Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Cosmic Teleology in Big History?


 
 
Here are two models of the universe.  The first is Dante's Christian model, which was generally accepted in Christendom until the 18th century.  Dante's model has the Earth at the center.  Circling around the Earth are the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.  Beyond that are the fixed stars, and then finally the chrystalline sphere of the Primum Mobile and the Paradise of Heaven.  Beneath the Earth are Purgatory and Hell.

The second model is by Thomas Digges, originally published in 1576.  Digges was an English mathematician and astronomer, who was the first person to explain the Copernican heliocentric model in English, although he modified the Copernican model in two ways.  Like Copernicus, Digges has the Sun at the center.  Circling around the Sun are Mercury, Venus, and the Earth, with the Earth identified as "the great orb carrying the globe of mortality, his circular period determining our years." Beyond the Earth are the orbits of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.  Unlike Copernicus, Digges described the orbit of fixed stars beyond Saturn as including Heaven: "This orb of stars fixed infinitely up extends itself in altitude spherically, and therefore immovable the palace of felicity garnished with perpetual shining glorious lights innumerable, far excelling over the sun both in quantity and quality the very court of celestial angels, devoid of grief and replenished with perfect endless joy, the habitacle for the elect."  He also departs from Copernicus in that beyond the fixed stars are stars scattered throughout endless space.  Remarkably, unlike the Christian model of Dante, Digges's model does not include a place for Hell.

Both of these models assume that the cosmos is the created and purposeful design of God, who cares for the destiny of human beings as intelligent beings created in God's image, who are mortal in their earthly life, but who will live eternally in the afterlife, either enjoying eternal bliss or suffering eternal punishment.  Both of these cosmic models show a cosmic teleology in that human beings find themselves in a universe purposefully created with them in mind, and in the light of which human life has some cosmic meaning.

Does modern scientific cosmology allow for such cosmic teleology?  And if it does not, does that mean that modern science cannot support any natural teleology that can give some meaning to human life?

Early modern scientists like Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton were theists who thought the cosmic laws of nature studied by scientists were the laws of God, and thus the cosmic order manifested God's purposeful direction.

But today, many (perhaps most) natural scientists think that science must be atheistic, and so it cannot affirm the cosmic teleology of the divine creation stories.  In short, human beings can find no cosmic meaning for their lives, because the cosmos as understood by modern science is utterly pointless.

Recently, however, the proponents of Big History have argued that while the modern scientific account of human history within the history of the whole cosmos cannot support the cosmic origin stories of the Bible and other religious traditions, modern scientific cosmology can tell a scientific origin story that will allow human beings to understand the meaning of human life in the cosmos. 

In Big History: Between Nothing and Everything (2014), David Christian, Cynthia Stokes Brown, and Craig Benjamin argue that the scientific origin story of Big History can "give us a powerful sense of meaning" (2), and if this new origin story is taught to high school students around the world, this could provide us with a shared global understanding of our human place in the universe that could help us confront the greatest threats to human existence on earth today--such as nuclear war and global warming.  Bill Gates has supported their project for providing material for high school teachers to teach Big History.  So that, while previously children were taught the religious origin stories of their various societies, which explained the cosmic meaning of their lives within their social order, the new scientifically grounded Big History can teach children around the world an origin story that depends on scientific evidence rather than religious faith, and which can sustain a global ethics comprehensible to human beings in all societies, who otherwise disagree in their religious beliefs.

By contrast, some scientists today claim that science and religion are compatible, and that the modern scientific understanding of the cosmos, and of the human place within the cosmos, supports the cosmic teleology of the theistic origin stories.  For example, Owen Gingerich is Professor of Astronomy and of the History of Science, Emeritus, at Harvard University and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; and he argues that a scientific history of the cosmos shows evidence of divine purposefulness, because the physical and chemical constants of the universe seem to be fine-tuned for the emergence of a world hospitable to intelligent life.  Thus, science can sustain a cosmic teleology in which human life gains meaning as the fulfillment of God's purposes.  He has laid out his reasoning in two books--God's Universe (2006) and God's Planet (2014). 

Many other prominent scientists have made similar claims about how the fine-tuning of the universe supports a theistic view of human life as the fulfillment of divine purposefulness.  This is a new version of the old argument from design (first stated by Plato)--that if nature looks like it has been intelligently designed, then this must point to a divinely intelligent designer.

Christian, Brown, and Benjamin do not mention such scientific theism as an alternative to their position.  Although they do not explicitly say so, they imply that modern science must be atheistic.  They certainly make it clear that the Biblical origin story must be rejected as false (12-13, 57-58, 60, 64).

My position falls somewhere in between Gingerich and the Big History folks.  I agree with Gingerich that modern science does not dictate atheism, because scientific answers to questions about how things work fall short of answering questions about why they work that way, which are the questions that open up the possibility of divine purposefulness.  Questions about first causes point to the problem of ultimate explanation--that all explanation depends on some ultimate reality that cannot itself be explained.  All explanation presupposes the observable order of nature as the final ground of explanation.  To the question of why nature exists, or why it has the order that it does, there are only two possible answers.  Either we say this is a brute fact of our experience: that's just the way it is! Or we move beyond nature to nature's God as the creator of nature, but then we cannot explain why God is the way He is.  In looking for an ultimate explanation, we must stop somewhere with something that is unexplained--either an uncaused or self-caused nature or an uncaused or self-caused God.

