Nihil enim scitur nisi verum, quod cum entit convertitur
(“Nothing is known except truth, which is the same as being.”)
—Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica)
“What science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.” (1)
—Bertrand Russell (Religion and Science)
In the last chapter of this exploration, we suggested that post-truth is the same as post-meaning. In other words, the truth of things is their meaning. From this, it follows that to dismiss truth is to dismiss meaning. To dismiss meaning is, in turn, to dismiss reality because truth, meaning, and being (for the purposes of this investigation, we will use the words “reality” and “being” as synonyms) are all the same thing, in threefold aspect, like the warmth, light, and chemistry of a flame. Neither is the flame only its thermal, nor is it only its visual, nor its chemical aspects. The flame is not identical to any of its signatures—in isolation or in combination. Rather the flame is just what it is. Energy, space, and matter each represent a single medium in which the flame may express itself. No more does the fact that I can measure a flame with a thermometer establish that the flame is only its signature of thermal energy, than does the refusal to consider reality in more than a single medium prove that being is reducible to its signature in that medium. Shepherds see the truth before philosophers in this respect, since even if a farmer used pebbles to count his flock, he would never confuse them. In this chapter of our investigation, we will explore the etiology of the post-truth phenomenon. In this manner, we will be led to consider how a methodological tenet of physical science has been increasingly extrapolated to all of knowledge and thereby contributed to our present condition. Namely, by restricting scientific inquiry to those aspects of the world that lend themselves to quantification, knowledge since the Scientific Revolution has come to leave out of consideration the meaning of things, which is also their truth and their reality. We do not assert something, and also assert that it is true. “True” is not a predicate like “bright” or “feathered.” Rather, truth is just reality as it may be known. In this respect, the post-truth era is the era of nihilism.
Many readers may object to the threefold equation above: hasn’t neuroscience demonstrated that “[t]hinking is just the meat talking to itself”? (2) Doesn’t philosophy show that we can never know “things-in-themselves” and that what we used to call “the world” is nothing more than an extrapolation of our own subjective representations? (3) Doesn’t physics prove that reality is actually made of virtual particles like Arthur Eddington’s second table (4)—that we are “all just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe…a chain of accidents…a more-or-less farcical outcome…reaching back to the first three minutes [after the Big Bang]?” (5) One is reminded of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev mocking the simple peasants, “Why are you clinging to God? Here [Yuri] Gagarin flew into space and didn’t see God.” (6) Finally, can’t we conclude that “[t]he more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless”? (7)
The post-truth era is the concrete expression of the above as a general spirit of the time, (a principality) which all of us alive today participate to a greater or lesser degree, and more or less consciously. To take no initiative in this respect is, de facto, to capitulate to the culture of distraction, which is nihilism by another name, since the distraction is just from the truth of things. This is to lose oneself in an endless pursuit of sensual and emotional gratification, and to declare before all great questions—which inevitably threaten to shatter one’s frame of bovine consumerism—(in the manner of Jeff Bridges) “that’s just just your opinion, man.” (8) Let us explore an alternative. We will first address the spirit of questions above. This will inevitably lead us to a consideration of fundamental issues of epistemology and metaphysics. The questions above express common sentiment of ignorabimus. Specifically, they appear to stem from the impulses of Scientism and of sceptical philosophy. These two fields share a common source what we might call “the spirit of materialism.” It will be necessary to explain the meaning of each of these terms before we proceed.
To begin with, let us consider the meaning of “ignorabimus.” The term is an allusion to a famous speech by the German physician and physiologist Emil du Bois-Reymond in 1880. Before the Berlin Academy of Sciences, du Bois-Reymond identified “seven world riddles” for science to solve. Of these riddles, du Bois-Reymond concluded three of them to be insoluble, first among which was the fundamental nature of matter. He explains:
It is altogether incomprehensible that it should not be a matter of perfect indifference to a number of atoms of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, etc., what their position is and how they move, how this has been and how it will be.
Du Bois-Reymond recognised that the ability to calculate the position or momentum of these particles is not the same as knowing what they are. This is significant because atoms are taken to be the constituents of matter and, since the time of Francis Bacon and Galileo Galilei, science has assumed matter to be the basis of the entire universe. That physics, since du Bois-Reymond’s day, has discovered that matter is convertible with energy does nothing to change the relevance of his assertion, since energy, like matter, is calculable in quantity and distribution, but unknown in its being. Du Bois-Reymond concluded his inquiry into the nature of matter and energy with the declaration:
“ignoramus et ignorabimus.”
