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.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Liberal Limits on the Limitless Reason of the Left

"Liberalism and democracy, although compatible, are not the same. The first is concerned with the extent of governmental power, the second with who holds the power" (Hayek).

Obviously, real liberalism is much more vital to our liberty than is mere democracy. Indeed, democracy can as easily erode liberty as any other form of tyranny. Liberalism is only protected by principles; or, to put it another way, it is not grounded in the demos but in the principial realm, which is timeless, universal, and ultimately God-given: we are endowed with certain (super)natural rights which it is the purpose of government to secure.

Teleocracy. I thought I made it up, but it's actually a real word. I was about to say that our system of government is a teleocracy, in the sense that it has the goal of protecting and extending liberty, but so too is every leftist tyranny a teleocracy, in that they have the goal of undermining liberty and imposing equality. So it's a neither here nor thereword.

In any event, notice what's been going on with our illiberal left: since its authoritarian designs are being frustrated by our liberal order, it has taken to making crude, demogogic appeals to "democracy" -- for example, abolition of the electoral college, or delegitimizing the senate, or the latest whining point cooked up by the children of Vox -- that Americans aren't prepared "for the crisis that will follow if Democrats win the House popular vote but not the majority."

In other words, if our liberal system works as it supposed to work and has always worked, it is a crisis. Why is it a crisis? Because -- follow me here -- it will have limited the power of those who wish to extend the power of the state to limit our rights and liberties. The bottom line is that -- of course -- "a democratic government may be totalitarian and that an authoritarian government may act on liberal principles" (ibid).

I know this because I live in California. Yesterday, for example, our obedient NPCitizens voted by a wide margin to maintain a highly regressive gasoline tax in what is already the most heavily taxed state -- and with the highest poverty rate -- in the union. And of course we re-elected Diane Feinstein, who, in order to maintain political viability, made it a special project of hers to assassinate a judge.

But Hayek goes deeper into our political differences, writing that illiberal leftism and conservative classical liberalism "rest on altogether different philosophical foundations."

Of course, I would go too far and suggest that they are grounded in different metaphysical sources -- ultimately heaven and hell (or O and Ø) -- but let's stick with Hayek's more sober understanding: that genuine liberalism "is based on an evolutionary interpretation" (emphasis mine) which recognizes "the limits of the powers of the human reason."

Let's stop right there, because his point is somewhat orthoparadoxical: science and reason have allowed us to gain insight into the evolutionary process, but a deep understanding of evolution requires us to appreciate the limits of science and reason. If reason and science are limitless, then they enclose us in a kind of ultimate ignorance that the left uses as an ultimate control.

It's the difference between the reasonable use of reason vs. a tyrannical and totalitarian use of it. Evolution itself can be liberating or stifling, depending upon whether we see it as an open or closed system.

For example, no one "invented" our free market system. Rather, it evolved spontaneously as a result of a rule of law that placed limits on government interference. Only after the system was well underway did people consciously reflect upon it and give it a name: the "free market," or "capitalism." The main point is that the system not only evolved spontaneously, but never could have been created by conscious intent.

But don't tell that to the left: it is rooted in what Hayek calls "constructivist rationalism," a manmade intellectual system that "leads to the treatment of all cultural phenomena as the product of deliberate design" and insists "that it is both possible and desirable to reconstruct all [evolved] institutions in accordance with a preconceived plan." Again, notice how this encases us in the tyrannical pseudo-reason of the left.

There are further important distinctions: genuine liberalism evolves in the context of tradition, which itself was invented over thousands of years by Nobody and Everybody, the living and the dead, male and female, parent and child, group and individual, God and man. Conversely, leftism "is contemptuous of tradition because it regards an independently existing reason as capable of designing civilization."

Think, for example, of marriage, which is one of those things that was designed by no one and everyone. The left thinks it can fundamentally redefine and alter it with a top-down imposition of its own desiccated reason. But this new thing -- whatever it is -- will be no more real than, say, vitamins abstracted from the food with which man has evolved. No one can live on vitamins. And the spirit of man cannot live and breathe in the creations of the left. For proof, look at what has happened to academia and the arts.

