Shh! I’m Listening to Reason


Not listening to reason is, by definition, unreasonable. So no reasonable person would do that, right?  Well, the tricky thing is reason (and truth and morality for that matter) is not fixed by one mind – not C.P. Snow’s, not F.R Leavis’.  Very smart, truly virtuous people fight vehemently over important moral matters.  Lionel Trilling (1905-1975), a fierce warrior against anti-reason, escorts us across the battlefield.


He begins with the objective fact that thinkers from the two cultures (science and literature) do not communicate with or even like each other. C. P. Snow argues that scientists are generally in the right of things and literary people in the wrong.  Why?  Because of the human condition – we all suffer and die.  He says there is a “moral trap” that ensnares art guys more than science guys.  “for it tempts one to sit back, complacent in one’s own unique tragedy, paying no heed to the circumstances of everyday life, which, for the larger number of human beings, are painful”.  Scientists, on the other hand, are “inclined to be inpatient to see if something can be done.”


Snow argues that Science brings humans together, whereas Literature separates them and is “self-regarding in its complacent acceptance of tragedy, which is not only indifferent to human suffering but willing to inflict it, which asks rude and impertinent questions about the present and even about the future”. Trilling is sympathetic to Snow’s argument because in “desperate days it always seems wise to throw some thing or someone overboard”.  Snow wants to disregard politics and literature as unhelpful and even counterproductive to relieving world suffering – it gets in the way of science.  Trilling disagrees, teaching us that “It is very hard to say what will save the world.  But we can be perfectly certain that denying the actualities of the world will not work its salvation.  Among these actualities, politics is one.”  In bad, desperate times, we can conceive of politics as nothing but power.  It cannot be disregarded.


The function of critical thought is “to see the object as in itself it really is”.   The tragic, overwhelming complexity of the human condition means that it is not always so easy to “to see the object as in itself it really is”.  Trilling felt that both Snow and Leavis failed to do that.  He knew that genuine understanding takes strain, tenacity and endless grappling with difficult, conflicting ideas.  Good thinkers are in the stringency business.  The real world has a punishing way with human purpose.  “Moral realism”, according to Trilling, gives mind its muscle, its magnanimity, its power to withstand its own weakness and not be put to flight by that which it has yet to master.


We cannot throw art or political discourse overboard unless faced with global obliteration – unless the ship is sinking. We similarly cannot tolerate the wholesale confiscation and redistribution of private wealth (or any other personal blessing) by a tutelary State, unless faced with an existential crisis.  The concluding paragraph of the book Science and the Good (2018) makes a good point; loosely quoting:


If we are not to succumb to the dread and darkness of the mind, we have no choice but to continue the hard work of making sense of the complex, confusing and conflicted realm of moral life. Science has an important role. But there is no substitute for history, literature, poetry, philosophy, music and the world’s great religious traditions – no substitute for understanding morality (and artistic expression) on its own terms as we struggle to fully understand our existence. 


Next week, we turn to a War Chest defense against attacks on reason that Trilling gave us 10 years after writing about the Leavis-Snow controversy. Mind in the Modern World (1973)


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The First, Second and Now Third Cultures


Certain writers today purporting to espouse truth and morality in order to light the way for those of us searching for answers are liars chasing power. They engage in facile, specious argument.   We need to dive deeply into the sea of knowledge to find truth and avoid being misled by polemic ideologues hiding beneath the murky waters of profound thought.


The Leavis-Snow controversy surfaced after the publication of Snow’s The Two Cultures (1959).  It is an example of the recurring debate among public intellectuals on the science vs. art culture war.  C. P. Snow felt strongly that the first culture, science, is a moral imperative because it alleviates suffering on a global scale by curing disease, feeding the hungry and saving the lives of infants and mothers.  Literary critic F. R. Leavis responded with a famous rebuttal that was so vitriolic, the magazine publishing it had to make C.P. Snow promise not to sue for libel.


Steven Pinker in his book Enlightenment Now (2018) sides with C. P. Snow, holding that science is morally superior to art as a form of knowledge.  I tend to agree that if you have to pick one, you’d go with science for humanitarian reasons.  I also frown upon arrogant, snobby, condescending, artsy fartsy writers who sneer at science.  Pinker says they “write as if the consumption of elite art is the ultimate moral good.”  But let’s not be so hasty.  Art cannot dismiss science but neither can science dismiss art.


