Wednesday, August 03, 2005

A Blind Spot

This week, our president - one of the most diabolically insincere people on earth - evinced a "sincere" desire to see Intelligent Design taught in schools.

The reaction from the Left blogosphere was swift and predictable. The difference between faith and science was explained yet again, as was the difference between belief and proof. And I'm sure that every person who wrote one of these earnest pieces felt like a dauntless crusader for the truth, rather than like a monkey dancing feebly to the GOP's barrel-organ.

For the Right, the Left's reaction to such pronouncements is one of the primary reasons for making them. And the Left's stolid insistence on taking this disingenuous gobbledygook at face value drives me to despair. We don't believe anything Bush says, except when it comes to his "faith."

But this is not about faith; it's about fascism. The Bush Administration is fascistic by any reasonable definition of the term, and fascism thrives on the irrational the way Hummers thrive on cheap gasoline. There's no arguing with fascism, because it has consciously and proudly put itself beyond the reach of logic and proof and morality and compassion.

BushCo's irrationalism is not some sort of humble subservience before the glory of the Almighty; it's a psychologically liberating rejection of anything (including God) that might dare to put a limit on personal, temporal power...including, of course, the humanist ideal of an educated, scientifically literate public.

It's also calculating and cynical. Theodor Adorno often had occasion to note "the entirely calculated, highly rationalistic nature of [fascism's] irrationalism." Unfortunately, when this calculation dresses itself up in its Sunday best, much of today's Left loses the ability to recognize it as anything other than Faith Rampant and Militant. It's as though we're too busy arguing with Oz over whether wizards exist to look behind his curtain.

A while back, I discussed Hans Hörbiger's Cosmic Ice Doctrine, a crackpot theory that became orthodox in Nazi Germany. It didn't become orthodox simply because the Nazis refused to listen to respectable scientists, but because respectable scientists opposed it. Outraged scientists were, for Hitlerians, the best conceivable argument in favor of Hörbiger; anything that could dismay the "enemy" to such an extent was precisely as true as it needed to be.

I concluded that post with this thought:

It's not so much that people are ignorant, or are sinking back into a Medieval worldview, as that they're engaged in active, conscious rebellion against reason itself. I think this is a very important distinction to make, and that people who ignore it are adding to the Left's problems.

How far this rebellion will go is anybody's guess; the idea that the current Left represents a serious obstacle to it is, I think, a mistake. To the extent that we come armed with statistics and facts and pro-science polemics, we're more or less toothless.
I stand by that belief. And in closing, I'll add that the Right has been the primary force behind research into bioweapons. The PNAC recently became downright giddy at the thought of engineering viruses so that they'd target specific racial groups. These are people who are perfectly comfortable with hard science, when it suits their purposes.

But fussing over Intelligent Design achieves several important goals. First, it taps into the paranoia and anomie of the underclass, and turns it against educators and other "elites." Second, it works towards establishing epistemological nihilism as the law of the land. Third, it makes Bush a halo'd defender of the One True Faith. And last, it makes liberals pig-biting mad, which the Right can triumphantly point to as evidence of our hostility to all that "real Americans" hold dear.

Not a bad little racket, all in all.


Eli said...

So... It seems like you're suggesting a change in strategy, but I'm not sure exactly what it is.

Phila said...


There are two separate issues, as I see it. For dealing with BushCo's fascism, I really have no ideas. It speaks directly to the unconscious and targets people where they're most frightened, guilty, ashamed, weak, and so forth. I guess Lakoff's notions of framing are about the only hope we've got for communicating on the same level, but we're not doing too good on that score so far.

As for ID as a desideratum of the real fundies - rather than the GOP politicians who play them for suckers - my idea for dealing with Intelligent Design was to offer to begin biology classes with an overview of the major creation myths, including ID. Afterwards, the teacher could say, "So that's how different religions think life got here. Now, we're going to talk about how it actually works." Because once you've said "Some people think life is too complex to have evolved by chance," you've pretty much emptied ID of its conceptual has nothing worthwhile to say about development, structure, or function whatsoever.

(I described my "strategy" in much greater detail here.

Anonymous said...

All I can say, Phila, is EXACTLY. Your post is spot on.

