Thursday, June 3, 2004

Well, you mean from your perspective…

Once again, I'm re-posting a thread from my earlier blog. Comments greatly appreciated.
[NB: Ryan, this post was, sort of, in response to Brett -- but only because his comments triggered a release of thoughts I had been contemplating and molding for quite a while beforehand.]

I just wanted to make a few comments about the sand trap that I’ll call perspectival relativism. I got the following ideas – well, at least one of them! – one night talking with a friend of mine here. I told him I want to “live for the truth” and he immediately inserted “from your perspective.” Perspectival relativism is distinct from what I’ll call, paradoxically enough, absolute relativism. Absolute relativism claims there really is no truth about almost anything, and certainly no truth about ultimate concerns. This strain of relativism does not merely say it is the case we can’t grasp all the truth. It strikes more radically at the world by saying there is no real world to grasp. The world, in this view, is just a transient aggregation of transient minds filled with transient stimuli. The world is a sensory phantasmagoria made of an infinite array of “states of affairs” and yet made of no one overarching total state of affairs (i.e., a real, independent structure).

The only more radical step than absolute relativism you could take is called solipsism, according to which view there is literally no one or nothing else outside of your own consciousness. This is Cartesianism taken to its (legitimate) extremes. The difference between solipsism and absolute relativism is that the former denies any external reality at all, whereas the latter denies any ontological coherence to the external stimuli we generate and perceive. Solipsism aside, absolute relativism is to epistemology what atheism is to ontology (although I don’t know if the reverse is true). Both views defend an absolute negative: “There is no God. … There is no world.”

To return to perspectival relativism. This strain of relativism admits there is a coherent, external, real world, but denies that any person has any special access to it. The truth is out there, we just don’t know what the truth is. This is exactly the kind of attitude my friend was voicing the night we spoke. He believes there is a Real World. He believes there is “something out there.” In fact, he believes there is a Highest Spiritual Being, but he is uncomfortable any more calling It “God.” He respects my level of faith in It, but is sure to qualify any confidence I have about God with that overused conversation killing clause, “from your perspective.”

When I thought about it the next day, my friend’s use of this phrase struck me as so redundant as to be ludicrous. Of course it’s the truth from my perspective! Would he prefer I tell him the truth from his perspective? He may as well ask me to eat a sandwich, or turn on a light, from someone else’s perspective. My eating a sandwich with my own mouth in no way nullifies the fact that I am eating a sandwich. Likewise, my telling the truth from my own experience and in my own words in no way undermines the fact that it is the truth. I’d much rather someone deny I were eating a sandwich at all than suggest I’m eating an illusion simply because I’m using my own mouth. Likewise, I’d rather someone refute the truth as a lie than smother the truth in some ultra-cool Pomo twaddle about the truth “from your perspective.” You may not like cheese in your mouth, but you can’t deny there is an actual cheese for you not to like. And you certainly can’t deny I like cheese when it's in my mouth.

Perspectival relativism, like most theories of epistemology today, stems largely from the idealistic philosophy which Kant developed. (Yeah, yeah, yeah, I can hear the Ghost of Ockham knocking already, but for the sake of time, let’s ignore the tireless whipping boy of nominalism for the moment. Mm, ‘kay?) For Kant, the world, as the totality of all noumena, is real. But insofar as it is noumenal, it is unknowable (to us, at least). Only the phenomena of the noumena – the mental perceptions of the non-mental things – are accessible by human reason. All our knowledge of the world is based on the conceptual framework our minds placed upon the real, but unknowable, world outside us. The world, in other words, is made up of ideas about the world.

The problem Kant valiantly tried to escape was the Sisyphusian curse under which metaphysics had toiled for centuries: if This Thing depends on That Thing for its existence, What Thing gives ontological support to That Thing? And then What Other Thing provides being for that What Thing? But then What Other Other Thing gives being to that What Other Thing? Ut via et cetera ad infinitum. In other words, traditional metaphysics had posited an absolute, highest Being as the anchor, or root bed, from which all other beings hang, or grow (a la the cosmological argument). But this Highest Being was unappealing to many thinkers since it only begged the question, “Well, what gives that Being its being?” And so on, down the cosmological spiral. (It was no help that these “critical thinkers” simply didn’t like the idea of a highest, necessary, divine being.) Kant’s brilliant, but devastating move, was to turn the table on metaphysics. (In this he was preceded even more radically, albeit far more subtly, by Descartes two centuries earlier.) Instead of asking what Highest Being gives existence to lower beings, Kant asked what lowest thing gives coherence to everything else, including that pesky Highest Being. Being a Humean at a deep level, Kant could never remove the perceiving agent from that which is being perceived. The two go hand in hand; they cannot exist, in any meaningful way, independently of each other. In simpler terms, Kant insisted we always bring our own “interpretive grid” to any sensory or phenomenological experience. As such Kant rejected any a priori arguments (i.e., self-evident, presuppositionless, necessarily true claims) for the existence of God, and thus saw no need to rely on God to provide the basis for our being. We exist; that’s a given. Given that, said Kant, “Where do we go from here?” (Based on the incontrovertible reality of things’ existence, Christian apologist Norman Geisler has for decades articulated an existential as opposed to sheerly conceptual cosmological argument of which I’ve never really heard a thorough refutation, though I’m sure it’s out there. See Geisler’s Christian Apologetics for more.)

