I don’t buy this relativism idea. I think there is a morality that is in some meaningful sense objectively true. However, I do not claim to already know what the perfect morality is. This is surely comparable to the good scientist, who believes that there is an objective world to investigate but does not claim to already know everything about it. Understanding is fuelled by doubt, not certainty.

Thus I accept that other people have different systems of morality from my own and I do not a priori assume that theirs is wrong where mine is correct. I can be convinced that my morality is flawed and someone else’s is superior. I admit that it does not happen often, for I am a stubborn git, but it can happen and it has happened in the past. I do not accept that all systems of morality are equivalent. That is the same as saying that there is no morality at all, which is as witless as solipsism.

I think it is important that people, in their personal lives and in their roles as part of a larger society, remember the importance of doubt. As soon as we are absolutely certain of something, so certain that nothing could change our minds, then we might as well just give up there and then.

Published in: on March 22, 2009 at 12:28 pm  Comments (1)  


It seems very arrogant to think that today we are right but for thousands of years other people got it wrong. Our ancestors were just as clever as us. So I sometimes find the scientific worldview, with its hyper-positivism, hard to swallow. It is only a few hundred years old, after all. Surely it is the epitome of modernism’s vainglorious conceit to suggest that our worldview is correct where that of all our ancestors for millennia past was wrong. And yet, science works.

I have a similar problem with politics and the correct ordering of society. I am inclined to be conservative, at least politically, but my attempts to elucidate and defend conservatism in some comments on McCabism soon left me in a bit of a muddle.

With the above in mind, I was really looking forward to reading A Comprehensible Universe. It is a book about the origins of science and rationality, from the Ancient Greeks to today. It is about the relationship between philosophy, religion and science; the central mystery being the mathematical nature of the world. The authors are Catholic priests who work for the Vatican Observatory. They thus combine a passion and talent for science with a sensitivity to religion and non-scientific worldviews. I hoped to find something here that would help me either to clearly comprehend the flaws in the positivist attitude or to understand how we got it right after thousands of years of clever people getting it wrong.

What I actually found was a very well written book that provides a fascinating overview of the development of modern thought, from the first Ionians who sought to use reason rather than myth to understand the world, through the fusion of Hellenistic philosophy with Semitic religion in early Christianity, to the birth of the scientific method in the 16th and 17th centuries. The authors do not dismiss the efforts of past philosophers, rather they demonstrate a developmental continuum from the earliest Greek rationalists to the most recent scientists. Seen in this way, with clear explanations of each stage and discussions of the merits and defects of different philosophies, the idea that recent modes of thought might be improvements on earlier modes of thought seems obvious rather than arrogant.

Published in: on March 3, 2009 at 4:34 pm  Comments (1)  

Big Deal

A lot of people seem to be comparing the current economic downturn to the Great Depression of the 1930s. The analogy is not yet accurate and I sincerely hope that it never becomes accurate. Most worryingly, they seem to think that the New Deal rescued the USA from recession and that we therefore need a “new New Deal” to save us now. This is worrying because it was the New Deal that caused much of the economic misery of the 1930s. Far from ending the recession, it initiated and prolonged it. In 1939, Henry Morganthau, FDR’s Treasury Secretary, said the following to Congressional Democrats:

We have tried spending money. We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work. And I have just one interest, and if I am wrong … somebody else can have my job. I want to see this country prosperous. I want to see people get a job. I want to see people get enough to eat. We have never made good on our promises … I say after eight years of this Administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started … And an enormous debt to boot!

Last November, Andrew Wilson attempted to pre-empt this misplaced nostalgia for FDR with his article Five Myths About the Great Depression. It didn’t work though: everyone’s back to Keynesian nonsense. Oh, well, at least itinerant spoon carving is a recession-proof industry…

Published in: on March 2, 2009 at 2:42 pm  Leave a Comment