Thursday, August 5, 2010

Too free

Reviewing In Defence of the Enlightenment by Tzvetan Todorov, Tim Black reminds us of certain principles liberals [and most conservatives] once held dear:
...[I]n the hands of the neo-Enlightened, from the zealously anti-religious to the zealously pro-science, something strange has happened. Principles that were central – albeit contested – to the Enlightenment have been reversed, turned in on themselves. Secularism, as we have seen recently in the French government’s decision to ban the burqa, has been transformed from state toleration of religious beliefs into their selective persecution; scientific knowledge, having been emancipated from theology, has now become the politician’s article of faith; even freedom itself, that integral Enlightenment impulse, has been reconceived as the enemy of the people. As the Enlightened critics of Enlightenment naivete would have it, in the symbolic shapes of our ever distending guts and CO2-belching cars, we may be a little too free. ....

...[W]hen taking militant secularism to task, despite its claims to lie within the Enlightenment tradition, Todorov points out that the attacks launched against religion by thinkers like John Locke or Voltaire were not targeted at its content – they were targeted at its form as part of the state. For such fundamentally liberal thinkers, temporal and spiritual authority made for an unholy alliance. That the enemies of the secular ideal, the would-be enslavers of the individual’s conscience, were indeed religious does not invalidate this assertion. The problem was not faith itself, but the assumption of state power by a particular faith in order to persecute those with different beliefs. What may have taken a Catholic form in seventeenth-century Spain too often possesses a secular guise today.

Or take the current fetishisation of The Science, or as Todorov calls it, ‘scientism’, ‘a distortion of the Enlightenment, its enemy not its avatar’. We experience this most often, although far from exclusively, through environmentalist discourse. Here, science supplants politics. Competing visions of the good are ruled out in favour of that which the science demands, be it reduced energy consumption or a massive wind-power project. This, as Todorov sees it, involves a conflation of two types of reasoning, the moral (or the promotion of the good) and the scientific (or the discovery of truth). In effect, the values by which one ought to live arise, as if by magic, from the existence of facts. In the hands of politicians this becomes authoritarian: ‘Values seem to proceed from knowledge and political choices are passed off as scientific deduction.’ There need be no debate, no reasoned argument, because the science tells us what to do. .... [more]
sp!ked review of books | Rescuing the Enlightenment from its exploiters