Cosmic Laughter

In 1494, just before the onslaught of the Reformation, Sebastian Brandt, a conservative Roman Catholic scholar living in Basel, looked at the reeking vice and folly of the church of his day and wrote Das Narrenschiff, a Ship of Fools. As the prologue tells us, “One vessel would be far too small / To carry all the fools I know.” Brandt’s veritable floating tub of dolts and sinners heads for an unknown destination, a land of Fools, and functions as a harbinger of an imminent schism. Eulogized as divina satira, divine satire, Ship of Fools catapulted Brandt into the ranks of Dante, at least among the Germans. (Lindvall 2015, 1)

— Terry Lindvall (2015, 1) God Mocks. NYU Press.

If the rich could hire other people to die for them, the poor could make a wonderful living.

Yiddish Proverb. Cited in Lindvall (2015, 3) God Mocks.

The Jesus movement very early on exchanged the vision for the visionary. Those first enthusiastic followers were enthralled by the world Jesus encapsulated in the parables and aphorisms, but, since they were unable to hold on to the vision embodied in those verbal vehicles, they turned from the story to the storyteller. They didn’t know how else to celebrate the revelation. They turned the iconoclast into an icon. (Funk 1996: 10-11)

(….) The quest for the historical Jesus is an effort to emancipate the Galilean sage from the tangle of Christian overlay that obscures, to some extent, who Jesus was and what he said, to distinguish the religion of Jesus from the religion about Jesus. That quest has been under way since the eighteenth century, when the first critical scholars asserted their independence from ecclesiastical control. It has continued unabated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (Funk 1996: 31)

(….) Jesus was a comic savant. He mixed humor with subversive and troubling knowledge born of direct insight. That was also the technique of Mark Twain and Will Rogers, who might also be described as comic savants. A comic savant is an intellectualbetter, poetwho is redefining what it means to be wise. That is the real role of the court jester: tell the king the truth but tell it as a joke. Jesters consequently enjoyed a limited immunity for their jokes. New truth is easier to embrace if it comes wrapped in humor. (Funk 1996: 158)

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When someone slaps you on the right cheek,
turn the other as well.

If someone sues you for your coat,
Give him the shirt off your back to go with it.

When anyone conscripts you for one mile,
go along for two.

These admonitions give the appearance of being a series of particular cases that call for corresponding legal precedents. But, in fact, they parody case law and legal reasoning.

A blow to the right cheek would require a left-handed slap, which would be intended not to injure but to humiliate. The left hand was not used publicly in Jesus’ society, since it was used for unclean tasks. At Qumran to gesture with the left hand was punishable by ten days of penance. So a backhand slap to the right cheek was an insult delivered from a superior to an inferior, as Walter Wink has so brilliantly shown: master to slave, husband to wife, parent to child, Roman to Jew. Its message: Get back in your place. Don’t put on airs.

To turn the other cheek under the circumstances was an act of defiance. The left cheek invited a right-hand blow that might injure. The master, husband, or parent, or Roman would hesitate. The humiliation of the initial blow was answered with a nonviolent, very subtle, but quite effective challenge. The act of defiance entailed risk; it was symbolic, to be sure, but for that reason appealed to those who were regarded as subservient inferiors in Jesus’ world.

A coat was often given as surety for a loan or debt. The poor could lose their coats under such circumstances, but only during the daylight hours; at night, according to Deuteronimic law, the coat had to be returned since the truly destitute might have nothing else for warmth. Jesus’ injunction was to give up both coat and shirt. In a two-garment society, that meant going naked. Nakedness was frowned upon, to say the least. Again, according to the Manual of Discipline, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, accidentally exposing one’s nakedness when taking one’s hand out of one’s robe called for thirty days of penance. Exposing oneself to a companion needlessly drew a penalty of six months. Jesus combined humor with a call for a serious infraction of the social code.

Roman soldiers were allowed to commandeer Judeans for a mile’s march to assist with gear. More than that was forbidden. To comply with a conscriptive order meant subservience; to refuse meant rebellion. Imagine the consternation of the Roman soldier when confronted with a Judean offer to carry the pack a second mile.

These examples all refer to real problems, real circumstances. The responses, however, are not prescriptive; they are suggestive of a behavior that undermines the intent of the initial act. (Funk 1996: 155)

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Casting Off Body-Mind

The Understanding of One’s Personality

Unlike a thing, that is usually regarded as existence that is a means, a person is regarded as existence with the self as its own end. This is especially clear in Kantian ethics, which has given a philosophical foundation to the modern notions of personality, freedom, and responsibility. Kant distinguishes things and human personality, and insists that while things can only have value as existence that is a means, human personality has dignity and grace as existence with self-purpose. Although a human being can be used as a means, at the same time he or she must always be treated as an end. In the Kantian framework, this superiority of people over things, and end over means, should not be overcome. Thus Kant talks about the “Kingdom of ends” as the community of personality. Viewed in the light of Dōgen, this Kantian notion of personality not only is limited by anthropocentrism but also is not completely free from reification of the human self. In Dōgen, people are not essentially distinguished from other beings, but are grasped as a part of the realm of beings. People and other beings are equally subject to impermanence, or transiency. Although only people who have self-consciousness can realize the impermanency common to all beings as impermanency, they can overcome the problem of life and death only when they can overcome the transiency common to all beings. In Dōgen both suffering and emancipation from it are grasped on this transanthropocentric dimension. Hence Dōgen’s emphasis on the simultaneous attainment of Buddha-nature for self and others, and for humans and nature. In this simultaneous attainment, each person becomes an occasion or means for the others’ attainment just as each person realizes his or her own attainment. Here self-awakening and others’ awakening take place at the same time. While maintaining one’s individuality in terms of self-awakening, one serves as the means for the awakening of others. This dynamic mutuality takes place not only between the self and others, but also between humans and nature. This is the reason Dōgen emphasizes, in the “Bendōwa” fascicle, that

trees and grasses, wall and fence, expound and exalt the Dharma for the sake of ordinary people, sages, and all living beings. Ordinary people, sages, and all living beings in turn preach and exalt the Dharma for the sake of trees, grasses, wall, and fence. The dimension of self-enlightenment-qua-enlightening-others basically is fully replete with the characteristics of realization, and causes the principle of realization to function unceasingly.20

This mutual help for enlightenment between humans and nature, however, cannot take place insofar as humans take only themselves as the end. As Dōgen maintains:

To practice and confirm all things by conveying one’s self to them, is illusion; for all things to advance forward and practice and confirm the self, is enlightenment.21 (Abe 1992, 32)

The self must be emptied, for all things to advance and confirm the self. Accordingly, “to forget one’s self” is crucial. To forget one’s self is nothing other than body-mind casting off. And when body-mind are cast off, the world and history are also cast off. If body-mind are cast off without the world and history being cast off, it is not an authentic “body-mind casting off.” Further, “body-mind casting off” is not something negative. It is immediately the cast-off body-mind, that is, the awakened body-mind that is freed from self-attachment and ready to save others. In the same way, the casting off of the world and history, which takes place at the same time as the casting off of body-mind, is not something negative. It is directly the cast-off world and history, that is, the awakened world and awakened history, that “advance forward and practice and confirm the self.” (Abe 1992, 33)

Such are the implications of the notion of the oneness of means and end when the notion is applied to the understanding of one’s personality and its relationship to other persons and other things. Here we can see Dōgen’s challenge to the contemporary issues of ecology and history. The crucial point of this dynamic mutuality between the self and others, and humans and the world, is to forget one’s self, and one’s body-mind are cast off, is self-awakening-qua-awakening-others fully realized. This is not the “Kingdom of ends,” but the “Kingdom of dependent origination.” (Abe 1992, 33)

20 Shōbōgenzō “Bendōwa” The Eastern Buddhist, 136.
21 Shōbōgenzō “Bendōwa” The Eastern Buddhist, 133.

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Scandal of Evangelical Mind

Although the thought has occurred to me regularly over the past two decades that, at least in the United States, it is simply impossible to be, with integrity, both evangelical and intellectual. (Noll 1995, ix)

(….) The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind. An extraordinary range of virtues is found among the sprawling throngs of evangelical Protestants in North America, including great sacrifice in spreading the message of salvation in Jesus Christ, open-hearted generosity to the needy, heroic personal exertion on behalf of troubled individuals, and an unheralded sustenance of countless church and parachurch communities. Notwithstanding all their other virtues, however, American evangelicals are not exemplary for their thinking and they have not been so for several generations. (Noll 1995, 3)

Despite dynamic success at a popular level, modern American evangelicals have failed notably in sustaining serious intellectual life. They have nourished millions of believers in the simple verities of the gospel but have largely abandoned the universities, the arts, and other realms of “high” culture. Even in its more progressive and culturally upscale subgroups, evangelicalism has little intellectual muscle. Feeding the hungry, living simply, and banning the bomb are tasks at which different sorts of evangelicals willingly expend great energy, but these tasks do not by themselves assist intellectual vitality. (Noll 1994: 3)

(….) Evangelical inattention to intellectual life is a curiosity for several reasons…. The historical situation is similarly curious. Modern evangelicals are the spiritual descendants of leaders and movements distinguished by probing, creative, fruitful attention to mind. Most of the original Protestant traditions … either developed a vigorous intellectual life or worked out theological principles that could (and often did) sustain penetrating, and penetratingly Christian, intellectual endeavor…. None of them believed that intellectual activity was the only way to glorify God, or even the highest way, but they all believed in the life of the mind, and they believed in it because they were evangelicals. Unlike their spiritual ancestors, modern evangelicals have not pursued comprehensive thinking under God or sought a mind shaped to its furthest reaches by Christian perspectives. (Noll 1994: 4)

(….) As the Canadian scholar N. K. Clifford once aptly summarized the matter: “The Evangelical Protestant mind has never relished complexity. Indeed its crusading genius, whether in religion or politics, has always tended toward an over-simplification of issues and the substitution of inspiration and zeal for critical analysis and serious reflection. The limitations of such a mind-set were less apparent in the relative simplicity of a rural frontier society.” (Noll 1994: 12-13)

For an entire Christian community to neglect, generation after generation, serious attention to the mind, nature, society, the arts all spheres created by God and sustained for his own glory may be, in fact, sinful. Os Guinness has recently called attention to this dimension in a memorable passage worth quoting at length:

Evangelicals have been deeply sinful in being anti-intellectual ever since the 1820s and 1830s. For the longest time we didn’t pay the cultural price for that because we had the numbers, the social zeal, and the spiritual passion for the gospel. But today we are beginning to pay the cultural price. And you can see that most evangelicals simply don’t think. For example, there has been no serious evangelical public philosophy in this country…. It has always been a sin not to love God the Lord our God with our minds as well as our hearts and souls…. We have excused this with a degree of pietism and pretend that this is something other than what it is that is, sin…. Evangelicals need to repent of their refusal to think Christianly and to develop the mind of Christ. (….) The scandal of the evangelical mind is a scandal from whichever direction it is viewed. It is a scandal arising from the historical experience of an entire subculture. It is a scandal to which the shape of evangelical institutions have contributed. Most of all, it is a scandal because it scorns the good gifts of a loving God. (Noll 1994: 23)

(….) The career of Jonathan Edwards the greatest evangelical mind in American history and one of the truly seminal thinkers in Christian history of the last few centuries supports this argument, for despite his own remarkable efforts as an evangelical thinker, Edwards had no intellectual successors…. Fundamentalism, … Pentecostalism, …. [was] a disaster for the life of the mind. (Noll 1994: 24)

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Even in best-case scenario, evangelicalism, of all the religious traditions in America, observed Wolfe, “ranks dead last in intellectual stature.” Or as Noll had put it earlier, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” The fundamentalist end of the evangelical spectrum contains a culture that does indeed seem unable to distinguish between meaningful scholarship and … “gibberish.” Ken Ham places a dinosaur looking over Eve’s shoulder in the Garden of Eden exhibit at his museum. Tourists pay to look at it and leave the Creation Museum believing that what they just saw is both scientific and biblical. Tim LaHaye inserts the emergence of a common European currency into the book of Revelation; David Barton converts Ben Franklin into a Bible-believing Christian; James Dobson claims that the institution of marriage has not changed for five thousand years. Absent a more vigorous intellectual mind, such ideas take root and flourish. And their spokespersons can function as authority figures. (Randall and Giberson 2011: 243)

A 2010 study revealed provocative—and disturbing—connections between religiosity and racism. The study sought to uncover subtle connections that operate subconsciously. Few Christians—or people in general—will admit to being racist, of course, and many take offense at the suggestion of any link between their faith and racism. But researchers have found that when white evangelical college students were “religiously primed” by focusing on issues of faith, “their covert racism did increase” and they “were more likely to agree that they dislike blacks.” The researchers inferred that “religious thoughts seem to trigger racist thoughts.” Their explanation was based entirely on group identity: “religion tends to increase benevolence toward co-religionists, but can increase hostility toward outsiders.”

A 1999 study of college students in Canada, generally considered a bastion of tolerance, found that “prejudice against religious out-group members is pervasive.” The findings also suggested that “fundamentalism is particularly predictive of out-group derogation.” As of this writing, widespread demonization of Muslims is being used to promote solidarity among conservative white Americans. Such tactics are overtly political, but they are enhanced because religious identity is so powerful. (Randall and Giberson 2011, 253-254)

Useful Idiots qua Economists

I think we all agree that solving ethical issues or deciding on values cannot be left to economists. I don’t think many economists would fancy the role. But I’m not sure how it can not be left to politicians. Democracy, as Schumpeter remarked, is rule by politicians. I am struck by how often posts on this blog imply that economists rule the world. They are nowhere near doing so, of course — and that’s a very good thing! But I still can’t see an alternative to politics, unsatisfactory though it often is.

— An Econometician’s Argument, RWER, 5/8/2020

Implicit in the red herring argument that ‘economists don’t rule the world’ is the claim they have no relationship, influence, or role in politics and that there is a nice neat divide between the role of economists in society and the theories they create separate and apart from politics and politicians. History doesn’t bear this claim out on many levels. It assumes economics and economists are innocent of playing any role, for better or worse, through economic theories and their influence upon upon society and politicians. The world is not black and white; economists have had and do now play a role in socio-political outcomes.

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The length to which those in the profession go to push their simplistic narrative [on free trade] are nothing short of exasperating. When reading some of the pronouncements and arguments put forward by proponents, you would be hard pushed not to think that you were looking at the words of cult members or conspirators. Consider the words uttered by Paul Krugman—often supposed to be a liberal or left-of-centre economist. Krugman is determined to tell his audience that those who argue that Ricardo’s argument is not relevant to the real world simply do not understand it. He then equates rejection of Ricardo’s theory with rejection of evolutionary theory and equates both with some sort of aversion to mathematics. He writes:

At the deepest level, opposition to comparative advantage—like opposition to the theory of evolution—reflects the aversion of many intellectuals to an essentially mathematical way of understanding the world. Both comparative advantage and natural selection are ideas grounded, at base, in mathematical models—simple models that can be stated without actually writing down any equations, but mathematical models all the same. The hostility that both evolutionary theorists and economists encounter from humanists arises from the fact that both fields lie on the front line of the war between C.P. Snow’s two cultures: territory that humanists feel is rightfully theirs, but which has been invaded by aliens armed with equations and computers. (Krugman 1996)

The patronising tone [2] is manifest here in that Krugman is implicitly invoking what we earlier called the ‘limiting principle’. The naive dupes who reject the economist’s advice on free trade are the cultural theorists and the postmodernists. They are intellectuals that spend more time reading books than they do undertaking the hard work of writing down equations and looking at statistics. Krugman’s speech is dog whistle politics all the way—and we should stress that it is politics because free trade is a highly politicised issue that only economists think can be sanitised in such a crude fashion. (Pilkington 2016, 330-331)

These economists become what Vladimir Lenin in the context of a rather different ideology called ‘useful idiots’. That is, propagandists that are being used by others for motivations that they do not understand. In the 1990s, they were useful idiots for large corporations that wanted to scrap factories in the West and move them overseas. At the time of writing, they are useful idiots for corporations who want to protect intellectual property rights in the face of new technologies under the guise of the free trade ideology. Rather, hilariously dogmatic free traders today have also become the useful idiots of monopolistic forces who use public sector subsidies and technologies to produce products that they then sell to the public at exorbitantly high prices. When this price-gouging activity is threatened by overseas companies making generic knock-offs at a fraction of the cost, the corporations call in the free trade army to defend their so-called ‘property rights’. (Pilkington 2016, 331)

The forces at work behind dogmatic free trade arguments at any given moment in time will never be self-identical. In order to understand the agenda behind any trade policy at a given moment in time, you must examine it in critical detail. What the free trade dogma does is it tricks economists fooled by their own simplistic narratives into becoming propagandists for whatever the powers-that-be want to impose on various countries at any given moment in time. This is not an exaggeration either. In his talk, Krugman closes by laying out a series of propaganda tactics to preach the generally unpopular argument for dogmatic free trade to the general public and, most especially, the soppy ‘cultural’ intellectuals. He says:

I cannot offer any grand strategy for dealing with the aversion of intellectuals to Ricardo’s difficult idea. No matter what economists do, we can be sure that ten years from now the talk shows and the op-ed pages will still be full of men and women who regard themselves as experts on the global economy, but do not know or want to know about comparative advantage. Still, the diagnosis I have offered here provides some tactical hints. (Ibid.)

In this book, I have tried to steer away from direct considerations of policy. But I have laid out a brief discussion about free trade not because I am advocating protectionism but because it is a prime case where we see what function abstract economic theory can play in politics and society. That much economic theory is based on ridiculously narrow assumptions and unrealistic a priori premises should, at this stage, be obvious. But it is worth being clear how the types of people that espouse this sort of thing can be used by political forces that they do not understand and cannot comprehend. (Pilkington 2016, 331-332)

I have always been averse to the idea that economics as it is currently taught is some sort of organic outgrowth of the ideology of the ruling class. I do not find the Marxist story convincing that economics as it is currently taught is a mere reflection of the interests of the ruling class. Rather, I think that the explanation is much simpler: economists have cast such darkness over their own discipline that they can make themselves believe in basically anything that suits them at any given moment in time. All one has to do is feed them a very simple argument that seems internally consistent, and they will mistake this consistency for some Absolute Truth about the real world. Such people are very useful to the powers-that-be. They are the same people who were promoted to positions of power in the Medieval Church. It was not that what they were saying was so much a reflection of the interests of the elite so much as it was that what they were saying was a brilliant distraction from what was really going on. Contemporary mainstream [and some heterodox] economics is less the ideology of the ruling class than it is the opiate for establishment intellectuals who find that their little models and their ridiculously simplistic arguments get them invited to all the rifht places. (Pilkington 2016, 332)

2 It should be noted that Krugman is playing to his audience’s elitism in his rhetoric by calling Ricardo’s idea ‘difficult’ as he does throughout his lecture (entitled ‘Ricardo’s Difficult Idea’). In fact, it is not a remotely difficult idea. Most teenagers understand it perfectly well when laid out in high school economics class. The more reflective ones, however, do not swallow it hook, line and sinker.

To Scrap or Not Scrap?

Concepts like understanding and meaning are usually associated with a particular view of the Social Sciences. Social life produces and reproduces symbolic meaning. Social scientists need to acquire an understanding of the inherent symbolic meaning in social life. They do this, it is said, by adopting the viewpoint of a passive participant observer. In this view, the role of the social scientist is seen as distinctly different from that of the natural scientist. The object of study of the social scientist is society, the network of social interactions. Society does not exist outside the bracket of social interactions. The social sciences deal with the pre-interpreted world of the social participants. The social scientist interprets a social world, which already carries symbolic meaning. The symbolic meaning of the social world is produced and reproduced by the social actors. The study of the social world by social scientists is a matter of human subjects studying other human subjects. It is a matter of symbolic dimensions meeting other symbolic dimensions, a subject-subject relation.

Friedel Weinert (2004, 75) The Scientist as Philosopher. Springer-Verlag.

MUST WE SCRAP ECONOMETRICS?

