​“Preacher, tell them that Satan is real, too”: Connecting Rothbard’s Conceptual Realism and Quaker Notions

Recently in reading through Murray Rothbard’s Man, Economy, and State, I came across an interesting concept with possible relevance for religious practice. In critiquing the economic thought of some others, he explains that a common fallacy is to engage in “conceptual realism.” This he defines as any situation “in which theoretical constructs are mistaken for actually existing entities” (359).  He later uses the example of government to illustrate his point. “Those who object that private individuals are mortal, while ‘governments are immortal,’ indulge in the fallacy of conceptual realism at its starkest,” he says. “’Government’ is not a real acting entity, but rather a type of interpersonal action adopted by actual individuals” (957). An excellent example of methodological individualism from an economic and political thinker, perhaps, but what relevance does it have for those seeking to practice religious faith?

In the classic Louvin Brothers song, an old man stands up after the congregation sings about God being real and says, “Preacher, tell them that Satan is real, too.” And the song goes on to declare that “Hell is a real place, A place of everlasting punishment.” Hell and Satan are certainly theological concepts, but can devotion to concepts such as these (or others) lead us to behave toward others in ways that would otherwise violate core ethical and theological commitments to our fellow human beings? Unfortunately, history is littered with tragic examples of humans treating others in horrific ways in the pursuit of what they deemed higher purposes.

From early in their history, Quakers cautioned against the dangers of theological abstraction getting in the way of our humanity. “Friends would rather know God than know about God,” according to the West Hills Friends Meeting website. “Consequently, we have been skeptical of creeds and theological abstractions. Human ideas are sometimes called ‘notions,’ (or even ‘airy notions’) as a reminder that their value is limited.” William Penn offers a good example of thiswhen he says, “For it is not opinion, or speculation, or notions of what is true, or assent to propositions, though ever so soundly worded that makes a man a true believer: it is a conformity of mind and practice to the dictates of this Divine principle of Light and Life in the soul which denotes a person a child of God.” Lucretia Mott echoed this later in her observation that “The likeness we bear to Jesus is more essential than our notions of him.”

Is all of this to say that theology does not matter? I actually tend to think it matters a great deal. But just as Jesus and later Paul cautioned against an overemphasis on the letter of the law rather than its spirit, we can lose sight of the dignity and value of the person in front of us or across the globe if we place too great an emphasis on either our own moral rectitude or any ideal (theological, philosophical, political, etc.) or object upon which we place great value. In so doing, we can create a hell for ourselves and others. 

Originally posted at the Quaker Libertarians blog: http://quakerlibertarians.weebly.com/blog

Views: 385

Comment by James C Schultz on 2nd mo. 24, 2016 at 8:50am

That's a pretty bad song and I like country and gospel.  On the other hand Satan doesn't deserve anything better.:)

Comment by Matt on 2nd mo. 24, 2016 at 8:55am

Hey now, that's a classic! ;) Their story is worth checking out, too: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Louvin_Brothers

Comment by Forrest Curo on 2nd mo. 24, 2016 at 9:02am

To quote James Thurber: Santa isn't real, even though you can see him; and the wolf at the door is, even though you can't.

And that seems to be the sort of 'reality' Satan possesses.

Each person has the capability of using their mind against themselves; and therefore should not believe everything they think...

Comment by Keith Saylor on 2nd mo. 24, 2016 at 10:25am

Hello Matt,

I wonder whether you would explain why you tend to think theology matters?

Thank you, Keith

Comment by James C Schultz on 2nd mo. 24, 2016 at 10:40am

After the 9/11 attacks I had a debate with the Spirit about writing a song about 9/11.  As usual I lost the argument and wrote the song.  Well it was declared the worst song of the year by some dj in Great Britain, which gives me some street cred when it comes to judging a song.  Or maybe not.:)

Comment by Forrest Curo on 2nd mo. 24, 2016 at 11:08am

A government -- or a corporation -- a religious organization -- are all real in the same sense as 'the wolf at the door'. They're metaphoric constructions by which people organize their lives together, models of reality based on reasoning from "This thing works like that thing."

Most of the things people do believe are real turn out to be metaphoric in the same way. Science for example. Even mathematics. A mathematician will typically try to explain his math by some concrete example.... and this is because metaphoric reasoning from similar concrete examples turns out to be what underlies, in human minds, the whole abstract structure.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 2nd mo. 24, 2016 at 11:16am

In any case, governments (and corporations) are not 'immortal'; they are 'undead'.

Comment by Matt on 2nd mo. 24, 2016 at 12:09pm

Ha! This may lead to a whole other post on zombies, Forrest! ;)

Keith, in terms of your question on theology - I once heard Jennie Isbell share about the difference between embedded and deliberative theology and it made a real impact on me. The basic idea is that we all operate out of some theological framework (absorbed from family, culture, church, etc.), and that continues to impact our actions throughout our life. We all also go through some examination and modification of that over the course of our lives, but that process can done with more or less care and intention, and with more or less involvement from others. Since how we perceive the world affects how we engage it, I believe it to be a worthwhile endeavor that merits our attention.  

Comment by Jim Wilson on 2nd mo. 24, 2016 at 12:41pm

The ontological status of abstract entities is an ongoing discussion in philosophy.  Rothbard tends, I think, towards a modified nominalism.  I tend to adhere to classical Platonism. 

Biologically, there are species wide behaviors and physical characteristics that all members of a species share.  In that sense it makes sense to talk about the behavior of collectives.  In a similar way, there are types of governments and other collections of human beings that we can talk about coherently, without necessarily solving their ontological status.

In a sense, I think the central Quaker view of the inner light in all people argues for an actually existing collective abstraction; that of God in everyone.  This seems to me to run counter to what Rothbard is suggesting, but it has been a long time since I read 'Man, Economy, and State', so I could be wrong about that.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 2nd mo. 24, 2016 at 12:57pm

But God is not a collective abstraction.

We necessarily talk about God by means of metaphors; but God is not a metaphor.

Theology is a means for forming a more (or less!!!) coherent metaphoric model of God; and in any case people do tend to approach God as if God fit within some such model, consciously acquired or not.

A bad model hampers or distorts the communication; hence it's good to remember that we are thinking in terms of such a model, that we can come to form a more accurate one by better acquaintance with that reality it seeks to describe.

As Keith may be getting at, to the extent that we let the actual experience of God modify our model, we're better off than idly playing with models for their own sake.


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