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Can gratitude save humanity? To surf is to understand the world's gifts

"Every wave is a gift that can never recur" Ed Sloane/WSL/Getty Images

"Every wave is a gift that can never recur" Ed Sloane/WSL/Getty Images


January 14, 2023   13 mins

 

Listen to Matthew Crawford’s UnHerd lecture. 

We feel gratitude when someone does something for us outside the realm of exchange. One wants to mark it, this arrival of something that overflows what is expected, and recognise the source of it. In acting outside necessity, our benefactor shines.

Or one may feel gratitude without a counterparty to receive it, in response to some fortunate condition that could have been otherwise. Having good health or good looks, for example. Life itself. Something for which we are not responsible, a gift.

Whether in response to good fortune or to some identifiable benefactor, in taking note of this gift one feels that one has regained a proper coordinate system. It is a calm feeling. One shucks off that irritable, constant background sense of not receiving one’s due — the sense of a self inflated beyond its true proportions. For it does feel like a little dose of truth, this moment of reorientation. Seeing oneself from the outside as one who receives rather than demands is also liberating — from resentment, entitlement, grievance. You feel lighter, as well as smaller. And more ready to act with grace toward others; that is, to be larger. For grace and gratitude have the same root, whether one is speaking etymologically or psychologically.

I think our condition as modern people makes the experience of gratitude especially elusive, so when we feel grateful it has an effect that is all the more powerful, bumping us out of a deep spiritual rut. I believe that is because it is an experience that cannot be made sense of in a way that accords with the grand metaphysical picture that we live within most of the time. If we can understand why this is so, it will give us a critical vantage point from which to view our historical moment. It may also help us identify the source of our sourness, and point the way toward something better.

Most simply, gratitude requires that there be another, an outside world that is not under one’s control and not of one’s own making. Of course, it is simply the case that there is such a world. But there are different ways of responding to this fact.

The English philosopher Michael Oakeshott wrote two essays which, if you put them side by side, offer a contrast between two personality types, one he called the rationalist and the other he called the conservative. Here, “conservative” does not refer to a political ideology. Instead, it names a disposition. What distinguishes the conservative is not hankering after the past, but rather affection for the present; for what actually exists. He has an eye for all the ways his surroundings afford a good life, or provide raw materials for the building of such a life. He wants to preserve the present world, not out of fearful, small-minded rejection of the possible, but because he has a greater awareness of the resources of the actual, which may be lost if we are not careful. In other words, he feels gratitude for the world, and a sense of obligation to it.

The rationalist by contrast looks at the world and is offended by the waste, the inefficiency, the chaos, the suffering, the grotesque failures of optimisation, and wants to set it right. He has a vision of a better world, and that is where he lives, in devotion to his vision.

Probably you need both types, to have a healthy society. But in the present order, one of these types is full of confidence and speaks well into a microphone, while the other is apologetic and defensive. One has the wind of history at his back, and is well capitalised. The other sometimes doubts his own sanity.

Our own time has seen the emergence of a third type, the transhumanist, who is perhaps just an over-the-top caricature of the rationalist. Like most caricatures, it brings into relief the defining features of the original through exaggeration.

Here is a quote from a prominent transhumanist, speaking to Paul Kingsnorth (via the Substack Upheaval by N.S. Lyons):

“I’d like to bring your attention to the issue with nature and biology that transhumanists have: that it’s fundamentally flawed, and likely even immoral to perpetuate, given its tendency to predation, disease, and death. Simply said, all nature and biology, from plants, to wildlife, to people, are something to be overcome and totally replaced with the synthetic. No one with even the slightest bit of compassion would ever create a world like ours, filled with so much suffering. It must all be undone, and remade with technology, justice, and equality.”

Clearly there is a theological point at issue here. It is not clear to me if this transhumanist is saying there is a creator (and he is a real bastard), or there is no creator, and nature itself is a real bastard. In any case, the so-called created order is no order at all, but a filthy and cruel chaos. He says it would be “immoral to perpetuate”.

So, the transhumanist speaks as a moralist. He appears to be animated by what Nietzsche called ressentiment, the opposite of gratitude.

In the Gnostic heresy, the world was created, not by God, but by his evil twin (roughly). It must be rejected and overcome through human effort. Doing so requires special knowledge, gnosis, which is to be cultivated in a priestly class. This finds its equivalent in today’s technocratic managers and moral visionaries of equality, aflame with a vision of life beyond suffering that will arrive when the givens of life are “totally replaced with the synthetic”, as our transhumanist put it. The point is to bring about salvation here in this world — Voegelin’s famous “immanentising the eschaton”.

As many have noted, the transsexual ideology is a version of transhumanism, pungently named by Mary Harrington as “meat Lego gnosticism”. From the beginning of the modern rationalist project, the body has been the thorn in the side of it. The creative freedom of the will is compromised by its entanglement with a body subject to natural necessities not of one’s choosing. But if we reconceive the body as raw material — meat Legos — and make man himself a technological project, then we can escape this subjugation to necessities that impinge from outside the will.

But you don’t have to look to the exotic fringe of transhumanism to see this. The whole movement of the present is to bring the world under rational control. For example, substituting algorithms and mechanised certainties for the frailties of human judgment (as in the push for driverless cars and whatnot), or replacing the unclean clamour of democratic politics with expert administration.

We may even take up this approach in relation to ourselves, for example when we seek to eliminate the element of chance and serendipity in love through dating apps that [computer voice:] optimise through personalised search criteria and cross-platform social media integration.

This isn’t quite the madness of Eros, the divine folly, a consuming flame one is cast into by the god despite oneself, to be magnificently destroyed at the feet of one’s beloved, giving thanks all the while from a heart that is glad. Compared to that, life on the dating apps looks like a half-life of prudish solipsism, however many orgasms it may yield. A life fully under control is a life of solitude, from which the possibility of serendipity has been excluded. Serendipity is perhaps the secular name for grace.

The push for rational control has been with us for some centuries, but has lately entered an especially frantic phase, and a jealous determination to leave no area of life untouched by this libido dominandi. Indeed, to trust in fate, or divine providence, or fortuna, is to be downright irresponsible. It’s not safe, for one thing. There is a fearful timidity to the rationalist soul.

***

One way we try to bring the world under our control is by substituting representations for reality itself. The difference is that representations are addressed to us. They are for us; they place each of us at the centre of a little “me-world”, as Thomas de Zengotita points out in his beautiful little book Mediated, whereas dumb nature just sits there, indifferent to us. Nature is genuinely other, a real outside-the-self.

Of course, we are inherently self-centered, quite literally. We inhabit bodies, in particular places, and this gives rise to the spatial categories we use. One carves up the surrounding world along an axis of proximity and distance. The world within reach is the most salient to us. This idea of orientation around a bodily centre helps us to see how the attentional environment that has emerged in contemporary culture is novel and somehow centreless. The basic concept at the root of attention is selection: we pick something out from the flux of the available. But as our experience comes to be ever more mediated by representations, which remove us from whatever situation we inhabit directly, as embodied beings who do things, it is hard to say what the principle of selection is. I can take a virtual tour of the Forbidden City in Beijing, or of the deepest underwater caverns, nearly as easily as I glance across the room. Every foreign wonder, hidden place, and obscure subculture is immediately available to my idle curiosity; they are lumped together into a uniform distancelessness that revolves around me.

But where am I? There doesn’t seem to be any non-arbitrary basis on which I can draw a horizon around myself — a zone of relevance — by which I might take my bearings and get oriented. When the axis of closer-to-me and farther-from-me is collapsed, I can be anywhere, and find that I am rarely in any place in particular. To be present with those I share life with is then one option among many, and likely not the most amusing one at any given moment. It’s hard to be grateful for loved ones when they keep interrupting my feed.

Accepting limits to one’s reach and to the size of one’s world may be necessary if one is to see the gifts that are at hand, if only one has eyes for them. I curse myself for every cheaply squandered opportunity to look into the eyes of my children with the fullness of attention that sees good. That is what is called love.

***

Consider a different kind of attention, which likewise sees good. In a skilled practice, whether it is martial arts, music, or some craft tradition, one enters into an ecology of attention in which one’s perception is tuned to affordances that show up only within this practice. An affordance is a relation of fit between an agent and his or her environment, often mediated by some tool. These affordances are good in the narrow pragmatic sense of being good for some purpose of the agent, not in an ethically laden sense. But they provide the points of contact between the world and a human being who strives for excellence in his or her practice. They create the field of possibilities within which such striving is structured and given form.

If we give due attention to the experience of skilled action, it can give us some critical distance on the ideal of autonomy. Consider music, for example. One can’t be a musician without learning to play a particular instrument, subjecting one’s fingers to the discipline of frets or keys. The musician’s power of expression is founded upon a prior obedience; her musical agency is built up from an ongoing submission. To what? To her teacher, maybe. But there is such a thing as the self-taught musician. Her obedience rather is to the mechanical realities of her instrument, which in turn answer to certain natural necessities of music. For example, halving the length of a string under a given tension raises its pitch by an octave. These facts do not arise from the human will, and there is no altering them. Progress in excellence is only possible if one is capable of enduring a lot of tedium and frustration. I believe the example of the musician sheds light on the basic character of human agency, namely, that it arises only within concrete limits that are not of our own making.

These limits need not be physical; the important thing is rather that they are external to the self. Consider the experience of learning a foreign language, beautifully described by Iris Murdoch:

“If I am learning, for instance, Russian, I am confronted by an authoritative structure which commands my respect. The task is difficult and the goal is distant and perhaps never entirely attainable. My work is a progressive revelation of something which exists independently of me. Attention is rewarded by a knowledge of reality. Love of Russian leads me away from myself towards something alien to me, something which my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal.”

In the Platonic tradition, one speaks of such striving as an erotic phenomenon. We are drawn out of ourselves toward beauty. I am reminded of my friend Talbot Brewer’s description of listening to Billie Holiday sing. She tries different phrasings in a given passage, combining them with subtle inflections of pitch, reaching toward some ideal that isn’t fully clear to her as yet, as it comes into view only in the course of her pursuit of it, progressively — in rehearsal presumably, but even during a performance, in real time. To witness this from the audience is exhilarating. The beautiful thing we feel privileged to witness is the music itself, but also the presence of a human being engaged in this striving toward the music that wants to be born. Offstage, as it were, outside the focus of her own attention which is entirely on the music, but visible to us from the audience, we see that she strives also toward a better version of herself, the one who has approached closer to the perfection of her art by pushing beyond the realm where she is certain of the outcome. You feel you are watching a high-wire act.

The risk of failure is intrinsic to the nature of play. Here I am talking about the most serious kind of play, such as music or sport. In his indispensable book Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga convinces us that in play lie the origins of civilisation. He writes: “To dare, to take risks, to bear uncertainty, to endure tension — these are the essence of the play-spirit.” Thus understood, play sits uncomfortably with the contemporary taste for order, and our attempts to bring the world fully under rational control.

One way we do that is, again, by filtering reality through representations. The deep origins of this tendency lie in early modern thought. Very briefly: Descartes worried about the very existence of an external world. The only secure beginning point for knowledge is awareness of one’s own process of thinking. This is a turning inward. The ensuing revolution was perfectly captured and compressed by Giambattista Vico, who said, “we know only what we make”.

This epistemological anxiety about what we can know was resolved by turning it (tacitly) into an ontological posit about what is. Makeability is the ground of intelligibility, and anything lying outside this circle dops out of consideration. If we can’t make it, then we can’t know it and we have no power over it. It may as well not exist. This was a fundamental shift in man’s relationship to the world.

The most powerful expression of this revolution is mathematical physics. Mathematics is a pure product of the human mind. To do math on nature requires that the world first be rendered more intellectually tractable, by passing it through idealisations such as the frictionless surface, the perfect vacuum, the point mass, and the perfectly elastic collision. As Heidegger put it, this may be understood as “a projection of thingness which, as it were, skips over the things”.

What is made has primacy over what is given directly to experience. That is, what is received. Human beings have always used tools and made things through techne (skill), transforming their environment. The word “technology” names something new. It is a way of grasping the world in which knowing and making are one.

All of this is perhaps very abstract. Let me illustrate it with an example from children’s television. In the old Mickey Mouse cartoons from the early and middle decades of the 20th century, you still get a depiction of the world in which reality has some stature of its own. By far the most prominent source of hilarity is the capacity of material stuff to generate frustration, or rather demonic violence. The tendency of things to thwart the human will is exaggerated, and through exaggeration a certain truth gets brought forward. The slapstick sufferings of Donald Duck acknowledge, and thereby seemed to affirm, the human condition as it is, beneath the various idealisms that would transport us out of that condition.

The Disney cartoon franchise now has many departments. One of them, Mickey Mouse clubhouse, on the Disney Junior network, retains the same characters. But the difference in how material reality is presented could not be more stark, and in this difference a shift in the relation between self and world becomes evident as well.

The clubhouse is filled with amazing technology that always works perfectly. Each episode is built around solving some problem. One does this by saying, “O Tootles!” This makes the Handy Dandy machine appear, a computer-like thing that condenses out of the Cloud and presents a menu of four options on a screen, by the use of which the viewer is encouraged to be a “Mouske-Doer”. There are four problems per episode, and each can be solved using one of the four tools. This assurance is baked into the initial setup of the episode; no moment of helplessness is allowed to arise. There is never an insoluble problem, that is, a deep conflict between the will and the world. I suspect that is one reason these episodes are not just unfunny, but somehow the opposite of funny. What we are watching is the substitution of manufactured experience for a direct encounter with the world. With this comes the construction of a more fragile kind of self, and a more manipulable one. He makes things happen in the world by pressing a button. Which means that his will has been channeled into some “choice architecture” that has been constructed for him by unknown others.

