Reason and the First Person -- another Golden Presumption?

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

The previous entry ended with this: "So let me simply brutely propose it, and ignore the issues surrounding the cogency of the event of the proposal: I cannot think. Very well. What happens if I attempt to deduce (or otherwise infer) further positions from this proposition?"]

Well, if I really cannot think, then 'I' cannot actually be 'deducing' any further positions from that proposition. If I can deduce (or in any way otherwise infer) further propositions, then I am denying the truth of my denial ("I cannot think") and implicitly affirming the truth of its opposite ("I can think").

So even if I brutely propose that I cannot think, 'I' can only 'go anywhere' from that point by refuting my own first presumption. The proposal that "I cannot think" quite literally leads nowhere beyond the sheer proposal--unless I cheat. At the very best, I would require a 6=16 paradigm to use this position: I must really not be capable of thought (per presumption), but I must also really be capable of thought (per my use of that counter-presumption as grounds for further argument).

If I could possibly deny the proposition "I can think" and mean anything accurate (or even coherently useful) by it, then that proposition would admittedly be excluded from contention as The Golden Presumption. But it turns out that I cannot possibly mean anything even useful by denying it, and it may even be impossible for me to deny it at all (depending on what we mean by 'deny').

Furthermore--and this is very important--I have not therefore 'proved' that "I can think" is a true proposition. It may still in technical fact be true that I cannot think; I simply would have no way to tell. This satisfies another criteria of The Golden Presumption: if it could be logically 'proven', then it would not be the most basic, irreducible presumption for any argument.

So the denial of my reasoning capability quite literally would be unreasonable.

[Footnote: I do not mean unreasonable in the sense of being logically invalid--a presumption cannot be logically invalid, although invalid logic may be produced while using it. I mean something more primary, and I will be discussing its implications soon.]

But perhaps I could find something else I must presume before I presume that I can think; then that presumption would be The Golden Presumption--or at least "I can think" would not be.

This question can be answered the moment I consider it: as I have shown, if 'presuming' does not entail some kind of 'thinking', then at best there is no way to tell; and to deny that 'presuming' requires 'thinking' leads to absurdity--or at the very best it calls into question the validity of any argument as an argumentative claim (by introducing a presumptive denial that undercuts all intellectual relevance to the study of an argument and its claims), including arguments leading to or based on the position that presumptions don't require thinking.

This being the case, it would be nonsense for me to suggest 'presuming' something other than your and my reasoning capability to be logically prior in an argument.

(If I am not rational, then 'I' am not actually 'arguing'; if you are not rational, then why am I presenting an 'argument' to you for you to judge? The exercise requires that I presume from the outset that you and I have the ability 'to reason'--whatever that means, which I will be discussing soon in later chapters.)

"But," you may say, "there are conditions or states or anyway facts which must first be true before you or I can think!" I agree: to give perhaps the most basic such condition, I must 'exist'. But this priority is not formal priority; it is causal (or effectual or factual) priority. These are two different types of priority.

Let me illustrate what I mean. Let us say that I change my hypothesized Golden Presumption to "I exist": by this I would be claiming that the first presumption I make (either tacitly or explicitly) in any argument is "I exist".

But to mean anything by this proposition, much more to do anything with this proposition, requires that I have also presumed my ability to think. 'Understanding' what "I exist" 'means' (even in any incomplete way) requires that I also accept that I think. Stating "I exist; therefore X", also requires that I accept that I think before I make the argument.

Am I presuming both contentions ("I exist" and "I can think") with equally presumptive force? Both presumptions are certainly necessary for me to make an argument; but only one of them is inextricably connected with the entire notion of 'a formal argument': the "I can think".

The tissue-paper next to my computer may exist, but my tissue-paper cannot argue because it cannot think. [See first comment below for extended footnote.] The formal argument is an abstract tool, which we use to discover properties of things. Granted, something must exist for arguments to exist; but the Golden Presumption shall be the first tool of the argumentation process (itself a tool). Thus the Golden Presumption must be uniquely related to the process of argumentation itself. 'Existence' is certainly related to argumentation, but it is not uniquely related to argumentation.

