Sunday, October 7, 2012

Descartes’ sadly misunderstood conundrum.

Blind leading the blind...


Jonnie Comet
22 April 2001

  If I were to tell you that all your life experience is not really as you have perceived it at all, but that you are actually a guinea-pig taking a test in a clinic in which we have sealed you in a virtual-reality dome and provided you with every sensation you’ve ever perceived, could you prove me wrong? 
  The answer will depend on how you determine reality.  Do you rely upon senses or thinking?
 
  Rene Descartes and the other absolutists of his time accepted the axiom that the cardinal nature of Man is to reason.  The faculty of Reason is, after all, what sets Man apart from lesser beasts.  This is all well, especially when we read or hear Descartes’ oft-repeated adage, ‘I think; therefore I am’.  It is so easy to assume that this idea proposes that since we can think, or reason, we can determine reality.  But in this modern and relevance-related world Descartes’ statement is highly misunderstood.  Too many people, throughout all ages, but especially now, tend to equate what they perceive with what is true.  These are the same people who will claim that any opinion is valid, and then rely so heavily upon their own assessments of people and issues and events that they unknowingly erect a smoke-screen of subjective ‘data’ entirely irrespective of the real facts.  Sadly these people will be the last to ever accept that their own application of reason may be inherently flawed. 
  
  When Descartes says, ‘I think; therefore I am’, he does not mean, as the typical modern American relativist may claim, that perception determines reality.  Subscribing to this misconception, it is all too easy to indulge the common logical fallacy of assuming, ‘Since I think such-and-such about this, it must therefore be true’.  For example, if an individual feels cold, he may believe that in fact it is cold– meaning that the ambient temperature is less than it usually is– in spite of the equal likelihood that he may simply have a fever and be unaware that his temperature-sensing ability is compromised, and thus his awareness about the weather today.  To debate this with him– hopefully without agitating his illness! –will result in his frustrated declaration of ‘Well it’s cold to me!  What else is there?’ 
  
  The first thing our misguided, suffering friend must realise is that the philosophical axiom ‘I think; therefore I am’ is an absolutist one to start with.  And it does not defend any reliance on personal relevance at all but does quite the opposite.  It condemns the concept of a subjective reality, suggesting instead that there is only one thing anyone can be sure of: that he can be sure that is the only thing he can be sure of.  In other words, I know I am thinking, since to merely question whether or not I am thinking already proves that I am thinking.  And Descartes’ point is that since that is entirely internal, as if conceived in a vacuum, not affected by outside circumstances, it can be considered logically pure, and therefore can be accepted as true by virtue of being purely reasonable.  It is only when I begin to involve perceptions of outside circumstances in my thought processes that the determination of what is or is not true becomes problematic.  
 
  Truth may or may not be hid from an individual, but surely he will not be able to tell it by his physical senses, nor sometimes even by his intellectual ones.  Though Jefferson has it that truths will be self-evident, by definition easily perceived as true, it does not automatically imply the reverse, that the obvious must therefore be true.  For example, I might perceive that the sky is pink, since all round I see pink; but I may not know whether or not I am wearing pink glasses.  If it is true that I am wearing pink glasses, it fundamentally alters the validity of my claim that the sky is in fact pink.  If in fact I am not wearing those glasses, then perhaps the sky is pink after all; but notice that it all depends on my awareness of some greater reality which may have been kept from me, without my knowledge that such a fact could even be possible.  Therefore any claim to reality I might make before I fully investigate the existence and status of all the truth is therefore incomplete and probably invalid.  The truly logical thinker will allow for the possibility that he may not know all the facts, but allow too that absolute truth does exist, however it may be beyond his perception for the moment or for ever.  
  
