Thursday, March 17, 2005

"Chronological Snobbery": History of Ideas, Socratic Philosophy, Christian Worldview, Scientists and God (with John Kress)

These exchanges occurred on an Internet List devoted to the question of God's existence: May 2001. Dr. John Kress's short "sort of" autobiography (more like an exposition of his intellectual outlook) follows. His words throughout will be in blue.

I am a tutor at St. John's College, best known as the "great books college." My background training is in philosophy, but in line with the unique nature of St. John's, I teach not only philosophy, but also literature, theology, science, mathematics, logic, and classical Greek. Or rather, I do not teach these things as subjects, but rather turn to the true teachers of humankind, the greatest thinkers and writers who have written down their thoughts for us in books.

I believe the human situation was best expressed by Pascal, "We know too much to be skeptics, and too little to be dogmatists," and that it was Socrates most of all who lived his life within this tension. This is why Socrates is always for us the purest image of the philosopher. Socratic wisdom is human wisdom: it consists in knowing that we do not know the highest and most important things, or in knowing that we are not wise, but at the same time recognizing that this very lack of wisdom shows that we are not wholly alien to it, but are indeed directed towards wisdom in our very being. "All men by nature reach out towards knowing," says Aristotle, and if we cannot be ourselves wise in the sense of knowing divine things with certainty, we can be or can seek to be humanly wise, that is, searchers after wisdom--in a word, philosophers. We may be friends and lovers of truth, even when we only long for it, like a lover separated from his beloved, one starting out on the long journey home.

When we begin our search for wisdom or the search for the truth about the highest things, we see right away that others have come before us who have also searched and thought and striven with all their powers towards this same end. And we understand that it is likely that some of them have had far greater powers than we do; it is wise for us, then, to search with our own powers as best we can, but at the same time to turn to the greatest thinkers and teachers, in order to learn from them what we can. These are the great philosophers, theologians, poets, scientists, mathematicians, writers and thinkers; their legacy is the real treasure-house of the human race. I, together with my fellow tutors and my students, spend my time reading these books, and thinking and talking about them. I am neither a professor nor a scholar, although I have done some of each, and if I am a teacher, it is to the extent that I am a first and foremost a learner, and am thereby able to share with my friends and students such things as I have managed to learn.

I will not trouble you with academic credentials or any biographical details, but by way of a substitute, I give you a thought of the Platonic Socrates, from the Phaedrus: "Now, for the men of my day, seeing that they were not wise like you young men, it sufficed, because of their simplemindedness, to hear from an oak or a rock, if only they should say true things; for you, however, perhaps it makes a difference who the speaker is and from what country. For you do not look at only that one thing: whether it is so or otherwise."

John Kress, Tutor
St. John's College, Annapolis

I. Science and Christianity: Incompatibles?

The fact (if true) that the majority of scientists are irreligious would not present an argument in favor of atheistic materialism. Yet this alleged fact has been implied or insinuated times without number by people like Carl Sagan and Issaac Asimov (who might be called "secular popularizers") - to imply that all "intelligent" people of science or letters or philosophy should be skeptics, and that those who aren't, obviously have some brain deformity or temperamental quirk, or a lousy upbringing with deficient toilet training and tyrannical subjection to menopausal, repressed teacher-nuns, etc.

I could posit (and have, in the past) a number of reasons why that might be the case. People (even scientists and philosophers) are basically sheep, and tend to conform to those around them. Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (whose writing I love, if not, alas, many of his conclusions) has often made a similar point.
We observe this in, e.g., the media, in politics, in academia, in fashion and music, and, yes, in various forms of religion as well. The number of truly independent thinkers and/or "act-ers" (depending on one's definitions of such highly subjective terms) is miniscule, I think.

Henry Margenau was a professor of physics for over 40 years at
Yale; former editor of American Journal of Science, Philosophy of
Science, Review of Modern Physics; past president of the American
Association of the Philosophy of Science, colleague of Einstein and
Heisenberg, and Schroedinger. He has more than a passing acquaintance with the state of affairs among physicists with regard to belief in God and theism, or at the least something beyond positivist materialism:

If you ask scientists who have a mild training in science, especially high school teachers and so forth, you do get the impression that there is a conflict between science and religion. But if you ask really good scientists . . . like Eccles, like Wigner, who is a good friend of mine, Heisenberg, whom I personally knew, Schroedinger, who visited me personally at home . . . Einstein was less explicit about his religious views but he had it. The leading scientists, the people who have made the contributions which has made science grow so vastly in the last fifty years, are, so far as I know, all religious in their beliefs. None of these men had any objection to religion . . . they were certainly not atheists. So what I'm saying is that, if you take the top-notch scientists, you find very few atheists among them.

{From: The Intellectuals Speak Out About God, ed. Roy A. Varghese, Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1984, 43-44}

Granted, this may not always, or even perhaps usually, be the personal Christian God, yet it is closer to Christianity than to atheism or logical positivism, or materialism.

Albert Einstein wrote:

Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe - a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble.

{Albert Einstein: The Human Side, from Varghese, ibid., 44-45}

Nobel Laureate neuro-biologist Sir John Eccles, after admitting that
biologists tended to be more skeptical than physicists, commented:

Promissory materialism is still a principal belief of the scientists. But it is promissory: that everything will be explained, even intimate forms of human experience in terms of nerve endings . . . This is simply a religious belief, not even a religious belief; it is a superstition based upon no evidence worth considering at all. The longer we go on understanding the performance of the human brain, the more remarkable does it become, the more unique are we from anything else in the material world.

{Ibid., 50}

I could produce many other such testimonies from reputable scientists and philosophers, from this book and others in my library.

II. Philosophy and Christianity (and the Scurrilous Attack on Dr. William Lane Craig)

Intellectual hostility towards Christianity remains a prominent tendency among academics and intellectuals. For example, Bertrand Russell, in his account of the history of philosophy, barely even gives Augustine and Aquinas their due (though he really likes Boethius). Of St. Thomas Aquinas (possessed of a magnificent, inquisitive, encyclopedic philosophic mind, and a first-rate theologian as well), he writes:

There is little of the true philosophic spirit in Aquinas. He does not, like the Platonic Socrates, set out to follow wherever the argument may lead. He is not engaged in an inquiry, the result of which it is impossible to know in advance. Before he begins to philosophize, he already knows the truth; it is declared in the Catholic faith. If he can find apparently rational arguments for some parts of the faith, so much the better; if he cannot, he need only fall back on revelation. The finding of arguments for a conclusion given in advance is not philosophy, but special pleading.

