Conspiracy Theories, Ideology, and Metaphysics in the Metamodern Era
Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them — Albert Einstein
We live in a metamodern world, despite our lack of language enabling mass understanding and navigation of metamodernism.
Living in the 21st century means being exposed to an innumerable sources of information, culture, and sensemaking. As human beings are, first and foremost, creatures of sensemaking, our primary ability to navigate our lifeworld entails knowing who we are to others and who others are to us all in regards to our shared situation.
Within the last few years there has been a proliferation of conspiracy theories which have challenged sensemaking and identity.
These conspiracies have emerged in the sensemaking void generated by the decentralizing force of social media.
Of course, to accompany these conspiracies, there have been explorations of these theories. Most explorations tend to cover the history of a given conspiracy, with the goal of attributing blame to a specific actor (even an imagined unnamed figure). The need to blame can distort everything, from personal relationships to our ability to make sense of the world around us.
Often examinations of such conspiracy theories are tactical, either in the service of promoting a conspiracy, or pushing for political agenda — against some party, such as Facebook, or the Democratic party. These are not meaningless examinations but such examinations are surface level phenomena as such explorations tend to be limited to a specific conspiracy theory and a certain context from which that theory arose.
The conjecture for this essay is that there is a specific structure to conspiracy theories as closed representational modes of sensemaking. For example, conspiracy theories are irrefutable (to those who believe) whereas theories about conspiracies fall apart when specific narrative elements are missing. The apparent irrefutable nature of conspiracy theories means that conspiracy theories have a structure.
The thesis I am forwarding is that conspiracy theories, like ideology, are a form of metaphysics.
Philosophically, metaphysics has been explored and rejected by many different thinkers from many different eras. In this short essay, I will bring some main features together here for a very brief introduction.
But first, a definition: Metaphysics, as a closed system of representation, is meant to be complete. By complete, I mean that this system of representation means to capture all the salient aspects of what is represented so that new considerations for relevancy are blocked.
At this point it should be fairly obvious that the ideology is also a type of metaphysics. Likewise, intellectuals and scientists seeking to propagate a system of thought that can definitively determine/represent a given meaning in an unconditional way are also often propagating a metaphysics.
There are three angles to understanding how metaphysics can blind us:
- Antinomies as limits on rationality
- Self-referentiality as metaphysics
- Teleological blindness/ideological good
All three of these must be avoided as any of these can lead to one into metaphysical blindness.
Be warned, this essay is not for the feint of heart. I cover some heavy philosophical topics, mainly stemming from Immanuel Kant.
I borrow from Kant but without endorsing his entire philosophy. He was the first to bring these ideas to the foreground, and he is the first to try and grapple with the proper role of rationality as a practice. Some aspects of his philosophy are still salient as, despite his insights, the population at large, including his historic philosophical successors, seem to remain unaware of the problems he pointed out regarding the workings of reason/rationality.
This brings us to the first topic.
1 Antinomies as Limits on Rationality
In particular, I refer to antinomies from Immanuel Kant, but not his specific examples (pictured below), which are dated, at least, in the terms that they use. Instead, I am going to examine why antinomies are an important concept, as the presence of an antinomy is often due to a limitation of one’s rationality.
Antinomies are paradoxes which occur despite/because of consistent/correct logical reasoning. Intellectuals love to create consistency in their rational systems. Consistency is the holy grail of sensemaking, especially in the sciences, philosophy, and in mathematics.
Kant introduces antinomies to talk about how rationalities can be extended by thinkers looking to create consistency. Antinomies form when a rational form of thinking is extended beyond our understanding/what is applicable by that rationality. Antinomies are paradoxes wherein more than one form of consistent rationality appears to apply.
For instance, we might fall in love with a specific sensemaking procedure, such as a specific kind of analysis, and then apply that analysis everywhere ignorant of how that analysis may not point out salient features in certain contexts. (Data scientists can encounter this problem often.)
From his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, Kant writes
We may blunder in various ways in metaphysics without any fear of being detected in falsehood. For we never can be refuted by experience if we but avoid self-contradiction, which in synthetic though purely fictitious propositions may be done whenever the concepts which we connect are mere ideas that cannot be given (as regards their whole content) in experience. For how can we make out by experience whether the world is from eternity or had a beginning, whether matter is infinitely divisible or consists of simple parts? Such concepts cannot be given in any experience, however extensive, and consequently the falsehood either of the affirmative or the negative proposition cannot be discovered by this touchstone.
