Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Against the Absolute

I’m quite fond of arguing against the Platonist who holds notions of absolutes; whether those absolutes take the form of the essential character of God, or whether those absolutes take the form of logic, whose existence is natural and essential beyond and outside the normative character of the human.

What’s more, from the perspective of the atheist there’s a certain leap of faith that must be taken in order to even suggest that such a thing as absolute essence can exist. In this case the atheist will grant that, e.g. the Law of Non-Contradiction has some essential essence outside of the agreed upon contingent and/or temporal character of man. They may say that, even without mind, or for that matter without the sum total of existence itself the essence of these laws still hold. i.e. in the case of non-contradiction, nothing cannot both be nothing and not-nothing at the same time; thus this idea (thought experiment) becomes proof of some “transcendental” tautology. But then, of course, they’ve skewed the notion of tautology not simply to mean, “true for every possible interpretation”, but, “true for every possible circumstance”. This assumption being what it is, with a little Socratic questioning it always becomes apparent that no non-circular justification exists for this sort of thought, and thus the atheist is forced to admit a pre-supposition, or perhaps resort to a sort of “functional” argument”; which isn’t really proof of anything so much as it is a suggestion to grant something as true for the sake of some pragmatic functionality. That doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense to me.

My argument against absolutist thinking has always been to argue that truth is systematic, contingent, relative to a normative method of resolution. Further my insistence has been; there’s no reason to assume that outside human thought and cognition, that things necessarily are what we say they are. i.e. there’s no non-circular justification to suppose that Spruce trees are anything like Spruce trees outside of human cognition.

Now I’m not here to argue the things I’ve argued in the past as they can be found else where within my blog. What I’d rather like to do is highlight some interesting thoughts from Brandom’s “Making it Explicit”, that serve to bolster my previous thinking on the matter.

An interesting aspect which I’ve never bothered to argue is the whole idea that a person, or even a group of persons, can hold to certain beliefs that go completely against the laws of logic. They may be contradictory, question begging, etc.. Of course, this fly’s completely in the face of the idea that the Laws of Logic are in any way natural. If they were, then nature wouldn’t, indeed couldn’t, allow such an action to take place – one may be able to loosely see that this is analogous to suddenly, objects start falling to the sky. If we look at these, “coming to hold beliefs” from a naturalistic standpoint (and leave the rules and logic aside for a moment) we’ll see that:

(from “Making it Explicit” pg. 12)
“Such natural processes are no more true then false; they are simply processes, as an eddy in the water is a process. And if we are to speak of a right, it can only be the right of a thing to happen as they do happen. One phantasm contradicts another no more than one eddy on the water contradicts another. Contradiction, correct inference, correct judgment are all normative notions, not natural ones.”

So again, to place the Laws of Logic outside the human being as a sort of essence, is placing it in the realm of the natural. If this were true, however, it brings together two very distinct functions:
A.) The laws with which we actually draw inferences
B.) The laws of “correct” inference.
However, by bringing these two ideas together we could never, in fact, be wrong.

(from “Making it Explicit” pg. 12)
“What makes us so prone to embrace erroneous views is that we define the task of logic as the investigation of the laws of thought, whilst understanding by this expression something on the same footing as the laws of nature… So if we call them laws of thought, or, better, laws of judgment, we must not forget we are concerned here with laws which, like the principles of morals or the laws of the state, prescribe how we are to act, and do not, like the laws of nature, define the actual course of events.”

We haven’t yet sealed the deal here, but the idea is simple enough; that we should see the laws of logic, or correct inference, or leading to “right” conclusions in a normative sense. What is right, in terms of logic, is not the same as what is right with respect to causal compulsion. This distinction we should always bare in mind.


  1. People not being completely consistent webs of belief, I think, has a lot to do with memory and assimilating the insights of Freud. Brandom uses his implicit/explicit distinction (which is very Aristotelian) to wonderful effect in changing the way we think about us as "having a belief," moving us further down the pragmatist track in exploring what Alexander Bain meant by "beliefs are habits of action."

    Making logic normative is the last step (I would think) in fully making language contingent and releasing philosophy from its bondage to the necessary, universal, unconditioned. It is to see logic as a branch of rhetoric and rhetoric as the actual (endlessly manipulable) pathways of thought.

  2. I was really hoping you read this book, but as I was skimming through the "Affliction" I noticed you hadn't.

    I agree with you on the normative approach, but I don't see the bottom of it yet.