Friday, August 2, 2013

A Dialogue

A: I hate philosophy.
B:  But you are a philosopher!  You've devoted your life to that field of study!
A: I didn't want to.  I wanted to be an agronomist.  I wanted to grow grass and revive the natural splendor of America's great plains.
B: So why didn't you?
A: I got as far as elementary grass studies.  I raced through all the different kinds-- crab grass... regular green grass... and... well, there were some others, at any rate.
B: What went wrong?

A: I asked myself what I was actually learning.  What real knowledge I had obtained.
B: More than you could from philosophy, no doubt.
A: How true.  If only I had known that at the time.  But at that point, I saw it differently.  It suddenly failed to comfort me to tell myself I knew about different kinds of grass.  Because I thought-- well, how do I know these grasses really exist, and are not just figments of my or some cosmic demon's imagination?
B: And?
A: I realized I didn't know that.  And I loved that grass!  How could I do it justice if I could not even be sure of my knowledge of it?  How could I honor it properly?  So I said to myself-- I'll figure out this whole question of the uniformity of nature and the possibility of knowledge of the external world, then I'll be able to have certain knowledge about the grass.  But of course, I never got back to it, because I couldn't solve the riddle, and I expended all my youth and intellect on these dark mysteries and never got any further than where I started.
B: Well, I'm glad to hear you say all of this.  As an educated, practical, conventional person, and thus the ideal foil for your humiliating and masochistic quest for unattainable knowledge, I have always hated philosophy, ever since I first studied something else at Harvard.  But I assumed you at least would be able to defend its utility.
A: Oh, not at all.  We philosophers hate the damn thing more than anyone, and have even less respect for its usefulness to human kind.  Ordinary people at least have the luxury of picking up a dense philosophical treatise by Kant or whomever and wading through the first paragraph and thinking that it must contain wonderful secrets and mysteries which are simply too difficult to comprehend.  But poor Kant himself knew better.  I bet he wanted to be a bee-keeper or something.  But he realized that to know anything about bees, he had to know whether the world exists, whether nature obeys laws which can be derived inductively, etc.  So he put the bees on hold while he slaved over his treatises-- and at the end of all that work, thousands of pages of German scribblings in his own exotic terminology, he was still exactly where he started.  All he had for us was that the external world must obey inductive laws since it seems inconceivable that it doesn't.  Yawn.  You could have told me that.
B: Why not just chuck the whole thing if you feel that way? Why study philosophy?
A: Ah, once you've grasped the nature of a philosophical problem you can never go back, you see.  It takes hold of you.
B: That's only true if you're some kind of neurotic or monomaniac.  Suppose you just said to yourself: look, I don't know the answer to all these riddles of existence and never will, so I'm going to go back to that grass and have myself a field-day.
A: How can you go back to studying grass once you've realized you don't know with certainty that it exists?
B: You just do it!
A: But how could you respond to someone who asked "Why do you study that grass without knowing whether or not it exists?"
B: First of all, know one talks that way.  Second, you just tell her, "I have faith in grass.  Don't you?"
A: I don't understand what it means to have "faith" in the existence of something if you do not know, or at least have reason to be confident, that it does in fact exist.  If not, your "faith" just empty platitudinous rhetoric.
B: Well, take me for example.  I can't answer all your philosophical riddles about reality and what-not.  But I know that grass exists.  Or at least, I believe it does.
A: Why?  How?
B: Well, I'm standing on it.
A: You perceive yourself to be standing on it, which is not the same thing.
B: Look, if grass didn't exist, then the world probably wouldn't exist either, and it would all be in your imagination or something, and there would be no point in our even having this conversation.  So you implicitly believe in grass too, otherwise you'd just sit alone and do nothing, because what would be the point of attempting anything else?
A: That tells us nothing. My behavior may in fact be perfectly irrational.  That does not alter the validity of my argument.  I'm waiting, meanwhile, for you to tell me the basis of your knowledge about external reality.
