Promiscuous meme(plexes)

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In last month’s issue of the conservative Catholic journal First Things:

…Collins also endorses the view that evangelicalism is moving beyond the foundationalist theology of the past and into what is commonly described as a postmodernist understanding of truth. He quotes the very prolific and influential British evangelical, Alister McGrath: The time has come for evangelicalism to purge itself of the remaining foundational influences of the Enlightenment, not simply because the Enlightenment is over, but because of the danger of allowing ideas whose origins and legitimation lie outside the Christian gospel to exercise a decisive influence on that gospel…We have been liberated from the rationalist demand to set out ‘logical’ and ‘rational’ grounds for our beliefs. Belief systems possess their own integrities, which may not be evaluated by others as if there were some privileged position from which all may be judged.”

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:

CJ: Much has been said about the impact of our entering the post-modern era. How do you anticipate post-modernism will impact the debate?

Phil: …I think it’s positive, on the whole, in the sense that it focuses attention on assumptions that people make, and there really isn’t one single kind of rational system that can combine everything in the world. Then, where it becomes excessive is when it verges over into nihilism or indifference ideas…taken in the right doses, it’s a healthy antidote to excessive rationalism; taken in overdose, it poisons the mind. But you find the notion that non-Western ways of thinking must be treated with respect, that even ancient traditions of tribes may have their truth value–these are healthy developments, I think, and they help open up the universities to challenges to the dominant scientific materialism. So yeah, it’s having a big effect and I think, on the whole, a healthy one.

I thought of McGrath and Johnson when I read this from HIV-causes-AIDS denier Christine Maggiore:

…She has stayed healthy, she said, despite a cervical condition three years ago that would qualify her for an AIDS diagnosis. In a 2002 article for Awareness magazine, she facetiously refers to it as “my bout of so-called AIDS,” saying it coincided “perfectly with the orthodox axiom that we get a decade of normal health before our AIDS kicks in.”

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.


  1. The Retreat to Commitment by W.W. Bartley is very relevent to this subject, if you’re interested. It’s part history of theology and part epistemology. The book foccuses partly on Karl Barth, who was evidently a significant influence on McGrath, and traces the roots of this anti-rationalist strain of Protestanitsm back to Kierkegaard. Seems as relevent as ever now.

  2. matt, 
    well, i think there are many roots of the anti-rationalist tendency, though the ultimate germ i think lay in the cognitive biases of our species. martin luther himself, though humanistically trained, rejected classical learning (though lutheranism is not hebraicized christianity, so it was more show than action). a lot of mcgrath’s rhetoric reminds me of garbled wittgenstein. 
    in the end, i think protestant anti-rationalists are simply one end of the spectrum, while protestant rationalists being the other end (unitarianism in the USA is a post-christian offspring of protestant rationalism, but listen to congregationalists and the jesus seminar, and you’ll hear modern day christian rationalism, or, more accurately, modernism). i think the relatively decentralized nature of protestantism results in greater ideological variance…though the rationalists always tend to (in my opinion) lose to the anti-rationalists when it comes to the popular following.

  3. In practice you are mixing two very different things: 
    1) Science. 
    2) Popular intellectual movements. 
    Rationalism has benefited the first immensely. The second is a mixed bag. 
    The problem is that Science has an effective domain. There is a very good reason that “the default cognitive state of humanity is far more congenial to loose, imprecise and emotionally satisfying narratives and fabulations.” It’s because our loose and imprecise reasoning structure is very very good at the day-to-day problems of social reasoning, while our logical-emprical side is not. (Which is why geeks don’t spend their high school careers lording it over the jocks.) 
    The problem with the Enlightenment is that it has constantly tried to devalue our extremely effective “loose and imprecise reasoning structure” not only in the places where it is ineffective (scientific observation), but also in the places where it is extremely effective (navigating systems of social mores).

    The problem with the Enlightenment is that it has constantly tried to devalue our extremely effective “loose and imprecise reasoning structure” not only in the places where it is ineffective (scientific observation), but also in the places where it is extremely effective (navigating systems of social mores). 
    you are speaking to a different issue. why would i speak relatively positively of neo-thomists if i didn’t understand the distinction you are making? 
    the examples i gave were: 
    1) an author who thinks that post modernism is great because it destroys atheism. 
    2) an author thinks that post modernism is OK because it opens up a spot for intelligent design. 
    3) a quack who rejects HIV-causes-AIDS. 
    two of those are explicitly about science, while the first is a narrow-focus intellectual argument (though mcgrath does imply that atheism is the cause of destructive social engineering in some ways in his book). you want to engage a totally different topic, which is the overreach of the enlightenment, i already pointed to skepticism’s importance in restraining rationality. excessive rationalization of social mores and norms have caused a lot of destruction, but on the balance i would argue that the enlightenment has been a good thing (ie; the reduced quality of life and frankly, even the totalitarian genocides of the 20th century, were contingent upon the health and wealth that were also a byproduct of scientific rationality).

