Friday, August 19, 2011

Liberalism: from Scientism to Nihilism

The story of liberalism, in my view, is that of the fall from Enlightenment to postmodern versions of that value system. This is the story of a loss of confidence in the myths of the old atheistic, science-centered religion of secular humanism.

Enlightenment Liberalism

To get a sense of this decline, imagine how a liberal would answer this question: What do you believe as a liberal, deep-down, if anything? The old liberal answer to this question derives from Enlightenment humanism. Inspired by world-shaking progress in science, humanists became confident that similar progress could be made in human affairs, that societies could be greatly improved through our own effort, using institutions such as government. Following science, humanists elevated Reason over faith and religious dogma. Whereas religious faith divides people, exacerbating our tribal instincts, reason unites us. Reason leads to consensus in science and is a basis for universal values and rights: in so far as we’re all rational, we’re equally precious as self-guiding beings.

Thus, the liberal believes in the equality of human beings and in human rights, including the rights to life and to pursue our own goals as rational, free persons. These rights are thought to follow from the dignity of rational persons. Whereas in a religious society, rights come from God’s commands as revealed in some holy text, in a liberal, humanistic society, rights are discovered by the power of human reason. Just as scientists learn how nature works by objectively testing hypotheses, we learn about ourselves by reflecting on our distinguishing features: we’re sentient, free, intelligent, social creatures, and those qualities dignify us, elevating us above the other species, but only to a degree; as science shows, we’re part of nature. But we have skills that make us special, and what the old liberal believes, as a humanist, is that we can use these skills to improve our situation on this planet. We can use government to help the poor, who have just as much dignity as rich people due to their shared humanity. We can think our way out of crises, negotiating and compromising for the common good.

Above all, then, the liberal used to be a rationalist. But the liberal can no longer afford to be such, because the history of western rationalism has moved from a modern to a postmodern stage. The modern stage is what I just described: people were inspired by scientific advances and trusted that any species that could win for itself so much control over nature can learn to control itself. Like the technoscientific kind, psychological and social progress lay in the hands of reason, hands we all possess just by being members of our species. In this way, modern rationalists were scientistic, trusting that societies could progress by extending scientific methods or at least science’s general rationalistic approach to problems.

Postmodern Liberalism
In the postmodern period, however, we learn that scientism and secular humanism are substitute religions; that reason is able to figure out how things work but not how things ought to be and is thus no source of rights or values; that, paraphrasing Nietzsche, morality is buried with the death of God and that the humanist is a ghoul sniffing around God’s grave, rummaging through his possessions that are no longer serviceable. (See Scientism.) Science turns its dispassionate eye backward, as it were, on the human mind, and we learn that far from ideally rational, we’re usually irrational, prone to a host of fallacies, and are thus easily manipulated. We learn that we’re not as free or as self-guiding as think we are, nor as conscious as we feel; consciousness is the tip of the iceberg of the unconscious over which we lack conscious control. We learn too that we’re not as united as we’d like to believe: the human brain consists largely of independent modules that have their own, often conflicting evolutionary roles. Thus, social divisions are often symptoms of deeper, internal divisions in the brain.

So while the old liberal was a mythmaker, or as the postmodernist Lyotard put it, a purveyor of master metanarratives, about Reason, Liberty, Dignity, and Progress, the more recent liberal finds herself out on a limb that’s about to snap. We’re not as the Enlightenment liberal said we are. We can’t progress just with reason, because progress requires values and goals that give us direction, and reason can’t tell us what to value. Reason is a tool with a limited practical purpose, or rather as the cognitive scientist, Keith Stanovich says, there are different kinds of thinking, each with its own, even narrower purpose: there’s serial, slow-moving, highly-deliberative logic and then there’s holistic, fast, unconscious and intuitive reasoning. We use the former for long-term planning, the latter for snap judgments. Thinking requires the prior input of assumptions, such as assumptions about right and wrong. The liberal humanist values human beings for their personhood, but in the first place we’re not as godlike as the Enlightenment myths declared, and secondly even if we were perfectly rational and rare among other species, those qualities wouldn’t make us valuable. Just because something is rational or free or rare doesn’t make it deserving of anything. Science tells us what the facts are, but the facts alone don’t dictate what should be done about them. To say otherwise is to commit the scientistic, naturalistic fallacy.

What, then, does the new, late liberal believe, deep-down, if anything? What has liberalism become? What is postmodern liberalism? My answer is that there are kernels of truth in the American conservative’s talk of liberal elitism, nihilism, and relativism. What’s happened is that the liberal has come to realize that rationalist utopianism is bankrupt. Marxist societies experimented with preplanned economies and failed. The Enlightenment myths no longer captivate or inspire. If all humans have equal rights, all free societies that let their citizens be what they rationally choose must be equally valid. But because reason alone is no source of culture, the liberal is faced with a variety of societies that meet that condition and has no means of discriminating between them. Liberalism thus reduces to politically correct multiculturalism. The liberal’s praise of anything is hollow because the liberal’s test of worth doesn’t measure anything of value. A society’s goodness or badness lies in its culture, in the goals of its citizens that direct them towards a prescribed end. Just because a culture is freely chosen doesn’t mean the goals are noble, uplifting, moral, virtuous, or in any other way qualitatively positive (or negative).

