THE PHILOSOPHICAL ROOTS OF OUR CULTURAL FRICTIONS
The Philosophical Roots of Our Cultural Frictions
How ideas gave rise to our constant arguing
Brief Summary: What’s going on? A lot is happening beneath the surface. Some in the game have fired the referee and tossed the rulebook. Others haven’t. Conflict beyond that point becomes inevitable. We can get through this intact. But to do that, we’ll need to do some things differently.
1. The Problem
We’re living in strange times.
To describe our current situation as a “global existential crisis” might not be too far off the mark. When frictions are this high, things can sometimes seem to be on the verge of a “war of all against all.”
Or, maybe not. It’s become a dense fog bank of noise, events, and misinformation. Penetrating this fog can be a challenge.
Still, most of us sense that some things are happening on a deeper level.
But what? How did we get here? Where are we heading?
The below is an intellectual archaeology dig.
The aim is clarity. We try to sum it up below in seven words.
Our current situation didn’t magically appear one day out of the blue. Ideas sometimes act like seeds. They get planted, they grow, and they eventually sprout. Part of our current climate is the fruit of ideas that were planted years ago. Beyond just working on immediate problems, a wider view can help us understand the ideas that gave rise to those problems.
Hopefully this can help us steer the ship away from icebergs and toward warmer waters.
It’s a challenge. But if the below is on target, there are reasons for optimism.
We can start with a married couple.
Imagine a couple that argues to a point of bitter frustration over toothpaste.
One of them thinks the toothpaste should be squeezed from the bottom. The other thinks it should be the top. The fights get vicious.
What’s happening? A good therapist would know that the argument isn’t really about the toothpaste. There’s something else going on. There are deeper, often unspoken disagreements that set the stage for scores of others.
So if the “married couple” is America today, and the day-to-day headlines are the toothpaste, more or less, what are the deeper, longer-term issues?
A thought experiment might help here.
Imagine a scenario where one day, two football teams decide to get rid of all referees.
What would happen next?
Well, the two teams could keep playing. But things happen, and arguments erupt. “That was a foul!” “No, it wasn’t!” “Yes, it was!” Etc. The role that formerly resolved disputes like these – the referee who took neither side but (ideally) but gave fair and equal treatment to both – is now gone. There’s more squabbling and less play. But the game hobbles on.
But now let’s push it further.
Let’s imagine that the two teams also decide to throw away the NFL Rulebook.
With this move, it wouldn’t take long for the conversation to sound something like this: “We scored a touchdown!” “No, you didn’t! The ball never crossed the line!” “Yes, we did! His helmet crossed the line!” “That’s not a touchdown!” “I think it is.” “Well, what is a ‘touchdown,’ anyway?” “Well, I say it’s X.” “I say it’s Y.” “Who’s to say?”
Some might argue that a touchdown should count for seven points instead of six, or ten points instead of seven, or fifty points instead of ten. Who says there can only be eleven players on the field? Maybe we should use two footballs. Or ten. Why not?
It’s soon a whole new era of Post-Playbook football.
It’s a new era of “freedom.” It’s free of seemingly arbitrary, restrictive, sometimes unfair rules and regulations. This way of playing seems much more creative, uninhibited, and expressive. With the rulebook out of the way, we can play any way we want! Anything goes, everything is up for grabs. We can rethink all of it.
Before long, the game dissolves. Everybody is now pretty much just doing their own thing. Eventually, most likely, there’s hardly any actual playing – mostly it’s just friction and arguing. Everyone has their own rules. The “rules” only exist, it seems, inside each persons’ head. (Although, of course, everyone still gets frustrated at everyone around them for breaking those rules.)
Sure, it’s a crude analogy. But instead of football, we can swap in the meaning of life, The Big Questions, or The Point of It All.
This situation can be summed up in seven words.
We’re living through “The Death of God.”
Maybe we’re living through exactly what Nietzsche was trying to warn us about over a century ago.
