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Lights on the Horizon (The Defense, Part 14)

with 2 comments


Back on track.

With everything.


A long way back there, I said that it was possible to look over the course of history and see where the provision of a liberal arts education where none had been before–or a very weak version of which had been before–was followed by an overall improvement of the basic morals of society at large.

And since society is made up of individuals, and the overall moral improvement of society cannot come about unless at least some individuals (and probably lots of them) are also showing moral improvement, then the fact that individuals improve in periods where a liberal arts education is vigorously offered and pursued is at least indicative of there being some kind of connection between the two.

It is also of at least some interest that the men and women who re-introduced liberal learning to their societies at least believed that a re-introduction would result in elevated moral functioning by the citizens around them.

There are going to be enough of you out there who will say that correlation is not causation, and that not only I, but the men who made these arguments in the 18th century, are engaging in an orgy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc. 

 About the men of the 18th century, that may be true.  I think I’m a little more circumspect.

However that works out, however, I need to point out one thing:  no matter what you’ve been told, there were two Enlightenments, not one.

And those two Enlightenments came out of what had become, over the previous hundred odd years, very different religious, philosophical, cultural and material environments.

And that was true even though it took nearly to the start of the 18th century and the rise of the Enlightenments (plural) to pull the two parties to the dispute apart.

Except, of course, that by that time there were many more than two parties.  There was a joke when I was a child that went:  any time you get three Greeks together,  you have seven political parties.

This is, after all, the civilization the Greeks made, and it was always that even in its Christian incarnations.

And all the parties to the dispute shared one common circumstance:  they were witnesses to the violent upheavals of the wars of religion and everything that went with them.

This was the period of the great witch hunts–not the Middle Ages, but here, as everybody and  his brother insisted that the lady next door (or, yes, her huband) were sleeping with the devil, and you could know that because she said the Hail, Mary or stayed away from the confessional or…

There were lots of ors.

The Protestant reformers turned out to have been very wrong about the most basic thing.

It was not the case that every man could read the Bible for himself and see the “plain” meaning of it.  The meaning turned out to be not so plain, and instead of a vast sea of Christians living in spiritual equality and all practicing religion as Christ had commanded it, what we got was forty new Churches a year, each with its own idea of what the Bible “plainly” said.

And there was no end to it in sight, and no indication that there could ever be an end. 

And that’s where each side of the discussion turned back to the idea of the liberal arts, but did it in its own particular way.

And the particular ways mattered.

For Catholics, the purpose of bringing back liberal education was to use it to shore up the central teaching authority of the Church. 

Priests, being armed with better educations than the people in the pews, would also be better able to refute heresies and squash any rebellious attempts to assert the “right” of individuals to their own interpretations.

Catholicism was always about centralized authority, the Church (meaning now the body with Christ at its head, including the clergy and the laity and the religious, as well as the souls in Paradise and the souls in Purgatory)–the Church speaking in “one voice.”

One voice could be attained in only one way–if there was Authority at the top, with all the rest following “docilely” underneath. 

What’s more, such unanimity was important.  Without it, there was nothing but confusion, and the constant danger that the whole world would be turned over to the Devil and his everlasting torments.  A man preaching something other than the Church’s understanding of religion was not following his conscience.  He was a stalking horse for hell, and if he was left free to make his case he would drag many  more souls down into the pit with him.

The Protestants had a similar understanding of the damages done by heretics.  If you don’t believe me, go look at what various Protestant communities did to the Quakers and the Baptists among them.

What the Protestants did not have was an ingrained need to assert and enforce a centralized authority about religion or anything else.  At the core of the Protestant idea was that precept–that every man and woman could read the Bible and know what it meant himself, without the intervention of a Church’s teaching authority.

It was not comfortable that, having installed their idea of religion in various countries of the world, those countries seemed to be landing in just the chaotic mess the Catholic Church had prophesied they would.

The elders of the various Protestant Churches began to bring back liberal learning in the hope that it would cure the chaos–with the thought that by better training the minds of clergymen and laymen alike, those minds would see clearly the outlines of “true religion,” and the chaos would settle into agreement.

Both the Catholics and the Protestants were, quite simply, wrong.

I think that, by its very nature, liberal learning leads not to unanimity but to diversity of opinion, belief and practice. 

I think that applying the light of reason to a question that is anything but a simple material one will lead us, inevitably, into a situation where each researcher will have different perspectives, different inclinations, different focuses.

I think that the social sciences are not sciences not only because they were never meant to be–they were meant to be substitutes for religion–but because they could never be. There subject matter will not lend itself to real scientific investigation. 

If you don’t like the word “choice” then call it whatever you do like–but nothing will get you out of the basic problem. 

If we teach men and women to apply reason and logic to human problems, they will inevitable disagree with each  other about what the solutions to those problems are.

They’ll do more than that.  They’ll even disagree with each other about what those problems are.

 The two Enlightenments arose as answers to this question:  what do we do about the fact that reason and science will not produce social and religious unity about the most important questions in human life?

And Catholics and Protestants proceeded to act like Catholics and Protestants, even when they were calling themselves Philosophes and Deists. 

More, with any luck, tomorrow.

Written by janeh

October 24th, 2011 at 10:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Lights on the Horizon (The Defense, Part 14)'

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  1. Hmmm. I may be missing something here, because my first thought was “no, of course they won’t agree. Why should they?” The liberally educated have, after all, been presented with 50 or 100 different notions of the good. Few of the authors agree, and, while most of the authors were themselves liberally educated, I’d say half at least were openly opposed to freedom and free inquiry or were unconcerned with truth except as the appearance of truth promoted an agenda. That is, I suspect, one reason why the whole program disappears from time to time: too many students begin to fancy themselves philosopher kings, or the vanguard of the proletariat, and once in power they can only see the program as a challenge to their own competence or authority.

    But this is different from the social sciences being unable to behave like real sciences. In fact, on a very broad level, some can and do. Does anyone here doubt Lord Acton’s observation that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely?” Many are uncomfortable with the implications, but that’s different. The historian, of course, functions like a police detective. He is confronted with an irreproducible event in the past. He assembles evidence and attempts to reconstruct the event. He may be more or less convincing, but scientific proof must elude him.

    Some other “social sciences,” though, deal with ongoing or future events, and can be judged by predictions and results. Take a look at economics. Consider unsecured paper money. I remember when my comic books first said “Still 10 Cents!” I thought it was a bad sign. I was right. Last week at the hobby shop they said “Holding the Line at 2.99!” But is anyone surprised? Same thing with lower workforce participation folowing increases in the minimum wage, or with the inefficiencies of tarrif-protected industries. A politician or economist might argue that, for instance, inflation can be kept gradual, that it has a positive side, or that the alternative is worse. But if he argues that it won’t happen he’s a fool or a fraud.

    The Constitution of the United States was written by people who certainly thought that there were rules of human behavior to be derived from study, and I would say their results justify their confidence. We probably understand the political and economic behavior of large numbers of people to the level of, say, Newtonian physics.

    The bloodshed–sometimes literal–comes from a disagreement about what is good or just. And yes “Ethics” was certainly intended as a religion substitute, and a shoddy one at that. But I never heard it called a social science–only a “humanity.”

    The other problem is the inescapable human tendency to believe what they would prefer to be true. Just as there will always be a market for the author of the “Beer and Potato Chips Diet” regardless of advances in medicine, so there will always be rewards for the author of some Devil theory of politics. Get rid of the Jews, the Freemasons, the plutocrats or the speculators, vote the straight party ticket, and all will be well. (The careful honest author who tells people that their beloved program will not work as advertised and must be modified to work at all will NOT have a dump at the front of the bookstore.) But that tells us nothing about whether political science, economics or anthropology are or can be real sciences. It just tells us a lot about people.


    24 Oct 11 at 5:34 pm

  2. I would say that the social sciences have at least one success – The Law of unintended consequences. “All human actions have unintended consequences.”

    Which seems to be true but isn’t all that helpful!

    I would also suggest that Statistical Mechanics rather than Newtonian Physics might be a better model for the social sciences to follow.


    24 Oct 11 at 7:49 pm

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