The Enlightenment Project: A Defense

I once again have a thought-web rumbling around in my head and it will necessitate my writing it out to clarify exactly what it involves.

This set of thoughts is basically just more of my contemplating the issues of ideology and psychology. It might be helpful to think of this as a continuation of my recent posts about Jonathan Haidt’s theory of moral foundations, specifically as found in his recent book, The Righteous Mind — see here for the first post in the series). However, the posts it might most directly relate to is the last post I wrote in which I posed liberal analytical thinking against conservative intuitive thinking and the post before that in which I described the negative side of liberalism or rather liberal-mindedness. I probably also should put my thoughts in the context of some posts I wrote last year about American anti-intellectualism, specifically the strange school of thought inspired by Rand and Rothbard (see here and here).

Despite my criticisms of liberalism, particularly in its political failings, I find myself attached to liberalism as a general worldview. In terms of my personal inclinations, moreso than the political tradition, what interests me is the intellectual tradition of liberalism (in which I would also include the liberal tradition of creative arts that underlies both the high arts and the counter-culture); and this is what I particularly see of worth that comes out of the liberal predisposition. Liberalism is ultimately more of a cultural vision than an ideological system, and for this reason it isn’t within politics that liberalism shows off its best potential. The social science research shows liberals apparently are talented at not being misinformed about political issues, but this obviously doesn’t lead to them creating a successful and stable liberal society or even simply an ideologically and morally consistent liberal movement. Knowing and doing are two distinct abilities. Liberals are maybe better at doing on the small-scale such as being good community organizers, therapists, service workers, nurses, teachers, scientists, etc. On the large-scale, however, liberals tend to only do good to the degree that these small-scale activities add up to and form the ground of larger collective or political actions. This limitation of liberalism, I would add, seems to me is a limitation of all liberal societies, specifically democracies: the larger the democracy, the more likely the dysfunction and corruption.

The core of my present thought is the human capacity for reason… which is itself at the heart of the Enlightenment project and a major strain of Western Civilization going back to the Greeks (the ideal of the individual thinker probably having its origin in the Axial Age, a societal shift that seemingly impacted all of civilization at that time). Liberals have a greater faith in this capacity for reason and conservatives have less faith in it.

(By the way, I assume that most people understand that by ‘liberal’ I mean ‘liberal-minded’. Liberalism shows it’s highest correlation to social liberalism rather than economic liberalism which means liberal-mindedness to varying degrees can be found among many but not all left-wingers, quite a few libertarians, and even some moderate or independent conservatives. I would assume the majority of people in a modern liberal society have learned to think to some degree in a more liberal-minded fashion, the difference mostly being a matter of degree.)

Without further ado, let me begin with this basic distinction involving rationality.


How conservatives tend to counter reason is often through such things as anecdotal evidence. They have some personal experience or an example of an exception to the rule. They look for a reason that justifies their gut response.

There is something about conservative morality that is pre-rational, it simply feels right, it is right because it is perceived as always having been right (whether that perception is an accurate or romanticized appraisal of the past). To a social conservative, what feels right might be expressed as a religious belief or a moral truth, typically perceived as of ancient origin. To a fiscal conservative, however, what feels right might be expressed as an intellectual axiom or concrete observation.

(Before going further, let me re-emphasize a point. People are complex and so conservative morality is rarely found in its extreme form, it being particularly rare in liberal societies such as the US; for simplicity’s sake, I’m speaking about the extreme which represents the archetype of conservatism, the ideal form; but in reality the average conservative is more moderate, although the more vocal and more right-wing conservatives will tend to more closely fit my descriptions. Nonetheless, it probably is true that most conservatives rely more on intuitive reasoning than analytical reasoning, by which I mean relative to most liberals — this is the argument I’m making, anyway.)

This conservative-minded intuitive reasoning touches upon the reason why many liberals are less trusting of anecdotal data. Liberals realize it is easy for all people to fall into motivated reasoning with anecdotal evidence for it opens one up to confirmation bias, it being hard to tell apart intuitive reasoning from motivated reasoning. Scientific data that isn’t anecdotal has more protections against such personal biases, after all the purpose of the scientific method is specifically to filter out personal biases. Conservatives seem less aware or less concerned about the unreliable nature of anecdotal data and the intuitive reasoning that is typically behind it. This conservative preference for the anecdotal seems to be a clear example of motivated reasoning since anecdotal data is sometimes the only evidence they can use to challenge scientific data, and so it is just what is conveniently at hand in justifying and rationalizing what they already believe. There is a satisfying simplicity in pointing to a tangible anecodate, it being more on the human level of everyday experience.

