WHAT'S THE MEANING OF "SANITY"
(IN A CRAZY WORLD)? [PT 2]
So, can “sanity” be clarified any further?
To briefly summarize our progress so far:
The below continues from Part I, where we sought the definition of “sanity” in hopes of our own personal efforts to clarify the matter in a way that would provide a helpful “North Star” to navigate by in mental health and a world gone crazy.
Toward this end, we explored several conventional definitions, found them to be less than helpful, and humbly decided to suggest an alternative.
The alternative was this: “sanity” can be defined as a state of “being in touch with reality.” And what is “reality?” It’s what is real. OK, so, what is “real”? What’s “real” is whatever is left over after we remove illusions. We can know the real by backing away from the unreal. Beyond this point, we should stick to applications in specific and unique situations, because abstract, universal definitions only go so far.
We then offered several “yardsticks” or tests for revealing illusions in various perceptions, ideas, or actions. These are the same tests that can be used to measure a life philosophy.
So far, much of this probably seems relatively basic and uncontroversial.
But can we go further?
Let’s circle back again to our key question:
If sanity is being in touch with reality, then what is “reality”?
The answer so far – that “reality is what’s left when we back away from unreality” might satisfy some folks, in some ways.
But this approach also seems to lack something important.
It doesn't necessarily explain why we've gone off the rails recently, for example.
A purely negative approach also just doesn’t seem fully satisfying to many of us who are trying to find some clarity amid the insanity of everyday life.
But when we push this further, we soon encounter a steep challenge.
Sanity is an Everything Problem.
An “Everything Problem” is a difficult problem that interconnects with other difficult problems.
We’ve discovered this already: in order to define “sanity,” we have to define “reality.”
This leads us to a four-letter word (or rather, name.)
This leads us to Kant.
It leads us to foundationalism.
Or, more specifically, it leads us to professional philosophy's recent abandonment of foundationalism.
“Foundationalism” is a term from philosophy. It describes the theory of knowledge that affirms the need for certain foundational principles (or “first principles,” axioms, assumptions, etc.) as the basis of all of our thought.
More technically, it claims that certain beliefs are “epistemically privileged” in that they provide the justification, evidence, or grounds, for all other less “privileged” beliefs, without themselves being dependent on anything else.
Or, more simply, certain things are self-evident.
This basic approach – “foundationalism” – served as a backbone of Western philosophy (and theology, and culture, and civilization itself) for centuries – Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, and scores of others have either assumed it implicitly or defended it explicitly.
Or, we should say, it did do this - until recently.
More recently, foundationalism has been under attack by the philosophical-industrial complex.
But here, we can press pause for a moment and notice the terrain we’ve suddenly stumbled into.
With this, we now find ourselves in the realm of philosophy.
But wait: we started out on the turf of psychology.
Psychologists rarely seem to delve into Kant, foundationalism, and so on.
Kant, after all, was a philosopher.
But sanity, it seems, is supposed to fall under the jurisdiction of psychology.
Those two fields are in two different departments. Philosophy is over there in that building, and psychology is over there in that building.
But apparently, this state of affairs isn’t going to last.
These two departments, it seems, are going to have to schedule some mixers.
(Most likely, the walls will be well-lined, and the dance floor will be empty, at least at first, until somebody spikes something.)
All of this points to flaws – and opportunities – for both psychologists and philosophers. Psychologists often assume a philosophy (or worldview, or life philosophy, or network of assumptions) – and they do it unconsciously, much to their detriment. Philosophers often tend to ignore psychology – the study of minds – in order to argue endlessly about the ideas those minds spit out.
We need explorers who can travel in both worlds and speak multiple languages.
This brings us back to our four-letter name.
There seem to be plenty of anti-foundationalist folks in the university philosophical-industrial complex these days. It’s quite fashionable, apparently, to be anti-foundational.
To clarify: what is “anti-foundationalism”?
Dressed up in fancy clothes, it’s often a search for alternatives to old-school foundationalism. In its more raw form, it’s relativism in full-slippery mode – and, when things slip even further, it’s ultimately nihilism.
Much of this traces back to Kant.
To boil just one of Kant’s primary ideas to a few words, perhaps unfairly, we could describe it like this: “We don’t know reality, only appearances.”
