November 2008 Print

Where Do We Go?

James Kalb, esq.

Part 2

In the first article in this series I discussed the view that modern natural science is our only source of reliable knowledge, and how that view leads to a tyranny of liberalism[1] that operates by declaring non-liberal views irrational and excluding them from public discourse.

We Catholics will never get anywhere with the social dimension of our faith if people believe that faith makes no sense. In the long run, if we are unable to discuss our ideas with others we will be unable to articulate them even to ourselves. So what do we do?

Problems with Scientism

If the accepted understanding of reason is taken for granted, we lose. It follows that we have to put that understanding in question. That is a big job, because the public understanding of reason is basic to public order. To try to change that understanding is truly a revolutionary act. Still, the present situation is the result of an intellectual revolution that has run into trouble, and a failed revolution is eventually itself overthrown. Our task as Catholics and as citizens is to further the revolution’s departure and ensure that what replaces it is something better rather than something even more inhuman.

Dependence of Science on Other Knowledge

First, we have to emphasize that modern natural science is incomplete as a system. To work at all it needs things that are not science. It follows that the use of Occam’s Razor to rule out principles that fall outside modern natural science is illegitimate. Science itself cannot do without such principles.

For example, treating science as a source of knowledge about the world requires the assumption of a world in which science makes sense. How do we know that the past is the key to the future, or that the apparent success of science shows that what it tells us is true rather than merely useful in current circumstances? As Pope Benedict XVI pointed out at Regensburg:

Modern scientific reason quite simply has to accept the rational structure of matter and the correspondence between our spirit and the prevailing rational structures of nature as a given, on which its methodology has to be based. Yet the question why this has to be so is a real question.

Further, science cannot be altogether formalized, so it always retains a certain element of personal knowledge and common sense. Scientists cannot do their laboratory work without the informal knowledge that enables them to recognize their apparatus, tells them how to set it up and recognize when it is working correctly, and lets them read it and interpret the readings. Nor can they tell whether a scientific theory is true or even worth bothering with by running a chemical test on it. That determination requires judgment and insight, and those things are not science. Nor do scientists agree on what they tell us in particular instances.

In any event, science is a system of mutual reliance that includes within itself the uncertainties of social life. Laymen depend on scientists, and scientists depend on each other. The system thus requires the assumption that laymen and scientists can distinguish science and scientists from their bogus versions, and that they can understand the point of what scientists are saying, how seriously it should be taken, and how scientific results should be interpreted and applied. Acceptance of science also requires faith in the scientific community: the assumption that the community is routinely able to sort through the possibilities and pick out the most likely ones—that is, the best supported theories—at least in general, in the long run, and to an extent that makes scientific consensus reliable on the whole.

All these assumptions seem reasonable. The point though is not that they are false or unreasonable, but that they are necessary to science but not scientifically demonstrable. The claim that science is the whole of our knowledge must therefore be false. Our general understanding of the world, and our knowledge of other people and the faith we put in them—our common sense and acceptance of our social nature and of the social nature of knowledge—come first.

Limited Scope of Modern Natural Science

Modern natural science is limited in other ways as well. It cannot deal with all issues. Man cannot live by science alone—which is another reason Occam’s Razor cannot be used to exclude other sources of knowledge. In particular, modern natural science does not deal well with:


  • Things that cannot be measured, like the good and beautiful or indeed anything that is qualitative and not quantitative.
  • Things that are not observed by trained observers. Rogue waves, huge waves that suddenly appear at sea and often damage or sink ships, provide an example. For years, oceanographers denied their existence in spite of abundant clear and convincing evidence to the contrary. The reason is that the suddenness and unpredictability of the waves meant that the evidence was “anecdotal”—that is, it was not based on controlled and repeatable observations by trained observers.
  • Things that cannot be observed repeatedly, such as specific events in the past. Such events are not repeatable, and they usually were not observed by anyone with scientific training, so the scientific outlook has trouble with them. Also, if something is really out of the ordinary, science tosses it aside as an anomalous data point. That is why history that claims to be scientific says miracles never happen. It is not that it proves they never happen, it is that if one happened scientific history could not know about it.

    That is also why the evidence for Darwinian theory must be rather indirect. That theory tells us that living species arise through random mutation and natural selection. That process is not observed as a whole, since present-day mutations and selection events are not observed to lead to speciation, while the events that may have led to existing species are long gone and no longer observable. Nor can the history of life on earth be rerun multiple times to see whether there is a link between the probability of a particular life form arising and the probability of particular mutations and selection events. So the evidence for the theory consists in noting that random mutation and natural selection do take place, and assuming that since no other conceivably adequate mechanism for speciation is known that process must account for the complexity and diversity of life forms.


