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A Humanistic Journey into the Self
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2011-01-14 09:35:12
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After a preparatory preamble on Providence and the historical consciousness, I’d like to take the reader along with me on a journey into Vico’s mind via a metaphor from my own intellectual life-experience: that of a long journey on a train and the reflections it engendered.

The train’s journey began from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, bound for New Haven, Connecticut. It was the summer of 1991 and I was returning to Yale University for a visit and consultation with a dear friend of mine. My mother, visiting from Italy, was traveling with me. She was reading an Italian magazine titled Gente, a popular magazine similar to our People. Glancing over to the magazine I was struck by the title of the piece she was reading: “Let us discover the foundations of human knowledge.”  The author was a scientist, a propagandizer of science in Italy, by the name of Antonino Zichichi.

My curiosity aroused I began to wonder how the author had simplifies to a single page the long arduous journey of mankind’s acquisition of knowledge. To accomplish that kind of simplification one has to be either a genius or a charlatan. Which one was Zichichi? When my mother had finished her reading I borrowed the magazine and read the article which (as translated from the original Italian) began thus: “Our intellectual history is based on three pillars: language, logic, and science.” This bold statement further increased my curiosity. I kept reading. Zichichi explained that each one of these three pillars were discovered at a particular time of human history and was contingent on certain human needs: language on the need to communicate; philosophic logic on the need to think correctly and clearly; science, the last intellectual discovery, on the need to know whether or not nature derived from chaos or precise universal laws.

It was further elaborated that language naturally follows gesticulation and that it is very difficult for us to know when and how it originated. On the other hand, written languages are better preserved and therefore easier to trace. The beginning of logical thinking is traced back to ancient Greece and one particular philosopher, Epemenides, the first to point out the ambiguity of language as such with his famous paradox: “I am a Cretan and must tell you that all Cretans are liars.” Subsequent to this rather rudimentary linguistic logic we reach the most rigorous of logic, mathematics, identified as such because there language is substituted by precise formulas yielding less ambiguity. The culmination of this mode of thinking is seen in Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica written at the beginning of the 20th century.

Finally Zichichi comes to the last great intellectual discovery, science. He traces its origins to Galileo who is the first to point out that our surrounding reality has its own rigorous logic, that there are out there fundamental natural laws discoverable by Man’s intellect. They apply to the individual atom as well as to the totality of the cosmos. The article’s bold conclusion is that Galileo’s old dream of explaining the universe by discovering its laws has almost come to pass thanks to the unified theory of theoretical physics. In other words, mankind is on the brink of proving that all scientific laws derive from one and only one fundamental cosmological force. The article final punch line is the following: “Were it not for science, language and philosophical logic would appear as intellectual tools outside of the grand design and therefore in the final analysis, useless.”

 Wow! We should keep in mind that this is a popular article by a scientist for laymen; as such it reveals better than a technical scientific paper, a mind-set at work. The article took fifteen minutes to read but it kept me musing for several hours as the train made its way through Georgia, the Carolinas and Pennsylvania. It occurred to me that the train on which I found myself with my mother, could be an apt metaphor for humanity’s journey toward some kind of destination through space and time. Obviously man has not made the universe, yet modern physicists inform us that it is expanding at tremendous speed on a journey toward a not yet perceivable destination, to wit Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and the effort to understand the origins of the universe by replicating the big bang with atom smashers.

In the second place, it dawned on me that this article exemplified the sheer hubris of the positivistic scientific mentality alive and well in modern and post-modern times. This mind-set, invariably, ends up assigning to science a privileged position within the world of human knowledge, for it sees science as the logical culmination of knowledge’s  evolution in human history. At best, the humanities are seen as precursors by now superfluous. What is at work in this paradigm of knowledge is the Cartesian scheme of reality. Science proper is made to begin with Galileo and Newton. In fact in the above described popular article the intellectual phenomena present at the very origins of mankind are all conspicuously absent. I mean phenomena such as: myth making, poetic wisdom, primitive art, ritual, drama, religion; all phenomena which for early Man were a valid way of knowing the surrounding reality. Most glaringly absent is intuitive knowledge, widely validated not only by poets and philosophers but also by scientists of the caliber of Pascal and Einstein; a kind of knowledge yielding the direct perception of truth without a logical reasoning process; in other words a pure gift consistently debunked in our rationalistic Western civilization since the Enlightenment. To my mind, the greatest omission of all is the concept of self-knowledge, so important for the ancient Greeks who considered it nothing less than the beginning of wisdom.