{A History of Western Philosophy, NY: Simon & Schuster/Clarion, 1945, 463}

I have found this condescending attitude to be disturbingly very common amongst philosophically-minded skeptics, atheists, humanists, agnostics, and suchlike. To believe in Christianity, therefore, is to be excluded from the "true philosophic spirit" from the get-go. Very convenient, this is. Very open-minded and tolerant . . .

As a manifestation of this mindset, more than one atheist on the list referred to above questioned the competence and intellectual honesty of Dr. William Lane Craig, one of the leading theistic philosophers today (perhaps the foremost current exponent of the Cosmological Argument for God's existence), on the basis of his working with (in some paid capacity) Campus Crusade for Christ, and his "methods" (including many debates), and because he writes some straight Christian apologetics in addition to philosophical treatises. So are we to understand that if a philosopher works for a Christian evangelization group, and/or dares to write apologetics, that he ceases to be a philosopher? That would knock out Augustine and Aquinas as well, and any other Christian philosopher of the past who was either a priest, pastor, or theologian, etc. (Anselm, Cardinal Newman, et al). Not to mention all the great scientists who were Christians, and who developed important new theories (science being the philosophy of empiricism).

Even "smarter-than-thou" Bertrand Russell admits, e.g., that Copernicus was "of unimpeachable [Catholic] orthodoxy . . . whose orthodoxy was sincere" (ibid., pp. 526-7). Somehow he managed to put on his thinking cap (having removed his Christian "dunce" hat) and develop the heliocentric theory. Mendel later did that with regard to the development of genetics, etc. Newton amazingly came up with gravity despite his Christianity. So it is a strange world indeed, with Christians in the forefront of the first three centuries or so of science (itself practically the religion of atheists and humanists).

In the convoluted, severely-biased "reasoning" of Bertrand Russell and many other atheists and secularists, if one is an atheist and a philosopher, then that is hunky-dory. Such a person is obviously "dispassionate" and an objective seeker after truth at all times. But if one is a Christian and a philosopher, then there is always the closet suspicion of evangelism and apologetics (which is, after all, part of what it means to be a Christian. The apologist is merely being a consistent - perhaps more "zealous" - Christian, and defending what other Christians espouse too.). In other words, to actually believe in Christianity enough to wish to defend and promulgate it, is apparently the death-knell of one's philosophical reputation, in the eyes of those who set forth this mentality.

All this "proves" is that certain atheist philosophers wish to equate "atheist" and "philosopher" (or "thinker;" "reasonable/rational person") as some sort of synonyms. It seems to me that if one accepts this premise, then all Christian philosophers must go down in flames as charlatans and pretenders. In Dr. Craig's case, he has a Th.D. as well as a Ph.D. so one would expect him to do a bit of theology as well, and not everyone agrees that one must separate fields of knowledge into airtight, impenetrable compartments. In fact, it is impossible to do so.

It is thought that a Christian cannot do philosophy because he already accepts certain dogmas. But big wow; so what?! Atheists accept certain unquestioned axioms as well, and have their own brand of "faith" - even extending to the quite-fanciful, imaginative lengths of "hyper-universes" and "oscillating universes" in order to avoid a finite universe which had a beginning (because that smacks too much of a possible Creation). These equally unproven axioms don't stop them from feeling themselves to be intellectually and rationally superior, as if they are on some inherently majestic and unquestioned epistemological ground (while the Christians are in a presuppositional dream world of sinking sand). It's quite funny to observe. Both sides believe things, and both speculate about other things. Welcome to the real world of ideas . . .

For myself, my position is that I always leave myself open to be convinced of anything. I know this to be true beyond doubt because I have, in fact, changed my mind on most of the important issues in life and philosophy somewhere along the line. And I've moved from Protestant to Catholic, which is a huge paradigm shift (almost unthinkable for many on either side). I think the key to true philosophy, an inquiring mind, and open-mindedness, is to maintain a theoretical possibility and willingness to be persuaded otherwise - as opposed to the acceptance of certain axioms and/or dogmas at the onset of, or during one's philosophic quest.

That's not to say it is very likely that I would become an atheist. I am about as likely to become an atheist as to circumnavigate the moon on stilts. Likewise, I don't see much greater chance of atheists converting to Christianity (though there are always exceptions). But the allowance of the possibility makes all the difference in approach, in my opinion. Also, granting the opponent their intellectual honesty and not attributing nefarious motives to them helps in this regard. Precisely for that reason, I detest such speculating about a person and their motives, as I observe with regard to the opinions about William Lane Craig.

One person on the list I was on even went to the ridiculous lengths of asserting that Dr. Craig wouldn't change his mind even if God commanded him to do so, which rather spectacularly bolstered my overall suspicion about his own predispositions and biases. Craig was accused of distorting opposing views and using "deceptive arguments," and of "masquerading" as a philosopher so as to give himself more credibility in the eyes of his Christian target audience.

But it is a regular occurrence for people engaged in discussion to feel that the opponent has "distorted" their views. It's part of the game. It is something altogether different, however (and an ethical breach), to insinuate deliberate deception and misrepresentation. This is wrong, short of the most extremely compelling and incontrovertible evidence.

Even "debate" has an unsavory connotation, according to this hyper-critic, so that somehow disputation and the engagement of intellectual opponents sullies any philosopher. "Debate" must automatically be reduced to "sophistry" and cheap and clever debater's tricks. Now, I do agree that those things take place all the time. I have utterly denounced them in the strongest terms (usually having to do with certain anti-Catholics who misrepresent Catholic views). Even then, however, I have yet to claim that these folks were being deliberately dishonest; knowing that they were lying as they were doing it. And I would never deride debating per se, as these atheist critics of certain Christian philosophers seem to do. I don't see how any thinker could do that.

To be fair, this severe atheist critic of Dr. Craig agreed that Christian philosophers such as William Alston and Alvin Plantinga were legitimate philosophers (even very good ones), yet one might argue that they are not suspect in his mind because they haven't written apologetics as well. As I argued above, it is not enough to cast suspicion upon a man's honesty and philosophical acumen, simply because he is being a more zealous Christian than the next person. This seems to me to be merely a variant of the secularist cultural tendency of being perfectly content to let a person believe in Christianity, as long as they "shut up about it" and keep it a purely private and subjective affair, so that it can't have the slightest effect on culture or society, or indeed have any significant relation to the real world at all. This is pretty much the heart and essence of secularization itself.

I guess a Christian philosopher must be one who is either unable or unwilling to defend Christianity in terms other than strictly "philosophical." So then, we logically arrive at the surreal spectacle of superb thinkers like Alston or Plantinga not being allowed to ever think about a defense of their Christianity or dare to present it in the hallowed halls of "rational philosophy," lest they lose their status as "philosophers." The thought police are alive and well. "Philosophical correctness" reigns, alongside "political correctness."

