Thursday, March 24, 2011
Is The Rationalist Project Dead? (3)
Ludwig Wittgenstein's methods in his 'Tractatus' enable the rationalist project to forge ahead by being able to destroy the basis for 'presumptive permission' in claims.
In the last blog instalment , I noted that in many arguments, presumption seeks to trump reason and logical analysis, leading to pitfalls in the practice of rational inquiry. For if any one be prohibited to question on the basis of a claimant's mere default effort, than the entire rationalist project can easily be undermined.
Thus, reason's deathbed is ensured by virtue of many (even within the rationalist community) asserting that if a certain set of claims are presumptive (i.e. rational by default in the absence of telling or obvious reasons against them) then the claimant in principle can shift the burden of proof by invoking presumptive permission, "if the challenger lacks the grounds for doubt to shift the onus back" (Norman, op. cit.)
If this is the case, the claimant often interprets absence of challenge as evidence for concession, committing the major logical and analytical error of mistaking "evidence of absence" for "absence of evidence". As Norman puts it (ibid.):
"Thus does reasoning come to an end, not with first principles, indubitable beliefs, or perceptual judgments...but with ordinary presumptive permissions."
But can this be tolerated? If accepted, it means entire false ontologies can be proferred and circulated while claims are made for their validity simply because a putative challenger has failed to provide reasons against them. The burden of disproof, in other words, is on the challenger.
Now, Norman's claim (ibid.) is that this is just "common sense" and presumptions are bare-challenge immune "practically by definition".
However, I beg to strongly disagree. Presumptive permissions are actually lingual and disputative "time bombs" which when indiscriminately used can make a mockery of logic, reason and empirical investigations.
There must be tools by which to temper them, and those tools can be found in Ludwig Wittgenstein's 'Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus'. His first concern in developing his work, is with the deficiencies of thought and interpretation of symbolism as fashioned by our minds, or in other words, human consciousness. Once those problems are excavated it becomes possible to further analyze the signifiers in terms of language, words and their use in formulating propositions, claims and syllogisms.
What one sees very quickly, is that most universalist ("totality" or "all") claims can be instantly destroyed. Wittgenstein provides us the tools to do so, it remains only to acquire the will to use them. By doing so, whole categories of presumptive permissions can be destroyed, and that includes essentially all religious or "God" statements - since in nearly all these cases, the presumptions embody moral dictates, or the attributes of an "infinite" totality no human mind can know positively.
What we will see is that many of Wittgenstein's precepts and principles have analogs in the quantum mechanical world.
Take for instance, identity. That one can identify a thing consistently and name it objectively. (In practice, identity is needed as between a name and a description or between two descriptions). For example, "wave" and "particle".
Seemingly, two different things, two different identities, but really not. At a certain quantum threshold of observation the two blur into one, which was explored in an earlier blog, viz.
In other words, within the acausal and subatomic framework, identities really can be eliminated. This is even more radical than appears here, since as Bernard d'Espagnat has noted, one can extrapolate the results of quantum experiments to arrive at a radical inseparability within which all identities and particulates are subsumed.
Ironically, one can't speak or write of a "totality" here because its precise nature isn't known! (Physicist David Bohm even saw fit to enfold it within a higher dimensionality only accessible via a specific consciousness). Thus we see that the rejection of identity removes one method of speaking of the totality of things, or "a totality" that is awarded a definite identity (e.g. "God").
What is the result? That at this limit, the term "object" is meaningless, and hence to write:
"x is an object"
is meaningless, since again, there are no actual objects once identity is removed. (And again, in QM, the intrusion of the observer sets up a subject-object interface or inteference which destroys the nature of the "object" in itself. This is why physicist Paul Dirac one said we do not observe quantum or other "objects" but rather phenomena subjected to our methods of measurment (and I might add, conscious processing and interpretation).
Let's see using an example (by a recently deceased member of Intertel, Ken Wear) how this can actually work with religious committments or beliefs. In a recent article appearing in the January Integra (the journal of Intertel), Wear pointed out that one's own "religious outlook is a prime component of one's self-interest".
This is very interesting, especially from a self-proclaimed "rational theist" since it isn't what one normally expects to see written by a theist of any stripe. It shows he is able to process that religions don't exist in vacuo or by themselves, but rather are elaborated, infused and assisted by one's psychological predispositions or consciousness awareness. Or to put it as one wit did once: "People don't seek a religion, the religion seeks them".
In the same way Dirac's quantum wave doesn't really exist unto itself, or Wittgenstein's object, so also one's religion doesn't exist unto itself as some kind of external growth on the person - but rather as an interplay between his needs, self-interest, and personal prerogatives and those he sees in the religion - which lead him to gravitate to it, or not. (Atheists won't for the same reasons, they find nothing in the outer world of religion that resonates with their consciousness or being and which, if incorporated, would be authentic).
Perhaps Wear's most astute observation may well be as follows:
"The mind plays tricks on us: devotion to religious tenets may be so deeply ingrained that it is nearly impossible to sort your motives and identify the influences of religion on your life and activities without mixing the motives up with the latter."
In other words, there is a kind of parallel here with what happens in quantum observations when subject (e.g. human ) and object ("atom") become interfused leading to the loss of the object observed in itself. In the same way, Wear is saying that religious tenets, dogmas or beliefs can be so deeply ingrained at a psychological level and so infused by one's own emotions that it is impossible to separate it out from those emotions and conscious dependencies.
This is why, in his next paragraph, Wear questions any religious beliefs firmly held without recourse to exercise of the mind. In other words, IF those religious tenets or beliefs are truly important, then we won't simply accept them because so and so (or a book) says we must, but because we processed them through our own analytical process and found them to be worthy.
Wear then takes this one step further, in an exemplary display of how the rationalist project can be preserved in the American sphere:
"Regardless of the superiority of your religious faith, others are allowed to plod along in their mistaken ways, and you have neither obligation to coerce them into your views nor the necessity to defend them. While you are free to revel in your good luck of having learned the religious principles dear to you, others enjoy the same priviliege of self-determination".
Wear was likely not even remotely aware of it, but he was practicing Wittgensteinian analytics! Because there are no absolute totalities or totalitarian moral systems, then there can be no external claims on the lives or motives of others. They are enabled thereby to pursue their own self-determination, free of condemnation, judgment or disparagement.
Now, let's take one of Wittgenstein's own examples, from his Tractatus (p. 67):
"If god creates a world in which certain propositions are true, he thereby creates also a world in which all propositions consequent on them are true. And similarly, he could not create a world in which the proposition 'p' is true without creating all its objects"
This is a seeming innocuous example, but powerful in its applications. Again, just like 'god' used by Einstein to mean the sum total of natural laws, Wittgenstein isn't positing any real entity (since he excises totalities) but merely creates his 'god' as an example for his purposes of exposition.
Thus, say this 'god' creates a world in which one extreme form of evil can be allowed (say like what transpired with Michaela and Hayley Petit) then it follows he has by extension created a world in which all forms of extreme evil are allowed, including Inquisitional tortures (removing the sexual organs using hot pincers), gas chambers, witch burning, and beheading. There is nothing, no evil, that isn't possible in this world.
Similarly, if the proposition p is true, where:
p = god never intervenes in stopping an earthly evil
then all its consequent object propositions follow, mainly that god will never ever intervene to stop any earthly evil, or manmade evil. We are all on our own.
All of these can be used to dismiss any presumptive permission which postulates otherwise, so there will always be a Wittgenstein-like) challenge to any presumptive claim concerning a totality or moral totalitarianism.
In this way, we return rationalism to a Socratic model basis wherein it's functional again: Socrates operated on the premise that any claim must withstand questioning to merit rational assent, and so do we.
If then a presumptive claim is made (e.g. "God is everywhere"), the first challenge will always be to demand the necessary and sufficient conditions for the existence of the underlying entity. The second challenge (or series thereof) will always be to forge a succession of questions based on challenging the entity's claim to being a totality and having an identity, Wittgenstein -style.
In this way, we don't necessarily completely refute the claim (since it is not our province to do so anyway) but to expose to the claimant the subjective deficiencies at work in his own consciousness which itself has confected the claim via its own inner emotional dynamics, propensities, etc.
In this way, with this sort of approach, I believe the rationalist project can be both preserved and re-energized.