It’s All About Me

In 2004 I wrote a book in which I sought to discover the roots of the rampant subjectivism that permeates modern culture and indeed the modern (and post-modern) world. It was cumbersomely titled (by the publisher) The Inversion of Consciousness From Dante To Derrida and professed to be a “study in intellectual history.”  In that book I pointed to three main factors that seemed to lead human attention away from the world “out there” and to the subject himself or herself. I noted the Protestant Reformation, the birth of modern science, and the philosophy of Francis Bacon and René Descartes.

The Protestant Reformation undermined the absolute authority of the Catholic Church and with it the certainty in the minds of most of those in the Western World that there is an absolute right and wrong, there is Truth, and the soul is immortal. This uncertainty, not to say anxiety, coupled with the Cartesian doubt with which Descartes started his system, resulted in growing uncertainty not only about the authority of the Church but also about the veracity of human faith and the certainties upon which were based the confidence of earlier generations. The invention of Galileo’s telescope exacerbated the situation as it called into question the confidence humans had in their own sense experience: seeing was no longer believing. Jupiter had moons that had never before been seen and this called into question the entire edifice of Ptolemaic astronomy that had been the framework of “science” since the time of the ancient Greeks. Moreover, the Ptolemaic view had the support of the Catholic Church which found Galileo’s discoveries deeply disturbing because they supported the Copernican theory that called into question the certainties on which the Church had rested its guidance of human activities for centuries.

If we ignore the corruption within the Catholic Church itself, including the “grand schism,”  the Protestant Reformation was the final straw in bringing down the tower of certainty that was the medieval church — as I have noted in previous posts. Especially in the writings of John Calvin, the accumulation of great personal wealth was no longer seen as an evil but was welcomed as a sign of God’s favor. And this gave license to human greed which found its home in the economic system of capitalism as put forward in the writings of Adam Smith. For Smith capitalism promised humankind a new world of peace and prosperity; but more than that it encouraged human beings to pay close attention to themselves and to their own well-being. In the end an “invisible hand” would guarantee  benefits to all based on the success of the few.

All of these factors, it seemed to me brought about what I called the “inversion of consciousness,” the turning away from the world to a preoccupation with the self and to personal pleasure and self-indulgence. There can be no question but that modern science and capitalism have brought about many benefits to humankind. Modern medicine and the possibility of financial gains promised by these two factors alone prolonged human life and raised humankind to new heights of ease and comfort. But it was bought at a price and there is a serious question whether or not that price was worth paying.

I recently finished a book by Hannah Arendt that was published almost 50 years before my book. It is titled The Human Condition, and I had not read it when I wrote mine, but I found a great many areas of agreement between the two books, which is most encouraging — surprising even. Arendt characterizes our age as one in which “self-centered and self-indulgent egotism” are prevalent, an age in which the only value is life itself — not the quality of life, but simply life itself. She points to the same three factors as I do in attempting to discover modern man’s preoccupation with himself. But she places a great deal more stress on the doubt of René Descartes than I did. She thinks Descartes’ doubt, with which he begins his systematic journey to rational certainty, places the subject firmly within himself as the final authority about not only right and wrong but, more importantly, about truth. Cartesian doubt even undermines religious faith. The truth is no longer about the world; in the modern world it is about one’s perception of the world.  And thinking is turned away from the world to the subject himself who is thinking about the world. And it is thought, after all, that provides Descartes with the springboard that established the certainty of his own existence and, ultimately, about the world. “I think, therefore I am.”

In the modern world, then, it is all about me. Knowledge is determined by how we reason about what is going on about us and right and wrong collapse — as does virtue — into mere opinion about what might lead to greater personal benefits  in the short term. And while much of this seems remote and of interest only to philosophers and scientists we must note that those ideas have slowly permeated our culture and deeply affected the way we think about our world and about ourselves. All of us. And if we add to the mix the recent explosion of interest in electronic toys that fix the attention to the gadget in hand, it becomes obvious how the world outside the self has simply disappeared. The self is all and the objective world has become lost in the inversion of consciousness.

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Science and Truth

There are still those among us who deny that scientific truth has any sort of hold on free minds. We can believe anything we want and call “true” anything we find comfortable they maintain. But while we can certainly believe anything we want to — there are those among us who think the earth is flat, after all — we are really not in a position to reject as mere “opinion” scientific truths that have the weight of evidence and, more importantly, predictive power, on their side.

If this hasn’t been clear for some time, the recent spate of tornadoes in the South of this continent, together with the devastating category 5 typhoon that recently hit the Philippines should shut the mouths and open the minds of the naysayers, since meteorologists predicted both of these terrible events quite accurately and in a timely fashion. It should but almost certainly will not. While meteorology is not an exact science, given the huge numbers of variables that make prediction difficult, recent technologies together with the satellites that clutter our skies make weather prediction remarkable accurate. And it is predictive power, more than anything else, that makes scientific truth undeniable. Given our uncertainties about the future, any body of knowledge or method of investigation that makes prediction more and more accurate demands our assent. We can continue to say we don’t believe in evolution or the “big bang” theory, but when the scientist brings to the table his charts and graphs and — more importantly — his predictions that continue to ring true, we really must abandon superstitious nonsense and embrace truth, even if it is terribly uncomfortable.

Plato was the first thinker in the West to organize his thoughts into systematic wholes, worry about inconsistencies and contradictions and seek coherent truth. Thus began the transition from religion to philosophy in the West. Aristotle married this concern with an empirical turn of mind and invented what we now call “science.” Even though so much of what Aristotle thought was certain has been proven false — such as the Ptolemaic notion that the earth is stationery and the sun and planets revolve around it — his falsehoods were rooted out by an improved empirical method forged in the minds and laboratories of such people as Copernicus, Descartes, Galileo and Newton. Scientific truth is simply not to be denied and science itself, while certainly not all-embracing (it ignores deep and hidden truths of the human heart that are not open to measurement and quantification) is the best humans have come up with so far.

Thus, the ignoramuses, in Congress especially, who deny global warming are not only flying in the face of reason and science and ignoring salient truths, they are putting human lives at risk by denying the scientific certainties that the planet is warming and will soon become uninhabitable for human and animal life. All in the name of power and profits. One can understand the craving for more and more money — humans by and large seem to be a greedy and stupid lot — but one must also realize that there is a time when certain truths can no longer be denied and time has arrived to begin to try to reverse a process that we humans have helped to bring to the kindling point.