John C. Wright (johncwright) wrote,
John C. Wright

Temporal and Eternal, Contingent and Necessary

Something strange has happened in the modern age, with modern philosophy, that I simply cannot figure out. People still use metaphysics, even while dismissing it, and the metaphysics they use is not only wrong, it is jaw-droppingly stupid: people who argue that they do not exist because a proof of their existence does not meet a standard they have set at an arbitrary height, and they use a means of proof not suited to the case under consideration.

They ask for a physical and material proof of such things as the law of non-contradiction, or the proof of their own self-existence or free will or  moral code, without once noticing or responding to any argument that points out that the act of "proving" something already axiomatically assumes non-contradiction, self-existence, free will, and, yes, even enough of a moral code to justify that the conversation, and the act of proof, is an intellectually honest one. 

In a court of law, the one issue it is not within the power of the attorneys to argue, is to prove to the judge that he sits in a court of law, or to prove to the jurors that they are jurors. A legal process that is not within the authority of the attorneys within the case to argue yea or nay decides if the judge is properly inaugurated or the jury properly seated. No judge sits on his own case; no jury votes on whether they are jurors or not.

The mental picture of the modern philosopher, the one image you should always keep in mind, is that of a carpenter sitting on a tree branch happily sawing off the branch on which he sits.

There is hardly one modern philosophy that does not contradict itself with a painfully blatant self-contradiction. There is hardly one modern philosophy that does not assume, as an axiom, an assumption that would makes the existence of the philosopher impossible, if the axiom were taken seriously.  Rather than abandon his clownishly self-defeating axioms, the modern philosopher merely stops taking philosophy seriously.

( The modern philosophers are in truth antiphilosophers, and they teach curious young minds to stop thinking, in the same way, and for much the same reasons, that the politically correct grammarian is an antigrammarian, who teaches young students of English to make mistakes in sentence-writing, to be awkward instead of clear, to utter jargon instead of thought, and to misread  rather than read. )

Why is this mistake so stupid? Why can no modern philosopher escape it?

Now, I say I cannot figure it out, but since it is the same problem over and over again, I do know the historical cause of it, even though I cannot fathom the logical cause. The historical cause is clear: the physical sciences were so successful in the field of physics, men eagerly applied the same mental tools to the non-physical sciences, and attempted to answer the questions of the nature of the mind of man, the free will, and the forces that drive history using these tools. Simply put, they treated man as an object, as a mannequin moved by wheels and gears, and only what could be seen with the senses could be confirmed as certain.

It was a short step, but an illogical one, to go from the article of faith that non-empirical knowledge was uncertain to saying non-empirical objects simply did not exist.  Non-empirical reasoning from first principles was scorned, and whenever philosophers (such as Kant) were rude enough to point out that the scorners were themselves using nothing but non-empirical reasoning from first principles, the argument was neither answered nor acknowledged.

Now, certain abortive sciences grew out of this attempt:

Freud asserted that he could explain man's mind by explaining the unconscious mind. All well and good, but no one will claim the unconscious mind is open to the senses. It is not even open to the consciousness.  Freud's explanations were merely myths and fables: I think it is safe to say that Freud has by and large been dismissed by the scientific community.

The examination of the free will was merely a assumption that free will could not exist, because matter by definition cannot have free will, and all non-matter is matter. The axiom of the physical sciences is that every matter in motion has a material cause. This axiom is a necessary operating principle, a first principle, without which one cannot seek for an unseen material cause for a seen material motion. The free will was simply asserted, by Hobbes and others, not to exist, and the only argument given to support it is an argument from first principles: if you accept the axiom that only material things exist, and that thoughts and ideas exist, it follows that thoughts and ideas are material things. If you accept the axiom that all material motions have a determined physical cause, therefore thoughts and ideas have a determined physical cause.

It is  a perfectly logical argument, given its axioms, but so comically absurd that a schoolboy can explain the error in one sentence: the statement disproves itself, for the statement is itself an expression of a thought, the thought is the theory of materialism, and if the theory of materialism arose from purely material causes, it is thoughtless, neither true nor false. It is a thing like a rock. A rock cannot be true nor false. It has no truth-value because it does not symbolize or "stand for" anything. It is merely a rock. If the theory of materialism is true, then it is not a theory; it is merely ink-marks on a page in a book, electrons in a brain, pressure waves issuing from a throat.

In any case, Behaviorism and Pavlovianism and the related sciences never got off the ground: there are no vast state-run operations of conditioning as envisioned in Huxley's Brave New World, for example. The impact of B.F. Skinner on the psychiatry is minimal. The science of non-free-will did not even reach the prestige of Freud before it was quietly dismissed.

Karl Marx further muddied the waters by claiming that he had discovered the occult forces that drove history, which was not free will, or the actions of men, but the inanimate motions of men-puppets conditioned by their economic circumstances and driven by the material dialectic of history. Marx did not explain how he was able to step outside the condition of being a man-puppet and perceive the secret springs and gears driving history. If the Marxist theory was like every other idea, it was conditioned by an economic category, not driven by a search for the truth, of course, it is just like other theories of materialism, not true or false, merely an ideological superstructure, merely something like a rock, something without truth-value.

Meanwhile Bertrand Russell merely asserted as a metaphysical postulate that all metaphysical postulates are false.

Wittgenstein asserted, using words, that all words were meaningless.

I cannot explain the psychology of it, but the philosophical mistake is a simple one: it is elevating empiricism from an axiom fit only for the physical sciences to a universal: and then attempting, blindly, stupidly, and with endless futility, to apply empiricism to aspects of reality and of human nature that are not open to empirical investigation.

