Friday, January 19, 2007
Robert Mayhew at Noodle Food
Be sure to set aside some time to read Robert Mayhew's interesting and informative commentary on Robert Tracinski's presentation of the interplay between cultural advancement and philosophy in ancient Greece. The following passage I found the most helpful and I regard it as vital to understanding where Tracinski went wrong:
I cannot here reply to everything in this installment which I find objectionable, nor can I take the time to deal with the interesting issue of why ancient Greek philosophy and culture did not continue to progress after Aristotle. I am concerned most of all with correcting Tracinski's presentation of the history of ancient Greek philosophy. But to fully understand where he goes wrong, it is necessary to point out that he equivocates on the meaning of "philosophy."I have for some time been catching myself thinking of Tracinski when encountering what I have come to call the "virtuous cycle argument", which I am beginning to think is a logical end-point to Tracinski's type of thinking. Progress is a direct result of virtuous activity, which isn't an obvious (enough) result of the philosophical ideas that permeate a culture. So where does virtue come from? I dunno. Must be from earlier progress.
Let me begin by making the following distinctions: First, "philosophy" in its broadest sense refers to a person's (or culture's) basic ideas about reality and man. It is in this sense that we can say, for example, that ancient Egypt was driven by a philosophy of death; it is also in this sense, I believe, that Ayn Rand claimed that "religion is a primitive form of philosophy" ("Philosophy and Sense of Life"). Second, "philosophy" also (and primarily) refers to the science that studies the fundamental nature of reality and man. Used in this sense, we would exclude the basic beliefs of pre-philosophical cultures, and say, for example, that philosophy was born in Greece (but did not exist, as such a discipline, in Egypt), and distinguish philosophy from religion. Finally, we can also speak of good philosophy and even the pinnacle of philosophy (in the ancient world, Aristotle's). I mention these distinctions because Tracinski moves back and forth between the second and third of these--between when philosophy per se appears and exerts an influence, and when it reaches its pinnacle--and he gives the first sense little consideration (or credit) in assessing the role of philosophy in history. But the view that philosophy is the prime mover in history certainly includes (where relevant) philosophy in this most basic sense -- especially when dealing with such an early period as archaic Greece. This is important to the present discussion, because it means that one cannot legitimately claim (certainly not without further argument) that philosophy could yield little or no influence in ancient Greece before it was fully developed and distinguished as an independent discipline (which is what Tracinski implies). [bold added]
My flippancy in that last sentence aside, it is in fact easier in many respects for someone who lives in an advanced culture to become rational. That much of the argument has merit. However, it isn't as if material progress somehow determines cultural progress, As I recently noted, "If the virtuous cycle argument trumped Ayn Rand's theory of how ideas drive history, America should already be colonizing Mars by now. Instead, we're about to nationalize the medical care industry!"
(Come to think of it, another thing I haven't seen discussed much at all is the fact that in some respects, a high-technology society can actually make it easier for some people to be irrational -- by shielding them from the consequences of their false beliefs.)
Noumenal Self on Tracinski, Part II
Also on today's required reading list: Noumenal Self brings up a point about Robert Tracinski's views on population growth.
Having mentioned the Islamic barbarians, let me mention one last way in which philosophy is needed to apply the discoveries of economics. Consider [Julian] Simon's view that human beings are the ultimate resource, as presented in the Wall Street Journal editorial referenced by Tracinski: "More bodies means more minds, more innovation, more dynamism, and more progress." More bodies does mean more minds, but does more minds necessarily mean more innovation? It depends. What are these people doing with their minds? Are they choosing to think, or are they evading the facts and living in the mystical fantasy world of religion? Is the growth of population an unqualifiedly good thing if only the Islamic population grows while Western innovators find themselves in a "birth dearth"? How long can a growing population sustain itself if the mystics parasitize and later destroy the innovators?Noumenal Self also notes that Tracinski misunderstands or misrepresents the role of philosophy in driving history: "Objectivism doesn't say that philosophers are the fundamental movers of history, but that philosophy is -- and philosophy can be an agent of change through means other than the ivory tower."
