July 27th, 2010
I’d like to recite the history of the struggle that rationalism has faced. Rationalism as a way of thinking is a Western invention and grew out of many threads: Greek philosophy, mercantilism, and Christian scholasticism. But it didn’t really take hold until about 1700. Some of the critical steps in this were as follows:
The Protestant Reformation, which challenged the ideological absolute rule of the Catholic Church; truth did not come from above, but had to be established by some sort of cognitive process.
The Copernican Revolution, which presented a solid logical argument that the Church foolishly chose to attack, further undermining the intellectual authority of the Church.
The Church’s disastrous attack on Galileo, who enjoyed a huge reputation among intellectuals. Again, the victim was the notion that truth came from authority.
The wars of religion, including the Spanish atrocities in the Netherlands and culminating in the catastrophic Thirty Years’ War, in which something like 30 million people died. People realized that religion was a dangerous and destructive force.
Principia Mathematica, which provided the final nail in the coffin of Church authority by vindicating both Copernicus and Galileo in the most solid terms. "Nature and Nature’s truth lay hid in night / God said ’Let Newton be’ / and all was light!" was as much a dismissal of the Church as a paean to Newton.
The final blow came with the witch trials, not just in Salem but in Europe. Popular revulsion at the obvious injustice of the witch-hunts confirmed the belief that religious thinking was destructive to civilization.
All this triggered the Enlightenment, which glorified rationalism over superstition, and launched Western civilization on its march to technological triumph. Unfettered by religious constraints, Western science surged forward, and technology was right behind science. The American Constitution was a direct result of the Enlightenment, as was the Industrial Revolution.
But the triumphant march of rationalism met its first stumbling block with evolution. Darwin had moved too far too fast for many people. Even today, a shamefully large number of people cling to their superstitious denial of evolution.
Copernicus had demoted humanity from its central position in the universe; Darwin had yanked humanity off of its pedestal as the crown of creation; then Freud robbed it of its self-esteem by depicting homo sapiens as a vicious animal driven by sexual desires. A sense of unease about rationalism began to develop in the twentieth century. The Titanic took to the bottom of the ocean Western absolute confidence in technology; World War I drove home the point that technology could be every bit as destructive as superstition. The Great Depression further undermined confidence in the rationalism behind capitalism; the totalitarian regimes of the 1930s all promised that human will could overcome mere technological and economic constraints. World War II whipsawed the conflict by proving that weapons technology was the winner of wars while simultaneously introducing the world to the existential threat of nuclear weaponry. Government funding for science exploded even as citizenries became ever more frightened by the path that rationalism was taking civilization down.
The Sixties saw a left-wing attack on rationalism in the form of a rejection of materialism, Big Science, Big Government, and Big Business. The Vietnam War and Watergate fueled the intensity of this distrust. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and the explosion of the Space Shuttle further undermined confidence in technology. As technological progress accelerated, life changed ever more quickly, and while most of the changes were for the better, there was still something deeply unsettling about all this change: [b]Future Shock[/b]. The change was coming too fast for people; a deep sense that the world was going wrong pervaded all political philosophies. Liberals saw Big Business, Big Government, and Big Science generating environmental threats such as nuclear power, Genetically Modified Crops, and biological horrors. Conservatives saw time-honored traditions being swept away by new technologies. Civil libertarians were horrified by the new powers of government to intrude into the privacy of citizens; insecure people were terrorized by terrorists from backwards countries who could now wield huge new destructive powers.
All this has undermined our confidence in rationalism. Ironically, the anti-rational movement is strongest in America, the nation that was the child of the Enlightenment. Nowhere else in the western world could such vociferous anti-rationalists as Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, and Glen Beck command the support that they enjoy here. While the American intelligentsia remains solidly rationalist in outlook, the body politic is rejecting rationalism with increasing anger. The problem is most obvious with the American right, but the farther reaches of the American left are also infected with some anti-rationalism.
My guess is that Americans have drifted away from reality because reality hasn’t kicked them in the pants for 70 years. We’ve been living in a dream world where everything goes smoothly. Wars are fought on television, disasters happen to other people, and suffering is for foreigners. We all tend to drift into a dream world when left to ourselves -- it is only the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that keep us firmly grounded in reality. Fortunately -- or perhaps unfortunately -- errors of this type are self-correcting, because when you deny reality, reality always comes back and bites you in the butt. I think that America is in for some serious catastrophes that will shake us to our souls and instill a new respect for reality. 9/11 was a slap in the face, not a punch in the nose; it was enough to make us angry but not enough to make us sober. ACC denialism is just one manifestation of anti-rationalism. By itself, it may not cost us our lives (although it could certainly cost us an arm and a leg). But anti-rationalism in general is undermining every aspect of American civilization, and will ultimately be our doom. America will undergo some sort of catastrophe in the next fifty years, and if we’re lucky enough to survive as a civilization, that catastrophe will knock some sense back into us. All in all, my guess is that America will not survive as a civilization or an independent nation.