Wednesday 28 November 2012

The feebleness of human reason


Human reason is a feeble thing.

We need it, we must use it - but it is terribly error prone when extended beyond the simple drawing of direct inferences.


And reason only reasons-from - that which it reasons-from is primary; and all reasoning ultimately depends upon axioms, and the only axioms which we have any reason to believe as true are those which we believe are divine revelations.

So that is the basis of all.


Divine revelation is what reason reasons-from; and it is only by revelation that we could regard reason as itself true.


(And if divine revelations are denied, regarded as impossible or nonsense; then there is no basis for reason - and the consequence is nihilism, must be nihilism).



Michael R said...

There is no such thing as epistemic nihilism. It makes no sense. The human brain is not geared to find absolute truth, it is geared to find reliable truth.

Information normally passes the threshold of belief/certainty when it is demonstrably reliable/repeatable. Thereupon the brain marks that knowledge with a feel-good emotion of "solid ground", reliable knowledge, trustworthy. It does this so that you can feel your way in an uncertain world i.e. to feel safe acting on solid ground, and to fear/avoid uncertain ground.

Knowledge is simply a model of associations that we use to predict the future. Your model happens to contain a god, whereas the atheist's does not. Your model was built up in a slightly different way, through culture or however you became a Christian, and that knowledge was then marked with a feel-good emotion as "certain".

Neither Christian nor atheist is an epistemic nihilist because we both have a model of how the world "works". Epistemic nihilism is not biologically possible. We all have a model of the world in our head.

Bruce Charlton said...

@MR - You are mistaken. Think about it.

If you put forward repeatability as the criteria, it does not work -where does that principle come from and why should we believe it?

Everything starts with metaphysics (not with experience) - and necessarily MUST do so. This was the origin of philosophy among the ancient Greeks; and it always shall be so.

And the first metaphysicians knew that philosophy cannot dispense with 'god' - this is NOT the Christian God (although the Christian god contains it) - but 'the god of the philosophers'.

The gotp is rationally-necessary; without the gotp nothing can be said about anything.

Now, I realize that modern philosophers (and by modern this could be in the past several hundred years) do not acknowledge this, but pretend to do philosophy without metaphysics - but they are just plain wrong; and demonstrably so, since they generate nonsense and paradoxes left right and centre and have been doing so for many generations (as any honest - and non-careerist - modern philosopher will acknowledge; e.g. Bryan Magee).

George Goerlich said...

It is fundamentally absurd and incoherent to acknowledge our existence and ability to inquire without acknowledging the existence of a highest organizing principle.

Joseph said...

This reminds me of what Kronecker said: "God created the natural numbers; all else is the work of man."

Even mathematicians recognize that the axioms of their art are gifts from above.

Michael R said...

@BGC said "Everything starts with metaphysics (not with experience) - and necessarily MUST do so".

This is a proposition. Where did it come from? You. By what process?

Feeling is the stimulus to action. Common sense, neuroscience, and David Hume, tell us so. All deliberate thought and action is driven by the pursuit of emotional rewards. Reason is merely instrumental in pursuit of those rewards.

Hence "everything starts with metaphysics" is a false statement (if metaphysics means beliefs). Everything, in fact, starts with a feeling.

"repeatability - where does that principle come from and why should we believe it?"

It is natural. We are biologically geared to form beliefs based on repeated exposure. We test, and test, and then get a feeling of reliability. There is no other way to form a belief. The Christian repeatedly exposes himself to the idea of God until it sinks in with a feeling of reliability.

In order to become a Christian you need (a) an emotional concern for the idea of God and (b) to construct an argument for the existence of God. Thus both an emotional value and a "reasoned" belief ORIGINATED FROM YOU without any help from above. So you can, in fact, reason and value without a god.

Wm Jas said...

Certainly metaphysical assumptions are necessary, but I don't see what God really adds to the picture.

Without God, you must reason thus:

Q: Where did metaphysical axiom P come from, and why should we believe it?

A: No one can say where it came from or prove that it's true, but we just have to assume it because otherwise nothing makes any sense.

With God, on the other hand, you get something like this:

Q: Where did metaphysical axiom P come from, and why should we believe it?

A: That's easy. It was revealed by God, and we should believe it because God is all-knowing and cannot lie.

Q: But how do we know that God really exists? And supposing he does exist, how can we know that a given axiom has been revealed by him? (I don't recall seeing anything about axioms in the Bible, after all.)

A: Well, we if we come across an axiom without which nothing makes any sense, we just have to assume that God revealed it.

What -- this is an honest question here, and I'd appreciate an answer -- what advantage does the second line or reasoning have over the first? How is it any more trustworthy or any less arbitrary -- how is it even any less nihilistic -- than the non-theistic version? Or have I missed the point completely?

Bruce Charlton said...

@MR - metaphysics is the basic nature (or structure) of reality.

WmJas - Your assumptions lie in the way you set up the question: the assumption that metaphysical axioms need/ ought to be validated one at a time.

All philosophy is paradoxical because it deals with selective summaries - and it viewpoint oscillates between the subjective and some other (could be the view of people in general, or it could be god).

So one would need to be clear whether we are talking about how things seem to me, or how things seem to 'people' (or to god) - and it isn't always possible do do any of this consistently - for example, by writing for someone else to read then the subjective perspective is lost.

I think we know from the past 1000 years of philosophizing that it doesn't settle anything in a general sense - and that the more precise and close-up the philosophical style, the less it settles.

