Why am I a Rationalist, and What I Mean by Rationalism…

Richard has argued against rationalism in few posts on his blog. I want to put forward few notes about how I see rationalism…

First, I think that rationalism is about understanding. It is a belief that some universal truths (set vs. the truths about individual events and things) can be in principle understood – that is, rationalism is the view that one can not just know the universal truths which obtain in the world, but also that one can understand the reasons why those universal truths obtain. I say in principle, because it easily might be that our reason is limited in that way, that we can’t understand everything (which is what I believe anyway).

It is a belief of rationalist then that there are explanatory reasons for some universal truths (I say “some” as rationalist can be rationalist about some specific thing, without being rationalist about every universal truth), and that we can become aware of that explanation. It is this which I think is important difference with empiricist – the empiricist as far as I can see denies one of the following a)that there are universal truths or b)that there are explanatory reasons for those universal truths or c)that we can become aware of those explanatory reasons. It is because of this, I think of empiricism basically as more pragmatic, or ultimately pessimistic stance, and I don’t believe there will be definite arguments of why one should prefer rationalist or empiricist stance. It might go even into personal character traits!

However I personally think that every philosopher has a little rationalist inside, because as far as I can tell they are all interested in understanding. And not just philosophers, scientists too. They are trying to understand the world – to figure out the reasons for these or those phenomena being as they are, or behaving as they do. (They are not very happy with “shut up and calculate”) And without assuming both a), b) and c) from previous paragraph, I can’t see how one can claim that there is a possibility to be understanding the world, or understanding some specific phenomenon.

But to some other thoughts…

First, I think that rationalism is compatible with empirical research. That is – there is nothing wrong with path to understanding being through empirical research. I think even that given the fallibility and general limits of our reason, that empirical research and empirical confirmation are to be preferred and required by rationalists too. The requirement for empirical confirmation, being able to give predictions which can be confirmed empirically, doesn’t mean that the prediction have to be based on empirical research. The common sense requirement for good predictions, and need of empirical confirmation, is separate issue from how we did cam to those predictions. Given the sense of rationalism that I pointed to, rationalist expects that it is possible to understand the phenomenon, and based on this understanding to give good predictions (even they can be fallible). One can on this issue, easily compare a method which may be used by mathematicians to discover if the theorem is good or not. One can just take few specific cases/numbers, and check if the theorem is really OK. If there are some specific numbers for which what the theorem states doesn’t hold, there is something wrong with the theorem. And with the thinking behind its proof. Of course, this is not perfect analogy, but it might show how I think that different venues of research are compatible with the idea that we can understand things.

Other thing is relating rationalism with experience in general. Given that understanding will probably require awareness of things, it is normal for rationalist to accept that experience, or becoming aware to be necessary requirement for the ability for a priori thought. Even in cases like Kantian rationalism, even the forms of perception and pure concepts of understanding are innate, we don’t become aware of them in any other way but through experience. This will be even more so for other kind of rationalists (like me) which think that we become aware of things in the world through experience, in which there appears identity between our idea of those things and the things themselves. So to say, what we become aware, and what we have in mind are the things themselves (the notions). It is clear that this presupposes the great role of experience, as something through which we become aware of things – about which later we can think.

Third thing about rationalism is that when put vs. the holistic models like Quinean one it seems very simplified. But, it should be clear, from how I described rationalism, that there is nothing which goes against holistic view on knowledge, and really also on metaphysics. Even, seems most natural given this view on rationalism, to say that the ideal goal of understanding is to understand everything, and that full understanding can be reached only by understanding everything. And that what we in fact gain is just partial understanding. However for a rationalist like me, even partial understanding is possible only if the world is in principle understandable (of course, it doesn’t follow that we do in fact have abilities to do so. Personally, I doubt that).

