Monday, January 23, 2012

The attack on science is bipartisan, II: The Enlightenment

I'm a big fan of the Enlightenment. OK, not all of the individual philosophers that people have associated with it were truly enlightened (some were rather narrow-minded, even racist), but as for the Enlightenment's spirit and research program as a whole, I cherish it as a grand, left-brained entity, dominated by worthy stances like curiosity, skepticism, meticulous analysis, and humility before strict standards of truth.

As such, naturally, it is a thing that our right-brain world likes to marginalize or outright reject--to an extent that goes largely unappreciated.

Many political partisans, in particular, are in denial  about just how bipartisan today's Enlightenment-bashing has become. Consider a recent New York Times book review of Randall J. Stephens and Karl W. Giberson's book The Annointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age. Singling out "evangelical Americans" in particular, reviewer Molly Worthen writes:

The central question of the culture wars that have raged since the 1970s is not whether abortion is murder or gay marriage a civil right, but whether the Enlightenment was a good thing.
It's certainly true that many devoutly religious people, many them on the right, fault the Enlightenment for its scientific reductionism and insistence on scientific truth. But so do many postmodern/critical theorists (Foucault and his acolytes), education professionals, and New Age types, many of them on the left. The Enlightenment troubles these people not because it undermines religious truth, but because it undermines their religious-like beliefs in the instability and/or relativity of truth (as in "there's no one right answer"), and/or in certain types of magical thinking. For them, the Enlightenment's reductionism is unsettling not necessarily because it threatens to reduce human souls and religious spiritualism to neurology, but because it threatens to have a similar effect on our emotions, aesthetics, and secular spiritualism. Some also believe that the Enlightenment has led, among other things, to conquest, state-sponsored violence, economic exploitation, and environmental degradation (see, for example, The Debate About the Enlightenment.)

Most Enlightenment skeptics, of course, are far less extreme, whether they hail from the right or the left. As Worthen herself notes in connection with the evangelical right:
The “parallel culture” that “The Anointed” vividly describes... is not a bald rejection of Enlightenment reason, but a product of evangelicals’ complex struggle to reconcile faith with the life of the mind... Their promises to reconcile the Bible with modern thought do not conceal that this balancing act has forced evangelicals to live in a crisis of intellectual authority — a confusion so unabating that it has become the status quo.
The same might be said, mutatis mutandis, of many postmodern thinkers, "critical theorists," and secular spiritualists on the left.

Indeed, the bipartisan nature of our society's discomfort with the Enlightenment is seen also in its discomfort with Darwinian evolution (another "reductionist" theory that people have blamed for racism and other scourges). But here the crackpots on the right are so strongly, and so publicly associated with rejecting evolution that those on the left who also reject certain aspects of it aren't nearly so open and public about this.

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