Tuesday, October 14, 2008

But It's an Engineering Problem, Isn't It?

When your world is crumbling around you, maybe it's time to figure out What It All Means, right? Which brings us to this (H/T McArdle):
How can you have the foundational without the foundation? Where can the bedrock come from, if you acknowledge that you've chosen your preference for it? How can traditionalism survive, when you know that mere human subjectivity is the source of tradition? Conservatism has tradtionally been suspicious, even hateful, of postmodern skepticism towards meta-narratives. I think many of the pomocons believe that they can have the destabilizing nature of postmodernism and yet still knowingly choose the stability of classical forms, traditional mores. But the old school conservatives abhor the postmodern for a reason. They know the limits of willed obediance to the past, they recognize the fragility of any conservatism of choice.
Possibly a lousy quote--read the whole thing and despair. Or rejoice.

This is not a happy thing for a 50-year-old atheist to read while deep, deep, deep in the middle of his very own existential mid-life crisis. Because I've gone down this particular superhighway more than a few times in the last six months and there's still just a big "Road Closed" sign at the end. (Or maybe it says, "No Exit." Oooooooooo.)

As for postmodern conservatism, anybody who chooses to believe that which they can't reasonably believe is just delaying the crisis. Maybe that's appropriate. Always put off today what you can do tomorrow if tomorrow will improve your chances. (OK, OK, I'm a 50-year-old atheist deep deep deep in the middle of his existential mid-life crisis who still remembers his Heinlein. Sue me. I was young and impressionable, once.)

None of which, of course, gets you anywhere close to a workable political philosophy that you can apply to get an objectively better society. The world is riven irrevocably between those who can do the Belief Thing and those who can't. I can't. It seems like fewer and fewer people can, especially those who can actually think. This augurs very poorly for the future, unless you're talking about a future so grim that superstition becomes a beneficial survival adaptation.

So here we are, sitting on 350 years of post-enlightenment philosophy and we still don't have a decent answer to this: Why should we be good without an overseer?

I have to believe that the answer lies somewhere along these lines: We should be good because it's good for something bigger than ourselves and that something will actually enhance the happiness, success, and survival of our selves, our families, our society. We should be good because it's an emergent property that's strongly correlated with successful species. I really don't care if it was divinely instilled or whether it just growed that way, like Topsy. I strongly suspect the latter but I'm open to arguments about the former (or should that be Former?).

Seen from this perspective, you're left with an educational problem. If everybody were aware of the above, it might change their behavior a bit. If everybody were aware of the above, they would be a lot more certain about teaching it to their children. And if their children were taught it in such a way that it isn't wiped out in the inevitable conflict between rationality and faith, maybe they'll act on it a bit more instinctively.

That sounds like the beginnings of a virtuous cycle to me.

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