These illicit extensions of rationality can occur because one can be blinded by the prize for human sensemaking: consistency. When people find a pattern that seems to fit a situation, we will often deploy that pattern as far as we can. We might mistakenly extend that pattern beyond its applicable range believing that consistency in our thinking somehow guarantees that this pattern continues to apply.
The reason we can extend patterns indefinitely has to do with one of Kant’s main insights about the nature of thought: that rationality is constructed as synthetic. Kant explains that most judgements are synthetic, that is, constructed from two different concepts. Whereas analytic judgements can be judged on whether or not they self-contradict, synthetic judgements need additional assessment through other means (which includes most of his books). Kant lists judgements of experience, mathematics, and metaphysics as synthetic. Kant defines the difference between analysis and synthesis from Critique of Pure Reason:
Either the predicate B belongs to subject A, as somewhat which is contained (though covertly) in the conception of A; or predicate B lies completely out of the conception of A, although it stands in connection with it. In the first instance, I term the judgement analytical, in the second, synthetical.
Synthetic judgements are, to paraphrase, a connection between two ideas that do not “contain” one another. Kant writes
For example, when I say “all bodies are extended,” this is an analytical judgement. For I need not go beyond the conception of body in order to find extension connected with it, but merely analytic the conception, that is, become conscious of the manifold properties which I think in that conception, in order to discover this predicate in it: it is therefore an analytical judgement. On the other hand, when I say, “all bodies are heavy,” the predicate is something totally different from that which I think in the mere conception of a body. But the addition of such a predicate therefore, it becomes a synthetical judgement.
Because humans can connect pretty much any subject with any predicate, reasoning, on its own, beyond providing consistency, cannot tell us anything about what is real. Kant attributes this problem to his reading of Hume. Kant writes
Upon the solution of this problem, or upon sufficient proof of the impossibility of synthetical knowledge a priori, depends the existence or downfall of the science of metaphysics. Among philosophers David Hume came the nearest of all to this problem; yet it never acquired in his mind sufficient precision, nor did he regard the question in its universality. On the contrary, he stopped short at the synthetic proposition of the connection of an effect with its cause (principium causalitatis), insisting that such proposition a priori was impossible.
While Hume stopped at questioning how we could ever know for sure what caused a given phenomenon, Kant realized this disconnection between cause and effect is reflected in our ability to synthesize judgements outside of experience. If we never could know for sure if our non-analytical reasoning was sufficient, then all our metaphysical, experiential and mathematical judgements are suspect, as they could always be wrong. We could find ourselves in a situation where our reasoning doesn’t apply because the context is subtly different.
The most extreme cases of this tendency to apply rationality inappropriately is called apophenia, the condition of finding patterns where none exist.
This tendency to unintentionally find patterns can create a situation where we believe we found a pattern, for the pattern “fits” the information presented. However, if we step outside of our found pattern, we can find that we can also employ other, different patterns that yield different, but also logical results.
The condition of finding two or more different logics appearing applicable is what Kant calls an antinomy.
One famous example of an antinomy are implied within Godel’s incompleteness theorems: A consistent set of axioms applied to natural numbers can yield situations where additional axioms can be added, with no guidance as to how to assess which additional axiom we should adopt/reject.
To summarize, the problem with antinomies is that, as we are applying rationality beyond our experience and understanding:
- We will not have a basis for deciding which rational form is relevant, nor will we have a basis for determining what information is salient.
- As we are in ignorance (having no understanding on the matter), we may not realize we are applying rationality beyond where it should be applied.
For Kant, the adaptation of an illicit extension of reason is a basis for metaphysical illusion.
What is so insidious about antinomies is that because they are constructed primarily through thought alone, philosophical thought must be involved to dispel the illusion. This need for philosophy is because the synthetic nature of thought is both why metaphysical illusions cannot be fully challenged by empirical methods and why can antinomies form in the first place.
The human ability to link any two phenomenon together mentally, legitimately or not, allows us room to maneuver around any empirical assertions if that is what we want.
