What is the purpose of your life? How should a man live his life? How should we organize our societies and to what end? These are the questions that have vexed mankind for an awfully long time. In the modern age, we are enveloped in messaging about these questions. It seems that every ad is really a lecture about how you should live or how we should organize our societies to some end. This ad from a well-known toy company is a perfect example.
The liberal project, dating from the late Middle Ages to the current year, is about using reason to answer these questions. It is assumed that every life has a purpose and that there is a correct way to organize society. No one accepts that the purpose of the meth addict’s life is to be a meth addict and die on the street. Similarly, no one wants to accept that the best way to organize society is however you like. In other words, there is a right answer to these questions, not just an answer.
This is why thinking about how humans actually live is such a dangerous topic to those with an interest in such things. If you notice that one group of people behaves in a different way compared to other groups, then the right people may get the wrong idea about your commitment to the grand project. If you suggest that who we are is not something we can do much about because it is written in our genetic code, then it suggests the whole project is a waste of time.
This is why we see people in the human science take time from doing what they like to let the right people know that they do not have the wrong idea about things. This post from Gregory Clark professing to be a communist is one example. No one should care about his opinions on economics. He is not an economist or a politician. He is a historian known for tracing the heritability of social success. His book The Son Also Rises suggests genes play a large role in life outcomes.
Mr. Clark may have some interesting things to say about economics or economic policy, but no one who makes economic policy will ever read his book. That is not how economic policy gets made in the modern world. The point of his post and other public statements is to let everyone know he is not going to be any trouble when it comes to those big questions at the heart of Western society. This a ritual that academics must perform if they dare look at how man actually lives.
The irony, of course, is that if you are the sort of person who studies surnames as a proxy for genes in order to see if there is a correlation between genes and life outcomes, you probably know the answers to those questions. Further, your research just happens to confirm the answer. Even more ironic, the people who worry about the implications of such things are not fooled by the public ritual. There is something rather primitive about how these high-minded people act.
Putting all that aside, what lies at the heart of the great terror that has swept the academy and now society in general is the assumption that observations about human beings and their nature will answer those questions. If we notice that not all people are blessed with the same talents, it will tell us something about the purpose of our lives and how we ought to organize our societies. The people in that Apple ad are terrified of Mother Nature, because our best people are terrified too.
The truth of it is, a truth Gregory Clark surely knows, is that nature is silent on those big questions about how we ought to live and organize our societies. Nature cares about one thing and that is fitness. Specifically, every living thing is driven by its gene’s desire to make it to the next round of the game. If your genes make even a partial copy of themselves in the form of your children, that is a win. How you make that happen is of no interest to your genes or Mother Nature.
That sounds terribly cold, which may be one reason our best people are terrified by that being an answer to those questions. If we live in a world that does not care if we live or die and does not care if we experience any joy in the middle, well, that is a terribly harsh reality we have made for ourselves. Maybe we would have been better off not knowing the reality of the human condition. Perhaps that is why anyone who ventures in that direction gets the Eye of Sauron on him.
Another reason for the fear of Mother Nature is that if she is indifferent to those big questions at the heart of human existence, it means the answers must lie elsewhere, which leads to the most terrifying answer of all. That is, we will not be able to gain the answers to the big moral questions through reason. Reason is, after all, based on nature and our observations of the natural world. At least we assume our reason is our evolved ability to comprehend the natural world.
If we cannot reason our way to the right answers to those moral questions, then it leaves three options that no one likes. One option is the supernatural. For most of human existence, the gods answered these questions. Often, the gods answered these questions through what we think of us culture and tradition. We do things a certain way because of this thing that happened with Zeus in the before times. Of course, reality could be an illusion, but that is a topic for another time.
Where that leaves us if we rule out nature as the answer to the big questions, and we never think about the illusion of reality business, are the two things that the liberal project has been trying to erase since the beginning. The main role of the liberal project has been to remove what the liberals called superstition, but which everyone else calls God, as a possible answer. Secondarily, the project has removed past practice as an answer for why we live as we live.
That is the great dilemma of the liberal project. Like a scientist who has spent his career chasing one idea only to find that his work is a dead end, the liberal project perpetuates itself through control of the institutions. The reason they say science progresses one funeral at a time is because the old guys in every field tend to be the biggest obstacle to the young guys with new ideas. In the case of liberalism, the defenders of the dream for an answer in pure reason terrorize those who think otherwise.
In the end, Mother Nature is indifferent to the demands of her creation for answers to the great questions and she is indifferent to whether we understand this. The answers to the great questions do not lie in nature or in a natural reason. The best we can do with our natural reason is improve the general material well-being of the human condition and maybe reduce the friction in human relations. Otherwise, our reason is not much use to us in this process.
If we wish to know the answers, then it means returning to that which we have abandoned, which is to ask the gods for the answer. If that is unsatisfactory, then we can pretend they answered through our traditions and customs. It is not that any of this will provide the universally corrects answer. It is that it will provide an answer and then maybe we can stop arguing about these questions. Then maybe Western man will be able to live in peace with the rest of the world.
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