Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Assets: Yet Another Weekday Rumination

The challenges that confront a devout Christian who is also an analytical metaphysician are considerable. Most persons with a philosophical bent don't candidly acknowledge the constraints of any particular religious creed. Yet there are a couple of philosophers -- Peter Kreeft comes to mind -- who manage the combination without apparent effort.

The problem lies at the most fundamental of all metaphysical levels: the bedrock of reality that lies beneath all we can sense or manipulate. If reality, broadly speaking, is indifferent to our opinions and desires, the "ground state" of reality where natural law "lives" is the fountainhead of that indifference.

Yet natural law is as incompletely understood as anything to which Man has ever applied his power of reason.

We begin with a question many have asked and always will: Why are "things" as they are?

The current condition of the United States is deemed unsatisfactory by many. (I don't like it much myself.) But how did we get here, and how do we get to someplace better? What do we need to understand to grasp our devolutionary path, and what must we change to set ourselves on a better one?

There's an awful lot of detail involved in breaking those questions down to manageable bites and addressing them in a practical fashion. But viewed from the 60,000 foot level, there can only be one answer: metaphysically given reality. That is: the laws of nature, including human nature, operating on the context from which we started and the decisions we've been making since then, could have no other result.

That answer displeases many persons: nearly everyone on the Left and no small number on the Right. In their opinion, things "shouldn't" have worked out this way; they "should" have brought us to a happier place. This is the elevation of desire over natural law: the demand that "I must get what I want because I want it."

To be maximally gentle about it, you mustn't hold your breath while you wait.

Men of good will dissatisfied with the present but who can't understand how we got to this point grope for explanations and, by implication, corrections. If they apply their intellects to the problems they perceive, and manage to keep their preconceptions in check, they can make progress. But that word "should," which virtually no one dares to use around me these days, tends to intrude at the worst possible times.

How much sense does it make to say "That shouldn't have happened" after it's already transpired? Most of us grasp this, at least when we're confronted with it directly. But there's a whole class of persons, innately averse to subordinating their preferences and preconceptions to the laws of nature, whose specialty is evading such a confrontation with metaphysically given reality. We call them politicians.

Do they possess adequate intelligence to grasp the true genesis of our malaise? Some of them, possibly, though getting them to admit their mistakes, especially their willful ones, is a completely separate challenge.

Let's look rather closely at our assumptions about reality.

Our senses precondition the scope of our comprehension of the world around us. Though powerful, human senses are limited. Those limits tempt us to infer that what they cannot detect does not "exist." Yet as recent advances in quantum physics should make plain, that is not necessarily the case.

If you'll allow me an illuminating tangent, please consider the following snippet from Freedom's Fury, in which I tried to give exploitable shape and substance to a conception of a "reality beneath reality:"

    Althea: What are the Loioc rulers most likely to expect of us?
    Probe: First, that the invading vessels will be few in number, perhaps no more than ten. Second, that the invaders intend the conquest and subjugation of the Loioc. Third, that the invaders will rely upon real weapons.
    Althea: I understand the first two of those assumptions, but the third eludes me. What sort of weapon would not be a real weapon? Would it be one that acts solely upon the mind or perceptions of the target?
    Probe: No. You have misconstrued me. We have entered a realm of discourse for which we have not prepared. I did not realize that. My apologies.
    Althea: What realm is that?
    Probe: The realm of metaphysics. I did not realize that despite your accomplishments, you had not yet formulated an explicit conception of metareality.
    Althea: Probe, you have just taken me outside the lexicon I live with. When we of Hope speak of metaphysics, we mean reality as it presents itself to our senses and instruments. Your use of the term is unfamiliar, as is the even newer term metareality. Would you please expand on them?
    Probe: Yes. The senses of spatiotemporal sentients, both organic and nonorganic, are sharply limited. Reality as we perceive it appears fundamental, not merely pre-theoretical but above all theory. Let us assign a few terms for convenience. Let the sentient to whom spatiotemporal reality is all be called a realist. To the realist, the laws of the universe are without foundation. They admit of no explanation, being sufficient unto themselves. Let us call the realist’s highest natural scientist a physicist. The physicist accumulates spatiotemporal data in his attempts to infer reality’s laws. He does not entertain the possibility that those laws might arise from some deeper set of mechanisms. Yet there are deeper mechanisms: atemporal, independent of location, and potentially in flux. Probing them and their interplay is the domain of the metaphysicist: he who studies the nature of metareality.
    Althea: How do my accomplishments, as you put it a moment ago, bear on this realm?
    Probe: You are Hope’s first metaphysicist, Althea. You alone have thought to alter the properties of space itself. It is how you constructed your superluminal vessel.
    Althea: Then to alter the permittivity of the vacuum is an act of meta-engineering?
    Probe: Yes. It requires an assumption realist physicists would dismiss out of hand. Their assumptions are wholly incompatible with it.
    Althea: What are those assumptions?
    Probe: They address the undefined term existence. If asked “does space exist?” the realist physicist would decline to give a definite answer. Space, he would say, is nothing: the absence of anything real. Therefore, the concept of existence does not apply to it. You, by contrast, have treated space as having existential properties. You have treated nothing as being something, and so have succeeded in making changes to it.
    Althea: Which of us is nearer to the truth?
    Probe: Surely that question answers itself.
    Althea: Does my technique for attaining superluminal speeds resemble yours?
    Probe: Only in the results achieved. At present I lack the terms required to explain the technique embodied in my superluminal engine to you. It will require us to expand our lexicon much further.
    Althea: I infer from this that metareality is complex, perhaps even more complex than spatiotemporal reality.
    Probe: If I may borrow an expression you have used in another context, you have no idea. But there is more. Have you attained an understanding of your telekinetic powers?
    Althea: No. They baffle me even as I use them.
    Probe: Yet you use them with precision and confidence. They are as metareal as your vessel’s manipulation of the permittivity of space.
    Althea: That implies that I am actually altering the laws of reality when I employ them.
    Probe: Yes, you are, within the radius of their operation. I became aware of their nature when you freed me of my payload. You reconfigured local reality continuously as you worked. It was a display of metaphysical capabilities no Loioc has ever commanded. Yet your skill and self-assurance were such that I did not suspect that you were unaware of what you were doing.
    Althea: Probe, there are several things I can do for which I lack an explanation. Perhaps they are all metareal. I look forward to exploring them with you.
    Probe: As do I, Althea. Have you ever discussed them with another organic sentient?
    Althea: Yes, I have. He told me to consider them gifts.
    Probe: Who would give you such gifts, yet deny them to others of your race?
    Althea: I cannot say. Possibly God.
    Probe: It appears that we must discuss God at some length.
    Althea: We’ll have plenty of time for that on the trip to Loioc system.

