October 2008 Print

Catholic Social Revival and the Sleep of Reason

James Kalb, esq.

The Twilight of Reason

We cannot work to revive the influence of Catholic principles on social life without an understanding of the present situation and its difficulties. At Regensburg and elsewhere, Pope Benedict XVI has pointed out that the present-day understanding of reason is a very serious difficulty for us. At bottom, the way people make sense of things no longer makes sense. In this series I will discuss that difficulty and suggest ways of dealing with it.

Our understanding of reason is simply our understanding of how to reach reliable conclusions regarding what is good, beautiful, and true. It is our way of aligning our thoughts with the world. Such understandings can be more or less adequate. The understanding that orders public life and discussion today is radically defective. It takes a fragment of reason–scientific method–and treats it as the whole. The result is that it restricts what can be known, and therefore what can be treated as real, in such a way as to leave no place for God or ultimately for humanity. It makes it impossible for the Faith to have any relevance to public discussion.


The modern understanding of reason has deep roots. Its components, such as the demand for simple, universal, and mechanistic explanations, have been with us since antiquity. Such tendencies have led on occasion to views much like modern scientific materialism. An example is provided by the Greek philosopher Democritus (ca. 460–370 B.C.), who proposed that in reality there are only atoms and the void.

Until modern times such views might be held by particular thinkers but they never attained general currency. Today, however, they have come together in an outlook that dominates public life and holds that modern natural science is the only knowledge worthy of the name. That outlook may be called scientism or scientific fundamentalism.

It is difficult to map the exact process by which something as all-embracing as an understanding of reason attains dominance. However, the thought of Francis Bacon (1561–1626) and René Descartes (1596–1650) evidently marked a decisive stage in the rise of the modern view.

Both men aimed at a general intellectual reform that would make knowledge much more useful and certain than it had been. Bacon, a practically-minded statesman, wanted to reconstruct knowledge on experimental principles for “the relief of man’s estate”—that is, to make life easier, safer, and more pleasant. He said that “knowledge is power,” and with that in mind he wanted knowledge to reject tradition, base itself on observation of the natural world, and become a tool. In effect, he wanted it to become modern technology.

Descartes, a mathematician and scientist, wanted knowledge that would stand up against any possible doubt. He could not doubt the reality of his own experience—as he said, “I think, therefore I am”—so he tried to base knowledge on his own experience, together with the most rigorous reasoning possible.

Put the two views together and you get a narrow, focused, and—it turns out—very effective view of knowledge. According to that view, we should be as skeptical as possible, take nothing on faith, and base knowledge and our whole way of acting as much as possible on our own experience and on mathematics and logic. And we should treat the purpose of knowledge as practical: it has to do with getting what we want. It comes from, and exists for the sake of, our sensations, feelings, and goals.

Such a view excludes from knowledge all traces of the transcendent, of anything that goes beyond human purpose and experience. The transcendent, it seems to tell us, is beyond us. We do not know what it is, and there is nothing we can do with it, so why take it into account?

Some of the consequences of such a view, and the length of the process that has led to the present situation, can be seen in the history of the word “speculation.” That word comes ultimately from the Latin specere, to look at or view. When it appeared in English around 1374, it meant “contemplation” or “consideration.” By 1575, at the dawn of the modern age, it had taken on the disparaging sense of “mere conjecture.” And by the eve of the great modern revolutions, in 1774, it had come to mean “buying and selling in search of profit from rise and fall of market value.”1

So in four hundred years “speculation”—taking a view not based on knowledge as power—had gone from man’s noblest faculty, contemplation or speculative reason, to making things up, to trying to get money without knowing what you are up to.


Modern natural science has great intellectual and practical appeal. It can be extremely successful when applied with discipline, attentiveness, and ingenuity, so it calls forth high-quality intellectual effort. Further, its rigorous attitude toward evidence and inference causes it to take an extremely critical attitude toward tradition, revelation, common sense, and other nonscientific forms of knowledge.

Those features have led to a scientistic view that limits knowledge to a very few sources, those upon which modern natural science relies most explicitly. Those sources are:

Disinterested observations that can be repeated and verified by any properly trained observer, especially observations that can be made numerical.

Induction: what happened in the past will happen in the future.

