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RichardKennaway comments on Open thread, Dec. 8 - Dec. 15, 2014 - Less Wrong

6 Post author: Gondolinian 08 December 2014 12:06AM

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Comment author: RichardKennaway 08 December 2014 10:03:43AM *  11 points [-]

The Enlightenment began with Epicurus. Perhaps even earlier, but Epicurus is the earliest source we have. Perhaps for as long as one man has said "God", another has said "Man".

I've been reading "Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Revolution", by Matthew Stewart, since seeing a quote from it on the current quotes thread. That, and another book I read this year, "Victorian Sensation", suggest a different history of all this.

This is just a quick outline, or I'd have to spend days writing this up. "Epicurus' Dangerous Idea", as Stewart calls it, was simply this: we live in and are part of a material universe. There are no gods, or if there are they don't care about us, or they're metaphors for our own ideals, but at any rate they're not up there in the sky watching out for us and answering our prayers. We are all we have, and we are made of atoms that have come together for a little while, and when we die and they come apart again, we are gone.

Well, of course we are, any of us here might say, but following Yvain's method of reading philosophy backwards, we should ask, what made this idea so offensive to people from the ancient Greeks onward? God, or the Gods, were part of people's everyday mental furniture. The Gods taught us virtue and set our foot on the right road. Evil acts were, quite literally, offences against the Gods. God made all this: when you looked at the world, you were looking at the work of God. God moved the sun, or the sun was a god. God brought sickness, and recovery from sickness. God hardened the heart of the Pharoah and inspired the saints. God quickened the seed in the ground and in the womb, and God decreed that our years were three score and ten.

And Epicurus said "Atoms" and started an itch that never went away.

From that we eventually got to really practising the idea, universal now, that you can find out how stuff works by looking at it. And we've never found anything to contradict Epicurus' original vision. People like Galileo and Newton, and all the scientists before them, put foundations under Epicurus' speculations by making major discoveries about how the universe worked, and God was nowhere to be found. "I have no need of that hypothesis" runs the anecdote of Laplace and Napoleon, but the idea has been around since ancient times. The poet Kabir wrote in the 15th century:

There is nothing but water in the holy pools.
I know, I have been swimming in them.

All the gods sculpted of wood or ivory can't say a word.
I know, I have been crying out to them.

"Victorian Sensation" is a book about another book, Robert Chambers' "Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation". (If you know Chambers' English Dictionary, that was published by Robert and his brother William, who were publishers and literary figures in Scotland.) "Vestiges" was first published anonymously in 1844, and ran through many editions. It was nothing less than a summary of the scientific knowledge of the time, as it related to the structure of the universe, the geological history of the Earth, and the development of species. This was well before Darwin's Origin. Darwin read Vestiges and considered the book an important one.

The atheistic implications of the work were evident to everyone, even though Chambers, like many writers on these things before him, was careful to attribute the marvellous clockwork to the divine hand setting it in motion. But what need of God in a universe that ran by itself?

What sustained the social order in earlier times, the social order that neoreactionaries like to praise so much, was religion. When God is not in His Heaven, overseeing all, rewarding the good and punishing the evil, whither Man? But how can that belief be sustained, in the face of the inexorable power of the single most dangerous idea of all: that you can observe a lot by looking?

John C. Wright is the only example of a Christian neoreactionary I've encountered. There may be others, but all the others I've seen here on LW or on the sites that have from time to time been linked to, say not a word of religion, beyond praising its moral character. None profess any faith themselves, although other than advancedatheist's choice of moniker, I have not noticed them professing atheism either. They want the virtue of past times without the religion that was its foundation. They are silent about how to expel the elephant from the drawing room without letting the bull into the china shop.

To find virtue in a material world: a grand project. Who will carry it out?

Comment author: RichardKennaway 08 December 2014 10:26:13AM *  5 points [-]

And an even briefer sketch of now a neoreactionary might answer that last challenge.

The problem in former times of virtue, the neoreactionary might say, is that people did not know enough to be able to demonstrate what is virtue and what is vice. People have always known right from wrong, but they have not known how they know, any more than they knew how they see. Having God as the explanation, even though it be a false one, had the beneficial effect of protecting their knowledge from their ignorance. When people generally began to see that there was no God (including those who believed they believed, but whose God had dwindled to the shadowy ghost in the background), virtue decayed, for we are all like Chesterton's fence-lifters, discarding a thing, however useful, when we notice that we do not see the reason for it.

But now, the neoreactionary might continue, in the last century, or perhaps just the last few decades, we have discovered the material origin of virtue. This knowledge comes primarily from evolutionary biology and neuroscience, and history reinterpreted in its light. We know how societies flourish and how they decay. We know how we know right from wrong. With this new knowledge, we shall restore virtue to the world.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 08 December 2014 09:29:22PM 1 point [-]

To which the progressive might even more briefly respond:

Yeah, our people tried some of that in the early 20th century. The project was supposed to make society better by making better people. It applied scientific knowledge of Darwinian evolution, Mendelian genetics, and the science of psychology that gave us the ability to measure feeblemindedness and mental degeneracy.

It was called eugenics. It didn't work.

Its failure was not that it was pseudoscience. Quite a lot of it wasn't. Its failure was that it involved giving a political and technical elite a kind of power over other people that couldn't not be abused — abused to control others; abused to enact ancient prejudices like antisemitism, and new ones like middle-class fear of the poor and rural; abused to allay some people's fears of a collapsing, degenerating society at the expense of other people's bodies and lives.

Comment author: ChristianKl 09 December 2014 06:21:52PM *  4 points [-]

I think you overrate the influence on science on German nationalism. The idea that blood relationships matter doesn't come out of science. It's a much older idea.

Or are you speaking about something that doesn't have something to do with Germany?

and new ones like middle-class fear of the poor and rural

What are you talking about? Late 20st century US thought?

Comment author: fubarobfusco 09 December 2014 11:49:57PM 0 points [-]

I think you overrate the influence on science on German nationalism. The idea that blood relationships matter doesn't come out of science. It's a much older idea.

The specific ideas behind Nazi eugenics and "racial hygiene" derive — in part — from earlier eugenics and racial-hygiene movements in the US. See, for instance, the Indiana eugenics act of 1907 and, more pointedly, the Virginia Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which combined legislation against mixed-race marriages with compulsory sterilization of the "feebleminded".

and new ones like middle-class fear of the poor and rural

What are you talking about? Late 20st century US thought?

No, early-20th-century US thought,. I should have been more clear: by "new" I meant "new at the time", not "recent as of today". The idea that poor rural families were inbred hives of criminality, madness, and race-mixing was one of the motivations behind American eugenics of the early 20th century.

Thing is, it's true that many mental disorders are heritable. In that regard, the early eugenicists were not operating entirely on pseudoscience. But they went wrong in believing that if nations refused to use law and violence to control people's reproduction (and, ultimately, to kill the "unfit"), that society (or "the race") would degenerate.

Comment author: ChristianKl 10 December 2014 03:08:53AM 2 points [-]

After WWI Germans did try to copy American culture and might have copied scientifically motivated racism. On the other hand that stopped a bit with the Nazis. They didn't care about copying the US. "Blut und Boden" ("blood and soil") was a quite old idea.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 10 December 2014 03:58:33AM *  0 points [-]

"Racial hygiene" isn't really the same as "scientific racism". The latter seems to be used more to refer to the anthropological theories of racial superiority, now euphemistically called "human biodiversity" by their advocates.

But "racial hygiene" policies included the elimination of "undesirable" gene lines within the advocates' favored race — first through forced sterilization, and later through killing.

The German 1933 Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring reads like an echo of Harry Laughlin's 1922 Model Eugenical Sterilization Law, which was the model for the sterilization provisions in Virginia's 1924 law.

