How Reason makes Human Life Absurd
As the philosopher Thomas Nagel pointed out, reason makes life absurd in other ways. When we think objectively, seeing things as they are and not as we might wish them to be, we take up what he called a “view from nowhere.” We can view a situation more or less impersonally, ignoring our feelings and following the data or the logic wherever they lead. The danger in this is that we can view ourselves objectively as well, and when we do so it’s hard to avoid a destructive sense of irony. Take any highly specialized form of complexity, like a biological adaptation. The giraffe’s long neck makes sense from the giraffe’s limited perspective, but were the giraffe able to view itself dispassionately, from a neutral, non-giraffe viewpoint, it would surely regard its specialized neck as a ridiculous albatross. Granted, the adaptation enables the giraffe to survive by affording it access to highly-placed food, but the narrowness of that way of life simultaneously takes the giraffe out of countless other races. The further a species evolves in a single direction, the less flexible its members become and the more absurd their behaviour when they’re removed from their comfort zone.
Language and culture, too, become absurd when viewed by an outsider. The symbols that carry meaning to a language speaker are so many noises or curious squiggles to anyone else. Taboos, rituals, and social conventions can appear as extravagant follies to anyone who isn’t invested in the culture. The rules of games or sports are relatively arbitrary and thus the player’s strenuous exertions to follow them are comical: were the rules changed, the player would have to play the new game instead, rendering his or her earlier efforts meaningless. Relative to the perspective in which a set of rules matters, the game makes sense, and fans can even become obsessed with a game’s vicissitudes. But someone who views a game objectively, from the position of nowhere in particular, thereby prevents herself from identifying with its dynamics or its symbols. Instead of personal involvement, then, there’s ironic detachment and a sense of the futility of complex developments due to their narrowness and thus their transience. Complex forms are often inflexible and thus unstable.
In so far as you depersonalize yourself and view something critically or scientifically, you cease to care about it and are bent on understanding the mechanisms that make the thing work. The more you understand, the more power you have over the thing, and that power further deprives the thing of its dignity. Reason transforms the natural into the artificial, making nature our playpen. We turn members of other species into toys, domesticating or consuming artistically-prepared portions of them. We use what we understand to our benefit, and just as a god’s might is presumed to give the god the right to treat its creation as a means to the god’s end, we convert whatever we understand into instruments that lose any inherent worth. Because we’re beasts rather than gods, the power we acquire from reason corrupts us, and so reason lands us in a quagmire of nihilism and decadence.
Thus, we share with the giraffe the embarrassment of overspecialization. While reason obviously makes us much more flexible than the giraffe, our evolutionary gift becomes just as much of a curse when certain circumstances change. In the giraffe’s case, tall trees can become scarce, leaving the giraffe ill-equipped to compete for low-hanging fare. In our case, we change our own environment, creating a feedback loop as we use technology to customize natural processes, and as we adapt to the newly-created artificial environment, thanks to our ever-flexible capacity for reason, we become alienated from the way of life that insulated most of our ancestors. To wit, we become postmodern, mythless cynics or arrogant, reactionary zealots. Just as an adult may long to recapture a state of childlike innocence, a technoscientifically advanced society can only yearn for the naivety of a blindly anthropocentric culture that hasn’t discovered nature’s impersonal processes. Having lost touch with a childlike perception of nature and been corrupted by the technological prison with which we surround ourselves, we exacerbate our beastly instincts and head out on a path towards inevitable cultural implosion. Replacing childlike creativity and optimism with cold, calculating reason, with impersonal instrumentalism and materialistic consumerism, we build a high-tech society but strip ourselves of the innocence and the passion that might fruitfully direct our godlike power. Ironically, then, the society that becomes outwardly godlike, using science and other modern institutions to acquire power over nature, also becomes inwardly more beastly so that the godlike shell, consisting of the military-financial-industrial-governmental complex and the postmodern lifestyle of disenfranchisement, suffocates the beast within.
