The best of Fred Hutchison
The fatal mistake of Modernism
The great fallacy about how man knows
Fred Hutchison, RenewAmerica analyst
May 2, 2013

Originally published July 22, 2006

Every civilization has a theory about what man knows and how he knows it. The theory of a particular civilization will influence every area of human thought and action. Such fields as science, politics, economics, sociology, psychology, education, religion, and popular morality will be directly affected. Fields like art, music, poetry, and literature will be deeply, although indirectly, influenced, as well.

Theories about how man knows are found in a branch of metaphysics that philosophers call epistemology. Epistemology is a Greek compound word meaning the study of knowledge.

The intellectual leaders of the West took a sharp turn in the wrong direction in epistemology during the period 1750-1800, as a result of disillusionment with rationalism without understanding the fallacies of the rationalist philosophers. Empirical philosophy was offered as a substitute for rationalism, which had equally serious fallacies.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) harmonized the two kinds of philosophy and temporarily curbed some of the fallacies. However, partly due Kant's critique of metaphysics, the study of epistemology fell out of favor, and men lost their ability to detect epistemological errors. The dual errors of rationalism and empiricism have been steadily increasing in intensity since 1800.

After 1800, the general culture began to show the effects of this change in thought. The unraveling of Western culture in the twentieth century is in no small measure the cumulative effect of two centuries of bad epistemology.

Let us consider natural epistemology, or how every man thinks if they have not been corrupted with false epistemology, so that we can better understand the errors of Modernism.

Natural epistemology

When men are not deceived by false philosophies, they begin their reasoning with presuppositions, or things assumed. Contrary to Modernist claims, it is impossible to think logically without presuppositions that provide a starting point for thought.

Where do men get their presuppositions? Fancy thinkers use the first principles of their philosophy or theology to obtain presuppositions. Ordinary folks get first principles from their worldview that imparts a general impression of the nature of man and the world, and a sense of the rightness and wrongness of various ideas.

First principles are received by faith, or accepted as self-evident truths or things that are unquestionable or "given." When a man tells you that a particular idea is unthinkable, you can be sure that the idea contradicts his first principles. If he tells you that an idea is unquestionable, it is probably a first principle or closely aligned with a first principle. Contrary to the denials of the Modernists, every rational man on earth regards some ideas as unthinkable and other ideas as unquestionable – and this is true of the Modernists themselves.

One way or another, man accepts first principles by faith. Secular philosophers use an intellectual faith in self-evident truths rather than a religious faith in a higher authority. Modernist skeptics reject the idea of first principles and faith, yet unconsciously or secretly have faith in their own first principles. They are compelled to do this because rational thought cannot leap out of a vacuum. All rational thinking is essentially faith-based.

The Modernist rejection of the idea of faith-based first principles leads to the artificial separation of faith and knowledge. This separation can be fatal to both faith and knowledge, because the two are designed to function in tandem.

Man must reason in a hierarchical top-down manner because that is how God designed the human mind to operate. At the top of the hierarchy is a higher authority for truth. One begins with faith in that authority. Those who get their first principles from their worldview sometimes do not know what authority stands behind their worldview. Yet, when their first principles are profaned, they say "nothing is sacred anymore." A worldview always hints at a sense of the transcendent and the sacred. Modernists laugh at this concept, yet are outraged when their own worldview is not given the respect to which a sacred thing is entitled.

Truth is a "top-down" hierarchy that descends in six stages: 1) faith in a higher authority or in a worldview, 2) first principles, 3) presuppositions, 4) ideas, 5) chains of logic, and 6) systems of thought, such as philosophies, ideologies, or scientific models.

You can develop systems of thought (level 6) using presuppositions (level 3). However, you cannot prove a presupposition (level 3) by using systems of thought (level 6). In short, you can reason top down, but you cannot reason bottom up.