On social media, we’ve seen this kind of maneuvering, as proponents of an ideological/metaphysical position can find unimaginably many denials/assertions to preserve their ideology’s consistency. Do not underestimate human creativity! In the case of a friend returning a kettle broken, when confronted with their breaking the kettle the common types of denials by the friend are:
- it was broken when I got it
- I returned it unbroken (you or someone else broke it after I gave it back)
- I never borrowed this kettle.
Analogously, types of denials/assertions for ideology are:
- the raw evidence is fake (there is no reason)
- the evidence is interpreted wrong (or it actually supports what I want)
- your reasoning is irrelevant.
Applications of such behavior can result in various forms of bigotry, self-delusion, and the propagation of confusion about how to understand the terms of what is real. One example of this in science is given here, in the comparison between Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould regarding what constitutes the mechanism of evolution. Dawkins asserts that genetic competition is the mechanism, which is not incorrect, but then insists that this mechanism is the only rational way to understand all of evolution’s causes. The antinomy Dawkins is pushing forth is that causation must be determined by a mathematically modellable and unconditional/universal mechanism when in fact there is plenty of evidence that evolution can occur through many different overlapping mechanisms that will have different effects given different contexts (that emphasize different evolutionary mechanisms).
As our sensemaking is always independent of anything else, we also have the ability to assert fantastical notions, which, from the point of view of our sensemaking, may be constructed as consistent with itself. Antinomies can be very hard to spot. Kant continues his examination with
The only possible way in which reason could have revealed unintentionally is a secret dialectic, falsely announced as dogmatics, would be when it were made to ground an assertion upon a universally admitted principle and to decide the exact contrary with the greatest accuracy of inference from another which is equally granted. This is actually here the case with regard to four natural ideas of reason, whence four assertions on the one side and as many counter-assertions on the other arise, each consistently following from universally acknowledged principles. Thus, they reveal, by the use of these principles, the dialectical illusion of pure reason, which would otherwise forever remained concealed.
This is therefore a decisive experiment, which necessarily expose any error lying hidden in the assumption of reason. Contradictory propositions cannot both be false, unless the concept at the ground of both of them be false, unless the concept at the ground of both of them is self-contradictory; for example, the propositions, “A square circle is round,” and “A square circle is not round,” are both false. […] For the logical criterion of the impossibility of a concept consists in this, that if we presuppose it, two contradictory propositions’ become false; consequently, as no middle between them is conceivable, nothing at all is thought by that concept.
Kant then proposes that to step outside of antinomies, one must consider both sides of an antinomy, to recognize that there is no logical reason by which a given supposition should be accepted over another.
The limits of reason alone cannot determine what is true, because we can extend our rationality indefinitely by new synthesis. Looking at alternate rational analyses of an issue can help us reveal our lack of understanding by revealing how we have no basis for deciding which logical form is relevant.
Beyond antinomies however, lie an even deeper illusion, one that Kant did not find, but hints at. For that, we can step from Kant to post-structuralism.
2 Metaphysics as Self-referentiality
Kant’s influence on philosophy cannot be overstated. In the 20th century, Edmund Husserl attempted to dive deeper into Kant’s apperceptive unity through phenomenology, as a closed formal system that is meant to capture all of human experience.
In his essay Speech and Phenomena, Jacques Derrida shows how Husserl introduces metaphysics to secure his project of phenomenology as a stable, closed system of representation that is logical, rational, and complete. In particular, Derrida points out how Husserl has trouble securing stability of meaning in statements as the speaking subject is different from moment to moment, situation to situation, and person to person. Derrida writes
We have experienced the systematic interdependence of the concepts of sense, ideality, objectivity, truth, intuition, perception, and expression. Their common matrix is being as presence: the absolute proximity of self-identity, the being-in-front of the object available for repetition, the maintenance of the temporal present, whose ideal form is the self-presence of transcendental life, whose ideal identity allows idealiter of infinite repetition. The living present, a concept that cannot be broken down into a subject and attribute, is thus the conceptual foundation of phenomenology as metaphysics.
