Metaphilosophical Reflections V: Some Concluding Thoughts
“Finally, lest what is most important remain unsaid: from such abysses, from such severe illness, also from the illness of severe suspicion, one returns newborn…”
– Nietzsche, The Gay Science (Preface)
“The word ‘philosophy’ must mean something whose place is above or below the natural sciences, not beside them.”
– Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
I’m also a would-be fantasy author. Sections from my novel can be found here.
1. The Skeptical Inversion
In my previous post, I argued that the skeptical dialectic returns us to the common life from which we set out on our search for truth, knowledge, or reality. The return has a twofold origination, one that’s both logical and psychological.
Logically, the negative-epistemological arguments that drive us to nihilism are self-refuting in the sense that they depend on rational and normative commitments that themselves fall prey to the very negative-epistemological arguments they underwrite. For thousands of years, but especially since Descartes, skepticism has tended to be associated not with doubt or suspension of judgment, but with denial; it is taken, primarily by those who are hostile to it, to be a substantive philosophical position, one that denies that we have (sometimes even that it is possible for us to have) knowledge either in some specific domain (e.g., religion, metaphysics, ethics) or globally, in all domains. The latter is full-blown philosophical skepticism. The philosophical-skeptical conclusion is that no one knows anything. As philosophers have been pointing out for millennia, the problem with this claim is that, when applied to itself, it’s self-refuting. If no one knows anything, then this proposition too must be something no one knows.
The self-refutation (peritropē) charge is typically deployed as part of an anti-skeptical argument. Now, if it were true that skepticism is a philosophical position committed to the truth of self-refuting claims, then skepticism would indeed be in trouble. (Note, however, that, even in that case, showing that the negative-epistemological conclusion is self-refuting does not suffice to demonstrate that someone does after all know something.) As a matter of fact, though, genuine skepticism—meaning the tradition that goes back to the original skeptics in Hellenistic times—is not committed to any self-refuting philosophical conclusions. Rather, self-refutation is internal to genuine skepticism; it is, as we’ve seen, a ‘moment’ (that is, a phase) of the skeptical dialectic, not its end-point.
Ancient skepticism (Pyrrhonism in particular) is best understood—to borrow a helpful distinction from Robert Fogelin—not as a kind of philosophical skepticism, but rather as skepticism about philosophy. What does it mean to be skeptical of philosophy? As we’ve seen, ‘philosophy’ as such is not a specialized domain of inquiry with its own distinctive subject-matter and presupposition-set. It is rather that mode of questioning that allows for even the most radical questions to be asked; it is where our childish wonder is given free rein, where no ‘Why?’ can be simply dismissed. To be skeptical of philosophy, then, is to be skeptical of human reason as such, of its ability to achieve rational satisfaction solely on the basis of its own resources (i.e., without seeking justificatory shelter in tradition, or common sense, or the irrational or arational). Positive dogmatists claim to have discovered the truth and thereby to have achieved rational satisfaction. Negative dogmatists (i.e., philosophical ‘skeptics’) claim that the truth cannot be discovered. This too affords us with a kind of rational satisfaction, for negative dogmatism is still a dogmatism; it still claims to expound a truth. It may be an ugly or distasteful truth, but it’s satisfying to the extent that it settles the matter. As Nietzsche says in a different context, it is “a basic fact of human will” that “it prefers to will nothingness rather than not will” (On the Genealogy of Morals, §3.1). In epistemological terms, Nietzsche’s insight is that the human drive toward rational satisfaction is such that we prefer to know that knowledge is impossible than to suspend our judgment, to admit our ignorance and thereby leave open the possibility of knowledge. Since the upshot of genuine skepticism is precisely suspension of judgment (epochē) rather than denial, we can recast Nietzsche’s insight: Human beings prefer nihilism to skepticism.
“What am I to choose?” Montaigne wonders. “What you like, provided you choose! There is a stupid answer, to which nevertheless all dogmatism seems to come, by which we are not allowed not to know what we do not know” (Apology for Raymond Sebond).
