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April 18, 2007


Val Larsen

Descartes humble? The rejection of his radical skepticism a major reason Christianity’s hold on Europe has weakened? I am afraid that Nathaniel has passed from this world into its bizzaroland equivalent, the photographic negative where black is white and white is black, skepticism is belief and belief skepticism. Though Straussians argue plausibly that Descartes was a closet atheist, when I read him many years ago (in 1978), I took him at his word and accepted his claim to believe in God. Certainly, a plausible case can be made either way, and I felt to give him the benefit of the doubt. But were his reasons for believing rationally compelling? Do they overcome the burden of skepticism his method imposes on himself and others? Few, I think, would agree that they do. So having pulled down the edifice of belief constructed by the labors of millions over the course of centuries—hardly the act of a modest, self-effacing champion of Christian humility—Descartes gave the faithful not bread but a stone.

On its face, one must be arrogant to arrogate to oneself the right and responsibility to reject all settled knowledge and make the world anew. And one must also be misguided. There is a reason why pre-literate cultures venerate those who preserve the past by feats of memory or by dint of long training in a craft. Customs and customary ways of doing things are not always--but are almost always--superior to their proposed replacements. When it was hard to preserve the knowledge and wisdom embodied in traditional mores because storage technologies such as writing had not been invented, people better understood this. In our day when any fool can replicate the past—at least in the sense of copying down some wise man’s words--novelty in thought and behavior has been assigned an inappropriately high social value.

Of all people, an economist should appreciate this truth. Let’s do an economic thought experiment. Put some intelligent Cartesian—say Nathaniel—out in the woods alone where his mode of thinking (and living—for the patterns of everyday living are inherited from others, not invented anew by us) will be uncontaminated by the misguided crowd. Will this Cartesian’s life be enhanced or impoverished by his solitude? I am in no suspense as to what your answer will be. And the reason is that each of us benefits every moment of our lives from the knowledge of others in matters technical and mundane. No one person can construct a steel ax of a quality comparable to the ones cheaply available at the hardware store, let alone a car or a computer. In the practical domain, we are patently unable to create even the smallest modicum of a civilized life for ourselves, by ourselves. And why should things be any different in the domains of the intellect and spirit. In this respect, Hegel was surely right in understanding that Descartes’ radical skepticism could never have occurred to him had he not stood at a certain point within a long, inherited intellectual tradition that made his way of thinking possible.

In the end, skepticism of the sort Descartes (and Nathaniel) propose can be nothing but a pose. With their every step and every thought, these Cartesians are enmeshed in and constituted by an inescapable material and intellectual culture that is a legacy of past and present lives. They have no choice but to accept the gift. They are morally obligated to accept it with grateful humility.

Nathan Smith

Okay, so first of all, while Val takes himself to be disagreeing with me, I generallly agree with the thrust of what Val writes. But some things must be added.

The trouble with the principle of accepting tradition is that there are many traditions. Which do you accept? Your parents'? Your community's? Certainly no thoughtful Christian cannot be satisfied with that answer, since Christianity is an ecumenical faith which began, within recorded history, by converting people from other faiths. To believe in Christianity for reasons of mere inheritance or blood is to say that all the first apostles were fools or traitors. And yes, the subtle apostasy of accepting Christianity on the Christianity-inconsistent grounds that it was the "the faith of our fathers" was the father to the open apostasy of not accepting it on any grounds at all.

It is no great insight that "Descartes' radical skepticism could never have occurred to him had he not stood at a certain point in a long, inherited intellectual tradition," for Descartes says as much himself when he describes the missionary purposes of his philosophy. But an amendment is needed: Descartes stood at a certain point not in one, but in *two* traditions: the traditions of the believers, and that of the unbelievers. He was the heir of both, one through his parents and the community immediately around him, the other through indirect intercultural contacts. Descartes had to choose between these alternatives, and he wanted to do so on the basis of some sort of grounds, so he tried to think it out for himself, which had the added merit that, after he had resolved the issue in favor of his own Christian tradition (even if later philosophers have not found his resolution very satisfactory), he now had a way to try to convince believers in the other tradition to adopt the true one.

Like Descartes, I am in debt to the great intellectual tradition of mankind. I acknowledge the debt with grateful humility. My gratitude forbids me to pay the debt in the false coin of slavish obeisance. My humility forbids me to claim to understand those aspects of it which I do not understand, or to have achieved knowledge of those aspects of it which I have not achieved knowledge. My respect for my intellectual forebears leads me to believe that, if my best efforts lead to the conviction that some of them were mistaken-- and some of them must be mistaken for they disagree with each other, at least so it seems to me-- they would prefer to be corrected rather than to continue to mislead posterity.

