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The Pandemic and the Scientific Gnostics 

(Kevin Dietsch/AFP via Getty Images)

“As Deneen says, Voegelin ‘argued that modern Gnosticism was an effort to ‘redivinize’ the political world—not now by bringing the gods in to the service of the city, but by making the city into a heaven on earth.'”

I have written in the past about Eric Voegelin and his theories on how the ancient heresy of Gnosticism had adapted to the modern world through the totalitarian ideologies of Nazism and Communism. But Voegelin’s thought on the subject was far broader. A fascinating essay by Patrick Deneen on the current Russian invasion of Ukraine through the lens of Voegelin’s 1952 book The New Science of Politics got me thinking about Voegelin’s ideas and how they might be applied in another sphere. Deneen recounts Voegelin’s arguments concerning the role of science and, more importantly, “scientism” for Gnosticism’s development in the liberal West. These insights are hugely relevant for our arguments and debates over the roles of science and expertise during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, discussions that are still ongoing.

Eric Voegelin himself, born into the intellectual high culture of pre-war Europe, was part of that wave of European émigrés who washed up on America’s shores, escaping the tsunami of genocidal hatred unleashed by the Nazis and Fascists on the Old Continent. Voegelin and his small circle of philosophical peers spent the rest of their lives exploring the roots of the forces that had torn apart the civilized cultures of Mitteleuropa, attempting to chart a philosophical course through the political, cultural, social, and, most importantly, moral chaos that drowned their erstwhile homelands. Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt, two of Voegelin’s most famous contemporaries, each made their own intellectual way through this smashed terrain once they had landed in the United States.

Deneen summarizes well Voegelin’s thesis in The New Science of Politics. Briefly, the history of our civilization can be divided into three theo-political phases: Civil Religion, Christendom, Gnosticism. This categorization echoes that of sociologist Philip Rieff, who divided Western history into that of the First World, Second World, and Third World, here brutally simplified to correspond to the polytheist enchantment of the ancient world, Christianity, and the post-everything world that followed 19th century secularization. As Deneen writes, Civil Religion denoted a world of “gods exist[ing] in the service of human cities, and human allegiance to the gods was equal to allegiance to the city.” Christendom revolutionized man’s place in the world, “teaching that humans were citizens of two cities—the City of God and the City of Man.” Man’s true home was in the hereafter, leading to what Voegelin called the “de-divinization” of the world. 

Gnosticism grew coextensively with what became “Augustinian Christianity,” a heretical spiritual worldview which held “that the world was a fallen and imperfect place (true), but that humans equipped with a form of divine knowledge (gnosis) could transcend these imperfections, achieving through gnosis a perfected existence outside and beyond the fallen world.” As Deneen says, Voegelin “argued that modern Gnosticism was an effort to ‘redivinize’ the political world—not now by bringing the gods in to the service of the city, but by making the city into a heaven on earth.” He saw the Nazi and Communist totalitarianism of the 20th century as apparently a secular manifestation of this drive, bringing heaven on earth within history itself, “the belief in human perfectibility through politics.”

As Deneen goes on to write, Voegelin not only saw Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia as forms of political Gnosticism, but he also saw liberal democratic America revealing the same Gnostic tendencies within its cultural makeup, competing with its Augustinian roots. This is important for us today because of our adherence to the liberal democratic model, particularly in light of the recent COVID-19 pandemic. Matthew Crawford argues that we witnessed the enthronement of scientific expertise as the last, reliably trustworthy form of epistemic and institutional authority left in a society subject to the liquifying forces of Zygmunt Bauman’s “liquid modernity,” which extrapolates Marx’s contention that under capitalism “All that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned.” 

Liberalism itself is, according to Voegelin, inherently Gnostic in its philosophical inclinations. It raises the individual above all; as Matt McManus argues, it is inherently subjective through its positing of the human person as comprised of experiences narrated through memory and includes what Deneen calls “an affinity to theories of progress, particularly through the form of applied scientism.” Briefly, scientism holds that science and the scientific method are the only ways through which people ascertain “factual knowledge, and in particular, they alone can yield true knowledge about man and society.” Science and the scientific method are the only acceptable manners to establish which values are right and true, particularly when “natural science does or soon will constitute the entire domain of truth.” This places great trust and power in the hands of individual scientists and scientific institutions to define valid knowledge and enable our sensemaking capacity. 