It’s from my libertarian-leaning dad that I learned to better understand why conservatives mistrust reason or only see it as valid on a more constrained level (by the way, keep in mind that my dad is a relatively liberal-minded intellectual conservative and so he doesn’t go as far as a stronger conservative would in constraining and mistrusting  reason; my dad makes a fairly rational argument for the limits of rationality and he overall maintains great respect for rationality). My dad likes to share something he read from Thomas Sowell. Basically, it is about how a person will worry more about his own finger being cut off tomorrow than he will about a large number of people who actually died and are suffering far away in another country (notice how this is a very concrete scenario that is easy to imagine as an actual anecdote from someone’s life). From Sowell’s perspective, the constrained vision is more accurate to human nature in that humans are imperfect and imperfectible, rationality included. From my liberal-minded perspective, it would seem to be more rational (in terms of the objective data and pragmatic results) to spend one’s time doing something to help a large number of people (donate money and supplies, fly to the location to offer help and services, advocate for policies that improve public safety during catastrophes, etc) than to sit around worrying about a future event that will only effect you personally. But Sowell’s point is that humans aren’t and never will be overly rational in this way. Liberals, of course, disagree. Liberals see the objective data (at least in this case) as more relevant partly because they also feel more empathy for strangers, something Sowell doesn’t take into account. Not all people are equally constrained in their empathy or equally constrained in their rationality about all issues.

So, conservatives such as Sowell and my dad seem to openly admit in their own way that they find anecdotal data more persuasive. It is in fact how they define human nature. Such conservatives probably aren’t basing their conclusions on the social science research I refer to, but in coming from a different direction they come to a similar conclusion, at least about the conservative mindset. The disagreement is that conservatives argue that their conclusion applies to all people, both conservatives and liberals, but that liberals in their unconstrained vision are denying human nature. The research, however, seems to show that both the constrained vision and unconstrained vision are correct in a more limited way. The constrained vision is (relatively more) true to the conservative predisposition and the unconstrained vision is (relatively more) true to the liberal predisposition.

That said, conservatives do have an advantage to their vision. The research has shown that (through fear, stress, and disgust) it is easier to get a liberal to think and act like a conservative than it is to get a conservative to think and act like a liberal. The latter, however, isn’t impossible, just in some ways very difficult to accomplish. A further thing shown by research is that most Americans are symbolic conservatives (persuaded by abstract notions of conservatism) while being pragmatic liberals (supporting and defending specific liberal policies). So, it is complex and impossible to say either side is completely right or completely wrong, at least in the court of public opinion.

My most basic point is that talking about the objective data often confuses the underlying issues. We need to first make clear the underlying issues before discussing the data. I’ve discovered it is unhelpful and frustrating to bring up the best available data when it may seem irrelevant or less relevant to the priorities of the other side. To speak in terms of a obvious example (that I brought up in my last post about the symbolic conflations of intuitive thinking): Is abortion an issue simply about the objective data of decreasing or at least not increasing the rate of abortions? Or is abortion an issue symbolic of a deeper issue such as the conservative vision of social order versus the liberal vision of compassion and freedom? Until such questions are answered, talking about the data is pointless.


By the way, in light of Haidt’s theory of moral foundations, Haidt does mention Thomas Sowell in his recent book. He doesn’t directly mention the constrained vs unconstrained visions there, although I’m fairly sure his use of “parochial” in his book refers to Sowell’s constrained vision. The specific terms of constrained and unconstrained do get discussed in at least one paper he co-authored:

Liberals and Conservatives Rely on Different Sets of Moral Foundations
Jesse Graham, Jonathan Haidt & Brian A. Nosek, 12/9/08

“Haidt (2008) recently suggested an alternative approach to defining morality that does not exclude conservative and non-Western concerns. Rather than specifying the content of a truly moral judgment he specified the functions of moral systems: “Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, practices, institutions, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible” (p. 70). Haidt described two common kinds of moral systems – two ways of suppressing selfishness – that correspond roughly to Sowell’s two visions. Some cultures try to suppress selfishness by protecting individuals directly (often using the legal system) and by teaching individuals to respect the rights of other individuals. This individualizing approach focuses on individuals as the locus of moral value. Other cultures try to suppress selfishness by strengthening groups and institutions, and by binding individuals into roles and duties in order to constrain their imperfect natures. This binding approach focuses on the group as the locus of moral value.

“The individualizing-binding distinction does not necessarily correspond to a left-wing vs. right-wing distinction for all groups and in all societies. The political left has sometimes been associated with socialism and communism, positions that privilege the welfare of the group over the rights of the individual and that have at times severely limited individual liberty. Conversely, the political right includes libertarians and “laissez-faire” conservatives who prize individual liberty as essential to the functioning of the free market (Boaz, 1997). We therefore do not think of political ideology-or morality-as a strictly one-dimensional spectrum. In fact, we consider it a strength of moral foundations theory that it allows people and ideologies to be characterized along five dimensions. Nonetheless, we expect that the individualizing-binding distinction can account for substantial variation in the moral concerns of the political left and right, especially in the United States, and that it illuminates disagreements underlying many “culture war” issues.”

Also, I’d like to note that Sowell got this idea from Adam Smith. However, if we go back to the entire quoted section of Smith’s writing, it isn’t clear that Smith would agree with Sowell’s conservative conclusions:

“Human nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it. But what makes this difference? When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble? When we are always so much more deeply affected by whatever concerns ourselves, than by whatever concerns other men; what is it which prompts the generous, upon all occasions, and the mean upon many, to sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others? It is not the soft power of humanity, it is not that feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love. It is a stronger power, a more forcible motive, which exerts itself upon such occasions. It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct. It is he who, whenever we are about to act so as to affect the happiness of others, calls to us, with a voice capable of astonishing the most presumptuous of our passions, that we are but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it; and that when we prefer ourselves so shamefully and so blindly to others, we become the proper objects of resentment, abhorrence, and execration.”