But nihilism’s ability to provide rational satisfaction depends on inconsistency, in particular a self-reflexive failure, i.e., the failure to apply its negative-epistemological arguments to itself. The mature skeptic goes further than the nihilist, by calling into question nihilism’s own rationalistic presuppositions. By doing so, the nihilistic conclusion is transformed from, “No one knows anything,” to “Relative to these rational standards, no one knows whether or not anyone knows anything.” The difference between these two claims is enormous, especially given that skepticism calls into question the rational standards it has made explicit.
The result is the return to common life. But why? Here we get the other half of the answer. Psychologically, human beings are such that we naturally believe all sorts of things, usually for no good reason whatsoever. (Note that there is an important difference between having a reason to believe something and believing something because of that reason.) As such, achieving a belief-free state is either impossible or else the result of some sort of intervention in the ordinary course of our cognitive processes. The skeptical dialectic, animated by a commitment to what I called, in my previous post, the philosophical epistemic–doxastic norm, gradually rids us of beliefs by eroding their rational foundation. This process is either merely ideal, in the sense that we don’t actually cease to believe (even if we claim otherwise), or it is psychologically actual. (I imagine real-life cases would be a mix of the two: we cease to believe some things, while maintaining other beliefs though recognizing their questionability.) Either way, the process is predicated on certain epistemic standards and doxastic norms, which are taken, either implicitly or explicitly, to belong to the framework of any ‘search for the truth.’ But in the end, skepticism undermines these very standards and norms, thereby eliminating them as obstructions in the ordinary course of our cognitive processes. We end up more or less where we started, at least regarding the content of our beliefs.
The Pyrrhonian claim—the basis of its ‘philosophical therapy’—is that, having undergone this process for ourselves, we will no longer assent to our beliefs dogmatically. We’ll acquire a philosophical attitude toward our own beliefs, in something like the colloquial sense: calm, somewhat detached, thoughtful, perhaps slightly reticent, slow to denounce, open to contradiction. (More precisely, the Pyrrhonian will claim only that the skeptical therapy seems to have had this effect on certain people and that it may have a similar effect on you.)
Some people have claimed that Pyrrhonism would doom us, at best, to an entirely ‘passive’ intellectual life. Pyrrhonians, having suspended judgment on all their beliefs, can have no recourse to reason. They’ll simply ‘go along’ with whatever external force is acting upon them at the time. The charge, in other words, is that the Pyrrhonians’ version of ‘giving themselves up to nature’ entails giving up on reason, rational agency, etc.—all those features of human beings that are traditionally supposed to distinguish us from lesser animals. These claims are frequently leveraged in arguments to the effect that Pyrrhonism is “morally pernicious”: the Pyrrhonian may act morally, but only by accident; we cannot count on the Pyrrhonian (e.g.) to oppose tyranny and stand up for human rights.
These charges—both the ‘impassivity’ and the ‘immorality’ charges—are based on the same misunderstanding of the practical upshot of the Pyrrhonian skeptical therapy. The misunderstanding follows from failing to appreciate the richness of the Pyrrhonian notion of ‘appearances.’ Sextus Empiricus tells us that mature skeptics will live “in accordance with appearances.” The life adoxastōs is precisely such a life. To understand what this means, we need to understand the following.
First, ‘appearances’ (phainomena) must be contrasted with ‘reality’ (ousia). In the first instance, ‘appearances’ are associated with the sensory realm (the kosmos aisthetos), whereas ‘reality’ belongs to the intelligible realm (the kosmos noetos; later Kant’s ‘noumenal’). We have access to appearance simply by virtue of our natural embodiment, but our access to the intelligible is a gift of our reason. The most influential statement of the appearance–reality distinction in the history of Western philosophy is to be found in Plato’s Republic, in the sections that include his discussion of the Divided Line.