Essentially the formation of metaphysics is due to the propagation of a term found everywhere, acting as glue to guarantee a set meaning. The result, for Husserl, is that the transcendent Ego is such a term, as it sutures the meaning of “I”, unifying contingency and context of “the living present” with a transcendental concept of Ego deemed universal, context-less, and univocal.
This sleight of hand creates the illusion that a metaphysical representation is complete as there can be no “outside” the living present. Rather than understanding each spoken “I” with all the information of each context (sometimes, “I” means me, sometimes “I” means you, sometimes “I” means a fictitious self), Husserl insists that each is an instance of the transcendental Ego.
This metaphysical structure of an “invisible term” is found in various other areas of thought and social ideals, as a closed and circular meanings that are self-referential. For instance, Douglass Hofstadter in his book I am a Strange Loop takes the argument that subjectivity must be recursive in order to be self-aware. John Vervaeke calls this recursion model a “homunculus problem”, which is an elegant way of noticing the presence of metaphysical illusion. This problem is the conjecture that inside a man is a smaller man who controls his mind…and that inside that smaller man is an even smaller man who controls his mind…ad infinitum. Metaphysical structures often claim universality though unconditional identity. A centralized identity is posited “everywhere” to guarantee the applicability of that metaphysical structure.
One application of this structure to ideology follows the work of philosopher Slavoj Žižek. Žižek notes that a structuring element works within ideology to unify the real contextual differences into a single stable metaphysical representation, with that ideology at the center of this representation. From his book Sublime Object of Ideology, he writes
Ideology is not a dreamlike illusion that we build to escape insupportable reality; in its basic dimension it is a fantasy-construction which serves as a support for our ‘reality’ itself: an ‘illusion’ which structures our effective, real social relations and thereby masks some insupportable, real, impossible kernel (conceptualized by Ernest Laclau and Chantal Mouffe as ‘antagonism’: a traumatic social division which cannot be symbolized). The function of ideology is not to offer us a point of escape from our reality but to offer us the social reality itself as an escape from some traumatic, real kernel.
Ideology, for Žižek, thus functions like conspiracy theories, not to tell the truth that some dark figure like Donald Trump, Putin or the Clintons are behind everything — but to obfuscate the very real existential terror that no one is actually in charge, that life is a series of catastrophes for which we have no adequate rational management because we never know what is the true cause, nor do we have assurance in knowing what is salient as further events in the future can shift what is relevant.
In this manner ideology, like the transcendental Ego, and like the conspiracy of conspiracy theories are irrefutable as they are metaphysical illusions, structures of sensemaking that are independent of events. For instance, challenging “facts” of a conspiracy theory really only addresses the symptoms of said conspiracy theory. Like metaphysics, conspiracy theories rely on a key “transcendental object,” which is often, in a self-referential manner, the name of the metaphysical structure/conspiracy. Žižek writes in Less than Nothing:
The transcendental object is external to the endless series of empirical objects: we arrive at it by way of treating this endless series as closed, and positing an empty object outside of it, the very form of an object, that frames the series.
In conspiracy theories such an object is often the conspirator, who is to be “found” behind every catastrophe. For Husserl, the Transcendental Ego works to frame phenomenology, guaranteeing phenomenology as a singular coherency that always “fits” human experience. Such a transcendental object has its roots with Kant when he discusses the suprasensible unity under God. The self-referentiality central to metaphysics regards how each member/instance of the metaphysical series of experiences/phenomena/catastrophes is continually referenced to the transcendental object.
For example, this analysis of Qanon argues that Qanon conspiracy works in reference to a transcendental object, one never given in the conspiracy but which conspirators are often led to have faith in.
We can find this same construction of transcendental ideals in science.
One science example of a transcendental object can be found in The Character of Physical Law. In this book, Physicist Richard Feynman appears to be writing about physical reality but is in fact he is also writing about how his unconditional/transcendental expectations as to what physical reality is like are not met. While Feynman focuses his attention on phenomenon that doesn’t fit an ideal, a more interesting question is to wonder why Feynman sticks with these ideals despite these ideals not being upheld in the physical world. Feynman continually invokes his ideals, but without really criticizing his ideals.
As his book is, it merely lists experimental exceptions to his ideals. His book might have been more interesting if he examined his ideals. He might discover a bias in his reasoning towards certain mathematical or scientific aesthetics.
A more contemporary example of closed transcendental thinking in science and math can be found in Sabine Hossenfelder’s book Lost in Math, which examines how physicists, using only various forms of mathematical consistency, are convinced that their approach to making sense of the universe must be true as they believe the mathematical terms and methods they employ appear consistent with known and unknown phenomena.
Both Hossenfelder and Kant reach similar conclusions: the recognition of the limits of rationality must be given through experience instead of through some consistency/self-referentiality. For Hossenfelder, this means experimentation and skepticism must be part of the scientific process. For Kant’s view of experience, we will now go to the next section.
3 Teleological Blindness/Ideological Good
In Critique of Practical Reason, Kant gives an examination of reasoning that is pragmatically informed. Many other thinkers after Kant have run with this idea of pragmatics, such as William James and Heidegger. Analytic philosophy is also a form of pragmatism, as analytic philosophy attempts to define language and cognition in terms of functions — whereby the success of a venture determines the final form of reasoning, given specific concerns. What is unique about Kant, other than how his books helped start people down the path of pragmatism, is that he warns us against closed teleologies that can appear when reasoning is calibrated to false goods.
For Kant, the falsity can appear because our apperception only focuses on appearances. Kant writes
But as all conceptions of things in themselves must be referred to intuitions, and with us men these can never be other than sensible and hence can never enable us to know objects as things in themselves but only as appearances, and since the unconditioned can never be found in this chain of appearances which consists only of conditioned and conditions; thus from applying this rational ideal of the totality of conditions (in other words of the unconditioned) to appearances, there arises an inevitable illusion, as if these latter where things in themselves (for the absence of a warning critique they are always regarded as such).
Because we can never experience totality, we can confuse what something is with how we experience it. In particular, we mistake our conditional experience for unconditioned/universal experience. That confusion can lead us to adopt as a good, faulty ideas. We err when we forget how we are ignorant (usually we are ignorant about the conditions of our experience/ideas). This ignorance can lead us to think that we have a firm grasp on the final relevancy of a given situation, when in fact we may be emphasizing the wrong features.
In Kant’s terms:
The critique, then, of practical reason generally is bound to prevent the empirically conditioned reason from claiming exclusively to furnish the ground of determination of the will. If it is proved that there is a [practical] reason, its employment is alone immanent; the empirically conditioned use, which claims supremacy, is on the contrary transcendent and expresses itself in demands and precepts which go quite beyond its sphere.
Our choosing a false (limited) good for teleologically calibrating our reason forecloses our ability to understand what is relevant by “go[ing] quite beyond its sphere” of application (although if we have a pragmatic reason to do something, then that alone has value). How Kant addresses our false good is through his introduction of morality as central to calibrating pragmatics. The exact details are not important to this article, but I now will go over the relevant aspects of Kant’s morality.
Kant’s moral philosophy is perhaps dated, often relying on the suprasensible to be able to speak of a supreme Good, summum bonum. However, as we can never know summum bonum, Kant’s actual/practical position is that we must remain open to situations as we are limited in our ability to understand and perceive.
One of Kant’s insights is that, first and foremost, our practical reasoning is a moral philosophy, as our practicality directly influences how we treat other people. As the supreme Good cannot be known, due to our human limitations, Kant introduces the categorical imperative, as a general rule — the value of other people is not determined by their use to us for an agenda. People are not means to an end as God did not create people for us to service our illusions.
Kant argues that if we keep in mind our treatment of people we will not fall into teleological blindness as described above.
