Over the next three posts, I will be outlining the theory of Forms, beginning today with why Plato might have concocted the theory in the first place, moving next to what exactly the theory is and how it works, and finishing up with an analysis of the criticisms of the Forms offered by Parmenides (primarily), and a few others since.
I decided to spend three of my vacation days on the London School of Philosophy’s “Summer School” conference, this week. The theme of the conference was “Philosophy: Past, Present, and Future”, and the talks focused heavily on the broad questions like the nature of philosophy, it’s role and purpose in society, it’s place in history, its relationship to art and literature, and the implications drawn from consideration of these questions, for the future.
Day One: The End In The Beginning
The first day carried us into the past, to ask the question “where did we come from?”. The day opened with a lecture by Tom Rubens on Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Representation, and ended with a lecture by Tim Beardsmore-Gray, on Nietzsche’s theory of Eternal Recurrence. These two lectures functioned as profound book-ends, framing the picture of the entire day. The never-ending quest to understand ourselves, the universe within which we must take our place, and the significance of that role as self-aware and self-examining creatures, was a quest taken up with great gusto by the German half of the Enlightenment project, and they provide a powerful signpost in the history of philosophy. Though the German outlook was deeply pessimistic in character, it was also deeply optimistic in its ambitions, and this sense of conflicting attitudes about the past, present, and future, seemed to resonate throughout the conference.
The dualistic character of the day was made almost comical, by the juxtaposition of Dr. Hurley’s lecture on the history of Truth, and development of theories of truth, directly with Dr. Golob’s discussion of the nature and evolution of stupidity. Questions of what we can justifiably say that we know, when certainty transforms into absurdity, how we can tell the difference, and what implications this has in practice, are as old as philosophy itself. While stupidity might seem to be one of those common sense “I know it when I see it” problems, Dr. Golob made it amusingly clear that the answer is not so simple after all. Likewise, famously, the problem of defining Truth, was humbly demonstrated by Dr. Hurley. For all our progress, philosophy still struggles with the most fundamental questions, it seems.
Into this mix, entered Descartes, and the problem of the self. Grant Bartley’s lecture walked us through the core problem in Descartes’ Meditations – the problem of what we can know without doubt, including ourselves, reminding us of the need of philosophy to continually renew and remake itself – and in the process, remaking ourselves. As Iris Murdoch puts it in her essay, “The Idea of Perfection”:
“I think it is an abiding and not a regrettable characteristic of the discipline, that philosophy has in a sense to keep trying to return to the beginning; a thing which is not at all easy to do…”
Jane O’Grady carried this notion forward in her outline of the project of the Enlightenment, showing its central characters to be the embodiment of what Iris Murdoch, again, described as the “two-way movement in philosophy… toward the building of elaborate theories, and… back again toward the consideration of simple and obvious facts…” Dr. O’Grady suggests that this movement is how best to understand the Enlightenment, and offered Theodore Adorno’s book, “The Dialectic of the Enlightenment” as a guide to the way the process might work.
This idea of a cyclical ebb-and-flow, or recreation, of philosophy and of the self, reached its crescendo and resolution in the talk by Tim Beardmore-Gray, on The Eternal Recurrence. It would be easy to view Nietzsche’s idea as an attempt to achieve some sort of Transcendence without calling it Transcendence. But, I think the more correct interpretation is one in which Nietzsche is trying to find a path to the resolution of all of philosophy’s great dualisms. Self-creation and the embrace of the eternally returning past, is not just an embrace of suffering for the sake of the good, it is an acknowledgment and acceptance of all the Heraclitian oppositions of existence, and experience (an opposition itself), and an awareness of their necessity to each other. But this view carries us beyond what Beardmore-Gray is likely to ascent to. My views are my own, of course.
Day Two: Transcendence, Order, Chaos, and Pessimism
The second day of lectures, addressing the question, “where are we now?”, opened with the triumphal optimism of Dr. Steinbauer’s seminar exploring what philosophy is, and what it can be. At issue in this talk, was nothing less than the nature of philosophy itself, and how we ought to regard ourselves, as philosophers, partaking of that nature. Are we scientists? Are we theologians? Are we something else entirely? Ultimately, Dr. Steinbauer eloquently argued that what it means to be a philosopher today, is to be a catalyst for understanding, both of the world and of ourselves. The right path seems to be, for Dr. Steinbauer, somewhere between the ancient Greek love of wisdom, and the modern mechanistic notion of philosophers as Conceptual Engineers.
As if on cue, John Heyderman then offered up an attempt to unify the notion of wisdom traditions and conceptual engineering, in the form of Spinoza’s pantheistic monism. According to this view, mind and body are two sides of the same coin. Heyderman explained that Spinoza saw all of reality as a consequence of the activity of the mind of God. To put it more succinctly: the universe is an idea in the mind of God, and by analogy, the body of man is an idea in the mind of man. This, perhaps, takes Descartes’ speculations about the sustenance of real experience (as a consequence of God’s goodness) to another level, by suggesting that his goodness is not enough. It is his existence that makes all of existence possible – his existence is as a mind, which as ideas. God, on this view, could be said to be the ultimate conceptual engineer.
Professor Fiona Ellis, later in the day, seemed to borrow from Heyderman on the basic idea of Spinoza, but painted the picture in a more naturalistic light. On her model, the universe of facts – the universe explained to us by modern physics and chemistry – is the correct view, but not the complete view. She described a reality in which various features of existence are co-mingled: Nature, Value, and God, all count as aspects to be reckoned with, and modern science is only capable of addressing the first. The specter of the fact-value dichotomy, and the is-ought problem, loom large in this picture, and Professor Ellis struggled to elaborate a coherent reconciliation of these distinctions. She invoked Levinas, in her own defense, who apparently argued that attempting to know God is attempting total control of reality, which is nothing less than deluding ourselves. Professor Ellis, in addition, argued inspiringly for a kind of knowledge of God as an experience had in essential relationships. Something that is not quite “God is Love”, but akin to the notion.
