145: Alex Priou - Technology, Progress and History

145: Alex Priou - Technology, Progress and History

In this episode we're joined by UC Boulder philosophy professor Alex Priou, and Russ Greene to discuss Technology, Progress and History.


William Jarvis 0:05

Hey folks, welcome to narratives. narratives is a podcast exploring the ways in which the world is better than in the past, the ways it is worse in the past, where it's a better, more definite vision of the future. I'm your host, William Jarvis. And I want to thank you for taking the time out of your day to listen to this episode. I hope you enjoy it. You can find show notes, transcripts and videos at narratives

Will Jarvis 0:37

Well, Alex, how are you doing this afternoon?

Unknown Speaker 0:39

I'm doing great. How you doing? I'm

Will Jarvis 0:40

doing great. Thank you so much for joining us tonight today. Do you mind giving us a brief bio and some of the big ideas you're interested in?

Alex 0:49

Yeah. Well, right now I teach at the University of Colorado Boulder in a program called the herps program for engineering, ethics and society, basically teaching humanities to engineers. The person who endowed our program deemed them to inhumane or inhuman one or the other. And, you know, prior to that I was sort of in academic wasteland popping from job to job, you know, trying to find something more secure. I've been here for about three years. I did my graduate work at Tulane University. For that I was at St. John's College, I did an MA there and I was at the University of Connecticut and before that I did a BA in Political Science. My PhD is in philosophy, but I work on Plato and the history of political philosophy. A lot of my work is concentrated on Plato in relation to pre Socratic philosophy and poetry I've written on Homer, Hesiod, Heraclitus, pro amenities. And I've wrote a book on Plato's prayer amenities. And I've got a book coming out soon on Plato's trilogy on the question of science or knowledge, the Sophists statesman and the Titas. And, but I've been sort of branching out a bit and doing some some other things, more modern things a little bit lately, just as my interests have changed.

Will Jarvis 2:11

Got it. Got it. I want to talk a little bit first about, you know, progress and knowledge of the future, and how conceptions of that have changed over time. Can you talk a little bit about how Plato viewed, you know, the concept of the future and knowledge and how that might be surprised in the kind of modern day people?

Speaker 3 2:28

Yeah, so it's, it's, we tend to think of science as progressive, right. And, and it's easy to see that as a distinctively modern concept. But there is a kind of progressivism in Plato, but it's not social or political. And the reason for that is that the sort of social and political sphere of the political community is ultimately governed by an wisdom, right or irrationality, to say nothing of necessity, it putting impositions on the ability of a community to deliberate well about things, right. So there's this sort of intractable fundamental opposition to Good thinking, right? To put it most simply, nevertheless, there is a kind of progress that an individual can undergo, provided they have the right circumstances, they can sit and think and learn more and become wiser, hopefully, and, and make some progress in wisdom. The distinctively modern notion of progress, which is what we typically mean by progress is social or political, as well as scientific project is what we know as a community. That's a distinctively modern idea. As far as a natural science, it certainly has a root in bacon, and Descartes. I think, in a way it as a political matter, it goes back to Machiavelli, Machiavelli often looks like a guy who's just trying to revive sort of Roman excellence or Roman virtue, but it's contrived, right? It's through your own sort of social engineering right. Now, just to put it that way, I think you automatically have a kind of bias against Plato and the ancients, right? Because well, we have progress, haven't we, right, we're largely more peaceful, we know quite a bit more, we live longer. So that seems to be a good case against him. On the one hand, on the other hand, it's not clear that the average individual knows more, right? The average individual has more sophisticated opinions and gives more sophisticated explanations, even when they don't really know what they're talking about, right? Think of the way that evolution for example, or my evolution or whatever, it's used in a very sort of haphazard and it's often used as an exponent explanatory tool, without going through the scientific method, right. And there's millions of examples of these. So it's not clear that the average individual is any smarter though. They certainly have the trappings of intelligence and they feel very good about themselves. Yeah. contest regard. I think the the the area in which we're certainly at a disadvantage is that we're often unable or unaware of how to deal with those problems, right? So we live in an era now of fake news, right? And an era of of, you know, pseudoscience, right or or, you know, the overreach of scientists, right trying to, to sort of lay claim to greater and greater authority. I don't think I think because we're so used to thinking of science in an empirical manner and progressive manner. And things just keep getting better and better and better. We're not well prepared to think about the obstacles, right to a scientific society, and possibly the deepest thinker on these obstacles are these ancients who were not inclined to make science a sort of social progress, social project of progressive science, who rather inclined to a kind of traditionalism or conservatism in the laws, right? Be careful about changing the laws, if people get too used to this, right, then everything will be out, right, you need to have a certain reverence and habituation and you have to be accustomed to it. And so the ancients, if they did view science as progressive, it was on the individual level, right. And they thought very deeply about this, as I think we'll get into a little later, but that would be the primary distinction between them as far as the concept of progress is concerned. And I think, as should already be aware, it should already be evident. I'm very much biased towards played on these on these grounds, right, I think he's well, more aware of, of the problem, our problems, our political and social problems, than any modern thinker, really, was precisely because they were so concerned with founding this world, not with criticizing the I'm talking about early modern thinkers here. So I,

Will Jarvis 6:58

I'm curious, is it something where, you know, as we build up knowledge over time, like just the pile of things, you can no just get so big, that if you have to start deferring to experts at some point, whereas if you're in the time of Plato, you know, calculus has not been invented. So there's no way like, you know, a high school student at the time, could, you know, get to this point where they could, you know, do differential equations and all these different things. Does that make sense?

