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Tuesday, 6 March 2018

History: Faith and doubt

[Here is a very rough draft of a section of the book I am - supposedly - writing about the philosophy of history, Why History Doesn't Matter, which has run into the sands somewhat of late.  In this chapter I am trying to explore the fact that there is a core of doubt in all historical endeavour, which can only be (and then only provisionally) be bypassed through an act of faith, and then (not in this section) that that act of faith presupposes an ineluctable, impossible and universal ethical demand that lies at the heart of the historical project.  Conformance to that ethical demand provides a political foundation for critique of historical writing.  Anyway, here is the first tottering step...]

Much of the argument of this book depends upon a theological-looking combination of two concepts: faith and doubt.  The proposition is that there remain kernels of doubt at the heart of systems of meaning, which cannot be bypassed other than through acts of faith, themselves often linked to the historical and geographical context in which they are made.  This idea is often assumed to represent an invitation to compete relativism: a step towards the notion that any interpretation is ultimately only as good as any other.  I do not intend to go into that issue in detail, other than to say that it is a complete misrepresentation, usually based upon an unwillingness to consider, engage with or even read, the ideas in question.  It was partly because of this that it was necessary for me to begin with a defence of method and critical rigour.

My contention is that the historian proceeds with her enquiry, at all sorts of stages and levels, through an inextricable combination of faith (or commitment) and doubt.  Perhaps predictably, I want to use RenĂ© Descartes’ thought-experiment, set out in his Meditations, as a way of illustrating this.  The experiment itself is well known.  Sitting in his room by the fire, Descartes ponders how it is that he can be sure that the world of his perception is as it seems.  Assuming that he is neither dreaming nor mad,[i] how can he nevertheless establish that everything that he senses is not a huge trick or deception played upon him by an Evil Demon?  Eventually, by the end of the second Meditation, Descartes reaches the conclusion that, whatever he might doubt of his sensory perception, if he is pondering this issue he himself must exist (cogito ergo sum; je pense donc je suis; I think therefore I am: the phrase itself comes from the Discourse on Method) or, perhaps more accurately, that, since there is an ‘I’ that is thinking, the subject ‘I’ must itself exist.  This is all fairly well-known; less frequently remembered is the fact that Descartes reached the cogito en route to an attempted proof of the existence of God.[ii]  In fact, contrary to usual perceptions of ‘Cartesian doubt’, Descartes begins not from a position of complete scepticism but rather from one of faith:

However, there is a certain opinion long fixed in my mind that there is a God who is all-powerful, and by whom I have been created such as I am now. …[N]or shall I ever break the habit of assenting to them [i.e. Descartes’ long-held beliefs] and relying on them, as long as I go on supposing them to be such as they are in truth, that is to say doubtful indeed in some respect, as has been shown just now, and yet nonetheless highly probable, so that it is much more rational to believe than to deny them.  Hence it seems to me that I shall not be acting unwisely if, willing to believe the contrary, I deceive myself and make believe, for some considerable time, that they are altogether false and imaginary until, once the prior judgements on each side have been evenly balanced ion the scales, no evil custom can any longer twist my judgement from the correct perception of things. …
I will therefore suppose that, not God, who is perfectly good and the source of truth, but some evil spirit supremely powerful and cunning, has devoted all his efforts to deceiving me. I will think that the sky, the air, the earth, colours, shapes, sounds, and all external things are no different from the illusions of our dreams and that they are traps he has laid for my credulity.[iii] (My italics)

Descartes’ experiment is, thus, to attempt to establish the veracity of things that he has heard and in which he has always believed.  More importantly, he his enquiry begins from a fixed position: that there is a good god who would not deceive him.  This, clearly, is incapable of empirical verification; it is purely a matter of faith.  It remains, nonetheless, the point which enables his thought experiment to proceed. 

Staying with Descartes, we can move to another, more famous concept associated with him, albeit with less precision: Cartesian coordinates.  The system relies upon the use of two or more axes proceeding from a point of origin, that enables the mapping of an area or space and the establishment of the relative positioning of objects or places within it.  For Descartes, this permitted the representation of geometry in algebraic terms.  It remains fundamental to cartography and forms an entirely coherent system with predictive and verifiable value … provided, of course, that you accept its conceptual starting points, which, as with that of Descartes’ thought experiment, are pragmatic and provisional rather than absolute.  For one thing, its conception of space is Euclidean or, to put it crudely, operates around the notion of flat and perpendicular planes.  Since the nineteenth century it has been recognised that, while Euclidean and thus Cartesian geometry is perfectly acceptable for all kinds of purposes, especially as a starting point, it has crucial practical and theoretical flaws, which I have neither the space nor the competence to describe.  Second, the system of coordinates relies upon the concept of zero as an integer and thus the notion that the difference (or distance) between 0 and 1 is the same as that between 1 and 2 or between -1 and -2.  Again, in practice that is unobjectionable but it was impossible before the introduction of that concept of zero.  In classical and medieval Europe, the difference between one and ‘one minus one’ was infinite: it was the difference between presence and absence, between something and nothing.  That was essential for Zeno’s paradox, for example.  Third, in most cartography the location of the point of origin or zero is purely arbitrary or conventional, like the use of the Greenwich Meridian.  Descartes’ acceptance of the truth of an eternally good God, or the various suppositions underlying Cartesian geometry, are precisely the things that Jacques Derrida labelled aporias: points where empirical observation or verification fails but which are nevertheless essential to the coherence or progression of an argument.