Lionel Trilling’s 1962 essay on the Leavis-Snow controversy concludes that they jointly demonstrated how far the “cultural mode of thought” can go in excess and distortion. They were both wrong according to Trilling.  Let’s find out why next week. Trilling is a remarkably cogent writer who deploys relentless, intricate reasoning to prove his points.


The first culture is science, the second culture, supposedly in opposition to it, is art or literature. People in those respective fields are worlds apart. There is a “gulf of mutual incomprehension” between them.  But a new third culture, according to John Brockman, is developing via an ongoing dialogue among new thinkers (scientists, philosophers, et al) who are replacing traditional public intellectuals by addressing the public directly.

These guys (Pinker is a contributor) are on the frontier fringes of human knowledge – unsuppressed by the liars in mainstream media, academia and government.


In order to understand why and how this new third culture emerged, we have to study the dialectic of the old controversy like Trilling did – understand the tension between the first two cultures. This is not a question of educational theory or an abstract contention as to what kind of knowledge has the truest affinity with the human soul.  “What we address ourselves to is politics, and politics of a quite ultimate kind… the disposition of the modern mind.”

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The Moral Obligation To Be Intelligent


Why do I write this blog every week? Because I have to – I see it as a moral duty.  There is a “Moral Obligation to be Intelligent”, which is the title of an influential 1915 essay by John Erskine (1879–1951).  That essay and the ideas of literary critic Lionel Trilling (1905-1975), who was Erskine’s student, came to my attention after reading Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now (2018), where I learned of the “Leavis-Snow Controversy”.  As moral agents, we should be aware of this cultural intellectual flashpoint in history.


I’ll get to the Trilling’s analysis of the Leavis-Snow controversy, but first let’s take a quick peak at Erskine’s essay:

“The disposition to consider intelligence a peril is an old Anglo-Saxon inheritance… [there is a] casual assumption that a choice must be made between goodness and intelligence; that stupidity is first cousin to moral conduct, and cleverness the first step into mischief; that reason and God are not on good terms with each other; that the mind and heart are rival buckets in the well of truth, inexorably balanced – full mind, starved heart – stout heart, weak head”.


It’s an entertaining article – not just for the substance, but also for its style. Erskine uses literature as an “instrument to prod us with” in making his point that intelligence is a supreme virtue that gives rise to dutiful obligation.  He says if you passionately admire something (like literature or whatever) but do not know why, then you’re a dumbass.  But here’s how he puts that:

If we love [great authors] and yet do not know what qualities their books hold out for our admiration, then – let me say it as delicately as possible – our admiration is not discriminating; and if we neither have discrimination nor are disturbed by our lack of it, then perhaps that wise man could not list intelligence among our virtues.


Erskine acknowledges that intelligence isn’t the only virtue. Steadfast will became the hallmark of righteous character, first among German thinkers, and remains a key virtue today.  Honor, strength, will power, endurance and bravery are important character traits but they are no substitute for intelligence, which along with wealth is a treasured blessing.  We have an affirmative moral duty not to squander our blessings.  Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), explains it this way, as I wrote here on 10/24/17:

Wealth is emancipation, rendering us master of our own time and powers, enabling us every morning to say this day is my own. Schopenhauer writes that wealth reaches its utmost value when it falls to the individual endowed with mental powers of a high order – doubly endowed by fate with both wealth and intelligence, enabling one to accomplish “what no other could achieve, by producing some work which contributes to the general good, and redounds to the honor of humanity at large. Another again, may use his wealth to further philanthropic schemes, and make himself well-deserving of his fellow-men. But a man who does none of these things, who does not even try to do them, who never attempts to study thoroughly some one branch of knowledge so that he may at least do what he can toward promoting it – such a one, born as he is into riches, is a mere idler and thief of time, a contemptible fellow.”


