Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Free Thinking is not the same as Critical Thinking.

The caffeine high continues...

I challenge the supposed dichotomy between "irreligious free-thinking" vs. "Christian indoctrination" that gets repeated here [rottentomatoes Da Vinci Code forum] so often. I propose that, formally, there is actually not much difference between people who classify themselves as either. Both "groups" admit of varying degrees of attachment to one or the other "orthodoxy," and both have all different degrees of critical thinkers. A few points:

First, it is important to distinguish between "critical thinking" and "freethinking." The former is a skill which is developed through training and practice; it involves the recognition of the structures and substance of arguments, avoidance of fallacies, making of distinctions, and the perception of patterns of thought, in order to aid in the pursuit of truth in matters large and small. The latter is a philosophical disposition toward truth exemplified by the Enlightenment, with slogans such as Kant's "Sapere Aude!" - "Dare to know!" (or sometimes, "Dare to think for yourself!"). Although freethinking is partially evident in ancient skeptical philosophies, modern freethinking takes its cues from varying degrees of rationalism (nothing can be known which is not absolutely grounded in pure reason), and deconstructionism ("truth" is ultimately an instrument of the Will to Power and has no higher existence).

Second, although being a Christian (hence accepting any number of beliefs based on authority) does preclude one from being a freethinker, it does not preclude one from being a critical thinker. Certainly everybody falls into fallacies from time to time. And moreover, there are backwards Christian sects which actively oppose critical thought. But critical thinking is a skill, not a belief; thus it does not necessarily attach itself to any particular belief or lack of belief. It is mere self-preening (not to mention demonstrating a great lack of life experience) to assume that the height of critical thought always necessarily tends towards one's own set of beliefs, whether that is Christianity or freethought.

Third, being a freethinker does not gaurantee that one is a critical thinker. It is this point which is most nefariously ignored by so many of the freethinkers I come across--but importantly, not all. It is only too easy nowadays for someone to build an entire worldview out of nothing but cheap slogans, of which "Dare to think for yourself!" is but one of many. Certainly any doofus can reject those authorities which are most obviously Empty Authorities, since religious leaders are unabashed in their expecation to be taken seriously by the faithful. But far rarer is the freethinker who prunes from his self-made worldview those Empty Authorities which are not so obvious... the ones that pat him on the back and congratulate him for being so independent, and then tell him what to think next. Should freethinkers not perform an "examination of conscience" and ask themselves why there is so much inner conformity amid their supposedly spontaneous and individual ranks?

Fourth, freethinking has its own orthodoxy. The tenets of freethinking militate against having a canon of literature, or the acceptance of dogmas based on faith. Still, the philosophical foundations of freethought lack much of the certainty with which freethinkers believe they know everything else that they know. The conflict between rationalism and deconstructionism in 20th century philosophy has left freethinkers confused as to whether they should be proclaiming special access to truth or the death of truth altogether (both of which DVC does with flourish). The only thing that they do know is that religious authorities are unequivocally banned from the game of knowledge--W.K. Clifford even said that if a revelation from God actually happened, we would be duty-bound to disbelieve it. But try as they might, the undeniable foundations for this freethinkers' doctrine are not forthcoming.

Fifth, historic Christianity has its own (legitimate!) diversity. A theologian once told me that the only thing you can count on theologians to do is to disagree with one another. This is not to say that Christian theology, root and branch, is just a lot of conflicting opinions (contrary to Dan Brown's definition). But just because Christians are more passionate about Truth with a capital 'T' than are your average agnostics, does not mean that all disagreement is heresy or that orthodoxy is a stagnant, dead object, inert to human reflection. Within the boundaries of orthodoxy there are always battles over the Next Big Issue--and until the end of time there will always be the Next Big Issue. Theologians will cross lines even as they are in the process of drawing them--but censure is usually reserved for those rare occasions when an individual threatens to undo the very fabric of the Church community. Even St. Augustine identified heresy more with the arrogance or self-serving purposes of the errant teacher than with the erroneous teaching itself. Dogmas or no, the Church would die without critical thinkers in her midst.

In conclusion, I wish freethinkers would be more polite.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Envornmentalism vs. Conservationism?

The irony that I listed "conservationism" as a republican value and "environmentalism" as a democrat value isn't lost on me. I wonder what the distinction might be between these two? This is pure conjecture, but I imagine the difference looks like this: conservationism is an anthropocentric value. Like the various other distinct republican platforms, conservationism is intended for the preservation of natural goods for use by posterity. Democratic environmentalism is less anthropocentric and tends to look at the environment as an end unto itself. It does not matter whether or not a piece of land will be beautiful or useful somewhere down the line--except of course in terms of preventing world cataclysm (an immediate need). The environment should be protected because it is the environment. Spotted owls don't need any usefulness in order to be protected, even at great cost to ourselves.

At the Bottom of Conservative and Liberal

In a recent post, I discussed the distinction between conservative and liberal in terms their attitudes toward the "golden age" - namely, that for conservative the golden age was in the past, whereas for the liberals the golden age is in the future.

In connection with another assignment, I came across an insight which I think gets much deeper into the mystery of the distinction between conservative and liberal. And it's very simple (which, I know, always raises red flags among philosophers). Again, I make no claims to original ideas, but this might be something for me to look up someday.

