Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart

A new book* is out about the famous Minnesota study of twins which demonstrated the overwhelmingly significant influence of our genes on our respective fates. When one is confronted with identical twins who have been raised apart and who are not only physically but also psychologically and intellectually very similar, the obfuscatory and equivocal talk which has for so long surrounded these matters is exposed for what it is.

Yes, there are complexities. There is the possibility that some people may attribute a more significant role to our genes than they in fact play. But I think by far the more common error is to underestimate the power and significance of genetic factors.

My views on this matter started to take shape when I saw a documentary film based on the Minnesota study and featuring some of the twins themselves. One thing was strikingly clear: what the social scientific establishment had been saying for so long about genetic inheritance (essentially downplaying its importance) was false (and presumably ideologically motivated).

Attempts to discredit studies such as the Minnesota project continue. People will believe what they want to believe, I guess, and try to convince others.

But, just as the ideologically-inspired bias of famous phonies like Margaret Mead was eventually exposed, so later waves of social pseudo-scientists and ideologically-driven philosophers will fall by the wayside.

Truth wins in the sense that ideas which are way out of line with the data are marginalized (and eventually fizzle out). Debate and conflict may continue, but the battle lines have shifted and will continue to shift.

* Here are some pertinent comments by Matt Ridley; and here is Bryan Caplan's review from The Wall Street Journal.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

A hard God is good for business

In my recent post on the concept of the noble lie I cited (approvingly) David Berlinski's contention (based on intuitions about human nature and on historical evidence) that religious belief - in particular belief in a just, all-seeing god - is conducive to good behavior and so socially beneficial.

I have just come across a report on some research which seems to support this point of view. The researchers found that one particular doctrine - a belief in punishment after death - was the most significant factor in determining whether a society had a low level of crime. Other studies have delivered similar findings, with one even finding that a belief in supernatural punishment promoted productive business activity. (Gross domestic product was found to be higher in developed countries when belief in after-death punishments was widespread.) Old time religion seems to trump the more liberal, postmodern varieties hands down when it comes to being socially useful.

This is an uncomfortable truth for those of us who reject such religious ideas, but it is also useful insofar as it exposes unrealistically optimistic views about human nature and society for what they are: wishful thinking.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The noble lie has had its day

David Berlinski, who has no religious affiliation, argues that religion is an important basis for morality, and this is certainly a defensible position. Believing that nothing one does is hidden from the eyes of a just and powerful supernatural being is a strong psychological disincentive to doing shameful things.

Of course, there is a long tradition of skeptical conservative thought, going back to the ancients, which advocates the necessity of a 'noble lie' to maintain social order.

Leaving aside the practicality of such an approach, I shy away from it on moral grounds. It just feels wrong to me, but maybe this is due to a Puritan streak in my thinking. I see the logic of the noble lie, but I don't like it. I resist the thought that we're in the sort of world where you have to lie to people on a routine basis. (Though I'm comfortable with the idea that, in certain situations (like just prior to an exit from a currency union, for instance) untruths must be told.)

It is certainly true that people can and do behave well without believing in a supernatural watcher, but it is an open question as to whether enough people will behave well enough to guarantee a smoothly functioning secular society. There is little evidence to draw on, as widespread non-belief is a relatively recent phenomenon. And what evidence there is is not encouraging.

The revolutionary secular regimes of the 20th century felt the need to replace the eyes of God with informers and secret police, and our current secular democracies are implementing unprecedentedly extensive regulatory and surveillance networks in an attempt to maintain law and order.

I suspect that, while at the level of the small or culturally homogeneous group there is generally no problem with secularism, problems do emerge when societies are larger and culturally mixed. All the complex societies of the past of which I am aware incorporated either religious elements or the mechanisms of totalitarian terror (or a mixture of the two).

We in the West seem to be in a situation where prosperity is threatened, the social fabric is slowly failing and governments are moving into areas which once were self-sufficient or the preserve of independent and autonomous institutions (like families, churches or professional bodies).