  5. Razib, 
    I agree that whatever popular traction this stuff gets is due partly to the human desire to believe what we like and damn the torpedoes, but also that such anti-rationalism is enabled by our intuitive-but-wrong authoritarian “folk epistemology” that searches for authority for beliefs in “positive reasons” or “rational justifications” of one sort or another. If McGrath sounds like garbled Wittgenstein, ther’s a reason for that. Consider this: 
    “We have been liberated from the rationalist demand to set out ‘logical’ and ‘rational’ grounds for our beliefs.” 
    The reason they can get away with this is precisely because “justified beliefs” are impossible, despite the best efforts of a long line of philosophers to make it work. Irrationalists can always win this argument by asking “why?” like an annoying child until the naive rationalist loses patience and puts his foot down on “because, dammit!” The argument subsequently degenerates into table-pounding and the irrationalist claims “victory”. 
    That’s what made me think of Bartley: he examines the metacontext of Western philosophy (both theological and secular) and pinpoints its fatal flaw in the quixotic search for justified beliefs that will “hold come what may” (as Quine would say). He cuts the gordian knot by advocating a non-justificationist rationalism that focuses on critical preferences rather than justified beliefs; everything is open to criticism and all our knowledge is on permanent probation. 
    Needless to say that this is an attitude that doesn’t come naturally to human minds.

  6. the human desire to believe what we like 
    i want to be clear and note that i don’t just believe people are biased toward believing in particular things because of emotional reasons. after all, most conceptions of god are not fuzzy best buds as in the liberal christian modern conception (to simplify). rather, i think humans have a particular way of thinking which evokes particular ideas and paradigms, or at least, is more easily parasitized by particular ideas.  
    i don’t hold out much hope that most people can currently really shed this tendency, and it is hard enough for those who fancy themselves intellectuals (ie; many scientists and scholars say jack-stupid shit when they are out of field). rather, my particular concern is that a certain subset of intellectuals is trying to blow up the castle from the inside for their own selfish reasons. ultimately, i am broadening the defenders of the castle beyond the enlightenment, as neo-thomism is a product of an older rationality. 
    p.s. in christianity, i think tertullian is an early expositer of the tendency which i am pointing too. tellingingly, two of his famous quotes are: 
    “I believe because it is absurd” 
    “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”

  7. “Some pre-Reformation intellectuals who brought up these issues eventually became Jews (they are recorded because of their trials as apostates).” 
    Astonishing when you consider the time and place. Can you supply references about them?

  8. Razib: Couldn’t you at least call the French Enlightenment a mitigated failure? It produced the US, and the Physiocrats, who provided the foundations for Adam Smith, and a lot of good science and math.  
    Thrasymachus: I’m not convinced of the inferior social skills of “geeks”, just of their lower numbers. I think they do a better job getting along among their own kind than other groups do. Will a “trekkie” be any more out of place among “popular kids” than vice versa?

  9. mc: see the barbarian conversion. look up “judaizers.”

  10. I’m not following well. Are you defending the scientific project against insiders (scholars, intellectuals, those who one would think would be defenders of it) who are trying to derail it? Against non-specialist ordinary-everyday rubes? One or the other? Both? Or am I missing the point entirely? 
    Dopey-but-intrigued, semi-po-mo ex-English major would appreciate a straightforward two-sentence summary of your argument. I’m on the verge of bringing forth the names Michael Oakeshott and Stephen Toulmin, but I’m not entirely sure that now’s the moment.

  11. Are you defending the scientific project against insiders (scholars, intellectuals, those who one would think would be defenders of it) who are trying to derail it? 
    more this.

  12. What is the source for your mention of anti-Trinitarian Christians who became Jews? That sounds like a fascinating story.

  13. i already gave the source above. please see my response to mc.

  14. A quick look at Dean Esmay’s blog: 
    especially his e-book delineating the evidence on both sides of the HIV=AIDS question, and at the Duesberg material: 
    should be sufficient to bring into question in your mind your assertion that there is no scientific basis for disputing the causation of “AIDS” by the HIV virus.

  15. Here are some interesting Judaizers.

  16. I don’t want to seem too picky Razib but I’ve seen you do this before. You’re screwing up that Tertullian quote. 
    Tertullian was a lawyer before he became a Christian apologist/writer and was quite famous for being very clever and witty with withering barb type stuff and lots of Christians liked reading him even if he didn’t convert many pagans to Christianity, he was kind of like Ann Coulter. 
    “I believe it because it is absurd” does not mean that Tertullian thinks that Christianity requires one to believe in anything offensive to reason like a square circle of a right triange where a^2 + b^2 isn’t equal to c^2. “Absurd” means two things. First Christianity is not a religion that anyone who was just winging it would ever make up, a made up religion wouldn’t look like Christianity since it’s not a religion any would dream up from the comfort of one’s armchair. Related to this, it is also one that someone who was making up a religion with the intention that it would flourish would never come up with, because if you look at it, Christianity just shouldn’t ‘sell’. But since it was a very fast growing religion by Tertullian’s times, eventhough persecuted, Tertullian is saying that given these disadvantages it must have one real big thing going for it, that thing being that it is true. 
    So now that you know about Tertullian don’t do that again! :).

  17. j mct, i was aware of the context…i will admit i used the quote for rhetorical affect, but now i’ll have to restrain myself :)

  18. Oops! I should have the read the comments more carefully instead of skimming them. I’m sorry.

  19. “First Christianity is not a religion that anyone who was just winging it would ever make up, a made up religion wouldn’t look like Christianity since it’s not a religion any would dream up from the comfort of one’s armchair” 
    That’s true of all religions isn’t it? Or at least the major ones at their inception. They do go against the grain of human nature, “please lord, help me to stop sinning…only not now” was the entreaty of St. Augustine. 
    To paraphrase the 1960 inaugural address: “…We choose to do [these] things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”