Formal logic, mathematics, and measurement, which enable us to organize and connect our observations and make them exact, impersonal, and usable. If an observation cannot be made numerical it is not taken seriously.

When necessary, additional assumptions that comply with Occam’s Razor—that is, are as few and simple as possible—and can be tested by experiment.

Occam’s Razor Runs Wild

Occam’s Razor is important. It is used, in fact, to provide a theoretical basis for scientism. When someone tells you “That is just your opinion” or “You are just trying to force your values on other people,” they are making an appeal to Occam’s Razor. You are, it is said, bringing in something that is not proved and not needed, so you are just being willful.

The problem is not Occam’s Razor in itself, which is a perfectly sensible injunction to keep things simple, but its over-extension. Modern natural science has enormous strengths. It has solved a great many problems, continues to support fruitful inquiry on a very wide range of topics, and narrowly restricts what counts as evidence and proof. Many of its supporters conclude that the progress of knowledge requires us to support it wholeheartedly, adhere to the critical attitude that has guided its success, and reject appeals to any principle outside it. Such an appeal, it is argued, would add complications that may be unnecessary and so violate Occam’s Razor. It would compromise an extremely successful strategy of investigation for the sake of some particular concern that may yet be dealt with—to the extent it is legitimate—within science itself. And that, it is thought, would be an attack on the process through which we attain knowledge, and thus on knowledge itself. To reject scientism—to look for reliable public truth from a non-scientific source—is, we are told, simply irrational.

Consequences of Scientism

It is worth noting the consequences of trying to understand the world only scientifically. Those consequences pervade present-day life.

Science enables us to know things that can be observed and measured by any trained observer who follows the appropriate procedures and things that are connected to observations by a theory that makes predictions that can be confirmed, and is as simple, mathematical, and consistent with other accepted theories as possible. If science is our only source of knowledge, those are the only things we can treat as real. Everything else is opinion, feeling, taste, prejudice, or fantasy.

Also, scientific method creates an essential relationship between what we know and what we can cause to happen. The meaning of the experimental method is that knowledge is knowledge of how events depend on other events, especially those we can control. If scientific knowledge is the only knowledge, then knowledge has to do with the control of nature, and rationality becomes difficult to distinguish from dealing with the world technologically.

If such views are correct, then contemplation is no longer knowledge. Knowledge is experimental and oriented toward control, while contemplation does not affect what it contemplates. It does affect the one who contemplates, however, so it becomes a social or psychological technique. Religion, which was once thought to concern our relation to God, becomes a sort of therapy concerned only with our own states of mind.

The tendency toward subjectivism extends beyond religion to evaluative concepts such as beautiful and good. Scientism tells us that the beautiful and good are real only if they can be observed and measured. To make them observable and measurable, however, they must be identified with what is liked and preferred, so that they can be dealt with by the methods of the social sciences. But if “good” means “preferred,” it is simply a matter of what we want, and the triumph of the good becomes indistinguishable from the triumph of the will.

The resulting pragmatic orientation transforms our understanding of the world. If knowledge has to do with control, and willfulness is our basic guide to action, then stable relationships dissolve. That dissolution is part of what defines the technological outlook. An industrial process has no loyalties. A computer does not care what you program it to do, it works the same in all settings, and it can interact with equal facility with any other computer anywhere. The technological outlook thus puts us in a sort of eternal now without past, place, context, or future, in which everything is a neutral resource for the achievement of the projects of whoever is in control.

As Marx put it, “all that is solid melts into air.” Hence the abolition of traditional culture, for example traditional American, Western, or Catholic culture, which is always based on particular connections and meanings. Hence also the belief that history has ended, that “essentialism”—the belief that things have a particular nature and meaning—is ignorance and bigotry, and that “discrimination”—treating one person, act, or thing as essentially different from another—is supremely irrational and wrong.

Such tendencies have transformed the whole of life. The absence of a public system of meaning based on cultural tradition has turned artistic expression into a diversion or into a vehicle for fantasy, ideology, obsession, rage, joyless hedonism, or mindless rebellion. The state of disconnection becomes literally concrete in the design of buildings and cities, which now feature sprawl, placelessness, and mono-functionally zoned urban areas emblematic of values-free material production.2 As Gertrude Stein said about Oakland, in a technological world there is no there there.