I've also wondered how we can fight their fascism, cloaked as it is in Christian fundamentalism. I've reread Orwell looking for answers, but I've found none. It's not like Winston Smith was able to escape Big Brother. Oceania was the same as it ever was in the end. I think Orwell was right to caution us about the fascists' use of language, which is one of the many reasons I'm so upset by our current obliteration of meaning of words, including "fascism" itself. Friedman's "Islamo-fascism" has caught on big-time and it drives me absolutely nuts. I wish someone would buy that guy a dictionary.

I agree with you that Lakoff's strategy of framing is the best chance we've got. The administration has convinced most Americans that facts no longer exist. How do you reason with faith? I can only think that we have to turn their language back on them, reframe, and direct the conversation in order to take back meaning. Otherwise we'll find ourselves screaming at ghosts during our two minutes hate, while in the background our soldiers fight the elusive "them" with bombs and guns and their own bodies.

Wait. We're already there, aren't we?

Phila said...


Sounds like we're "on the same page," as Donald Rumsfeld might say.

Cervantes said...

Indeed, Mr. Lethes, there is much truth in what you say. For many people, scientists are just another kind of authority, an alternative priesthood whose language and rituals are the possession of a closed, elite, community.

Rebellion against science is a version of populism. For the anti-scientific, mystico-religious constituency, it's democratizing. The Bible, the church, the biblical narrative and cosmology, they can understand and possess. Science is remote, arrogant, inaccessible.

Many people -- including, interestingly, Robert M. Jeffers -- believe that scientific conclusions are determined by the consensus of the scientific priesthood, and are just another kind of orthodoxy.

It is absolutely essential that we find ways of democratizing science, of letting the broad public understand how scientists think, how they work, and how they decide what is and is not real. We need to make it accessible, open, participatory.

That's a tall order, but I can't think of anything more urgent.

Phila said...

Cervantes, you say very eloquently what I was trying to say, which is that casting off reason is liberating for many people nowadays. And BushCo simply broadens and exploits this tendency, cynically, because it suits their purposes. They've essentially "democritized" science by means of anti-rational populism, as you note. This raises some interesting, disturbing points that I'll have to come back to.

I don't think your take on Jeffers' views is quite fair, though. I view certain forms of orthodoxy and consensus as skeptically as he does (and why not?). But I'd never extrapolate from there to the view that all "scientific conclusions" are determined merely by consensus, and I can't imagine that he would, either. Outside of a few epistemic qualms about whether certain ultimate questions are answerable by means of rational inquiry - which I share - Jeffers seems to me to be quite respectful of and knowledgeable about science.

(It wouldn't be a proper response if I didn't disagree with you about something, right?

Cervantes said...

Yes Phila, one problem is that understanding scientific ideas takes a little more work, perhaps, than just accepting religious ideas -- precisely because you can't just accept them on faith. And also, science always contains an element of uncertainty, and the scientific endeavour thrives on what we don't know, which is uncomfortable for many people. Finally, science can't supply meaning -- we have to find it for ourselves. A lot of folks, it seems, take the easy way out. What to do?

As for Robert M., I guess I should not have tried to represent his views. We had an exchange about this a while back, and that's how I understood his position. Maybe he'll come around and say what he really thinks.

Coeruleus said...

Sorry to interrupt the discussion, but I just have to make a quick comment: this is probably one of the best blog posts I've read in a long time. JLo was right when he said I'd enjoy this blog.

Carry on.

Bora Zivkovic said...

Sir Oolious pointed me here. We appear to be very much on the same wavelength re IDC, Lakoff and Right-Wing goals and strategies. I will certainly explore your blog further.

GrrlScientist said...

Ah, but not all right-wingers are falling into line behind bushco. The problem is that both extremes of the political spectrum don't listen to anyone who isn't of the correct political persuasion. Sometimes, "the other side" actually reiterates the same valid point that we have been making all along, but it was previously unacceptable to the masses because it was not delivered by the correct messenger.


Phila said...


Well, we could - and undoubtedly will - go around on these questions forever. My qualms about science, as I think you know, have to do less with its operations in a perfect world than with the less glamorous reality of falsified evidence, corporate influence, and political corruption.

Science, like democracy, is susceptible to money, authority, and power; what legitimates it, and what it legitimates, isn't always admirable, to say the least. Like democracy, it does tend to be "self-correcting." But that's cold comfort for the victims of, say, eugenics.