Here, Gingerich says, we move from scientific physics to philosophical or theological metaphysics.  The practice of modern science, Gingerich observes, requires a methodological naturalism that looks for purely natural causes to explain everything, but it does not require a metaphysical naturalism that denies that there is any supernatural reality beyond nature.  And while the scientific account of the cosmos cannot prove the cosmic teleology of divine purposefulness, the scientific discovery that the cosmos is fine-tuned for the emergence of intelligent life makes it at least plausible to believe that this shows a divine purpose at work in the cosmos.

To reach this conclusion, however, Gingerich's view of cosmic history must stop at the present moment, with human intelligent life dominant over the Earth, and thus he refuses to reflect on the cosmic future and the likelihood that in the distant future all life will almost certainly be extinguished, because in that case we might as well conclude that the cosmos has been fine-tuned for eternal death.

Christian, Brown, and Benjamin do reflect on the likelihood that in the remote future the cosmos will be dead, and thus the emergence of life, including intelligent life, can be seen as only one short moment in the early history of the cosmos.  But they do not reflect on how this subverts their claim that Big History is the story of progress in increasing complexity that reaches its highest complexity in the intelligent life of human beings and human collective learning.

My argument is that rather than looking for some cosmic teleology of the universe, we should be satisfied if we can see the immanent teleology of living species, including the human species.  Cosmic teleology is the conception of all of nature as a whole in which all beings serve a cosmic purpose set by an intelligent designer or creator.  By contrast, immanent teleology is manifest in the internal purposiveness of organisms in their generation, their structure, and their activities.  Darwinian biology rejects any cosmic teleology by which the universe as a whole would be seen as ordered to some end or purpose.  Evolution by variation and natural selection explains the purposiveness of species without reference to any forces guiding nature to secure some cosmic scale of perfection.  And yet, although the evolutionary process does not serve goals, the organisms emerging from that process do.  Reproduction, growth, feeding, healing, courtship, parental care of the young--these and many other activities of organisms are goal directed.  Biologists cannot explain such processes unless they ask about ends or purposes immanent in each species. 

Human beings show such immanent teleology in that the evolved human nature of Homo sapiens includes natural desires and inclinations that are directed to goals or ends, and we can judge the happiness of a human life by how well those goals or ends are satisfied.  I have argued that there are at least 20 natural human desires, and that we judge societies as better or worse depending on how well or how poorly those societies provide the conditions for the harmonious satisfaction of those desires.  This is not a cosmic standard of the good, because this standard of the good is relative to the human species.  Nor is this an eternal standard of the good, because the human good exists only as long as the human species exists.  And modern scientific cosmology teaches us that human beings will exist for only a brief moment in cosmic history.  But for as long as that human species exists, even if it seems fleeting in the huge expanse of cosmic history, the human good is a natural reality.

This is not enough for Gingerich.  He rejects the Biblical literalism of the scientific creationists who claim that science confirms the six-days-of-creation story in Genesis, because he doubts that this poetic story was meant to be a literal history of the origin of the cosmos, and because he doubts that any empirical science could confirm such a story.  He also rejects Intelligent Design Theory (like that promoted by the Discovery Institute), because he sees no scientific evidence that God had to intervene miraculously to create each form of life that could not have arisen by a natural evolutionary process,  And yet he is a theistic evolutionist, who believes that God did have to act as First Cause of the laws of nature: He knew how to make a universe that could make itself.  So he agrees with the Intelligent Design theorists that the evidence of design in nature points to divine final causes.  But he does not see that they have provided any mechanisms for the efficient causes necessary for any scientific explanation (God's Universe, 73).  I have made the same point against the Intelligent Design theorists: what they offer is not a scientific explanation unless they can explain exactly when, where, and how the Intelligent Designer created all the irreducibly complex forms of life.

Although Gingerich does not believe that science can prove the existence of God as First Cause, he does believe that there is evidence of fine-tuning or the anthropic principle that becomes comprehensible only if one believes that this fine-tuning is the purposeful work of a Creator.  There are many parameters of physics and cosmology that are set at precise values, such that if there were even a slight deviation from these values, the universe would not be hospitable to any form of life or to intelligent life.  There can be as many as 34 of these finely tuned parameters.  For example, if the expansion rate of the universe had been slightly larger, no stars and planets could have formed; and if it had been slightly smaller, the universe would have collapsed before any stars and planets could have been formed.  The nuclear energy level ratio of carbon to oxygen is set precisely, so that if it had been larger, the universe would contain insufficient oxygen for life, and if it had been smaller, the universe would contain insufficient carbon for life.  If the earth were closer to the Sun, it would be too hot to sustain life.  If it were farther away from the Sun, it would be too cold to sustain life.  Just as Goldilocks found the bowl of porridge that was neither too hot or too cold but just right, it seems that the universe is just right for the emergence of intelligent life. 

Gingerich sees only two possible ways to explain why the universe is so precisely fine-tuned for the evolution of intelligent life on Earth.  We either say that this all happened through an astonishing sequence of accidents.  Or we say that it was intentionally planned by the Creator.  Gingerich thinks the latter is much more plausible, because it is easier to believe that the Creator intentionally set the finely-tuned parameters of the universe to make it inevitable that not just life, but intelligent human life would emerge on a planet just like the Earth.  He endorses the statement of Paul Davies "that the laws of nature are rigged not only in favor of complexity, or just in favor of life, but also in favor of mind.  To put it dramatically, it implies that mind is written into the laws of nature in a fundamental way" (God's Universe, 38).  It's as though nature has been designed so as to be hospitable to minds that can contemplate nature.

