Friday, February 26, 2010

Maritain on Rationalism

"The essence of rationalism consists in making the human reason and its ideological content the measure of what is: truly it is the extreme of madness, for the human reason has no content but what it has received from external objects."

- J Maritain, 3 Reformers, Luther, Descartes, Rousseau

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Embracing Religion

The man who never embraces a religion because he can't have a priori assurance that it is the true one, is like the man who never marries because he can't have a priori assurance that this woman is his one true love he was meant to be with forever. Or, he is like a man who keeps his money under his mattress because he can't be sure which investment is the right one. Or, he is like a jury that takes thirty years to decide a verdict, all the while the defendant sits in jail. Or, like the man who stays fat because he can't be certain which diet is the right one.

There may be reasons for not marrying, or for keeping your money under your mattress, or for delaying a verdict, or for not dieting... or for not embracing religion. Not doing so because you can't have objective certainty prior to the decision is a simple misunderstanding of what is at stake.

Kierkegaard, Fideism and Subjective Reasoning

The Maverick Philosopher has a post here, in which he asserts, in passing, that Kierkegaard was a fideist.

The MP's definition of fideism is this:

B. Fideism: Put your trust in blind faith. Submit, obey, enslave your reason to what purports to be revealed truth while ignoring the fact that what counts as revealed truth varies from religion to religion, and within a religion from sect to sect.

Kierkegaard (SK) was not a fideist by this definition. In fact, his career was dedicated to overthrowing the list of alternatives the MP gives in his post:

A. Rationalism: Put your trust in reason to deliver truths about ultimates and ignore the considerations of Sextus Empiricus, Nagarjuna, Bayle, Kant, and a host of others that point to the infirmity of reason.

[we've seen B above].

C. Skepticism: Suspend belief on all issues that transcend the mundane if not on all beliefs, period. Don't trouble your head over whether God is or is not tripersonal. Stick to what appears. And don't say, 'The tea is sweet'; say, 'The tea appears sweet.' (If you say that the tea is sweet, you invite contradiction by an irascible table-mate.)

D. Reasoned Faith: Avoiding each of the foregoing options, one formulates one's beliefs carefully and holds them tentatively. One does not abandon them lightly, but neither does one fail to revisit and revise them. Doxastic examination is ongoing at least for the length of one's tenure here below. One exploits the fruitful tension of Athens and Jerusalem, philosophy and religion, reason and faith, playing them off against each other and using each to chasten the other.

The MP, as might be expected, advocates option D. But SK would say that option D isn't really the neutral compromise between faith and reason it appears to be. It actually embodies a deep confusion about human existence that prejudices the argument. Notice that option D includes an existential conclusion: One is advised to hold beliefs "tentatively." But while it includes an existential conclusion, it does not include any existential premisses. It's one premiss is an assertion about reason in the abstract:

Reason is too weak and confused to discover the truth about the world and how we should live in it.

What is significant about the premiss is not its content but its form. It is an assertion about reason in the abstract, and therefore, according to SK, only abstract conclusions can be drawn from it. But the decision about whether I should embrace faith is anything but abstract; it is as concrete and subjective as it could be, it is, in other words, existential. The attempt to draw an existential conclusion from purely abstract premisses cannot be done; this is why the MP's conclusion must be that beliefs are held "tentatively", or, in other words, without any existential decisiveness. This is really just a restatement of the fact that abstract reason cannot issue in existentially decisive conclusions.

But the question of faith is a question that is existentially decisive in its nature. SK's point was that modern thought begged the question of faith in its very constitution, since it accepted that "reason" is synonymous with "objective thought", or in other words, thought abstracted from the exigencies of human existence. Objective thought is "thought without a thinker", or, in other words, thought without any existential premisses.

SK contrasted "objective thought" with what he called the "subjective thinker." Notice "thought" is an abstract something, but that a thinker is a subjective someone, existing in some time and place. What SK tried to do was repair the breach in existence that was created by modern thought. Classical thought suffered no such breach, which is why SK reaches back to Socrates so often in his writing. Socrates was the prototypical subjective thinker or, rather, a thinker who never suffered the dislocation between subjective and objective thought.

