Feelings don’t care about your facts. The gates of ijtihad have closed. The Law of Gravity is nonsense. No such law exists.
— Razib Khan (@razibkhan) October 24, 2017
I’m excited to read Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. I’ve read every one one of his books except for The Stuff of Thought, and The Blank Slate is one of my favorite books of all time. I still remember how much of a page-turner The Language Instinct was for me back in the late 1990s. But I’m most excited about Enlightenment Now because I’m looking for a little hope. At this point, I am very pessimistic as to the prospects for the Enlightenment project.
This is pretty obvious to anyone who reads me closely. I’ve been writing and discussing with people on the internet, and in private, for many years now, and have come to the conclusion most people are decent, but they’re also craven and intellectually unserious outside of their domain specificity when they are intellectual. Many of our institutions are quite corrupt, and those which are supposedly the torchbearers of the Enlightenment, such as science, are filled with people who are also blind to their own biases or dominated by those who will plainly lie to advance their professional prospects or retain esteem from colleagues.
That’s why I laughed out loud when I saw this tweet:
A good litmus test for scientists:
What would you do if your results contradicted your political beliefs?
— Jay Van Bavel (@jayvanbavel) November 4, 2017
In psychology, much of the replication crisis was simply due to personal self-interest (more publications). But some of it was obviously political (see stereotype threat). Similarly, look at the fiasco in nutrition science. Some of it was personal, but there were also political demands from on high that there be something done. So “scholars” set some guidelines that people followed for decades, even if later they were shown to be totally ineffective. I’m not even going to get into the travesty that is modern biomedical science, with professional advancement and institutional interests combined in a deadly cocktail.
Also, I enjoy science popularizing (or did, I don’t read science books much anymore) as much as the next person, but isn’t it interesting how much of modern science confirms the mainstream elite cultural norms of ~2020? Curiously, if you read science popularizations in newspapers in 1920 they would also confirm the elite cultural norms of 1920…. But this time we’re right!
Other institutions aren’t doing better. The media is going through economic collapse, and journalists and their paymasters are reacting by pandering to their audiences. Instead of illuminating, they’re confirming. That’s what the audience wants, and I’m sure it’s more satisfying to journalists anyway. But can you blame them with the economics that are before us?
Don’t get me started on Facebook or Twitter.
I was having a discussion with a reasonably prominent pundit (you would recognize the name) today who bemoaned the reality that so many journalists are now driven to sating tribal passions and generating clicks for their paymasters. He was trying to argue against my pessimism, suggesting that the fever was starting to break. We’ll see. I hope I’m wrong.
People have always been biased and subject to motivated reasoning. We’ve had our disputes whatever our ideology, whether it be conservative, moderate, or liberal. But the Enlightenment perspective of critical rationalism, which took philosophical realism seriously, meant that ultimately people who disagreed often assumed that fundamentally they were trying to converge on the same facts, the same reality. Reality existed, and you couldn’t just wish it away. Discussion might forward two individuals to a convergence!
We’re not there anymore. Whether it be Bush-era contempt for “Reality-Based Community”, or the rising crest of “Critical Theory”, the acid of subjectivism is eroding the vast edifice of aspirational realism which grew organically in the wake of the Enlightenment. This isn’t a Left vs. Right phenomenon, it’s a human dynamic, because for most of human history what is true has been determined by what the tribe dictates to be true, and what the tribe dictates to be true has often not been based on a critical evaluation of facts and theories. What the tribe dictates to be true is computationally less intensive than thinking things through yourself, and, it’s often right-enough.
The reality is that this cultural cognition and conformity has always held. It’s just that it seems that for a few centuries substantial latitude was given in public to a relative amount of heterodoxy from broad tribal visions. And it was always a work in progress. But there was a goal, and an ideal, even if we habitually failed. We failed in the direction of truth.
We live in a post-modern age now. Feelings are paramount, facts must bow before them. But the curious fact is that the post-modern age is just the pre-modern age. When I first read the Christian author Alister McGrath I literally scoffed at his contention that atheism would fail before the ascendancy of post-modernism. Ten years on I will admit that I now believe he was right and I was wrong. Though I don’t think the New Atheism failed miserably, I do think that the problems it is encountering from the cultural Left are due to its cold modernist baggage.
No truth, no liberalism. No liberalism, and democracy become the mob. The passions of the mob do eventually fail, and its wake a more oligarchic and hierarchical system will emerge. We may simply be seeing the end of the liberal individualist interregnum, as history reverts to its despotic collectivist norm.
Art, the applied sciences of engineering, and many human endeavors will continue to develop in the new order. Illiberal societies, all societies until recently, can be cultured and civilized. My own preference is for the dignity of the individual and legal egalitarianism of the liberal world in which I grew up (but in which I was not born), but humans have flourished and continue to flourish in illiberal environments.
One way to think about the past century or so is that more or less the waters of human nature receded, and a great undersea world was exposed. But now human nature is rising, and that world is submerging before our eyes. But islands of the old world we grew up in will persist. We need to find each other out and cherish the values of critical inquiry as we have for thousands of years. An archipelago of learning for learning’s sake can sill maintain itself in a world where our values no longer hold the leash. But like the mammals during the Mesozoic, we will have to go back into the night and the shadows. There will hopefully be oligarchic patrons who sympathize with us, and despots like Frederick the Great who give us some latitude to work. Our values will fade and diminish, but they will not disappear.* One day they may come to the fore again!
Finally, understanding that most people don’t need to be right or utter the truth, but simply need to win, has made me much more cheerful and less sour observing everyday stupidities. It is no great insight to observe that I’ve never been one who has had much esteem for the admiration of my peers. I like to do my own thing. But tribal acclamation must be the best of all things for most humans, and now I understand why they fight unfairly and stupidly with such ease and naturalness: their aim not to be right in the eyes of nature, but to rise in the esteem their fellow human. That is the summum bonum.
Note: I’ll be very happy to be proven wrong in 15 years. But as it is I think by then we’ll be dealing with the final breakdown of the institutions of the republic in the wake of a Left-wing attempt to forestall the economic immiseration of the middle-class that failed.
* The main reason I hated religion as a child is the mindless boredom of attendance at services. I quickly realized I didn’t believe any of that tripe and never had. But the liberty that I have to dissent from public values may not be a liberty we always have. Private dissent may come back and become the norm as it has been for much of human history.