Sunday, April 8, 2018

Enlightenment Dogmas

Steven Pinker must count as an excellent salesman. Bright-eyed and bushy haired, he is, as Yoram Hazony explains in the Wall Street Journal, selling the Enlightenment. He did not write a historical analysis; he wrote a polemic. He has already seduced the world’s richest dupe, Bill Gates, and has lured many others into his lair.

I have written about Pinker’s theses several times already. I have also noted that British philosopher John Gray has written one of the best critiques of his book. It turns out that, like any snake oil salesman, Pinker has cherry picked his facts and has distorted philosophy and intellectual history almost beyond recognition.

In truth, I believe that Pinker is selling Enlightenment because he wants to restore the prestige of atheism. The twentieth century saw the most ambitious attempts to create atheist cultures, through Communism, and, if these efforts and the ensuing human calamities proved anything, they proved that atheism should be relegated to the dustbin of intellectual history. And yet, some people never learn. Among them Steven Pinker.

As I have mentioned, Pinker’s deception involves giving the Enlightenment credit for everything good that has happened since the end of the eighteenth century, while blaming everything bad on those who rejected it. As has been noted, he ignores a figure like David Hume, the leading British proponent of empirical thinking and ignores the influence that an Enlightenment thinker like Rousseau had on the French Revolution—the first great attempt to cleanse the culture of religious authority. How did that one work out, Steve?

Hazony presents Pinker’s case:

Boosters of the Enlightenment make an attractive case. Science, medicine, free political institutions, the market economy—these things have dramatically improved our lives. They are all, Mr. Pinker writes, the result of “a process set in motion by the Enlightenment in the late 18th century,” when philosophers “replaced dogma, tradition and authority with reason, debate and institutions of truth-seeking.” …  So give thanks for “thinkers like John Locke and Immanuel Kant who argued that people should stop deferring blindly to authority” and instead “think things through from the ground up.”

As Mr. Pinker sums it up: “Progress is a gift of the ideals of the Enlightenment, and will continue to the extent that we rededicate ourselves to those ideals.”

David Hume once opined that the salient question for philosophers was: which came first, experience or ideas. You can reformulate it to say, which comes first facts or theories. In Pinker’s Enlightenment, facts fall to the wayside as theoretical ideals take pride of place. It’s the difference between the detective who begins an investigation by collecting facts and a detective who begins his investigation by concocting a theory, then to collect only those facts that affirm the theory.

Pinker shows his limited knowledge of political philosophy when he pretends that the American constitution was produced by Enlightenment philosophers. Hazony explains that the sources of that great document and of the American Republic lie elsewhere:

The widely circulated 15th-century treatise “In Praise of the Laws of England,” written by the jurist John Fortescue, clearly explains due process and the theory now called “checks and balances.” The English constitution, Fortescue wrote, establishes personal liberty and economic prosperity by shielding the individual and his property from the government. The protections that appear in the U.S. Bill of Rights were mostly set down in the 1600s by those drafting England’s constitutional documents—men such as John Selden, Edward Hyde and Matthew Hale.

He continues:

They were religious, English nationalists and political conservatives. They were familiar with the claim that unfettered reason should remake society, but they rejected it in favor of developing a traditional constitution that had proved itself. When Washington, Jay, Hamilton and Madison initiated a national government for the U.S., they primarily turned to this conservative tradition, adapting it to local conditions.

As for giving the Enlightenment credit for modern science and medicine, we might note that Pinker ignored David Hume while extolling Immanuel Kant… a man who famously derided the scientific method. Said method, invented by Aristotle, and developed by Galileo and Francis Bacon, among others, is not a product of the Enlightenment. Copernicus and Kepler largely predated the Enlightenment.

At the least, the scientific method allows that experiment—that is, experience—can disprove hypotheses. Enlightenment idealists, Hazony will explain, derive their theories before the fact and pretend that the facts prove them out. Their ultimate goal is to seduce or induce or force you into believing in these theories. God help you if you do not accept the prevailing, logically deduced orthodox beliefs.

Hazony offers this about the development of modern science:

Nor is there much truth in the assertion that we owe modern science and medicine to Enlightenment thought. A more serious claim of origin can be made by the Renaissance, the period between the 15th and 17th centuries, particularly in Italy, Holland and England. Tradition-bound English kings, for example, sponsored pathbreaking scientific institutions such as the Royal College of Physicians, founded in 1518. One of its members, William Harvey, discovered the circulation of the blood in the early 17th century. The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, founded in 1660, was led by such men as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, decisive figures in physics and chemistry. Again, these were politically and religiously conservative figures. They knew the arguments, later associated with the Enlightenment, for overthrowing political, moral and religious tradition, but mostly they rejected them.

