Saturday, December 23, 2006

Explaining Our Beliefs, As Well As Their's: 7th Installment

Following on my previous blog entry, “Our Criteria of Rightness: 6th Installment”:

We feel very comfortable understanding our own viewpoint as representing the way the world is or as an accurate rendering of the world as it is in itself. And, correspondingly, we judge an opposing view as off and not capturing things as they are. Consequently, we both develop explanations for how our intellectual opponent could be so off in their beliefs about how things should be and are, and we have the experience of perplexity at how they could believe something so different from us.

I think that we all have that feeling of ourselves as being sturdily planted in rightness while our opponents are hopelessly muddled.

But it is readily admitted by the masters of reason - philosophers - that our rational worldviews are based on rational intuitions, i.e. rational assumptions which cannot be further justified. There are very few epistemological foundationalists left. But if our views cannot demonstrate their origin in the way the world is - the one and only reality - and if that is also true of our opponents, then we should also take a look at why we believe what we believe beyond the reasons we give for believing what we believe.

We feel comfortable residing in the ultimately unsupportable perspective we take on how things are and some comfort in explaining the blind spots, stupidity and obstinance of people with opposing views, but we rarely wonder about the psychological origins of our own attachments to our beliefs. Not just what we come to think of as mistaken beliefs, but also what we consider correct beliefs. For if the way the world is cannot be shown to sanction or justify these beliefs, we can rightly wonder about their origins.

It’s comfortable to examine the extra rational causes of our opponent's beliefs, but we rarely inquire into the extra rational causes of our own beliefs.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Rational Relativism

In contrast to Paul Boghossian’s book refuting relativism (mentioned in my previous post), is Steven Hales’ new book, Relativism and the Foundations of Philosophy, defending a form of relativism. Hales is well-schooled in analytic philosophy and logic and will avoid the relativism which asserts the self-refuting proposition that “everything is relative”, and will instead defend the proposition “everything true is relatively true”. Haven’t seen yet how he’ll make that statement non-self-refuting, but I know from previous books of his that he’s aware of the problem and has an answer.

So far, there is a very interesting discussion about rational intuition. This is the necessity of philosophers to say there are certain bedrock propositions which we know to be true intuitively. Hales says philosophy can’t do without them, but it’s not clear how they are justified. How do we decide which of conflicting intuitions are right?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Construction of Knowledge

Paul Boghossian’s recent book Fear of Knowledge is a critique of constructivism and relativism and a defense of a classical conception of knowledge. In opposition to the idea of the constructed fact he writes “many facts about the world are independent of us…the fact…that dinosaurs once roamed the earth is not dependent on us but is, rather, just a natural fact that obtains without any help from us.” (p.20)

Without human minds, humans’ creation of meaning, the creation of techniques of inquiry like science, concepts, categorizations like “dinosaurs” and ancient history there would not be “dinosaurs.” Without these things there wouldn’t be ideas like “mind-independent world.”

First, create language. Then separate and conceptualize mind, world, objects, etc. Then conceive of mind-dependent and mind-independent things. Then forget all this has happened and imagine that you are transparently perceiving and representing the way the world simply is apart from any human looking at it with their particular perceptive constructions. Then say “it’s simply there, objectively.”

Saturday, November 11, 2006

A Hidden World

Here’s an example of the illusion of the neutral perspective, where presentation is a misrepresentation. A world masquerading as what is.

I was reading the historian of ideas Martin Jay’s new book Songs of Experience where he describes differing modern theorists’ conceptions of experience. We get Jay’s clear, informed, fair-minded descriptions of other writers’ formulations of modern experience and the self. There are chapters on Adorno, Benjamin, Foucault, Barthes and others. The world evoked implicitly by this style of presentation is one of clarity, neutrality, a this-is-the-gist-of-what-the-theorist-says tone. While it gives the impression of being a transparent window onto the theorist’s world it actually assumes the existence of a world that is different from the one the theorist being presented creates.

