A Starting Point for the Rationalists

I hear the president is on tape from months ago saying how dangerous the virus is, but that he didn’t want the public to know the facts (and protect themselves?). An impeachable offense, you say, if only his time wasn’t running out? He is also reported to have said that joining the military and possibly being killed or wounded is dumb. It’s the kind of thing losers do. And California has its worst wildfire in history as the globe keeps on warming. But I’m on a news vacation until November, so enough of that.

In May, I wrote about a philosopher, Michael Della Rocca, who argued in an interview that we should adopt monism, which I described as:

. . . the view that reality is somehow one thing; the universe doesn’t consist of many things (such as electrons and gluons, or apples and oranges). Neither does it consist of only a couple of things (like mind and matter).

I didn’t like his argument, which is why the post was called “Punished by a Philosopher”.

One of the things Prof. Della Rocca said was that the Principle of Sufficient Reason is crucial to understanding “rationalist” philosophers like Spinoza and Leibniz, and presumably Descartes, their predecessor:

Rationalism can mean lots of different things to different people, but for me the Principle of Sufficient Reason (the PSR) is central to rationalism. The PSR is the principle according to which there are no brute facts that obtain or no things that exist without an explanation. That is, each thing or each fact has an explanation. The PSR is the guiding force of Leibniz’s and Spinoza’s work. . . 

I was reminded of Prof. Della Rocca’s interview when I read an interview with another philosopher at the same site. John Carriero is also an expert on the rationalist philosophers. He doesn’t think the Principle of Sufficient Reason is as fundamental as Della Rocca does:

You ask about the secondary literature. I think scholars have become increasingly sensitive to the role that the First Principle Theory is playing in early modern rationalism. I think there sometimes remains a tendency, perhaps out of a principle of charity, to try to work around the First Principle Theory and extract something that feels less alien.

For example, sometimes scholars are more comfortable working with a (what seems to me ungrounded) “principle of sufficient reason”—or some other disembodied form of “rationality”—than thinking in terms of a really existing First Principle that is ultimate the universe’s intelligibility. Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz do hold that reality is deeply intelligible, but that’s because reality originates in a First Principle with certain features, and, for them, the intelligibility of the universe bottoms out in the First Principle’s essence. 

I don’t think Prof. Carriero denies that the rationalist philosophers endorsed the Principle of Sufficient Reason. Unlike Della Rocca, however, he just thinks philosophers like Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz believed there was something more fundamental. He calls it their (or a) “First Principle”.

I’m not 100% certain that I understand what this First Principle is supposed to be. But somebody named Uma who posts on the internet may have part of the explanation:

Aristotle defined a first principle as “the first basis from which a thing is known”.

A First Principle is a basic, essential, foundational truth that is “known by nature.” It is not an assumption or deduction based on another theory or supposition. A key element of First Principle thinking is that just because something is “known by nature” or true in the universe does not mean it has ever been articulated and described by humans.

Here’s what Corriera says about the rationalists’ First Principle in response to the interviewer (Richard Marshall aka 3:16):

3:16:  I think you position Descartes’ radical thinking in terms of a philosophical theology. So what’s the place of philosophical theology in Descartes’ work? You say something surprising (to me at least) when you say that it was probably more important to Descartes than it was to Aquinas! How come?

JC: Let’s think of philosophical theology as the theory of the universe’s First Principle: whether the universe has a First Principle, and, if so, the nature and character of that First Principle.

For Aquinas, First Principle Theory is the culmination of philosophy, what philosophy leads to. Each of the arguments for the existence of God in the Summa Theologiae —the so-called Five Ways—is based on each of the Aristotelian four causes . . .  Before you embark on philosophical theology you need to have studied the natural world, and learned what change or motion is, learned about . . . what form and matter are, and learned about the four causes and how they are related. So, for Aquinas, not only it is possible to do a lot of philosophy before you get to First Principle Theory, it is necessary to do so.

Descartes reverses this. A large part of the Meditations project is to position us as knowers within the universe, and for him that project is inextricable from philosophical theology. This means more than ticking off the “God exists” and “God is not a deceiver” boxes. It means understanding our position: this involves understanding what the First Principle is . . . , the nature of our dependence on God, how error enters a universe authored by a supremely perfect being, and, finally, seeing how all Scientia [knowledge] depends on the recognition of God. Descartes views the need to orient ourselves in this way as a sort of propaedeutic [preparatory study] that has to come before other disciplines; and so, for him, First Principle Theory does not come after natural philosophy, as it does for Aquinas.

But what is this First Principle? This is a long interview but I couldn’t find a precise definition. This comes closest:

[Descartes] thinks that Scientia requires a systematic understanding of our position as intellectual beings within the universe . . .  Achieving such an understanding involves knowing something about the First Principle of the universe (God), as the source of the universe’s intelligibility, the origin (or author) of our natures, and the Being that ultimately accounts for our minds’ being plugged into the universe’s order.