Most important is the emphasis Enlightenment philosopher put on the power of formal logic. I discussed this at length in my book The Last Psychoanalyst. They held out the hope and stoked the faith that a deduction of theorems from axiomatic first principles could provide us with absolute truths… to which reality was obliged to concord.

Hazony presents this idea:

Mr. Pinker opens his first chapter by endorsing Kant’s declaration that only reason allows human beings to emerge from their “self-incurred immaturity” by casting aside the “dogmas and formulas” of authority and tradition.

For Kant, reason is universal, infallible and a priori—meaning independent of experience. As far as reason is concerned, there is one eternally valid, unassailably correct answer to every question in science, morality and politics. Man is rational only to the extent that he recognizes this and spends his time trying to arrive at that one correct answer.

He continues to remark the colossal arrogance of this philosophical con game:

This astonishing arrogance is based on a powerful idea: that mathematics can produce universal truths by beginning with self-evident premises—or, as Rene Descartes had put it, “clear and distinct ideas”—and then proceeding by means of infallible deductions to what Kant called “apodictic certainty.” Since this method worked in mathematics, Descartes had insisted, it could be applied to all other disciplines. The idea was subsequently taken up and refined by Thomas Hobbes, Baruch Spinoza, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau as well as Kant.

And he rejects it:

It is completely wrong. Human reason is incapable of reaching universally valid, unassailably correct answers to the problems of science, morality and politics by applying the methods of mathematics.

We will mention as a sidelight that Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead proposed in an astonishing work, called the Principia Mathematica to derive all of mathematics from the principles and precepts of formal logic. When the book came out famed German logician Gottlob Frege wrote to them to show that they had made a fundamental mistake… crashing their entire system.

Later Kurt Godel demonstrated that while the first order predicate calculus was complete and consistent, the second order predicate calculus, the one that contained numbers, was incomplete and could generate sentences that could not be assigned a truth value.

Since science, if it is based on anything, is based on skepticism, on the willingness not to jump to conclusions and on the understanding that all conclusions are subject to further experimental verification or falsification, Pinker endorses it. And yet, Kant and his followers had no use for skepticism. They were, Hazony explains, post medieval dogmatists:

Mr. Pinker praises skepticism as a cornerstone of the Enlightenment’s “paradigm of how to achieve reliable knowledge.” But the principal figures of Enlightenment philosophy weren’t skeptics. Just the opposite: Their aim was to create their own system of universal, certain truths, and in that pursuit they were as rigid as the most dogmatic medievals.

He continues:

American and British elites, once committed to a blend of tradition and skepticism, now clamor for Enlightenment. They insist that they have attained universal certainties. They display contempt worthy of Kant himself toward those who decline to embrace their dogmas—branding them “unenlightened,” “immature,” “illiberal,” “backward-looking,” “deplorable” and worse.

Anyway, Hazony notes that important eighteenth century British thinkers—the kind that Pinker ignores—  were skeptical of the idealist project:

These figures included more conservative thinkers such as David Hume, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. They emphasized the unreliability of “abstract reasoning,” which they believed could end up justifying virtually any idea, no matter how disconnected from reality, as long as it sounded self-evidently true to someone.

As mentioned in this blog, Enlightenment philosophy, brought into France from Germany by Rousseau gave us the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror and Napoleon. Hazony continues:

Imported into France by Rousseau, it quickly pulled down the monarchy and the state, producing a series of failed constitutions, the Reign of Terror and finally the Napoleonic Wars—all in the name of infallible and universal reason. Millions died as Napoleon’s armies sought to destroy and rebuild every government in Europe in accordance with the one correct political theory allowed by Enlightenment philosophy. Yet Napoleon was simply trying, in Mr. Brooks’s phrase, to “think things through from the ground up.”

You would almost tax Pinker with dishonesty, with playing with loaded dice, in his presentation of these great Enlightenment historical events. In Hazony’s words:

Mr. Pinker’s 450-page book doesn’t mention the French Revolution. Mr. Pinker cites Napoleon as an “exponent of martial glory” but says nothing about his launching a universal war in the name of reason. These writers also tend to pass over Karl Marx’s debt to the Enlightenment. Marx saw himself as promoting universal reason, extending the work of the French Revolution by insisting that the workers of the world stop (again in Mr. Brooks’s words) “deferring blindly to authority.” The “science” Marx developed “from the ground up” killed tens of millions in the 20th century.


Ares Olympus said...
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Ares Olympus said...
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Ares Olympus said...

It does look like a good challenging essay, including challenging reason itself:

Hazony: "Human reason is incapable of reaching universally valid, unassailably correct answers to the problems of science, morality and politics by applying the methods of mathematics."
And conclusion: "You can’t have both Enlightenment and skepticism. You have to choose."

So skepticism is a conservative stance, and science is as well, where knowledge is always provisional. I'd summarize the problem is "motivated reasoning" blinds us, even if scientific collaboration can help reduce this.