My Path Out From Intellectual Nihilism

For a good long time, I believed that the truth was unknowable, or at least unknown, and that the scholarly effort, was only really of value insofar as it illustrated this fact. It might well be worthwhile to pretend to play the academic game at one time or another, for practical social purposes, but the enterprise as a whole was just humanity trying to deceive itself into forgetting its enormous and unbounded ignorance — and nothing else.

There were two or three main factors that helped me feel my way out of a trap that looked initially inescapable.

The first was the Great Courses. As I began to listen to some of the offerings of the Teaching Company, and especially as I began to listen to different courses by different professors that overlapped and discussed the same content, I began to feel some hope. The professors definitely had minor disagreements with one another or with the consensus of their field, but it was also impressive to me how much agreement they had on fine details, and the robust arguments and appropriate humility they displayed in making the case for their conclusions.

The second was the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. A professor recommended it as a trustworthy resource, so I began reading around in its many articles. Again, it impressed me to see how agreements were explained and how disagreements were set in context.

And the third, which came somewhat later but still has made a great impression on me, is exercise and nutrition science. It’s something that’s been of interest as I’ve tried to improve my health over the past half a decade. Nutrition in particular is famous for being full of contradictions, disagreements, inconsistencies and misinformation. And so it was astonishing to discover again how much agreement there actually is on questions relating to how to improve health or increase strength.

What’s been especially remarkable about health and nutrition questions is that it’s easy to see the science reflected in real life. I take comfort knowing that experts agree on plenty of things about the ancient Greeks, but I can’t exactly check to find out if they’re right or wrong. On the other hand, when I change my eating I can see the effects in how I look, how I feel, what I’m able to do, and what the doctor says at my annual physical. Believing that there is truth to be found in the realm of health and nutrition can lead to vastly different outcomes than shrugging and assuming that no one knows the truth, or that every perspective represents bids for power and doesn’t get us closer to truth. I didn’t list a resource for this point as I did for the previous two, but Michael Matthews of Legion Athletics and Bigger, Leaner, Stronger was an early influence for me, and Michael Greger of and How Not to Die has been an important guide for me in recent years.

My distrust of reason’s capacity stayed with me longer than I thought it did. Long after I believed I had cast it off, it was still overshadowing me. Over time, though, I think I have largely found my way out of the labyrinth, and I am so glad.

Is Leo Strauss really all about moderation?

The way some people talk, you’d think that Leo Strauss’s political thought is all but equivalent to a praise of moderation.

And of course there’s an element of truth in this. I always have a sense that if a large number of people, especially a large number of relatively intelligent people, are all convinced of a thing, there must be some truth behind it, even if in the last analysis it obscures more than it reveals.

At the same time, it’s possible to read hundreds of pages of Strauss’s most important books without moderation ever appearing as an important theme. There are numerous other themes that would come up, which with greater or lesser difficulty could be boiled down to a word or a short phrase, and moderation as some kind of binding principle might hardly get a glance.

Truly, moderation is something he praises, and it shows up at key moments in some important discussions. So I’m not trying to deny that. There’s certainly a place for it in Strauss’s thought.

But when I think back on all the Strauss I’ve read over the last couple years, I just have a very strong impression that the people who are always trumpeting Straussian moderation are, whether knowingly or unknowingly, at least seriously distorting Strauss’s thought.

One question frequently lurking in the background of Strauss’s thought and the thought of his students is, what is the difference between the legitimate political regime and a gang of robbers? After the way we are accustomed to hearing people speak about Strauss, we might expect moderation to appear as a leading contender for the answer to that question, or at least a major part of it. Offhand, I can’t think of anyplace in Strauss’s writing where this is the case; but I’m happy to be corrected if I’m wrong about that.

This is just a vague impression, thinking back over my reading of Strauss, not backed up by any sort of thorough textual argumentation, clearly. But when the question occurred to me just now, the answer that I gave was surprisingly full of conviction. There is a real discrepancy between what many Straussians say about the place of moderation in Strauss’s account of the political, and what Strauss actually says about the political.

German, Greek, English reading

I’ve talked before and out how Greek and Germans have surprised me by ending up being two of the languages I’m most excited to learn.