A Note on Postmodernism

I have said that scientism reigns supreme. You sometimes hear from academics and others that is old hat, that the Cartesian outlook has been superseded, that our condition of placelessness puts us in an open-ended postmodern age, and so on.

Do not believe it. Social constructivism, cultural relativism, and multiculturalism do not answer questions. When decisions have to be made, there has to be some way of making them, and announcing that nothing has any real connection to anything else will not do the job. The effect of such views is to put an even greater premium on claims to neutral scientific expertise, because that—along with money—seems to be the only means of negotiating the differing and equally valid views of various cultures.

In fact, postmodern views make it harder to contest claims of scientific expertise since they debunk nonexpert knowledge so totally. Science came into being in response to skepticism and is designed to defend itself against skeptical objections. Less formal modes of knowledge, such as tradition and common sense, are not so fortunate. Today they are identified with ignorance and irrationality, and it is thought outrageous even to mention them.

In practice, the slogans we hear—diversity, tolerance, multiculturalism, openness to change—all mean the same thing:

“What you think as a nonscientific layman is on a level with what a witch doctor or flat earther thinks. You cannot prove your view is better, and there is nothing special about you, so shut up, be a good boy, abandon everything you ever thought you knew, and do what the experts say.”

Scientism and Social Life

I have suggested that scientism extends to morality and politics along with everything else.

That might seem surprising. The principles of scientific thought are designed to deal with objects in space. Since men sometimes concern themselves with things that are not objects in space, like the good, beautiful, and true, it seems that science should have only limited applicability in human affairs.

Nonetheless, we are, among our other attributes, objects in space. It follows that we can apply the methods of the modern natural sciences to ourselves. Since we can do so, the scientistic version of Occam’s Razor insists that we should do so—exclusively. We should try to rely, not just in physiology and physical anthropology but even in politics, morality, and social relations generally, on something as close to scientific reasoning as possible. It is thought irrational to do otherwise.

The Logic of Liberalism

In traditionalist circles discussions of liberalism are often dismissive. Liberals are crazy, they are stupid, there is something wrong with them or whatever. Dismissive theories have some truth in them, but they are obviously not the whole truth. If liberalism is so stupid, why does it always win? If it is so crazy, why does everyone know what it requires? And how did it get to be so pervasive?

In fact, liberalism is backed by an extremely powerful logic. If scientistic reasoning is applied to human relations, it gives us both a highest good and a highest standard of justice. From those two principles it is possible to generate a complete political and moral system. That system is liberalism (using the term in the American sense).3

The highest good scientism gives us is freedom, understood as satisfaction of desire. Preference and aversion are observable, and they tell us what to do. Since they are available as guides, scientism tells us, why not stick with them, and concentrate on setting up a system that gets us what we want and gets rid of what we do not want? Why bring in other standards based on things that are harder to demonstrate, like God or the good, beautiful, and true? That, it is thought, would be unscientific and therefore irrational.

The standard of justice that corresponds to scientism is equality. What is good is simply what is desired, scientism says, and since all desires are equally desires, all goods must equally be goods. It follows that the desires of all men deserve to be treated equally. To say one man’s desires are less valuable than another’s is simply to value him less. That is arbitrary, discriminatory, and oppressive. It is the sort of thing that leads to Auschwitz, and it cannot be allowed.

In effect, scientism tells us that there are no transcendent goods, just desire, and there are no essences of things that we have to accept and respect, the world is what we make of it. So the point of politics, social life, and morality must be to treat the world simply as a resource and turn the social order into a kind of machine for giving people whatever they happen to want, as long as what they want fits the smooth working of the machine.

That ideal is the same as the present-day liberal ideal. It follows that liberalism can be demonstrated to be correct given the present understanding of reason. That feature gives liberalism an insuperable advantage in political and moral discussion. If you reject it you are irrational.

Consequences for the Liberal Order

The specific features of the liberal order follow from its basic logic. These include:

Universality. Reason is universal. Whatever it demands applies always and everywhere. Since liberalism follows from reason, it too must be universality applicable.

Absolute validity. A system based simply on reason is the only possible legitimate system. Dissidents are not properly part of political discussion, since they reject reason. They should be ignored or suppressed lest they corrupt social discourse.

Insistence on practical abolition of all standards and institutions at odds with the unity, clarity, universality, and efficiency of the system.