To clarify the origins of some of my own thinking, this general misunderstanding between ideological predispositions first became clear to me through something else Haidt had written (something I read, by the way, long before my recent discussions of Haidt’s theory). The following explanation gave me an insight into the conservative mind that had previously eluded me:

What Makes People Vote Republican?
By Professor Jonathan Haidt, September 2008
Annotated by Dr. Bruce L Gibb, September 2008

“They want more prayer and spanking in schools, and less sex education and access to abortion? I didn’t think those steps would reduce AIDS and teen pregnancy, but I could see why the religious right wanted to `thicken up’ the moral climate of schools and discourage the view that children should be as free as possible to act on their desires. Conservatives think that welfare programs and feminism increase rates of single motherhood and weaken the traditional social structures that compel men to support their own children? Hmm, that may be true, even if there are also many good effects of liberating women from dependence on men. I had escaped from my prior partisan mindset (reject first, ask rhetorical questions later), and began to think about liberal and conservative policies as manifestations of deeply conflicting but equally heartfelt visions of the good society.”

Even Haidt seemingly admits that the conservative position is less rational in terms of objective pragmatism involved in dealing with the stated issues that can be scientifically measured and analyzed. I think Haidt’s point here isn’t dissimilar to my own. He sees the real debate as happening on another level, that of values. What I think Haidt misses, though, is that at least one of the liberal values relates to intellectuality (scientific inquiry, neutrality, curiosity, honesty, etc). Liberals take those outward issues as relevant on their own merits. It matters more to liberals which methods will actually reduce abortions, rather than just arguing over what liberals often see as subjective values.

That is the sense in which conservatives are less rational. For various reasons, conservatives are sometimes less prone to speak directly about what they consider most important, instead using symbolic issues as proxies for the real issues they care about. This is a point of confusion that has often led to frustration for me and for many liberals (along with probably many conservatives as well). Abortion becomes a symbol of deeper issues, but to take the symbol at face value is to miss the point of the conservative argument. It would be immoral from a conservative perspective to put pragmatic results above moral purposes; as the Bible puts it, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”


In explaining my views as stated above, someone (who goes by the username ‘Sanpete‘ on couldn’t follow my explanation of how conservatives (such as Sowell) have admitted that they’re more persuaded by anecdotal evidence. The person told me that the “main point about one’s finger being cut off seems to be that it’s one’s own, not that it’s particular.”

My response is as follows.

The particular and the personal are closely related. It is about an emotional response. People, especially conservatives, typically feel less of an empathetic response to distant strangers (maybe similar to how strongly religious people are less motivated by compassion in general, a distinction needing to be made between compassion and charity). Numbers of people hurt or killed is just data, specifically data that is both less particular and less personal. None of the people are real to the emotional experience in the way that the future potential of a finger being cut is real. The potential finger loss is real because it is perceived as real, even if just real in the mind. The feelings induced are real. As such, conservative moral intuition goes for this gut-level sense of reality. Even more rational-minded conservatives such as my dad will harken to this gut response, and they would even see this emotional ground as rational in that it is very close to personal experience, the anecdotal (or hypothetically anecdotal) evidence in this case is trusted or else seen as persuasive for the very reason it seems closer to observed reality whereas abstract data is seen as too disconnected from concrete reality or rather too disconnected from the personal experience of concrete reality.


Here is what interests me most in thinking about this.

A more universal (i.e., less constrained) sense of rationality goes hand in hand with a more universal experience of empathy, the ability to think abstractly is connected to the ability to imagine empathetically (both requiring the ability to cognitively come to terms with what is beyond the personal level of concrete reality, whether concrete in terms of personal anecdotes or concrete in terms of the subjective experience of the five senses) — the scientific method requires this ability and more importantly requires trust in this ability, trust that through being systematically rational we can collectively reach greater rational results. This is what Haidt doesn’t understand about liberal morality. Rationality isn’t just rationalization, even though intellectual liberals understand the potential conflation. Rationality isn’t just at best a guide to emotion and intuition. Rationality stands on its own merits, as it should.

Like the liberal willingness to challenge authority and the liberal love of irreverent and playful humor, all of this goes back to liberals measuring high on the trait ‘openness’ and low on the trait ‘conscientiousness’. This cuts to a deeper level than Haidt gets at with moral foundations for these personality traits are psychological foundations that precede and make possible an articulation of moral foundations. This gets at the issue of how to interpret the moral foundations. Conservatives interpret them one way and liberals another way. What Haidt misunderstands is that liberals also value all the moral foundations, even if they interpret them differently. Haidt ignores the full sense of morality present in the liberal view and so he underestimates the importance of the liberal value of reason.