Respect for tradition forces an open mind.


I have to say that was a smashingly good post, Nathan

Val Larsen

It appears that Nathaniel and I may not disagree as much as I had originally assumed, and the reason appears to be that he is not so faithful a Cartesian as his original post suggested. Indeed, his position seems to be that Descartes himself was not a very faithful Cartesian: “Descartes' radical skepticism could never have occurred to him had he not stood at a certain point in a long, inherited intellectual tradition, for Descartes says as much himself.” It has been more than thirty years since I read Descartes, so I don’t pretend to fully recall his argument, but this assertion that he saw himself as the beneficiary of a long intellectual tradition, that he recognized he was building on that tradition, surprises me. And it seems rather inconsistent with the passages Nathaniel quotes above. Indeed, if it truly is Descartes contention that he would not have been in a position to doubt everything but for being the beneficiary of the thought of others, he would seem to involve himself in self contradiction from the get go. For the moment he doubts everything—including that tradition—then he is no longer in a position to know that he should doubt everything. When I read him long ago, I didn’t get the impression that he was so easily entangled in self contradiction.

Nathaniel writes:

The trouble with the principle of accepting tradition is that there are many traditions. Which do you accept?

I have a couple of answers for that. The first is that it doesn’t much matter which of them I accept if the alternative is a set of views I make up de novo out of my own head after having doubted everything. Any tradition of long standing would be superior to that Cartesian concoction. The second answer is implicit in my original post. In practice, few people wander through the world as a lost soul, torn between many traditions, settled in none. Most of those who do are easily located (along with those who create realities de novo in their head)—at the local insane asylum. Rather, we find ourselves already situated within a social context where a number of traditions merge and overlap. These traditions are usually not starkly in conflict, and we make choices among them and changes on the margins, adding our bit wisdom to the social DNA that is handed down to the next generation.

Though Jesus and the Apostles wouldn’t have been surprised to hear others call them fools and traitors, that is not how they saw themselves—and justifiably so. Not one jot or title of the law was done away in Christ. It was merely fulfilled. Even today, many thoughtful Jews think of Christianity as a Jewish sect. I have not suggested that people should believe in Christianity merely for reasons of inheritance or blood. One should discover for oneself the vital spirit that animates the tradition. Proper respect for and gratitude to the dead who have handed down to us the valuable legacy of a proven tradition means, in my view, that we do not lightly reject what has been handed down by our parents and grandparents, that we prove it fairly before moving on to something else. But now that technology preserves the past, the social cost of people moving from one tradition to another is not as high as it was when the wisdom of the past was not as easily preserved.

But note this. When a person is converted from one religion to another or moves to another country and adopts its mores, that person is not involving himself in a Cartesian gambit. He is making a choice between already existing fully formed constellations of belief that have undergone the Burkean test of time that validates them. Those who do embrace religious or secular philosophies that radically depart from the past run the risk of calamity, of the gulag or cultural revolution or Jonestown. In the end, one’s own conversion to another belief or converting others has little connection to the Cartesian gambit. Descartes was not wandering from philosopher to philosopher or from one priest to another looking for an already coherent set of beliefs he could convert to. So I stand by my metaphor of the Cartesian Nathaniel alone in the woods, trying to create all thought and action de novo. It is the more apt metaphor.

As for the claim that Descartes became a better missionary, able to communicate with others and bring them to share his views because cogitat, ergo, erat, that is what Habermas calls a performative contradiction. If he had to doubt all that he had ever thought or that anyone had ever told him in order to come to the truth, how can anything he tells another serve to convince that person. If the person follows his example, he will begin by assuming that everything Descartes has just said is false.


I cannot claim to be an expert on Descartes, but I feel Val has overhardened the Cartesian position, something that will make most threads of thought in some way self-contradictory or tautological.

Nathan Smith

Val raises some fascinating, subtle, and very important issues in his comment, and I hope I will not obscure that if I begin by cherry-picking the place where he is most clearly wrong, namely:

"If [Descartes] had to doubt all that he had ever thought or that anyone had ever told him in order to come to the truth, how can anything he tells another serve to convince that person. If the person follows his example, he will begin by assuming that everything Descartes has just said is false."

