Kudos to Ronald Bailey for "Origin of the Specious" (July). The real target of neoconservatives like Irving Kristol is not science or even immorality--their target is reason itself. Reason, they say, is the great destroyer of social harmony, whether in scientific discovery, religious toleration, or any other form. This is why Kristol has written that Thomas Jefferson, a scientist as well as a leader in religious freedom, "wrote nothing worth reading on religion or almost anything else." Jefferson represents the influence of Enlightenment reason. Conservative historians in the tradition of Russell Kirk prefer to ignore the tradition of Jefferson, Madison, et al., and focus instead on the likes of John Dickenson, who said, "Experience must be our only guide; reason may mislead us."
Fittingly, Jefferson described these neoconservatives, in his
second inaugural address, as those who "inculcate a sanctimonious
reverence for the customs of their ancestors; that whatsoever they
did, must be done through all time; that reason is a false guide,
and to advance under its counsel, in their physical, moral, or
political condition, is perilous innovation; that their duty is to
remain as their Creator made them, ignorance being safety, and
knowledge full of danger...
they too, have their anti-philosophers, who find an interest in keeping things in their present state, who dread reformation, and exert all their faculties to maintain the ascendancy of habit over the duty of improving our reason, and obeying its mandates."
These modern Federalists think that reason's challenge to biblical literalism is to be--if all else fails--merely hidden from the populace, who have to be forced into moral behavior by tales of bogeymen and hobgoblins. I do not mean that the theory of evolution and a belief in God are incompatible, any more than Christianity and heliocentrism have been since Galileo's day. But the inquisitive scientific mind, demanding proof always, is incompatible with authoritarianism, or the blind maintenance of tradition in the name of social order. Science and religion are not necessarily opposed--but science and the political manipulations of religion are.
An obvious solution to the morality-without-God problem that so bothers the Irving Kristols of the world would be that at least some of the behaviors we have traditionally justified on religious grounds are emergent properties of biological life in general and primates (or perhaps Homo sapiens) in particular. That view would allow some features of morality to be historically contingent yet relatively obligatory for healthy, viable human societies. A first step or two in this direction can be found toward the end of Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Maybe the task for our age is a reconstruction of the foundations of morality on empirical grounds.
An interesting but depressing reading of where Kristol and
like-minded neoconservatives may be headed is: back to the Middle
Ages, in the sense of foster-
ing a return to a prescientific worldview. The same issue of REASON in which Mr. Bailey's essay appeared carried a piece on Carl Sagan's last book ("Star Scientist" by Kenneth Silber) which, rightly, praised him for pointing out repeatedly that "widespread scientific illiteracy is a dangerous thing in a society heavily dependent on science and technology." Amen! Such "illiteracy" has multiple components these days. There are those who, like most of my historian friends, cannot relate to mathematics of any sort, or to the powerful tools provided by computer graphics. There are also those who simply don't get the idea of subjecting our beliefs to the test of empirical evidence. Increasingly, there are those who have never been exposed to logical argumentation. On the third point, I recently encountered a Ph.D. student in political science who rejects the idea that there may be logical or empirical grounds for taking some propositions more seriously than others. In his view, it's all ultimately a matter of "hand waving," and whoever is the more skilled sophist will prevail.
Since Darwin, arguments from design have ceased to be credible
across a whole range of fields. Attempts to insist otherwise--even
if for the best of intentions--strike me as attacking the core of
modern science. Science is far from perfect. Nevertheless, like
democracy, empirical science may be the best we can do. Given our
inability to uninvent things like nuclear weapons and the growing
appetite in developed countries for conspiracy theories, it is hard
to see that nuking science is likely to help preserve civil
societies. If Mr. Bailey properly interpreted
Mr. Kristol's motives, then Kristol is being both arrogant and shortsighted in trying to push religion as an opiate of the masses. Surely, as suggested above, there are alternatives to blind religious faith, on the one hand, or the despair of Nietzsche's view that without God anything goes on the other.
Ronald Bailey's article was a fair appraisal of Leo Strauss's political philosophy, particularly with respect to Strauss's Platonist view that the pursuit of knowledge and the necessities of public order would often be in conflict. The only thing I would add is that it is in Plato's Laws, not The Republic, in which this conflict is most explicitly resolved in favor of order. It is worth noting that even many self-described Straussians find this book impossibly pessimistic.
However, Bailey ought to consider more seriously Strauss's concern over vulgarized philosophical concepts. Darwin's "evolution" has suffered as badly as Jefferson's "equality." As an informal experiment, whenever the topic of evolution comes up, I try to discover what relatively well-educated people mean when they use the term. Too often to be mere carelessness, usage suggests a Lamarckian (end-oriented) rather than Darwinian (random) concept.
I do not know why this understanding is so prevalent, but I would venture that "social evolutionists" like John Dewey play some role. The evolutionary rhetoric of Dewey's organic materialism rested upon the public's viewing evolution itself favorably but not understanding it so well as to see that command-and-control social engineering did not jibe with Darwinian randomness. Lamarckian evolution suits political progressivism far better than Darwinian evolution does, and few will ever know the difference, particularly in Dewey-type schools.
Strauss certainly took the Platonic line that some philosophic truths would erode public order. The most serious problem with scientific knowledge, however, is that it tends to have a multiplier effect for pseudoscientific knowledge in the hands of charlatans who know better and fools who don't.
John C. Povejsil
Leo Strauss, who died in 1973, must have anticipated Ronald Bailey's attempt to include him in the contemporary party of those who would promote religion for political purposes. Strauss stated: "I shall not waste words on the most popular argument...that we need...revelation as a myth. Now this argument is either stupid or blasphemous." (In "The Mutual Influence of Theology and Philosophy" from Faith and Political Philosophy: The Correspondence Between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, 1934-1964.)