Thursday, November 23, 2006

What Went Right? Part IV: The Metaphysics of "Normal Life"

Thanksgiving Day Treat:
This series of articles by philosopher-journalist Robert Tracinski is continued from last Thursday's edition of TIA Daily.

The topic of this series of articles—the question posed in its title—is "what went right?" The paradox we need to unravel is the fact that explicit Objectivist ideas have obviously not swept the world—and yet civilization, far from collapsing, is expanding in many respects and in many areas of the world. For that to happen, something must be going right in the minds of an awful lot of people. So what is going right?

In the last part of this series, I gave part of my answer and concluded by calling for "a healthy respect for the thinking of the common man, and a grasp of the living institutions by which the mass of men in the developed world, and in rapidly developing areas of the world, actively sustain the civilization of the Enlightenment, even in the face of indifference or opposition from today's academic philosophers and professional intellectuals."

The "living institutions" I was referring to are the three cultural institutions that are most visibly spreading across the globe and directly reshaping the lives of billions of people—or rather, I should say that these institutions are the means by which billions of people are enabled and encouraged to reshape their own lives. Those institutions are: scientific and technological education, global capitalism, and representative government.

In the previous installment of this series, I pointed out that, while philosophy can be viewed as providing a "foundation" for specialized fields, it is also true that specialized knowledge provides a foundation for philosophy: it provides the facts and lower-level integrations that are the inductive base for broad philosophical conclusions.

Similarly, one can look at the three institutions I have just mentioned and regard them as products of the philosophy and culture of the Enlightenment, which they certainly are. But observation of today's world indicates that these institutions are self-reinforcing and self-propagating. And I think the evidence suggests something more: that these institutions are not just a product of the influence of Enlightenment ideas across the world; they are the leading edge of that influence. The legacy of the Enlightenment is spreading, not because people are reading Aristotle, or because they are reading John Locke and Adam Smith or any other Enlightenment thinker and deciding to adopt his ideas (though that does happen, to some extent). Rather, the legacy of the Enlightenment is spreading because people are embracing and being transformed by the concrete institutions of the Enlightenment.

I've had a few people object to the earlier installments of this series by saying that, while the examples I have cited don't involve the influence of explicitly stated philosophical ideas, they do involve men's implicit philosophy. But that is precisely my point, and spelling out exactly how good ideas are grasped implicitly, in what form and by what process, is part of what I want to address in looking at the global influence of scientific and technological education, global capitalism, and representative government.

My views on the importance of scientific and technological education were inspired in part by research I did a few years ago for lectures on the history of the British Empire, particularly in India. One of the most important facts about that history, and one that explains a great deal about what is happening today, is the educational system that the British created in India.

The British did not exactly set out to bring the Enlightenment to India. The system they created was designed primarily to serve a practical purpose: to create a class of English-speaking Indians capable of serving in the Indian Civil Service and administering the Empire. Thomas Macaulay, who encouraged the development of this educational system in the early 19th century, described its future graduates as "a class of persons, Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” In my lectures, here is how I described the effect:

Just as Europe had revived itself, intellectually and morally, in the Renaissance through the rediscovery of Aristotle, so a discovery of Aristotle was necessary for a transformation of Africa, India, China, and the rest of the non-Western world.

But you cannot start by taking people from an ignorant…state and just give them Aristotle right away. What is more realistic, and far more effective, is to induct them into the concrete methods and practices of Aristotelian thinking. What I mean is that you begin by teaching them mathematics, basic science, engineering; you have them study law, history, and Western literature; you induct them—literally, through an inductive process—in the concrete methods of Western thinking, so that they acquire the same base of knowledge and habitual method of thinking that is normally instilled in Westerners.

After all, most people in the West have never studied Aristotle directly. Many have never even heard of him. But an entire Western education is, or at least used to be, implicitly grounded in the Greek foundation and implicitly reflecting an Aristotelian method. Westerners acquire an Aristotelian outlook almost by osmosis. It is the intellectual atmosphere they breathe.

So if you were to try to import the Enlightenment into India, the first thing you would want to do—an ideal, most effective measure—would be to introduce a Western-style classical education, teaching science, mathematics, history, and Western literature. This is precisely what the British began to do in India in the mid-19th century.

By contrast, I observed that when the British came to Africa, they mainly set up religious schools run by missionaries for the purpose of teaching the Bible. India got Aristotelianism, while Africa got Christianity—and that explains some of the difference in their subsequent history and current state.

That people should learn a rational outlook on life through the details of a scientific and technological education, rather than directly from explicit philosophy, is normal and necessary, for the same reason that you begin a child's education with addition and multiplication instead of the Law of the Excluded Middle.