Mathematical proof of the top-down imperative

Kurt Godel (1906-1978), a twentieth century mathematical genius, used mathematics to prove that man must think in a top-down way. Godel said that every logical system, including mathematical and scientific models, is dependent on premises that it cannot prove and that cannot be demonstrated within the system. The presuppositions that are indispensable to the system lie outside the system. The man who creates a system must use presuppositions to guide him – but he cannot use the system to prove the presuppositions.

According to Godel's theorem, there is no such thing as a "closed system," which is a system cut off from its foundational presuppositions. Unfortunately, the natural sciences and social sciences are loaded with what they claim to be closed systems. According to Godel, the idea of a closed system is not logically viable. Therefore, the presumption that a system is closed can lead to fallacies and myths. Ostensible closed systems that claim to contain and define human nature are deterministic and thereby reduce faith, reason, and free will to illusions. Many modernists accept this nonsense because they believe in the myth of closed systems. But man does indeed have faith, reason, and free will, because his nature is an open system.

Godel said that every logical system made by man involves uncertainty, because they are constructed from uncertain human assumptions that are outside the system. Closed systems create the illusion of certainty because they are logically consistent in their internal structure. However, closed systems are perpetually in crisis because man-made models must of necessity be uncertain, according to Godel, and uncertainty is a threat to the implied certitude of closed systems.

The myth of the closed system originated with seventeenth century rationalists. The myth of bottom-up reasoning began with seventeenth century empiricists.

The bottom-up myth

Some scientists assume their model spontaneously leaped out of a neutral collection of facts, as if by some feat of magic. In reality, a scientist must seek, sort, and select facts according to a preconceived agenda and clothe the facts in context and meaning in order to interpret the facts. His hypotheses are inferences based on such interpretations. He must use structured concepts to synthesize his hypotheses into a model. He is guided every step of the way by a priori ideas. The system does not guide him as to how to build it. He brings with him the design that guides him as he builds his model.

Scientists unconsciously or secretly reason top-down to create their models, but publicly claim to have reasoned from the bottom up. They must follow this myth of Modernism because almost every science teacher indoctrinates his class with the bottom-up myth. The standard line that a student is told many times is that "scientists follow the facts to see where they lead." No scientist has ever done that, for it is impossible. Scientists must of necessity have a top-down, systematic agenda in seeking, interpreting, and using the facts. Purely neutral facts are of no use, for they are without meaning.

Scientists often argue that their model has been tested with empirical facts – and therefore the model is the product of a bottom-up approach. The fallacy of this argument is obvious. They test the model with facts after they create the model. A model is tested with empirical evidence coming up from below, but a model must be created in a top-down manner. A scientist might revise a model if the facts conflicted with it; however, he must revise the model with top-down thinking.

Confusion in Einstein's closed system

When I recently tried to explain limitations in Einstein's model of General Relativity to a physicist at MIT, he could not understand what I was talking about, even though he had a high IQ. After years of working within the model, he could not understand my explanations about how his ideas and mathematical formulas contradict the assumptions Einstein used when he formulated the model.

When I stepped inside the model with the scientist, he was the master and I was the student. When I stepped outside the model and discussed it with him from the outside looking in, his mind seemed to shut down. He became incapable of understanding or responding coherently to simple propositions. His reasoning powers were crippled by living in the hermetically sealed womb of Einstein's model. One injures his reasoning powers when he trains himself to think using impossible ideas such as the idea of a closed system.

I told the scientist that he did not understand Einstein's system because his mind was trapped in the system. No one can understand a system except from a perspective outside the system.

A man the size of a dust mite who lives on a gear in a clock will never understand the elaborate system of the clockworks, and will not even understand what a clock is used for. If the mite went outside the clock and looked at the face of the clock, he would have a revolution in his understanding about what the clock might be used for and what the works inside the clock are all about. My friend from MIT is like a dust mite in the clock who has had no such epiphany.

The sudden intellectual deflation of the MIT physicist when confronted with Einstein's presuppositions situated outside the model was a remarkable vindication of Godel's theorem. Godel said, in effect, that the model is impotent to aid in the comprehension, assessment, or confirmation of the presuppositions of the model builder. The deflation of the MIT physicist revealed this impotence.

