Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Happy New Year, Truth Lovers!

I'll be posting more regularly, once I have finished a piece for The Philosopher's Magazine. After that, I am new media all the way.


Oh, and New Scientist readers can read a piece by me here if they like. Non-subscribers can read the transcript below, on which it is based.

RSA Talk, November 1st, 2007

There can be no better venue than the RSA to ask what we can learn from the ideas of the 18th century, and more pressingly, what it would mean to be enlightened in the 21st. As an institution the RSA is committed to the use of reason, to open debate and to the best of the Enlightenment tradition.

So I am very glad to be speaking here, and grateful to the staff at the RSA for giving me this opportunity.

When I first started to look at putting together a talk that summarised some of the arguments in the book, I couldn’t help being reminded of something Harrison Ford once said. In the middle of shooting a scene for Star Wars he turned to George Lucas and said, ‘George you can write this stuff down, but you sure as hell can’t say it out loud’.

Well, I’ll try to give an outline of what I am arguing in the book – and after half an hour or so we’ll open things up and take questions and contributions from the floor.

The first thing I do in the book, pretty much, is to emphasise the central role that the ideas and prestige of the Enlightenment play in modern politics.

We constantly hear politicians justify themselves through appeals to the great figures of the Enlightenment. So, for example, talking in London in November of 2003, Bush responded to critics of his foreign policy -

'We’re sometimes faulted for a naive faith that liberty can change the world. If that's an error it began with reading too much John Locke and Adam Smith.'

One can criticise George Bush for many things – but perhaps an excessive enthusiasm for the works of John Locke and Adam Smith isn’t the most obvious of them. Still, for Bush and his speech-writers, it was important, vital even, to establish title to the legacy of the British Enlightenment.

Mind you, it would be a mistake to think that Bush’s choice of reading material was arbitrary. John Locke had an important influence on British colonial policy in the Americas and on the framers of the United States Constitution. Mention of him was perhaps a very sly wink at the deep background of the ‘special relationship’.

As for Adam Smith, Smith often pops up in contemporary discussions of economics. Since the late forties his was prestigious name to conjure with in struggles with the regulatory, Keynesian state. Supporters of Thatcher and Reagan both invoked his ideas – and some of them may actually have believed that free market policies had made Britain and America rich.

A belief that, irony of ironies, flies in the face of the evidence.

The concepts associated with the Enlightenment - progress, secularism, modernity – are central to the legitimacy of the liberal democracies. We’ve seen already that Bush, who makes much of his Christian faith, feels the need to lay claim to them. Britain’s new Prime Minister also makes much of his Enlightenment credentials – going so far as to let it be known that he has read and found uplift in the works of Gertrude Himmelfarb, a neoconservative admirer of the British Enlightenment.

This is before we mention the Conservative Party’s recent attempts to appropriate the language of liberty, equality and fraternity as part of its reinvention – an act of political chutzpah that Burke would have looked on with a degree of distress. Spinning, graves, and so on. Brown laying claim to the legacy of Hume and Smith, Cameron embracing the principles of the French Revolution - Across the ideological spectrum, the Enlightenment in Britain has become something of a free-for-all in recent years.

More generally the enlightened ideal of evidence-based reasoning has been crucial to the legitimacy of the modern state since the seventeenth century. Once Catholic monarchy was decisively rejected, the British committed themselves to a program of expansion based on experimental inquiry. Legitimacy has depended to a very large extent, at least in elite discussions, on demonstrating that policy rested on sound evidence.

As reverence for inherited authority has declined, and the constitution has become more democratic, the Enlightenment has only become more central. It is, to a very large extent, what we have instead of God and monarchy. In rhetorical terms at least, and certainly among the politically active, the Enlightenment has triumphed. For Dick Taverne, the politician and writer, the genealogy is clear -

'The building blocks of today’s liberal democracies were laid in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries … It is no coincidence that this was the time when modern science was born. Indeed science was the chief progenitor of the Enlightenment.'

So the language and the prestige of the Enlightenment are at the heart of the Anglo-American liberal project, and have been for centuries.