Worse than that, there are no free societies; everyone is coerced to some extent, both by other people and by independent parts of themselves. So should Muslim women wear burkas, for example? The liberal feminist says No, unless the women choose to wear them, and because many Muslim women are beaten or stoned for resisting the patriarchal fashion police, the practice of wearing the burka is unjust. But women in materialistic, sex-crazed, libertine cultures are coerced to show skin. That is, these cultures restrict choices by ostracizing women for choosing a way of life that falls outside of mainstream expectations. Granted, these women aren’t physically beaten or killed, but psychological and social pressures can be as effective as threats of physical force.

Moreover, the liberal can’t just help herself to holding out physical coercion as being worse than the propaganda and other refined social mechanisms found in secular societies, without having a liberal reason to value human life in the first place. Remember that the old liberal grew enchanted with science for disenchanting the natural world, including ourselves. Scientists have looked within every part of human anatomy and found no spirit or essence that makes us sacred. Our genetic code is very similar to that of some other species, we have an enlarged cerebral cortex that lets us plan far ahead, and we’ve language and modern science that give us ever-increasing control over natural forces. Undeniably, these traits make us rare and relatively well-informed and powerful, but those facts about us simply don’t make murder wrong. And if it turns out that reason, consciousness, and freewill are all illusions, as many psychologists are currently showing, the humanist will be left with no justification for liberal values.

As it stands currently, I think the liberal is caught between modern metanarratives and postmodern nihilism. In practice, the liberal tends to put aside questions of ultimate value, of which goals we should pursue and of which culture is best, focusing on problems that reason can actually solve, namely those of managing systems. Late-stage liberalism is instrumentalistic. The liberal defends not the goals implicit in any particular culture, but only the efficiency of a rational bureaucracy in achieving those presupposed goals. The postmodern liberal says not that people have dignity and inalienable rights, as godlike beings, but only that if we believe as much, we should empower the government to secure those rights, following science in implementing rational strategies. Liberal rights, then, have become subjective and hypothetical. The liberal ducks the deep, philosophical questions, preferring to look Serious and Responsible, as a system manager.

Cast Study #1: The Democratic Party
The current American Democratic Party affords a perfect example of this downward spiral. American progressives criticize “centrist” establishment Democrats for triangulating, giving up on liberal values, and trying to appear like the rational, compromising adults, opposed by obnoxious, uninformed “extremists” on either side. But the so-called extremists who make up the “base” of each Party simply have deeply-held values, whereas the centrist, postmodern liberals have none. To be sure, as I’ve said and as I’ll argue in the next blog post, neither progressives nor conservatives have good arguments in support of their goals, but at least they take stands on qualitative issues.

The centrist liberal is supposed to be more serious because she appreciates that modern science has left no room for anything as airy-fairy as values. What the pragmatic, centrist liberal is ultimately convinced of may thus be what critics accused the neoconservatives in the last Bush administration of believing. This underlying belief is in Straussian, Platonic elitism, which can be explicated as follows. Modern science disenchanted the world, destroying forever the traditional myths that held societies together. This is the dark secret known only to the elite members of modern society. Were this truth to get out, society would collapse which would deprive the elite of their decadent lifestyle. Thus, to manage the social system, elites need to tell the outsiders noble lies, about continuing human dignity, reason, liberty, and consciousness even in the face of God’s evident demise. To the extent that the authentic postmodern liberal shares this Straussian elitism, that liberal is a closet nihilist. Her skills at managing systems make her a social engineer, and so she may feel she’s entitled to an engineer’s prestige. Hardcore engineers are prized for creating the machines that help us survive by controlling the forces of nature. To do this, those engineers must master the wizard’s arcane language of mathematics, and this too is awe-inspiring to the hobbits who earn only liberal arts degrees or high school diplomas. But centrist liberals, making use only of soft or pseudosciences, don’t enchant like Merlin or Gandalf; they administer a hyper-rational society into the ground like the Star Wars Empire, sucking in recycled air like Darth Vader.
Case Study #2: President Obama
To take another example, there’s currently much debate about whether Obama is (1) a progressive who either doesn’t know how to negotiate (highly unlikely considering how well he ran his 2008 campaign) or who selects the curious tactic of not speaking up for or implementing a single progressive policy. Alternatively, Obama might be (2) a centrist who pretended to be a progressive during the campaign and who governs as a systems manager, dutifully adopting the goals of the American political system as he finds them, which are the goals of oligarchy. Some progressives hope he’s the former, others denounce him as the latter.

