Monday, March 27, 2017

Descartes' Angelus Novus

1.1 The terms a priori and a posteriori indicate a difference in epistemic warrant that has purchase throughout our linguistic culture. G.E. Moore circled this difference with his open question: X may be pleasurable, but is it good?—and we can pump an analogous difference by asking of warrant per se, noting well that something might be justified but that this doesn’t mean the idea, or whatever, is true. In juridical terms it is possible to ask of any law, whether it is in fact right. All these points are grounded in the belief that Truth doesn't depend on whatever you may you think of it (or even anything you make of it--making it inaccessible); Reality isn’t whatever you want it to be, one might say; if something is true, it is true come what may, as Quine might say (differently). If something is right, it was always right. And so on.

From this question of truth, the anxiety of (sterilized) doubt quickly arrives. What if everything (or anything) we believe is wrong? Truth (the kingdom of God?) opens up in our discourse to shatter our epistemologies, forcing us to provide better reasons, that then could again be questioned, or perhaps, force us to figure the notion in a way that escapes open questioning altogether. In another register we might say, Derrida’s impossible (quasi-transcendental) could never break out of doubt because it was always messianic in the sense of an arrival of whatever. My immodest claim is that Descartes' messianic moment of truth may very well be intended to overcome a demonological moment of doubt.

1.11 Descartes’ skeptic was such an a priori move. Looking for a certainty for experience, he noted that what couldn't be doubted was that, in the event one is doubting, that one is actually doubting. I might doubt that I believe the assertion that “this is an indexed statement”; and I can doubt (t1) that I was then (t1-1) in a (de re) moment of doubt; but in the propositional attitude of doubt that x (tn), whatever X, doubt is legitimate and unassailable. All of this reasoning already begs the question of course in that Descartes presumed space to be made up of points that are unextended; that souls occupy space (have place (topos)) without being extended, and that therefore, consciousness itself, in a moment, doesn't permit simultaneous doubt. The argument, of course, can be justified by making the following seemingly true considerations: I can always doubt the past; I can even doubt that I was doubting in the past; but in a moment of doubting whatever, I cannot doubt the doubt in that moment. There is no supervenience here! I might very well turn to represent the previous moment and doubt that I was doubting (supervenience); but this then pushes Descartes' almost trivial point one step back. In the moment of doubt towards X, the doubt that I have is not something I can doubt; in the moment of having had doubt, I can doubt that I had it, but not that I am doubting the previous moment. 

1.111 The ontology of experience is tricky, especially if we consider that what we are talking about is meant to be conceived as prior to experience. What is the experience of doubt if not fully in experience? Perhaps the supervenient point is always made and the reality of the moment that Descartes relies upon to pull the trick is completely illusory. And yet it seems intuitive that in the moment of having had doubt, I can doubt that I had it, but not that I am doubting the previous moment. Nevertheless, it is hard to picture how this comes down to as being prior to experience. The sense of some event of thinking being prior to experience is difficult to understand (because thinking is an experience, of course!). In any event, perhaps what Descartes was trying to say was that it would be irrational to suppose that a demon would have an agenda of making us doubt that we are doubting. Or perhaps what Descartes was saying was that only God (Rationality) could pull us out of doubt. (And that this wasn't an idol). This is the tension I wish to explore: If God saves rationality, was the rational proof above obviously weak?

1.12 The argument that there is reason to doubt everything is a difficult one to make. In fact, it is clear enough that we have no way to understand the problem. But what was the problem? The demonological point that Descartes makes signified a common understanding, once, long ago; it was providence that was being questioned. The first cause of existence (God) yields a bridge to the a priori indubitable “moment” of Descartes. In this protected (protracted a priori experience) we are not second causes (even though we are created); it almost seems necessary to say that the bodily order is a different sort of secondariness (ontologically fallen) let us say, while the beautiful soul, the crown and jewel of creation, is a proper form of secondariness. What’s that? The reasonable man has entered once again into the garden, on his own strength of rationality?—As though reason were already redeemed? In Aquinas, the seat of reason is not perfect. In Eckhart we have moments of perfect union (with God)—provided we are self-less and without expectancy for God. Whatever that means. 