When all is said and done, I say it is pure prejudice (though unconscious) at work once again. It's dressed up in fancy terminology and "academic garb" but when analyzed closely, it has no serious substance. One can have much fun with a silly, groundless charge such as this. Are we to believe that the following periodicals (which published papers from Dr. Craig) do not know a "fake philosopher" when they see one, and have become dupes of a Christian scheme for roundabout evangelism? Don't they have any decent standards, for heaven's sake, for what they accept? They can't even discern real philosophy from mere special pleading and apologetics????!!!!! What's with these editors? Maybe they were slipped drugs by the diabolical Christian conspirators masquerading as "thinkers" or something. Quite extraordinary. Truth is stranger than fiction once again!:

"The Cosmological Argument and the Problem of Infinite Temporal Regression." Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 59 (1977): 261-279.

"Whitrow and Popper on the impossibility of an Infinite Past." British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 39 (1979): 165-170. Also, see v. 37 (1986): 168-75; v. 38 (1988): 389-395; v. 41 (1990): 229-234; v. 43 (1992): 233-240; v. 44 (1993): 623-639.

"Wallace Matson and the Crude Cosmological Argument." Australasian Journal of Philosophy 57 (1979): 163-170. See also, v. 69 (1991): 492-503; v. 74 (1996): 646-656.

"Kant�s First Antinmony and the Beginning of the Universe." Zeitschrift für philosophische Forschung 33 (1979): 553-567.

"Divine Foreknowledge and Newcomb�s Paradox." Philosophia 17 (1987): 331-350. See also, v. 25 (1997): 401-405.

"Tachyons, Time Travel, and Divine Omniscience." The Journal of Philosophy 85 (1988): 135-150. Reprinted in The Philosopher's Annual 11 (1988): 47-62.

"William Ockham on Divine Foreknowledge and Future Contingency." Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 69 (1988): 117-135.

"Time and Infinity." International Philosophical Quarterly 31 (1991): 387-401. See also, v. 32 (1992): 253-256; v. 33 (1993): 225-231; v. 35 (1995): 354-356; v. 37 (1997): 217-224.

"Hasker on Divine Knowledge." Philosophical Studies 62 (1992): 57-78.

"Graham Oppy on the Kalam Cosmological Argument." Sophia 32 (1993): 1-11.

"Professor Grünbaum on Creation." Erkenntnis 40 (1994): 325-341.

"Creation and Big Bang Cosmology." Philosophia Naturalis 31 (1994): 217-224. See also, v. 31 (1994): 237-249.

"Robert Adams's New Anti-Molinist Argument." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 54 (1994): 857-861.

"Tense and the New B-Theory of Language." Philosophy 71 (1996): 5-26.

"The New B-Theory's Tu Quoque Argument." Synthese 107 (1996): 249-269.

"Hartle-Hawking Cosmology and Atheism." Analysis 57 (1997): 291-295. See also, v. 58 (1998): 122-127.

"Is Presentness a Property?" American Philosophical Quarterly 34 (1997): 27-40.

Review: Atheism and Theism, by J.J.C. Smart and J.J.Haldane. Ratio 11 (1998): 200-205.

"The Ultimate Question of Origins: God and the Beginning of the Universe." Astrophysics and Space Science 269-270 (1999): 723-740.

"Tensed Time and Our Differential Experience of the Past and Future." Southern Journal of Philosophy 37 (1999): 515-537.

"The Extent of the Present." International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 14 (2000): 165-185.

By my count, Dr. Craig, then, has been published in at least 21 reputable philosophical and scientific journals, none (on the face of it) with direct Christian affinities. All of these had to be duped as to the "fake" status of Dr. Craig's philosophical credentials. Yet, being published in such journals is how pretty much any academic achieves status and reputation among their colleagues. If my atheist critic friend (who has since severely trashed my character and intellect as well) wishes to continue pursuing his "investigation," I'd be happy to do research on the Internet as to the nature of these publications, who else they publish, who edits and supports them, etc. We could construct quite a conspiracy here! I love doing detective work . . .

Some extreme Christian fundamentalist sects practice what they call "secondary separationism." This refers to the decision of separating from anyone who merely associates with a person deemed to be a heretic by the group's own fringe standards of orthodoxy. The sort of charges levied above remind me of this. For, if all the journals just cited are "in cahoots" with Dr. Craig and his alleged, nefarious special pleading and conspiratorial attempts to sneakily evangelize, then they, too, must be suspect. One can't have it both ways. If Dr. Craig is a "masquerader" then these periodicals ought to be sensible enough to figure this out, as our illustrious hyper-critic friend has. And that would cast doubt upon their credibility as respectable academic journals as well. On the other hand, if their reputation is secure and established, then it seems to me that Dr. Craig's cannot be all that different.

When I challenged this atheist-dominated list in this fashion, not a single person could offer a substantive reply. Such is the bankruptcy of personal attack without grounds, and based on mere anti-Christian prejudice or secularist hubris and pride.

III. The Breakdown of Philosophical "Certainty"
(John Kress with Dave Armstrong's Interjections)

Hi John,

Very fascinating post. I love history of ideas (one of my very favorite
areas of interest), so this is right up my alley. I think you have
virtually hit the nail on the head in your historical analysis of the course of intellectual evolution. I will expand upon many of your points as an opportunity to bring in my Christian analysis of these trends also.

My view on that said something is, is that it may be traced back
directly to that revolution of ideas within the Western tradition known
as the Enlightenment. The "Age of Reason" brought about a radical
transformation in its understanding of philosophy and what it is
capable of. Men such as Descartes, Galileo, and Bacon shaped a new
understanding of what it means to be rational. For them, truth is
CERTAINTY; whatever is not known with certainty is not known at all.

The paradigm for this sort of reasoning to certainty is MATHEMATICS:
it is rigorous, uses systematic unarguable deduction in its proofs, and
its results are absolutely certain and indubitable. For Descartes, nothing matters but learning and mastering the METHOD. Leibniz wishes to reconstruct all human reasoning or logos as a symbolic logic which may be calculated in a purely formal fashion. Kant takes his stand against Humean skepticism: there must be synthetic a priori truths which are known with certainty: why? because we are aware of some, those of mathematics and logic, that is, of Euclidean geometry and Aristotelian logic, two sciences which are, Kant remarks, perfect, and incapable of being doubted or advanced further.

The dream of the Enlightenment is reconstruction of all human knowledge or wisdom on the basis of a new, systematic, mathematical foundation.

