The Mega Interrogative

Prospect’s Big Question is interesting in parts. The question is ‘Left and right defined the 20th century. What’s next?’ My answer of course is some version of reason and faith, or reason and supernaturalism, or open thinking and closed thinking, inquiry or dogmatism, revisability or certainty, fallibilism or authority. Thinking or obedience, you could call it; thinking or submission. Or you could call it liberalism or authoritarianism. Or, the Enlightenment or the Counter-enlightenment. You get the idea – and you’re certainly not surprised. What else would I say?

Human rights, is one thing I could say, but I take that to be subsumed under all the first terms. It’s all the second terms who say human rights are good except when they conflict with religious etc or traditional etc or national etc. That’s one big (huge) reason the second term is my sworn enemy – it’s because when there is a conflict or tension between the two, it chooses the dogma over the rights, the unchanging Word of Someone over changing ideas of which people it is okay to oppress.

But that’s only one reason, even though it’s a big one. The chief reason is simply the inherent value of the first term. The ability to think freely and question and doubt and change your mind is a human treasure, equivalent to the treasure of language itself. So I’m pleased to see that some of the thinkers who answered the question answered it in those terms.

Francis Wheen:

The new struggle is between the best of the Enlightenment legacy (rationalism, scientific empiricism, separation of church and state) on the one hand and, on the other, various forms of obscurantism and value-free relativism, often disguised as “anti-imperialism” or “anti-universalism” to give profoundly reactionary attitudes an alluringly radical veneer…What makes this battle so serious is the array of forces ganging up on the Enlightenment version of modernity—pre-modernists and postmodernists, new age progressives and Old Testament-style fundamentalists. They have little in common but the one big thing—their visceral hatred of reason.

Erik Tarloff: ‘My fear is that we are facing another round in the recurrent conflict between rationality and superstition (represented at the present time by religious fundamentalism).’ Philip Pullman: The struggle will continue to be what it has always been: wisdom against stupidity. In the 20th century the odds shortened greatly in favour of stupidity, because stupidity now has the means to destroy human civilisation entirely.’ Joe Boyd [he’s a music producer]: ‘The big divide in the coming decades will be between the “reality-based community” and the “ideologically-based community.”’ Julian Baggini: ‘The new conflict is between liberal universalism and a communitarianism which asserts the need for cultures to maintain their own values and traditions.’

Todd Gitlin’s version is a bit different, and interesting:

The coming cleavage is between zealots and realists. Zealots think the world will yield to their strenuous, righteous will. These include Islamists, utopian free traders, neoconservatives, purists of all stripes. Realists think that you work with the world you have, not the world you wish you had.

That’s different because it’s possible to be a rational zealot and a zealous realist – in fact I would claim that it’s possible to mix zeal and realism. But it is an interesting dichotomy, anyway.

Susan Greenberg:

We all made fun of Donald Rumsfeld’s “known knowns” and “unknowns.” But it is a useful analytical framework. And the main faultline of the future will be between those who recognise when they don’t know something, and those who cannot or will not.

I didn’t make fun of it; Rumsfeld was quite right, and it’s an important point. It is indeed a useful analytical framework – it annoyed me that so many people did make fun of it – because that’s just symptomatic of the fact that a lot of people not only don’t recognise when they don’t know something, they don’t even recognise that that’s a problem. Hence the world is full of stupidity, as Pullman points out. One of the very first steps on the path of doing what you can to avoid stupidity is knowing that you don’t always know you don’t know and that that is indeed a problem. (In fact Julian’s second blog post on TPM’s spanking new blog is about universal human stupidity; it’s titled ‘I’m stupid, and so are you.’)

Two more. Nicholas Humphrey:

How can anyone doubt that the faultline is going to be religion? On one side there will be those who continue to appeal for their political and moral values to what they understand to be God’s will. On the other there will be the atheists, agnostics and scientific materialists, who see human lives as being under human control, subject only to the relatively negotiable constraints of our evolved psychology.

Will Hutton:

The key argument in the decades ahead will be between moral fundamentalists, animated by faith or nationalism or some combination of both, and Enlightenment liberals.

Between fundamentalists and liberals; which has the advantage that some religious believers belong and/or would place themselves on the liberal side.

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