Tag Archives: Rationalism

Living Cooperatively in a World of Values Pluralism


One of the core ideas of Isaiah Berlin is the concept of “values pluralism.” Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) was one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century. A fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, he was the author of many books, including Against the Current, The Roots of Romanticism, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, and the Hedgehog and the Fox.

By “values pluralism” Berlin meant that open societies are characterized by different value constellations that are in competition and conflict with each other, and that not all human values can be fully realized and integrated at any given time and place in a single culture. Choices must be made between them within the body-politic, and so there is an “agonic” element in the struggle to realize multiple values. Four examples he gives of competing and divergent values include liberty and equality, spontaneity and security, happiness and knowledge, mercy and justice.

Certainly when any of these values is made exclusive and absolute an ideological monism results, and that monism enters into lethal conflict with opposing values. We see this in the ideological extremes of our American political landscape today between the right-wing libertarian Tea Party Movement and the left-wing communitarian Occupy Movement. Both sides share in common a sense of being alienated independent outsiders to the forces of concentrated institutional power. The right-wing distrusts the public sector of state power, while the left-wing distrusts the private sector of corporate power. But they also diverge sharply from each other in fundamental ways. There is a vast chasm between the right-wing ideals of an independent warrior culture and the left-wing ideals of an independent artisan culture. The difference is as great as between the values of ancient Sparta and Athens. They co-mingle no better than oil and water, which is to say not at all.

However, it also needs to be said that not all cultural values necessarily need to be made absolute, ideological, dogmatic and totalizing. Rather, they can come to live in a dialectical tension, a perpetual “push-pull” that, while agonic at times, may also create a more dynamic and adaptive, pluralistic and pragmatic society.

In his book, Culture and Organizations: Software of the Mind: International Cooperation and its Importance for Survival, Geert Hofstede outlines a set of core cultural value polarities that can enter into lethal conflict but that if moderated and qualified can live together in dialectical tension. Those value dualities include excellence and equality, the individual and the collective, assertiveness and modesty, certitude and ambiguity, short-term goals and long-term goals. Values exist within a large complex that includes rituals, heroes, symbols, and traditions, all of which are subsumed under practices. As children we learn our values not so much consciously and explicitly as unconsciously and implicitly. As Hofstede puts it, “Values are broad tendencies to prefer contain states of affairs over others. Values are feelings with an arrow to it: they have a plus and a minus died. They deal with good vs. evil, dirty vs. clean, ugly vs. beautiful, natural vs. natural, abnormal vs. normal, paradoxical vs. logical, irrational vs. rational.”

Closed ideological and totalitarian societies, whether religious or secular, tend to set up a values monism in which only one set of values is allowed freedom of expression, while opposing and counter-balancing values are viewed evil, regressive, perverse and false. Open, inclusive pluralistic societies allow divergent and counter-balancing values to co-exist in a perpetual relationship of dynamic tension. In such societies everyone must make compromises because no one gets everything they want. When the irreducible differences in visions, values, beliefs and practices significantly outweigh the commonalities, those societies fall into lethal conflict and civil war. When the exclusive values and interests of the few, usually the rich and powerful, eclipse the values and interests of the many, usually the poor and oppressed, than that society will begin to collapse into violence and anarchy. We see this today in numerous countries, including Iraq and Syria.

An absolutely dualistic “winner-takes-all” approach to values will always produce a conflict orientated individual or culture. For example, if one regards the various temperament types as either good or bad, right or wrong, then one must set up a conflict between such polarities as Introversion and Extraversion, Intuition and Sensation, Feeling and Thinking, Perception and Judgment. The mentality is, “If you are of an “opposite” temperament type from me then you are creepy, alien, strange, weird. Indeed, you are probably the Enemy.”

The same polarizing drama plays out in various areas of life. In higher education it plays out in the polarizing attitudes that often characterize those who are exclusively committed to the study of the sciences or the arts, philosophy or literature, sociology or psychology, history and mythology. Temperamental preferences become idealized and hardened into competing kinds of intelligence, as competing epistemological methods, and even as competing metaphysical assumptions.