You don’t enter the world of the theorist by reading a description of his work. You don’t experience the world they evoke. By reading secondary sources you remain in the world of secondary descriptions and implicitly assume that world’s posture. Like the articles in The New Yorker magazine. The non-fiction pieces have a distinctive style: clarity, neutral, inquisitiveness, good judgment; our eyes in a strange land. The specialists they write about are domesticated for public consumption. The secondary source is a world of detachment as opposed to the primary texts world of immersion. It gives the experience of a broad understanding of diverse worlds, but it is removed. It’s an uncommitted way of life, which one commits to. The magazine is highbrow recreation. It can’t be too demanding or people wouldn’t want to read it for pleasure during their leisure time. It feels reasonable, objective, moderate, balanced, fair-minded, decorous, not over zealous. Is it worse than the primary source?

It uses what is currently considered literal language instead of the metaphorical or figurative. But according to Rorty and Hayden White among others, these distinctions are historically contingent. Today’s metaphors can become tomorrow’s literality. Heidegger and others are vying to create our new literality. Freud already has. Their original insights have to become what’s obvious, taken-for-granted, what most don’t reflectively know, but everyone enacts.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Emotion, Belief and Philosophy

My brilliant wife, who’s not an intellectual and so knows more than me, said something interesting. She said, “I feel like I’ve won the lottery in being with you for the rest of my life. Winning that lottery is better than winning a million dollars, isn’t it?” I paused. I wasn’t so sure, but not because she isn’t great to be with, but because I couldn’t feel that in my heart. So I imagined feeling it, and was taken aback when I a ball of loving feeling rose up in my chest. Yet, just as quickly it was suppressed. I had the strong sense that if it had come out I would have felt, at least for that moment, that yes, a lifelong, loving relationship was better than a million dollars. For me, a million dollars means a life of freedom from coerced toil and all the time I want to read, think and write; a dream come true. The power of love felt like it would have changed what I valued. A relationship would mean more to me than my free time.

The choice between a significant relationship and all the money I’d need, raised the issue of what I valued in life. They were significantly different positions (although, of course, one could have both). It’s a common story in America, the person who neglects relationships for success. The adherence to one of these two views on what is of value in life and the different belief systems they represent would be based on the release (or not) of a feeling in my heart. My worldview would change based on a shift in feeling.

That’s not say that this would have been a lasting change. But it suggests the power of emotion to alter the course of a life by altering what one believes is valuable in life and valuable to strive for. Feeling and belief about what is important are the ingredients in our philosophies of life. It suggests an emotive basis for our basic orientation to life.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Our Criteria of Rightness: 6th Installment

So what if we assume the truth of the no-one-world view of things (as described in my earlier posting No Objective View: 5th Installment). What is the guarantor of the rightness of our depictions of the world? Our criteria of rightness. We adopt different criteria, weighted in different ways. I like using reason, consistency, appeal to evidence, always being open to questioning assumptions. Others might appeal more to faith, or experience, or the power of rhetoric, or common sense, or tradition, or they give a different priority to the criteria I use, perhaps non-contradiction is not as important to them as is empirical confirmation. (Graham Priest describes the way different criteria that scientific investigators use are weighted, so that consistency or non-contradictoriness may not be what’s of paramount importance.)

When situations arise where we have to engage others about what is right and what to do, we have to, according to my approach (of course their’s might be different and that would then be part of the topic of conversation), be clear about what is believed, what point is being discussed, why we believe what we believe and what criteria we use to validate our beliefs and what criteria we think should be used to validate beliefs and why. The ideal discussion would press forward into each area as it arose. For example, differences over evidence might have to be pursued. That might mean investigating the validity of sources. That might lead to a discussion of the methods those sources use to collect evidence. That might lead to a discussion of how we rate different methods. And so on.

If the discussion was sustained long enough we’d probably have to see what criteria we share in common and what criteria we don’t and give reasons for our criteria. At some point we both won’t be able to defend our criteria any further, we’ll reach a point where we just made an existential choice to believe or assume things. The discussion could end there or, I propose, if the parties are willing, the nature of our attachment to our belief; the psychological reasons why we are attached to particular criteria and beliefs can be investigated. For example, why is consistency so important to me? It’s only one of a number, and perhaps not the most important, criteria of validity. There’s also corresponding with the evidence, plausibility of explanation, simplicity. Why am I not a Whitmanian embracer of contradictions as Marshall McLuhan appeared to be? This has to do with the nature of my person, it can be investigated after argumentation reached its limits.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Extreme Real Worlds

The comment by John about how Godel proved that there must always be inconsistency in certain large-enough logical systems, reminds me of an observation I had which must have been had by others since it seems obvious. When thinking or experiencing or perceiving to extremes, things become radically different or the opposite of what they appear when one perceives and thinks normally, yet the world or reality so perceived can be as convincing as our normal everyday life.

