A.J. Ayer, Graham Priest, John Wayne, Ludwig Wittgenstein, René Descartes, T.R. (Thill) Raghunath, William Shakespeare
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. As I noted to Thill in the Wittgenstein post, the rules of logic are much harder to doubt than the self – but that sure doesn’t mean they can’t be doubted.
Wittgenstein, as I understand him, tries to dismiss much such doubt by claiming that it is meaningless – but such views, again, seem unhelpful to me. I tend to be deeply suspicious of claims to the effect that one’s opponents’ philosophical positions are linguistically meaningless. This is the classic move made by the very worst philosophers in recent memory: the logical positivists led by A.J. Ayer, who tried to claim that the only sentences that bore meaning were either insignificant tautological definitions or empirically verifiable. And of course, since that claim is itself not empirically verifiable, it is at best insignificant and at worst meaningless, on its own terms. Under the influence of Ayer and Wittgenstein, generations of English-language philosophers tried to wave away “metaphysics,” “religion,” even ethics as meaningless drivel – a phrase probably better applied to their own philosophies. Now I don’t want to engage in guilt by association here, and damn Wittgenstein for his being taken up by hacks like Ayer – for after all, far worse use has been made of philosophers I admire (Marx, Nietzsche, Augustine). That cannot on its own be sufficient reason to believe him wrong. But when a sentence has been made by someone who has thought about the matter greatly, and significantly changed the thinking of others who have heard it, it strikes me as strange to dismiss it as “meaningless.” False perhaps, but not meaningless. It had a meaning to its speaker and to its recipient. Certainly I think there are some concepts – “religion” chief among them – which we would be better off without, because their use tends to confuse us and make us think incorrectly. But that’s not to say they are meaningless, merely that their meaning is unclear in a way that muddles our thinking.
Now when I make all these claims about doubt, their point is not to immerse us in a paralyzing skepticism where we cannot act at all. I don’t agree with the pure skepticism of a Candrakīrti or a Sextus Empiricus, according to which it is spiritually beneficial to hold no beliefs at all. (I strongly suspect that this is impossible.) I do think, however, that there is a spiritual benefit to holding a weaker position in which everything can be doubted: it leads us to a virtuous epistemological humility, leads us to listen, to entertain even seemingly absurd claims that might, on reflection, turn out to have something to them. I have turned out in the past to be profoundly wrong about my most rock-solid of convictions – for example, that the good life is about maximizing overall happiness. In my youth I thought it ludicrous to believe that being good might have little to do with political activism – and yet eventually I found that belief not only true, but essential to my well-being.
Granted, while entertaining these doubts we must still live, we must still act, and this requires acting on what we believe to be true even if we doubt it. Doubt can have a spiritually harmful consequence as well as a benefit. In Hamlet, Shakespeare has likely chronicled this problem as well as any philosopher: one can be ruled by doubts, be so consumed by one’s lack of certain knowledge that one refuses any decisive action. And yet this isn’t an argument against doubt per se. It’s often said that courage is not the absence of fear; that would be simple imprudence. Rather, as John Wayne said, “courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway.” One doesn’t eliminate fear, one acts in spite of it. Similarly, decisiveness or leadership – just as much a virtue – is not the absence of doubt, it is doing what one believes is right under the circumstances while knowing full well that one might be wrong. Might be – but, one believes, probably isn’t.
This is a wonderful post. Doubt in the sense Amod invokes here seems to me no more (and no less) than intelligence — and intelligence that is open and non-territorial.
I would posit that any truth established through thought and logic is always subject to doubt.
But is knowledge and truth exclusively a product of logic? It seems to me that logic is a pale overlay on our experience of the world and is always dealing with a frozen, static, past version of a changing world. To act in the world based exclusively on logic and rules will always result in a mechanical approach that excludes intuition and heart.
This is not to denegrate the power and cutting quality of logic. It just seems to me that the logic always has to be combined with an intuition that is beyond (in the sense of not even being the opposite of) logic. The best scientists combine intellect and intuition. These scientists may organize an experiment that allows application of logic to an aspect of experience, but the inspiration for the study will be based on intuition — and a great scientific discovery may result from a “Eureka” moment — a leap that is entirely beyond logic and that is free from doubt.
Amod Lele said:
Thanks, Jim. Question: how do you define intuition?
I’m not sure I can define intuition. Maybe a knowing based on direct perception. It is not a progressive logic or a knowing based on comparison. As I said, I don’t think it is incompatible with and certainly not opposite to logic — but logic comes from a narrower viewpoint.
It is something that poets and artists get — perhaps more than philosophers (not to knock philosophers — but their methods are different).
