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Social identities or social physics?

Rationalized insanity like “zero tolerance” and political correctness suggests there is something basically irrational in social life today that has to do with a conflict between publicly compulsory standards and normal human expectations. Some people try to laugh the conflict off and make jokes about PC or whatever. Others deny it or explain it away—these are exaggerated marginal situations, and everything’s basically moving in the right direction. No one seems to have a grip on the situation.

Recent discussions here at Turnabout related to sex suggest the beginnings of an explanation. Traditional sexual morality depends on the thought that sex should have some connection with its natural reproductive function. Otherwise it won’t have the practical weight or the connection to definite human relationships and obligations that seem called for by its importance in our experience. What sort of connection though? If the connection is total, so sex becomes purely a means for the end of reproduction, it becomes dehumanized (and extremely rare). If the connection is looser, though, it’s easy to point out cases in which sex traditionally considered moral is in fact non-reproductive and one can ask why other non-reproductive sex is so different.

The solution to the problem, I think, lies in asking what sort of concepts normally order human life and make social institutions and ideals and standards of a good life possible. It seems to me those concepts—we, they, friend, enemy, promise, favor, offense, man, woman, marriage, family—have to do with the identity of things, with a general class they belong to that determines what they are for us. Such classifications can’t be reduced to specific consequences in particular settings even though they have a functional significance and are basic to our understanding of how the world works.

The rationalized insanity of the present day is the result of a way of thinking that rejects common-sense understandings of the identity of things and views physics as the one true description of reality, so that concepts of the kind used in physics become the only ones rational enough to be really authoritative. On that view the kinds of concepts that have always ordered human life—even ones as universal as those just mentioned—become irrational stereotypes that should be done away with as much as possible and certainly can’t be used to justify treating people one way or another against their will.

A consequence is that it becomes impossible to make common-sense distinctions among persons and actions. Common-sense distinctions can’t be demonstrated with the universality and rigor of physics, so they’re prejudiced and irrational. Also, distinctions in physics—between an electron and a proton, for example—are total, eternal and always exactly the same, so it’s assumed that if you draw a distinction between men and women, or Americans and Frenchmen, you must mean something of that sort.

The result is an absolute binary way of thinking. The only two possibilities are PC on the one hand—total equal acceptance as an absolute moral imperative—and “zero tolerance” on the other—a determination that if something like “drugs” or “weapons” calls for non-acceptance then the non-acceptance has to be total, categorical and equal for everything in the class.

To me, at any rate, it seems clear that the current “enlightened” way of thinking isn’t going to work. In social and moral affairs, identity and not physics is the way to go. Unfortunately, the current outlook involves a basic understanding of what it is to be rational that’s been growing up for centuries, so it’s going to be extremely difficult to dislodge. The point of education today is to train people to believe that if you object to that understanding you’re irrational, evil, mentally ill, or all three. So the struggle to overcome it is going to be a long one, and very likely will be much more interesting and dramatic than comfortable.



Bravo Mr. Kalb, you have succeeded in making a discussion of sex as enjoyable as a discussion of ERISA law (or any other exceedingly boring subject). Is this how you discuss the topic with your wife? Liven it up a little, must it be so dry and clinical?

Hear, hear. Brilliantly put. Life purged of common sense becomes a very strange thing. Perhaps the web will enable partisans of common sense to redress the balance a bit? Or maybe I’m being optimistic.

Chesterton offered some brilliant thoughts on the matter in his 1935 essay “Sex and Property.” I have always found it fascinating that Chesterton explained his conversion to Rome as motivated in part on the Anglican Church’s capitulation on birth control.

From the log entry:

“The rationalized insanity of the present day is the result of a way of thinking that rejects common-sense understandings of the identity of things and views physics as the one true description of reality, so that concepts of the kind used in physics become the only ones rational enough to be really authoritative. […] Common-sense distinctions can’t be demonstrated with the universality and rigor of physics, so they’re prejudiced and irrational. Also, distinctions in physics—between an electron and a proton, for example—are total, eternal and always exactly the same, so it’s assumed that if you draw a distinction between men and women, or Americans and Frenchmen, you must mean something of that sort.”