I completely agree with this analysis. I would also submit that the
breakdown of prior (medieval, theological) "certainty" occurred with the
nominalists, who were reacting against the Thomistic synthesis of reason and revelation, as formulated by St. Thomas Aquinas. In effect, this chipped away at Aristotelianism, as St. Thomas was attempting (quite successfully, in my opinion) to synthesize his philosophical approach with Christianity. And it started the pitiable trend of the separation of reason from faith and theology, as if this is possible to do without ending up in sheer irrationality and fideism in the worst sense.

Modes of thought in Eastern Orthodoxy (as well as among many sects of the new Protestantism; e.g., Lutheran pietism, Quaker theological "minimalism," Methodist "holiness" movements and 20th-century anti-intellectual "fundamentalism") unfortunately fostered the same degenerative process. This was the beginning of the stupid and prejudiced modern and quite fashionable notion that Christianity (in essence, not as it is imperfectly practiced) is unreasonable, irrational, etc. (as if "hyper-rationalism" or positivism or humanism et al are any more rational or indisputable).

The Renaissance (though it contained many positive, Christian humanist ideals and emphases) further broke down the medieval synthesis, and the Protestant Revolt broke down the authority of the Church and the confidence of people that it could provide coherent answers to issues and problems in life and the world of ideas. So by that point the process of secularization was well under way, for the simple reason that people felt that the Church could not provide a coherent worldview any longer; therefore Christianity (almost by default) had to be increasingly relegated to the fringes of
society and culture, and consigned to the private, subjective sphere alone (the primary origin of the current extreme political "separationism" mentality).

All of this analysis is from an explicitly Christian viewpoint, of course.
Once the "Enlightenment" and what I would call "hyper-rationalism" sets in, then virtually all the leading ideas and trends in philosophy have no ultimate reference to Christianity at all. Here and there both God and Christianity get paid some lip service, but people (both at the popular and academic levels) have long since ceased thinking "Christianly." And this, in turn, is why Christians are considered so "backward," "retrogressive," and so forth. We (at least the more reflective and nonconformist among us, who don't soak in the postmodernist mindset like osmosis) think in categories
vastly different from that of the modernist and postmodernist.

Where our analyses (i.e., those of you and I) coincide and converge, I
think, is in agreement with regard to post-Enlightenment philosophy and its breakdown. With the failure of the "hyper-rationalist" experiment (except for science), and subsequent reactions of romanticism, bohemianism, sheer relativism, nihilism, existentialism, Naziism and Communism, classical liberalism, "the Idea of Progress", the sexual revolution, logical positivism, feminism, social science, Freudian and pop psychology, New Age, drugs, hedonism, analytic philosophy, racialist and unisex ideologies, and what-not, modern man (upon serious self-reflection) feels lost and without a tether.

So now the current fad is to play with words (and devolve philosophy into mere poetry, as you succinctly put it): those who don't seem to believe in much of a positive view of anything, but who reserve their energies for poking holes in (and looking down their noses at) any system which does attempt to offer some certainty and hope. And the massive "chronological snobbery" (a phrase from C.S. Lewis) disallows any fresh analysis of philosophical systems Past; they are all assumed to be passe and philistine and unworthy of allegiance amongst truly "progressive and enlightened" 21st-century man.

But, as I said, our modern era (1914-on), offers little support, in my opinion, that postmodern man is more advanced than medieval man, by any stretch of the imagination, neither morally, culturally, nor intellectually. We know much more technical information or knowledge today, but so what? There is such a thing as wisdom too. And that is what postmodern man lacks above all.

In the Theaetetus, Socrates discusses just such a possibility, by way
of recounting a dream he has had; in other words, Socrates too has had the dream of the Enlightenment. The crucial difference is that Socrates
understands that his dream is a dream; the men of the Enlightenment
wish in all seriousness to project their dream into reality. They take an
image for something real.

Sort of a corrupt, perhaps unconscious "Platonism"?

In the Republic, Socrates says that this is the proper distinction between someone who is asleep and someone who is awake: those who sleep take dreams for realities; those who are awake might encounter dreams or images, but see them as what they are, and in so seeing them, see through them. And philosophy either involves or is wakefulness, the most comprehensive sort of wakefulness.

Very good. This reminds me of something Chesterton wrote:

The mind of modern man is a curious mixture of decayed Calvinism and diluted Buddhism; and he expresses his philosophy without knowing that he holds it. We [i.e., Catholics] say what it is natural for us to say; but we know what we are saying; therefore it is assumed that we are saying it for effect. He says what it is natural for him to say; but he does not know what he is saying, still less why he is saying it . . . He is just as partisan; . . . just as much depending on one doctrinal system as distinct from another. But he has taken it for granted so often that he has forgotten what it is. So his literature does not seem to him partisan, even when it is. But our literature does seem to him propagandist, even when it isn't.

{The Thing, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1929, p. 120}

At the time of the Enlightenment, a great battle of ideas was fought
out, widely known as "the battle of the ancients versus the moderns." This battle, of course, still continues, but there is no question that the
moderns more or less won the overall war. Nothing, as the saying goes,
"succeeds like success," and early modernity gave us success after
success in the mathematic exploration of physical nature. The successful section of modern philosophy, natural philosophy, is today known as science; how could one question the new science, the method, and the primacy of mathematics when it has given us Newtonian physics?

Exactly. And then the "successful" people think they are far more trained and equipped to deal with things such as ethics and religion and metaphysics, which they have little (professional, academic) inkling of, or forms of which they have rejected due to the above outlined false
dichotomies (reason vs. religion, etc.). And we have the lamentable
hyper-compartmentalization of knowledge, where anyone in any particular category must analyze everything else within that particular methodology (as we routinely observe in the discussions here, even down to the extreme nit-picking about definitions; even grammar, to the death of constructive dialogue).

Religion is thus reduced to psychology or science. Cultural morals or mores (formerly, "natural law") are reduced to anthropology or sociology or the latest Roper Poll, and philosophy to poetry and a sort of self-absorbed etymology. Marriage and romance are reduced to pornography and promiscuity (or "rape" as some extreme feminists maintain), etc. There is no longer any overall reference point or worldview.

And if, say, Hobbes attempt to introduce "the method" into political
"science" were not as successful, nevermind, it will come, the blank
check is already penned. Just look how well the method succeeds HERE; surely this is proof that it will succeed THERE as well (yes, yes, it keeps failing, but later, soon, even). We live, as historian of ideas Peter Gay put it, in "the fag end of the Enlightenment." We men of today are disappointed dreamers.

Yes. But I as a Christian still dream and hope and maintain my optimism and idealism, and make an ongoing attempt to frame it in a rational worldview and philosophy. I need not give up idealism or rationality or hope or meaning. The postmodern man's dilemma is not mine, and his reasoning (or lack thereof) has not yet broken down my system (though he cavalierly assumes it has). Perhaps I am totally deluded as well. But - whatever one may think of it - I have an intellectual and religious confidence which gives all the meaning in the world to both life in general, and intellectual discourse in particular.

Dreams end and people wake up, eventually. The early 20th century saw Frege take up Leibniz' program to reduce language (including
mathematics) to logic, and to formalize logic in total system. Both mathematicians and physicist around 1900 were in agreement: their science had (almost) reached perfection. Complete and certain knowledge were within sight, after only a few more details were worked out. What happened? As Frege put, it "just as the house was being completed, the foundations collapsed."

Freud, the fruition of Marx's ideas, and World War I happened, among many other things. And then came the Sexual Revolution of the 60s (the most influential trend upon persons and ideas in this century, by far, in my opinion).

It would be pointless to belabor the history of the 20th century.
Suffice it to note that the foundations of classical physics were utterly
shattered (and physics is, of course, the fundamental science, the one whose certainty grounds all others--so the story goes); perhaps worse, since modern physics is mathematical physics, the foundations of mathematics and logic similarly collapsed. Kurt Goedel put paid to Hilbert's and Frege's dreams of a pure and perfect formalism. The dream of the Enlightenment turns out to be an impossible dream. Faith in mathematical reasoning as conceived by the Enlightenment turns out to be misplaced faith; apparently, we were misled by false prophets.

Indeed. But the Christian is not affected by all this cynical dream-burying and disillusionment, because we never bought all the "Enlightenment" hogwash in the first place. Relativity and quantum mechanics no more undermined Christianity than Copernicanism and the theory of evolution did, let alone the so-called "Enlightenment." Right reason (and good science) was always consistent with Christianity. It was only the attempted enthronement of Reason as King, over against God (and as a supposed alternative to Christianity), which led to what you describe above. This silly confidence in man as the measure of all things has been the cause of the collapse of coherent philosophy and the descent into irrationality and self-delusion. At that point, the thoughts of Pascal are as relevant and penetrating today as when they were written:

If we submit everything to reason our religion will be left with nothing mysterious or supernatural. If we offend the principles of reason our religion will be absurd and ridiculous.

{Pensees, #173}

The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing: we know this in countless ways. I say that it is natural for the heart to love the universal being or itself, according to its allegiance, and it hardens itself against either as it chooses. You have rejected one and kept the other. Is it reason that makes you love yourself?

{#423}

Reason's last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it. It is merely feeble if it does not go as far as to realize that. If natural things are beyond it, what are we to say about supernatural things?"

{#188}

So now the skepticism sets in. It manifests itself in various forms,
but the essence of it is misology. Reason has failed us. The
Enlightenment had told us was reason is, and now we know that reason is impossible. One can despair over this, as the existentialists did; one can attempt to celebrate it as a liberation, as the postmodernists do; one can bury one's head in the sand, and pretend that there is no problem if no one looks at it or mentions it, as the analysts do; one can divorce one's faith entirely from reason, and simply make it a matter of faith that "science will fix it" or "all problems will be solved," throwing oneself into the arms of a kind of secular providence;

Interesting. For my part, I look at philosophy and theology prior to all
these negative trends (dating from the 14th, 16th, or 18th century,
depending on how one analyzes history of ideas) and see if it can hold its own against the modern and postmodern chaos known as "philosophy" today. I think it more than holds its own, and nothing I have yet seen in my 20 years of apologetics has given me any serious pause as to the truthfulness of Christianity. This is the blessing of doing apologetics (and philosophy as it used to be done). One sees the utter bankruptcy or at least radical implausibility of opposing arguments (sorry for my confidence . . . ). I need not separate faith from reason at all, or reason from revelation, or Christianity from the supernatural, or Christianity from real life, or culture, or any of the leading questions of the day; least of all, from ethics.

I have seen no intellectual need to do any of those things, so I stand my ground. I don't have to make those choices. I am willing to subject my views to scrutiny and examination, and to see them falsified, if indeed that is the nature of the matter. But thus far, all attempts, in my opinion, have been unsuccessful. If, on the other hand, I believed for a second that I would have to throw away my reason and love of inquiry and investigation and dialogue in order to be a Christian (as many here seem to think), then I would never have become a Christian. I was relatively happy in my pagan secularism.

Or one can ask this question: were we right to reject the ancients in
favor of the moderns?

No (not in terms of the whole "Enlightenment experiment"). Nor was anyone right to reject Christianity based on all the various fallacious and emotional grounds which cause men to reject it (up to and including Swaggart, Falwell, butt-spanking, cranky schoolteacher nuns, pedophile priests, or whatever the convenient "hypocrisy" is used as a justification).

Since the conception of reason of the men of the Enlightenment has proved bankrupt at last, should we still cling to it (as a familiar comfort in the midst of despair)? Perhaps what is called for is a sober and serious reconsideration of what was rejected, and on what grounds.

Exactly. That would be nice for a change, wouldn't it?: actually analyze
the course of intellectual history, rather than always assume we know
more than anyone in the past ever knew; assume that mankind has picked up a few bits of knowledge here and there, in "antiquated" periods prior to 1789.

The first thing that needs to be reconsidered is the claim of
the moderns to have simply superceded the ancients with their new
method. Why should we believe them? Certainly the method in the form of modern science has proven remarkably effective in certain limited areas (viz. physical nature insofar as it can be quantified)--but by what inference is that extended to knowledge of everything?

Precisely. I have argued this for years.

It should be rather obvious to all thinking human beings today that
science is what Gulliver would have become if the king of Lilliput had had his way: a blind giant, raw power without wisdom in proportion to that power to guide it. And to look to science itself for wisdom is simply fatuous; to suppose that science in the future will produce wisdom is the worse sort of utopian dreaming.

Absolutely. Many of my favorite Christian writers (Lewis, Chesterton,
Muggeridge, Newman, Pascal, Kierkegaard) hammer away on this theme. I think it is only the silly, fatuous premise that science can pronounce upon ethics and metaphysics (which in turn assumes materialism) which leads to the equally ridiculous conclusions attained by that tunnel-vision procedure.

But as Heracleitus says, "We must not think and act like men asleep."

Amen!

IV. Imagining a Soul: The Skepticism of the Analytic School of Philosophy

(with atheist Steven J. Conifer)

A brave soul you are, venturing into this subject matter and spirited
discussion . . . but to get to the heart and soul of the question: The sole notion of importance is the spirit of the thing . . . :-) Okay, okay . . . couldn't resist . . .

How can one possibly conceptualize a nonspatial (or transcendent), atemporal entity?

By thinking at all, just as you did right then (and as you are, reading this).

There's no substance to imagine, no points of reference (in
space or time), just no imagery whatever.

One doesn't need "imagery" (there is no image to a "spirit" in the first
place, by definition). One merely needs thought and consciousness, or
self-awareness. What "imagery" does a person blind from birth see? Does that mean, then, that they can't imagine or conceptualize anything? Stevie Wonder, e.g., has said that when he thinks of colors, he imagines them to be analogous to how the sun's rays feel on his skin. Very interesting . . .

I suspect that what YOU take to be (what you believe is an accurate mental representation of) a "soul" (or "spirit") is something largely akin to a ghost on TV.

No; that's what I conceptualize as most pop psychic nonsense and charlatanism (or horror movie imagery) - akin to the "devil in a red suit [with the obligatory zipper in back] and horns, with a pitchfork" sort of silly and stupid cultural "mush religion" which attempts to pass for a description of serious Christianity (and to caricature or distort it, on other levels of deliberate slander and construction of straw men).

But that's really just a guy with a sheet over his head, Dave, and no
matter how hard you try, I assure you that you will NOT succeed in
conceptualizing a nonspatial, atemporal entity.

As I said, it is no different from having a thought, or a dream, an
imagination, an intuition, an inspiration, an appreciation of beauty,
romantic love, reflection upon poetry, or any number of things along those lines.

Why? Because it's downright impossible.

I should think that any philosophically-minded person would be a lot more reluctant to throw around a word such as "impossible." It is impossible for you because you have chosen to think in categories (themselves axiomatic and unprovable) that disallow belief in spirits and souls in the first place (following Ayer and others of like mind). That is not rational argument per se; it is arbitrary selectivity and hypothesis-espousal as to what one chooses to believe: defining some things as "out" from the outset.

Now, does this prove that no such entity exists? Yes, since it shows
the proposition that there exists such an entity to be unthinkable and
therefore conceptually (a priori) false.

Why, and how, then, did a great many philosophers manage to believe in such a thing? You tell me. Were they all simpletons or bound to dogmatic religious assumptions which even they couldn't shake due to cultural mores or groundless sentimentalities or psychological needs? Your own post about Einstein shows again that he (as one example among hundreds among revered intellects) is in disagreement with you on this "spirit" / "atemporal entity" business. How can that be, if this is so obviously "impossible" to imagine?

And how is that even atheists can be dualists, as I am currently being
informed, yet have the greatest difficulty comprehending a mind (or soul) which doesn't have a body or brain to accompany it? What is so difficult about that?! I don't get it. One simply imagines thinking or mind without a brain to be necessarily associated with it. The relevant question at hand is the relationship between minds and bodies. Far greater minds than yours and mine have struggled with that complex question for centuries. The very struggle itself leads me to believe that, therefore, the question is not so cut-and-dried, black-and-white, and simply resolved as you make it out to be, by slinging around words such as "impossible." You don't seem to show much respect for the history of philosophy when you talk like this.

V. Further Reflections on Classical Philosophy and the Inferiority of Modern Philosophy and Postmodernism (John Kress)

As a kind of Platonist, I would hold that there is
indeed a disconnect between speech and being, or better, a
chorismos, or gap. I have pointed to this before when I have
said that "logos is not essentially aletheuein [truth]."

My view is that logic is in the final analysis not much good in
philosophy. It is, at best, a kind of tool for philosophical
thinking, useful in some contexts, and less so in others.

What is logic? The term is an abbreviation of the Greek
episteme logike, which might be translated as "systematic
knowledge of argument." Logic is kind of discursive knowledge, similar to mathematical knowledge. Is this kind of knowledge the only or highest form of knowledge? It is not. Among my reasons for thinking logic to be of limited value, are:

1. It's an episteme. That is, it is a discursive knowledge--
specifically, discursive knowledge of discursive knowledge.
Logic necessarily involves a kind of circular reasoning, using
the very tools it critiques in the course of critique the tools.

2. The above limitation manifests itself in the non-logical
starting point(s) of logic. Logical axioms or first principles
are not themselves logically demonstrable, since logical
demonstration always proceeds from and interms of them.
They rest either on a kind of faith, or on a different kind of reason, which is non-discursive, and of higher rank than the discursive.

(2a. Those who identify reason with logic end by replacing
philosophy with poetry, since it follows that, if we are unable to rationally identify first principles non-discursively, then our choice of first principles is arbitrary, or an act of human making or artifice. Logical systems then become human constructs, as mathematical ones are today widely believed to be. And "artifice of logos" is in the broadest sense, poetry.)

3. Plato goes through the situation in Republic 509c-511e.
This famous section is where Socrates unfolds the image of
the "divided line." The line is divided in several ways, the
main division being between the visible and intelligible. The
realm of the intelligible is itself divided, which division is the
relevant one here. The lesser or lower division of the sphere
of the intelligible is episteme. Logic, as episteme logike
would fall here, along with mathematics (which logic very
obviously resembles and has a kinship with). Episteme is
defective in the direction of its movement: it begins from first
principles which are, for it, axiomatic, and moves downward
from them, as discursive demonstration. Higher than this,
however, is the other sphere of the intelligible, the movement
proper to which is dialektike, which proceeds along "the
upward way", that is, working its way not from but TO the first principles. Only dialectic is philosophy. The logician is no
more a philosopher than is the mathematician, the muscian, or the grammarian.

5. Aristotle, the "father of logic" as he is often called, places
"logic" in the organnon or "toolbox" of philosophy. Logic is
a sometimes useful tool for philosophy, but nothing more than this. Negatively, a study of logic allows us to avoid being hoodwinked by sophists, but it doesn't really take us anywhere of itself.

6. Logic was codified and developed systematically first of all
in the Platonic and Aristotelian schools. Logic is largely the
invention not of philosophers, but of school teachers.

7. Besides the 20th century, logic's greatest period of flourishing was among the scholastics, widely known and rightly criticism for their endless logical hairsplitting.

8. The only modern philosophers to take logic seriously, Leibniz and Kant, both regarded it as radically defective, and in need of elevation to a philosophical level. Kant, it is true, regarded empirical logic as a completed science to which nothing could be added, but this was simply not philosophy, which requires, and Kant works out, a transcendental logic.

9. In Kantian terms, logic has to do with the empirical understanding, or the rules of thinking. But (1) there are no rules for the application of rules, or judgment: our judgments must be according to the rules of logic, but are not and cannot be determined by them; and (2) understanding, as the faculty of rules as such, is subordinate to reason, as the faculty of unconditioned principles.

. . . The long and short of it is that philosophy requires not merely episteme, but dialectic, and dialectic supercedes episteme. To say it in the form of a remark of Heidegger:

"The idea of 'logic' itself disintegrates in the turbulence of a more original questioning."