The above, though fanciful, touches upon an important aspect of human inquiry: the never-ending question why. Why are the laws of nature what they are? Were they ever otherwise? If so, why did they change? What caused the changes? Might they change yet again, and if so, why?

At this point we're compelled to address the invisible dimension we call time and the operation of intelligence within it.

As time passes, things change. But why?
Why do things change? Because the laws of nature operate on them as time passes.
How do we know that time has passed? Because we can see things changing.

Yes, the circularity is frustrating, but that's in the nature of any attempt to cope with the most fundamental aspects of reality. There are even gag lines about it, for example: "Time is just nature's way of keeping everything from happening at once." All the same, those are the facts: the observable phenomena, wholly indifferent to our opinions, that any interested, unbiased party can confirm for himself. Time passes, and things change.

Now add Man to the mix. Ayn Rand's "being of volitional consciousness," Loren Lomasky's "project pursuer," is the one mobile entity we can be certain possesses individual desires and acts consciously to fulfill them. How does he do this? By noting the available facts and applying his intelligence: i.e., his facility for employing generalizations about natural law, applying deductive logic to them, and reaching conclusions about "if this were to happen in that adequately well defined context, what would happen next?"

That's what intelligence is: the ability to use, and in advanced cases to form, generalizations -- abstractions -- derived from the available facts.

Intelligence is not:

  • Artistic gifts;
  • Physical prowess;
  • Manipulative dexterity;
  • Empathy or "compassion;"
  • A sterling character;
  • Verbal facility;
  • Reliability;

...or any other attribute of Man. It's exactly and only his ability to work with generalizations: his ability to reason, as traditionally understood.

Are those other attributes valuable? No argument: in the contexts in which they apply, they're indispensable. But they are not intelligence. Highly intelligent men bereft of all other assets, including some completely paralyzed from the neck down, have nevertheless managed to contribute to human advancement or culture, just as men of ordinary intellect but equipped with major assets of other kinds have done so in their varying ways.

Intelligence, like every other human asset, is important to us, both individually and socially, because:

  1. Time passes;
  2. And things change.

For some decades, the Western world generally and the United States specifically have seen a steady increase in the relative value of intelligence in political, social, and economic affairs. Mind you, intelligence is not the only asset valued in those venues. However, its importance relative to other assets has risen, such that persons of ordinary attainments are slowly being marginalized. Of course, the usual qualifier applies: "All other things being equal." In some domains, other assets are critical. For example, in contemporary politics cunning and verbal ability are of great importance, greater than that of intellect. To the extent that a society lavishes resources upon entertainment, athleticism can reap great rewards. But today at least, those domains are of limited size. The fields favorable to high intelligence are far larger, possibly unbounded.

Beyond even that, the highly intelligent man has an edge over less gifted others at inferring in what direction things are likely to change. Thus intelligence tends to correlate with adaptability.

He who knows himself to be of ordinary intellect cannot help but be aware of these things. If he possesses other assets of potential value, he's likely to concentrate on developing and exploiting them. If he's ordinary in all ways, he must accept mediocrity: not an unthinkable destiny in a society that offers everyone a place. The mediocre American lives very well, at least when compared to mediocre persons of other places and times. He can be proud of his legitimate accomplishments. He has as good a chance to be happy with his lot as any genius...if he can avoid the seductions of envy and resentment.

