Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Opening Gambit

A fight has broken out at the last chance cafe. Two interlocutors, brothers, sit opposite, staring one another down across a cozy little bistro style table. The first, Germanicus, sits sipping a cup of strong black coffee, back straight, jaw set. Across from him Catullus is leaned back in his chair, toying with an ironic smile as he nurses a creme brule latte. They are at war over the nature of the human person and the source of his moral ideas.

Germanicus: The point is, certain acts are contrary to the interior logic of the human person, and as a result they lead to various kinds of personal and moral disorder.
Catullus: The “interior logic of the human person” as defined by whom?
Germanicus: As defined by nature.
Catullus: “Nature” does not speak for herself. Her utterances are as subtle and mysterious as the words of the Sybil...and as subject to multiple interpretations. She has had many interpreters over the years. They have hardly all come to the same conclusions.
Germanicus: There's certainly a lot of overlap in their conclusions. I think it's reasonable to suppose that where you find overwhelming agreement between men of good will across cultures you are looking at conclusions which arise from the rational contemplation of nature herself.
Catullus: Sed contra, Germanicus, human beings are overwhelmingly in the habit of defining the term “men of good will” to mean “people who largely agree with me.”
Germanicus: I mean that there is widespread agreement between people who are trying to be reasonably objective and approach truth without letting personal considerations interfere.
Catullus: (Shrug) How can a man entirely absorbed in his own subjective experience possibly approach anything which he could reasonably imagine to be “objectivity.” Those who think they have objective truth by the tail are usually oroborous.
Germanicus: Is that a word?
Catullus: It's a neologism. I mean that the arguments become inevitably circular. Self-referentiality is an inescapable property of all objective truth claims.
Germanicus: Is that an objective truth claim?
Catullus: Yes. And it's conspicuously self-referencing. As you see.
Germanicus: Very amusing. No, seriously, let's say that I put forward a really simple, straight-forward proposition that most people would agree with, like...man is rational by nature. How is that self-referencing?
Catullus: That's your idea of a statement that most people would agree with?
Germanicus: Most people who understand what the terms mean, yes.
Catullus: Well, what do you mean by it?
Germanicus: I mean that man is inherently capable of reasoning. That that's the kind of being that he is.
Catullus: I see. Well to me this entire “kind of being” notion seems like an an abstract invention. An intellectual trompe l'oiel.
Germanicus: Catullus, everyone believes in “kinds of beings.” You believe that an orange is different from an aardvark. That they're different kinds of things. By nature.
Catullus: By convention. They are both basically assemblages of carbon atoms and H2O with a little of this and a little of that mixed in to give some local colour. The carbon and water and what-not are basically just wavelengths of a primordial energy that we call light. Our minds look upon the light and form the impression of a four legged eater of ants. Then we invent a word to group together similar impressions and thus, presto chango, the category of aardvark is produced.
Germanicus: Well in that case a human being is the kind of rational subjectivity that is capable of deducing aardvarks from the primordial light. He's still, by nature, a rational being.
Catullus: So the objective truth is that a human person is an absolute subjectivity who uses his reason to produce reality and then imagines that his, or her, productions are objective. Yes, all right. I think I can agree to that.
Germanicus: That's not what I said. I wasn't denying the existence of any other kinds of objective truth. I was just pointing out that even if we were to assume all of your premises we would still get the conclusion that there is objectively such a thing as human nature. I'm saying that it's an inescapable conclusion, not a self-referential fallacy.
Catullus: Inescapable for a human being, sure. Cogito ergo cogito. I reference myself. There's nothing wrong with that. Circular logic isn't a fallacy, it's the only kind of logic there is. That was my point in the first place.
Germanicus: I think you're mistaking the existence of first principles for circularity of argumentation.
Catullus: How so?
Germanicus: The entire basis of logical reasoning rests on the fact that certain principles are tautologically true. A=A. Existence exists. Reason is rational. Goodness is good.
Catullus: But your belief in the relationship between truth and reason is an article of faith. You can't prove it rationally. The system cannot bear within itself the means of its own verification. I think that's Heisenberg. Or maybe Gödel?
Germanicus: But your consciousness, and hence your very being, depends on a system of rational thought. It is therefore not only reasonable, but necessary, to believe in reason. Like right now, you're trying to make a rational argument for the irrationality of reason, which you should admit is pretty self-defeating.
Catullus: I am not arguing that reason is irrational. I'm arguing that reason and rationality are not necessarily objective measures of truth. Besides, obviously I must exercise reason in order to argue with you, but that's because you've rigged the deck in your favour and I have graciously agreed to play by your rules. Normally, this is not how I approach truth at all.
Germanicus: Okay, you want irrational arguments in favour of reason? One: everyone intuitively believes, on a gut level, that reason is the faculty by which men apprehend truth. Two: people who don't believe that truth can be accessed by reason tend to suffer from despair, confusion and existential angst. Three: the practice of rationality produces a sense of interior harmony and equilibrium. Four: reasonable people are more reliable and easier to get along with than unreasonable people. Five: rationality produces order and order is a necessary precondition of beauty.You want more?
Catullus: No, because I completely agree that reason feels true subjectively. Just like intuition, and practical goodness, and beauty feel subjectively true. I happen to prefer the aesthetic path myself but I don't deny that reason has a sort of beauty to it. Like a Mondrian: lots of right angles and primary colours. Can't compete with Dali, but it has its charm.
Germanicus: Reason is the only way of approaching truth that does not leave man stranded in a sea of conflicting images and impressions. It's the only way of establishing a commonly accepted truth between men of different cultures and traditions. It's not just one way of approaching subjective truth, it's the way of transcending subjectivity to arrive at objective truth.
Catullus: Provided you believe that the products of your reason conform to some invisible, intangible, unobservable and utterly inaccessible kind of truth which allegedly exists somewhere out there, beyond reality as we experience it.
Germanicus: No. Not beyond reality as we experience it. In reality as we experience it with our reason. I'm saying that reason is the faculty that puts us in contact with objective truth, in the same way that our optical system is the faculty that puts us in contact with the spectrum of visible light.
Catullus: And I can no more prove that there is an objective truth out there, outside of my rational experience of it, than I can prove that there is a visible light spectrum out there, beyond my experience of sight. Subjectivity is the only demonstrable reality. Everything else requires a leap of faith.
Germanicus: And if you make that leap of faith, you gain everything. Certainty. Reality. Meaning. Purpose. Sense. Beauty. Other minds. God. If you're wrong, you lose nothing. On the other hand if you believe that your subjective faculties are trapped in an inescapable epistemological hall of mirrors, what do you gain? And if you're wrong you lose your opportunity to look upon the face of truth. It's a no brainer.
Catullus: But I do stand to lose something, Germanicus. You forget how this argument began. You're trying to argue that I should never again have sex with the man whom I have loved for the last five years. You're arguing that for the sake of an abstract good, which may or may not exist, I should give up a very practical good which brings me pleasure and happiness on a more or less daily basis. It is, as you say, a no brainer.
Germanicus: I thought we agreed that we would put aside the practical ends of this discussion and stick to the theoretical aspects...that we would see where the argument led and try to arrive at the truth rather than reasoning backwards from your desire to justify gay sex.
Catullus: All reasoning is reasoning backwards. One does what is psychologically necessary to survive, and then one rationalizes it. Reason is just the PR department of the soul.
Germanicus: Then why did you agree to the argument in the first place?
Catullus: Oh, I don't know. Rationalization seems to be amongst the things that one does for the sake of psychological survival. It's somehow important to think that my reasons can stand up to external criticism. I suppose in a sense you're right, the rational system is inescapable.
Germanicus: Well if we're going to continue the discussion, then you're going to have to provide some sort of basis for making decisions about what is and is not true. This conversation is a waste of time if you have the right to move the goalpost any time I score.
Catullus: Fine. We'll discuss it rationally. I'll do you one better than that even: we'll discuss it on the basis of natural law.
Germanicus: Uh...Okay...Why?
Catullus: Because if I can trounce you on your home territory, playing by your rules, then I'll be able to go away in perfect contentment, certain that your position is full of shit.

