean. Not all faith is entirely blind, nor is reason ever entirely separable from faith. It seems to me that those who claim to have left faith behind for reason are displaying either their ignorance or their dishonesty.

The question, then, is not whether we’re going to believe anything without proof, but what we’re going to believe without proof, and why. The answers to these questions are going to involve the sort of ‘soft’ reasoning I set out above, in which we try to make retroactive sense of the lives we’re already living. Here it seems to me there might be a good deal of room for religion to get going on exactly the same basis as science does. One might take the world to be so fundamentally ordered that God is necessary to explain it. Alternately, if we assume for the sake of argument that there is no proof of the existence of God in the empirical world, still it might be the case that religion is necessary to make full sense of normative life, that is, the ethical life that can sustain both an individual and a community. These are matters on which I remain agnostic (I need to do rather more work on them), but as I have begun to look at the state of the Western world in light of the second, normative, concern, I find myself wondering more and more if religion might be necessary after all.

That, however, is a large matter, for another time.

(And if anyone wants to say that science doesn’t assume the existence of the physical world, but just tells us how things would stand if there were such a world – well, the religious could take the same approach: “just in case God & the afterlife are a thing, we’re going to church.”)

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Of Opiates and of Liberty: Thoughts on Dreamland by Sam Quinones

Recently I finished a book about the opioid crisis in the US: Dreamland by Sam Quinones. I found it pretty much unputdownable, and while it’s certainly essential reading for anyone interested in its subject matter, I also found that it provoked thoughts on larger matters, on which I have blogged recently. I’m going to try to give a brief account of those thoughts here.

First, an overview of the book. The problems with opiates started back in the 80’s, when a movement in medicine set out to turn back what was thought an irrational prejudice against prescribing painkillers. Before this, doctors had been taught that patients could easily become addicted to these drugs, and were accordingly quite reluctant to give them out. In the course of the 90’s, however, this reluctance was overcome, thanks not only to the genuine desire of many doctors to help people in pain, but also to a certain laziness in reading the research (more on this below) and funding from drug companies. The result was that doctors came to believe that the addiction risk was not so great as had previously been thought, and began to prescribe opiates on a considerable scale. Unfortunately, the pills actually were quite addictive. Worse yet, they turned out to be an ideal gateway to heroin – OxyContin, the prescription drug with the biggest role in this story, “contained a large whack of a drug virtually identical to heroin.”

Soon, thanks both to honest doctors and to those who ran “pill mills,” dolling out pain medication for a fee to anyone who asked for it, parts of America were awash in prescription pills, and thus in people addicted to painkillers (Quinones tells of how pain pills were so plentiful in Portsmouth Ohio that they actually became a currency with which anything could be bought). Enter the Mexicans. Families from a single town in Mexico called Xalisco began to develop novel heroin-delivery networks across America that brought small amounts of the drug virtually to customers’ doors in the manner of a pizza-delivery service. Eschewing violence, these new dealers avoided major cities where markets in illegal drugs were already controlled by gangs (they also avoided black people, for their prejudices had caused them to believe black people violent). Instead, they set out to develop new markets across the country in places where heroin had scarcely been seen, paying particular attention to those already caught up in the opioid crisis.

The result was an epidemic of addiction in places that had never seen such a thing, one that hit not only poor people in cities, but also rich – and largely white – people in rural settings. Quinones has many sad stories to tell, of the children of lawyers or police officers getting hooked and dying, of college students who can’t kick the habit, of people stealing from their children or even from their dying parents to maintain their addiction. But the epidemic is not only remarkable in claiming victims from such a wide variety of backgrounds, but also in its sheer scale: “the number of Ohioans dead from drug overdoses between 2003 and 2008 was 50 percent higher than the number of U.S. soldiers who died in the entire Iraq War. Three times as many people died of prescription pill overdoses between 1999 and 2008 as died in the eight peak years of the crack cocaine epidemic.”

This, then, is the shape of the story Quinones has to tell. There is a lot to think about here, but I found myself returning to one thought in particular: its connection with Patrick Deneen’s book, Why Liberalism Failed, which I wrote about a last month. In that post, I discussed the peculiar conception of freedom that defines what Deneen calls ‘liberalism,’ and this included (and implied) a notion of mastery in modern science, a mastery of the natural world. In that post, I reflected a bit on how this striving for mastery played itself out in environmental concerns (inter alia), but the very same concern with mastery seems to me to lie at the heart of the opioid crisis.

For consider: the decision in medical circles to start taking a different approach to opiates is clearly a decisive moment in the whole story. (At one point, we here of a doctor who suddenly found himself confronted by “what was unthinkable a few years before: rural, white heroin junkies. ‘I’ve yet to find one who didn’t start with OxyContin,’ he said. ‘They wouldn’t be selling this quantity of heroin on the street right now if they hadn’t made these decisions in the boardroom.’”) But what was the motive force behind that decision? It might seem tempting to just hang the whole thing on the greed of drug companies – and that greed certainly is part of the story – but Quinones avoids such a simple and easy path, and tells a deeper story, one going back decades:

“World War I had … demonstrated to doctors the merciful painkilling benefits the morphine molecule provided. Fresh, too, in their memory were heroin’s first decades, which showed just as clearly that addiction too often bedeviled those who used opiates. Try as they might—with strategies as varied as farm work, group therapy, or prison—rehabilitation specialists never graduated much more than 10 percent of their addicts to true opiate freedom. The rest relapsed, slaves, it appeared, to the morphine molecule. This seemed a shame to scientists and physicians. Was mankind really doomed to not have it all? Couldn’t it have heaven without hell? Couldn’t the best scientists find a way of extracting the painkilling attributes from the molecule while discarding its miserable addictiveness?”

That is, the dream is of being able simply to escape pain, with no side-effects. This dream is a form of the striving after mastery I discussed in my post on Deneen, the aim of simply liberating ourselves from our natural limits. The story of the opioid crisis is a story of how the pursuit of this goal without sufficient attention to its risks leads to a new sort of hell: as Quinones says, “In heroin addicts, I had seen the debasement that comes from the loss of free will and enslavement to what amounts to an idea: permanent pleasure, numbness, and the avoidance of pain.” This idea is not at all new, for one repeatedly encounters talk of enslavement to pleasure (or the appetites) in ancient philosophy. What is new is that in a premodern context, such talk can often seem counterintuitive, and usually needs some explanation or thought before it seems an appropriate way to speak; modern science, however, has produced drugs that make it immediately obvious that it is correct to speak of ‘enslavement.’ On this basis, Quinones makes a more general point about human nature: “man’s decay has always begun as soon as he has it all, and is free of friction, pain and the deprivation that temper his behaviour.” This would not be news to the ancients, and it is part of the problem that Deneen sees in certain ideas that have helped drive the West in the last 500 years or so.

Think about what Quinones says about “man’s decay” for a moment, in the context of pain. What is being said is that we need pain. Certainly this is true in a superficial sense – e.g., pain tells us when something is going wrong with our body, and without that we might easily die of internal injuries or by failing to learn to avoid excessive risks, etc. But there is a deeper point here: Quinones speaks of man’s decay and debasement: human dignity disappears as people become enslaved to the escape from pain. That is, the need for pain is not simply instrumental. Our nature as creatures with a certain dignity does not seem to endure a total release from pain. To the extent that we’re capable of liberating ourselves from pain, we seem to become reduced to that attempt at liberation. In describing the search for a non-addictive painkiller, Quinones repeatedly speaks of the “Holy Grail,” a deeply appropriate term in that it suggests a quest for something beyond what is possible for humans.

Of course, the striving after the Holy Grail, the attempt to push beyond what is possible, is remarkable not only for the harm that it directly produces, but also for the humbler, less dangerous pursuit it discourages: Quinones explains how a multidisciplinary, holistic approach to pain, one that would not have produced an opiate crisis, was pushed aside and abandoned for decades because people thought these pills were a straightforward fix.