Of course, there’s exactly the same problem of imprecision in physics, so on a fundamental level physics is no different in this regard from everyday life. When leftist sophists say things like “Define race!” as their only argument, all they’re doing is begging the question, since there are no precise definitions of anything the deeper you delve—not of a race, not of a tree, not of a rock, not of a baseball, not of an electron, not of anything. If “Define X, Y, or Z!” were a valid argument every argument would come screeching to a halt as soon as one side uttered that challenge. (Notice conservatives never utter that challenge to leftists during debates. It’s always the leftists who utter it to conservatives. Don’t fall for it, friends. It’s pure sophistry, amounting to nothing other than begging the question. When they trot it out, the proper answer is, “Let’s use the standard definitions and understandings.” If they protest that they can’t do that, leave—they’re just begging the question in what is a contest of opposing wills.)

Here’s a passage from “The Feynman Lectures on Physics,” ch. 12-1:

”[…] [T]he law _F = ma_ is not exactly true […]. The student may object, ‘I do not like this imprecision; I should like to have everything defined exactly. […]’

“If you insist upon a precise definition of force, you will never get it! First, because Newton’s Second Law is not exact, and second, because in order to understand physical laws you must understand that they are all some kind of approximation.

“Any simple idea is approximate; as an illustration, consider an object … what IS an object? Philosophers are always saying, ‘Well, just take a chair, for example.’ The moment they say that, you know that they do not know what they are talking about any more. What IS a chair? Well, a chair is a certain thing over there … certain? how certain? The atoms are evaporating from it from time to time—not many atoms, but a few—dirt falls on it and gets dissolved in the paint; so to define a chair precisely, to say which atoms are chair and which atoms are air, or which atoms are dirt, or which atoms are paint that belongs to the chair is impossible. So the mass of a chair can be defined only approximately. In the same way, to define the mass of a single object is impossible, because there are not any single, left-alone objects in the world—every object is a mixture of a lot of things, so we can deal with it only as a series of approximations and idealizations.

“The trick is the idealizations. To an excellent approximation of perhaps one part in ten to the tenth, the number of atoms in the chair does not change in a minute, and if we are not too precise we may idealize the chair as a definite thing; in the same way we shall learn about the characteristics of force, in an ideal fashion, if we are not too precise. One may be dissatisfied with the approximate view of nature that physics tries to obtain […], and may prefer a mathematical definition; but mathematical definitions can never work in the real world. […] When we try to isolate pieces of [the physical world], to talk about one mass, the wine and the glass [for example], how can we know which is which, when one dissolves in the other? […] [I]f we have a system of discourse about the real world, [it] must involve approximations of some kind.

“This system is quite unlike the case of mathematics, in which everything can be defined […]. In nature, however, when we draw a line or establish a line by using a light beam and a theodolite, as we do in surveying, are we measuring a line in the sense of Euclid? No, we are making an approximation; the cross hair has some width, but a geometrical line has no width […]. However, from an experimental standpoint, not a mathematical standpoint, we need to know whether the laws of Euclid apply to the kind of geometry that we use in measuring land; so we make a hypothesis that it does, and it works pretty well; but it is not precise, because our surveying lines are not really geometrical lines. […]

“In the same way, we cannot just call _F = ma_ a definition, deduce everything purely mathematically, and make mechanics a mathematical theory, when mechanics is a description of nature. By establishing suitable postulates it is always possible to make a system of mathematics, just as Euclid did, but we cannot make a mathematics of the world, because sooner or later we have to find out whether the axioms are valid for the objects of nature. Thus we immediately get involved with these complicated and ‘dirty’ objects of nature, but with approximations ever increasing in accuracy.”

(The late Professor Richard Feynman taught physics at Caltech, was widely revered as a thinker and teacher, and won the Nobel Prize for—if memory serves—his work in quantum electrodynamics.)

Correction: in my comment above, right before the excerpt from the Feynman Lectures, I wrote,

“If they protest that they can’t do that, leave—they’re just begging the question in what is a contest of opposing wills.)”

Make that, “…they’re just begging the question, turning the argument into a mere contest of opposing wills.”

The problem of materialism and ontological relativism, to which it seems you are referring, had its origins in fourteenth century nominalism and the rejection of scholastic realism. Nominalism is at the root of both modernist and post-modernist worldviews. It is predicated on the denial that the world has an essential, objective and epistemologically accessible structure. This view was enshrined in physics in the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physical phenomena. The appeal to common sense fails because what is common sense in a particular society, or historical period, is not so common in other societies or historical periods. Moral relativism, for example, is a widely shared belief in the West these days, but was abhorrent to Victorians. The solution is a return to Thomism and the restoration of classical realism.

