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Beyond the Postmodern Mind
The Place of Meaning in a Global Civilization
By Huston Smith
Theosophical Publishing HouseCopyright © 2003 Huston Smith
All rights reserved.
On Living without Order: The Revolution in Western Thought
Quietly, irrevocably, something enormous has happened to Western humanity. Its outlook on life and the world has changed so radically that in the perspective of history the twentieth century and now the twenty-first are likely to rank—with the fourth century, which witnessed the triumph of Christianity, and the seventeenth, which signaled the dawn of modern science—as one of the very few that have instigated genuinely new epochs in human thought. In this change, which is still in process, we who write and read these words are playing a crucial but as yet not widely recognized part.
The dominant assumptions of an age color the thoughts, beliefs, expectations, and images of the men and women who live within it. Being always with us, these assumptions usually pass unnoticed—like the pair of glasses which, because they are so often on the wearer's nose, simply stop being observed. But this doesn't mean they have no effect. Ultimately, assumptions which underlie our outlooks on life refract the world in ways that condition our art and our institutions: the kinds of homes we live in, our sense of right and wrong, our criteria of success, what we conceive our duty to be, what we think it means to be a man or woman, how we worship our God, or whether, indeed, we have a God to worship.
Thus far the odyssey of Western people has carried them through three great configurations of such basic assumptions. The first constituted the Graeco-Roman, or classical, outlook, which flourished up to the fourth century a.d. With the triumph of Christianity in the Roman Empire, this Graeco-Roman outlook was replaced by the Christian worldview which proceeded to dominate Europe until the seventeenth century. The rise of modern science inaugurated a third important way of looking at things, a way that has come to be encapsulated in the phrase "the Modern Mind."
It now appears that this modern outlook, too, has run its course and is being replaced by what, in the absence of a more descriptive term, is simply being called Postmodernism. What follows is an attempt to describe this most recent sea change in Western thought. I shall begin by bringing the Christian and modern outlooks into focus; for only so can we see how and to what extent our emerging thought patterns differ from those that have directly preceded them.
From the fourth-century triumph of Christianity in the Roman Empire through the Middle Ages and the Reformation, the Western mind was above all else theistic. "God, God, God; nothing but God"—in the twentieth century one can assume such an exclamation to have come, as it did, from a theologian. In the Middle Ages, it could have come from anyone. Virtually without question all life and nature were assumed to be under the surveillance of a personal God whose intentions toward man were perfect and whose power to implement these intentions was unlimited.
In such a world, life was transparently meaningful. But although people understood the purpose of their lives, it does not follow that they understood, or even presumed to be capable of understanding, the dynamics of the natural world. The Bible never expands the doctrine of creation into a cosmology for the excellent reason that it asserts the universe to be at every point the direct product of a will whose ways are not man's ways. God says, "Let there be"—and there is. That is all. Serene in a blaze of lasting light, God comprehends nature's ways, but man sees only its surface.
Christian man lived in the world as a child lives in his parents' house, accepting its doings unprobed. "Can anyone understand the thunderings of God's pavilion?" Elihu asks Job. "Do you know the ordinances of the heavens, how the clouds are balanced or the lightning shines? Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth, or on what its bases were sunk when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" To such rhetorical questions the answer seemed obvious. The leviathan of nature was not to be drawn from the great sea of mystery by the fishhook of man's paltry mind.
Not until the high Middle Ages was a Christian cosmology attempted, and then through Greek rather than biblical inspiration, following the rediscovery of Aristotle's physics and metaphysics. Meanwhile nature's obscurity posed no major problem, for as the cosmos was in good hands, it could be counted on to furnish a reliable context in which man might work out his salvation. The way to this salvation lay not through ordering nature to humanity's purposes but through aligning humanity's purposes to God's. And for this objective, information was at hand. As surely as God had kept the secrets of nature to himself, he had, through his divine Word and the teachings of his Church, made man's duty clear. Those who hearkened to this duty would reap an eternal reward, but those who refused to do so would perish.
We can summarize the chief assumptions underlying the Christian outlook by saying they held that reality is focused in a personal God, that the mechanics of the physical world exceed our comprehension, and that the way to our salvation lies not in conquering nature but in following the commandments which God has revealed to us.
