The Suicide of Thought (Part Six)

Part Six: Everything is Nothing but Reductionism

Returning to my example, the educated men with whom I debated the question of empirical geometry were locked into their conclusion because of their reductionism. No other explanation fits the clues.

These men are prone to believe in a simplistic answers to the complexities of life. These are philosophers who regard themselves as too pragmatic for philosophy.

But, of course, such reductionist thinking, by holding science and science alone in esteem, shared the contempt of Edward Gibbon for philosophy. This leads to the educated men of my smaller mystery mentioned above, and explains two things: first, it explains why such met when met in debate are utterly unable to defend, or even to state, the philosophical axioms on which their philosophical conclusions are based. Second, it explains why they reacted with confusion and contempt to any attempt to question or examine the foundations of their statements. They had been taught neither.

Indeed, none even recognized that they were addressing a philosophical question, nor knew the terms and techniques, evolved over centuries, which are properly used to address such questions. They were taught this because such is the outcome of reductionism.

Ayn Rand and Alan Bloom have written polemics on this topic, that is, the anti-intellectual philosophy of modern philosophy, the closing of the American mind, but this was my first exposure to men actually afflicted with the disease. It was quite disheartening to see fine minds so ruined and clogged that they could not follow a syllogism of three steps.

Reductionism is a powerful temptation: just as Newton was able to synthesize all terrestrial and celestial motions into three simple laws, the hope is that the other questions plaguing the human condition, metaphysical, ethical, and political, can be solved by reference to laws as simple. If all things were ultimately one simple thing, all answers would be within human grasp: this is not a foolish or ignoble ambition. But the reductionist skepticism of Descartes, the anti-metaphysical stance of Kant, the gibberish of Marx, are no way to discover the common truth behind common sense, or erect a sound metaphysic to explain the universals needed for a coherent philosophy, or to aid in any way distinguishing true from false, valid from invalid, virtuous from vicious.

The reductionists want a simple answer rather than a true one. They want a view of life that can be written in a sentence rather than a paragraph or a book. They want something that sounds modern and scientific rather than something that makes sense. They want a one-liner that can cow and silence any opposing views with a single sneer.

If everything is nothing but practical politics, as in Machiavelli, no discussion of the virtue of a policy need be held.

If everything is nothing but empirical knowledge, as in Hume, no discussion of ethics or metaphysics or any higher subject is allowed. Whole libraries of philosophy can be burned without loss, and we can spend our days playing backgammon instead.

If everything is nothing but economic class interests, as in Marx, one need only by revolution change the laws and customs and means of production allegedly giving rise to those class interests, and all human problems are solved.

If everything is nothing but the turgid clash of subconscious forces, as in Freud, no one is responsible for anything, and all human problems are solved by expert psychotherapy or amateur self help.

If everything is nothing but a chaos upon which the superman imposes his willpower, as in Nietzsche, all problems are problems of willpower.

If everything is nothing but illusion, a stance the radical materialists share with the Buddhists, or nothing but fate, or nothing but matter in motion, then the ego, the self, and all related illusions of selfhood, is the problem, and there is no answer.

Step by step the reductionist approach chopped away branches of the tree of philosophy. Ethics fell first. No one has written a rigorous and logical investigation of ethics in a century, with the sole exception of Ayn Rand (whose Objectivism is as interesting a case study in logic based on axioms as unreal as those of the Non-Euclidean geometry of Lobachevski).  She alone took a stab at doing real philosophy because she alone rejected the irrationalism of the moderns.

Epistemology did not survive Hume. Metaphysics did not survive Kant. Politics was wounded with Machiavelli and killed by Marx.

The only thing left was logic.

It was in the strange position, since there were no longer any epistemological or metaphysical links between the laws of logic in the abstract realm of thought and the concrete realm of man’s life on earth.  For them the question of why the logic of the world acts the same as the logic in the human mind was insurmountable.

The consensus opinion was that therefore the two realms, logic and human life, were utterly severed. Their motto was that everything logical was unreal, everything real was illogical.

The philosophers split into two opposite camps, each adhering to one and rejecting the other, and each more absurd than the next.

There were those that rejected logic in the name of man, or perhaps in the name of superman, and who claimed the human will, by will alone, created all that was needed for the life of man, intellectual and otherwise. Nietzsche and his epigones, Sartre and the like, follow this camp.

Then there were those who rejected mankind in the name of logic, and who claimed certain abstractions could be certainly known, but that they had no necessary connection with reality. The Logical Positivists and Wittgenstein, for whom philosophy was a word game without content, follow this camp.