Introducing Follies of the Wise

On the day after Christmas, 2004, as everyone knows, a major earthquake and tsunami devastated coastal regions around the Indian Ocean, killing as many as 300,000 people outright and dooming countless others to misery, heartbreak, and early death. Thanks to video cameras and the satellite transmission of images, that event penetrated the world’s consciousness with an immediate force that amounted, psychologically, to a tsunami in its own right. The charitable contributions that then poured forth on an unprecedented scale expressed something more than empathy and generosity. They also bore an aspect of self-therapy—of an attempt, however symbolic, to mitigate the calamity’s impersonal randomness and thus to draw a curtain of decorum over a scene that appeared to proclaim too baldly, “This world wasn’t made for us.” No greater challenge to theodicy—the body of doctrine that attempts to reconcile cruelty, horror, and injustice with the idea of a benevolent God—had been felt by Western pundits since the great Lisbon earthquake and tsunami of November 1, 1755.

On that earlier occasion, mainstream Catholic and Protestant faith received a lesser blow than did Enlightenment “natural theology,” which, presuming the Creator to have had our best interests at heart when he instituted nature’s laws and then retired, made no allowance for either Satanic influence or divine payback for wickedness. God’s indifference, it then suddenly appeared to Voltaire and others, was more complete than any deist had dared to conceive. As for the clerics of the era, they welcomed the disaster with unseemly Schadenfreude as a useful topic for sermons. “Learn, O Lisbon,” one Jesuit intoned, “that the destroyers of our houses, palaces, churches, and convents, the cause of the death of so many people and of the flames that devoured such vast treasures, are your abominable sins, and not comets, stars, vapors and exhalations, and similar natural phenomena” (Leon Wieseltier, “The Wake,” The New Republic, January 17, 2005, p. 34).

The same opportunity was seized in early 2005 by Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and even Buddhist fear mongers, and they were joined by, among others, Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi, who proclaimed, “this is an expression of God’s great ire with the world” (Wieseltier 2005). But two and a half centuries of increasing scientific awareness had made for a significant difference in lay attitudes. Now the rabbi’s callous words—Leon Wieseltier rightly called them “a justification of the murder of children”—met with widespread revulsion. By 2005 only an unschooled person or a blinkered zealot could fail to understand that a thoroughly natural conjunction of forces had wiped out populations whose only “sin” was to have pursued their livelihood or recreation in lowlands adjacent to the ocean.

Theodicy, in this altered climate of opinion, would have to take a subtler tack. Just such an adjustment was made with considerable suavity by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in a Sunday Telegraph article of January 2, 2005:

The question: “How can you believe in a God who permits suffering on this scale?” is . . . very much around at the moment, and it would be surprising if it weren’t—indeed, it would be wrong if it weren’t. The traditional answers will get us only so far. God, we are told, is not a puppet-master in regard either to human actions or to the processes of the world. If we are to exist in an environment where we can live lives of productive work and consistent understanding—human lives as we know them—the world has to have a regular order and pattern of its own. Effects follow causes in a way that we can chart, and so can make some attempt at coping with. So there is something odd about expecting that God will constantly step in if things are getting dangerous.

Thanks to the Sunday Telegraph’s provocative headline, “Of Course This Makes Us Doubt God’s Existence,” Williams’s opinion piece raised many an eyebrow, enhancing the archbishop’s well-cultivated reputation for theological brinkmanship. On a careful reading, however, his essay appears in a truer light as a traditional exercise in Christian damage control. “Doubt God’s existence”? Hardly. It sufficed for Williams that “we are told” about the Lord’s plan to allow the world “a pattern of its own”—one that, if it occasionally puts us in harm’s way, does so only because the fashioning of a law-abiding cosmos struck the Almighty as the best means for us humans to achieve “productive work and consistent understanding.” A more complacent expression of anthropocentric vanity would be hard to imagine.

Having made a conciliatory feint toward heretical thoughts, the prelate went on to slam the door on unbelievers by suggesting that only “religious people” can care about the loss of individual lives within a mass die-off. Through their prayers, Williams related, pious folk “ask for God’s action” to assuage the suffering of the maimed and the bereaved. But wait: hadn’t the writer just conceded that it’s useless to plea for any intervention against nature’s laws? That point, we now realize, was only a rhetorical stratagem for exempting the recent tsunami from inclusion among motivated supernatural deeds. The God who had been paring his fingernails when the hundred-foot waves came ashore was now presumably back at his post and ready to be swayed by spoken and silent prayers that would waft toward heaven, even though they lacked any known physical means of doing so.