It is easier to believe that the universe's being finely tuned for intelligent life is purely accidental if one believes in the multiverse theory accepted by some scientists today.  If our universe is only one of many universes, and if each of those universes has a different set of natural laws and natural physical and cosmological parameters, then we might imagine that through a random evolution of universes, at least one universe could have arisen like ours hospitable to intelligent life.  The problem with this, however, as Gingerich and other scientists have observed, is that this is a purely imaginary conception, for which we have no observational evidence, because we have no way of stepping outside our own universe.  For this reason, many scientists think the theory of multiverse is not a scientific theory at all, because it is not empirically testable.

Even if from the standpoint of the present moment, we as intelligent beings can look back on 13.8 billion years of cosmic history and see ourselves as the purposeful peak of that fine-tuned evolutionary history, which is what Gingerich does, we might wonder about the remote future of the cosmos.  Is the cosmos so fine-tuned for life and intelligent life that such life will continue forever?  Gingerich never asks that question or considers what scientific cosmology would suggest about the distant future of the cosmos.

Although Gingerich quotes from Paul Davies as saying that the universe seems rigged to favor the emergence of not just life but intelligent life, he does not quote Davies' remarks about what the universe will look like in the very remote future.  He imagines "an inconceivably dilute soup of photons, neutrinos, and a dwindling number of electrons and positrons, all slowly moving farther and farther apart.  As far as we know, no further basic physical processes would ever happen.  No significant event would occur to interrupt the bleak sterility of a universe that has run its course yet still faces eternal life--perhaps eternal death would be a better description."

So if we look at the entire history of the cosmos, we see that during the first 10 billion years, there was no life; and then after a few billion years of life, the universe became eternally dead again.  So now life, including intelligent life, seems to be only a momentary event in cosmic history.  Now, it seems that the cosmos has been fine-tuned for an eternity of mindless death.

Or would Gingerich dispute this scenario of the universe as eternally expanding into an utterly dead universe?  Would he defend what John Barrow and Frank Tipler, in The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (1986), call "The Final Anthropic Principle (FAP): Intelligent information-processing must come into existence in the Universe, and, once it comes into existence, it will never die out."  Or would Gingerich agree with Martin Gardner's flippant remark that this should be called the "Completely Ridiculous Anthropic Principle (CRAP)"?

Of course, one way to preserve human intelligent life forever would be for human beings at death to pass into an afterlife, going either to Heaven or Hell.  Gingerich recognizes that Heaven is included in Digges's Copernican model of the universe, but Gingerich does not say whether this could be compatible with modern scientific cosmology.  He does suggest, however, in one of his articles, that if one accepts the multiverse theory, then one might imagine that Heaven could be located in one of those alternative universes. Dinesh D'Souza, in Life After Death: The Evidence (2009), has elaborated this idea.  But as I have argued in some other posts, it is hard to imagine how any of the traditional conceptions of human immortality--such as the mind living separated from the body or the resurrection of the body to eternal life--make any sense.

Christian, Brown, and Benjamin offer no prospects for eternal life, and they see the remote future of the universe as eternal death.  Relying on the work of Nikos Prantzos, in Our Cosmic Future: Humanity's Fate in the Universe (2000),  they paint a bleak picture:
"In the very remote future, countless billions of billions of billions of years from now, the universe will start getting more and more boring.  The gaps between galaxies will increase so that observers will see fewer objects in the skies until eventually each galaxy will seem to be a self-contained universe of its own.  Star formation will cease, and the number of stars will start diminishing until finally there will no longer be any stars at all.  And no stars will surely mean no planets, no biospheres, and no living organisms.  The universe will be dead again, and any complex structures will be slowly broken down, beginning with living organisms, progressing to planets, and eventually to stars.  The Goldilocks conditions that made it possible to create planets and life will no longer exist.  The universe will become a place inhabited by clouds of chemicals, including, perhaps, great lumps of iron.  Where there are clumps of matter, they will either form black holes or eventually get gobbled up by black holes, which will graze on the slim pickings left in an increasingly empty universe.  Eventually, gazillions of gazillions of years from now (gazillions is not a technical term, by the way, but we hope you know what we mean), even the black holes will leak energy and begin to evaporate.  The universe will get simpler and simper and bigger and bigger forever and ever and ever and . . ." (304)
They say that this "bleak picture" should actually be "quite satisfying" to us if we see that what this means is that "we have the good fortune to live in the springtime of the universe," before it collapses into perpetual disorder without complexity or life.

What they call the "Goldilocks conditions" seem to correspond to what Gingerich and others call "fine tuning."  But here the finely tuned conditions for the emergence of ever greater complexity in cosmic history, culminating in the complexity of intelligent life, disappear in the remote future.  This seems odd, because after Christian, Brown, and Benjamin have organized all of their Big History of the universe around the theme of increasing complexity leading to intelligent human life, they point in the last three pages of their book to an endless future history with no complexity or life. 

Now it seems that there is no cosmic teleology of progress, because it all ends in perpetual dead disorder.  If this Big History gives us any "powerful sense of meaning," it must be not a cosmic meaning but the immanent meaning inherent in the striving of living beings including ourselves.

