Gödel and Washington

Among the very earliest posts on this humble little blog was one on Washington’s Farewell Address, posted on the occasion of its anniversary. In truth I’d not read it until then, an omission which I now very much regret. The Farewell Address must be one of the most extraordinary documents in American political history, and it is worthy of tremendously more attention than gets paid to it these days. It should, rather, be required reading in just about every level of American education.

For the moment I’d like to return to a part of it, specifically the following passage:

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.“It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?”

I’d like more specifically to drill down on the statement, “And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” Let’s just say that modern American public discourse is obliged to discount that thought. Religion, or perhaps better stated religiosity, is thought to be in bad taste at best, oppressive by merely allusion to it at worst.

Some time ago while ruminating, what I am pleased to call my mind began studying on the question of exactly on what basis do I require of my fellow humans that I be treated as anything other than an instrumentality. We’ve all heard of Kant’s categorical imperative, but I mean, really? If you, dear reader, have an objective and I am in the way of its achievement, by what right do I claim that you must, to borrow a line from one of my favorite Abe Lincoln stories, “plow around” me? It can only be that I claim some peculiar status in the world which you inhabit.

You say we are all equals, in some moral sense. How is that? Do we see non-human life exhibiting this same recognition of abstract equality? Or do we see, even among pack animals, behavior which cannot be explained except upon purely utilitarian grounds? The alpha male drives the juvenile male from the herd, to wander alone in a world in which he is not at the top of the food chain, until either he is eaten or finds another herd in which he can with violence establish himself. Males battling each other for the privilege of mating with the females, and the females not observably having any choice in the matter. Males preying on their own off-spring. The sick or the old or the lame abandoned to the predator. It all makes sense if you view those animals’ existence from an amoral perspective. Not so much if you apply Kant’s imperative as among them.

What is it that makes humans different? Why should you extend to me any greater consideration than you would a tree, or a rock in your garden, or raccoon who wants only to feed from your garbage? Turning Lincoln’s critique of the slaveholders’ racialist apologia on its head, it cannot be because I am your equal in intelligence, because as like as not you’re sharper than I am. It cannot be that I have some unique talent for any particular task or form of expression, because again, you probably excel me there and besides, on what basis do I assert that my talent for X is somehow more worthy than yours for Y? Strength? No. Leadership? Not there. Looks? Not even in the park. Am I more useful than you? Highly doubtful. No, the only this-worldly basis that I have to demand your recognition of me as your equal is because I can compel it. But that’s nothing more than a catch-all description of the lone male wandering the brush and forcing himself into a new pack, pride, herd, family group, etc. Or, even more bluntly stated, it is the proposition that Might Makes Right.

Thomas Hobbes famously grounded his conclusion that all men are equal in the fact that every man can kill any other man, for each man must at some point sleep. Very true, and very much of a piece with his characterization of the natural condition of man: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. But that’s not an identifiably moral basis for asserting equality.

I defy anyone to enunciate a anthropocentric basis upon which you must address me as your equal and which does not on closer examination boil down to expedience or force (which is itself little more than a specific application of the principle of expedience). Expedience of course cannot be reconciled with Kant’s imperative. And what if in fact I am not useful to you, if my existence athwart your path is inexpedient to you? Oops; I’m not sure I like that outcome one bit.

No, if I want you to recognize in me anything more morally compelling than that raccoon knocking over your garbage can, I must refer to a morality that confers that claim on me from outside our shared humanity. That “outside” can come only from a supra-human source, from a source that we by its very nature as supra-human characterize as “divine,” as in partaking of divinity, the attribute we reserve to Him whom we confess to be God. Only by recognition of the divinity of God may you recognize a small portion of that divinity in His creature, in me. Small it assuredly is, but it is enough, it is a basis to which you can point and acknowledge my claim upon you for no other reason than the fact that I am.

I am. Only a confessing believer in a higher being can logically recognize that as being a perfect statement of claim. Without that belief you must necessarily ask, “You are what?” and adjudge that “what” to be or not be sufficient.

