January 22, 2006
IT ALL JUST COMES DOWN TO HUME VS. DESCARTES:
-INTRODUCTION: to Ideas Have Consequences (1948) (Richard M. Weaver)
Like Macbeth, Western man made an evil decision, which has become the efficient and final cause of other evil decisions. Have we forgotten our encounter with the witches on the heath? It occurred in the late fourteenth century, and what the witches said to the protagonist of this drama was that man could realize himself more fully if he would only abandon his belief in the existence of transcendentals. The powers of darkness were working subtly, as always, and they couched this proposition in the seemingly innocent form of an attack upon universals. The defeat of logical realism in the great medieval debate was the crucial event in the history of Western culture; from this flowed those acts which issue now in modern decadence.
One may be accused here of oversimplifying the historical process, but I take the view that the conscious policies of men and governments are not mere rationalizations of what has been brought about by unaccountable forces. They are rather deductions from our most basic ideas of human destiny, and they have a great, though not unobstructed, power to determine out course.
For this reason I turn to William of Occam as the best representative of a change which came over man’s conception of reality at this historic juncture. It was William of Occam who propounded the fateful doctrine of nominalism, which denies that universals have a real existence. His triumph tended to leave universal terms mere names serving our convenience. The issue ultimately involved is whether there is a source of truth higher than, and independent of, man; and the answer to the question is decisive for one’s view of the nature and destiny of humankind. The practical result of nominalist philosophy is to banish the reality which is perceived by the intellect and to posit as reality that which is perceived by the senses. With this change in the affirmation of what is real,, the whole orientation of culture takes a turn, and we are on the road to modern empiricism.
It is easy to be blind to the significance of a change because it is remote in time and abstract in character. Those who have not discovered that world view is the most important thing about a man, as about the men composing a culture, should consider the train of circumstances which have with perfect logic proceeded from this. The denial of universals carries with it the denial of everything transcending experience. The denial of everything transcending experience means inevitably-though ways are found to hedge on this-the denial of truth. With the denial of objective truth there is no escape from the relativism of "man the measure of all things." The witches spoke with the habitual equivocation of oracles when they told man that by this easy choice he might realize himself more fully, for they were actually initiating a course which cuts one off from reality. Thus began the "abomination of desolation" appearing today as a feeling of alienation from all fixed truth.
Because a change of belief so profound eventually influences every concept, there emerged before long a new doctrine of nature. Whereas nature had formerly been regarded as imitating a transcendent model and as constituting an imperfect reality, it was henceforth looked upon as containing the principles of its own constitution and behavior. Such revision has had two important consequences for philosophical inquiry. First, it encouraged a careful study of nature, which has come to be known as science, on the supposition that by her acts she revealed her essence. Second, and by the same operation, it did away with the doctrine of forms imperfectly realized. Aristotle had recognized an element of unintelligibility in the world, but the view of nature as a rational mechanism expelled this element. The expulsion of the element of unintelligibility in nature was followed by the abandonment of the doctrine of original sin. If physical nature is the totality and if man is of nature, it is impossible to think of him as suffering from constitutional evil; his defections must now be attributed to his simple ignorance or to some kind of social deprivation. One comes thus by clear deduction to the corollary of the natural goodness of man.
And the end is not yet. If nature is a self-operating mechanism and man is a rational animal adequate to his needs, it is next in order to elevate rationalism to the rank of a philosophy. Since man proposed now not to go beyond the world, it was proper that he should regard as his highest intellectual vocation methods of interpreting data supplied by the senses. There followed the transition to Hobbes and Locke and the eighteenth-century rationalists, who taught that man needed only to reason correctly upon evidence from nature. The question of what the world was made for now becomes meaningless because the asking of it presupposes something prior to nature in the order of existents. Thus it is not the mysterious fact of the world’s existence which interests the new man but explanations of how the world works. This is the rational basis for modern science, whose systemization of phenomena is, as Bacon declared in the New Atlantis, a means to dominion.
At this stage religion begins to assume an ambiguous dignity, and the question of whether it can endure at all in a world of rationalism and science has to be faced. One solution was deism, which makes God the outcome of a rational reading of nature. But this religion, like all those which deny antecedent truth, was powerless to bind; it merely left each man to make what he could of the world open to the senses. There followed references to "nature and nature’s God," and the anomaly of a "humanized" religion.