Socrates would never say something like "Reason is too weak and confused to discover the truth...". For one thing, it is self-defeating, since if reason is too weak and confused to discover the truth about the world, then one of the truths it is too weak and confused to discover is itself, since the very proposition is a truth about the world. What Socrates would and did say was "I know that I do not know," which is an excellent example of an existential premiss that can get subjective reasoning rolling. If I do not know, then one of the things I don't know is whether or not anyone else knows, or whether or not there is a truth about the world that can be known. So I am presented with the choice of remaining static in my ignorance, or actively seeking out those who might know and might be able to teach me. Ironically, one of the things I do know is that I do not wish to remain ignorant, so I will seek out those presumed to be wise. This is a chain of subjective reasoning, starting from an existential premiss, and issuing in an existential conclusion. This is a simple example of subjective reasoning; Kierkegaard's analysis of the subjective reasoning involved in the faith decision is profound and well worth the reading of his Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript.

SK was far from advocating "blind faith" or the "enslavement" of reason to revealed truth. What he passionately wished to communicate was a recovery of subjective reasoning; and the truth that faith, if it is to be fairly considered or even understood for what it is, must be considered in a mode of subjective rather than objective thought. SK's corpus may be thought of as therapy for those suffering the modern rupture between the objective and the subjective, so that they may recover the authentic mode of subjective thinking (which is really human thought in its true form), and so truly face the question of faith. The question of faith, presented in its objective form, is never really presented at all.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Brain Pathology and the Philosophy of the Mind

The sciences of brain pathology have had a profound effect on the philosophy of mind. Clinical cases, like those detailed in Oliver Sacks's The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, reinforce the dependency of the mind on the brain. It's not merely that the cases show that the mind is dependent on the brain in some general way, but that the pathologies reveal deep and specific cognitive dependencies. There is one woman in Sacks's book, for instance, who has lost the concept of "left"; she can see and process the right side of things, but the left side of things disappears for her completely. This isn't merely a visual problem. The concept of left itself has no meaning for her. An intelligent woman, she has come up with ingenious ways of overcoming her handicap, like spinning clockwise 360 degrees to reach the left side of something.

The deep and thorough cognitive dependencies the pathologies reveal has led many to draw the philosophical conclusion that the complete dependency of the mind on the brain has been conclusively demonstrated. Although much about the mind remains mysterious, the thinking goes, one thing we know for sure right now is that there are no properties of the mind that are not ultimately traceable to the brain.

I think this conclusion is premature and, more importantly, unphilosophical. A philosophical view is necessarily a comprehensive view; in fact what distinguishes the philosophical view from others is that it is the most comprehensive view possible. As Josef Pieper has written, what the philosopher most fears is not that his conclusions lack rigor, but that his conclusions leave something out of account. So what we must hold out for in a philosophy of mind is a philosophy that leaves nothing about the mind out of account.

And this is the danger in drawing philosophical conclusions from brain pathologies. Brain pathologies reveal what the mind can't do if the brain has been injured. What we most want from a philosophy of mind, however, is an account of what the mind can do in its most profound manifestations. So it isn't the diseased mind that should concern us most in philosophy, but the healthy mind in its most profound manifestations.

Suppose, for example, that not knowing anything about cars, we wish to develop a "philosophy of the automobile." We visit a mechanic and take a tour through his garage - a tour of "car pathology." He shows us all the way cars can fail; there are cars with bald tires, broken water pumps, no batteries, worn out brakes, etc. He tells us that without the brakes a car won't be able to stop, without the battery it won't be able to start, and so on. We even get a demonstration of a car with bad steering that can only turn to the right. All it does is drive in a circle.

The tour is informative and valuable, but of limited use in developing our philosophy of the car. What we really need to know is what a car in good working order can do. How far can it go? Can it go across the county or across the country? What sort of terrain can it navigate? Are there things it just can't cross? How robust is the car to bumps in the road? What, finally, are all the things people can do with a car?

There are analogous questions that should be at the heart of the philosophy of the mind. Just what can the healthy mind do? Can it "cross the country" and know being as the classical philosophers say? Or can it get no further than the county line, i.e. at most put a construction on sense impressions, as is the typical inclination of modern philosophers? Can the mind construct and perform an empirical science that gives it true knowledge of reality? Just what does it imply about the mind that it can perform science? It is these questions that are decisive for the philosophy of mind.

