A theological blog Number 2 (i). The assumptions we make
A theological blog. Number 2 Galileo and Plato (i) The assumptions we make.
Philosophers try to make sense of the world using logic and reason but they often conduct their enquiries within matrices of assumption that are anything but logical and reasonable. Wittenstein starts The Tractatus with the sentence ‘The world is everything that is the case’ a statement, we might well think, as blamelessy obvious as he thought it too. But Dirac showed us that it is also full of virtual realities which, one might wonder, might or might not quite fit into what Wittgenstein meant by ‘the case’, and indeed he himself later came to realise that the many entities we take to be the case are questionable linguistic assertions created within ever shifting boundaries imposed by language. Descartes took it for granted that there is a complete and utter distinction between mind and body. But now Damasio shows us the two are inextricably connected. We think with our bodies. Hegel thought that since we think thoughts and not things our conviction that there is a solid world out there full of things is an illusion created by our thoughts. He took it for granted that the arrowhead of the dialectical progress of The Absolute was going through Germany at the time and especially through Prussia, the most absolute part of which was the Prussian civil service that was guiding its progress. The most absolutely absolutely important part of the civil service was its philosophy department and I am sure I do not need to tell you who the most absolutely absolutely absolutely important head of that department was. Sartre starts off his writings by feeling sick at the sight of the roots of a chestnut tree and a man’s braces and leaps to the conclusion not that he needs a couple of ibuprofens but that the world is inherently disgusting.
John Locke starts with three assumptions, all of which he takes to be so obvious they are in no need of justification. (i) all our thoughts originate in sense experience (ii) our belief that there are wholes in the world is an illusion – look, we say, a tree. But really a tree is only a collection of trunk and leaves and branches that in their turn are only collections of atoms and molecules. (iii) there is a distinction between what Locke called primary and secondary qualities. Primary qualities are all those things studied by physics, mass, volume, structure and motion and so on. Primary qualities do exist in the world. But our experiences of them, heat, sweetness, colour, beauty and so on, which is what he meant by secondary qualtities, are only illusions created by our brains. There is no beauty and no colour out in the world. In fact, Locke’s assumptions are just as much in need of justification as any of the others, but they are of huge importance because so much of western science has been conducted in their shadow. Dawkins for example, in the third chapter of Unweaving the Rainbow where, in one the most wonderful and dazzling passages of his writing he describes how we see colours in rainbows and discusses Newton’s analysis of colour in light in what Newton called his crucial experiment, just tosses off that the colours we see in rainbows are “arbitrary tags” created by our brains. A true son of Locke. I hope to show that this isn’t what Newton himself thought at all and there is a much more satisfying explanation, although one just as much an assumption because what scientifically discovered facts mean is always open to doubt, and a quite different set of generally encompassing asssumptions that makes much better sense, or more accurately perhaps personal fulfilments, of the wonderful findings of science.