This week I’d like to discuss some morbidity issues around Universalism.
To review: having made a case that there is such a thing as Universalism, that it is a nontheistic Christian tradition, and that the distinction between theistic and nontheistic traditions is not terribly significant (see also Eric Hoffer, who said much the same thing in The True Believer), it seems reasonable to take a fresh look at the effect of Universalism on present-day society, and to decide in which ways its effects can be described as positive or negative.
We should certainly expect to find positive effects of Universalism. If nothing else, any decent memetic parasite has the trivial positive effect of interfering with, undercutting, and generally destroying any potential competitors. For example, one cannot simultaneously be an Aztec and a Catholic. (Or at least not a good Aztec and a good Catholic.)
G.K. Chesterton had a handle on the trivial positive effect when he noted that when people try to believe in nothing, they often wind up believing in anything. Universalists think they believe in nothing. In reality they believe in Universalism. And this has the trivial positive effect of keeping them from worshiping anything else, such as Baal, Hitler, or Manchester United. Like clean water, fresh air, or a good selection of ethnic restaurants, the trivial positive effect is easy to forget until you find yourself without it.
There are probably other positive effects of Universalism. And we should probably note them when we stumble over them. If only to be fair. However, hiding its light under a bushel is not exactly Universalism’s style. Why would it be? So let’s accentuate the negative.
In describing the negative effects of Universalism, we’re looking for three basic criteria. First, we want to show that the theme is arational, that is, alien to reason. Second, we want to show that it is adaptive, ie, that it helps Universalism (and itself) propagate. Third, we want to show that it is morbid, ie, that it makes bad stuff happen.
“Morbidity” just means “badness.” Badness is always in the eye of the beholder. However, an easy way to escape this problem of Hume’s ought is to use the standards of Universalism itself. This gets a little tricky when Universalism contradicts itself, but we’ll deal. Recall also that, by the standards of Universalism itself, any arationality is trivially morbid. But I’m afraid we may turn up some less trivial morbidities.
If we find no arational, adaptive morbid themes, we can conclude that Universalism is not a parasitic tradition at all. It is actually a symbiotic tradition. I don’t think there are any historical examples of a perfectly symbiotic tradition, but perhaps Universalism is simply the first. (It certainly claims to be the first.)
We’d also like to understand the ancestry of these themes. As several commenters pointed out, explaining (for example) that some theme originated in 17th-century England, among some group of people now generally acknowledged as major wackjobs, does not show that it’s arational or morbid. But it may help us understand why the theme is so successful. And it often helps to start with ancestry, because it creates a nice narrative flow.
Let’s start with what might well be Universalism’s central belief, the principle of fraternism. Fraternism is the belief that all
men men and women are created born equal.
As my jocular overstrikes indicate, the ancestry of fraternism ain’t exactly no Voynich manuscript. Universalism is a generally pietist strain of Protestant Christianity. Pietism deemphasizes ritual, authority, and God, in favor of devotion, equality, and Man. Universalism could be summarized easily as the worship of humanity, and indeed the New Testament is positively strewn with fraternist doxology. I’ll go with Occam on this one.
From a theological perspective, there’s an easy way to see why all men and women are born equal. It’s because they all have souls, and a soul is a soul. There is no such thing as a big soul, a little soul, a yellow soul, a green soul, or a white soul. In fact, to a modern Universalist, there is not even such a thing as a bad soul. All dogs go to Heaven, and all souls are good. (If there’s anyone we have to thank for this one, it’s Emerson.) If a person does bad things, it is not that his or her soul is bad but that it is in some way wounded, untaught or misguided.
Of course Universalism does not use the word soul. Instead it deploys the word human.
This word human, in Universalism, is what I call a cult word. Its emotional associations are so strong that it’s simply impossible to reason around. God is of course a cult word to a theist (and, in its own way, to an atheist – which is why I prefer “nontheist”).
If I was writing Professor Dawkins’ book, and I actually wanted to convince believers rather than just whipping the choir into a mouth-foaming orgy of hate, I might start by changing the word. One might say: assuming that God is the same thing as Manitou, does Manitou exist? If your reader is unwilling to accept a mere change of labels, he or she is beyond reason. Otherwise, the discussion has freed itself from unproductive emotional reflexes.
Similarly, we can avoid the word human by deploying the precise Linnean term hominid. Or it should be precise, anyway. The paleontologists seem to change its meaning every five minutes. As per La Wik, the current proper term for “bipedal ape” is hominan – which gets less than 1000 Google hits. People! Are you trying to confuse us? Until you get your story straight, I’ll stick with hominid as anything in genus Homo.