In the end, we don't really need to know all the ways an automobile can fail to develop a philosophy of the automobile. Neither are the most important facts about the mind the facts of mind pathology. The important facts are at the other end, and concern what the mind can do in its most healthy and profound modes. The theory of the immaterial mind, the prime target of the modern philosophy of mind and the philosophy it is believed is decisively refuted by the clinical pathology of the mind, was always based on what the mind can most profoundly do. The Thomistic theory of the immaterial intellect, for example, is based on the argument that the intellect cannot know being unless it is substantially immaterial (Note that I used the word intellect. The Thomistic theory does not demand that all that we call "the mind" must be immaterial, but that being can only be truly known through an immaterial substance, so the mind, since it knows being, must have an immaterial component - the intellect.) Now either the mind can know being or it can't. If it can't, then the Thomistic theory of the mind is superfluous, since it offers an account of a power that doesn't exist. If it can, then the Thomistic theory of the mind is one way to account for that fact, and the question is whether it is superior to rivals. It is a non sequitur to suppose that, since an unhealthy brain causes cognitive problems, that therefore the mind in its deepest acts can be explained by the physical brain. The question is whether a healthy brain (i.e. a material organ) is capable of knowing being on its own.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

An Enduring Myth of Modern Thought

Chet Raymo, in Skeptics and True Believers, reveals in passing what may be the central myth of modern thought:

Poetic metaphor ("fire folk") and scientific construct (nuclear-powered spheres of gas) serve useful functions in our lives, but we are confident the latter bears a closer affinity to reality - to whatever is "out there" - than the former. The poetic metaphor conveys a human truth; the scientific construct attempts to remove the human subject from the equation of idea and reality. [p. 12]

The myth is that modern thought has somehow found a way to remove the subject from thought, making it more "objective" and therefore more reliable. The myth is based on a simple misunderstanding but it has had profound consequences. What science really does is discipline the subject of thought within a specified method. The method itself is objective since it does not depend on any particular subject. In other words, how the equation of idea and reality is to be understood by the subject is specified objectively through the scientific method. Rather than dispensing with the subject of thought, as the myth supposes, the actual effect of the advent of the scientific method is to splinter the subject into several distinct types.

The first type includes the genius, a peculiarly modern category of the subject. Classical philosophy in the Aristotelian tradition had a theory concerning the origin of ideas in the mind. Being itself is hylomorphic and the human subject literally absorbs ideas from being; ideas are being as it exists in the mode appropriate to the intellect. Tree is not an idea that wells up in the mind, or is a construct we put on sense impressions that we hope reflects reality; it is the being tree existing in an immaterial mode in our mind. The mind is what it knows, and what it knows is being.

But in the modern understanding of thought, our mind does not know being in its immaterial form of the idea, but ideas that exist independently of being and have no determinate relationship to being (or at least any relationship we can know a priori.) If ideas do not have an origin in being, what is their origin? This is a question modern thought does not and cannot answer, as Kant showed in response to Hume, and gives rise to the man called the genius. The genius is a genie of ideas; he is the creative origin of ideas that are put in human circulation and with which we interrogate reality. Isaac Newton was such a genius. He not only creatively conceived his Three Laws of Motion, but also the ideas of mass, force, and acceleration in which they are cast. The laws of motion and the ideas of mass, force and acceleration mutually define each other and specify a cosmos in the world of ideas, a cosmos we then evaluate through the scientific method. But that evaluation, whatever its outcome, in no way changes the fact that what we know is the Newtonian cosmos in the world of ideas; it doesn't magically transform the foundation of that world into reality itself. All it tells us is that the Newtonian cosmos of ideas "works better for us" than alternatives.

The genius is, of course, a man whom science can never explain, since he is the creative ground of science itself, and the conceptions of science are always posterior to his mind. The unfathomable mystery of Being the classical philosophers located in God, is replaced by the unfathomable mystery of the scientific genius. Being prior to science, the genius is invisible to it, which is why modern thinkers don't account for geniuses like Newton even as they celebrate them. In fact, geniuses are celebrated and then disappear from view altogether in the myth of a science that has magically eliminated the subject. The scientific genius is the true "Prince of the Age", in the words of Walker Percy, because he is the only truly free subject, his freedom found in the creative act of science itself. Everybody else (with the exception of an intermediate type to be described below) exists as a subject of the iron laws of scientific determination. The ancient world had no counterpart to the modern scientific genius, since it considered ideas to be an aspect of being itself, not creations ex nihilo of the human mind.

The subjective complement to the genius, the one who exists prior to science, is the scientific consumer, the one who exists posterior to it. The mass of humanity are scientific consumers, individuals who do not create or perform science, but are expected to respect its results. Unfortunately for them, the scientific worldview has no place for their subjectivity. It has a place for the scientific genius who creates science, and the scientific practitioner who conducts everyday science (a type intermediate between the genius and the consumer; the "retailer" of science), but it has no place for a subjectivity on the far side of science. The only thing that exists on the far side of science are the creative elements of the scientific genius, the forces, masses, accelerations, atoms, neutrons,and black holes in terms of which science is constructed. The only subjectivity they contain are the traces of the subjectivity of the scientific genius who created them.