But commitment to Enlightenment in Anglo-America has always run alongside an acute anxiety about the prospects for an enlightened future. Taverne’s own work, The March of Unreason is a recent example of a genre that has a long pedigree. In 1945, Karl Popper wrote that ‘the conflict between rationalism and irrationalism has become the most important intellectual, and perhaps even moral, issue of our time’.

Many irrational threats to the Enlightenment tradition have been identified – some plausible, some less so. At various times the Enlightenment has faced extinction at the hands of Catholic despotism, fascism, and communism. It is undeniable that liberal support for the New Deal in America, for example, rested on a self-conscious commitment to ideals of the Enlightenment – although one should be careful not to exaggerate. Much of the popular support came from the American labor movement.

One strand of Cold War rhetoric insisted that the liberal democracy stood for the Enlightenment, and so on. In the decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the palmy days of the Clinton Presidency, there was much talk about UFO abduction and irrational opposition to free trade.

But the longstanding sense that the Enlightenment legacy was in mortal danger from external enemies appeared to receive really spectacular confirmation in the terrorist attacks of September 2001.

Commentators were quick to interpret them as an assault on the values of the Enlightenment:

The liberal gadfly Christopher Hitchens declared that -

'The bombers of Manhattan represent fascism with an Islamic face, and there's no point in any euphemism about it. What they abominate about "the West," to put it in a phrase, is not what Western liberals don't like and can't defend about their own system, but what they do like about it and must defend: its emancipated women, its scientific inquiry, its separation of religion from the state.'

The right-wing head of the Institute of Objectivist Studies, David Kelley, the keeper of Ayn Rand’s flame, and a figure on the libertarian right, declared that –

'It was obvious to virtually everyone that the World Trade Center was targeted because it represented freedom, tolerance, innovation, commercial enterprise, the pursuit of happiness in this life. Our modernist values were thrown into sharp relief by the hatred they provoked in our enemies.'

The incidence of the phrase ‘Enlightenment values’ roughly quadrupled in the British press in the years after the attack. And politicians were happy to draw on the language of the Enlightenment to explain their policies in the Middle East. Neoconservatives in Washington hinted heavily that it was the desire to create an enlightened democracy in Iraq that provided the real motive for invasion. Hitchens again was on hand to talk about how the idea of a ‘slum clearance’ of ‘the region's rotten nexus of client states’ was ‘beginning to form in the political mind’. The planners in the Pentagon became, through the alchemy of their admirers' prose, the spiritual heirs of Voltaire and Paine.

Politicans who promote the idea of a War on Terror insist that enlightened Western modernity faces a possibly fatal challenge from Islamic irrationalism. Terrorists were repeatedly described as being motivated by a ‘fear of progress’.

For example, three years after the Iraq invasion, former British Prime Minister saw in the politics of the Middle East -

'The age-old battle between progress and reaction, between those who embrace and see opportunity in the modern world and those who reject its existence; between optimism and hope on the one hand; and pessimism and fear on the other.'

Needless to say Britain was unambiguously on the side of optimism and hope.

Alongside the decision to understand the attacks as part of a Counter-Enlightenment ran an insistence that it was time to put aside moral relativism and embrace the icy certainties of an earlier age.

People started to be asked whether or not they felt morally superior to the Taliban, for example. To be for the Enlightenment was to for intervention in the Middle East. Opposition to the war could only be a kind of irrationalism – feverish anti-Americanism, perhaps.

This new emphasis on the need to defend and promote Enlightenment, if necessary by force, joined with a more general concern that the forces of irrationalism were on the rise. Enlightened intellectuals were already worried about the threat posed by a constellation of irrational forces - Christian fundamentalism, post-modernism and the New Age. In recent years this theme has been developed ever more explicitly – to the point where it is a staple of public debate, a cliché, even.