The point of Williams’s essay was not to question theology but to reassert it in the face of other people’s misgivings. Viewed from the archbishop’s interested angle, the upheaval of earth and ocean served as a trial of faith whose outcome was assured: “The extraordinary fact is that belief has survived such tests again and again—not because it comforts or explains but because believers cannot deny what has been shown or given to them.” Although many harsh experiences “seem to point to a completely arbitrary world,” convictions about divine mercy will remain in place, because those convictions “have imposed themselves on the shape of a life and the habits of a heart” (Williams 2005, p. 22).

My aim in telling this story is not to scoff at apologetics for otherworldly belief, though I do regard them as uniformly feeble, but to call attention to a clash between two intellectual currents. One is scientific empiricism, which, for better or worse, has yielded all of the mechanical novelties that continue to reshape our world and consciousness. We know, of course, that science can be twisted to greedy and warlike ends. At any given moment, moreover, it may be pursuing a phantom, such as phlogiston or the ether or, conceivably, an eleven-dimensional superstring, that is every bit as fugitive as the Holy Ghost. But science possesses a key advantage. It is, at its core, not a body of correct or incorrect ideas but a collective means of generating and testing hypotheses, and its trials eventually weed out error with unmatched success.

When the Archbishop of Canterbury mentions “effects [that] follow causes in a way that we can chart,” he writes as an heir, however grudging, of the scientific revolution. But when he reads the Creator’s mind at a remove of more than fourteen billion years, and when he implies that some prayers stand a good chance of being answered, empiricism has given way to lore supported only by traditional authority. That is the kind of soothing potion that people quaff when they either haven’t learned how to check the evidential merits of propositions or would rather not risk the loss of treasured beliefs.

If you were to ask the archbishop whether he subscribes to Darwinian scientific principles, I am sure the answer would be yes. So, too, in 1995 Pope John Paul II famously granted that evolution is now “more than a theory.” But since the late pope proceeded at once to airbrush humankind from the evolutionary picture and to reassert for our species alone the church’s perennial creationist legend (see Follies of the Wise p. 277), it is clear that he was no Darwinian in any meaningful sense. And the same must be said of Rowan Williams. In calling the recent tsunami an entirely natural event he was invoking plate tectonics, a branch of geology whose range of application extends backward by several billion years; but if he were at all sincere about adjusting his perspective to that time frame, he could hardly have gone on to assert that nature’s laws were fashioned for the benefit of Homo sapiens, a great ape whose entire period of existence has occupied not even a nanosecond of the cosmic hour.

Such inconsistencies, when they are pointed out so baldly, look craven and inexcusable. But that judgment isn’t shared outside intellectual circles, and even within them one hears influential voices protesting the encroachment of science on intuitively held truths. Conservatives who aren’t already observant believers tend to feel protective toward religion because, in their judgment, it is the only guarantor of precious values that are jeopardized by rampant libertinism. And although theory-minded leftists and radical feminists have no investment in theism, many of them associate science with a masculinist, capitalist, imperialist rapacity that has brutalized Mother Earth; and on these and other grounds some progressives feel entitled to discount any scientific results that contradict the felt verities of ideology.

In addition, some scientists and philosophers who are privately indifferent or hostile to transcendent claims nevertheless seek an accommodation with them. They do so from the best of motives, in order to stem the infiltration of bumpkin “creation science” or its slick city cousin, “intelligent design,” into biology curricula. Their hope is to show that scientific research and education have no bearing on issues of ultimate meaning and hence needn’t be feared by the pious. To that end, they emphasize that science exemplifies only methodological naturalism, whereby technical reasons alone are cited for excluding nonmaterial factors from reasoning about causes and effects. Hence, they insist, the practice of science doesn’t entail metaphysical naturalism, or the atheist’s claim that spiritual causation is not only inadmissible but altogether unreal.

In one sense this is an impregnable argument. Even when science is conducted by ardent believers, it has to disregard theological claims, because those claims typically entail no unambiguous real-world implications, much less quantitative ones, that might be tested for their supportive or falsifying weight. The allegation that God was responsible for a given natural fact can’t be either established or refuted by any finding; it is simply devoid of scientific interest. And thus it is true enough that scientists stand under no logical compulsion to profess metaphysical naturalism.