Since the subjectivity of both the scientific genius and the scientific retailer are hidden behind science as being prior to it, and the subjectivity of the scientific consumer is denied altogether, the myth of the scientific elimination of subjectivity is something that easily takes hold without ever being explicitly advocated, and despite its obvious absurdity. As the dominant myth, thought unselfconsciously starts with it as a premise. Thus, a philosopher of the mind like John Searle can start his work by insisting that philosophy must start with the atomic theory of matter as a non-negotiable premise (see his Mind, A Brief Introduction or The Rediscovery of the Mind), as though such a theory bears no necessary implications concerning the subjectivity, and the mind, that created it.

The classical subject was a unity, not splintered in the manner of the modern subject. This is why Socrates was not embarrassed to converse with anyone in the Agora, be it "those reputed to be wise" (the sophists), the politicians, the craftsmen, or anyone else who might cross his path. In ancient Athens, there was only one type of human subjectivity, and that subjectivity was privileged to be a knower.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Kant, Judgment and the Mind

It always seemed to me, when I was taking physics, that I wasn't really being taught physics. Or, at least, that what was really important about physics was a secret art behind it on which you were tested, but about which the instructors maintained a conspiratorial silence. Newton's Three Laws, for instance, are straightforward in statement and not terribly difficult to understand. But understanding Newton's Three Laws is not really what physics courses are about.

Newton's Laws are cast in terms of forces, masses and accelerations. Such things don't appear on physics tests. What you get on physics tests are pulleys, ramps, blocks, rockets, skiers, race cars, trains, planes and automobiles. The secret art behind physics that is necessary for the tests is how to go from the race cars and blocks of real life to the forces, masses and accelerations of Newtonian theory. Once you've made that translation, the application of Newton's laws is straightforward and usually little more than routine. But in my experience, physics instruction stumbled just where it was needed most - a clear, methodical way to make the translation from real beings like blocks and pulleys to the physical abstractions. This isn't to say that such translations weren't extensively practiced; they were, but the practice was an end in itself. You either "got it" from extensive practice and examples of successful solutions, or you didn't. The critical skill involved in performing physics was just the one instructors couldn't say much about.

It wasn't until I read Kant that I understood why this was so. The relevant passage is in the Critique of Pure Reason, The Transcendental Analytic, Second Book, The Analytic Principles, Introduction - On the transcendental power of judgment in general.

If the understanding in general is explained as the faculty of rules, then the power of judgment is the faculty of subsuming under rules. i.e. of determining whether something stands under a given rule (casus datae legis) or not. General logic contains no precepts at all for the power of judgment, and moreover cannot contain them. For since it abstracts from all content of cognition, nothing remains to it but the business of analytically dividing the mere form of cognition into concepts, judgments and inferences, and thereby achieving formal rules for all use of the understanding. Now if it wanted to show generally how one ought to subsume under these rules, i.e., distinguish whether something stands under them or not, this could not happen except once again through a rule. But just because this is a rule, it would demand another instruction for the power of judgment, and it becomes clear that although the understanding is certainly capable of being instructed and equipped through rules, the power of judgment is a special talent that cannot be taught but only practiced. Thus this is also what is specific to so-called mother-wit, the lack of which cannot be made good by any school; for, although such a school can provide a limited understanding with plenty of rules borrowed from the insight of others and as it were graft these onto it, nevertheless the faculty of making use of them correctly must belong to the student himself, and in the absence of such a natural gift no rule that one might prescribe to him for this aim is safe from misuse. A physician therefore, a judge, or a statesmen, can have many fine pathological, juridical, or political rules in his head, of which he can even be a thorough teacher, and yet can easily stumble in their application, either because he is lacking in natural power of judgment (though not in understanding), and to be sure understand the universal in abstracto but cannot distinguish whether a case in concreto belongs under it, or also because he has not received adequate training for this judgement through examples and actual business.

The secret art I sensed behind physics is what Kant calls judgment; the faculty of subsuming the concrete particular under general rules. In the case of physics, the general rules are Newton's Three Laws, the concrete particular are the blocks and pulleys of any given problem. Kant explains why instructors can't do much more than provide examples in developing the faculty of judgment. Using an argument to infinity, he notes that were instructors able to formulate a rule to apply the rules, that would only push the difficulty back one step, because it would still require an act of judgment to apply the meta-rule.

Kant recognized the deep mystery behind modern empirical science. That science is so powerful and exact, Kant saw, because it is formulated in terms that the mind itself creates. Chet Raymo notes this in Ch. 1 of Skeptics and True Believers, but he doesn't follow through on its deep implications:

"No scientist will dispute that 'atom' is a made-up concept; however, the concept 'atom' is the most concise way - perhaps the only way - to make sense of our detailed, quantitative experience of the material world."