(….) Keynes, of course, was scathing in his criticism of econometric modelling; a field which first emerged in the late 1930s as his theories were gaining traction. He likened it to ‘those puzzles for children where you write down your age, multiply, add this and that, subtract something else, and eventually end up with the number of the Beast in Revelation’ (Keynes 1939, p. 562). (….) Estimating models, whether to test the models themselves or make predictions about the future, is an awful and embarrassing game, and it is high time that economists gave it up. It is also a desperate waste of time. There is so much real policy work to be done; so many real issues to be examined and studied; but with the current impetus to do macroeconomic modelling, many economists are literally contractually obliged to engage in make-work. The most unfortunate and cynical thing is that many of those who are seasoned from working in this particular field know just how bogus it is. (Pilkington 2016, 300-302)

Does this mean that all econometrics should be scrapped? Not really. Keynes’ pointed criticisms of the field have been roughly felt by the discipline but those that read the paper often miss a comment at the end. Keynes writes:

This does not mean that economic material may not supply more elementary cases where the method will be fruitful. Take, for instance, Prof. Tinbergen’s third example—namely, the influence on net investment in railway rolling-stock of the rate of increase in traffic, the rate of profit earned by the railways, the price of pig iron and the rate of interest. Here there seems a reasonable prima facie case for expecting that some of the necessary conditions are satisfied. (Ibid., pp. 567-568)

Keynes had spent an awful lot of his life putting together statistics. He had done a lot of what would today be considered the ‘dirty work’ of economics. He had also written a great deal on the philosophy and methodology of statistics (Keynes 1921). He knew that there were some relationships within economic statistics that met the criteria required to use them in an econometric study. But these were extremely limited. In order to fit the bill, there had to be an immediate relationship known basically before the fact. Keynes laid this out explicitly in response to a letter from a statistician called Szeliski who worked on the problem of demand for automobiles. (Pilkington 2016, 302)

You have chosen just the sort of problem where multiple correlation methods may be useful. You are dealing with details of a specific problem where the main causes are pretty well known a priori, and where the statistics are definite and precise. The method is always full of danger, but, in my opinion, it is the kind of problem to which you have applied it rather than in those to which Tinbergen has applied it that the method is properly in place. (Cited in Garrone and Marchionatti 2004) (Pilkington 2016, 302)

‘What then’, the reader will ask, ‘is the point of running regressions? If we already know that a very immediate relationship exists, then why use econometrics?’ The answer is: because econometrics should be used less to establish causality and more so to present statistics supporting a causal argument in a clear and concise manner. Thus, econometrics is less a manner of doing empirical work and more so a means of clearly presenting statistical relationships that are basically know in advance. (Pilkington 2016, 302-303)

Take a very simple example. We know for a fact that, at the time of writing, Scotland is heavily reliant on oil exports. We know this because, among other reasons, the oil revenues are included in the Scottish national accounts and make up part of the overall trade statistics (Pilkington 2014c). We can then use regression techniques to estimate how reliant Scottish oil and gas exports are in the price of oil. (…) (Pilkington 2016, 303)

Note that the regression here is not being used to verify or falsify a truth-claim that I am making. Rather, it is used as a means to present statistical data. ‘We know’, I say, ‘that Scotland is heavily reliant on oil revenues for its trade surpluses. Now here is a number showing in a neat way just how dependent it is on the price changes in oil.’ Nor are we making a prediction using the regression techniques. Rather than making concrete numerical predictions, we might say: ‘Now that we are aware of how dependent the country’s trade is on changes in the price of oil we can discuss the dangers that there might be if the price of oil were to decline in the future.’ Again not that we are not making forecasts as to what such a future price decline may be. Nor are we making forecasts about what a given price decline will have on the trade balance (while not completely outlandish, we are already moving into murky territory here). Rather, we are just presenting the statistics and warning the Scottish that they had better keep a close eye on how they are structuring their economy because a shock to the price of oil might lead to a serious deterioration of their trade balance. This is the direction in which the usage of econometric techniques should be moving. Right now, driven by a silly need to give off an air of false precision, the profession is engaged in nothing but what Keynes referred to as ‘black magic’ and ‘statistical alchemy’. And it is far better to be roughly right than precisely talking nonsense. (Pilkington 2016, 303-304)

Suppression of the Nembutsu

Despite Hōnen’s circumspection, his teachings soon evoked a harsh reaction from Japan’s Buddhist establishment. In 1204 Tendai monks at the Enryakuji appealed to Shinshō (1167-1230), the head priest there and an acquaintance of Hōnen’s, to prohibit the practice of the exclusive nembutsu and to expel its adherents from their religious precincts. Hōnen’s response to this attack was his Shichikajô kishomon (“Seven Article Pledge”), rules of conduct that his followers were sworn to obey. One year later the Kōfukuji, one of the most influential temples in Nara, petitioned the retired emperor Gotoba (1180-1239) to take measures against Hōnen, and it leveled nine specific charges against him:

  1. Establishing a new school without imperial recognition and without proper lineage.
  2. Devising a new graphic representation of Amida Buddha called the Sesshu Fusha Mandara (“Mandala of Those Embraced and Never Forsaken”), in which followers of the exclusive nembutsu are bathed in Amida’s light but priests adhering to traditional practices are not.
  3. Slighting the Buddha Sakyamuni by worshipping no Buddha other than Amida.
  4. Precluding Buddhism’s myriad ways of cultivating the good, outside of the nembutsu.
  5. Refusng to revere the illustrious kami, the native deities of the Shinto tradition.
  6. Misrepresenting Pure Land by denying that diverse religious practices lead to birth there.
  7. Misunderstanding the nembutsu by claiming that uttering it is superior to using it in meditation.
  8. Inflicting harm upon the Buddhist order by maintaining that violation of the clerical precepts is not an obstacle to birth in the Pure Land.
  9. Throwing the country into disorder by undermining the teachings of the eight schools which uphold it. (Dobbins 2002, 14-15)

These nine accusations indicate irreconcilable differences between Hōnen and the traditional schools over the meaning of the nembutsu, the clerical precepts, the Pure Land movement, and Amida Buddha. They also suggest that Hōnen’s followers were involved in disruptive activities that were a threat to the established religious order not only doctrinally but also socially and politically. (Dobbins 2002, 15)

The outcries against Hōnen and his band of disciples reached a crescendo in 1207, and resulted in the suppression of the exclusive nembutsu, the exile of Hōnen, and the execution of a number of his followers. This was the first in a long series of suppressions which stretched over the next century, extending into the formative years of the Shinshū as well. The following account of the 1207 incident appears in the Gukanshō (“Notes of My Foolish Views”), a history of Japan written in 1219 by Jien (1155-1225), the older brother of Kujō Kanezane and head priest of Mt. Hiei in the early thirteenth century: (Dobbins 2002, 15)

Also during the Ken’ei years (1206-1207) there was a religious man named Hōnen. Close to this time, while living in Kyoto, he established the nembutsu school and called his teachings the exclusive nembutsu. “You should do nothing more than utter [the name of] Amida Buddha. Do not undertake the esoteric or exoteric practices of the eight schools,” he would say. Ignorant or unenlightened lay priests and nuns (ama nyūdō) of questionable circumstance delighted in this teaching, and it began to flourish beyond expectation and to gather strength. Among them there was a monk named Anrakubō who had been a retainer under [Takashina] Yasutsune (d. 1201), a lay priest. Upon ordination Anrakubō became an adherent of the exclusive nembutsu, and in association with Jūren (d. 1207) he advocated singing the praises [of Pure Land] six times a day (rokuji raisan), which is said to have been the practice of the master Shan-tao. There were numerous people, among them nuns, who turned to this teaching and placed their trust in it. They were given to believe that, once they became followers, then even if they indulged in sexual relations or ate meat or fish, Amida Buddha would not regard it as a wrongdoing in the least, and that, once they entered the single-hearted and exclusive way and had faith in nothing but the nembutsu, then at the end of their life Amida would come without fail to usher them into the Pure Land. As people in both the capital and the countryside turned to this, a lady-in-waiting at the detached palace of the retired emperor, along with the mother of the imperial priest at the Ninnaji temple, also placed their faith in it. Secretly they summoned Anrakubō and the others to have them share their teachings with them, and so he proceeded there, together with his companions, and even spent the night there. Such a thing is unspeakable, so in the end Anrakubō and Jūren were beheaded. Also, Hōnen was exiled, driven from residency in Kyoto. (Dobbins 2002, 15-16)

This affair was dealt with in such a way that it seemed for a short time that things were under control. Hōnen, however, had not been an ally in the plot, so he was pardoned, and he eventually died at Ōtani in the Higashiyama section of Kyoto. On that occasion people were gathered around, and there was constant talk of his birth in Pure Land, but there is no reason to think that it actually came to pass. His deathbed ceremony was nothing like that of the religious figure Zōga (917-1003). Because all this occurred, to this day we are pressed from behind. The exclusive nembutsu, with its fish, meat, and sexual indulgences, remains largely unchecked, and the monks of Mt. Hiei have risen up saying that they are going to drive out the nembutsu priest Kūamidabutsu (1156-1228), who apparently has been put to flight. (…) In the end Hōnen’s disciples have been the ones committing all these deeds. In perceiving this, I realize that, of the two types of obstacles to enlightenment—those from within oneself (junma) and those from outside (gyakuma)—these unfortunate teachings of his are of the former type, an obstacle from within. (….) But at this time the mantra of Shingon and the meditations of Tendai are at their height, and there is still no one who can achieve enlightenment by following teachings which are an obstacle from within. It is a deplorable situation. (Dobbins 2002, 16)

Jien’s account of Hōnen’s activities bespeaks clearly the alarm with which traditional Buddhist adherents looked upon the Pure Land movement. Jien was supremely qualified to speak for both the religious and the political community, since he was not only a head priest at Mt. Hiei but also a scion of the powerful Fujiwara family. As a priest, he considered the exclusive nembustu corrosive of the clerical precepts and a detraction from the teachings of the eight schools. As a leader in society, he feared that it would seduce the ignorant and lowly and would erode social values and civil order. In short, he viewed the Pure Land movement as one characteristic of mappo, the age of decline, when society would lapse in chaos and the Buddhist teachings would pass into extinction. (Dobbins 2002, 16)

(….) The banishment of Hōnen temporarily pacified Kyoto of the commotion that the Pure Land movement had generated, but it did not extinguish the movement altogether. Rather, by dispatching Hōnen’s followers to different provinces, the authorities unwittingly disseminated his teachings throughout the country, and in 1211, when Hōnen was allowed to return to Kyoto, the movement reappeared in the capital with renewed vitality. The resilience of the Pure Land movement confounded the Buddhist establishment and prompted further suppressions in subsequent decades. (Dobbins 2002, 18)

License Neither Freedom Nor Loyalty

Americans enjoyed personal freedom and, generally, the nineteenth century was marked by a high degree of mutual trust. Or, one might also say, the nineteenth century was marked by a high degree of mutual trust and therefore Americans enjoyed personal freedom. When people trust one another, there can be personal freedom; when people do not trust one another, there is not likely to be personal freedom; when there is good reason not to trust one another, there should not be unlimited personal freedom. (Berns 1956, 17)

(….) [D]uring the period of the first World War, and for a few years thereafter, not all Americans were trusted by the community. However unjustified this distrust, it is a fact that many of the distrusted were jailed and two were put to death; it was at this time that Congress made its first law abridging the freedom of speech and press since the Alien and Sedition Acts, and made it in the face of a First Amendment that absolutely forbids Congress to make such laws. And it was at this time that the Supreme Court laid down the “clear and present danger” principle, designed to permit Congress to send people to jail despite the words of the First Amendment. Many people protested in Justice Holmes’ words, “There was a lot of jaw about free speech” but the federal government never lost a case. In fact, the federal government, despite its increasing demands for loyalty in speech and deed, was destined never to lose a case. (Berns 1956, 17)

In fact, one of the best treatments of American politics, and an inquiry that began in wonder de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America recognizes a dimension to the political problem that illustrate, what cannot be recognized, let alone understood, in terms of the conflict between the state and the individual:

There is, and I cannot repeat it too often, there is here matter for profound reflection to those who look on freedom of thought as a holy thing and who hate not only the despot, but despotism. For myself, when I feel the hand of power lie heavy on my brow, I care but little to know who oppresses me; and I am not the more disposed to pass beneath the yoke because it is held out to me by the arms of a million men. (Berns 1956, 19)

We must certainly guard against tyrants in the older sense (but no reasonable man today believes that this is the danger we face), but it would be foolhardy to be defenseless against other dangers.

(….) [F]or it would permit wicked men the freedom to undermine the virtue of citizens (those of you who are familiar with Winters v. New York will know what I mean), while preventing the government from promoting the virtue of citizens, a primary task of government according to an older view. That it is not the role of government to habituate citizens to virtue is expressed in the words of Justice Jackson, writing for the Court in the second flag salute case:

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion . . .

The idea expressed here is certainly the orthodox American view on the subject; any other view would permit a deprivation of political and religious freedom in the name of someone’s view of orthodoxy; any other view would seem to violate the First Amendment.

It was on the basis of the definition of loyalty as patriotism that certain Germans, later designated as war criminals, committed the most hideous crimes, while their prosecution at Nuremberg was based on the proposition that there is a cause beyond Fatherland to which a man should be loyal. At Nuremberg this cause was said to be humanity. Loyalty as blind patriotism is obviously not enough; the reasonable man will insist that his country be worthy of his loyalty by representing a cause with which he can agree. (Berns 1956, 21)

Justice Douglas said:

Full and free discussion has . . . been the first article of our faith. We have founded our political system on it. It has been the safe guard of every religious, political, philosophical, economic, and racial group amongst us. . . . This has been the one single outstanding tenet that has made our institutions the symbol of freedom and equality. . . . We have wanted a land where our people can be exposed to all the diverse creeds and cultures of the world.

A reasonable man would withhold his loyalty from a Marxist regime even if Marxism became the popular doctrine in a fair market-place competition; he would behave in a similar fashion if McCarthysim became the popular doctrine and McCarthy were elected President. It would be no comfort to him if McCarthy were elected in a free and honest election; in fact, it would be a source of more discomfort than if he seized power, because the possibility of a change for the better would be more remote.

The conclusion is that just as loyalty cannot be defined as patriotism, neither can freedom be the cause to which we pledge our allegiance. In fact, loyalty can be defined reasonably only in terms of moral principle.

As with so many other problems, this problem of loyalty was stated most clearly by Aristotle in the third book of the Politics. Here, in the context of examining the nature of the polis, he is forced to raise various questions concerning the citizen, one of which is, as everyone knows, whether the “goodness of a good man is the same as that of a good citizen.” Aristotle answers, not necessarily; the goodness of a good man is the same as that of a good citizen only in a good society. The good citizen of Nazi Germany, Himmler, is a bad man. The good Englishman, Churchill, is a good man.

It is obvious then that disloyalty is so far from being an evil thing in itself that it becomes a moral necessity at times; conversely, loyalty is so far from being a good thing in itself that it is an indication of moral depravity at certain times and places.

It is equally obvious that that principle to which one gives his loyalty, that cause, cannot be the fatherland loyalty cannot be patriotism but must be something which makes the fatherland what it is, something which gives the fatherland its character. For Aristotle this was the regime, sometimes translated as constitution; and this discussion of citizenship occurs in the context of a discussion of the various kinds of regimes, or constitutions, which are seen to differ from one another by the goals they pursue, or we may say, by the principles by which they are guided. Citizenship is relative to the regime; the good man is a good citizen in a good regime.

In Aristotle’s terms, the just regime must possess virtue.

Loyalty is seen to be related to the regime, to the way of life of a country, and the difference between regimes is a moral difference: the good citizen of a bad regime, Himmler, is a bad man. Thus the question of loyalty is a moral question not to be avoided by an unthinking waving of the flag, on the one hand, or by denying the existence of a regime with a purpose on the other.

The problem of freedom and loyalty cannot be severed from the political problem. The political problem is how to get consent to wise political decisions or wise leadership, leaders in Hamilton’s words, with the “wisdom to discern and the virtue to pursue the common good.” In a democracy this means how to educate, how to form the character of citizens so that they will give their consent to wise leadership and withhold it from bigots and demagogues…. For if the citizens vote for bigots and demagogues, there will be no free speech: we can be certain that demagogues will censor. To avoid demagogues and the totalitarianism of society that de Tocqueville feared, it may be necessary to censor it will certainly be necessary for the law to promote virtue, to train citizens in virtuous ways, to foster loyalty to moral principle.

They do not consider the possibility that freedom unguided by moral principle may lead to the destruction of everything that makes American citizenship a possession valued by good men and loyalty to America a virtuous commitment.

My argument may be summarized as follows. Loyalty to a bad regime is an indication of moral depravity the case of Himmler and Nazi Germany. Loyalty to one’s country is justified only if one’s country deserves that loyalty: loyalty in itself is not a virtue. In order that a country deserve the loyalty of a good man, it is necessary that it promote virtue, which necessarily means that it must limit freedom. Freedom cannot be defined as license. Such a limiting of freedom is justified if it is done in the name of moral principle. The problem is complicated by the fact that the man loyal to moral principle, de Tocqueville for example, requires personal freedom to resist the demands of the Fatherland as Fatherland and the demands of society as society. Such a man knows that the absence of official censorship does not guarantee a solution to the problem of freedom.

The libertarian conception of freedom as the greatest good grants to freedom the place once occupied by virtue; whereas the purpose of the law was once to promote virtue as a precondition for the attainment of the good social order, the social order in which freedom is both possible and desirable, it now became the protection of freedom, a guarantee of natural rights rights possessed by everyone, including Eugene Dennis, the Communist, Murray Winters, the purveyor of corrupt magazines, and Arthur Terminiello, the foul-mouthed vilifier of the innocent. As I said in the beginning, such an approach to the problem of freedom and loyalty is blind to decisive aspects of the political situation.

License and Liberty

The idea of reviving the militia as a revolutionary institution gained currency on the far right as early as the 1980s and it took several different forms. In 1984 William Potter Gale envisioned the “unorganized militia” as a county-based military force that would enforce the mandates of the Committee of the United States. (Churchill 2009, 212-213)

In 1992, white supremacist Louis Beam wrote as essay entitled “Leaderless Resistance” in which he argued that “those who love our race” should form leaderless cells for the purpose of resisting a government whose corruption he measured by its enforcement of civil rights and equal protection for minorities. He suggested that such cells would strike proactively at government in a manner impossible to predict: “Those idealists truly committed to the cause of freedom will act when they feel the time is ripe, or will take their cue from others who precede them.” When white supremacists gathered in Estes Park in 1992 to formulate their response to Ruby Ridge, Beam offered his essay as the organizational model for a new militia movement. (Churchill 2009, 212-213)

These far-right conceptions of a revived militia would not, however, serve as the intellectual inspiration for the movement. The final necessary factor in the emergence of the militia movement was the recovery of the libertarian memory of the American by the gun rights movement. In the mid-1970s, the National Rifle Association adopted a much more militant stance in its political lobbying, arguing that all forms of gun control violated basic constitutional principles. To make its case more persuasive, the NRA promoted legal scholarship to support the thesis that private gun ownership was constitutionally protected under the Second Amendment. This individual rights interpretation of the Second Amendment, though common in nineteenth century, has fallen out of favor with judges and most legal scholars in the twentieth century. (Churchill 2009, 213)

Together these ideas became a fundamental part of the collective memory of the gun rights movement, and gun rights activists carried this memory into the Christian Patriot public sphere and into the militia movement. (Churchill 2009, 215)

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Active and retired military are part of extremist groups.

The NRA is an extremist organization shown to have colluded with Russia in undermining our democracy that arms domestic terrorists and is their propaganda arm. The NRA has promoted pseudo-scholarship similar to the way the tobacco industry funded fake scholarship to mislead the public about the link between smoking and cancer or the way the climate denial industry funds pseudo-scholarship to deny climate change. Patrick J. Charlessenior historian for United States Special Operationsdocuments the history of the NRA’s involvement in distorting the history of the Second Amendment and how the Supreme Court relied on NRA propaganda in Supreme Court’s decisions in McDonald v. City of Chicago and District of Columbia v. Heller. He shows how history proves that the Second Amendment wasn’t about the personal right to own a firearm because that was never the issue nor was this right ever questioned by the Founders as English Common Law already addressed that issue. It is known within the military that both active and retired military have joined militia and extremist groups and views this as “extremism in the ranks.” (NPR)

Standard Model writers will undoubtedly continue to claim that an “armed citizenry” is what Jefferson meant as the constitutional “protection against standing armies.” The intellectual and ideological origins of a well-regulated militia do not support this conclusion. The historical record, including legal works of early eighteenth century commentators, is clear that an armed rabble or unorganized militiai.e., a mere “armed citizenry”was a danger to republican liberty, not an advancement of it.

Patrick J. Charles (2013) The Second Amendment in Historiographical Crisis

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Addendum

See 54:32 for Kyle Rittenhouse telling cameraman about chemical bomb. See 57:20 where police ask if militia are protecting building. See 1:29:01 where police say they appreciate militia just prior to which Kyle Rittenhouse can be seen approaching police vehicles. A short time later that evening Kyle Rittenhouse shot and killed two protesters.

Postmodernism’s Bunkum

I always love that kind of argument. The contrary of a thing isn’t the contrary; oh, dear me, no! It’s the thing itself, but as it truly is. Ask any die-hard what conservatism is; he’ll tell you that it’s true socialism. And the brewers’ trade papers: they’re full of articles about the beauty of true temperance. Ordinary temperance is just gross refusal to drink; but true temperance, true temperance is something much more refined. True temperance is a bottle of claret with each meal and three double whiskies after dinner.

— Aldous Huxley, Eyeless in Gaza (London: Chatto and Windus, 1936) pp. 122–23. Cited in Hardcastle et. al. 2006.

Science has always had (…) a metaphoric function — that is, it generates an important part of a culture’s symbolic vocabulary and provides some of the metaphysical bases and philosophical orientations of our ideology. As a consequence of methods of argument of science, its conceptions and its models, have permeated first the intellectual life of the time, then the tenets and usages of everyday life. All philosophies share with science the need to work with concepts such as space, time, quantity, matter, order, law, causality, verification, reality.

— G. Holdton, Einstein, History and Other Passions (2000), 43; 137. Cited in The Scientist as Philosopher.

