The Fallible Reason of Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard--Do Not Succumb to the Soft Bigotry of Low Intellectual Expectations Edition (Hoisted/Smackdown)

Clowns (ICP)

A correspondent reminds me of [a moment][] almost four years ago that powerfully drove home to me how low the intellectual standards are on the American right. This will be very important to remember over the next four years--especially since the Trumpists are not the brightest of the lights on the American right as it stands today, never mind how it stood before the ascendancy of George W. Bush fifteen years ago, and never never mind how it stood before the ascendancy of Newt Gingrich twenty-five years ago.

It takes some wind-up, however. Let's start with the (usually) very sharp Thomas Nagel:

Thomas Nagel (2012): Mind and Cosmos: "If I decide, when the sun rises on my right, that I must be driving north instead of south...

[a moment: is because I recognize that my belief that I am driving south is inconsistent with that observation, together with what I know about the direction of rotation of the earth. I abandon the belief because I recognize that it couldn’t be true.... If I oppose the abolition of the inheritance tax, it is because I recognize that the design of property rights should be sensitive not only to autonomy but also to fairness.... A theory of everything has to explain... the emergence from a lifeless universe of reproducing organisms... consciousness... [and] the development of consciousness into an instrument of transcendence that can grasp objective reality and objective value...

Thomas Nagel says that his reason and his consciousness are "transcendent" faculties with which he grasps:

  • the objective reality that the direction in which the sun rises is not the west, the north, or the south, but rather the east.
  • the objective value that a good system of property rights will take due account of fairness and so must include an inheritance tax.

Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard certainly does not believe that a good system of property rights must include an inheritance tax. Therefore it would seem to me--but I could be wrong--he is committed to the belief that human consciousness and reason (either Thomas Nagel's, or his own) are not transcendent faculties grasping objective value but rather the error-ridden mental gropings of the jumped-up monkey that is the East African Plains Ape.

I once saw the sun rise ahead of me due south. If I had concluded that I must have been going not south but east (and I admit I was tempted to, until I figured out what was going on), I would have been wrong. I am therefore committed--via my own iced experience--to the belief that human consciousness and reason (my own!) are not transcendent faculties grasping objective value, but rather merely the error-ridden mental gropings of the jumped-up monkey that is the East African Plains Ape.

You would therefore think that Andrew Ferguson and I would have agreeable things to talk about, no?

I certainly did.

But I was wrong! For it certainly appears to me that we do not!

Andrew Ferguson: The Heretic: "Almost before the ink was dry on Nagel’s book the UC Berkeley economist and prominent blogger Brad DeLong could be found gathering the straw and wood for the ritual burning...

...DeLong is a great believer in neo-Darwinism. He has coined the popular term “jumped-up monkeys” to describe our species. (Monkeys because we’re descended from primates; jumped-up because evolution has customized us with the ability to reason and the big brains that go with it.) DeLong was particularly offended by Nagel’s conviction that reason allows us to “grasp objective reality.” A good materialist doesn’t believe in objective reality, certainly not in the traditional sense.

All I can say here is that Andrew Ferguson is a loon: what could a good materialist believe in other than objective reality? To a good materialist, after all, there is nothing else out there. Or am I wrong here?

Ferguson continues:

“Thomas Nagel is not smarter than we are,” [DeLong] wrote, responding to a reviewer who praised Nagel’s intelligence. “In fact, he seems to me to be distinctly dumber than anybody who is running even an eight-bit virtual David Hume on his wetware.” (What he means is, anybody who’s read the work of David Hume, the father of modern materialism.) DeLong’s readers gathered to jeer as the faggots were placed around the stake...

Rather than agreeing with me that Nagel would profit immensely from a good dose of Hume, Ferguson eagerly embraces Nagel's certainly that he has transcendently and directly grasped objective reality (if the sun rises in front of you you are facing east) and objective value (you are morally obligated to advocate an inheritance tax). Back to Ferguson:

I... find Mind and Cosmos exhilarating. [Nagel writes:]

For a long time I have found the materialist account of how we and our fellow organisms came to exist hard to believe. It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection. I would like to defend the untutored reaction of incredulity to the reductionist neo-Darwinian account of the origin and evolution of life...

The neo-Darwinian materialist account offers a picture of the world that is unrecognizable to us--a world without... free will or consciousness or good and evil or selves or, when it comes to that, selflessness.... Reductive materialism doesn’t account for... the fundamental beliefs we rely on as we go about our everyday business: the truth of our subjective experience, our ability to reason, our capacity to recognize that some acts are virtuous and others aren’t.... On its own terms, materialism cannot account for [these] brute facts....

Our moral sense... developed a complexity far beyond anything needed for survival, even on the savannah—even in Manhattan. We are, as Nagel writes:

beings capable of thinking successfully about good and bad, right and wrong, and discovering moral and evaluative truths that do not depend on [our] own beliefs.

And we behave accordingly, or try to. The odds that such a multilayered but nonadaptive capacity should become a characteristic of the species through natural selection are, again, implausibly long...

But had Nagel been on Lufthansa Flight whatever with me that December day, when we exited the north polar shadow the earth casts at local noon and so saw the sun rising due south, his transcendent reason and consciousness would have directly grasped objective reality and concluded that we were flying not south but east--and Nagel would have been wrong. He would not have thought successfully about which way he was going.