If the fossil record is to be believed (who knows – maybe all those bones date to 4004 BC, when Manitou instantiated the universe), the past contained quite a few types of hominid whose like is no longer to be found. Which I have to say is a pity. Perhaps they would have made good pets. However, we can refer to the set of hominids now living on Planet Three as neohominids.
A human is a neohominid with a soul. But since all neohominids have souls, the qualification is redundant. So we can restate Universalist fraternism: all neohominids are born equal.
Now, let’s evaluate this proposition. First, we need to describe whether it is factual, ethical, or metaphysical. Is it a description of reality? Does it ascribe moral valence to some action? Or is it just a sticky lump of linguistic ambergris?
I think most Universalists consider fraternism factual. Some might say it’s also ethical, but I think it’s more accurate to say that Universalists consider it unethical to act on or propagate afraternism (disbelief in fraternism). If fraternism is true, afraternism is false, and since it is unethical to act on or propagate a lie, the factual case covers this.
So fraternism is a factual claim. Next we need to consider what this sentence is actually saying. We get neohominids, we get born, but what about this word equal?
An alien might well assume it meant identical. So for example, all black 2007 Honda Civic DXes are created equal. There may be some minor assembly differences, but we would not expect these differences to matter, at least to whoever is buying the vehicle, and we would not expect to see any detectable patterns of difference, except of course for option package, etc. And neohominids don’t have option packages – though it would certainly be cool if they did.
However, we notice various differences between newborn neohominids, such as the shape of the nose, the texture of the hair, the color of the poop, etc, etc. So identical is not an option. We are left with the conclusion that congenital differences between neohominids are in some sense unimportant.
For example, perhaps these differences do not affect the neohominid’s ability to succeed at various tasks of economic significance. While this was not true in the past, in the world of 2007 most of a neohominid’s economic productivity is the result of its central nervous system. Of course, the CNS of a newborn neohominid is not only unproductive, but downright annoying. What we mean is obviously its potential for development. And we can also disregard diseased or otherwise malformed individuals.
So, without I think much loss of information, we can state fraternism as the proposition that all healthy neohominids are born with equal potential for neurological development. Is this proposition rational, or arational?
Whichever it is, Professor Dawkins certainly buys it. He writes (p. 266, TGD):
Thomas Henry Huxley, by the standards of his times, was an enlightened and liberal progressive. But his times were not ours, and in 1871 he wrote the following:
No rational man, cognizant of the facts, believes that the average negro is the equal, still less the superior, of the white man. And if this be true, it is simply incredible that, when all his disabilities are removed, and our prognathous relative has a fair field and no favor, as well as no oppressor, he will be able to compete successfully with his bigger-brained and smaller-jawed rival, in a contest which is to be carried out by thoughts and not by bites. The highest places in the hierarchy of civilization will assuredly not be within the reach of our dusky cousins.
It is a commonplace that good historians don’t judge statements from past times by the standards of their own… Had Huxley… been born and educated in our time, [he] would have been the first to cringe with us at [his] Victorian sentiments and unctuous tone. I quote them only to illustrate how the Zeitgeist moves on.
What, exactly, is this Zeitgeist thing? Is it anything like Manitou? We’ll return to this fascinating question.
In any case, had Professor Huxley been born and educated in North Korea, he would have been the first to praise the Dear Leader. Had he been born and educated in 4th-century Byzantium, he would have been the first to perform the proskynesis before the Emperor Constantine. Had my aunt had balls, she’d be my uncle.
And had Professor Huxley himself been extracted from 1871 – perhaps the Zeitgeist has some kind of supplemental time-travel feature – he might want to know why Professor Dawkins disagrees so confidently – so, dare I say, unctuously – with him. This arrogant, bewhiskered troglodyte, still damp with the ichor of the twelfth dimension, might even dare to demand some actual evidence.
Obviously, it would be easy for us to satisfy Professor Huxley. Once he saw that one out of five Americans drives a Haitian car, that the last two winners of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry hailed from Papua New Guinea, and that Japan has trouble exporting anything it can trade for Mozambican semiconductors, I’m sure he’d sing a different tune. As Thomas Friedman once put it, back when he had something to say, “a Swiss soldier stole my Syrian watch.”
In all seriousness, what is the evidence for fraternism? Why, exactly, does Professor Dawkins believe that all neohominids are born with identical potential for neurological development? He doesn’t say. Perhaps he thinks it’s obvious.
Perhaps, if he’s anything like Cosma Shalizi (and Professor Shalizi is, if anything, even smarter than Professor Dawkins), he believes that there is no convincing evidence that all neohominids are not born with identical potential for neurological development. Similarly, another very smart person, Aaron Swartz, sees no convincing evidence that neohominid males and females are not neurologically identical.
Of course, Professor Dawkins has no convincing evidence that Manitou does not exist. Now isn’t this fascinating? Don’t you just love these double negatives?