The Divided Line has both ontological and epistemological implications. Ontologically, the ordo essendi (order of being) goes top-down: the highest section of the Divided Line, which contains the invisible, immaterial, noumenal Forms (of which the multiplicity of phenomenal objects are mere copies), are the ontological ground of appearances. Epistemologically, although the ordo cognoscendi (order of understanding) goes bottom-up, from the appearances to reality, the order of justification follows the ordo essendi. We only get knowledge at the top of the Line. The world of appearances affords us, at best, with mere belief (pistis, a subdivision of doxa). Thus, until and unless we ascend to the top of the Line, we will have no knowledge, no justification; we will be sunk in “a kind of morass of philistinism” (533d), unable to distinguish true beliefs from false.
Few philosophers are Platonists these days, nor have they been for some time; but elements of these metaphysico-epistemological commitments continue to live on in a great deal of philosophical thinking. Indeed, I’ve suggested that something like this picture is intrinsic to philosophical inquiry as such, for, as we saw in my second post, is it part of Plato’s conception of justification that it must be presuppositionless, which requires, according to him, that we go top-down on the Divided Line. The rejection of ‘appearances’ corresponds with the rejection of ‘common life’ I discussed in my third post. The move from pistis to dianoia corresponds to the point at which skeptical challenges become sophisticated enough to call into question common life as a whole. The example I used involved calling into question the senses as a whole, and it’s precisely that which Plato has in mind. At the bottom of the line are mere images (eikōni), by which Plato has in mind shadows, reflections, etc. One step up, we have physical objects, which are the source of those images. The move from the sensory world to the intelligible world involves coming to treat physical objects (qua objects-of-sense) as mere images of a truer reality behind or above them; it is to reject the appearances altogether.
I argued in my second post that philosophy as such is predicated on a ‘social skepticism’ that calls into question the epistemic and practical authority of common life in favor of autonomous reason. This move involved an inversion of the order of explanation. Where before, appearances (common life) was the ground of explanation, now that ground is sought in some immaterial rational order. This philosophical inversion engenders a host of rational and normative commitments that have proven difficult—to say the least—to live up to. The skeptic is in the business of righting the inverted world, of seeing appearances as ontological and epistemological ground, with the ‘higher’ levels of the Divided Line as abstractions from the world of appearances, abstractions that, as such, grow increasingly tenuous the further they move from the relatively solid ground of common life.
This is the skeptical inversion. Skepticism of philosophy leads to the restoration of the appearances. For Sextus, ‘appearance’ is no longer the anemic notion we find in Plato; the notion is freed from its pejorative connotations that accrue to it in philosophical discourse. As Julia Annas and Jonathan Barnes have written,
When the Pyrronists talk of appearances or of how things appear they are not indulging in technical philosophical jargon… There is no suggestion that ‘appearances’ are somehow entities distinct from the objects which purportedly produce them. The Pyrrhonists are not assuming that when we attend to ‘the appearances’ we are attending to a peculiar sort of entity, a mental image of a sense-datum, say, On the contrary, to attend to the appearances is simply to attend to the way things appear… Appearing is not something which only perceptible objects can do: music may sound, and hence appear, loud; sandpaper may feel, and hence appear, rough; but equally an argument may appear valid, a statement may appear true, an action may appear unwarranted… To say how things appear is to say how they impress us or how they strike us… (Modes of Scepticism, p. 23)
The life lived in accordance with appearances, then, is normally rich in intellectual and moral content, regardless of the ontological (e.g., physiological) facts of the matter with respect to ‘rational agency’ and so on. Continuing to refer to appearances as ‘appearances’ has a twofold purpose: first, it is a characteristically undogmatic mode of assertion, in that it does not make definite claims about the way things necessarily are; and more specifically, second, it serves to establish distance between the assertions of mature skeptics and the assertions of philosophical dogmatists who would claim access to some supersensible beyond, some privileged ontologico-epistemic ground that raises their proclamations above those of others.
