Sunday, December 30, 2012

Eve of 2013

We come toward the final hours of 2012, a year of vast changes for me personally (leaving a job that wasn't idea but was stable, moving to a new country, being immersed in a different culture, beginning to learn to speak a different language, and much more besides). Whether civilization moved forward is, of course, an entirely different matter. We could single out points of promising technological advance (3D printing comes to mind); but did civilization begin to move forward past its present amalgamation of Third and Fourth Stages, or is the West in a cul-de-sac that is destined to erode. As we said in the last post, despite Comte’s use of the word law for what he believed he’d observed in historical development, there is nothing inevitable in any advance forward. History is not “law governed” in that sense. It depends on what individuals do; it depends on thought leaders who emerge, if any, and what they are able to accomplish.

This past week has seen any number of predictions for 2013. These are hazardous, of course, if taken too seriously. None of us has a crystal ball. A few writers (e.g., here) have looked back on their predictions for 2012 and, to their credit, honestly noted their misses as well as the occasional direct hit. Anyone who predicted total economic collapse in 2012, however, missed it by a mile, obviously; such predictions reinforced my commitment to gradualism (the idea that if decline occurs, it will occur in slow stages, as was the case with the Roman Empire) as opposed to apocalypticism (the idea that we’ll see a relatively sudden and unstructured collapse, with cities in flames, riots in the streets, etc., etc.). My position: the latter is not impossible, of course; just not as likely as the former. The U.S.’s masses are, by and large, content as long as they have sports, reality television, hand-held gadgets, and the calming voices of mainstream media pseudo-pundits even when crises erupt.

So in that spirit, here are my predictions for 2013. Take them for what they are worth. I am not predicting revolution. My predictions are modest. I don’t consider them the product of genius. I consider them common horse sense.

(1) The standard of living in the U.S. has been dropping and will continue to drop. This both has had and will continue to have several causes. First, Ben Bernanke’s QE-to-infinity money creation machine will continue to undermine the value of the dollar; Congress will continue to approve whatever Helicopter Ben does. Only a small amount of the newly created money will enter the general economy, of course; most will go into the coffers of superelite-controlled banking leviathans. Otherwise we would already have seen waves of inflation beyond anything yet recorded. But prices of food, fuel, and other consumer goods in the U.S. have been rising steadily alongside QE’s 1 and 2, and will continue to rise. Taxes will also rise in 2013; this is a given.

(2) Real unemployment—that is, the actual figure (reported, to the best of my knowledge, only on—will continue to rise, possibly surpassing 25%. This will be the case even if the “official” (U3) figure drops. The “official” figure, after all, counts a person as unemployed only if he is out of work and has sought work within the past four weeks. Otherwise he drops off the radar. I continue to be amazed that so many Americans are so hypnotized that they repeat the “official” figure mechanically and see the U.S. economy as improving, however slightly, when the “official” figure drops from 7.9% to 7.7%. Exacerbating both unemployment and underemployment (both part-timers who cannot find full-time work and those with college degrees who are working at jobs not requiring degrees, e.g., as bartenders, bouncers, etc., because those are the only jobs they could find) will be Obama-care as more of its provisions kick in starting in January. Were I making predictions past 2013 and further down the pike, I would say that eventually we will see shortages of doctors, as those who can do so will take early retirement to escape a system controlled by the federal government (operating through Medicare and Medicaid) and the insurance and pharmaceuticals industries. Young people smart enough to read the handwriting on the wall will not go into the medical professions.

(3) Assuming Obama and/or the liberals in Congress cannot get significant gun control legislation passed, I predict we will see at least one more massacre of the Aurora, Colo. and Newtown, Conn. level. It will be a false flag, as those very likely were—I call them false flags because of specifics regarding these cases (countless links to material online on my Facebook page) that do not add up, and in some cases do not make any rational sense however we look at them. (Look here and here.) A strong anti-gun contingent will emerge within the general population. Whether this contingent will effect actual gun control remains to be seen. I will not predict that it will, only that the stage will be set for a possible violent confrontation, because there are a lot of people scattered throughout the Southwest, in the Northwest, and elsewhere, who will refuse to give up their firearms. If pressed, some will organize and prepare to shoot back if that’s what it comes to. Decisions will have to be made on who will back down. I am not any too sure it will be private gun owners, who recognize that a disarmed citizenry is at the mercy of both its own criminal class and its own government (sometimes the two are difficult to distinguish!). Behind the scenes: there are powerful people who would like to see a totally disarmed U.S. citizenry. Their variation on my Fifth Stage is World Government, not World Liberty. They realize that World Government is impossible as long as a Constitution with a Second Amendment is in force, with people willing to use force to defend the ideals represented in those documents.

(4) Foreign wars will continue on scales small enough to remain manageable, as in Syria. We will see continued skirmishes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, and probably on the African continent with U.S. troops moving in down there now. All this continued ill-advised interventionism will cost money, of course, and will drive the U.S. national debt still higher. It will probably surpass $17 trillion by December 31, 2013. (Real indebtedness is, of course, much, much higher.) I am not going to predict a head-on confrontation with Iran, although an incident in the Strait of Hormuz that could precipitate such a confrontation is not impossible. I don’t think the global superelite wants such a confrontation; it’s simply too dangerous, given that Iran would likely have the backing of both Russia and China. The global superelite is not going to authorize any confrontation or event that could cause them to lose control over the situation, resulting in the sort of all-out war that could have them presiding over a radioactive wasteland!

(5) The Liberty Movement will still be around, but with Ron Paul’s retirement from Congress (his Farewell Address deserves to be listened to and read over and over again), it is ever in danger of being increasingly marginalized in 2013 if it does not develop some new strategies. The present ones have not been working. The libertarian wing within the GOP was ineffective against the brazen power-playing of the neocons—probably because they still believe that such decisions as who receives a presidential nomination are made rationally, in response to reasoned arguments, instead of based on lines of authority supported by habit and emotion. I wish I could predict that the Liberty Movement will learn to adopt a strategy not unlike that used successfully by the Fabians over 100 years ago: penetrate and permeate. I cannot. For starters, the Liberty Movement is fundamentally too honest for that, and in societies permeated by corruption, honesty works against you consistently. I do predict that some will take a cue from the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus who advised his followers to withdraw from politics as a condition of achieving a tranquil life. The number of Liberty supporters who are moving to Chile is definitely on the increase, little by little. I have met several, three of which have already moved here and an entire family considering making the move, in just this past month. One may bemoan the fact that Liberty minded people are abandoning the U.S. If more and more such people come here, that leaves fewer and fewer to fight the good fight back home. But these people are thinking of their families, and looking at a society that may not be perfect but is well behind the rest of the West on the curve, with the hope of beginning new and better lives—historically the reasons people have always emigrated to new lands. Many people, of course, cannot afford a relocation of that magnitude. Having realized long ago that government is not their friend at any level, they will withdraw into themselves and their enclave-like communities, dealing only with each other as much as possible and having as little to do with the larger society as possible.

Where does all this leave the idea of a Fifth Stage of Civilization? I obviously will not predict that the West will discover, all at once, any Fifth Stage in 2013. The Third and Fourth Stages will continue to prevail, as so many still locked into the relevant worldviews (materialism, for example) are yet unable to conceive of the possibilities of anything higher.

But in future writings both here and hopefully elsewhere we will continue to examine the possibility of moving forward (we cannot move back, at least not systematically): away from the scientistic materialism of Stage Three and the postmodernist skepticism of Stage Four to the perspective of what would be Stage Five, based on Global Liberty (not Global Government). What might this mean? Were such a society to come to fruition, it would be characterized by freedom for the individual who wants it, who is willing to work to achieve it, and who can assume the responsibilities, moral and economic, that go along with maintaining it. On a larger scale, such a society also recognizes the Creator of all of spatiotemporal physical reality as the real Power behind the scenes. Its people would urge peace instead of war, with problems solved through careful dissection, discussion, and ongoing cooperation instead of by force. Genuine community with any hope of lasting can only be based on such premises. The Fifth Stage of Civilization may involve both the highest and most advanced technology in some of its aspects, if 3D printing indeed catches on and begins to live up to its potential; and it should also involve the “low” technology of, e.g., industrial hemp farming (most recently defended here). Hemp, after all, is one of the most versatile crops ever cultivated, and can be used to make very durable clothing as well as fuel that is environment-friendly in the sense that it burns clean and should provide the sincerely environmentally conscious with all that they need.

To be sure, however and finally, what Christians call sin will probably ever stand in our way, which only means that the struggle to create and maintain the good life, within even the highest civilization, is never complete and never to be taken for granted. The struggle never ends, in other words. My final prediction is that it will continue in 2013. I dare say this one is impossible to get wrong! The struggle for Liberty must continue! Moreover, it must be as global as the struggle to impose Authority has been. After all, all peoples deserve a chance at freedom, not just those of us fortunate enough to have been born in the U.S. In defense of these goals, and the ideals motivating them, the last thing we should ever do is give up!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Why a Fifth Stage of Civilization Might Not Happen in the West: Thoughts on the November 6 Election.

