September 1, 2010

The Confusion of Success with the Meaning of Life

Justin Katz

Some strains of Darwinian secularism are speckled throughout with signs of the mansions and vast estates of their most prominent promoters. Such appears to be the case with Matt Ridley's philosophy, as presented in George Gilder's review of his book The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves:

Reason, to Ridley's mind, impels us relentlessly forward and upward. Religion, on the other hand, he sees as a reactionary obstacle to growth, progress, and even morality. He cites, for example, the indignation of Israel's prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, along with Homer, against the pride of the Phoenician traders as typical rants of reactionary traditionalists against the creators of wealth.

Instead — echoing his previous books on the evolution of virtue and the superiority of sexual reproduction to reduplicative cloning — Ridley maintains that moral codes naturally evolve from the rise of catallaxy. Cultures that reach out to immigrants and new ideas gain cultural and genetic innovation. As wealth grows, population growth relents; women instead release their energies into the marketplace.

Reason does not have a self-contained direction; it is dependent on circumstances. To those not living on the proceeds of best-selling books, reason alone may very well lead to the conclusion that the world is cold, unfair, and irrational, and life utterly pointless. Religion, in such circumstances, can reorder the individual's sense of reason toward productive ends.

This is no linguistic nitpicking; it is a thematic problem with analyses such as Ridley's. Reason is what allows humankind to take evolution into its own hands in ways broad and discrete, but it requires a larger principle to give it direction. The reference to "immigration and new ideas" is a perfect example: Such intermingling is only fruitful where it provides new perspective on existing principles, and the application of human reason must begin with an assessment of what is worth preserving and what is dangerously attractive. It supposes too much correspondence between cultural evolution and biological evolution to assume a parallel process of "good decisions" through trial and error judged by rates of survival.

As I'm able, I'm reading a book titled The Art Instinct by Denis Dutton, in which the author strives to argue that art is both something more than, say, the weaving of bird nests and something growing out of human evolution. So thoroughly dedicated to the principle of genetic development as a human determinant is Dutton that, in one passage, he gives the impression that he believes that it took a genetic mutation for mankind to cease jumping from cliffs. Those disinclined to such behavior survived, while the other perished. But surely it wouldn't have taken too advanced a brain to notice a bloody lifeless pulp at the bottom of a high drop and to conclude that jumping would not be wise and, moreover, to warn others of that finding.

Such is the function of reason. Even so, a precondition of its application is the principle that it is better to live than to plummet to death. That brings us back to Gilder's review:

That a secular-feminist society, feeding on hedonic incentives, can ultimately sustain a functional national defense capable of standing up to the Vandals and Goths of the 21st century is yet to be proven, but the portents are unpromising. Europe is dismantling its military, while the U.S. increasingly regards its own chiefly as an arena for sex-role gaming.

Cultural innovations may benefit individuals for a period of time, but what is supposed to set human beings apart is our ability to foresee pitfalls and to step around them and to carry non-biological lessons from the past that tell us which paths are likely to be perilous. We do so through mechanisms of religion and tradition.

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Oh yes; the ancient trope that reason misleads us unless it is mediated through -- what? -- religion! I.e., false bunkum. Human reason is indeed imperfect -- that's how we get such colossal errors as religious faith. To suggest that the latter is the corrective for the former is preposterous. It does not help us for any purpose to base our decisions on an utterly false set of beliefs about the world.
Those interested in Ridley's very good book might also wish to know about another one (mine), THE CASE FOR RATIONAL OPTIMISM (Transaction Books, Rutgers University, 2009), which makes quite similar points and arguments, but develops the case for optimism over a rather broader range of subject areas. See

Posted by: Frank S. Robinson at September 1, 2010 8:02 PM

Mr. Robinson,

One hopes that your book is better reasoned, and responds more thoughtfully to opposing viewpoints, than your free advertisement, above.

My view is not that reason misleads; it is that reason does not lead at all. In the absence of a culturally imparted higher sense, it will revert to rationalizing lusts and short-term thinking. (Note, here, that "short-term" can be extended all the way through an individual lifetime or a generation or two and still be problematic.)

