Friday, 7 January 2011

The modern inability to *get* metaphysics

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I remember as a teenager encountering philosophy and being mystified by the early metaphysical debates, among the ancient Greeks, about whether reality was changing or un-changing.

So-and so-said reality was unchanging, such-and-such said reality was change; Socrates/ Plato said that unchanging reality was transcendental and this world was change; Aristotle said the forms were unchanging and appearances changed, and so on...

The whole thing struck me as silly, pointless, just an arbitrary choice between silly options.

What I was interested in was Truth - in the sense of how did we know what was true and what was not (I was accepting that mathematics, logic and science were true; and working out from there).

It was only about a year and a half ago, as a result of reading Edward Feser - http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/ - that I suddenly understood what the ancient Greeks were getting-at and what they were trying to do.

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As I understand it, reality must be unchanging, or else if everything changes we cannot know anything (not even that reality is change); yet if reality is unchanging then everything we experience is an illusion (including the illusion that we have have experienced understanding of the unchanging nature of reality). Therefore there must be change.

Therefore reality - since reality must both not-change and change - reality must be a mixture of the eternal and the changing.

Then we try to understand whether change and eternity are on the same level, or whether one is fundamental and the other more superficial - and try to understand the relationship between them.

But because reality is actually whole then the mere fact we have divided it into the eternal and the changeable does violence to our understanding, so that no explanation can ever be wholly satisfactory.

(The paradox: to explain reality we crack it into pieces, must divide and distinguish; but having done so we can never put the picture back together again without being able to see the cracks.)

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My last secular philosophy was a version of Luhmann's systems theory including a heavy dose of selectionist (evolutionary) thinking - http://www.hedweb.com/bgcharlton/modernization-imperative.html.

This was an 'everything changes' theory that could only survive by a wholly arbitrary decision to accept axioms on which it based itself; in other words an assertion of eternal knowledge which could not be justified by the theory itself.

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I was able to do this from a sense of intellectual pride/ honesty...

(Saying something like: ' 'at least' I admit that my system is arbitrary, all systems are indeed arbitrary, but 'at least'; I know that mine is arbitrary while the others deny the fact')...

But I could not in practice accept that the axioms on which the system of systems theory was built really were arbitrary, contingent, indefensible; and I therefore persisted in thinking that my philosophy was superior to, deeper than, alternatives.

Such is human nature.

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I now perceive that the only solution to the insoluble basis of philosophy is religious - intervention from outside philosophy: i.e. divine revelation. The only non-arbitrary source of axiomatic validity.

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This was perceived by many people in the past, and the vast consequences of lack of divine revelation (of disbelief in divine revelation as a basis for philosophy) were also perceived.

But for modern thinkers - such as my former-self and the hundreds of philosophers and thinkers that I read/ listened to/ talked-with for most of my adult life - the basic metaphysical question is not understood, seems irrelevant, seems silly, seems arbitrary.

Which is, of course, a situation that is precisely what was understood and predicted by those who recognized the effects of rejecting revelation as a basis for human knowledge.

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Of course, philosophy is rare and restricted to very few cultures and people. But modern thinkers, and at the highest level of acclaim, have not - for many scores of years now - reached the point reached by the first and simplest and most basic of ancient Greek philosophers.

And they, we, congratulate ourselves on our pragmatism in this.

What it actually means, what 'pragmatism actually means' is that philosophy has been abandoned in favour of hedonism - in favour of doing and saying what makes us feel better about ourselves (even when 'feeling better' means feeling heroically noble in our despairing negations).

And indeed this has often been specifically argued to be the true nature of philosophy, the proper goal of philosophy by many, many 'philosophers'.

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My point is that it is hard to exaggerate the depth of confusion of modern intellectual life. It is hard to exaggerate the lack of basic grasp.

Our most lauded and influential thinkers nowadays, and for several generations, do not even rise to the level of children or the simple-minded in their philosophical reflections; they are delirious maniacs who experience reality as discontinuous fragments during momentary awakenings from unreflective nightmares or euphorias, and yet who expend their energies arguing that this perspective has progressed beyond, has superseded those of our ancestors.

We are delirious maniacs with delusions of grandeur.

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