Isegoria has posted an excerpt from Razib Kahn’s review of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. Kahn, like Pinker, is a true believer in what he calls the “enlightenment project,” which he conceives as the use of “critical rationalism” to liberate men from “tribal visions” and resettle them in the promised land of truth and righteousness.
“Behold, I will save my people from the east country, and from the west country; and I will bring them, and they shall dwell in the midst of Jerusalem: and they shall be my people, and I will be their God, in truth and in righteousness” (Zechariah 8:7-8)
Reason is the God of Kahn’s people, and their Jerusalem is the technocratic millennium first prophesied by Auguste Comte.
Khan tells us that he is, nowadays, suffering the dolor of a true believer who suspects that reality (with which Khan thought he was intimate) is about to do him dirty. Indeed, it’s begun to seem that reality does not give one fig for his precious project, his millennium, or his dolor. Reality seems set on its own project, and is busy gathering men to its own Jerusalem. And in this project, “enlightenment” and “critical rationalism” is just one more depopulating district out in the “east country.”
Khan is an evolutionary thinker, so he should understand this. But he doesn’t want to. For some reason evolutionary thinkers loose their Olympian sangfroid when Science is the T Rex being swallowed by the tar pit. They find it hard to accept the idea that reality doesn’t much care for science, or scientists. It doesn’t seem fair, since, as Khan tells us, scientists strive
“to be right in the eyes of nature.”
And that’s why it hurts when nature turns around and gives it to them in the neck. That’s not what was supposed to happen!
“For David’s sake did the Lord his God give him a lamp in Jerusalem . . . to establish Jerusalem: because David did that which was right in the eyes of the Lord . . .” (1 Kings 15: 4-5).
Why doesn’t Nature give scientists “a lamp” to draw the people from the east country and the west country? Why doesn’t she help them establish their Jerusalem as “a beacon upon the top of a mountain,” as a city set on a hill that “cannot be hid” (Isaiah 30:17; Matthew 5:14)?
To answer this question, we must turn to the Scriptures of Rationalism, and more especially to Immanuel Kant’s 1784 essay, “Answer to the Question, What is Enlightening?” Here the Sage of Königsburg tells us:
“Enlightening is, Man’s quitting the nonage . . . . [and] making used of [his] understanding without the guidance of another. Sapere aude! Have courage to make use of thy own understanding! is therefore the dictum of enlightening.”
Or, less verbosely, “it is the vocation of every man to think for himself.”
Rationalism is the conviction that, if every man undertakes this vocation, and is afforded perfect liberty* to think for himself, all men will, after sufficient discussion, come to the same conclusion. As Khan puts it, Rationalists suppose that free enquiry will result in “convergence” on the truth. They suppose it will draw men from the east country and the west country until all “shall dwell in the midst of Jerusalem.”
But this is not what reality supposes. Reality supposes that when every man thinks for himself, every man will think just as he pleases, and that when every man thinks just as he pleases, he will begin to think that even the east country and the west country lack sufficient elbow room.
When a man thinks he has a vocation for thinking, he doesn’t reckon he’ll converge on Jerusalem. He reckons he’ll light out for the territory ahead of the rest.
This is something Rationalists would know if they paid closer attention to the Puritan project, predecessor to their enlightenment project in more ways than one. This also aimed to gather men to Jerusalem by lighting a beacon upon a mountaintop and telling them to think for themselves. As you recall, the Puritans believed that if only men were permitted to read Scripture in the light of their own understanding, and free of “the guidance of another,” they would converge on the faith propounded by John Calvin. But what the Puritans discovered was that this happened only to those men who were pleased to think like John Calvin.
Following the dictum sapier aude, some men did indeed become Puritans, but others followed the same dictum to become Quakers, or Familists, or Rationalists in the manner of Razib Kahn.
*) Perfect liberty entails freedom from prejudice and superstition as well as freedom from penalties for heterodoxy.