Preposterous Hypotheticals & Uncertainty Versus Chaos

Yesterday, we finished up the thesis defenses for the 2016 graduates from Diablo Valley School. Every student who wishes to graduate must write a paper on the thesis: I have prepared myself to be an effective adult in the larger community. Papers are distributed to the Assembly – students, parents, staff, and at-large members who tend to be graduates and their parents. The candidate then must defend it for 50 minutes in front of the Assembly. Questions are not allowed from immediate family members.

It’s very cool. This year, we had 5 candidates, so we did defenses on Friday (2) and Sunday (3). This makes for a long day, especially since the fellow students, who run in age from 5 to 18, participate as members of the Assembly. Over the years, I’ve been impressed almost as much by the endurance of the younger students as the defenses of the candidates. They tend to hang in there, and often ask quite good questions.

As the school has matured, a culture has grown up around these defenses. In fact, for at least the last 10 years, a set of silly questions from the (usually younger) students have become tradition:

  • If you were a Disney princess, which one would you be? (Best answer – a young man: Shrek.)
  • If you were on a hillside with a tiger above you and a tiger below you, what would you do? (Best answer this year: Call State Farm)
  • If 626* stole your left shoe, what would you do? (Best answer this year: I always carry a spare left shoe in my backpack. (Since Every graduate know they’ll be getting these questions, they seem to plan ahead))

And so on. These were all good clean fun, and give the little (and not so little) kids a way to be involved. And, sometimes, the answers are in fact revealing.

But the last few years have seen the burgeoning of another type of question: the preposterous hypothetical:

  • If you were trapped with 3 or 4 of your friends in a cave with no hope of escape, who would you kill and eat first?
  • If you were walking along and saw that a car was going to kill 2 kittens, a dog and some guy you didn’t know, and you could only save either the animals or the man, who would you save?
  • Pacifism or genocide?

To their credit, some candidates – the better ones, I would say – refuse to bite. They answer outside the arbitrary bounds of the question, and suggest they would use magic or work to escape from the cave until they died, or otherwise defeat the question. Others counter by asking the questioner a bunch of qualifying questions, such as exactly what the kittens and dog look like or if the man is nice guy or not. These approaches often frustrate the questioners, who, after all, tend to be younger kids, who think they’re just being cute. And everybody does understand that these are, in some sense at least, joke questions.

But there is, unfortunately, a grim undertone to these questions, and, especially, some of the answers. What is an adult to say when a 18 year old says they would kill and eat one of their friends, or that they’d let the man die and save the pets, or let the opposition of pacifism to genocide, as if one must pick one or the other, go unchallenged?

My kids, at least, were made very familiar with the traps of false dichotomies and preposterous hypotheticals from an early age, and would, I trust, have refused to fall for it. They also know that animals aren’t people and people aren’t animals. But your typical candidate? Who most likely comes from a home broken by divorce? Based on some of the things said, I’m not sure how much of a joke it is they’re making.

This called to mind my senior essay at St. John’s College, which I likewise had to defend, but only in front of a couple of professors and tiny audience, to get my degree.

It was not a masterpiece, to put it generously. I have not so much as looked at it since my defense, and rarely think of it. When I do, I tend to mentally grimace. The question I tried to attack is still with me, however: why does the uncertainty of perceptions lead to doubt rather than confusion and chaos? Why does the possibility we could be wrong lead us, not to some unknown and unnamed mental state of utter suspension of all judgements of any kind, including judgements about our own being and consciousness, but instead to something called radical doubt?

As Descartes’ critics fansplained, his radical doubt was not nearly radical enough. We rapidly descend to Kant via Hume, and construct mental estates and palaces of cards and deny the existence of the breeze that blows them all down. But they did not call into question, at least not seriously, an approach which requires a mind that would be destroyed by any remotely thorough application of that same approach. It’s yet another case of the self-defeating assertion: Nothing is true, which, if true, means the assertion, as a non-nothing, is false, etc.

But with Descartes, we arrive at doubt – the round tower seen from a distance turns out to be square when we get closer. We could say: and, if we get closer still, it may turn out to be hexagonal, and yet closer will make it pentagonal, and therefore we have no doubt that our attempts to understand what the tower *is* are hopelessly doomed. Just keep getting closer, and the tower changes shape, becomes a wall, becomes a miasma of nuclear forces, becomes an epiphenomenon of primordial matter roiling in and out of existence…

Why not arrive at chaos? Oh, sure, moderns think they do so, after the manner of the flat earth devotee who answered his critics by saying that not only was he not crazy, but that people all around the globe are flat earthers, too!

Perennial philosophers do not deny their own existences, nor spend much effort proving the existences of their friends and colleagues. This confidence in a rational world populated by rational being is not an act of desperation made by cowards too frightened of the Abyss to face the ‘reality’ of profound isolation and misery. Rather, it is the cheerful recognition that, as Aristotle put it: no man sleeping in Egypt dreaming of Athens ever awakens in the Agora. That the questions of radical doubt and, by extension, the whole mind-body meshugas, can even be raised is, in itself, sufficient proof that we live in a real, objective, Aristotelian world, a world of uncertainty, yes, but not of chaos and darkness.

Everything cannot be unknowable. We cannot doubt everything, even if we can mouth those words. We, one set of possible rational being among who knows how many such sets, live in a world where tantalizing, incomplete and often frustrating sense impressions give us access, however flawed and subject to correction, to a wonderful, beautiful objective Universe. Moreover, through the processes by which we gain knowledge of this objective reality, we come to know other truths – mathematics and logic, on one hand, and philosophy and the moral law on the other – that are required for meaningful interaction with and in such a beautiful world. The existence of these meaningful interactions is primary – we know of this existence if we know anything. Therefore, our knowledge of logic, mathematics and philosophy and the moral law are results *of* the existence of our interactions with the world, not things we bring to the world from somewhere outside it. Logic, math, philosophy and the moral law are as much parts of this Universe as we are.

And that’ll do it for today’s philosophy lesson.

* That’s a Lilo and Stitch reference, FYI.