Eric Weinstein once said that two topics of thought and philosophical conversation should always be avoided; God and metaphysical freedom. Since those are my twin obsessions, this rather caught my amused attention. Over a period of years, of looking at certain topics from multiple angles, one ends up seeing the end point of many conceptual and rhetorical “moves.” Analogies can be made with fighting or chess. An expert fighter, according to YouTube videos like those from hard2hurt, knows what moves to expect from novice fighters and also knows how to counter them. Giant swinging punches called “haymakers” are the norm for an angry untutored idiot. They can be seen coming a mile off, giving someone plenty of time to prepare a counter move. Practiced pugilists, so it seems, prefer much straighter, more controlled punches, like a jab, that are harder to avoid and do not open someone up to easy counter attack. One commentator stated that one year of rigorous boxing training would be enough to defeat most other people in a self-defense situation. Unfortunately, that would entail one year of being hit hard in the head with corresponding brain damage that is likely to catch up with someone at some point. Head protectors do not stop your brain hitting the inside of your hard skull. Even Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, which has no strikes, can damage necks through the copious use of choke holds.
Likewise, it seems possible that a chess master could look at the opening moves of the novice chess player and foresee the predictable outcome. There will literally be cases of “you can’t get there from here.” The chess master could ask, “Where are you hoping to end up?” And then tell someone whether that is a possible outcome, especially when playing against an expert. The more expert the player, the fewer people he can easily talk to about chess.
Both the fighter and the chess player have years of experience with such matters. Explaining why “you can’t there from here” and the like to non-fighters and non-chess masters could take hours or even years. The explanation is quite likely to make little sense to the novice who is likely to remain skeptical. Philosophy should not be a competitive sport – an agon – with participants trying to outdo each other. Nonetheless, one sometimes encounters non-philosophers who want to argue, and argue specifically on topics the philosopher has spent decades pondering. This novice is unlikely to say something that has never occurred to the expert. Frequently, I end up wanting to say “you can’t get there from here.” E.g., “I am working on a naturalistic basis for moral realism.” “I don’t believe in free will, but am devoted to wisdom.” “I am not a nihilist, but I reject God and the transcendent completely.” “All human beings are mere computing machines and I am working on stopping self-driving cars from killing people.” [Hint: why are you bothering?] The other person can take your answer on authority, but, since she has decided to argue with you, she is unlikely to want to do that. Nearly every paragraph of “Is it possible to separate politics from philosophy” has multiple articles that would be required background reading to more fully explain the point. There simply is not enough time, nor does the reader have sufficient patience, to make digressions of dozens of pages each time some new point is made. The fight trainer and the chess master see what the person is doing and tells him what he is doing wrong and how to improve. If they are met with skepticism from the student they can always sit back and let the student get beaten to a bloody pulp, or lose the chess match, though the student might think “If I could just execute this move better…”
Recently, in interacting with a non-philosopher who nonetheless thinks highly of her thinking abilities, I got this question: “Does not the language and culture we grow up into determine our concept of reality, but it is not reality.” This is a rhetorical “move.” A kind of relativist, post-modern assertion. Many of these post-modern gambits commit the same fallacy, of wanting to be an exception to their own rule. They involve performative contradictions – a topic of which even most professional “philosophers” are ignorant. The assertion also depends on a conceptual/perceptual framework that exists outside language and culture in order to assess the contributions of language and culture. The claim that concepts influenced by language and culture are not reality assumes that one has the ability to contrast the resulting concept of reality with actual reality. So, apparently, we do know actual reality, after all. The performative contradiction, however, is that the assertion that language and culture prevent apprehending reality correctly, comes from someone immersed, as we all are, in language and culture. The assertion that the “language and culture we grow up into determine our concept of reality, but it is not reality” involves assertions about concepts and reality that must themselves be determined by language and culture, and are thus not to be trusted. Thus the assertion falls victim to its own skepticism. The implication of the skeptical assertion applies as much to the assertion and the person doing the asserting, as it does to our ability to generate accurate concepts regarding reality.
The claim that “language and culture we grow up into determine our concept of reality, but it is not reality” implies that “knowledge is impossible.” The person asserting this claims to know something, namely, that knowledge is impossible, yet that statement claims knowledge does not exist. It is a “performative” contradiction because in the act of asserting it, the person contradicts himself. Many people do not notice the contradiction because the contradiction is not in the words themselves, but exists in the very act of making the assertion – “performing” the assertion. The person saying it is implicated in what he is saying.
If language and culture determine concepts, and prevent us from ever knowing reality, then language and culture will also prevent us from knowing this fact about reality. Namely, that language and culture prevent us from using concepts that enable us to determine an accurate conception of reality. This assertion is one of complete epistemic skepticism – but the asserter is claiming to know that epistemic skepticism is true and real. It could be turned into a pithy, pseudo-profound paradox: “The only thing I know is that knowledge is impossible.” Except, then you do not know it, or knowing things is indeed possible. Or, if it is possible to know that one thing, why not others?
A philosopher should be expected to have some kind of tentative, and provisional, picture of reality and to try to ensure that his assertions do not contradict this picture, i.e., to not contradict himself. A materialist simply has no way to consistently believe in free will. Free will and materialism do not go together. In conversation with a nonphilosopher, the latter seemed to think that I was being narrowminded and dogmatic when I said that a belief in God and the transcendent is necessary in order for free will to exist. She said, “Why can’t I believe in free will and yet not in some nonmaterial plane of existence?” The answer is just too long and complicated. First, it would be a five-hour lecture. Second, much of those five hours would be incomprehensible and would probably rely on yet more aspects of philosophical knowledge that the nonphilosopher does not know either.
A friend of mine got a degree in engineering back in the 1980s. He complained that he would encounter people who would want him to convey all he had learnt in conversation. His reply was that it took him many years to acquire it and it would take his interlocutor the same amount of time or longer (probably longer, my friend was the top of his class, bar one).
It might seem conceited to be implicitly describing oneself as some kind of expert, especially on rather ineffable matters. But, most people would be horrified to be told that they would need to spend the next few decades thinking about practically nothing but freedom and God. I would not want to study car engines, and would be similarly repulsed. Consequently, I do not imagine myself to be a car expert, nor do I question the knowledge of those who are. Nor, would I expect to understand explanations about what might be wrong with a car engine and I too would need many hours long lectures about the working of car engines to have any hope of understanding and I would be both bored and perplexed.
Not being able to quickly and easily explain why freedom requires the nonmaterial to exist, nor why atheists cannot believe in free will, nor the soul, can make one resemble a puzzlingly narrow-minded and dogmatic individual who takes strange stances on things without sufficient reason. In the end, one can only say, “Run the experiment yourself. See what you come up with. I’ll give you thirty years.”
A safety valve is that most people are not philosophers. They are thus free to contradict themselves while not realizing it. And, it is better that materialists keep believing goodness exists even though it cannot possibly make any sense to believe both things. There is no requirement for the nonphilosopher to have a provisional picture of reality and to try not to contradict it with his philosophical assertions. But, it does mean that the philosopher can see the writing on the wall in terms of the larger culture. And, he knows that a society based on materialism, atheism, and technological progress will necessarily devolve into nihilism – even if it is a nihilism sometimes hidden by utopian longings which are a thinly disguised desire for God. Or, perhaps I am being a narrowminded dogmatist again.
*My apologies for the copious use of the first person singular.