The nihilist as well as the dogmatist insist on maintaining the appearance–reality distinction. As Jay Garfield puts it, “the nihilist challenges us to explain the apparently problematic [i.e., appearances] by reference to what, according to the reificationist [i.e., the dogmatist], should be the unproblematic [i.e., reality], and argues that we cannot. The skeptic grants the force of this argument but demonstrates that in fact the explanans [i.e., reality]… is what is problematic and obscure. Moreover, the skeptic argues, the very reality—such as it is—of that explanans is in fact grounded in what was originally problematized by the skeptical challenge [i.e., the appearances]” (Jay Garfield, “Epochē and Śūnyatā,” p. 10). (Montaigne makes a similar observation about philosophical dogmatists when he points out that we try to use our reason “to arrive at apparent things from things obscure.”) Consider the case of causation. Garfield describes the skeptical inversion of casual explanation this way: “The reificationist with regard to causation argues that the regularities we observe in nature are to be explained by a fundamental causal power that causes have to bring about their effects—a necessary connection. The nihilist argues that because we can have no clear idea of such a causal power or natural necessity, causal explanation is impossible. The skeptical solution to the problem thus posed regarding the possibility of scientific explanation… is, rather than to understand regularity as vouchsafed by causation, to understand causal explanation as grounded in regularities” (p. 8).
Garfield clearly recognizes the sense in which the skeptical inversion involves a return to common life. He writes that “an appeal to social conventions is central to the skeptical reconstruction of our heretofore metaphysically or epistemologically confused discourse” (p. 11). But the upshot of Pyrrhonism, on this view, is not naively to accept social conventions, but “to understand the conventional as conventional, and as [apparently] empty of any reality or foundation beyond convention” (p. 12), i.e., to invert the Divided Line.
Moreover, Garfield recognizes that what he calls ‘reificationism’ is both an ‘everyday’ as well as a ‘philosophical’ phenomenon: “… reificationism comes in two versions. We might call these… ‘ordinary’ and ‘philosophical.’ For arguably, the person on the street thinks of the physical as substantial, thinks of causation as a real force, thinks of personal identity as grounded in a soul, and so forth. But these views are probably in the typical case rather inchoate. Philosophical reificationism can be seen as a careful conceptual refinement of this fallacy of everyday metaphysics. It is the job of the skeptic to cure both the ordinary and the sophisticated form of the disease” (p. 262–3). I would add that this relationship goes both ways: yes, philosophical reflection refines everyday metaphysics, but the everyday is itself shot through with metaphysics derived from philosophical reflection. Thus, the two ‘inversions’ form a kind of recursive loop. It is impossible to trace this back to its earliest beginnings. My diagram of the skeptical dialectic suggests that when skepticism overthrows everyday dogmatism, it gives rise to the philosophical inversion, and that when it overthrows philosophical dogmatism, it gives rise to the skeptical inversion. But now we can see that ‘philosophy’ and ‘common life’ intertwine, so that there is no pure ‘philosophical’ or ‘skeptical’ inversion: each inversion is partly one, partly the other.
2. Science, Truth, and Life
In this final section, I will at long last address the question of science. I will do so much too quickly and to the satisfaction of few if any readers of this blog, I am sure.
The short answer is simply this: When we try to think ‘philosophically’ about science or mathematics—when we try to account for their success, etc.—we reach the point where we just don’t know what to say.
There is no satisfactory philosophical account of science. Philosophizing about science falls into the same sorts of aporia as any other philosophical inquiry. Science is simply not something we can make sense of—except in the sort of descriptive way in which I’ve attempted to make sense of philosophy in these posts. That is, we can try to look at what it does, see how it works, and try to find the best means of conceptualizing it. The most convincing conceptualization of science with which I’m familiar is Scott’s: that science is best thought of as a prosthetic for our Stone Age brains. It provides a systematic, institutionalized means of attempting, as far as possible, to bypass or short-circuit the quagmire of everyday human cognition. The emphasis here has to be placed on ‘systematic’ and ‘institutionalized,’ for science’s impressiveness is inversely related to how closely one investigates it. But, contra sociologists of knowledge and the like, this is merely part of what makes science as a whole so impressive: the fact that, up close, it’s precisely the god-awful mess you would expect from any human intellectual endeavor… and yet it works.
