"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Reason and preference

(Note: In one of those annoying moments of (dis?)sycrhonicity I've finished up this post just as Alex has posted his piece below - make sure you don't overlook it! It's not as though I'm that desperate for attention that I need to try and overshadow other people)

According to many people in the field, modern philosophy starts with Rene Descartes, or more specifically with one of the most famous phrases in the history of philosophy: "I think, therefore I am."

Descartes hoped to establish the foundational beliefs of human understanding – to find that which could not be doubted without contradiction. To do this he set aside millennia of accumulated human knowledge and went back to (what he believed to be) the central, unquestionable, truth at the heart of all experience.

I think.
Only that which exists can think.
Therefore, I exist.

However, this is not the fundamental truth that Descartes supposed it to be – it actually presupposes two, quite crucial, things:

1) Reason

Without reason, no argument can be made – or at least no argument worth making.

2) Preference

Without preferences (with which I include desire, value, etc.) there can be no motivation for making an argument.

Descarte (and all sceptics) must assume not only the existence of these two things, but also their validity – as otherwise there are no grounds for making any argument. Without reason, we have no means to, without preference we have no grounds to. This holds regardless of our metaphysics – as metaphysics itself is impossible without them. They are fundamental aspects of our existence and as such largely beyond analysis – once we start to question them our means to and grounds for doing so are pulled from under us: If we question reason, then we cannot construct a rational argument against it. If we question preference, then we have no grounds for preferring it to be valid.

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Blogger Alex said...

Hey Matt,
I liked your thoughts on preferences being a precondition (or at least motivator) for argumentation. Oddly enough, that was another topic that randomly appeared in a paper of mine... yesterday.

I'm not sure if I'm following you're argument beyond that however. You seem to be using the word "reason" in a creative way.

I don't think that Descartes was presupposing "reason;" rather he was reasoning. Reason is not the sort of thing that is presupposed in the same way we might presuppose the continuing regularity of the sun rise in the morning.

Reasoning is simply something we do. You can't question reason, for to question reason is to reason about reason, at which point it becomes clear that reasoning is merely the process of thinking about things.

And this is the point Descartes is making: "I think."

Not: "I think my thinking is valid."

Whether or not his reasoning is correct is immaterial. His argument is launched from the brute fact that thinking is occurring and he is participating in (or at least experiencing) the process.


7:28 AM

Blogger Matt M said...

Damn, I thought it would be my use of "preference" that would cause confusion. Which is probably why I didn't bother making myself clearer with reason.

I suppose "rationality" would be a better term for what I mean.

And this is the point Descartes is making: "I think."

But that's not an argument though, simply an assertion. Where he presupposes the validity of rationality is in going from "I think" to "I exist" (via the route I outlined). It's the "ergo" bit that requires the use of reason.

8:45 AM

Blogger Alex said...

are you trying to make a metaphysical or epistemological point?

9:06 AM

Blogger Matt M said...




My point is simply that to accept the deductive reasoning that gets you from thinking to existing you have to accept the validity of reason.

10:20 AM

Blogger Alex said...

Okay. But now we are simply dealing with a truism that is impossible to adequately question. Is there any meaning to a question that by virtue of its subject is impossible to ever address? If you plan on doing anything other than simply raise the question (that is, if you plan on actually attempting to answer it) you have nowhere to go.

And here's why I say that:
To try and answer a question regarding the validity of reason is in effect to reason about reason. How is it then that one could use reason to address the validity of reason itself?

1. P is the only process available that can be put to the service of answering questions.
2. Is P valid?
3. Using P we conclude that XY or Z

The entire programme is self-referentially incoherent.

From this I'm tempted to say it's a meaningless question... though strangely interesting.

10:58 AM

Blogger Matt M said...

I wasn't trying to make any grand statements about the universe - just argue that both preference and reason are fundamental aspects of our experience. Both "is reason rational?" and "should we prefer having preferences?" are essentially meaningless questions, as we just don't have the tools to analyse them.

Stephan Law made the point about reason on his own blog a while back. Someone had questioned the validity of reason and Law described this as "the nuclear option": You can raise doubts about reason, but then you lose the ability to make any argument about anything. It struck me that much the same can be said about preference/desire - if you start to question its validity then you undermine any arguments you might make as well. They're just things we have to assume are valid in order to say anything meaningful.

11:12 AM

Blogger Alex said...

I see. So what are we doing here exactly? ;-)

11:17 AM

Blogger Matt M said...

I don't know about you, but I'm trying to waste time until there's something good on the telly. :-)

It was a comment you made over on the Grenz thread that sparked this:

The only way it could be would be to accept (at some level) a brute emotional fact that "I desire X." All questions of, "well sure but why?" would need to be rejected at this point.

It seemed to me that you were asking why we should desire desires.

11:25 AM

Blogger Alex said...

Ahhhhhhh. Gotcha. I'll have to pop back over there and see what I was getting at.

As for me... well I'm trying to finish proofing a paper, but I gave myself till 1:00 to finish it (which I think I will make with ease) so rather than hurry through it I'm distracting myself, so I don't have to start my next paper until the last minute. In other words: procrastinating... and enjoying it!

11:28 AM

Blogger Matt M said...

It's a nice relaxing Friday evening for me. I'm just trying to decide on whether to watch 'American Gangster' on DVD or leave it for some time next week.

11:34 AM

Blogger Alex said...

I suppose you could do that. Otherwise you have an open invite at the campfire over at my place. Make sure you call first if you decide to stop by. Megan and I might be going on a date tonight.

I have something started, but I'm going to force myself to stop... since it is now just shy of 1:00 and I have NOT finished proofing my paper!

Enjoy the evening!

11:58 AM


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