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Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps?: Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard Edition


Why do the Weekly Standard's writers work so hard to persuade me that they lack both intelligence and honor? I mean, they work really hard to do so--and they do so quite effectively.

Let's back up, and start with one of my favorite readings from Thomas Nagel (2012), Mind and Cosmos:

If I decide, when the sun rises on my right, that I must be driving north instead of south, it is because I recognize that my belief that I am driving south is inconsistent with that observation [that the sun is rising on my right], together with what I know about the direction of rotation of the earth. I abandon the belief because I recognize that it couldn’t be true…. If I oppose the abolition of the inheritance tax, it is because I recognize that the design of property rights should be sensitive not only to autonomy but also to fairness…. I operate in the space of reasons. The appearance of reason… seems… something radically emergent…. Like consciousness, reason is inseparable from the physical life of organisms that have it…. It was originally a biological evolutionary process…. This, then, is what a theory of everything has to explain… the emergence from a lifeless universe of reproducing organisms… greater and greater functional complexity… consciousness… [and] the development of consciousness into an instrument of transcendence that can grasp objective reality and objective value.

I claim that Thomas Nagel's mind is not an instrument of transcendence grasping objective reality and objective value. I claim that, as Thomas Nagel claims to transcendentally grasp objective value when he concludes that there should be an inheritance tax, he is wrong. I claim that, as Thomas Nagel claims to transcendentally grasp objective reality when he concludes that if he is facing south the rising sun must be on his left, he is wrong.

As evidence for his wrongness, I point out that I once was facing south and saw the sun rising in front of me: in the south. True story. During northern hemisphere winter, a plane flying over the pole from Europe to America can exit the earth's shadow at a point where the sun is due south, thus the sun can rise in the south, and it did.

I was, I admit, terrified when it happened: I thought something had gone badly wrong with the airplane (which was supposed, at that time, to be going south)….

Then I went on to even more implausible speculations….

But I was wrong: I was going south.

My reasoning--which Nagel holds out as an example of how my consciousness is an instrument of transcendence that can grasp objective reality--was nothing of the sort. Rather than an instrument of transcendence that can grasp objective reality, my reason was then a flawed and faulty (and, in this case) wrong set of Humean heuristics running on jumped-up monkey wetware.

That Nagel could make this mistake in classifying what our reason is doing when it sees the sun rising in a direction it thinks is not-east is, I think, a powerful piece of evidence that Thomas Nagel's reason is not an instrument of transcendence grasping objective reality, but rather--like mine--a flawed and faulty set of Humean heuristics running on jumped-up monkey wetware.

This seems to me to be a pretty convincing argument contra Nagel. He claims that human reason is an instrument of transcendence grasping objective reality. He provides one example of it doing so. And I have direct and personal knowledge from my own life that that is not what my reason, at least, is doing.

Game, set, and match.

Now comes Andrew Ferguson to "add" to the debate:

The Heretic | The Weekly Standard: Almost before the ink was dry on Nagel’s book the UC Berkeley economist and prominent blogger Brad DeLong could be found gathering the straw and wood for the ritual burning. DeLong is a great believer in neo-Darwinism. He has coined the popular term “jumped-up monkeys” to describe our species. (Monkeys because we’re descended from primates; jumped-up because evolution has customized us with the ability to reason and the big brains that go with it.) 

DeLong was particularly offended by Nagel’s conviction that reason allows us to “grasp objective reality.” A good materialist doesn’t believe in objective reality, certainly not in the traditional sense…

Does this sound as if Andrew Ferguson read and understood a single word that I wrote? (Rhetorical question. Answer: no.)

Shannon Stimson and Jeff Weintraub beat it into me when I was eighteen that the first duty of critique is to begin by presenting the argument you are critiquing in a form in which the author would recognize it. Has Andrew Ferguson even tried to do that? (Rhetorical question. Answer: no.) Did nobody teach him dialectics--anybody's, Plato's, Aquinas's--of any form? (Rhetorical question. Answer: no.) Does he understand the elementary rules of discourse ethics? (Rhetorical question. Answer: no.)

What does Ferguson say? This:

“Thomas Nagel is not smarter than we are,” he wrote, responding to a reviewer who praised Nagel’s intelligence. “In fact, he seems to me to be distinctly dumber than anybody who is running even an eight-bit virtual David Hume on his wetware.” (What he means is, anybody who’s read the work of David Hume, the father of modern materialism.)

DeLong’s readers gathered to jeer as the faggots were placed around the stake.  “Thomas Nagel is of absolutely no importance on this subject,” wrote one. “He’s a self-contradictory idiot,” opined another. Some made simple appeals to authority and left it at that: “Haven’t these guys ever heard of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett?” The hearts of still others were broken at seeing a man of Nagel’s eminence sink so low. “It is sad that Nagel, whom my friends and I thought back in the 1960’s could leap over tall buildings with a single bound, has tripped over the Bible and fallen on his face. Very sad.”

Is Ferguson's argument really "DeLong's argument is wrong because his weblog commenters are not insufficiently polite"? (Rhetorical question. Answer: yes.)

What is the formal Latin rhetorical term for this level of argument that Ferguson has adopted?

And do Ferguson and his bosses at the Weekly Standard really want to endorse Nagel's claim that his conclusion that there ought to be an inheritance tax is an example of his reason transcendently grasping objective value? Would any right-wing intellectual whose reason does transcendently grasp objective reality do so?