Thinking Challenge Submission-Anthony Wells09-29-2011
There is to be met with in philosophy enough uncertainty and dispute about what constitutes a ‘truth’ that one could be excused for not troubling himself much over the everyman’s definition of the thing. And if one adds the consideration that, in human affairs at any rate, man usually prefers a handsome lie to a homely truth, it seems really a futile endeavour to bother man about ‘telling the truth’. Honesty is and will continue to be a concern of the second- and third-rank —in every branch of knowledge we find standing in the place of honest ignorance an ignoble lie, a half-truth, a supposition, an impudent guess –: the entire field of psychology is built upon just such dubious grounds. First lie of all psychology (much older than psychology itself): man does such and such because he is thus and thus. Who cannot see in this formula the resurfaced prevarication used to death by the priests and world-calumniators of yore to judge and condemn man at every turn: ‘man’s existence is wretched because man is full of sin –and– man is accountable for his sin because man is free.’ One already knows how and for what purpose these old lies were invoked again and again in cases out of number—one wanted to see a man hang! - and then to say, ‘he hangs because he is wicked!’ - and with that to be done with the matter! Yet of all the lies man tells, of all the untruthfulness he resorts to in combating conjecture and honest inquiry, none is so gross, so patently hollow as the lie he depends upon to explain himself—I mean the great lie of human action.
All politics and all history are infected with this lie, this great error—nay, what is more: they are founded on this error, were brought up on it. How then are we to expect truthfulness from politicians and from historians especially? With the what we are bad enough, to say nothing of the why which begot this what—the simplest trifle, two persons coming to blows – how do we explain this? ‘This fellow offended the honour of that other one, and the latter reciprocated by thrashing him’. . . what naïve simplicity! How many assumptions were made (were indeed necessary) to reduce the account to so condensed and understandable a form! And what has one made of it? - a piece of history.
One talks of motives, motivations, self control and selfless action, willing and acting. Something is thereby grasped, or in any event, grasped at . . . but what of these can really be shown to have validity beyond that which they are everywhere accepted to possess? The interplay of motives for example is astoundingly complex, yet we act as though nothing were more elementary and easily comprehended. One cannot doubt that the conflict of motives we experience so regularly is only the visible activity of separate, opposing drives being hurled against one another, the real give and take being as it were obscured by the smoke and dust thrown up by this conflict. In the end we are conscious that a victor has emerged, insofar as we perform the action in apparent accordance with that drive which won out over all the others; often enough we even imagine we hear the vanquished drives whimpering and withdrawing from the fight—but what does all that prove? How can one be sure, first of all, that what took place was a fight, acontest of strength between the drives? One has observed a cloud of dust, yes. But might not it have been from something else, something other than a pitched battle? Rather, might it not have been an earthquake or, to speak metaphorically (and not metaphorically) a stampede of horses, the slowest or most unfortunate of which was knocked down and trampled by the rest, and there left lying to be discovered only once the obscurity had dispersed? In short: is it not possible that the winner of a contest of opposing drives is at least occasionally not the strongest or most vehement among them, that, moreover, it may in fact be a contest of chance, of upset and unforeseen circumstance? Consider the well-known phenomenon of deliberation. Each drive is, we picture it, appraised for its merits and risks, and these are thereafter set on a scale against those of other drives. At last a judgment is rendered, and we decide which course of action accordingly—would that it were so easy! When ever do we know the extent to which a drive will benefit or harm us or attain or fail to attain its object? A degree of unknowability always attends our estimation of the drives presented. And has it not happened quite often that we were entirely misinformed, indeed misled, by the aspect of the drive which was [mis]taken for the content of that drive? Drives stand (stand in, one might better say) for something; one knows not for what they stand. One would fain assume that the token at least bears resemblance to the event, though what exactly is ‘token’ and what is ‘event’ here cannot be said, and neither can one be sure they are intelligibly related. And all this is subject to the correction that the faculty of reason goes wrong as often as it goes right in rendering its judgments.