Comment author: ChristianKl 10 December 2014 01:28:56PM 1 point [-]

In 1933 in some sense yes. Hermann Muckermann who was co-author of the law did study in the US. By 1936 the Nazi however forbid him from speaking publically.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 09 December 2014 12:16:00AM *  1 point [-]

Yes, that's the main failure mode of ethical naturalism. "You must die, because SCIENCE!"

What would the progressive atheist's answer be to the challenge of producing virtue from matter? I'd try writing that one as well, but I think I'd end up caricaturing it.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 09 December 2014 03:11:30AM *  0 points [-]

Yes, that's the main failure mode of ethical naturalism. "You must die, because SCIENCE!"

My libertarian shard says it's the main failure mode of politics: "You must die, because POWER!"

What would the progressive atheist's answer be to the challenge of producing virtue from matter?

No idea, but mine is game theory coupled with compassion — a System 2 mathematical insight and a System 1 intuitive and trained response. Ethics comes down to symmetry among agents: my good is no more or less The Good than your good. Humans can recognize this both as a matter of explicit mathematical-philosophical reasoning, and using intuitive-emotional responses (which can be trained). Virtuous humans both recognize and feel that symmetry, and vicious humans do not recognize or feel it.

The basic ethical failing that leads to atrocities is not usually the lack of System 2 ethical reasoning, but the sentiment (or System 1 trained reaction) that those people are not really people; they are some sort of mockery of people who do not deserve compassion. See Rorty, "Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality".

What we see in the history of eugenics politics is the notion that society can progress by freeing itself from having to care about certain kinds of people — so that they can be subjected to medical violation, mutilation, or extermination. But this is the same thing that we see in religious antisemitism or any number of other sources of the dehumanization meme. Dehumanization works the same evil whether it's couched in the language of progressive science, the Lutheran language of Nazi antisemitism, or in the order to the Albigensian crusaders: "Kill them all; God will know his own."

Rorty's critique of ethics since Plato has a weird echo when we're talking about eugenics, though:

It would have been better if Plato had decided, as Aristotle was to decide, that there was nothing much to be done with people like Thrasymachus and Callicles and that the problem was how to avoid having children who would be like Thrasymachus and Callicles.

But speaking of science and ethics, I think it's really kinda weird that humanity had the Golden Rule from traditional sources since antiquity, but didn't invent the math to describe it until the mid-20th century — the same time frame in which engineering gave to politics the ability to destroy the world.

Comment author: bogus 09 December 2014 02:08:55AM *  3 points [-]

It should be noted that a moral tradition needs not be theistic in nature, much less Abrahamic-Zoroastrian - Confucianism is a case in point here. And even a "material universe" cosmology may be sen in a variety of quite diverging ways. A particle physicist may argue - much as Democritus and Epicurus did - that our ontology should be a reductionist one, founded on some kinds of irreducible elements, and that it is a moral imperative to understand these tiny elements of nature by running huge, incredibly costly and perhaps risky experiments using particle accelerators.

Nonetheless, others, perhaps more interested in ecologies and human societies, may object that particle physics tells us quite little about our everyday lives and how we can best thrive in a nurturing milieu (as in both an ecology/environment and a community/society), which many people would indeed consider as a "right", or at least as something ethically relevant. Perhaps they would have us focus on very different things to "look" at: maybe indigenous peoples - as societies that have "stood the test of time" in a very real sense - and even our closest animal relatives in the Hominidae taxon (which, incidentally, are now significantly endangered due to human activity). So, yes, there is clearly a relevant conflict here, but it's far subtler than what you're referring to. In the end, medieval philosophers and theologians may well have the last laugh, as "reason" and scientific inquiry turn out to be the slaves not just of our passions, as Hume would have it, but even moreso of our ethics and morality.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 09 December 2014 10:22:28AM 3 points [-]

A particle physicist

You are taking particle physics for the totality of science throughout, cherry-picking a part of science most remote from everyday concerns, ignoring the rest of the elephant. We know the chemical elements, the methods of taking them from the ground, how to combine them in a million ways to produce the cornucopia of our everyday life. We know how plants grow and how to make them grow better. Because of that we build better buildings, make better roads, and grow better and more plants than our ancestors. We can talk to each other around the world in seconds and travel there in hours. Science! It works!

