Every generation wants to believe that it will know more than the previous one, and this knowledge will lead necessarily to material and spiritual improvement and the elimination of the moral and physical evils from which humanity has suffered for ages. Although faith in progress has enabled people to achieve great things, it has also led people to believe that there is almost no problem that can’t be solved and no risk that can’t be eliminated. Furthermore, progress has caused people to overlook the reality that all decisions involve tradeoffs and has fostered a perspective regarding misfortune that our ancestors would have considered childish. Many have been led to believe that if only government and businesses took appropriate precautions, most tragedies and accidents would be prevented and diseases would be eradicated. As a result of this conviction, they look to government for protection from everything from economic stagnation to beach erosion. How did we get that way?
In Plagues of the Mind, Bruce Thornton, professor of classics and humanities at Cal State Fresno, traces unrealistic expectations back to the Enlightenment. This period of discovery, and its promise to improve the human condition, created the hope that through knowledge and reason all forms of suffering could be conquered. Although a great deal was accomplished during this period, aspirations for a more just world went unrealized. As a result, people began to doubt the value of knowledge and reason. They abandoned the scientist as a source of inspiration and turned instead to the artist. But Romanticism, demoting reason and extolling “feelings,” did not keep wars from breaking out, disasters from striking, and people from starving.
Today those who hope to eliminate suffering and hardship embrace what some cultural critics have called the therapeutic vision. Thornton describes this vision as “an unholy alliance of Enlightenment and Romantic assumptions,” which “has created expectations for human life that are totally unrealistic and doomed to disappointment.” In Thornton’s view, the therapeutic sensibility “encourages false knowledge: it creates not just unattainable expectations of happiness, but also various pseudoscientific techniques and procedures supposed to deliver on the promise.”
Psychotherapy, the most widely used of those techniques, has, Thornton argues, created a nation of helpless victims. His attack on the practice seems to me rather overdone. True, there are no laboratory experiments to prove the underlying suppositions of psychotherapy to be true, but many individuals, going back to World War I shell-shock victims, say that it has helped them. Undoubtedly, there is a lot of hype and even fraud in psychotherapy—demonstrated, for example, by efforts to rehabilitate violent criminals, which have had some tragic results. Nevertheless, the author’s broad-brush dismissal seems unwarranted.
His attacks on other instances of false knowledge, however, are well warranted. He treats the reader to a penetrating analysis of multiculturalism, demonstrating that it is not about respecting differences or the diversity of ethnic groups in America, as its apologists claim. It is instead “a melodramatic tale of the wickedness of the West and its role in destroying the peaceful paradises in which other people (usually ‘of color’) lived before Europeans and then Americans came along to inflict racism, sexism, slavery, colonialism, imperialism, homophobia, technology, and environmental degradation.”
Another venerable bit of false knowledge that comes in for Thornton’s withering scrutiny is the idea that American Indians were ethical paragons. We have put Indian culture on a pedestal. Thornton knocks it back off, showing that Indians could be wasteful despoilers of the environment to the limited extent that their technology permitted and that their treatment of other human beings was often repulsively brutal.
Plagues of the Mind provides a much-needed explanation of why, despite increasing levels of formal education, people are more and more apt to give credence to fallacious ideas and claims. In addition, it makes the important point that, while civilizations have always been plagued by epidemics of false knowledge, the spread of false ideas at this time in history is more dangerous “not just because high-tech media multiply exponentially the mischief that falsehood can work, but also because we are a democracy and democracy cannot thrive without a certain diet of truth.”
Overall, Plagues of the Mind is a worthwhile book that warns of a spreading disease that medical science cannot treat—the inability to think clearly.
Charles Stampul writes “On Principle” (email@example.com), a column offering philosophical and moral guidance to young adults.