Friday, September 9, 2011

The Hegelian Dialectic: Escaping the Problem of the Criterion

My last post was a reposting of an archived essay on evidentialism--one which I replayed partly as a springboard for considering some related issues I've been thinking about recently, issues having to do with traditions of belief and the epistemic foundations on which they rely. Part of what I want to do in considering these issues is provide a deeper portrait of the Hegelian dialectical method, since I find myself strongly influenced by it. In this post I want to say a bit about Hegel's dialectic as a solution to the problem of the criterion. In subsequent posts, I may have more to say about Hegel's method as it bears on science, religion, and their intersections.

In the previous evidentialism post, I introduced a version of the "problem of the criterion." In a nutshell, the problem is this: If one is to form one's beliefs in accord with the weight of the evidence (which even the greatest fideist thinks we should do in many contexts, even if not in all of them), one needs to determine what counts as evidence and what doesn't. But how do you decide what counts as evidence?

Consider any belief of the form, "This sort of thing is good evidence on which to base beliefs." For any such belief we can ask, "On what basis do we believe that?" In attempting to answer this question, we find ourselves quickly faced with the prospects of circular reasoning, infinite regress, or dogmatism in one's beliefs about what counts as evidence.

In posing this problem, it is not my intention to imply or suggest that the problem is insoluble and that all of us are therefore in the same epistemic boat...whether our epistemic starting point is shared sense experience or every pronouncement proceeding from the mouth of Rush Limbaugh. I'm not one of those people who defends the reasonableness of Christianity by insisting that since anything can count as one's evidential foundation, Christians are fully in their epistemic rights to treat every sentence of the Bible as so foundational that the "biblical evidence" trumps all other sources of evidence (including reason and sense experience).

But I do think the problem of the criterion reveals something important: all of us, no matter who we are or what we believe, are unavoidably bound to have starting points--starting points which are not themselves believed on the basis of evidence, but which, in many cases, serve as the basis for deciding what counts as evidence and what does not. These starting points might take the form of a narrow set of "foundational beliefs," or we might start with something much bigger--a broad network or web of mutually reinforcing beliefs where none are clearly "foundational," since each is defended in the light of others (a kind of circle). In the latter case, each member of the network may be supported on the basis of the "evidence" offered by other members of the network, but the network itself is not. And so the network is our starting point.

In either case, there is a givenness built into our belief system--and there are therefore things that we believe in a way that cannot meet the strict demand imposed by the evidentialist. But this doesn't mean that we are doomed to dogmatism, with the only remaining question being which starting points we will hold to dogmatically.

The question is how we escape mere dogmatism in relation to the criteria we depend on for assessing our beliefs. And here is where I am powerfully influenced by Hegel, who thought the enlightenment had failed to attend with sufficient care to the problem sketched out above, and hence fell back into the very dogmatism they were criticizing. The enlightenment, Hegel thought, was simply not being skeptical enough. What is remarkable is that, if one follows through on the Hegelian alternative to dogmatism--an alternative that carries the skepticism down to the level of one's own starting points--one isn't reduced to radical skepticism. One is, rather, led to a critical and progressive appropriation of tradition.

Hegel's solution to the problem of dogmatism, given the inescapability of starting points, was to adopt one's starting points in an experimental and provisional way. One has to start somewhere--so do so. Start somewhere. Better yet, start where you are--with ordinary consciousness embedded in the social ideas of your age and culture. But be conscious of what your starting points are, and live them out critically. In other words, attempt to engage the world--cognitiviely and practically--from the starting points you happen to have, and see how well they work out. The result will be an evolutionary process to which Hegel gives the name "dialectic," and the goal will be a progressive disclosing or revelation of the "Absolute" (ultimate reality or Truth with a capital "T").

This Hegelian experimentation with one's starting points should not be confused with the sense of "experiment" that we have in mind when we think about the work of scientists. Scientific experiments take place within the context of a set of methodological assumptions, ideas about what counts as evidence and what does not, etc. The experiments test the adequacy of a hypothesis, not the adequacy of the methodology used to test the hypothesis. What Hegel is recommending is that, in the course of doing the former, we also do the latter. Or perhaps it is better to say that we are inevitably doing the latter as well, although we may do it poorly if we are insufficiently attentive to the lessons that speak to the fruits of our methodology-defining premises.

What this shows is that Hegel's dialectical "method" for approaching an understanding of the "Absolute" may not be properly described as a method at all. Perhaps we might call it a meta-method, the path to ultimately getting our method right. But Hegel thinks that perfecting our method is inseparable from the quest for the Absolute, so inseparable that, in effect, to perfect one's method is to achieve one's goal: One knows how to properly get in touch with the Absolute only once one is properly in touch with the Absolute.

