A Nonfiction Book by O.G. Rose
Belonging Again (Part 17)
Is there an ultimate set of axioms for reality upon which all can harmonize?
Assuming all “first principles” can be (peacefully) bridged to it (though this cannot be guaranteed), does there exist “an ultimate set of first principles” which mastering “critical thinking” necessarily leads people to accepting?
No one knows, and probably no one can.
Even if I believed in capital-T-Truth, it would still be the case that truth and ideology were inescapable. Yes, perhaps we could capture glimmers of Truth through truth(s), but regardless we all must make “leaps of faith” regarding what we believe constitutes Truth (such as “There is no capital-T-Truth”), but this does not mean that ideology is therefore an “illusion” and reality we can ignore. As already discussed, I agree with Timothy Keller that everyone must ascent to an exclusive claim about capital-T-Truth and the nature of reality (there’s simply no getting around it). Still, in order to know which “exclusive claim” on what constituted capital-T-Truth was the claim, we would have to be God (we’d have to know everything, in the world and beyond). Otherwise, though we may happen to be right when we claimed, “Truth claim x is identical with Truth,” we couldn’t know we were right: there would still be uncertainty. And even if it were possible for us to actually know for sure that our truth claim was the Truest, it is doubtful we could pass along this knowledge to others or across generations. And even if we could, to accept the knowledge we presented, people would have to abandon the exclusive truth claims to which they presently clung, and this would likely lead to existential backlash (unless that is we could also pass along the capacity to recognize Truth in the same act we presented Truth).
Even if there were a set of “first principles” (truth(s)) that were identical with Truth and that mastering “critical thinking” would necessarily lead people to coming upon, there would still be no guarantee that we would recognize those “first principles” as “the first principles” when we came upon them (we very well may think they’re “just another step along the journey,” like all the other supposed “first principles” before them). Why this situation is probable is implied by “Ludwig,” a short story by O.G. Rose, which describes how “uncertainty is life,” how most of what “we know we know” we actually don’t know for sure, how most of what constitutes the information according to which we “think for ourselves” is that which others have provided us with — and so on. If we believe Britain exists but we’ve never been there, we’re taking its existence on faith from the testaments of those who have visited it and/or putting our trust in all the images we’ve viewed (that they’ve not been photoshopped, for example). If we believe (rightly or wrongly) the Earth is billions of years old, we are trusting in the authority of scientists; if we believe there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, we are trusting in what the government tells us; if we believe Pluto exists, we are trusting scientists. But ultimately we don’t actually know for sure for ourselves: much if not most of what we believe is unavoidably handed down to us from “authorities” (right or wrong). Certainly, we generally have “no reason to think” those scientists are lying to us, and please don’t mistake me as saying that we cannot know any truth at all. My interest here is how we relate to the majority of truths we “know” (including how scientists relate to the findings of other scientists), regardless the ultimate validity of the truth claims. Generally, we know them by trust, which means we “know them with uncertainty,” the existential feeling of which faith in the legitimacy of experts helps mitigate (suggesting why the “legitimation crisis” that Habermas warns about is so dire).¹
This all being the case, there is always “room” and/or “space” for doubt (even when we relate to a truth that is indeed true and/or “like Truth”). Descartes taught there is always space for radical doubt, and this is why Karl Popper’s criteria of falsification is invaluable: it helps us from falling into the void. But, unfortunately, Popper can do no more than that: he cannot provide us a way to know that we stand upon “the Truth” if and when we do in fact stand upon “the Truth.” We can suppose we do (as does everyone in Pluralism, by definition, relative to their “exclusive truth claim”), but if our guess is right, we cannot know for sure it is right: by falsification, we can only engender a sense of confidence in our guess, but we must still live aware that at any moment, that confidence could be invalidated (which can be existentially taxing). This hints at why we can be so offish to “the other” and naturally hide ourselves from their presence: their very presence could, at any moment, invalidate us. Also, this hints at why politics in Pluralism can be so heated: failure to control the State is failure to hold back the approaching “other,” who even if loving and kind, in being ideologically different, threatens our entire sense of world and self.