Indeed, what this “enlightened” mind-set seems unable to conceive is that language, logic, science are potentially present from the very beginning of a human culture once Man is conceived as the seeker, the discoverer, the maker of meaning in history; which is to say that Man is his own history. For that we need to turn to Vico who is none other than the father of modern historicism. It is astonishing that Zichichi does not as much as mention Vico’s concept of “poetic wisdom” or of imagination as integral part of the quest for knowledge. He cannot do so because he is exclusively interested in proving a geometric hierarchical progression from what is purported to be most primitive and particular to what is asserted to be most sophisticated, universal and valuable: science.

The bias in favor of science and against humanistic modes of thought is in line with the Cartesian paradigm which, as we shall analyze more thoroughly later on, cavalierly dispenses with the humanities—i.e., disciplines such as rhetoric, myth, poetry, religion—as being too inaccurate and not “scientific” enough, while privileging geometrical abstract reasoning; a kind of reasoning leading to “clear and distinct” ideas and ending up in radical skepticism as the ultimate triumphal stance of reason.

It is indeed intriguing but not too surprising that Zichichi’s article concludes that language and even logic are not only inferior but quite useless unless seen as the underpinning for science. Indeed, the Cartesian mind-set not only conceives the “progress” of human knowledge toward science as inevitable, but it ends up condemning religion and the whole world of “I-Thou” as regressive and obscurantist. One has only to remember Voltaire’s adversarial relationship toward medievalism in general (which he contemptuously called “the gothic”), and Dante in particular. A bit closer to our times, we have scientists such as Carl Sagan representing the “enlightened” modern intellectual stance ever ready to debunk the mysterious within the universe, and even imply, as he does in the introduction to the above mentioned book by Hawking, that God is quite superfluous for science and the sustenance of the cosmos.

Due to this privileging of the Cartesian rationalistic paradigm of reality, Vico’s speculation—based on an imaginative conception of human origins and development, and always attentive to the particular events of history—has been consistently misunderstood for more than two hundred years. However, since Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions announced that “the traditional paradigm is somehow askew,” doubts have begun to creep in about Hawking and Sagan’s “grand design” which boldly predicts that the discovering of a complete unified theory will be the equivalent to finding out the answer to why we and the universe exist. For Hawking that will constitute “the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we will know the mind of God.”

How did we arrive at such intellectual arrogance? Perhaps the answer is discernible in the myth of the Garden of Eden and original sin to which we shall return later. For the moment let me point out that this god of whom Sagan and Hawking speak has little to do with the living God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob existentially addressing individuals and people. Rather, this is the god of Descartes, a mental construct needed to sustain one’s rational scheme. It is an idol, a mere product of one’s reason. The living God, on the other hand, speaks via symbols and can only be represented symbolically. He is transcendent, beyond the comprehension of the human mind. Paradoxically, He is also immanent and closer to us than we are to ourselves. To detach the transcendent from the immanent is to reduce him to a mental construct and end up in idolatry: the worship of one’s reason and cleverness. I suggest that such is the greatest flaw of the Enlightenment of which moderns are the proud heir.

The Enlightenment remains to be enlightened about itself. When it finally does it will come to the realization that if reason is made into a god of sort, then, far from taking us beyond ourselves (as it did with St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas) it can degrade and dehumanize us; make us rationalists rationalizing what ought never be rationalized. Most of the Nazis who planned and rationalized the Holocaust in less than two hours and executed it in less than four years sported a Ph.D. after their name. That is modern nihilism at its worst. It would have been better that such people were never “enlightened” by a school or academy.

The dichotomy between religion and science which began some four hundred years ago  is unfortunately still with us. It can be overcome only if we allow history to function as a bridge between a science inebriated by its own accomplishments and declaring God superfluous, and a religion focusing on God’s transcendence and forgetting that He is also the lord of history. History is the needed bridge, but history needs to be understood correctly, not as mere chronology and documentation of events, or archeology to be placed in a museum, but as something expressing the very meaning of mankind’s journey through space and time; the meaning of its destiny. That concern is by its nature religious and it has existed from the very beginning of Man’s journey, since Man has been Man. It is in fact a dimension of his nature. Were scientists able to discern things that go beyond reason they would also discern this concern in science itself.