In a way, he essentially described “The Matrix” a few centuries early. (Plato had done the same, many centuries before that, with his idea of “the cave” – along with others.)
But this could throw a wrench in things. After all, if sanity means knowing reality, and we can’t know reality, then that would mean that sanity as we’ve defined it is impossible.
This leads us into dangerous territory.
It opens a direct path to nihilism.
Yet this is the path many of our fearful leaders have been heading down for many decades now.
Much of this seems to be why soft nihilism is so popular these days.
After all, if we can’t know reality, what else should we do?
A few alternative proposals have become stylish (such as coherentism and certain mutations of pragmatism, which haven't exactly nailed it.) But one especially popular alternative, however, became Gucci-level stylish among certain pop-philosophy folks: the idea that “we create our own reality.” (Enter “The Secret” and various other forms of Existentialism-New Age casserole.)
In its original form, this line of thought can sometimes be a positive influence. (It is better to be active agent than a passive victim, after all.) Or in some cases, it's at least harmless.
But the long arm of the law soon kicks in - that "law" being this: every idea will eventually be interpreted by someone in the worst way possible.
This is no exception. Along these lines, this can become a form of Existentialism that glorifies subjectivism, which justifies that idea that “we should just do whatever we want in the moment.” This – when it runs unchecked, and especially when it joins forces with the self-esteem movement – can mutate in the direction of militant narcissism.
All to say, the unintended consequences of Kant’s pontifications – which ultimately becomes an assumption that we can’t know reality – often aren’t attractive at all. It can eventually lead to various forms of widespread, mass-level insanity. (Reference: 20th century.)
So, where does this leave us?
This leads us to The Big Questions once again.
To ask “What is real?” is a fundamental Big Question.
Our answers to The Big Questions determine our fundamental worldview or life philosophy.
Agnosticism, Existentialism, nihilism, and so on are all worldviews.
Existentialism, for example, assumes, in so many words, that “We can’t know reality, so we need to make it up ourselves.”
This thinking is incredibly popular these days. Why? Well, there seem to be a number of reasons. For example, it might not necessarily be because it’s “true” or even "helpful," but because it’s fashionable, seemingly inoffensive, and highly marketable. It's apparently incredibly easy to employ inspirational Existentialist-sounding slogans in ads and commercials that can help sell clothes, shoes, etc, by implying that "X product is the way to the good life."
(As a side note: this also demonstrates one way philosophy isn’t dead – as some have recently claimed – but is still very much alive. Many of us who imagine that we “think for ourselves” are actually parroting some philosopher’s ideas from centuries ago, often without knowing it.)
When it comes to understanding the state of world today, this might explain a few things.
After all, if a lack of sanity means being out of touch with reality, and most educated individuals (who have been trained by the philosophical-industrial complex) assume that we can’t know reality, then our only choice is to give up on sanity itself.
(As the APA seemed to do.)
This means the NFL playbook of life has basically been thrown out the window.
Given this, it’s no secret why everyone might seem a little crazy.
This applies especially when the cool thing to do is to criticize everyone and everything (without anyone making an effort to know themselves.)
So, what can we do about this state of affairs?
Perhaps we can ask a key question.
Was Kant right or wrong on that point?
Is it true that “we can’t know reality”?
Or, maybe we can ask the question differently:
Is reality constructed in such a way that we can’t know reality?
Is it true that we can’t know truth?
Do we know for sure that we can’t know anything for sure?
If these statements seem strange, maybe it’s because they are.
(Kant might argue that they aren't really strange - they just seem that way to us. But would he then be saying that “The reality is that they just seem that way to us”? And why do they "seem" one way instead of a different way?)
These assume, in so many words, that “Nobody knows anything, except for me.” They claim that “I know reality, and the truth about reality is that nobody else knows anything about it (except for me, in this instance.)”
In this way, they contradict themselves, or are inconsistent with themselves. Hard agnosticism – the idea that we know that nobody knows anything, and nobody ever can know anything – trips itself up and impales itself on its own idea. At the very least, if we claim not to know reality, we can reasonably state that maybe we’re wrong about that.
And all of this leads us to an alternative conclusion: maybe we can know reality.
But again, why does this idea – the idea that we can know something about truth, reality, and sanity – seem so unstylish right now?