Returning to earth, Kieth Barrett gave what I believe to be the highlight lecture of the conference. His, was a tour de force defense of the idea of philosophy as a sense-making apparatus, extracting rational order from the chaos of existence around us. To open the discussion, Dr. Barrett provided two fascinating conceptions of order. One Transcendent, and one Immanent. The transcendent order comes to us from the ideal, and is realized by careful study and contemplation. This is the order of Plato’s Republic or Augustine’s City of God, it is static and uniform. The immanent order is not revealed, but discovered in patterns of essential characteristics made apparent through consistent observation. This is the order of Aristotle’s Organon.
Dr. Barrett’s bridging synthesis of the thesis of Transcendence, and its antithesis of Immanence, is the Enlightenment. Here, he argues, the modern natural philosophers take their inspiration from Aristotle, but their ideological commitments from Plato. The science of the Enlightenment, says Barrett, is not a genuinely empirical endeavor, because it goes far beyond the justifiable claims of sense experience, and posits a completely new conception of Transcendent order in the mathematics of Newton, and the abstractions of the presocratic Atomists. This, then, coupled with the Judeo-Christian ethical tradition of the 17th and 18th century, forms the basis of the Enlightenment worldview, and the construction of “The Rational Subject”, as posited by Zaretsky, in Secrets of the Soul. Dr. Barrett concludes his case by outlining Zaretsky’s evolution of the self, as a primary feature of the evolution of the Enlightenment, ultimately arguing, in a similar vein as Professor O’Grady earlier, that the Enlightenment never really ended, it has simply evolved into new forms in the present. The Rational Subject of Descartes, in synchrony with this transformation, has itself transformed into the Situated Subject of Freud, and finally the Deconstructed Subject of Levinas.
Which brings us up to the (philosophical) present, and all the political chaos it presently entails. Mark Fielding’s contribution to this effort, was a view of the present political landscape through the lens of Hannah Arendt’s famous “Truth and Politics” essay of 1967. Here, the opposition presented is between Truth as a value and Power as a value, and the implications of that choice. This talk was, by far, the most confounding to me. The argument seems to run something like this: politicians are expected, as a normative condition, to be liars. The polity loves to be lied to. Successful politicians, then, are the best at offering the lies that the polity most want to hear. The most successful liars are the ones who are best able to lie to themselves, especially. However – so goes the rest of the argument – it is also the case that truth is necessary for making sense of the world, and power is the capacity to get things done in the world.
The implications of this paradox are peculiar. If the most successful politicians are indeed the most successful liars, then either those politicians are not actually getting anything done in the world and thus have no real power, or the truth is somehow not necessary for making sense of the world or getting things done within it.
It is utterly unclear how this conundrum is to be solved. But I would venture a guess that the first implication is the correct one – albeit counterintuitive. Political power is one of the most illusory powers on earth. It often seems as though politicians are getting loads of things done in the world, but when you watch what they do, rather than listen to what they say, you begin to realize that the world of politics is great deal of sound and fury signifying nothing at all, and that the vast majority of politicians actually do not in fact, get anything done in the world. This suggests that Arendt was right to recognize the lying, but failed to see its impotence, as manifest in political power, because she could not square impotence with political power. But, had she remembered her Plato, she might have recalled the story of Archelaus from The Gorgias, and Socrates’ judgment of him as the least powerful man in Macedon, or his discussion with Glaucon or Thrasymachus in The Republic, on the nature of the truly just man. Perhaps Arendt found these unconvincing, but if Fielding’s reading is correct, it is hard to see why anyone would find her convincing.
The night was capped off by adding bitter herbs to this simmering broth of pessimistic cynicism. A four man panel was convened to discuss “Philosophy in a Post-Truth Age” (whatever that means). The discussion centered primarily around “fake news”, “free speech”, and the overwrought political dialogue of the popular press. The opening speeches were awkward, curt, and uninteresting, and the room was more or less paralyzed by an overarching anxious malaise that prevented any real discussion from taking place. I left the conference on the second night, wondering whether I should come back or not. The contrast from the morning’s lecture by Anja could not have been more stark, in terms of the pessimism, and I seriously questioned whether philosophy could — let alone did — have any traction in the “real world”. The chaos of the present has just about scrubbed away most the enthusiasm for the orderly universe engendered over the course of the rest of the day.
Day Three: Idealism, Utopianism, and The Disintegrating Self
Day three of the conference purports to address the question “where are we going?”, beginning with a deep discussion of who we are, and want to become. The final lecture of Thursday night, “Human and Robot Minds”, by Richard Baron, and the opening lecture of Friday, “Philosophical Zombies”, by Rick Lewis, examined the problem of consciousness from the opposition of internal and external perspectives. Robot minds, it turns out, force us to look inward to discover what matters most about being human, meanwhile Zombies force us to look outward and face the possibility that there may not actually be anything significantly different. A key point raised by Lewis, is Chalmers’ conceivability criterion. Chalmers invents the Zombie as a means of asking whether it is conceivable that a creature emptied of whatever it is that makes a human special, but behaved in every way the same, could fool us into thinking it was the same. This is the mirror image of the Turing Test, really, and we are now getting to the point where in some settings, it is difficult to distinguish between a machine brain, and a human mind. The point is that it is now conceivable that, in the distant future, philosophical zombies could exist – as robot minds. At that point, how would we tell the difference? And, if we can’t, then what is it, exactly, that defines the human experience? As dazzlingly futuristic and apparently escapist a topic as this seems, it is profoundly distressing because it suggests that the mind-body problem resolves not into only mind, but into only body. Perhaps the hard determinists and physicalists are correct, and there are only bodies in motion. Maybe Sam Harris and his ilk are correct, and the self is just a complex delusion, required for the survival of the human organism.
