Quick Roundup 140

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."

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]
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.

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.

-- CAV


Anonymous said...

Regarding your statement: "(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.)"

This is an issue I have pondered for quite some time. I live in New York City, the most heavily taxed and regulated portion of the United States (recently, the home of the smoking ban and the trans-fat ban). It is interesting that in this most capitalistic of places, it is the most regulated/taxed, and it is the home of the most intensely concentrated population of leftist/environmentalists.

The leftist New Yorkers are able to evade the consequences of their beliefs because, despite the governmental assault on wealth-creation in New York, the city does reasonably well. Property values rise, large Wall Street bonuses are paid, the restaurants and bars are busy.

New York succeeds, despite onerous government policies, precisely because the "high-technology society" you refer to is so productive. For example, consider New York's principal industry, finance, and consider how enhancements in computer power have made that industry radically more productive.

New York also benefits from its legacy as the financial and business capital of America. As America has prospered, much of that progress has inured to the gain of America's business center. While New York remains the business center, it will benefit from the growth in the economy, even if New York becomes a less-friendly place to do business. This "business capital" effect has so far overcome the burden of the government's anti-business policies.

There can be no doubt that New York has done well over the years, but this progress has occurred *despite* the tremendous assault on business sponsored by the city, state and federal governments (e.g. of the latter: the Sarbanes-Oxley Act). [Imagine how much greater New York would be without, for example, rent control, or the city and state income tax, or the gargantuan welfare spending, or the zoning laws, etc.]

However, this is a subtle point that will be utterly lost on the leftist New Yorkers. All they see are the drinks in their hand, and the food on their forks at the city's fashionable restaurants and watering holes where they discuss how to solve global warming, or how new public housing needs to be built for the homeless.

If I discuss this issue with a New Yorker, I always remind him that actions have consequences, and that New York's prosperity is not causeless. Eventually, a tipping point will be reached, and the city will have another economic crisis. It did have a severe one in the 1970s due to onerous policies that caught up with the city. In that decade, the city went bankrupt.


This discussion is a bit of a tangent to Tracinski's writings, but the connection is that he may be making the same mistake that leftist New Yorkers make, by failing to properly distinguish between material success and the philosophical/economic ideas that underlie it. Chronologically, for a period of time material success can proceed apace even if the ideas that support it have withered on the vine, or even if economic policies are cutting away at the foundations of that success. There is always a lag between changes in ideas held by people, and their actions in the world.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thank you for providing this excellent example, which is almost certainly better than any I would have come up with if I'd had time to provide one.

I would go further to say that this kind of error is a species of the "broken window fallacy" demolished long ago by Frederic Bastiat.

With your New Yorkers, the point is almost blatantly obvious. With your "virtuous cyclers", they see your New Yorkers and their food and drink -- and fail to see that there ought to be even more (and wealthier) New Yorkers and better food and drink -- and conclude that maybe thier foolish political ideas aren't as big a deal as they really are.

That's interesting, because what that means is that Reynolds (and probably Tracinski) are actually making the same mistake as the New Yorkers.

Anonymous said...

Regarding your comment: "I would go further to say that this kind of error is a species of the "broken window fallacy" demolished long ago by Frederic Bastiat."

Yes, you are right. It is also a variety of the "goods are here" mentality identified by Ayn Rand. :-)

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks again. I wouldn't have made that connection if you hadn't stopped by.