Quite obviously, however, trust in the supernatural does get shaken by the overall advance of science. This is an effect not of strict logic but of an irreversible shrinkage in mystery’s terrain. Ever since Darwin forged an exit from the previously airtight argument from design, the accumulation of corroborated materialist explanations has left the theologian’s “God of the gaps” with less and less to do. And an acquaintance with scientific laws and their uniform application is hardly compatible with faith-based tales about walking on water, a casting out of devils, and resurrection of the dead.

Metaphysical naturalism may be undiplomatic, then, but it is favored by the totality of evidence at hand. Only a secular Darwinian perspective, I believe, can make general sense of humankind and its works. Our species appears to have constituted an adaptive experiment in the partial and imperfect substitution of culture for instinct, with all the liability to self-deception and fanaticism that such an experiment involves. We chronically strain against our animality by inhabiting self-fashioned webs of significance—myths, theologies, theories—that are more likely than not to generate illusory and often murderous “wisdom.” That is the price we pay for the same faculty of abstraction and pattern drawing that enables us to be not mere occupiers of an ecological niche but planners, explorers, and, yes, scientists who can piece together facts about our world and our own emergence and makeup.

Here it may be objected that myths, theologies, and theories themselves, as nonmaterial things that can nevertheless set in motion great social movements and collisions of armies, confound a materialist or metaphysically naturalist perspective. Not at all. We materialists don’t deny the force of ideas; we merely say that the minds precipitating them are wholly situated within brains and that the brain, like everything else about which we possess some fairly dependable information, seems to have emerged without any need for miracles. Although this is not a provable point, it is a necessary aid to clear thought, because, now that scientific rationality has conclusively shown its formidable explanatory power, recourse to the miraculous is always a regressive, obfuscating move.

The present book, however, isn’t meant as a sustained attack on religion or as a brief for everything that bears the name of science. Rather, it brings together my recent encounters with various irrational manifestations, some of which in fact are nominally scientific. I have begun with metaphysical issues here because the human penchant for disastrously confusing fantasy with fact is most plainly seen in the impulse to ascribe one’s own concerns to divine powers and then to harden one’s heart against unbelievers. Although the follies discussed in my chapters are mild when judged against the total historical record of homicidal zeal in the service of misapprehensions, they display most of the features that characterize religious fanaticism, such as undue deference to authority, hostility toward dissenters, and, most basically, an assumption that intuitively held certitude is somehow more precious and profound than the hard-won gains of trial and error.

Like the Archbishop of Canterbury, who allows “habits of the heart” to overrule canons of evidence, many spokesmen for entrenched interests subscribe to a two-tiered conception of truth. They make a token bow to empirically grounded knowledge, but they deem it too pedestrian for mapping the labyrinth of the soul or for doing justice to the emotional currents coursing between interacting persons. Instead of merely avowing that the subjective realm is elusive, however, they then advance their own preferred theory, which is typically sweeping, absolute, and bristling with partisanship.

This book means to suggest, through sample instances in a number of subject areas, that there is no such thing as deep knowledge, in the sense of insight so compelling that it needs no validation. There is only knowledge, period. It is recognizable not by its air of holiness or its emotional appeal but by its capacity to pass the most demanding scrutiny of well-informed people who have no prior investment in confirming it. And a politics of sorts, neither leftist nor rightist, follows from this understanding. If knowledge can be certified only by a social process of peer review, we ought to do what we can to foster communities of uncompromised experts. That means actively resisting guru-ism, intellectual cliquishness, guilt-assuaging double standards, and, needless to say, disdain for the very concept of objectivity.

My mention of experts, however, can’t fail to turn a spotlight on my own qualifications, if any, for passing judgment on such diverse and contested matters as natural selection, human motivation and its development, psychological tests, hypnosis, UFO reports, and recovered memory, to say nothing of theosophy and Zen Buddhism. I do lack the requisite background for adding substantive contributions to any of those topics. But Follies of the Wise makes no pretense of doing so. I regularly defer to specialists who are conversant with the state of their own discipline and who have already laid out powerful critiques of ill-conceived theories and unworthy dodges. And where the specialists disagree among themselves while honoring the same stringent rules for exposing mistakes, I never venture an opinion.

The question, of course, is how an outsider can be sure that one school of thought is less entitled to our trust than a rival one. In many instances such confidence would be unwarranted. Certain indicators of bad faith, however, are unmistakable: persistence in claims that have already been exploded; reliance on ill-designed studies, idolized lawgivers, and self-serving anecdotes; evasion of objections and negative instances; indifference to rival theories and to the need for independent replication; and “movement” belligerence. Where several of these traits are found together, even a lay observer can be sure that no sound case could be made for the shielded theory; its uncompetitiveness is precisely what has necessitated these indulgences.

