Scientific materialism

We seem today have agreed to let something like what we might call scientific materialism be our default social assumption. People can believe what they want privately, but if we push beyond materialism even to some sort of deism it will grate on a lot of ears, including the ears of many people who are not themselves materialists.

There’s a similar sort of default in the debates of overzealous teenagers and college students (and those of us who never fully outgrow that stage). At one time in history it would have been the person who dissented from the dominant faith who would have been expected to make arguments to show why everyone was wrong to believe in miracles etc. Today, it is certainly the religious person of any faith who is assumed by all (including the religious person) to bear the burden of proof.

I’m not interested to consider here whether that’s been a good thing or bad. It seems to have had some good effects. I think there are interesting arguments maintaining that it has had bad effects as well.

I’m more interested here to think about whether it’s a good position to hold privately. We can all fall into line socially, or try to change society if that’s your thing, but while most of us in our private thoughts will probably accept something approximating the public orthodoxy, it’s an easy thing (at least in this sort of society) to dissent privately.

Scientific materialism is self-refuting, in a way. It might be true (though I don’t honestly see how anymore, but hypothetically), but even if it were, we would never be able to know. Scientific materialism, as a way of thinking about the world, is not a material thing, and it cannot be confirmed scientifically. If only material things exist, and the only meaningful knowledge is scientific knowledge then the consistent scientific materialist, it seems to me, has to hold scientific materialism not as something knowable but as an article of faith.

And that’s a fine thing to do. If that’s what you want to do, I can respect that.

Still, if what we want to do is more than just willfully assert to be completely true what we cannot know to be true, then we find ourselves opening out into a world full of mystery. Perhaps it is a world of ghosts and sorcery. Perhaps it is a world of saints and demons. Perhaps it is a world of silent darkness.

But certainly the uncertainty itself makes for a very, very different world than the one we take for granted now. This may be a matter of taste, but personally, I find it a far more attractive world to live in.

Dune prequels

When I was a teenager, I early on read Frank Herbert’s Dune books and found them compelling. Around that same time his son, Brian Herbert, began to write (or ghostwrite?) and publish books and books in the Dune universe of his departed father.

I remember they seemed to be quite a success. You would see them in the small book section found in a random aisle of grocery stores. My dad and I liked the Dune universe and we bought and read several of Brian Herbert’s books.

Just this past year I’ve rediscovered those books and reread several of them. They’re fun to read, and they strike me as an impressive achievement, in one way.

It’s been some time since I’ve read Frank Herbert’s Dune books or watched any of the movies (I haven’t seen these latest Dune films, though at some point I would like to). Still, I remember enough to know which characters will be alive and which deceased by the time those books begin. I know many of the families that will be in power by that moment in the history of that universe, and which planets they are associated with.

Of course knowledge of that sort takes a great deal of the dramatic tension away. Paul Atreides, for instance, might as well be immortal; I know that no matter how dangerous a situation he might seem to be in, it is impossible for him to die, is certain that he will escape.

And yet Brian Herbert (or his co-author) has written an entire series of prequels that hold the attention, that keep the reader in suspense, even under that severe sort of authorial restriction. The characters that we know from the later books see their fortunes rise and fall and the reader doesn’t know exactly how a particular situation will turn out. Other characters are introduced that play a large role, and the reader cares about them, but their fate is entirely unknown.

Orson Scott Card works under a similar set of constraints in some of the offshoots of his Ender series, where a story is being told in one book that is contemporaneous with the storyline from an earlier book and changes the meaning of some of the events and conversations in that earlier book. Card does this with mixed results, sometimes working too hard to fit a round peg in a square hole, or seeming to forget some incompatible detail from an earlier book that ruins his attempted reinterpretation, but it is still quite pleasing and impressive overall to experience.

It’s a cool thing to see authors producing such enjoyable books even while facing restrictions that do not hinder other authors. The things people are capable of! I think it highlights a set of skills and competencies that are not always visible in other kinds of writing. I’d love to be able to do this thing that they do. It unfailingly reminds me of the incredible possibilities of the human mind.

Greek pedagogy idea

I’d love for my children to learn Greek. If they also learned another language, say French or German or Latin etc, that would be wonderful. But for some reason I especially hope they can learn to read ancient Greek. If they never do then I won’t be bothered or disappointed, but I at least want to take a shot at encouraging them to begin learning it.