There always being uncertainty, even if there do exist “ultimate first principles,” we cannot know for sure they exist (even when we find them), and hence the goal of trying to unify the Pluralistic world and provide “belonging” via reason and/or “critical thinking” is not worthless but destined to be incomplete. In addition to the problem of uncertainty, even if there was a set of “first principles” which mastering critical thinking would necessarily lead all people to encountering, if those “first principles” themselves transform relative to who observes them (and from what direction), then those axioms will be too weak to unify and provide rest (a possible scenario which alludes to the importance of looking for “middle ground” versus “compromise,” as discussed by Hunter). Alluding to Wittgenstein’s famous “bunny/duck picture,” what I mean by this is that if the “ultimate fist principles” were like a bunny that looked exactly like a duck, and/or (also) a duck that looked exactly like a bunny, would the person who claimed, “It’s a bunny,’ be correct or the one who claimed, “It’s a duck?” Both would be correct/wrong. How could the standstill be broken? Perhaps by asking the person who drew the picture or created the chimera, but if that is not possible — If it is not possible to ask God, “Are these the ultimate first principles?” or if the Author was unreliable — there is no way to resolve the ambiguity.² Certainly, by virtue of getting so far in the journey of the mind, we have reason to believe the “first principles” we arrive upon are right, but in regard to accurately interpreting their meaning, we’re stuck with uncertainty. Perhaps worse, we’re stuck with thinking we have certainty — “This is definitely a duck” — when we shouldn’t be so assumptive, priming us to make an enemy of those who possess the same certainty when they come upon the same “first principles” and say, “This is a bunny.” Hence the conflicts of Pluralism will only continue.
But isn’t this why we have the liberal science Rauch praises and defends? Indeed, liberal science saves us from radical doubt and pure skepticism that is possible in our world of “Ludwig”-uncertainty, and I do believe liberal science can help bring about peace, provide a structure that can help people who disagree find a “middle ground,” and can help us discern between “knowledge” and “belief” without necessarily establishing one as “more like Truth” than the other (contributing to existential stability). But can liberal science ever lead us to “ultimate first principles” we can recognize as “the ultimate first principles” upon reaching?
Liberal science is never finished: there is always debate, testing, retesting, and uncertainty. Yes, liberal science has been invaluable for the creation of the modern world and improved the quality of our lives in extraordinary ways, but though it can help stabilize society, politics, and the State, it alone cannot give us “belonging” or rest. In addition to being stuck with “Ludwig”-uncertainty, liberal science is a continual process, precisely the opposite of any “resting.” And that’s a good thing, but also precisely why liberal science — like “the life of the mind” — cannot give us rest or “quiet certainty.” It may have a role in keeping rest from becoming boredom though, and hence could play a necessary role in combating alienation.
Conyers noted that Modernity was defined by ‘the shift from the intellect (as a means of understanding the world) to the will (as a means of changing the world).’³ For Conyers, this contributed to the loss of rest/belonging and the emphasis of will and “movement” and/or “progress,” and yet if it is the case that “the life of the mind” is an endless process, would not a world focused on “the intellect” be just as unrestful as a world focused on “the will?” Certainly, there is no such thing as a civilization that is completely “still” — there is always some degree of movement (there’s time, after all) — and obviously not all movement is bad. I believe Conyers would argue that when there are no stable communities, there is nowhere to “house” the continual process that is “the life of the mind,” and consequently there is too much instability. What constitutes “too much instability” is relative, but what I think Conyers would say is that we need some degree of action to keep our rest from becoming boredom, but that there is a big difference between external action that threatens communal bonds, meaning, and authority, and internal action that increases wisdom and knowledge of truth. This doesn’t mean there should never be “external action,” but I do think Conyers would say our default should be a deep skepticism of “external action.” Unfortunately, echoing Marx, the default of Modernity is to “change the world.”