In physics when you analyze the very small, subatomic world the reality there is radically different from our normal reality and actually doesn’t follow our physical laws. When you look at the very large in cosmology, you get mind-boggling proportions difficult to conceive and mysteries like the big bang and the nature of space, time and the universe.

When you look intensively inward, using a rigorously neutral introspective practice like Buddhism, you experience everything as impermanent and you observe the arising and passing away of your own self. The nature of one’s self, the world and existence appear totally different.

When you examine rationally our beliefs and the important concepts we use – knowledge, morality, reality, good/bad, right/wrong, true/false – you come to no rational agreement about what they mean and skepticism is still a problem after more than 2000 years of thinking. Our everyday certainty is in contrast to continuing, radical, philosophical uncertainty about the facts of life.

The world of dreams is odd and extraordinary in its creativity, craziness and profundity and it’s a “normal” part of every person’s daily experience. In psychoanalysis, we can experience how we act out patterns that we have no intention or awareness of acting out. While we live out one life we are simultaneously living out another, unconsciously.

Finally, our lives are bounded by the two mysterious events of birth and death. When we intimately experience these facts of life that everyone is subject to, they pull us out of our normal reality and can be the most profound experiences of our lives.

It’s as if our everyday world is bordered on all sides by extreme worlds that turn our normal, everyday reality upside down. When we push experience, perception, analysis to extremes, things become radically different, yet entirely convincing.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

True Contradictions

The philosopher Graham Priest has written a book called Beyond the Limits of Thought. He argues that all large-scale philosophical systems will have contradictions at their limits and these should not be regarded, as philosophers do, as the problems we have to solve but as truths about what happens to reason when it pushes the bounds of thinking. These contradictions as true contradictions. All our world views will have them. Priest also says that the central “law” of philosophy, The Law of Non-Contradiction, has never been proved and the arguments for it are quite weak. He and others have developed “paraconsistent” logics, meaning logics that leave room for some inconsistency. He gives the example of certain Eastern logics which provide of contradiction. The online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an article by him on "Dialetheism", which is the view that there are true contradictions.

I found his work quite liberating because I always viewed contradiction as the enemy. In contrast with this, and, in another way, in keeping with it, I always loved the Tao te Ching which has many contradictory passages which convey great insight and wisdom.

Monday, June 05, 2006

No Objective View: 5th Installment

If I’m acting on the assumption that there is no God’s-eye-view of things, no Objective perspective which we can touch or be influenced by then I am left with my view and you with yours. I don’t have to claim that the no-Objective-View belief is the absolute truth, I can just ask those who contend otherwise – that there is an Objectively correct view - why they believe it and examine it. So assuming no way in which things are which acts as the final arbiter for whose right, we are left with the best understanding that we make, alone and together. And when we find there are conflicts in our views we can agree to disagree, compromise, discuss it, or fight.

So why do I like the no-Objective-View view? Because I wanted to use reason rigorously and find the right view, but found that the arguments against that being possible were powerful. Rorty, Derrida, Wittgenstein, Buddhism and others all agreed that that kind of certainty couldn’t be found using reason. Yet my psyche still contained the desire to find it: the great quest for Truth. I could continue the quest, perhaps trying to find some experiential certainty through spiritual practices or try to alter the desire and treat it as misguided. But what are the psychological reasons for adopting this relativistic view. I said earlier that people choose their beliefs for psychological reasons, yet here I explain why I chose an important belief by saying that reason led me to it. To be consistent I should explain why that no-Objective-View view is attractive to me. A psychological account of why I attach to this view is needed to be consistent with my argument that we fundamentally believe for personal psychological reasons