It seems possible at this point that unless my life takes a sharp turn sometime in the next couple years, I could be reading primary texts in Greek and German and Latin within a few years. I was thinking about that the other day, and a vision of my future sprang up before me.

What I’ll do with Greek is probably what I’ve already long imagined reading in Greek. I’ll have a canon of some dozen authors and slowly read through them, and once I finish I’ll start over again. The list will include, off the top of my head, writers like Homer, Hesiod, Herodotus, Plato, Xenophon, Isocrates, Aristotle, Demosthenes, a range of dramatists, Thucydides, probably Epictetus.

I had a new idea about German. What if I looked up which German authors were most influential on Kant, and read through those chronologically, before spending some time studying Kant? And then after that I’ll look up who was influential on Hegel and work through those authors (the ones I haven’t already encountered) chronologically, and then I’ll study Hegel in German? And then I’ll do the same thing for Marx. And then …

At around the same time, it might be interesting to dive into some older English writing. Shakespeare, Bacon, Hobbes, maybe Locke, Hume, etc.

The German and the English projects I’m envisioning will also provide me with a list of late scholastic and early modern Latin works that will give me an interesting outlet for my Latin reading habit.

Is this exactly what my reading project will look like in a few years? Probably not exactly. But I’m hopeful that it will be somewhat along these lines. My dream seems to have been pretty consistent over a couple years, so that makes me cautiously hopeful. But first, the ongoing hard work of learning the languages, of course. Wish me luck!

Another attempt at explaining my thoughts on the right

Last week I gave a couple posts talking about why I am (and why I’m NOT) in some ways inclined toward the right end of the political spectrum. I’ve thought of another way to speak about it that builds on what I said before.

Let’s start by assuming that all of us ultimately, deep down inside, want both a perfect state and a tyranny. When we think about politics in the abstract then we wish society would be the best it could possibly be. When we’re thinking about our own selfish desires and the way they are restrained by the political community, and when we’re being completely honest with ourselves, there’s some part of us that wishes we could be living in a tyranny of which we are the ruler.

In reality, though, both of those outcomes are vanishingly rare. So we have to agree with everyone else to live in one of a few other possible setups.

One possibility is what the classics called “democracy,” which is to say, equality, diversity, maximal liberty. Plato placed this one just above tyranny, in the list of regimes (in which tyranny is the worst), and suggested it might be the one most likely to transform into tyranny. To me it seems that this vision is the one defended by the modern left, including the radical left. (I know that will initially sound wrong to some, but hear me out.)

Another possibility is the rule of money — what the classics called oligarchy. Now, the centre-right might use the language of equality and liberty and democracy, but what they’re really fighting for is the victory of wealth, as I think should be clear with little reflection. There are moments when I get the attraction of this one, and certainly there are good arguments to be made for its usefulness. On a fundamental level, though, this is the one I find most repellant, most ignoble. Probably this is the closest to what we are currently living in.

Another possibility is what Plato in the Republic speaks of as timocracy. This is the rule of the honourable, the heroic, the war-like. Plato speaks of this regime as being the closest one, among the realistically possible options, to the best state. It is the one most conducive to a virtuous citizenry, of the available possibilities. It seems to me that this vision is the one taken up on the reactionary right, and only there.

And out of the available options, that is the one which speaks to me the most. Today’s right has many problems, but I can’t quite see that deeply unfortunate fact as a refutation of the right as a whole. What I am attracted to is not the right as it exists, but an idealized version of it, I admit. But I think there will always be a part of me that is more at home in that ideological corner than the other available options, even as I recognize both its actual and its theoretical shortcomings.

Rules for reasonably discussing conspiracy theories

I’ll probably forget that I put this here, but I feel as if I’d like to have something like this on file somewhere, so that I can send a link to the next person who wants to convince me that the governments and universities and media corporations of the world are out to get us in one way or another. You really want to have a conversation about it? Okay, maybe I can be persuaded, but here’s what we need to agree on first.

Rule number one! Correlation does not mean causation. Can we agree on that much, to begin? From this starting point, we can ask good questions and ascend in quality of proof toward being increasingly more confident of causality in a given case. But without question, just because two things happen together that doesn’t mean we automatically know which one caused the other, or how, etc.

