"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, May 3, 2019

I Don’t Think, Therefore I Am Not–How Ignorance Nullifies Being

The famous statement of Descartes, “I think, therefore I am’, now a popular aphorism, has become a facile justification for being.  Descartes, after pondering the nature of being, consciousness, divine purpose, and existence was befuddled.  What one saw could be illusion at best, the product of a deranged mind at worst.  He understood Plato’s metaphor of shadows on the wall of a cave, but felt that the philosopher had only suggested the duality of reality, not reality itself.  No, said, Descartes, the only verifiable proof that we exist is that we think.  If one is aware of one’s being, one is.

Image result for images descartes

To many contemporary critics, this conclusion seemed tautological at best.  Why is thinking any more independent than any other human perception or activity, they asked?

In any case, although academics kept themselves busy with speculations on the nature of being, most laymen lost interest quickly, here willy-nilly with no say in the matter. 
Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;
He wept that he was ever born,
And he had reasons...
Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
And thought about it.
Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
And kept on drinking (Edward Arlington Robinson)
Image result for images edward arlington robinson

Descartes, however, made another, more important and conclusive point, although unintended and derived from the aphorism’s obverse – “I don’t think, therefore I am not”.  This conclusion is even more logical  and conclusive than the original – not thinking is a cognitive void.  Those who are ignorant are irrelevant, superfluous.   Thinking clearly and analytically is not only a sign of intelligence but an expression of responsibility. Subjective, emotionally-driven conclusions undermine collective logic - the integrity of the community.  The more social, economic, scientific, and personal inquiry is weakened by a priori judgments, preference, and concerns for individual expression, the broader applications are impossible.

In other words, personal opinions based on narrowly-defined self-interest, are no more than superficial markers.   Those who see everything through a narrow, temporal lens thus rejecting  classical analytical inquiry nullify themselves.

Logicians have for centuries dispassionately first looked at the facts, applied reason and come to conclusions, not the other way around.  If one begins with a solipsism - for example that America’s white male population is racist, sexist, acquisitive, and insensitive because all men are such - credibility is strained if not dismissed.

Evolutionists and epistemologists have long since concluded that rational thinking best characterizes human enterprise. While higher-order vertebrates can indeed make some sense of things – orangutans which use simple tools have used some native intelligence – they cannot think logically, deduce, infer, and conclude.

While some sectors of American society have retained this respect for intelligent, logical inquiry (there would be no Silicon Valley, Internet, or space station without it), many others have disregarded it.  The Black Lives Matter movement, for example, is perhaps the most eloquent example of solipsism.  The question of why black lives matter more than white lives, or why ‘black’ is more existentially defining than ‘human’ is irrelevant.  Black lives matter because the lives of black people matter.

Image result for black lives matter icon image

The Apostle Paul in his epistles often referred to today’s thorny social issues – the role of women, the duty of slaves and servants, and the proper behavior of husbands towards their wives – within the context of spiritual enlightenment, redemption, and salvation.  Everyone, free or enslaved, man or woman, child or parent, is one under God.  Recognizing this soteriology is more important, said Paul to his churches, than any social distinction.  Hinduism’s caste system, evolved long before Jesus, Paul, and first century Christians, was based on this principle.  The world is maya, illusion, said Hindu theologians, and a strict system of social boundaries and laws to limit the tendency to form subjective impressions of reality, thus subverting the soteriological message, was established. nal and the divine.

Image result for images st paul

In other words, Paul and Hindu philosophers both saw secular institutions as deterrents to the only real human enterprise – seeking, knowing, and joining God.  There was a logical premise to their laws and practices.

Societies have come and gone, power has been concentrated and dispersed, individual enterprise and value has been appreciated or disregarded.  History has taught nothing except that change is permanent and the only aspect of life that is.

Those who base their actions on a rational basis thus validate their lives.  Religious fundamentalists whose absolute faith in God and respect for the Word as expressed in the Bible may be wrong in their assumptions about the existence of a superior being and his intervention in human affairs, but they do have a logical foundation on which to base their contemplation of being.

Nihilists who see no divine purpose in anything and for whom life is only a matter of ricocheted events still justify their diffidence logically.  If life is meaningless, then there is no point in activism, positivism, or purposeful energy; but those who insist on imputing meaning through solipsism and tautology – things are important because they are important – display their ignorance and declare themselves supernumerary.

There is no limit to the need for self-validation and no limit to its excesses.  Righteousness is a vain byword for those who seek verification in progress and more importantly a futile expression of being.  Not only is solipsism accepted as truth, but the more passionately idealism is embraced, the  truer the solipsism becomes.

Criticism of this inverse Cartesian logic may appear unfair and needlessly harsh.  After all, few Americans have the education to even know who Descartes is let alone appreciate the ins and outs of his philosophy.  Yet such unawareness does not exonerate them from the charge of ignorance. 
Anyone who takes socially mediated memes as fact or who cherry picks political insights cannot be given a free pass.  There is only one real, fundamental diversity - between those who think logically and those who do not.

If logic is the trait that most defines Man, and if there are those who think illogically despite the factors which encourage and facilitate logic, then those who are illogical must be ignored.

Ah, say subjective idealists.  Weren’t  Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau, Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley relevant? Weren’t their insights into nature, human insights and indefinable human subtlety as or even more valid than Kantian logic?

Any serious student of 19th century Romanticism would never come to such conclusions.  The works of Blake, Byron, Coleridge and the rest of the English Romantics were anything but subjective idealism.  Blake in particular had much more to do with serious metaphysics.  Tyger, Tyger is at the very least a reflection on mortality.

Image result for images blake etchings

Unfortunately many today take their inspiration from American Romantics, especially Emerson and Whitman who did indeed sense a metaphysical higher order in Nature and by extension to the world of Man, but never - unlike Kant, Hume, and Hobbes - sought to place these conclusions within a logical order and thus provide the intellectual foundation which would give them broader acceptability.  As a result, ever since their day, social liberalism has drifted far from Plato, Aristotle, and Kant and remained in the Eden of American Utopia.

Is remediation possible? Is there any way to wean the American public from facile political idealism? To return them to a more fundamental consideration of ‘essential being’ – the being of Descartes, Kant, Sartre, and Nietzsche? Doubtful at best.

Alexander Hamilton in his debates with Jefferson insisted that democratic, majority rule would be the death knell of the new Republic.  The masses, so eloquently characterized by Shakespeare (Coriolanus, Julius Caesar) as fickle, ignorant, and impossibly and shamelessly self-interested could never be trusted with power.  How and why, then, has America come to tolerate such illogical ‘democratic’ excesses? Worse, how could its leaders have stood by while the body politic fragmented through exaggeratedly defiant demands for recognition of identity?

Image result for images hamilton alexander

Illogical thinking – putting premise, received wisdom, a priori judgment, and personal belief before logical inquiry and conclusion – is more prevalent than ever.  Can America ever recover from such a dissolution of logic and the consequent, logically-derived, fundamental values of honor, respect, dignity, compassion, discipline, and duty? Is restoration of the universal principles of advanced civilization possible? Unlikely.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.