Reason and the First Person -- a necessary characteristic of reasoning

[Note: the contents page for this series can be found here. The previous entry, ending chapter 14, can be found here.

This entry is chapter 15.]

In the previous chapter, I argued that the proposal "You and I can reason" is the Golden Presumption: the implicit or explicit presumption that must stand behind any argument advanced by any person on any topic. (Remember, an argument that this must be the Golden Presumption is not an argument that we can in fact think; that would be vicious circularity.) I specifically pointed out that it is entirely possible to search for and discover the causal prerequisites for our reason; but that none of these characteristics (our own existence, the existence of a stable field of reality, the existence of God, and/or whatever) would function as the Golden Presumption because they have no specific relation to 'an argument' as 'an argument'.

For instance, I may exist but it doesn't necessarily follow that I am in fact capable of reasoning. On the other hand, if I am capable of reasoning, then formally I should be able to deduce a characteristic of causal priority: I cannot be an illusion. If I did not exist, then 'I' could not be reasoning--either no reasoning at all would be taking place, or something else not 'myself' would be reasoning. Thus, if 'I' can reason, 'I' must exist. "I think, therefore I am."

Furthermore, I argued that any attempt to justify a 'better' or 'more irreducible' candidate for the Golden Presumption could only get off the ground by presuming first (even if tacitly) that you and I can think: which affirms that our rationality is the Golden Presumption after all. Finally, if we deny our rationality as a fact (much less a presumption), then we are left with no valid means of continuing. (Besides which, the very act of 'denial' is impossible, as such, without presuming our rationality.)

Very well then: "You and I can think" must be presumed to be true, as the formal start of any argument as 'an argument'--including the argument that recognizes it (not 'proves' it to be true) as the Golden Presumption!

[Footnote: Remember that although, technically speaking, it could still be a false presumption, there is literally no reason to speculate that it is false--because the event of such speculation would tacitly require it to be a true fact, and if the fact was false then no reasoning could be taking place during such a speculation!]

I therefore think that such a presumption must be the closest any of us can come, to a mutually agreed-upon formally self-grounding principle.

The next step, before drawing deductions from this presumption, is to figure out with better detail what this presumption means.

Let me begin by contrasting our presumed condition ("You and I can think") with the condition and properties of something almost all of us agree does not (in itself) have the property of sentience: a piece of chalk.

[Footnote: I think the only person who would disagree that the chalk cannot think, would be one sort of pantheist who claims all particular units of Nature must fully share all attributes of the Independent Fact including sentience. Since this person will already agree that the final level of reality--he would say the only level--is sentient, he is already several steps ahead of where I currently am in the argument. Therefore, I will ask him to wait for me to catch up, at which time I will be considering claims of pantheism more closely.

I think any other pantheist would agree with me that the chalk is not, considered as itself, sentient; any more than my toenail, considered as itself, can be considered sentient. (And some pantheists would say rather that the chalk doesn't exist at all; and so of course could not be sentient.)]

What properties do you and I have as thinking entities that the chalk doesn't have? Well, we certainly have radically different chemical properties compared to the chalk. But I should be careful here, so I don't accidentally slur a property with a proposed cause.

A naturalistic atheist, for instance, might say at this point, 'You and I have chemically organic structures we call brains, with such-and-such configuration and properties; which is why we can think and why the chalk, which lacks a brain, cannot.'

But that wasn't what I asked. I haven't asked (yet) why we can think and the chalk cannot. I wanted to know what properties we are exhibiting which distinctively count as 'thinking', that the chalk is not exhibiting.

'But we are exhibiting these physical properties, thanks to brain chemistry, and the chalk is not.' This is still begging the question: that phrase 'thanks to brain chemistry' is an explainer, and a rather significant one.

Let me try another way of getting my point across: ignoring for the moment how we are thinking, what is taking place when we are thinking? If the chemistry (or anything else, or anything else combined with the chemistry) is producing this effect, then what effect is being produced? What are the results?

'That depends on what is producing the effect,' the atheist may say. I agree; in fact, I agree very strongly with that answer: it is part of the principle of property transmission. But the question of what is producing the effect is the topic we will be disagreeing about. Are there not very basic characteristics regarding our thinking ability vs. the chalk, that we may agree about, regardless of what is producing the effect?