Raymo doesn't mention the linkage Kant saw in the Critique: "atom" is the most concise way to make sense of experience because it is a "made-up" concept. Kant further saw that because science conducts itself in terms of "made-up" concepts, there will always be an unfathomable mystery at the bottom of both science and the mind that conducts it. On the objective side, that mystery is captured in the distinction between the phenomenal (things as they appear to us through our scientific concepts) and the noumenal (things as they are in themselves.) We know reality through our "made-up" concept of "atom." This is the human mind's "take" on reality; it surely reflects something true about reality, but it is reality filtered through the concepts the mind makes up to make reality intelligible. We can be confident that the concept "atom" reflects something true about reality, and even that it is our best way of getting at that truth, but we have no way of accessing the "pre-filtered" reality (the noumena) prior to its interpretation through the concept "atom."

On the subjective side, the mystery is reflected in the act of judgment, which is the act of the mind subsuming particular reality under the general rules of science, including general scientific concepts. The act of judgment is prior to science itself, since science only works with its own concepts, and can have nothing to say about how the mind captures reality in the concepts that make science itself possible. Newtonian physics gets rolling with forces, masses and accelerations; these are the only things it "knows." How the mind subsumes reality under Newtonian concepts is a question Newtonian science, or any other science, can say nothing about. This is why physics instructors can provide practice in the act of judgment, but can do no more than that.

An immediate conclusion from Kant's Critique is that a "science of the mind" of the kind being hotly pursued today, is an exercise in futility. The mind that "makes-up" the concepts that make science itself possible will always be invisible to that science, since it is always prior to it. As soon as science starts, it has left behind the mind that made science possible. What the mind can know at this point is only the mind as it appears on the far side of its scientific concepts; in other words, the mind only insofar as the act of scientific judgment has already occurred.

This explains why contemporary scientists and philosophers of the mind seem so often to talk past each other. None of them have really understood Kant and taken him to heart. They all start their philo-scientific investigations the way Kant says they must start, with a pre-scientific rendering of reality under scientific concepts through an act of judgment. This rendering is the most crucial and decisive part of their investigation, but is generally the part least talked about and the most taken for granted. It usually happens in an introduction or a couple of paragraphs, followed by hundreds and hundreds of pages of conclusions from the mind science that results from that initial pre-scientific judgment. Since there is no guarantee that everyone's pre-scientific judgments will be the same, there is no guarantee that all the mind researchers will make the same acts of judgment, and so no guarantee that they will arrive at the same conclusions, or even that they will conduct science in a way that others researchers find legitimate. But there is no recognition that the reason the results are different isn't because the science is different, but because the pre-science is different, and no amount of scientific research can ever resolve the difference.

The acrimony results because every mind researcher senses that his rivals are "stealing a base", but he is at a loss as to say how. Everyone is right that everyone else is stealing a base, of course, because the base stolen is the pre-scientific act of judgment that makes science possible. We've lost the philosophical self-awareness of a great philosopher like Immanuel Kant, who recognized that his own subjective act of judgment is not absolute and is not binding on everyone else. The Critique is truly a philosophical work, because it invites the reader's mind to know itself through itself, relying on its own insight and acts of judgment, not taking Kant's judgments to be absolute. Instead, the mind researcher of today takes his own act of judgment to be absolute, although not self-consciously, and implicitly demands that everyone else submit to it. Of course, all the other researchers want to start their research with their own absolute acts of judgment, and the fight is on.

Daniel Dennett, inadvertently, provides a window into this phenomenon with his concept of "heterophenomenology", his take on how mind science should be conducted, as described in Consciousness Explained. Under heterophenomenology, the mind researcher interviews a subject and gets the subject's account and interpretation of his own experience. He claims to see trees and birds, to experience emotions, feel pain, and even - Dennett's ultimate target - to experience a sense of self. During the interview, the researcher withholds judgment concerning the truth of the subject's experience; although it may seem to the subject that he saw trees or birds, or seem to him that he has a self, this all may in fact be an illusion. This is something that will be decided in the course of the researcher's later scientific investigations of the mind, which will follow on the collection of a set of interviews and lab work.

