Friday, March 26, 2010

First Principles

Last weekend I met up with an old college friend to play Go and hang out. We ended up playing less than planned and instead arguing philosophy for five hours or so. In the ten years I've known him his opinions and lifestyle have undergone a radical shift: he's gone from being a Washington State conservative creationist evangelical to an enthusiastic but temporary Episcopalian to a Washington D.C. liberal materialist atheist. This particular night the discussion began when he casually mentioned that he wished it had been made clear in our undergraduate program that pretty much all of pre-20th century philosophy had been decisively refuted by modern science. After this a lot of conversation was spent with him simply delineating his new positions and with me trying to find some first principles we could agree on which could constitute a starting-point for a real debate. In the end I couldn't find any.

This was rather disturbing and I had a very odd feeling throughout the conversation. Here was an old and close friend telling me that he couldn't admit it as true in any strong sense that there was a tree outside the window, or that the conventional notion of a 'tree' had any extramental correlate, since what we called a tree was simply an arbitrary bundling together of those aspects of sensible phenomena which happened to interest us at a given moment; that there was no unity in the object itself, since there was no object itself, since all self-identity was an illusion; that there was no true identity of any kind, and that every single aspect of the world was simply in constant flux, and so we couldn't identify the unity of an object by the unity or continuity of its operations, since these were also illusory; that therefore the continuity of motion and the unity or identity of any act also had to be abandoned; and, finally, that he knew all this beyond any doubt because it had been established by "Science".

I tried to suggest that if all this were true then the foundations of science would themselves be undermined, and with them all his confidence in what "Science" supposedly teaches, but he didn't bite. Sure, science is just a series of useful stories we tell ourselves in order to render the world more functional - so what? They're the best stories we have, and they work just fine. I suggested that his picture of the world reduced literally everything to absurdity, including the meaningfulness of calling something an illusion when there is no "me" from moment to moment to have the illusion and no definite and intelligible reality for me to have illusion about: nowhere to see through the illusion to. He was unfazed. Yes, that's the way things are. Since what we call "thought" is simply an algorithm executed by our brains for maximum consciousness-efficiency, why should we expect it to have some correspondence to reality?

So I have to admit that I'm not a good enough Socrates to get anywhere beyond this. What do you do when your interlocutor doesn't mind if his position is, by any reasonable standard, absurd? After hours of argument I couldn't find a single thing we could both agree was true. Not even "I am thinking this thought" or "The people having this conversation now are the same people who were having it an hour ago." I'm tempted to say that at this point there is simply a philosophical breakdown, that there is nowhere to go from here.


Lee Faber said...

Since his views themselves seem always to be evolving, the next logical step would seem to me to be to embrace Parmenides. Or is that all modern materialism is, Parmenideanism without the one?

Michael said...

Parmenideanism only comes when the Heraclitean thesis transforms into its antithesis as the Hegelian dialectic plays out. In other words, I have no idea.

Woppodie said...

What about first attempting to get him to agree to the Law of Noncontradiction and the fact that one can validly prove something? If he cannot agree to even those, hit him. Hard. He needs it.

Then you should nail down what truth means with him, and show it entails correspondence with reality. If he falls back on his scientism stating such and such about neuro-pathways or some such garbage, ask him how he knows that is true. Perhaps Cartesian skepticism would clear the bogus philosophy that he has now away and allow him to start again on better foundations. If he just leaves some scientistic proposition hanging without justification, then hit him again.

Woppodie said...

The more I think about this sort of case the more I think that you have indeed reached the limits of philosophy with him.
You might want to try a more Chestertonian approach (p 78-88).

Woppodie said...

Whoops, the actual link is here.

G. Kyle Essary said...

What makes these situations hard (I've had a very similar one myself with a former student), is that you care so much for the person! I'm sorry that your friend has gone down this route and I hope (and pray) that somehow he will find the footing to return to proper (Godly) thinking with proper (Godly) foundations.

Brother Charles said...

