Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 2, Chapter 6: “The Flight From Laputa”)

In the last post in this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man, we looked at some of the Christian sources of existentialism within the Western Tradition, from the contributions of Christian authors like Tertullian, to the works of Christian theologians like Augustine and Pascal.  There are a lot of other writers as well, particularly a number of poets and novelists that existed during, and shortly after, the Age of Enlightenment, which all had a substantial impact on existentialism.  In this chapter, Barrett mentions several of these writers, many putting out a number of literary works throughout the period of Romanticism and also the two most prolific Russian authors, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, who wrote their most influential works in the mid to late 19th century.

Barrett opens up this chapter with some brilliant commentary on Jonathan Swift’s most famous book, the English classic Gulliver’s Travels.  He brings our attention to a particular episode in that book, namely the unforgettable voyage to Laputa: a large island that hovers above the earth, floating and navigating in the sky through the use of an enormous magnet and earth’s own magnetic field.  Once Gulliver is shipwrecked and brought up to the island, he finds the people living there to be incredibly strange-looking and also behaving in some odd ways.  One particularly creepy detail is the fact that the people don’t ever focus on the eyes of the person they are speaking with; instead they have one eye turned upward toward the sky, as if in some kind of perpetual contemplation of the cosmos; and the other eye points inward as if in some kind of perpetual introverted state.  Their foods are cut into a variety of geometric shapes and their clothes are rather ill-fitting garments resulting from a tailoring process that relies exclusively on strict geometries, and they are decorated with shapes of the sun, moon, stars, and a plethora of musical instruments.

Swift’s intention here was to create an imaginary world that was a kind of manifestation of reason incarnate, where the inhabitants have completely structured their lives around reason and are lost in a perpetual state of mental abstraction and disconnectedness.  To further solidify the intended historically-relevant metaphor, we’re also told about the ordinary earth dwellers living below the Laputans, who also happen to be subject to the ruling of the Laputans living overhead.  And these ordinary earth-dwellers are described as being far happier than their Laputan rulers for a number of reasons.  The Laputans are unable to have a normal human conversation nor have the interpersonal emotional connection that may accompany such an interaction, because these absent-minded intellectuals have almost completely lost any sense of who’s around them at the moment, requiring constant reminders from servant-boys about when it is time to talk or to listen (as the case may be) lest they might slip away into some kind of philosophical speculation in mid-conversation.  So despite the Laputans standing on a pedestal of superiority, perhaps implied metaphorically by their floating on an island “above” everyone else (which may also be a metaphor for their lack of grounding in Being or in being fully human), they seem to be missing a core part of their humanity.

Clearly we are meant to be given a description of a world showing how reason is insufficient to fulfill many of our psychological needs as human beings; and its blatant lack of emotional expression, interpersonal relationships, and, for lack of a better word any “organic” form or structure at all, has been fueled by some kind of post-Enlightenment belief that reason can fix all of mankind’s problems.  We’re also meant to see how the resulting cultural sterilization brought on by reason (such as that within Laputa) has created an aversion to such a mode of living for many, such that some people begin to seek out passion any way that they can get it (for better or worse):

“The men and movements of which it does stand as a prediction will find themselves at times in the desperate quandary of the prime minister’s wife, ready to throw themselves into the arms of a drunken footman if that is the only way out of the sterile kingdom of reason.  In the search for the Dionysian, after all, one cannot always be expected to be bound by good taste.”

Here, I believe Barrett’s brief reference to the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy to be paramount to understanding the historical-cultural impetus underlying the clash between reason and emotion, and ultimately between rationalism and existentialism.  By creating an imbalance in this dichotomy, for example by not giving enough resources or importance in finding a means of “Dionysian expression” in a society, a kind of tension begins to build up until the proverbial “bubble” bursts and the Dionysian portion of our being is over-expressed leading to another imbalance albeit one going the other way.  As much as one would hope to be able to prevent this kind of explosive feedback, it may be the case that we’re not able to sense an imbalance of this sort until it’s become so drastic that a violent outburst (or an overcompensation of some kind) is the only way to tip the scales back to equilibrium.

Then again, perhaps the signs of an imbalance are always there and we just need to look a bit more closely at how our culture is expressing itself (and not just at a superficial level).  We ought to look closer at the artists, the writers, and the changes occurring to how our identities are shaped compared to those of the preceding generations.  As an example, one sign of this imbalance in the post-Enlightenment Western world, furthering existential development, was exemplified very powerfully by the artistic works of the romantics, which Barrett explores in this chapter.

1.  The Romantics

“However we choose to characterize Romanticism-as a protest of the individual against the universal laws of classicism, or as the protest of feeling against reason, or again as the protest on behalf of nature against the encroachments of an industrial society-what is clear is that it is, in every case, a drive toward that fullness and naturalness of Being that the modern world threatens to let sink into oblivion.”

This characterization of romanticism reminds me of an important theme that I mentioned in my last post, and one that I think is absolutely worth reiterating here; namely, what I call the desynchronization between our cultural and biological evolution.  This fact is, as I see it anyway, the simplest way of describing and explaining the psychological motivations for the advent of existentialism.  Industrialization, mass production, capitalism, and the maximization of efficiency have led to a world that is entirely alien to the one we evolved within.  And again, it would be entirely surprising if we found ourselves living in the modern world without these existential problems.

The fruits of modernity as well as the plethora of super-normal stimuli that have precipitated from our technology have in some sense fooled our brains over the course of many generations such that our evolutionarily-endowed strategies for survival have inadvertently led us to the psychologically inhospitable world we now live in.  Our situation is analogous to a group of people having made incredible strides in a field like chemistry such that they are now able to refine, purify, and concentrate chemicals like never before; but eventually a product like heroin is created which ends up consuming the lives of the people living in that world, drastically diminishing their happiness, and yet the attraction to the drug has already taken hold of their way of life, inclining them to make ever more powerful versions of these drugs eventually leading to their own self-destruction.

Similarly, we’ve gained a lot of amenities and a vast power of manipulating our environment through the use of reason.  It has allowed us to discover more facts about the world than ever before, in turn enabling us to make technological gains at an exponential rate, perhaps leading to our getting lost in the novelty and the positive changes made to our standards of living.  But once this genie was let out of the bottle, a runaway situation occurred where the benefits we were paying attention to distracted us from the fact that it was also generating and exacerbating a psychological imbalance.

I believe our best chance of resolving this problem is going to rely on a combination of genetically engineering our species to feel better-adapted to our ever-changing culture and by restructuring the world in ways that better resonate with our evolutionary environmental niche, and yet still do so in ways that are technologically innovative so as to not take a huge step backward in the amenities that modernity has provided us.

In looking at some of the poets that had a distaste for much of modernization, Barrett mentions the poet William Blake:

“Blake is recognized easily enough as the poet against the industrial revolution…”The atoms of Democritus, And Newton’s particles of light, Are sands upon the Red sea shore, Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.”

This excerpt is from Blake’s Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau”, a poem written by Blake that appears to be more or less a defense of his religious views against those of science generally, rather than a protest against the industrial revolution specifically.  In this poem, he seems to suggest that any mockery of faith and religion such as that originating from Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire and Rousseau is somewhat of an exercise of futility as the society is largely unwilling to accept their ideas anyway.  And the mechanistic ideas espoused by brilliant scientific thinkers such as Democritus and Newton are small and insignificant compared to the breadth and power of religion and the belief in God, let alone the belief in God as the Creator that subsumes any paltry discoveries that man might make.

Another way to interpret this poem is to say that Blake is simply emphasizing the importance of using imagination along with reason, and he may be pointing out that human beings seek mythological constructs and grand designs of their world alongside the numerous facts that are discoverable through science.  If creative imagination is integral to being human, and if this integral component inevitably results in religious myth-making, then we should be careful in how we assess the apparent collision between reason and religion.

It seems to me that it is the failure to accept various facts about the world that has many proponents of reason opposed to religion, including many existing during the Age of Enlightenment.  The conflict however has largely been a tug of war over what I believe is a false dichotomy: choosing either reason or religion as exclusive modes of living or being.  Just as the religious don’t entirely discount reason (because they have to use it in much of their day-to-day lives, many who do so willingly), similarly the champions of reason shouldn’t entirely discount all that is involved in or accomplished with religion.  I think that human beings need an outlet for their creative imagination and emotional expression and they can and ought to produce mythological constructs and other allegorical narratives in stories, poetry, novels, cinema, and music, in order to serve as outlets for this creativity.

