Yet I Still Want to be a Catholic: post 16

Yet I Still Want to be a Catholic – post 16. In my beginning is my end.

The great philosophers are of immense importance.   They are important because they stake out the boundaries of thought. They supply us with basic tools, the sets of questions that we might ask when we try to find meanings for the facts that science discovers.  The trouble is that they mark out different boundaries and provide us with different sets of questions.  Each of them starts with an axiom which, to its proponent, is as self-evidently true and as little in need of further proof as the axioms of geometry.  Aristotle starts with wonder, Descartes with cogito ergo sum.  Kant begins with the intuition that our experiences of space and time are themselves intuitions, Wittgenstein with everything that is the case, Sartre with the nausea aroused by the sight of somebody’s braces, Locke with sense impressions.  How different each of these philosophies would have been if its presiding genius had started off with something different. Each of them inhabits his own thought world, as different from those of the others as the sound world of Bach is from that of Beethoven.  Within each philosophical world there is a different colouring, a different style of approach, a different moulding and procession of thought, which is as easily exclusive of other  approaches, and as opaque to any helpful insights that other philosophies might have, as economics usually is to physics or painting to music.  Since they mark out the very boundaries within which we think, it is clearly of importance to decide which philosophical traditions are helpful to us, which set of questions we are going to ask, and which we are not.


My contentions are, first, that neo-Darwinian biologists often seem to be unaware that they are inhabiting a limiting thought world at all.  Facts are not so much confused with meanings as taken to be their own meanings.  But they are not.  Verified facts always call for imagined meanings.  They are therefore always misleading, but the most misleading facts of all are those which are imagined not to be in need of further imagining.  Thus it was only because of the discovery of the perfectly true fact that the world was round, and not flat, that it became possible to erroneously imagine that it was a round ball at the centre of nine rotating perfectly circular crystal spheres.  This in turn was a condition of imagining a further and yet more primary meaning, that the order of the physical world was an expression of a metaphysical order underpinning and directing it. The discovery of yet more true facts about the round earth was the condition of the first set of self-confirming imaginary metaphysical meanings being swept away.  It was now replaced by a mechanical ordering in which the sun, not the earth, was at the centre of the universe, and that it was not mankind that was on earth for the sake of a metaphysical order, but a mechanical order that directed the now spinning earth for the sake of mankind.  But this view of things, it turned out, was just as imaginary and illusory as the first.  The much greater number of true facts that the view of the universe as a mechanism had been able to marshal in its support had only served to make it even more misleading, because it appeared to be verified by supposedly irrefutable  proofs and was even less aware of its own illusions.


More and more true discoveries led to the realization that the sun round which the earth was turning was not at the centre of a perfectly symmetrical and ordered mechanical universe after all, but only a peripheral star in a vast and uncountable cosmic waste.  Now it was seen that these previous orderings that had appeared to be so meaningful were in fact only imaginary, and the conclusion was often drawn that the universe is therefore meaningless, that there are no meanings but only the facts that science discovers.  But this is itself a meaningful proposition and just as imaginary, indeed even more so, as those fantasies that had preceded it.  It is just as likely, in fact more likely in my view, that science is pointing us in the direction of a profound and even more meaningful order, in realms yet to be discovered, as it is that we are lost in a meaningless waste of stars.  In fact, the philosophy of the bare scientific fact supposedly purified of any imagined mythical contamination is, perhaps, the most illusory and imaginary of all.   Thought and imagination are as inseparable from each other as left is from right, and the presumption that they can be separated is one that cannot be proved and is itself imaginary.  If the idea of the mechanical order was particularly misleading because its own central myth was that it was not a myth, this myth imagines that the rationality science finds everywhere in the universe is itself irrational, the product of universal unreason.  In the limit case reason is thought to be unreasonable. How intellectually suicidal can you get? The most incomprehensible fact about the universe, said Einstein, is that it is comprehensible at all.  But it is, and we can only try and imagine why.


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