It is also important to keep in mind that Hegel does not have in mind simply testing the methodology of science against its knowledge-expanding fruits. He has in mind all our ways of understanding ourselves in relation to the world, all the ways we attempt to "know" and "understand" who we are, what is out there, how we should live, etc.  For example, our foundational conception of the subject-object relationship leads us to distinguish between the "facts out there" and the "subjective projections" (values, desires) of the self who is engaging with those facts. Implicit assumptions about that relationship help to define the scientific method and its understanding of what counts as evidence and what doesn't, but similar assumptions permeate every aspect of our engagement with our world: ethical, aesthetic, religious, introspective. Even our notions about the differences between art and science--their goals and achievements--are a function of implicit presuppositions of this kind.

Or take the method of doing epistemology--studying knowledge--that prevailed (thanks largely to Kant) just before Hegel muscled his way onto the philosophical scene. Here's how Charles Taylor describes it in his monumental book, Hegel:
Hegel starts off the introduction to PhG [Taylor's shorthand for The Phenomenology of Spirit] attacking those who begin with a critique of our faculty of knowledge as a tool we use to get at reality or a medium through which realty appears to us. It is not just that this makes the problem of knowledge insoluble, since ex hypothesi we cannot get at reality as it is in itself, untouched by our tool, or unreflected in our medium. It is also that this approach assumes that the absolute, what is to be known, is something which is quite distinct from our knowledge of it, that 'the absolute stands on one side and that knowledge, though it is on the other side, for itself and separated from the absolute, is nevertheless something real' (PhG 65). This, Hegel points out, is to prejudge the issue; something he is less willing to do in this case since he wants to come to a conclusion diametrically opposed to this common assumption.
Put in concrete terms, consider the tendency to put "subjective projections" of our wishes and longings on one side, and dispassionate empirical investigation on the other, and to regard the latter as giving us knowledge of objective reality while the former as mostly an impediment to such knowledge--unless what we want to know about is human subjectivity itself (in which case we need to engage in a dispassionate empirical investigation of them, making them into an object of study while trying to free ourselves from the very things we are studying so that we can know what they are objectively like). For Hegel, this way of dichotomizing things makes deep assumptions about the ultimate nature of reality--that is about the Absolute--assumptions we are not in an epistemic position to make.

This is just an example. There are myriad other foundational assumptions that impact a lived engagement with reality, a reality that doesn't just have an empirical dimension but other dimensions as well. In every part of life, from our love affairs to our efforts to find meaning, our activities pressupose basic starting points--and in all of life, the business of living out those starting points becomes the testing ground for their adequacy. 

Hegel understood the dialectical process to be one of continual and ongoing refinement in the light of what he called "contradictions"--that is, deep inadequacies in one's holistic understanding of the world-in-relation-to-self that emerge in the process of living out that holistic understanding. Metaphorically speaking, by approaching the world with a square hole, one soon discovers that not every peg is square, because the effort to push the peg into the hole causes the casing around the hole to crack.

What is called for in the light of this "cracking"? Well, often enough what we do, in effect, is throw out the square hole and pick up  a round one. We abondon our original "thesis" in favor of an "antithesis". But then what happens? Our round hole cracks as we start shoving square pegs into it. Insofar as some pegs do fit into the square hole, simply discarding the square hole in favor of a round one proves to be a mistake. Likewise, it would be a mistake to ignore the apparently round pegs, or to insist (with a dogmatism that undercuts Hegel's experimental approach) that these apparently round pegs must eventually be explicable in terms of an underlying square-peggishness that, with sufficient diligence, will eventually be exposed to allow easy passage through the square hole.

In other words, it would be anathema to the Hegelian approach to simply dismiss, given one's own allegiance to squareness, those who explore the value of introducing rounded contours into their openings. Of course, it would also be inappropriate to dismiss those who aren't willing to give up the squareness approach quite yet. The cracks might indicate, not the need for adding rounded contours, but the need for some other modification that preserves the commitment to straight lines and righ angles. A contradiction might well lead to divergent paths of exploration, disparate experiments.

One of the things that became clear for me as I struggled my way through Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit is that "what comes next" in the dialectical evolution isn't necessarily mandated by what came before and the nature of the "contradictions" it generated--even though Hegel sometimes writes as if this is what's going on, as if the "next stage" he explicates is the only one that makes sense. But if you look for what it is that requires the specific moves he decides to make, in many cases you'll be looking for a long time with little hope of success. Instead, it seems clear that "what comes next" is the result of a creative, almost artistic act. Some new developments and directions take hold because, to put it simply, they're proposed by better artists.

In sum, the Hegelian dialectic--his solution to the problem of the criterion (or the version of it he addressed)--involves experimentally modifying predecessor ways-of-seeing-and-interpreting in an ongoing, evolutionary way. And this process does not merely proceed on an individual level, but also a communal one--when communities live out a holistic vision collectively (discovering things through communal engagement that might be missed in merely personal life), and then passing on the lessons to the next generation, who continue the process in an evolving tradition.


  1. "For Hegel, this way of dichotomizing things makes deep assumptions about the ultimate nature of reality--that is about the Absolute--assumptions we are not in an epistemic position to make."

    This is well-put and interesting. I think we are in a better position in this respect than Hegel was, since we come after Darwin. Hegel had no necessary idea of the origin of human body/mind, and thus could still (sort of) entertain the notion that our minds/feelings have some special conduit to god's wormhole, or however you would put it.

    All that is substantially less plausible after we have learned about our fundamentally animal, material, and organic nature, smoothly interconnected with the whole process of evolution. The setting/origin of our epistemic capacities is now much better understood, and bears all the marks of a very practical, this-world focus, even to the extent of sacrificing reason for motivation. Neuroscience promises to nail down its material basis ever more comprehensively.

    "In every part of life, from our love affairs to our efforts to find meaning, our activities pressupose basic starting points--and in all of life, the business of living out those starting points becomes the testing ground for their adequacy. "

    But.. their adequacy for what? Only a few of these aim at truth. Others, at comfort, or subjective enjoyment, or artistic emotion, or even reproductive success. The criteria need to be matched to the activity, carefully.

    On another topic, I would also suggest that the word "Absolute" is a bit grandiose for what is aimed for. Is our understanding of electromagnetic theory close to the "Absolute"? Perhaps it is, but getting at the small-t truth, or "reality" would probably be a better term for it. The language seems like a way of sneaking in a lot of metaphysical (read Platonic) assumptions that are irksome and biased.

  2. Hi Eric

    I think the way you describe science here is rather at odds with the process as I've experienced it. In practice, very little is locked in as methodology, really anything that works will do. If, for instance, somebody could show that their intuition provided better predictions than a current model, there's no doubt science would be interested.

    Very few scientists talk of describing the world as it actually is, they are simply looking to construct the models that provide the most accurate guide to the world as we experience it.

    Science in this respect is perhaps not so far from the Hegelian method you are describing. The thing that seems to define science's parameters is that it deals in those areas of life where all can agree in advance about the nature of the evidence, and this is in essence what we mean by objectivity in science, the lifeline of the measurer does not affect the measurement.

    If we apply a Hegelian method to areas where no such criteria exist, I'm not sure I understand why any sort of convergence should occur. Individuals could surely be led off on divergent paths to their own version of the truth, their own personally meaningful story.


  3. Bernard:

    Regarding the following: I think the way you describe science here is rather at odds with the process as I've experienced it. In practice, very little is locked in as methodology, really anything that works will do. If, for instance, somebody could show that their intuition provided better predictions than a current model, there's no doubt science would be interested.

    This is right--but there are still current parameters that shape what science will and will not consider as evidence. The methodology at issue here is not a fixed procedure but a set of assumptions about what counts as evidence and what doesn't. The evidentiary value of intuition would become a hypothesis tested against existing standards of evidence, presumably by making empirically falsifiable predictions based on the intuition hypothesis.

    But still, this shows that the scientific method is not static but open to evolving, to having its own assumptions transformed by what happens when those assumptions are put to work--and in this respect science (like every other aspect of life, Hegel might say) develops according to an historical dialectic. Hegel would certainly be VERY surprised if sceince DIDN'T evolve in the terms he describes.

    In fact, I said something along these lines in an earlier draft of this post--but the post was getting so long that I extracted the parts that were explicitly applying Hegel's method to science and religion for a later post (posts) on those topics.

    In any event, the point for the present post is to distinguish between (a) experimentation within the context of a set of methodological assumptions, where one is asking "what if" a specific hypothesis were true, and (b) experimentation with a set of methodological assumptions, where one is discovering their merits by diligently operating as if they are true (by, among other things, conducting experiments of the first kind).

  4. Burk:

    With regard to the following: I think we are in a better position in this respect than Hegel was, since we come after Darwin.

    I doubt Hegel, were he to consider Darwin, would agree that Darwin's discoveries change anything fundamental about the presumptiveness of letting one's notions of what counts as evidence be shaped by a sharp subjective/objective dichotomy. Keep in mind here that Hegel was responding to Kant, and in this sense took Kant as a kind of starting point that he was attemtping to get beyond. And for Kant the key point is that the empirical world we discover through broadly scientific means--incluiding, we might say, the discoveries made by evolutionary biologists since Darwin--is the world as it presents itself TO us, not the thing in itself.

    From this standpoint, the interpretation of the subject based on Darwin already has built into it the "categories of the understanding" that the subject brings TO empirical experience. And so the account of the human person that emerges out of Darwinian science is an account constructed BY the subject in relation to what is given to the subject, and thus remains "the subject as it appears TO itself" rather than "the subject as it is IN itself."