Both an individual and a culture have to learn a rational method and world view, not just from instruction in explicit philosophical tenets, but first from learning the specific methods and world view of the sciences, seeing the validity and power of that method in all of the myriad concretes it can explain to them and all of the concrete problems it allows them to solve. If people who have been trained in a scientific education then encounter the basic tenets of a pro-reason philosophy, they will regard them as practically self-evident. That is, although those principles are not all self-evident, they will feel as if they were, because the broad philosophic truths are implicit in so many of the truths that the individual has grasped in his studies of mathematics, geometry, physics, engineering, medicine, and so on.

This, incidentally, is what secular pro-science activists (of the type profiled in item #5 above) mean when they say science education is crucial to defending a secular world view. It is not the specifics of any particular science that are necessary; no one will become an atheist just because he has memorized Avagadro's number. What is needed is the implicit world view and method of thinking that science teaches, which emerges from all of those details.

This also explains an observation first made to me by Jack Wakeland and Shrikant Rangnekar (who is himself an example of this phenomenon): that the leading edge of Western influence around the world can always be seen among engineers. An engineering degree is the one form of advanced education that benefits from a kind of global gold standard, so that an engineering degree from the Indian Institutes of Technology is worth as much (if not more) than one from the Illinois Institute of Technology. (And even in Chicago's IIT, it should be noted, many of the students are from overseas.) And an engineering degree is the form of education that is most economically rewarding in developing nations, because it allows a graduate to connect to the extraordinary wealth and vitality of the global economy.

That is the mutually reinforcing link between scientific education and the second factor remaking today's world: global capitalism.

Wherever it goes—and to the extent that it is applied—global capitalism is not merely a practical or material force; it is a moral force. Capitalism does not have a moral impact by preaching any particular virtues; it is mute. It simply re-arranges the incentives that men face—lowering the resistance and massively increasing the reward for certain kinds of behavior. Hard work, ambition, innovation, independence are traits that would earn you resentment at best (in a socialist system) and a term in the gulag at worst (in a Communist dictatorship)—but under capitalism, suddenly these traits produce a shower of rewards.

And the more a society progresses morally, the greater the rewards. Once a society tastes capitalism, it is pulled into a virtuous cycle in which it is pushed to expand its understanding of and commitment to the morality of capitalism. I remember hearing a business reporter on the radio broadcasting from China, where he discussed the struggle to create mail-order businesses there. The problem, he explained, is the challenge of establishing the values of honesty and trust. In most areas of China, no buyer will pay for anything unless he receives the goods immediately, and no seller will hand over the goods unless he is paid immediately. Under those terms, the Western business model of making an order on a credit card, then having it mailed to you, is impossible. So the Chinese now have an enormous incentive to create a reliable system of credit and trust, with honest and objective enforcement of contract. They have an incentive to further entrench the value of honesty because of everything it will make possible to them economically.

If the main effect of scientific and technological education is to induct men into a rational method of thinking, the main effect of global capitalism is to induct them into rational egoism. And in both cases, I mean the word "induct" in an epistemological sense: capitalism encourages individualism inductively, by giving men the experience of being independent agents seeking self-interest through rational, productive effort.

I remember years ago talking with an Objectivist in Hong Kong who was trying to figure out how to explain the moral issue of collectivism versus individualism in an op-ed written for a local audience. I told him that this was the easiest job in the world—because his audience is one for whom collectivism versus individualism would not be an abstract difference. All he had to do, I told him, was to invoke the life stories of millions of people in Hong Kong. Hong Kong (and today, mainland China as well) is full of 50-year-old businessmen who lived through the horrors of Mao's Cultural Revolution when they were young, then either escaped to Hong Kong or were liberated by Deng's free-market reforms in the 1980s—and subsequently experienced the myriad blessings of life in a free (or relatively free) economy. (For examples, I recently linked to an excerpt from John Pomfret's Chinese Lessons, which tells the life stories of five of his classmates from a stint at a Chinese university in the early 1980s, just at the beginning of China's reforms.)

China is filled with men who have made a transition from living under totalitarian collectivism to living under a relatively high degree of individualism. As a consequence, they have also made a transition from wood huts and dusty village streets to skyscrapers and modern shopping malls.
This kind of example won't be a shock to regular readers of TIA Daily, because I link to them as often as I can. I found a recent example particularly poignant. A story on the economic reforms in Vietnam described a 28-year-old woman who works at a garment factory. "My parents were very poor," she explained to the reporter, then added with evident pride,

"But I will be able to give my son a good education," she said, describing a modest Prudential life insurance policy she bought for her 2-year-old son that includes a savings fund for educational expenses. "He will have more opportunities."

