Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Gap Between Modern Man and his Knowledge

Man as a modern scandal


In becoming modern, man discovered the world but lost himself. What does it mean for man to have lost himself? It means that man, in his specific difference as man, has disappeared from view. He has been lost.


The specific difference of man is that man, although an animal, is distinguished from other animals by his capacity to know. It is man as knower who has been lost. This might seem a paradoxical statement at least, since the glory of modern man is the modern scientific method, which provides him knowledge undreamt of by the ancients, knowledge that modern man feels gives him a decisive advantage over the ancients. But modern scientific knowledge is a peculiar thing. It is knowledge that can exist without a knower. The ancients spoke of poets, artisans, geometers and philosophers, all of whom are men. The modern man speaks of art, philosophy, math and science, which are not men but abstractions. The student in ancient Athens traveled to Plato’s Academy to become a philosopher. The modern college student goes to school to study philosophy, which is not quite the same thing as becoming a philosopher. Plato studied philosophy only insofar as it was the act of a philosopher, which is why he wrote in dialogue form in the person of Socrates. We moderns see no necessary relationship between philosophy and the philosopher, math and the mathematician, science and the scientist. In general, for modern man there is a gap between knowledge and the knower, and into this gap man has disappeared.


Let me write concretely. The scientist observes apes in his laboratory and sees that most and perhaps all of their behavior can be explained in terms of material cause and effect. He conjectures that all of life, including man himself, can be explained in similar fashion. So he conducts psychological experiments on human subjects, sees that their responses can be explained by material cause and effect, and considers his conjecture to be established fact. Yet the distinctively human act in the experiment, the act of knowing, is the act of the scientist himself and is not addressed by the experiment. What the scientist has actually established is that man, insofar as his merely animal nature is concerned, can be explained the same way apes are explained. Man in his knowing nature, in the person of the scientist, is untouched by the experiment. More significant for us is the fact that the scientist is blind to the significance of himself as knower. It is only because of this that he thinks that his experiment has demonstrated how all of human nature might be reduced to material cause and effect. Man the knower disappears into the gap between the scientist and his experiment.


Perhaps it is more accurate to say that man as knower has been excluded rather than lost from the modern world. Saying that something is lost implies that its loss was inadvertent. But there is nothing inadvertent in the way that man the knower has been excluded. The scientist in his laboratory, for example, makes no effort to hide his identity, methods and purposes from the rats and apes on which he experiments. But the same scientist may go to great lengths to deceive his human subjects about the true nature of his experiments.  This is because man the knower is not a fit subject for scientific experimentation. The subject of modern science is the passive transmitter of cause to effect. X happens, and Y is the result, every time or most of the time. But man the knower is not a passive transmitter of cause to effect; he is instead a source of creative action.  If X happens, and I know you expect me to do Y, then maybe I will do Z instead. This won’t do for science. Man the knower must be excluded from science, so that in his ignorance, he will act the part of the passive transmitter of cause to effect demanded by good scientific procedure. If I am unaware that every time X happens, I do Y, I may very well go on doing it. This is much better for science.


The exclusion of man the knower from scientific study is legitimate as a matter of scientific methodology. Unfortunately, modern man lives by the sophism that what doesn’t exist for science doesn’t exist at all. The absurd result is that, since we have excluded man the knower from science, we conclude his non-existence in general. Thus the nearly irresistible temptation of modern thought to reduce man to an aggregate of material causes. Man is determined by his blood, by his genes, by his environment, or some combination of them. Man the knower cannot, of course, be determined by his genes or his blood, or anything else, for once he knows what his genes have determined him to do, he may do something else. That is why education has traditionally been associated with freedom: You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free. Man the knower always slips through the net of material theories, but the modern mind can only see the escape as the fault of the particular material theory at hand, and goes in quest of a new theory that will finally capture man in his totality.


Man the knower is, then, a scandal to the very science he created. He is a “sign of contradiction” to whoever would reduce him to his material nature, a living rebuke to the prideful notion that, in creating science, man finally found the key to unlocking nature’s deepest secrets. Man himself is nature’s deepest secret, and the more impressive becomes the science that he creates, the more mysterious becomes the man who created it, and the more of a scandal he becomes to himself.