The Threat of Postmodernism

The tradition of philosophy, natural science, and social science as disciplines that aim at objective knowledge of the way the world is and the place of humans in that world, goes back to the beginnings of all three of these enterprises with Plato, Archimedes, and Thucydides. Modern science, which arguably began in the seventeenth century, appeared to be making steady progress in expanding knowledge and its practical application, first in the natural sciences, then in biology and medicine. During the Enlightenment period of the eighteenth century these achievements encouraged the overthrow of nonscientific and antiscientific traditions in religion and in culture more broadly. They held out the hope of successes similar to those of natural science in what became the social sciences. “Modernism” more generally came to describe this trend across the sciences, arts, and humanities that rejects tradition, extols reason, and seeks human improvement. (Rosenberg 2016, 307-308)

Some thinkers, especially those influenced by Continental philosophy, judged modernism to have fared poorly in the twentieth century, undermined by events in the recent past as an approach to understanding the world and our place in it. Modernism failed to provide either the beneficial outcomes many expected or a way to understand what actually happened in culture, politics, and human life. The fundamental problem, according to the late-twentieth-century movement known as postmodernism, was modernism’s philosophy, in particular its epistemology, the very ideas of absolutes in knowledge, meaning, or truth it inherited from Kant and Descartes and ultimately from Plato. Once the fixity of these categories is surrendered, there is no possibility of a final resolution of any intellectual matter. And this, on postmodernist views, is a good thing. (Rosenberg 2016, 308)

Postmodernism is a difficult doctrine to expound. In Chapter 7, it was noted that social facts are constituted by meanings agreed to and coordinated between people. According to John Searle, all social facts, events, states, institutions, rules, and practices exist through acts of interpretation of behavior, including behavior that comes to constitute meaningful speech when speakers address hearers who interpret the noises and marks that constitute speech and writing. But, asks the postmodernist, if human thought confers meaning, what gives the thoughts of humans the meanings they confer on behavior? Searle’s answer is that thoughts just have meaning; this is obvious to conscious introspection. But the philosophers who developed postmodernism reject this claim. Instead, they hold that what gives thought its meaning is the public vocabulary of words in a language that is used to express these thoughts. But since the statements constructed out of this public vocabulary need to be interpreted also, there is in fact nothing to the meaning or interpretation of any text but some other text, world without end. If everything is subject to interpretation (and an infinite regress of interpretations at that), then there is nothing extra linguistic and nothing to fix the independent truth or falsity of statements about anything. Indeed, talk of truth and falsity is just more text, more interpretation, advanced without any hope of being true but only of being accepted by someone else, under some interpretation or other. (Rosenberg 2016, 308)

But what are the implications of this “insight” for philosophy and science? First, we must surrender the “modernist” idea that there is a relationship between statements and facts in the world that confers truth on some statements and falsity on others. If there is nothing but texts and interpretations, there is nothing to compare texts to, nothing for true texts to correspond to, nothing to reveal the falsity of false ones. So, the notion that science—natural or social—is adequate or inadequate owing to the degree of its success in “mirroring” nature has no basis. Along with notions like adequacy and truth, notions like knowledge and method also lose their grip on a reality that could vindicate them. Instead, the way to understand the succession of scientific theories, models, and explanations is to trace the power, mastery, and hegemony over intellectual domains. (Rosenberg 2016, 308-309)

In some respects the postmodern approach is not so different from interpretationalism and constructivism as methods in social science. It treats actions, behaviors, practices, and combinations of them as institutions having meanings. The difference is that the meanings are not given by facts independent of meaning, but by other meaning-laden facts, and these in turn by others and so on. As each layer of interpretation is applied by some other person, class, race, gender, or other social group, meanings change, but none are final and none are right (and not because all are wrong, but because there really is no right and wrong, or at least none that is independent of anyone’s interpretation). (Rosenberg 2016, 309)

Postmodernism’s critique of social and natural science may be clearest in its attack on “essentialism.” Every discipline taxonomizes its domain, ordering phenomena into kinds, categories, and classes under which it will explain them. Classification is generally viewed as requiring us to identify the necessary and sufficient conditions for falling under a label, for being an instance of a kind, a member of a class. These will together constitute its essential property. The period table of the elements in chemistry is a neat example of apparently successful “essentialism,” the search for essential properties. Postmodernism argues that there are no essential properties, at least none in the social sciences. Essentialism is an error because it mistakenly supposes that there is a binary opposition in nature between things that satisfy the essential properties ordained by a theory, and other things that fail to do so and are therefore defective, disordered, diseased, broken, distorted, and so on. Categorizations and classifications are all arbitrary, matters of (endless) interpretation, and imposed not as a reflection of natural divisions but because their exponents have won some struggle for power in a discipline. So, such distinctions as male/female, right/wrong, democratic/undemocratic, and capitalist/socialist, as well as all other dichotomies (“binary oppositions”) of social sciences, are arbitrary reflections of local and temporary hegemonic interests. There is no fact of the matter about social phenomena for distinctions to get right. Science may claim, with Aristotle, to seek to “cut nature at the joints,” but at least in the sciences of man, there are no joints, no natural divisions, no uniquely correct ways to describe phenomena. (Rosenberg 2016, 309)

This doctrine has a great impact on a naturalistic approach to social science. In the absence of any neat system of classification into types, there can be no regularities, laws, models, or theories about how types are related to one another, and so no macro social science or science of individual behavior. But interpretative disciplines fare no better as purveyors of knowledge, since no single interpretation or narrative about the meanings of human events will turn out to be correct, to be a “totalizing metanarrative” in the postmodernist’s terms. Instead, there is a chaos, disunity, multiplicity, and irregularity in social lives, both because of the meanings, interpretations, and narratives driving, ordering, and directing the lives of social agents in competition with one another, and because any narrative that seeks to accommodate or encompass them all is itself just grist for another interpretation. It will come as no surprise that history is endlessly subject to “revision” and that no revision is more nearly correct than any other. (Rosenberg 2016, 310)

(….) Postmodernists take history seriously. They are especially attracted to the sort of history of concepts, ideas, and meanings developed in the work of Michel Foucault… Following German philosopher Nietzsche, Foucault developed “genealogies” tracing the historical emergence, growing influence, hegemony, and ultimately unraveling and extinction of important ways of thinking about people: reason, prison, pleasure, madness. Tracing genealogies reveals that contingency, arbitrariness, partiality, constructedness of things advertised by science or religion or government as objective, fixed, holy, or legal. Genealogies undermine essentialist metanarratives. But of course these genealogies undermine themselves as well, since genealogy is just another interpretation, itself subject to more interpretation. (Rosenberg 2016, 310)

If we stigmatize this view as anarchistic, skeptical, subjective, arbitrary, antiscientific, the postmodernist will simply note that we are employing essentialist categories to construct a totalizing metanarrative in a vain attempt to gain some political supremacy. They may go on to diagnose our motives, but they will at least have the consistency to accept their diagnoses are simply more interpretations, without special standing. If you are unable to take postmodernism seriously, the postmodernist replies that you are on the right track. The ultimate conclusion of postmodernism is not to take anything seriously. Intellectual, academic, scientific, political debate are all built on false assumptions about truth and its attainability, knowledge versus ignorance, the correctness of some interpretation as opposed to another, the moral rightness of some alternative action, as opposed to another. Once we see that all these binary opposites are essentialist errors, we can recognize that debates in which they figure aren’t really about anything outside of themselves. (Rosenberg 2016, 310-311)

This book and almost all philosophy of social science, indeed, philosophy as a discipline, can no more take postmodernism seriously than it can refute postmodernism in its own terms. In what has gone before and in what follows, we simply assume it is false—a concept postmodernism won’t grant us. (Rosenberg 2016, 311)

Social Science and the enduring Questions of Philosophy

The problems of philosophy of social science are problems for both philosophy and social science. They are problems of philosophy because their ultimate resolution turns on the response to philosophical challenges that have been with us since Plato. They are problems of social science because social scientists inevitably takes sides on them, whether they realize it or not. Moreover, social scientists have defended competing and irreconcilable approaches to their own disciplines by appeal to philosophical theories. As noted in Chapter 2, the claim that philosophical reflection is irrelevant to advancing knowledge in social science is itself a philosophical claim. Social scientists indifferent to philosophy can embrace this view. But unless they argue for it, their view must appear to others to be sheer prejudice. However, an argument for the irrelevance of philosophy is itself philosophy, whether we call it that or not. (Rosenberg 2016, 311)

It should not really be surprising that the social sciences and philosophy are profoundly and indissolubly linked. Like the natural sciences, each one of the social sciences is a discipline that was once part and parcel of philosophy. Indeed, whereas the natural sciences separated themselves from philosophy in the 2,200 years from Euclid to Darwin, the social sciences became independent only during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In separating from philosophy, the natural sciences left questions they could not deal with for the philosophers: What are numbers and points? What are space and time? Is there substance? It has been easy for natural scientists to leave these questions to philosophy. They have been busy, especially in the centuries since Galileo, providing more and more detailed knowledge about large numbers of substances at widely separated points of space and time. As Thomas Kuhn noted, natural scientists have turned to philosophy and taken seriously questions about the foundations of their disciplines only during periods of crisis in the development of physics or chemistry. More often than not, the crises have been surmounted by a new piece of technology or a new nonphilosophical breakthrough. These scientific achievements have themselves had philosophical implications. (Rosenberg 2016, 311-312)

Since Newton, advances in physical theory have had a more profound impact on our view of philosophical problems than advances in philosophy have had on the natural sciences. Natural science has forced philosophy to come to terms with materialism, mechanism, first determinism and then indeterminism, relativity, evolution by natural selection, and so forth. Each revolution in the natural sciences has generated new problems for philosophy. (Rosenberg 2016, 312)

But that is not the case in the relationship between philosophy and social science. There have of course been new and original developments in each of the social sciences. But some of these innovations have not met with the uniform acceptance of social scientists that would force philosophy to take them seriously. And the rest of these innovations have not forced philosophy to address new problems in the way natural science has. The direction of influence between philosophy and social science still seems to be from philosophy instead of toward it. We can trace the leading ideas of almost all the social sciences back to the work of philosophers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This is not just a point about intellectual history. It shows that contemporary social science is much more bound up with the philosophical tradition than is contemporary natural science. (Rosenberg 2016, 312)

More than ever today, social scientists seem to be interested in philosophy, especially the philosophy of science. If Kuhn is right, that is a symptom of intellectual crisis. In the heyday of behaviorism after World War II, methodological reflection was out of favor among psychologists, economists, and other social scientists inspired by their optimism. The philosophy of science was treated as the last refuge of a social scientist incapable of making a “real” contribution to the discipline. It is a matter of some irony that confidence about the prospects for scientific progress was based on almost nothing but a philosophical theory—logical positivism, the latest version of empiricism. That doctrine goes back to the Enlightenment and probably to Plato’s contemporaries. (Rosenberg 2016, 312-313)