In my recent writings, I keep repeating one very significant point that Mooney presents so clearly in his book (The Republican Brain). When it comes to politics, liberals prove themselves to be more rational in that they use less motivated reasoning and that they are less misinformed (i.e., less prone to confirmation bias, backfire effect, and smart idiots effect; among other biases). As Mooney makes clear, liberals aren’t necessarily less prone to motivated reasoning overall. It’s only with political issues that liberal rationality stands above that of conservatives.

So, what makes political issues different? I’d argue that political issues are simply the issues that humans collectively come to think of as important. What this means is that liberals, when they think something is important enough, are capable of bringing reason to bear upon a particular issue. Liberals aren’t consistent in always being reasonable about all issues in all aspects of life, but at least they show a more consistent capacity when it really matters.

Being rational is very difficult. It takes effort and determination. Most of the time, it just isn’t worth it to go to such lengths. Humans are lazy in a lot of ways, especially when it comes to thinking. Most people don’t want to think about life and about politics. We have our biases and our beliefs. We already know what is ‘true’ according to our worldview. Humans aren’t born as rational beings, although humans are born with the implicit potential for rationality and even explicit early signs of reflective thought. For example, research shows babies are capable of seeing something from another person’s perspective and thus predict their behavior, and this demonstrates the connection between empathy and objectivity — objectivity is first and foremost the ability to see from a perspective outside of the directly subjective sensory experience, involving abstraction but an abstraction rooted in empathetic imagination.

The sad effect of Haidt’s theory is that it can be used to justify the position of those who would like to discredit rationality and so can be used to justify what I’d call intellectual laziness. Yes, it is easier to be intellectually lazy. Yes, most people most of the time will be intellectually lazy. But that is hardly a moral argument in defense of intellectual laziness, even when labeled as “intuitive reasoning”. Many liberal values are difficult, that is the very proof of their worthiness. On the political level, small ‘d’ democratic values and small ‘r’ republican values are what make modern societies liberal to the extent that they are. It was a difficult (not to mention violent and bloody) struggle to get to this point where liberal values could become accepted as part of the status quo and hence defended even by conservatives. If we don’t constantly struggle for these liberal values including most specifically Enlightenment values of rationality, then we will fail to live up to these values… and, like most liberals and most people in general, I’d rather avoid that if possible.

There are two issues at hand. Can we live up to such values? And do we want to? The two go together. Theoretically, we can live up to them, assuming we want to. Our values are dependent on our values and both are dependent on our psychology. It is proven that a minority of people are capable of rational thought (I’ve heard someone claim that it was 15% of the population that rates highly on “reflective reasoning”), but it isn’t yet proven that the majority of people can manifest this human potential. Human reason as a universal capacity of human nature, at this point, is still somewhat an article of the liberal faith… although conservatives have as much to lose as liberals if this liberal faith turns out to be wrong, after all we share the same liberal society.


I think it ultimately comes down to culture.

People tend to fulfil the social expectations that culture puts forth, assuming those expectations are within human potential. Research shows that, when shown the Ten Commandments, most people will act according to those moral rules; they will tend to cheat less, lie less, etc — which is to say that they will act more moral according to some of the basic moral values conservatives and liberals agree upon, but it probably wouldn’t lead people to be more moral according to the exclusively liberal moral values such as intellectual honesty that goes beyond merely not lying. To manifest liberal moral values would require different social expectations than those stated in the Ten Commandments. Interestingly, recent research seems to show that behavior will conform to liberal moral values of rationality when analytical thought is intentionally elicited:

Logic Quashes Religious Belief, New Study Finds
By Dr. Douglas Fields, 4/26/12

“Gervais’ and Norenzayan’s first experiment tested the idea that analytical thinkers tend to be less religious. They recruited 179 Canadian undergraduates and gave them analytic thinking tests, followed by a survey to gauge their religious disbelief. As expected, the results showed that higher scores in analytical thinking correlated with greater religious disbelief. But this is just a correlation.

“To test for a causal relationship between analytical thinking and religious disbelief, the researchers devised four different ways to promote analytic thinking and then surveyed the students to see if their religious disbelief had increased by the interventions that boosted critical thinking. Varieties of these interventions had already been shown in previous psychological studies to elevate critical thinking measurably on tests of reasoning. In one intervention, when people are shown a visual image that suggests critical thinking (for example, Rodin’s sculpture “The Thinker,” seated head-in-hand, pondering) just before taking a test of analytic reasoning, their performance on the test increases measurably. Subconscious suggestion about thinking apparently gets the cognitive juices flowing and suppresses intuitive processes. The researchers confirmed this effect but also found that the self-reported religious disbelief also increased compared with subjects shown a different image before being tested that did not suggest critical thinking.

“The same result was found after boosting critical reasoning in three other ways known to stimulate logical reasoning and improve performance on reasoning tests. This included having subjects rearrange jumbles of words into a meaningful phrase, for example. When the list of words connoted thought (for example, “think, reason, analyze, ponder, rational,” as opposed to control lists like “hammer, shoes, jump, retrace, brown”), manipulating the thought-provoking words improved performance on a subsequent analytic thinking task and also increased religious disbelief significantly.”