And the second one is like it. Anecdote isn’t evidence. Anecdote can be helpful when it illuminates what we know from evidence, or if it gets us asking good questions — but it’s not evidence. Why? See point number one.

The burden of proof is always on the scientific minority. Sorry, but that’s the rule. Maybe your guy really is the next Einstein, but until he’s able to do what Einstein did and prove his ideas to the scientific community, I will try to hold back my adulation. Certainly there are minority views that will turn out to be correct! And if they are mature, they will accept the rightful burden of proof and do unimpeachable work to satisfy it.

Unexplained isn’t unexplainable, and in particular, one’s own ignorance proves nothing at all. The fact that you don’t know something is impressive to absolutely nobody, so don’t go brandishing the fact around as if it means something. And the fact that scientists don’t yet know or agree on a thing is likewise proof of nothing, as you would surely know if you weren’t so invested in getting the answer you want at any price.

Seek out the best disproof of your own view, if you’re really confident in it. Scientific progress doesn’t happen by people looking for ways to confirm their ideas. It comes from looking for ways to disprove your argument and then seeing if you’re able to do so. If it turns out that your argument is designed to be unfalsifiable, then that’s maybe a clue about whether you’re engaging in science or in pseudoscience.

Ad hominem goes both ways. I admit it: you’re technically correct when you say that even though you got your information from really questionable sources, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s untrue. If we’re granting you that, though, you need to do the right thing and not reject out of hand everything from mainstream media and government sources and peer reviewed scholarship. The fact that it’s reputable and reliable doesn’t mean it’s necessarily false. Okay?

Argument between non-specialists might be fun but it amounts to nothing. Let’s keep in mind that at best in this argument we’re looking for victory, for convincing the other person or reducing the other person to incoherence. We are not the correct venue for judging the truth of the matter. Let’s not pretend we are. Who is victorious, won’t tell us anything about who is right. Make sure you understand these terms before you start your disputation, and think about whether it’s really worth it to you!

A proper discussion will probably have to play out slowly over months, and will involve both people agreeing to read carefully through a few of the best available resources, to discuss. If you’re not willing to put even that much effort in, you honestly have no business opining to anybody.

Anger actually does make you less smart, and usually the people around you too. It actually does. Try to be less angry. It’s not a good look. Don’t be too embarrassed to ask for a break to cool down, if you need; it makes you look grown up.

Bonus: If you really want to convince me and you’re as certain of your grasp of the evidence and the relevant field as you claim you are, then you should definitely stop wasting your energy talking to a moron like me and instead publish in a peer-reviewed journal and convince them, your true peers (or inferiors, to hear you tell it) in the scholarly community. Get them on side, which shouldn’t be at all difficult for someone as knowledgeable as you. I will be the first person in line to apologize and to thank you for your contribution to human knowledge. I mean that sincerely.

What does resonate with me on the right

Although I’m attracted to ideas and attitudes on the left and on the right (and, occasionally, in the centre), I tend to see myself as fitting ultimately more on the right than anywhere else on the ideological spectrum. But it can be hard to say exactly why. In this couple of posts I’m not so much trying to make a case for anything, as I am to examine myself, to try to articulate something of what I believe about the world of politics and ideology, and at least to gesture vaguely in the direction of why I am attracted to these views. (See my write up from last week about what things I find least compelling on the right.)

Again, I should say that this is not intended to be comprehensive, and I’m sure in a conversation I would probably want to nuance the things I’m about to say endlessly. But when I think of the big picture, what I find inspiring or intriguing on the right falls largely into the following topics.

The original one for me was probably the religious aspect. My faith has always been an important part of who I am, and so it has always impacted my views of politics. And I think that’s natural, almost inevitable, if you really are firmly rooted in your faith.

I have friends who are of an anabaptist persuasion, who think that faith and politics should be kept firmly apart, on religious grounds, and who bring that belief of theirs very strongly to bear on their political views. They don’t say, “well I think faith and politics shouldn’t mix, but if the Conservative leadership candidate wants a theocracy then who am I to judge? That’s just politics, and my religious views shouldn’t be concerned about that.” No, ironically, they believe that faith and politics should be kept apart because they think that’s what Jesus wanted and so they passionately assert and feel that the government is evil if it doesn’t agree with their religious conviction on this matter and consistently act in agreement with them.