Pessimism about a thoroughly behavioral approach to human action drew many social scientists back to a preoccupation with philosophy after 1975. They found in the philosophy of science a number of theories ready to explain both why behaviorism failed in social science and why empiricism is inadequate as a philosophy of science. But that is what another tradition in philosophy and social science had been preaching steadily at least since Hegel in the early nineteenth century. (Rosenberg 2016, 313)

The social scientist’s preoccupation with philosophy of science seems to be another reason to identify the distinctive problem of the philosophy of social science as that surrounding the issue of progress and the allegedly invidious comparisons to natural science. But the practical concerns of the individual disciplines also make salient fundamental issues in epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and logic. (Rosenberg 2016, 313)

The Unavoidability of Epistemology

The dispute about whether the goal of social science should be predictive improvement or increasing intelligibility is fundamentally a disagreement about the nature, extent, and justification of claims to knowledge. Of course, we’d rather not have to choose between seeking improvement in prediction and making human action more intelligible. Yet insofar as what we seek in social science is knowledge, the choice is forces on us. The demands of predictive improvement rest on a conception of knowledge as justified by its consistency with experience, and not just past experience. It is too easy easy to tailor a theory to be consistent with data that are already in. A theory that can tell us about the actual world must be composed of contingent claims, which the actual world could show to be false. A body of statements that actual events could not disconfirm would be consistent with whatever happens and thus explain nothing. (Rosenberg 2016, 313)

If increasing our understanding of the meaning of human actions improves our predictive powers, then of course there is no conflict. The kind of knowledge that the search for meanings provides will be the same as that which predictively confirmed claims provide. But as we have seen, there are serious obstacles in the way of achieving such predictive improvements in theories that take the search for meanings seriously. We have to decide whether the obstacles are surmountable. If we decide they are not, we face a forced choice between intelligibility and prediction. If we choose intelligibility, we are committed to a fundamentally different epistemology that does not require the same sort of justification for knowledge that prediction provides. Instead, the mark of knowledge that epistemology demands is some sort of certainty or necessity of connections that the mind can grasp. (Rosenberg 2016, 313-314)

Why not simply hold that the house of knowledge has many mansions, that there are many different sorts of knowledge? Social scientists may freely choose among them, for all are equally legitimate ways of expanding our understanding. Some social scientists are interested in knowledge that can be applied to informing social and individual policy and can be used to predict the consequences of planning or its absence. For them, predictions is crucial, and improvements in knowledge are measured by improvements in prediction. Other social scientists have interests to which improvements in prediction are irrelevant. For them, knowledge accumulates by increasing our detailed understanding of a culture or subculture from the inside. Predictive approaches and ones aimed at interpretation are equally valid “ways” of knowing that need not compete with each other. (Rosenberg 2016, 314)

This view sounds like an open-minded attitude of tolerance. But it is just a way of refusing to take seriously the problems social science faces. If there really are many different forms of knowledge, all equally valid, the question must arise: What do they have in common that makes them all knowledge? After all, the term knowledge has to stand for something; it can’t just be an arbitrary label for a heterogeneous collection of intellectual activities that have nothing in common. To suggest that religious knowledge, for instance, rests on revelation, that moral knowledge is justified by intuition, for instance, that scientific knowledge is empirical, that our of human action is based on introspective certainty, and that they are equally legitimate shows not so much tolerance as indifference to the claims of each of these approaches. It is the attitude that anything goes, that knowledge is whatever anyone cares to assert. If a social scientist chooses to seek one of these different kinds of knowledge, there must be a reason given for this choice. Surely it cannot be merely a matter of taste whether improvable generalizations or emphatic insight into intelligibility is the aim of a social scientist’s research program. It cannot be merely a matter of taste what the social scientist will count as good evidence for a theory or explanation advanced in the pursuit of inquiry. And when a social scientist chooses one goal but allows that all other epistemic goals are equally correct, she deprives her own choice of a rational foundation. (Rosenberg 2016, 314)

That does not mean that once we have made a choice, we should not accept or tolerate other choices and other methods as possible alternatives. For our best views of what constitutes knowledge are fallible. Having made our epistemic choice, we could be wrong. But the fallibility of our choice does not entail either that it is the wrong choice or that there is no more evidence for it than for its competitors. (Rosenberg 2016, 314-315)

If we choose to seek predictive improvement or intelligibility of our theories as the mark of knowledge, we must allow others to identify other goals, because for all we know, we might be wrong about what constitutes knowledge. But if we don’t have reasons to support our choice, and perhaps also to oppose theirs, then our choice is not rationally justified. (Rosenberg 2016, 315)

That is what makes epistemology unavoidable for those who hold that the aim of social science is to provide knowledge. Indifference to the issues of epistemology is sometimes a cover for contempt. Some natural scientists, secure in their conviction about what the right methods for attaining scientific knowledge are, express great tolerance about the appropriate methods in social science. They often decline to endorse their own methods as appropriate for the study of human action and social institutions. On their view, “anything goes” in social science. But without good reason to show that human behavior and its consequences are so different from natural phenomena that scientific methods are inappropriate for its study, this attitude is a contemptuous one. It simply disguises the view that the “soft” sciences don’t provide knowledge at all, just the free play of competing speculations, which succeed each other on grounds of fashionableness instead of justification. If social science is to provide knowledge, it cannot be indifferent to what constitutes knowledge. Nor can it accept a permanent agnosticism about claims of incomplete theories of knowledge. (Rosenberg 2016, 315)

Science and Metaphysics

I have argued that the epistemic choice of predictive improvement as a mark of increasing knowledge must make us dissatisfied with intentional approaches to the explanation of human behavior. Similarly, an unswerving commitment to such strategies of explanation will seriously weaken the claims of prediction as an epistemic goal of social science. (Rosenberg 2016, 315)

Either of these alternatives raises fundamental questions about human beings and our place in nature, questions that have always been the special province of metaphysics. For the social scientist, taking sides on these metaphysical questions seems just as unavoidable as it is for matters of epistemology. The interpretative philosophy of social science that exempts the study of humankind from the methods appropriate in the study of the rest of nature must provide an explanation of this exception. And the naturalistic philosophy that absorbs social science into this paradigm must explain away an equally recalcitrant fact about people. (Rosenberg 2016, 315) [See Müller-Kademann 2019 on uncertainty]

Interpretative philosophy of social science teaches that the goals of natural science are inappropriate in the study of human behavior. Another set of aims not recognized in the natural sciences must be substituted. By analyzing the way social science actually proceeds and showing that it cannot proceed in any other way, we may be able to illustrate why the goals of natural science are wrong for the study of humans. But the question is left open of why that is so. Why must the study of humans be different from every other science? It must be because of some fact about us, in particular about our minds, thoughts, consciousness, and the facts of intentionality on which interpretation trades. (Rosenberg 2019, 316) [See Müller-Kademann 2019 on uncertainty]

If, as Descartes held, the mind is a substance quite different from the rest of nature, operating in accordance with different principles, then we have the beginnings of an explanation of why the human sciences cannot proceed in the way the study of matter does. Metaphysical differences dictate scientific differences. Descartes argued that mind is distinct from the body on the grounds that it has properties no chunk of matter could possibly have. His most famous argument was that our minds have the property of of our not being able to doubt their existence, whereas no part of our bodies, including our brains, has this feature. I can well imagine what it would be like to wake up discovering I was missing a limb or even that my skull was empty. But I cannot imagine discovering that I have no mind, for who would make this discovery if I had none? Thus my mind has a property my body lacks: indubitable existence. Accordingly, the mind cannot be part of the body. (Rosenberg 2016, 315)

But this dualism runs into the gravest difficulty with the evident fact that our mental states have both physical causes and physical effects. It is hard to see how something nonphysical can have such relations. [See Stapp 2017] For causation is preeminently a physical relation that involves pushes and pulls. [not on the quantum level, things become far less ‘physical’] It requires the transfer of kinetic energy, which is a function of mass and velocity—that is, matter in motion. But the interpretationalist can turn this mystery to advantage. The impossibility of causal relations between mind and matter explains why a predictive science of human behavior modeled on natural science is impossible: no causation, no laws; no laws, no prediction. [See Stapp 2007, 2017 and Müller-Kademann 2019]

Some will find that such an argument proves too much, for it seems to them beyond doubt that our desires and beliefs have environmental causes and behavioral effects. They may adapt Descartes’s argument to a less controversial but still sufficiently strong argument against naturalism. We may grant that mental states have causes and effects, but the sort of causation involved is not physical and does not consist in generalizations we may improve in the direction of laws. Indeed, the causal relations between mind and matter are singular and irregular. But they reflect logical or conceptual relations between the intentional content of the mind, the statements describing what we believe and want, and descriptions of action. It is these conceptual connections that force a study of meanings on us as the only way to come to grips with the mind and action. (Rosenberg 2016, 316-317)

The explanatory power of such a doctrine rests in large measure on its initial metaphysical assumption that mind is distinct from the body and not a part of the physical world. Unless interpretationalists are content to leave unexplained the distinctiveness of social scientific method, they must face the challenge of substantiating the metaphysical view. (Rosenberg 2016, 317)

The naturalist has the same problem in reverse. Naturalism holds that the mind is a natural object, thus explaining the appropriateness of methods drawn from the natural sciences to its study. As we saw in Chapter 4, that is no easy matter. We have yet no plausible explanation for the most basic naturalism rests on: how physical matter can have intentional content, how one arrangement of matter—the brain—can represent other arrangements of physical matter. Yet if the mind is the brain, that is what our beliefs and desires will be: my belief that Paris is the capital of France must be an arrangement of neurotransmitters at the synapses of a particular part of my cerebrum. Without invoking someone or something to interpret this physical arrangement, it seems impossible to explain how it could represent some state of affairs obtaining in France, thousands of miles from my brain, involving large areas of space and complex legal facts about them. This mystery is just as great as the dualist’s mystery of how nonphysical events in the mind can have physical causes and effects. (Rosenberg 2016, 317)

Merely announcing that the mind is the brain will not make it so. And even if the mind is the brain, we need to understand exactly how it can be, if we are to employ this bit of metaphysics in the explanation of why some methods will be more appropriate than others in the study of the mind and its effects. (Rosenberg 2016, 317)