Don’t be a contemptible fellow. Next week, we move on to an epic battle of ideas – C. P. Snow (1905-1980) vs. F. R. Leavis (1895-1978)

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The Limits of Argument

Fight With Words

Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex made some good points recently about the limits of rationality. Let’s add them to our War Chest arsenal of awareness.  One is the idea of asymmetric weapons.  A symmetric weapon is one that works just as well for each side – like guns and bullets.  An asymmetric weapon works better for one side then it does for the other side.  Rationality is an asymmetric weapon because it works better for the “right” side; the side with superior truth, the morally more legitimate position.  He writes “Finding and using asymmetric weapons are the only non-coincidence way to make sustained moral progress”.


However, he then makes it clear that moral combat/argument has its limits and risks because of: 1) Epistemic Learned Helplessness – 6/3/19; and 2) Asymmetric Weapons Gone Bad – 6/6/19.


First, epistemic learned helplessness is when you are faced with an argument that seems highly reasonable, plausible and convincing but still refuse to accept it, or even address it, choosing instead to ignore it, not be convinced by it thereby maintaining your current belief. It’s a defense mechanism or safety valve.  If everyone believed every good argument, it would be a disaster.  There are crafty, deviously cunning minds that can develop and present highly sophisticated and convincing arguments that are wrong.  Most people refuse to be argued into believing something they do not want to believe.  They have learned to be epistemically helpless; laying down their cognitive arms in existential surrender.  And there are a few of us who have epistemic learned helplessness for most things but nonetheless engage regularly in certain arguments that matter to us a lot, like knowledge of morality and wealth, which we argue here weekly.


Second, the weapon of rationality, he cautions, may produce bad results because deploying reason, at first, may make things worse, more wrong, less believable, even though it may eventually zero in on truth and knowledge. He calls it an epistemic trap or trough and graphs it this way:


He uses socialism as an example. Brilliant thinkers plunged down the trough of wrong collectivist ideology in the late 1800s (an idea which murdered over 100 million people), until guys like F. A. Hayek figured out how wrong it was (hopefully we’re not descending again into another socialism stupidity trough – it’s a terribly bad idea).

A high belief in a highly justified position is knowledge.  A high belief in a feebly justified position is mere opinion, which may or may not be true.  Here’s a Euler diagram illustrating how knowledge relates to truths and beliefs (from the Wikipedia page for Epistemology):


True beliefs that are not soundly justified fall into the freeloader purple area above. You got lucky that it was true.  It’s not knowledge if you guess and happen to be correct.  High belief in an important idea, to which you have devoted no intellectual fire power, is not knowledge.  Our lifetime goal is to light up as much of the purple area with yellow knowledge as we can.  But we cannot have knowledge of everything; we’re forced to choose what matters to us the most and then accept epistemic learned helplessness for everything else.


Choose your weapon and defend what you value from attack. Remember the Schelling Fence concept from my 11/13/18 post? (also Scott Alexander’s idea)  My professional and personal Schelling Fence (based on Schelling Point Game Theory to defend against slippery slope arguments) is a high resource, vigorous, credible pre-commitment to defend my clients’ (the moderately wealthy) economic, intellectual and moral positions against arguers who think they know better, many of whom are wallowing in an epistemic trough of wrongness.


Next week, we delve into the relationship between morality and intelligence.

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What Can This Strange Device Be?


I became a fan of the rock band Rush as a kid.  In a song on their album 2112 (1976) a man in the distant future discovers a guitar – a long lost relic from the past – the ancient miracle of music.  He presents it to future Earth’s elders, who then scoff at him, screaming angrily to disregard the “toy” and go away.  That’s how I feel about today’s public intellectuals disregard for the ancient miracle of Aristotelian ethics – …..I present to you… ancient miracle:

Book VI of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (350 B.C.)

It’s a truly beautiful piece of philosophy from antiquity that the world could use today. Let’s watch it knock down those three pillars supporting the incorrect position that morality is not real – that it’s mere opinion rather than knowledge:


1. The hedonist error – If the good is only what we desire – individual pleasure, then there can be no objective moral reality because we all have different desires. That mistaken pillar falls first, quickly and easily. It’s so obviously wrong that I won’t waste space here – morality is not pleasure seeking.


2. David Hume’s Is vs. Ought problem – This one is harder to grasp. The book Science and the Good (2018), discusses it at length. End note 28 of Chapter 1 goes on about it for 2 full pages.

The problem, simply stated, is that truth regarding what is and truth regarding what ought to be are completely separate things.  Hume drew a hard line between descriptive statements (assertions of what is or is not) and prescriptive statements (assertions of what ought or ought not to be done).  Descriptive assertions cannot provide adequate grounds to reach a conclusion on prescriptive assertions.  The way out of the problem is to combine a prescriptive, self-evident premise along with a descriptive, self-evident premise to cogently argue for the truth of a prescriptive conclusion.

Spinoza said “good” is the name for things we consciously desire. Those things appear good because we actually desire them but it’s different for all people.  The apparent good stands in stark contrast to the actual good, which are things that we might not consciously desire, but that we need nonetheless because they are good for us, whether we know it or not.

A criterion for self-evidence is the impossibility of thinking the opposite. So Adler’s  first prescriptive self-evident premise is: We ought to desire whatever is actually good for us (not just what is apparently good for us).  It is impossible to think that we ought to desire what is actually bad for us.  Adler then combines this premise with a self-evident descriptive statement:  All humans naturally desire knowledge, which makes them better.  Those two premises lead to the prescriptive, moral truth that we ought to seek or desire knowledge.  Knowledge is a blessing.


3. A. J. Ayer’s logical positivism – The correspondent theory of truth holds that truth is only the agreement of the mind with reality, which is only descriptive. Ayer writes:

“If a sentence makes no statement at all, there is obviously no sense in asking whether what it says is either true of false…. Sentences which simply express moral judgments do not say anything. They are purely expression of feeling and as such do not come under the category of truth and falsehood. They are unverifiable….because they do not express genuine propositions.”

Humans ought to seek knowledge” asserts nothing at all according to Ayer. The way out of this problem is to understand that it asserts nothing only if truth is just descriptive and nothing else. Aristotle explained how and why practical judgments (normative with respect to action) have a very different kind of truth then descriptive truth, but a wonderfully beautiful truth nonetheless.


So we now know moral good is real, not opinion. But all actual goods are not equally good. Some rank higher than others. The lesser goods are limited goods, such as sensual pleasure and wealth, things that are good only in moderation, not without limit. The greater goods are unlimited, such as knowledge.

Go back and read my two posts on 10/17/17 and 10/24/17. They shed light on what I’m getting at:

Schopenhauer observed that human blessings are threefold:

  1. What a person is – temperament, character, intelligence, strength
  2. What a person has – property, possessions, wealth
  3. How a person stands – how he is viewed by others, reputation

Epicurus divided human needs into three categories:

  1. Natural and necessary – food, clothing, shelter
  2. Natural but unnecessary – physical and mental stimulation, art, music, knowledge
  3. Unnatural and unnecessary – luxury, prodigality, splendor


My overall point is that blessing #1 (who we are) is foremost but it can only be fulfilled (so we can be all we can be) with blessing #2 (wealth). This frees us to pursue #2 needs, natural but unnecessary needs, such as the quest for knowledge, which I will argue is our moral obligation.

Next week, we put a little epistemic perspective on all this – here’s a sneak peek:



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War Chest Weapon of Wisdom


Reasonable and intelligent minds can disagree…combatively. When someone tries to argue that it is moral and rational to confiscate my clients’ wealth for redistribution to others, we can unsheathe an ancient philosopher’s sword of wisdom to deflect the attack.  Our opponents argue that morality cannot be used to defend wealth because moral values are relative, subjective, matters of opinion and preference.  Modern social justice warriors seeking to seize private wealth are unarmed when it comes to a weapon of reason from antiquity.


Mortimer J. Adler does a masterful job in Ten Philosophical Mistakes (1985) of what an old law school professor of mine taught on winning legal arguments – cite authority, set the issues up, then knock ‘em down one at a time using logic and cogent reasoning.


He begins with the distinction between knowledge and opinion. Knowledge is truth.  Opinion may or may not be truth (and some opinions are better than others).  There is also a distinction between knowledge about which we have absolute certitude – beyond the shadow of any doubt, and knowledge about which some minimal doubt remains.  Knowledge includes both things of certitude (logic/math) and also things about which we have some doubt.  For example, science is knowledge but its principles are subject to change as we learn more.  Many scientific theories from bygone eras have turned out to be wrong, so we must assume that many of today’s theories will eventually be proved incorrect.  But science is still knowledge.


