The Limits of The Enlightenment

Our modern world is a marvel. By any measure of the ancient world we live lives that are simply miraculous. Our social structures, our technological triumphs, our incredible knowledge are built upon the foundations laid by the Enlightenment. With that revolution in thought we, for the most part, abandoned a world view dominated supernatural forces and acted the truth that the universe was governed by rationality and could be understood through reason alone.

The base assumption is that not only can causes be understood but that everything has a causal force. For the natural sciences this has been a tremendously successful assumption but it begins to break down when applied to the fairly fuzzy field of human action.

This need for causality was applied to the Leopold and Loeb murders, using the nature of the their backgrounds and lifestyles to explain but not excuse their murder of the 14 year old boy Robert Franks. Charles Darrow’s explanation for their hideous deed is often seen as the reason that they were not sentenced to death and the start of the processes where we search for why someone does the evil that they do.

I will admit that there is often a causal link between a person’s environment and their nature. It is noted that no known serial killer has ever come from a functional extended family and all suffered forms of abuse when they were younger. So there is a great deal of truth to Hannibal Lector’s line that Billy was not born a monster but made one by years of systematic abuse.

And yet we look at Paddock, the man who with greater care and planning than Leopold and Loeb, strafed a crowd of strangers and we can find no cause. Desperately we need a cause. we need a reason, even one cloaked in the vague generalization ‘insane,’ but we can’t seem to find it. So far nothing in his life comes within light-years of explaining such a monstrous and cowardly action. He was rich, he was successful, he lived a life of leisure, he apparently wanted for nothing except the blood of his fellow human beings. What can possibly explain that?

Have we reached the limits of The Enlightenment? Are we forced back to a supernatural assumption.

In our rational world is there room for evil?

Or will find a brain tumor like with Charles Whitman and call that the cause?

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