Religion & Brain: Belief Decreases With Analytical Thinking, Study Shows
By Greg Miller, 4/27/12

“Many people with religious convictions feel that their faith is rock solid. But a new study finds that prompting people to engage in analytical thinking can cause their religious beliefs to waver, if only a little. Researchers say the findings have potentially significant implications for understanding the cognitive underpinnings of religion.

“Psychologists often carve thinking into two broad categories: intuitive thinking, which is fast and effortless (instantly knowing whether someone is angry or sad from the look on her face, for example); and analytic thinking, which is slower and more deliberate (and used for solving math problems and other tricky tasks). Both kinds of thinking have their strengths and weaknesses, and they often seem to interfere with one another. “Recently there’s been an emerging consensus among [researchers] … that a lot of religious beliefs are grounded in intuitive processes,” says Will Gervais, a graduate student at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, in Canada and a co-author of the new study, published today in Science.”

[ . . . ]

“It’s very difficult to distinguish between what a person believes and what they say they believe,” says Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and Nobel laureate at Princeton University who has done pioneering work on the contributions of intuitive and analytical thinking to human decision making. “All they have shown, and all that can be shown, is that when you’re thinking more critically you reject statements that otherwise you would endorse,” Kahneman says. “It tells you that there are some religious beliefs people hold that if they were thinking more critically, they themselves would not endorse.”

“To Gervais and Norenzayan, the findings suggest that intuitive thinking, likely along with other cognitive and cultural factors, is a key ingredient in religious belief. Greene agrees: “Through some combination of culture and biology, our minds are intuitively receptive to religion.” He says, “If you’re going to be unreligious, it’s likely going to be due to reflecting on it and finding some things that are hard to believe.””

At that last article, a commenter (username: srheard) brought up a good point:

“The Catholic and evangelical religious communities discovered this over 40 some years ago in the aftermath of the post WWII GI Bill and the Kennedy challenge – i.e. the Education Boom. They could see the correlation between an emphasis of science and analytical studies in schools and universities- and a decline in church attendance. It became clear that a citizenry educated in analytical thinking posed an existential threat to fundamentalist (literalist) religious enterprises. Their act of “self defense” was a involvment in politics and a quest for an American Theocracy. The theocrats calls this the “War on Religion”. This is Newspeak for the “War on Thinking”. If theTheocrats win that “war”, the Republic falls. End of story.”

It seems to me that it is within the realm of possibility to create a culture of rationality. However, it is also clear to me that many people, especially those in power, realize that they might not personally benefit from such a culture of rationality. As individuals, they might not politically or economically benefit from a more rational playing field. And collectively, certain groups (whether fundamentalist churches or the Republican Party) might not benefit from a more rational citizenry.


This isn’t to dismiss the basic point that Haidt makes.

Many liberals like Haidt are grappling with how to best interact with and live among conservatives in a shared society. It’s obvious that conservatives don’t value rationality in the same way as liberals. This has led some liberals to question the entire Enlightenment project and so devalue the role of rationality, whether out of a sense of cynicism or pragmatism. As Zach Wahls recently said (to paraphrase), “You can’t reason people out of what they didn’t reason themselves into.”

I understand this view. Being a rational-minded liberal doesn’t mean dismissing the non-rational aspects of human nature, rather it means seeing less conflict in the first place between the rational and non-rational. Maybe we are presenting a false dichotomy, false and more importantly unhelpful. Recognizing and even respecting the non-rational doesn’t require we stop striving for the full potential of rationality. There are some people who are as dogmatic about rationality as others are dogmatic about religion, but such people are certainly a very small vocal minority among liberals and the liberal-minded.

What I’m offering in this post is a view that should appeal even to moderate conservatives who have become fed up with the anti-intellectualism that has taken over much of the conservative movement and the Republican Party. It’s not conservatism I’m criticizing, at least not in terms of the average conservative who I suspect tend to be moderate and hence not overtly anti-intellectual. I would recommend to liberals to have respect for the non-rational and so it is in this context that I recommend to conservatives (along with liberals like Haidt) to have more respect for rationality. The difference, though, is that I think most people in this highly religious/spiritual country already have respect for the non-rational and so such a recommendation is maybe less necessary. The situation we face is a society where rationality (in terms of science and education) is constantly under attack, this not being a sustainable situation for a democracy such as ours, something must give.

There is one point I want to bring up, a point I’ve mentioned recently in other posts. From what I’ve seen in various data, conservatives are more polarized against liberals than vice versa. Liberalism, on its own terms, isn’t directly opposing conservatism. One of the weaknesses of liberalism, in fact, is how easy it is for liberals to act like conservatives.

This plays out on every kind of issue. On abortion, conservatives see liberals as being for abortion, but in reality liberals would love to decrease the number of abortions (in response to conservative EITHER/OR thinking, liberals want BOTH free choice AND fewer unwanted pregnancies and hence fewer abortions). On freedom, conservatives oppose positive liberty against negative liberty whereas liberals see the two as inseparable (liberals deny the us vs them attitude implicit in conservatives favoring liberty for those who already have it, negative liberty, while denying it to those who seek to gain it, positive liberty). On the issue of this post, conservatives are more likely to perceive the intuitive and rational as in conflict, yet this is less clear of a conflict for many liberals (it’s just liberals would rather the two sides interacted through more of a conscious choice than an unconscious conflation).