This quote by Whitman is something of what I have in mind:
“Sure as the most certain sure, plumb in the uprights, well entrietied, braced in the beams,
Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical, I and this mystery here we stand.”
But I may be wrong. You might have a better definition — or a better thought.
“Wittgenstein, as I understand him, tries to dismiss much such doubt by claiming that it is meaningless…I tend to be deeply suspicious of claims to the effect that one’s opponents’ philosophical positions are linguistically meaningless.”
I think I acknowledged in an earlier response that it is not literal linguistic meaning which is at stake in this context but coherence and significance.
I am sure W understood that even “Colorless green ideas are addicted to red wine.” is not literally meaningless. Speakers of English do understand the sentence although they would deem it nonsense.
Rather, I think his claim is that doubting makes sense or has significance only against a backdrop of assumptions. I would also put the point as follows: the conjunction of a given doubt and the denial of ALL assumptions is incoherent.
For example, someone (a philosopher, of course!) who doubts whether or not the world has come into existence “lock, stock, and barrel” just five minutes ago assumes or takes for granted that the world exists and that time is real. If she didn’t take that for granted, she couldn’t possibly say meaningfully “I doubt that the world has existed longer than five minutes.” If she were to say “I doubt that the world has existed longer than five minutes. I also doubt the very existence of the world and the reality of time.”, this would be incoherent.
Again, “I doubt that I exist.” is not literally meaningless, but incoherent and without significance or point. Obviously, someone is making this assertion and so it is incoherent for that person to say that she is doubting her existence.
A Wittgensteinian response here would also point out that a person who says “I doubt that I exist.” must assume or take for granted that she is doubting something and that she knows the meaning of the sentence she is using to express the doubt.
I would also argue that it is pointless to doubt P if the assertion of Not P is incoherent. For instance, it is pointless to doubt that I am typing in English now because the assertion “I am not typing in English now.” is self-refuting, and, hence, incoherent. In just the same way, it is pointless to doubt my own existence because the assertion of “I don’t exist.” is self-refuting, and, hence, incoherent.
“hacks like Ayer”
Ayer’s thought on the criterion of verification underwent revisions in light of criticisms. He was only 24 when he completed Language, Truth, and Logic.
By the way, W didn’t think well of Ayer. He is reported to have said that the trouble with Ayer is that he tries to be clever all the time. W was also very upset by what he thought were Ayer’s distortions of his ideas. Ayer,for his part,was also critical of many of W’s ideas, particularly the argument against a private language.
Thill, at the risk of another long debate, could I ask how you define existence? If I am food for worms, impermanent, ever changing — then what does it mean to say that “I exist”? Or are you positing that there is an aspect of self that is permanent?
Somehow, I suspect you will say it is “common sense” and simply avoid the question.
Common sense, and yours ought not to be excepted, tells us that a process of change requires a locus. In ordinary English, to speak of change presupposes and implies something which undergoes that change.
“If I am food for worms, impermanent, ever changing — then what does it mean to say that “I exist”? Or are you positing that there is an aspect of self that is permanent?”
I pointed in a response several weeks ago that you need to make up your mind on whether you want to assert “The self does not exist.” or “The self is an impermanent, changing entity.” It is a total non-sequitur to move from premise “The self is an impermanent, changing entity.” to the conclusion “The self doesn’t exist.”.
Compare “reasoning” from “The earth is an impermanent, changing entity.” to the conclusion “The earth does not exist.”!!!
I think you are right — change can’t be perceived without a stable reference point. The trouble is that the only stable reference point that can be created in a world where all things are impermanent is a thought that we return to again and again and perpetuate. Our mind projects a solid self and then everything is measured from that. And what is that self? It is a reference point — but one that is not as permanent as we would like. It changes all the time. Sometimes we identify with our body, sometimes with our emotions, sometimes with our mind. So, self is a thought — it is just a thought that we take very seriously.
Your idea of awareness as a possibly permanent aspect or experience is interesting. But isn’t awareness more of a perceived continuity than something that is permanent? It is something like a crystal ball that takes on the colors of the world — but is it or can it be separate from the world? I’m not disagreeing — the idea is worth exploring.
Anyway, I appreciate your indulging my question.
“could I ask how you define existence?”
To exist is to be a bearer or locus of attributes or qualites.
“Or are you positing that there is an aspect of self that is permanent?”
I think that awareness or consciousness is certainly the top candidate for “an aspect of self that is permanent”, but brain science will probably shed more light on this than philosophy.
“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.”
There is no inconsistency in holding both that it is irrational to believe or espouse the self-contradiction inherent in “I doubt that I am doubting.” and that it is rational to believe in “some” contradictory statements at the same time. I think there are serious problems with Priest’s thesis and argument, but that’s a different issue.