    I'd go on, but my son wants to use the computer...

  5. Hi Eric,

    What you describe seems to be more or less a process of successive approximation, as the mathematician would say. But such processes are goal oriented: at each step, we must evaluate the situation against some goal, or a set of criteria, which must be given, isn't it? In this respect, the term “contradiction” is maddeningly vague, open to any ad-hoc interpretation. The whole thing cries out for a more precise, intelligible, formulation and concrete examples.

    In any case, if the goal is to acquire knowledge about reality, isn't it the case that this dialectical process has been running its course for a very long time, slowly converging towards modern science? It can be argued that, say, the use of intuition as a source of knowledge has already been filtered out by the very process you describe.

  6. JP,

    Yes--Hegel's sense of "contradiction" is difficult. The best way to get a handle on it is to look at specific examples of what he means, but to do that would take more time than I have right now (kids are hounding me to blow up balloons). So, in the abstract, here are a couple of *kinds* of "contradictions" that might emerge from one's starting points:(a) the doxasitic (belief-forming) practices that are endorsed by one's starting points produce beliefs that are in conflict with one another; (b) one's starting points endorse mechanisms for pursuing one's goals and endorse evaluative criteria for judging what one has achieved, and what one achieves by the endorsed mechanisms is regularly judged bad by the endorsed standards of judgment.

  7. Hi Eric

    Yes. I think my wariness here is that so often people describe science as sitting within its own cultural construct, and they mean something along the lines that what science adjudges to be correct depends upon the standards of evidence chosen. The implication is that a different set of standards could equally well be chosen.

    However, I've never been convinced this is the case. If the purpose of an endeavour is to provide the best fit between a model and the predictions it generates, then the only criteria of evidence available is the accuracy of those predictions. And this is further constrained by the scientific aim of producing public, or objective models, so the criteria for measuring accuracy must be agreeable by anybody with an understanding of the process.

    The only cultural assumption in play then, is that what has worked best in the past will continue to be the best bet in the future (an assumption that all models of reasoning about the world appear to lean on).

    Anyway, I shall be very interested to see how a Hegelian system could be expected to generate progress towards a shared truth, rather than generating as many descriptions of truth as there are starting points, all potentially converging on quite different, but increasingly consistent, systems. I understand how science avoids this trap, but not yet how Hegel does.

    Thanks for the posts, as always they're fascinating.


  8. Eric-

    I re-read your initial discussion of subjective/objective in the post, and there wasn't any substance there, so this gesture towards a point remains rather obscure.

    I think we all respect Kant's point that can never know/be the "ding an sich", which incidentally is a far better formulation than the heavily freighted "Absolute", with its capital letter .. Hegel might as well have just said God and removed all doubt. If Hegel was trying to get beyond Kant here, one has to ask whether that is possible, or whether Hegel was weaving rhetorical fantasies that Kant would have scoffed at.

    Of course what I was originally alluding to was model that you typically favor, (for models are all we have to work with, lacking the ding an sich), which is that our subjective state and especially its most mystical transport may yield knowledge and truth, by the traditional philosophical definition. Well, the evidence for this is nonexistent, so it is best laid aside as an idea with far more hat than cattle, as they say.

    Subjective or objective, we are rather stuck as limited, rude beings, making models (ideas) of things rather than being ... electrons, etc. The subjective/objective distinction is not at all arbitrary, but flows naturally from our quest to transcend(!) the subjective condition, which is our default, coming from our naturally constructed cognition. The distinction has been hugely fruitful as well, so to make as though it is problematic in some way is highly suspect.

    It is, in short, not only the built-in starting point, but built-in for the very good reason that it fulfills natural selection's general goal of having us represent reality with some fidelity, and lastly has also been borne out by our critical analysis over the centuries since we started doing philosophy, science, and all the rest of the self-critical and self-expressive pursuits you mention. It would take a good deal more than some post-modernist style hand-waving to put it into question.

    "For Hegel, this way of dichotomizing things makes deep assumptions about the ultimate nature of reality--that is about the Absolute--assumptions we are not in an epistemic position to make."

    Fine, but following the arbitrary starting point model, we have started there, found it fruitful, and continue to deploy that model with success. Just because it doesn't lead to the presupposition you brought to the party (god) doesn't make it problematic. At some point, the answer "No" needs to be recognized.

    "And this process does not merely proceed on an individual level, but also a communal one--when communities live out a holistic vision collectively (discovering things through communal engagement that might be missed in merely personal life), and then passing on the lessons to the next generation, who continue the process in an evolving tradition.

    Again, I would suggest that you be careful about what "things" are being "discovered". Sometimes it is a new form of enjoyment, like ice cream, other times it is philosophical truth. Germany has been through quite a process of "discovery" since Hegel's time, not all of it so great.

  9. Hi Eric,

    Hegel's sense of "contradiction" is difficult.