Why we create these illicit illusions is what we’ve talked about so far. Why we follow these illusions is due to our satisfaction in fulfilling principles. Whether those principles are faulty is irrelevant to our satisfaction. Kant writes
The moral disposition of the mind is necessarily combined with a consciousness that the will is determined directly by the law. Now the consciousness of a determination of the faculty of desire is always the source of a satisfaction in the resulting action; but this pleasure, this satisfaction in oneself, is not the determining principle of the action; on the contrary, the determination of the will directly by reason is the source of the feeling of pleasure, and this remains a pure practical not sensible determination of the faculty of desire. […] It is a sublime thing in human nature to be determined to actions immediately by a purely rational law; sublime even is the illusion that regards the subjective side of this capacity of intellectual determination as something sensible and the effect of a sensible feeling (for an intellectual feeling would be a contradiction). […] But we must beware lest by falsely extolling this moral determining principle as a spring, making its source lie in particular feelings of pleasure (which are in fact only results), we disfigure the true genuine spring, the law itself, by putting as it were a false foil upon it. Respect, no pleasure or enjoyment of happiness, is something for which it is not possible that reason should have any antecedent feeling as its foundation (for this would always be sensible and pathological); and consciousness of immediate obligation of the will by the law is by no means analogous to the feeling of pleasure, although in relation to the faculty of desire it produces the same effect but from different sources; it is only by this mode of conception, however, that we can attain what we are seeking, namely that actions be done not merely in accordance with duty (as a result of pleasant feelings), but from duty, which must be the true end of all moral cultivation.
One sign that we are following our illusions is that we can get carried away with attempting to fulfill some dictum given under some principle of righteousness. Some recent examples come to mind, such as the 1/6 insurrection, or the expressions that have given rise to the Karen meme.
Yet fulfilling duty despite (dis)pleasure is not a sign that we are free from ideology or metaphysical illusion.
For Kant, dispelling illusion requires testing our judgements against the moral effects it has on people, and/or using a “dialectical” method to consider alternate rational forms in order to see if they might also fit our experience (if multiple forms fit, this could be a sign that our rationality is extended beyond the confines of our experience, as mentioned in the first section on antinomies).
The moral quality of Kant’s philosophy is a direct consequence of the pragmatic application of rationalities in the real world. Thus, we an assess our judgements from the moral consequences of our judgements.
3.1 The Importance of Morality on Reasoning
The root of all illusions are due to mistaking a good we see in the world for an ultimate and unconditional good. This is what ideology promotes: the supposition of a particular form of reasoning in terms of particular good(s). In Heideggerian terms, we can pursue our concerns without attunement to the larger concerns that we are unaware of but ultimately are also concerned with. As Heidegger does not appeal to the concept of summum bonum, or an aesthetic that prized radical openness (although he speaks of various kinds of moods), nor does he humbly acknowledge our limitations in understanding what is happening; we can speculate that historically Heidegger fell into a metaphysical trap, believing in a system (Nazi Germany) that treating people as means to an end (such as with the Holocaust).
The false good applicable here to Heidegger can be seen in Derrida’s book Of Spirit, which shows how Heidegger constructs metaphysical ground for his philosophy mixing the Germanic race with Spirit as a metaphysical (not solely biological) quality.
In some sense this belief in a false good that is unconditional and ultimate is how white fundamentalist Christians came to supporting Donald Trump, a man who by all appearances counter their moral qualities of being truthful, respectful, and pious.
White fundamentalist Christians who felt culturally disenfranchised voted for a man they thought would promote their teleological interests against the interest of caring about other humans. From Alex Morris’s article: False Idol — Why the Christian Right Worships Donald Trump:
In his promises to Christians and his overt nationalism, Trump uniquely equated American salvation with American exceptionalism, asserting that to be great “again,” America had to come down on the right side of those very wedge issues that the religious right felt would be their reckoning. Even more, he affirmed and evangelized the belief that it is not only acceptable but actually advisable to grant cultural dominance to one particular religious group. “The white nationalism of fundamentalism was sleeping there like a latent gene, and it just came roaring back with a vengeance,” says Thornbury. In Trump’s America, “ ‘religious liberty’ is code for protection of white, Western cultural heritage.”
By creating a narrative of an evil “deep state” and casting himself — a powerful white man of immense generational wealth — as a victim in his own right, Trump not only tapped into the religious right’s familiar feeling of persecution, but he also cast himself as its savior, a man of flesh who would fight the holy war on its behalf. “There’s been a real determined effort by the left to try to separate Trump from his evangelical base by shaming them into, ‘How can you support a guy like this?’ ” Jeffress tells me. “Nobody’s confused. People don’t care really about the personality of a warrior; they want him to win the fight.” And Trump’s coming to that fight with a firebrand’s feeling, turning the political stage into an ecstatic experience — a conversion moment of sorts — and the average white evangelical into an acolyte, someone who would attend rallies with the fever of revivals, listen to speeches as if they were sermons, display their faithfulness with MAGA hats, send in money as if tithing, and metaphorically bow down, again and again, at the altar of Donald Trump, who delivers the nation from its transgressions.
