I would wager that the vast majority of people today, if asked, would describe the twenty-first century as a young century, as a century which is just beginning. Perhaps it’s because, through our parents and older siblings, the 1990s still show themselves prominently in our popular consciousness. Perhaps it’s because, for my generation, Y2K nostalgia along with 9/11 and Great Recession terror are fundamental parts of our psyches. Perhaps it’s because many of us, my fellow members of Gen Z, still feel like kids.
But we aren’t kids, and this century isn’t young. The year is 2023, and the twenty-first century is almost a quarter complete. Our century is not an infant brimming with pure potential. The Soviet Union, grunge, the Third Way, and dot-coms are old news. Both this century and those of us born around its turn are now past the stage of adolescence.
As early as 1903, W. E. B. Du Bois famously posited that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” The identification of such a problem was a clarion call: It was an invitation to take stock of history up to that point so that a new generation could meet the needs of a new era with a sense of purpose and direction. It is true that we never fully solved the problem of the color line. It is also true that the twentieth century posed many problems which do not neatly fall within that question, suggesting that Du Bois’s was not the most fundamental formulation of the problem possible. What is further true, however, is that progress was made, and that the posing of a problematic, a target to reach for, is powerful and essential and can galvanize a generation like ours, for whom the sirens of cynicism and hopelessness seduce too easily.
Considering Du Bois put his cards on the table three years into his century, we at 23 years are way overdue. However, perhaps our procrastination can work in our favor: After all, it would be premature to determine the life purpose of a child at the age of three. Just as we draw from our youth to determine our path forward, we have the last 23 years of experience at our disposal—the childhood of our century, which ended as it passed through the coronavirus pandemic. What, then, can we claim is the problem of the twenty-first century?
The problem of the twenty-first century is the proper incorporation of the scientific worldview within the total context of human life. This formulation of the problem, it appears to me, captures many of the issues unique to our century. It is the problem which all human history up to this point has set us up to solve. Solving it is the duty we hold to all human history which will come after us.
Upon a first read, framing our century’s problem this way might appear horrendously out of touch. Compared to the persistence of prejudice, economic strife, and the physical suffering of billions, an issue like the position of science in human life reads as a mere academic curiosity, some problem invented by ivory-tower thinkers so they can keep publishing and avoiding the real problems of life.
What is key here is that when I refer to the scientific worldview, I am not merely referring to the set of findings and methods arrived at by the institutional departments of the natural and social sciences. Rather, I am referring to a force in culture which first seriously emerged in antiquity, a force from which the sciences as we now understand them emerged. To understand this force, we must turn to Nietzsche.
In both his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, and one of his greatest later works, Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche posited that ancient Athens underwent a period of cultural decadence that anticipated its political decline. He attributed that decadence to one particular source: Socrates. Socrates rattled the status quo of his Athens. He took the great experts and heroes of his society and questioned them through his dialectic. In so doing, he exposed the seeming groundlessness and frailty of their authority. In a society whose myths encouraged externalized action and virtue, Socrates insisted that we look inward and seek self-knowledge. Unlike the postmodern iteration of the Socratic ideal, where the things that be are submitted to a critique which knows no bottom, for Socrates the use of reason to deconstruct the appearance of knowledge was simply a means towards pursuing a life spent finding the one truth. That life was a contemplative life, a life closer to the Platonic forms, through which an ideal city-in-speech could be formed.
Nietzsche did not view the Socratic moment quite so romantically. For him, that old order which Socrates continually sought to undermine—a life spent heroically, within the world and through the body rather than among the forms and through the mind, a life of unadulterated action and willing, of artistic expression possessing oneself as from a muse rather than artificed through the intellect. It was this that was precisely the essence of life. Philosophers—whether they were the Platonists and Christians in the West or the Brahmans and Buddhists in the East—turned us away from life and encouraged a kind of asceticism which undermined our psychic health. In place of the heroic archetype, Socrates created “the archetype of a form of existence unknown before him, the archetype of theoretical man.” The theoretical man is he who has internalized the Socratic triple identity of truth, goodness, and beauty, and thus believes that “in order to be beautiful, everything must be reasonable” and that “only he who knows is virtuous.” The theoretical man believes that “thought, as it follows the thread of causality, reaches down into the deepest abysses of being, and that it is capable not simply of understanding existence but even of correcting it.”
