Nonoverlapping Magisteria

This looks like an interesting book.

She’s arguing, as I understand it, that science cannot be ontologically complete, that it always coexists with other kinds of truth:

There is always ‘room left’ for alternative ontologies in cognitive-intellectual space, a realm that is neither cramped nor finite but, on the contrary, appears – both historically and for humans individually – exceedingly and perhaps infinitely elastic. … For many people … accepting, applying, and/or producing scientific knowledge and being religiously observant are no more in conflict than would be, for any of us, both playing the violin and practising law.

Interesting, maybe, as a bare assertion; more for the particular argument. Let’s say, on the one hand, that we accept a scientific view of religion. It’s a pattern of human behavior created by the interaction of our biological brains and our social environment; the potential for it was favored by its usefulness to our savannah ancestors and its actual existence by its usefulness for some social-political purpose today. Group cohesion then, the ploys of the Jesuits now, something like that.

The problem with this isn’t that it isn’t true; it is true, within some limits. The problem is that it explains too much. Every human belief system is the product of our Darwinianly-evolved brains and our social environment. You can fully explain religion, in principle, by a combination of genetic predisposition and practical advantage, but you can just as fully explain science, or anything else that people do. After all, we’re natural beings in the natural world; everything we do has a natural explanation. The most you can say in this framework is that science has displaced religion from many areas of life because of its greater utility; but by the same token you have to concede that religion has held on in other areas thanks to its greater utility. A purely naturalistic account of human beliefs has no place for them being true or false. People adopt them all for the same kind of reasons.

(Sraffa to Wittgenstein: “If the rules of language can be constructed only by observation, there can never be any nonsense said. This identifies the cause and the meaning of a word. The language of birds, as well as the language of metaphysicians can be interpreted consistently in this way. It is only a matter of finding the occasion on which they say a thing, just as one finds the occasion on which they sneeze.”)

On the other hand, almost anyone who cares about science prefers to believe it corresponds to some external truth about the world. One can’t object to this (Thomas Nagel, in this review, accuses Smith of objecting, but I suspect he’s got her wrong), but it’s not consistent with science being ontologically complete. A scientific account of scientific beliefs can offer various reasons for why people happen to hold them, but it has nothing to say about whether they are true. You may believe, if you like, that Betelgeuse would be 630 light years from the Earth whether anyone had measured the distance or not; but in a naturalistic account of why people do believe that, it all comes down to the measurements; independent of those the “objective” distance has no effect on anyone.

Put it another way: science offers heuristics for sorting beliefs into relatively confirmed and relatively falsified piles; but it doesn’t, and can’t, tell you why should prefer to hold the beliefs in the confirmed pile. Oh, say the new atheists, because they’re more useful. But right there they’ve conceded that if someone finds some social or psychological advantage in being religious, that’s as justified as anyone’s belief in science. To get along with your neighbors, to be free of angst about The Point of It All: aren’t those useful too?

Galileo is a hero of science and of civilization for eppur si muove. But what’s he saying? With respect to the heavens, he’s asserting that the demands of reality take precedence over what we think is right. But with respect to the earth, it’s just the opposite: He’s insisting on the priority of abstract right over concrete reality. After all, if he applied the same unromantic empiricism to his life as he did to his astronomy, he’d take one look at the instruments and conclude that practical experimentation revealed that the Earth goes around the Sun. (As did Brecht’s Galileo.) A belief that’s liable to get you tortured to death is pretty clearly less practically useful than a belief that leaves you torture-free. Galileo’s insistence that one should believe in science, come what may, is entirely unscientific, and — Brecht struggled with this — so much the better for Galileo.

The thing about the contradiction between the scientific method and belief in science is that it can be resolved either way. Nagel thinks that Smith is trying to apply the naturalistic, constructivist view of human beliefs “all the way down”. Me, I prefer to think she’s showing that’s exactly what you cannot do.

Keyes Is Right

Alan Keyes says, “If citizenship is not a birthright then it must be a grant of the government. And if it is a grant of the government, it could curtail that grant in all the ways that fascists and totalitarians always want to.”

In other words, the rights vis-a-vis the state we call citizenship, are prior to the legal acts that formalize them.

Joshua Micah Marshall thinks that’s “dramatically crazier than any of the opinions on offer,” since Keyes attributes the priority of citizenship, in part, to God.

