Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Age of Reason is Effectively Over

That much of the story is hardwired into the historical vision of contemporary Western culture. It’s the next part of the story, though, that leads to our present predicament. The wild freedom of the early days of the rationalist rebellion never lasts for long. Some of the new ideas that unfold from that rebellion turn out to be more popular and more enduring than others, and become the foundations on which later rationalists build their own ideas. With the collapse of traditional religions, in turn, people commonly turn to civil religions as a source of values and meaning, and popular civil religions that embrace some form of rationalist thought, as most do, end up imbuing it with their own aura of secondhand holiness. The end result of the rationalist rebellion is thus a society as heavily committed to the supposed truth of some set of secular dogmas as the religion it replaced was to its theological dogmas.

Human behavior, individual as well as collective, is sufficiently complex that it falls into the category of things that rational models divorced from historical testing regularly fail to predict. So do many other things that are part of everyday life, but it’s usually the failure of rational philosophies to provide a useful understanding of human behavior that drives the revolt against rationalism. Over and over again, rational philosophies have proclaimed the arrival of a better world defined by some abstract model of how human beings ought to behave, some notion or other of what can happen, and the actions people have taken to achieve that better world have resulted in misery and disaster; the appeal of rationalism is potent enough that it normally takes a few centuries of repeated failures for the point to be made, but once it sinks in, the age of reason is effectively over. John Michael Greer

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