But then another doubt looms: if bad practices are so conspicuous, why should I or anyone else need to harp on them? At least two reasons come to mind. First, strong factions within such practical endeavors as psychotherapy, projective testing, and social work remain wedded to dubious and harmful notions that are tolerated or even advanced by mainstream guilds. The outrage that some of my essays encountered when first published attests to the challenge they posed to rooted assumptions. And second, charismatic trend setters in the academic humanities have shown themselves to be credulous about scientifically disreputable notions. Although I can’t hope to inhibit such high fliers, perhaps I can encourage some of their potential followers to see that real interdisciplinarity requires vigilance against junk science.

Beyond any social utility these chapters may possess, it suits my temperament to study indefensible pretensions and to note how they cause intelligent people to shut off their critical faculties and resort to cultlike behavior. Sometimes amusing, sometimes appalling, such deviousness strikes me as quintessentially human behavior. But I don’t mean to set myself apart as a paragon of reasonableness. Having made a large intellectual misstep in younger days, I am aware that rationality isn’t an endowment but an achievement that can come undone at any moment. And that is just why it is prudent, in my opinion, to distrust sacrosanct authorities, whether academic or psychiatric or ecclesiastic, and to put one’s faith instead in objective procedures that can place a check on our never sated appetite for self-deception.

Several decades of untranquil experience in the public arena, however, have led me to anticipate only limited success in getting this point across. To put it mildly, the public in an age of born-again Rapture, Intelligent Design, miscellaneous guru worship, and do-it-yourself “spirituality” isn’t exactly hungering for an across-the-board application of rational principles. And the culturally slumming, trend-conscious postmodern academy, far from constituting a stay against popular credulity, affords a parodic mirror image of it. That is the condition I illustrate in Chapter 11, on tales of UFO kidnapping: for opposite reasons, guileless “abductees” and supercilious Theory mongers show the same imperviousness to considerations of mundane plausibility.

A student who signs up for a literature major today, having never been encouraged to think independently and skeptically, may graduate two years later without having made any headway in that direction. That is regrettable enough. But if the student then goes on to earn a Ph.D. in the same field, he or she will probably have acquired a storehouse of arcane terms and concepts allowing that disability to appear both intellectually and politically advanced. Here is tomorrow’s tenured professor, more impervious than any freshman to the “naive” heresy that theories can be overturned by facts.

The inclusion in this book of my best-known essays, “The Unknown Freud” and “The Revenge of the Repressed,” brings to mind an especially ironic consequence of my attempts to promote impersonal standards of judgment. As I will have several occasions to mention below, advocates of psychoanalysis from Freud to the present day have responded to the movement’s critics by largely ignoring scientific, medical, and logical challenges and focusing instead on the critics’ own alleged defects of personality. The result in my case is that I owe such name recognition as I possess mostly to Freudians and their cousins, the recovered memory therapists, who have wanted me to personify the mechanisms of repression and denial and the mood of oedipal rage that must surely lie behind my malicious attacks.

Thus I awoke one day in 1993 to find myself notorious. The difference was made not by what I had recently written (I had been making essentially the same case from 1980 onward) but by where it had appeared: in The New York Review of Books, which, rightly or wrongly, the analysts had regarded as their haven. Though my intention all along had been to alert the public to thirty years’-worth of important revisionary scholarship by others, I now began to see myself characterized as “the foremost critic of psychoanalysis.” It was the Freudians themselves who gladly awarded me that role, the more handily to dismiss all reservations about their craft as the symptoms of one man’s neurosis.

My life has rarely been dull over the past dozen years, and for that
I must thank my Freudian adversaries. As this book attests, however,
psychodynamic theory has by no means constituted my sole concern.
If the topic nevertheless keeps surfacing at unexpected moments in this
book, that is because psychoanalysis, as the queen of modern pseudosciences,
has pioneered the methods and directly supplied some of the ideas informing other shortcuts to “depth.”

Intellectually and culturally, the West in the twentieth century did dwell largely in Freud’s shadow, but no portion of his legacy is secure today. At such a juncture, I believe, it is important to think carefully about how and why the opinion-setting classes were led astray. What we need is not a new secular god to replace Freud but a clear realization that we already possess, in our tradition of unsparing empirical review, the tools we need to forestall another such outbreak of mass irrationality.

This article is the introduction to Follies of the Wise, Shoemaker & Hoard 2006. Copyright Frederick Crews.

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