In just four days the election of November 6, 2012, has been analyzed and agonized over so much that it would be impossible to summarize it all. One thing is clear: always assuming no vote fraud in crucial states like Ohio, U.S. voters were willing to send Barack Obama, easily the worst president in U.S. history, back to the White House for four more years. This despite (1) his utter failure to contribute anything toward turning the U.S. economy around by encouraging a business-friendly or entrepreneur-friendly economic climate; on the contrary, under Obama’s watch unemployment rose to depression-era levels (see below), food and gas prices also soared, the percentage of people living below the official poverty line reached the worst levels since the Great Depression, and the national debt skyrocketed from $11 trillion to over $16 trillion with no end in sight. (2) Obama’s foreign policy has been based on a level of war, violence, and destruction that makes George W. Bush look like a man of peace by comparison, also with no end in sight as a confrontation with Iran now looks inevitable. (3) Obama’s continuing with the domestic police and surveillance state which began under Bush II and, very likely, will make whatever is left of Constitutionally-limited government, the rule of law, and privacy, things of the past within four years.

What we might add is that never before has an election season highlighted the immense gulf between fact and fantasy among American voters. The fantasy is that the differences between Obama and Mitt Romney were more than cosmetic. The fantasy is reflected in the hostility between Obama’s supporters and Romney’s which reached levels I have not seen in my lifetime (and I am old enough to have been following political campaigns as far back as the Nixon era).

The fact is that the Obama and Romney agendas were in agreement on all these essentials:

Both, as just said, have pro-war, interventionist foreign policies.

Both favor expansionist government and the regulatory state.

Both favor unrestricted immigration.

Both favor the continued outsourcing of jobs as a consequence of corporatist “free trade”; combine this with their support for expansionist government and both support, by implication, the main economic forces destroying the capacity of the U.S. to sustain a middle class: the fact that other things being equal, corporations always move operations to where labor is cheapest and regulations, laxest.

Both Obama and Romney service the superelite international banking cartel based in the City of London.

Both support the Federal Reserve System, the superelite’s primary instrument of economic control in the U.S.

Both therefore support an economy based on a fractional, inflationary monetary system which devalues the currency, wiping out incentives to save, and on steadily accumulating debt.

Both have supported and will continue to support bailouts for leviathan corporations (especially banks).

Both support a corporatism in food and pharmaceuticals, and factory farming, over the natural health movement against which the corporations would like to use federal authorities to suppress in all forms, be they dietary supplements, family farms, or just the producers of raw milk.

Both favor the brand of health care socialism that goes by the name Obamacare, which is not about health care but how health care is paid for. Obamacare does not contain one word about, e.g., primary prevention. What it does ensure is that health care will get more expensive, less efficient, and increasingly scarce as doctors leave the profession rather than comply with cumbersome regulations.

Both support continuing the irrational, destructive war on drugs which has resulted in the U.S. having the largest per capita prison population of any advanced nation in the world.

Both support continuing the centralization of “public education” through the U.S. Department of Education.

Both support the current tax structure.

Both favor police-state measures such as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which allows for the potential indefinite incarceration of U.S. citizens without specific charges, due process, or legal counsel.

Both will expand Homeland Security and the activities of the Transportation Security Administration. The latter has already expanded its reach beyond airports into bus terminals, subway stations, and tractor-trailer weigh stations. One may expect the TSA to begin random checkpoints on interstate highways and major thoroughfares in the wee hours of the morning when it can be done without creating traffic backups.

Both support the growing cold war on Internet freedom.

Both support, at least by implication, the growing tendencies to demonize the various freedom communities (libertarian, Patriot, Constitutionalist, prepper, homeschooler, etc.) by labeling them potential “domestic terror” threats.

Both would probably support using military might to suppress a vibrant freedom movement, or possibly a secession movement in one or more States, that had reached a critical mass: with the NDAA and similar items of legislation some dating to the Bush years, and through any number of executive orders Obama has signed over the past four years, all the machinery is in place for such, with the permanent incarceration of its leadership, and it would be entirely legal.

In light of all these levels of fundamental agreement all of which were off the table during the contrived and orchestrated “debates,” a rational person would have to wonder what all the fighting between the two camps was over.

I fear rationality has very little to do with life in the U.S. today—or in Western civilization generally.

Where does all this fit in with our previous posts, in which we have discussed how Stage Three thinking (in Comte’s words, “scientific and positive”) eventually gave way to what I call Stage Four (“postmodern and negative”), and whether doors will eventually open to a Stage Five? This last, of course, is the primary subject of this blog.

Stage Three thinking had/has the advantage that its participants / adherents believed they had acquired genuine, objective, value-neutral truth about the universe and about ourselves. They believed the methods of the physical and natural sciences—also the social sciences—were the key, whatever their disagreements over specifics. Stage Three thinking, whatever our criticisms of it, has an impressive resume. The combination of respect for science as free inquiry, the unleashing of technological creativity of all kinds, and the furthering of commercial activities to improve the standard of living of all who participate (and many who don’t), built the greatest civilization the world had ever seen in what—in epochal terms—was a relatively short period of time (a few hundred years).

Niall Ferguson, in his latest book Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011), outlines the “killer apps” that built Western civilization: competition, science, the rule of law, modern medicine, consumerism, and a work ethic. While certain of these contain backward glances into Stage Two thinking (especially the rule of law), Stage Three civilization allowed them to bear full fruit as a seamless unity for the first time.

It is easy for those of us born in the twentieth century to draw benefits from Stage Three accomplishments without appreciating the amount of work that went into them. Somewhere here is the source of the entitlement mentality that characterizes the typical Obama supporter. The fact that Obama was reelected would indicate that entitlement addicts now outnumber those with a work ethic. When work no longer pays, people will gradually cease to work as it brings them no advantages. Civilization will, at that point, cease to enjoy further advances and begin to decline. If I may give Ayn Rand a quick nod, Atlas will begin to shrug. Some will say that decline has already begun. I do not believe the West is at that point just yet, if only because new technologies continue to appear in, e.g., electronics and high technology generally, the products of genuine enthusiasts for whom the work is an end in itself, not something they do just for the money.

So when we draw upon disquieting essays such as Bertrand Russell’s “A Free Man’s Worship” or Walter T. Stace’s “Man Against Darkness” or the literature of existentialism or the products of “modern art” to highlight those areas where Stage Three falls short via its gradual creation of a moral vacuum within civilization, we do not do so lightly, without a clear acknowledgement of its accomplishments and of the need to preserve what was best in them.

Stage Four, in this case, came about because of these weaknesses. While Ferguson sees the West as having fallen into a period of self-doubt, the problem of the moral vacuum of, e.g., utilitarianism was quite genuine. Some may be sacrificed involuntarily and even unknowingly supposedly to benefit others (e.g., the Tuskegee Experiment). Unnecessary wars, of course, sacrifice entire peoples and cultures to benefit the expansionist empire. We kept careful count of the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. I don't know if anyone accurately counted the number of dead Iraqis. Were they less than human? Stage Three clearly went overboard in its optimism about human nature and its meliorism. Technology makes us more efficient and more comfortable, but it does not make us better people. Two World Wars plus the Cold War—plus the past 20 years during which we’ve seen the seeds of empire sprout full bloom in the West—should have cured us of that. These are observations, by the way, which philosophers are uniquely qualified to make. Why is the philosophical community (with very rare exceptions) not making them?

Be that as it may, Stage Four loses all confidence in the quest for truth—scientific as well as moral. Truth becomes a cultural artifact, invariably historicized and relativized in a manner not dissimilar to what happened to religion in the hands of Stage Three thinkers. Arguing in defense of putatively important truths is blurred with the category of imposition based on authority—an idea developed in great detail within postmodernist philosophy and cultural studies. (Back in the 1990s I had a running debate with a professor emeritus at a major university for whom this distinction seemed literally unintelligible. His way of putting the matter: “Truth is determined by authority.” I would ask in response: “Is your statement true, given that you aren’t in a position of authority?” I saw no indication that he understood the question or its significance.)

Not just is confidence lost in the quest for intellectual truth, but respect for truths essential to any sort of sound public policy is lost. Truth in a variety of public arenas ceases to be important. When truth ceases to be important, the masses believe fantasies. Indeed, almost automatically they come to live in a fantasy world which politicians and mainstream media shills merely have to reinforce to accomplish their goals which, in this environment, will involve furthering a more controlled society. The fantasy, in the case of Romney, was that he represented a viable alternative to, and fundamental change of direction from, the past four years of the Obama presidency. Orchestrated “debates” didn’t need to do much to reinforce the fantasy, as so many were already willing to believe it. Other fantasies include an “employment rate” that does not count as unemployed anyone who stopped looking for work a month ago (the “U3” rate), thus radically understating the true extent of unemployment in the U.S. which has been at near-depression levels; and an “inflation rate” that fails to include food and fuel costs (“core inflation,” a bogus statistic created during the Nixon era with then-Fed chair Arthur Burns). For antidotes to these fantasies of officialdom, go here.

What I am leading up to in this discussion is just the following: by talking about a Stage Five I am not talking about something that is, in some sense, inevitable (even if various aspects of a possible Stage Five mindset possibly exist in incipient forms in, e.g., systems theory and presuppositionalist theology). There are no “laws of history” in that sense. Comte’s phrase Law of the Three Stages is actually something of a misnomer. There is no inevitability that a given stage will lead to its successor, as Marx believed capitalism would create the conditions for socialism. Most cultures, after all, never achieve a Stage Two level, developing distinct philosophies apart from their theologies. Only in the West did Stage Three develop and come to fruition—although other civilizations have now “downloaded the killer apps” at least in part. China is probably the best example. Other nations showing promise: India, Russia, Brazil, and of course, Chile.