What no one can do -- not even one of my fictional heroes -- is change the laws of nature. They are what they are. If they change, it will be as God wills, not Man. The most important of those laws for socio-politico-economic purposes are the laws of human nature.

Each human asset is a tool to be used in pursuing one's chosen ends. Intelligence is no exception. As with other tools, intelligence can only work when supplied with the materials it requires:

  • Trustworthy premises;
  • Accurate, adequately complete data;
  • In most cases, trustworthy generalizations reached by previous thinkers.

There is no question that lacking those things, even the most powerful intellect will go wildly astray. The ancient conceit of the "ivory tower philosopher" deducing the entirety of existence from his thoughts alone is ludicrous. As Bertrand Russell has said, "Logic is often merely an organized way of going wrong with confidence." (Alternately, we have Arthur Herzog's quip that "A paranoid is a logician with a fractured premise.")

The greatest mistakes in human history were made by very smart men who either lacked sufficient data or proceeded from bad premises -- or, in the worst of cases, who denied one or both of those things because they preferred to believe otherwise. This is observably the case regarding the several "experts" who pushed a "catastrophic / unavoidable resource exhaustion and mass starvation" overpopulation scenario in the Seventies and early Eighties. Also consider the behavior of the scientists pushing the "global warming" agenda; all the actual data contradicts their hypothesis, so they wish it aside, point to their simulations, and insist that they must be correct. The consequences have been bad enough to date; may God help us all if they should get their way politically.

In other words, no degree of intelligence can compensate for ignorance or arrogance, and particularly not for the combination thereof. Whether we speak of the "moderate" degree of arrogance that simply insists "I cannot be wrong!" or the "extreme" variety that seeks to defy the laws of nature themselves -- say, remember the "new Soviet man?" -- we're looking upon a quick road to chaos and destruction.

I am hard pressed to think of a single major political, social, or economic ill that was rooted in anything but the arrogance of highly placed men.

Having waded through 2500 words to get here, you could be forgiven for asking "What's the point?" The point, as it so often is in a Rumination, is the transcendent importance of humility. As I wrote just yesterday:

Humility is merely the willingness to acknowledge reality:
  • That we cannot merely decree that what we want is what shall be;
  • That reality's laws are superior to our desires, opinions, and wills;
  • That others are what they are and have a right to be so, despite our preferences to the contrary.

Inversely, humility is not self-abasement or an imposed belief in one's own inferiority. The humble man need not subjugate himself to anyone or anything. He merely accepts that the world is what it is, and that events will sometimes run contrary to his desires.

Alternately, from Reinhold Niebuhr:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Whatever your assets, may God bless and keep you all.


Magnus said...

I often say, to others' confusion, "My worldview is not guided by what I think ought to be, but by what is." I don't mean "what is" on a micro-level, meaning what is popular today. It's on the macro-level, meaning what is the reality of human nature. For example: "Humans are not equal in ability." Just accepting this premise profoundly affects countless political and social views.

Anonymous said...

It's going to take me some time to grok what you have written. Well, after rereading the portion on humility, I may never get it. Thank you for your writing. If you know "Ol Remus", email him and plead with him not to abandon the woodpile report.

downeast hillbilly said...

Sir, after enjoying many of your expositions, and willingly doing the mental work sometimes required, I have decided to trust you on this one. Just tell me where to aim and when to pull the trigger. My head hurts . . .

Anonymous said...

Francis, have you not ever considered simply writing a non-fiction treatment of these philosophical issues? I understand the attraction of just putting words in the mouths of characters to communicate the concepts, but sometimes a straight-forward scholarly analysis and treatise is the best way to get your interpretations of the world in front of thinkers and shakers.

Francis W. Porretto said...

I've contemplated it, Anon, but I keep running up against a pair of obstacles:
1. Few people read non-fiction about such abstract things;
2. Fiction actually has a better record at popularizing an abstract idea than non-fiction.

The one non-fiction project I can't bring myself to forsake is a book on clarity in thought and speech. That one might actually emerge some day. We shall see.

Anonymous said...

It is true that few people read non-fiction. Heck, it's true that few people read anymore. But my shelves full of purely philosophical works of yore indicate that you would be writing for future audiences, not current ones. This is a difficult choice to make, given limited time and the need for sustenance – it's indeed difficult to do something purely for the continuance and advancement of civilization, but there it is. I believe it is the duty of intelligent citizens to donate a certain portion of their worldly wisdom to, well, the world.

Another route is to tie it to something political. Jonah Goldberg, Ann Coulter, and many, many others have succeeded in publishing tomes containing much wisdom simply by relating it to a "hot topic". I consider Liberal Fascism to be one of the very most important works of historical philosophy in recent times.

Perhaps something like, "Reading Philosophy You're a Fool to Ignore Stuff That May Kill You". And include a chapter on such topics as how Nietzsche influenced the Nazi Party, and Hegel's role in providing support to the communists' ludicrous philosophy.