To successfully put Priest’s thesis to work for your point on doubting in this context, you would have to show that it is not irrational to believe in the self-contradiction inherent in “I doubt that I am doubting.”, a statement on par with Derrida’s “I never generalize!” and someone writing “There are no sentences in English.”!
In other words, even if there are contradictory statements it would be rational believe at the same time, this doesn’t show that it is rational to believe in the contradiction Descartes in talking about.
Amod Lele said:
True, Priest does not deny that most contradictions are false (indeed, he more or less asserts it). But the point was, if Priest is right, then the fact that something is contradictory does not establish with absolute certainty that it is false. It’s probably false, which is good enough for most cases, but not if we are looking to move beyond any doubt at all, as Descartes did.
In the specific case of Descartes, it’s actually much easier. “I doubt that I am doubting” is merely a shorthand for “there exists a doubt, associated in some way with those physical and mental patterns often called ‘me,’ that those patterns genuinely add up to an entity which deserves the label ‘me.'” In that statement there isn’t even a contradiction to worry about. Just as a climatologist might refer to “the temperature in Boston at sunrise” even though she knows full well that the sun does not actually go up, because it’s much less of a mouthful than saying “the temperature in Boston when the earth rotates to the point that the sun becomes visible there” – the Buddhist similarly speaks in convenient imprecise terms that she does not believe to be strictly or literally accurate.
Amod: “In the specific case of Descartes, it’s actually much easier. “I doubt that I am doubting” is merely a shorthand for “there exists a doubt, associated in some way with those physical and mental patterns often called ‘me,’ that those patterns genuinely add up to an entity which deserves the label ‘me.’” In that statement there isn’t even a contradiction to worry about.”
Well, if anyone thinks or says “I doubt that I am doubting”, and assuming that they are not in the throes of a philosophical delirium, they are surely doubting something! Hence, “I doubt that I am doubting” is self-refuting.
“I doubt that I exist” is also self-refuting. One can’t evade the sensible and unavoidable question concerning this claim: Where does this doubt occur? Or, since doubting is a conscious mental activity, Who is doubting?
One must answer that the doubt occurs, not in “MIND” or “The Mind”, but in “my mind” or “an individual mind”. Now this is certainly synonymous with the claim that a self or person, or “I” has that doubt, or is engaging in the activity of doubting.
Thus whether we treat the doubt in terms of a mental event or occurrence, or in terms of a conscious mental activity, the reference to a locus, i.e., an individual mind, and, hence, to an agent or self is inescapable.
So, an analysis of what’s implied in saying “I doubt” or even “There is doubt.” shows that “I doubt that I exist.” is also self-refuting.
Amod: “Just as a climatologist might refer to “the temperature in Boston at sunrise” even though she knows full well that the sun does not actually go up, because it’s much less of a mouthful than saying “the temperature in Boston when the earth rotates to the point that the sun becomes visible there” – the Buddhist similarly speaks in convenient imprecise terms that she does not believe to be strictly or literally accurate.”
In the first case, we have scientific knowledge that the earth’s axial motion generates the appearances of sunrise and sunset. We also know that this does not undermine the use of “sunrise” and “sunset” in everyday discourse and even in astronomy, e.g., “Sunrise and Sunset Timetables”.
In the second case, there isn’t even a possibility of knowing that the self is an “appearance” only and not real. Since knowledge requires a locus, a knowing subject, “I know that I am not real.” is self-refuting.
Note the contradiction implied by the use of “she does not believe…” etc., in this context. Language does go on a holiday in the attempt to deny the self!
You won’t be surprised that I disagree. There are two ways of understanding the Buddhist concept on “egolessness” or “no self”.
The first is through logical analysis — the types of arguments that I have been making here (ineffectively, because I haven’t persuaded you!).
The second method is through meditation and direct experience of shunyata.
The concept that knowledge requires a “knower” is a concept that is rooted in a belief in dualism. It is analogous to a flashlight — where there is a source of light and an object that is illuminated. Buddhists describe the mind differently, as analogous to a candle flame — illuminating “itself” and “other” at the same time. We use dualistic language to describe this — but a better way might be to say that there is just illumination — knowledge without a knower, radiation without a radiator, or compassion without a solid self that experiences compassion or a solid object of compassion.
I can’t be persuaded to accept what is clearly an absurdity: predicates without a subject, knowledge without knower, belief without believer, activity without agent, and experience without experiencer. The Good Lord save us from such “philosophy”!
Two simple responses:
1. A “direct experience of Sunyata”, whatever that may mean, implies an experiencer, a subject of the experience who identifies, recognizes, and describes or reports that experience.