I for one want people to be able to express themselves, even if this is done through creative myth-making such as that found within religion; but the difficulty arises when the myths are actually believed as true and then this can interfere with accepting actual facts about the world which can subsequently impair one’s moral decision making.  Unfortunately, the myths that have been produced for millennia have most often been treated as truths and facts within those cultures rather than simply intuitive stories trying to make an important point through allegory and metaphor.  Perhaps we can have the latter without requiring the former; finding a way to appeal to our intuitions, emotions, and imagination, yet without having to sacrifice a reliable epistemology in the process.  This may allow reason to more harmoniously coexist with the deeper roots of our humanity.

Early on, Barrett also mentions some specifics concerning why Blake was opposed to industrialization:

“Mills and furnaces are evil, to Blake, because they are the external manifestations of the abstract and mechanical mind which means the death of man.”

Similarly, I can see how he would have been opposed to other means of mass production such as the assembly line, the distribution of labor in general, and processes involved in mass chemical synthesis such as distillation; all of which that can be seen as externalizations of the hyper-use of reason, logic, and reductionism.  Even ignoring the textile industry’s role in producing a person’s clothing, an explicit artifact of this kind of externalization would be recognized whenever a person living in Blake’s own time pulled out their pocket watch; a purely mechanical device that also illustrates the degree of precision and efficiency in an industrialized world that rations every minute of a person’s life as it sees fit.  No longer are we informed of the progression of our day by noting the whereabouts of the sun in the sky, as our ancestors once did and just as the rest of nature is apt to do; instead our time has become far too precious in maintaining our busy schedules than to conform to a more natural account of our time and existence.  We’ve each become an “Alice” in a wonderland of abstraction with no time to simply breath; instead we’re inclined to follow the example of the March Hare, chasing him down the rabbit hole of modernity as he shouts “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!”

I suppose we could say that we’ve been cut off from nature insofar as we’re no longer like other animals living in the present moment; instead, we seem to be forever living in the future, where even our own existence and identity have become an abstraction centered around the relatively meaningless goals that we’ve been indoctrinated to value.  Now this shouldn’t be taken to mean that our consideration of the future isn’t also an important part of our being human, for it is, and in fact a vision of the future of human possibilities is a central driving force within Romanticism as well even if it seems more heavily inclined toward a return to the past.  But in our modern world, we’re pressured into the idea of being defined by what society wants us to become, in large part based on expectations that are not conducive to a fulfilling life.  Some of these expectations have included directing our attention away from a more natural way of life and towards a life that glorifies artificial metrics of success that have no intrinsic value to us as human beings.

It is apparent and obvious that something has happened to modernity’s connection to nature; which is easily recognized by looking at all of our artificial environments, functions, and modern concerns.  And Barrett actually mentions the concept of Being as implied in the poet William Wordsworth’s works, as one relying on a deep connection to nature.  Wordsworth unsurprisingly criticizes the intellect as something that severs us from this connection in his poem “The Tables Turned” :

Our meddling intellect
Misshapes the beauteous forms of things:
We murder to dissect.

Rather than simply being in nature and receiving what she has to offer by effortlessly taking in one’s surroundings as a whole, humans (most especially modern humans) often distance themselves from their raw experiences by analyzing them and breaking them down into very abstract concepts.  And we learn many of the abstract concepts used in this kind of analysis not from our own experience per se but from books and other derivative sources of information, thus further distancing ourselves from the original felt experience.  So it should come as no surprise to hear that Wordsworth was partial to the idea that learning directly from nature is far more effective than traditional learning from books and so forth, even though (perhaps ironically) he still wanted people to read his writings and he continued to make use of books himself.  But I think the driving point here is that even though books are important for a lot of reasons and even though we shouldn’t dispense of them nor should we dispense with analyzing our experience from time to time, we ought to spend more time living in the moment and not parsing everything out into abstractions that take away from the holistic attributes of the experience.

Whereas Wordsworth was grieving over the disconnection from nature that he saw taking place with regards to many of his contemporaries, he didn’t feel this way about himself.  It is here that Barrett turns to some of the works of Coleridge, for he commented on the same predicament but he was also writing about his own feelings, where he found himself no longer finding any happiness in nature.  Coleridge was perhaps the first poet to explore some of these existential feelings from his own perspective; encountering the void itself and all the anxiety it brings along with it:

A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,
A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,
Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,
In word, or sigh, or tear–

This excerpt from Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode,” was a personal confession of his having lost his sense of feeling, even wishing for a violent storm to erupt at one point in this poem such that he could feel something.  He describes his experience in some vivid detail and points to the fact that the degeneration of his feelings has a correlation with a degradation of his own imagination.  And he alludes to there being an inherent separation between man’s feelings and the forms found in nature; where the feelings have to be created from within rather than given to us from our simply being in nature.

One interesting trait within Coleridge’s work, and which may help to explain some sentiments in the poem referenced above, is the fact that he makes use of imaginative flights where he leaves the present time and place and substitutes them for a setting that’s entirely manufactured from his own creativity.  And this quality of Coleridge contrasts a bit with the sentiments of Wordsworth, where the former often makes use of separating himself from the nature around him in its present state and the latter emphasizes the importance of taking in nature as it is in the here-and-now.  Both strategies maintain a connection to nature in one way or another but one uses imagination to augment it potentially into a surreal experience whereas the other is more of an experiential realist that simply “receives” nature directly.

Barrett compares Coleridge’s melancholy to that of Faust in Goethe’s poetic drama:

“Both are in or near the condition of breakdown, trapped in a paralysis of feeling in which everything has turned to dust and ashes, including the meddling intellect that has tyrannized over both.”

Even though Goethe set out to distance himself from Romanticism later in his life, Faust represents Goethe at his most romantic.  And it is in Faust-Goethe that we see a strong tie to humanity as a collective being with an essential yearning to both live and grow, even if this is only accomplished by an amalgamation of the Dionysian-Apollonian dichotomy; a fusion of stability and chaos; a marriage between self-restraint and personal freedom.

Freedom is a concept that Barrett also touches on with respect to Goethe’s interest in alchemy, where he ties the concept to “the dark halo of magic around him,” which served as a kind of sign of man’s lust to transcend his own limitations.  And what better place to incorporate the problem of free will, than with the desire to harness magical power in order to manipulate anything at your command.  Most people haven’t pondered over the free will conundrum in any philosophical way, for example, by considering the logical contradiction between causation or randomness and a human freedom that is self-caused or causa sui.  But the fact of the matter is, the only way for people to have a libertarian form of free will would be by some kind of magic, where the logically impossible is made possible, and so it seems to be no coincidence that the figure of the magician is, as Barrett puts it: “…the primitive image of human freedom.”  He also reminds us of the fact that magic and alchemy are recurring elements throughout the history of Romanticism where they betray our personal aspirations of becoming something more than we are.

Tying all of this together, Barrett reveals a more profound quality or role of the poet:

“Poetry is no longer an art merely of making verses, but a magical means of arriving at some truer and more real sphere of Being.  Poetry becomes a substitute for a religion.”

And this may be true in the sense that poetry allows one to open the channel between reason and emotion, or between reality and imagination.  In any case, whether one is drawn toward a form of expression offered through poetry or religion, it is the search for a way of transcending humanity or at the very least in overcoming our estrangement to Being itself, that drives us into these modes of living.

2. The Russians: Dostoevski and Tolstoy (realist fiction)

One prominent theme within Russian literature is the contrasting of the intellectual class with the rest of humanity, and Barrett points out a relation between the two:

“Intellectuals as a class suffer to the degree that they are cut off from the rest of mankind.  But intellectuals are the embodiment of reason, and reason itself if cut off from the concrete life of ordinary mankind is bound to decay.”

This is an interesting conclusion that the intellectuals in Russia were in a unique position to see, for they had a physical and cultural separation from the primary beneficiaries of the Enlightenment: namely, the West.  Even though they could examine this period in history as intellectuals, they did so with the desire to establish or maintain their own identity, allowing them to see what was happening in their society from a different perspective than the intellectual classes in Europe and the U.S.  The fact that Russia had a more conservative culture than the West also inhibited the cultural diffusion that would have otherwise further fused Western culture with that of Russia.

There were historical contingencies as well that facilitated a burst of philosophical contemplation, some of which Barrett mentions as relating to a disruption in the stability of society:

“A society that is going through a process of dislocation and upheaval, or of revolution, is bound to cause suffering to individuals, but this suffering itself can bring one closer to one’s own existence.  Habit and routine are great veils over our existence.  As long as they are securely in place, we need not consider what life means; its meaning seems sufficiently incarnate in the triumph of the daily habit.  When the social fabric is rent, however, man is suddenly thrust outside, away from the habits and norms he once accepted automatically.  There, on the outside, his questioning begins.”

