To understand the past is to understand the present. So for this post, let’s take a brief look at the history of Western thought, starting with Descartes, who rebooted philosophy 400 years ago, replacing Aristotle.
Descartes’ main contribution was this: science defines the material world. (This is common sense nowadays, but it originated with Descartes.) In his view, the natural world is like an enormous machine; a “clockwork universe”. Descartes also held that the human mind, including consciousness, was immaterial and separate to the body.
Descartes did not provide any account of how human knowledge was possible; he simply assumed that it was. This would have consequences, as we shall see.
Descartes’ immediate successors can be grouped into two categories; the rationalists and the empiricists.
Spinoza was a determinist. He held that free will was impossible and that God and Nature are names for the same underlying reality – “God” here meaning the deterministic system of which everything is a part. He said that good and evil are relative rather than absolutes. He opposed Cartesian dualism, stating that if mind and body were separate, it was hard to see how they could interact – the interaction problem.
After Spinoza came Leibniz, who invented calculus independently of Newton. He was an optimist. He held that this is the best possible universe God could have created. He invented parallelism – preestablished divine harmony between matter and mind – to solve the interaction problem.
Malebranche attempted to solve the interaction problem by means of occasionalism – the belief that mind cannot act on body or body on mind, but that God mediated between both.
Descartes’ method had been one of doubt; doubt as much as possible, before rebuilding. The Empiricists followed his lead, by playing Let’s See Who Can Doubt The Most Stuff.
Locke said that all of our ideas are derived from the senses, so that our knowledge is limited; we can’t know the primary qualities of things, but only their secondary qualities (such as colour or taste).
According to Berkeley, objective reality cannot be empirically verified and therefore doesn’t exist. Rather, to exist is to be perceived subjectively by a mind. The world only exists because God is perceiving it.
Hume was the logical endpoint of empiricism and scepticism. He is much loved by Internet atheists for demolishing religion, but he didn’t stop there. Hume demolished science! Hume demolished causation! Hume demolished time and space! Hume demolished philosophy! Hume demolished Hume! Hume’s method for each of these was the same; all knowledge comes via the senses, but the senses tell us about rocks, trees and cats, not about time, space, causation, scientific logic, religion or philosophy. Hume either swept away the cobwebs of superstition or demonstrated the absurdity of any consistent scepticism, depending on who you talk to. Hume left philosophy in crisis. He appalled and perplexed everyone. Everything was demolished. Who could save philosophy now?
The catastrophic spider
Enter Kant. He answered Hume with a complex account of how human knowledge was possible. According to Kant, we don’t see the world-in-itself but rather the world as it is structured by the mind, the world-to-us. Since we can never get outside our minds, the world-in-itself is forever closed to us, and it is unknown if and to what extent the world-to-us is accurate. We can do science, but all we are studying is the world-to-us.
We can never answer the Big Questions about God or metaphysics, because they are part of the world-in-itself but not the world-to-us. On this basis, Kant dismissed all proofs of God’s existence as invalid. (Lest you get the wrong idea, Kant was a devout Catholic.)
Kant’s influence was huge; second only to Descartes. But ultimately it was his formulation of the problem of human knowledge, rather than his solutions, that would be remembered. To get an idea of his legacy, it is said we live in a “post-Kantian wasteland”. Nietzsche called Kant a “catastrophic spider”. Kant’s successors can be (roughly) grouped three ways; the idealists, the existentialists and ultimately the materialists.
If you can explain all human knowledge in terms of the world-to-us, what need is there for a world-in-itself? Perhaps mind-reality is the only reality.
According to Hegel, history is Mind seeking to understand itself. The good news? Mind would one day understand everything. How inspirational is that? I’m inspired. Who else was inspired by Hegel? Karl Marx. Marx invented Communism. Communists killed 100 million people. The lesson here? Don’t do philosophy; it’s too dangerous.
Ultimately an increasingly secular West would reject Hegel as being too mystical.
Absurdity and despair
Next, the existentialists. Since the world-in-itself could not be known, the quest for knowledge is futile. Philosophy was spooked from asking big questions and instead slid into despair.
Schopenhauer held that human desire is illogical and directionless. Birth only brings into existence a new occasion for suffering and death. What is real is the Cosmic Will but the Cosmic Will is evil.
Nietzsche coined the phrase “God is dead”. According to Nietzsche, the end of Christianity will bring in a period of amorality and chaos as our morality moves away from Christian “slave morality” with its pity and compassion, until a new morality is established. (Nietzsche went insane before his death, shortly before the First World War broke out.)
The Existentialists said that human freedom leads to dread and despair. The quest for knowledge is hopeless. Life is “the nauseating quality of existence”. We are condemned to look for meaning in a universe without it. Life is absurd and the only thing to do is embrace the absurdity.
Camus said that the only philosophical question worth asking is: Should I kill myself? (His answer was “no”, but still.)
Language-games and science
Pragmatism held concepts to be useful instruments rather than anything true or false.
Wittgenstein presented language as having meaning only within a “language-game” and meaningless outside it; the point of language is not to be true or false but to be understood by other players of the language-game. Wittgenstein regarded language as a cage; its imprecision makes philosophy impossible.
Parallel to this, a movement was afoot to make philosophy more like an intellectual discipline that wasn’t chewing it off its own feet; namely, science.
This can be seen as the final response to Kant. If we can explain everything in terms of the world-to-us, then the world-to-us is the world-in-itself and that is all there is; no need for God or metaphysics. This would lead inexorably to materialism in its various guises. Materialism holds that mind is really matter, although like all modern philosophy it defines both “mind” and “matter” in Cartesian terms.
Because no one pays attention to philosophy, few are aware that materialism has run into a number of intractable problems that cannot and will not be overcome.
In my view, the failure of modern philosophy to pin down the basic nature of reality shows that it’s Cartesian foundations are faulty. Build on top of a faulty foundation and things may seem fine at first; as more storeys are added, cracks appear and the building starts to shudder. The only solution is to demolish or wait until the collapse.
It is my opinion that the Cartesian conceptions of mind and matter are both incorrect. Given that, it hardly matters which way you connect the puzzle pieces. Whether mind is really matter (materialism), matter is really mind (idealism) or mind and matter are separate (dualism) – all of these will fail if the definitions of “mind” and “matter” are wrong in the first place.
Between language-games and materialism, half of philosophy was claiming that philosophy was impossible and the other half was claiming that science would provide the answers. Not without reason, the West decided philosophy no longer merited our attention and philosophy was locked inside its ivory towers.
Once, philosophers were household names. As late as 1922, Einstein debated a philosopher on the subject of time, and the public was riveted. Imagine that happening today.
Things are different now. Science is king and philosophy is an irrelevant sideshow. But this has its consequences; Western thought has atrophied. The West scarcely knows how to ask the big questions any more, let alone answer them.