Fourth thing which is usually brought against rationalism is the non-euclidean nature of space time. It is pointed that based on a priori thinking Kant has came to wrong conclusion – to the assumptions that the phenomena in space time are best described through euclidean model. But, one can point that a)in the years that followed Kant, Hegel has argued against this taking of space and time as separate entities, or as forms, and b)that the Einsteinian conclusions regarding space and time are in big part based on a priori thinking. (thought experiments, math, logic, and so on). And, if that is not enough, one can point to the non-euclidean geometries being developed within the math, which is a discipline where we know how things are settled – not through research of the world, but through rational arguments. How else could the abstract questions of math be settled? We can’t really find numbers or abstract spaces in the given abstract form in the reality. To those that deny the importance of this form of thought, one should just point to the number of theorems that math has already came to, which didn’t have any use at the time, only to find use later in relation to some less-abstract phenomenon.

And fifth, rationalism doesn’t presuppose existence of some magical entities like numbers or “pure forms of understanding” or Platonic ideas. For me it means understanding of the world, and the phenomena of the world as far as they might be taken to fall under certain general notions. To give an example, I think that 1+1=2, is properly understood as “whenever there is a pair of things, there is one and one more thing”, or “whenever three objects form a right angle triangle, there will be such and such relations between those things”, and so on… Are those truths about the world (given the idea that whatever is necessary truth it is not truth about the world)? Well, yes, as far the world falls under those abstract notions. Given the holistic take that I mentioned before, a rationalist can of course deny that those abstractions will be perfectly applicable to the worlds, and argue that there will be something always missed. But *as far* things fall under those notions, I don’t think there is a reason to deny that those truths are about the world.

Two Handles To Handle A Priori

Some rough thoughts about a priori understanding…

Need to learn to handle the idea that I can understand things without blaming anything else for it.
We need to deal with the fact that we can simply understand some things, without ‘blaming’ it on some things like analyticity, pure forms of intuition and pure concepts of understanding, evolution, and so on…

Need to know when I’ve won, and… enjoy it.
What I want in philosophy is understanding. It is weird when instead of respecting our ability to comprehend complex things, we want to push this understanding in some alternative form for it to count. To do that is begging the question against philosophy from the very start.

Defending Metaphysics, Part 3

In this post I want to write about the issue if universals come from the mind, more specifically in relation to Kant’s critical philosophy. Hopefully in a next post I will cover some other possible “universals come from the mind” accounts.

In previous posts I wrote how universals are connected to particulars. In the first post I wrote that while the universals can be (and are) learned from particulars, they transcend the particularity, and are not in any way connected to that particular. And in the second post I added that this is possible only because universals are abstractions, and not some kind of synthesis from multiple particulars (i.e. as some kind of information “gathered” from multiple particulars and then put together through some kind of “similarity”. That would never bring the required universality.)  I also argued that because the universals are abstractions we can think about the relations between abstractions as unconnected to any particular concrete, but the relation we figure-out will cover the relations between any particular(s) which might fall under those abstractions.

Which brings us to the issue I want to write about in this post, and that is the issue if those universals come from the mind?
That seems like an obvious possibility if we accept the argument that universals transcend particulars, and that we can think about those universals isolated from any particulars. One path to take here is to take something like Kantian approach, where the form of the experience is what the mind provides. The “empirical” part on other hand provides content, in sense that it actualizes specific possibilities already there in the mind-form. So that mind-form is which defines the possibility of all those concepts/universals we can have. Whatever concepts we might gain, it will be actualization in that mind-form.
The notions which are of interest to metaphysics, namely those universals which are not contingent but will be present in any experience (so not the universals like for example RABBIT, CHAIR, FIRE and so on), are then really not something outside in the world, but the forms of our mind. And if we accept that we can give some a priori judgment about them, they will be merely clarifying the relations between the parts of the form which our mind provides to the experience.
But one problem with the Kantian approach is that it implies that everything we experience is given through this form. Things being in time, them being in space, causally interacting, even the categories of “being a thing”, “having a property”, “being part of” and so on will belong to this form. So, in this picture in best case, what is left to us is the practical reason, and possibility to learn contingent facts about the world, connected to contingent universals, as for example, that rabbits jump and are easily scared, or that there are 8 planets in our solar system.
But I think that the critique of the transcendental idealists and Hegel of Kant’s well.. theory, was valid.
Not just that the Kant’s critical philosophy fails to be critical enough about the undertaking it does (as Hegel said… Kant’s requirement to become acquainted with the instrument, in this case the Mind, before one starts to use it, is like a resolution not to venture into water until one has learned to swim), but also that it is inconsistent in assuming the causal relation between the noumena (things in themselves, those which can’t be known) and our Mind, when the category of things, and causality as a universals are something which should not be applicable to them.
The consistent application of the principle that only thing of which we can think is phenomena will end up with negating the notion of noumena, and with that of the phenomena/noumena distinction, and with that of the separation of the Mind and world as Kant pictured it. But with that the explanatory power of Kant’s theory about where universals which are of interest to metaphysics come from, and why we can form a priori judgments about them is lost too.

Defending Metaphysics, Part 2

In the previous post I was talking about relation between concrete experiences and universals. In this post I will add few comments on it, and then put attention on the issue of apriority.

I said that while universals are learned from(are noticed in) concrete experiences, once they are learned they are not connected to any concrete experience. Once you learn what HIGHER means, you really don’t  need to remember the example on which you learned what it means. You will be able to judge something being higher then something else even you haven’t ever seen things of that hight. Even more salient example is that of the notions of MORE and LESS. Once we learn those, we can use those on so much different things, that it is clear that while they are learned from experience, they are not connected to any particular experience. So we can say that what universals mean can a)be found in concrete experiences, but b)we learn the universal not by connecting it to particular experience, but by noticing it in the experience as an universal.  In principle one doesn’t need lot of examples to learn the universal, universals can be learned just from one example. But lot of examples can be given, so that they make salient the universal, by changing lot of different features, so that just what is pointed to stays the same. In one example it is hard for student to figure out what about the example the teacher is pointing to. Or said differently, the universals don’t need to be seen as some kind of synthesis based on lot of data. They are, on contrary – abstractions. This can be seen everywhere, in every concrete experience, where we put concrete under universal. We say for example “that is rabbit”, or “that is circle”, or “that apple is red”, and so on; and we know that the relation between subject and predicate is that of abstracting. The subject is always more then just the predicate tells. (Both dog and cat are mammals, but being a mammal is just one part of what they are. It is abstraction from their whole concrete being).

However because universals are abstractions, and because the concrete is always something more then the universals, a concrete thing can fall under multiple universals. What can be determined as universal A, can also be determined as universal B. Nothing magical in that. Now, in some cases that two universals can be found in a concrete situation, is merely contingent thing. They might have been there, or might not have been there. But what is interesting for possibility of metaphysics is that there are cases where if a situation is determined as A, then it will necessarily fall under (can be determined as) the universal B. Which gives possibility for a priori judgments.
One common idea which appears in this situation is that those apriori judgments must be analytical, and they are analytical only if the concepts (universals) are somehow described by other concepts (in ordinary language as definitions, list of necessary and sufficient features, or otherwise). If we imagine concepts in this way, and we put equation sign between apriority and analyticity, then it is hard to see what value those a priori judgments might have. One has in them nothing more then what has been put in them by definitions.
But when the student learned what “one” and “two” meant (in the previous post), or when she learned what “color” meant, were they supplied with definitions, with list of necessary and sufficient features? Not really. And still they figured out what the words mean – they learned the concept. Can we define what “red”, “orange” and “blue” means? Can we tell when the red stops being red, and starts being purple? But once I have those concepts of BLUE, RED and PURPLE, I can also figure out that purple is bluish and redish in same time. I can comprehend that truth, even I don’t have definitions. And really, if I want to make someone else aware of that truth, I won’t provide definitions. I would just show blue, red and purple to someone. The relation is there waiting to be comprehended.
Or put in the terms of universals as abstractions, we can say that after learning some universal, I can become aware that whenever some situation is determinable as universal A, it will be necessarily determinable as universal B. So, for example after I learn the notions of ONE, TWO and THREE, I can comprehend that when a situation is determinable as THREE, can be seen as THREE, but it also can be seen as TWO and ONE, and ONE and TWO, or ONE and ONE and ONE. I don’t know this truth analytically, I understand it by becoming aware of the necessity that when a situation is determined as THREE, it can also be determined as TWO and ONE. I haven’t learn those notions through some kind of definitions. If it was so children would be able to say that ONE AND ONE are TWO, because for them TWO would be ONE AND ONE. But they aren’t. They need additional education to learn that, and comprehend it (Of course they might merely memorize it also, but that is another story where there is no apriority at all). How does one defined RED, GREEN, PURPLE and SIMILAR, before saying that PURPLE is more SIMILAR to RED then to GREEN.
Anyway, this is not to say that a priori judgments can’t be in lot of cases formalized and made analytical in that way. But they not need be made such for their necessity to be comprehended. And why should we accept the formalism as right in first place? How does one account for validity of modus ponens?