The Peculiar Inhumanity of the Modern World


What are the consequences for man of losing himself in the gap between himself and his knowledge? One consequence is the peculiar inhumanity that characterizes the modern world. This is not to say that the modern world is more inhumane than the ancient world. In many ways, the modern world is far more humane than the ancient. But, insofar as it is inhumane, the modern world manifests a form of inhumanity peculiar to it and unknown to the ancients. The specific difference of man is that he is a knowing animal, and to exclude him as knower is to exclude his humanity. But although man the knower has disappeared from view in the modern world, he still exists in the modern world. His existence is merely suppressed. The eruption of man as knower is therefore always a threat to the modern world, and any such eruption would pose a foundational crisis for modernity in a way that it never did for the ancients. The specific inhumanity of the modern world is therefore the suppression of man as knower.


This suppression is most evident in modern totalitarian ideologies. Such ideologies typically style themselves as “scientific”. And while it may be argued whether such ideologies are in fact truly scientific, they are certainly scientific (in the modern sense) insofar as they explicitly exclude man in his subjectivity as a knower. For the scientist in his lab, knowledge exists only in the results of his scientific method, not in what he knows immediately as a man – for instance, that he himself is a knower who necessarily transcends whatever experiment he is performing. For the scientific ideologue, knowledge exists only in the results of the scientific ideology, not in what people know immediately as men. Thus Nazi concentration camp guards sometimes experienced the revulsion of their individual consciences, but dismissed conscience as a subjective experience of no cognitive value. The truth was understood objectively through Nazi scientific ideology, not individual conscience, and “courage” consisted in suppressing the pain of conscience in favor of what needed to be done in light of Nazism.


The sinister genius of modern totalitarianism is that it works primarily through getting men to themselves suppress the knower in themselves. Through propaganda, re-education, lies, and total control of all media, the modern totalitarian exploits the gap between man and his knowledge by inserting the totalitarian ideology into it. Man becomes convinced that he can know only through ideology. Anything he might think he knows independently of ideology – such as the truths of ordinary conscience – are illusions of false consciousness. Morality consists of reshaping the self in the terms demanded by ideology. Most men cannot resist the power of ideology and suppress themselves in its name. The few dissidents who don’t, men like Andrei Sakharov, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, men who remain convinced that they can, in their individual natures, know the truth independently of ideology, are dealt with in labor or concentration camps.


The ancient tyrant was straightforwardly brutal and propelled by obvious human motivation: The thirst for power, glory, and wealth, the satisfaction of his human appetites. His methods were not subtle or secret. If he slaughtered the inhabitants of a captured city, he advertised the fact as a warning to anyone who would oppose him. It was the truth about himself that made him powerful, the truth that he was a ruthless and ambitious tyrant. He oppressed man in his physical nature, but he did not oppress him in his knowing nature. The modern tyrant has discovered the power of the lie, the power of the suppression of man the knower. Stalin murdered millions, but also had millions convinced that he was the greatest benefactor in Russian history.


Moral Relativism


Another consequence of the gap between man and his knowledge is modern moral relativism. Modern man can either know or he can act, but he can’t know and act at the same time, which is another way of saying that for modern man, there is a gap between himself and his knowledge. When man is man he is not a knower; when he knows he is not a man, at least not in the concrete sense of man as a being who exists in the here and now and must act one way or another.  So when man acts, his reasons for acting cannot reach truth, since knowledge of the truth is accessible only in the abstract realm of the scientific method. His reasons for acting, then, are finally a matter of subjective preference.


