Response to The Federalist’s John Daniel Davidson re: Jonah Goldberg’s “Suicide of the West”

[Author’s Note: This essay is not in my usual sandbox, perhaps too philosophical for some. But I just couldn’t resist!!]

By Lawrence J. Fedewa

John Daniel Davidson’s critique of Jonah Goldberg’s “Suicide of the West” (The Federalist, May 14, 2018) is as thought-provoking as the book he is analyzing. However, there is an alternative view that undermines all the theories of liberal democratic capitalism’s life support – including those of C.S. Lewis and Patrick Deneen. The basic argument of all these theories is that liberal democratic capitalism must have an anchor to maintain its connection to reality.  The anchor might be religion, science, culture, or something else. Without a viable anchor, we are faced with contemplating what a very wise colleague of mine used to say, “The Enlightenment is an interesting experiment; I wonder how it will end.”

The possibility of its death becomes more imminent, it seems, not because of its suicide or of its self-inflicted wounds. Liberal democratic capitalism needs an anchor which is recognizable by the millions of those who are living, consciously or unconsciously, under its spell, i.e. its world view. The reason the anchors of the past do not work for the people of today is that these anchors are put forth in a language that they do not understand.

The scientific patois of the Enlightenment finds it hard to understand a God who is omnipresent but invisible, just as it stumbles when confronting all the choices we must make with no clear scientifically established criteria to rely on. The fundamental dilemma of modernity is that it has produced scientific miracles by rejecting appearances in favor of tangible evidence, but, in the process, it has also eliminated certainty. Yet some level of certainty is necessary in order for us to have confidence in our life decisions. It is here that we reach the limitations of a scientific world view. The scientific method has not produced enough reliable knowledge to guide human ethics.

Davidson’s point about liberal democratic capitalism providing people with so much unprecedented freedom, wealth and opportunity that they don’t know what to do with it is increasingly descriptive of each new generation, as the recipients of all this success.  They are all dressed up with nowhere to go.

So, how do we proceed? One way to think our way through this dilemma is to start at the very beginning. Epistemology is the theory of knowledge – how people learn what is real and what is not. The Enlightenment is founded on an epistemology which is fundamentally distinct from that of traditional Western Civilization.

Traditional epistemology holds that there are two worlds, one seen and one unseen – but both very real. The challenge to humans is therefore to discern correctly what the visible world is revealing about the invisible world. Thomas Aquinas defined “truth” as “conformity between the intellect and things”. “Things” are “real” if they are perceived by the intellect as created by God. Thus, the criterion of truth is ultimately the intellect’s accurate perception God’s creations – which accuracy is known only through faith. Aquinas’ explanation illustrates the dualism which pervades Western Culture.

The Enlightenment fostered a different definition of “things”. The true reality of “things” is discoverable by scientific investigation, a process which has steadily improved over the past millennium (brought to the West by the Islamic scholars c. 1000 AD). As the investigation of a thing progresses, so the intellect’s understanding also changes. Therefore, there is no “absolute truth” regarding any phenomenon. Today’s “truth” may be changed tomorrow by scientific discovery. This is one consequence of science. Another consequence is equally significant. The scientific method assumes that all reality is physical, including thought and life itself. Scientists do not usually deny the possible existence of spiritual realities. However, the assumption of the discipline is that everything is knowable – whether now or in the future.

Knowledge is therefore a process. The discovery of truth is like playing cards: you guess what the card may be and act on that guess; you do not know if your guess was true until the cards are turned right-side up. This understanding of truth holds that truth is a progressive revelation through the experiences of our lives. What is true of our individual lives is also true of our communal life. This is an historical, evolutionary understanding of human knowledge, of epistemology. And it makes all the difference.

The historical epistemology we live every day means that we have to find a new way to understand and talk about reality. So far, no philosophical explanation of the new epistemology has gained the widespread acceptance and understanding which would be required to provide the anchor for our ethical decisions, and which will be necessary for liberal democratic capitalism to survive as a viable way of life.

Some elements are, however, evident. It seems clear that the language of an historical epistemology is based on the old axiom, “actions speak louder than words”. That is, all human communication is based on symbols – physical manifestations of personal thoughts, desires, intentions and habits. In other words, the self exists for the not-self through its actions and artifacts. The self cannot evaluate the validity its understanding of these expressions until tested by sequences of additional expressions. For example, a man may say to a woman, “I love you.” But she will not know whether this is a real expression of his feelings until he validates that expression of affection through subsequent actions, such as, gifts, sacrifices, constancy, etc. Even then, he may change, she may change, or either may have misinterpreted what was said.

Since there is no certainty. life itself is seen as a series of gambles based on guesses. Frankly, this is not new, but recognition of the uncertainties of life has made this aspect of the human condition more apparent. We see this lack of confidence, for example, in the decline of marriages, the increase in divorces, the escape into drugs, and the decline in religious practice.

How do we cope? One answer is to employ the traditional idea that all creation is the external expression of God. This approach requires the gift of faith, although it is not unreasonable to apply to God the same logic that we apply to science – things are truly there, but we don’t know everything about them. This approach can be adapted to the historical theory of knowledge by viewing every and all creation as a message from God. The problem is that there is no detail available. The messages are not sufficiently “customized” to our situation to help our decision-making. This “customization” has been the practical function of religion in our tradition.

Another way to cope with an historical epistemology is to embrace the uncertainty. This option requires another form of faith — faith in the essential goodness of the process itself. We all have an option: we can accept the idea that; taken as a whole, the world we live in is fundamentally good-for-me or bad-for-me. Something may happen that appears to be bad-for-me, for example, the death of a spouse or a child. Yet, a believer may reason that even this sad event must be somehow good-for-me. I just don’t yet know how.

This believer starts from the premise that every now is new, that I must keep trying to live optimistically, through thick and thin, and life’s very newness makes it an exciting journey. Acceptance of the “now” which carries on throughout life, applies to death as well. “I believe that a Force which has tried to make my life a success, will not dessert me in death.”  Like the scientist, such a faith does not attempt to fill in the blanks, to seek details where none are available. But, because of this faith, happiness is achievable. The alternative seems to be unsustainable.

This line of thinking is not developed here in detail. The implications of an alternative world-view which rejects dualism are profound for the Western religions and ethics. The Great Philosopher has not yet appeared, but perhaps this answer is enough to see liberal democratic capitalism through this crisis, to continue its evolution into something better, and to provide the Enlightenment with a path to the future.


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