There is no guarantee that the West (by which I tend to mean the Anglo-European world) will survive the skepticism, self-doubt, and public flight into fantasy that characterize a Stage Four culture. Stage Four might well be the furthest the West gets. This blog is an attempt to define the problems and obstacles ahead. We human beings are problem solvers, and as problems go, this is the Big One—the hugest problem facing the West. Breaking through skepticism, self-doubt, and the tendency toward fantasy and escapism is one of the biggest challenges of those of us seeking to go beyond Stage Four and bring about the nurturing and eventual flourishing of Stage Five—at which we finally achieve wisdom born of age and bitter experience, including acknowledging our limitations as finite beings. This might soon become a still larger challenge, since the reality of unsustainable fiscal policy will make itself felt sooner or later—and the longer it takes, the rougher will be the landing on the shores of economic reality! Many writers (e.g., Michael Snyder, author of this blog) support the apocalyptic view that a crash of unprecedented proportions is just around the corner and could occur as soon as next year! I've avoided such pronouncements, since it seems clear that the global elite doesn't want this to happen; they could easily lose control. Could it be that such an event is necessary, however, and that afterwards it will be possible to build up a better civilization assuming that what was best in the West can be preserved? Doing so obviously will be several magnitudes more difficult than just reexamining our first premises now would have been. Most people will doubtless be too busy just trying to survive! The Ron Paul movement was attempting just this sort of reevaluation, especially where economics was concerned. The GOP elites responded with resolute hostility and brazen dishonesty. The entire country might soon be paying the price.


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Saturday, October 27, 2012

Philosophy: Its Second-Stage Rise and Third-Stage Retreat

Author & physicist Freeman Dyson has penned this review of a book entitled Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story (Liveright, 2012) by Jim Holt. Dysan examine's Holt's foray into the views of a handful of philosophy professors, based on interviews the author conducted, whom he divides conveniently into "materialists" who would give ontological priority to the physical universe discovered by science, and the "Platonists" who would give ontological priority to a realm of ideas (Plato's Forms being, of course, the earliest known exemplar of this kind of stance).

This kind of division is simplistic, of course, but I don't wish to dwell on that here. Holt sees Wittgenstein and Heidegger as the two most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. Whether this is true I also won't get into, but I think we would have to include them in the top five. What makes Dyson's comments worth thinking about is his observation, late in the review, that philosophy basically disappeared from Western civilization as an efficacious endeavor, one might say, in the latter half of the 1800s. At this point Dyson enters the purview of these meditations. Major philosophers of the past (John Locke is an example--especially in Two Treatises of Government) spoke to major issues, and was read and taken seriously by those in the political establishment of the time. Locke moreover, saw a man such as Isaac Newton as a colleague with whom he could speak & work closely, and the feeling was mutual. In the late 1600s scientists characterized themselves as natural philosophers as the term scientist hadn't been coined. What we call science today was then considered as a branch of philosophy.

In the 1800s, however, everything changed. It wasn't the rise of the modern university, for philosophy had risen to prominence in the modern university by the time of Kant and Hegel; after this era, philosophy began its retreat into oblivion. By the middle of the 1900s, and continuing as we inch into the 2000s, there is an abundance of philosophy professors--perhaps more than ever before!--almost all without influence outside their immediate academic enclaves. They may know the names of leading scientists, but with very rare exceptions leading scientists don't know their names. Why and how philosophy lost its importance is itself an important topic--at least in this author's view. Dyson mentions William Whewell who finally coined the term scientist in 1833 as part of his struggle to free science from philosophy as having its own identity. Whewell was hardly laboring in isolation. He was one of the harbingers of the turning point.

This all ties in with why I find Auguste Comte's "Law of the Three Stages" so inviting--not, again, because I agree with Comte but because I see him as having touched on something very important about modern civilization. The historically important philosophers of the past--the Platos, the Aquinases, the John Lockes, the Adam Smiths, the Immanuel Kants, etc.--were Stage Two thinkers, in our terminology: "metaphysical and abstract." Once civilization begins to enter Stage Three--"scientific and positive"--it appears to have very little use for philosophy which is thereby consigned to the oblivion of academic microspecialization. The standard explanation for this is that the sciences obtain measurable, testable, reproducible results while philosophy does not. Science clearly advances in the sense that more recent theories are objectively superior to older ones; to question this is to invite some strange looks, at least in polite company.* Technology, moreover, increases convenience & makes the lives of everyone better via mastery over one's environment--come to think of it, what was life was like before the Internet?! Commerce (speaking very generally) produces & distributes the products of technologists along with myriad other goods people want and are willing to pay for. In the Secular City**, these aren't seen as needing "justification." The results speak for themselves. Thus a civilization based on science, technology & commerce has "outgrown" philosophy which thereby becomes the province of impractical dreamers. Could this be true? Few professional philosophers could run a business, of course (although the younger ones are reasonably tech savvy). Suffice it to say, characterizing a John Locke or an Adam Smith as an "impractical dreamer" would hardly be accurate or fair.

To be sure, there is a sense in which philosophy brought about its own near-disappearance via Comte's positivistic model & its close relatives who followed Whewell and physicists such as Ernst Mach who sought to eliminate the "metaphysical" elements from physics. The ideal of the "scientific philosopher" caught on within the discipline by the early 1900s, and it became assumed that acquiring knowledge about the world was the province of science alone; philosophy was just not suited to "compete" with the sciences in any way. (There were first rate philosophers such as Frederic B. Fitch and Brand Blanshard who disagreed and followed their own muses, but by and large the profession simply ignored their work.)

"Third Stage" civilization, however, has been characterized not just by the rise of science, technology & commerce but also of concentrations of power. While the Secular City has far more creature comforts than its ancestor villages, it has its underside. Elsewhere I (along with many others) have charted the rise of the Western power elite alongside science, technology and commerce, which they bent to suit their desires. These powers, emanating from (but hardly limited to) extremely wealthy cartels of private international bankers and financiers, also used their wealth to shape education, including universities, to produce a certain kind of work force in a certain kind of environment--one for which the term capitalism continued to be used despite the growing consonance of interests between big business and big government. To the extent the elite considered the matter at all (and I am not saying they did), they would have found very useful for their purposes a species of "philosophy" that confined itself to classrooms, academic offices and library cubicles. Positivistic philosophy (and its descendents in the "analytic" schools) fit very nicely into the kind of university the elite wanted.

Stage Three philosophy, after all, never addressed such questions as, What is the best form of government? or Should government be limited to a few easily delineated functions? Twentieth century logical positivism confined itself to the analysis of language and of scientific knowledge which it took for granted. Thus it would never get to the "big questions" taken on by its ancestor. Absent any anchor or grounding for doing so, it would never question or challenge the structures of power in any efficacious way--not even the powers shaping the universities. While there have been exceptions to this--there have been philosophers who tried to address the major problems of modern civilization (the quite different philosophers Peter Singer and Richard Rorty come to mind), by and large philosophy is moving into the twenty first century as an endeavor without influence.

Moreover--as discussed in earlier posts--Western civilization has moved from Stage Three to what I characterize as Stage Four, a stage not "scientific and positive" but in many (not all) respects as "postmodern and negative"--negative, that is, about the capabilities of the human mind to reach "objective truth" in some sense of that term. Think of Rorty again. Rorty began essentially in the linguistic school, began working out the dynamic of mid-twentieth century analytic philosophy in a new and highly original way, and ended up with a stance where "professional philosophy" has little left to do--except meditate on the futility of its past and how little it has to do in the present! I would argue that the relative disappearance of philosophy has left Western civilization philosophically adrift, unable to articulate much less defend Western core values, and thus vulnerable to those who would undermine those values. One of the core values John Locke clearly articulated and defended, for example, was private property rights. Today, private property rights are everywhere under attack. They are, one might say, conditional rather than given: conditional in the sense that the property owner retains his property if he pays the correct amount of taxes to his government. The average person, who never thinks about such things, takes this stage of affairs for granted unless caught up in a dialogue such as the following:

"Do you own your house?"

"Yes, of course."

"How do you know you own your house?"

"I have the deed right here."

"The deed says you own your house?"

[Impatiently] "Of course it does! It's a deed, and it has my name on it!"

"Do you pay property taxes?"


"What happens if you don't pay your property taxes."

[A tad more thoughtfully now] "The government will eventually come and take my house."

"In that case, who really owns your house?"

Unfortunately, absent philosophical reflection on any large scale, we have come to inhabit a world where those with enormous wealth and in power (they are frequently one and the same) simply assume that power gets the last word, and in the Secular City, it essentially does. Why, since the idea is so seldom articulated much less challenged, would the elites make any other assumption? And if the body of ideas that led up to and were incorporated into private property rights are no longer articulated, then how long can such an institution survive when it gets in the way of those who want to enlarge the scope of their wealth and power?