In the context of all this, I found myself seeing a wisdom in the old “just say no” slogan: not many of us are likely to be stronger than heroin – anyone who uses it a few times is likely to find himself unable to stop, enslaved to it [ed. I’m told it takes more like a month]. However, there is one way that anyone can attain a sort of mastery over heroin, simply by realising that here is something stronger than one’s will, and that one should therefore avoid it. Heroin has no power over such a person: real mastery, real freedom, involves recognising one’s limits and acting within them.

Quinones’ account includes a simply magnificent example of a sort of motivated reasoning (or at least motivated intellectual sloth), which I mention here because it seems to be driven by the striving towards mastery I described above. Those who led the movement to make prescribing painkillers more permissible beginning in the 80’s didn’t have as much evidence as they thought they did. One particularly influential piece of work was known as ‘Porter & Jick,’ which was cited and re-cited in papers and presentations until it seems to have attained a sort of legendary status, in which it bore considerable weight as an argument against the addictive potential of opiates. “Medical professionals,” Quinones tells us, “assumed everyone else had read it,” and it was referred to as “an extensive study” or “a landmark report.” In fact, it was a single paragraph letter to a medical journal, published in 1980; it seems that scarcely anyone had actually bothered to read it. One can imagine that if it had said something unpopular, something that people didn’t want to believe, many would have found time to read it, and read it critically. But of course, everyone wanted to believe that the Holy Grail had been found, that a simple liberation from pain was at hand with no side-effects to worry about – and so Porter and Jick remained unread even as its authority grew.

From the opiate crisis, then, we have another perspective from which to contemplate a truth introduced in my post on Deneen: the striving for a mastery of nature can be a very dangerous matter indeed. There is a need for a moment of acceptance, or perhaps of resignation, a recognition that we are not entirely in control. I’m reading Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now at the moment (a review will follow in some weeks/months as time permits), and one of my main problems with the book is that it seems to lack precisely this moment of acceptance.

And finally, since my last post was about the great English essayist, Theodore Dalrymple, here’s a short piece of his from a few days ago on the opioid crisis.

Theodore Dalrymple: An Appreciation

It is impossible to know what writing from our own time will survive hundreds of years from now, to take its place among the representative artifacts by which later eras get to know us. No doubt some work of real quality survives by accident (as several books of Livy survived only in one southern Italian monastery for nine centuries), while other work never receives the fame it deserves. Still, if I were allowed to choose what writing from our time would be saved and read far into the future, shining a light for posterity upon our contemporary situation, I would have to include many essays by Theodore Dalrymple.

A former doctor at a prison and an inner-city hospital, his original claim to fame seems to have been the essays he published anonymously (“Theodore Dalrymple” is in fact a pen name; his real name is Anthony Daniels), describing the situation of those living in what he calls the ‘underclass’ of England. These give a view of the sort of life led by so many of the poorest people in English society. Dalrymple’s perspective here is unusual: his theme is the devastating impact that left-wing policies and thinking have had on the poor. The point is not that left-wing policies fail to provide the poorest people with enough to eat or with adequate shelter, but rather that the culture created by left-wing thinking has dissolved restraints upon individual whim, and that this creates a uniquely brutal and miserable world. Having spent years working in Africa (inter alia), Dalrymple is able to compare conditions in England to his experiences there: “nothing I saw – neither the poverty nor the overt oppression – ever had the same devastating effect on the human personality as the undiscriminating welfare state. I never saw the loss of dignity, the self-centredness, the spiritual and emotional vacuity, or the sheer ignorance of how to live that I see daily in England… the worst poverty is in England – and it is not material poverty but poverty of soul.”

This is one central idea that runs through a portion of his work, and I have begun with it because it brought about a shift in my thinking of a sort I have only known on one other occasion (in the course of my undergraduate education). Before reading Dalrymple, I was inclined towards the same view of the motivations behind conservatism as many on the left: it was a matter of not caring about other people, for example, by supporting right-wing economic policies as the result of greed. Such ad hominem arguments are difficult to apply to Dalrymple, since he has devoted more time and energy to the poor that most people, and as a doctor could easily have made more money in more pleasant circumstances. But more importantly, Dalrymple shows in a particularly vivid manner that there are reasons behind many conservative positions, reasons that I (like most of those on the left) had never imagined before reading his work.

For example, before reading Dalrymple, I had never seen the interest or urgency in studying the family as an institution. However, as one reads about how the family has effectively evaporated at the bottom of society, and discovers what this means for children growing up there – well, the importance of the family as an institution begins to look rather more important. Perhaps the best way to express the view is by analogy to the left, for both left and right are focused on the adverse consequences of new forms of freedom (a theme I considered in a post a couple weeks ago on a new book by Patrick Deneen). People on the left are concerned with the effects that free markets can have upon the poor; those on the right are concerned with the effects that a freedom from social norms can have upon the poor. In the nineteenth century, Engels and Mayhew brought attention to the former problem, and Dalrymple has made implicit comparisons between these two and himself: just as they drew attention to the reality of the condition of the poor – a reality of which very many were no doubt aware, but which was kept out of public discussion partly because of a reluctance to acknowledge what was going on – so too does Dalrymple do something similar.

Adequate deliberation requires that people speak frankly about even the most difficult or distasteful matters. One of the many virtues of Dalrymple’s writing – and not only on poverty – is his readiness to bring clearly into focus realities that many would prefer not to see, and not to think about, at all. This is not a man to be restrained by the pieties of our age, and as a result, one finds repeatedly that he has had his eye on important issues long before most others. Some example of his bracing frankness can be found in this piece on the homeless, or this piece on Paris, which certainly accords with some of what I saw in my months in that city, though pretty much nobody else seems to have written about it back then, or this piece on the elder Le Pen, or this piece on the Ray Honeyford affair, or these reflections on Islam – and if you want an example of Dalrymple’s ability to drive a point home, read this piece on the case of Anna Climbie.

The place to start with Dalrymple is with Life at the Bottom, a collection of essays. Three other collections are the logical next step: Our Culture, What’s Left of It, Not With a Bang But a Whimper, and Anything Goes (many – perhaps all – of the essays in these volumes are available for free online, but these books are so good, you’ll want to own them); there are many other excellent titles, including Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality, a full length book whose conclusion is alone worth the price. The collections of essays do include many pieces in which Dalrymple describes the condition of the English underclass, using examples from his practice as a doctor, but they include a great deal more. I would summarise Dalrymple’s work not as a chronicle of underclass life, but rather as a defense of the life of the mind. The failures of the intellectuals, he thinks, are a crucial cause of the grim lives of his lower-class patients, and with this view goes a focus on the importance of ideas in determining the course of human life. Accordingly, when we find Dalrymple writing about literature or architecture or art, it is not as complete a departure from his other subject matter as it might at first seem to be.

A number of his essays on high culture serve as a sort of appetizer, introductions that whet the appetite for more. Before reading this essay on Doctor Johnson, I had certainly heard of the man, but had little idea of what he was about, and certainly had never felt moved to read him, as I did after reading Dalrymple. Another essay introduces the Marquis de Custine, a French aristocrat who in 1843 wrote a work of real insight on Russia that Dalrymple compares to de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Another compares the painting of Mary Cassatt to that of Joan Miro, and in doing so, seems to me to point to the heart of what happened to the West in the 20th century. Yet another is a sort of eulogy to his friend, Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian writer who was hanged by the Nigerian government.

