Post-Enlightenment thinking and Michelle Bachmann

by Rob Tiller

Is there any question that science, logic, and reason are excellent tools for problem solving? OK, these systems aren’t perfect, and they don’t apply to every problem. But can any thoughtful person fail to recognize their power to transform civilization and improve lives?

The answer is yes. Some people rely primarily on myth and magic as thought systems. But I normally think of these people as a not-very-significant minority. It may be, though, that that minority is getting more significant.

A column in the NY Times today by Neal Gabler posits that we live in a post-Enlightenment society that has gone backward intellectually to a method that does not employ rational thought. Gabler takes this as settled, and argues that it’s even worse: that we are moving into a post-idea world, where thinking is simply no longer done. Instead, we exchange undigested facts. As evidence, he cites social media such as Twitter and Facebook.

I’m not persuaded that social media is killing ideas, or even that the post-Enlightenment has arrived. But anti-rationalism is alive and well. Exhibit A: Michelle Bachmann. Yesterday Bachmann won the Iowa straw poll. In this week’s New Yorker, Ryan Lizza discusses the ideas that shaped her thinking.

Bachmann comes out of a tradition that believes the Bible is the literal, infallible, and unerring word of God. She claims to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and believes that he controls her life. She’s also been influenced by various fundamentalist thinkers who have some disturbing notions, including a revisionist view of slavery that holds that it was not all that bad.

It strikes me as implausible that Bachmann could be a serious contender for the presidency, but her style of thinking is having an impact on public policy. It’s hard to understand how the Tea Partiers could refuse to discuss the issue of tax rates, and be prepared to insist on this point at the cost of economic catastrophe. But if you believe that your ideas are coming directly from God, how could you question them? Why would you care to listen to opposing views? Why would you consider compromise? Thus usually harmless nonsensical beliefs become dangerous.