Tuesday, September 27, 2005
In last month's issue of the conservative Catholic journal First Things:
I have noted before McGrath's smug exultation at the coming "Post Modern" age, which he concludes will usher in the death of atheism as rationalism retires from the intellectual playing field. McGrath is not alone, as I have noted many a time, the law professor who sparked the rise of the modern Intelligent Design movement, has also spoken highly of Post Modernism:
I thought of McGrath and Johnson when I read this from HIV-causes-AIDS denier Christine Maggiore:
Presupposing the "orthodoxy" of HIV-causes-AIDS, it seems that Maggiore's 3 year old daughter died of the disease. Of course, that hasn't fazed Maggiore or her allies (yet) in their belief. As McGrath noted, "Belief systems possess their own integrities."
Critical skeptical scholarship, of which "Post Modernism" is one strand, is a good thing, in some measure. The post-Enlightenment intellectual tradition depends upon skepticism and empiricism to alternatively prune and build the great rational systems which undergird science and traditional scholarship. Nevertheless, just as Neo-Thomism and Objectivism became drunk on "rationality," while the various Positivist schools tended to be slavish toward a particular conception of "empiricism," many modern scholars seem to have became fixated on skepticism, primarily I think because it is a magic key which opens the door to an innumerable kaleidoscope of negative paradigms. I have asserted many times that the brews concocted by ivory tower intellectuals eventually become poison in the hands of movements and individuals that said ivory tower intellectuals would consider reactionary. It happened with the anti-porn arguments of Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon, though the ultimate grounds for objection to pornography on the part of grassroots activists seem to be moral and religious, the proximate arguments to a broader (and often elite progressive) audience are couched in terms of female worth and autonomy. The multiculturalist paradigm is now being used, opportunistically, by a subset of Muslims to push to recreate the social strictures of their "homelands" and nullify the basic rights that have become part of the post-Enligthenment consensus.
Perfection is impossible, we shall all miss the mark of an accurate representation of the world around us. But there seems to be a subset of intellectuals, a looming simmering anti-consensus, which rebels against the injunction to strive toward accuracy, systematic coherency and plain transparency. But some may ask if the threat of some babbling quasi-philosophers and critics of the established system of Western intellectual inquiry as it has crystallized by the early 20th century is that great. The bits of evidence above to me are an illustration of a truth that I believe we should all be aware of: the default cognitive state of humanity is far more congenial to loose, imprecise and emotionally satisfying narratives and fabulations than the unnatural models which modern science and scholarship promote. Humans want to believe certain things. Ergo, the timeless appeal of pseudoscience. The relative immunity of mass religion to the universal acid and the lack of awareness, or interest in, systematic theology which presumes to respond to that universal acid (many evangelical apologetics are riddled with question begging arguments and circular reasoning, but their purpose is to buttress faith with the patina of rationality, not win a point by point debate). Rational intellectualization is in some measure a rebellion against our nature. I remember my mild let down reading Carl Sagan as a child when he dismissed crankish science because said crankish science was so entertaining and dazzling, and did not require the same cognitive outlay as the equivalent spectacular vistas of real science. Authors of popularizations of science or scholarship make their books accessible to a broad audience by scaffolding rationality with a superfluous entourage of anecdotes, analogies and biographies, cold reason and dry fact transformed into a vivid living narrative.
Most people who have scientific training can not design a chemical plant. They can not scribble some equations which would accurately predict the results of selective breeding regimes. They can not extract active ingrediants from mixtures given a few beakers, burners and pipets. Scientists are technical specialists, embedded in a social system, and owing fealty to a common understanding of the how the world works, and trusting in the intersection of the world and that social system. Similarly, scholars in non-scientific fields are also specialists, and their disciplines operate via rules and accepted standards. These individuals are keepers of the flame of modern civilization which all humans today, more or less, benefit from. I believe there is some complacency amongst us moderns that scientific and intellectual modes of thought have diffused widely enough among the general public that the meme would survive any assaults, whether sociological or natural. I do not for a moment believe that Johnson or McGrath, both evangelical Christians, see in Post Modernism as anything more than a tool to deal with the disease of secularism. They surely believe in Eternal Truths. But sometimes the cure is worse than the disease....
Addendum: Though I speak firmly with the voice of an atheist biased toward a positivist methodology and a naturalistic ontology, I explicitly do not reject the common ground I share with many humanists and religionists. Though I reject the arguments promoted by Neo-Thomist philosophers within the Roman Catholic Church, I can understand the basic process of reasoning. In contrast, a Post Modern conception of Christianity evades engagement and discourse. Similarly, though I may find the contentions of some scholars as to the genius of Shakespeare unconvincing or inscrutable, I can conceive of the general outline of their argument. In contrast, the post-Derridaesque style of discourse seems to make a mockery of the communicative facility that god or nature has granted our species. There are certain intellectuals out there who share a common currency, backed by the gold standard set by the Classical and Enlightenment thinkers (flawed and futile in execution, but inspiring in vision), around which a common intelligible discourse can be perpetuated. In contrast there other others who wish to print currencies which are measured only against the fiat of social whim and which stubbornly refuse interconversion.
Note: I bring up Neo-Thomism several times because McGrath's rejection of "ideas whose origins and legitimation lie outside the Christian gospel" seems reflective of a particular strand of Protestantism which makes an ostentatious attempt to discard Classical philosophical influences on Christianity. This of course is in direct conflict with the main thrust of Roman Catholic intellectuals, who drink deeply at the well of non-Christian Hellenic philosophy, whether it be Neo-Platonism via St. Augustine, or, more contemporaneously, Aristotle via St. Thomas Aquinas. I say ostentatiously because from the inception of the Reformation Protestants have balked at discarding crucial centerpieces of Christian theology which do seem to be ideas that derived from the engagement of gentile converts with the non-Christian milieu, for example, the Trinity. When early Protestant radicals attacked reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin on these particulars they were rejected as heretics, and appeals were made to the Church Fathers to supplement sola scriptura. Some pre-Reformation intellectuals who brought up these issues eventually became Jews (they are recorded because of their trials as apostates).
Addendum II: One thing I want to be clear about, I specifically aimed to be "Broad Church" here, McGrath refers to the "Enlightenment," which might imply the French Enlightenment. I am not one who thinks that the French Englightenment was an unmitigated disaster, nevertheless, my defense of "rationality" is a bit broader than the school of Voltaire and Diderot, and includes the general Western intellectual tradition that encompasses skepticism and empiricism as essential legs in the tripod completed by rationalism. Not only does this include the Scottish and English Enlightenments, but I do not exclude the Roman Catholic Thomistic philosophical tradition as a player in the market of ideas, because it shares the same cognitive currency. To various extents many streams of Western and non-Western intellectual thought express each of the elements noted above, but I think that one strand in particular which one can push back as far as the pre-Socratics, has resulted in the critically rational intellectual outlook of modernity. The "threat" that relativists, Post Modernists and primitivists on the cultural Right and the Left is not that they will undermine the intellectual outlook of the broad masses, the common folk have only a perfunctory attachment to any sort of intellectualization in any case, rather, I worry about the negative effect excessive skepticism might have on the cohesion of the social system which furthers science and scholarship in the West, and this instability might undermine the tacit deference that the public concedes to scholars due to their erudition and analysis of positive truths.