Christian Existentialism Part 6: The Rise of the Irrational

We shall soon be in a world in which a man may be howled down for saying that two and two make four…” 

G.K. Chesterton

“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows… You were the dead; theirs was the future. But you could share in that future if you kept alive the mind as they kept alive the body, and passed on the secret doctrine that two times two makes four…”

Orwell, 1984

“There is only one truth, and only one true way; this truth is two times two, and the true way—four. And would it not be an absurdity if these happily, ideally multiplied twos began to think of some nonsensical freedom—i.e., clearly, to error?…”

Zamyatin, We

“…two times two makes four is no longer life, gentlemen, but is the beginning of death. Anyway, man has always been somehow afraid of this two times two makes four and I am afraid of it even now…”

Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground

On the surface of it, this set of quotes seem to be in contradiction to each other. The two English writers, Chesterton and Orwell, were pointing to a heightened irrationality that was already in motion about a hundred years ago. In the public sphere, it had become acceptable, even encouraged, to deny basic truths.

We are living at what is probably the tail end of that trend. I’m not sure if anybody in our time has been howled down for saying 2 + 2 = 4, but plenty have met the same fate for saying a woman is a woman. We’ve even created a thing called social media which let’s you howl down other people from the comfort of your own home. In Chesterton’s day, you had to do it in person.

The two Russian writers, Dostoevsky and Zamyatin, seem to be arguing for the opposite position; the one which denies the basic truths of common sense. But this is actually the denial of what we have been calling in this series the doctrine of Necessity which is tied up in the “laws” of reason and logic. Zamyatin acknowledges the power of reason by noting that freedom from it seems absurd and nonsensical.

Is the nonsensical freedom of the existentialists the same as the irrationality that wants to deny basic truths? If so, we might say that we are living in a world that the existentialists would have approved of since our society serves up logical absurdities on a daily basis and not just from random corners of the internet but from the highest political offices.

The situation is made more complex by the fact that, while we increasingly embrace irrationality in the general culture, institutional science retains the right to invoke the doctrine of Necessity. The result is a society which simultaneously denies basic truths about reality while talking about very complex issues with absolute certainty as if they were indomitable truths handed down from God. We don’t know what a woman is, but we can tell you with surety what sub-sub-sub-strain of what virus is causing you to feel ill.

“I’m sorry to say you’re infected with the AKXF.23234234 strain. On the plus side, it’s lucky you’re not infected with the AFAD.23982342 strain because that has a 0.0000023423% higher fatality rate.”

In Orwell’s 1984, the Party told you to reject your eyes and ears. It’s not a coincidence, then, that science is now authoritarian about issues which are not accessible to a standard pair of eyes and ears. Viruses are invisible to anybody not in possession of an electron microscope. Meanwhile, the process of viral spread or climate change are invisible by definition. To understand them, you need a model. And anybody daring to challenge the output of a model by recourse to their own eyes and ears can rely on being told their own perceptions are just “anecdotes” and are, therefore, irrelevant. It is not the Party, but science itself, which now tells you to reject your eyes and ears.

The irony is that, for most of its history, science had limited itself to what could be known with eyes and ears. That was the whole point. Science was about that which everybody could agree on because they could see it for themselves whether directly or through instruments created to enhance perception such as telescopes and microscopes.

Recall that Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky had posited that what lay behind the doctrine of Necessity was resignation, fear and coercion. Sam Harris recently provided the perfect example of this in a video where he describes a situation where people could be forcibly vaccinated. Note that his description hinges on the certainty of knowledge which he imagines we can have.

A society based on perfect knowledge would be a society of total coercion over the people who just couldn’t understand “truth”. That was always Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky’s problem with the doctrine of Necessity; the more seemingly certain the knowledge, even about abstractions, the more coercion can be justified.

What is noteworthy about the rise of irrationality is that it is also coercive in nature. As Chesterton saw in his day, the unpredictability of an irrational mob generates fear and, ultimately, resignation. Who is going to speak basic truths in public if you’re never sure that you won’t be howled down?

Thus, in modern society, we have managed to combine the rational and irrational into a team. “Science” has ceded basic truths to the mob. It remains silent while common sense ideas are held up to extreme “scepticism”. It simultaneously demands that complex issues be followed with mindless obedience. The common denominator in both these developments is resignation, fear and coercion.

The change of focus in science towards more esoteric and complex phenomena coincided with the rise of irrationality. All this began in the first few decades of the 20th century. Most of the existentialist thinkers we have been discussing in this series were concerned with the older kind of coercion; the one that came from the Doctrine of Necessity embodied in reason and logic which dominated in the 19th century.

The 19th century was a time when people really were convinced that laws of nature were iron laws of necessity. Determinism was all the rage and it was sincerely believed that humans would soon use the laws of nature to solve every problem and deliver a materialist utopia in the form of communism, capitalism or some kind of Darwinian survival of the fittest.

