You know it is a strange day when I find myself in agreement with one of the editors at The National Review. Well, it is strange if you’re me or know me personally, though this agreement is not so substantial. I just like that he made the following comment on Sam Brownback’s editorial in the New York Times: “Here is Sam Brownback talking about evolutionary biology. That’s a bit like saying: ‘Here’s Paris Hilton talking about partial differential equations.’ ” Nice. While Derbyshire is disinclined to respond in detail to Brownback’s “theory” of evolution (though he does, quite well), it is worth a comment. Here it goes…
I appreciate that Brownback made a statement. Partly for the sheer comedy of it, what, this senator with no scientific or philosophical training making a huge claim about the order of things? Actually, that’s mostly why I appreciate the statement. But his remarks say two things that are important to think about. One internal to the G-d/evolution “debate,” the other about a larger question of the politics and culture of knowledge and knowledge claims.
Internal to the debate. Brownback sadly just rehashes the most bland part of a Catholic Church foundation and other intellectual strands of Protestantism, namely, the fidelity of faith and reason. For Brownback, this is simply something he “wholeheartedly believes.” It is not something for which he gives either an argument or a sophisticated summary, but rather simply a statement. Alas. I’m not thinking he’s the brightest.
The big appeal, without a shred of evidence, even if we conceive evidence in the widest sense, is to the guiding hand of intelligence. Brownback is on to something here, so it is too bad he didn’t develop it. Had he developed it, he would have found himself – for better or worse – in the middle ages. The best version of this “guiding hand of intelligence” is Thomas Aquinas‘ or even, without the whole G-d name thing, Aristotle. Both Thomas and Aristotle give compelling, rigorous accounts of how the universe is structured by a purposeful law. And this is something with which the evolution people would likely agree. I mean, after all, the various versions of mutation, adaptation, and the like comprise a larger sense of an intelligible structure in the universe.
The problem is really whether or not we call this “guiding hand,” as Brownback has put it, by the proper name “G-d.” That is a major leap. It is a major leap because it is the key missing premise in the argument. It is also a major leap because the name “G-d” says so much about this intelligent guiding structure without such “saying so much” having warrant in the evidence under discussion. Put another way, it is one thing to say that reason discovers an intelligible pattern in the universe (easy enough). It is another to say that such intelligible pattern is what we call G-d, that this G-d has opinions on things as wide-ranging as abortion, a baseball game, an Academy Award recipient, and your plans for hooking up with that cutie at a club, and that the G-d has a thing like a hand at all (not easy at all). In other words, this missing premise means everything.
But that all assumes that Brownback is actually engaged in a wider, deeper reflection on the order of things. He’s not, of course, and he’s really just trying to run for president and not seem like a total nutjob. Good luck.
The larger question about knowledge. If Brownback is simply trying to run for president and not seem crazy (again, good luck), then we can ask how it is possible for this random person to speak publicly and authoritatively about such a complex issue. Seriously. Why would The New York Times take Brownback so seriously that editorial page space is allocated to his “theories”? This says a lot about the political and cultural relation to knowledge we’ve come to have in the U.S. Our relation to knowledge is structured by the crossing of ideology and the spectacle, so I again come back to Debord and Althusser.
Brownback is able to “contribute” to our discourse about ultimate knowledge – that is, knowledge of ultimate things – precisely because he can appeal (implicitly) to an ideology of freedom and democracy. On the one hand, freedom and democracy describe legal and governmental structures alone, so I’m obviously not talking about that sense. On the other hand, there is “freedom and democracy” as ideological forms, which actually renders legality and governmentality just variants of ideology. Ideological forms structure how we live and breathe, not just how we govern ourselves in representational systems. Intellectual expertise therefore becomes something we’ve thrown on the same trash heap as the “expertise” of divinely appointed kings and the like. We know the sentiments. You have no right to tell me what I should think! That’s a huge thing to throw away, though, this intellectual expertise. It leads to moments like this one: Sam Brownback, freakin’ Sam Brownback, asked to editorialize about the meaning of faith and reason!
When expertise gives way to ideology, when we’re all experts on all things, we’re back into the spectacle as the arbiter of knowing. Who knows best? Who is right? Measure this one in the spectacle. That is, if Debord is right that we live ourselves, our world, and one another as an assemblage of images, then s/he who produces the most pleasing arrangement of images wins. Thus, we shouldn’t be surprised when we read Brownback’s own biography and learn, not that he is demonstrably right or that his ideas make sense, but that others “find him sincere.” Spectacular confirmation of your goodness, Sam. The affect with which others respond to your veneer? Sincerity, baby! This is the worst moment of post-modernity: having killed the king of metanarrative, the king of kings, there is thereafter only a horizontal proliferation of discourses. We’re all equal participants. Uh, ok.
I don’t miss the king as ruler, but I’m really starting to miss expertise. Some people know more than others. It is true. No shame in that, we can’t all know everything. When I read this Times editorial by ol’ Sam, I really thought he was Brownbacking G-d. Is “Brownbacking” a sex-term yet? (I’m behind on reading Dan Savage’s stuff, so clue me in; I figure he’s the one, what, after the whole Rick Santorum thing and all.) Brownbacking ought to be a term by now, because ol’ Sam is screwing G-d hugely on this one. If you believe in G-d and believe that G-d has a plan, place, and presence in our world, shouldn’t you do your research first? Shouldn’t you have an actually thought out position on G-d and evolution, rather than some historically and intellectually deaf soundbites?
In the age of the mega-church, which is of course the spectacle come to fire-and-brimstone, perhaps I’m missing the point. It’s enough to make me accept the Divine Right of Kings again, actually, if only to hail the return of The Expert. Or at least someone who cares to know what they’re talking about. Call me old-fashioned.