From the extreme conservative perspective, conservatives can only win by liberals losing and liberals can only win by conservatives losing. Most liberals, however, would prefer to seek win/win scenarios. The problem liberals face is that the conservative predisposition might make win/win scenarios impossible, so conservatives prove themselves correct by refusing the olive leaf offered by liberals. This saddens me. I don’t want to just gripe about conservatives. As I see it, even conservatives benefit from promoting a more rational society, even when they fight against it (such as their demonizing scientists and scientific institutions).


Like most liberals and liberal-minded folk, I don’t dislike intuitive knowing, symbolic thinking, or the non-rational in general. In fact, I love such things when taken on their own terms, instead of being conflated with what they aren’t.

I would go even further. My defense of rationality is also a defense of the non-rational, the love of the latter motivating my love of the former. I have a mad fascination with the non-rational. I would daresay that I embrace the non-rational to a greater degree than even most of the more anti-intellectual variety of conservatives. It is my liberal-minded ‘openness’ that opens me up to the non-rational, leading me and those like me to seek out new experiences and alternative states of mind. I’ve previously explored this relationship between liberalism and the non-rational:

NDE: Spirituality vs Religiosity
The Monstrous, the Impure, & the Imaginal
Fortean Curiosity: Liberalism & Intelligence
American Liberalism & the Occult

So, it’s not that I want to live in a rationalist utopia ruled over by intellectual elites. Rather, I want to live in a world where all knowledge is respected and a love of learning is valued. That shouldn’t be too much to ask for. Let’s not give up on Enlightenment values before they’ve even had a chance to be fully tested. Modern liberal societies are still a young experiment.

11 thoughts on “The Enlightenment Project: A Defense

  1. “So, it’s not that I want to live in a rationalist utopia ruled over by intellectual elites. Rather, I want to live in a world where all knowledge is respected and a love of learning is valued. That shouldn’t be too much to ask for. Let’s not give up on Enlightenment values before they’ve even had a chance to be fully tested. Modern liberal societies are still a young experiment.”

    250 years is not young, and logic didn’t begin with the Enlightenment. The medieval ideological spectrums and base political-economies all had about 250 year runs. But enlightenment values never lasted that long in practice, but I wouldn’t abandon the whole project. I would argue that it is time to learn from the Enlightenment and move beyond it.

    • Anatomically modern humans arose about 200,000 years ago. Humans reached fully behavioral modernity about 50,000 years ago. Humans began forming civilizations about 10,000 years ago. Modern civilization has its origins in societies that existed about 2,000-3,000 years ago.

      Relatively speaking, 250 years is very very young. Thinking of the human species as a single human and making an a lifespan of about 80 years old, the comparison between 200,000 and 250 would make the Enlightenment project wouldn’t even be a year old. Or if instead we use civilization as the basis of comparison, the Enlightenment project would be 2 years old.

      Even so, I understand your point. I’m not arguing that the Enlightenment project as originally proposed should remain unchanged. I’m speaking more generally about the values that became more central at that time. I realize logic existed earlier, but it didn’t become such a central concern for the average person until very recently. Even during the Enlightenment Age, the majority of humans were unaware of and unconcerned about such values. It’s on this past century when education has become more common.

      I would think that moving beyond is implicit in my argument. There wasn’t any portrayal of a static vision of an idealized past continuing into the future. However, as you point out, even the Enlightenment was a continuation of what came before. So, what will come after us will also be a continuation. There is no moving beyond that will be disconnected from the Enlightenment project.

      • Thinking about ideologies in the scale of biological time is frankly hubris.Not particularly rational hubris at that? All things built on what was prior, and even conservatives fundamentally accept the enlightenment in their day to day lives unless they are Amish. The question becomes when does the Enlightenment as a tradition start functioning as a myth against its own possibility? Why do liberals act like conservatives? Most of them are afraid not only of conservatives but of the radical parts of the Enlightenment. They fear Jacobin spirit, and rightly so: as the Jacobin excess led to the Bonapartist conservatism, but all things in thought require a working out of their internal contradictions. Any thing that would save Enlightenment values is unlikely to emerge out of an attempt merely to preserve it.

        • Don’t give me such pathetic bullshit. It’s not hubris. It’s called a metaphor, genius. I was pointing out that your comment completely lacked context relative to the vastness of the human enterprise.

          Come on, think about it. Humans have been around for hundreds of thousands of years and civilization has been around for 10,000 years, yet it was only the past couple of thousand of years that humans even began to more systematically develop rational thinking and only the last couple hundred of years that such development became common. In a very short amount of time, the Enlightenment utterly and permanently transformed civilization. That is fucking mind-blowing! Let go of your cynicism for a moment and just let yourself be amazed by this simple fact.