The higher sense doesn't have to be religious, though. It can be any of the other substitutes that humankind has contrived over the centuries — nationalism, tribalism, whatever. Judging from past experience, however, religion seems to be the most conducive to the freedoms that secularists tend to want... at least for themselves.

Posted by: Justin Katz at September 1, 2010 8:15 PM

Justin, while we generally agree on the merits of conservative principles, I cannot agree with you on this one. I do believe that it is reason that leads to these correct principles. It is reason that brings an open mind and the discipline of skepticism to our consideration of both nature and human nature.

I start by asking what important natural rights do I have that make life worth living. Having identified these (not merely by coincidence, they are those expressed by the Founders of our country), I then must ask, "If I demand these for myself, then how could I reasonably deny them to others without being a hypocrite?" Everything else in the conservative canon flows from that basic understanding.

Historically as well, the basis of the Scottish Enlightenment, which inspired the Founders and provided many of the arguments for independence and the ensuing constitutional republic, was not religion, but reason. After all, religion had already deeply embedded in society for centuries, but it was the thinking of Locke, Hume and Smith that led to their insights about human nature and the meaning of justice.

As a third observation, one of the obscene hypocrisies of the Progressive faith is not their atheism, but their replacement of God with Government as their deity, which they believe in despite overwhelming contrary evidence, with a faith that can only be compared to that of fanatic cult members.

Posted by: BobN at September 1, 2010 8:34 PM

Here's the key clause:

"After all, religion had already deeply embedded in society for centuries, but it was the thinking of Locke, Hume and Smith that led to their insights about human nature and the meaning of justice."

The Enlightenment and all that ensued had as a precondition the underlying cultural sense fostered by broad acceptance of Christianity. It was, in a sense, the moment of epiphany when Western civilization realized where it could go in the direction that higher, super-rational principles had chosen. In a few short centuries, many of the problems that we both recognize as problems emerge from the failure to understand that.

I find this paragraph of yours very interesting to unpack:

I start by asking what important natural rights do I have that make life worth living. Having identified these (not merely by coincidence, they are those expressed by the Founders of our country), I then must ask, "If I demand these for myself, then how could I reasonably deny them to others without being a hypocrite?"

In the first sentence, you use "natural rights" essentially to mean "principles that must exist for me to have what I desire." Without religion that is the only basis by which rights are "natural." The problems begin immediately, not only when two people's desires clash, but also when movements seek to infect the system alternate visions that don't turn out to be incompatible until it's too late (think progressivism and sharia).

As for hypocrisy, I'm curious on what grounds you raise avoidance thereof to a transcendent principle. So what if you're a hypocrite? If you're just a mass of cells with a short period of life, is avoiding hypocrisy really worth the difference between comfort and discomfort? A great many people, if they're being honest, will say, "no," and those who don't are operating on the fumes of some form of religion that their culture is in the process of abandoning.

Posted by: Justin Katz at September 1, 2010 9:20 PM

Interesting stuff …

The part of the whole ‘reason vs. faith’ (similar to the science vs. religion) debate is many on both sides are not willing to acknowledge that there can be co-existence. I do not subscribe to the almost competitive nature many seem to associate in this debate. Despite the assertions that people of religious faith must lack reason and that people of reason must lack religious faith, the truth is that ‘reason’ in any context, including the one used in this debate, is not diametrically opposed to religious faith.

I seem to be in the minority on this but while atheists can be reasonable, it is not ‘reason’ that support the atheistic view of God. Also, while some who are fervent in their religious beliefs do lack reason (which is of course, subjective), it is not lack of reason that leads to religious faith, as some assert. I do not believce that there is a relationship between reason and abandoning religion.

Justin has often accused me of hugging the middle-ground on many issues. I don’t believe it is about finding the middle ground, but the search for common ground. The problem is that the advocates of both sides assert theirs is an absolute truth and any deviance or doubt is indicative of lack of … faith or reason. I believe religious faith and reason do complement each other and it seems to me that this is way it is meant to be.

Posted by: msteven at September 2, 2010 4:32 PM