To bring the discussion completely down to Earth, does anyone really believe Barack Obama has read any recent works of philosophy (except perhaps Fabian socialist Saul Alinsky)? Does anyone think Mitt Romney has studied John Locke or Adam Smith?

Fourth Stage philosophy has, by and large (and unfortunately), continued with the errors of Third Stage philosophy--institutional as well as intellectual. As a discipline it continues the near-invisibility which fell across the field as Third Stage thinking and living came to dominate the Secular City. Particularly embarrassing are the so-called "tenured radicals" who see themselves as "speaking truth to power" because they are oh-so-politically correct in bringing about a more "diverse" campus & badmouthing George W. Bush. Their writings are more microspecialized and less readable than even logical positivism. Most "professional philosophers," of course, don't fall into this category but still take this state of affairs for granted as they teach their service courses, and for pay that even for tenured status is significantly less than what is afforded professors in, say, the department of management over in the business school. They resent it, but don't see themselves as in any position to do anything about it, so in the end they just accept it.

The only way I see to change this state of affairs is for philosophy to change itself from within. This is admittedly a tall order. Philosophy must recover that portion of Stage Two thinking that identified and evaluated worldviews within civilization: identifying the kinds of assumptions made in the contexts of science, technology and commerce that constitute a worldview, and then evaluating them by whether they are helpful or harmful either to civilization at large or some part of it. For example, whether human beings ought to live lives governed by hedonistic values ("the good is pleasure") or whether their lives should be governed by transcendent ones is surely an issue that could affect the course of affairs in commerce: a citizenry steeped in hedonism will choose to spend money on a rather different range of products than a more ascetic citizenry. A society of short-term thinkers will make different aggregate choices than a society of long-term thinkers. The former set of choices are more likely to be harmful in the long run than the latter set of choices; I would submit that this is open to direct observation and so is objectively knowable in any reasonable sense of that phrase.

Lest there be any doubt, the kind of work I am talking about is getting done, and sometimes it is getting done very well. Consider Niall Ferguson's new book Civilization (2012); or Jared Diamond's major works Guns, Germs and Steel (1999) and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail (2005), or Stewart Brand's Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility (1999) or his more recent Whole Earth Discipline: An Eco-Pragmatist Manifesto (2009). Stephen Hawking's latest book The Grand Design (2010), moreover, surely addresses some of the major philosophical issues of the entirety of Western civilization with its pronouncement that modern theoretical physics can explain the origins and workings of the physical universe without referencing a Supreme Being.

The work, in other words, is getting done; just not by philosophers. Do philosophers wish to contribute to these dialogues, or don't they. (Will they be allowed by their circumstances to contribute? is a separate and no less interesting question.)

Perhaps a species of philosophy that embraces this kind of self-description--combined, of course, with what is necessary to bring forward from the earlier stages--will be a species of philosophy capable of advancing to consciousness of itself as Fifth Stage, and worthy of a position of influence in the Fifth Stage of Civilization. Perhaps we can one day have a post-Secular City!


*The so-called social sciences might constitute exceptions, of course. Within disciplines from economics to psychology are multiple "schools" of thought (or, to use Kuhn's term, paradigms) whose adherents don't consider the adherents of the others to be doing "sound economics" or "scientific psychology."

**I hope it is obvious that by Secular City I am not referring to any particular city. The phrase's scope of reference is any or all of the major modern cities in the Western world that are essentially elite-managed, where such practices as "scientific management" prevail, and where the discussion of fundamental ideas is mostly relegated to classrooms and the coffeehouses prevalent in university districts. The phrase comes from Harvey Cox's 1966 book of that title.


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Saturday, October 13, 2012

First Stage Belief, Fifth Stage Belief

For this weekend's post I am returning to the Stages view of civilization in order to discuss one problem: belief in the Christian God. (This started with an attempt to respond to the comment on the post from two weeks ago that again got too long. Last time it took several posts to respond to a critical comment. Too awkward.)

Let's review the Stages view briefly, confining ourselves to its attitude toward Christianity. Stage One is the condition of: "God said it; I believe it; and that settles it." Very little room for discussion there. Stage Two urges such arguments as: Everything that exists must have a cause for its existence. Nothing can be its own cause. We either have an infinite regress of causes and effects, or a First Cause. An infinite regress of causes and effects is impossible; consequently there must be a First Cause, and this we call God. (This is the nuts and bolts of the cosmological argument--see St. Thomas Aquinas, the Five Ways.) Much more room for discussion ... of why the argument doesn't work.

Stage Three--Auguste Comte's stage, the pinnacle of the Law of the Three Stages as he saw it--argues against the credibility of Christianity far more than for it. Stage Three, remember, emphasizes scientific observation and hypothetico-deductive reasoning as providing the foundation of our knowledge of the world. It respects Occam's Razor: do not multiply explanations beyond necessity (or: the structurally simplest explanation tends to be the right one). So when Stage Three Thinkers look at what came before, they immediately see the quantum logical leap from the First Cause of Aristotle and Aquinas to the Christian God. All such supposed proofs fail. We can only say, with Stage Three, there's no proof. Science alone has given us no reason to believe there are any gods or other supernatural agencies. Why not simply become an agnostic? Why not become a Humanist--who begins ethics from a human perspective rather than basing its view of the universe on a deity who probably does not exist.

Consider, though: there are many forms Humanism can take, because there are many possible human starting points for painting a moral picture of the world. Do we rest on human reason, as Kant did? Do we rest on our pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain, and for the greater number, as Bentham did? Do we urge pursuing the greatest happiness for the greatest number, as Mill did? Or, finally, do we become rational ethical egoists, as Ayn Rand did and as many Libertarians have done? All of these ethical theories have well-drawn drawbacks. Christian ethics is surely no worse off than the utilitarian theory that is fully consistent with, e.g., the Tuskegee Experiment.

Stage Four (postmodernism) sees this multiplicity--no different fundamentally than the multiplicity of religions in the world--and wonders what it means to be a Humanist.

A possible view at the end of the road for both Stage Three and Stage Four thinkers is that morality is simply a delusion. What happens is that the strongest or most conniving (or both) rule over the rest, that it has always been that way and always will be as long as there is a human race. Many of us have become convinced over the years that this is, indeed, the most direct consequence of materialism (the view that reality consists exclusively of physical or material reality). Now it is true that we can work within this kind of perspective to improve lives--our own and those of others. We can make as many people as possible comfortable, if we are willing to do what is necessary, and we are drifting back toward utilitarianism again--although it will be a utilitarianism for the common man who never peers behind the curtain and looks for fundamental justifications. The philosopher will know better. The philosopher peers behind the curtain, and what he sees is a fundamental amoralism, which the Humanist perspective papers over.

So then what of Fifth Stage belief? At what point is God recovered, and why--especially if Stage Five Thinkers essentially agree that the arguments for God's existence all fail, adding that such arguments were never a good idea in the first place. How does Stage Five transcend Stage Four? Have we ever clearly characterized Civilization's Fifth Stage???

These are crucial questions to be taken up and responded to over time. The first thing to note is that an incipient Fifth Stage exists today in the writings both of systems thinkers (who seldom address theological matters) and of reformed theologians such as Cornelius Van Til whose theism is informed and sharpened through the contrast with its opposition. Presuppositionalism, at the start, is the idea that we never approach the world from a purely objective perspective, if by objective we mean entirely neutral. We begin, instead, with presuppositions about the world we wish to understand: either it is ordered or it is possibly chaotic with order an illusion; either it is knowable in essence, at least in part, or we give up the search for truth as postmodernists recommend. And we presuppose that morality means something, that it is not a mere delusion that captivates those of us who have moral compasses, however imperfect.

In that case, why is reality ordered and not simply chaotic; how are explanations possible at all (a transcendental question)? The philosopher does not deny science; he does not deny that explanations--very detailed ones--have been given for a wide variety of natural phenomena. He notes that in a chaotic universe, life would probably be impossible. In our universe, life flourishes and solves problems with efficiency and enthusiasm. Technology embodies our successes at understanding and mastering important domains of our experience, up to a point. What the philosopher does not want to do is stop at the brute facts of successful explanation and successful problem solving.

After all, to the postmodernist, it is all an illusion. The Stage Four Thinker cannot account for successful scientific explanation and its myriad technological applications. He cannot account for our knowledge of them, or assure us that even if our knowledge of them is, at present, stable, it will remain such. After all--as David Hume was the first to note--it is logically possible, given experience as a stream of impressions, logic as relations of ideas, and nothing more, that all of nature's laws will change at some point in the future. Our claims of universal knowledge of nature's laws will have been shown to be a deception, as is our supposed mastery of our surroundings (which may turn out to be illusory for quite different reasons!).

Now suppose a Creator really does exist, after all. Suppose, moreover, this Creator both created a universe--or physical reality--of order and not chaos. Suppose, furthermore, the Creator fashioned us with minds and senses structured so as to apprehend those aspects of physical reality most likely to assure our ability to survive and prosper in physical reality assuming we use our minds and senses. Now if this Creator of a certain type--supremely rational, at the very least--both exists and accomplished these things, we have at hand explanations for (a) the orderly nature of physical reality, even if we haven't grasped every aspect of this order; (b) the fact that we can reliably apprehend physical reality, at least in part, in order to solve myriad human problems, and finally (c) we have an explanation for whatever moral compass exists within ourselves, quite independent of any holy book such as the Bible, that tells us, You should do better. For a fallen race can still understand the difference between right and wrong. The fact that we speak clearly of sociopaths as lacking such a compass is telling. It is evidence that the majority of us have one.

