The Age of Reasonabilism

There’s an episode in Season Four of the show Parks and Recreation called “The End of the World,” in which we meet a cult known as “The Reasonabilists.” Members of this cult believe that an alien god named “Zorp” will destroy the world. Every few years, the Reasonabilists predict that Zorp is about to come to Earth and they hold an all-night vigil in the park, awaiting the apocalypse. Early in the episode, Chris Traeger (Pawnee’s City Manager) asks Leslie Knope why the cult calls themselves “The Reasonabilists.” “Well,” Leslie replies, “they figure if people criticize them, it’ll seem like they’re attacking something very reasonable.”

The same could be said of the individuals profiled by Bari Weiss in today’s edition of The New York Times. Weiss calls this group of people and the movement they belong to “the intellectual dark web,” though in academic circles they have long been known as belonging to the “skeptic”/“rationalist”/“freethought” movement. Sam Harris, Michael Shermer, Jordan Peterson, and the rest of these “renegades” all have one thing in common, one sermon that they consistently preach: they are the voices of reason and science in an age of political correctness; they are the brave, objective intellectuals who say the things “Which Cannot Be Said;” they are the victims of political correctness who have become outcasts in today’s progressive society – a society in which, Weiss, claims, “popular feelings about the way things ought to be often override facts about the way things actually are.”

In her piece, Weiss lists some of the “dangerous” thoughts that these individuals have been exiled for: “There are fundamental biological differences between men and women,” and “Identity politics is a toxic ideology that is tearing America apart.” There are other beliefs she left out of the piece. Harris, for example, believes that Islam is the greatest threat to Western society, Muslims should be racially profiled, and that torture is sometimes ethically necessary.  Jordan Peterson believes that women were not historically oppressed, and, in his newest book, claims that society is necessarily separated into various classes of people, some of whom are better than others. Eric Weinstein insinuated that women make complaints to HR in order to get a big payday.*

As Weiss carefully notes, the members of the “intellectual dark web” claim that their beliefs are supported by “facts.” Importantly, the members of the “intellectual dark web” claim that they are speaking truth to power, and that they are using pure reason and careful, thorough science to back up their claims. If you disagree with them, or if you say that their beliefs are misogynistic, or racist, or xenophobic, they point out that their beliefs are accompanied by logical and scientific justification. When James Damore wrote an internal memo arguing that there weren’t many women in engineering because women were biologically inferior to men, the online magazine Quillette (whose founder Claire Lehmann is profiled in the Weiss piece) released an article purporting to back up Damore’s memo with “science.” At the end of Quilette’s defense of Damore, Debra Soh (who is also profiled in Weiss’s piece), writes: “No matter how controversial it is or how great the pushback, I believe it’s important to speak out, because if we can’t discuss scientific truths, where does that leave us?” Like the Reasonabilists from Parks and Recreation, members of the “intellectual dark web” have discovered the perfect strategy: by couching their beliefs in terms of science and reason, it becomes irrational for their opponents to disagree with them.

What Weiss’s piece neglects to address, and what members of the “intellectual dark web” refuse to acknowledge, is that the majority of today’s “progressive” and “politically correct” ideas spurned by Harris, Peterson, and their colleagues are based on reason and science. Reason tells us that it is irrational to believe someone is inferior because they are female, because they have a different skin color, or because they adhere to a different religion. Reason and factual evidence tell us that women do not make HR claims because they trying to get “financial freedom.” Reason tells us that torture is unethical. Reason and science do not even come close to supporting Peterson’s claim that it’s natural for people to be “losers”.

Referring to this group as the “intellectual dark web” is somewhat fitting, as they want society to return to an intellectual dark age: an age before enlightenment, before reason and science were allowed to prevail. They would have us return to an age, one not so very long ago, when the ideas that black people should not be slaves, that women should be allowed to vote, and that the Catholic Church should not rid the world of Muslims were considered heresy. The things that this group disparages as mere “political correctness” and “popular feelings” are the true dangerous ideas – ideas that people died for, ideas that set the world free. To call the “intellectual dark web” a group of “heretics” with “dangerous ideas” and claim that their beliefs are based on rational and scientific thinking, is to do a grave disservice to the truth.  


* In an earlier version of this blog, I said "Eric Weinstein believes that women make complaints about sexual harassment to HR in order to get a big payday" in reference to a tweet in which he said "Dear @Google, Stop teaching my girl that her path to financial freedom lies not in coding but in complaining to HR. Thx in advance, A dad." On twitter, he corrected me and said that he was referring to complaints women made about James Damore's memo, not about sexual harassment. I have edited this piece to reflect this update.