Friday, March 19, 2010

Unreasonable Reason

One version of the story of the last three hundred years is that the intellectual movement known as The Enlightenment spearheaded a glorious change in human affairs, in which the shackles of dark religious superstition were cast off and replaced by the light of human reason. Popery and priests were out; science and logic were in, and amazing increases in human well-being would ensue.

We now have cell phones and aeroplanes, microwaves and computers, MRI machines and laproscopic surgery. Those are very nice things. But in the immediate wake of the Enlightenment, we had the almost insanely savage French Revolution, followed by Napoleon's tear through Europe, and then a century after that, we had the two most savage wars in human history (which included historically unprecedented genocide). And they were fought mostly by the most scientifically advanced nations ever. Moreover, in the wake of World War II, we had tens of millions of people tortured and butchered by communist regimes in service to the aims of their "one true social science". Our technology has improved. The problem is, we haven't.

Actually, the problem is worse than that, because it's not just that we haven't changed - it's that we can't. Despite all our longings otherwise, we remain human. That means we still love, and we still hate; we still unite, and we still divide; still share, and still steal. And this will never change, no matter how much more technology we have, or knowledge we possess. Contrary to Thom Yorke's ongoing paranoia, technology doesn't turn us into machines. It just gives us a power we wouldn't otherwise have. And that power can be used for good or for ill. All the while, the human animal remains the same.

Why can't people see this? The silly (if not dangerous) old notion, first purveyed by Plato and regurgitated ad nauseam even nowadays by self-styled "secular humanists", that "knowledge is virtue" - that the more "reasonable" we all are, and the more we all learn, the better people we will all be - has been refuted a million times, in a million different ways, and will be a million more times in the future. Yet it doesn't make any difference at all to the secular humanists, no doubt for the same reason that knowing that the communion wafer doesn't actually "transubstantiate" into the flesh of Jesus doesn't make any difference to the believing Catholic: because these claims are now dogma. They are now identity to these people. They have become unchallengeable articles of faith, beyond the power of any argument or empirical proof to refute. Yet, the truth is, the wafer doesn't become Jesus, and knowledge doesn't become virtue. And that means that "secular humanism" - or to call it by its real name, The Enlightenment - is as much of a fraud as Catholicism. Those who most loudly champion reason over faith, are often as unreasonable as the religious believers they think themselves superior to, if not more so.