To clarify: “The Death of God” doesn’t mean that an all-powerful deity literally died, or that some of us go to church while others of us play hooky, or that one side is super-spiritual and the other isn’t. The heart of the matter, put bluntly, is the question of whether we should fire the referee and throws away the rulebook – or not – when it comes to each of us answering the fundamental questions of life.
When we disagree with someone and have to work it out, we often retreat to some kind of common ground and start fresh from there. Sometimes we retreat to what we think is common ground, only to find out it isn’t so common after all. So we retreat even further back to ground that’s even more basic. And so on.
Eventually, we can reach a point where we can’t go any further.
There seems to be nothing more basic to retreat back to.
In logic, you might retreat back to the law of contradiction. In math, you might eventually retreat back to your basic axioms. In philosophy, you might retreat back to your basic premises. In politics or any organization, it’s your founding documents. And so on. If those get rejected, it can suddenly seem like a chasm of the void of the nebulous. It’s a collision with the unknown. It’s “The Death of God” in one specific form.
Beyond that point in a conversation, once it’s retreated to a point that’s as basic as possible, all that’s left to say is, “it’s common sense.” We’ve hit bedrock. It’s self-evident. It’s “obvious.”
But what’s obvious to one person sometimes isn’t to another.
When this would happen in an argument about touchdowns, both sides would have previously agreed to trust the Official NFL Rulebook.
That rulebook serves as a trusted higher authority and can resolve disputes.
But if one side rejects the NFL Rulebook itself, suddenly, everything is in limbo. It’s time to swoon with existential vertigo.
In America today, to speak broadly, the “NFL Rulebook” could generally be described as “The Platonic Tradition,” which generally parallels “Western Culture” or Judeo-Christianity as a synthesis of old-school Athens and Jerusalem. A key ingredient in this tradition is the idea of “objective truth.”
In this sense, “The Death of God” could be rephrased as “The Death of Objective Truth.”
The idea might seem abstract, “merely” intellectual, or far-fetched. But a chemical description of oxygen might also seem “merely intellectual.” That is, until a moment comes when we can’t breathe. At that point, “oxygen” suddenly wouldn’t seem so abstract.
The philosophical “oxygen” we all breathe is our personal network of answers to the fundamental questions in life – our “worldview.” Who am I? What am I? What is the universe? What’s the point? Is there a God, after all? If so, how can we know? Do we discover reality, or create it? Is there ultimate truth, for all humans at all times, or is it different for everybody? If there is objective truth, can we know it?
And so on. We all ask and answer these existential riddles, consciously or not, one way or another, throughout our lives. Our answers to these questions, and others like them, govern our beliefs, values, and behavior. Our answers to The Big Questions lie at the source of the river, and everything else is downstream.
2. A Brief History of the Problem
Western culture has spent thousands of years working out answers to these questions.
The efforts generally started with Socrates and Plato, and extended from Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine and Aquinas to such figures as Bacon, Descartes, Locke, Hegel, and Kierkegaard. This tradition includes and encompasses Judeo-Christianity, which provided a broad intellectual and cultural framework that many of these thinkers operated within. It’s served as the foundation for western society for thousands of years.
It hardly claimed to have reached perfection. It’s always been a work in progress. Each generation has tweaked, modified, or rebelled against the one that came before. But it’s made progress. For anyone who has used a smart phone, flown on an airplane, been helped by medicine, or avoided living through a famine has benefitted from it.
There’s always been plenty of disagreement within this tradition, typically intermingled with broad agreement on certain fundamentals. Plato might talk about the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, while Aristotle mentioned the Unmoved Mover, while the Judeo-Christian side of things asserted a more personal “God.” They all agreed that there was some form of Higher Reality, even if they disagreed about certain aspects of it.
There were differences, but they were often in the fine print, for specialists to squabble about. In regards to much of the rest, there was a lot of overlap.
A good chunk of these areas of overlap have been assumed as “common sense.”
“Common sense” isn’t a perfect indicator for reality. We get things wrong sometimes. But at the same time, it’s often pretty good.
A few examples of these “common sense” beliefs: There is objective truth. We discover reality (e.g., math and physics), but also create parts of it (eg Marvel movies.) There is a “God” or higher intelligence of some sort, even if our knowledge about all this is imperfect. And that particular piece of the puzzle is connected many other answers about what the universe ultimately is, what we are, what the point of it all is, etc.