No, no, no. Descartes' interlocutor would not assume that what Descartes said was false; he would *doubt* it, and then examine it for himself. After that, if Descartes' argument was convincing, he would accept it. Val seems to think that the Cartesian credo that we must doubt everything precludes learning from others. Not at all. We can learn from others by listening to their arguments and evidence, then evaluating these using our own critical faculties, and then, if they pass the test, accepting their claims. This is why Val's analogy to the person alone in the forest is invalid. A better analogy would be to a person living in a commercial society, who does business with all those whose wares seem to him useful, and tries to make his own only when none of what is on offer meets his needs.

Second, in response to this--

"this assertion that [Descartes] saw himself as the beneficiary of a long intellectual tradition, that he recognized he was building on that tradition, surprises me..."

Descartes doesn't put it that way. I'll go out on a limb and suggest that it might have been impossible for anyone to talk that way in the 17th century, because the idea of an organically growing tradition, which each thinker is rooted in and builds on in his turn, was a product of German philosophers in the 19th century. (Though I'm not a good enough intellectual historian to be sure of this.) What Descartes did is write, or take himself to be writing, as a faithful son of the Church, and he even cites a Lateran Council as a sanction for his work.

But the most interesting issue that Val raises is that of how thinking people should relate to tradition. Val writes:

"[I]t doesn’t much matter which [tradition] I accept if the alternative is a set of views I make up de novo out of my own head after having doubted everything. Any tradition of long standing would be superior to that Cartesian concoction."

Now, this claim has a certain plausibility on its face, because any tradition represents a sort of accretion/synthesis of the thought, not merely theoretical but tested in the course of their lives, of many people. "Two heads are better than one," the saying goes. Surely thousands of other people's heads are better than my one head. Looked at this way, to say that I got it right and all those thousands (millions, billions) of people got it wrong does seem like insane arrogance.

And yet what can you make of the idea that *all* the traditions are smarter than you? If I believe that X is smarter than me in every way, then if I believe that A, then discover that X thinks B, I change my belief to B. But now suppose that the Buddhists believe in reincarnation, the pagan Greeks in a ghostly Hades, the Christians that the immortal soul is consigned to beatitude or perdition according to its acts and the grace of God, and the scientific materialists (who have been around long enough now to be a sort of tradition) that the soul dies with the body. If I say "All these traditions are wiser than I am, so I defer to them all," what do I end up believing?

Val minimizes the problem of clashing traditions:

"we find ourselves already situated within a social context where a number of traditions merge and overlap. These traditions are usually not starkly in conflict..."

That may be true when it comes to basic ethics or certain aspects of practical wisdom. Justice, mercy, gratitude, forethought, some form of chastity or modesty when it comes to sex, are found in most or all traditions. But when it comes to more cerebral beliefs, I think mankind's traditions *are* pretty starkly in conflict with each other. It may be rarer-- though still not particularly rare-- that the "social context" we find ourselves in contains stark contradictions. But what does the social context we find ourselves in have to do with anything, anyway? The mere chance of our having been born here or there can hardly be relevant to the likelihood of a particular tradition being true. The Christian tradition certainly insists that people sometimes have to make radical departures from what their "social context" thinks in order to come to the truth. Even if you agree with Val in regarding the early Christian church as a fulfillment of Jewish tradition (the extent to which Christianity was continuous with traditional Judaism versus a radical departure from it is a complex topic), the Greeks and Romans whom Paul converted were clearly breaking with their traditions to join it.

Val says that "when a person is converted from one religion to another... that person is not involving himself in a Cartesian gambit." How does he know? What if the person leaves one faith and is a "seeker" for a time before joining another? Might it not be that such a seeker, rather than "wandering from... one priest to another looking for an already coherent set of beliefs [to] convert to," says instead: "They might all be wrong, after all, so I'd better start by working it out for myself as best I can." Then, having begun to do so, the seeker might realize: "All the things that seem true to me bear a resemblance to what I've heard about the teachings of such-and-such religion. Maybe I should see what else they have to say..." And later: "Yes, these guys seem to have got it right, as far as I can tell. I'll join!" The stylized notion of the Cartesian gambit does not seem entirely inapt as a description of my own religious crossover. I can't see any reason not to think that a lot of religious conversions might follow this pattern, too.

For that matter, even when people stay in the same religion, but regard themselves as having had, in some sense, a conversion experience, the Cartesian gambit might describe how they came to a mature belief in their birth-religion. If we take him at his word, this was the case with Descartes himself. You may not be convinced by his argument from radical skepticism back to the Catholic faith, but he seems to have been. Val says that "one should discover for oneself the vital spirit that animates the tradition." That's easier said than done, of course, and one of the paths to that discovery of the essence of a tradition may be the Cartesian gambit: put it through the test of radical doubt, and see how it comes through that test with flying colors!

Again, Val says that out of "proper respect for and gratitude to the dead" we should "not lightly reject what has been handed down." But doubting is not the same as rejecting. And if we are to avoid even doubting, well, that is not my idea of respect. It is those whom I respect most whom I am most willing to question and challenge, because I am confident that they can hold their own in a debate.

Still, there *is* something a bit quixotic about the Cartesian gambit, because even if there are fundamental truths (e.g., "cogito ergo sum"), and even if it is possible in principle to build justifications for an adequate worldview from those foundations, very few people if anyone at all has the time or cognitive capacity to actually do this. (If we think we have done it we are often mistaken.) Tradition, the sociality of knowledge is inevitable, essential, yet how can it be epistemologically justified?

My best answer to this question is at an old post: "The Epistemologies of Tradition and Revelation."


but I don't think I've arrived at a wholly satisfying answer.

Anyway, Val's attempt to endorse all traditions at once seems untenable to me, a form of relativism. But I don't blame him too much, because I understand the question that motivates it, and it is a very difficult one.

Val Larsen

In his post on the epistemologies of tradition and revelation, Nathaniel writes the following (among other things that I generally agree with):

“The sociality of knowledge, the need for tradition, may be deduced from a commonsense recognition of human cognitive limitations; the revelation of the Gospel cannot. The mental habits of one who has learned to accept tradition-- deference even if only provisional, a willingness to wait for insight about opaque passages rather than rejecting them, an assumption that the texts and rituals have hidden meanings and justifications, a persistence in searching for these-- will equip a person to approach revelation with an appropriate attitude.”

The point he makes in this passage and more explicitly in other parts of this post is consistent with the argument I make above about the importance of a division of labor in intellectual and spiritual as well as in practical undertakings. Just as well being suffers if a nation follows policies of protectionism and import substitution, so an individual who separates himself from social/intellectual intercourse with others will suffer a loss of well being. In each case, intellectual and material, we receive beneficial things from others we cannot produce for ourselves. Still more pertinent to this thread is the following passage from the post on tradition and revelation:

“Self-conscious rationalism, along the lines of Descartes' ‘doubting everything,’ adopts a more individualistic epistemology: it insists that we cannot simply believe what we're told, we must test it, confirm or disconfirm it, for ourselves. But this epistemic individualism can only be adopted selectively, because our minds/lifetimes are radically inadequate to the task of proving/justifying even the belief-system that is minimal for sanity. Also, the greatest genius would not be capable of recognizing and culling all the beliefs that he had inherited or absorbed uncritically from others.”

The question is, how is this wise statement to be reconciled with the following from the post at the head of this thread:

“Gambit seems an appropriate word with which to describe the legendary first move in the philosophy of Rene Descartes, the move of "doubting everything”…. I regard the Cartesian gambit as compulsory, a matter of simple honesty, at any rate for an intelligent person.”

If it is not possible to doubt everything, it cannot be compulsory to doubt everything. Perhaps like Emerson, Nathaniel is large and can contain multitudes. Perhaps he too views consistency as the hobgoblin of small minds, though his concern about how inconsistencies in great traditions makes this unlikely. So I am led to conclude that this gambit post is a gambit in a larger game and must be read ironically. An ironic reading is supported by the following, also taken from the thoughtful epistemologies of tradition and revelation post:

“The rationalist ethos has its place; but it should never be applied without a certain irony.”

Nathan Smith

"So I am led to conclude that this gambit post is a gambit in a larger game and must be read ironically."

Hehe. *Touche*. I guess I'm somewhere in the middle on this one, and I sound like a traditionalist when my main interlocutor is Nato and like a rationalist when my main interlocutor is Val. The truth is I didn't remember everything I wrote in the earlier post. Still, I think I can make a case that what I thought at the time of the earlier post and what I thought while writing this one are not necessarily inconsistent, that it was a difference rather of emphasis.

Val writes: "If it is not possible to doubt everything, it cannot be compulsory to doubt everything." But surely, as a Christian, Val recognizes the flaw in that. We Christians know well that we are all sinners; we know that we are called to live by an *ethos* that is beyond our capacity to achieve. "Be perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect," says Jesus Christ. None of us do it, yet we do not therefore regard Jesus's exhortation as false or irrelevant. If we are exhorted to a total love, a total forgiveness, a total worship that we cannot achieve, then why not the unattainable total humility and honesty of the aspiration to which Descartes is the symbol?