The Christian Presuppositionalist, in this case, sees God as both metaphysical and epistemological foundation, though not quite in the sense of the foundations of Descartes or Kant. They thought they were providing decisive proofs. The Christian Presuppositionalist harbors no such illusions. He is informed by the perspectives of the agnostic and the atheist, remember. He believes that their explanations of the world and of knowledge seem good at first glance but disintegrate under close analysis and end up leaving us completely at sea.

The agnostic and atheist disagree, of course. They believe they have explanations of how the universe and life arrived at its present state--in essence, aside from any number of missing details. They believe we don't need to posit a God. Many of their explanations, in so far as they are confined to physical reality, are quite good. But they ignore one important factor: they have not told us how explanations are possible. Stage Three Thinkers, I submit, bypassed this query as "too metaphysical"; Stage Four Thinkers then doubted that they really are possible! A Stage Five Thinker then might respond with the transcendental argument outlined above. He will claim that the very existence of successful explanations presupposes God--as the Supreme Logos.

He will acknowledge that this isn't a proof.

He will acknowledge that others might disagree.

He will acknowledge that he is saying, in effect, "These are my presuppositions. This is where I take my stand. This is where my best human logic seems to have taken me."

He will allow those unconvinced to go their own ways in peace. He does believe we should keep talking to each other despite our disagreements, because there are many problems of civilization we can still work together on. Here is the Stage Five Thinker's concrete difference from the Stage One Thinker. The latter is a theocrat at heart. The Stage Five Thinker is, in my considered opinion, fundamentally a libertarian.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

A "Bare Bones" General Case For Liberty

We return. In this post I will outline, in basic form, a "bare bones" General Case for Liberty, I call it. I will leave aside for now its connection to the material from two weeks ago on the Five Stages. This material falls more in line with the projected Liberty and Its Two Enemies.

Probably the majority of the ideas here are hardly original with me, but with any luck they've been assembled (or have assembled themselves) in a way that is fresh and somewhat different. I've isolated ten fundamental principles here, not all of them immediately associated with liberty but with the philosophy behind it--principles in metaphysics and epistemology that, in this writer's judgment, need to be in place before the case for liberty makes sense. Libertarians will probably accede to the first eight right away; some will hesitate over (9) and (10) (those leaning toward theoretical anarchism or anarcho-capitalism will not like (9) at all!). I hope I can eventually convince reasonable people, aware of human nature and human failings, that such principles are necessary for liberty--they are not mere addenda and do not contradict it. On the contrary, without such principles to counter weaknesses inherent in human nature, liberty will eventually self-destruct no less than any other system. Maintaining a free society means maintaining a society which sees liberty as a social and civilizational value, and does not promote this as total, unregulated freedom for the individual to do just anything he sees fit. That is, it distinguishes liberty from license. Free markets mean that prices, etc., respond to supply and demand. It does not mean there are no checks on human behavior. This is an idea implicit in (7) and (8).

In any event, here are the principles. Feel free to post a comment at the end, whether by agreement, disagreement with one or more, or to elaborate if you want.

A "Bare Bones" General Case for Liberty (in Ten Principles).

(1) The Determinacy Principle. We inhabit a determinate universe—or, at least, we inhabit a world where our surroundings behave in a fashion that appears determinate. We think in terms of causes and effects, in which the world around us is predictable. Thus we can establish goals (or subsidiary objectives), take action to achieve them, and sometimes succeed. If our surroundings behaved randomly, or if the general scientifically-discoverable laws changed unpredictably, or even if we believed they might do so, human action would be impossible.

(2) The Indifference Principle. The universe, because of its law-governed nature, is indifferent to human needs, wants, or other interests. However we explain this (Christians can turn to Genesis 3; naturalists will speak of the absence of evidence for divine providence), we reach the same result: if a person simply sits and takes no actions whatsoever, he/she will eventually die of thirst, starvation, or exposure. Think of Robinson Crusoe, stranded on his desert island. He must get up off his duff and do something. Interaction with one’s surroundings (voluntary or otherwise) appears to be a necessary condition for the survival of any organism.

(3) The Intelligibility Principle. This idea is implicit in (1) and (2). That the workings of the universe are intelligible to the human mind is a presupposition of all science. The working out of events in our surroundings is intelligible to us; this is a presupposition of life itself: again otherwise, whatever successes the sciences have achieved, and those of technology, would be utterly mysterious. Of course, theories of the specific ways in which various domains of reality are intelligible have changed considerably over time, but the general thesis that the universe is intelligible to the human mind, at least in part*, has remained a constant.

(4) The Action Principle. Successful action in the world is both possible (because of (1) and (3)) and necessary (because of (2)). I am using the term action essentially as Mises used it: the employment of specific means to achieve specific prior-imagined ends or goals, understood as embedded in the deeper metaphysics and epistemology of a determinate if indifferent universe (our proximate environment) we can both understand and bring under our conscious control, at least somewhat. Mises, of course, saw action as axiomatic: the denial of action would itself be an action; and so the denial of the reality of human action by a person is self-invalidating.

(5) The Individuality Principle. Complex systems respond to specific problems in their proximate environment individually because of how they are structured, and this includes human beings. Brains, nervous system, senses, are possessions of the individual, not a collective. Perception, cogitation, and therefore action are therefore fundamentally individual events. There are no such things as “collective thought” or “collective action,” except as metaphors. Now of course, human beings—like other systems—can collaborate and cooperate in their endeavors. They can share information, divide their resources and labor, and frequently come up with better and more efficient solutions to problems through complex sequences and combinations of actions. What results are various human institutions and organizations.

(6) The Production / Property Principles. Successful collaborative actions as understood within the framework of (5) will transform something incapable of being used by human beings into something capable of being so used (example: the conversion of crude oil into gasoline; or of stone, lumber, and glass into a skyscraper). This process was identified clearly by John Locke, in his Second Treatise Of Government, roughly 80 years before Adam Smith placed it in the context of economics. Locke spoke of property—that which you produce, you own; no one else can rightly step onto it without invitation if it is land or make use of it without permission if it is some good. Acknowledging this right to property, this right to ownership, as a moral claim on space not to be trespassed against by others, is a necessary condition for stable life in a civilization whose members expect to prosper.

(7) The Trade Principle. Persons or collaborations of persons may produce surpluses of specific goods which can then be traded for surpluses produced by other persons or collaborations of persons. These trades—or exchanges—will occur when both parties perceive benefits from them, and not otherwise. (They may be wrong in their perception, but never mind this now.) As these states of affairs multiply, they create an economy—economic space, one might call it—in which trade can take place freely and openly: unhampered (as Mises would say). As some will prove to be leaders and others will be better as foot soldiers, divisions of labor will develop and multiple as the economy grows and begins to flourish. Money becomes a medium of exchange against which the perceived value of various goods and necessities (food, clothing, etc.) is measured, replacing the inefficiency of, e.g., barter.

(8) The Duty Principle. The state of affairs described in (7) works under the assumption that its participants recognize a fundamental negative duty or negative obligation which follows directly from the moral claim identified in (6): do not interfere either with the property of others or their decision to enter into a trade. In other words: unless there are very good reasons for doing otherwise, allow all persons to make their own choices, rather than forcing them down paths not of their own choosing to obtain a specific outcome dictated by someone else. (What these "very good reasons" might be is an issue we now take up.)

(9) The Encoding-of-the-Rules Principle. Consider this question: will all of civilization's members play by the rules, as it were? If the answer is Yes, then we could have a possible world where there is no need to encode the rules, or arrange for mechanisms of enforcement or punishment for those who break the rules, and in that world there would be no need for specific brands or bodies of governance. No one, of course, really believes we live in this world, although some envision building it. In the real world, some do look for opportunities to circumvent the rules, or will use force when it is more convenient than voluntary trade. Some will steal from others if they believe they can get away with it. They will also attempt to defraud others. Will some producers even join other producers in an effort to seek unearned advantages? If the answers to this is Yes, then if governing bodies are not created by specific measures by representatives of the people they will be created by those who simply want to create and sustain a legal empowerment over the people that would effectively end their freedom to act according to their own choices in any meaningful way. Thus, it is best if some are entrusted to encode a set of rules and create institutions of enforcement. There is a need for government as rule-encoder and enforcer, provided it can be bound by specific limits on its authority (to encode the rules and serve as the agency of punishing rule-breakers according to a specific set of rules or civil laws applying the same to all). This is not to minimize the difficulties in doing so that have been well known for over 2,000 years when Plato first wrestled with them (and came to the unfortunate conclusion that only central planning could solve the problems of civilization). Nor is it to suggest that there is an ideal resolution to these difficulties. Addressing them is, given human nature, an ongoing problem rather than a permanently solvable one.