The other side of the coin is business and trade, which creates prosperity but which depends for its effective functioning not only on a legal framework (which governments can provide) but also on a culture of trust and truth-telling (which governments are powerless to protect and, of course, quite unable to create).

Life will go on, no doubt. But the spontaneous order and cultural richness which is the fruit of centuries of tradition is failing and falling away. Life will go on, but in a culturally impoverished form.

And individual freedom, the idea and the reality of which developed and flourished in Western countries, is just one of many cultural treasures which we are losing as populist governments attempt to impose order on fragmenting and increasingly rootless populations.

We certainly can't rely on a noble lie to save us. No one would believe it.

Because the strategy of the noble lie is predicated on the existence of a respected political and/or cultural elite and these conditions do not exist and are unlikely to come into being any time soon.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Anti-Semitism isn't what it used to be

Old-fashioned European and American anti-Semitism, which envisaged a sinister conspiracy, global in its reach, implicitly ascribed special powers - supernatural or demonic - to Jews. How else could such a relatively small number constitute a serious threat to Christian civilization (which, after all, had God and His angels on its side)?

This (ultimately) medieval outlook has faded in the West as other forms of religion or irreligion - less rooted in European history - have come to prominence.

Besides, as wealth moves from west to east, it's clear that the chief beneficiaries of the global financial system (and, increasingly, the key players) are more likely to be east or south Asian than Jewish.* If there was a secret Jewish plan to control the world, it has clearly failed!

Oddly, the absurd view of Jews as arch-evil villains, long since abandoned in mainstream circles in the Christian and post-Christian West, flourishes in sections of the Islamic world due in part to the continuing influence of 19th and early 20th century Muslim thinkers who blended elements of European thought (including fascism and European-style anti-Semitism) into their political theology in an attempt to revivify and - irony of ironies - modernize their religion.**

Anti-Semitism was a dark strand in European history which once spawned potent fictions capable of inducing even intelligent men and women to suspend their disbelief. But in the context of today's world it can only ever be a fringe phenomenon, a magnet for small minds and a tawdry cover for fanatics with a taste for violence.

* The latest Boston Consulting Group global wealth survey showed that Singapore has the greatest concentration of households with investable assets in excess of $1,000,000. The number of millionaire households in the United States is falling. The number of millionaire households in China is surging.

** Last year I wrote a little on this movement, prompted largely by my reading of Paul Berman's The Flight of the Intellectuals and Christopher Caldwell's Reflections on the Revolution in Europe. (See, for example, 'Islamic death cult' and 'Islamists and Nazis').

Monday, June 4, 2012

Luther's politics

It is no accident that secularism and progressive politics go together. It's basically because the left has made a religion of politics by applying Christian principles and values, a disastrous move which inevitably leads to economic, political and social decline - as we see dramatically illustrated in the decline of Europe, and, increasingly, America as post-World War II social welfare policies and an out-of-control notion of human rights take their social and economic toll.

The irony is that the dangers of applying Christian principles in the political sphere have been known about and talked about by many thinkers, religious and unreligious, Christian and non-Christian, in the course of the last two thousand years.

I recently came across this reference to the views of Martin Luther (a thinker who once meant a lot to me).

Luther rejected philosophy - and so logic and reason - as a starting-point for faith. He drew a clear distinction between the law and the gospel, between conscience and faith.

"[U]nlike most of his contemporaries, Luther did not believe that a ruler had to be Christian, only reasonable. Here, opposite to his discussion of theology, it is revelation that is improper. Trying to govern using the gospel as one’s model would either corrupt the government or corrupt the gospel. The gospel’s fundamental message is forgiveness, government must maintain justice. To confuse the two here is just as troubling as confusing them when discussing theology. If forgiveness becomes the dominant model in government, people being sinful, chaos will increase."

Secular conservatism is a difficult path to follow because it doesn't provide an outlet for our religious instincts. It's 'unnatural' in fact, like science (both requiring an overthrow of built-in instincts and proclivities). I fear it is destined to remain a minority position.