The conservative uncertainty principle, or Schrodinger’s propositions

December 12, 2015 § 12 Comments

Conservatism just is the tendency to conserve: to tend what is conserved, to protect it from attack and disease, and to cultivate its healthy flourishing.  In the political domain this means to conserve (among other things) communities, institutions, culture, and ideas.  In this post I am going to focus on conservation of ideas; but it may be worth noting that most of the things we work to conserve are not ideas.  Communities, for example, are not bundles of propositions.

In the realm of ideas specifically, conserving them means that criticism is assumed to be invalid even when it exhibits surface plausibility. Conservatism means that critique of a conserved idea faces a very high standard of proof. Conservatism means having faith, trust, that there are good answers to criticisms of ideas which were important to our ancestors even when we don’t have those answers immediately to hand ourselves.

In a banal sense everyone is a conservative in the realm of ideas. We are finite beings and are not omniscient. The number of ideas we can subject to explicit critique before we die is finite; the remainder, including but not limited to new questions raised by the answers, infinite. So our intellectual worlds are necessarily dominated by faith that answers exist, that the ideas in which we have faith are valid and true, even when we do not have snappy answers to every critique.

Ideas within the conservation area are ideas protected from criticism, so it makes no sense to attempt to critically define what is conserved.  In a Heisenberg-Schrodinger kind of paradox, opening the box kills the cat and measuring the particle turns it into something else.

On the other hand, criticism has its place even when it comes to sacred ideas. Conservatism may properly set a high bar for the potential critic, and it is impossible to completely specify all propositions which are consistent with the truth. But when particular ideas become manifestly destructive, heresies must be condemned.  Certain ideas must be subjected to critique, recognized as pernicious and false, and condemned as such.

My argument is that we have reached and passed this point with the political doctrine of liberalism specifically.  Men of Chesterton’s and Belloc’s generation might be forgiven for being somewhat and sometimes equivocal when it comes to the core doctrines of political liberalism.  But somewhere around the 100 millionth corpse, somewhere around the time when criticizing men for chopping off their genitals and pretending to become women became vicious bigotry, somewhere around the time when simply maintaining the integrity of a community by limiting the volume of immigration became hateful exclusion, somewhere around the time that humanity became a rabble of bonobos in the sexual domain and criticism of this became considered the height of wickedness — somewhere in there the critical bar was reached, when it comes to the political doctrine of liberalism specifically.

So we have subjected the political doctrine of liberalism specifically to criticism and discovered that it is unequivocally a lie: an incoherent lie from the pit of Hell, which destroys the good, true, and beautiful as standards and replaces them with Will.  That it hides behind the fact that sometimes people of good will do good things, and when they give credit for their good will to liberalism this shores up the lie.  That it makes chumps out of conservatives who attempt to conserve it.

If we condemn the political doctrine of liberalism as heresy, that obviously leaves a great many things under the conservation dome, even if we are just talking about ideas.

But don’t ask me to explicitly define the contents, because that will kill the cat.

§ 12 Responses to The conservative uncertainty principle, or Schrodinger’s propositions

  • I was talking with a libertarian relative, and something he said prompted me to reply that society isn’t made of rights conceived in the libertarian sense. Fundamentally it’s not contracts or anything so precise, that form the structure letting us say: “here is a society.” It’s softer expectations, arising organically from human nature and circumstance, which aren’t consciously willed by anyone involved in them, not normally. Honor and shame are closer to the right answer. I’m sure many people have made that point better, but I don’t know where I’d find it.

    Anyway, it seems like those expectations (which aren’t ideas) also have this character, where you can’t define and enumerate them without doing violence to them. In the way you said, and for another reason, also applying to the ideas: because to make the attempt is also to question them, not for this or that reason, but on general principle. If you can fit the society into the human mind, then you can also rationalistically rewrite it in the human mind. But man ought to submit to society, not the other way around, and to invert that destroys the society.

    The parallel issue is there with quantitative science – in paring down reality until what’s left seems mathematically captureable, we come to believe that only what seems capturable is real, and even that nature is fundamentally subject to the human will in the Baconian way. On the other hand, I want to find differences, since it seems like the methods of quantitative science don’t necessarily lead to these great problems.

    Maybe explicitly defining the contents (or trying to) doesn’t ALWAYS kill the cat, if your metaphysical background, etc., etc., is healthy enough? Is critical definition the problem, as opposed to more humble sorts of definition?

