Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Discourse on method

A while back, Rod Dreher had a post that led to a discussion in the comments about scientism and related matters. One of my comments ended up being a sort of book report on Gilson’s Methodical Realism (“MR”), which I excerpt below the fold with light edits:

The Thomist understanding of realism about our “manifest image” (in Sellars’ phrase) of nature ought to be that outlined in “MR”. Gilson describes Descartes as having trapped himself in his own head by founding his attempt to escape from solipsistic doubt about res extensa upon the cogito that assured Descartes to his own satisfaction of the existence of his own res cogitans. Gilson goes on to discuss how post-Cartesian epistemology assumed Descartes sharp dichotomy between the subjective mental and the objective physical, so that Locke ended in empiricism (which overemphasizes Descartes’ extended matter), Berkeley in idealism (which overemphasizes Descartes’ cogitative mental), and Hume in skepticism about induction rather opposed to how science actually operates (despite logical positivism’s later failed effort to make a go of a Humean “observed regularities” substitute for inductive ascertainment of causality), and Kant ended up elaborating an analytic/synthetic distinction that not only paralleled the Cartesian cogitative/extended distinction, but likewise remained unable to get outside human subjectivity enough to have any confidence that we are able to grasp external reality objectively.

Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” shows Kant’s distinction to be untenable. Part of what Quine does with that is to propose a coherentist epistemology (and ontology), which Rorty of course takes in a very pragmatist direction. Gilson makes a somewhat (only somewhat!) similar move in “MR.” As I reconstruct the steps in his argument from memory (so don’t trust my ordinals in these paragraphs), Gilson first notes the traditional Thomist presupposition that our commonsensical manifest image of reality really does make contact with nature, because indeed we are part of that nature. (Gilson doesn’t get into this in “MR,” but part of the context here for me is that the Thomist is a hylomorphist, so she takes not just the human brain to be a compound of matter and form, but also, say, a rock. IOW, there is no Cartesian divorce between mental and material—both our subjective minds and the objective world are part of a hylomorphic continuum without any radical break: there are no formless objects, and objects’ forms are what render them intelligible.)

Gilson’s second move is to anticipate the objection that his position amounts to a mere naïve realism of the Thomas Hutcheson sort, blissfully ignoring the manifold errors of sense that render the commonsensical manifest image an unreliable guide to reality. Gilson briskly concedes the occasional deceptions of sense, and the need to deepen and correct the commonsensical manifest image with the deliverances of hypothesis and experiment. (E.g., evolution designed us to perceive a manifest image of a world of medium-sized solid objects like lions and thrown stones moving at Newtonian speeds at or near the Earth’s surface. But obviously the lion is made of cells, the solid-seeming stone consists of atomic nuclei surrounded mostly by empty space, and both would behave differently at light speed or in microgravity, etc.) 

But third, Gilson then makes a somewhat phenomenological move. (On my own reading, not in the sense that he explicitly invokes Husserl or something.) He notes that whatever the errors of sense or the (undisputed!) need to correct and deepen our manifest image with natural science, it unavoidably remains the case that such science presupposes our commonsensical ways of knowing if it is to have any data to interpret and amend. (Again, even the sophisticated instrument must still have its results read off by some human.)

Fourth, Gilson stresses that the Thomist begins with an ontology of the manifest world, and then builds an epistemology that presupposes what sort of world we’re in. This of course “stands Descartes on his head” by beginning with the world before addressing epistemological worries, rather than beginning with solipsistic skepticism and then trying (and inevitably failing) to recreate the world (almost) ex nihilo.
Fifth, Gilson says that we have to judge between the merely methodological choice of starting points made by the Thomist vs. the Cartesian (or Humean or Kantian trapped in the Cartesian project). Gilson happily concedes that there was nothing illict in principle about Descartes’ starting from epistemology, or with founding that epistemology on something like the cogito. It’s a part of the philosophical landscape that cries out to be explored, and thinkers as diverse as Pyrrho and Buddha have ventured into nearby regions. But the project was like the (pre-climate change) quest for a Northwest Passage: worthy trying, but it turned out that Hudson couldn’t get to Cathay that way. Likewise, Descartes’ project would’ve been a great philosophical foundation for realism about the reality of the manifest world (as amended by science) if it had worked. But after watching geniuses like Kant struggle to complete the project, we see that it can’t work: it started out from the wrong place, and can’t get where it wants to go. You cannot get to the world from the cogito.

Gilson sums up with the rather pragmatist (again on my own reading, and speaking loosely) dictum that we ought to judge our philosophical starting points by their fruit. Despite the best efforts of centuries of work by thinkers of genius, the Cartesian tree is fruitless. From those roots, we always end up in the barrenness of Humean or Rortyean skepticism at worst, and in the best case only in the abortive budding of Kantian epistemology, that posits an intersubjective reality, but cannot assure itself of its objectivity.

What the Thomist does instead is simply to grasp the nettle and say that we must found our worldview on a trust that the world as revealed to us is real simply as a methodological axiom. Because when we assume the world is real, we can start from the world and build an epistemology that explains why it is a knowable sort of thing. We can start with what the manifest images gets right (like reading those instruments correctly), and take the errors of sense (the old chestnut about how a stick looks bent in the water, say) and the pathologies of the brain (case histories of which are such a morbid focus in modern philosophy of mind) as special cases of these. What the Thomist takes the post-Cartesians to do is to take the errors of sense and pathologies of mind as paradigmatic, and then treat accuracy as a special case of error. (Now, that is often a great approach in mathematics—where, to take an elementary example, the point you want on the Cartesian grid is in a sense indeed a special case of all the points that aren’t the solution to your algebraic equation—but it sterilizes the tree when applied to epistemology.) 

