A Cure Worse than the Disease?

Sapere aude! ‘Have courage to use your own reason!’ – that is the motto of enlightenment. – I. Kant

Immanuel Kant was a philosopher who took Hume’s challenge seriously – indeed, more seriously than Hume himself (Kant, 2004). If science is so critical to our understanding of the universe, he reasoned, it must be possible to place it on a firm epistemic foundation, which requires defusing the problem of induction. And so he set out to do just this, though whether and in what sense he succeeded in this project is still a matter of debate.

Kant accepts the empiricist idea that we have no direct access to information about the “real” world (noumena) beyond our mental representations (phenomena). Since metaphysics is about the ultimate nature of reality, any empiricist making metaphysical claims is in the awkward position of using sensation as a guide to the supposedly extra-sensory causes of sensation. To make matters worse, Kant argues persuasively that our sensation is not a passive faculty on which the world impresses itself, but instead involves active (if subconscious) interpretation (a claim richly confirmed by modern psychology). This makes it impossible to know the nature of the world beyond our experience with any confidence – we are trapped in our own minds, as it were. To use a simple analogy, it’s as if we spend our entire lives locked inside a movie theatre with only the images on the screen as a guide to the outside world. We have no way to tell whether and to what extent the images correspond to what’s outside. And since we also know that our expectations and desires influence what see on the screen, we have strong grounds to be skeptical about any claim concerning the world beyond the theatre.

This is a radically pessimistic conclusion, to be sure, but Kant argues that we must not deceive ourselves about our epistemic situation or pretend it is otherwise. We can never know the true nature of the reality beyond our senses, period. Surprisingly, though, he does not think this implies skepticism. His unique insight is that, while we can never know anything definite about ultimate reality, we can know something about the ways we structure its influence on our experience. In essence, he argues that there are certain structural properties (categories) of the experiential world that are necessary for the function of reason. Thus, as rational creatures, we must think the way we do.
One of the necessary features of our perceptual world are causal relationships, a fact which allows us to justify the principle of induction, albeit not in the way we might wish. To put it bluntly, although we will never know whether things like causal relationships are real, we can know that, even if they are illusions, they are illusions that will be shared by all other rational creatures. Casual reasoning accurately portrays the mental worlds of all rational creatures – human, animal, alien or even divine – and this inter-subjectivity is as close to metaphysical truth as we will ever get.

Given such an intuitively unsettling conclusion, it should come as no surprise that opinions differ on whether this constitutes a victory for human knowledge. Indeed, the history of philosophy following Kant can plausibly be divided into two general camps based on reaction to his ideas. Those who take all of Kant’s conclusions seriously go on to found what is typically described as “analytic philosophy”, where the goal is seen as precisely delineating what we can and can’t know and in what ways. But those who reject his account of our limited objectivity are put on a very pessimistic path indeed. This is the seed of postmodernism.

Postmodernism is Born

“In the consciousness of the truth he has perceived, man now sees everywhere only the awfulness or the absurdity of existence and loathing seizes him. – F. Nietzsche

Kant’s philosophy had an electric effect on philosophy, catalyzing the formation of German idealism in the late 18th century. These philosophers tried in various ways to come to grips with what the devastating swath Kant had cut through traditional epistemology and metaphysics (Schelling, 2004; Hegel, 1977). One common approach was to simply accept our inability to find ever find truth – in other words, to adopt a radical form of epistemic pessimism. This sense of pessimism gained strength in the 19th century from a complex series of social and intellectual developments. A time of rapid social change, the dawn of the industrial revolution saw social upheaval that prompted many thinkers (most famously Marx and Engels) to argue for overthrowing the old political systems. Scientific systems were also being challenged in ways that lent momentum to the pessimistic spirit of the age. For example, the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species made it difficult to defend the traditional claim that human reason was anything terribly special, since it evolved from much simpler systems in non-human animals via a process that, if not random, at least showed no evidence of direction or purpose. And the pointless slaughter of the great war at the beginning of the 20th century proved the final nail in the coffin of modern optimism.

Thus grew the movement known popularly as postmodernism. It’s important to note immediately that this term conceals more than it reveals, as there is much more diversity and nuance here than most people realize. The term has been used to lump together a variety of distinct philosophical schools and methods (e.g., existentialism, critical theory, deconstructionism, nihilism, etc.) as well as a number of less precise attitudes and dispositions that don’t rise to the level of a philosophical system. Since my goal at present is not to attempt a thorough classification of these views, but rather to position the conflict between science and religion within a broad intellectual trend, I will use the term “postmodern” somewhat loosely. However one decides to apply the terminology, it is fair to say that, just as the modern era was characterized by an unbounded optimism concerning the possibility of human knowledge and progress, the postmodern era is marked by an extremely pessimistic attitude towards all claims to truth, purpose and meaning.