But, the intractability of the subjective, first-person, conscious experience (what “it is like” to be “me”), is a problem only for the empirical disciplines. Notice how all the tests require a third-person perspective, and the sort of data that cannot tell you what you want to know anyway. From the perspective of science, it is an unfalsifiable problem, and as such, is not a scientific one. But it does not follow logically that the “self doesn’t exist”. This is a physicalist presupposition similar to the old business management maxim: if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t matter. But conscious experience does matter. In humans, it is the one thing that seems to matter the most, of all our characteristics. What is needed, is a new toolset, or some new methodology, which is capable of accounting for subjective conscious experience. In the absence of such a thing, philosophers will have to continue to do battle in the realm of speculation, mytho-poetics, and moral philosophy.
The next round of speakers for the day all moved us beyond the self, pressing the problem of the relation between the individual and society. Christian Michel, John Holroyd, and Sam Freemantle, each addressed this problem in ways that were simultaneously naively optimistic and yet weighed down by skeptical wariness born of experience. Christian Michel offered a defense of Nozick’s conception of a property-based anarchist utopia. Christian buoyed us with his deeply moving memories of post-WWII France and Charles de Gaulle, and provided a powerful critique of the property-less communist ideal of French intellectualism of that time. But his exposition of the alternative, while enthusiastic and inspiring, was nonetheless unconvincing because of its superficiality. There are hundreds of critiques of Nozick’s book, and numerous treatments of the problems of a stable property-rights regime in an anarchist world, that once understood, render this dream somewhat stale. His particular lecture was especially poignant and frustrating for me, because I have my own experience of just this sort of enthusiastic zeal on first discovering the likes of Mises and Rothbard, Nozick and Nock, Friedman and Hans-Hoppe. There is no question that the nation-state, as we presently experience it, is not quite right; that something needs to change, and — if you’re disposed to think as I do — the most likely improvement is going to be in the direction of minimalism and decentralization.
John Holroyd, by comparison, was much more circumspect in his aspirations. Holroyd’s talk offered interesting perspectives on the problem of localism and sense of community, in an increasingly globalized world. He highlights Michael Ignatieff’s book “Ordinary Virtues”, as a possible approach to thinking about these problems, and the book contains many allusions to the earlier iterations of globalization (before and during WWI, for example). Next, he takes on the question of “trans-humanism” – the movement eager to expand the conception of the improvement of human life through medical technology, to include things like cyborg augmentation (e.g., Neuro-link), and life-extension. The problem here, for Holroyd, is how to maintain a sense of humanity in all this augmentation, and what we do about the unintended consequences such changes are likely to have on quality of life and our sense of fulfillment. Lastly, Holroyd wants to tie the answers to these problems to an education system geared toward more human contact. The idea seems to be that, as technology begins to crowd out more and more of our time and attention, a conscious effort is going to have to be made to incorporate a more “organic”, local, human-to-human social culture.
Sam Freemantle’s talk purported to address the question of the future of Liberalism. This may be the most important political question of our age. We are literally on the precipice of ending Liberalism as a political project, and without any serious consideration, that death is likely to come all too quietly. Dr. Freemantle’s talk was useful, in the sense that he rightly pointed out many of the biggest problems posed by Liberalism’s reliance on traditional Utilitarianism, and he rightly lamented several failed attempts to rescue Utilitarianism from itself (namely, in the form of Rawls’ Theory of Justice). However, this talk left me feeling painfully aware of just how much more work needs to be done to revive the Classical Liberal tradition in the mind of the popular demos. Dr. Freemantle only offered tantalizing sketches and suggestions, and while one can’t be faulted for not having “The Answer” in a single one-hour talk, it remains to be seen whether anyone will ever have a sufficient answer. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing, but unless someone can explain how something could come out of the slow death of English Liberalism, I remain fearful for the future on this front.
Putting It All Into Perspective
There were a few folks whose talks I did not mention here, but this should not be construed to mean they were not worth attending, or that they were not germane to the theme of the convention. On the contrary, it would be difficult to say that any of the talks “didn’t belong”. The problem, as I see it, is that the subject matter is so broad and so deep, finding ways to integrate it all into a summary such as this, and still do it all justice, is a task for a much better writer than myself. Also, there seems to be an analogy here, to the problem of the discipline of philosophy itself. Socrates takes Gorgias to task for being unable to answer the question of what subject rhetoric is “about”. In a sense, philosophy itself suffers from this problem. Plato wanted to answer the question by asserting that it was Justice and Truth, as such. But, we seem to have collectively rejected that conception throughout history, as simultaneously too narrow, and too ill defined. What philosophy is “about”, and what it is “for”, is not something I can tackle in this post. And perhaps it is too big a question for any one conference, no matter how thorough or lengthy it is.
As is the case with most philosophical inquiry, this conference generated more new unanswered questions, than it answered. Some argue that philosophy is a tool for sense-making, finding the rational order in the chaos of existence, or seeking understanding. Indeed, it seems even I made overtures to such an explanation earlier in this post. But I think now, that maybe the main job of philosophy is not so much “sense-making”, as it is just discovering what the right questions are, in any given age. This, it seems to me, is a task that is needed now, more than ever. We are awash in a sea of noise, from the internet, from the political sphere, and from our various social spheres. One good question can pierce that noise, like a siren in the fog. If this conference has managed to accomplish that, then it was well worth the effort to organize, and well worth the effort to attend. I have indeed heard several sirens throughout the course of the last three days, and as such, count this conference as a rousing success.
