In These New Times

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The twilight of the age of reason

Posted by seumasach on February 26, 2021

Cailean Bochanan

26th February, 2021

The covid crisis turns out to be a crisis of everything except covid. The crisis of a civilisation, of its science, of its political constitution, it’s medicine, of its civic order, of family, of public health, of its economy of its culture and its core philosophy. In as far as this civilisation has its centre in the West it is a crisis of the West but given the great influence of Western thought it extends globally.This great unravelling of Western civilisation has been going on for decades. The only thing that is new is that its denouement should resolve itself into a neurotic focus on a negligible hazard. It is within such narrowness that we pose our existential crisis. On the one hand, we have “We must learn to live with covid”, in recognition of at least a degree of Stoic acceptance of nature. On the other, “ Zero Covid”, the total suppression of the virus, an exorcism of all evil in our midst, the alien pathogen, a final triumph over nature. However, if both are posited on vaccination we are left ultimately with an invocation of the god of science as our saviour.

Such a faith can only have disastrous consequences since our science is itself an expression of the very philosophical foundations which are so inadequate to the task of holding up our societal superstructure and realising our potential as humanity. These are broadly speaking those of the enlightenment behind which , no doubt, lie still deeper theological premises. As a positive ideology, rather than the mere scepticism of likes of Hume, this finds its truest expression the work of Descartes, also significantly something of a court philosopher of the Hanoverians, the Rosacrucian line of descent from the Stuarts. His famous dictum “I think, therefore I am” immediately presents man as the thinking being, a “thinking thing”. It is our mind which separates us from body, a mere machine, and gives us life. It is mind which separates us from nature (including animals who don’t have minds), an inert world of atoms and vortexes. Only in thought, reason, do we have being: not in feeling, intuition, sense, our senses, empathy or the myriad ways in which we know the world around us. We know the world through mind, given to us by God, through thought alone. But all those things which can check or condition or qualify thinking are absent. Thought alone suffices but

“there is nothing either good or
bad, but thinking makes it so”(Hamlet).

We can think anything and become prisoners of our own minds lacking any other compass. Of course, even in Descarte’s philosophy there must be more. Descartes thought the mind itself was a kind of machine which worked mathematically -it’s digitalised. We can measure the world around us and make generalisations from what we find. We can make a mathematical model. This makes thinking into “science”, a word derived form Latin meaning, quite simply, knowledge. When in doubt we’ve always got our data and we’ve never been in more doubt than now, swimming as we are in a cornucopia of statistics, graphs, comparisons, columns. But what to make of it all? As in any religion, and this science is by default our religion, its fundamentals have to be interpreted. It is the job of the priesthood to assess the data and to explain it in layman’s terms, for the faithful. So we have the “R” rate, the flattening of the curve, the case statistics, the CDR(case death rate), excess mortality. At any moment these could be rising or falling in a bewildering flight forward. But we have the high priests to explain patiently with rigour and the seriousness fitting to such exulted personages. Of course, they may, and do, contradict themselves and each other which tells us they’re only human after all, not gods, but with a special channel linking them to the highest realms of thought itself, to the science God. In them we trust.
The writer Salvian, witness to the fall of the Roman Empire wrote that “the Roman people are laughing and dying”. That doesn’t sound too bad- at least, they must have been struck intensely by the cognitive dissonance around them. Apparently, people tended to have a fixed expression of hilarity. This empire’s fall is more disturbing: people are able to watch daily briefings of politicians and experts with a straight face and talk in hallowed terms of the opinions of a Nicola Sturgeon or a Chris “Tricky” Whitty. But the idiocy of Zero Covid is the last gasp of our science cult. The utopian fantasy of the total eradication of the dreaded virion. Total war, a kind of chemotherapy applied to the whole body politic. Those of us who survive will judge those prophets by their fruits. After the twilight of the age of reason we can begin the philosophical refoundation of our world, a new paradigm reconnecting us to our own nature, to our own bodies, hearts, minds and souls, to other people (yes, even that!), to the natural world and the cosmos.

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