Theism in Thought

by Peter Blair | 2/12/09 3:42am

In his column last week ("Seeing Through the Shrouds," Feb. 5), Sam Buntz points out the lack of diversity in the Opinion section of The Dartmouth, arguing that "the reality is that we live in a homogenous environment where many people pick hors d'oeuvres from the same materialistic, postmodern boilerplate." Dartmouth is hardly unique in this respect; one of the greatest ironies of the modern Academy is that diversity is preached everywhere, but truly practiced nowhere. The root of our homogenous intellectual culture lies in the unwritten consensus among powerful academics that certain positions are to be automatically excluded from intellectual discourse. Any worldview that contains a hint of the non-material is off the table from the start.

In his book "The Wisdom of Crowds" ('12s know what I'm talking about), James Surowiecki talks about verdict-based jury deliberations. He points out that some juries already start with a verdict in mind and then sort through the arguments and evidence presented in the court, keeping that which supports their verdict, and discarding that which does not. In general, this phenomenon is called "confirmation bias," and the modern Academy is guilty of it. Academics start with the assumption that anything that smacks of a theistic viewpoint is wrong -- and that materialism is right -- and then proceed to examine arguments through that lens. The positions that arguments are meant to prove or disprove are already assumed from beginning.

It is no surprise, then, that the most salient feature of our current intellectual environment is its lack of diversity. It is notable that this intellectual hegemony is only really pronounced in certain areas. When you study political philosophy, for example, you read and discuss Plato's recommendation to abolish the family, even though hardly anybody wants to do so today. Different perspectives are put out in the marketplace of ideas to be debated and discussed. Never is one position unanimously pronounced correct, and then enforced in the general intellectual atmosphere of the Academy. We recognize that there are several important competing perspectives on these issues, and we include them all in discussion.

Only when it comes to issues of God and the non-physical does the model of free debate and discussion break down. As Buntz points out, articles in The Dartmouth that make a case for a dualistic or theistic perspective are incredibly rare. People defend this exclusivity by arguing that the theistic position is just plain wrong, and that if we allow such a position, we would have to allow other perspectives, including flying spaghetti monsterism (a recently created "religion" which holds that a flying spaghetti monster created the world). This objection is silly. The existence or non-existence of a mind independent of the body, or of God, can never be called just plain wrong -- at least not in the same way that a scientific hypothesis can. The truth about these questions can only be found in the field of philosophy, and, in philosophy, the really important questions are never fully answered.

The reason we would include the theistic perspective in the range of potential worldviews, but exclude flying spaghetti monsterism is because the latter has no degree of intellectual seriousness behind it. You may completely reject a theistic worldview, but it is difficult to argue that it has not contributed to human knowledge. Some of the greatest minds of Western civilization have not only been theists, but also spent much of their time arguing for the existence of a God. I'd like to see someone try to read Aquinas or Augustine and come away with the impression that theism is intellectually "unserious."

I am not saying the theistic perspective should therefore be taught as true, but simply that it should get a spot at the table in both appropriate classes (philosophy and religion) and campus debate. The problem with eating the same hors d'oeuvres over and over again is that you eventually get sick of the taste. We should treat more perspectives fairly in the classroom and in our general intellectual discourse -- not only because they do have serious arguments to support them, but also because they would enrich and deepen our academic experience at Dartmouth. We can only benefit from the interactions that happen in exactly the kind of diverse and varied intellectual climate that currently does not exist at Dartmouth.