Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Liberals and Knowledge

I continue now with my analysis of this article, by Gene Veith of World magazine.

In a perhaps less virulent way, this is what many people fear if today's liberal intellectuals should ever get their way: Restrictions on liberties ordinary Americans prize (such as parental, private-property, and gun-ownership rights, economic liberty, religious freedom). The repudiation of morality (homosexual marriage, sexual permissiveness, abortion, cultural license). Experimentation that discards and seeks to redesign human life (the destruction of embryos for their stem cells, genetic engineering, cloning, designer babies).

An interesting smorgasbord. The restrictions on liberty section would be easier to take serioulsy if he could give a specific example of what he thinks liberals would do with regard to the issues he mentions. Liberals would not have allowed the assault weapons ban to lapse, but since public opinion polls show that ban to be popular Veith must have something else in mind. But what? Certainly Kerry didn't say anything ominous about this during he campaign. I have no idea what he's referring to with parental rights or private-property rights. As for religious freedom, I suspect Veith's understanding of that concept is very different from mine. I can't imagine how people could have more religious liberty in this country than they presently do. I suspect that “religious liberty” is code for, “allowing the government to promote Veith's preferred religion.”

As for liberals repudiating morality, I would say it is people like Veith who are doing that. It is immoral to deny homosexuals the right to marry. It is immoral for the government to take control over a woman's body for nine months of her life. As for sexual permissiveness and cultural license, I wasn't aware the government had too much say about such things. I suppose a liberal administration would not encourage the FCC to levy fines every time something slightly interesting happens on television, but surely that can't be what is deciding elections these days.

Finally, no one wants anything to do with cloning or designer babies. But the idea of equating an embryo that is under two weeks old with an actual human baby should be a textbook example of immorality. In defense of a moral principle that has no basis in logic, common sense, or the Bible for that matter, Veith is willing to shut down one of the most promising avenues of medical research in recent memory. Protecting two week-old embryos is more important to him than relieving the pain and suffering of actual human beings. How dare this man give lectures on morality.

But the question remains, are Americans stupid? Mental functions involve two different spheres: intelligence (mental ability) and knowledge (mental content). It is possible to have one without the other. Americans across the spectrum do seem to have intelligence, whether highly specialized mental abilities or down-to-earth common sense. They are certainly not so stupid as to allow intellectuals to rule over them. Americans do tend to be smart. Sometimes, though, they lack knowledge, or the knowledge they think with is untrue.

Aside from the crude anti-intellectualism, this is the one sensible paragraph in Veith's essay. There is, indeed, a difference between stupidity and ignorance. So let me take this opportunity to say that I do not believe most Americans, or most Bush voters, or most fundamentalists, or most of any other group you'd care to mention, are stupid. But I do think ignorance is quite common. I don't see how you can believe the things fundamentalists believe without being ignorant of science, for example. I do think many Bush voters responded to silly tag lines and brain-dead slogans without really understanding anything of the underlying issues. Public opinion polls show large percentages of people believed that Iraq had something to do with 9/11 and that Iraq had stockpiles of WMD, for example. I don't think very many of those people voted for Kerry.

Many Americans, for example, think morality is nothing more than a subjective preference, ungrounded in the real world outside themselves. They assume that God too exists only inside their heads, if He exists at all, and that He need not be consulted in practical matters. Many Americans either know nothing of the past or believe that the wisdom of the ages should be discarded on the grounds that it is not modern. Many Americans go so far as to reject the very existence of any objective truth, insisting that reality itself is nothing more than a construction of their minds, to be reconstructed in any way they please.

You can count on one hand the number of people who believe any of those things. I think Veith's point here is that if you reject the particular version of God he prefers, then you have no basis at all for any moral beliefs. You can find this argument repeated in almost any book on Christian apologetics, but is no less absurd for that. The simple fact is that any system of morality must be based on some foundation. Veith's foundation is that God exists, that he has very definite ideas about right conduct and wrong conduct, that we should behave in ways that are pleasing to him, and that the Bible (as interpreted by people who think like him) is a reliable guide to God's wishes. The moral foundation for an atheist is that happiness is good, and that human beings are happiest when living in an orderly society. You won't find many theists who reject either of those assumptions, and from them you can derive all of the major moral strictures we agree to live under. It is a far sounder foundation Veith's Bible thumping.

Such a combination of ignorance, confusion, and hostility to knowledge is held today mainly by our smart people. It is precisely our intellectuals who are questioning the value of reason and the possibility of knowledge. We have thinkers without beliefs, fine minds with nothing in them.

This man is insane. At least, though, he briefly dropped the “intellectual” mantra and is now conceding that actually it is simple “smartness” that he finds threatening.

In America's democratic republic, citizens of various intelligence levels can take part. In the Christian church too, people with the whole range of intellectual abilities can find welcome and fulfillment. Some level of knowledge, though, is important for citizenship in both the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of heaven.

Americans are smart enough, but it would be helpful for Americans—liberals, conservatives, Christians, and everyone—to know more, to be open to truths that go beyond their own limited interests, desires, and preferences. “My people are destroyed” not for lack of intelligence, but “for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6).

Well, at least here he has made explicit his belief that true knowledge is obtained from the Bible.


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