You don’t have to look far these days to find examples of philosophical systems at variance, sometimes wildly so, with the observed universe. Ideas and worldviews that mere decades ago would have been labeled irrational are now presented as mainstream. The wonderment at which a rational person views this development is two-fold: first, how does societal thought keep moving further from reality, and why do intelligent people embrace irrational thoughts?
My thinking on the first can be illustrated by the progression of classical liberalism. Prior to The Enlightenment period of Western culture during the 17th and 18th centuries, the human condition was pretty much as it had always been: the strong established monarchies and tyrannies to virtually (or actually) enslave the weak. Even so, everyone was strongly connected to the natural world, as the cycles of seasons and climate determined the success of a given society. There is little discussion of ‘animal rights’ in a world where work and sustenance depend on the exploitation of animals. Accordingly, there’s equally little discussion of human rights in societies where the vast majority are kept ignorant and fearful by a very small minority.
For approximately a century starting in mid-17th century Western Europe, the prevailing order was challenged by the intelligentsia. The prevailing order didn’t take kindly to radical concepts like equality before the law, individual rights, and freedom of expression, and persecution among the proselytizers was common. As information technology and literacy developed, the dissemination of these concepts spread, reaching an apotheosis in the American Revolution. The result was a society founded on liberal ideology while still very much connected to the natural world.
But without specialized training, humans have a real problem recognizing when a system has reached maximum utility. As founded, the US was far from perfect, but a damn sight better than any other political system. A few tweaks, like abolishing slavery and universal suffrage, were needed, but no wholesale overhaul. Human nature being what it is, the original radicals found their ideas had become mainstream, so to maintain their self-identity as radicals, they had to espouse ideas more extreme than those considered normal. As society adopts the more radical tenants, the radicals have to move further away. And so it goes until the society bears almost no resemblance to it’s original form. So it is that the modern Liberal has much more in common with the tyrant than the egalitarian.
As to why intelligent people can embrace irrational concepts, let’s look at whence philosophical system spring.
The natural world is governed by well-understood physical laws. There are situations where our intuitive understanding fails us, but in the low-gravity, low-speed world we inhabit, Newtonian physics and Euclidean geometry work very well. The universe would follow the same laws whether humans were around or not, and it’s important to remember that humans are part of the natural universe, and are governed by the same laws.
It’s also useful to note that economic laws are as inviolate as any physical law, and if one substitutes ‘resources’ for ‘money’, economics models natural process well. In fact, economics bears such a close resemblance to thermodynamics, it seems reasonable to suppose they are two facets of the same thing.
So any philosophical system will attempt to reconcile human consciousness with the observed universe. This is a bit of a problem, as the human consciousness far exceeds the limits of the physical world. People will manufacture ideologies invariant with the observed universe because there are other factors in play. Compassion, altruism, the need to serve a higher power are all part and parcel of the human experience. But when governing human behavior, these extra-(natural law) legal behaviors engender complications.
In mathematics, a manifold is, to grossly oversimplify, the universe in which certain calculations can take place. If we take the observable universe to be the manifold in which natural law is defined, we can come to grips with where certain philosophies fail. Remember that natural law is the observable universe and all its interactions. It is the basis.
My contention is that the further thought gets from the basis, the more error-prone the philosophical modeling. The rational person will develop philosophies based on the observable world, and in so doing create social systems that take advantage of human nature and natural law. Such systems allow the greatest possible individual freedom consistent with the common good.
The irrational person will develop axioms independent of observation, and develop social and philosophical systems that may be self-consistent, but bear little resemblance to natural law. Forcing people into these idealized constructs requires severe restrictions on individual freedom, and the refutation of human nature. The adherents of these philosophies argue that their systems are ‘better’ because they are more ‘fair’, when in fact they are neither. A good way to judge the worth of a society is to examine how closely it comports with the observable world and human nature.
My New Favorite Website
The folks over at climatechangepredictions.org have collected every bit of climate fearmongering they can find and put them all in one place. Especially good is the category ‘Having It Both Ways’.
h/t Robert Zimmerman from ‘Behind the Black’.