Monday, May 22, 2006

Science, Reality and Worldmaking: 4th Installment

So even the natural sciences do not deliver Reality. They do tell us what physical reality is like, but they cannot tell us what metaphysical reality is like - or Reality - reality as it is in itself when no human, or only God, is viewing it. So I like Nelson Goodman’s notion of worldmaking. We fashion worlds that work to varying degrees of effectiveness and are constrained by the criteria we adopt or presuppose in the worldview. (There’s a critique of Goodman’s full-strength relativism by the philosopher Harvey Siegel that I still want to examine.) People confront us (and we confront them) with various world-fashionings, and we try to make sense, or take action, or make decisions or agree to disagree together. So Rorty emphasizes solidarity over objectivity. The important point is not that I am the one who has reality as it is, the important point is that however I see things, I’ll have to engage someone else and react to their reaction.

But the natural sciences are so successful; doesn't that prove how the world really is? Well, it creates a compelling picture of the world, but is that how the world really is? The question of how the world really is, is a philosophical, not a scientific question. Scientists, as scientists, do not comment on Reality. Romantic poets also tell us how the natural world is in very moving ways. Does the Romantics natural reality have less reality than the natural scientist’s view? Impressionist painters have changed the way the world looks to those who’ve absorbed their vision. Did the world change or did we change? So too the mystic, through arduous and rigorous examination of experience, finds that ultimately nature and consciousness are not as they appear. Are they wrong and the scientists right? And if subatomic physicists find that matter is not exactly made up of a substance does that become reality? By what criterion do we evaluate their differing claims? Who decides which criterion to apply?

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The truth, Not The Truth: 3rd Installment

So what do I believe? I like the idea I’ve learned from Richard Rorty (who got it from Nietzsche) that we need no longer assume that there is a way the world is, or one world out there that is the guarantor of all our true and right statements and disproves all our false and wrong statements. That there is no way-in-which-things-are, no God’s-eye-view of things, which we all are trying to approximate in our various beliefs about what the world is like. Or, if there is a way-in-which-things-are, we can’t know for sure when we’ve gotten to it. Or, for those who are sure – like mystics or those with complete faith – they cannot demonstrate it conclusively to all others.

For years, even after having read Rorty’s critique of The Truth, I’ve always tried to make sure what I say is true by comparing it to The Truth. But I never seemed to be able to grasp The Truth. It was always just out of reach. Rorty is suggesting that this idea of The Truth (or The Good) serves the same role today as God did for previous generations. Foucault called it “the shimmering mirage of truth.” Instead of discovering what was true all along, we make what we call true - or best justified for now - in our interactions with others and the evaluation of each others beliefs.

There is no standard of perfect or absolute objectivity. Objectivity is determined case by case as people share their criterion of validity and agree or disagree that me or you have or have not met the criterion that we may or may not agree upon.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Chosen By Our Beliefs: 2nd Installment

The approach I described in "Personal Philosophy: First Installment" has a subtle difference from the way philosophers usually assert their views. Implicit in the usual approach to asserting one's beliefs is the assumption that we are the masters of our beliefs; that we decide to believe this or that. Some “I” or self within us has decided that this is true and that false, and for good reason. But I don’t think this is how we get our beliefs, at least not the fundamental ones.

A story illustrates this: In graduate school for sociology I couldn’t understand how people adopted a sociological tradition and method to follow in. There was the Western Marxism of the Frankfurt School, phenomenological sociology, qualitative vs. quantitative field methods, Structural-Functionalism, and others. If we’re all rational scholars then we would have to rationally choose the tradition which gave the right view of things. But how to choose that? I think what happens is that people are drawn to the traditions and views which attract them. They gravitate, are entranced, find it interesting, speak its language, feel it makes sense or any other non-rational way of being converted to a point of view. I don’t think it is generally the case that people rigorously examine all views and then choose the right one. How could they settle such a thing, since the entire discipline itself has not settled such a thing; that’s why there are differing traditions living uneasily with each other. This is why the intellectual divisions in academia are so severe. By engaging with an unbeliever, the non-rational fundaments of your view are in danger of being exposed.