It was the second of these three assumptions—that the dynamics of nature exceed man's comprehension—which the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries began to question, thereby heralding the transition from the Christian to the modern outlook. Renaissance interest in the early Greeks revived the Hellenic interest in nature and for the first time in nearly two thousand years, Western man began to look intently at his environment instead of beyond it. Leonardo da Vinci is symbolic. His anatomical studies and drawings in general disclose a direction of interest that has turned eye into camera, in his case an extraordinary camera that could stop the hawk in flight and fix the rearing steed. Once again humankind was attending to nature's details as a potential messenger of meaning. The rage to know God's handiwork was rivaling the rage to know God himself.
The consequence, as we know, was modern science. Under scrutiny, nature's blur was found to be provisional rather than final. With patience, the structure of the universe could be brought into marvelous focus. Newton's exclamation caught the excitement perfectly: "O God, I think thy thoughts after thee!" Although nature's marvels were infinitely greater than had been supposed, man's mind was equal to them. The universe was a coherent, law-abiding system. It was intelligible!
It was not long before this discovery began to reap practical rewards. Drudgery could be relieved, health improved, goods multiplied, and leisure extended. As these are considerable benefits, working with intelligible nature began to overshadow obedience to God's will as a means to human fulfillment. God was not entirely eclipsed—that would have entailed a break with the past more violent than history allows. Rather, God was eased toward thought's periphery. Not atheism but deism, the notion that God created the world but left it to run according to its own inbuilt laws, was the Modern Mind's distinctive religious stance. God stood behind nature as its creator, but it was through nature that his ways were to be known.
Like the Christian outlook, the Modern outlook can be summarized by identifying its three controlling presuppositions. First, that reality may be personal is less certain and less important than that it is ordered. Second, man's reason is capable of discerning this order as it manifests itself in the laws of nature. Third, the path to human fulfillment consists primarily in discovering these laws, harnessing them where this is possible, and complying with them where it is not.
The reason for suspecting that this Modern outlook has had its day and is yielding to a third great wave in Western thought is that reflective men are no longer confident of any of these three postulates. The first two are the ones that concern us here. Frontier thinkers are no longer sure that reality is ordered and orderly. If it is, they are not sure that man's mind is capable of grasping its order. Combining these two doubts, we can define the Postmodern Mind as one which, having lost the conviction that reality is personal, has come to question whether it is ordered in a way that man's reason can lay bare.
It was science which induced our forefathers to think of reality as primarily ordered rather than personal. But contemporary science has crashed through the cosmology which the seventeenth-to-nineteenth-century scientists constructed as if through a sound barrier, leaving us without replacement. It is tempting to attribute this lack to the fact that evidence is pouring in faster than we can throw it into perspective. Although this is part of the problem, another part runs deeper. Basically, the absence of a new cosmology is due to the fact that physics has cut away so radically from our capacity to imagine the way things are that we do not see how the two can get back together.
If modern physics showed us a world at odds with our senses, postmodern physics is showing us one which is at odds with our imagination, where imagination is taken as imagery. We have made peace with the first of these oddities. That the table which appears motionless is in fact incredibly "alive" with electrons circling their nuclei a million billion times per second; that the chair which feels so secure beneath us is actually a near vacuum—such facts, while certainly very strange, posed no permanent problem for man's sense of order. To accommodate them, all that was necessary was to replace the earlier picture of a gross and ponderous world with a subtle world in which all was sprightly dance and airy whirl.
But the problems the new physics poses for humanity's sense of order cannot be resolved by refinements in scale. Instead they appear to point to a radical disjunction between the way things behave and every possible way in which we might try to visualize them. How, for example, are we to picture an electron traveling two or more different routes through space concurrently, or passing from orbit to orbit without traversing the intervening space? What kind of model can we construct of a space that is finite yet unbounded, or of light which is both wave and particle? It is such enigmas that caused physicists like P. W. Bridgman of Harvard to suggest that "the structure of nature may eventually be such that our processes of thought do not correspond to it sufficiently to permit us to think about it at all.... The world fades out and eludes us.... We are confronted with something truly ineffable. We have reached the limit of the vision of the great pioneers of science, the vision, namely, that we live in a sympathetic world in that it is comprehensible by our minds."