    Yes and, as you point out, concrete examples would be useful. As it is, in the abstract, Hegel's approach seems to boil down to a very natural process (but I expect there's more to it): you try this, you try that, see how everything fits together and whether it gets you closer to your goals – then, make adjustments and start another iteration. Some sort of recursive process of successive approximations. I wonder: has Hegel been significantly influenced by what he knew of mathematics? Because his famous trio (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) is, at least in form, similar to what we find in standard approximation methods, well know in his days.

    Now, looking back historically at the quest for knowledge about reality, aren't we seeing something very much like a Hegelian process at work? In this respect, modern science becomes the end result of this process and its “implicit assumptions”, instead of limiting its scope, become a set of conclusions about what works and what doesn't (always subject to revision, of course).

    In this view, science is not “just one way” to acquire knowledge about reality, self-limited by arbitrary assumptions, but our best effort so far, the result of centuries of hard work. And, if some methods have been rejected, this is not because they don't comply with these “assumptions”, but because they have been found wanting.

  10. Eric,

    Hegel’s idea then is basically encapsulated in this bit you write: “But be conscious of what your starting points are, and live them out critically. In other words, attempt to engage the world--cognitiviely and practically--from the starting points you happen to have, and see how well they work out. The result will be an evolutionary process to which Hegel gives the name "dialectic," and the goal will be a progressive disclosing or revelation of the "Absolute" (ultimate reality or Truth with a capital "T").

    Now let’s imagine a graph which on the horizontal axis contains all possible “starting points” sorted by similarity and on the vertical axis displays how well these starting points work out. Clearly, this graph may have several local maxima. Some of these local maxima may have the property that once one has “fallen” in them, they become self-reinforcing or self-sustaining. One such maximum may be Biblical literalism: if what is written in the Bible appears to be true then it is, and if doesn’t then it’s God testing one’s faith. Another more sophisticated one is I think naturalism. Under the two assumptions 1) that the physical universe is causally closed and 2) that there is a perfect correlation between brain states and mind states (and both assumptions are already very well supported by the physical sciences) naturalism becomes unfalsifiable, or rather naturalism's epistemology becomes self-fulfilling. Thus, anybody who falls in the naturalistic local maximum will find that her engaging the world always produces experiences (including feelings, intuitions, thoughts, etc) which are explained by naturalism, and thus will find that naturalism works always perfectly well, that all pegs perfectly fit all holes.

    We see then that if one only uses a stepwise refinement of one’s starting points (or one’s epistemology) one can easily be entrapped in a local maximum, and thus be kept away from true knowledge, the Absolute. Here, I think, Hegel’s dialectic of looking for the “contradiction” comes in. I may be mistaken, but I understand that Hegel’s idea is not only to be aware of and critically engage with one’s starting points, but to actively search for other starting points which would contradict one’s own, and engage with them too. For example, a theist should assume naturalism’s starting points and try them, and, conversely, a naturalist should assume theism’s starting points and try them. Hegel’s dialectic then is one where one is actively looking for tension.

    [continued bellow]

  11. [2nd part, continued from above]

    Now if I understand Hegel’s idea correctly, I find two problems with it:

    The first problem I see concerns the concept of “work out”. Thus, the starting points one uses may well change the very meaning of what “see how well they work out” means. I posit that it’s a fact of our condition that how we engage the world changes how we experience the world, and thus changes how we are, and thus changes what “works well” means for us. (Indeed a common and central insight of all great religions is based precisely on this fact, and that’s why all great religions teach a “path” of self-transformation, a path of self-transcendence which leads to the transcendental Absolute.) In other words, once one is engaging the world in one particular way one has become oneself in a particular way, and it may therefore become practically impossible to start engaging the world in a “contradictory” way in order to implement Hegel’s dialectic. In short my objection here is that Hegel’s meta-method may not be feasible except for the very first intellect-dominated cognitive steps.

    My second criticism is not independent from the first, but goes beyond it. Perhaps the world is such that knowledge of the Absolute is reached only by the transformation of one’s very being – and not by any proper epistemological discipline. Perhaps, after some point the way to reach a deeper truth is not through thinking well and using the right starting points and the right epistemic principles and the right pieces of evidence, but through doing well, doing the morally right thing. It may well be the case that there is a deep connection (and even identity) between ethics and epistemology. In the Gospels we read “the pure of heart will see God”. This statement is usually interpreted as referring to the afterlife, but I think it may well refer to how one knows ultimate truths. The way to know the Absolute may be by personal acquaintance only, a personal acquaintance that becomes possible only if we transform our personal character to become similar to the character of the Absolute.

  12. Hi, Dianelos-

    You portray correctly that different traditions and viewpoints have different levels of explanatory power. My comment would be that the contradictions that point to difficulties with models don't only arrive when one puts on different glasses, but are present within a world view that is incorrect.