So, for the rationalist philosophers, the First Principle, apparently more fundamental than the Principle of Sufficient Reason, is God — or rather what the existence of God as a perfect being and creator of the universe means, as far as we human beings are concerned.

I think this makes a lot of sense. I don’t mean it makes sense for our intellectual starting point to be a perfect creator of the universe. I mean it makes sense that certain 17th century philosophers had that starting point. The rationalists began with their understanding of God and went on from there. Their writings are more understandable if they had God as their intellectual bedrock. It explains why God shows up in their arguments, sometimes seemingly out of the blue (like the most wonderful deus ex machina there could possibly be). Having this kind of philosophical/theological perspective explains why they rely on their understanding of God to justify so many other beliefs. 

Prof. Corriera’s view does explain a passage from Spinoza that he cites. Spinoza argues that empirically-minded philosophers or theologians who begin with the natural world and then draw conclusions about God have it backwards:

For the divine nature, which [philosophers like Aristotle and his followers, as well as, presumably, later philosophers as well] should have considered before all else—it being prior both in cognition and in Nature—they have taken to be last in the order of cognition, and the things that are called objects of sense they have taken as prior to everything. Hence it has come about that in considering natural phenomena, they have completely disregarded the divine nature. And when thereafter they turned to the contemplation of the divine nature, they could find no place in their thinking for those fictions on which they had built their natural science, since these fictions were of no avail in attaining knowledge of the divine nature. So it is little wonder that they have contradicted themselves on all sides. (Ethics, 2p10s)

The professors can argue whether God or the Principle of Sufficient Reason was more fundamental for the rationalist philosophers. Did God make things so that everything happens for a reason? Or does that fact that everything happens for a reason explain God’s presence and proclivities?

Or is there no God and stuff happens for no reason at all? That may be too cynical a view, but it’s definitely in the running.

By the way, I’m 100% certain the professors would agree that Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz would all recommend making every effort to vote for Democrats this year. God or no God, it’s the only rational thing to do.

The Subject’s Point of View by Katalin Farkas

In a nutshell, Professor Farkas argues that meaning is in the head after all. That’s the “internalist” position that most academic philosophers have rejected in favor of a newer position called “externalism”. That’s the idea that, in Hilary Putnam’s well-known phrase, “meaning ain’t in the head”.

Putnam argued for his position by describing a thought experiment in which two guys named Oscar are exactly the same in every way and live on two Earth’s that seem to be the same in every way too. They both call the clear, tasteless liquid around them “water”, but it’s years before anyone on either planet has figured out what water is made of. The thing is that, without anyone knowing it yet, the water on Earth is H2O (as we now know) but on Twin Earth it’s XYZ (i.e. not H2O). The question is: “What do Oscar and his twin mean by the word “water”?” Putnam and the other externalists think that they mean different things when they each use that word. (You can read more about the thought experiment here.)

Farkas, on the other hand, thinks that the great 17th century philosopher René Descartes was basically right. Meaning is a psychological phenomenon. If Oscar and his twin on that other Earth have the exact same conscious thoughts about what they both call “water”, the word has the same meaning for both of them, regardless of what water’s (unknown) molecular composition happens to be. 

Here’s the last paragraph of the book:

I have defended a certain conception of the mental, one I regard as developing Descartes’s fundamental insight about the mind: that the mind is essentially revealed from the subject’s point of view. I have shown that this conception lies at the heart of contemporary internalist theories. I have considered an objection against the notion of internally individuated content [or meaning] and found it wanting. Hopefully, we can now give back the subject and her point of view the proper place they deserve.

I also accept the internalist position, which is probably the main reason I enjoyed the book. The author’s discussion of sense and reference was especially helpful, but it’s not a book for anyone unfamiliar with the topic.

Philosophical Questions and One, No, Two Answers

Back in 1641, or maybe 1639, René Descartes asked whether he (and therefore we) might be seriously mistaken about some pretty important stuff, i.e. everything:

I have for many years been sure that there is an all-powerful God who made me to be the sort of creature that I am. How do I know that he hasn’t brought it about that there is no earth, no sky, nothing that takes up space, no shape, no size, no place, while making sure that all these things appear to me to exist? Anyway, I sometimes think that others go wrong even when they think they have the most perfect knowledge; so how do I know that I myself don’t go wrong every time I add two and three or count the sides of a square? 

… I am driven back to the position that doubts can properly be raised about any of my former beliefs…. So in future, if I want to discover any certainty, I must withhold my assent from these former beliefs just as carefully as I withhold it from obvious falsehoods.

