OTHELLO Act III Scene III Line 364
There is a Contents list (with links to individual Chapters) at the end of this page.
INTRODUCTION AND SYNOPSIS
Philosophy first came my way through mind-opening discussions with a friend of my father's - so that's going back a tidy few years! When I went to university for my technical studies it just happened to be possible for me to sit-in on one series of "Subsid Phil" lectures. Those seeds germinated slowly but without much opportunity to flower until I reached the other end of my career. Two years after gaining early retirement I went on to a different university and pursued philosophy for a couple of years under ideal conditions, namely with no compulsory exams at the end!
The questions which interested me most were the practical ones - the ones that have implications for what I know, what I believe in and the way I behave. I was much less concerned with such things as, say, the development of religious thought in Europe during the Middle Ages, fascinating though such things may be for other people whose background is stronger in history and psychology. But that did not mean that I would have been justified in ignoring Plato, Descartes and everyone else born before the era of relativity theory and artificial intelligence.
No: what I wanted to know, really, was what I could know. Or perhaps the emphasis is wrong there - I wanted to know what I could know. Definitely. Provably. Undeniably. Like the rumour about Desdemona's unfaithfulness which Othello wanted confirmed with "no hinge nor loop to hang a doubt on".
After all, the world is a pretty confusing place. It abounds in religions, each with its convinced adherents and dedicated followers. Experts tell us that if we find quantum mechanics simple we simply haven't understood it. Many a Christmas schedule includes its conjuror to demonstrate that our senses deceive us.
You won't be finding lessons in magic in the following pages. But I shall indeed be discussing many a strange thing, hoping to demonstrate why I find it true and factual. But whether objectively or as a matter of opinion, we shall have to see. Some examples must arise for every conscientious thinker. First among those are matters of morals. Can I, can you, always or ever know what is right? Such deeply significant questions must be deferred until we have done our best to clear up some more superficial difficulties.
Like our senses, for instance. Where and how can we draw a line between conjuring magic and reliable sense data? To what extent do we (or perhaps our automatic brain mechanisms) edit, amend, and interpret sense data into "facts" that we can accept, handle and remember?
That bastion of reliability, arithmetic, certainly includes some simple but very strange relationships: we shall have a look at some in Chapter Two. Nature is, of course, quite wonderful. We will be trying to grasp the significance of the fact that a cuckoo's egg contains instructions for flying from England to Africa and back.
One of the minor regrets of my life is a silly little omission. Way back in the early days of my professional career I read a technical article which was headed with what was stated to be a quotation from Aristotle:
To succeed you must first ask the right questions.
Such a maxim was certainly appropriate where it was quoted, which happened to be in connection with farm management. More than that, I have since found it to be a sound guiding principle in all sorts of different contexts. My regret is that despite searching many a dictionary of quotations I have been unable to confirm the phrase or track down its source. So we shall just take it at its face value - or on my authority rather than Aristotle's!
What then are the right questions to ask? Might we start with "What facts and relationships can we prove?"? You want proof? OK; so did Othello. And Iago provided it. Unfortunately that proof was fraudulently contrived: its acceptance at face value leads to tragedy in Act V. So what about "Whose word can I trust?"? That will not do because it is only another form of the previous question - can I prove that so-and-so is trustworthy? - without providing any route to finding any answer. Similarly, any other form of authority, whether it be the Holy Bible or the Koran, the basic fundamentals of school science or some personal revelation - any such source of information can count as an "authority" only if one has first answered questions about its reliability.
The philosopher René Descartes (French and so pronounced day-cart, 1596 to 1650) thought of a way round the problem. He would accept nothing, absolutely nothing, if there was even the remotest possibility that it could be wrong. So for instance he rejected all his sense data since what (he thought) he witnessed could actually be a dream, or some malignant demon might be deliberately deceiving him. Many of the eternal truths that (he thought) he knew, such as 2+3=5 and that a square has four sides, are unreliable: he knows (for a fact, apparently) that genuine mistakes can be made and he has no reliable way of knowing whether or not 2+3=5 is one such mistake. We need not follow his argument right through to its crunch point: we will simply note that he concludes that the only certain knowledge is that "I think, therefore I am" (or if you want to impress your friends with the Latin version, "Cogito ergo sum"). Descartes then built up from this foundation a whole edifice of knowledge in which he satisfied himself that he had proved the existence of God and of the world as we conventionally know it. Unfortunately his arguments do not satisfy modern experts in logic. The verdict of history seems to qualify Descartes with full marks for imagination and effort but deny him any breakthrough in epistemology (the study of the nature, source and reliability of knowledge).
So are we likely to be able to do any better than Descartes did? Certainly not as regards answering the questions which he posed. But the hope is that we may be able to find better questions and then go some way towards answering them.
Descartes and I do have this much in common - you and your sense data! In reading Descartes' or this book your eyes are sending messages to the real you inside your head, where it is to be hoped that thoughts are stimulated along the lines that he and I intend. There is no way that either he or I can or could contact your thought-processes directly. The only way we can communicate with you is through your sense data - or so I believe. Your genetics will have given you some instinctive knowledge. And you may be tuned in to the direct revelations of your God. But new mortal knowledge can be acquired only through the senses. It seems sensible therefore to devote the first Chapter to those senses.
The next stage will be to consider a wide variety of topics from which we shall be forced to the conclusion that obvious truths can be unreliable. Worse: many aspects of the world out there are counter-intuitive. So in searching for truth we shall have to devise rules of some sort to distinguish, if we can, between actual undeniable nonsense and counter-intuitive but acceptable 'facts'.
The final crunch will come when we seek to apply those rules to the 'facts' or criteria of morality. The outcome will emphasise the significance of personal responsibility since it appears to be impossible to devise or discover any universal principles of ethics. Systems of morality that have been proposed by religions and by philosophers will be seen to carry a need for interpretation by the conscientious individual.
We shall finish up as coherentists in epistemology and intuitionists in ethics!
But that is not a conclusion: it is merely a system of navigation. The further exploration will be brief - and inconclusive.
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