Sunday, February 06, 2022

Evening Note for Sunday, February 6

 Thought for the Evening: Postulates of Civil Theology

Let us assume, as a starting point, that the two great evils concerning the state that civil society must avoid are collapse and totalitarianism. We then have a problem: to grow a civil society that avoids both. To do so, we must postulate certain things as possible and able to be acted upon.

As I have noted before, in totalitarianism the state acts on the principle that nothing falls outside of its authority. To resist this requires recognizing at least one of two things: that there is something more authoritative than the state and that there is something with authority independent of the authority of the state. The former gives us our first postulate:

(1) There is a moral order that is greater than and is relevant to the political order.

That is to say, there must be some kind of 'higher law', or system of values, or source of rights, or whatever we wish to call it, that is greater than anything that could come within the reach of the state. This is related to the postulate we seem to need if we are going to recognize authority that is independent of the authority of the state:

(2) There is a higher law to which persons are individually, cooperatively, and collectively responsible independently of the state.

Exactly the form this takes does not concern us here; the point is simply that if there are kinds of authority outside the state, there must be obligations, or something like obligations, that give people, either individually or in groups, some authority that is not state-dependent.

As I noted, either one of these on its own provides a kind of block against totalitarianism; but they seem to require each other, for reasons I previously noted. It is also the case, however, that we seem to need both to avoid the opposite evil, collapse. People in civil society, to avoid collapse, must be able to come together in a just way; this requires something like a higher law, whatever form precisely that might take, that is to say, a standard independent of the state for what counts as just interaction, and this must be able to weigh more heavily than other concerns, requiring something that is at least like a greater moral order. 

A postulate you would need is that the kind of society for which we are aiming is possible. This gives us our third postulate:

(3) There is a pure form to which civil society tends that is characterized by justice.

That is to say, trying to make civil society just does not do violence to it, but on the contrary, fulfills and completes it.

The most common reason people give for wanting to avoid either collapse or totalitarianism is that in neither case are people treated as having adequate value. Now if we simply try to measure the value of human life, in order to assess adequacy, we run into the problem that any measurement we could make of someone's value from their lifetime seems inadequate and, what is more, one can imagine totalitarian states using such a measurement to make their decisions. Therefore many people would like a further postulate:

(4) There is a value or worth to human life, both individually and cooperatively, exceeding what could ever be manifested in a lifetime.

Again, exactly what this means in practice is not our concern here; it could be that we recognize every human being as having human rights, or being in the image of God, or as ends in themselves, or any number of other things, either singly or in combination. But the value of human life is itself a justification of civil society, which expresses and in some ways completes human life, and therefore a reason why totalitarianism and collapse should be avoided to begin with.

These four postulates -- moral order, higher law, just destination, human dignity -- seem to be required for building any viable civil society. The exact form they take can vary, but if a civil society does not accept any of these -- does not accept a moral order, does not accept a standard of justice independent of itself, does not accept that civil society is complete and healthy insofar as it is just, and acts in a manner that treats human individuals as either worthless or as having only such worth as is obvious in the lives they have lived so far -- it seems clear that it is either already totalitarian or nearly dissolved as a society into a war of each against each.

Postulation is a relatively weak rational act. To postulate does not even strictly require that it be true; the purpose of postulation is to provide a platform by which a problem can be solved. Thus, if you tried to figure out how a ball would move if it falls from a height and rolls across a smooth floor, taking into account only what is strictly true, it would be a massive task. So instead you postulate that the ball is a perfect sphere, that there is no air resistance, that the smoothness of the floor is perfect, and so forth. This makes the problem soluble, and despite the fact that no ball is a perfect sphere, there is usually air resistance, and even the smoothest floor is not perfectly smooth, you can get answers that are right to a very high degree of approximation, and thus good enough for practical purposes. Thus it wouldn't matter if you preferred a slight variation of one of the above; they just need to be close enough for practical purposes. But if something like our postulates do not obtain, then it seems that it becomes a practical absurdity to try to build a stable non-totalitarian society in the long run.

However, it seems like we have moral requirements to work toward a stable society and to avoid a totalitarian one, and that any reasonable person will at least try to do both. Thus we have a moral responsibility to make the above four postulates (or reasonably close variations on them) in actual practical life. I happen to think all four can be given a reasonable degree of proof; but even if this were not so, it would be reasonable and responsible to postulate them in order to try to build a stable and non-totalitarian civil society. And all four can be postulated in a consistent and unified way if we at least postulate one more thing:

(5) There is a divine moral governor of the world.

Various Links of Interest

* Origin Stories: Quayshawn Spencer (video). Spencer is known for his work in philosophy of biology.

* Last year, there were two periods in which, for the first time in a long time, deaths outpaced births in the United States.

* Scientists have polymerized a material in two dimensions. Polymers are extremely useful, but they've always been limited by the fact that we could only form strands. If this process generalizes, so that we can make different types, it will allow us to make very light sheets of material that are stronger than steel, which could potentially revolutionize entire fields of engineering.

* Jonathan Cattrell, Representation and Copying in Hume's Treatise and Later Works (PDF)

* Charles Piller looks at a case of fraud in DNA barcoding that has been used to verify quality in food and supplements.

* Jay Daigle, Why Isn't There a Replication Crisis in Math?

* Justin Vlasits, Division, Syllogistic and Science in Prior Analytics I.3 (PDF)

* Sean Campbell, The BLM Mystery, looks at the lack of financial transparency in the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation.

* Brendan Hodge, America's Retiring Priests

* Thad Botham, Agent Causation and Free Will: A Case for Libertarianism (PDF)

* Low-Tech Magazine

* Javier Corrales, Tell-Tale Signs of Democratic Backsliding, at Persuasion

* Jay Livingston, Consider the Social Class of the Lobster

* Bryan Cutter & Dustin Crummett, Psychophysical Harmony: A New Argument for Theism (PDF). (Although I don't know how 'new' it is, given that you can find several early modern philosophers who have some version of it.)

* Lisa Gill looks at the problem of heavy metals in commonly used spices

Currently Reading

Madeleine L'Engle, A Wind in the Door
Isaac Asimov, Fantastic Voyage
C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image