Saturday, September 24, 2011

Rejecting religion

There is more to religion than doctrines, and much more to understanding religion than just understanding doctrines; but if the doctrines of a given religion are false, or if there is no good reason to believe they are true, then such a religion is not a live option for me.

Admittedly, some religions are less doctrinal than others, but I have found no religion which did not incorporate - as central elements - ideas which I find utterly implausible. Even Buddhism - often presented in the West as being open to a scientific understanding of the world - is committed, like other religions, to the idea of an objective moral realm, and also (at least in its Tibetan form as articulated by the Dalai Lama) to the notion of the soul as spirit, not entirely reducible to the self as understood by science.

Many people, reluctant to give up on religion entirely, admit that the doctrines they may have once believed are indeed false, but argue that there is a central core which the major religions share, a kind of essence of religious truth. When pressed to say what this core consists in, what exactly they do believe, such people reply in various ways, some more plausible than others. But I have never heard or read an account that attracts me or that I could personally endorse or adopt. For example, it's all very well to say that our minds have inbuilt limits. Of course they do, but does this fact suggest that something like what religions envisage lies beyond those limits? Often it's asserted that there is a benign force underlying reality: the evidence, I would suggest, is overwhelmingly to the contrary. Or that all is one, all is interconnected. I agree, and there is some evidence for this in physics (e.g. quantum entanglement) but how is this idea a religious one?

Religion, of course, is a very personal thing, and we all have our own deep reasons or motives for accepting or rejecting religious claims. I was a Christian until my early twenties when, one night, I suddenly realized that the burden of proof was on those who sought to affirm the claims of Christian doctrine rather than on those who sought to deny them. I say 'suddenly', but this shift in perspective happened at a time when I had been reading a lot of historical material on the Jewish background of the New Testament, and realizing that so much that seemed so special in the figure of Jesus was explicable historically. For a few weeks, I toyed with the idea of adopting the Jewish faith (as Christianity minus Jesus seemed to equal Judaism), but I found the notion of a 'chosen people' a little hard to swallow. And the notion of a personal God seemed more and more unreal. I had accepted it as part of a package of beliefs. But without those other beliefs (about God acting in history or through particular individuals or institutions), what reason was there to believe in such a being?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Neither fascist nor socialist

I have been modifying and expanding the summary of my social views which currently appears as a stand-alone page under the title 'Sketch of a social philosophy'. I refer there to a particular European tradition of thought upon which I am consciously drawing and which may be characterized as both conservative and classically liberal.

"During the 1930s, a time of great political instability and polarization, a small group of European and American thinkers set out to revive and revise the classical liberal tradition. The group first came together in 1938 at a conference in Paris organized by the philosopher Louis Rougier, and was re-formed after the World War II as the Mont Pelerin Society. Its members were generally conservative, steeped in the cultural traditions of Europe, but forward-looking and seeking to apply new developments in economic theory and new political thinking to the economic and social problems of the time. Since then, of course, much has changed - new technologies have radically altered the way we communicate, and traditional and homogeneous cultures have been replaced by mixed and fragmented societies severed from their historical roots - but these scholars, largely because of the breadth and depth of their cultural understanding and their acute awareness of the contingencies of history, retain their fascination and relevance.

The European neo-liberals remained independent thinkers and did not really constitute a single school of thought. Some, like Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek, favored relatively unregulated markets; others, like Wilhelm Röpke, Alexander Rüstow and Louis Rougier, argued for a more active role in the economy for governments. Ultimately, the test of social and economic principles is whether they work in a given context - though, admittedly, there will always be an ideological element in such judgements.

Instinctively I favor the less interventionist approaches of Mises and Hayek. It's clear that command economies, such as those of the old Soviet Union and communist Eastern Europe, do not work. But Hayek saw as fatally flawed not just socialism but also social democracy. Both systems may be utopian in inspiration but are oppressive and inefficient in practice. And, indeed, most European experiments in social democracy have failed miserably.

Hayek's attitude to social democracy was linked to his view that justice is not a matter of outcomes but of process, so the legal system should provide a framework for free human action that does not seek to direct it to predetermined outcomes. He was especially wary of the idea of 'social justice' which he saw as incoherent (because it is concerned with outcomes rather than process). I have some sympathy with this view, and, though I believe the unlucky and those not able to cope should be helped, I don't think it's a matter of rights or justice, but rather of benevolence or common decency. (See my short piece on rethinking rights.)

Socialist and social democratic programs may have failed, but there is a crisis also in economies more closely associated with free market approaches such as the United States, and so Hayek's optimism about spontaneous order may seem to have been unjustified. But, arguably, the financial crisis of recent years was caused (at least in large part) by inappropriate government interventions (for example, the politically motivated programs which encouraged people without means to buy homes).

