Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Trying to make sense (reason, self-reference and paradox)

Why do we have theories? Why do we have explanations? Why do we have Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Philosophy and Religion? A quick answer would be to say “Because we need them”. But this is just like passing the buck to a further level: why do we need theories? My bet is this: we need to have theories because we need to make sense of our experience. Theories are nothing more than stories that pretend to make sense of it. This stories present ways of making sense, ways of understanding and part of their job is to be convincing. What we call "the world" are those internalized stories that make sense of our experience. This claim is very bold, and it pretends to be even stronger. It is not just that we need to make sense of this and that, rather, we need to make sense of everything.

We start, it seems, by making sense of what we are. We tell stories about ourselves, the stories include identity claims. We are this and that. The story-telling endeavor results, in must of the cases, with an identification of persons with bodies, and individuals and self with biological limits, physical limits and else. Very rarely do we realize that all stories rest in a little piece of fantasy: we are this that we see in the mirror, that which feels our feelings, which has our emotions. That the limits of the self are the limits of the immediate domain of causality, is already a piece of story telling that we are very likely to buy. And so, the story claims, there is you and there are the others. It is over this little chunk of story that we get started building our theories, stories that we somehow forget to be stories and simply presuppose. We start by telling, for instance, that our personal story is also socially told. And so, we tell stories about others, about ourselves (this being part of a previous story), just as much as we listen to what those invented others have to say about “ourselves”.

There is peculiar mechanism between humans, something that our biological story might have something to say: we internalize our stories. Some like to think the result of this internalizing process turns into theories, and cultures. True, but not all there is to truth. For this process has some powerful results; for we not only believe stories, we act upon them. Acting is the way for humans to make the world look like the stories they are told. Acting is causally powerful, by acting we constantly modify the world. In so doing we fancy ourselves with more and more supporting “evidence” for our theories. And so we act more and more on behalf of them. The most typical result of this fairly natural process is the dogmatic assumption of our stories. This is when we stop talking about our stories in terms of stories and we start talking about them in terms of a given world. The world is physical, and has atoms, and super strings, and molecules, and political states, and nations, and wilderness, and whales, and persons, and families, and universities, and books and you and me as distinguished entities, and entities, of course.

The world is full of whatever makes sense to believe. Both because it results from what makes sense for us to believe and therefore act upon. And because we fill it up with our stories, it is literally filled up by stories, by whatever makes sense. The limit of whatever it is that makes sense will, not surprisingly, be the limit of our imagination. Remember, we tell stories to make sense and stories are nothing but the product of our imagination.
We need to make sense because we have emotions, desires and beliefs that are there to be satisfied. This satisfaction is partly done by wishful thinking, or free theorizing, or merely story-telling. Hegel liked to mention a Kantian theme that was brought to my mind by Peirce’s “First Rule of Logic”. The rule is: Reasoning tends to correct itself.

Take reasoning to be whatever way in which we relate to our surroundings. Or, if you don’t want to accept the old story that different bodies have different persons, take reasons as whatever or process in which whatever there is keeps going on. In any case, reasoning is that way of relating, or that process that keeps going on. In any case, reasoning corrects itself. In the case of whatever there is, it does so by following its own process (the common story says that it goes on by evolving; even planets, I guess, are subject to the force of universal selection and universal adaptation). In the case of human beings, the correcting goes on by means of story telling. It is not at all surprising that our stories are self-referential and, thus, subject to a high degree of paradox. If Reasoning corrects itself and stories are the products of reasoning, stories must correct stories and talk about themselves.

There is an important relation, then, between human nature, reasoning, self-reference and paradox. Human nature and reasoning is bound to be paradoxical, so much as it is bound to satisfy its own needs and, hence, to make sense of things. Kant signaled this out in the antinomies. That is why Hegel focused so much in them. I doubt, however, that Hegel was aiming at any sort of naturalistic story, like the one I have just given. It will be interesting, though, to wonder whether self-predication is prior to self-consciousness, or if such a distinction is mistaken (given the story). It might be that stories correct themselves just as much as nature corrects itself. Notice, however, that correction does not by itself imply any sort of moral or epistemic improvement. It barely implies a change made to make things work. For all we claim to know, consistency (or some level of it) is the only state required for things to work.

What are we doing here? We are just trying to make sense; and we do so by means of self-referential stories. Striving for consistency while risking the fall into paradox is perhaps the most efficient way to keep the story telling as a never-ending story. Otherwise, I believe, all this would have stopped too many years ago. And so, we have religion, and chemistry, and biology, and film, and philosophy, history, literature, medicine, and the daily labor of newspapers.