Or so I reasoned. Seemed tidy enough, and explained enough to me for my own purposes. I am no mathematician. My D and D- in two semesters of calculus resolved that much if nothing else. So I beg indulgence from those whose abilities in that regard extend beyond those of the great apes. As better explained in a book later on lent to me by one who actually enjoys theoretical mathematics as a hobby (de gustabus non disputandum est, and leave it at that) Kurt Gödel (rendered in English, happily deprived of diacritics, as “Goedel”) demonstrated that you cannot prove a system from within that system. I won’t go further into the particularities of his proof for knowing that I would misstate something, but suffice it to say that he showed that you cannot bootstrap a logical system. I was mighty proud to find out that my stewing wasn’t so wildly off the mark after all: you cannot prove up a logical system of morality from within that system. Kant’s categorical imperative seems to be a “big bang” analogue, but respectfully I’m not having that.

Washington was, in other words, dead-on right when he reminded his fellow citizens that the maintenance of a republic over time could not succeed without virtue, and that virtue cannot exist without religion. For without religion, without the acknowledgement of a mind, purpose, and power above all human comprehension, there can be no morality but only the expedient of the moment.

I’d also observe that the truth of the above can be demonstrated by observing the tragi-comedy of “international law.” In point of fact there is no such animal, because there is no authority to which the nation-states are willing absolutely to concede the right and power of enforcement against themselves. So we get treated from time to time to the spectacle of some professional bloviator allowing that such-and-so is plainly contrary to “international law,” by which is meant that Country A has done something to Country B to the speaker’s vigorous disapproval, but which will go entirely unpunished. The only source of “international law” is the same source which Chairman Mao identified as the source of political power.

I first turned my attentions to the Farewell Address in the fall of 2012, as America was about to go to the polls and re-elect to the presidency a man who is about as close to the antithesis of George Washington as a citizen could imagine. This is a man who, when asked point-blank in an interview to define “sin,” replied that “sin” was when someone did or desired something that was inconsistent with his own thoughts and positions. All the hoo-hah about whether he’s a Muslim or not is really mis-guided, as I saw it observed once: This is a man who does not recognize any being as superior to himself. He can have no religion because he truly believes himself to be a latter-day messiah, but the Good News He brings is solely that of His own advent among us.

Today, in 2016, we get to observe the spectacle of two candidates, one of whom is – barring divine intervention – going to be our next president, neither of whom brings anything to the table other than a firm conviction that he or she, as the case may be, is entitled to the office because. And neither of whom has any known floor below which he or she will not stoop.

Four dead Americans, one of them a serving U.S. ambassador? What difference does it make “at this point” that She lied to the American public, lied to the dead men’s families, about why those men died? They’re dead and her political party won the election; that’s what’s important. The formal representative of his nation to a sovereign country slaughtered like a wild animal and his corpse dragged through the streets? That’s just chaff, at this point.

A man who has bragged, in writing, about buying his way to influence with politicians? Whose entire public persona is built on the practice of saying or doing anything necessary to close the deal on his own terms? This is the same thinking that got us the Tonkin Gulf Resolutions. Those were built on fraudulent representations of an attack that simply never happened (don’t believe me? read In Love and War, the book by Vice Admiral Stockdale, who was in the air over the Maddux and Turner Joy when they were supposedly attacked, and who point-blank states it never happened).

Back in the day, when it first became undeniable that Wm. Clinton had shamelessly perjured himself in deposition about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, I had a conversation in which my interlocutor repeated the New York Times-approved talking points that it just didn’t matter because it was purely and private matter and besides shut up. I very vividly remember telling him that it very much mattered when a president perjures himself because the only thing that stands between us and – well, at the time the most prominent failed state was the former Soviet Union, but now you’ve pretty much got your pick – was the notion that when someone raises his right hand and swears to tell the truth, that he will do so. Without that presumption the court system is meaningless. And when the court system is meaningless, people will implement their own justice and seek redress on their own.

I refer Gentle Reader to President Washington’s observations, all those years ago.

As the anniversaries of Washington’s Farewell Address succeed each other, we the posterity to whom he addressed himself blunder on, heedless of his wisdom. Re-learning lessons tends to be more difficult than learning them the first time around.


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