Anxious Reason

            I stumbled on an excellent article nominally about Daniel Dafoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe but really about the Enlightenment debates about the supernatural; how we reconcile the two ways of knowing. Crusoe at the Crossroads/On Robinson Crusoe, Lost, and why we keep returning to mysterious islands where science blurs with the supernatural. It’s at The New Atlantis, and is by Kirsten A. Hall.


            Not long ago I read a disappointing review that basically said the novel showed everything wrong about colonialist chauvinism. It impressed me once again with the relentlessly negative view people seem to take in this age, when everything around us is evidence of evil, instead of good. The story of minorities in this country, for example, is about slavery and Jim Crow and theoretical white privilege, instead of emancipation and inclusion and opportunity. Same facts; opposing outlooks as to their significance.


            Anyway, this newer article on the novel makes the previous one sound silly. It’s somewhat lengthy, but you should go read and savor every word. Following is a small excerpt:


In his book A Secular Age (2007), Charles Taylor describes the “cross-pressures” of modernity, the way many of us experience the world as a tug of war between conflicting belief systems. Some of us “want to opt for the ordered, impersonal universe, whether in its scientistic-materialist form, or in a more spiritualized variant,” yet we “feel the imminent loss of a world of beauty, meaning, warmth, as well as of the perspective of a self-transformation beyond the everyday.” Think of Victorian humanists like George Eliot or Thomas Hardy, or anyone who grew up in a Christian family and now attends services only at Christmas, out of nostalgia or family tradition. Others opt for faith, yet remain “haunted by a sense that the universe might after all be as meaningless as the most reductive materialism describes. They feel that their vision has to struggle against this flat and empty world; they fear that their strong desire for God, or for eternity, might after all be the self-induced illusion that materialists claim it to be.”


Whatever we profess to believe, we all share an experience that is structured by scientific, materialistic concepts, encouraging us to sense that we occupy a natural, this-worldly realm, rather than a supernatural, transcendent one. Taylor calls this naturalistic realm the “immanent frame.” Imagine it as like living in a house. For those who live strictly in the immanent frame — think of Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, Sam Harris — the doors and windows are shut. This world is all we have; there is nothing more. Others are open to peering out the windows. Many more still are caught at the threshold and unsure whether to keep the door open or closed. These opposing pulls are the “cross-pressures” of modernity. For Taylor, this also describes most religious believers today: in the modern age, “the struggle for belief is never definitively won.”




When Crusoe spreads his poetic wings and soars into metaphor, readers are left with incommensurable views of the island — as simultaneously a prison and a castle, a spiritual punishment and a blessing. But Crusoe resorts to figurative speech for a reason. Just about everything that perplexes him either has an unknown cause or poses a difficulty in connecting cause and effect. On Crusoe’s island, plain observation does not narrow possible interpretations but proliferates them, counting and numbering exposes even more casualties than were visible at first glance, and with increased scientific investigation the island only becomes more mysterious.




In the castaway fable of our day, the man of science and the man of faith are not one figure, bound by covenant to God, but two torn asunder. And science has not solved the problem of discerning divine purpose but created a double consciousness that paralyzes us from ever knowing for sure. In the search for meaning, we are rarely satisfied, and are only met with ambiguity. Caught between belief and unbelief, we are all castaways, far from home — and no philosophy will get us back.


            The article has a good discussion of the tv series Lost. I never watched it, but apparently many of the characters are named after Enlightenment figures, like John Locke, and even the plot lines associated with their characters follow the thought patterns of the respective 18th-century figures.


            I’ve been thinking a lot about how the intellectual underpinnings of the formation of the United States was an Enlightenment project, as much as a liberation project consonant with Tale of Two Cities stirrings on the continent. It’s difficult to understand anything about American culture and politics today, without understanding this seeming tension between faith and reason at the time. We are ever contrasting a mindless fideism, on the one hand, with meaningless scientism, on the other.


            Some people of faith eschew reason; some empiricists wear blinders to other ways of knowing. Scientistic empiricism prevails, at the moment, so we get embarrassingly badly-reasoned tomes from the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens and Gray and Harris and on and on. I feel like I’ve read them all, but maybe they’re so alike in their plonky premise-free conclusions that they’ve merged together, in my mind. The pendulum will swing again, perhaps, but we’re on a long glide leftward, to utter meaninglessness. I fear that if it swings back, it will skirt God-authored truth and take us deeper into Maoist fantasy, where elephants flap their ears to fly.  




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *