Reflections on the Revolution in the Bay Area

What hath Edmund Burke to do with Mark Zuckerberg? Quite a lot, actually.

Like many people, I have been intermittently following the media coverage of the Cambridge Analytics debacle. Getting into a data job for one of the tech giants (or one of their many smaller-scale but equally ambitious imitators) was one of my aspirations in my first year or so after graduating from college with a bachelor’s in statistics. Over time, that interest started to decline as my perception of the tech-sphere soured, and I have become increasingly skeptical of the enormous power and socio-technological capital centered into a relatively few hands in Silicon Valley. Something about the messiah-archetype that Mark Zuckerberg et al. seem to fill in many people’s minds (including his own) puts me off, and I must confess I’ve found a certain level of satisfaction in seeing Facebook finally being exposed to the level of scrutiny to which it ought to have been subject from the beginning.

At the same time that all of this has been going on, I’ve been rereading Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), for unrelated reasons. It’s no secret to anyone whose reading has gone beyond the comments section at Breitbart and Salon that principles of liberal democracy have been under increased discussion in the past few years, with Trump’s ascension to the White House and the populist right-wing movements in Europe. I’ve found that a growingly influential segment of conservative or right-leaning commentators (Jordan Peterson, Dave Rubin, Bari Weiss, etc.) have been adopting the label of “classical liberal,” with an appeal to what the liberal political tradition arising from the Enlightenment allegedly was before devolving into the self-congratulatory leftism of private colleges and the New Yorker. All of this goes hand-in-hand with the immediate pervasiveness, as sudden as Athena from the head of Zeus, of the term “illiberal” as a political put-down equally favored by the left and the right. I cannot recall having seen the term used once prior to 2016, but I’m sure none of the readers of this blog need to be told how common it’s become in political discourse in the last year.

My suspicions are always aroused whenever seemingly vague terms like “classical liberal” and its antinomy become widely used in a very short period of time. The manipulation of language is quite an easy path towards the manipulation of public opinion. To avoid thoughtlessly using terms whose origins I don’t know well, I’ve begun immersing myself in some of the foundational political works of the 18th and 19th centuries, beginning with Burke, and with the intention of moving on to John Locke, David Hume, the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, etc.

One of the things that’s struck me in reading Reflections is how much time Burke devotes to talking about human nature and psychology, as distinct from merely practical political questions. Hardly a page goes by in which he doesn’t relate his argument about the role of the state and our duties to it back to his conception of human nature. Much of the argument up to the point I’ve read so far (a little over halfway through) could be summed up in the statement that because tradition so powerfully shapes human nature and society in its own image, swift changes from old systems of government and religion can endanger the public stability.

Burke’s primary application of this principle is to the political comparison of England’s traditional monarchy with the French Revolution, of course, but it has struck me while reading him that his argument is applicable the modern controversy over social media and new technology generally. All of us are familiar with the dueling thinkpieces over the goodness or badness of this or that technological advance: social media, virtual reality, the application of machine learning and artificial intelligence to consumer data, increased surveillance, and so on. One of the objections most commonly made to criticisms of new technology is that these suspicions are only a case of rehashed fears from the past. There has been a transmigration of hysteria, we are told, from fears of the social effects of trains and cars, to fears of radio and telephones, to fears of television and video games, to present-day fears about Twitter, Tinder, and mass unemployment from AI automation. But in every case in the past, the world didn’t come to an end – in fact, it got better. Therefore, the anti-Luddites conclude, suspicion of novelty is little more than clickbait alarmism.

I find much of this argument strikingly naive, not the least because it’s simply untrue that the world didn’t change for the worse in response to any of the above-mentioned technologies – the global environmental threat from mass pollution and destruction of Earth’s natural resources necessary to fuel our car habits and consumerism is perhaps the most obvious, although many others could be named. But the thing that stands out to me about this argument in the context of reading Burke is the implicit assumption that new technology comes to us with a presumption in favor of its social good, or at least neutrality. If someone thinks that having children growing up with their earliest moments documented on Facebook is a bad thing, for instance, the burden of proof is on him to show why it is – and until this is done, we ought to assume that such concerns are alarmism.

The assumption that there should be a presumption in favor of new technology is dangerously naive. It underestimates both the extent to which technology changes us, in ways that can be very difficult to alter in the future, and the extent to which we simply have no idea what the long-run effects of things like smartphones and social media will actually be. In short, it ignores the insight Edmund Burke articulated over two hundred years ago: overturning the way society works can produce completely unforeseen consequences that may not appear for decades or more, and the greater the revolution, the greater the potential for evil change. Scholarly studies on these things have already begun, of course, and not infrequently are unfavorable in their evaluations. But even academic studies can only do so much – how can we possibly extrapolate with high confidence to the effects over the next century of technology that is in many cases less than ten years old and changing at a faster rate than anything in human history?