(Val will no doubt not accept the equation of honesty and doubting. Semantically, he has a point: honesty can typically refer to any situation where a person believes what he says, even if he has no good reason for believing it. But common sense says that those who believe everything they hear without looking for grounds are unreliable. So the extension of the virtue of honesty from scruples in belief-reporting to scruples in belief-formation is natural, and I think inevitable.)

Val said earlier that "In the end, skepticism of the sort Descartes (and Nathaniel) propose can be nothing but a pose." I'd amend that to: "Skepticism of the sort Descartes... proposes is always *to some extent* a pose"; and with that reformulation I'd agree. But kneeling in church, too, is always to some extent a pose. Just as the worshipper cannot fully "lay aside all earthly cares" as he comes before God, the philosopher cannot really lay aside all prejudices in his search for truth. But the worshipper and the philosopher try nonetheless. They are conscious, perhaps, of a certain irony, a sense of their own inadequacy to achieve the high task to which they are committed. But they still make-- they *must* make-- the attempt.

Nathan Smith

One point that needs mentioning since we have come back to the theme of humility. Val writes: "one must be arrogant to arrogate to oneself the right and responsibility to reject all settled knowledge..." But Descartes did not claim the right to reject all settled knowledge, and in particular, not the knowledge of other people; he focused his critical lens on *himself.* That is why his enterprise must be characterized as humble rather than arrogant.

Nathan Smith

Also, it deserves mention that Descartes didn't doubt everything, because he found one thing that was impossible to doubt: the "cogito" of cogito ergo sum. I think there's at least one other thing that is, in practice, impossible to doubt: that *there is order in the world.* Hume's disproof of inductive reasoning showed that, logically, one can't even be sure the sun will rise tomorrow, just because has risen the 10,000 days before. Strictly speaking, logic offers no grounds for thinking the sun's past rising even increases the probability of its rising tomorrow. But it is impossible for us to internalize this belief even if we can formally, cerebrally, rationally accept it. We have an indelible faith in induction, in patterns, that *there is order in the world.* Radical skepticism is useful as a spade that hits upon the ore of this underlying faith.

Nathan Smith

Also, Val didn't answer my question. If all traditions are wiser than I am, what am I supposed to believe about the afterlife? Whatever conclusion I settle on, I'll end up making the arrogant claim that I am right and millions of others have got it wrong!


Is it more humble to doubt or not to doubt? Or is it more humble to not even pretend towards absolute humility? The race to absolute humility seems fraught with contradiction and irony...


Doubting things has nothing to do with humility!!! FOO!

humility means not posturing like you know something that you don't for reason of personal status. In so much as humility has anything to do with the epistemic.


Is froclown revealed as Mr T?