It has been asked how, if at all, one might resolve the Sorites paradox. I am not convinced a solution is possible, and in this paper I will explain the responses I have become aware of, and why they fail. In the end, I will conclude that there is no solution to the paradox, but I will offer a few suggestions for a way forward.
The first response might simply be to reject the first premise of the argument. In other words, simply deny that a man with 10 hairs is in fact bald, or that 100 grains of sand is in fact a heap. In essence, this would render vague predicates useless at best, meaningless at worst, since no predicate that allows for a vague border case would be permitted to apply to anything. There is one way in which we might stretch this into plausibility, but I will address the other responses first, before returning to this in the conclusion.
The second response is to set some arbitrary boundary. This means selecting one one among the indefinite number of secondary premises beyond which all others will be false. For example, we might say that thirty-thousand and one grains of sand is the boundary below which we no longer regard a collection of grains to be a heap. At first glance, this approach might seem plausible. After all, we do this frequently in practice: setting the legal drinking age, or the number of credit-hours required to count as a ‘full-time’ student, for example. However, there are two core problems with this. First, from the context of the formal argument, there is no good reason to reject any of the subsequent conditional statements, and there appears to be no means by which we could discover a reason. The implicit modus ponens of the conditional compels us to accept them all. Second, as Wright (Vagueness, 1997) pointed out, vague predicates are inherently coarse by virtue of their intended use. So attempts to impose some sort of specificity would destroy their meaning.
The next approach would be to attempt to define a knowledge gap within some middle range of propositions between the edge false and edge true statements. On one interpretation of the idea, we could use a three-value logic, in evaluating the propositions. At some point, starting with grain one, the proposition ‘this is a heap’ would cease being false, and would instead be valued ‘unknown’ or ‘undefined’. Later, the unknown state would transition to true, once we’ve reached the next threshold. This would make it possible to judge the argument invalid, since any number of its premises were neither true nor false. However, this seems to be attempting to win on a technicality, and it suffers from the same problem as the arbitrary boundary solution, in that we have no real way of determining when the states should change.
The next response might be some form of Edgington’s “degrees” of truth (Vagueness, 1997). But this suffers from it’s own serious flaws. For example, consider the statement ‘it is raining’. That has a ‘degree’ of truth of .5. It’s negation, ‘it is not raining’ will have a degree of truth of .5. The consequence of this, is that the following propositions have exactly the same truth value: ’It is raining, and it is raining’, ’It is raining, and it is not raining’. The same problem exists with our heap of sand. So, again, we’re left with no clear way to determine the truth of the conditionals in the Sorites case.
In the end, there does not seem to be any clear resolution to this paradox. However, I would offer one suggestion. vague predicates, in addition to being inherently coarse, also seem to be describing inherently subjective experiences or judgements. While Sorites arguments seem to want to talk about objective properties of objects. Perhaps there is no solution to the paradox, precisely because “tall” or “heap” or “red” or “bald” is not in fact a property of the object being considered, but a property of the experience the subject has of that object. The paradox is perhaps trying to square subjective interpretation with objective matters of fact. And that’s why it cannot be resolved.
Truth is discoverable. I'm certain of it. It's not popular to say. It's not popular to think. But I know it's true. Anybody can discover truth if they know where to look. It only requires skepticism and an open mind. Don't take my word for it. Scrutinize every claim in this book, and if you discover no truth, then you may confidently discard it in the trash.
Patterson, Steve (2016-11-28). Square One: The Foundations of Knowledge (Kindle Locations 77-80). UNKNOWN. Kindle Edition.
Expound and assess Schopenhauer’s argument that free will is an illusion. Does he succeed in showing what he calls “relative” freedom is not really enough to constitute free will?
Schopenhauer does succeed in logically arguing that what he calls “will” is not “free”, as he conceives the terms “will” and “free”. However, he does not succeed in showing that what we commonly understand to be freedom, is in any way undermined by his conception of the will. At best, he shows is that our common conception is incomplete. I will show that Schopenhauer sets up a false dichotomy between causality and the will via a misapplication of the notion of “negative” freedom, and that he asserts a scientifically inaccurate view of human consciousness that conflates causality with fatalism through his use of the concept of the “character” of the will. Finally, I will forgive Schopenhauer his mistakes, and show how his conception of the will, as crude as it was, pointed (perhaps inadvertently) to a more sophisticated approach to understanding human freedom.
Schopenhauer distinguishes man from animal in his essay by describing our capacity for rational deliberation and showing how this capacity provides us with a means to project decisions far into the future, thus freeing us from the constraints of instinctive behavior determined by immediate environmental concerns. Schopenhauer believes this sense of control over our own actions is what gives us the feeling that “I can do as I will”. This, he says, is the “negative” conception of freedom, meaning that my actions are not necessitated by external obstacles or coercions. But, he argues, being “free to do as I will” is in some sense still constrained, because acts originate from the will, and the will itself is constrained by causality. So, for Schopenhauer, a “free” will would be one that could function independently — i.e., in violation of — the laws of physical causality; and, since no one can show this to be the case except by special pleading, the will must be causally determined, and as such, not “free”.