But what if that first cause that guarantees the second order entirely, isn't really there—asks Satan (or the demon, or whatever). Answer: of course it is; it constitutes the trust that we have. But how? And, as we know, the proof falls apart, and Descartes is caught in his circle. Of course it might be incorrect to see the lopped off soul as being the sort of thing that is secondary in a different sense. But my point is theological. If we are talking about doubt (sin) and we are looking for solutions, the theology of Descartes would have it that what is required is faith in God; or trust in God himself. And not faith in reason. When we doubt our capacities, or we doubt what we believe God has told us to do (consider Abraham, a knight of faith in Keirkegaard), what makes the despair of doubt vanish is putting our faith in God, God himself. So then what is curious about the demonology of Descartes’ skeptic is that God comes after the fact, later on in the proof as if they were detached, as if reason didn't require God--and this is how the argument has been taken up by rationalists. If this proof is virtual; if God was always necessary and the proof is only half good (if not utter bunk) without God, then we have an interesting problem because Descartes has rarely been considered as having made a demonological point. The point I’m making above about “moments” might then come down to the point that Reason was never good enough. If Descartes had just said only God can make the doubt disappear. But then what is this sense of doubt? Could it be something more than just seeing a proposition as possibly false?


X doubts that Y (is true)

implies that Y might be false. And its opposite seems to be that 

X believes that Y (is true)

In our common everyday world of intuition, the certainty of Y is basically whether or not it is grounded in experience. If I hold up a hand, and you see it, you won’t likely doubt that it is a hand unless you’ve taken some entry level epistemology class. Of course the way out is to insist that the burden of proof is not on the one holding the hand; it is on the question in the first place. That is, it seems in keeping with ordinary common sense to doubt what is not evident. Any change in the conversation made by the epistemological skeptic, will seem out of place, like a conversation stopper. In sum we no longer find it believable that a posteriori experience requires a priori justification. And the epistemological skeptic is always asking an a priori question. 

The contemporary problem with understanding Descartes, therefore, is that God as guarantor for certainty in trivial matters seems unnecessary; and in matters that are less evident, aseity is completely out of place. God might sufficiently explain everything, of course—such is in keeping with the difference between truth and justification; but most people just don't live in Descartes’ world: God seems like a conversation stopper, offered in a no longer medieval world.

1.31 One point that I find exceedingly interesting stemming from the thoughts on Descartes’ demonology is that “X believes Y” is not the same as “X has faith that Y”. Faith is not the simple opposite of doubt. One might say that faith is independent of objective a posteriori evidence. Is faith then independent of reasons? Not necessarily. What of objective a priori reasons? Perhaps these will do, but we might also call upon experience as long as it is subjective. What is clear is that God doesn't arrive with the simple calling of his name, or at least God doesn't arrive in a way that is explicable, objectively, by others. Descartes wanted to make God superficially rational--evidently enough; but that doesn't mean that what he was saying wasn't deep too.  

Believes that Y and having faith that Y seem to be different sorts of things; but doubt is the opposite in both registers. If I have faith in God, I will certainly suffer from doubt when I have reason to do so. If I have faith that God is with me, (and he actually is), it is highly likely that I will experience doubt about that belief. And what is the nature of this doubt that has little to do with everyday problems like whether or not there is a hand, or a cat or a bed--that resonates not completely differently than it did to one thinking through the mechanics of sufficient reason? Sovereign Providence implies that so long as God permits doubt to be compounded there is nothing but his own saving power that can break through the cycle. Such a form of doubt is not a rational mode. In other words, when real demons arrive to make us doubt, there is no reason to suppose that they are rational and willing to be tricked; and there is every reason to suppose that seeing them as tricked is part of their trick; that such is part of their doubt. Doubt for a demon is only in a superficial way the kind of thing that ends quickly in reason.

**It is very important to note, however, that reason is not identical throughout philosophical history. For Aquinas it is clear; he means prudence; for Descartes it is less obviously like Aquinas, unless what I said above is on the way. Unless rationality was always too weak and too simple and too much like an idol.

1.4 Therefore, the simplicity of "doubt in Descartes", in analytic philosophy, catches only part of the meaning of doubt in terms of its vicious elements. And it seems that this is important. If the Kingdom of Heaven is Truth and everything else is a lie, then the mode of faith that we have lost in the simple analysis of belief and doubt can only be caught up with a new meaning of doubt, and perhaps, with a fresh reading of what Descartes was searching for. If he was looking for a way out of the vice of doubt, then it should be expected and unsurprising that he sought this ultimately in God; and yet, if we read this demonology ever more back into Descartes, it would seem evident that the grounding of doubt in itself was always too flimsy (and Descartes saw it). 

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