If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.
– René Descartes
This was a clever Frenchman, born in the late 1500’s. René was a philosopher and a mathematician. In fact, he invented analytic geometry, or Cartesian geometry. For some reason, truth was important to René. He is also considered the founder of modern philosophy, creating a solid intellectual basis from which the natural sciences could evolve.
René believed we must throw out all ideas that cannot be reasonably proven. Often, he toyed with more abstract mathematics as an exercise to better understand truth. In doing so, he laid the foundations that led to Newton’s calculus. He is also the origin of the phrase, “I think, therefore I am.”
Unfortunately, that phrase is not exactly mathematical. But we’ll afford him some leeway. After all, he was bringing philosophy and mathematics together in new and exciting ways, and the “why am I?” question is an oldie but a goody. However, it does bring to light a certain difficulty that we still face today.
Modern philosophers know that “Cogito ergo sum” is not, actually, a very good proof. But René was hindered in large part by not taking his own advice: doubt, as far as possible, all things. René believed that our minds exist separately from the physical world, and as such, were not really subject to ontological considerations. He did not imagine that our consciousness might arise from the physical properties of our existence. So, in a way, he was putting the cart before the horse.
This is not surprising. The duality of mind and body was a concept solidified within the minds of his contemporaries. It was both a social given, and a spiritual “truth”. Interestingly, he did not believe animals had minds. Nor did they feel pain. This was well-reasoned. He often performed vivisections upon live animals to study them. I wonder how he held to his belief, as the animals cried out and struggled. Perhaps it is one of the powers of science, that allows us to carry on in our convictions despite contrary appearances. At least when our convictions are well-reasoned.
Chris and I have had some fun discussions lately, some of which are related to consciousness and existence. There is always something refreshing about returning our attention to origins. One thing is clear, we live in very different times than René, when Western civilization was taking its first steps toward the Age of Enlightenment. They were trying to make sense of the physical within a world of the spiritual, while we are left trying to find at least some room for the spirit in a world of mathematics.
How different we have become, even those of us who claim to lead “the simple life.” Our electricity flows to us through the equations of electromagnetism. Our shoes, ropes, jackets and food containers, formed by petrochemistry. Our money, an imaginary collection of computer memory addresses, modified by equations. Our minds, altered, repaired or enhanced through specific chemicals, electricity and physical modification. The machine work within the cells of our bodies, re-programmed and turned loose by conscious design. And the very fact that my words enter your mind now, a result of quantum positions within the subatomic…
Who needs a spirit any more? When the cells of my body that somehow comprise the mind that speaks to you, are not even real, but are instead a vibrating collection of particles that both exist and do not exist. And each of them, surrounded by a vast sea of empty space. Who needs a spirit, when I am mostly insubstantial already?
When mathematics has all the answers, what is the difference, if you maximize a ledger balance or not? What does it matter, the risk assessments in war? In the collection of particles, of dust, that we are, that move out with our will, which among them is the greatest? Which is the least? Which is me? When all things are functions to be weighed and solved, playing out from their own accord, what does anything truly matter?
This abstraction, with its dehumanizing characteristics, can be attributed to the inherently metaphysical status of mathematics. It brings us far up above ourselves, where we can look back down. It is a peculiar phenomenon. In science, phenomenology is making observations that lead to some conclusion that pays no attention to how we feel things should be, nor what they actually mean. Quite differently, in philosophy, phenomenology is, in a way, the search for a bridge that might somehow lead out from just yourself, to other people, ideas or things.
In philosophy we reached a crisis of sorts with the Existentialists, after our long passage through the the Age of Reason and the Age of Enlightenment. In a sense, it carries us through the processes of logic and mathematics, then plops us down squarely into meaninglessness. We can observe the processes of our world, but in doing so we must acknowledge that these observations originate from our bodies. However, our bodies and the senses we inhabit, are limited. We may construct machines that extend our senses well beyond their limitations, but only along the narrow lines we designate as extensions, i.e., vision or sound. The question arises, is the truth of truths constrained by our physically perceptual and rationally conceptual human limitations? Such a notion is extraordinarily prejudiced and leads us to consider the absurdity that lives at the foundation of science when it purports to be anything more than an art. Art, which merely hints at truths through the tools of its trade. And like all art, what is pleasing to our aesthetic we grant validity, meditation and devotion.
Mathematics exists within its own universe. It is self-referential — self-contained. It follows a logic more pristine than our human thoughts, nestled within the gross confines of language, can achieve. In mathematics, we can determine with certainty whether something is true or not, yet this truth is only valid within the universe of mathematics. If we choose to apply the universe of mathematics to the larger reality we inhabit, we do so only with risk. The bridge between the universe of mathematics and our universe of existence is a metaphysical bridge. In other words, an atom does not work out the equations of quantum mechanics to decide its next action. Nor can we pass laws in mathematics that force the physical universe to behave in different ways. We shape, and reshape our presumptions within the universe of mathematics in an effort to conform to the phenomena we observe within our own. And in doing so, we claim the prize: physics and metaphysics merge. This is the beauty we attribute with truth. However, philosophers, except for the exceedingly naïf ones, understand that truth need not be beautiful. In fact, truth does not, necessarily, require any aesthetic at all.
