End of the Age of Enlightenment

by Lorna Salzman

Some years ago the late Murray Bookchin, a devout secular leftist witnessing the revival of New Age spirituality, mused about our irrational era. I responded to differ with him, saying that our biggest problem was Super-Rationality: a belief that technology and human institutions could solve any problem facing it. Now, as an equally devout secularist (if not leftist) I am beginning to see that he was right.

Thanks to the indiscriminate internet in which an individual can find all manner of support and reinforcement of her personal views and beliefs, we can be inundated instantly with varieties of irrationality never before conceived. Worse, most people actually believe what they read on the internet. Along with the human propensity to believe what coincides with one's own biases and to dismiss what is said by one's political adversaries as propaganda, we have a flourishing internet market in what used to be called gossip.

Gossip rarely had any ramifications beyond a few telephone conversations or ladies' lunches or brief exchanges at the water cooler in the workplace. Everyone loves gossip. In fact, sociobiologists might argue that gossip was an important part of early human socialization and had an adaptive function that was crucial in avoiding harm... especially before there was a printed language.

Gossip of course is often correct because it is frequently (though not always) first-hand. The gossiper can be questioned: did you see that? If she didn't, then one can ask: how did you find out? Questions like this can often tease out whether a particular piece of gossip is well founded or just nasty rumors told by someone out of revenge.Successive events prove it right or wrong. Life goes on. No harm is done.

In primitive times, someone who said they saw a member of a hostile tribe sneaking around in the woods would be taken seriously. If the gossiper was wrong, the worst consequence would be some unnecessary expenditure of energy searching the woods. The best consequence would be heading off an attack by the other tribe. A variant of this regards why we often mistake natural objects for living ones. A hunter who thinks a large rock is a tiger will take evasive action and live to pass on his cautious genes. A hunter who thinks a rock is just a rock isn't so lucky.

The evolutionary impact of the internet is still not clear but its impact on culture and politics is becoming quite clear and unnerving. Over the past few years, I have personally received lengthy and quite serious emails about these subjects: 9/11 conspiracies; homeopathy; high-level plots to take over the world; the imminence of an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel. Regrettably I made the mistake of taking these at face value and trying to rebut them rationally. Of course I failed. I should have known better. These people have been hypnotized into their beliefs, and I could no more un-hypnotize them than tame that distant tiger.

Some people have inquired into what they see as the resurgence of irrationality.
But I have a quite different take on this. It is not a resurgence at all; it is a continuation. Irrationality, in my opinion, is the natural, inherited default position of the human psyche. It never disappeared. It lurks beneath all of us, at all times. The only thing that enabled us to overcome its allure was the Enlightenment of the late 18th century. And it is no accident that today, the most barbaric primitive irrational regions of the world are the Muslim countries, where the Enlightenment never happened and which has managed to survive into the 21st century without any of its benefits. Indeed, the anti-rational characteristics of these countries are strongly defended by its peoples as morally superior to the "degenerate" secular west.

What were the benefits of the Enlightenment? First, it overtook and overcame the domination of religion, including those regimes where a royal monarch and the Pope collaborated for mutual support in an uneasy subliminal competition for power. This separation of religion from state was the absolute imperative for human progress, because it made dissent and freedom of inquiry possible. Without the threat of an Inquisition or being burned at the stake or ostracized or exiled, intellectual examination, both within the individual brain as well as in institutions apart from the church, became possible.

In medieval times few people could read. Only theologians and monasteries possessed knowledge. It was only through them that a person could learn about history or the world, filtered through the Christian faith, which bestowed power and social control on the church alone. Of course there must have been doubters and atheists, especially among artists and intellectuals. This is a statistical certainty. But they could not speak out or write or teach or they would be killed. They kept silent. When they did speak out, as Galileo did, they were forced to recant (although rumor has it that even as he did so, he muttered under his breath "Eppur si muove"...the earth DOES move around the sun, not the reverse).

So the masses were imprisoned by belief in not just a God but spirits, ghosts, evil mists and plagues, alchemy, no different from many tribal religions today who rely on shamans , or from those remnant faithful Catholics who believe in the liquefaction of Christ's blood or his image on the shroud or the healing powers of saints to whom they offer thanks for miraculous cures, or astrologers or palm readers.

Wait a minute. We still have astrologers and palm readers. People still make pilgrimages to shrines. People believe in them as well as in the promises of the Bernie Madoffs. Or those of politicians running for office. Or in creationism. Or in the curative properties of pit viper venom. Or the power of prayer to cure cancer. People still believe in all this stuff.

