Ora Et Labora
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the dangerous game of causality

While reading D. B. Hart’s essay “The Origin of the Specious,” I came across this sentence, which captures well the dangers of oversimplification: “when one begins to touch upon matters of a more abstract frame or of a more cosmic scope—say, God, the history of religion, the nature of morality, social evolution, historical determinism, ultimate purpose, and so on—then it is often the case that the only valuable answers will prove no less complex and daunting than the questions that have prompted them. At that point the journalist’s otherwise commendable passion to establish ‘the real story’ becomes more a hindrance than an aid to understanding.”

Intellectual and cultural conservatives, and I count myself one of them, love to speculate about causation. We stand in a tradition of pontification about how one idea led to another, and then another, and before you know it, Robespierre was chopping off people’s heads. In the classical education of my youth, figures like Francis Schaeffer and Richard Weaver drew long shadows over the study of art and philosophy. Behind a great deal of study lay the scarcely concealed ambition to discover where it all went awry. I must confess, in my nostalgia for the umbrageous ruins of a noble civilization now heaped with the opprobriums of modernity, that I feel a great deal of sympathy for this sort of thing. And yet it is also my duty to reflect on the epistemological ills to which this this perception of the past is liable.

In Plato’s famous “allegory of the cave”, he describes slaves chained, gazing for a lifetime at the wall opposite them in the eponymous cavern; a wall illumined by flickering firelight, and interrupted only by the shadows cast by those moving behind them. In such a world, they imagine that the shadows are identical with their corporeal causes, and when one among them is dragged forcibly out into the sunlight, treat him and his mad reports of physical reality with contempt, and even seek to kill him, upon his return.

This parable has proven apropos to nearly every conceivable narrative of intellectual or spiritual photisis, and it proves applicable to our topic of over-simplifying causation as well. A facile defense of the “discovery of original sin” style of intellectual history is that, while of course it is not meant to explain the entirety of the story, it nevertheless stands as a “simplification of the truth, but the truth nonetheless.” On the contrary, the shadows in the cave are not merely an “oversimplification of reality,” they are a lie, and to remain esconced comfortably among them is positively inimical to the discovery of truth. As Plato says, regarding the pity that the free man now feels towards his previous compatriots, “Would he not say with Homer, ‘Better to be the poor servant of a poor master, and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner?’” Better to be blind, than to think the shadows truth: they are a perversion of reality, despite their origin in the light. Causation by the truth does not imply the inherence of the truth in the thing caused.

For our purposes, the shadows in the cave are the ‘just-so’ stories that we tell ourselves about the past, and particularly about the causation of historical events and movements by ideas. In the telling of such stories, twin dangers appear; a Scylla and Charybdis, if you will. Firstly, the greater the explanatory power of the “real story” that we seek to get at (for example, Weaver’s attribution to nominalism all the evils of the modern west), the more likely it is to be in error, because of the simple complexity of causation. Any diligent student of history will understand the futility of monocausal explanations, and will note the lack of epistemological self-reflection required to seek for them. Secondly, as conservatives, a great deal of our eagerness to explain the causes for our age lies in the desire to pass judgment on it. Passing judgment through the assertion of purported causation is simply the genetic fallacy in its most classical form.

I must clarify that I am not here attempting to censure the passing of judgment in itself, nor am I condemning the historian’s urge to trace from one point to another the various causes of events for the edification of posterity. Livy and his famous preface may sleep easily. What I decry is the justification of over-simplified, or ‘monocausal’ metanarratives on the basis that over-simplification is not the same thing as error. Such metanarratives lead their advocates on a futile witch-hunt against anything which might be influenced by what they believe to have identified as the original intellectual sin. Perhaps a person has fallen prey to the belief that Augustine introduced Greek philosphy to the Church, and in so doing plunged Christianity down a slippery slope which could only lead to the secularism of the modern west. Besides the ghastly ignorance of philosophical history which such a view betrays, it leads those infected by it, when presented by a new idea for their understanding and evaluation, to carefully attempt to discern whether the idea evinces any similarity to or causation by ‘Greek philosophy’ (however this is defined), and to embrace or dismiss it on these asinine grounds, rather than on its own terms. I could repeat this example with any number of metanarratives, some more and less coherent, and the structure of my objection would be the same, and the greater the explanatory power of the metanarrative, the worse the effects become.

Before I conclude this short exercise in disapproval, I think that some speculation would not be inappropriate as to why we conservatives fall prey so easily to this variety of intellectual laziness. We hope to find in the past, with Livy, noble things to emulate, and “evil things, rotten through and through, to avoid.” This is entirely healthy. But, like Hart’s journalists, we are anxious to come upon “the real story,” that illusive yet puissant puzzle piece that will satiate our hunger for a straightforward explanation, and provide an easy rubric for judgment. The feeling of vindication by the past over one’s intellectual foes is satisfying, as I know from personal experience. Yet we conservatives also have a penchant for talking about “the higher things,” —grand aspirations as to what one might find in the light outside our flickering grotto, and a breathtaking optimism as to our ability to ascend to those dazzling heights—which is to say, those things which are above all least capable of simple explanation. The more complex and beautiful the idea, the sharper and more deadly the blade of explanation becomes, and thus in our human aptitude for the genetic fallacy, we are liable to meet a tragic end.

Postscript: In the prose above, I at various places absuse the English language to a degree perhaps galling to the reader, but of great amusement to myself. May those of an editorial mind forgive my linguistic mirth, and be satisfied that I know this already, and do not require help in discerning, for example, the phrase “puissant puzzle piece” to be less than the mot juste.

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