MODERATOR: Welcome to Clash of Worldviews, the show that spotlights the philosophical differences that shape both the daily conflicts that determine our personal fate and the flow of history on the grandest scale. And may I say hello to our eleven viewers around the world. This evening, we introduce Adam Garnett, a liberal secular humanist who believes that science, democracy, and capitalism liberate us, which makes for social progress; Heather Fogerty, a skeptic and postmodern pessimist and cynic; and Lindsey Rowe, an unabashed Catholic conservative. Gentlemen and lady, I vacate the floor and leave it to you.
HEATHER: It’s about time! Love the phony formalism of your discourse, by the way. That’s the old bogus neutrality of the civilized modern man. So discreet, so polite is the modern man, all while serving rapacious aristocrats who plundered their colonies for resources and slaves so they could live as amoral, godlike connoisseurs, and later while backing democracies that free us up to be domesticated by huge corporations that likewise elevate a small class of sociopaths. I’m just so bowled over by your British affectations that are supposed to distract from your mammoth-sized phallus-worship.
MODERATOR: Ah well, do remember, dear guest, that you’re here to engage with the ideas of your fellow ideologues.
HEATHER: Yeah, while the dispassionate, scrupulously objective host has no ideas of his own, as if he were a robot rather than just another hairy primate that stuffs his belly and farts and craps and bangs someone else’s naked body in the dead of night like the rest of us “dear viewers and participants” in these slickly-staged spectacles and monuments to modern conceits of progress.
ADAM: Heather, I hope you’re not going to be this tedious the entire time.
HEATHER: Tedious? Have you really been so dehumanized by the powers of modernity that you can feel only ever-so-polite tedium when someone speaks prophetic truth to power? How very civilized of you!
LINDSEY: She’s full of herself as well. An upstart feminist whose delusions of equality and persecution complex are signs of her fallenness and need for redemption.
HEATHER: Get your facts straight, chauvinist. I’m a realist, not a feminist. My pleasure is in transmuting the horror that comes with knowing the natural facts into comedy and art. And how rich is it for a Catholic to speak of a persecution complex! You’re the one wearing a cross around his neck, Lindsey.
LINDSEY: Yes, because Jesus really was persecuted and tormented.
HEATHER: Oh, really? Is that a fact? Known how, I wonder. Next to science, your dogmas are infantile babblings. You’re supposed to grow out of religion by the time you can think for yourself. Have you ever tried doing that? Thinking for yourself?
LINDSEY: Who’s the modernist now? As Proverbs says, pride goes before the fall, and the most arrogant children of God are the modern rationalists and individualists that idolize the renaissance genius who challenges traditions and institutions and discovers facts that have been hiding in plain sight. You see, originality counts for nothing and is barely even possible due to the weight of culture. So stop trying to outthink God! All you need to know is that morality is a transcendent business that elevates us above the animals. We wrestle with moral questions because God’s testing whether we’ll do the right thing even when we’re confined to the desolate material plane.
HEATHER: What’s the right thing?
LINDSEY: Admitting that all human effort is in vain. We need God the most when he's hidden from us because that's when we lose ourselves in idle pursuits. Modern culture and even the entire physical world will fade away in the end and only spirits will remain. What matters then will be our proximity to God.
ADAM: Such comical blather! What’s proximity without space? What’s the pleasure of heaven or the pain of hell without time, not to mention brains? These are just schoolboy fallacies of literalistic theism, so will you kindly stop talking nonsense as though we were in a Church filled with wrinkly old people who still defer to sinister priests?
LINDSEY: I’ll ignore the slander. But who said anything about literalism? Religious metaphors are fine as long as we keep the faith that they point to a reality that transcends our best intellectual efforts.
ADAM: And that move right there is consistent with every sort of charlatanism. How many cult leaders have told their flock, “Just trust me and don’t be arrogant enough to question my pontifications”? Do Christians condemn reason because reason is flawed or because theists fear the world that reason presents?
