Faith, Science, Franklin


Hitch turned me on to the work of Jerry Weinberger and his ravishingly subversive book on Ben Franklin. If you have a few minutes this holiday Monday, take a look at this essay on Franklin that Weinberger wrote for The New Atlantis. It's on the very subject that Sam Harris and I have been discussing: whether science can or should supplant religious faith in the conversation of mankind. Weinberger suggests that Franklin was both an unabashed technophile and scientist who yet believed that science would never - and should never - replace the mystery that is at the core of religion. Money quote:

Ultimately, Franklin concluded that rationalistic science could never prove the believers wrong. He also concluded that the rationalists were unlikely to admit to this fact. They turned out to believe in their rationalism as fervently as the believers believed in their miracles, especially the miracle of conscience, or of the voice and spirit of God moving within. Moreover, if one were to push this fact in the rationalists’ faces, they could get just as angry as believers about challenges to their faith. Franklin, it turns out, was a freethinking critic of Enlightenment freethinking.

The conventional and current take on Franklinthat he was a pragmatic moralist and serious Enlightenment Deist and eventually an American patriotis flat wrong. The recent chorus of Franklin biographers, including academic historians such as Gordon Wood, H. W. Brands, and Edmund Morgan, has been bamboozled by Franklin’s ironic literary style, and tone-deaf to Franklin’s radical, philosophical, deadpan sense of humor.

Franklin was no Deist. He was no pragmatic moralist. And he wasn’t really “The First American.” Franklin was, rather, the first American Baconian. He was also a profound philosopher, deeply skeptical of religion (especially the metaphysical conceits of Deists) and of our everyday moral intuitions. He was also profoundly skeptical of the intellectual foundations of rationalism and the Enlightenment. And he was, to put his politics in a nutshell, a political constructivist and libertarian. Franklin was not as American as apple pie, but he was as American as the corndog.

My kind of guy. Read the whole thing, including an elaborate fart joke from one of America's founding fathers.