Friday, December 26, 2008

Young Man in China

My nephew recently took a job teaching in China and started a blog here. His adventures are already fascinating. I envy his facility with languages!

Greatest Movie Villains

Blogging about It's a Wonderful Life got me to thinking about movie villains, since Lionel Barrymore as Henry F. Potter is one of my favorites. Time Magazine thinks so to, as he appears as #8 on its list of greatest movie villains. The list has also got one of my other favorites, Laurence Olivier as Dr. Christian Szell in Marathon Man checking in at #18. Unforgivable, however, is the failure to include Bruce Dern as Longhair in The Cowboys, one of the two best villains of all time (the other being Heath Ledger in Dark Knight.) 

Just look at the punk sneer on his face. This guy scared the pants off me when I saw him at 9 years old in the movie theater back in 1972. But it was a good kind of scared. When I bought a copy of The Cowboys a few years ago and watched it with my kids, Longhair had lost none of his punch. My son Ethan described him as "sort of like an evil parent", which gets it just about right. 

One aspect that makes The Cowboys stand up well over time is the intergenerational conflict between Wil Anderson (John Wayne) and Longhair. Wayne was nearing the end of his career, and is the archetype of the classic strong, gruff, but honorable cowboy, a man of the 1940's. Dern was at the start of his career and represents the new generation of snot-nosed punks with no respect for their elders - a kid of the 1970's. You can't help but cheer when Anderson says to Longhair: "I'm thirty years older than you, but I can still beat the hell out of you." And everyone knows he's right.

Also should have been on the list - the hillbillies from Deliverance.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Atheism and Kierkegaard's Way to Religion

I had high hopes for the new Secular Right blog, which promised to defend conservative principles from a purely secular perspective. I think this can be done, and should be done, since our political arrangements are a matter of the natural virtue of prudence. Religious principles may inform political principles, but they are not reducible to them, and it should be possible to arrive at and defend sound political principles from purely natural reason.

Unfortunately, the secular right blog has turned fairly quickly into just another atheist religion-bashing venue. Now I have no problem with atheists bashing religion, or with Christians bashing atheism, for that matter. But there are already plenty of blogs and websites dedicated to that noble purpose. Just when does the atheist leave off telling us how ridiculous religious belief is, or spending all his time fending of the slings and arrows of his religious adversaries, and start telling us how one may find and pursue the path of "human flourishing?"

For this is ultimately what politics is about - organizing our common life for the common good. And the common good is really a collection of individual human goods. This brings me to my real problem with atheism.

I believe the existence of God can be defended as a matter of philosophy. But it is rare that anyone comes to believe in God purely as a matter of intellectual conclusion. God may be the answer to certain metaphysical questions, but those questions only have weight for us if God is also the answer to other questions, questions that bear more on the will than the intellect. What I mean is that God may be the answer to the question: How can I become the man I know I was meant to be, or should be?

When I ask this question in the way (I think) Kierkegaard meant it, I am no longer interested in defending myself or defending my principles. Instead of questioning God and finding Him wanting, I have questioned myself and found myself wanting. I know I can and should be a better man than I am. The skepticism becomes subjectively rather than objectively directed. The locus of danger has shifted; instead of being worried primarily about objective errors (i.e. that my metaphysical beliefs might be in error) I am worried about subjective errors (that I may fail to become the man I should be). I have become a "subjective thinker" rather than an "objective thinker."

The subjective thinker sees God as a possible answer to the subjective questions he asks himself. Yes, he is concerned with the objective question of the existence of God, but the weight of the objective question is not absolute. Is it better to be a bad man but be "right" about the objective question of God, or be a good man but be "wrong" about the objective question of God? Yes, yes, I know that many atheists are good men. In fact, just about every atheist I've met has been a better man than I am. That is the point. Atheism seems to be a club for men who are naturally good. It's not primarily about the question of becoming better men, but about defending the fact that we already are pretty good men. What, then, does it have to say to the man who is convinced that he is not a pretty good man? I ask for bread and they give me a stone.

I don't intend irony in those last points. I hold no brief for those Christians who denounce atheists as necessarily bad or doomed to some kind of evil existence. Atheists are quite right that the run-of-the-mill atheist is probably a better man than the run-of-the-mill Christian. This is because your typical atheist is well-educated and well-brought up, while the vast majority of Christians are poor and poorly educated. But it wasn't atheism per se that made them good, but their education and their upbringing - which, more times than not, has been Christian. 

