Run Away! Run Away! Fear and the Problem of Progressivism

Let’s face it, progressives just don’t do fear well. Conservatives go to town with death panels and black helicopters, while progressives build arguments. It’s true in religion; it’s true in politics: progressives live in Reasonville while conservatives scare the hell into people.

Take, for example, Pascal’s Wager, one of the enduring arguments concerning the god concept. Blaise Pascal was a Seventeenth Century French mathematician whose work led directly to probability theory, game theory, and calculus.

Pascal understood that none of the proofs of god held up to logic, so he decided to go in a new direction, employing the nascent field of game theory. What he created is called Pascal’s Wager.

It goes like this:

Like it or not, we are playing a game that is like flipping a coin, heads or tails: either there is a God or there is not a God.

Reason can’t help us in this game–there is no evidence for or against the existence of God.

Each of us must bet: heads or tails. (That’s the logic part.)

Now, argued Pascal, if there is a God and you act as if there is—ding, ding!—you win. Eternal bliss.

Option two: If there is no God but you act as if there is—ding, ding!—you don’t lose anything. You, too, get bliss forevermore.

Option three: If there is a God and you act as if there is not—sad, scary music!—you lose: eternal damnation.

Therefore, the best bet is to act as if there is a God. That’s a great conservative argument.

Now, the biggest hole in Pascal’s logic is explained by the anthropic principle: how likely is it that Pascal, or you, were born in the place and the time that had the formula for “god” just right? Pascal’s unstated assumption is that there is only one type of god possible, the god of Seventeenth Century French Roman Catholicism. Pascal assumed, for example, that the earlier form of Christianity based on Arius is incorrect, and that the Mayan gods, or the Polynesian gods, aren’t capable of rewarding us with eternal bliss or eternal damnation. And so on.

Yet, despite its weakness, versions Pascal’s Wager crop up all the time. Because its real power lies in fear. Our gut tells us losing that particular coin flip would be very bad news indeed.

Pascal’s Wager shows the fault line between progressives and conservatives. Progressives see a problem; we educate ourselves about the problem; we see ways of fixing the problem; then, we think everybody should be convinced by our chain of reasoning. It baffles us that anyone would oppose such a logical position.

Our opponents think that our well-reasoned position will be bad for business. Or that it violates some old social norm or scriptural text. And so, they use the favorite tool in the conservative toolbox: fear.

Let’s face it: fear sells. Logic . . . not so much. We throw up our hands: “Why can’t people just be logical?” Well—we must remind ourselves—because we didn’t evolve that way.

Logic is not our first response to a stimulus. Fight or flight is our first response to a stimulus. Only later does logic become available to us.

Classic example: you’re walking in some tall weeds, you look down, and you see something that looks like a snake.

You get a rush of adrenaline; the hair on your arms stands up; you jump out of the way.

So, you didn’t get bitten by the snake. But, on second look, it turns out that the “snake” was a stick or a piece of rope.

Evolution has wired us to protect ourselves from snakes. We can logic our way out if it, but only with effort. With reason. If you don’t believe me, ask first or second graders living in a city what they’re afraid of. (This has been researched.) You’ll hear about snakes. And lions. And rhinoceroses. And dragons.  It’s unlikely the kids will mention cars; or guns; or viruses, things that are ACTUALLY dangerous. They certainly won’t mention high-fructose corn syrup, which will kill far more of them than even firearms, with the resultant Type II Diabetes.

Fact is, we are not wired to fear what is actually dangerous, because our lives are not as they were in our evolution. Fear has served us well as a species. Fear saves us from snakes. But snakes are not the most dangerous things in our environment any more. And so we sit on hold on the telephone, adrenaline rushing and hair bristling, ready for fight or flight, and all we accomplish is messing up our digestion.

Our brains did not evolve to cope with the world we now live in. Neither did our governments. Governments work best in short-term, fight-or-flight situations. Yet, thinking fast and scared doesn’t solve problems such as global climate change.

We have two very good systems for addressing the realities and the dangers of the world. The problem lies in knowing when to use which . . .

Did Pascal believe his own wager? Hard to say. He did know, however, that a concrete example and a real fear is convincing.

  • nanomanoman

    I think Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, would disagree with you.

    “You will smile here at the consistency of those democratists who, when
    they are not on their guard, treat the humbler part of the community
    with the greatest contempt, whilst, at the same time they pretend to
    make them the depositories of all power.”

    Burke was horrified at the outcome of that first “progressive” revolution – in France – launched under the slogan of liberty, equality and fraternity but resulting in a bloodbath in which the bourgeois class sought to eliminate the class above, and simply replace it.

    There is actually much to be feared from “progressives” – Fascism and Communism were progressive in their time: systems developed by great intellectuals to remedy the “original sin” of mankind (both unconsciously Christian-utopian projects, according to John Gray).

    Much “progressiveness” today is actual bourgeois self-interest in progressive clothing: mass immigration for example that drives economic prosperity and provides cheap services (like cleaners) for middle class people, undermines the bargaining power of the working class. It doesn’t feel very progressive when you are competing with those who accept minimum wage, or less.

    Both Gray and Simone Weil argue “there is no such thing as progress”, I think in Straw Dogs Gray says “technology improves but the human animal remains much the same”. While in a sense there has been progress – female and gay rights for example – most change is actually effected by the cool calculus of power. The “permissive society” was simply another bourgeois revolution (look what happened to the French class of ’68) – aimed at overturning the old order to replace it with its own. Obamacare (and Europe’s health services) were voted in. The vote itself came not as a favour but a concession to workers’ power – out of fear!

    Anxiety is an evolved response and you’re right, Conservatives do play on it (and I mean real Conservatives, not neo-conservatves, who are actually in thrall to an ideology and therefore “progressives”) but because so many things come packaged as “progress” when in fact they are something else – perhaps simply representative of the age-old power struggle – maybe they are right to be afraid.

    • David Breeden

      I agree with your analysis. The reason I am trying these days to use the word “progressive” is that I think the liberal / conservative dichotomy is no longer adequate. And a big contributor to that is that “conservative” in no way is what a Burke–or even an Eisenhower–would recognize. The cliche that liberals love humanity and hate people is also too often true.

      And by “progressive” I certainly don’t mean believers in progress in any capitalist sense. A new airplane or a new weapons system isn’t progress. You are also correct that aside from some victories for personal rights, there hasn’t been much in the way of progress in the human project.

      The sorts of battles I have in mind are in the climate change “debate” or the evolution “debate.”

      On my reading list is Ara Norenzayan’s -Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. And Joshua Greene, -Moral Tribes. Greene starts by saying something like “morality is about cooperation.” I think rubbing these two big ideas together–how our evolution created our morality and how “big religion” used that wiring–may make for interesting reflection.

      Thanks for you thoughtful response!


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