          I don’t care if you call it Enlightenment or call it something else. We are all children of the Enlightenment, whether we like it or not. I live in America, a country that originated specifically as an Enlightenment project, a country from which you came as well. So, like a lot of other people, I’m mired in the Enlightenment project. I’m a product of it.

          I’m not talking about an Enlightenment myth. I’m simply pointing out some implications of social science and speculating on what they might mean for a future society that stops embracing ignorance and anti-intellectualism. Why do liberals (or significant percentage of liberals) act like conservatives? I would add other questions to this: Why do many liberal-minded left-wingers also act like conservatives? And why do many illiberal left-wingers act like authoritarians? All good questions, but for the moment I was wondering about what positive potential humans have in relation to rationality.

          In this light, I’d point out that not all liberals act like conservatives nor do all left-wingers act like authoritarians. So, what makes these people different? Maybe they are only a minority, but that doesn’t mean they inevitably have to be a permanent minority. Maybe there are social conditions that would lead to more people to behave similarly.

          I was particularly interested in the data about social cues and social expectations. Science shows that, if the mind is encouraged to think rationally, then people tend to think more rationally. Surprise, surprise! Methinks that maybe we should more regularly and systematically encourage people to think rationally, such as more fully teaching it from a young age and possibly even creating a culture that strongly values rationality. I’m pondering that it could be that liberals often act like conservatives because we live in a society that often expects and encourages conservative behavior while punishing and discouraging liberal behavior. If this is what we are collectively doing as a society, maybe we should stop doing it or at least become self-aware of what we are doing so that we can make more conscious choices about what we are doing.

          I agree with your last point. I speak in terms of the Enlightenment because the social context I find myself in is the product of the Enlightenment. I have no choice but to begin from where I am, as is true for everyone else.

          It’s a fascinating point in history. It is only this past decade or two that we’ve even begun to gain major understanding of the human mind. We are learning how and why people act non-rationally, but equally of importance we are learning how and why people act rationally. For the first time in history, we have the beginnings of practical knowledge that could lead to promoting rationality, assuming we collectively decide to do so. This new knowledge entirely changes the game. I don’t know what it will mean, but I do know that nothing will be the same for humanity here on in. We are entering an era that very well might be a new Enlightenment Age… or else we could possibly go down an even darker road toward dystopias never before imagined… I’m hoping for the former, but my hope is paired with much doubt.

          • “Don’t give me such pathetic bullshit. It’s not hubris. It’s called a metaphor, genius. I was pointing out that your comment completely lacked context relative to the vastness of the human enterprise.”

            In biological term, the human enterprise is itself pathetically tiny. Our particular understanding of ourself in those terms isn’t something we are particularly well-suited to doing. The psychology bares out on that, we cannot understand the qualia of even 250 years much less several million. The quanta, however, is a different matter. Given that most ideological shifts of ideas since we have good records last about 250-300 years without being completely “evolved” to a point of almost non-recognition (even Christianity and Islam have formal cycles of that length) the Enlightenment project is old in human terms. So its not “pathetic bullshit” to point out that ways of thinking have shelf-lives and fairly short ones without modification beyond recognition, but that’s not a bad thing.

            “Science shows that, if the mind is encouraged to think rationally, then people tend to think more rationally. Surprise, surprise! Methinks that maybe we should more regularly and systematically encourage people to think rationally, such as more fully teaching it from a young age and possibly even creating a culture that strongly values rationality”

            What do you mean by rationally? Do you mathematically,logically, scientifically,empirically? Most of these terms the way those in the Enlightenment use them are vague, and perhaps our project should be (as it was in the Early Enlightenment) not to defend these values, but clarify them. Yet most philosophers have given up on the task, and even the definition of science, much less logic (which has several systems), is still fairly nebulous.

            Yes, if you prime people to think a certain way, they will think that way. And I for one have no problem with teaching people to think rationally, but the radical end of that project has been abandoned by the people who supposedly embody it. You aren’t going to get an Enlightenment society by defending reason, you have to make it sparkle again and clarify what we mean by it. You have to fight it’s establishment.

            Kuhn was right about the paradigm problem, he didn’t think knowledge was relative to the paradigm, he thought entrenched self-preservation means that knowledge could only shift over time and in a social context. Liberalism,and the battle over the meaning of liberalism, is going to come down to how far one is willing to push forward. But so far, what I see in dominance is defensiveness and defensiveness that has dire consequences.

            I mean seriously,why is the one nation that was explicitly designed as an Enlightenment liberal project, one of the least secular of the post-Enlightenment state and most science hostile? That indicates there is something profoundly wrong at the core: I wasn’t joking or being flippant when I said that opposing the dominant trend of liberalism would be the only way for liberals to save what is promising in the Enlightenment project, but that cuts deep into the grain. It divides,not unifies, and fundamentally it is not in most people’s (much less most liberals) temperaments.

  2. Even in historical terms, 250 years isn’t much. The Roman Empire lasted twice as long as that. The Eastern part of the Roman Empire lasted even longer. We moderns have a very small context for our thinking because the framework of our thinking is very recent.