    The problem of evil is a classic example. No end of theological pretzels have been turned to reconcile the starting points of an all-good and all-powerful god. What if the answer is that the paradigm is just bad to start with? The essence of good philosophy is to work with integrity within one's tradition, (taking questions and perspective from others, hopefully, but not necessarily), and to let an answer of "No" stand, rather than engaging in endless apologetics and model re-definitions to save it. This is exactly what Kuhn talked about, in the context of science. But as Eric points out and we all appreciate, its significance is far more general.

    Ditto for all this yearning after the absolute. What makes you think that it is either real or attainable? We transcend ourselves in many mundane ways- drugs, imagination, rock & roll, etc. But the self remains ineluctably our base of operations, so any self-transcendence tends to be limited.

    I would offer that all the intimations of the absolute and "deeper truth" are mystical mirages that have never, ever provided any "knowledge" in the concrete philosophical meaning of that term, while they may have constituted psychological trips of great imagination, motivation, and meaning. Indeed, as you say, this connects far better with ethics and other psychological manipulations (of self and others) than with "truth", let alone ultimate truth.

  13. Hi Dianelos,

    I like your graphical image and the difficulty you point out is in fact an important issue in numerical optimization as well as in machine learning, for example. Many algorithms will easily reach such a local maximum (by walking up the slope, so to speak) but may fail entirely to approach anything like a global maximum.

    But the central questions remain: why should we believe that anything like this elusive “Absolute” makes sense and is reachable? And, assuming it does, what reasons do we have to believe that the Hegelian method will lead us to it?

    I certainly agree with you that, although the application of the method from a specific starting point may, perhaps, converge, there seems to be no compelling reason to believe that this point of convergence is unique and, moreover, anything like the Hegelian absolute.

    I must suppose that Hegel had some argument to the effect that his method worked – otherwise the whole exercise seems rather pointless. I'm very curious as to how this argument would go.

  14. Dianelos,

    I think the issues you raise are very germane and important. I think that some of them, however, might be better construed as elaborations of what Hegel had in mind as opposed to criticisms.

    For example, consider your idea that self-transformation, ethical transformation, is a more reliable path to the Absolute than inquiry in accord with epistemological principles. This is the kind of possibility that, for Hegel, should not be presumptively excluded by our starting points (which it would be, for example, if our starting points strictly excluded ethics from the domain of "objective truth," rendering it nothing more than a "subjective projection" onto the facts). Our starting place includes both epistemic principles of evidence AND standards of decision-making AND evaluative standards of beauty/goodness AND ideas about what these latter standards ARE, etc. This WHOLE has to be lived out in a the critical, provisional way, so as not to pre-emptively rule out the posibility that the truth about reality is more adequately attained through immersion in aesthetic appreciation or moral improvement than through dispassionately considering the "evidence."

    Also, your insight about the starting points helping to define what "works" is exactly right (and well-put), and something Hegel clearly recognizes and relies on in his understanding of how the dialectical process takes place: starting points transcend themselves, often enough, by failing to work in terms of measures of success generated by the standards themselves.

    The problem, which I think you rightly highlight, is that some starting points seem to be hermetically sealed in the sense of leading to an entirely self-contained and self-consistent system that becomes immune to recognizing further contradictions, even though there is plenty of reason from an outside standpoint to suspect that the system has not led to a discovery of "the Absolute." I think that Hegel may have underestimated this, but I also suspect that his stress on historical development--which involves interactions among diverse human beings in community--provides something like an avenue for the emergence of contradictions at another level. If there's something about the human condition that resists community-wide internalizing and living out of an internally self-consistent system, the system as "thesis" faces its "antithesis" in community, and a new synthesis is realized at the communal level that embodies something about the human condition that was heretofore ignored.

    It's even possible for Hegel to acknowledge that such a synthesis might, in a sense, be "further" from the Absolute than the predecessor thesis--that the synthesis accomodates human irrationality in a way that the thesis did not--while still treating the new synthesis as part of an evolution towards the Absolute. One get the picture, in The Phenomenology of Spirit, of the dialectic evolving in the manner of a spiral, with earlier theses being revisited in slightly modified form again and again. Supposing the Absolute sits atop the spiral at 90 degrees, then a shift from 90 degrees to 120 is more error-riddled, but it is also winding UPWARDS along the spiral.

  15. As far as the recurring question about plurality--about what guarantee we have that diverse starting points won't eternally diverge--I'd say that this is a real possibility that can't be ruled out. Convergence would be guaranteed only if "the Absolute" or "reality as it is in itself" were such that it put THAT kind of transformative pressure on those who live out interpretive worldviews.

    Hegel, being arrogant beyond measure, was confident of convergence because he was convinced that his own thought achieved, in the domain of speculative philosophy, the very culmination of the dialectic. HE had reached the Absolute--and so knew, from this lofty perch, that the Absolute was of the sort to generate convergence.