Speaker 3 7:25

Yeah, I mean, we have a kind of a luxury today, I mean, we, you can subsidize the freedom needed. I mean, almost everybody goes to college, whether through loans or their parents, or they go to a, you know, a free, you know, community college or something like that. They, they have a kind of subsidize leisure, you know, the ancients were very clear about this, right? You need to have leisure, that's the first goal in life. And that means getting out of necessity. And then the question is, what do you do with your leisure, and the highest end of leisure is, is to learn, right? And obviously, you're living in a very, you know, archaic time, by which I mean, not, you know, old, right, it's old, and there's slavery, and there's all sorts of constraints, we don't have the benefits, you know, the freedom that you can have, so you can go and you can be born dirt poor, get into college, get a bunch of student loans, you know, major in, in philosophy and spend those four years go on to grad school and, and accrue even more debt. And then you can, you know, after 15 years of this, or whatever, you can go out and not get a job, and then then you gotta pay, you know, then then you're gonna get unless, you know, you know, there's sort of student loan forgiveness, but you're basically screwed at that point. But that was not even an option before, you know, speaking personally. You know, in grad school, I knew there was always a possibility. And for many years, it looked like an inevitability, right? Not getting a job. And, but still, you have those years, you have that time. So there's, there's certain sort of, you didn't have the time, but I think it goes more fundamental than that, right, which is that there is in the world, in nature itself, if you want to put it in the strongest possible terms. Nature itself resists this kind of this kind of activity, right? Necessity gets in the way, not just with death, but you got to pay the bills, right? You got to you got to somehow find a way and if you're rich, great if you don't need much, also great, right, but if you, you know, need certain comforts, and you also you're going to have to work for a living, you're going to have to spend your time doing that right. Now, the modern response to this was like, You think that's nature? Now, I'm going to overcome this, right? And that's where science and technology has been remarkably successful. They've taken care of a lot of these creature comforts and automation and machines and all sorts of of obstacles are out of the way and we can to a greater degree, afford that kind of freedom, right? And when you look at something like look at what Marx is arguing, and you know, he's he's showing you that if you do this right you could, you could actually have all your necessities taken care of, and live whatever life you want, you should have been a bit more pushy should be a philosopher all the time, maybe. But there is that this is to say nothing of the fact that for Plato, for many ancient and medieval thinkers, it's not even clear that every person is fit for this kind of life, right, which is yet another natural obstacle, not just the fact that society's in the way, but also maybe you're not well suited for it. Right. That's another sort of consideration that the moderns who are more inclined to view all human beings on much more equal terms or are going to push against right. Makes a lot of sense. I'm not sure that answers your question. But there's some thoughts.

Unknown Speaker 10:41

Absolutely. Russ, did you want to jump in there?

Russ Greene 10:44

Yeah. I was just thinking about what Alex said in terms of how the modern individual might not know much more. And I think in part that you could break that down into two ways. What first would be the modern citizen, in many ways, is not expected to understand science, but simply to follow it. Right? That, you know, you're told that if you're not a scientific expert, you aren't even supposed to, quote unquote, do your own research, right, you're supposed to pretty much just take it at face value, what they're telling you. And that goes, even to the point that even if you're a scientist in one field, people will tell you stay in your lane, like you shouldn't be taking that knowledge to another that statistical or technical knowledge to another field, and a pining on that, right. So they'll police the borders there. But then even if you take it to the point of you know, okay, we're talking about scientists within a single field, the progress of modern science depends to a large extent on faith, essentially, faith that the work of other people in your field is valid, that they haven't just made it up. But, you know, now we're starting to learn, you know, with the replication crisis and, and scientific misconduct, that, you know, oftentimes that faith is not warranted. So, you know, I, while it's certainly true, therefore, that, you know, science has enabled us to live longer lives, and certainly richer lives. You know, it's a very interesting point that when it comes to maybe the progress of human knowledge on an individual level, we're actually not doing very well, as might be immediately obvious, from perusing social media.

Speaker 3 12:41

I mean, absolutely. I mean, there's a number of things I just want to jump on, right there. And I mean, well, one, the faith thing is obviously an issue. Right? But the the biggest faith, right, is the faith that, that whatever it is we develop is going to be good. Right? And that's, that's highly questionable. I mean, especially now, you know, maybe, you know, a generation or so ago, when, like, iPhones were coming out, like, you know, 10 years ago, 15 years ago, people were just wow, this is amazing. And now you look at it, and all that you hear about is is addiction to technology, right? And social media is it was supposed to be this great democratic thing. It was a little too democratic, it turns out and and it's gotten, you know, turned into a cesspool, right. This is the this is where I think the real faith comes out. And it's, it's, it's really kind of shocking when you really think about it, right? When you look at a thinker like Hobbes, for example, right? And Locke, they're saying, Look, Steve nature was such that you wanted to leave it, right? You wanted to make your future better. And so it's to a certain extent, human life and human industry is devoted to constantly improving technologically and then financial, and so on and so forth. And now, what's the ideal? What's the end goal? If you're thinking in terms of progress, the end goal has to be unknowable, right? If you can know the end goal, right, if you could have that, you just have some sort of absolute standard, and we can, you know, talk about certain immediate goals, right? Like, oh, it'd be nice if we could, you know, be less reliant on fossil fuels for XYZ reason or whatever it is, but you have no idea whether what that's going to bring to you right, if science can be finishable, right? If science is always progressing, then you you never have that kind of absolute certainty, right, resting at the end. Now, when you really wrap your head around that faith, right, that that scientific progress will lead to greater happiness. That's really shocking. And it's it's really, I mean, you're you're essentially saying you're going blind, right into a world in which you'll be increasingly more reliant on technologies and uncertain on uncertain you know, systems that Do you have no idea if that could be good? Right? So one example I like to use is I think it was just last winter, there was that cold snap that went through Texas, right? And the power grid went down. And most new houses don't have fireplaces anymore. So what would you have done in Texas? If suddenly the temperature dropped like that? You'd be like, hey, it's getting pretty cool. Let's get some firewood, put on your jacket, oh, we're running out of firewood, go get some more. What happens when the heating system goes down? Right? I mean, old people die, right? You, you're, you're completely because you're dependent on that. So you lose in self reliance and virtue, but you also become much, much more susceptible. Right. And so there's, there's quite a trade off here, right? The world in which you live with nature as only somewhat beneficent, right, and somewhat antagonistic, and you just kind of live knowing that and you prepare for those contingencies, versus the world in which you fight, a sort of inimical nature. And therefore you develop these systems that you can rely on. And then they shut down and you have nothing, right, you lack, you have no sort of sort of anything to rely on. A great example of this is from Plato's law case, the beginning of the dialogue. These fathers go to these generals law case and Nikias. And they say, Hey, we saw this guy who's got this newfangled weapon, this new technological weapon, right. And, and it's great. He did this display, we're wondering, would this be good to make our sons courageous because our fathers were courageous, and we're not. And we want to make sure our sons are better than us. And we don't screw up like our parents did. And what happens lacaze tells us so he's like, Yeah, I saw that guy in war. And what happened is, is he's doing his display, the ship went by his crazy, you know, barbed weapon got stuck in the netting of the ship, and he was pulling him and he wouldn't let go. He kept holding on because he knew if he lost this, he'd be screwed, ready to have nothing. He didn't know how to fight as a man as a naked man to man. Right, which is what fighting ultimately ends up. But he was relying on that that sort of technology. Right. And that, that that's in a way, the position we're in right now. Right, which is, I don't know how to farm. Do you know how to farm? Well, Ross? No, I mean, I don't know how to farm if everything goes to hell. I mean, I've thought about this, I'm gonna have to go raid some of the corn fields, cannibalism is an option. I mean, there's not much you can do. Right? And that's because we've convinced ourselves it's better to rely on those systems specialized scientifically, that's a massive faith, and what have you given up for that faith and for that comfort, you've given up on your own individual excellence, your own individual self reliance, right. And that's, that's a, that's only going to get worse, it's only going to get worse, because all we do is keep making it more sophisticated, less comprehensible by the individual, and making us turning us into more, you know, pasty, pale in it, unable to do anything, because everything has been sort of outsourced to technology.

