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Demystifying Gnostic Scientism

From: Rhetoric & Public Affairs
Volume 5, Number 4, Winter 2002
pp. 718-729 | 10.1353/rap.2003.0004

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Rhetoric & Public Affairs 5.4 (2002) 718-729

[Editor's Note]

Thomas Lessl's "Gnostic Scientism and the Prohibition of Questions" suggests a powerful framework for understanding the movement of modern science in public affairs. However, I sometimes felt that Lessl was more interested in using "gnosticism" as a catchall term to stigmatize all defenses of evolutionary theory than actually to reveal the gnostic character of those defenses, when they are indeed gnostic. Therefore, I shall argue that gnostic scientism should be understood as a more circumscribed, but no less significant, phenomenon than Lessl claims. As Lessl's own examples show, it is more prevalent in biology than physics, but not all Darwinists are gnostics. I begin by recalling what it is about gnosticism that has traditionally led to its anathematization by a wide range of religious and political authorities.

There are two general ways of thinking about the relationship between the ideal and the real, especially as it is played out in humans as "mind" and "matter." One way is to suppose that each is incomplete without the other, the other that the two are irreconcilable opposites. In the former case, matter is necessary to realize the mind's capacities; in the latter, it drags down or inhibits those capacities. The former way thus aims for an integration of mind and matter, whereas the latter way aims for the purification of mind from matter. In each set of alternatives, the latter is the way of the gnostic.

There is considerable controversy over who is and is not rightly seen as a gnostic, since the term is usually applied pejoratively. For example, in his early "humanist" writings, which were influenced by Hegel's secularization of Christian eschatology, Marx was not a gnostic. However, as Marxists increasingly stressed the need for a revolutionary break with past political practice, their gnostic tendencies came into view. Generally speaking, a rough-and-ready test for gnosticism is to ask whether ordinary people can come to a radically different understanding of their world without destroying that world in the process. The gnostic says no for three reasons: a rather literal belief in the power of ideas to change the world, such that truly revolutionary ideas contain the potential for mass destruction; a vivid sense of popular resistance to new ideas that combines contempt and awe of "the masses"; and an overriding distrust in the legitimacy of existing institutions.

Gnosticism is elusive because it has licensed extreme responses on both ends of the political spectrum. For example, that consummate anti-democrat Plato is reasonably counted as a gnostic because he connected the fall of Athens to the corruption of civic virtue that came from the volatile intellectual climate fostered by the sophists. Plato held that public displays of dialectical virtuosity cloud political judgment to such an extent that the dialectic must be cultivated esoterically until initiates have learned to be discriminating in its application, so as not to incite the masses unnecessarily. At the same time, however, self-styled revolutionaries of the modern period, ranging from the English Puritans to the French republicans and the Marxist party vanguard, have proceeded from Plato's gnostic premises to conclusions that radically democratized the social order, precisely by inciting the masses to overturn established hierarchies.

Note that whichever extreme they occupy, gnostics do not work within the political establishment because they see themselves as accountable to a higher law to which only their party has access. This is the most damning charge that the conservative political theorist Eric Voegelin lodged against gnosticism in many profound historical studies of the phenomenon. It also helps explain Lessl's main complaint against his scientific gnostics, namely, their "prohibition of questions" over fundamentals, which in turn reflects a contempt for the intellectual standing of the public. Rhetorically speaking, such prohibition may be manifested as disparagement, demonization, or suppression, depending on the political means at the gnostic's disposal.

A Brief Genealogy of Scientific Gnosticism

There is a well-established tradition in the historiography of early modern science that appeals to gnostic elements. These elements are typically grounded in a "double truth doctrine," which is to say, one for the gnostic elite and the...

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