Monday, March 5, 2018

How to Make Our Ideas Even Clearer

If there were only one of us, we could have whatever habits we liked – that is, we could believe whatever we liked, according to the very clear and useful working definition given by Peirce in his essay, ‘How to Make Our Ideas Clear’. If our habits were inconsistent with the working of the universe – if we persisted in eating poisonous mushrooms, or trusting in our telekinesis to hold us up should we slip while climbing – then the universe would sooner or later let us know, and put an end to us.

The fact that there are more than one of us makes it all much more complicated. ‘I’ and ‘the universe’ is a two-body problem, and therefore soluble: ‘I’ and ‘the universe’ and ‘thou’ is suddenly a three-body problem, and a whole different kettle of fish.
Facing the universe together, ‘I’ and ‘thou’ can see with a little bit of thought that our possible actions fall into two categories.

First, there are those that are susceptible to experimental investigation: where, by making sufficiently careful and thoughtful measurements and thinking about what they mean, we can iterate towards a picture of the universe in which it is clear that certain actions will kill us, and others will not. Using this as our pragmatic criterion of truth, we can step by step arrive at F = Gm1m2/r2 and the sequenced genome of Amanita phalloides.
Second, there are those actions not susceptible to experimental investigation, either because of the current limits of our powers, or because they are fundamentally unable to be investigated empirically. How ought ‘I’ and ‘thou’ to form our habits in these areas?

A great step towards how ‘I’ and ‘thou’ ought to behave towards each other can be determined using the imperative of Kant: “Act as if the maxims of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.”* In its essence, this maxim is simply the rejection of solipsism, the assumption of the averageness and non-uniqueness of the naked point of view that is ‘I’.
What does this imperative mean? It means, you assume that your action will be the action of all: so if you kill me, all men will die; if you rob me, no property is safe; if you lie, that no man’s word can be trusted; if you intoxicate yourself, that all the world will lie in a stupor at the mercy of the elements; if you have no children, that the race of men will end with your generation. This one axiom gives, as sure and certain as the elements of Euclid’s geometry, a pragmatic morality that maps brilliantly on to what C. S. Lewis called the ‘Tao’.

This leaves still a great part of the universe where iteration towards pragmatic truth is impossible with our current powers, or where our progress will not bring us to a usable model of reality in our lifetimes, or where ‘I’ and ‘thou’ will come to radically different conclusions when we apply the Kantian imperative to sense data. Even more importantly, there are questions which cannot be answered from any infinitely prolonged series of experimental investigations within the universe. It is obvious that the universe amenable to our empirical investigation is not a self-existent thing; it appears to have come into existence at some time in the past, and will cease to become interesting at some point in the distant future, and is clearly running along the iron rails of entropy. Something must have been self-existent; we know nothing about it and can know nothing about it by empirical investigation contained within our own space-time. We have no idea how many layers of reality lie between our ‘universe’ and the self-existent thing. We do not know whether our universe is representative of the greater ‘Universe’ or is as peculiar and anomalous as the surface of our world is to the vastness of space.  Of course, ‘I’ might say that the nature of the ‘Universe’ is irrelevant for any practical purpose; but ‘thou’ might say that it is not, and ‘thou’ would not be irrational in doing so, any more than someone who wishes to take into account factors outside the solar system (e.g., gamma ray bursts from the centre of the galaxy, like in that Fred Hoyle novel) in their modelling of Earth’s prehistory.
To return to the main point.  ‘I’ and ‘thou’ will find as we go through life many cases where we must act, but where we cannot determine what course of action to take either by empirical investigation nor by reference to a mutually-agreed upon interpretation of the ‘Tao’.  How are we to act in these situations?

There are two extreme ways of answering this question.
The first is to say that it does not matter, and that wherever there is no experimental evidence or clear guidance from an agreed-upon implementation of the Kantian imperative, we should do was as we please. This is the obvious answer from the viewpoint from our current civilisation, and surely would be the correct answer if we were starting with a blank slate, with a unanimous agreement that we had “a perfect duty not to act by maxims that result in logical contradiction when we attempt to universalise them” - and furthermore that we had come to the same conclusions as to the extent of universalisation (e. g., Kant did not see a need to universalise to non-humans; where do we draw the line between ‘us’ and the inanimate ‘them’? There are many places to draw the line, between the extreme drawn by the Jain prophets and the extreme drawn by Adolf Eichmann, who claimed at his trial to have lived his life according to the Kantian imperative) and to how we weight the severity of different logical contradictions, the importance of different counter-factuals, when we generalise our behaviour to be the behaviour of the whole community.

