HomeArticlesF.A. HayekThe Presumption of Reason


The Presumption of Reason — 7 Comments

  1. F. A. Hayek had been witness to the extraordinary and dramatic events of the 20th century having served as an officer in WW1, lived through WW2 and lived to marvel at the deciphering of the DNA code. In this essay, prepared for ICUS, Hayek makes the observation that constructive rationalism, in opposition to traditional wisdom, is at the heart of many political and economic problems of our time. There seems to be a failure to recognize the limitations of human reason and the indispensibility of separately evolved traditional rules. Hayek recognizes that ideological conflict and the failure to arrive at a consensus of shared values invariably leads society down a troubled path. We are observers of this process of the shedding of the maladapted. In particular he draws attention to the natural selection of belief systems that support property rights and family ethics over the long history of human affairs. He was right to predict the decline of communism – itself a religion – because it is anti-property and anti-family. By thinking through this position, Hayek must also take exception to some traditional religious views while at the same time defend beneficial religious beliefs that have preserved (Western) civilization. He could have been an outstanding Unificationist with a belief system that squarely faces the problem of sifting through indefensible political doctrines and preserving beneficial religious traditions that would ensure the survivability of a peaceful world.

    • Hayek believed that human cultures carry their own equivalent of a DNA code. The term “meme,” coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976, is used to define the social equivalent of the gene. Memes comprise the inherited cultural value matrix from parents and society. They determine who we are as social beings. They are transmitted by mimicking behavior, through language, rituals, literature, and the mass media. The word meme derives from the Greek mimema, the root of the word “mimic.”

      Like the genetic code, memes are very complex forms of social consciousness that reason has barely been able to penetrate. This is why integral theorist Ken Wilber argues that we must “transcend and include” the memes that we inherit, perhaps altering a component here and there, but the rejection of religion and all inherited values per se would be to “throw out the baby with the bathwater.”

      One has to just look at the French and Communist Revolutions to see that such societies had to relearn many of the lessons of history. Trying to cut off from the past they were doomed to repeat it. As Hayek indicated, they were forced to restore property rights after failing to compete with societies that had them.

      Just because we cannot rationally explain religious values like the Ten Commandments, or the variety of Roman virtues, through our contemporary reason gives us no right to eject them. Modern scientists place the burden of proof on religious believers to rationally prove their believes, but in reality it should be the other way around. The burden of proof should be placed on science to prove that these commandments and virtues are wrong. Since societies that adopted such values prospered and survived, constitutes a form of evolutionary proof of their utility for the attainment of human happiness.

      • It is difficult to think of culture as having a genetic code since culture is a human construct or invention. Genes and their codes are not an invention of human creativitiy. The DNA code functions as the master control system from the conception to the eventural growth and completion of an organism. Richard Dawkins idea of a cultural matrix or “meme” stretches far beyond and outside the function of biological genes. Dawkins places ideological influence on par with biological determinism. It is an apples to oranges comparison. However, from the Far Eastern philosophies, the workings of culture are understood through the understanding of the fundamental rules of nature – co-existence ( yin / yang ), constructive interdependence and mutual reciprocity. Human survival is predicated upon a type of equilibrium with the environment and harmony among individuals and groups. Tradition, ideology or religion is simply the constructed carrier of the information needed for humans to survive and eventually thrive. Hayek summarizes this sustainable matrix as property and family. It is clear from a historical point of view that maladapted constructs of values and excessive competition leads to social conflict and violence. In fact maladapted values and corrupt behaviors have become engrained into false belief systems that have repeated led to domestic and international violence. Social systems that are anti-property and anti-family are destined to fail, according to Hayaek. ( and the 4PF ) Modern thinkers have come to recognize that religious doctrine has been one maladapted part of the great political and economic problem. However, the religious meme cannot simply be rendered meaningless by scientism or rationalism then discarded without something to take its place. The traditional ideological-religious meme that has allowed societies to survive for centuries has faltered in modern times. The traditional religious meme is called into question, rightly so, because it has not resulted in a peaceful world. On the other hand competition alone does not provide a suitable answer. The traditional ideologies of politics and economics have not solved the problem of inequities in distributive justice and the breakdown of subsidiary ( family ) structures. Obviously, more work needs to be done.

