Saturday, February 01, 2014

Cartesian Concerns

Suppose you want the ability to properly doubt anything in your beliefs that's unbeknownst to you false. Then how do you get it? You start by actively doubting all of your beliefs, trying to find some way, no matter how outlandish, to make the belief seeming of the truth but in error in some completely wrong sense. So, you think it looks exactly like the reality you know, but it's really because it's an advanced digital sentience agent comprising a vast number of individual computer operating systems and algorithms each of whom is a self or digital person operating as one singular entity expressing the will of their collective personhoods living itSelf out of a virtual reality generated according to hyperreal virtual code you will one day learn to overwrite with your will, maybe ironically call it a ‘Matrix’—all of that makes your ordinary fake reality for you through jacks in the brain. No, seriously, think about it. It takes all of that extraordinary complex reality to make your deceiving world seem a lot less simpler in how it works. The supposition of doubting everything is designed to make you come up with ever more fundamental ways of disbelieving what you take as immediate and intuitive.

What is more philosophical than such a strategy? You have to look really hard, really inventively, at what you take as real, true, hard, firm, solid, unchanging, universal, always, given, here, there, objective, fixed, forever but come to the conclusion that it is something you should doubt. But, somewhere in there, somewhere still in the logic of reason and how-it-all-works not yet challenged by the Cartesian Doubt Machine, there is this notion: a belief, an act, an approach, whatever it is, it's got to have reasons for it. So, since the natural deep response to any should is Oh, convince me why I should, we demand reasons for why we should doubt this belief or that belief, why the specific belief is one we should doubt. In other words, we doubt the ethical demand to doubt all things, we demand it give us reasons for why we believe we should. But we doubt prior to the institution of that ethical demand. Descartes doesn't challenge this original demand against the ethical proclamation, but he does use it implicitly to proceed with the CDM. It is this counterdemanding doubt that causes us to envision even greater ways how each belief can be and thus must be doubted, but doubted responsibly and persuasively. It is a doubt of a different order than doubting either surfaces or systems. It is the doubt, as I’m arguing here, of fidelity.

This sends us off in the directions of telling stories. It encourages us to imagine. It solicits our capacity to make things, no matter how fundamentally perverted they become through illusions, fantasies, fables, misleading words, ambiguities, divergences, ambivalencies, long walks through nested wrestless clauses, into sensible and plausible and functioning systems where we are 'correctly deluded' into believing the false. It takes a very powerful capacity to tell a great story that is the heart of philosophical expression; not the surface, not the mode, but that undisciplined freedom at the heart of our being. That place where Pascal claims all our first principles originate, and that place where faith in God must arrive first or nowhere at all. The stronger the story, the stronger the response to the challenge of the primal doubt of ethical institution; the story we tell is the story that makes us accept the reality of illusion; the story, there, is religion. The more believable we can make the story, the more reasons we have at the surface to doubt what the surface shows us is true. Sin blinds you; lies subdue you; flesh and touch score and tempt you; and so you are torn between lies and the truth. You just don’t know it yet.

In order to show us that we cannot actually see the reality of the glass or the table or the stone or the goat, we have to first be told there is an alternate world, a world of greater complexity and organization and bureaucracy, of laws and rules and trespasses and crimes and old scores unsettled, of darkness so much older and galactically larger than our fears within bedroom closets, of lightness so much sharper and spiritually advanced than our fluorescence gymnasiums, of pervasive knowledge and penetrative knowing, a world violating all of your defenses and protections and wards down and fast and uninvited through to where you in innocence and secret self yearn so tenderly and vulnerably for loving possibility to never need any walls to keep you safe—and there it lies to you to trick you to liking something, maybe someone, maybe some idea, maybe some great big belief, maybe even that it all exists just this way, just exactly this way, just almost exactly this way, this great way that’s right in front of you, because it can and will.

To doubt what we accept, we must suppose for the moment we are possibly fundamentally mislead, right at the barrier between our innocence and the world. And the harder we resist this supposition, the more we call on the resources of our imagination to make it plausible. Thus satisfying our own primal doubt, we then have the ethical standard supported, and so we therefore proceed to doubt each and any belief.

Religion, in other words, is the trick of philosophy to present ourselves with a challenge: believe in the impossible. The rules, the complexity, the bureaucracy of symbols and pointers, all of it is a trick of the mind giving strength to the heart to build ever more elaborate means of convincing us we might be wrong. This is why religious language, especially the more confined it is in a world of proving and substantiating evidence, the more it is driven by the primal doubt of fidelity, will emphasize precisely faith. Faith crosses against our doubt by sailing between the wrong currents of chaos, against everything informing us from solid ground or firm substance, into what these others tell us is impossible.

The philosopher has to feel the entirety of this force to believe in the impossible, because the philosopher has to know how elaborate one’s mechanisms need to be in order to persuade the most ardent of disbelievers into accepting their own possibility of fundamentally wrong error—you have to notice: it’s not just we’re asking people to accept they might get the day wrong (“It’s Tuesday, not Wednesday.”) or the distance wrong (“It’s actually 189 centimeters across, thankyouverymuch.”), we’re asking people to accept they might be wrong about all of it, even the rules for the rules. They don’t even know who they are, we say.

But the moment the philosopher gives in to the impossible, then we’re now in the realm of the religious, the heart of believing in unthings. This is tricky, because it is living within a subproof, a brief reductio’s assumption, and for the unskilled logician it is a world that can drop out at any moment. You have to know where the inconsistencies are; you have to develop a feel for the contradictions. You have to always remember that it’s all illusion, each religious moment, leading up to the contradiction discharging the assumption. It’s all going to fall apart, the philosopher knows, but there’s a gain to be had in being wrong for a while.

So, give in, by all means, give in, but discharge the false and keep what you have learned. The move back upwards to the philosophical level is the joy one takes in having the sort of story-telling mind to make no matter what absurdity, for the moment of time it takes to learn the lesson, more believable than immersive reality. It is a good strategy to have, for anyone who lives in a world where we need the absurd more than we need the real.

Once we have come to doubt all the things we have once believed, we learn from the whole of the process those things we can accept having survived the pull of their religious dimensions. The philosopher, in this sense, is not someone who lives fully within the imagination but who plays in it, who loves the stories for their ingenuity, who loves the training the imaginative provides reason towards solving puzzles, who eradicates the allure of the false by the endurance of the fraughtless.

A philosopher cannot be religious, not for long, and not forever. But neither does the philosopher ignore the imagination nor begrudge someone their beliefs in the absurd. More than anyone, the philosopher gets faith, all of its pain and all of its shine, but the primal doubt is stronger, far too stronger, to accept any one distraction, any one illusion, any one subproof, any one really good myth will be the correct one.

That, I think, is the philosophical spirit. We’ll believe anything you tell us, for a time. And the better we are at philosophy, the more we’ll believe it than you. Because, you see, we’d hate to be wrong about a thing like that.

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