To be a Mouske-Doer is to abstract from material reality as depicted in those early Disney cartoons, where we see the flip side of affordances. Perhaps we should call unwanted projectiles, demonic springs, and all such hazards “negative affordances”. The thing is, you can’t have the positive without the negative; they are two sides of the same coin. The world in which we acquire skill as embodied agents is precisely that world in which we are subject to the frustrations of things; the hazards of material reality. To pursue the fantasy of escaping this through abstraction is to give up on skill, and therefore to substitute technology as magic for the possibility of real agency.

How does any of this bear on the question of gratitude?

Affection for the world as it is could be taken as the motto of a this-worldly ethics. There are, in addition to the slapstick, moments of real physical grace in those old Disney cartoons. When Donald Duck is skating on a frozen lake in one episode, he recruits overhanging branches and snow drifts, incorporating their affordances into a ballet-like performance in which he is able to do amazing things. His skating is amazing, but not fantastical or magical; it is a heightened version of what you admire when you watch a real skater. To watch it is to be surprised and delighted by the real. At such moments, the possibilities for beautiful human action in the world as it is — the undiscovered possibilities of fit — seem inexhaustible.

This can inspire wonder and gratitude; intuitions we associate with religion are available within a this-worldly ethics of attention. For there does seem to be something benevolent in the disposition of things, relative to us. Such are the rules of gravity and buoyancy that surfing is possible. That’s the kind of universe we inhabit. Being alert to such possibilities, and giving their occurrence in the world their due in wonder: to encounter things in this way is basically erotic, in the sense that we are drawn out of ourselves toward beauty.

Such experiences mark the primacy of receiving over making, and require a kind of courage. It is that of entrusting oneself to that which has not been made by oneself, and never could be made, but which supports and makes possible all of our making and doing. If we call such entrusting “faith”, notice that it has the same spirit as play: “To dare, to take risks, to bear uncertainty.”

I like the example of surfing because the ocean is something truly alien and inscrutable. The surfer throws himself into it. Every wave is unique, a gift that can never recur, and they are exquisite. The surfer receives it and does what he can with it. Rarely does he feel adequate to its possibilities. He is not in the right spot when it arrives, due to a failure of paddling strength. Or, if he does catch it, he doesn’t adequately perceive what this particular wave is going to do and he botches it. Or he has a failure of courage, if the wave is big and murderous, and he hesitates. Surfing is 95% frustrated eros, for me at least, due to my own limitations. Oh, but that other five percent. To watch a Kelly Slater is to be forced to recalibrate one’s sense of what a human being can do.

So there’s one datapoint, surfing. Another would be, quite simply, the existence of women’s breasts. Now we have two datapoints, each of which by itself offers full and sufficient proof that there is a God, and that he loves us very much.

The accusation against religion is that it removes us to a different, invisible realm, and is for that reason corrupting. But sometimes you have an experience of God’s love saturating this world, and it is essentially psychedelic. You feel you are gaining perceptual access to the most fundamental layer of reality, the ground of grounds. Quite preposterously, this turns out to be something like love. The effect of such moments is to place you more fully in the actual. With this comes a renewal of our faculty of gratitude. For I do believe it is a faculty, one of those endowments by which a person grasps his true situation.

Matthew Crawford delivered his UnHerd lecture at Old Queen Street on January 9, 2023


Matthew B Crawford writes the substack Archedelia


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Gordon Black
Gordon Black
1 year ago

In a society I remember of fragile privileges, gratitude comes easily. When privileges become ‘rights’, gratitude dissipates, replaced by ‘taken for granted’ and resentful demands for evermore ‘rights’.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

So are you arguing that “privileges” such as being treated according to one’s individual humanity rather than your perceived ‘racial’ category should be perpetually tenuous and contingent- “fragile”- in order to elicit a sense of gratitude?
And if this gratitude proves to be insufficient, and you feel the grantor is being “taken for granted”, do you think a period of ‘privilege retraction’ would sort them out?

Chris
Chris
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

I think the key to Gordon’s point was under those circumstances “gratitude comes easily”. The argument then need not be that rights, born from privleges, be forever threatened or withheld in order to achieve that sense of gratitude, but perhaps merely that we find and exercise ways of not taking them for granted. In a fully realized rationalist sense, what rights does anyone really have anyway?

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris

In my society, the ‘grantor’ of privileges is me and my fellow citizens via a system called representative democracy. The originators of privileges were our ancestors who devised and sometimes fought for changes such that their descendants had a better life. Privileges are fragile because famine, plague, pestilence. war, natural disasters, tyranny, etc can eliminate them overnight (as experienced recently during covid). The only universal ‘rights’ I can accept are Life and Liberty … privileges come from your particular societal arrangements. And, sadly Yes, an inevitable temporary loss of privileges may restore historical appreciation of their creation and hence gratitude.

Last edited 1 year ago by Gordon Black
John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

“The ‘grantor of those privileges is me..”
Historically, how are the “grantors” of privileges those who “fought for changes”? That seems a little confused. Who gave you those privileges, to grant to others?
Are you trying to say that only those already in positions of privilege can desire and fight for change? You seem to see history as the graceful gifting of a caste of inherently superior people who’s job it is to grant or withhold all rights to or from the various ‘lower orders’, and the subsequent weighing of the gratitude, or otherwise, of those lower orders.
These higher orders can then temporarily (or, I assume, permanently) withhold these “privileges” whenever they deem the lower orders to be insufficiently grateful, until such a time as they have learnt their lesson.
Isn’t this serfdom, more or less?

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

“racial category? superior people? higher orders? lower orders? serfdom? Sorry, you’ve lost me, I’ve never mentioned or implied that kind of stuff. Whatever your agenda, you’re mistaken.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

If a “privilege” is granted, then someone must be granting it. That’s logical and obvious.
If a privilege can be “fragile”, then you must logically be suggesting it might be legitimately taken. These things are more than “implied” by your post, they are a necessary condition for it. I’m merely asking,by whom? Who are the people that grant these things, and take them away when gratitude is deemed insufficient?
These are surely perfectly reasonable questions to ask?

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

If a “privilege” is granted, then someone must be granting it. That’s logical and obvious.
If a privilege can be “fragile”, then you must logically be suggesting it might be legitimately taken. These things are more than “implied” by your post, they are a necessary condition for it. I’m merely asking,by whom? Who are the people that grant these things, and take them away when gratitude is deemed insufficient?
These are surely perfectly reasonable questions to ask?

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

“racial category? superior people? higher orders? lower orders? serfdom? Sorry, you’ve lost me, I’ve never mentioned or implied that kind of stuff. Whatever your agenda, you’re mistaken.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

“The ‘grantor of those privileges is me..”
Historically, how are the “grantors” of privileges those who “fought for changes”? That seems a little confused. Who gave you those privileges, to grant to others?
Are you trying to say that only those already in positions of privilege can desire and fight for change? You seem to see history as the graceful gifting of a caste of inherently superior people who’s job it is to grant or withhold all rights to or from the various ‘lower orders’, and the subsequent weighing of the gratitude, or otherwise, of those lower orders.
These higher orders can then temporarily (or, I assume, permanently) withhold these “privileges” whenever they deem the lower orders to be insufficiently grateful, until such a time as they have learnt their lesson.
Isn’t this serfdom, more or less?

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris

In my society, the ‘grantor’ of privileges is me and my fellow citizens via a system called representative democracy. The originators of privileges were our ancestors who devised and sometimes fought for changes such that their descendants had a better life. Privileges are fragile because famine, plague, pestilence. war, natural disasters, tyranny, etc can eliminate them overnight (as experienced recently during covid). The only universal ‘rights’ I can accept are Life and Liberty … privileges come from your particular societal arrangements. And, sadly Yes, an inevitable temporary loss of privileges may restore historical appreciation of their creation and hence gratitude.

Last edited 1 year ago by Gordon Black
Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

Don’t we do this already with criminals?

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Yes, and at an astronomical costs to the taxpayer.

Last edited 1 year ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago

Killing all criminals on prosecution would certainly save some money.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

Surely you mean AFTER prosecution and conviction?

Last edited 1 year ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

Surely you mean AFTER prosecution and conviction?

Last edited 1 year ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago

Killing all criminals on prosecution would certainly save some money.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Yes. But that’s the definition of a criminal, as opposed to a law-abiding citizen. If you want to apply the same withdrawal of rights from law-abiding citizens as from criminals, then you have a caste system or serfdom.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Yes, and at an astronomical costs to the taxpayer.

Last edited 1 year ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Yes. But that’s the definition of a criminal, as opposed to a law-abiding citizen. If you want to apply the same withdrawal of rights from law-abiding citizens as from criminals, then you have a caste system or serfdom.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

Incorrect paste deleted

Last edited 1 year ago by Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

I’m not sure why you are seeking to make this a left/right issue.

Surely the essence of the article is that we in the modern west, whatever our class or colour, live in the wealthiest, healthiest, free-est, most tolerant, societies that exist in the modern world or have ever existed throughout human history. Taking it for granted risks losing it.

The two central sentiments are:

“What distinguishes the conservative is not hankering after the past, but rather affection for the present; for what actually exists. He has an eye for all the ways his surroundings afford a good life, or provide raw materials for the building of such a life.”

“The rationalist by contrast looks at the world and is offended by the waste, the inefficiency, the chaos, the suffering, the grotesque failures of optimisation, and wants to set it right.”

The rationalists are currently very much in the ascendant. The bulk of his argument is don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

In what way am I “making this a left/right issue”? I have mentioned neither.
I’m simply asking what people actually mean by some of their more sweeping assertions, and what their actual outcomes might be. And to be honest, I think both the rationalist and the conservative dispositions are found floating around in the bath now- it’s just that we have a tendency to see what we dislike more than what we like in politics (ironically, given the exhortations of the article), and more of the commenters here are conservative than ‘progressive’.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

My perception of your comments wasn’t that they were genuine open requests for clarification. They came across more as mildly aggressive straw man arguments “so what you’re saying is..” one based on race one based on class.

I agree this can easily be a right wing echo chamber, but there enough people here who are interested in genuine “let’s understand other side” discussions to make that unnecessary.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

Perhaps- I may often come across as a bit ‘stroppy’.
Nonetheless, the questions seem to me to be pertinent, both morally and logically, and have remained unanswered.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

Perhaps- I may often come across as a bit ‘stroppy’.
Nonetheless, the questions seem to me to be pertinent, both morally and logically, and have remained unanswered.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

My perception of your comments wasn’t that they were genuine open requests for clarification. They came across more as mildly aggressive straw man arguments “so what you’re saying is..” one based on race one based on class.

I agree this can easily be a right wing echo chamber, but there enough people here who are interested in genuine “let’s understand other side” discussions to make that unnecessary.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

In what way am I “making this a left/right issue”? I have mentioned neither.
I’m simply asking what people actually mean by some of their more sweeping assertions, and what their actual outcomes might be. And to be honest, I think both the rationalist and the conservative dispositions are found floating around in the bath now- it’s just that we have a tendency to see what we dislike more than what we like in politics (ironically, given the exhortations of the article), and more of the commenters here are conservative than ‘progressive’.

Chris
Chris
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

I think the key to Gordon’s point was under those circumstances “gratitude comes easily”. The argument then need not be that rights, born from privleges, be forever threatened or withheld in order to achieve that sense of gratitude, but perhaps merely that we find and exercise ways of not taking them for granted. In a fully realized rationalist sense, what rights does anyone really have anyway?

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

Don’t we do this already with criminals?

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

Incorrect paste deleted

Last edited 1 year ago by Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

I’m not sure why you are seeking to make this a left/right issue.

Surely the essence of the article is that we in the modern west, whatever our class or colour, live in the wealthiest, healthiest, free-est, most tolerant, societies that exist in the modern world or have ever existed throughout human history. Taking it for granted risks losing it.

The two central sentiments are:

“What distinguishes the conservative is not hankering after the past, but rather affection for the present; for what actually exists. He has an eye for all the ways his surroundings afford a good life, or provide raw materials for the building of such a life.”

“The rationalist by contrast looks at the world and is offended by the waste, the inefficiency, the chaos, the suffering, the grotesque failures of optimisation, and wants to set it right.”

The rationalists are currently very much in the ascendant. The bulk of his argument is don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

So are you arguing that “privileges” such as being treated according to one’s individual humanity rather than your perceived ‘racial’ category should be perpetually tenuous and contingent- “fragile”- in order to elicit a sense of gratitude?
And if this gratitude proves to be insufficient, and you feel the grantor is being “taken for granted”, do you think a period of ‘privilege retraction’ would sort them out?

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
1 year ago

In a society I remember of fragile privileges, gratitude comes easily. When privileges become ‘rights’, gratitude dissipates, replaced by ‘taken for granted’ and resentful demands for evermore ‘rights’.

Ardath Blauvelt
Ardath Blauvelt
1 year ago

Quite simply and totally selfishly, gratitude is my refuge. Life is pretty overwhelming and discouraging these days and when the downward spiral seems darkest and looming, my heart fills with gratitude for the bright, fulfilling, special things in my life. Family, friends, beloveds, animal companions, nature, good health, purpose. So much that others lack, and I am renewed by blessings. And I get on with life. The only potential danger in gratitude is guilt. Today, daring to be grateful is to acknowledge privilege, and your positiveness can be turned against you. The scolds abound. So, rather than be angry with them, I try pity. If rather be me, than them.

Ardath Blauvelt
Ardath Blauvelt
1 year ago

Quite simply and totally selfishly, gratitude is my refuge. Life is pretty overwhelming and discouraging these days and when the downward spiral seems darkest and looming, my heart fills with gratitude for the bright, fulfilling, special things in my life. Family, friends, beloveds, animal companions, nature, good health, purpose. So much that others lack, and I am renewed by blessings. And I get on with life. The only potential danger in gratitude is guilt. Today, daring to be grateful is to acknowledge privilege, and your positiveness can be turned against you. The scolds abound. So, rather than be angry with them, I try pity. If rather be me, than them.

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
1 year ago

Gratitude for such a fine essay. The ref to Mickey Mouse as a demonstration of the trend towards excessive rationalism was especially appreciated. The penultimate paragraphs are I guess an example of preaching to the choir, which I guess is fine as the essay was originally a lecture pitched at a certain type of listener. One would need a certain cast of mind to see surfing & breasts as proof of a loving God.

Phillip Arundel
Phillip Arundel
1 year ago
Reply to  Adam Bartlett

It was word salad.

Some good bits here in the mass, with loads of oil rich, sweet and sour dressing making it seem to be wonderfull – but empty caloies as a whole.

Phillip Arundel
Phillip Arundel
1 year ago
Reply to  Adam Bartlett

It was word salad.

Some good bits here in the mass, with loads of oil rich, sweet and sour dressing making it seem to be wonderfull – but empty caloies as a whole.

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
1 year ago

Gratitude for such a fine essay. The ref to Mickey Mouse as a demonstration of the trend towards excessive rationalism was especially appreciated. The penultimate paragraphs are I guess an example of preaching to the choir, which I guess is fine as the essay was originally a lecture pitched at a certain type of listener. One would need a certain cast of mind to see surfing & breasts as proof of a loving God.

Malcolm Webb
Malcolm Webb
1 year ago

For me this lecture started well, gradually became more complex and then ended rather abruptly and in some confusion. Much like my life, maybe. I am nevertheless very grateful for the good parts.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  Malcolm Webb

It did feel as if the author had suddenly realised he had a dinner date about 4/5ths of the way through.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  Malcolm Webb

It did feel as if the author had suddenly realised he had a dinner date about 4/5ths of the way through.

Malcolm Webb
Malcolm Webb
1 year ago

For me this lecture started well, gradually became more complex and then ended rather abruptly and in some confusion. Much like my life, maybe. I am nevertheless very grateful for the good parts.

John Riordan
John Riordan
1 year ago

“But you don’t have to look to the exotic fringe of transhumanism to see this. The whole movement of the present is to bring the world under rational control. For example, substituting algorithms and mechanised certainties for the frailties of human judgment (as in the push for driverless cars and whatnot), or replacing the unclean clamour of democratic politics with expert administration.”

While this essay is typically brilliant and thought-provoking as usual with Matthew Crawford, there’s a side to this particular part that I think needs more debate. I do of course agree with the idea that there is a modern rationalism that a large proportion of our political, media and corporate elites believe is the right approach to organising human societies, and that this carries with it conceit, hubris, and self-exculpating arrogance alongside its persistent failures to improve the things we care about. Technocrats suffer from the same problem as do IT departments in many companies: they often think the systems they run are the actual point of the company’s operations as opposed to being a tool in service of the company’s purpose. (In defence of IT departments they’re not the only ones: HR departments often seem to have no idea what the company is for beyond acting as a microcosm of society itself.)

The point I’m getting to is this: as long as the rationalist systems we use are put and kept in their proper place – serving us rather than themselves – then they are worth keeping and worth improving. Before we had computers, networks, big data, and access to processing power that seems to be growing exponentially, we had to run personal lives, companies and countries through a series of heuristics that acted as sufficiently accurate approximations of reality to be useful – rules of thumb that were not created through a priori efforts of intellect but through the trial and error necessitated by the imperfect and sometimes non-existent information available to previous generations of human beings.

This is recognised in the article via the examination of what constitutes play, but the article seems intellectually incurious as to the role of play in its relevance to wider human endeavour: play forms part of the mental preparation for a life of coping with novel situations, imperfect information, and chaotic spontaneity. It is the means by which children encounter the “affordances” of nature, to borrow the rhetoric of the article; how they learn how the world works and how it doesn’t work. This is partly why technocracy often grates on the human soul: it is attempting very often to replace learned rules of life with technologically-driven solutions that fail not because they are necessarily inferior in their specific context, but because they involve sacrifices of other important principles.

An example would be the 2016 EU referendum: EU membership offers a great many benefits to a member nation (we’ll avoid for the moment the question of how good Brussels is at delivering those benefits), but also involves the surrender of democratic self-government. It is fair to say that this is not an exchange that electorates are willing to make and it’s not just the 2016 referendum in the UK that proves this point, it’s the multiple referenda on aspects of EU membership such as the Lisbon Treaty and the Euro that reveal the natural scepticism of voters to such plans. There were referenda in France, Ireland and the Netherlands that failed initially and had to be rammed through again in contravention of basic democratic principles: it is not easy even with a basket of goodies to overcome democratic instincts in this context.

But can technocratic rationalism earn itself a place in our affections the way democracy has, in addition to proving its technical competence (also a job not yet done but we’ll assume it’ll happen at some point)? I don’t know, but I suspect the answer lies in the extent to which it can be torn away from the ambitions of those in control of it. This is another way of saying we’ll save rationalism at the expense of technocracy, we keep the technology but not the bureaucrats. If at first that sounds impossible just remember that over ten years ago Satoshi Nakamoto wrote a white paper followed by delivery of a cryptographically secure token exchange system, and Bitcoin was born: the basis of a banking system that political elites could not directly control and which relied upon peer-level computer-processing-augmented human consensus for its operation.

Conclusion: rationalism as a pure concept needs no defence here and deserves to survive. Elite rationalism, on the other hand, is merely the latest name for the same old corrupt self-interest of the people at the top who don’t play fair and survive by rigging the game to their own advantage. Matt Ridley’s memorably-coined expression “princes, priests and politicians” comes to mind here: we don’t need them and never have, but let’s not throw out rationalism itself as the price of ridding ourselves of them.

Last edited 1 year ago by John Riordan
Terry M
Terry M
1 year ago
Reply to  John Riordan

But you don’t have to look to the exotic fringe of transhumanism to see this. The whole movement of the present is to bring the world under rational control. For example, substituting algorithms and mechanised certainties for the frailties of human judgment (as in the push for driverless cars and whatnot), or replacing the unclean clamour of democratic politics with expert administration.
“Expert administration” is, of course, not rational control, but merely replacing the judgment of one flawed being (the self) with the judgment of others. Replacing the limited or distracted reflexes of a human driver with the millisecond reflexes of a driverless car for crash avoidance is proper rational control, however, since the machine is superior to the human.

Robert Cocco
Robert Cocco
1 year ago
Reply to  Terry M

The driverless car’s reflexes were designed and programmed by humans. By extension, that would mean the designer/programmer has to predetermine the logic of avoiding every possible crash. When this logic is applied to an adapted version of the trolley problem (for cars) we find ourselves in a bit of a mess. I’ll settle for the flawed, distracted driver and take my chances.

John Riordan
John Riordan
1 year ago
Reply to  Robert Cocco

Doesn’t this rather assume that a competent human driver can make a better trolley-problem decision under similar circumstances? The reality is that even when a collision is 100% definitely going to be the fault of the driver themselves, their survival instinct will still steer the car into the soft squishy human beings at the side of the road rather than the oncoming big heavy HGV.

There is no moral calculation to this at all, so it’s a bit unfair to criticise AI driving tech on this basis. The real issue with AI driving tech is that it simply isn’t yet ready to manage the entirely normal driving conditions in which there’s no emergency: it can’t make sense of the world of objects sufficiently well to decide what’s what.

It will get there however, and if I had Elon Musk’s money this is how I’d do it: racing cars with the driver taken out and all the F1 rules thrown away. We could have turbos back and full fairing: cars capable of 10g in the corners and 300mph. If they can get an AI driver to handle that, they can make it safe on the road.

Robert Cocco
Robert Cocco
1 year ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Regarding your first point, the way it stands now is that sometimes the truck gets hit, and sometimes the people. Often it seems there was no rhyme or reason. I’m not sure I would want someone to decide either of those outcomes is preferable.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Yeah. And I’m training to be a plumber by playing Mario Bros.

Last edited 1 year ago by John Holland
Robert Cocco
Robert Cocco
1 year ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Regarding your first point, the way it stands now is that sometimes the truck gets hit, and sometimes the people. Often it seems there was no rhyme or reason. I’m not sure I would want someone to decide either of those outcomes is preferable.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Yeah. And I’m training to be a plumber by playing Mario Bros.

Last edited 1 year ago by John Holland
John Riordan
John Riordan
1 year ago
Reply to  Robert Cocco

Doesn’t this rather assume that a competent human driver can make a better trolley-problem decision under similar circumstances? The reality is that even when a collision is 100% definitely going to be the fault of the driver themselves, their survival instinct will still steer the car into the soft squishy human beings at the side of the road rather than the oncoming big heavy HGV.

There is no moral calculation to this at all, so it’s a bit unfair to criticise AI driving tech on this basis. The real issue with AI driving tech is that it simply isn’t yet ready to manage the entirely normal driving conditions in which there’s no emergency: it can’t make sense of the world of objects sufficiently well to decide what’s what.

It will get there however, and if I had Elon Musk’s money this is how I’d do it: racing cars with the driver taken out and all the F1 rules thrown away. We could have turbos back and full fairing: cars capable of 10g in the corners and 300mph. If they can get an AI driver to handle that, they can make it safe on the road.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  Terry M

It’s intended to be superior to the human, but that doesn’t mean it actually is.
The reality of driverless car technology is proving to be vastly more difficult than its cheerleaders had predicted, hence the problems companies such as Telsa and Uber are now having. As so often, it’s down to the ‘tech bro’s’ limited grasp of the complexity of human beings and the choices they make- you can create an algorithm that can recognise a bollard pretty easily, but it’s a lot harder to make an algorithm that can make a near-instant judgment between definitely hitting a dog, and possibly hitting another car by avoiding it. Value-judgments aren’t as easily outsourced to computers as we thought.

Robert Cocco
Robert Cocco
1 year ago
Reply to  Terry M

The driverless car’s reflexes were designed and programmed by humans. By extension, that would mean the designer/programmer has to predetermine the logic of avoiding every possible crash. When this logic is applied to an adapted version of the trolley problem (for cars) we find ourselves in a bit of a mess. I’ll settle for the flawed, distracted driver and take my chances.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  Terry M

It’s intended to be superior to the human, but that doesn’t mean it actually is.
The reality of driverless car technology is proving to be vastly more difficult than its cheerleaders had predicted, hence the problems companies such as Telsa and Uber are now having. As so often, it’s down to the ‘tech bro’s’ limited grasp of the complexity of human beings and the choices they make- you can create an algorithm that can recognise a bollard pretty easily, but it’s a lot harder to make an algorithm that can make a near-instant judgment between definitely hitting a dog, and possibly hitting another car by avoiding it. Value-judgments aren’t as easily outsourced to computers as we thought.

Robert Cocco
Robert Cocco
1 year ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Elite control over the organization of society is a feature of rationalism, not a bug.

John Riordan
John Riordan
1 year ago
Reply to  Robert Cocco

That is true for technocracy, not rationalism.

Robert Cocco
Robert Cocco
1 year ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Yes, I stand corrected.

Robert Cocco
Robert Cocco
1 year ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Yes, I stand corrected.

John Riordan
John Riordan
1 year ago
Reply to  Robert Cocco

That is true for technocracy, not rationalism.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  John Riordan

You mean Matt Ridley the scientist, (failed) banking chief executive and senior political advisor?
Hmm….

John Riordan
John Riordan
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

Yes, that Matt Ridley. I assume you haven’t bothered reading any of his books, since you’ve resorted to an ad-hom here.

Last edited 1 year ago by John Riordan
John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  John Riordan

It’s an “ad hom” (that favourite mis-used cliche of the internet) only inasmuch as it responds to Ridley’s trite “ad hom” dismissal of exactly the sort of class of wealthy technocrats that he actually belongs to.

John Riordan
John Riordan
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

Ridley’s opposition to technocracy is not remotely “trite”, which you would know if you had read his books. Nor is he a technocrat: he is a rationalist, and I’ve already explained the crucial difference elsewhere on this page so I won’t repeat myself.

Last edited 1 year ago by John Riordan
John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  John Riordan

No, please don’t repeat yourself.
As for your friend Ridley, he’s an example of a particular type of contemporary hypocrite- the fully paid-up member of the elite (financial, political, scientific) who pretends to be defending the polity against the predations and arrogance of ‘elites’. Meaning, other influential people or groups he has an ideological beef with.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  John Riordan

I have read most of his stuff and I fully concur.

Last edited 1 year ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  John Riordan

No, please don’t repeat yourself.
As for your friend Ridley, he’s an example of a particular type of contemporary hypocrite- the fully paid-up member of the elite (financial, political, scientific) who pretends to be defending the polity against the predations and arrogance of ‘elites’. Meaning, other influential people or groups he has an ideological beef with.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  John Riordan

I have read most of his stuff and I fully concur.

Last edited 1 year ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
John Riordan
John Riordan
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

Ridley’s opposition to technocracy is not remotely “trite”, which you would know if you had read his books. Nor is he a technocrat: he is a rationalist, and I’ve already explained the crucial difference elsewhere on this page so I won’t repeat myself.

Last edited 1 year ago by John Riordan
John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  John Riordan

It’s an “ad hom” (that favourite mis-used cliche of the internet) only inasmuch as it responds to Ridley’s trite “ad hom” dismissal of exactly the sort of class of wealthy technocrats that he actually belongs to.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

Don’t you mean Matthew White Ridley, 5th Viscount Ridley, DL, FRSL, FMedSci.
And how did he ‘fail’ and I don’t mean Northern Rock?

