My Friend’s Philosophy

Whenever I am uncertain about a philosophical issue, especially when I am on the verge of changing my mind about something that I deem important, I like to run my ideas past a certain friend of mine. This man is extremely sceptical and cynical, in the contemporary meanings of those words. We used to joke, or perhaps half-joke, that he worshipped Richard Dawkins. So when I am considering something decidedly non-scientific, especially something concerning religion or the like, I find it very helpful to discuss the matter with him. He always makes short work of any nonsense or inconsistencies in my arguments.

Some time ago, we argued about the nature of morality. He believes that his sense of right and wrong does not correspond to any objective, external measure of morality. He believes that no system of morality can be said to be correct or incorrect but rather that all moral systems are equally valid or invalid. Indeed, on his account objective validity is not a concept that can be coherently applied to morality.

This understanding of morality seems to accord with current scientific opinion. The origin of our moral sense appears to be explicable solely in terms of biological and cultural evolution. However, since no normative conclusions can be drawn from such a genealogy (as we have seen) we are left with moral nihilism. Morality is revealed to be a convenient fiction.

In the interests of honest disclosure, I must admit that my dissent from this view is motivated in part by my disgust at the above conclusion. I find moral nihilism utterly repellent. However, if that is the truth of the matter then so be it. I am unable to believe something that I know to be false. But it seems likely to me that there is an error in his argument: if morality exists then it is surely not a physical thing, which means that our inability to scientifically deduce a system of morality from physical truth is irrelevant, or at least inconclusive. My friend’s reply is that morality does not exist in any meaningful sense.

He divides reality into the objective and the subjective. That which is objective is the same for everyone, whereas that which is subjective may differ from person to person. He then declares that the objective exists but the subjective does not. He further declares that we may define the objective as that which can be independently observed by different people (or that which different people can logically deduce from independent observations). Thus the truths of physics are objective, whereas the truths of morality are subjective (and hence not really truths at all).

If we were to encounter an alien civilisation, composed of beings utterly different from our own, we could be sure that we would agree on the mathematics of the physical world. If any of our physical or mathematical theories were contradictory, we could resolve the contradiction through observation and logical analysis. In contrast, we should not expect our moral systems to be similar — indeed, we have many wildly divergent moral systems here on Earth — and there is no scientific procedure by which we could resolve our moral differences. It is in this respect that my friend distinguishes between the objective and subjective. The former can be determined by reference to an external, independent reality, while the latter is purely personal.

I am also happy to define the objective as that which is the same for everyone and the subjective as that which might differ for each person. However, I do not see why there could not be something objective that is nevertheless not amenable to scientific enquiry. My friend replies that he does not think it makes sense to talk about the existence of something that cannot be independently observed.

But surely that is begging the question. If you define existence as the potential to be independently observed, then of course that which cannot be independently observed does not exist. But why choose that definition of existence in the first place?

The one thing that I know exists is my personal, subjective experience. No coherent philosophy can deny that. Solipsists may deny that anything else exists but even they cannot deny that thought or personal experience exists. Everything else is a deduction, abstraction or extrapolation from that primary fact which is that I experience.

If we grant ontological validity to the distinction between the subjective and the objective, as my friend would like to do, then we are surely left with either some form of substance dualism or solipsistic idealism. The one thing we cannot coherently do is to define existence as a property that does not belong to the only thing that we cannot deny exists.

Given that both substance dualism and idealism have their own significant problems, I am led to believe that my friend’s distinction between the objective and the subjective is epistemological rather than ontological. This should not really be surprising, since he defined those two categories in terms of the means by which one acquires knowledge about them.

Thus we are forced to accept the existence of some things, or some properties of things, that cannot be identified through independent observation of physical reality, i.e. scientific experimentation. But how do we come to have knowledge of such things?

My friend would say that there is no valid means of acquiring knowledge besides the scientific method, simply because without recourse to independent observation of an external reality we have no means of differentiating between competing claims. I have one moral system, you have another, how can we possibly determine whose is right? This inability to “objectively” distinguish between competing claims is the reason he would deny reality to any such claims.

It is rather a stumbling block. It does not seem necessary, or indeed rational, to deny reality to something merely because it is not amenable to the methods of scientific enquiry. However, it is not unreasonable to declare that there’s no point talking about something if we can never be sure whether what we say is true or false.

But here my friend’s argument becomes circular once again. He has implied a theory of truth whereby “true” and “false” are to be determined by empirical observation and logical deduction therefrom alone. He has taken Sir Karl Popper’s maxim that potential falsifiability differentiates science from non-science and elevated it to a criterion that differentiates between the meaningful and the meaningless. But there is really no rational reason to do this, it is merely the indulgence of an aesthetic preference for “hard science and logic”.

Popper himself preferred Alfred Tarski’s semantic theory of truth. He believed that Tarski had rehabilitated Aristotle’s correspondence theory of truth. Indeed, as Malachi Haim Hacohen writes in Karl Popper – The Formative Years (Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp. 281-282), it is hard to see how one can make sense of falsifiability without some form of correspondence theory of truth.