The birth of the theoretical man coincides with the birth of an unconscious instinct which is so obvious to us that we cannot imagine that there was a time when people lived without it. This instinct is that every source of suffering or confusion in our life is a problem, which could in theory be solved by taking the world and dividing it into categories, measurements, laws, and principles. In Aristotle’s Metaphysics, we see the belief that all of being itself can be carved out into domains in which, through rigorous and systematic reason, all can be known. Given this, the purpose of life becomes to move the progress of human knowledge a little bit further and to fulfill the duty of being fully informed of the singular truth. As Nietzsche wrote, the theoretical man is led “to attribute to knowledge and understanding the power of a panacea,” and he “understands error to be inherently evil.”
You may not embody the characteristics of the theoretical man entirely in your life. Maybe you have faith in God. Maybe you are capable of unbridled artistic expression whose motivations do not have to be a response to Hegel’s aesthetics or Sontag’s conception of camp. Perhaps you will tell me that you are not a STEM major and thus interact very little with the scientific method. But still I will assert that every single reader of mine embodies the theoretical man. The methods of science, originating in Socrates, systematized in Aristotle, and perfected and disseminated in the Enlightenment, are so embedded in the popular psyche that we do not realize it is possible to live any differently.
We tend to assume that for almost any problem in our lives, the solution is the acquisition of some sort of knowledge. Of course in the sciences this is true: if the behavior of an object appears to us bizarre and unpredictable, measuring its position and momentum, as well as the ability to solve the dynamical equations of the system, allows us to predict and thus manipulate the evolution of that system. But when we encounter people with divergent political beliefs, our natural assumption is that this is entirely because of some information the other doesn’t have. Nowadays, mass media and the internet have made information widely available, leaving the only possible explanation of divergent political beliefs that other people have some moral or mental screw loose in their head (even though that freely disseminated information is driven more than ever by algorithms to cater to and reinforce preexisting beliefs). In our romantic lives, if things don’t work out it must be because of some “red flag” in the initial conditions we didn’t account for. If you are a man rejected by a woman, then perhaps it’s because you didn’t calculate your “sexual market value” and you must take concrete steps to maximize your score, and “take the pill” to gain the knowledge of how dating really works in order to maximize success. When we encounter the suffering and absurdity of life or our own shortcomings, we bounce from motivational speaker to religious leader to pop psychologist hoping that there is some sentence, some piece of knowledge we can acquire through which the clouds will finally part. Our lives are imbued with the following assumption: whenever we experience deprivation and limitedness, it can only be due to the want of a method or a gap in our data.
When one actually takes stock, it becomes clear that much of the knowledge we have, and a lot of our phenomenological experience, has nothing to do with empirics, a logical system, or even propositions. When life feels meaningless, we seek to “find” the meaning of life as if we were trying to find the roots of a polynomial function. Do we not realize that the joy of the poet’s attempt to capture the essence of love, of anguish, or of beauty in language lies precisely in the fact that it’s a heroic attempt at the impossible? Is it not obvious that when we speak of knowing a loved one well, there is no amount of scientific data we can give someone about them which substitutes for the knowledge which even one day’s acquaintance provides? Do we not sometimes experience feelings of bliss, of togetherness, of wonder, and of faith which admit of no rational analysis, no sense of cause? Let me invoke Nietzsche again, who tells us what feels intuitively true—that the value of life is not demonstrated to us rationally, but only aesthetically.
The problem is that even though we recognize this, the theoretical man within us revolts against our better wisdom. We start to think like Hegel, who understood all of human history as the evolution of a singular “world spirit” made up of the living experience of all human beings. By analyzing this spirit, Hegel provided a systematic explanation of how our art, our religion, our philosophy and sciences, our morality, contracts, family structure, economy, and legal system have manifested through time. Under Hegel, every aspect of our lives and our experience becomes rational, even if the rationale isn’t apparent to us. When we consider the institutions we live in—the world of liberalism supported by partisan representative democracy, corporate consumerist capitalism, value-neutral science and unhindered technological progress—the shadow of Hegel makes us expect there to be a logic to the way our society is structured, and perhaps even an inevitability to it.
