Saturday, November 29, 2008

Enquiry Concerning Human Misunderstanding: John Derbyshire's new blog

Is that a smirk I see on David Hume's face? Yes it is. He has just read John Derbyshire's new blog, Secular Right, and he is trying not to laugh.

Derbyshire, the National Review writer who earlier this year reviewed Ben Stein's Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed without actually seeing it, has a new blog: "Secular Right: Reality & Reason". Derbyshire and his colleagues will presumably be blogging there about other things of which they have no direct experience.

Reality and reason, for example.

The Derbyshire Method of addressing issues apparently is already in evidence at Secular Right, where in its very first post, on its "What is the Secular Right" page, this comment appears:
We believe that conservative principles and policies need not be grounded in a specific set of supernatural claims. Rather, conservatism serves the ends of “Human Flourishing,” what the Greeks termed Eudaimonia. Secular conservatism takes the empirical world for what it is, and accepts that the making of it the best that it can be is only possible through our faculties of reason.
But in the very first comment on the post, "Dan" remarks:

I am somewhat amused. Hume’s whole moral-political thought as premised on precisely the rejection of the ancient way of thinking. On Hume’s view, there is exactly no such thing as genuine human flourishing.


And then the wheels continue to fall off.

One of the contributors to Secular Right is Razib Khan, a science writer whose pseudonym for purposes of the blog is "David Hume." Khan has several posts about the dangers of scepticism about science--this from someone using the name of a man who spent a whole book arguing against the rationality of inductive reasoning.

Obviously Khan hasn't actually read Hume. Are we surprised? This is John Derbyshire's blog, remember.

This is going to fun.


Lee said...

Derbyshire was the main reason I cancelled my 35 year subscription to National Review, who like the Republican Party just seems to have forgotten who their friends are -- or could be. In any event, I left the following remark on the secularist web site. It is "awaiting moderation:"

"This enterprise pretty much smacks of being a fool’s errand. For starters, how does one “make the best” of a secular world? “Best” implies a set of values, and these cannot be empirically deduced. Yes, yes, I know, ethics and morals can be “explained” by that all-purpose non-deus ex machina offered by secularists, namely, evolution. What cannot be explained is why one *ought* to adhere to them if and when they get in the way of our own personal “making the best” of the secular world. If I am Ted Bundy and making my best of the secular world requires me to kill a few women along the way, then my “faculties of reason” tell me to risk doing so and just try to avoid getting caught. It is, after all, survival, which is the highest dictate of evolution. I survive, therefore, I am fit. So much for pure rationality.

"One thing I would like to see addressed one of these days — maybe this is the place that will do so — is why religion is a bad thing. It’s easy enough to argue it is not a true thing, but why is it a bad thing? Lots of people, even many secularists, believe in things which require faith (for example, believing that a materialist morality can be transcendent). If morality began as reciprocal favors among primates and the Church is simply pulling the nits off of each other at a much higher level, then would it not be fair to say religion evolved as did morality? And if religion evolved, was it not the best option for survival? Did it not make us “fitter”? And if it did, are we sure we have no further use for it? Why?"

Lee said...

I guess they didn't appreciate my comments. Or someone's. They closed out the comments and deleted the ones on display.

thomas said...

Dan happens to be completely wrong about Hume. David Hume was actually a conservative in the sense that he did not consider speculative reason well-suited for handling political affairs--and he therefore rejected most modern political theorizing. Because he believed reason was weak he emphasized that we must depend rather on ancient political tradition. In that respect, he was quite conservative.

Eo Nomine said...

And Hume arrived at the conclusion that reason was weak reasoning?

Hume also thought that thought itself was a sappy liquid secreted by the brain. Why should we be taking him seriously, or for that matter, venerating him as a trustworthy foundation for secular conservatism?

Martin Cothran said...

Hume did not conclude that reason was weak; he concluded that induction could not rationally be grounded.

Eo Nomine said...

"Hume did not conclude that reason was weak; he concluded that induction could not rationally be grounded."