It may in fact be the case that concerns about social media and such are overblown, though I think they are not. That isn’t the point. The point is that we would never adopt the same presumption of goodness towards novelties in other segments of life that the anti-Luddites apply to technology. Everyone recognizes why it would be absurd and even criminally reckless for the Food and Drug Administration to approve a new psychiatric drug after only a couple of months of testing on a relatively small sample size of people, and even more outrageous to do so if it was expected that the drug would be of very wide use in the population. Similarly, while many may not possess the in-depth knowledge of foreign politics to be able to articulate well why a given policy change with, say, Russia or North Korea might be good or bad, everyone understands that adopting a completely new set of policy platforms and international relations over something that has worked in the past without thought or deliberation would be reckless in the extreme.

In cases like these, people naturally understand that novelty as such is suspect. It is the new proposal that must make its case for its superiority over the existing paradigm, not the other way around. To embrace a new path without examining it as thoroughly as we reasonably can is foolish, and we need not have any particular reason to think the new proposal is dangerous to still believe that adopting it thoughtlessly is wrong. Why don’t people apply the same reasoning to technology?

I suspect no small part of the reason is because we seldom think of just how great of a capacity technology possesses to change us in ways that are impossible to predict in advance, and very difficult to reverse or control after the fact. But it is indisputable that it does. And the odd thing is that the same people who push the most for the rush into the technological utopia of Silicon Valley tend to be political liberals – the very group of people who are the most attuned to the largest case of technology changing society in a dangerous way that is difficult to reverse, namely, climate change. Why they often fail to make the application to how we think about new technology is, I must confess, a puzzle to me.

In considering what grounds we might have for skepticism about the uncritical market acceptance (the only acceptance that really matters in a society driven by consumption, as it virtually guarantees a de facto ideological acceptance in the long-run by sheer force of attrition) of whatever new technology comes down the pipeline in light of the sharper scrutiny put on Facebook and company after the 2016 elections, we would do well to keep Burke’s principles in mind. The swift overturn of old ways of life can create widespread changes that are, for practical purposes, irreversible. The more closely these changes affect the day-to-day inner life of the average person, the more capacity they have to drastically change the soul of a society. And the longer-term the effects of the changes may be, the less certain we can be whether the changes are in fact going to be good or bad.


As an addendum, lest anyone be tempted to think that my argument here is solely the possession of the right, I encourage my readers to follow the commentary of the politically liberal Georgetown professor Cal Newport on social media and smartphones. Newport is himself a professor of computer science and an MIT graduate who has commented with increasingly regularity over the past few years about his worries over the more or less automatic acceptance of whatever happens to come down the silicon pipeline. He is one of a considerable number of people writing from outside the traditional right-wing sphere who have been publicly critical of the modern technological religion, and I hope to write in the future in more detail on some of their criticisms.

 

The Public Good and the Problem With Libertarianism

There is much that could be criticized in the New York Times’ recent op-ed on abortion. To claim, as the author seems to do, that the piece calls for a new step forward in talking about abortion is about as persuasive as the claim that Republican lawmakers’ tweeted thoughts and prayers represents a new step forward in talking about gun control, although the latter at least have the advantage of keeping the length of their statements proportionate to their originality of thought and moral seriousness. The plain truth is that there is very little to be said about legalized abortion, for or against, that has not already been said innumerable times, and to reply to Shrage’s essay with the standard pro-life talking points, as true as that reply might be, is unnecessary. Any moderately informed person knows (or ought to know) in outline what a pro-lifer would say to the points made in the essay.

More interesting would be to consider the way in which pro-lifers frequently grant an assumption that run through the article, albeit without adequate defense, which is that the government ought not to take a stance on the moral goodness or badness of private actions. Not all people on the pro-life side would say this, of course, but in my admittedly anecdotal experience, quite a few young pro-lifers lean in the socially libertarian direction, with the presumption being that the government generally should not involve itself in or take sides upon moral debates. The government, in this view, should restrict its regulation of behavior to what is necessary to protect the public good, by means of things like protecting citizens from harm and enforcing contracts.

This seems to be the view taken in Shrage’s essay, as illustrated with a few excerpts.