So I have an idea for how I might want to go about helping them learn it, when it seems that they’re old enough, if they aren’t too resistant to it.

I want to pay them to study it. Every week they can earn, let’s say up to ten dollars (for the sake of this discussion, but when they’re younger they might be happy with somewhat less), for doing a particular task before the week is over.

The first weeks might have to do with pronouncing the letters. This might well stretch over several weeks, and that would be okay. There’s no rush. We might make use of Duolingo for this, since it has a good alphabet teaching system, and it teaches modern Greek pronunciation, which I like.

Once they can comfortably pronounce words, then it will be about translating words. I provide them with a sentence and a glossary, and for each word that they can find the gloss for, they earn some amount. But there’s no pressure to figure out how to rearrange the words into something that makes sense in English. Over time, as they get more comfortable, they’ll have to do more to get the same payout; instead of two dollars per word, it might be one dollar, and then one dollar for two words, and then one dollar for four words, seeing how far they can comfortably go. The volume assigned might also change depending on what else is happening in the child’s schedule that week.

Then the goal will be to learn how to translate not just words but sentences into meaningful English. At first it will be ten dollars for a single sentence for the week, with no penalties for mistakes, although they won’t get paid until we’ve discussed any mistakes and they’ve understood why it was wrong. Over time, they might begin to lose a small amount (say a dollar) for making errors that they have already learned how to avoid, if this seems necessary. The sentences will be pretty straightforward at first, and over time will depart more and more from normal English sentence structure, and the sentences might get longer as well. (I will just draw the sentences from some standard Greek textbook throughout this project.) Eventually they will get two sentences per week and can earn five dollars per sentence. Then eventually they might get four sentences at a rate of $2.50 per sentence. As before, this will continue until we find how much they can comfortably do. As time passes, they will be introduced to new words and new grammatical concepts, always with lots of support and an effort to make it minimally confusing. It could very well take years to reach this point, for all I know. Again, I think it’s better not to rush, best to take as much time as feels necessary.

Periodically, we will circle back around and repeat passages that they have already done. When repeating, there might be higher standards: bigger penalties for errors, and/or expectation to be able to read the sentence out loud in Greek and then translate it on the spot?

My goal throughout will be to make sure that what I assign in a week is not too difficult for them to do. If I undershoot by too much and it is an especially easy week for them, that is fine and they’ll still earn what was promised, and I’ll simply adjust for the following week. Better to make it too easy than too challenging, though slowly of course they should be somewhat challenged, so that they can slowly improve.

I don’t plan to tie all their learning to money (eg I don’t think they’ll earn money for good grades at school, or for doing their homework, although the latter might be something I’d contemplate if they’re particularly struggling). Still, for something that’s not tied to schoolwork and that they might otherwise have little motivation to do, it seems like a tool worth employing.

It seems to me that by following a plan like this one, and just by being consistent and continuing to do it over months and years, they could become quite skillful over time, without ever needing to be stressed or unhappy about the process. They would gain a skill, and also a way of thinking about grammar and language, that would be of value to them for life. Maybe I’m wrong and this will never work. But it’s definitely something I’m hoping to try once they seem ready for it!

Right and left meet not only in totalitarianism

When I was a high school student, I remember being told by a social studies teacher that the ideological right and left should be thought of, not as a line, but as a circle. When you get to an extreme enough position in either direction, you end up with totalitarianism, as twentieth-century history has demonstrated.

There is some truth to this. I think that my teacher must either have been influenced by Hannah Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism, or have been taught by someone who was influenced by it.

Totalitarianism is indeed one place where right and left can meet and become so similar that their differences are all but unimportant. I’ve grown more and more convinced, however, that it’s not the only place.

In another sense, the centre is of course a place where the two sides can meet, where equality of opportunity and inequality of outcome and freedom to do your own thing while material conditions will (all else being equal) improve is a place where one particular version of left and right could intersect quite comfortably.

There’s also a homesteading, hippyish, intentional community, back to nature approach to politics (or perhaps withdrawal from politics, on some accounts) where the two can look very similar.

I think often of a 2016 movie called Captain Fantastic. A homesteading family grows their own food, perfects their bodily strength and health, and voraciously studies classics and economics and languages. It could sound like it is written as a right-wing utopia, but it is actually a vision generated from a pretty far left approach to the world.