Einstein trapped in his own system

In his youth, Einstein absorbed the pantheistic rationalism of philosopher Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677). Some of the presuppositions that he built into his model of General Relativity came from Spinoza. That is why Einstein's model assumes that the cosmos is a closed system in which everything – matter, energy, time, and position – are interlocked in an orderly way – and that nothing exists outside the system. His idea of a closed system indicates that Einstein hearkened to Spinoza, an eccentric pantheist, instead of to his friend Godel.

Einstein wasted the second half of his career trying to develop a "unified field theory" that would unite the physics governing the solar system with the physics governing atoms into one model – all the while confirming his theory of General Relativity. He was following the old rationalist dream of drawing a line around everything that exists, and defining everything within that circle in a determinist and reductionist manner. The work of countless careers has been wasted pursuing this vain dream.

In Einstein's case, thirty years of intense, theoretical blackboard mathematics went down the drain. It was a slow, sad fading of a once great mind into the black hole of systems model reductionism. He became the incredible shrinking man, trapped in his own system. The young Einstein had a powerhouse intellect, but the aging Einstein, trapped in his model, was like a ghost.

The myth of dark matter

Scientists are still trying to prop up Einstein's failing system with jerry-built fixes, such as the myth of "dark matter." Because visible galaxies do not contain enough mass to supply the gravitational effects to keep them from flying apart, scientists assume that the missing mass must be supplied by halos of dark matter surrounding galaxies.

There is no empirical evidence to support the existence of dark matter. The dark matter phantom is pursued from a desire to save the model and make the mathematics work. Instead of revisiting Einstein's presuppositions or throwing out his model as unworkable, scientists have invented an imaginary universe to fit the model. The model has become more real to them than the cosmos, because they have spent years living within the model. In so doing, they have become cut off from reality and use magical thinking to create an imaginary universe, complete with dark matter. String theory is even more magical, because it creates a multitude of imaginary universes.

If living in a closed system is deceptive, what is the nature of a life that is not trapped in a system? It is a life founded on faith and reason, with faith preceding reason.

Faith and reason

"By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God so that what was seen was not made out of things that are visible" (Hebrews 11:3).

This verse tells us that faith precedes our understanding of the created world. The design (or model) of the world began in the mind of God, a truth that we know by faith. God created the world according to His design. The design preceded the creation. The creation was a top-down or hierarchical process. Human understanding of the creation must also be a top-down process, as we trace the works of God.

Hebrews 11:3 begins, "By faith we understand...." First faith, then understanding. This progression is in perfect accord with Godel's theorem. Our faith in something outside the system is the key to understanding the system – as Godel proved with mathematics.

God, who created the world, subsists outside of the world. The system designer is outside the system. Some people know by faith that the invisible God is the Creator. Others have become ingrained creatures of the visible world and live material, sensual, bottom-up lives and imagine the world to be a closed system with God left out. This leads them to magical thinking and deception. In contrast, people of faith live according to reality and are capable of founding civilizations.

Let us consider how the founders of European civilization learned to think rationally.

"I must believe in order that I may understand"

The above words were spoken by Saint Anselm (1033-1109) – theologian, scholarly abbot, and Archbishop of Canterbury. Anselm was the founding father of European culture partly because he was intellectually influential at the very time that European civilization was emerging from the Dark Ages. Anselm's incomparable greatness as a theologian of Christian orthodoxy flowed from his powerful top-down approach to seeking truth.

The European era of reason began with the intellectual ferment at the Monastery of Bec in Normandy where Anselm became the Abbott in 1063. How much of the intellectual excitement was attributable to Anselm and how much to Lanfranc, his great predecessor and mentor, is not clear.

Anselm's disciples founded the University of Paris and developed scholasticism, the prevailing mode of philosophy and theology during the High Middle Ages. One might assign the year 1100 to be the start of the era of reason in Europe, because by then the intellectual culture of Anselm's monastery had been transplanted to Paris and been established in an institution that was quickly gaining international prestige and historical traction.

