Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Where are the limits?

The always-provocative dy0genes writes:

I get the feeling that what [Speculative Realists] are reacting to is the assertion that there *is* a limit to thought. That is a very different thing than [making] the assertion that there *isn't*, which is not what I'm taking them to do. I take part of the purpose of this anti-Kantian critique to be the desire to re-draw the boundary between religion and reason. The assertion that mind/reason has limits which it cannot cross is an unprovable intuition, ie a religious thought. It violates the scientific method, which of course can only disprove things and let stand what cannot be dispelled. I suspect that this intuition is *correct* at some level, but don't want to be told, a priori, at what level it is so. I think the project at hand is to make a "critique of pure religion" which reduces the religious sentiment (and other psychological states) to a material foundation, one that can be *managed*. Kant created a space for religion safe from the ravages of an uncontrolled reason, now we need to create a space for modernity safe from radical religion.

This comment nicely snaps a few things into focus. This post are some reflections on it, informed by a trio of distinctions: that of the "limits of thinking" and what lies on either side of these alleged limits; the Non-Overlapping Magisteria invoked by Stephen Jay Gould; and the Problem/Mystery distinction coined by Gabriel Marcel.

First: "part of the purpose of this anti-Kantian critique [is] to re-draw the boundary between religion and reason."

Yes, the fundamental issue here, as always in philosophy, is the religious issue. I am not a Straussian, but I agree with Strauss that quid sit deus? is the philosophical question. Meillassoux’s project is obviously oriented by it; though we have only seen a few hints of it so far, his “Spectral Dilemma” essay and certain parts of After Finitude make this clear. Brassier is frank about his hostility to philosophy serving as a “sop for human self-esteem” and it is not hard to see Nihil Unbound as an overtly anti-religious book. Interestingly, Harman diagnoses both of these figures—I think convincingly—as really correlationists in a sense.

Second: “The assertion that mind/reason has limits which it cannot cross is an unprovable intuition, ie a religious thought.” Yes again. “Limits to thought”-talk derives ultimately from Kant, but most of its currency in contemporary philosophy derives from Ludwig Wittgenstein; and Wittgenstein would certainly have said that such limits cannot be proved, but only shown. The “religiousness” of the intuition is more overt in the Tractatus, but I think a case can be made for reading Wittgenstein as a religious thinker in some sense (the sense relevant here) his life through, especially from the notebook entries collected in Culture and Value. Norman Malcolm tried to make such a case in Wittgenstein: A Religious Point of View? (see a review here) and, aside from some exegetical quibbles and emphasis, I think he is right.

Third: “I suspect that this intuition is *correct* at some level, but don't want to be told, a priori, at what level it is so.” Again, I think Wittgenstein would agree; he would have tried to show that scientific method always does work within these limits, but would have insisted upon the hopelessness of trying to say, “and here is the limit itself,” in part because of the very limit. Problem is, of course, that any talk of such limits makes them into ostensible objects. This is why LW insisted that such talk was really nonsense. But he does not take as dim a view of such nonsense as some; he seemed to think it was a valid and valuable way of engaging with the mystery of things. I am with him on this, but of course given pause by some of the nonsense anyway, especially nonsense not seen as such. (And it’s very hard to see it as such and still see it as “valid and valuable”—this is a fine balancing act).

I see the issue of discerning such limits in much the way that I see the issue of so-called “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” (NOMA for short,) as Steven Jay Gould called his attempted solution to the science-religion quarrel: science and religion address wholly different realms and phenomena, so as long as we are clear about which phenomenon belongs where, there cannot be any conflict between them. Science addresses matters of fact and natural law; religion addresses questions of ethics and existential meaning. Between these is a contested border, but ideally, the "Magisteria" (the word is the Roman Catholic term for the authority to teach doctrine) of science does not overlap with that of religion.

“Limit” is a spatial and cartographic metaphor, as is the notion of
“overlapping” territories. On Amod's blog, I ventured that the boundaries of such Magisteria can indeed be seen as non-overlapping, but fractal. So too, in the case of “limits to thought,” if we can run with the cartographic metaphor: seeing the limits as fractal means that in one sense they are “locatable;” but they cannot be precisely located, in the mathematical sense, at all.