Belloc and distributism were the source of my first attraction to this sort of politics (although Belloc’s own economic vision is closer to industrial capitalism, in some respects, than this). There are old romantic economists (especially German ones, from early in the history of capitalism) who advocated something closer to this. There was a movement called “crunchy conservatism” several years back that I found quite compelling. I was interested recently to learn about a little cult of Covid-deniers who bought a large parcel of land in the UK to withdraw from modern society together. I’m not saying that people on the left and people on the right who do these sorts of things would entirely agree with one another on everything or even that they would be able to tolerate one another, just as the Nazis and the Bolsheviks deeply disagreed with and disliked each other. But they do, still, end up looking a great deal like one another.

Conspiracists and religion

In my experience, it feels like ninety percent (or more) of people who do a pretty good job explaining and criticizing nutty rightwing conspiratorial movements or figures all eventually do the same really annoying thing.

“Wow, these terrible people are also really religious, aren’t they? They really take their religion seriously, don’t they? They really let their religion inform the way they perceive and interact with the world, huh? They actually pray, and they think God talks to them and tells them what to do, like absolute lunatics, you know?”

I’m laying it on a bit thick, but this is the move. The big unveiling of how terrible and stupid the people are has to do with the conspiracists’ faith.

Now, it’s true that there’s a big correlation between conspiratorial thinking and some kind of religious faith, and probably even some sort of (undoubtedly complicated) causal relationship as well.

It’s true that the conspiracy theorists are wacky, often somewhat dangerous, and always quite sad to behold.

But it’s not in virtue of their religiosity that they are wacky and awful. And when that is the big punchline, a religious audience of non-conspiracy theorists (which is, to be clear, most religious people) are going to feel sympathy for and solidarity with the conspiracy people. We do not need more of that.

Debunker people, I appreciate you. I get that you’re not religious and that you don’t have respect for people who are, and I’m okay with that. I disagree, but you can do what you want. But please, if you want to do your job well, stop making religion part of the reason why conspiracy theory people are bad, and especially, especially never make it the top item on that list. Just don’t do it.

Capitalism and the right

There is a huge mistake, a blatant falsehood, that is sincerely believed on both the right and the left, and it leads to all sorts of consequent analyses and conclusions that are profoundly misleading. What is this untruth?

Unbelievable numbers of people, including people who are otherwise very intelligent and well-informed, think that capitalism is essential to the ideological right, and that opposition to capitalism is exclusively the province of the ideological left. This is just not true. It’s deeply mistaken to see things this way.

You can see this exemplified on the right by the insistence that Hitler and his movement were socialist. Contrary to the memes of the left, this is not simply a matter of the right being ignorant of history and reading too much into the name of the party. Rather, those on the right who say this will look at Nazism and see a big, powerful state that directs and limits the economy according to the goals of the state, and they think the problem with the Nazis is precisely that they are too far to the left, are insufficiently capitalistic and libertarian, and therefore that Nazism is not so much opposed to communism but is just one more example of what happens when a leftist approach to the state and the economy goes too far. If you assume that the right is defined by capitalism, then this is actually an understandable position to hold.

On the left, this same mistake is exemplified by the claim that fascism is precisely capitalism run amok, is the secret motives and mechanisms of capitalism displayed out in the open for all to see. This is based on a similar line of reasoning, which says that since we know capitalism is essential to the right, and since we know that fascism is about as far to the right as it is possible to go on the ideological spectrum, fascism must be the purest and clearest instance of the workings of capitalism. The problem is, as we saw in the previous paragraph, unless we start with a deeply idiosyncratic and amorphous definition of capitalism, fascism is a clear departure from capitalism, is in fact an explicit repudiation of the aims of unfettered capitalism. Indeed, the antisemitism that’s characteristic of so much of fascism is most often, even today, a dressed-up criticism of the globalist and materialistic assumptions tied to unfettered capitalism.

Capitalism is today often most loudly defended on the right, but that is newer, and it is certainly not universally true on the right. There are genuinely rightwing movements and ideologies that are opposed to capitalism from top to bottom, and this is as true today as it has been for centuries.