  Now this may seem like an inane argument, because how often might it be that I would be wearing pink glasses?  But take it a step further and consider how such a misunderstanding can influence larger issues.  The archetypical misapplication of the Descartes idea is for one to use a personally-perceived relevance as proof of a universal truth.  A relativist politician may feel that a certain plan for economy seems risky, but he measures risk by how it would affect his own personal finances and so votes against it, claiming that it is truly bad even though millions of others, about whose finances he knows nothing, may actually benefit from it.  A relativist fairgoer might say that since a Ferris-wheel appears dangerous to him, it must therefore actually be a material threat to life and limb.  Yet his understanding of the physics of Ferris-wheels, or the modern materials used in their construction, or the safety ordinances governing amusement rides, or the fact that the Ferris-wheel in question has just been thoroughly rebuilt and inspected, may be partly or entirely incomplete or just plain false, and so his report that the Ferris-wheel is unsafe may be precisely counter to fact.   
  
  And so far these examples might be attributed to mere idiocy on the parts of the politician and the fairgoer, and easily dealt with or overlooked, but consider how such an uninformed concept of reality can affect one’s whole lookout on the rest of life.  For example, a certain butcher might perceive that his shop is being boycotted by ethnic Semetarians.  He has not seen a Semetarian come in for five or six days, and whenever he rings up some of his regular and satisfied customers who are Semetarians he gets their answering machines.  What this butcher may not know– perhaps because he never bothered to think about it– is that this week is a Semetarian religious observance, and there may be mores for Semetarians about fasting and attendance at prayer services, for the term of the holy week but not beyond.  But based on what he perceives, he concludes that Semetarians no longer wish to buy meats from him; and since it seems that only Semetarians are doing this he forms an opinion about the Semetarians’ buying habits and how they feel about non-Semetarian butchers.  His resentment towards Semetarians appears justified to him based on what he perceives where he is at the time. In other words, his personal perception, not his logical reasoning, determines his working concept of reality.
  
  The reality this butcher does not recognise, but easily could, is that his conclusions came from incomplete or even invalid information.  He may never consider that his competitors are also missing their regular Semetarian customers.  It may be that the Semetarians will return after their fast and buy twice as much meat as on other weeks.  Others might have come through the shop this week and just not mentioned to him that they were Semetarian.  But if this butcher is unwilling to grasp a reality that transcends any one butchery in town, any one week in time, or any one group of people, his immediate, relevant, and personal perception may fix for him that the Semetarians are deliberately choosing to avoid his shop in particular.  Not understanding why, nor even comprehending that there may be a reason which has nothing to do with any subjective assessment of him or his shop, his reliance on personal perception alone can lead to an irrational resentment which could of course grow into something more socially reprehensible– and perhaps bad for his business, which would only exacerbate his resentment. 
   
  Of course it is entirely possible to prolong such a debate over perceived reality and absolute truth to the point where the minutest points about the concepts are bandied back and forth ad nauseum.  The focussed, most applicable reality is that thinking Man must accept that he might not have complete awareness of all realities affecting his existence at all times.  Rather than to accept as truth only what he can perceive and to act upon that assumption– for I cannot refer to it in any better terms– it is his duty to seek more data, especially that which his personal judgements may deem distasteful or disconcerting, before deciding what is and is not reality in the given case.  In the absence or unavailability of such definitive data, his only logical recourse is to accept that he simply cannot know for sure, no matter how discomforting that may be for him to admit.  It is when a man allows his own comfort, whether physical or intellectual, to shield him from acceptance of true reality that he casts off the one divinely-granted attribute which makes him Man in the first place.  Without the deliberate exercise of that marvellous Reason in situations which call for it, he is no better than a brute. 
   
  The secondary ignorance which results from modern Man’s utter dependence on his own personal perception would have irritated and incensed Descartes himself. To show even the barest modicum of respect to his idea, the least we can do is to stop misunderstanding or at least misapplying him– for our insistence that we understand only proclaims to the better enlightened that we certainly do not understand after all. As a certain more famous absolutist has said, 
   
  ‘If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but that ye say, ‘‘We see”, therefore your sin remaineth.’ –John 9: 41
  
  
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