Friday, February 19, 2016

Beyond desiderative reason (next steps in my philosophical journey)

Well, well, well. As announced in my latest post, Wednesday of last week I finally defended my dissertation, to great public and critic’s acclaim, and finally earned my Ph. D (so now you can officially call me “doctor vintage rocker”, thank you very much, although plain ol’ “doc” probably would do just as well). I’ll probably devote a later post to how it went, what the judges said (very level-headed criticism, which I agree with and which will surely help me become a finer writer and subtler thinker) and how I responded, as there are some lessons there that can be useful for the next generation of postgrad students (not that I believe there are so many of those between my readers, but you never can tell).

What I wanted to dwell on in this post is how I see my thought evolving in the next years, and probably share with you the most likely content of my second book. Of course, some words about my first book are in order prior to that. Because, of course, the immediate task I have in front of me is to rehash the dissertation so it becomes a readable volume, which I can present to real-life editors for publication. That means getting rid of two thirds of the bibliography and about as much of the footnotes (the remaining ones will be moved to the bottom of the pages where they appear instead of being all of them at the end like they are now), and most likely a thorough overall “lightening and tightening” of the main storyline, so I don’t digress so much, I substantially reduce (or outright eliminate) every side argument that doesn’t contribute to the story I’m telling and I get rid of all the “monstrous paragraphs” of over 250 words without a single colon, and of nested conditionals where parentheses, hyphens and commas succeed one another so by the middle of the sentence it is almost impossible (unless one has been blessed with a preternatural ability to concentrate and follow hyper-abstruse arguments) to know what the hell I was talking about.  I think that stylistic clearing will take me two or three months (if I can muster the energy and discipline to keep on working diligently in what until last week I considered basically a finished project, but that shouldn’t be much of a problem), so around May-June I should be in a position to start showing the “Critique of Desiderative Reason” (I’ve gained enough confidence as to drop the “Elements” of the title, there is not much left to criticize outside of the almost 500 pages I’ve produced) to prospective editors and even present it to some literary prize (in the category of essay, nobody would mistake it for a novel though).

What comes after that? Well, I’ve not discarded to start formally studying another field, be it entirely new (I definitely would enjoy knowing more advanced mathematics, but I find learning them difficult to compatibilize with pursuing my professional career as engineer and a modicum of family life) or related with what I’ve been learning these last seven years (both History, Economics and Psychology would dovetail nicely, in different ways, with my current “theory of everything”). Of course, on top of that I intend to learn to weightlift competently (but I have to undergo surgery to reattach my left bicep tendon to the bone) and possibly to box…

So as usual I’ll need to set some priorities, and pursue some of those interests slowly and intermittently, and devote more time to others, no big deal, it is called life and I hope to keep juggling conflicting passions to the day I die. Back to my philosophical development, then, and the book I’ll start to write right after I have the “critique” ready for publication. Preliminary title: “beyond desiderative reason” (not very original, I know, just building atop what I already have). Tentative contents:

Part I: In how deep a doo-doo are we?

·         Stating the problem: man can’t think entirely outside the dominant reason he has been brought up in. For us, that is desiderative reason (that imply that the only rational way of behaving is following the three commandments stated in this post: definition of desiderative reason), and as much as we recoil in horror when we first learn of it, we must admit that to gain legitimacy (and support from the majority) any discourse that does not conform to such commandments must present a coherent set of guidelines regarding what the ultimate purpose of life is, what criteria should be used for determining the social hierarchy and what desires are socially acceptable that not only results more appealing than the current set, but allows the society that embraces them to prosper (according to its own internal definition of prosperity) more than the current one (which is, let’s not forget, incredibly prosperous and incredibly miserable at the same time).

