Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Arc of Modernity

James Barham has a great post on "Can We Teach Virtue?". It got me to thinking about how we got into such a mess that we can't even teach schoolkids that there is truth (or even just pretend that there is, for their sake—but that's another subject altogether).

Here's a skeletal outline of the arc of modernity:

  1. In the late Renaissance and Enlightenment, we reasoned that we can't agree on religious truth (cf. wars of religion), but (modern) science is true (our savior!).
  2. In the 19th and (especially) the 20th centuries, we discovered that science doesn't give us access to truth.
  3. Therefore, we conclude, nothing is true.

The reasoning is obviously full of holes, primarily the opening premise that since religion is a source of discord, the only alternative is experimental science. What a straw man!

Then, since casual conversation avoids the subjects of politics and religion, it's a wonder parties can ever support conversation. Can people from different backgrounds agree about nothing but "science"? On the contrary, there are broad swaths of agreement on basic human issues (like how to raise children). It's just that some people are unable to provide reasonable ground for why they think what they do. Even more we all agree on our common human experience (as described, for example, in Mike Augros's excellent talk "A ‘Bigger’ Physics"). By setting up the false opposition of "science vs. religion," we've excluded a broad swath of rock-solid objective experience from which we can reason to sure conclusions.

A parallel description:

  1. Man1 can only know through experiment, that is, active intervention—baldly asserted in a raw exercise of power by people like Francis Bacon, but implicit even in Descartes's assertion of dualism.
  2. From this stance, man can only see that part of the world that can receive his actions, so the world must be purely passive and lack all inherent activities (and directedness2).
  3. The only activity man can see is his own, so man must be the source of all activity.
  4. Therefore man is God, so God is dead.3

Again, the reasoning is full of holes. While the Baconian assertion that "knowledge is power" has a monomaniacal consistency, it is far from an axiom (as traditionally understood: immediately evident and requiring no proof)—that is, unless one's basic outlook starts with power as preeminent and primary.

In reality, we are creatures: we act, but we are also acted upon. We are sources of activity, but we are also bodies (with which our souls are intimately connected). To deny the latter obvious truth is the path to madness. In truth, we originate in love and are born in weakness. The net effect of denying our createdness is to shield our desires from rational examination—divine motivations are beyond scrutiny. One's identity becomes identified above all with an impenetrable "I want."

Fundamentally, there are two paths in life:

  • Power, and
  • Love.

Only one of these can be primary in each life. The Path of Power leads a person to close in on himself and to elevate his own desires above all; ultimately it leads to solipsism and loneliness.

The Path of Love requires self-giving and surrender to the world as it is and to others, but opens the heart to the rest of reality and to communion.4

It used to be that only the monarch and the aristocracy were subject to the trap of power. Scientific modernity and its technology have democratized power, making it possible for each of us to regard himself as a little god. This position is untenable in the long run; the question is: how big a crisis5 will it take to shake us from our delusion?

How long until our society can return to its only lasting foundation in truth, love?


1. I hate having to explain my use of this word. "Man" is a collective and a singular at once; we are collectively man, and at the same time each one of us is man, regardless of our sex (not our gender—we are not parts of speech). The alternatives do not capture this meaning. See Tony Esolen's "What Is Man?", Touchstone 25:1 (Jan/Feb 2012), 15-17.

2. "Directedness" is a rudimentary form of "teleology," but the the later word carries too much undue baggage. (See my post "Four Levels of Teleology.") When Aristotle, for example, talks about "for the sake of which" in his natural/biological works, he means primarily directedness.

3. No matter what one believes about the existence of God, it should be extremely clear to all that man is not God. (Cf. James Barham's "Two Kinds of Atheists", The Best Schools Blog, December 7, 2011.) At least it's immediately clear with regard to others; it's clear with regard to one's self if one is self-reflective or if one allows all men to share a common nature. (From here we get into the nominalist origin of the modern crisis.)

4. Clearly I'm talking about agape (self-giving love, i.e., charity) and not eros (desire-love) here. The latter is not self-sufficient.

5. Idolization of desire seems to be a contributing cause of the current debt crisis. Another cause is the dishonesty of a currency whose value is decreed by fiat and that undermines trust by making every contract a lie.