But as a historical matter, Keyes is certainly right. The founding documents of political liberalism — the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, the Declaration of Independence — explicitly state that the rights of the citizen are prior to their recognition by governments. If a government fails to recognize them, it’s that government’s legitimacy that is diminished, not the rights of the citizen.

In the specific 14th Amendment context, the point is that the right of the freedmen to citizenship wasn’t created by the 14th Amendment, but already existed by virtue of their living in this country and being subject to its laws. Did Congress have the power or the authority to deny them citizenship? Seems to me the Civil War answered that question clearly in the negative. The law binds most of the time, but ultimately it derives its authority from a set of norms that are prior to it.

This is certainly how the founders of liberal political orders, here and elsewhere, understood the relationship between the rights of the citizen and the law. That’s why they were ready to overthrow existing governments by force. Of course today it’s the Constitution and the law that regulate citizenship. But it’s important to remember that the fact that we — or almost anyone else — are citizens at all is not the result of legal or constitutional acts.

EDIT: It’s funny that reference to the founding documents of political liberalism is these days almost a monopoly of conservatives. Of course it’s not so strange, since conservatism is backward-looking by nature, while progressives naturally believe in progress. But the DNA of liberalism hasn’t changed that much, and Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton, Lafayette and Saint-Just, and other Enlightenment political figures expressed it pretty robustly.

Unlike their forebears, modern liberals tend to insist on the absolute autonomy of the law in general, and the Constitution in particular. They’re unwilling, for obvious reasons, to accept a political order grounded on divine revelation, but they don’t have any alternative ground to put it on, so it ends up floating in the air. (Carl Schmitt is very good on this.) There’s what’s useful, and there’s what’s legal, under the law as it exists; but there’s no category of political legitimacy behind the law. Given the remarkable political stability of the United States since the Civil War, and just as important, as Herbert Croly emphasized, the continuously rising standard of living here, we’ve mostly gotten along fine without one. But one suspects that it wouldn’t take that much political strain for “government by lawyers” (Croly’s phrase) to experience its Wile E. Coyote moment, when it turns out that the authority of the law wasn’t underpinned by anything but a lack of good reasons to question it. Not unlike, perhaps, what happened in the financial crisis of 2008, when it turned out that not only did the traditional tools of monetary policy not work, they’d stopped working some time before.

The Golden Age Is In Us

Walking through Central Park a week or so ago, a perfect summer afternoon. Here are the trees, the birds, people playing frisbee, reading, walking dogs, picnicking, the rollerbladers performing by the bandshell, a woman working on an oil painting of Turtle Pond, a pickup soccer game. And look: nothing is for sale, no one is giving orders. But this isn’t passive, private leisure: All around is activity, often intense, focused; all around people are cooperating, being together, in a thousand different ways.

Like here, just past Sheep Meadow, where two middle-aged men are performing intricate classical and baroque pieces arranged as saxophone duets. They’re playing just for themselves, they don’t even have a tip basket. But they’re good, they’re tight; they must have been playing together for years. I’m walking somewhere but not in a hurry. I stop and join the two or three other people leaning against the fence and listening.

Is there any music recording, any music performance, that compares to the music that emerges, unexpectedly in the middle of something else? Is there ever a better performance than the one that’s not for any audience?

In The Ring of Time, E. B. White describes watching a young circus rider practicing some “elementary postures and tricks” in a back lot of the Ringling Brothers’ winter home in Florida:

The ten minute ride the girl took achieved — as far as I was concerned, who wasn’t looking for it, and unbeknownst to her, who wasn’t even striving for it — the thing that is sought by performers everywhere, on whatever stage, whether struggling in the tidal currents of Shakespeare or bucking the difficult motion of a horse. …

Long before the circus comes to town, its most notable performances have already been given. Under the bright lights of the finished show, a performer need only reflect the electric candle power that is directed upon him; but in the dark and dirty old training rings and in the makeshift cages, whatever light is generated, whatever excitement, whatever beauty, must come from original sources — from the internal fires of professional hunger and delight, from the exuberance and gravity of youth. It is the difference between planetary light and the combustion of stars.

This saxophone duo was the combustion of stars. The ten or fifteen minutes I spent listening to them I felt so purely happy, I almost cried.

We don’t need to build socialism, or not from scratch. It’s here all around us. We just have to scrape away the other crap.