The last point is very important but not often made explicitly. The insistence on rational unity is what lies behind the demands for “inclusiveness” and “tolerance,” and indeed all the “culture war” issues. For a rational technological system to exist and perfect itself, everything has to be transparent and manageable from the point of view of those on top. All institutions have to have a clear, rational orientation toward maximizing preference satisfaction or equality, and it has to be possible to supervise them and intervene to correct irrationalities.

The only institutions that measure up to those standards are markets (especially global markets) and bureaucracies (especially transnational bureaucracies) that are run on liberal principles. In contrast, traditional and local institutions—family, nation, religion, and non-liberal conceptions of personal dignity and integrity—are

Opaque and resistant to outside control. They resist change.
Not oriented toward maximum equal satisfaction of individual preference. They are oppressive.
Not based on expert scientific knowledge. They are ignorant and prejudiced.
Dependent on distinctions and authorities that are not required by liberal market and bureaucratic institutions. The family, for example, depends on distinctions of age, sex, and blood. It follows that such institutions are bigoted and hateful.

Accordingly, liberalism tells us, institutions other than bureaucracies and markets have no right to exist. Their very existence makes a just, rational, and efficient social order impossible. If you cannot simply get rid of them then you must redefine them as something else or reduce them to private choices that are not allowed to affect social relations that matter. You must privatize sex, family, religion, and personal morality, and redefine nation and culture as ethnic cuisine and folk dancing. And that is just what has been done.


Suppose you are an official who accepts all this, and you are presented with a claim by a gay rights group that they have a right to live in a society free of homophobic attitudes, and a claim by Christians that they have the right to educate their children in the principles they think best—which include the view that homosexual inclinations are intrinsically disordered. The two claims conflict. Who wins?

Obviously, the gay rights group. People have a right to freedom from oppressive social structures. Defense of that freedom is a basic function of liberal government. Christian morality is at odds with the equal standing of tolerant desires, and so is intrinsically oppressive and should not be allowed to affect social relations. Further, the justification for parental involvement in the upbringing of children is its contribution to their ultimate ability to choose and pursue their own tolerant goals. The Christian parents reject that principle, which is the only principle that could justify their authority. So why, from the liberal viewpoint now dominant, should they be allowed to determine their children’s education on such an issue?

The Immovability of Liberalism

Liberals say they believe in reason. On their understanding of reason, they are right beyond all possibility of discussion. What part of maximum equal satisfaction of legitimate preferences could any intelligent and well-meaning person have a problem with? Their opponents are therefore not just wrong but so obviously wrong that there must be something wrong with them. If you oppose liberalism

You are ignorant, confused, and irrational, since what you favor is not based on knowledge and is against reason.
You are trying to get what you want at the expense of what other people want. You are greedy.
Since you want to stick other people with what you want them to have instead of what they want, you are willful and oppressive. You are a bigot and a hater.

Those views are now fundamental to the legal and public moral order. They are taught in the schools, presented by reputable public figures, and guide respectable statecraft. That is why in much of the West you can now be fined or put in jail for saying there are problems with homosexuality or Islam.

And they are views that we ourselves are often tempted by, at least to a degree. It is very hard to avoid falling into the basic assumptions on which the people around us carry on discussions. The most basic of those assumptions is their understanding of reason, and liberalism is required by reason as now understood. That is why even people who officially do not believe in the basic principles of liberalism—would-be followers of religious tradition for example—most often largely accept them in practice.

That is also why Catholic traditionalists are so suspicious of “dialogue.” It is not that it is bad to discuss things with people, Jesus and Paul and Thomas Aquinas did it all the time. It is that the rules of discussion—the accepted understandings of what is reasonable—are stacked against us. They make it conceptually impossible for our points to be understood. Public discussion must be based on principles acceptable to all parties, but the only principles liberals will accept for purposes of debating their opponents are stripped-down scientistic principles that when taken as the basis of discussion automatically give back liberalism.

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.

1 Online Etymology Dictionary, http://www.etymonline.com.

2 A phrase due to Dino Marcantonio.

3 Other forms of political modernity, like communism and fascism, have turned out not to work and have mostly been abandoned. They are now seen as inferior or incomplete, and therefore less rational, representations of modernity.