Not all of Dalrymple’s essay are appreciative, however. Sometimes he turns a critical eye upon certain of the best-regarded intellectuals of our time, and the criticism tends to be devastating. A favourite of mine is a piece in which Dalrymple brings his experience as a prison doctor to bear on Stephen Pinker’s book, The Language Instinct. We are not only given good reason to deny the truth of the book’s central theory (why doesn’t Pinker practise what he preaches in his own book?), but we are also presented with a criticism on another, perhaps deeper, level, for Dalrymple considers a likely reason for the popularity of Pinker’s theory: it provides for its adherents a feel-good solidarity with the downtrodden. This, too, Dalrymple undermines, for he shows how the consequences of Pinker in practice are regressive, keeping those at the bottom in their place – indeed, imprisoning them in the world into which they were born. (Pinker has apparently tried to answer Dalrymple, though I can’t seem to find this answer online. Anyone?) Dalrymple’s criticism of Virginia Woolf is also well worth reading, as is his piece on Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a devastating essay written two years before criticising Coates suddenly became cool. Also excellent is Dalrymple’s take on the New Atheists – though not himself religious, he nevertheless writes with sympathy about religion (Sam Harris wrote a brief response to Dalrymple, though it seems to me ineffective as regards the main issue). And speaking of religion, I found this book review by Dalrymple particularly thought-provoking in its reflection on the enthusiasm of so many left-wing intellectuals for murderous dictators.

Dalrymple has also written a number of travel books. The best of these, in my opinion, impinges on politics: in The Wilder Shores of Marx, Dalrymple travels to Albania, North Korea, Romania, Vietnam and Cuba shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The result is a valuable series of pictures of, and reflections on, life under Marxism, including a number of memorable (and chilling) scenes. Dalrymple’s father was a Marxist, but it seems that the son failed to inherit from his father an enthusiasm for that most notorious philosopher of the left. From time to time, Marx pops up elsewhere in Dalrymple’s writing, as this or that aspect of Marxist dogma is shown to founder on the rocks of real life. Apart from the travel book, this essay is perhaps his most sustained reflection on Marx.

Dalrymple’s other travel books include Zanzibar to Timbuktu, in which he travels across Africa using only transport available to the locals; Coups and Cocaine, his first book, which covers travels in South America (I’m still reading this one as I write); Fool or Physician, a memoir of his early career in such places as Rhodesia, South Africa, London and the Gilbert Islands; and Monrovia, Mon Amour, about Liberia. This last book contains a scene that sticks out in my memory, when Dalrymple visits the local warlord Prince Johnson. He takes care to do so in the morning, for in the morning Johnson tends not to be so drunk as later on, and is thus less likely to kill people. (“The weekend before I visited him, I was told he had killed seven people; I met someone whose brother had been killed by him on a night when he shot sixteen others; and I heard about his biggest bag, as it were, thirty-two in a night. He was an insomniac, and prowled the darkness with his AK-47.”) All these books are well worth a read, sometimes for the insight one view one gets on some aspect of, say, Africa, or of life on remote Pacific islands, and sometimes for the simple pleasure of reading Dalrymple.

For however great may be the insight he gives on this matter or that, still he writes so well, and so often with such sparkling humour, that I often find myself returning to essays I digested long ago, simply for the pleasure of reading them again. Dalrymple is a master of that ironic wit that seems to be peculiar to England; my favourite examples come when he plays on the well-known words of others. I believe it is in The Wilder Shores of Marx that he observes that in the late 80’s, a spectre was haunting Eastern Europe – the spectre of liberty. Elsewhere, we find a piece titled “Nasty, British and Short,” and I never forgot his comments on Tony Blair’s resignation speech: “he asked his audience to believe that he had always done what he thought was right. He would have been nearer the mark had he said that he always thought that what was right was whatever he had done.”

Dalrymple’s writing can also be magnificently concise. Go read this three-paragraph blog post on Jeremy Corbyn from two-and-a-half years ago. Not a sentence is wasted – scarcely a word – and we repeatedly find thought-provoking, double-edged formulations. For example: “he is a man of grinding and unnerving integrity;” “I think that he is a man of such probity that he would let the heavens fall so long as his version of social justice was done. Unfortunately, the heavens could fall, and they would fall on all of us…;” “he does not appear to be a man of erudition, culture or literary talent. That, of course, is a point in his favour, electorally-speaking…” I find more insight into the Corbyn situation in these brief paragraphs than in most much longer editorials (and note that back then Dalrymple was already denying that Corbyn was unelectable, a position held by few others at the time, though today few would say with confidence today that Corbyn will not be the next Prime Minister).

I have linked to many excellent essays in this post, but there are so many more, and at a certain point, one simply has to stop. However, I cannot resist including a few Dalrymple quotes, some to showcase his humour, some, his insight – and a couple just because he writes so well. I have limited myself to nine:

  • “I appear on Q & A with, inter alia, Germaine Greer. She is now notorious for having said that transsexual women are not the same as women, which seems to me a fairly innocuous proposition, but in our peculiar times the self-evident is dynamite in the way that satire is prophecy. ” (In “Diary” in the Spectator)
  • “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it: For the greater political correctness’ violation of common sense, the better—at least if its goal is power over men’s minds and conduct. In this sense it is like Communist propaganda of old: The greater the disparity between the claims of that propaganda and the everyday experience of those at whom it was directed, the greater the humiliation suffered by the latter, especially when they were obliged to repeat it, thus destroying their ability to resist, even in the secret corners of their heart.” (In “Two Forms of Mass Hysteria”)
  • “I caught an early flight recently and therefore stayed overnight at the airport hotel. Catching the lift to leave in the morning, the doors opened to reveal two beached human whales within. They gave the lie to the lift’s warning notice that it could fit eight people…. Across the male whale’s T-shirt was emblazoned a single word, ENGLAND, a superfluous message if ever there were one.” (In “Beached Whales in Bermuda Shorts”)
  • “The urban environment of Germany, whose towns and cities were once among the most beautiful in the world, second only to Italy’s, is now a wasteland of functional yet discordant modern architecture, soulless and incapable of inspiring anything but a vague existential unease, with a sense of impermanence and unreality that mere prosperity can do nothing to dispel. Well-stocked shops do not supply meaning or purpose.“ (In “The Specters Haunting Dresden” – as someone who has spent years in Germany, I can say what an insightful essay this is, in which Dalrymple’s eye for the telling detail or anecdote is on display)
  • “The sceptical, it turns out, are certainly not immune from the siren song of credulity. It is as if, exhausted by the mental effort of taking nothing on trust, they suddenly throw in the sponge and believe the most implausible nonsense that would not take in someone half as educated as they.” (In “Don’t Believe In Miracles”)
  • “Such is the fragility of the modern ego… of countless people brought up in our modern culture of ineffable self-importance, in which an insult is understood not as an inevitable human annoyance but as a wound that outweighs all the rest of one’s experience.” (In “The Suicide Bombers Among Us”)
  • “Nadine Gordimer had a voice whose timbre would have penetrated the best artillery-proof armor plating. On one occasion at the conference she condescendingly addressed a Ghanaian lady as ‘my sister Susan.’ ‘Actually, my name’s Gloria,’ said her sister Susan, but the great writer ignored this manifestation of pedantry and continued with what she was saying.” (In “The African Scene”)
  • “the rule of law requires a common cultural understanding, not -merely the means of repression to enforce a legal code. Once that basic cultural understanding is lost, all that remains is repression, effective or ineffective as the case may be, and experienced by many as alien and unjust. Nothing remains but conflict or surrender.” (In “Why Borders Matter”)
  • “I have talked to a lot of young Muslim critics of Western society, living in the West, and few of them were aware of the philosophical basis of Western achievement, which they believed to be merely materialist and founded on crude plunder, never having heard any other viewpoint.” (In “The Terrorists Among Us”)

Whether you’re on the left and want a better understanding of conservatism, or want better to understand the world we live in, or just want a good read, the essays of Theodore Dalrymple are indispensable – and they’re often not even 20 pages long. It is a rare writer who is willing to bring before his readers so much that others pass over in pious silence, and rarer still is the writer who can also provide the sort of original insight that we find in so many of Dalrymple’s essays. But someone who can do all this at the same time as producing writing that is a pleasure in itself to read – and often hilarious to boot – must be accounted a truly great writer. Dalrymple is certainly among the greatest essayists in the English language today, perhaps the very greatest.

University Censorship, 16th Century Edition

In recent years I’ve found that I have ever greater cause to reflect on just how much our political culture has changed in the last decade or two. Things I read about years ago in history books – things that I assumed would stay in history books – are now to be found in the news. Here I want to present one example of this phenomenon, from one of my favourite books, Iberia by James Michener (a must-read for anyone interested in or travelling to Spain). The story he tells in the paragraphs below begins with a description of a place you can still visit at the University of Salamanca…

“…a stone-arched classroom left pretty much as it must have been on that day in December, 1578, when Fray Luis de Leon returned after an absence of some years. The rude benches without backs remain the same and the small windows in the outer walls. The lectern with its canopy is the same as the one at which the professor stood that eventful day. The room was crowded, not only because Fray Luis was the most famous of the Salamanca lecturers, a wise, gentle elderly man of sweet understanding and compassion, but because he had accomplished something that few men of his day could parallel.

In 1572, at the height of a brilliant career as Spain’s leading theologian and humanist, he was attacked by jealous persons in the university, who whispered to the Inquisition, ‘We all know that Fray Luis is half Jewish, so he’s suspect to begin with. But he has now translated King Solomon’s Song of Songs into the vernacular. He invites even the most ordinary man in Salamanca to read it. And that is heresy.’ Especially serious was the additional charge that often, after studying the original Hebrew version of the Bible, he would question the accuracy of the Latin. Fray Luis was apprehended and for several months was under interrogation, after which he was thrown into jail at Valladolid, where he heard only silence. At the end of a year he pleaded to be told what the charges against him were and who his accusers, but he heard nothing. His trial was intermittent and clandestine; all he knew was that he had committed some serious crime bordering on heresy, but its definition he never knew. Finally, after nearly five years of this, he was set free and, what was the more miraculous, allowed to return to his post in Salamanca…

This was the morning of his reappearance, and notable persons came to the university to hear his reaction to his long persecution. As he made his way from his rooms, his gown slightly askew in his usual careless manner, the university plaza was crowded with silent students. Fray Luis walked with his eyes straight forward, not daring to acknowledge the furtive glances of approbation which greeted him. As he entered the cloisters and elbowed his way through the crowd he came at last to the room in which he had taught for so many years, and when he saw its familiar outlines, with his friends perched on the narrow benches, and when he knew that among them must be those whose rumors had caused his imprisonment and who would surrender him again to the Inquisition within a few years (he was to die in disgrace at Madrigal de las Altas Torres), he must have wanted to lash out against the injustice he had suffered and would continue to suffer as a Jew and a humanist. Instead he stepped to the rostrum, took his place behind the lectern, grasped the lapels of his robe, and smiled at the crowd with the compassion that marked all he did, and said in a low, clear voice, ‘As we were saying yesterday…’ And he resumed his lecture at the precise point of its interruption five years before.”

I first read this passage in the 90’s, when it seemed to describe a past that had gone forever. In time I was able to visit the room at the University of Salamanca that Michener describes, and I thought of the story of Fray Luis with the same sense of peering into a long-disappeared world that I had felt looking at the forum in Rome or the cave paintings at Les Eyzies de Tayac. But twenty years later, the case of Fray Luis seems immediately relevant in a way I would not once have believed possible. Who today could possibly say that similar things cannot happen today? Who today could deny that they already do?

Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick Deneen

I found this a very exciting book. It provides nothing less than an interpretation and critique of modernity, and the account it gives commands assent in many respects. I found the book helpful because it helped me bring so much together: ideas of which I’ve had an intuition for some time, half thought-out, are set forth here, fully developed and placed in a broad historical context. In what follows, I’m not going to review the book so much as try to set out the logic of some of its main ideas in my own words, offering reflections of my own along the way (the TL;DR review: superb, thought-provoking, jargon-free and short, this is a must-read).

The title is no doubt intended to provoke, and many will assume this to be a reactionary tome, one that attacks left-wing politics, perhaps even aiming at the abolition of democracy. Though the author is clearly no left-wing radical, this is not the point: ‘liberalism’ here is understood in reference to the Latin liber – i.e., we’re focused here on a particular conception of freedom, that of liberating people from anything that might restrain them from fulfilling their desires. As Deneen shows, this conception has gradually attained a position of extraordinary dominance, such that it is generally assumed by those on both the right and the left: both sides of the political spectrum come in for criticism here. More than this, we find this conception of freedom driving modern science, as well as our economic, political and cultural life (or what’s left of them).

The notion of freedom as simply a liberation from restraint is to be distinguished from a different way of thinking about things that was decisively influential in antiquity and the middle ages. This older approach considered ethical matters in a broader context, seeking a stable basis from which the best overall life could be lived. Such an approach led naturally to a recognition of the need to discipline and direct natural desires as part of a natural order of things; it was thought that if we let our desires get out of hand, we could become enslaved to them, harming ourselves in the process. So, for example, many of us have adopted reasonably moderate habits with regard to our desire for food and drink; if we fail in this, obesity and/or ill-health are likely to result (an alcoholic is an example of someone enslaved to his appetites). Real freedom, from this older standpoint, is to be found in the attainment of character, in habits that lead of their nature to a good overall life (e.g., that will lead a person in possession of an immense wine cellar not to drink himself to death, but rather to enjoy his wine moderately in the course of a life which will no doubt be enriched by many other activities).

Deneen’s argument is that the modern conception of freedom, of liberating ourselves from external restraints, has not only become overwhelmingly dominant, but can now be said to have failed on its own terms. More specifically, he aims to show that as a consequence of the overwhelming success of this ‘liberalism,’ we not only find ourselves without much of the freedom that was promised, but we also find ourselves faced with new and imposing restraints on our freedom.

To give a better idea of what I think is at issue here, and to give an example of how this ‘liberalism’ has failed, I’m going to reflect a little on modern science and technology. A century ago, science was regarded as providing an unambiguous good: mastery over the natural world. This mastery included improved understanding, but was much more a practical matter, making life more comfortable, safer and longer. The new mastery over nature conquered distances and diseases, and even other civilisations (thus the rhyme that summed up a decisive advantage enjoyed by imperial armies: “Whatever happens/We have got/The Gatling gun/And they have not”). A century later, this unambiguous optimism has disappeared. The change began in the First World War, in which Europeans had to fight enemies who also had Gatling guns (i.e., machine guns), and the Second World War, culminating with the atom bomb, was even worse. Of course, it was precisely the new mastery over nature that made these two wars so terribly destructive. There followed the nuclear standoff of the Cold War, in which the conquest of distance meant that the enemy’s nuclear missiles could arrive very swiftly indeed from the other side of the world. As we emerged from the Cold War, environmental problems loomed ever larger, and some genuinely apocalyptic scenarios are now the subject of repeated expert warnings. In the meantime, we now read that antibiotics are proving less effective, and an antibiotic-resistant strain of some common malady – or a new superbug of some sort – is a real possibility. All these events have forced a retreat from that long-ago optimism: certainly science provides better understanding, but the mastery of the natural world that it provides has come to seem an ambiguous good indeed. Nothing could now be less surprising than an event causing death on the grand scale, and it is our mastery of nature through science that makes such an event possible. (Deneen sums the matter up succinctly: “among the greatest challenges facing humanity is the ability to survive progress.”)

All this, I hope, gives an idea of what it means to say that liberalism has failed. The sort of mastery aimed at by science, the idea of freeing ourselves from the limits of the natural world: these ideas now seem to have the capacity to produce real harm, and there is good reason to believe that our striving for mastery will culminate in a devastating reminder of our limits, in an utter helplessness. Deneen is able to tie the problem back to the very beginning of the modern scientific project: “Francis Bacon… compared nature to a prisoner who, under torture, might be compelled to reveal her long-withheld secrets.” The image points to a brutal, forceful compulsion, a relationship in which we do not try to live in accordance with nature, and do not seek any kind of compromise, but rather in which we seek her utter subjugation to our will. The whole project was conceived in this manner from the beginning – that is, as an assault on nature. Centuries after Bacon, we have succeeded in torturing out many secrets, but we find ourselves reminded ever more forcefully that we are part of nature, and nature is part of us: we should be careful about how exactly we relate to her, for if we get this wrong, it will hurt us. Everyone who has worried about the environment already has a basic grasp of this.

But does any of this really have anything to do with an idea of freedom? After all, science just provides improved understanding; the use we make of it is another problem entirely. But it is just here that the idea of freedom as a liberation from limits on our desires becomes relevant, for what the environmental consciousness of our time brings to light is precisely that we need to put a limit on our desires: the earth has finite resources, and so as our power to exploit them increases, so too does must our consumption find a limit. If our era has decided on a liberation from limit as one of its most fundamental principles, then we have a problem: our idea of freedom has run into its consequences, and these suggest the need for a quite different conception of freedom. We shall see that something similar is at work in other domains.

To get a better idea of what is at work in this notion of freedom, let us turn to Thomas Hobbes, who looms large over Deneen’s account of ‘liberalism.’ Before reading Deneen, I had not been cognizant of the radical break with the past that Hobbes’ theoretical conception of man in a state of nature represents, nor the immense influence it would wield over subsequent thought. In this putative natural state, the individual is imagined as an isolated entity, without commitments or natural attachments like a culture, a particular place, or the family. From this initial state, people proceed to choose various forms of commitment from which they hope to derive some benefit – e.g., we choose to accept the authority of the state because it provides the security and stability within which we can pursue good beyond mere survival. This represents a break with the sort of thinking that dominated antiquity and the middle ages, according to which people’s most fundamental attachments to one another were through nature, not choice. Thus Aristotle declared man to be a political animal; the basis of the city in Plato’s Republic is that people are not by nature self-sufficient, but need one another: the focus is on human nature, not on choice. Later Christian thinkers followed the Hellenic lead.

I have to admit that I have an awful lot of sympathy for critiques of Hobbes’ view. Obviously it is false to suggest that we begin political life as isolated individuals who actively choose our commitments. On the contrary, we begin as children, and children have parents, so that we begin as part of a family. By the time we are old enough to think about political life or to make substantial choices about the way we are going to live, we have been through a prolonged period of dependence on others, in which we have been without any choice at all about a great many things – and this is true even for orphans. The result of this is that we also begin mature political life with a culture (i.e., whatever is communicated to us by those we encounter as we grow up). Accordingly, there is an immensely important role played by things that are not chosen, by things that we acquire passively and in a non-rational way. I consider Plato and Aristotle to be greater political philosophers than Hobbes partly because they begin from a recognition of realities such as these while he does not. Deneen gets to the heart of all this by quoting Bertrand de Jouvenel: social contractarianism was conceived by “childless men who must have forgotten their own childhood.”

To say all this is nothing new. What is much more interesting is how Deneen can show what a tremendous – and often malignant – influence Hobbes’ ideas have had on subsequent political life. I want to bring out the logic behind this as best I can, so let us reflect a little farther on Hobbes. I have just characterised Plato and Aristotle as more realistic than Hobbes, but Hobbes would believe that he is the truly realistic one, for he takes as a most fundamental fact the reality that while people often pay lip service to lofty ideals, in fact they are moved by the basest impulses, and are deeply self-interested creatures. Thus the Hobbesian individual chooses to accept the authority of the state, but does so out of self-interest, and never gives up on this focus on self-interest (or on the basest impulses). Laws are compared by Hobbes to hedges of the sort you can still see on the side of country roads around England, “not to stop travelers, but to keep them in the way.” That is, they are external constraints, without which human nature would drive people to behave in all sorts of chaotic and destructive ways; Hobbes’ project is not to reform that nature, but rather to provide something capable of restraining it to some degree: fear, provided by the overwhelming power of the state.

This sketch should be enough to give an idea of the logic behind some of Deneen’s central claims. Our consideration of Hobbes has left us with (1) individuals who make choices from their basest impulses in a self-interested manner, and (2) a state with overwhelming power, which is necessary to restrain those individuals from many of the choices they would otherwise tend to make. Intermediate loyalties, of the sort people often have to families, guilds, churches, a particular place, and so on – i.e., into predefined forms of life that would otherwise limit and thus reform an otherwise anarchic human nature – are of decidedly lesser importance (Deneen notes how the well-known cover of Leviathan shows only a giant (the state) made up of anonymous individuals – i.e., intermediate commitments are not represented). Deneen does not consider this view of things to be an eternal verity; rather, as it has become ever more widely accepted it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It naturally affects behaviour and corrodes the authority of all institutions other than the state. What we increasingly end up with is isolated individuals, deprived of the supports they once enjoyed through intermediate institutions like the family, and increasingly powerless in the face of the vast power of the state.

We can now begin to consider examples of the failure of ‘liberalism’ other than science & the environment. In Deneen’s view, the state of affairs brought about by this self-fulfilling Hobbesian prophecy explains the dire state of our political life today, in which individuals are liberated as never before, and yet feel alienated from their governments: “growing numbers of citizens regard the government as an entity separate from their own will and control, not their creature and creation as promised by liberal philosophy… The liberties that liberalism was brought into being to protect – individual rights of conscience, religion, association, speech and self-governance – are extensively compromised by the expansion of government activity into every area of life. Yet this expansion continues…” This expansion of government is the Leviathan; it must expand to react to the anti-social tendencies of a populace that increasingly understands itself as Hobbesian individuals, who increasingly do not have characters formed by those institutions that once played a role between individual and state, but which now wither away to an ever-increasing degree.

A similar phenomenon is to be found in our free markets, and of course it also extends to various supra-national institutions, agents and creations of globalisation. I am not going to review these in detail here, although it does seem to me that the European Union provides an excellent example: its powers have been expanded at the expense of democratic national governments on the basis of narrow referendum victories in those nations, or even (in the cases of Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands and France) in the face of defeats. In the Brexit referendum, the most frequent (and perhaps the strongest) arguments on the Remain side took the form of necessity – i.e., that Britain could not escape from the EU without catastrophic economic consequences (these have yet to appear, but I am hardly alone in remaining worried about them). Many believe that the EU would like to see Britain fail after it leaves, so that other member states will be too afraid to take the same path: here again is the Leviathan, restraining the impulses of its citizens through fear.

One of the book’s greatest strengths is its ability to give deep explanations of various malaises of our time – that is, to present many well-known problems of our recent history in the context of, and as the logical result of, a much wider historical development, one going back at least four centuries. Thus Deneen can show how ballooning national debts are a natural product of the narrow conception of time that follows from liberalism; so too can he show how the eclipse of (genuinely) liberal education by technical and practical studies is part of this development (I’m not going to try to explain those here). There is also a deeper view of political life here, one critical of both the left and the right as we know them today, for both are influenced by – and yet (interestingly) also critical of – ‘liberalism.’ The left is critical of the adverse effects that free markets can have on the poor, while it promotes maximum liberation for individuals from restrictive social norms; the right is critical of the effects that such a liberation from social norms can have on the poor, while it promotes free markets (if you don’t think a liberation from social norms can harm the poor, may I recommend Life at the Bottom by Theodore Dalrymple? I will be blogging about him in the next week or two). What is remarkable is that both sides have enjoyed success insofar as they accord with ‘liberalism’ – i.e., with the notion of freedom as a liberation from a restraint on our desires – and both sides have failed insofar as they have sought to withstand this same ‘liberalism.’ In fact, while writing this post, I happened across a blog post on the last few decades of British politics which pointed to the respective victories of left and right: “it was as though a deal had been struck; you can have diversity, minority rights and discrimination laws if we can have privatisation, deregulation and tax cuts.”

