Wednesday, September 14, 2005

A herd of independent minds

There is a very interesting read to be had at Albert Mohler. It's about an article in a new publication, on the pleasures and the pains of the intellectual class. Mostly on the pains.
"Why do intellectuals get things so wrong, so often?," [Owen] Harries asks. "The question is worth asking because they are still with us, still vocal, still taken seriously by many as interpreters of the course of human history." In answering his own question, Harries suggests that intellectuals are often wrong because thinkers tend to demand coherence in human affairs, looking "for pattern, meaning, and consistency." Since intellectuals tend to be overwhelmingly secular, Harries observes that most intellectuals attempt to find such consistency in the form of ideology. "Ideologies vary a good deal, but among the things they have in common is that they all require great selectivity with respect to empirical evidence," Harries suggests. "That which supports the ideological creed is readily assimilated and emphasized; that which conflicts with it is either noisily rejected or quietly filtered out and ignored." Harries makes an important point here, and intellectuals, both liberal and conservative, should pay close attention to his analysis. The world is a great deal more complex than any intellectual analysis can fully understand or assimilate. Harries also argues that intellectuals, having generally very little to do with the actual running of organizations, nations, and institutions, have little practical understanding of how the world actually works. "Thus individuals who have never organized anything more demanding than a... University tutorial will without hesitation dismiss as simpletons and ignoramuses individuals who have been responsible for organizing and implementing vast practical projects," Harries explains.
I think the pot shot about secularism is misplaced. Playing fast and loose with evidence is human characteristic, found in all sorts of people - both religious and not. I have, however, seen people in the educational industries (school, university, media) cajole and belittle people engaged in endeavors they know nothing about many, many times. I've experienced it first hand. One last observation that Harries makes is that intellectuals have a "narcissistic belief that what is happening now, in their lifetime, is uniquely important and valid." I think that's true too. It comes down to overconfidence. Being seldom corrected in their own fields, where they can really be a marvel to behold, they extrapolate and incorrectly judge their own abilities on a universal, absolute scale. Thus, when faced with an ages old way of doing things they are very quick to dismiss it in favour of their own ideas. The idea that someone in the past knew it better than they sits uneasily, if at all. The possibility that countless numbers of muckers could, together, be more shrewd than they, hardly sits at all. Here's a link proving that this is not merely a secular issue.

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