…ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not read the signs of the times?
“Dubito ergo cogito, cogito ergo sum:” René Descartes’ famous dictum (captured in this gloss by the critic Antoine Léonard Thomas of the Father of Modern Philosophy’s 1644 Principia Philosophiae) is, in an important sense, the fulcrum of academic philosophy. One can safely affirm that the need to prove something only emerges once the self-evidence of that thing has been lost. Consider, for example, that it was not before St. Anselm of Canterbury formulated his famous ontological arguments that philosophers and theologians (it is only within the last five centuries that one could sensibly differentiate these two respective disciplines in the manner that we find so natural today) felt the need to supplement knowledge through revelation with argument from reason. I hope to demonstrate in this consideration that self-evidence is a function of one’s state of consciousness and that humanity’s general state of consciousness has undergone a profound metamorphosis even in the brief scope of time that recorded history affords. I hope to show that it follows from the above that what we depend on as self-evident today may not provide for this dependence tomorrow. Finally, by situating our moment in its evolutionary context, I hope to offer a perspective into the peculiar challenge of our time.
Before the dawn of the pivotal Cartesian epoch, the divine ground of the world was experienced as something self-evident, both in the West and in all other great civilisations. One can doubtless discover exceptions to this claim (e.g. the Skeptics of Ancient Greece) but without the liberty to consider general trends, history will confront us as a meaningless sequence of events. Thus, while St. Anselm’s ontological argument in the twelfth century represented a foretaste of what was later to come, it was far from a denial of divinity, nor did it represent a sentiment that was general to Western thought. Thus, St. Anselm’s proofs appear as first hint of colour on a western horizon before a slow sunset. Indeed for “The Angelic Doctor” Thomas Aquinas some century and an half later, reason and revelation still related to one another as Cherub and Seraph that flanked the throne of Truth, or as Wisdom and Compassion in the tradition of Mahayana Buddhism, in which these qualities are imagined as two wings of a single eagle. For Aquinas, God granted the human being a faculty to supplement the knowledge which was revealed to her directly. This faculty was the intellect. Nevertheless, already by Aquinas’ day, the Nominalist school amongst the Scholastic philosophers was questioning the ability of the intellect to establish any true connection with reality. What do we think about the intellect today?
Carl Sagan captured the general tenor of a modern response to such a question in his 1977 book Dragons of Eden when he asserted that “[the brain’s] workings—what we sometimes call ‘mind’—are a consequence of its anatomy and physiology, and nothing more.” Forty-years after Sagan wrote these words, such a reductionistically material conception of the mind is often assumed as an axiom amongst the scientific community, whom we have come over the last centuries to hail as the highest epistemological authorities, who constitute the very vanguard of human knowledge. The following is the conclusion from a study published by a group of neuroscientists at Cornell University:
We find a surprisingly simple result: normal wakeful states are characterised by the greatest number of possible configurations of interactions between brain networks, representing highest entropy values. Therefore, the information content is larger in the network associated to conscious states, suggesting that consciousness could be the result of an optimization of information processing. We hope our study represents the preliminary attempt at finding organising principles of brain function that will help to guide in a more formal sense inquiry into how consciousness arises from the organization of matter.
That consciousness may not “arise from organisation of matter” in the first place is obviously not considered, much less the worldview that was natural to Saint Aquinas.
If Anselm’s proofs for the existence of God represent the first evening glow of ontological skepticism, then, returning to the Cartesian dictum from above, we can liken it to the full twilight of this trend. In Descartes philosophical machinations, God appears as a deus ex machina to free him from the inevitable Liar’s Paradox that any bona fide skepticism must lead.
One could chart myriad waypoints on Western humanity’s descent into global dubium. For instance, one could cite David Hume’s famous enunciation of the doctrine of “constant conjunction”—to wit, that causal relations are an illusion and all that one can be certain of are that events may happen to occur together, and furthermore that introspection of himself, to himself, revealed nothing more than such a constant conjunction of mental states. Further, one could notice (naturally without ascribing any unwarranted causal relation) that Immanuel Kant credited Hume’s philosophy as the knell that awoke the former “from [his] dogmatic slumber” and revealed to him that one has no manner to prove that the very world itself, even after all unwarranted projections of causal relation are withdrawn, is not just such a figment. The Nominalists questioned the reality of our ideas (i.e. the content), Kant brought this inquisition to bear on the very categories of ideation themselves (i.e. the forms). Arthur Schopenhauer summarised Kant’s doctrine of Transcendental Idealism with characteristic choleric zeal: “Man does not know a sun and an earth, but only an eye that sees the sun, a hand that feels an earth; … the world … is there only as representation.” Besides the obvious fact that, if the world is definitively will and representation, it is utterly contradictory to exempt the eye and the hand from this condition, the centuries have only amplified force of such epistemological skepticism. Thus we find ourselves today confronted with a study like the one cited above, whose signatories should really have identified themselves as “the organisation of matter formerly known as Guevara Erra et al.”
