The Cybernetics of LiberalismPETER KREEFT
I have come up with a cybernetic hypothesis about liberalism: It’s a brain disorder, a confusion between right and left hemispheres.
Cybernetics (basically, the science of the brain qua computer) explains much more than we realized. They used to think schizophrenia was due to demons. Then it was bad parenting. Now some think it may be bad brain wiring. They used to think déjà vu (“Hey! I’ve been here before!”) was evidence of reincarnation. Now we know it’s a cybernetic mixup that misfiles new perceptions into the brain’s old memory banks.
Some are now claiming that homosexuality is cybernetic predestination. The jury is still out on that one, but I have come up with a cybernetic hypothesis about liberalism: It’s a brain disorder, a confusion between right and left hemispheres. I have no hard data to prove this, but I think I see some strong clues, a recurring pattern in the symptoms that suggests such a diagnosis. Here are some of those clues.
You might be a liberal if ...
Ever since I began teaching philosophy to college students in 1962, I have been puzzled by the fact that some of them actually find Heidegger easier to understand than Aquinas, Kant than Aristotle, Dewey than James, Hegel than Plato. These students do fairly well when tested on the muddy, fuzzy ideological thinkers, but they get a mental block when they try to understand the clear, commonsensical ones. Clearly they cannot fathom clarity, and certainly not certainty. They simply cannot believe that a philosopher can be clear and certain about anything important.
Just last week I read a batch of short critical student book reviews of my nonscholarly little book, Angels and Demons. I expected many diverse criticisms and arguments, but the only one I got, over and over, was a critique of my use of definitions and arguments as such. It was not only skepticism about the applicability of logical thinking to the topic of angels; it was a skepticism (or even more, a loathing and fear) of logical thinking as applied to anything real, especially in theology. They were simply dumbfounded that any sane person could think he could prove anything in theology. Not surprisingly, the most popular majors among such students are communications, sociology, English, and (heaven help us) theology. Never the natural sciences.
A second puzzling phenomenon I find in my students is what C. S. Lewis calls “chronological snobbery:” the view that an idea need not be refuted, just sneered at as unfashionable; that “we are the people, and wisdom will die with us;” that history presents us with a simple “good guys vs. bad guys” scenario — not intellectually (the wise vs. the foolish) or morally (saints vs. sinners), but chronologically (the “tradition-bound,” the “primitive,” the “closed,” or the “stagnant” vs. the “enlightened,” the “nuanced,” the “open,” or the “dynamic”). They call this “the historical point of view;” I call it dissolving the rock of truth into the sands of time. Truth for them is a process, a river with no origin and no end, that never reaches the sea but always gets wider and truer as it flows on and on.
The popularity of this historical relativism has always puzzled my simplistic mind because it is obviously self-contradictory. If progressivism is true and traditionalism false, then there must be a real true and false; but that is precisely what traditionalism claims and progressivism denies. It is only a slightly more sophisticated version of the silly old skepticism that says, “It is true that there is no truth.”
But the most puzzling phenomenon of all was my discovery of the coexistence of these opposite errors in the same minds. And this was almost always the case. “Liberals” almost always embrace both “gray logic” (error #1) and “black-and-white history” (error #2). I could understand, though I could not approve, an antipathy to all black or white thinking, or an antipathy to all gradual, contextual thinking; but liberalism seemed to marry these opposite errors. It imposed the simplicity of logic on the complexity of history, and it also imposed the complexity of history onto the simplicity of logic.
Then the sun suddenly rose in my mind.
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It is common knowledge that the brain has two hemispheres. The right one is the instrument for intuitive, contextual, and gradualist thinking; the left one, for analytical, logical, black-and-white thinking. The right is an analog computer with “both/and” logic, and the left is a digital computer with “either/or” logic. The right hemisphere performs what medieval logicians called “the first act of the mind:” understanding the meaning of a concept (like “just” or “Mommy’s nasty attitude”); and the left hemisphere performs “the second act of the mind,” comparing one concept with a second to form a proposition (e.g. “Mommy’s nasty attitude is not just”). It also performs “the third act of the mind,” arguing from the truth of some propositions as premises to the truth of others as conclusions (e.g., “What is not just need not be respected; Mommy’s nasty attitude is not just; therefore it need not be respected”).
