Sunday, August 06, 2006

At the End of an Age

Another post that I am now just getting around to finishing...

I started reading John Lukacs' At the End of the Age on the bus trip down to NYC earlier in July--it has plenty for reflection, though I think some of his analysis wasn't deep enough. I'm still mulling over the question of modernity and how dominant the intellectual mindset that goes with it really was. (I'm still thinking that "modern" ethics and political philosophy has affinities with, if not actual roots, with what came before, and can be better explained by the fallenness of human nature rather than by genealogy. On the other hand, the existence of groups like the Illuminati and the Freemasons and their idealogies must be admitted.)

While in many ways it is the most important chapter, it is also the weakest, the chapter dealing with science, Chapter Three: "The Question of Scientific Knowledge." Lukacs (mis-)appropriates contemporary science, especially the indeterminism of quantum mechanics, to argue for free will and against "spiritual determinism." While his intention is laudable, it doesn't really work, precisely because the indeterminism of quantum mechanics is due primarily not to the things, but in our measurement. (Measurement is not the same as sense perception, and in measuring quantum phenomena we act upon what is being measured.)

This Lukacs acknowledges. He writes: "The young German physicist Werner Heisenberg not only discovered but proved that in certain subatomic situations neither classical objectivity nor mechanical causality applied: that the act of the physicist's observation (more exactly: his attempts at measurement) interfered either with the movement or with the situation of his object--which mean, among other things, a big crack in the fundament of Descartes's and Newton's objectivism and determinism. In other words: the study of the 'reality' of matter was inseparable from the interference (and from the mind and the purpose) of the scientist." (96-7)

He then notes: "It is true that Heisenberg's discoveries involve only extreme and subatomic situations. Meanwhile, in the mechanical world, including all of its wonders such as space rockets or the Internet, the essential 'laws' and causalities of Newtonian physics continue to apply. But there are more and more evidences in the human world, where more and more of us recognize how observation may affect--indeed, it often does affect--the nature of the object, perhaps especially in the age of democracy."

Using quantum physics as an analogue for understanding interactions between human beings can be acceptable in so far as human beings can influence one another in ways that do not violate freedom, but make use of it. Still, the variations in how potentialities are actualized at the "quantum" level are due not to the ontological complexity of the things involved, but because of their simplicity, while human beings vary in their reactions and behavior because of their complexity--they are endowed with rational faculties, which makes them free and not determined .The elements of nature are determined, not free, but their behavior is not predictable because of the nature of our measurement techniques.

Lukacs rightly assails the attempt of certain physicists to come up with a "Theory of Everything" that is ultimately reductionistic, seeking an essential basic particle (108-110). "The earlier assumption--that the physical essence of the entire universe would be revealed in our discovery of its original and smaller particle--has now degenerated into the second assumption, the myth of the Unified Theory: that many physicists are now inclined to blieve that even fi we cannot find the smallest building block of the universe, we can find a mathematical formula that will explain the entire universe: a Theory of Everything." (112)

Determinism is dependent upon a certain understanding of causes and of natures. Lukacs traces its origin to Descartes:

The fundament (and the unavoidable component) of determinism, and of Objectivism, and of what Descartes established as "the scientific method," is mechanical causality. Mechanical causality means three things. First: that the same causes must--always and everywhere--have the same effects. Second, that there must be an equivalence between the force of cause and that of its effect. Third: that the cause must always and everywhere precede its effect. (113)

Lukacs then explains how this is inadequate to explain human action:

Neither wisdom nor profound philosophic disquisitions are needed to point out that this kind of causality does not always--indeed, not really--apply to human life (again: to the lives of the most complex organisms in the entire universe). The principal element, or instrument, that disrupts these causalities is the human mind. It intrudes into the structure (and also into the sequence) of events: because what happens is inseparable from what one thinks (or from what most people think) happens. (114)
With respect to history, instead of being an economic determinist, Lukacs sees it as a product of human choices, and pays due respect to the rational nature of man:

Many of the present 'schools' of social history depend on the concept of Economic Man, from the--at times veiled--'scientific' belief that the basic realities of human existence and of historic life and development are materal, whereof the mores and morals and thoughts and beliefs of most people are the superstructures. My belief, from an early time in my life, has been the opposite: that (perhaps especially in the democratic age and in democratic societies) the most important matter is what people think and believe--and that the entire materal organization of society, ranging from superficial fashions to their material acquisitions and to their institutions--are the consequences thereof. (66)

Thus, Lukacs reflects on his own writing of history: "I have consistently tried to apply my convictions about the hierarchy of historical factors (perhaps presumptuously: my perspective of human nature) in a successsive series of books. My conviction of the primacy of mind over matter--that what is important is what people think and believe and that the entire materal and institutional organization of the world is largely a superstructure of that--was suggested and, here and there stated, in my earliest books." (148)

Lukacs has been influenced by Modernity; he is probably aware of this, but is he aware of the limitations of the Modern way of seeing things? Though he is saved from grave errors, undoubtedly because of his Faith, still his thinking has not remained untouched, and points to the weakness of our intellects and our dependence upon others and culture. In describing human freedom, he writes "What mattered--surely in the long run, but often instantly, too--was their relationship to other people, which dependend on their ideas, rather than on their management of things... What mattered were the ideas they adopted or represented or wore--the ideas they had chosen and that they, on occasion, preferred to wear. In sum: the inclinations of their mind. After all, everything a man does depends on some kind of belief." [emphasis mine] (87-8) Who else but a Modern would explain human behavior in terms of ideas, instead of making use of desire or appetite or character? Or knowledge except in terms of ideas and beliefs?

Perhaps he would be sympathetic to those who would create a "virtue epistemology": "We are responsible for what we think--because we choose our thoughts. Consciousness includes intentionality. It contains intentionality... It is increasingly evident--again, especially because of the rapid increase of mental and not physical occupations--that large numbers of people nowadays demonstrate their failing ability to pay attention (including their failure to listen)." (124-5)

(A Thomist can concede that the act of judgment is dependent upon the will, and we chose to come to a judgment that turns out to be premature and false for various reasons. And ultimately, to be an excellent reasoner one needs the moral virtues. But he cannot accept an analytic epistemology which employs epistemic or moral virtue merely as a standard to distinguish and justify knowledge. As a rule-based epistemology it continues to suffer from the same defects that afflict any modern theory of epistemology.)

Despite these weaknesses, he seems to be an author worth reading, and is citied by many traditionalists and paleoconservatives. I look forward to reading his book on Hitler and Stalin. Some other extracts from At the End of the Age follow.

On the breakdown of the family

Women thought (or, rather, convinced themselves) that they were reacing against the age-old and often senseless categories and assertions of male authority; yet their dissatisfaction often arose not because of the oppressive strength but because of the weakness of males. The rising tide of divorces and abortions, the acceptance of sexual liberties, including pre-marital (and at times post-marital) habits of frequent copulation and other forms of cohabitation, the increasing numbers of unmarried women and single mothers, the dropping birth rate--thus the decline of the so-called 'nuclear' family--were, especially after 1955, grave symptoms suggesting vast social changes. They
included the perhaps seldom wholly conscious, but more and more evident, tendency of many young women to desire any kind of male companionship, even of a strong and brutal kind, if need be at the cost of their self-respect. In sum, the professional recognition as well as the legal protection of women had risen, while the respect for them had declined. Some of this was due to the twentieth-century cult of youth--which was especially widespread in America during the last phase of its urban and bourgeois period. However, it is not difficult to see that beneath the cult of youth there lurks the fear of death and even the fear of growing up: the fear of having to assume the responsibilities of maturity. The increasing 'freedoms' granted to young people in the twentieth century were, in some ways, a return to the practice before the Modern Age, the treatment (or non-treatment) of children as if they were smaller versions of adults. The education (in the original sense of the word) of children toward maturity was another bourgeois ideal fading away. (23-4)

1. "tendency of many young women to desire any kind of male companionship, even of a strong and brutal kind, if need be at the cost of their self-respect" -- but is it not the case with many that they do not have adequate self-respect to being with, not having a father or father figure in their lives, and so on?

2. Also, even when both parents are present, they may have failed to give the proper moral formation to female sexuality which is often enmeshed with Romantic notions of love. Consequently, women doing stupid things out of what they think is "love." Hence I would see this tendency as not only a sign but a result of the breakdown of community and families.

3. I wonder if Lukacs is asserting that "the tendency to protect and educate children (note the original meaning of 'educate': bring up, guide forth) was another new bourgeois habit" without sufficient support. While it may be true that "during the Middle Ages children were sent out to work, often for others" (22), might it not be more out of economic necessity than because the medievals didn't want to or know how to handle children? With growing prosperity in the Modern Age, there would be more opportunity to keep children home and to raise them. Also, one must differentiate between moral and intellectual formation here--intellectual formation can be delegated to a tutor or a school or to a master of a craft or skill without the responsibility for moral formation also being given.

On Education:

In the United States the principal and practical function fo the schools often became custodial (especially when both parents were working away from home), though this was seldom acknowledged. After 1960 at least one-fourth of the population fo the United States spent more than one-fourth of their entire lifetime in schools, from ages to twenty-two. As on so many other levels and ways of mass democracy, inflation had set in, diminishing drastically the content and the quality of learning: more and more young people, after twenty years in schools, could not read or write without difficulty. Schools were overcrowded, including colleges and universities. In this increasingly bureaucratized world little more than the possession of various diplomas mattered. Since admission to certain schools--rather than the consequently almost automatic acquisition of degrees--depended on increasingly competitive examinations, the word 'meritocracy' was coined, meaning that the rise and positions to be acquired in society depended on the category of the degree and on the category of the college or university wherefrom one graduated. In reality the term 'meritocracy' was misleading. As in so many other spheres of life, the rules that governed the practices and functions of schools and universities were bureaucratic rather than meritocratic. It is bureaucracy, not meritocracy, that categorizes the employment of people by their academic degrees. The number and the variation of degrees awarded by higher institutions grew to a fantastic, and nonsensical extent. Besides being custodial, the purpose of institutional education was now the granting of degrees to provide instant employment. (25-6)

On Confusion and Environmentalists:

...The confusion and the split-mindedness characteristic near or at the end of an age appears. Most 'conservatives,' votaries of what is still wrongly called 'capitalism' and of technical progress, deny the need to preserve or conserve. Most 'liberals' still cling to outdated dogmas of the so-called Enlightenment, unwilling to question the validity of 'Science.' This kind of schizophrenia is evident, too, among the Greens or environmentalists--otherwise an interesting and promising appearance of a movement that, for the first time in modern
history, prefers the conservation of Nature to the inroads of Finance and Science--since the same "Greens" who militate in favor of laws and authority to halt the ravages against nature at the same time militate against laws and authorities that still claim to protect families and forbid abortions. The very word 'environmentalism' is inaccurate and even misleading, as if mankind were on thing and its 'environment' another. Instead of recognizing their unavoidable coexistence, many environmentalists are also anti-humanists, wishing to exclude
all human traces from their cult of wilderness and wildness. (38)

I leave without discussing what Lukacs consideres to be the "most dramatic proposition of this book. Contrary to all accepted ideas we must now, at the end of an Age, recognize that we, and our earth, are at the center of our universe. We did not create the universe. But the universe is our invention; and, as are all human and mental inventions, time-bound, relative, and potentially fallible." (204)

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