Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Descartes' Bucket of Worms: Hume and Friends

You are majoring in WHAT?!

It seems most people believe philosophy is unimportant. It's impractical and has little relevance for real life.

The recognition that philosophy has practical consequences is illuminated when one considers the reality that science and technology can be used to either restore life or to destroy it. The post-modern world we live in determines, for example, not only what movies will be made but even what types of movies we are interested in. It influences the arts, culture, and politics. Who determines it? Who is the 'they' of "you know what they say?" It's the philosophical ideas that are put forth among the populace and that stick, whether good or bad.

A prominent theory of knowledge with roots in the 17-18th century that pervades modern thought and application is empiricism.

Empiricism was a reaction against the French rationalism begun by the Father of Modern Philosophy, Rene Descartes. Rationalism posited that the ideas in our mind are the objects of our thought instead of the actual objects itself. The problem is that ideas are not our objects of thought but that by which we apprehend the true objects of our thought: the world out there. In other words, reality is out there not in here-inside my head-as Descartes would have you believe.

Descartes led philosophy on its current modern route (a painful detour...). The point of departure for attaining knowledge is no longer understood as imposed by the object, but is first determined and then imposed on the object.

Father Giussani explains the error like this, "Water is H20. To reach this conclusion, I do not solve a mathematical problem."

Empiricism recognized this error in rationalism. (Plus, the rationalists were French while empiricism began in England; they are always trying to one-up each other!) Empiricists rejected the abstract method of the rationalists. However, they went the opposite extreme. Instead of being too abstract like the rationalists, they became too concrete.

Empiricism rejects any claim to knowledge that is not grounded in the concrete or material. It posits that all knowledge is empirical or sense-experiential. The only way to know things is through sense-perception. The logical consequence of this belief is the denial of the intellect and anything that is intangible. Since the foundation of all knowledge is sensation, there is no such thing as universals (such as happiness and justice) or natures and essences (such as the human mind/soul).

John Locke (17th Century Brit) went as far as to say that "maybe thought belongs to bodies." Locke was attempting to answer the critical questions, "What is it we know?" and "How do we know?"

Locke proposed that the mind is like a blank sheet of paper (the famous phrase in Latin "tabula rasa"). This means that we have no innate ideas and the foundation for all knowledge is sensation.

The shortcoming of this is realized in his statement, "We know what things are, but not why they are." However, if you claim to know what things are, you are claiming to know their natures or essences. This is a contradiction because Locke denies an intellect which is how we can abstract from our particular experiences to know the universals.

On the contrary! Experience shows us that if I can recognize one frog (the slimy, ugly, green creatures), I can recognize all frogs. Case-in-point: we know essences!

On the other hand...

David Hume's (18th-Century Scot) thought can be credited as the epitome of the skeptical empiricist movement. He suggested that we can only know things as phenomenons or as they appear to us in sensation. We can not really know them as such, in the totality of their being. This is tantamount to saying that we can only know our experience, not necessarily the object we are trying to know. This results in the belief that knowledge is subjective to the "knower's" (sense) experience.

Hume also denied principles of causation or cause and effect. He claimed that what is believed to be cause and effect is just the imagination linking separate ideas without any real connection or basis. Ideas truly have their origin in sense impressions. Another way to explain this is that impressions are the empirical origins of ideas. Ideas that are true and certain can be traced back to their distinct impressions.

The problem with Hume is that he proposes a theory of knowledge ("All knowledge is founded in sense-experience.") which is a philosophical belief, not an empirical one. To claim that things can only be known scientifically is not scientifically provable! To posit such a pre-supposition is a pretty big leap for someone to make who said that philosophy is sophistry and illusion! Following this line of reasoning, his theory of knowledge is equally sophistry and illusion!

Here's the crux of the problem with Locke and Hume: Knowledge is not about our ideas! It is about reality. The problem with his sense-phenomenalism is that the basis for knowledge is understood as to be found within the self instead of in the connection with the real. Also, knowledge itself is not an empirical object. It's not material! This is why empiricism's theory of knowledge is a contradiction and really can not, in a strict sense, be considered true philosophy.

Ironically, in denying the intellect or any spiritual reality it does not even allow for science to be done since it is science’s aim to identify universals and organize them into categories (species, kinds, etc.) and make generalizations regarding behavior. As a result, empiricism bases knowledge in a psychological description of what is sensed disregarding metaphysics as the basis of the nature of knowledge.

You can’t do philosophy or science with an empiricist worldview!

Influence in our day…

Scientism: The scientific method is the only legitimate method for answering ALL the questions. In a sense, empiricists are materialists. All reality is reduced to matter and everything can be explained in those terms.

Error exposed: The question, "Does my girlfriend love me?," can not be answered through a scientific experiment. In fact, the most real things in life: love, justice, happiness, goodness, beauty and art have nothing to do with science.

Moral Relativism/Atheism: Hume’s individualism (another obvious problem in our day)—that we can know our experience but not the thing experienced—has led to such ridiculous statements such as “I create my own reality,” that you hear a lot these days. This has further led (as I mentioned a long, painful detour…) to atheism. Hume believed in God but relegated His existence to a feeling: “We can't know there is a God, but feel there is one. We can't really know what's good or bad but can feel them.” This is a pretty weak argument (especially when there are so many better ones out there that Thomas Aquinas provided centuries earlier!) and had these men known the moral consequences of their philosophical errors they would have been more careful to avoid them I presume.

Error exposed: In college, my friend Mark and I always used to challenge the relativists by asking them, “So you don’t believe in moral absolutes, huh? Do you believe that absolutely?"

Moral/Ethical dilemmas: If the only reality is the physical reality than a human being (the word “person” no longer applies) is on the same level as a chicken. We are both equally a collection of matter. You might be laughing but there are some people (PETA?) who actually believe this.

Error exposed: Humans are different than animals in kind, not degree. Denying a human soul is to put me at the same level as a chicken.

Mortimer Adler explains well the uniquely human mind/body function, “The action of the brain is only a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the functioning of the human mind and for the operations of conceptual thought. We do not think with our brains, even though we cannot think without them.”

Regarding certainty…

To those who argue that empiricism or scientism is the only method of knowledge that offers certainty, Giussani says, “Let us note that man can err using scientific, philosophical, or mathematical methods. In the same way, he can misjudge human behavior. This does not detract from the fact that certainties may be reached by the scientific method and in the same way, through the 'method' of 'moral' knowledge."

Adler says, “But many of the conceptual constructs that we employ in scientific and in philosophical thought concerns objects such as black holes and quarks in physics, and God, spirits, and souls in metaphysics. These are objects about which it is of fundamental importance to ask the about their existence in reality.”

Giussani emphasizes the unreasonable and reductionistic nature of much of modern philosophy when he expresses, "Reason, then, is the ability to become aware of reality as it enters the human horizon. It follows different methods in order to know certain values or types of truth. Precisely because reason examines the object according to adequate motives, it develops different paths, depending upon the object."

The method must be determined by the object!

1 comment:

The Conservative Manifesto said...

"In college, my friend Mark and I always used to challenge the relativists by asking them, 'So you don’t believe in moral absolutes, huh? Do you believe that absolutely?'"



Good times.



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