Thursday, October 7, 2010

What Is True, What Is Good

There is a nascent secular mass-movement brimming with men (and women) of words: the self-styled intellectuals. Eric Hoffer identified the conspicuous presence of such individuals as "The Temper of Our Time." Their business is a business of debunking, as is usual with all nascent mass-movements. The purpose of debunking is to disrupt the status quo, at which point there enters a towering need for new things.

What is it that these people debunk? It is a way of knowing. We are told that there is one proper way of knowing, which is called reason. This is not a new idea, merely a new movement for an old idea.

To know is to find truth, and we are taught to believe that to know the truth is to know the good. Evidence brings forth reason, which brings forth truth, which is the Good.

This last connection is never satisfactorily explained. I suppose this is because it is never explained at all. How is the truth the same as the good? This is supposed to be self-evident--an axiom of the movement--yet it is perfectly unclear. Man has known for hundreds of years, at least, that the true and the good are different things. We have come to think that the true we know, but the good we feel.

But there it is: Should we discover true laws of economics, the laws become holy. No one shall meddle. If we see a natural cause for a defect in the body, the defect itself becomes a sacred thing. If we gain the ability to create some new wonder, it must be done. If we achieve technology, it will save us. Progress is the sign of a god who is dead, or better yet, who is man.

Herein lies the abundant irony of the modern secular mass-movement, an irony that sets it apart from all other movements since the dawn of history. This new thing is apparently driven by activists who feel justified in their claims of the good simply by virtue of their method of discovering the true. They would like to legislate truth, mistaking it for goodness. This is a primitive mode of thinking; the very sort, in fact, which they seek to debunk!

It has not occurred to these intellectuals, when they speak of the Good, that they have cast aside their reason and have wholly entered the realm of those whom they despise.

Perhaps this is why they lack success. They have nothing new to offer besides a new religion.

I can't seem to find the right words to tell them this. After all, it is not easy to get through to the religiously minded with an appeal to reason.

8 comments:

Dave said...

You wrote, "Evidence brings forth reason, which brings forth truth, which is the Good."

This last connection may not be satisfactorily explained because it seems to me more likely that this line of thinking would follow:

There is no Good. There is only reason. The only assurance of reason is evidence.

A sense of empowerment, in a stormy sea devoid of Good and Bad, therefore comes from having secure footing on a bedrock of reason.

[SOAPBOX] I see the philosophical flaw in this reasoning in that the only sense of empowerment comes from becoming a disciple of an external point of perfect objectivity -- which some may see as materialism, and others may see as divine Rule. I argue there is no such external point of perfect objectivity, but rather, there is awareness of omniscience, of all-being, and that all exists within. Therefore, empowerment comes from conscientiously choosing, and defining, and thereby creating.[/SOAPBOX]

The strife is in an attempt to define the objective.

Peter McCombs said...

Simmel indicates that it doesn't matter what the nature of reality is: "Even if we presuppose that the whole of objective reality is determined by the functions of our mind, we still identify as intelligence those functions of our mind through which reality appears to us as objective in the specific sense of the word..."

Suppose we accept the rationalist position that empirical reality can be doubted, or even your more extreme position that denies external reality altogether. Nevertheless, an inward state that operates as if there were such a thing as objective reality is still indistinguishable from the same state representing a reflection of true external reality.

When one then chooses, defines, and creates, an objectivity is either acknowledged or imagined. A duality is present whether reality is objective or not.

At the moment of intellectual action, the individual has entered the realm of perceived truth.

At the moment of emotive action, the individual has entered the realm of the good.

In the realm of truth, there can be no volition or personality, for "the differentiation of behavior is governed only by its objective expediency, not by personal passion." The individual is interested only in means and has no other purpose.

Furthermore, "the intellect possesses a leveling, one might almost say communistic, character... if we presuppose its correctness, every sufficiently trained mind must be open to persuasion by it."

And yet, "this intellectuality itself is, however, based on a deep religious feeling..."

Dave said...

You said, "Nevertheless, an inward state that operates as if there were such a thing as objective reality is still indistinguishable from the same state representing a reflection of true external reality ... A duality is present whether reality is objective or not."

