Regarding Doubt and the Grounds of Knowledge

February 23, 2010

Doubt, if you can, everything. This Descartes attempted, and he claims to have not only successfully doubted all, but moreover to have returned from the void, the foundations of his beliefs being thereby rendered unquestionable. But I cannot go so far; there is much that I cannot doubt. Descartes claims that in his doubt of all, he could nonetheless prove his own existence, for “Cogito, ergo sum.” But I ask, whence “therefore”? How does he who doubts everything know that what thinks exists? For my part, I need no such argument, for I am simply unable to doubt my own existence. Imagine that you do not exist, not by imagining a world in which you had not been born, or a time in this world before you had been born, but thinking that here, now, you do not exist. For my part, I cannot; my power of doubt fails me.

Thus I have a piece of knowledge. But of what nature is it? It is not objectively certain, I suppose; I have not derived it by infallible syllogism from objectively certain premises. But if it is uncertain from this objective standpoint, it is nonetheless subjectively certain,1 for I cannot think otherwise. And if, come what may, I shall never doubt it, what matters the method of its proof? And what, indeed, would an objective proof be? The result of a deduction? But whence the premises? Whence the rules of inference? Objective proof is only possible within a framework to provide premises and a logic. Objective proof of such a framework is impossible.

Consider the principles of propositional logic. ‘A or not A’, and certainly not both. How do we know this? Not from any logic, for it is logic that we seek to prove. Rather, my grounds for belief in the principles of logic are the same as for my belief in my own existence. Without sophistry, attempt to believe both that it is and that it is not snowing. I simply do not know what that would mean. Just as I cannot doubt that I exist, I cannot believe that a contradiction is true. Or believe that it is neither snowing nor not snowing. Again, my powers of mind fail me, and I cannot. Or believe ‘If A then B, but A and not B’. Again, the statement is meaningless to me. Although I cannot prove it false, neither can I doubt its falsity.

Thus I may more clearly state the relationship between subjective and objective proof. An objective proof is interpersonally valid, but hypothetical, so that while those who accept the framework assumed are bound on pain of inconsistency to accept the conclusion, those who deny its foundations are bound to nothing. Subjective proof, by contrast, is not interpersonally valid; indeed, the proof is intrinsically incommunicable, being the inability to doubt the proposition proved. However, while objective proof binds conditionally, subjective proof binds absolutely: one who professes disbelief in what he cannot doubt denies himself. Thus we may define reason as consistency, but in two forms. One is objectively rational if he accepts all that his beliefs bind him to accept, and deny all that they bind him to reject (as a corollary, to be objectively rational one’s premises must be consistent, for otherwise those two tasks would be jointly impossible). One is subjectively rational if one’s intentional beliefs are consistent with one’s deeper beliefs.2

Thus far I have dealt with propositions. But there is one more element in the wall that prevents me from following Descartes into the void of total doubt, one question that refuses to pass unanswered: what ought I to do? The question is uniquely persistent in that any attempt to ignore it is itself an answer (“I ought not to answer that question”, or some more complex variation). Nor can I answer with mere opinion, for that too is a factual answer (“I ought to do as I please”). Fortunately, to this normative question correspond normative subjective facts. I ought to seek the truth, not falsehood; I could never consciously believe what I thought false.3 Similarly, I cannot doubt that good is to be pursued, and evil avoided, above all other considerations. These answers, a deduction of which has tormented the positivists, who sought proof in science, come easily unto me, for unlike scientific proof, subjective proof cares little whether a proposition is normative.

1: This essay does, I admit, attempt to prove the subjectivity of truth. But subjectivity must not mean relativism; I assert that there are no grounds for belief apart from the individual mind (for how could there be any which are not perceived through that mind?), but not that the truth thereby found will be different for different minds, and emphatically not that we can choose what is true.

2: I see the power of this definition in analysis of the self-proclaimed relativists who nevertheless tend to be rather dogmatic about their relativism. Their profession of relativism clashes with the fact that one cannot truly doubt that some things simply are true, and this deeper belief in the existence of interpersonal truth clashes with their professed belief to create the wildly inconsistent statements that one occasionally sees, in which self-proclaimed relativists assert the absolute truth of relativism, or some other branch of political correctness.

3: This is not to say that people cannot have subconscious impulses toward believing what is false (on which see Bryan Caplan’s work on rational irrationality), but merely that one could never consciously do so without badly twisting definitions.


Is and Ought

March 28, 2009

Certain concepts are irreducible, lexically explicable only by circular reference. Reality is one such, definable only in terms of itself. One may specify its proper scope (e.g. “what does not cease to be when one ceases to believe in it”), but not its essential meaning.1 Obligation, too, is irreducible: one may say that we have an obligation to do what is right, and the pursuit of good is right, but ultimately must return to say that good is what we are obliged to pursue.

Inherent to the notion of a fundamental concept is that it is explicable only in terms of itself. Therefore, all attempts to define the nature of reality are pointless: we may be able to find an intricately circular definition, but it will ultimately come down to “what exists, exists”. Cartesian demon presentations of skepticism miss the point: if that is the nature of reality, then so be it. It is still reality, still an environment beyond my control. It is possible to argue that nothing is real, that there is no environment, that everything we experience we actively create, but that seems quite implausible (try as I might, I cannot make myself believe that I am a tree).

Obligation is, like reality, a fundamental concept not explicable except circularly. No amount of reasoning can move from a statement of reality to a statement of obligation. Any such attempt must involve an implicit normative premise, and therefore begs the question as an attempt to define obligation in terms of reality. Utilitarianism, for example, is not a simple definition of the good as the greatest aggregate utility; it is a normative statement that the greatest aggregate utility should be pursued. All ethical theories must contain foundational normative premises that cannot be reduced to observation of reality.

Choice relies on both these realms, applying a normative major premise to a positive minor premise returning an ethical statement to guide action. No theory can avoid this: one can explain the actions of others by positive determinism, but by introspection, one must have some other principle to guide one’s own deliberation. One may attempt to act in conformity to the factors determining the actions of others, but this itself is an ethical belief, that it is right to do so. Amoral action is impossible. Furthermore, relativistic moralities are incoherent, relying on the absolute premise that one should follow whatever relative standard is proposed.

The seeming consequence of this is that one can never violate one’s principles, for all actions, insofar as they are willful, arise from normative syllogisms. Thus, what does it mean to do what one knows to be wrong? Not to forsake ethics, but to abandon one’s former ethical system for another. All wrongdoing is intellectual error. However, we must remember that thought and memory is not static. One can forsake one belief for another in a moment and revert as quickly, as when one afraid of insects but cognizant of their harmlessness starts on encountering one. He started because he feared harm, which fear he knows to be groundless. Nevertheless, he deserted that belief when it became important. Similarly, one who does wrong that he knows to be wrong does not act contrary to his beliefs, but rather temporarily forsakes those beliefs. One may, of course, also be continually wrong, without such a reversion to right beliefs; such are those who know neither repent nor regret. In any case, the fundamental error is in the intellect, not the will. One can never act contrary to what one thinks right at the moment.

1 Many argue that one cannot define the essence of any concept. I would agree that one cannot define any term without recourse to concepts not essentially definable, but I believe that derivative concepts may be so defined.