Mac Donald’s conceit that the good can be known and lived through empirical reason alone

Heather Mac Donald handles issues related to the existence of God and the possibility of ethics with approximately the intellectual sophistication with which I declared to my parents at age 13 that I was an atheist—though, to speak frankly, I was not as dogmatic and closed to argument at that age as she is in middle age. I am therefore glad to see that her ignorant scientism and village atheism are drawing responses from conservatives that go beyond the indulgent avuncularism of Michael Novak. Below is an excerpt from Edward Feser’s open letter to Mac Donald at What’s Wrong with the World, which a reader sent, followed by my comment. Disclosure: Feser’s 2,200 word article, which is all about metaphysics, is too densely argued, too wordy, too tendentious, and too abstract for my poor brain. However, the brief section quoted here is understandable:

I have said several times now that part of the problem with your position is that you assume—falsely, and certainly without any argument whatsoever—that the methods applied by the empirical sciences are the only rational methods of inquiry that there are. Yet you have failed to answer this criticism, or even, as I far as I can tell, to acknowledge it. Worse, you seem completely unaware that the assumption you are making is in fact a highly controversial one, and not just among religiously-minded thinkers. A great many secular thinkers would reject it. I gave the example of mathematics, the rationality of which no one denies, but which very few philosophers, mathematicians, or philosophically-inclined empirical scientists—including atheistic philosophers, mathematicians, and empirical scientists—would take to be an empirical form of inquiry….

Hence when I denied that religion was “unscientific,” I did not mean that there were double-blind experiments or the like which could validate claims about magic pills, etc. I meant instead that there are serious rational arguments of a specifically metaphysical nature which show that the existence of God is a necessary condition of the intelligibility of science itself. [LA notes: I believe Alan Roebuck has made similar arguments at VFR.] You might disagree with this claim, but surely you can see that it is a serious claim which has to be met with a serious reply, a reply informed by knowledge of the relevant disciplines: philosophy, especially metaphysics and philosophy of religion; philosophy of science; theology; and, I would add, the history of ideas. It will not do simply to mock a few hapless unsophisticated religious believers, toss in a simplistic version of the atheistic argument from evil, and then pretend that one has more or less demonstrated that religion per se is an irrational enterprise. And as someone who has long admired your work on public policy, I know that you are capable of better than this….

If you have no desire to read my own book, fine—I could certainly understand why not, given the testiness of our exchange, on my side as well as yours. But please, please do your homework before making claims of the sort you have been making. And stop pretending that in the dispute between secularists and religious believers, only the former can plausibly claim to have reason and science on their side. It is not true, and it neither rational, nor scientific, nor conservative to pretend that it is true.

My one quibble with this is that Feser makes it seem as though a person needs to be an accomplished academic—and in several fields, yet—in order to grasp these issues. Unfortunately, something like that does seem to be the case when it comes to an article like Feser’s, which, if it were typical, would have the effect of discouraging the average intelligent reader from participating in this essential discussion. The good news is that to understand and reject destructive ignorance such as Mac Donald’s, metaphysical argument and the ability to follow it are not necessary, but common sense, reasonably good intelligence, and a basic familiarity with the Western tradition. The last of which, by the way, Mac Donald does not have, as she has repeatedly demonstrated in her writings attacking God, religion, and ordinary religious believers. Her intellectual roots appear to be the post-modernism on which she was raised at Yale, and, it appears, beyond which she has never gone, except to adopt scientism, which is barely any better than postmodernism, since both reject the objectivity of moral truth.

Mac Donald has found a formula—the God that people believe in is an unjust and cruel fantasy, and empirical reason is all that human beings need to achieve the good—which seems to satisfy some need in her, and she keeps repeating it, refusing to notice the arguments that have been employed against it by her various interlocutors, ranging from myself four years ago to Michael Novak a year and a half later to an expanding group of critics today including Edward Feser, though, again, if Mac Donald hasn’t replied to Feser’s arguments I can’t say I blame her.

Among the arguments that are comprehensible to the average intelligent reader and that she seems to ignore or never to have encountered are those of the seminal conservative work, Edmund Burke’s Reflections the Revolution of France, a devastating critique of a mentality very similar Mac Donald’s. Like the French revolutionaries, Mac Donald imagines that scientific reason by itself, without any reference to religion and the accumulated experience of generations, is enough to tell people how to live a stable life and organize a viable society. Thus, to take an issue she especially cares about, she thinks that empirical reason is sufficient both to persuade people that marital stability and the avoidance of illegitimacy are necessary for a good life, and to make them personally put these findings into practice in their own lives. Therefore they don’t need the moral teachings of a religion or the inherited ethical customs of a society that transmit those teachings from the past via the network of family and church and a thousand unspoken social habits—that inheritance which, as Burke beautifully put it, makes it unnecessary for each generation to attempt with their unaided reason to build from scratch the totality of human society. In reality, the knowledge of the importance of marriage was developed over centuries and millennia in societies that were not based on scientific empiricism. The irony to which Mac Donald seems utterly blind is that she herself only has that belief in the goodness and indispensability of marriage because of the demonstrated goodness and indispensability of that institution over the course of history, that institution that would not have existed, and thus could not have provided the empirical basis for believing in its goodness, without the very religion and the religiously based customs and understandings that she says are unnecessary.

Thus, just as Mac Donald the atheist denies the God who at every instant is upholding her and the entire universe of which she is a part, Mac Donald the dogmatic empiricist denies the sources of understanding and ethics that created the civilization that produced her—along with her supposed empirical knowledge of the things that people need to know in order to live a good life.

I’ve previously pointed out various ways in which Mac Donald, the self-described conservative, is a liberal, and here is another. Like the typical liberal, she feeds off the capital of a tradition that she herself resents and openly seeks to destroy.

—end of initial entry—

Gintas writes:

I suspect that Mac Donald has a personal agitation with religion. Several folks have commented that she writes well for the conservative cause, but when it comes to religion, she becomes the village atheist.

Here is a comment on one of the threads at WWWtW, and my response:

Regarding Heather MacDonald, that she disagrees with you is one thing. It is hard though to understand why the question agitates her so.

My answer:

That Heather Mac Donald is agitated there is no doubt in my mind. Look, for example, in this symposium at The American Conservative entitled “What is Left? What is Right?”

If you browse through there you find many views, but Heather Mac Donald’s answer is stark in how it does not address the symposium topic.

If you look for Mac Donald’s comments, look at the start and a few others first, to see how out of place she is. This was 2006.

LA replies:

Funny you should say that. Here is a sentence that I wrote for this blog entry but took out before posting:

Mac Donald is bright and competent when writing in the area of her professional expertise, which is public policy. But when it comes to this issue of religious belief that has gotten permanently under her bonnet, it is clear that, far from pursuing pure reason, she is acting on the basis of pure emotion.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 07, 2008 06:35 PM | Send

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