Will Jarvis 18:02

Isn't, it almost sounds to me, though, at some level, what you're talking about is a failure of progress in that since the 1970s, you know, like this, this slow decay of state capacity of the ability of us as a society to do things and build things, well, has created these conditions where suddenly we have to worry about these things. Like it's something it almost seems like, you know, the state of a world where Texas can't keep the power on it's not the same government that built the map, you know, the Manhattan Project and the Apollo program at some level. So, I don't know if he talked about the tension a little bit, it almost seems to me like part of the problem is, is because technological progress has slowed at some level outside of these narrow boxes, like the iPhone and things you mentioned earlier. That does force us to it's some level of prayer for a world that makes us go backwards makes us have to know how to be self sustaining, and, you know, farm ourselves and things like that.

Speaker 3 18:58

I mean, the big shift in this I would go a little earlier is really World War One, right? It's, it's a war that was prepared for as though it were like one of these old fashioned wars, and it was just like, a meat grinder of just bombs and shelling and, and gas. I mean, it's, it's frightening when you read this stuff. And it's, you know, I mean, I would even say, you know, great the Manhattan Project, were we were all sort of, you know, that it was, you know, or NASA or early NASA, right, as another example, people that, you know, this is moments of ingenuity and relay, yeah. But, you know, there's a certain there's a certain psychological tick that wants to go that makes a person want to go to Mars, right. You know, there's a certain you know, reluctance to put your own citizens lives online, your own children's lives online that makes you want a nuclear weapon or drones right. Um, this all speaks to a desire to escape these unnecessary constraints. And so, I mean, when you're talking about progress, scientific progress, it's not enough to just progress scientifically and to know more to be capable of more, you also have to know how to use it well, right. And in addition, it's not clear that that that mindset is altogether healthy, right? As I've portrayed it, going back to Hobbes and Locke, right, this is a desire to escape the natural world. Is that is that as a fundamental human drive a healthy drive, like to feel utterly not at home in the world so that you try to escape it? I mean, there's a reason that this stuff started in Christian Europe, right? It's a kind of desire, you read bacon, right? It's a desire for heaven on earth, right? That that's a very otherworldly escapist desire, except the Promised Land is, you know, or the, you know, habit is not to be found in the afterlife, but in this world in the future in progress, right. So, I mean, there's not much you can do about this, you can't like get rid of this project. And that would be to be insensitive to the real benefits it's brought. But it doesn't mean that it's, it's a constant struggle with every generation, to remind oneself, that this is not a fully human life, right? This is not a fully, you know, happy flourishing human life, right. But it requires attending to certain other parts of your soul than the one that wants life to be easier, more comfortable longer, and all that right, that wants consequences, and in sort of real, strong, higher level goals than these low level common goals.

Russ Greene 21:41

That's an interesting, that's an interesting point, you just made that, you know, even though we must acknowledge the benefits of modernity, you know, we should remain aware that it's somehow not a real human life. So I want to, I want to ask you some questions about that, because, you know, I could see an argument from the other side that basically, you know, this is the culmination of the most human things, right? We reach modernity, through, you know, this desire to conquer nature to use and develop tools, right, so the, the economic side of man, and then also through, you know, the, the military and political side of, you know, competition between states, forcing us to develop better weapons and new forms political organization. So, in some ways, this is the culmination or the fulfillment of human nature. And even as you know, we see new technologies like social media, it's not like we're learning new things about, about humans that we didn't know, before, you know, like that they, you know, they like being cruel to each other, for example, like, we already knew that, right. So in some ways, this is like the most human possible time or the most consistent possible time with human nature.

Speaker 3 23:01

Yeah, I mean, maybe one way of putting what you're saying is, is that, you know, there's there's two ways to view the modern turn, right? Was it the sort of human being finally coming into their own right? Was man finally coming into his own? Or was it rather a sort of lowering? And this is a difficult thing? Because, right, this incredible reliance on your own powers is a massive centering of man at the center of the world, right, and nature as a kind of obstacle. And, and, and moving God out of the out of out to the periphery? If not, you know, giving him the put all together, right, in in terms of your specific premises of the project. And that's, this is a difficult question to forge. I mean, I'm inclined to think that while it did center, the human being right, it completely erased any question about whether there are any sort of superhuman standards, right, you know, in throwing out God and making man the center, it also throws out nature, right. And this is the difficulty, right? So, this is so you know, you have as part of the air of the ancient tradition is the medieval tradition, right, which is deeply bound up with religion, and, you know, the, you know, the rule of philosophers and Plato gives way to the rule of priests if the medieval era, and this is, in a way a problem, right? So, that's one way to sort of solve this question. And when you go back to the ancients, you see that they knew what, you know, science and technology could do there all sorts of allusions to this and Plato and Aristotle, but they were still reluctant about it. And they saw that that there are there's nature provides us with an array of human beings or at least different ends or goals, and that there's this kind of heterogeneity in these ends, and we need to be sensitive to these in political life. Right. One of the ways to think about this is in terms of Aristotle's ethics, the three peaks to virtue of Aristotle's ethics what is justice, which is sort of equally accessible to all human beings. Another is greatness of soul or magnanimity, which is this sort of Crown of the virtues, right? It takes, you've got everything, if you've got that you got courage, you've got, you know, this idea. And then there's the intellectual virtues, which are both practical and theoretical. And so you might have a knowing statesman as one ideal, and then a philosopher, you know, complete philosopher, somebody who like theories, but really, you know, think about somebody like Socrates there. And one way to think about what modernity did was, less so in Machiavelli, but increasingly, when you look at people like Hobbes and Locke, is to take those two higher, higher goals and throw them out the window, right greatness of soul and theoretical virtue, and focus on human equality and unmaking human beings, you know, all satisfied in the ways in which we are equal the necessities and, and one that comfort. And if we could make politics do that, it would be far more easy. One way to think about it is in terms of a kind of reductionist physics, right? If you can reduce everything to atoms, right, then you've got something really easy to work with, right, as opposed to looking at a tree, and then looking at a fox and saying, I don't know what I mean, these are just different things, right? If you can reduce them, same thing. And then you're working with genetics and stuff, you've got something to work with, right? Politically, they did the same thing. And, again, remarkably powerful, right, you can build whole systems of government that are, you know, that work here that were there that that are remarkably sort of adaptable to different times in places, but deeply unsatisfying. That's that's the difficulty is you got rid of the high, and you made it work for a lot of people. And you made people sort of content are complacent at best, but maybe also really unsatisfied. And this is, I think, a real problem. When you look at people looking to social media to vent and you look at people looking, picking a fight somewhere, or, you know, they're really struggling trying to find within this world that provides so much for them, the thing that it doesn't provide, right, which is a sense of meaning and purpose. And that was thrown out with the by this particular understanding of nature as a kind of enemy. And it was thrown out when you got rid of religion, right? Or you subordinated religion to sort of more utilitarian ends. So, yeah, man's at the center, but man's far less attractive than he used to be.

Will Jarvis 27:35

What do you think has caused this, this loss of meaning? You mentioned a couple of things there. But can you talk a little bit about that more? Is it truly just the story about the decline of religion and belief in a higher power? Or is it something else that's going on? Or just like lack of struggle or something like that?

Speaker 3 27:50

Yeah, I mean, so maybe just to put this in a in, in a, it might be a lack of struggle, I think courage is obviously the virtue that gives you most immediate meaning, because it has the most on the line, right? You you stand to die. And so people look for things to really fight for. And so this is why you see, you know, you know, for example, during the pandemic, right, it's no secret, right? You're the reason that the Black Lives Matter, in part stuff really took off, all of a sudden, that moment is because people were trapped inside, they were living like scared little animals, right. And there was something there out there worth fighting for. And the frustration, and I think the sense of a lack of real endeavor led to this outburst of a longing for a just cause worth fighting for. And that's where you see some of the excesses there. Right. Some of the, you know, it was mostly peaceful, as we all know, but right the, the the rioting, the burning the tearing down statues, they wanted something that they could fight for. When we don't attend to those sorts of things, and we don't we don't give that an outlet. It becomes unpredictable. Right? And then so then, all right, what's the cause? I think it's, it's the sort of hands on relativistic liberalism. Right? Remarkably neutral, right? And that neutrality for a while, you don't really notice it, because there's a kind of common culture, right? Some would say it's, oh, well, we were a Christian, you know, European nation. Some will say, Oh, is white supremacist. However you interpret that culture, it was more monolithic right then than it is now, as that neutrality is as worn down. And as you know, you bring in different populations, because you are open, right? You end up with this lack of any kind of purpose. And that starts to affect how we understand that neutrality because you can't be neutral and tolerant of everything, right. And so a lot of issues end up coming down to these culture clashes and it's as a result of our political mismanagement, right, a failure of common vision, but rather an ever increasing push for greater and greater neutrality. As a result of that. You see Both Sides Now, deeply unsatisfied with the neutrality, right? One side says no, you've gone too far with throwing out our tradition with calling everything racist. But the other side says, No, you've gone too far with free speech with freedom of expression, right? Certain things. People need to be just persona non grata anymore. And that's, that's all of a sudden illiberalism arises on both the left and the right, precisely by an inability to, you can say judiciously manage our freedoms, right? And be aware and make the case for a kind of common culture. This is what we're living with now, as a result of this political system being managed poorly by those in power.

Russ Greene 30:44

Yeah, that. I mean, it's, it's undeniable, right to you can point to so many statistics that, you know, suicides in general have been up for 20 or so years, especially among teens. You know, as we've discussed before, on the show, you know, obesity is way up over the past 50 years, and male labor participation has been trending downwards. So, you know, you can point to some real trends here. But, you know, I do want to push back on this idea of meaning in religion, because I don't feel like just because I live in a modern liberal society, that I can't have faith, you know, I go to church every Sunday, I, you know, I'm an active member of my church. You know, I, just because I live in the United States of America, doesn't mean I can't believe in God. Right. And, you know, even from the point of view, like beyond faith, you know, you can still find meaning in your local community, you know, whether it's the people you work with, or your neighbors or your friends, I don't see why we should all be looking to our national politics, right, for meaning or for answers, or to tell us what a religion should

Speaker 3 32:02

know. And I don't, I don't, we should, we should be careful not to equate, you know, what we're referring to as a kind of common culture with religion, obviously, religion is the age old source of this unifying, you know, unified thing. And to a certain extent, that might be what what might be actually necessary, right. And the I mean, you know, when you start talking about these questions, you start realizing, you start running into some pretty radical positions, right? I mean, you could easily find yourself maybe as an integral is right, if you're, if you're Catholic, and dancing around these questions, right, or, you know, you could go full, full Aristotle and say, well, we need it, you know, interesting, you know, it's really difficult. And I'm not sure, you know, look, I'd be, you know, I'd be the greatest statesman of all time, if I could solve this problem, you know, intellectually, it's, it's, it's theoretically, you can point to the issue to practically Sorry, I have no idea. Right. But I mean, I would say that, you know, it's, it's great, you can find outlet in your smaller communities. But, you know, that liberal neutrality, right, increasingly, increasingly has asserted more and more sort of hegemonic force. Right? When it was just a matter of the federal government being kind of hands off, and then the states sort of manage their own affairs. Fine, but that's not what's happened. Right. I mean, just to looking at the history of the courts, what is the court done? It is it is increasingly forced, of more and more morally neutral standard, right, to the point that people are forced on a smaller level to regulate their lives and to think and act right in accordance with these these sort of these principles of neutrality, these leave liberal principles, right. And that's, that's where it seems like maybe one way to think about that is that sort of liberal neutrality is ultimately not neutral. Right? It demands acquiescing, right, it demands that now requires on one moment of thinking of it requires supplementation, right? It's, it's neutral, and therefore you need something else among yourselves. On the one hand, on the other hand, the neutrality looks at whatever you put in there and pushes back against it right, insofar as it has a bearing on your soul. So, you know, this is, you know, you talk about, you know, finding meaning in your community. I mean, look at some of the decayed forms of religiosity, right in this country. I mean, I hear people spout some crazy religious views by which I don't mean extreme views, but remarkably defamed and, and sort of, I mean, it's just, it's just religion through a liberal it's liberalism with a religious lens on it, right. It, you know, you know, they have a cross, right, but nothing of what they do is it's really much to do with the church, right, or, I mean, the greatest caricature of this is like Unitarianism and then This goes hand in hand, I think we're sort of, you know, reactionary forms of religion, right? Where you see people adopting it almost as a kind of, you know, social movement or rebellion and not out of any sort of intrinsic sort of attachment to this related, you know, the religion, whatever religion they're practicing. So, I mean, on the one hand, I do agree with you, you can do that. On the other hand, there's every pressure not to write every pressure to to force you to hide your religious views, because you, you're running, you know, afoul of the reigning orthodoxy, and therefore, a sort of enforced, you know, kind of wishy, washy Enos to your religion, that makes sense. Do you

Will Jarvis 35:48

think there is an alternative to, you know, liberalism, like a, you know, to speak at the future that that is, like, more charismatic or compelling at some level? Is there some way? Or are we forced to, you know, like, just abandon it in the over the long term?

Speaker 3 36:04

I have no idea. I'm not, I'm not one of these. I think some people think this, but I'm not one of these anti liberal thinkers, I just think you have to, you have to be deeply critical of it. Otherwise, it's going, you're gonna end up where we are, right? I mean, it's, it's only by being critical of the reigning orthodoxy, right, that you're gonna have some kind of healthy alternative to it. Otherwise, you go too far, right. And you, you end up just sort of, you know, especially when you have a very flexible society like ours, right, where the laws are constantly changing, and people are, are brought up to fight for something, right? You have to fight for your bit of progress, right? Well, what happens when, what happens when things are pretty good, right? I mean, things are pretty good. Right? We have great comfort, and, you know, you know, my criticisms earlier, so we have great comfort and things that are pretty good. Why the house everybody is so up in arms all the time. And you know, there are there are problems, not to say that there are problems, but there's a real lack of historical awareness of how things used to be in this country to see nothing in human history, right, the massive expenditures of life the way that disease used to really ravaged us. I mean, it's, you've untold of opportunities to pursue your you know, happiness as you understand it, and we don't do it, right. And so there's, there's a, when you have that kind of that motivation to find something to change, if nothing readily prevents it presents itself, you're gonna you're gonna go after it, right, and you're gonna go try to find it, and that needs to be somehow tempered. Right. I mean, you know, I personally think that, you know, the civil rights era, which was such an important time in this country for actual progress, like real social progress. One of the negative after effects of that is that, you know, the court thinks that it ought to be ahead of the game on everything, just because of Brown v. Board of Education, but we did it right down. Let's do it again. And that's how you got, you know, roe and Grizzle. All these these court cases that never really sort of stopped being an issue, right? We have somehow gotten ourselves into this habit that we need to find new civil rights issues, new sort of frontiers, but we don't really know what they are anymore. And so what you often see is the same. I'm sure you guys are uses the same repeated fight the same repeated persecuted claims of persecution and oppression, even as untold of acceptance and untold, you know, unprecedented acceptance, unprecedented support for the political sphere unprecedent support from, like, corporate America, as everything gets more and more supporting you. You hear people speak as though it's, they've never been worse, right? And why? Because they need progress, right? That's an insidious cause of unhappiness, a failure to appreciate the good before you because you're always looking towards the the, you know, unachieved good of the future. Not a healthy way to live, right.

Russ Greene 39:00

You mentioned a couple times, you know, the integralis and the anti liberals, you know, and it's interesting that you're distinguishing carefully your position from theirs. I, I've noticed that there's a tendency in both defenders of liberalism, and the anti liberals to sort of paint it as if it's this one single tradition, and, you know, grouping together sort of the rationalists, like John Stuart Mill, or Kant, you know, with people who had a much more nuanced perspective on liberalism and human nature, such as, you know, Adam Smith, David Hume, Alexis de Tocqueville, you know, for example, so, or even Friedrich Hayek I would put in that boat, so, you know, maybe, maybe, you know, part of, you know, taking a more skeptical look at liberalism, you know, also would involve, you know, going back to some of these figures who themselves were liberals, but also at the same time had a more nuanced view of modernity and progress.

Speaker 3 40:08

Yeah, I think that's, that's absolutely the case. I mean, it's, it's me, you, you have to be these are, these are dangerous times there's obviously a crisis, and you need to think about it, right? But the stakes are incredibly high, right? I mean, you know, I see this with, like, for instance, Patrick Guineans book, right, a lot of interesting good points about liberalism. It's wholly negative, nothing positive. That's an irresponsible way to write, in my opinion, right. And not to say that Dineen is not an irresponsible person in his own thinking, but, you know, he has influenced this book was was very, very popular, it's, you know, it's, you know, made the rounds. And, but, you know, now part of this has to do with, to go with, like the Catholic sort of critics of liberalism, you know, they have in mind a pretty clear sense of the good, that's being lost, right? And it's a good that comes through Holy Scripture, right. And that's not something you can really fully argue for. Right? You can make the case for it to a certain extent, but it's a matter of faith. Right. And so I can see their reluctance. I think, you know, revisiting the history of political philosophy, creating great sympathy for people like mill, right? I mean, mill tries, in many ways to create a hybrid between, you could say, Aristotle and utilitarianism, right, where you look at, you know, he has a, he's a trying to adapt to kind of soccer to them to, you know, progress and on liberty, you know, it doesn't work and the defects are interesting. But there is an attempt to sort of restore it to say nothing of figures like Rousseau, but you know, a lot of these people will look at research and say, well, he's just like a proto communist communist or something, which is a gross misunderstanding of a man who's thought you can learn quite a bit from in what he sees as the degrading effects of early modern, modern thought, you know, a failure to do that, right, is is a failure to live up to the crisis that your present day faces you with, you know, and, and that requires an extra labor on your part. I mean, if I can just, I'll put a somewhat personal note here. I mean, my interest in these questions, really, you know, began I mean, I was mostly interested in sort of ancient thought, from the perspective of reason and revelation, a lot of that had to do with the fact that, you know, the, you know, Strauss's thought, and particularly strawsons, thought, in particular, seemed like a remarkably helpful way of understanding what happened on 911. Right, why, you know, radical Islamic thinkers could look at the modern world and say, No, right, and trying to understand the point that they had, right, what they were appealing to, and fine, and then, you know, you get, you know, the Bush years, the Obama years, then you get Trump, right, and, and then all of a sudden, you're facing a different issue, right? And you start to realize that these these questions, you have to go start looking into this history, because you're not going to understand it otherwise, right? You're not going to be able to, I think, as far as liberalism is concerned, it's very difficult for us to look at somebody like, you know, Osama bin Laden and say, well, we just say he's a zealot. That's it. Right? Why can't he be more tolerant? Right, that's a wholly inadequate understanding of, of what exactly he has in mind. You had in mind, you know, when he did, what he did, right, or what other sort of reactionary Islamic thinkers like say he could talk, right? When you look at him, and then you start digging in the history of it, you can see all sorts of interesting debates, right? Going back to, you know, a guy I consider kind of proto crypto, which is, you know, og Ghazali, and a various their debates and what's going on there. I mean, you realize they're actually real questions here that you need to, if you're even going to remain a conscientious liberal, right, that you need to somewhat take seriously if you're going to be thinking about these things, right. And not every person can think about it, right. But this these are where these ideas are turned into policies or are turned into the way that we envision our task and a failure to do that is a failure to confront these these moments.

Russ Greene 44:23

Yeah, I'm glad you mentioned the role of Islamic philosophy here, because I think that this is one of the big one of the biggest weaknesses of modern defenders of liberalism, broadly understood, is they tend to exclusively identify it with modern Western Europe, you know, usually referring to like Western civilization, right and thorough reasons for that. But what that really overlooks is this, you know, this deeper history of it was actually like what we think of as Western civilization was actually a product of an interaction between multiple different civilizations the Islamic world obviously, not just el Ghazali, and Eman, brushed, you know, every row is, but you know, out of Cena, even called Dune, you know, there are so many thinkers from that period, both in science and in philosophy, who were immensely influential in the development of the West afterwards. And if we ignore that tradition and just make it seem like this is Oh, yeah, this is all just stuff that some white guys in Europe came up with about 300 years ago, I did nothing. And it's great, and we have to keep doing it, you're actually feeding into the criticism of liberalism, right? Because the criticism of liberalism is that it's Eurocentric, and it's, you know, all of that might work for some, you know, like, European white guys, but for everyone else, it's a disaster. So, ignorance of this history and ignorance of these thinkers is actually probably one of the biggest weaknesses that liberalism now has.

Speaker 3 46:06

Yeah, I mean, it's precisely the faith and progress that makes you say, I don't need a look at these old books, right? Well, how old 2500 years? I mean, we 50 years ago, I mean, we didn't even know about computers and things like that, like, How stupid are these guys? Right? So you don't even think about it? Right? But I mean, so I take the great example here, I think is is Spinoza. Right? If you go to Spinoza. In a way, I'm going to just steal stress his own inquiries from the 20s into the 30s and 40s. But you look at Spinoza, he founded the freedom to philosophize on the basis of liberal democracy, that was his sort of task. And this was a completely different approach to the freedom to philosophy, then you find in my mind at ease, and if you go to my Monday's, he's looking back and you go back to vero, he's right, he's securing again, the freedom to philosophize, but on religious grounds over and against the criticisms of people like Al Ghazali, calling him a crypt calling, you know, is is for runners, a crypto Muslim and going back to Ferrari. And you start, you start pulling this thread and you realize, oh, we have a particular approach to a basic problem, which is how do you secure the freedom to think, right, and the freedom to reflect on your own? Good, we've made it a political and social project, and that has come with certain problems, right? I don't think the chief one of them being right, that we all automatically vulgar arrives, anything that's an actual scientific achievement, and that has its own sort of effects. For, you know, pre modern thinkers, right, the attempt was to secure it over and against the resistance of religion. And while you didn't get the vulgarization, you obviously got the overly religious interpretation of philosophy and of science, right? And you also got this, this extreme reaction to any kind of free thinking, right? Or any kind of open questioning, right? I mean, now that your point about, you know, dead white man's thing, right? I mean, this is where when you really trace the tradition back to its roots in Socrates, it's, it's, I think it's absolutely properly understood, it's almost impossible to overcome the Socratic position, precisely because it consists of almost nothing but open questioning, right? Yeah, there are certain objections you can raise. But the idea that this tradition is monolithic, is a mistake, right? Because it's precisely at its core, it's composed of this desire to fundamentally question our opinions. Right? And, and so there's, it's very hard to think of a tradition more all encompassing, more all embracing, you know, than the West has been, right. That's why, you know, the dialogues of Plato find themselves find themselves in the Middle East, and you get a renaissance, right. I mean, this is, this is what happens when you take books like these and thinking like this, it'll have this effect. As long as it can be read, it'll have this effect anywhere.

Russ Greene 49:08

As long as they can be read, and as long as people read it, right. Like, now, we have this paradox, where we have so much media, and like people are just entirely occupying themselves with I don't know, tick tock videos, and, you know, it's like every single second you spend doing something like that, and I'm as guilty as anyone, like, you could be, you could have been reading Xenophon. Right. Doing something much better with you. Right, and yeah, I

Speaker 3 49:35

mean, no, I have, I'm just, I'm just changing offices, and I just put all my Greek books and I always talk about this how, you know, you have these manuscripts they used to have to be copied by hand or now printed and you can buy them anywhere and you can get them in almost any you know, you know, library they they're gonna have something and you can even get the original sources carefully edited and everything they're available. Nobody wants it. Nobody knows I don't know, statistically do more people want it now than before. I have no idea. But I mean, it's it's so readily available. And yet everything our culture is pushing, as you said, like towards tick tock, right? You know, so maybe I should just start, like, you know, a tick tock is one of the reasons I like I like Twitter. I mean, I find that if I go on Twitter, I can have an actual conversation, I could put out a quote, put out a thought, you can inject a little bit of thinking into this incredibly volatile medium and meet people talk with them. And same thing with you know, the podcasts I do, you know, there's, you just, there's a way that you can connect to people, small group, but they're out there, right, and you can use these media. Otherwise, it's just only degrading, right? And only, only a negative influence.

Will Jarvis 50:52

I want to I want to talk a little bit in the last couple of months about Strauss, actually, I will understand from you, what do you find interesting about Leo Strauss, it's to me the fact that I get this idea that okay, and I'm not as well read as you are by any stretch. But I get this idea from Strauss that, okay, when we go back and read these books, we have to understand that everyone writes under a certain set of social conditions. They've got their own Overton window to deal with, and there's certain things that can't talk about. And so we should try and extrapolate out from there. And you know, even in recording this podcast, like, I know, this is true, there's certain things that you don't talk about, or you can't quite cover, things like that, because of the Overton window you exist in. But my question is, is what do you do with that? Like I this is an interesting point. And I think this is a this is a good thing to recognize, but But what is one supposed to do with that when you have that kind of knowledge?

Speaker 3 51:43

Well, I think I think, also to make it sort of simple. So there's a kind of there's a, there's a social constraint, right? You're not allowed to say certain things, obviously. But there's also I think, for Strawson, almost sort of natural constraint, which is that it's not clear that you can solve these questions simply, right? Now, that's he makes a number of remarks, I spent all summer working on this. And he makes a number of really interesting remarks about, you know, the basic presuppositions or his hypothesis is sort of hypothetical basis to his own activity. And it is, you know, there's a lot of talk about the riddle of being or the mystery of the whole, or, you know, fundamental problems, and you have to kind of figure out how these different ideas are operating in his text rhetorically and philosophically, but I'll just to put it simply, I think for Strauss, he understood that modern progress had made us insensitive to certain fundamental questions or problems, right. And it's made us have absolute faith that we can devise solutions. And this Well, it's great, and it's optimistic on a certain level, you have to believe you can solve a question to try to actually understand it, right, you have to take the solution seriously as possible solutions when you read different philosophers, or you study different ways of life. On the one hand, on the other hand, the humility that comes with understanding something of these great thinkers, they're really good reasons for writing the way they did for proposing the ideas, the fact that they're what they taught, and what they thought are on different levels. It has a deeply moderating effect, right? And not just philosophically as an individual. But I think he thought also, politically, I think this is one of the reasons he pushed back against liberalism. And one of the reasons he, he pushed for this, these questions, these, this idea of fundamental problems, right are fundamental questions, or certain solutions that are co evil, and they can't be sort of resolved is that he understood that if this could take some kind of Route in academia, it might not take over the whole thing. But it might create a sort of healthy skepticism about what we can know and what knowledge can accomplish. And that would be a benefit, not just for. For your own growing, it could be a benefit for the regime and for the West. More generally, what if I could just go on to one point, this is something I wanted to talk about along the way. But I think, obviously, there's these questions. And so rich, we went in all different directions. The fund, one of the fundamental texts that I've actually relied on quite a bit is this discussion in the theatres of trying to know your own good. And, and this is over the gift, a relativistic argument. You know, that Protagoras? Socrates is reviving this, but sort of Protagoras and argument against your ability, this sort of relativistic argument that well, what's good for you, and what's good for me, it's a matter of, no, it's not just a matter of what appears to you. There are there's a difference between apparent goods and real goods. And you know this from experience, because you tell yourself, it's going to be a great idea for me to do this. And it turns out the sock right of this movie is going to be great, and you're completely disappointed. There's an experiential now The difficulty here is that when Socrates goes to try to establish knowledge of the good, I don't know, that's, that's difficult, you can know it negatively through mistakes. If that, as a hypothesis, just put it out, if the way you know you're good is through mistakes. And right now we are pursuing the good of knowledge without any kind of right, we're relying on it to go back to the sort of systemic idea that we've been talking about. We're relying on systems, right, they're informing our lives and our actions, right. And we're unreflectively going after them. There's a lot of mistakes to be made, right. And this is where I like to look at Descartes here or bacon as a similar idea. But the idea that you should understand the world as wax that can be formed, right, that can have attributes added to it. That's a remarkable analogy, a really powerful analogy for human creativity and the ability to form our future. This is progress, right? It's ours to be shaped. Well, it doesn't take long of Googling, like plastic surgery disasters, to see what kind of, you know, attempts to shape our own reality, what kind of, you know, horrors that can give birth to, to the I say nothing of the horrors of the soul and the horrors of the body or human life being sort of formed, and in this way, and so taking seriously that there might be some kind of standard, right, or natural sort of standard by which to judge something as good or bad, right? Or just, and that standard might be something as stand alone, as all we know is that we make mistakes, that kind of humility, knowing that you might not know more than that will make us way more judicious in how we pursue science and technology and how we pursue progress.

Will Jarvis 56:43

And ask for humility. That's good. That's really good. Rest of the last questions for Alex.

Russ Greene 56:48

Yeah, I actually wanted to answer your your question too, because I have my own little take on it, which is that I don't, I don't even I'm not convinced that it's actually even possible, at least for a beginner to read, Plato, or Aristotle, or people like that without sort of a straussian. Understanding. Because if you start to read Plato, the first thing you notice is he says things that seem or you know, Socrates, for example, might say things that are obviously we know, now know, to be wrong, or he contradicts himself. Right? And if you come into it, like I did with the mindset of, you know, you know, for my professional career, I'm always looking for flaws and people's arguments, right? And exploiting them. So so then I, you know, I immediately read, and I think, Oh, I caught you, Plato, you know, like, I'm smarter than you what an idiot you are, you know, and it's a closest to your mind to the idea that maybe he has something to teach you. Right? So it's only if you come into it with the awareness and the openness that it's possible that there's a rhetorical purpose, or that it's possible that there's a reason for this contradiction or a reason that he overlooked this obvious counter argument. It's only once you come into it with that, that understanding or that least that possibility in your mind that you can really appreciate these authors. So when I actually entirely found Alex's work in the Strauss, Ian's in general by accident, because I was just reading Plato and Aristotle and trying to understand them. And it turns out if you if you look for commentators from Plato and Aristotle, it's inevitable, you're going to run into the Strauss. Ian's right, and, you know, they they really improve my ability to read and enjoy these texts. So that's my understanding. The purpose of straw.

Speaker 3 58:38

Yeah, and I think, yeah, I mean, the Strauss is sort of basic hermeneutical observation is like, Look, we all know these books have contradictions, right? Certain things don't make sense, right? You got two choices here. Either Plato was like just a straight up moron at certain points, or there's some deliberate and now with Plato, it's great because you have the whole dramatic setting. And then also Socrates, you'll certainly Kenny meanness and then he'll say, like a page later, like, yeah, the only thing I mean, is this really, right? And then the rest is whatever, like, this is good for you. You start to realize, oh, wow, everything is really key chain qualify. You know, Strauss is I think most persuasive with Plato, precisely because of the dramatic stuff. I mean, his his readings of like my Mondays and Spinoza really rubbed people the wrong way. So certain people for that other reason, right, but he I think he's just kind of in a way pragmatics like, come on, you know, and if you read other other commentators who are not salesy, at some point, they will all admit it. They though a little point like, Well, I think he just said this, because of whatever like Descartes, I really think he believed, come on. Right. Like he's obviously conservator, you know, and so you have, you start to realize, Oh, everybody kind of admits it a little bit. Strauss's distinctiveness was to think that sort of admission to its Basic presuppositions, right? And think well, what would the what would the world have to be for this to always be something people have to do? And he took any any thema ties that and made that more explicit than maybe anybody ever has even Plato, right? Where you don't you get these certain metaphysical statements about this, but they're very much in passing.

Russ Greene 1:00:21

Right? And in and just to wrap things up, I'm going to try to, if it's the case, that it's sort of an internal condition of humanity, that there will always be a difference between what's stated or what's written, and the reality, you know, between theory and practice, then that's an inherent dilemma for the modern project of progress, right, which is all about trying to make reality correspond to the text, right? And it's just probably not going to work the way we expect it to.

Speaker 3 1:01:00

Not at all. And this is where, you know, the role of the science communicator is one of the biggest concessions that fraternity has made to antiquity. We need rhetoricians. I need a rhetorician I need, you know, what do we do to get people to take a Vax, call it a Fauci, ouchy, then people really be into it. Right? Like, that's, that's a massive concession to the fact that there are distinct types of people. Right, and that you need rhetoric to relate from wisdom to on wisdom. And that's just, you know, that's a very kind of canned version of, you know, ancient understanding of different human types, you know, which again, it has its own sort of questions and problems, but Right, that's, that's admitting something about the nature of political life. That's not modern.

Unknown Speaker 1:01:45

That's great. That's great. Well,

William Jarvis 1:01:47

Alex, thank you so much for coming on the show today.

Unknown Speaker 1:01:49

Where can people find you? Where should we send them?

Speaker 3 1:01:52

So send them the new theories, my podcast I do with my very old friend Greg McBrayer, and my very fat friend, David bar, and go check us out the new Thinkery it's just thinker with a Y on the end, we're on Twitter and check out the podcast. I'm also on Twitter, Alex, pre U P. R. Io. You, you'll find me on there. If you look at the new thing, great. But yeah, I mean, that's, that's the thing, that I'm very proud of the podcast, I think it's great to talk with my friends and to share it. And, and it just to hear that people get something out of it is always a shock, because just kind of do it and send it into space. And then I mean, you'll see statistically like, oh, this many people listen, and then you get an email every now that you're like, Wow, this is wonderful. So if you like any of this stuff, this is what I do accept, you know, we make sort of dirty jokes a lot and probably a little too much than is professionally wise. And, and yeah, it's great. And I think your listeners should know well that you have the whole time he's had this just lovely smile across his face, which is a little bit disconcerting, because I don't know if I've said anything to offend him, but you know not. You should have been doing podcasts. You should be on TV that's out there.

Will Jarvis 1:03:06

Appreciate that, Alex, thanks so much. It's been great talking to you.

Unknown Speaker 1:03:09


William Jarvis 1:03:14

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