Saturday, September 11, 2004

Interview Analysis: Part II

I'll proceed with the analysis of the Dennis Prager interview with Sam Harris. Let us look at the exchange immediately following the intial challenge. There are numerous things to criticise on both sides of this exchange. To begin with there are a number of incorrect assumptions evident in Prager's question:

DP: So, let me ask you this: I believe that if I took a thousand evangelical ministers – the folks that I think you have a certain fear of following their values – and I took a thousand professors in the liberal arts, I am convinced to the point that I would bet every penny I have made, that the moral acuity of the thousand evangelical ministers would dwarf the moral acuity of a thousand liberal arts professors. For which reason Lawrence Summers, for example, the president of Harvard, announced two years ago that the seat – the seat – of antisemitism in America had shifted to the university. The university had been the seat of support for Stalin. The university in Germany was the seat of the place to get Nazi philosophers. Where you get your faith in secular reason is to me unbelievable, given the record of the secular rationalists.

Note that Prager concludes by denigrating Harris's "faith in secular reason" -- a contradiction in terms, strictly speaking, though unfortunately in Mr. Harris's case probably correct. But the problem is that neither Prager's comparison of evangelical ministers with liberal arts professors, nor his other examples from history are in fact proper examples of "secular rationalists." (As an aside I reject the adjective "secular" as applied to reason -- in actuality anything else is not reason, even if similar in form).

Let's start with the liberal arts professors. To claim that they are representatives or advocates of reason betrays ignorance of either reason or the professors' views. Ironically, numerous illustrations of the irrationality of professors have been written by Conservatives. For example, in Lynne Cheney's (1995) excellent book Telling the Truth she notes that:

In fields ranging from education to art to law, the attack on truth has been accompanied by an assault on standards. The connection is seldom made clear. Indeed, one of the characteristics of postmodern thought is that it is usually asserted rather than argued, reasoned argument having been rejected as one of the tools of the white male elite. But the thinking seems to be roughly that absent external reality, distinctions of any kind are meaningless. (p. 18, italics added)

So yes, liberal arts professors may indeed be secular, in the sense of not religious, particularly when it comes of Christianity and Judaism (they frequently have no such hang-ups with respect to other mystical systems), but they are not rational and it is therein that the explanation for their lack of standards as well as values lies. As Cheney writes:

No accomplishment can be judged superior to any other--except as it promotes the interests of desired groups. Without the objective measures that an external reality would provide, who can really say, for example, that the work of some students is better than others? (p. 18)

Who indeed? But the rejection of reality is fundamentally irrational and thus cannot be used to impugn reason. It is therefore no surprise that the university is now "the seat of antisemitism in America." Antisemitism frequently goes hand in hand with irrationalism as was detailed in Dr. Peikoff's book The Ominous Parallels.

Let's proceed to the historical example that Prager gives. I admit I was initially confused by Prager's statement that "the university had been the seat of support for Stalin" -- I thought he meant Russian Universities, which were of course state controlled and would not have any choice in the matter, but obviously he means American and more generally European Universities. This is true, but again, what makes Prager think that American and European communists and communist sympathizers in the Universities are "secular rationalists?" Again, certainly communists are materialists and thus secular. But Prager, as someone who has studied about communism at the universities surely knows that Marxism is anything but rational, explicitly rejecting Aristotelian logic for dialectical materialism that allows for contradictions, as well as accepting polylogic, since there is bourgois logic and proletarian logic. This is not to mention some of the other even more irrational post-Marxist doctrines that the later supporters of the Soviet Union adopted. So again we come to the conclusions that, certainly, there has been secular support for evil but it isn't actually rational.

Finally, Prager's mentions that "the university in Germany was the seat of the place to get Nazi philosophers." As it happens a whole book, already mentioned above, has been written on precisely this subject. In The Ominous Parallels, Dr. Peikoff describes in some detail that "that German Nazism was the inevitable climax of a centuries-long philosophic development, preaching three fundamental ideas: the worship of unreason, the demand for self-sacrifice and the elevation of society or the state above the individual." Again, I would hardly consider the "worship of unreason" to be representative of the views of the "secular rationalists." Therefore, while it is true much of Nazism support came from the German universities, that support cannot be used to attack "secular rationalists" because the professors were in fact not rational and not even entirely secular, as the presence of various mystical movements at the time indicates. Nazism, though frequently (and correctly) termed a "secular ideology" was in many ways far more compatible with various modes of mysticism than Marxism, which was explicitly materialist.

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