If you read the comments on this blog more than occasionally, you will surely have noticed the pugnacious comments of Thill (aka T.R. Raghunath), by far the most prolific commenter this blog has ever had. I note with pleasure that Thill has now begun a blog of his own, entitled The Baloney Detective. The approach he takes there is almost diametrically opposite to my own, in many ways; but that sort of clash is exactly what helps to generate the best ideas, and I welcome the arrival of this new blog. I welcome Thill’s timing, as well; since I won’t be regularly updating again until February, I hope readers looking for interesting philosophical thought in the meantime will be well served by the Baloney Detective. If you enjoy Thill’s comments, make sure you check it out!
I’d like to say some more about questions of doubt and certainty, which were central to my recent discussion of Wittgenstein. I explored this question at greatest length in the post called “Certain knowledge”, but the conclusions there were tentative – which is to say, not certain.
To recap a little first: This question was Descartes‘s biggest passion. He wanted one and only one Archimedean point, one firm foundation that could not be doubted, on which he could build the rest of his philosophy. And to doubt that he was doubting would be self-contradictory, so the existence of his doubt and therefore of his own existence became certain. “I think, therefore I am.”
But Descartes was wrong: the existence of the thinking self can be, and is, doubted all the time. Almost all Buddhist tradition rests on just such a doubt: the self is not real. If there is an indubitable Cartesian foundation, one must take it back to “There is thinking, therefore there is being.” But is there even this? Descartes argues that to doubt one’s own doubt (or doubt one’s own thinking) is self-contradictory. To establish this point for certain, however, does require that one accept the logic law of non-contradiction – and accept it as an absolute law, brooking no exceptions ever. Graham Priest’s dialetheist epistemology denies this very point: only by allowing that certain contradictions can be true, he says, can we successfully resolve the liar paradox or Zeno’s paradoxes. Continue reading
It is probably uncontroversial to describe Ludwig Wittgenstein as one of the twentieth century’s greatest philosophers. In my less charitable moods I’d be tempted to say that this is rather like being one of Kansas City’s tallest buildings. Still, his vast influence over the philosophies that come after him is undeniable – but I often wonder why.
I’m led to think about Wittgenstein by a few recent comments from Thill, quoting a text called On Certainty. Readers might recall that in my most extensive reading of Wittgenstein to date – looking at the Philosophical Investigations – the main effect he had on my thought was to push me away from his thought and closer to the thinkers he disliked, like Plato and Augustine. But a brief look at On Certainty does even less for my estimation of Wittgenstein as a thinker. Continue reading
Last time, I accepted that there were two reasonable ways to define “common sense.” One can identify it with prejudices, as I did the first time around, so that common sense is what is held to be common and taken for granted by a given group of people (usually one’s own). Alternately, one can identify common sense with Robin Horton’s “primary theory”: the kind of description or explanation of human experience that is basic enough to be mostly universal, such as plants requiring water to grow. Primary theory is opposed to more complex “secondary theory” like witchcraft or subatomic physics, referring to unseen phenomena, which explains events anomalous to primary theory and is not at all universal.
Now if common sense is defined as primary theory, what then is its philosophical significance? Far less, I would argue, than is often claimed for “common sense.” The problems with primary theory are twofold: first, it is relatively limited in scope; and second, it is often wrong. Continue reading
Thill replies to my post about common sense in a reasonable way: by challenging the definition. In that post I have identified common sense as consisting merely of the prejudices common to any given age. Thill is right to protest that unmodified common sense, thus defined, will likely have few defenders (with the possible exception of Robert Goodin); and I did relatively little to defend my definition in that post. So it’s worth examining Thill’s alternative definition. Continue reading
One of the more potentially pernicious ideas in philosophy is the idea of “common sense,” so often played as a trump card against any idea that departs from the established prejudices of one’s interlocutors. But for the most part, that’s all “common sense” can amount to: prejudice, the pre-judgements shared in common by a given social context. Now this doesn’t necessarily make it bad. Hans-Georg Gadamer tried to “rehabilitate” the concept of prejudice (Vorurteil) on the grounds that even newly acquired knowledge must be measured against knowledge we already have. We must start where we are. As I noted in discussing dialectical and demonstrative argument, this is true even of foundationalist thinkers like Descartes who try to begin everything from first principles – in the chronology of their arguments, they must start with prejudice or “common sense” in order to figure out what the first principles are.