In this sense, the aesthetically pleasant merging of the physical and metaphysical universe through mathematics can, at best, be considered a metaphor for truth. This metaphor is constrained by the limitations of our senses. Although science can make predictions and often control our physical universe via its metaphysical tools, it is important to remember its more artistic basis when considering the truth of truths.
As we discover an aspect of our existence, even through science, it is often our first thought to re-shape that metaphorical truth toward something even more ideal. In effect, to “correct” a part of our existence within the physics we believe we inhabit. In other words, we may discover a truth, yet even though our understanding of this truth is incomplete, we might have within our minds an improvement upon this truth, which, through our metaphysical tools, we often seek to modify into an idealized state. This is a dangerous flaw inherent within the belief of science as truth: our incomplete understanding of truth often leads us to alter that truth toward an ideal, founded upon nothing but our own prejudices or desires. This is what leads us to consider the prospect of filtering out gay babies, since they will not procreate or will be evil. This is what leads us to ethnic cleansing, based upon a system of rationality. Or war. where millions can be killed based upon probabilities or the maximization of abstract numerics which we imbue with cultural power. Or pharmaceuticals that restrict our minds within the narrow bounds of some normalized function.
Unlike other art, a strongly absolute and literal validity is bestowed upon science. This is, perhaps, why science, like all art, is often under attack by social forces who are determined to instill their own ideas of truth. There is, perhaps, some characteristic of art that we innately recognize as a metaphor for truth. This can easily threaten ideologies based upon weak tautologies. Science, even more than other arts, can threaten as a result of the profound validity we bestow upon it.
However, this power comes at a price. Unlike other arts, science is incapable of critiquing itself. In other words, science cannot question the foundations of science, within the terms of science. In this sense, as a means of determining truth, science becomes, like mathematics, a universe unto itself, self-referential and solipsistic. As such, it lives in isolation as an abstract construction as all beliefs do. We imbue science with its power through a conscious act of attribution: a belief in its indisputable access to truth. To my mind, as beliefs go, this is better than most.
Interestingly, other arts do not suffer in cold isolation like science. Then again, other arts do not claim any absolutism within their basis. What gives science its power is the same force that isolates it from us: the notion of a purely objective and utterly rational universe, despite the limitations inherent within our humanity to fully experience it.
Caught within our consciousness, we seek that which is outside ourselves. Perhaps we desire to understand ourselves within the boundaries of our own perception. Perhaps we simply wish to feel less isolated. In this way, science and the mechanics of rationalism have led us to marvel at the outside world, drawing our attention to the menagerie of pseudo-objective materials that presumably comprise our existence, while simultaneously discounting the importance and highlighting the fallibility of our own subjective experience, and hence, the subjective experiences of others, even though we sense some inherent access to truth within our own subjectivity. Science can only approach this from the outside, and we doom ourselves to conform to its edicts. However, other arts are somewhat gentler. It is a characteristic of all art that we may discover bridges between what might exist within the world, that can span, at least in part, to our experience of individuality; and across those bridges find, perhaps, something truly meaningful. This is, in part, the philosophical meaning of phenomenology.
When we look at the processes of science, we find two primary symbols: theoretical terms and observational terms. “Good” science is generally defined by observational terms linked to correspondence rules into theoretical terms. That is, theoretical entities do not exist unless they can be shown, through correspondence rules, to be connected to observation. What makes science more of an art is the recent lack of distinction between theory and observation, which correspondence rules rely upon as a given. The result is, any disconcerting observations can always, eventually, be accommodated by any theory. Science chooses theories pragmatically: those which fit best with other theories blessed into general acceptance. Observation is no longer required. This is most certainly closer to art than any truth of truths. And as such, it is as close to the truth of truths as art.
The phenomenological philosopher at the outset finds themselves trapped in the isolation of Existentialists, much like science is trapped within its own objectively solipsistic universe. However, the phenomenological philosopher finds themselves in a somewhat different landscape. We suspend any disbelief in ourselves. We assume that we, as an individual, must exist, in one way or another. And in what others might consider a leap of faith, though there are some compelling arguments otherwise, we assume that other things also exist. Even sentient things. Like, and unlike ourselves. Each of us perceives the universe through our own subjective senses. I have no access to the truth of what you see, except through the objects of language and metaphor that we build and share, both within and outside of ourselves.
A phenomenological philosopher is very skeptical of anything claimed to be an absolute object of truth existing within the shared, intersubjective experience we inhabit. However, they are not ruled out. Nor is any object in the intersubjective world blessed into the objective, as a Truth, lightly. It is here that scientists fail as philosophers. They are hasty and reckless in their determinations, with flawed claims of an objective process that is, largely, metaphysical. However, as artists, and even tortured artists, scientists are magnificent. Most scientists will perceive this as a wild accusation.
But, like all artists, an engrossment within your work can lead to a dangerous myopia. It is also the signature of genius. Any passionate pursuit leads inevitably to the darkened beauty of egoism. It is an irony that, in the endless pursuit of the objective truth, the subjective ego should flourish and grow. “The holy egoism of genius,” the The Art of Noise sang.
It leaves me wondering, when you look into the eyes of another — a stranger — and something profound between you is shared and known, without any words, without any hints, that hits at the gut… Who among us is quick to attribute the experience to an equation? Who is quick to say, this is a spiritual exchange? What we do know, is that it is a phenomenon, experienced by us all. And the meaning is to be found within each of us.