Metanoia — A change of heart
A short commentary on John Vervaeke’s Awakening from The Meaning Crisis (Episodes 22–24)
One of the struggles of today’s meaning crisis is that we are caught between two worlds. On one hand, we feel the secular world has left us as atomised and bereft of communal meaning; on the other, we insist on being post-religious. Today we worship facts and empirical reason — but at the same time we feel existentially empty without myth, community, and some kind of religious practice. This is a major theme of John Vervaeke‘e’s series: how can we create an ‘ecology of practices’ and provoke the religious ‘metanoia’ or the radical change of heart that religion once provided, in the modern age.
It is uncontroversial to say that Rene Descartes’s insights and mistakes, as well as the scientific revolution he inspired, are greatly responsible for our present schizophrenic split between the religion and science, meaning and matter, spirit and body, and so on. Cartesian dualism has been both the west’s best secret weapon and deepest wound. It has taught us to sever the ‘soul’ from the material world, to divide and dissect matter, and to manipulate information through our graphing and mathematical prowess. And yet we have become lonely and isolated individuals in the process.
There is no doubt that Descartes was a great genius. After all, he invented analytical geometry and introduced skepticism into the scientific method. His Cogito, ergo sum — ‘I think therefore I am’ —tells us that the only rational certainty we have is that we exist: for all we know the ‘outside world’ may be a simulation or the dream of an evil demon. Descartes defined the lonely subject set against a world of uncanny objects—the individual ego ‘touching itself’. After Descartes humans became modern ‘atomic beings lost in infinite spaces of terror’ (Vervaeke).
The french philosopher Blaise Pascal saw the problem with Descartes’s philosophy—it lacked the spirit of what Pascal called ‘finesse’. Descartes philosophy couldn’t tell us much about the finesse of kissing, to use Vervaeke’s example. While there might be geometrical axioms we can use to describe the meeting of lips (and tongues if you are French kissing), kissing is not a mathematical activity that can be reduced to geometrical terms. Discovering fitness, or the art of existence, is more like religious activity, a mutual elevation, the act of intimacy with the mystery of the world.
The 17th Century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes disagreed with Descartes also: he didn’t believe in a soul separate from matter. Hobbes, an early prophet of artificial intelligence, believed that human intelligence was nothing special and could be built into computational machines. The argument between Hobbes and Descartes is presumably the same one that still goes on at the deep learning AI labs at Google today. Can we distinguish human and machine intelligence? Descartes saw them as profoundly different, to his credit. But he also severed the mind from the world.
Today much of the culture war is a battle between an excessive Cartesian rationalism on one hand and romanticism on the other—the mind at war with the heart. Scientific materialism reduces the world to geometry and physics, while romanticism puts our lurid emotional world up on a pedestal. Perhaps its time to move on to a world where spirit and matter are no longer set against each other.
Kant and the Romantics
Enter the next titanic figure of western philosophy, Immanuel Kant, who opened up a whole new can of worms: in Kant we see the beginning of a truly modern world view.
Kant made a radical departure from both Plato’s ‘ideal forms’ and Aristotle’s ‘potentiality’: he questioned the Cartesian idea that there are mathematical forms which constitute the basis of reality. Geometry and ethics don’t exist in the world, Kant argued, but in ourselves. For Kant we cannot know ‘the thing in itself’ but only what comes through our sense-making organs. A chair is only a chair because we have named it — we will never know any chair or object outside the filter of our experience.
By arguing that the nature of things is unknowable, Kant freed us from the dictatorship of ideal forms and opened the door to phenomenology. Also, even if Kant considered himself an enlightenment thinker, he inspired the romantics. Since Kant’s rationality was a step removed from ‘things in themselves’, the romantics began searching for the ‘numinous’ in pre-rational or even irrational experience and phenomena.
The romantics wanted to break the frame of the scientific revolution and attacked the myth of progress. They tried to recapture the ‘numinous’ or pre-rational glow, rejecting the Cartesian prison of rationality. However, the romantics very often had only a ‘primitive irrationality’ or ‘nostalgia for a lost paradise’ to offer. According to Vervaeke, they lacked the psycho-technologies to embody their ideas and often got lost in mere words and sentiments.
