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A Defense of Anti-Intellectualism

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Published on: January 30, 2015

I spent a lot of my life in school.  I went to college, then two graduate schools.  I have taught philosophy.  I would seem to be an unlikely anti-intellectual.  But I am an anti-intellectual.  Let me explain.

I stopped pursuing a career in academia after I began to realize that the highest concentration of ignorance, prejudice, unreason and, ultimately, pretense, occurred on college and university campuses.  In addition, I realized that if intellectualism is the notion that A is more likely to be true than B simply because intellectuals have paid more attention to A than B, then it is a straightforward logical fallacy.

But above all else, what is wrong with intellectualism, is the intellectual’s conception of reason.  Intellectuals, according to my definition of intellectualism, are people who seem to believe that it is rational to defend, and even commit, to belief systems which they cannot actually live inside of.  The question raised by existentialism, which for me includes an inherent respect for ordinary language, tradition, and common sense, is: How can it be rational to create a system of beliefs which one cannot live out?  Why would that be rational unless one is already taking for granted a view of Reality, in which one’s everyday experience, including human values, is nothing but an illusion?

Take for example, an otherwise loving and devoted husband and father who has constructed for himself, with the help of many others, a belief system in which there is no value inherent in being human, and no natural or otherwise metaphysical foundation for the virtues.  He thinks (not feels) the universe is a literally absurd accident, resulting in human beings who long for meaning and value while having an intelligence which quite rightly denies that any such thing exists.  And yet this very same man cannot imagine failing to attend to both his wife’s and children’s needs, based on real respect for those needs.  On the one hand he thinks it is authentic, and moral in precisely that sense, to admit that the universe is absurd and that human life involves so much suffering that living it to its conclusion is probably a net loss of utility.  On the other hand he cannot actually live this way, hoping every day that his children will be happy and fulfilled which is only possible through pathetic self-delusion.  His practical behavior and his belief system are not compatible.  But he imagines that this way of life is the only rational way of life.  Obviously, just the opposite seems to be true. 

Or, for an equally radical example, there are physicists (see Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos, The Elegant Universe) who believe that most if not all of human experience is misleading us about the true nature of Reality.  Everyday human experience is a “paltry portrait” of what is really going on in Reality.  Experience seduces us into believing just the opposite of what is true about Reality.  Time and space are not what we think they are.  Matter is an illusion.  It is little more than spatial geometry. 

Physicists have no idea what energy, matter, time and space are in themselves (finally arguing that they are all the same thing escaping from one conundrum to the next in a logical circle).  But instead of simply admitting that even modern science is ultimately rooted in mythology and metaphor, which is only literalized by habitual use, they would rather suggest that what is practically real in our everyday experience is actually an illusion.  Modern science is anchored in the Greek mythology of pure, unchanging, invariant being standing behind human experience as its cause, where there is no implication here of human experience somehow corresponding to the nature of that being.  Sometimes this is referred to as the “Cartesian Bifurcation,” in which Reality (the “objective,” invariant, unchanging being) is hidden behind human experience as a totally subjective, caused phenomenon.  We have, therefore, no idea what the world out there is in itself.  No amount of experience can make any proposition about Reality true.  The objective cause of subjective experience cannot even in principle present itself in that subjective experience.  The former is matter, just extension, in motion.  The latter is a whole world of subjective qualities.  The only hope of conceiving of Reality in this case lies in pure thought, pure mathematics.   

But all of this simply presupposes a whole view of Reality (a bifurcated reality) before science even gets going.  

Contemporary physicists are often incapable of recognizing that their own quantum experiments are suggesting that our actual experience is what is real.  “Matter” is just the (God given) potential of having the experience we have.  In spite of certain shocks in quantum mechanics, suggesting that Reality is not something other than what we experience, scientists go on fleeing from experience and to their coherent theories.  And they do this precisely because those theories reject experience, making their own pure reason the paramount standard of rational justification.  You must understand that modern science is not actually empiricism.  It is, to a large extent, a rejection of experience for a hidden Reality which can only be apprehended by pure thought.  (See string theory.)  Pythagoras created this Greek mythology a long time ago.  It has been the seduction of rationalists (scientists, intellectuals) who condescend to human experience ever since.  There is nothing new about it. 

To confirm this claim that the scientific intellectual runs from experience all you need do is read the first few chapters of Brian Greene’s books.  Greene, in the end, must argue that our perception of Reality is the product of an evolving human consciousness, including whole new ways of perceiving.  But there is no new human consciousness, no new ways of perceiving.  All of the physicists’ theories are rooted in the same old consciousness, the same old ways of perceiving, the same old human experience.  It is the theories and the instruments implied by them which keep changing, not the nature of human perception.  Ironically, if our perception of Reality is a product of new experience, new forms of consciousness, then the last epoch’s convictions about objective Reality will always be false.  The nature of Reality continues to be completely dependent upon changing human consciousness.  And so Reality goes missing all over again unless it is identical with this changing consciousness, in which case the scientists have nothing of real interest to say.    

The scientist gets up each morning assuming that science has value; that it is worth doing.  Why?  Only a full blown, prescientific, prephilosophical view of Reality could possibly justify the scientist’s life style including his devotion to the supposedly objective value of science.  Why is discovery exciting?  If discovery is simply an alternative conceptual scheme for interpreting the finally impenetrable dispositions of ultimate particles, who cares?  Why does the scientist assume that his process is rational?  Why does he assume that time and space operate in a fashion which allows him to accumulate data meaningfully, reliably?  After all, thermodynamics works both ways.  A state of orderliness (the universe we are experiencing right now) can arrive instantly out of chaos.  The world might be only a second old.  Oh.  I forgot.  This idea has been rejected because….well, it makes science impossible.  In order to assert and then test theories which reduce experience to an illusion, including human values, the scientist naively (more naively than the philosopher) asserts that his everyday world is real and makes it possible to accumulate objective evidence.  Practically speaking, just like the red necks, he assumes that his everyday experience is Reality.  But then he has a particular account of reason, in which it is rational to reduce the whole of human experience to a paltry portrait of Reality which, therefore, his theories do not have to correspond to.

The intellectual thinks that his intellect, divorced from his subjective nature and his concrete experience, is the route to Reality.  But he is cutting off the branch he is sitting on.  For our everyday experience is the one and only Reality we have.  We know no other Reality.   All of our speculation about Reality is rooted in it, including the Christian revelation which is wonderfully concrete, but just another illusion according to the modern intellectual.  Above all else, the notion that it is rational to reduce to an illusion the very basis upon which we launch our reductionist theories, is a very strange doctrine indeed. 

The modern secular intellectual is no longer experience oriented.  All too often, he is fleeing from experience.  (Just consider the liberals.)  And so we need this philosophically and religiously sophisticated rejection of modern “intellectualism.”  Sometimes I call it “neopopulism.”  More often I simply refer to it as existentialism and pragmatism.   No matter what you call it, it is a matter of realizing that the secular intellectual is not explaining away human experience, including Christianity.  It is human experience and Christianity which is illuminating the intellectual’s humanity and vanity. 

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