Reconciled

Philosophy Makes Path-Dependent Progress

One of the most peculiar features of philosophy, much remarked upon, is that philosophy doesn’t seem to make progress. Not only that, we seem to return to the same views again and again. What explains this?

Philosophers disagree (as usual!), but I’d like to offer a hypothesis with two parts.

(1) Theory Space is Large. The space of plausible philosophical theories is very, very large perhaps because the space of reasons to believe as such is very, very large. As a result, progress in philosophy can go in so many different directions in principle.

(2) Arbitrary, but Real Progress. Consequently, non-rational factors like the social status of leading philosophers play a major role in determining the direction of philosophical progress, but these factors do not imply that there is no progress.

Regarding (1), it is plausible that philosophical theory space is very large, much like the class of mathematical theorems. Concept space is big, and theories that string them together to explain things is also going to be big. Further, philosophers have not only generated a huge range of views, the range of views advocated continues to grow. We’ve never run out of things to say, or found issues where we can’t find any interesting theories. People are always proposing some new, interesting thesis. If concept and argument space is very, very large, that makes sense.

Regarding (2), Why do we land in the particular spaces that we do? Why were so many of us logical positivists fifty years ago, and now we seem to be moving away from even basic philosophical naturalism?

Social Status. My sense is that philosophical discussion is driven in large part by the interests of the highest social status philosophers. I don’t know how to explain their interests, which are perhaps too personal to systematically theorize, but high status philosophers are able to drive discussion because they’re usually quite careful in developing frameworks for asking questions (rather than offering persuasive arguments). And they’re usually good at preparing graduate students to devote their lives, or much of their lives, to those questions. Given the rewards associated with publishing, and the ease with which graduate students can publish on questions where their high status advisors blaze a trail, as well as the benefits of being associated with high status persons, means that high status philosophers play an outsized role in what we discussion.

Historical Cues. Philosophers are also driven by social issues as they arise in history and culture, and those issues are in many respects random, and generally impossible to predict. Current events doesn’t change physics or biology much at all, but it does change philosophy a lot.

Science Envy. It has been quite common in the history of philosophy for philosophers to take their cues from scientists in how to formulate and address philosophical problems. This means that much of philosophical discussion is affected by scientific progress, and which sciences seem the most sturdy and progressive. But scientific progress is itself hard to predict and often occurs in unexpected paradigm shifts. That means philosophical theories are likely to be blown about by the progress of the sciences.

Popular Disgust. It has also been quite common in the history of philosophy for philosophers to approach the opinions of the masses with disgust (probably also because philosophers want to be high status, and so want to distinguish themselves from the masses, but also because the masses have easily refutable views). So philosophy is often reactive, generating discussions about views common in popular culture in order to distinguish themselves from popular culture.

Follow the Money. Philosophers have, for a very long time, depended on the patronage of non-philosophers, and this, I think, has shaped what philosophers talk about up to today (in many ways, these days our patrons are the general public and our students’ parents).

Unseriousness. For reasons I don’t quite understand, philosophers spend a lot of time dismissing some positions as unserious. This is often due to the fact that philosophers sense that their views are pretty bizarre and so are sensitive to the fact that they need to show that they’re sensible and not sophistical. And this is also in part due to science envy and popular disgust. Views held by scientists and rejected by the people will tend to influence philosophy more than other views. That’s one reason theism is low status in philosophy today. Atheism is common among leading scientists, and theism is common among the masses.

Counterfactual Philosophers. A huge amount of philosophical progress is determined by the personal idiosyncracies of the people who decide to become philosophers. Our field could be quite different if different philosophers, counterfactual philosophers, were part of the field. Have we any doubt philosophy would be different if the leading physicists had become philosophers instead?

Given all these factors, why think philosophy makes progress of any kind? Well, because people put forward inventive theories and other philosophers refute them, so we learn which views are erroneous. And periodically, there’s a new system of thought that organizes information in new and illuminating ways. So we come to know more than we knew before.

So we make philosophical progress, but because the space of concepts and arguments is so big, there is invariably path-dependence and speciation in the direction philosophy takes. But if I’m right, any progressive path is going to be determined by arbitrary factors, so we perhaps can’t be too upset about the particular arbitrary factors that drive us forward unless we think those factors are slowing progress down.

Are Liberal Regimes as Coercive as Integralist Regimes?

A week or so ago, Dave Atenasio published a nice reply to my post arguing that integralist regimes will have a hard time generating requisite levels of stability without lots of coercion. The piece is well-done, so check it out, but I’d like to jump right to the heart of the matter. I concede freely what integralists often say, which is that liberal regimes are coercive. My claim is that liberal regimes are less coercive in allowing a wider range of opinion to flourish. And if there is a natural tendency in the free use of practical reason for people to disagree, integralist regimes will therefore have to employ more coercion to achieve coordination around their comprehensive doctrine than liberal regimes, which are at least somewhat neutral on these matters, and much more than integralist regimes.

Atenasio argues that it’s just not clear whether integralist regimes are more coercive than liberal regimes, and then he proceeds to outline various ways in which liberal regimes are coercive and points out that the coerciveness of both liberal and integralist regimes, even construed as ideal types, come in degrees, and are based on a range of factors, the variety and magnitude of which will make it difficult to show definitively that liberal regimes are less coercive.

I’m pretty sympathetic to the idea that it is hard to determine which regimes and policies are more coercive than others. That’s a big point in my forthcoming book, A Liberal Democratic Peace: Creating Trust in Polarized Times, in Chapter 5. However, I don’t think we’re should be as skeptical as Atenasio believes. My argument begins with a ceteris paribus comparison between the two regime types following three restrictions on how the comparison should proceed.

First condition: I’m going to assume that liberal regimes and integralist regimes can have the same foreign policy and economic policy, within broad limits. So in comparing the two regimes, we can hold these policy classes constant. I know that integralist regimes will, on average, have a narrower band of economic policies, since liberal regimes can vary a lot in this regard, but let’s set that aside for the sake of argument.

So this means that the main comparison between the two regimes will be on social policy.

Second condition: we can hold lots of social policy constant because the degree of coerciveness of these policies are somewhat independent to what is essentially different between integralist and liberal regimes. First,  and most controversially, I think we can hold abortion policy constant because, while liberal regimes tend to permit abortion, and while integralist regimes would seek to end it, nothing about a liberal regime forbids it from adopting pro-life legislation (here I disagree with Rawls that reasonable people have to be at least somewhat pro-choice). There is no inherent instability in a pro-life liberal constitutional order, as long as it is not suffused with a pro-choice ethos. But I admit that if you’re pro-life, there’s a way in which integralist regimes will tend to be less coercive, because they almost always will forbid people from coercing the unborn into an early grave. So if liberal regimes must be pro-choice, then that is a point in the integralist’s favor.

But there are other forms of coercion that go in the other direction, since integralist regimes will embrace far more legal moralism and paternalism, and liberal orders will tend to eschew those practices, so that’s a clear way in which liberalism will be less coercive.

Third restriction: I’m going to hold the degree of pluralism in the populace constant as well. Perhaps integralist regimes will create more Catholics (though they may generate a backlash (which is how integralist regimes created the Reformation, imo: they were too violent and repressed too much disagreement). If so, then integralist regimes will become less coercive because the populace will agree with the policies of the integralist state. But liberal regimes will also not be very coercive if everyone is Catholic. But if everyone is not Catholic, then integralism will be much more coercive than liberalism, and that seems to me pretty clear.

That’s because of the big essential constitutional difference between an integralist regime and a liberal regime: the integralist regime basically has no first amendment. There is no robust right to freedom of speech, press, or religion in an integralist regime. Speech that promulgates heresy and apostasy must be restricted. Publications that promulgate heresy and apostasy must be restricted. And, obviously, the state will use coercion to promote adherence to Catholic belief and practice, even against Protestants and, maybe, Orthodox Christians, not to mention Jews, Muslims, and atheists. There are limits on such coercion, as people cannot be forced to become Catholics against their will. But, if you have been validly baptized, even as an infant, and you decide to speak what you know to be heresy or you apostasize, you’re to be held criminal liable in accord with your level of guilt. So an integralist state can imprison and perhaps even execute recalcitrant heretics.

I recognize that some will want to reject one or more of the three restrictions. But they all seem fair to me. And if they are, it seems clear that integralist regimes will be much more coercive than a regime with first amendment-like protections. Perhaps with enough time and force, the transition to integralism will produce such resolute Catholics that most people won’t even want first amendment rights. But that claim seems in tension with what we see even in heavily Catholic countries. You see lots of disagreement about all kinds of things.

Are Some People Angry and Bitter by Nature?

One thing I’ve learned in observing failed attempts at reconciliation is that some people just don’t want to be reconciled with others. They would rather remain angry with them, or worse, to be bitter and contemptuous towards them.

I find it easy to be angry and bitter with others; and I experience contempt regularly. But I am exhausted by these feelings. I’ve rather not have them; they drag down my soul.

But I’ve realized that not everyone is this way. And I wonder whether it is just a feature of the psychology of some people that they naturally experience negative emotions towards others. They just default to being angry, bitter, or contemptuous, and they have to work hard to get out of those states. I think many people find setting angry, bitterness, and contempt aside as a greater burden than letting those feelings continue.

Typically I think that people feel these negative emotions because of some kind of pain they have experienced, and that healing is too much to bear or perhaps it is impossible to address the original cause because the people who caused those feelings is out of the person’s life. And perhaps in the meanwhile these emotional states start to feel natural. People internalize anger, bitterness, and contempt so much that it becomes part of their identity, perhaps even a central part of their careers.

So the negative emotions aren’t natural; they have environmental causes, such that very few people experience those emotions unprovoked.

But I think my worldview has been too rosy on the matter. I’m now tempted by the view that some people are by nature extremely receptive to these negative attitudes.

One of the big five personality traits is neuroticism, and neuroticism tends to give rise to lots of negative emotions. Most people don’t feel these emotions by default, but people high in neuroticism are easily pushed into those negative emotional states. So while they are always angry, bitter, and contemptuous, there really are environmental causes, and without those causes, they wouldn’t have those emotional states. That means when you meet someone high in neuroticism whose environmental contains routine provocations, they will just seem angry, bitter, and contemptuous all the time.

So maybe habitually angry and bitter people are high in neuroticism and their social environment constantly provokes them into negative emotional states.

But what’s your experience? Do you know people who are just angry and bitter and hateful people? Or do you generally suppose that they have been hurt, such that almost no one is naturally in an angry or bitter state?