  • Things, like my own subjective experience, that cannot be observed at all by randomly chosen observers. Modern natural science has a big problem with consciousness, so theoreticians of science often ignore it, deny its existence, or redefine it as something else. That takes denying the obvious to a whole new level. The movement that started with cogito ergo sum ends by denying consciousness.[2]
  • Things no one knows what to do with, like the match between the coast of Africa and the coast of South America before the continental drift hypothesis was proposed. If you do not know what to do with something, or the answer seems too weird, investigation goes on in other channels.

    The basic point, once again, is that science can only be a part of our knowledge. It is a specialized application of common sense and reason, but not the whole of those things.

    Problems with Liberalism

    The problems of scientism are the problems of trying to do too much with too little. Similar problems arise within liberalism. The basic problem with liberalism is that you will not understand human life or deal with it sensibly if you try to simplify it too much and leave out qualities and distinctions that cannot be measured.

    Ethical Irrationality

    To begin, you will not be able to deal intelligently with questions of good and bad. Good and bad are not objects in space, so scientistic reasoning cannot handle them. Liberals try to turn that incapacity into a virtue. They claim their approach lets a hundred flowers bloom because it does not depend on any particular view as to the nature of the good. Each is equally able to choose and pursue his dream.

    The claim is obviously false. The “good” is simply whatever it is that makes a goal worth pursuing. No government or social order can stand above arguments about what goals are worth pursuing. Decisions must be made that foreclose other decisions, so some goals must be accepted and others suppressed. A government cannot equally favor protection of the unborn and the right to choose abortion. It follows that in order to deliberate rationally about action, a government must adopt some particular understanding of the good and reject others. If a government claims to be based simply on freedom and equality independently of any definite conception of the good, then something is being hidden.

    Irresolvable Conflicts

    The attempt to leave the question of the good unsettled—in practice, to define it as equal preference satisfaction—soon leads to insoluble problems. Liberals want to say that freedom is freedom to do what you want. In order to say that, they have to get rid of conflicting desires. Otherwise, as in the case of abortion, some people’s desires will have to give way to other people’s desires.

    The need to abolish conflicts makes anything anybody wants that affects others a problem. To resolve the problem, advanced liberalism limits legitimate human goals to those that do not affect other people and those that can be fully integrated into a universal rational system of production, distribution, and control. The model for all freedom becomes Burger King’s “have it your way”—the ability to choose completely arbitrarily among goods the system finds equally easy to provide: careers, consumer goods, and private indulgences.

    All other goals are ruled out of order, because they cannot be managed and are likely to cause disruptions, disputes, and oppression. To that end, human conduct, attitudes, and relationships have to be supervised and controlled. A comprehensive regime of political correctness must be imposed because otherwise the wrong sort of goals will creep in. Someone might want to choose cultural cohesion or traditional marriage, for example, and each would create centers of social power that violate freedom and equality simply by existing.

    Such an attempt to abolish oppression by abolishing conflict cannot work. The attempt is itself oppressive: man does not live by career, consumption, and private indulgence alone, and to force him to do so is to deny him what he cares about most. In any event, “oppression” cannot be defined without knowing what goods are worth having. Careers compete with careers, consumption of offroad vehicles is at odds with consumption of unspoiled nature, and private indulgences like drugs and pornography have public effects. In such cases, who is oppressing whom? If all goals are equally valued, it is impossible to say.


    At bottom, the problem is that equal freedom does not have the substantive content to answer questions. Free to do what? Equal in what respect? Liberalism cannot say, so it cannot deal with the world as it is. As a result, it becomes self-referential. Instead of freedom we get the cause of freedom as the highest good. Freedom becomes freedom to be free, or rather freedom to be liberal. Political correctness is the “left-wing” version of how that works in practice, while the Iraq war and “global democracy” are the “right-wing” version. The idea, it seems, is that we do not know what freedom is, but we do know that everyone must be forced into it.

    With liberalism as with scientism, overly insistent rationalism defeats itself: Dropping the question of the good in favor of equal freedom seemed a way to avoid insoluble conflicts and promote human flourishing. It has turned out that when equal freedom is made the highest principle it tyrannizes over the human spirit. The attempt to reduce everything to its measure leads to fanaticism that has no place for the goods men love most.