Perhaps they would have us focus on very different things to "look" at: maybe indigenous peoples - as societies that have "stood the test of time" in a very real sense

Who is indigenous, and what is the test of time? We are all indigenous to this planet, and for better or worse, the ones that people call "indigenous" are conspicuously not standing the test of time since encountering the ones that picked up the material ball and ran with it as fast as possible. Throughout history, the test of time has been the test of whether or not you got overrun by your neighbours. I'm not arguing that might makes right, but might certainly makes might.

In the end, medieval philosophers and theologians may well have the last laugh, as "reason" and scientific inquiry turn out to be the slaves not just of our passions, as Hume would have it, but even moreso of our ethics and morality.

That leaves out the fact the science works, and the more you do it, the more it works. It is not the slave to our passions, but the tool of our passion to make everything in our lives better, and we use it to the full. Science isn't cathedrals to particle physics, it's food on the table, houses to live in, and matter rearranged to our desire. Religion works only until everyone realizes there's no-one behind the curtain. The curtain hangs in tatters.

Comment author: bogus 09 December 2014 11:52:00AM *  2 points [-]

You are taking particle physics for the totality of science throughout, cherry-picking a part of science most remote from everyday concerns, ignoring the rest of the elephant.

Perhaps I was not clear enough, but that wasn't my intention - far from it. I was trying to highlight the diversity of scientific inquiry, by choosing a few representative fields. The elephant has many, many parts to it, and some of them are distinctly less useful or likely to "work" than others. But note that you can't even talk about what's likely to "work" without adopting some normative standards first, as you implicitly did in your reply: and our general worldview, with its cosmology (what's out there? or - even more critically - what's important? What should we be paying attention to?) and morality ("what should we do?") is going to have a big impact on such choices, in any but the most crudely-technocratic or runaway-capitalist society.

These are not trivial issues - indeed, scientists of such caliber as Einstein and Oppenheimer were famously forced to grapple with these when they found out - much to their horror and dismay, if popular accounts are to be believed - that "science" had given them the ability to build catastrophically destructive weapons. And our own MIRI is often said to be facing similar concerns in its work on AI.

Whether "religion" is relevant here depends mostly on how you define the term. But AIUI, many scholars would argue that Confucianism qualifies as one, despite it being quite non-theistic, and more in the nature of a collection of moral maxims, and of course, a basic worldview highlighting such principles as cultivating basic kindness, showing loyalty and care where appropriate, and participating in rituals that foster a sense of unity and social harmony. Many people would argue that such a "religion" could be highly appropriate for our hyper-"material" world - whatever it is that we choose "material" to mean.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 10 December 2014 10:10:21AM 1 point [-]

But note that you can't even talk about what's likely to "work" without adopting some normative standards first

"Working" is as objective as it comes. Nobody wants to die of smallpox, and smallpox vaccination works, while prayers don't. Nobody wants to die at sea, so sailors have to know the tides, and how to determine where they are. No-one wants to starve, so farmers have to know how to make their crops thrive. They won't get that knowledge by praying for revelation. In short, people have purposes, and can observe whether what they are doing to achieve them is working. The better they can find out what works and what doesn't, the better they will achieve those purposes, whatever they are.

That is the pressure, objectively and insistently exerted by nature, to find things out. The carpenter making a better table has no need of God to tell him what sort of glue will give way and what will hold fast.

Confucianism is an interesting case, but I think it was sustained not by its own virtue but by the power of the centralised and authoritarian Chinese state, with which it was a good fit with its emphasis on loyalty and deference to superiors. The scientific revolution didn't happen there. So theocracy isn't the only thing that can stop science from happening.

As for a religion appropriate to the modern world, the traditions of the past are available to all in the Internet age. Anyone can pick and choose or make their own. But I see little future for mass religions based on fictions and unenforced by state power.