Why we need a common faith

Is there any clear route out of the philosophical modernity and nihilism that plague our reality?

Artillery Row

Ours is an age marked by deep confusion. Ideas that were accepted wholesale only a decade ago — the biological reality of sex, for instance — are today the subject of wild, acrimonious debate. Political disputes are no longer simply about competing visions of government, but entirely divergent conceptions of reality — we cannot even seem to agree, these days, on something as basic as the definitions of “man” and “woman”.

This is often blamed on the “woke” — a small, vocal band of activists set on tearing down the world as we know it. But such finger-pointing is disingenuous: the profound sense of doubt that afflicts us today long predates the rise of these faddish radicals. It is, in fact, the result of a much older problem: our absolute impotence in the face of philosophical modernity.

The West has been pummelled by a number of increasingly lethal blows of intellectual scepticism

Let me explain. For several hundred years, the West has been pummelled by a number of increasingly lethal blows of intellectual scepticism. Philosophers — among them Descartes, Hume and Nietzsche — knocked out of us not only our belief in the supernatural, but our very faith in the ability of mankind to think, reason, or say anything at all. It was a prolonged beating from which we have never really recovered — and yet we are today expected, somehow, to carry on as though nothing ever happened.

But how? How do we expect, if we cannot even agree on whether there is such a thing as objective morality, to have reasonable debates about, say, abortion or immigration? Why are we surprised to find that, having lost our faith in the ability of language to refer to any kind of reality “out there”, we end up squabbling over the meaning of words? These are problems of a basic logical nature: just as you cannot convince a shopkeeper to sell you something if all you have is Monopoly money, you cannot expect to persuade an intellectual opponent if the very words you use are meaningless, the reason you depend on is illusory, and the morality to which you appeal is non-existent.

Various attempts have been made over the years to fudge the issue, but it simply won’t go away. Which means there’s little of substance to add — even when trying to make sense of relatively recent phenomena — to the original diagnoses made by the great minds of the twentieth century. What is there, for instance, to update — 34 years later — from this passage from Leszek Kołakowski’s 1986 essay Modernity On Endless Trial:

We experience an overwhelming and at the same time humiliating feeling of déjà vu in following and participating in contemporary discussions about the destructive effects of the so-called secularisation of Western civilisation, the apparently progressive evaporation of our religious legacy, and the sad spectacle of a godless world. It appears as if we suddenly woke up to perceive things which the humble, and not necessarily highly educated, priests have been seeing — and warning us about — for three centuries and which they have repeatedly denounced in their Sunday sermons. They kept telling their flocks that a world that has forgotten God has forgotten the very distinction between good and evil and has made human life meaningless, sunk into nihilism. Now, proudly stuffed with our sociological, historical, anthropological and philosophical knowledge, we discover the same simple wisdom, which we try to express in a slightly more sophisticated idiom.

Kołakowski’s words call to mind the famous conclusion reached by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in 1983, that he could not — despite many decades studying the disasters that had befallen Russia — come up with any better explanation for what had happened than the one his elders had given him as a child: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”

“By being old and simple,” Kołakowski writes, “this wisdom does not necessarily cease to be true”. Indeed, we are struck by the alarming realisation, when diving back into the literature of the twentieth century, that almost everything we confront today was already understood and explained, and in some cases predicted in advance, by critics of philosophical modernity decades ago.

The intellectual historian Richard Weaver, for instance, identified the beginnings of our present linguistic crisis in his 1948 book Ideas Have Consequences: the West, having snipped once and for all the philosophical umbilical cord between language and reality, was only just coming to terms, he argued, with the obvious fact that it had therefore rendered its words utterly impotent — and made dialogue impossible. Weaver traced this back to the nominalism of the fourteenth-century friar William of Ockham: “Here begins the assault on definition: if words no longer correspond to objective realities, it seems no great wrong to take liberties with words. From this point on, faith in language as a means of arriving at truth weakens, until our own age, [in which we are] filled with an acute sense of doubt”.

Seventy years after Weaver’s book, it’s hard to think of any better explanation for the confusion that afflicts us today: if we no longer believe in our words to correspond to any kind of reality, how can we hope to resolve disputes over what — for instance — constitutes “male” or “female”?

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre took up a similar theme in his 1981 book After Virtue. He noted that, while ethical disputes were becoming increasingly rancorous, they were also increasingly characterised by a strange emptiness: terms like “good” and “bad” were no longer used to appeal to objective values but treated as a kind of emotional artillery with which to bombard and manipulate opponents. Forty years later, can we really conclude we’ve made any progress in reattaching moral language to an objective framework? If anything, we have drifted further from first principles than ever — moral disputes often consist simply of participants taking turns to one-up each other with vacuous slogans: “Love Is A Human Right”, “Love Wins”, etc.

There are only two routes available out of philosophical modernism: faith or madness

Perhaps the only real area in which our predicament is genuinely new is a psychological one: a late reaction to the psychoanalytic idea that the subconscious says something more truthful about human beings than our conscious thoughts and intentions. This has led to a number of unpleasant phenomena: the obsession with “microaggressions”; the idea that certain beliefs can be explained away by “internalised racism” or “internalised sexism”; the notion that we can root out evil by eliminating the words that make society, at an unconscious level, inherently oppressive — leading to a strange fixation on the terms we use at precisely the same moments our faith in language is, as Weaver points out, collapsing. These developments may well be novel, but they are hardly something to celebrate.

Otherwise, though, the last hundred or so years have consisted in — as Kołakowski put it — “patching up”: “We try to assert our modernity but escape from its effects by various intellectual devices, in order to convince ourselves that meaning can be restored or recovered apart from the traditional legacy of mankind and in spite of the destruction brought about by modernity.”

Many of these efforts to “patch up” modernity — to reinstate meaning with, for instance, blood and soil nationalism or revolutionary utopianism — proved, of course, utterly disastrous. We are lucky, in this sense, to be able to muddle along, for now, with a combination of irony and saccharine nihilism: “there’s no meaning to life, but at least we have cupcakes and kittens!”

But should the historical winds change, something will surely have to give — and we can only hope that it does not come in the form of a barbarous backlash. So what can we do?

We need to acknowledge that all thought, reason and logic depend on some kind of first principles

Kołakowski saw no obvious route out of philosophical modernity except with a return to theism. Weaver and MacIntyre appealed back to the Ancients: Weaver to the transcendent universals of Plato, and MacIntyre to the teleology of Aristotle. Whichever route we choose, we’ll need to start by challenging the contradictions of philosophical modernity itself — in particular, its claim that human reason bears little or no relation to reality.

The holes in the argument are surprisingly obvious. If human reason has nothing to do with reality, then the claim “human reason has nothing to do with reality” — which of course comes from human reason — has nothing to do with reality. Similar issues afflict almost all the claims of philosophical modernity.

If we have no free will, then the argument against free will comes not from the careful consideration of human beings exercising their ability to think, but from the arbitrary and impersonal chain reaction of material causes — there’s no reason one way or the other to take it seriously. If our words do not refer to any kind of objective truth, then the very sentence “our words do not refer to any kind of objective truth”, which is made up of words, is, of course, meaningless.

There are only two options, then: faith — not necessarily religious faith, but faith, at the very least, in the capacity of human reason to distinguish, however imperfectly, reality from unreality — or madness. Nietzsche suffered the latter, and in this sense proved the most consistent and formidable of the philosophical modernists.

But assuming we want to have discussions of any substantial kind at all, we will need first to acknowledge that all thought, reason and logic depend on some kind of first principles — and that, unless we can find a way to re-tether our arguments to these solid foundations, they will have as much weight and meaning as a wisp of smoke.

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