Romanticism and empiricism, according to Vervaeke, have opened the door to what he calls ‘pseudo religious ideologies’:—an age of platitudes and words written on a blank slate. For empiricists like John Locke, the mind is a blank slate — for the romantic the entire world is a blank slate. Vervaeke, in his most assertive statement of the series, tells us that both views are profoundly wrong. Mind is not a blank slate — we have a deep evolutionary and psychological history. And the world obviously has its biological past.
Today we are still lost in the argument between reason and romance and pray to blank slate ideology. We worship the irrational in the form of romantic comedies and the outrageous demands of romantic love. Empiricism also has its own form of hubris. For example, silicon valley guru and futurist Ray Kurzweil is promoting singularity—an ultimate merging with technology. What is missing from both sides, according to Vervaeke, are the psycho-technologies that develop and promote wisdom and ‘metanoia’ — or a change of heart.
In the twentieth century we saw the proponents of blank slate ideologies—the amnesia of the romantics and the empiricists — the mad queen and mad king of modernity — set the world on fire and nearly drown it in blood.
Nietzsche and Hegel
Frederic Nietzsche was a prophet of modern nihilism and the first postmodernist, according to Vervaeke. He was interested in self transcendence through ‘will to power’ and hated Christianity and Platonic idealism. Nietzsche’s loathing of Christianity may have been a result of his Lutheran upbringing, with its radical anti-semitism (contrary to popular belief Nietzsche was not an anti-semite like his friend the composer Richard Wagner).
Vervaeke’s critique of Nietzschean philosophy is that, while Nietzsche was a prophet, his conclusions were flawed. Nietzsche did foresee the murderous consequences of the ‘Death of God’, but his ‘overman’ or romantic hero Zarathustra could not construct the future. Nietzsche wanted self-transcendence, but because he was a Kantian romantic despite himself, he couldn’t go beyond the ideal of the heroic individual consciousness.
Of course, we can’t understand Nietzsche without having understanding of another massive figure: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel offered a critique of Kant’s idea of ‘the thing in itself’: reality is our own experience—there is no division between our ideas and the world. Existence is a dialectic, the bouncing back between idea and counter idea, resulting in a new idea: thesis and antithesis resulting in synthesis (terms which weren’t actually invented by Hegel but by Johann Gottlieb Fichte).
Hegel’s dialectic was a remedy to the ‘mind in the box’ theory of Kant ; it described a reality that was dynamic and historical. Hegel tried to integrate Plato’s eternal platonic forms with the reality of constant change and flux, to unify eternalism with mobilism, in Alexander Bard and Jan Söderqvist’s formulation. He wanted to integrate ideal with flow, form with its negation, the rational with the irrational—to describe a convulsive, dialectical, and evolutionary movement of history towards a final awakening.
Hegel tried to translate religious terms into rational terms, mythology into philosophy—to create a new kind of rational trinity. His dialectic described the world-spiritual process of mankind awakening to itself. The father or mythology of a culture was his thesis, the son the differentiated aspect or the antithesis, and the holy spirit was the synthesis or ‘geist’. And because Hegel believed that this massive synthesis was the ultimate revelation of history, he has been accused of hubris by Kierkegaard and others.
Vervaeke here makes the claim that Hegel, with his totalising system, was the godfather of totalitarianism. This may be a questionable claim, as totalitarianism impulses were present in the Egyptian pharos and in other old cultures. However, Hegel’s Napoleonic individual, driven by will rather than ethics, does have the potential for hubris and egomania.
This brings us to Karl Marx, who translated Hegel’s dialectic into class struggle and sociology. Here I will conclude with a question for Vervaeke: Can we put the blame for totalitarianism on Hegel and Marx (and also Nietzsche)—as Vervaeke seems to do? Are these philosophers really to blame for the unprecedented murderous wars and genocides of 20th Century, or are there older, deeper forces at work?
Others essay in this series:
The Man, The Lion, and The Monster
Higher States of Consciousness
Christ and Gnosis
Science and the Death of the Universe
Metanoia — A change of heart
Understanding the Meta-Crisis
Religion and Horror
The Religion of No Religion
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