Throughout our explorations of all this, there’s been a sense of progress.
But somewhere along the line, things started changing.
Certain philosophers started veering off the path, and onto a very different course.
In the 14th century, William Ockham rejected “essences” in favor of concrete particulars. Bacon extended this approach further in an effort to nail the particulars down more perfectly. Hume pioneered new frontiers of doubt. Kant cemented that doubt into a wall that locked humans on the side of appearance, away from reality. Schopenhauer and eventually Nietzsche absorbed all of this, and soon decided truth itself was up for grabs.
An approach of radical doubt (Descartes) and questioning of the fundamentals of everything – a “revaluation of all values” (Nietzsche) – took center stage. “God” as the traditional foundation of ultimate truth – the referee and rulebook when it comes to The Big Questions – began to be assumed less and interrogated more.
Eventually, it became a lifestyle choice.
Referee and rulebook, or not?
Nietzsche made a clear choice. “God is dead,” he decided.
With the Referee and Rulebook seemingly disposed of, he then began working out some of the profound implications of this move.
This included no small amount of ranting against Christianity, as well as some politically-incorrect re-imaginings of morality, politics, and just about everything else. If Nietzsche’s father had been a better minister, the entire course of the modern world might have changed.
But he quickly found himself facing a critical problem.
On a human body, it’s possible to completely remove or replace fingers, toes, arms, legs, and even things like kidneys, hearts and bone marrow – and the body itself can still function.
But what about the spine and the brain?
Those are different. Despite what Ockham might say, those really are “essential.” You really can’t remove or replace those without an entire system collapse.
In the same way, if we start to pull away the thread of objective truth – or declare The Death of God – apparently, soon the entire sweater unravels. It’s like playing football without the rulebook. Philosophically speaking, when metaphysics crumbles, epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics soon follow.
It’s all connected.
It’s a dynamic that can also play out on a personal level.
Changing certain core beliefs change (ala metaphysics) affects other strands in that spider web in ways we don’t always expect.
When the idea of “truth” is abandoned, for example, sometimes life becomes meaningless. It becomes a story that doesn’t make sense. What remains is a meaningless world where nothing is real, nobody really knows anything, and nothing really matters. All that’s left are brute facts, isolated moments, and power. The True, the Good, and the Beautiful becomes the right, the cool, and the pretty. Nothing is sacred, everything changes, we’re all going to die, now go enjoy yourself.
Nietzsche understood this bug in his new source code.
He fought against it, tried to solve it, and eventually went insane. (Whether his later condition was from syphilis or from, in his words, being “torn limb from limb by some minotaur of conscience” (or both) is up for grabs.)
Either way, this same basic move became trendy.
Marx, Freud, Sartre, the younger Wittgenstein, and plenty of others also explored new and improved ways to question, explain away, overthrow, or undermine traditional thought.
Atheism was either assumed or argued for, and the rest proceeded from that point. Religion was seen as an opiate, a collection of premodern superstitions, a psychological projection, an unnecessary hypothesis, etc. Truth isn’t something we discover, it’s something we create. God didn’t create us, we created God. The Matrix and Plato’s Cave do exist, but there no escape. And so on.
In the meantime, of course, there were plenty who didn’t follow Nietzsche’s lead.
To a lot of them, it all probably sounded crazy. Weird ideas were interesting, and fun to play with sometimes, and Nietzsche’s flair for words gave it style. But when it came to real life, it also seemed like a shortcut to insanity. The quip: Nietzsche said God was dead, then God said Nietzsche was dead. God was quite alive, thank you very much, and if the foundation of objective truth is rejected, everything built on top of it gets rejected as well.
In time, the ground fractured, and eventually developed into a fault line.
3. The Modern Disarray
And here’s where things might start looking familiar.
