Steeped in Revolution

As far as governments go, America’s is unusually stable. Considering it began in revolution and underwent four years of bloody civil war less than one hundred years later, the stability is incredible.

But now, no matter how we assess its motives or methods, the Tea Party movement has brought the idea of ‘revolution’ back to the forefront of the American consciousness.

That’s not to say that the Tea Party wants a repeat of the Civil War—‘revolution’ is a term that stretches beyond physical, bloody conflict. Another way of thinking about revolution could fall in line with Poland’s Solidarity or Martin Luther King, Jr. marching Washington’s streets. But even when peaceful, revolution is upsetting—it knocks something over in order to replace it.

Successful revolution results in radical change, either in terms of a thing’s function, structure, or ideology. The ‘Tea Party Patriots’ are clear that they are after radical changes in US government.  Some Tea Party groups even tout themselves as being revolutionaries.

How should we think about the Tea Party’s push for radical change—is it warranted and, if so, on what grounds?

Their official website includes a page concerning the “mission statement and core values” of the movement. There, in the section labeled ‘Our Philosophy’, they make some big claims about the justification behind their objectives:

The Tea Party Patriots…hold, as did the founders, that there exists an inherent benefit to our country when private property and prosperity are secured by natural law and the rights of the individual.

For the most part, I don’t have a problem with the Tea Party Patriot’s objectives. Fiscal responsibility in government? Cool. Constitutional adherence? Yes. Free market? Sure.

My main concern with their ‘philosophy’ is that they ground it on loaded, emotionally-charged terms. I have no qualms about the ‘tea party patriots’ platforms. I do think things get sketchy when the ‘patriots’ justify their platforms using phrases like ‘natural law’ and ‘the rights of individuals’.

If ‘Tea Party Patriots’ rely on the ideas behind these phrases to justify their causes, they’re going to run into some sticky points.

In one sense, ‘natural law’ or ‘individual rights’ are ‘Americanese’. We’ve heard them a million times, grew up reading them in schoolbooks and have import all sorts of emotional connotations.

But those phrases aren’t abstract ‘feel-goodisms’, nor were they first used in America’s 18th century foundations: they are technical terminology that trace back to Enlightenment political philosophy.

When John Locke, a key source of Founding Fathers’ political vocabulary, writes about the role of ‘natural law’ in an intentional, governed society, he isn’t prescribing free market capitalism, nor is he proscribing socialism. Natural law in society only allows for a narrow window of ‘individual rights’:

…when he joins in a…particular politic society, and incorporates into any common-wealth…[he] gives up [the power of  doing whatever he thought necessary for self-preservation] to be regulated by laws made by the society… laws of the society in many things confine what liberty he had by the law of nature.

Under Locke’s idea of government, a nation’s laws must have “no other end, but the peace, safety, and public good of the people,” but how the government goes about that end is up to the people and what manner of government they consent to have.

In a society, positive law should secure private property and prosperity by virtue of popular consent to the law. By consenting, individuals transfer many of their rights to the government for the sake of general security.

Still, in Locke’s political thought, even if government makes “great mistakes,” citizens don’t escape the bonds of consent. Only when government has a “long train of abuses, prevarications and artifices, all tending the same way” is revolution justified. Revolution–even a peaceful one–is inconvenient, precarious, and costly for the citizens of a revolting society.

If the ‘tea party movement’ were going to use Locke’s terms, as implemented in the Declaration and Constitution, as a source of justification for a radical reformation of government, they need better follow-through. Populism is not enough—unless they can demonstrate both popular consent, a history of abuse, and reason to believe the situation is hopeless, Locke’s philosophy does not justify their cause.

Let’s say that ‘tea partiers’ are able to prove that American government is blatantly ignoring popular consent—which, right now, is a shaky assertion. Even so, the stability of our government through the ups and downs of the last two hundred and fifty years makes me skeptical about their chance of showing that our situation is hopeless.

So long as the discussion remains focused on voter education and government reformation, I’m all ears. But if the Tea Party decides to invite Lockean revolution in for a cuppa, I’ll have to suggest that the partiers should take some brandy and a deep breath. ‘

The World’s Worst Proof for the Existence of God

I have come to terms. I’ll admit it: Philosophers are less attuned to ‘the obvious’ than most.

I even remember the morning that I realized I had no choice but to accept the stereotype. A group of philosophy faculty and students were gathered in my professor’s office, and we needed more chairs to accommodate everyone. Five or six people calculated the number of chairs needed. Five or six different numbers resulted.

