Chasing down an intellectual rabbit hole at Wednesday lunchtime...
I was browsing through Friedrich von Hayek's The Fatal Conceit—although it is not clear to me how much of this very late (1988) Hayek is Hayek, and how much is “editor” William Warren Bartley. Why? Because Hayek is playing a larger part in my history of the Long 20th Century, Slouching Towards Utopia?, as it moves toward finality, and I am concerned that I be fair to him. And I ran across his claim that the “socialists” felt:
an urgent need to construct a new, rationally revised and justified morality which… will not be a crippling burden, be alienating, oppressive, or`unjust', or be associated with trade. Moreover, this is only part of the great task that these new lawgivers—socialists such as Einstein, Monod and Russell, and self-proclaimed 'immoralists' such as Keynes—set for themselves. A new rational language and law must be constructed too, for existing language and law also fail to meet these requirements…. This awesome task may seem the more urgent to them in that they themselves no longer believe in any supernatural sanction for morality (let alone for language, law, and science) and yet remain convinced that some justification is necessary….
The aim of socialism is no less than to effect a complete redesigning of our traditional morals, law, and language, and on this basis to stamp out the old order and the supposedly inexorable, unjustifiable conditions that prevent the institution of reason, fulfilment, true freedom, and justice. The rationalist standards on which this whole argument, indeed this whole programme, rest, are however at best counsels of perfection and at worst the discredited rules of an ancient methodology which may have been incorporated into some of what is thought of as science, but which has nothing to do with real investigation…
Who are these Mephistophelean demons seeking to destroy human morality? Keynes, Russell, Monod, and… Einstein?
Let’s leave John Maynard Keynes to one side—even though the paragraph in his essay My Early Beliefs where Keynes calls himself an “immoralist” is, in context, a declaration that when he was young he was foolish, that he is not yet fully wise, and that as a result people regard him with justified suspicion as someone who is “not aware that civilization was a precarious crust erected by the personality and the will of a very few, and only maintained by rule and conventions skillfully put across and guilefully preserved…” Anybody who makes this and claims that Keynes boasted that he was—and saw himself as—an “immoralist” a la André Gide is not in the business of informing but of misleading you.
Let’s leave Bertrand Russell to one side (even though there was nobody more skeptical of idealist thinkers suffering from “the fatal conceit”, and nobody more willing to seek truth from facts.)
But let’s focus for a moment on Jacques Monod. What seems to have incited Hayek’s (or Bartley’s) ire? It is Monod’s short book Chance and Necessity. For Monod, we—indeed, all life—are completely and purely the result of chance and necessity working together, through the process of variation and evolution by natural selection. And what is a choice or a chance decision at one level—the cell can choose to admit or not admit a virus, the antibody can choose to grab onto and tag the virus or let the virus pass by—is at a lower level the result of necessity as the molecules do or do not fit together so that the key can turn the lock or not.
Science, Monod says, has taught us this, and in so teaching has “outrage[d] values… subvert[ed] every one of the mythical or philosophical ontogenies upon which the animist tradition, from the Australian aborigines to the dialectical materialists, has made all ethics rest: values, duties, rights, prohibitions…” Monod’s belief is that as the scientific pursuit of knowledge has brought us to this wisdom, we should response by wisely taking the further advance of scientific knowledge as our ethical touchstone, and accept that our purpose is—we are made—to be Francis Bacon’s Salomon’s House, for which “the end of our foundation is the knowledge of causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible…”
Now I would have thought that Monod’s ideas would have been attractive to the Hayek who sees the people’s god as “just a personification of that tradition of morals or values that keeps their community alive”.
So I cannot but believe that Hayek’s (or Bartley’s) real beef with Monod is that he says what are supposed to be the quiet parts too loudly—that it is good for other people to believe that their god is more than just a personification of their moral tradition.
And then we come to… Einstein.
Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is not opinion or doctrine, but fact: When you measure the clocks and yardsticks of others who are moving rapidly relative to yourself, you do measure that their clocks tick more slowly than yours and their yardsticks are contracted in the direction of motion and so measure smaller distances than yours. That is simply a fact. GPS satellites are so programmed that if that were not a fact, they would not work.
Why this animus against Einstein? It is true that he did say that socialism was a necessity, and did say something like: “I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” But how does that translate into Einstein being a crusader “to effect a complete redesigning of our traditional morals, law, and language”?
Am I wrong in misreading this as, at base, simply Hayek viewing a prominent Jew (pretty much any prominent Jew) as an Enemy of the People (George Soros today, anyone?)?
In the same era as The Fatal Conceit was published, you could read the right-wing American Spectator stating as fact that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was simply an enormous conspiratorial con game played against the righteous and the conservative, and that ‘the constancy of the speed of light, irrespective of the observer's movement, has not been demonstrated experimentally”. Never mind that that constancy was what had been tested and demonstrated in the 1887 Michelson-Morley experiment that the American Spectator had just referred to on the previous page.
And you could read stated as fact that even though all professional physicists know that Relativity Theory is false, for the most part they “shrug and accept relativity theory—theirs is not to quarrel with the sainted genius of the twentieth century”, while:
among intellectuals in general, the theory has been much admired: so abstruse, so deliciously disrespectful of the eternal verities, so marvelously baffling to the bourgeoisie. It doesn't interfere with the daily routine, makes no practical difference to the Newtonian world. But it does upset its theoretical underpinnings. Wonderful!”