The Crusade Against Reason

Pat Duffy Hutcheon. Address to the British Columbia Humanist Association, October 10, 1997

KEY TERMS: postmodernism -- obscurantism -- Epicurus -- Dante -- Gerald Weissmann -- shamanism -- Chaos Theory -- Gaia -- cultural relativism -- Mario Bunge -- Paul Gross -- Norman Levitt -- George Bernstein -- deconstructivism -- Michel Foucault -- Jacques Derrida -- John Ellis -- ecofeminism -- Rene Denfield -- Bruno Latour -- Paul Feyerabend -- Thomas Kuhn -- Richard Lewontin

We are living in strange times -- frightening, even, for thoughtful, reasoning people. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect otherwise in these days of millennium fever. The recent rapid spread of cult-like fundamentalist religious movements is scary enough, but what has been going on in creative fields like art is altogether devastating. "Postmodern" art with its gallery presentations of piled garbage, blank canvasses and pickled pieces of dead animals has become, as one courageous dissenting commentator dared to conclude, "a dangerous and wicked thing." I agree that it represents a total debasement of the symbolic power and precious cultural function of art -- and as such, cannot help but have a disastrous long-term effect on civilization.

But the gulling of the public is not confined to art and religion. Language is intentionally being rendered ambiguous and meaningless in modern literature and philosophy as well. Obscurantism is definitely in, most notably in the much-vaunted "postmodernist" movement within academia. It all reminds me of nothing so much as a comment by Epicurus in the third century BCE about what was occurring in his times. "Fools," he said, "admire and like all things the more which they perceive to be concealed under involved language; and determine things to be true which can prettily tickle the ears and are varnished over with fine-sounding phrases." When we thus allow our most basic tools of communication to be destroyed we are committing the worst of all possible sins against humanity. They are the "sins of the wolf" described by Dante.

Something else occurred this past week that I should mention. The Canadian federal minister of health saw fit to backtrack on a promise to place alternative medications under the same rules and scientific scrutiny as we apply to other drugs and treatment. I suppose this is to be expected in a time when our language has been perverted to the extent that the category of "traditional" is now being assigned to scientific medicine, while unscientific "holistic" approaches are being hailed as progressive. This is but the latest of many indications that the sick jokes of the "postmodernist" perspective are now beginning to affect the lives of all of us. Unbeknownst to the public they have been, for some time, permeating the university -- where they are eating away at the very foundations of the process of higher education and, ultimately, of science itself. This is what I want to talk about tonight, but the subject is so large and so complex that I am afraid that I can do no more than to alert you and to open the entire issue up to discussion.

To return to medicine for a moment, just listen to Dr. Gerald Weissmann, a professor of medicine at New York University. In an article called 'Sucking with the Vampires: The Medicine of Unreason" he writes, "We are told frequently nowadays that the expensive, autocratic medical science of our day has substituted its own elite values for those that would better serve one or another subcultures. It seems to me that I have heard that song before. It's from an old familiar score. Dr. Karl Gebhard, Supreme Clinician to the SS, told the Nuremberg Tribunal that `What the National Socialists wanted was to introduce a popular medicine; they had little regard for scientific medicine. All sorts of popular drugs that were not approved by the medical profession allegedly because we did not understand them or were too conceited or were financially interested in the suppression of them, were used in concentration camps... The source of these [so-called] experiments was Himmler's conception of medicine as pure mysticism." Dr. Weissmann also refers to recent evidence that the Nazis favored holistic medicine and natural healing over decadent Jewish [scientific] medicine."

Examples of the same type of thinking abound in all levels of education today. A worrying complaint is beginning to surface from science teachers and policy analysts in the Northwest Territories and other places where there are schools with large aboriginal populations. Teachers and administrators are being required to accept and teach numerous shamanistic mythologies bundled together under the rubric of "aboriginal spirituality". And these are being taught -- not in after-school religious instruction nor in a comparative religion class, but as a form of knowledge of equal validity to the findings of science. This is scarcely surprising, considering that the same kind of thing has been occurring in Native Colleges and teacher-training programs within Canadian universities for two decades now. I remember hearing drums beating all day long from the classrooms at UBC where Native students were supposedly learning to be teachers -- and being rebuffed by my colleagues for daring to question this. What is novel in this case, however, is that a courageous spokesperson in the territorial Department of Resources (who was promptly fired for her candor) has gone public about it. She said that teachers and administrators are at a loss to understand how such a policy can result in anything other than "religious propaganda masquerading as knowledge".

