Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Location Problem Part III: The Hierarchy

I made some remarks on the philosophical discipline of ontology yesterday, I let the line out, and so it falls on me to pull some back in.  As I said, language is the labyrinth, easy in, very difficult to get out, and I cannot claim any exception for myself.

If we look at Neo-Platonism, broadly conceived, we find what philosophers term an ontology, a kind of typology.  For example, the Neo-Platonists write about Intellect, Life, and Being, establishing a distinction between rational souls like ourselves, living things (animals and plants) and inanimate things.  What can be missed here is that this typology is actually the expression of a hierarchy.  The realm of the intellect is higher than the realm of life, and the realm of life is higher than the realm of being.  The ontology here does not locate value in the ontology, the ontology itself is the expression of value.  The Form of the Good, the One, lies outside the world, but the world manifests the Good, and that manifestation is the manifestation of value.

What is the philosophical justification for the hierarchy?  Given that we are talking about a philosophical tradition that began with Plato, was subsequently influenced by Aristotle and Stoicism, and continued unabated to the development of the university and the re-introduction of Aristotle into Christendom in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries (as well as influencing the philosophical development of Judaism and Islam), anything I can say in a short entry in a blog is charitably an over-generalization.

However, in Greek, "theoria" has a different connotation from the English word "theory," which we associate primarily with scientific theories, e.g. hypotheses that are used to make empirical predictions.  Theoria in the Greek means contemplation, gazing.  It is the act of being a spectator.

I spoke briefly in my first entry on the location problem about what I called "seeing the world as a hierarchy" which I labelled a kind of perception, a way of looking at things.  If we want to look to Wittgenstein, this would fall into what he called "aspect seeing" or "seeing as" versus "seeing."  If we look to the Platonic tradition, I believe we would be talking here about perceiving the intelligible form.

Now whatever I can say here about theoria, I would be remiss if I did not point out that there is another way of seeing the world, and that is scientifically.  When we see the world scientifically, as merely a totality of facts, we see the world lacking in any value or meaning.  If I am an engineer, it does not matter from the standpoint of engineering whether I design a contraption intended for the mass extermination of insects or people, except to the extent that human beings or insects differ in their crude physical characteristics, for example, you need a bigger incinerator to cremate human bodies.  The sense of horror one may feel visiting Auschwitz is not a scientific horror, but, for want of a better word, an existential one.  It is not the fact that millions were killed at Auschwitz, but the meaning of the fact that millions were killed that troubles me.  If it had been millions of flies I would not be troubled, and the fact that it was people and not flies has no scientific significance.  It means something different to me that an innocent child dies and not a house fly, but that meaning can not be expressed in the laws of physics, the same mechanical principles apply.  

I would like to claim that we as human beings do see the world (and other people) as manifesting value or significance, that this is another way of seeing things apart from the scientific viewpoint.  There are clearly objections that could be brought to bear on this statement, that perhaps what I am talking about is affective, emotional.  But the affect is clearly the result of one thing, and not another, being the case--and what is the case is significant, if not significant in a scientific way.  (We can compare Archimedes "Eureka!")  In any event, I will not argue the point here, and simply say that Alasdair MacIntyre's work contains some good discussion with respect to this issue.  Let's return to ontology.

The Neo-Platonic ontology rises and falls in some sense upon the intellectual vision with which it is connected.  It describes a way of seeing the world, and seeing the world as the manifestation of value.  It is not that value is going to be contained or located somewhere in the ontology, the ontology itself is contained in value.  So if we want to discuss the psychology of ontology, we might say that what leads a philosopher to construct an ontology is some kind of vision of the world (or some aspect of the world) as being meaningful or valuable.  In some sense, a "scientific ontology" is connected with a vision that the scientific description of things is the description of greatest value.  (And how could you refute someone else's vision?  Not scientifically.)  Most modern ontology is primarily concerned with issues of consciousness and matter, is matter consciousness or is consciousness matter etc. etc.  Are you an idealist, a dualist, a materialist, etc. etc.  This is all nonsense in one sense, as I discussed previously, "consciousness" "matter" "mind" etc., are not things or "substances", they are concepts, and concepts which possess an incredibly deep grammar (an incredibly dense set of uses and practices connected with them).

But if we look at ontology as expressing a vision of value, we can make some sense of it, perhaps.  As contemporary humans, we are inclined to value consciousness over matter.  To put it more clearly, we are inclined to value things to which we generally attribute consciousness over things which we do not.  And the question I want to pose is, why not continue to do so?  Aren't the facts irrelevant here?  I think there are a lot of low hanging philosophical fruits with respect to reductive materialism (for example), but let's say that science advanced to the point that I could predict, based solely on the laws of physics, what a person would doing ten years in the future (or perhaps a group of people).   Should I then say this person has no more value than a clock?  He or she is just a mechanism?  There is no doubt I could say this if I wanted to (some people say the same now even though physics is totally useless in predicting human behavior).  But what if I said, I still value this person, she is not simply a clock, because she feels pain, because she loves, because she hates, because she makes mistakes and gets turned around, she will never be a clock.  (And physics can never take these facts away from her:  She will never behave like a clock.)

So I am not sure what a lot of metaphysics accomplishes here.  I don't believe value will ever be located, it is what is expressed in the inclination to produce an ontology.  (Fish can't swim outside of the fishbowl either.  They not going to swim their way to water.)  From the standpoint of value, the issue of the scientific facts is irrelevant (I care that she loves, not how she comes to love).  It doesn't matter "what consciousness is"--not that that is a coherent question--it matters that we value it.

What can I say here?  I can say that the concept of "consciousness", in general, has greater importance to our contemporary forms of life than the concept of "matter."  I suppose you can call this dualism without the "should."  I can say that the concept of "value" has, in general, greater importance to our contemporary forms of life than the concept of a "fact."   I say this without any intention of signing up at the Flat Earth Society.  I think scientific investigation, empirical investigation, must be taken seriously in its own right, but I think it is our duties as philosophers in truly understanding science to also consider and acknowledge the limits of science.  If the goal is clarity or understanding, we cannot be content to view the matter like an adolescent writing about their crush.  (The philosopher, in the ultimate sense, can never be a citizen of any country.)

Suhrawardi made a distinction between intuitive and discursive philosophy.  Intuitive philosophy is informed by theoria, vision, contemplation.  And what is that vision?  I think in some sense the vision is informed by eros, love, desire, to see something as having the ultimate significance, ultimate truth, ultimate value.  But what is revealed is never factual, it can never be a matter of the facts that something possesses ultimate significance.  Discursive philosophy is the good old hard work of conceptual analysis.  Its job, to put it rudely, is to tear down the idols of eros, to move beyond them, whether they be the concept of God, the concept of consciousness, the concept of naturalism.  It is to bring philosophy back down to earth, to point out that we are only talking about ordinary concepts, that the impulse to turn our concepts into something possessing ultimate significance was an error.  The will to philosophize no doubt begins in the impulse of ontology, but it must pass beyond the forms of ontology.  (They are merely meaningless forms after all.)  What we were trying to say in words cannot ultimately be said--but I know what you were trying to say.  As Wittgenstein noted, what we cannot speak of, we must pass over in silence.