Thursday, 18 December 2008

The Dark Night of the Intellect

“If I concentrate hard enough on why I believe there is a tree in the Quad, I cease to assume that there is a tree in the Quad, and treat that statement instead as a proposition to be proved rather than a premise that is given. In having the question of whether there is a tree in the Quad or not brought to my notice I am being begged not to beg the question, and the courtesies of argument demand that I put in doubt what I normally know to be true. There is also what I might call the Yellow-Spot phenomenon in philosophy, namely, that if we focus our attention too hard on any matter for too long, we cease to see it straight. In the dark night of the intellect, which is the philosopher’s usual state of mind, it is wise for him occasionally to distract his thoughts and look away, that he may see what he is looking at the better; more especially when he is dealing with facts and certainty. For facts are essentially what is peripheral to the question under examination, what can be taken for granted on this occasion; and therefore by being asked sufficiently earnestly to consider any question sufficiently closely I can be cajoled into giving up fact-status for this occasion for almost any statement: courtesy compels. Only if I am making the minimum possible statement can I be pushed no further: only if I say that there is in my visual field at this moment a red rectangular patch on a cream background, am I safe from possible error: hence, if there are basic facts, only the simplest facts of sense-experience can fill the bill. By attempting to make rigid and absolute the flexible standard, which depends on the circumstances, of what the honest man cannot reasonably refuse to concede, we have ensnared ourselves in a reductionist spiral, demanding an ever lower standard of reasonableness until we reach the phenomenalist’s goal, the lowest common denominator of what must be conceded by every reasonable man in any circumstances whatever, that is, what must be conceded by a barely sentient being.
.....It is an interesting way of doing philosophy. We start by assuming that a fact is what a true statement states: from this it is a natural inference that since the conclusions of ethical debate and scientific theorising are not facts, they are not true either. By restricting our criterion of truth to that of agreed truth, we are able to eliminate all doubt and dubiety within the province of philosophy; nor can the opponent of this view fault the examples given of what is to be allowed as really true, for only those truths that cannot reasonably be contested are put forward as examples. One weakness alone attaches to the method: as there are few facts, if any, that we cannot in our metaphysical moments be uncertain of, our concept of truth is regressive; our criterion grows progressively and indefinitely more stringent. At first we exclude those propositions of morals, theology and metaphysics, whose elimination is welcome to many of the enlightened; but the more we think, the more nice we become as to what are unquestionable truths; and so the truths of logic, mathematics, and natural science, of common sense and everyday life, join the procession to the guillotine.”

J.R. Lucas, “On Not Worshipping Facts”, The Philosophical Quarterly, 8, 1958, pp.155-6, online at J.R. Lucas’s website.

7 comments:

Gerard said...

Well, that's easy for him to say.

dearieme said...

Mind you, this is awfully good: "The squirrel theory of history is the theory which holds that it is the duty of the historian to gather up facts from county record libraries and [154] then bury them again in university libraries."

P.S. I understand the power of allusion but remain suspicious of someone writing from a Cambridge college who chooses to chatter about a "Quad".

Deogolwulf said...

Gerard, it probably wasn't so easy even for him!

Dearieme, I loved it too. I copied it into my notebook and was going to post it yesterday, but I thought I might hang on to it until I could make better use of it.

Your suspicions aside, I say Lucas is a clever and interesting chap.

dearieme said...

And so I have just clicked through to his website. How right you are.

James Higham said...

One weakness alone attaches to the method: as there are few facts, if any, that we cannot in our metaphysical moments be uncertain of, our concept of truth is regressive; our criterion grows progressively and indefinitely more stringent.

That is so but there is another truth. If a circle of little astronomical dishes is arrayed in a perfect circle, kilometres apart, then to focus on one of them will not deliver the truth of the matter.

But taking all in all, then there is a conclusion which can be reached which is as true as any would need it to be.

RK said...

This in no way concerns the substance of the piece, but is just a footnote for those who do not remember Ronald Knox and his famous pair of limericks, to which Lucas (even though from Cambridge) alludes:

There was a young man who said, "God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there's no one about in the Quad."

REPLY

Dear Sir, Your astonishment's odd:
I am always about in the Quad.
And that's why the tree
Will continue to be,
Since observed by
Yours faithfully,
GOD.

Anonymous said...

"P.S. I understand the power of allusion but remain suspicious of someone writing from a Cambridge college who chooses to chatter about a "Quad".

Indeed. 'Quad' is the other place.