LINDSEY: First of all, Catholics don’t condemn reason. We merely put reason in its place rather than idolizing it.
HEATHER: Yeah, you save your idolatry for Jesus the carpenter, for his mother Mary and all the apostles and saints, not to mention for Catholic history and institutions. No room left for idolizing reason, I guess.
LINDSEY: Such snark for a grown woman—talk about the need to outgrow childish ways. Anyway, as I was saying, Catholics are highly rational. Look at Saint Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica.
ADAM: No, Lindsey, you won’t get away with that. Catholics pretend to be more intellectually sophisticated than their fellow theists, but they neuter reason. Aquinas doesn’t follow reason wherever it leads, because he begins his labyrinthine cogitations with faith-based, indeed ludicrous presumptions which he never questions. His systematic theology is a castle built on sand. Scientists are the ones who follow reason where it leads, and they have no need of the God hypothesis.
LINDSEY: Need I remind you that early modern scientists like Newton and Kepler were fervent Christians?
ADAM: Yeah, and all the intellectual progress they made happened in spite of any influence from the Bible or Church dogma. If science is compatible with religious faith, it’s because that faith is utterly empty. You lose sight of theism completely because modern science casts such an enormous, all-encompassing shadow.
LINDSEY: All-encompassing, you say? Then tell me the scientific theory that dictates how you ought to live or how something material comes from nothing? Theism isn’t a scientific hypothesis. It’s an absolute, partly philosophical and emotional answer to ultimate questions that scientific methods leave untouched. Behold the secular humanist’s arrogance! You think that because scientists know how to intellectually break down events into mechanisms, that science can replace philosophy or religion? Trust me, I find your scientism as tedious as you find Heather’s cynicism.
ADAM: That’s a strawman you’re flogging. Science doesn’t have to replace them. We can just learn to stop asking obsolete, uninformed questions that have no answers.
LINDSEY: I throw your earlier question back at you: Will we stop asking those ultimate questions—like what’s right or wrong or what’s the cause of nature?—because those questions are flawed or because observation and logic alone don’t deal well with them? You’re like a child who’s jealous of his fellows’ larger ball and you figure that if a game can’t be played with your rather meager ball, it’s not worth playing, so you mean to subvert the playing field.
HEATHER: Well, both your faith and your reason are pitiful now in the postmodern light. We’ve learned not to trust such metanarratives, such totalizing myths. They’re just stories you’re telling as we sit around our electric campfires, terrified of the black universe that lies beyond those lights. Of course Christians cling to their nursery rhymes because they fear the modernist’s ghost story about a godless world where justice and morality and life itself aren’t even afterthoughts, they’re so cosmically insignificant. And of course secular humanists cling to their legends of technoscientific utopia, because they’re afraid of their childlike partialities, which religions serve. You’re like pretentious movie buffs arguing about which film is number one: it’s all a matter of taste because your worldviews are works of art.
ADAM: Heather, let me explain something to you in plain language that will differ greatly from the obscure ramblings that pass for wisdom in your French philosophy tomes. Scientific theories aren’t myths or games or artworks. They’re maps of reality. How do I know this? Because, like a map of some territory, if you follow it you’ll get where you want to go. In principle, if you want to fly like a bird, you can follow the relevant research, build a plane and fly through the air. Stories are for entertainment; science is for knowledge. If you still don’t see the difference, try applying the Christian myth of Jesus’s resurrection and see if you can resurrect yourself after you die.
LINDSEY: But that’s just the crudest philistinism, isn’t it? Your own map metaphor implies that science isn’t entirely objective, that it serves the map-maker’s interests. We make maps because we have a destination in mind and we do science because we likewise have a goal. Knowledge isn’t an end in itself. You want to understand certain facts so you can have power over them and substitute yourself for God. Others use simplifications of reality, like stories or myths, for other purposes, because their personalities and traditions differ from those who worship reason or technology. So you look at the Christian resurrection narrative as a failed effort at scientific theorizing, whereas to me it’s obviously about spiritual rebirth. There’s no question here of a magical formula for surviving death. Christians live again when they die to their deluded selves and wake up to hope for revelation of spiritual truths.
