The End of Reason — Part 1

Light a torch, dark times ahead

7 min readAug 29, 2022
Have we just passed Peak Rationality? Data Source: Google Search, red line: my extrapolation

Most societies that have fallen before ours, have went through a similar pattern of rise, prosper and fall. Ours is no exception. Towards the end of their prosperous phase, brought about by discovering some rational rules on how things work (science) and developing an ability to exploit those observations (technology), societies tended to hit limits of all kinds, only to find themselves unwillingly embarking on their journey down.

One of the many limits is the limit to human rationality. We, modern humans, tend to think of ourselves as highly rational beings. We take pride in building systems based on scientific discoveries and manage them based on facts and figures — a method enabling further discoveries and ever newer innovations. The early successes of this approach led us to think: ‘hey, this could go on indefinitely!’ or ‘there is no limit to human ingenuity!’

Scientific progress has not only become the norm, but an outright expectation: that every ‘problem’ besetting humanity from climate change to hunger can and will be ‘solved’. We have lured ourselves into believing that since scientific discoveries and reason have brought us to our present state we could continue innovate our way out every situation.

This idea of infinite progress made us thinking in linear terms, where people imagine a straight line with a starting point back in the dark (dumb, stupid, aggressive etc) times of the stone age, with all its superstitions and ‘false beliefs’, swooshing all the way through history towards the shining victory of reason and knowledge — pointing eventually into infinity, and beyond.

This mode of thinking — so common in Ages of Reason, or The Enlightenment as we tend to call ours — was aided greatly by a mechanistic worldview. According to which ‘the world is a machine, built with a purpose’ and with a perfectly understandable relationship between its parts. As Imre Madach the famous Hungarian playwright wrote in the Tragedy of Man (1861), perfectly mirroring the thinking patterns of his time:

The mighty masterpiece at last is done;
The wheel revolves; the master on his throne
Doth rest. A million aeons now ’twill move,
Before the smallest spoke shall faulty prove.


This rather static world view was backed up by ‘natural laws’ with quantifiable measures and proved by countless experimental results. It has become increasingly bulletproof with time, casting all what it couldn’t explain aside, labeling them mere ‘superstitions’.

A not so accurate view on how the world operates. Image credit: Pavlofox via Pixabay

Mind you, there is nothing wrong with this approach — in fact this method can prove to be quite useful — but only up to a certain point. Beyond a practical limit, however, it becomes hopelessly inadequate to explain how the world operates around us. Towards the end of their Age of Reason civilizations reliably stumble upon enigmas they find increasingly harder to decipher — or rather predicaments, well beyond their mental capabilities to overcome.

Are we there yet? Have we reached our limits of reason already?

Two centuries ago, at the early stages of our scientific endeavors, it took only two people, Darwin and Wallace, to figure out evolution and usher in a revolution in biology. Similarly, it took only one Bell to revolutionize telecommunication, two Wright brothers to figure out motorized flight and one Einstein to crank out a theory of relativity.

Now it takes literally hundreds of scientists to make the next, ever more incremental step towards understanding how Life, Quantum Mechanics or anything else for that matter actually works. By doing so, they only discover that the answer to these question are as elusive as ever: forcing them repeatedly to push out the deadline for delivering anything substantial by decades every time. It is no wonder we keep hearing such claims like ‘fusion is just couple of decades away’ — time after time, for more than six decades now.

As Deborah Strumsky, José Lobo and Joseph A. Tainter observed in their 2010 study on the Complexity and the productivity of innovation:

Our investments in science have been producing diminishing returns for some time (Machlup, 1962, p. 172, 173). To sustain the scientific enterprise we have employed increasing shares of wealth and trained personnel (de Solla Price, 1963; Rescher, 1978, 1980). There has been discussion for several years of doubling the budget of the U.S. National Science foundation. Allocating increasing shares of resources to science means that we can allocate comparatively smaller shares to other sectors, such as infrastructure, health care, or consumption. This is a trend that clearly cannot continue forever, and perhaps not even for many more decades. Derek de Solla Price suggested that growth in science could continue for less than another century. As of this writing, that prediction was made 47 years ago (de Solla Price, 1963). Within a few decades, our results suggest, we will have to find new ways to generate material prosperity and solve societal problems.

The expectation of logic and reason being capable to deliver results far into the future, following a linear line pointing towards the stars, seem to be at odds with reality. The crux of this predicament, affecting all societies at their respective end of their Ages of Reason, is that the world is not a machine which gives reliable results, but an infinitely complex self-adapting system, with all its emergent behavior, tipping points and continuous phase transitions. Thus, our efforts made at decoding it, either through magic, divination or based on a mechanistic approach, bound to fail every time (1).

Much to our frustration, the world is largely illogical place, with only so many parts of it yielding to our primate logic and simple measurements. The better part of it, however, acts wholly irrational to us — and lie reliably beyond our capabilities to grasp.

Contrary to modern beliefs, this world is in no need whatsoever for a reason to exist, or anyone to decode how it operates. We are no masters of this impossibly complex system, we repeatedly mistake for a machine, but integral parts to it. Parts which play an important role, but by no means being indispensable.

A hard pill to swallow indeed.

It is absolutely no wonder then, that a great many followers of the idea (or rather: the religion) of progress refuse to admit this. Especially people, who draw the most benefits from a world treated as machine, churning out reliable results in form of revenues: the leadership class.

Understandably it is not easy for them to admit, that what they so proudly preside over could work just fine without them — in many cases: even better. As Graeber and Wengrow observed, while parsing through the historical records of ancient Egypt: during times in-between formal kingdoms and empires people lived a more just, free and less violent life than during the reign of pharaohs. Similarly, the ancient city of Catal Huyuk worked just fine for centuries without strong, centralized power. One could argue that our modern lives require centralized hierarchies to work, but saying so would simply underestimate the power of self-organization.

It is thus essential for the leadership class to maintain the illusion of progress, and more importantly, their indispensable role in managing things. For a lively example look no further than the all-mighty Central Banks around the world, and how they think they regulate the entire economy (an immensely complex self-adaptive system on its own right) via a single mechanical lever: the interest rate. Or how they disregard much more important factors to the real economy, say energy or resource limits, and treat these as completely fungible inputs to their model. The fact that this rationalistic-looking model is falling apart before our eyes in the West serves as a stark warning: reality is a somewhat more complex thing to handle than many among our elites have ever dared to think.

As I referred to it at the beginning of this post, civilizations go through similar phases of development. One of the most prominent — and certainly the most documented — of each is their respective Age of Reason, where logic, argument, and reasoned debates rule the scene. Science and technology flourish during these ages, but each eventually hit diminishing returns as they fail to provide scalable and workable answers to their respective societies’ ever mounting problems. Problems, which in reality beg for less technology, less science and less authority — not more. At this point, instead of scaling back, rationality slowly but duly gives way to unreason and superstition, culminating in a dark age over time. Evidence is mounting that our civilization will be no exception in this regard either.

How does this look like in our case? What are the underlying dynamics? What are the tell tale signs of this happening and what will come next? We will discuss these questions in Part 2 of this essay. Stay tuned!

Until next time,



(1) Some readers might ask: what about artificial intelligence? Truth to be told, AI can be used to solve very complex issues indeed, like figuring out the internal structures of proteins, censoring content online, tracking and identifying people, or telling cats apart from dogs on photos — given there is an awful lot of data to feed it. The problem is, that it is a very resource intensive method: requiring wast amounts of digital storage and calculation power. In a world which is heading towards more energy and resource bottlenecks, shortages, political instability and wars, I find it doubtful this method could continue to be used for very long.




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