(10) The Worldview Principle. Paragraphs (1) through (9) offer an outline of the basic tenets of classical liberal political philosophy with sideways glances into Austrian-school economics, systems theory and (perhaps) a deontological ethic (though not exactly in Kant’s sense). Yet what we have is clearly incomplete. It makes one of its fundamental priorities protection of the individual person’s right to act according to his/her own choices—conjoined with the duty to allow this same right to all others. It makes another fundamental priority respect for the right of each person to the fruits of his/her successful actions. Yet again, how much trust can we place in persons to honor these values voluntarily? Can one trust the large organizations not to collaborate in ways that would thwart the choices of others by controlling markets? Are we to believe that governing institutions can be compelled to answer to the desires of the people? Can one trust the perceptions of the common people that their choices reflect awareness of the difference between real needs and mere wants. Will their choices bring about actual benefits, as opposed to long-term problems that if continued long enough will spread and render their society dysfunctional (examples: familiar vices ranging from smoking cigarettes and eating unhealthy food to trades involving drug use/abuse, prostitution, gambling, and so on—activities which even the libertarian ought to concede damage both the individuals engaging in them and the surrounding society to the extent they are engaged in). How are large numbers of people to be educated in such a way, having been taught critical and long-term thinking, that they voluntarily refrain from making such choices? One of the primary jobs of philosophy should be to identify, articulate, and evaluate the worldview presupposed by the various activities and institutions which make up the warp and woof of civilization—challenging them when necessary, and constructing new ones when possible. Liberty clearly requires moral principles that have teeth: while if they are not chosen they are not truly moral principles, as principles they can be taught and they can be enforced; and there are long-term consequences associated with their violation. Liberty thus requires a worldview embodying a moral view of the universe and ethical standards for human conduct. These are not products either of culture itself or the marketplace. Moral principles do not describe our actions; they prescribe and proscribe. They supply a set of “oughts” and “ought-nots.” From where does morality come. Not from physical reality, which as we said (2) is indifferent and within which only descriptions can be given; and in which actions are described only in terms of their efficiency or lack of. Nor can they come from the marketplace, which left to its own devices will supply what people want and need without moral comment. If enough people want harmful drugs, that is, or want to engage in gambling, that is what the marketplace will supply, and civilization will pay the long-term consequences. You can have, in David Kupelian's phraseology, a "marketing of evil" that obeys the same economic laws as any good. A healthy civilization needs a transcendent moral order to make sense of this distinction. As Hayek recognized (chs. 4 and 6 of The Constitution of Liberty) there may be circumstances in which, e.g., the Trade Principle, is defeasible. The most obvious is if specific trades, however voluntary, are bringing about (or threatening to bring about) massive social dysfunction.

Going beyond (10): some of us have concluded quietly that only a Christian worldview can rise to the occasion of supplying an adequate transcendent moral order and compass to guide individual action beyond an efficiency that can describe on equal terms building skyscrapers or creating weapons of mass destruction. But a full accounting of our conclusion will have to wait for a future weekend.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Chilean Holiday & History / Comte's Law of the Three Stages & Beyond

I. Back again. I am not sure whether you will see one post per Saturday or not; but as it so happens, I have a free afternoon. This coming week, Chile celebrates perhaps its most important national holiday: Chilean Independence Day, September 18. On this day, in 1810, Chile declared independence from Spain (although the official declaration of independence was not issued until February 12, 1818). What followed-predictably-was 16 years of violence until the last of the royalists surrendered in 1826. September 18 remains a day of festivities, and it so happens that the two surrounding days, the 17th and the 19th, are also caught up in the celebration, with businesses closed and streets and avenues open to parades, food, reenactments, music, and dance. It is a lively time to be in Santiago. The greatest hero of Chilean independence was Bernardo O'Higgins. The son of a former viceroy, O'Higgins took control of pro-independence forces in 1813 and became Chile's second Supreme Director in 1817. In an importance sense, as the first to hold that position after the issuing of Chile's declaration of independence, O'Higgins is Chile's George Washington. A major thoroughfare through downtown Santiago is named for him.

Chile has a history as remarkable (and as stormy) as U.S. history. Its more recent history is of much more interest, of course. On September 11, 1973, forces loyal to Augusto Pinochet stormed the palace then occupied by socialist Salvador Allende, in what is known here as El Golpe. Allende committed suicide rather than be captured. Pinochet assumed absolute power and presided over a military dictatorship until 1990. That year, he held an election, lost, stepped down, and turned the Chilean government back over to civilian rule. The entire era still troubles this nation: Pinochet was a dictator and does what dictators do, which is to rule by force, suppressing free speech and imprisoning and torturing political dissidents. Chileans do not forget the thousands who simply disappeared during the Pinochet years. But Pinochet also oversaw the rebuilding of Chile's economy via the "Chicago Boys," a small group of Chilean economists sent to the University of Chicago to study under Milton Friedman. They returned, armed with classical liberal ideas, and began Chile's transformation into the first world nation it is today.

Pinochet is thus praised by some who see him as having gotten rid of a communist threat and turning the country in a new direction. Chile today is as prosperous as any Latin American country-but its prosperity has come with a price! That era still hangs like a shadow over the aggregate psychology of this country. Perhaps it's just leftists, who are still around. But that might be too simple an explanation. There is a sense in which this has become a very business-oriented nation of workaholics, very risk-averse, who take breaks only on holidays like the one to be celebrated beginning Monday. My observations of the rising Chilean middle class remind me of William Whyte's The Organization Man, a disquieting study of the then-rising U.S. middle class published in the early 1960s. The Chilean middle class appears to consist of organization men in Whyte's sense, with relatively few entrepreneurs. As we now know, the rising of large organizations presages a more and more centralized society-with corporatism possibly the best name for the specific economic model. Under corporatism, corporations and government make policy together under the guise of democratic rule, with elections, etc. Corporations get rich; governments get power. Both are happy with the arrangement, but are the common people satisfied? Do they have many options?

What of spiritual concerns? While there is religiosity here-that of the prevailing Catholicism characteristic of Latin America-it is at least as superficial as much of the religiosity of mainstream Christian denominations in the U.S. Here I am reminded of Harvey Cox's The Secular City (1965) which charted the progressive secularization of the modern world and its "bypassing" of the great questions of theology. Is that the direction Chile is heading? I do not yet know. Chile has its share of large corporations; and globalism definitely has found a place here. David Rockefeller Sr. has come to Chile on numerous occasions. Chile is, of course, one of the partners in the infamous Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), forged over a two-year period behind closed doors by the elites of various nations including the U.S., Mexico, Peru, Australia and China. The TPP has been vehemently criticized as the NAFTA of the Pacific world, and a long term danger to any rising middle class, although Chile's tremendous natural resources offer it some protection from the kind of outsourcing that has decimated the middle class in the U.S. More meditations of this sort in future posts.

II. Last week I discussed three prospective works in progress. One of the key purposes of this blog is to get the central ideas of these works up in one place, lest circumstances beyond my control prevent their completion. I can only hope the ideas are important enough to justify the effort. Is thinking about the future important? Obviously it is! Can this blog contribute to a discussion of where we ought to go as a civilization, whether in Chile, the U.S., or wherever we happen to be? The jury is still out on that one.

A central theme of all this work will be what Auguste Comte (1798-1857) called the Law of the Three Stages, so I'll spend the remainder of my time here today discussing that, concluding with a theory about its present status. Comte is best known as the founder of the science of sociology and the originator of the philosophical ideology known as positivism. The Law of the Three Stages had emerged in his work in the 1830s, in his Course on Positive Philosophy. Although the Law of the Three Stages figures most prominently into the third of the projected series, it is also the lynchpin that holds everything together. So it would be best to begin with a discussion of it: its origins and postulates, its twentieth century fate, and the question of where we go from here.

What is the Law of the Three Stages? In Comte's hands, it defined the natural trajectory of a civilization, just as Newton's laws governed the trajectory of a falling body or thrown physical object. Comte didn’t invent the idea. One can find similar notions in Vico and Condorcet. But he gave it its clearest exposition. According to Comte, a civilization goes through three stages or conditions (he uses both terms--one could also speak of layers.

The first he calls the "religious or fictitious." The second is the "metaphysical or abstract." The third was the then-emerging "scientific or positive." It is important that these are not historical stages; all three both can and do coexist in Western civilization, albeit uneasily. The first, viewed through Comte's eyes, might be thought of as civilization's childhood; the second, as civilization's adolescence; the third, as its adulthood. Once civilization embraces the third stage, it finally has its feet firmly planted on the ground in this world, not some other, and can stride forward responsibly.

The first stage is the stage of: “God said it; I believe it; and that settles it.” While such sentiments might appeal to many Christians today, they allow little room for thoughtful discussion or discerning examination or philosophical inquiry. Stage One Thinking, as I will call it, is fearful of philosophy, as it might provoke doubt. It thus has little to offer those who are restless and dissatisfied with “mere belief,” but rather want some kind of understanding of what it is they are believing, and what the implications might be. Stage One purports to rely exclusively—or almost exclusively—on revelation from God Himself as its source of truth. Those who can claim to have received revelation, or to speak for past revelations in holy books such as the Bible, assume special prominence within society. Thus in practice Stage One Thinking, unhampered by later stages, easily gives rise to theocratic authority structures. It has as little tolerance for dissent as any dictatorship. The asking of the wrong questions may be handled through excommunication or exile or even execution (witness the fate of Giordano Bruno in response to his suggestion that God had created “other Earths” besides ours).

