A proposition that cannot be carried into practice at all cannot be true. An act that cannot be implemented in actuality must be somehow incoherent: self-refuting – for example, you can’t mean it when you say, “this statement is a lie” – or a contradiction in terms either simple or implicit – e.g., there’s just no way to implement “2 + 3 = 4,” for it is a contradiction in terms. That such propositions can’t work logically means that they can’t work in practice.
But a proposition that can be carried into practice might be true. E.g., “It is best not to defer gratification.”
When we sin, we assert one or more of a number of propositions:
God does not exist.
God is not omniscient.
God is amoral.
The world is amoral.
God does not care whether I behave well or not, nor does the world.
Whether or not God cares about my behavior does not matter (to me, at least).
And so forth. When we misbehave, we effectually attest to our belief in at least one of these propositions, or else in one of a number of other propositions like them. And to attest belief in propositions is to testify to their truth, and so is to urge their truth: behavior is an effectual proposal for how it might be well to behave.
I have long been intrigued by the conservation laws. Conservation of energy, momentum, charge, and so forth all seem to point to a more basic conservation, of which they are all instances. I was therefore interested to read in Bill Dembski’s latest book, Being as Communion: A Metaphysics of Information, his discussion of Conservation of Information in search routines. He has apparently demonstrated (I have not read the demonstrations, which appear in the technical literature he cites in the book) that increasing the likelihood of a successful search – i.e., a search that has an object and finds it – over and above the walk of a blind drunkard who is not looking for anything in particular may be accomplished only through additional investment of information in the search routine. This can be done in a number of ways: by a more comprehensive specification of the configuration of the object, or by adding a feedback circuit to the algorithm, or by adding strange attractors to the configuration space (so that the environment of the search itself embodies more information) or some other similar measure. But any such improvements of search efficiency – of the likelihood of success – come at a cost of their own: it takes information to inform the search. At best, then, informed search will cost just as much as blind search, and cannot cost less. But then also if the information added to the routine is not essentially perfect – free of noise and error – then the addition will cost more information than it saves: the overall cost of the search, plus the cost of the search for the improvements to that search, will exceed the cost of random wandering about the configuration space.
An eye for an eye makes the whole world circumspect. But, also, an eye for an eye makes the whole world cooperative, as Robert Axelrod showed with his study of tit for tat and competing strategies using iterated rounds of contests among genetic algorithms (described in his book The Evolution of Cooperation). Tit for tat beat all the alternative strategies, again and again; and as rounds of the contest were iterated, with winning strategies favored by the reproductive mechanism of the iteration, it more and more perfused the population of competing algorithms. As tit for tat increased in frequency, so did the total value generated by all competitors in each round: fewer and fewer defections occurred, and responses to defections were more and more often optimal.
That tit for tat wins the evolutionary game does not mean that its superiority is merely adventitious, an artifact of this or that sequence of random events that might have been quite different, and so generated quite a different sort of winner. On the contrary: provided the game goes on long enough, tit for tat wins every time, sooner or later, and no matter how the sequence of outcomes varies. The utile superiority of tit for tat is a truth of game theory, so that like any other mathematical truth it is from before any and all worlds, and holds true in every world. The metaphysical superiority of tit for tat, then, is the source and reason of its practical evolutionary success, and not vice versa (this is true of all perdurant evolutionary success). Tit for tat is the optimal strategy in evolutionary practice because it is the best in metaphysical fact. As metaphysically best it is the most moral policy of all (these are two ways to say the same thing).
It would be better for everyone if moral hazard were eliminated from the social order as much as possible. But it will be hard to root it out, because it is institutionalized deep in our laws. How deep? As deep as the rejection at the beginning of the 19th century of the old Mesopotamian notion of proper compensation for torts, memorialized both in the Law of Hammurabi and in the OT: an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. The moment we reduced the penalties for torts from the time-honored “like for like” to financial compensation or time served, we reduced the net cost of hurting each other. Reducing the net cost of any sort of act does not generate more such acts immediately – you need agents for the mediation – but it does decrease the disinclination of agents to enact them, which they then more often proceed to do. So we are losing a lot more eyes and teeth than we might have been, had the penalties remained as they were.