Many chose one side of that fault line, or the other. Teams were picked, and allegiances formed. Broadly speaking, there was the side that generally respected tradition (“Team Plato,”) and the other that generally rejected it (“Team Nietzsche.”) Some were against The Death of God, others were all for it. Some applauded it (“Good riddance!”), while others either ignored, ridiculed, or dismissed it. One side insisted that there is no objective and universal truth, while the other declared that statement was objectively and universally untrue. One side saw the Playbook as fundamentally good and worth keeping, the other saw it as something fundamentally flawed that should be tossed completely.
The die was cast. Over time, the chasm deepened. Before too long, the two sides hardly knew how to communicate or even understand each other anymore.
The debate wasn’t – and isn’t – between the “religious” verses the “not-religious,” or the “spiritual” verses the “not-spiritual.” Both sides sometimes think they’re spiritual or religious. The fault line might be a few layers deeper, buried in questions of what it means to be “religious” or “spiritual.” Two people might both consider themselves to be “spiritual,” but have radically different ideas about what that actually means. One side might sing in a choir, while the other might be more interested in lighting up chakras.
That said, the issue sometimes gets framed in the worst possible light – as a battle between blind faith on one side versus the spiritually illiterate on the other, locked in a fight to the death.
Yet this caricature is misleading.
The landscape is much more complex. Some individuals might be “skeptics” simply because they’ve never encountered an approach to spirituality that seems credible.
Or even further: an argument can be made that everyone is “religious,” including atheists, in the sense that we all have to give our lives to something.
That “something,” for each of us, depends on the ideas that make up our personal philosophy. To sketch a rough map: if our philosophy doesn’t include some version of the Big G, then our other options broadly consist of hard atheism, humanism (aka soft atheism), agnosticism, and the Wild West of do-it-yourself spirituality.
This set of circumstances can result in the following scene in, say, a typical coffee shop: one person from a certain traditional religion, another who believes that there is no God, another who insists that she herself is God, a third who insists they’re both are right, and a fourth who claims none of them really know anything – all standing within a few feet of each other.
There are different universes within a span of eight feet or so.
Navigating this terrain can be delightful for some, miserable for others, and baffling for many.
It’s also hazardous. It can translate into a complete lack of culture (aside from the “pop” kind.) A cultural vacuum that never addresses The Big Question can leave people navigating an existential terrain with no compass, map, or thermos. It’s a climate hostile to existential fitness.
Religious diversity can be a beautiful thing, so long as there’s a healthy dose of compassion and tolerance, or a strong, underlying framework of agreement.
But without that, it can become just one tribe against another.
And things can get ugly. It can easily become a Mad-Max, Lord of the Flies, “every post-apocalyptic warrior for themselves.”
DIY theology-run-rampant can easily result in someone who appoints themselves as “Someone Who Has It All Figured Out.” That dynamic can start looking like a military where every soldier is empowered to give themselves promotions and medals. Soon there are floods of highly-decorated eight-star generals at every table. When all other models of human nature have disintegrated, the one-note self-esteem model of human nature can move in and take over. The result can be mindless affirmation of everything. Everyone is more awesome than everyone. Why? Because they just declare it.
Individual variance within an underlying, unifying framework is one thing. Individual variance without that is another. Complete and total individual variance when it comes to the most fundamental questions of life, the universe, and the nature of truth is potential anarchy. This environment can offer fertile ground for self-made fundamentalists of any kind (religious, atheist, secular, agnostic, etc.) to decide that anyone with different ideas is a heretic and shouldn’t be tolerated.
When the nature of truth is up for grabs, anything goes.
Dostoevsky: “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.”
If we throw away the rulebook and the ref, and the idea of objective truth – hey, just do what you want.
Again, a debate about “the nature of truth” might seem abstract and intellectual. But the consequences of these ideas trickle down quickly to the day-to-day. They affect our ideas about who or what we are (are we evolved apes or beings with souls?), how we should live (are there objective principles, or should we just do what we want?), and what the point of it all is (is it all meaningless, or is there some point to it?)
Yet the heart of the matter turned on a tectonic shift in epistemology.
How do we know what’s true?
Team Plato’s answer – at least regarding ultimate matters – was a combination of reason and revelation.
