Malcolm Pollack laments via e-mail:
Don't things seem to be coming apart faster and faster now? Or am I just getting old, and so the distance between this madding world and my reference frame for 'normal life' is just making it seem that way?
No, I don't think it's just geezerism. The more rotten something becomes, the faster it falls apart. We have crossed the event horizon, and are accelerating toward the singularity. The tidal forces are already doing their work.
Serious question for you: has this been inevitable since the Enlightenment? Here's what I'm getting at (from another recent post):
"Given that what gives a culture its form is essentially 'memetic' — an aggregation of ideas, lore, mythos, history, music, religion, duties, obligations, affinities, and aversions shared by a common people — an advanced civilization is subject to corrosion and decomposition by ideas. And the most corrosive of all such reagents in the modern world is one that our own culture bequeathed to itself in the Enlightenment: the elevation of skepsis to our highest intellectual principle.
Radical doubt, as it turns out, is a “universal acid”; given enough time, there is no container that can hold it. Once doubt is in control, there is no premise, no tradition, nor even any God that it cannot dissolve. Once it has burned its way through theism, telos, and the intrinsic holiness of the sacred, leaving behind a only a dessicated naturalism, its action on the foundations of culture accelerates briskly, as there is little left to resist it.
Because it is in the nature of doubt to dissolve axioms, the consequence of the Enlightenment is that all of a civilization’s theorems ultimately become unprovable. This is happening before our eyes. The result is chaos, and collapse."
This is a very large cluster of themes; I approach it and them with trepidation.
First, we do seem to be accelerating, or perhaps jerking, toward some sort of sociocultural collapse or break-up. And to point this out is not the mere grumbling of geezers or the wheezing of dinosaurs; we really are losing it as a culture, with the older among us simply better positioned to see what we are losing. The old have a temporal perspective the young lack. So if you owls of Minerva seek understanding, I recommend that you live as long as possible in possession of your faculties. As for the litany of what we have lost, there is no need to rehearse it. Malcolm and I are in broad agreement about the items on the list.
But is the Enlightenment the problem? Malcolm seems to be maintaining that our current woes are the inevitable consequence of Enlightened modes of thought that first arose in the 18th century.
The first two points I would make in response is that enlightenment did not begin with the Enlightenment, and that enlightenment is in many respects good even if in some respects bad.
Malcolm is a student of science and thinks it a high cultural value indeed. Now science brings enlightenment and the enlightenment it brings had its origin with the ancient nature philosophers of Ionia. Logical thinking, in a broad sense of 'logical,' began in the West with a break-away from mythical modes of thought. (Ernst Cassirer is worth reading on this.) Logical thinking began with doubts about the tales and legends that had been handed down. The cosmogonic myths were called into question. Doubt, as I like to say, is the engine of inquiry. Doubt is a driver, a motor. Inquiry aims to shed light on what is dark and hidden. Science aims to banish the occult and the mysterious. But it cannot do this without doubting the myths and lore and whatnot that had been handed down, a lot of which was obscurantist nonsense. In an obvious sense, inquiry is in the service of enlightenment. Doubt, its motor, is therefore good.
Skepsis need not be destructive or corrosive. The very word skepsis is translatable as inquiry, and Malcolm will allow that inquiry is good, ceteris paribus. But Malcolm seems to be using skepsis to mean doubt. If so, the Enlightenment did not elevate skepsis or doubt to our highest intellectual principle. I would suggest that the Enlightenment elevated Reason to our highest principle, the reason of the autonomous individual who "dares to be wise." (See Kant's essay, "What is Enlightenment?" with its slogan, sapere aude, dare to be wise.) I think it would be accurate to say that the Enlightenment involved a faith in Reason and in the power of Reason to get at the truth, banish superstition, purify religion (cf. Kant, Religion within the Bounds of Reason Alone) and improve the human lot.*
Doubt is the engine of rational inquiry, where 'rational' does not exclude the empirical. (A reasonable person is not one who relies on reason alone but one who also consults the senses.) Doubt is good. But good things can be taken too far. So doubt can ramp up to what Malcolm calls radical doubt: an all-corrosive acid that cannot be contained. Using 'axiom' in the old-fashioned way, Malcolm tells us that it is the nature of doubt to dissolve all axioms, with the result that all theorems become unprovable. Malcolm's point is that doubt has the natural tendency to destroy the self-evidence or objective certainty of everything that hitherto counted as self-evident or objectively certain.
I think this is right. But it is one-sided. The power to doubt is in one way a god-like power, and as such good: it is the power spiritually to distance oneself from a thing or proposition and examine it critically. It is the salutary power to pose such questions as the following: is it real as people say? Is it truly valuable? Is it true? Is it worth doing? Does it even make sense? Is the explanation truly explanatory? Is a certain hypthesis necessary (e.g., the ether hypothesis)? Is there evidence for it? Does the earth really rest on a turtle? Is it turtles all the way down? Does it function merely to legitimate the power of the oppressor? Isn't this talk of 'structural racism' just obscurantist bullshit promulgated by losers and race-baiters who seek power by political means and intimidation because they are incapable of achieving it by making worthwhile contributions to human flourishing? Is it really the case that climate change skeptics are anti-science know-nothings?
So doubt is a god-like power. But is is also diabolical. Lucifer the light-bearer becomes drunk on his own power and blinded by his own light. He will not obey. He will not recognize any authority other than his own will. His mind is not for minding any antecedent reality. He will not submit in piety to a Power outside of himself. He would be auto-nomous and give the law to himself as opposed to accepting it, hetero-nomously, from Another. In the same vein, Goethe in Faust speaks of Mephistopheles as "the spirit that always negates." I am struck by the similarity of the German Zweifel (doubt) to the German Teufel (devil) -- not that that proves anything by itself. (Nor am I claiming a genuine etymological connection.) Zwei --> zwo --> two --> duplicity. Doubt as splitting in two of an antecedent wholeness or integrity.
Doubt is good insofar as it is in the service of cognition. How do we keep it in the service of cognition, and prevent it from becoming an all-corrosive end in itself and to that extent a disease of cognition and an underminer of all 'axioms,' especially those on which our civilization rests?
I don't know. I do know that Islam is not the answer. And I do know that barbaric, world-darkening systems such as Islam (or radical Islam, if that is different) can only be kept in check with the tools and attitudes of the Enlightenment.
The power to doubt and question and critically examine may lead some to become rudderless decadents, but it will prevent others from becoming Muhammad Attas. What the Muslim world needs is precisely a healthy dose of doubt-driven open inquiry. It needs skepticism. It needs philosophy. What we in the West need, perhaps, is less philosophy, more openness to the possibility of divine revelation, more prayerful Bible study.
There was no Enlightenment in the Muslim world. This is part of the explanation of its misery and inanition.
To answer Malcolm's question: the Enlightenment is not at the root of our current malaise, though I grant that elements of it, taken to extremes, are contributory to our present mess. Perhaps Kant's "Copernican revolution" 'paved the way for' conceptual relativism despite Kant's not being a conceptual relativist. That's one example.
*The greatest figure in the German Enlightenment was Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). He famously remarks in the preface to the second edition of his Critique of Pure Reason (1787, first ed. 1781), "I have found it necessary to deny reason in order to make room for faith." Now how does that jive with what I wrote in the preceding paragraph? I can't explain this now; it is just too complicated! This is what i call the invocation of blogospheric privilege. Brevity is the soul of blog. This being so, I am justified in this venue of just stopping.