SO to get out from the kind of thing you are doing we would need to be less specific, not more. Not talk about a specific axiom, but axioms; and then general assumptions - where do general assumptions come from? Why is an entity what it is and not something else, how can it act in the world adaptively?

Then as one keeps pushing back there comes the basic question of whether the world makes sense or not (and how we could know it made sense)?

This is pretty close to the limit of most people's reasoning powers (mine, for sure) it isn't really any more complex a reasoning problem than the one you set out - but it is much closer to being something that most people have spontaneously considered: does all this make sense, or is it just a delusion? (that solipsistic feeling).

Once the argument has reached this point - and I think that it is fair and reasonable to say that this is more or less the place where we end up, from honestly re-framing your question - then there is a pretty obvious dichotomy between god (an abstract god of the philosophers) on the one hand; and on the other chaos/ nihilism/ incomprehensibility/ meaninglessness - which self-refutes.

This is a metaphysical argument (about the basic nature of reality) because it is not empirical or experiential - it is simply that we are faced with one possibility which is coherent and the other which is not.

I personally feel that the same process leads to a personal god and some kind of meaning and purpose for life, a god who is concerned with me personally and for some reason - since (and this is more a matter of human understanding than of metaphysical necessity) it is otherwise (humanly) incomprehensible why an abstract gotp would make the universe and me such that I could comprehend the universe in any way.

Indeed, and I acknowledge this is very difficult to follow through, and contains many steps, so there may well be errors - I think that similar dichotomous structures lead to Christianity - although not to the truth of Christianity

I think your original question was at a half-way-to-metaphsyics level which is intrinsically unanswerable.

So from that perspective you cannot assume to get an answer to a question that you have framed in the way you have framed it - because most questions, and almost all possible 'philosophical' questions. are badly framed and unanswerable.

That is exactly why we need metaphysics! Only within a coherent metaphysical system can philoosphy profitably be done - otherwise it necessarily causes more problems than it solves.

Wm Jas said...

Bruce, thanks for your reply -- though I'm afraid I still don't get it.

Isn't chaos-or-God a false dichotomy? The opposite of chaos is order, and one can accept that the universe is fundamentally orderly and structured -- a cosmos rather than chaos -- without necessarily believing in a Creator or an Unmoved Mover or whatever else is included under the heading "god of the philosophers."

And in fact your original argument was not just for a deistic "god of the philosophers" but for divine revelation. Either (a) there is no cosmos, only chaos; or (b) specific truths have been revealed to man by a supernatural being who created the universe. Now that's definitely a false dichotomy!

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - I think I can put things more briefly and comprehensibly by saying: you cannot do any serious/ useful/ non-harmful philosophy until you have sorted-out metaphysics.

Or, in this instance - I won't discuss this specific question (there is no point!) unless or until you tell me your metaphysical assumptions.

If I disagree with these (or if they are incoherent) then we cannot discuss the specific point - but will have to go back to discuss the metaphysics.

Simon said...

All philosophy is tautology.

The vital importance of metaphysical assumptions follows...

Bruce Charlton said...

@Simon - Metaphysics isn't tautology (I don't think!) - but the rest is - hence Wittgenstein's assertion. But W - typical modern - never made clear his metaphsyical assumptions.

@WmJas - And another point!...

In brief I believe your metaphysical assumptions - if they could be laid bare and made clear - will be found to exclude god.

Not intentionally, but simply as a matter of assumption: your metaphysical assumptions will be found not have any place for god, will assume that everything can be explained without god.

For example, if you assume a deterministic universe as the *primary* reality, then it follows that there is no god - since god will be determined just like everything else.

And so on.

George Goerlich said...

Wm Jas - This argument may be beyond me, but God must come from the assumption of an ordered universe. That is an initial force which created the universe in an ordered way, comprehendible and discussible by a mind. We may not immediately deduce what God is or the qualities associated with God, but some figure who we chose to call most-powerful and God that prefers an ordered universe over total incoherence. I think without this, all other arguments for the capability of understanding fall apart.

I think you want to say "the universe is rational, but we do not yet know of a God." I think though if we are honest, we must accept God as a consequence of accepting a rational universe. Without that, everything falls apart.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

The axioms of speculative reason (principles of identity / non-contradiction, sufficient reason, finality, causality, etc.) and of practical reason (morality: “Do good, avoid evil”, etc.) spring from the things that are: they are self-evident and necessary.

Thus, in a sense, they spring from divine revelation, but in that case we are not speaking about the specific and explicit Divine Revelation, but rather about the “general” revelation of God through his Creation, as Paul points out in the Epistle to Romans.

Also, the God of the classical theist philosophers (excluding Descartes, Hegel and most modern philosophers) is the same as the Christian God, but the point of view does not go farther than natural reason, and takes account of Divine Revelation only as additional information to help confirm or debunk rational speculations.

Catholic philosophers admit readily that the human mind is woefully prone to error because of sin. However, a fairly good knowledge of at least the essential moral truths (truth=rational) was never absent in civilizations retaining essential parts of the natural religion and natural law but not favoured with Divine Revelation.

Catholic philosophers also admit it is very rare to find rational thought formed in a comprehensive and coherent, and perfectible, doctrine: only Plato and Aristotle managed to do that.

The beauty of the thing is that the truths accessible to natural reason are consonant with Revelation, which in turn is never averse to right reason and natural morality. They buttress each other.