for Marcus Castro
Part I: Relaxing This Bent of Mind
We led our lives / or they led us, and how would we know which?
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, / The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, / The solemn temples, the great globe itself, / Yea, all which inherit it, shall dissolve, / And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, / Leave not a rack behind.
—William Shakespeare, The Tempest
I have been reevaluating my previous understandings of many texts, questioning intellectualism’s privileging of reason and wariness of faith.
Faith—often stealthily and unexpectedly—frequently crops up amidst discourses of “reason.”
I mean faith partly in a religious sense, yes, but also in a much broader sense—as a kind of confidence or trust we place in the beliefs and ways of thinking that guide us.
Whether we like it or not, faith, more so than reason, is what we live by.
We seldom use pure reason. Western philosophy pointed this fact out to us long ago.
In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume writes: “All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds… Relations of Ideas and Matters of Fact.” Mathematics and deductive logic—what I called “pure reason” a moment ago—belong to the former category, and science, amongst other things, pertains to the latter.
The difference is important because for reason, relations of ideas, all true propositions are necessarily true. And we can evaluate an assertion’s truthfulness by thought alone.
Everything else involves hypothesis and probability.
Matters of fact are founded upon the relation of cause and effect, which allow us to “go beyond the evidence of our memory and our senses.” For any matter of fact, a contrary proposition is always logically possible. So we are vulnerable to error—the margin for which may be great or small.
Hume points out that our understanding of cause and effect carries with it the idea of necessary connection—that causes necessitate their effects. Necessary connections, however, pertain to relations of ideas and logic, while cause and effect “are discoverable, not by reason, but by experience” and so constitute matters of fact.
Hume uses billiards to illustrate his point:
When I see, for instance, a billiard-ball moving in a straight line towards another; even suppose motion in the second ball should by accident be suggested to me, as the result of their contact or impulse; may I not conceive, that a hundred different events might as well follow from that cause? May not the first ball return in a straight line, or leap off from the second in any line or direction? All these suppositions are consistent and conceivable. Why then should we give the preference to one, which is no more consistent or conceivable than the rest? All our reasonings a priori will never be able to show us any foundation for this preference. In a word, then, every effect is a distinct event from its cause. It could not, therefore, be discovered in the cause, and the first invention or conception of it, a priori, must be entirely arbitrary.
Hume shows that there is no necessary connection between cause and effect—only a conjunction.
We connect cause and effect via a little leap of faith.
Some forms of faith can resemble madness.
The medieval mystic Margery Kempe endured an excruciating labor while giving birth to her first child. She feared she was on the brink of death. For the next eight months or so, she was haunted by demonic figures: “Devils open their mouths all inflamed with burning lows of fire as they should ‘a swallowed her in, sometime ramping at her, sometime threating her, sometime pulling her and hauling her both night and day.”
The devils drove her to wickedness until…
[O]ur merciful Lord Christ Jesu… appeared… in likeness of a man, most seemly, most beauteous, and most amiable that ever might be seen with man’s eye, clad in a mantle of purple silk, sitting upon her bed’s side, looking upon her with so blessed cheer that she was strengthened in all her spirits…. And anon [Kempe] was stabled in her wits and in her reason.
In Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault tracks madness as it evolves according to the various needs European culture has for it during different historical eras. He writes:
Beginning with the seventeenth century, unreason in the most general sense no longer had much instructive value…. The great theme of madness of the Cross, which belonged so intimately to the Christian experience of the Renaissance, began to disappear…. It was no longer a matter of requiring human reason to abandon its pride and its certainties in order to lose itself in the great unreason of sacrifice. When classical Christianity speaks of the madness of the Cross, it is merely to humiliate false reason and add luster to the eternal light of truth.
Hume began tutoring the Marquis Annandale in 1745.
According to 1828’s second edition of Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the High Court of Chancery with Some Few in Other Courts, the Marquis went mad approximately two years before Hume’s tutelage:
[T]he trustees were empowered to lend the money on the Scotch estate till the Marquis attained 23, the time of his age under the will [when he could inherit his father’s estate]; the Marquis afterwards became lunatic, and so continues.
The court case deliberates which persons would be entitled to the Marquis’ money “in case he shall not recover his senses.” He never would.
I don’t know what happened to the Marquis, but as a nobleman his fate couldn’t have been too bad.
The only consequence I know of is that Hume quit his post within a year.
Our experiences in the world habituate us to expect like causes to produce like effects.
But that expectation, Hume says, is ultimately an act of the imagination:
[W]hen many uniform instances appear, and the same object is always followed by the same event; we then begin to entertain the notion of cause and connexion. We then feel a new sentiment or impression… a customary connexion in the thought or imagination between one object and its usual attendant.
Note Hume’s language. We don’t reason, or even think, we feel. We make inferences that are quite separate from reason: “All inferences from experience, therefore, are effects of custom, not of reasoning.” Custom guides us because we have faith in it.