You may notice the mention of habit and routine here, a recurring theme from the last post (on chapter 5), which included Pascal’s mention of our escaping from a close consideration of the human condition through the two “sovereign anodynes” of habit and diversion:

“Both habit and diversion, so long as they work, conceal from man “his nothingness, his forlornness, his inadequacy, his impotence and his emptiness.” 

In the case of Russia, the social fabric had been disrupted by the influx of ideas stemming from the Enlightenment, thus causing a more pressing need for many to question the old traditions and religious belief systems that had, up to this period in Russian history, withstood the tests of time.  And it was in the greatest intellectual writers of Russia, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, that we see a fresh perspective on the effects of the intellectual class on their society and in terms of an essential view of man.  Since Russia hadn’t developed any kind of philosophical tradition, the ideas that were pouring in from the West began to permeate the general populace, thus causing a less stable (more passionate, less objective) processing of these ideas.  And Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, two of the most prominent intellectuals within that populace, provided plenty of philosophical insight on their own, without the need for any philosophical professorship or the like.

Admittedly I haven’t had the pleasure of reading Tolstoy yet, but I have read all of Dostoyevsky’s major works; and one recurring theme in many of his novels is the exploration of the mind of a criminal.  He was inspired by his time in a Siberian prison camp where he spent a great deal of time with a number of criminals, gaining some insight in terms of their psychology and which led him to make some conclusions about human nature in general.  Barrett explains:

“What Dostoevski saw in the criminals he lived with is what he came finally to see at the center of man’s nature: contradiction, ambivalence, irrationality.  There was a childishness and innocence about these criminals, along with a brutality and cruelty, altogether unlike the murderous innocence of a child…In them Dostoevski was face to face with the demoniacal in human nature: perhaps man is not the rational but the demoniacal animal.”

I’m certainly sympathetic to this view, for humans not only have an intelligence that is often applied in a pre-meditated, Machiavellian fashion, but we also have our crimes of passion which seem to be derived from the irrational portion of our psyche combined with our instincts as a social animal trying to move upward within a dominance hierarchy.  We often use violence and cruelty as a means to move up the social ladder which can manifest itself in our day-to-day behavior or, if we’re privileged enough to avoid such behavior even most of the time, then a dose of poverty, a little bad luck, or simply a moment of desperation, will often bring this cruel monster hiding inside each of us out into full view.  In the end, we have to recognize what Hume said long ago: that reason is but a slave of the passions.

Hume’s point can be made clear in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment where the main protagonist, Raskolnikov, feeling alienated from the masses around him, uses reason during his bout of despair to arrive at a pre-Nietzschean theory with an imperative to rise above any ordinary moral code.  But after succumbing to this line of reasoning and putting it into practice, killing the pawnbroker, Alyona Ivanovna, and her sister Lizaveta, he is overcome with guilt and suffers a mental and physical breakdown.  His passions clearly got the better of him and he is unable to reconcile his actions with his own conscience and thus unable to subdue the emotional roller-coaster that ensues.

Barrett describes the situation in terms of a failure of repression:

“Raskolnikov’s theory has not reckoned with his own self, and the guilt over his crime brings on a breakdown.  Precisely the feelings that had been repressed in this intellectual-the ordinary human horror at the taking of life-erupt and take their revenge.”

The problem as I see it is not Raskolnikov’s use of reason in his moral theorizing, but the fact that he didn’t incorporate his likely emotional reactions into the moral theory and plan of action that he devised for himself.  He took many of his emotions and feelings entirely for granted, which are the ultimate drives in directing one’s behavior, and which are therefore the primary underlying impetus in determining what we feel we ought to do.

All moral systems that can have any claim to being true and which are sufficiently motivating to follow will ultimately break down to hypothetical imperatives: if you want X above all else, then you ought to do Y above all else; and X is going to be a subjective criterion based on what maximizes personal satisfaction and fulfillment in one’s life.  Since human beings have certain psychological and sociological characteristics given the species that we are, there are a limited number of behaviors that are conducive to maximizing psychological health and well-being; and this means that we have to take these facts about ourselves into account in devising any moral theory that will actually work for us.  And given our differences as individuals, there are additional facts to take into account in making a moral theory that will work most effectively for any particular individual given their psychological idiosyncrasies, even if there are still some set of universal morals that apply to all psychologically healthy human beings.

Deciding to kill other people simply because one has discovered some good reasons for doing so is not likely, given our psychology, to work all that well; since it’s likely to have a negative effect on how we see ourselves as a person.  If all the reasons are taken into account, or at least a particular set of reasons that includes our emotional predispositions or our subjective experience generally, then reason can be used and ought to be used for constructing a viable moral theory.  But Raskolnikov didn’t do this, and so we can see the limits of reason here as well when the facts pertaining to our subjective experience are not given their due consideration.  If our most basic emotional tendencies are inhibited for too long or beyond a certain threshold, it’s only a matter of time before our psyche cracks under the pressure.

Barrett points out the negative role that reason plays in a number of Dostoyevsky’s literary themes:

“These destructive and even criminal possibilities of reason were the philosophic themes on which Dostoevski played his most persistent variations…In ‘The Possessed’ (Demons) a group of political intellectuals are shown as being possessed by devils, ready to scheme, lie, even kill for the abstract ideals of Progress, reason, socialism.”

Personally, I don’t think it’s fair to blame reason itself for any of the morally reprehensible behaviors that Dostoyevsky saw with the criminals around him, with his fictional characters, or even with human beings in general.  Instead, I think the lesson should be that reason can be used to fuel immorality, but only in cases where one isn’t considering all the facts (or at least isn’t considering enough of the facts) pertaining to one’s own psychology and that of the people around them, or isn’t thinking rationally about those facts.  On the other hand, with emotion or irrationality, there doesn’t even need to be a reason to act immorally and instead it may just precipitate in a kind of Dionysian, impulsive, and instinctive way.  What’s most important here, I think, is to acknowledge that reason can’t be used on its own, nor can emotion or subjectivity, when it comes to devising any effective (let alone sustainable) moral theory; both are integral and indispensable for informing us about what will maximize moral behavior and thus human happiness as well.

And if we deny ourselves the chaotic spontaneity or unpredictability that we often find adding a valuable kind of novelty in our lives, then we have another problem as well:

“In a rational utopia, he cries, man might die of boredom, or out of the violent need to escape this boredom start sticking pins in his neighbor-for no reason at all, just to assert his freedom…If science could comprehend all phenomena so that eventually in a thoroughly rational society human beings became as predictable as cogs in a machine, then man, driven by this need to know and assert his freedom, would rise up and smash the machine.”

This is reminiscent of the trip to Laputa in Gulliver’s Travels that we heard near the beginning of this chapter, where Barrett mentioned the inevitable search for the Dionysian in an attempt to avoid the sterile kingdom of reason.  Predictability and the concept of free will are also very salient here, for the intuition that leads us to believe we have a kind of libertarian free will, despite its logical impossibility, is in part an artifact of our inability to predict the future beyond a certain threshold.  More importantly, it’s the fact that we can’t predict our own behavior, or the causes of our own behavior (including those within our unconscious mind) with a high enough degree of accuracy, that causes us to feel that we are the sole authors of our actions rather than being intimately connected within a deterministic causal chain.

And even though our knowledge is limited in fundamental ways, for example by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (stemming from the quantum mechanical properties of our universe), we still have access to enough knowledge (in principle at least) whereby if we actually obtained it, our happiness and overall psychological health would suffer immensely.  Why might this be?  Well, if we consider the fact that our species evolved to thrive in a world where we didn’t have any pragmatic access to this kind of knowledge, then we might better appreciate the fact that our human psychology isn’t adapted to value such predictive power.  The irony here is that our brain operates on a fundamental principle of making more and more accurate predictions, where it wants to continuously decrease its own prediction error by updating its models of the world or behaving in ways that make those predictions come true; but it also wants to seek out new information about the world, and so in a way it’s also attracted to uncertainty, always looking to uncover more of the world’s mysteries in order to solve them.

Unfortunately, with the advent of science, formal logic, and the explicit processes of reason and the technological progress that’s we’ve gained from the use of such cognitive tools, we’re beginning to reach a level of knowledge that’s encroaching on our intuitive sense of our own freedom of the will.  This is something we should have been thinking very seriously about ever since we entered the information age.  We should have been thinking about how we ought to structure the direction of our technological progress, putting in some design constraints so as to preserve our psychological well-being given the kinds of knowledge that we’re destined to uncover and given what we don’t want to uncover.

