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The Human Evasion by Celia Green

Chapter 9 : The Philosophy of Evasion

Philosophy used to be about metaphysics, though it always suffered from the usual human tendency to discuss politics or morality in the same breath -- or at least, in the next chapter.

When philosophy dealt with metaphysics it revealed certain facts about the human situation, which can all be summarized in the statement that it is impossible to be certain of anything.

However, as a direct consequence of the human evasion, it was very difficult for philosophers to think for too long at a time about total uncertainty, so that various partial aspects of it were stated by different people, and they very often combined their thoughts about uncertainty with a good deal of their favourite kind of evasiveness. This is why their books were so much longer than necessary -- but this is true of almost all books by sane people.

Descartes, for example, began by placing everything in doubt.

I will suppose, then, not that there is a supremely good God, the source of truth; but that there is an evil spirit, who is supremely powerful and intelligent, and does his utmost to deceive me. I will suppose that sky, air, earth, colours, shapes, sounds and all external objects are mere delusive dreams, by means of which he lays snares for my credulity. I will consider myself as having no hands, no eyes, no flesh, no blood, no senses, but just having a false belief that I have all these things. I will remain firmly fixed in this meditation, and resolutely take care that, so far as in me lies, even if it is not in my power to know some truth, I may not assent to falsehood nor let myself be imposed upon by that deceiver, however powerful and intelligent he may be.[1]

I will reject ... whatever admits of the least doubt, just as if I had found it was wholly false; and I will go on until I know something for certain - if it is only this, that there is nothing certain.[2]

Descartes proceeds from this to the famous 'cogito ergo sum': even if all his thoughts are erroneous, something must exist to think them.

And here commences the evasiveness of Descartes: in fact, he is not really entitled to say, 'I think, therefore I exist', but only 'I think, therefore something exists'. Nonetheless, this is the highest point reached by his philosophy.

After this he first reinstates his own psychology:

What then am I? A conscious being (res cogitans). What is that? A being that doubts, understands, asserts, denies, is willing, is unwilling; further, that has sense and imagination. There are a good many properties -- if only they belong to me. But how can they fail to? Am I not the very person who is 'doubting' almost everything; who 'understands' something and 'asserts' this one thing to be true, and 'denies' other things; who 'is willing' to know more, and 'is unwilling' to be deceived; who 'imagines' many things, even involuntarily, and perceives many things coming as it were from the 'senses'? Even if I am all the while asleep; even if my creator does all he can to deceive me; how can any of these things be less of a fact than my existence? Is any of these something distinct from my consciousness (cogitatione)? Can any of them be called a separate thing from myself? It is so clear that it is I who doubt, understand, will, that I cannot think how to explain it more clearly.[3]

Having reinstated his own ideas, Descartes decides that they include an idea of an infinite and perfect God. Descartes might be deceived in believing two and three to make five if a sufficiently powerful God chose to deceive him, but God must exist because Descartes has an idea of God, and such a God could not be a deceiver. So Descartes may now proceed with trustful confidence to reinstate 'the whole field of corporeal nature that is the subject-matter of pure mathematics'.[4]

Before the modern atheist mocks this line (or rather convolution) of argument too uninhibitedly, he should recall that it is Descartes's only way of avoiding the conclusion that there is no certainty except total uncertainty.

If you are trying to ward off uncertainty, you can believe in the infinite reliability of God, or of common sense, or of New Society -- it makes little difference. (Of the three, an infinite and perfect God would probably be the most elasticizing to the imagination. But I realize that that is no recommendation from a sane point of view.)

Incidentally, it is perhaps interesting to note that while 'establishing' the existence of God, Descartes shows a typically sane desire to accept his limitations. Considering how recently he has recovered from an attack of total uncertainty, his confidence in the permanence of his position is remarkable:

But perhaps I am something greater than I myself understand. Perhaps all the perfections I attribute to God are somehow in me potentially, though they do not emerge yet and are not yet brought into actuality. For I experience already a gradual increase of my knowledge; I do not see what is to prevent its being thus increased more and more indefinitely; nor why, when my knowledge has thus grown, I may not use it to acquire all the other perfections of God; nor, finally, why the potentiality of such perfections, if it exists in me already, is not enough to produce the idea of them.

All these things are impossible. First, it is true that my knowledge gradually increases, and I have many potentialities as yet unactualised; but this is alien to the idea of God, which implies absolutely no potentiality; for the mere fact of gradual growth is a sure sign of imperfection.

Again, even if my knowledge always grows more and more, yet I see that it will never be actually infinite; for it will never reach a point where it is not capable of still further increase.[5]

Then again, consider Hume. He saw clearly enough that 'all our reasonings concerning causes and effects are derived from nothing but custom.'[6] And as for the continued existence of objects when out of sight, he said: '... this conclusion beyond the impressions of our senses can be founded only on the connection of cause and effect; nor can we otherwise have any security that the object is not changed upon us.'[7]

More critical than Descartes of the origins of his ideas, Hume saw no way in which philosophy could save him from scepticism, and undisguisedly fell back on human nature to do so.

I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty. Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, Nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterates all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when, after three or four hours' amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any further.[8]

However, frightened and muddled though the sceptical philosophers may have been, once some aspect of the total uncertainty had been plainly stated, it could never subsequently be refuted and it became a permanent piece of philosophy.

One of the aspects of uncertainty that became firmly embedded in philosophy was that there were no absolutes.

What was originally stated was that there was no way of finding out if there were any absolutes. Everything could only be assessed by reference to a specific standard, and the only available standards were finite ones.