Exactly the sort of (ironically) unscientific vertigo that led me to the faith!I hope you stay friends.

Brother Charles said...

In principio primum principium...invoco

Scott Williams said...

Did you ask him what he meant by a 'narrative' or 'collection', or 'voluntary collection', or 'illusion'? There are at least two sorts of stances: a responsive one, and a constructive one. If he's merely denying whatever you say, that's one thing; but if he's building a case for how you should understand things, that's another thing. If the former, then he's boring. If the latter, then he's got some consistency issues.

Anonymous said...

Science has refuted all of the philosophy before the 20th century? The difference between ontological and categorical relations? The differing doctrines on whether exemplar causes are formal or efficient? The order of the species of quality? the dispute about whether words signify thoughts or things? The importance of the senses simplicter and secundum quid per se and per accidens, dici de omni, per se, primo? The doctrine that the predicate signifies formally? The claim that being does not admit of a genus, or truth of a distinction from "other" or the transcendental and numerical one? Did it prove there was no distinction in ratio between the road to Athens and the road to Thebes?

When it refuted Parmenides, Aristotle, and Heraclitus, what was left?

You get the point.

James Chastek

Anthony said...

To be flip: Been there, believed that.

It is nihilism, a sort of modern, secular update of Nietzsche, whose posthumous epigones have been saying this kind of thing for decades. It has just reached the halls of the Anglophone academy. Actually to live believing in it is psychologically disturbing and spiritually ruinous -- at least, I think, for most people. Perhaps your friend is an exception.

Anthony said...

I'm sorry my first comment wasn't very helpful, by the way. It's just that I think this attitude can't really be argued away; it can only be diagnosed. It's almost like a sickness, a habitual mode of thinking that needs something like cognitive therapy. When myself suffering from this sickness, I don't see how I could have been convinced philosophically that I was wrong, even though I knew that, according to my own view, it was actually impossible even to formulate that view with word or thought.

Michael said...

Mr Chastek,

My friend said that he was inclined to the Wittgensteinean notion that all such talk should be understood as "language games", lacking ultimately meaningful content, and hence could be dismissed. He also admitted that he had not read any Wittgenstein.

Mr Essary is correct in that much of the difficulty is wrapped up in the fact that this is a very old, good friend of mine I care about. I certainly don't want to "hit him hard," as Woppodie put it, or to "argue for victory," as Johnson put it, because the chances of Pyrrhic victory are too high. In fact in the conversation I'm talking about (of course I can only give the merest synopsis of a discussion that, as I said, went on for hours) I was worried I might already be hitting him too hard. I don't want to insult my friend, who is not an academic and hasn't formally studied philosophy since he got his B.A. years ago. I'm just genuinely wondering where to go next, or if it's a good idea to go anywhere. The philosophical issues are so wrapped up in his abandonment of Christianity, with all the personal and emotional elements that that entails, that I'm afraid of pushing certain lines of argument very hard at the present point.

One thing that occurred to me was to give him Sokolowski's Introduction to Phenomenology. Sometimes the best way to get over a mental sticking-point is not either more rhetoric or more arguments, but a way to see things in an entirely new light. One of the virtues of Husserlian phenomenological analysis, in my opinion, is that it makes reductive atomism very, very difficult to hold onto; indeed I think a decent dose of epoche and contemplation of subjectivity can help to make it literally unthinkable, whatever limitations phenomenology has a complete philosophy. It has the added bonus of being religion- and ethics-neutral, which is an important point here.

I appreciate the comments so far and would be glad of any comments about this suggestion.

Michael said...

Anthony says, I think this attitude can't really be argued away; it can only be diagnosed.

I think that's right, and another reason the phenomenological tactic appeals to me. Phenomenology is not so good at argument, but it can be very good at bringing to light things that ought to be self-evident.

Anonymous said...

"They're the best stories we have, and they work just fine."