This creates an existential problem that is perhaps best illustrated in Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus (Camus, 2013). Sisyphus was the mythological King of Corinth punished by the Gods for an insufficiently reverential attitude (and in particular, an attempt to cheat death). His punishment consisted of being forced to push a huge boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down again just as he reached the top. He was consigned to this repetitive, fruitless toil for all eternity, without any hope of relief or illusion of purpose. For Camus, to contemplate Sisyphus’ horrific plight is to confront the situation we all are in, even if most of us refuse to accept it for what it is. In pursuing truth without flinching, and in particular by refusing to be lulled into the illusion of purpose and meaning those in authority foist on the unsuspecting, the postmodern thinker dooms herself to a life of pointless suffering and toil. She knows that she is hopelessly adrift in the sea of meaningless chaos that is our universe, and is forced to conclude that life is absurd.

This attitude, like the scientific attitude, has seeped into our modern cultural norms in ways that are not always appreciated. Educated westerners are likely to assume, without much critical reflection, a skeptical orientation to claims that used to be widely accepted. Thus, we are more likely now than ever before to reject broad metaphysical claims (e.g., religious, scientific) and remain steadfastly dubious about the possibility of objective standards (e.g., ethical, aesthetic). Certainly, the debate between science and religion in popular culture has been influenced by a postmodern view of intellectual exchange. Because there are no approved standards, the goal of modern “debate” (here and elsewhere) is not a shared, if competitive, search for truth, but rather the utter destruction of one’s opponent by any means necessary, including rhetorical dirty tricks.
If the postmodernist is right and there really is no purpose or point to life, we have limited options. We can:
1. Avoid the problem by ignoring it.
2. Avoid the problem by committing suicide.
3. Accept the problem and suffer.
4. Accept the problem and learn to love the absurd.
5. Accept the problem and find a non-objective source of purpose.

The first option, while popular, is either an act of ignorance or a willful rejection of the truth. Either way, it’s not something anyone devoted to the truth can endorse and the postmodern philosopher (if not always the postmodernist more generally) is just as devoted to the search for truth as the scientist – she is just extremely skeptical about our ability to find it. Not surprisingly, the temptation to kill oneself and thus end the farce is a very common theme in postmodern discussions. However, postmodernists have the same basic psychological makeup as the rest of us, which includes robust psychological mechanisms to prevent self destruction. They thus often express a longing for suicide as something they should do if they could only overcome their animal natures – a position Nietzsche labels “the most difficult thought” (Nietzsche, 1999).

If we accept the postmodern problem, however, it is not easy to deal with. We can simply suffer, of course, but most people would reject this option out of hand. We could learn to love the absurd – as Camus puts it, “we must imagine Sisyphus happy.” But this is a bit like telling someone in great pain: “It’s mind over matter – if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” While undeniably true, very few people find such advice helpful.

Our final option is to discover a source of meaning for ourselves. But this is not easy either. Since postmodernism undermines not only all conventional ideas of meaning and purpose, but their sources as well (e.g., God, the state), we are entirely on our own in the search for meaning. Indeed, it is better to say that we are required to create meaning rather than to discover it, since there is no privileged place where it might be found. Some postmodern philosophers believe this can be done – for example, by devoting oneself to living an authentic life (Sartre, 1993; Heidegger, 1962). While this is probably easier to achieve than learning to love absurdity, for our purposes it suffices to note that it is still extremely difficult – to the point where its attainment eluded some of the greatest postmodern thinkers.

What are we to do in the face of this dilemma? There is at least one other option not listed above – the leap to faith. Kierkegaard (1992), himself a foundational postmodern philosopher, famously argued that one must simply choose to believe in something that provides objective meaning, despite the lack of evidence (and perhaps even in the face of countervailing evidence). Such a leap is subjective in the sense that is a purely personal choice without objective evidence. But it is also objective, at least in the sense that what one subjectively believes in is a source of objective truth.

Of course, the most common sort of leap is into some kind of traditional religion, since this provides a complex and ready made system of values. In principle, however, a leap could be toward anything that allows for a sense of objective purpose. Given the commitments underlying postmodernism, it is not surprising that most postmodernists consider leaping into faith to be a perversion of their ideals. And it is certainly at least ironic to use the search for objective truth to justify what is manifestly at least an arational, and perhaps even an irrational, belief system. But more ironic still is the extent to which both sides of the modern discourse between science and religious are caught in the grip of this worldview without realizing it.


1. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, J. Bennett (trans), Early Modern Texts, 2004 (accessed 5/30/15), http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/pdfs/kant1781part1.pdf

2. F.W.J. Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, K.R. Peterson (trans), Albany, SUNY Press, 2004.

3. G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, A.V. Miller (trans), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1977.

4. Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, Beijing, China Translation and Publishing Corp., 2013.

5. Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, T. Common, (trans), Mineola, Dover Thrift Editions, 1999.

6. J-P. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, H. Barnes, (trans), New York, Washington Square Press, 1993.

7. Heidegger, Being and Time, J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson (trans.), New York, Harper & Row, 1962.

8. Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, H.V. Hong & E.H. Hong (trans), Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1992.



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