Saturday, May 17, 2014

Descartes : Material Falsity : : Pascal : Evidence for the Wager

(Now, this isn't "for the Wager" in the sense of justifying that it's a valid or logical or sound movement of the mind. This is "for the Wager" in the sense of the information that is passed through the movements of the Wager.)

The structure within Descartes' thinking identified as material falsity has a similar structure with the structure within Pascal's thinking identified as the evidence Reason provides for both God's existence and God's inexistence.




Descartes describes the materially false as that which presents a non-thing as though it were a thing. His example is the classic one we all know, hot and cold. Of course, we now live within the dominance of thermodynamics as hot being real and cold being the perspectivally/subjectively felt experience of a reduction in heat. Hot won, cold lost. So, casual readers think Descartes is saying we think cold is a thing when it's really not. That's not what he says. He's consistent in his constructions: temperature is one of those ideas confused and obscure. It is not clear and distinct. Subsequently, one cannot tell whether there is representation of things or representation of non-things, for a total of four possibilities, not the one possibility of hot : real : : cold : false that prevails today. There are three others:

1. hot : false : : cold : real
2. hot : real : : cold : real
3. hot : false : : cold : false

Descartes recognizes that due to his decision to keep the clear and the distinct as the measure of reality or truth, he has to make the confused and the obscure fall under this category of the materially false. But in doing so, he can't say distinctly that the problem is one thing is real and so the opposite is false, because then he already knows enough based on that to work to the truth: just flip what the senses say like a lens flips an optical image. To really allow the puzzle to be unsolvable, and thus incapable of being included into truth, he has to also allow for the possibility of the representation of non-things for both hot and cold, along with the possibility of the representation of things for both hot and cold.

What other things are like temperature? They are under Cartesian thinking those things not already abstractions from the inescapable dominance of the material: touch, taste, texture, pressure, sound, color, intensity—the things the wax misleads us into accepting as real though they change, which should make us doubt, since the only thing that is truth is what cannot undergo change from its fixity in the mind. Substance, duration, motion, extension, position: the constructs of an object in a space within the mind. These are not the same things we feel with the body, the confusing sensations of touching and being touched.

For Descartes, these are materially false. Where do they come from, if not the world (because, if it did come from the world, then we're at the representation of objective reality matching the formal reality, and there's no problem in that, but since there is a problem . . .)? He tells us, borrowing something from Augustine:

"For if they were false, that is, if they were to represent non-things, I know by the light of nature that they proceed from nothing; that is, they are in me for no other reason than that something is lacking in my nature, and that my nature is not entirely perfect. If, on the other hand, these ideas are true, then because they exhibit so little reality to me that I cannot distinguish it from a non-thing, I see no reason why they cannot get their being from me." [Hackett 1998, pg 75]

This reads like it's from nothing. But let's read this in light of an argument from Augustine concerning the fall. This is how Augustine answers how the fall occurs:

"If you try to find the efficient causes of this evil choice, there is none to be found. For nothing causes an evil will, since it is the evil will itself which causes the evil act; and that means that the evil choice is the efficient cause of an evil act, whereas there is no efficient cause of an evil choice; since if anything exists, it either has, or has not, a will." [Penguin 2003, pg 477; City of God XII.6]

He explains. Suppose the evil will has a will. To do evil is to be evil, so the will doing evil through the evil will is an evil will. Well, what about that evil will causing the evil will causing the evil act? He avoids the question, since clearly it become interminable. An evil will caused by an evil will is not the first evil will we're interested in. The only evil will that matters, therefore, is the one without an evil will. What could make a will not evil become evil? —since it cannot have been always evil, having been causeless. Evil has a cause, but where? Ah, this is exactly the problem, says Augustine. If we keep tracing backwards what caused the evil will, we find there is only an infinite abyss of questions. To avoid the abyss, we assent to the idea that it had no cause.

"The only possible answer is: Something which had no will." [pg. 478]

He goes on.

"For when the will leaves the higher and turns to the lower, it becomes bad not because the thing to which it turns is bad, but because the turning itself is perverse. It follows that it is not the inferior thing which causes the evil choice; it is the will itself, because it is created, that desires the inferior thing in a perverted and inordinate manner."

It's the turning that's the problem. Augustine has now made the cause of sin be nothing at all. It's not about what caused the first sin. He invents a distinct way of sidestepping this issue. And it's good. The turn, the jiggle. It's all that needs to start to happen. How does it happen? For no reason. Go on and follow his next example, as it is a question deeply related to what Pascal is doing with Descartes' argument.