Val Larsen

Nathaniel writes:
“Also, Val didn't answer my question. If all traditions are wiser than I am, what am I supposed to believe about the afterlife? Whatever conclusion I settle on, I'll end up making the arrogant claim that I am right and millions of others have got it wrong!”
Though Nathaniel has more than his fair share of wisdom, it is nonetheless true as he himself argued in the earlier post on the epistemology of tradition that all traditions are wiser than he because they embody the experience and wisdom of many people. Within any well established tradition, one can live a decent and tolerant life. Indeed, it is predictable on game-theoretical grounds that all major traditions extend some measure of tolerance to other traditions. Traditions that don’t—the Taliban comes to mind—find they confront a correlation of forces that they cannot resist once they become the enemy of all. Touching bases with another thread, one might say that natural selection is at work in the evolution of civilizations and it eliminates traditions that are entirely incompatible with other forms of civilizational life. Thus, there is little danger that if one has embedded oneself within a tradition, one will be particularly arrogant in one’s disagreement with the millions of others who embrace other major traditions.
With respect to the call for imperfect Christians to be perfect, there are several answers to that. The first is it is a category error to think that the principles of mystery and paradox are as compatible with the deductive rationalism of Descartes as they are with the Christian faith. Moreover, as most Christians (and Nathaniel surely) understand, the paradox is resolved through grace which makes imperfect people perfect in Christ. My own view is that the more a person with broken heart and contrite spirit understands and responds to Christ’s sacrificial love for them, the more perfect they become for in responding to his love they are born again as new, better, and ultimately, perfect people. But even if you deny that the paradox is resolved within the Christian faith, it is one thing to say that a thing can be p and not p in a religious context, quite another to violate the principle of non-contradiction when one is championing the great champion of doubt and logical deduction. Descartes would not have smiled upon the statement that it is both impossible and compulsory to doubt everything. That, he would have rightly doubted.
How are you supposed to know what to believe when traditions disagree, e.g., with respect to the afterlife? You can begin by eschewing the doubt/deduction approach that pretty much everyone agrees was unsuccessfully applied by Descartes to these issues (in spite of his very great intelligence)—so unsuccessfully that the Straussians, as I noted earlier, think the man who advanced the argument was really an atheist. To have a well considered view, one must study and understand one of the positions that has been worked out by thoughtful people and then, on the margins, find a way to resolve outstanding issues by applying one’s own faculties to those problems.
I fully recognize the irony of an instinctively argumentative personality making this next point, but I am going to make it all the same. The dangers of rampant doubt are apparent, I believe, in the adversarial relationship that has developed between the American press (and the universities) and American politicians and policy. I fear that the Unites States may now be unable to adequately engage its enemies in this era until after it has suffered a massive loss of life—running to many tens of thousands and possibly hundreds of thousands or millions. We all hope that never happens, and it may not, but if it happens—and the chances that it may are not negligible--many things will change, mostly for the worst,. One positive change will be that a deeply cynical and instinctively adversarial press will no longer be tolerated. As I have noted elsewhere in this blog, war is primarily a test of will, and that being the case, the American press has become the single most potent instrument in the hands of our enemy. Our losses of blood and treasure have been extremely small by virtually any historical standard and yet our will to continue the fight hangs by a thread. Though we are a colossus who bestrides the world if measured by the relative skill and might of our military, we are Luxombourg—make that Andorra—in the strength of our will to aggressively defend ourselves. In most previous wars, the press has not been such a potent ally of the enemy. It couldn’t have been if it wanted to be. Prior to D – day, Eisenhower was worried that news of the invasion would get to one of the many press members around him and leak out. This wasn’t an era in which the New York Times would announce to the enemy that we were listening in on them—as they recently did—at which point the enemy stopped talking. (If it had been, the crucial victory at Midway would never have occurred.) Nonetheless, Eisenhower brought the press in, briefed them on what was about to happen, then said something to this effect: “You are now in the know. If any of you let this slip out, you will be shot as a traitor”—and he meant it. A healthy society requires a mix of both belief and skepticism. Belief needs to predominate, but a measure of skepticism and criticism is also essential. Our problem is that there is too much skepticism and cynicism and are too many people who have adopted an agonistic relationship with their own country. Radical skepticism of the sort Descartes proposed contributes to that imbalance, though to be sure, it effects must trickle down through several social strata before it can affect the masses.


"...too many people who have adopted an agonistic relationship with their own country"

What's wrong with that? Or should I edit it thus:

"...too many people who have adopted an agonistic relationship with the executive branch of their own country"

Even then, it seems fair to expect there to be considerable back and forth over time. Maybe thus:

"...too many people who have adopted an antagonistic relationship with the executive branch of their own country"

I don't know. What I will say is that Americans seem unconvinced that national survival rides on the outcome of our adventure in Iraq, and without that, there's not going to be WWII-level resolve. In fact, people think they've been lied to. That wasn't a common belief in WWII.

Perhaps the White House has the right side of the argument but isn't arguing well, or maybe people are not arguing in good faith. If Val's thesis is that there's a limit on how much one can question the executors of a war, however, then that's just a scary position. Once a president decides to execute a war, it rules out any check on its prosecution that is both admissible and effective.

As a side note about the NYT - most reporters seem to assume that the information they're being handed is unclassified unless specifically advised otherwise. Since military commanders can't seem to keep their fool mouths shut, however, they're always yammering about elements of military intelligence under the heading "everyone already knows that..." I don't think the PotUS called them in and explained how we were doing our thing and the Fourth Estate just decided to ignore the advisement that it was classified.

I swear, 0-4 through O-6 are probably the worst security leaks in the world because they have enough rank to get the security clearance but not enough training or experience to know better. Fortunately much of what they yammer to the press is partially-understood misinformation, so the breaches aren't as bad as they could be.

Nathan Smith

Val still didn't answer my question about what one is to believe about the afterlife if one believes that all traditions are wiser than oneself. One might add other questions that his method doesn't seem to resolve. Should I marry at most one wife, or at most four? Should I shun careers involving "usury," or is the taking of interest a harmless business activity? Is it morally acceptable to eat beef, or are the Hindus right in shunning it? Likewise, what about pork (which the Muslims oppose) or cheeseburgers (which the Jews oppose) or alcohol (sem-seriously opposed by Muslims, and seriously by Mormons, but served in church by Orthodox and Catholics)?

