Sunday, January 3, 2016

Apocalypse Now or Later

Just in case you haven’t had enough pessimism, Roger Simon (via Instapundit) offers an apocalyptic vision of our future, one based on the latest book by dyspeptic French novelist Michel Houellebecq.

Simon says:

It's not just because I have been reading the English translation of Michel Houellebecq's Submission  that I sense we are heading for some sort of apocalypse in 2016.  The novel, ironically published in its original French the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre (7 January 2015), all too realistically describes an election and near civil war in France in 2022, ending in a Muslim takeover of the state (through an alliance with the left).  Not even a year after its publication, and the more recent events in Paris and San Bernardino, this riveting book seems, if anything, a bit tardy in its time frame.

We are already living in the beginnings of World War III, although many of our fellow citizens are pretending that it has not happened.  This is a very dangerous situation that vastly increases the potential of losing.  Every great civilization of the past has died.  Why not ours?  Is the end nigh in 2016?  Or just a few years off as in Houellebecq's 2022?  (Actually reading his novel I felt as if everything was happening yesterday.)
I do not presume to know what the future holds, but I note that, as a matter of course, we often spend time imagining different possible futures. And we make decisions based on our imaginings.

How do we learn how to create these different possible worlds? One way is, we read literary fiction. After all, no one is better than a good novelist at creating and peopling an alternative world. The exercise only maintains its value if we do not fall into the trap of thinking that human realities are constructed like fictions, thus of believing that they will inevitably lead to a specific outcome. Our visions of the future are hypotheses, to be proved or disproved by events.

For those who prefer a more optimistic take on the future, a “don’t worry, be happy” take, we turn to the latest book by Matt Ridley. Specifically, we turn to Jim Tankersley’s review of Ridley in the Washington Post.

Tankersley presents his subject:

Ridley is the best-selling author of “The Rational Optimist” and a member of the British House of Lords, though his new book often reads like the diatribe of a freshmen who just discovered Ayn Rand. Still, it arrives at an opportune moment in American politics. “The Evolution of Everything” is a preview of what America would sound like if the country were to lose faith entirely — in institutions, in public servants, in the very idea that heroes and villains exist.

In the world Ridley sketches in the book, everything will eventually work itself out for the better, thanks to free markets and survival of the fittest — so no one feels any obligation to try to change things for the good.

One has a right to feel somewhat surprised to find an author who believes in free individuals seeming to be confused about the difference between free markets and a free-for-all. There are many different usages for the word “free.” Free markets do not have the same “free” as free love, free lunch or free-for-all.

True enough free markets are the best way to produce and distribute goods and services. But, free markets cannot function effectively if people do not behave honorably. Some people believe that free markets are simply ways to exploit and oppress people, not to get the best deal and to ensure the functioning of the market, but to rip off the world.

Free markets cannot work if individuals do not know how to function within them. In some cultures people seem adept at doing so. In others they refuse to play by the rules because they believe that the game is rigged. In the latter case, the markets will not work.

People around the world introduce free market reforms when they see that that free markets work better than the alternatives. They avoid our form of liberal democracy because they believe that it produces chaos, a rule of lawyers in place of a rule of law, a constant intrusion of government into markets.

Tankersley presents Ridley’s argument:

The crux of Ridley’s argument is that evolution guides the forward march of human existence, not God or government or individual actors. He begins with a deconstruction of religion and a veneration of evolutionary biology: There is “no need for God” to explain the course of human history, he says near the outset. Life appears to follow a design only if assessed in hindsight. “Bodies and behaviours,” he writes, “teem with apparently purposeful function that was never foreseen or planned.”

Of course, this assumes that human beings concocted the idea of God in order to offer pre-scientific explanations of human history and natural phenomena. Ridley apparently ignores the arguments, presented by Stephen Jay Gould among others, to the effect that the belief in evolution does not preclude the belief in God. After all, when Kepler discovered the formula for the orbit of the planets, he did not believe that he had proved that God did not exist.

Besides, scientific discovery seems more often to come from some civilizations and not others. As Richard Dawkins famously stated, Trinity College at Cambridge has more Nobel prize winners than all of Muslim civilization. Might it be that the civilization founded on the Bible and free will is more apt to produce great science, free markets and liberal democracy?

Besides, we know, or should have known, ever since David Hume said it, that science cannot provide us with moral principles. Science tells us what is; morality tells us what should. The primary purpose of religion is to adumbrate moral principles and to found a culture based on them. Cultures function because most everyone plays by the same rules and because most everyone respects the game’s results.

Religions establish moral principles, teach those principles, persuade large number of people to follow them and recommend that people follow them on the basis of a higher power or authority.

If you dispense with all that in favor of science, you will find yourself in an amoral world where we can all do as we please, but where we believe that it will all work out well. But, isn’t that a supreme leap of faith?

In Tankersley’s words:

He sees morality, family structure and technology as products of long strings of adaptation and not choices made by individual actors along the way, at least not to any meaningful extent. He discounts free will: “The illusion of an individual” with the power to make decisions, he writes, is no more just than the idea that “each person is the sum of their influences,” from genes to school chums to society at large.

No heroes. No villains. And no responsibility if the world goes to hell on our watch.

Does Ridley believe that it would not have made any difference if Germany had won World War II? If so, to whom would it have made no difference? Does he imagine that it would all have worked out for the best regardless of who had fought and how well they fought? Obviously, this demeans the efforts of those who fought the war because they believed that it mattered who controlled their lives and their markets? It all feels like blind faith to me.

And what will the world look like if Houllebecq’s vision, or something very close to it, comes to pass? Should we be indifferent to the possibility of a Muslim invasion of Europe because the better angels of our nature will guide people to happy endings.

Michael Walsh describes what open-door refugee policies are doing to Europe. The headline of his article says it well:

Overwhelmed by 'Migrants,' Sweden Throws in the Towel as Europe Faces 'General, Permanent Terror Threat'

As Walsh puts it:

It's a Happy New Year in Europe, where the blowback from last summer's "refugee" crisis is already hitting the old continent hard. People have been killed and liberal ideals shattered, all because naifs like Angela Merkel preferred her fantasy version of Islam to the real, murderous, expansionist thing.

Of course, there’s more to morality than the choices of individual actors. Someone needed to observe the way people behaved, to see what worked and what did not work... and then to translate it into a series of rules and to persuade people to follow them. And then, someone had to set up free markets, to promote free trade and to fight against bureaucratic interference.

Besides, if there is no free will, what is the basis of free markets? The most important meaning of free will is not that you can do as you please and that it will all work out in the end but that you are fully responsible for your actions. That is, that you will play the game according to the rules.


Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: Religions establish moral principles, teach those principles, persuade large number of people to follow them and recommend that people follow them on the basis of a higher power or authority. If you dispense with all that in favor of science, you will find yourself in an amoral world where we can all do as we please, but where we believe that it will all work out well. But, isn’t that a supreme leap of faith?

The interesting thing about the statement above is that religions are pluralistic containing subjective experiences while science attempts to be absolute, finding objective truths of the world around us. As soon as you say "God is X" someone else can say "God is not X" and you have no basis for discernment. Although even science can hit those paradoxes in quantum scales like whether an electron is a wave or a particle.

And then you can reverse again and claim absolute spiritual things like "All religions reach towards the same God, and that there is an absolute spiritual nature, a world behind the world, that can't be quite known, except through metaphor." But you're still trapped not really knowing how to face conflict between metaohors, and its always easier to say your metaphors are more accurate, more useful.

So the first hope we can say might be "A good religion is one that can share truth with other religions." And "A good religion should teach a morality that is contagious and will be followed even by those who don't believe in your God."

Christianity is especially paradoxical with Jesus trying to turn accepted truth on its head, so the meek will inherit the earth, and we should turn the other cheek, and the only commandments we need are to love God, love our neighbor as ourselves. And Jesus's message had the effect of freeing people from putting earthly authority of kings and tyrants over God, and they became willing martyrs, willing to die for their beliefs. So not very practical, but in 300 years, Christianity became the official religion of the declining roman empire. And Jesus's radical theology was co-opted into state power and the church outlasted the empire itself now 1700 some years later.

So we can say Christianity is a religion of sustaining values, but its strange the same religion that started with martyrs, raising the status and dignity of all people, how it can as easily be perverted into political power. And the U.S. perhaps the most christian nation on earth, we're the only nation that has used nuclear weapons against civilians. And somehow even after the fall of the Soviet union, we have to stay the only remaining world superpower, willing and able to dictate our reality on others anywhere in the world, and believe we have the wisdom and authority to do so.

And Christians who started with a belief that the meek shall inherit the earth, that we have to dominate the earth, back to the old testament that Jesus sought to replace with a more loving view of God. So what good are Christian values if they lead to actions that are completely contradictory to Christianity.

But maybe that's the secret to all power - you claim you're a religion of peace, while every day your actions are for war and domination, and as long as you can convince people of your righteous causes, they'll leave you to keep dominating others in their name.

And we started here on questions of apocalypse, and Christianity is also an apocalyptic religion, Jesus will come again with a sword, and separate the good from the bad, and we'll all be judged. I don't quite understand how that fits into his Good News.

At least religion perhaps helps us handle political chaos - when state power wanes or becomes corrupt, we all have our inner faith in a world behind the world to sustain us through it, and we can carry the stories of what was lost, so someday some of it can be restored.

Sam L. said...

I don't believe literary fiction will do the job. First, they are writing for themselves and the critics, and they won't do the imagining necessary because the critics won't accept it. Secondly, they don't have the practice at the kind of imagining needed. I'd guess the Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler types would have a chance. Science fiction writers could do it; alternative futures are what they're about. Of course, critics won't accept them--not lit'ry, don't you know.

Anonymous said...

The stock market today is mainly super computers selling and buying in millionths or trillionths of a second. The rest are plungers, speculators, shysters, dupes, and the Fed (indirectly).

Japan's market lost 75% of its value 20 years ago. It hasn't risen much, if at all.

Plus, how can an economy "grow" perpetually? What do robots and wage serfs buy?

In "False Dawn" 20 years ago, John Gray argued that lassais faire and Free Market ideas were a rigid dogma like any other.

Tell me where I'm goin' wrong here? as the rich Simple Guy who's "for the folks" says. And then cuts off guests mid-sentence. -- Rich Lara

Anonymous said...

One small correction: Dawkins referred to Trinity College, Cambridge and not to King's College, Cambridge. Trinity always had the strongest academic superstars, perhaps owing to its wealth and spectacular wine cellar. My college, while close to the top in student performance, always lacked great thinkers among the fellows.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you for the information. Correction made.