Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Safely Dead

Reader Lawrence King wrote in a recent comment

I might compare it to the sociological difference between a religion (or quasi-religion like Marxism) that has a fixed canon, and a religion that has a living prophet. Adherents of the former tend to pore over texts and hyper-analyze them to learn the deep secrets of their faith, and to figure out how to apply ancient doctrines to new situations. Adherents of the latter rarely do that, since they can just ask the living prophet for new revelations any time they want.

I'd actually been thinking about this recently, due to the Stimulus.  Everyone is arguing over whether it's working (or can work, or will work).  But what I find even more intriguing is economists arguing over whether Keynes would agree that this is how to do the stimulus.

Keynes was an economist, not a god.  Unless you think he has some sort of otherworldy insight, does it really matter if this stimulus is properly Keynesian?  If he were alive, and said "you're doing it wrong," I wonder how much difference that would make.  You get the same sort of thing with Marx, just worse (as Larry notes).  Marxists constantly argue over what Marx really meant, as if truly understanding him will lead to the best economic solution.

In a religion, it's logically consistent (even if your religion is false) to pore over old texts to divine their meaning, since you may believe they contain otherwise unattainable wisdom.  On the other hand, in the hard sciences today, anyone who tried to prove something by citing Darwin or Lavoisier would be laughed at.  It's those in-between areas, like philosophy or economics or law where authority still seems to hold some weight.

Look at the Founding Fathers.  There's a huge political fight over what they believed, even regarding fairly specific issues today. This makes some sense because (whether or not you believe they were especially wise) they did write a Constitution which is the basis of our legal system.  On the other hand, general arguments about what sort of society the Founders wanted, and how relevant their wishes should be, are much trickier.  (Furthermore, if you believe the Founders set up a system where we could control our own destiny, then, in a paradoxical way, ignoring what they would have wanted could be following what they wanted.)

It occurs to me that a lot of movements (religious and otherwise) probably take off best once the founder is out of the picture.  There's nothing worse than trying to follow someone, only to have HIM, an unimpeachable authority, say you don't get it.  Once a guy is safely in the ground, then you can do what you want with his philosophy, bend it to whatever goals you have in mind.  (I wonder--has there ever been a religion/philosophy started by a guy that kept going, even though the guy himself rejected it while he was alive?  Maybe Wittgenstein.)


Anonymous Denver Guy said...

I wonder if scientologists delve the depths of the writings of L. Ron Hubbard?

8:27 AM, August 18, 2010  
Anonymous Lawrence King said...

Since Ayn Rand's death, Leonard Peikoff has run her institute as a religion. There was even a schism in the group when another guy insisted that Objectivism should develop beyond the canon that Rand wrote, and Peikoff insisted that the canon was closed. He issued an anathema that sounds a lot like a religious or Marxist excommunication: “If you grasp and accept the concept of ‘objectivity,’ in all its implications, then you accept Objectivism, you live by it and you revere Ayn Rand for defining it. If you fail fully to grasp and accept the concept, whether your failure is deliberate or otherwise, you eventually drift away from Ayn Rand’s orbit, or rewrite her viewpoint or turn openly into her enemy.”

5:46 PM, August 18, 2010  
Anonymous Lawrence King said...

Look at the Founding Fathers. There's a huge political fight over what they believed, even regarding fairly specific issues today.

Even more amusing, there are ongoing debates about their religious views. Many politically-conservative American Christians spend a lot of energy arguing that the Founding Fathers were Christians. Many others spend a lot of time arguing that the Founding Fathers were deists.

[My own view is that both sides are simplifying, since there were a lot of FF's. Adams and Jefferson were certainly not Trinitarian Christians, and Washington worked very hard to keep his views private, but many others were Christians. And then how to define "Christian" -- or even harder, "Deist", which wasn't a term that people actually used to answer the question "What religion are you?" back then?]

But the reason I find this so amusing is that there is one thing that the Founders would have been unanimous about: that the self-evidentness of human rights is in no way dependent on creed. (I think they were wrong, but that's another issue.) In other words, the most important thing about the FF's religious views -- Christian, Unitarian, or Deist -- was that they didn't consider their personal beliefs to be part of their public role.

5:53 PM, August 18, 2010  
Anonymous Lawrence King said...

I wonder if scientologists delve the depths of the writings of L. Ron Hubbard?

Hmm. Maybe there's a third kind of religion: one where the founder has died, but a small group of people have complete control of his secret writings. Hubbard's successors are sociologically similar to prophets, but they only speak in his name.

6:01 PM, August 18, 2010  
Blogger LAGuy said...

The trouble with Ayn Rand's philosophy (well, one problem) is it's not merely based on reason, but requires you to use this reason to come to certain conclusions. If you don't agree with these conclusions (even on aesthetic issues) you've simply made an error. Doesn't sound that reasonable to me.

While most people couldn't, and wouldn't want to, follow the hardcore Rand philosphy, she probably is one of the more influential philosphers of the 20th century. Millions have read her book and a decent percentage have been effected. Still, I know a number of big government liberals who love her fiction, so I guess the romance of the story gets to them.

6:26 PM, August 18, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry Ayn Rand is a cartoon to all except her true believers and we all know how reliable true believers are

1:48 PM, August 19, 2010  

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