In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy‘s entry on correspondence theories of truth, Marian David writes:

The metaphysical version presented by Thomas Aquinas is the best known: “Veritas est adaequatio rei et intellectus” (Truth is the equation of thing and intellect), which he restates as: “A judgment is said to be true when it conforms to the external reality”—he tends to use “conformitas” and “adaequatio”, but also uses “correspondentia”, giving the latter a more generic sense (De Veritate, Q.1, A.1-3; cf. Summa Theologiae, Q.16)…

Aquinas’ balanced formula “equation of thing and intellect” is intended to leave room for the idea that “true” can be applied not only to thoughts and judgments but also to things or persons (e.g., a true friend). Aquinas explains that a thought is said to be true because it conforms to reality, whereas a thing or person is said to be true because it conforms to a thought (a friend is true insofar as, and because, he conforms to our, or God’s, conception of what a friend ought to be). Medieval theologians regarded both, judgment-truth as well as thing/person-truth, as somehow flowing from, or grounded in, the deepest truth which, according to the Bible, is God: “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14, 6). Their attempts to integrate this Biblical passage with more ordinary thinking involving truth gave rise to deep metaphysico-theological reflection. The notion of thing/person-truth, which thus played a very important role in ancient and medieval thinking, is disregarded by modern and contemporary analytic philosophers but survives to some extent in existentialist and continental philosophy.

I am, in general, antipathetic to continental philosophy. However, as incomprehensible as I find most of his writing, I still retain a deep respect for Heidegger. It appears I am not the only one with analytical tendencies who nevertheless cannot help admiring him; in Atheism and Theism (Wiley-Blackwell, 2003, p. 32), J.J.C. Smart writes:

Despite the fact that I am repelled by Heidegger’s style of philosophical writing, there is nevertheless one respect in which I have a sneaking fellow feeling with him. This is his propensity to ask why there is anything at all.

Although I find his answers baffling, I share with Smart a respect for Heidegger’s propensity to ask important questions. Smart refers to the key question which underlies all of Heidegger’s philosophy but there are two subsidiary aspects of that enquiry that appeal to me strongly. One is his view of death, which I have mentioned before. The other is his view of truth.

Heidegger distinguishes between two different understandings of “truth”. The first, which Bernd Magnus has called the epistemological concept of truth, is the correspondence theory of truth that Heidegger associates with Western metaphysics from Plato onwards. The second, which Magnus has called the ontological concept of truth and which Heidegger claims is an earlier, pre-Socratic understanding, is the concept of alétheia. This is an Ancient Greek word that Heidegger interprets as “un-hiding”, “un-forgetting” or in more natural English: “disclosure”.

Heidegger contrasts the epistemological notion of truth as correspondence with his ontological notion of truth as disclosure. Another friend of mine, rather different in attitude from the friend mentioned above, once told me that the truths of fiction are “more true because they are fiction.” I think that’s a somewhat over-the-top way of making the point but I believe I understand what he is trying to say. In a similar manner to Heidegger, he has rejected the correspondence theory of truth, according to which we divide literature into fact and fiction, in favour of a notion of truth that can better be described as revealing or disclosing the intrinsic nature of the world. Rather than a relationship between propositions and facts about reality, alétheia is the disclosure of reality itself.

Of course, this veering off into continental philosophy would be rejected by those of an unsympathetic scientific bent. Indeed, Heidegger is a figure of hatred and ridicule for many analytical philosophers. This is only slightly unfair: he deserves much of the vituperation sent his way for his writing is so unbelievably obtuse. I get his point that the deep truths of reality elude logical expression, or even expression in everyday language, but is that really a justification for writing enormous tomes in his own convoluted language? Not only does he make up unnecessarily confusing terminology but he also perverts the usual rules of grammar to such an extent that it is pretty much impossible to be sure of what he was trying to say. I blame Heidegger, along with Hegel and Husserl, for encouraging the pretentious nonsense that calls itself postmodern philosophy today. But it may be noteworthy that Heidegger himself had no truck with existentialism and regarded Sartre as having completely misunderstood his work.

Nevertheless, despite his faults of expression, I find much to be admired in Heidegger’s critique of modern Western philosophy. Perhaps Heidegger’s work functions better as a guidebook than a textbook — most of my understanding of Heidegger comes from the commentary of others rather than primary texts, which I have tried but failed to comprehend — but that is no reason to dismiss it out of hand.

In summary, I consider some of the truths about the world — which are not necessarily “higher” or “deeper” than scientific truths, whatever that might mean, but merely of a different order — to be fundamentally unanswerable by empirical observation. I do not think it is reasonable or rational to define either reality or meaningfulness in terms of that which is amenable to the scientific method. Thus any attempt to use such definitions to argue for the non-existence or meaninglessness of morality is doomed to failure before it even begins.

I do not know how seriously I should take Heidegger’s view of truth, although I do find it aesthetically appealing, but I mentioned it here mostly to demonstrate that a correspondence theory of truth is not the only way to save truth from relativism. One advantage of Heidegger’s alétheia, as I see it, is that it provides a possible foundation for truths, especially moral truths, without the need to somehow deduce them from physical fact. It appeals to me especially as a description of the sense in which myths are true: that myths are neither allegory nor history but rather tales that disclose truth makes perfect sense to me.

Finally, just to annoy the Heidegger-haters out there, I quote with admiration a description of Heidegger’s take on Germany in the 1930s:

Heidegger believed in German culture, tradition and a third way between communism and capitalism. He said: “Everything essential and great has only emerged when human beings had a home and were rooted in a tradition.” He was a critic of modern science and what he thought was humanity’s subjugation to technology. He wrote with a sense of impending crisis or catastrophe and spoke of a “darkening of the world” and an “enfeeblement of the spirit.” He referred to Germany caught between the world of Anglo-American democracy to the west and Soviet communism to the east. Germany, he believed, was thereby under pressure and “most endangered.”

Published in: on July 6, 2009 at 2:20 am  Leave a Comment  

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