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Immanuel and the Loneliness of Modernity

I often feel that the modern world has gone mad, but I must admit that I was caught off guard when I discovered in the eighteenth-century philosopher Thomas Reid (1710-1796) an epistemological source of our condition.  The madness of the modern world is its solipsistic undercurrents, which leave us feeling painfully alone.

This is a large claim, and one that needs both explanation and justification.    Let’s look at loneliness and solipsism.  Loneliness is the perception that one is isolated.  That the impersonal nature of modern mass society and the attendant breakdown of traditional social ties contribute to this perception has been a common place of sociology and psychology. However, the philosophical roots of modern loneliness have not been so thoroughly examined.

Solipsism is the belief that only one’s self exists and, quite frankly, looks like a form of madness to the rest of us who don’t really exist according to the solipsist.  It is also obviously related to loneliness, since in its view there is nobody or nothing else than one’s self.  What I had not realized is that the epistemological theories of René Descartes (1596-1650) and David Hume (1711-1776), two foundational figures in modern philosophy, have strong solipsistic tendencies and consequences.

In his Meditations on Philosophy, Descartes sought to refute the skepticism of his day by being more radically skeptical than they and yet still being able to discover indubitable truths.  “… Withdrawing into solitude” (Mediation 1), his program was one of methodological doubt.  “I will attack straightaway those principles which supported everything I once believed” (Meditation 1).  Hence anything that could be doubted was to be rejected in his quest for a foundational certainty.  Along the way, Descartes rejected knowledge from the senses, consciousness and even posited an evil genius or God that could deceive us about mathematical truths.

Then, in Meditation 2, Descartes realized that even if he was being deceived by the evil genius, he could be certain that he existed because he was thinking.  His continued quest led him to discover that he was a thinking thing and that he had certain experiences.

These three truths were “certain and unshakeable,” but Descartes had a problem.  He had not been able to attain such certainty about anything outside of his mind, even certainty about the existence of his own body.  Descartes needed a good God to get beyond himself.  Since he was a rationalist; that is, one who holds that reason was the only adequate foundation for knowledge, he had to come up with an argument for God’s existence that was based purely on reason.

Traditional arguments for God’s existence, such as the order in the universe, were all based upon the senses, which Descartes claimed could not give certain knowledge.   Significantly, he writes, “I will now shut my eyes, stop up my ears, and withdraw all my senses. … And as I converse with myself alone and look more deeply into myself, I will attempt to render myself gradually better know and more familiar to myself” (Meditation 3).

Descartes’ solution was his version of the ontological argument.  You can read it for yourself in Meditation 3, but most do not find it convincing.  If that is so, and I think that it is, Descartes only has certainty about his own existence as a thinking thing that has experiences.  Rationalism has left him quite literally alone.

David Hume was an empiricist, which is the belief that sense experience is the ultimate source of our knowledge.  Interestingly, he was also a skeptic and an atheist, or at least an agnostic.

In his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Section 4, Part I), Hume distinguished between “Relations of Ideas” and “Matters of Fact.”  The former are characterized by sciences such as geometry, algebra, and arithmetic.  They are “demonstratively certain,” but are “discoverable by the mere operation of thought, without dependence on what is anywhere existent in the universe.”  Thus anything that actually exists outside of our mind is in the realm of the senses.  These are what Hume means by matters of fact.

However, matters of fact lack certainty.  Reasoning about matters of fact which are presented to our senses “seem to be founded on the relation of Cause and Effect.”  Hume’s shocking conclusion is that we only associate an event to another by experience.  The notion that something is the cause of something else is “entirely arbitrary” and not based upon reason.  Cause and effect rest upon the unproved and unprovable assumption that the future will resemble the past.  If we are to have certainty, it can only be of the relation of our ideas in our mind.

Clearly, both Descartes’ rationalism and Hume’s empiricism deny certainty to sense experience.  Such skepticism about the senses, led Thomas Reid to lament, “It is evident we can have no communication, no correspondence or society with any created being but by means of our senses.  And until we rely upon their testimony, we must consider ourselves as being alone in the universe, without any fellow-creature, living or inanimate, and be left to converse with our own thoughts” (Essay VI “Of Judgment,” chapter 5 “The First Principles of Contingent Truths,”  Section 5, in Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man).

Unexpectedly, an epistemological treatise from over two centuries ago touches an existential chord in our hearts.  Two founders of modern philosophical thought leave us alone in the universe with only our thoughts—a solipsistic hell.  In his Inquiry into the Human Mind Reid reflects that their philosophy of the mind “appears to be very fruitful in creating doubts, but very unhappy in resolving them” (Chapter 1. “Introduction,” Section 3 “The Present State of this Part of Philosophy”).  Furthermore, he continues, this world of doubt is created by modern philosophies that “resolve to have no faith, but what is founded upon reason.”

Reid argues that the error of modernity has been to demand rational proofs for the self-evident truths of common sense—truths such as one’s own existence, the existence of the external world and other humans with whom we have contact.  These are not the demonstratively certain truths of mathematics, nor can they be.  The world we live in is not an algebraic equation, and to deny the self-evident truths of common sense results in the absurdity of thinking one can doubt his own existence or of denying cause and effect relationships.

The contemporary retreat into the citadel of subjectivity—the irrefutability of the claim that it’s true for me; therefore it is true—is clearly not as intelligent as the thought of Descartes or of Hume, but there is a discernible thread that can be followed into the abyss.  The irrational demand for a rational proof for the reality of oneself and literally everything else necessarily fails and casts doubt’s shadow over all truths.  The removal of objective truth means that there is no check on what someone claims to be true.  Finally everyone lives in their own little world with their own truth—the curse of solipsism.

Significantly Reid argues that the truths of common sense are “part of that furniture that Nature hath given to the human understanding.  They are the inspiration of the Almighty…” (Inquiry, Chapter 7, Section 4).   Ultimately, an outlook on the world that trusts our common sense perceptions is based upon and nurtured by belief in the Creator God.

As we move into the New Year, if we wish to escape the loneliness of modernity, it behooves us to remember the message of Advent that God came to us in the person of Jesus Christ.  He is Immanuel, God with us.  We are not alone.

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