Hegel’s Enlightenment worldview is supposed to help us explain and address our problems. But at the same time, it claims that we’re now in an ideal state: The Enlightenment is over; it happened. We’re enlightened. Our lingering dissatisfaction tells us that our reason isn’t as useful as we once thought it was. Perhaps we were indeed wrong in thinking that thought, following the thread of causality, could correct existence. Is our city-in-speech really one where democratic nations, rather than feeling a sense of cohesion under a general will, exist in unprecedented levels of gridlock and polarization? Where the arrow of technological innovation leads to runaway climate change, nuclear standoff, and the crowding out of creativity by algorithms with seeming inevitability? Where we spend our waking hours scrolling through content in algorithms designed to keep us hooked? Where inhuman bureaucracy, architecture, and urban planning keep us alienated from community? Where mental health, loneliness, and hopelessness stay on the rise?
All of these issues are deeply related to the abject failure of our systems—whether that be our ethics, our politics, our science—to properly work. And thus, we live in an era of negation. But we must recognize that this negation is still the effect of that same theoretical man. No one in practice is truly a nihilist or a relativist—it would be almost impossible to live in such a manner. Thus when intellectuals claim such viewpoints, they’re reacting against the failure of reason to produce a rational, scientific grounding of morality: The theoretical man believes that if our experience of ethics cannot be scientifically explained, it must not exist at all. When the “end of art” is proclaimed, we cannot make sense of it without the initial belief that art and beauty could be systematically categorized in the first place. When a “show about nothing” featuring a cynical protagonist becomes tremendously popular, it’s because our lives disillusion us from our hope that there is something for things to be about. This era of effective nihilism, of post-truth, of irony, of “content” and “information” over knowledge and wisdom, is uncomfortable, the intellectual of today says, but he concedes that this is just the way things are. The best of our scholarship seems to tell us that nihilism is true, that systemic racism and sexism will never be overcome, and that the structure of our economy and technological development are both unchangeable and sending us on a path of destruction.
But what if we took Nietzsche seriously when he asserted that “the falseness of an opinion is not for us any objection to it… the question is, how far an opinion is life-furthering, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps species-rearing”? What if our minds recognized what our hearts know, and learned “to recognize untruth as a condition of life”? The twenty-first century which we build together must be a time for synthesis. This essay is not a call for those naive, shortsighted readings of Nietzsche which see him as a call to reject science and, in effect, turn our reason off. The pursuit of self-knowledge, the invention of the inward, and the progress of systematic science are here to stay: They have become a fundamental part of the human in the same way art, spirituality, and family were before the scientific outlook ever arrived on the scene. And when one considers the way technology has lifted us out of poverty, improved our lifespans, and provided pleasures, we are all the better for it. What is essential for us now is to recognize that science, however powerful it might be, is simply a part of the human experience. Science isn’t reason or thought themselves; it is a particular form of life which has been produced and tweaked to produce knowledge of a very particular kind.
From Rumi to the Romantics, from Lao Tzu to Wittgenstein, the wisest minds have realized that there is so much we know which isn’t to be proved, so much to be experienced which cannot be controlled in experiment. Our task now is to perform a serious inquiry into where, precisely, scientific knowledge applies, which requires knowing what, precisely, the scientific method is. This will allow us to find out where exactly to fit science within the larger context of our lives. A great example of such work is Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which produced a theory of how scientific propositions have sense. In producing such a theory, he systematically finds that ethics, aesthetics, and God cannot be expressed in sensical propositions. “To believe in a God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter,” he says.
It is clear that when fitting science in the larger context of life, what we will not be doing is fencing science in, letting none of its influence out or anything else in. For instance, it seems to me fair that, despite Wittgenstein’s assertions, the state of our scientific knowledge makes it difficult or impossible to truly believe in God as we may have in the premodern era. Our intellectual work, however, might allow us to once again recognize the essential role of enchantment, mysticism, and faith generally in human life. Additionally, since it is clear that the rules of science itself are things we actively produce, things that are continuously modified and improved, we should take claims of its value-neutrality with many a grain of salt. Rather, we should engage in ethical discourse to uncover the inherent values in our science so we may orient them in line with that undefinable, and yet immutable, thing we call the Good.