Are there other reasons liberal science cannot help us achieve unity and “belonging” (which isn’t to say it cannot prove invaluable for democracies)? First, in addition to it being a continual process, science cannot provide answers to questions of meaning or ethics. Second, science tends to define and establish identities via reducing things down to their smallest parts. No, I’m not saying that science doesn’t matter (it’s invaluable), but rather that science cannot interpret War and Peace. Perhaps it can tell us which parts of our brain “light up” when we interpret the book, and though understanding this is valuable for understanding (“Why do I interpret War and Peace as meaning x and not y?’”), this scientific answer of composition isn’t the whole of it. A person’s life experiences, emotions, and worldview also play a role, but science cannot tell us how exactly this is so, only perhaps that they do and in what areas of the brain these dimensions reside (which even if somehow “the answer,” would not feel as such, and so wouldn’t provide us “rest”). Science can tell us what chemicals activate when we fall in love, but it cannot tell us what love means to us (only what “brain parts” activate when we answer the question), nor can it tell us what composes our experiences of love. Perhaps I could find in the brain a memory of a movie date, but when I looked at the neuron, I would not see my wife’s smile. Furthermore, science cannot tell me that “everyone is equal”; in fact, science could lead me to say, “Everyone isn’t the same,” for no one has the exact same genetic code. Of course, “same” and “equal” are not similes, but in scientific terms, the words seem indistinguishable. It takes philosophy and ethics to define them apart as distinct, but if we are a purely scientific world, that distinction would, problematically, probably never arise.
Science may help us understand the evolutionary advantage of “loving our neighbor,” but it cannot tell us what to do in a situation in which our neighbor interprets our expression of love as hateful (nor can science establish that “loving our neighbor” ought to be a community’s custom, only that doing so may entail evolutionary advantages). Furthermore, science cannot help us decide if the category of “neighbor” only includes the people living next to us or the people in China as well. Science perhaps could help us decide if a policy to reduce carbon emission will help stop Global Warming, but it will not tell us if it is moral to stop Global Warming if the costs for doing so will be the loss of billions of jobs and mass impoverishment. Sure, we may conclude that stopping the Apocalypse is worth any price (rational enough), but that is not a scientific judgment: that is a logical or moral one, perhaps based on science, but not scientific in itself (the science-ness doesn’t “transfer into” the logical/moral judgment, per se, though it certainly seems to do so, and we may even claim it does to legitimize our judgment). Science may tell us that humans are easily manipulated, but if I conclude “I am manipulated” (in situation x and not y), I have not made a scientific judgment, but a personal judgment (inspired by what I have learned from science). Science is invaluable, but science doesn’t remove the need to cultivate capacities to judge in non-scientific ways (though its feeling of “objectiveness” certainly can lead us to think it does and for us to want it to do so, unfortunately lessening the imperative to improve in our capacities for non-scientific judgments, leading to consequences like what’s described in After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre).
For people to feel “belonging” and rest, they need a sense of answers to life’s biggest questions (even if those answers leave much to be desired). Science is incredibly valuable for helping us understand life, and though perhaps it can understand brilliantly eighty percent of life, some escapes its grasp. Science can perhaps provide us with more robust answers (in their dependableness), but not necessarily higher answers (it would depend on the individual). Frankly, science also provides us with such a high quantity that it’s an easy jump to believe it can provide us with all answers, and this thinking is especially likely because of how science “brackets out” what it cannot answer (like Husserl’s work in phenomenology).
Perhaps these “higher answers” are illusions? Perhaps — certainty is mostly impossible — as perhaps a given person can overcome their need for a “meaning of life,” but it wouldn’t necessarily follow from this that everyone can (or should) (and wouldn’t the “meaning of life” for such a person be “erasing the need for a meaning of life”)? Yes, perhaps the ways some people answer “higher questions” are misguided — perhaps God Doesn’t Exist, perhaps God Does — but this doesn’t mean the desire for “higher answers” is itself illusionary. Perhaps not everyone has a desire for “higher answers” (who can say?), but if no one did, there would be no religion, philosophy, or humanities (and arguably Pluralism would not exist). And to say, “Art and philosophy are illusionary,” is itself a non-scientific judgment, even if inspired by science, which means science “cannot take us all the way” on such questions. A transition must occur, and it is at this point of transition that we must accept that “liberal science” cannot lead us all the way to any “ultimate set of first principles” (which might exist), which we require if we are to feel uniquely “confident” about such “ultimate principles” upon reaching them.