It is well known that members of our society hold vastly different views about when personhood or a human life begins, about our moral obligations to our genetic offspring, or what kind of sexual acts are permissible. That is to be expected. A pluralist, democratic society can accommodate a good amount of such disagreement. Yet it is necessary that we do reach a strong consensus about how to regulate a public service, and so moral, political and philosophical analyses should aim to illuminate the issues that can help generate such a consensus…

So what about abortion? How should governments restrict or regulate the abortion services offered by medical professionals or facilities? Because this is an issue about good medicine, we need to focus on health risks and outcomes instead of personal ethics…

The essay proceeds, of course, in the usual manner of pro-choice advocacy; namely, begging the question against the pro-life stance by simply ignoring the question of the moral status of the fetus, except in the last third of a woman’s pregnancy. There is no need to linger here to show why this approach is problematic, except perhaps to note in passing that for someone who purports to have the answer to how Americans ought to talk about abortion, Shrage does not seem to be interested in addressing what critics of the practice actually say.

The more interesting part is when she draws the implicit distinction between “good medicine” and “personal ethics.” Citizens of a pluralist society such as our own are so used to hearing this sort of distinction made – a doctor’s personal beliefs versus his duty to his patients, a legislator’s private ethics versus his duty to his constituents, and so on – that many are unlikely to have ever considered that the view might be problematic. Yet it only takes a moment’s consideration to see that the distinction between good medicine and ethics is nonsense. Medicine is a value-laden profession of its very nature, in that proceeds according to a belief in certain moral goods. It is clearly insufficient to speak of medicine as if it was merely constituted by a knowledge of the human body, or of how to manipulate it, for this definition would not exclude actions that either deliberately damage the patient’s health, such as amputating a limb without cause or infecting the body with a virus. Medicine, as Aristotle noted, by nature aims at the health of the body as a basic good.

But in aiming at health as something good in itself, the very practice of medicine assumes an ethical framework. It is a self-contradiction to speak of a practice that presupposes moral propositions as being morally neutral. And if medicine is not morally neutral, then clearly ethical arguments are relevant to the practice of medicine.

Someone might object, as I’m sure Shrage would, that the key distinction is between private ethics and public ethics, only the latter of which is relevant to the legal regulation of medicine. This too is nonsense. There is no such thing as “private ethics” as a field of moral belief distinct from “public ethics.” All ethical claims depend on assumptions that certain things are in themselves good or bad, and if an action or end is intrinsically good or evil, then of necessity it must be good or evil for everyone. Moral assertions are by nature universal. The only real distinction that approximates what the essay calls private and public ethics is between ethical claims on which there is widespread agreement and ethical claims on which there is not.

When restated in terms of this distinction, the argument made in the op-ed – which, by the way, is more or less the argument made nationwide in defense of  legalized abortion, removing drug regulations, comprehensive sex education in public schools, etc. – is that ethical beliefs which the vast majority of Americans share should control public policy, while ethical beliefs on which there is widespread disagreement should not.

The argument in this form lays bare a common equivocation on the term of public good: does “the public good” mean what is actually good for the public, or what some suitable majority of the public believes is good for itself? The distinction is hardly trivial. Only on the first view can any attempt at social reform or civil disobedience that goes against the beliefs of most citizens be justified, and certainly no morally decent person could deny that such things have in fact been justified at least some of the time. The latter view opens the door to legal and moral relativism of the worst sort. To affirm that the public good can be decided by majority vote is to deny any real distinction between good and fiat.

But if we take the former view, then we are led to a conclusion which is unlikely to sit well with libertarian pro-lifers: the government must, if it is consistent, explicitly embrace a particular philosophy of what the public good actually is. Claims of absolute moral and philosophical neutrality are inadmissible. This does not mean, of course, that the government must become involved with every minutia of citizens’ personal lives, but it does mean that no a priori objection can be made to claims that the government should regulate the market, the purchase of firearms, education, pornography, drugs, prostitution, carbon emissions, and so on, on the grounds that it isn’t the government’s job to tell people how to live / businesses how to operate. Of course, the legitimacy of these claims does not follow automatically from the objective notion of the public good. They must be defended with arguments, which may or may not be successful. The point is that they cannot be ruled out from the start on the grounds that the government has no conceivable right to interfere in these areas. If someone believes that the government should prohibit abortion in most cases – as we all should – then it is inconsistent for him to dismiss out of hand claims that the government should prohibit or regulate other private actions.

A Brief Introduction

14th century medieval illustration of a scholastic lecture. From Wikimedia.

For nearly a year’s time, I have mulled over the prospect of starting a blog. My delay had been primarily a matter of being uncertain of what to write about – my professional background is in data analytics and programming, but my primary interest is (and has been for several years) in philosophy and religion.

Then in August 2017, after some years of studying the philosophy of the medieval scholastics, I made the decision to seek full communion with the Catholic Church, and was received and confirmed at the beginning of Epiphanytide, on January 7th, 2018.

Something that is as inextricable from my daily life as the Catholic Faith is something I could hardly avoid writing about, yet there are already many fine and not-so-fine blogs that cover nearly every aspect of Catholicism itself: church history, apologetics, scholastic philosophy, the “culture wars,” internecine disputes over the liturgy, criticisms of Vatican II and criticisms of those criticisms (and criticisms of those criticisms, nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum) . All of these things are important in varying degrees, yet it seems to me that there is a quite a wide conceptual space open in the blogosphere for writing that comes from a Catholic perspective, but is not about Catholicism specifically.

This brings me to the subject matter of Bacon’s Bridge, and an explanation of the name. The 17th and 18th centuries experienced a profound revolution in the Western philosophical tradition, the likes of which had not been seen since the 12th century introduction of Aristotle into the West via Arabic scholars and commentators. The old Aristotelian system was cast off as a ridiculous and outmoded relic, the product of a priori hairsplitting and blind reliance on human authority. In its place a new philosophy of human knowledge of the world developed, with an emphasis on empirical foundation and the close understanding and manipulation of nature. While the medieval scholastics had been content to say, in Moliere’s old joke, that opium causes sleep because of its dormitive power – an “explanation” that seemed empty – the new empirical method sought for the details of the chemical explanation of opium’s ability to cause sleep, and in so doing, cast aside the whole notion of causal powers altogether, along with the Aristotelian and scholastic edifice into which it had been built.

Paralleling this revolution in scientific thought was an equally significant and closely-related upheaval in political life. A person born in England in 1640 who lived until the close of the century would have seen the hands of government change four times in military conflicts born out of the country’s religious crises. Someone born in the same country 70 years later and living 60 years until 1810 would have heard of the American Revolution during childhood and the French Revolution in young adulthood, and by her death would have seen classical liberalism go from the pen of John Locke to the politics of Europe at large and America – from which it would go on to become the governing standard for much of the world.

Fast-forwarding a few more centuries from the scientific revolution to the present day, the modern effects of this profound shift are all around us; indeed, it is nearly impossible for even the most devoted technophobes to avoid seeing the artifacts of the revolution, as airplanes pass overhead in wilderness areas and even the very clothes we wear are mass-produced in factories. Yet the philosophical problems raised in the scientific revolution have not faded away, as scientists and philosophers of science have had to grapple with such difficulties as the mind-body problem, the question of whether scientific explanations refer to genuine entities (realism) or are merely useful heuristics whose entities may or may not exist as hypothesized (instrumentalism), why the universe obeys mathematical laws with such consistency, and whether commonsense notions of causality are undermined by the strange sub-atomic world of quantum physics.

More than this, the 21st century has raised new and pressing problems in both science and politics. The specter (or delivering angel, depending on the orientation of one’s Weltanschauung) of transhumanism and strong AI raise deep-seated questions about what human beings – and biological life in general – are, and whether or to what extent they can be replaced or upgraded. And in less grand but hardly quotidian matters, the current and accelerating trend of automation of jobs with weak AI and widespread skepticism and disenchantment with liberal democracy across a world it seemed a mere 20 years ago that the ideology had conquered, to name only a few, society is being compelled to grapple not merely with the application of its ideals to concrete situations, but with its first principles – and all of these ultimately trace back to philosophy.

I contend that none of these disputes can be solved adequately without a proper understanding of two of the most basic philosophical questions, centering around the nature of human beings: what is the human person – both in himself and in society with others – and to what extent is he capable of understanding the universe as it is in itself (versus merely how it appears to him)?

Needless to say, these are very difficult questions; centuries of work have gone into arguing about their answers. I cannot profess any personal authority in treating of them, other than a long-standing interest in philosophy and professional training in computer science. They are, however, of great interest to me, and my intention in writing at Bacon’s Bridge is to attempt to illuminate some of these questions via an interaction between the Catholic philosophical tradition and modern thought.

And finally, a word on the blog’s name. “Bacon’s Bridge” in fact refers to two Englishmen born about 350 years apart: Roger Bacon and Francis Bacon. Roger was a medieval scholastic and Franciscan friar traditionally seen as a sort of morning star of the empirical method in the Middle Ages, while Francis Bacon was one of the chief architects, in his Novum Organum, of the intellectual movement away from Aristotelian scholasticism and towards empiricism.

My intention in writing this blog is to attempt to make clearer the intellectual bridge between classical philosophy that is open to the modern world, as exemplified by Roger, and modern philosophy as exemplified by Francis, that has judged metaphysics as so much word-juggling while producing scientific wonders that demand to have those nagging philosophical questions readdressed.