Perhaps if the Christian fundamentalists followed Kant’s categorical imperative and treated people as an end unto themselves, they would have reconsidered voting for Trump (instead of considering Trump as pragmatic means to their own desired teleological end). We could have avoided causing collateral human suffering (such as putting immigrants in cages, and the deaths of many due to the Trump administration’s failure to manage the pandemic).
By this criteria of teleological blindness, it should also be apparent that the woke left, the alt-right, critical theorists who believe in an unconditional Enlightenment, but also the Soviet Union (through their version of the end of history is the transcendental object as a utopic-end-of-history “good”) and Maoist China (as the People’s Republic’s nationalistic Chinese identity as unconditional “good”) are all transcendental objects, practices constituting forms of metaphysical illusion.
For reasons of teleological blindness, game theory applications also fit the metaphysical rubric. A pre-determined goal (what Kant calls “good”) will always calibrate attention towards that particular goal, which, in a contextually closed situations, such as chess or some computer simulation of game theory can yield predictable (valuable) results. However, in real life, there can often be background interference from unanticipated/emergent causes. While game theory (and Nash equilibriums) may appear to yield powerful predictive models, the applications of these models in real contexts often prove to be unreliable as such real life situations are subject to multifaceted and unpredictable disruptions.
One way to spot ideology is through the distortion metaphysical consistency requires. Easy examples of distortion also include the People’s Republic of China’s denial of facts, such as with Covid-19, their “tofu construction” in their quest for modernist superiority, organ harvesting, and so on — or the Soviet Union’s subordination of science and military activity to their form of political correctness. Each of these distortions serve to maintain metaphysical consistency for a given and assumed unimpeachable ideology.
At this point, I should emphasize that teleological blindness does not automatically mean that what is salient within the metaphysical bubble isn’t salient outside of it.
Anyone, regardless of whatever bubble they may be in, metaphysical or otherwise, may have relevant and important things to say on a variety of topics. After all, astrology can also yield good advice, and a broken 12-hour clock can be right twice a day.
The problem with metaphysics is that we are prevented by realizing the larger context for which the reasons for relevancy may be different. After all, some advice from an astrology may be good. But given astrology and its self-referential logic, how can we separate good advice from bad advice when given from astrology?
Ultimately what distinguishes knowledge from metaphysical illusion depends on the mechanism by which we know. If the mechanism operates in a way that is relevant, than we will have knowledge. If the mechanism operates in a way that is irrelevant, than we will not have knowledge. How we know which mechanism we should employ is a tricky question, but beyond the scope of this essay. (You could check out meta-rationality, as an exploration towards answering this question of multi-rationalities.) The short answer, though, is that picking a mechanism involves some amount of faith, or at least belief.
By subsuming experience in terms of a specific relevancy, metaphysics forecloses other candidates for relevancy (just as ideology forecloses other political candidates for electability). Metaphysical understandings will always promote relevancy within some pre-given terms that are somehow always uncontestable. The pre-givenness of metaphysical terms will override real and new relevancies as changing situations may dictate new contexts that necessitate new terms.
This circularity in terms of understanding is attractive, because such circularity may also signify that our understanding is accurate — the worst circularity are where the conditions for satisfaction are the same conditions for understanding (this and more is discussed by the philosophy of science, but is beyond the scope of this essay — otherwise this essay will balloon). In part, this is why we must be vigilant against metaphysical illusions, because of this tendency for metaphysics to have firm believers who have no tolerance for not believing.
Essentially, the reason to avoid metaphysics is that metaphysics is a dead-end. Metaphysics can only circulate its sensemaking on its own terms. As our situation shifts, so our awareness and understanding should also shift, and that openness to shifting requires an openness not only to experience but also to thought itself.
4 Moving Beyond Kant for the Metamodern Era
If you’ve followed me so far, congratulations.
I wanted to avoid making this a Kant-only essay but the truth of the matter is, Kant’s explorations/problematizing of rationality were/was never fully addressed by many of his successors, and much of Kant’s insights still seem relevant.