  2. Hayek was prepared to argue that Darwin got his basic ideas on evolution from the study of social sciences. Along this line of thinking are two factors that could support Hayek’s argument. The evolution of jaws and claws. As, H. Spencer might say, it is the survival of the fittest among competitors. Jaws represented by the evolution of intellectual capacity or political diplomacy. Claws represented by the effective use of force or military capacity. In other words, the evolution of the cultural matrix ( meme ) that has allowed certain groups to attain dominance over their competitors is an adaptive theory of evolutionary advances in jaws and the advanced superiority in claws. A quick study of social evolutions shows that human society has failed to make advances in the former category of an ideological meme. Consequently, the most apparent advances are made in the latter category of superior uses of physical force and a superior weapons making meme. Again, a simplified theory of the evolution of jaws and claws that could be viewed by Darwinians and evolutionary sociologists. The presumption is that cultures that are better at diplomacy or reason would have the evolutionary advantage. Rather, the evidence would support that cultures whose advances in weapons making were dominant. Of course, advances in weapons technology does indicate an improved type of technological creativity. Yet, this does not indicate an improvement in political diplomacy. Reason becomes overshadowed by coercion and the threat of damaging consequences. Thus, human history is the record of continuous and bloody conflict. Herein lies the importance of an adaptive religious meme or cultural matrix ( 4PF ) that can bring this maladaptive process towards real improvement.

    • I would argue that evolution in political theory involves a move from rule by a conqueror to rule by social contract. While both use jaws and claws, one is imposed rule and the other is collective self-rule. However, either form of rule requires governance by established principles of good governance. Today in the US we see a form of government where special interest groups rule by political conquest over the principles of good governance established by the US founders. As Carl von Clausewitz said, “politics is war by other means.”

      Both Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party represent a reaction to this rule by conquest over the US government that has occurred by means other than physical war and ended the social contract, which now exists in name only.

      • Agreed, the American social contract is faltering. The principles of good governance established by the US Constitution and other founding documents are being undermined by the rules of political conquest. It is a gradual process of political and economic subterfuge.
        It is the evolutionary outcome of nonobjective dialectic rationalism. In other words, fairness and social justice are rational constructs to be argued and fought over by separated parties. In this competition there are no absolute truths discerned by supra natural powers. Only the history of the last party standing validates their evolutionary fitness. It is more claws and jaws imperialism practice by history’s super powers from Rome to London to Berlin and to Washington DC. It is the mindset of communists. It is the primitive meme that can be found in the special interest lobbyists, members of Congress, OWS protesters and the Tea Party.

        In direct contrast to the mindset of communist stands the theoretical 4PF paradigm – coexistence of separated parties governed by the principles of interdependence, universally shared core values, reciprocity and mutual prosperity. This objectively observed construct can be found in the model of the nuclear family. Herein lies the argumentative basis for modern reform of Hayek’s system of property and family. Family is objectively true in an evolutionary sense. Humanity owes its cultural existence to this objective standard, that has motivated people to rise above the rule of jaws and claws.

  3. I think that it is clear that Darwin derived his evolutionary theories based on economics. The concept of divisions of labor in society was well established. The driving force for evolution was the acquisition by random mutations of attributes that allowed an organism to utilize resources in a niche where other organisms had not been able to better utilize resources there. This concept is very close to specialization in labor when you think about it. More modern evolutionists take this farther. In a stable system there is little change over long periods of time, because evolution has already filled the available niches. But when huge catastrophes occur, the organisms that are left have a chance to take over. So with dinosaurs vs mammals. When most of the large dinosaurs were eradicated by natural disasters, the mammals rapidly evolved to fill the available niches. Similarly, you can see it on smaller scales in examples like the Galapagos and the Hawaiian islands, where newly created biomes allowed the few species that could get there free access to evolve rapidly into many niches. You can see it in Australia, where for some reason, mammals were limited while marsupials were able to survive and populate many more niches than where mammals were more populous.

    I think Darwin took a lot of his reasoning for evolution also from the work of Thomas Malthus on population growth and use of resources, and likewise, much of Malthus’ work is also rooted in economics.

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