[Ed. note: I'll be revisiting several older posts with the idea of trying to regain my footing concerning the cultural-sphere themes that have always been the primary concern of ATF. Several of the key posts in this area are found in the "Don't Miss" section on the left side of the page. But I feel the need to bring other posts out of hiding if for no other reason than to remind myself of what I was once thinking about these themes before being distracted by the slow-motion train wreck in the political sphere. I'm hoping for the best but prepared for the worst in the political sphere, but in the meantime, I hope at least some ATF readers will re-engage with some of these ideas regarding whither the culture. This post comes from 11/4/07.]
From Taylor's A Secular Age:
We saw how for Providential Deism the principal claim to God's benevolence is precisely the nature of his unchanging order in creation. . . For those who take this view, the noblest, highest truth must have this general form. Personal interventions, even those of a God, would introduce something arbitrary, some element of subjective desire, into the picture, and the highest truths about reality must be beyond this element. From this standpoint, a faith in a personal God belongs to a less mature standpoint, where one still needs the sense of a personal relation to things; one is not yet ready to face the ultimate truth. A line of thinking of the nature, steadily gathering strength, runs through modern thought and culture, from Spinoza, through Goethe, to our present time.
Now I think that an important part of the force which drove many people to see science and religion as incompatible, and to opt for the former, comes from this crucial difference in form. In other words, the success of science built on and helped to entrench in them the sense that the Christian religion they were familiar with belonged to an earlier, more primitive or less mature form of understanding.
Now this bent to impersonality was greatly reinforced by the new cosmic imaginary. The vast universe, in which one could easily feel no sense of a personal God or benign purpose, seemed to be impersonal in the most forbidding sense, blind and indifferent to our fate. An account in terms of impersonal causal law seemed called for by the new depth sense of reality in the universe.
This inference was the stronger in that the stance of disengaged reason, construing the world as it does a devoid of human meaning, fits better with the impersonal picture. But this stance is part of the modern identity of the buffered self, which thus finds a natural affinity for the impersonal order. . . .
But other things too, tend to make us align materialism with adulthood. A religious outlook may easily be painted as one which offers greater comfort, which shields us from the truth of an indifferent universe, which is now felt as a strong possibility with the modern cosmic imaginary. Religion is afraid to face the fact that we are alone in the universe and without cosmic support. As children, we do indeed, find this hard to face, but growing up is becoming ready to look reality in the face.
Of course this story will probably make little sense to someone who is deeply engaged in a life of prayer or meditation, or other serious spiritual discipline, because this involves in its own way growing beyond and letting go of more childish images of God. But if our faith has remained at the stage of the immature images, then the story that materialism equals maturity can seem plausible. And if in addition, one has been convinced that manliness is the key virtue, then the appeal to go over can appear irresistible. (pp. 362-64)
A couple of points: First, the impersonal Deism of the eighteenth-century philosophes, after a few decades of Romantic protest, easily slid into the scientific materialism of the nineteenth century. This change in the social imaginary of the culture's elites had an enormous influence in shaping the Western zeitgeist and changed the imagination of reality wherever Western ideas were influential. While this is a story that many found compelling, many then and now for good reason did and do not. But the dominant social imaginary for even Christian fundamentalists changed dramatically. Whatever their beliefs may be, even religious believers live in an experientially disenchanted world.
Second, that this story as recounted
above by Taylor, is just
that--a story. Even though it became the dominant social imaginary for
modernity, It's but one way of connecting the dots, and it's important
to understand it as such. It's not scientific truth. It's a story that
many find attractive, but as I suggested in my Getting
after the Future
piece last week, it's a story that embraces only half of reality, and
in my opinion the less interesting half. But while it's important to
understand why it's so attractive, it's also important to understand
that it's not permanent, that it can change and will change as we learn
to reintegrate the parts the modern imaginary left out. Modernity is
but one chapter in a much longer story.
Third, that while the attraction of certain kinds of personalities toward scientific materialism (or 'naturalism') is motivated, in part, by this idea that they are grown ups who have put off childish things to face the hard truth that we live alone in a bleak, impersonal cosmos devoid of purpose or meaning, that's not the only explanation for their motivations. Another motivation is the impulse to dominate and control. This is an ancient human compulsion, but nobody does it better than the kind of personality that emerged during the modern era that Taylor identifies as the coolly rationalist "buffered self".
I respect anybody who wants to live as a grownup, and I recognize that their only encounter with theistic religion might be of the silly, childish variety. That being said, it is important to recognize that the culture's embrace of the impersonalist cosmic imaginary as a substitution for one framed by theistic personalism leads to the formation of the "buffered self." The buffered self is cut off from the "objective" world around it. The world is seen over-there as object over against me over-here as subject. This fundamental sense of disconnection is not how healthy premoderns experienced the world, and the widespread development of the buffered self as a human type was a huge change with dramatic consequences.
For the buffered self, the world and the things and people in it
gradually lost their numina. ("Wherefore art
thou, my noumenon,"
cried Kant. Was it lost or never there? Or was it just our capacity for
cognizing it that was lost?) And the social imaginary of the world
devolves into pure, soulless extension--a thing or collection of
things, a great machine--that has no meaning in itself except as it is
usable or exploitable for practical human purposes. Carlyle in Sartor
a few decades after Kant: "To me the Universe was all
void of life, of Purpose, of Volition, even of Hostility; it was one
huge dead, immeasurable Steam engine, rolling on, in its dead
indifference, to grind me limb from limb. O the vast, Gloomy, solitary
Golgotha, and Mill of Death. " (ASA, p. 379) We don't feel the loss
because we dont know what we lost, the way so many in the eighteenth
and nineteenth century did. Instead we just feel this floating anxiety.
The buffered self, as an extreme type (hardly anyone inhabits completely this extreme), is cut off from the world around him and sees but does not feel it. How can it be anything but a thing to him? And so the world flinches as he approaches. It withdraws as he crudely exploits and manipulates it in his compulsion to control and acquire. The American Indian, who had not yet lost his experienced sense of communion with the world, was shocked when he first encountered the wanton, impious destructiveness of the 'modern' white man. The white man seemed to the Indian to be stupid and insensate, and the Indian was correct. The modern white man as buffered self sees the world but is not in relationship with it--there is nothing there for him to be in relationship with. It's just a sterile agglomeration of molecules whose value is measured only by its utility.
This trend toward the acceptance of the impersonalist cosmos as the frame for the metanarrative of the modern period caused the eye and brain to hypertrophy while at the same time shriveling the soul and its capacities for connection and a sense of communion. The new zeitgeist gradually worked to reprogram human experience in such a way that emphasized the surfaces and distances between things, the disconnections and the distinctions, and tends to make our experience of the world more bloodlessly abstract, like a video game. The world, when it loses its numen, loses its interiority. It becomes all flat, impenetrable surface. And since we are shut out of its interior, we have come to believe that it has none.
For the hypertrophied brain promoted during the modern period has caused a correlative atrophying of the heart. Look around you. Maybe you're lucky enough to have found an oasis of deeply nourishing social connection in your life, but if so, you're the exception rather than the rule. And it's almost certainly not something given to you in the way it is a given in premodern societies. It's more likely that it's something you chose to create and which requires enormous effort to maintain because the forces of disintegration fragmentation are just so powerful. When people are no longer useful to us, we just "move on." (Not that there's anything wrong with that. See Deneen here--h/t FW. Along those lines, see also my post entitled Seinfeld Costanza Sydrome.)
For the modern zeitgeist and the buffered self that it created are more about the domination and control impulse than they are about the need to be a grown up. Being a grown up for the buffered self means accepting that domination and control is the only real way to understand how the world works. Ask grownup Dick Cheney his opinion on the subject.
That's always been true of human beings, some might say. I would
agree that human aggression and predatory instincts have been there
from the beginning, but that ugly part of the human being has taken on
a perversely magnified role in modern societies because of technology.
We love our technology, but let's be clear about what has been the
driving force behind so much of its development, namely military
research. And let's be clear about the predatory motives driving so
many elites in the economic and political spheres. And while there have
always been predatory sociopaths, it's so much easier to be a predator
in a cosmos in which bleak impersonality is its metaphysical frame.
Social Darwinism becomes the metanarrative justifiying the capitalist
sociopathy of the robber barons in the late nineteenth century. The
impersonal corporation emerges as the dominant force shaping the
agenda in both the political, economic, and cultural spheres.
Everything, even art, becomes a commodity, and value becomes synonymous
The video-game like slaughter of the terror during the French
Revolution was the first hint of the negative side of what this
combination of abstraction in the service of impersonalism wreaks. The
holocaust is another, and I would argue that this kind of abstract,
impersonal experience of the world is necessary for the kind of
attitudes we have so easily adopted toward convenience abortions. This
idea that only religious fanaticism leads to mass slaughters is
facetious in its blindness to the historical record. The great modern
atrocities were not committed by religiously motivated personalities,
but by anomic or ideologically driven moderns. Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot,
Pinochet, and so many others were not religious fanatics; the
destruction of Dresden, Nagasaki, and the atrocities of Abu Ghraib and
Guantanamo were not effected by religious fanatics, but by cool,
professional moderns who see their victims as bloodless abstractions.
It's possible to participate in these atrocities without a quivering
of revulsion only if you see all
that as 'not-me', as a 'thing', which has no meaning as an end in
itself, but only insofar as it serves my purposes. It's so much easier
to be a sociopath if you live in an impersonal, soulless cosmos. The
cyborgian sociopath is, in fact, the endpoint of the kind of mentality
promoted by the impersonal-cosmos metanarrative. Why should the human
future be anything else if a personalist metanarrative has indeed been
superseded by an impersonalist one? Couldn't it be argued that
revulsion at such dystopian human future should be dismissed as
childishly romantic or sentimental refusal to face the facts?
So here's the last point. My argument at this blog from Day One has been that the Enlightenment Rationalist metanarrative is dead, that it's at best an old habit of mind that we haven't had the will to break yet because we don't see the advantages of any other habit to try and adopt. We've received many benefits from it, but they are exaggerated in the minds of those who still cling to the idea that the Enlightenment was the high water mark of human civilization.
There was a fork in the road in the eighteenth century in which many of the brightest people rejected belief in a personal God for the reasons Taylor describes above. It's a fork in the road many today recapitulate. Such people came to recognize that the theism they were exposed to as kids was childish, and of course so much of it is. And that kind of childishness will always be there because so many people, maybe most, don't really want to grow up.
But if materialistic, rationalist impersonalism is the road to the left at that fork, the road to the right leads us back toward a personalist (or interpersonal/ intersubjective) imagination of the cosmos. This is also a real possibility for grown ups. And ultimately, I would argue, those who take the left fork will find it's a dead end, whereas the right fork leads on and on to more fruitful future possibilities, not the least of which is the reintegration of the brain and the heart.
Once it becomes possible to imagine that the fork on the right leads to discovery and adventure, then more of those inclined to take the left fork will think differently about what it means to take the right. We're not there yet, but we will remain dead-ended in this decadent cultural phase until we do. So I think.
P.S. I will have more to say about Taylor's "buffered self." I haven't done it justice here--there is a positive side as well as the negative I have emphasized here. The tale Taylor tells is very respectful of the honest grappling with the issues of belief and unbelief that confront all of us buffered selves. They understood what was at stake. The problem is that those in the eighteenth & nineteenth centuries had a better sense of what was at stake than most of us now do. We are living in the world that they feared would become the future. So understanding why we developed the impersonal cosmos and the buffered selves that gazed upon it is essential if we are to understand how to break out of it and is the key to the way forward.