Thursday, 25 September 2014

The Decline of Myth

I'm going to step a bit out of my wheelhouse here for a moment. I recently picked up a copy of Foreign Affairs, in which Francis Fukuyama discusses the current political struggles seemingly endemic to the American state. He argues that a major source of these struggles is populism that tends to neglect the role of relevant expertise. The valorization of the "every man" leads to people making decisions for which they might not have the requisite knowledge and experience.

I want to re-frame Fukuyama's argument in Lonerganian terms. What Fukuyama is talking about is what Lonergan calls general bias, i.e. the supposition that any and all problems can be solved by common sense, thus refusing to recognize that many problems must be met by special expertise. Thus decisions tend to be ill-informed. Lonergan cites general bias as the grounds for long-term decline. Ill-informed decisions lead to deteriorating situations, which in turn call for new decisions, which are in turn ill-informed, which in turn lead to deteriorating situations. Etc. That does seem to be a recurring problem right now. Democracy has many benefits, but global warming doesn't go away because it doesn't make sense to the populace.

Now, I don't want to single out the US as uniquely guilty in this regard, although it does seem to place an emphasis on populism generally foreign to other political cultures. We do see it here in Canada as well (can anyone say Mayor Rob Ford of Toronto? A train wreck sustained only by the worst possible expression of populism). I am only mentioning the American state because the article that sparked my thinking was about the American state. Neither am I saying that populism is a bad thing; it has it's place. But like many things some is good but too much can be deadly. It is possible to overdose on even the most beneficial of substances. And that seems to be where we are in much of our politics today.

Now here's where I step back into my wheelhouse. It strikes me that such things as Jesus-denial (i.e. mythicism) are symptoms of such general bias and thus of our ongoing decline. The amateur who perhaps read a couple books or maybe just a wiki entry on a matter supposes that she or he is as or even more knowledgeable than the person who spent years studying the matter formally and in many cases years or decades teaching others the same. It is absurd on the face of it. And worse: such persons do not even realize how absurd it is. And it's absurd whether it is Jesus-denial, or evolution-denial, or any other quackery. Now we have Ebola-denial, and aid workers being attacked; but it's just another example of the same tendency to distrust experts. Such is our culture, and it's a culture in decline. It is a culture in decline because it no longer truly respects the reality and indeed benefits of specialization of knowledge, that no one person can be equally proficient at all things and that consequently the aim is to become as proficient in one's field as possible whilst cultivating the capacity to listen to people in other fields. In short, we are too busy talking to listen, arguing to understand.

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