What it means to be a Freethinker

After a period in the sun, during the heyday of the Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins (among others) New Atheist uprising, terms like freethinker, sceptic and the more specific atheist seem to have lost their popular allure. This is understandable among their obvious targets, the religious and superstitious, among whom they were unlikely to find a fan-base in the first place but, peculiarly, those to whom such terms (either in actuality or in potentia) could be applied have often sought to distance themselves from being associated with them.

In the early days of this website I spent many happy pages dismantling the superficially simpering but ultimately sinister certainties of the religious, yet over the years I have had to turn my spotlight increasingly to the ideological myths and superstitions of academia and journalism. These fields have become increasingly tainted by a commitment to narrative over truth, to a priori framing, rather than reasoned conclusions subject to revision on the basis of new evidence – i.e. the central scientific criticism of religion.

One of the early hurdles we began to encounter among the erstwhile freethinkers of academia and journalism was that an over-reliance on the scientific method and a willingness to dismiss ill-evidenced claims out of hand is somehow “arrogant”, an accusation, ironically, usually thrown around by people of staggering arrogance themselves. Of course, with the self-regulating structures of peer review and scrutiny you are, as Sam Harris puts it, as likely to find arrogance at a scientific conference as you are nudity.

But this early backlash was a precursor to the later more dangerous manifestations of the so-called “post-truth” world. Much of it stemmed from a kind of meek desire not to offend, or to take the side of those who might be offended (often in advance) to show off your own gleaming halo of tolerance. I refer, of course, to the now all too familiar phenomena of political correctness and virtue signalling. Initially this dead-end conversation came up most often as a result of strident criticisms of Islam (despite its currently significantly lower carnage-toll, Christianity and Judaism are rarely handled with such kid-gloves), but as time went on the intellectual compromises expanded and evidence was replaced with more valued parameters: identity, culture and privilege.

When asked what message he would choose to convey to future generations, the philosopher and mathematician, Bertrand Russell, offered the following intellectual advice:

“When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only: what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. But look only, and solely, at what are the facts”

The danger here is that objective reality matters less than “my truth” or “our narrative”.

Unfortunately, the emotional trap Russell describes is precisely what many in our thinking communities are falling into. Now we are told, often by academics, that our definition of facts is too narrow, or that facts aren’t the only thing worth considering, that facts are mere social constructs influenced by our culture, that facts are dictated by a privileged few or even that facts don’t exist in any true sense (all of these are just different rhetorical variations of the same nonsensical conceit).

It is from this culturally contingent view of reality that we get the progressive stack; the ranking (and often segregation in the case of university campuses) of societal groups by relative privilege. The danger here is that objective reality matters less than “my truth” or “our narrative”. People start sentences about factual claims with irrelevant statements like “as an Asian trans woman” or whatever list of categories they can apply.

Take for example the case for decolonisation of university education, a hot topic here in South Africa. Applied to literature, history and other humanities I couldn’t agree more, I would have been delighted to have studied more African writers at school – these are, after all, cultural not scientific subjects. But culture warriors seek to overturn this distinction and we are left with demands to decolonise science, as many have seen in the now-viral video from the University of Cape Town suggesting that, as science is a “product of Western modernity” (an untrue statement in itself) that it must be “scratched off” and started from the beginning. We are now supposed to apply radical deconstructionism to facts because they were discovered by a culture or society as every discovery in human history has been. Why bother to discover anything then? After all, facts are mere reflections of cultural biases are they not?

This is the horror of identity politics when applied to intellectual life. It is the opposite of free thinking. It recapitulates the superstition and anti-critical thinking biases of religion and bestows on them lofty academic justifications with social penalties for detractors. It is thinking constrained by an obsession with culture and segregated into categories. This environment is inherently hostile to meaningful discussion about grander universal matters. How can it not be, if it is so repeatedly insisted that our entire intellect and understanding of the world is boxed into a solipsistic cultural identity, the horizon of which we will never see beyond.

Featured Image Credit: Newton by William Blake (1979-1805) Source