The human race, in its anthropocentric way, took a particular interest in the conclusion that there was no moral absolute. There was no way of saying what was 'good' or 'evil' except by referring to the only standards available -- which were the opinions of human beings about what constituted a desirable life. These were obviously very subjective.

The human race eagerly responded to this finding by rejecting all former sets of opinions about the desirable life and developing a new one. The new one stated that heroic and extremist ideals were always based on foolish beliefs and prejudices, so that the thing to do was to seek pleasure, comfort, and security in a moderate and unheroic way.

Moreover, this finding gave rise to a feeling that it had now been proved that absolutes did not exist -- there were no standards other than human ones.

This last is an interesting conclusion, if you remember that the original statement was to the effect that whatever might be absolute, human standards certainly were not.

This interesting conclusion, that human standards constituted the only absolute, was reached emotionally before it could be formulated intellectually. No one was in serious doubt of it, but professional philosophers found it difficult to state explicitly. Statements about certainty such as the assertion that solipsism was possible remained obstinately irrefutable.

This did not prevent philosophers from engaging in strange attempts to assess the 'probability' of sceptical statements. In this they showed an unawareness of what I can only call 'logical priority' that is typically sane.

Once you have admitted you may be dreaming, what value can you attach to your reflections on the likelihood that you are dreaming? Yet comparative statements are made; it is more likely that we are deceived about this; less likely that we are deceived about that.

My own tentative view is that tactual perception ... justifies us in being practically certain that there are foreign bodies and that they do interact with our own bodies. It seems to me just conceivable, though extremely unlikely, that I might have had the kinds of experience which I describe as 'seeing' or 'hearing' foreign bodies even if there had been no foreign bodies or if they had never emitted light-waves or sound-waves to my body.

But I find it almost impossible to believe I could ever have had the kind of experience I describe as 'pushing' or 'pulling' or 'struggling with' foreign bodies unless there had been foreign bodies and they had quite often interacted dynamically with my own body through contact. [9]

It was then that linguistic philosophy arrived, the true philosophy of evasion. It stated that it was under no necessity to refute statements about total uncertainty, because it did not accept them as possible statements.

('Scepticism is not irrefutable, but palpably senseless, if it would doubt where a question cannot be asked.'[10]) It declared that the only way of deciding what was an acceptable statement was by reference to human standards.

For example, when you use the word 'uncertainty' you mean that you are not certain about something that may or may not happen. You have learnt to use this word in connection with a number of finite situations, such as whether or not it will rain tomorrow. The word is not usually used to mean 'the uncertainty whether anything will go on existing' or 'the uncertainty whether anything is existing now'. It is illegitimate to use the word 'uncertainty' to refer to these kinds of uncertainty, and it is therefore impossible to formulate any statements whatever about them.

When philosophers use a word -- 'knowledge', 'being', 'object', 'I', 'proposition', 'name' -- and try to grasp the essence of the thing, one must always ask oneself: is the word ever actually used in this way in the language-game which is its original home? What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.[11]

In this simple way all discourse about the infinite and inconceivable is eliminated, for it is evident that all human words have actually been developed by finite beings to deal with things they are able to conceive.

There is now no need to think about 'reality' except in the sense of 'what all right-thinking humans are in verbal agreement about'. So Malcolm, discussing the idea that a person may realize he is dreaming while he is having the dream, comments: 'Surely there is something dubious in the assumption that there can be a true judgement that cannot be communicated to others'.[12]

What clues do we have to the human evasion in the psychology of Wittgenstein? At the end of the Tractatus (an earlier work), a series of ambiguous utterances:

Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.[13]

There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical.[14]

My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)

He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly. [15] Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.[16]

And in the Philosophical Investigations, on which his fame chiefly rests, a number of utterances in which it is not difficult to see an anguished desire for anaesthesia:

For the clarity that we are aiming at is indeed complete clarity. But this simply means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear.

The real discovery is the one that makes me capable of stopping doing philosophy when I want to. -- The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself in question. -

Instead, we now demonstrate a method, by examples; and the series of examples can be broken off. -- Problems are solved (difficulties eliminated), not a single problem.

There is not a philosophical method, though there are indeed methods, like different therapies.[17]

The philosopher's treatment of a question is like the treatment of an illness.[18]

... what is hidden ... is of no interest to us.[19]

Let us conclude this chapter by putting philosophy in its place in the sane perspective.

Philosophical questions have no intrinsic importance. Some questions are important for particular men because of the way in which the questions perplex them and deflect or obstruct them in going on with some other activity to which they are purposefully committed in life. [20]

[1] Descartes, Philosophical Writings, edited by E. Anscombe and P. T. Geach, Nelson, 1954, p.65. [2] Ibid., p.66. [3] Ibid., p.70. [4] Ibid., p.108. [5] Ibid., pp.86-87. [6] British Empirical Philosophers, edited by A.J. Ayer and R. Winch, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1952, p.445. [7] Ibid., pp.357-8. [8] Ibid., pp.496-7. [9] C.D. Broad, Religion, Philosophy and Psychical Research, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953, p.34. [10] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1922, para. 6.51. [11] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Blackwell and Mott, para. 116. [12] Norman Malcolm, Dreaming, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1959, p.9. [13] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1922, para. 6.44. [14] Ibid., para. 6.522. [15] Ibid., para. 6.54. [16] Ibid., para. 7. [17] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Blackwell and Mott, 1958, para. 133. [18] Ibid., para. 255. [19] Ibid., para.126. [20] W.H. Watson, Understanding Physics Today, Cambridge University Press, 1963, p.15.
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