On Being Mistaken for a Narrow-Minded Dogmatist

Eric Weinstein once said that two topics of thought and philosophical conversation should always be avoided; God and metaphysical freedom. Since those are my twin obsessions, this rather caught my amused attention. Over a period of years, of looking at certain topics from multiple angles, one ends up seeing the end point of many conceptual and rhetorical “moves.” Analogies can be made with fighting or chess. An expert fighter, according to YouTube videos like those from hard2hurt, knows what moves to expect from novice fighters and also knows how to counter them. Giant swinging punches called “haymakers” are the norm for an angry untutored idiot. They can be seen coming a mile off, giving someone plenty of time to prepare a counter move. Practiced pugilists, so it seems, prefer much straighter, more controlled punches, like a jab, that are harder to avoid and do not open someone up to easy counter attack. One commentator stated that one year of rigorous boxing training would be enough to defeat most other people in a self-defense situation. Unfortunately, that would entail one year of being hit hard in the head with corresponding brain damage that is likely to catch up with someone at some point. Head protectors do not stop your brain hitting the inside of your hard skull. Even Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, which has no strikes, can damage necks through the copious use of choke holds.

Likewise, it seems possible that a chess master could look at the opening moves of the novice chess player and foresee the predictable outcome. There will literally be cases of “you can’t get there from here.” The chess master could ask, “Where are you hoping to end up?” And then tell someone whether that is a possible outcome, especially when playing against an expert. The more expert the player, the fewer people he can easily talk to about chess.

Both the fighter and the chess player have years of experience with such matters. Explaining why “you can’t there from here” and the like to non-fighters and non-chess masters could take hours or even years. The explanation is quite likely to make little sense to the novice who is likely to remain skeptical. Philosophy should not be a competitive sport – an agon – with participants trying to outdo each other. Nonetheless, one sometimes encounters non-philosophers who want to argue, and argue specifically on topics the philosopher has spent decades pondering. This novice is unlikely to say something that has never occurred to the expert. Frequently, I end up wanting to say “you can’t get there from here.” E.g., “I am working on a naturalistic basis for moral realism.” “I don’t believe in free will, but am devoted to wisdom.” “I am not a nihilist, but I reject God and the transcendent completely.” “All human beings are mere computing machines and I am working on stopping self-driving cars from killing people.” [Hint: why are you bothering?] The other person can take your answer on authority, but, since she has decided to argue with you, she is unlikely to want to do that. Nearly every paragraph of “Is it possible to separate politics from philosophy” has multiple articles that would be required background reading to more fully explain the point. There simply is not enough time, nor does the reader have sufficient patience, to make digressions of dozens of pages each time some new point is made. The fight trainer and the chess master see what the person is doing and tells him what he is doing wrong and how to improve. If they are met with skepticism from the student they can always sit back and let the student get beaten to a bloody pulp, or lose the chess match, though the student might think “If I could just execute this move better…”

Recently, in interacting with a non-philosopher who nonetheless thinks highly of her thinking abilities, I got this question: “Does not the language and culture we grow up into determine our concept of reality, but it is not reality.” This is a rhetorical “move.” A kind of relativist, post-modern assertion. Many of these post-modern gambits commit the same fallacy, of wanting to be an exception to their own rule. They involve performative contradictions – a topic of which even most professional “philosophers” are ignorant. The assertion also depends on a conceptual/perceptual framework that exists outside language and culture in order to assess the contributions of language and culture. The claim that concepts influenced by language and culture are not reality assumes that one has the ability to contrast the resulting concept of reality with actual reality. So, apparently, we do know actual reality, after all. The performative contradiction, however, is that the assertion that language and culture prevent apprehending reality correctly, comes from someone immersed, as we all are, in language and culture. The assertion that the “language and culture we grow up into determine our concept of reality, but it is not reality” involves assertions about concepts and reality that must themselves be determined by language and culture, and are thus not to be trusted. Thus the assertion falls victim to its own skepticism. The implication of the skeptical assertion applies as much to the assertion and the person doing the asserting, as it does to our ability to generate accurate concepts regarding reality.

The claim that “language and culture we grow up into determine our concept of reality, but it is not reality” implies that “knowledge is impossible.” The person asserting this claims to know something, namely, that knowledge is impossible, yet that statement claims knowledge does not exist. It is a “performative” contradiction because in the act of asserting it, the person contradicts himself. Many people do not notice the contradiction because the contradiction is not in the words themselves, but exists in the very act of making the assertion – “performing” the assertion. The person saying it is implicated in what he is saying.

If language and culture determine concepts, and prevent us from ever knowing reality, then language and culture will also prevent us from knowing this fact about reality. Namely, that language and culture prevent us from using concepts that enable us to determine an accurate conception of reality. This assertion is one of complete epistemic skepticism – but the asserter is claiming to know that epistemic skepticism is true and real. It could be turned into a pithy, pseudo-profound paradox: “The only thing I know is that knowledge is impossible.” Except, then you do not know it, or knowing things is indeed possible. Or, if it is possible to know that one thing, why not others?