But all that is by the board. "For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." One way to interpret this is that Christ is calling those who are thinking subjectively and not objectively. Kierkegaard goes into this in wonderful detail in the Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript. For the man approaching Christianity in Kierkegaard's way - subjectively - the very fact that Christianity is speaking to him in a way that atheism won't or can't, is reasonable subjective grounds to believe in it. But don't try to defend this objectively with an atheist!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

George Bailey and the Struggle of the Ethical Man

I love the holiday film classic It's a Wonderful Life, a movie typically dismissed by sophisticates as cornball. Yes, it's corny, but cornball and depth are not exclusive. And It's a Wonderful Life has depth.

In fact, the film is almost a primer on Kierkegaard's three stages of existence. I say "almost" because it gets the aesthetic and the ethical stages right, and even gets the border between the ethical and the religious right; but then it finally falters at the transition to the religious stage. This is where the cornball comes in. But up to the final moments, It's a Wonderful Life is pure Kierkegaard.

The film is structured around four critical "moments" in Kierkegaard's sense of the term: Moments when the character of a man and his life are revealed. The first is when George, fresh out of high school, is set to leave Bedford Falls and embark on the adventures of which he has always dreamed. But the recent death of his father Peter has left the Bailey Building and Loan without leadership. The villain Henry F. Potter, wealthy, clever and unscrupulous, is intent on dominating Bedford Falls; the Building and Loan is the main obstacle standing in his path. When George passionately rebukes Potter at a meeting of the Building and Loan, the board of directors agrees to resist Potter's attempts to take it over - on the condition that George himself assume the position of chairman.

The second moment happens four years later when Harry Bailey, George's younger brother, returns from college. The agreement between George and Harry was that George would run the Building and Loan while Harry went to college. When Harry graduated, he would take over for George and release George to pursue his own ambitions. But when Harry gets off the train, he is accompanied by his new bride ("Meet the wife!") who brings with her a great career opportunity for Harry in the plastics industry (and you thought it wasn't all about plastics until The Graduate.)

The third moment happens years later when George finally marries the girl he was always meant for, Mary Hatch. They are about to leave for their honeymoon just as the great crash of 1929 happens, and there is a run on the Building and Loan. George takes the money he and Mary had saved for their honeymoon and uses it to save the Building and Loan. After this last episode, it is clear that George will never leave Bedford Falls.

The final moment happens just after the end of the Second World War, when George's Uncle Billy mistakenly leaves $8,000 of the Building and Loan's money in Henry Potter's office. Naturally Potter sees this as an opportunity to finally rid himself of the Bailey family and he does not return the cash. When Uncle Billy confesses to George that he lost the money, it is clear that one or both of them will be ruined.

The first three moments are moments within the ethical stage of existence. They are moments when George must decide whether he is a man of duty living for others or a man living primarily for himself. The aesthetic man is a man primarily living for himself. George's youthful ambition to leave Bedford Falls and do great things was not ignoble, but it was essentially aesthetic because self-centered. At all three moments, George chooses to sacrifice himself for the good of others and reveals himself to be a truly ethical man.

The irony of the ethical man, however, is that his struggle is lonely and inward, so that his nature as an ethical man is revealed only to himself (if he has the requisite self-awareness) and to God. He must hide his nature from others so that he may sacrifice himself for them; were they to know the true nature of his suffering they would not permit it. So the ethical man cannot be known directly as such. He is always dodging and hiding himself through irony.