Nevertheless, it can't be denied that there were failures in the financial markets also, and the expected self-regulatory mechanisms did not deliver. My explanation is that the spontaneous economic order which Hayek championed cannot be divorced from more general social values and norms, and these common values have been seriously eroded in the West in recent years. A lightly regulated system will only flourish in a moral and cohesive society. On the other hand, a proliferation of laws and regulations is no substitute for basic moral values, and may only succeed in stifling entrepreneurial and general business activity. In fact, whatever one's views on the nature of law and justice, it's undeniable that laws and regulations tend to proliferate beyond what is required to secure human freedoms or enhance other aspects of well-being."

[Since I wrote this I have been reflecting on my attachment to the writings of Thomas Hobbes which seems on the face of it difficult to reconcile with the views outlined above. More on this matter later.]

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A very conservative person

Having read some novels by Patricia Highsmith - and in particular The tremor of forgery in which she portrays rather patronizingly an American living abroad who makes anti-communist radio broadcasts to then communist Eastern Europe - I assumed that her own political views were liberal in the American sense. So it puzzled me a bit that I liked her as a writer. Usually writers with a liberal or progressive agenda really bother me - and so I don't bother with them.

This puzzlement was resolved when I read these words of Highsmith's friend, American playwright Phyllis Nagy (cited by Andrew Wilson in Beautiful shadow, his biography of Highsmith):

"The fact that Pat was from Texas is incredibly important for an accurate appreciation of her character. When you say things like this to people who aren't American they think it's terribly facile but Southern conservatism was deeply ingrained in her. People forget that she was a very conservative person ..."

She did, however, "... hold some very weird and contradictory views."

Patricia Highsmith was a complex character, flawed but very human. Her writing style is plain and spare and utterly non-experimental. She explores the themes of identity and morality in her fiction in very confronting ways.

Tom Ripley is her greatest creation, a likable psychopath. He only murders people (very few really) when he has to - and feels no guilt. He can kill someone in the afternoon and have a pleasant dinner, or dispose of the body during the night and really enjoy his morning coffee.

But Highsmith is acutely aware of the moral landscape that Ripley's behavior seems to challenge. In particular she is sensitive to the nuances of human communication which constitute in large measure the texture of our lives. In Ripley under ground, a suicidal artist character reads from the journal of another suicidal artist:

"Where has kindness, forgiveness gone in the world? I find more in the faces of children who sit for me, gazing at me, watching me with innocent wide eyes that make no judgment. And friends? In the moment of grappling with the enemy Death, the potential suicide calls upon them. One by one, they are not at home, the telephone doesn't answer, or if it does they are busy tonight - something quite important that they can't get away from - and one is too proud to break down and say, 'I've got to see you tonight or else!' This is the last effort to make contact. How pitiable, how human, how noble - for what is more godlike than communication? The suicide knows that it has magical powers."

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Fascism and radical egoism

Max Stirner (1806-1856) advocated absolute egoism: my ego is for me the only reality and the only value, and in affirming it I am simply myself. All general values and ideals (God, progress, humanity, etc.) are foreign to myself and do not concern me.

But Stirner believed that our minds are forever besieged and manipulated by such ideas and ideals which he saw as alien values, toxic abstractions:

"Man, your head is haunted ... You imagine great things, and depict to yourself a whole world of gods that has an existence for you, a spirit realm to which you suppose yourself to be called, an ideal that beckons you." The Ego and its own (Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 43).

In the manner of memes (as described in recent years by Susan Blackmore and others), such ideas subject the individual to themselves: they call the tune.

On the face of it such a philosophy would encourage individualism and perhaps anarchism, and indeed Stirner's writings inspired anarchists in the 1890s and beyond. But, curiously, Stirner's ideas also inspired various German proto-fascist groups.

Leszek Kołakowski tried to make sense of this apparent paradox at a time when the chief threat to liberal democracy seemed to be from the left. Today, when the far right has regained a prominent place in the political landscape, his reflections are of even greater interest than they were when they were first published (in Polish) in 1976.

"At first sight, Nazi totalitarianism may seem the opposite of Stirner's radical individualism. But fascism was above all an attempt to dissolve the social ties created by history and replace them by artificial bonds among individuals who were expected to render explicit obedience to the state on grounds of absolute egoism. Fascist education combined the tenets of asocial egoism and unquestioning conformism, the latter being the means by which the individual secured his own niche in the system. Stirner's philosophy has nothing to say against conformism, it only objects to the Ego being subordinated to any higher principle: the egoist is free to adjust to the world if it is clear he will better himself by doing so. His 'rebellion' may take the form of utter servility if it will further his interest; what he must not do is to be bound by 'general' values or myths of humanity. The totalitarian ideal of a barrack-like society from which all real, historical ties have been eliminated is perfectly consistent with Stirner's principles: the egoist, by his very nature, must be prepared to fight under any flag that suits his convenience." (Main currents of Marxism (W.W. Norton, 2005, pp.137-138))

It seems clear to me that many of the 'historical ties' that once anchored Europeans and Americans have indeed been stripped away by various cultural and technological forces, so that large segments of the population in Western countries may now be vulnerable to something like a new form of fascism.