Deneen does not quite say as much, but it strikes me that the intractability of our environmental problems is to be seen in the same way as this mutual failure of the political left and right: what environmentalism is bringing into focus is a need to make a limit to our consumption part of our way of life, but this conflicts with the deepest commitment we have concerning how people ought to live. That is, the idea that we ought to be free to choose how to live, that there ought to be no limits to our desires aside from the laws of the state – these are the most basic commitments of ‘liberalism,’ and they have come to seem self-evident truths to most people. The state can pass coercive laws all it likes to try to force people to live in an environmentally sound manner, but quite apart from the resentment and possible backlash these might provoke if coercion is taken too far, such measures are unlikely to succeed on their own. A successful environmental movement surely requires that we make limits on consumption (and thus on our desires) part of our choices: one chooses to turn off the light in an empty room; one chooses not only to ride a bike or take public transport instead of driving a car, but also to support urban landscapes that are conducive to such things; one chooses to compost and recycle, and to try to avoid producing too much waste; one chooses to support laws necessary to a sustainable environment; etc. Environmental problems are hard to solve not because they pose an insuperable technical problem for scientists, but because the solution to them conflicts with ‘liberalism,’ and as the successes and failures of the left and the right in politics suggest, ‘liberalism’ is so deeply fixed in our understanding of how to live that it carries all before it.

One other insight into recent history is particularly worthy of mention: Deneen can link his understanding of ‘liberalism’ in a particularly compelling way to the major totalitarian movements of the 20th century. I happen to have read a fair bit on this particular matter – might I suggest my post on the great Sebastian Haffner, who writes with particular insight on Hitler and Nazism? – but still I felt I was learning something here, discovering for the first time the full significance of points I had encountered before. It should be enough to quote Deneen here: “an earlier generation of philosophers and sociologists noted the psychological condition that led increasingly dislocated and disassociated selves to derive their basic identity from the state. These analyses – in landmark works such as Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom, and Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community – recognised, from various perspectives and disciplines, that a signal feature of modern totalitarianism was that it arose and came to power through the discontents of people’s isolation and loneliness. A population seeking to fill the void left by the weakening of more local memberships and associations was susceptible to a fanatical willingness to identify completely with a distant and abstract state.” This passage was a real moment of insight for me. It is, I hope, clear enough how this connects to what I said above about Hobbes and the gradual withering of institutions other than the state.

It would be wrong to fault Deneen for not stressing the positive achievements of liberalism. He is plainly aware of these, but his book is a critique, and no doubt one of the ways he was able to keep it so short was by maintaining a strict focus on his purpose. Nevertheless, it is important to remind ourselves of what is good in ‘liberalism,’ for it shows us just how uncomfortable the ground is to which Deneen has brought us.

It seems to me that there is no good that is characteristic of our own times that can be separated from the peculiar conception of freedom I set out at the start. We tend to look down on all previous ages because none of them could realise anything like the rights and opportunities that we can. We are not entirely wrong to do this, and yet all of these new rights and opportunities are a result of ‘liberalism.’ Consider: quite apart from the matter of material discomforts, few of us would want to live in the middle ages. Imagine being born the son of a blacksmith: the circumstances of your birth would be understood to determine your future to a considerable degree. You would probably be expected to follow in your father’s footsteps and become a blacksmith; if you proved somehow unsuited to that, you could no doubt pursue some other menial occupation, but you could never become a member of government or a diplomat, and marriage or friendship outside of your class would be quite out of the question. The idea that all people can pursue any career they wish, or that anyone can become president – these are surely consequences of conceiving of individuals in the abstract Hobbesian manner, without the natural attachments that come through accidents of birth and upbringing. Still more is this true in the case of women, who once would have had but one path open to them as a result of their situation as determined by nature, the path of marriage and motherhood (if they did not become nuns). I am inclined to think something similar is true of slavery – i.e., that ‘liberalism’ plays a significant role in explaining why our own era had successful anti-slavery movements while antiquity did not. It is clear that there were people arguing against slavery in ancient Greece, for Aristotle attempts to answer them. But note the sort of argument he uses: there are people who by nature are slaves. This sort of argument is on a shakier footing once we have accepted Hobbes’ beginning point, for his state of nature emphasises how people are fundamentally the same, moved by the same basic drives (in the case of slavery, I think Christianity is also part of the story).

Thus it seems to me that Deneen leaves us in a very difficult position: I think his criticisms of ‘liberalism’ are fundamentally sound, and yet it should be clear that we want to be very careful indeed about how we move away from it. It might not be enough simply to say that we want to maintain the new rights and opportunities, the fuller realisation of human dignity, that liberalism has brought about. After all, our behaviour is deeply influenced by our theoretical commitments – this is a lesson of the connection between Hobbes and aspects of our current situation – and it might well turn out to be the case that if we simply go back to an older view of humanity, one that does acknowledge the reality that we are partly formed by our particular natures and circumstances, that political life might “snap back,” so to speak, to an earlier state of affairs to some degree, one in which many of our current freedoms have disappeared. That is, we might find that our revised principles drive us once again towards the notion that women should stay in the home, or something similarly reactionary. This seems to me all the more possible in light of the fact that, as the problems inherent in ‘liberalism’ impose themselves on everyday life, the possibility of a reaction looms into view, and reactions often go too far.

No doubt we can already see the outlines of what we need next. I focused so much on the matter of the environment above because it seems to me that in this one case we can see the appearance, even among the most progressive people, of a widespread recognition of a need for more than mere liberation from restraint, but of a need for virtue, for a formation of character that limits the desires from within. That is, environmentalists can see clearly that we need to be less free as ‘liberalism’ conceives of freedom. If environmentalists are starting to see this, it’s not so clear to me that the immediate facts of the case will lead people to a similar understanding in other areas. But the first thing to do is to recognise we have a very deep-seated problem, and Deneen’s book certainly does that.

Journalism or Left-Wing Activism? The Globe and the Peterson Affair

Back in November, Professor Jordan Peterson took part in a debate on free speech at the University of Toronto. The Globe and Mail’s Simona Chiose reported on the event. Here are the first words of her article: “The claims made by University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson on the impact of anti-discrimination legislation are scientifically and legally wrong.”

Here’s a question: whose side do you think Chiose (and the Globe) are on? That is, is the article for or against the position taken by Dr. Peterson? Do you think that that opening sentence represents a sincere attempt to avoid bias while writing a report on a controversial event, or does it rather push the reader in the direction of a particular point of view? (If you click on the link, you’ll see that the sentence actually ends with a subordinate clause: “… a debate at the Toronto university heard on Saturday.” This does mitigate the effect of the whole, but the effect is there nonetheless.)

I was annoyed at the time by the article, and I’ve just had reason to think of it again, for last week the same Ms. Chiose wrote another article on Dr. Peterson, this one much longer and more biased than that earlier one (quotations below are from this article unless otherwise noted). This longer piece omits relevant facts and emphasises marginal material so as to create a distorted picture, one that effectively maligns Dr. Peterson’s character. In what follows, I’m going to go through several examples of this tendency (though not all), to show just how far the article falls short of fair and unbiased reporting. Has Ms. Chiose – and with her, the Globe – abandoned reporting and instead plunged headlong into activism? After considering the points I make below, I hope readers will be able to decide for themselves.

The main force of Chiose’s article comes from the connection it attempts to make between Dr. Peterson and certain internet trolls (this includes the ‘KEK’ primer at the end), so let us start with that. These trolls, we are told, say vicious and (perhaps) threatening things about his critics. Chiose tells us that “the existence of this parallel, online space is hardly mentioned in free speech debates or arises only in lateral mentions of concerns about ‘safety on campus.’” What she never makes explicit is why this parallel space should be mentioned in free speech debates. No doubt it is true that there are too many trolls online posting childish, vicious and (possibly) even threatening things; no doubt there is often “misogynist and dehumanizing invective” online. This is awful, but why should it have any bearing on the question of free speech or safety on campus? No evidence has been offered that the trolls in question are on the UofT campus. Neither the UofT, nor the government of Ontario, nor the government of Canada – and certainly not Dr. Peterson – can control what people in “Shanghai and Berlin, St. Petersburg and Pune… and San Francisco” write online. Why on earth should the rantings of some loser in his parents’ basement in, say, Colorado, affect what people may and may not say on a university campus in Toronto? Yes, online trolls can be vile, and it would be nice to be able to treat the problem they present, but they seem to me a red herring when considering freedom of speech on campus. Indeed, I they seem to me entirely irrelevant in relation to the matter at the heart of the Peterson affair, namely, these new pronouns, and whether the government or any other institution has the right to force people to use them.

There is one respect, however, in which Ms. Chiose’s focus on internet trolls is not a red herring at all, but drives a point home with some force, and that is the realm of insinuation, of guilt by association. Obviously Dr. Peterson cannot control people typing away in distant cities around the globe, but look at how rotten (or crazy) those people are, those people who support Dr. Peterson – doesn’t that make him look like a rotten person as well? If this thought can, strictly speaking, have no bearing on the matter of pronouns and free speech, still it can have considerable rhetorical force. Empty rhetoric can be effective – in this case, it might encourage those who shout Dr. Peterson down (see below), or those who want a reason to avoid having to confront the force of his arguments, to think that they’re doing the right thing.

It is not only by means of the connection to online trolls, however, that Chiose’s piece paints its picture of Dr. Peterson. As an introduction to her other methods, let us consider some words from Dr. Peterson. At a recent talk at Harvard (video here, the relevant bit is from 6:04) he discusses the behaviour of the UofT’s administration: “the university said that they had received many letters accusing me of making the University of Toronto an unsafe space… they failed to note at the same time that they had received hundreds – perhaps thousands – of letters, as well as a 10,000 signature petition, supporting my stance.” He considers this a falsification by omission.

Chiose’s article suffers from a similar failing. In general, the claims of the UofT administration, as well as accusations against Dr. Peterson, are treated as reliable. Facts that might throw a different, and more positive light upon Dr. Peterson or his cause, repeatedly go unmentioned. For example, we do not hear of the letters of support that he claims to have received from trans-people, who, he says, express their frustration at the fact that a group of activists claim (wrongly) to represent them, and have in fact made their lives more difficult (see here from about 12:43). Is Dr. Peterson making all this up? I don’t know; Chiose might have made an attempt to verify his claims. Instead, the reader is simply left unaware of the possibility of another side to this story.

Consider this sentence as well: “after his application for a federal research grant was turned down this year, Rebel Media… started a crowdfunding effort on its own site on the professor’s behalf.” It would have been worth mentioning at this point that Dr. Peterson claims that his research has been continually highly ranked, and successfully funded, for more than two decades – until this particular grant proposal. If true, it is remarkable that he suddenly failed to get funding the moment he declared himself against the forced use of certain pronouns. This seems to me very relevant indeed to the question of free speech on campus, unlike the internet trolls on whom Chiose lavishes so much attention. Most importantly, we once again see that facts that might have put Dr. Peterson’s cause in a more sympathetic light have been left out.

Consider also the following: “‘no one wanted him to be fired or put in jail…,’ said Cassandra Williams, who was the equity officer for the University of Toronto Students Union throughout the crisis.” Of course, if you have heard Dr. Peterson himself talk about this (see here from about 6:45), you get a different impression: before you fire a professor, there have to be warning letters. He received one, then another. His response was to go for maximum publicity, and he has since been all over YouTube, talking with Gad Saad, with Dave Rubin, with Joe Rogan (among many others), getting millions of hits, and becoming something of an internet celebrity in the process. Having followed this strategy, Peterson was not fired. A teacher in BC, who wanted to remain anonymous, was not so lucky, and was fired. Dr. Peterson was apparently contacted by this anonymous teacher, and advised him, in vain, to follow the publicity route as a means of protection. Did publicity save Dr. Peterson’s job? I don’t know. Maybe Ms. Williams, quoted above, is being entirely accurate. I note only that there was another side to this, and that Ms. Chiose (again) hasn’t mentioned it.

I don’t intend to enumerate every failing in the article, but I will mention one final omission that is particularly serious. Have you seen the videos of Dr. Peterson getting shouted down at McMaster University? Watch this one from about 3:15) I don’t doubt that there are horrible internet trolls who have taken Dr. Peterson’s side, and behaved reprehensibly in the process (though I also don’t see that there’s much he can do about that – indeed, any issue involving intense disagreement these days is going to be accompanied by people saying vile things online). It is, however, grossly misleading to suggest that this is a problem on only one side of this debate. Indeed, such vile behaviour from so many of Dr. Peterson’s opponents might go some way to explain the reprehensible behaviour of some of his supporters.

Considered in the light of what happened at McMaster, it is simply extraordinary that the article’s subtitle talks of “the fight for ‘free speech,’” putting “free speech” in quotations marks as if this were somehow a dishonest pretense and not the actual substance of Dr. Peterson’s concern. How does that McMaster video not prove that free speech is genuinely at issue here? And, of course, all this takes place in the context of similar episodes elsewhere – go look up the cases of Charles Murray, of Heather Macdonald, or of Bret Weinstein!

It is not only errors of omission that give us a one-sided picture. Both of Chiose’s articles mentioned above contain a rather marvelous example of how language can be chosen so as to suggest that a certain side of a disagreement is at fault, without actually saying as much. In that article from November, we hear of “weeks of controversy on campus over Dr. Peterson’s refusal to use non-gender-specific pronouns when addressing students.” We might instead have heard of “an attempt by activists and the university administration to force the active use of certain words on other people,” but that phrasing would fail to place the onus for the whole business on Dr. Peterson: it is he, not the activists, who is to be seen as the cause of controversy here, even though he was reacting to them (and see the longer article, which I have been focusing on, for a similar choice of phrase in the first sentence). There are plenty of other examples of this sort of thing; try going through the article yourself and looking for them.

Clearly, these are controversial matters, productive of vehement passions, and for that reason, potentially dangerous. Ms. Chiose tells us of people on her side of the debate – and I think she has taken a side – who were willing to speak only on condition of anonymity, and this is no less true of people on the other side (such as me – this may shock you, but ‘Babbington’ is not my real name). In such a situation, surely we ought to aim at ratcheting down the tension, and to proceed as dispassionately as possible, so as to consider the case made by either side on its own merits. Ms. Chiose’s piece does something very different: it creates the impression that Dr. Peterson is a bad person. We are not provided with evidence or arguments that correct intellectual mistakes he has made; rather, we are given the impression that he has failed morally, as a person. If someone has failed intellectually, we reason with him; if he has failed morally, we might be inclined to proceed differently.

I think Simona Chiose should have the right to write opinion pieces on this and other matters, but they should be labelled as such. It is one thing to take a side explicitly and argue its case openly, but another altogether to produce a one-sided account of a controversy while writing what appears on the surface to be sand objective piece of reporting (this article is found online under “Home->News->National->Education”). I think the Globe and Mail dropped the ball here. As someone originally from the left (in Canada I have only ever voted for the NDP), I have to say this has made the notion of a “liberal media,” which reports selectively according to a preferred narrative, look rather more plausible than it previously had.