Interestingly, speaking of the Copenhagen Interpretation, I was recently informed (through informal channels) that the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle has been violated. Both the position and momentum of an electron have been measured simultaneously - though indirectly - to a precision greater than the Planck limits. The trick was to measure the momentum of the electron itself and the position of an entangled positron, or something like that. So as long as we are willing to give up locality we are back to hidden variables (nonlocal ones) - no more collapsing wavefunction, say hello once more to Laplace. Weird.

Agree that the basic problem is nominalism (and that people like it because of the illusion that it empowers the will over and against nature). I’ve been beating that drum for a few years now in the comment boxes of gracious hosts like Mr. Kalb.

It seems to me that common sense is a permanent necessity. We don’t start or operate day-to-day with a fully articulate philosophy but mainly by habits, understandings and responses that we grow up with and that order the common life of those around us. Also, common sense doesn’t vary all that much. All cultures recognize property rights, marriage as a bond between man and woman for raising children, the distinction between one’s own and others, etc. And nobody’s a consistent relativist. Relativism is mostly a rhetorical ploy or an excuse for doing something that on some level is recognized as bad.

I agree of course that at least since the time of the sophists some sort of articulate philosophy has been necessary, to defend common sense if nothing else. And I have nothing against Thomism and classical realism. Thomas almost always seems to have things figured out better than anyone else, and we certainly need realism of some sort.

I also think it is both/and philosophy and common sense rather than either/or. Nobody can think every moment of his life through from first principles, nor would life be very livable if that were a requirement. On the other hand over time the common sense of a people reflects the underlying philosophy of the elites who shape it. So “modernism” is its own sort of peculiar common sense; a common sense that rejects common sense in favor of reasoning things out from first principles and that believes in a nominalist negotiation of language as a component of that reasoning-out. When Joe Shmoe acts based on a modernist understanding of things to him it is common sense that assertions of authority should be rationally justified, that traditional prejudices ought to be rejected automatically in favor of reason, that proper discourse involves negotiation of names for things that we agree on for the sake of convenience, that one understanding is not presumptively privileged over another, etc.

The basic modern conundrum for traditionalists is what to do when what passes for common sense has become uncommon and nonsensical. Common sense needs a philosophical comrade-at-arms in the form of some sort of philosophical realism that rejects nominalism. It need not even be as particular as scholasticism - I think it may be enough to reject nominalism in favor of realism, and that might be as much as we can expect rather than attempting to make Thomists of everyone. But the move has to be explicit.

One point that’s helpful on the modern conundrum Matt mentions is that no-one can get by—we can’t even speak coherently or comprehensibly—without tradition and common sense. So we don’t have to criticize and get people to abandon the whole of what passes for common sense today, we only have to point out that taken as a whole it makes no sense and bring out the aspects that are of permanent value because they make coherent fruitful thought and action possible.

Matt, I know what you mean about common sense seeming to have become uncommon and nonsensical. But we shouldn’t confuse common sense with popular opinion. It is better, I think, to understand it in the way Aquinas and the phenomenologists do: as the fundamental awareness of the reality in which we all find ourselves.

I disagree.
So called Enlightenment thinking and fetishism around the scientific method is important, but I would submit,not the prime culprit.
The division between sciences and the humanatise is understood and expected.

Charlie, I think once common sense becomes something other than what men generally think is reasonable without reflection it starts to be something other than common sense - and therein lies the major difficulty. I suppose what I am arguing (much as I generally detest arguments of this sort) is that common sense is the socially constructed view of the reality in which we all find ourselves. If I can say something in public and 90% of people will agree with me without reflection and laugh at those who disagree, then what I have said is common sense. Common sense is closely related to tradition, and the problem we face now is an entrenched tradition of rejecting tradition: an (at least partially) nonsensical common sense.

I agree with Mr. Kalb that that doesn’t imply some social tabula rasa. Indeed society would not function at all if a great deal of what passes for common sense did not correspond to the reality that transcends it. So it is safe to say that a good bit of what passes for common sense in any functioning society will reflect an awareness of that reality. But when something is common sense that usually means that objecting to it is literally laughable, and our civilization is busy laughing hysterically about the very things that will ultimately kill it.