There’s a tricky balance we have to respect and which is all too often taken for granted, where we want to continue making strides in fields like neuroscience, psychology, and sociology, such that we can inform our moral system of more and more relevant information about ourselves to further maximize our happiness; but we also want to make sure not to detract from this moral goal and so we need to continue learning what kinds of information we ought not have immediate access to.  As long as we begin to take this balancing act seriously, we can continue to make advancements in knowledge while not working against our primary objectives as human beings.

Aside from the problem of knowledge we face, we also must face the fact that as our lives are built around increasing levels of abstraction, we begin to resent it:

“What the reformers of the Enlightenment, dreaming of a perfect organization of society, had overlooked, Dostoevski saw all too plainly with the novelist’s eye: Namely, that as modern society becomes more organized and hence more bureaucratized it piles up at its joints petty figures like that of the Underground Man, who beneath their nondescript surface are monsters of frustration and resentment.”

As Nietzsche had explored in his On the Genealogy of Morality, resentment or ressentiment can serve as a creative force for change; a kind of catalyst to create a new system of morals (for better or worse), but it is often done to justify one’s own weaknesses and to divert attention away from one’s own responsibility for their lives by blaming a scapegoat instead.  So while resentment may lead to personal growth if the conditions are just right, it more often leads to a feeling of hostility towards those perceived as the cause of one’s frustrations.  If this resentment is bottled up and left to fester for too long, it may lead people to take out their anger on anyone and everyone around them; to lash out irrationally in a fit of violence.  And who could blame them for this, after perceiving that they’re inevitably trapped in a life with so many things that are out of their control?

Even in the face of resentment however, one can see the value of life when push comes to shove and one comes face to face with death itself.  The time that once seemed to flow on by, with each minute as meaningless as the one before or after it, now becomes as precious as ever as if each infinitesimal moment now stretches on through an eternity.  Dostoyevsky mentions the life changing power of such an experience in his novel The Idiot, where the character Prince Myshkin retells the story of an unidentified man (presumably representing Dostoyevsky himself):

“This man had once been led out with the others to the scaffold and a sentence of death was read over him….Twenty minutes later a reprieve was read to them, and they were condemned to another punishment instead.  Yet the interval between those two sentences, twenty minutes or at least a quarter of an hour, he passed in the fullest conviction that he would die in a few minutes….The priest went to each in turn with a cross.  He had only five minutes more to live.  He told me that those five minutes seemed to him an infinite time, a vast wealth….But he said that nothing was so dreadful at that time as the continual thought, “What if I were not to die!  What if I could go back to life–what eternity!  And it would all be mine!  I would turn every minute into an age; I would lose nothing, I would count every minute as it passed, I would not waste one!”  He said that this idea turned to such a fury at last that he longed to be shot quickly.”

Of course, the main lesson to learn here is that in the face of one’s own death, life takes on an absolute value and as Barrett says “The meaning of death is precisely its revelation of this value.”  And there will certainly be more to say about this when we get to the chapter on Heidegger and explore his concept of Being-towards-death.

As we move from Dostoyevsky to Tolstoy, we find a fairly different view of man; and this difference is in some ways like that between night and day.  Whereas the former had a more morbid or pathological view of man, the latter is more akin to expressing the better angels of our human nature.  But both men brought to light the knowledge of the Dionysian aspects of our being.  It’s useful to look at a passage from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, where her husband, the very rational and intellectually-minded Alexey Karenin, slips into a fit of jealousy over his wife:

“He felt that he was standing face to face with something illogical and irrational, and did not know what was to be done.  Alexey Alexandrovitch was standing face to face with life, with the possibility of his wife’s loving someone other than himself, and this seemed to him very irrational and incomprehensible because it was life itself.  All his life Alexey Alexandrovitch had lived and worked in official spheres, having to do with the reflection of life.  And every time he had stumbled against life itself he had shrunk away from it.  Now he experienced a feeling akin to that of a man who, while calmly crossing a bridge over a precipice, should suddenly discover that the bridge is broken, and that there is a chasm below.  That chasm was life itself, the bridge that artificial life in which Alexey Alexandrovitch had lived.  For the first time the question presented itself to him of the possibility of his wife’s loving someone else, and he was horrified at it.”

And this was Tolstoy’s goal ultimately as a novelist: the standing face to face with life, with truth, and with the way the world and our existence within it really is.  The trouble arises if we fail to accept life and instead hide ourselves from it, and what Tolstoy saw was that our own powers of intellect can be the cause of this concealment; by giving us only a reflection of what life is, through abstractions, social conventions and the comforts brought to us through our daily use of routine.

And what kind of truth did the characters in Tolstoy’s novels end up finding?  Rather than some kind of intellectual truth consisting of propositions that could be spelled out here, it was an existential truth and so a truth that’s inherently difficult to put into words.  The truth was more or less a kind of openness to Being, where one finally faced the true possibilities that may unfold in their lives, even with that inevitable “possibility of the impossibility of existence” (as Heidegger put it): death itself.  And the natural unfolding of life as seen in Tolstoy’s novels, with a predominantly organic milieu, is meant to illustrate the necessary search for truth in one’s life and the truth about life itself.

To return to a previous theme mentioned earlier (in part 5, on Christian sources), Barrett says:

“The meaning of life, if there is one, says Tolstoy, must be found in these ordinary souls and not in the great intellects of the race.  Whatever ultimate meaning there is is vital and not rational.  The peasantry are wiser in their ignorance than the savants of St. Petersburg in their learning.”

And here again, I think this highlights the importance of subjectivity and our overall feeling of contentment; something that can’t be overcome or superseded by rationality nor by the rationalizations borne out of our intellect.  The meaning of life is ultimately derived from feeling and emotion, forces that lie in the deepest parts of our being.  And while the meaning of life may still be discovered by some of the great intellects in any period of history, Tolstoy’s point is still well taken; for the intellectual class has all too often overestimated the reach of the intellect and simultaneously undervalued or entirely devalued the fundamental role of “the vital”.  In the next post in this series, I’ll be starting a survey of part 3, “The Existentialists”, beginning with chapter 7, on Kierkegaard.

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Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 1, Chapter 2: “The Encounter with Nothingness”)

In the first post in this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man, I explored Part 1, Chapter 1: The Advent of Existentialism, where Barrett gives a brief description of what he believes existentialism to be, and the environment it evolved within.  In this post, I want to explore Part I, Chapter 2: The Encounter with Nothingness.

Ch. 2 – The Encounter With Nothingness

Barrett talks about the critical need for self-analysis, despite the fact that many feel that this task has already been accomplished and that we’ve carried out this analysis exhaustively.  But Barrett sees this as contemporary society’s running away from the facts of our own ignorance.  Modern humankind, it seems to Barrett, is in even more need to question their identity for we seem to understand ourselves even less than when we first began to question who we are as a species.

1. The Decline of Religion

Ever since the end of the Middle Ages, religion as a whole has been on the decline.  This decrease in religiosity (particularly in Western civilization) became most prominent during the Enlightenment.  As science began to take off, the mechanistic structure and qualities of the universe (i.e. its laws of nature) began to reveal themselves in more and more detail.  This in turn led to a replacement of a large number of superstitious and supernatural religious beliefs about the causes for various phenomena with scientific explanations that could be empirically verified and tested.  Throughout this process, as theological explanations became replaced more and more with naturalistic explanations, the presumed role of God and the Church began to evaporate.  Thus, at the purely intellectual level, we underwent a significant change in terms of how we viewed the world and subsequently how we viewed the nature of human beings and our place in the world.

But, as Barrett points out:

“The waning of religion is a much more concrete and complex fact than a mere change in conscious outlook; it penetrates the deepest strata of man’s total psychic life…Religion to medieval man was not so much a theological system as a solid psychological matrix surrounding the individual’s life from birth to death, sanctifying and enclosing all its ordinary and extraordinary occasions in sacrament and ritual.”

We can see here how the role of religion has changed to some degree from medieval times to the present day.  Rather than simply being a set of beliefs that identified a person with a particular group and which had soteriological, metaphysical, and ethical significance to the believer (as it is more so in modern times), it used to be a complete system or a total solution for how one was to live their life.  And it also provided a means of psychological stability and coherence by providing a ready-made narrative of the essence of man; a sense of familiarity and a pre-defined purpose and structure that didn’t have to be constructed from scratch by the individual.

While the loss of the Church involved losing an entire system of dogmatic teachings, symbols, and various rites and sacraments, the most important loss according to Barrett was the loss of a concrete connection to a transcendent realm of being.  We were now set free such that we had to grapple with the world on our own, with all its precariousness, and to deal head-on with the brute facts of our own existence.

