A Radical Take on Radical Skepticism
There is no applicable-to-all Solution to life. And a good thing, too. Human dignity depends on us figuring things out for ourselves. That said, reason doesn’t have to be hopeless in a big picture sense. The purpose of critical thought could be to figure out why there is no Solution.
While he dislikes the term — it’s too milquetoast — David Brooks of The New York Times characterises a moderate as one who does not “see politics as warfare.” It is “not an ideology; it’s a way of coping with the complexity of the world.” The more a moderate “grapples with reality the more she understands how much is beyond our understanding.”
A genuine moderate is far more absolutist.
When all is said and done, man faces a straightforward either-or. “If he does not see and recognize the illusory nature of the finite, he believes in the finite,” writes Tolstoy in A Confession. “If he understands the illusory nature of the finite, he must believe in the infinite.”
Someone of a Spiritual worldview approaches this choice rationally.
Spirituality, defined as a longing for transcendence, the feeling of going beyond oneself, is taken to be a universal human experience. The higher self — our immortal soul — yearns for an ultimate reality, a metaphysical source of truth, beauty and goodness.
If the infinite is what satisfies, then one should accept its awesome claims with an unconditional embrace of the impenetrable mystery of life. Yes, to let go and be “in the moment” undermines rational inquiry and worldly authority. But so what? See it differently, pretend existence is purely material, and your fashionable explanations are incomplete anyway.
Society is still a positive, for it can nurture learned ignorance and the overcoming of time-bound, sense-bound perceptions of the self in order to be part of something greater — also known as God. Success, however, can’t be Made To Happen, as it depends entirely on the moral life of the individual. The collective “goal” is to recognize and accept the natural limits of reason, knowledge and power.
Sage: Life is not a problem in need of a once-and-for-all solution. It’s a holistic experience, material blended with immaterial. But like adding a number to infinity, you’re always left with infinity. So surrender your bifurcating mind and take a leap of faith.
A moderate behaves in a moderate, humane manner because they hold an all-or-nothing belief in an all-or-nothing fashion, living life without question, having concluded all ideology is useless and thus the logical approach is to live life without question.
Search for a Middle Ground
However rational, the radical skepticism of spiritual-but-not-religious jars with an intuitive sense that human reason and free will have a big picture purpose that surpasses mere survival of the species. It seems patently absurd — not to mention unfair — for reality to be designed in such a way that there is nothing of note to solve and man is here to simply let go, to yield to what is. It certainly troubled Hamlet:
What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused.
Western thought is distinguished by a willful desire to contrive a third way, a less wrenching alternative to the options posed by Tolstoy.
Thanks to revealed truth, the Monotheistic worldview posits a mental foothold amidst the uncertainty. There’s a middle ground where God is both a permanent mystery and the topic of reliable knowledge.
Priest: The crucifixion and empty tomb renders the infinite real. By walking amongst us, God verified details of his otherwise inscrutable Plan, gifting the human race a blueprint for salvation.
The irony, of course, is Christianity, properly understood, is so mind-blowingly existential it innately mocks a systematic attempt to reconcile man with his Creator. Jesus is the quintessential moderate, radical to the core.
No matter. For understandable practical reasons, the Roman church persuaded itself and the laity it could have it both ways, that the connection we hunger for is other than metaphysical and absolute.
Alas, such hedge-betting is prone to invite fanaticism.
The Monotheistic worldview is based on a make-believe, wherein the either-or is brought within the remit of reason. To give a larger discourse a fighting chance, the infinite is conceived as something less than strictly infinite. The spiritual dimension of truth, beauty and goodness is thus able to be partially objectified. From here, it’s not difficult to see how the mind might give way to an ugly authoritarian tendency, what Brooks calls the “politics of faith.”
This is not authentic faith, per the Spiritual worldview. It’s idolatry, rooted in an intense self-loathing born of an inability to let go and trust what is beyond the intellect. A road to torment and confusion awaits. Abjure the illusory nature of the finite, for political legitimacy, then exercise the acquired institutional power in the name of a supposedly infinite God.
Secularism is Confused Religion
So, how, pray tell, did post-Christian society respond to the muddled quasi-faith of religious imperialism? Did the Age of Reason denounce as complacent nonsense a grand transcendence project built on Made To Happen ideology, propped up by impossible assurances and punishment for non-compliance?
