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Endings and Beginnings (The Defense, Part 11)

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Okay.  Let me see if I can get back on track here.

To recap:  the question in these immediate sections is whether or not the traditional claim of proponents of a liberal arts education that such study will make us “self governing people” in the sense of being more self controlled and better able to choose the morally good over the morally evil.

I’ve said that I think this claim is weak, at least in the way it is usually made.  I don’t think education of any kind can “make” anybody morally good or morally evil.

It can give you the tools to build a house.  It can’t ensure that you’ll choose to build a house instead of gerry rig the tools to make a great catapault to destroy the walls of Troy.

However, on looking at the actual historical record over time, I do think there are indications that those periods in our history when the liberal arts have been widely taught have in fact resulted in societies in which the moral average, so to speak, has been higher than in periods when the liberal arts has been in eclipse.

Okay, with any luck, that gets us  here, and we can go on.

The next period in which the liberal arts were widely taught is not what you think it is–it is not the Renaissance.

As history is generally taught, the Renaissance is a wonderful period full of new knowledge, new art and new beginnings.

In reality, it wasn’t the beginning of something, it was the end of something.

The Renaissance was the decadent end of the Middle Ages. 

As I’ve noted before, there was some very important new science discovered in the Renaissance,  and some very important principles of scientific investigation.

But it was, as a whole, an anti-science period.  The stress was on emotional and artistic extravagance, on confrontation for the sake of confrontation and breaking rules for the sake of breaking rules. 

What moral and political philosophy was produced in the period was largely opportunistic and cynical, a celebration of war for the sake of war and power for the sake of power.  The long Medieval project to impose some kind of ethical restraints at least on Christian states at war with each other died with Macchiavelli and before.  The Medicii’s “had culture” the way they had estates and money.

And the art, you know, was great.

The art is often great in decadent periods.  I don’t know why.

Well, okay, being me, I have a guess.  But I don’t know why.

The point here is that in the Renaissance, in spite of the new power and wealth in the universities, the study of the liberal arts was atrophying at best.  For poorer scholars it had become a credentialing service.  For rich ones, private tutors provided the social sheen of “culture” as an accessory.  Even the pretense of Christian humility vanished and we had Lorenzo the Magnificent.

The Renaissance was the end of Southern Europe as the focal point for learning, culture, science and social advance within Western Civilization.

And it provoked what should have been an expected reaction.

Medieval Europe was Christian in identity and sensibility.  The Renaissance largely was not, in spite of the religious art behaved like Medicis, not like Peters–hell, one of them was a Medici.  One of the others (Alexander VI) was a Borgia.

It didn’t take long for people to start asking the obvious question:  God had promised never to abandon His Church, that even “the gates of Hell would not stand against it.”   But this Church certainly looked abandoned, ruled by worldly men for wordly purposes, craving wealth and power above all things.  The Pope and the Bishops were unashamed to live like wealthy men and to make a display of their riches on virtual every occasion.  Ordinations to the priesthood, absolution from sin, even freedom from Purgatory were all for sale.

So God had abandoned this Church. And that had  to mean that this had never been God’s Church to begin with.

What’s more, to the reformers who began to crop up with increasing frequency during this period, it looked very much as if the cause of the decadance of the Church was liberal learning. 

After all, whenever a layperson or cleric tried to protest the way the higher clergy lived or the way indulgences were sold, they were beaten over the head with Aristotle,  Plato, and the Peripetetics.

What’s more, not only had the Middle Ages coughed up an interesting invention–the printing press–but that press had been used not only to publish the Bible but to publish works of Biblical scholarship that cast doubt on whether even the Bible itself had been kept free of error by a rogue and illegitimate church.

Xavier’s Complutensian Polyglot published the Bible  in six or seven columns–sorry, it’s been a long time–each column being an edition in a different language, so that people could compare the versions and see where there were differences.  Later, Erasmus would do the same with the New Testament in the Textus Receptus. 

At that point, the reformers had everything they needed to effect their reform, and the established Church  had nothing it needed.  The Church had reached the point where it could not defend the Western intellectual tradition because it did not, by and large, know it, or its purpose. 

Faced with people convinced that that tradition was the primary cause of moral abomination, guiltily aware that many of the moral criticism of the Church were entirely justified, unable to articulate (or even imagine) what a defense of that tradition would look like–the whole thing just collapsed.

It collapsed into a near orgy of what we would now call “fundamentalism”–Biblical literalism, book burning, anti-intellectualism as a badge of righteousness, and religious war.

If you don’t believe me, go read Luther, a man who once declared reason itself to be the work of the Devil.

It could all have stopped there.  It did stop there elsewhere in the world when religion and the liberal arts came into conflict. 

It did not stop there in Western Europe for two reasons:

First the liberal tradition had been embedded in Christianity for a thousand years, or more.  All those reformers who thought they despised it were its direct heirs, and they carried many of its assumptions–that the disinterested pursuit of knowledge was a virtue; that all truth is one and contradictions between kinds of truth were only apparent; that God does not lie to us and that therefore what we observe and experience is not some trick of the devil to be shunned rather than examined; that it is a virtue when the individual human being stands by what he knows to be the truth even unto death.

In fact, that last one was often mistaken for a purely Christian concept–Christ died on the cross for us, rather than capitulate to Roman demands that he lie about who and what he was.

The reformers were, like most of their Renaissance contemporaries, about half educated.  They tended to forget the earlier story of Socrates, or ignore how similar the two stories were.

So that’s the first thing–it didn’t end there, because on a visceral basis the reformers were never able to shuck off the entirety of the tradition they thought they were rejecting.

But there’s a second reason, and it’s this–in order to justify their revolt against the authority of the Catholic Church, they had to come up with some principal of authority to transfer their allegiance to, and what they came up with was t his:

Each individual has the God-given capacity to see and understand for himself. 

They meant it to apply to the interpretation of the Bible, and once it got started they weren’t to happy about where it led.

But once the idea was out there, there was no calling it back, and it would soon be put to use on every question anybody could think of.

And in the meantime, Protestant Northern Europe started doing what it thought was necessary to create good Christians in this new definition of Christianity.

It started teaching everybody–women as well as men–to read.

And that brings me to the next cycle.  I’ll get to it tomorrow.


And on the determinism question, of course.

First, of course it is possible to distinguish random from choice events on an objective basis.  We do it any time we observe other people (or the family pet) deliberate among alternatives.  “I’m really hot and I need something to cool me off.  I could go to the ice cream parlor and get some ice cream, but if I do that I’ll miss my calculus class.  I’ve already missed my calculus class twice this term, and missing it again without what my teacher would consider a “good” reason might get me in trouble.  My teacher wouldn’t consider getting an ice cream a good reason.  On the other hand, I don’t have air conditioning and neither does the classroom, and I’m so hot I’m sick.  If I go to class and throw up there, or pass out, that wouldn’t be good either. So–”

Sorry, this is not a random event.  It is nothing like a random event.  And  we can observe it all the time, and we don’t need to rely on our subjective experience to do it.

Second, it is certainly true that we often use one kind of experience to judge others, but that’s not what you’re suggesting.

You’re suggesting that we delegitimize even the possibility that we can judge any kind of experience at all.

If I have a camera whose lens or internal functions distort the pictures that result when I use it, I can work around those by understanding what’s happening and taking pictures in different lights or at different angles.

But if I smash the camera, I can’t take pictures at all.

Your contention that choice (which includes things like deliberation, judgement and decision)  must be an illusion is smashing the camera.

If you were actually right about choice, you would be incapable of knowing it.

Third, I do not believe in God, and I do not believe in the soul.

I am NOT suggesting any form of dualism, Cartesian or otherwise.

It is significant, though, that you think that is the only possible answer here.

Written by janeh

October 10th, 2011 at 10:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'Endings and Beginnings (The Defense, Part 11)'

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  1. OK, this follows straight from “The Defense, Part 9” but I think we missed a couple of paragraphs about Gregory the Great’s reforms promoting scientific advances. Then when we get through Reformation and Enlightenment–or whatever else is the third instance, if we count those as one–Islam of the Madrasas and China of the competitive exams count as counter-examples–learning which did not promote political change or scientific growth.

    Presumably at some point we’ll discuss why the teaching of the liberal arts decayed? Or, of course, did it? “Christian humility” has nothing to do with the liberal arts per se, but maybe without that outside moral leavening, you get those well-educated omnicompetent men with defective moral compasses–for a while. By about 1600, you don’t have much of anything. Looked at that way, Machiavelli, Sforza and assorted Borgias are the last phase of the liberal arts education in the south, and the Counter-reformation is the end of it.
    “Folk Protestantism” without higher education can be tiresome, but I’d run screaming from Counter-reforamtion Catholicism in command of secular power. Keep in mind that Phillip II couldn’t understand why the Dutch objected to the Spanish Inquisition. The Roman Inquisition was much worse.

    Decadent art. I’ve noticed it too. Partly in this case it’s technical, but overall I think it’s that no one cares what you say. No censorship, and looking good takes precedence over anything else. (Who was the late Roman historian of whom it was said that he’d reverse which side won a war to make the Latin sound better?) Anyway, after a while people notice that the writing doesn’t say anything and the shock value is gone, but painting and sculpture survive better than that. Eventually, though, there’s no standard left whatever. I figure the bottom fell out of our “high culture” somewhere around WWI–a little sooner in Austria–but I’d pay good money for a 500-year perspective.