Imagine for a moment that some fool said only experimental knowledge was knowledge and that observational knowledge was not knowledge. By that rule, astronomy is not a science. Not a single experiment has ever been done to create a Big Bang and form stars out of hydrogen. We have not even made a single star or planet in a lab. The absurdity of pulling a star larger than  Sol into a lab on Earth should give anyone pause, and make clear the rule is too limited.

Likewise, here. The rule that says only empirical knowledge is fit to be called knowledge is a rule that applies only to the physical sciences.

Now: here is the great drawback. Philosophy in general and Metaphysics in particular have been so scorned and demeaned in modern education that a rational discussion on the topic is almost impossible.

Too much has been lost. Technical terms once universally known to anyone who studied the subject are now as ill-known as the special jargon of the alchemists. A philosophical discussion, particularly an Internet discussion, consists of little more than explaining basic concepts over and over again. Never mind explaining Kantian categories to someone: you have to spend all your time explaining and re-explaining Aristotle's four causes.

Because we live in an age where the knowledge of Metaphysics even among the educated classes has fallen to a barbaric and backward state, the conversation on an abstract topic founders. Never mind discussing a hard topic like politics or morality, topics that involve experience and judgment calls.  You cannot even discuss basic ideas like logic and geometry because the metaphysical underpinning of these sciences, once clearly known to all educated students, and carefully defined with an agreed-upon technical terms, have sunk like Atlantis.

People still have a metaphysics. For obvious reasons, one cannot have a philosophy without a metaphysics, any more than one can have geometry without axioms and common notions. It is just that now the metaphysical assumptions are primitive, unexamined, unvoiced, dogmatic, and unsubtle.

(Don't get me wrong: I don't mind saying the same things more than once, because this is a journal, and there is a new audience every night. I don't mind explaining things to the curious. I do mind explaining things to the willfully ignorant, those wights who, even when an explanation is clear, neither answer it, nor refute it, nor give a counter-argument, nor acknowledge it. It would be easier to separate the wights from the sincerely curious if we all spoke the same language.)

Here is an example of what I mean. This was an idea buried at the bottom of a five-score long comment thread, and I thought it might be overlooked. It actually surprises me that an educated man would question the notion that ideas, Platonic forms and mathematical objects, were timeless and necessary as opposed to facts, which are contingent and temporal. Or, I should say, I am not surprised the idea would be questioned. It is actually a good question, a tough question, that should give any philosopher pause: but I am surprised that it would be questioned without a counter-argument being given.

My reader questioned the notion that there were any experiments to demonstrate the difference between ideas and facts. Here was my answer:

As for the temporal nature of the world, take a candle and light one end. Wait an hour. Has the candle changed? If you answer yes, the candle has melted, then you are living in a world where material things change.

Now take a concept like "A is A" or "Twice two is four". Contemplate it. Wait an hour. Come back and contemplate it again. Is it the same concept? Or does it now read "Twice two is three"? If your concepts change from the passage of time, then they also are temporal. If not, then they are not temporal. Whatever is not temporal is eternal.

So much for that. Next question: is the world contingent or necessary? There is a simple experiment here also. Take a material fact, such as, say the diameter of the world. See whether or not you can imagine it otherwise.

If Eratosthenes of Cyrene had accurately paced out a different distance between Alexandria and Syene, then the figure in his calculation for the diameter of the earth would have been different. Likewise, the other way: if the world had been of a different diameter, the distance paced out between Alexandria and Syene by Eratosthenes would have been different. The test of truth of the conclusion of Eratosthenes DEPENDS on the accuracy of his observation. Hence, our deductions about the diameter of the world depends on, and is contingent upon, other facts and deductions and principles. A simple thought experiment: could the diameter of the earth be different if the measurements had been different? If you answer yes, you are saying that another conclusion is possible and imaginable. If another conclusion is possible and imaginable, then the conclusion is contingent upon the facts. Conclusions contingent on facts are not certain, since fact are open to re-examination, and can change from time to time: Earth's diameter is not likely to increase or decrease soon, but matter could be added or taken away from her over the course of cosmic time.

On the other hand, contemplate that, if A is A therefore A is not not-A. This is a principle, known as the principle of non-contradiction. Since we cannot imagine another conclusion, the conclusion is inescapable and inevitable. If the conclusion is inevitable, it is the same no matter what the contingent facts are. Therefore the conclusion does not depend on any contingencies. The conclusion is certain because it is self-evident, its mere utterance is a sufficient proof for itself. What is self-evident is certain.
Now, as I say, it is a perfectly good question, but it could have been answered quite easily if the educated men of the modern day read the classics and were part of the ongoing conversation with history.

Our age has dropped out of the conversation between or ancestors and our descendants. When I was in school, I noticed the long eerie periods of history were there was nothing written worth reading. The Great Books tended to be clustered within a generation or so (Plato and Aristotle and Euripides and Thucydides) and then there would be a long silence until the next cluster (Virgil and Plutarch).

We are in such a long silence right now. We will contribute nothing to philosophy, no matter how much we have contributed to the physical sciences.

Have we gained anything from this neglect of the classics? It seems to me merely to hinder and hobble what would be otherwise interesting conversations. The less common ground and common vocabulary you share with other men, the less fruitful the conversations can be. If they have too little in common with you, you cannot even explain basic concepts to them, not in a reasonable amount of time. You have to spend your time re-inventing the wheel.

Don't they read Plato in school? With what are you wasting your time, O students? Gender studies?
  • Post a new comment


    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic