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4.0 out of 5 stars The Enlightenment, Happiness and the pursuit of Truth, 17 Jan 2010
This review is from: Why Truth Matters (Paperback)
This elegantly argued work examines the reason why and the ways in which modern thought and culture dispensed with the primacy of truth, whether that of historical fact or science. Differences about the best way of discovering or defining truth are as old as civilization but the existence of truth itself was not in doubt. Benson and Stangroom defend objective truth, reason and rationality, making an inspired plea for restoring truth to a place of honor. Their arguments encompass examples from inter alia anthropology, psychology, feminism, politics and assorted philosophies.

The late twentieth century saw an assault on truth like never before. The legacy of the Enlightenment fell out of fashion and in its place came a bewildering tumult of irrational pseudo-philosophies like deconstruction, postmodernism, relativism and multiculturalism. A variety of ideological and political agendas gained prominence, various fundamentalisms resurfaced, pseudoscience & superstition sneaked into academia and the denial of historical fact became commonplace.

Seeking truth is a preference. Some people feel comfortable with ideological/religious authorities thinking for them. Others choose to inhabit a mental sphere where notions about truth are flexible and constantly shifting, mixed with emotion, wishful thinking and daydreaming. Then there are those who genuinely prefer to pursue truth even when it leads to the disturbing, painful or unpleasant. The authors argue that people who do not hold truth in high esteem are the ones most likely to believe that the ends justify the means.

The Enlightenment legacy is being challenged today by an array of fundamentalisms who wish to protect their doctrines/ideologies from critical scrutiny, by skeptics of the counter-Enlightenment who assert that myth, claims of revelation and even hallucination are the equals of rational enquiry and by obscurantist postmodernists who deny the existence of objective truth altogether.

In their discussion of philosophy, the authors point out postmodernism's origin in the skeptical tradition where reason and evidence were dismissed as mere custom. Divorcing truth from reason and reality, postmodernists claim that it is whatever a community considers socially acceptable. To them, everything is a "construct": science, law, art and rationality are illusions purveyed by rival interests in the pursuit of power.

Stephen Hicks' illuminating analysis Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault is highly recommended. Despite it having been mocked by amongst others Alan Sokal & Jean Bricmont in the Sokal Hoax and Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science, this mindset has made deep inroads in the humanities, media and popular culture. The sinister result is that the distinction between good and evil is simultaneously undermined, leading to indifference or even inversion.

It becomes impossible to discredit that which is harmful when solidarity displaces truth. And when emotion is raised above reason, civilization is disarmed of its most potent protection against the baser instincts: the shield of evidence. The book exposes a rat's nest of toxic thoughts espoused by the enemies of science from the romantic poets to the social constructivists like Richard Rorty and Bruno Latour.

The authors' observations on the interaction of ideology, science and politics encompass discussions of social Darwinism, eugenics and Holocaust denial with reference to the notorious David Irving. They explain why & how "Theory" courses based on conceptual or linguistic contortions multiply in academia, consider the many ways that truth can be distorted and examine some of the causes.

Postmodernists portray their anti-philosophy as a heroic struggle on behalf of the oppressed and non-western when it is really a betrayal, since reason, logic, evidence and the scientific method belong to all humanity. The actual tyranny is to permit authority to enforce its version of "truth" without reason or evidence, giving absolute power to tradition, instinct, tribe, nation, race or class. As for tradition, it has its merits as explained by Michael Polanyi in Science, Faith And Society.

Asserting that although truth is not demonstrable, Polanyi explains how it is indeed knowable. Because knowledge & understanding are filtered through language and culture we do not have simple access to objective reality. Benson & Stangroom advise those who think that matters of fact should be decided by evidence rather than ideology to view theories which establish a neat correspondence between the desired and the real with the utmost suspicion.

The authors conclude that truth matters because curiosity, interest, investigation, inquiry and enthusiasm are intrinsic components of human happiness. Humanity is the only species with the gift of conceptual thought. What a waste not to employ our capabilities in the pursuit of truth, which may be considered as both a goal and a search. The enemies of science accuse it of reducing the mysteries of life but the opposite is true -- it increases mystery by forever bringing new ones to light.

For further information on the intellectual enemies of the Enlightenment, I recommend The Reckless Mind by Mark Lilla, Experiments Against Reality by Roger Kimball and Last Exit to Utopia by Jean-François Revel.
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