IS INCREDULITY SELF-DEFEATING?
Henry Flynt (June 1980. Final version as dated.)
© Henry A. Flynt, Jr.
I wrote this essay for a circle which exchanged ideas, finishing the first draft in June 1980. In October 1979, I had delivered "From Fundamental Philosophy to Meta-Technology" in Stockholm. There, as earlier, I had sensed a systematic distaste for anything which smacked of skepticism. Disinterested, unrestricted questioning was being called self-disabling (cf. Hume). Disbeliefspecific or wholesalewas suspected of being self-defeating.
In public life at the end of the Seventies, a silly irreverence toward science appeared in the academic world which gave permission to a return to credulity. At the same time, one or more of my acquaintances had it that social bodies bandied myths and that that was all public cognitive orientations could ever amount to. A new culture would have to mean a new myth, i.e. a new belief-system already known by us to be a deceit.
I decided to try to make my project palatable to my circle with a heuristic essay which took skepticism's disrepute as the organizing topic, along with the issues of credulity and disbelief. In other words, I wrote an essay on skepticism's disrepute which was to be a heuristic conduit to my rigorously positioned presentation and its egressive applications. As for the rigorously positioned presentation ("Primary Study"), I rewrote it for my readers.
Today, I cannot afford to disavow "Is Incredulity Self-Defeating?" All the same, to allow skepticism's disrepute to provide the agenda leaves the epistemology without sufficient clarity. Then, I wanted to explain the debt I owed to Carnap and his blunt condemnation of metaphysics. The problem there was that, as I understand better and better, Carnaps rejection of metaphysics was a hoax. If I acknowledge Carnap, I have also to insist that I am completely disconnected from him, and the question arises whether that is helpful or unhelpful.
In the late Seventies, Blueprint for a Higher Civilization was still a fair representation of my projectwhich is to say that the applications of my insight were quite rudimentary.
I felt it necessary to urge abstractly that the eschewing of belief is not a dead end. But gratified as I was at the applications, I intimated in the last section that they were a mere heuristic footnote to the rigorously positioned presentation.
Appendix A furnishes a document-and-publication history of cited writings.
A. This essay is a heuristic one. The rigorously positioned presentations of my philosophy are "Primary Study" and "The Flaws Underlying Beliefs." (I use the words "thesis" and "belief" interchangeably, invoking the word "belief" to emphasize that espousing a thesis is a mental act.)
These documents exhibit the juncture at which language "short-circuits" (i.e. is vitiated): the "Is there language?" trap. One reason why I have produced an entire heuristic literature on my philosophy is that in the absence of a heuristic background, the one-page "Primary Study" is dismissed as a joke. Evidently it is dismissed for two interacting reasons. The first is the presumption that it is nihilistic and so yields no benefit whatever. The second is the misconception that the trap is a riddle which can be isolated from the rest of language and cognition, and which therefore nullifies only itself. Another, sectarian objection came from a past generation of academics: they complained that the trap does not provide a comprehensive logico-syntactical theory to explain what it means by "statement," "true," etc. My heuristic writings are supposed to convey that my ultimate philosophical result is not to be approached as a specialized exercise; and should not be imagined to be a dead end.
There is an intellectual disadvantage in attempting to lead the way to my ultimate result through heuristic discourses. A discourse is heuristic because it sacrifices creditability in order to accommodate the predilections of its audience. I then find myself acquiescing to a number of layers (perhaps interconnected) of conventional assumptions which I am then required to disavow, layer by layer. If I am to write heuristically, this difficulty is unavoidable.
The agenda of this essay specifically consists of four themes.
a. Given the act of cognition as culturally structured, it is rigged so that doubt and disbelief are always on the defensive, are always concessionary. Merely to entertain a proposition is to assent to some level of what it says.
b. Discriminatory skepticism: a technique for producing philosophical-academic novelties.
c. Astute hypocrisy: a program for applying my "nihilistic" philosophical result.
d. Radical unbelief as a "condition of consciousness."
In order to expound these themes, I will have to refer to other themes which I have dealt with at length in other writings. I will take the liberty of stating these themes in an abbreviated way.
In the Seventies, it became legitimate in the "rationalist" sector of the academic and cultural world to express irreverence for natural science and the scientific culture. But the character and direction of this irreverence were regressive. That is, we find a facetious relativism to the effect that all beliefs are true, a relativism whose goal is the proliferation of superstition and cognitive capriciousness.
My standard for breaking with science is to provide results which are both non-scientific and post-scientific: new results which are outside the boundaries of natural science, while being conceivable only in a civilization which is already abreast of scientific culture.
In comparison, every result which the Seventies authors counterposed to natural science was a retread of a historical superstition antedating modern sciencea superstition which had fallen into obscurity because science had made a laughingstock of it. Astrology and alchemy were not the worst of the new alternatives to physics which were offered.
I cannot avoid saying that an issue of personal courage and intellectual autonomy is involved here. To produce a new result as I defined it two paragraphs ago is difficult because it involves facing down the modern professional classes and telling them that their expectations concerning knowledge and savants are ill-conceived. It is easy enough, in the short run, to make a new career for familiar ideas which have fallen into disuse. This cannot be compared with the prospect for innovations such as I require. The latter must transcend socially routine cognitive procedures and the social reward structure associated with them.
A specific observation, correlative to the foregoing, is that the successes attributed to magic and occultism are not philosophically profound, even though the customers go away satisfied. When a religious spell is seen to achieve the projected result, that is not philosophically profound.