The key words are immediate and ultimate.

The more I look at this, the less profound it seems... such is the nature of late night inspirations. But essentially, I can only imagine that the politics of the left and the politics of the right do, in fact, have their own respective strains of continuity--Republicans are consistently and narrowly concerned for values of ultimate significance--that is, far into the future, and weightier, nation-shaping issues; and Democrats are consistently and narrowly concerned for values of immediate consequence--the right now, the individual, needs, gratifications, and anxieties. This changes my previous opinion, that the democratic and republican party platforms had their stances on abortion backwards and thus placed themselves in positions of horrific inconsistency. On the contrary; now I see that what both parties have going for them is a horrific consistency.

It is such a simple distinction, and yet it seems to explain so much. Distinctively republican values always center around general, universal matters whose effects are always projected out into the far future. Family, society, economy, morality, nation-building, security and defense, and conservation. Distinctively democratic values center around individualistic, particular issues involving the relief of grievances in the immediate present. Healthcare, Wellfare, poverty and unemployment, civil rights, public safety, birth control, and environmentalism.

Obviously, all of the above mentioned issues have wide-ranging causes and effects, both immediate and ultimate. But I believe that the major distinction remains valid, and it has become increasingly evident in my lifetime. It is no accident that Republicans bristled when the Clinton administration took credit for the booming economy of the 90s--after all, Raeganomic policies were never intended to have an immediately visible effect (so the Republicans argue); rather, they were sacrificing immediate prosperity for later gain.

Interestingly, what is worst about either party is that it always and mechanically pursues its own values, needlessly at the expense of those of the opposition. Granted, there will always be conflicts and competing priorities. But the very notion that immediate needs as such, and ultimate goals as such, must en bloc be against one another, is absurd.

This distinction also demonstrates the potentially ideological, and even totalitarian possibilities inherent in either party. In the republicans it seems more evident, because totalitarian ideologies are always far-future looking in scope, with seemingly boundless ambition and a callous disregard for immediate needs and civil rights; a highly cynical and utilitarian outlook. But in fact, totalitarian potential resides no less in the extreme left, which after all must utilize a broad, sweeping infrastructure necessary for the fulfillment of its immediate values, and must always face the temptation of promising worldly salvation via protocols and programs without regard to morality, family, society, or nation--another recipe for exploitation.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Be Smug With Me.

I'm currently on page 325 of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. I am not reading it for pleasure. Although, by and large, even the pop-culture public is sick of the book, and they (thanks be to God) don't take it seriously, still, there are enough people out there who know little enough that they just eat this stuff up.

The book is a propeganda tract for every little bit of esotericism out there--Wicca, goddess worship, nature worship, gnosticism, ritual sex, etc.--candy-wrapped in a shallow, implausible, comic-bookish mystery story. Brown paradoxically preaches absolute postmodern relativism regarding historical beliefs, and at the same time he throws out phrases like "established historical fact" and "copiously researched" to decorate his fantasy. It is as if repeating these claims ad nauseum was sufficient to command the assent of millions.

And, sadly, it is.

But this blog post isn't meant to take down every ugly part of Brown's book (I imagine even every anti-Brown book published so far only scratches the surface), but to point out one in particular. The smugness. Oh, is it ever thick. It's so thick that Brown even celebrates it, attributing smugness as the grand virtue of every character sympathetic to his esoteric paganism. The sly self-superiority and the grandiose stroking of his own cleverness saturate the novel so much that I'm wearied by it and I have to take frequent breaks.

I can only imagine that the smugness is a deliberate mechanism. Smugness in a novel isn't a habit; it's a technique. Although being smug is not generally a lauded quality, in day to day interactions it has a polarizing effect. Smugness, I assume, generally involves taking loud pleasure in one's own superiority--real or imagined. When it comes to gnostic superiority--the superiority of being in possession of "secret knowledge," the difference between the "haves" and "have nots" is particularly sharp. Nobody wants to be on the wrong end of smugness; nobody wants to be the one ignorant of the reason for somebody else's furtive "knowing" smile.

Thus is nestled, in the smugness of Dan Brown, an ingenious little temptation. Be Smug With Me. Believe what I tell you. As one of the back cover praises says, "Read the book and be enlightened." Then you won't be one of the dumb people anymore. You can be among the intelligent, the enlightened, the smug.

For those who don't feel particularly tempted by the desire for gnostic superiority, the smugness has a different--and again, intended--effect. Rage. It does not matter how demonstrably untrue are all the smug person's reasons for being smug; how many laws of logic are flouted in the name of smarmy moralistic self-flattery; how academically ridiculous the case is--no response will crack the ritual mask of smugness. This, understandably, makes Brown's many targets--faithful Catholics--upset.

The anger, predictably, feeds into the smugness. Brown includes in his novel several (naive) portrayals of the general public as being "unable to handle" what he has to sell. To disgree with his esotericism means you're a dupe; but to get angry means that you're weak, and maybe even psychotic (like Silas the Opus Dei monk).

It reminds me of G.K. Chesterton's explanation of circular thought in Orthodoxy: if I believe I am the Queen of England, then surely if you disagree with me it is because you have an agenda to keep the true monarch off the throne. It's a wonderful, logically consistent, perfect, tiny world of self affirmation.