No, here is how the ideology of left and right should really be divided: The left is always, always comparatively and progressively egalitarian, and the right is always comparatively inegalitarian. Rather than the right being united around capitalism and the left resisting that capitalism, it is the left united around egalitarianism and the right resisting egalitarianism. It seems to me personally that there is much more actual diversity on the right than the left, an alliance of disparate kinds of hierarchical inegalitarianisms against the levelling egalitarianism of the left. This isn’t to deny that the right can sincerely embrace equalities of one sort or another to some extent (eg equality of opportunity, among some factions); I only mean to point out that they always place limitations on equality and egalitarian aspirations, and that it is precisely those limitations which separate them from the left.

The right today often represents the left as enacting an agenda that will lead to terrible authoritarian inequalities (of the sort seen historically in communist regimes), which might muddy the waters, by making it seem like the left is secretly anti-egalitarian or like the right is actually motivated by a more egalitarian agenda than the left, but this is not correct. In fact, this is an instance of the right engaging in tu quoque whataboutism, trying to pronounce the left deficient according to the left’s own ideological standard, not actually of the right opposing some comparatively egalitarian agenda of their own to the left’s inegalitarian one.

What counts as left or right changes as the years pass, which is to say the dividing line shifts (generally leftward, in “advanced economies,” but not exclusively). What separates one side of the line from the other is always relative attitudes about equality. Capitalism exists on both sides and the shifting line can move capitalism to be more on one side or the other. Anti-capitalist views exist on both sides of the ideological spectrum, even if, in the wake of the Cold War, we are today more habituated to associate capitalism with the right.

Left, centre right, and far right, in light of classical political philosophy

There’s a three-fold division of contemporary ideology that I find helpful, that I’ve spoken of before: the egalitarian left, the libertarian centre-right, and the militaristic far right. This division is too simple in some ways, of course, but it can be a clarifying simplicity, if treated thoughtfully.

It occurred to me that while none of these three maps perfectly onto the exhortations of classical political philosophy (the far right comes closest, though even there we see divergences), all three do have some resemblance to some part of what classical philosophers have recommended.

The left aligns best with the classics on the question of money. There is some resemblance in other questions (eg the relations of the sexes and the treatment of foreigners), insofar as they reject the worst excesses, though clearly they are for the most part not as radical on these fronts as today’s left is. But when it comes to class relations, the classical philosophers are fully on board with saying that extremes of wealth are bad for the community, that the community’s life should be organized in a way that prevents there from being the very poor or the very rich, as much as possible. This is where the classics would most emphatically agree with the contemporary left.

The classics probably have least in common with the centre right, but even here there is some agreement to be found. They think that economic strength is important; perhaps not endless growth and hyper-abundance, but what we speak of as the economy must be abundant enough, and resilient enough, to provide the community with enough to meet all its needs with a bit extra left over. The community needs enough to be able to feed itself and care for itself and invest in important projects (especially for war and study and the upkeep of the political system), but not so much that it will be an object of jealousy for surrounding nations who might wish to enrich themselves through pillage or conquest. This means that it is important to know how to keep an economy healthy, and to put the measures in place to enable and encourage the citizenry to keep themselves out of poverty.

And while political liberty does not hold so much pride of place for classical thinkers as it does for the centre right today, they do think that there must be an important place for such liberty, and that it is better to err on the side of too much liberty than too little, since a bad democracy will tend to be less bad than, for instance, a bad monarchy (ie, a tyranny).

Now, the far right overlaps with classical political philosophy, not perfectly, but in many ways. This seems unsurprising given that it is the most reactive and least fundamentally modern in orientation of the three positions. Classical political philosophy tends not to spend a lot of time on the benefit of religion or mythology in a political community, but it does recognize it and affirm it. The classics are far, far more interested in morality as a condition of and an outcome of a good political community, than we moderns are, as Rousseau has pointed out so memorably. The classics tend to emphasize military virtue not as the highest thing, but much higher than we do as moderns. The classics can be much more moderate in what they have to say about eg differences between the sexes and between what we today would speak of as different racial or cultural groups than the far right will often be, but they still recognize and accept those differences and their political relevance. I suspect there would be other similarities as well, but those are the ones that come to mind first for me.

The biggest differences between the far right and the classics that I can think of have to do with the place of the contemplative life, and the role of tradition. Where the far right elevates action over intellectual activity, the classics subordinated political and military action to the life of the thinker. And while the classics recognized the practical importance of tradition in a political community, they were far more ready to propose abolishing or overhauling received tradition in favour of something better when it is possible.