Let me characterize the occultism which antedated modern science a little more formally. Pre-scientific knowledge pretends to discover objectively consequential instrumental procedures. It pretends to discover objectively consequential laws of "the world." It pretends to discover objective, causal, thing-to-thing relationships. The only drawback is that pre-scientific knowledge doesn't work well enoughor that its validation can be construed as a matter of hearsay, misdirection, and suggestibility. Another perspective on pre-scientific knowledge is that to the extent that it allows for humanness and subjectivity, it does so by displacing them into a world of things which do not exist except as chimeras.
My challenge is to construct a modality to replace the traditional claim to discover an objective world, or the traditional claim of the objectivity of languageand the societal (communal) function of those claims. Pre-scientific cultures couldn't do this; and the Seventies academics would not have wanted to if they could have.
Expectations of an objective world with objectively consequential laws are perennially popular. Occultism seeks in its way to fulfill those expectations; and so its successes are philosophically banal. I speculate that occultism sometimes seizes on authentic anomalous experiences and willfully imagines them to be phenomena of a chimerical thing-world. [So the experience which is called a hypnagogic hallucination by psychology may be called astral projection by occultism.] What no popular practice does is to acknowledge the anomalous experience, while refraining from contextualizing it with chimerical objectivities.
If I am not as impressed by reports of supernatural powers as people think I should be, it is partly because I treat all hearsay as a lie. But even more, it is because I scorn the traditional demand for objectively consequential causal relationships as a cognitive modality. Again, it is for that reason that I find the successes of occultism philosophically banal. It is necessary to get beyond cause-and-effect technology. I speculate that the traditional paradigmthe making of objective pronouncements about an objective worldhas not received a substantial challenge because it is central to what we know as social regimentation.
As I intimate, there are remote parallels between what occultism wants to do and what natural science wants to do. After all, we dont have to bowdlerize science here. Modern science was launched by astrologers and alchemists. Science posits occult phenomena (action at a distance). Occult phenomena were expedients in scientific theories for centuries before they were removed (light and the ether). Science seeks objective causal relationships. (The difference between occultism and modern science is, being simplistic, that sciences norms of instrumental effectiveness are more sophisticated than occultisms.) The perspective aimed for here will leave occultism and science on the same level.
All the while, postures which renounce instrumental aims are ineffectualbecause they cannot supersede scientific civilization. What I call for has not been formulated by a previous author: instrumentally effective procedures which are outside the parameters which occultism and modern science share with each other. Such procedures might be correlative to a community in which the regimentation of reality (as it now operates) would have disintegrated.
Returning to the agenda proper, the academic irreverence toward science which surfaced in the Seventies tended in the direction of increasing credulousness. It tended in the direction of making a moral imperative of credulity. For myself, I am devoted to the decrease of credulity (and to the dismantling of natural science through decrease of credulity). I am devoted to instrumental procedures, based on decreased credulousness, which plasticize the determination of reality. From the beginning of my philosophical activityI defined 'truth' in Philosophy Proper in terms of absence of self-deception (deception of oneself by oneself)I have been devoted to the incredulous end of the philosophical spectrum. Since it has become fashionable in the late twentieth century to re-legitimate superstition and credulity, my exploration of incredulousness has been profoundly out of fashion.
The incredulous end of the philosophical spectrum has always been out of fashion. It has always been condemned, or mocked, both in philosophy and in the culture in general.
What I am concerned with here is unrestricted skepticism as a principle. No particular historical philosopher has stood for unrestricted skepticism. Rather, a few philosophers have made tangential contributions to unrestricted skepticism; while most philosophies treat skepticism as a lurking menace.
In "From Fundamental Philosophy to Meta-Technology" (hereafter FPMT), I interpreted the course of modern philosophy as a series of desperate attempts to fend off unrestricted skepticism. I do not mean that modern philosophies as scholarly doctrines center on skepticism; rather, skepticism lurks as the menace one beats back. We find Descartes doubt, Humes horror at his own skepticism, Kants avowal that his purpose is to defend religion from the unbelief of the philosophers, and the hysterical passage in Being and Time in which Heidegger disposes of doubting the world by proclaiming a world impossible to doubt.
That interpretation is presented in FPMT and elsewhere and here is not the place to repeat it. Let me review another attitude toward philosophical unbelief, namely Wittgensteins. Wittgenstein says in the Philosophical Investigations, §403, "But after all neither does the solipsist want any practical advantage when he advances his view!" In §303, he says "Just tryin a real caseto doubt someone else's fear or pain." In §420, he in effect repeats Hume's remark that it is impossible to doubt other minds "outside one's study." Wittgenstein also intimates that philosophical skeptics are like savages bewitched by the forms of language. (Cf. §§194, 109, 111.) In §124, he says that "Philosophy ... leaves everything as it is. It also leaves mathematics as it is ... ."
Wittgenstein only wrote gnomically; if one wants an expository version, one has to provide it. In what follows, I will paraphrase Wittgenstein in accord with two considerations: the way he has been interpreted by professors who claim him as inspiration; and Wittgenstein's abstention from trying to field any post-scientific instrumental procedures. (The assurance, in other words, that Wittgenstein did not have a concealed scheme for changing the world.) Wittgenstein charges that all varieties of philosophical incredulousnessskepticism, agnosticism, disbelief, unbelief, solipsismare mere jokes or poses. The philosophical skeptic or solipsist is a poseur. Philosophical incredulousness can have no practical consequences; it can never lead to any change in the mode of life. Indeed, philosophical incredulousness is just an improper use of ordinary language. (So it is that people trained as Wittgensteinians dismissed my "Is there language?" trap as an improper use of ordinary language which has no importance.)