What we have here is a factual proposition which has swept to dominance not through the presentation of any evidence, but by the simple trick of reassigning the burden of proof to rest solely on those who doubt it. It is not the fraternists who have to demonstrate that fraternism is true. It is the afraternists who have to demonstrate that it’s false. D’oh!
If I were to claim that the neohominid male liver is functionally indistinguishable from the neohominid female liver – that there is no sexual dimorphism in the neohominid liver – I’d expect someone to ask me why I was justified in making this claim. I would not expect them to accept the response that I see no convincing evidence that my claim is untrue. And this is despite the fact that the liver is not directly involved in the neohominid reproductive cycle. When we replace liver with brain, we have a considerably longer row to hoe. Yet somehow, the Zeitgeist shows up and hoes it overnight. If only it would do the same for my laundry.
If you’re actually interested in a positive empirical case for afraternism, let me recommend Thompson & Gray 2004. Bob Williams has also put together a good summary. And it’s worth noting that afraternism is Steven Pinker’s dangerous idea. Michael Hart’s Understanding Human History has to be the worst job of book design in human history, and my general reaction is that Hart understands neohominids a heck of a lot better than he understands history. However, all the cool kids are reading it.
But my concern is not empirical. It is philosophical and historical. What I’m interested in is how and why it came to be the case that fraternism is assumed true until proven false, and afraternism is assumed false until proven true.
One simple answer is that, since we are assuming Universalist ethics, fraternism is the ideal state of the world. My ethics are basically Universalist, and if I had a blue button I could push to institute fraternism – regardless of the actual present state of reality – I’d push it, and I’d feel good about pushing it. If I had an opposite red button, I wouldn’t push it, and if I accidentally pushed it anyway I would feel really, really bad.
Thus we can say that fraternism is optimistic and afraternism is pessimistic. But is it rational to assert that optimistic propositions should be assumed true until proven false, and pessimistic propositions should be assumed false until proven true? Not in the slightest. We are back at square one.
One could also suggest a technical explanation, which might go like this: since there is no reproductive isolation between any two neohominid populations, we should expect these populations to be genetically homogeneous. Anyone who wants to make a case for any kind of genetic inhomogeneity, therefore, should have to make it. Perhaps Lewontin’s fallacy could be drug into the picture as well, just for color.
However, as we can see by outwardly visible traits such as nose shape, hair texture, etc, the antecedent is false. It’s possible that the disparities in visible traits are the result of genetic drift. It’s also possible that they’re the result of natural selection. But it doesn’t matter which, because any evolutionary process that can vary a visible feature can vary an invisible one. (We’ve recently learned that neohominid populations show substantial evidence of recent selection – much more recent than the divergence of continental gene pools. But even before we knew this, we had no biological reason to assign fraternism the benefit of the doubt.)
Clearly, fraternism did not get the benefit of the doubt in 1871. So at some point it must have changed, n’est ce pas? How, when, and why?
Perhaps Charles Francis Adams Jr. can enlighten us on the subject. As the great-grandson and grandson of Federalist and Whig Presidents, son of and aide to one of the North’s leading abolitionist statesmen, and a Union general himself, one might expect he had some opinions on the matter. And one would be right. From a 1913 speech:
Beyond all this, and coming still under the head of individual theories, was the doctrine enunciated by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence,–the doctrine that all men were created equal,–meaning, of course, equal before the law. But the theorist and humanitarian of the North, accepting the fundamental principle laid down in the Declaration, gave to it a far wider application than had been intended by its authors,–a breadth of application it would not bear. Such science as he had being of scriptural origin, he interpreted the word “equal” as signifying equal in the possibilities of their attributes,–physical, moral, intellectual; and in so doing, he of course ignored the first principles of ethnology. It was, I now realize, a somewhat wild-eyed school of philosophy, that of which I myself was a youthful disciple.