Descartes created the gap between modern man and his knowledge in his Discourse on Method.  Resolved to accept nothing as known except that which was certainly established by the Method, he considered how to live until his fund of knowledge had been built up:


In planning to rebuild one’s house it is not enough to draw up the plans for the new dwelling, tear down the old one, and provide stones and other materials useful for building, and obtain workmen for the task. We must see that we are provided with a comfortable place to stay while the work of rebuilding is going on. Similarly in my own case; while reason obliged me to be irresolute in my beliefs, there was no reason why I should be so in my actions. In order to live as happily as possible during the interval I prepared a provisional code of morality for myself, consisting of three or four maxims which I here set forth.1


What is the cognitive status of the contents of Descartes’ “provisional code of morality?” It is not knowledge, since it is not a product of the method and it is only the method that gives knowledge. Descartes cannot give us a truly reasoned defense for why his provisional code is better than another, since reason pertains to the method, and the provisional code is that by which he lives while awaiting the results of the method. At most, he can provide an account of how it was that he chose this code rather than another. And that is what he does. He describes three “maxims” that he adopted and an account of his thinking in adopting them. The account is not a matter of philosophy strictly speaking or science, but of subjective history, being the story of how Descartes the man came to adopt his moral maxims.


The provisional code, then, is a matter of subjective preference. It is the code by which Descartes the man lives. It is his “comfortable place to stay” while Descartes the thinker builds a magnificent new dwelling with the method.  Descartes the man, living by the provisional code of morality, does not know in the full sense of the word. Only Descartes the thinker, who participates in the method, is privileged to know. On the other hand, Descartes the thinker does not act. His existence consists of an abstract participation in the method.


Let us use a concrete case to flesh out the distinction between man as an actor and man as an abstract thinker. Archimedes of Syracuse, of “Eureka!” fame, was a forerunner of the modern scientist and a great mathematician. The geometry he studied was the same geometry that inspired Descartes to develop his method. When the Romans conquered Syracuse, the Roman commander gave orders that the life of the famous scientist Archimedes was to be spared. A Roman soldier came upon Archimedes drawing figures in the sand. The soldier demanded of Archimedes his name and Archimedes, absorbed in his geometrical investigation and impatient at the interruption, merely responded “Don’t disturb my circles”, whereupon the soldier slew him for his impertinence. The soldier had addressed his question to Archimedes the man, but unfortunately for Archimedes, it was Archimedes the thinker, lost in abstraction, who responded. The soldier demanded an act from Archimedes, specifically a response to his question, but in his existence as a thinker Archimedes was not an actor in the world, and indeed resented a call back to the world.


We in the modern world typically see the death of Archimedes as the straightforward story of the death of a martyr to science. The difference between the ancient and the modern worlds is that, while the ancient world respected Archimedes and what could be known through the mode of abstract thought, it also noticed that man as he acts in the world can know, and should know. Ancient tragedy had its source in the exposure of the paradoxes and contradictions inherent in human existence and their consequences. The tragedy of Archimedes was that Archimedes the mathematician still existed as Archimedes the man, and as a man existence put certain demands on him that could not be ignored. While coming to know, in abstraction, some wonderful new theorem of geometry, Archimedes the thinker was ignorant of what Archimedes, the man, needed most urgently to know, specifically that a Roman soldier was holding a sword over him. Archimedes paid for that ignorance with his life.


Now ethics pertains to man as he acts in the world. If ethics is to be a matter of knowledge, then man as he acts in the world must be able to know. Therefore the ethics of Plato is discussed through the person of the man Socrates in his concrete existence, not in abstraction. And Socrates the man is a knower, not merely a subscriber to a provisional morality while “real thinking” goes on somewhere else. The most significant thing that Socrates knows, ethically speaking, is that ethics exists only for man in his concrete existence. In the dialogue Crito, Socrates is in prison awaiting execution. His friend Criton begs him to escape, assuring him it could be easily arranged. Socrates refuses, and Criton offers a number of arguments to convince him: Public opinion will think Socrates a fool for having acquiesced to exactly what his enemies wished for him, he needs to live in order to educate his sons, money for bribing the guards is easily found.  Socrates does not respond to these arguments directly; instead he shows Criton how he is missing the point entirely:


