Sunday, February 11, 2018

Pinker: "The Enlightenment Is Working"

Steven  Pinker, writing about his new book in The Wall Street Journal, here. A taste:
The headway made around the turn of the millennium is not a fluke. It’s a continuation of a process set in motion by the Enlightenment in the late 18th century that has brought improvements in every measure of human flourishing.
Comment: Reflect on the word "progress" and "progressive." "Progressive" has come to be associated with a left political movement. But let's reflect on its literal sense. Human Progress. It's not the Left-Progressives who are behind this excellent site that validates Pinker's thesis and data.

I think someone like Peter Thiel, who isn't as optimistic as Pinker, as almost like a visionary prophet for human progress, especially as viewed through a technological lens. His thesis is that we have been stagnating since the 1970s. Yet, much of Pinker's data has shown how much better the rest of the world has become since 70s. Yes, the least well off parts of the world. And they've become better off while taking advantage of the breakthroughs of the 1st world which Thiel sees as stagnating since 1970.

Information Technology of course, is excepted. (And what a big exception it is.)

Regarding the "Enlightenment" part of the thesis, it helps to look at periods on a timeline. The way I see it, Enlightenment ended around 1800, the very year in which all of this progress started to take off. It could be what triggered the growth is that's when aliens or spirits started diffusing knowledge down to humanity. But that, alas, is not a falsifiable hypothesis, with the current level of empirical understanding we have.

So I'm assuming and concluding it was the seeds planted by the Enlightenment figures like America's Founders and their influences. Men like Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Joseph Priestley, Richard Price, all of whom were either actual or armchair scientists and wanted to put man's focus on figuring out how material things work and how we can improve things.

As Franklin put it:
I have been long impressed with the same sentiments you so well express, of the growing felicity of mankind, from the improvements in philosophy, morals, politics, and even the conveniences of common living, and the invention and acquisition of new and useful utensils and instruments; so that I have sometimes almost wished it had been my destiny to be born two or three centuries hence. For invention and improvement are prolific, and beget more of their kind. The present progress is rapid. Many of great importance, now unthought of, will, before that period, be produced; and then I might not only enjoy their advantages, but have my curiosity gratified in knowing what they are to be. I see a little absurdity in what I have just written, but it is to a friend, who will wink and let it pass, while I mention one reason more for such a wish, which is, that, if the art of physic shall be improved in proportion to other arts, we may then be able to avoid diseases, and live as long as the patriarchs in Genesis; to which, I suppose, we should have little objection.
It's interesting to see how Franklin mentions wanting to live 200-300 years in the future to see how all of this unfolds. He wrote the letter in 1788. Meaning Franklin wants to see 1988-2088. In other words, right now.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Alex Knepper on Strauss & Christianity

Alex Knepper gained notoriety as a very young, bright writer a number of years back. He has since gone on to get his Master's Degree degree from St. John's College, one of the places that specializes in studying the thought of Leo Strauss, along with Strauss' followers and critics.

This is what he posted on Facebook today:
There is a criticism that the Straussian account of the history of ideas willfully denies Christianity a place at its table. Of course Strauss believes that an artful writer knows how to communicate with silence. And the relative silence of the Straussian account of the history on Christianity, of which it is hardly ignorant, surely testifies to its antagonism toward it. Insofar as there is an elusive or storytelling element to any historical account*, the storyteller can consciously arrange his presentation to suit his preferences and goals, without deceiving himself about what he is doing. Strauss, in choosing to write out certain elements of thought in history, is always silently opining on how he thinks Christianity ought to be viewed: as a great and horrible tragedy inflicted on Europe which all true philosophy has always fought to overturn. Christianity's foreground presence in the works of many philosophers -- say, Locke -- speaks merely to their historical situation and is not indicative of their true opinions. Such philosophers invoked Christian doctrine in a way that weaponizes it against itself, in a conscious attempt to undermine it for the long-term. Strauss, and Straussians perhaps, seem to believe that the time has passed in which the threat of Christian persecution is so great that it requires that kind of appeasement any longer, and we are now freed to speak of philosophers' true intentions without genuflecting to the conventions of the common people of the time. (Whether liberals in 2018 demand genuflection from true philosophers is another question.) 
h/t Jon Rowe

This is the original comment I left that led to Knepper's thought and hat tip:
Some of my interlocutors who think the Straussian history of ideas inadequate like to play this game where they demonstrate more authentically Christian sources for "good" ideas that Locke gave the Anglo-Enlightenment. They usually trace the ideas to obscure medieval Catholic thought (i.e., "the schoolmen").   
I think we can do something similar with Rousseau's egalitarianism. A lot of Whig opposition "republicans" like Harrington. Those who used biblical language for redistribution under the auspices of agrarian laws. Even the term Utopia -- an island where both wealth and poverty were abolished -- comes from Catholic Thomas Moore.
This was Alex's original comment to which I responded:
The difference between European liberalism and American liberalism can, with only a bit of exaggeration, be explained by reference to the fact that the American Founders just barely missed the emergence of Rousseau on the scene. They built a regime fundamentally grounded and fixed in the thought of John Locke and various contemporaries (eg, Montesquieu), which has since then absorbed only a refracted view of everything which has dialectically proceeded from Rousseau. Hence, for instance, the otherwise near-inexplicable fact that the thought of Herbert Spencer resonated with Americans more than that of his contemporary Marx. Certainly much so-called 'continental' philosophy and political theory remains totally elusive to Americans. 
This is not to say that Rousseau would necessarily be more pleased with Europe in 2018 than with America: Rousseau was not above playing with the fire of populism, the popular denigration of the arts and sciences, or the glorification of militarism; there is no necessary support for a larger welfare state in Rousseau, no necessary support for liberal internationalism, no necessary support for multiculturalism -- the list goes on (though we can be sure that he considered himself part of a spiritual 'elite' exempt from ordinary laws and customs) -- but merely that, as a regime built on fixed ideas, America receives the insights of Rousseau and everything proceeding from his thought, or at any rate what it represents, through a refracted lens and hence will never see eye-to-eye with 'the continent.' 

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Vox: Latest Hit on David Barton

It's entitled, Understanding the fake historian behind America’s religious right. A taste:
Of course, it’s worth saying that all accounts of history — left-wing or right-wing, secular or Christian — can also be, in a sense, a form of propaganda. Any narrative of America’s foundation will, of course, be mediated by the specific biases and concerns of the teller. (Historian Fea does a great job pointing out that the secular counterpart to the Barton narrative, that all founding fathers were non-Christian, deist secularists, is also wrong).

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Swedenborg Was Not a Modalist (Sabellian)

I recently received a note from a Swedenborgian minister about this post. He posted these two comments (one, two) clarifying the proper understanding. 

From the second comment:
Swedenborg was not, in fact, a modalist, despite that doctrine being sometimes attributed to him by traditional Christians. He explicitly rejected Sabellianism as a heresy, among many other heresies, in True Christianity #378. 
Though Swedenborg rejected the Nicene/Athanasian Trinity of Persons, considering it unbiblical and false, his version of the Trinity did not, as the modalist Trinity does, consider Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be various "modes" of a single God, or different ways that a single God appears to humans. Rather, Swedenborg saw Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as "essential components" (Latin: essentialia) of a single Person of God, equivalent to the soul, body, and actions of human beings--whom, according to Genesis 1:26-27, God created "in the image and likeness of God." 
For more on the difference between Swedenborg's Trinity and the modalistic (Sabellian) view, please see my article, "What is the difference between the Swedenborgian and Oneness Pentecostal doctrines of God?"
From the linked article at his site:
However, Swedenborg’s theology rejects the defining characteristic of modalist doctrine, which is that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three different modes of God, or three different ways that God manifests himself to humans. 
Instead, Swedenborg’s theology states that:  
1. The Father is the transcendent, unknowable soul of God, of which we can have no direct knowledge or experience at all. 
2. The Son is the human body or visible appearance of God—and, since the Incarnation, is the sole avenue by which the Father is known to human beings. 
3. The Holy Spirit is the divine truth and power flowing out from God, and in effect is the manifestation of God to human beings.
Swedenborg calls this a Trinity of “essential components” (Latin essentialia) of one God. 
These three are not different modes or manifestations to us of some underlying divine Spirit. 
In Swedenborg’s system, the Father is the underlying divine being, and is not perceivable by us at all. We finite humans are incapable of grasping or comprehending the infinite divine being of God. Only through the Son can we have any knowledge of God. And the Holy Spirit is the knowledge and power of God as it flows out from the Son, enlightening us and giving us spiritual life.
When I first read this, I wondered whether instead of understanding God as the modalists do -- three different forms or modes of one God -- Swedenborg's position was the Trinity is three different functions of one God. Three different functions not forms.

I'm not sure if that's right. Three different components is more like a Voltron like dynamic. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not, individually, fully God, but rather together are fully God. By the way, Swedenborg viewed God as one Person and Jesus Christ is that Person (that is JC IS the Father, Son AND Holy Spirit).

Friday, January 12, 2018

George Washington on Immigration

From George Washington to Joshua Holmes, 2 December 1783
To the Members of the volunteer Associations & other Inhabitants of the Kingdom of Ireland who have lately arrived in the City of New York. 
The testimony of your satisfaction at the glorious termination of the late contest, and your indulgent opinion of my Agency in it, afford me singular pleasure & merit my warmest acknowledgments. 
If the Example of the Americans successfully contending in the Cause of Freedom, can be of any use to other Nations; we shall have an additional Motive for rejoycing at so prosperous an Event. 
It was not an uninteresting consideration, to learn, that the Kingdom of Ireland, by bold & manly conduct had obtained redress of many of its greivances—and it is much to be wished, that the blessings of equal Liberty & unrestrained Commerce may yet prevail more extensively in the Mean time, you may be assured, Gentlemen, that the Hospitality & Benificence of your Countrymen, to our Brethren who have been Prisoners of War, are neither unknown, or unregarded. 
The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent & respectable Stranger, but the oppressed & persecuted of all Nations & Religions; whom we shall wellcome to a participation of all our rights & previleges, if by decency & propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment. 
Go: Washington

Monday, January 01, 2018

Law & Liberty Review on Democratic Religion

The book being reviewed is "Democratic Religion from Locke to Obama," by Giorgi Areshidze. The review is by  and you can read it here

A taste:
Locke was not historicist. He based liberalism squarely on a doctrine of natural, not historical rights. Very astutely, Areshidze remarks that the argument for religious toleration made by Locke in his 1689 Letter on Toleration differs from his argument in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which he was writing at the same timeThe Letter “bases toleration on a religious argument about the sanctity of human conscience” as each individual searches for “religious truth.” The Essay “grounds toleration on the limits of human knowledge”—on a form of skepticism. The Letter rests on an appeal to the prevailing opinion of the time, relying on Biblical exegesis; the Essay relies on reason alone. One book is “popular,” the other “philosophic.” 
Not that the Biblical exegesis Locke propounds in the Letter fully comports with the prevailing Christian orthodoxy of his time—or indeed with the teaching of the Bible itself. Mutual toleration among Christians is alleged to be “the chief characteristic of a true church,” although the New Testament attests to love, not toleration. When Locke does testify to the fact of Christian lovingkindness, he makes it serve toleration and good works. 
Crucially, in enlisting the support of Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, Locke accurately quotes Paul as to sins not to be tolerated by Christians—“works of the Flesh,” generally—but leaves out such Pauline sins as “seditions and heresies”—works of the mind, as it were. It was dissenters’ public declarations of such spiritual sins that persuaded Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and John Calvin to enlist governments in the task of suppressing the full range of un-Christian acts; Aquinas went so far as to urge the death penalty for heretics. (Perhaps glancing back at Rawls and Obama, Areshidze describes this as a “nearly uninterrupted Christian consensus”—bad news indeed for Rawlsian liberals.) 
To this Locke replies in the Letter that coercion can never genuinely persuade, and that only a persuaded soul can enter Heaven through the strait gate. But in the Essay Locke admits that, on the contrary, beliefs are indeed formed by a mixture of coercion and consent. There, he argues not from the Bible but from what later writers would call epistemology: the Bible speaks of “knowing” God, but what is knowledge?

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Ben Franklin on Alcohol

See TVD's post for the money quote. This is the article that gives more detail to Ben Franklin's position. I think the quote is more interesting than the apparently phony quotation about beer. From the article:
Indeed, in 1724, when Franklin was just 18, he worked at a printing house in London where his co-workers’ diets were mostly liquid. 
“The pressman at British printing houses thrived on a pint of beer before breakfast, a pint at breakfast with bread and cheese, a pint between breakfast and dinner, a pint in the afternoon at about 6 o’clock and yet another when the day’s work was done,” Eighmey writes. 
Franklin, meanwhile, drank only water at work — his colleagues called him a “Water-American” — and was able to lift and carry twice as much type as anyone else there. 
So Franklin, in an early demonstration of the sort of supreme negotiating skills that would later help form our nation, persuaded his co-workers to drink less by arguing that the nutrition beer afforded them could be obtained by eating bread, which would make them more energetic for work.
Happy New Year.