But the biggest example that sticks in my mind is "Bilgay." I began this series with the story of a 14-year-old Indian boy that Gurcharan Das met in a small rural village, who described how he was taking computer classes and wanted to become the owner of a software company, because he saw a man named "Bilgay" on the television.

Wherever Bill Gates goes in the developing world, he is treated as a hero. Just last week I linked to a story about the rise of Vietnam, which reported that "In a recent poll, Bill Gates was named as a hero by the Vietnamese. When he visited in April, young men wearing "I {heart} Bill Gates" T-shirts lined the streets and cheered."

In The World Is Flat, Thomas Friedman describes how "I was talking to a Chinese-American who works for Microsoft and has accompanied Bill Gates on Visits to China. He said Gates is recognized everywhere he goes in China. Young people there hang from the rafters and scalp tickets just to hear him speak. Same with Jerry Yang, the founder of Yahoo!" Friedman concludes, "In China today, Bill Gates is Britney Spears." (He then tartly adds, "In America today, Britney Spears is Britney Spears—and that is our problem.")

In every society in the world that is joining the system of global capitalism, Bill Gates stands as a symbol of ambition and success. Every young engineer or software programmer in the world looks to him as the measure of what it is possible to achieve in the world.

The historical evidence, especially in East Asian countries like Taiwan and South Korea, suggests that capitalism tends to lead to representative government. That should be no surprise. Historically, in the West, economic and political liberty were born at the same time and in the same place. Philosophically, it is clear why individuals who see themselves as independent thinkers engaged in the pursuit of happiness won't accept a political dictatorship.

I have noticed a tendency among Objectivists to minimize the importance of the spread of representative government, possibly because it is tempting, in all of the intellectual confusion about "democracy"—which is a package deal of collectivism and political liberty—to protest by dismissing representative government as mere "mob rule" in any society that is not already well advanced toward freedom. But I have argued that representative government is an institution that makes its own contribution to inducting men into a system of liberty. As I argued in "Three Elections" (TIA, Vol. 18, No. 12),

The deepest virtue of representative government is epistemological. Representative government is the political system that institutionalizes the subordination of government force to persuasion and rational debate. It is the only political system that mandates a voice for reason in the affairs of man.

The spread of representative government in recent decades—particularly since the fall of Communism—is as dramatic as the spread of global capitalism. Freedom House, an international organization that advocates "liberal democracy"—i.e., representative government and its supporting institutions, such as freedom of speech and freedom of association—provides a striking graph of the progress of political liberty across the world since 1972. The number of nations ranked as "free" keeps rising year after year, doubling from 1971 to 2005, while the number of nations ranked as "partly free" or "not free" keeps declining. (The year 1992 is a statistical aberration caused by the fragmentation of the Soviet Union, in which one unfree nation fragmented into a dozen unfree nations. For more on the criteria used by Freedom House, and for detailed country-by-country rankings, go here.)

It is from nations trying to make the transition to political liberty that I picked up my first clue about the cumulative effect of the cultural changes wrought by the institutions I have just described: scientific and technological education, global capitalism, and representative government. This transformation does more than change the practical or material conditions under which men live. It expands their understanding of what kind of life is possible to them and what kind of world it is possible for them to live in.

In nations struggling for liberty, and especially for those struggling to acquire the last institution of a free society, representative government, I found this yearning expressed in an unexpected form: young people talk about their longing to live a "normal life." As I observed when I first noticed this phenomenon,

What seems to be contained in the phrase "a normal life" is not the details of what constitutes a free society, but rather a vision of what kind of life is possible to man when he lives in such a society: prosperity; a profusion of opportunities for education, for _expression, for advancement; a life free of physical fear.

The "normal life" we experience in America has not been "normal" as a statistical average of man's life, either throughout history or around the world today. So that makes the fact that it is now starting to be regarded as "normal" all the more extraordinary. "Normal," in this context, is not a statistical term. Neither is it a political or even a moral term—which is why those who use it do not understand its full moral and political meaning. "Normal," in this context, is a metaphysical estimate. It means: that which is possible to man in this world.

I then offered what I described then as a hypothesis, but which I am now willing to put more confidence in:

The existence of a free society in the United States for the past 200 years, and of essentially free societies in Western Europe and Japan for the past 50 years, has created a new global standard for what kind of life is metaphysically possible to man. The life of man in a free society has become—for millions around the world—what they long for as a "normal" way of living.

