The Great Revolution: Reason and Tradition, Part B

If a tradition goes back far enough, it is generally because it corresponds, however roughly, to some reality, while by contrast bright ideas spawned by pure reason are all too often no more grounded in reality than phrenology or the literary speculations of Dr. Freud.  Steve Goldberg once wrote a good essay, arguing that ethnic stereotypes were statistically accurate approximations.  Speaking of his own background, he said many gentiles regard Jews as pushy, while Jews tend to think of themselves more as merely enterprising, but whichever word we prefer, the phenomenon is the same.  Of course, not all Jews are enterprising—some are as lazy and unambitious as I am—but the stereotype, which was arrived at after centuries, even millennia of experience, is a good basis for predicting future behavior.

Some traditions that we accept without reflection, though they are taught as revealed wisdom in school, are not only of fairly recent region, but not traditions at all, merely an earlier generation's reckless speculations.  This is, more or less, the whole body of liberal thought:  Human beings are basically good; men are all the same everywhere and racial and ethnic differences are trivial, though (paradoxically) there are many cultures where marriage does not exist and female chastity is not admired much less enforced; religion encourages ignorance, bigotry, and violence; the Western traditions of male dominance, free enterprise, and personal responsibility are inherently and uniquely evil.

Where it turns out such “traditional” lessons are wrong or immoral, as is the case of much of what we have been taught in school, we can, of course, correct the mistakes by turning both to higher authorities (the Bible, the great classics of our literature) and to our own observation of human life.  No matter how many times Marxists might try to convince us that private property, monogamy, and the family are evil inventions of patriarchal males, we can look around the world and see that they are wrong.  No matter how many times that Libertarians tell us we are all free individuals, we can look at real human beings and conclude they are more likely to be servile dependents on family affections and communal prejudices.

No single human being can find out everything important on his own.  Even in matters of science, we take most of what we think we know on faith.  We think, for example, that we know that the spheroid earth goes around the sun, but, prisoners of older traditions, we continue, doggedly, to say that the sun rises in the East, and we often refer to the four corners of the world.  This is harmless enough, because as valuable as the advances in science and mathematics have been, they affect our lives only indirectly through science and technology.

When I was headmaster of a private school, I used to ask the teachers questions like this:  If one and a half bottles of wine contain 38 ounces, how many ounces are in a bottle of wine?  Left with pencil and paper for 10 minutes, they could gradually figure it out, but they had forgotten the simple formula they had been taught in sixth grade:  If 3/2= 38, then 1=2/3 of 38.  An Alexandrian shopkeeper 200 years ago could do the math more rapidly than most educated Americans.  In fact, only scientists--and sometimes only those with the appropriate specialty--have any grasp of such subjects as genetics, evolutionary theory, particle physics, or organic chemistry.

A few generations ago, someone with four years of science in high school and a required course or two in college might be able to follow newspaper stories on recent break-throughs, but then those were the days when a man could work on his own car.  Today, the body of scientific knowledge is more like my new Subara Forester.  I don't dare even change the oil--the voice on the computer would probably scold me.  If we go back still further, there was a time when educated people believed they knew something of the way the world works, because what science existed was accessible, but not today.

We are forever saying things like, “according to scientist” or "trust the science," because in fact, rather few of us would know how to go about proving that our world is a globular planet of roughly 25,000 miles in circumference, though we are taught to laugh at the churchmen who told Columbus that he could never reach China before running out of food and water, because the earth is too big.  Churchmen had to be wrong because they accepted an ancient scientific tradition (going back to Eratosthenes) as true, while Columbus had to be right because in the liberal legend, he was a bold individualist who challenged authority.  When one of my children repeated what I had said about Eratosthenes, the second grade teacher informed the class that it was nonsense and, besides, there was no such person as Eratosthenes of Cyrene.  I am sure she is now explaining the dangers of COVID and the fact of global warming.