It is in the realms of metaphysical assumptions that we see the full power of the polarizing human tendency played out. For some years now I’ve been fascinated to watch the competing worldviews of dualism, idealism, materialism and panpsychism play out their drama of competition and conflict. Each worldview tradition has established its own self-validating network of values, rituals, heroes, symbols, narrative, myths, metaphors and practices. Each demonizes and stereotypes the competing worldviews. A non-ideological ironic pragmatist, or for that matter a post-enlightenment romantic or existentialist might find each of these worldview visions and its associated values persuasive and appealing on its own terms, but falling short of anything like an absolute truth that excludes all other partial and qualified truth-claims. Rather, the pragmatic and pluralistic attitude will be, “We have met the enemy, and he/they may be partly right.”

The shift from a dualistic, polarizing absolute ideological approach to political philosophy would mean that the conservative and liberal, the libertarian and communitarian, or at least some of them, might be able to transcend their ideological dogma to the extent that they could see at least some value in the other social, economic and political camps. When narrow, dogmatic, sectarian ideologies run either the executive, judicial or legislative branches of government, the voices of passionate moderates and radical centrists, of principled pragmatists and consensus builders is silenced. Such a condition is toxic and destructive to an open democratic society.

Returning to Isaiah Berlin’s idea of value pluralism, it is not hard to recognize that different societies and cultures, like different individuals and families we meet, express their own unique sets of dominant values and practices. Some individuals and collectives prefer what I call the “left-brain” approach to life. They champion the values of rationality, logic, objectivity, detachment, the external third-person account of the world. They love math, science and technology. Other individuals and collectives prefer the “right-brain” approach to life. They champion the values of passion, paradox, subjectivity, participation, the internal first-person account of the world. They love music, art and literature. Many “left-brain” types are drawn to business, finance and politics, and to all things mechanical, strategic and military. “Right-brain” types are drawn the sensuous, aesthetic and ecstatic. The left-brain rational types seek the Stoic, Utilitarian, Productive, Quantitative, Dutiful and Heroic Life, while the right-brain types seek the Epicurean, Romantic, Creative, Qualitative, Desirous and Picturesque Life.

These are two casts of mind, two ways of life. This, then, is the society and world of value pluralism in which we live. Perhaps some values are complementary, while others are contradictory, and still others are so remote and dissimilar from each other as to be incommensurable. Whether we choose relate to different values as primarily complementary, competitive or incomparable is yet another tacit value commitment. My own temperamental preference is to follow the counsel of E.M. Forester wherever possible, who famously said, “Only connect.”


On Scientific Method Without “Reductive Scientism”

Multi-Functional Mind

Today there are many excellent introductions to the nature and methods of science available to read on the Web, and of course in textbooks. For our purposes it is sufficient to reference the beginning of the Wikipedia article on scientific method:

The scientific method is a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge.To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the scientific method as: “a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”

What, then, is “reductive scientism” as distinct from “scientific method?” Allow me once more to reference the Wikipedia article on that topic:

Scientism is a term used to refer to belief in the universal applicability of the scientific method and approach, and the view that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or most valuable part of human learning to the exclusion of other viewpoints. It has been defined as “the view that the characteristic inductive methods of the natural sciences are the only source of genuine factual knowledge and, in particular, that they alone can yield true knowledge about man and society.” An individual who subscribes to scientism is referred to as a scientismist. The term scientism frequently implies a critique of the more extreme expressions of logical positivism and has been used by social scientists such as Friedrich Hayek,philosophers of science such as Karl Popper, and philosophers such as Hilary Putnam and Tzvetan Todorov to describe the dogmatic endorsement of scientific methodology and the reduction of all knowledge to only that which is measurable. ‘Scientism’ has also been taken over as a name for the view that science is the only reliable source of knowledge by philosophers such as Alexander Rosenberg.

Scientism may refer to science applied “in excess”. The term scientism can apply in either of two senses:

  1. To indicate the improper usage of science or scientific claims. This usage applies equally in contexts where science might not apply,such as when the topic is perceived to be beyond the scope of scientific inquiry, and in contexts where there is insufficient empirical evidence to justify a scientific conclusion. It includes an excessive deference to claims made by scientists or an uncritical eagerness to accept any result described as scientific. In this case, the term is a counter argument to appeals to scientific authority.
  2. To refer to “the belief that the methods of natural science, or the categories and things recognized in natural science, form the only proper elements in any philosophical or other inquiry,” or that “science, and only science, describes the world as it is in itself, independent of perspective” with a concomitant “elimination of the psychological dimensions of experience.”