I think there is at least one such characteristic. However this ability of ours has come about, you and I can act. The chalk merely reacts. You and I may occasionally (or even often) react. The chalk does not act.

What does this mean? I think we now are reaching an opaqueness of definition, a virtually irreducible set of concepts--as indeed we might expect if we are considering the most fundamental aspects of reality. But although opaque, such concepts are not unintelligible.

Atheists, for instance, have quite a robust understanding of the distinction between actions and reactions, when it comes to proposing that God does not exist. If you ask a knowledgeable atheist what it means for the Independent Fact to be non-sentient--for an ultimate God to not exist--he will reply in language that indicates the IF (which, if he is also a philosophical naturalist, he will say is Nature) takes no actions, initiates nothing, and so is incapable of any sort of 'thinking'. The IF may indeed behave, but the atheist will usually have a pretty good idea (even if unspoken) about what kind of behaviors and abilities he is denying to the IF that the IF would have if it was sentient. He may claim that such abilities do come about at particular physical locations due to particular physical arrangements, including due to particular physical arrangements of the IF (if the atheist is a philosophical naturalist); but these would be particular exceptions to the usual, and foundational, situation.

Does our atheist agree that he takes action? He might possibly deny this overtly, but if pressed I think he will eventually agree that he does act. At the least, when he assigns his own beliefs (including atheism) any credence, he will have to speak as if he necessarily is capable of action, not merely automatic reaction, unlike the foundational Independent Fact, and unlike the vast majority of natural formations, including the chalk.

So, for instance, if you decided to be rude to the atheist, and attempted to explain away his psychological state of 'believing atheism is true' as being only an automatic response to his environment, he will probably (quite hotly!) deny this and attempt to show instead that he has responsibly grounded his beliefs on inferences. But this defense simultaneously ratifies that he does in fact accept and apply a real distinction between (what I am calling) action and reaction; and that this distinction has a direct bearing on whether a person is or is not 'thinking'; and that actions (namely his) do in fact take place (rather than being merely useful legal fictions, like the square root of negative one).

Of course, he might brazen it out and claim, that yes, his beliefs about atheism are in fact entirely a result of his automatic response to the stimuli of his environment. If he stops there, then the accuracy of his belief as a psychological state enters limbo: a mere assertion by itself is no reliably accurate means of conveying truth. (If you think otherwise, I have some ocean-front property in Montana to sell you! And if you were fool enough to buy it on my mere assertion that such property exists, then the laws of the United States would still be on your side and I would be charged with felonious fraud.) His 'belief' might be true (in the sense of corresponding accurately to real facts); or it might not. But he himself would not be in any position to help establish the credence of his own claim, without tacitly admitting that some of his beliefs are not entirely the result of his automatic response to environmental stimuli: for if his attempted defense is itself also an automatic response to environment, then the deadlock is put one stage further back for no gain. Or, someone else (such as you or I) might be brought in to judge the accuracy of his assertion; but then again, this presumes that you or I are not utterly, always, automatically responding to our environment, or else once again the question of reliability is put one stage further back (this time on us) for no gain.

When you and I think, therefore, we are not merely reacting--responding automatically--to our environment. More precisely, we must presume we are not, in order to assign even potential credence to any formal argument, as an argument. I think this is the most basic level of the Golden Presumption: you and I can act.

[Footnote: It may be technically possible for something to 'act' without 'thinking logically', per se; but it is impossible to claim that 'thinking' takes place without action, comparatively distinct from reaction, if we want to mean anything distinctive about 'thinking'. I will be demonstrating this later.]

But this ability of ours to act, instead of only to react, carries with it very serious deductive consequences; and I think this is why some philosophers would like to get away from any special of 'action' altogether (such that 'actions' turn out to be only reactions and counterreactions mis-perceived to be something qualitatively different.) I will begin to spell out those consequences in my next chapter.

Next up: the consequences of real action


Jason Pratt said…
For a lot more preliminary discussion on actions, reactions, and their relation to belief and reason, see these Chapter 4 entries back in Section One:

belief and reason
a question of external validation of reasoning
belief without reason?

That's by far the longest chapter in the book for a reason. (Pun intended... {g})


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