Top 10 uncogitated posts of 2013, part I

Photo credit: Puzzler4879 / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Hi cogitators!  Somehow it came upon me, now that we’re at the end of the year, to post a list of of the top 10 posts that did not make the cutting floor in 2013.  Since I have written a bit on each item, I will split the list into two posts, counting down to the most remarkable posts of the year.  I will supply the top five on the flip side of Christmas.  Without further ado.

10. Sam Harris’ s Free Will.  A Facebook conversation about the implications of a Libet-type neurological study prompted me to Sam Harris’ brief 2012 monograph Free Will.  He attempts to bury the concept by inviting us to imagine a hypothetically completed science.  That is, we are meant to indulge a  science of the gaps.

As for the root of cognition, Mr. Harris thinks free will libertarians are hopelessly lost in the blizzard that is the unending chain of causality.  He doesn’t consider that he is equally adrift as a determinist.  Neither does he engage much philosophy beyond Daniel Dennett.   Hardly a comprehensive take on the question.

I think Harris tries to be clever in his final pages with a “meta” discourse about what he is thinking and writing on the page as he is writing it.  But the worst offense is his reverse psychological claim that people who earn their income and wealth are not actually responsible for the acquisition, and are therefore not entitled to it.

I’ve mentioned Ayn Rand’s statist scientist character, Floyd Ferris before.  Dr. Ferris authors a book titled, Why do you think you think?  It’s fitting that his name rhymes with Harris.  If you want to see the utter inadequacy of this popular pseudo-yourself, the book is short enough to dispatch in a couple of hours.

9.  Steven Pinker’s scientism apologia.  Social scientist Steven Pinker sparked quite a conversation in August with his New Republic article extolling the virtues of scientism.  I think it caused some added hand wringing among the humanities community, even though it was purported to dispel such concerns.  Good thing scientism is a self-refuting theory of knowledge; that is, the scientific method is principally incapable of inducting itself into its own body of knowledge.

8.  Paul Ryan, Scott Walker ascend in GOP 2016 field.  After Paul Ryan and Patty Murray coauthored a politically viable if universally reviled compromise federal budget, Mr. Ryan’s 2016 presidential prospects shot up.  As I often learn first from Michael Medved, an Iowa poll put him far atop the GOP field.  Of course the usual disclaimer follows, that the next presidential election is very far away, and much can change by then.  Further, Ryan has signaled no clear intention to run.

Ryan’s boost, and recent attention on Scott Walker are welcome at a time when many commentators are still spewing a lot of hot air about how “mainstream” or “establishment” Republicans are not true conservatives, whatever that means.  Last I checked, winning elections so as to govern the country was still a part of the conservative platform.

7.  Presidential approval, Democrats’ 2014 chances tank. Nothing has been as remarkable in politics this year as the stark turn around in public opinion that occurred in October.  One day, there was that silly poll about how Congressional Republicans were as popular as toe fungus.  Then, the President and Congressional Democrats tanked on the Obamacare roll-out, and more significantly, the “if you like it, you can keep it” prevarication.  Clearly, government shut downs are not popular.  And neither is that disaster extraordinaire, Obamacare.

6. Millennials care less for culture war; culture war still cares for them.  Progressive evangelical blogger Rachel Held Evans used her highly visible CNN Belief Blog to disown the culture wars on behalf of millennials.  If the writing at Relevant magazine bears any truth, the rhetorical volleys between millennials and their elders have been exchanged for quite some time.  I know that in the public sphere, the back and forth gets old, especially when each camp is just indulging its own echo chamber.

Hat tip to Dr. Craig for bringing his own frank critique of Evan’s piece to bear in his current events podcast.  I don’t think the culture warrior label is to be shunned.  Indeed, there’s a real war going on.  As Medved notes, it’s not cultural conservatives who are the instigators, but cultural progressives, who are continually extending newly invented rights, even into grade school bathrooms for crying out loud.

That rounds out the second tier of 2013’s counterfactual cogitations.  Now enjoy the holiday, with thanks and reverence for the God who subjected himself as an infant to humanity’s mercies so that in time he could extend to us the gift of his mercy.  Merry Christmas!

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Democracy of the dead

What is democracy of the dead?  No, it has nothing to do with zombies voting Democrat.  Although recently a dead dog did receive a voter registration form.  What I’m referring to comes from that emir of aphorisms, G.K. Chesterton.  Consider this idea from Orthodoxy (also available as a free PDF):

Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.

That those many souls who came before us might not have been complete fools is a refreshing perspective in our age of progress for progress’ sake.

Chesterton–himself now among the dead–enriches our idea of tradition with literary wit.  Meanwhile, Thomas Sowell  provides us a more rigorous understanding, by way of broad philosophical survey in A Conflict of Visions.  Looking to English arch-conservative Edmund Burke, Sowell posits “the constrained vision” : a philosophy that directs human society to seek “cultural distillations of knowledge” within the confines of a “tested body of experience.” The idea is not a mere impulse to conserve tradition, but an acknowledgement that wisdom flows down naturally and systemically through culture, from one generation to the next. Between Chesterton’s democracy of the dead and Sowell’s constrained vision, we glimpse what may be the most appropriate definition of conservatism.

Not everyone is so fond of tradition. There are those invested in seeing each generation break free from the tyrannical chains of its ancestors. Consider this inscription at the Jefferson Memorial:

I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.

Progressives should be quite fond of Thomas Jefferson’s thinking here. He speaks of humanity’s “progress” and how it will “advance” from a “barbarous” state.  Just as he took scissors to his least favorite parts of the Bible, there are those today all too eager to make their own redactions to the traditional moral fabric.  Take New Atheist Sam Harris.

In a 2011 debate on the foundations of morality, Harris dismisses the God of the Bible as a mere “Iron Age god of war.” His epochal delineation recalls the popular formulation that certain Abrahamic belief systems may have been tolerable enough for goat herders or a pastoral society, but are utterly unsuitable for our modern age.  A bit later in the same debate, Harris insists that anyone today could come up with a moral code superior to the Mosaic law if given five minutes’ thought.  So much for his estimation of past wisdom.

Whether inspired by the Enlightenment or the New Atheists, there’s no question modernist arguments hold serious sway over the contemporary mind.  But postmodern sensibility won’t tolerate the sweeping assumptions.  For all the aspersions the modernist might cast on the dead of generations past, the postmodernist would be right to call him “judgmental.”

The critique is rooted in history.  From gas chamber genocide to the threat of thermonuclear annihilation, the distinctives of the twentieth century disabuse us of the naivete that mankind is steadily rising above some past state of barbarity. To characterize people long-gone as “barbarous” or less thoughtful than those living today is to ignore a twin loss of epistemic and moral confidence the world has yet to recover from.

Where does that leave us?  We were never without hope.  Harris’ debate opponent, philosopher and Christian apologist William Lane Craig insists on the way: backward, not forward.  Modernity is overly confident in its presuppositions.  Postmodernity is quite useful at deconstructing worldviews, but not so helpful with building up a shared body of knowledge.  If we want to access the lasting truths about human existence, how to live, and how society was meant to be, we need to recover a premodern worldview.

Just think.  We’re all here kicking and alive today.  All those dead and buried folks of past generations must have gotten something right.

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