Heart 5: The Fixed and the Flexible

The previous bread crumb is here.

Adjusting Frameworks cont.

… In the end, we can identify too many other clear sources for our presumptions to maintain that God is the ultimate basis for very many of them.  It is always dangerous to try to summarize the development of ideas in history.  Indeed, that conclusion flows ironically from my own summary of the development of ideas in the West these last few centuries.  The history of ideas is more complex than any human mind could ever truly fathom, a variegated mixture of chance, circumstances, and human engagement whose true formula only God knows.  No doubt to make a summary such as I now attempt is far more foolhardy than I or any of us could imagine.

But it does seem that in the century or so surrounding René Descartes (1596-1650), a fundamental shift took place among many of the ideological leaders of the West.  As Charles Taylor has explored well, leading thinkers shifted from assuming a fixed order in the world to a view of the world as a massive set of particular data, the general truths of which had to be argued for one by one. [1]  I do not believe this is a matter in which we can simply “go back” to the way we viewed the world prior to Descartes.  If you are a pre-Cartesian, a pre-modern, it is because you have not yet understood him.

Descartes asked a simple question–“What can I be absolutely certain of?”  This simple question, experienced throughout the world of his day even by those who would have had no exposure to philosophy, is the undoing of the earlier view.  The reason is that there is really almost nothing of which we can be absolutely certain purely on the basis of evidence and reason.  Descartes only came up with one absolute certainty that I could know: “I think; therefore I am.”  Even this claim is too much.  I think; therefore whatever this thought is, exists. 

In the end, almost everything we think about the world is based on fundamental faiths or assumptions we make.  The movie Matrix constructed a world where we are not really where we think we are but are actually in tubes being harvested by machines in a future more than a century from now.  I don’t think that’s true… but I can’t prove it.  I cannot, for example, prove that I am not a sophisticated computer program in the twenty-fifth century.  Our lives are fundamentally based on countless “faiths” and assumptions.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) represents yet another watershed moment in Western thinking.  His contemporary David Hume (1711-76) had forced him to deal with the fact that we cannot explain our way of looking at the world simply by saying truth is a matter of what we experience.  We do not experience the continuity of time, for example, but only one moment after another.  In that sense, we do not experience some law of cause and effect.  We only experience one thing happening after another. 

Kant rescued truth for the Western philosophers of his day by suggesting that the data of our thinking comes from our senses and experiences but that the organization of this data is a function of certain categories built into our mind. Kant himself believed that these categories were built into our minds by God, but predictably not all who followed him agreed.  Whatever we decide on that score, the basic structure of Kant’s suggestion seems to work very well to express what seems to take place regularly in human understanding.  The “glue” that we use to connect the things we experience is much more a function of things in our heads rather than of reality itself. 

For example, let’s say I tell someone that their hair looks bad, and they fall over dead.  Is there a cause-effect connection between the two “facts”?  The sense of cause-effect in our heads will really push us toward seeing a connection, but it is also possible that this person had other things going on in their body that just happened to result in death at this moment.  In logic, we call this the post hoc propter hoc fallacy (“after this, because of this”).  In real life, we will often assume that something is caused by what has immediately preceded it.  But logic recognizes that such a connection is not in any way absolute.  It is my head that connects the two, whether correctly or incorrectly.  It is not a matter of fact but of my brain’s organization of the data I have experienced.

Kuhn/anthropology to come…

[1] We should make it clear that Taylor does not stop with this predicament or even affirm it.  A key chapter in Sources of the Self *** is ***