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago

Are you somehow suggesting that “5th Viscount” counts him out of his condemnation of the “prices, priests and politicians”? Because he’s a 5th Viscount? Oh, right. Maybe a 6th Viscount might come along and out-rank him, in the priestly hierachy. As for the letters after his name. I’m sure you generally put great faith by letters after scientists’s names, Charles. I mean, all those scientists with letters after their names who lecture you about global warming- you genuflect before their nominal alphabets, I’m sure. Yes?
Lastly, but not leastly, why don’t you mean Northern Rock- the ones who had to be bailed out at huge expense by the British taxpayer? Why not talk about them- is that verboten?

Last edited 1 year ago by John Holland
John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

And no, Charles, I’m not German, so you don’t need to pity me.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

Don’t worry I frequently use that expression.
As one might expect, German is a great language for Orders!

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

Don’t worry I frequently use that expression.
As one might expect, German is a great language for Orders!

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

By the way, talking of preposterous priestly viscounts, whatever happened to 3rd Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, chum of Viscount Ridley of Northern Rock? I miss his ‘anti-establishment’ scientific contributions.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

He’s still around but rather quiet of late.
I have thought his physiognomy was rather apposite! Rather like that TV character B*stard, MP.

Last edited 1 year ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

He’s still around but rather quiet of late.
I have thought his physiognomy was rather apposite! Rather like that TV character B*stard, MP.

Last edited 1 year ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

No, I just think you should address people correctly and as you may have noticed, I try to be punctilious in doing so. “Manner maketh man” as the good Bishop said.

As for “Man Made Global Warning” it may come as surprise to you but I am NOT a believer. In fact this topic together with the Great COVID Panic have somewhat diminished the respect I once had for ‘Scientists’ and their Ilk.

I thought you maybe referring to something in addition to Northern Rock, but am mistaken.
However I heartily agree, the Banking Fiasco is an utter disgrace, and I applaud the way Iceland for example has treated its Bankers. Needless say ours have escaped any censure, when by rights and at the very least they should have been branded with word SPIV on their foreheads.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago

Not just escaped censure, but in the good Viscount’s case, happily still lecturing everyone on economics, amongst much else.
And I’m impressed by the depth of your knowledge of atmospheric science.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago

Not just escaped censure, but in the good Viscount’s case, happily still lecturing everyone on economics, amongst much else.
And I’m impressed by the depth of your knowledge of atmospheric science.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

And no, Charles, I’m not German, so you don’t need to pity me.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

By the way, talking of preposterous priestly viscounts, whatever happened to 3rd Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, chum of Viscount Ridley of Northern Rock? I miss his ‘anti-establishment’ scientific contributions.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

No, I just think you should address people correctly and as you may have noticed, I try to be punctilious in doing so. “Manner maketh man” as the good Bishop said.

As for “Man Made Global Warning” it may come as surprise to you but I am NOT a believer. In fact this topic together with the Great COVID Panic have somewhat diminished the respect I once had for ‘Scientists’ and their Ilk.

I thought you maybe referring to something in addition to Northern Rock, but am mistaken.
However I heartily agree, the Banking Fiasco is an utter disgrace, and I applaud the way Iceland for example has treated its Bankers. Needless say ours have escaped any censure, when by rights and at the very least they should have been branded with word SPIV on their foreheads.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago

Are you somehow suggesting that “5th Viscount” counts him out of his condemnation of the “prices, priests and politicians”? Because he’s a 5th Viscount? Oh, right. Maybe a 6th Viscount might come along and out-rank him, in the priestly hierachy. As for the letters after his name. I’m sure you generally put great faith by letters after scientists’s names, Charles. I mean, all those scientists with letters after their names who lecture you about global warming- you genuflect before their nominal alphabets, I’m sure. Yes?
Lastly, but not leastly, why don’t you mean Northern Rock- the ones who had to be bailed out at huge expense by the British taxpayer? Why not talk about them- is that verboten?

Last edited 1 year ago by John Holland
John Riordan
John Riordan
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

Yes, that Matt Ridley. I assume you haven’t bothered reading any of his books, since you’ve resorted to an ad-hom here.

Last edited 1 year ago by John Riordan
CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

Don’t you mean Matthew White Ridley, 5th Viscount Ridley, DL, FRSL, FMedSci.
And how did he ‘fail’ and I don’t mean Northern Rock?

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
1 year ago
Reply to  John Riordan

I agree with a lot of what you have to say here John and found your comment very illuminating, thank you.

For me the key thing though is purpose: without a clear purpose or objective, rationalism, on its terms, can’t function. A powerful IT or HR department which conflates its own bit-part in a company’s success with its ultimate purpose risks destroying the organism in which it is but a single organ. So rationalism is good, in the sense that having a decent filing system and efficient and accurate payroll operation requires the application of logic with precision. You can do lots of clever and useful things with well designed computer code and spreadsheets.

But where good becomes bad is when means are conflated with ends. What drives the ideological rationalists nuts is that their own rationalism denies the possibility of an ultimate, unfathomable purpose. It becomes self-referential; the great big spreadsheet their sky shows #REF and #VALUE errors all over the place and they can’t compute. They try coming up with things like “happiness indices” to solve the problem but what’s the point of that? What’s the ultimate dependent variable in their great big grand design? They don’t know. A better way to live is to feel grateful to be grateful for life itself, and for Microsoft Excel, and everything else in between; and to just let it be.

John Riordan
John Riordan
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

You make a very good point: no matter what priorities we put in place to drive progress, we eventually run into the question of what it’s all actually for. However there’s an important consideration here which is that it’s ultimately not up to the rationalists and technocrats to answer that question – not, at least, in a democracy.

What drives technocrats crazy in a democracy is not merely that they cannot ultimately answer that question, it’s that they’re not even allowed to. Voters decide that, and we’re very familiar with the snobbish disdain displayed by the political class towards people who would rather have cars, burgers and flat-screen televisions than trams, whole foods and postmodern literature. But that’s why I reserve the proviso that a properly applied rationalism would serve as opposed to rule us.

I’m aware of course that the technocratic rationalism under discussion is busy trying to escape the bounds of democracy – that’s partly what the article is about. But as yet, we don’t have to let it succeed.

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
1 year ago
Reply to  John Riordan

A few years ago I think I would have agreed with you entirely. Now, I don’t – because I no longer think that it’s true that “the voters” are actually in charge of anything, really. Even the tiny minority of voters who “elected” Liz Truss could see their elected choice adhered to for less than two months. We’ve had now over a century of mass communication broadcasting, public relations, and burgeoning corporations with power to determine, and not merely to respond to, what people want. The people with the will to power and the wherewithal to deploy it will do so – they will use every means, fair or foul, to trick, deceive, manipulate, or bribe innocent decent people in to wanting, and doing, what they want them to want and to do, including by using a cloak of rationalism. It would be naive to think that the established political parties don’t operate an exclusionary oligopoly in which internal candidate selection is tightly controlled, or that the ultra-wealthy don’t have a grossly exaggerated influence on policy and the Overton window. Technocratic rationalism is not really bounded by democracy. Rather, democracy is bounded by technocratic rationalism.

More broadly though, I could concede that a “properly applied” rationalism could and does serve us, despite such appalling distortions. Indeed, it’s such an applied rationalism that allows us to communicate in this way via these wretched electronic devices. But I don’t think it’s possible to use rationalism in order to come to a meaningful conclusion on what “properly” applied means at the societal level. What if Huxley was right when he said “Pharmacology and propaganda will make the masses love their slavery“? Would an emancipation of the masses from that state of love and into the cold harsh uncertainties of a free world be “proper”? Who has the authority to answer such a question, in an atheistic, rationalist world?

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
1 year ago
Reply to  John Riordan

A few years ago I think I would have agreed with you entirely. Now, I don’t – because I no longer think that it’s true that “the voters” are actually in charge of anything, really. Even the tiny minority of voters who “elected” Liz Truss could see their elected choice adhered to for less than two months. We’ve had now over a century of mass communication broadcasting, public relations, and burgeoning corporations with power to determine, and not merely to respond to, what people want. The people with the will to power and the wherewithal to deploy it will do so – they will use every means, fair or foul, to trick, deceive, manipulate, or bribe innocent decent people in to wanting, and doing, what they want them to want and to do, including by using a cloak of rationalism. It would be naive to think that the established political parties don’t operate an exclusionary oligopoly in which internal candidate selection is tightly controlled, or that the ultra-wealthy don’t have a grossly exaggerated influence on policy and the Overton window. Technocratic rationalism is not really bounded by democracy. Rather, democracy is bounded by technocratic rationalism.

More broadly though, I could concede that a “properly applied” rationalism could and does serve us, despite such appalling distortions. Indeed, it’s such an applied rationalism that allows us to communicate in this way via these wretched electronic devices. But I don’t think it’s possible to use rationalism in order to come to a meaningful conclusion on what “properly” applied means at the societal level. What if Huxley was right when he said “Pharmacology and propaganda will make the masses love their slavery“? Would an emancipation of the masses from that state of love and into the cold harsh uncertainties of a free world be “proper”? Who has the authority to answer such a question, in an atheistic, rationalist world?

John Riordan
John Riordan
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

You make a very good point: no matter what priorities we put in place to drive progress, we eventually run into the question of what it’s all actually for. However there’s an important consideration here which is that it’s ultimately not up to the rationalists and technocrats to answer that question – not, at least, in a democracy.

What drives technocrats crazy in a democracy is not merely that they cannot ultimately answer that question, it’s that they’re not even allowed to. Voters decide that, and we’re very familiar with the snobbish disdain displayed by the political class towards people who would rather have cars, burgers and flat-screen televisions than trams, whole foods and postmodern literature. But that’s why I reserve the proviso that a properly applied rationalism would serve as opposed to rule us.

I’m aware of course that the technocratic rationalism under discussion is busy trying to escape the bounds of democracy – that’s partly what the article is about. But as yet, we don’t have to let it succeed.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 year ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Reason and rationality can be kept without an overinvested adherence to any single ism. Many isms–such as altruism, rationalism, humanism, “liberationism” (etc., your list may vary) are very impressive as Pure Concepts, rather less so in practice. I think it’s best to resist to single-grand-framework-ism.
(I recognize that your post is more nuanced and exploratory than my reply would suggest, but I wanted to express a more general point about abstract principles or pure concepts–from conservatism, to liberalism, to communism, pragmatism, realism, fatalism, optimism, ad infinitum–versus their thought-bubble-meets-road manifestations, my own “ism skepticism”).
While I consider myself to be fairly reasonable and would not advocate the denial of reason or the abandonment of robust exercise of our rational faculties, I do challenge the wisdom or relying upon rationalism as an invariably central navigator, let alone a stand-alone guiding light.
And with regard to a secondary aspect of this discussion: I don’t see that a machine, despite a mountainous (or digitally immense) aggregation of data, even with the most elegant and careful programming, can be truly rational by dint of being unemotional or unencumbered by “mortal bias”.
Even David Hume, empiricist skeptic though he mostly was, coined this piece of provocative hyperbole: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them”.

Last edited 1 year ago by AJ Mac
John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

I don’t think Hume was indulging in hyperbole here- humans are evolved mammals, “slave”, like all other animals, “to the passions” in the sense that, whatever the human invention of rationalism can undoubtedly tell us about the the world, it is of interest to us only inasmuch as it furthers the slaking of our ‘passions”.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

I disagree. Rationality is of interest to some who have no discernible passion, or very little. Perhaps it satisfies or arises (often anyway) in the context of subconscious or inscrutable needs, but that is not the usual meaning of “passion”. And Hume’s use of “slave” instead of subordinate (or “in service” etc.) and unmapped derivation of ought from is–which in principle is a mistake in his own philosophy, suggests deliberate exaggeration, or passionate amplification to me.
Now, I consider his statement to be substantially true, but something of a rhetorical flourish. In the context of his longer argument it is more persuasive to me, since he qualifies and bends his claim , distinguishing between “violent” and “calm” passions, for example. What is a calm passion? The OED does not record such an historical usage. However a few pages later, this seems more like it to me:
“What we call strength of mind, implies the prevalence of the calm passions above the violent; though we may easily observe, there is no man so constantly possessed of this virtue, as never on any occasion to yield to the solicitations of passion and desire”
Though I can see the prevailing merit in his elaborate defense of the claim, (six pages worth here: https://sites.pitt.edu/~mthompso/readings/hume.influencing.pdf ), I believe Hume uses false absolutes (“only”; “never pretend”) to surprise, challenge, and elicit a sort of passionate response in the reader–worked on me!

Last edited 1 year ago by AJ Mac
AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

I disagree. Rationality is of interest to some who have no discernible passion, or very little. Perhaps it satisfies or arises (often anyway) in the context of subconscious or inscrutable needs, but that is not the usual meaning of “passion”. And Hume’s use of “slave” instead of subordinate (or “in service” etc.) and unmapped derivation of ought from is–which in principle is a mistake in his own philosophy, suggests deliberate exaggeration, or passionate amplification to me.
Now, I consider his statement to be substantially true, but something of a rhetorical flourish. In the context of his longer argument it is more persuasive to me, since he qualifies and bends his claim , distinguishing between “violent” and “calm” passions, for example. What is a calm passion? The OED does not record such an historical usage. However a few pages later, this seems more like it to me:
“What we call strength of mind, implies the prevalence of the calm passions above the violent; though we may easily observe, there is no man so constantly possessed of this virtue, as never on any occasion to yield to the solicitations of passion and desire”
Though I can see the prevailing merit in his elaborate defense of the claim, (six pages worth here: https://sites.pitt.edu/~mthompso/readings/hume.influencing.pdf ), I believe Hume uses false absolutes (“only”; “never pretend”) to surprise, challenge, and elicit a sort of passionate response in the reader–worked on me!

