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A Crisis of Reason
Science, Truth, and The Culture of Feeling vs. The Culture of Reason
The Enlightenment saw the birth of a new commitment to empiricism as a means of understanding the world, but it was born out of a profound sense of wonder at the natural world. It wanted to examine the world, and our presence in it, through a lens of reason, rationality, and the generation of ideas which could be examined through experimentation in order to gain more insight into the veracity of those ideas, to bring us closer to an approximate understanding of these phenomena.
While this is often now framed as a rigid empiricism devoid of the more spiritual aspects of the human condition, this is not necessarily accurate. Up to the Enlightenment, the dominant force regulating - indeed dictating - human understanding of the world, and particularly of our interior lives, was religion. In Europe, the various Christian traditions were debilitating to this understanding, and had generated societies absolutely terrified of themselves, living under an assumption that we are all deep sinners living in darkness, and there could be no light on this earth. The choice for life in the world was to pay penance and wait for death, in the hope of experiencing joy after life.
The scientific revolution was born, therefore, not only out of a desire for greater empiricism and rationality against this pervasive ideology and irrationality, but out of a sublime sense of wonder at the beauty of the natural world. No one had to wait for heaven to experience joy, be overcome with wonder, or marvel at the phenomena in the natural world. Like Lord Byron, one had only to stand at the foothills of Mont Blanc, and look up. The Enlightenment heralded in a new age, where the natural world could be investigated, understood - even controlled - and, with scientific discovery, the human condition could be improved.
But the pace of change was too great for many, and so paralleling this birth of discovery and technological advancement was a twin in the form of Romanticism. While the scientific revolution exploded, so too did the Romantic revolution, and provided what scholar Tim Blanning described as a “dialectic between the culture of feeling and the culture of reason.” It started with Rousseau's uniting of both the soul, i.e., the internal spirit but without religion as its source of divinity, and the sanctity of the individual. The Romanticists rebelled against what they saw as science reducing the world to an equation. Their focus was inward, and the Romanticists believed that by this emphasis, they in fact knew better than the knowledge derived from empiricism and rationality. Rousseau believed that empiricism would leave humankind more impoverished (in the soul, that is), and subverted the values of the spirit. It was, as Blanning described it, a “Crisis of the Age of Reason.”
Given the competing tension between a culture of feeling and a culture of reason during the Enlightenment, between the Romanticists and Empiricists, it can be tempting to draw comparisons with the “post-truth” culture of today. Yet, the crisis of reason today has a different, more sinister, and maladaptive character than the competing tensions of the Enlightenment.
The crisis of reason today is a product of the information age, instantaneous communications and hyper-connectivity. Where once specialist knowledge was confined to the realms of the particular field in which that knowledge would be acquired, the information age has changed not just the ability to access, but the ability to express. The democratisation of opinion, where people confuse the entitlement to an opinion with the weight that opinion holds, has married with the democratisation of knowledge, where people confuse the ability to access information with the capacity to understand it.
The rejection of science and reason today is not, as it was for the Romantics, born out of a difficulty reconciling a view of the natural world with scientific epistemology. Rather, it is characterised by a false appeal to self-empowerment, married to a bastardised concept of ‘truth’. It embraces the idea of the maverick, operating outside “the system”. The narrative infuses a rejection of traditional authority and knowledge structures with the idea of new knowledge, of “awakening” to a real understanding. In this alternate reality, higher ‘knowing’ is not derived from formal training, experience, education, and knowledge development. No, it is only obtained when coming at a question from outside “the system”, that one can see clearly what everyone within the field in question seemingly cannot.
The narrative of the self-taught, self-empowered ‘truth seeker’ creates a powerful draw for people who want to hold beliefs because they feel ‘truth-y’ to them. Unlike the Romantics who rejected religion as a source of the human soul, the rhetoric of ‘truth seeking’ in the post-truth age has a quasi-religious character. The charlatans at the helm take on a priestly form for followers, and portray their movement as a noble quest for ‘truth’, besieged on all sides by the scorn of the ignorant and the tyranny of BigScience. Blessed are the Truthseekers. If empirical evidence contradicts the tenets of the movement, then it could only be corrupt science and the agenda of those who would suppress the real ‘truth’.
The rhetoric of ‘truth’ is dangerous. Bestowed with such ‘truth’, we are now navigating a period defined by the abdication of basic faculties of common sense in society, from the most rudimentary of issues like wearing a mask, to matters like vaccinations vital to the public health, to the integrity of democracy with electoral results. On the face of these issues, the movements championing disinformation and misinformation seem like they should be an easy landscape to navigate: a mix of stereotype and fallacy that are a walking, talking, caricature of themselves. But unfortunately, that is not the case. The culture of feeling is not in tension with a culture of reason: it has supplanted it.
The culture of feeling has no need for science, because science can’t tell people what they ‘know to be true’. It has no need for evidence, because ‘truth’ is knowing something research never can (apparently), so people are free to ‘go by the evidence they see’, and feel. The ‘truths’ offered by the charlatan high priests at the helm are innate to the followers, but don’t even exist to the masses.
This isn’t an epistemic tension, as the Romantics provided for the Enlightenment. It is an abject epistemic breakdown. The Romantics sought refuge from a new age of discovery and advancement within, as Goethe wrote, "I return into myself, and find a world!" The Romantics sought a counterbalance to the elevation of reason at the expense of the soul; the current epistemic breakdown reflects a rejection of reason in entirety. What may seem as a standoff in the Enlightenment was not a dichotomy; the culture of feeling and the culture of reason in the Romantic and Scientific revolutions was a reciprocal dialectic in which the competing tension between the ideas of these movements left us with some of the richest fare of literature, music, art, and philosophy, the world has seen. The current crisis of reason will leave us with nothing of the sort, but will - and already has in the past year - provide us with ample opportunity for suffering and calamity.
Blanning wrote of Rousseau that he sought to draw all inspiration from going inside of himself, and that "what he found inside himself was a witches brew of emotions, neuroses, and paranoia." What Rousseau found inside himself, it seems, was a prelude to what we now find in the world as a result of our lack of sense-making capacities and the insidious propagation of a culture of feeling supplanting a culture of reason.