It's a Wonderful Life is at its best in showing this inward struggle of the ethical man; the struggle of Kierkegaard's "Knight of Hidden Inwardness." Jimmy Stewart (playing George) must simultaneously reveal to the audience his hidden struggle (so that we know he is genuinely ethical) and hide it from the other characters in the film. Stewart pulls this off masterfully, with some help from Frank Capra's close focus:

George Bailey is an ethical man who lacks self-understanding. Contemporary thought would dismiss him as "inauthentic" because it misunderstands his irony as self-deception. But George does not deceive himself; he understands precisely what he is sacrificing at each of the crucial moments of the film. His lack of self-understanding consists in his belief that his "real life" has been put on hold while he serves the good of others. George's nemesis Henry Potter, while vicious, is also a keen student of human nature. He appreciates George's talents and sees through his irony to the frustration and despair George successfully hides from everyone else. Potter makes a final attempt to seduce George by playing on this despair, ruthlessly exposing it in some of the best lines in the film:
"Forty-five. Now, if you were an ordinary yokel, I'd say you were doing fine. But George Bailey is intelligent... ambitious. He hates the Building and Loan almost as much as I do. He's been dying to get out of town ever since he was born. But he's trapped. Trapped into frittering his life away to a lot of garlic-eaters. Do I paint a correct picture, George, or do I exaggerate?"
I love that "garlic-eaters." Potter is nearly successful in his seduction, but George finally recognizes what is happening, reject's Potter's offer, and turns Potter into a permanent enemy.

The ethical life is essentially unstable because it involves a paradox. The ethical man recognizes his duty and performs it, but sacrifices himself in the process. George Bailey becomes older, lives in a drafty house, watches as his friend Sam ("Hee-Haw") leaves town and becomes rich; during the war George stays in Bedford Falls as air raid warden while Harry Bailey wins the Medal of Honor in the Pacific. All this time his inner despair grows until his ethical existence collapses in the face of his impending ruin as a result of Uncle Billy's loss of the Building and Loan's funds.

Here again Henry Potter is perspicacious. George comes to Potter for a loan to replace the $8000, which of course Potter will not grant him. Potter takes the opportunity to return some long-remembered insults:
"And you want eight thousand? You once called me a warped, frustrated old man. Well, what are you but a warped, frustrated young man? Crawling on your hands and knees for help. Why don't you go ask that riff-raff you love so well? Ask them for help! I'll tell you why. Because they'd run you out of town on a rail, that's why."
George finally succumbs to despair and contemplates jumping off a bridge into a freezing river. George is saved by Clarence, an angel sent by God in response to George's prayers, as well as the prayers of his wife and children. When George wishes he had never been born, Clarence turns the wish into a saving act by showing George what the world would be like without him. George's brother Harry dies in childhood because George was not there to save him from freezing in a river; Mr. Gower the druggist becomes a convict after poisoning a woman by accident; Henry Potter successfully takes over Bedford Falls, renames it Pottersville, and forces everyone to live in his slums. Worst of all, Mary Hatch never marries and becomes... a librarian! Horrors! Clarence sums it all up by telling George that "you really did have a wonderful life."

Clarence's retrospective allows George to perceive the true meaning of the ethical life. He sees the selfishness of his despair and his suicidal inclinations. It also brings him to the threshold of the religious stage of existence, for George abandons all of his worldly ambitions. This is the spiritual movement Kierkegaard calls resignation. By resigning from all his worldly ambitions George experiences a freedom unknown to the aesthetic and ethical stages of existence. He is free because he now lives entirely for others, so that what happens to himself becomes a matter of indifference. He runs home and greets the sheriff in his living room - who has a warrant for his arrest - with "Merry Christmas! I'll bet that's a warrant for my arrest. I'm going to jail, isn't it wonderful?"

Kierkegaard tells us that the border between the aesthetic and the ethical is marked by irony, and the border between the ethical and the religious is marked by humor. The ethical man is ironic because he must present a false front to make his sacrifice effective. Were George still a merely ethical man, and had he not succumbed to despair, his response to the news that he was under arrest would be to downplay its seriousness, to say it isn't so bad and he'll be out soon. He would hide his true appraisal of the situation - that it is very bad for him that he is going to jail. As a religious man, George attempts no such irony. He states straightforwardly and truthfully what he thinks - that it is wonderful that he is going to jail. Of course his joy makes no sense to the ethical and aesthetic stages of existence, and so appears as humorous to everyone but George. The ethical man must hide his nature from others, but the religious man's nature is hidden of its own nature from others and so he makes no attempt to hide it.

