BY JONATHAN DOLHENTY, PH.D.
(This interview with Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was conducted by journalist Don Ross. There is a diagram of the Six Pillars of Intellectual Insanity which are discussed in this interview located here.)
Mr. Ross: Dr. Dolhenty, you have spoken and written about what you’ve called the “intellectual insanity” so prevalent in our society today. Can you tell us specifically what you mean by that?
Dr. Dolhenty: Sure, be glad to, Don. But I need to point out that this phenomenon is present not only in our society, but in our entire culture which includes our ways of thinking as well as what is thought and done. In other words, this intellectual insanity is appearing in our ideas, our attitudes, and our behaviors. And because it has become so prevalent in our culture, it is affecting, or I really should say infecting, the course of Western civilization which is, after all, the historical tradition to which we belong and that has given us virtually all the benefits we as a people enjoy, intellectually and technologically.
Mr. Ross: So, it’s not just something present in our American society, but is changing our entire Western civilization as well.
Dr. Dolhenty: Yes, this insanity is affecting all the countries of the world which are within the Western tradition. But let me get back to what I mean by intellectual insanity. What I mean by intellectual insanity is basically a philosophical disorder which is unrealistic, actually anti-realistic, which denies any possibility of objective truth and, consequently and necessarily, any objective, universal moral principles.
Mr. Ross: These are what you call the twin pillars of subjectivism and relativism?
Dr. Dolhenty: Yes. Subjectivism and relativism are the roots from which intellectual insanity grows. Subjectivism is a lack of intellectual integrity and means there is no objective or absolute truth whatsoever. Relativism is a lack of moral integrity and means there are no objective, absolute, and universal moral principles whatsoever. Now, understand this does not refer to moral rules, but to moral principles. These two basic beliefs, subjectivism and relativism, then lead to four other pillars of intellectual insanity upon which current thought or the so-called “conventional wisdom” is based.
Mr. Ross: And what are these four other pillars?
Dr. Dolhenty: The two primary pillars of subjectivism and relativism support the four pillars of scientism, determinism, collectivism, and politicism, all of which form the foundation for our culture’s thinking about man, the world, human behavior, and man’s place in the scheme of things.
Mr. Ross: What is scientism?
Dr. Dolhenty: Scientism is the belief that science, and here I refer only to empirical or experimental science, is the only source of human knowledge. Furthermore, it means that only those things exist which can be measured. This, of course, eliminates anything non-material or spiritual. Matter is all that exists. Other sources of knowledge are dismissed as mere superstition. Man is only a bundle of matter and energy subject to the laws of matter in motion.
Mr. Ross: What about politicism?
Dr. Dolhenty: You won’t find that word in the dictionary, Don. Politicism is a term I coined to refer to the belief, which is now almost universally accepted, that says that all problems are basically political in nature and the solutions to all personal, social, and moral problems must be politically determined. It is, in my opinion, a particularly insidious belief because it makes political power the arbiter of what is true and morally acceptable. It is responsible for much of the moral chaos you see today.
Mr. Ross: What about determinism? This refers to the old free-will problem doesn’t it?
Dr. Dolhenty: Yes, it does. This has been a philosophical thorn for many, many years. Belief in man’s free will has been the basis for our entire ethical and jurisprudential system. If man is free, he is responsible. On the other hand, if man is not free, that is, his acts are determined by forces beyond his will, then he is not responsible. This, of course, if put into common practice, would destroy our moral and legal systems.
Mr. Ross: This has not occurred, though.
Dr. Dolhenty: Not yet in a total sense. We do see, however, the influence of determinism in many places in our society. The rush to provide excuses for all types of criminal, unethical, and unacceptable behavior is becoming more common. This partly the result of the influence of a school of psychology called “behaviorism,” which was particularly influential in the early years of this century. According to this theory, man is just another animal, albeit highly evolved, and his behavior is virtually determined by outside forces and the mechanical laws of nature. The contemporary equivalent of this theory is that put forth by the Harvard psychologist, B.F. Skinner, who is studied in virtually all psychology departments and teacher-training schools in the country. In fact, during my years in college and university, almost all my psychology professors were behaviorists of some sort or other.