With his interviews in hand, the researcher begins his investigations. How does he do it? By beginning with acts of pre-scientific judgment of the kind he denied to his interview subjects. He decides that the "mind" or the "self" is something shadowy and possibly unreal, and that the "brain" is a hard, metaphysical fact, the reality of which is unchallengeable. What about the birds and trees the subject claims to have seen? Those may or may not be real, pending the outcome of the investigation, but the investigator's own sense that he was a real interviewer interviewing a real subject is not subject to any doubt, in fact being a prerequisite to get the scientific investigation under way. What has happened is very simple: The investigator has simply assumed that his own act of judgment is absolute with respect to his subject's acts of judgment. This is what separates Dennett, and the general run of mind researchers, from Immanuel Kant, whom they are still way behind even if they think they are miles in front of him.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Belief in God as Wish Fulfillment

I picked up Chet Raymo's Skeptics and True Believers at the used book store today for a couple of bucks.

In the Introduction, Raymo divides the world into Skeptics and True Believers (no points for guessing which category Raymo prefers). Here is what he says about the forces pushing one to be a True Believer:

"The forces that nudge us toward True Belief are pervasive and well-nigh irresistible. Supernatural faith systems provide a degree of emotional security that skepticism cannot provide. Who among us would not prefer to believe that there exists a divine parent who has our best interest at heart? Who among us would not prefer to believe that we will live forever? Skepticism, on the other hand, offers only uncertainty and doubt. What keeps scientific skepticism on track, against the individual's need for emotional security, is a highly evolved social structure, including professional associations and university departments, peer-reviewed literature, meetings and conferences, and a language that relies heavily on mathematics and specialized nomenclature."

Raymo intends the questions in the middle of the paragraph to be rhetorical, but he doesn't seem to see that the questions cut both ways. A "divine parent" who has our best interests at heart, is also a divine parent who judges us and places demands on us. Anyone who prefers not to have his "freedom" restricted by Commandments or requirements to go to Mass and Confession, is someone who prefers not to have a divine parent. Who among us would prefer to have a divine parent judging us and demanding we obey his Commandments?

As far as immortal life, who would prefer to live forever if that life is damned to Hell? That's the downside to immortality; our actions in this life determine our eternal destiny, and that destiny is forever. Kierkegaard brilliantly (and horrifyingly) probes the psychology of eternal despair in The Sickness Unto Death. The soul in despair wants to die, but cannot. Who would prefer to believe that our deeds haunt us into eternity?

I see the "wish fulfillment" argument as a wash when it comes to God. Every theistic wish that might be fulfilled by the existence of God (the comfort of a divine parent looking out for us), has a parallel atheistic wish (the non-existence of God leaves me free to indulge my desires without guilt or fear of divine wrath.) The desire for immortal life is countered by the fear that it might mean having to endure the unendurable. The desire to believe in a guardian angel is countered by the desire to believe that evil spirits bent on our destruction are but a myth, etc.

I've always found the wish-fulfillment argument a non-sequiter in any case, since just because something fulfills a wish doesn't mean it isn't true. Sometimes your fondest wishes do come true.

Who would not prefer to believe that?

Friday, February 12, 2010

A definition of scientism has the following definition of scientism:

"The belief that the assumptions, methods of research, etc., of the physical and biological sciences are equally appropriate and essential to all other disciplines, including the humanities and the social sciences."

I think this is a weak definition. Those with a scientistic mentality don't always think that the methods of the hard sciences are appropriate to the humanities. What they think is that the methods of the hard sciences are the only methods that can result in knowledge. Their conclusion is not that scientific methods are appropriate to the humanities, but that the humanities don't issue in knowledge because they cannot be pursued according to scientific methods.

I prefer the following definition of scientism, which may not be original with me, although I have not come across it in quite this formulation:

"Scientism is the mistake of taking the results of science to be more firmly known than its prerequisites."

It is, in other words, to think physics is more certain than metaphysics. It is to be confident that the atoms, electrons, quarks and black holes that result from scientific inquiry are "really real", but be suspicious of the microscopes, telescopes and centrifuges the scientist uses to deduce those electrons and black holes. This suspicion may even extend to the mind of the scientist who conducted the science.

Another way of saying it is that the scientistic mindset finds the everyday world of common experience to be more metaphysically suspect than the world constructed by scientific inquiry. It is to be more confident of the reality of bosons and protons than it is of cars, trees or the wind. The self-contradiction of scientism is that the possibility of science depends on the reality of the world of common experience; if the world of common experience is suspect, then the science that occurs in it is at least as suspect. And it is metaphysics that explores and defends the world of common experience.