We can gain a more complete understanding of Wittgenstein's attitude if we pay attention to all the memoirs and other documents which disclose that he was a mystic and a theist, and if we note that the Philosophical Investigations, §373, says that theology is the grammar of the word God. For Wittgenstein, as natural historian of the average person's world-view and as mystic, to doubt or to deny the existence of God is a mere joke or a pose. It manifests the ignorance of a savage in the face of the forms of language. To doubt or deny the existence of God is a misuse of ordinary language. Doubt or denial of God can have no practical consequences; it can never lead to any change in the mode of life. (Wittgensteins attitude recalls what Kant said in the Critique of Pure Reason, that philosophical doubt of God, free will, and immortality will never reach beyond the universities to affect the average person.)
On the other hand, we learn from the anecdotal literature that Wittgenstein was contemptuous of the attempt to make a science out of parapsychology. In this case, Wittgenstein did not refrain from disbelief. But he failed to explain himself. As to God, Wittgenstein never spoke on whether God is a person.
Wittgenstein sided with the average person's world-view in dismissing philosophical incredulousness as a joke and a pose. And he surrounded this position, which in the last analysis was Philistine, with a gnomic, anguished, mystical aura. As such, Wittgenstein enabled the professors to say that skepticism and disbelief have been disposed of permanently. (Wittgensteins influence also fostered the preciousness and inconsequentiality of British philosophy.)
B. Let me pass to the themes to which this essay is specifically devoted. The influential philosophers and the cultures in which they lived have found philosophical incredulousness so unappealing that, upon acknowledging it, they thrust it aside. They grouped together all types of philosophical incredulousness and dismissed them as a joke or a poseif not condemning them as evil. If philosophy seemed to promise a non-tendentious, dispassionate examination of incredulousness, it never occurred.
There is a long tradition in the literature of thought in which skepticism is depicted as a feeble or enfeebling position, and is subjected to a sloganizing condemnation. This posture may sacrifice epistemological clarity, but it is adopted repeatedly with great passion.
Historically, there is a complication in that Skepticism was the name of various schools of philosophy. The approach of these schools was rather like Pascals wager: the problem is uncertainty; and uncertainty becomes an excuse to believe the most clichéd thing. Again, I am concerned with unrestricted skepticism as a principle. Contributions of historical philosophers to skepticism as a principle have been tangential; and have not necessarily come from the schools named Skepticism.
Picking over the ancient thinkers who flirted with skepticism is hardly worth it. One example was Metrodorus of Chios:
None of us knows anything, not even whether we know or do not know, nor do we know whether not knowing and knowing exist, nor in general whether there is anything or not.
After this blustery beginning (which was understandably dismissed as self-nullifying), Metrodorus lapsed back into clichéd belief. That set the pattern for ages.
Another example was Francisco Sanches That Nothing Is Known. Sanches thought far enough ahead to try to answer the dogmatist who objects that skepticism defeats itself. Let Sanches posit I do not know whether my statements are true. The dogmatist may reply that this affirmation is simply false. But Sanches' rejoinder, for what it is worth, is that if the dogmatist is right that Sanches prime affirmation is false, then Sanches is discovered to subsist in ignorance: verifying his affirmation. For all that, Sanches lapses back into clichéd belief on the second page.
A third historic debacle of skepticism was Humes horror at his own skepticismwhich gave incredulousness a reputation as a suicidal evil.
Incredulousness can be cast in various guises. Some of these variants, perhaps most of them, are arguably self-nullifying and so are not viable philosophical stances. The philosophers, treating incredulousness like a bugbear, never delved into it resolutely. Incredulousness was never pursued beyond the variants which are trivially non-viable.
The influential philosophers only concern with incredulousness has been to confute it and "prove the world." So it is that we get a series of versions of the transcendental argument in modern philosophy, beginning with Kant's "Refutation of Idealism" in the Critique of Pure Reason. The argument takes note that even within experience, we comport ourselves to a context of objectivity (intentionality, thrown-projectedness). This circumstance is then cited as proof that the context of objectivity is objectively real. This mode of argument is a classic non sequitur by which prayer would prove the existence of God and dream-worlds would be proved to be more real than the waking world.
Another aspect is that most of the celebrated philosophers, again beginning with Kant, have noted that the claim of the reality of the world would have a semantics only if it were true. Its meaning makes it true and that truth supplies its meaning. The philosophers construed this circularity as an assurance of veracity. They did not consider that such circularity might be a symptom of vacuity.
C. Enough about the philosophical tradition. Let me begin an examination of incredulity as a principle. Given a thesis or belief, consider the attempt to doubt it or to deny it (to profess its negative).
The activity of cognition (as culturally structured) is rigged so that the attempt to doubt or deny a thesis has the effect of giving a degree of credence to the thesis or of attributing a degree of validity to it.
Two examples that to doubt or to deny a given thesis leaves the skeptic on the defensive. The solipsist denies the existence of anything but himself (his mind?). There are untenable implications here. The solipsist intimates that he has explored some domain or other where things might exist, and has found them absent. He also intimates that "he" has a sustained identity; and that his verbalizations exist as objectively established language. (Does a solipsist spell sure the same way he pronounces it?) Philosophers probably understand that solipsism is trivially self-undermining.
Next, consider the contraposition of idealism and materialism. The two theses are entirely at parity with each other in regard to the problematicity of their validation. Beginning with materialism, the literal claim that one has looked outside of one's own consciousness or one's own experiences and has found solid matter there is a claim which is as problematic intellectually as the contrary claim. And if one retreats into agnosticism, one is placed in the position of professing that "there is a realm outside of my own consciousness which could contain solid matter, but I am unable in principle to tell whether it does or not." Again, one remains tied to a positive belief which is as problematic as what it seeks to disavow.