Conservative classical liberalism "is a modest creed, relying on abstraction as the only available means to extend the limited powers of reason," whereas leftism "refuses to recognize any such limits and believes that reason alone can prove the desirability of particular concrete arrangements."

Which is why genuine liberalism is not only compatible with religion, but "has often been held and even been developed by men holding strong religious beliefs," while the anti-American kind "has always been antagonistic to all religion and politically in constant conflict" with it (except for those religions that undermine our tradition, such as Islam).

Time out for aphorisms that approach the subject from different angles -- most of which you've heard before but are always worth remumbling and remembering:

None of the high eras of history have been planned. The reformer can only be credited with the errors.

The progressive believes that everything soon turns obsolete except his ideas.

Progress finally comes down to stealing from man what ennobles him, in order to sell to him at a cheap price what debases him.

The political platforms of the left are gradually transformed into scaffolds.

Let us preserve in any institution the “defects” that the modern mentality denounces. They are the last air holes.

For the left the constitution is a shameful attack on the sovereignty of the people.

Dying societies accumulate laws like dying men accumulate medicines.

Hell is the place where man finds all his projects realized.


The excess of laws emasculates. For proof I give you California, home of the Geld Rush.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Centralized Stupidity, AKA the State

Four or five invulnerable philosophical propositions allow us to make fun of the rest. --Dávila

Hayek begins an essay called Principles and Expediency with the following quote:

The frequent recurrence to fundamental principles is absolutely necessary to preserve the blessings of liberty.

Now, the opposite of principle is what? It might be arbitrariness, or expediency, or unscrupulousness, or opportunism, each eroding and undermining freedom in its own way.

For example, there can be no enduring freedom in an arbitrary world; in fact, not even any real knowledge. Arbitrariness must be one of the primary attributes of hell. With no rock solid principles, there is no possibility of gaining a cognitive foothold with which to climb up and out.

And expediency has to do with some immediate gain or interest. I suppose it is guided by a telos, but a very near term one -- for example, dashing out of a restaurant without paying. I wonder how many people avoid doing that for fear of punishment, vs. how many due to principle? If everyone were guided by principle, then we'd need no law against it.

Remember what Sherif Bell said in yesterday's post: "It takes very little to govern good people. Very little. And bad people cant be governed at all. Or if they could I never heard of it." So, the less principle, the more law. And law can erode principle, because then you only avoid certain unprincipled choices for fear of being caught; or, you conflate morality with being law-abiding.

For Hayek, human beings require a condition of liberty in order to utilize what they know in order to accomplish what they want. This may sound simplistic, but the implications are vast and far-reaching. For it means that knowledge is not only not centralized, but cannot be centralized. Nevertheless, this hardly stops governments from trying.

But what do they end up centralizing? That's right: stupidity. And what is coerced stupidity? Yes, the theft of liberty: you are forced to do something stupid, and forbidden to do what you know best how to do.

Socialism would be so easy if only omniscience were possible: if the state possessed all the relevant knowledge, then it would just be a matter of logic and logistics. The concession to "liberty" would simply be a confession that there's something we don't know. But if the state knows what to do and how to do it, then liberty just gets in the way. Which is why socialism and liberty are not just incompatible, but opposites.

Liberals like to think of themselves as rational and scientific, but liberalism itself (the modern kind, not the real thing) is founded upon a total lack thereof: it is literally attempting the impossible: "knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess."

It is literally the case -- orthoparadoxically -- that civilization depends upon respect for and maintenance of ignorance, even more than knowledge. You might say that the less we know, the more we (i.e., civilization) know. In other words, knowledge is increasingly distributed as a result of the division of labor. What if the maintenance of our complex civilian were dependent upon what you or I know? It would instantly grind to a halt. As Whitehead wrote,

It is a profoundly erroneous truism... that we should cultivate the habit of thinking what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.

It is remarkable in this context to consider all the long-settled questions that the left is forcing us to rethink, from free speech to marriage to the constitution. It's like having go go back and justify sense perception, or logic, or language. Which I suppose they also want us to do.

Again, in one sense, political liberty is just the state's concession that knowledge is dispersed and omniscience is impossible. This is a scientific conclusion, but the science is quite different from that which applies to the study of nature. The complex system of a spontaneous order is not at all analogous to a linear system with machine-like properties.