Last edited 1 year ago by AJ Mac
John Riordan
John Riordan
1 year ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Thanks for your reply. I think we’re actually mostly in agreement: I see rationalism as a work-in-progress that has not yet succeeded in equalling the the collective inherited wisdom of times past – even in principle.

And in practice, of course, rationalism is far too often harnessed to the agenda of those who instinctively reject tradition and convention because it conflicts with their own ambitions to remake society according to their own grand design – rationalism therefore is tainted by association in this respect.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 year ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Very much so. The rationalizations of the Bolsheviks and Nazis didn’t operate according to Reason itself, but they to some degree blighted that framework by adopting a vocabulary of logic or necessity to cover sometimes runaway passions, or even “sell them to themselves”.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

I suppose if there’s a thread running form Enlightenment thinking to those catastrophes, from a traditional conservative point of view, it’s the notion of ‘progress’, of humanity being a project of improvement.
Although seething with irrational atavistic obsessions, Nazism shared with Bolshevism the essentially ‘rationalist’ idea of recreating human society form the top down, of building a new order that would be fundamentally, by design, ‘better’ than what went before, rather than merely a more or less acceptable accumulation of the multiple contingencies of the past.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

I suppose if there’s a thread running form Enlightenment thinking to those catastrophes, from a traditional conservative point of view, it’s the notion of ‘progress’, of humanity being a project of improvement.
Although seething with irrational atavistic obsessions, Nazism shared with Bolshevism the essentially ‘rationalist’ idea of recreating human society form the top down, of building a new order that would be fundamentally, by design, ‘better’ than what went before, rather than merely a more or less acceptable accumulation of the multiple contingencies of the past.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 year ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Very much so. The rationalizations of the Bolsheviks and Nazis didn’t operate according to Reason itself, but they to some degree blighted that framework by adopting a vocabulary of logic or necessity to cover sometimes runaway passions, or even “sell them to themselves”.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

I don’t think Hume was indulging in hyperbole here- humans are evolved mammals, “slave”, like all other animals, “to the passions” in the sense that, whatever the human invention of rationalism can undoubtedly tell us about the the world, it is of interest to us only inasmuch as it furthers the slaking of our ‘passions”.

John Riordan
John Riordan
1 year ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Thanks for your reply. I think we’re actually mostly in agreement: I see rationalism as a work-in-progress that has not yet succeeded in equalling the the collective inherited wisdom of times past – even in principle.

And in practice, of course, rationalism is far too often harnessed to the agenda of those who instinctively reject tradition and convention because it conflicts with their own ambitions to remake society according to their own grand design – rationalism therefore is tainted by association in this respect.

Terry M
Terry M
1 year ago
Reply to  John Riordan

But you don’t have to look to the exotic fringe of transhumanism to see this. The whole movement of the present is to bring the world under rational control. For example, substituting algorithms and mechanised certainties for the frailties of human judgment (as in the push for driverless cars and whatnot), or replacing the unclean clamour of democratic politics with expert administration.
“Expert administration” is, of course, not rational control, but merely replacing the judgment of one flawed being (the self) with the judgment of others. Replacing the limited or distracted reflexes of a human driver with the millisecond reflexes of a driverless car for crash avoidance is proper rational control, however, since the machine is superior to the human.

Robert Cocco
Robert Cocco
1 year ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Elite control over the organization of society is a feature of rationalism, not a bug.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  John Riordan

You mean Matt Ridley the scientist, (failed) banking chief executive and senior political advisor?
Hmm….

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
1 year ago
Reply to  John Riordan

I agree with a lot of what you have to say here John and found your comment very illuminating, thank you.

For me the key thing though is purpose: without a clear purpose or objective, rationalism, on its terms, can’t function. A powerful IT or HR department which conflates its own bit-part in a company’s success with its ultimate purpose risks destroying the organism in which it is but a single organ. So rationalism is good, in the sense that having a decent filing system and efficient and accurate payroll operation requires the application of logic with precision. You can do lots of clever and useful things with well designed computer code and spreadsheets.

But where good becomes bad is when means are conflated with ends. What drives the ideological rationalists nuts is that their own rationalism denies the possibility of an ultimate, unfathomable purpose. It becomes self-referential; the great big spreadsheet their sky shows #REF and #VALUE errors all over the place and they can’t compute. They try coming up with things like “happiness indices” to solve the problem but what’s the point of that? What’s the ultimate dependent variable in their great big grand design? They don’t know. A better way to live is to feel grateful to be grateful for life itself, and for Microsoft Excel, and everything else in between; and to just let it be.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 year ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Reason and rationality can be kept without an overinvested adherence to any single ism. Many isms–such as altruism, rationalism, humanism, “liberationism” (etc., your list may vary) are very impressive as Pure Concepts, rather less so in practice. I think it’s best to resist to single-grand-framework-ism.
(I recognize that your post is more nuanced and exploratory than my reply would suggest, but I wanted to express a more general point about abstract principles or pure concepts–from conservatism, to liberalism, to communism, pragmatism, realism, fatalism, optimism, ad infinitum–versus their thought-bubble-meets-road manifestations, my own “ism skepticism”).
While I consider myself to be fairly reasonable and would not advocate the denial of reason or the abandonment of robust exercise of our rational faculties, I do challenge the wisdom or relying upon rationalism as an invariably central navigator, let alone a stand-alone guiding light.
And with regard to a secondary aspect of this discussion: I don’t see that a machine, despite a mountainous (or digitally immense) aggregation of data, even with the most elegant and careful programming, can be truly rational by dint of being unemotional or unencumbered by “mortal bias”.
Even David Hume, empiricist skeptic though he mostly was, coined this piece of provocative hyperbole: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them”.

Last edited 1 year ago by AJ Mac
John Riordan
John Riordan
1 year ago

“But you don’t have to look to the exotic fringe of transhumanism to see this. The whole movement of the present is to bring the world under rational control. For example, substituting algorithms and mechanised certainties for the frailties of human judgment (as in the push for driverless cars and whatnot), or replacing the unclean clamour of democratic politics with expert administration.”

While this essay is typically brilliant and thought-provoking as usual with Matthew Crawford, there’s a side to this particular part that I think needs more debate. I do of course agree with the idea that there is a modern rationalism that a large proportion of our political, media and corporate elites believe is the right approach to organising human societies, and that this carries with it conceit, hubris, and self-exculpating arrogance alongside its persistent failures to improve the things we care about. Technocrats suffer from the same problem as do IT departments in many companies: they often think the systems they run are the actual point of the company’s operations as opposed to being a tool in service of the company’s purpose. (In defence of IT departments they’re not the only ones: HR departments often seem to have no idea what the company is for beyond acting as a microcosm of society itself.)

The point I’m getting to is this: as long as the rationalist systems we use are put and kept in their proper place – serving us rather than themselves – then they are worth keeping and worth improving. Before we had computers, networks, big data, and access to processing power that seems to be growing exponentially, we had to run personal lives, companies and countries through a series of heuristics that acted as sufficiently accurate approximations of reality to be useful – rules of thumb that were not created through a priori efforts of intellect but through the trial and error necessitated by the imperfect and sometimes non-existent information available to previous generations of human beings.

This is recognised in the article via the examination of what constitutes play, but the article seems intellectually incurious as to the role of play in its relevance to wider human endeavour: play forms part of the mental preparation for a life of coping with novel situations, imperfect information, and chaotic spontaneity. It is the means by which children encounter the “affordances” of nature, to borrow the rhetoric of the article; how they learn how the world works and how it doesn’t work. This is partly why technocracy often grates on the human soul: it is attempting very often to replace learned rules of life with technologically-driven solutions that fail not because they are necessarily inferior in their specific context, but because they involve sacrifices of other important principles.

An example would be the 2016 EU referendum: EU membership offers a great many benefits to a member nation (we’ll avoid for the moment the question of how good Brussels is at delivering those benefits), but also involves the surrender of democratic self-government. It is fair to say that this is not an exchange that electorates are willing to make and it’s not just the 2016 referendum in the UK that proves this point, it’s the multiple referenda on aspects of EU membership such as the Lisbon Treaty and the Euro that reveal the natural scepticism of voters to such plans. There were referenda in France, Ireland and the Netherlands that failed initially and had to be rammed through again in contravention of basic democratic principles: it is not easy even with a basket of goodies to overcome democratic instincts in this context.

But can technocratic rationalism earn itself a place in our affections the way democracy has, in addition to proving its technical competence (also a job not yet done but we’ll assume it’ll happen at some point)? I don’t know, but I suspect the answer lies in the extent to which it can be torn away from the ambitions of those in control of it. This is another way of saying we’ll save rationalism at the expense of technocracy, we keep the technology but not the bureaucrats. If at first that sounds impossible just remember that over ten years ago Satoshi Nakamoto wrote a white paper followed by delivery of a cryptographically secure token exchange system, and Bitcoin was born: the basis of a banking system that political elites could not directly control and which relied upon peer-level computer-processing-augmented human consensus for its operation.

Conclusion: rationalism as a pure concept needs no defence here and deserves to survive. Elite rationalism, on the other hand, is merely the latest name for the same old corrupt self-interest of the people at the top who don’t play fair and survive by rigging the game to their own advantage. Matt Ridley’s memorably-coined expression “princes, priests and politicians” comes to mind here: we don’t need them and never have, but let’s not throw out rationalism itself as the price of ridding ourselves of them.

Last edited 1 year ago by John Riordan
Emre S
Emre S
1 year ago

Great, if a little light-hearted, article. I’d suggest you listen to the audio version instead of reading since it’s delivered by the author himself and in my view delivers the message of the article more directly, with more warmth, somehow.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 year ago
Reply to  Emre S

Thank you for this suggestion. In reading the piece, I found the prose tuneless or “aesthetically-challenged” and at times hard to comprehend. But listening to (the recorded version of) this lecture as it was delivered to an audience answered nearly all my quibbling complaints. There are many slight alterations in the printed version, most of which detracted from my enjoyment. Though hardly “conversational” on the whole, it is far better adapted to the rhythms and expectations of speech, and the author has more personality and good humor than I would have guessed.

Last edited 1 year ago by AJ Mac
AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 year ago
Reply to  Emre S

Thank you for this suggestion. In reading the piece, I found the prose tuneless or “aesthetically-challenged” and at times hard to comprehend. But listening to (the recorded version of) this lecture as it was delivered to an audience answered nearly all my quibbling complaints. There are many slight alterations in the printed version, most of which detracted from my enjoyment. Though hardly “conversational” on the whole, it is far better adapted to the rhythms and expectations of speech, and the author has more personality and good humor than I would have guessed.

Last edited 1 year ago by AJ Mac
Emre S
Emre S
1 year ago

Great, if a little light-hearted, article. I’d suggest you listen to the audio version instead of reading since it’s delivered by the author himself and in my view delivers the message of the article more directly, with more warmth, somehow.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago

Congratulations, to anyone who got as far as:
“…the existence of women’s breasts. Now we have two datapoints, each of which by itself offers full and sufficient proof that there is a God, and that he loves us very much.”
At that point, i found myself wondering whether piglets feel the same way about a sow’s teats? It’s a genuine question, not just being supercilious. Because, what’s the essential difference between the two? They both fulfil the same purpose in evolutionary terms, and yet the author ascribes a supernatural agency to human female breasts; and furthermore, that it’s an indication of loving care.
One could argue that human female breasts are used for signalling in a way that a sow’s teats aren’t – but do we actually know that?
The point i’m making here, is that basing an argument upon gratitude for a seemingly random hotchpotch of natural phenomena (breasts, waves, etc.) adds nothing whatsoever to our understanding of ourselves. In the earlier part of the essay, transhumanism seems to be the subject, but nothing that follows thereafter takes us a single step closer to understanding why we should seek to outsource our experience to a supra-biological or non-biological state or not.
The subject of transhumanism can’t be dismissed, and is too important to be considered in the way this essay seeks to do. As a philosophical argument, it fails. As a means of encouraging us to take greater care of how we move forward as a species, it fails. I’m sure that we’ll see better discussions as time passes, and we’ll need to. Its one saving grace (and grace is something the author seems aware of) is that it might act as a marker for more lucid arguments.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray
Peter Johnson
Peter Johnson
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Sorry – but I am always extremely grateful when a lady grants me access to her bubbies.

Pat Rowles
Pat Rowles
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

At that point, i found myself wondering whether piglets feel the same way about a sow’s teats?

I think you’re asking the ‘wrong’ question, Steve. My feeling was that the author referenced women’s breasts in the context of how heterosexual men perceive them (i.e. as a “wonder of the world”, like the possibility of surfing), rather than how human infants relate to them. I’ve always loved what Kingsley Amis, or one of his characters, had to say on the subject: I know why I like women’s breasts; I just don’t know why I like them so much.
I agree with you completely on the transhumanism bit, by the way.

Last edited 1 year ago by Pat Rowles
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  Pat Rowles

I completely get what you’re saying about the adult hetero male perception (i have it myself, hence my point about signalling) but by that stage in the proceedings i’d started feeling rather atavistic!

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  Pat Rowles

I completely get what you’re saying about the adult hetero male perception (i have it myself, hence my point about signalling) but by that stage in the proceedings i’d started feeling rather atavistic!

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray
John Riordan
John Riordan
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

“The point i’m making here, is that basing an argument upon gratitude for a seemingly random hotchpotch of natural phenomena (breasts, waves, etc.) adds nothing whatsoever to our understanding of ourselves.”