    I’ve thought about this before in terms of generations. I could know someone who knew someone who knew an American founding father, thus only two people standing between me and the founding generation. All of American history is fairly fresh in living memory. Well into the 20th century, there were people who fought in the Civil War and people who had been born into slavery. There was an old black lady who voted for Obama who had never voted before in her life, in fact didn’t even have the right to vote for much of her life.

    Post-Enlightenment history is just a blink of the eye, in the big scheme of things. The Catholic Church has been around almost 2 milennia. All of the countries in Europe and many countries around the world existed long before the Enlightenment, in many cases long before even the Protestant Revolution. These countries have cultures that are millennia old, well-entrenched cultures that stubbornly resisted the Enlightenment project and all modern changes since then. It’s been an uphill battle.

    I don’t exactly disagree that ways of thinking have shelf lives. But for recent history (meaning the last couple of millennia), there has been a whole lot of cultural and societal continuity. We couldn’t speak of a Western Civilization if not for such vast continuity. The Enlightenment itself wouldn’t have been possible, at least in its form, without the continuity since the Hellenistic times, a continuity of ideas that was passed on to Europe from the Byzantine Empire and Arabs. Even many Gnostic traditions and beliefs, despite persecution and destruction, continued in the form of alternative traditions such as the Cathars and in Jewish mystical thought, Gnosticism having been an early form of the merging of the Judeo-Christian tradition with Hellenistic thought.

    What do I mean by rationality?

    Most generally, I mean the philosophical tradition beginning primarily with Hellenism. So, basically just thinking that is to some degree independent-minded and systematic, in which our present understanding of rhetoric and logic formed, also in which the early forms of mathematics and science took root. I also mean the Western academic tradition that was formalized over history through the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church and then later on through the secularization of the Enlightenment Age, but I would also add the Protestant Reformation in terms of its promoting education, reading, and plain speech. All of this forms the foundation of modern values of rationality.

    More specifically, rationality is what is now found in the scholarship of the modern academia and the scientific method. Also, rationality is what is taught to students in their learning how to analyze texts, to debate texts, to write clearly, and to think logically. All of this is taught in higher education, much of it taught even in primary education.

    I agree even more clarification would be good. That is partly what I see social science doing now. As a society, we’ve taken rationality as far as it can go without understanding better the human mind and behavior. At this point, only social science can further advance rationality. This further advance, though, will require engagement by all of society, including philosophers. Clarification will be a process of discovery. Rationality isn’t just about how the mind should work but also about understanding how the mind does work.

    You bring up a really good point in your saying: “You aren’t going to get an Enlightenment society by defending reason, you have to make it sparkle again and clarify what we mean by it. You have to fight it’s establishment.” Reason is really more of a by-product. What I’m interested in is the possibility of a culture of reason. What I mean by that is just a culture that primes people for reason, although that is very important. I mean a society that puts forth a coherent vision and purpose that incorporates reason into how people culturally identify themselves, as part of not only how they think but how they think about themselves.

    I take seriously the Kuhn problem of paradigm shifts. It’s what has fascinated me for a long time. There doesn’t seem to be an easy answer to why shifts happen or don’t. This is where we reach the end of our present ‘rational’ understanding. We are still a mystery to ourselves, especially on the collective level. You talk about people being willing to push forward, but I don’t know if willingness is quite the right interpretive lense. People are willing to do lots of things when it is made compelling, the tricky part is what makes something compelling. Why isn’t science as compelling to a lot of people as it once was? We rely on science so much that it has become invisible to the average person. Our loss of wonder about science seems complicit with our loss of faith in a positive future, loss of faith in progress, issues of revolution and rupture put aside for the moment.

    I take even more seriously what you say in your last paragraph. Yes, there is something profoundly wrong at the core, but it is hard to put one’s finger on. I might go even further, part way along with Derrick Jensen, in arguing that it goes beyond modern liberalism and the Enlightenment project. There is something about Western Civilization itself and Civilization in general that isn’t sustainable, and it hasn’t yet been proven that it can be made sustainable.

    Before we can formulate more compelling solutions, we have to make these questions compelling to more people. If people don’t care about the problem, even the best solution will fail.

    • Actually, while you are technically correct that the empire last more than 250 years, the various forms the empire took lasted about 150, which the administration and function of the empire in the first century being almost unrecognitizable by the third, The point about qualia is key here. I suppose I can concede that the project of scientific methodology that came out of the worth defending. I think we sometimes miss how radically different something is just four generations after its conception. I mean did see foresee the lack of senate, the period of multiple Caesars, and increasing dependence on a former religion to hold the empire together.

      I also agree on the social science, but I have read a lot of the literature and I am serious that the naturalization and often just sloppy use of terms plagues a good deal of that research, but it’s methodological approach to priming and norms is key to understanding the situation.

      • I follow what you’re saying. I don’t have much to add. I would just say that, despite all the problems, I still think science is our best bet. I’ll put my money on it, for whatever that is worth. If science fails to live up to its potential, I doubt anything else will be able to do any better. Science is the closest humans have been able to get to the ideal of ‘rationality’. Beyond that, I just don’t know.

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