Today’s scientific technocratic culture is of course a historical era with its own assumptions and questions on history, freedom and the future. We shall explore those questions. For the moment I wish to point out that the 19th century supreme confidence in the inevitable progress of science, practically an article of faith, has been abandoned even by most scientists. Utopia as such is dead. It died with Nietzsche and Marcuse. Two world wars, the Holocaust, the Gulags, nuclear and ecological threats have produced an angst which is the result of an intuition that science and technology are ambiguous, that they create as many new dilemmas as they solve.

Some time ago a panel of Nobel Laureates brought together by David Frost discussed on TV the future of our Western civilization. What was remarkable in this discussion was the fact that most scientists came around to acknowledging what a theologian such as Langton Gilkey had previously asserted; namely that “technology by itself, or technical manipulative reason when made the exclusive form of reason and of creativity possesses a built-in element that leads to its own destruction and the eventual destruction of all it manipulates.” (See his Readings in Christian Humanism). Be that as it may, the scientists in the discussion seemed unable to go beyond the logistics of solving a problem such as hunger and destitution in the world. It took a humanist, Octavio Paz, a Nobel prize winner for literature, to point out that the problem was one of dehumanization; that to know that two children die of starvation every minute of every day, and that we have the technological know-how to solve the problem, and yet fail to solve it while continuing to spend on million dollar a minute on arms, is in effect to dehumanize ourselves. Paz pointed out that such is not a scientific problem that science can solve but a human problem that Man must solve by assuming responsibility for his own humanity.

And so we are back to the ancient questions: What does it mean to be human? How do we live a human life? These are questions that may be created by science but cannot be answered by science. When E.F. Schumacher pointed out in his Small is Beautiful that “In the excitement over the unfolding of his scientific and technical powers, modern man has built a system of production that ravishes nature and a type of society that mutilates man,” he was pointing to a kind of spiritual hunger and squalor that no technology can resolve. Indeed the question "What is humanity?" cannot be answered objectively by science, for the essential phenomena constituting humanity refuse to submit to the methods of investigation applied by science to inanimate objects. Yet science since the 19th century has attempted to reduce humanity to a sort of physics of living matter. It has in fact attempted to project a picture of humanity based on its own presupposition. Take molecular biology, it tries to convince us that an a priori probability that among all possible events in the universe one special event—human development—should take place, is very miniscule. We are humans by a mere lucky chance, the product of some kind of accident on the edge of the universe. There is no purpose or destiny. We are projected into being by pure chance. This view begs the question: what is the source here for the choices which gave us a Sistine Chapel or a Commedia? On the thematic horizon of the above picture of humanity this question cannot even be asked because humanity itself is simply left out of its consideration.

Another example is the illusion of some scientists that the essence of humanity is objectifiable and can be described by assembling empirical data. In searching for a new and comprehensive science of humanity, these scientists believe they can construct a sort of universal anthropology by interrelating disciplines such as cybernetics, brain behavior, theory of information, ecology, etc. This is another mistake of the scientific mind-set. Convictions about humanity must be derived from sources other than science. Kuhn has demonstrated that there is always at work an a priori scheme, or paradigm which interprets the individual facts as discovered by science. To go back to the example of molecular biology, if one examines the belief system of those proposing it as a valid theory of human life, one would invariably discover that they generally hold with Albert Camus the belief that ours is an absurd Sysyphus-like existence. What the findings of molecular biology do is merely provide for them confirmatory confirmations. Which is to say that their convictions precede the empirical components of their view of humanity.

I must also mention here briefly that nobody has shown more acutely than Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Practical Reason how impossible it is to treat humans as things to be investigated in objectifying mode. Kant finds the uniqueness of humanity in the fact that it cannot be grasped by a mere theory of knowledge. That uniqueness is freedom. For him causality is a category operative in the act of understanding. In other words, an uncaused event is inconceivable. We do violence to human nature when we treat people as calculable objects thus ruling out their freedom. Indeed Dostoyevsky said as much in his Notes from Underground when he pointed out if man were placed in an utterly deterministic universe he would probably blow it up simply to prove his freedom.

We have examined the historical consciousness and have delved into the problem of freedom at the outset to broach a methodological problem that cannot be evaded in exploring man’s identity. For, if freedom is indeed an essential component of human existence, its nature cannot be grasped objectively, according to a method that is rightly used with things in physics or biology. Freedom is not a subject of knowledge in this sense. We humans may know it only non-objectively, in direct experience of the Self. In other words, for Man to fully understand himself, he must understand correctly what history is. That was the lifelong preoccupation of Giambattista Vico as expressed in his New Science

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