·         Desiderative reason’s ledger: but why do we need to think an alternative set of values at all? We are living a true golden age, when violence is declining (see The Better Angels of our Nature by Pinker), and although developed economies have been in a rough spot almost since the 70’s, in that time overall poverty (albeit only in some parts) in the rest of the world has been substantially reduced, so although inside each nation inequality has increased, for the whole of the planet it has decreased, and it can be credibly argued that we live in a more just, more fair world than what has been the historical norm. Wouldn’t it be better, then, to accept that as a species we” never had it so good” and to embrace the dominant reason that has served us well up to now and that has been instrumental in bringing us to this point? I don’t think so because a) we have it so good by borrowing heavily against future generations, to which we are bestowing a “filthy dump” of a planet (the Pope’s words, not mine), which is morally unacceptable –let’s call this the problem of sustainability; b) we have it so good that we are collectively choosing not to have more babies, which can only be understood as meaning that for the vast majority in the end life is not worth living, so why transmit it –let’s call this the problem of reproducibility; and c) we have it so good if we compare our current social life with the abysmal record of our predatory past, but were we to compare it with how our conscience tells us things should be, we don’t have it so good at all (with children dying in the third world of easily preventable diseases, occasional famines, wars, drug addiction and mental problems going untreated, lousy education for many, overall squalor of crumbling infrastructures for the many amidst shining walled enclaves for the few even in the first world… the list goes on and on and on) –let’s call this the problem of the unmet standards. As I have argued elsewhere, those three problems are not accessory to our society, and thus amenable to be solved within the current dominant reason. They have arisen, and are much aggravated, precisely because the dominant reason can’t fail to produce and aggravate them. If we want a society that is sustainable, reproduces itself and is able to meet its own moral standards we have to reject desiderative reason altogether, and replace it with something better.

·         Desiderative reason’s constraints: this should be the real linchpin of the book, as I’ll argue that the three problems rendered insoluble by our embrace of our form of dominant reason derive their intractability of the following features: a) monist materialism, which leaves no space for recognizing the reality of values (values being a kind of ideas entirely supervenient on their material substrate, thus both causally and explanatorily redundant), and hence closes any way for solving the sustainability problem (there being no values, there is no way to adjudicate rationally between the claims of the presently living and of those not yet born, so it is not surprising that the former are taking all for themselves); b) naturalism, as a life that is just the chance product of a mechanistic universe that happens to be so is not just purposeless, but also not worthy of being transmitted; and c) determinism, as if we have no free will at all there is no point in even trying to build a society that approximates more our moral standards. Furthermore, a) and b) and c) (and the fact that it behaviorally it clings to a consequentialist ethic) are necessarily caused by d) its epistemological empiricism, that presents as plausible only those material entities that can be posited as a deterministic cause (and again makes problematic any talk of subject independent values). Nothing new so far: within the parameters of desiderative reason the three problems are truly unsolvable, and we are in deep doo-doo indeed, and that’s why desiderative reason has to be superseded.

Part II: What do I know? What can I know?

·         The universal solvent: since the early Enlightenment rationalism (which would formulate what ended up being the dominant ontology, materialist monism) eroded the belief in a transcendent reality by plausibly showing how the belief in such reality came to be in entirely natural terms. Now we have seen that rationalism itself came to be by equally suspect means, gaining acceptance not because it somehow described “better” the external reality, but because it helped the societies that adopted it produce more material goods, and thus field better equipped armies, and thus dominate anybody having any alternate belief. “Truth” understood simply as “in accordance with extra-mental reality” didn’t enter in the equation, so we shouldn’t expect such system to be any more “true” than any other. As has been repeatedly documented, the project of a universal reason that rejected any insufficiently founded belief ends up devouring itself, is internally inconsistent and shows itself to be as insufficiently founded as any other historically justified system of beliefs.

·         Two magisteria: Does that mean we should accept skepticism as the only coherent worldview? Far from it. The history of science and the convergence between the predictions (and the observations) of its different branches gives us hope that there is an “observer independent” reality that we can understand. Now the fact that such reality is understandable is but a hope, and can not be substantiated by science itself. We will see later on to what extent our belief in the validity of such understanding is warranted, but we need first to complete our analysis of what a legitimate epistemology can tell us about the world. At this point it is enough to show that as what we will call scientific enterprise has been spectacularly successful in improving our knowledge of certain fields of reality (essentially matter), the attempt to extend its methodology to other fields has been a similarly spectacular failure: economics, sociology, politics, psychology.