We already know all about the attacks on Darwinian evolution within the university setting. Creation Science is being taught in increasing numbers of biology departments as an appropriate alternative to Darwinian theory. Scientific knowledge, it now seems, is a matter of preference. But more than anything, I believe that it is the misunderstandings and deliberate distortions of chaos theory that now pose the greatest risk to the teaching of an authentic scientific orientation to students. Chaos theory has been wrenched from its limited and useful meaning in particle physics and twisted to provide justification for a belief that the "essence" of reality is actually a chaotic aggregation under the arbitrary rule of some sort of life force -- usually represented by Gaia. Each infinitesimal particle, it is said by these believers, is bursting with imminent vitalism -- and even more, with a consciousness far superseding that produced by the living brain.

This is tied in with a grab bag of philosophical perspectives referred to variously by their followers as "deconstructivism", "social constructivism", "perspectivism", "eco-feminism" or "goddess feminism", and "Afro-centrism". All are based on epistemological relativism and its corollary -- cultural relativism. All are expressions of a belief in the essential subjectivism and cultural specificity of human knowledge and values, and in the reducibility of all aspects of the human condition to the pursuit of power. "Postmodernism" sometimes serves as a collective term to bundle all these models together, for critics and supporters alike. However, as the philosopher of science, Mario Bunge of McGill has said, the popular "postmodernism" designation is itself an oxymoron -- superbly befitting of the irrationalism of its components.

A 1994 book by a biologist, Paul R. Gross, and a mathematician, Norman Levitt, The Higher Superstition, has detailed much of what has been happening in higher education, where the new attacks on science are concerned. Interestingly, some of these attacks are coming from people within the academic community who consider themselves left-wing -- equally as much as from the fundamentalist right. Many are former Marxists who have retreated into the new "postmodernism" partly for cover, but also because it provides a supposedly scientific justification for their own brand of ideological thinking. Anyone concerned about the future of our universities -- and indeed of the society they serve -- would be well advised to read this book, as well as a follow-up one edited by Gross which is called The Flight from Science and Reason.

The authors caution that no designation of today's anti-science current within academia can be hard and fast. "Each practitioner assembles his or her own arsenal from favorite polemical bits and pieces -- a little Marxism to emphasize the twinship of science with economic exploitation, a little feminism to arraign the sexism of scientific practice, a little deconstruction to subvert the traditional reading of scientific theory, perhaps a bit of Afro-centrism to undermine the notion that scientific achievement is inevitably linked to European cultural values." The entire "postmodernist" movement is joined by one common purpose, however, as Gross and Levitt make clear time and time again. It is to "demystify" science, to undermine its authority and to assign priority to competing and incompatible modes of knowing. "The notion that science is poisoned knowledge, the fruit of a Faustian bargain, has been with us for a long time, [but in the past] its cry has more often come from reactionaries than from progressives." Apropos of this, Mario Bunge has made the point that the close historical ties between totalitarianism and the type of anti-science obscurantism exemplified by "postmodernism" are being totally covered up by the academics now bent on spreading the latter.

George Bernstein, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, has traced the historical roots of the "deconstructivism" that has overwhelmed his field of studies -- noting that, in fact, the whole anti-reason and anti-science movement began in the humanities. He says it "was able to succeed so well in literary circles partly because the traditional anti-empiricism and anti-science associated with Romanticism had cleared the way for it.... This was particularly so because even the critics of Romanticism had still construed literary study as an alternate form of knowledge to science. Those willing to challenge the new French theories [of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida] were thus few on the ground by the late sixties." John Ellis, in a 1997 book, Literature Lost, also traces the same series of events.

Once more, the tune that these people all suppose to be so new and "postmodern"; is, instead, a very old one. Bernstein quotes something most intriguing. "In ...[this country]," the quotation goes," relativism is an exceedingly daring and subversive theoretical construction. Everything I have said and done in these last years is relativism by intuition. ...From the fact that [science is an ideology enforced by those with the power to do so, and] all ideologies are of equal value, that is ... mere fictions, the modern relativist infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable." This exact sentiment is being echoed down countless halls of academe today -- taught to students as newly minted and seductively trendy truth. The writer of these words could be one of many professors now teaching our young people in various disciplines within the humanities and social sciences. But they just happen to have been published in 1921, and their author was living in Italy -- ironically, the very seat of the Renaissance that had heralded the rebirth of science in human culture. His name was Benito Mussolini, and he was describing the philosophical foundations of the new Fascism.

Perhaps I should take a moment to talk about some of the "postmodernist" versions of feminism. One of the major thrusts is now "eco-feminism". It is based on the "goddess religion" -- which, in turn, is rooted in a mishmash of romantic beliefs from the nineteenth century for which there exists not a shred of anthropological or archeological evidence. (It stems from the fantastical "Mother Right"; theory of Bachofen which was subsequently spread by Engels and then -- in a revised form -- by Erich Fromm.) It portrays males, with their reason and scientific outlook, as the historical rapers and abusers of the feminine, life-giving earth. As Rene Denfield (herself, like me, a feminist from another school) says of it, The religious myths of eco-feminism do not really challenge traditional religious beliefs. They replace them. The same dichotomies, the same struggles between good and evil -- between the female body and the male mind -- and the same rejection of counter evidence make these 'new' forms of spirituality more similar to religious fundamentalism than to the liberal basis of modern feminism."

