Take Back Reason Today

April 22, 2016
Andrew Fletch

In an article published in the YFP’s 2015 November issue entitled Tomorrowland, the anonymous author offers an apologetic for what could called “legacy philosophy.”  We shouldn’t worry so much about ourselves, he argues, but instead use our instinctive, almost animalistic commitment to family, children, and friends as a standard to judge our responsibilities to the larger community, which he dubs the “common ground.”  We should support institutions that give society its structure, protect us from those who would harm us, and work to educate our children.  Well-trained, thoughtful people are at the controls, and we should support and encourage them for the benefit of society as a whole, and our descendants in particular.  One should aim for a eulogy which celebrates a life dedicated to family (at the most personal level), and society (in the spirit of Nathan Hale).  Ayn Rand’s rational self-interest should be rejected as…well, too self-interested.  

There’s a lot to recommend these sentiments, but the author doesn’t really rebut Rand; yes, rational self-interest is sad, lonely, and selfish, but we need a positive case to explain why happiness, community, and selflessness are virtues.  This is particularly so given the traction Rand’s philosophy has gained among modern conservatives, who often assume that because Rand so accurately diagnoses what’s poisoning this country, that she must have also identified a good antidote.  She hasn’t.

Yet the reader surely knows that happiness, community, and selflessness are indeed virtues.  Tomorrowland argues that self-indulgence leads to indigestion, and your experience tells you that’s right.  But can you prove it?  And how does this truth govern your actions?  To answer these questions, one must first to consider how others have grappled with the question of immutable truth.  Rationalists, like Plato and Aristotle, argue that there is immutable truth, and it can be discerned through reason, making reason the highest faculty.  Empiricists (including humanists and materialists), argue that the only thing that is true is that which can be empirically tested and verified.  Christian philosophers, including Augustine, Aquinas, and later Francis Schaeffer, offered the Christian Worldview, which  recognizes the reality of our rational, physical, emotional, and spiritual experience and offers a comprehensive and coherent solution to the essential conundrum Tomorrowland wrestles with. That conundrum is this: Why do I agree with Rand’s description of the problems caused by collectivism (what she defines as the twin problems of the moochers and the thieves), and yet reject her cold-hearted and elitist libertarian solution?  And why do I even care about elitism?  Before examining Christian Worldview, however, we need to first examine how we got to where we are on American campuses today.   

When Darwin published The Origin of the Species in 1859, empiricists argued first that Darwin proved them right, and later that all non-empirical inquiry was “unscientific.”  This spawned what’s now known among conservative philosophers as the fact/value dichotomy – “facts” can be physically tested and proved, and are thus superior to “values,” which cannot be empirically verified and are thus subjective and inferior.  This dichotomy has become an article of faith in the academy, but it has shallow intellectual roots and it’s a debating trick to boot.  The fact/values dichotomy isn’t grounded in scientific discovery, but in a desire to win the intellectual debate by defining the rules of engagement.  Listen to a modern humanist defend their position against an argument for Intelligent Design – their trump card: “that’s not science, it’s philosophy.”  What they mean is this: my “facts” are true, your arguments can’t be empirically tested, and are therefore invalid.  I win.  This explains why humanists like to describe theories like evolution or global warming as “facts.”  Once they establish something as a “fact,” then you’re not allowed to debate them, which they announce by gleefully declaring: “the debate is over.”  How convenient.

The problem with Empiricism (and its fact/value dichotomy) is that when it’s put into action in a society, it’s revolting.  The rational outcome of Empiricism (and its love affair with Darwinism) is this: whatever works, wins.  It follows from this that power is all that matters, and if values can’t be proven (remember, they’re not “facts”), then it doesn’t matter how power is used.  The Third Reich put this philosophy into action at the state level and the result was horrifying.  Faced with this revelation, empiricists could either revisit their premise (maybe there really are immutable truths and norms?), or abandon reason (which would obviate the need to reconcile their philosophy with their emotions).  Many chose to abandon reason, which explains the now-popular disdain for “Social Darwinism.”  In other words, I won’t give up on my conviction that Darwin was right about the physical world, but those rules don’t apply to how we behave socially.  This makes absolutely no sense – Darwin was either right or wrong.  And if he was right, then so was Nietzche.  Which means that the physical is all that is real, God is dead, and there are no immutable truths outside of the facts of our existence; there is no distinction between the physical world and the social world.   

For many years, urbane empiricists ignored the logical consequences of their philosophy and comfortably resided in a land of cognitive dissonance. Meanwhile, another group had an even more radical answer: I don’t have to explain the rational connection between the various ideas and beliefs I hold, because there is no such thing as rationality.  This is Post-Modernism, which rejects the notion of a “meta-narrative” (i.e., an overarching explanation).   If there is no metanarrative, then all that matters is me.  The post-modernist argues: “This is what I feel, this is who I am, and this is what I believe.  I don’t have to be consistent or explain myself, because I reject the concept of consistency.  There is no metanarrative, so I don’t have to explain where I fit.  I’m me.”  Once this groundwork is laid, the post-modernist is justified in arguing “You can’t impose on my feelings or my being – either in what you do or what you say.  If I consider myself assaulted by something you say, or something you make me read, that feeling is legitimate because it’s mine.”  It is tempting for people over 40 to observe this phenomenon and the campus discussion of “micro-assaults” and “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” and blame modern parenting and the self-indulgence that characterizes youth.  But what we are seeing goes much deeper than that; it is the bounty crop of years of post-modern indoctrination, and it’s what God and Man at Yale predicted over 60 years ago.  

If you reject Post-Modernism, as you should, you don’t have to engage in the “thoughts/feelings” debate on the post-modernists’ terms.  The Christian Worldview offers a rich intellectual and philosophical framework that will empower you to take back reason, defend immutable truth, and give a conservative apologetic for servant leadership.  In my next article,  I’ll explain how.