I absolutely love philosophy first thing in the morning. Before the day is fully light, before the household is fully awake, before my first cup of coffee has fully kicked in, a good philosophical discussion banishes the pres-dawn mental haze and makes me feel, once again, intellectually capable. And so this morning my gratitude goes out to John Searle and the New York Review of Books, September 24 issue.
John Searle, you came to Kalamazoo years ago and spoke to the WMU philosophy department in Friedmann Hall. Your topic was consciousness in nonhuman animals, and one sentence you uttered has remained sharp and bright in my memory all these years. In memory it takes, as it did when I first heard it, the form of a poem. Here, then, arranged as it echoes in my mind, is what you said:
People who think
dogs don’t think
don’t know dogs.
I believe it was during your lecture that day (though it may have been something I read subsequently) that I was first exposed to your justly famous “Chinese Room” argument refuting so-called “Artificial Intelligence.” All these years later, whenever my patience is tried by those who would equate human beings and programmed machines (and there will always be those who will do so), I take comfort in the existence of the mind of John Searle. Dogs think, computers don’t. There is at least a pocket of sanity in the world!
What I read this morning, Dr. Searle, was your review of Paul A. Boghossian’s book, Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism, and, as usual, I was cheered by the lucidity of your exposition and arguments; however, just as you want to go beyond Boghossian’s text to what you identify as the “real target” of his book, I would like to push harder to find the motivation behind the motivation you identify behind the motivation B. identifies. Be patient, please. I have no desire to obfuscate or change the subject, a flaw you correctly point out in relativist arguments. And—let me be clear about this—I have no desire to argue for epistemic relativism.
It was only at the end of your review, in the discussion on motivation for relativist claims, that I was able to locate clearly the itch that had begun from the first mention of claims by “some Native American accounts” that their people emerged from inside the earth (i.e., North American earth) rather than migrating to North America across the Bering Straits. You point out that the relativist can only allow both accounts to be true by “changing the subject” so that each group holds a theory and each group is only claiming truth within its theory—whereas, you remind your readers, the truth value of the nonrelevant facts has not been addressed. A scientific theory is not about a social or psychological point of view but about independent fact as supported by evidence. Fair enough. We can agree on what a scientific theory is.
Your last paragraph reaches farther but then closes the door. The motivation for relativism and constructivism, you state, is “more profound than Boghossian allows for, and it bears interesting affinities with earlier forms of Counter-Enlightenment Romanticism....” You cite Isaiah Berlin and hint that the creation of a “multicultural democracy” seems, to some people, to demand the abandonment of “objectivity.” I wish this had been the end of the first half of your article rather than its conclusion. Allow me to go on from here?
Boghossian sees “political correctness” (a phrase I detest) as part of the motivation for the arguments he rejects, and you go deeper into this motivation by bringing in Berlin and Romanticism. I would like to go deeper still, because I see much more to the background motivation than a political vision (although part of what I see definitely includes that vision), and the clearest way to find our way around in the huge, inchoate, largely inarticulate motivation, as I see it, is to begin with a consideration of what constitutes a scientific theory.
Typical atheist claims begin with the assumption that religion is a theory about reality. With that assumption in place, the atheist proceeds to set scientific theory against a religious account, e.g., evolutionary theory vs. Adam and Eve. No, what does the scientific evidence say? Scientific conclusion, naturally, wins hands down. But scientific atheists and philosophical relativists have smuggled their conclusion into their original assumption. The question we need to ask is whether we’re dealing with rival theories about reality, and I would argue that we are not.
Just yesterday in my new book order delivery there arrived two copies of Karen Armstrong’s new book, A Case For God, and I could not resist opening this book immediately. Only a few pages into it so far, already I recommend this book for anyone who believes science and religion are doing the same thing, religion just doing it badly while science does it superlatively. (A friend of mine, a visual artist, is always suspicious of fellow artists who natter on and on in words about what they’re trying to do with paint on canvas. I feel the same way about analyses of poetry. The poem, the painting, the musical composition, either succeed or fail on their own terms. Analysis may add to a discussion of the success or failure, but in another, very real sense, it is beside the point, something else entirely.) Armstrong begins by distinguishing mythos from logos. I will not repeat her discussion here but refer you to her book. The point is that science is quintessential logos, and yes, argument and evidence are the world of logos. Mythos does not fail on these terms because its terms were always something else. (A pencil sketch does not fail as a painting: it never tried to be one.)
David Hume and Henry Bergson, along with the later American pragmatists, identified the human animal as active in nature. Unlike rooted plants, we must observe, plan and act in order to survive. That, Bergson argued, is the real function of intellect, to pave the way for action. Science, child of intellect, gives us tools for action. What science cannot give are the kinds of reasons that are teleological in nature, those “ends” we also call meanings. Survival? Why? For what greater or higher or more lasting good? Science can afford to shrug and say no such further goods exist, but that does not put an end to human longing.
Over the years, the myth I have found most meaningful, the one to which I return again and again, is that of the Ein Sof and the subsequent shattering of the Vessel. It is the task of human beings, according to this myth, to gather up the scattered sparks, and the ultimate goal is the recovered unity of all that is, the redemption of the world. I see in this myth a call to social action, to environmentalism, to personal kindness, to all kinds of striving to be a better person. It is a story that tells me how to live.
Science describes, myth prescribes. The “conflict” between the two is of recent origin, according to Armstrong. If we cannot get beyond it, I say, we put ourselves in a dilemma situation, forced to choose between rejection of rationality or rejection of meaning. Neither of those brave new worlds appeals to me.
Really, I guess I am pointing rather than arguing. But what about it? For some, argument is the be-all and end-all of life. For others, it is not enough, and who's to say it should be?