This subdued and problematic stance of science toward reality is paralleled in philosophy. No one who works in philosophy today can fail to realize that the sense of the cosmos has been shaken by an encyclopedic skepticism. The clearest evidence of this is the collapse of what historically has been philosophy's central discipline: objective metaphysics, the attempt to discover what reality consists of and the most general principles which describe the way its parts are related. In this respect, Alfred North Whitehead marked the end of an era. His Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology is the last important attempt to construct a logical, coherent scheme of ideas that would blueprint the universe. The trend throughout the twentieth century was away from faith in the feasibility of such undertakings. As a tendency throughout philosophy as a whole, this is a revolutionary development. For twenty-five hundred years philosophers have argued over which metaphysical system is true. For them to agree that none is true is a new departure. Richard Rorty captures this departure in five words. "There is no Big Picture," the University of Chicago Alumni Magazine quotes him as saying in the cover story it devoted to him in its issue that marked the passage into the twenty-first century.
The agreement represents the confluence of several philosophical streams. On one hand, it has come from the positivists who, convinced that truth comes only from science, challenged the metaphysician's claim to extrascientific sources of insight. Their successors were the linguistic analysts, who dominated British philosophy in the middle of the twentieth century and who (insofar as they followed their pioneering genius Ludwig Wittgenstein) regarded all philosophical perplexities as generated by slovenly uses of language. For the analysts, "reality" and "being in general" are notions too thin and vapid to reward analysis. As a leading American proponent of this position, Professor Morton White of Princeton's Institute of Advanced Study puts it, "It took philosophers a long time to realize that the number of interesting things that one can say about all things in one fell swoop is very limited. Through the effort to become supremely general, you lapse into emptiness."
Equal but quite different objections to metaphysics came from the existentialists who dominated twentieth-century European philosophy. Heirs of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Dostoevski, these philosophers wanted to remind their colleagues of what it means to be a human being. When we are thus reminded, they said, we see that to be human precludes in principle the kind of objective and impartial overview of things—the view of things as they are in themselves, apart from our differing perspectives—that metaphysics has always sought. To be human is to be finite, conditioned, and unique. No two persons have had their lives shaped by the same concatenation of genetic, cultural, historical, and interpersonal forces. Either these variables are inconsequential—but if we say this we are forgetting again what it means to be human, for our humanity is in fact overwhelmingly shaped by them—or the hope of rising to a God's-eye view of reality is misguided in principle.
The traditional philosopher might protest that in seeking such an overview he never expected perfection, but that we ought to try to make our perspectives as objective as possible. Such a response would only lead the existentialist to press his point deeper; for his contention is not just that objectivity is impossible but that it runs so counter to our nature—to what it means to be human—that every step in its direction is a step away from our humanity. (We are speaking here of objectivity as it pertains to our lives as wholes, not to restricted spheres of endeavor within them such as science. In these latter areas objectivity can be an unqualified virtue.) If the journey held hope that in ceasing to be human we might become gods, there could be no objection. But as this is impossible, ceasing to be human can only mean becoming less than human—inhuman in the usual sense of the word. It means forfeiting through inattention the birthright that is ours: the opportunity to plumb the depths and implications of what it means to have an outlook on life, which, in important respects, is unique and will never be duplicated.
Despite the existentialist's sharp rebuke to metaphysics and traditional philosophy in general, there is at least one important point at which he respects their aims. He agrees that it is important to transcend what is accidental and ephemeral in our outlooks and in his own way joins his colleagues of the past in attempting to do so. But the existentialist's way toward this goal does not consist in trying to climb out of his skin in order to rise to Olympian heights from which things can be seen with complete objectivity and detachment. Rather, it consists in centering on his own inwardness until he finds within it what he is compelled to accept and can never get away from. In this way he, too, arrives at what he judges to be necessary and eternal. But necessary and eternal for him. What is necessary and eternal for everyone is so impossible for a man to know that he wastes time making the attempt.
With this last insistence the existentialist establishes contact with the metaphysical skepticism of his analytic colleagues across the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean. Existentialism (and its frequent but not invariable partner, phenomenology) and analytic philosophy were the two dominant movements in twentieth-century philosophy. In temperament, interest, and method they stood at opposite poles of the philosophical spectrum. They were, in fact, opposites in every sense but one. Both are creatures of the Postmodern Mind, the mind which doubts that reality has an absolute order which man's understanding can comprehend.
Excerpted from Beyond the Postmodern Mind by Huston Smith. Copyright © 2003 Huston Smith. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
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