It is not understanding that’s implied as the reward in this context, but self-acceptance. The context, to go back to the opening part of the article, is the conflict between the effects of modernity and the human psyche’s need for a grounding in reality. Or at least the sense that one possesses such a thing, even if it may be difficult to define.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  John Riordan

I agree, with regard to the pitfalls of rationalism, but felt that the writer failed to make his case; although to be fair, the reference to gratitude is posed as a question, hence my final point about setting a marker for further debate.

Mark M Breza
Mark M Breza
1 year ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Attainment of both breasts or waves seem to lead to overly macho egotism not gratitude. Failure leads to a humble depression while success causes a sanctimonious elation; neither a rational supposition.

Last edited 1 year ago by Mark M Breza
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  John Riordan

I agree, with regard to the pitfalls of rationalism, but felt that the writer failed to make his case; although to be fair, the reference to gratitude is posed as a question, hence my final point about setting a marker for further debate.

Mark M Breza
Mark M Breza
1 year ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Attainment of both breasts or waves seem to lead to overly macho egotism not gratitude. Failure leads to a humble depression while success causes a sanctimonious elation; neither a rational supposition.

Last edited 1 year ago by Mark M Breza
Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Part of the point of the essay is that contexts are important. Therefore our negotiations of the accidents and contingencies of the material world (surfing). And also our nature as humans embedded in a particular biological reality (for heterosexual men, plus many women themselves – their boobies)

Peter Johnson
Peter Johnson
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Sorry – but I am always extremely grateful when a lady grants me access to her bubbies.

Pat Rowles
Pat Rowles
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

At that point, i found myself wondering whether piglets feel the same way about a sow’s teats?

I think you’re asking the ‘wrong’ question, Steve. My feeling was that the author referenced women’s breasts in the context of how heterosexual men perceive them (i.e. as a “wonder of the world”, like the possibility of surfing), rather than how human infants relate to them. I’ve always loved what Kingsley Amis, or one of his characters, had to say on the subject: I know why I like women’s breasts; I just don’t know why I like them so much.
I agree with you completely on the transhumanism bit, by the way.

Last edited 1 year ago by Pat Rowles
John Riordan
John Riordan
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

“The point i’m making here, is that basing an argument upon gratitude for a seemingly random hotchpotch of natural phenomena (breasts, waves, etc.) adds nothing whatsoever to our understanding of ourselves.”

It is not understanding that’s implied as the reward in this context, but self-acceptance. The context, to go back to the opening part of the article, is the conflict between the effects of modernity and the human psyche’s need for a grounding in reality. Or at least the sense that one possesses such a thing, even if it may be difficult to define.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Part of the point of the essay is that contexts are important. Therefore our negotiations of the accidents and contingencies of the material world (surfing). And also our nature as humans embedded in a particular biological reality (for heterosexual men, plus many women themselves – their boobies)

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago

Congratulations, to anyone who got as far as:
“…the existence of women’s breasts. Now we have two datapoints, each of which by itself offers full and sufficient proof that there is a God, and that he loves us very much.”
At that point, i found myself wondering whether piglets feel the same way about a sow’s teats? It’s a genuine question, not just being supercilious. Because, what’s the essential difference between the two? They both fulfil the same purpose in evolutionary terms, and yet the author ascribes a supernatural agency to human female breasts; and furthermore, that it’s an indication of loving care.
One could argue that human female breasts are used for signalling in a way that a sow’s teats aren’t – but do we actually know that?
The point i’m making here, is that basing an argument upon gratitude for a seemingly random hotchpotch of natural phenomena (breasts, waves, etc.) adds nothing whatsoever to our understanding of ourselves. In the earlier part of the essay, transhumanism seems to be the subject, but nothing that follows thereafter takes us a single step closer to understanding why we should seek to outsource our experience to a supra-biological or non-biological state or not.
The subject of transhumanism can’t be dismissed, and is too important to be considered in the way this essay seeks to do. As a philosophical argument, it fails. As a means of encouraging us to take greater care of how we move forward as a species, it fails. I’m sure that we’ll see better discussions as time passes, and we’ll need to. Its one saving grace (and grace is something the author seems aware of) is that it might act as a marker for more lucid arguments.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray
Max Price
Max Price
1 year ago

UnHerd should have someone write an essay on the transformational power of gratitude and how it is desperately needed in todays world.

Max Price
Max Price
1 year ago

UnHerd should have someone write an essay on the transformational power of gratitude and how it is desperately needed in todays world.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 year ago

Rationalism is bad – so let’s believe in unprovable things. What could possibly go wrong?
You can certainly argue that ‘rationalism’ has gone too far… but you should also acknowledge that the Enlightenment was a reaction to oppressive ideology. From Wikipedia:

The Enlightenment included a range of ideas centered on the value of human happiness, the pursuit of knowledge obtained by means of reason and the evidence of the senses, and ideals such as natural law, liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state.

Which of those ideals are you willing to sacrifice for fuzzy feelings?

Jon Barrow
Jon Barrow
1 year ago
Reply to  AC Harper

You mention the problem yourself – it has overreached. The theoretical concepts of blank slate humans/first principles thinking was and is an interesting and useful idea that was and is attuned to new technologies and possibilities. In excessive practical application (‘new man’ of the USSR, modern West – obviously not the same as the USSR but still dissolving itself) Enlightenment ideas are disastrous. Not because they challenge ‘fuzzy feelings’ but hubristically ignore poorly-understood material realities.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Barrow

“Enlightenment ideas are disastrous”
Which ones? Or did you mean that the implementation of Enlightenment ideas was flawed?

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  AC Harper

His phrase was “In excessive practical application…….Enlightenment ideas are disastrous”. Although that’s a bit of a tautology (how many things AREN’T bad when applied “excessively”?), I thinks it’s interesting to see this in relation to the recent unHerd article about the Enlightenment and the invention of the concept of ‘race’.
The Enlightenment was a response to the requirements of the time (a repudiation of sclerotic religious power, the idealisation of capitalism and the emerging technocratic middle-class), not a sufficient blueprint for the future of Humanity. The Bible had already cornered that particular market.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

I would place Plato’s ‘Republic’ well in front of the Bible which is obviously nonsense.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 year ago

The Bible is several dozen books that contain some nonsense and some and some wisdom–rather like the Dialogues in that sense.
Only the pagan gods of the Pantheon and the riddles of the Delphic Oracle for you, I suppose. Your unmeasured contempt for the Bible leads one to suspect you’ve never read it. Have you?

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

No, not all of it, have you?

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

No, not all of it, have you?

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago

Plato’s Republic has no meaningful relation to the Bible, in this context.
I’m referring to the Bible as revealed, absolute knowledge. Plato’s Republic is a work of (more or less) rational philosophy. In this sense, the Republic is a work of proto-enlightenment thinking. And I don’t believe you think ALL of the Bible is “nonsense”, Charles.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

No I’ll grant you that, there some interesting sections, particularly in Isaiah.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago

I’ve always had a fondness for Revelations.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

Yes those four horseman are hard to beat!

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

Yes those four horseman are hard to beat!

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago

I’ve always had a fondness for Revelations.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

No I’ll grant you that, there some interesting sections, particularly in Isaiah.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 year ago

The Bible is several dozen books that contain some nonsense and some and some wisdom–rather like the Dialogues in that sense.
Only the pagan gods of the Pantheon and the riddles of the Delphic Oracle for you, I suppose. Your unmeasured contempt for the Bible leads one to suspect you’ve never read it. Have you?

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago

Plato’s Republic has no meaningful relation to the Bible, in this context.
I’m referring to the Bible as revealed, absolute knowledge. Plato’s Republic is a work of (more or less) rational philosophy. In this sense, the Republic is a work of proto-enlightenment thinking. And I don’t believe you think ALL of the Bible is “nonsense”, Charles.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

I would place Plato’s ‘Republic’ well in front of the Bible which is obviously nonsense.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 year ago
Reply to  AC Harper

1) Infinite perfectibility 2) The blank slate 3) Eventual demystification of the entire universe 4) The notion that emotions or passions are always a corrupting force, or should be utterly subordinate to logical and rational concerns in every key instance (see David Hume’s memorable overcorrection).
That said, I thank providence for Galileo, Locke, Newton, Voltaire, Hume, Kant, Paine, Madison and many more who lie under the umbrellas of the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

We use rationalism as a tool- it’s a tool, like other tools, that we discovered. It’s a powerful tool.
Yet as humans, we are not wholly rational, any more than we are wholly religious, or wholly murderous, or wholly loving. Anyone who thinks they ARE wholly rational is deluded, and more likely to be a slave to their irrational side than someone who understands their inherent irrationalism.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

I agree. And those with strong intellect, though joined to logical-rational aptitude, even when it’s well-developed, are not therefore balanced, sensible, kind–or consistently reasonable.
Your comment reminds me of Jung’s idea of facing and integrating the shadow. Efforts to flee the shadow side of self are doomed.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

I agree. And those with strong intellect, though joined to logical-rational aptitude, even when it’s well-developed, are not therefore balanced, sensible, kind–or consistently reasonable.
Your comment reminds me of Jung’s idea of facing and integrating the shadow. Efforts to flee the shadow side of self are doomed.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

We use rationalism as a tool- it’s a tool, like other tools, that we discovered. It’s a powerful tool.
Yet as humans, we are not wholly rational, any more than we are wholly religious, or wholly murderous, or wholly loving. Anyone who thinks they ARE wholly rational is deluded, and more likely to be a slave to their irrational side than someone who understands their inherent irrationalism.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  AC Harper

His phrase was “In excessive practical application…….Enlightenment ideas are disastrous”. Although that’s a bit of a tautology (how many things AREN’T bad when applied “excessively”?), I thinks it’s interesting to see this in relation to the recent unHerd article about the Enlightenment and the invention of the concept of ‘race’.
The Enlightenment was a response to the requirements of the time (a repudiation of sclerotic religious power, the idealisation of capitalism and the emerging technocratic middle-class), not a sufficient blueprint for the future of Humanity. The Bible had already cornered that particular market.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 year ago
Reply to  AC Harper

1) Infinite perfectibility 2) The blank slate 3) Eventual demystification of the entire universe 4) The notion that emotions or passions are always a corrupting force, or should be utterly subordinate to logical and rational concerns in every key instance (see David Hume’s memorable overcorrection).
That said, I thank providence for Galileo, Locke, Newton, Voltaire, Hume, Kant, Paine, Madison and many more who lie under the umbrellas of the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Barrow

“Enlightenment ideas are disastrous”
Which ones? Or did you mean that the implementation of Enlightenment ideas was flawed?

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 year ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Unprovable things–such as the very consciousness that allows the subjective mind to deny the reality of anything that isn’t self-generated or incidental to material processes–already exist. It is a mistake and even a grotesque overreach for science and hardline reason to attempt to authoritatively deny–or affirm–the presence of things it knows little to nothing of, one way or the other. To paraphrase Hamlet: There is vastly more in the cosmos, and on earth, than is dreamt of in our science and philosophy. I suspect this will always remain so, but if not get back me in several eons when it isn’t.
The mutated, bug-riddled logic of transhumanism epitomizes fuzziness: Nothing created, let alone transcendent is acknowledged, nor considered possible, but the individual or hive mind appoints itself to a position of de facto godhood, expressing destructive contempt for the universe as it exists and for life itself, proposing to remake them by means of an intellectual power it imagines it owns, controls, and can carry into some manufactured eternity.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  AC Harper

“Rationalism is bad- so let’s believe in unprovable things. What could possibly go wring?”
Nowhere does the article make the simple-minded claim that “rationalism is bad”; and everyone, including you, believes in “unprovable things”.

Jon Barrow
Jon Barrow
1 year ago
Reply to  AC Harper

You mention the problem yourself – it has overreached. The theoretical concepts of blank slate humans/first principles thinking was and is an interesting and useful idea that was and is attuned to new technologies and possibilities. In excessive practical application (‘new man’ of the USSR, modern West – obviously not the same as the USSR but still dissolving itself) Enlightenment ideas are disastrous. Not because they challenge ‘fuzzy feelings’ but hubristically ignore poorly-understood material realities.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 year ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Unprovable things–such as the very consciousness that allows the subjective mind to deny the reality of anything that isn’t self-generated or incidental to material processes–already exist. It is a mistake and even a grotesque overreach for science and hardline reason to attempt to authoritatively deny–or affirm–the presence of things it knows little to nothing of, one way or the other. To paraphrase Hamlet: There is vastly more in the cosmos, and on earth, than is dreamt of in our science and philosophy. I suspect this will always remain so, but if not get back me in several eons when it isn’t.
The mutated, bug-riddled logic of transhumanism epitomizes fuzziness: Nothing created, let alone transcendent is acknowledged, nor considered possible, but the individual or hive mind appoints itself to a position of de facto godhood, expressing destructive contempt for the universe as it exists and for life itself, proposing to remake them by means of an intellectual power it imagines it owns, controls, and can carry into some manufactured eternity.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  AC Harper

“Rationalism is bad- so let’s believe in unprovable things. What could possibly go wring?”
Nowhere does the article make the simple-minded claim that “rationalism is bad”; and everyone, including you, believes in “unprovable things”.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 year ago

Rationalism is bad – so let’s believe in unprovable things. What could possibly go wrong?
You can certainly argue that ‘rationalism’ has gone too far… but you should also acknowledge that the Enlightenment was a reaction to oppressive ideology. From Wikipedia:

The Enlightenment included a range of ideas centered on the value of human happiness, the pursuit of knowledge obtained by means of reason and the evidence of the senses, and ideals such as natural law, liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state.

Which of those ideals are you willing to sacrifice for fuzzy feelings?

Sue Frisby
Sue Frisby
1 year ago

I didn’t read it all. I was pulled in by the title and the chance of a discussion on the power of gratitude.
Appreciation rather than gratitude, in my experience, raises us – while we feel it – to a spiritually high level. Appreciation makes it clear what it is about our life that resonates with our souls. And it provides the building blocks for our desired future.

Sue Frisby
Sue Frisby
1 year ago

I didn’t read it all. I was pulled in by the title and the chance of a discussion on the power of gratitude.
Appreciation rather than gratitude, in my experience, raises us – while we feel it – to a spiritually high level. Appreciation makes it clear what it is about our life that resonates with our souls. And it provides the building blocks for our desired future.

Andrew Buckley
Andrew Buckley
1 year ago

What a glorious read on a wet and windy Saturday morning.
I think I could write something on pretty much every paragraph, this article brought up so many interesting thoughts for me.
So; I won’t! Not enough time and I wouldn’t want to bother others in reading my weird ramblings today.
Thanks to the author……..

Andrew Buckley
Andrew Buckley
1 year ago

What a glorious read on a wet and windy Saturday morning.
I think I could write something on pretty much every paragraph, this article brought up so many interesting thoughts for me.
So; I won’t! Not enough time and I wouldn’t want to bother others in reading my weird ramblings today.
Thanks to the author……..

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
1 year ago

A perfect take on Perfectibilianism, but particularly ours. My own field of study. We seem to be the end-point, just as abstract art ended with the blank canvas in the Broadway play, Artz. And transcending gender is indeed part of just exactly this. Though art has slowly returned from Artz, since there’s nothing at the end, and our imaginings need something on which to fasten, after all.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago

Do you mean the play by Yasmina Reza? The theory that abstraction had led art into a cul-de-sac is, of course, nonsense, but typical of the nihilistic view of humanity (as expressed through art) that pervaded the late 20th century following the two cataclysmic world wars.

The human endeavour we call art (i’m referring to the visual arts here) will continue to evolve for as long as human beings exist in our current form. I’m a practitioner. But this feeds nicely into how we move on from the nihilism (your point about the recovery of art since then) and also the transhumanism debate, alongside the Unherd article last week about AI generated art.

We certainly didn’t start making marks on cave walls c.50,000 years ago to stop making our marks now!

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray
Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Yes, Steve, well said and I agree with all you say, including the reflected nihilism. My wife is a hyper-realist painter though quite fond of abstraction who put herself through a practical art college then a university art degree by working two menial jobs seven days a week for years. Passionate, yet quit a Masters despite stellar marks and university painting prizes because her Baby Boomer supervisor insisted on applying the meaningless language of art academia, which a late friend of ours used to call ‘shitspeak’, to her work. To her irritation, his words had no relevance to her work, but were a sort of mystical political babble that academics who can’t paint have turned into their own art form, quite independent of the visual arts. Almost a sort of solvent to the visual arts, which they treat as an accompaniment to their prose.

John Riordan
John Riordan
1 year ago

What a story! It aligns with a general suspicion of my own whereby the humanities, far from humanising political power, are actually parasitised by it.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago

I’ll bet she’d get a lot out of Roger Kimball’s “The Rape of the Masters”. It certainly helped me put things into perspective in my own career.

John Riordan
John Riordan
1 year ago

What a story! It aligns with a general suspicion of my own whereby the humanities, far from humanising political power, are actually parasitised by it.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago

I’ll bet she’d get a lot out of Roger Kimball’s “The Rape of the Masters”. It certainly helped me put things into perspective in my own career.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

There’s a fundamental difference of values and of the whole conception of ‘good’ art (in the sense of ethical substance, not technical achievement) between this author’s idea of “affordance”- the mediation between contingent material reality and the artist’s ‘vision’ through learned ‘craft’- and the abstracted idea of immaterial ‘genius’ proposed in the recent article on unHerd concerning AI art.
The two articles exhibit a fundamental divide in attitudes towards the notion of ‘reality’ itself. Art (and, by extrapolation, human culture in general) as a ‘conservative’ acceptance of nature as fact, as the given ‘other’ within which we must live, or art as the triumph of humanity over contingency, of the imagination over the limitations of nature. Idealism is a better term for this than rationalism, as it makes explicit the immaterial religious element. I suspect that the art “shitspeak” that Andrew Boughton talks about below is largely the need for the idealists to purify and contain the worrying contingency of ‘what is’, as opposed to ‘what should be’. It’s the difference between talking about art, and explaining it as a wholly intelligible intellectual project.
I used to make more or less abstract paintings- I currently paint botanical illustrations of plants and, in particular, fungi. They are ‘what is’, and nothing more- or rather, they are as much ‘what is’ as I, a subjective English human in the 21st century, can make them. The point is the (inherently impossible) attempt to block out the ego and its ‘ideas’ when working. I found this author’s use of the idea of ‘gratitude’ in our relation to Nature in this sense apposite.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

It’s an error, i think, to try to block out ego when creating visual art. Rather, my purpose is to transcend the ego, which is a different thing altogether. This becomes a gradual but cumulative process, if one works diligently enough.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

True. “Block out” was a clumsy phrase.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

True. “Block out” was a clumsy phrase.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

It’s an error, i think, to try to block out ego when creating visual art. Rather, my purpose is to transcend the ego, which is a different thing altogether. This becomes a gradual but cumulative process, if one works diligently enough.

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Yes, Steve, well said and I agree with all you say, including the reflected nihilism. My wife is a hyper-realist painter though quite fond of abstraction who put herself through a practical art college then a university art degree by working two menial jobs seven days a week for years. Passionate, yet quit a Masters despite stellar marks and university painting prizes because her Baby Boomer supervisor insisted on applying the meaningless language of art academia, which a late friend of ours used to call ‘shitspeak’, to her work. To her irritation, his words had no relevance to her work, but were a sort of mystical political babble that academics who can’t paint have turned into their own art form, quite independent of the visual arts. Almost a sort of solvent to the visual arts, which they treat as an accompaniment to their prose.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

There’s a fundamental difference of values and of the whole conception of ‘good’ art (in the sense of ethical substance, not technical achievement) between this author’s idea of “affordance”- the mediation between contingent material reality and the artist’s ‘vision’ through learned ‘craft’- and the abstracted idea of immaterial ‘genius’ proposed in the recent article on unHerd concerning AI art.
The two articles exhibit a fundamental divide in attitudes towards the notion of ‘reality’ itself. Art (and, by extrapolation, human culture in general) as a ‘conservative’ acceptance of nature as fact, as the given ‘other’ within which we must live, or art as the triumph of humanity over contingency, of the imagination over the limitations of nature. Idealism is a better term for this than rationalism, as it makes explicit the immaterial religious element. I suspect that the art “shitspeak” that Andrew Boughton talks about below is largely the need for the idealists to purify and contain the worrying contingency of ‘what is’, as opposed to ‘what should be’. It’s the difference between talking about art, and explaining it as a wholly intelligible intellectual project.
I used to make more or less abstract paintings- I currently paint botanical illustrations of plants and, in particular, fungi. They are ‘what is’, and nothing more- or rather, they are as much ‘what is’ as I, a subjective English human in the 21st century, can make them. The point is the (inherently impossible) attempt to block out the ego and its ‘ideas’ when working. I found this author’s use of the idea of ‘gratitude’ in our relation to Nature in this sense apposite.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago

Do you mean the play by Yasmina Reza? The theory that abstraction had led art into a cul-de-sac is, of course, nonsense, but typical of the nihilistic view of humanity (as expressed through art) that pervaded the late 20th century following the two cataclysmic world wars.

The human endeavour we call art (i’m referring to the visual arts here) will continue to evolve for as long as human beings exist in our current form. I’m a practitioner. But this feeds nicely into how we move on from the nihilism (your point about the recovery of art since then) and also the transhumanism debate, alongside the Unherd article last week about AI generated art.

We certainly didn’t start making marks on cave walls c.50,000 years ago to stop making our marks now!

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray
Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
1 year ago

A perfect take on Perfectibilianism, but particularly ours. My own field of study. We seem to be the end-point, just as abstract art ended with the blank canvas in the Broadway play, Artz. And transcending gender is indeed part of just exactly this. Though art has slowly returned from Artz, since there’s nothing at the end, and our imaginings need something on which to fasten, after all.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 year ago

This lecture is sort of a layperson’s sermon, by someone with an educational background in science (physical and political–thanks Wikipedia!). I most enjoyed his project of rescuing gratitude, wonder, and intuition from banishment to any purely religious or metaphysical realm. This is my favorite passage:
“[T]he possibilities for beautiful human action in the world as it is — the undiscovered possibilities of [f]it — seem inexhaustible. [new paragraph] This can inspire wonder and gratitude; intuitions we associate with religion are available within a this-worldly ethics of attention. For there does seem to be something benevolent in the disposition of things, relative to us”.
Amen, science preacher! Now, according to the author’s own statement: “you can’t have the positive without the negative; they are two sides of the same coin”, there is also something malevolent (and I would say something neutral or “undecided” as well) in that disposition too. One needn’t resort to any otherworldly claims or wait upon conclusive double-blind trials to acknowledge the intuitive truth of these claims. I’d place the burden on the material absolutists to falsify humankind’s inborn sense of transcendent-but-elusive presence. I’ll conclude by quoting the Liverpudlian Lads: “There’s nothing you can know that isn’t known / Nothing you can see that isn’t shown”. That may be accepted or denied–not falsified altogether or established to the point of empirical certainty–but it feels true to me.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 year ago

This lecture is sort of a layperson’s sermon, by someone with an educational background in science (physical and political–thanks Wikipedia!). I most enjoyed his project of rescuing gratitude, wonder, and intuition from banishment to any purely religious or metaphysical realm. This is my favorite passage:
“[T]he possibilities for beautiful human action in the world as it is — the undiscovered possibilities of [f]it — seem inexhaustible. [new paragraph] This can inspire wonder and gratitude; intuitions we associate with religion are available within a this-worldly ethics of attention. For there does seem to be something benevolent in the disposition of things, relative to us”.
Amen, science preacher! Now, according to the author’s own statement: “you can’t have the positive without the negative; they are two sides of the same coin”, there is also something malevolent (and I would say something neutral or “undecided” as well) in that disposition too. One needn’t resort to any otherworldly claims or wait upon conclusive double-blind trials to acknowledge the intuitive truth of these claims. I’d place the burden on the material absolutists to falsify humankind’s inborn sense of transcendent-but-elusive presence. I’ll conclude by quoting the Liverpudlian Lads: “There’s nothing you can know that isn’t known / Nothing you can see that isn’t shown”. That may be accepted or denied–not falsified altogether or established to the point of empirical certainty–but it feels true to me.

Jimmy Snooks
Jimmy Snooks
1 year ago

Superb piece by Mathew Crawford. Unherd is really finding some talent. Keep it up!

Jimmy Snooks
Jimmy Snooks
1 year ago

Superb piece by Mathew Crawford. Unherd is really finding some talent. Keep it up!

Margaret TC
Margaret TC
1 year ago

Is it simply a coincidence that he chooses womens’ breasts given that we are hearing every day of girls and young women being persuaded to have theirs removed in what is part of the transhumanist will to control bodies?

Margaret TC
Margaret TC
1 year ago

Is it simply a coincidence that he chooses womens’ breasts given that we are hearing every day of girls and young women being persuaded to have theirs removed in what is part of the transhumanist will to control bodies?

James Anthony Seyforth
James Anthony Seyforth
1 year ago

Nice article and exploration but I’d like to critique and add a few things:

– the reality of music is very much a matter of truth and fact versus rationlisation or representation; music is a real phenomenon, a presentation of the spirit, of which we have no fully rationalist explanation for, except music theory which is just a scaffold around which real music dances, real music being the innovative music of the human who is both master of, but also above, any theory of his own music. Like you say, this physical truth music, is the constraint of a real and unique universe in which the physics of sound are constant (at least across spacetime-frames relative to the types of musical creation we are discussing) and any mastery of such an art has to be in accordance with that reality. It’s interesting to note that Apollo was the Olympian god of prophecy and oracles, music, song and poetry, archery, healing, plague and disease, and that his first musical invention came at the death of the monster python that roamed the mountains. His song of Victory and joy is said to be the origin of music in ancient Greece. However, as interesting as the conquering of our lizard ancestors is, I find it more interesting a fact that Python is now the most common and widespread programming language and is sort of the natural language of a rationalistic programmer led world. I myself even use it as a physicist – it’s fascinating that it is named python, when the quality of musical creation is at a unbelievably low point in world history! The snakes are winning apparently…

– but we must admit then that such a constant reality, as like the one of music, does have a formidable structure just like a language (as you mentioned Russian). And the problem for the inquisitive animal is that the line between understanding and controlling are easily blurred in the hurry to dominate such structure with knowledge. As such, music is taught mostly nowadays from the theory up and not the other way, which is from the body and heart up, in which real innovation and presentation of the music of the soul might occur, vis-a-vis the end of classical music and it’s anew creation (classical music defacto means for the modern mob: ‘music that was written’ not ‘music that is written ‘ and even classical musicians where such a badge with honour since it buys them a get-out-of-creativity free card, because creation is difficult and a lonely endeavor but musical recital pleases the mass)

– in relation to your notion of conservative you must understand that all of our current and even last few thousand years of history is a synthetic experiment and you identified this in the creation of the instruments and the tools themselves. Even peace itself is an invention in my understanding, not that there is much of a philosophy of peace, either as there is for music. Peace is perhaps like Jordan Peterson’s trope of the mouse who fights a bigger opponent and loses but the bigger one can either choose to relent and let the mouse try again and lose or give him a morsel of a win before the trying is up (a kind of peace offering) and allow the state of one sided power to carry on, but without the mouse-society destroying effect to linger. But even then human peace is completely different and it’s conceptual grounds are in my opinion not understood well. Perhaps it is natural, an equilibrium phenomenon, and nothing about it is synthetic, but I tend to disagree and believe that the natural state of man is violence, war and winning over collaboration and peace. I feel this can also be concluded in the Agon, the Olympian contest and the fact that society is much more successful if violence and disagreement is sublimated (converted) into non violent competition and synthetic evolutionary pressures. The Agon being a synthetic approach to reality based on natural principles, but that is not equal to it: this is itself progressive even if considered now ‘conservative’. The key point is Truth: is it true that such and such society flourishes under a natural or synthetic organisation? if yes, then that is the answer, that is what progressivism should be. Flourishing must be defined of course and this is were the rabbit hole starts, but I contend flourishing to be these three interconnected things:

When you have enough FREEDOM to participate in an unequal society, in a manner that does not squash your sense of MEANING, even if it challenges your sense of TRUTH and reality.