Paul Gross says that a virtual "ball of exponential growth" in this "postmodernist" direction was set rolling in the universities with the influx of doctrinaire militants during the late sixties. I well remember how these young instructors had, in a strange perversion of logic, come to blame the misuse of technology associated with the Cold War and the Viet Nam War on science itself, and on the reason and objectivity that are a part of it. Gross suggests that, during the following three decades (particularly in the humanities and social sciences), a virtual sea change occurred in the recruitment of new entrants into academic careers. The change also affected the process of "peer review" for academic journals and the tenure and promotion that was tied to all this. The entire enterprise moved in a direction that selected and rewarded those with a vaguely mystical, anti-scientific, holistic and "perspectivist" frame of reference, and selected out the more scientifically oriented.

Gross and Levitt tell us that the "postmodernist" model which has gained such political success in the hothouse of academia interprets the scientific world view as merely the particular ideology that just happened to have got control of the society in which the research is being conducted. "It is a mythic structure justifying the dominance of one class, one race, one gender over another. For the postmodernist, scientific verification is a matter of political/social authority only." Most amazing of all, Gross and Levitt say, these people "disregard the obvious fact that science works, and that the propositions flowing from their own garbled obfuscations have been shown time and time again to have all the explanatory power of the tooth fairy."

The academic source of this strange set of beliefs is a branch of theoretical sociology which began as "the sociology of knowledge" and came to be called "the sociology of science". A theorist called Bruno Latour has promulgated much of it. Also very influential were the writings of a philosopher called Paul Feyerabend who seems to have been committed to establishing the scientific status of pursuits like astrology and para-psychology, and who set out to define science so that all such studies could be included in it. He was the first to equate the control made possible by science with political power.

The second major source of this kind of muddled thinking was a misinterpretation and outright distortion by sociologists and political scientists of the ideas of Thomas Kuhn -- a historian of science whose groundbreaking book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, ranks right up there with the works of John Dewey and B.F. Skinner as the most misunderstood publication of all time.

For me, one of the scariest aspects of this whole mess is the fact that so much "postmodernist" nonsense is being spewed out by certain scientists as well. I have been aware for a long time that there are many in the various sciences whose training and practice has been purely technical, and who have learned little or nothing about the philosophy of knowledge underlying their enterprise. In other words, rather than becoming scientific in their general orientation to life, these "lab technicians" (as I call them) have continued to live in a conceptual world dictated not by a skeptical scientific approach to knowing, but by their ideology -- be that a theistic or a Marxist one. When such people jump onto the "postmodernist" bandwagon their pronouncements carry all the authority of science -- even though they do not really understand it. This means that they can do untold harm. One example of such a thinker is Richard Lewontin, the long-time Chair of the Harvard Department of Zoology, whose Marxism tends to demand a definition of science that renders the two perspectives equally ideological. In a series of talks carried by the CBC "Ideas" program a few years ago, he characterized science as a purely socially constructed "institution of legitimation" -- not essentially different from the Christian church in an earlier era -- and he implied that modern biology is an ideology on a par with Marxism and Social Darwinism; and that the theory of DNA is merely one of the doctrines legitimized by it.

Then there are the physicists (admittedly few in number and generally scorned by their peers) who bring their religious prejudices to their research and maintain that physics is revealing the very face and mind of God in the universe. Is there any wonder that ordinary people feel warranted in their clinging to religious superstition and political ideology -- and that many of today's university students leave their studies in a totally confused state? That being said, however, I will leave you on a note that is a bit more upbeat.

I felt a great surge of hope when I read two letters to the editor in last Saturday's Review section of the Vancouver Sun. One was written by a liberal religious scientist who sees his religion as relevant only to a narrow range of "why" questions -- and leaves the entire arena of the "how things came about" to science. This man will do no harm to his students. The second letter was even more reassuring. It was written by John Rebman, a high-school math teacher and member of the Humanist Association of Canada. This is what he had to say about the difference between science and religion (and his comments could apply as well to all other forms of ideology). You will see that he is far, far ahead of all of those mystics and romantics ensconced in their powerfully influential places in the academic world. "Theology," Mr. Rebman wrote, "has its conclusions dogmatically worked out a priori ... and inquiry is reduced to searching for evidence and arguments that support those ready-made conclusions. Science, on the other hand, is a process of discovery, following the lead of the evidence and argument, and drawing an inference to the best explanation. Secondly, religion [or ideology] makes claims to certainty, whereas science is tentative." He said much more, but I just wanted to quote enough to re-assure you that there are still teachers of the young out there (and fellow humanists) who have not succumbed to the latest bandwagon in the academic world.