And actually, that’s pretty much where I started out. Taking my faith seriously led me, as a teenager and young adult, to be attracted to more socialistic views of government and the economy. I now would say that the view of the Christian faith I held at the time was in some ways a little bit marcionite, a little bit gnostic, a bit too supersessionist. Taking seriously the challenge of the theology of the Old Testament in my young adulthood led me to reconsider my Christian understanding of politics, which in turn led me, not so much away from the left, perhaps, but at least toward reconsidering some theoretical portion of the right. For instance:

Hierarchy is also a concept that draws me. I don’t want to overstate this. I wouldn’t want all of society to be a command structure of some sort. But I’m not opposed to hierarchy, and I believe that some hierarchy is and always will be necessary to promote good and, even more, to prevent bad things from happening. And it goes beyond that for me, too. Hierarchy isn’t just a necessary evil. It can certainly be used badly, and so part of a well-designed hierarchy will involve ways for the lower rungs to defend against caprice.

But honestly, I feel a bit torn about hierarchy. I think that in some ways, hierarchy should be minimalistic. There should be as little of it as possible, and even what has to exist should generally be invoked as sparingly as possible. I think those are probably just hallmarks of a good and functional hierarchical organization. And yet, when it does rightly exist, and when it is rightly invoked by the person in authority and assented to by the person under authority for the good of the whole, to me that is not a necessary evil, not an evil at all, but rather something almost sacramental. It’s a means of grace, a way the goodness of God is suffused through the world.

This third point might be a bit of a funny one for anyone who knows me, but I appreciate the portion of the right that glorifies health and strength and vitality. Before going any further, I need to say that for me (though certainly not for all, I recognize), it seems to be both possible and desirable to celebrate strength without at the same time denigrating weakness or illness or difference. (I’ll circle back around in a moment to say how I think we can best do both simultaneously.)

I’ve thought long and hard about why this aspect of the right is appealing to me. I think ultimately, the appeal comes down to two things: this aspect of the right is an embrace of reality against falsehood, and an acceptance of teleology against a mechanistic instrumentalism, both of which are attractive to me. Striving for health and strength is striving to be the best form of oneself, and I can’t help respecting that. Perhaps by saying those things it will sound like I’m begging the question, but what I mean might become more clear when I talk about why I don’t think it’s necessary to degrade weakness in admiring strength.

It’s possible to speak of health and strength as a relative thing. I listened to an interview the other day with someone who’s a Type 1 diabetic. Health for him will never mean exactly what it means for me. And yet this guy, who could have let his health condition be a barrier or a reason to give up, is more fit, athletic, strong, and in many ways, more healthy than I am! A person without the use of a limb will similarly never have all the physical capacities of a person who can use all limbs, but within that one person’s existence there is a range of possibilities for how strong or healthy it is possible to be.

Thus, to speak of strength, for example, will always mean speaking relative to the situation of the person. It also can be temporally relative; the person who isn’t in peak condition but who has made great progress over the past couple years has a claim to be proud as well. And I actually think the things I’ve just been saying would generally not be all that controversial on the right.

I guess the question then becomes, what about those who are unhealthy or weak and are really responsible for it? I think the best response I see on the right takes two forms. For those who ruefully admit that a lack of knowledge or motivation has kept them from making progress toward better health etc, there is camaraderie, patient encouragement, a nonjudgmental offer of help. For those who insist that it’s not really better to make healthy choices, I think there’s a difference of opinion that could lead to a thoughtful discussion, from which both sides can learn and try to nuance how they articulate their own views … although these days, of course, such a best case scenario doesn’t seem to happen all that often.

Not unrelated, there is a militaristic tradition of thought on the right that I can’t deny being sympathetic to. I say that as someone with absolutely no connection with or experience of the military. Maybe that helps me be unbiased, or maybe it makes me naive; probably some of both, if we’re being honest. I have no desire to minimize or trivialize the horrors of warfare. War is serious business, and not to be undertaken lightly. That’s the ugly, unforgettable truth.

