Thursday, November 08, 2018

Closed Open Minds and Open Closed Minds

I was flipping through a book by Josef Pieper, trying to decide if I need to replace my worn-out and marked-up copy, and -- of course -- randomly came upon a passage that goes directly to yesterday's post on the limits of reason:

Nietzsche said that "wisdom puts limits to knowledge." Whatever he himself may have meant by this, there is no doubt that the will-to-knowledge, this noble power of the human being, requires a restraining wisdom, "in order that man may not strive immoderately for the knowledge of such things."

The question is, at what point does the will-to-knowledge shade off into the will-to-power? At what point does our natural epistemophila become an unseemly megalomania? What is the proper limit to the knowing intellect?

The answer is (ortho)paradoxical, because in a certain important sense, the intellect knows no limit, being that we -- and the intellect in particular -- are in the image of the creator. And I was about to say that people who understand our limitlessness in a religious context aren't the problem, but that would be quite naive, wouldn't it?

It seems that there are four possibilities: there are appropriate and inappropriate limits on the intellect; and an appropriate and inappropriate limitlessness to it.

For example, there are times that we need limits to vault us into limitlessness -- language being one example of this, or musical notation, or mathematics: each is an open system that uses boundary conditions to surpass itself, a la Polanyi:

the principles of each level operate under the control of the next higher level. The voice you produce is shaped by a vocabulary; a given vocabulary is shaped into sentences in accordance with a grammar; and the sentences are fitted into a style, which in its turn is shaped by our efforts to convey the ideas of the composition. Thus each level is subject to dual control: first, by the laws that apply to its elements in themselves and, second, by the laws that control the comprehensive entity formed by them.

Such multiple control is made possible again by the fact that the principles governing the isolated particulars of a lower level leave indeterminate their boundary conditions. These will be controlled by a higher principle.... Consequently, the operations of a higher level cannot be accounted for by laws governing its particulars, which form the next lower level. You cannot derive a vocabulary from phonetics; you cannot derive a grammar from a vocabulary; a correct use of grammar does not account for good style; and a good style does not supply the content of an oral communication (Polanyi).

It's not surprising that we should meet Polanyi on the road with Hayek, since they were friends and mutual influences.

Let's get back to what Pieper was saying about the subject. He writes of a certain kind of pathological knowing that reminds me of our constant obsession with politics -- of the

noise of impressions and sensations breathlessly rushing past the windows of the senses. Behind the flimsy pomp of its facade dwells absolute nothingness; it is a world of, at most, ephemeral creations, which often within less than a quarter hour become stale and discarded...

Pieper rightly calls it an addiction, but how much worse is this addictive behavior in the internet age! Even before the smartphone, it stupefied "man's primitive power of perceiving reality" and made him "incapable not only of coming to himself but also of reaching reality and truth."

What happens next? We don't know. We've never been here before, certainly not to this extent:

If such an illusory world threatens to overgrow and smoother the world of real things, then to restrain the natural wish to see [i.e., know] takes on the character of a measure of self-protection and self-defense.

In a very real sense we must become closed to this lower would in order to remain open to the higher one(s): "man should oppose this virtually inescapable seduction with all the force of selfless self-preservation" by closing "the inner room of his being against the intrusively boisterous pseudo-reality of empty shows and sounds."

Only via such self-restraint may we "preserve or regain that which actually constitutes man's vital existence: the perception of the reality of God and his creation, and the possibility of shaping himself and the world according to this truth, which reveals itself only in silence."

Do you see what he did there? Setting limits in order to approach and perceive the limitless. Failing this, the world appears to us as a kind of pseudo-limitlessness or false infinite.

Thus, we must avoid the cosmic inversion of substituting the false for the true infinite, the pseudo- for for the real thing. Prof. Wiki:

The reductionistic attempt to reduce higher-level realities into lower-level realities generates what Polanyi calls a moral inversion, in which the higher is rejected with moral passion. Polanyi identifies it as a pathology of the modern mind and traces its origins to a false conception of knowledge; although it is relatively harmless in the formal sciences, that pathology generates nihilism in the humanities. Polanyi considered Marxism an example of moral inversion.