Bertrand Russell expressed this thought well:
"That all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction . . . and the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins--all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand"
"I am told that that sort of view is depressing and that if people believed it, they would not be able to go on living. . . . But nobody really worries about what is going to happen millions of years hence.  Therefore, although it is of course a gloomy view to suppose that life will die out . . ., it is not such as to render life miserable.  It merely makes you turn your attention to other things."
So how do we explain the powerful but illusory appeal of the cosmic teleology of fine tuning the universe for intelligent life?  Perhaps the best way of explaining this comes from Douglas Adams's account of "puddle theory":
"Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact, it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!'  This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be all right, because this World was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for."
And, indeed, Christian, Brown, and Benjamin argue that Big History should teach us about the fragile vulnerability of human life in its dependence on life-sustaining ecological conditions, and thus we need to be on the watch out for threats like global warming.  But they also suggest that no matter what we do, we might survive for a few more centuries, or even thousands of years, if we're lucky, but as billions of years pass, the Sun will begin to expand, and the Earth will be too hot for any kind of life.

But if we could imagine ourselves somehow being there to observe the end of all life and the approaching darkness of cosmic death, we could say: Well, it was good while it lasted.

Some of my other posts on Big History can be found here, here, here, here, here., and here.

Some posts on teleology can be found here, here, and here.

Some posts on immortality can be found here, here, and here.

Some posts on Intelligent Design Theory can be found here, here, and here.


Monday, June 27, 2016

Is Gary Johnson Manly Enough to Make a Libertarian Argument?

I have expressed some hope that Gary Johnson could be remarkably successful as the presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party, particularly given the unpopularity of Clinton and Trump with many voters.  But I have also expressed a doubt about Johnson's rhetorical ability for making his case for libertarianism in a sharp, incisive, and engaging way.  As many people have noted, Johnson is not a vigorous speaker.

This doubt about Johnson's rhetorical style was deepened by his poor performance at the "Libertarian Town Hall" last Wednesday on CNN.  Justin Raimondo's assessment of this as a "missed opportunity" for libertarianism is the same as mine.  It was painful to watch, particularly when Johnson passed up so many good chances to make libertarian arguments in ways that would engage viewers. 

As Raimondo indicates, one of the best examples of this is when Johnson was asked whether he agreed with Clinton's charge that Trump "is not a legitimate businessman."  Johnson's answer? "You know, I leave that to others."  What kind of an answer is that? 

He could have so easily said that yes, Trump is a crony capitalist, who is happy to use the legal power of eminent domain to coercively take away a little old lady's home for building one of his casinos. Libertarians recognize such abuse of eminent domain as a violation of the individual right to property.  It's hard to understand why Johnson refused to make such an argument.

It's also hard to understand why Johnson takes on the appearance, as Raimondo observes, of being a "beta male."  He's not assertive in taking on the appearance of a dominant male, which is important in politics, especially in competing for the highest political office in America.

For example, when Chris Cuomo asked Johnson what first comes to mind when he hears the name "Donald Trump," Johnson's answer was "I'm sure there's something good to say about Donald somewhere, I'm sure . . ."

I have commented on Trump's bombastic rhetoric as "chimpanzee politics."  Johnson shouldn't imitate Trump's style.  But maybe he should read Frans de Waal's Chimpanzee Politics and then think about how he might display some of the rhetorical style of an alpha male.

Johnson's passion for mountain climbing and strenuous athletic activity suggests that he could become a libertarian Teddy Roosevelt.  But somehow he cannot find a way to display that manly passion in his rhetoric.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Republican Convention Delegates Can Dump Trump

Contrary to what has been asserted generally in the news media, the majority of the delegates to the Republican Party Convention in Cleveland are not bound by either state laws or party rules to vote for Donald Trump.  In fact, at every Republican Party convention, since the first one in 1856, with the sole exception of the convention of 1976, the delegates have been free from the first ballot onward to vote as they wish in their selection of a presidential nominee. 

Since it's clear that many of the delegates, perhaps a majority, believe that nominating Trump would be a disastrous mistake for the Republican Party and for the nation, they have the right, under the rules of the Republican Party, to deny the nomination to Trump and select someone else.

The historical evidence and reasoning for this conclusion is laid out in a recent book--Unbound: The Conscience of a Republican Delegate by Curly Haugland and Sean Parnell.  An article in the New York Times by Jeremy Peters (June 27) reports that many of the delegates have accepted Haugland's argument for a "conscience exemption," and that Trump and his people will have to control the convention to suppress any delegate rebellion.

At the first Republican Party convention in 1856 in Philadelphia, a Mr. Coale, a Maryland delegate, declared: "We will vote as we please, and we will not vote in any other way."  As Haugland and Parnell show, this same idea was expressed by other delegates in 1856 and at later conventions.

When the right of delegates to vote freely was challenged by proposed rules to bind the delegates, these rules were voted down.  State Republican parties have enacted rules for binding their delegates at the national convention, but the National Republican Party has always asserted that the National Party Convention enacts its own rules as superior to the state organizations.

At the 1912 convention, for the first time, a delegation cited not instructions from their state party, but instructions based on a state law requiring that they vote as determined by a primary election.  Those instructions were ignored at the national convention, and the individual preferences of the delegates were recorded.  Later, decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court declared that it was unconstitutional for state laws to override the rules of a national political party, because a political party is a private organization with a constitutional right of freedom of association, which includes the right to set the rules of the organization.

The one exceptional case is the Republican Convention of 1976.  Incumbent Gerald Ford seemed to have a majority of the delegates pledged to him, but he faced a serious challenge from Ronald Reagan.  Fearing that some of the Ford delegates might switch to Reagan, the Ford people pushed through the convention a "Justice Amendment" saying that in those 18 or 19 states that had clear laws binding delegates to follow the state primary results, that those delegates would be bound by those laws.  And yet the Ford people admitted that those state laws were unconstitutional, according to the Supreme Court, and so the convention was under no legal obligation to follow those laws.  Moreover, everyone agreed that all of the delegates from states without such laws were free to vote their conscience, even in states with primaries but without state laws to bind the delegates to follow those primary outcomes.  At the 1980 Republican Convention, the rules committee refused to accept this novel rule from the 1976 convention and returned to the long-established rule that delegates were free to vote as they wished.