While the notion of being “free from obstacles” is a good starting point in searching for a definition of freedom, it is a mistake to equate the laws of physical causality with a metaphysical “obstacle”. It suggests that existence is some sort of hurdle that needs to be overcome. This is akin to Descartes’ demand for absolute certainty as a standard of “knowledge”. Both yearn for an ideal realm of absolutes in which the mind is effectively godlike, possessing a sort of unmediated awareness of everything, and capable of a spontaneity akin to Douglas Adams’ Infinite Improbability Engine, producing “decisions” in isolation (or even opposition) to the universe around it. In other words, like Descartes’ conception of knowledge, Schopenhauer’s conception of freedom is designed to render it impossible, leaving us no choice but to accept the negative conclusion that there is no such thing. But is there really no other way to look at this problem, than as an impossible metaphysical trolly dilemma between an utter enslavement to fate, or a miraculous denial of physical causality? For Schopenhauer, the answer is no, and this comes down to his view of the will.
Schopenhauer’s conception of the will is one shrouded in mystery. He describes it only in silhouette, as a feature of what he calls the “self-consciousness”: that part of the mind that is “turned inward” exclusively, and that makes us aware of our inner emotional states. He claims that the will cannot be known “in itself”, but only through the observation of our emotional states and our actions. He describes a decision, or choice, as an event in which an external “motive” is presented to the “outward-looking” consciousness, which then passes that awareness to the will. The combination of motive and the “character” of the will then produces an impulse to act in a certain way, which we can observe via the self-consciousness. He goes on to assert that the “character” of the will is something we are born with, and that remains fixed and immutable throughout our lives. So, for Schopenhauer, the “will” is a sort of Chinese Room, into which motives are inserted, and decisions are ejected, and if we had enough accumulated knowledge of every man’s decisions, we could conceivably define their character precisely, and predict all of their actions into the future, given a complete set of input “motives”.
This is a highly mechanistic view of human psychology of which even B. F. Skinner might have been skeptical. Modern neuroscience and psychology tell us that the brain is a highly “plastic” well into adulthood, that there does not seem to be any “center” of conscious control (aka “will”), and that there are many clinical therapy methods that have been very successful at altering not only behavior, but desires, impulses to action, and emotional responses to external stimuli. If we were to maintain even a metaphorical conception of the “character of the will”, modern science would compel us to a view of it that is anything but immutable. What’s more, it doesn’t make sense why an immutable will is required for Schopenhauer’s conception of the will as “causally determined”. Why is it not possible for external motives to have lasting causal effects on the “character” of the will, such that it’s later outputs did not match early results? Schopenhauer seems, implicitly, to think that this immutability is required in order to maintain his positive claim of causal determinism, but he does not explain why. Perhaps this was his attempt to avoid the “could have done otherwise” question?
For all of the vague and inexplicable features of his theory of will, Schopenhauer did manage to do us a favor. By formulating an idea that was fundamentally empirical, he offered us an opportunity for new knowledge through scientific testing of his theory. By making the distinction between matter-of-fact “negative” freedom, and the more fundamental metaphysical freedom, Schopenhauer helped to clarify the proper boundaries of our concept of freedom. By attempting to delineate the features of the conscious mind in order to isolate the will, he actually helped to begin the process of freeing us from the muddle of Cartesian dogmatisms, even while relying on them in some sense. Seen through the hind-sight lens of modern science, Schopenhauer was quite right to suspect an unexplored universe of activity in the mind occurring below the level of consciousness. The mistake he made, and that we continue to make today, is in assuming that this activity renders us incapable of acting “freely”. Schopenhauer does this because he conflates freedom with a miraculous power to untether oneself from the laws of physics. But it seems perfectly feasible that a complex process of activity – entirely governed by the laws of physics – could be going on at the neuronal level, that produced a behavioral phenomenon in living organisms that could be described as acting “freely”. The problem is, how would we know this? How could we correctly judge which of an organism’s behaviors was “free” and which was not? If I ran a rat through a maze 1,000 times, and it took the same path every time, could I say that the rat’s behavior was “determined”? Whether or not it was actually making “a free choice” is effectively an unfalsifiable hypothesis. If I drive the same route to work every day for a year, and then suddenly decide to change my route because I’m bored, is that evidence of “freedom”, or evidence of some causal factor that if I’d been aware of it a year earlier, could predict accurately, my change in habit? And even if I could predict this accurately, could it really be said that I did not have a “free choice” to take a different route when the year came due? It’s really not clear either way. This suggests that the whole question might be a red herring.
Schopenhauer wisely recognized that our concept of free will was superficial, and somewhat tenuous. Although his effort to achieve clarity overreached was could reasonably asserted in his day, he offered a dim light on the path to understanding the role of the subconscious in our decision-making processes. As such, he helped to make it possible for us to satisfy ourselves with “relative” freedom, even if he was correct that such a thing is an “illusion”. Though, as I have explained already, he hasn’t quite demonstrated that either.
The IEP defines Qualia as:
“…the subjective or qualitative properties of experiences. What it feels like, experientially, to see a red rose is different from what it feels like to see a yellow rose. Likewise for hearing a musical note played by a piano and hearing the same musical note played by a tuba… As [C. I.] Lewis [the originator of the term] used the term, qualia were properties of sense-data themselves. In contemporary usage, the term has been broadened to refer more generally to properties of experience… Qualia are often referred to as the phenomenal properties of experience…”
As I understand this, qualia is what the brain makes, out of the raw data coming across the wires connecting our eyes, ears, nose, tongue and fingers, to the brain. In other words, the meaningful content constructed out of that data. The article also goes on to include emotional responses among the “phenomena of experience”.
If this definition is correct, then what would we call the meaningful content constructed during dreaming? I often dream of driving off the edge of a cliff or a high bridge that’s unfinished. I can feel the free-fall as the car leaves the pavement. I can feel the inertia as I plummet (usually toward a body of water), and I can hear the wind in my ears. I can see the green-gray water of the lake below me. I can feel the water envelop me, as I strike its surface, and I can feel the pressure against my chest. I can taste the water, in my mouth, as I gasp for air after surfacing. And yet, I’m actually lying in bed, sound asleep.