Those are very big ifs.  In a world that is not the world of More’s Utopia or Plato’s Republic or any of those other cockamamie schemes,  there will inevitably be (a) sociopaths who categorically reject the Kantian imperative; (b) people of varying degrees of empathy who will draw the lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’ differently; (c) people who have come to different conclusions, based on the absence of evidence one way or another and the different weighting they put on different flaws, on what to do when faced with a choice of actions that are less than perfect.
This is a roundabout way of saying that if we all do what we please, our community will founder on different interpretations of the details and implications of the moral code: such that we will never be able to act coherently. Unless, we are all fortunately very much the same. Thus an anarchic commune of people of the same social class, raised in the same culture, who have all been to the same schools and read the same books, might possibly function; but one where we pick random people from street corners in different cities around the world has no hope.

Beyond this, in the area of actions that are not wrong in themselves, we have a further problem with saying ‘do what you will’. If I chose to drive my car on the left hand side of the road, and you chose to drive yours on the right hand side; if I chose to indicate agreement by the sound ‘yes’ and you chose to indicate agreement by the sound ‘no’, then there is a clear problem. In this region of arbitrary decisions, we it is often vitally important for us to come to the same arbitrary decision. This means we need an authority to enforce arbitrary decisions.
I have often quoted with approval, and will continue to do so, these words attributed to Max Planck: “Experiments are the only means of knowledge at our disposal. Everything else is poetry, imagination.”  I also used to quote something I made up myself, which was: “Respect for authority is a disease, no different from the Venusian Gook Rot.” I came, at the relatively mature age of 45, to reject this statement, and began to seriously entertain the second possible answer to the question.

The second answer is this. In all areas of life that are not amenable to experimental investigation, the other answer is that we should in so far as it is possible submit to the same authority.
We should judge the validity of this authority by the degree that it does not make empirically verifiable statements, the degree that what it commands maps onto our understanding of the ‘Tao’, and the pragmatic criterion of how many of the rest of us in our environment are submitting to it.

Once we have done this, in doubtful cases we should submit to authority rather than our own understanding, since it is arrogant to presume the detailed working out of the implications of the ‘Tao’ is within the capacity of a single human being. In the words of Ignatius de Loyola: “What seems to me white, I will believe black if the hierarchical Church so defines.”
Give a choice, we should chose the authority that has the most comprehensive set of commands to define the ‘Tao’, that most effectively defends the ‘Tao’ against the innumerable factors that seek to undermine it, that most appeals to us as a work of poetry and imagination, that most respects the fact that ‘truth cannot contradict truth’ and so is silent wherever experimental investigation can provide answers to our questions. Then we should obey it if we possibly can, even to the least jot and tittle which may seem meaningless to our own intellect.

This is where I am now. Where answers can be obtained by experimental investigation, we require the maximum freedom, the minimum of attachment to preconceived ideas, the maximum disrespect for authority. Where answers cannot be obtained by experimental investigation, our duty is to be obedient, to cleave to the time-honoured traditions of our ancestors even if we cannot see the point of them, to show the maximum respect for authority, to silence dissent, to act like the philosophers Peirce holds up to scorn for making it their overriding priority to demonstrate that all observations are not incompatible with the authority we obey.
To the extent that we do this, we can be free to ‘do what we wilt’ in the cases that are not specified by authority, because we will have overcome the ‘ifs’ of the first case. Our authority will, if it is any good at all, have rejected sociopathy; it will have led us to the same boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’ ; and it will have given us guidelines that will ensure we place approximately the same weighting on various divergences from the Tao. Then, these conditions fulfilled, we can do what we will.

*: We first have a perfect duty not to act by maxims that result in logical contradictions when we attempt to universalize them. (Immanuel Kant) ; "Act as if the maxims of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature." (Kant, Immanuel (1993) [1785]. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by Ellington, James W. (3rd ed.). Hackett. p. 30. ISBN 0-87220-166-X. 4:421)


Nugifer said...

What if we ended up with two such authorities, of equal validity, that arose in a way where it was difficult to choose between them (e.g. without any contact with each other until it was too late)?

Should we count the number of adherents and all submit to the one with the most - even if the difference is a handful of people out of millions?
Or agree to live completely separately, so that where the authorities differ, we never have to be faced with the conflict?
Or just have to deal with the inevitability of conflict in such a situation, and make the best of the resulting diversity? (And perhaps time will tell if one was actually better.)

Chris Fellows said...

This is something I have been troubling myself over for a while, since what I have come up with here does seem to come perilously close to "cuius regio, eius religio" - if in practical terms we count the number of adherents to a particular authority who we are in contact with, in our village, province, or nation, that is where this seems to be leading us. :/

I think we should in so far as possible structure our institutions such that adherents to different authorities can live separately-while-together - i.e., so that as much as possible is left in the hands of each community and not managed by the state (something like the Osmanli millet system).

Personally it comes down to which authority maps best to my own understanding of the 'Tao' - I think the easy acceptance of divorce and failure to recognise that life begins at conception in Islam would rule it out for me, even if the 12th Imam returned and restored an effective central authority like the Papacy.