The State in Denial: Can Scientism Recover Our Moral Memory?

Email Print


The Pentagon
is spending an unprecedented $300 million this summer on research
for post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury,
offering hope not only for troops but hundreds of civilians.

Gregg Zoroya, Aug. 6th edition, USA TODAY

doubt the opportunity for extended research reported on by USA Today
will be welcomed as one of the more benevolent spin-offs of the
war in Iraq, even while what is called research might more correctly
be termed reparations and serves to mask the fact that combat-related
post-traumatic injury resulting from that war was 100% preventable…at
least as late as 2003. But then, instead of moral memory, today
we have scientific inquiry into the loss of memory. This latter
must be considered a phenomenon not an effect, since an effect implies
a cause, and in the blinkered world of scientism there can be no
discussion of causes, other than physiological ones.

ever since the time of Destutt de Tracy (oddly enough, one of Thomas
Jefferson's boon companions) a movement has been afoot to make science
an "ideology" of the state. Today the process is virtually
complete, unnoticed apart from a few curmudgeons who insist on the
distinction between science and scientism. Fortunately scientism
has not lived up to the promises of its ideological founders, who
were loath to put any limit on the promises of empirical research.
Does evil exist? Aha! There's a stimulating question and perhaps
some agency could commission a study on the subject. Is aggression
wrong? Certainly the answer would be worth a few piddling hundred
million in research funds. Of course any such clumsy attempts by
science to take over the function of religion and ethics would invoke
ridicule. Rather, the questions themselves have been conveniently
abolished from the corridors of science.

our problem today is memory loss, and not just among the soldiers
coming back with brain injuries…although they are the most visible
and tragic symbols of a problem which has become pandemic. The very
method which society uses to attack its ills has rendered us all
amnesiac. In our times smuggling in the moral prejudices of civilization
would be like starting a university lecture with an unwiped blackboard…so
the ethical scientist must resort to palliative measures, beginning
de novo and piecemeal among the ruins…a truly heroic venture
requiring supercomputers, large research teams, and generous state

medico involved is reported to have exclaimed of the Pentagon funding,
"It is huge…it is…just the most…enormous thing that has happened
in traumatic brain injury research." (USA Today, ibid.) Enormous
indeed! Like the happy villagers in Bastiat's famous allegory, the
awed researchers, physicians, and grant administrators are gloating
as if some providential vandal had broken the plate glass in every
hospital from the Mayo Clinic to Miami, requiring massive reinvestment
on infrastructure. But of course the situation is complicated by
urgent humanitarian concerns, concerns which compel us to agree
that if funds actually manage to trickle down to care and therapeutics
we should let a thousand flowers grow. After all, once a human being
has become so battered and traumatized that he or she can no longer
make decisions on personal recognizance, then yes, let the physician
and the care giver use whatever means available in putting the pieces
of the wounded soul back together, no matter that the means be dropped
by Pentagon helicopters.

Yet it is important to remember how that person in need of material
care has been reduced to what we call a "patient," as
opposed to an "agent," someone exercising free will in
a social setting. And knowing the particulars of how men and women
have been placed into such hellish predicaments by society requires
the study of agency, that is, of human culpability, not just natural
causes. Few people realize that one of the best studies in the moral
philosophy of agency was made by Ludwig von Mises, known today almost
exclusively as an economist. In his Theory
and History
, he rejected the materialist doctrine that mental
illness is entirely the result of material causes. He noted that
Charcot, Breuer, and Freud reversed the traditional thinking of
psychiatrics in which mental illness was the ineluctable result
of physiological causes.

yes, certainly the proximate causes of combat trauma are physical,
but what of the ultimate causes? What of the minds which, of their
own free will, committed the troops to a fruitless cause? Will any
amount of research, however well funded, be able to trace the links
of causality back up to a point in the past where destiny was still
fluid and the trauma preventable? No, even in the absence of friendly
dissuasion and political pressure, any such attempt will sooner
or later run up against a logical firewall: free actions cannot
be operationalized, measured or enumerated…therefore they are beyond
the pale of rational investigation. Hence the scientific variant
of legal immunity, which doesn't even require a presidential pardon.

see, the madness is in the method! Its logic runs as follows: we
cannot have a science of human decisions, and human history is the
outcome of countless decisions, therefore we cannot know anything
about what occurred before the present. The corollary of this is
that we must remain obstinately agnostic about everything except
the gross facts which confront us and their visible antecedents.
Or, as Charley Reese has put it so poetically, it is left to each
generation to "rediscover the existence of sin." History
being unknowable, we are doomed to repeat it, and suffer the insult
of surprise along with other, and multiple, injuries, thus manufacturing
a windfall of ignorance which steadily accrues to the fortunes of
the political class.

of course there is something terribly wrong here, because we do
know something about the past, even about that indirectly experienced
past which we call "history"…although we are at a loss
to explain precisely how it is that we happen to know. It is as
if we had a mystical intuition which told us stepping off the next
precipice will lead to unpleasant consequences, even though we cannot
recall performing the experiment in recent memory.

