Wednesday, September 20, 2006

We the Sheeple?

Why do conspiracy theories persist despite their patently tenuous relationship with reality? This informative and well-written piece by Feser uses this question as its starting point for an examination of the philosophical basis for contemporary "enlightenment" -- which turns out to be rather less about enlightenment and the attainment of wisdom, and rather more about an ego-driven desire to hear one's own viewpoints expressed and the elitism of many contemporary intellectuals.

The absurd idea that to be intelligent, scientific, and intellectually honest requires a distrust for all authority per se and a contempt for the opinions of the average person, has so deeply permeated the modern Western consciousness that conspiratorial thinking has for many people come to seem the rational default position.

As John Ralston Saul noted in Voltaire's Bastards, the western world has consistently placed the well-being of democracy in the hands of elites that neither trust nor care much about "commoners", and it is unsurprising, therefore, that Feser concludes that conspiracy theorists reflect a disdain for common sense and an over-inflated opinion of the merits of their own beliefs. Despite being highly revisionist in content, Feser points out that 'the standard Enlightenment narrative has had a powerful influence on the way modern people understand the relationship between authority, tradition, and common sense on the one hand, and science and rationality on the other'. Enlightenment has become synonymous with a faith in the infallibility of science, that if it is not scientifically determined it can't be so. The corollary has been the ascension to assumptive authority within society of education and those who affect an educated perspective: the "smart" people who think correctly and the rest of us who are just stupid if we don't get it, or deign to disagree and think differently.

What's ironic, is that many environmentalists perceive themselves to be the radicals, fighting authority and continuing in the enlightenment tradition. What they fail to realize, is that in the contemporary politics of the ecomyth (the realm of global warming, recycling, the precautionary principle, limits to growth, carrying capacity and biodiversity) environmentalism is the new authority of elitism. The radicals today are those who dare raise a skeptical voice and ask just where is the science in support of all the dogma?

Enlightenment was supposed to rescue civilization from dogma. In 300 years, all we have succeeded in doing is inventing a new religion and a new royalty to replace those that democracy and freedom sought to displace.