Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Philosophy differs from alcoholism,
in that it is more costly,
and lacks the same charm.

Colin Wilson writes:
This is the Outsider's extremity.  He [sic] does not prefer not to believe; he doesn't like feeling that futility gets the last word in the universe; his human nature would like to find something it can answer to with complete assent.  But his honesty prevents his accepting a solution that he cannot reason about.  His next question is naturally: Supposing a solution does exist somewhere, undreamed of by me, inconceivable to me, can I yet hope that it might one day force itself upon me without committing myself to a preliminary gesture of faith which (in point of fact) I cannot make?  [emphasis his]
He is discussing the trial by fire -- maybe not fire -- the trial by starvation of eliminating one's superfluous and unexamined beliefs, stripping them down to their most fundamental formulations, and attempting to destroy each one, with the goal of satisfying the intellect on matters of justification.  The thinkers he offers in The Outsider are more often than not confronted with an abyss, a total absence of reliable truths.  He suggests this as a significant component of Nietzsche's makeup and breakdown.  He also connects this idea to the works and lives of William James, T S Eliot, John Stuart Mill, T E Lawrence, others...

Aleister Crowley had a few things to say about this process as well, and frequently in his writings he stresses the necessity of the undertaking.  But what interests me more is how he addresses the resultant void.  At the core of Crowley's system -- and this core was certainly transferred into the chaos magick movements -- he presents a mechanism for slipping past the guard.

For all his elaborate and detailed descriptions of rites, elemental correspondences, etc., he occasionally acknowledges that all this is window dressing in service of the essential devotional act, and that this act can be performed regardless of personal faith.
By doing certain things certain results will follow; students are most earnestly warned against attributing objective reality or philosophic validity to any of them.
He argues that if a sincere "aspirant" will perform these core devotional acts with reasonable care and sincerity of purpose, they will become empowered by the acts regardless of intellectual faith or belief in their legitimacy.

(It's not purely that simple, as he also argues that an emotional charge in a spirit of worshipfulness is a necessary component to higher workings.  But the initial workings are designed to train the practitioner in the basics, and also to supply them with enough confidence in the process to emotionally invest themselves as needed, without experiencing any ambient intellectual conflicts.)

So then... what is true?

To address that, we struggle into the thicket of truth, belief, and knowledge.

Belief is easy enough.  I just have to sincerely accept that a notion is true (that it has objective validity).  But to get to belief, if I am to anchor truth to intellect, I need to address what counts as truth.  And this gets messy.  Though not quite as messy as knowledge, which is frequently shorthanded as the Venn overlap between truth and belief, but which gets more slippery the closer one examines it.

(There's a cheat available at this point, solipsism.  In absolute terms solipsism is the only logically justifiable belief -- that awareness is occurring.  To contemplate is to demonstrate the inevitability of this, although I think, therefore I am is much better stated as awareness is.  From there, everything is up for grabs, because the world may simply be a persistent and rule-adherent delusion, or my apprehension of persistence may be based upon a false sense of memory, brain in a vat, etc.  Accepting this as logic is one thing, but sincerely believing it and acting upon that belief to the exclusion of all others is pretty much a one-way trip to Crazytown; population: you.)

Now, while it's easy to believe something false if one thinks of it as true, I'm not sure that it's really possible to believe something that one accepts as not being true.  Crowley suggests that the playacting involved in advanced ritual can smooth over the bumps by building up an emotional charge, one that the replaced belief itself is essentially a mechanism for producing anyway, but Crowley was also notoriously allergic to belief.  It's true (heh) that in later years he sometimes claimed objective truth when discussing his Cairo experience, but his evidence is directly apprehensible only to those with such detailed and invested knowledge of cabalistic and numerological systems that it's fair to say that the layperson can only choose whether or not to take his word for it.  (And he himself would likely advise No).

It just occurred to me that I should have saved the 'Sure Know Something' video for this post. That would have been funny.

Anyway, truth is a tough nut to crack.  There are the so-called primary truths that ground everything else (awareness is, black can't be white, and those two things are "knowable" via the awareness mechanism; those scare quotes are scary for a reason).  Assuming we don't use the solipsism cheat and we do grant the existence of things outside of our perception -- a real world, so to speak -- it's still hard to say anything reliable about those "things".  Everyone's heard that the sky isn't really blue, that's it's a trick of the eye conspiring with the characteristics of nature, but that argument can arguably (and annoyingly) be advanced to everything within the fields of what can be perceived or imagined.

So, I reach for my guitar.  I can feel it, I can hear it, and it does the things I expect it to do.  So, I believe it to be real.  But if pressed, I can't logically justify the statement that the guitar contains some essential existingness that I am interacting with; I could be imagining it.  I have belief, and I personally, subjectively, for all those words mean now, accept it as casual-true, that the guitar exists.  I don't seriously doubt it.

However, in my failure to connect the unconnectable logical dots, I lose the right to call my belief "knowledge".

Regarding knowledge, Wikipedia offers this low-hanging fruit:
[...] a person believes that a particular bridge is safe enough to support him, and attempts to cross it; unfortunately, the bridge collapses under his weight. It could be said that he believed that the bridge was safe, but that this belief was mistaken. It would not be accurate to say that he knew that the bridge was safe, because plainly it was not. By contrast, if the bridge actually supported his weight then he might be justified in subsequently holding that he knew the bridge had been safe enough for his passage, at least at that particular time. For something to count as knowledge, it must actually be true.
The trap there is pretty easy to see -- how do we know there was a bridge at all?  How can we say with certainty we are walking?  This sounds like a juvenile word-game to a lot of people, but a lot of people aren't trying to incinerate all superfluous belief from their intellect.  And good for them, it's a colossal pain in the ass (assuming I have an ass to metaphorically be pained).

Discussions like this, and especially discussions that come after, are often fraught with that word, "assuming".  We have to assume a lot every day, in order to order our lives.  So on a practical level it's not a huge sacrifice to not have epistemological certainty that the store on the corner has any objective existential component, when we're just popping over to get cigarettes. 

Within the context of Robert Nozick's reasonably popular Magic Truth-Tracking Formula, we see that truth can be assigned as epistmologically justifiable if:
  • a "thing" exists
  • I believe that thing exists
  • if that thing didn't exist, I wouldn't believe that thing exists (my belief is at least partially dependent on my acceptance of its objective reality)
  • if that thing does exist, I would believe it exists (similar to the point above; I'm not just happening by accident or for weak reasons to believe this thing, which is true only incidentally)
But there are exploits, to use the videogame parlance of our time, and the idea of knowledge as justified true belief is a little out of fashion in our rough-and-tumble post-postmodern jalopy ride into the future.

It's easy to see how this becomes an exhausting exercise in patience, and tolerance of circularity.  It's admittedly poor sport to call the questions unresolvable just because nobody has really managed to adequately resolve them -- and forgive me, I've been stuck on the same point of Wittgenstein's Tractatus for about five years now, so I can't vouch for whether or not it helps -- but ultimately it's fair to allow more practical questions back to center stage.

And that's okay, since the goal starting out was to burn away the fat, and see what we have left.  Ultimately, life's a subjective thing, and one will set one's rules even if it's only by passively accepting them as presented.

It's been years since I last read The Outsider, so I don't remember where Wilson goes from here.  I know he has knowledge of Crowley based on his other writings, but I think the most esoteric he's going to get in this particular book is a smattering of Gurdjieff later on.

But separately from that, I think that this notion of willed acceptance for practical purposes might offer a ladder out of Wilson's philosophical abyss, and that the foundational agnosticism of such an approach should protect against accidentally driving intellect into the ditch, or off a cliff.

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