With this in mind, we should pay attention when Voegelin writes:

“With the prodigious advancement of science since the seventeenth century, the new instrument of cognition would become, one is inclined to say inevitably, the symbolic vehicle of Gnostic truth. In the Gnostic speculation of scientism this particular variant replaced the era of Christ by the era of Comte. Scientism has remained to this day one of the strongest Gnostic movements in Western society; and the immanentist pride in science is so strong that even the special sciences have left a distinguishable sediment in the variants of salvation…”

Deneen writes that scientism in the Voegelinian vein manifested in liberalism as “[a] reformist impulse within liberalism, but would gravitate in the direction of a more radical, ‘messianic’ gnosticism over time.” Voegelin argued that liberals hoped “that the ‘partial’ revolutions of the past will be followed by the ‘radical’ revolution [for the] establishment of the final realm,” which “rests on the assumption that the traditions of Western society are now sufficiently ruined….”

While Deneen lists the usual suspects under the Gnostic impulse in the West (wokeness, the war on normative relationships, environmental understandings of crime), the important one for this essay concerns the response to COVID-19, which as he says revealed, “the effort to impose bio-political dominion over all of human life” via “the…’crisis’ of the pandemic [that] was but an extension of this deeply Gnostic impulse—the belief that the physical world was abhorrent, that we could through masking, distancing, and enforced medical intervention eliminate risk of disease and death.” And who decided upon the description of (and prescription for) the pandemic? It was our elite scientists and scientific institutions, who marched in lockstep and quashed any dissent toward either their description or their prescription. 

Voegelin argued that Gnostics are marked by a special “disregard for the structure of reality, ignorance of facts, fallacious misconstruction and falsification of history, irresponsible opining on the basis of sincere conviction, philosophical illiteracy, spiritual dullness, and agnostic sophistication.” This is a fitting description and indictment of those we look to for wisdom and guidance but who are seemingly wholly unsuited to fulfill the roles with which they are entrusted. The pandemic and the state response in countries across the West revealed a part of the scientific class who was so mired in competing conflicts of interests (and gripped by the forces of Gnosticism rooted in scientism described by Voegelin) that it could not bring itself to contemplate either the full spectrum of disease origin or treatment. 

All of this was enabled by a wider managerial-liberal class who lost its belief in authority as a good as such, given a stated disbelief in the good of any sort of non-meritocratic, non-rationalistic hierarchy built on tradition and inheritance, evolving over time. For liberals, as Crawford argues, “On one side, science with its devotion to truth. On the other side, authority, whether ecclesiastical or political. In this tale, ‘science’ stands for a freedom of the mind that is inherently at odds with the idea of authority.”

But the pandemic eroded this distinction “between our idealised image of science, on the one hand, and the work ‘science’ is called upon to do in our society, on the other…the dissonance can be traced to this mismatch between science as an activity of the solitary mind, and the institutional reality of it. Big science is fundamentally social in its practice, and with this comes certain entailments.” Big science is simply another part of the managerial state, serving to give scientific and rational legitimacy to the Gnostic ideology that clothes the managerial system. 

In support of this development, Crawford cites chemistry professor Henry H. Bauer and his 2004 paper which contended that science has become a cartelized, collective endeavour, “with 21st-century science…a different kind of thing than the ‘modern science’ of the 17th through 20th centuries” that now relies on “knowledge monopolies” for epistemic security. The process of peer review has become less a means to ensure competence and professionalism than a way to guarantee alignment with accepted truths and methods, which along with “centralized funding and centralized decision-making make[s] science more bureaucratic and less an activity of independent, self-motivated truth-seekers.” When it comes to academia, “the measure of scientific achievement becomes the amount of ‘research support’ brought in, not the production of useful knowledge.”

This, then, is the context in which Crawford argues that science is inherently political, given that it is practiced by individuals enmeshed in an institutional matrix that demands politicization. For Crawford, “The bigness of big science—both the corporate form of the activity, and its need for large resources generated otherwise than by science itself—places science squarely in the world of extra-scientific concerns, then. Including those concerns taken up by political lobbies. If the concern has a high profile, any dissent from the official consensus may be hazardous to an investigator’s career.” However, “it is precisely the apolitical image of science, as disinterested arbiter of reality, that makes it such a powerful instrument of politics.” 