·         The God that failed: Such failure stems from the attempt to a) reduce the mental to a manifestation of its material substrate (the neurons that constitute the brains in which thinking and feeling supposedly take place) and b) reduce collective behavior to an aggregate of individual behaviors, each individual behavior understood along the previous lines (as that of a mechanical maximizer of a ghostly quality called “pleasure” that for some obscure reason nobody has been able to measure or compare to a set standard). a) explains the failure of any attempt to formulate a “scientific psychology”, and b) (based on a)) the failure to formulate a similarly “scientific” economics, politics or sociology.

Part III: What is really out there?

·         What do we think of when we think of pi? Escaping from the conundrum exposed in the previous section requires that we give a second look at what we believe is a legitimate object of inquiry and susceptible of being agreed upon. It starts rejecting mathematical constructivism and embracing certain foundationalism (mathematics as a discovery of independently existing entities, which smacks of Platonism and is as shunned by physicists as secretly espoused by mathematicians). My contention will be that sets, and numbers and, yes, the number pi, are as existing and as real as atoms, and molecules, and bricks.

·         Who is it that does the thinking, anyway? Now we have argued that there may be more in the universe that “stuff” we can more convincingly make the case that numbers are not the only non material (“non stuffy”) thing out there. There are also minds, distinct and irreducible to the neurons and neurotransmitters and other gooey stuff that support them. I will begin arguing from a reductio ad absurdum: to negate the independent existence of minds require us to negate the most immediate datum we have in front of us, the very fact that we are conscious. That is indeed absurd, and we have given it some credence because it was packaged with some other sets of beliefs that seemed reasonable as long as the scientific method was accepted as the sole criterion to separate true from false (things like materialist monism, remember). But the more we become conscious of the failings of such beliefs (the inability of psychology, economics, politics and sociology to cohere as a unified corpus describing a mind-independent reality or produce a falsable and replicable set of experimental validations of their core tenets, the inability to replicate consciousness in material substrates, much as we hype and exaggerate the achievements of AI research, the inability, in sum, to solve any of the three problems of desiderative reason from within) the more we should recognize the cognitive dissonance of such position (that states that we are not really conscious at all, and consciousness itself is but an elaborate illusion we should renounce) and abandon it as untenable.

·         My mind, other minds, who cares? So if we accept the existence of our own mind as distinct from matter we gain something (we can understand how it can be free but not random, separated by the causal chain that inexorably links all material events but still heavily influenced by it) but a whole new (or not so new) set of problems arise: how does that mind interact (has causal efficiency) with matter? How warranted is our belief in other minds distinct from our own (the problem of solipsism)? Is mind enough to bestow value? What is value, anyway? We will be able to point towards the solution of some of those, but probably not all: the definition of mind we propose (and what makes it irreducible to matter) is precisely that it cares, it judges that some states of affairs have importance, merit attention, effort, concern. Thus it values those states of affairs, and can wish for them to be preserved, or to evolve in certain directions. Such caring and valuing are the essence of consciousness, inseparable from it, and we will show that any attempt to reduce them to a side effect amenable to regular laws not only has failed (Hume and his mechanistic explanation of the arousal of emotions, and of course also Freud and his “cathexis” of “neuronic energy”) but has necessarily to fail.

Part IV: Is there something more (than what is really out there)?

·         Why does reality seem rational (understandable)? Nope, evolution doesn’t even begin to explain it. The appearance of design beyond the biological world: our minds as necessarily the image of the mind of an original designer (and the fine tuning argument). Some common alternative explanations: the infinite regression of a) the universe as a simulation b) multiple universes.

·         God so what? Even if belief in that original designer is warranted, what else can we deduce from such warrant? Surprisingly little. Theodicy and revealed religion. The consequence for ethics.

Part V: Putting it all together. The post-desiderative society

Guys, I haven’t yet thought this one out (although I would be surprised if I were led to somewhere very different from my Anarcho traditionalist manifesto and my ideal society of the future…) however, the layout is clear enough, it sounds like a lot of fun (duh! These were the problems that were constantly in the back of my mind while I was researching and writing the “Critique”, no shit Sherlock I find them fascinating) so it seems like I’ve already found what I’ll be doing for the next few years!  

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