It is true that some Republican Party rules adopted at and following the 2012 convention do mention the "binding" of delegates in rules governing the election and selection of delegates.  But there is evidence that what looks like a radical change to a long-established principle was an error that arose through misunderstanding.  In any case, it is clear that each convention has the power to set its own rules and is not bound by any change in the rules enacted by a previous convention.  So unless the 2016 Convention enacts rules that bind delegates, this convention will follow the traditional rule (in 39 out of 40 conventions) that delegates are free to vote according to their individual consciences.

Of course, if delegates at the convention in Cleveland do vote for someone other than Trump, even though their state party rules or state laws say they are bound to Trump by his primary victories, Trump will angrily declare that this is an undemocratic disenfranchisement of the millions of people who voted for him.  He has already made that argument.

But this only shows Trump's mistake in assuming that the United States is a direct democracy.  It is not.  It is a representative democracy or a democratic republic, in which citizens elect representatives to exercise their judgment in deliberating for them.  That's true for the national Congress, for the 50 state legislatures, and for the Republican National Convention.  These are all deliberative bodies, who respect the opinions of the people they represent, but who have the duty to exercise their own deliberative judgment about the public good, even when this sometimes goes against the opinions of some of those they represent.

We should notice that neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution say anything about "democracy."  But the Constitution does endorse "the Republican form of government."

Of course, elected legislators and political party delegates must take seriously the demands of the people they represent.  Legislators and delegates must give good reasons for going against public opinion, and if their reasons are not persuasive, they cannot expect to have a successful political career.  But their moral and political duty is to deliberate about the public good--the good of the country and the good of their party--and sometimes what they recognize as the public good is contrary to what the momentary passions of the people they represent might demand.

So if the delegates to the 2016 Republican Convention conclude that Trump is not qualified to run for President of the United States, that he lacks the moral and intellectual virtues necessary for being a good president, because he suffers from a narcissistic personality disorder, and if nominated, he is likely to lead the Republican Party into a disastrous defeat that might disable or even destroy the Party, then they will have the duty to nominate someone else.

I say this even though as a libertarian, I know that the success of Gary Johnson's campaign depends on his running against Clinton and Trump.

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Brexit Vote: Ethnic Nationalism versus Commercial Cosmopolitanism in Big History

Arriving at one of his golf courses in Scotland, Donald Trump praised the British vote to leave the European Union: "They took their country back, just like we will take American back."

Back to where? Protectionist trade barriers? Xenophobic nationalism? Back to the first half of the 20th century, when the global trading system was broken up, the world fell into economic depression, and the world fought the two bloodiest world wars in human history?

The fundamental debate here is over the costs and benefits of free trade and of the commercial societies based on free trade.  To see what is at stake in this debate, we need to understand the history of trading as part of the Big History of human societies from the Paleolithic Era (200,000 to 10,000 years ago) to the present.  One good text for this is Big History: Between Nothing and Everything by David Christian, Cynthia Stokes Brown, and Craig Benjamin (McGraw-Hill Education, 2014).  The story I tell here is elaborated in this book.

Like all animals, human beings must find a way to make a living so that they can extract and use the energy necessary for their survival and reproduction.  Most of that energy comes from sunlight as captured by photosynthesis and stored in plants, animals, and fossil fuels.

There are at least four different ways that human beings can make a living--by foraging, farming, herding, or trading.  Throughout the Paleolithic Era, human beings lived mostly by foraging--hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants.  But they also engaged in trading.  There is archaeological evidence for trade going back as far as 140,000 years ago.  For example, obsidian (a naturally occurring volcanic glass) has been found at human sites that are over 300 km from the sources of the obsidian, which suggests that the obsidian was being traded between human groups.  In the Upper Paleolithic (50,000 to 10,000 years ago), there is extensive evidence that raw materials such as elk teeth, mammoth ivory, amber, marine shells, and fossils were obtained from distant sources and transformed into decorative objects.  So here we see that what Adam Smith identified as the psychological motivation for exchange and specialization--"the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another"--arose early in human evolution.  (As I have argued in other posts, this contradicts Frederick Hayek's argument that the evolved instincts of human beings favor socialism rather than capitalism, and that the modern extended social order based on trade requires a suppression of our natural instincts.)

By about 10,000 years ago, there is evidence that some foragers were harvesting wild grains, and some were combining the cultivation of some plants with the gathering of wild plants and hunting of wild animals (similar to what anthropologists have seen among semi-nomadic horticultural foragers like the Yanomami in the Amazonian rain forest).  Starting about 5,500 years ago (3,500 BC), we see evidence for the first agrarian cities and states in Mesopotamia.  Later, agrarian civilizations, linking villages and cities into communities of millions of people, appeared in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, in Egypt, in the Indus River Valley, in China, in Mesoamerica, and in Peru.

From 4,000 years ago (2,000 BC), there is evidence for extensive trade networks connecting Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Indus agrarian civilizations in commercial relationships.  A few years ago, archaeologists discovered a sunken trading ship off the southwestern coast of Turkey.  In the hold, they found ingots of copper and tin, cobalt-blue and turquoise glass; terebinthine resin (an ingredient for perfume), ebony logs from Egypt, elephant tusks, hippopotamus teeth, ostrich feathers, tortoise shells, exotic fruits and spices; pottery from Cyprus; and Mycenaean weapons.