We typically take things as Darwinian evolution, the Big Bang and the expanding universe, and the structure—or even the existence–of DNA on faith.  They are handed down by a tradition that goes back, sometimes only to a generation ago but sometimes all the way back to the ancient world, as in the case of Eratosthenes’ brilliant calculation of the earth’s circumference.  According to some scientists, by the way, a majority of the medical studies cited in the press are bogus.  It is better not to read anything than to read an AP or WSJ article on a study of the dangers—or benefits—of drinking coffee.

But if science depends on the acceptance of tradition, then how much more do we depend on the traditions of our culture to tell us our moral and social responsibilities.  A brilliant man might devote his life to moral philosophy without contributing one sound or irrefutable idea that people can use in their daily lives.  The obscure terminology and improbable theories of academic philosophers do not constitute an advance in human wisdom, and if we were tempted to believe they did, we have only to look at the miserable lives led by so many academic philosophers.  But even when a brilliant moral philosopher makes a break-through, he is only building on a far greater tradition of wisdom handed down by his predecessors.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

9 Responses

  1. Vince Cornell says:

    While fully acknowledging my ignorance in all things of the higher practical sciences, I wonder if this does not explain why there is such a general distrust of the “scientific experts” now-a-days. They certainly seem to come across more like members of the Academy from the 3rd book of Gulliver than as sane, rational, and competent men, and is it because they seem to place their own philosophy of practical science beneath the insane philosophy of the so-called human sciences? That the facts of genetics are placed, by geneticists, beneath the absurd “all races are a social construct” teaching? That medical researches place the value of their knowledge below the “equity and trans-rights” balderdash pushed about by the social sciences? That doctors place their knowledge of biology below a woman’s “right to choose”?

    I continue to fumble for the valid reason that we normal people can levy objections against the scientific experts, and since the arena of hard sciences is closed to us, us normal folk not being experts in those fields, can we appeal to the fact that the hard scientists place their own hard sciences under the absurd lies of the social sciences, which are, as any of us can see from our experience and authentic tradition, stupid? Is that not a valid position from which to criticize the so-called scientific experts?

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    You seem to be fumbling for a justification of what you wish to believe. When you start with the answer and then work back to the question, the result is foreordained. It might help if we estahlished a few basic principles.

    First, modern science is less a search for truth than it is the pursuit of power over nature. Goethe was correct in insisting that the experimental method tortures nature. This is one of many reasons why many of the creators of modern science were also occultists. If you are not looking for power over nature, you may find you have little interest in, say, particle physics or genetics, though you may still like to play at being an amateur naturalist who can identify birds, trees, flowers.

    Second, Modern Science is essentially a never-ending search, and never a finished product. Great syntheses come, get modified many times, then they may be proved false and disappear. It is like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. The big difference is we could imagine what the Golden Gate Bridge would be like if it could be painted in one night, but we cannot imagine what any branch of science will be like 100 years from now.

    Third, one has to distinguish between theoretical scientific research and applied sciences like engineering and medicine. We might praise the basic research that led to nuclear fission and fusion, while absolutely deploring and rejecting nuclear weapons. This is particularly true in the nebulous world of the so-called social so-called sciences including economics. Suppose we could prove abortion, child prostitution, the disintegration of family and community were all profitable for society, we might still choose to reject them.

    Fourth, even great scientists are imperfect reasoners, and, even in the practice of a speciality where they are masters, they make mistakes or get led astray.

    Fifth, supposing you are a Christian or, say, a Platonist or Stoic, and I asked you to spend 7 hours day studying some science that would materially benefit yourself and mankind. You might respond with Pope that “the proper study of mankind is man” and not subatomic particles or ecosystems.

    Finally, the point of this line of exposition is not that ignorant people should trust the science but that, A) scientific reasoning and rationality in general can not be applied without great qualification to human experience, and B) when we compare ourselves with previous generations, we have less usable knowledge of science than any of them, both because science now requires a lifetime of serious study and also because we are generally a lot more dependent and servile.