In the arena of science, Richard Dawkins declared that ‘the enlightenment is under threat, so is reason, so is truth’. Accordingly he set up the ‘Richard Dawkins Society for Reason and Science’ to defend science from ‘organized ignorance’ and ‘to go on the attack for the sake of reason and sanity’. And Dawkins has left us in no doubt about the threats to reason that matter. There is his heavily advertised atheism, of course. But when he talks about medicine, the target is slightly different. In a two-hour long documentary broadcast this summer he repeatedly insisted that the enlightened scientific inheritance faces a possibly fatal challenge from homeopaths and the likes of Deepak Chopra. ‘Primitive darkness’, he said in tones that made the flesh creep, ‘is on the rise’.

And again, the New Scientist worried in 2005 that ‘after two centuries in the ascendancy, the Enlightenment project is under threat. Religious movements are sweeping the globe preaching unreason, intolerance and dogma, and challenging the idea that rational, secular enquiry is the best way to understand the world’. As Taverne puts it ‘the new Rome that science built is under siege by the barbarians’.

Again and again we find a model of Enlightenment in which its most serious enemies come from the Irrational Other. Liberal secularists worry about the dangers posed by Christian fundamentalism and don’t hesitate to frame their objections in terms of a desperate fight to save the Enlightenment. Critics of the Bush White House have denounced its faith-based approach to policy-making. Al Gore has complained about a Republican ‘assault on reason’. Liberal scholars struggling to explain why truth matters put an overwhelming emphasis on the threat posed by postmodern relativism and skepticism.

Again and again, the most serious threats to an enlightened public sphere come from sources external to the Enlightenment tradition – they are some variation on the old Counter-Enlightenment – blood-and-soil ultra-nationalists, Koranic literalists and so on.

Elemental metaphors are a regular feature of this kind of talk. Along with the idea that light is struggling with darkness, we are often told that we face a ‘rising tide’ of unreason. Martial metaphors are also common and heighten the sense of ongoing emergency. So last week end in London, the Institute of Ideas organized a ‘battle of ideas’– presumably to defend the Enlightenment against the mustering forces of unreason.

Enlightenment values can be described in ways that sound both left-wing and right-wing, and the threats to reason vary according to taste. But the central division, between the enlightened inheritance and the forces of unreason, constantly recurs. The enemies of reason that matter – whether they are jihadist terrorists, post modern academics or reiki healers - are external to the Enlightenment and its values. They reject reason entirely, and make no attempt to hide their hostility.

It is sometimes hard to imagine another way of thinking about Enlightenment. Talk of an elemental struggle between faith and reason saturates intellectual culture and provides a common theme for writers as diverse, and antagonistic, as Melanie Phillips and Christopher Hitchens.

We hear it so often that it makes it easy, even natural, to think of Enlightenment in these terms. We are told so often that the fight against the forces of unreason is a matter of world-historical significance, that it can feel irresponsible, even cowardly, to question it. After all, if you are not squarely on the side of reason in this struggle, whose side are you on?

We find this idea, as we have seen, in both Democrat attacks on Republicans and in Republican, and indeed in Blairite, rhetoric about the War on Terror.

In my book I described this model of Enlightenment, this way of using Enlightenment values and of understanding current conflicts as a Folk Enlightenment. The lyrics change, but tune itself, once you listen out for it, can be heard over and over again.

There are two problems with this Folk Enlightenment. For one thing it rests on a simple-minded and downright inaccurate description of the historical Enlightenment. One example. Atheist polemic often insists that the Enlightenment can be summarised as an atheist movement. Though plenty of Enlightenment philosophers were atheists, plenty weren’t. It won’t wash to claim that the 18th century struggle against religious tyranny is simply analogous with the modern debate about the existence or non-existence of God. For every Hume there is a Kant.

More seriously, although its exponents insist that we to base our beliefs on evidence and reason, not one of them has, as far as I know, provided a clear explanation as to why the enemies of reason they identify are the ones we should worry about most. Endless books, articles and documentary sound the alarm. The irrationalists are coming! The irrationalists are coming!

But why do these particular enemies – I’ll list them again – postmodernists, fundamentalists, conspiracy theorists, alternative healers, crystal-peddling hucksters – why do these coalitions of the Old Testament and the New Age pose the most serious threat to the enlightened ideal of a reasonable public sphere? Because they say so?