This, of course, is a classic Cartesian complaint about “knowing”. But my main question, is how these feelings are occurring at all, if they are a product of sense data?
The same is true for memories. When I recall a choir concert I’ve been too, I can hear the music in my head (though, this is a bit more obviously distinct from actually hearing). When I recall the time I spent in Vermont, I can smell the mower clippings in our neighbor’s hay field. When I close my eyes, I can see the Alpacas he kept, nosing up to the fence in anticipation of some corn or sugar cubes.
The brain must be storing the original data somewhere up there, and re-purposing it, for memories and dreams. But how?
I think Descartes argument in the Meditations would have been much stronger, if he’d stuck with the dream comparison. Launching off into the demon analogy lost me.
When I was a teen, it was not difficult for me to realize I was in a dream, or to impose conscious intent into my dream landscapes. Realizing my state, it was thrilling to be able to give myself powers of flight or lazer eyes, or extra limbs. But sometimes, I would get stuck in a sort of “third person” mode, as well (Cartesian theater?), where I could watch myself from an oblique overhead perspective. Those dreams were a great deal more frightening (due to the lack of control). However, as I’ve gotten older, it’s become more and more difficult to differentiate between the conscious ego and the dream actor — and much more difficult to realize I am in a dream (when I’m dreaming, of course).
This suggests to me, that dreams either function as, or are a byproduct of, some sort of process of “integration” taking place in the brain. In other words, that our sensual experience, our emotional responses to those experiences, and our rational interpretations of the two, somehow need to be distilled into one thing, before they can “settle” into the personality. What that might look like at the neurological level — if my idea is even coherent — is beyond me.
The proposition ‘I am, I exist’ (ego sum, ego existo – hereafter, referred to as the ’ego’), is of special importance in the argument of Descartes’ Second Meditation for many reasons. More generally, it is important because of the implications it has for Descartes’ overall philosophical project. For example, it implicitly rejects religious authority in favor of a personal standard of knowledge in an era in which Galileo faced aggressive persecution; it also forms the nascent beginning of the still ongoing nature-nurture debate, and it ultimately makes Descartes something of an Augustinian. But these topics are far too broad to cover adequately in a brief essay. Since the language of the question at hand focuses exclusively on the the Second Meditation and specifically the argument within it, a much narrower interpretation seems more appropriate. Namely, why is the ‘ego’ necessary for Descartes to achieve his goal in the Second Meditation, and how does it facilitate that goal? On this point, I will argue that there is one fundamental reason. Namely, without the ego, Descartes has no means by which to recover from the corrosive power of his own method of doubt. I will outline and analyze this reason, focusing on whether the ‘ego’ satisfies the logical and epistemic demands put upon it by the method. Finally, I will argue that because Descartes is unclear in his justification for the ego, it remains unconvincing as a basis for epistemic certainty.
Doubt, Absolute Certainty, And The Whirlpool
A central feature of Descartes’ Method of Doubt is an absolute standard for what he will allow himself to identify as knowledge. He states in Meditation One: “…we should withhold assent just as carefully from whatever is not completely certain and indubitable as from what is clearly false…”. In other words, for the purposes of his method, he makes no distinction, nor accommodates any gradation, between the weakest of doubts and the worst of errors. All of these shades of gray are to be judged identically false. As a consequence, he admits he is, “…forced to concede eventually that there is nothing… that cannot be doubted…”, and by the beginning of Second Meditation, he recognizes the extreme position this puts him in, vowing to find a way to extricate himself:
“…I am so tossed about, as if I had fallen suddenly into a deep whirlpool, that I can neither put my foot on the bottom nor swim to the surface. However… I will follow [the method of doubt] until I discover something that is certain or, at least, until I discover that it is certain only that nothing is certain. Archimedes looked for only one firm and immovable point in order to move the whole earth; likewise, I could hope for great things if I found even the smallest thing that is certain and unmoved…”
Finding this Archimedean point, then, is the challenge he faces in the Second Meditation. But what does this entail, exactly? To begin, we need to understand the standard of knowledge that has driven him to this point. In other words, what does Descartes mean by certainty? He defines it in The Meditations thus far only in silhouette, as a belief held “without doubt”. But to clearly understand his predicament it would help to understand what, for Descartes, constituted epistemic certainty. On this question, Descartes offers very little in the Meditations in the way of a complete explanation. However, he does provide some helpful details in an earlier work entitled, “Rules For the Direction of The Mind”. Rule three provides a direct and concise answer, in fact:
“…let us here enumerate all the acts of our intellect through which we can arrive at knowledge of things without any fear of error. We admit only two: namely, intuition and deduction.”
The Acts Of The Intellect
Unfortunately, Descartes does not explain why these two particular acts of the intellect are the only two options. However, he does a fair amount of work to describe how they function separately as paths to knowledge. First, on intuition, he explains that it something quite different from the common-sense conception:
“…By intuition I understand neither the fleeting testimony of the senses nor the deceptive judgment of the imagination with its false constructions, but a conception of a pure and attentive mind, so easy and so distinct, that no doubt at all remains about what we understand. Or, what comes to the same thing, intuition is the indubitable conception of a pure and attentive mind arising from the light of reason alone; it is more certain even than deduction, because it is simpler, even though, as we noted above, people cannot err in deduction either. Thus everyone can intuit with his mind that he exists, that he is thinking, that a triangle is bounded by only three lines, a sphere by a single surface, and the like…”
Descartes actually restates the “light of reason” notion in Meditation Three. So, we can be reasonably sure that the concept remained roughly the same for him in the gap between the writing of Rules and Meditations. He does not explain in the Rules how that “indubitable conception” is arrived at, except to assert that it arises from that “light of reason”. In The Meditations, he also adds that intuition is necessarily trustworthy, because none of the other “faculties” share the indubitable character of the faculty from which this notion arises.