If I believe love is more important than a cup, I have made a non-scientific judgment (which requires non-scientific “first principles”), and the same logic applies if I believe that the Theory of Evolution is more important for having a meaningful life than appreciating beauty. Perhaps humans wouldn’t have the ability to appreciate beauty without evolution, but if I say that, “Therefore evolution is more important,” I judge that what comes first in a chain of causality is more important than what comes after, and this is a value judgment that isn’t scientific but philosophical (though it’s a philosophical judgment of something known scientifically, making the judgment seem scientific too, as if philosophy based on science turns the philosophy into science). Certainly, evolution is necessary for appreciating beauty, but if I decide “necessary” means “more important,” I have made a non-scientific judgment. If not because it comes first in a line of causality, perhaps I decide accepting evolution is more important for living a meaningful life than is art because evolution is more “concrete” than beauty. But here I fall into the same problem: I have defined “reality” in terms of “concreteness” and decided that (a “high order complexity” like) beauty is less valuable because it is less concrete, and though I may think I’m making a scientific judgment, I’m actually erecting a hierarchy of values that isn’t scientific (though that doesn’t mean it is wrong).⁴ Nowhere in nature do I observe a hierarchy that values rocks over paintings or vice-versa: I unconsciously project hierarchies onto nature, “as if” those hierarchies were always present (hence self-deluding myself via “objective” experiential evidence).
All this suggests why science cannot give us ultimate unity (even if it plays a vital role in making us “more unified than not”): science cannot erase all “first principles” as illusions, for such a judgment isn’t scientific (though it may seem like it is one). A worldview (supposedly) based entirely on science is a world that is another among all the others in Pluralism, and the moment it thinks of itself as “truer” than the other worldviews, it has made a judgment that cannot be established scientifically: it has escaped itself to legitimize itself. Since science only allows into its field that which can be observed (and interpretations based on those observations that stay within the realm of observation), science necessarily must think of the only truth as scientific truth (though that doesn’t necessarily follow for a given scientist), as consequence of how it “brackets off” the world (but do note that this “bracketing” is also the source of its power and effectiveness). It cannot “leap” into making claims about God’s Existence or love’s meaningfulness without ceasing to be itself (though that isn’t to say science cannot help people “leap” from science in a “truer/Truer” direction about matters of God’s Existence, etc.). In fact, it’s hard to imagine a person making a truer/Truer “leap” without consulting science: my point here is only to stress that science alone cannot resolve Pluralistic tensions and give us “belonging again.” It can help, but it cannot erase “first principles” without it ceasing to be itself and without those interested in preserving their “first principles” knowing that science has ceased to be itself.
Lastly, science cannot give us “belonging” for reasons identical to why tolerance (as opposed to humility) cannot: for better or for worse, science undermines the authority of local communities. By calling into question Creationism, for example, science weakens the hold fundamentalist communities have over their members, and ultimately brings the meaning and role of the entire Bible into question. This is arguably a good thing, and I will not argue here that it isn’t (that’s a different debate for a different time), only that it’s a trade-off that perhaps lowers the number of people believing that which perhaps isn’t true, but at the price of the reduction of the power of their community to give them “quiet certainty.” Science necessarily makes people “toward” scientific authority, as tolerance necessarily makes people “toward” the State; hence, both necessarily contribute to the formation of the “double consciousness” that makes it increasingly difficult to feel like we “belong” anywhere. Unless we ourselves are part of the very “community” that is researching and verifying the Theory of Evolution, then our community must receive this science from something external to it — an experience that will feel alien, intrusive, impersonal, and like the “internal Colonialization” described earlier. Yes, we might be better off for it, but we should not delude ourselves into thinking the experience will always be pleasant; for many, it will motivate resentment.⁵
I believe there has often lingered the thought that if people just had the right information, everyone would know the truth, and the truth would set us free. If people were just more rational, more scientific, and better critical thinkers, we could have peace and finally be at rest. Tragically, I don’t believe this is the case, not only because humans naturally tend to use information to create tribes and legitimize their ideologies (as argued throughout The True Isn’t the Rational by O.G. Rose), but because rationality, critical thinking, and science themselves cannot provide enough “ground” to give us “belonging” (though I don’t see how “belonging” could be achieved without them). Facts can only unify those who ascribe to the same truth and rationality, and neither critical thinking nor science can necessarily lead to everyone accepting the same “being true.” Even if they did, we could always doubt it, and so some always would.⁶ Furthermore, even if there was “an ultimate set of axioms” rationality would eventually lead us to and that we could recognize as such, if given to us by authority, it would feel oppression (and such a set of axioms would likely require authorities and experts to determine, all working on different areas of the problem, etc.). That means each individual would have to realize “the ultimate set of axioms” on their own, which even if possible, would be highly unlikely.
