Hard Hearts, Soft Brains

Political commentator George F. Will makes an important observation in a recent Washington Post op ed piece.  Reflecting on the recent revelations that scientists manipulated the empirical  data in order to bolster their argument of man-made climate change, Will writes:

Consider the sociology of science, the push and pull of interests, incentives, appetites and passions. Governments’ attempts to manipulate Earth’s temperature now comprise one of the world’s largest industries. Tens of billions of dollars are being dispensed, as by the U.S. Energy Department, which has suddenly become, in effect, a huge venture capital operation, speculating in green technologies. Political, commercial, academic and journalistic prestige and advancement can be contingent on not disrupting the (postulated) consensus that is propelling the gigantic and fabulously lucrative industry of combating global warming.

Copenhagen is the culmination of the post-Kyoto maneuvering by people determined to fix the world’s climate by breaking the world’s — especially America’s — population to the saddle of ever-more-minute supervision by governments. But Copenhagen also is prologue for the 2010 climate change summit in Mexico City, which will be planet Earth’s last chance, until the next one.

It is easy to forget that contemporary science depends both on proper experimental method and the virtue of scientists.    While in one sense the scientific method helps us transcend some aspects of human subjectivity–personality, social class and gender come quickly to mind–in another sense (as the Climategate scandal illustrates) it emphasizes other aspects.  Technological expertise is not sufficient; trustworthy science requires trustworthy scientists.  And not only does it demand virtues such as truthfulness on the part of researchers.  There is also a need for a human community that is also committed to a life of intellectual and moral virtue.  Absent such personal and share virtue, science becomes–as Will suggests above–another means of exerting the power.

In Orthodoxy, G. K Cheterton writes that “There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped. That is the ultimate evil against which all religious authority was aimed. It only appears at the end of decadent ages like our own.”  He continues by identifying the thought that stops thought, pragmatism.

This bald summary of the thought-destroying forces of our time would not be complete without some reference to pragmatism; for though I have here used and should everywhere defend the pragmatist method as a preliminary guide to truth, there is an extreme application of it which involves the absence of all truth whatever. My meaning can be put shortly thus. I agree with the pragmatists that apparent objective truth is not the whole matter; that there is an authoritative need to believe the things that are necessary to the human mind. But I say that one of those necessities precisely is a belief in objective truth. The pragmatist tells a man to think what he must think and never mind the Absolute. But precisely one of the things that he must think is the Absolute. This philosophy, indeed, is a kind of verbal paradox. Pragmatism is a matter of human needs; and one of the first of human needs is to be something more than a pragmatist. Extreme pragmatism is just as inhuman as the determinism it so powerfully attacks. The determinist (who, to do him justice, does not pretend to be a human being) makes nonsense of the human sense of actual choice. The pragmatist, who professes to be specially human, makes nonsense of the human sense of actual fact.

Not only scientists but all of us are tempted (as Chesterton suggests) to pragmatism, to simply dispensing with objective facts when doing so advances our agenda at the moment.   Pragmatism submits truth to human will; it is my desire that must be served not truth.

But whether I bend the truth to my will for reason of science or religion is, in the end, of no consequence.   My will, precisely as mine, is self-defeating.  Again, Chesterton, “Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense every act is an act of self-sacrifice.”   But having demand that truth submit to will, we have lost the love of truth and so we have lost that which makes self-sacrifice meaningful–the truth.  Truth highlights for me the limitations of my thinking and my willing; without these limitations I am not more than myself nor even less than myself.  Rather without limitations it becomes meaningless even to speak about human identity.

The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits. You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature. You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes. Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump: you may be freeing him from being a camel. Do not go about as a demagogue, encouraging triangles to break out of the prison of their three sides. If a triangle breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a lamentable end. Somebody wrote a work called “The Loves of the Triangles”; I never read it, but I am sure that if triangles ever were loved, they were loved for being triangular. This is certainly the case with all artistic creation, which is in some ways the most decisive example of pure will. The artist loves his limitations: they constitute the thing he is doing. The painter is glad that the canvas is flat. The sculptor is glad that the clay is colourless.

What is now under assault in our culture–and again this is true whether that culture claims to be religious or secular–is an appreciation, a wholesome gratitude, for human limitations.  And having lost our love of limits, we have lost our love for each other.  But “Thinking in isolation and with pride ends in being an idiot. Every man who will not have softening of the heart must at last have softening of the brain.”  Our brains are soft because our hearts are hard.

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