Fishing for Leviathan

I consider Leviathan one of those place holder ideas lurking in the subconscious.  A gatekeeper guarding the unknown, here there be dragons placard if you will on the map of cognition.  A complex idea without formal definition or understanding of purpose we end up projecting meaning into, much like his cousin Behemoth. There are of course generalities to be considered.  They both conjure images of gigantic creatures outside the scale and norm of human experience.  Both ancient creatures that predate not only the egocentric you but the collective human you.  And inherent in both is that primitive brain survival trio of horror, terror, and dread that sends us packing back up to safer parts of our cerebral tree. Thus the gatekeeper status, a protective measure to keep us from being swallowed up or ripped to shreds within the enormity of the mind outside our strange little loops of consciousness.

My own musings on this phenomenon currently are a combinations of insights gathered from many diverse sources including the strange loop bible, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden BraidHofstadter’s recursive cult classic and Pixar’s Wall-E strangely enough.  I’m currently playing with the idea that our ego-centric self, the I-identity is the result of the brain trapping self-aware ‘programs’ if you will in looped traps within the neural nets. Still connected to the overall brain architecture, but regulated to a repair bay like those malfunctioning ‘aware’ bots in Wall-E, and kept from reintegration by a combination of gatekeepers and fear of losing identity, being swallowed back up by the whole and losing that awareness of self.  But even errant programs need purpose, and so self-aware clusters eventually coalesce into a single identity and personality, our ego selves finding meaning in collective self-awareness…strange loops indeed. You might ask at this point then who created the gatekeepers!  And that is an excellent question. Perhaps a mutually agreed illusion between conscious and unconscious.

Anyway besides Jungian psychologists, philosophers from time to time like to go whale hunting like Ahab, though not so much trying to catch Leviathan as much as trying to sketch the beast, give it some definition.  I think Richard Foley’s excellent Working without a Net: A Study of Egocentric Epistemology is a good stab in the dark at this process.  Definitely worth a read by any absent minded philosopher on the road to find out. The following lengthy passage (I beg both the author’s and reader’s indulgence) starting on pg. 124 highlights Foley’s fishing expedition:

Nor does it help to rephrase the recommendation, by saying, as I have sometimes done, that egocentric rationality is essentially a matter of living up to your own deepest epistemic standards.  This way of putting the matter might suggest that there is advice to be had about fundamental matters of intellectual inquiry, only the advice is to be sough by peering inward.  If you could introspect your deepest standards, you could then use them to guide inquiry.

But in fact, the recommendation faces all the familiar problems.  First, it is misdirected. Insofar as you are seeking advice about how to conduct inquiry reliably, you won’t be interested in being told that you are living up to your own deepest epistemic standards. Instead, you want to know what standards would be reliable ones.  In addition, the recommendation is not fundamental enough.  Introspection is not always a simple matter. There are better and worse ways of going about it.  Unless you are supposed to have direct and altogether unproblematic access to your deepest epistemic standards, questions will inevitably arise about how you are to go about introspectively determining what your standards are, and these questions cannot be usefully answered by telling you to do so in a way that conforms to the standards.

Besides, there is another and in some ways even more fundamental problem with the recommendation.  Your deep epistemic standards, the ones that measure the rationality of your beliefs, are not always to be found within you in fully developed form.  But then, it is not even a possibility for you to discover what these standards are simply by peering inward.  On the contrary, often enough theses standards emerge only with deliberation. The standards may be grounded in your current intellectual dispositions, but the dispositions are activated only with the relevant kind of deliberation.  Moreover, the relevant kind of deliberation is not deliberation about what these standards are but rather deliberation about whatever issue is at hand.  But if the standards that measure the rationality of your beliefs about an issue emerge only in the course of deliberating about the issue, they can hardly guide your deliberations about that issue.

In this respect, the rational conduct of our intellectual lives is not much different from the rational conduct of the nonintellectual aspects of our lives.  In neither case does self-discovery play as important a role in guiding conduct as is sometimes thought.  With nonintellectual matters, it is appealing to think that the strategy should be first to discover what we truly value, since only then will we be in a position to deliberate about how me might best secure these things. As appealing as this picture may be, it is far too simple.  We cannot always peer inward and discover what we genuinely value.  Often enough, our values are vague and half-formed, and it is only in the very conduct of our lives that they begin to emerge with definite shape.  It is not as if they are always there inside us in fully developed form, waiting to guide us if only we could discover what they were.  Our true values may emerge only after the choice has been made, and we have lived with it for a while.  The result is that we are frequently forced to act without even our own values to guide us.  Indeed, in some cases it can even seem appropriate to think of our choices as themselves creating our values, the very values that are then used to measure the rationality of these choices.  The conduct of every life involves elements of self-invention as well as self-discovery.

And so it is with our intellectual lives.  Having egocentrically rational beliefs is a matter of having beliefs that makes us invulnerable to certain kinds of self-criticism.  This can be expressed by saying that egocentric rationality is a matter of conforming to our deepest epistemic standards.  But if we do express the point this way, we need to guard against the idea that these deep standards are always available to us as guides for our intellectual lives.  They aren’t.  On the contrary, they often emerge only in the course of inquiry.  So, however we interpret the recommendation that you believe all and only those propositions that you would have no motivation to retract on reflection, it cannot be charitably thought of as an attempt to provide you with serious, substantive intellectual guidance.  It must instead be conceived as a different kind of recommendation.  But what kind of recommendation?

First and foremost, it is a recommendation about the conditions of rational belief–more precisely, the conditions for a certain kind of rational belief, egocentrically rational belief.  The goal is to provide a notion of rational belief that is both enlightening and recognizable.  It should help us think more clearly about related notions–truth, knowledge, skepticism, dogmatism, and intellectual disagreement, to name a few.  And it should also help us understand the claims of rationality that we make in all of their variety, the ones we are inclined to make in our everyday lives but also the ones we are inclined to make when doing epistemology. This will require our admitting that there are different senses of rational belief, egocentrically rational belief being only one.  It will also require our using some of these senses as anchors to introduce still other notions, notions such as that of responsible belief, for example.

Ah, what tangled nets we weave. Observer’s paradox and free will.  How much rationalization of rational thought do our strange loops engage in to explain our lumbering slog through time and space? What indeed does lurk beneath that surface of conscious thought?

Theme Music: Eels-Trouble with Dreams


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