This belief went along with the stifling social atmosphere of the Victorian era where conformity was mandatory and where you could guess with exact precision the social class to which somebody belonged, and what their corresponding beliefs about the world would be, based on nothing more than what kind of hat they were wearing.

A gentleman’s attire also included a stick in case a member of the riff-raff was in need of a thwacking

One way to sum up the Victorian era, and this is, of course, a generalisation to which many exceptions can be found, is to say that there was no “inner” life. This inner life is what I have been calling the esoteric and I have been contrasting it against the exoteric which are the outer institutions of society.

In general, the Victorian era was devoid of the esoteric and it was this world that Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky and the other existentialists were railing against. (Note: among a sub-section of society, there was a strong interest in the occult in Victorian times which was itself a reaction to the lack of esoteric in the general culture).

The cultivation and development of an inner life, the esoteric element of our being, has been a priority for practically all religions throughout history. What it really amounts to is the understanding, which can only be achieved through experience, that there is something “higher” than consciousness. We can give this something whatever name we want. We can call it “God”, “Allah”, “nirvana” or whatever.

Most of the time, when we give something a name, we are used to being able to point to it. We point to an object and say “that is a tree”. What’s more, as the linguist George Lakoff detailed extensively in his book The Metaphors We Live By, even when we talk about abstract notions, we almost always use spatial metaphors to aid understanding. That is, we talk about abstract domains as if they contained objects that could be pointed to.

The problem with “God”, “Allah” and “nirvana” is that these words not only do not denote an object, they denote an experience which is the absence of all objects and therefore even metaphors become misleading. That’s why the author of The Cloud of Unknowing spends several chapters of the book warning about the use of spatial metaphors to understand the spiritual. We might use the words “higher” or “inner”, but these aren’t really valid.

It’s for this exact reason that the experience of the spiritual feels like nothingness when we first encounter it. It’s also why, as Kierkegaard noted, nothingness and terror go hand-in-hand. The fear of God is not just some mumbo-jumbo cooked up to control people, even though that is the exact use to which it has so often been put throughout history. It describes the esoteric experience of connecting with the realm beyond reason, logic and consciousness; beyond space and time.

In this sense, therefore, the spiritual is irrational and one of the main debates in theology down through the ages is to try and figure out how the spiritual relates back to reason and logic. One of the forms this has taken is to argue that even God is bound by the laws of reason and logic. This puts the spiritual “beneath” reason. It is this idea that Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky were arguing against. But, more generally, they were railing against a society which had given up the pursuit of the inner life in favour of materialism. Materialism and science at that time were basically synonymous.  

The cushy, comfortable, rational materialist world of the bourgeois got blown up (literally) in WW1. What then occurred was the development of the social trend towards irrationality that Chesterton was referring to.

This irrationality does have some things in common with the themes of existentialism. It does, for example, fall under the concept of the esoteric in the broader, non-religious sense of that word. The people howling down the man who says 2 + 2 = 4 were not putting on an act. They were shouting because they felt something inside themselves. It had become socially acceptable to express such feelings as a rejection of the 19th century where you were told your feelings were irrelevant and where you were encouraged to mechanically repeat what you had been taught.

Superficially, this irrationality does look similar to the “nonsensical freedom” that existentialism talks about. But the nonsensical freedom of the true inner life comes from transcending consciousness through the confrontation with Nothingness. It does not come from a hyper-emotional destruction of consciousness from “below”. The post-war outbreak of irrationality is a simulacrum of the spiritual.

The embrace of irrationality has not been limited to politics either. Consumer capitalism has learned to channel the irrational to sell goods and services. The invisible hand of the market has figured out just what amounts of sugar and salt would get people hooked on food and just what combination of flashing lights and sounds would get them hooked on television, computer games and websites.

The whole post-war period has been about hijacking the automated functions of the body and lower psyche in order to sell goods and services. The lessons learned were then applied to politics. The scale of the enterprise has no precedent in history. The Romans had bread and circuses. We’ve got 263 types of baked dough products (not including the gluten free varieties) and countless forms of amusement.

The result is that the body politic of the modern West is the equivalent of a heroin junkie desperately trying to find a stimulus that can make it feel alive one more time. The cheap thrills of outrage and cancel culture are just one more type of stimulus that get us through the day.

Remembering that the doctrine of Necessity and the doctrine of Faith have been the two threads running through Faustian civilisation from the start. We have now arrived at a decadent form of both.

We allow the most common sense propositions to be open to a fake scepticism. Meanwhile, in the most complex domains of science we are told there is “consensus” opinions about things for which there cannot be consensus. We pretend there is convergence where it cannot exist and divergence where it should not exist. Where it would be useful to have authority shut down frivolous and irrational opinions, we allow free reign. Where open enquiry would be beneficial, we demand obedience.

