2019/01/17

The Primacy of Speculative Reason - Encore

Author's note: Here's one from the vaults. It struck me as particularly relevant now.

Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should.
-Dr. Ian Malcolm

Americans' habitual contempt for speculative reason never fails to dismay me, though our great country's myopic fascination with pure practicality is hardly surprising. A brief survey of our history reveals a clear preference for asking, "What should be done/how should we do it?" over "Why should we do this/what does it mean?".

From before the time of Plato; through Aristotle and Aquinas, the chief concern of Western philosophy was to address important questions through dialogue based on appeals to first principles (i.e. speculative reason). This noble tradition's downfall can be traced to the work of a single German philosopher. No, it's not Karl Marx. To pinpoint the moment when speculative reason toppled  from its throne, we must go back yet another century to the work of Immanuel Kant.

Frustrated by the perceived lack of stability in classical metaphysics (despite probably having read very little of it), Kant restricted the sphere of rational knowledge to experience and empiricism--despite the fact that doing so requires an appeal to sources of knowledge beyond experience and empiricism. Likewise, he failed to anticipate the catastrophic results of undermining natural law-based ethics while absolutizing personal autonomy.

If you're a typical postmodern Westerner, you probably couldn't care less about anything in the post above (except for the Jurassic Park quote--man, is it amazing how well that movie holds up or what?). You can be certain that I understand your deeply ingrained impatience with history, ontology, and philosophy in general. Rest assured that I'll explain why you should be gravely, intimately concerned with the airy notions that a bunch of Greeks and Germans discussed in the forgotten dark age that gripped the world before last Wednesday.

Exhibit A in my case for speculative reason is this article by Matt Saccaro. I cite this piece as a perfect example of 1) the practical reason-fueled utilitarian bias that dominates American culture and 2) the self-refuting absurdity of that bias. In support of his proposal to cut liberal arts disciplines from college curricula, the author argues that these fields of study serve only to shelter "intellectual cravens" unfit for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics degrees. Removing "soft disciplines" like literature, fine arts, etc. would keep the riffraff out of college and in their rightful place as blue-collar laborers.

Mr. Saccaro's belief that, "the realities of the 21st century world make it true" that students whose natural gifts and dispositions lead them to non-STEM vocations have no business in college is less self-evident than he assumes. I could build a counter argument based on declining STEM job security due to the glut of outsourcing and work visas, along with the need for authoritative standards in fields like law, education, and yes, art; but that would mean first accepting the current zeitgeist's false, biased terms. No, all that's needed to show the faults in Saccaro's position is to ask, "How do you know that?"

Setting aside the flagrant hubris of pigeonholing all human beings in either STEM or Intellectual Craven categories (I'll take Mr. Saccaro's identification of skilled tradesmen with college washouts more seriously when he demonstrates enough skill to install water and gas lines for a laundry room without flooding/blowing up his home), I'll point out that asserting the supremacy of STEM fields over liberal arts involves a value statement. I.e. to avoid circularity, arguments from utility must appeal to principles discovered through metaphysics. Practical reason depends on speculative reason.

I couldn't cast a silver bullet more lethal to utilitarian bias than the one Saccaro uses to shoot himself in the foot:
There are two possible fates for the American postsecondary education system. One is for it to maintain its current status as a factory that produces debt-slaves and baristas that can recite Emmanuel Kant’s passages from memory. The other is for Universities and Colleges to become leaner, more-functional institutions that remove all unnecessary coursework, and focus only on what matters.
That whirring sound is Kant spinning in his grave.

20 comments:

  1. Brian,
    Could Protestantism have laid 6he foundations for Kant?
    I've never been impressed with him. A brillant man who should've read the classics much more closely

    xavier

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    1. It did. Kant claimed that any future metaphysic would have to contend with his. Yet he never engaged seriously with the Scholastics.

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    2. Via The Critique of Pure Reason and the follow-on condensed version Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics.

      Yeah, I admit to "been there, done that."

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    3. My problem with "did Protestantism lay the foundations for..." is that Catholicism laid the foundations for Protestantism, and then a neo-pagan swoops in claiming that the rot really set in when early Christianity ruined everything.

      Doubtless in future neo-animists will be claiming that it was, of course, the concept of discreet deities that laid the foundations for the paganism that laid the foundations for, etc.

      Doesn't Locke really lay the foundations for absolutized individual autonomy?

      Does any metaphysics bother much with Kant? I have read very little of him, and what I did seemed to be a combination of circular logic and sophistry; but I am not a philosopher.