HEATHER: Actually, that’s heresy. Doubting Thomas was allegedly refuted when Jesus proved that his wounds and thus his resurrection were indeed literal and physical, not metaphorical or merely psychological. Thus, your retreat leads to a dead end. Of course, since the rules of theology are so lax, you’re free to convert to some opposing faith that’s more in line with modern bible criticism.
LINDSEY: I’m well aware of the tenets of my faith. Jesus’s resurrection was physical, prior to his transfiguration, and we Christians trust that we too will rise again in bodily form sometime after we die. But we also believe we have a taste of that spiritual life here and now when we allow Jesus to dwell within us and guide us as our lord and saviour.
HEATHER: Like a weaselly politician, then, you get to have it both ways, because you’re inured to the cognitive dissonance that comes with that contradiction. The resurrection is both literal and metaphorical, you say, both physical and mental. Has it occurred to you that an enlightened soul whose character has been transformed so that he’s no longer plagued with earthly worries wouldn’t be so vulgar as to retain a hope for a bodily afterlife? But no, you want to personally live forever because you’re still a grubby little animal, programmed to survive at all costs to protect your genes, even while you make believe that you’re a nobler creature with more refined interests, that you’re already spiritually born again. But lest any of this fiction be testable you’ll be quick to blame the sins committed by Christians on their transformation’s immaturity. Only in the end times will goodness finally win out. Well, if that goodness is supposed to resemble a human ideal, I shudder to think of the everlasting world that would be ruled by it, because our history is brutal and oppressive—and that includes the so-called modern age of enlightenment. And yet if the afterlife won’t be governed by our twisted values, why trust that we’d be happy in it?
LINDSEY: Heaven for God’s creatures isn’t the same as heaven for God. We have the instinct to protect our embodied life because we’re a lower species. But heaven is the fulfillment of our ideals. If you reject our ideals of justice and happiness, you betray your humanity. God made you something different than himself. We’ve struggled to apply our values and we’ve usually come up short, as you say, but that doesn’t mean our highest goals don’t deserve to be achieved. So yes, the resurrection is both physical and internal. We grow spiritually even as our bodies will be perfected. The material world is good, as God says in Genesis, so there’s no need to transcend it. In fact, undermining the natural order that’s as God intended it is the devil’s project.
HEATHER: Calling the universe good is like saying an airplane makes for a fine footstool. It’s just a category error since physical processes are perfectly inhuman; they’re indifferent and amoral. Even Gnostic Christians dissented from conservative Jews’ sentimental apology for nature. Think of the ancient Jews, wandering and cowering in the desert between pagan empires, with no earthly success of their own, forced to contemplate the world’s pitilessness towards losers, only to betray that omega person’s insight, to refuse to follow Job’s logic to its conclusion. Gnostics and other spiritual radicals, like the Essenes who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls and renounced the whole enterprise of trying to be happy in this life—they said nature should be transcended, because the evident impersonality of natural processes is beneath contempt. Just as you personify the unknown X that’s the source of everything and that could answer all our questions, you’d inject morality and teleology into physics and cosmology. Meanwhile, realists throughout the ages have coped with the horror of accepting that nature is alien to our preferences and have responded by building the artificial worlds we actually live in, thus transcending the prior world that mainstream Jews and Christians and other centrist functionaries of natural evolution serve. What you call the devil, the undoer of nature, is actually Prometheus, the heroic light-bringer who inspires us to create something better than the wilderness.