So I think it’s more accurate to say that our beliefs choose or seduce us, rather than us choosing them. This is why people so easily become agitated and fearful when their views are challenged. There is so much of our self at stake when our beliefs are threatened. Dispassionate reason is the mask we use to contain our passionate attachment to a certain way of looking at things. This is why I think that, with enough information, we can determine the psychological work that specific beliefs do in maintaining the existence of the world that we need to have be true.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Personal Philosophy: First Installment

In trying to write something philosophical I find myself drawn to relativism and perspectivism. I try to elaborate a non-contradictory relativism. I know from the philosophical literature that there are many types of relativism, some mild, some full-strength. But in trying to elaborate what I believe, I am constantly wary of contradicting myself, which is the most popular way to dismiss a relativistic perspective. The relativist is caught making some kind of absolute statement about how things are and so is caught having a contradictory non-relativistic relativism. But recently I thought: why not just say what I do believe without concern for whether it’s contradictory or not. Instead of trying to prepare a bullet-proof philosophy by anticipating all criticisms, just write down what I think is true and then either examine it for contradictions or decide to accept some contradictions as a pervasive aspect of all philosophies at their limits. Just neutrally take dictation of my own beliefs.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

What is to Be Done?

The late Walter Kaufmann, a Nietzsche translator and philosopher, once wrote in a foreward to a volume of Nietzsche, that Nietzsche is the kind of writer who you can read all your life. You keep coming back to him at different phases of your life and he’s still relevant. There’s always more to get. It hasn’t turned out that way for me with Nietzsche, but just recently I picked up old essays by the philosopher Richard Rorty - someone I have gone back to and learned from over the last twenty years - and was still impressed. I learn new facets of a radically different perspective that I find attractive. I like his framing of the idea that our modern search for the Truth and the Good is really a replacement for the pre-modern search for God. That we yearn so strongly for a non-human something to be answerable to – reality, the Truth, the world as it is, the Absolute – that we concoct these God replacements because we don’t want to admit that it’s really just us. We’re answerable to human others and that’s it. So that’s why Rorty poses the question “Solidarity or Objectivity?” and opts for solidarity. We can’t know what the world is like beyond our particular human cognizing and experiencing, but we can try to come to some agreement with, and solve the problems of, us humans.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Knowledge Exacts a Mode of Life

From Stanley Cavell's "Existentialism and Analytical Philosophy" in Themes Out of School

"the term philosophy can refer either to a body of propositions supposed to comprise knowledge of some sort, or else to a mode of life, and that analyitical philosophy is an example of the former and existentialism an example of the latter." (p.220)

"a body of knowledge or a mode of life." (p.221)

"it is one of Kierkegaard's and Nietzsche's best discoveries - or rediscoveries - that knowledge itself exacts a mode of life." (p.222)

Monday, March 13, 2006

Upside Down World

The media keep reporting that Israel and the US are trying to teach Hamas to play by the rules by not funding the new Palestinian government until they renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist. So the occupying power and its principal financial and military backer, who are collectively responsible for far more deaths of innocent civilians than Hamas, and are now, and have been for the last 35 years, in the process of colonizing the Palestinians’ land, need to withhold and provide incentives to teach the democratically elected party of the people they are violently oppressing to renounce violence and recognize their oppressors right to exist. And this is taken for granted as a perfectly reasonable position in the US media.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Moods and Beliefs

"Emerson may be said to be a philosopher of moods, and it is one wise with moods who observes that 'Our moods do not believe in each other.' Neither do our philosophies, or visions, which is why the ideal of a pluralism in philosophy, however well meant, is so often an empty hope, and neither do our nonphilosophical and our philosophical moods believe in each other."

Stanley Cavell, Emerson's Transcendental Etudes, p. 26

Monday, February 27, 2006

The Social Psychology of Politics

I thought again of the idea of a displacement issue in media and politics. The society can’t face the real political issues of the day, so they channel their energy and dissatisfaction into a side or displacement issue. The target of the criticism, in this case Bush, has to be in a weakened political position for the faux issue to gain traction. It’s a way for people to attack the person they have doubts about, without confronting the real issues or crimes committed by that person.

Currently, it is the dustup over Bush allowing the United Arab Emirates to manage several US ports. Even in the domain of US ports and national security that is not the real issue. The lack of examination of cargo containers is a bigger port issue. Kerry tried to raise it during the campaign but got no where with it. But on bigger issues such as the failure of the Iraq war and occupation, sanctioned torture and Bush’s admitting to breaking the law by wiretapping without a warrant, the opposition got no traction. The public and the media still need to cling to the myth that Bush is their protector and so they’ll allow any crime. But underneath, the public is wary enough of him that the press, the Democrats and even some Republicans who need to distance themselves from Bush before the 2006 elections, can jump on him for something relatively minor, as long as it can be couched as him not protecting us.

Moods and Worlds

“The idea is roughly that moods must be taken as having at least as sound a role in advising us of reality as sense experience has; that, for example, coloring the world, attributing to it the qualities ‘mean’ or ‘magnanimous,’ may be no less objective or subjective than coloring an apple, attributing to it the colors red or green. Or perhaps we should say: sense experience is to objects what moods are to the world.”

From Stanley Cavell's "Thinking of Emerson" in his Emerson's Transcendental Etudes, p. 11

Monday, January 02, 2006

Constructing the World

For over a year now, upon waking two hours early each morning I’m gripped with a fear that I feel as a knot in my chest. My mind immediately starts obsessively thinking about the things I have to do this day, this week. I urgently anticipate and rehearse scenarios over and over, out of proportion to the importance of the upcoming interaction. I’m trying to make sure things don’t fall apart, that there is no trouble. I’m also trying to make sure I don’t have emotional outbursts by being unprepared for social interactions.

This thinking each morning is also the construction of my world. Each morning, as I come out of sleep, I have to reconstruct this fear-based world with its particular character and then live my life in this world. I have enough mindfulness to see the world being reconstructed each morning, as it’s happening, yet can’t stop it. Interactions are a threat and an impingement; so I prefer to withdraw. Contradictorily, I work as a social worker with the chronically mentally ill, and so have to engage very difficult people.

The world I inhabit is thin. Emotions are blunted. Everything is scarce, so saving is important. In many everyday actions I try to save. When driving I try to save gas and save wear and tear on the brakes. I try to keep the heat in the house as low as possible to save energy and money. I save money by bringing my breakfast and lunch to work so as not to eat out, and only buy coffee when I can get reimbursed. When getting water from the faucet I try to use as little as possible. I make sure I don’t waste food. I try to manage my time well so I don’t waste it. My whole world is colored by this scarcity.

This saving behavior is just the outward manifestation of a conception of the world. The world is a place where there is not enough. It’s a desiccated place – dry, lacking water. It’s a place where I’m anonymous or not really known and so lacking recognition. It’s a place without ultimate purpose and so lacking in meaning (although meaning can be found in other ways). The saving thoughts and saving behaviors, on a deeper level, become a pervasive mood or shroud of lack. My world looks and feels a particular way because of this.

Recently, I had short experiences when this world of scarcity was pushed aside for a few seconds, allowing me to get a look at the world I always inhabit. Once, I was caring for this mostly blind, mostly deaf, chihuahua mix. She was a sweet, little, old dog named Stella. She would walk unsteadily around the house sniffing and trying to find her way. I saw she didn’t have water in her bowl and was anxious that the bowl always have enough water so she would always know where water was – not feel scarcity – and so I scooped up the bowl and went to the sink to wash it and fill it. I turned the water on and a mood moved in and replaced the usual me. I turned the water on full force and thought “fuck saving water, I’m going to use as much as I need for her.” Instead of the usual world of scarcity and saving strictures, I felt, for two seconds, a burst of desire to use the resources I needed. The feeling was that this is why these things are here. It suggested a way of experiencing the world, a relationship to it, which is probably common for many people. Things are there for their use, to indulge, without concern. They live in a different world than mine. For those few moments that other world pushed aside my world and I saw a glimpse of another way to be in the world and another world to be in.

Another time, after therapy, I saw a different world. Instead of my usual Spartan, world full of discrete, disconnected entities, I imagined and felt a world in which encountering others was anticipated with curiosity, interest and excitement. Getting involved in interactions would fill the heart with pleasure or pain, but that the encounter of others and the connections and disconnections was a major part of living a life. Engaging family, friends, new people, was a big part of the reason for living and gave life fullness. There are people like this. It arose quickly and left quickly, and it was a radical alternative to my world, where interactions are managed and felt to be impingements.