As such, conservative must mean unfairness at times, in inequality, but it must be synthetic enough to create the conditions for fairness in competition, i.e. in the unnatural state of a non-violent, but non-Utopian state of man, but that also human meaning can only come if such a state is not first tyrannical to your feeling of place and connectedness, otherwise there is no path to gratitude or community in competition, since if the most basic sense of self-love is not possible, pre-Agon, then it is structurally encoded by the society to self hate in synthetic deconstruction, in the systematic unfairness, requirements and rules. as said: freedom, truth and meaning are the keys here.

We certainly don’t live in a time of meaning, we’ve lost much of that to techno neo-liberal capitalism, and our overlords want more of that not less. Our freedoms are limited by our lack of community, contrary to the idea that money is the root of our unfreedom, nothing can be efficiently or meaningfully done in a society that lacks community – it’s one reason why immigrant communities can do so well in the west, provided they bring their community with them but utilize the resource benefits of an industrial society, that being if they are not able to integrate which is of course ideal. Finally Truth, well I just need to add the acronyms, phrases of untruth here: LGBTQIA+, trans, cis, BLM, ANTIFA, colonialism, safe spaces, right wing extremism, white privilege, uncle Toms… The list of dominant untruths goes quite readily onward and downward… Here progressivism has become possesivism and basic humanity is first reduced, then elevated to a problem.

Last edited 1 year ago by James Anthony Seyforth
James Anthony Seyforth
James Anthony Seyforth
1 year ago

Nice article and exploration but I’d like to critique and add a few things:

– the reality of music is very much a matter of truth and fact versus rationlisation or representation; music is a real phenomenon, a presentation of the spirit, of which we have no fully rationalist explanation for, except music theory which is just a scaffold around which real music dances, real music being the innovative music of the human who is both master of, but also above, any theory of his own music. Like you say, this physical truth music, is the constraint of a real and unique universe in which the physics of sound are constant (at least across spacetime-frames relative to the types of musical creation we are discussing) and any mastery of such an art has to be in accordance with that reality. It’s interesting to note that Apollo was the Olympian god of prophecy and oracles, music, song and poetry, archery, healing, plague and disease, and that his first musical invention came at the death of the monster python that roamed the mountains. His song of Victory and joy is said to be the origin of music in ancient Greece. However, as interesting as the conquering of our lizard ancestors is, I find it more interesting a fact that Python is now the most common and widespread programming language and is sort of the natural language of a rationalistic programmer led world. I myself even use it as a physicist – it’s fascinating that it is named python, when the quality of musical creation is at a unbelievably low point in world history! The snakes are winning apparently…

– but we must admit then that such a constant reality, as like the one of music, does have a formidable structure just like a language (as you mentioned Russian). And the problem for the inquisitive animal is that the line between understanding and controlling are easily blurred in the hurry to dominate such structure with knowledge. As such, music is taught mostly nowadays from the theory up and not the other way, which is from the body and heart up, in which real innovation and presentation of the music of the soul might occur, vis-a-vis the end of classical music and it’s anew creation (classical music defacto means for the modern mob: ‘music that was written’ not ‘music that is written ‘ and even classical musicians where such a badge with honour since it buys them a get-out-of-creativity free card, because creation is difficult and a lonely endeavor but musical recital pleases the mass)

– in relation to your notion of conservative you must understand that all of our current and even last few thousand years of history is a synthetic experiment and you identified this in the creation of the instruments and the tools themselves. Even peace itself is an invention in my understanding, not that there is much of a philosophy of peace, either as there is for music. Peace is perhaps like Jordan Peterson’s trope of the mouse who fights a bigger opponent and loses but the bigger one can either choose to relent and let the mouse try again and lose or give him a morsel of a win before the trying is up (a kind of peace offering) and allow the state of one sided power to carry on, but without the mouse-society destroying effect to linger. But even then human peace is completely different and it’s conceptual grounds are in my opinion not understood well. Perhaps it is natural, an equilibrium phenomenon, and nothing about it is synthetic, but I tend to disagree and believe that the natural state of man is violence, war and winning over collaboration and peace. I feel this can also be concluded in the Agon, the Olympian contest and the fact that society is much more successful if violence and disagreement is sublimated (converted) into non violent competition and synthetic evolutionary pressures. The Agon being a synthetic approach to reality based on natural principles, but that is not equal to it: this is itself progressive even if considered now ‘conservative’. The key point is Truth: is it true that such and such society flourishes under a natural or synthetic organisation? if yes, then that is the answer, that is what progressivism should be. Flourishing must be defined of course and this is were the rabbit hole starts, but I contend flourishing to be these three interconnected things:

When you have enough FREEDOM to participate in an unequal society, in a manner that does not squash your sense of MEANING, even if it challenges your sense of TRUTH and reality.

As such, conservative must mean unfairness at times, in inequality, but it must be synthetic enough to create the conditions for fairness in competition, i.e. in the unnatural state of a non-violent, but non-Utopian state of man, but that also human meaning can only come if such a state is not first tyrannical to your feeling of place and connectedness, otherwise there is no path to gratitude or community in competition, since if the most basic sense of self-love is not possible, pre-Agon, then it is structurally encoded by the society to self hate in synthetic deconstruction, in the systematic unfairness, requirements and rules. as said: freedom, truth and meaning are the keys here.

We certainly don’t live in a time of meaning, we’ve lost much of that to techno neo-liberal capitalism, and our overlords want more of that not less. Our freedoms are limited by our lack of community, contrary to the idea that money is the root of our unfreedom, nothing can be efficiently or meaningfully done in a society that lacks community – it’s one reason why immigrant communities can do so well in the west, provided they bring their community with them but utilize the resource benefits of an industrial society, that being if they are not able to integrate which is of course ideal. Finally Truth, well I just need to add the acronyms, phrases of untruth here: LGBTQIA+, trans, cis, BLM, ANTIFA, colonialism, safe spaces, right wing extremism, white privilege, uncle Toms… The list of dominant untruths goes quite readily onward and downward… Here progressivism has become possesivism and basic humanity is first reduced, then elevated to a problem.

Last edited 1 year ago by James Anthony Seyforth
Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
1 year ago

I read somewhere that humans invented reason to manage our relationships — in other words to keep our lies straight.
The idea that we then went on to use reason in philosophy, math, and physics is mind-boggling.
But didn’t Nietzsche say something about:

Metaphysics, morality, religion, science — in this book these things merit consideration only as various forms of lies: with their help we can have faith in life.

Yah think?

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 year ago

Everything on that list could be viewed as a window into the truth, or even a door of perception (with performative apologies to Blake), but not a “cleansed” or full-access door, not even Science.
I’d argue that the reason it’s mind-boggling is that humans did not invent but rather inherit or discover reason while searching for something else like better directions back to the cave, a bit like Columbus.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Interesting idea that humans might have “inherited” reason. From whom? Pre-humans, or are you talking more metaphorically?
It’s like the debate about maths- is it a human invention, or a human discovery? How can such an abstraction be a ‘discovery’? And yet the nature of the universe seems to suggest that it is- notwithstanding the existence of irrational numbers, who’s ontological status is….?

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

It certainly is interesting. I’d put the issue of language itself front and centre (as might Wittgenstein). The way in which word structures have developed, one would have to imagine organically as a response to survival and the environment, probably pushes us towards what we now call rationality i.e. an inevitable product of language.
Of further interest in this regard, is the weight which different cultures, using slightly different word structures, seem to attribute to rationality alongside emotion and perhaps ‘spirituality’. The lack of understanding between cultures is often said to come about through losing something in translation, as it were.
In addition to this, we also have logic. Maths logic is i suppose its purest form, but there are others, including the use of logic in language. The latter however, also has the potential for illogicality whilst still being reasonable, as in the juxtaposition of conflicting ideas within the same passage, with no preferential outcome. Indeed, the ability to hold conflicting ideas within one’s head without discomfort or need for resolution is often seen as a sign of intelligence, and is often the essence of much artistic endeavour.
Then, there are the theories about innate structure developed by Chomsky, which add further fuel to the debate.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray
John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I think most linguists still go to a large extent with Chomsky’s innate structure ideas, although ironically they often annoy people on the Marxist left for their putative anti-materialism.
The question of the philosophical specificity of individual languages is very interesting- and very pertinent now, at a time of global linguistic homogenisation (a tiny example being my computer telling me to write that word with a US ‘z’). If the unique syntax and grammar of different languages DOES make possible- or necessitate- differing conceptual maps of the world, then each disappearing language is not just a set of words being lost, but a way of thinking.

Last edited 1 year ago by John Holland
AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 year ago
Reply to  John Holland

Well played. From Whomsoever. Chicken and egg territory now: Who made God, God or his image-made offspring? But to give a somewhat more serious reply, still unlikely to satisfy: I mean it not quite metaphorically, but in the figurative sense that we “inherit” our bodies and minds.
Yet, for instance, Crawford’s claim that: “Mathematics is a pure product of the human mind” is similar to the notion that “humans invented time”. Yeah, ok [maybe?]–but did people invent number, weight, symmetry, proportion, or complimentary interrelationship by assigning digits and formulas to them? Perhaps these thing do emerge from the Collective Unconscious, or in a less spooky sense, multi-generational, collective problem solving. Or in a collaborative zeitgeist of the sort that enabled Newton & Leibniz, Darwin & Wallace, or Tesla & Marconi to invent calculus, the theory of natural selection, and radio (in their respective pairs) almost simultaneously. Fun coincidences and no more?
Surely the individual or dual or multiple authors–or recipients, if you will–of these advancements deserve some notice and credit, but how much? Were those individual discoveries or contributions needed to enable the eventual discovery of those things–or polyphony or moveable type, etc.? Do humans autonomously impose order, number, and duration upon a world that is mere chaos and runaway entropy but for us? How many consecutive rhetorical questions are considered too many?
I’ve enjoyed this exchange and imagine that the same questions and conundrums will re-emerge–unless we’ve solved some of them here.

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Some of these questions are observable from different directions- not just philosophically, but through science. Contemporary science has a lot of strange and interesting things to say, for example, about time, few of which I remotely understand. A lot of physics is now so far beyond or outside of human ‘common sense’ and our emerged, intuitive sense of reality that it can seem more like speculative poetic metaphysics than descriptive fact.
Humans didn’t invent time, but what we did, I’m sure (long before any notion of dissinterested rational thought, in fact long before we were human) is experience the multivalency of cosmic time through our senses, which evolved not to see ‘reality’, but to make sense of enough of it to survive long enough to breed.
The Multiverse makes (apparently) a great deal of sense in the context of problematic complexities in quantum physics- but nothing is as counter-intuitive, and as disturbing, I find, as the fact and consequences of this idea. It would make how we think about ethics, individuality and the consequences of our actions utterly redundant- if we experienced it as our reality. But, fact or not, we never will, so it doesn’t.
Time to make the supper.

Last edited 1 year ago by John Holland
Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
1 year ago

“By far the most prominent source of hilarity is the capacity of material stuff to generate frustration, or rather demonic violence. The tendency of things to thwart the human will is exaggerated, and through exaggeration a certain truth gets brought forward.”

Notably treated by Paul Jennings (the British journalist and humourist) in his essays on the French theorist Pierre-Marie Ventre and his philosophy of ‘Resistentialism’ (‘Things Resist Man’).

Last edited 1 year ago by Arnold Grutt
Alan B
Alan B
1 year ago

It was about six weeks into my effort to learn guitar when I realized that she was teaching me. At the time, about six months into the surreality of lockdown, this was just what I needed. But without making the effort to learn I couldn’t have been graced with that insight… And one day I hope to surf on her, too!

Bernard Stewart
Bernard Stewart
1 year ago

I wish I’d been there (at the lecture)

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

Like the gay aristocrat who loved surf riding?

Andrew Salkeld
Andrew Salkeld
1 year ago

The observation is important, but the author confuses appreciation and gratitude. It is in opening ourselves to appreciation, fully and unconditionally, that opens the floodgates allowing grace to descend and blessings to be performed. Then comes gratitude. Saying thank you. So, first appreciation. And later as the fullness of appreciation subsides a little we turn to our benefactor to say that you. The greatest delight available to the benefactor is that of seeing us enveloped in appreciation. They can happily wait for the gratitude and words of thanks. And so can we as benefactors

Jason Smith
Jason Smith
1 year ago

What absolute, 24 carat, prolix nonsense

Dominic A
Dominic A
1 year ago
Reply to  Jason Smith

A bit harsh, but it is thick with the usual problems when intellectuals try to explain psychological concepts without bothering with modern psychology (so arriviste, compared with philosophy, or theology….ideally they’d write in Latin, just to make this clearer still).

John Holland
John Holland
1 year ago
Reply to  Dominic A

How lucky that humans have sorted all this stuff out so r