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

One of Socrates' most fundamental principles is that genuine
philosophical dialogue can take place only among friends,
and friends possessed of certain particular virtues. When
a dialogue becomes a debate, it has already degenerated
into a lesser form, viz. eristic, since the object of the discussion then becomes victory or at minimum saving face. Debate is a rhetorical business; public debates are not intended to be a joint search for truth, but to convince the listeners of the truth or superiority of one side or the other. Genuine philosophical dialogue, that is, dialectic, is impossible in a hostile environment.

In the Gorgias, that remarkable dialogue wherein Socrates
debates three professional debators about the nature and
worth of debating, after he has distinguished what they take
a debate to be about, and what he does, he makes the point
that to engage in a philosophical dialogue, one's interlocutor
must have three characteristics or virtues: Understanding,
good will, and frankness.

Of these, frankness is easiest to grasp. It might also be
translated "outspokenness" or even "free of speech,"
and refers to a willingness to say what one actually thinks
to be the case. It involves a kind of honesty with oneself
about what one believes and a willingness not to deceive
others about this.

Good will (eunoia, literally "well-mindedness") refers to
a certain friendly regard towards the person to whom one
is speaking. Roughly, we might say that it involves a real
concern for the other person's well being and dignity
which would prevent his being reduced to a tool, object,
or enemy, to be used, manipulated, or crushed.

Understanding, of the three, seems hardest to grasp. The
word is episteme which, if Aristotle said it, we would have
no problem rendering it "discursive knowledge"--but Socrates
is more loose with his words, and immediately afterwards,
elucidates it by calling the man who possesses it "wise" and
inferring that someone is "wise" who is "educated." He
seems to mean a certain kind of understanding, likely
something either akin to or identical with the famous Socratic
"knowledge of his own ignorance." Since we have merely
human wisdom, and not divine wisdom, insofar as we are
truly knowers, in the Socratic sense, what we most know is
that we do not know; this combines Socratic "knowledge"
(of ignorance), Socratic "wisdom" or human wisdom ("No one
is wiser than Socrates"), and Socratic "education" (paideia,
which in terms of the cave image in the Republic involves
a certain turning around or orientation of one's soul).

In short, the necessary condition to be a philosophical
interlocutor is to be like Socrates. And indeed, this is
underscored in the usual Platonic comedy, as each of
Socrates' three interlocutors is deficient in one or more
of the three necessary virtues for being a sufficient
interlocutor for Socrates, the first lacking one, the second
two, and the third all three.

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

I cannot think of any principle or attitude that I could possibly
disagree with more strongly than the tendency to dismiss the
most serious efforts of thought of the most serious human beings on the grounds that they are old or simply superceded. This seems like almost the worst possible stance towards the pursuit of wisdom that I am capable of imagining, and an amazingly unjustified conceit about our own powers and successes . . . this sort of thing is a very obtuse idea. Almost everyone is obtuse in some way or another, even the most subtle and careful thinkers -- Nietzsche on women, for example.

There is some sense to the claim that science is a progressive
enterprise (although I would say that Kuhn's points about the
discontinuous nature of paradigm shifts mitigates the stronger forms of even this claim) -- but I see no sense whatsoever in which philosophy may be said to "make progress." Philosophy concerns the fundamental questions that arise in and out of the human situation, and there are only a small number of possible approaches and answers to such questions; they are perennial questions, and I am at least prepared to take seriously the claim that knowledge in the proper sense is knowledge of stable, eternal things.

If so, then these matters will not have changed with
respect to the human situation; in matters of pure thought, in what way are we "better off" than Plato was? We are awash in a mass of facts concerning physical nature of which Plato and Aristotle were unaware (and so one needs to qualify, for example, Aristotle's biological writings by means of the new data) but how are we in a better position to ask and answer questions about human nature? About ethics, or the good? About the divine? About the entire range of metaphysics? About the fundamental nature of thought, or logic?
About the beautiful, or art? About human beings living together, or politics? I think the answer to every single one of these is "We are not in any better of a position, and perhaps in a worse one."

In short, I cannot see that the present age has any distinct
advantage in any dimension of the basic questions EXCEPT
the area which concerns the investigation of physical nature,
and even there I am fairly sure that the kind of investigation
which we carry out there systematically distorts even those
phenomena for us (and scientific investigation certainly has
a tendency to be self-forgetful of its implicit metaphysical
assumptions and commitments).

The beautiful thing about arguments to what "we today" know with certainty is that these things will almost infallibly be relegated to the trash-heap of history soon enough, when a new generation with their own obvious truths appears, and dismisses our best ideas, on the grounds that they are old, and therefore false, historically rejected, and therefore proven worthy of rejection.

Carnap:

For thousands of years philosophy [has] been one of the most tradition-bound fields of human thinking. Philosophers, like anybody else, tend to follow the customary patterns of thinking; even movements which regard themselves as very revolutionary, such an existentialism as a philosophical doctrine (in distinction to existentialism as an attitude in life), are often basically merely a modification of an ancient metaphysical pattern, namely a certain feeling or attitude toward the world in a pseudo-theoretical disguise. I often see also the brighter aspects of the picture. It is encouraging to remember that philosophical thinking has made progress in the course of two thousand years through the work of men like Aristotle, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, Dewey, Russell, and many others, who were basically thinking in a scientific way. Personally I regard myself as very fortunate to be living in a country with the greatest progress in philosophical thinking and to be working together with friends on the basis of a common philosophical attitude. Above all I am gratified by the fact that many young people of the generation now growing up show promise of working in philosophy in a way which will tend to diminish the cultural lag.

In what sense does John Dewey, say, represent progress over Kant? Is this list meant to be truly "progressive" such that Aristotle is the most meagre philosopher, but Russell the richest in insight? Are we to take Aristotle as of merely "historical interest" because superceded in turn by each philosopher who follows? I can't see any way in which this could make sense as a claim about the situation. It would be akin to the thesis that poetry makes progress because I can name Homer, Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, and T. S. Eliot in a kind of linear list spanning 2500+ years. Does it even make sense to speak of T. S. Eliot as a "more advanced" poet than Homer?

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

Clarity is not useful if it prevents us from thinking about and through obscure matters. It is more important to accept the testimony of the phenomena, even when they confuse us, because only in this way will the possibility exist of eliminating the confusion on a higher level. Thus thinking can advance. Closing our eyes to anything that might upset our simple categories and engender confusion, on the other
hand, is more apt to foster stagnation than advance in thinking.

Clarity in thinking is neither automatic nor instantaneous. Therefore, since clarity is desirable, it is often necessary to attain it by working through matters which are not yet clear. Such unclear thought--insofar as it is on the way towards clarity, or striving to attain clarity--is worthwhile, since without it, our only alternative is simply not to think
anything which is not immediately clear.

The notion that we ought to cling to clarity and avoid all obscure matters is tantamount to the argument that one ought never to perform surgery, since it damages the tissue which is cut, and health, not damage, is the goal.

My point is fairly well summed up in a remark of
Ortega y Gasset's : "The responsibility of the philosopher is
not to be clear simply in his thinking, but TO BE AS CLEAR
AS HE CAN BE according to the matter of his thinking." Or
again, in a remark of Schelling's, concerning Hegel's thought:
"It is not a reasonable objection against a philosopher that
his thought is obscure, when the matters he is dealing with
are themselves obscure."

All I have seen indicates that analytic thought employs exactly the same sort of claquish jargon as does postmodernism (a movement which is in my opinion something of mirror of the analyists, more often than not)--that is, the way to "wing it" is simply to employ the accepted mode of talking, and not to challenge the overarching assumptions. Similarly, the analysts record of "finding out" people who are talking nonsense is less than stellar, since this procedure seems to amount to dismissing anyone that one cannot understand as someone talking nonsense. I have seen analysts blithely dismiss at various times Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Husserl, and Heidegger as "nonsense."

Philosophy does not and cannot progress with time. Neither does philosophy have a method. What this means is that one is left without one's crutch or security blanket when it comes to thinking through the most fundamental matters. It would indeed be reassuring to have a truth-machine upon which one could turn a crank and grind out endless streams of philosophical insight, but this is not an option. Nor is our desire for a method a good ground or an excuse for
pretending that there is such an animal; instead of doing this, one might as well skip the middle man, and simply pretend to have the truth right from the start. Philosophy is, as science is not, thinking without a net.

Since a philosophical understanding of the world is always an attempt to think the whole, how is it that one can "stand on" Aristotle? One first has to understand Aristotle, and that can be the work of a lifetime. Any high-school student today can be taught to solve mathematical problems that tormented and thwarted mathematicians for years or centuries--but the case of philosophy is not similar. What high school student can be taught to grasp the Metaphysics? To think that we can teach students to understand Aristotle is doubly mistaken: it assumes both that such understanding, that is, wisdom, is teachable (as opposed to knowledge), and also that we have it to begin with.

It is ultimately only singular human beings who philosophize--one cannot philosophize in groups, by means of a division of labor--because philosophy is precisely the thinking that is directed towards thinking the whole as the whole. Division of labor and specialization are possible in science, because science itself is division (scientia means a scissioning or "cutting") and the objects of science are as many cuts at the joint (i.e. rational divisions) as nature allows and affords.

I in no way consider philosophy to be any sort of "historical
study." If it were the case that Plato or Aristotle were of
"merely historical interest", then there would be no interest
whatsoever to them, from a philosophical point of view.
Philosophy is interested only in one thing, and that, to borrow
Hegel's phrase, is "the actual cognition of what truly is," and
that as a whole. My interest in Plato and Aristotle lies in the
fact that these thinkers know far more than we do, or our
ever likely to. We learn what we learn either by thinking
through matters for ourselves, and our powers are perhaps
not very great, or being helped in our thinking by teachers.
And our teachers themselves have had teachers who have
helped them in turn. There cannot be an infinite regress of
teachers, so somewhere one must come to a halt--one must
encounter teachers who are not themselves learners of
greater teachers, and these human beings are the great
thinkers. Such human beings are extremely rare--it is not a
surprising thing for there to be none or only one in a century.

Fortunately for us, however, most of the great thinkers leave
behind them books which they have written, so that we are
not simply left at a loss. These book are treasures of
inestimable value, since they are the records of the thinking
of the greatest thinkers to have lived. But books have the
disadvantages which Socrates outlines in the Phaedrus:
they cannot defend themselves, and only say the same things
over and over. So the burden is on us to understand them,
to revivify the thinking latent therein by animating it with our
own thinking: books are like a body without a soul; they become alive only when our soul gives life to them, by repeating the thinking which they both offer us and demand of us. But such a task is likely to be more than we are capable of, since we are not ourselves great thinkers; but what it is in our power to achieve, that we can do.

By and large, most persons access philosophy in precisely that manner [as with poetry], namely, in accord with certain socially accepted conventions which they have accepted regarding what constitutes good philosophy (one set of such social conventions might be called "analytic philosophy", another "postmodernism", etc.)--and which conventions does one accept? One either accepts whatever one was first taught, and does not question it (as most people accept the religion of their parents and the mores of their community), or else one thinks the matter through for oneself, coming to one's own conclusions--and that is indeed a "subjective assessment", since one must make it only for himself, in the end, as a thinking being.

In what sense is rational thought an objective matter? I submit that no two human beings have ever agreed on all matters about which they have thought. What follows from this is that no more than one human being, more likely none, has ever been rational--assuming objective matters are matters which compel universal agreement. If not, what are they? Do they have marks, by means of which we can recognize them? How would you show or say what these marks are? Would you have to make an argument? If so, would this argument be an objective matter as well? How would you establish that it is?

By pointing out that it too bears the marks of an objective
matter that it is meant as an argument to prove all objective
matters bear? But this would of course be a circle ... one
which lands us in the end where we began, with the question
of what it means for rational thought to be an objective
matter. Can it mean agreement? Of whom? The most people?
But this is an appeal to the people, who are not famed for
their discernment, in the best of cases. The experts? But who
are they, and how do we tell? The wise? Yes, perhaps--but
once more we return to the thesis that we should seek the
counsel of the greatest minds--and these human beings
disagree among themselves on fundamental matters.

Even if we were to posit something like "objectivity in itself,"
we still have to say how it is that we come to know, see, or
discover this, so the problem of subjectivity is not escaped,
but only shifted in locus (. . . even if God is the ground of ethics,
we are still in the human situation of having to make out God's will or commands or moral laws, etc.). Now, I think it is
manifestly and objectively true to hold both Plato to be a
great philosopher and Shakespeare a great poet. And I can
of course give arguments for either point--but to what avail?
I cannot compel [anyone to] think as I do, regardless of what I do. I can give a perfectly valid logical argument--and [others] are free to deny the premises, or dispute the appropriateness of my logic, or a host of other things. In the end, it will come down to what you see and think for yourself, and nothing else--to accept anything that you do not see or think for yourself doesn't make you rational--it makes you a believer.

Someone once made the witty remark that "democracy is
a disease the cure for which is more democracy." I don't
know if that is true or not (it bears thinking about), but I will
go so far as to claim to know that this paraphrase holds good:

"Philosophy is a human disease the cure for which is more
philosophy."

Uploaded on 5 June 2001 by Dave Armstrong with the express permission of John Kress.

No comments: