Friday, January 17, 2020

A Premise We Can’t Do Without

     I subscribe to a service that presents me with some inspirational Catholic reading each morning. It’s a “game starter” that’s served me well. (Among other things, it reminds me to pray.) This morning it led off with a quote that immediately got my gears turning:

     "I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but rather, I believe in order that I may understand." — St. Anselm of Canterbury

     This is more than merely a statement of faith. It goes to the heart of all human reasoning: the unavoidable requirement that we accept certain unprovable propositions as true, simply because without them we can do no reasoning at all.

     In response to the St. Anselm quote above, the scrap-lumber room of my often annoying but sometimes useful memory has just tossed up two fragments of unusual relevance. The first is from that perennial visitor to this site, the late, great Clive Staples Lewis:

     From propositions about fact alone no practical conclusion can ever be drawn. This will preserve society cannot lead to do this except by the mediation of society ought to be preserved. This will cost you your life cannot lead directly to do not do this: it can lead to it only through a felt desire or an acknowledged duty of self-preservation. The Innovator is trying to get a conclusion in the imperative mood out of premisses in the indicative mood: and though he continues trying to all eternity he cannot succeed, for the thing is impossible. We must therefore either extend the word Reason to include what our ancestors called Practical Reason and confess that judgements such as society ought to be preserved (though they can support themselves by no reason of the sort that Gaius and Titius demand) are not mere sentiments but are rationality itself; or else we must give up at once, and for ever, the attempt to find a core of 'rational' value behind all the sentiments we have debunked. [From The Abolition of Man]

     Long-time Gentle Readers of Liberty’s Torch have surely seen this quote before. It goes to the heart of human ratiocination, the process by which our conscious minds approach decision-making. We cannot reason without premises: statements of fact that, while not provable, are not disprovable and have survived attempts to contradict them in observation. Even completely formal systems, derived entirely from the mind of Man, require premises, despite Giovanni Saccheri’s refusal to accept it.

     The second fragment is from the late Dr. Clarence Carson, in discussing the effects on philosophy of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason:

     What Kant took away with one hand—the Pure Reason—he returned with the other—Practical Reason. What we cannot know—that is, God, freedom, immortality, moral imperatives, principles, ideals—must be assumed. To accomplish this intellectual feat, Kant resorted to the traditional distinctions between appearance and reality. The phenomenal world, the world accessible to the senses, the only world that can be known, is only an appearance. The real world is unknown and unknowable, as Kant had earlier demonstrated to his satisfaction. Yet it must exist. No, that is not quite right. We must act as if it existed.

     Kant affirmed the traditional morality, insisted upon the necessity of faith, and proclaimed that man participates in a moral order. Practically, Kant would have it, we do seem to know that there are moral imperatives. There may even be generally accepted beliefs about what many of these are. They can even be "proved" by the Practical Reason, by which Kant means reason operating upon assumptions about what reality must be like in order for appearances to be as we perceive them. Yet this kind of reason operates upon possibilities, not certainties, so far as philosophy is concerned. Kant said as much himself:

     It is just the same as if I sought to find out how freedom itself as causality of a will is possible; for, in so doing, I would leave the philosophical basis of explanation behind, and I have no other. Certainly I could revel in the intelligible world, the world of intelligences, which still remains to me; but although I have a well founded idea of it, still I do not have the least knowledge of it, nor can I ever attain to it by all the exertions of my natural capacity of reasons.

     This stolid German, this resolute metaphysician, this determined moralist, had left the house of philosophy in ruins: of this there should be no doubt. Let us review the "achievement." Kant had changed the meaning of "objective" from something which exists outside the mind to make it refer to a property of mind itself; he had brought it into the interior world of consciousness. He had taught that mind can only know phenomena. Reason can only deal with reason. Then he declares that phenomena is only appearance, that reality is unknown and unknowable.

     [From The Flight from Reality]

     In other words, Kant refused to treat the indispensable premise of the Christian Enlightenment – that the universe is inherently lawful, that its laws impose a moral order on us, and that this order is independent of human conceptions and norms — as sufficiently demonstrated and without counterexamples to be treated as a fact. He is unwilling to concede it the status of a fact, but mealy-mouths around the matter by claiming that “we must act as if it existed.”

     “Must act.” Must! Kant says so in letters of fire. But then C. S. Lewis, that inexorable debunker of intellectual pretense and twaddle, arises to ask the most fateful of all questions:


     “Logic is an organized way of going wrong with confidence.” – Charles F. Kettering

     Paranoid: A logician with a fractured premise. – Arthur Herzog

     Althea: How do my accomplishments, as you put it a moment ago, bear on this realm?
     Probe: You are Hope’s first metaphysicist, Althea. You alone have thought to alter the properties of space itself. It is how you constructed your superluminal vessel.
     Althea: Then to alter the permittivity of the vacuum is an act of meta-engineering?
     Probe: Yes. It requires an assumption realist physicists would dismiss out of hand. Their assumptions are wholly incompatible with it.
     Althea: What are those assumptions?
Probe: They pertain to the undefined term existence. If asked “does space exist?” the realist physicist would decline to give a definite answer. Space, he would say, is nothing: the absence of anything real. Therefore, the concept of existence does not apply to it. You, by contrast, have treated space as having existential properties. You have treated nothing as being something, and so have succeeded in making changes to it.
     Althea: Which of us is nearer to the truth?
     Probe: Surely that question answers itself.

     [From Freedom’s Fury]

     Kant’s obfuscation of reality as an objective matter was accepted by a number of later thinkers, including a few for whom I have some regard. Nevertheless his notion that reality is a matter of belief rather than fact is fundamentally unsound as a matter of metaphysics itself. Metaphysics is the study of what is prior and superior to our reasoning processes. If nothing is prior and superior to ratiocination per natura, then there can be no objection to solipsism and all the madness that follows in its train.

     In other words, we need to accept reality as an objective fact, prior and superior to our opinions and evaluations, to construct any sound notions about what to do in it and with it.

     The moral order inherent in the laws of this universe is completely consistent with the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God and the Redeemer of Mankind. (You knew I’d get here eventually, didn’t you? I mean, I did lead off with a quote from a saint.) Thus, our indispensable premise of an objective reality that’s “indifferent to what you believe or disbelieve” (John Varley) is identical to Christ’s teachings. While one may choose to remain unconvinced by the evidence for His miracles, Passion, and Resurrection, one cannot rationally object to His prescriptions:

     And behold one came and said to him: Good master, what good shall I do that I may have life everlasting? Who said to him: Why asketh thou me concerning good? One is good, God. But if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.
     He said to him: Which? And Jesus said: Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness. Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. [Matthew 19:16-19]

     ...without denying reality itself.

     In this Saint Anselm was a forerunner to C. S. Lewis:

     “I believe in Christianity as I believe in the sun: not only because I see it, but because by its light I see everything else.”

     With this premise as its foundation was all of Western Civilization erected...and if deprived of this its foundation, all of Western Civilization will fall.

     Have a nice day.

1 comment:

Pascal said...


There is definitely a foreboding in the air for you to have written this essay tying our religious moral order to our civilization within days of a paywalled post by Wretchard entitled Without Civilizational Taboos, Eugenics and Cannibalism are Simply Matters of Opinion.

He relates how the reality of the slippery slope is discussed rarely due it being associated with outliers until that moment when its reality makes headlines. Whoops! What moral order?

Crossing the first red line is always harder than the second. Victoria Taft's article notes how the promotion of assisted suicide in Canada is moving its rationale from alleviating the suffering of the dying to providing human spare parts for the seriously ill and provides a clear example of a cascading collapse of restraint.

'...The headline tells it all: "Medically assisted deaths prove a growing boon to organ donation in Ontario."'

The phenomenon is the slippery-slope effect, often derided as illusory. But 'In china, it's possible to pre-book an organ transplant, something that would be impossible under a voluntary donor system -- raising suspicions of widespread organ harvesting.' says the Sydney Morning Herald. So it's not illusory if it's part of a plan.

...The argument against a slippery slope warning crucially depends on a reasonable expectation that such fears are unfounded.

With so many contemporary influence peddlers (such as the Ottawa Citizen) selling their Kantian perceptions to a public that apparently begs to see only roses and hear no evil, most victims may never expect that knock to their head. What moral code convinced us to remain silent so that the next victims barely have a clue how much license has been granted their ruthless predators?