My dearest Criton, your anxiety would be precious if there were any right in it; otherwise, the greater it is, so much the harder to bear. Then we must examine whether we ought to do it or not; for my way is and always has been to obey no one and nothing, except the reasoning which seems to me best when I draw my conclusions. Well, what I have said in the past I must not throw overboard now because this fortune has come to me; it seems quite as reasonable to me now, I put the same things first and respect them as I did then.2


Socrates calls Criton back to the fact that the subject of ethics is man in his concrete existence. It is not the discussion of abstract principles that may or may not have anything to do with those conducting the investigation. The subject of Socrates’ ethical thought has always been Socrates himself, as a man acting in the here and now. And Socrates has already come to a number of ethical conclusions; if these conclusions are not decisive for Socrates in his present moment in prison, for whom are they decisive? Socrates refuses to permit a gap to develop between himself and his knowledge. He has no “provisional morality” by which he lives while true morality is worked out in abstraction. The morality he contemplates is the same morality that informs his daily existence. Thus the subject of Socrates’ morality is action and its specific quality of justice. The moral question is always a question of the just act taken in its concrete reality and not in abstraction; specifically, the moral question for Socrates is the just act of Socrates in the present moment. Any other consideration is beside the point:


Then after our admissions we must examine whether it is just that I try to get out of this, or not just; and if it seems just, let us try – if not, leave it alone. But the considerations which you spoke of, about spending money and public opinion, and bringing up children, perhaps these may really be, Criton, speculations of the people – I mean the many – who lightly put to death and would as lightly bring to life again if they were able, all with no good reason.3


The subject of ethics since Descartes is not the man who acts, man in his concrete existence. Man in his concrete existence lives by the “provisional code of morality”. The modern subject of ethics is man in the abstract. Thus modern ethics consists of the working out of abstract systems of rules; rules of utilitarian accounting, rules when lying is permissible or not, rules by which an abstract notion of justice is constructed. Modern ethics always has a flavor of the arbitrary about it, because any system in the abstract must start with the arbitrary. Geometry, for example, starts with the definitions of point and line, but cannot justify that start itself because there is no science of geometry before they are posited. But ethics has meaning only if starts with me, and I am not arbitrary.


Once the gap between man and his knowledge has been opened, once it is decided that true knowledge can only be gained in abstraction, the science of ethics is doomed because it can never of itself return to man in his concrete existence as its subject. Kierkegaard saw this clearly, and saw that the closure of the gap between modern man and ethics could only be made by an arbitrary act of the will. The individual man must decide that ethics is about himself in his concrete existence, the decision itself not subject to the science of ethics since, until the decision is made, ethics pertains only to man in the abstract. Kierkegaard devoted a lot of energy to contrasting the life of the pre-ethical man with that of the man who submitted himself to ethics, characterizing the change as moving from an “aesthetic” to an “ethical” stage of existence. But as penetrating as was Kierkegaard’s analysis of the stages of existence, he could never provide a rational motive for the individual to make the leap, since he accepted the modern premise that reason only truly reaches knowledge in the methods of abstraction. Furthermore, Kierkegaard had nothing to say concerning which ethical understanding was the true one for the ethical stage of existence. The result of Kierkegaard’s efforts is the contemporary feeling that “commitment” is an important part of life, commitment being understood as an individual pre-ethical act of unspecified content.


And so we arrive at modern moral relativism. Every man lives in his own comfortable dwelling committed, more or less, to his own code of morality. Descartes viewed his “provisional code of morality” as merely a stopgap while the true morality was arrived at by the method. Contemporary ethicists still crank-out ethical theories by their own favorite methods, but no one believes any longer that a universally applicable ethics will ever be constructed in such a manner. Instead, newly minted ethics are added to the existing stock of ethics, increasing the variety from which the philosophical consumer may choose.


The Tyranny of Experts


Modern man in his ordinary existence is not a knower, or at any rate doesn’t believe he is. Knowledge is the privilege of the method and its practitioners, who are known in the modern world as experts, or perhaps more accurately scientific experts, since it is only science in its modern form that is thought to truly qualify as a method. (In the interests of brevity, I will refer to scientific experts as simply experts from here on out.) As the only ones privileged to know, the experts are, in the words of Walker Percy, the “princes of the age”. The rest of us are mere consumers of expert opinion.