That’s how I see the overlap and divergences, overall. As I said, this is all off the top of my head, and so there may be important elements that I’m overlooking or oversimplifying.

Argue from the top down

More thoughts on conversing with conspiracists. Sorry.

Often you’ll find that what conspiracy theorists try to do is to find a coherent, consistent position which is precisely calibrated to support their view.

I think of a friend of mine who said that his conspiracy theory wasn’t really a conspiracy theory, and wasn’t like other conspiracy theories, because there are credentialed experts who believe it.

If you asked him out of nowhere, with no context, whether he believes that a conspiracy theory that is supported by at least one credentialed expert should be treated as intellectually respectable, he would probably say no, or that it is a strangely specific question that is hard to evaluate. However, if this is the position he has to hold on order to feel that his view is not patently ridiculous, then he will believe it as self-evident truth and it might be very hard to find exceptions or to show why this theory of the case is not workable by focusing on the set of rules he has come up with to justify his way of seeing things.

What if, then, we started from a higher level of abstraction and worked our way down from there instead?

My friend might think that his conspiracy theory is entitled to the same rights and the same respect as any other way of seeing the world. If other people can have their views without being treated like they are dangerous or easily dismissed, shouldn’t he have the same treatment? It is a free country, a pluralistic country, after all, and we are all supposed to be equal to each other and to be treated fairly, aren’t we?

Rather than starting off zoomed in on his particular rules of engagement, what if we started out by stepping back and thinking more broadly, and seeing if we can coherently work our way back down to his very specific set of assertions? Let’s start off by recognizing that freedom, pluralism, equality, fairness, expertise, credentials, can never be treated as absolute. Freedom doesn’t mean you can murder someone without consequences, for instance; there have to be limits on these things, or they lose all meaning. So then let’s think about what we can agree on as limitations on those things, and work our way toward our particular topic of discussion. We might find it rather difficult to justify his very specific way of seeing things, following that procedure, as will become apparent very quickly.

Why not give that a try as a way of thinking these sorts of things through?

My ongoing intellectual-political project

There’s an old humanistic way of looking at the world, deeply influenced by Plato’s and Aristotle’s (among others) thought, which says that politics is deeply important for human beings, that at its best politics should be about the cultivation of maximal virtue, and that rhetoric (which includes but isn’t limited to political speeches) is the primary way politics can be influenced for better and for worse.

This way of looking at things implies the need for (1) a deep understanding of politics as such (ie, the range of timeless political possibilities available to human beings as human beings), (2) a firm grasp of the history and structure and divisions of a current given political community and of its political context, and a clear sense of how the latter maps onto the former, in order to think intelligently about how the current situation can be improved. It also, of course, implies the need for (3) an understanding of rhetoric as such and the rhetorical preferences of our contemporary contexts.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time thinking about all three. In past posts here I’ve often been thinking through some aspect of one or the other of the first two.

I’ve thought a lot and learned a lot about these things over the past several years, but I still feel uncertain about what it all amounts to. My overall political conviction is that today we ought to take the best elements of each major ideological position and blend them together as well as we can, ordered in accordance with more perennial lessons of political philosophy, and I have some sense of how that could be accomplished, at least theoretically.

But it sort of feels like this synthesis, when I begin to think it through, comes out being far too nuanced and unwieldy to be an effective political position. I need to think about how best to boil it down to a simpler agenda, with all the tradeoffs that come from any such simplification.

I also need to consider further (and this is absolutely connected to the last point) which kind of ideological group or movement I might want to align myself with most closely. This would be a calculation that would mainly depend both on how receptive the group would likely be to the message I decide on, and also on the likelihood of that group exercising an influence on the direction of the political community in the coming years.

And then having decided all that, there is still the need to decide how best to package the message, which will inevitably be somewhat unpalatable to whichever group I focus on, including as it does at least some ideas associated with their ideological enemies.

All this while I still want to continue trying to wrap my head around modern economies and modern warfare and statecraft and partisan dynamics etc.

In one way, I feel like most of the work has been done, or at least well begun. But I also feel as though the last little stretch between where I am and where I wish to be might be the most challenging to traverse.