Around 100 BC, the decision of the Han Chinese to engage in long-distance trade began the development of the Silk Roads trade routes that stretched from China through Central Asia to India, Arabia, and finally to Rome. 

In 65 A.D., the Roman Senator Pliny the Elder complained that the importation of Chinese silk and spices was draining Rome of its money.  The Donald Trump of Rome!

We should keep in mind that this international trade was a trade not only in goods but also in ideas, and thus an exercise in the distinctive human capacity for collective learning through the exchange of information.  The flourishing of ancient Athens depended on its being a commercial city embedded in extensive trading networks, which promoted the intellectual life of philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle who exchanged ideas.  Thus, the philosophic life flourishes in commercial societies.

During the third century A.D., China and the Roman Empire withdrew from the Silk Roads trade.  But then during the Tang Dynasty (618-903 AD) and the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), the Chinese renewed trade over international trading routes (both land and sea).  Muslim, Byzantine, Indian, and Southeast-Asian merchants migrated to the Chinese trading cities.

By the thirteenth century AD, the entire Afro-Eurasian world was connected by trading networks stretching from Genoa to Timbuktu to Bagdad to Beijing.  Unfortunately, not only goods and ideas but also diseases were transported along these trading routes.  In the fourteenth century, the Black Death plague brought devastating reductions in population and economic activity.

But, then, by 1500, the Chinese and European voyages of exploration began to create the first truly global exchange networks, which eventually brought the Modern Industrial and Commercial Revolution.  Previously, the world had been divided into four world zones that had little or no contact with one another: Afro-Eurasia (Africa and the Eurasian landmass, and the islands like Britain and Japan), The Americas (North, Central, and South America), Australasia (Australia, Papua New Guinea, and other islands), and the Pacific island societies (New Zealand, Micronesia, Melanesia, and Hawaii).  For the first time, in the 16th and 17th centuries, these four world zones were joined in trading networks that encompassed the entire Earth, for the first time in human history.

Finally, the full emergence of the Modern Revolution came with the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain in the 19th century, which depended upon Great Britain being in the center of a global trading system.  Over the past 200 years, the Modern Revolution of Commercial Cosmopolitanism has produced a stunning increase in human population and prosperity that now extends around the world.

But there also have been periods of resistance in which societies have turned against the principle of free trade and the virtues of commercial society.  At the beginning of the 20th century, many people in the major industrialized societies rejected the argument of Adam Smith and the classical liberals that free trade and the bourgeois commercial life would promote economic growth and individual liberty in ways that would benefit everyone.  Many people argued that the nations of the world were in conflict over scarce resources, and therefore each nation must protect its own interests against other nations.  Protectionist restrictions on trade and immigration were put in place.  Some people (like the Nazi theoretician Carl Schmitt) argued that politics was ultimately about the violent conflict between friends and enemies.  This kind of thinking led to economic and military warfare.

There was a sharp decline in international trade.  While the total value of world exports increased at an annual rate of about 3.4 percent between 1870 and 1913, this fell to 0.9 percent between 1913 and 1950.  This was linked to declining rates of growth.  Global GDP per capita rose by 1.3 percent each year between 1870 and 1913.  But it rose only 0.91 percent each year from 1913 to 1950.

After 1950, North America and Europe moved towards a world system of cosmopolitan liberalism based on free trade and free migration.  As a result, both international trade and economic growth increased at the highest rates in all of human history.  This has also been a time of peace--the longest period in which the Great European Powers have not fought one another.  Thus, we have seen all the benefits of what Montesquieu called "gentle commerce."

Big History shows that trading has always been part of the evolved psychology of human nature, beginning in the Paleolithic Era.  But the modern move to fully commercial societies based on trade has allowed for the fullest expression of that "propensity to truck, barter, and exchange" that has been latent in human nature for hundreds of thousands of years.

If we are persuaded by people like Donald Trump, we can choose to move away from this era of commercial cosmopolitanism and turn back to the era of protectionism and ethnic nationalism.  But why would we want to do this?

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Hitler Learns the Journal of American Greatness Has Shut Down

Now we can see what happened when Hitler learned that the Journal of American Greatness had shut down.

A more serious lament about the loss of JAG is found in Hedley Wight's post at VDARE, who thinks JAG was "trying to articulate a new path for Straussianism" as providing a Straussian interpretation of Trumpism that would support the ethnic nationalism of the Alternative Right.

The logo VDARE refers to Virginia Dare, the first child born to English settlers in the New World in 1587. Get it?

Was the growing attention to JAG coming from ethnic nationalists like those at VDARE one reason why the writers at JAG decided they had to shut down and erase all of their writing?  Are they Straussian political theorists, who don't yet have tenure, and who were afraid that being identified as Straussians supporting ethnic nationalism through Trumpism would ruin their academic careers?

Although the JAG website has been erased, someone (JR) has recovered many (but not all) of the JAG articles from the Google cache.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Islamic Libertarianism Can Defeat Islamic Terrorism

The Orlando massacre has renewed the debate over the possible connections between Islam and terrorism.  In that debate, two crucial points are receiving little or no attention.  The first point is that the panic over terrorism is foolish and dangerous.  The second point is that the only way to fully defeat Islamic terrorism is to show that the Quran supports Islamic libertarianism, and that the Islamic radicalism that leads to terrorism is contrary to the Quran. 

Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump has recognized these two points.  But Gary Johnson could embrace both points as part of his libertarian response to Islamic terrorism.

As I have argued in a previous post, terrorism today is a problem, but it is not an "existential threat" to civilization, as many commentators have said.  The greatest harmful consequence of terrorism in the United States is not the killing of innocent people by terrorists, but the foolish panic over terrorism that leads us to wage a "war on terrorism" that inflicts far more harm on us than any terrorist attack.  Gary Johnson recognizes that when he warns about how the "war on terrorism" has threatened individual liberty.

By any objective measurement, the harm from terrorism has been declining.  The rate of violent deaths per 100,000 people per year has been trending downward since 1970 in the United States, Western Europe, and worldwide.  In Western Europe and worldwide, the highest peaks of terrorist killings came in the 1970s and 1980s.

The second crucial point is that the battle against the Islamic State and the other Islamist radicals is not as much a military battle as it is an intellectual or theological battle of ideas in the interpretation of Islam.  The defeat of theocratic Islam in that battle of ideas will come with the triumph of Islamic libertarianism.

People like Trump are correct to assert that there is some connection between Islam and terrorism, but he is wrong to convey the impression that the entire Islamic tradition inclines to terrorism, and therefore the United States should close its borders to all Muslims.  Barack Obama is right to emphasize that Islamic  radicalism is a distorted interpretation of Islam that is accepted by only a small minority of Muslims.  But Obama never explains exactly what is wrong with the Islamic radical interpretation of Islam, or  what would be the correct interpretation of Islam.

As I have indicated in some previous posts--here and here -- the Quran can be read as teaching the libertarian principles of religious liberty and pluralism.  And, indeed, there is a libertarian tradition in Islam based on the Quran.  The apocalyptic violence and theocratic politics of Islamic radicalism cannot be found in the Quran.  Rather than relying on the Quran, Islamic radicals must appeal to the Haddiths--the reports of Muhammad's sayings and doings.  But Islamic scholars disagree over the interpretation of the Haddiths and even over their authenticity as accurate reports.  Moreover, to treat Muhammad's words and deeds as sacred denies the teaching of the Quran that Muhammad was only a human being and not divine.  The revelation of the Quran is divine, but Muhammad is not.

For example, Omar Mateen believed that he was justified in killing homosexuals because Sharia treats homosexuality as a capital crime.  And it is true that in 40 out of 57 Muslim-majority countries or territories, homosexuality is a crime; and in almost a dozen of these, homosexuals can be sentenced to death.  But this interpretation of Sharia has no basis in the Quran.  It depends totally on Haddiths.

It is true that the Quran tells the story of God's punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah (7:80-81, 26:165, 27:55, 29:28-29).  But nowhere does the Quran declare that homosexuality must always be a capital crime (as it is in the Mosaic law of the Old Testament). 

In today's Wall Street Journal (June 14), Ayaan Hirsi Ali has an article arguing that Mateen's anti-gay violence is supported by Sharia, and thus implying that he was indeed carrying out the teachings of Islam.  But she is completely silent about the fact that this teaching is not found in the Quran.

Just as the New Testament can be read as supporting Christian libertarianism, so the Quran can be read as supporting Islamic libertarianism.  And, in fact, I think most Christians and most Muslims today are libertarian in their embrace of religious liberty and pluralism without any coercive enforcement of religious belief.

As a libertarian, Gary Johnson can advance this argument as part of any policy for defeating Islamic terrorism.

Was the "Journal of American Greatness" an "Inside Joke"?

As I noted in my previous post, the "Journal of American Greatness" was started in February as a website where Straussians connected with the West-Coast Straussianism of Claremont McKenna College and Hillsdale College could defend "Trumpism."  But as of today, the entire website has been erased.  If you go to the website now, this is the only post:
Notice to Our Readers

The Journal of American Greatness began some months ago, to a large extent anyway, as an inside joke. At a certain point its audience expanded beyond any of our expectations. It also ceased to be a joke. Thus it no longer makes sense to continue it in its current form. No journal is meant to last forever, and this one won’t try to. We’ve decided to call it a day.

The inspiration for this journal was a profound discomfort with the mode of thought that has come to dominate political discourse—an ideological mode that makes nonsense of the reality of American life. The unanticipated recognition that we have received, however, also makes clear that many others similarly felt the desirability of breaking out of conservatism’s self-imposed intellectual stagnation. Should any such market for our ideas exist in the future, we may participate in it. But we will do so in a different way.

In closing, we simply want to thank our readers—we never expected so many of you—who made this extraordinary adventure possible over the last four months.
An "inside joke"?  What does this mean?  That they never intended their Straussian defense of Trumpism to be taken seriously?  Well, if so, then they surely fooled me and lots of other people who didn't get the joke.

The second paragraph contradicts the "inside joke" claim, because it speaks of the purpose of the journal as expressing "the desirability of breaking out of conservatism's self-imposed intellectual stagnation," which certainly sounds like a very serious idea rather than a joke.

If this were nothing but an elaborate joke, it would be hard to explain why they have decided to erase all of their posts, which suggests that they are embarrassed by what they have written.

So what's going on here?  Did the writers for JAG change their mind and decide that Donald Trump is nothing more than a vulgar demagogue with fascist tendencies who does not deserve to be taken seriously as someone representing important political ideas, and that Straussians in particular should recognize Trump's morally despicable vulgarity?  If so, then I am pleased that they finally came to see the truth about Trump and the need to protect the intellectual legacy of Strauss from any association with someone like Trump.