The story came to my mind while exploring John Locke’s epistemology as described in his work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and his personal commentary on the EssayThe Sillingfleet Correspondence.

In a previous article, I discussed Locke’s theory of government: whether or not it is correct, I found his ideas, at the very least, readily understandable. So I was surprised by my reaction to Locke’s explorations of ‘human knowledge’. I couldn’t help but feel like Locke and I were struggling to accurately count chairs.

If we join Locke on his journey, by the end we cannot know God exists, much less that Jesus was and is God, much less that core Christian doctrines are true. The Trinity? In Lockean terms, we can’t even know that the house next door exists, or that Barak Obama is President! We can have faith in these things, but to have faith in any given thing, according to Locke, means it is not known:

Faith stands by itself, and upon grounds of its own; not can be removed from them, and placed on those of knowledge. Their grounds are so far from being the same, or having anything common, that when it is brought to certaintty, faith is destroyed; it is knowledge then, and faith no longer.

How did he take us here?

“For with me,” Locke writes, “to know, and be certain, is the same thing; what I know, that I am certain of; and what I am certain of, that I know.”

Locke equates ‘actual knowledge’, or “the present view the mind has of the agreement or disagreement of any of its ideas,” with certainty. ‘Certainty’ is not merely confidence: to satisfy Lockean certainty, the knower must, while knowing, have immediate perceptions of the relating ideas. Any connection between not immediately perceived ideas is less than certain, and is believed only based on probability.

For example, I can only know that ‘my soccer ball is round’ if I am right now perceiving my soccer ball and its roundness. Apart from that, I can’t be certain that it hasn’t ceased to exist or taken on a square shape, even if highly improbable.

If we accept Locke’s terms, we can understand his theory of knowledge. Locke would assert that I don’t know that my friend in the next room exists—it’s only highly probable. I don’t know that I was born in January. I don’t know that God exists.

As we approach the text, we probably come with a fairly solid idea of what ‘certainty’ is—the fuzzy term is ‘knowledge’. If we accept that knowledge is certainty, then sure: I guess I don’t know when I was born or that God exists.

But does Locke’s definition align with our experience, or is he miscounting chairs? While reading, I’m find myself tempted to say, ‘Well, yes, Mr. Locke, five chairs would be right if five people were here, but look—there’s seven of us!’ On an intuitive level, something doesn’t sounding right.

If a father says to his child, “You know I love you,” we don’t normally assume he is trying to say, “You know there is absolutely zero possibility that I do not love you.” That would be false: it is impossible to have a direct perception of another’s person’s internal feeling of love—we can only know the expression of those feelings. What the father refers to is a firm faith in paternal love that he understands to be a kind of knowledge even apart from certainty.

‘Common sense’ intuition will, I think, suggest that the father makes sense, and is not simply speaking lazily. The same applies to a person who says, “I know God exists.” When we hear that, it doesn’t seem we typically take her to mean, “It is absolutely impossible that God does not exist,” nor, “I have a highly probably opinion that God exists.”

Consider Locke’s description of faith.

Faith…is the assent to any proposition, not thus made out by the deduction of reason, but upon the credit for the proposer, as coming from God, in some extraordinary way of communication. …[But] revelation cannot be admitted against the clear evidence of reason.

Revelation as subservience to reason is the vital point. Locke defines reason as: “the discovery of the certainty or probability of such propositions which the mind arrives at by deductions made from such ideas, which it has got…by sensation or reflection.” Locke claims that faith is not made out by reason, but unless we have had a clear sense perception of God, or resurrection from the dead our lack of grounded ideas implies that even the most basic tenants of faith are, at best, probable opinions.

In one way, this may seem like pointless semantics. Whether faith is ‘knowledge’ or ‘high probability’: what practical difference comes from holding one or the other?

Stepping back a bit can reveal how Locke’s theory does matter. His theory didn’t stop with mere transfer of terms. Locke says that things not tied to physical reality are not certain, and therefore, cannot be known. This (though maybe unintentionally) grounds later philosophical assertions that anything metaphysical is not even probable, seeing as probability itself is not a ‘sensible’ idea. (See Hume.)

Arguably, the logical conclusion of that assertion is the contemporary divorce we see today that divides ‘science’ and ‘faith’. The secular academic community has been infused with the idea that scientific beliefs are ‘knowable’, but faith beliefs are personal and ‘irrational’.

Maybe Locke should slow down and recount the chairs. Knowledge intuitively seems separable from absolute certainty. Claims like, “I know when I was born,” “I know you love me” or “I know God exists” are understandable. In fact, I know they are understandable. ‘