Materialism loomed next on the horizon, for it was implicit in what had already been framed. Thus it soon became imperative to explain man by his environment, which was the work of Darwin and others in the nineteenth century (it is further significant of the pervasive character of these changes that several other students were arriving at similar explanations when Darwin published in 1859). If man came into this century trailing clouds of transcendental glory, he was now accounted for in a way that would satisfy the positivists.
With the human being thus firmly ensconced in nature, it at once became necessary to question the fundamental character of his motivation. Biological necessity, issuing in the survival of the fittest, was offered as the causa causans, after the important question of human origin had been decided in favor of scientific materialism.
After it has been granted that man is molded entirely by environmental pressures, one is obligated to extend the same theory of causality to his institutions. The social philosophers of the nineteenth century found in Darwin powerful support for their thesis that human beings act always out of economic incentives, and it was they who completed the abolishment of freedom of the will. The great pageant of history thus became reducible to the economic endeavors of individuals and classes; and elaborate prognoses were constructed on the theory of economic conflict and resolution. Man created in the divine image, the protagonist of a great drama in which his soul was at stake, was replaced by man the wealth-seeking and -consuming animal.
Finally came psychological behaviorism, which denied not only freedom of the will but even such elementary means of direction as instinct. Because the scandalous nature of this theory is quickly apparent, it failed to win converts in such numbers as the others; yet it is only a logical extension of them and should in fairness be embraced by the upholders of material causation. Essentially, it is a reduction to absurdity of the line of reasoning which began when man bade a cheerful goodbye to the concept of transcendence.
There is no term proper to describe the condition in which he is now left unless it be "abysmality." He is in the deep and dark abysm, and he has nothing with which to raise himself.
Allow me to begin by saying, with not the least bit of false humility, that I pretend to no understanding of the field of Philosophy as such. I took just two Philosophy courses in college. I saw the professor of the first, Introduction to Philosophy, at a cocktail party about halfway through the semester and he said he was surprised to see me because he thought I was off campus that semester. He wasn't kidding, and was shocked to hear that I was even taking a class with him--so to speak. I only took the second, Medieval Philosophy, to help out a fraternity brother, who'd mistakenly bought the text books and written his name in them so the bookstore wouldn't take them back. I bought them from him for half-price and enrolled. That professor actually had a class vote at mid-term because she didn't think it fair that I be allowed to stay in the course since I'd not yet attended a single class meeting. I apparently won in a vote as tight as Gove v. Bush only because of a single fellow student's persuasive power. He told the professor: "I don't think you should take this personally, he's a History major and we have a course together that's taught by the Chairman of the Department that he never goes to either." Suffice it to say, all that follows is just armchair philosophizing and is not intended to reflect any nuanced understanding of the thickets of gobbledygook that professional philosophers have erected around their theories in order to make themselves seem to have specialized knowledge. On the other hand, I do believe that if we mow down those thickets we arrive at pretty simple ideas that all of us are competent to discuss. And so to the matter at hand...
It seems uncontroversial, even incontrovertible, to say that at least in the intellectual realm the past several centuries in the West have been the Age of Reason or of Enlightenment. We are, perhaps, at the End of this "Modern Age" -- as John Lukacs has argued -- but it is certainly the case that elite opinion in Europe, especially, and in America is and has been premised on the dogmatic acceptance of the theory that we can know the truth about the material world around us by rationally examining, testing, and thinking about it. Now, there are myriad claims wrapped up in that seemingly simple assertion -- that the material world exists, that only material exists in the world, that our perceptions of it are trustworthy, etc. -- but at its core we find the notion that: reason is a more reliable source of knowledge about existence than faith. In fact, reason can be said to be the only reliable source of knowledge. Anything that we can not prove via the operation of reason is de facto suspect, if not downright foolish.
Now, you'd think that this dismissal of faith -- a revolution when it was effected -- would have to rest on some truly iron-clad basis, but the fact is that the sufficiency of Reason has never been demonstrated, and presumably never can be. I was, and I suspect most of you were, told on nothing more than the basis of pedantic authority that Rene Descartes had solved the conundrum of how can know that we exist, that the world outside our own thoughts/senses exists, and that we can reliably reason about such questions when he made the brilliant pronouncement: Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) [Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason in the Search for Truth in the Sciences (1637)]. Richard A. Watson, one of the foremost living authorities on Descartes, calls that phrase: "a statement nobody can doubt who thinks it." But the truism that we all think we exist and are capable of rational though isn't actually a rational proof of same, is it? It is just as accurate to say that no one can believe that statement to be well-reasoned who thinks about it.