Consider the stereotypical freethinker who doubts or denies the existence of God. The freethinker who agrees that the existence-claim for God is meaningful and non-mythological (metaphysical) runs up against the cliché that "it is impossible to prove a negative." The customary implication is that the freethinker has explored some domain and found it to lack God. It is the epistemological twin of the claim that God exists.
[The exact quality of the disbelievers concession is dependent on the prevailing social attitude. To obtain some heuristic advantage from this observation requires an excursion into the sociology of knowledge which is not crucial to me and which I will abandon later. In a community in which orthodoxy requires belief in God, one cannot doubt or deny God without an implication that one has taken a peek into heaven, with negative results. And to whatever extent belief in God is indefensible, this latter implication is indefensible equally and for the same reasons. The atheist is trapped into a sort of psychical wrestling match with God which gives credence to God by the vigor of the struggle against Him.
If one denied God in the Soviet Union, a nation where atheism was fostered and even enforced on the average person by police methods, the official approval of that denial gave it a different quality. ("The atheist is denying a belief which has stupefied the masses and reconciled them to oppression.") Nevertheless, the implication is still present that some domain has been explored and has been found to lack God.]
A case in which disbelief is mandatory is that of a scientist who avows the untruth of astrology. (Recall that Wittgenstein avowed the speciousness of parapsychology.) Here a profession throws its weight behind disbelief. Yet there is presumably the concession that astrology says something, and that in order to defeat it, you would have to prove a negative. Then the dogmatic re-injection of astrology-like notions in science cannot be ruled out.
Doubt and denial, agnosticism and negative belief and solipsism place their exponent on the defensive. The attempt to disavow any portion of supposed knowledge, if pursued in the obvious manner, will be concessionary.
Actually, the following observations are more piercing epistemologically. The negation of a falsehood is a truth: so truth and falsehood are twinned. "It is impossible to prove a negative." Agnosticism confesses that the answer is real and that you fail in not possessing it. My latest phrase for this state is binary confinement. However, to focus on these observations would require me to recast the essay. I would not address the sloganizing condemnation of skepticism which runs throughout philosophy, and I would not address the pervasive conviction that incredulousness means skepticism or the defensive embrace of the negation.
If cognition were rigged so as to force credulity in a small minority of theses which are highly reasonable, then the practical course might be to acquiesce without reservations. But credulous entrapment (binary confinement) is not confined to reasonable theses. A thesis may be unwanted; nevertheless the norms which govern cognition force assent to some level of what it says. It is sufficient that a thesis be considered: some level of what it says gets credited.
So victory goes to the credulous. But the victory is satisfying only to a willing dupe. A principled uniformity would require the credulous to avow everything. They should not avow anything unless they are prepared to avow everything. Materialism, idealism, free will, determinism, God, atheism, archangels, seraphim, cherubim, incubi, succubi, astrology, ESP, the supernatural cause of the Big Bangall accumulate as clutter which cannot be disposed of. Cognition is an interdependent whole, and the whole is rigged in favor of credulity. That is why it can make sense to envision rejecting the whole of it.
D. If there is a viable option at the incredulous end of the philosophical spectrum, it is going to have to be a more ruthless option than those I have reviewed so far. If one wishes to opt out of any portion of supposed knowledge beyond the possibility of its resurrection, then a maneuver will be required which is more ruthless that attempting to doubt or to deny particular theses within the norms which govern cognitive activity. A maneuver is required which is so ruthless that it will be perceived as lunacy, as a betrayal of the social contract. But that is what genuine incredulousness is. Kant, Wittgenstein, et al. notwithstanding, genuine incredulousness must immediately belie the social regimentation we know, and the inherited mode of life.
When I first presented the "nihilative" results for which I am now providing a heuristic context, the majority of people I was associated with concluded that I had arrived at a dead end, that I had fallen into an abyss of extremism from which there was no deliverance, that I had terminated my career as a thinker. Indeed, these people felt that to derive an excessively negative result, even if correct, was treason to the social contract and in particular to the academic world (which was the sector of society they were most anxious to protect). But I am very clear on what my reasons are: I find cognitive clutter intolerable.
Feyerabend's Against Method was an object-lesson that "to play the cognition game by the rules" more or less requires one to believe everything. Let me characterize the situation in terms of the history of doctrinal conflict generally. The history of doctrinal conflict is basically a history of theories or interpretations each of which is unable to gain a decisive advantage over the others. And often both of two competing doctrines are plausible, and are able to locate real weaknesses and omissions in each other. (Examples are the equally plausible cases that can be made for free will and for the impersonal causation of human action; or the equal cases that can be made for materialism and idealism as abstract metaphysical doctrines.)
Moreover, let me observe that the sort of intellectual innovations which constitute the output of the academic world come about through a ploy which I call
An academic thinker will create a "new" theory and initiate a new intellectual fashion by doubting one inherited tenet while unquestioningly accepting all other inherited tenets (and the latter may be interdependent with the tenet that is being impugned). In other words, the posture is one of infinite skepticism toward the "positive presumptions" of one's opponents concurrently with infinite credulity towards one's own positive presumptions.
