Saturday, December 22, 2007

What holds the wings of modernism together?

Why should it be that modernism has held together? After all, the two wings of modernism seem to be directly opposed to each other.

One wing of modernism is political liberalism. Liberalism is based on the idea of the self-creating, autonomous individual who is free to choose in any direction.

The other wing is a scientific materialism. The materialists believe that everything is a product of material causes, so that every action we take is ultimately predetermined (and could, in theory, be predicted).

You would think that the liberals and the materialists would wage intellectual war on each other. The two seem difficult to reconcile: a strict materialism is deterministic and so denies the very possibility of free will or the reality of individual choice.

Some moderns are aware of this problem. There was a debate at the Catallaxy website some time ago in which Jason Soon admitted that he and other moderns were haunted by the difficulty of reconciling what he refers to as philosophical naturalism with their political beliefs:

Naturalism holds that everything we are and do is connected to the rest of the world and derived from conditions that precede us and surround us. Each of us is an unfolding natural process, and every aspect of that process is caused, and is a cause of itself. So we are fully caused creatures.

Of course this is just another way of saying naturalism implies determinism at some fundamental level even if we know that in practice we cannot (at least for now) have the ability to pull certain strings to make humans function like clockwork. I do consider myself a naturalist but a question that haunts (in my view unjustly) those of us who are simultaneously philosophical naturalists and politically libertarians is whether the two are reconcilable.

There follows a debate in which one of the contributors, Daniel Barnes, actually does step back from a full acceptance of the materialistic view. He writes that he doesn't want to dodge:

another basic difficulty, which is how you can say ‘choice’ is both vitally important (ie: be a libertarian) and an illusion at the same time. Call me old-fashioned - I probably am - but despite the compelling nature of deterministic arguments, and the semi-occult feeling of denying them, I still can’t...quite...go...there.

A commenter calling himself c8to then tries to reconcile free will with determinism as follows:

what we always meant by free will was the ability to look at a list of possibilities, run some algorithm and deterministically decide the goal maximising actions

Daniel Barnes shot back with this:

“Deterministically decide” is an oxymoron. Because if determinism is true, you ‘decide’ nothing. A scientist with sufficient data should be able to exactly predict what your “algorithm” will do - and, like every other event, it will have been exactly predictable since the dawn of time. If you call that a decision you might as well say a planet ‘decides’ to circle the sun.

If, though, it is difficult to reconcile political liberalism with a deterministic materialism, why have they successfully coexisted? One possible answer is to be found in a recent study on liberal and conservative patterns of belief. This study found that conservatives placed a far greater weight on "purity" than did liberals. A libertarian called Razib did the questionnaire on which the study was based and reported the results as follows:

when it comes to "Purity" I go farther than even the typical liberal. Here this might be my hard-core reductionist materialism coming through, I don't really believe that anything has an essence, everything is simply a collection of atoms, so talk of an act or object being pure or impure seems totally incoherent to me most of the time.

You can see in this quote how a "hard-core reductionist materialism" might work well together with political liberalism. The materialism undercuts the idea of essences, which then means that there is no given quality toward which things ideally develop. This removes a basic obstacle to individuals developing, as liberals wish them to do, in any direction.

So liberalism and materialism are in alliance when it comes to attacking a traditionally "essentialist" view of things and perhaps this helped them to combine to form the modernist mindset.

It's hardly an ideal combination though. Materialism might help liberals to strike down essentialism, but it does so at the expense of choice and free will. The liberal individual might be able to choose in any direction, but his choice is illusory as it is predetermined. He becomes a fully caused, rather than a self-created, creature.


  1. What keeps the wings together? One is a method of knowledge: mechanics, science. The other is a method of social organisation: liberalism.

    Those who subscribe to the scientific view would conclude that we have no free will, just the illusion of it. All our knowledge comes from observation, and all observation can tell us is that we are machines: so, put us in the same circumstances and science expects us to always choose the same path.

    "You would think that the liberals and the materialists would wage intellectual war on each other".

    (1) From a scientific viewpoint, this only occurs for the few liberals that:
    A - are awake from the illusion, and
    B - depart from the scientific method by concluding we are something more than machines

    What you have illustrated is that some intelligent liberals have departed from the scientific method. Scientists would conclude they have lost their claim to intelligence.

    (2) From a non-scientific viewpoint, this occurs when people believe there is something more than can be proved empirically. Such intelligent liberals are described as having experienced that something.

    Either way, within liberals, as within conservatives, you have the subsets:
    - the non-questioning, non-thinking
    - the scientific
    - the non-scientific

    Somehow, we all co-exist. To me the point is, regardless of what method you use to acquire your knowledge, what societal model do you subscribe to: conservative or liberal?

    Jason Soon is haunted because he departed from the scientific method and believes there is something more than can be observed empirically. He is haunted because he doesn't know whether he is scientific or not. He asks:

    "a question that haunts (in my view unjustly) those of us who are simultaneously philosophical naturalists and politically libertarians is whether the two are reconcilable."

    Reconciling a method of knowledge with a method of social organisation would seem to me two separate and easily reconcilable issues. But only if you know whether you are scientific or not - and Soon does not.

    Likewise, Barnes is compelled to the scientific method, yet prefers to remain in the "semi-occult". Ditto, he is torn between the scientific method and the other.

    Which way will Soon and Barnes commit? There are intelligent people on both sides of the divide and who knows which way they will go.

    All I can say, as a conservative voter, I won't be voting with either of them.

    To me, the question I still haven't answered is, as a non-religious conservative, do we have to return to our Christian roots in order to save ourselves? Is that desirable? Is that possible? I have no idea.

  2. Also, committed scientific liberals who, unlike Soon and Barnes, are confident in their beliefs might be bothered by the term "liberal" to describe their method of social organisation. They might like to qualify liberalism as "free from" rather than "free to" e.g. human machines free from collective influences such as: religion; nation state, etc. Such a definition would avoid the implication of free will.

    I think for most liberals the issue of free will is only in terms of freedom from oppressors. So it's only the likes of Barnes and Soon who have a problem: and then it is not about liberalism, it's about their acceptance of science or not.

  3. do we have to return to our Christian roots in order to save ourselves? Is that desirable? Is that possible?

    Good question. On the one hand, all that anyone really needs to do is to reject liberalism as an ideology and to uphold the integrity of goods such as nation and family. I think it's possible to do this as a non-religious individual. Therefore, I think that any kind of effective anti-liberal movement will consist of an alliance between religious and non-religious conservatives.

    On the other hand, when the intellectual class loses its religious faith, it seems to become rancorous toward its own tradition; it tends also to become "anti-realist" and "anti-essentialist" in philosophy, so that there are only particular individuals asserting their own meaning and not higher qualities which individuals might orient to and derive meaning from.

    So I don't think a civilisation which loses its faith will do so well. There do exist non-religious conservatives who have some sense of this and who therefore are concerned by the condition of the churches.

  4. They might like to qualify liberalism as "free from" rather than "free to"

    Interesting point. I can think of some materialist liberals who do seem to focus on "free from" rather than "free to" (such as author Philip Pullman).

    However, in practice it's not easy to separate the two. When Pullman argues for freedom from the authority of the Catholic Church, it's in order to be free to choose for himself as an autonomous individual - which then still raises the problem, for a materialist, of a lack of free will in a materially determined universe.