This admittedly superficial detour yields several points that are vital to my argument.  Entirely coherent systems, even ones with enormous scientific and logical value, begin around points that are established not empirically but pragmatically or provisionally, or through faith.  Sometimes their acceptance is a matter of sincerely-held belief (as with Descartes’ concept of God); sometimes those who employ a system are more or less aware of its non-empirical foundations.  In practice, there is no difference between Descartes’ belief in the good God as the starting point for his logic and an eighteenth-century geometrician’s acceptance of the Euclidean and other assumptions behind Cartesian coordinates. Indeed, there is no practical difference between our eighteenth-century mathematician’s conviction about the foundations of the Cartesian system and a modern mathematics teacher’s pragmatic acceptance of them for the purposes of explanation.  I am by no means equating the objects, or the nature, of faith in my three examples but they can nevertheless all be said to be founded upon matters of belief. 

More importantly, given the frequent perception of so-called ‘postmodernism’, unpicking those foundational concepts and showing the empirical failure that lies at their heart does not result in absolute anarchy.  It does not mean that ‘anything goes’.  Quite apart from the ideas that follow from Descartes’ acceptance of a benevolent deity as the starting point of his thought, philosophers have long debated whether the ‘I’ of the cogito provides as secure a basis for his further argument as Descartes imagined.[iv]  Identifying those aporias does not however, authorise us – on that basis alone – to develop any particular stage of the Meditations’ argument in any direction we like.  It does not permit us to identify every step of the Meditations’ argument as illogical, or to claim that Descartes said things that cannot be observed in his writings, or to use it as the basis for arguments that do not proceed from his writings.  Even when considering things that Descartes did not say but seems to have assumed or those which he left unsaid, an argument can only proceed via careful, empirical scrutiny of the text itself.  It needs to be repeated that Derrida’s own philosophy rested on close, empirical, microscopic even, readings of the authors in question: Rousseau, Austin, Marx or whoever. Similarly, recognising that the Greenwich Meridian is a purely conventional starting point for longitudinal measurement, that it was chosen for very specific and contingent reasons, does not enable one to postulate that Edinburgh and London stand in an entirely different geographical relationship, or to deny that the system provides practical measurements between points on the earth’s surface.  It does not justify anyone’s belief in a flat earth, or that the earth is a disc carried by elephants.  It does not – in any way – deny the concepts and procedures of scientific verification.  Nor, indeed, does it imply anything at all that is un-, let alone anti-scientific.  What, one might ask, has driven scientific research if not the on-going desire to question and unpick the aporias of previous generations’ thinking?  This is not a matter of a radical doubt or unbelief.  I would argue that it manifests an ongoing fidelity to the notion that there is something out there that is capable of systematic explanation.  The fact that the existence and origins of such a system have yet to be empirically established, if indeed they are ever capable of such a complete account, is why there is no logical contradiction between faith and science; why many rigorous ‘hard scientists’ are, for example, committed Christians.[v]

The point or the consequence of Derridian deconstruction is not complete relativism, or indeed relativism of any sort, but simply to expose the foundational cores of undecidability that exist within all systems of meaning.  It does not aim at the pulling apart and destruction of systems (this is an egregious misuse of the term deconstruction); rather, deconstruction troubles or unsettles them. It exposes the fact that such systems are not self-contained, self-present truths, helps us understand how this is the case and how they are interrogated.  Deconstruction is therefore neither as irrational, unrigorous, unscientific or nihilistic as its often quite hysterical opponents claim nor as radical and revolutionary as some of its proponents have been wont to imply.

The acceptance of the existence of points where doubt never be entirely negated is in no way disabling for historical research.  For over two centuries, English Law has functioned on the basis of the pragmatic concept of ‘reasonable doubt’.  For a defendant to be proved guilty the prosecution must present evidence and present a case that satisfies a jury, not beyond all doubt, but beyond reasonable doubt.  In the late eighteenth century, English jurists realised that a requirement, bolstered by religious sanction, for the accused to be proven guilty beyond doubt was hindering juries and judges from reaching verdicts.  The distinction between absolute doubt and reasonable doubt is that which (usually) renders law practicable. It is also, I suggest, that which permits historical analysis to proceed to argumentation and conclusions.   Sometimes the scope for reasonable doubt is, as with major political historical events, non-existent.  That does not negate the point that doubt is an integral component of the historian’s engagement with the evidence or that in practice some level of doubt can never be resolved other than through a form of faith. 

[i] Foucault and Derrida.

[ii] S. Blackburn, Think!

[iii] Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, 21-22

[iv] References

[v] In this sense and others, Richard Dawkins has done atheists and scientists enormous disservice.