It would be understandable if impatience with these matters leads some to say that how the brain represents is a matter of science, not metaphysics, and is therefore better left to scientists than philosophers. But his response fails to recognize that science is in fact continuous with metaphysics. Our fundamental conception of the nature of reality and our substantive study of it are on a continuum, and each heavily influences the other. Consider the impact of Newtonian mechanics on metaphysics—determinism, materialism, corpuscularism. Consider the way in which commitment to such metaphysical views led to the expansion of the domain of Newtonian science in the absence of factual evidence of determinism, materialism, corpuscularism. The explanation of the nature of reality that Newtonian metaphysics provided underwrote its scientific strategy long before the evidence for its predictive powers became overwhelming. And finally, reflect on the fact that the overthrow of Newtonian physics had equally strong ramifications for metaphysics and indeed for epistemology. The situation is the same in social science. (Rosenberg 2016, 317-318)

The role of metaphysics may be, in fact, more critical here. For if the social sciences do not have much at present to show in the way of predictive success, then we need an explanation of why they don’t—and perhaps cannot—or we need an explanation of why they will ultimately provide such knowledge. Either sort of explanation so greatly transcends narrow factual matters that it must be metaphysical. (Rosenberg 2016, 318)

Moreover, solving the problem of how the brain actually represents requires first a solution to the puzzle of how it could possibly represent. For without a solution to the conceptual problems of intentionality, we have no hint of where to begin in searching for a solution to the factual problem of connecting psychology and neuroscience. What is more, naturalism needs to solve the metaphysical problem of representation if it is to take our intentional explanations seriously here and now, not in some happy future time when neuroscience has established itself. For in the absence of such solutions, naturalism loses out to interpretative social science as the approach most suited to the study of intentional creatures like us. (Rosenberg 2016, 318)

Of course, one can always opt for the view of Skinner and other materialists who refuse to take intentional states seriously in the first place. Among philosophers, this view has had some currency. Though they hold no brief for the explanatory variables Skinner adopted, they agree that intentional states have no role in adequate scientific explanations and will, in the long run, suffer the fate of notions like “phlogiston,” or “demonic possession.” They will simply disappear from the best explanations of behavior. Such eliminative materialists have their own metaphysical problems, distinct from those of naturalists hoping to accommodate intentional phenomena to, instead of eliminate from, the natural sciences. Perhaps the most serious of these problems is the sheer implausibility of saying our actions are not caused by our desires and beliefs, and that we don’t have sensations or thoughts. This view is so implausible that its denial is often viewed as close to an a priori truth and the most basic premise of interpretative social science (see Chapters 8 and 15). In fact, eliminative materialists have tried hard to render consistent their view that such concepts will disappear from scientific explanations with our first-person convictions that we do have such intentional states. The details need not concern us here [see Dupré 2001, 5-6]. But the argument is as much a piece of fundamental philosophy as that required to justify naturalism or interpretationalism as a method in social science. (Rosenberg 2016, 318)

So, all sides of the dispute about social science and their goals and methods have a metaphysical mystery to deal with. Naturally, social scientists cannot be expected to cease their work and turn to the philosophy of mind. But they have taken sides on these questions by choosing methods that are underwritten by answers to these questions. They cannot pretend that the issues do not concern them and will not in the long run have an impact on the direction of research in the social disciplines. (Rosenberg 2016, 318-319)

Individualism and Instrumentalism

Those who hope to skirt metaphysical issues about the mind fix the agenda of the social sciences to macrosocial facts free from psychology and individual action. They must face equally fundamental questions addressed initially in the philosophy of science and eventually in metaphysics and epistemology. (Rosenberg 2016, 318-319)

Reductionists and methodological individualists face the problem that at least some large-scale social phenomena, their descriptions and their explanations, resist explanation and description in terms of the components that make them up. This fact is hard to reconcile with the reductionism characteristic of the physical sciences. Moreover, the obvious explanation, that such phenomena somehow reflect supra-individual agencies, is difficult to accept or even make sense of if society is composed of individuals and nothing else. Therefore, individualists must search for another way to explain the resistance of social facts to reduction. One strategy is to explain away reference to irreducible wholes as a mistake. That is, however, unconvincing to those not already wedded to individualism. Another tactic is to treat macrosocial theories, not as true or false claims about the world, but as useful instruments, tools for systematizing data, and not to be taken seriously. (Rosenberg 2016, 319)

This approach, however, raises questions that instrumentalism has always faced in philosophy: If these instruments are so good, what is the explanation for their usefulness? And more important, why can we not produce theories that are both good as instruments and true? Are there computational or cognitive limitations on us that prevent us from producing theories in social science that seem, like theories in natural sciences, to be more than just good instruments? Or are all theories natural and social merely tools for systematizing observations? Whichever move the individualist makes leads straight into the philosophy of science and thence into epistemology and metaphysics. (Rosenberg 2016, 319)

The holist is no better off. Holism may justify its extravagant ontology by the instrumental success of holistic theories. But it cannot rest with such justification. It too must explain how social facts, made up of the behavior of individuals, can nevertheless be distinct from individuals. Such explanations are plainly a part of metaphysics. And holism must explain how we can have knowledge of such facts when all that ever meets our eyes is the behavior of individuals. Unless holism takes such questions seriously, its position collapses into the individualist’s instrumentalism and faces the same questions it does. (Rosenberg 2016, 319-320)

Philosophy and the Moral Sciences

Probably little needs to be said to convince us that moral philosophy has a profound bearing on the social sciences and vice vesa. The social sciences were, in fact, at one time known as the moral sciences, and they remain the disciplines that help us decide matters of policy, private and public. The twentieth-century trend, evinced in economics and other disciplines, of divesting the social sciences of a moral voice has never met with general agreement, and through the vicissitudes of the century, the plea for value neutrality has sometimes been reduced to the opinion of a small minority. The majority view that social science cannot be morally neutral is faced directly with the matter of what moral and social prescriptions ought to be offered. (Rosenberg 2016, 320)

In recent years, moral philosophy has been as much a consumer or importer of theories and findings from social science as it has been a producer of and exporter to the social sciences of moral theories about what is right, good, required, prohibited, or permitted. This tendency has reflected the same doubts about a distinction between facts and values that has animated the opponents of value-free social science. There now seems little difference between the language of arguments in political philosophy and welfare economics, for instance. But the philosopher seems less constrained by economic orthodoxy. Political philosophers are prepared to consider the possibility of interpersonal comparisons and perhaps even cardinal utility, notions that have no place among modern mathematical economists. But for those theories to gain acceptance, the arguments that economics has mounted against them must be disposed of. This is certainly a task to be faced by social scientists as well as philosophers who reject the constraints of Pareto optimality. (Rosenberg 2016, 320)

So here the situation is reversed. Social scientists need to concern themselves with moral philosophy both because they cannot avoid ethical issues and because they may have more to say about them than we might expect. In fact, they may be able to provide the kind of information philosophy needs in order to advance and improve its own moral theories. It is, accordingly, an intellectual duty to provide this kind of help. The duty comes with the claim that social science provides, inseparably, normative and factual knowledge. (Rosenberg 2016, 320)

In a way, the moral responsibilities of a normatively committed social science make the classical problems of epistemology and metaphysics even more compelling. As we have seen, choosing between competing methods of pursuing social science heavily tilts our choices about moral theories. Naturalism makes a consequential theory more inviting. Antinaturalism is more sympathetic to a theory of rights and duties than to one of general welfare. So choosing between these moral points of view makes the epistemological and metaphysical problems behind the competing methods even more pressing than their purely intellectual or academic fascination might make them. (Rosenberg 2016, 321)

But even those who hold that social science is at its best free from value judgments and subjective impurities must face moral problems distinctive of social science. These problems are the constraints that ethics places on our research methods, the steps we take to communicate them and their impact on others, as well as the very questions we decide to pursue as social scientists. The moral neutrality of our theories, methods, and epistemic goals, if they are indeed neutral, does not extend to us, the social scientists who pursue these goals. We make choices either self-consciously or by default. The choices seem better made as a result of serious reflection than sheer inadvertence. And such reflection takes the form of moral philosophy and applied ethics. (Rosenberg 2016, 321)

The first thing one learns about moral philosophy is that, like the other divisions of the subject, it too is wracked with controversy and disagreements both fundamental and derivative. Yet in contrast to the case with other areas of philosophy, we cannot remain agnostic for long about these disagreements because they have an immediate bearing on our conduct and its effects on others and ourselves. (Rosenberg 2016, 321)

Conclusion

This introduction is meant largely for social scientists. Its aims have been three: to introduce the traditional problems of the philosophy of social science; to connect these problems with the methodological, factual, and moral choices that social scientists themselves make; and to show how the problems bring together the day-to-day research agenda of the social scientist with the most central, deepest problems of philosophy. (Rosenberg 2016, 321)

The first aim reflects my belief that current controversies in the philosophy of social science are almost always new versions of traditional debates. Sometimes it is difficult to recognize this fact because the jargon has changed and the participants themselves often mistakenly think they have discovered a new issue. Today’s argument between interpretational social science and naturalistic social science reflects the same issues that were debated among Weber and Durkheim, Dilthey and Comte, Mill and Marx, Hegel and Hobbes. That does not mean that current disputes are condemned to perpetual gridlock. Rather, it means that traditional insights bear a continuing relevance. (Rosenberg 2016, 321-322)

The third aim, of making the social scientist see the seriousness and the relevance of questions that daunted Plato, Descartes, Hume, Kant, and their discipline, reflects the conviction that the search for knowledge is all of one piece. But this conviction is also the basis of another aim, which could animate an introduction to the philosophy of social science. This is the aim of encouraging philosophers to recognize the bearing of work in the social sciences to their traditional concerns. If social scientists take sides on philosophical issues in their work, then the findings, theories, and methods of these disciplines must test, and eventually inform, the thinking of philosophers. (Rosenberg 2016, 322)

Concepts and Controversies

Granted that, as de Duve says, we are compelled by our calling to insist at all times on strictly naturalistic explanations; life must, therefore, have emerged from chemistry. Granted also that simple organic molecules were present at the beginning, in uncertain locations, diversity and abundance. Leave room for contingency, some rare chemical fluctuation that may have played a seminal role in the inception of living systems; and remember that you may be mistaken. With all that, I still cannot bring myself to believe that rudimentary organisms of any kind came about by the association of prefabricated organic molecules, born of purely chemical processes in their environment. Did life begin as a molecular collage? To my taste, that idea smacks of the reconstitution of life as we know it rather than its genesis ab initio. It overestimates what Harold Morowitz called the munificence of nature, her generosity in providing building blocks for free. It makes cellular organization an afterthought to molecular structure, and offers no foothold to autopoiesis. And it largely omits what I believe to be the ultimate wellspring of life, the thermodynamic drive of energy dissipation, creating mounting levels of structural order for natural selection to winnow. If it is true that life resides in organization rather than in substance, than what is left out of account is the heart of the mystery: the origin of biological order. (Harold 2001: 250)