Why is the faux-humble answer "Nobody knows!" so fashionable?
Does philosophy really follow fads and trends? Is it really a hyperintellectual, navel-gazing version of following whoever's wearing the cool pants in high school?
Maybe so. Philosopher Laurence BonJour, for example, said this:
“…as happens with rather alarming frequency in philosophy, the movement away from foundationalism in the last three decades or so often looks less like a reasoned dialectical progression than a fashionable stampede.” *
We’re living in the shadow of Kant and Nietzsche. After Kant declared that we couldn’t know reality, only appearances, Nietzsche soon traced this line of thought to its ultimate conclusion and the inevitable consequences where that trail leads. He declared – and predicted, and quite accurately, that we’re living through "The Death of God."
And he seemed to be pretty spot-on with that point.
This doesn’t merely point to a different way to spend Sunday mornings. It points toward a loss of the basic ground of objective truth, morals, meaning, logic, memory, and values.
It’s like demolishing the foundation of a building we’re standing in. (It’s no coincidence that they call it “foundationalism.”) Once that happens, it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the building falls. “The ability to know reality” is “the foundation.” When that goes, everything else soon follows.
With no foundation, everything becomes subjective, personal, relative, slippery, feet firmly planted in mid-air, arbitrary.
In this environment, people don’t merely disagree on issues – they can’t get on the same page enough to even talk about issues.
What’s left, in so many words, is nihilism.
In the world under the shadow of Kant and Nietzsche, everything is slippery. We float suspended in mid-air – there is no up or down, north or south, east or west, and anything and everything is up for grabs.
It might seem fun at first, , like chugging a bottle of champagne, but eventually, the side-effects and hangover settle in. It’s a cosmic version of Home Alone – “the parents are gone, and the place is all mine!” – except the burglars lurking outside might be less bungling. The real results of all this The results are widespread meaninglessness, angst, confusion, existential anxiety, and various forms of misery, all with seemingly no purpose or point.
Welcome to toxic postmodernism.
In this toxic postmodern approach, genuine sanity is an illusion, and having given up on The Big Picture, the best we can hope for (it seems) are “things that feel good at the moment” and “things that feel bad at the moment.” This joins forces with “things that make sense at the moment” and “things that don’t make sense at the moment.” This system can easily be hijacked and manipulated by various forms of drama-packed, emotion-wrenching media narrative. This is where nihilism and narcissism form a lethal tag-team to inflict misery everywhere.
But again, we can ask a basic question:
Is this all based on some huge mistake?
Could this all be due to some colossal misunderstanding?
Figuring this out could potentially help things to a significant degree. It could eventually even lead to a new state of things becoming much, much better.
There’s plenty we can learn from along these lines. After all, when humans start tinkering around with the source code that entire cultures are built on, small mistakes can lead to major malfunctions. A few lines of bad code can lead to an entire system crash.
We won’t exhaustively explore all possible in Kant’s thinking here. (Why is everyone clapping?) But we can say the basic idea: “There’s more to it than that.” There’s more to the picture than simply, “We don’t know reality.”
Kant was immediately followed by individuals like Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Kierkegaard, just to name a few, and they had some ideas of their own.
Those guys were no slouches.
Schopenhauer, for example, quickly revised Kant’s thinking.
Instead of the idea that phenomena merely hides the essence of things – which makes that essence inaccessible – he described how phenomena represents and reveals the essence of things. This could be why nearly all of us seem to intuit that things represent and reveal that essence. It’s our near-universal intuition that “there’s more going on than meets the eye,” not less.
(This might seem a bit abstract. But the idea that “we don’t know reality” is also abstract, and sometimes we need one abstraction to cancel out another.)
We could explore in much more depth the question of whether or not we really “know reality,” or not. But that can be a deep dive – a trail to follow at another time.
For now, we can say that it’s safe to assume that we seem to know something about something.
After all, the alternatives wind up contradicting themselves.
For example, we can’t say that “nobody knows anything.” If that phrase is true, then the person saying that knows something.
And we can’t just say, “We’re all being fooled.” Someone – such as the person saying that – apparently sees through the prank, and isn’t being fooled. And if that’s true, then not everyone is being fooled.
