The Whig Interpretation of History

It has been said that the historian is the avenger, and that standing as a judge between the parties and rivalries and causes of bygone generations he can lift up the fallen and beat down the proud, and by his exposures and his verdicts, his satire and his moral indignation, can punish unrighteousness, avenge the injured or reward the innocent.  One may be forgiven for not being too happy about any division of mankind into good and evil, progressive and reactionary, black and white; and it is not clear that moral indignation is not a dispersion of one’s energies to the great confusion of one’s judgement. There can be no complaint against the historian who personally and privately has his preferences and antipathies, and who as a human being merely has a fancy to take part in the game that he is describing; it is pleasant to see him give way to his prejudices and take them emotionally, so that they splash into colour as he writes; provided that when he steps in this way into the arena he recognizes that he is stepping into a world of partial judgements and purely personal appreciations and does not imagines that he is speaking ex cathedra. But if the historian can rear himself up like a god and judge, or stand as the official avenger of the crimes of the past, then one can require that he shall be still more godlike and regard himself rather as the reconciler than as the avenger; taking it that his aim is to achieve the understanding of the men and parties and causes of the past, and that in this understanding, if it can be complete, all things will ultimately be reconciled.
  — Herbert Butterfield,   The Whig Interpretation of History

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Heisenberg on physics and philosophy

Physics and Philosophy
by Werner Heisenberg (1958)

Werner Heisenberg was one of the founders of quantum mechanics and an exponent of its Copenhagen interpretation.  In this collection of essays, he tries to place the quantum revolution in a wider philosophical context.  Mostly, it is a story of prior philosophies having been proven inadequate, although interestingly enough, Heisenberg explicitly connects aspects of quantum states to the Aristotelian concept of potency.  The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, to which Heisenberg subscribes in this book, has been subject to two well-known criticisms.  First, we can only make sense of quantum mechanics as giving us probabilities for given observations by measuring devices assumed to be classical objects, and the existence of a non-quantum realm is an embarrassment if quantum theory is to be regarded as fundamental.  Second, it can appear to eschew ontology altogether, to be not an interpretation of quantum mechanics but a positivistic reduction of it.  To the first criticism, Heisenberg says that what distinguishes measuring devices is that they are not isolated, but interact with the outside world in countless messy ways, and these random environmental couplings somehow produce classical behavior.  Physicists are still pursuing this idea; I suspect there’s something to it but am not yet sold on it.

More interesting is the quasi-Kantian framework in which Heisenberg places the Copenhagen interpretation.  The math terminates on classical measuring devices primarily because classical physics describes core categories of the human mind that we need to make any sense of phenomena.  Heisenberg is slightly more optimistic than Kant; we can get past the phenomena structured around our concepts to gain some knowledge of realms where deterministic causality, Euclidean geometry, etc break down, but this knowledge will always be mediated by the classical realm; the latter can never be entirely swept aside because of the kind of beings we are.  We can learn that our classical ideas of space, time, matter, and causality break down–although a general lesson is that we can’t predict ahead of time where one of our concepts will break down–but we still need them.  In the subatomic realm, we have the wave picture and the particle picture, each of which works in some regime and breaks down in others, but both of which are at least genuine ontologies.  On the other hand, there is the full mathematical machinery of quantum mechanics, which never breaks down (so far as we know) but fails to provide an ontology.

This is something Heisenberg thinks we must learn to live with, but something which may actually be a blessing.  As he understands it, the ultimate consequence of his great work has been to overthrow 19th century materialism.  He sees alternate interpretations, such as that of Bohm, as desperate and mathematically unnatural attempts to rescue the old materialistic ontologies.  No longer should we place blind trust in mathematically precise expressions of materialistic concepts.  These have a range of validity, but it is limited and not to be categorically preferred to the natural intuitions of the human mind.  As he writes

Furthermore, one of the most important features of the development and the analysis of modern physics is the experience that the concepts of natural language, vaguely defined as they are, seem to be more stable in the expansion of knowledge than the precise terms of scientific language, derived as an idealization from only limited groups of phenomena.  This is in fact not surprising since the concepts of natural language are formed by the immediate connection with reality; they represent reality.

our attitude toward concepts like mind or the human soul or life or God will be different from that of the nineteenth century, because these concepts belong to the natural language and have therefore immediate connection with reality.  It is true that we will also realize that these concepts are not well defined in the scientific sense and that their application may lead to various contradictions, for the time being we may have to take the concepts, unanalyzed as they are; but still we know that they touch reality.  It may be useful in this connection to remember that even in the most precise part of science, in mathematics, we cannot avoid using concepts that involve contradictions.

The general trend of human thinking in the nineteenth century had been toward an increasing confidence in the scientific method and in precise rational terms, and had led to a general skepticism with regard to those concepts of natural language which do not fit into the closed frame of scientific thought–for instance, those of religion.  Modern physics has in many ways increased this skepticism; but it has at the same time turned it against the overestimation of precise scientific concepts, against a too-optimistic view on progress in general, and finally against skepticism itself.

My copy has a fascinating afterward called “Science and Religion” in which Heisenberg reminisces on two conversations he had on religion with other physicists.  It seems that Wolfgang Pauli and Niels Bohr also entertained hopes that the principle of complementarity would provide grounds for a rapprochement between religion and science, or at least an ease of tensions.  Perhaps science does not provide a complete picture of reality because such a picture does not exist (at least for minds like ours), and perhaps religions speak in myths and parables not because they are false but because there are truths that can be expressed in no other way.  Perhaps there are even resources here for wider rapprochements between rival religions and philosophies.

There is certainly some irony here.  Heisenberg, a Lutheran Christian, thought he had dealt the death blow to 19th century materialism, just as Rene Descartes thought he had dealt the death blow to 17th century materialism.  Needless to say, materialism is still going strong–stronger than ever–despite the brilliance of its opponents.  In the case of Bohr and Heisenberg, even the memory that they ever saw their work in terms other than those of scientistic triumphalism has been largely forgotten.

More on the priority of wholes

Kristor has published an important piece on the ontological priority of wholes to parts.  I had been fumbling around with related ideas, but had not gotten nearly as far.  I still haven’t in fact.  Kristor seems to possess a sort of metaphysical vision that I lack.  Or maybe he just doesn’t show us his work.  Either way, it often takes me much laborious thinking to cross the distance of one of his “therefore”s.  What follows will be longer and cover less ground than the above post, but perhaps it will help others like me whose minds need to move in small steps.  There are some considerations that strongly favor the ontological priority of parts, what I shall be calling “atomism”, but I will argue that they leave some room for the reality and even priority of wholes.

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Western distinctiveness V: fascists

I’ve quoted this before, but it’s so insightful, I’d like to do so again.  Here’s historian David Levering Lewis lamenting the victory of Charles Martel at Tours:

Had [Muslim general] ‘Abd al-Rahman’s men prevailed that October day, the post-Roman Occident would probably have been incorporated into a cosmopolitan, Muslim regnum unobstructed by borders … one devoid of a priestly caste, animated by the dogma of equality of the faithful, and respectful of all religious faiths … [T]he victory of Charles the Hammer must be seen as greatly contributing to the creation of an economically retarded, balkanized, fratricidal Europe that, in defining itself in opposition to Islam, made virtues out of religious persecution, cultural particularism, and hereditary aristocracy.

But what if religious persecution, cultural particularism, and hereditary aristocracy really are virtues?  Would it not then be best that some people cultivate them?  We have dealt with the first and third; what about the second?

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Western distinctiveness IV: enemies of democracy

Note:  The Orthosphere has had two posts today.  (Unusual for us, I know.)  In the other, JMSmith discusses Aristophanes, John Glubb, and the abuse of intellect contributing to the fall of empires.  In this post, I’m continuing with my little series.

Democracy and socialism are repugnant to the Western soul.  Although we have been forced to live under a pseudomorphism of egalitarianism, the Western spirit remains, as it has ever been, hierarchical and resistant.  Look at how fascinated little girls are by princesses.  What is this fascination we Westerners have with the King’s daughter?  It goes way back–see the Grimm brothers.  Look at how our adults hate for any field they value to become “politicized”, as though we instinctively know that democracy abases everything it touches.

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Western distinctiveness III: hypocritical puritans

Every functional civilization has regulated the sexual behavior of its females, as a matter of practical necessity.  The children and their mother depend on the provisioning of the father, and he is hardly likely to be forthcoming without a fair degree of confidence that the children are his.  Neither party is likely to invest in the household without a strong assurance that the family shall not be dissolved by the unilateral caprice of the other.  Feminism is never stupider than when it accuses Christendom of creating a sexual “double standard” at the expense of women (Nature herself made the double standard; no woman needs to wonder if the child in her womb is hers.) and making marriage a trap (It’s no use to anyone if it’s not a trap.)  Indeed, sexual jealousy is not unknown even among the sainted Muslims and Negros.

And yet, the West certainly does take things quite a bit farther than other civilizations, who are merely practical in their prudery.  This is our dogmatic spirit at work.  If husbands and wives pledge fidelity till death, then this is exactly what the contract must mean.  Not only adultery, but any misuse of the conjugal act must be held illicit, especially those non-procreative deviations that, by their nature, have no consequences.  The West alone holds men to the same sexual rules as women, even though practicality doesn’t demand this, and we are anomalous in allowing a man only one wife.  The Christian religion forbids even impure thoughts.  One might say that this is one area where the Westerner is more attuned to nature than other peoples, in that we think that the act of creation–and the distinction of sex roles associated with it–deserves not only foresight toward its consequences but also reverence for what it is.  Here, it is the anti-West demanding we treat a part of nature as raw material for our exploitation.

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Western distinctiveness II: dogmatic, fundamentalist zealots

I begin with that exemplary Westerner, Bishop James Ussher, who through a painstaking analysis of Biblical and other ancient records famously concluded that the world was created on October 23, 4004BC.  What a dummy, right?  Everybody knows that you’re not supposed to take the Bible literally like that.  Surely other civilizations, which weren’t so literalist in their religion, would have provided more hospitable settings for the rise of science.

Oh, quite the contrary!  A people who aren’t interested in dating the world with their holy books won’t be interested in dating it with rocks either.  A people that is happy to accept its religion mythologically will also take its science mythologically.  In neither case will there be a concern for precision or logical consistency.  Fundamentalism and science go together; they spring from the same state of mind.  Perhaps this is our much-lamented alienation from nature manifesting itself again as a chasm that can only be crossed with claims of a knowledge of objective truth.

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Western distinctiveness I: rapists of nature

My position, stated many times, is that a person doesn’t need to have a reason to love his people.  In fact, he cannot have a reason, since love is always directed at particular instances rather than general qualities.  You may think your children pretty and clever, but you would still love them if they lost these qualities or another set of children was found to exemplify those qualities to a greater degree.  Similarly, we men and women of European descent do not need to prove that our culture is especially refined or creative, that our ancestors were especially virtuous, or that our customs are especially agreeable by some objective standard.

Still, although we are not obliged to think about it, the fact is that other peoples are constantly noting the distinctiveness of the West.  We may wish to ignore their observations, because they are not at all meant to be complimentary, but then we would miss the chance to learn about ourselves.  I plan to comment each day this week on one of this features.

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