From the beginning, the dream of philosophy was that mankind could use reason to determine the good, the true, and the beautiful. From there, the wisest among us could design ways to live that would be both in accordance with the will of the gods and the true desires of man. This is the deep reason why Plato’s The Republic is the first venerated work in Western philosophy and is still studied today.
In the West, the sciences of the natural world saw a great flourishing in the 17th Century. Foremost among the exciting accomplishments to come out of this time was Isaac Newton’s unification of astronomy and physics. He discovered that the motions of the heavenly bodies and earthly ones appeared to follow the same few, reasonably simple rules. It’s hard to overestimate the effect that this had on thinking people of the age. Suddenly, the world was amenable to reason – to what was then called natural philosophy – in a profound way. It was seen not only as a massive achievement in its own right, but as a harbinger of things to come.
Scientific advance drove technical improvements, which in turn supported further scientific advancements, on and on in a virtuous cycle seemingly without end. Each generation brought new and miraculous inventions. From the philosopher’s perspective, each advance served as conclusive proof of the correctness of the overarching project. This collective optimism about the power of reason went by the name Enlightenment; the idea being that the progress of the light of reason was illuminating all of the dark corners of the world, bringing mankind out of the shadows of fear and superstition and into the light of the glorious future.
The evidence in favor of this proposition was overwhelming. Reason, harnessed by the medical sciences, brought vaccines that promised to eliminate the scourge of disease from the Earth. Reason, harnessed by the social sciences, was bringing forth new forms of government and society based upon reason and principle rather than mere blood and tradition. And reason, harnessed by the physical sciences, had reshaped the face of the world. By the end of the 19th Century, the progress of Enlightenment had even delivered cheap, ubiquitous electric lighting. It was now literally possible for the power of reason to light up the night sky.
From this Enlightened perspective, the 20th Century saw the disastrous reversal of all of these beneficent trends. The birthplace of the Enlightenment convulsed in two generations of total war. At the end of the wildly destructive conflicts, as the hundreds of millions of corpses were tallied up, it became clear that the moral and social progress generations of wise men had prided themselves had dissolved in a wave of madness. The realization broke the spirit of two generations of philosophers, artists, and intellectuals.
Most worrisome, from a philosophical perspective, were the reverses in pure mathematics. Math had always been seen as the most rational of all the sciences. After all, when one works in mathematics, one is working with pure concepts without any necessary tether to the messy, real world. Proving a mathematical theorem is something like the frictionless ideal of the application of reason to determine truth.
At the beginning of the century, David Hilbert proposed a series of twenty-three open, important problems in mathematics. The second of these was to provide a proof of arithmetic in the language of formal systems. In a nutshell, he wanted to generate a finite proof based on a small set of axioms that would underlay the entire mathematical project. After all, every advance in mathematics is built upon the natural numbers and basic arithmetic. And, as every mathematician knows, any false assumption – no matter how seemingly small – invalidates the entire proof. The starkest madness inexorably seeps through the smallest cracks. 1 = 0; halt and catch fire!
As is famously known, it turns out that Hilbert’s quest is impossible. It’s not just that nobody can do it, or that we just haven’t found the correct brilliant angle to the solution yet. It is impossible. If you take all of mathematics as an outgrowth of a single unitary theory, a man named Gödel proved this impossibility rather famously in the ’30s.
At around the same time, a similar series of realizations were sweeping physics. Fundamental limits to knowledge were being discovered. For instance, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle states that it is impossible to know both a given particle’s position and momentum to an arbitrarily accurate degree. Similarly, decay times for subatomic particles are irreducibly random. It isn’t just a statistical heuristic that half of a sample will decay in a certain timeframe; each particle’s decay follows that same pattern.
At the end of the wars, there was only one remaining strain of the Enlightenment project that was capable of inspiring the same spirit of Enlightened optimism in the future: scientific socialism. By far the most popular strain of this was Marxism, as embodied most prominently in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The remnants of the Enlightenment project gathered under the Marxist-Leninist banner in an attempt to drive back the forces of darkness and reclaim the future. They failed – completely, utterly, and ruinously.
This failure was predicted by Friedrich Hayek at around the same time Heisenberg and Gödel were proving the limits to knowledge in the realms of physics and math. Hayek warned about the calculation problem inherent in a command economy. In his view, scientific socialism could not be sustained in the long term precisely because it was impossible for the private utility information that went into price calculations to ever be known by the central planning authority.
