Darwinian Anti-Intellectualism and Lehi’s Dream

September 24, 2012    By: Jeff G @ 3:37 pm   Category: Life,Scriptures,Theology,Truth

One of the salient contrasts in Lehi’s dream is that between those who cling to the iron rod and those who enter the great and spacious building. On the one hand, the former grope about in a blinding fog, doing their best to find their way along a path which they cannot see. The latter, on the other hand, are (somehow) able to see this path from their vantage point up in the building, but are thus unable to follow it. The question I wish to raise is this: which is more rational, to do without understanding or to understand without doing? Indeed, one can interpret the river which separates the rod from the building as the distance which is required for any kind of “objective” analysis. Obviously, Lehi thinks it better to follow the path rather than survey it from a distance.

I would also suggest that Darwin – or Darwinian thinking at least – agrees with Lehi on this point. His “dangerous idea” was that the living things of this world – humans not excluded – consist of vast amounts of design without planning, intelligence without articulation and rationality without understanding. Ants, birds and dogs are all able to cope with their complex environments in ways which are nothing short of brilliant, and yet they know nothing of their own brilliance. Hopefully it’s not too irreverent to suggest that each of these creatures is blindly following their own version of an iron rod.

Let’s go one step further by applying Darwin’s dangerous idea to itself. I would suggest that when people place their trust in stories, customs and traditions which lead them to behave in rational ways that they do not themselves understand, they are in fact being very Darwinian. Of course, these same people have no idea how Darwinian their behavior really is – but this too is exactly what Darwin would expect. Here we have vast numbers of people which act in a way which is very rational without having any appreciation of that fact or the rational principles that underpin it.

By contrast, I would also suggest that most of those who do understand Darwinism do not behave in a very Darwinian manner. They do not trust processes and traditions which they do not understand, thereby rejecting the application of Darwin’s idea to themselves and their environment. Contra Darwin, they act as if unarticulated intelligence is not intelligent at all and that there is no such thing as rationality without understanding. Thus, in some sense, many of those who do not believe in Darwinism are more Darwinian than those who do.

This brings to mind the old warning against “paralysis by analysis” which roughly means that the very act of analyzing some behaviors serves as a stumbling block to successfully engaging in those behaviors. The flip side of this coin might be “competence through ignorance”, “felicity through simplicity” or “fluidity through stupidity.” These two sides, I submit, correspond to the two sides of the river in Lehi’s dream. In other words, I interpret Lehi’s dream as illustrating how an unanalyzed faith is, pragmatically speaking, a better faith.

The most obvious objection to this Darwinian anti-intellectualism is that it shouldn’t be applied across the board. Yes, some types of behavior cannot be analyzed without thereby distancing ourselves from them and it is possible that it would be better for us if we didn’t look too closely at some of our traditions, but we have no reason to assume that this holds for all or even most behaviors and traditions. Some types of behavior are actually refined by analysis. It is thus up to the anti-intellectualist to articulate which stories, customs and traditions – if any – his analysis holds true for.

The reply to this objection is yet one more application of Darwin’s idea: the anti-intellectualist need not articulate or understand that a tradition is incompatible with analysis in order to intelligently and rationally protect it from analysis. In other words, the anti-intellectualist need not know or understand that a tradition is incompatible with analysis in order to rationally protect it from such.  If a tradition is truly incompatible with an intellectual analysis of it, then the rational thing to do is not analyze it, full stop.

9 Comments »

  1. Nice outside the box reflections, Jeff. I like the contrast between those feeling their way along the path (who are actually getting somewhere) and the observers in the building (who are going nowhere).

    But I would add that not all “stories, customs and traditions” in fact exhibit what you call Darwinian “rationality without understanding.” Some cultural stories, customs, and traditions may have once rational but are no longer so. Others may have been rational or functional only from the perspective of one group or class within society (to the benefit of that class and the detriment of other classes). So un-analytical surrender to the entire corpus of stories, customs and traditions is too much, I think.

    Comment by Dave — September 25, 2012 @ 3:31 am

  2. Well, I’m not exactly arguing that the traditions are themselves rational or rational “for someone else”. I’m saying that it’s rational for a person to believe them, which has nothing to do with what effect they might have on other classes, etc.

    You are right, however, that an unbridled panglossianism would be unfortunate. However, the whole point of the post is that no reader has to actually understand that point in order to actually put it into practice. :)

    Comment by Jeff G — September 25, 2012 @ 8:23 am

  3. Somewhat tangential… Interestingly enough, Lehi gets lost following the angel and prays and finds the tree. Nephi, Sariah, and Sam find the tree when they hear Lehi calling to them. It’s Laman and Lemuel and the great numbers of people that make their way along (or turn away from) the rod. Don’t know how to fit this into your topic…

    Comment by kaphor — September 26, 2012 @ 11:21 pm

  4. Very interesting analysis Jeff.

    I would suggest that when people place their trust in stories, customs and traditions which lead them to behave in rational ways that they do not themselves understand, they are in fact being very Darwinian.

    It is amazing the degree to which the world depends on this to continue functioning. It seems that the very first thing that happens when we study things is that we start giving out terrible advice based on those studies. Medicine, nutrition, social sciences, philosophy, etc. all have great examples of overturning customs and tradition with science-based/rational replacements only to discover much later that the customs and traditions were better than the “improvement.”

    As a person who believes strongly in science and reason I don’t mean that as a defense of anti-intellectualism. Given enough time, science tends to figure out its mistakes and make real and undeniable improvements to customs and traditions (e.g. the field of medicine). However, all science is often treated as SCIENCE even though they are in varing stages of development. I will go on the record as predicting that 50 years from now when we look back at our understanding of nutrition in 2012 it will seem primitive and laughable. At the risk of controversy I would suggest that our understanding of climate is similarly primitive. There is just so much we have no idea about. So I am much more leery of suggestions coming from those fields than some others which are farther along.

    Sometimes the reason we are forced to stick to custom and tradition is precisely because we don’t know why they are good. Which makes for very unproductive discussions.

    Comment by Jacob J — September 27, 2012 @ 6:09 pm

  5. Thanks Jacob,

    I figured there’d be something in this post for pretty much everybody to disagree with, qualify and/or clarify. Complete silence was not what I expected.

    “However, all science is often treated as SCIENCE even though they are in varing stages of development.”

    This is exactly the attitude I’m trying to attack. The strong scientistic position would agree that some theories need further confirmation, BUT any option other than going with what science has shown must be a reversion to superstition and bigotry. My response is yes, it is a reversion to superstition and bigotry… But that’s not so bad a thing.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 28, 2012 @ 12:39 pm

  6. Well, I don’t see the attack yet, so help me out. I recognize your point that the only alternative to science is custom and tradition (less perjorative than superstition and bigotry). I am not disagreeing with that, rather, I am suggesting that it makes more sense to trust tradition over science in some areas than in others. Not sure where we disagree yet, but as you know I love to disagree so I will cross my fingers.

    Comment by Jacob J — September 29, 2012 @ 7:26 pm

  7. Well, it just seems that any argument *for* anti-intellectualism will probably be met with resistance since argumentation presupposes a certain amount of intellectualism. In other words, to argue that arguments can rationally be ignored is an unusual strategy.

    Here’s where I think I disagree with you: I don’t think that whether we pay attention to science or superstition (which is exactly what I see myself defending) depends primarily on how well confirmed the science is. This is to let science be the ref and score keeper of its own fight.

    I submit that it is sometimes rational to disregard even well confirmed science. This stands in contrast to those who think that, ultimately, there is no choice to make between science and religion (custom/tradition) since they are actually one and the same. I prefer a kind of reconciliation without identification, but that will have to be another post.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 30, 2012 @ 11:10 am

  8. I don’t think that whether we pay attention to science or superstition (which is exactly what I see myself defending) depends primarily on how well confirmed the science is.

    What *do* you think it depends on primarily?

    Comment by Jacob J — September 30, 2012 @ 8:49 pm

  9. My point is largely a negative one in these posts. I think there are lots of sources of rationality in the world and my intention is to block the idea that science/philosophy has any kind of privileged status over the others.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 30, 2012 @ 11:37 pm

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