If civilization were a linear system, then central planning would indeed be conceivable. To paraphrase Thomas Sowell, all economies are planned. The question is who does the planning, the individual or the state? I could make myself a bitter man if I dwelled on all the things I could do with the money I end up throwing at the state because it knows better how to spend it.

there is beyond question a body of very important but unorganized knowledge which cannot possibly be called scientific in the sense of general rules: the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place.

And how is this particularized knowledge of time and place rapidly coordinated? Yes, through the mechanism of price. Which is why those areas of the economy most unhinged from economic reality are those that are most interfered with by the state: medical care, college, and housing.

For example, we only know what it costs to attend this or that college. But we have no idea of the price, since the price mechanism is not permitted to function. Suffice it to say that when the state gets involved, the cost is always more than the price would have been.

Think, for example, of the layers of useless diversocrats that add to the cost of attending college. You can't put a price on them. Literally. If you did, you would immediately discover that they're worthless, because people would choose a college that avoids the cost of employing them.

I don't want to say "to be continued," because in a way I haven't even started.

Monday, November 05, 2018

There's Nothing Like a Principle

As you might have noticed from the sidebar, I've been delving into a lot of Hayek lately. I'd read his more popular broadsides such as The Road to Serfdom, The Fatal Conceit, and others, plus a lot of secondary literature, but never dug down into the weeds.

Of course, I have to skip over any weeds with numbers, math being hard and all. But the great majority of his works have no forbidding equations at all, just relentless logic and deadly (to the left) common sense.

He has rapidly risen to the top of the ranks of my go-to guys, which include Schuon and Dávila and not too many others. Why those three? One word: principles. The way I'm built, I just love timeless and universal principles that tie the cosmos together. Isn't this what we all want? Isn't the mind designed to know and cherish timeless principles? Yes. Which raises the question: if the mind is created to know principles, why do so many people ignore or reject them?

We'll leave aside the question of why some people are so beholden to bad principles. Like Anton:

He's a peculiar man. You could even say that he has principles. Principles that transcend money or drugs or anything like that.

Others will violate any principle for the sake of their One Big Principle. You know, leftists. But if the principle leads them to violate all principles, is it really a principle? Shouldn't the principial world hold together like an organic tapestry?

One of the appeals of principles is their simplicity, like truth itself. Sheriff Bell:

I think the truth is always simple. It has pretty much got to be. It needs to be simple enough for a child to understand. Otherwise it'd be too late. By the time you figured it out it would be too late.

That's an excellent point. You can spend your life searching for wisdom. Supposing you find it. Then you're an old man. What are you going to do with it? You can't go back and live your life with it the way it should have been lived all along.

D'oh! Isn't there a shortcut -- say, a body of wisdom you can use to guide your life, while at the same time checking it out for its veracity? You know, like taking it on faith at first, but verifying it as you go along?

We're talking about wisdom here, not mere knowledge. Wisdom is practical knowledge, ultimately of how to live. And you'd think Hayek -- a secular man -- wouldn't have much to say about that, only it turns out he's a better defender of tradition than most traditionalists: he gets not only its content but its function, which is actually the more important. Yes, the Function of Tradition. Good idea for a post.

Hayek, defender of the faith:

[O]ur morals endow us with capacities greater than our reason could do, namely the ability to adapt to conditions of which the individual mind could never be aware. It seems to me that what is called the "collective mind" of the group is nothing but the common moral tradition of its members, something different from and autonomous of the individual reasons, though of course constantly interacting with them.

Faith-Reason, or Wisdom-Learning, in a ceaseless dialectic. Why would you want to reinvent a wheel that man discovered 3,500 (pick a number) years ago and has been perfecting ever since? Good luck. You probably won't get it right, but supposing you do, By the time you figured it out it would be too late. Not just too late for you: too late for mankind, which will have destroyed itself in the meantime.

Let's take a bit of obvious wisdom from our tradition: get married and don't have children out of wedlock. Human sexuality is not animal sexuality. It is ultimately a sacred gift. And fatherhood -- a spiritual and not animal category -- is the basis of civilization.