might venture all sorts of hypotheses regarding this uncanny perspicacity
of the scientifically untutored mind, ranging from innate ideas
to reincarnation. However the most economical hypothesis is that
we know because we have been told, told by people who lived before
our own generation. Thus, at least in principle, we are not reliant
on stretching out our hands to see if the flame burns. We are not
even limited to what our parents taught us, because we have a further
means of communication from the Great Beyond. It is a source of
knowledge which is stronger than the grave, though weaker than the
apodictic certainty demanded by scientific fundamentalists. This
source of knowledge we call "literature."

learn about the joys and pitfalls of life from literature, even
if today we are more likely to encounter the content of books in
their more popular media avatars. In either form, we learn from
stories, not from case histories or statistical surveys…the latter
being no more nourishing to the moral memory than the proverbial
stones for bread. (And if there are some genres, like the anthropological
monograph, which partake of both categories…these borderlands testify
all the more to a basic distinction.) Literature may or may not
teach us, but it certainly robs us of any claims to exceptionalism
or exculpatory innocence. We should have learned about obsession
from Dostoyevski, about society from Austin, about suffering from
O'Conner, and about war from Crane and Tolstoy. True, we are likely
to keep on making the same old mistakes, but unlike the immaculate
ignorance which scientism seeks to instill in us, a world in which
every day starts off with a new null hypothesis and absolution from
the past, literature should at least teach us a sense of awe at
the fragility of life lived in the shadow of old Adam's bad moral

reminds me of a story somebody told about a man named Erick who
worked in a Veteran's Hospital during the Korean war. Actually he
was a veteran of the war before that. Now of course we have veterans
of the war after that and after that and after that ad infinitum.
Well, this Erick was an orderly in the hospital, but to all intents
and purposes his personal background and psychological profile resembled
a typical patient. He was stuck in a great scientific/bureaucratic/therapeutic
machine which ran relentlessly onward. If you looked at one end
of it, it seemed to offer hope. But this Erick got to thinking,
and the more he pondered the matter the more it seemed to him that
the war and its medical aftermath were all part of one seamless
event. That is, the war was never over…even though he was living
in a university town deep in the Midwest of America, he was still
mentally on a battlefield. To be sure, Erick was trying to get a
new start on life: exploring his career options, thinking of taking
more education, and making some new moves in his love life…but in
actual fact, nobody is able to start their life over in an absolute
sense. Rather, he started to realize that, in spite of being an
orderly and carrying The
Keys to Nine West
, he was as locked in as the mental patients
whom he was locking up every night. If you want to find out how
Erick resolved his dilemma you can read about it in the book of
that title.

mention this story because it is the earliest treatment of post-combat
trauma of which I am aware. That is, a literary rather than a scientific
treatment. It was written by my father during the Eisenhower administration,
long before the subject had become widely acknowledged. It is during
in the summer of '52, so much like the summer of '08 that Erick
must endure the seeming fatality of events,

He kept the
radio on almost constantly, going to sleep with it on and jarring
awake at six when it began to blare the Star Spangled Banner.
The music was interrupted throughout broadcast time with news
of the delegate fights and Ike and Taft's arrival in Chicago.
Erick wished savagely that neither would get those delegates,
that some obscure senator or governor from a western state would
get the nomination, sending the politicians into consternation
and despair. But this was an old habit of his, to hope for some
spectacular and fantastic catastrophe which would upset the order
of things and miraculously set everything right. The expected
always happened, of course, as the order of unalterable law rolled
and crushed. (ibid, p.111)

feeling of being "rolled and crushed" by the "order
of unalterable law" that is, historical law, accurately describes
the reaction of any sensitive person to the seemingly ineluctable
progression of political events. This is the other great fallacy
which abets the loss of moral memory…the notion that history is
determined by some sort of unalterable organic pattern. After all,
this seems plausible in light of our historical experience with
each new generation being sacrificed to another war. However there
is a crucial difference between the valid formulation: "those
who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it" and
its more popular ellipsis "history repeats itself"…the
latter being a tempting snare for those who lack the energy or inclination
to analyze their own, and their country's, past.

Mises explains in Theory and History, "historical laws"
have no more real existence than the snark. The tendency towards
repetition in human events is the result of psychological motives
which we recognize, in literature and elsewhere, as being common
to humanity. However it is important to acknowledge that these motives
themselves are not subject to any kind of exact scientific description.
We can only understand the free-willing personality in an approximate
and indeterminate way. Indeed, it may be possible to create sciences
of behavioral observation and control, but the objects studied are
no longer free personalities…through clumsy intervention they have
been rendered as morally dead as Schrdinger's proverbial cat. In
fact, Mises was so adamant about the distinction of behavioral and
literary psychology, that he invented a separate name "thymology"
for the latter.

represents a movement in the opposite direction from scientism,
towards the recollection of history and the recovery of freedom.
However terrible the forces of fatality may press down on the characters
of the plot, the intent of the author is to enlighten the reader,
making him or her sadder, wiser, and less inclined toward cupidity
the next time around…while the window of freedom and humanity is
still an option. In contrast, science may be able to ameliorate
the human suffering from the Iraq war, but it can't prevent the
next war…indeed, it won't even let us know if the next war is preventable
in principle. Is it?

18, 2008

Sunwall [send him email]
studied Austrian economics at George Mason University and now teaches
Rhetoric and Social Science at the University of Hyogo. He is an
Adjunct Scholar of the Ludwig von
Mises Institute

Email Print