(End of Part I)


  1. Um, C is not very good, is he? At the beginning, when G says...
    "G: The point is, certain acts are contrary to the interior logic of the human person, and as a result they lead to various kinds of personal and moral disorder."

    The appropiate response is "being gay is not contrary to that".

    1. Jose,

      Yes, I could have made that move immediately out of the gate, but it would have involved conceding an awful lot of ground to Germanicus unnecessarily.

    2. What you call conceding ground, I call getting lost in not very useful lucubrations.

  2. I love the dialogue style. C and G are rather similar as letters though, aren't they? Might be better to use something the eye can more easily distinguish.

  3. I think what Catullus is missing is the subjective within the objective- that the reason for two same-sex attracted men refraining from sex, is love.

    Objectively speaking (just look at the Center For Disease Control numbers on the incidence of various diseases in Same-Sex attracted men) two men having sex are, in fact, killing each other- they're engaging in a form of mutual suicide.

    If they truly loved one another, they'd give celibacy a try- NOT out of religion (though there are a few rational religions that recommend it), not out of some "for the greater good" of society, not even out of selfishness for the condition of their own soul out of sin, but for love of the other man in the relationship and wishing HIS well being.

    I'm not at all sure that argument holds for lesbians, but it sure as shooting holds for the truly rational atheist gay man, as well as any Catholic or Christian who accepts reason. (likewise, I'm not at all sure it works for the surviving theologies of Islam, because of their denial of reason, nor does it work for fundamentalist Christians for the same reason since of course the CDC isn't in the Bible).

  4. Loved the line that "reason is the PR department of the soul." Reminds me of how often "reason" is abused as a post-hoc justification for things, as opposed to a tool for deciphering right from wrong independently of actions done or not done.


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