And yet in order to gain the trust that authority implies, given the “the whole point of authority is to explain reality and provide certainty in an uncertain world, for the sake of social coordination, even at the price of simplification,” science must eject its narrative of provisional experimentation and “become something more like religion” in order to play the role assigned to it by the other sectors of the managerial state. Crawford is right to note the conflict in our societies between the democratic and technocratic elements of our mixed regimes, arguably a holdover from the dispensation ushered in by the Second World War. Given science’s technical complexity, the attempts to harmonize science and mass democracy through education are increasingly breaking down, and this rupture will only widen as the complexity increases at a quickening pace. Crawford sees things this way: “The work of reconciling science and public opinion is carried out, not through education, but through a kind of distributed demagogy, or Scientism. We are learning that this is not a stable solution to the perennial problem of authority that every society must solve.” 

Science as the lone source of authority in a post-modern society is doomed to fail. As Crawford says, what does “follow the science” even mean when science is meant to be inconclusive and provide provisional answers to questions that themselves evolve with our expanding and evolving knowledge? Relying on science as the final arbiter of our normative choices and courses of action, as Voegelin defines scientism, means that our political leaders decline to take responsibility for things that they themselves feel are beyond their knowledge or control, despite this being the fact for all statesman ever and to a lesser extent the fact of everyday life itself for ordinary men and women. 

Crawford puts it well when he writes that “increasingly, science is pressed into duty as authority. It is invoked to legitimise the transfer of sovereignty from democratic to technocratic bodies, and as a device for insulating such moves from the realm of political contest.” Any protest or conflict from the public has been anathematised as “anti-science” and, therefore, been rendered impotent, with the managerial state exploiting the tools of digital technology to clamp down on protest in the online and offline spaces. Not that much of this was needed in places like the United Kingdom, where the population acquiesced to pretty much all of the lockdown measures the government implemented and were often far ahead of where our leaders were in its authoritarian instincts. 

The state of liquid modernity has been sped up even further in its dissolving tendencies by the Internet and our increasingly digitally mediated society. Crawford cites Martin Gurri’s 2018 book The Revolt of the Public, which details how this has led to “a ‘politics of negation’ [which] has engulfed Western societies, tied to a wholesale collapse of authority across all domains—politics, journalism, finance, religion, science.” For Gurri, authority has until now been rooted in hierarchical structures of expertise, secured by credentials and training, with the members of these hierarchies having developed a “reflexive loathing of the amateur trespasser,” embodying the negative elitism of the Gnostic impulse.

Crawford points out that “For authority to be really authoritative, it must claim an epistemic monopoly of some kind, whether of priestly or scientific knowledge.” The problem is that this was sustainable when systemic failures could be concealed behind the stage curtain, enabled by an elite managerial class and where “assessment of institutional performance [was] an intra-elite affair.” This allowed for “informal pacts of mutual protection,” as Gurri puts it. However, Gurri argues this became increasingly more difficult to achieve with the disintermediating effects of the Internet. This gave the public awareness that scientific authority was perhaps not as secure as it claimed, especially given crises like the failure of replication across whole domains of scientific inquiry. It is this conflict and awareness of threats to institutional authority and cartelized epistemic security that arguably prepared the ground for the response to any disagreement on the origins of COVID-19, as well as methods for containment and treatment. 

One only has to read Sharri Markson’s 2021 book What Really Happened in Wuhan to see that the elite scientists and public health officials we trusted to look after our health interests thought themselves above such petty requirements as accountability, honesty, integrity, and duty. Those like Anthony Fauci, Jeremy Farrer, and Peter Daszak saw and continue to see themselves as a distinct group, an Elect whose job it is to pursue research and experiments far above the purview of elected representatives—never mind the democratic citizenry. Fauci’s comments throughout the pandemic, such as “I am the science!” (a claim that elevated him to a position of almost sacred authority in a world devoid of sacrality), were emblematic of an elite class convinced of its own righteousness. 

The pursuit of dangerous gain-of-function research, funded by the National Institutes of Health through Peter Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance, demonstrated a cavalier disregard for the risks of accidental leaks and potential mass illness. The fact is that the likelihood of a lab-leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) as the origin of the Covid pandemic has been condemned and investigation into it blockaded since the beginning. As Paul D. Thacker writes in Unherd, there were two essays in particular that had the greatest impact on the direction of the agreed narrative in America and the wider West. These were published by The Lancet and Emerging Microbes & Infections, both of which claimed to debunk the lab-leak hypothesis as a possible explanation for the pandemic. There was also the publication of a similar piece in Nature Medicine in March of 2020. 

The publishing of these essays curtailed robust debate in the mainstream arena about the pandemic origin for around a year. The Lancet essay was covertly organized by Peter Daszak. Daszak’s blatant conflicts of interest meant The Lancet stopped its investigation of COVID-19’s origin before it really got going. Meanwhile, according to Thacker, the Emerging Microbes & Infections essay authors were found passing their essay draft for approval to Daszak-funded scientist at the WIV.

As Markson lays out, these small groups of scientists were in cahoots from the beginning, organizing to shut down any inconvenient investigations into what research was going on at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, utilizing the fact-checking organs of the managerial state to counter what they and their activist supporters defined as “disinformation.” Anyone who posited a lab-leak as a possibility was, therefore, claimed to be a “conspiracy theorist,” countered with managerial-state-supported claims of an unlikely natural cause of COVID-19. Obfuscating about who was funding what research at the WIV was seen as necessary, along with deliberate opacity about gain-of-function research and its role and goals. 

This was bolstered by arguments that it was scientifically inaccurate to argue that COVID-19 could have been an engineered, chimeric virus (two viruses joined together), which partnered with deflections from questions about what viruses were stored and worked on at the WIV, all to cover for the WIV’s dubious activities, including removal of the genetic database from public view just before COVID-19 appeared. As Ian Birrell writes, the Scientific Gnostic exploited links in the media and relied on compromised scientific journals to launder their narrative, while Thacker shows how science writers simplify a flawed narrative for public consumption and act as legitimizers for the official narrative and as gatekeepers against dissenting arguments. And on and on.

Those who pushed back against all of this were maligned as conspiracists, bigots, anti-science, and anti-public safety by those whose own corruption motivated their projection of their own deficiencies onto others. Voegelin was spot on when he wrote that the Gnostic mentality means that “The interpretations of moral insanity as morality, and of the virtues of sophia and prudentia as immorality, is a confusion difficult to unravel. And the task is not facilitated by the readiness of the dreamers to stigmatize the attempt at critical clarification as an immoral enterprise. As a matter of fact, every great political thinker who recognized the structure of reality, from Machiavelli to the present, has been branded an immoralist by Gnostic intellectuals—to say nothing of the parlor game, so much beloved among liberals, of panning Plato and Aristotle as fascists…”

This drive is made worse in our time by the freeing-up of the online world, where “in the internet era of relatively open information flows, a cartel of expertise can be maintained only if it is part of a larger body of organised opinion and interests that, together, are able to run a sort of moral-epistemic protection racket. Reciprocally, political lobbies depend on scientific bodies that are willing to play their part.” The moralistic denunciatory tendency anatomised by Voegelin is alive and well, disseminated via “coercive moral decrees [that] emanate from somewhere above, hard to locate precisely, but conveyed in the ethical style of HR.”

The knowledge monopoly must be protected at all costs, but questions and pattern recognition regarding failures and inconsistencies must also be stomped down on. The mechanism for this is one of “research cartels mobilis[ing] the denunciatory energies of political activists to run interference and, reciprocally, the priorities of activist NGOs and foundations meter the flow of funding and political support to research bodies, in a circle of mutual support.”

The conflict unleashed by the energies of the online world is not really a class war but, rather, one of competing elites. To Michael Lind’s small business owner and professional class factions, Crawford adds those in the “knowledge economy,” who “naturally show more deference to experts, since the basic currency of the knowledge economy is epistemic prestige.”

This strengthens the support for reality denying Gnosticism, given those in this class rely on scientific Gnosticism for their continued existence as a social force. The moral fury that Voegelin saw is mapped in our time onto the pro-Trump/anti-Trump dynamic, with those dissenting from the Scientific Gnostic party line immediately denounced as pro-Trump, anti-science, and even anti-Asian bigots and so on the side of evil, all in service to perpetuation of the Scientific Gnostic worldview through the instruments of the managerial state and its cartelized scientific legitimizer, on the side of the good.

This all matters because we still do not know for sure where the COVID-19 virus came from, even though the balance of opinion seems to be shifting toward a lab-leak origin. The way Scientific Gnosticism has monopolized the scientific endeavor puts us at risk of never establishing the cause of this pandemic, which leaves us vulnerable when we face the next global outbreak of disease, which we are sure to do so in our interconnected world. Whether the origin was natural, spread by a wet market, or originated in a lab must be resolved because either cause could produce another deadly virus. But the forces of Scientific Gnosticism are strong, and it seems unlikely that there will be a reckoning any time soon. We will all suffer the consequences, and there is no amount of Gnostic denial of reality that will alter these real-world results.

Henry George is a writer from the United Kingdom, focusing on politics, political philosophy, and culture. He has also written at Quillette, UnHerd, Arc Digital, The University Bookman, and Intercollegiate Review. 

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