Posted by: gcarkner | February 23, 2014

Self-Identity within Modernity

Modernity, Identity and the Self 

The ideology of Scientism assumes a certain kind of anthropology, one full of optimism about the possibility for both knowing and organizing the world. Homo autonomous is an independent, self-reliant, self-centering, self-integrating rational subject. This includes a heroic understanding of human subjectivity. One can trace how this was achieved during the Renaissance by means of a radical transformation or re-interpretation of the biblical story of Adam in light of the Greek myth of Prometheus–the self of heroic individualism. Included in this identity was a bedrock faith in the ability of the self to discover universal, binding truths of science, politics and morality. The belief in universal reason is coupled with individual autonomy–the ability of every human being to come to the right conclusions.

The modern self of Scientism has a tendency to be optimistic, often to an illusory degree. It draws confidence from the mood of the Enlightenment where science seemed to open up new possibilities for the self as active agent to carve out and control its own destiny. There was a strong belief in progress to the point of becoming a grand narrative or cultural mythology. One could leave behind the ties of authority, religion and medieval hierarchy. Modernity’s positive self-image is of a civilization founded on scientific knowledge of the world and rationl knowledge of value, placing the highest value on human life and freedom.

The whole modern project in fact depends on this view of human selfhood. Without an independently rational self there would be no reason to trust  results and achievements of modern science. It also underlies liberal democracy. Kenneth Gergen writes, “It makes sense for individuals to vote only if they are presumed to have ‘powers of inedpendent judgement’, ‘political opinions’ and ‘desire for the social good’”(Kenneth Gergen, The Saturated Self, p. 5)

Furthermore, Modernity locates human identity immanently within the world, and prominently at the center of the world. The modern self is an “imperial ego”, the endlessly acquisitive conqueror and pioneer. This involved over centuries the discovery of multiple non-Western cultures and the hegemony of Western colonialism. Christopher Columbus is the great symbol of the modern self as one born to conquer and to search the world for wealth and trade. Consequences of this heroic mastery included violence against native cultures, despoilation of the natural environment, the international slave trade, bureaucracy and mastery over those who were less advantaged technologically–colonization. Nature and the globe became an object for conquest. The Enlightenment can be seen as the one of the historic highs of human confidence, spirit of adventure and egoism, particularly among Western elites. We remember with sadness that the ideologies which reigned massive havoc in the twentieth century came from people trained in Western universities.

Within this identity, one related to self in self-discovery, self-fulfillment, and insight, always with the search for the inner core of the self. The human subject was placed over against the objective physical world (producing the famous subject/object dualism) in an I-It relationship. This accompanied a secularization of the spirit, an atheistic scientific humanism. Renes Descartes is a quintessential modern thinker:  For him the self is a disengaged subject, breaking free from a comfortable, but illusory sense of immersion in nature and objectifying the world around. The subject is capable of objectifying not only the surrounding world, but also one’s own emotions and inclinations, fears and compulsions, and achieving a kind of distance and self-possession which allows one to act ‘rationally’. Reason is seen in terms of efficiency or self-consistency. The self is the starting point of knowledge  for Descartes (cogito ergo sum), the source of all truth. Modernity in general is about consensus, universal rationality, scientific reasoning about all reality, the progress doctrine, the radical objectivity of thought, the loss of the supernatural, a transcendent human subject, and optimistic future planning.

Philosopher Calvin Schrag (The Self After Postmodernity, p. 25) notes this about Modernist cognition:

That it proceeds from a transparent cogito struggling to apprehend itself and the variegated furniture of the universe as unblemished cogitata, oriented toward a theoretical grounding of all knowledge in a foundationalist epistemology. Mind is a transparent mental mirror. There exists a theoretico-epistemological paradigm that legislates criteria in advance. Mind and knowledge exist in the construction of an abstracted, insular knowing subject, severed from the context and contingencies out of which knowledge of self and world arise. Self as an abstracted epistemological pivot, a temporal zero-point origin of cognition, is wrested from the lived-experiences of a speaking and narrating self that always already understands itself in its speech and narration.

Shrag notes some of the consequences and challenges of this view. “If the only legitimate starting point and stable foundation for knowledge is the existence of an ego-cogito as self-contained and insular mental substance, then all avenues toward knowledge of other egos become problematized and the specters of skepticism and solipsism appear on the horizon. Thus the problem of other minds which reached a stalemate in Hume.” (Ibid., pp. 82, 83) Here we find some of the roots of modern relativism. Thus the architects of Modernity (esp. Kant to Hegel and the Enlightenment) defined rationality as the struggle of unification. For Kant, it was the transcendent unity of apperception which equaled the condition for human knowledge. This quest for unity was the epistemological and metaphysical backdrop for the need to solve the problem of the separation of the culture spheres: science, aesthetics, ethics, religion.

Therefore, in Western thought, unity and identity have waged war on plurality and difference. This was driven by  a nostalgia for a primordial and unblemished arche (beginning) and an appetition for a fixed and universal telos. Happily we are now able to bring both reflection and critique to this form of identity and its consequences.

~Gord Carkner

See also Criag Gay, The Way of the (Modern) World: or why it’s tempting to live as if God doesn’t exist. for an excellent and perspicacious depiction of the Modern identity and anthropology.; C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man.

Swedish Professor Mikael Stenmark on Scientism  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9zaBdaeD5E

MIT Plasma Physicist Ian Hutchinson on Scientism  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YvTPDRDCZLU

Philosopher Thomas Nagel’s Big Question in Mind & Cosmos.

1. He discusses the conflict between reductionist and antireductionist views of reality: he is convinced as a philosopher that physicalistic and naturalistic view of the human brain (and the universe) is fundamentally flawed.

“My aim is not so much to argue against reductionism as to investigate the consequences of rejecting it— to present the problem rather than to propose a solution. Materialist naturalism leads to reductionist ambitions because it seems unacceptable to deny the reality of all those familiar things that are not at first glance physical. But if no plausible reduction is available, and if denying reality to the mental continues to be unacceptable, that suggests that the original premise, materialist naturalism, is false, and not just around the edges.” (p. 15)

2. Nagel focuses on three different aspects of the the amazing world of mind: consciousness, cognition (mental functions such as thought, reasoning, and evaluation) and value. In each case, he explains why a reductionist explanation is inadequate. In the chapter on consciousness he writes:

“What kind of explanation of the development of these organisms, even one that includes evolutionary theory, could account for the appearance of organisms that are not only physically adapted to the environment but also conscious subjects? In brief, I believe it cannot be a purely physical explanation. What has to be explained is not just the lacing of organic life with a tincture of qualia but the coming into existence of subjective individual points of view— a type of existence logically distinct from anything describable by the physical sciences alone.” (p. 44)

“The existence of consciousness is both one of the most familiar and one of the most astounding things about the world. No conception of the natural order that does not reveal it as something to be expected can aspire even to the outline of completeness. And if physical science, whatever it may have to say about the origin of life, leaves us necessarily in the dark about consciousness, that shows that it cannot provide the basic form of intelligibility for this world.” (p. 53)

According to the reductionist point of view, every aspect of reality can be explained in terms of physics, chemistry and the initial conditions of the universe. The origin and development of life, consciousness, and the capacity of human beings to understand the universe via science can all be explained in terms of biochemical processes that are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry. For an alternative well-informed perspective, see Alister McGrath’s excellent work A Fine-Tuned Universe. Philosophy of mind and Christian theism (to name just two domains of human knowledge) has long held there are problems with this view of reality. From these disciplines the explanation is offered that nearly every aspect of the life of the mind is best explained by appealing to a comparable cause, another mind.

New York skyline


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