Yes, and doesn't that destroy most of human reasoning, rendering it weak overall? I mean, deduction is limited to an extremely narrow range of applications. Without induction, we're dead in the water when it comes to actually know important things about the world around us.

thomas said...

"Hume did not conclude that reason was weak; he concluded that induction could not rationally be grounded."

Hume went far beyond inductive reasoning, his criticism encompassed the whole of speculative reason. Critical reason, on the other hand, he considered an appropriate solvent.

thomas said...

Which, I should add, is what makes him a conservative.

The value of his philosophy consists not only in showing the argument for design up as bad reasoning, the transcendent ego as an illusion, and causation as entirely suspicious. It also translates to the political world: just as otherworldly metaphysical questions stand without sufficient justification, so do radical utopias which trust in utopian visions and rational planning over tradition and established use.

Lee said...

Out of curiosity, did Hume reject the design of life because it employed inductive reasoning, or because he did not believe that life was a mechanism?

Thomas said...


Both. In the Dialogs on Natural Religion he (or Philo, the skeptical character) says that using the analogy of a mechanism to describe life (or the natural universe) is a rather arbitrary analogy, and not only does it fail as an argument, but it fails as an analogy.

As far as induction goes, he argues it isn't possible with unique events such as the creation of the universe.

Lee said...

Hmmm. Hume's argument may have been more impressive back when we did not understand precisely how mechanistic life really is.

Eo Nomine said...

Not really, because he denied causation.

Thomas said...

"Not really, because he denied causation."

More specifically, he denied that causation was given in experience, asserting instead that it takes the causal connections between certain ideas and inappropriately applies them to experience.

I think, on this point, his phenomenology was simply too primitive. However, I would say that he is absolutely correct when he claims that a similar super-imposition is going on when some claim that life is a mechanism.

Certainly viewing life in a mathematical/mechanical framework yields helpful and interesting insights -- how could we have cracked the genome without thinking digitally? -- but if we are talking about what life is eidetically using frameworks of understanding which are based in our technologies is simply erroneous methodologically.

Lee said...

> if we are talking about what life is eidetically using frameworks of understanding which are based in our technologies is simply erroneous methodologically.

Perhaps, Thomas, but to me it isn't obviously so. Life appears to follow mechanistic rules and principles. The difference between a human body and a watch seems to be a difference of materials and complexity, not type.

To me, at least it seems like a question worth re-opening.

thomas said...


In our culture it can be very difficult to see life in any way other than through the biological sciences; many even in the philosophical profession fall prey to this. When we think about life reflectively, it's in no way obvious that life is not fundamentally a mechanism.

In another way, it is obvious. If you have a pet, you'll probably notice that you treat your pet quite unlike a machine; with a plant, the difference is less obvious but still there; with a person the gap between machine and man is probably very wide. In what phenomenologist philosophers call "pre-reflective engagement" -- that is, the ordinary ways we interact with with others and things without thinking about it in a scientific way -- you would probably find that life has an entirely unmechanical way of presenting itself in your everyday world, that different forms of life show themselves differently (plants as plants, animals as animals, people as people) but none as machines do. Considered in the everyday aspect, life doesn't really show itself as a mechanism, but as something entirely unique.

I would submit that these sorts of encounters with living things get far closer to the essence of life than one does through the biological sciences, that in fact the biological sciences are only possible on the basis of this more basic intuition of life (though the intuition can and usually does remain concealed). I suppose this rests on the contention that everyday life is more "real" than the scientific analysis of something is.

You might find Aristotle's "De Anima" quite interesting; it's the first serious philosophical investigation into life. The trick to reading it is to not treat it as a primitive scientific work on biology, but as an account which clarifies our usual, everyday, "pre-reflective" encounters with living beings. This, in my view, gets at the nature of life most essentially, and it's the basis on which I say life is not mechanical.

(You might also find De Anima interesting as it is hugely influential on the Christian theological view of the soul)

De Anima: