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.