B: I believe.  I have taken a leap of faith.
A: You may be stating that you believe something, but that is not the same as believing it.  You seem to be unable to provide reasons for your belief, to yourself or to me.  I don't see in what sense can you really "believe" it then.
B: I feel it to be true.  "Belief in grass cannot argue with unbelief in grass; it can only preach to it."
A: That is no good at all.  If you have already admitted you can't argue with unbelief, then you yourself do not believe your own truths.  You hare simply stating that for psychological reasons you are unwilling or unable to accept the essential falseness of your position, and you are going to "preach" against alternative views.  Which I take to mean that you are going to state your own view loudly and repeatedly until I am so enraged I give up and depart.
B:  Look, obviously, there are beliefs we hold that we can't rationally justify, but we still genuinely believe them.  I'm sure your human intuition tells you that grass is real, even if your philosopher self denies it.  I mean, you live in the world, don't you?  You eat, sleep, make love, whatever.  You do all of these things, I'm assuming, on the implicit belief that they are real actions, with real consequences, in a real world.  You're not seriously going to tell me you don't "believe" these things in any meaningful sense of the word.
A: I guess I have to make do with acting as if the world exists without being sure of whether or not it does.  I therefore tentatively adopt beliefs about the world which are useful to me.
B:  Aha!  I've read about people like you.  You're one of those nihilists or postmodern relativists or what-have-you.  You don't believe in truth.  You think we can just believe whatever we want to, with no standard of...
A: You are black too, Mr. Pot.
B: Now look, I don't know what you are implying, but I believe in truth.  I believe the world exists, that grass is green, and, in an analogy that is only now occurring to me-- that God is real.
A: Oh right.  God.  I'd forgotten about Him.  We'll get to Him in a minute.  But in the meantime, may I point out that you were the one who just told me you have faith in something for which you have no basis?  That is tantamount to saying you don't really believe in it at all.  You can be a foundationalist if you want, but you must first be able to produce some foundations.  It is no good, meanwhile, to tell me you are a foundationalist on anti-foundationalist grounds.  You can't tell me that pragmatists and existentialists and what-have-you are wrong because you believe, for pragmatic and existentialist reasons, that they are wrong-- that you have made your choice or your final decision to believe that existentialism is incorrect or it is useful to believe that pragmatists are wrong, or that pragmatism can be rejected because it is not a "live option" as William James would have put it, or--
B: Ok, I didn't follow all of that.  But it seems like these anti-foundationalist types you keep mentioning-- they are easily confuted.  They say there's no truth.  But if there's no truth, then the statement that there's no truth has to itself be untrue... which means--
A: Look I follow you.  And if you want me to pursue that digression I will,

B: It's not a digression!
A: Ok, fair enough.  But suppose you avoid the trap of Richard Rorty or your typical religion and culture studies maven and admit that there must be some truth about reality "out there," as it were, but we have no way of gaining access to it, or if we have, we have no way of ascertaining whether or not we have done so.  Does that not describe our plight rather well?
B: Perhaps.  But it does not concern me.  I have taken the leap of faith.
A: Into what?
B: Into the belief that the world exists, that grass exists, that God exists, that existentialism and pragmatism are lies...
A: I'll say it again.  That is an existentialist or a pragmatic argument.  You are the one who is contradicting himself.  
B: Look! If I were to adopt your way of seeing the world, I would have to give up morality... my love of other people... all my interests in the world... everything I care about.
A: That seems pretty significant, doesn't it?
B: Of course it does.  It would be a calamity!
A: You won't let that happen, will you?
B: Certainly not... I'll devote my life to... I'll spend every last drop of my energy to preserve...
A: You'll give up everything else for the sake of these questions?
B:  Yes!  I shall!
A: You have become a philosopher, my friend.  
B: But I hate philosophy more than anything!  I hate it all the more after this conversation!
A: Ooh, you'll be a good one.

No comments:

Post a Comment