Perhaps I can illustrate it more clearly this way: if I say "I cannot think", I must of course exist to say it, but I (as 'myself') cannot be presenting the statement either as a flat assertion or as a presumption for argumentation without cheating and smuggling in my ability to think. My subsequent 'argument' could just as easily be something which only appears to be an argument; my mere 'existence' doesn't help my 'argument' as an 'argument'. Thus the presumption of my ability to think is more important to my argument (as an 'argument'), than the presumption that I exist.

One more illustration of the same point: I could claim "I am, therefore I think" or "I think, therefore I am". But unless I was presuming preparatory to the rest of the argument that I can think, the first claim would not get off the ground as an argument. "I think, therefore I am" turns out to be an implicit part of the argument form, even for "I am, therefore I think".

Now, the formal requirements of an argument as an argument, are not necessarily the same as causal requirements. It still is true that I must exist 'before' (causally, and even sequentially) I argue; and also true that my existence is a necessary presumption for argumentation, even if not uniquely related to argumentation as such. So if I tried to deduce (or otherwise infer) my existence, I would be engaging in hidden circularity again. Yet if I think, I may deduce (or otherwise infer) causal priors to my thinking which are not themselves presumptions I must necessarily hold (even tacitly) in order to make an argument.

Therefore, it is entirely possible and proper to reach deductions about causal necessities even if the Golden Presumption is not itself considered to be the ultimate causal necessity. (Notice I am claiming the Golden Presumption is "I (and you) can think", not that "Reason exists" which is more general. I will be refining this claim further as I continue.) This means that if I deduce God's existence and character from the necessary presumption that I can think, I am not thereby 'putting myself ahead of God', nor presuming myself to be more important than God, nor requiring that God is not the most necessary Fact of reality. The formal necessary presumption of an argument is not the same category type as the causal origin(s) of the argument. The relationship between Ground to Consequent is not necessarily the same as the relationship of Cause to Effect. We use our recognition of formal ground/consequent relationships to discover the existence and relationships of cause/effects: including (where possible) the causes of our own ability to reason.

This is a legitimate exercise. At the very least, atheists should accept and understand this; because (just like most people) they are not in the least reluctant to attempt many types of logical explanations about how we reason and how our sentience came into being, while still tacitly requiring as a necessary presumption (for formal purposes) that they themselves can in fact reason. Nor is this necessarily the same as 'proving we can reason' (although of course particular atheists may accidentally attempt this just like anyone else); that would be a logical fallacy, because the proposition to be proved (that we can reason) requires as a necessary presumption the proposition to be proved (that we can reason).

So, as long as we (be we theists, atheists, pantheists, whomever) don't produce what amounts to an argument that we can reason (which is circular and thus must fail); and as long as we don't produce what amounts to an argument (or requirement) that we cannot reason (which is self-refuting); then we may legitimately attempt to deduce propositions from the presumption "We can reason". (We' means 'you and I' personally, not some hypostatized abstraction of 'humanity'.) And those propositions and conclusions may be about conditions or situations or entities, which are themselves causally (not formally) prior to any reasoning ability we in fact have.

But what does it mean 'to think' or 'to reason'? What basic requirements does our thinking entail, which we may safely use as characteristics upon which to draw deductions? What effect(s) may we commonly agree on, as taking place when we 'think'? I will have to establish this before I go any further.

Next up: a necessary characteristic of reasoning


Jason Pratt said…
Extended footnote:

A vitalist would say the basic units of the tissue are alive, but non-sentient, and therefore the tissue does not think. A naturalistic atheist, along with most supernaturalistic theists, would say neither the tissue as such nor any part of it 'thinks', and neither does the specific system the tissue is part of, whether or not that system is part of a subsystem. Most pantheists would either say the tissue does not exist, or the tissue taken as itself does not think even if the Absolute Total--of which the tissue is a proportionate part--does think. But even if there are pantheists who claim the tissue shares all total properties of the sentient Independent Fact--and there may be pantheists of this type--the mere existence of the tissue-paper would not of itself provide an inextricable connection to an argument as an argument.

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