LINDSEY: I’d be offended by such blasphemies if I didn’t suspect they were due to your gross ignorance. Adam is right: postmodern philosophy has rotted your brain. First, you sympathize with heretics, then you embrace the very devil, that champion of all ungrateful, arrogant creatures that try to outperform their maker, only to fall flat on their face in some squalid tyranny they set up for themselves. This is why atheists are so untrustworthy: their lack of faith really does lead logically to immorality, to rank selfishness and even to hostility towards all Creation. You think you can create a better world than God’s? Can sinful pride really be so infinite? If you keep rebelling against your parent like an unruly teenager, you’ll find yourself out in the cold.
HEATHER: Actually, it’s your brain that’s been rotted—by the anachronistic Bible and the obnoxious Fox News. You have no idea that your conventional religion is the height of absurdity. Newsflash: you, the conservative Catholic, are the true devil-worshipper because you’re the apologist for nature. And it’s the mainstream theist’s lack of faith in human adaptability that threatens to make our species too boring to be tolerated by the plutocrats and other power elites who are the real gods that govern most of us. Those evil secular dictatorships you’re talking about? Those are expansions of utterly natural, primitive tribalism and social dominance hierarchies. Look at groups of birds and fishes and mammals out in the wild and time and again you’ll find the strong minority ruling over the weak majority. Nothing could be more natural than class inequality and oppression. And if it’s natural, it’s divine, according to God-fearers like you. It’s no use blaming some fallen angel who trashed God’s house, because God would have created the force responsible for that corruption. So by siding with the god of nature, that is, with the fiction dreamed up by the ancients who couldn’t bear to contemplate the world’s alienness and palpable inhumanity, you stand against the forces of progress which are the forces of transcendence, of escape from God’s dismal kingdom.
LINDSEY: Oh, the devil really is the father of lies. Christians don’t apologize for nature. On the contrary, we regard the world as having fallen due to the sin of God’s creatures, as symbolized by the story of the serpent’s temptation of the protohumans in Eden. That’s why the alternative of heaven is possible, because the present world is imperfect.
HEATHER: Who made the world that could decline in such a way?
LINDSEY: God, but freewill is worth the price of the suffering caused by the corruption of what was once paradise.
HEATHER: Did God create the natural as we find it or not?
LINDSEY: God created a paradise which then became corrupted by the autonomous creatures within it.
HEATHER: So God indirectly created the impersonal universe that follows an alien logic and that isn’t remotely centered on human welfare.
LINDSEY: Yes, indirectly God created the fallen world—through his creatures.
HEATHER: And God gets the credit while his creatures get the blame, right?
LINDSEY: Roughly speaking, yes, because God doesn’t err whereas we typically do.
HEATHER: For which part of nature does God deserve praise?
LINDSEY: For the majestic scope of the universe, for the wonder of the myriad stars in the sky, for the grandeur of the oceans and the mountains, and for the miracle of life.
HEATHER: Those things all have natural causes, as do the secular tyrannies you condemn as satanic. But natural causes hang together. If you have the one, you have the other. The stars and oceans and mountains require billions of galaxies and eons for planets to develop; some of them then burst forth with life and some species evolve intelligence and self-awareness and a conscience. Nature’s impersonal regularity, its being governed by inflexible, mathematical relationships is what led Christians to speak of the world as fallen from some previous state of perfection, because most suffering happens as a result of nature’s being ordered. So if the world’s imperfections are somehow due to sinful creatures, not to God, why worship God as the world’s creator? Adam and Eve and the demonic serpent should receive credit for all the universe’s grandeurs. And yet you worship a father figure that allegedly created some paradise you’ve never seen, not the natural world as we find it. You admit the world is morally flawed and because you don’t wish to worship the true powers responsible for its creation—which could only be demonic ones of pride and recklessness and jealousy and so forth, according to your big book of myths, at least—your only option is to attribute the world to some stand-in deity. And because God must be flawless, lest you be a devil-worshipper, you’re forced to paper over the world’s imperfections, to rationalize them by saying they’ll be wiped away in the end or to blame God’s creatures even though they’d be just as God made them. Still, by implicitly recognizing and rationalizing the world’s flaws and personifying their source, you worship a devil, but you haven’t the stomach to call him by his true name.