Imagine a very attractive woman. Imagine two individually different men but having the "precisely similar disposition in mind and body," and imagine them beholding her. They are both attracted to her and tempted by her in the same way, but imagine them now this way: one is stirred by the sight "to enjoy her unlawfully" and the other "continues unmoved in his decision of chastity." On the basis of this example we're imagining, Augustine believes himself to be demonstrating that when we try very hard to track down why the one agrees to lose his chastity (assenting to sin) and the other refuses to lose his chastity (dissenting from sin) [Notice: Augustine is also arguing in a way here where he cannot have us imagine the one agree to keep his chastity, since that would mean willing to do the good, and we already have a hard enough time imagining this scenario.], we cannot pinpoint anything in either the woman, the men, or the way the men interact and respond with the presentation of the woman in themselves. There is nothing that allows us to see why they are responding differently. This is his example.

"And so, if anyone tries to discover a cause which produced the evil choice in one of the pair, if he scrutinizes the situation carefully, no cause suggests itself." [pg 479]

I am not sure if this is an intentional oversight on Augustine's part, but I remember him telling me to suppose and see these individuals seeing her. I know where the difference in them is. It's in me, the one imagining these things. I must be wrong, since it seems all too easy to just acknowledge that the situation is contrived—not in the unpleasant sense, but in just how it's what I'm supposing on the basis of what I already know about hetero men and attractive women: some of them are respecting and act chaste, others are given over to lust and enjoy unlawfully. While I might disagree that these are the only options available (since, some people do enjoy one another lawfully, as perhaps the duplicated man and the woman just have this kind of relationship), I get what he's trying to say. It's an arbitrarily imagined scenario.

But notice: Augustine mentions the Tempter as the one who persuades the evil man to yield to temptation. This sounds like Augustine absently places the Tempter as what causes the evil man to yield. This isn't a real problem. Augustine is consistent: the Tempter is only tempting, which is creating the conditions for the choice to be made. Nobody is making the evil man choose —that's the point. Except, this isn't entirely right. We're missing out on something: Augustine and we are the ones who are doing this imagining, this supposing, this seeing. We are worse than the Tempter who creates the conditions for the evil one to choose to yield, since the Tempter doesn't force the evil one to choose. We are worse because we suppose the evil one makes the evil choice and enjoys unlawfully. The imagined object of our imagination has no choice but to commit evil and submit to how we imagine him acting. But we don't see our imagination working this way, since we don't see the objects of our imaginations as things subject to our own whims, as if they had a choice about being our thoughts. It's an off thought.

So, instead, let's just consider the man as a mere imaginary being in an imaginary scenario and notice that it's not in the mind nor the body nor the woman nor the setting that decides why there appears to be a freedom here. We are able to imagine a person as having a freedom about this, the way Augustine frames it, only if we're also to acknowledge along with Augustine that our will, once evil, produces a more likely turning towards the evil choice. We have seen bad people do bad things, and we have seen bad people do good things, and sometimes it's the same person and sometimes the same situation but a different time. We know what it's like to live inside these bodies and enjoy unlawfully as well as lawfully. We use our experiences to support our imagining here: how people differ in their freedom to assent to temptation or refuse it is a result of a change in the disposition and the body. Our experience collides with the point he's making here and with the rest of how he surveys humanity.

I'll leave that aside for the moment. The point is this. Augustine argues that the evil will has no cause other than the nothing. Where is this nothing?

"It will then be found that the evil choice takes its origin not from the fact that the man is a natural being, but from the fact that his natural being is created from nothing. For if the nature is the cause of the evil will, can we help saying that evil is derived from good, and that good is the cause of evil? This must be so, if the evil will derives from a nature which is good."

It is the lack in the man. We are able to experience the lack of good similarly with the way we experience "darkness and silence," by which we are only aware of these for the presentation of an absence of perception. [pg 480; XII.7] Thus, it is our having been created from nothing; it is our lack of perfection through being created from nothing. We are "deficient" for having been created from nothing. [XII.8]

Here, Augustine has a metaphysical explanation for how the first sin commenced. It's the deficiency caused by the lacking, the nothing from which humans were made. In the midst of this arguemnt is this great paragraph:

"No one therefore must try to get to know from me what I know that I do not know, unless, it may be, in order to learn not to know what must be known to be incapable of being known! For of course when we know things not by perception but by its absence, we know them, in a sense, but not-knowing, so that they are not-known by being known—if that is a possible or intelligible statement! For when with our bodily eyes, our glance travels over material forms, as they are presented to perception, we never see darkness except when we stop seeing. And we can only perceive silence by means of our ears, and through no other sense, and yet silence can only be perceived by not hearing. In the same way, the 'ideas' presented to the intellect are observed by our mind in understanding them. And yet when these 'ideas' are absent, the mind acquires knowledge by not-knowing. For 'who can observe things that are lacking?'" [XII.7]

This reads very similarly with what Descartes has been arguing. We have the representation of the non-thing as a thing, a lack presented as a presence of lacking. Not-knowing is an activity in the way knowing is, but the former is knowledge formed by the presentation of a hole, whereas the latter is formed by the presentation of a filling.

But there is a difference. Descartes had argued that, while this might be the case, it is also possibly the case that the materially false situation obtains when both presentations of dimming and brightening are separate reals in objective reality and both are materially false, the presentations of non-things as things. Descartes extends the Augustinian lesson here, because now for Descartes in the Third Meditation it is also the case that we not only, to use Augustine's language, not-know the thing presenting an absence as a presence, we also know we can not-know whether it is an absence being presented —occasions where we do not know for sure if this is not-knowing in the first place, since we can not-know situations where we are not-knowing something. Don't think so?

Consider: Try to imagine a scenario where you are not-knowing something. What are you imagining? I imagine what convention suggests: something like cold being the presentation of an absence of heat, or darkness as the presentation of an absence of light. But try to imagine a scenario presenting the absent presentation of a presence of absence. Is it formally indistinguishable from a totally clear and distinct presentation of reality, where the presentation of reality contains no absent presentations, everything fully being its seeming? In Descartes, this looks exactly like the situation where there is no materially false idea: everything being number, extension, size, shape, position, motion. If it is not the same, then what is the difference between parity in objective and formal realities on the one hand and on the other not knowing whether or not there is something I am not-knowing?

Suppose they are the same.

If I know there was something I am not-knowing, then I know this is a world containing both the clear and distinct ideas and at least one thing presenting a non-thing as a thing. This is not the world where there are no materially false ideas, which is contrary to what we assumed just now.

But if I know there is nothing I am not-knowing, then I know all my ideas of this world contain only those ideas clearly and distinctly perceived by me. I am in certainty and in truth. But at this point, this is not the case, since I do know I have been confused in the past. Still, I am assuming I am not knowing whether or not there is something I am not-knowing, so this is contrary anyway to our assumption. We do need to clearly eliminate these options.

Whether or not there is something I am not-knowing, for me to say that I do not know whether or not there is something I am not-knowing means I know that I lack the ideas both of my own knowing there is something I am not-knowing and of my own knowing there is no thing I am not-knowing. Neither is clear and distinct, both are confused and obscure, and so I "do not even know whether they are true or false, that is, whether the ideas I have of them are ideas of things or ideas of non-things" [Hackett pg 75]. I lack both confirmation and denial for these ideas. Thus, I lack indication of knowing what is not-known. And since the lack is a presentation of an absence, then I am not-knowing what I know about what is not-known. This was Augustine's joke: learn from him in order "not to know what must be known to be incapable of being known" [Penguin pg 481; XII.7].

So, if I am not-knowing what I know I am not-knowing, then this is exactly the same structure as lacking any evidence I have completed my task and ensured I believe only in those things clear and distinct. In other words, if I do not know there is nothing I am not-knowing, then this absence is presented to me as my own lacking of any indications I have gone wrong so far —everything seems to be coming along nicely, since I lack any indication I'm wrong. I am, therefore, not-knowing what I am not-knowing, which in this case is nothing.

This is Cartesian certainty, the absence of any perceivable errors in my thinking from my own point of view, the errors having been corrected and removed. But Descartes knows he is not certain this way: he knows that there are confused and obscure ideas.

So, there is a way to conceive of Cartesian certainty as the not-knowing of what I know not to be known, a kind of odd inconsistency where total consistency includes the presentation within itself of something that is, necessarily, incapable of being including within that total consistency, since the presentation of non-things as things is not clear and distinct. I don't think this is a fatal inconsistency. I could easily be wrong somewhere in the chain of reasoning that brought me here. But I am arguing here that if Descartes knows he lacks evidence to settle what's really going on with materially false ideas—if he knows he doesn't know whether the materially false ideas are true or false, whether they are ideas of things or non-things—then he has presented the lack, a non-thing, as a thing.

The difference, then, that makes Cartesian certainty not be not-knowing what I know not to be known, is for the Cartesian thinking thing to not consider the lacking of any confused and obscure ideas following alongside its construction of its totality of ideas and thinking only on the basis of clear and distinct ideas as not, itself, a thing. It cannot think of the lack as a presentation; it cannot think of its own absence of evidence for some things as, itself, a thing presented to itself. It must stay exactly within its own thinking of clear and distinct things. It cannot even wonder about what it does not know, since to imagine what is not known is to present this lack of knowing to itself as a thing capable of being known as a lacking.