Gould’s "Magisteria" are objects of a lot of contesting, and sometimes rightly; Amod has laid out some objections here. But thinking of their borders as “fractal” can perhaps lead the discussion forward, because it makes possible to imagine fine-tuning the distinction between one Magisterium and another indefinitely. My sense is that some version of this account can help us to navigate the conditions where, as Graham Priest argues, contradictions can be countenanced
—where, that is, one might have a genuine case for a dialethism. (As I mentioned last post, Averroes and his Medieval followers seemed to hold that one such case was precisely between religion and science, or, as they put it, theology and philosophy). When you find a contradiction that feels like it matters—and this is a matter of judgment—one choice is to treat it as a spot on the fractal boundary where a ‘higher resolution’ would be of benefit. Interesting discussions proliferate the more thickly the more complex the “resolution” of the boundary gets. However, Wittgenstein’s “limits” are different than the borders between Magisteria. A Magisterium has (per hypothesis) actual content, whereas LW would say that in some sense the discourse of Ethics and Aesthetics is, strictly speaking, meaningless. Ethics can only show. It can say, “Thou shalt not commit murder,” but not “because thy intended victim is an End in Herself,” or “because doing so will decrease the net happiness of the world,” or any other such rationale. And, LW would perhaps say, the “Thou shalt not” only shows the ethical imperative. (This is similar to and decisively different from the emotivist critique that claims that such imperatives amount to saying "I disapprove of murder," in precisely the same way that the sophist is similar to and decisively different from the philosopher).

I am quite sympathetic to the spirit of Wittgenstein’s claim; there is a sense in which, as he says in the Investigations, “Explanations come to an end,” that one reaches a point at which “one’s spade is turned.” This is usually read epistemologically, because LW speaks in terms of explanations. But I would argue that there’s a relevant ontological dimension here as well. It is more fruitful, I think, to see either “limits of thinking” or Magisteria, not primarily in terms of “science” and “religion,” (terms I think are of definite but limited usefulness), but rather what Gabriel Marcel called, respectively, “problems” and “mysteries.”

A problem is an inquiry with an answer, either real or imaginable. But a mystery is an inquiry which involves the inquirer in the act of inquiry, to “answer” which would require a position outside the inquiry. Thus: Is there a cure for cancer? Is a question that can be asked and answered, in principle; whereas Am I free or determined? cannot be answered in the same fashion, since my freedom or determinedness is already at work in the inquiry. Of a mystery, Marcel says it is a question “that encroaches upon its own data.” It thus matters who is asking, in a way that is not true of a problem; the reality of cold fusion or of a conspiracy behind Abraham Lincoln’s assassination might be enormously important to a researcher, but in principle the answer does not change depending upon who asks. Such is not the case with a mystery like Should I tell the truth now? or Who would I have been if I had not married him? Marcel says that the problematic is addressed only to “part” of the person, whereas the mystery, by implication, addresses the person as a whole.

(Parenthetically: I should say that it is not just the first-person pronoun which makes a Mystery. A question like Do trees have standing? can just as easily be a mystery, or at the very least bear or depend upon considerations that are, in Marcel’s sense, “mysterious.” What is the case is that a mystery always has implications for the practice of the questioner. Now this might seem very anthropocentric and out of place in a discussion of Object-oriented philosophy; but that remains to be seen. What is certain is that a mystery involves the “asker”. It is thus very like Heidegger’s existenz, the way of being of that entity for which Being is an issue. Heidegger says that a stone has no world, and an animal is “poor in world;” only Dasein, he says, has a world in the full sense. But the fact that Heidegger says
Dasein and not “human beings” is more significant than is usually seen. This side-issue is hugely important, but to say more here would make this post as sprawling as the last one. I’m only concerned at this point to deny—without defending the denial—that the problem/mystery distinction is irreducibly either epistemological or correlationist).

dy0genes: “I think the project at hand is to make a "critique of pure religion" which reduces the religious sentiment (and other psychological states) to a material foundation, one that can be *managed*.” There is certainly a project like this underway, and SR is certainly making room for it. I am far from disparaging this project, though the verb “managed” might give ones eyebrows a rise and call up shades of Brave New World. The questions about what brain states are involved in a certain state of religious transport, for instance, or whether (as Richard Dawkins asserts) religion is just a memetic virus, are legitimate. The trick, as I see it, is to preserve the legitimacy of the category mystery in the face of these legitimate problems…

...without, however, using “mystery” as a way of defending oneself from having to engage the problems. To cry “Mystery!” when confronted by an uncomfortable-making implication of reason is to refuse, not engage, philosophy; what’s more, it debases the very status of the mystery; it amounts to using the term “mystery” as a move in negotiating a problem. Rather, one must get as uncomfortable as possible. That’s how one stays engaged. Wittgenstein did not simply say, with a shrug, “ah well, limits of reason, you know,” when confronted by a matter of ethics. He said that we run up against these limits.

There’s something in this (very ancient, and in a way Socratic) language of struggle that bears reflection. The violence of the metaphor needs to balanced against the more patient connotations of the careful attention (also Socratic) needed to help us trace these limit of thought in ever-finer (fractal) detail. But both are needed, and needed, I would say, both by reason and by faith. More on this next post.

No comments:

Post a Comment