Friday, March 08, 2019

The Evolutionary Lucretian Liberalism of Spontaneous Order: A Liberty Fund Conference

The Liberty Fund conference in Tucson last week on "Lucretius, Evolutionary Morality, and Spontaneous Order" helped me to think through the idea of evolutionary Lucretian liberalism.

The question for this conference was whether an evolutionary study of cosmic history--from the origin of the universe to the present and into the distant future--supports the claim of classical liberalism that order emerges best from the bottom up through spontaneous evolution rather than from the top down through intelligent design and planning.

The fundamental thought is conveyed in one passage of Lucretius's On the Nature of Things: "Nature is seen, free at once, and quit of her proud rulers, doing all things by herself spontaneously [per se sponte omnia], without control of gods" (2.1090-93).  Matt Ridley sees this Lucretian teaching as a general theory of evolution that applies the classical liberal principle of spontaneous order to everything in the universe: "the physical world, the living world, human society, and the morality by which we live all emerged as spontaneous phenomena, requiring no divine intervention nor a benign monarch or nanny state to explain them" (The Evolution of Everything, 8).  The French physiocrats expressed this thought in a motto: Laissez faire et laissez passer, le monde va de lui meme! (Let do and let pass, the world goes on by itself!)  The alternative position is the Platonic teaching that all natural and social order requires intelligently designed planning from the top down.

With selected readings from Lucretius, Ridley, and Christian, Brown, and Benjamin's Big History, we talked about a wide range of topics over six sessions:

1. The Evolution of the Origin of the Universe
2. The Evolution of Life, Mind, and Culture
3. The Evolution of Morality
4. The Evolution of Religion
5. The Evolution of the Economy and Government
6. The Evolution of the Future

There were at least four kinds of criticism of the idea of Lucretian evolutionary liberalism.  The first criticism arose from the Straussian interpretation of Lucretius as an "ancient" philosopher, who therefore cannot rightly be identified as a "modern" liberal thinker.  I have responded to this criticism in my previous post.  After thinking more about this, I now believe that a crucial issue here is whether one can see Lucretius as drawing from an ancient Greek tradition of liberalism, as set forth by Eric Havelock in his Liberal Temper in Greek Politics, or whether Strauss was right in arguing that Havelock failed to identify any Greek thinker as a true liberal.  It seems to me that Havelock did identify in some of the pre-Socratic philosophers the evolutionary liberal idea of spontaneous order that was developed by Lucretius.

The second kind of criticism of evolutionary liberalism came from the traditionalist conservatives, who complained that this view of the world was morally, intellectually, and spiritually degrading--that it led to Nietzsche's "last man," who lives a comfortable life without any aspiration for anything high or noble.  The "Big History" of evolution that we were studying, one discussant observed, is actually a "small history" of small people in a soulless world with no transcendent longings.  This discussant also noted that in all of our reading nothing was said about the "regime"--Aristotle's politeia understood as the political community devoted to forming the human soul to achieve its highest virtues.

This is the conservatism of the Counter-Enlightenment with its scorn for the bourgeois liberalism and the scientific materialism that create a life of mediocrity without excellence.  In previous posts, I have responded to this Counter-Enlightenment attack on liberalism in my comments on Steven Smith (here), Roger Scruton (here), Patrick Deneen (here), and Benjamin Wiker (here).  I have also responded to the common appeal to Nietzsche's "last man" image by pointing out that the Nietzsche of Human, All Too Human defends an Epicurean evolutionary liberalism that recognizes the moral dignity of the bourgeois virtues (here and here).  Moreover, I have argued that those who sneer at the mediocrity of the bourgeois life need to confront Deirdre McCloskey's argument for the bourgeois virtues as including all of the moral, intellectual, and spiritual virtues (here).

As I have indicated in some of these posts, this debate over the virtues and vices of evolutionary liberalism ultimately comes down to an empirical question about the facts of human history: Has life in the illiberal regimes been generally more or less civilized than life in the liberal regimes?  As summarized by Ridley (28-33), people like Steven Pinker and Norbert Elias have presented historical evidence that the move from the illiberal social orders of the European Middle Ages to the liberal social orders of modern Europe was a "civilizing process," in which the moral standards of life improved.  The conservative critics of classical liberalism would have to prove that the factual evidence of history does not support this claim.  They would also have to recommend illiberal alternatives to liberalism.

A third criticism coming from the traditionalist conservatives was that evolutionary liberalism seems to assume a na├»ve progressivism that is denied by the fact that the cosmic and cultural evolution of history does not show inevitable and linear progress.  The authors of Big History present the entire history of the universe from the Big Bang to the present as a movement from simplicity to complexity through eight thresholds of increasing complexity.  Although they never mention Herbert Spencer, he also argued for a cosmic evolution from simplicity to complexity, from homogeneity to heterogeneity.  The authors of Big History rely on astronomer Eric Chaisson's claim that the cosmic history of increasing complexity can be studied through the measurable matrix of increasing flows of energy required to sustain more complicated structures against the entropy of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

But eventually, according to the prevailing view of scientists, the universe must end in "heat death," because entropy will win.  Life on Earth will become impossible.  In 4 to 5 billion years, the Sun will die.  Over hundreds of billions of years, all the stars will fade out.  And with no stars, there will be no planets, and thus no biospheres to support life anywhere.  The universe will continue to expand forever into eternal darkness.  Entropy will have finally destroyed all structure and order.  For those scientists who believe our universe is part of a larger multiverse, other universes might continue to evolve.

Similarly, Lucretius offers four proofs that while the universe of atoms and the void--the "sum of sums" (summarum summa)--is eternal, our "world" (mundus) is mortal (5.235-415).  Our world as constituted by the Earth, all life on Earth, the Sun, the moon, and the stars will endure for a long time, but eventually it must all die.  New worlds can then arise out of atoms and the void.

Lucretius says that most human beings are afraid of this teaching that the world is mortal.  Earthquakes are especially fearful because they suggest the possibility that the Earth could be destroyed.  And "men fear to believe that a time of destruction and ruin awaits the nature of the great world, even when they see no great a mass of earth bowing to its fall" (6.565-68).

Leo Strauss quoted this as showing "fear of the most terrible truth"--the terrible truth that "nothing lovable is eternal or sempiternal or deathless, or that the eternal is not lovable" (Liberalism Ancient and Modern, viii, 135).  Strauss believed that only the few human beings capable of living the philosophic life can calmly accept this most terrible truth; and so in any healthy social order, this terrible truth would have to be hidden from the great multitude of human beings who cannot bear it.

Since Big History was written as a textbook for high school and college students, the authors must disagree with Strauss's claim that most human beings cannot bear the truth about the mortality of the world.  The authors admit that their view of the remote future as the "eternal death" of the universe is a "bleak picture."  And yet they try to see this as a "quite satisfying" picture for human beings, because it indicates that humanity has been lucky enough to live in "the springtime of the universe," the brief time when the universe has had all of the conditions for producing the wondrous world in which life and human beings could exist (304).

But rather than worrying about cosmic history many billions of years into the future, most human beings are surely more inclined to worry about the near future--the next hundred years or so--because they might imagine what the world will be like for their children and grandchildren.  With this in mind, our discussion turned to a consideration of whether we should be hopeful or gloomy about how well human beings in the near future will handle environmental problems such as global warming and the scarcity of natural resources and the threats from destructive technologies such as nuclear and biological weapons.

The authors of Big History sketch two alternative scenarios for "ominous trends" and "hopeful trends."  For the "ominous trends," they rely on gloomy predictions about the "limits to growth" by people like Lester Brown.  This kind of thinking has led people like Naomi Klein to argue that the only solution to our environmental problems as created by unregulated capitalism is to have "managed degrowth" to drastically reduce global production and consumption and then to execute a global plan for spending at least 10% of our global economic output on building renewable sources of energy to replace all high-carbon sources.

Against this sort of thinking, Ridley is clearly on the side of the "hopeful trends" scenario, because he believes that as long as there are free market incentives for solving environmental problems, there are likely to be innovative technological changes that will protect human beings from catastrophe. (I have written a post on the debate between Klein and Ridley here.)  As always, the key for Ridley is to allow for spontaneous cultural evolution:  "It is a fair bet that the twenty-first century will be dominated mostly by shocks of bad news, but will experience mostly invisible progress of good things.  Incremental, inexorable, inevitable changes will bring us material and spiritual improvements that will make the lives of our grandchildren wealthier, healthier, happier, cleverer, cleaner, kinder, freer, more peaceful and more equal--almost entirely as a serendipitous by-product of cultural evolution.  But the people with grand plans will cause pain and suffering along the way" (319-20).

Some of the discussants at the Liberty Fund conference agreed with this--thinking that as long as people were free to cooperate in spontaneously ordered groups, they could find imperfect solutions to their problems.  For example, one discussant spoke about Elinor Ostrom's studies of how neighbors cooperate to enforce social norms for managing common pool resources in ways that solve the "tragedy of the commons."

But at this point, some discussants brought up a fourth criticism of evolutionary liberalism--the fanaticism of Ridley's claim that everything good comes from bottom-up evolution, and everything bad comes from top-down planning.  Ridley declares: "bad news is man-made, top-down, purposed stuff, imposed on history.  Good news is accidental, unplanned, emergent stuff that gradually evolves.  The things that go well are largely unintended; the things that go badly are largely intended. . . . Letting good evolve, while doing bad, has been the dominant theme of history" (317-18).

While agreeing with Hayek about the importance of spontaneous order, Ridley ignores Hayek's claim that good order often does emerge top-down by design in deliberate organizations.  Families, firms, governments, military organizations--these are all deliberately designed forms of order.  And particularly in time of war, Hayek thought, a society might need to be centrally planned for warfare.

As I have indicated in a previous post (here), Ridley's version of evolutionary liberalism suffers from one fundamental flaw--an almost anarchistic scorn for government.  Unlike Hume, Smith, Darwin, and Hayek, Ridley fails to see that although governmental power is dangerous when it is unlimited and undivided, the spontaneous order of human civilization can arise only within a framework of general rules deliberately designed and enforced by government. 
Although Ridley has a short section on the evolution of marriage (85-90), he says nothing about the Hayekian account of the family as a deliberate organization rather than a spontaneous order.  I have written about that here and here.

Like Hayek, Ridley points to the evolution of the common law as an example of spontaneous order that shows how law can emerge without any need to be invented by lawmakers (33-36).  But Ridley is silent about Hayek's argument that the common law as "grown law" often needs correction by legislation as "made law" (Law, Legislation, and Liberty, vol. 1, 88-89).

I now regret that at this Liberty Fund conference we did not talk about the evolution of government, legislation, and the family as deliberate orders. We should have thought more about how the evolution of a free society requires both spontaneous order and deliberate order.

Some discussants suggested that good things can come either bottom-up or top-down.  One discussant pointed to Ridley's account of how Hong Kong became a place of free trade.  Sir Harry Pottinger, Hong Kong's first Governor in 1843, promoted free trade.  Then, in the 1960s, Sir John Cowperthwaite, the Financial Secretary of Hong Kong, resumed this experiment in free trade (233-34).  So here we see how top-down administrators can create the open space for bottom-up emergence of order.

Despite these four lines of criticism, it seemed that most of the discussants at this Liberty Fund agreed that the evolutionary science of the cosmos, culture, and mind can support classical liberalism.


W. Bond said...

Regarding the traditionalist critique, perhaps, but likely not the Straussian critique, and certainly the intelligent design critique, it has always seemed to me that claims that unaided reason can prove the necessity of a Creator borders on contradicting one of the main themes of the Old and New Testaments: viz the mystery and incomprehensibleness of God absent divine revelation. For men, through mere human observation and reason to demonstrate the way in which the creation was created seems to approach the weighing and measuring of God himself – to prove the agency of the supernatural using only the natural.
Likewise, to object that a scientific understanding of nature, however partial, undermines the possibility of a Creator should prompt the question: “Who are we to suggest how a Creator could or could not create?”
On the other hand, does not this Lucretian liberalism, rather than remaining merely agnostic about the claims of revelation, often assert not just that unaided human experience and reason cannot prove the divine, but suggest the necessity of the “terrible truth?”
While the arguments of Intelligent Design may seem not just misguided, but unnecessary, the arguments of Lucretian liberalism seem to border at times on making outsized epistemologic claims regarding the most basic, if the most unanswerable questions.

Larry Arnhart said...

At least one of the participants at the conference was a physicist who is a theistic evolutionist, who regularly debates proponents of young Earth creationism and intelligent design theory.

And, yes, evolutionary cosmology often does make "outsized epistemological claims"--such as the Big Bang, the origin of life from nonlife, and the distant future of the cosmos--speculation about fundamental mysteries.