How We Think Helps Explain the Culture Wars
by James Kalb
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.