Understanding the Modern and Post-Modern Mind, Part II

January 2, 2014 Length: 14:32

Clark further contrasts the modern and premodern ways of thinking about the world and our place within it.





Come, now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord. Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. Though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land.

Hello, and welcome back to Faith and Philosophy. This week’s topic is: Understanding the Modern and Post-Modern Mind, Part II. Last time, I gave a brief overview of the history of modern philosophy and identified what I considered to be the philosophical mistake of modernity: the belief that human cognition is limited to the discursive reason, that is, thinking in symbols or language, whether directed toward the data of sense-experience or back on itself in an analysis of its own logical structure. Missing from almost all modern anthropologies and epistemologies is the faculty of non-discursive reason, or pure intuitive apprehension, which was well-known to the Church Fathers, and before them to the Platonists. We call this faculty the nous or the noetic faculty.

Today I want to further contrast the pre-modern and modern ways of thinking about the world and our place within it. I will suggest that there are three distinct attitudes that characterize the modern mind. When combined with the ascendancy of the scientific method in the 17th century, these attitudes formed the basis of the dominant intellectual paradigm of modernity: scientific rationalism. This, in turn, can be identified by four distinct isms. So get your pencils ready; there may be a quiz later.

The modern era is characterized by three distinct attitudes: first, that human beings are essentially individuals; second, that human reason—and this will later be expanded to include the scientific method—is autonomous; and third, that human reason is sufficient to answer our needful questions and solve our problems.

Let’s begin with this new-fangled belief that human beings are essentially individuals. Aristotle wrote, and more than once, that to be human is to be in community. In fact, he defines man as a political, that is, a social, animal. A man who deliberately absents himself from society is, according to Aristotle, either a god or an animal, that is, he is either above humanity or below it. The one thing he is not, however, is a human being. In fact, so strong was this belief among the Greeks that the Greek word for individual is actually “idiot.”

Now, this belief is shared by all pre-modern peoples, and even today by most non-European societies. The modern cult of the sovereign individual marching to the beat of his own drummer is a European invention. Indeed, Friedrich Nietzsche, who despised modernity for a number of other reasons, called the triumph of the individual the greatest flower of modernity.

We may wonder, then, what brought about this great shift. The introduction of nominalism into medieval philosophy certainly had something to do with it. Nominalism is the position that only individual things exist. General terms referring to abstractions such as “humanity” or “human nature” are just names. Thus, a nominalistic anthropology would aver that there is really no such thing as humanity, only individual people.

The emerging new physics may have also played a role. Thomas Hobbes thought of humans explicitly along the lines of discrete bodies in motion, that is, if the natural world is made up exclusively of discrete material bodies moving in space, then people can be defined in much the same way. Hobbes made this anthropological physics the basis of his famous political philosophy.

In addition, however, we should also consider the influence the loss of the concept of nous may have had. The noetic faculty is one of pure intuitive apprehension. Its vision of the beautiful and the good is direct and unmediated. The discursive reason, on the other hand, is object-oriented. It is directed either towards sense-data or towards its own internal structure. In either case, however, thought is mediated by symbols or language. It is not too difficult to see how this could lead to the idea that each person is an individual cognitive center. In religion, this leads to the idea that each person is an individual interpreter of the Scriptures.

As long as one assumes that the natural world that all of these individuals perceive is one and uniform and that reason itself is universal and uniform, all is well. Once, however, one begins to entertain doubts about the objectivity of the world or of the universality of reason, then the whole program begins to unravel. We call this unraveling “post-modernism,” but we’ll get to that in a later podcast.

By way of contrast, let me draw your attention to the writings of the Fathers, particularly the greatest of the 20th-century theologians, Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov). Whether discussing the life of his mentor, St. Silouan, or his own experiences, Archim. Sophrony tells us that when the nous has been purified and encounters God in pure prayer, the soul becomes consciously aware not only of the unity of mankind but of all creation. This leads to the shedding of bitter tears for the world. These tears are not the product of sentimentality or emotion, but are a divine gift enabling the one who prays to enter into Christ’s intercessory prayer for all of creation. Do you see how the Orthodox method of prayer, noetic prayer, even when practiced by a monk living alone in a remote cell, leads not to egoism and isolation but to a noetic unity with God and with all of mankind?

Let’s move on to the autonomy of reason. By “autonomy” I mean the idea that reason is independent of any culture or language, that is, it is truly universal. The best example here is mathematics. It doesn’t make any sense to think of Chinese math or European math. Two plus two equals four everywhere and always. This view is so commonsensical that few people before the 20th century dared challenge it. One challenge, however, has come from quantum mechanics. Quantum theory posits, and experiments have tended to support, that not only do basic laws of physics not work at the quantum level, even basic laws of logic such as the principle of non-contradiction may not hold there either. This is what led the famous American logician, Willard Van Orman Quine, to opine that perhaps the principle of non-contradiction is not a law of thought after all, but just a convenient posit that has proven useful up until now but may not be useful in the future.

Regardless, let’s consider what role the loss of the concept of nous might have played in the belief of the autonomy of reason. It can hardly be denied that human beings like certainty, but we know that the only real certainty is found when the mind, that is, the nous, becomes consciously aware of God, who is, obviously, the last word in certainty. The Fathers tell us that our knowledge even of this world can only be partial and opaque unless and until we come to know the divine reasons or logoi that permeate all of creation and make everything be what it is. Thus to know even this world, much less things divine, requires noetic contemplation.

However, since the high middle ages, noetic contemplation has been completely off the radar of Western European philosophy. That being the case, philosophers have sought certainty in the next-highest faculty: the discursive reason. The result is the faith that reason constitutes this universal realm of pure objectivity to which anyone can plug [in] if he will just apply the correct rules of thinking. The high priest of this view was a fellow named Immanuel Kant, and we’ll get to him a bit later.

Finally, modernity is characterized by the belief that reason is sufficient to answer all of mankind’s questions and solve all of his problems. At first blush, this seems rather unlikely, but when reason is expanded to include the systematic observation of nature, that is, the scientific method, then a potent force is unleashed on the world. The very success of scientific reasoning and technological advancement confirms to all but the most skeptical that reason is indeed sufficient to guide humanity to an ever-brighter future. As a practical matter, this means that we should turn over all decision-making to those who have the scientific know-how to solve our problems.

Thus, the faith in the sufficiency of reason leads directly and inescapably toward rule by scientifically trained and technologically proficient bureaucrats, or technocrats. Just consider how many times a day you hear the following phrases: “nine out of ten doctors recommend,” “studies have shown,” or my personal favorite, “scientists agree.” For the sake of politeness, I will not mention things like biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, building nuclear power plants on fault-lines, building dams to stop flooding in one place only to create catastrophic flooding in another, carcinogenic natural food substitutes, plain-old run-of-the-mill industrial pollution, or Big Brother’s technological ability to read every one of our emails, listen to every phone call, and record every computer keystroke. Only Luddites and backwoods fundamentalists fail to appreciate the fact that only science and technology can save humanity. My question is, however, save us from what?

Thus it is that modern man sees himself as an indomitable individual armed with the most potent weapon in the universe: his own reason. Do any of you remember reading the poem “Invictus” in school? That is Mr. Modernity in all of his humble glory. The end result of these attitudes is the dominant intellectual paradigm of modernity: scientific rationalism. However, knowing how much y’all like cliff-hangers, I’m going to save that one for next time, when we will discuss the four isms of scientific rationalism: materialism, positivism, scientism, and progressivism.

Now, may our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, through the intercessions of St. Innocent of Alaska and of the blessed Elder Sophrony (Sakharov) and especially through the intercessions of our most-holy Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary, have mercy upon us all and grant us a rich entrance into his eternal kingdom.