Again, what discriminatory skepticism or long-run doctrinal conflict provides is an endless sequence of interpretations of the world, many of which are plausible, none of which can gain a decisive advantage over the others. It has given us a series of junctures from which the subsequent development is determined by fashion and conformity rather than by any intellectual imperative. Academic knowledge is a game of bandying theories all of which are equally indecisive. It is a game for gentlefolk who have a tacit understanding not to probe each other's beliefs too ruthlessly. The principal quality of academic knowledge is the indecisiveness of mere opinion. John Alten once let slip the remark that "One's acceptance or rejection of a theory is an esthetic choice." [Truth is a matter of taste.] Coming from Alten, who was the ablest spokesman I ever met for the scholarly tradition (i.e. for the fraternity whose current generation had ostracized him), this was deeply revealing.
There is a social contract to be tolerant toward the proliferation of doctrines; and to be loyal to academic professionalism. But going back to my student days, I found the indecisiveness of academic knowledgethis clutter which derives from apologismto be intolerable. The social contract allows and urges you to pick a clichéd delusion and drown yourself in it. What cognition (as culturally structured) furnishes you, then, is Russian-roulette stupefaction. That very situation, I saw, raised meta-questions which were forbidden, but which might well be taken as the motivation of philosophy. Must I commit to a delusion, if it doesn't matter which one it is? And if I must deceive myself, what elements must reality have for the establishment of self-deceiving configurations to be possible? (And after I know what the elements of reality are, must I ignore that knowledge and deceive myself still?)
In any case, playing the cognition game by the rules admits every belief. I resolved instead to explore believing nothing.
[My attitude was that thinkers who spend their time politely toying with clutter are in a condition of witting humiliation. I have a constitutional contempt for self-deceptionand a partiality to the scrutiny of one's acts of faith concerning basic things (a scrutiny which can unfold only in the absence of coercion and submergence in group influence).]
E. The first intimation that there is a way to opt out of belief which goes beyond doubt and negative belief was provided by Carnaps proposal that metaphysical theses or disputes are literally meaningless. That will prove to be an important clue. On the other hand, Carnaps construct proved to be a hoax. Carnaps detractors sensed that, whether they diagnosed it accurately or not, and took it as justifying a rehabilitation of metaphysics. So a few decades after we had been promised an escape from credulous entrapment, it was reinstated.
One feature of Carnaps program should be mentioned because it sharpened the programand because it makes a comment on subsequent academic posturing. Carnap declared that because natural language contained metaphysical assumptions and other faults, it should be eradicated and replaced with a wholly artificial science-speak. I'm not a historianI haven't studied the career of this proposal; but Tarski also expressed hope for the elimination of natural language in scientific discourse, in conjunction with his study of truth-definitions. So: Carnap charged that natural language is inexcusably flawed; he demanded its obliteration; and he was prepared personally to provide the robot-speak to replace it.
Carnap supposed that his principle of meaning could distinguish between metaphysics and natural science, and could simultaneously discredit the former and vindicate the latter. So it was that Carnap devoted most of his career efforts to championing scientism. Just that ensured the failure of his construct, even if it was not its greatest weakness.
Some perceived Carnap and positivism as an inferior imitation of what Wittgenstein offered. But if Wittgenstein was the godfather of positivism, he was incongruously tolerant of God. A door which ought to have been sealed shut is left open. Even though it is a digression, then, something is learned if we review how Wittgenstein and the positivists compare.
The Wittgenstein-Carnap relationship shows us that a blunted imitation can be more important than the original. (And that aloof seductiveness and ambivalence are overrated virtues.) When Wittgenstein said that "whereof one cannot speak, one must remain silent," he meantwe have learnednot to decapitate metaphysics, but to discourage rationalist metaphysics in order to make way for a vague mysticism. (All sorts of religious tendencies had already called for wordless reverence.) The full documentation shows that Wittgenstein was religious/mystical. (Incidentally, he applauded the inquiry into the mystery of Being in Being and Time.)
[There was a generation of academic philosophers who felt that Wittgenstein, rather than Carnap, had told them how to handle embarrassing talk about God, etc. (That is, the Wittgenstein of the Investigations.) Pretend to know something which places you above it all, while indulging such talk with a pose of compassion. So let me repeat why I find this to be a relapse to conformism. The later Wittgenstein made the ordinary use of ordinary language exempt from criticism, including immanent criticism. (As another author said, he simply stopped seeing all the specific instabilities of natural language.) Wittgenstein consigned scientific discovery to the experts. And Wittgenstein rejected "philosophy" solely on the grounds that it was an improper use of ordinary language (albeit a use as historic as ordinary language itself). To reiterate, this "rejection of philosophy" is confirmatory of the intellectual status quo, and makes ordinary credulity obligatory. Carnaps trust in artificial language had one beneficial consequence: he did not have to shield ordinary language.]
As for Carnap, he began with tentative misgivings towards metaphysics à la Mach. Then he read the Tractatus; and thereafter he began to call prophetically for the extinction of metaphysics and for the eradication of natural language. In comparison with Wittgenstein's gnomic, anguished, mystical rejection of metaphysics, Carnap seems brutish. But Carnap was able to describe it himself.
[Wittgenstein's] intellect, working with great intensity and penetrating power, had recognized that many statements in the field of religion and metaphysics did not, strictly speaking, say anything. In his characteristic absolute honesty with himself, he did not try to shut his eyes to this insight. But this result was extremely painful to him emotionally, as if he were compelled to admit a weakness in a beloved person. Schlick, and I, by contrast, had no love for metaphysics or metaphysical theology, and therefore could abandon them without inner conflict or regret. Earlier, when we were reading Wittgensteins book in the circle, I had erroneously believed that his attitude toward metaphysics was similar to ours. I had not paid sufficient attention to the statements in his book about the mystical, because his feelings and thoughts in this area were too divergent from mine. Only personal contact with him helped me to see more clearly his attitude at this point. I had the impression that his ambivalence with respect to metaphysics was only a special aspect of a more basic internal conflict in his personality from which he suffered deeply and painfully.