He then moves on to the issue of whether or not moral philosophy is knowledge, or mere opinion. The word “mere” in front of opinion has a derogatory connotation because knowledge is higher, better than opinion.  It has more truth certainty.  There are two groups of people.  One holds the view that morality is knowledge (objective/absolute – with a high degree of truth certainty), the other that morality is mere opinion (subjective/relative – with a low degree of truth certainty).  Does morality rise to the level of knowledge?  Three pillars supporting the position that morality is opinion, not knowledge (which Adler demonstrates are philosophical mistakes, knocking them each down one at a time) are:

  1. The hedonist error – Spinoza’s the good is what we desire
  2. Hume’s Law – you can’t get an ought from an is
  3. A. J. Ayer’s logical positivism – truth is only descriptive – it cannot be prescriptive


The ancient weapon he wields to destroy those pillars of subjective moral unreality is:

Book VI of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (350 B.C.)

It’s a powerful War Chest sword that we’ll wield next week.


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Long Thought Train Running


The conclusion of Science and the Good (2018) urges a more honest discourse on morality.  Absent serious, thoughtful consideration, we just get the forcible imposition of one view of morality over all others. Errors in the moral thinking of many contemporary intellectuals (advocating social consensus morality) persist.  Ethics cannot be grounded in arbitrary preferences – changing tastes and the whims of those in power.  There is a clear line between opinion and knowledge.  Philosophy has been around for thousands of years and, unlike science, not much progress has been made since the Greeks.


We inhabit the end cars of extremely long trains of thought – interconnected sequences of ideas that began thousands of years ago. There are two knowledge trains; one scientific, the other philosophical, and they are very, very different.  Our modern science caboose has a long line of sturdy, tightly connected cars in front of it.  Our philosophy caboose, on the other hand, has a long hodgepodge of messy, loosely connected, disjointed cars going off on different tracks in different directions.


It’s a train wreck. We have to go to the front of the philosophy locomotive, to Plato and Aristotle, to see what went wrong. The thought train is so long that small errors get dramatically magnified over time.  “The least initial deviation from the truth is multiplied later a thousand fold” wrote Aristotle.  Why is it that the true is not new and the new is not true when it comes to moral philosophy?  Adler tells us concisely and definitively*:

…investigative science gives us knowledge of reality… philosophy is also knowledge of reality, not mere opinion. Much better than that, it is knowledge illuminated by understanding.  At its best, it approaches wisdom… Precisely because science is investigative and philosophy is not, one should not be surprised by the remarkable progress in science and by the equally remarkable lack of it in philosophy.  Precisely because philosophy is based upon the common experience of mankind and is a refinement and elaboration of the common-sense knowledge and understanding that derives from reflection on that common experience, philosophy came to maturity early and developed beyond that point only slightly and slowly.


Scientific knowledge changes, grows, improves, expands, as a result of refinement in and accretion to the special experience – the observational data – on which science as an investigative mode of inquiry must rely. Philosophical knowledge is not subject to the same conditions of change or growth.  Common experience, or more precisely, the general lineaments or common core of that experience, which suffices for the philosopher, remains relatively constant over the ages.


Descartes and Hobbes in the 17th century, Locke, Hume and Kant in the 18th century, and Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell in the 20th century enjoy no greater advantages in this respect than Plato and Aristotle in antiquity.


Modern philosophers think they know more because they’re modern. They don’t.  Go back and rummage through Edmund Burke’s wardrobe of a moral imagination (like we did here from 12/15/17 to 1/30/18) to stay on track.  Next week, the War Chest hammers more spikes into the rationality railroad ties securing the fact that morality is real, true knowledge and not subjective, relative preference, mere opinion.



* Ten Philosophical Mistakes (1985), Mortimer J. Adler (1902-2001). We’ve known about these philosophical mistakes for a long time – but self-deluded agenda driven ideologues continue to abuse their platforms to deny moral truth in a hegemonic grab for power. Tyrannical philosophy mandating State seizure of private wealth for redistribution is a threat (albeit remote because of the reasons set forth here weekly) to my clients’ capital and well-being.  It’s also the subject of this blog.


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