Whether we are adults or children, philosophers or rock stars, we can all do both kinds of thinking. We all know that some things are zero-sum, black-or-white, absolute. Either there is a God or there is not; either some abortion is morally licit for some people or no abortion is. Two propositions that contradict each other cannot both be true; if one is true, the other must be false. We also know that some things are not quantitative but qualitative; not zero-sum but fractional or gradual; not black or white but gray. For example, in the proposition “God is good,” what does “God” mean? Trinitarianism, Unitarianism, generic theism, agnosticism, pantheism, polytheism, deism, apophatic mysticism? And what does “good” mean? Morally good, ontologically good, psychologically good, practically good, economically good? And just how good must a thing be in order to be “good?” There is an almost endless range of possible meanings to “good.” But once two concepts are defined in a single (“univocal”) way, a proposition that connects them has only two possibilities: true or false; and an argument using such propositions has only two possibilities: logically valid or logically invalid, consistent or inconsistent.
What does this logic lesson have to do with liberalism? My hypothesis is that Liberalism combines errors because, like déjà vu, it misfiles things. It confuses hemispheres. It rejects “either/or thinking” where “either/or thinking” is necessary — in judging propositions and arguments; and it accepts “either/or thinking” where “either/or thinking” is inappropriate — in judging concepts by their place in history rather than by their intrinsic wisdom. It is judgmental about history but not about ideas. It treats history as a matter of “good guys vs. bad guys,” i.e., progressivists vs. traditionalists; but it will not treat any doctrines as clearly and simply true or false. It refuses to be simplistic about truth vs. falsehood or good vs. evil, but it is simplistic about past vs. present.
It's the sex, stupid!
Once I noticed the strange pattern of this brain disorder, I looked for its cause, moving from the symptoms to the diagnosis. I thought I might find some clues to lead me to the culprit if I first found some other similar symptoms. So I Iooked for other pairs of opposite liberal errors, other cybernetic misfilings. And in doing so I think I discovered the cause of the misfiling. I asked myself why liberals are more concerned for the rights of criminals than of victims, more protective of the guilty than of the innocent; why they justify the killing of innocent unborn babies but not convicted adult murderers. And I thought it was the same reason they give Clinton such a high approval rating: they instinctively sympathize with those who resemble themselves, i.e., those who are willing to murder, but not with those who are the most unlike themselves, i.e., the innocent. But that only deepens the mystery. What leads to this misfiling?
Let’s look at the heart of the darkness and frankly ask the question: How can any morally sane human being justify abortion? If that’s not wrong, nothing is wrong. The answer seems clear: The motive for abortion is backup birth control. Why else does anyone want an abortion? What is the motive for birth control? That is equally clear: to have sex without having babies. If storks brought babies, nobody would sell condoms. Or abortions. So what is the drug or the addiction that has scrambled their brains? It’s not the economy, stupid; it’s the sex.
I then looked at another clue in another area: theology. I asked: Why do liberals think of God in such a human way and of humanity in such a Godlike way? They say God is in process and development and has feelings and needs, but they say we humans should “realize our own inner divinity.” Why do they resent the gap between God and Man? Why do they damn the distinction and trash the transcendence? The immediate answer is fairly obvious and fairly traditional. Ever since Lucifer’s rebellion, I think they resent being No. 2 and hate the “authoritarianism” of No. 1. But why? Is it Luciferian pride? Elitism and the demand for excellence? Hardly. The limp souls of modern men are almost incapable of the sin of pride. (That’s why they talk incessantly about “self-esteem.”) When they say they demand “autonomy,” they are not in the grip of some grand ambition; they just want to be left alone to do their own “thing.” What thing? What don’t they want God to wag His finger at? Which commandment rankles? You cannot be in any doubt about the answer unless you are from Mars or Saudi Arabia, or have never watched American soap operas. And it’s not the economy, stupid. They don’t make soap operas about economics.
Here is another clue: It concerns the liberals’ philosophy of man. (Oops! Mea culpa! I forgot the new Puritanism and sinned the great sin, the obscenity of “sexism!”) Why is the liberal image of man simultaneously angelistic and animalistic?