The second stage is the stage of high metaphysics and system building—philosophy in a grand sense. This stage produced the major classics of Western philosophy from Plato and Aristotle down through Aquinas, from Descartes and Hobbes down to Hume, Kant, and Hegel—and arguably, in the twentieth century, someone such as Whitehead. Stage Two Thinking is the first product of those who seek a comprehensive worldview, or theory of reality and everything in it, including whether or not God exists, who we are and how we came to be, what the moral life consists of in society, and so on. Stage Two Thinking gave rise to the classical arguments for God’s existence (the ontological, the cosmological and the teleological arguments), to the idea of natural rights of human beings, and of the idea of morality as something discoverable—perhaps a product of the relationship between the acting person and the rest of reality. Stage Two Thinking, however, does not treat God’s existence (for example) as a working premise or presupposition but rather as a proposition standing in need of proof. Many Stage Two Thinkers became agnostics or atheists in response to arguments for God’s existence falling short of their targets. They set the stage for the next development.

The third stage began with the scientific and technological revolutions. This was clearly the stage Comte believed was emerging in his lifetime. His vision was of a way of thought which rejected the ideas of either revelation or abstract reason as sources of knowledge or truth. Instead, what counted was empirical verification of our ideas, or their testability, and their success in practice at improving the human material condition. Positivism took its name because its approach to the human condition was optimistic—positive, not negative. Its philosophers had little patience with such notions as original sin, and not much more patience with what they considered to be the air-castle-building of their predecessors. With its feet firmly planted in this world, not some other, Stage Three Thinking looked to human happiness itself in this life for the greatest number as the ultimate good, and Utilitarianism came of age in the writings of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill (the latter clearly respected Comte’s work). Stage Three Thinking embraced meliorism, the idea in moral philosophy that human beings can improve themselves not just technologically but morally, through their own efforts, especially via education. It looked to science, technology and commerce as our salvation and path to the good life, which was to be lived in this world, in Cox's "secular city." Some would develop very mixed feelings about commercial capitalism, and seek to check or control what they believed to be its excesses: the British Fabians and American progressives come to mind. Stage Three has little respect for such notions as natural rights, which they see—without using this vocabulary—as a throwback to Stage Two (the phrase Bentham had used was “nonsense upon stilts”).

To make a long and complicated story short, Stage Three had begun to manifest its dark side not long after the start of the twentieth century. Comte had believed the third stage to be a path to Utopia. History has shown otherwise. Kierkegaard (arguing from within his own unique Christian perspective), Nietzsche, and the Existentialists took one kind of avoidance versus Stage Three. Philosophers such as Walter T. Stace (1886-1967) began to ponder a kind of darkness that falls across the philosophical landscape once a comprehensive naturalism is embraced. See his essay "Man Against Darkness" (1948), or its predecessor "A Free Man's Worship" by Stage Three thinker Bertrand Russell (1902).

A multitude of other circumstances served to throw cold water on the idea of Stage Three as the path to Utopia. To make a long story short: not only had we failed to transcend war with science, technology and commerce, but our wars became increasingly destructive; there was abundant evidence of our basic inhumanity to our fellows—the genocide of the Nazis and Stalinists surely bespoke a capacity for evil that flew in the face of the prevailing meliorism of Stage Three.

On the scholarly front, the positivist conception of science had broken down by mid-century. Thomas S. Kuhn completed the destruction of this view of science in his widely read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). The positivist conception of science had held that the empirical methods of science delivered Truth, and that no other methods delivered Truth. While this latter idea made—still makes—a great deal of sense within the various scientific disciplines, Kuhn showed that a mature science is always governed by a body of presuppositions that, for a time, are taken as above scientific scrutiny: he used the term paradigm for what he had in mind (Ludwig Wittgenstein had first used the term to speak of governing usages in language). More ominously, thinkers who examined science in Kuhn’s wake—sociologists of science, for example—drew attention to authority structures within scientific communities and began to analyze science from a perspective taking seriously the idea that power and domination structures can masquerade as claims to truth, rationality, and objectivity. We had arrived on the shores of postmodernity, inspired by increasing unease with modernity coming from multiple directions.

By the time we arrived at the postmodernist upheaval in the humanities, it should have become clear that Stage Three Thinking had run its course. It had been devastatingly criticized and eclipsed. If we entered Stage Three in the early to mid 1800s, we probably left it sometime during the mid-1900s. Thinkers ranging from Kuhn and his colleague Paul Feyerabend on our shores, the latter, with his provocative Against Method: Outlines of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (1975) to Continental philosophers such as Michel Foucault had subjected its assumptions to devastating criticism.

Moreover, in a much broader sense: the increasing societal uncertainty, anxiety, and escapism that began to characterize public life in advanced civilizations beginning around 1970 (possibly earlier) also indicated one of the weaknesses of Stage Three Thinking: in the last analysis, Utilitarianism fails as a theory of social ethics. We do not know how to pursue “the greatest good for the greatest number” without shafting or harming someone. Consider: the infamous Tuskegee Experiment is very much aligned with the utilitarian spirit. It illustrates very concretely the objection to Utilitarianism charging that the serving "the greatest good for the greatest number" is quite compatible with sacrificing the interests of some to better serve the rest.

More reason for thinking we had left Stage Three behind was the increasing flight into dangerous economic fantasies that began around this time. The belief that institutions in civilization from government to acting persons can live beyond their means indefinitely is an exemplar of an unrealism that had become firmly entrenched in public life by the time the twentieth century drew to a close.

I would argue that sometime around 1970—the exact date is not important—we entered a fourth stage, a Stage Four, that Comte couldn't have envisioned. If Stage Three was “scientific and positive”—optimistic—Stage Four is skeptical and negative. Stage Four Thinking purports to have exposed as illusory the pretenses of objectivity, rationality, and acquisition of Truth that characterized all the earlier stages: Stage Three as well as Stage Two.

Here is the question: what does Stage Four Thinking put in place of those notions its sees itself as having eliminated? The surprising answer: almost nothing. With Richard Rorty—having become the most visible and widely read Stage Four philosopher on U.S. soil—we have “social hope” to cling to. While cashing out what Rorty means by this is necessary down the road, I believe we will have to conclude that once we’ve embraced his criticisms of foundationalism—the idea that knowledge, morality, etc., have foundations which it is the special providence of philosophy to discover—“social hope” becomes whatever we make of it and there becomes little to choose from between what had been the U.S. vision of the “American dream” and that of the Nazis who saw Utopia at hand once they had eradicated the Jews.

There are thinkers who have made peace with Stage Four Thinking. They believe that there is no reason to formulate the problems in such stark or extreme terms. They see Stage Four as containing new possibilities, perhaps foreshadowed by Nietzsche’s vision of the “overman” as creating and standing on his own values instead of embracing those created by others in the past. They look to the possibility of experimentation within a world not based on rules taken as rooted in foundations, but rather tailored to fit situations and societal specifics and subject to change as circumstances change. Certain species of entrepreneurship might fit the bill as capable of thriving within a Stage Four environment—in which, e.g., a city embraces an ever-widening array of cultures and lifestyles, made manifest in music, art, food and drink, social gatherings, and in doubtless other forms: the Stage Four “secular city” is, in this sense, a quite different place than the Stage Three “secular city” in its openness and diversity, where the only “value” is a demand for universal tolerance of that which is different. One can find happiness in the Stage Four environment—if one avoids looking at the “big picture.”

Nietzsche warned about the “advent of nihilism” as a consequence of the “revaluation of all values” which saw them as human creations—inventions, and not discoveries or revelations. In an important sense, Stage Three was nihilistic. Ultimately, its vision of morality as a product exclusively of the human desire for happiness or pleasure left civilization morally at sea. Since Stage Four essentially agrees with Stage Three in seeing morality as a human creation, here is the $50,000 question: is Stage Four just as nihilistic? Where do we go from here?

This stage will be our civilization's undoing if we cannot transcend it: by moving to a fifth stage, or Stage Five. (I am assuming here that the movement through stages or levels is unidirectional. I don't believe we can go back, say, to Stage Two, or that we would want to.)

How to characterize this fifth stage is a huge problem. Let's say it will be Christian but not in the sense of Stage One; it will be metaphysical and encouraging of such notions as the rights of acting persons, but not necessarily in the sense of Stage Two; it will respect science as the most important achievement within its domain, but not see science & technology as capable of solving all human problems, as was common in Stage Three. It will likewise refuse also to see commerce or the marketplace as able to solve all human problems, although these activities can solve many human problems if allowed by governments (and corporations demanding special privileges) to function. Stage Five will attempt to find merit in the potential for creativity opened up by the rule-challenging stance available in in Stage Four (Brian Eno comes to mind), but must not lose itself in Stage Four's nihilism. It will draw on all of these, but be more than just a fusion of the best of the first four stages.