The film would have been better if George actually did go to jail. It pulls back from showing the true meaning of the religious stage of existence by giving George a worldly reward: His friends have collected money to pay the debt, the sherriff tears up the arrest warrant, and everyone celebrates Christmas by singing "Auld Lang Syne" together. But George - if he is truly Kierkegaard's religious man, which I think he is - would have been just as happy going to jail. It doesn't matter if the townspeople are the "riff-raff" that Potter says they are, or if they really do run George out of town on a rail. George is invulnerable to Potter because he is invulnerable to worldly consequences. As the film actually plays out, George's victory over Potter is diminished, because it implies that George's victory is based on the falsity of Potter's dim view of human nature - Potter says the "riff-raff" will run George out of town when in fact they don't. But George's joy at the end of the film is not based on a renewed faith in human nature. It's based on a renewed faith in God, because George no longer sees his sacrifice for others as competing with his desires for himself - he has lost all desires for himself.

It's not an accident that an angel is involved in George's final transformation. The transition from the aesthetic to the ethical stage is one the "natural" man can make on his own, but the transition to the religious stage can only be made, as Kierkegaard puts it, if God grants man "the condition." George asks for the condition when the hopelessness of his final predicament overwhelms him:

"Oh God... God... Dear Father in Heaven, I'm not a praying man, but if you're up there and you can hear me, then show me the way. I'm at the end of my rope. Show me the way, God."

Here the depth of the film is shown when the immediate response to George's prayer is a punch in the face from a man he had insulted earlier. This finally crushes George's ethical existence, for he is attacked by one of the very people he has been attempting to save with the whole trajectory of his life. (George has sacrificed himself to save Bedford Falls from Potter, so everyone in the town is his beneficiary.) When he has lost all hope in human nature, George is in a state to receive the "condition" (that is, grace) from God and not mistake its source. The condition will result in George's renewed (or, rather, new) faith in God, not a renewed faith in men.

So if you love Kierkegaard, Christmas, and classic movies, there is no better holiday film than It's a Wonderful Life.

Clarence - " Oh, no, no. We don't use money in Heaven!"

George - "Oh, that's right, yeah, I keep forgetting. (pause) Comes in pretty handy down here, bub."

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Mind and God as Philosophically Known, part IV

The beginning of this thread can be found here.

Four things are necessary for empirical science to be possible (assuming that we believe that science is about the way the universe really is, and not merely about its appearances to us):

1. There must be scientists.
2. There must be a universe for scientists to understand.
3. The universe must have an intelligibility.
4. The scientists must have intellects capable of grasping the intelligibility of the universe.

These four propositions are assumed in the constitution of science; they are not anything science itself can discover because their truth is already assumed as soon as science happens. This is plainly obvious in assumptions #1 and #2. If a scientist embarked on a research program to discover if there are in fact scientists, or if there is in fact a universe, we would laugh at him, and laugh even more if he published his results in a respected journal confirming that there are, indeed, scientists and a universe. Our humor follows from the utter lack of self-awareness of the scientist in not knowing that his own existence proves all that can or needs to be proven.

The same considerations apply to assumptions #3 and #4, but for some reason many modern scientists (and some philosophers, who should know better) do not see it. They think that the mind is something that can be researched scientifically like anything else, and that conclusions like "the mind is essentially a model-maker" can be taken straightforwardly like any other scientific conclusion. But there is really just as much humor in this scientist as in the scientist who researches the existence of scientists, for science itself is only possible if the mind is something more than a mere model-maker.

The mind is ultimately invisible to pure empirical science because it is behind it as its subjective ground. But science needs an objective as well as a subjective ground. The objective ground of science is God, and like the subjective ground of science, the objective ground is invisible to science itself. As the mind is both behind and beyond science, so is God.

Just as many modern thinkers fail to get the point about the mind, they fail to get the point about God. They want to research God the way they research anything else, and demand "scientific evidence" of the existence of God, which is just as silly as demanding scientific evidence of the existence of scientists, except that it is humorous in the objective direction rather than the subjective. Either the universe itself and its basic intelligibility is sufficient evidence for the existence of God, or nothing is. 

This is why the traditional arguments for the existence of God (neatly summarized in St. Thomas's Five Ways) are irrefutable yet seem insufficient to the modern mind. The Five Ways are arguments all made from the basic existence and intelligibility of the universe; that is, the way the universe must be known to be prior to the conduct of empirical science; the way the universe must be if science is to truly happen at all. We want to put God in the scientific court, when it is God who built and maintains the courthouse.