What I find most interesting in this chapter is when Barrett says:

“The rationalism of the medieval philosophers was contained by the mysteries of faith and dogma, which were altogether beyond the grasp of human reason, but were nevertheless powerfully real and meaningful to man as symbols that kept the vital circuit open between reason and emotion, between the rational and non-rational in the human psyche.”

And herein lies the crux of the matter; for Barrett believes that religion’s greatest function historically was its serving as a bridge between the rational and non-rational elements of our psychology, and also its serving as a barrier that limited the effective reach and power of our rationality over the rest of our psyches and our view of the world.  I would go even further to suggest that it may have allowed our emotional expression to more harmoniously co-exist and work with our reason instead of primarily being at odds with it.

I agree with Barrett’s point here in that religion often promulgates ideas and practices that appeal to many of our emotional dispositions and intuitions, thus allowing people to express certain emotional states and to maintain comforting intuitions that might otherwise be hindered or subjugated by reason and rationality.  And it has also provided a path for reason to connect to the unreasonable to some degree; as a means of minimizing the need to compartmentalize rationality from the emotional or irrational influences on a person’s belief systems.  By granting people an opportunity to combine reason and emotion in some way, where this reason could be used to try and make some sense of emotion and to give it some kind of validation without having to reject reason completely, religion has been effective (historically anyway) in helping people to avoid the discomfort of rejecting beliefs that they know to be reasonable (many of these beliefs at least) while also being able to avoid the discomfort of inadequate emotional/non-rational expression.

Once religion began to go by the wayside, due in large part to the accumulated knowledge acquired through reason and scientific progress, it became increasingly difficult to square the evidence and arguments that were becoming more widely known with many of the claims that religion and the Church had been propagating for centuries.  Along with this growing invalidation or loss of credibility came the increased need to compartmentalize reason and rationality from emotionally and irrationally-derived beliefs and experiences.  And this difficulty led to a decline in religiosity for many, which was accompanied with the loss in any emotional and irrational/non-rational expression that religion had once offered the masses.  Once reason and rationality expanded beyond a certain threshold, it effectively popped the religious bubble that had previously contained it, causing many to begin to feel homeless, out of place, and in many ways incomplete in the new world they now found themselves living in.

2. The Rational Ordering of Society

The organization of our lives has been, historically at least, a relatively organic process where it had a kind of self-guiding, pragmatic, and intuitive structure and evolution.  But once we approached the modern age, as Barrett points out, we saw a drastic shift toward an increasingly rational form of organization, where efficiency and a sort of technical precision began to dominate the overall direction of society and the lives of each individual.  The rise of capitalism was a part of this cultural evolutionary process (as was, I would argue, the Industrial Revolution), and only further enhanced the power and influence of reason and rationality over our day-to-day lives.

The collectivization and distribution of labor involved in the mass production of commodities and various products had taken us entirely out of our agrarian and hunter-gatherer roots.  We no longer lived off of the land so to speak, and were no longer ensconced within the kinds of natural scenery while performing the types of day-to-day tasks that our species had adapted to over its long-term evolutionary history.  And with this collectivization, we also lost a large component of our individuality; a component that is fairly important in human psychology.

Barrett comments on how we’ve accepted modern society as normal, relatively unaware of our ancestral roots and our previous way of life:

“We are so used to the fact that we forget it or fail to perceive that the man of the present day lives on a level of abstraction altogether beyond the man of the past.”

And he goes on to talk about how our ratcheting forward in terms of technological progress and any mechanistic societal re-structuring is what gives us our incredible power over our environment but at the cost of feeling rootless and without any concrete sense of feeling, when it’s needed now more than ever.

Perhaps a more interesting point he makes is with respect to how our increased mechanization and collectivization has changed a fundamental part of how our psyche and identity operate:

“Not only can the material wants of the masses be satisfied to a degree greater than ever before, but technology is fertile enough to generate new wants that it can also satisfy…All of this makes for an extraordinary externalization of life in our time. “

And it is this externalization of our identity and psychology, manifested in ever-growing and ever-changing sets of material objects and information flow, that is interesting to ponder over.  It reminds me somewhat of Richard Dawkins’ concept of an extended phenotype, where the effects of an organism’s genes aren’t merely limited to the organism’s body, but rather they extend into how the organism structures its environment. While this term is technically limited to behaviors that have a direct bearing on the organism’s survival, I prefer to think of this extended phenotype as encompassing everything the organism creates and the totality of its behaviors.

The reason I mention this concept is because I think it makes for a useful analogy here.  For in the earlier evolution of organisms on earth, the genes’ effects or the resulting phenotypes were primarily manifested as the particular body and bodily behavior of the organism, and as organisms became more complex (particularly those that evolved brains and a nervous system), that phenotype began to extend itself into the abilities of an organism to make external structures out of raw materials found in its environment.  And more and more genetic resources were allotted to the organism’s brain which made this capacity for environmental manipulation possible.  As this change occurred, the previous boundaries that defined the organism vanished as the external constructions effectively became an extension of the organism’s body.  But with this new capacity came a loss of intimacy in the sense that the organism wasn’t connected to these external structures in the same way it was connected to its own feelings and internal bodily states; and these external structures also lacked the privacy and hidden qualities inherent in an organism’s thoughts, feelings, and overall subjective experience.

Likewise, as we’ve evolved culturally, eventually gaining the ability to construct and mass-produce a plethora of new material goods, we began to dedicate a larger proportion of our attention on these different external objects, wanting more and more of them well past what we needed for survival.  And we began to invest or incorporate more of ourselves, including our knowledge and information, in these externalities, forcing us to compensate by investing less and less in our internal, private states and locally stored knowledge.  Now it would be impractical if not impossible for an organism to perform increasingly complex behaviors and to continuously increase its ability to manipulate its own environment without this kind of trade-off occurring in terms of its identity, and how it distributes its limited psychological resources.

And herein lies the source of our seemingly fractured psyche: the natural selection of curiosity, knowledge accumulation, and behavioral complexity for survival purposes has become co-opted for just about any purpose imaginable, since the hardware and schema required for the former has a capacity that transcends its evolutionary purpose and that transcends the finite boundaries, the guiding constraints, and the essential structure of the lives we once had in our evolutionary past.  Now we’ve moved beyond what used to be a kind of essential quality and highly predictable trajectory of our lives and of our species, and we’ve moved into the unknown; from the realm of the finite and the familiar to the seemingly infinite realm of the unknown.

A big part of this externalization has manifested itself in the new ways we acquire, store, and share information, such as with the advent of mass media.  As Barrett puts it:

“…journalism enables people to deal with life more and more at second hand.  Information usually consists of half-truths, and “knowledgability” becomes a substitute for real knowledge.  Moreover, popular journalism has by now extended its operations into what were previously considered the strongholds of culture-religion, art, philosophy…It becomes more and more difficult to distinguish the secondhand from the real thing, until most people end by forgetting there is such a distinction.”

I think this ties well into what Barrett mentioned previously when he talked about how modern civilization is built on increasing levels of abstraction.  The very information we’re absorbing, in order to make sense of and deal with a large aspect of our contemporary world, is second hand at best.  The information we rely on has become increasingly abstracted, manipulated, reinterpreted, and distorted.  The origin of so much of this information is now at least one level away from our immediate experience, giving it a quality that is disconnected, less important, and far less real than it otherwise would be.  But we often forget that there’s any epistemic difference between our first-hand lived experience and the information that arises from our mass media.

To add to Barrett’s previous description of existentialism as a reaction against positivism, he also mentions Karl Jaspers’ views of existentialism, which he described as:

“…a struggle to awaken in the individual the possibilities of an authentic and genuine life, in the fact of the great modern drift toward a standardized mass society.”

Though I concur with Jaspers’ claim that modernity has involved a shift toward a standardized mass society in a number of ways, I also think that it has provided the means for many more ways of being unique, many more possible talents and interests for one to explore, and many more kinds of goals to choose from for one’s life project(s).  Collectivization and distribution of labor and the technology that has precipitated from it have allowed many to avoid spending all day hunting and gathering food, making or cleaning their clothing, and other tasks that had previously consumed most of one’s time.

Now many people (in the industrialized world at least) have the ability to accumulate enough free time to explore many other types of experiences, including reading and writing, exploring aspects of our existence with highly-focused introspective effort (as in philosophy), creating or enjoying vast quantities of music and other forms of art, listening to and telling stories, playing any number of games, and thousands of other activities.  And even though some of these activities have been around for millennia, many of them have not (or there was little time for them), and of those that have been around the longest, there were still far fewer choices than what we have on offer today.  So we mustn’t forget that many people develop a life-long passion for at least some of these experiences that would never have been made possible without our modern society.