A philosopher should be expected to have some kind of tentative, and provisional, picture of reality and to try to ensure that his assertions do not contradict this picture, i.e., to not contradict himself. A materialist simply has no way to consistently believe in free will. Free will and materialism do not go together. In conversation with a nonphilosopher, the latter seemed to think that I was being narrowminded and dogmatic when I said that a belief in God and the transcendent is necessary in order for free will to exist. She said, “Why can’t I believe in free will and yet not in some nonmaterial plane of existence?” The answer is just too long and complicated. First, it would be a five-hour lecture. Second, much of those five hours would be incomprehensible and would probably rely on yet more aspects of philosophical knowledge that the nonphilosopher does not know either.

A friend of mine got a degree in engineering back in the 1980s. He complained that he would encounter people who would want him to convey all he had learnt in conversation. His reply was that it took him many years to acquire it and it would take his interlocutor the same amount of time or longer (probably longer, my friend was the top of his class, bar one).

It might seem conceited to be implicitly describing oneself as some kind of expert, especially on rather ineffable matters. But, most people would be horrified to be told that they would need to spend the next few decades thinking about practically nothing but freedom and God. I would not want to study car engines, and would be similarly repulsed. Consequently, I do not imagine myself to be a car expert, nor do I question the knowledge of those who are. Nor, would I expect to understand explanations about what might be wrong with a car engine and I too would need many hours long lectures about the working of car engines to have any hope of understanding and I would be both bored and perplexed.

Not being able to quickly and easily explain why freedom requires the nonmaterial to exist, nor why atheists cannot believe in free will, nor the soul, can make one resemble a puzzlingly narrow-minded and dogmatic individual who takes strange stances on things without sufficient reason. In the end, one can only say, “Run the experiment yourself. See what you come up with. I’ll give you thirty years.”

A safety valve is that most people are not philosophers. They are thus free to contradict themselves while not realizing it. And, it is better that materialists keep believing goodness exists even though it cannot possibly make any sense to believe both things. There is no requirement for the nonphilosopher to have a provisional picture of reality and to try not to contradict it with his philosophical assertions. But, it does mean that the philosopher can see the writing on the wall in terms of the larger culture. And, he knows that a society based on materialism, atheism, and technological progress will necessarily devolve into nihilism – even if it is a nihilism sometimes hidden by utopian longings which are a thinly disguised desire for God. Or, perhaps I am being a narrowminded dogmatist again.

*My apologies for the copious use of the first person singular.

13 thoughts on “On Being Mistaken for a Narrow-Minded Dogmatist

  1. I’m not sure that your philosophy would accept this, but it seems to me that it would take a materialist much longer than thirty years to learn what you have learned in that time. You needed to come to these conclusions deliberately, but you did not begin in a state of fundamental unwillingness to come to these conclusions. This is the epistemology I take from the New Testament, where Jesus does not bother to argue with people who are fundamentally unwilling to go where he wants to take them. He spends his time looking for the lost sheep and not wrangling with the stiff-necked goats.

    You may know that I sometimes describe myself as a cultural geographer, but I’ve grown more reluctant to do this since “culture” has become an ideological term. As you note in this essay, “culture” is for many people nowadays the ground of all their hopes and dreams. They have somehow absorbed the consoling ideas that culture determines reality and that culture is infinitely malleable. Students routinely talk to me about a coming cultural change that does not substantially differ from the Christian Second Coming and Millennium. Maybe this is what Voegelin meant by immanentizing the eschaton.

    I agree when you say that a scientific worldview must end in nihilism. Do you think we may be much farther down that road than is generally supposed? It seems to me that our elites have mostly adopted a scientific worldview, and I’m sure they can spot a logical inference as well as I can. They do not dare to shock the sentimental masses, but I wonder if their hearts are already hardened to everything but the will to power. I am still fighting shy, but find myself daily creeping closer to the conclusion that we are governed by people who are utterly unscrupulous and would stick at nothing if their advantage was at stake. What do you think?

    • Hi, JMSmith: I’m not sure. They seem to combine complete cynicism (it’s all about power) with breathtaking utopianism (possibly). They are unlikely to pick up any clarifying and helpful ideas from their Ivy League educations.Their utopianism, if it exists, can only serve to make them more dangerous and ruthless. Either way, the final destination seems determined.

      • Just this morning I was listening to President Biden say that his new vaccine mandate was justified by his duty “to protect everyone.” One thing I have learned from reading unreconstructed Southern writers is that “protecting” one group always necessitates/justifies beating up another group. Protecting the environment, which I generally favor, always involves attacking whatever the protectors say the environment needs to be protected against. So I think a lot of the utopian talk is just a stalking horse for ruthlessly aggressive people. But I also think people need to think well of themselves and utopians get these good feels from their utopianism.

        I’ve been searching without success for a quote that I wanted to send you. It is from the British conservative and intellectual historian Maurice Cowling, and he says that his great joy has been in exploring his own “narrow mind.” When all respectable people pride themselves on their broadmindedness, I think it is time to see what can be said in favor of a narrow mind. Why is it that respectable people nowadays have narrow waists and broad minds, whereas deplorables are the other way round?

      • One thing I have learned from reading unreconstructed Southern writers is that “protecting” one group always necessitates/justifies beating up another group.

        Zippy (RIP) used to make this point frequently in his writings, although I wouldn’t necessarily denominate Zippy an “unreconstructed Southern writer,” despite his being a Virginian.

        It is true nevertheless that the one thing necessarily necessitates the other. I was brought up to essentially ignore my past without actually denegrating it. If that is indeed possible. It took me years (decades in fact) to finally realize that taking a stance of indifference towards my forbears was/is in fact dishonoring their memories. That won’t ever happen again in my case, as God Himself is my witness!

  2. I recently read the novel Eumeswil by Ernst Jünger, and in the city of the title he describes the masses as Fellaheen, in Spengler’s, sense and the elites as metahistorical. I think we can see our civilization slowly getting to that point as well.

    The nonphilosophers, myself included, have to pick through bits of the older culture or else pick up bits of the new elites views filtered through mass media, and cobble together a provisional view of reality sufficient to the day. As the civilization declines, these pieces become, I think, more eclectic and perhaps then more self-contradictory. As collapse sets in, even the newer doctrines will become relics and totems, the ruins among which the Fellah steers his plow.

    Nihilism seems to be the final metahistorical view of the elite of a falling empire. The metahistorical vision of the elite is perhaps something like how Marx views ideology, a cover for their own material ends. But I do not doubt that there is also a sublimated longing for God in utopian dressing, for man does not live on bread alone.

    JMSmith, regarding your comment on culture, I think of how I hear repeated the environmental views of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion by the Z Generation. They no longer care for individual acts of recycling or conservation, which they term “performative”, but have, likely correctly, realized that their ends can only be achieved, as they say, “structurally.”

    This I think is a decisive move from the Modern to Post-modern. The modern man conceived culture as a pure product of (individual/national) personality, the Post-modern conceives the person as a pure product of (global) culture. It may be that this new Post-Modern cultural yearning is a Second Religiousness in Spengler’s terms. As of yet, its rites are ill-established but among young leftists there are areas, like “science”, environmentalism, homosexuality, that if one points out the contradictions, it is like insulting the Virgin Mary in front of the older type of Christian.

    • Hi, David. Thanks for commenting. If you are a nonphilosopher, you are a suspiciously self-aware one! I’m going to go ahead and accuse you of philosophical sophistication, and you can hate me all you want.

    • I think it is significant that the Green movement uses the word environment instead of the word nature, since their solicitude for non-human nature is combined with a deep hostility for human nature. But as I just said in the answer I just made to Richard, we must learn to read the word “protect” critically. I am not saying that there is no difference between defense and offense, only that offense very often represents itself as defense.

      I wrote a post using Spengler’s concept of the fellaheen a couple of years ago. It will come up if you type fellaheen in the search box just below the Orthosphere banner. I start off with a quote from Jack Kerouac, who as a beatnik praised the “fellaheen feeling.” Kerouac had no notion of the fellaheen of the Levant, but his beatnik philosophy is no doubt the fellaheen philosophy of the decadent West. It is the philosophy of people who have finished the Spenglarian wave cycle and wish to return to life at the “zoological level.”

  3. Pingback: News and Posts from the web for Friday, 09/09/21 – FOR GOD AND COUNTRY

  4. Hah! Richard, you’ve nailed it. We get this all the time with atheists who want us to set forth the entire apology for theism, or even for the Christian faith, in a comment.

    It helps a bit that they usually misconstrue God as a thing among other things, like Zeus. Then, we can say, “no, you are not talking about the same thing we are when we talk about God.”

    The crazy thing is that they so often respond to that with cries of “special pleading!!!!” Or, even more often, that they *simply do not understand the distinction between God and creatures.* They cannot mentally accommodate the distinction. So they return with more sarcastic arguments against the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

    Whereas I read your post with immediate comprehension of all your aphoristic statements, and instant agreement – when you see a truth, you just see it, no? – they would apprehend it as a farrago of wholly unsupported, rather wild notions.

    So, I think JM was right in his first paragraph above. You can lead a horse to water, but if he is not going to drink, then shake the dust of his town off your sandals and try for better results elsewhere. Pearls before swine, etc.

  5. Hi, Kristor:
    Yes. You see the truth, but cannot communicate all the thought that went into that apprehension. As a twenty year old whippersnapper, I couldn’t even see the point of God, though I had no animus against Him. I was perhaps 28 or so, when I realized HIs absolute necessity. But, it took me even longer to understand the degree of this necessity.

  6. Pingback: Richard Cocks is Not Narrow-minded and Should Not Consent to Become So – The Orthosphere


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.