So when it comes to accounting for science’s success, my response is that there is no accounting for it, not in any rationally satisfying way. (Notice that philosophy doesn’t present us with this problem: my metaphilosophical account can be rationally satisfying, for there are no conspicuous successes that it must account for. Indeed, its primary purpose is to account for philosophy’s failures.)
In closing, I’d like to make some further remarks about science as it relates to issues I’ve brought up in these posts.
First, modern history has demonstrated the extent to which science is capable of transforming ‘common life’ in a way that is (a) out of anyone’s control, and (b) not strictly rational. This is, potentially, a deeply troubling trend. It relates to the point I just made about the ‘recursive loop’ between common life and philosophy. The beliefs of common life—the ‘world-picture’ it provides us with—is for the most part something we simply inherit. Thus, it is shot through with various dogmas that have filtered down from various specialized domains of inquiry. It is commonly claimed, for instance, that contemporary Westerners are commonsense Cartesian dualists. I think this is probably accurate. The way we think about ourselves, our ‘minds’ or ‘souls’ and their relation to our bodies, is shaped and conditioned by centuries- (or millennia-)old philosophizing of which most people are entirely unaware. These once ‘hard-won’ conclusions becomes common sense, what ‘everybody knows.’ These views filter down into common life not because they’re true or because everyone agreed, but because they somehow spread through the intellectual world of our forebears, like a virus—one that has been passed on to us.
Science, I want to suggest, exerts this same sort of influence over common life. It works generation-by-generation such that it is not a matter of convincing people, but of waiting for the old to die and the young to be born into the new world science has created. As I often put it, you can lock up Galileo, but sooner or later your descendants will exonerate him. Science alters our view of the world in astounding—and sometimes frightening—ways, and these changes are in an important sense irrational even if the scientific enterprise as a whole is rational; indeed, even if the views themselves are correct. For it is possible to believe what is true for irrational reasons—and hence not to know that it is true.
The question is: What further changes does science have in store?
I’m going to end, as I so often do, with Nietzsche.
The ethics of skepticism, I would argue, is the ethics of life. It is an ethics that is built up out of our lived experience in the world. Emidio Spinelli has convincingly argued that Sextus’s “polemical targets” in the moral sphere are “the dogmatists” who insist that a moral theory or action “can be counted as legitimate if and only if it rests on strong theoretical conclusions regarding the nature of reality” (“Beyond the Theoretikos Bios,” p. 102). The skeptic “places [his] trust not in the strength of any philosophical logos or in the rigid norms of theoretical rationality; rather, [he] makes [his] choices and rejections on the basis of non-philosophical observances… This sensibility arises in accordance with [his] repeated and consolidated experiences” (p. 112). The skeptic will not make any claims of necessity here, but it is plausible to suppose that this kind of ‘moral skepticism’ will tend to lead one to embrace ‘moral naturalism’—a morality rooted in our experience as embodied creatures, not one subservient to some otherworldly ideal.
It was precisely this sort of subservience that disgusted Nietzsche everywhere he found it. Just as I’ve spoken of nihilism as committed to rational norms, Nietzsche too smells morality everywhere. And not just any morality, but the rot-stink of life-opposing moralities. He lumps these together under the heading of the ‘ascetic ideal.’ He associates the ascetic ideal most strongly with Judaism and Christianity, but he argues that it has reached into virtually every facet of human life, most conspicuously every facet of human intellectual life, including the life of science.
In my previous post, I argued that nihilism was covertly rational, in that it depends on maintaining commitments that it itself ought to call into question. Nietzsche adopts a similar strategy, by which I mean that he approaches the problem of science—the problem of its disenchanting of the world, its “unchaining of this earth from its sun”—by asking the question that science does not, and perhaps cannot, ask: What is the value of truth?
The will to truth that still seduces us into taking so many risks, this famous truthfulness that all philosophers so far have talked about with veneration: what questions this will to truth has already laid before us! What strange, terrible, questionable questions!… Is it any wonder if we finally become suspicious, lose patience, turn impatiently away? That we ourselves are also learning from this Sphinx to pose questions? Who is it really that questions us here? What in us really wills the truth? In fact, we paused for a long time before the question of the cause of this will—until we finally came to a complete standstill in front of an even more fundamental question. We asked about the value of this will. Granted, we will truth: why not untruth instead? And uncertainty? Even ignorance? (Beyond Good and Evil, §1.1)
Indeed, why not? Because, Nietzsche argues, we are committed to the ascetic ideal: “[T]he compulsion towards [truth], that unconditional will to truth, is faith in the ascetic ideal itself, even if, as an unconscious imperative, make no mistake about it,—it is the faith in a metaphysical value, a value as such of truth as vouched for and confirmed by that ideal alone (it stands and falls by that ideal)… From the very moment that faith in the God of the ascetic ideal is denied, there is a new problem as well: that of the value of truth. —The will to truth needs a critique—let us define our own task with this—, the value of truth is tentatively to be called into question” (Genealogy of Morals, §3.24).
If we abandon truth as our goal, our yardstick, our ideal, how do we find our way about? If not truth, what should we strive for? In what direction should be pour the energy that we previously expended in our will to truth? Nietzsche’s answer: Life. The problem with science, with ‘truth,’ is that it seems to tear us away from life. “The trust in life is gone: life itself has become a problem.” Nietzsche’s notoriously indeterminate appeals to ‘life,’ and his many cryptic remarks about what awaits us on the other side of the ‘ascetic ideal’ and the ‘will to truth,’ can be understood, I would argue, in terms of precisely the picture I’ve presented in this and previous posts, as the return to common life adoxastōs that results from questioning further even than the ‘skeptics’ (i.e., the nihilists).
The trust in life is gone: life itself has become a problem. Yet one should not jump to the conclusion that this necessarily makes one sullen. Even love of life is still possible—only one loves differently… [T]he attraction of everything problematic, the delight in an X, is so great in highly spiritual, spiritualized people such as these that this delight flares up like bright embers again and again over all the distress of what is problematic, over all the danger of uncertainty, and even over the jealousy of the lover. We know a new happiness… (Gay Science, Preface, §3)
Finally, lest what is most important remain unsaid: from such abysses, from such severe illness, also from the illness of severe suspicion, one returns newborn… [W]e have grown sick of this bad taste, this will to truth, to ‘truth at any price’, this youthful madness in the love of truth: we are too experienced, too serious, too jovial, too burned, too deep for that… We no longer believe that truth remains truth when one pulls off the veil; we have lived too much to believe this. Today we consider it a matter of decency not to wish to see everything naked, to be present everywhere, to understand and ‘know’ everything. ‘Is it true that God is everywhere?’ a little girl asked her mother; ‘I find that indecent!’—a hint for philosophers! One should have more respect for the bashfulness with which nature has hidden behind riddles and iridescent uncertainties. Perhaps truth is a woman who has grounds for not showing her grounds?
We must learn from the Greeks.
They knew how to live: what is needed for that is to stop bravely at the surface, the fold, the skin; to worship appearance, to believe in shapes, tones, words—in the whole Olympus of appearance!… Those Greeks were superficial—out of profundity! And is not this precisely what we are coming back to, we daredevils of the spirit who have climbed the highest and most dangerous peak of current thought and looked around from up there, looked down from up there? Are we not just in this respect—Greeks? Worshippers of shapes, tones, words? And therefore—artists? (Gay Science, Preface, §4)
Why truth? Why not—art? The return to appearances (to shapes, tones , words), to sensation and celebration and life? This choice lies before us, to whatever extent it does, precisely because the will to truth is itself questionable.