Thursday, August 19, 2010

the treason of Reason

The National Interest on AC Grayling:

""""As Grayling sees things, it is only irrationality that makes human conflicts intractable. If only he had been around in the dark years of the Second World War, he seems to imply, and in a position to instruct Allied war planners on the finer points of ethical theory, the terrible struggle could have gone so much more smoothly. Certainty of this kind is comical, but it also raises a question about the origins of the principles that Grayling maintains so mechanically. He is insistent that liberal values apply universally. He is also insistent that these values have nothing to do with religion......

ONE OF the recurring themes of his polemical corpus, Grayling's hostility to Western religion is ventilated repeatedly in Ideas that Matter. Organized alphabetically, as a kind of philosophical dictionary, the book's entry on Christianity reads as a denunciation:

It is or should be a cause for amazement in the twenty-first century that tens of millions are expected to-or, indeed, do-believe such things as this: that "the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are one God in three persons, sharing one essence, consubstantial, eternal, existing beyond and before time but acting within time.
Later, in the entry on religion, Grayling writes:

Some religious thinkers in the nineteenth century adopted versions of fideism as a response to the advance of science, thus exempting themselves from having to put their beliefs to the same tests as scientific hypotheses standardly undergo. The most extreme fideist is the Danish writer Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55), who said that faith requires a leap in the face of reason and evidence, and is all the more admirable therefore. What horrors can be justified by appeal to the authority of the non-rational, the traditional, the superstitious, the suppositious, the evidentially unsupported, and so forth, history too often bloodily teaches.
This tirade against Kierkegaard is a good example of that silliness that marks so much of Grayling's oeuvre. The notion that irrationalist philosophers are responsible for the crimes of history smacks of Monty Python. Though Mussolini happened to praise the German egoist Max Stirner, a sharp critic of rationalism (and incidentally an atheist), this does not mean Stirner or his ilk can be blamed for the horrors of Fascism. I cannot think of a single tyrant who has cited Kierkegaard, and none of the twentieth century's totalitarian regimes celebrated their power by erecting statues of the unhappy Danish philosopher. The history of the last century is testimony to the destructive power of rationalism, not fideism. Nazism and Communism were at one in their hatred of religion. Both claimed to be founded in science-"dialectical materialism" and "scientific racism." Of course these sciences were bogus, but they show what horrors can be justified by appeal to reason. The worst acts of the twentieth century were committed by atheist regimes that claimed a scientific basis for their policies. This fact is mentioned nowhere in Grayling's dictionary, and throughout his writings he is adamant in denying that the crimes of Nazism and Communism had anything to do with atheism. Instead, he asserts, they were due to the repressive character of the regimes...."

Attacks on rationalists and rationalism are not new. Many leftists detest rationalists, especially the British variety (with AC Grayling sort of taking over Bertrand Russell's mantle) at least as much as the rightist dogmatists detest them (Gray seems to fall in the latter camp). Few cared what the aged, shrivelled aristocratic Russell had to say about US involvement in 'Nam (or WWI and WWII for that matter) when hippies and yippies and topless feminists were shrieking "Off the pigs!" Reason--whether viewed as the strict, formal logic sort, or science and mathematics, and logic as a whole--doesn't move product, even in College-town. The left craves romanza, whether that be marxism, mao or some hypothesized Izmaeli muslim-rebels. Most gauchistes consider a Grayling (and the neo-atheist crew of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, etc as a whole (tho' Hitch. being a journalist may have a certain gonzo cred. that professors don't)) a wallflower or square, if not crypto-Tory or, at least, bourgeois. Maybe Graylings or his descendants will be given a more comfy gulag cell than mere kulaks will...maybe not.