  3. Michael Strenk says:

    It used to amaze me that my “immigrant ancestors” so completely capitulated to the modern world and all of its confidence tricks on coming to America. In their own environment, with their religion and culture and experience to inform them, as a community, their knowledge and skills were completely sufficient to live successfully in their world and to have some hope of salvation in the end. In coming here to work in the mines and satanic mills the landscape was other-worldly, their suffering previously unthinkable. Even the diseases and injuries from which they suffered were largely new to them. Therefore they threw themselves into the arms of the creators of the nightmare, for who else but its creators could understand its effects; bad move I think. The great men of the modern age who we are taught to revere were impressive in their way, but they were also slavers and grifters and charlatans who were mad with a greed for money and power, whatever and whoever needed to be sacrificed. Their dreams must be good because they must be good having dreamed it all for “the betterment of mankind”, or so they would have us believe. Their dreams must be realized and who is to say otherwise, a bunch of atavistic troglodytes who revere God and their ancestors, men without “drive” and “vision”? Most of us don’t care about particle physics or “virology” etc., but we are all compelled to participate in the mad projects of the even madder grifters who have captured our entire civilization and have bent it to their own perverse ends.

  4. Vince Cornell says:

    Fumbling, yes, but only to explain that which I observe. Fancy me a cherubic little Newton getting beaned in the head with apples and trying to figure it all out. It’s obvious that one need not know much about colic or dogs or cellular biology to be instantly leery of the great physician’s cure for colic from Gulliver Book 3. I’ve just been trying to better understand why that is. I guess it ultimately has less to do with science and more to do with whatever the mysterious mechanics are that enable one to spot a con man or a flim flam artist.

    The idea that science requires a lifetime of study is interesting, though. Are scientists degrading themselves by devoting themselves to such a study? Is this why they seem to show such terrible judgment in everything else (i.e. tend to naively fall for progressivist balderdash, to swoon over manufactured hysterias, and know practically nothing about human nature). And now-a-days, even the true experts in their fields aren’t safe from being canceled for absurdly stupid reasons – ala David Sabatini being fired from the Whitehead Institute or old James Watson who discovered DNA but still was canceled for not towing the company line on race. Science itself seems to be more a weaponized tool of the political class to maintain control and accumulate wealth and only secondarily an actual pursuit for power over nature, and many scientists seem to meekly shuffle along with the program.

    Science – the more than adequate rope by which mankind appears ready to hang itself?

  5. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    The Greeks, who invented science, were leery of over-specialization and would have likened the modern scientist to the blacksmith whose body becomes warped in practicing his trade. (That is why Hephaestus, though a god, is deformed–though a story was made up to account for it.) Even Strato of Lampsacus, the student of Aristotle known as “the physicist” and his other specialized student Aristoxenus of Tarentum (the musicologist) had a wide variety of interests. What does it profit a man to win a Nobel Prize in physics but lose the intellectual and moral qualities that are our most human characteristic? I have always respected intelligent and honest scientists, and, if I had not been distracted by pleasure-seeking and the study of Greek, I would certainly have ended up a scientist, but of the scientists I have known, all seem to have lost a good deal of their humanity. Darwin is an interesting case as someone who as a young man had broad interests, for example in poetry, but lost them all as he became focused on his one discipline. One is tempted to say the same thing can happen to any specialist, but it is not necessarily true. Some pursuits–poetry, music, fishing, hunting–train up a variety of senses and spark varied interests.

  6. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    PS Part of Watson’s problem was caused by his self-assurance. If you read his book on the discovery of DNA, he emerges as a ruthlessly American opportunist, more like Michael Millken than say EO Wilson, and yet one cannot help admiring his drive, but, I gather, he was not especially well liked by colleagues. And yes, it sometimes takes a certain kind of jerk to refuse to bend to fashion.