Recall that if our topic is the sufficiency of Reason then that sufficiency must obviously be demonstrated by rational processes, not just by the faith-based justification that it's what we all believe. It is this box that Descartes and Cartesianism never found the way out of, as Mr. Watson himself demonstrated in his book, The Breakdown of Cartesian Metaphysics. As he shows there, within a hundred years Cartesian metaphysics had been completely disposed of, with David Hume driving the final nail in the coffin:
David Hume, like Berkeley, comes to sceptical conclusions about Cartesian ontology, after reading Bayle and Locke. Not only does he deny the ontological dualism, but he also explicitly denies the all-inclusive ontological type-distinctions between substance and modification. Foucher argues that Cartesians do not know the essence of mind and matter as they claim to; Malebranche argues that we have an idea of the essence of matter but not of mind; Locke argues that we cannot know the essence of either mind or matter; and Berkeley argues that we have a notion of the essence of mind but not of matter. Hume concludes that we have no idea, and thus no knowledge of any substance at all. [...]
Hume argues that impressions and ideas are the only objects that do exist. When we examine our idea of substance, for example, we find that it is not an idea of an independently existing entity at all,
but only a compound idea of a collection of related perceptions. [...]
Hume can be seen as making sense of the Cartesian way of ideas by retaining the epistemological likeness principle, but he does so only by abandoning the dualistic system that gives rise to difficulties.
Impressions are not external objects, nor do collections of them comprise external objects. But they are not internal either; they are all -- together with ideas, which are in essence only weaker perceptions
-- that exists. There is no problem of the causal interaction of substances because there are no substances. There is no essential difficulty about representation, for all entities are of the same sort.
Perceptions do not in themselves point beyond to anything that must inhere in or that must cause them; they are what they are, and we can know of nothing -- and thus nothing exists -- that transcends them. All the other philosophers considered here, even, emphatically, Foucher are searching for knowledge of the essence of substances. With Hume, the search for knowledge of qualities, powers, forms, forces. and essences or natures of substances founders at last. This is because nothing remains to which these terms can be applied; all that exists, for Hume, are impressions and ideas, which are perceived openly to be what they are and nothing more. [...]
And if the abandonment of the ontological pattern of substance and modification requires that new explanatory support be given for the relations of an idea's being in the mind and of a mind's being directly acquainted with an idea -- because these relations can no longer depend on the relation between a substance and its own modifications -- Hume can be seen as offering for this explanatory role the relation of an idea to the collection of perceptions of which it is a member.[...]
Hume thus completes the breakdown of Cartesian metaphysics.
Countless others have tried to rescue Reason from this impasse, but without success, which is why we find ourselves, almost three hundred years after the breakdown, still discussing Descartes as if he mattered. All the Age of Reason has ever had to go on is the pretended authority of Descartes's nostrum and the hope that the intellectual classes could repeat it often enough that the masses wouldn't examine it too closely. As a matter of fact, it seems fair to say that to be an intellectual is to proceed as if Descartes's "proof" were sufficient. Whether he would have wished to be or not -- and presumably he would have not -- Descartes not only provided the foundation of the Age of Reason, but deserves to be considered the Father of Intellectualism.
David Hume, on the other hand, did not just lay Descartes to rest, but offered an exemplary model of how we might react to the insufficiency of Reason and to the awkward truth that from a rational point of view the only proper position to take towards the world is one of thoroughgoing skepticism. He concludes his Treatise with what can only be called a testament of faith:
But what have I here said, that reflections very refin'd and metaphysical have little or no influence upon us? This opinion I can scarce forbear retracting, and condemning from my present feeling and experience. The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another. Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? and on whom have, I any influence, or who have any influence on me? I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, inviron'd with the deepest darkness, and utterly depriv'd of the use of every member and faculty.
Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours' amusement, I wou'd return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain'd, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.
Here then I find myself absolutely and necessarily determin'd to live, and talk, and act like other people in the common affairs of life. But notwithstanding that my natural propensity, and the course of my animal spirits and passions reduce me to this indolent belief in the general maxims of the world, I still feel such remains of my former disposition, that I am ready to throw all my books and papers into the fire, and resolve never more to renounce the pleasures of life for the sake of reasoning and philosophy. For those are my sentiments in that splenetic humour, which governs me at present. I may, nay I must yield to the current of nature, in submitting to my senses and understanding; and in this blind submission I shew most perfectly my sceptical disposition and principles. But does it follow, that I must strive against the current of nature, which leads me to indolence and pleasure; that I must seclude myself, in some measure, from the commerce and society of men, which is so agreeable; and that I must torture my brains with subtilities and sophistries, at the very time that I cannot satisfy myself concerning the reasonableness of so painful an application, nor have any tolerable prospect of arriving by its means at truth and certainty. Under what obligation do I lie of making such an abuse of time? And to what end can it serve either for the service of mankind, or for my own private interest? No: If I must be a fool, as all those who reason or believe any thing certainly are, my follies shall at least be natural and agreeable. Where I strive against my inclination, I shall have a good reason for my resistance; and will no more be led a wandering into such dreary solitudes, and rough passages, as I have hitherto met with.