Mr. Ross: O.K., what about collectivism?
Dr. Dolhenty: Collectivism, and this doctrine has many faces, promotes the belief that the individual exists for social ends and the greatest good for the individual is to serve the social and political interests of the state or society. This is a very dangerous belief and we’ve seen the horrific results of such a doctrine throughout the twentieth century. Collectivism includes socialism, even in its so-called benevolent forms, and communism and fascism and Nazism, and all other forms of what we call totalitarianism. All these doctrines have in common the belief that society or the state are more important than any single individual and that the individual, therefore, can be sacrificed for the good of society or the state as a matter of principle. The terrible inference here, of course, is that human beings do not possess natural or human rights by virtue of their nature as human beings or as a result of their creation by God. Human rights are granted at the behest of the state or society which can, of course, take them away if it chooses to do so. Individuals exist for the sake of society and not the other way around.
Mr. Ross: So you’re arguing that scientism, politicism, determinism, and collectivism are built on the foundations of subjectivism and relativism, and that all these are responsible for the decline of Western culture and most of the problems of our society.
Dr. Dolhenty: Exactly. All of the other so-called anti-realistic “isms” infecting our society and culture are basically a result of one or more of these six pillars of intellectual insanity. For instance, the philosophies of metaphysical materialism, such as Marxism and atheistic naturalism, state that nothing exists but matter in motion. This doctrine is based on intellectual subjectivism. So is metaphysical idealism, the belief that matter does not exist at all but everything is simply some sort of universal idea or thought. We see this latter doctrine now in the tremendous influence that the Eastern philosophies are having on Western culture. Metaphysical idealism of the theistic type necessarily leads to pantheism, that the world is god and god is the world. This, too, is the result of intellectual subjectivism.
Mr. Ross: Now, Dr. Dolhenty, what does all this have to do with the state of American society today?
Dr. Dolhenty: Good question, Don. And an important one. We hear all the time from many sources that Western culture is under attack in the United States today. Our sources for Western culture are four in number. There was the Greek influence, the Roman influence, the Judaic influence, and the Christian influence. Western culture is an amalgamation of the development of philosophical, scientific, and religious ideas from these four sources. Let’s, for instance, consider the religious situation today. Many observers have said that religion in American society is under attack. This is not true. It is not religion that is under attack; it is Christianity which is under attack.
Mr. Ross: How so?
Dr. Dolhenty: Well, Don, many of what some of us would consider “far-out” religions, that is, religions of the pagan or pantheistic type, including the recent revival of ancient “Mother Goddess” and witchcraft religions, many of these religions are prospering and having a marked influence on particularly our youth. These religions tend to be philosophically “unrealistic” or even anti-realistic and are, of course, then subjectivistic and relativistic. These beliefs, in turn, influence the general social fabric and work their way into the public consciousness, all too often resulting in the development and implementation of social policies which are both philosophically unrealistic and against traditional Western thought. Even contemporary Christianity is being influenced by subjectivism and relativism and has been preyed on by these false philosophies. And this, by the way, is probably what the subjectivists and relativists had hoped to accomplish.
Mr. Ross: What does philosophical realism have to do with Christianity?
Dr. Dolhenty: That is one of the key issues. It is also widely misunderstood by most Christians or those who profess to be. Generally speaking, classic philosophical realism holds that a real world exists independent of us and our minds, a world of material and non-material entities, and that we can know this world; we can know objective truths about this world of material and non-material things and there are objective, universal, truthful principles of ethics and morals which provide a rational guide for human conduct.
Mr. Ross: That seems to be what traditional Christianity accepted.
Dr. Dolhenty: Philosophical realism is obviously in complete agreement with traditional Christian beliefs and practices as long as we make the distinction between public and personal experiences or, as some prefer, between objective and subjective experiences. Christianity developed and grew in partnership with classical philosophic realism. This realism is the result of man using his physical senses to provide information for his intellect and then using his powers of reason and will to arrive at objective truth. The process is rational, which means the use of man’s natural reasoning ability.
Mr. Ross: But Christianity is fundamentally based on another method of arriving at knowledge called revelation.
Dr. Dolhenty: Yes, that’s true. It is claimed that divine revelation is another method of acquiring knowledge. By the way, it is not an irrational source of knowledge as some philosophers and scientists have argued. Revelation is, however, a nonrational source of knowledge. All that this means is that whatever knowledge is acquired is not acquired through man’s use of reason. Man does not discover divine knowledge; it is revealed to him. And this is nonrational, not irrational, as long as this alleged divine knowledge is kept within the bounds of personal or subjective experience. If a theological statement is brought into the public domain and it is claimed that it is an objective proposition, that is, the statement is capable of public verification, then the truth-claim made by that statement must be decided by the criterion of objective evidence.
Mr. Ross: Can you explain specifically what that means?
Dr. Dolhenty: Sure, Don. Let’s take one example of a claim made by one of the famous televangelists sometime during the past few years. This TV preacher publicly stated that the Bible is a scientific document and the “science” contained within it is absolutely true. It has to be absolutely true, so the argument goes, because it is God’s revealed truth. Now, if the Bible is actually a scientific document, then it follows it must be judged by the same standards which apply to all scientific documents. That standard is a public standard and propositions offered in the sciences are made within the public domain of objective experiences. If the scientific standard is applied to the alleged “scientific” descriptions made within the Bible, such as the structure of the universe, the Bible will fail on virtually all accounts. Applying scientific criteria to the Bible will put the Bible in jeopardy even as a theological document. All rational people agree more or less on those propositions of science which are supported by good, solid, objective scientific evidence. All rational people do not agree about the truth-claims of alleged “scientific” propositions in the Bible. Why? Because Bible propositions dealing with secular issues must be entertained within the public arena using rational methods to determine their truth, and most of them have failed to prove their claim to truth.
Mr. Ross: And the practical effects?
Dr. Dolhenty: Well, one practical effect is that Bible teachings by themselves should not be the basis for making decisions in the public realm. Social and government policy should not look for Biblical justification. Now, there are many public policies and ethical rules arrived at through rational methods which just happen to coincide with Biblical teaching. But those policies and rules must be ultimately justified on public and rational grounds, not on nonrational and private grounds. It follows, of course, that I am at odds with many Christians who want public policy toward, for instance, homosexuals or pornography, based on Biblical grounds rather than objective and rational grounds. Ethical and moral principles must be based on philosophical foundations, at least for secular society. Modern American Christianity, at least the Protestant fundamentalist variety, has virtually no philosophical foundation at all. It is totally built on the Bible, and mostly on the Old Testament, and this invariably puts that brand of Christianity at odds with the secular public domain where objective truth must be determined.
Mr. Ross: But is Christianity responsible for intellectual insanity?
Dr. Dolhenty: Not directly, at least in regard to what I call intellectual insanity. Certain brands of Christianity are, however, responsible indirectly for intellectual insanity.
Mr. Ross: How so?
Dr. Dolhenty: Consider what is called Christian Fundamentalism. This is, at least according to many religious authorities, a peculiarly American brand of Christianity and is totally based on its own interpretation of the Bible, with emphasis on Old Testament teachings. One of the interesting things about Fundamentalism is its tendency throughout its history to be anti-intellectual. It has constantly been accused of anti-intellectualism and “know-nothing-ism,” probably with good reason. It has no coherent philosophy underlying it. It is totally theological. It is, therefore, prone to be against any ideas which are not considered to be strictly religious ideas and based on its interpretation of Biblical tradition. Contrast that with Roman Catholicism, and maybe Anglicanism and some forms of Lutheranism, where there is a solid philosophical base co-existing with its doctrinal theology and being used, in fact, to help interpret its theology. In general, Catholicism today has a much easier time dealing with secular society than Southern Baptists do. That is because Catholicism is prepared to deal with secular issues from a philosophical base, rather than merely a theological base. Look how Catholicism deals with the issue of human evolution, for instance. Now contrast that with the way the Fundamentalists deal with the issue.
Mr. Ross: So Christianity is not directly responsible for intellectual insanity. What is, then?
Dr. Dolhenty: Like I said before, subjectivism and relativism. You see, Don, virtually all the policies and practices of secular society are the result of the prevailing philosophical influences on that society. It may take a hundred years or more for a philosophical doctrine to influence the general culture. But if the doctrine has staying-power, it will eventually affect the intellectual thinking of large groups of people. Marxist communism, for example, did not just arrive on the scene in a burst of light. The philosophical foundations for it were provided by Hegel’s philosophy many years before, as well as by the philosophical materialists and positivists, who in turn were influenced by the problems raised by the rationalist philosophers, such as Descartes way back in the seventeenth century, who thought provides the basis for modern subjectivism. Ideas do have consequences. It is the intellectuals in the tradition of subjectivism and relativism that are responsible for intellectual insanity today.
Mr. Ross: It seems, then, that ordinary people are affected by the doctrines of the intellectuals even though they don’t realize it.
Dr. Dolhenty: That’s exactly the case. The ideas expounded by the intellectuals in any cultural tradition eventually find their way into the social fabric through everything from social osmosis to the educational system. Now, these ideas may be true or false, good or bad, or whatever. For the past three hundred or so years, many of the ideas and doctrines which have influenced Western culture have been mainly unrealistic and anti-realistic in the philosophical sense. Given enough time, and especially with the educational and political forces on it side, a very bad idea, philosophy, or doctrine can have devastating consequences. The ordinary person is, unfortunately, slow to realize this phenomenon.
Mr. Ross: So, what are ordinary citizens to do?
Dr. Dolhenty: They have to become self-educated about both the Western tradition of classic philosophical realism and its partnership with modern empirical science. Most people are basically realistic in a commonsense way, but they are not well acquainted with the major tenets of a genuine philosophical realism. It is philosophy which mostly influences social change today. Most people don’t realize this because they don’t stand back and consider where all these ideas we have about everything come from or upon what they are based. People are not going to learn much about philosophical realism on television or in the public schools or such. The major intellectual players in today’s society are decidedly unrealistic or anti-realistic as far as their philosophy goes. The general culture is then sucked into this intellectual insanity, almost by default.
Mr. Ross: And?
Dr. Dolhenty: At that point, scientism, politicism, determinism, and collectivism become the major influences on social and political policy. The doctrines of these false philosophies become the “conventional wisdom” which no one is supposed to challenge. Of course, the effects are eventually devastating. Look around today. What do you see? You see the beginning of a social and cultural collapse. For instance, most people don’t seem to realize that national governments, now I’m talking about official government policies, have been directly responsible for more deaths of human beings in the twentieth-century than all the officially-sanctioned deaths that ever occurred throughout our history at the foot of either a government or a religion. Think of Stalin, think of Hitler, think of Mao, and think of all the deaths occurring in the former African colonies right now. Then ask yourself. Are we becoming more civilized or less civilized? In the United States itself, are our people becoming more united as citizens of a common culture or is our society becoming fractionalized, breaking up into feuding groups each out for its own gain, even at the expense of society as a whole?
Mr. Ross: You do make a good case. It does seem like what you call intellectual insanity has had a serious negative effect on our society and our culture. But, unfortunately, Dr. Dolhenty, we have run out of time. I want to thank you for discussing with me today and enlightening all of us about philosophical realism and the six pillars of intellectual insanity.
See the diagram: The six pillars of intellectual insanity
Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at Self-Educated American. Self-Educated American has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.