If the notion of the social construct is true, then the notion of the social construct is itself a social construct. It is without any basis in reality, so that there is no real reason we should notice it, or order our lives thereby.
The consequence is that when someone argues that, e.g., marriage is a social construct, so that we may change it if we like so that gays can marry, it can be argued with equivalent force that the notion that gays ought to be able to marry is likewise a social construct. We may therefore reject the notion of gay marriage, under the banner of social construction, and there will be no way that the moral nihilists can gainsay us. If there is no moral reality, so that no one has any basis in that reality for an argument against gay marriage, then by the same token no one has any basis in moral reality for an argument against the proscription of gay marriage – or anything else, whatsoever.
In general, it’s no good to argue from moral nominalism to any moral realism. You can’t get any ought from “there is no such thing really as an ought.” Thus to talk at all about what it is right or proper to do is implicitly to recognize the falsity of moral nominalism; if moral nominalism is true, then nothing is really right or wrong to do, and such talk is all just nonsense. Moral discourse of any sort at all implicitly agrees to the presupposition that moral discourse has something real to discuss.
[This is a much-revised version of an article that originally appeared some years ago at The Brussels Journal.]
Prologue: Contemporary popular culture is as jejune as contemporary politics, with which it is more or less indistinguishable: Strangled by political correctness and by contempt for form and etiquette, “pop” culture eats away like acid at what remains of courtesy and memory. But the past of popular culture – in literature, illustration, and the movies – has much nourishment to offer. One of the most widely read authors of the Twentieth Century, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875 – 1950), had a penetrating insight concerning the health of the body politic and the positive relation of a vital culture to its founding traditions. The author of Tarzan(1912) and its many sequels, the inventor of the extraterrestrial sword-and-sandals romance, ex-cavalryman, admirer of the Apache and the Sioux, anti-Communist, anti-Nazi, self-publishing millionaire entrepreneur, religious skeptic, “Big-Stick” patriot, Southern California real-estate baron, sixty-year-old Pacific-Theater war correspondent, Burroughs has, with a few ups and downs, maintained an audience from his authorial debut in 1912 to the present day, nearly sixty-five years after his passing. Burroughs has a place in the culture wars, standing as he does for the opposite of almost everything advocated by the elites of the new liberal-totalitarian order. I offer, in what follows, a modest assessment of Burroughs’ work.
A correspondent of our fellow orthospherean blogger and valued commenter Joseph of Arimathea has noticed that if latter-day feminism is correct in its assertion that sex is nothing but a social construct, like language – this being why feminists like to call it by the linguistic term, “gender,” rather than the proper biological term, “sex” – then *the female sex does not actually exist.* All appearances to the contrary, there is no such thing, really, as a female.
For those in a hurry, Mr. Locke’s central point is this: If all forms of drug use were to be legalized, it would rapidly become not only socially acceptable, but subsidized and forcibly legitimized by the state, much as homosexuality has been. The results would be catastrophic. Even more catastrophic, that is.
Note also that there is a legitimate debate on the tactics we use to oppose drug abuse. Mr. Locke’s essay concerns only the key point that we must not end official opposition to drug abuse. Continue reading →
When I teach my course on science fiction at SUNY Oswego, I concentrate on classic texts of the highest literary merit – those by Edgar Allan Poe, H. G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, and Ray Bradbury. When I pursue my lifelong hobby I am less selective. When I discover an unknown paperback title in a second hand bookshop, I frankly judge the item by its cover while where content is concerned I hope for the best. Most of the mouldering paperbacks fall short of memorability. Occasionally, however, a jewel appears among the rubble, a short story or novel more or less forgotten that, for one reason or another, merits contemporary re-visitation. One such, which I encountered again three or four years ago after a lapse of decades, is Charles Eric Maine’s World Without Men (1958), a novel about the long-term implications of birth control, abortion, and the so-called sexual revolution that treats these matters in a bold and prescient way.