Ah, now it's all coming together: reduction of the higher to the lower, religious passion without religious restraint, the nihilistic omniscience of materialism, and the omnipotent and omnicompetent state, all reflecting and supporting one another. The left in a nutshell.

How does this square with what we've been reading in Hayek?

[T]hat socialism is the logical consequence of rationalism does not mean that socialism is right, but rather that rationalist judgment of morals is mistaken. Man was neither clever enough to design the order from which billions of his kind now draw their sustenance nor even to recognize what he would have to know in order to direct these efforts successfully.

Paradoxically, we don't owe our progress to our own omniscience, but rather, to a kind of systematic nescience that keeps our knowledge in bounds:

We do not owe our ability to keep two hundred times as many human beings alive than we could five thousand years ago solely, or even chiefly, to our growing intellectual insight into scientific and technological problems, but at least as much, if not more, to a moral tradition of which both our innate instincts and our attempts at rational comprehension largely disapprove -- a tradition which was kept alive essentially by a faith in supernatural forces which science now teaches us is factually wrong.

The moral tradition to which Hayek alludes consists of boundary conditions or restraints on behavior that make possible "the extended order which we call civilization."

Conversely -- or inversely, rather -- socialists always ground their appeals in a kind of crude benevolence. Socialism "sounds" moral. Why does it always end in such horror?

The sad truth is that theoretical benevolence is compatible with any amount of practical indifference or even cruelty. You feel kindly towards others. That is what matters: your feelings. The effects of your benevolent feelings in the real world are secondary, or rather totally irrelevant. Rousseau was a philosopher of benevolence. So was Karl Marx. Yet everywhere that Marx’s ideas have been put into practice, the result has been universal immiseration. But his intention was the benevolent one of forging a more equitable society by abolishing private property and, to adopt a famous phrase from President Obama, by spreading the wealth around.

Combine abstract benevolence and limitless knowledge, and what do you have? Oh, Venezuela, or Cuba, or the Soviet Union, or California -- you all know the malignant roster.

What's the alternative?

"we are indebted for all the noblest exertions of human genius, for everything that distinguishes the civilised from the savage state,” to “the laws of property and marriage, and to the apparently narrow principle of self-interest which prompts each individual to exert himself in bettering his condition.”

"The apparently narrow principle of self-interest," mind you. Because it is precisely this apparent narrowing that opens us to something far surpassing itself.

37 comments:

julie said...

The question is, at what point does the will-to-knowledge shade off into the will-to-power? At what point does our natural epistemophila become an unseemly megalomania? What is the proper limit to the knowing intellect?

Teaching the kids earlier this year about the Tower of Babel, we had a good discussion about what the actual problem was with the tower. In a nutshell, its' purpose, and the driving mentality of its builders, was to reach and ultimately surpass God. It wasn't the tower itself that was the problem, or else there'd probably be distinct lack of skyscrapers in modern cities. Today, the problem isn't builders of towers but architects of benign utopias.

The sad truth is that theoretical benevolence is compatible with any amount of practical indifference or even cruelty. You feel kindly towards others. That is what matters: your feelings.

Out and about today, I saw a billboard proclaiming that "your feelings are your superpowers." Not sure what they're selling besides mental illness, but certainly plenty of people have a vested interest in keeping America hysterical.

julie said...

Are you in the evacuation zone? I hope you all are okay this morning. Don't know if you saw, but Vanderleun was living in Paradise. As of last night, he and his mom got out safely, but no word yet on whether he has anything to go back to.

Prayers all around.

Gagdad Bob said...

It's been an adventure, for sure. More later....

Anonymous said...

Gerard's house has been destroyed, along with pretty much everything else in the town of Paradise. Luckily, he and his cat are okay, and are staying at his Mom's house.

julie said...

Thanks for the update, although the news is so terrible. God be with them.

julie said...

Just checking in with you Godwins this morning; you're in our prayers.

julie said...