    Our rulers believe in equal freedom as the self-evident highest principle, and view anything else as irrational, oppressive, and violent. If you are “extremist” or “divisive”—they say that instead of “heretical” and “schismatic” but it means the same thing—you have to be stopped before you plunge the world into hell. Liberalism was intended to put an end to religious oppression and violence but instead sets up a new, perverse, destructive, and infinitely intolerant religion that is quite willing to use force to make its claims good.

    What Do We Do about All This?

    To deal with our situation we need a different and broader conception of reason along the lines the Pope set forth at Regensburg:

    The not one of retrenchment or negative criticism [of the achievements of modern thought], but of broadening our concept of reason and its application....We [must] overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically verifiable and...once more disclose its vast horizons.

    So we have to put in question modern secularist reason—reason that accepts the self-imposed limitation the Pope mentions—and identify a source of knowledge other than modern natural science. Otherwise nothing we say will make sense to anyone.

    Common Sense

    One way to start is to point out the necessity of good sense and judgment for knowledge. That necessity is a consequence of the personal, social, and informal aspects of knowledge. We have seen that good sense and judgment are necessary for science itself, and give it an ineradicable personal and informal aspect.

    Descartes tried to avoid the problem by claiming he could take good sense for granted. In the very first sentence of his Discourse on Method he says that

    Good sense is, of all things among men, the most equally distributed: for every one thinks himself so abundantly provided with it, that those even who are the most difficult to satisfy in everything else, do not usually desire a larger measure of this quality than they already possess.

    It is a very amusing quotation. Descartes, though, meant it literally. He had to mean it literally, because his system of universal clear knowledge based on individual subjective experience cannot work unless he can assume personal good sense away as an issue.

    In fact, good sense and judgment are subtle, complex, and hard to assess. They cannot be defined or quantified, and our need for them is all-pervasive. Some of us have more of them than others, and none has enough. The realization that we ourselves lack them is normally taken to be the beginning of wisdom.

    It is for that reason that the kind of reasoning Descartes was willing to recognize, which Pascal called l’esprit de géométrie (“the mathematical mind”) and which insists on complete order, clarity, and certainty, is not enough. We also need Pascal’s esprit de finesse (“intuitive mind”), which is equivalent to what Newman calls the “illative sense” and I call good sense and judgment. It is that latter form of reasoning, however named, that enables us to draw reliable conclusions from myriad considerations we could not possibly explain with any clarity, or often even identify.

    Tradition, Revelation, and the Church

    So where do we get Pascal’s esprit de finesse? The capacity for it may be an inborn gift to some extent, but if so it is one that needs development. The most important source is experience—dealing with whatever life throws up and seeing what works, what does not, and what comes into focus. If we are ordinarily well-disposed, we become wiser as we grow older.

    Necessity of Tradition

    Since we are limited, life is short, and the world is subtle and complicated, individual experience is not enough to enable us to know what we need to know. Man is social, and reliance on social experience, or tradition, is basic to what we are. Tradition is necessary to the very language we use to order and articulate experience. Without it we could not say what things are or what they mean. Judgment and good sense would remain at an animal level.

    The need for tradition applies to particular pursuits as well as life in general. Every complex activity has a tradition. Modern natural science, which is thought to be so strictly rational, also has a tradition. It even involves an element of personal apprenticeship: it matters among scientists who one trained under.

    So we have a source for the informal knowledge that enables us to evaluate beliefs and actions to decide whether they are worth accepting and doing. That source is tradition. Everybody relies on it, so everybody must admit its authority.

    Choice of Tradition

    Which tradition, though? Presumably, one that can make sense of itself as a tradition. That rules out scientism and liberalism right away, since their claim of comprehensive perspicuous rationality rules out principled reliance on any tradition, even their own.

    The tradition we choose should also be one that is not doomed to fall apart. Such a standard is more demanding than it might seem. Tradition by itself has certain problems. It can be wrong, but that is not the real problem, since it is reasonable to suppose that if experience misleads you then more experience is the best thing to set you straight.

    The more basic problem is that by itself tradition cannot maintain its coherence and its ability to guide us reliably. The reason is that in and of itself tradition—the simple accumulation of experience and what various people have said and done—cannot resolve all the issues it throws up. Look at where mainstream Protestantism or modern thought in general, which rely solely on the accumulation of experience, discussion, and the decisions of particular men, have ended up.

    Discussion does not in fact lead to consensus on the most basic issues. The liberal thinker John Rawls admits as much, in his book Political Liberalism. It follows that tradition needs an authority transcending itself to resolve the issues it cannot resolve on its own. Science has recourse to observation for that purpose. That is fine for objects in space. Not everything is an object in space, however, and on other issues the continuing coherence of tradition also requires an authority that appeals to something beyond inherited consensus and present-day discourse.