The issue I think lies in the balance or imbalance between standardization and collectivization on the one hand (such that we reap the benefits of more free time and more recreational choices), and opportunities for individualistic expression on the other.  And of the opportunities that exist for individualistic expression, there is still the need to track the psychological consequences that result from them so we can pick more psychologically fulfilling choices; so that we can pick choices that better allow us to keep open that channel between reason and emotion and between the rational and the non-rational/irrational that religion once provided, as Barrett mentioned earlier.

We also have to accept the fact that the findings in science have largely dehumanized or inhibited the anthropomorphization of nature, instead showing us that the universe is indifferent to us and to our goals; that humans and life in general are more of an aberration than anything else within a vast cosmos that is inhospitable to life.  Only after acknowledging the situation we’re in can we fully appreciate the consequences that modernity has had on upending the comforting structure that religion once gave to humans throughout their lives.  As Barrett tell us:

“Science stripped nature of its human forms and presented man with a universe that was neutral, alien, in its vastness and force, to his human purposes.  Religion, before this phase set in, had been a structure that encompassed man’s life, providing him with a system of images and symbols by which he could express his own aspirations toward psychic wholeness.  With the loss of this containing framework man became not only a dispossessed but a fragmentary being.”

Although we can’t unlearn the knowledge that has caused religion to decline including that which has had a bearing on the questions dealing with our ultimate meaning and purpose, we can certainly find new ways of filling the psychological void felt by many as a result of this decline.  The modern world has many potential opportunities for psychologically fulfilling projects in life, and these opportunities need to be more thoroughly explored.  But, existentialist thought rightly reminds us of how the fruits of our rational and enlightened philosophy have been less capable of providing as satisfying an answer to the question “What are human beings?” as religion once gave.  Along with the fruits of the Enlightenment came a lack of consolation, and a number of painful truths pertaining to the temporal and contingent nature of our existence, previously thought to possess both an eternal and necessary character.  Overall, this cultural change and accumulation of knowledge effectively forced humanity out of its comfort zone.  Barrett described the situation quite well when he said:

“In the end, he [modern man] sees each man as solitary and unsheltered before his own death.  Admittedly, these are painful truths, but the most basic things are always learned with pain, since our inertia and complacent love of comfort prevent us from learning them until they are forced upon us.”

Modern humanity then, has become alienated from God, from nature, and from the complex social machinery that produces the goods and services that he both wants and needs.  Even worse yet however, is the alienation from one’s own self that has occurred as humans have found themselves living in a society that expects each of them to perform some specific function in life (most often not of their choosing), and this leads to society effectively identifying each person as this function, forgetting or ignoring the real person buried underneath.

3.  Science and Finitude

In this last section of chapter two, Barrett discusses some of the ultimate limitations in our use of reason and in the scope of knowledge we can obtain from our scientific and mathematical methods of inquiry.  Reason itself is described as the product of a creature “whose psychic roots still extend downward into the primeval soil,” and is thus a creation from an animal that is still intimately connected to an irrational foundation; an animal still possessing a set of instincts arising from its evolutionary origins.

We see this core presence of irrationality in our day-to-day lives whenever we have trouble trying to employ reason, such as when it conflicts with our emotions and intuitions.  And Barrett brings up the optimism in the confirmed rationalist and their belief that they may still be able to one day overcome all of these obstacles of irrationality by simply employing reason in a more clever way than before.  Clearly Barrett doesn’t share this optimism of the rationalist and he tries to support his pessimism by pointing out a few limitations of reason as suggested within the work of Immanuel Kant, modern physics, and mathematics.

In Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, he lays out a substantial number of claims and concepts relating to metaphysics and epistemology, where he discusses the limitations of both reason and the senses.  Among other things, he claims that our reason is limited by certain a priori intuitional forms or predispositions about space and time (for example) that allow us to cognize any thing at all.  And so if there are any “things in themselves”, that is, real objects underlying whatever appears to us in the external world, where these objects have qualities and attributes that are independent of our experience, then we can never know anything of substance about these underlying features.  We can never see an object or understand it in any way without incorporating a large number of intuitional forms and assumptions in order to create that experience at all; we can never see the world without seeing it through the limited lens of our minds and our body’s sensory machinery.

For Kant, this also means that we may often use reason erroneously to make unjustified claims of knowledge pertaining to the transcendent, particularly within metaphysics and theology.  When reason is applied to ideas that can’t be confirmed through sensory experience, or that lie outside of our realm of possible experience (such as the idea that cause and effect laws govern every interaction in the universe, something we can never know through experience), it leads to knowledge claims that it can’t justify.  Another limitation of reason, according to Kant, is that it operates through an a priori assumption of unification in our experience, and so the categories and concepts that we infer to exist based on reason are limited by this underlying unifying principle.  Science has added to the rigidity and specificity of this unification, by going beyond what we’ve unified through our unmodified experience (i.e. seeing the sun “rise” and “set” every day), that is, experience without the use of any instruments, telescopes, microscopes, etc. (where the use of these instruments has helped give us more data showing that the earth rotates on an axis rather than the sun revolving around the earth).  Nevertheless, unification is the ultimate goal of reason whether applied with or without a strict scientific method.

Then within physics, we find another limitation in terms of our possible understanding of the world.  Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle showed us that we are unable to know complementary parameters pertaining to a particle with an arbitrarily high level of precision.  We eventually hit a limit where, for example, if we know the position of a particle (such as an electron) with a high degree of accuracy at some particular time, then we’re unable to know the momentum of that particle with the same accuracy.  The more we know about one complementary parameter, the less we know about the other.  Barrett describes this discovery in physics as showing that nature may be irrational and chaotic at its most fundamental level and then he says:

“What is remarkable is that here, at the very farthest reaches of precise experimentation, in the most rigorous of the natural sciences, the ordinary and banal fact of our human limitations emerges.”

This is indeed interesting because for a long while many rationalists and positivists held that our potential knowledge was unlimited (or finite, yet complete) and that science was the means to gain this open-ended or complete knowledge of the universe.  Then quantum physics delivered a major blow to this assumption, showing us instead that our knowledge is inherently limited based on how the universe is causally structured.  However, it’s worth pointing out that this is not a human limitation per se, but a limitation of any conscious system acquiring knowledge in our universe.  It wouldn’t matter if humans had different brains, better technology, or used artificial intelligence to perform the computations or measurements.  There is simply a limit on what can ever be measured; a limit on what can ever be known about the state of any system that is being studied.

Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem likewise showed how there were inherent limitations in any mathematical formulation of number theory that was rich enough where, no matter how large or seemingly complete its set of axioms are, if it is consistent, then there will be statements that can’t be proven or disproven within that formulation.  Likewise, the consistency of any formulation of number theory can’t be proven by the formulation itself; rather, it depends on assumptions that lie outside of that formulation.  However, once again, contrary to what Barrett claims, I don’t think this should be taken to be a human limitation of reason, but rather a limitation of mathematics generally.

Regardless, I concede Barrett’s overarching point that, in all of these cases (Kant, physics, and mathematics), we are still running into scenarios where we are unable to do something or to know something that we may have previously thought we could do or thought we could know, at least in principle.  And so these discoveries did run counter to the beliefs of many that thought that humans were inherently unstoppable in these endeavors of knowledge accumulation and in our ability to create technology capable of solving any problem whatsoever.  We can’t do this.  We are finite creatures with finite brains, but perhaps more importantly, our capacities are also limited by what knowledge is theoretically available to any conscious system trying to better understand the universe.  The universe is inherently unknowable in at least some respects, which means it is unpredictable in at least some respects.  And unpredictability doesn’t sit well with humans intent on eliminating uncertainty, eliminating the unknown, and trying to have a coherent narrative to explain everything encountered throughout one’s existence.

In the next post in this series, I’ll explore Irrational Man, Part 1, Chapter 3: The Testimony of Modern Art.

“The Brothers Karamazov” – A Moral & Philosophical Critique (Part II)

In my last post in this series, concerning Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, I talked about the concept of good and evil and the character Ivan’s personal atheistic perception that they are contingent on God existing (or at least an afterlife of eternal reward or punishment).  While there may even be a decent percentage of atheists that share this view (objective morality being contingent on God’s existence), I briefly explained my own views (being an atheist myself) which differs from Ivan’s in that I am a moral realist and believe that morality is objective independent of any gods or immortal souls existing.  I believe that moral facts exist (and science is the best way to find them), that morality is ultimately grounded on objective facts pertaining to human psychology, biology, sociology, neurology, and other facts about human beings, and thus that good and evil do exist in at least some sense.