In short: so what if reason is itself irrational and only faith allows us to believe in its utility; faith suffices. In effect he's returned us to the pre-Rational worldview, where reason was a tool that God had given us in order to apprehend Creation. Thus is Reason cut back down to size and Faith returned to primacy.
It can hardly be a coincidence that Rationalism and Intellectualism and the theories they spawned have been far more influential, and destructive, in Descartes's France and on the European continent than they have been in Hume's Anglosphere. Having blindly clung to a metaphysic that was so clearly flawed, it's not surprising that Europeans (and American intellectuals) proved susceptible to the seductive allure of such rationalisms as Darwinism and Marxism, which offered perfectly rational explanations of how the world worked, if only you ignored the fact that we can't know it to be rational or material and that experience demonstrates otherwise. Meanwhile, in England and its former colonies -- but especially in America -- we have generally followed the example of Hume and been skeptical if not utterly hostile towards intellectuals and the claims of Reason. Perhaps that alone explains why there has never been a viable Communist party, nevermind a Marxist government in the Anglo-Saxon world and why Christianity remains so strong and Darwinism has fared so poorly in the States. Richard Hofstadter famously complained -- in his book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) -- that America had been characterized throughout its history by a peculiarly vehement brand of anti-intellectualism:
The common strain that binds together the attitudes and ideas which I call anti-intellectual is a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.
Of course, having to acknowledge the American love affair with inventors and other men of practical intelligence, he was forced to draw a distinction that speaks volumes:
[I]ntelligence is an excellence of mind that is employed within a fairly narrow, immediate, an predictable range... Intelligence works within the framework of limited but clearly stated goals, and may be quick to shear away questions of thought that do not seem to help in reaching them. [...]
Intellect, on the other hand, is the critical, creative, and contemplative side of mind. Whereas intelligence seeks to grasp, manipulate, re-order, adjust, intellect examines, ponders, wonders, theorizes, criticizes, imagines.
To exactly the extent that men can apply their God-given reason to the solve problems, we value it. At the point where some men start pretending that they can dispense truths via the operations of naught but their own minds our patience is exhausted. Switching back across the pond, think of Samuel Johnson's eloquent response to Hume's fellow wrestler with Descartes, as recounted by James Boswell:
We stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I shall never forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, "I refute it thus."
What does it matter if Reason ultimately collapses in on itself so long as we believe in the reality of the rock--and what kind of person wastes their time worrying about it? As a purely practical matter -- practicality being the hallmark of the intelligence that we honor, as opposed to the intellect that we scorn -- our faith in God and the more limited reason he blessed us with has served us rather well, so why bother trying to make of reason something that it's not?
Typically, it was a British philosopher, Michael Oakeshott, who best explained Intellectuals and what they were about, in his essay Rationalism in Politics:
There are some minds which give us the sense that they have passed through an elaborate education which was designed to initiate them into the traditions and achievements of their civilization; the immediate impression we have of them is an impression of cultivation, of the enjoyment of an inheritance. But this is not so with the mind of the Rationalist, which impresses us as, at best, a finely tempered, neutral instrument, as a well-trained rather than as an educated mind. Intellectually, his ambition is not so much to share the experience of the race as to be demonstrably a self-made man. And this gives to his intellectual and practical activities an almost preternatural deliberateness and self-consciousness, depriving them of any element of passivity, removing from them all sense of rhythm and continuity and dissolving them into a succession of climacterics, each to be surmounted by a tour de raison. His mind has no atmosphere, no changes of season and temperature; his intellectual processes, so far as possible, are insulated from all external influence and go on in the void. And having cut himself off from the traditional knowledge of his society, and denied the value of any education more extensive than a training in a technique of analysis, he is apt to attribute to mankind a necessary inexperience in all the critical moments of life, and if he were more self-critical he might begin to wonder how the race had ever succeeded in surviving. With an almost poetic fancy, he strives to live each day as if it were his first, and he believes that to form a habit is to fail. And if, with as yet no thought of analysis, we glance below the surface, we may, perhaps, see in the temperament, if not in the character, of the Rationalist, a deep distrust of time, an impatient hunger for eternity and an irritable nervousness in the face of everything topical and transitory.