Immanuel Kant understood the significance of all this, which is why he is still among the greatest of modern philosophers. The basic program of modern philosophy (meaning philosophy since Descartes) is to find a way to undermine the legitimacy of traditional metaphysical philosophy (and its conclusions about God) while retaining the rationality of math and empirical science. Although propositions #1 and #2 are ultimately metaphysical in nature, they are immediately obvious and undeniable, and therefore acceptable to modern philosophy. But propositions #3 and #4 are not so immediately obvious, and in fact have been denied at various times in history. They are truly metaphysical claims. If we are not going to accept metaphysics, Kant saw, then we can't accept propositions #3 and #4, because they imply a metaphysical connection between the mind of man and the true nature of the universe. It may be (Kant thought) that the intelligibility of the universe is only something we read into the universe.  And this fact, of course, is something that can never be verified or refuted by empirical science. If we are going to eliminate metaphysics, then the most we can say about science is that it is about the appearances of things (phenomena) rather than the way things truly are (noumena).

The mind ultimately knows itself in its own act, or it doesn't know itself at all; we know God through the universe in its basic act of existence and intelligibility, or we don't know God at all (excepting through revelation, of course.) Both the mind and God are known philosophically or they are not known at all.

Fr Neuhaus on Religion as a Business

Wonderful article at First Things (via Rimwell.)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Mind and God as Philosophically Known, part III

The start of this thread can be found here.

I have argued that the empirical sciences can never fully fathom the mind of man because because the mind is the creator and judge of science, and therefore the scientific mind does not appear as an object before its own science. The mind of the scientist as scientist is invisible to his science.

If there is a way to know the mind beyond the limits inherent in empirical science, then it must be a way that avoids the distinction between mind-the-knower and mind-as-object-known that is a necessary consequence of the form of empirical science. Such a way can be found in classical philosophy, where the mind "knows itself through itself", in the formulation of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Philosophical reflection of the classical sort is often called "introspection" by modern thinkers, and they don't usually mean it as a compliment. "Introspection" conjures up images of navel-gazing monks spinning fanciful theories in a dream-world entirely severed from empirical reality, as in the legendary angels on the head of a pin. Whatever the views of modern philosophers, the mind will finally know itself through introspection or not at all. Let us go straight to an example of introspection and see if it turns out to be as bad as its current reputation.

An old philosophical chestnut is the following question: How do I know the difference between dreams and reality? When I am dreaming, I don't think I'm dreaming, and as I write this I don't think I'm dreaming, so maybe I am dreaming right now. By what right do I claim that my so-called "waking" state is reality and my "dream" state is fake?

What I notice about my experience of dreaming is that I do not know it as such when I am in it. In fact, the very distinction between "dreaming" and "waking" is foreign to the dream state. The dream state is not self-conscious; it never asks questions concerning its own nature. A sure indication that I am waking up is when the question of whether I am in a dream begins to dawn on me. If the dream is pleasant and I wish it to continue, then I know the only way it will continue is if I shut down the self-reflective part of consciousness, if I can. If I wish to wake up, a sure way to do it is to concentrate on the distinction between dreaming and waking. The dream state distinguishes itself by being unaware of itself; the waking state distinguishes itself by being aware of both itself and a possible dream state.

What I have just written is a matter of introspection. It is the mind knowing itself through itself. The data is entirely subjective in that I can only report my experience as it comes to me; I can't hand you a printout of my consciousness for your perusal, like I could hand you a report of my astronomical observations. It would seem, then, that my introspection can be of no value to you. This is to miss the point of classical philosophy, the essence of which is captured in Socrates' description of himself as a midwife. The philosopher does not impart knowledge; he only offers an opportunity for the listener to perhaps understand better the implications of his own experience.

Does your experience of dreaming and waking accord with my own? Then you may agree with me on the way dreaming and waking may be distinguished. Perhaps your experience is not similar to my own, in which case my observations will be of no value to you. Or perhaps your experiences are similar to my own, but you do not think my conclusions follow from them. In any case, if you actually do come to know something, your knowledge will be founded on your own introspection, not mine, my contribution being at most a "vanishing moment" (Kierkegaard) that only served as an occasion for you to know on your own witness.