(….) It would be agreeable to conclude this book with a cheery fanfare about science closing in, slowly but surely, on the ultimate mystery; but the time for rosy rhetoric is not yet at hand. The origin of life appears to me as incomprehensible as ever, a matter for wonder but not for explication. Even the principles of biopoiesis still elude us, for reasons that are as much conceptual as technical. The physical sciences have been exceedingly successful in formulating universal laws on the basis of reproducible experiments, accurate measurements, and theories explicitly designed to be falsifiable. These commendable practices cannot be fully extrapolated to any historical subject, in which general laws constrain what is possible but do not determine the outcome. Here knowledge must be drawn from observation of what actually happened, and seldom can theory be directly confronted with reality. The origin of life is where these two ways of knowing collide. The approach from hard science starts with the supposition that physical laws exercise strong constraints on what was historically possible; therefore, even though one can never exclude the intervention of some unlikely but crucial happenstance, one should be able to arrive at a plausible account of how it could have happened. This, however, is not how matters have turned out. The range of permissible options is to broad, the constraints so loose, that few scenarios can be firmly rejected; and when neither theory nor experiment set effective boundaries, hard science is stymied. The tools of “soft,” historical science unfortunately offer no recourse: the trail is too cold, the traces too faint. (Harold 2001: 251-252)

The tell a story of Max Delbrück, one of the pioneers of molecular genetics and the ironic inventor of DNA, whom I was privileged to meet during his later years at the California Institute of Technology. He had stopped reading papers on the origin of life, Max once observed; he would wait for someone to produce a recipe for the fabrication of life. So are we all waiting, not necessarily for a recipe but for new techniques of apprehending the utterly remote past. Without such a breakthrough, we can continue to reason, speculate and argue, but we cannot know. Unless we acquire novel and powerful methods of historical inquiry, science will effectively have reached a limit. (Harold 2001: 252)

Franklin M. Harold (2001) The Way of the Cell: Molecules, Organisms and the Order of Life. Oxford University Press.

[T]he origin of life is not what Darwin’s mechanism for evolutionary biology is about, as he himself wrote in the Origin of Species. Complaining that Darwinian evolution can’t explain life’s origin is like complaining that your Mercedes can’t fly. It wasn’t supposed to do that in the first place…. In the case of Darwin’s theory of evolutionary biology, this is providing a causal mechanism by which organisms like newts, monkeys, tuna, spiders, and ostriches attained their current diversity…. [I]t is very important to realize that studies of abiogenesis comprise a distinct field of science, one that does not draw on the same mechanisms relevant to Darwinian evolutionary biology. (Asher 2012: 184)

Robert J. Asher (2012) Evolution and Belief: Confessions of a Religious Paleontologist. Cambridge University Press.

Conceptualizing Cells

We should all take seriously an assessment of biology made by the physicist David Bohm over 30 years ago (and universally ignored):

“It does seem odd … that just when physics is … moving away from mechanism, biology and psychology are moving closer to it. If the trend continues … scientists will be regarding living and intelligent beings as mechanical, while they suppose that inanimate matter is to complex and subtle to fit into the limited categories of mechanism.” [D. Bohm, “Some Remarks on the Notion of Order,” in C. H. Waddington, ed., Towards a Theoretical Biology: 2 Sketches. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Press 1969), p. 18-40.]

The organism is not a machine! Machines are not made of parts that continually turn over and renew; the cell is. A machine is stable because its parts are strongly built and function reliably. The cell is stable for an entirely different reason: It is homeostatic. Perturbed, the cell automatically seeks to reconstitute its inherent pattern. Homeostasis and homeorhesis are basic to all living things, but not machines.

If not a machine, then what is the cell?

Woese, Carl R. (2005) Evolving Biological Organization. In Microbial Phylogeny and Evolution: Concepts and Controversies (Jan Sapp, ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 100.

The science of biology enters the twenty-first century in turmoil, in a state of conceptual disarray, although at first glance this is far from apparent. When has biology ever been in a more powerful position to study living systems? The sequencing juggernaut has still to reach full steam, and it is constantly spewing forth all manner of powerful new approaches to biological systems, many of which were previously unimaginable: a revolutionized medicine that reaches beyond diagnosis and cure of disease into defining states of the organism in general; revolutionary agricultural technology built on genomic understanding and manipulation of animals and plants; the age-old foundation of biology, taxonomy, made rock solid, greatly extended, and become far more useful in its new genomic setting; a microbial ecology that is finally able to contribute to our understanding of the biosphere; and the list goes on. (Woese 2005: 99)

All this is an expression of the power inherent in the methodology of molecular biology, especially the sequencing of genomes. Methodology is one thing, however, and understanding and direction another. The fact is that the understanding of biology emerging from the mass of data that flows from the genome sequencing machines brings into question the classical concepts of organism, lineage, and evolution as the same time it gainsays the molecular perspective that spawned the enterprise. The fact is that the molecular perspective, which so successfully guided and shaped twentieth-century biology, has effectively run its course (as all paradigms do) and no longer provides a focus, a vision of the biology of the future, with the result that biology is wandering will-nilly into that future. This is a prescription for revolutionconceptual revolution. One can be confident that the new paradigm will soon emerge to guide biology in this new century…. Molecular biology has ceased to be a genuine paradigm, and it is now only a body of (very powerful) technique…. The time has come to shift biology’s focus from trying to understand organisms solely by dissecting them into their parts to trying to understand the fundamental nature of biological organization, of biological form. (Woese 2005: 99-100)

(….) When one has worked one’s entire career within the framework of a powerful paradigm, it is almost impossible to look at that paradigm as anything but the proper, if not the only possible, perspective one can have on (in this case) biology. Yet despite its great accomplishments, molecular biology is far from the “perfect paradigm” most biologists take it to be. This child of reductionist materialism has nearly driven the biology out of biology. Molecular biology’s reductionism is fundamentalist, unwavering, and procrustean. It strips the organism from its environment, shears it of its history (evolution), and shreds it into parts. A sense of the whole, of the whole cell, of the whole multicellular organism, of the biosphere, of the emergent quality of biological organization, all have been lost or sidelined. (Woese 2005: 101)

Our thinking is fettered by classical evolutionary notions as well. The deepest and most subtle of these is the concept of variation and selection. How we view the evolution of cellular design or organization is heavily colored by how we view variation and selection. From Darwin’s day onward, evolutionists have debated the nature of the concept, and particularly whether evolutionary change is gradual, salutatory, or of some other nature. However, another aspect of the concept concerns us here more. In the terms I prefer, it is the nature of the phase (or propensity) space in which evolution operates. Looked at one way, variation and selection are all there is to evolution: The evolutionary phase space is wide open, and all manner of things are possible. From this “anything goes” perspective, a given biological form (pattern) has no meaning outside of itself, and the route by which it arises is one out of an enormous number of possible paths, which makes the evolution completely idiosyncratic and, thus, uninteresting (molecular biology holds this position: the molecular biologist sees evolution as merely a series of meaningless historical accidents). (Woese 2005: 101)

The alternative viewpoint is that the evolutionary propensity space is highly constrained, being more like a mountainous terrain than a wide open prairie: Only certain paths are possible, and they lead to particular (a relatively small set of) outcomes. Generic biological form preexists in the same sense that form in the inanimate world does. It is not the case that “anything goes” in the world of biological evolution. In other words, biological form (pattern) is important: It has meaning beyond itself; a deeper, more general significance. Understanding of biology lies, then, in understanding the evolution and nature of biological form (pattern). Explaining biological form by variation and selection hand-waving argumentation is far from sufficient: The motor does not explain where the car goes. (Woese 2005: 101-102)

(….) Evolutionary limitations imposed by a primitive translation mechanism. One cannot look at the cellular translation apparatus without being overwhelmed by its complexity, by the number of parts and their possible interactions. It is even more daunting to contemplate the evolution of such a mechanism. In a very real sense the evolution of translation is the evolution of the cell: Translation is the heart of the evolving cell design. Cellular evolution requires entire suites of novel proteins never before seen on Earth, and it is the performance characteristics of the primitive apparatus that determine what general types of proteins can and cannot evolve. (Woese 2005: 107)

A translation apparatus today must do two main things: accurately match codons with corresponding amino acids across an entire message RNA (perhaps thousands of nucleotides in length) and maintain the correct reading frame throughout the process. It seems impossible that a simple primitive translation mechanism could perform with the requisite precision to accurately produce a large (modern) protein. (The point here is not only common sense but can be inferred from the fact that the structure of the genetic code appears to have been optimized to reduce the phenotypic consequences of codon recognition error.) Primitive cells, then, would comprise only small proteins, which, of course, has broad implications as to the nature of the evolving cells. In almost cases the primitive version of a particular function would be less sophisticated and precise than its modern counterpart…. A name has been given to cells that have primitive translation capacities. The name, “progenote,” signifies that the genotype-phenotype link has yet to complete its evolution. (Woese 2005: 107)

(….) How translation might have began. If we know how modern translation worked, we would be on far safer grounds in conjecturing how it began. (….) The progenote model sees organisms as genetically communal and the community as evolving as a whole, not the individual cell lines therein…. The real mystery, however, is how this incredibly simple, unsophisticated, imprecise communal progenote—cells with only ephemeral genealogical traces—evolved to become complex, precise, integrated, individualized modern cells, which have stable organismal genealogical records. This shift from a primitive genetic free-for-all to modern organisms must by all accounts have been one of the most profound happenings in the whole of evolutionary history. Although we do not yet understand it, the transition needs to be appropriately marked and named. “Darwinian threshold” (or “Darwinian Transition”) seems appropriate: crossing the threshold means entering a new stage, where organismal lineages and genealogies have meaning, where evolutionary descent is largely vertical, and where the evolutionary course can begin to be described by tree representation. (Woese 2005: 109)

The most important, if not the only, thing that can be said right now about the progression from pre-Darwinian progenote to cells typical of the Darwin era (i.e., modern cells), is that in the process the cell design becomes more integrated. Connectivity, coupling (among componentry) is key to the nature of that transition. The cell is a complex dynamic system. Complex dynamic systems characteristically undergo saltations at “critical points.” Drastic changes in the system result. An increase in the connectivity of a system is one factor that can bring it to such a critical point. Does the Darwinian Threshold, then, denote a critical point in the evolutionary process? I say it does. We can be confident in any case that in the full evolutionary course, from an abiotic earth to modern cells and organisms, evolutionary saltations must have occurred. The transition from the nondescript, horizontally [non-Darwinian] intermeshed, and simple progenote to the complex individual cell lineages (with stable genealogical traces and vertical descent) that we know surely has the feel of a saltation. (Woese 2005: 109)