Back here Blowhard Esq. summed up UR’s philosophy in a nutshell by quoting Frédéric Bastiat, which makes us classical liberals in economic matters I think. I don’t object since that line of thinking is agreeable. Plus, I didn’t see Blowhard Esq. as plumping for the kind of doctrinaire approach I am averse to. Let a hundred flowers bloom, I say, and keep the Roundup handy.
But it got me thinking about my philosophy, or relative lack of one.
I am hardly spiritual. There’s not much I can do about that. I am not wired to have Buddha on the brain, as JayMan puts it. But I don’t draw from that a firm atheistic world view either.
When I was in college and first read about pragmatism I thought I didn’t get it since it was so transparently weightless. Is that all there is? Over time I turned the question on its head and decided that if I had an identity in terms of ideas pragmatism was it. Thus when I came across a quotation like the famous one by Holmes on the law
The Life of the law has not been logic. It has been experience.
I got a pleasant little ping feeling in my brain. Of course the law did not descend from heaven–it evolved through trial and error, right?
The same ping when I read Ambrose Bierce’s definition of “decide” in The Devil’s Dictionary:
To succumb to the preponderance of one set of influences over another set.
This style of meme itself evolved–in Holmes’ case as a result of the dual impact of Darwin and the trauma of the Civil War. Bierce was a contemporary of Holmes, too, and also profoundly affected by his experience as a Union soldier.
Over time, I came to see that, as a Northern European by genes and as a quasi-Yankee New Englander growing up in the shadow of such ideas I was powerless to escape them. My initial resistance to pragmatism, I concluded, was that of the fish that does not recognize it is in water. And as an increasingly thoroughgoing pragmatist, I was obliged to turn my philosophy back on itself, and to recognize, ruefully for the most part, that my thoughts were hardly my own but bound up with biology, history and culture. Pragmatism included. It is not a particularly heroic fate, but in the end all heroes are bores, and who wants to be that?
For me, the first rule of pragmatism: no skyhooks. Cranes yes; skyhooks no. Church doctrine? Uh-uh. Natural rights? No thanks. And so on and so forth with all those conversation stoppers from the sacredness of the free market to the holiness of Emma Lazarus’s creed.
The Rapture? Good luck with that. One rather yuge skyhook.
So I am a receptive audience for Matt Ridley’s new book, The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge.
Ridley’s book is at first glance an ambitious one. Ridley takes the general theory of evolution, something that he sees at work in the universe as a whole, and applies it to successive iterations of humans and their products. The chapters are set up to consider such facets serially: evolution and genetics, evolution and culture, evolution and population, leadership, religion, government, money, the internet.
As such, evolution is portrayed as having a kind of “magic key” quality. Look through its lens and you can now see everything–everything–the way it is, not the way you might want it to be. And what is it really? A bottom-up, not a top-down, process.
It is, in short, a long brief against skyhooks. Sometimes it goes down easy. Look over there at money . . . you think you see a skyhook there? Sorry, no. Look over there at religion. A skyhook for sure, right? No again.
Other times I am not so sure. Kings? We don’t need them (but: never did?) Planning? Beware that urge (but: where is the line between centralized and decentralized plans?) The internet? It is not part of a command world but an organic one (but: what about the NSA and the Great China Firewall?)
To say nothing about open borders. Heck, let people go where they will!
In the end, Ridley’s book is not quite as ambitious as I thought going into it. All of history is, as it turns out, just one damned crane after another, even if we have been blind to the obvious.
Am I persuaded about the illusion of skyhooks? Well, yes, in the sense that I don’t think I could really see things in any other way. I am an easy target.
But was I totally satisfied? No, not really. But how can I be? The pragmatic/evolutionary viewpoint would not be greatly comforting in it core, if a core it had. There is a pesky inherent discomfort in the evolutionary worldview.
There’s also a little naturalistic fallacy risk. Even if all, or most all, things are best viewed as mostly bottom up, does that mean we should view them that way as we conduct our lives? What we think and what animates our actions are not always the same thing. Indeed, they are seldom aligned all that well–a central insight of the very evolutionary thinking Ridley depends on.
There’s also the universal acid problem. Ridley acknowledges Daniel Dennett’s notion that Darwin’s idea is a dangerous one, a kind of universal acid that will work through anything.
It is hard dealing with that dang universal acid. Most of the time you have to make allowances.
And Ridley does. Thankfully, he doesn’t fully embrace the no skyhook rule. After all, skyhooks may not exist but the belief in skyhooks surely does. And so the question, from an adaptive point of view, is whether the belief in skyhooks, however fanciful, is better than a belief in cranes. Better how?
It is here that Ridley needs to tiptoe more gently. He cannot deny the existence in the belief in skyhooks–they have been central to, or simply in, the development of civilization. But he nonetheless feels the need to make the case for cranes.
But what is that case?
That we should all believe in cranes because c’mon let’s face it skyhooks don’t exist?
That the belief in skyhooks was once adaptive but no longer is because of . . . ?
That the development of the skyhook idea was just a kind of wrong turn, and we’d all be much better off had we stuck to cranes all along?
That we ought to pay more attention to cranes than skyhooks, for whatever reason?
Ridley seems to end up with the latter, more or less. But it is all pretty muddy. While his book is an excellent brief for the way reduced power of skyhooks I really see it as tackling the question of “how ideas emerge” in a fundamental way. Doing that would require a deeper reflection into the difficult and tricky relation between circumstances and ideas. A natural history of memes, as it were.