Wednesday, July 7, 2010

more thinking

Some further cogitationes. I feel like I'm going out on a limb here! But just take this in the spirit of “anything worth doing, is worth doing badly.” (GK Chesterton).

I mentioned that one reason that I was interested in the connection between consciousness and external reality is that so many people seem to get this wrong. It's probably very easy to get it wrong and I know I slip into errors of thinking as much as anyone. However, thinking upon these things does induce a sort of humility that goes missing in some of the public discourse on the Big Questions, like this one: Does science make belief in God obsolete?

A lot of secular rationalists seem to think their system of thought is grounded on pure reason. But if Husserl is right, that's like saying "I am not standing on the Earth, I'm standing on a rock". The obvious next question is: "Upon what is the rock standing?" To put it another way, believing in reason per se is a powerful leap of faith. You can see that in the very semantics of "belief in reason". Upon what is that belief grounded? Belief by definition is not reason, it's a precursor to reason. It is not UNreasonable by definition, please note. But that gets us back to the territory of the rock and what it's standing on.

I was trying to think of all the different ways people find to approach this problem. Here's what I came up with, a tentative list:

(1) People who explicitly start with faith in an outside referent, outside their consciousness (I think it pretty much has to be some version of a deity, even if the material universe becomes a provisional deity for this purpose), and derive from this their faith in the essential integrity of human reason. I think some philosophers even start from a humanist position in this regard -- in other words, their "belief" is in the power of humanity to be reasonable, to think in correspondence with objective reality. If you "believe" in the universe, maybe you think that the universe MUST evolve in such a way as to eventually produce a thinking species, and we are that species. And I think monotheists generally believe in reason because they believe in a God who is reasonable and made humans in His image. In other words, in all these positions you believe in reason, but you acknowledge the "belief" part of it explicitly. It is not unreasonable to "believe" -- as Aquinas points out, it's an economy of thought and functionally necessary to us in order to live -- but it seems important that the "belief" is a grounded one, ie that it corresponds with truth, otherwise it is erroneous, mistaken and consequently unreasonable. In other words, one "belief" isn't just as good as another -- even though I've put a variety under the same general category.

(2) People who base all their lifelong endeavors on an implicit but "naive" belief in human reason and its ability to penetrate into reality -- they act "as if" their perceptions were simply and existentially true. In other words, they are somewhat like the Category 1 people but don't really bother to make explicit their implicit assent of faith. This is materially but not formally sufficient. In other words, it seems that you can live a decent life, build nice skyscrapers and efficient toilets, or become a quarterback legend with this kind of presupposition. You need no more. And there are lots of other things you can do or be. You can be a very successful baby or toddler, too. But what you can't do: You can't claim you "know" God doesn't exist and you can't coherently proclaim that the material world is all there is. When you do this you get into absurdities, the kind where you have focused your question too narrowly. Or so I would say.

(3)People who claim that reason is in doubt but generally act as if it weren't -- ie using reason to cast reason into doubt (there are skeptics and Christians in this category). The radical skeptics don't believe that human reason is in touch with reality, or perhaps they don't believe there IS a reality, just our perceptions of it which may wildly vary and yet be "true" in the sense that "appearances" are true for the one perceiving. However, it's impossible to hold this position coherently, it seems to me, since one uses the tools of reason even to write out such a statement. Of course, there are various mental gymnastics to avoid the more obvious errors in this position. It's funny to meet Christians, too, who think that reason is a hopelessly corrupt tool, and will put forward "reasonable" arguments to show that this is true.

(4) People like Descartes that started with what he thought we COULD know with certainty and then tried to derive everything else from there, but with mixed success. This seems like a gallant endeavor to me in some ways, but I've never been sure whether or not it's a false construction from Ground Zero. I mentioned that in my earlier post.

Are there any other solutions? That's one of my ongoing puzzles. And this is sort of what Husserl seems to deal with. He tries to take up where Descartes left off, avoiding the skeptical pitfalls that his predecessors fell into. Does he circle back to Aristotleanism? I don't know enough even to frame these questions correctly. But this doesn't stop me from trying; philosophy is something that everyone does well or badly, consciously or by default, so errors aren't necessarily fatal as long as one doesn't get locked into them.

I am thinking that I fall into Category 1. But I don't think I described it very well. And I'm not sure how much it overlaps with Category 4. My lack of Thomist foundation really handicaps me here.

Many people you meet and hear from nowadays seem to fall into Category 2. Either they devote themselves to practical matters and never deal with epistemology at all, or they deal with epistemology by denying there needs to be such a thing, which seems sort of like the "see no evil" monkey picture. Of course, it is wise in one way of them to do so. Every human science depends on it. Reasons itself depends on it. Yet the reasoning chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and the weakest link of a secular rationalist is their starting presupposition: that their perceptive and reasoning process corresponds to reality.

Now that I've said that, I wonder if there is a more philosophical way to be in Category 2. That's another puzzle that keeps recurring to my mind. If there is, I should like to hear it. Also, now that I think of it, some rationalists seem to fall into Category 1 -- they ascribe a sort of provisional divinity to the physical universe -- but that raises other questions.

I am only focusing on rationalists because they still influence the public mind to a great degree. I think the reason for this is that Americans are practical. They want an efficient philosophy, one that gets the job done. Inquiry into causes doesn't seem too practical when it is effects that matter. But why do effects matter? Unless you accept the view that comfort, health, long life and lots of good things are what count. But what then? What are those for? Are they good in themselves or for the sake of something else? It seems that "getting the goods" or "getting the job done" are servile goods -- they're only FOR something beyond themselves.

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