You say that people can't just accept scientific ideas on faith, but I think that they often do just that. In most cases, ordinary people have no way of assessing the truth content of scientific propositions; as William of Ockham noted, "[I]t is absurd to claim that I have scientific knowledge with respect to this or that conclusion by reason of the fact that you know principles which I accept on faith because you tell them to me." That leaves scientists open to misunderstanding, populist rejection and rebellion, and so forth...but it also leaves citizens open to manipulation or worse.

So what's the solution, in your opinion? I'd love to live in a world where scientific consensus - as portrayed to the public - corresponded reliably with truth and morality, and where public trust in the pronouncements of authority was never misplaced or betrayed. But I don't see any contradiction between admiring the ideals of science and being skeptical about how stringently they'll be adhered to in real life, and whether they can remain completely aloof from a given political or economic context.

I don't understand your comment about "supplying our own meaning." Do you see this as something opposed to metaphysics? To me, it sounds like pretty much the same thing. Regardless, I really wouldn't say that the religion of folks like Simone Weil, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Edith Stein, MLK Jr, or the liberation theologists of Central America led them to take the "easy way out." What matters is what people do, not what they believe. I don't care if people oppose dropping napalm on children because of Christianity, atheism, string theory, Zoroastrianism, anarcho-syndicalism, theosophy, or anything else...what's important is that they can tell the difference between right and wrong. The rest is window dressing, IMO.

Rmj said...

An off the cuff response:

Scientits and the faithful stand in largely the same relationship. They don't explain why they know what they know the same way philosophers of science and theologians do.

Science, in philosophical terms, explains how, but never why. Religion, in theological terms, explains why, but never how.

The attempt by the Enlightenment and Romanticism to force religion to give up "how" was as false as the cries of "political correctness" fomented by the right against the left, and then used to both caricature the left, and beat it senseless.

Scientists may know their field extremely well. But their knowledge of the work of Locke, Berkely, Hume, Aristotle, even Thomas Kuhn, may be virtually non-existent. The same can be said for lay people like GWBush, who know nothing of the workd of Aquinas, Kierkegaard, Tillich, Niebuhr, Ogden, etc.

So both betray their ignorance when they step beyond what they know, and try to explain what they don't understand, in terms of what little they do understand. Or in another language game altogether.

I'll come back to this. I have limited time at my disposal. But let me stir the waters further by defending, without a defense yet, my assertion that science proceeds by consensus, and no more arrives at "truth" (in the absolute, and so impossible sense) than religion does.

I'll be back.

Phila said...


I stand corrected. That's what I get for trying to put words in your mouth!

Still, wouldn't you at least agree that science often comes near enough to truth, in pragmatic terms? I agree with you about the "impossibility" of arriving at absolute truth. But in very many cases, arriving at absolute truth is rather unnecessary for the likes of us, isn't it? Would you really care to quibble over how much classical mechanics or optics fall short of "absolute truth," given their accuracy and utility? How much more do we need to know about the toxicology of sodium cyanide, before we're allowed to make "absolute" pronouncements about it?

The teeth of some gift horses deserve far less inspection than others, it seems to me. That a given chemical reaction will reliably occur in a given situation may be a matter of "consensus," but I'm not convinced that it needs to be anything more than that in order to be accepted as cold hard fact. Life may be a mere dream, but it's a remarkably consistent one, in many ways.

Thers said...

Science may not be able to come up with truth, but it does come up with facts.

I prefer my understanding of truth to comport with facts. Facts alone may not fully explain truth, but truth without facts is emptiness, like a meal without nutrition.

Thers said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Phila said...

RMJ and Cervantes,

You're both wiser men than I. Still, I was thinking about this stuff this morning...August 6. And it occurred to me that Kuhn notwithstanding, there will be no paradigm-shift in physics that undoes Hiroshima. E=mc2 may be a matter of "consensus," but its implications ought to be absolute enough for any of us. I'm going to have to assume that I simply don't understand what RMJ means...a failure I'm always willing to ascribe more to myself than to him.