The right has no love for rationalists either. Protestant tradition especially views Reason as suspect, even pagan. Luther, the Granddaddy of evangelical buffoons, insisted "Reason is a Whore!" (Calvinism for the most part amplified Lutheran fideism). Luther , however,  was not exactly a fool. There may be tactical advantages to anti-rationalism of whatever sort (including...communist or fascist). Why bother with logic, which smacks of greek philosophy (ie pagans) when faith..and force will suffice, especially for christian soldiers marching off to take on the infidels. 
Luther wanted the classics of greek philosophy burnt, along with the catholic texts (excepting a few passages of St Augustine which approved of original sin). Granted, some Lutherans wanted to preserve geometry, and the few greek and roman science texts that would be useful for engineering, which is to say military applications. But...speculative reason--"what is Justice?"--was considered pettifogging if not...perversion of a sort. Treason. 

The herd-mind faith suited the Wehrmacht as well. Most nazi soldiers were christians (Lutherans, primarily); many officers were catholics, at least nominally (with a handful of ...misschling). That a few like Himmler later exchanged their faith for nordic paganism doesn't alter the christian roots. Gray thus errors in his claim that nazis (and communists, really..though their faith was marxism) were rationalists.

Fideism of course remains. Baptist warehouses across the USA testify to the abiding power of Luther's madman chant from Paul--the just shall live by "faith" (not by like intelligence, reason, science, honesty etc). And those who dare to question the authority of Scripture (whether christian, jewish or muslim) are generally denigrated, if not ostracized. It's the rare hick who would mention the US Constitution these days, excepting the neo-confederates barking about the 2nd Amendment. What a sad state of affairs when Breitbarts, Becks and Ted Nugent-like dirtbags serve as the spokes-bumpkins for the US Founding Fathers, who, however f-ed up, routinely praised the greek -roman rationalist tradition (and denigrated dogma of whatever sort)--indicated in one of Jefferson's statements that the American revolution followed from "Aristotle, Cicero, Locke and Sidney" (as in Algernon). ......


Perezoso said...

Whack. You have a link to those topless feminists?

Gray makes a few good points against Grayling. Eggheads like Grayling are usually too optimistic. They think if everybody was reasonable and liberal, everything would be better. As Gray says, Grayling doesn't realize values often relate to religion. Can you have one without the other? Rationalists say yes. Many would say no. No God, so anything goes--many people might think like that. Maybe not all atheists would but many would.

All the intellectuals of the world could not stop Hitler. Or Stalin. That required military force. Bombs speak louder than arguments. It isn't exactly logic, but superior technology and military power that wins. And winning's everything, right.

J said...

Rather cynical, Pz.

Grayling might point to the US Constitution and other charters as evidence that humans can establish societies without a theocratic foundation. (Or he should). The Declaration of independence affirms values doesn't it? Life liberty, the pursuit of happiness. (no mention of...Jesus or Mohammed, moses, buddha etc.)

People can be responsible without traditional religion--and many religious people are hardly ethical or responsible. So, the authentic rationalist would have something like a secular US Constitution in place across the world. Some leftists might consider that imperialistic or something, but that's not necessarily the case--perhaps economic provisos are included (ie no billionaires). One could imagine secular charters or social contracts holding...everywhere. Then the problem becomes enforcement, more than anything. Or Malthusian issues (ie...lack of natural resources, etc).

Read Grayling's response to Gray as well. He says he's not convinced of "perfectibilism" or something. He doesn't say his liberal values will be implemented. He says they should be. Perhaps that's naive but a bit superior to the usual cynical apathy (or the right-wing redneck who says..or believes.."kill 'em all, let G*d sort em out"). Besides, it's a book review. We should read the book--not just the review.

Your second point about logic as ineffectual may be true in a broad political sense. You can't negotiate with tyrants, usually. RealPolitik is usually a concern. But what's the alternative? Gunboat diplomacy.

But even in a military context, formal logic might play a part. A program or algorithm often relies on logical operations. We call that programming now but much of it depends on formal inferences and logical syntax. Logicians helped crack the nazi's radar code in WWII (Enigma, I believe). Thank Bertie Russell and Whitehead for establishing a symbolic system which led to a code which enabled the allies to crack the huns' messages (via Turing and his cronies). Then, say danke to Frege as well (tho'....I suspect Frege'd have stuck with the Vaterland).

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