The collapse of rational certainty

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For centuries, the systematic mode provided certainty, based on illusory understandings of meaningness. Its certainty and understandings rested on two foundations: the Christian Church and scientific rationality. In the early 1900s, both failed.

Everyone knows a little about one half of the story: how science undermined religious belief, but failed to provide an alternative basis for meaning.

Less well known is the story of how rationalist certainty ended; how it dug too deep, and undermined its own foundations. After a series of crises, the inescapable conclusion was that mathematics and physics cannot supply the ultimate justifications that seemed possible in the 1800s.

I believe this was a major factor in the breakdown of the systematic mode and eventual collapse of all systems of meaning. That is not widely recognized, perhaps for several reasons:

  • Since we have lived without rationalist certainty for nearly a century, it is difficult now to appreciate the shock and terror its loss provoked at the time.
  • It was only the cognitive elites who fully understood and felt the loss. As the mass media explained that there was a problem, only a vague anxiety that science no longer made sense trickled down.
  • Mathematicians and scientists have mostly learned to live with ambiguity and incoherence.
  • The consequences have still not been fully felt, because rationalist eternalism is still common—even though it is known to be unworkable.
  • The loss of rationalist certainty was deliberately misinterpreted by anti-rationalist eternalists, and given spurious new quasi-religious meanings. (This comes in monist and dualist flavors. The monist version promotes quantum woo, Gödel woo, and so on. The dualist version is Christian (or Islamic or dualist-Hindu) woo. The general reasoning is: “rationality has failed, therefore it can’t rule out our metaphysical dogmas, therefore our dogmas are Ultimate Truth.” Monist irrationalism justifies Idealism and the unity of the True Self with The Absolute: “blah blah Consciousness blah blah God blah ineffable wonderfulness blah.” Dualist irrationalism justifies Creationism, Sharia, and afterlife Salvation.)

The end of rationalist certainty was not one event. It came as a series of unexpected, unwanted discoveries, throughout the first half of the twentieth century. A full account would take a long book. Here I will cover only some key events: non-Euclidean geometry, relativity, quantum, and the foundational crisis in mathematics caused by problems with infinities.

Most people probably know that relativity and quantum came as shocks, but maybe not quite why. The crisis in mathematics is less known, but perhaps more important, because it was even more fundamental.


This page is in the section Systems of meaning all in flames,
      which is in How meaning fell apart,
      which is in Meaningness and Time: past, present, future.

The next page in book-reading order is Countercultures: modernity’s last gasp.

This page’s topics are History of ideas and Rationalism.

General explanation: Meaningness is a hypertext book (in progress), plus a “metablog” that comments on it. The book begins with an appetizer. Alternatively, you might like to look at its table of contents, or some other starting points. Classification of pages by topics supplements the book and metablog structures. Terms with dotted underlining (example: meaningness) show a definition if you click on them. Pages marked with ⚒ are still under construction. Copyright ©2010–2017 David Chapman.