Indeed, "Schlick, and I could abandon [metaphysics] without inner conflict or regret." That, I must say, was what was needed.
If it is objected that Carnap's perspective leaves us unprotected against scientism, it may be said that classical metaphysics and religion are not viable correctives to the new degradation inherent in science and modernity. I have met many students of philosophy who instinctively recoiled from Carnaps iconoclasm, perceiving it as a brutal Philistinism. My reply is that people who are averse to Carnap's "brute" rejection of metaphysics usually turn out to have an agenda of occultism.
Positivism remains a specialized outlook. For the reader who may not be versed in it, let me furnish a template which shows what Carnap promised, a template which lacks any details which would substantiate it. Is consciousness the only reality? Is matter the only reality? Does God exist? Does God not exist? Are we unable to know whether God exists or not? Semantic validation requires propositions to be connected to our sensations in a way which makes them experientially testable; and the propositions implicit here are not semantically validated. (Propositions of exact sciences such as pure mathematics are not regarded as synthetic or contingent, and receive a different treatment.) In this light it is perhaps the position of an agnostic (such as Kant) which is the most objectionable, because he elaborately professes ignorance in regard to issues which are nonsensical. It is the presumption that the disputants language means something which has to go.
All of cognition had lent itself to a parallel with Pascals wager. Any natural-language proposition could be affirmed or denied on the basis of a coin toss, and one had a fifty per cent chance of increasing one's knowledge thereby. Carnap repudiated this conventional wisdom categorically and crusaded for a mode of incredulousness more ruthless than skepticism or negative belief.
Do you believe in materialism, or do you believe in idealism, or do you admit your inadequacy to know which is true? Carnap would say that he is certain that the language in which these positions are embodied is meaningless. There is no skepticism in this stance. In "Überwindung der Metaphysik," Carnap said that even a god could not give us metaphysical knowledge, because there is no way to inject knowledge into misbegotten concatenations of human words. That sets a standard for a new intransigence.
F. All the same, we must acknowledge that Carnaps construct was insincere and non-viablerecalling the fate of traditional incredulities. To provide a comprehensive critique of Carnap would be too much of a digression. I confine myself to three observations which prepare for my rigorously positioned presentation.
In Carnap's rationale for science, the most elementary scientific fact has for its empirical content an infinite number of propositions about immediate sensations (protocol-sentences). Needless to say, only a very small number of the latter propositions receive actual verification (as opposed to imaginary verification). If we sever the actually verified protocols from the infinite conjunction of protocols, what remains is as effectively blocked from verification as any metaphysical proposition. A scientific fact is a fabrication which amalgamates a few trivially testable meanings with an infinite number of untestable meanings and inveigles us to accept the whole conglomeration at once. Natural science is just as unexperiential and meaningless as metaphysics (apart from a trivial collection of protocols).
In §A, I observed that magic's purported employment of causation to obtain some practical result is not philosophically profound. Perhaps this is the place to say that the perspective aimed for here delivers the same verdict on physics, on its claimed objective causal relationships and successes in applying them.
To repeat, remote parallels can be drawn between what occultism wants to do and what natural science wants to do. The difference between occultism and modern science is, being simplistic, that science's norms of instrumental effectiveness are more sophisticated than occultisms. (But even there, occultism has anecdotal successes. How far can occultism and modern science be distinguished if they are taken one success at a time?) Despite having different treatments of integrity, reliability, etc., occultism and physics both view causation as the ultimate in instrumental effectiveness. We must expect that an absolutely lethal assault on magic and occultism will prove fatal to natural science as well.
There is some sort of tactical flaw in professing that only experience is real, or that all trans-experiential propositions are meaninglessas if these formulations could be stable affirmative truths. Carnap wanted to propound a theory of meaning by which a proposition would be meaningful precisely if it had some implication which was experiential. But once it is clear that only the actually verified protocols accord with the principle which Carnap invoked, then the theory of meaning is itself not viable as a stable affirmative creed. If "only experience exists," then there is no basis to say so. Just that would suffice to defeat Carnap's attempt to bring a new intransigence to incredulity. It leaves Carnap no better off than traditional disbelievers and agnostics.
G. How do we arrive at incredulity's finale? What does the perfect incredulity consist in? My first finished statement was written in 1960. In line with the present exposition, let me invoke the lesson from §C above. Cognition is rigged so that for any proposition which is considered (i.e. entertained), some level of its import is assented to (credited). It is necessary to pivot on this insight; and to embody it in a text which does not need to function as a stable affirmative creed, but can rather perform a bootstrap or Cheshire-cat function.
There must be "a realm beyond my immediate experience" if the reference to such a realm is even meaningful. But this is no proof that "a realm beyond my experience" exists. It is a proof that the assertion that "There is a realm beyond my immediate experience" is too true to be meaningful; that it is self-validating nonsense.
And since the ultimate consideration here is the meaningfulness of language, the question "Is there a realm beyond my immediate experience?" should be replaced by the question "Is there language?" as the ultimate question of philosophy. And the statement "There is language" must be true if it can be avowed. Again, this does not prove the existence of language; it proves that the assertion of the existence of language is "self-validating" nonsense. The genuine option in the incredulous philosophical modalityfinallycannot be a stable affirmative thesis at all.