Here here Mr. Alvarez! Nominalism is the culprit. Under nominalism, all definitions are the ‘average’ of collections of particulars. There is nothing ‘fixed’. There is nothing with an essential identity. It can be something else tomorrow, depending on the mysterious ‘averaging’ of the human experiences that are the particulars boiled into today’s “meaning” of the words that describe the thing.

This is at the root of the thinking that names for things are arbitrary human creations and not essential and fixed members of the identity of the thing so named.

Common sense, it seems, implies a wisdom accessible to all because it is fixed…it doesn’t change, and so it is said to be common. I think one of the correspondents here, in another thread said that ‘inasmuch as truth can be known…” going on to describe that science could never experiment on a large enough sample of ‘God evidence’ to state affirmatively that God exists. My sense was that any science that blinds itself to the ‘absolute’ and ‘fixed’ identity of its own rules soon will be lost in the cosmos, doubting the data presented to the human senses which will become ingredients in seeing, hearing, knowing. If its rules are the subjects of its own nominalist presuppositions, soon the rules will be lost.

At bottom, I think this a question about truth and about the nature of reason. One very fundamental move that one can make in one’s thinking is to assert that there is an objective truth independent of anyone’s thinking about it. That some things might be true even if no one believes that they are. This truth then serves as a measure or gauge of opinion, which can succeed or fail in grasping the truth. This is very different from the approach which takes truth as a personal or social construction, something we make for ourselves and which can only be judged in terms of its internal coherence or its effectiveness in satisfying our desires.

For Aquinas (and many others) reason is not merely a matter of logic. It is a matter of facing up to the truth, as it is revealed through experience, logic or grace.

The reality grasped by common sense is not a tabula rasa, or some inchoate mass of sense data, devoid of any meaning. It includes, among other things, the traditions which are the frequent subject of these pages. Jim’s catalog “we, they, friend, enemy, promise, favor, offense, man, woman, marriage, family” are all names of elements of this reality, and they have an existence independent of our intellectual theories about them.

Common sense is common because we are all in the same reality. The laws of logic and of science are the same for all of us, and these laws were true even before we discovered them. That is an important point: we are not given a complete and systematic understanding of the truth, we have to discover it. But this also means that our ideas about what is true can be in error. The truth is “fixed”, as Mr Jahnes puts it, although our opinions of it may be in flux.

One cause of error is when we ignore or refuse to perceive some aspect of the truth which is given to us. The most radical form of this refusal is the kind of philosophical anti-realism to which Matt refers.

The proper response, as Plato showed us long ago, is to remind people of what they already know to be true. To guide them out of their shadow-cave theories and back into reality.

(Even the range of things governed by natural law is something about which our ideas can change. One of the most fascinating things about Christopher Alexander’s work, for example, is the way he suggests that there are natural laws concerning the built environment and the kind of life it supports. His methodological use of something like Platonic remembrance is striking.)


Which of Alexander’s works make reference to this ‘natural law’ of the built environment?

A platonic remembrance related to architectural form is fascinating… does he have an extended discussion of how the universal form is accessed?

Alan Gowans in ‘Parallels in Universal History’ discusses how the emergence of forms used for specific symbolic uses…the dome for example used in society’s most exalted structures, appear in parallel societies over time…and used in a similar way, similar functions, similar institutions…He posits that a direction in history is discernable in the arts…history in art. Its fascinating…its as if a universal is accessed over time as technical skills marry with artistic vision to satisfy the need to appropriately symbolize the Source of those Universals.

Again, I’d appreciate it if you know of a reference where Alexander might discuss this in some more detail.

Carl Jahnes

Alexander’s “natural law” approach is implicit rather than explicit.

See vol 1, “The Phenomenon of Life”, in his new series for his methodological discussion. But I don’t want to mislead you: the parallels to Plato are implicit here too.

A fundamental error in conservative thinking is to hew to the shallow and to avoid at all costs any investigation of selective perception. Common sense is primarily common stupidity and ignorance. There are epistemological grounds for common sense as a bayesian prior but due to the incredibly shallow thought of the herd it is a very poor prior. The scientific method is based on something like a quasi-bayesianism but the psychological issue referred above is more interesting. Most people are scared chicken doody when it comes to anything like an honest confrontation with reality and retreat into simplistic jingoism, platitudes, and assorted other such garbage thought. A really good book that goes to the etiology of this behavior is Ernest Becker’s “Denial of Death”. Read it if you dare. I am so tired of chicken doody conservatives and their mewly whining.