    In the case of ultimate moral and spiritual issues, it is hard to imagine what the authority could be other than revelation. It is important to note that ultimate issues do not keep their distance from us. Human knowledge in general depends on them, since knowledge is social and enduring complex social cooperation depends on ultimate issues. If people do not believe in truth or honesty, for example, scholarship and the scientific enterprise will go nowhere. Without revelation, then, tradition will eventually become incoherent, and coherent thought and reason, which depend on tradition, will become impossible.

    We thus need revelation, but by itself it is not enough because it does not settle its own interpretation. So we also need an authoritative interpretive method that can be relied on to resolve basic issues. We need, in fact, something that functions like a universal church with an organ of infallibility. In short, we need a pope.

    If no pope is available we can no longer rely on tradition, since we know in advance it will not be able to resolve the basic issues life will predictably throw up. We know it is going to fall apart—not develop in accordance with its own principles, but fall apart—so we cannot rationally believe in what it tells us. Since we cannot believe in it, and since connected thought and belief must be integrated with some particular tradition, we cannot rationally believe in anything at all complex.

    In summary: without a coherent tradition worthy of rational belief, reason falls apart. Without some definite way to resolve questions that cannot otherwise be resolved, no such tradition can exist. We cannot get by without something very much like the Church. Extra ecclesiam nulla salus is, among other things, a statement of the necessity of an authoritative Church based on revelation to a life of reason.

    Turning Thought Around

    The problems that have led us to our present situation are as basic as the definition of what is rational, what is real, and what is good. Our response has to be equally basic.

    We have to outdo the rationalists on their own ground, and show that our reason is more reasonable than theirs. Traditional Catholics—that is to say, Catholics as such—need a clear intellectual understanding of their position so they can make plain to those who will listen the rationality of that position and the fideism and obscurantism of the opposing views now established. They need to expose the clay feet of modernity and show how to do better.

    That is not a hopeless task. Liberal modernity is strong at present, but it has fundamental weaknesses that mean it cannot last. It can be beaten if fought at the level of those weaknesses. If we think of it as vulnerable we have a chance to be effective; if we do not, we are more likely to give up on the future and waste our efforts complaining among ourselves.

    I have discussed the irrationality of liberal modernity, and the rational necessity of certain points of Catholic doctrine, for example a magisterial Church. Many writers have explicated the rationality of Catholicism in other respects. We must assimilate those points and apply them to the present situation so that we will be “ready always to satisfy every one that asketh you a reason of that hope which is in you” (I Peter 3:15).

    As to our opponents, victory makes people stupid. That is especially true when the view that has won leaves out as much as scientism does. Scientism deprives good sense and judgment of their basis and eventually their authority. The problem is not merely theoretical. The limited resources on which scientism can draw mean that it must base decisions on default assumptions like equality. When judgment and good sense come into conflict with those assumptions they are abandoned. “Political correctness” and “zero tolerance” show the consequences. Since they are based on equality they cannot be questioned. No matter how stupid people think they are, they cannot get rid of them. That is a sign visible to everyone that something has gone basically wrong in the way people think about things.

    Such signs can be multiplied. They include the coarseness of modern culture, the ugliness and inhumanity of modern architecture, the irrationalism of a great deal of academic thought, the narrowness of many apologists for modern science, the abusiveness of discussion relating to religion and traditional morality, and the growing censorship, which in much of the West is now backed by fines and imprisonment. We have seen the future, and it does not work. Surely, something so dysfunctional can be beaten.

    James Kalb is a New York attorney, a Catholic convert through the Traditional Latin Mass, and a widely published commentator on the history of liberalism. He holds a B.A. in mathematics from Dartmouth College and a J.D. from Yale Law School. His book The Tyranny of Liberalism will be published by ISI Books this fall. This article is adapted from a speech given at the Roman Forum’s 2008 Summer Symposium.

    1 See James Kalb, The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, forthcoming November 1, 2008).

    2 It is difficult for a theory to include everything, and perhaps it is inevitable that a strategy of investigation based on active rational observation of passive mechanistic nature would have trouble accounting for the observer as part of nature. Oddities related to the position of the observer in the generally extremely successful theory of quantum mechanics provide another example of that difficulty. The Schrödinger cat paradox seems to show that in quantum mechanics a cat can be equally dead and not dead if it cannot be observed whether the event that might have killed it actually occurred.