I agree with Dawkins, Taverne and their many allies. The best ideals of the Enlightenment – a commitment to free inquiry and free speech – the very possibility of a sovereign and rational public - are threatened. I agree that this threat – this threat to reason – is extremely serious. But the notion that the most serious threats come from external, avowedly irrational, enemies cannot stand sustained inquiry.

The threats to reason that matter – the threats to the public’s capacity to make informed judgments – do not come for the most part come from irrational enemies. They come from institutions that noisily insist on their enlightened credentials.

Let me give you a couple of examples of what I mean.

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, 3% of Americans mentioned Iraq or Saddam Hussein when asked who they thought might have launched the attacks. By March 2003, just before the invasion, 52% of Americans thought that the US government had found clear evidence of a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. In June of 2003, 70% of Americans thought it likely that Saddam Hussein was personally involved. And last year 90% of troops in Iraq thought the war was retaliation for Saddam Hussein’s role in 9/11.

From 2001 onwards, and at an accelerating pace after September of 2002, the Bush administration and its allies in the media used every trick of juxtaposition and insinuation to link the proposed invasion to the 9/11 attacks. Where necessary they resorted to outright deception, as in their claims about Atta’s meeting with Iraqi intelligence in Prague.

(As an aside – the champions of the Folk Enlightenment tend to take a very dim very of ‘9/11 Conspiracy Theories’. I would be more inclined to take them seriously if they focussed their attention on this particular conspiracy theory – it is, after all the one that counts)

Iraqi complicity in 9/11 was only one strand of a propaganda campaign that also included the famous exaggerations of Saddam Hussein’s WMD program and enlightened rhetoric about bringing democracy to the region.

This manipulation of the public was integral to process by which the American people were inured to the need for war. Casualties from that war are now measured in the hundreds of thousands, responsible researchers have put the number at a million premature deaths.

So was the American public able to make a reasonable assessment of the justice and prudence of an invasion? Every effort was made to prevent them from doing so – by an administration led by a man who claims he has spent too much of his time reading John Locke and Adam Smith.

And don’t imagine that this is a matter of merely historical interest.

Last Friday (October 26th) I was listening to the Today program, and heard the Republican Congressman Mark Kirk being interviewed about the Iranian regime. Iran, he said, has for 15 years been, and I quote, ‘probably the top funder of terrorism around the world’ and he went on to say –

'These terrorist organizations operate no just in New York City, they operate in London, they operate in Madrid. We’ve seen attacks in Saudi Arabia etc and the number one financier is the government of Iran.'

To repeat – the number one financier is the government of Iran. The clear implication is that it was Iran, not Iraq, that was behind 9/11 and much else besides.

Jim Naughtie left Kirk’s claims entirely unchallenged. The overly suspicious, too-adversarial media we keep hearing about were absent that morning, as they tend to be when the powerful are presenting their pet conspiracy theories about official enemies. That morning a kind of poetic relationship was successfully established between 9/11 and the need for sanctions against Iran. Radio 4 listeners were left a little more estranged from the real world. Quite where this program of creative insinuation will end we can’t tell. But we can call it by its name.

It isn’t only states that work assiduously to undermine the public’s capacity to make reasoned judgments. Corporations spend more than $400 billion every year advertising their products. Again, every form of insinuation and poetical sleight of hand is employed to associate these products with desirable qualities – watch enough car adverts and you will be convinced that buying the right one will make you irresistible to women, transform you into an admired and respected parent, or even make you an environmentally responsible citizen. In general advertising promotes consumption as a route to happiness and it does so, it has to do so, by promoting irrational beliefs in the public.

Corporations also spend large sums trying to persuade us that they can be responsible ‘corporate citizens’ – the term is itself a lavishly gold-plated contradiction in terms. Corporations are not citizens – they are entities designed to serve the economic interests of their shareholders. Indeed for all the money spent assuring us that corporations can be trusted to act in the public interest, it is demonstrably the case that they do not. On a subject such as global warming, for example, the oil lobby has recklessly sought to obscure the state of the scientific consensus.