I want to emphasize that the arguments here are not meant to say that cultivating rationality and “critical thinking” are futile, meaningless, and/or unnecessary, or that science is unimportant. I believe in the Habermasian project and don’t see how a “substantive democracy” is possible without cultivating “the life of the mind.” The question these last few sections meant to tackle was whether we could “belong again” via rationality, “critical thinking,” and science exclusively, and though these necessary entities can help stabilize the State and democracy — a prerequisite for the Cosmopolitan to feel rest — they in of themselves cannot entirely provide us with “belonging,” for they cannot stop or address Pluralism and resulting existential anxieties. Yes, they can help us be unified with those who share our “first principles,” and perhaps increase our feeling of rest and “belonging” amid those we are unified with, but they cannot help us achieve “quiet certainty” amid those who don’t share our fundamental axioms (because there is no “pure observation,” as discussed in (Re)constructing “A Is A.” And do recall the Cosmopolitan is increasingly someone who cannot be isolated, thanks to technologies, the demands of work, college, and the like: those who can just hang around those who share their axioms is less by the day.
¹Forced by the nature of reality to rely on experts and their legitimacy — for we cannot know everything, we cannot study everything on our own, we cannot check all the sources of the sources of the sources of….all the books we read, etc. — we are primed to think of those experts as authoritarian, for the way we experience our reliance on them can feel totalitarian (especially if we learn from history how experts can be used to manipulate citizens, as was the case in Nazi Germany). This primes us to rebel against the authorities we cannot escape, to rebel against what we need and what can also manipulate us.
²The dilemma explained here also applies to any “first principles” along the way to the “ultimate first principles’ “if any of them is like the “bunny/duck picture,” the rationalistic dream of unifying the world with reason is doomed to be incomplete. And we cannot know if such is the case until we try, but if we were to come upon a “bunny/duck picture,” we (probably) wouldn’t know it: we’d likely think we only came upon a bunny or a duck, per se. Reason would perhaps only force us to be sure of ourselves in this notion (reason would grasp certainty, not ambiguity, as it’s in reason’s nature to be “toward” certainty — at least “certainty that x ambiguity is indeed an ambiguity” — for reason’s aim is not to create uncertainty, but the exact opposite).
³Conyers, A.J. The Long Truce. Dallas, TX: Spence Publishing Company, 2001: 173.
⁴For more, please see “Experiencing Thinking” by O.G. Rose.
⁵In fact, the doctrine of tolerance often tries to legitimize itself in terms of science: the fates of science and tolerance tend to be linked. What the State deems should be tolerated, science tends to follow, claiming it is “scientific.” Likewise, what science concludes is natural and/or genetic, the State then tends to deem as “that which should be tolerated.” To allude to “Equality and Its Immoral Limits” by O.G. Rose, for good or for bad, science and the boundaries of equality are profoundly linked.
⁶Pluralism’s main problem is the nature of thinking itself, as is a theme of The True Isn’t the Rational by O.G. Rose. Thinking is naturally against epistemic methods, rules, and frameworks necessary for thinking to avoid self-destruction, and also thinking is prone to naturally overestimate its usefulness, comprehension, and influence. To believe thinking without epistemic cultivation could give us “rest” is precisely the opposite of the case, but it is also not true to believe that cultivated thinking will necessarily give us “rest.”