Thursday, February 14, 2008

Speculations on the Path of Reason

In the previous post on this topic, the logic of contrafactory identity was introduced, but not much was said on what to do with it. Here I want to continue on with that discussion.

In monotheist religions, God is revealed as unknowable, because God is not an object (cannot be perceived, cannot be captured in discursive reason, etc.). Not being an object, one cannot apply Aristotelian logic to questions about God. If one does ascribe some attribute to God, that ascription must immediately be put "under erasure", as deconstructionists like to put it, that is, accompanied by loud warnings that the attribute is being used analogically. To do otherwise is to fall into idolatry. All this, of course, is familiar ground to theologians. Now the problem with this, for one without faith, is that it is all kicked off by the assumption that God is real yet unknowable, and so one might ask: who cares?

The reason to care is that bit about falling into idolatry. Another place this pops up is in Buddhism, where the problem is self-idolatry, that is, believing in the "inherent existence" of one's self, which causes attachment, which causes suffering. But here, the lack of inherent existence of the self is not just something revealed (though it is), but something one can work out on one's one, and indeed in one strain of Buddhism (the Gelukba sect of Tibetan Buddhism), this thinking is the primary practice.

The common sense way of thinking about the self is that it persists as one observes objects. I was not seeing the tree, and now I am. But in stating this, I have also stated that in seeing the tree the self has changed. Are there two 'I''s involved? If so, what lets me connect them? Nor can one say that most of the self has stayed the same, while just part of it has changed in observing the tree, for that would imply that the part that has stayed the same is totally unaware of the part that observed the tree (to be aware, it would have to have changed). And so, in order to persist when it observes objects, the self must not persist when it observes objects. Hence, one concludes: one cannot say that the self persists.

Can one just say that the self is an illusion, that all there really is is change? Then where does the illusion of the self come from? Or to put it another way: how is experiencing an illusory self different from experiencing a non-illusory self? In either case, there is a sense of persistence, which is to say consciousness. Yet if all there is is change, then there can be no spanning of the state before a change to after, for that which spans cannot be the change. Hence, one can cannot say that the self does not persist.

Now this sort of word-wrangling has been going on since there has been philosophy, East or West. Why shouldn't one, as Wittgenstein and contemporary pragmatists urge, just stop wrangling? There are a couple of reasons. The first is that by asking "does the self persist", or more generally, "what is self", and as one goes through arguments like the foregoing, one is in effect deconstructing the self, and that is, according to Buddhists, at least, a good thing to do. It is a way of breaking one's attachment toward self-idolatry. But there is another reason, which I think is more important, though I admit there is a touch of speculation involved. In an earlier post, I quoted Denys Turner in regard to Aquinas' view of intellectus with respect to ratio. Here is another quote from the same book (Faith, Reason and the Existence of God, p. 87):

For Thomas, ... reason's powers, pushed to their limit, open up into the territory of intellectus: and they do so, as I shall argue, precisely in the proofs of the existence of God. In those proofs, we could say, reason self-transcends, and by its self-transcendence, becomes 'intellect'".

As before, I have yet to see whether he can make the case that this applies particularly to Aquinas' proofs of the existence of God, but even if not, I would say they do apply to any exercise of the logic of contrafactory identity (LCI). Now I do not mean to imply that just by rattling off the above arguments over the persistence of the self one has transcended static intellect. All that that does is take one to the limit, but not beyond. On the other hand, what better place is there to contemplate what might be beyond?

At this point, consider again the quote from Merrell-Wolff: "It [the experienced flow of contradiction] seemed to be the real underlying fact of all consciousness of all creatures." What I hypothesize is that dynamic intellect just is the LCI, but seen from its own perspective. It is the LCI that creates the self, with its changing by not changing, etc., or one can say that the self (or consciousness) is LCI doing its thing. From our (fallen) perspective, we imagine our self as separate from that reasoning, which is to say we only perceive it as a nest of contradictions, and not as creative contrafactions. And that arises from our belief that we are an inherently existing self that is doing the reasoning, which is to say, is a result of self-idolatry.

Now I mentioned that, for me, this line of thought is speculation, though given Wolff's statement (which I assume is not speculative, but experiential), I have some confidence in it. What is missing, for me, is what Wolff calls a "shift in the basis of consciousness", which is one way he describes mystical states. From the discussion in the previous paragraph, I would say that the shift is from a basis of self-idolatry, to a basis of LCI. In seeing the LCI-type reasoning from this (self-idolatrous) side all one sees is limit. By "becoming" the LCI, one would then "see" the self being created by the LCI. But, of course, there is no button to push to accomplish that shift -- it just happens. Perhaps by living at the limit (i.e., engaging in LCI exercises) one makes the shift more likely, but that is definitely speculative.


Anonymous said...

Scott, (I love where this leads to)
this is a gigantic idea, but with vary little words. No doubt you have countless hours of thought behind this. I have some things I'd like to say about it, but I'm affraid I'll have to think about this one for a while.

Anonymous said...

Before I get into thinking about this the first thing that came to mind was regarding the contrast you used between eastern and western thought.

For the west:
To idolize god, is a wrong, is sinfull. Yet the west has always idolized the self. Look to any religious institution, or the west in general.

For the east:
to idolize self, is wrong, "sinfull". However in this case the east always idolizes "god". We need only to look to hinduism, which as I may have said before has idols for many gods. We must however understand that the idols are seen as merely representations of the many ways in which "god" manifests himself and gives the eastern thinker a lanuage with which to talk about "god".

But again, this doesn't even touch upon your idea, it's simply where I started...

Anonymous said...

I'm not so sure I understand you here:
And so, in order to persist when it observes objects, the self must not persist when it observes objects. Hence, one concludes: one cannot say that the self persists.

I also don't understand where you get two I's from? You state that one may go from not seeing a tree, to seeing a tree (with respect to persistance). But... You are always persisting with respect to the continual flow on new stimuli from second to second. This being the case, are there infinate I's?

Let me try to me more clear:
I would be of the frame of mind that nothing actually persists per-sa. (If persists means to continue on existing in some static form). And if the I you refer to is in fact a static I, then no doubt they are infinate.

I'm hung up on your usage of persistance, and cannot find a way to respond to this as a result.

scott roberts said...


First, I could have used the word "endures" and "duration" rather than "persists" and "persistence", if that's any help.

On your first question, what it means is the same as what you say at the end: I would be of the frame of mind that nothing actually persists per-se. (If persists means to continue on existing in some static form.

In other words, all I was doing in this part is to give the reasoning behind saying "One cannot say that the self persists".

I just mentioned two 'I's, since I was abstracting a hypothetical situation of just one change, but of course you are right that there would be innumerable 'I's. But that really means there wouldn't be any 'I's, since none would endure long enough to say "I am". Which is why one cannot say the self does not persist.

In other words, believing that the self persists leads one into logical difficulty, and believing that the self does not persist also leads one into logical difficulty.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure where this leads one too? That is to say, I'm quite comfortable with the logical difficulty this line of reasoning poses. This only mens our definition of self is, at the bottom, quite nebulous.

You seem to have some scientific underppinings here that your drawing on and/or that your considering aside from what your saying?

I'd be interested in to see you continue this subject on a much larger scale. As it stands we're just sort of hanging here... I'd give you my thoughts on this, but I'd rather not attempt to tak ethe place of anything you havn't yet said.

scott roberts said...

Where this leads to (see here) is that I think the cause of these "logical difficulties" is that the self is not spatiotemporal. Which, if true, means that we are dealing not with logical difficulties, but with logical impossibilities -- but of course that cannot be proved. Hence, I think that the problem is not with a definition of the self being nebulous, but that the self itself is (in terms useful to Aristotelian logic) undefinable.

Anonymous said...

The self is undefinable, absolutely. The whole idea of the saying "know thyself" is to say also, "what is the sound of one hand clapping". It is a saying who's intention is to quite the reasoning mind.

Anonymous said...

"Where there is an other fear arises."

What ever else Western mono-theistic religion pretends to say about God it is based on the presumption that we are inherently separate from Real God, the World Process altogether, and from each other and all other sentient beings.

Simultaneous with this presumption of separateness, everything is thus objectified.
Beginning, both historically and in now time, with God as the always other and objectified "great relation".

Contrary to its presumed intentions ALL of the usual "theology" effectively reduces The Divine to the mortal human meat-body scale and thereby seeks to control The Divine.

The Divine can then be used to justify all of the usual horrors of life including the INEVITABLE wars and imperial invasions.

Plus the moment you objectify anything you automatically seek to gain total power and control over everything. And even eventually destroy the thus objectified "other".

Everything "other", including The Divine, thus becomes your mortal enemy, and you are thus always at war with everything including The Divine.

Western "culture" (in particular) is thus saturated with fear and is based on the drive to total power and control over everything.

As a collective force Western "culture" has thus reached a perhaps terminal point because it has relentlessly objectified quite literally everything, and is now in the inevitable process of destroying everything.

Such a destruction process being the Inevitable outcome or manifestation of the fear saturated "cultural" script that drives it.

Strangely and grotequely enough many right wing religionists are loudly cheering this process along. All in the name of the "final victory".

Either in the form of the final HIS-story-ical "victory" over Islam or vice-versa.

Or the final "victory" of "jesus".

Or both.

scott roberts said...

To the more recent "Anonymous" (I have disallowed anonymous comments -- I prefer to be able to distinguish who is commenting):

What does this rant have to do with anything I have said? Please think about my posts before regurgitating tired old thoughts about God.