But Gadamerian prejudices can still be prejudices in the pejorative sense as well. Continue reading
A comment from Thill on a recent post makes me reconsider the category of the supernatural, which I’ve employed many times on this blog. It’s been an important category in my reflection because I acknowledge the normative weight of natural science, and am suspicious of claims that contradict its findings. When Śāntideva tells us that advanced bodhisattvas can fire rays from their pores that make the blind see and make malodorous people smell better, I have reason to disbelieve him. The idea of rebirth – at least in the straightforward way Śāntideva portrays it, with bad people getting reborn in hells – makes me similarly suspicious, which is one reason I’ve been so sympathetic to Dale Wright’s project of naturalizing karma.
Advaita Vedānta, al-Hallāj, Eknath, Emmanuel Lévinas, Hugh van Skyhawk, Paul Hacker, Paul J. Griffiths, Paul Williams, Ramprasad Sen, Śāntideva, Swami Vivekānanda, T.R. (Thill) Raghunath, Wilhelm Halbfass
A curious phenomenon in the study of South Asian and especially Buddhist traditions is the number of Catholic scholars named Paul who have approached these traditions – and especially what Skholiast has called their ātmanism – with a critical eye. The two thinkers I have primarily in mind are the late Paul Hacker (whom I discussed last time, and the living Paul Williams. (The thought of Paul J. Griffiths, who moved in his writings from Buddhology to Catholic theology, bears a strong resemblances to these other Pauls, though I have less to say about him today.) That these men are all named Paul can only be a coincidence. That they are all Catholic is less so; for there are striking affinities in the ways that they (in many respects independently of one another) approach South Asian and Buddhist tradition, affinities that are far less coincidental.
Advaita Vedānta, Aurobindo Ghose, Charles Darwin, Friedrich Schelling, G.W.F. Hegel, intelligent design, John Paul II, Ken Wilber, Michael Behe, Pali suttas, SACP, Śaṅkara, T.R. (Thill) Raghunath, theodicy
T.R. Raghunath, a professor in Nevada, gave an interesting talk at the SACP conference explaining Aurobindo Ghose‘s theory of the development of consciousness. There were a number of intriguing points in Raghunath’s talk, but the one that jumped out at me was a point about evolution. Aurobindo, according to Raghunath, accepts “the fact of evolution,” but not “Darwin’s explanation” of evolution. It is a developmental process that has the goal of growth, unfolding. Biological evolution is itself a developmental process of the spirit, in a way that diverges from a Darwinian materialist explanation.
A bell went off in my head when I heard this. In a later conversation with Raghunath, I asked him whether Aurobindo would support the contemporary idea of intelligent design and related critiques of Darwinian evolution, and he said basically yes: there is a guiding spiritual principle at work in the development of new species, it cannot be merely a matter of natural selection through random beneficial mutation. Throughout Raghunath’s talk I had been noticing Aurobindo’s influence on Ken Wilber, and here I saw a still more direct link.
On page 23 of what probably remains his most-read and best-known work, A Brief History of Everything, Wilber makes this now-infamous claim:
A half-wing is no good as a leg and no good as a wing — you can’t run and you can’t fly. It has no adaptive value whatsoever. In other words, with a half-wing you are dinner. The wing will work only if these hundred mutations happen all at once, in one animal — and also these same mutations must occur simultaneously in another animal of the opposite sex, and then they have to somehow find each other, have dinner, a few drinks, mate, and have offspring with real functional wings. Talk about mind-boggling. This is infinitely, absolutely, utterly mind-boggling. Random mutations cannot even begin to explain this. (emphases in original)