“Where do we go from here?” Kant asked. The answer he gave is that we go within ourselves. We do not need the Highest Being to give ontological stability or coherence to us. Rather, we existing rational beings give coherence to the otherwise incoherent world. There are actual things outside of us – noumena – but we assemble them into the coherent pattern we typically call the cosmos. Precisely because we always bring an interpretive grid to our encounters with the world, we almost literally put the world in order according to our inherent rational categories. As I’ve said, this approach is an astounding reversal of classical metaphysics. Aristotle had discussed the categories of being which shape our perception; Kant, on the other hand, discussed the categories of thought which shape what we perceive.

Certainly, Kant believed the world is in order on the noumenal plane – as evidenced by his tireless admiration for astronomical beauty and precision – but he continued by saying it requires that we rationally categorize it in order for it to be called a (perceived) world. Kant’s highest (Enlightenment) principle was that reason is absolute, and thus is shared by each and every human. If we heed the demands of pure reason (die Bedürfnisse der reine Vernunft), world peace will follow. Kant’s famous semi-Stoical formula for moral guidance, the Prime Directive, stated that we should commit every action on the assumption that it would be universalized. If what we do could safely be done by all people, then it is moral. Lying, for example, is never good, because if every one did it, no one would believe anyone else.

Despite having said all I’ve said about ontology and ethics, my primary concern is to critique Kantian epistemology. The most obvious flaw with Kantianism, epistemologically speaking, is the fact that precisely by knowing the noumena are unknowable, we are transcending the phenomenal barrier and making absolute claims about the allegedly unknowable noumena. We are talking about our visit to the world we can never visit. We are describing what is supposed to be literally indescribable. This flaw of so-called “absolute agnosticism” is akin to the major flaw in absolute moral relativism: the claim that there are no absolutes is itself an absolute. As Stanley L. Jaki puts it, “[A]ny refutation of it [i.e., the certainty of knowing external reality] implies knowledge of that type. … [J]ust as colors cannot be discoursed upon in terms of non-colors, the knowledge of external reality cannot be proven in terms of knowing only one’s mind…” (Miracle and Physics, Front Royal, VA, Christendom Press (1989), p. 90).

A second flaw I’d like to point out is that by limiting our knowledge to the phenomena our minds generate (or impose over the noumena), we are simply transposing an external noumenal world with an inner one. On the classical, Thomistic view, the world is what we know and our minds the means by which we know it. Kantianism virtually reverses this: our mind is what we know and the world is the means – or more properly, the catalyst – by which we know it. I find Thomism more satisfying not only because of its strong theistic foundations, but also because it is simply more commonsensical. For a Thomist the world is a doorknob and the mind is a hand. Once the hand touches the doorknob, it feels the doorknob and the hand itself. The mind, by its contingent participation in the eternal consciousness of God which gives it self-awareness, apprehends both the world and the idea of the world. This accounts for all sense data. Kantianism, on the other hand, can only account for the sense datum of the doorknob. In other words, Kant says we have an idea there is a doorknob, but can never really grab it. Kantianism can only account for the hand’s (phenomenal) grip on – or, perception of – the supposedly ungraspable (noumenal) doorknob. This is not simply a matter of being unable to feel all of the doorknob; Thomists heartily agree we cannot grasp all of the Truth with our human minds. No, the fundamental problem is that Kant forbids the hand to touch any of the doorknob. He bites off the hand that feeds him.

Again, this second flaw of Kantianism is that all we know are our ideas (phenomena). But once “the world” (just previously construed as the noumenal plane) is reduced to our inescapably knowable mind, the world – meant here as the phenomenal categorical nexus of our own mind – immediately becomes knowable. The phenomena are what we know, even if they stem only from our own minds. To say our mental phenomena are unreal is to deny we have any knowledge, which is absurd. Precisely because we can have ideas about our own phenomena means they are real in the same way noumena are, since, again, noumena are that which fill the conceptual slots our mind imposes on the world. But if phenomena, like noumena, generate more phenomena, “sub-phenomena,” then we are back at the problem of intrinsically unknowable things, only now we’re calling them phenomena. In other words, phenomena do everything noumena do, but are also totally knowable. Why then are noumena so unknowable?

And with that, my philosophical train is off the track.

Only days after I first posted this entry, I bought a copy of Umberto Eco's Kant and the Platypus, wherein Eco (amicably) levels his gargantuan semiotic and logical acumen against Kant's epistemology. The platypus is a metonym for something that straddles categories of being and rather gums up the precision of Kantian phenomenal categories. I haven't read the book yet so I can't tell you much more than that. But it's high on the TO READ list!

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