Can empirical science help in distinguishing the difference between dreaming and waking? In a mind that is not the mind asking the question, sure. You don't even need science to do it. I can tell you are sleeping just by your snores. The question that concerns us here is the question of dreaming and waking taken self-reflexively. And here science is of no value, because empirical science takes the mind of the scientist for granted. Insofar as that goes, the state of mind of the scientist is more like the dreaming state than the waking state, for the dreaming state is distinguished precisely by the quality that it does not question itself. This is no knock on science, because science does not need self-aware thinkers to succeed; the absent-minded or foolish scientist is almost a stereotype. Our misfortune has been occasioned by the false conclusion that because science does not require introspection, therefore nothing can be known through introspection. This is the essence of "scientism", which is not respect for science, but the warping of science into an ideology.

The parable of the Cave in Plato's Republic, Book VII, can be interpreted as addressing the distinction between dreams and reality. The individuals chained in the cave know only the shadows dancing on the wall; to them the shadows are reality. They are in fact in a Kantian world of appearances. They may construct all the empirical sciences they like concerning the phenomena of the shadows but, as Kant says, the sciences can never be about anything more than the shadows. It is only when one of them is freed and dragged outside, and learns that the cave is but a chamber in a larger world that the true nature of the dream world of the cave becomes apparent to him. The state of reality is distinguished by the fact that it knows both itself and the dream state.

Plato makes a deep point from the parable. An escape from the cave would be worse than useless were the prisoner not already capable of benefiting from it. His nature must be such that it is receptive to the truth beyond the cave; the fact that he profits from his experience beyond the cave is evidence that he has a primordial connection with the truth, a connection that is prior to any experience at all, since it could not have its origin in the cave. Were he by nature a cave dweller, like a sightless lizard, then an escape from the cave could only hurt him. His nature was about more than the cave even when he was chained in the cave, and even if he had been born in the cave and spent his entire life there. The prisoners are not by nature cave dwellers, but are by nature ordered to the truth that transcends the cave. This is the famous Platonic doctrine of reminiscence, or the claim that coming to know the truth is not encountering something entirely novel and foreign, but rather a reacquaintance with an old friend with whom you've lost touch.

This has relevance to the Kantian philosophy. Plato does not go so far as to say that the prisoners in the cave question the reality of their experience. In fact, he says that they are quite content to take the shadows for reality. Yet even then, their natures are not really that of cave dwellers. Kantian man is similar to Plato's prisoners insofar as he is trapped in a world of appearances, but he differs from Plato's cave dwellers not only in that he can question the reality of the shadows, but that he must question their reality (metaphysics, Kant says, is empty but inevitable). In Kant's Cave, if I can call it that, the cave dwellers do not placidly contemplate the shadows (like ancient philosophers), but actively interrogate them to discover their laws (like modern scientists). And the Kantian prisoner, if he is a philosopher as well as a scientist, is perceptive enough to guess that the shadows may not be reality without ever leaving the cave. In fact, the Kantian prisoners are doomed to never leave the cave.

But the fact that the Kantian prisoners question the reality of the cave shows that, even more than Plato's prisoners, they do not have the nature of cave dwellers. Were their nature strictly that of cave dwellers, they would be content to watch the shadows as the natural and right state of affairs, just as the natural response of dogs to reality is to smell it, and the natural response of gerbils to reality is to chew it. The unease, the restlessness, the rebelliousness that man exhibits in the limited empirical world defined for him by modern scientistic philosophy is evidence - empirical evidence - that the real world is actually more than that; and that man has a primordial connection to know that world as it truly is.

Plato and Kant define the only real alternatives for a philosophy of the mind. Either our minds have a connection to reality that is primordial and is the anchor of science in reality, or our minds are doomed to know things only as they appear to us, and not as they truly are. Modern attempts to have the Kantian cake (restrict empirical knowledge to the sciences) and eat it too (hold that the sciences are about reality and not appearances) are common but never work, as Steven Pinker illustrates in the last chapter of The Stuff of Thought, entitled "Escaping the Cave."  

"Any inventory of human nature is bound to cause some apprehension in hopeful people, because it would seem to set limits on the ways we can think, feel, and interact. 'Is that all there is?' one is tempted to ask. 'Are we doomed to picking our thinkable thoughts, our feelable feelings, our possible moves in the game of life, from a short menu of options?'