It is angelistic, or Gnostic, in ignoring the body. When it is religious, it talks about “spirituality” instead of sanctity. When it is moralistic, it is purely subjective, focusing on feelings and attitudes such as “compassion” and “sincerity.” When it is artistic, it has a pathological fear of material beauty and a deliberate cultivation of ugliness, even among its liturgists. When it is ecclesiastical, it despises a visible Church and a visible Magisterium. When it is theological, it downplays a bodily resurrection, literal miracles, and transubstantiation.
On the other hand, it is animalistic in cherishing Evolution as a dogma, because if we are only clever apes, we can only be expected to act like clever apes (“safe sex” apes). Liberals expect us to curb our apelike behavior with regard to war, violence, abuse, and theft. They even demand we stop smoking! But when it comes to sex, restraint is literally unthinkable. A liberal is someone who will distribute condoms, but not cigarettes. A liberal is one who demands clean air so he can sing dirty words. A liberal is one who demands the “free enterprise” system for sex, but not for money.
Here is another clue. Traditional Christian wisdom declares that man is of incalculable value ontologically, because he is made in God’s image and destined for the divine marriage, but at the same time of great blame morally because he is an incorrigible sinner. Liberals simply reverse this. Why? Why do liberals think man is so good morally but not so good ontologically? Because the traditional view that man is a sin-defaced masterpiece instead of an innocent ape makes sin doubly awful and repentance doubly necessary. And which sin has emptied the confessional booths today?
Another contradiction: Why do liberals, who say morality is all subjective and a matter of invisible, inner attitudes and feelings and intentions, then go on to identify morality with social action, i.e., political, external, visible “peace and justice” programs? Because both are diversions from the concept of sexual sin. It’s easy to have loving intentions during acts of lovemaking, no matter who it is. And it’s easy for even the most sexually depraved to work for peace and justice and feel self-righteous doing it. It doesn’t threaten their lifestyle. (By the way, who covered the naked emperor with that euphemism? Why don’t they call the Inquisition or the Crusades a lifestyle?)
We always knew heresies came in opposite pairs, but they used to come one at a time. Calvinists denied free will and Arminians denied Predestination. Arians denied Christ’s divinity and Docetists denied His humanity. Now the pairs are joined, like Siamese twins. And they’re not joined at the head, but at the crotch. For the wacky cybernetics of liberalism is caused by hormones, not neurons. It makes no logical sense to join opposite heads — contradictory ideas. Don’t liberals see the contradiction in being an elite who criticizes elitism, judges “judgmentalism,” and says there are absolutely no absolutes, it’s true there is no truth, and you ought not to say “ought?”
But once you stand upside-down, with your eyes in the dust and your feet kicking against the heavens, the crotch becomes the head of the head, and it uses the two opposite heads, the two opposite ideas, to justify its sovereignty. The illogical becomes logical when you stand upside down.
My skeptical self wondered whether this analysis was not just too simplistic and obsessed by sex. But then I argued with my skeptical self this way: Just look at the data! Every single one of the liberal heresies justifies sexual libertinism. Even scholarly issues like the dating of the four Gospels has a sexual payoff, as you will find if you talk long enough with liberal theologians. If the Gospels are not eyewitness accounts of Christ’s actual words, but the “consensus” of the “early Christian community,” then they are negotiable; the rod of their divine authority is broken. Authority over what? What rankles the liberal? Almost every major issue dividing the Church today between the orthodox and the liberals is about sexual morality: abortion, contraception, homosexuality, divorce, feminism, “inclusive language,” priestesses. The liberal drive is always to break some link in the iron chain that binds our sexual activity to our God.
Albert Camus says that future historians will summarize modern man in two statements: “He fornicated and read newspapers.” And this is perfectly incarnated by Slick Willie, the icon of our age. The more of a sinner he turns out to be, the higher his approval rating soars. At least the issue is becoming clearer. The culture war can be summarized by comparing two opposite icons: Madonna and the Madonna. (Notice how crucial a word “the” is: It is the difference between a slut and a saint.)
Kreeft, Peter. “The Cybernetics of Liberalism.” Crisis 17, no. 6 (June 1999).
Reprinted by permission of the Morley Institute a non-profit education organization. To subscribe to Crisis magazine call 1-800-852-9962.
Peter Kreeft teaches at Boston College in Boston Massachusetts. He is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.
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