But there's a problem with this. Descartes is thinking of the lack of presentation of the absence of things: it is exactly the concept of the materially false idea as he defined it. Material falsity "is found in ideas whenever they present a non-thing as if it were a thing" [Hackett pg 75]. He has generalized from the occasion of encountering confused and obscure ideas—"light and colors, sounds, odors, tastes, heat and cold and other tactile qualities"—into the concept of non-thing presented as it were a thing. He has made a thing out of the presentation of non-things. And if he avoids these, he will do well. So, he will know that he has been proceeding well in his thinking only if he knows also that he does not base any of his beliefs on confused and obscure ideas, and he can only know that if he, minimally, also knows that there are no such beliefs. He has to know that none of his beliefs about his beliefs is materially false.

Remember where those materially false beliefs come from. For Descartes, they come like they do for Augustine, from nothing, or from one's "not entirely perfect" nature. Materially false ideas arise out of the lack of a way to discern further beyond the confusion and obscurity; the imperfections of one's thinking.

What about God? Where does that idea come from? There are a lot of ways to take Descartes' argument in the Third Meditation, but it's clear the general flow of the argument is meant to show that the idea is so beyond what he is capable of forming, it must formally be greater than the objective reality one possesses of it. Let's look carefully.

The name of 'God' is that idea which, for Descartes, is "a certain substance that is infinite, independent, supremely intelligent and supremely powerful, and that created me along with everything else that exists—if anything else exists" [pg 76]. How does Descartes have any ideas about any of these things? His argument resists the Augustinian argument earlier and rejects it. Instead, he holds "there is more reality in an infinite substance than there is in a finite one," and so his ideas of the infinite are more real than his ideas of the finite. The finite who he is is the negation of the infinite idea of God: "For how would I understand that I doubt and that I desire, that is, that I lack something and that I am not wholly perfect, unless there were some idea in me of a more perfect being, by comparison with which I might recognize my defects?"

The infinite idea is prior to his own idea of his own finitude, his own deficiencies. How does he know this? He told us: he understands that he lacks something, he understands there is a gap between what he is as a doubter and desirer and who God is as not doubting, not desiring. It's not that he extrapolates a God from the reality of his own limits, so he argues, but the opposite: the difference between his idea of a substance infinite, independent, supremely intelligent and supremely powerful and his idea of himself as none of these things reveals the lack. So he can only see the lack as the incommensurability between himself and God from comparing the two. He is what God is limited; it is not the case that God is what Descartes is unlimited.

Now, Descartes declares this idea of the infinite God is clear and distinct, more clear and distinct than any other idea. "I maintain that this idea of a being that is supremely perfect and infinite is true in the highest degree . . . The result is that, of all the ideas that are in me, the idea that I have of God is the most true, the most clear and distinct" [pg 77]. But what is this idea? He admits he does not comprehend it, but this is okay. As he says, the "nature of the infinite is such that it is not comprehended by a being such as I, who am finite."

He also knows a secret openly declared. If it were the case that he is the source of his own existence, if he really did make himself up, then why would he make himself limited? He doesn't actually consider the possibility that, perhaps, there is something worthwhile in learning about one's self from the standpoint of the fragility or passivity of human life. Instead, he says he "would have given myself all the perfections of which I have some idea; in so doing, I myself would be God!" [78] If he were God, then God gives to himself those perfections necessary in being God, but since he does not have all those perfections, then he is not God. Any partial attainment of the perfections is also not possible for him, since whatever it is about God such that God has all of the perfections will have meant that only the full perfection of the perfections will obtain in the idea of God. Descartes is explicitly closing off the possibility that he is a God-in-transit, here. Either he is God, or he is not. There is no partially being God. Yet, he does know his own desire to be God, since if it were in his own capacity to make himself God, then he will have always been God. Since he has not been God, he is not God, and so will not be God. But, he can imagine what it's like, enough to know that his imagination is not fulfilled by the reality.

What does this mean? Consider it this way. Descartes on the one hand argues that materially false ideas are those ideas presenting a non-thing as though it were a thing. He wants to avoid these ideas. When he thinks about what he is like as God, what exactly is he imagining? He admits that his ideas of the infinite are incomprehensible. He knows his limitations only in comparison with the prior idea of the infinite being, but the comparison has its meaning only if he comprehends both. Otherwise, all he knows is how the comprehended does not compare with the incomprehensible on account of the incomprehensible's infinity, supremacy, independence. How does he understand something that he cannot comprehend if the understandable is clear and distinct?

Here is where I will stop for the moment to rest, and I did not even manage to get to Pascal.

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