And again, I find myself thinking of the "virtuous cycle argument" as it is so often made in another context: the blogosphere. Specifically, as Glenn Reynolds frequently claims in his An Army of Davids, the great strength of blogging is that we have so many people "fact-checking":
On a smaller scale, the Times editors may want to look at putting [this phenomenon] to work for them in another way. It would be child's play to take RSS feeds from a number of blogs (say, via Technorati), filter them to extract references to stories in the Times, and then have an ombudsman look at those references to see if correction, amplification, or investigation is called for. A newspaper that did that ... would be enlisting a huge (and unpaid!) army of fact-checkers, and could fix mistakes within hours of their appearing.... (127-128)Often, you will hear the phrase "many eyes" to refer to the fact that, with many people looking at the same thing, the chances of an inaccuracy being caught dramatically increase. This much is true. But the problems with journalism go way beyond factual errors and omissions. The Times is famously biased, too. Just as "many minds" will fail to sustain Western civilization if they are crippled by Islam, so will "many eyes" fail to matter if the evidence they provide is dismissed by those same minds. It is incorrect to equate mind with matter: A rational mind and a brain are not identical objects.
For example, bloggers can and do "fact-checking" about the outrageous claims of those who fan global warming hysteria all the time. And yet the outrageous claims get repeated on and on and we get closer and closer to having our standard of living drastically reduced in the name of preventing a global warming-induced catastrophe. Why is that?
Fact-checking is important, but so long as enough people regard pollution or technology as morally wrong and facts as irrelevant or even non-existent, it will do no good. Something must be done to alter the general outlook of our culture. This is something that bloggers can conceivably help do, but it will take more than just checking journalistic accounts for factual accuracy.
I bring this up because I am beginning to suspect that Tracinski could potentially do grave harm to the Objectivist movement by giving such arguments a credibility they do not deserve. This is especially dangerous because our culture has achieved a remarkable degree of technological sophistication, running as it is on the fumes of the Enlightenment.
Proponents of the virtuous cycle argument seem to think that this technological sophistication (e.g., the mass coordination of intellectual effort via the Internet seen in blogging and the open source software movement) can "save us from our sins". (In the short term, it sometimes can, as witness the great efficiencies brought about by computers despite our over-regulated economy. Even so, what if, down the road, we can't run them when we need them because everyone wants to "stop global warming"?) But this isn't true. Despite mountains of evidence that socialized medicine is ineffective, that is exactly the sort of system California is about to adopt. The facts are out there. And so is the bad philosophy. That is why the facts are being ignored.
We need not just "fact-checking", but -- as Ayn Rand herself always cautioned -- premise-checking.
For this reason, I thank Noumenal Self, Robert Mayhew, and everyone else who has taken the time to lend their eyes and, more importantly, their minds, to the question of "What went wrong?" in Robert Tracinski's approach to understanding the interplay between philosophy and history. It is crucial to understand the nature of his error first of all because (If I am correct.) some version of it is very common today. And second, if Tracinski does not recant or stop referring to himself as an Objectivist, we will have to combat the notion that -- of all things -- Objectivism does not regard philosophical ideas as the prime motor of history! This would be to sweep under the rug one of Ayn Rand's most important observations!
Health Care is Not a Right
Via HBL, I have learned that Front Page Magazine has reprinted Leonard Peikoff's 1993 speech against socialized medicine. They introduce it as follows.
The Ayn Rand Institute released this 1993 speech by its founder on the Clinton Health Plan -- originally delivered at a Town Hall meeting in Costa Mesa, California -- because the same essential issues underlie today's debate over universal health coverage. While current proposals, such as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's, differ in their details from the Clinton plan, they share with Clinton's proposal a fundamental moral premise: the notion of a right to health insurance. -- The Editors. [bold added]This, too, is required reading, and even if you don't live in California.