2. “Buddhists describe the mind differently”. Well, the issue is whether their description is coherent and accurate. Note that there is no such thing as “mind”. Your sentences did not occur or were not formed in an abstract “mind”, but occurred and were formed in a particular, individual mind, i.e., your mind! Talk about the contents of “mind” is always talk about the contents of someone’s mind or everyone’s mind. So, any reference to mind entails a reference to the self.
Hence, your statement that “Buddhists describe the mind differently” is tantamount to “Buddhists describe the individual mind or self differently”. Now, it makes no sense to claim in one breath that you are describing the self differently, but that the self does not exist!
In terms of what may be called “Product Differentiation Test”, Buddhist (No)self talk clearly fails.
The test consists in answering the questions: What is the practical difference, if any, between Buddhist (No)self talk and commonsense self talk? Are there any differences in everyday self talk and behavior between Buddhists who profess the “No-Self” doctrine and others who don’t profess that doctrine?
These Buddhists talk about their motives, intentions, desires, purposes, feelings, memories, etc., and behave in everyday situations in a manner indistinguishable from those who acknowledge the reality of the self!
Buddhists use the word “I” in just the same way others do. They get upset at insults in just the way others do. They take pride in their achievements, have remorse or regret over their failings, in just the way others do.
So, there is no practical difference between espousing the “No-Self” doctrine and affirming the reality of the self. This gives one good grounds for thinking that the Buddhist belief in the unreality of the self is just that, a mere belief with no significance.
If we need an example for “emptiness”, the “No-self” doctrine is the best candidate!
Alfred “the hack” Ayer was on to something insightful and cautionary in the following conversation recounted by Ved Mehta in his book “Fly and The Fly-Bottle” (p. 75):
I finally asked him whether there was one particular quality all philosophers shared.
He (Ayer) was thoughtful for a moment and then said “Vanity. Yes, vanity is the sine qua non of philosophers. In the sciences, you see, there are established criteria of truth and falsehood. In philosophy, except where questions of formal logic are involved, there are none, and so the practitioners are extremely reluctant to admit error…when Strawson defeated him in an argument about Truth it never seemed to have once crossed Austin’s mind that he was the vanquished…Russell attacks Strawson as though he were just another Oxford philosopher without reading him carefully.” Some of the philosophers were vain not only about their thoughts but about their personal influence…
Alfred “the hack” Ayer had an interesting near-death experience toward the end of his life. You can read about his experience and his reflections on it in his article “What I saw When I was Dead” accessible here:
michael reidy said:
Descartes had his method, the notion that there was an intelligible way to screen things. We establish that green fruit is probably unripe and red ripe and so better to eat and easier on your stomach. We navigate through this perilous world testing as we go, establishing criteria, doubting and affirming. Absolute doubt just as the one pole of a polar concept is strictly senseless, you can’t have doubt without affirmation. The default position is to take things as they seem to be until they are shown or discovered to be otherwise. Can we be taking each individual case and doubting it and achieve universal doubt that way? I don’t think so because concept acquisition demands that the two poles of a polar concept be acquired before we can be said to have that concept.
Ayer really got the ‘private language’ analogy wrong. He was of the impression that it was something that Robinson Crusoe could devise. What dictionary would he look up if he wasn’t sure of a word?
michael reidy said:
God was not prepared for the cosmic experience that was Freddie Ayer.
Why do you think that Ayer’s NDE had anything to do with God or “cosmic experience”?
Note that his NDE was different from the standard NDE which involves going through a tunnel and seeing a bright white light, recall of one’s life in a panoramic view, seeing dead “relatives”,etc.
The Red light which he saw and which he says he immediately knew (afterlife common sense? LOL spontaneous knowledge?) was responsible for the government of the universe is clearly not the “God” of theism. It had its “ministers” or assistants go and fix some problem with space! Ayer fails to describe what these “ministers” looked like.
IF Ayer’s experience was indeed veridical, I would be inclined to consider the explanation that it was a paranormal perception of an alien intelligence responsible for the maintenance of space in our universe, or a “supernatural” being with the same task.
In any case, I don’t think it Ayer’s NDE had anything to do with “cosmic experience” a la Bucke or with God.
There are good grounds for doubting whether Ayer’s NDE was verdical in all its aspects. For instance, he reports that in his NDE he saw that space was “out of joint” and that consequently the laws of nature had ceased to function. This was the reason why the Red light was commanding its “ministers” to fix the problem with space.
If this part of his experience was veridical and it pertained to our universe, then there would have been chaos in our universe and none of us would be around now! If the laws of nature had ceased to function, gravitation would have ceased to function! Imagine the consequences for the earth and our solar system!
I read somewhere that Ayer had been reading a book (was it A Brief History of Time?) by Stephen Hawking in the hospital. Parts of his experience may well be projections resulting from his reading of this book.
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