So I shall suppose that some malicious, powerful, cunning demon has done all he can to deceive me – rather than this being done by God, who is supremely good and the source of truth. I shall think that the sky, the air, the earth, colours, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely dreams that the demon has contrived as traps for my judgment. I shall consider myself as having no hands or eyes, or flesh, or blood or senses, but as having falsely believed that I had all these things. I shall stubbornly persist in this train of thought; and even if I can’t learn any truth, I shall at least do what I can do, which is to be on my guard against accepting any falsehoods. [Meditations on First Philosophy]

Then, about a month ago, Stan Persky responded to Descartes in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

I’ve always been uneasy with Descartes’ insistence on certainty, at least with respect to ordinary human experience (and to a range of moral questions) …  

How can we be sure the whole thing isn’t a dream or simulation or parallel universe? Answer: we can’t be sure, but why do we have to be sure? Why do we have to prove the Demon wrong? And anyway, isn’t the claim about the Demon’s deception so extraordinary that the burden of proof ought to rest on those making the claim that there is a Demon? Why isn’t “pretty sure” that I’m not now dreaming good enough? Given that our perception and interpretation of reality is supported by a) generally reliable sensory evidence, b) intersubjective human agreement, c) “scientific” explanations and evidence, and d) absence of evidence that anything else is going on, why isn’t that good enough for most of our purposes?

Answer #2: It’s good enough. We don’t have to be certain.

(This blogging thing can be pretty darn easy.)

God and Modern Moral Philosophy

I’m halfway through J. B. Schneewind’s The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy. “Modern” in this case doesn’t mean “contemporary”. Philosophers generally consider Rene Descartes to be the founder of modern philosophy and he died in 1650. Schneewind’s book concludes with Immanuel Kant, who died in 1804. (Philosophy isn’t one of those disciplines that leaves the past behind.)

Moral philosophy hasn’t stood still since Kant, but he’s still a very important figure. Kant argued that in order to act ethically, we must subject ourselves to a moral principle (the Categorical Imperative) that we freely and rationally adopt. We must be autonomous agents, not someone else’s followers.

However, as Schneewind tells the story in the first half of The Invention of Autonomy, moral philosophers in the early modern period were deeply concerned with an issue that wasn’t modern at all. Plato presented the problem in one of his early dialogues, Euthyphro: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”. Or, in modern form, “Is the morally good commanded by God because it’s morally good, or is it morally good because it’s commanded by God?”.

Not surprisingly, there were a variety of answers to this question. Some philosophers and theologians argued in favor of “intellectualism”: God commands what is morally good because God recognizes the principles of morality. It isn’t in God’s power or nature to prefer the immoral to the moral. Richard Cumblerland, for example, argued that morality is rational and God is supremely rational. Hence, God’s commands must be the right ones. God cannot make mistakes.

But if God couldn’t have issued different commands, doesn’t that limit God’s power? And doesn’t it mean that morality somehow stands apart from God? It would seem that God might not even be necessary for morality. Concerns like that convinced some to argue for “voluntarism”: God’s commands define morality. God voluntarily chose the morality we have, so what is moral or immoral would have been different if God had chosen differently. Descartes was an extreme voluntarist, for example. Schneewind notes that, according to Descartes,

Eternal verities must depend on God’s will, as a king’s laws do in his country. There are eternal truths, such as that the whole is greater than the part; but they would not be true unless God had willed them to be so [184].

Maybe it made sense for the early modern philosophers to spend so much time trying to figure out what God was thinking, and whether God could have chosen differently, and how morality and God are related. Living in a world subject to the idiosyncratic decisions of kings and queens, it must have been natural to view morality in terms of divine commands.

Eventually, however, the intellectualist side prevailed (to the extent that God remained in the picture at all). It became clear that morality and religion aren’t necessarily connected. All that speculating and arguing about the relationship between God and morality was an enormous waste of time. If you don’t believe me, read the first half of The Invention of Autonomy.

Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry by Bernard Williams

In Descartes, the greatly respected English philosopher Bernard Williams explains and evaluates Rene Descartes’s epistemological project: his attempt to identify what he can know for certain.

As is well-known, Descartes begins by doubting as much as possible. He cannot doubt his own existence, however, since he is certain that he is thinking about the problem at hand (cogito, ergo sum). What is less well-known is that Descartes makes crucial use of much more questionable propositions in his pursuit of certainty. In particular, he relies on the propositions that God exists and that God would not allow him to be mistaken or deceived about “clear and distinct” ideas.

It is hard to read this book without concluding that modern philosophy would have been better served if someone other than Descartes had been its “father”. Certainty was not a reasonable goal. Invoking God’s benevolence was illogical. And starting with “I think” seems to have made modern philosophy too solipsistic. Perhaps “we live” would have been a more helpful starting point.  (11/20/12)