In some sense, we are still only catching up to Kant’s insights. Despite his problematization, and his dated terminology, his explorations laid the groundwork for
- postmodernism through continental philosophy
- analytic philosophy through American pragmatism and propositional logic
Each explored different aspects of Kant’s critiques, although none took up the mantle of his full message. That exploration though, deserves its own essay which I may or may not write. My point is, while Kant inspired the ideals for modern rationality (including logical positivism and formal propositional logic, like set theory) he also pointed to the limitations of reason long before post-structuralism came around to do the same thing.
Part of the power of Kant’s insights is that he is only critiquing rationality through its ideal of consistency — he isn’t providing a specific rationality for us to follow. He is only trying help us dispel our rational and pragmatic illusions.
The pressing problems we encounter in the metamodern era require that we revisit some of Kant’s claims to understand how better to use our thought processes.
This is only the beginning.
For instance, Kant is largely retroactive, looking mostly to explain what is unconditional in reason. For this reason, much of Kant involves his taking apart thought and examining its pieces. As our interest lies in the problems of today, moving forward presents us a problem that is beyond Kant. Instead of taking apart thought and examining it, how can we build and improve our world?
Rational thought is largely synthetic. We have the freedom to choose the basis/axioms by which we formulate our reason and thus, thought can be made rational/consistent in many different ways given different forms.
With the internet we have an explosion in the multivalence of thought — now more than any other time in history, we are exposed to a radical preponderance of consistency as people, given very different exposures to fake and factual information, attempt to make sense of the world they find themselves in.
Without literacy in assessing sensemaking, we can be carried away by the new sensibilities enabled by digital contexts, as we extend our rational assumptions towards absurdity.
Without a critical awareness that sensemaking is more than just creating unconditioned consistencies, we will be easily manipulated by the visions that haunt social media.
Two related articles on this topic are: digital literacy in this lengthy essay, in terms of a recognition of emotional realism (realism with a structure of ideology, privilege and identity) and how we form Knowledge in the Era of Fake News.
Keeping in mind Kant’s insight about pragmatics: all philosophy is ultimately moral in nature, as all sensemaking is lived.
We are only in the early stages of learning how to co-exist in the digital domain. Our confusion today stems from the fact that our tools only highlight where we are confused; we have not yet figured out how to separate relevant features from the irrelevant ones, hence, we will have new social groupings forming around weird rational aberrations. In this sense, with web++, we are finding the new ways humans have always been.
In some sense, these new social groupings are the hive mind’s way of attempting to figure out which forms make sense.
Of course, the initial forms will be modified repetitions of older forms, as the hive mind hasn’t yet absorbed the new forms available in the digital, hyperreal medium.
These new forms will have the potential to have far-reaching consequences, much more so than what we have seen as of yet.
Only after we have matured in our ability to navigate this digital space, and fit digital with analog into the larger world in which we already live, will we begin to truly experience the fruits of what the internet initially promised us with radical interconnectivity: the freedom to learn, the freedom to grow, and the freedom to be.
Recall the quote at the start of this essay:
Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them — Albert Einstein
Realizing that all human thought is constructible, including our ideas of consistency, is the start of stepping out of the irrational adherence to dogmatic ideal of consistency, representationalism, and fixed identity that often signify unacknowledged metaphysical notions.
Metaphysics is a set of mental criteria meant to completely represent the world often in terms of a particular goal. Metaphysics is misleading but only if you mix-up your thoughts/favorite rational forms with what is really going on.
Applying the Einstein quote above, we must be more aware than the categories we create through our thoughts, and realize that our thoughts and our categories are just that: thoughts, not reality.
If our thought-created-categories create problems, then we must discover how our thoughts created those problems and think in new, improved directions instead of doubling down on old familiar ways.
In this sense, our sensemaking should be as philosopher Gilles Deleuze characterized philosophy: creative, affirmative, and joyous.
Spinoza or Nietzsche are philosophers whose critical and destructive powers are without equal, but this power always springs from affirmation, from joy, from a cult of affirmation and joy, from the exigency of life against those who would mutilate and mortify life. For me, that is philosophy itself. ― Gilles Deleuze
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