So the strategy required is almost the reverse of that of the present essay and its scholarly-historical guise. The rigorously positioned text proceeds by engaging the purported faculties of "the reader" (whoever that may be). (Alternatively: the purported shared culture.) The text appeals to the knowledge which "the reader" would be supposed to have to be a prospective reader. Instantiating that which is at issue, the text manifests the juncture at which language short-circuits.
A draft of my language-centered argument from 1962 has been unearthed. A page which makes no social or historical references (and which provides no explicative theory of language, truth, and cognitionor of logic, identity, and existence). I could offer it as my complete work.
H. I sought to escape the academic game of bandying theories which are all equally indecisive; to escape intellectual fashions concocted by means of discriminatory skepticism; to escape intolerable cognitive clutter; to escape self-deception. This led me to a Cheshire-cat manifestation that language short-circuits, that (falling back on compromised formulations) cognition in its entirety is a mirage. This outcome is what my peers were afraid of; it is the outcome which they said had no benefit. But I will stop contending with my peers, and turn to the delineation of the achieved position.
At the beginning of this essay, I called for instrumentally consequential procedures, satisfying the norms of rationality, which are beyond the frontiers of natural science. Here all of my ventures which could loosely be called new sciences will be classified as
A project in astute hypocrisy engages prevailing shared opinion. (E.g. what perceptual psychology has to say about multistable figures or negative afterimages of motion.) Or, it engages prevailing relative plausibilities. (E.g. intuitive arithmetic.) It then proceeds to manipulate this material with great ingenuityin the perspective of the diminution of credulity. The project passes to a "new knowledge" which satisfies the norms of rationality, empiricism, and cognitive parsimony at least as well as natural science does. (Another avenue, or characterization, is to unravel the determination of reality through immanent scrutiny.) I insist on the latter norms because I demand results which can outcompete and overmaster natural science. The new knowledge is beyond the frontiers of the scientific culture; while being binding, in principle, on the (scientifically educated) audience. The new knowledge itself is at the level of relative plausibilities. It is at the level of imputation of contexts of objectivity in experience.
Actually, there are multiple projects, proceeding in non-compatible directions. So there are multiple directions of departure from scientific reality, each relatively compelling. A profound, even "impossible" non-uniqueness of reality is evinced.
As a supplementary elaboration, I may single out the application of diminished credulity to the evaluational processing of experience. In conjunction with other means of reconstituting the evaluational processing of experience, this yields alternative integrations of the experience-world which, again, satisfy the norms of rationality. Just this belies science's claim to be the only rational belief-system.
The nihilative result suggests also a turn to the problematic of radical unbelief. What of an escape from relative plausibilities?an escape from forced credulousness, including the credulousness of disbelief? Consider
radical unbelief as a "condition of consciousness."
Or, the problematic of extinction of belief within lived experience. (A commitment to conventional pragmatic life would exclude this problematic, of course.) Certain analytical undertakings contribute to the exploration of radical unbelief. (Enigmatically, I am writing instructions for the unsayable. The instructions comprise another exercise in astute hypocrisy, no longer directed to a new science.)
There is the analytical task of stripping imputed contexts of objectivity from experience. Radical unbelief does not mean not-having-one's-sense-contents. It means foregoing one's belief-interpretations of sense-contents.
In this connection, the language of perceptual reporting is a language of hypostases and hypostatizing compartmentation. If I report a perception by saying "I see a chair," does this mean a visual-chair-apparition, or are there inherent implications of an impenetrable, ponderable chair which endures (even for years), etc.? If the latter, then: could this language appropriately report seeing a chair in a dream? Out-of-compartment perceptions evoke unauthorized improvisations: the room is swimming; the air is twinkling.
Then there is the question of resistances, in lived experience, which supposedly manifest external objectivities. The taunt was always hurled at the skeptic "Would you walk out of a tenth-story window?" The resistances with which the skeptic is taunted may be characterized as transcendently assembled objectivities. They lose their import if they are not buttressed with longitudinal epistemological judgments (such as "I am awake, non-hallucinatory, and alert"). What do experiences of resistances in dreams prove? Another lesson: I have seen a religious spell achieve the projected result over and over. But no secular observer would concede that this evinces a material law. Repetition of a sequence, itself a transcendently assembled objectively, need not establish a universal material connection.
The comic-book feat of levitating outside a tenth-story window in the waking state in the presence of witnesses in the legal sense etc. would be a transcendently re-assembled objectivity. The place to inquire about such a feat would be in the wake of the realization of my program of new sciences. And then non-uniqueness would come into play: exactly what do you want to prove by weaving past the resistance? As for the foregoing taunt, it misses radical unbelief, since the point is to disperse the arena which a transcendently assembled objectivity presupposes.
When I announced the prospect of passing to radical unbeliefin Philosophy ProperI began to frame intellectual activities not claimed to provide "truth." The contribution of these activities was to alter the boundaries of what can be thought. In Blueprint for a Higher Civilization, p. 8, I spoke of "the construction of ideas such that the very possibility of thinking these ideas is a significant phenomenon ... the invention of new mental abilities."
In the course of decades, the perspective of a post-scientific culture became my priority. So the priority became projects in astute hypocrisy. I ceased to frame the research as intellectual activities dealing with belief only as apparition. The techniques which my research yields are typically the same whether they are incorporated in a "new science," or in a "non-cognitive intellectual activity."
But now there is a question which the 1980 draft of this essay did not announce. The custodians of knowledge have a roster of questions which represent what they do. Let it include the following classic metaphysical questions (although it doesn't have to be limited to these).
Is there a God?
Is the world made of matter?
Is the world made of mind?
Do Platonic forms exist? (Realism)
Is the world exhausted by individuals? (Nominalism)
Is the world causal or acausal? (Determinism)
Will the future be like the past? (Uniformity)
Is mind a substance?
