So what do I believe? What do I really believe? I presently believe that I feel the sun warming my skin, that I see light streaming through my windows, that I am sitting at my desk, that I am holding a pen in my hand. I believe that it is Wednesday and that I am abiding by the stay home orders of New York State. I believe that the City and I are in the throes of what the press is reporting as a world-wide pandemic called COVID-19. I believe that I am confused by the latter claim.
I know that I must believe many things in order to be able to believe any one of the things that I do about my present circumstances. I must, for instance, believe that I am able directly to grasp and discern things in and details about the world. I could not possibly believe that the sun is warming my skin, that I see light streaming through my windows, that I am sitting at my desk holding a pen in my right hand, if I didn’t believe that my perceptions correspond to reality: that when I am sensing things, the things I sense really are relaying information to me, the information they are relaying really does match what they are, and I, who am receiving the information that they relay, am able to do so. My beliefs about my present circumstances, in other words, presuppose that I believe that what I perceive, what I think about what I perceive, and what makes me perceive what I perceive are all so seamlessly correlated that my beliefs about the material surroundings in which I am writing this little article are trustworthy.
The seamlessness of this process should be a source of wonder to us all. Next time you can be in close proximity to another person without wondering whether or not you will be accused of propagating a virus, step back from the talking for a moment and admire the sheer fact of human communication. We are able through sound to transmit—and receive—something that has nothing at all directly to do with sound: our wonder and our thoughts, our intentions and our hopes, our joy and our love. And we do so effortlessly, if we really try. We have a built-in quality control mechanism that ensures that we do so well: we ask each other questions. We can even communicate through physical signs drawn on pieces of paper, just as I am doing now.
Back to my present beliefs, I need not just trust my capacity to perceive in order to believe that “I feel the sun warming my skin,” that “I see light streaming through my windows,” that “I am sitting at my desk holding a pen.” I must also believe in such things as the principle of non-contradiction and cause and effect, that there are such things as I‘s and things—substances, entities, call them what you will—that there are such things as natures, characteristics, properties, and so forth, in order so to believe.
I cannot but believe all of these things if I intend to live in this world with its wondrous symphony of beings, qualities, actions, passions, relations, if I intend to know this world and its underlying principles, laws, systems, if I intend to be a good person. It is not by chance that in Gaslight, the villain almost succeeds in making his wife incapable of living in this world—he nearly gets her committed—when he pushes her to question that seamless coordination of sensations, perceptions, and thoughts that informs our awareness of ourselves and our surroundings and underlies all of our beliefs per se, beliefs about ourselves and the world. For one to question that seamless tapestry, for one to question his capacity to form trustworthy beliefs about his immediate surroundings and himself, is to open the door to insanity. “Experiencing the world as chaotic, or losing one’s taste for the orderings that match up with the ‘objective world,’ as Marilyn Adams so poetically phrased it, “is part of what it is to be insane.”
This should all be obvious, trite, and would not be worth mentioning—let alone writing about—were it not for the feverish imaginings of altogether too many influential thinkers whose Pyrrhic cultural victories still have many of us—both those who realize just how absurd much of what today passes for culture is and those who do not—chained in caves. The father of modern philosophy is one of these thinkers. He claimed that the path to wisdom begins with distrusting our capacity directly to know the world through our senses, and leads to the realization that our sensations are inherently false.
I know that everyone remembers Descartes’s methodical doubt, that tells us that we cannot trust our senses because they do not necessarily give us true information, and because we have no criterion with which infallibly to distinguish our hallucinations from our sensations. Descartes and his bathrobe have for some time been part of the philosophical canon that is taught in our liberal arts institutions.
Fewer people remember that in his second Meditation, after having ‘discovered’ the indubitable foundation for his beliefs in his own act of thinking (the cogito—I think), Descartes ‘demonstrates’ three things: that the truth of his beliefs lies solely in his “reason’s” having clearly and distinctly seen that they are true; that the information his sensations give him contradicts his true thoughts; that the thing he knows best is himself because he knows himself directly through his own mind alone.
Descartes’s Second Meditation seems in many ways to be eerie parody of Aristotle’s glorious passages on God, the νοήσεως νόησις—thought thinking itself. That is a topic for another time. I would like now quickly to parse out its second concluding deduction.
Our senses, Descartes claims, give us contradictory information about the things that exist in the world around us. They tell us that each of them has a specific set of distinguishing characteristics: a given piece of wax, for instance, has a distinct color, a specific fragrance, a definite temperature, and so forth. The senses also tell us that that thing need not have its specific set of distinguishing characteristics: the piece of wax that had that scent can lose it; its temperature can change, and so forth. Descartes deduces from this that material things per se have no specific distinguishing characteristics. Wax, he claims, is simply a res extensa—extended thing—what an Aristotelian might call ‘prime matter,’ and contemporary physicists ‘quark.’
The upshot is not that Descartes deduces that the information that our senses give us is questionable. It is that he concludes that that information is flat out false. The senses, Descartes claims, trick us into believing that things have distinguishing characteristics, when in truth they cannot. And what has no distinguishing characteristics cannot be sensed.
Content with his conclusion, Descartes decides completely to ignore sense information, look inside himself, and affirm that what he truly knows he knows through the mind alone, and what he knows most clearly and distinctly is himself: his own mind unmoored from the world around him.
I realize that this series of deductions must sound like an incredible piece of sophistry. Who in his right mind would undertake this mad flight from the senses, and on such dubious grounds? Were it not for the facts that Descartes did, and dragged the vast majority of modern philosophers in the philosophical canon with him, I would not be writing about it now.
We see the signs of that mad flight all around us. How many intellectuals today simply ignore sense evidence in the name of some ideology or other born of the intuitions of their minds alone? Choose your hot button topic, and you’ll see a panoply of Descartes’s orphans insisting that the evidence that would contradict their intuitions has no inherent cognitive value. The disasters created by socialist and communist regimes, we are told, are not proof of the inadequacy of the theories that informed them. Videos that show the screams of unborn children being aborted, we are told, are not evidence of the patent immorality of that perverted practice, of the fact that an unborn child can perceive, can feel pain, is a human being. The suicide rate of our youth, we are told, is not evidence of contemporary society’s betrayal of them. Our genetics, we are told, are not evidence of our ‘genders.’
So here I am sitting at my desk with a pen in my hand, feeling the sun warm my skin, seeing the light stream through my windows, abiding by the stay home orders, stuck as Descartes was those long years ago, asking myself what I believe, what I really believe.
I know that the Cartesian folle volo is just that: a mad flight. It is a sophisticated version of the paradox of the liar. It is a non-starter. If the senses must, as Descartes claims, give us false information about things in the world, how did he know that the two sets of contradictory information from which he deduced that he knows things through his mind and through his mind alone both concerned the same thing? He had to know that both sets of defining characteristics that his senses told him were of wax were indeed both of wax in order to say that neither was of wax. He had, in other words, to accept the validity of the sense information that was presented to his mind in order to be able to deny its validity. Descartes’s mad flight is grounded in a contradiction. And as this is true of the Cartesian mad flight, so too is it true of the unmoored flights of his orphans who rage all around us about their own “intuitions” and “feelings.”
I, on the other hand, who sit with this pen in my hand, feel the sun, see the light, I who like him am quarantined during a pestilence, I am a realist, an impenitent realist. I am an American. I like Thanksgiving. I like unpretentious things. I like things that make sense. I don’t see why I should entertain the delirious imaginings of a man with cabin fever, with whose ravings I would not even be acquainted had he not incongruously written them down so that they might be transmitted to me by means of those vulgar things called the senses.
I realize that many intellectuals take Americans to be naïve. I pay no attention to them. I am content to look at the wonder of the world and thank God for it.
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The featured image is courtesy of Unsplash.