But Hiroshima is also a useful way of highlighting my basic disagreement with Cervantes. Arriving at truth - or something tolerably near it - does not necessarily imply progress. Nor does it necessarily increase humanity's ability to act morally or wisely (or to survive, for that matter). I find the notion that science will lead us to a rational, non-exploitative society to be as vague and counterintuitive as any of the theological notions that you quarrel with. What we learn, and what we do with that knowledge, are two completely different things. And morality remains a basically metaphysical concept, as far as I'm concerned.

Rmj said...


your love for your wife is a "fact."

Your love for your child is a "fact."

Can science explain the "how" of that fact? Or the "why"?

I'm perfectly content to be guided by facts, too. But even Hume understood that we don't live by facts, and to try to, is to engage in illusion.

Rmj said...

I should say, "by facts alone."

Anonymous said...

Great post and excellent discussion.---So glad we found your site and will be back often---also will add to our reco. list---peace M

Rmj said...

And it occurred to me that Kuhn notwithstanding, there will be no paradigm-shift in physics that undoes Hiroshima. E=mc2 may be a matter of "consensus," but its implications ought to be absolute enough for any of us. I'm going to have to assume that I simply don't understand what RMJ means...a failure I'm always willing to ascribe more to myself than to him.

This is why I started out distinguishing philosophy from science.
The "how" of the atomic bomb works on two levels: practical, and theoretical.

Science worked out the theoretical principles of the internal combustion engine, for example, long after it worked out the practical design of such an engine.

Paradigm shifts don't change reality. They change how we explain reality. As Hume understood, our explanations of that are so subject to our own subjectivity (think of his analysis of causation) as to be unreliable.

You only reconstruct that via Kant's idealism.

Phila said...


As Hume understood, our explanations of that are so subject to our own subjectivity (think of his analysis of causation) as to be unreliable.

The notion that we don't and can't live by facts alone is fundamental to my worldview, and lies at the heart of my debates with Cervantes. Hell, I'm a big fan of Feyerabend, so there's a limit to how much I'm going to argue with you. Besides, as Feyerabend notes, collaboration does not require a shared ideology.

But going back to my toxicology-of-cyanide example, I fail to imagine what might lead us to a completely new, psychologically transformative interpretation of the mechanics of cyanide poisoning. Some subjective interpretations of events are far less unreliable than others, it seems to me. And if we're to maintain a thoroughgoing skepticism, we may as well doubt Hume while we're at it, rather than treating his notions as foundational.

I'm nobody's essentialist; the idea that you could limit a viable philosophy or a civilization to "facts" as relatively concrete as those in chemistry is absurd, to my mind. But you yourself say that science explains "why." Surely, some of those explanations are more solid than others, and deserve a greater portion of assent simply for the sake of one's own well-being?

I agree that absolute knowledge is impossible, but I'm also unconvinced that it's necessary...I'm not sure we need to set the bar for knowledge that high. (At least, not without absolutely incontrovertible reasons for doing so!)

Thers said...

I'm perfectly content to be guided by facts, too. But even Hume understood that we don't live by facts, and to try to, is to engage in illusion.

I did not say we should be guided by facts, much less live by them. But I won't be guided or live by a belief system which disregards facts entirely.

I'm for instance prepared to believe that there likely is some biological component to my affection for my spouse and spawn. I likely am much more attracted to women than men because in part of genetics, and I prefer my offspring to other peoples' on a deep level because they contain my DNA. (I think my children are far more adorable than other people's, for instance, and this is not entirely rational -- or uncommon.)

No, this does not exhaust the question of how I feel towards my family might be described.

However, a belief system (say of a cult) which disputed such "facts" I should think ought to be rejected.

Hume, phooey. I'll say that again: phooey.

Phila said...

A drunken PS: I have a great deal of sympathy with Jeffers' views. Despite being a braying jackass, I'm in favor of humility and the avoidance of absolutism wherever possible.

But I'm also concerned about the misuse of these ideas, and what role they play in a culture like ours. RMJ can Hume it up to his heart's content, without (I assume) believing that there's no compelling evidence for global warming, or that there's no conceivable link between air pollution and childhood asthma, or that depleted uranium is absolutely harmless. Meanwhile, the "absolute truth" crowd is gleefully taking an imperious, conditional approach to the reality of life-and-death issues that affect all of us.

Sometimes, I have an eerie feeling that they're using our own philosophical weapons against us. There are even days when - dare I say it? - philosophy seems to me like a failed project.

Thers said...

Phila, these things are never debated in a vacuum.