The next step is to endorse Gary Johnson's libertarian candidacy. 
   

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Straussians for Trump: The Degradation of Leo Strauss's Legacy

 


Some of those who claim to be in the tradition of Leo Strauss--the Western Straussians connected to Harry Jaffa and Claremont McKenna College--are now supporting Donald Trump.  I cannot imagine Leo Strauss supporting someone like Trump unless Will Altman was right about Strauss's Jewish Nazism.

The Straussian supporters of Trump are posting their manifestos at the website for the Journal of American Greatness.  According to an article in this week's Weekly Standard by Fred Barnes, Charles Kesler at Claremont McKenna College says that the Journal of American Greatness  is in the "Claremont and Hillsdale orbit," and represents "a subset of Western Straussianism."

In an article at VDARE, Hedley Wight has argued that in contrast to the globalist cosmopolitanism of the East Coast Straussians, the West Coast Straussians love America first, and they are now embracing the ethnic nationalism of the "Alternative Right," which recognizes the potential for Trump to become the leader of an American ethnic nationalist movement to defend the ethnic and racial identity of America.  In doing this, the Trumpist Straussians admit that they are trying to understand Trump better than he understands himself.  Or as one writer at the Journal of American Greatness has written: "we are far more interested in understanding his policy impulses better than he understands them himself, which means situating them within deeper historical and theoretical contexts, even those of which he never speaks and probably is not aware." 

Isn't this exactly what Martin Heidegger did with Hitler in his Rectoral Address and other speeches for the Nazis, in which he tried to exercise "intellectual leadership" by making Nazism philosophically coherent, just as the Trumpian Straussians are now trying to make Trumpism philosophically coherent?

In the spring, 2016, issue of the Claremont Review of Books, one can see the debate among the West Coast Straussians over Trump.  Kesler writes in defense of Trump.  Martha Bayles writes against him.

Kesler speaks of Trump as a "strong leader" in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, which is strange given Kesler's critique of Progressivism.  Kesler quotes Wilson's claim that "the President is at liberty to be as big a man as he can," and he quotes Wilson's declaration that "the personal force of the President is perfectly constitutional to any extent which he chooses to exercises it."  Kesler observes: "'Personal force'--not far from Trump's praise of high energy, toughness, and strength in the ideal chief executive."

Kesler praises Trump for taking "a tough position in tough terms."  After all, Kesler observes, "every republic essentially faces what might be called the Weimar problem. Has the national culture, popular and elite, deteriorated so much that the virtues necessary to sustain republican government are no longer viable?"  In such times, the nation needs a "strong leader." Thus, Kesler implies that Trump is doing for the United States what Adolf Hitler did for Germany.  Hitler promised to make Germany great again.  Like Germany, the United States needs someone "to be as big a man as he can."  After all, as Trump has said, in one of his favorite quotations from Mussolini, "it is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep."

If this follows from the teaching of Leo Strauss, then Will Altman was right to argue that Strauss was promoting Nazism, because he saw classical liberalism as so decadent that it needed the spirited manliness of Nazism--or Donald Trump--to save it.  One of the writers at the Journal of American Greatness, in an article on "Paleo-Straussianism," has said of Strauss that "the philosophic mind he admired the most belonged to a Nazi."  Altman argues that Strauss's praise for Heidegger and his refusal to repudiate Heidegger's Nazism is good evidence for Strauss's acceptance of Nazism.

Altman cited Strauss's comments about how every healthy society is a "closed society" rather than an "open society."  The Trumpist Straussians seem to conform to this by agreeing with Trump's claim that America must be a closed society not open to Muslims and immigrants from non-European countries.

By contrast, in the same issue of the Clarement Review of Books in which Kesler's essay appears. Martha Bayles disagrees with her "savy political friends" at Claremont who have found Trump "refreshing."  Instead, she sees Trump's success as showing the morally degrading effects of "exhibitionist reality TV" on American political culture.

Can't we imagine that Strauss would have taken her side--in recognizing the vulgar demagoguery of Trump--against the Western Straussians?  In his article in National Review rejecting Trump, Bill Kristol quoted Strauss as saying "a conservative, I take it, is a man who despises vulgarity."  Kristol asked: "Isn't Donald Trump the very epitome of vulgarity?"

Or can some Straussians see the "inner truth and greatness" in Trumpism as a movement for American ethnic nationalism?  If so, then was Altman right to see Strauss as a Jewish Nazi who scorned the openness of cosmopolitan liberalism?

Does this Straussian scorn for classical liberalism explain why the Trumpist Straussians prefer Trump for President over Gary Johnson?  After all, Johnson and the Libertarians support free trade and open borders, which puts them in opposition to American ethnic nationalism.

"We have been given the gift of Trump and Clinton."  That's what one of the libertarians at the Libertarian Party convention said, and he was expressing the thought that pervaded the convention: with the two parties nominating Trump and Clinton, Johnson has an unprecedented opportunity.  If Trump and Clinton each win roughly 30% of the popular vote, Johnson could win with 40%, just as Abraham Lincoln became the first Republican president with less than a majority of the popular vote, because Stephen Douglas and John Breckenridge split the Democratic Party vote.

Some of my other posts on Strauss and Nazism can be found here, here, herehere., and here.

My previous posts on Trump are here, here, here., and here.

My previous post on ethnic nationalism is here.

My posts on the Nazi philosophers are here and here.