From this perspective, post-modernism can be seen as the response to living in a shattered, post-apocalyptic philosophical landscape. Enlightenment failed on its own terms. Now our best minds are left to pick through the wreckage in an attempt to cobble something together out of discarded bits and pieces of half-functional concepts. It is quite understandable, in this light, that the modern academy is full of people gibbering incoherently as Cthulhu cultists. What else can they do?
But, believe it or not, the situation gets worse. It has been taken as a matter of faith for thousands of years that the truth would set us free. Veritas vos liberabit, as it is said in Latin, and as such inscribed in stone in countless institutions dedicated to the discovery and dissemination of the truth. But what if it doesn’t? Where are we left, then?
As the 21st Century dawns, careful investigations into the truth have systematically undermined the very idea of the search for truth itself. A powerful example of this is the existence of the placebo effect. Countless studies have shown that simply giving someone a treatment for a disease that they believe will be effective but that is guaranteed to be inert (e.g. a sugar pill instead of one with any active ingredients) is almost as good as giving them a real drug.
This is commonly known. But what’s less obvious is that in lots of cases, the placebo effect simply dwarfs the actual effect. Sometimes, up to 90% or more of the benefit of a drug comes solely from the ritual of taking a drug one believes to be good for what ails you. And, crucially, the strength of the placebo effect appears to be based on the degree of faith the patient has in the process. If he knows that he’s taking a drug that doesn’t do anything, he gets much less benefit from the treatment. And if he merely suspects that he might not be getting the real drug (like if he’s a participant in a clinical trial) that is enough to significantly dampen it.
This means that, in a real sense, all healing is actually faith healing. If you lie to your child and tell them that there’s a treatment for their disease and they’ll be OK if they just listen to the doctor and do what he says, your child is more likely to live. Or, put more flippantly, this implies directly that truth is bad for children and other living things.
And the effect is corrosive. Just knowing about the placebo effect makes treatments less likely to work. It’s like a stage magician’s performance. Once you know how it works, the magic is gone. All that’s left is the artistry of the illusion.
Another example of this is depression. It’s commonly known that people in the grips of depression have very low self-esteem. Often, when interviewed, they will report that this is because they are nothing special. In their eyes, they believe that they are less skilled than their peers, less talented, and just generally less valuable to society than other people.
One’s first instinct is to restore their spirits by explaining to them the true value of their potential accomplishments. Things can’t possibly be that bad. They’re depressed, miserable, and not thinking clearly.
But, lo and behold, when people did studies to determine the degree of the effect of depression on people’s self-assessments, they discovered something terrifying. Depressed people are, on average, accurate in their assessments of their skills, abilities, and control over their surroundings. It’s all the psychologically healthy people that are running around with unrealistically rosy self-images!
Think about what this means for a moment. Depressed people are self-evidently broken. They don’t operate anywhere near full capacity toward any goal that they may claim to value. And, often, they report that there isn’t any point to doing anything. They very well may be right about that, too. It’s just like with the placebo effect: too much contact with the truth breaks you.
There are countless other examples of where irrationality proves to be superior to the rational alternative. For instance, it is well-known that in the game of Chicken, it is a winning strategy to publicly throw one’s steering wheel out the window. Once you credibly precommit to such an irrational course of action, then a rational opponent has no alternative but to yield. A similar effect can be had by blacking out one’s windshield: when it is obvious to both sides that one party is blind to the brinksmanship, the party in possession of more information is forced to back down.
This is not a contrived example, either. There are lots and lots of negotiations in the real world that can be modeled in this manner. The same logic holds in situations ranging from nuclear-powered Cold War brinksmanship to unions negotiating contracts even down to birds deciding whether or not to vigorously defend their nesting ground from an intruder. Basically, any time there is a situation where both parties lose drastically from a confrontation, lose slightly when they mutually shy away from conflict, and win when they fight and the other backs down, you have a game of Chicken.
As deep as these cuts may seem, it’s still theoretically possible to compartmentalize. Treat the mind like a ship: if it is composed of lots of watertight compartments, then if one is compromised the damage is isolated to the source compartment. Perhaps there is a way forward by approaching the search for truth carefully, in regions where the effects will not be altogether too dangerous. Perhaps, then, the techniques Orwell referred to as crimestop should be actively embraced. Seek to not tug too hard on fraying threads that cross your vision, lest one unravel one’s only defenses from the maddening truth.
Unfortunately, the hits keep coming. See, the Enlightenment had put a great emphasis on what came to be called the Blank Slate theory, following an old philosophical idea that a man’s beliefs and actions are largely plastic. They can be largely shaped by the proper education, training, and experience. Which makes a lot of intuitive and practical sense. Philosophy, as a discipline, makes little sense if one cannot expect to convince one’s fellows of various propositions through the use of reason applied jointly to arrive at independently verifiable truth. There’s no basis for argumentation.
But it turns out that the blank slate is essentially disproven. Virtually everything important is heritable. And separated-at-birth twin studies show that shared environment (read: education, especially as transmitted from parent to child) has almost no impact on any life outcomes. Statistically, the dominant factors are genetic endowment and/or prenatal environment (which does most of the work) and non-shared environment (which is basically “everything else”). This means that big swaths of what we’d consider disposition, character, or personality are not amenable to reasoned argument. They simply are.
Moreover, if one follows this line of reasoning to its ultimately maddening conclusion, it becomes clear that one should not model argumentation as convergence upon independent truth. A person is, to a first approximation, never convinced of anything philosophically important; he is merely presented with an argument that he is inherently primed to find attractive or not. If he is predisposed to adopt the belief, he will do so. If he is not, he will not. And, crucially, this process has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual truth or falsity of the proposition in some reasoned sense.
This explains a lot of otherwise baffling or curious patterns. Like, for instance, why ideas that are popular never seem to die when they are discredited. They can be made to be unpopular or otherwise socially disfavored. But they always seem to be lurking under the surface, just waiting to arise again. You wouldn’t expect this in a system that’s converging on truth, no matter how messily. Once the thesis and antithesis have been synthesized, you wouldn’t expect a whipsaw back to antithesis twenty years later. But if people’s disposition to find an idea attractive has not changed, then what are considered the deep and eternal philosophical truths is really just a matter of fashion.
It also explains how intelligent people tend to come to genuinely believe in abstract propositions that would so happen to benefit people like themselves. Or, more strictly, groups which they consider themselves a member. That’s why you have engineers attracted to libertarianism, for example. On average, they’re personally responsible, economically productive, and don’t much like other people as a species. So it follows that they are predisposed to go for a philosophy of political economy that says that everybody would be better off if people were left to their own devices as much as possible. Artists tend to have the opposite dispositions, so they’re more predisposed to prefer some flavor of socialism. Argumentation matters only insofar as exposure.
I have just concluded that the conscious, reasoned search for truth is both harmful and probably impossible to boot. In the eyes of my philosophical ancestors, I have gone mad. Sure, it doesn’t feel like it from the inside. But it wouldn’t, would it?
Well, when in Rome … Ia, Ia! Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn! And yet …
I cannot still help but think that there is hope. Even if the human mind is not structured so as to be able to contact the truth safely, the truth exists. There is a world outside my head. There’s even a world outside our collective heads. It is not as if the Enlightenment project was a complete failure, after all. I write this essay on a computer, powered by a city-wide electrical grid, wrought by the efforts of countless men exercising their reason in a very particular way. If nothing else, existence is a valid proof of existence itself.
In the best empirical tradition, these men tested their beliefs against the natural world through experiment. One does not need to hold the truth in one’s head – to embrace the madness – if one is shaped by it through direct contact. Test it and it works: this is proof enough that this small test, under these conditions, correctly represents a shard of the vast, dangerous truth.
By extension, if it lives, it lives in accordance with the truth. If it thrives, it thrives in accordance with the truth. And if it reproduces and spreads, it does so only in accordance with the deep, maddening truth. In other words, the absence of any other reliable epistemology means we are necessarily thrown back on Darwinian measures to grope towards the truth. Try everything: what doesn’t die is true. Or, at least, true enough.
In this sense, contra the ancient tradition, force is a legitimate tactic of philosophical argumentation. In the end, it is the final recourse. The ability to kill a man is, ipso facto, a demonstration of better alignment with the unreasoning truth of the universe than one’s victim. Just as Clausewitz declared that war is politics by other means, so too is war philosophy by other means.
It reminds me of the scene in The Princess Bride when the man in black presented Vizzini with the poisoned chalices. “All right: where is the poison? The battle of wits has begun. It ends when you decide and we both drink, and find out who is right and who is dead.” It did not matter at all what complicated chains of reasoning the glib Vizzini was able to construct. All that mattered, in the end, was his fatal choice.