It might seem strange to mention commercial advertising in the same context as state propaganda. But it isn’t strange to the people involved. When asked why, in September 2003, the White house was suddenly talking about the need for action against Iraq, the Chief of Staff was quite forthright –

'From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.'

I could go on about the overlap, but I won’t. The relationship between science and state and corporate power is complicated, and I don’t have time to do it justice. But it is worth noting that the state and the corporation in its modern form are in some senses heirs to one particular Enlightenment tradition – indeed, perhaps the oldest tradition, the one associated with Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton and John Locke, in which the pursuit of knowledge coincided with an enthusiasm for a powerful and, where necessary, secretive state.

And note that states and corporations use rational means – market-testing, polling, trial-and-error – to promote irrationality in the public. And they can also be enthusiastically pro-science and pro-Enlightenment. Indeed where the evidence supports them, they love evidence and reason, can’t get enough of it.

It is no good pretending that we can fit state and corporate power in to the neat binary division offered by the Folk Enlightenment.

Compared with state-corporate assaults on the public’s ability to understand matters of deep importance, the chosen targets of the Folk Enlightenment pale into insignificance. While the folksy defenders of the Enlightenment are quick to denounce fantasy and paranoia, they give us precious few grounds to believe that they are not themselves lost to magical thinking. Why on earth should concentrate on enemies of the Enlightenment that sportingly identify themselves as such?

By insisting that the division that matters most is that between the rational and the irrational they all too often end up ignoring or misunderstanding the entirely rational, and often impressively scientific, efforts by states to undermine the public’s capacity to make reasoned judgments.

In these circumstances, the Enlightenment becomes at best a part of the entertainment economy. Dawkins can defend science against astrology and the New Age as if he were Francis Bacon. Christopher Hitchens can denounce Christian fundamentalism as though he were Voltaire railing against l’infame of Catholic superstition and autocracy. It amounts to a kind of historical – or hysterical – re-enactment.

At worst the Folk Enlightenment I have described becomes a resource that can be used by the powerful to suppress legitimate criticism of state and corporate power, and to support its own policies. We see this when those who reject the Hollywood-ready hallucinations of the War on Terror are attacked for betraying the Enlightenment. We see then when the intellectual defenders of, say, pharmaceutical medicine conflate serious calls for transparency and reform with a demand for more homeopathy.

I want to emphasise that I am not suggesting we ignore the irrational threats to the Enlightenment. Rather, I want to suggest that we construct a rationally defensible order of priorities when we come to consider the threats to reason.

In my book I talk at some length about how we can practically respond to the current threats to reason – how we can live up to our claims to have inherited the legacy of the Enlightenment.

I can only offer a brief sketch of my argument here. In a nutshell I suggest that it might be an idea to start by reading all of Kant’s famous essay, What is Enlightenment? Many of you will be familiar with it – I knew the famous bits -

'Enlightenment is man’s liberation from his self-incurred immaturity of mind – Aude sapere! Dare to Know! This is the watchword of Enlightenment.'

When I started to think about the Enlightenment more seriously I took the bold step (for me at any rate) of reading the essay from start to finish and I found something rather interesting. After the ringing declarations and slogans, Kant spends much more of his time talking about how Enlightenment can be consistent with public order. Enlightenment can’t have been a recipe for chaos, as far as Kant is concerned. But how can we question everything without undermining civil authority?

The solution that Kant proposes is ingenious, and much more radical than it appears at first glance. He distinguishes between the public and private use of reason. In our private capacity as employees and economic agents, we have to accept the rules as we find them. We can’t morally promote what we believe to be untrue, but we can honourably accept claims that might be true. He gives the example of a priest, who may not wholly concur with the doctrines of his church but presents them faithfully, since it is not ‘in fact wholly impossible that they may contain truth’.

As a publisher of non-fiction I can see what he is getting at here.

