Sunday, October 10, 2010

Cartesian doubt as ethical practice...

I was driving earlier this morning and noticed a glove on the ground behind an SUV. It looked like a biking glove and I assume the owner dropped it while removing his or her bike from the vehicle. Or perhaps he dropped it while loading the back and then drove away. Either way, I imagined the course of events when the rider wanted to gear up. Helmet, check. Sunglasses, check. Spandex shorts, check. Gloves––oops, only one. A dilemma. Wear one glove or none? Wearing one biking glove is pretty dumb, unless you have an obscure wrist condition, so let's assume the rider did without the glove (or does so on his next ride). This begs the question: If he can do without the gloves, why does he have them at all? Riding in Taichung is hardly a grueling experience, except for some erratic traffic, I suppose. Hence, gloves seem like overkill.

Then I imagined the rider realized this fact and began mentally stripping away his accessories one by one, assessing which of them he could do without and still ride. By my lights, he would rather quickly come to see that the only things he needs are a bike, shoes, pants, and a helmet (and perhaps a shirt and sunglasses). Stripping away his accessories would make the rider a kind of cycling Descartes, who, famously, put himself through a series of systematic doubting (dubitas), in order to find the essential content of knowledge and, thus, reality. Ultimately, Descartes found the only thing he could not doubt was his own existence, for in the very act of trying to doubt it, he was thinking, and therefore manifestly existent as a thinking substance. "Cogito, ergo sum."

Centuries earlier, St Augustine of Hippo had formulated a similar argument in order to refute the "Academics" (or, Skeptics). The Academics claimed that nothing could be known with certainty, including their own skepticism about the truth (veritas) of any claim. For it might just be the case that said claims are true; but we cannot know, the Academics claimed. On the contrary, Augustine, argued, at least something can be known with certainty: I exist in the very act of doubting anything. "Dubito, ergo sum." For both Augustine and Descartes, this minimal grasp of an undeniable truth led to larger reflections on the indestructibility, majesty, sublimity, and purity of truth, which both authors found in God as the source of Eternal Light which made their minds aware of veritas per se.

I am of the, by now fairly mainstream, opinion that Descartes' procedure not only fails to ground knowledge on "indubitable foundations" but also backfires by leading to representationalist skepticism. That is not the point of this post, however. I realized that my mundane consideration of bike gloves easily extends to all things. It is a noble practice to imagine, perhaps at least once a day, how many things we can do without, how many things we can strip away from our lives, and still function well. This is a very Ignatian method. For Ignatius, the two-fold question which must ride upon every action is, "Does this bring me closer to God, or does it draw me away from Him?" If it draws us to God, we can embrace it; if it draws us from Him, we must reject it. It is likewise a Salesian method, and not surprisingly, since Sts Ignatius and Francis strongly resonate as spiritual masters. St Francis constantly asks us to ask ourselves, "Do I love ____ because I love God in it? And am I loving God in loving _____?" If so, then we must love _____ with gusto; if not, we must relinquish all attachment to it. Or as the protagonist in Croupier says, "Hold on tightly, let go lightly." (The sinister realism of Croupier won't seem as inconsistent with Ignatian and Salesian spirituality, I guess, if you watch it a couple times in conjunction with Philip Gröning's astounding Die grosse Stille, like I did nearly two years ago!)

So, ask yourself today––right now––, "What can I get rid of and still have 'a good life'?" Again, "What things have grown on me like barnacles that I need to scrape off?" Simply look around you. Is "this thing"––or perhaps any of "these things"––the 'truth' of your life? I doubt it. Doubt it! Only by having a ruthless skepticism about the power of any of your life's "belongings" shall you feel the pulse of that Life which enligthens every man (cf. John 1:9). As St Augustine says in his sermon on Psalm 32,

"[F]ind out what you want to possess to be happy. When you attain to happiness, of course, you will be better off than now that you are unhappy. But it is impossible for anything falling short of yourself to add to your happiness. You are a human being; whatever you covet as a source of happiness is inferior to yourself. Gold and silver and various material things [like the iPad!], which you so eagerly long to obtain, to possess, to enjoy, are of less value than yourself. You are more excellent, you are more important…. You want to be better off than you are now; yet as a means to that end you are seeking and searching for things inferior to yourself. Whatever you possess on earth is inferior to yourself. … Now take a trustworthy piece of advice. You want to be better off; I know it, we all know it, we all want the same thing. Look for what is better than yourself, so that by that means you may become better off than you are. …

What you are looking for is in the soul. You want to be happy; look for something better than your soul itself. … Pay attention: otherwise perhaps despising your soul and esteeming it some mean and worthless thing, you may be seeking more worthless things to make your soul happy. In your soul is the image of God; the human mind contains that image. It received it and by stooping to sin defiled it. … It now remains for you, then, to seek out what is of better worth than your soul. What will that be, pray, except, your God? You can find nothing of more worth than your own soul…. Higher indeed than this there is nothing save the Creator. Stretch upwards towards Him, do not despair, do not say: 'It is beyond me.' With greater reason is it beyond you to enjoy the gold which you possibly covet. Gold, even though you desire it, you may perhaps never possess; God you will possess as soon as you desire Him. For He came to you before you desired Him…. He who gives sunlight…, rain, fruits and fountains, life and health, and so many comforts––He holds back something which He gives only to yourself. What is it that He holds back for you, if not Himself? Look for anything better if you can find it; God keeps Himself for you" (The Essential Augustine, ed. Vernon J. Bourke (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1974), pp. 152–153).

I believe a reasonable argument can be made that the progressive secularization of the (post-Augustinian!) West is basically one long attempt to drown out St Augustine's voice in this sermon. For if we can convince ourselves not only that the soul is not so valuable after all, but that "the soul" itself is just a fiction, we will have an ethical obligation to be hedonists. For if there is nothing about us higher than the fact that we "have bodies," then our ethical focus can only be on gratifying these bodies of ours. It is so easily taken for granted that bodily goods are undenaible goods that modern thought ignores why bodily goods are good. Only if the body is properly ordered towards some ends rather than others, and only if there is a natural principle of order which integrates our somatic capacities towards those ends, is it coherent to call some ends good. Without a principle of finality––a soul––, our natural desires have no more moral authority, as evolved accidents of energy usage, than death has a claim to being the "point" of human life. Just because all human lives end in death does not mean human living should be ordered towards death. Likewise, just because human bodies tend towards ingesiton, copulation, excretion, and motion, does not mean any of these tendencies have an intrinsic moral authority as properly human ends. Once again, secularized talk of "basic human rights" smuggles in what is de jure illicit metaphysics by presupposing there really is some-thing called "human nature" and that there are "essential human ends," which correspond to "basic human rights."

In tandem, if we can convince ourselves that "God is not great"––that, indeed, He simply doesn't exist––, then we have no choice but to pursue terrestrial riches as absolute ends––which is of course a perfect recipe for the materialist Realpolitik and totalitarianism that dominated the previous three centuries, and in conjunction with grand-scale secularization. Hence, an extreme antidote to the regnant ethical materialism of our age is to practice an Augustinian-Cartesian ascesis that systematically strips ourselves to the simplest core of consciousness. Can you imagine yourself seeing without eyes? I can. (Hat tip to Dr Feser.) Can you imagine standing without feet? I can. By progressive steps, then it seems coherent to imagine enjoying the good of existing––esse per se––in the super-sensory mode of the contemplation of veritas per se. Seeking what is higher than yourself thus begins by finding yourself 'beneath' all the material accouterments you allow popular media consciousness to define your life.

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