The modern expert differs significantly from the ancient wiseman whom he replaced. The wiseman of old spoke from within ordinary existence and his vocation was to illuminate the ordinary existence of his fellow men. Socrates had no special method or access to any privileged information. He insisted that he was not a teacher, lest people misunderstand that he was giving them something that they did not already have. His art, he claimed, was merely to help people recall what they already knew but had forgotten. Kierkegaard pointed out that if the philosopher did his job right, he was dispensable. He was merely the “occasion” by which people came to know, and once they knew, their knowledge was ratified by their own witness and did not depend on the authority of the wiseman. The ancient wiseman liberated the individual to know for himself, such liberation being the true goal of education.


The modern expert is not in a position to similarly liberate individuals, even if he wanted to. Knowledge is the privilege of the method, and man in his ordinary existence does not have method. Only the scientist in his laboratory has method sufficient to reach knowledge. Of course anyone can, in theory, be trained in the methods of science themselves and become scientific experts. But such training takes them out of ordinary existence. Not everyone can be a scientist. Someone needs to be the janitors, accountants, soldiers, parents, politicians, and other types of people necessary to keep society functioning. Socrates taught that a janitor, even in his existence as a janitor, could come to know the truth. In the modern world, to truly become someone who knows, the janitor would have to become a scientist.


What the modern expert offers the ordinary individual is not education in the traditional sense, but expert opinion. Expert opinion is a product of the method, and the ordinary man is the consumer of the product, as he consumes any other product. And just as the seller of automobiles or sofas is always looking to expand his market, so the sellers of expert opinion are always looking to expand theirs. Since man in his ordinary existence is not privileged to know, every aspect of his existence is open to authoritative study by an expert, making the market for expert opinion potentially unlimited. This is the origin of our ever-growing army of experts on every conceivable aspect of life. And unlike the encounter with the ancient wiseman, who liberated the individual to know the truth for himself on his own witness, the encounter with the expert never liberates. The consumer of expert opinion ends up with opinion, not knowledge, and opinion is a form of dependency. The holder of opinion is dependent on the source of the opinion for its veracity. Why do I think global warming is a dire threat to the world? Not because I have done scientific studies and know for myself, but because the climate experts have told me so. The climate experts are the ones who know, if in fact they do; I am entirely dependent on their work and their honesty for my opinion.


The region of common sense is the region where ordinary people are granted the privilege of knowing. It has been steadily shrinking. Every time a new expert appears, whatever region he has staked out as his area of authority disappears from the region of common sense. Child-rearing, for example, was once something that every reasonable adult knew (or thought he knew) and could understand for himself. This changed in the 1960’s with the publication of books like Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care. It turns out, according to the experts, that just about everything involved in traditional child-rearing was bad. Why did anyone listen to Dr. Spock’s indictment? Because he was an expert (or, at least, said he was) and they were not. Of course, the experts did and do have many legitimate contributions to make – the point is not that Baby and Child Care is mistaken in its child-care advice. It is that the book does not educate parents from within their own experience in the manner of the ancient wiseman; it critiques that experience from the superior vantage point of the expert wielding a method. What the reader of the book learns is many fascinating and useful expert opinions of the author on child-rearing, and more deeply the fact that, as a mere ordinary layman, he has no hope of finding on his own the true way to raise children. When men came to Socrates and asked him about the best way to raise their sons, he responded by engaging them in dialogue that had the form of a shared and equal search for the truth. When modern man addresses the same question to an expert, he is given a set of authoritative answers – and a bill for services rendered.


As the region of common sense has shrunk, a self-reinforcing cycle has developed. The explosion of experts into every aspect of life has eroded the confidence of the ordinary man in his ability to know anything at all on his own witness. Through lack of use, his powers of common sense and analysis atrophy, making him ever more dependent on experts. There is no Socrates around to teach him to know on his own and to give him the confidence to do it. The result is phenomena like the “Dr. Phil” television show, featuring apparently intelligent people utterly incapable of understanding or managing the basic tasks of life. Dr. Phil dispenses expert advice which, while sound, would have been simple common sense a few years ago. The dysfunctional people follow the expert advice and their lives are miraculously transformed. No one notices that there is very little science in what Dr. Phil does. The “Dr.” merely certifies him as a genuine knower. An interesting experiment would be the “Steve” show, where Steve has no scientific credentials but dispenses exactly the same advice as Dr. Phil to dysfunctional families. Would anyone listen to him?


What the experts have figured out is how to exploit the modern gap between man and his knowledge. They widen the gap, then offer themselves as bridges across it. The ordinary man is grateful for the help, unaware that his dependency is in part artificially created by those same experts. The modern domination of ordinary men by experts is a tyranny, the tyranny of experts. The ordinary man turns his life over to the experts because they tell him he is unfit to run it – and the ordinary man believes it.


Closing the Gap Between Man and his Knowledge


Kierkegaard saw the gap between modern man and his knowledge, and his solution was to close the gap by leaping across it. But, of course, this doesn’t really close the gap. Man the abstract thinker, by leaping back across the gap to man in his concrete existence, is able to act, but he is forced to leave his rationality behind.  Kierkegaard’s great contribution was to identify and deeply analyze the situation of modern man, but he was too much a man of his time to finally transcend it.


A better approach is to not let the gap develop in the first place, or to show men that the gap is really an illusion. This approach was used by Pope John Paul II to devastating effect in his attack on Communism in the last 1970s and 80s. The Pope understood that the most dangerous threat to Communism was man the knower, and that modern totalitarianism survives largely by convincing men to suppress their own knowing nature. But man, in truth, even in his ordinary existence, is a knower, and the most dangerous weapon against Communism is to convincingly remind men of the fact.  Once men stop suppressing their own natures, the totalitarian regime is doomed.


Man is both an incarnate being and a knower. His natural mode of knowing, then, will be that of an incarnate being. There is no gap in the incarnate knower between the man and his knowledge, since his knowledge fits his mode of existence as a man. And as he comes to know in an incarnate manner, he will be fulfilled. This is the true meaning of freedom, and points to why modern moral relativism will not endure.  The freedom of moral relativism is the freedom of the arbitrary, pre-ethical act of the will. But once the pre-ethical decision is made, once a man has “committed”, the decision has no meaning unless the individual submits to the life he has chosen. This is the leap to Kierkegaard’s ethical stage of existence. And this life that he has chosen will either fulfill him or not. If it doesn’t, and if based on an arbitrary act of the will it probably won’t, it will inevitably come to be seen as a form of slavery as, in fact, it is. Kierkegaard’s solution to this instability in the ethical stage of existence is the religious stage of existence, where man finally solves his existential problem with a leap into faith in Jesus Christ, burying the absurdity of his own existence in the absurdity of the doctrine of the Incarnation. The more likely solution is a return to the aesthetic stage of existence, where man maintains a semblance of freedom by avoiding commitment, the price being the draining of any significance to freedom.


Man will not forever content himself with the choice between an insignificant freedom or a non-rational leap through stages of existence. He will see that either choice cannot finally satisfy him, and that there must be another alternative. He will eventually discover that alternative in a recovery of the wisdom of classical philosophy, and through that wisdom will reunite man and his knowledge, and through that reunion, once again discover true freedom.


1. Descartes, Discourse on Method, Bobbs-Merrill, 1960, p. 18

2. Plato, Crito, from Great Dialogues of Plato, Mentor Books, 1984, p. 450

3. Ibid., p. 453



Will Duquette said...

This is really quite amazing. Once persuade a man that he has no nature, that he can be whatever he makes of himself (as Sartres taught), and you can make him swallow anything.

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David T. said...


That's right... and you can make him think he is uniquely privileged in history to be a knower, but that he can't know anything worth knowing!

David T. said...


I like the original template, but I don't know why so much of the page space is wasted on the background. Most of the blogger templates are like that. I've been fooling around with the HTML so I can write on something with more width than toilet paper.