I agree (although perhaps duality is too limited a word). It is essentially the same thing, but the subtleties of inward vs. outward influence the philosophical approach.

My main objection is that a more outward approach will sometimes take the stance that the inward self is incapable or otherwise too inept to arrive at a satisfactory understanding of this "objectivity", and seeks reinforcement through external validation.

I also agree with what you say about emotive and intellectual action and their prospective realms -- in this light, going back to what I said before, I believe "Evidence brings forth reason, which brings forth truth, which is the Good" isn't accurate in that the reasoning goes too far: there is no Good. There is only -- for these (somewhat nebulously described) intellectuals -- the realm of perceived truth. Perhaps, as humans, they are incapable of truly belonging to only one realm, and therefore begin to attribute emotional aspects improperly to the realm of truth, but it seems the difficulty is in their inability to acknowledge more than the Truth exists.

Lastly, how is "this intellectuality itself is, however, based on a deep religious feeling..."? That seems odd to me.

Peter McCombs said...

This discussion has some relationship to the study of comparative religion that Jodi and I are presently undertaking (you would be, I think, very interested in the lectures).

It turns out that the Hindus have this idea of the māyā. According to the Hindu belief, recorded in the Upaniṣads, the māyā is what causes us to perceive being as a plurality instead of as a unity. Only within this false awareness of plurality can the self be distinguished at all, and this is what keeps us tied to the eternal cycle of samsāra (death, birth, suffering, and re-death). As I understand it, it is only when one recognizes that there is no self as such, that one can escape the bonds of samsāra and return to God, who is ultimate reality.

Christian orthodoxy has similar ideas, particularly in theology influenced by neo-platonism. Paul Tillich was a Christian existentialist theologian whose name keeps popping up as I study eastern religion. I find it fascinating how some ideas common in Western philosophy are also found in Eastern philosophy and religion. Thinkers during the Axial age were coming to very similar conclusions, or perhaps somehow they managed to influence each other.

Anyway, within the Hindu samsāra, we live a lie. The lie is governed by karma (action); it can be a pleasant lie when our actions are pure, but it is still a lie. You might think of this lie as the "externality" that controls behavior within the castes. The oppressed Dalits will often self-regulate in order to preserve and increase their karma for the next life. Jodi and I had quite a discussion on this topic, as it relates to Marx's failed theory that the oppressed classes must eventually revolt. In fact, Indian society has been remarkably stable in spite of an enormous disparity in classes of people.

I found it interesting that Buddhism takes this Hindu idea of self-negation to an extreme, insofar as the Buddhist's ultimate escape from samsāra is actually a total personal annihilation (nirvana).

Spinoza's philosophy was monistic and very mystical in this same manner, but Simmel actually considers Spinoza to be a most objective philosopher for whom "every single act of inwardness is required to be a harmonious continuation of the inevitability of existence; nowhere are the incalculabilities of individuality allowed to break through the logical-mathematical structure of the unity of the world." So you see, for Spinoza, even though reality is a unity, mere understanding is itself sufficient to fulfill its own demands. That's the intellectual mode.

As you suggest, this monistic philosophy is not enough in itself to bring about a sense of empowerment. If we believe the predominantly religious traditions, the self and its volition is entirely subsumed in ultimate reality and is forgotten. If we believe Spinoza, right living comes through the intellect and the rational love of God, in which volition is equally destroyed by a priori expedients. It appears that empowerment, as you use the word, can only exist in this in-between realm of plurality where the will can be exercised and where reason, evidence, and emotion are all present in the milieu.

This, then, is the answer to your question of how intellectuality itself can be based on a deep religious feeling. You allude to the answer yourself when you say, of intellectuals, that "...they are incapable of truly belonging to only one realm, and therefore begin to attribute emotional aspects improperly to the realm of truth." That is an apt description of Scientism or secular humanism (more correctly "secular individualism") as they exist today--movements that are ironically the most deluded of all.

Dave said...

Huh. That was a cool comment. Yes, I would enjoy those lectures, no doubt.