The term is also used by historians, philosophers, and cultural critics to highlight the possible dangers of lapses towards excessive reductionism in all fields of human knowledge.

Obviously one may have great appreciation and respect for “scientific method” without falling prey to the excesses of “scientism,” that is: (1) excessive deference to claims made by scientists and an uncritical eagerness to accept any result described as scientific; and (2) the belief that the methods of natural science, or the categories and things recognized in them, form the only proper elements in any philosophical or other inquiry;” or that “science, and only science, describes the world as it is in itself, independent of perspective” with a concomitant “elimination of the psychological dimensions of experience.”

My discussion of “tacit and explicit knowledge” in the last two blogs makes evident the tacit if not explicit presence of the philosophical, ethical, psychological and social dimensions of experience, regardless of whether one is engaging the humanities, arts, or sciences.  It has been a myth of modern scientism (not science as such) that empirical truth-claims presented as “scientific” are objectively true, and that measurable and quantifiable “explicit knowledge” eliminates the subjective and inter-subjective personal and cultural influence of the tacit dimension. Philosophers and scientists like Michael Polanyi have come to realize that this assumption is intellectually simplistic and naive. Even scientists are human beings first (with tacit assumptions, perceptions, judgment, beliefs, values and commitments) before they are scientists, during their scientific experiments, and after they are done with their scientific work. There is no way to entirely remove the tacit dimension. All knowledge is embodied human knowledge and human knowledge is not “value neutral.”

Like anyone who has long been interested in various scientific as well as philosophical, religious, historical, literary and artistic accounts of the world, I’ve encountered countless physical, natural, cognitive and social scientists who have set forth different Theories of Everything. Sometimes these “grand theorists” cross over quite unknowingly from scientific method to reductive scientism. Many popular theories within the physical, biological, cognitive and social sciences have have attempted to elevate themselves — through scientistic reductionism — to universal explanatory principles or Theories of Everything. These have included Neo-Darwinian survival of the fittest, Dawkins’s selfish genes, Freud’s projection theory, Jung’s archetype fixation, Marx’s class struggle, Feminist’s oppressive patriarchy, Skinner’s operant conditioning, physicist’s Quantum Everything, Santayana’s animal faith, and Frans de Waal’s animal empathy. There are countless others. As partial accounts of the world they may be useful. As totalizing accounts they become ideology. If reality is more than we know, and if what we know is always more than we can tell, and if what we can tell is what we can effectively communicate to the understanding of others, then we will recognize that there is always “a surplus of meaning” that our language never fully encompasses. We never communicate the “totality of reality,” without remainder.

Of course not all physical, natural, cognitive and social scientists present their questions, hypotheses, predictions, tests, analyses and conclusions as Theories of Everything, but only as partial and probably explanations with limited rather than universal extension. But the hubristic temptation is to assume that one has “finally discovered” the Rosetta Stone, is key to all knowledge and understanding of the fundamental nature of reality.

There are several aspects to reductionism. One involves explaining (or explaining away) all religious, philosophical, ethical, historical, literary, artistic and aesthetic phenomena as “really reducible to” sociological, psychological, biological, neurological, physiological and/or computational, algorithmic and mathematical. Another aspect of reductionism involves fierce competition between the various reductive scientistic explanations within physics, biology, anthropology, psychology, sociology and economics that have all generated multiple and competing Theories of Everything.

Each of these reductive scientistic theories plays the game of King of the Mountain, seeking to be the interpretative key to all fundamental phenomena. As one listens for years to the exaggerated and grandiose claims of these various  and competing grand theories it is not surprising that some people have developed a post-modern allergy and suspicion toward Grand Narratives and Theories of Everything, including those that claim the imprimatur of science, god of the modern age.

The shift from scientific method to reductive scientism coincides with the tacit or explicit adoption of a materialistic, physicalist, mechanistic and deterministic worldview, as if it were the only show in town. Those who adopt dualist, theist, realist-idealist, neutral monist and pan-psychist worldviews may also engage the scientific enterprise with rigor and intelligence but perceive the world differently.

The tacit/explicit (softer/harder, autopoietic/representational, participation/reification) model of Michael Polanyi and others offers a way to temper the polarizing impulses toward post-modern relativistic subjectivism and ironism on the one hand and modern scientistic objectivism and reductionism on the other.