“…whatever is shown to me by the natural light of reason – for example, that from the fact that I doubt it follows that I exist, and similar things – cannot in any way be doubtful, because there cannot be another faculty which I trust as much as that light and which could teach me that the conclusion is not true…”
He gives us an argument in the third Meditation for how intuition achieves this absolute undoubtable character, by way of a fairly lengthy chain of reasoning meant also to provide his first proof of the existence of God. An analysis of that argument (and the so-called ‘Cartesian Circle’ created by it) is beyond the scope of this essay. So, I will only roughly summarize Descartes’ justification, here: The ideas in my mind are something that require a cause which, at least in some cases, cannot be myself. That cause is necessarily God, because the regress must end somewhere, and that end must be the necessary source, and the most perfect of ideas. Namely, God.
Moving on to the intellectual act of deduction, he argues first in rule two of Rules, that deduction is like mathematics and geometry because it’s objects are “pure and simple”, and this makes intelligible knowledge superior to sensible knowledge:
“…we must observe that we can arrive at knowledge of things by two paths, namely by experience or by deduction. We must observe, further, that while experiences of things are often deceptive, deduction or a pure inference of one thing from another, though it may be passed over if it is not noticed, can never be erroneously executed by an intellect even minimally rational…”
And further, he assigns the same certainty to this sort of reasoning, as he does to his intuition, precisely because of it’s independence from the senses:
“…mathematics and geometry… alone are concerned with an object so pure and simple that they suppose absolutely nothing which experience has rendered uncertain, but they consist entirely in consequences rationally deduced… [Thus], one must conclude… that those who seek the right road of truth should not occupy themselves with any object concerning which they cannot possess a certainty equal to that of the demonstrations of arithmetic and geometry…”
In the Meditations, again, he repeats this conception of (and commitment to) mathematical thought as a form of certainty, both in his opening letter to the Sorbonne, and in the First Meditation. The end result is that, for Descartes, nothing is worthy of the label “knowledge” or “certainty”, unless he can intuit it from the “light of pure reason” in a single spontaneous instant, or infer it directly in a single step from such an intuition. As he puts it in The Rules:
“…From all this we may conclude that those propositions which follow immediately from first principles are known according to the way we look at it, now by intuition, now by deduction, but that the first principles themselves are known only by intuition, and the remote conclusions, in contrast, only by deduction…”
From the outset of his project, then, we can see that Descartes is anxious to find some kind of unassailable object of the mind that is beyond the reach of empirical rejection or denial by reasoned argument, upon which he can construct an epistemological edifice that will function as the basis for his science. But from what “first principle” can he begin this chain of very small, singular, and “certain” logical inferences? Well, to reiterate what he says in the Rules, “everyone can intuit with his mind that he exists, that he is thinking” In other words, Cogito, Ergo Sum. Or, even more simply as the necessary conclusion stated in Meditation Two.
Argument or Intuition?
Does the ‘ego’ succeed as this singular, certain, self-evident intuition? To begin with, it isn’t clear in the Second Meditation that Descartes has in fact established the proposition as an intuition by his own standard. For example, there are three obvious arguments presented near the start of the essay:
- If I am having thoughts, then I am something.
- I am having thoughts
- C1: I am something
- If I convinced myself of something, then I exist
- I convinced myself that there is no material world (From Meditation 1)
- C2: I exist
- If it is possible that a powerful demon is deceiving me, then I exist
- It is possible that a powerful demon is deceiving me (from Meditation 1)
- C3: I exist
All of these are stated in quick succession immediately prior the conclusion, “…this proposition ‘I am, I exist’ is necessarily true whenever it is stated by me or conceived in my mind…” If Descartes had not intended to express his existence as a conclusion following necessarily from premises (i.e., as an argument), or as a result of a series of arguments, then why even include these? If the intent was to demonstrate the “clear and distinct” idea of his own existence, wouldn’t it have been wiser to point out the absurdity in the inverse assertion (“I am not, I do not exist”)? Descartes actually hints at this in his explication of intuition in the Rules, even going so far as to assert the intuitive obviousness of our own self-existence. And, in response to Mersenne and Gassendi, in the Objections And Replies, Descartes explicitly denies that he is making an argument. He rejects their particular attempt to state the cogito in the traditional formulation of a strict syllogism, which contains a major general premise (in this case suppressed) and a minor particular premise:
- SP: Whatever is thinking must exist
- I am a thinking
- C1: I exist
By my reading, this is close, but not quite what Descartes is doing in the Second Meditation. Yet also by my reading, it still seems clear that he is indeed making an argument (three of them, in fact, as I have demonstrated above). But so what? Let’s grant momentarily that this criticism is sufficient to render both the ego and the cogito either as arguments, or the conclusions to arguments. Still, Descartes’ own standard of knowledge included both intuition, and deduction. Do the Modus Ponens interpretations above conform to Descartes’ understanding of the kind of deduction that constituted epistemic certainty? And, if they don’t, where does this leave the ego?