At the beginning of this installment, I suggested that the progress we see across the world today is evidence that something is going right in the minds of an awful lot of people, and the "metaphysics of 'normal life'" gives us a clue about what is going right.

While it is true that few men grapple with explicit philosophical ideas, all men grapple with broad philosophical issues on the implicit level. They all have to form implicit conclusions about the nature of the world and the nature of man, and an estimate of what is possible to man in this world. To say that they do so implicitly is not to say that they do so blindly or that they must borrow their conclusion from those who do think about these issues explicitly. Most men draw their implicit conclusions based on their own experience, on what the day-to-day pressures, incentives, joys, and sorrows of their lives show to them is possible.

So what happens when their day-to-day experience shows them that it is possible to understand the world and solve problems through the use of your mind; that it is possible to be an independent individual making decisions about how to control your own life, free from physical fear and intimidation; that the reward for hard work and ambition is an ever-increasing string of achievements and rewards?

And what if their culture's intellectual propagandists—those responsible for handing down to them their explicit philosophical convictions—tell them the opposite? The result will be what is reported from Vietnam: tired old Communist speeches blared over public loudspeakers to an audience of young people who are far more interested in catching a glimpse of Bill Gates.

And notice also that those who do not yet experience the benefits of Enlightenment institutions can now see those benefits clearly, obviously, almost on the perceptual level, in the contrast between the unfree societies in which they live and the free societies that they can see next door, or (thanks to advances in telecommunications) on the television or the Internet. Thus, for example, when a small band of dissidents in Europe's last totalitarian enclave, Belarus, made a brief stand against their repressive government, a 23-year-old protester who identified himself only as Kirill explained to a reporter why he was protesting against his government: "I have been to the United States and to England, and I have seen how people live there. I know what's going on in the world."

How many Kirills are there across the world, who have "seen how people live" under reason, individualism, and liberty, and who have concluded—without fully understanding the explicit philosophical meaning of what they see—that this is what they should expect as the "normal" state of man?

Kirill doesn't just know what's going on in the world—he is what is going on in the world.

That is why I have described these institutions as the living legacy of the Enlightenment. They are animated, preserved, and expanded, not just by the effort of minds long dead, but by the mind of any individual man in any nation who grasps their importance, attempts to understand what they mean and how to preserve them, and gives them his loyalty in action.

I think you can see now why I so quickly dismiss any claim that the dominant trend of today's world is toward religious fundamentalism and theocracy. If we look out at the world, the only force we can see that is rapidly spreading across the globe and radically transforming the lives of billions of people, as a long-term trend stretching over decades, is not any form of religion. Not even Islam, the most virulent of the world's religions, can match it. The real transformation of the world is a secular phenomenon. What is transforming the world is scientific and technological education, global capitalism, and representative government. What is transforming the world is the living legacy of the Enlightenment, and it is doing so one mind at a time, in the implicit conclusions of any man who discovers what is going on in the world and chooses to work for a normal life.

So far in this series, I have emphasized cultural forces other than the direct influence of explicit philosophical ideas. I have done so because I think these factors explain what is going right in today's world.

However, I have not yet attempted to re-integrate these new observations with the question of the role of explicit philosophical ideas. That is what I will attempt in the next installment of this series.

This series will be continued in a future edition of TIA Daily.


aishwarya gopalakrishnan said...

hello friend good work am aishwarya from india pzl see my blog
hope we link each other

Tom Rowland said...

While I don't have the time to argue the case, I just want to put on record how inexplicable I find it that you should be heading toward what is, essentailly, the Marxist position that human thought is determined by its products. And all of it based on a strawman, "explicite philosophical ideas," reading of Objectivism's position.

ARI Watch said...

“... ‘what went right?’ The paradox we need to unravel is the fact that explicit Objectivist ideas have obviously not swept the world—and yet civilization, far from collapsing, is expanding in many respects and in many areas of the world.”

In the area known as America, civilization, far from expanding, is collapsing in regards to individual rights and economic prosperity (not to mention good taste). It’s worth asking: What went wrong?

Winston Smith said...

To Comrade ARI:

Greeting from Airstrip One!

Well written articles at the Ministry of Truth concerning Thought Criminal Comade Robert T. at ARI:

Clearly, Big Sister Rand is not happy with him.

I trust the Comrade will be purged soon and sent to Room 101 for reeducation?

I do so look forward to talking to Comrade Robert over a glass of gin and chess here at The Chess-Nut Cafe -- The lad's mind resmbles my own, except that I am insane.

Cheers, Winnie