Disgusting and Vile

The American soldier who tried to kill his colleagues with a grenade looks to be Muslim. So this dipshit (shame on Instapundit for linking with apparent approval to this post) writes:

I'm angry right now, and I may regret these words. But, I think it is entirely reasonable for Americans to suspect the loyalty of American Muslims. There is substantial evidence that their allegiances lie not with their country, but with their god.

And:

What has this disgusting, vile faith wrought?

I'm no fan of faith in general, but it doesn't stike me that's there's anything uniquely vile and disgusting about Islam, as such. It's the interpretation and the ideology built up around it (see below, for instance) that ratchets up the disgusting and vile rating. How many Muslims are there in the American military who have NOT tried to kill their confreres? All of them but one. (And what kind of poor excuse of a faith doesn't trump allegience to the state, anyway?)

Get a grip, man. I hope you do regret your words. There are, indeed, ugly Americans.

The Darkness of the Shade

Stop what you are doing right now and read this amazing essay by Paul Berman on Sayyid Qutb, the philosopher of Islamism, whose works have gone, to our great detriment, neglected and unanswered. Berman's immensely informative piece makes perfectly clear what I have suspected all along: the war against Islamic terrorism is a war of ideas.

Berman writes:

Al Qaeda and its sister organizations are not merely popular, wealthy, global, well connected and institutionally sophisticated. These groups stand on a set of ideas too, and some of those ideas may be pathological, which is an old story in modern politics; yet even so, the ideas are powerful. We should have known that, of course. But we should have known many things.

Berman lucidly lays out Qutb's philosophy, which is deep, deeply wrong, and thus deeply dangerous. Qutb, it appears, identifies the Christian sundering of mind and body (corresponding to the libeal west's division of the religious/spiritual from the secular/scientific) as a main source of modern pathology and anxiety, and proposes that only Islam, and life strictly lived according to the Sharia can make us once again whole, and free. So for freedom's sake, then, the Islamic law must be the state's law, and enforced unflinchingly.

We intellectuals have work to do. Judging from Berman's remarkable account, Qutb's philosophy is both profound and inspiring. If freedom is to survive–as we understand and cherish it–these ideas must be engaged, and put down. And that requires that we speak to the same needs Qutb speaks to. His followers are ready to murder and die for freedom–as they have come to understand and cherish it. The Enlightenment must put up, or be shut up. This is why philosophy matters. This is why the evaluative paralysis of post-modern nihilism isn't just self-indulgent stupidity, but a potentially deadly suppression of our civilization's intellectual immune system.

So, really, we've got to fight. But this is not a war that can be won with espionage, JDAMs, and airrcraft carriers. Berman's concludes:

It would be nice to think that, in the war against terror, our side, too, speaks of deep philosophical ideas — it would be nice to think that someone is arguing with the terrorists and with the readers of Sayyid Qutb. But here I have my worries. The followers of Qutb speak, in their wild fashion, of enormous human problems, and they urge one another to death and to murder. But the enemies of these people speak of what? The political leaders speak of United Nations resolutions, of unilateralism, of multilateralism, of weapons inspectors, of coercion and noncoercion. This is no answer to the terrorists. The terrorists speak insanely of deep things. The antiterrorists had better speak sanely of equally deep things. Presidents will not do this. Presidents will dispatch armies, or decline to dispatch armies, for better and for worse.

But who will speak of the sacred and the secular, of the physical world and the spiritual world? Who will defend liberal ideas against the enemies of liberal ideas? Who will defend liberal principles in spite of liberal society's every failure? President George W. Bush, in his speech to Congress a few days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, announced that he was going to wage a war of ideas. He has done no such thing. He is not the man for that.

Philosophers and religious leaders will have to do this on their own. Are they doing so? Armies are in motion, but are the philosophers and religious leaders, the liberal thinkers, likewise in motion? There is something to worry about here, an aspect of the war that liberal society seems to have trouble understanding — one more worry, on top of all the others, and possibly the greatest worry of all.

The Theory of Optimal Disenchantment

— The fascinating discussion following Steven Pinker's recent presentation to the President's Council on Bioethics led me to consider whether there is an optimal level of realism about the physical world, human nature, and our relationship to the universe. Let me say what I mean by this.

Think of a continuum running from an extremely superstitious and mythical conception of the universe and human nature to a rigorously empirical conception of the universe and human nature defined by some complete future science. Call this the continuum of enchantment. The history of human progress has to a large extent consisted of a rightward shift on the continuum. Truth is the enemy of mystification, and the discovery of large truths, such as the heliocentric theory of the solar system and the theory of evolution by natural selection, are, generally, victories for disenchantment. (I intend 'disenchantment' descriptively, not pejoratively.)

