Wednesday, October 15, 2008


For most of recorded history human society has been governed by a faith of some sort in quasi-anthropomorphic agencies that dominated the world and the lives of human beings living in it: gods, demons, demiurges and so on. The European Enlightenment was in many respects the end of that long phase in human history. Mankind saw that most of the faiths that had governed human affairs were matters of naive and infantile fantasy and that the parental imagos were simply keeping humanity in a state of perpetual infantilism. The European Enlightenment announced to the world that from now on, man would take his fate into his own hands, shake off the tutelage of these imaginary beings and find his own approach to the universe. Whereas formerly this approach had been one of fear and submission tempered by attempts at placation and ingratiation, now it was to be a matter of human rationality and nothing else: man would decide his own fate on the basis of his reason and dominate the universe by the same faculty.
Two centuries of rationalistic development later, in the middle of the twentieth century, this movement away from religion had reached its apogee and optimism concerning the ability of reason to solve all problems and conquer all difficulties was at its maximum. And this was in spite of ruinous wars, economic collapses and the still untamed perils of disease and climatic upheaval. It was believed still in the nineteen-fifties that the mechanistic science of Laplace and Newton would reveal the essentially deterministic functioning of the world to our reason, after which it would simply be a matter of filling in the detail until all would be understood and controlled. Faith in overarching powers and agencies that did not necessarily have our best interests at heart was definitively abandoned in favour of belief in a future in which the all-conquering human ego, equipped with the all-conquering methods of mechanistic-deterministic science would have grasped every process in the cosmos and bent it to human will. The scientific ego imagined that nothing stood in the way of the human ego’s becoming what it had always wanted to be: master of the universe. The human ego, armed with the methods of reason, had finally usurped the position of the Judeo-Christian deity and was set on a course of omnipotence of its own.
This entire movement of deterministic science was based upon linear mathematics and the notion of mathematical predictability of systems. According to this view, once a mathematical model of a system – be it the economy, the weather or whatever – had been worked out, it was simply a matter of feeding in the values that corresponded to future states of the system in order to foresee how everything would turn out. The linear equations would perfectly capture the linearity of natural systems and we would have in our hands the perfect crystal ball for the anticipation of the future. With this ability to anticipate would go, of course, the ability to manipulate in similar mechanistic manner.
Unfortunately the arrival of the mathematics of chaos on the scene in the decades following the fifties changed all this. Poincaré and one or two others had already realised that there was something radically wrong with linear mathematics and with the models of systems based upon it, but it was not until the chaoticians got going that it was realised that systems are inherently unstable and exquisitely sensitive to initial conditions. The upshot of this realisation was the insight that we will never have enough knowledge perfectly to predict the future of even the simplest of systems that will always retain the power to surprise us by their instability and chaotic behaviour. The result of this realisation was, to cut a long story very short, a dawning understanding that human intellect was in principle incapable of grasping nature so perfectly that it would be able to predict and manipulate the future. With this insight, determinism and mechanism withered and died or at least were demoted into mere model-making tools that produced imperfect approximations to natural systems.
The chastened scientific intellect abandoned the Promethean optimism of the previous two centuries (optimism that had in fact gone back to the Ancient Greeks, though in less generalised form) and settled into a gloomy awareness that the human intellect would forever be limited to understanding its own models, rather than reality as such and the understanding that these models would forever lack the necessary detail to be perfectly faithful to the reality they were intended to model.
At this point it became evident that two choices lay before the human intellect: either it soldiered on with its burden of ignorance, ploughing its own furrow as best it could; or else it found a new entity in which to put its faith. The new entity it found (at least for a while) was the power of chaotic systems spontaneously to generate order. There was no understanding how this happened, but it allowed all sorts faith. For example economists developed an entirely mystical faith in the market to deliver benign results for humanity. Physicists developed a faith in spontaneous order and biologists developed a faith in complexity, that is to say the tendency of living systems to settle into ever higher species of order in response to the chaotic situation of universal competition. There was, it was believed, a kind of ‘invisible hand’ in all of these domains guaranteeing a return to order, however the tipping into chaos may affect them temporarily. This touching and comforting faith was in many ways a compromise between the towering egoistic optimism of the determinists and the modest, awestruck reverence of the devout. But the emphasis remained on comprehensibility: the human ego was still to an extent in control since there was no intelligence governing the tendency of systems to create spontaneous order and the scientific ego could still understand and manipulate the order once it had been established. The self-love and self-regard of the ego was saved by this device and things could go on much as they had for several centuries. Rationalistic science could continue to apply the mechanistic model and act accordingly.
Unfortunately, it soon turned out that this rationalistic science and its interference in the course of nature was precisely the sort of disturbance that was likely to tip the exquisitely balanced systems of nature over into chaos. The rationally designed processes of industry that ran unchecked for decades, pumping filth into the environment and filling the atmosphere with destabilising gases turned out to careful observers to be the source of a new set of problems, problems this time that were not part of a manipulable and controllable nature, but that were potentially devastating for the whole of our planet. We discovered that our activities had unleashed a process of change that could end in a runaway heating of the planet that could signal the end of our civilisation and ourselves with it. We began to realise that we and our reason were the cause of our own problems. We began to realise that we could not have faith in the essential benignity of nature and its essential amenability to our reason. Nature, we began to feel, was perhaps fundamentally opposed to us and could well destroy us if we continued to tinker with its systems on the basis of our imperfect understanding.
So what is left to us? We no longer have our own towering faith in our reason; or if we do, we are naive and misguided. We no longer have faith in the tendency of nature to do what we want it to do. We no longer have faith in a deity co-ordinating and controlling the whole process of reality. So what do we believe? The anxiety generated by this question is at the heart of the post-scientific age of the twenty-first century. What do we believe? How do we structure our approach to reality? Faith or reason? It seems that we now have neither. We can no longer trust our own intellect to deliver the goods and since we do not trust God, it seems that we have no reason to trust anything.
But maybe this is part of growing up.
Our conception of our all-conquering ego and its rationalistic intellect derived ultimately from a religious notion: that of the monotheistic Creator and his omnipotence, omniscience and so on. Once such a Creator no longer struck us as a likely inhabitant of the heavens, we simply took over the powers we had attributed to him and bestowed them on ourselves. The notion of God that we had nurtured had been infantile and the notion of ourselves that grew from it was alike immature. Perhaps we need to generate a new conception of God and from that a new conception of ourselves. That seems to be the way every major cultural advance has been achieved. It seems that faith and reason have always gone hand in hand, the first giving rise to the second in a spiral development of ever more sophisticated conceptions of the universe and of our ability to grasp it.
Our mathematics can only ever provide models of the order we seem to perceive in nature. It can never claim that the models it generates are the order of nature itself. Our models remain just that: toys, toy universes for growing minds. Our models allow us to grasp the order we perceive to some extent, but the quest for understanding is unending. The staggering creativity of nature is beyond us. We don’t know how it proceeds and we can’t know. We can still contemplate it in awe and gratitude and attempt to grasp it by our models, however provisional and inadequate. The awe and gratitude are primary; the understanding is secondary. If we maintain this order of priorities, we shouldn’t go far wrong. Faith now has to be faith in the volcanic creativity of the world, wherever it is going, for that creativity is reality; it brought us forth and we depend upon it. Reason is the only means we have of grasping this creativity after the event. We can revel in the creativity; but let us never believe that we control it. Perhaps this is what is meant by the old phrase of Anselm: fides quaerens intellectum. Believing in order to understand, not understanding in order to believe.

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