(This isn’t to contradict Steven Pinker’s recent thesis that modern people are less violent than the ancients. Our greater beastliness lies not in a penchant for brute force, but in our greater corruption, nihilism, and decadence; in our servitude to the overwhelming systems we create; in the sociopathic rationalism we adopt to master natural forces and to compete with the machines we build; and in the scientistic idolatry that co-opts the religious impulse. Of course the ancients resorted more to brute force: they lacked the infrastructure to punish their enemies and victims in a safer, more sophisticated fashion, with advanced legal regimes and mass-produced, maximum security prisons; with engineered propaganda for social conditioning; and with economic, cyber, and drone warfare. We channel our aggression with more sophisticated instruments, but the use of those instruments doesn’t ennoble us.)
As an example of the curse of reason, consider the mundane task of editing a piece of writing. While in the midst of constructing sentences, a writer feels emotionally connected to the words as brainchildren, and editing them is more difficult. Only when the text is “cold” to the writer, after several days during which the text is forgotten, can the author objectively assess the writing’s strengths and weaknesses, and modify it as needed. The objective criticism can improve the writing, but the distance needed to view the text from nowhere precludes an emotional connection to it. Now, the value of something is more felt than puzzled out by logic, experiment, or any cognitive algorithm. We value what we care about, and objectivity is the opposite of caring. Thus, we care less about what we most understand.
Another example is found in a comparison of sociological criticism of one’s own culture with that of a culture that no longer exists. In the former case, passions arise more easily, because more is at stake and the critics may be emotionally invested participants in the society in question. With regard to ancient societies, historians and social scientists more readily dehumanize their subject matter, offering mechanistic, reductive explanations of our ancestors’ behaviour which mock the way the ancients would have understood themselves. However much historians may care about past societies, they can’t be as emotionally tied to them as they are to their own society. Just as the emotional bonds to something must be at least temporarily severed to take up a detached perspective and to master the thing, the lack of such bonds invites objectivity which establishes a master-slave relationship between the objective observer and the passive subject matter.
There are, after all, roughly two levels of explanation that can be given of human behaviour, the commonsense and the scientific ones. We naive folk think instinctively or in ways we inherit from our amateur training. Thus, we explain people’s behaviour by positing such familiar entities as beliefs and desires, and we assume the person has consciousness, freedom, and perhaps an immaterial soul that makes her sacred. This level of explanation is drenched in normativity, since the talk of beliefs, desires and of much of the rest presupposes standards of behaviour and the special value of human beings. And so we establish the famous Cartesian divide between humans and the rest of nature, since while we may still animistically import psychological categories to the nonhuman world, we more readily take up a scientific attitude in our dealings with that world. The wilderness of impersonal natural forces falls outside the scope of modern social laws, and since we’ve evolved to be social we naturally care most about persons and our pets.
Scientists ignore these considerations and use impersonal and more precise, mathematical language to understand nature, on the pragmatic assumption that nature ultimately consists of impersonal entities and processes. Of course, psychologists, economists, anthropologists, and other social scientists have turned their attention to human beings and so have undermined the traditional, commonsense level of explanation. While the latter presupposes moral bonds and capacities such as autonomy, which dignify us, a scientific explanation reduces a person to much more abstract categories. When we understand human behaviour in terms of causes, whether these causes are found in physics, the brain, the genes, the environment, or in evolutionary history, we inevitably dehumanize the person and think of her, in effect, as a ridiculous puppet. Even if we retain some form of dualistic worldview, according to which the levels of explanation are all valid because reality can be understood in many ways, depending on our interests, the Scientific Revolution compels us to assume that some levels are deeper than others. In nature, as objectively understood by scientists, minds are not fundamental, meaning that while beliefs, desires, and some degree of consciousness, freedom, and reason may be real, it’s more accurate to speak in scientific terms that disenchant human nature and posit a more deterministic, generally inhuman world.
