Faith and Disaster

A Kantian reflection on the disconnect between the world of facts and our actions

By Scott Ferguson|November 5, 2020

“Disaster” is a better term for describing present facts than “crisis.” “Crisis” means a turning point, a moment of decision. But present political, environmental, economic, epidemiological (etc.) facts, I think, don’t have the feel of a crisis in that sense; they almost don’t have a feel, they feel like non-feeling. Our lives continue on with a kind of pragmatic inertia even as we swing wildly between demanding action and feeling that there is nothing to do. The COVID-19 pandemic and the failures that have accompanied it could constitute a crisis, a moment to decide, if only we understood our choices. Even if the term “disaster” has unfashionable roots in astrology, it strikes me as more proper to say that we find ourselves under “bad stars,” that everything happening is both senseless and beyond comprehension while being quite predictable at the same time.

It is that intersection of senselessness and utter predictability that makes our situation difficult to describe. To remain with COVID-19 (as only one case), one can find footage of Anthony Fauci testifying about the danger of an “influenza-like respiratory virus” “with a degree of morbidity” as recently as 2018. Others besides were pointing to the inevitability of such a virus for decades, and two other novel coronaviruses nearly created pandemics of their own. If any event was ever foreseen in its broad strokes it was this pandemic – and still we neglected it. While present leadership has been extraordinarily neglectful, still they came late to acting as if disaster were not looming: work on a coronavirus-type vaccine was halted by 2016 because SARS and other coronavirus diseases no longer played into policy practice.

There is thus something phenomenologically remarkable about these disasters and how we face them, in that we can be (so to speak) looking right at them and still see nothing. A certain neglect of what is obviously happening is, I think, a crucial element of our common experience, indeed of the phenomenality of disaster. Collectively we are not COVID-deniers, yet even the most conscientious of us will continually lapse into long moments where we go about our lives as if there were no pandemic. When we do treat it as present, still we often cannot do so except as if it were a tragic but basically temporary obstacle to the “normal” business soon to resume. Even when we are most mindful of the sober facts in our explicit claims, we can still fall into the same habits in our practice. It is phenomenally distinctive to the disaster as such that we know a great deal about it within the world of facts while neglecting it within the world in which we live and act.

Kant once suggested a way to navigate breaks between the life-world of practical projects and the theoretical world of facts. The linchpin of Kant’s mature thought is “faith” (Glaube), the notion that willing anything demands that we presuppose conditions which make our ends attainable. Through what he calls rational faith, we practically “rule in” items which cannot be known or experienced – God, most famously – but which render attainable the final ends of practical reason. Whatever our explicit theory, the thought goes, we act as if those metaphysical conditions held.

What Kant does not explore in much detail is another possible mode of faith: just as we practically presuppose the presence of conditions which make our ends realizable, we practically presuppose the absence of conditions which render them impossible. We might do this even when we can factually see these conditions. We would have no need to rule out limited obstacles to our projects (since we are in some position to overcome them), only obstacles which would be totally ruinous to our ends – ruinous to the mere possibility of our projects (our entire way of life). It is in that case where reason would have need for practical faith in the nonbeing of even what we know is there.

I think this is precisely what we experience in our present situation. What constitutes the phenomenality of these disasters is not only the harm they cause, but that they are erased from our life-world by the presuppositions of our conduct. The disaster is something which can radically wreck all of our projects and thereby terminate our way of life as it has been, and it is exactly because of this that we are strangely neglectful of it. The more we know, the more our practical reaction spins between a carrying-on (as if nothing were happening) and a demand to fix things in short order (as if the problem were minor). We take it as factually evident and practically impossible, within the world even as our practice rules it out.

Kant does not speak about the phenomenality of the “counterpurposive” in terms of disaster as I do, but he did write a late essay on the “zweckwidrig,” on phenomena utterly counter to the final ends of reason.[1] There he recognizes that such phenomena make it incomprehensible how the world that is could ever be reconciled with our ends. The price of any theodicy – any such reconciliation – is either gross speculation or moral abomination. And if we refuse that price (which we should), then in the face of incomprehensibility and ontological breakdown, our endeavors and even our grasp of the given world are left only with “sincerity of heart” and “negative wisdom.” What remains for us is truthfulness: the work of self-consciousness concerning what we really have faith in, what we are really doing, who we really are. Such self-cognition concerning the legitimacy and even the possibility of our projects is, Kant says elsewhere, the most difficult of reason’s tasks.

I think many of our difficulties lie within a similar mismatch between the facts of the world and the ends of our way of life. To see the disasters as disasters is, first of all, to recognize their practical incomprehensibility, and for that purpose a truthful self-consciousness is indeed called for. I don’t know whether “a zeal for what is true,” as William Schweiker put it, is required. I would rather say that, zeal aside, in the face of so many disasters we have no alternative to self-critique, i.e. critique of ourselves and our common way of life. The alternative is to remain within an impossibility which we cannot even see.

I suspect that we will find in our critique still more disasters that have been quietly ongoing for a long time at the edges of our way of life, without our picking up on them. We may thereby discover that this way of life is, and has been, impossible, the facts and the ends forever cut off from one another. We may learn that we have relied upon fantasies and gross injustices in order to maintain its feasibility, or perhaps even that our “final ends” are not good ones. The hope for “going back to normal” may turn out to rely on either gross speculation or moral abomination. The disasters we face, obvious and subtle, are doing grievous harm well beyond how we react or don’t react to them. If they are invisible precisely because they are so ruinous to our ends, then that alone is good reason to see if we can find better ends: a way of life that is not impossible.

[1]  “On the Failure of All Philosophical Trials in Theodicy,” AK 8:253-71. Trans. George diGiovanni, in The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant: Religion and Rational Theology (Cambridge, 1996): 19-37.

Image: Depiction of the Great Lisbon Earthquake, which occurred November 1, 1755 (Unknown artist, 1883).

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Scott Ferguson

Scott Ferguson

Author, Scott Ferguson (PhD’20), is a recent graduate in Philosophy of Religion. His research focuses on Kant and the practical presuppositions of rational theology.