Lectures / 14/10/2009 7:30 pmTruth?
Doubt – a force to rejuvenate philosophy or to frustrate it?
“Philosophy begins in wonder or astonishment”, people say. And this philosophical astonishment was connected from the beginning with calling verities into question, with casting doubt on what looked like the unassailable truths of a civilization, of a way of life. Even way back it was legitimate to wonder whether it was a proven fact that lightning and thunder are related to Zeus’ anger.
Plato was among the first to categorically doubt the authenticity of “reality”; he was convinced that the world as we perceive it is deceptive and illusory. (The Wachowski brothers coined the term “matrix” for this state of affairs not so long ago.) Plato wanted us to leave the cave of ignorance and to dwell under the open skies of true knowledge instead. (This is the reason why Nietzsche later poked fun at him as the ancestor of all “Hinterweltler” or transcendent¬alists.)
Is Earth really the fixed centre of a finite universe? Scientists such as Johannes Kepler and Giordano Bruno voiced massive doubt and put their lives on the line for their heretical convictions. It was their teachings that triumphed at the end of the day. Earth became an insignificant speck of dust in an insignificant galaxy, itself only one among countless others in an unimaginably vast universe.
Is man really the crown of creation, created by a benevolent God in his own image and likeness on Day Six? Hardly, said Charles Darwin, and assigned man his place in the order of primates as one of the countless variations whose programming does not exceed “genetic reproduction” as part of a process of biological evolution spanning millions of years, which can be accounted for without reference to anything or anybody outside nature and that has not yet reached its conclusion but remains open for further development.
Are we “masters in our own house” as human beings, fully in charge of our own lives, equipped with the capabilities of rational reflection and a free will? Freud already voiced doubts and modern brain and cognitive sciences have called the bluff on most of the noble ideas which we used to entertain about ourselves; they’ve even taken away from us our “soul” and our “power of rational thinking”.
What is the proper object of human knowledge in the first place? Is not the proper definition of knowledge – as given by Ralph Waldo Emerson – “knowing that we cannot know”? And does not the final word go to Charly Popper – Austria’s iconic philosopher of knowledge – who in his famous “The Logic of Scientific Discovery” concludes that the most science can hope for is “conjectural knowledge”? And, when you come to think of it, does that not make “science” a misnomer, something resembling a grandiose confidence trick?
And while we’re about: if all human knowledge is no more than conjectural knowledge, does that not also apply to this particular insight? And if all we can do is to hypothesize that all knowledge is merely hypothetical knowledge, does that not mean …
Wait! Hold it! Where is this enquiry – which has taken on the form of an endless loop – supposed to lead us? Haven’t we got caught in an absurd treadmill of sceptical reflection, which holds out neither a promise of arrival nor of escape? Why not get rid of nagging doubt once and for all and simply get on – with the business of living?