"How" and "why" are trivial questions next to "who."

Where science and religion meet or do not can be debated, and should.

But at the moment that's nothing next to the nakedly political issue of who gets to speak about these issues in influential public forums like the media and textbooks.

Who gets to establish the definition of legitimate public discourse?

In matters relating to science, scientists must do a better job of showing that it's them.

Anonymous said...

Does this imply an evil genius working on behalf of the GOP or an intuitive sort unaware of the subtle sophistication of what it's doing?

Rmj said...

At this point, I'm dropping in rather than reading carefully, but I agree with that Thersites said last (and probably mis-interpreted and misapplied his comment previously, which is why I'm staying out of this one. I tend to warp everything out of shape.)

It is entirely a question of who controls the discussion. I'm not even sure scientists should be in charge, but rather theologians and philosophers of science. That position, of course, is fraught with the greatest difficulties, given the anti-intellectual streak in American culture (knowledge is so elitist!).

But we've got to take control of the dialogue, while at the same time acknowledging that the issue is not "truth" or "reality," but language games (enter Wittgenstein!). We have two camps actually talking past each other. We have to acknowledge that, but relegate the "intelligent design" camp to a distinct and obscure minority status, based on a consensus that empiricism ("science," if you prefer) is the preferred medium for public discourse and commerce.

Bleh! Early Sunday and not enough coffee. I sound like an egghead! More caffeine!

Phila said...


Does this imply an evil genius working on behalf of the GOP

I think it's conscious, definitely. I don't think it requires genius,'s sheer opportunism, in my view. Or marketing, if you prefer.


I'm not even sure scientists should be in charge,

I think anything I could say at this point is going to come across as extremely dour, and I'm not sure it's worthwhile. Suffice it to say that as you know, the state of being "in charge" is always going to be problematic. I find it hard to conceive of a state that isn't either brutal, or vulnerable to the sort of radical takeover that Carl Schmitt described so poignantly in Legality and Legitimacy, before throwing in his lot with Hitler.

I think a lot lately about people like Adorno and Benjamin, who saw the mechanisms of fascism very clearly...and yet didn't see fascism clearly at all, in that they viewed dialectics as a fitting response. "Taking control of the dialogue" would be a good idea, no doubt about it. I hope we come up with a means of doing so that doesn't involve bloodshed or catastrophe.

Anonymous said...

Does this imply an evil genius working on behalf of the GOP

I think it's conscious, definitely. I don't think it requires genius, though... it's sheer opportunism, in my view. Or marketing, if you prefer.

You didn't comment on whether you thought the "chessmaster" was consciously working with all the dimensions you pointed out or just intuitively knew how to throw out a problem - situation that he could bend in his favor no matter what the response.

Any speculation on whom the "chessmaster" is?

Phila said...


Sorry, but I don't really understand your question. Cynically exploiting religion has been a central part of the GOP game plan for as long as I can remember. Intelligent Design is just a shiny new bauble for them, and I don't think there are all that many "dimensions" to it. "Liberals hate God!" and "teach the controversy!" are both fairly old rallying cries for the creationist-coddling, anti-education wing of the GOP. I really don't think it requires the services of some mastermind to trot out more of the same nonsense. The issue to me isn't what the Right's doing; it's why the Left so often fails to recognize it.

Quite honestly, I don't really think in terms of "chessmasters" and "evil geniuses," so you may want to address your question to someone who does!

Anonymous said...

Quite honestly, I don't really think in terms of "chessmasters" and "evil geniuses," so you may want to address your question to someone who does!

Don't be so irritable. I'm not attacking you.

I think you see one depth of complexity while they have a different perspective and may not consider one or any of levels of complexity you feel are necessary to address.

Given their approach to so many things, I think they are much more shallow and superficial then liberals believe them to be.

Phila said...


Sorry if I came across as irritable. Not my intention. It's just not a conversation I'm able to have because I reject the basic premise.

I don't agree that the GOP's approach to this stuff is superficial or unconscious, but I also don't believe that using religion as a club to beat up on lefties is such a complex proposition that it requires a "chessmaster." I don't think it requires anything more than garden-variety cunning and dishonesty...and, of course, a communication infrastructure that's been increasing in power and accuracy for decades.

You're welcome to your opinion, though! Thanks for posting.