________________

And now for a few words about the larger controversy…

As I have watched this Peterson Affair unfold in recent months, I have repeatedly been impressed by his ability to make his case. For example, watch this video from about 7:30 to at least 19:00: Peterson is faced here with a questioner, who tries to push the other side of the argument, but the questioner is no match for him at all. On the matter of gender, see 24:46 to 28:55 of the same video. After watching him here, it should be obvious why he is not afraid to debate on this subject: he can present his position in a devastatingly effective, and utterly convincing, manner.

I have not been impressed by the arguments of the other side. I would like to see an answer to the points made in the video sections I have just referenced. Unfortunately, Dr. Peterson’s opponents seem to see any and all disagreement as a form of bigotry; overwhelmingly, when I see his opponents, they focus almost entirely on ad hominem attacks and scarcely at all – if at all – on meeting the substance of his arguments. (Which side of that divide do you think Simona Chiose’s article falls on?) Why don’t they just put the personal attacks to one side – heck, we can assume for the sake of argument that he’s an awful person – and refute the substantive points he has made? Why won’t they debate him? I believe this is because they know they cannot answer his arguments. (I am aware of only one debate that has taken place, and it was not impressive for the anti-Peterson side: I thought Christie Blatchford gave a good overview – and note how her piece is marked “COMMENT,” indicating it contains the personal views of its author.)

A final matter: why I am spending so much energy on this? Why, for that matter, are so many people giving him so much money? (as of this writing, he’s over $42k per month) Simona Chiose might like to think that we Peterson supporters are driven by dark motives, but I can offer another reason. Many of us are dismayed by the replacement of a culture of argument and open discussion with a culture of threats and intimidation, with the constant use of accusations of bigotry as a cudgel to silence dissent. Many of us think Dr. Peterson is correct in his warnings about the totalitarian – yes, totalitarian – nature of the way in which all of this is moving.

In a healthy society, universities are not merely repositories of knowledge and practical skills, but also have a civic function: they produce in their students an attitude of critical inquiry and the habit of frank and open debate on matters even of passionate controversy. As those disgraceful, idiot McMaster students so clearly showed, universities today are producing very different attitudes and habits. Newspapers, too, have a civic function fostering informed debate on contentious issues as part of an open society – or at least they once had such a function.

Dr. Peterson has said (I can’t find his exact words), there are, in the end, two ways of dealing with people: either you talk things out, or you use force. University administrations that fail to act against students who behave on campus in a thuggish manner, and the publications that effectively cheer them on, are effectively deciding that we are to have a more violent political culture in the future.

Where we once might have debated contentious matters in a frank and open manner, today it seems that a group of activists decides what the new orthodoxy is to be, and anyone who tries to argue otherwise is denounced and publicly shamed as a bigot. This needs to change, and that, in the end, is why Dr. Peterson is so important. It’s also why I think he deserves every penny he’s receiving. Certainly he has endured appalling abuse and pressure with exceptional grace and goodwill (far more than I would have mustered), but much more importantly, he has stepped in to defend, as best he can, the civic good that universities are now failing uphold as institutions, and that’s something worth far more than he has so far received. That, above all, is why he has received so much support.

 

UPDATE 26.01.2018

Oops, she did it again! Here’s the opening sentence of a piece written in November by Dr. Chiose on Dr. Peterson:

‘A plan by University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson to launch a website that would allow students to identify leftist faculty has “created a climate of fear and intimidation” and is a “threat to [professors] and to the academic mission of the University,” the school’s faculty association says.’ (Note also the headline: ‘Jordan Peterson creating climate of “fear and intimidation”: U of T’s faculty association’)

She used the very same device as in the piece I mentioned at the start of my post: once again, the reader is being nudged in the direction of a particular point of view, and – surprise! – once again, it’s one that paints Dr. Peterson in a particularly bad light.

The last six months have seen me become increasingly distraught with regard to the state of our media. Major media have an important role to play in public deliberation, and increasingly I feel they are failing. I shall write about this again in the weeks to come…

A Quick Thought on Faith

The last 4-5 years have seen my views on many things change dramatically. I used to be well to the left on even the Canadian political spectrum, and now I find myself becoming more conservative, to the point that I could even contemplate voting Republican (once they’re done with Trump). This has come about in response both to things I’ve read and to events (more posts to come about that). I’ve found that as my views change, I occasionally find myself struck, when I hear a view I now strongly reject, by the fact that I used to hold it as an obvious truth.

So it was as I heard Jerry Coyne, the author of a popular (and excellent) blog (Why Evolution is True), talk about religion on the Rubin Report. (watch here and here) At one point (I forget where exactly), Coyne suggests that religious faith is problematic beyond the specific content of any particular religious doctrine, because it gets people in the habit of simply believing things without evidence. That is, there is something inherently harmful about the fact of faith in itself: it is a bad intellectual habit. A good intellectual habit, on this view, would seem to be to get as far from faith as you can, basing your views, as much as possible, on evidence.

Wow – I used to believe that, with some vehemence. And wow: I sure don’t believe it any more. Not at all.

I can think of two kinds of faith that we need and use on a constant basis. Without both, our lives would simply not be possible. The first is central to the possibility of a scientific understanding of the world – that is, the sort of understanding that Coyne would hold up as an alternative to religion. The second deals with our relationship with other people; I wonder if this second kind of faith doesn’t lead on to religion.

The first kind of faith is suggested in an article by Theodore Dalrymple, in which he responds – convincingly, I thought – to the “new atheists.” He makes the point succinctly: “if I questioned whether George Washington died in 1799, I could spend a lifetime trying to prove it and find myself still, at the end of my efforts, having to make a leap, or perhaps several leaps, of faith in order to believe the rather banal fact that I had set out to prove.” Of course, the point can be generalised to include the whole of science. I believe global warming is a major problem, but if a well-educated climate science denier were to debate me, I would be reduced to appeals to authority very quickly indeed. The same would happen to almost all scientists aside from the climate specialists (although almost all real scientists would last longer than me in such arguments). The same will be true of any other field of knowledge: specialists might hold their own, but non-specialists must follow the lead of authorities.

Of course, it is probably true for most of what is understood about the world today that if we investigated any particular matter, we could eliminate most of our faith on the matter. However, for all actual people, the reality is that most of what we understand about the world is in fact a matter of faith. Modern science allows us to put our faith in sound authorities, but we do need that authority. The idea of eliminating faith and replacing it with reason is utopian, and like most utopian ideals, when it is forced upon the real world, it becomes a source of harm as well as benefit (in this case, the utopian ideal of eliminating faith obscures from us the reality of what is actually going on, for a start).

There is a second sort of faith, and this one has to do with people: we cannot live without trust. That is, faith in other people is necessary to a genuinely human life. If you couldn’t trust anyone else, you couldn’t even walk down the street – after all, you might get stabbed. More than that, a great deal of what gives depth and meaning to life comes from trusting other people. Imagine if your interactions with other people consisted of the absolute minimum necessary to sustain your life: you would trust other people enough to walk down the street, to work, and to conduct basic economic transactions. Nothing more. No pleasures of conversation, in which you might reveal something of yourself, no substantial or lasting relationships with others. Most people would find life intolerable without substantial (and thus trusting) relationships with other people, and I don’t think it is reasonable to see in such a life the pinnacle of human flourishing. A life worth living requires faith in other people – indeed, it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that life is more worth living to the extent that we can rightly make use of such faith.

Accordingly, as in understanding the world, so too in our dealings with other people: the trick is not to eliminate faith, but rather to learn where it is appropriate and where not. And it is not hard to see how the matter of faith in other people might lead on to religion: our ability to have faith in other people doesn’t merely increase our chances of survival, but makes life far richer, far worthier of living, than it otherwise might be. What if religious faith is like that? What if we who are not religious are in a situation similar to that of people who miss out on so much of what life has to offer because they never trust anyone else, and thus never have any substantial relationships with other people?

I’m not religious, but sometimes I wonder if I should be.