If there's anything anyone out here can do to help, please let us know.

ted said...

Julie: Just started reading this thread. My prayers are out for Bob and his family. Hopefully we'll know more soon.

robinstarfish said...

Something prompted me to check in today. The fire's proximity hadn't occurred to me. You and your family are in our thoughts and prayers today, Bob. So sorry to hear about Gerard's home.

julie said...

I was checking their address on a map of affected areas. Their neighborhood is right in the midst of the area hit by the Woolsey fire. Until we hear more from Bob or Mrs. G, please pray.

Gagdad Bob said...

The good news: I don't have any first world problems. The bad news: only third world problems.

I'd like to think the house made it, but there's no way to know at this point. Seven houses directly around the corner were burnt to the ground, plus several others in the neighborhood. It was surreal seeing it on TV.

We stayed in one motel a couple of days -- straight out of No Country for Old Men -- and are now in another. We were so lucky to find places that would take dogs!

Overall, I'd rate being a refugee with being stuck in an airport terminal. No, it's worse. The TV in the lobby has MSNBC instead of CNN.


ted said...

Bob: Glad to hear you and the family are safe and sound! Of course, my warped sense of humor made me think to myself, "I hope he saved the books." And you're in good company with Lady Gaga and Kanye, but with shittier temporary accommodations. Let's hope the house made it through okay, while sending out prayers to those who have not fared so well.

Van Harvey said...

Wo...! Bob, if you want to get really far from the fires, we've got a couple spare rooms in St. Louis. And Ted, I thought about the books too. :-)

julie said...

I hope your house does make it through. The one good thing about a hurricane is that usually, you have at least a couple of days to gather your stuff and flee. A fire is not nearly so polite. Again, if there's anything people can do to help, let us know.

Gagdad Bob said...

Oh, we had time. I just ignored the authorities. Which I've always done in the past. Leslie & Tristan left, but I stayed the first night, and by morning, it looked to me like the worst was over, so I went to work. But once you leave, you can't get back in.

That's why it bothered me to see my authority-defying neighbors on TV protecting their property -- I should be there with them! Although I think the smoke may have driven me out by now, not to mention the lack of electricity. Probably would have run out of food as well.

Still no way to find out if the house made it. If it's gone, my plan is to adopt the whole Buddhist sand-painting attitude toward it. What else can you do?

Gagdad Bob said...

And if the house survived, I'm worried I'll never get the smoke smell out of my books. Or dude sweater.

julie said...

If the house is gone, not a thing you can do about it but carry on. Not that it's much comfort, you do discover how little you really need in life. In some ways, it is liberating. Horrible, horrible freedom!

As to the smoke smell, yeah, that's never coming out. The whole place will carry the whiff of inferno for probably weeks or months. If you need any book replacements, you're always welcome to raid my library. It's not much, but at least some of it is stuff you've recommended over the years so might be worthwhile.

We're glad you made it out. Your family can live without the stuff, but they'd really be lost without you.

Gagdad Bob said...

Thank you for the support. We're still living in Schrodinger's House, although I just heard in the press conference that only nine homes have burned in Calabasas, and I'm pretty sure I know which ones. Still, today looks pretty hairy with the winds, plus the fire is a few miles directly to the northeast of us right now. To paraphrase and extend the remarks of the Gentlemen from Queens,, I'd really like to be sedated for a few days and wake up when it's over. Hell, I'm in Santa Monica. Maybe I can buy some fentanyl on the beach....

Anonymous said...

Sorry about your circumstances, Dr. Godwin. Your attitude is admirable, demonstrating you can talk the talk, AND walk the walk.

Here's hoping your abode awaits your return, intact.

Regards, Professor X-D

Allena Conrad said...

I hope and pray your house is still intact, Bob and Leslie, and that this nightmare ends soon.
Please stay safe and God bless and watch over you all amd Gerard.

Gagdad Bob said...

Around the corner from me.

julie said...

Man, that's just devastating.

Van Harvey said...

Wo.

robinstarfish said...