It is an anxiety that goes back to Plato's famous allegory of the prisoners in the cave... In these pages I have tried to lay out the major kinds of thoughts, feelings, and social relationships that go into the meaning and use of language. Are they shadows on the wall of a cave in which our minds are forever trapped? Many of the book's discussions raise this fear, because they suggest that the machinery of conceptual semantics makes us permanently vulnerable to fallacies in reasoning and to corruption in our institutions...

Though language exposes the walls of our cave, it also shows us how we venture out of it, at least partway. People do, after all, catch glimpses of the sunlit world of reality. Even with our infirmities, we have managed to achieve the freedom of liberal democracy, the wealth of a technological economy, and the truths of modern science."
Pinker avoids the decision between Kant and Plato by ending the story before he reaches them. He has not yet reached Plato, for Plato asked the question how "glimpses of the sunlit world of reality" could have any meaning for someone who lived his whole life in the cave. Plato's answer was the doctrine of reminiscence, and the modern world has long since given up the attempt to provide an alternative. Nor has he reached Kant, who wondered how the "truths of modern science" could pertain to the sunlit world of reality if they are developed entirely in terms of the intellectual forms of the shadows in the cave.

If there is any hope in knowing the mind as it truly is, then that hope is found where the modern mind is least likely to look for it - in the great tradition of classical philosophy from Socrates to Aquinas, with a little help from Kant to understand what the stakes are. It is unfortunate that modern thinkers are running away from Socrates, and the true mind, as fast as they can.

The next post in this thread can be found here.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Mind and God as Philosophically Known - Interlude

It was from Soren Kierkegaard that I first learned what it means to truly think; to think as what I am, a man in existence in a certain time and place; and that knowing the truth means primarily understanding myself in existence, and only secondarily means amassing a store of objective knowledge that is worthless without a self-understanding to ground its meaning. He taught me that purely objective science is a myth, for there is no such thing as thought without a thinker, and science is only knowledge insofar as it is thought by someone; and it is only my knowledge if it is thought by me. I must first understand my "private book", and only then may I consult the "public book" with profit.

Kierkegaard was not an enemy of empirical science, but only an enemy of the common, unspoken but truly bizarre modern prejudice that the adoption of certain methods of thought or investigation allows one to escape the human condition; the prejudice that allows one to say "the mind is essentially a model-maker" but never doubt that the statement applies to the mind as it really is; or that believes that writing from the imagined viewpoint of a Martian rather than your own viewpoint somehow makes one's thought more objective. 

The fantastic flight into the objective, now perceived as essential to science, is actually a mortal threat to it. For as scientists lose self-understanding, they lose the ability to distinguish true from false science, and begin to pass off pseudoscience as science, as in the warmed over Kantian philosophy that is the inevitable conclusion of contemporary books on the "science of the mind." There is a real empirical science of the mind, and it is being conducted today with genuine results, but like the craftsmen Socrates interrogated in ancient Athens, the modern scientist often cannot distinguish his scientific knowledge from his philosophical opinions, and dumps an undistinguished mass of the two on his reader. It is up to the reader to sift the wheat from the chaff if he can.

Our culture does not suffer from a shortage of technical knowledge, but from a shortage of self-understanding that might have some inkling of the simple art of living as a man, something the "simple wise man" of Athens might still teach us if we would only listen. But then how can Socrates have anything to teach us, when our science has long since surpassed him?

"If an existing individual were really able to transcend himself, the truth would be for him something final and complete; but where is the point at which he is outside himself? The I-am-I is a mathematical point which does not exist, and in so far there is nothing to prevent everyone from occupying the standpoint; the one will not be in the way of the other. It is only momentarily that the particular individual is able to realize existentially a unity of the infinite and the finite which transcends existence. This unity is realized in the moment of passion. Modern philosophy has tried anything and everything in the effort to help the individual to transcend himself objectively, which is a wholly impossible feat; existence exercises its restraining influence, and if philosophers nowadays had not become mere scribblers in the service of a fantastic thinking and its preoccupation, they would long ago have perceived that suicide was the only tolerable practical interpretation of its striving."
Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Part II, Book II, Ch. 2

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