Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Political Consequences of Reductionism



Yesterday, Denyse O'Leary highlighted a fascinating article in last week's Hindu Times. The article - entitled Our Ideas of Brain and Human Nature are a Myth - shows the shocking political consequences of reductionism - straight from the mouth of a reductionist advocate.

Read the whole thing, but here's a few clips...

The notion of individual autonomy underpins our society, yet new research suggests this guiding principle is an illusion. It was browsing in a bookshop that got me started. I was confronted by a bank of bestsellers on the brain: how it works and how we think.

It’s not an accident that many of the biggest bestsellers in this territory are about decision-making — Blink, Nudge and The Decisive Moment. The image which comes to mind is that they are all sticks of dynamite dug in to explode the great sacred mythology of our time: namely that individual freedom is about having choices, and that progress is about the constant expansion of those choices.


Read these books and you discover that people are useless at making choices. We are lazy, imitative, over-optimistic, myopic, and much of our decision-making is made by unconscious habits of the mind which are largely socially primed [...]

It’s intriguing how much attention the thesis has attracted from many parts of the political establishment, such as policymakers in pensions, health and the environment, because often the gains from nudging seem pretty small -- it is fanciful to think it can solve the environmental crisis.

This humbling evidence of our hopeless decision-making exposes consumer capitalism as not being about millions of independent decisions of individuals expressing unique identities, but about how social norms can be manipulated to create eager shoppers. Or take the idea of introducing choice into public services; some bizarre consequences will result, such as the popularity of a hospital being determined by whether it has a car park, not the skill of medical staff.

This all may seem remote from politics, but it’s not. Some politicians argue that the regeneration of the left requires a convincing new account of what it is to be human. Are human beings self-interested creatures or are they collaborative? The right’s argument for market capitalism is rooted in the former but the research on the social brain supports the latter.

A message to the Conservative Reductionists (Gamers, HBD advocates, etc.): See what happens when you destroy human dignity and the idea that man is a rational creature with moral choice? It's not the Right that benefits; it's the Left. Why? Because if we are just hairless apes with no free will, Government - and only Government - with its endless rules, regulations, and quotas - can keep us mindless animals from harming one another.

As I wrote to Alkibiades last night...

A "rational civilization" needs only 2 things...

1) A citizenry that believes in the power of reason - i.e., that people have the intellectual and moral capacity to live their own lives with a minimum of outside coercion (coercion from a government agency or a religious body or whatever), and

2) A government that operates in a way that enables its "rational citizens" to flourish (i.e, a government of limited powers that can maintain law and order).

By those standards, which civilizations are "rational?" Not many. The United States, Israel, and the Anglosphere (Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand). Maybe one or two others.

And obviously, all of those countries are in danger today, because the idea that reason is good for humanity - indeed, the very CONCEPT that reason even exists - is under attack.

See my essays, Ideas Have Consequences and What is the Function of Science?

-Todd

UPDATE: Lawrence Auster has cross-posted this as part of his piece, A coming clash between liberalism and Darwinism? Or a takeover of liberalism by Darwinism?


8 comments:

Alkibiades said...

Todd,

Continuing the 'rational civilization' discussion.

Regarding item 1. As a small 'l' libertarian, I can agree with the need for a minimum amount of coercion. I can also accept that most people, even those on the left side of the bell curve, are smart enough to live their own lives.

We could probably get into a whole discussion of morality and moral capacity in it's own right. My LTR once asked me if I believed that everyone was inherently good as she does. My response was in the negative (I also don't believe everyone is inherently evil). A lot of the discussion of HBD vs. Social conservatism seems to boil down to a nature vs. nurture dichotomy. How much do each play a role in human interactions.

Regarding item 2, your statement seems more of an ideal rather than historic reality. Because governments are set up and run by people they eventually grasp for more and more power, and ever more influence over their citizen's lives.

Ultimately, I don't accept that human beings as a group can be rational in their decision making. I accept that they will be predictably irrational.

http://www.amazon.com/Predictably-Irrational-Revised-Expanded-Decisions/dp/0061854549/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1252000337&sr=8-2

Todd White said...

Alki (Is it OK if I call you that? I hate having to triple-check the spelling of your name. Greek ain't my specialty),

I agree with you that people are NOT born inherently good. That is precisely why Reason (and a moral order based on Reason) is so critical for civilization. We must LEARN to be GOOD.

As for the role of government...I'm not sure why you think my statement is "an ideal rather than an historical reality." You should read the Founding Fathers. Their philosophy of human nature and the best form of government is totally in sync with mine. The U.S. Constitution is the product of their philosophy. Overall, I would say the U.S. Constitution has worked out pretty well. Is the US Constitution not an "historical reality?" Is the greatness of America from 1776 to 2008 not an "historical reality?"

Lastly, I think you raise a profound point. You wrote, "I don't accept that human beings as a group can be rational in their decision making."

Again, I don't know why you feel that way. And if you DO feel that way, it's perplexing to me why you're a libertarian.

The logical consequence of such a position - as I explain in my essay - is not freedom, but tyranny. You should read quotes from the great dictators of history - Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Mussolini, Mao, etc. They all say the same thing: Men are inherently irrational and wicked and can never be redeemed. Hence, we need a strong central government to FORCE THEM to be GOOD.

Alkibiades said...

"As for the role of government...I'm not sure why you think my statement is "an ideal rather than an historical reality." You should read the Founding Fathers. Their philosophy of human nature and the best form of government is totally in sync with mine. The U.S. Constitution is the product of their philosophy. Overall, I would say the U.S. Constitution has worked out pretty well. Is the US Constitution not an "historical reality?" Is the greatness of America from 1776 to 2008 not an "historical reality?"

Look at our government now versus what the founding father's intentions were. My particular field of employment puts me in direct contact with government agencies and the tyranny of bureaucracy. The historic reality I am talking about is that the governments of all stable societies become more domineering with time. Not the opposite.

You say: "I don't know why you feel that way. And if you DO feel that way, it's perplexing to me why you're a libertarian."

Easy, I have no problem with irrationality. I find it amusing. Nothing in my experiece shows me people be rational for more than a small percentage of the time. I'm a libertarian for two reasons. First, trying to force people to act in ways that may be counter to their nature or character doesn't work. Second, I believe people should be free to make their own mistakes and reap the consequences or rewards.

Hitler, Mao, Stalin, et. al. were idiots. Their argument boils down to all people are irrational and wicked, but my people are the exception so accept the yoke I place upon you.

You say the logical consequence is not freedom but tyranny. Could the logical consequence of both liberalism and conservatism also be tyranny? To over simplify, liberals want maximum social freedom and minimum economic freedom. Conservatives want minimum social freedom, and maximum economic freedom.

Please provide the link to your essay again.

Todd White said...

Alki:

You've given me a lot to think about. Thanks for the dialogue. I've tried to address your comment point-by-point.

AL: Look at our government now versus what the founding father's intentions were. My particular field of employment puts me in direct contact with government agencies and the tyranny of bureaucracy. The historic reality I am talking about is that the governments of all stable societies become more domineering with time. Not the opposite.

TW: Yes, America today has strayed far from the intentions of our Founding Fathers, and is following the liberals on a new path that can only lead to disaster. But it doesn’t change the fact that A) the Founding Fathers were brilliant 2) America successfully pursued the Founders’ vision for nearly all of its 233-year history, and 3) even today, America is the greatest country in the world.

AL: I have no problem with irrationality. I find it amusing. Nothing in my experience shows me people to be rational for more than a small percentage of the time. I'm a libertarian for two reasons. First, trying to force people to act in ways that may be counter to their nature or character doesn't work. Second, I believe people should be free to make their own mistakes and reap the consequences or rewards.

TW: I’m certainly under no illusion that human beings are “perfectly rational creatures." If anyone ever believed that, I'm sure their opinion changed after the Mortgage Meltdown of 2007-08. Having said that, I don’t agree with you that people are only rational “for a small percentage of the time.” People are a strange brew of reason and emotion, but even among the dullest among us, reason is a powerful factor in daily life. It has to be. Otherwise, they wouldn’t survive.

As for the role of government…you wrote, "people should be free to make their own mistakes and reap the consequences or rewards." But why? Based on what principle? The founders of the Enlightenment (think Locke) believed that men should be free BECAUSE of their rationality. If men are merely more-productive animals, what is the moral objection to treating men like animals? REASON implies MORAL CHOICE which implies INTEGRITY which implies the RIGHT TO FREEDOM. Once you deny man's power of reason, everything else gradually melts away. The liberals in DC can lead us around by the nose and we can no intellectual weapons against them.

[to be continued]

Todd White said...

[continued]

AL: Hitler, Mao, Stalin, et. al. were idiots. Their argument boils down to all people are irrational and wicked, but my people are the exception so accept the yoke I place upon you.

TW: No, no, no. 2 extremely important points: First, the life philosophy of those dictators applied to ALL people (not just their opponents). For example, Hitler believed that even his beloved Germans were irrational and needed to be ruled with an iron first. In fact, there’s at least 20 different quotes from Hitler praising the “romantic irrationality” of the German people and their genuine eagerness to subject to the state. Read Leonard Peikoff’s book “The Ominous Parallels.” It’s excellent. And very timely.

But here’s the even MORE important point: It’s not that Hitler, Mussolini, etc. used irrationality to justify their abuse of power; it’s that the citizens themselves (and especially the intellectual class) shared that SAME BELIEF. The dictators were merely affirming what nearly everyone believed after the end of World War I and before the “Recovery of Freedom” in the 1980s: that reason and faith were “passé;” they couldn’t hold the allegiance of the masses any longer; and that only brute force could unify the nation and lead to economic and social progress.

And to that point, I ask: What is the intellectual and moral state of America in the 21st century? Are we not losing our commitment to reason and faith in faith itself?

We should be very concerned.

AL: You say the logical consequence is not freedom but tyranny. Could the logical consequence of both liberalism and conservatism also be tyranny? To over simplify, liberals want maximum social freedom and minimum economic freedom. Conservatives want minimum social freedom, and maximum economic freedom.

TW: You say “conservatives” want “minimum social freedom.” That describes no conservative I know. Opposition to gay marriage and abortion doesn’t equal “miniumum social freedom.” The political Right poses no danger of tyranny – to the extent, of course, that the Right’s leaders obey genuine conservative principles.

AK: Please provide the link to your essay again.

TW: Sure. Which link are you referring to?

Todd White said...

Lawrence Auster at VFR has been following much of our discussion, and I have permission from him to share a few of his observations...

"[Alki's] statements don't scan. Sounds like nonsense. People are not capable of being rational in their decision making, but they're capable of ... governing themselves."

Yes, that doesn't add up.

Auster continues...

"The whole idea of self-government in the Lockean-American sense assumes that MAN IS A RATIONAL BEING CAPABLE OF KNOWING TRUTH.

If it were assumed that MAN IS AN IRRATIONAL BEING INCAPABLE OF KNOWING TRUTH, then then there NEVER WOULD HAVE BEEN AN IDEA OF SELF-GOVERNMENT.

Man has the natural right to direct his affairs insofar as HE IS A RATIONAL BEING.

An IRRATIONAL BEING would have NO NATURAL RIGHT TO DIRECT HIS OWN AFFAIRS OR TO INSTITUTE GOVERNMENTS, DERIVING THEIR JUST POWERS FROM THE CONSENT OF THE GOVERNED."

Needless to say, I agree with Auster 100%.

-TW

Todd White said...

Today, Lawrence Auster highlighted a National Review article called "The Deeper Debate."

According to the piece, the political conflict over health care can be seen as a larger epistemological and ideological struggle between the particles.

With that in mind, I wrote Mr. Auster the following email...

"Not to beat a dead horse, but Levin's article (and your commentary on it) directly relates to our discussion at my blog yesterday on 'The Political Consequences of Reductionism.'

Either 'ordinary people' are rational enough to be in charge of their own health care, or they are not. It's that simple. The Left, of course, believes they are not. That's nothing new. What IS new is that a group of conservatives (the 'Biocons') share that Leftist view of human nature, and then are shocked (shocked!) when real conservatives (like you and me) dare to oppose their viewpoint because we know exactly where that ideology will lead. It will lead into the waiting arms of the Left.

The original article - plus my commentary - can be found here:

http://www.amnation.com/vfr/archives/014146.html

Todd White said...

Update here:

http://mustardseednovel.blogspot.com/2009/10/political-implications-of-reductionism.html