Have the courage to use your own reason was never intended to be a cruel slogan, but it was meant for simpler times. The complexity of twentieth century institutions combined with an endless deluge of twenty-first century online information had not yet assaulted individual reason. Adam Curtis’ 2016 BBC documentary HyperNormalisation argues that the modern world has become too difficult to understand: so simplified maps are all that can be constructed by politicians and intellectuals—and by the people who use those maps to chart out their own minor roles in excessive 24-hour information cycles.
In the Age of Enlightenment, idealistic philosophers believed that if received truths were subjected to skeptical inquiry, and each individual were free to make up her own mind about her values, the cream would rise to the top. The best ideas would inevitably sway the rational faculties of well-meaning people and strengthen the universals upon which complex societies depend. A better world was possible, so long as everyone was free to think for themselves.
As a result, the concept of thinking for yourself is itself now a received dogma. Whereas, in the Catholic Middle Ages, individuals were not encouraged to read the Bible themselves, but defer to priests for official interpretations, today individuals are expected to read and make sense of every piece of information they encounter and decide for themselves what it all means. Countercultural figures of the 1990s, such as Terence McKenna, encouraged free individuals to “start your own roadshow” and become founts of an individual reason that was not beholden to collective narratives.
Yet, the Enlightenment was not characterized by skepticism alone. Facts from the sciences, coupled with metaphysical and political universals, were a major aspect of the Enlightenment project. Yet, over the centuries, individual thought has rendered all those systems subjective. The moral logic of Kant, for example, and the metaphysics of Hegel, may be of interest to specialized consumers of intellectual ideas. But they provide only two options amid an endless sea of ideas, with no established canon to suggest how those ideas are to be judged and prioritized. Rather, individuals are entrusted with thinking for themselves.
The cruelty implicit in this Enlightenment notion would not be obvious until centuries later. Today, in the era of QAnon, Russian electoral interference, Covid-19 conspiracy theories and Donald Trump, it is the staunch supporters of liberalism, such as intellectuals and the press, who are calling for online censorship to protect people against themselves. Implicit in calls to remove alt-right or conspiratorial content from the internet is an admission that an individual’s reason cannot be trusted to sort through free information. The act of sorting itself is more important in defining desired social outcomes. Only certain types of information should be made available, so the fashionable argument goes.
Defenders of free speech often insist that in a free and open marketplace of ideas, bad ideas will be exposed as morally or logically inconsistent. Yet, world politics continues to trend in a direction defined by right-wing authoritarian reaction and increasingly frustrated and radical left-wing mobs. The ideas that are gaining the most traction often involve the rejection of accepted science, the belief that violence is justified in the service of noble political aims, and, in America, the idea that at least half one’s fellow citizens are outright domestic terrorists (Antifa) or passively support white nationalist terrorists.
The writers of the 2001 videogame Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, presaged the absurd intellectual environment of the world wide web: “The untested truths spun by different interests continue to churn and accumulate … No one is invalidated, but nobody is right. Not even natural selection can take place here. The world is being engulfed in ‘truth.’ And this is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper.”
The demand that individuals who work at full time jobs also take on the burden of determining absolute truth by themselves has resulted in epistemological anarchy. If the amount of information available cannot be sorted through each day in search of hard-fought truths, over time the effect of that surplus erodes both reason and personality. Instead of trying to place every single 24-hour carnival news event into context in their all-seeing intellectual palaces, individuals simply give up, and acknowledge that the truth ultimately cannot be known. Instead, things can merely be true for me or in my experience.
In a free and individualistic culture, people cannot choose what is factually true, but they are left to interpret those facts according to their own value systems. The main political idea of the Enlightenment, and of classical liberalism more broadly, is that society should not force conclusions onto individuals. Rather than encouraging citizens to be polyamorous or monogamous, Catholic or Muslim, liberal or conservative, each person should be free to decide which identities and values matter to her, and which do not.
And yet, there is no way to verify any of these conclusions. Society exists in a state of relativism, in which no single faction or value system stands out as clearly true. The result is chronic political polarization and the dissolution of a unified society over time. A truly free society encourages each of its members to arrive at her own conclusions, but it has little machinery to reconcile those conclusions with those of others. Instead, people become atomized: either into tribes or on their own. Some go to church, some don’t. Some go to a protest, some don’t. Some own guns, some don’t. Society inevitably fragments to a point at which there are only individuals. Margaret Thatcher’s infamous claim that “There is no such thing as society” then becomes startlingly accurate.
There is a running joke in philosophy that Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz was the last man alive who knew everything. After Leibniz, the world became so complex that it was no longer possible to construct an exhaustive and accurate model of the world in a single mind. Despite that, we still tell ourselves that we must think for ourselves and trust in the power of our reason. Indeed, we have no other choice. But the end result is that each person arrives at a different value system, irreconcilable with all the others. As David Hume discovered, nobody can derive an ought from an is. Free individuals will never be able to agree on an ultimate truth or value system, because such a universal does not exist. We are left, then, with postmodern cultures in which we all get to decide what is true and the concept of organized society begins to vanish.