Gilson’s point ties in with Quine’s. Quine both dissolved Kant’s dichotomy as described above, and insisted that the foundations of science are ultimately no more solid than those of a methodology for spinning a coherent web of beliefs, rather than an immediate grasp of the objectively real. Gilson (again, without any explicit citation of phenomenology, coherentism, or pragmatism—those parallels are my own) makes a similar point: realism about external reality is merely a method for finding facts, and thus cannot ever be a fact found by our method.

Science is a method for discerning and classifying the ontological furniture of reality. Likewise, philosophy is a method for classifying what we discern in contemplation of our manifest (and scientifically amended) image of the world, and theology for classifying what, say, the mystic or the Bible reveals about God, and pure mathematics for discovering and classifying mathematical ideas.

All of these are methodologies, and none of these methodologies is obviously (a key qualification) in a position to stand in judgment over the others. Decision between them, or synthesis of their deliverances, is a sort of “meta-methodological” inquiry, if you will. 

How to begin such an inquiry? Well, in a completely different context, MacIntyre talks in many of his books about aporiai in different ethical traditions. For instance, in Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry (“3RV)”, MacIntyre says that, say, the Nietzchean, the scientific positivist utilitarian (whom MacIntyre confusingly [to any Diderot scholar, at least] dubs “the Encyclopedist” after the way the 1911 Britannica allegedly represents this view as settled Edwardian conventional wisdom), and the Thomist cannot meta-ethically defeat each other, because their starting points are incommensurable, their axiomata like apples and oranges. But as traditions explore the topology of the landscape of ideas, they (re)discover the same incessant questions, and then either find a way through them, or hit a wall—the latter eventuality being of course an aporia. Such an aporia can be a mere anomaly (like the precession of Mercury for Newtonianism before Einstein came along) or a failure at the very heart of a tradition’s project, like a failure to find the Northwest Passage in a tradition whose overriding goal is to do just that. MacIntyre then steps back and looks at the internal history of the Thomist synthesis, which he characterizes (IIRC) as more or less Aquinas transcending (ethical) aporiai in Aristotle with Augustine, and vice-versa. He then takes that sort of meta-ethical success as a paradigm for how we ought to adjudge rival traditions, and unsurprisingly (I think I can even hear the eyes rolling in the TAC peanut gallery) claims that Thomism solves various aporiai for the Nietzchean and the Encyclopedist, and that thus, without even having to get into meta-ethical quagmires of incommensurables, the Thomist ethicist ought to be able to convince the Nietzchean or the Encyclopedist of the grander scope of Thomism on the Nietzchean’s or Encyclopedist’s own terms. (I say “grander scope” in that the insights of Augustine or Aristotle are kind of enfolded within the Thomist synthesis as the Thomist understands it, or much, much more loosely, in the way that Newtonian mechanics is now a special case of quantum and relativistic theories, which thus also envelop Newton in a grander tradition). 

[MacIntyre doesn’t really deliver on that aporia-solving IOU in 3RV, which is a problem with a lot of his books, frankly. Look at “After Virtue” (“AV”): non-aretaic theories are incoherent and misuse the old vocab, therefore a recovery of virtue ethics would be nice. Someone should totally recover it. Also, “the therapist” is an unsavory character, and Greek tragedy has a lot of insight to offer. This is why I recommend Foote’s “Natural Goodness” to the aretao-curious now, and not AV, even though it’s obviously a great book, and a great rec especially for specifically BenOp (as opposed to virtue-ethical) inquirers wanting to grok the whole “communities with shared, thick understandings of virtue” bit.]

Anyhow, I think that MacIntyre’s “method of aporiai” (if I may) is applicable beyond meta-ethics. Obviously, something broadly akin to it is at work in Kuhnian discernment between scientific paradigms (like in the clichéd Newton/Einstein Mercury example I cited above). And I think Quine’s coherentism (and even the more sensible insights of Rorty’s pragmatism) are both (very, very broadly) in the same ballpark with regard to the sort of “meta-epistemological” or “meta-methodological” disputes I’m talking about above. 

And thus MacIntyre, for me, complements Gilson: the Cartesian stance is fruitless (ending in skepticism and relativism), but Thomist methodical realism allows us to build a workable ontology (yielding a workable epistemology)—it bears fruit. Thus, the method of aporiai allows the seeker after philosophical foundations to follow Christ’s adage to judge a tree by its fruit.

Occam’s Razor could be unsheathed now, and a partisan of scientism could comment that Thomism may “work” insofar as it generates an ontology, but that it’s dysfunctional because the ontology it generates is full of made-up nonsense (souls, God, forms, teloi, etc.) that don’t actually exist. And that’s a very fair complaint! But I have to get back to work. So, like MacIntyre, I’ll just say that I think the Thomist ontology both better saves the phenomena (gets through the aporiai) and is a defensible account of what really does exist. But I’ll pull a MacIntyre and leave that as an IOU for another thread or blog post. (Quoth Arrian’s “Anabasis” [IIRC ], “Men never hold themselves to the standards of Alexander’s courage or generalship, but how quick they are to imitate his drunkenness, and plead his example as excuse!” Thus me and MacIntyre. Sorry, folks.)

So here, I just want to argue that “science is true” is an assertion that:

1. Ought to be judged “meta-methodologically,” without presuming the methodology of science itself; and

2. Ought to have this meta-methadological judgment in its turn judged by whether Gilson’s methodical realist account of Thomism does a better job coping with the aporiai noted by the likes of Descartes, Hume, Kant, Popper, or Quine (and maybe, maybe Rorty) than science’s own internal resources can do in solving these aporiai identified by these more (or less!) “pro-science” thinkers following science’s own internal logic and modern (post-Cartesian) workaday scientists’ usual self-understanding of the foundations of their field.

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