This leads to postmodern irony and cynicism, since while we naturally fall back on our naïve picture of ourselves in polite society, in the back of our minds we simultaneously know about genes, hormones, the brain in general, and the whole atheistic panoply of impersonal causes and effects that operates throughout the universe, including in our own bodies. Reason is thus the messenger that reports our foolishness, our ridiculous existential predicament. There’s a genre of comedy in which a character pursues silly goals using serious, highly logical means. This is human life in a nutshell: our naïve, commonsense goals are delusions sustained by our ignorance of more fundamental causes, and when we apply reason to understand those causes, we eventually destroy ourselves if only to avoid laughing at our own expense for all eternity. What’s so amusing isn’t just the gap between what we think we’re doing at the naïve level and what’s really happening as understood best by scientists; rather, the point is that the familiar social world in which we’re most comfortable is an illusion compared to the deeper reality of natural processes.
Our actions are as absurd as a puppet’s flailings: the puppet is an unknowing actor, following a script and wholly controlled by a puppeteer who looms off-stage. Were the puppet somehow to come alive and learn of the disparity between its naïve self-conception as an agent in its own puppet-centered world, and its deeper reality as a stooge on a stage within a much larger, puppet-indifferent world, the puppet would surely be afflicted with angst. In the film, The Truman Show, the protagonist learns [Warning: spoilers ahead] that his whole life has been staged for a television show in which he’s the star, and in the end he chooses to leave the show and enter the real world. But we have no exit, no means of cutting the puppet strings that incarnate us as natural beings. The Truman character leaves one stage only to step onto another, that of naïve human society the dignity of which is undermined by rationally-obtained knowledge.
Dawkins on Scientific Wonder
The biologist Richard Dawkins responds to this sort of criticism of reason, in his book Unweaving the Rainbow. More specifically, he responds to the charge that science takes the wonder out of life and provides little material for great poetry. On the contrary, he says, poets waste their gifts on romantic fantasies that spring from their imagination and if only they’d stop ignoring scientific discoveries, they’d find a wealth of inspiration. By explaining how light works, for example, Newton spoiled only the fairytale of rainbows and leprechauns, but allowed us to learn about electromagnetism, special relativity, and the immense size of the universe and the properties of other star systems. Science thus replaces minor wonders with major ones. “What is so threatening about reason?” Dawkins asks. “Mysteries do not lose their poetry when solved. Quite the contrary; the solution often turns out more beautiful than the puzzle and, in any case, when you have solved one mystery you uncover others, perhaps to inspire greater poetry” (41).
In the first place, Dawkins’ talk of mysteries and puzzles personifies nature and thus whitewashes the damage science does to the naïve, exoteric worldview. To have a mystery, properly speaking, you need a secret and thus a mind that sets the mystery in motion for others to solve (from the Greek “mysterion,” meaning secret rite). Scientists are not like Sherlock Holmes in that respect. Much of nature is unexplained prior to scientific investigation, but the metaphor of the intrepid British detective who tracks a murderer by following clues left unwittingly behind, is as anthropocentric as any monotheistic fairytale. The philosophical upshot of scientific theories is the Nietzschean and Lovecraftian one, that no one else cares whether humans explain and master natural processes or succumb to them. There is no Mother Nature who hides from the scientist like a guilt-ridden temptress.
As to whether disenchanted nature is beautiful, the question is trivial since beauty is subjective. Anything can seem beautiful or ugly depending on the viewer’s criteria. Since aesthetic criteria are normative, there is no factually correct set of them. Even if natural selection biases us to prefer symmetrical faces and hourglass figures, for example, no judgment of beauty is proven correct or incorrect just by citing that evolutionary fact. Normative judgments aren’t justified by force; instead, they flow from values. Biologists can explain why certain aesthetic judgments are normal, in the sense of being prevalent, but not why anyone ought to favour a prevalent standard. Scientific theories have no normative implications. Thus, biologists may find insects beautiful, while others may have a different opinion.