At any moment in time, there are ideologies that codify and organize human life around the prevailing conception of the universe and human nature. A rightward shift on the continuum presents itself as a threat to the ordering of society, especially to those with a vested interest in the ideology of the prevailing worldview. Think of the Catholic Church's attitude toward Galileo. Inevitably, these people argue that the source of disenchantment is false, because it contradicts the ideology, which defines “the truth,” and, even if true, would be destructive of human society, virtue, and meaning.

Because Galileo and Darwin did not in fact cause civilization to collapse, morality to wither away, and meaning to dissolve, those of us with a naturalistic, scientific bent are suspicious of claims, such as those made by Leon Kass, head of the bioethics council, of the dangers of further disenchantment. Kass himself does not think we would be better to return to the pre-industrial era, forsake our advanced medical knowledge, or begin believing once again that the Earth is the center of the universe. He, like almost of all us, is glad to be fairly far along the continuum. However, he does seem to think there is a danger in moving further. Is he wrong?

Pinker's exchange with the council is interesting as a piece of sociology. Pinker is on the vanguard of the forces of scientific discovery, and it is clear that he understands the need to allay the concerns of the ideologues of the prevailing conception, which he attempts to do in his presentation. Nevertheless, his disenchantment comes through in his discussion of the justification for punishment.

Pinker argues that we have probably ineradicable intuitions about retribution. However, he seems to believe that these intuitions are the consequence of a selective process that built into us behavioral dispositions that would effectively secure peace and coordinate behavior by creating a social climate of credible commitments to punish. So, the underlying logic of our intuitions of retributive justice is a logic of deterrence, and it is that underlying logic that justifies the expression of our retributive sentiments. Several on the Kass panel seemed to want Pinker to admit that some people–evil people, Nazis–should be punished because they deserve it, period. That's the position left of Pinker. But he's moved on. So he was prepared only to say that it's impossible for us to keep from feeling that they deserve it, and we're right to express that feeling, only if it serves it's proper function of deterrence.

Several on the Panel, Krauthammer for one, seemed a little unnerved by this. Pinker is not unnerved, because he has already begun to build an ideology that makes coherent and liveable his location on the continuum. He understands that the intransigence of our intuitions will guarantee that our practices of criminal justice will not unravel if we understand their justification in a way that is more sensitive to the facts about human nature. In fact, they may well be improved.

I think he's right. Yet it's not obvious that every rightward slide will be beneficial. There may well be diminishing returns to disenchantment. I don't believe that Kass is right that genetic manipulation and cloning somehow undermines human dignity, and so on. One sometimes suspects that folks like Kass know better, but think, Strauss-fashion, that the hoi polloi need to maintain a certain level of enchantment to ensure the viability of a desirable polity. I personally know folks on the right who believe that certain religious beliefs are a prerequisite for the long term enjoyment of political freedom, even though they will admit that those beliefs have no basis in reality. That's a theory of optimal disenchantment!

The problem with most theories of optimal disenchantment is that they are ad hoc and arbitrary. We are rarely given a principled basis for believing that the prospects of civilization, morality, and meaning will suffer should the average worldview shift right on the continuum. Generally, we are given nothing but a heated reiteration of the received ideology that points out how the shift threatens to undermine “what we believe.” And it is easy enough for the forces of disenchantment to just laugh it off.

But it seems possible to provide a sound theory of optimal disenchantment, and somebody ought to try. The problem is that a convincing theory of optimal disenchantment will have be drawn from a point on the continuum to the right of the putative optimum. A good theory will need to draw from the epistemically best conception of human nature, and show us how believing such and such can in fact be expected to produce bad behavior and undermine good institutions, and that believing this or that falsehood is in fact a precondition for everything that makes living worthwhile. But the epistemically best theory will be the most disenchanted one. And those most motivated to set forth a theory of optimal disenchantment are not those most prepared to lay aside the prevailing ideology in order to really understand the disenchanted facts.

Yglesias on Libertarians and Reason (and the reality of numbers, intuitionistic logic, the ontological status of moral properties, etc.)

— I'm a big fan of facile, wandering philosophical argumentation (if you seeks its monument, look around you). In this post, Matthew Yglesias, does it with gusto, but, I fear, dabbles overmuch in confusion and irrelevancy. Matthew's initial topic is why there is a tendency among libertarians to maintain that their politics partake more of reason than the alternatives. Before I dig in to Matthew a bit, I'll explain it: Ayn Rand. There you go!

Well, more should be said.