Judging by his statements about deduction in the Rules, it’s not so clear. On the one hand, he suggests a sort of apparent obviousness that requires no formal reasoning at all, such as the contemplation of geometric shapes. On the other, he describes a process by which we are moving from an axiom to an inference based on the axiom. There doesn’t seem to be any clear guidance on which of the two conceptions is preferable. In fact, Descartes himself seemed to recognize this muddled distinction, and tried to clarify it in the Rules:
“there may now be some doubt as to why we should have added here another mode of knowledge besides intuition, that is, one proceeding by deduction, by which we understand all that is necessarily inferred from other things that are certainly known. But this procedure was necessary, since many things are known with certainty which nevertheless are not themselves evident, simply because they are deduced from true and known principles by the continuous and uninterrupted movement of a mind which clearly intuits each step… Therefore we distinguish here intuition from certain deduction by the fact that some movement or succession is conceived in the latter but not in the former…”
In this context, it seems to me the Modus Ponens interpretations may be a more charitable understanding of Descartes than the form prescribed by Mersenne or Gassendi, since you could read the first two premises as a sort of simultaneous set of propositions, phrased for example, like: “the ‘I’ exists, and is convinced”. Yet, it seems to me that all that this really amounts to, is an attempt to make the argument look like an intuition — the only thing, really, that Descartes is willing to countenance as a “first principle” in his epistemology. Which puts us right back where we started: at a loss to discover “one firm and immovable point”, from which to lever the rest of our thinking.
The standard of knowledge that Descartes defines for himself in the beginning of Meditations is absolute certainty. He insists that only those things that we can assert with unflinching conviction should be granted the status of truth or knowledge. He tells us that this sort of “clear and distinct” certainty is only possible in the “light of reason”. While Descartes may assert, “…as a general rule… everything that I perceive very clearly and distinctly is true.”, I find I have to agree with another author, that “The notion of a clear and distinct idea is, unfortunately, one of Descartes’ least clear and distinct notions.” And, as I have shown, there is even less ground for confidence in his idea as a deduction, since even Descartes himself insists that it is not, and the more charitable forms are simply begging the intuition. Applying Descartes’ own standard, then, there is no good reason to believe he exists, and I think Descartes would agree:
“…we should be warned never at any time to admit any conjectures what- soever as an admixture to our judgments on the truth of things. This counsel is of no small importance. For the chief reason why nothing is found in the vulgar philosophy so evident and certain as to be incapable of controversial treatment is this: scholars, not content with knowing what is clear and certain, first hazarded further affirmations about obscure and unknown matters which they arrived at only by probable conjectures;…”
While it’s true that Descartes’ method of doubt is useful occasionally, as a tool for highlighting hidden assumptions and implicit errors in thinking, Descartes’ use of it in the Meditations has a very different purpose. He says in passing, in the First Meditation, that he wants to make an advancement to “the sciences”. But that term had a very different meaning for him, than it does for us some 400 years later. Many writers and commentators excuse Descartes’ religiosity in his writings as a necessary self-defense in an era in which Galileo faced extreme danger for his confrontations with the church. But this does not correspond with the biography of Descartes the man, as I understand him. For all his skepticism, Descartes was fundamentally committed to his belief in God. And this was an explicit goal of the Meditations: “God’s existence and the distinction between the human soul and the body are demonstrated”. Nothing I’ve read so far, gives me any cause to believe this goal was disingenuously bolted on to the work, to appease ecclesiastical tyrants.
The Meditations is replete with black-and-white dichotomies, and impossible situations. The insistence on absolute certainty itself is a perfect example of that. This sort of thinking raises my own skeptical alarm bells. It typically arises out of two situations: (1) there is a problem with the language used in the argument, or some terms are not well understood, or (2) the author is determined to arrive at a preconceived conclusion, at all costs. As I have shown, Descartes clearly suffers from both Maladies. He needs knowledge to begin with something fundamentally separate from common experience, and yet fundamentally personal, in order to get to his God. To do this, he needs a standard of knowledge that divorces him from reality, and from authority. This is what motivated Descartes to put the ego (and the cogito) at center stage. Because without it, his argument is empty, and — at least for him — there is no reality.
Last night, I watched a debate between a journalist, a sociologist, and a scientist over whether or not philosophy is “dead” (as Stephen Hawking put it). Lewis Wolpert completely wiped the floor with the non-philosophers pitted against him. And sadly, he was also mostly correct. Philosophy has not done itself proud of late, and the fact that this panel didn’t actually include any philosophers to stand in its defense, is evidence that it is struggling, if not dead.
Wolpert is absolutely right. Science, as a practice, is indeed nothing more than a means by which we can gradually make more and more confident predictions about the actual behaviour of reality. And this pursuit is purely ethics free. But rather than this point suggesting the death of philosophy, instead it actually begs its continued existence. Where did the hard sciences come from, after all? Philosophy. Biology from Natural Philosophy. Astronomy and Physics from Existential Philosophy (not Sartre’s Existentialism). Psychology and Neurology from Philosophy of the Mind. And so on. What’s more, today, there is still no “science” of ethics, despite the efforts of celebrities like Sam Harris to argue otherwise.
I love science. It has given us so many fantastic metaphors. Saying that philosophy is dead because it is only capable of inventing sciences but never of being one, is like saying that nebular nurseries are ‘dead’ because they only create stars, but can never become one. It’s confusing the pursuit for it’s products. This is why Wolpert is partly wrong.
And there is so much more to do. Far from being settled questions, ethics and politics remain the responsibility of philosophers. A responsibility that has largely gone untended since Nietzsche. Fuller and Derbyshire danced around this very point in this debate. But neither seemed to grasp the implications consciously. Instead, they turned into flailing defensive children, when they got close to this realisation. Which is, I guess, what one would expect from people who have done more to destroy their own profession, than any scientist ever has.
Instead of honestly taking up the yoke of solving the riddle of a coherent secular ethic, philosophers busy themselves by denying that any such thing as normative truth is even possible, while simultaneously glad-handing on stage with anachronisms like theist apologists.
But Hawking is only half right. Philosophy as a profession is not dead, yet. Its vital signs are very weak. Now, as a society, we could put a pillow over its face and put it out of its misery. Or, we could remember the first line of our oath as doctors of men, and “first, do no harm”.