The Enlightenment and This Moment in American Culture

From Washington Post, a week or so ago: Harvard scientist worries we’re ‘reverting to a pre-Enlightenment form of thinking’

Prompted by how some presidents — Bush 43, and now Trump — are actively pushing back against scientific findings and research. An interview with George Q. Daley, head of Harvard Medical School.

Right now, there’s uneasiness in the scientific and medical communities over how evidence and research will be treated, ranging from vaccines to climate change. Having lived through a time when your work was directly politicized and targeted, what are your thoughts about how to approach a situation like that?

I think that the lessons that I learned in the early challenges and policy debates around embryonic stem cells have a lot to teach us for how to advocate forcefully in today’s world. We have to, as scientists, stick to our message, which is that science and evidence is the way to make informed decisions whether those decisions are about advancing human health and wellness, or about advancing the environment and maintaining not only healthy air quality, but reducing risks to catastrophic climate change. These are all fundamentally, at some level, challenges and risks to human health.

If I had one worry, as we see the cacophony of confusion and alternative facts, it’s that we’re reverting to a pre-Enlightenment form of thinking, which will take us back to the days of blood-letting and faith-healing. And this is wrong. This is not the way to advance health and wellness for the greatest number, not a way to face our challenges. We are facing some of the greatest global challenges today not just with global warming, but with threats to emerging pathogens, whether it’s Ebola or Zika. And if we start to question the nature and value of things like vaccines in human health, how are we going to be able to confront the challenges of new pathogens?

Then there’s NYT columnist David Brooks, whose Tuesday column resonated with me more than his columns usually do.

The Enlightenment Project.

He describes Locke and Kant, “who argued that people should stop deferring blindly to authority for how to live. Instead, they should think things through from the ground up, respect facts and skeptically re-examine their own assumptions and convictions.”, America’s founders, de Tocqueville. Then Brooks says,

The Enlightenment project gave us the modern world, but it has always had weaknesses. First, Enlightenment figures perpetually tell themselves that religion is dead (it isn’t) and that race is dead (it isn’t), and so they are always surprised by events. Second, it is thin on meaning. It treats people as bland rational egoists and tends to produce governments run by soulless technocrats. Third, Enlightenment governance fails from time to time.

He refers to one of his Yale colleagues:

Hill didn’t say it, but I’d add that anti-Enlightenment thinking is also back in the form of Donald Trump, racial separatists and the world’s other populist ethnic nationalist movements.

Today’s anti-Enlightenment movements don’t think truth is to be found through skeptical inquiry and debate. They think wisdom and virtue are found in the instincts of the plain people, deep in the mystical core of the nation’s or race’s group consciousness.

They don’t see history as a gradual march toward cooperation. They see history as cataclysmic cycles — a zero-sum endeavor marked by conflict. Nations trying to screw other nations, races inherently trying to oppress other races.

Enightenment forces have won out over anti-Enlightenment forces in the past, but Brooks wonders how, if, it will happen this time.

I’m wondering how much truth there is to the statements in the first quote. True, religion and race aren’t dead; the former is built into human nature, as is tribalism. But there has been social progress over the centuries, in part by channeling those tendencies into relatively harmless pursuits, e.g. tribalism into sporting contests and awards competitions of all sorts (in which I am playing a part in one very small corner of our culture). Meaning? I think a form of meaning is possible through deep understanding of human nature and our race’s place in the grand, big history, scheme of things — but this appreciation requires some study and attention to nonquotian matters and is not available, or of interest, to most people. (E.g., Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existencemy review.) Rather, most people find meaning in their cultural tribes, their religions, and whatnot, which carry on despite the progress that enlightenment values result in; religions, sports, and awards are relatively harmless, except in cases of the first (not limited to ‘radical Islamic terrorism’) that seek to impose their values on others, through violence or political maneuvering.

The swing in political persuasion of the majority and social progress is part of human nature too, a shift back and forth between alternate modes of interaction — or among several relatively stable points among multidimensional spectra of interacting social, emotional, and political persuasions — with other people and the real world. Under our current president we’re in a reactive mode, suspicious of strangers, demonizing outsiders, treating all foreigners as antagonists or competitors, in Trump’s zero-sum world view. It’s not true, and history will overtake him and leave him behind. And maybe the US will recover. (The best book on this subject is Robert Wright’s Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny.)

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