Should I regard marriage as the best state of life here on earth (a la the Mormons, and I think Jews and Muslims) or should I regard celibacy as better in some cases at least (as the Catholics would have it, and to a lesser extent the Orthodox)? Which virtues should I regard as most important: submission to God (Muslims), magnanimity (Aristotle), or love (Christians)? Is it glorious to die in battle (as many traditions seem to have held) or a misfortune to be avoided if you can? Likewise, should one regard martyrdom as fortunate?

Traditions do not disagree on everything, but they do vary tremendously in their beliefs. If you cherry-pick beliefs from different traditions as you see fit, the variety of worldviews you can come up with is endless. Val might say you should stick to one tradition and embrace it thoroughly, and not cherry-pick, but why? Isn't it likely that each tradition gets some things right and some wrong?

Also, Cartesian rationalism is a tradition by now, of three and a half centuries' standing. Doesn't Val's own respect for tradition require him to accept its legitimacy?

I've tried to develop an epistemology of tradition that can make it a legitimate source of knowledge, while still giving mankind the duty of reasoning for himself, since the faculties are our only means, ultimately, for recognizing truth and falsehood.

Val tries to deny the claims of reason in his zeal for tradition, but the result is a cultural relativism. This is actually more incompatible with tradition than Cartesian rationalism, for most traditions regard themselves as *true* and others as *false* (though they may treat them with toleration)-- indeed, many, such as the Catholic tradition, insist that most of their doctrines are grounded in reason and regard it as a heresy to treat them as defensible on grounds of "faith" alone.

Val Larsen

Oops. Sorry. If the mechanism for deciding for yourself that I discussed is not an adequate answer, then I will tell you what you should believe. One wife rather than four. Usury is o.k. And there is an afterlife. But my preference is that you embrace the tradition in which you are raised, of necessity taking many things on faith but generally proving it for yourself by living it and experiencing its joys and satisfactions, and also, on the margins exploring, perhaps in small ways improving its understanding of important questions that interest you. Or if you find your birth tradition unacceptable, find another--where again you will inevitably take many practices and beliefs on faith--and make your marginal contribution there. In other words, do what you have done rather than what you say is impossible but compulsory--create de novo your own clear and distinct truth through doubting everything that is doubtable, then reconstructing an indubitable system of belief through logical deduction.

Val Larsen

I agree with NATO that at any time, including times of war, it is dangerous to give a leader carte blanche. But he is wrong to suppose that there weren't beliefs about the malevolence/ incompetence of Roosevelt in WWII that couldn't have sapped our ability to make war if they had been embraced by a cynical, insistently adversarial press. It was in fact true that Roosevelt was, wisely, looking for an excuse to get us into that war in spite of the fact that the public wanted nothing to do with it. And it is hard to imagine a more bone headed command decision than parking the U.S. fleet in Pearl Harbour when the nation was on the verge of war. Unsurprisingly, some came to the conclusion that FDR had purposely placed the fleet in harm's way, sacrificing ships and the lives of thousands, to get his excuse to go to war. If true, that would have been a much bigger dereliction of duty than anything GWB has been accused of, and there was enough circumstantial evidence that a cynical, adversarial press could have run with that story and thereby dangerously weakened the national will. What I am calling for is a balance of belief and criticism, of loyalty and trust in conjunction with some trust but verify, but with the balance recalibrated to increase the proportion of trust and support relative to the still necessary skepticism and criticism.

Val Larsen

Again on the war, the balance of trust and skepticism should be most heavily weighted to skeptiscism before the war begins, most heavily weighted to trust after it has begun. Our press has done the opposite. No public can long sustain the will to fight on a diet of the enemies triumphs and our failures. But that is what they have been given. Where are the stories of our soldier's herosim and successes. They exist. One can find them on the internet, often from Iraqis or soldiers on the ground, but they rarely appear in the press. In past wars, setbacks were mentioned, but the main thrust was to tell the story that is always there to be told if one is looking, of heroism, skill, success, and ultimately, of the promise of triumph if we persist on the strategic objecitve with allowance for necessary tactical course corrections along the way.


"If freedom is short of weapons, we must compensate with willpower." -- From a speech by Adolf Hitler in Landsberg (5 November 1925)

"Faith is harder to shake than knowledge, love succumbs less to
change than respect, hate is more enduring than aversion, and the impetus to the mightiest upheavals on this earth has at all times consisted less in a scientific knowledge dominating the masses than in a fanaticism which inspired them and sometimes in a hysteria which drove them forward." -- Mein Kampf, Vol. 1 Chapter 12

"The greatness of every mighty organization embodying an idea
in this world lies in the religious fanaticism and intolerance with which, fanatically convinced of its own right, it intolerantly imposes its will against all others." -- Mein Kampf, Vol. 1 Chapter 12