ADAM: Actually her logic is valid, but it’s all irrelevant because she’s given theology too much credit. Both theological dogmas and philosophical speculations are irrational, so Christianity and postmodern skepticism are equally foolish in the eyes of scientists. Can’t you laggards just remove your head from the sand? Where are you now? You’re sitting in a modern megalopolis which affords us luxury upon luxury. Are you dying before your time from some random disease? No, medical science has increased our lifespan. Are we locked into castes while a decadent aristocracy rules over us? No, democracy empowers the majority, while capitalism offers the potential for upward social mobility. Are we still searching in the dark for a clue as to the world’s nature? No, biologists and physicists and mathematicians and the rest have shone the light of reason and now we see far and wide, even deep into other galaxies and dimensions. Why, then, do you insist on the old, regressive ways of arguing from authority, of complacency and gullibility, of childish personifications of nature? The modern world progresses despite your archaic trust in gods and miracles and your pretentious and obscure philosophies.
LINDSEY: Your humanism is ironic, Adam, because you’ve turned your pride in reason into a religion. I agree that science and technology have enormous benefits, but you’re advocating for their misuse if you think they alone can do the work of religion or philosophy. You say, “To progress, just follow reason!” But follow it where? To what end? Observation shows the facts and logic helps us understand them by forcing us to argue in a careful, consistent manner. But those intellectual abilities only uncover certain truths, at best. They don’t tell us what we ought to do about them and they don’t make life worth living.
ADAM: Ah, the invocation of scientism: the last bastion of the obscurantist. Lindsey, I don’t worship reason. My values derive from Western culture, which is a culture in which individuals are allowed to freely mix and engage with each other’s ideas. The solution to the problem of normativity, of deciding which standards we should adopt, isn’t to cling to primitive prejudices from the ancient world, but to trust in people’s potential to work out their ideals for themselves. That’s how democracy and capitalism add to technoscientific progress, by replacing theocracy and feudalism. We’re free now to ask more questions, to discuss what should be done and to band together to advocate for our solutions to life’s problems. Liberate the individual from her irrational predilections, teach her how to think for herself, and trust that the ensuing culture comprised of the free flow of ideas in a population of such individuals will be morally and aesthetically praiseworthy.
HEATHER: You’re talking about ideas as memes, based on a comparison of people to genes. You’re saying that just as genes and proteins produce a wealth of organisms, free and modern individuals generate a wealth of ideas and in either case the environment sorts them out. So cultures evolve rather like species do. But why trust, then, that the artificially selected ideas that emerge from democratic and capitalistic competitions will be best? Excellence in biological evolution is just fitness to spread a brand of DNA. Likewise, some ideas will predominate in a free society, but why suppose their mere evolutionary excellence will coincide with the moral or aesthetic kind? On the contrary, democracy is infamous for its facilitation of demagoguery and its mob rule. And the current champion of capitalism is China, which is infamous for its mass production of schlock.
ADAM: You’re forgetting about the modern recognition of human and civil rights. You wouldn’t have been educated in most premodern societies, Heather, because they were patriarchal. Men’s historical chauvinism was defeated in modern societies not by religious sensibilities but by science and technology, by the engines of all progress. When Europe became autonomous, detaching itself from its Christian past, Westerners held up individualism as their ideal. So women as well as minorities were eventually treated as having the same basic potential as white men. It’s science that provided that detachment, which was the ground for that revaluation. And it’s the economic logic of capitalism that provided the niche in which women could thrive as full economic participants. The technology of mass production forced women to enter the workforce as producers and consumers, to maximize profits. All of that is progressive.
HEATHER: First of all, I don’t see how you can compare cultures’ values without presupposing some cultural foundation. You assume the modern West is superior to medieval Europe, that women, for example, would rather live in contemporary America than in twelfth century England. But I submit that women of that earlier culture would be loath to trust in the promises of modern progress. Leaving your home for a foreign land of unknowns is always terrifying and it’s that fear that accounts for anyone’s preference for the culture in which they were raised; it proves nothing with regard to any progress from one culture to the next. As soon as we look at our culture more objectively, we see its glaring flaws. Women are free—to be objectified by multimillion dollar businesses that crassly exploit men’s sexuality. Minorities are free—to be stereotyped by similar corporate enterprises, which prey on our fears. Individuals are free—to be reduced to an infantile mindset that links happiness with the consumption of material goods. The United States is free—to arrogantly dictate how all other countries should behave, while it stagnates.
LINDSEY: And all this talk of progress because of the greater freedom of the modern individual is so naïve. Modern secularists have more liberties to do what they please, but they don’t know what they should please because they don’t believe in anything. God is dead for them and the idols that substitute for him are rendered malnourishing by the poison of postmodern hyperskepticism. You’re free from coercion from the outside, because of your democratic rights, the civilian control of the police force and the military, and so on, but you’re unable to articulate a positive conception of your potential. So-called liberal values are just warmed-over Christian ones to which you’re not philosophically entitled.
HEATHER: It’s worse than that. Reason, the so-called liberating force of modernity, is a curse. The mythopoeic ancients enjoyed a kind of ecstasy that we have only tantalizing experiences of in our childhood innocence, which we grow out of because of our modern responsibilities. But what good is rational enlightenment when the truth of natural life is dismal? Existential philosophers picked up on how the modern science-centered worldview leads logically to anguish, despair, horror, and apathy. Granted, scientists and engineers themselves don’t often suffer in those ways, because their intellectual skills make them successful in modern societies and so their business and family preoccupations ensure they haven’t the time to consider the philosophical ramifications of the scientific view of nature. The suffering from rational enlightenment is left to the omega men and women who have all too much time to ponder the implications, because they’re the introverts and artists and misfits and freaks who lack the skills to flourish in a short-sighted, materialistic culture. Instead of progress, then, I see a decline in the quality of life of the minority who are existentially authentic, who have absorbed the modern worldview. There are intellectual and artistic and otherwise disenfranchised underclasses now whose disenchantment with life itself belies the modern liberal hype.
ADAM: Your whining on behalf of the losers who exist in every society doesn’t change the fact that science and technology have made the world a better place.
LINDSEY: Is that supposed to be a scientific conclusion? How could you possibly know that on scientific grounds? How can you even suggest with a straight face that the notion of what’s better or worse is quantifiable? You’re just presupposing liberal values and pretending that they have something other than a philosophical or quasi-religious justification. Talk about schoolboy fallacies…
ADAM: So move to Afghanistan if you prefer a premodern theocracy!
LINDSEY: I don’t deny that science and technology are enormously beneficial. I merely put them in perspective. All things under the sun are ephemeral. We’re flawed creatures and we erect flawed social systems. We misinterpret scriptures and mistake our metaphors for the ultimate truth. We project our biases onto God and worship images of ourselves that are no better than idols. I’m hardly committed to the belief that any theocracy is superior to any social democracy. Catholicism merely moves me to faith more than the other religions.
HEATHER: Heaven help us if we’re stuck with the dichotomy of liberal humanism or some obsolete institutional religion! Follow reason, objectify everything and so dehumanize ourselves, transferring our power to the more efficient robots we build to do our work for us so that we can have the free time to ruminate on that blunder and on our dire existential circumstances. Or have Christian faith and betray the truth of nature that’s manifestly before our eyes, not to mention being forced by the modern lifestyle to make a mockery of the ascetic ethics of Jesus. Either way, postmodern life is absurd.
MODERATOR: And that cheerful note will have to be the last word for now. I want to thank our guests for that stimulating conversion. And for the eleven viewers who paid attention, good night and good luck.