    10 Oct 11 at 1:40 pm

  2. “The Renaissance was the decadent end of the Middle Ages.”

    In terms of religion, sure. Economically it certainly wasn’t. Nor politically, and war for the sake of war was hardly a Renaissance innovation. More people were educated, the first universities were founded, Scholasticism flourished, knowledge of the works of Antiquity was expanded. Humanism, the first prerequisite of the Enlightenment, made progress. Science wasn’t useful yet, but technological progress had resumed after a long lapse. Notions of fair and limited government also resurfaced; your “opportunistic and cynical” political philosophy created the Magna Carta, the House of Commons, the Hanseatic League, the Swiss Confederacy, and Machiavelli’s republicanism. Society was moving forward again, if sporadically. And no one could deny that the art was better.

    “Well, okay, being me, I have a guess.”

    I’d love to hear it, though I suspect that we will disagree.

    “The point here is that in the Renaissance… the study of the liberal arts was atrophying at best.”

    So what were all the new universities teaching? Blacksmithing?

    “The Renaissance was the end of Southern Europe as the focal point for learning, culture, science and social advance within Western Civilization.”

    Southern Europe did not have a monopoly on the Renaissance.

    “All those reformers [assumed] that God does not lie to us and that therefore what we observe and experience is not some trick of the devil to be shunned rather than examined…”

    Don’t look now, but the idea that God is a Liar never went away, and like Buck Rogers, is alive and well in the Twenty-First Century. Specifically, He forges all kinds of evidence to trick humans into believing in Evolution (as a kind of entrapment, so that the Devil gets their souls. I’m not sure what God gets out of this).

    “And in the meantime, Protestant Northern Europe started… teaching everybody–women as well as men–to read.”

    And burning them at the stake if they didn’t read things quite right.

    “And on the determinism question…”

    You are confusing random events with determinate events. Except to the extent that it depends on the random appearance of electrons, your decision to skip class is strictly determinate. Determinism is compatible both with unpredictability and the experience of choice. This doesn’t mean that your “choice” is determined by psychological factors; it means that the future state of matter is determined by the past state of matter.

    “Randomness” is a damn difficult thing to put one’s finger on; it is really a matter of perspective. Dictionary definitions of “random”, “probability”, “likelihood”, or “chance” are ultimately circular, and for good reason.

    “You’re suggesting that we delegitimize even the possibility that we can judge any kind of experience at all.”

    No, that’s exactly the opposite of what I said.

    “I am NOT suggesting any form of dualism, Cartesian or otherwise.”

    Non-determinate, non-random choice requires an autonomous (undetermined) agent, and an autonomous agent requires dualism. So your pituatary gland does not obey the laws of physics? Still dualism.


    10 Oct 11 at 8:40 pm

  3. Heisenberg tells us there are limits to how much we can know of any particle. We can’t even know for sure where a particle is at any time. Modern electronics devices depend upon this property.

    Fine you say, in aggregate, the uncertainties average out so we can still make a predication based on the stochastic averages.

    Except Euclid’s three body problem shows that there are limits even with a simple system. Run the time out far enough and the positions of the bodies with respect to each other, except in certain stable configurations (one smaller object gets trapped in a Trojan position vs. another smaller object where both are orbiting a much more massive primary), become unpredictable.

    Or consider a different phenomena. A cellular automaton of finite size, whatever boundary conditions you choose, will from the same seeding of the plane eventually end in the same stable end state. Except there is no way to predict that end state short of running the cellular automaton. It is deterministic, but unpredictable by any simpler algorithm than itself.

    Then going back to physics from computer science, some real physical systems are, as AB pointed out, by definition “chaotic”: so sensitive to initial conditions that it’s not possible to predict their bahavior over any long term.

    And then there are neural networks themselves. In “The Computational Brain” Churchland and Sejnowski discuss at some point the computability problem of the stomatogastric nervous system of a Lobster. IIRC in the book (my son absconded with my copy off to college) it states that there are 12 neurons in the system — and no one has even yet to the best of my knowledge managed to give a complete reductionistic explanation of how it does all that it does.

    12 neurons and a supercomputer can’t do what they do, even programmed by brainiacs at a major research university with a project working on just that problem.

    The human brain has a few more than 12 neurons, and it’s doing more than running a few mouth parts while also receiving and processing a lot more – also unpredictable – information.

    So AB’s argument seems to boil down to, well, the basic laws of physics are deterministic, so their can’t be any such thing as the theologians “free will”.

    But I’m not a theologian, I prefer to spend such intellectual capital as I possess, however modest, on objects of certain existence – and what I see is that in order to actually make any use of that “determinism” to predict a humnans choice all that is required is that you have access to information you can’t even in principle have access to, both about the immediate states of every molecule in the brain, and also about any existing or near future sensory data that will be coming in, THAN to be able to input that massive amount of data to a computer bigger than the entire universe to perform the computation to predict even the short term behavior of that brain.

    So in all practicality, the only way to find out what a given human will do is the same solution as the cellular automaton – you have to wait to see what it will in fact do.

    Whatever she will do will not be random, but will be unpredictable.

    To complain that if you had information that it’s not possible to have and a computer than can’t be built, that then “in principle” the behavior is “deterministic” while as a though experiment seems logically unassailable, also seems throughly pointless, except to an orthodox Christian theologian who would then have to completely rework his ideas of sin and punishment, or change denominations or religions.

    That I’m too complicated for anything existing in this universe to reliably predict my behavior seems close enough to “free will” for all practical purposes.


    11 Oct 11 at 12:24 am

  4. Bravo, Mike.


    11 Oct 11 at 4:17 am

  5. Uh. ab? Might want to check a few dates–like those of the Swiss Confederation, the summoning of the commons to Parliament and Magna Carta. Or has the Renaissance moved to the 12th Century while I wasn’t looking? Generally, I like to see the cause before the effect.


    11 Oct 11 at 5:10 am

  6. Mr. Fisher, that’s exactly what I’ve said all along, except that you’ve left out the corollary: if you are defining “free will” as “unpredictability”, then you have to ascribe free will to all unpredictable events – dice, weather, etc.


    11 Oct 11 at 6:58 pm

  7. I don’t have to ascribe free will to dice or weather unless and until it can be demonstrated that in response to an input dice or weather systems are capable of producing something resembling, oh to pick a high level of functioning, a Shakespearean sonnet. Dice and weather systems don’t display learning or inquisitiveness.

    When I was growing up back in Kansas, we annually kept a young steer or a pig to raise for slaughter for meat. Typically if you surround cattle with an electric fence they quickly learn to avoid the fence, at which point you can turn off the electricity. Doesn’t save a lot of electricity, but it saves some wear and tear on the electronics, and it keeps the dumb cows from accidentally electrocuting one of the herd.

    But one summer we had a young steer that was of a more inquisitive and persistent nature than most of his brethren, and every time my parents turned off the electric fence, we had to go chase the steer down and drive him back to his enclosure. We had to simply leave the fence energized, there was going to be no fooling that particular steer.

    Neither dice nor weather systems nor ocean currents nor continental plates nor any other physical systems other than animals with complex neurosystems exhibit anything at all like that kind of learning, adaptability, and goal oriented behavior. The ability to respond not just to (relatively) large inputs of energy – but to information about the environment.

    So no I do not have to attribute anything like free will to events that are merely unpredictable in their responses to external inputs of energy. A “system” exhibiting free will is unpredictable in its response to information, which can be carried via wholly trivial amounts of energy.


    12 Oct 11 at 12:33 am

  8. An interesting approach, Mr. Fisher. Now I am sure you are aware that complex dynamic systems are indeed very senstive to small inputs of energy, but it’s true they do not have the ability to learn – they will remain unpredictable. The system which is capable of learning becomes /less/ unpredictable. It would be damnably difficult to predict when, if ever, an infant will vocalize some random sound, but teach a man to say “fuck you” and you can often predict fairly well when we will say it, or at least when he will not – and he is more likely to say “fuck you” than “chinga te”.

    I will conjecture that what your description of “free will” entails, in more physical terms, is that a complex, dynamic, unpredictable system becomes more predictable, but /without/ reducing its complexity (this last qualifier is obviously necessary). Weather, e.g., remains chaotic, and rain never learns to follow the plow. Please correct me if you feel this description is inappropriate.

    If this is the correct description for a system exhibiting “free will” (or, as I would have it, the necessary condition for a system to subjectively experience free will) there are interesting corollaries. Beside the obvious (it’s easy to write a computer program that learns), one might suppose that a tribe or State, for example, might possess free will (and in fact, when interpreting history, we often implicitly assume so). Is it possible that computers or organizations or networks subjectively experience something like choice, or at least should be ascribed the quality of free will?

    Not that any of this applies to Kansas. In the fields of southern Kansas, all points are the same point and 110 mph is the same speed as parked. And every steer goes to market.


    12 Oct 11 at 5:12 pm

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