No, modernity doubled down on its denial of reality by devising the Secular worldview.
Secularist: Science confirms the universe is random, devoid of a divine Plan. We’re accidents evolved from apes according to a mechanism that combines survival of the fittest with haphazard mutations. Morality is an evolutionary aid, nothing more. We sleep. We feed. We die. That’s it.
The strategy here is as plain as it is tragically flawed.
Monotheism was too milquetoast for the rebellious Western mind, its orthodoxy set on striking a mental balance between certainty and uncertainty, the finite and the infinite, man and God. Such mixed messages compromise the quest to end fear and doubt. We must be all-or-nothing brave.
Modern courage, regrettably, exists only in our heads. Secularization has driven either-or further into the mind and out of touch with reality. No leap of faith is contemplated in a lived, real world sense. Worse, the cultural response, though considered shrewd, is actually delusional: only the finite exists.
Our over-intellectualized elite has banished the infinite from the public square. And why not. Man has no limits, apparently. The mind, freed from inane religious fetters, can now finally go All The Way, explain and master reality, including human nature itself.
No matter wishing away a spiritual realm means discarding what lures us beyond ourselves, gives us meaning and purpose.
Secular liberalism is a more implausible, sinister and covert breed of global zealotry, a one-size-fits-all materialist creed that masquerades as spirituality. Popular media, celebrity and, increasingly, big corporate, have assumed moralising and heresy-hunting duties from the church, while the soulless technocratic regime that is late-capitalist democracy pushes on further into our everyday lives.
Resistance and dissent are futile, despite lingering moral panic at the emptiness of modern existence.
Progressive: A depraved, secular politics of faith? Don’t be ridiculous. Persecution would be irrational, since there is nothing outside the universe to have faith in, nowhere for us to transcend to. Now shut up, stop thinking critically and submit to the awe and beauty of the moment!
Culture Wars as Distraction
Contemporary politics, the pathetic spectacle of frivolity, intrigue and infighting, is an unsuspecting conspiracy, centuries in the making.
“Warriors on one side inevitably call forth warriors on the other,” says Brooks, “and that just means more culture war, more barbarism, more dishonesty and more dysfunction.” But why?
Well, because Christians and secularist, conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats — ably supported by an array of groupthink pundits — are on the same side, defined by, bewildered and spiritually depleted by, similar self-serving distortions of reality. Democracy is now scarcely more than a distraction from a common enemy: the irresistible logic of the Spiritual worldview. Rather than helping each other take personal responsibility for transcending human limits, the forum has become a colosseum for parading the moral failures of others and demanding conformity with remedies that don’t exist.
Letting go can’t be Made To Happen.
Existing faux moderates are undoubtedly faint-hearted. A cautious grappling with reality and acknowledging how much is beyond our understanding is insufficient. The world, unlike our minds and public life, is not complex, when all is said and done. Is what you perceive all there is? Are human beings truly just a mass of molecules in motion on a pointless journey to oblivion? Or is the finite shot through with a more-real-than-real ultimate reality that defies comprehension?
The West must deal with reality on its own terms, or self-destruct. It’s time to make a decisive call.
A Non-Solution Solution
The stumbling block remains, to be sure, the haunting suspicion that God-like reason, looking before and after Creation, has a contribution to make that is of cosmic significance.
As it turns out, there is a workable third way, a political “solution” in a world where solutions are unattainable.
Question: Can one accept the illusionary nature of the finite, be truly spiritual but not religious and in so doing concede the mind will never get to the bottom of things, yet still give reason a big picture task? That is, is it possible to let go while in possession of vital knowledge that gives meaning to a discourse larger than ongoing survival?
Answer: Yes, if one has a plausible explanation for why reason is unable to go All The Way, by design?
This riddle has sublime qualities. Solving it doesn’t alter the nature of either-or. There is no escaping the required leap of faith. But nor is it a hedge, given it doesn’t try to compete with the utter mysteriousness of things. What it can do, however, is shed universal light on why humanity has been left in epistemic darkness and why to let go and trust in something greater is of divine consequence.
The answer links the finite to the infinite, providing a coherent middle ground — our starting point is shared ignorance — for the warfare-free “politics of skepticism” called for by Brooks.