Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Thought thinking itself...

Last night, I was thinking about thought, partially in connection to my previous liberal/conservative ruminations. I jotted down a bunch of notes on my scrap whiteboard, and now I am going to try and shape it all into a somewhat coherent blog post; be forewarned, though, I haven't really synthesized it, so it is a little "stream of consciousness."

The first thing I was thinking was that, nowadays, liberal vs. conservative Catholicism seems largely divided according to two different intellectual disciplines: psychology, on the liberal side, and philosophy, on the conservative side. In fact, I would wager that psychology was a much more popular focus--besides theology--among seminarians in the 60's and 70's, and I say that because of the glut of psychological-religious books written in the 80's which now stock our parish library.

But psychology and philosophy have developed into two vastly different sciences. Speaking generally, I would characterize philosophy as both the history of ideas and the study of their neccessary connections and continued rational development. Psychology, on the other hand, is a modern science whose object is experience, behavior, and their efficient causes.

Both sciences deal with ideas, but psychology deals with ideas only insofar as they are the products of an organism, which is at least in some degree determined by explanable and repeated phenomena in nature, which is not conscious or reasoning. Frued set this characteristic almost permanently into the landscape of psychological science; but psychologists need not be determinists--they need only to believe that some part of human behavior, experience, and thought is determined, and that is the part they study.

In other words, psychology is the study of human experience/behavior/thought insofar as it is not free. If there is any element of human behavior which is truly spontaneous and singular, psychology can say nothing of it (but that does not mean that psychology necessarily denies the possibility of real sponteneity).

Now, if we were non-psychological animals--that is, if our rational thought were utterly free of the determinations of nature, circumstance, and psychosis; and our reason floated in a sublime void so that every step it made was deliberate, freely willed, and emminently rational, one might suppose that reason itself would stand to benefit. That is because, wherever unconscious determinations enter into our thinking, they rarely present us with new information, but instead create a mental blind spot. They unduly deprioritize some aspect of reality so that we mistakenly omit it from our ever-broadening picture of reality. One example of this might be the Enlightenment, which in spite of its warblings about the equality of men, had a tremendous blind-spot as regards the plight of women.

Of course, this is classical theory. Ancient and medieval thinkers were always convinced that reason could only be benefitted by the moral and ascetic lifestyle, to unburden the body as much as possible from the concupiscible desires of the flesh, whose unrational determinations were mere sandbags on a balloon that wanted to soar. And indeed, to the believer, psychology as a science serves a kindred purpose: by shedding light on the hostile determinations on our wills, psychology can give us an authentic "spiritual direction" by which we can strive against those determinations, making us more free. Yet psychology is most helpful when it admits its inability--not only de facto, but de jure--to encapsulate human behavior from beginning to end. When psychology forgets this, it includes within its presuppositions a truncated and mechanical vision of the person, and will incorporate this vision into its therapy, which can be deadly to the human spirit.

But the liberation of the intellect and the will from unconscious determinations cannot be the only goal, because we are, after all, finite creatures, who will be determined to some degree as long as we are alive. It is impossible to completely liberate the will on this earth; and thus it is impossible to eliminate all of the blind spots on our reason. Thus everybody, no matter how rational, will have blind spots; and even when those spots are brought to light, they will go back into the darkness once the psychological determinations take hold again.

But this is not all dreary news. While, certainly, blind spots are obstacles to unfettered reason, it is also true that one person's blind spot will allow them to focus more of their attention on a different area which is not blind. Friedrich Nietzsche was 'blind' to God, and soon was blind to much else, since giving himself over to concupiscible desires eventually left him with advanced syphilis. But it was precisely his peculiar psychological determinations which led him to see, with such brilliant clarity, the facade of bourgeois Christian optimism, the worthless "niceness" and "slave morality" which had infected modern society and made it sickeningly soft.

Every error, every heresy, even if it is incorrect, is often motivated by an earnest desire to expose a real blind spot in the mainstream; and the mainstream, even if it is technically correct on some point against the heretic, still cannot permit itself to remain blind to the issue that the heretic exposed. Such, I maintain, is true of Protestantism (vs. ecclesial corruption), modernism (vs. theological stagnation), feminism/liberation theology (vs. civil rights abuses or complacency), and schismatic traditionalism (vs. selling out to secular culture).

Just as physical blindness in a single organism enhances the other senses, so also ideological blindness in certain theologians or sectors can draw the acute attention of the mainstream social/ecclesial organism toward a matter which it had not previously given due consideration. Thus the response is dual: both correction and acceptance.

Let's go back to the subject of psychology and philosophy. Psychology, because it is a modern science, presupposes observation and data collection as the only legitimate engine of its progress--as it rightfully should. Modern science is intensely skeptical and inductive, and when done rightly it will never proclaim true what it cannot naturally demonstrate and reproduce as true; and even then, it is only true, ceteris paribus--i.e., so far as we can tell at this time for these given conditions.

The reason modern science does this is because it cannot afford, for its own sake, to allow any room within its method for those psychologically determined blind-spots to taint its investigations. Unfortunately, this happens frequently in spite of its methodological rigor; it happens most rampantly concerning the non-scientific matter of deciding which investigations to fund, where blind-spots typically reign. But setting that aside, modern science is methodically obsessed with immediacy, falsifiability, and certainty. Thus every particular object is a datum, and for a given question, no related datum can be ignored. Comparisons must be substantiated with observation.

The point I am taking so long in getting to is that the aim of science requires a certain default metholodigical worldview: namely, that reality is strictly piecemeal, atomistic, not governed by any laws (not even natural laws), and indeed, at its deepest base, an irrational brute fact. Science cannot presuppose laws or any kind of order within its method; a particular hypothesis may be building upon the formulation of a past 'law' with a new investigation; but the laws are always ceteris paribus; the presupposition of disorder is not.

Thus the scientistic bias will always prioritize a model of "data collection" as the fundamental principle of its epistemology. Everyone knows only as much as they have seen; the world traveller is inevitably wiser than the "arm chair philosopher" (a scientistic term of abuse). The measure of the greatness of a man is how many languages he can speak and how many different indigenous peoples he has been photographed with. Jeapoardy champions outclass philosophers; and when somebody has an "encyclopedic breadth of knowledge," it is an infinitely greater compliment than to say of a fellow, "what little he knows, he knows very well."

The scientistic worldview also has an impact on everyday interactions, in part because it pressuposes the disconnectedness of phenomena, and hence the disconnectedness of human beings. Relativist sociological theories bat about the notion that there is no community, nothing translatable between disparate societies. And even adolescents tell their parents, "You have no idea what it's like to be me!" Social atomism makes empathy a fanciful myth of the past.

...will finish later

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