“We do not know, and we will never know.”
Given the achievements of physics at the time of du Bois-Reymond’s time, his statement likely comes as a surprise. After all, Galileo had already discovered the uniform acceleration of bodies in a vacuum, Isaac Newton had formulated his Laws of Motion and of Universal Gravitation, and James Clerk Maxwell had even recently set forth a theory of electromagnetic radiation with his publication of A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field in 1865. Thus, for centuries, physics seemed to be one long gospel of success. How then, are we to make sense of du Bois-Reymond’s speech? To answer the question will demand that we inquire straight into the heart of modern physical science. What is the nature of the discipline?
Francis Bacon sounded the keynote for natural science in a 1605 treatise called The Advancement of Learning. In this text, Bacon set forth a rudimentary form of the scientific method that still bears relevance to the entire discipline today. For this reason, Bacon is often referred to as “the Father of the Scientific Method.” Far more important than this general contrition, however, was a specific methodological tenet that Bacon delineated; one that easily escapes notice. Indeed only someone familiar with pre-modern science will recognise, by comparison, the profound significance of Bacon’s statement. He writes:
Natural Science doth make inquiry, and take consideration of the same natures [as Natural Philosophy]: but how? Only as to the Material and Efficient causes of them, and not as to the Forms.
With the declaration above, Bacon is articulating modern science’s departure from Aristotelian physics, which had defined scientific inquiring for nearly twenty centuries in Bacon’s time. Bacon is specifically referring to Aristotle’s “four causes,” which the latter most explicitly delineated in his work titled Physics, but which also appear in Metaphysics and On Generation and Corruption. “Cause,” in modern times, has come to mean more or less what Bacon stipulated it to mean. For this reason, if we are to have any hope of understanding the significance of Bacon’s statement, we will have to first unlearn our ordinary meaning of this concept and attempt to allow Aristotle’s meaning to reshape it.
Aristotle’s concept of causation is much broader in scope than our modern notion. The Latin cause was the source of our English term. Aristotle, however, was obviously neither writing in English nor or Latin when he delineated this concept and thus he employed the term αἰτία, aitia. This Greek word survives in the English word “etiology,” and also “diet,” which is literally, dia + aitia, or “take apart the causes.” Causality, for Aristotle, represented a comprehensive account, or lógos, of a given being, substance, or event. Aristotle writes that “we think we do not have knowledge of a thing until we have grasped its why, that is to say, its cause (9).” Thus, we might call it “becausality” to better indicate this comprehensive scope.
Aristotle delineated four becauses—Material, Efficient, Formal, and Final—which he believed together could encompass the necessary conditions for a phenomenon. To illustrate Aristotle’s conception of causality, we may imagine an icon of Mary. The Material Cause (causa materialis, or ΰλη) is precisely the matter “out of which” the being is made, which happens to be silver. The Efficient Cause (causa movens, or κινήσεως) appears as the force “by which” a thing comes to be. Alternatively, it could be understood as the necessary extent of change in order to effect the realisation of the Formal Cause (see below) in the Material one; in this case the artist’s technique, or skilled application of force, supplied the Efficient Cause. The Formal Cause (causa formalis, idea, or είδος) is that “which” the thing is that comes to be. One can scarcely overemphasis the importance of the following in respect to our present consideration: the Formal Cause is the design, or the intelligence that informs the application of the Efficient Cause onto the Material one, AND it is also the idea or intelligible form that allows any intellect to recognise the thing as what it is. These are two functions of the Formal Cause. In our particular example, the Formal Cause was the idea of the Virgin as it actually stood in the icon-carver’s mind, which stand in eternal actuality in the mind of God, and which potentially stands in any mind that contemplates the icon and thereby participates the idea. Lastly, the Final Cause (causa finalis, or τέλος) is that “for which” a thing tends, as an acorn tends towards and oak, that “for which” a thing is made, like a bell for ringing. In living things, Formal, Final, and Efficient Causes are nearly identical. In our particular example, an explication of the Final Cause would demand a philosophical exploration of the nature of art. Suffice it to say that the Final Cause of our statue is, in reciprocal action, to incarnate the maternal ideal in perishable matter and to render earthly substance transparent to the light of meaning, in imitatio Dei.