And yet readiness for war is incumbent on a political community, as well as, to some extent, on its citizens who are able. Fear of being unable to defend against an aggressor is not a phobia but a prudent and praiseworthy cautiousness. And willingness to seek to be prepared is something to take pride in, as is willingness to answer the call to serve in a just war, especially a war of self defence. Again, it is hard not to think of Ukraine these days.

Family is really important to me too. I believe that some assortment of the tools that we associate more with the left, with the centre-right, and also with the right, need to be used in combination for the goal of supporting the family. But I think the goal of supporting the family, the goal itself, is one that’s at home on the right, and I think there’s good reason for that. Family is the basic unit of society, and the rest of society as an outgrowth of it retains some resemblance to the family, though of course not a perfect resemblance.

There’s also a traditionalistic intellectualism on the right, when the right is not simply anti-intellectual, which appeals powerfully to me. It is done badly far more often than it’s done well, but it can be done well, and I think that the spirit behind it is at bottom a good thing.

The progressive reader will look at past authors and assume that they must have known much less than we do, and will assume really that they are our intellectual and moral inferiors; such an attitude will then pervade the progressive reader’s interpretation of older texts. The person with more of a traditionalist’s approach will hold open the possibility that past thinkers could be our equals, able to speak to us on a level playing field, or even our superiors, who remembered or discovered things that we in our day have grown forgetful of or have lost the ability to articulate to ourselves.

The traditionalist’s approach is the choice of humility over arrogance, of a teachable heart rather than a didactic one. In my view it shapes the reader into a better person from the outset, before any reading has even happened. As well, it gives access to wisdom and insights inaccessible to the progressive reader, and it trains us to be better thinkers and communicators even within the bounds of our own age.

To a friendly and careful reader who’s waded through this ponderous post, much of what I’ve said will probably sound quite modest. I agree. Read correctly, most or all of what I’ve said will be basically agreeable to an intelligent person residing elsewhere on the ideological plane. Perhaps, then, it’s more a matter of emphasis. And that’s not unreasonable. A change of emphasis might seem like a small thing, but on it, entire civilizations can turn.

What doesn’t resonate with me on the right

I wanted to do a post about why I consider myself to be politically/ideologically right of centre, when I resist so strongly some of the main currents on the contemporary right. I wanted to write about the things that fascinate me or attract me about the right, but as I was writing I kept wanting to qualify for clarity. Eventually I decided it would make most sense to write two separate posts. The one I intended to write will be up soon. For now, I’ll give the clarifications I wanted to make, which will be no surprise to anyone who’s read previous posts on this website.

This isn’t by any means intended as an exhaustive list of things on the right that I reject. These are just supposed to be some of the main things that come to mind when people think of the right that I wouldn’t want to be connected with.

First off, and I cannot say this strongly enough, I have zero interest in or sympathy with the white supremacism that seems to keep making a comeback in more or less veiled forms on the right. Its continued appeal honestly shocks and angers me. I’m not dogmatic either way about the questions that get used to smuggle in racism; I’m neither a minimalist nor a maximalist on immigration, or illegal drugs, etc, but for each of these I’d just want to seek to do whatever is optimal for a given time and place, based on the best available evidence, rather than automatically choosing whichever shade of policy will be most appealing to racists.

I’m also no fan of unfettered capitalism. I want neither a government nor an unofficial plutocracy to have excessive power over citizens, but given the choice I would take a strong government and chastened tycoons, over a weak government and uninhibited business interests. However, I actually think it’s possible to say no to both—not that you’d know it these days.

As I think I’ve made clear in previous posts, I also have no patience for the conspiratorial right (eg antivax, antimask, pro saturated fat, pro pollution). There are some conspiracy theory believers that I give a pass to because I figure they have no chance of knowing any better, because of their intelligence and their social context. There are others who in my judgement ought to know better, either because of their intellectual advantages or their position of public influence; for these, I have no patience and no sympathy. And there are some people who fall somewhere in between the two groups, and I generally try my very best to give them the benefit of the doubt for as long as I can.

I can understand why someone would question my claim to be right of centre when I simultaneously reject the economic and legal convictions of the centre-right libertarians and also the racist or cryptoracist rallying cry of the far right.

