How We Think Helps Explain the Culture Wars

Some say the world has gone mad, others that it is only now becoming sane. The disagreement shows that people disagree on what it is to be rational.

It also reflects a widespread and very basic change in how people think. Joe Bissonnette notes that the change is visible in IQ test results. For decades people all over the world have been doing better and better on test questions that emphasize the most abstract forms of reasoning. The accumulated changes from this so-called Flynn Effect are large enough to suggest that most nineteenth century people would be classified as mentally retarded by today’s much higher standards.

Other comparisons, for example between popular literature then and now, make that suggestion ridiculous. But if overall intelligence remains constant or nearly so, any improvement in purely abstract reasoning must be coming at the expense of other abilities. And that appears so. The improvement in scores corresponds to a tendency to think less by reference to concrete narratives and more by reference to abstract analysis. That doesn’t make people smarter, but it does mean they think about things differently. People today are less literary, less religious, and more visually and technically oriented. They view the world less as a complex of concrete functional arrangements like family, community, and a natural order that we are part of and must respect, and more as a collection of resources available for whatever purposes each of us may have.

I’ll call the former view the traditional or Trad view, and the latter the technological or Techno one. The change from the one to the other has important implications for Catholics. It means that in the world at large acceptance of natural law, which is basic to Catholic moral thought, is giving way to a view that makes morality and social order a matter of structuring equal preference satisfaction for everyone. That change is behind the “culture wars.”


Some think the transformation a great advance, a moral Flynn Effect, that indicates growing moral intelligence. Others think it means we’re becoming idiot savants who score well on standardized tests but can’t recognize concrete patterns basic to life, and as a result are unable to understand the human world and the goods to be attained within it.

Such disputes seem too basic to resolve or even discuss. How do you argue about which way of thinking works better, and which is more adequate to reality, when each generates its own view of reality and what it means to work well?

The Techno objections to Trad views are well-known: such views are racist, sexist, homophobic, irrational, oppressive, anti-science, and deeply weird. Those objections are mostly just statements of incomprehension. Nonetheless, they are enough to scare off most educated people, at least when they speak explicitly and publicly, since the Techno view permeates public discussion today.

Trads for their part see obvious problems with their opponents’ approach. It has some connection to the achievements of the modern natural sciences, but leaves out too much to apply to life in general. That principled rejection of essential aspects of human thought makes it radically defective. It explains why socialism and social engineering don’t work, sexual rationalism doesn’t make people happy, and most ordinary people find the arguments of libertarian purists deeply unconvincing: the ways of thought that lead to those things leave out half of reality.

Nor is a strict Techno view—and the view tends strongly toward strictness—adequate for science itself, since the practice of science depends on common sense and an ability to size up situations that goes beyond formal reasoning. So it’s not surprising that the general triumph of the view among educated people has been followed by complaints that scientists have less theoretical acumen than in the past, their work is losing its vision and becoming agenda and money driven, and basic advances are becoming ever more rare.

The situation is all the more difficult because the Techno view makes people unable to understand what they’re missing. It’s more focused and rigorous, and therefore more intolerant. After all, it’s much easier to make a mathematical proof part of a narrative, since anything can be part of a narrative, than make a narrative part of a mathematical proof. The difference makes Trads able to understand and take advantage of Techno thinking more easily than the reverse, and gives them an advantage over their opponents that should be rationally decisive.

All of which raises the question of how to moderate Techno excesses and restore balance and reality to thought. The apparent connection between those excesses and the Flynn Effect, a seemingly relentless movement that has gone on decade after decade all over the world, makes that a daunting proposition. Still, life must go on. We all like to read about battles for a good cause against great odds, and Catholics and other reasonable people today have the privilege of finding themselves in just such a position.

We are also in the fortunate position of possessing overwhelming factual advantages, if not social and rhetorical ones. Our view is more complete and adequate to reality, and we can understand what is valuable in our opponents’ view much more easily than they can. With those advantages, how can we lose in the long run?

Such considerations are encouraging, but they don’t tell us anything specific about how to restore common sense, natural law, and a sense of functional patterns, implicit goals, and natural functioning, especially as applicable to human beings and human society. To do that we have to pound away at our opponents’ weak points and develop our strong ones.

The obvious place to begin is to highlight situations where Trad ways of thinking are necessary because the Techno view just doesn’t work. An example is dealing with complex evolved functional systems, like human societies or living organisms, which are impervious to mechanistic analysis in many practically important respects. You can’t rely wholly on molecular biology when you play with a cat or run a political campaign. Even people who say they reject Trad views rely on them in such settings, for example when they distinguish theory and practice, or appeal to experience and to habits that work.

After dramatizing the issue at the specific practical level we need to develop it more generally so that it becomes part of the background of all public discussion. People are willing to admit that abstract reasoning and scientific analysis have limits, and we need to develop the admission into a general sense of what those limits are. Here any number of lines can be pursued, some of them perhaps unexpected. The arts are much more Trad than Techno, for example, and Techno thought is specifically Western and masculine, so objectors can appeal to legitimate concerns lying behind multiculturalism. See, for example, Rod Dreher’s discussion of Dancing With a Ghost, a book that gives an extraordinarily clear description of ways of thought among Canadian Indians that are based on intuitive pattern recognition.

To cover all bases we also need to develop the theoretical aspect of the situation. Here we can call on thinkers such as Pascal, with his distinction between the geometric and intuitive mind, Cardinal Newman, with his Traddish illative sense, and Edmund Burke, with his analysis of politics as an evolved system, developed in response to the Techno rationalism of the French Revolution.

Most of all, perhaps, we need to demonstrate the superiority of a more balanced view in action by recovering natural law and other aspects of classic Catholic thought. If we can pursue the good, beautiful, and true more effectively than followers of Richard Dawkins it will give us a huge advantage, and people will eventually notice. To that end we need among other things a reform of education: less social science and more history, literature, and the arts, and less emphasis on “critical thinking,” a goal that never seems to go anywhere, and more on learning about how the world works concretely in all its variety. There’s lots to do, everyone can get involved, and the project is personally rewarding, so why not get started?

Editor’s note: In the graphic above, from left to right: John Henry Newman, Blaise Pascal and Edmund Burke.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).