North Western Winds

Contemplating it all from the great Pacific Northwest

Guarding the Taproot

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Russell Kirk’s Six Points Continued

Three. Conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription. “The wisdom of our ancestors” is one of the more important phrases in the writings of [Edmund] Burke; presumably Burke derived it from Richard Hooker. Conservatives sense that modern men are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, able to see further than our ancestors only because of the great stature of those who have preceded us in time. Therefore, conservatives very frequently emphasize the importance of “prescription” – that is, of things established by immemorial usage… There exist rights of which the chief sanction is their antiquity… similarly, our morals are prescriptive in great part. Conservatives argue that we are unlikely, we moderns, to make any brave new discoveries in politics or morals or taste. It is perilous to weigh every passing issue on the basis of private judgment and private rationality. “The individual is foolish but the species is wise,” Burke declared… the innovator, in [George] Santayana’s phrase, never knows how near to the taproot of the tree he is hacking.

There is a lot of good stuff here. Where to begin? How about with Linux? Now what does Linux – cutting edge operating system software – have to do with any of this, or with Kirk, who looks like he might have written all of his works with a number two pencil? The similarity is in the respect for a long standing distributed process that has produced something proven to be very capable for long periods and myriad circumstances. Linus Torvalds did much to get the ball rolling and from what I have read he has done really good work on it, but the sum total is greater than his or any other person’s contribution. I see a parallel in the Judeo Christian morals that western civilization was built on.

Even if you discount a divine hand in it, Judeo Christian ethics really are remarkable. Christianity, at 2,000 years old, is impressive enough. That it has survived that long at all is surprising and indicative of above average strength in penetrating the human condition. That is much older than Canada or the U.S., which are 200 years old (give or take), and also older than any European civilization you care to name. If we then look at the Old Testament, which we inherit from the Jews, we have to tack on another 4,000 years. That is a long development process, one that we might be inclined to say has eliminated most of the bugs. One could also say that nothing man made could ever have survived – and thrived! – for such a long period of time, and that such strength and depth are evidence of a divine hand.

Conservatives, regardless of how they approach the question of Christian ethics, as a skeptic or a believer, see such an old and successful entity as something that has to be respected. They – rightly, IMHO – think it is extraordinary unlikely that any one person or group could create anything better from scratch. Yet that is what the French Revolutionaries attempted; they even tried to create a new calendar starting in year one of what they called the “age of reason.” History is full of such projects, and some were done under the name of “authentic” Chrisitianity.

Some might argue that mere survival is no proof of anything, especially since ancient people had many superstitions that we can be pretty certain are false. I’ll grant that survival is only an inductive proof, but inductive proofs are not useless (there’s no getting away from them, in fact) and the series in question is so long that a conclusion that correctly flows from it would be pretty solid. But can we rely on what ancient people tell us? They got their astronomy messed up, and much else besides. That is all very true. But one has to understand that they were not stupid, and we are not brilliant. We stand at the end of a longer chain of development. It is easier for us to make astronomical discoveries because we had knowledge of telescopes handed on to us, and many other inventions that have freed up our time.

There is no tool, however, that would enable us to better understand human nature and human dynamics. Medicine and psychology are helpful – they help us to understand some of the constraints that we work under. Consciousness remains a mystery, however, and it is not clear how it could be established that a brain state corresponds to a particular thought or motive. In other words, when it comes to understanding our nature and our group dynamics, we are only a little better off than ancient peoples. The existence of other people as agents like ourselves is something that we still have to take on faith. This is a very large problem for utopians and radicals of all kinds and it goes a long way to explaining why such schemes have such a terrible failure rate. Your Communist, Socialist, Facist, Utopian is building from zero (or close to it) and doing it in a fishtank, more or less. Even worse, they typically blame their failure on Christian societies which they then set out to attack or dismantle from the inside.

Another objection can be made, and that is that simply because Judeo Christian ethics have a good history of describing human nature and society, there is no reason a better methods cannot be found. That is some truth to that, and no conservative or Christian should deny it. What they would say is that an entirely new creation is extraordinarily unlikely, but that new insights are always possible – that God’s revelation to his people is ongoing.

It might also be said that through science we can and ought to pursue an objective, descriptive summary of what we are and how we ought to live. There are many objections that can be made here. First, this is a misunderstanding of science. To do proper science, one needs to be able to tightly control variables. We can’t come up with a science of global warming because we cannot determine what inputs are natural and what are man made. A model is not the same thing as an experiment. If that is the case, then it would be impossible to do a complete science of human behavior for the same reasons. And if it was possible, then human behavior would be purely determined, none of us would have any freedom and designing a human ethics would be a pointless exercise.

Secondly, even if we were able to create a scientific descritiption of humanity, there is still the problem of deriving an “ought” from an “is.” That dilemma is known as Hume’s fork, and it either shows that not all knowledge comes from reason, or that there is no such thing as morality. Conservatives would answer is the only first choice is a reasonable one and hence the greater willingness to accept wisdom handed down. We may not know why something works, but we sense that it does, or it would not have been handed down for any great length of time.


Written by Curt

January 26, 2005 at 8:19 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. I really enjoyed the content on your blog about telescopes will be back very frequently! I actually have my own telescopes exposed blog with all kinds of stuff in it. You�re welcome to com by


    October 7, 2005 at 1:10 am

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