But surely people with an education DON'T believe in this, right? Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Educated intellectuals and even scientists believe in some of these things. Botanist Rupert Sheldrake believes in "morphogenetic fields" that govern evolution, for just one example. Physicist James Lovelock thinks that Earth is a single organism that regulates its environment to promote the survival of its present components, a staunchly anti-evolutionary view.

Clearly, the best education in the world has not been able to supplant or eradicate irrational beliefs. The Enlightenment was able to overcome them because it enabled scientists and philosophers and intellectuals to not only think out loud but to exchange views, publicize their thoughts, and in so doing create a community in which the newly acquired freedom of thought and dissent could be put to full use, for their benefit but most importantly for the benefit of future generations. Without them we would still be living in caves, figuratively speaking.

In the following centuries, development of more sophisticated and more widely distributed means of communication - not just printing but specialized journals, meetings of scientific and philosophical societies, public debates, and later the telephone, radio, and television as well as mass educational institutions open to millions of people =all made the free exchange of knowledge and research available everywhere. For a brief time - about two hundred years to be exact - the Enlightenment prevailed over innate irrationality. And then darkness started to fall.

This curtain of darkness is now falling rapidly upon western civilization. What are the reasons? Millennialism is one explanation people fall back on: the notion that in times of stress and danger, one looks for answers, comfort and salvation anywhere, turning to snake oil salesmen as well as to religion. The perplexing question is just why even secularists are ready to embrace unproven belief systems.

Irrationality does not occur by itself. It is provoked by very real fears and doubts. Those like myself, who as an environmentalist has witnessed the execrations of dangerous technology like nuclear power and genetic engineering, are quite aware of the threat of excessive power wielded by elites and special interests such as the nuclear establishment.

The threat is not only of actual physical harm but of political threats to democracy and the public interest. Today much suspicion has fallen on the medical and pharmaceutical industries, not without justification. Unfortunately those who categorically reject traditional medicine and drugs readily embrace the promises of the snake oil salesmen and place their full trust in them without having any more evidence of the validity of THEIR claims....a clear double standard.

This is not astrology, a harmless pastime. It is often a matter of life and death, as witness the deaths of patients who rejected traditional treatment for cancer and died years before their time. The distrust of science, and of intellectual endeavors and achievements, is the ultimate irrationality.

But conspiracy theories are a close second, because in their formulation they involve what some people think is a rational process: the linking of discrete unrelated events to make a case. Often the theorist utilizes what he believes is factual or scientific evidence, gleaned from unreliable sources, biased sources, or which is merely incomplete. The most recent example I had of this was someone who asserted that an airplane crashing into the WTC could not have resulted in sufficiently high temperatures to melt the steel supports of the buildings.

He attached an excerpt from a geological journal that he believed proved his point, though it did nothing of the sort. (In fact arguments over this issue took place after 9/11, but engineers approached it from an entirely different direction: they sought explanations of just HOW the steel girders melted. No sane scientist would deny the possibility that such a crash could have produced higher temperatures than expected - reality often confounds theory in science - or that certain kinds of steel could melt under different circumstances).

The latest skirmish, in which I was accused of being close-minded and inflexible, pertained to homeopathic medicine. One mail referred to a doctor in India who denied there was swine flu and said that flu could be prevented by ingesting arsenic and poison ivy. (Well, at least the latter is free and readily available...no pharmacist needed).

Several acquaintances reported treating minor ailments with homeopathic medicines, including pit viper venom. Aside from the issue of spontaneous remission due to unknown reasons, my main comment was that individual anecdotal evidence of efficacy has no statistical and therefore no scientific validity. After examining about a dozen studies sent to me to "prove" homeopathy worked, it became clear that it is a fun subject to discuss but which to date, by the admission of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, says: In sum, systematic reviews have not found homeopathy to be a definitively proven treatment for any medical condition". (My friends will no doubt shun me now).

That educated intelligent informed people can embrace these unproven theories is deeply disturbing. It means that society and our educational system have failed to teach critical thinking, in a time when it is needed more than ever, in a time where fanatic religious and secular ideologies - cultural pathologies - are rampant and which like all viruses can spread through the internet and infect millions of minds.

No one thing is to blame but a combination of microbes: television, anti-intellectualism, leftist "cultural studies" that denigrate science, and the internet, when combined have degraded intellectual achievements and elevated gossip and personal ideologies to ruling status. One must inquire whether human evolution is at an end.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.