At the origin of modern science, Galileo constructed a telescope and looked through it to discover the moons of Jupiter. Galileo's scientific discovery was only possible because he was here, the moons of Jupiter were there, and he was able to look from here to there through the telescope. Galileo did not discover the distinction between here and there; he brought the distinction into science and it is that distinction (among other things) that made his science possible. His science is a science of reality only because the distinction between here and there is a distinction not merely in our minds, but in reality as well. If the distinction between here and there is not real, or is just a fantasy of our minds, then the science conducted in light of it is a fantasy as well. In fact, Galileo's science is a science of reality only to the extent that the metaphysics supporting it is a metaphysics of reality.

The reader may recognize Immanuel Kant lurking in that last paragraph, and Kant is the great philosopher of modernity because he understood the meaning of the presumptions of modern thought and refused to turn from their consequences. He did not try to have his cake and eat it too, as so many modern thinkers do.

The scientistic mindset doesn't get this, and, unlike Kant, tends to think that science can produce the metaphysics that would underwrite its own possibility. This is endemic to contemporary mind science. It is amazing how many mind investigators quote Kant yet how little he is understood. Mind investigators find the metaphysical status of the mind to be dubious and mysterious, but have great confidence in the metaphysical ground of the scientific conclusions this shadowy mind draws. It's as though they think a fictional scientist in a movie can draw real conclusions about the size of the theater in which the movie is shown. Alas, a fictional scientist can only conduct a fictional science... and a science of reality must start in reality, and to do that it needs a metaphysics of reality.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Philosophy and Freedom

It's been a long time since I've visited the blog of the Maverick Philosopher; I like the redesign Bill has done since I last visited. One thing that hasn't changed is his motto:

"Study everything, join nothing."

My latest visit reminded me that I've always instinctively recoiled from the motto. What Bill precisely means by it is explored more fully in this post. For my part, the motto seems to exclude from philosophy exactly that which I hope to get from it and, perhaps, what is crucial to philosophy as classically conceived. This post is an exploration of this theme.

In the dialog Crito, Socrates is waiting in prison for his execution and is offered a chance to escape. Crito agrees with him that the question of escape is ultimately one of justice, so they must consider the question of whether it is just for Socrates to escape. Socrates, briefly attempting to justify escape, considers the question in terms we would probably find natural:

"Or shall I answer the Laws, 'The reason is that the state wronged me, and did not judge the case right?'"

Socrates replies in the voice of the Laws, and his response is essentially this: It is not the prerogative of Socrates and Crito to judge whether the state has decided the case correctly. The Law and the State exist prior to Socrates, in many senses of the term, and the decision to even consider the possibility that escape might be justified betrays a misunderstanding of human existence. Socrates "joined" the City by the fact of his birth, and existence comes with duties and obligations that bind the philosopher as much as anyone else:

"First of all, did we not bring you into life, and through us your father took your mother, and begat you? ... Well, the laws about feeding the child and education in which you were brought up. Did not those which had that duty do well in directing your father to educate you in mind and body?... When you had been born and brought up and educated, could you say in the first place that your were not our offspring and our slave, you and your ancestors also? And if this is so, do you think you have equal rights with us, and whatever we try to do to you, do you think you also have a right to do to us?"

The response Socrates gives in the voice of the Laws is not merely a legal response. It is a philosophical one. If the vocation of the philosopher is to know and live the truth, then that vocation is betrayed when the philosopher does not acknowledge the duties and obligations that human existence necessarily involves. But it is more than this. We are by nature social animals; the obligations of country, family and religion are not arbitrary or heteronomous impositions on human nature. They are essential components to any human existence. It is natural for us to be joined to others and under the obligations of state, family and religion (among others). For the philosopher to know and live the truth about himself, he must know and live the truth about the social nature of human existence. In other words, "joining" is not something the philosopher should flee but something he should embrace, for it is only in "joining" that he can experience, or even know, the full truth about human being.

This doesn't say it quite right, because "joining" implies some prior state of human existence, absent obligation, and from which the person chooses or not to "join." The philosophical point I am making is that there is no such prior, obligation-free state of existence. Our existence is that of one already joined. This is why Socrates, even though he philosophically challenged the religion of Athens, nonetheless fulfilled its obligations. He understood that the philosophical vocation is not a free pass to ignore duty and obligation; more deeply, since duty and obligation are natural to human existence, the philosophical vocation can only be fulfilled by experiencing duty and obligation in its depths, not avoiding it wherever possible. The Socratic challenge to religion occurred from within religion and was itself an expression of religion purifying itself. Indeed, this is the only way true reform can happen, and was the path later followed by St. Thomas Aquinas and Soren Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard has this to say about the difference between the classical and the modern philosopher:

"In Greece, as in the youth of philosophy generally, it was found difficult to win through to the abstract and to leave existence, which always gives the particular; in modern times, on the other hand, it has become difficult to reach existence. The process of abstraction is easy enough for us, but we also desert existence more and more, and the realm of pure thought is the extreme limit of such desertion.