Scientific wonder is also normative and thus subjective. There is no error made if someone doesn’t agree with a scientist that electromagnetism is wonderful. Moreover, if we define “wonder” as astonishment mixed with admiration, we’re surely speaking of the initial shock from being surprised by a natural phenomenon that isn’t yet understood, and then of the dawning admiration as the phenomenon is explained and eventually tamed by technological applications. This sort of wonder is harmless, because it’s analogous to a god’s bemusement by its controlled creation. A patron of a zoo feels this wonder, this delightful mixture of shock and admiration, when beholding a caged lion. But place this admirer of lions in the African Savannah, alone, unarmed, and staring into the eyes of a hungry pride of the beasts, and we’d likely have on our hands a different kind of wonder. Here, you see, we’d have that same initial shock and surprise, but instead of admiration from a position of safety, we must assume the admirer of zoo-bound lions would suffer from raw fear due to the reversal of power. We can call this second kind of wonder “awe”, and it includes the idea of respect or reverence due to fear from a lack of control. In this sense, a religious person is said to fear God, because God would have power over us and not the other way around.
With this distinction in mind, we can see that Dawkins is right to some extent: scientific wonder can be felt towards nature in so far as nature doesn’t threaten us, whether because the phenomenon is too far removed from us or because we control it with technology. But in so far as science alerts us to some natural phenomenon that does threaten us, whether because we don’t yet or can never control it, awe is more appropriate than admiration-filled wonder. And, of course, scientific theories are filled with information that should terrify us. For example, scientists learned that the dinosaurs were probably wiped out by a meteor, and nothing prevents the same from happening to us except chance. Obviously, leaving aside our own self-destructive use of science, scientists are just the messengers and shouldn’t be blamed for discovering, in effect, our grim existential situation (the surprising degrees of our irrationality, unconsciousness, and lack of freedom; and our manipulability, mortality, and aloneness in the universe). But the dire existential implications of scientific theories are surely why people don’t rush to science for poetic inspiration.
Even were a poet interested in writing a tragedy or a dirge, for which science could indeed provide abundant material, most people prefer the comfort of their naïve anthropocentric worldview and so don’t even want to know the details of our existential predicament. In his book, Dawkins criticizes astrology and talk of psychic and other paranormal phenomena for encouraging people to indulge themselves in unscientific wonder, but for most people these are at best entertainments. Their deeper quarrel with the rationally-understood world lies not in any such unfulfilled New Age interests, but in their suspicion that reason makes a mockery of our whole commonsense self-image, that the most rational philosophical position begins, in effect, with Nietzsche’s atheism and Lovecraft’s cosmicism (See Cosmicism). And the problem with that philosophy is that it conflicts not just with frivolous supernaturalism, but with the socially-necessary assumption that humans have dignity as rational, free, elevated beings.
Dawkins distinguishes between the mystic and the scientist. Without analyzing these three synonyms, he says that both feel “awe, reverence, and wonder,” but that “The mystic is content to bask in the wonder and revel in a mystery that we were not ‘meant’ to understand. The scientist feels the same wonder but is restless, not content; recognizes the mystery as profound, then adds, ‘But we’re working on it’” (17).
These caricatures of mystics and of scientists follow from scientistic mythology, but are embarrassing when read outside of that context. Was Joan of Arc “content” rather than “restless”? Does the Buddhist monk who sets himself on fire to protest a dictatorship “bask” and “revel” in wonder? What Dawkins misses is that while mystical consciousness alienates the mystic from secular society, the peace felt in meditation is spoiled as soon as the mystic is forced to confront the unenlightened masses. Far from being complacent, the mystic often leaves the cave or monastery and works tirelessly in the pursuit of moral aims. Moreover, the mystic claims not that we can’t understand ultimate reality, but that reason and science are the wrong methods. Not only can we understand that reality with disciplined consciousness, but that’s our highest purpose, says the mystic, to escape from the world of illusions by recognizing our divine nature and the oneness of what seems a multiplicity.