Damn, a modern Pompeii. And now I suppose looters are a concern.

Gagdad Bob said...

People in the hotel keep asking if I'm a refugee. I guess that's what I get for packing one shirt.

Gagdad Bob said...

20% of the fire is contained. In other other words, the Pacific Ocean is holding firm.

julie said...

Listening to news today, I wondered how long it'll take until the fire reaches the ocean. Crazy. Any word on when they might start letting you go back home, assuming you can?

Gagdad Bob said...

No word. The whole thing is being badly mismanaged by various government agencies, from the governor on down.

Gagdad Bob said...

I used to like Santa Monica, but haven't been here much in the last three decades. I just took a walk, and everywhere I went reminded me of somewhere I've seen someone murdered in a movie. And I want to say the bums will never win, Mr. Lebowski, but the place is crawling with them. As in San Francisco, the celebration of vagrancy poses a health-threatening level of virtue signaling.

julie said...

That bad? Disappointing. We had thought to take the kids down there sometime, just because. Seems like California is like that almost everywhere now.

I'm glad we're here, but that's not to say we don't see how royally f'ed up things are.

Gagdad Bob said...

People just don't look the same anymore, especially in a place as far left as Santa Monica. What an aesthetically challenged generation! Plus they're all hunched over their phones -- I saw people doing this on bicycles, on electric scooters, in the jacuzzi, while walking along the boardwalk. Hideous rap music blaring on the beach, the smell of ganja everywhere. Three and four year old children looking catatonically at their screens. I don't see us coming back from what we've done to ourselves. Oh well. Western civilization had a good run.

I really had the feeling of being a foreigner here -- that this is how they've made the city, and this is how they want it. We had a Republican governor as recently as 2011, but never again.

On the positive side, the evacuation for our neighborhood was just lifted.

Van Harvey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Van Harvey said...

God loves good comedy. Unfortunately, all good comedy, is tragedy, soOo....

Sad.

ted said...

Cities have become playgrounds for wealthy lefties. Families are no longer welcome. Communities have become virtual and ephemeral. I agree Bob, I don't see how we come back from this. As I get older, I am more drawn to Dreher's Benedict Option (but maybe not exactly the way he paints it).

julie said...

I don't see us coming back from what we've done to ourselves. Oh well. Western civilization had a good run.

At some point, it ceases to be a question of turning back, but rather a question of how to continue moving forward. I've been noticing a lot of young men these days are quite aware of how things really are. Perhaps a lifetime of being told you're what's wrong with the world is having a negative impact. These men give me hope; the real issue is, will they be able to find women worth marrying and having children with? Serious question these days, as the young women I know are a fairly mixed bag.

Here inland, our church has been interesting. We have a priest who seems unabashedly orthodox: he frequently encourages fasting, noted that young priests coming up are becoming quite conservative (and thinks that's a good thing!), and recently encouraged people to marry and have big families.

There are sparks of hope here and there. Whatever happens, there will always be a remnant.

Anonymous said...

I wish more than anything that I could go back to that childhood time when all of my family and neighbors were normal appearing and decent Christians, staunch believers in Jesus’ teachings, The American Way, a strong sense of community, and Rule of Law. But those days are gone. If you really want to go back, then study up on what worked back in that golden age between 1945 and 1977.

The “Century of the Self” series, studies of neoliberalism and the Law of Oligarchy should explain the differences more accurately than any “enemy” caricatures can. We're all complicit in this... thing.

Anonymous said...

Things ain't the way they used to be.....the optimist will naturally note the negatives and set about contemplating the positives.

What is good these days? Everyone is hunched over their electronics, so there must be something savory on those screens. We all have our internet hobbies and so forth, which can be seen as enhancing quality of life.

I think there is more and better restaurant food as compared to days of yore. TV programming is definitely better, with more good shows.

There is more and better ganja, if that is your thing.

Yoga pants and other casual feminine apparel make life more comfortable for women, and create better viewing and ogling for men.

Well....I'll keep working on the list. It's a challenge, I'll admit.