Kant wants to be Morpheus – the guy who explains that we’re all trapped in the Matrix – while also saying, “I’m trapped in the Matrix, too!”
But he can’t play both of those roles at the same time. Those two roles contradict. Either you’re revealing the Grand Illusion, or you’re fooled by it – but you can’t be both at the same time. To say, “I’m being fooled by this Grand Illusion, which I'm also explaining about in detail!” is nonsensical.
And so on.
The point is, we seem to know something. Maybe it’s vague, hidden, unconscious, or dormant. But it’s still there.
And if we know something, then maybe we can know a little more.
Plato said it well: if we know nothing, then we wouldn’t know to search for knowledge. But if we knew everything, then we’d have no need to search for knowledge.
The realm of the Seeker, then, is in between.
And that’s where many of us today find ourselves.
And that brings us back to the question of sanity.
We’ve arrived at the idea that “reality” is something we need to seek.
Truth is something we can search for. And we should search for it.
Most of us sense that we can make progress along these lines. Not only can we seek – we can also find.
And this can lead us to a little more clarity on sanity.
If reality and sanity are realities we can search for, then we’re in hot pursuit: the state of sanity is something we’re able to get closer to or further away from.
Closer is better.
This resonates with common sense, unlike anti-foundationalism, which is practically unlivable.
Life is hard enough when we try to face reality. But if we come at life without even trying to face reality, it gets even harder. It can mean someone setting themselves up for a series of rude awakenings and reality-checks. (And if we only created our own reality, then there wouldn’t be any reality-checks, right? Unless we created them ourselves. Right?) To paraphrase Lily Tomlin, reality is the leading cause of stress among those who are in touch with it.
So, where does this leave us?
If the above is roughly on the right track, then we’ve boiled the essential choice down to two options. There’s basically foundationalism on the one hand, and anti-foundationalism on the other. There’s “truth” on the one hand, and “nihilism” on the other. There’s either The Matrix as the whole story, or there’s Morpheus explaining that there’s more than just The Matrix.
Many of the stations in between tend to be slippery, and they sit on a slope. They eventually tend to wind up sliding into either one camp or the other.
They tend to slide into “there is truth,” or “there is no truth.”
The basic choice is eventually between some form of foundationalism and some form of nihilism.
The various approaches in the anti-foundational, nihilistic, “we’re all in The Matrix with no Morpheus” camp – Existentialism, hard agnosticism, soft agnosticism, and so on – generally lead to vagueness, confusion, outright trouble, or other forms of unnecessary misery.
That points us in the general direction of the alternative.
That alternative is the idea that there is some sort of reality that we can seek, and find.
This can lead us back to our initial approach from Part I: we can work to remove our illusions.
As Blake said: if the doors of perception are cleansed, then we can see things as they really are: infinite. We can work to cleanse our doors.
Psychology, in an effort to stay credible and “scientific,” often tries to be neutral in these matters. The result is that it ends up assuming some form of atheism. (This is explored in more depth here.) The basic idea is that questions of religion are subjective opinions that fall in the category of personal taste, whereas the realm of science is that of objective and impersonal facts.
But this might explain part of why psychology has been so stale, and fruitless for so long.
Beyond a certain point, this conflict becomes unavoidable. It’s impossible to make much progress while trying to stay neutral on the matter of reality itself. That is to say, we can’t define sanity without defining reality, and we can’t define reality without answering The Big Questions of the universe.
And we can go even further.
If sanity means being in touch with reality, and greater levels of reality eventually lead to Ultimate Reality, then that means we are capable of Ultimate Sanity.
Here we arrive at the intersection of psychology, philosophy, and theology – or what we might also describe as “human nature.”
To experience a state – or even a glimpse – of “Ultimate Sanity” or “Ultimate Reality” might seem far-fetched.
But plenty of folks throughout history – and today – claim to have experienced something exactly along those lines.
Are they credible?
It seems like a question worth exploring.
But even for the rest of us, in the meantime: the point isn’t to reach the North Star, but to navigate by it.
We don’t have to arrive, or even come close. But if we orient ourselves along these lines, we might suddenly get our bearings once again. And if more of us do that, the world might just become a little saner.
And until then, we can practice surfing whatever waves come at us.
* quoted in Restoring the Foundations of Epistemic Justification by Steven L. Porter