Do humans have free will?
Is there an absolute good or right?
How am I to treat these questions, the question of God, for example, when I am being an astute hypocrite?
The answer is that the choice of questions to entertain as an astute hypocrite, while not unprincipled, is flexible and mission-dependent. All the while, after cognitive nihilism, there is no rigorous semantic validation and disvalidation. There is no rigorous validation of "reasonable knowledge." If I have no motive to humor a question, it is left devastated by cognitive nihilism.
When I am not humoring the extant culture, then physics is as specious as astrology, even. (I managed to say that in 1980perhaps not at the best juncture in the exposition.) There is no rigorous boundary between real and unreal questions. There are reasons for saying "good physics, bad astrology": physics makes a compelling impression which makes it an immensely more substantial target. But if I am not humoring somebody, there is no reason to say "good physics, bad astrology." My warrant to treat any question as meaningless is just my warrant to treat all questions as meaningless simultaneously.
All the while, it is not foolish to sense that credulity and cognitive clutter abuse us. Some purpose seems to be served by trying to replace positivism with a more precise treatment of binary confinement and the twinning of affirmation and denial. Observe how conventional thought juggles the principle that it is impossible to prove a negative and Occam's razor, for example. All the same, if such a treatment is not arbitrarily halted, it will slide all the way to my rigorously positioned presentation.
Appendix A. Background
Cited writings, documents and publication
"Philosophy Proper, Version 1" (1960). Distributed in mimeograph.
"Philosophy Proper, Version 3" (1961). Published in 1975; see below.
"Noscol, Version 5" (March 1962). A copy survives in the Jackson Mac Low archive.
"Primary Study, Version 7." Published in Fluxus cc V TRE No. 3, March 1964. For the uninitiated, this seeming throwaway is now fixed in art history. Giving my manuscripts to art publishers was the only way I could place them on the public record.
Blueprint for a Higher Civilization (Milan, Multhipla Edizioni, 1975). Contains "The Flaws Underlying Beliefs," "Philosophy Proper, Version 3," "Philosophical Aspects of Walking Through Walls," "Philosophical Reflections."
Several of my unpublished essays from 1977-80 help to explain "Is Incredulity Self-Defeating?" I didn't give details in the 1980 draft because I wrote for a private group of readers to whom I sent copies of every essay.
"Superseding the Life-WorldA Heuristic Discussion" (July 1977). Acknowledges the objection that I am hypocritical insofar as my actions continue to honor the conventional reality. Another objection from Alten: "communication is what life is all about." Formulates the problematic of radical unbelief.
"Primary Study: Informal Paraphrase" (1979). A rewrite of 1964 "Primary Study" for my 1979 readers.
"From Fundamental Philosophy to Meta-Technology" (final typescript December 1979). The written version of my private lecture in Stockholm, October 10, 1979.
"Determination of an Objectivity by Reciprocal Subjectivity" (May 1980). Treats imputed contexts of objectivity: typescript, pp. 10-12. Extended presentation of a novel evaluational processing of experience.
"The Apprehension of Plurality: An instruction manual for 1987 concept art," in Io #41: Being = Space X Action (Berkeley, North Atlantic Books, 1989).
"Meta-Technology: An Analytical Sketch," in Perforations 5, Spring 1994 (Public Domain, Atlanta).
The following notes on intellectual strategy may be helpful.
One might complain that if it is seriously in question whether language exists or whether knowledge is possible, then any careful exposition (including defined distinctions) is a pedantic absurdity. But my answer is thataside from shrewd hypocracymy exposition may be a controlled reduction to absurdity. I start from the standpoint that academic rationalism is a community of meaningful discourseeven though there are conceded to be isolated difficulties. I copy the premises of the target belief-system; and thus its adherents are compelled to respect the exercise. Now if academic rationalism is a community of meaningful discourse, then certain outrageously simple or basic distinctions or theses, even though outrageously simple or basic, should be solidly operative and should be accountable for in the academic rationalist belief-system. If the system goes crazy trying to live with these distinctions, then I have achieved a controlled reduction to absurdity.
As for hypocracy in my discourses or actions, again, that does not affect the import of the rigorously positioned insight. And again, I present new sciencesin my 1980 phraseology, astute hypocracy. These are modalities which no believer in physico-mathematical science could have foreseen. As they will prove to be instrumentally consequential, my "preposterous" approach will prove to be more compelling than a "reputable" approach.
T.W. Adorno, Against Epistemology (1983)
A.J. Ayer, ed., Logical Positivism (1959) B824.6.A9
A.J. Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic (1952)
A.J. Ayer, The Problem of Knowledge (Penguin, 1961)
Rudolf Carnap, Philosophy and Logical Syntax (London, 1935)
Rudolf Carnap, "Überwindung der Metaphysik durch Logische Analyse der Sprache," Erkenntnis 2
Rudolf Carnap, Meaning and Necessity (Second Edition), Appendix A
K.T. Fann, ed., Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Man and His Philosophy (1967)
Paul K. Feyerabend, Against Method (1975)
Kathleen Freeman, ed., Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (1967)
David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason
Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir
Richard Montague, Formal Philosophy (1974)
Michael Murray, ed., Heidegger and Modern Philosophy (1978)
Francisco Sanches, That Nothing Is Known (trans. 1988)
F.W.J. Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism (trans. 1978)
P.A. Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Rudolf Carnap (1963)
Alfred Tarski, "The Semantic Conception of Truth," in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 4 (March 1944), pp. 341-375
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (trans. London, 1961)
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (1953)