IT is often thought that the main threat to the kind of rationality so admired by enthusiasts for the Enlightenment is, well, irrationality – faith, alternative medicines and the New Age movement. Indeed this view seems to be cemented by the wild irrationality of Trump and his followers – although one does wonder sometimes whether Trump was actually being supremely clever by discombobulating his opponents. But that disturbing thought aside, what if the greatest threat to reason is not irrationality but misdirected reason?
That is the view of Dan Hind in his fascinating book The Threat to Reason: How the Enlightenment was hijacked and how we can reclaim it. When you first open this book you expect an attack on the irrational but Hind startles when he announces that this approach misses the point. He calls the attack on irrationality Folk Enlightenment and he is dismissive of its adherents, including Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, who make a clear demarcation between the pure defenders of reason and its enemies mired in unreason. “It saturates our intellectual culture and informs many of our assumptions about public life. As a consequence political disputes about the distribution of resources are recast as metaphysical clashes between abstract nouns,” he writes. Further: “Some of those who defend the Enlightenment from its irrational enemies offer up ‘the great divide’ between faith and reason, rather than the old conflict between Left and Right, as the central organising opposition of our time.”
For Hind, however, the real division is between what he calls Occult and Open Enlightenment. He uses the word ‘Occult’ in honour of Francis Bacon, the father of experimental science who, nevertheless, ‘drew on the techniques and love of magic’ in much the same way as Isaac Newton, who wrote more about religion than science, drew heavily on the traditions of alchemy – more in tune with the great the great 16th century magus, alchemist and astrologer John Dee than modern day physics. (See this blog for two articles about Dee and his relationship with the Pembrokes at Wilton House).
It should be said that Hind does not downplay the dangers that can arise from the misuse of alternative medicine or the relativism of postmodernism, although he points out that the latter’s ‘concern that Enlightenment and modernity can provide cover for crimes has ample justification’. However, he makes a persuasive case against the kind of Occult Enlightenment that uses reason to undermine reason itself. And he reserves his main artillery for Big Pharma, which uses science to ‘undermine the open, humane science they claim to champion’ by ‘withholding information’ presenting ‘information to the public in misleading ways’ and then ‘punishing those who inform the public’. He adds: “Given that pharmaceutical medicine is fifty times more lucrative, and considerably more lethal than the herbal and homeopathic alternatives, the institutions that control the business might be suspected of posing a greater threat to reason than their Reiki-practising competitors. Other manifestations of Occult Enlightenment past and present include the ‘desire for total knowledge’ in the service of the British Empire and the invasion of Iraq.
According to Hind, the solution to the threat of misdirected reason is what he calls Open Enlightenment, or an enquiry into the world unencumbered by the self-interested ‘reason’ of the state and corporations. He argues that the Open Enlightenment will be met with ‘ridicule or worse’ but this will be worth it because it will allow us ‘to live at least part of the time as truth-loving individuals’ as we ‘become authors of our own Enlightenment’.
The main thrust of Hind’s argument is a powerful one and a corrective to those of us who have, perhaps, been guilty of taking a kind of perverse pleasure in attacking the easy targets of unreason, while underplaying those forces of reason that actually undermine the reason of the Open Enlightenment. In some ways it follows in the footsteps of The Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway who exposed ‘how a loose-knit group of high-level scientists and scientific advisers, with deep connections in politics and industry, ran effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific knowledge over four decades’.
In a side argument Hind makes the claim that ‘there is no way that reason can cause us to believe in God, but neither can it cause us to believe that it is wrong to kill’. This appears to be based on Davide Hume’s assertion that reason is the slave of the passions, which raises another mighty split between those who follow Hume and others, like the American philosopher Thomas Nagel who argues in The Possibility of Altruism that ‘just as there are rational requirements on thought, there are rational requirements on action’.
Indeed, there are some evolutionary biologists, including Dawkins, who argue that altruism is part of our genetic make-up. And it is certainly possible to define altruism in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. There are also various normative ethical theories that attempt to conceptualize and objectify morality. None of this is to say that the passions do not often, perhaps most of the time, trump reason, but nor does it follow that reason can never be deployed when considering ethics.
However, this is all something of a distraction from Hind’s argument, which remains untouched by the truth or otherwise of his moral assertion. It therefore remains a serious challenge for all of us who in one way or another support the ideals of the Enlightenment, not to fall into the trap of Folk Enlightenment but, rather, to have the courage to create a truly Open Enlightenment.