So the point here is that, a priori judgments are possible by comprehending that if a situation is determinable as falling under universal A, it will necessarily fall under universal B. This is possible as it was said in last post because universals are not connected to concrete and specific experiences in which they are learned, but that they transcend them.

Defending Metaphysics, Part 1

Eric of Splintered Mind, in his post Metaphysics, What? raised the issue of what metaphysics is, and its role in well… lives of certain people. Inspired by it, I will  write a series of posts, in which I will use small parts of the post to try to point to, what I take, are misconceptions about metaphysics. It won’t be exactly a reply to Eric’s post, but more of an different view.

The first can be connected to what Eric puts in this way (which he argues is “mystical view”):

“Metaphysics is the discovery, by a priori armchair reflection without depending upon anything empirical, of necessary truths of the universe… How do we learn about the outside universe (not just our minds), without looking at it?”

There are two things I want to say about this:

1. If the “universe” refers there to this particular (is there any other?) universe as a whole (as some sort of rigid designator) or to all the particular facts in it (Wittg. 1.1 ‘The world is the totality of facts’ idea), and “learning about the universe” refers to learning facts about it then… the easy reply is “We don’t”. But, that is surely what metaphysics is not about! Metaphysics is not about particularities and facts of the universe, it is about universals and their relations. Or maybe it is about particularities but just as much as they fall under universals. More on this later.

2.One can connect that question also to concepts used in metaphysics. Can we have concepts before looking at the world (having experience)? Proponent of metaphysical (or any a priori) thought doesn’t need to say that we have the “proper” notions to think metaphysics before we “look at the universe”. So, again the answer would be “We don’t”. Metaphysicist can freely accept that the concepts are learned from experience. What is required for a priori thought is that what is learned from concrete experience are universal notions. Or so to say,the requirement is that notion which is learned from particular experience, is not dependent on that particular experience. That notion is then separate and can be appropriate for a priori thought. While this might seem problematic, it is really simple… one can give several examples of ostensible teachings, where this happens:

a)The teacher teaches the numbers “one” and “two” to a student. She shows him a series of examples. She shows either one pencil, or two pencils. And she says “one” when she shows one pencil, and says “two” when she shows two pencils. The student figures out what is that about the examples that the teacher is pointing to. When he had figured it out, he is ready to join the linguistic community of users of the words “one” and “two”. But wait! If the concepts of “one” and “two” are based on examples with pencils, will he not use them just when he is shown pencils? Well.. would you be able to say how many sirens are in front of you if you see them? Of course you will be, even you have never seen sirens in your life before! Same with that student. Once he figured out what distinction the teacher was pointing using the examples, he can as well forget the examples. He might have been taught using different examples. Doesn’t matter. What example do you think when you think of numbers one and two? I’m not thinking of examples. I don’t imagine neither pencils, nor points, nor anything. (Why would someone imagine points anyway? Has anyone learned what one and two is based on examples with points?). So, while the concepts are learned from experience, they transcend examples, they transcend concrete.

b)If you think there is something magical about the notions of numbers, think about notion of “color”. Have you ever seen all the colors, all the particular shades? Do you not know what color is until you have seen them all? Do students first learn that green is color, and then again that blue is color, and then again when they see pink, do we need to tell them again that PINK is also color? Of course not! (Lot of exclamation marks, I know. I can’t help it.). Students ask “What is that color?” for the colors they never have learned. But how is that possible if the concept of color doesn’t transcend the particular colors?

I guess those two examples are enough to give a general idea, of how the particulars and universals are connected.
The main point is that while experience of the world is necessary for learning concepts, those concepts transcend particular contingent experiences.


To be continued…

The inaccessibility of morality to philosophical theories

The idea of morality is idea of wise human and wise humanity – idea of a person in peace with oneself and with others, which has overcome his own silliness, and the silliness of the society. Which has overcome his own hate, fear, urges and the hate, fear and urges of the society.
By taking such view of objectivity of what is moral one can throw away any relativism as opinion of those who are not wise enough to accept wisdom, without bothering much with rational claims and logical proofs which limit themselves on level of simple concepts which can’t “grasp” the level on which concept of morality makes sense – the holistic level of the life in society with all its delicacies which is far away from a simple formalism based on simple concepts.
For sure morality has to do with such “simpler” concepts like needs, pain, pleasure, believes, thoughts, and so on… but moral behavior isn’t just simple sum of those, it isn’t some aggregate in which those are glued one to each other by rationality. Morality is connected to the being whole of the person, being aware of all those things and in which those appear merely as more or less important parts. Morality is taking the human in its whole as he dwells in the society. As such morality can be handled only by ethics, or by such philosophy which has came to give picture of the human and humanity in its totality.
As a holistic comprehension within oneself morality is more intuited and felt, then constructed and logically believed, and is accessible for the most learned ones as much to those who are not learned at all.

This doesn’t mean that behavior is not to be discussed and criticized, but such talk has value only among people who want to do what is right, who have already got to the level where they got to be moral person, and which now trust each other in wanting to do the good thing, not because doing so is rational thing to do, but because it is connected to that holistic and wise comprehension of what is to be human in a society.

What I take to be the grounds of Philosophy

If one needs to point to a central issue in philosophy, if one needs to use just one word to say what philosophy is about, it has to be – comprehension. As, if one removes comprehension, the philosophical questions and philosophical answers, philosophical discussions and everything philosophical looses sense… The questions make sense just if comprehended, the answers are good only if comprehended, the philosophical method or inquiry also need to be understood and comprehended. (BTW, the way I use “comprehend” here is roughly synonymous with “understand”. No fancy theoretical accounts or meanings.)

The comprehension is important on two levels. First the comprehension of Other, comprehension of what are people, asking, saying or wondering. But that comprehension is seen just as a way to the overall-comprehension, some ideal of comprehending everything that needs to be comprehended by philosophy.

Having put the central issue of philosophy as comprehension, we can put limits on what philosophy can allow, and what should be marked as inappropriate to it.

As one, for something to be comprehended, it must be brought clearly in front of the awareness. In such way philosophy is intimately bounded to consciousness and to awareness, and to the issue of what we can be aware of.

Because of this, I think critical stance towards our mental powers of awareness is needed, questions like ‘what are types of things we can be aware of?’, ‘how do we become aware of things?’ need to be asked. Those issues should be first explored, so that we are sure that the tower which is built has stable basis.

I’m repeating I think the words of Kant, who was saying that the powers of the mind has to be critically assessed before any metaphysics is built, but in my own opinion Kant failed to be critical enough. He took the terms such as “mind”, “objects”, “reality” in their common-sense usage in the society in which he was raised, and worked with them, without getting into inquiry into what he means by those words.

Or to put it another away, so it connects to the start of this post, one must get to this question…

    -What is that which I’m aware of, and to which those words I use relate?

That is the stance the philosophy must make. I have to become aware of what each of the words I use (to speak about philosophy) refers to, and there has to be this possibility of comprehension, as otherwise (if the meanings of the words are something which can’t be comprehended), the proper critique of the grounds of philosophy can’t be made. Even if what one says ostensibly makes sense, if such critique is not done first, the sense will be there limited by the society, in which one is born, or by the paradigm through which one have learned things.

Does this mean that we should avoid the words as they are connected to the paradigms/society? No! Philosophers can’t accept that. If one takes the meanings of the words to be based in the unconscious otherness, one gives up the philosophical work from very start.

We must assume that what the words relate to, what the words mean, is accessible to the consciousness, and even if the meaning is connected to the society or paradigm, it is the work of the philosopher to comprehend those meanings as such.

Such philosophy, as a comprehension, is in that way possible only under such conditions. Not accepting those conditions is not philosophy, it is giving up.