About two years ago I attempted to trace our philosophical disaster of the modern world back to Descartes and the disconnect from reality he introduced (and with which, at least, he struggled). In effect, the radical doubt he introduced in anything I see or experience, disconnects us from reality. And, pulling up roots from reality and the revelation of creation, we live increasingly in our mind and out of touch with reality. Welcome to the modern and post Cartesian age, a strange landscape that seems little impressed with reality or stubborn facts. (N.B. It is a strange paradox of modern times that we idolize the physical sciences, and I also wrote of that here On the Cartesian Anxiety of our Times).
Perhaps the most extreme example of the disconnect from reality in our times is the celebration of homosexual activity. If, for example a “cultural neanderthal” such as me suggests that the design of the body speaks against homosexual acts by a simple consideration that “the parts” do not fit, I am greeted with a continuum of responses from blank stares on down to indignity which rhetorically asks, “What does the body have to do with it? It is what I think and feel that matters!” And thus, the disconnect from reality and the retreat into the mind and psyche is complete.
How did we get here? I attempted to answer in the previous post I referenced above tracing the problem to the great Cartesian divide. But in so doing I must say I am in less command of the subtleties of the problem since my philosophical training is thin, and especially the history of philosophy.
Last Tuesday, the priests of Archdiocese of Washington were summoned to a meeting wherein Cardinal Wuerl laid out his concerns of regarding our modern culture, and then asked us to listen to Msgr. Brian Bransfield, Associate General Secretary of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He gave a wonderful talk, many details of which I cannot share now, but will in the future. But among his teachings was a cogent and concise description of the stages of our journey out of reality and into the self defined world of personal opinion and merely the mind.
His description is brief, really an aside in a larger talk, but I am always appreciative of those who can see and describe the stages of our current malaise. There is something about naming the demons that afflict us and mapping the stages wherein we have come. Perhaps there is a way back, or at the very least, a rediscovery of the glory of the original map of God’s desgin and the charting of a newer and better course.
Allow me to quote from Msgr. Bransfield and supply some commentary of my own. Please direct any critique at me, not him, since I am excerpting from a larger talk and context is important.
Also, Msgr. Bransfield’s talk was aimed more at the heart than the head, and he argues that merely intellectual arguments will not be enough in the current climate of doubt and cynicism. And yet, understanding the intellectual disconnect is important in order to help us understand why mere argument will not be enough.
His brief description is in black and bold italics. My poor commentary is in plain, red text.
We can trace the fragmentation of the last four hundred years…in steps, how Descartes, to establish clear certainty in his search for knowledge set up:
Notice the use of the word fragmentation. For if it be so that we tend today to live in our heads, not in reality, then there is very little to unite us. If all that matters is what I personally think, and that is “reality” for me, and if you have claim the same authority for your own personal thoughts, then we are not united, we are fragmented. There is nothing outside ourselves to unite us. We are divided, fragmented and living in our own little world, living up in our head, not in a shared experience called reality.
Descartes set up:
1. A dualism between the material and spiritual –
And thus the disconnect between the actual world and what we think begins. Descartes entertained or struggled with radical doubt wherein he could not be sure there was anything “out there,” that is, outside his mind. The only thing he knew for sure was that he existed, since he was a thinking agent. And here was the memorable” Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). But that is all that is certain for him. Everything else might be a dream or deception.
Thus the wall of separation between the thinking mind and reality is introduced.
By the way, radical doubt, though an intriguing theory, and one we have all wrestled with a bit, is a wholly useless theory at the end of the day. One cannot possibly live by it. Such folks tend to sit on chairs that may or may not be there, and avoid walking into walls that may or may not be there. But of course they are there. And thus the doubters ignore the overwhelming evidence of reality in theory, but must navigate it in actuality. Their little theory of radical doubt is useless and they violate it at every moment.
But useless though it is, the theory has been very intoxicating to the decaying West which loves its little dualisms, and prefers conflict to synthesis.
2. and in the dualism introduced…a separation in which he set man’s internal mind in, opposition to external reality. – And thus the retreat out of reality and into our minds began. We start to live up in our heads and think something is so just because we think so.
3. [Next] Descartes….elevated the mind, (the thinking subject) and …reduced the external, objective world of concrete reality.
And thus what we think becomes more important that what is. Thought, opinion and feeling trump reality. Many people today do not even sense the need to check on the facts of what they think. Merely that they think it makes it so.
Today we often here phrases like, “That may true for you, but not for me.” And, more humorously, “Don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind is made up!”
And thus, what we think trumps reality. We actually start to suppose that saying “truth is relative” or “that is true for you but not for me” is a real argument (it is not) when all it really is, is a lazy “living up in our head” and a stubborn refusal to engage reality.
4. Man’s understanding of himself and the world have been in a downward spiral ever since. Only the mind and what the mind says is reality, is real.
And this partly explains the shredding of tradition and the iconoclastic tendencies of the modern age. “Who cares what the ancients said or thought? If you and I, who are contempories cannot even agree on what is real and all that matters is what I think, why should what you think matter to me, let alone what someone who lived centuries ago think?” If we all just live up in our heads, not in reality, what do I have in common with you, let alone The Founding Fathers, St. Thomas, or Jesus for that matter. Everything now goes into the shredder, all that matters is what I think.
5. [And] thus there is … a collapse between the mind and reality. And in the collapse, reality loses. – exactly
6. [And so] reality becomes a mere label (nominalism). The child in the womb is not called a child, it is labeled something else. A refugee seeking asylum is not called a person, but is labeled undocumented.
And thus the modern battle over terminology: pro-abortion or pro-choice, fetus or baby, fornication or cohabitation, homosexual or gay, redefining marriage or marriage freedom, and even worse than “undocumented” is illegal “alien.”
So much hinges on terminology, euphemism and redefinition since thought trumps reality. And if we can influence thought, reality doesn’t matter. Never mind that a baby has been dismembered alive, this is all about “choice” and “reproductive freedom.” And “sodomy” is such an unpleasant reality, lets just call it “Gay Love”
It is as if we suppose our terminology and thought can change or alter the reality somehow. It cannot, but in this post Cartesian fog that is exactly what we suppose. Away with reality, all that matters is what I think.
7. [So] the mind now “creates” rather than conforms to reality – Yes, or so we think
8. Relativism is born; [and] the thinking subject is… autonomous – Notice that word; “Autonomous.”
And here is where things get scary. Reality is what I say it is. No one and no thing gets to tell me what to do or what to think, I should answer to no one.
As Pope Benedict had warned, while this attitude marches under the banners of tolerance and freedom, the ultimate result of relativism is tyranny.
This is because if you and I cannot agree on something outside ourselves to which we are bound (e.g. reality) and to which we must answer, then we cannot appeal to that, so we resort to the use of power to enact our view. Raw power, be it political, economic or popular opinion, are now used to impose agendas since appeals to reason, or a common sense, or justice and or religious values, even to Constitutional parameters is becoming increasingly impossible.
In the video below Fr. Barron laments how we cannot even have a decent argument anymore since we agree on so little. Thus we just end up talking past one another. The final result is the mere use of raw power. Reality is what I think, I am autonomous. And if you don’t agree I will first ignore you, and if that doesn’t work I will work to marginalize you, eliminate your influence altogether, and , if necessary, destroy you.
Welcome to the dark side of the Cartesian Divide.
9. And [thus], the ultimate absurdity is enthroned: nihilism: nothing, not as a privation, but as a positive reality: there is nothing…no relation between reality, be it the child in the womb, the prisoner on death row, the immigrant on the border, and …. our conscience. There is no communion between reality and the mind. –
Yes, today we witness the exultation of nothing, the outright celebration that “nothing is true.” Indeed, we live in self-congratulatory times where many, if not most, applaud their nihilism as being “open-minded,” “tolerant” “humanitarian” and so forth.
But As Msgr Bransfield points out, all this really does is to sever communion. There is nothing humanitarian about it since there is no real communion between human beings possible when I just live up in my head. Further there is nothing to be tolerant of since there is nothing out there, outside what I think, to tolerate. And there is absolutely nothing open-minded in any of it since it is the ultimate form of close-mindedness saying, “Reality is what I think, and that settles it.” For the modern post-Cartesian, “tolerance” is your right to agree with me, “open-minded” means you agree with me, and humanitarianism is only what I say it is.
So here we are, in a post Cartesian malaise and cauldron, the vast majority living up inside our head. To all this the church must keep shouting reality.
It may seem dark now, and it may get darker. But reality has a funny way of reasserting itself. Our little collective experiment in unreality will necessary run its course. Let us pray that our reintroduction to reality will not be too harsh. But I am afraid it will be.