One such story is evolution. But as Chastek asks, "What evolves"? Your friend seems to think there is nothing to evolve. Therefore, the stories of science are not much good after all.

Also, you might ask him what "best" and "work" mean since these are meaningless metaphysical terms?

O.P. said...


Curious, is this friend by chance the very same who is amongst those that comprise the uncanny cast of writers at Monadology, a blog that long ago was graced by your once eloquent writing?

Also, any chance that when you've ultimately achieved your doctorate, you could provide snippets of your thesis on The Smithy?

Best of luck, 'Dr.' M.!

P.S. Remember, science tells us atoms are merely vertices of energy -- nothing more; hence, everything that exists which consists of nothing more than these (i.e., nothing really concrete) can, by modern-day understanding, be easily construed as quite simply 'illusion'.

Besides, even that classic Heraclitean sense of flux and change can be reason enough to foster the perspective that renders the world as nothing really permanent, where 'truth' itself is really nothing more than illusory.

Reality really has no common referent since objects perceived are really nothing more than what one believes to be seeing.

James said...


Wittgenstein admitted to not reading any Aristotle too, so, like father like son.

And Wittgenstein only though all that because he was confused about matter and form (how does a sound get a signification?), and he overlooked the modes of signification. It's completely evident if you read the "five red apples" or "slab" example and reflect on his critique of Augustine.

(did I just say something true, or false? Oh well. Thomists like me tend to respond to any critique by saying it fails to notice some distinction.)

Human beings evolved more to learn by role modeling than by reading or argument, so a big part of teaching anyone is just modeling the role of what a reasonable person should talk like and act. It makes a difference. Your example really helps and has an effect on the people you speak with.

But it's also true that Christ never gave a sermon to the high priests. God himself didn't spend the words to bring them around: "they will only turn on you and trample you to pieces"

James Chastek

O.P. said...

Dr. Chastek:

"But it's also true that Christ never gave a sermon to the high priests. God himself didn't spend the words to bring them around: 'they will only turn on you and trample you to pieces'"

I don't think that's quite true.

After all, whenever Christ preached, the high priests were there present.

I would think that Christ was preaching as much to them as He did to the crowds.

I believe this was why all the more Christ, at the end, was particularly upset with them because He, understandably, expected more from those who sit at Moses' Seat.

Of course, now that Seat as Peter's (and his Successor).

Christ doesn't ever give up on anybody, even though we might.

Acolyte4236 said...


You keep trying to pull him up to heaven so to speak and its clear he doesn't want to go and will slap away your invitations.

I'd recommend going the other route, namely pulling him down to hell. His position seems to be vulnerable to implying ethical and epistemological nihilism. If that is so, then he has placed himself beyond the event horizon of reason. Science is not really something he can appeal to at that point. If nihilism he wants, then nihilism is what he should get.

Crude said...

I suspect Lee Faber may be hinting at the right tact straightaway: The guy has apparently had radical changes in outlook over the past ten years. Why suppose that he's now permanently locked into the view he holds? Maybe the only thing to do here is to do nothing.

But I suspect, as others seem to as well, this may not be a question of 'how to reason with him' so much as a sadness when someone close to us walks down this road. Given the summary of what this friend said, actually arguing is as off the table with him as with a full-blown solipsist. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that if his words were accurately presented here -- "Science has proven.." and then "But science is just a collection of useful stories.." but the only things stories can be useful to are illusions, and no one experiences illusions because there are no "Me"s or "other"s existing.. -- then solipsism would be an improvement. There you'd at least likely have someone who agrees there's a self who can reason and be reasoned with.

Christian said...

I think you went about the wrong way in trying to show that some things were. Pretty much all of Aristotelian philosophy can be derived from the principle of non-contradiction. You should start with that. Because it is THE first principle one cannot argue for or against it. It just is. They only way to prove it is to simply ask if the other person can offer any refutation of it. These attacks can then be refuted. Thus your point is proved. Just read up on the flaws of Kant, Hume, Hegel etc a lot before hand!