John Ralston Saul on knowledge and human nature

by Russ Roberts on October 15, 2013

in Podcast, Scientism

I’ve been reading Voltaire’s Bastards by John Ralston Saul in preparation for an upcoming episode of EconTalk. It’s a fascinating book–bombastic, thought-provoking, wide-ranging. It’s thesis is that our worship of reason has spawned some very unhealthy cultural results. He condemns technocrats, courtesans (people who attach themselves to politicians and dictators to grab power and influence), MBA’s, economists, and everyone who is without doubt.

The book is very Hayekian with its skepticism of scientism and its condemnation of intellectual hubris. Interestingly, Saul is a leftist who doesn’t cite Hayek and I find plenty in the book to disagree with vehemently even though I love his central thesis. He takes its lessons in a different direction than I do.

Here’s a great quote from the book:

Technology and knowledge advance with great speed. That is, or can be, good. Man, however, does not change. He is as he was the day the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer decided to go on speaking against Nazi anti-semitism knowing that this would lead him to a death camp,. He is also as he was the day he cheered in the Roman circus, the day he crucified Christ, the day he slaughtered the unarmed Valdesians, the day he opened the first gas oven at Auschwitz, the day he tortured rebels in Malaysia, Algeria, and Vietnam. In his last interview, the French historian Fernand Braudel ended by saying that although knowledge meant man had less excuse for his barbarism, he was nevertheless “profoundly barbaric.” There are no inherited characteristics to help us avoid repeating the actions of our parents and grandparents. We are born with the schizophrenia of good and evil within us, so that each generation must persevere in self-recognition and self-control. In ceding to the automatic reassurance of our logic, we have abandoned once more the powers of recognition and of control. Darkness seems scarcely different from light, with the web of structure and logic woven thick across both. We must therefore cut away these layers of false protection if we wish to regain control of our common sense and morality.

The EconTalk episode should air October 28.

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