I am familiar with these concepts -- the Hindu concepts are very, very eerie-similar to my perception of things. I think of samsāra as an iteration. Breaking out of the iteration leads to further creative complexity. But I have friction with elements of Hindu concepts as well -- life is not a lie so much as an illusion, but even then, for all intents and purposes is still real. Also, life is not necessarily about suffering. Lastly, I think the goal is not to escape the bonds of samsāra so much as to recognize the reason for engaging with it and creating it. It's well and good to transcend and be with God, but then what're you going to do?

I think a lot of New Age ideas are borrowed from Eastern concepts, and then poorly explained (sprinkled with psychic powers and archangels and whatever you want).

Spinoza I'd agree with if I was that much intellect, which I'm not.

Nirvana is nonsense, but whatever.

It's also interesting what you say about the conditions of empowerment in plurality and the exercise of will ... plurality is indeed necessary for these things. It explains so much.

Secular humanism is also interesting, especially in the context I have being in Art History -- how humanist philosophy influenced the art of the Classical Greek compared with the humanizing philosophy of the Hellenist Greek. It's strange to me how Reason versus Emotion play out, attempting to balance, and how the cultural view, and value, of this affects everything.

I think Scientism is a perfectly valid philosophy for a robot -- but I wouldn't program a robot to follow it. Consider Asimov's Laws on the matter in the context of pure reason versus emotion (and humanity).

Dave said...

I'm still not feeling closure ...

I re-read the title and got a better grasp of the argument.

True != Good

True is binary and wholly of the realm of reason. Good is much more complex and impossible to define the essence of with reason -- although much attempt is made anyway, i.e. "altruism is a function to improve the survival of a group."

I think you can break down and dissect an instance of Good into binary code, but this completely misses the forest for the trees. It sees the components, but not the function.

if(A){
A = Good
}

I can't write code anymore. Everything that is True is also Good. What are the perils of such a statement? Or am I drawing a faulty analogy?

Peter McCombs said...

Dr. Mark Muesse said something that I thought was really interesting. He talked about those pages we sometimes see in technical manuals and textbooks that would have been blank if not for the words written on them that say, "This page intentionally left blank." Simply by stating the truth, it was turned into a lie--those pages aren't really blank at all, are they?

Some truth becomes a distortion when we attempt to define its boundaries.

And some truth-tellers are utterly tiresome. We often punish the tattler more than the person whose guilt is revealed. It's the same for gossip; some people seem to feel that the truth of their speech justifies, and even demands, its disclosure. Then why such discretion? Because somehow we hold gossipers in contempt.

It seems to me that we Christians would love Jesus less if he were merely divine. It is no surprise that the docetic phantasm of Christ, who never died, was shortly forgotten. But the person of Christ who suffered and died as a human being--he has no shortage of devoted followers.

I would rather confess weakness to a reformed sinner than to a man, so far superior to me, who had never done anything wrong. I'm probably not alone in that sentiment. Sometimes truth is uncomfortable--even painful.

We fully recognize the truth of justice, but we often feel more sanctified when we overcome it and extend mercy instead.

I might utter a truth today that is a falsehood tomorrow. There is conditional truth and contextual truth.

After this brief reflection, it appears to me that truth and goodness are miles apart from each other. It is a fine thing to find some point where they intersect.

You know, I belong to a church where we stand up once a month and declare to each other that we have come to know the Truth. Nobody ever stands up and claims they came to know the Good. Why is that?

We sense an affinity between truth and goodness. It must make us think, sometimes, that these two things are really the same.

Dave said...

Truth is justification. If you know the Truth, then you are justified. You are right. Everyone wants to be reassured that they are right.

That's one of the things that appeals to me in Existentialism: your personal philosophy requires you to have a spine. You can never be assured that you are right, because there is no outside justification.

For some people God seems to be the prime defender of one's beliefs (whatever that may be). God is there to provide justification. This annoys me. It's an excuse to attempt to deny your freedom (and responsibility) to choose.

If you're going to act, take responsibility for your actions and your reasons for acting, instead of just acting in whatever way you think best answers "WWJD?"

In this case, perhaps Truth = being right, which = Good.