In this post, I’m going to talk about Ivan’s influence on his half-brother, Smerdyakov, who ends up confessing to Ivan that he murdered their father Fyodor Pavlovich, as a result of Ivan’s philosophical influence on him.  In particular, Smerdyakov implicates Ivan as at least partially responsible for his own murderous behavior since Ivan successfully convinced him that evil wasn’t possible in a world without a God.  Ivan ends up becoming consumed with guilt, basically suffers a nervous breakdown, and then is incessantly taunted by a demonic apparition.  The hallucinations continue up until the moment Ivan comes to find out, from his very religious brother Alyosha, that Smerdyakov has hung himself.  This scene highlights a number of important topics beyond the moral realism I discussed in the first post, such as moral responsibility, free will, and even moral desert (I’ll discuss this last topic in my next post).

As I mentioned before, beyond the fact that we do not need a god to ground moral values, we also don’t need a god or an afterlife to motivate us to behave morally either.  By cultivating moral virtues such as compassion, honesty, and reasonableness, and analyzing a situation using a rational assessment of as many facts as are currently accessible, we can maximize our personal satisfaction and thus our chances of living a fulfilling life.  Behavioral causal factors that support this goal are “good” and those that detract from it are “evil”.  Aside from these labels though, we actually experience a more or less pleasing life depending on our behaviors and therefore we do have real-time motivations for behaving morally (such as acting in ways that conform to various cultivated virtues).  Aristotle claimed this more than 2000 years ago and moral psychology has been confirming it time and time again.

Since we have evolved as a particular social species with a particular psychology, not only do we have particular behaviors that best accomplish a fulfilling life, but there are also various behavioral conditioning algorithms and punishment/reward systems that are best at modifying our behavior.  And this brings me to Smerdyakov.  By listening to Ivan and ultimately becoming convinced by Ivan’s philosophical arguments, he seems to have been conditioned out of his previous views on moral responsibility.  In particular, he ended up adopting the belief that if God does not exist, then anything is permissible.  Since he also rejected a belief in God, he therefore thought he could do whatever he wanted.

One thing this turn of events highlights is that there are a number of different factors that influence people’s behaviors and that lead to their being reasoned into doing (or not doing) all sorts of things.  As Voltaire once said “Those who can make you believe absurdities can also make you commit atrocities.  And I think what Ivan told Smerdyakov was in fact absurd — although it was a belief that I once held as well not long after becoming an atheist.  For it is quite obviously absurd that anything is permissible without a God existing for at least two types of reasons: pragmatic considerations and moral considerations (with the former overlapping with the latter).  Pragmatic reasons include things like not wanting to be fined, incarcerated, or even executed by a criminal justice system that operates to minimize illegal behaviors.  It includes not wanting to be ostracized from your circle of friends, your social groups, or your community (and risking the loss of beneficial reciprocity, safety nets, etc.).  Moral reasons include everything that detracts from your overall psychological well-being, the very thing that is needed to live a maximally fulfilling life given one’s circumstances.  Behaving in ways that degrade your sense of inner worth, your integrity, self-esteem, and that diminish a good conscience, is going to make you feel miserable compared to behaving in ways that positively impact these fundamental psychological goals.

Furthermore, this part of the story illustrates that we have a moral responsibility not only to ourselves and our own behavior, but also in terms of how we influence the behavior of those around us, based on what we say, how we treat them, and more.  This also reinforces the importance of social contract theory and how it pertains to moral behavior.  If we follow simple behavioral heuristics like the Golden Rule and mutual reciprocity, then we can work together to obtain and secure common social goods such as various rights, equality, environmental sustainability, democratic legislation (ideally based on open moral deliberation), and various social safety nets.  We also can punish those that violate the social contract, as we already do with the criminal justice system and various kinds of social ostracization.  While our system of checks is far from perfect, having some system that serves such a purpose is necessary because not everybody behaves in ways that are ultimately beneficial to themselves nor everyone else around them.  People need to be conditioned to behave in ways that are more conducive to their own well being and that of others, and if all reasonable efforts to achieve that fails, they may simply need to be quarantined through incarceration (for example psychopaths or other violent criminals that society needs to be protected from, and that aren’t responding to rehabilitation efforts).

In any case, we do have a responsibility to others and that means we need to be careful what we say, such as the case with Ivan and his brother.  And this includes how we talk about concepts like free will, moral responsibility, and moral desert (justice).  If we tell people that all of their behaviors are determined and therefore don’t matter, that’s not a good way to get people to behave in ways that are good for them or for others.  Nor is telling them that because a God doesn’t exist, that their actions don’t matter.  In the case of deterministic nihilism, it’s a way to get people to lose much if not all of their motivation to put forward effort in achieving useful goals.  And both deterministic and atheistic moral nihilism are dangerous ideas that can get some people to commit heinous crimes such as mass shootings (or murdering their own father as Smerdyakov did), because they simply cause people to think that all behaviors are on equal footing in any way that matters.  And quite frankly, those nihilistic ideas are not only dangerous but also absurd.

While I’ve written a bit on free will in the past, my views have become more refined over the years, and my overall attitude towards the issue has been co-evolving alongside my views on morality.  The main crux of the free will issue is that libertarian free will is logically impossible because our actions are never free from both determinism and indeterminism (randomness) since one or the other must underlie how our universe operates (depending on which interpretation of Quantum Mechanics is correct).  Neither option from this logical dichotomy gives us “the freedom to have chosen to behave differently given the same initial conditions in a non-random way”.  Therefore free will in this sense is logically impossible.  However, this does not mean that our behavior isn’t operating under some sets of rules and patterns that we can discover and modify.  That is to say, we can effectively reprogram many of our behavioral tendencies using various forms of conditioning through punishment/reward systems.  These are the same systems we use to teach children how to behave and to rehabilitate criminals.

The key thing to note here is that we need to acknowledge that even if we don’t have libertarian free will, we still have a form of “free will” that matters (as philosophers like Daniel Dennett have said numerous times) whereby we have the ability to be programmed and reprogrammed in certain ways, thus allowing us to take responsibility for our actions and design ways to modify future actions as needed.  We have more degrees of freedom than a person who is insane for example, or a child, or a dog, and these degrees of freedom or autonomy — the flexibility we have in our decision-making algorithms — can be used as a rough guideline for determining how “morally responsible” a person is for their actions.  That is to say, the more easily a person can be conditioned out of a particular behavior, and the more rational decision making processes are involved in governing that behavior, the more “free will” this person has in a sense that applies to a criminal justice system and that applies to most of our everyday lives.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether someone thinks that their behavior doesn’t matter because there’s no God, or because they have no libertarian free will.  What needs to be pointed out is the fact that we are able to behave in ways (or be conditioned to behave in ways) that lead to more happiness, more satisfaction and more fulfilling lives.  And we are able to behave in ways that detract from this goal.  So which behaviors should we aim for?  I think the answer is obvious.  And we also need to realize that as a part of our behavioral patterns, we need to realize that ideas have consequences on others and their subsequent behaviors.  So we need to be careful about what ideas we choose to spread and to make sure that they are put into a fuller context.  If a person hasn’t given some critical reflection about the consequences that may ensue from spreading their ideas to others, especially to others that may misunderstand it, then they need to keep those ideas to themselves until they’ve reflected on them more.  And this is something that I’ve discovered and applied for myself as well, as I was once far less careful about this than I am now.  In the next post, I’m going to talk about the concept of moral desert and how it pertains to free will.  This will be relevant to the scene described above regarding Ivan’s demonic apparition that haunts him as a result of his guilt over Smerdyakov’s murder of their father, as well as why the demonic apparition disappeared once Ivan heard that Smerdyakov had taken his own life.

Non-separability vs. Reductionism: an Inference of Quantum Mechanics

Reductionism has been an extremely effective approach for learning a lot about the world around us.  The amount of information that we’ve obtained as a result of this method has allowed us to more effectively predict the course of nature and thus appears to have been invaluable in our quest for better understanding the universe.  However, I believe that several limitations of reductionism have been revealed through Quantum Mechanics, thus demonstrating it to be inapplicable to the fundamental nature of the universe.  This inapplicability results from the “non-separability” property that appears to emerge from within Quantum mechanical theory.  While this is just my inference of some of the quantum physical findings, the implications of this property of “non-separability” (i.e. “one-ness”) are vast, far-reaching and are incredibly significant in terms of the “lens” we use to look at the world around us.