Well, we've been systematically ignoring that wisdom for over half a century now, some communities more than others. What are the consequences?

I don't even have the time to explicate them. But notice as well that when you have jettisoned the principles, you no longer have them to illuminate and guide the psyche. Once you have plunged into relativity, you can't lift yourself out of the swamp by grasping on to some nonlocal principle. They're all gone. You killed them. Thus, if you are a feminist, there is no cure for feminism from within feminism; there is no cure for leftism within the left; there is no cure for tyranny once the Constitution means anything you want it to mean.

So now we have an abundance of mental illness, criminality, government dependency, and all-around dysfunction. What to do? I know: more leftism! Here we see the absurcularity of the left, in that it is the default solution to the problems it inevitably generates. Truly, it is the disease it purports to cure.

But it is ultimately a disease of principles, to get back to our main subject. "The rules of morality are not the conclusions of our reason." That being the case, if you have a principle to the effect that you will only adhere to what can be explicitly proved with reason, then you will thereby have plunged into -- well, not just unreasonableness, but anti-reason:

the tradition of moral rules contains adaptations to circumstances in our environment which are not accessible by individual observation or not perceptible by reason, and our morals are therefore a human equipment that is not only a creation of reason, but in some respects superior to it because it contains guides to human action which reason alone could never have discovered or justified....

The bottom line: "the value of traditional morals as an autonomous equipment is unintelligible to those intellectuals who are committed to to a strict rationalism or positivism." Any intellectual who "denies the acceptability of beliefs founded on anything but experience and reasoning" -- or clams that all true knowledge is a narrowly construed scientific knowledge -- such a person "must reject traditional ethics as irrational" and is thereby lost in the cosmos, plunged into the amoral darkness of chaos and tenure.

They will of course see the social consequences of their ideas -- for who can miss them? -- but blame Trump, or Russia, or White Privilege, or the Patriarchy, or Corporate Greed, anything but the actual causes.

A couple days ago I saw a remarkable missive by Ms. Occluded Cortex -- a variation on the theme that those who are traumatized by the less-then-monstrous themselves become monsters:

Six days from now, we can defeat the brutal white supremacist forces of anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant nativism, and racism. We can hold accountable the cold-hearted monsters [that's you] who have repeatedly attacked our health care.

[This is] our chance to push back against white supremacist forces across our nation, against the xenophobes who are militarizing the border, against the bigots who seek to erase our transgender families, against the apologists for sexual assault and the Islamophobes who sow hate to divide us...

We can send a message to the bigots and billionaires that this country belongs to all of us.

That is what you call a mind destroyed by hatred and ignorance. How did it get that way? Ironically, she calls herself Catholic. She's also an appallingly bad writer. Prepare to wince:

Christ came to me emblazoned on the upper arm of my beloved cousin Marc. The blue-black ink danced between the bullet scars and stretch marks that graced my cousin’s upper body. Atop this crown-of-thorns depiction was a tattooed banner with the phrase “Only God Can Judge Me.”

Well. Yes and no. Although God is the ultimate judge, there is nothing in Christianity that says we should abolish the criminal justice system and allow ourselves to be ruled by thugs. Christianity is not a suicide pact. But we'll leave that to the side.

Marc -- like several men in my family -- had been caught in the webbed threads of poverty, geography and lack of opportunity during the fever pitch of 1990s mass incarceration. Baggy-pant boys like him fit the descriptions of “super-predators” and “thugs” that dominated our national discourse at the time.

Oh. I get it. He didn't make any bad choices. Probably didn't even have free will. Rather, he was passively "caught" in various webbed threads of discourse about crime and whatnot.

I'm suffocating in bullshit. Time out for some homey wisdom from Sheriff Bell:

It takes very little to govern good people. Very little. And bad people cant be governed at all. Or if they could I never heard of it.

Or this:

These old people I talk to, if you could of told em that there would be people on the streets of our Texas towns with green hair and bones in their noses speakin a language they couldnt even understand, well, they just flat out wouldnt of believed you. But what if you'd of told em it was their own grandchildren?

Hell, what if you told em these surreal folks is now runnin congress as of this Tuesday?