Now, of all worlds, the world of politics might seem the least amenable to rationalist treatment--politics, always so deeply veined with both the traditional, the circumstantial and the transitory. And, indeed, some convinced Rationalists have admitted defeat here: Clemenceau, intellectually a child of the modern Rationalist tradition (in his treatment of morals and religion, for example), was anything but a Rationalist in politics. But not all have admitted defeat. If we except religion, the greatest apparent victories of Rationalism have been in politics: it is not to be expected that whoever is prepared to carry his rationalism into the conduct of life will hesitate to carry it into the conduct of public affairs.
But what is important to observe in such a man (for it is characteristic) is not the decisions and actions he is inspired to make, but the source of his inspiration, his idea (and with him it will be a deliberate and conscious idea) of political activity. He believes, of course, in the open mind, the mind free from prejudice and its relic, habit. He believes that the unhindered human 'reason' (if only it can be brought to bear) is an infallible guide in political activity. Further, he believes in argument as the technique and operation of reason'; the truth of an opinion and the 'rational' ground (not the use) of an institution is all that matters to him. Consequently, much of his political activity consists in bringing the social, political, legal and institutional inheritance of his society before the tribunal of his intellect; and the rest is rational administration, 'reason' exercising an uncontrolled jurisdiction over the circumstances of the case. To the Rationalist, nothing is of value merely because it exists (and certainly not because it has existed for many generations), familiarity has no worth, and nothing is to be left standing for want of scrutiny. And his disposition makes both destruction and creation easier for him to understand and engage in, than acceptance or reform. To patch up, to repair (that is, to do anything which requires a patient knowledge of the material), he regards as waste of time: and he always prefers the invention of a new device to making use of a current and well-tried expedient. He does not recognize change unless it is a self-consciously induced change, and consequently he falls easily into the error of identifying the customary and the traditional with the changeless. This is aptly illustrated by the rationalist attitude towards a tradition of ideas. There is, of course, no question either of retaining or improving such a tradition, for both these involve an attitude of submission. It must be destroyed. And to fill its place the Rationalist puts something of his own making--an ideology, the formalized abridgment of the supposed substratum of rational truth contained in the tradition.
For such creatures the idea that we should take anything on faith -- especially the value of reason itself -- is unacceptable precisely because it makes us dependent on something outside of the human mind. We all know, of course, what (Who) the worst of those somethings might be, but it was Thomas Nagel, who most explicitly stated that the intellectual insistence on the metaphysical truth of Rationalism reflects a terror of what they might have to face once they accept the reality that faith trumps Reason and that rationalist metaphysics is ultimately so incoherent that it breaks down:
Even without God, the idea of a natural sympathy between the deepest truths of nature and the deepest layers of the human mind, which can be exploited to allow gradual development of a truer and truer conception of reality, makes us more at home in the universe than is secularly comfortable. The thought that the relation between mind and the world is something fundamental makes many people in this day and age nervous, I believe this is one manifestation of a fear of religion which has large and often pernicious consequences for modern intellectual life.
In speaking of the fear of religion, I don't mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper--namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that.
My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind. Darwin enabled modern secular culture to heave a great collective sigh of relief, by apparently providing a way to eliminate purpose, meaning and design as fundamental features of the world.
This last propensity is on hilarious display in today's New York Times Magazine, where the Darwinist Daniel Dennett is arguing that religious belief is biologically determined. You don't have to be a trained philosopher to recognize the devastating problem with his theory, that the belief that religious belief is biologically determined must then also be biologically determined. It is in the reduction to such absurdities that the Rationalists are finally doing to themselves what Hume didn't quite manage to do to Descartes -- dispose of him once and for all -- and why Mr. Lukacs may well be right about the Modern Age -- the age during which the claim was made that Reason is superior to Faith -- coming to an end.
-ESSAY: The Metaphysics of Conservatism (Edward Feser, 12 Jan 2006, Tech Central Station)
-ESSAY: Politics of Progress (James R. Harrigan, 02 May 2003, Tech Central Station)
-ESSAY: The Burke Habit: Prudence, skepticism and "unbought grace." (JEFFREY HART, December 27, 2005, Opinion Journal)