I feel that I need to define what I mean by “reductionism” as there are a few interpretations (some more ambiguous than others) as well as specific types of reductionism that people may refer to more than others.  Among these types are: theoretical, methodological and ontological reductionism.  I’m mostly concerned with ontological and methodological reductionism.  When I use the term “reductionism”, I am referring to the view that the nature of complex things can be reduced to the interaction of their parts.  An alternate definition that I’ll use in combination with the former is the view that the whole (a complex system) is simply the sum of its parts (some may see this as the opposite of “holism” or “synergy” — in which the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts).  The use of the word “parts” is what I find most important in these definitions.  We can see an obvious problem if we attempt to unify the concept of “parts” (a required component of reductionism) with the concept of “no parts” (an implied component of non-separability).  My use of the word “non-separability” implies that any parts that may appear to exist are illusory parts due to the fact that the concept “parts” implies that it is separate from everything else (separate from “other parts”, etc.).  To simplify matters, one could equate the concept of non-separability that I’m referring to with the concept of “one-ness” (i.e. there are no “parts”, there is only the whole).

Reductionism is an idea that appears to have been around for centuries.  The idea has penetrated the realms of science and philosophy from the time of Thales from Miletus — who held the belief that the world was or was composed of water at a fundamental level, to the time of the scientific revolution and onward with the advent of Isaac Newton’s classical mechanics (or more appropriately “Newtonian” mechanics) and the new yet equivalent views of Lagrangian and Hamiltonian mechanics that ensued.  I think it would be safe to say that most scientists from that point forward were convinced that anything could be broken down into fundamental parts providing us with a foundation for 100% predictability (determinism).  After all, if a system seemed too complex to predict, breaking it down into simpler components seemed to be the easiest route to succeed.  Even though scientists couldn’t predict anything with 100% certainty, it was believed by many that it was possible if the instrumentation used was sufficient enough.  They thought that perhaps there were fundamental constituent building blocks that followed a deterministic model.  This view would change drastically in the early part of the 20th century when the foundations for Quantum Mechanics were first established by Bohr, de Broglie, Heisenberg, Planck, Shrodinger and many others.  New discoveries such as Heisenberg’s famous “Uncertainty Principle”, as well as the concepts of wave-particle duality, quantum randomness, superposition, wave function collapse, entanglement, non-locality and others, began to repudiate classical ideas of causality and determinism.  These discoveries also implied that certain classical concepts like “location”, “object”, and “separate” needed to be reconsidered.  This appeared to be the beginning of the end of reductionism in my view, or more specifically, it demonstrated the fundamental limitations of such an approach.  One thing I want to point out is that I completely acknowledge that reductionism was the approach that eventually led to these quantum discoveries.  After all, we wouldn’t have been able to discover the quantum realm at all had we not “scaled” down our research (i.e. investigated physically smaller and smaller regimes) using reductionism.  While it did in fact lead us to the underlying quantum realm, it is what we choose to do with this new information that will effect our overall view of the world around us.

One interesting thing about the concept of reductionism is it’s relationship to the scientific method.  To clarify, at the very least, we can say that in order to have separate objects and observers (as we require in the scientific method) we must dismiss the idea of non-separability, thus employing the idea of separateness (required for reductionism).  The effectiveness of the scientific method presumes that the observer is not affecting the observed (i.e. they are isolated from each other).  Scientists are well aware of the “Observer effect”, whereby the minimization of this effect defines a better-controlled experiment and the elimination of the effect altogether defines a perfectly controlled experiment.  Experimentation within Quantum mechanics is no exception to this effect.  In fact, quantum mechanical measurements appear to have what I like to call a “100% observer effect”.  Allow me to clarify.  The superposition principle in quantum mechanics states that a physical system (e.g. an electron) exists in all it’s possible states simultaneously and only upon measuring that system will it give a result that corresponds to one of the possible states or configurations.  This unique effect produced by measurement is referred to as the “collapse of the wave-function”, at least according to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.  I think that this “100% observer effect” is worth noting when considering the scientific method and the reductionist elements within it.  There appears to be an inescapable interconnectedness between the observer and the observed which forces us to recognize the limitations of the scientific method within this realm.  At the very least, within this quantum realm, our classical idea of a “controlled” experiment no longer exists.

Another interesting discovery within Quantum mechanics was Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle which states that we can’t know any two complementary properties of a “particle” simultaneously without some minimum degree of uncertainty.  One example of complementary properties of a particle are position and momentum, whereby when we measure one property to an arbitrary accuracy we lose accuracy in our ability to measure the other property and vice versa.  Here again within the quantum realm we are able to see an interconnectedness, although this time it is between physical properties themselves.  Just as we saw in the case of the observer and the observed, what we once thought of as being completely separate and independent of one another, turn out to be unavoidably interconnected.

The last concept I want to discuss within quantum theory is that of quantum entanglement.  If two particles come into physical contact with each other, interact or are created in a very specific way, they can become entangled or linked together in very specific ways (much like that of the aforementioned complementary properties: position and momentum).  In this case, the linkage between the two particles is a shared quantum state where one particle can’t be fully described without considering the state of the other.  This shared quantum state “collapses” as soon as one of the particle’s states is measured.  For example, if we have two electrons that become entangled, and then we measure one of them to be a spin up electron, by default the other will be a spin down electron.  Prior to measurement, there is an equal probability that the first particle’s state measured will be spin up or spin down.  Again, according to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, the quantum state that this electron assumes upon measurement is completely random.  However, once the electron’s spin has been measured, there is a 100% chance that the other electron in the entangled pair will have the anti-correlated spin, even though in theory it should still be a 50% chance as was the case for the first electron.  At the time this was discovered, most physicists (most notably Einstein) were convinced that there was some form of a hidden variables theory which could determine which state the electron would assume upon measurement.  Unfortunately, Bell’s theorem suggested that local hidden variables were impossible.  This left only one alternative for an underlying determinism (if there was one) and that was the theory of non-local hidden variables.  Non-locality however is something that is so counter-intuitive due to its acausal nature, even if it was somehow deterministic, it would not make sense from a reductionist (i.e. locally interacting parts) perspective.  Thus, all of the reductionist approaches — that is, the assumption that complex systems can be explained by breaking them down into smaller, yet causally connected (locally interacting) parts, is inadequate for explaining the phenomena pervading the quantum realm.

The unique yet explicit case of quantum entanglement phenomena not only suggests that the idea of separate “parts” is flawed but also that the interconnectedness exhibited is non-local, which I believe to be extremely significant from not only a scientific and philosophical viewpoint, but from a spiritual perspective as well.  If “something” is non-locally interconnected with “something” else, does it not imply that the two are actually “one” ?  Perhaps this is an example of merely seeing “two different faces of the same coin”.  While they may appear to be separated in 3D-space, it does not mean that they have to be separated in a dimension outside our physical reality or experience.  To put it another way, non-locality suggests the possibility of extra spatial dimensions if we are to negate the alternative — that is, that the speed of light is being violated within 3D space by faster-than-light information transfer (e.g. one electron communicates to the other instantaneously such that the appropriate anti-correlation exists between their spin state).  If two particles that seem to be “separate” in our physical reality are in fact “one”, then we could surmise that other sets of particles or even all particles for that matter (that we do not currently define to be “entangled”) are entangled in an unknown way.  There may be an infinite number of extra spatial dimensions to account for all unknown types of “entanglement”.  We could hypothesize in this case that every seemingly separate particle is actually interconnected as “one” entity.  While we may never know whether or not this is the case, it’s an interesting thought.  It would imply that the degrees of separation that we observe are fallacious, and simply a result of the connection being hidden.  It would be analogous to our thinking that the continents are separate pieces of land, when in fact, deep in the ocean, we can clearly see the continuity between all of those continents.

If we consider the Big Bang Theory, the “singularity” that supposedly existed prior to expansion would be a more intuitive way of looking at this homogenous entity I describe as “one”.  Perhaps after expansion, it started to take on an appearance of reducible separateness (within three dimensions of space anyways), and my theory that this separateness is illusory appears to be demonstrated in quantum phenomena despite the fact that this idea is entirely counter-intuitive to our everyday experience in a 3D-limited scope of our physical reality.  I feel that it’s important to recognize this illusion of separateness from a philosophical perspective and utilize this view to help realize that we are all “one” with each other and the entire universe.  While I may have no prescription for how to use this information (as I believe it will require self-discovery to have any real meaning to you), it’s just the way I feel on the matter — take it or leave it.  Life goes on.