Although a quasi-realist, Hume lays bare the possibility for a more severe brand of skepticism:
[T]his operation of the mind, by which we infer like effects from like causes, … at best is, in every age and period of human life, extremely liable to error and mistake.
Hume leaves us little we can be certain of knowing. Most of what we think we know is susceptible to error.
Although we need inductive reasoning to survive, it’s really nothing more than educated guesswork. Induction is liable to error because it uses inference and experiential evidence to support a hypothesis that, at best, can only ever be probable. In the face of mere probability, we accept things as true because it is utilitarian to do so. Such acceptance is a form of faith.
We are easily led astray. Before Galileo, we believed Ptolemy.
For about two hundred years, Newtonian physics seemed to account for all laws of motion. It was practically advantageous for us believe Newton was right. Since special relativity, however, we now seem to understand that there is a range of circumstances and phenomena for which Newton’s laws do not hold.
Another paradigm shift might very well be in our near future. Who can say?
Certainly not us.
We rely upon illogic even when our lives are on the line.
When diagnosing a disease by working backward from the symptoms to their cause, doctors use a form of inference that is tantamount to a logical error—the converse error.
If you have a peptic ulcer, for example, you might experience abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, sudden weight loss, and fatigue. If disease P, then Q symptoms. P —> Q.
But for the doctor to say, because you have Q symptoms, you must have disease P, he commits a converse error. “Q —> P ” is unsound.
After all, maybe you had abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, sudden weight loss, and fatigue because you suffered from something much less common—dioxin poisoning.
Both the right and wrong diagnoses use inference rather than logic. The wrong one could also be fatal.
The role that reason plays shifts with culture.
Hume published his Enquiry in the mid-eighteenth century when Western thought was in the midst of restructuring its conception of human knowledge. The dominant figures of the Enlightenment enjoyed this restructuring and called it “progress.” They were optimistic that the progress they had facilitated would approach perfection. Jean le Rond d’Alembert, for example, put the Enlightenment’s epistemological optimism on full display in his Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot.
In articulating the Enlightenment’s ordering of knowledge, however, d’Alemebert unwittingly relied upon the pre-existing conditions for that ordering to take place.
As Michel Foucault would later point out in The Oder of Things, there are underlying, culturally loaded preconditions that enable knowledge to form and organize itself in the ways that it does.
By taking an “archeological” approach to knowledge, Foucault means to “bring to light the epistemological field [itself], the [very] episteme in which knowledge… grounds its positivity… which is not that of its growing perfection, but rather the conditions of its possibility.”
Foucault goes on to say that, contrary to the Enlightenment sentiment, the shift in thinking from the end of the eighteenth century was not because “reason made any progress: it was simply that the mode of being of things, and of the order that divided them up before presenting them to the understanding, was profoundly altered.”
As the order of knowledge is reshuffled, the entire structure shifts.
Even things outside knowledge, such as irrationality and madness, get assigned new roles.
Because madness and faith are forms of unreason, faith is perched precariously close to madness as culture increasingly heralds reason and demonizes madness.
Although Thomas Edward Ritchie’s 1807 biography of Hume never mentions billiards except in his philosophy, I like to imagine Hume playing at a billiard board.
I like to imagine that he harbored a fondness for the pastime because of the instrumental role it played in his thought. Green solid to side pocket. [Chalk.] Stop shot on the burgundy, yellow in the near corner. <Joke at Berkeley’s expense.> Purple to same corner, double side rail leave to set up the blue-ball at the far corner. [As he sinks his next shot]: “I refute it thus!”
Hume knew that, logically speaking, anything might happen upon the shock of one billiard-ball against another. And yet, if he wanted to win, he would have had to put that out of his mind as the sentiment in his imagination that connected cause and effect guided him.
When we leave the realm of relations of ideas and reenter the world, we act of faith.
Hume stops short of what he calls “excessive skepticism” in favor of a more common sense approach to living in the world. For Hume, excessive skepticism, by limiting knowledge only to what we can know deductively, leaves too little room to live: “All discourse, all action would immediately cease; and men remain in total lethargy, till the necessities of nature, unsatisfied, put an end to their miserable existence.”
And yet, affirming anything beyond excessive skepticism is a form of faith.
From a logical perspective, at any time, the world might become incompatible with our previous impressions of it. The sun might not rise tomorrow. While we may not have specific reasons to doubt certain beliefs outside “relations of ideas,” we also can’t support them purely with logic.
The sun might not rise tomorrow, but we go on believing it will, lest we cripple ourselves with doubt.
In the conclusion of A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume writes:
Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.
We make the movement to believe without thinking. It’s invisible because it’s part of the foundation of everything we do. It is the background of our dining, playing backgammon, or conversing.
It is a condition for our lives as such.