After this short explanation of Aristotelian causality, we can reconsider the significance of Lord Bacon’s decree. The scientific method that Bacon set forth and a fundamental tenet of which posterity has inherited, shall concern itself with the physical causes at the exclusion of the intelligible ones. Specifically, Bacon asserts that “Natural Science doth make inquiry, and take consideration…Only as to the Material and Efficient causes of [things]…and not as to the Forms.” This axiom—In which we can perceive an articulation of what we called “the spirit of materialism” above—means that natural science is to concern itself only with a specific medium by which things may be represented, but not with what those things, which are conveyed, are. In other words, natural science studies that aspect of things that lends itself to quantification, calculability, or measurabilty, and disregards all aspects of things that do not, including what those things are which are being quantified. A methodological exclusion of non-quantifiable aspects of reality confers obvious and tangible advantages to the scientist, to which scientific advances since Bacon’s day offer incontrovertible testament. Such an exclusion is also entirely justifiable on philosophical grounds provided that the methodological exclusion is not taken also to constitute a metaphysical one. The latter case is entirely unjustifiable since it cannot account for its own principles of exclusion and thus the decision is arbitrary. Unfortunately, just such an unjustifiable supplanting of quantity for reality offers a general characterisation of knowledge over the last centuries. It is this philosophy (or lack therefore) that we will call “Scientism.”
The epigraph from Bertrand Russel exemplifies this sentiment, as does the work of the great Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant. In the Preface to The Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science in 1786, Kant affirms that, “[in] every department of physical science there is only so much knowledge, properly so-called, as there is mathematics.” Thus, Kant, lends expression to premise that what is knowable of reality is what is quantifiable. As we indicated above, the findings of quantitative investigations do not provide anything even close to a sufficient reason for disregarding the non-quantifiable aspects of reality from consideration except on a purely methodological basis. It was Kant’s role, however, to extrapolate the methodology of quantitative science to universal principles of epistemology. Given this axiomatic proscription of the greater part of human experience, it can hardly come as a surprise that Kant’s conclusion should be that the human mind was incapable of knowing “things-in-themselves.” Given that knowledge is delimited by mathematics and our only immediate contact with reality is through the senses (i.e. “sensory intuition;” we explored this notion in the last chapter), it follows as a matter of course that we can never know the truth of things. It is this notion that we mean to indicate by the term “sceptical philosophy.”
The result of Kant’s project of sceptical philosophy, therefore, is to “unchain the Earth from the Sun,” and to deny the human mind access to reality, or to truth, which are the same thing. This conclusion is largely to account for the inestimable impact of the doctrine of transcendental idealism that Kant set forth in 1781 with The Critique of Pure Reason. Just as Copernicus is the father of the modern heliocentric theory and not Aristarchus (10), so Kant articulated his “Copernican Revolution” of epistemology at the proper time and in the proper place—in concordance with the spirit of the age. We offered a brief characterisation of the latter above in our explanation of the Baconian scientific method, and in our reference to du Bois-Reymond’s notion of “ignoramus et ignorabimus.” Now we are prepared to comprehend the lógos of the situation, the word of which each of these events are syllables, the Form (είδος) of which these events are the Matter (ΰλη). This is precisely the essence and the etiology of the post-truth phenomenon: Matter (ΰλη) alone is unintelligible except in relation to its Form (είδος). The being of a thing, which is also its truth, its meaning, and its intelligibility, just is its Form. If we consider things “Only as to the Material and Efficient causes of them, and not as to the Forms,” we are limiting our sight to the medium by which a thing appears (i.e. or “is communicated,” or “is instantiated,” etc…) and refusing to consider the thing that is appearing.
The contemporary reader will almost certainly object to the characterisation of matter above as “unintelligible.” Do not countless demonstrations of the physical science testify against this statement? This is, of course, a very reasonable objection. It lends expression to the spirit of materialism, however, since it hinges on the semantic equation of “intelligibility” with “quantifiability.” One could certainly assert that these are the same thing. The result, however, would be, and is, just the condition that we find ourselves in today—“ignoramus et ignorabimus.” To nevertheless maintain the equation of intelligibility and quantifiability, in spite of the implications, is tantamount to throwing reason to the wind, since it begs the very question that is at issue. No finding of science can, even in principle, prove this. Thus it is not physics, but metaphysics that is at issue, and metaphysical materialism that is doing the work. If science as a discipline is meant to be more than an assemblage of brute facts and an handmaiden for technological, corporate, and economic interests—if it is to retain a relation to knowledge, to truth, and to reality—then the trend of devolution into scientific materialism (11) that has largely characterised the last centuries must be counteracted.
Friedrich Nietzsche, as one might expect, offers the most poignant exhortation in this respect: “Shall we really allow our existence to be degraded to a slavish exercise in arithmetic, and a parlor game for mathematicians?” (12) This ingenious “prophet of post-modernism” attempted to provide a response with his doctrine of amor fati: “A man would rather will nothing than have nothing to will.” Thus, Nietzsche suggests that we embrace our fate, that the truth of things is interpretation, and that our deliverance from meaninglessness and nihilism can be found in deliberately willing the same. For Nietzsche, “I believe in science” means “I am capable of no greater creativity than to interpret the world as an aggregate of meaningless facts.” Since truth is metaphor, and meaning is interpretation, knowledge can only be subjective. To hold to the ideal of objectivity is to insist on seeking it just where it cannot be found, in the manner of the mullah Nasrudin seeking his house-keys where he did not lose them simply because the light was favourable: “the world is deep; deeper than the day can comprehend,” Nietzsche declares.
Must we resign ourselves, therefore, to a nocturnal existence “Away from all suns?…as through [in] an infinite nothing?” This would seem to be Nietzsche’s conclusion, as well the inescapable result of participating the spirit of materialism, which we have explored in this chapter. Or might it be that “the Light shineth in the darkness” and only awaits the moment of our comprehension? (13) We will explore this possibility in the future. In this chapter, we have inquired after the etiology of the post-truth era from the perspective of science and philosophy.
Warm solstice wishes to all of my readers. A special thank you to Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus (14), Saint Thomas Aquinas, Immanuel Kant, Bertrand Russell, Friedrich Nietzsche, and many others.
(1) Religion and Science (1935), Ch. IX: Science of Ethics.
(2) Linguist Karen Stollznow. Quoted in: Will Stor. Postcards from the edge.
Good Weekend Magazine, The Age (Melbourne newspaper) 8 January 2009.
(3) As set forth in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant
(4) Physicist Arthur Eddington’s Gifford Lectures (1927), the two tables:
Table No. 2 is my scientific table….My scientific table is mostly emptiness. Sparsely scattered in that emptiness are numerous electric charges rushing about with great speed; but their combined bulk amounts to less than a billionth of the bulk of the table itself. Notwithstanding its strange construction it turns out to be an entirely efficient table. It supports my writing paper as satisfactorily as Table No. 1; for when I lay the paper on it the little electric particles with their headlong speed keep on hitting the underside, so that the paper is maintained in shuttlecock fashion at a nearly steady level. If I lean upon this table I shall not go through; or, to be strictly accurate, the chance of my scientific elbow going through my scientific table is so excessively small that it can be neglected in practical life. Reviewing their properties one by one, there seems to be nothing to choose between the two tables for ordinary purposes; but when abnormal circumstances befall, then my scientific table shows to advantage. If the house catches fire my scientific table will dissolve quite naturally into scientific smoke, whereas my familiar table under-goes a metamorphosis of its substantial nature which I can only regard as miraculous.
(5) Physicist Steven Weinberg. The First Three Minutes. 1988
(6) Yuri Gagarin was a Soviet cosmonaut and the first man in space, in 1961 http://www.pravmir.com/did-yuri-gagarin-say-he-didnt-see-god-in-space/
(8) The Big Lebowski. 1998.
(9) Phys. 194 b 17-20
(10) Aristarchus of Samos propounded an heliocentric theory in the 3rd century BC but it struck most people as absurd and irrelevant.
(11) Philosopher and mathematician A. N. Whitehead described scientific materialism in his Gifford Lectures, published in 1925 as Science and the Modern World:
I have also explored this antisophy in other pieces:
(12) The Gay Science, 1882.
(13) “And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” (John 1:5)
(14) It is extraordinary to find Plotinus describing to state of science since Bacon’s time already in the third century:
It may be absurd to strive for victory with so manifest an absurdity by showing that they [i.e., Stoics] give non-being the first rank as that which is most of all being and so rank the last first. The cause of this is that sense-perception became their guide and they trusted it for the placing of principles and the rest. For they considered that bodies were the real beings, and since they were afraid of their transformation into each other, they thought that what persisted under them was reality, as if someone thought that place rather than bodies was real being, considering that place does not perish. . . . The most extraordinary of all is that, though they are assured of the existence of each and every thing by sense-perception, they posit as real being what cannot be apprehended by sense. . . . But if they say they grasp it by intellect, it is an odd sort of intellect which ranks matter before itself and attributes real being to matter but not to itself. (Enneads VI.1 .28, 3–22).