In Greece, philosophizing was a mode of action, and the philosopher was therefore an existing individual. He may not have possessed a great amount of knowledge, but what he did know he knew to some profit, because he busied himself early and late with the same thing." [Concluding Unscientific Postscript, The Subjective Thinker 2.]

When he speaks of the individual and existence, Kierkegaard's meaning includes the duties and obligations specific to a person's individual existence. Socrates knew, "to his profit", that he was born and lived as a citizen of Athens and that his philosophical vocation could not entail a flight from Athens, but rather must involve an exploration of the mystery of obligation in his own specific, subjective context in Athens. We may, indeed, see Socrates' entire philosophical career as a fulfillment of his philosophical obligation to purify Athens from within; his willingness to die in Athens rather than escape, fully aware of the philosophical meaning of this submission, representing a "joining" to the city of unprecedented depth.

The monastic vocation of St. Thomas Aquinas, similarly, was not in tension with his philosophical vocation. St. Thomas, like Socrates, was one of those individuals born with the natural wisdom to "remain in existence" and embrace duty rather than "abstract" himself from it. It was only because he remained aware of the subjective truth of human existence in his monastic vocation, that his philosophical vocation had the effect it did. Like Socrates, St. Thomas offered a philosophical challenge to the religion of his day, offering a Christian interpretation of Aristotle that challenged the reigning Platonism. Although St. Thomas's doctrines were initially proscribed by the Bishop of Paris, his philosophy was later embraced by the universal Church, in no small part because of the manifest holiness of the man St. Thomas (see Etienne Gilson's the Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas on this.) St. Thomas's reformation of Christian philosophy was more easily accepted because, coming from St. Thomas, a man who clearly fulfilled the meaning of Christian existence in his own life, it was easier to trust that his philosophy was authentically Christian as well.

Returning to the motto ("Study everything, join nothing"), we may ask what "everything" includes. Does it include the human things - friendship, love, faith, hope, duty, honor, responsibility, justice, among others? I submit that none of these things can be understood from the outside; from studying them without joining them. And joining them means joining some human community of which they are an aspect. Plato held that the young should not be taught philosophy because they do not have the experience to make it meaningful. They don't have the "data" of philosophy, as it were. The data only comes from life, and the more "joined" that life the better. Socrates was a military veteran and St. Thomas an avowed mendicant friar.

I think my last foray over to the Maverick Philosopher involved the book Into the Wild. If you don't recall, this is the story of Chris McCandless, a young man eventually found dead living on his own in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan countryside. McCandless was an intelligent and passionate young man, and his foray into the Alaskan wilderness was not his first adventure of this type. McCandless was clearly a man "looking for something" in the philosophical sense, and his extreme adventures were an attempt to break through to some philosophical or spiritual state of being. He was a young man of some virtue, and his story is reminiscent of medieval figures like St. Francis of Assisi, abandoning all in favor of a higher vocation. But the strongest impression I got from reading Into the Wild was the essential immaturity of what McCandless was attempting. What all his adventures had in common was that they strictly avoided any obligation or responsibility. This is what separates him from someone like St. Francis. Sometimes McCandless would take odd jobs (like mucking out cattle pens), and although he was always well-regarded in his work, he would never stay in the same job for long. My impression was that as soon as he began to develop some local ties, to become "rooted" in a community, he would see that as a signal to move on. This is the modern mistake of seeing the meaning of freedom in freedom from obligation and responsibility, of not being "joined" to anything. But such "freedom" involves a distortion of the meaning of human existence, Unfortunately, philosophers in the old mold of St. Thomas or Socrates are rare in the modern university, so McCandless never learned this lesson despite his formal philosophical education. Even more unfortunately, a passionate soul like McCandless will finally only find frustration in such a free-floating existence; instead of finding true meaning in the free submission to something greater than himself, he will seek it in ever more radical and dangerous individual experiences, experiences that may eventually become lethal.

The banner on my blog is not intended as a rejoinder to the Maverick Philosopher's motto, but it functions as one nonetheless. The subjective thinker does not wish to study without joining, but to understand himself in the context of his concrete existence, with its relationships, obligations and duties. He wishes to think philosophically, that is in terms of abstract universals like "justice", "friendship" and "love", but with reference to the specifics of his own existence - "to understand the abstract concretely."