I have finally arrived at the point that was the original seed for this piece, but which could never have taken root without the soil of context that a brief traverse of philosophical history provides. I have been teaching Introduction to Logic this semester and have been struck by comfortable circularity of the discipline, which ostensibly constitutes the formal foundation of rational inquiry. I resisted the temptation to use our subject itself to demonstrate for my students the fallacy of petitio principii, but not without some agitation of my conscience. Living Nature continually flouts the law of contradiction, for example, as when the blossom negates the bud, and the man negates the child. For this reason, empirical observation alone will never provide sufficient evidence for the truth of logic as such. In this way, one is compelled to seek a foundation in one’s own reasoning capacity without surreptitiously assuming a conclusion of that very reasoning capacity itself as one’s initial premises. For this reason, the principles of logic, eoipso, will never afford the basis to prove the validity of the process that derived them. Indeed, Kurt Gödel famously published his impossible “incompleteness theorems” in the 1930s in which he codified, in the form of a mathematical proof, the inability for any logical system to sustain itself without recourse to another system outside of it. Any consistent system is incomplete; any complete system is inconsistent. On a side note, in this paper I have traced the evolution of consciousness in its expression through the Rationalist tradition. One could very well undertake an analogous enterprise with the Scientific tradition—from Aristotle, to Copernicus, to Bacon, etc…—and arrive at a similar impasse in precisely the beginning of the twentieth century in regard to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: to wit, that a precise measurement of the location of an electron precludes a precise measurement of its momentum, and the reverse. In fact, I have done this in another paper (whose appearance at LeLizard-presse my dear readers may imminently expect).
Returning to the germ of this inquiry, however, one attempt to comprehend the whole historical unfolding if one can allow oneself to be struck by the contrast of the modern worldview with that of a thinker like Heraclitus from the fifth century B.C. Heraclitus speaks of “this Lógos [that] is eternally valid, yet men are unable to understand it—not only before hearing it, but even after they have heard it for the first time…all things come to pass in accordance with this Lógos.” The Obscure Ephesian laments the understanding of mortals but does not question the eternal Lógos per se as the ground of reality. A later resident of Ephésios, John the Evangelist, similarly expressed little doubt as to the world-ground when he penned the immortal opening to the mystical fourth Gospel: “In the beginning was the Lógos…All things were made by [this Lógos]; and without [this Lógos] was not any thing made that was made.” Contrast the latter to Nietzsche’s famous diagnosis some nineteen centuries later that “God is dead,” and former to Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, or the fact that “post-truth” was the Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2016, and one can appreciate the evolutionary trend of the last millennia. As I indicated above, what ultimately makes logic logical is an immediate intuitive acceptance of its principles by the subject, which is to say, direct and unquestionable (or unquestioned?) faith.
Today we still manage to employ logic and reason as something like the final vestige of a faith that was once pantheological, but objective evaluation will suggest that tomorrow, our trust in logic to deliver us from dubito may no longer hold. What was once incontrovertible faith in God, or the eternal Lògos, or Brahman, or Ahura Mazda, or Osiris, or the Dharmakaya, or the Tao—a luminous sphere whose center is everywhere—today is contracted into a flickering point. Thus, as the owl of Minerva spreads her wings, so far as I can see, the only remedy for the post-modern descent is for the human being to raise herself, in spirit, that she may take increasing philosophical, moral, and epistemological (these are all ultimately the same thing) responsibility for her own knowledge since it is no longer bestowed by faith, nor by reason, nor by revelation. The modern human being might reminisce with St. Paul: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child.” Today, however, it seems that lovers of wisdom must put away childish things. The principles of logic provide the last fragments of a scaffold that will not stand beyond tomorrow, and future generations may no longer expect this inheritance from the gods of ages past. Instead, the supporting virtue that we once received from without must eventually be taken over by the free human spirit. As the scaffolding falls away, each of is called to assume the autonomous responsibility for the ideas that she entertains—to put them to the trial by fire of her own conscience. Those ideas that endure this most intimate and immediate proving, we will willingly raise as our ideals. Those ideas which we fail to illuminate will possess us as ideologies.
Originally published in March 2018 on the Lizard-press, which is to Theoria-press as Zeus is to Athena.
Works Cited, thanks to:
R. Guevara Erra, D. M. Mateos, R. Wennberg, J.L. Perez Velazquez. “Towards a
statistical mechanics of consciousness: maximization of number of connections is associated with conscious awareness.” Submitted in July of 2016, revised 2017. Available at: https://arxiv.org/abs/1606.00821
Sagan, Carl. The Dragons of Eden. New York: Random House; 1977.
Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation. 1844.
Steiner, Rudolf. The Philosophy of Freedom: The Basis for a Modern World Conception (1894), trans. Michael Wilson. 7th English edition. The Rudolf Steiner Press, Sussex, UK, 1965.