The irrational is the decadent form of faith. We can represent it using the same table from last week’s post:-

NecessityFaithThe Irrational
Laws of NatureProblem of InductionDenial of truth
Church (Exoteric)Mysticism (esoteric)Emotionality
Institutional Science (Exoteric)Scepticism (exploration)Cynicism
AthensJerusalemLondon, Berlin, Moscow (USSR),  Washington, D.C.

The funny thing about the Irrational is that it is exactly our stereotype of our ancestors; the backwards ones who “believed in religion”. History has a sense of irony.

All posts in this series:
Christian Existentialism Part 1: The Confrontation with Nothingness
Christian Existentialism Part 2: The Worship of Idols
Christian Existentialism Part 3: Necessity vs Faith
Christian Existentialism Part 4: The Boiling Point of Water
Christian Existentialism Part 5: From Luther to Feynman
Christian Existentialism Part 6: The Rise of the Irrational

8 thoughts on “Christian Existentialism Part 6: The Rise of the Irrational”

  1. Hi Simon,

    Maybe history is circling around to where it once was because the ability of the alternative arrangements to provide the goodies is declining?

    When you wrote: “Where open enquiry would be beneficial, we demand obedience”, is that not the same sort of mentality which denies an ‘inner life’?

    I re-read George Orwell’s book 1984 recently. Tell you a funny insight from that book: the inner party members looked like sadists, the outer party members acted like masochists, and the proles seemed to have the most freedom of the lot. The book made a strong case to join the proles.



  2. Chris – it could be the decline in goodies. Although, I think the irrational was emerging prior to our current age of affluence. So, another way to think about it is that the affluence is what has been preventing the irrational from manifesting fully. Given the current steep declines in wealth, things may get, errrr, interesting. Well, they already are.

  3. Hi Simon,

    Things are getting interesting in that regard. Hmm. Do you have any feel for how the irrational may play out? I realise predictions are hard, particularly when they’re about the future (to quote Yogi Berra) but I do wonder whether scapegoats are sought, and the suggestion of irrational does suggest that blame needn’t be factual.



  4. Chris – we’re already in the irrational. Haven’t you noticed? 😛 As for what happens next, I would have thought some common sense might prevail. But I’ve been thinking that for a couple of decades. As they say in stock trading, “the market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.”

  5. Simon – what makes you think we’re at ‘the tail end of that trend’ of heightened irrationality & denial of basic truths? Of course I hope you’re right! Last week at the local hospital, the specialist I saw removed his mask when he left the room. So when he returned I asked if he’d mind if I removed mine. Not at all. And in the course of diagnosing, he asked if I’d gotten vaccinated, & looked relieved that I hadn’t. Possibly, I’d guess, because that eliminated one possible cause or complicating factor? Then a second specialist entered, wearing a mask, so I asked if I should replace mine. No. She whipped hers off w/ relief. A brief chat ensued about how they don’t work yet must be worn due to regulations, & how misguided the whole Covid response was, w/ the word ‘well-meaning’ inserted as a gesture of charity or forgiveness. I left the hospital w/ a credible diagnosis of my symptoms – &, even better, hope that pockets of sanity still survive in the system. And that this sanity, nurtured in virtual secrecy, might spread.

  6. Shane – mainly because things are failing so obviously now that the status quo simply won’t go on much longer. The current wave of irrationality is being encouraged by the powers-that-be. Once that encouragement disappears, so too will most of the irrationality. Unless things really fall apart badly in which case all bets are off. I think your story about the nurse and the mask is another good example. There’s enough people on the front lines who can see the BS and who will be ready to speak up when they feel it is safe to do so.

  7. Hi Simon and Shane,

    Simon, you’re right, things have been a bit strange of late. I’d like to believe that things have peaked in that regard, the truth may be otherwise. 🙂

    During the early stages of the present health subject which dare not be named, I went to the hospital to see a doctor who specialises in infectious diseases. It was a long story about a tb vaccine (here I must blame a dystopian book I’d read and just thought, why not?), and seriously, I’d been kicked around the system for years waiting for that thing. Anyway, finally after years (and I’d forgotten about it all too) came the call. We had to mask up on entering the hospital and there was a guard at the door with a temperature gun and full PPE. All the admin staff were wearing masks. And here’s the joke of it all, the infectious disease dude clearly didn’t care about the mask, and told me he could give me the tb shot, but I was too old for it to make any difference. I really enjoyed the dudes refreshing honesty, but there was a larger story for sure right there for me to see. Hmm. It was a strange experience, but then there’s been a lot of those over the past couple of years. It’s been something of a target rich environment!



  8. Chris – there’s still enough people with common sense around. They’re just being drowned out by the noisy ideologues at the moment.

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