And--to Ferguson--when Nagel concludes (as he does) that a good system of property rights must include an inheritance tax, this is--to Ferguson--not an instance of a human thinking successfully about "good and bad, right and wrong... moral and evaluative truths" using his "multilayered but nonadaptive" moral sense that "should [not have] become a characteristic of the species through natural selection." It is (to Ferguson) an example of the jumped-up East African Plains Ape that is Thomas Nagel getting it wrong. (And I, of course, think that here Nagel is right, and that it is the jumped-up East African Plains Ape that is Andrew Ferguson who is getting it wrong here--but I could be wrong.)

There is a big problem, you see--at least I think there is (but I could be wrong)--with those who think that our reason and consciousness must have non-material causes because they enable to us to transcendently and directly grasp objective reality and objective value. It is this: If our reason and consciousness allow us to transcendently grasp objective reality and objective value, how come we get it wrong so often? Why do we think that we must be flying east when we are in fact flying south? Why do we think that the dress is black and blue (white and gold)? Why do we think an inheritance tax is morally required (forbidden) when in fact it is morally forbidden (required)? Transcendent faculties directly grasping objective reality and value don't get it wrong. We do.

And Ferguson ought to recognize this point--for Nagel's disagreements with Ferguson on matters of moral philosophy are grave. (There is one more possibility: perhaps Ferguson agrees with Nagel on things like the inheritance tax, but there is money to be made if he pretends he doesn't? But I think it far more likely that Ferguson's fallible jumped-up East African Plains Ape brain is just not thinking clearly here.)

That we think as well as we do is a great puzzle--one that science has (so far) done next to nothing to solve: East African Plains Apes are much more than mere mindless beasts of the field in very interesting ways that we today do not have a clue of understanding.

That our consciousness and reason are as fallible as they are--that we are wrong so far and so often--is, from the standpoint of those who regard as as much closer to angels than beasts, an equally hard problem that neither theology nor non-materialist philosophy has done anything to solve. And Andrew Ferguson's poor consciousness and reason are so fallible that he does not grasp even that this might be a problem, or that this brute fact of our mental fallibility is the heart of my argument: he has no idea and no clue as to what my argument really is.

Nagel, however, does--dimly--grasp that there is a problem here. But when he tries to address it, his argument collapses into incoherent word salad:

Relying on one’s vision and relying on one’s reason are similar in one respect: in both cases, the reliance is immediate. When I see a tree, I do not infer its existence from my experience any more than I infer the correctness of a logical inference from the fact that I can’t help believing the conclusion. However... in the perceptual case I can recognize that I might be mistaken, but... am nevertheless justified in believing the evidence of my senses for the most part, because this is consistent with the hypothesis that an accurate representation of the world around me results from senses shaped by evolution to serve that function....

It is not possible to think:

Reliance on my reason, including my reliance on this very judgment, is reasonable because it is consistent with its having an evolutionary explanation.

Therefore any evolutionary account of the place of reason presupposes reason’s validity and cannot confirm it without circularity.

Eventually the attempt to understand oneself in evolutionary, naturalistic terms must bottom out in something that is grasped as valid in itself--something without which the evolutionary understanding would not be possible. Thought moves us beyond appearance to something that we cannot regard merely as a biologically based disposition.... It is not enough to be able to think that if there are logical truths, natural selection might very well have given me the capacity to recognize them. That cannot be my ground for trusting my reason, because even that thought implicitly relies on reason in a prior way....

Reason can take us beyond the appearances because it has completely general validity, rather than merely local utility. If we have it, we recognize that it can be neither confirmed nor undermined by a theory of its evolutionary origins, nor by any other external view of itself. We cannot distance ourselves from it. That was Descartes’ insight.... The distinctive thing about reason is that it connects us with the truth directly.... Something has happened that has gotten our minds into immediate contact with the rational order of the world.... That enables us to possess concepts that display the compatibility or incompatibility of particular beliefs with general hypotheses.... This applies in the domain of value as well as of fact. The process is highly fallible, but it could not even be attempted without this hard core of self-evidence, on which all less certain reasoning depends...

A "highly fallible" faculty and process", but one that nevertheless has "completely general validity", that "connects us with the truth directly", that "has gotten our minds into immediate contact with the rational order of the world", and that "applies in the domain of value as well as of fact"?

I don't know. I could be wrong. But this seems to me to make no sense whatsoever. My mind--my consciousness and reason--does not seem to me to be in immediate contact with the rational order of the world. And if Angel is right about the powers of my consciousness and reason, how could I possibly be wrong about this?

Not, mind you, that I am certain--or even that I think--that Descartes was wrong about this. I certainly think that I think. And something is--I am. But I do not think that I adequately understand those terms. "Think", "I", "is", "am", "something"--these all seem to me to be very difficult and complicated concepts.

But why should I believe that the brain of a jumped-up East African Plains Ape is capable of understanding consciousness and reason? I think of the late Richard Feynman on how we do not "understand" the quantum mechanics underlying even a photon or an electron--let alone a hydrogen atom or a chlorophyll molecule. He would say: I don't understand it. You don't understand it. None of us understand it. But we can do calculations with it. And when we do experiments they check out.

That is what we should hope for. And it is the mark of how flawed is the typical thinking of the jumped-up East African Plains Ape that some of us find ourselves wishing for more, and some of us even think that they have accomplished more.