One cannot abolish the intuitive notion that drives are frequently at odds with one another. Whether diametrically opposed or only in each other’s way, competing drives make up approximately one-half the resistance an individual encounters in trying to perform an action, the other half coming from the interference of extraneous obstacles. When a drive is frustrated, either by the opposition of another contrary drive, or by an outside obstruction, does the original drive then undergo an elaboration or transformation which grants it the means of overcoming the resistance present? Or does the drive only redouble promoting itself, as apparently it does when a formerly feeble or faint compulsion suddenly erupts with vehemence after being blocked by some circumstance or inhibition? It happens often enough that a new possibility or course of action enters our reflective consciousness without premeditation or anticipation, and then we almost feel obligated to follow it because it appears unheralded and uncontested from the ether and offers a bold alternative to all the options thitherto considered, which thus far have only produced argument and indecisiveness. This may bespeak a human affinity for ‘inspiration’ which in many people is much stronger than regard for cold, careful deliberation.
We should not stop our investigation short, though it may send us still farther askew the point. Let us inspect the very idea of ‘conflict’ between motives, or more precisely expressed, the presupposition that there can be contrary motives. If one assumes this axiom one therewith admits that there can be only conflicting or indifferent motives. For two or more motives cannot conceivably agree completely with one another: they would then be a plural expression of a single drive, and this is absurd because there could be no distinguishing them – they would constitute one motive duplicated needlessly and imperceptibly. But then one is left wondering why nature would design a cognition where competing drives are possible, as this puts an animal into daily contortions. Such speculation can only lead one to the conclusion that competing drives are a necessary outcome of a cognition which can apprehend many objects, and moreover that the former work a critical mechanism for sorting and selecting from a multiplicity of choices. With the power to receive and hold many impressions there arises a need to segregate, to rank above and below in order of importance—without which one would actually possess a disadvantage with one’s sophisticated cognition.
I have elucidated all these points in order to demonstrate briefly how obscure and intricate is the process of human action, contrary to the sentiment which prevails everywhere that human action is a common and therefore familiar phenomenon. In point of fact nothing is so far from familiar as a clear account of human action and behavior. We oversimplify these phenomena to expedite the process of judgment—the speedy verdict is our paramount concern when there is an incident which calls into question the right to freedom and life of an individual. The most ordinary cases suffice to prove this beyond any doubt. Indeed, just look at the tribunal! It avails itself of one of two strict determinations irrespective of whom or what comes before its benches. What we as a collective judicial body are after is the criteria for condemning or exonerating. Anything beyond these is asking too much from people: we become enervated when called upon to investigate further and with greater circumspection.
One lies, granted. One lies to others, one lies to oneself; one lies about others, one lies about oneself; one lies for others, one lies for oneself—one lies under duress, on lies freely and for little reason. Can it be said however that one sometimes lies without knowing one does so, or rather, without being conscious that what one is relating is not true? Verily: we call this ignorance: the inability to tell the truth because one does not know the truth in the matter. With respect to human behavior however we are not in the habit of accepting this excuse – we demand from the author of an action an exact and conclusive account of why and wherefore it was performed. Notwithstanding of course that the actions which most necessitate accounting for are precisely those for which an accurate account can least be given . . . case in point: all things done in a wave of passion which recedes afterwards and leaves only a residuum behind itself for the investigator who arrives much later. And how rare is the individual who does not embellish the recollection here and there, in order that he or she should not appear so malevolent or vengeful or foolish or malicious!
We prefer to adjudge by motives wherever these are available. The mere facts of the event are inadequate: so and so killed so and so—very well! But why? – was it out of jealousy? rage? insanity? Perchance it was an accident? a mistake? We feel we commit an injustice, not merely to the person accused, but to ourselves also if we pass a verdict afore learning the motivation. Yet how much injustice is there still in this postponed resolution! And how we clamor to learn the so-called ‘facts’ of the matter as quickly as possible in order to bring down the gavel posthaste on the mock tribunals conducted in our cafés and reading rooms! And does one not see that there is as much elevation of power in finding innocent as in finding guilty?