"The greatness of Christianity did not lie in attempted negotiations for compromise with any similar philosophical opinions in the ancient world, but in its inexorable fanaticism in preaching and fighting for its own doctrine." -- Mein Kampf, Vol. 1 Chapter 12

"Christianity could not content itself with building up its own
altar; it was absolutely forced to undertake the destruction of the heathen altars. Only from this fanatical intolerance could its apodictic faith take form; this intolerance is, in fact, its absolute presupposition." -- Mein Kampf, Vol. 2 Chapter 5

"For how shall we fill people with blind faith in the correctness of a doctrine, if we ourselves spread uncertainty and doubt by constant changes in its outward structure? ...Here, too, we can learn by the example of the Catholic Church. Though its doctrinal edifice, and in part quite superfluously, comes into collision with exact science and research, it is none the less unwilling to sacrifice so much as one little syllable of its dogmas... it is only such dogmas which lend to the whole body the character of a faith." -- Mein Kampf, Vol. 2 Chapter 5

"Every form of force that is not supported by a spiritual backing will be always indecisive and uncertain. Such a force lacks the stability that can be found only in a weltanschauung (world view) which has devoted champions." ~ Ch. 5, ibid.

"I have followed [the Church] in giving our party program the
character of unalterable finality, like the Creed. The Church has never allowed the Creed to be interfered with. It is fifteen hundred years since it was formulated, but every suggestion for its amendment, every logical criticism, or attack on it, has been rejected. The Church has realized that anything and everything can be built up on a document of that sort, no matter how contradictory or irreconcilable with it. The faithful will swallow it whole, so long as logical reasoning is never allowed to be brought to bear on it." pp. 239–40

Nathan Smith

"One wife rather than four. Usury is o.k. And there is an afterlife. But my preference is that you embrace the tradition in which you are raised..."

Again, here is something that I can't get my head around. If I were born a Muslim or a Soviet Communist, this would be sheer contradiction. Val forbids polygamy and then (indirectly) sanctions it. Val allows usury and then (indirectly) forbids it. Val affirms the afterlife and then (indirectly) denies it. It would be easier to understand Val if he said, 'My tradition is right, and the others are wrong. If you were born into my tradition, stay in it; if in another, leave it and join mine.' And that, I think, is what the typical preintellectual adherent of any tradition-- or at any rate of the Christian and Muslim traditions-- *would* say.

Once you begin to say that it is right for others to believe in the doctrines of their faiths just as it is right for you to believe in the doctrines of yours, it seems to me that the sense in which we believe in those doctrines changes. Inasmuch as belief becomes a function of one's social context, of where you were born, etc., it is subtly detached from the question of whether those beliefs are *true*.

Nathan Smith

The Hitler quotes are much appreciated. Are they a response to Val's endorsement of tradition? To me, they are a useful reminder that some birth-traditions are evil. Perhaps Nazism didn't last long enough to count as a tradition-- though still, a plenty of people spent their childhood and youth under its tutelage, and what is one to say to them?-- but Soviet Communism certainly did last long enough. Would Val say that those born into such traditions (or whatever) ought to "take many things on faith" while "on the margins exploring, perhaps in small ways improving" it? Are we to place the lukewarm Nazi or Communist above the dissident?

Val allows, of course, for a person to decide that their "birth-tradition is unacceptable," but he says nothing about the *grounds* for such a decision. For me it is "reason," in the metonymous sense that includes other faculties such as conscience. But reason seems to me to be rather an all-or-nothing business. Once you start "taking things on faith"-- not merely as a temporary expedient until you have time to explore the evidence or to give matters a thorough thinking-through, but as an epistemic principle-- where do you draw the line?


Hitler was an advocate of blind faith because it allowed him to control and manipulate the German populace. One could argue that in his heart he wasn't truly a Christian, but his public rhetoric defies that claim, and he was indeed supported by the Christian populace because of his evangelical rhetoric. Hitler is rightly blamed for the atrocities committed during WWII, but we must also put some of the blame on the German people for putting him in power and refusing to question or doubt him.

Nathan Smith

Uh, one doesn't have to "argue that in his heart [Hitler] wasn't truly a Christian." Hitler was a say-anything panderer and sometimes had a good word to say about Christianity, but even his public statements are not indicative of anything like deep or serious or orthodox Christian faith. Hitler's non-Christianity is pretty evident without any insights "into his heart."

Still less was the Nazi regime Christian. Like the Soviets, it tried to co-opt Christian churches when it could, but its elite forces, the SS, had their own religion. See here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazi_mysticism

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