Reply to HS on Cartesian Dualism

It is true that Descartes set philosophy on a wrong track. Dualistic thinking has limits generally, but not all of it can be attributed to Decartes, so it is not all Cartesian. The wrong track I see is somewhat different, and is epistemological rather than metaphysical. In an incipiently sceptical age, D. sought certain knowledge by doubting / re-examining everything: famously/notoriously “I am thinking, therefore I do at least exist”. But it is not possible to doubt everything, i.e. to doubt the generality rather than something specific. A few things only may be illusions. You would find out that they were by comparing them with the mass of experience and identifying differences. But when you do this, you determine (usually) that there are no differences and so they are not illusory. We are not dreaming. As Nietzsche said, you cannot rebuild the entire ship all at the same time while at sea.

Each of the dualities that people like to cling to breaks down at some point. Take for instance the value/fact distinction. This breaks down because the “facts” of any particular matter have to be selected, there being an infinity of “facts”. Selecting those facts is an evaluative process. So you have firmly shut the front door to keep those pesky value judgements out, only to find that they have crept back in through the back kitchen window (Mary Whitehouse).

So there are lots of dualities which are useful, but only up to a point. Like a dodgy handrail on the stairs on a ship in a storm, useful to steady yourself, but not robust enough to take your entire weight. PG: Compare the one-legged man with the millipede. Who has the better footing in the world? D. tries to re-build the entire world on a tiny and questionable foundation, producing all the stability of an inverted pyramid. Generally this debate, which ended only with Wittgenstein (1889 - 1951), is the spectre of scepticism. W. proposes that we regard concepts as tools from a toolbox. Hammers make poor screwdrivers. The other great philosopher in the Anglo tradition of the mid-20th century is Karl Popper (both from Vienna! both I believe with Jewish ancestors, both became British citizens!) A.J.Ayer travelled to Vienna I think in the 1920s and became imbued there with the search for scientific truth. All scientific statements must be verifiable. But people pointed out that even some intelligent assertions which are down to earth, rather than speculative such as the existence of God, cannot be verified. How do you verify that there are no black swans? Popper ingeniously turned this approach on its head with the idea that a scientific statement is one which, in principle, is Falsifiable. The non-existence of black swans is then a provisional statement, a hypothesis, which would be disproven by finding a black swan. Progress in knowledge is often a matter of such a simple inversion. Like making zero a number. Btw, all year there has been a dispute in France about using double-blind randomised experiments / studies / surveys as the gold standard for scientific and medical truth. Also about peer review as a benchmark (“Lancetgate”). BTW The French have a cute and original expression for peer review which does not come to mind just now.

“Scienticism” would seem simply to be bad science, imagining that all human questions are susceptible of being treated by the scientific approach. Behind it is the metaphysical (!) idea that we can mirror everything, i.e. that we can depict or model everything in words and figures (Helen: you spoke of “values” when you - or those you challenge - mean figures). Chaos theory (now renamed Complexity) recognised that there is a limit to the precision that is possible, so figures are not everything. Not even computer modelling is everything! It pointed out that very small differences can have enormous (exponential) outcomes, like a butterfly in China “causing” hurricanes in America. So some mischief-makers start speculating that a relatively small increase in CO2 might have a runaway effect on global temperatures. On Mehta: I’d be very surprised if he is saying anything that is not already well-known in philosophy. On Merleau-Ponty and phenomenology: The name is familiar (died young, contemporary & friend of Sartre). Phenomenology was a 20th century movement first in Germany (Husserl?) then in France. I have never been attracted to it. Possibly because of the language. Verbosity? Verbal grandstanding? Often, it turns out that the core of what is being said has been obscured by the invention of a novel language. Eventually, the core is exposed as patently false, or else as trivially true.