What is needed today is a recovery of the wisdom of the middle way. What is needed is a “third culture” that mediates between the humanities and the arts on one side and the sciences and technologies on the other. We can have reason without hyper-rationalism, science without scientism, psychology without psychologism, economics without economism, ethics without moralism, spirituality without fundamentalism, history without historicism, literature without escapism, and art without effetism. Liberal arts and cultural literacy are not our problem. Our problem is entrenched ideologies and totalizing dogmas, and they are never more pernicious than when they mask their agendas behind one or more of the liberal arts, including the great and liberating human enterprise we call science.


The God-Question: What It’s Really All About


Today especially among “the new atheists” it has become fashionable to bash all faith and belief in God, whatever is meant by the word and symbol of “God.” It is usually the Judeo-Christian theistic God that is being attacked. We are told that faith and belief in God is silly, superstitious, antiquated, bad for society and harmful to your health.

It may be worthwhile to point out that the so-called “God Question” actually translates into several existential questions: “Does life have a meaning and purpose that death will not utterly destroy?” “Is there any hope of a new dimension of life beyond the grave?” “Do we live and die in vain?” The question of God is really the question of whether there is any realistic basis for existential meaning, purpose, values and hope in the face of the apparent meaninglessness and randomness of our births, lives and deaths in a strictly naturalistic and indifferent universe. It is to ask whether there is a viable alternative to the nihilism, absurdity, futility and despair that are the offspring of reductive, mechanistic, deterministic and materialistic naturalism. It is to ask whether there might be more to reality than that which is disclosed through the naturalistic method and implicit naturalistic worldview of scientific empiricism.

In literary terms, the “God Question” is asking whether there might be a transcendent alternative to the nihilistic view that is lyrically expressed in such words as: “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing;” “Life is just one damn thing after another;” “Life’s a bitch and then you die;” “God is dead and we have killed him;” “Hollow men, chestless men;” “The horror, the horror!” “The only sure foundation for the future of philosophy is one of unyielding despair.”

The God Question for most people translates into the existential and ethical questions as to whether life is supremely meaningful and grounded in enduring values, or whether it is finally pointless and meaningless in the face of death? Is there nothing that grounds our human quest for enduring meaning, values, purpose and hope that death will not utterly annihilate? Is life, after all, a foolish charade, a cruel joke, an insane asylum, a senseless farce? Does the human search for the recognition and realization of beauty, truth, justice, love, freedom, dignity, nobility and hope turn to dust and ashes in the oblivion of our personal death and species extinction? In such a pointless world what is the point of living? Is it only to know that Nature rides us like a machine and is indifferent to our existence?

Those who ironically find the supreme meaning in their lives by telling others that there is no enduring meaning to life ought to at least own up to what they are doing, which is crushing the life out of those who require some eternal meaning and transcendent hope as the necessary “oxygen for their souls” in order breathe freely and live boldly amidst the daunting challenges of our global age.

They ought to at least admit that they are fueling the fires of nihilism, absurdity, meaninglessness and despair among those who can only hear their words as the death not only of God but also of Man and of Meaning, Purpose, Values and Hope in a vast, indifferent universe that has no pre-vision, purpose and destiny for us except futile struggle and final extinction. They ought to admit that they are “liberating” humanity from the old god of religious transcendence in order to recruit “true believers”  of the new god of scientific reductionism.

But “scientism” cannot provide us with answers to the great religious, philosophical, existential and ethical questions, except to reduce the phenomena of Life, Sentience, Intelligence, Consciousness, Creativity, Compassion, Courage, Civility and Culture to the reductive vocabularies of mathematics, chemistry, physics and biology. Scientism fails as a new religion. It will never satisfy the human quest for meaning, purpose, transcendence and hope. It can only offer us a “philosophy of unyielding despair,” or else change the subject to the reductive explanations and quantitative measurements of math, physics, chemistry and biology, treating them at totalizing explanations of Reality while pretending that the profound ontological and existential questions no longer matter. The God question is really not about the word “God” at all. It is about “intimations” of “the ultimate, the infinite, the mysterious, the unknown, and the unseizable.” And it is about the perennial search for transcendent meaning, purpose, values and hope that death will not totally destroy. The word/symbol of “God” may come in and go out of fashion from time to time, but the real questions behind it will never die.