  7. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    To bring it down to the level of policy, a scientist can predict–though not with much accuracy–the statistical results of doing nothing to prevent the spread of COVID, but he cannot advise us on what to do, because he is in no position to do a cost-benefit analysis of any particular policy. And I am talking about honest scientists not the paid liars of the regime. The other day, my hearing device died, and I went to the audiology clinic in a hospital complex. Of course, I had to remember to mask up and submit to interrogation. When I got back to the audiologist, who, I believe, has some kind of a PhD but not an MD, she greeted me with her mask on but pulled it down to sip coffee. I knew what she was up to and said something about masks. She opened up and said something to the effect that by now everyone in medicine knew that masks are of no use, and encouraged me to take mine off.

  8. Michael Strenk says:

    I read Watson’s book too many years ago to remember anything about it, when I was pursuing a biology degree (or somewhat before in high school). I never met Watson, but, as I worked, for my high school years, across the street from the Cold Spring Harbor Lab at a fish hatchery and nature center on the board of which sat at least one prominent scientist from the Lab, I got to meet some of the staff there who seemed a weird and arrogant bunch of busybodies (my limited experience). The land for the Lab was originally donated to the American Eugenics Society for their library by a man, whose name escapes me, who had some personal connection to Teddy Roosevelt (they belonged to the same class and both had property in the area). According to a recently surfaced correspondence between the two, they were cordial, but Roosevelt seemed to keep him at arms length. Roosevelt had been an extremely sickly child and almost certainly, he being quite intelligent, would have seen what eugenics would have done with him (my speculation). I don’t know by what process the Society morphed into the Lab, but I think it probable that the goals never changed and that people like Watson were fully in step with the project. I ditched the biology degree half way through and changed majors. It was all geared toward genetics, which seemed to me, even then, an answer seeking a question, a be all to end all. I have met many farmers who are far better biologists than any of the established experts. They see things more holistically and in the proper context. They have not lost their powers of observation which, among the establishment, are prejudiced by what they want to see to achieve a goal they want to reach, without regard to reality.

    I can empathize with the deformed blacksmith. If one works in particular trade for a long time one’s body tends to adapt to the type of strain constantly encountered. I was similarly, and painfully crippled. I needed help badly as I could not sleep more than a half hour without getting up and walking around for a similar period. I couldn’t sit for any longer. I knew, from past experience with doctors, that they would talk to me for five minutes and then prescribe a regimen of dangerous drugs upon which they would like me to be dependent for life. This had happened thrice before with different maladies and I just managed to break the spell of their authority, thrice, in time to save what was left of my health and forged, of necessity, a different path. Luckily, I, almost literally, stumbled on someone who practices structural integration, who saved my life. It is hard to break the habit of reverence for doctors and modern medicine in general. The AMA rule the education establishment in this area and their propaganda is among the most effective of any ideological system. Every one is constantly affirming their god-like status for them. I’ve been cured of this delusion for some years now, and will never turn my back on a doctor again. God save me from any need for hospitalization for a traumatic injury!

  9. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Like many “progressives,” TR was high on eugenics and had a low opinion of most ethnic groups that were not Northern European. I have a friend in Rockford who early on quite an executive job to do carpentry and farming with unfortunate consequences for his skeleton. As you will recall from Homer, the Olympian laughter is sparked by the sight of the lame Hephaestus shambling about bringing drinks. What many MD’s seem to forget is that even if they are correct in their diagnosis and even if their course of treatment is from a medical point proper, the decision on what to do is not theirs to make. Their smugness infects the entire industry. To check out after the bypass surgery, I had to endure a young man explaining the therapy I was going to have to do, including long monologues about healthy living. When I admitted to a few cigars a week, the ignorant young man said, “You’ll have to give that up immediately. Anyone with a bypass condition cannot go on smoking. I told him to take it up with my heart surgeon who had, after hearing how much I smoked, said succinctly “Non-smoker.”