It’s a fair question. It’s why I’ve described myself in the past as feeling like I am without a “tribe” on the contemporary political landscape. There are some intellectuals on the right who reject the same things I’ve mentioned, but from what I’ve seen so far, I don’t quite connect with what they’re saying either. Probably what they are saying is better than what I could say. On the other hand, I do feel a need to try to articulate what my view is, and to say why I find it satisfying and appealing. It’s a harder job than I might have thought. I’ll have more to say about it soon.

Economics and musing part four

This will be the last instalment of this series for now! As I’ve said, I hope to expand on some of these themes in future posts.

-I’m not against the economy growing. Probably a lot of the time that is a good thing. However, I’m also not so convinced as others that it is a necessary thing or that it doesn’t have downsides we need to think more about. Perhaps because of the way the world is set up currently, endless growth seems like a necessity, and we have to work with the world we’ve got, but I’m unconvinced that this is the only possibility. However, for the time being, with the situation we have, governments should probably be smarter about helping the economy eg with productivity.

-I suspect that the best way to improve the lives of people in other countries who are suffering is more often to find ways of putting pressure on those governments to do a better job (with whatever appropriate support we can offer), than to give direct assistance to those in need, though of course there will be situations where the latter is the only option. I don’t like that this is the case, but I think it might be.

-All else being equal, a simpler system of taxation, regulation, and government spending is preferable. Rather than making the system unwieldy in its complexity, find the most impactful places to focus in order to bring about a desirable result, and apply pressure there. We shouldn’t sacrifice anything important in our quest for simplicity, but often it will be better to give up some exactitude for the sake of a more straightforward and understandable system.

-I think we should support families that want to have more children. Economic pressures today discourage larger families, and I think it’s worthwhile to seek to counterbalance that momentum, even if pronatalist policies of that sort don’t make a huge demographic difference. I believe it’s still worthwhile for the effects it will have.

-I differ with people who say economics is too reductively materialistic or quantitative, though I understand what they’re saying. I think there really is a shocking amount of intellectual richness to be found in economics, despite how limited it might initially seem.

-I really think the economy should be oriented toward improving people’s health (physical and mental), increasing happiness and community and wisdom and virtue and knowledge and justice and freedom (not defined merely as moral or intellectual chaos) and security and strength, and reliable access to necessities, and vibrant artistic traditions that are beautiful and rich. The size of the economy should be secondary to those sorts of goals, and the mere increase of the wealth among the wealthiest citizens should probably not be seen as a political success at all, no matter what it does to GDP or apparent GDP per capita.

Economics and musing part three

Here it is, part three of four … or five. Probably part four will just be a little bit bigger than the first three. Some of my thoughts on economics! I hope to say more about some of these points in future posts.

-I think it’s much more desirable for wealth to be widely distributed for the promotion of leisure and economic freedom, than for it to be highly concentrated among a small number of private citizens. That’s not necessarily to say that the money should be immediately taken away from the wealthy and redistributed, but at the very least, the highly unequal situation shows that the system has been problematically set up so far and that it needs to be changed to lessen the chances of the same being the outcome in the future.

-I do think free trade, without tariffs or disguised tariffs, is probably the most efficient economic system and the best way to benefit all economies involved, and so insofar as that’s the goal, that should be the means employed. However, I do not at all think that a maximally efficient economic system should be the only priority. For instance, if international economic pressure against an evil actor can help reduce war or risks of war (I write this during the Russia-Ukraine conflict), then that seems desirable. Also:

-I suspect it is a prudent thing to encourage a strong agricultural sector within one’s own nation, if nothing else; set up the economy so that one’s own citizens are normally able to produce more than enough healthy food to feed the entire population, so that in an emergency we will not be entirely dependent on outside forces for our survival. Normally any excess can just be sold wherever there’s a buyer.

-I’m not against the government guiding the growth of the economy in one direction or another, or encouraging (and even discouraging!) technological innovations in one area or another. Some things the market is just not well equipped to regulate by itself.

-Indeed, I wonder sometimes if research and development shouldn’t be a much bigger part of what governments do.

That’s it for today. The (probably) last instalment of this series will arrive Monday! Or Tuesday or Wednesday if I’m forgetful.