Sometimes obedience is necessary, when we are bound by our private undertakings. But Kant insists that we can also address one another as scholars before a reading a public. When we do so, we make public use of our reason – in such a context reason has no external limits. There is no fear of punishment, not hope of advancement.

Kant’s idea of an objective public realm, in which we approach controversies not as self-interested partisans, but as disinterested researchers, suggests how we might reclaim Enlightenment as a matter of lived experience.

It is not a matter of aspiring to total Enlightenment, but of attending to reality for its own sake, without hope of reward, for some part of our time. At the level of the individual it seems kind of modest, timid even. It is a far cry from romantic calls for total revolutionary commitment. But imagine for a moment a nation of part-time scholars acting in the public interest. What could such a nation achieve? We can’t know. But tell me you aren’t just a little curious to find out?

Notice, by the way, that’s Kant’s notion of a public sphere excludes states and corporations and their representatives. It is only when we address one another unencumbered by our institutional commitments that we are acting publicly in Kant’s sense of the word.

Indeed it is in this public realm that we can hope to look at power relations in society, and our own entanglement with them, without flinching. The decision for Enlightenment reaches outward to comprehend society’s dominant institutions, and inward to a recognition of our participation in their workings. Kant’s public/private distinction doesn’t lead to adolescent complaint. Rather it forces us into an adult engagement with political reality. The strict division does not lead to a cartoonish vision of ‘us and them’. The price of naming and knowing tyrannical power is the realisation that most of us are not innocent.

Kant doesn’t offer us total liberation. There will always be a gap between the public and the private – between the arrangements we have and the arrangements we should have. Our responsibility is to narrow the gap between them, by the most appropriate means we have to hand, according to circumstances. We do not have to renounce our private identities. But we do have to recognise that our roles as employees and consumers do not constitute the full expression of our humanity.

Before I stop, I want to suggest to you that it is important that we must recognise the unfinished nature of Enlightenment, the sense in which Enlightenment can never wholly be achieved. Though it is often translated as ‘liberation from immaturity of mind’, the word Kant used in his famous definition, Ausgang, movement-out-of, suggests that we think of Enlightenment as an ongoing process – Enlightenment resides in the act of moving away from our self-incurred immaturity of mind. Enlightenment seen in this way is not something we defend. It is something we do.

I also want to stress that the historical Enlightenment was not a unitary phenomenon, and what we take from it is, to a very great degree, a free choice. We can find anti-democratic and racist (especially anti-Semitic) thought there. We can find hyper-rationalist utopianism of the kind that John Gray talks about. We can find, if we know where to look, a delight in the military potential of a state that has harnessed the power of scientific inquiry.

But we can also find a sovereign commitment to finding and sharing the truth in the service of all mankind.

To choose between these Enlightenments requires that we look again at the great works of the Age of Reason. But it calls for more than this. It requires us to take responsibility for the concept of Enlightenment in our own times. Which is another way of saying that it is time for us to grow up. Time to do without the parental reassurances of powerful institutions, at least in our public dealings.

I talked earlier about how metaphors get thrown about by the folksy defenders of the Enlightenment. That stuff about armies and the weather.

When Bacon spoke of ‘kindling a light in nature’ he drew on a long, pre-modern body of metaphor and he inspired an Age of Enlightenment. It is an idea that still speaks to us – the forces of light, the forces of darkness. When we hear this kind of talk we can’t help thinking that something important is at stake, epic in a Tolkien kind way.

I have tried to suggest that it is inadequate a way of understanding the contemporary world.

I want to offer a different metaphor to finish with.

The defining struggle of our times is not between light and darkness. The defining struggle is the struggle between illumination on the one hand and dazzlement on the other – the struggle between the use of rational methods to enlarge the province of human understanding, and the use of those same methods to manipulate and confuse in the service of tyrannical power. It is the light of the human spirit against the interrogator’s lamp. Which side we choose will determine whether our claims to Enlightenment are hollow self-congratulation or something else, something finer, something world-changing.

So, let us be against the light that blinds.
And let us be for the light that reveals.

Thank you very much.