Well, for about a hundred years the image which has represented and characterised civilisation has been Edvard Munch’s Scream. Probably the late Queen could not have offered a better counter-image to the Norwegian artist’s iconic painting, but the question asks itself: <<Why did The Scream epitomise an undertow of deep despair which has, if anything, increased over the years?>>.
Bill Clinton famously explained his success in his first presidential campaign as being down to his focus on <<The economy, stupid!>>. This was at a time when a lot of people were forgetting the central role which economic felicity plays in elections. Today we are in danger of forgetting the central part which intellectual leadership and gut positivity plays in social morale. In every human grouping, family, extended family, or association, those who have shown the greatest authentic (grounded) foresight almost ineffably set the tone. If they are down in the mouth, the group to which they belong tends to be down in the mouth. They are —across society— the movers and motivators who, in good times, determine the future. In bad times their influence descends into doubt and despair. It is a home truth that all human meaning stems from the associations which colour our thoughts as we move forward into the unknown future.
Now the motif of these blogs is that around 1900 an intellectual crisis of terrifying difficulty emerged. It centred round the most basic concepts of physics and the most basic concepts of mathematics. It raised the disconcerting question whether even the best human brains were up to the task of understanding the universe around us. For twenty years no progress at all was made in clearing the maths impasse, a shameful statistic. Einstein propounded a radical theory about the behaviour of light, but it involved assuming that the future was already “there”, a direct denial of the fundamental freedom which makes life worth living. There was also no empirical evidence to support it. Then in 1919 a famous observation suddenly showed that light did bend. Opinion in physics was bowled over… the unthinkable had happened, Newton’s account of light and mechanics had been shown to be wrong! (A consensus of continental physicists was pleased: they were quite fed up with UK exceptionalism which had disappeared but was still being claimed.)
This event didn’t mean that abandoning the vital freedoms which necessarily underly civilised society was OK, but it was treated as if it did. This unacceptable implication was simply put out of mind. In maths the hierarchy decided to act as if the problem had been solved… by banning it. So, by 1920 two “patchwork solutions” —of a kind— had been cobbled together. (They were called the ‘Theory of Relativity’ and ‘Zermelo-Fraenkel Set Theory’.) But most people were aware at a subliminal level —if not more consciously— that these weren’t providing anything remotely like real, palpable, self-evident answers to the dauntingly formidable questions which had surfaced. They were at best semi-plausible fudges. You had to swallow a lot of reservations to believe in them. Munch pained The Scream. Heidegger observed that the ‘Enlightenment Project’ had ended. They bravely said it as it was… and as the Official Consensus was totally unprepared to admit.
So institutional authority had stepped-in to “sew-up” these questions in a provisional fashion. But the ‘provisionality’ qualification was soon forgotten. Instead they quickly became the Official Story, and this Official Story became a self-justifying professional rhetoric, which was never going to be able to transmute into a condition where it could disown its own crass superficiality. As time passed the fudges introduced as “patchworks” came to acquire ‘quasi-permanence’ and to look more and more like deeply embedded untouchable axioms. No young thinker who was conscious of her or his fledgling professional status would dare to question this de facto consensus at such a deeply internalised level. So the fudges of the 1920s gradually became an inpregnable bastion of received illusion. A fundamental departure from this position was never going to arise by a series of natural steps out of the logic of the institutional authority which prevailed. What had started as fudges became definitively closed doors.
Inevitably this couldn’t be portrayed as anything but a lengthy stalled development, and because new fundamental insights stubbornly refused to appear, a mood of profound common doubt and distrust of The Academy and its Elites began to build. It has now grown and grown… until it has become a kind of supressed rebellion led by the downtrodden intellectually active subset in society.
Fortunately the original, rarely mentioned, intellectual whirlpool which threatened for more than a century to lead us all towards a chaotic and painful extinction, has recently, actually been drained, and new fundamental insights have been found. They can, at last, begin to gain some initial attention in today’s eerie post-modern vacuum. The author of these blogs —who found both these neglected insights— is now approaching his 93rd birthday, having spent an exceptionally long career in the shadows.
A proper logical, rational framework for recognising the inherently relativistic anthropic nature of fundamental physics has emerged: anti-mathematics. It is based on the same method of reification of neutral tally combinations as mathematics, but it serves to model transient reality rather than the humanly regimented (supposedly timeless) ‘reality’ of mathematics.
A proper framework for recognising the capacity of ordinary language to lead to irresolvable contradictions has also been found: in the concept of dynamic contradiction.
So the angst behind The Scream and Heidegger’s pronouncement need no longer send shivers down our spines. A chilling sense of the innate incapacity of human reasoning to solve these problems has been categorically rejected.
A great future awaits —in principle— now that the dark clouds of intellectual doubt and existential despair are beginning —very, very slowly— to recede. [But the outcome will only be ‘great’ if we hold our nerve sufficiently to get through the turbulence which will inevitably flow from the required grand revolution in epistemology.]
CHRISTOPHER ORMELL 1st October 2022