This characterization is, of course, very incomplete. This is purposeful; I do not want to specify too much in advance. We want here to specify just enough to have a productive conversation going in the right direction, in the spirit of the British cybernetics pioneer Stafford Beer, who wrote this phenomenal passage when distinguishing algorithms from heuristics and the reasons and circumstances when the latter need to be pursued. Algorithms have precise rules; heuristics do not. "To think in terms of heuristics," Beer wrote, "is at once a way of coping with proliferating variety. Instead of trying to organize it in full detail, you organize it only somewhat; you then ride on the dynamics of the system in the direction you want to go" (Brain of the Firm, 1973, p. 53). Thus is the status of Stage Five Thinking at this time. (Note: I owe this quotation, and similar ones, to my having paid attention to experimental composer Brian Eno's remarks in interviews over the years going back to the 1970s. Credit where it is due.)


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Saturday, September 8, 2012

Introduction to the Fifth Stage Blog

The purpose of these notes is to provide some focus to some thoughts I've been having recently, outlines for new writing projects, and some content, so that just in case for whatever reason the books described below as in their planning stages do not get finished or published in final form, with this material there will be some sort of record.

A couple of weeks ago I turned 55. Knowing what I know of my family's health history (grandparents three of whom lived to be around 90 and parents who lived into their mid-to-late 80s but with severe disabilities), I figure that other things being equal, if genetics have anything to say about it I have approximately 30 productive years left. The question then becomes: what is the best use to which this time can be put? Or, to ask the same question another way: what would the Author of our being have me do with the remaining years I am allotted, whether they be 30 or some other number? I will attempt to answer this question below.

First, a little bit about me (I will keep this short): as stated in my profile I have a Ph.D. in philosophy (earned in 1987). I have taught the subject at several universities including Clemson University, Auburn University, Wofford College, the University of South Carolina, Southern Wesleyan University, Greenville Technical College, and most recently at USC Upstate. I never attained tenure, obviously; and spent the past several years as an "adjunct instructor" at USC Upstate before giving up the position--doubtless rather abruptly, from the institution's point of view.

I am probably one of the few professional philosophers who is a convinced Christian. I consider myself nondenominational, tending to lean on insights from specific theologians such as Cornelius Van Til instead of any specific church doctrine. I have little trouble regarding human nature as fundamentally sinful and accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior quite a number of years ago. I have had my lapses (the most recent in 2008, during which I discovered Van Til). A presuppositionalist, I do not regard "proofs" of God's existence to be successful or helpful. "Proofs" that begin with human-based logic will always fall short of their intended goal and never exhibit the Creator as intelligible. On the other hand, God's existence and nature is the central presupposition of the Christian worldview; according to Van Til, both logic and the intelligibility of the world of experience presuppose God. The attempt by the atheist to argue against the existence of God either through experience or by pure logic thus presupposes the Authorship of each and so contradicts its own first premise in its presumption of success.

Such matters can be developed in further posts. I mention this now, to give a complete picture of who I am, as part of the background for my subject matter, and for the future.

Just over three months ago I moved to Santiago, Chile. My flight landed on Friday, June 1. The move was one I agonized over and debated with myself for years. I wasn't sure it was something I really wanted to do. But I could cite three sets of reasons for leaving the U.S. which I called the "three P's": political, professional, and personal. The political reason boils down to one thing: the U.S. is in decline, with a political system becoming progressively less responsive and more repressive; on the foreign front, its war machine has become everything it once opposed. Its Constitution is arguably a dead letter, not just ignored but openly so (Nancy Pelosi, to a questioner asking where the Constitution authorized the federal government to control health care: "Are you serious?"). Professional: my career in the States as a professional philosopher was dead in the water, and there were few reasons to pursue it beyond the simple fact of having a paycheck for a few more months, a paycheck that could easily end with the next major economic downturn possibly just months away. Personal: I'll let that one go for now, as this is a public blog and I've learned the hard way not to put too much personal stuff out on the Internet. My personal life is probably not very interesting, anyway. I'll say only that I live alone here, with two cats (their names are Bo and Misty). I lived alone, with the same two cats, in South Carolina (yes, I am an animals person, and went to the trouble and the expense of bringing with me the two cats that had belonged to my parents before I had to adopt them).

As a writer, the most interesting thing about me is probably the fact that I've written three books: Civil Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action (ICS Press, 1994), Worldviews: Christian Theism versus Modern Materialism (The Worldviews Project, 2005), and most recently, Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (Brush Fire Press International, 2011). All are available on the site. The third is available in a Kindle edition. I've also published numerous articles and essays both in refereed academic journals and online. Overall I've probably done hundreds of short pieces, including music reviews on (to my mind the most interesting musician / artist alive is Brian Eno).

The question: I am in Chile, what now? I started addressing that above. I currently teach some English, am assisting with test preparation (especially the GRE) for a consulting firm, and am studying Spanish intensively--since although you can find English here Chile's dominant language is Spanish. I am hoping and praying I haven't bitten off more than I can chew, but time will tell. I've been asked by associates back home whether this was a good move. I always tell them, "Ask me in six months?" But the real determining factor will be whether the environment I am now in will permit further professional development along the lines to be worked out below, and in future posts here.

I am thinking about three new and hopefully distinctive works. Fragments of all three already exist in my notes. I've already presented a short version of the third (at a philosophy conference last spring). So all three are started, and it is a matter of arranging priorities so that they are gradually advanced. Writing these works might shortly become my primary long-term goal for the remainder of my life, with all other goals or objectives being subsidiary in one form or another, whether they involve work, determining where to live (whether to stay in Chile, e.g.), etc. The three works, tentatively entitled, are: Liberty and Its Two Enemies; Philosophy: Its Place In Civilization (slightly better than Philosophy and Civilization); culminating in The Fifth Stage of Civilization which gives this blog its title. I don’t know whether or not these works have any chance of doing better than their three predecessors which sank without a trace, but I cannot worry about that. I can only do the best job I can writing them as honestly as possible, while creating conditions in my surrounding life as best as possible for writing them. The latter is doubtless going to be the hard part. What are these three books to be about?

In a nutshell: Liberty and Its Two Enemies will restate the existing argument for liberty and point to two areas where I believe the libertarian defense of liberty has proven inadequate. Frederic Bastiat identified the first clearly in his The Law (1849). Paraphrasing, when human beings are able to do so, they will attempt to live at the expense of others, and the results always thwart efforts to maintain liberty. This, however, only opens the door to the much bigger problem, which for around a decade and a half now, has been one of the key premises of all my work: in any population there is a minority that is fascinated by power. This minority may amount to around 4 percent, but that is enough. The fundamental problem of political philosophy then becomes: how does society control power? The question contains an irony, since control is itself a power word? But how do those who wish to live free lives place checks on those who do not want them to live free lives? Obviously, if a free society is to work at all, it must acknowledge those factors, some of them built into human nature itself, that invariably work against efforts to build and then maintain liberty.

Philosophy: Its Place in Civilization will, as the title suggests, attempt to present a defense of the idea that philosophy has a place in an advanced civilization; it has a definite job to do. Clearly it isn't doing its job in the U.S., however. Some of the reasons are beyond the control of professional philosophers, but not all of them. I will attempt to state what the job of philosophy is and why that job is important in a civilized world. Its job boils down to identifying, analyzing, and evaluating worldviews: their premises, components, whatever reasonings are elicited from those premises, and whatever institutions (including power relations) are in place to further worldviews. Christianity provides a worldview in this sense (perhaps more than one). Materialism provides a different and incompatible worldview (again, more than one). There are doubtless others. Whether a worldview can be fixed or whether it should be gotten rid of is a question that will arise during its evaluation.

The Fifth Stage of Civilization--the zenith of this entire extended product and the one to be completed and published last (assuming the others are published someday)--has as its point of departure the infamous Law of the Three Stages articulated by the founder of both sociology and philosophical positivism, Auguste Comte. The third stage, the one Comte favored, was one where science and technology (and economics) get the final word. In an era of crises of various sorts: economic, political, cultural, ecological, and spiritual, it is clear that at the very least we have left Comte's third stage although it obviously still has its defenders. What is the fourth stage? Speaking very roughly: what Jean-Francois Lyotard called the "postmodern condition." What will the fifth stage be? Well, that remains to be seen! (It would never do for me to give away the game in the very first post!)

It might be important to state what this blog is not. It is not a contribution to my material on directed history, as I call it (although obviously what I say here is compatible with that). My work on that has been done elsewhere; if you're interested, go here and here). I am not writing from a "right wing" perspective; nor am I pursuing a "left wing" perspective. This is not intended as a contribution to "conservatism" to the extent it still exists; nor is it a contribution to "liberalism." It is one person's effort to mine some truths from recent history and lengthy observations of civilization, and attempt to think creatively about the future and what kind of worldview ought to guide us into it. I am writing under the assumption that thinking creatively about the future is of supreme importance. If we do not take charge of our future, others will do it for us; the results might not be pretty.

So to sum up: we will sketch on these pages the basics of three works: the first emphasizing liberty, its nature and the problems it faces, including human nature itself; the second turning more fully to the nature of philosophy and the job it ought to do in civilization; and the third, an application of this job, walking us through the three stages Auguste Comte observed, a fourth stage he could not have imagined and would probably have opposed--and, perhaps, a fifth stage that preserves the strengths of each of the first four while setting out to avoid their weaknesses. One final remark. This effort probably won't be self-sustaining. If you think this is has the potential to be valuable and ought to be supported financially, please shoot me an email and we'll arrange a donation. My intent is to get a PayPal icon set up in here in due course. In the meantime, see you next post.