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.

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