Also, as I’ve pointed out, the scientist doesn’t feel the very same wonder as the mystic. Scientific wonder is tinged with patronizing admiration, stemming as it does from our scientific power advantage. The mystic regards as absurd the egoism at the root of power games. While the enlightened mystic doesn’t fear the absolute oneness of everything, existential angst and the detachment of a merely semi-enlightened mind aren’t so far apart. (See Buddhism.)
Finally, there’s Dawkins’ arrogant assurance that the scientist works to dispel profound mysteries instead of leaving them unexplained and untamed. The idea here is that the scientist doesn’t fear even those parts of nature that aren’t yet subdued, since the scientist assumes that because science has worked in so many cases, it will probably work in all cases, leaving no unknowns to fear and no powers too great to harness. This optimism is like the subtle anthropocentrism in regarding nature as a keeper of mysteries/secrets. Why assume that some mammals with an accidental capacity for reason are equipped to understand everything that exists or that we’re sufficiently ingenious to overcome all obstacles with technology? The pragmatic position may be that defeatism with regard to those two issues is counterproductive, and so scientists are actually open-minded even while they’re professionally optimistic for the sake of their work. But Dawkins goes further when he speaks of the “restless” character of scientists.
Here Dawkins is speaking of what I’ve called scientistic faith, or of what’s typically called secular humanism. (See Scientism.) In this case, the anthropocentrism consists in a glorification of human nature rather than in a projection of human categories onto the nonhuman. This scientistic quasi-religious confidence in technoscience is ironic, since Dawkins means to oppose secular confidence to mysticism. Scientism is insidious, since it’s effectively a religion whose practitioners dare not recognize it as such, since they pretend to be hyper-rationalists who condemn religious impulses. Dawkins condemns trust in astrology, UFOs, psychic predictions, and the Loch Ness monster, but not in secular humanistic ideology, not in the philosophical conviction that we should bravely face the unknown with science rather than shrink in fear.
Part of this science-centered optimism is what the political philosopher Leo Strauss calls the modern conceit that everyone can handle the unvarnished truth. Without this added assumption, the scientist’s business-oriented hunt for the truth might be counterproductive, after all, since were natural facts unpleasant enough and were the report of them shouted from the rooftops, they might upset society and ruin the scientific enterprise itself. But the secular humanist’s lack of self-awareness indicates that there’s no such widespread appetite or tolerance. Dawkins chastises theists for their irrational religious faith, but trust in humans and in secular institutions like science, democracy, and capitalism is no less irrational. More precisely, reason is insufficient in deciding what to believe about such philosophical issues. There is no calculation proving that humans potentially can understand everything, nor is there an experiment demonstrating that capitalism is ultimately constructive rather than destructive. To be sure, there are relevant data that should be weighed, but these aren’t purely empirical matters. For example, whether capitalism is destructive depends on what’s valued, and this is yet another normative issue.
However much evidence there is of science’s success and of technology’s power, faith is needed to bridge the gap between what logic implies or the data indicate, on the one hand, and what the secular humanist philosophically declares, on the other. The reason the secular humanist denies that she’s beholden to a science-centered religion is that the philosophical tenets of her faith are anthropocentric reactions to the grim reality unveiled by science. Just as the masses flee from the horrors of the Lovecraftian gods, into the arms of New Age phonies, so too the more sophisticated “secularists” seek religious comfort in a science-centered, partly-irrational ideology. So instead of holding up the scientist as a heroic model next to the mystical defeatist, the secular humanist should look in the mirror and appreciate the extent to which we’re all animals and thus ill-equipped to defend against a flood of harsh truths.
A secular humanist like Dawkins would insist that reason is far from a curse, since reason allows us to pacify natural forces so that we can safely marvel at their beauty. By contrast, a cosmicist points at the abyss between what we naively prefer to think of ourselves and what reason shows us to be, and suspects that without an infinite capacity for mental compartmentalization, which evolved animals aren't likely to possess, we can expect that reason will drive us ultimately to insanity and to social collapse; thus, reason is accursed.