    I don't share Hegel's confidence, placing much more stock in his method than in his substantive views--but this then raises the question of WHY I place such stock in his method as a pathway. If there is no guarantee that it will bring us in touch with "the Absolute," because it remains possible that evolving systems will continue to evolve along parallel or even divergent paths--well, why go with THIS system?

    The answer is four-fold: First, I don't see a way of proceeding that strikes me as better (given MY starting points, perhaps?) for undogmatically pursuing a holistic worldview. Second, I think there is ONE reality, and that human faculties are not hopelessly disconnected from it; and so I think convergence makes sense given these assumptions (again, an appeal to my starting points?). Third, I think that Hegel's method (at least when stripped of Hegel's own arrogance) provides a framework for engaging with those whose comprehensive vision differs from my own, a framework that strikes me as likely to be more fruitful in terms of promoting harmonious co-existence, mutual learning and respect, and a foundation for nonviolent conflict resolution--even if no convergence ever emerges. (My ETHICAL starting points, perhaps?) Fourth, it seems that in the very business of deciding whether or not to follow Hegel's method (as indicated in my parentheticals), I am relying on a network of assumptions that will inevitably come to be tested. In short, I think something like what Hegel is describing is INEVITABLE, and the only question is whether to go into it in a spirit that will maximize its fruitfulness should the method prove sound.

  16. Eric,

    All in all, once we get over Hegel's peculiar language, this method or approach seems almost common sense and, as you point out, something like it may be inevitable. As far as I can understand, science has developed along similar lines. Or has it? I suspect there is more to this.

    I would say the process is goal oriented in the sense that, at each step of the way, the situation is evaluated against a specific goal, or criteria. Starting points and initial assumptions will differ, as you point out, but might not the evaluation process (goal) be a more important determinant of the eventual outcome? Assumptions will come to be tested (as you also point out) and may be modified but the goal might prove much less flexible.

    I think it might be interesting to spell out some of these assumptions and starting points (from all sides) and see how restrictive or innocuous they prove to be. The analysis would certainly be worthwhile and, moreover, the whole thing calls for concrete examples.

  17. Hi Burk and JP,

    You both ask the same two questions: Why think the Absolute is real, why think it’s attainable?

    The first question I think Eric responds by pointing out that there is ONE reality. There is a fact of the matter about how reality is. The very deep order we observe in physical phenomena tells us that there must be something fixed and rather intricate at the bottom of it all. So the “Absolute” simply refers to how reality ultimately is.

    Is knowledge about the Absolute attainable? Well, here I think both theists and naturalists hold that it is probably *not* attainable. Our cognitive faculties are probably too limited to understand how the foundation of reality is. But there are also significant differences.

    Theism entails three epistemic facts: One, that the closer we come to understanding the Absolute the better for us. Two, that we are made in such a way to be able to understand the Absolute sufficiently well for our current condition of being. Three, that we can understand the Absolute directly – by personal acquaintance. In other worlds that to the degree we can understand the Absolute we can understand it with the same clarity and immediacy we understand the color red.

    Naturalism, on the contrary, entails that since understanding the Absolute (which is metaphysical knowledge) has no adaptive value we must be quite dumb in that regard – thus naturalists tend to embrace mysterianism in respect to metaphysical questions. Further, understanding the Absolute to the degree it is attainable need not be good for us and is probably bad for us; the naturalistic Absolute appears to be quite bleak and is certainly quite alien.

    Thus, whereas for theists metaphysics is a matter of burning urgency and interest, naturalists are by nature much less interested and sometimes argue against the whole metaphysical project as being irrelevant, that first philosophy has no place, that the physical sciences are quite sufficient for all practical purposes, and so on.

  18. Dianelos-

    1. Science is all about approximating reality, which is equivalent to the absolute in your parlance. So I have no idea where your odd idea of naturalists falling into mysterianism comes from.

    Perhaps the problem is that naturalists are willing to say frankly that they "don't know" something, rather than making up stories about its lovingness, omniscience, omnipresence, etc.. you get the picture.

    2. Personal acquaintance with the absolute is another rather odd idea. This after Kant so painstakingly showed that it can't happen, as you also note above. And you talk about others falling into mysterianism!

    Aren't you in the least suspicious that this personal acquaintance takes the form of emotional enthusiasm and cognitive regurgitation of whatever tradition one has been brought up in? That it can be conjured on demand by drugs like LSD? That it never leaves us any more knowledgeable, though quite possibly psychologically affected in the deepest way?

    3. You are right that metaphysics is a highly suspicious project (in some of its areas) to those who take our epistemic situation seriously, as Kant sort of did. It seems to constantly yearn for things we can't know, and imagine beings that don't exist. It is often, frankly, just a cover for theism.

    Philosophy of mind is a good example.. it has long had a great deal of theistic content, which is completely irrelevant and being expunged as we learn more about how the mind actually works. Soon there will be nothing left but the science. Philosophy has been a worthy method of maintaining its own history and keeping our most mystical/unanswerable questions alive. But it hasn't been much good at solving them.

  19. Burk,

    You write: “Science is all about approximating reality

    Actually that’s not the case. The idea that science describes reality is called “scientific realism” and is a highly debatable *metaphysical* hypothesis. Indeed, if science is about approximating reality one would expect that the more science advances the better we understand reality. But, the factual history of modern science demonstrates that after the huge advances in scientific knowledge during the last 100 years scientific realists disagree more deeply among themselves, and make more implausible claims, than ever before.

    There is much confusion about this issue which I think stems from a basic misunderstanding. It is true that today we know a lot more about the geology of the moon or about the biology of an apple tree or about how electrons behave. But what we really know are equations and models which allow us to predict phenomena. After all the moon, the apple tree, and the electron, are all stable patterns present in our experience of life; and there is nothing in our experience which directly tells us what is in fact happening in reality. So, what it is in reality which produces the phenomena which science studies, what it is in reality which produces the deep mechanical order which science reveals in them, is a more problematic question today for the scientific realist to answer than it was 100 years ago. Finally, I think the reason that many people are not aware of how badly scientific realism is faring is that almost everybody, atheists and theists alike, not to mention the vast majority of scientists, believe in scientific realism. Perhaps Eric could post in the future something about his views on scientific realism.

    So I have no idea where your odd idea of naturalists falling into mysterianism comes from.

    Given the increasing problems that scientific realism is facing some naturalists argue that since understanding the nature of reality offers no adaptive advantages it is no wonder that the nature of reality appears to be a deep mystery to us. Mysterianism in respect to X is the idea that one fundamentally lacks the necessary intelligence to understand X. For example some theists are mysterians in respect to the problem of evil. Mysterianism is nothing to be ashamed about; mysterians themselves argue it is the reasonable position to embrace in recognition of one’s own cognitive limitations.

    [continues bellow]

  20. [2nd part, continues from above]

    Personal acquaintance with the absolute is another rather odd idea. This after Kant so painstakingly showed that it can't happen, as you also note above.

    In my view Kant (as many other philosophers before him going back to Plato) rightly made the distinction between phenomenal and actual reality (which he called “noumenal”). On the other hand I think he was wrong in thinking that we do not have direct access to noumenal reality. I think we have, and I think that access makes excellent sense on theism according to which fundamental reality is personal as we are.

    Aren't you in the least suspicious that this personal acquaintance takes the form of emotional enthusiasm and cognitive regurgitation of whatever tradition one has been brought up in? That it can be conjured on demand by drugs like LSD?

    Perhaps the high a scientist feels when she discovers something, or the high one feels at forgiving one’s neighbor, can also be conjured by LSD? So what?

    That it never leaves us any more knowledgeable, though quite possibly psychologically affected in the deepest way?

    Theists, and religious people in general, claim that their personal acquaintance with the absolute does leave them with more knowledge, indeed life enriching and sometimes self-transforming knowledge. (And, by the way, multiple statistical studies have shown a rather strong correlation between religiosity and well-being, and between religiosity and charity.) Mystics from all cultures and times claim that their experience of the transcendental feels more real than one’s everyday experience of our physical surroundings. Finally religious traditions from all cultures and times teach spiritual exercises they claim anybody can undergo to understand that knowledge and experience that deeper reality. So the religious phenomenon is vast. Very probably it can be explained by naturalism and is therefore a natural phenomenon. The real question though is what it means. Do religious experiences which can be explained naturalistically reveal a supernatural reality or not? (If you think about it Burk you’ll see that the fact that an experience can be explained naturalistically does not imply that it is not an experience of the supernatural.)

    Soon there will be nothing left but the science.

    Perhaps, but so far there is no sign of such a change taking place. Indeed I can’t right now think of a single case where the physical sciences have helped solve a philosophical problem, can you?

    You mention the philosophy of mind, but as far as I can see naturalists are as clueless as always about how or why a physical system should become conscious. And the philosophical arguments that show that consciousness cannot be a physical event are as strong as ever, as evidenced by the fact that very smart and hard-working naturalists in this field (e.g. David Chalmers) are convinced by them. In contrast, just mentioning a lot of interesting findings of neuroscience as if they had some relevance to the mind-body problem but without actually explaining what that relevance is, does not amount to more than smoke and mirrors.

  21. Here is an article where a former physics prof and now MDiv argues how people tend to read more into science than what is actually there. Which is my point exactly; many people conflate the science with its naturalistic interpretation. This is normally done unconsciously, but becomes sometimes explicitly clear. See: