I’m sure it has happened to you: In the course of an argument about some timeless teaching of the Church, your opponent dismisses what you’re saying as “medieval.” In other words, your position (and the Church’s) might have worked well enough when the Black Plague was ravaging Europe, the majority of literate men were celibate priests, and Monty Python cast members pulled carts around crying, “Bring out your dead!” Whatever scruple or superstition you are defending (from traditional marriage to transubstantiation) might sound charming enough in Chaucer, but it’s clearly unsuited to a world of iPhones, Viagra, and Twitter — an embarrassing anachronism, a napkin you laid out for a formal dinner that turns out to be a pair of grandma’s bloomers. Just stuff it away and hope no one has noticed . . .
In such discussions, there are plenty of unspoken assumptions — which set the parameters of acceptable debate and pretty much “fix” the fight. Implicit in the attitudes of most contemporary Westerners are two fundamental heresies, both of which are addressed in Disorientation, the pocket-sized syllabus of errors for college students I edited last fall: Scientism and Progressivism.
As MIT’s Dr. John Keck explains in his essay on the first: “Scientism is simply an exaggerated belief in science. Scientism claims that the methods of the modern natural sciences provide our only access to the world and give the only kind of ‘truth.'”
Boston College’s Prof. Peter Kreeft unpacks the second heresy: “Progressivism or ‘chronological snobbery,’ confuses ‘new’ with ‘true.’ It also confuses facts with values, by using a factual, chronological term to carry a value meaning. Hence, something ‘modern,’ ‘contemporary,’ or ‘current’ is ‘truer,’ ‘better,’ or ‘more reliable.'”
Take these two — shaken, not stirred — add olive juice, and what you’ve got is the dirty martini we call the modern mind. Even some of the best-educated people you’ll ever meet will thoughtlessly assume that because we have better methods for investigating matter and energy, our philosophical ideas must also be closer to the truth — as if electron microscopes or particle accelerators could detect the existence of God. Furthermore, because we have (thankfully) learned how to live longer and healthier lives than our ancestors, we also know much more than they did about what makes the Good Life. The logic is obvious: If they were so smart, how come they are dead?
For Progressivism and Scientism, the past is dross, a burden, a decaying mass of unfounded theories, primitive prejudices, and deadening authorities — the “idols” Francis Bacon sought to smash. Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus was the first eloquent spokesman for this rejection. In The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus‘s opening scene, the good doctor runs through the whole body of received knowledge — logic, medicine, law, and theology — naming the fathers of each field and rejecting them. Aristotle, Galen, Justinian, and Jerome are all invoked and dismissed, in favor of the more “practical” art of magic and its sponsor, Mephistopheles:
O, what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honor, of omnipotence
Is promised to the studious artisan!
All things that move between the quiet poles
Shall be at my command. Emperors and kings
Are but obeyed in their several provinces,
Nor can they raise the wind or rend the clouds,
But his dominion that exceeds in this
Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man
A sound magician is a demi-god.
Here try thy brains to get a deity! (I.i.54-64)
The mind contains the power to make itself a god. For the moment, Faustus is bound to the opaque “lines, circles, signs, letters, and characters” of magic. Soon enough, in the mind of the real philosopher Descartes, these would be replaced by “clear and distinct ideas” that shine luminously, revealing the mind to itself, washed pure of sensual occlusions and the sediment of the past.
Descartes declares in The Discourse on Method: “As far as all the opinions I had received thus far were concerned, I could not do better than to undertake once and for all to get rid of them.” Descartes’ bold declaration of independence became the axiom that drove Western intellectual history from that point on, as Jacques Maritain points out in The Dream of Descartes: “Every modern philosopher is a Cartesian in the sense that he looks upon himself as starting off in the absolute, and as having the mission of bringing men a new conception of the world.”
Thus the scientific or philosophical “genius” becomes far more than a link in the chain of slowly advancing knowledge; instead, he gets the power (in Thomas Paine’s chilling words) “to begin the world all over again.” He aims to dominate the future, through the explanatory power of his theory and the technological or ideological power it unleashes. So instead of St. Thomas designating the whole of his Summa as introductory reading to the Bible, and his whole theological corpus as “mere straw” compared to the insights of the mystics, we have Hegel or Marx presuming to offer unique, comprehensive, and “final” explanations of the whole of human history. Instead of humbling themselves before the mystery of existence, they “solve” it like a puzzle, and offer those who accept their insights the power to dominate the future.
And power is the point. St. Thomas put sensory data at the base of science, building up concepts from percepts, insisting on an unbreakable connection between the mind and the world. He placed metaphysics at the apex of thought, the highest science that pointed by analogy beyond nature to its Author. Descartes turned medieval science on its head, declaring that sense data and tradition were alike unreliable, that speculation within the mind was the basis of all certainty. In his famous cogito, Descartes makes subjective self-awareness the ground of truth. Almost as an afterthought, he posits God as a guarantor that his mind can be trusted; after that, little more is made of theological matters, and Descartes quickly moves on to the serious business of physics and mechanics. Rather than the mind’s highest object, the proper study of all men and the crowning jewel of human knowledge, God becomes a theoretical step, a certainty device for a scientist with more important things to do, a mathematical cipher like √2. In Descartes’ quest to make men the “masters and possessors of nature,” God is dethroned and replaced by technology.
As the awareness of mystery is banished from human consciousness — or diverted into the “depths” of the irrational or the unconscious — the scientific thinker finds himself explaining his fellow men and their behavior, even their innermost thoughts and highest aspirations, according to “objective,” reductionist theories. As Walker Percy points out in The Message in the Bottle, the scientist must exempt himself from his theories; his own thoughts can’t be the accidental side effects of randomly firing neurons, or he cannot claim to “know” anything at all. So he cuts himself off from the human family, the bonds of community, the vital world of nature, and even his own body — all of these are “other,” subject to distortion and illusion, impossible to know in the particular. It is possible to know about them through generalized laws, even to control them through technological means; it is never possible to commune with them. It’s lonely at the top.
Percy critic Patricia Lewis Poteat describes the disturbing picture of the self that the sectarian of Scientism faces:
Descartes describes his body as a “machine made up of flesh and bones” and then goes on to suggest that his living flesh is not importantly different from that of a corpse. This rather unnerving comparison comes in the midst of his discussion of “thinking thing” (mind) and “extended thing” (body), and in the wake of both his proposition “Cogito, ergo sum” and his superordination of mathematical reasoning as the model for all knowing. . . . Implicated therein is a picture of the self: reasoning intellect riven from corpselike body, aspiring to the certitude of clear and distinct ideas modeled upon the univocal meaning of a mathematical equation. This is the picture of the self funded by that spirit of abstraction and obsession with theory which issue in the Cartesian model of clarity. This is also the picture of the self which equates the personal with the “merely subjective” and so renders it philosophically trivial.
In such a world, one’s own body becomes an alien realm. It cannot be the bearer of meaning, the place where the soul indwells, the site of visible means of grace — from eating the Eucharist to the marital act of love — the ground of holiness, the mediator of beauty and joy that declares that the individual is welcome in the world. Catholic psychiatrist Karl Stern, in the most important single book for understanding the 20th century, The Flight From Woman, points out that the modern, Cartesian attitude toward nature resembles the reaction of a neurotic who has been traumatized in early childhood, his vital period of identification with the mother foreshortened or marked by coldness, hostility, or absence:
The words for mater and materia, mother and matter, are etymologically related in more than one language. The sense of mystery which the poet and contemplative have towards nature; the sense of imbeddedness, of a personal relationship of protectiveness or cruelty, of the familiar or the awe-ful — all this is not a matter of animism or of a vague sentiment which will eventually be repealed by scientific elucidation. Quite the contrary; if a kind of Cartesian ideal were ever completely fulfilled, i.e. if the whole of nature were only what can be explained in terms of mathematical relationships — then we would look at the world with that fearful sense of alienation, with that utter loss of reality with which a future schizophrenic child looks at his mother. A machine cannot give birth.
This cold and hostile world, where the “wire monkey mama” has replaced mother nature, is the Faustian scientist’s utopia. Once he has reduced his fellow men to “nature,” to mere links in the chain of mechanical causality, it is simple for him to go one step further, to make himself the “master and possessor” of men, the rational principle that helps them to become ever-happier organisms in ever-improving environments, under his paternalistic control. Cue the commissars and other social engineers, who swiftly prove themselves the new (and far crueler) inquisitors.
Ironically, non-scientists are more eager than real practitioners of science to sign on to the ideology of Scientism. Imitating their teachers — without their knowledge or intellectual rigor — these consumers identify themselves entirely with their minds and their desires, and dispossess their own bodies as Scientism has the world’s body. They imagine themselves as angels or gods, inhabiting a pleasure-and-survival machine with certain needs but without moral significance. Sexual ethics, indeed the whole sacramental sense, fades into oblivion; sexually transmitted diseases become the new moral contagion, to be avoided by any means necessary except abstinence. The body, whatever it does, must not get in the way of the will to power; when it does, it must feel the full wrath of technology: Contraception reduces sex to utility and caprice; abortion turns infants into options; plastic surgeries from liposuction to “sex-reassignment” literally carve the resistant flesh into the shape demanded by the will.
When religious scruples interfere with the will, they suffer “reinterpretation” in the light of “social progress.” When the Christian notion of the person makes inconvenient demands — when it specifies that suffering is preferable to sin — it is summarily dispensed with, to be called back as soon as sentimentality demands. This is the world depicted in Percy’s last, polemical novel, The Thanatos Syndrome. It is the hell we currently inhabit. Bring out your dead souls!