Rand held that life and happiness are man's rightful moral ends, and that the faculty of reason is the sole means for achieving them. Indeed, Rand has a secularized Thomistic conception of reason (in “The Objectivist Ethics” at least) whereby the achievement of life and happiness is reason's proper function. However, reason is able to perform its proper function only under conditions of non-coercion–that is, when negative rights are respected. (It might be thought peculiar that reason would have a proper function that could not be fulfilled throughout all but a small fraction of a rather unfree human history, but whatever.) Respect for negative rights, as Rand understands them, is tantamount to libertarianism (although she would not use the dirty 'l' word). So a libertarian polity is the condition under which it is possible for reason to properly function and reliably bring about our survival and happiness. Furthermore, the application of reason according to methods consonant with its nature will allegedly reveal this fact to any who may inquire. Many if not most libertarians got that way by reading Ayn Rand. Hence, the frequent association of libertarianism and reason. (Reason magazine was so called, I believe, because Bob Poole and Tibor Machan (I think that's who) were/are heavily influenced by Rand.)

So that's that. But what does Matthew have to say, otherwise? Well, he seems to say that its silly to promote one's political opinions as being especially rational.

[I]f I produce an argument that demonstrates “Doing X is immoral” and you produce a counterargument that proves “Doing not-X is irrational” then I win. We have, after all, a nice tautology that says you ought to do the moral thing, whereas one ought to do the rational thing if and only if it is the moral thing. Of course, one would need to produce actual arguments for both sides of this debate, but the point is that demonstrating the rationality of your moral system is neither necessary nor sufficient for establishing that it's worthy of adherence.

I wracked my brain looking for any tautology here, much less a nice one, but it continues to elude me. Like H.A. Prichard, Matthew misses that there may be more than one kind of 'ought'. There are 'ought's of morality, 'ought's of rationality, 'ought's of etiquette, 'ought's of interior decoration, and so on. Matthew assumes that the ought of morality is universally authoritative, but why think that? It is a tautology (I wouldn't say nice) that one morally ought to do what one morally ought to do. Likewise, one rationally ought to do what one rationally ought to do. And so, yes, one morally ought to do what one rationally ought to do only if it's moral. But big deal. One rationally ought to do what one morally ought to do only if it's rational. So if you establish that x-ing is immoral and I establish that refraining from x-ing is irrational, you do not “win.” To decide you the winner, we'd need to establish that moral imperatives trump rational imperatives. If one is in the grip of the moral point of view, one will, no doubt, be tempted to pound the table and beg the question and insist that one REALLY (read: morally) ought to do what morality says. But we can all play that game.

Those, like myself, in the grip of the rational point of view will want to know why, if morality will not help me to achieve my ends, should I care about it? Matthew's infatuation with morals, detached as it is from rationality, strikes me as rather arbitrary.

There's rather more to say about Matthew's post, and I may say more later. Somehow Matthew's post terminates in a discussion of moral realism, via Dummett and mathematical intutitionism. Perhaps Matthew is being innovatively synthetic. I hope so.

If Iraq is Such a Direct Threat, Why are We Willing to Wait?

— Good column in the Orange County Register by Cato's Ted Galen Carpenter. Here's the thrust:

If Iraq poses a dire threat, why has the United States bothered to go to the United Nations? Again, the contrast with America's actions in Afghanistan is stark. In the latter case, the United States invoked the right of self-defense and took action on its own. In the case of Iraq, U.S. leaders have wasted months going through the diplomatic agony of securing a U.N. resolution and the endless weeks of pointless U.N. inspections. Washington continues to play the diplomatic game of trying to secure a second resolution — one that would explicitly authorize the use of force.

The United Nations is an international debating society, not a serious security body. The United States and the other major powers have typically taken to the U.N. only those issues that are peripheral to their own security. They bypass the world body and take action unilaterally or with regional coalitions on more serious matters. The willingness to go through a multistage diplomatic farce at the U.N. suggests that Bush administration officials, despite their statements, do not really regard Iraq as a major security threat to the United States.

I think he's right. Either Iraq is a direct threat or it is not. If it is, then we should have invaded already. If it's not, then we would be behaving exactly like we are. But in that case, an invasion isn't justified.

The Uses of Truth

— Lovely little essay by Dennett against the postmodernists. (Link from A&L Daily).

Let me quote just one line, in appreciation of the metaphor. Dennett is speaking of the way disputes on the frontiers of science provide for some the impression that science isn't reliable, or is just one style of assertion among other.

“[T]he warfare on the cutting edge of any science draws attention away from the huge uncontested background, the dull metal heft of the axe that gives the cutting edge its power.”