The reader will forgive the previous digression. We are trying to gather together a body of evidence and skepticism to set against the quotidian simplicity that predominates everywhere human action and behavior are assessed and graded on a moral-ethical scale. One should like to know whence comes the standard for this evaluation of action, this ‘moral yardstick’ as it were—such is surely beyond the scope of the present paper.
Of what then can one be certain? One knows. Further: one knows that one knows. One wills. Further: one knows that one wills, although one certainly does not will what one wills, that is to say, one does what one wills necessarily and without alternative. But can it be said that a man knows what he wills? In the last resort, he does not knowuntil the definite act of willing takes place, id est, until he acts. But again the skeptical reproach encroaches—how is one to segregate out the visible instances of willing from the invisible, to tell apart his flying into a rage and his remaining placid in the teeth of rising ire? Or to give a still more striking example, how is the willing which operates the circulatory system distinguished from that which impels one to look in the direction of a sudden noise, or again from that willing which incites one to methodically plan and execute a murder? From the physiological perspective one might reply: ‘the circulatory system functions by means of a carefully ordered firing of electrical synapses in the heart and arteries.’ What then, pray tell, does the abstract consciousness function by means of, if not nervous synapses? Really he is gravely mistaken who believes that scanning the living brain will give insight into the modus operandi of that organ; at best, it may yield the more or less exact geography of certain cognitive processes. This is analogous to knowing when and where a natural phenomenon (say rainfall) takes place, but not why. This incompleteness of comprehension exposes one to a nightmare of cum and post hoc confusion.
Let us step back for a moment. We know that the appearance of a certain object produces in us a certain effect, and this with a decent reliability. The loud buzzing of an insect immediately beside our ear excites instant annoyance, and we quickly swat it away. Likewise and despite being significantly more abstract, the embrace of our lover floods us with warm feeling and we eagerly reciprocate in kind. Now it will be observed that every definite instance of willing is related to and directed at some perceived or imagined object situated outside the subject, and consequently this willing is inconceivable and quite impossible without the exact object which generates the motive that brings it about. Experience for its part leads us to suspect and assume defined motives behind the actions of others, and in point of fact we find an action at once intelligible when the motive has been disclosed to us. But this is the whole problem I am driving at.
We give and receive explanation of and for human action in the language and symbolism of motives—yet what proof have we that that mode of reckoning constitutes anything more than an exegesis, a popular interpretation of the phenomena therewith accounted for? Are we not again donning the robes of the vindictive priest when we accept and compel others to accept this form of ultimately shallow and insubstantial explanation of human action, or if not putting them on ourselves, setting up the conditions under which inimical natures will be enticed to put them on and play the part of this same priest? Do not men hang for their actions still today? Someone is judging here,someone is foisting a canon of responsibility and accountability onto man’s actions—do I need to say who it is I fear is in charge nowadays? Are we to believe he understands the truth behinds what he praises and castigates? that he is the arbiter of truthfulness? No, a thousand times no! For how are we to expect him to discern the truth there where the very individuals he is tasked with evaluating do not know the truth of their own actions, actions for which they are forced to stand trial? One anticipates the lie—one does not anticipate the incapacity to know and tell the truth. One trusts, howsoever abstractly, the law of causation–: one never thinks to ask after its credentials. Or one is so arrogant as to imagine one can know causality down to the minutest detail -- here is our priest in pure form.
One asks about the importance of truthfulness—I deny the very possibility of truthfulness with regard to human action. –What? is every exposition of an action and every historical account implied to carry a profound untruthfulness in its heart? Is untruthfulness now understood to be precisely this heart? Final implication: the inescapablenecessity of untruthfulness for the account of human action as we demand it everywhere and from everyone. To learn the truth it is first necessary to dispense with the presumption that we have previously divined it; then we can give up demanding it as we have (falsely) done hitherto; and at last we may engender the conditions which will admit of a new and perhaps better account of human word and deed. In any event, truth travels today with a yellow passport:—we in philosophy still harbour suspicions about it.