Although the High Middle Ages were a physically harsh time to live, they were heaven for men who loved reason and truth above all things. The greatest of these men was St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the greatest scholastic philosopher of them all, and a theologian who was worthy of comparison to Saint Anselm and Saint Augustine. He was essentially a top-down thinker, but avoided certain excesses that vexed the early days of scholastic debate. Aquinas brought a balance to Western thought that was highly beneficial to Western culture over the centuries.

Top-down thinking in the search for truth was central to the highly influential scholastic movement. Partly as a result of scholasticism, the cultivation of reason was a major force in European culture for seven and a half centuries. During those centuries, Europe was transformed from a wretched barbarian backwater of petty warlords into the premier civilization and culture of the world. The triumph of reason was in no small measure responsible for the triumph of the West.

Nominalism and Luther

Historian Christopher Dawson believed that the West made its fateful turn towards bottom-up thinking with the nominalist philosopher William of Occam in the fourteenth century. I happen to disagree with Dawson on this point. Occam's theory was rejected by the church, and Aquinas' writings were increasingly admired and venerated by the theologians of Rome.

Occam separated faith from knowledge. He denied the existence of universal truth and rejected top-down thinking. He thought that universals were only names for ideas in the human mind. His philosophy was called "nominalism" from the naming of universals.

Martin Luther did not like scholasticism, and he dappled in Occam's ideas as a university student and professor. However, Luther's theological revolution actually strengthened the top-down approach, in the ultimate sense, even though he unintentionally opened the door to a greater intellectual individualism.

Instead of starting with a consensus of authorities and reasoning downward as Aquinas did, Luther began from the scriptures as words proceeding from the mouth of God. Whereas Aquinas included scripture texts along with the authorities he used, Luther raised the words of Christ and His chosen Apostles to the highest level of authority concerning the Truth. After all, Luther reasoned, Jesus said, "I am the truth." Christ, as God manifested in the flesh, and as the Word that created the world, has an authority to whom all other authorities must bow, Luther believed – revitalizing true top-down reasoning as a result.

Baroque culture

A top-down world of reason and spirituality, inspired by the views of Aquinas and Luther, prevailed in Europe during the period 1600-1750, which I like to define as "Baroque Civilization." Although the word "baroque" comes from architecture, the baroque style of music, running from Monteverdi to Bach, perfectly fits the 1600-1750 time-frame. The music was in perfect accord with the spirit of the age.

Human culture is rooted in the mind and the spirit, qualities that were unusually powerful during Baroque Civilization. It was the age of absolutism, involving the divine right of kings, partly due to the prevailing hierarchical view of the world. Because of, or in spite of, the rise of the monarchy, it was also the golden age of high culture.

Those areas of culture in which human skill is vital were developed to an extraordinary degree of technical virtuosity at this time. The virtuosity was most impressive in music, sculpture, architecture, and fine craftsmanship. Bernini (1598-1680) was arguably the most skillful sculptor who ever lived, as well as a great architect.

The Baroque composers reflected a top-down world in their musical compositions. They thought that God created the world using heavenly harmonies, and they therefore sought to discover and express these harmonies in their music. Unlike the philosophers, their intellects and spiritual senses were in balance, like the fine balances of a baroque clock or a Stradivarius violin. The beautiful melodies in Baroque music emerged from the harmonies and were wrapped in the harmonies like ripe grapes contained in a vine. As for technical virtuosity, Bach's compositions are comparable to Bernini's sculpture as high watermarks in the history of human skill.

Interestingly, the great compositions in Baroque music had mostly come to an end by 1750, the approximate time when rationalism ceased to be the prevailing mode of thought in Europe. Handel's Messiah, the best loved of the great Baroque works, was published in 1741. Vivaldi died in 1741, and Bach died in 1750, bringing the brilliant era of heavenly harmony to an end. These voices were silenced just as Europe began to take its fateful wrong turn away from faith and reason.

The Age of Reason

Contrary to a widespread notion that the seventeenth century was "The Age of Reason," a case can be made that the heyday of reason was the twelfth and thirteenth century. An astonishingly long list of world-class philosophers emerged in Europe during those two centuries, most of whom were students or teachers at the University of Paris at some time in their lives.

In contrast, the memorable rationalists of the seventeenth century were much fewer in number, and their famous works were blemished with logical fallacies and tainted by inflated presumptions and eccentric self-absorption. Some of them were not really top-down thinkers, in spite of their heady intellectualism. Worst of all, they all tried to create closed systems.

Seventeenth-century rationalism was not "The Age of Reason." It was the eccentric, decadent twilight of a long age of rationality that began in 1100.

Fallacies of the rationalists and the empiricists

The four greatest rationalist philosophers – Rene Descartes, Benedict Spinoza, Gottfried Leibniz, and Christian Wolff – were so different from one another (with the exception of Leibniz and Wolff), it is misleading to place them in the same category.

All had built-in fallacies in their systems, but the fallacies were different for each system.

What the four men had in common was the Modernist dream of drawing a circle around everything that exists and creating a comprehensive philosophy to explain everything. Therefore, the seeds of Modernism were sown by these rationalist philosophers. However, the urge to draw a circle around everything did not become a widespread passion of Western thinkers until the nineteenth century. Paradoxically, the epistemological crisis of 1750 began as a disillusionment with the comprehensive systems of the rationalists.

Frances Bacon and John Locke, the pioneers of empirical philosophy, invented the bottom-up approach to knowledge as one of the key ideas of Modernism. Modernist epistemology has two legs: comprehensive closed systems – pioneered by Baroque rationalists; and the bottom-up approach – pioneered by Baroque empiricists. Immanuel Kant subsequently harmonized these two approaches.

Let us limit our review to Bacon and Descartes, because their ideas are the most illustrative of the crisis of Western epistemology.

Francis Bacon and the bottom-up approach

Francis Bacon (1561-1623) invented the bottom-up approach to science. He originated the idea of an ascending staircase of inductive ideas beginning with facts, proceeding to ideas that are gradually more general as one ascends the staircase, and finally reaching general principles at the top.

The image of rising up a staircase from facts to generalities stuck like glue in the wayward imagination of Modernists and scientists. Thus, Bacon became the father of the epistemology of Modernism. Bacon taught the West the importance of empirical observation and factual verification that has borne many good fruits. But he created the myth of bottom-up reasoning that has caused great damage.

Bacon claimed that his approach to knowledge is the only way man can have certainty. He said that his method should replace all other methods of thought – a claim of epistemological imperialism. Many modern scientists still think that their kind of knowledge is the only kind that counts. Amazingly, the bottom-up approach, which is one of the most uncertain methods of knowledge, is the most arrogant in its claims.

Paradoxically, Bacon was deeply skeptical about human knowledge, as many of the empirical philosophers would be. He had contempt for the intellectual culture of the European past. His skepticism was equal to that of David Hume (1711-1776), an empiricist who is famous for his skepticism about what we can know.

The bottom-up approach to knowledge is logically linked both to skepticism and renunciation of one's cultural tradition. Those who use the bottom-up approach believe in the visible facts of this moment in time. They are impatient with hierarchies, tradition, history, and authorities. Faith is folly to the bottom-up skeptic. Reason seems overblown and pretentious in its claims to them.

Bacon was well aware that scientists using his method would be tempted to fly up to sweeping generalities instead of systematically trudging up the staircase of inductive reasoning. He said that scientists should put weights on their feet so that they would climb the staircase of induction in a plodding, purposeful, logical way. They should not put wings on their feet, lest they fly up to sweeping generalities. The disobedient sons of Bacon in the modern science establishment have wings on their feet and lumps on their head from flying into the ceiling with their sweeping generalities.

Unfortunately, even if one tries to trudge slowly and carefully up the stairway of induction, there is no way to keep selective interpretations away from the facts, presumptive agendas away from the steps of induction, and the bias of human goals away from the general principles at the top of the stairway. Presuppositions invade every stage of the journey – while the scientist fools himself that he is following the facts to see where they might lead. The concealment of secret agendas in the bottom-up method makes it one of the most uncertain of all the paths for seeking truth.

Rene Descartes and individualistic reason

Descartes was highly skeptical about knowledge claims as was Bacon, but unlike Bacon, Descartes trusted in reason and distrusted empiricism. Like all rationalists, Descartes had to start with presuppositions. However, he distrusted scholastic philosophers and refused to accept their authorities to establish first principles and presuppositions. He did not trust his worldview to provide first principles, because he regarded it as tainted with illusions of the popular culture.

Descartes was a mathematician, and mathematicians start with self-evident truths when they build theorems. Self-evident truths cannot be proved, but also cannot be disproved or doubted once they are understood. Descartes searched his mind to find a self-evident truth that he could not doubt.

Descartes discovered that he could not doubt that he was thinking. Cogito ergo sum, or "I think, therefore I am," was the self-evident truth that would be the first principle of his philosophy. Unfortunately, his cogito theorem is a fallacy.

What is wrong with cogito ergo sum? Well, who is the "I" who was thinking? Who is the "I" who was watching the thinking? Who is the "I' who was consciously aware of that moment of thinking and watching? Who is the "I" who indubitably exists? Are all these "I's" combined in the mind? Evidently, Descartes thought so. But this is an illusion of closed system thinking.

Thinking can occur without awareness of the thinking. The watcher of thought is an entity outside the system of the mind that thinks. The faculty of thought is one kind of operation, the faculty of observation is a second kind of operation, and the faculty of consciousness is a third. Can the mind perform three qualitatively different functions simultaneously? No. Can the mind detach itself from itself and watch itself think? No. Can there be three identities that call themselves "I," which subsist in the mind and actually exist? No. Both the one that watches and the one who is conscious of watching is an entity outside the mind.

My hypothesis, based upon the theology of Watchman Nee, is that the mind is thinking and the human incorporeal spirit is watching the thinking. The spirit is aware that it is watching. The human spirit is outside the system of the mind. According to Nee, the spirit is the one who "knows" – a proposition that implies consciousness. The "I' is also the spirit. The person subsisting in the spirit survives the decay of the mind and the death of the body.

Descartes should have said, "I, a spirit being, have a mind that thinks. But that is no proof of my existence. As a spirit being, I subsist outside of the system of my mind. Therefore, conclusions about my mind can say nothing about my existence within my spirit. However, watching my mind from the outside, I can learn much about my mind." Clearly, cogito ergo sum is a closed system fallacy.

Since faith begins in the spirit, and the spirit is outside of the system of thought, then faith must precede reason if one is to reason free of fallacies – and conform to Godel's theorem.

End of part one

Readers, we have only gone halfway through the journey of Western epistemology. Watch for part two in my next analysis and participate in the second half of the journey. Find out how the myth of closed systems and bottom-up thinking has hollowed out the Western mind and devastated Western culture. Also find out how the separation of faith and knowledge has consigned millions of sincere Christians to perpetual spiritual infancy.

A message from Stephen Stone, President, RenewAmerica

I first became acquainted with Fred Hutchison in December 2003, when he contacted me about an article he was interested in writing for RenewAmerica about Alan Keyes. From that auspicious moment until God took him a little more than six years later, we published over 200 of Fred's incomparable essays — usually on some vital aspect of the modern "culture war," written with wit and disarming logic from Fred's brilliant perspective of history, philosophy, science, and scripture.

It was obvious to me from the beginning that Fred was in a class by himself among American conservative writers, and I was honored to feature his insights at RA.

I greatly miss Fred, who died of a brain tumor on August 10, 2010. What a gentle — yet profoundly powerful — voice of reason and godly truth! I'm delighted to see his remarkable essays on the history of conservatism brought together in a masterfully-edited volume by Julie Klusty. Restoring History is a wonderful tribute to a truly great man.

The book is available at

© Fred Hutchison


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They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31