So far, then, as the institution of slavery is concerned, in its relations to ownership and property in those of the human species,–I have seen no reason whatever to revise or in any way to alter the theories and principles I entertained in 1853, and in the maintenance of which I subsequently bore arms between 1861 and 1865. Economically, socially, and from the point of view of abstract political justice, I hold that the institution of slavery, as it existed in this country prior to the year 1865, was in no respect either desirable or justifiable. That it had its good and even its elevating side, so far at least as the African is concerned, I am not here to deny. On the contrary, I see and recognize those features of the institution far more clearly now than I should have said would have been possible in 1853. That the institution in itself, under conditions then existing, tended to the elevation of the less advanced race, I frankly admit I did not then think. On the other hand, that it exercised a most pernicious influence upon those of the more advanced race, and especially upon that large majority of the more advanced race who were not themselves owners of slaves,–of that I have become with time ever more and more satisfied. The noticeable feature, however, so far as I individually am concerned, has been the entire change of view as respects certain of the fundamental propositions at the base of our whole American political and social edifice brought about by a more careful and intelligent ethnological study. I refer to the political equality of man, and to that race absorption to which I have alluded,–that belief that any foreign element introduced into the American social system and body politic would speedily be absorbed therein, and in a brief space thoroughly assimilated. In this all-important respect I do not hesitate to say we theorists and abstractionists of the North, throughout that long anti-slavery discussion which ended with the 1861 clash of arms, were thoroughly wrong. In utter disregard of fundamental, scientific facts, we theoretically believed that all men–no matter what might be the color of their skin, or the texture of their hair–were, if placed under exactly similar conditions, in essentials the same. In other words, we indulged in the curious and, as is now admitted, utterly erroneous theory that the African was, so to speak, an Anglo-Saxon, or, if you will, a Yankee “who had never had a chance,”–a fellow-man who was guilty, as we chose to express it, of a skin not colored like our own. In other words, though carved in ebony, he also was in the image of God.
Apparently the Zeitgeist doesn’t just work in one direction. What is this Zeitgeist, anyway? Here is Professor Dawkins’ definition:
In any society there exists a somewhat mysterious consensus, which changes over the decades, and for which it is not pretentious to use the German loan-word Zeitgeist (spirit of the times).
If we adopt a slightly more literal translation, we could call our mysterious phenomenon the Spirit of Time. And if we ignore the even more mysterious backward lurch from 1871 to 1913, and simply accept Professor Dawkins’ interpretation of our Spirit‘s actions, we see that the Zeitgeist is a basically optimistic force. Its goal appears to be that history turns out for the better (again, defining better in terms of Universalist ethics). Pretty nice to have around the house, wouldn’t you say?
In fact, Professor Dawkins’ Zeitgeist is so nice that it’s indistinguishable from a concept that would have been quite familiar to any member of the Adams family – the old Anglo-Calvinist or Puritan concept of Providence. Perhaps this is a false match. But it’s quite a close one.
Another word for Zeitgeist is Progress. It’s unsurprising that Universalists tend to believe in Progress – in fact, in a political context, they often call themselves progressives. Universalism has indeed made quite a bit of progress since 1913. But this hardly refutes the proposition that Universalism is a parasitic tradition. Progress for the tick is not progress for the dog.
Whether we call it Providence, Zeitgeist or Progress, the idea of a mysterious force that causes history to flow in some direction – which generally happens to be the right one – is called historicism. Karl Popper is your man on this one.
Needless to say, historicism is profoundly arational. It is also rampant in the West today. You can’t open a newspaper without reading some sentence that makes no sense at all unless the Zeitgeist is behind the curtain. Historicism also informs the consensus understanding of the recent past among even the best-educated Westerners today. You have to go back about 250 years – ie, to the predemocratic era – before ahistoricist explanations start to predominate.
(Recently I ran into the most astounding little book, this ahistoricist history of the French Revolution, written by an obscure Canadian historian who appears to be a specialist. Very calm and highly recommended. Imagine that all your life you’d been drinking what you thought was water but was in fact corn syrup, and then someone gave you a glass of actual water. The taste of a good revisionist history is simply unmistakable.)
In any case, I digress. The point is that we’ve found two thoroughly arational themes in the Universalism complex: fraternism and historicism. Moreover, these are arational in exactly the same sense as the Manitou delusion. They are not demonstrably false. They are just (a) believed by billions of people, and (b) essentially unsubstantiated.
We can extend this list with the two arational Universalist themes I’ve discussed before, Rawlsianism (also discussed here) and pacifism. And there is a fifth which I haven’t yet given its due, communalism (the error of ascribing individual identity to neohominid groups).
I think I’ve done a fair job of demonstrating arationality for at least the first four. Arationality implies at least trivial morbidity. I think I’ll leave the task of showing nontrivial morbidity for fraternism and historicism to the reader’s imagination, on which I don’t think it makes any particularly onerous demands. If you have any interesting thoughts on the subject, please feel free to leave them in the comments.
However, I haven’t really discussed adaptiveness. And, if we want to demonstrate pwnage, we have to show adaptiveness, because arational themes could be in some way accidental or transient, a result of thematic drift as it were. If these arationalities do not contribute to the reproductive success of Universalism, they will probably go away on their own, and they are much less worrisome. Thus describing Professor Dawkins as pwned may be a stretch.
In part 4, due next Thursday, I’ll try to tie some of these ends together, and talk about adaptive arationality. Of course hopefully the commenters will have covered the subject completely by then, and I won’t have to write anything at all.