I’ve been interested in what happens when you don’t posit uniform order as the prime directive of the universe for a fair while now.
Almost all philosophies after Plato have been obsessed with imposing an order on reality, and seeing that as a guarantor of truth. This even affects the idea that a good scientific academic article presents a clear and coherent single argument, usually with a single causal factor/process. However, I am skeptical of the proposition that what we call order is inherent to the universe, is equivalent to truth, is unchanging, and that what we call disorder is negligible. This proposition seems contradicted by evolution to begin with. The world seems to be in constant flux and change, but I’m not dogmatic about this. I’m equally skeptical of the proposition that the universe is entirely random. Skepticism of one does not have to lead to the other.
I often find that people cannot understand what I’m getting at, which is interesting as its all rather simple.
- There seems to be no perfect order in the world which is not disrupted or which does not self-disrupt.
- Prediction always seems to have limits. The further ‘away in time’ the prediction refers to, the more likely it will turn out to have been incorrect. This is clearly demonstrated by most science fiction, and by economics.
- Perfect order could be the same as death, as mess and unpredictability is associated with life.
- To explain most events we may need multiple perspectives. Sometimes we may even need a single minded perspective.
- Most, if not all, human understanding seems to involve degrees of uncertainty. Probably even mathematics, as attempts to find an impersonal non-subjective basis for mathematics, seem to have failed; but again my understanding is not certain.
- Uncertainty should be recognised if at all possible. There may be specifiable or non-specifiable probabilities to the likelihood of accuracy.
- We should not just be skeptical about things we already don’t believe, or don’t want to believe. I have noticed that many self-called skeptics are not skeptical at all about some political dogmas. “Directed skepticism” is not skepticism, it seems to function as another way of trying to impose order on the world.
‘Pre-platonic’ philosophy attracts me, because I don’t think it is as obsessed as post-Platonism with order as ‘truth’ or ‘life’. Take Heraclitus who asserts eternal flux and struggle (apart from the Logos, the meaning of which is unclear), or Sophism which asserts the importance of rhetoric to understanding. I was intrigued to find sophism seemed far more sophisticated than Plato claimed it was – that his philosophy seemed based on a lie, which made me even more skeptical of Platonism.
My interest in Skepticism came about because it often is a skepticism about order and its importance. I began with David Hume, who is extremely hard to classify, and then went back again to its apparently underlying ‘base’ of Pyrrhonism. Looking at Pyrrhonism I have learnt many other things such as how the desire for theoretical order can produce misery and suffering – skepticism and uncertainty as a practical philosophy of life – which transformed my views of the possibility of skepticism. I also like the crossing between East and West because of Pyrrhonism’s apparent connection to Buddhism. Taoism is skeptical about humanly imposed orders and stability. Chavarka or Lokāyata is an Indian philosophy seemingly skeptical of spiritual order.
Order and chaos may need to be balanced as the Western Philosopher Michael Moorcock seems to be arguing, but perhaps without making them forces as such….
Jon, I don’t think ‘philosophies of order’ – Plato’s, say – have been ‘obsessed with imposing an order on reality’ because they saw order as ‘inherent to the universe’. On the contrary, it seems to me they wanted to impose order precisely because they understood reality to be inherently messy and evil (this is how I read Plato, most Islamic and Christian philosophers, and also Kant; though not Hegel, of course).
Nor do I see that order implies predictability. Laplace may have drawn that conclusion from Newton, but if he had known about electromagnetism, evolution, thermodynamics, genetics and quantum theory, he would surely disagree with himself. The fundamental constants may be evidence of inherent order in the universe, but they in no way imply that it is predictable.
The idealists’ best argument always came from logic and mathematics, and still does. Why do we believe in statistics? Because it is hard to comprehend how anyone could _understand_ statistics and _not_ believe it! A priori, as Kant liked to say. The mathematical theory of uncertainty must itself be certain.
The core value of ancient scepticism for me is the call to suspend judgment; that is something to be commended, though not, I think, to the point where it makes us incapable of decision and action. As the critics of ancient scepticism were keen to point out, all actions assume truths about reality. As life itself does, for why would we have lungs and blood equipped to extract energy from air if we (ie our bodies) did not ‘believe’ in oxygenation?
Though I am a bit out of my comfort zone with this, I’d need to be persuaded that ancient Indian materialism was sceptical in Pyrrhonist sense – it seems to have asserted its beliefs quite confidently. Wouldn’t the school that comes closest to the Pyrrhonists be Ajñana, which held that it was impossible and futile to seek certain knowledge of any kind, and influenced both Buddhism and Jainism? The well-known story of the blind wise men and the elephant is a trace of the idea. Of course no one could be certain of this opinion without self-contradiction ! – Paul
Thanks for your comments Paul, really appreciate them.
Yes it is true these people saw the world as messy but they denied that this was real reality, or possibly even fled from the idea it was real reality. Real reality, they appear to have asserted, had to be extremely ordered and unchanging. That is one reason, I suspect that they became idealists. There was little evidence of this ultimate order in the material world so we have to find it in the intuited real spiritual world; in God and the Archetypes.
This meant that everyday life, material life, real life was a fraud or at best a fall from reality, or an shadowy image of reality. The disorderly world is nothing compared to the totally orderly ‘real’ reality they imagined. Our disorderly or contingent life was to be despised, other than as a preparation for reality. The lives of those who did not prepare were of no consequence. God was perfection and perfection could not change – in their eyes. The order of the real was eternal – and perhaps eternally boring, because change was threatening; change meant failure, imperfection and unreality, and was to be denied as being real. Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism, self mortification and ecological destruction, all seem to be consequences of this position.
This may stem from what Plato implies was Socrates’ method.
Socrates would ask for a definition of something, say ‘justice’, and demonstrate that another person’s definition was incoherent, and then say that, because of this disorder of incoherence, they knew nothing *at all*. The implication is that justice has to be the same in every situation, or at worst, share similarities with every other incidence of justice, or it was unreal. The Sophists disagreed with this approach, which is why they are Plato’s villains. To the sophists, virtue and justice seem to have been situational and variable, depending on the people, the problems, and those judging the case. In other words they did not accept that something had to be the unendingly the same to be real. If we accept the Sophist argument the whole platonic edifice falls over, and we could realise we are just dealing with a particular view of how words work, not of practice or reality. Sophists could cope with the disorderly justice of the moment and the world, but for Plato it had to be uniform, eternal and orderly or it was not real justice, or real goodness, or whatever. And as we cannot find real orderly justice; it too is only real in the archetypal realm of static order, or in a static authoritarian State which enforces lack of change. Surprise is not beneficial, and control is always good, when it is control by the Good.
As far as I understand Hegel, which is not much, it appears to me that the change process of the dialectic stops when Geist reaches its pinnacle of unchanging understanding, order and reality, famously (?) in the philosophy of Hegel himself. That fixity constitutes supremacy is emphasised, because even Marx seems to think that the dialectic stops when the worker’s paradise eventuates.
While I clearly agree that reality is (usually) not predictable in depth, I do not see how this is compatible with eternal sameness or eternal order. It may be that humans are incapable of prediction, but God should be able to know the prediction if the reality is orderly. None of these orderly people seem to suggest that God’s reality is chaotic, or beyond God’s understanding. So, according to them, we have to have faith in the order and justice, even if it is imperceptible. And this again proves the unreality of the everyday world and the superiority of the ideal.
Evolution and complexity theory suggest that the world makes itself up as it goes along, in massively complicated and sometimes accidental interactions which do not head in a particular direction. If that is the case, then order is not guaranteed beyond the situation or the moment. Order is flowing rather than eternal. If we accept this, then we then may well come to re-recognise the beauty of the creative and destructive disorder which the imagined eternally, unchanging, orderly reality was supposed to protect us from.
I’m afraid that I find the certainty of mathematical uncertainty argument, unconvincing. Being skeptical of both order and disorder, it seems to be there could be varying degrees of certainty and uncertainty. Some propositions seem to become orderly by definition (“1 +1 = 2”; “the square root of two exists”), others such as the incompleteness theorem are more complicated. However, the orderly philosophers seem to have seen mathematics as a symbol of divine real predictable order, not of the intermixture of incompleteness and chaos. But then I was a not very good mathematician who did not get statistics, as it seemed arbitrary (why define a standard deviation in that way?) and not like other forms of maths. I’ve met much better mathematicians than me, who also found statistics difficult. But again probability theory would not be acceptable to Plato as a fundamental rule of order, any more than it was to Einstein, who could not believe that god threw dice; their assumption is that the word is non-probabilistically ordered, or that given all the information we should be able to predict what would happen.
Again the fact that there is some order, and that my lungs seek air does not mean there is only order, or order is eternal. Similarly, the apparent reality that my lungs seek air would not seem to be a belief or proposition my lungs hold and operate by. They just do what they do. And if there is no air, then I die. The lungs fail, and the disorder and joy of life terminates.
I agree that finding out about Chavarka is difficult. We only have fragments, people try to interpret it by other ideas which may be misleading, and it does not have to be Pyrrhonist to be good. However, the idea that our source of knowledge is perception and that we cannot make inferences from perception, seems to make it pretty skeptical and fairly embracing of disorder. It does appear that people in that tradition do make firm denials of order (such as denial of life after death), although that could simply be how others interpreted them, or wanted to portray and discredit them.
I don’t know anything about Ajñana so thank you.