  • Zippy says:

    Ioannes Barbarus:

    Interesting comment.

    Maybe explicitly defining the contents (or trying to) doesn’t ALWAYS kill the cat, if your metaphysical background, etc., etc., is healthy enough? Is critical definition the problem, as opposed to more humble sorts of definition?

    In the OP I was referring to the contents of the conservation area, if you will: attempting to define it, that is, to define all that we are conserving, is a kind of reductionism which destroys what we are attempting to conserve. If that is read through a positivist lens it sounds like I am saying that thinking about specific things is impossible, when what I am really saying is more like that thinking about everything at once is impossible.

    So the natural way of conservationism a.k.a. conservatism is to cope with sacred ideas by reflexively protecting them, until it becomes abundantly clear that a particular one is false — a heresy — and is destroying the integrity of the whole. At that point it – the specific idea – must be ejected from the conservation area, anathematized, repudiated.

    And we are long past that point with the political doctrine of liberalism.

  • Mike T says:

    Your imagery of people taking a wide variety of “liberalisms” out of “Pandora’s Locke Box” gave me an interesting alternative explanation for things like the apparent hypocrisy of liberalism on issues like “men’s rights.” Under liberalism, there are a variety of political and social doctrines with their own diverse takes on liberalism’s core axioms. There are also a lot of residual influences in the culture from pre-liberal eras.

    Like a corporation utilizing differences in regional labor markets, various groups can use these differences to achieve what one might call a “value arbitrage.” That is, leveraging the delta between various liberalisms and residual influences to build a disproportionate advantage that cannot be readily attacked by any one system.

    In modern America, women play value arbitrage to their advantage. Liberals want affirmative action and most of the rights and privileges once reserved for men. Mainstream conservatives cannot oppose that because their values are simply a generation away from the liberals of this moment. Traditional conservatives, drawing heavily from pre-liberal value systems like chivalry will not support a dichotomy wherein women are forced to either live as “free and equal supermen” under liberalism or live as something similar to what they did prior to liberalism; in effect, tradcons tend to default to a view that functionally enables liberalism.

    The only group that cannot play value arbitrage, ever, is a group that is simultaneously regarded as untermensch by most schools of liberalism and that is not regarded as worthy of special protection under a less liberal or non-liberal system. In practice, that means heterosexual white men in our society today. However, there are exceptions based on pious platitudes.

    As I said, it’s just an idea I’ve been mulling today. Not sure if it’s something that is generally applicable or rather limited in scope.

  • GJ says:

    It is necessary to take the beetle out of the box to examine it for public discourse, but dissecting the beetle kills it.

  • biplob1958 says:

    UNFINISHED BUSINESS by Margarat Thatcher,Ex PM of Britain.
    The events of September 11 are a terrible reminder that freedom demands eternal vigilance. And for too long we have not been vigilant. We have harboured those who hated us, tolerated those who threatened us and indulged those who weakened us. ‘Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks.’ Milton’s words perfectly describe America today. After the horror of September 11 the world has seen America gather its strength, summon its allies and proceed to wage war halfway across the globe against its enemy — and ours.
    America will never be the same again. It has proved to itself and to others that it is in truth (not just in name) the only global superpower, indeed a power that enjoys a level of superiority over its actual or potential rivals unmatched by any other nation in modern times. Consequently, the world outside America should never be the same either. There will, of course, arise new threats from new directions. But as long as America works to maintain its technological lead, there is no reason why any challenge to American dominance should succeed. And that in turn will help ensure stability and peace.
    Yet, as President Bush has reminded Americans, there is no room for complacency. America and its allies, indeed the western world and its values, are still under deadly threat. That threat must be eliminated, and now is the time to act vigorously.
    In many respects the challenge of Islamic terror is unique, hence the difficulty western intelligence services encountered trying to predict and prevent its onslaughts. The enemy is not, of course, a religion — most Muslims deplore what has occurred. Nor is it a single State, though this form of terrorism needs the support of States to give it succour. Perhaps the best parallel is with early communism. Islamic extremism today, like bolshevism in the past, is an armed doctrine. It is an aggressive ideology promoted by fanatical, well-armed devotees. And, like communism, it requires an all-embracing long-term strategy to defeat it.
    The first phase of that strategy had to be a military assault on the enemy in Afghanistan, a phase that is now approaching its end. I believe that while the new interim government there deserves support, the United States is right not to allow itself to become bogged down with ambitious nation-building in that treacherous territory. Some would disagree, arguing that the lesson of the present crisis is that neglect of failed States causes terrorism. But this is trite. It implies a level of global interventionism that almost everyone recognizes is quite impractical.

    The more important lesson is that the West failed to act early and strongly enough against Al-Qaeda and the regime that harboured it. And because there is always a choice in where you concentrate international efforts, it is best that the US, as the only global military superpower, deploy its energies militarily rather than on social work. Trying to promote civil society and democratic institutions in Afghanistan is best left to others — and since those ‘others’ now include the British, I only hope that we, too, are going to be realistic about what can (and cannot) be achieved.
    The second phase of the war against terrorism should be to strike at other centres of Islamic terror that have taken root in Africa, Southeast Asia and elsewhere. This will require first-rate intelligence, shrewd diplomacy and a continued extensive military commitment. Our enemies have had years to entrench themselves, and they will not be dislodged without fierce and bloody resistance.
    The third phase is to deal with those hostile States that support terrorism and seek to acquire or trade in weapons of mass destruction. We have got into the habit of calling them ‘rogue’ States. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as we don’t fall into the trap of imagining that they will always and on every issue fit into the same slot.
    For example, Iran and Syria were both sharply critical of Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and the attacks of September 11. Nevertheless, they are both enemies of western values and interests. Both have energetically backed terrorism: the former has just been caught out dispatching arms to foment violence against Israel. Iran is also making strides toward developing long-range missiles that could be armed with nuclear warheads.
    Other critics of September 11 are a menace, too. Libya, for example, still hates the West and would dearly like revenge against us. And Sudan undertakes genocide against its own citizens in the name of Islam. As for North Korea, the regime of Kim Jong is as mad as ever and is the world’s main proliferated of long-range ballistic missiles that can deliver nuclear, chemical or biological warheads.
    The most notorious rogue is, without doubt, Saddam Hussein — proof if ever we needed it that yesterday’s unfinished business becomes tomorrow’s headache. Saddam Hussein will never comply with the conditions we demand of him. His aim is, in fact, quite clear: to develop weapons of mass destruction so as to challenge us with impunity.

    How and when, not whether, to remove him is the only important questions. Again, solving this problem will demand the best available intelligence. It will require, as in Afghanistan, the mobilization of internal resistance. It will probably also involve a massive use of force. America’s allies, above all Britain, should extend strong support to President Bush in the decisions he makes on Iraq.
    As a result, we remain, for example, all but defenceless against ballistic missiles that could be launched against our cities. A missile defence system will begin to change that. But change must go deeper still.
    The West, as a whole needs to strengthen its resolve against rogue regimes and upgrade its defences. The good news is that America has a president who can offer the leadership necessary to do so. The writer is a former Prime Minister of Britain (The Guardian).
    This is a clear message to the people who want to enjoy the western style of life in the one hand and on the other hand they are the critics of that system. There is a trend which must be change whether it is in the name of religion, culture or anything else. You should accept the culture where you desire to stay otherwise it is clear cheating to the society where you live.

  • […] these responses are I think understandably conservative, the magnitude of liberalism’s crimes doesn’t call for conservation.  The magnitude of liberalism’s crimes calls for repentance.   Liberalism is a lie, a […]

  • […] Conservatism means making sure that there are plenty of ways around to dissipate the natural human instinct to conserve, providing an outlet so people can whine ineffectually without actually questioning liberalism. […]

  • […] respond to the situation conservatively, by denying that perversion and murder are in objective fact the telos of the object of their […]

  • […] ancient roots. Modern atrocities must have some other cause. If liberalism has ancient roots it is sacred; the unique wickednesses of modernity must be attributable to something […]

  • […] my thought is that once the body count of innocents murdered reaches a certain point, quibbling over whether or not a particular political doctrine is or is not technically heresy is […]

  • […] I don’t mean that it is merely difficult to do so.  What I mean is that the very idea of doing so is unintelligible, because asserting the unintelligible is always unintelligible despite what may seem to be a superficial plausibility.  It may sound plausible that twas brillig in the slithy toves.  But the fact that a doctrine superficially strikes us as possible or plausible does not guarantee its rational coherence. […]

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