Notice that in either case, Obama likely functions as a systems manager. In scenario (1), the reason Obama would govern as a “pragmatic centrist” even though he campaigned as a progressive and still pretends to be such, is that deep down he’s embarrassed by the fact that postmodern liberalism reduces to Straussian nihilism. Moreover, he wouldn’t want to humiliate himself going up and inevitably losing against the oligarchic system, a system he can’t oppose with any conviction. Reading speeches to win an election is one thing, requiring only the basic political skill of lying in one form or another, but going to political war as President, in the pursuit of a non-Machiavellian goal, such as the long-term good of the country as a whole, takes courage of philosophical conviction. As a postmodern liberal and a Harvard man, Obama must know at some level that nature is a Lovecraftian nightmare and that liberal myths are just as delusional and absurd as conservative and religious ones. That’s what you tend to learn in secular institutions; that’s the upshot of scientific naturalism and of humanistic rationalism. And this would account for scenario (2). The difference between the scenarios is just the extent to which Obama appreciates the implications of postmodern liberalism: in (1) he only dimly processes them at an unconscious level, while in (2) he’s a more self-aware, authentic liberal, that is, a full-fledged Straussian elitist and decadent, nihilistic systems manager in an oligarchy that pursues not rational, long-term goals for the greater good of all rational humans, but the self-destructive, absurdly narrow and short-term ones of likely-sociopathic plutocrats. 
Case Study #3: Canada
Canada is more liberal than the US, with higher taxes and more social programs and government regulations of the economy, medical care, and even the selling of alcohol. Conservatives call Canada a nanny state in which government power is abused, curtailing personal liberties. The ideological liberal or socialist response is that the government is needed to pick up the pieces after the fallout from parasitic business practices, which threaten the nation’s long-term health. Government is needed especially to support those whom, as implied by orthodox (social Darwinian) economic theory, Mother Nature weeds out as failures in the vicious laissez-faire competition. (See Conservatism.) According to liberal ideology, the government should help the poor even when natural forces spit them out in the brutal struggle for survival (on which civilization is supposed to improve but which free market economists re-establish and deify), not out of Christian charity, but out of Enlightenment rationalism. Even the poor have equal dignity as rational, autonomous persons.

So much for classic liberal ideology. The postmodern liberal has no such faith in any normative implication of the success of scientific reason. Just because the poor can think doesn’t make them valuable, and the same goes for the rich and for any other group. What accounts, then, for socialist, or proactive liberal policies, despite the postmodern decline of liberalism? My answer: instrumentalism run amok. The postmodern liberal presupposes values and ideals that she no longer knows how to justify, such as the ideals of personal dignity and happiness. (See Happiness.) Ignoring questions about the normative status of those values, she fancies herself a technocrat who can apply cold reason at least to the practical problem of how the corresponding goals can most efficiently be achieved. But there’s no end to such problems: there’s always more room to re-engineer society, to harmonize what actually happens in it with what ought to happen--especially when society’s ideals are misplaced, as they are in the case of a materialistic society that deems the pursuit of pleasure to be life’s ultimate purpose. And so a liberal government can find its tentacles poking into more and more of people’s personal affairs, ever questing for new ways to tax the population to fund more technocratic schemes, constricting social interactions with more and more red tape, turning society into a Rube Goldberg machine that functions smoothly but to no wise end.

Canada is such a country, although there’s currently a conservative majority in the Canadian government. Still, Canadian culture feels the effect of postmodern liberalism in the dearth of vision in any Canadian politician. Even the Canadian conservatives are pragmatic and technocratic. This is to say that Canadian leaders believe in nothing to speak of and are mere managers of Canadian society, thinking only of how to maintain the status quo as opposed to considering the country’s long-term direction. Canadian politicians are not the only Canadians with no heartfelt principles. Many parts of Canada, particularly Ontario, have no distinguishing character. In part this is because of all the immigration to Canada, but there’s just as much immigration to the US and American immigrants tend to adhere to American myths, which unite all Americans in a “melting pot” of democratic and hedonic delusions. Canada has no national myth that could keep an immigrant or a native Canadian awake for even thirty seconds. As far as I can tell, Canada is in fact the most boring country on Earth. This is hardly to say that Canada is the worst country; on the contrary, it’s a very safe, naturally beautiful place in which to live. The country’s just spiritually dead, suffering from the postmodern, nihilistic phase of its bedrock liberalism.

I’d go as far as to hypothesize that Toronto’s current inability to succeed in any international team sport, be it baseball, hockey, basketball, or soccer, is due to this national somnambulism. Success in sports has an intangible psychological factor, and Canadians on the whole are relatively weak-minded, lacking a national character that means something to them and that they could describe without hollow liberal slogans. Somehow, this cultural miasma seems to seep into athletes who play for Toronto teams and drain their energy. Or perhaps these players can’t help but fall asleep at practice, due to excruciating boredom simply from living in Ontario for an extended period. Curiously, though, Canadians are well-represented in the growing sport of mixed martial arts, and I suspect that that’s because this sport has a rich Eastern culture built into it which fills in the void left by Canadian postmodern liberalism.


  1. Wow.
    "The liberal’s praise of anything is hollow because the liberal’s test of worth doesn’t measure anything of value."

    A long read. Lots of good points.

    1. Thanks! This is an old article, though, In fact, it's the first one I wrote for this blog. I came back to the issue of the real differences between liberals and conservatives in these articles, which you might be interested in (mind you, at least one of these is pretty long, too; the first one's short):