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    4. With love and respect to our separated brethren, the Catholic Church _is_ the foundation, the rock, if you will, that the Protestant revolt rejected. All the errors that beset us have their ultimate root in the denial of some aspect of Catholic doctrine.

      Re: Kant, that is the general consensus among his detractors.

      Kant's error is starting from the false-to-facts assertion that we have no faculty for apprehending moral absolutes, which is like asserting that we have no organs capable of perceiving visible light.

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    5. Ah, see, that's precisely the core point of contention that makes the split irreconcilable; with great love and respect. And I say irreconcilable because I think that at the foundation of it all we can't agree on terms at the very fist instance. It is made the more frustrating because I believe, where many do not, that Protestantism is not so distant from Catholicism. Compared to the further-flung branches of Christianity and post-Christianity, the enmity begins to look far too much like an internal disagreement.

      Of course, there's a lot more to the discussion; far more. But discussing the bad blood in the family is a miserable thing.

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    6. "...Protestantism is not so distant from Catholicism."

      We agree. Conservatively, the Catholic and Protestant doctrine Venn diagrams enjoy about 80% overlap. But here the Pareto principle rears its ugly head.

      There is one, specific Catholic doctrine whose rejection sparked the conflagration that threatens to engulf the West: the teaching authority of the Magisterium.

      The Catholic Church teaches that truth is accessible to men through Scripture, Tradition, Magisterial interpretation, and human reason.

      The Protestant rejection of Magisterial authority was the first crack in the dam. The Enlightenment took the rebellion a step further by rejecting the authority of Scripture. Now Postmoderns reject reason. That is a direct causal chain which begins with Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, et al.

      If observable historical data are desired, consider that it is Catholic and Orthodox nations which have proved most resistant to the poz and are now launching effective counteroffensives.

      Don't get me wrong. I recognize America's character as a Protestant nation. Give me a majority of true Anglican and Presbyterian men any day.

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  2. I fear this is where I get much of my more vitriolic behavior from. It's something I have to work on. I only do anything if I have a reason to do so, and getting constantly told I must do something because of the year on the calendar is about as stupid as deciding between drinking Gatorade or cyanide via a coin toss. Argue against it and you're met with eye-rolls or the ever-ridiculous "It's just my opinion" response.

    All this happens because we have no shared idea of reality and no interest in finding one beyond legislated emotions and appetites.

    We're all going to die someday. The sun is going to scorch out and no one will ever know we were here.

    Why should I care if you're fat and happy in your orgy suite at the commune or rotting in a ditch when any trace of you will eventually be wiped from existence regardless?

    Why is stealing wrong? Why is murder? Why should I wake up in the morning?

    Are there any questions more worth asking than the whys?

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    1. None. IMHO, one of the biggest errors of our current culture is to reject the question "Why is there something, rather than nothing?" It's the perfect starting point to any analysis to ask "Why this, rather than nothing?"

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    2. Co-thread winners. JD sets 'em up, and wreckage knocks 'em down.

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  3. He seems to be requesting a split into pure STEM, ie,high-brow trade schools, and old-fashioned universities. I don't see any problem with this, although it would in all likelihood have the opposite overall social result to what he expects.

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    1. Looks like Saccaro's post was pulled or purged. Clearly can't have something supporting your thought crime here, Brian! ;-)

      The typical STEM proponent doesn't consider that SCIENCE can be a pretty dull, monotonous job that treats you like a cog, just like -- the Trades.

      A STEM/Non-STEM split would likely just make another Elite/Not-Worth-Considering Group split out in Education (boy, do I use that term loosely). The likely result would just disenfranchise another block of white- and blue-collar workers in this country.

      Modern Education needs to be served up with an extreme excess of Fire and Salt. Dessert will then be served.

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    2. Agreed. If past reforms were to expand rights and the franchise, the 21st century reforms are to gut the indoctrination brainwashing complex. Education has to go back to families and be fractally localized.
      Joseph Moore at his yardsaleofthemind.wordpress. com has done and continues to do a public service on the topic of education.

      xavier

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  4. I can't get the first principles link to work (the second link in the post). Can anyone else access it?

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    1. This is repost from 2014. Looks like they've since taken the page down.

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  5. I'm personally in favor of gutting the arts and humanities in order to save them from the university system as it is, but that's a completely different argument.

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    1. Key point: "the university system as it is". Self-correcting problem.

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    2. Its very easy to believe a problem is self correcting amd do nothing, especially if you have a libertarian bent, so I weight against it, but I know where youre coming from.

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