Those tended to lead in one general direction.
Team Nietzsche rejected that direction. This meant rejecting both reason and revelation. What did that leave? Only power, or “the will to power.” “It is so, because I assert it strongly.” What’s the source of this power? Ourselves.
Soon, everyone is asserting themselves at maximum power.
The teams, needless to say, are on completely different sides at this point. Team Nietzsche insisted that reason and revelation have led to bad things. Team Plato claimed that the blind often lead the blind, and those who insist everyone is equally is blind are fools. The conversation – or lack thereof – limped on.
A person’s allegiance on this issue would matter a lot.
For Team Nietzsche, the way forward would be to abandon the childish, irrational premodern superstitions that have held us back for so long. “Progress” meant breaking free from the past, moving into the future, free and unencumbered, in a joyful expression of freedom. It’s like a haircut: trim away the non-essential, and the result will be cleaner, lighter, better.
For Team Plato, giving up the True, the Good, and the Beautiful meant making “progress” in the wrong direction. It meant wandering off the trail, getting lost in the woods, and “progressing” deeper into the woods and closer to the cliffs. It wasn’t “trimming away outdated superstitions,” but standing on the tenth floor of a skyscraper while trying to demolish the ground floor. It wouldn’t end well.
The result of all this today is two warring camps with radically different answers to the fundamental questions of life, and barely able to understand each other.
Given our natural fear of things we don’t understand, they often assume the worst about each other.
This has created a kind of “Don Quixote effect.”
Don Quixote saw windmills and imagined they were dragons, and attacked. We often do the same, but instead of windmills, we see each other, imagine each other to be treacherous villains, and attack each other.
Politicians sometimes cultivate this dynamic deliberately. (Enemies and drama, real or manufactured, are good for votes.) This has caused many on both sides to harden into warring tribes. The dynamic soon devolves into mere “us” versus “them.” Egos get involved, and soon every disagreement can seem like a matter of life or death. The priority soon becomes winning the argument instead of searching for truth. This soon devolves into trying to win by any means necessary. This leads to each side assuming the worst in the other and depicting them in the most horrible ways possible. One side might describe the other as wanting everyone to revert back to old-time religion, which they assume also means regressing back to the worst aspects of our history. Or the reverse: we’re “progressing” closer toward the Cliffs of Insanity, and will soon cross over completely, by way of nihilism with makeup. And so on.
In those rare moments when genuine communication actually does happen, disagreements about almost everything seem to magically emerge from seemingly nowhere.
Yet the conversation often stays superficial. It often ignores the underlying, deeper levels of disagreement: objectivity versus subjectivity, rationality versus irrationality, the absolute versus the relative, realism versus antirealism, individual verses collective, truth versus anti-truth, and so on. These ideas serve as the bedrock that underlies all the rest of our day-to-day beliefs. Different answers on these basic matters only lead in directions that become even further apart. Yet these core assumptions are blown past, and are never even discussed.
As a result, we don’t just have different opinions, but different entire worldviews. It’s not that we have different answers. We aren’t even asking the same questions.
We don’t just live in different towns, but different universes.
Even if we finally arrive at a point where we can agree on a single fact, we often disagree profoundly on what that fact means. There are also the decisions to focus in on certain facts while ignoring others. Yet fact-selection, fact-ignoring, and fact-interpretation barely registers in the process.
The result is often two people in different universes trying to solve genuinely difficult problems, but unable to communicate on the simplest basics.
The result can look like two people trying to build a house of cards from a mile away, using tweezers.
It becomes all the more bizarre now that we’re all so interconnected.
We’re dissolving the foundations everyone agrees on while simultaneously thrusting all of us in each others’ faces.
Everyone having a portal into everyone else’s most private and personal thoughts and opinions, as it turns out, might not be the gateway to the huggy, singsong world of harmony somebody somewhere must have thought it would be. Instead, we’re all sharing a bathroom with someone in a different universe.
And then we argue about toothpaste. Why? Because communication has disintegrated to such a point that it’s the only tangible thing we seem able to actually communicate about. Everything else seems beyond words.
When the assumptions we initially agreed on are in the rearview, ten miles behind us, it means one or both sides is going to have to do a lot of rethinking. It means an existential crisis, in the sense of rethinking everything.
It can seem overwhelming.
Since there’s too much data to take in, and no clear way to digest it all, our only option is to simplify.
But that often results in blocking out vast swaths of the world. This often means restricting ourselves largely to what we already know. It’s free reign on confirmation bias, fueled by self-esteem and running unchecked.
From this point, it’s an easy slide for a person to decide that whoever doesn’t agree with their premises and conclusions must be ignorant, dumb, sick, or evil. “Anyone who offends me is a heretic who should be burned at the stake.”
It’s impolite to actually say this, of course, to anyone’s face. After all, we might offend someone. Discussing the deeper beliefs, assumptions, or ideas underlying these activities is often considered rude and taboo. So in person, we stick to what seems like safe ground – the facts, the news, the day-to-day tangibles, the superficial, the shallows.
Then we wait until we’re at a safe distance and anonymous: when we’re online. Then we release the hounds.
The result is an antiseptic, superficial pseudo-politeness in person that poses as kindness but actually leads to even deeper divisions. It leads to brawls over toothpaste.
4. So, is there a way out?
The challenges can seem daunting.
But there are reasons for optimism, if we dig deeper.
The way seems to lie in deeper levels of actual dialogue.
South Park can help us here.
In one episode (S6 Episode 1), a celebrity (Jared) decides to try to help the citizens of South Park lose weight. He recommends the solution that worked for him: hiring “aides,” or nutrition and fitness experts. He then offers to fund this for everyone in town, and announces that he “wants to give everyone aides.” The citizens of South Park misunderstand, and think he’s trying to give everyone A.I.D.S. (the disease.)
Drama ensues. The entire town is soon in an uproar. Both sides baffle each other: Jared can’t understand why everyone seems to hate him, and the citizens can’t understand why he would want to give everyone – children included – a deadly disease. The entire scene spirals into escalating moral outrage and lunacy. Eventually, the citizens are moments away from hanging Jared in the center of town square. With seconds to spare, they suddenly realize the misunderstanding. “Oooh, you meant ‘aides’? We thought you meant A.I.D.S.! Ha! Wow!” They all laugh it off, and everyone goes home. Fairy tale ending.
There’s a lesson in that.
Stopping and talking things out a little can sometimes prevent a lot of insanity.
It also means talking to each other instead of at each other. It means no sound bites or commercial break, but human, face-to-face interactions, with open-ended inquiries in a good spirit, all done in the aim of truth.
In a word: more philosophy.
After all, if bad ideas got us into this mess, good ideas will have to get us out.
This would be an abrupt change from our current sound-byte , conversation-as-signals-and-theater model of public discourse. Done properly – by way of Socrates – it could go a surprisingly long way. For example, a not-uncommon scenario: arguing for hours about the word “God,” only to figure out that they define the word differently. It can mean a more humble approach: “I’m searching for truth,” as opposed to “I’ve already found the truth, and now I’m trying to ram it down peoples' throats.” It can mean talking about ideas more than people, and taking a break from name-calling and character assassination. It would mean a “Great Sorting” of babies from bathwater, to examine the whole of history and take what works while leaving the rest.
This points to “forensic philosophy” on a personal and societal level, where we all examine our current experience for clues, and follow those clues wherever they lead. Those trails might lead to uncovering underlying assumptions, and the assumptions that underlie those assumptions, layer after layer.
It’s a time of both danger and opportunity.
It’s possible to come out of this better instead of worse. But it's not guaranteed.
It’s a job that will require sweat, nerve, heart, and guts. But the results can be profound.
A synthesis of the best of both sides can lead to genuine advancement in the study of psychology, philosophy, theology, and all areas of human nature as a whole. That’s where we need advancement now. The result could be a marriage of the best of tradition combined with the best of innovation.
If we play it right, it could become a new spiritual renaissance.
Will we take that road?
Some of us undoubtedly will. And if that happens, maybe more will follow. There are reasons for optimism.