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Escaping the Iron Cage of Hopelessness

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Edward Curtin       (Page 1 of 3 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   3 comments

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"Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved." Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

"In this frightful round of unchecked means, nobody knows any longer where they are going, purposes are forgotten, and ends are overtaken. Human beings have set off at astronomically high speeds toward nowhere." Jacques Ellul, Presence in the Modern World

In a previous article I argued that those who think science can solve our major social problems -- in particular, world destruction with nuclear weapons and the poisoning of the earth's ecology and atmosphere -- were delusional and in the grip of the myth of science and technology. These problems were created by science when it became untethered from any sense of limits in its embrace of instrumental rationality. Once it became wedded to usefulness and the efficiency of technical means, it lost its original aim: the search for truth. (Obviously this doesn't include all scientists.) In embracing means as ends, it produced an endless loop of means justifying means that has resulted in what Weber called an "iron cage." Concomitantly, the ideology of pure objectivity and impartial innocence was joined to elite state power and the capitalist profit motive where it was supported and instantaneously and completely applied to technical applications, including nuclear, biological, chemical and "conventional" weapons; bio-engineering; GMO foods and people; eugenics and cloning; and chemical/oil production, etc. It is indisputable that if our planet is incinerated or slowly destroyed through toxic pollution that modern science with its Faustian "prohibition to prohibit" will stand indicted, if anyone is left to make the case.

Albert Camus warned us long ago:

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And even though we do it in diverse ways, we extol one thing and one alone: a future world in which reason will reign supreme. In our madness, we push back the eternal limits, and at once dark Furies swoop down upon us to destroy. Nemesis, goddess of moderation, not of vengeance, is watching. She chastises, ruthlessly, all those who go beyond the limit.

Ostensibly rational, the illogical logic of modern science has resulted in a mystifying double-bind that denies human freedom and leads to widespread despair and hopelessness. Many people feel trapped by this deterministic ethos, while others fail to see that the cause of our problems can't be their solutions.

In this essay I will explore the possibility of a path out of the seeming impossibility of escaping the cul-de-sac of our spiritually disinherited and disenchanted condition.

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Max Weber argued that modern rational capitalism was informed by a religious impetus of inner-directed worldly asceticism derived from Protestant Christianity. In essence, modern capitalism was a religion. Likewise, modern mainstream science, despite the discoveries of quantum physics, rests upon a materialistic presupposition that is a self-contradictory act of faith that it denies to others. Committed to determinism, this materialistic scientific world view offers no basis for its truth claim since what is determined cannot be disputed when it wasn't freely chosen. To espouse a position that was predetermined is to choose nothing. In essence, such science is also a religion that, like capitalism, serves no end but its own regeneration.

Is it any wonder that so many people feel trapped on an endless merry-go-round that contradicts their felt experience and their hopes for a better world? They look around and see a mad world of war and lies and science run amok. The physical scientists tell them that everything started with a bang and will end with a bang or a whimper of one sort or another and that's how it goes since when did people so puny think they were anything but specks in a vast cosmos of meaningless gas that will devour them in a few billion years, give or take a year or so. The psych folks tell them they are the products of their brain chemicals and neurotransmitters and must submit "freely" to chemical treatment if they know what's good for them and want to be happy. The social scientists insist that all knowledge is socially conditioned and relative and therefore everything they think and feel is also relative and so they are lost souls forever wandering in a world of relativity where true wisdom is impossible and the difference between right and wrong is a relative choice that has no basis in any "reality." And of course the power elites and media play with their minds in endless games of mind control as they insist the only real truth comes through screens that they control. Mind and body warped, so many people stumble through their days like the living dead in search of some exit from their pain and confusion.

Or to say it differently. Science -- both physical and social -- has resulted in the systematization of doubt and the embrace of the relativity of thought and knowledge. The modern predicament is such that whereas in former times people felt that their knowledge was fact or truth and that it was grounded in a physically palpable reality, we have been exposed to systematic doubt and the suspicion has grown that all the various standpoints are limited and "relative." While not consciously espoused by the majority of people, this doubting worldview permeates social life as a vague insecurity and uncertainty. It may be left to intellectuals to circulate such relativizing ideas, but they have become part of the cultural air we breathe. For people today in a scientifically based society, faced with the relativizing of all knowledge and every eternal verity, the question of how to understand their deaths, and thus their lives, has become acutely problematic. Uncertainty has undermined people's wills as they have forgotten they are free.

The question that modernity forces us to ask is this: once knowledge is seen to be relative; old cosmologies are transformed by science; symbol systems and religions are seen as the products of humans' own creativity; reality is understood to be socially constructed; once these developments take place consciously and unconsciously, how then can people understand their lives and deaths and find the confidence to live in peace and harmony with the earth and all living creatures?

Tolstoy put it this way: "Science is meaningless because it gives no answer to our question, the only question important for us: 'What shall we do and how shall we live?' "

In order to make our way out of this maze, we might contemplate the underlying presupposition that "everything is relative." That, of course is an absurd position. Everything can't be relative when the statement "everything is relative" is an absolute statement. Joined to that, one can muse on the self-contradiction of materialistic determinism and perhaps glimpse an escape from the iron cage, the prison, the closed room, the garbage pail, or the no-exit -- so many terms that our best writers have used to describe the modern condition.

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Rudolf Steiner did that as follows in The Philosophy of Freedom:

Materialism can never offer a satisfactory explanation of the world. For every attempt at an explanation must begin with the formation of thoughts about the phenomena of the world. Materialism, thus, begins with the thought of Matter or material processes. But, in doing so, it is ipso facto confronted by two different sets of facts, viz., the material world and the thought about it. The materialist seeks to make these latter intelligible by regarding them as purely material processes. He believes that thinking takes place in the brain, much in the same way that digestion takes place in the animal organs. Just as he ascribes mechanical, chemical, and organic processes to Nature, so he credits her in certain circumstances with the capacity to think. He overlooks that, in doing so, he is merely shifting the problem from one place to another. Instead of to himself he ascribes the power of thought to Matter. And thus he is back again at his starting-point. How does Matter come to think of its own nature?

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Edward Curtin is a writer whose work has appeared widely. He teaches sociology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. His website is http://edwardcurtin.com/

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