Sunday, March 19, 2017

Paradox results from faulty presuppositions [3/14/17: Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, and “The Grand Inquisitor,” from The Brothers Karamazov]

            I find Dostoevsky strange, because I think that he simultaneously states and misses the point.  In Notes from Underground, he purports to take the rationalist (not in the Randian, but in the general sense) myth—that the almighty power of science will, one day, fully explain everything, including human behavior—very seriously, but concludes that, since rationalism doesn’t take human whims or spite into account, the utopian, rationalist project will fail.  The obvious rationalist rejoinder is that, if science and logic have truly gained the power to fully explain, and, thus, fully predict human behavior, such whim and spite will be anticipated, and we will all live in the same inevitable, prescient reality of perfect knowledge as Laplace’s Demon.  Dostoevsky’s argument then replies that reflection upon and rebellion against that determinism will lead people to take another path, which rationalism replies it will have already predicted, and the argument continues ad infinitum.  It is irresolvable—an intolerable logical state.  This is not because human action is paradoxical (the whole point of a paradox is that it’s impossible), but because the argument’s premises, Dostoevsky’s premises, are flawed.  That is, human “best interests” cannot be universally and permanently defined, and therefore cannot be subjected to rational inquiry; full knowledge of the universe is impossible; and humans do not make decisions “rationally,” making prediction based upon comparison of interests futile.
            I won’t blunder into the whole argument right now (I’ll save it for my term paper), but suffice to say that “best interests” are not a thing.  They are not one monolithic, universal thing that is the same for everyone.  I might think my “best interests” consist of trying to be a writer, because it’ll let me do what I love, but I might think that some of my other “best interests” consist of becoming an engineer, because it’ll probably net me a solid livelihood (along with, possibly, despondence and self-loathing, but at least I’d be well-off and sad).  Neither is inherently right, so reason alone cannot determine what I should do.  Rational models of decision-making can’t predict action, because rational decision-making doesn’t happen.  It is impossible.  We don’t do things by comparing predicted futures for comparative advantage, but rather by working off of our experience for pattern recognition, habit, self-definition, and context.  Thus, I don’t need to default to some nebulous “spite” or “whim” to explain why people will always act against “their best interests”; no, this will always happen because “best interests” are subjective, contested, and don’t actually exist.

            I’m afraid I have a similar objection to “The Grand Inquisitor.”  Freedom or happiness?  It’s a false binary, as our wonderful presenters pointed out, and as most binaries are.  It is, in fact, especially false; for freedom may or may not exist, cannot be eliminated if it does, and can’t be created if it doesn’t; and happiness is a subjective, contested meaning projected onto reality by our limited, sentimental minds.  This is not an indictment; limitation is necessary, sentimentality is awesome, and I need to believe in freedom for my own sanity.  But if we start talking about these things as actualities, we need to define those actualities, which quickly proves impossible to ultimately do.  Unsure what I mean?  Let me try to clarify.
            On the one hand, there’s the possibility that everything that happens, and I mean everything—the thoughts in my head, what I “choose” to type, every hand dealt in every casino in the world—is the inevitable consequence of the universe unfolding according to certain laws from conditions at the beginning of time (that’s the determinism of Laplace’s Demon, alluded to above).  On the other hand, it’s possible that we’ve the power to create multiple possible futures, a power that can be bounded and limited, but not taken away entirely.  I can’t surrender my agency, over my thoughts, over my responses and desires, entirely to another.  On some level, I’ve still got to choose to do anything at all.  Lop off my limbs and throw me in a river, and I still get to choose how hard I struggle before I drown.  Raise some children according to a massive and strict body of laws, and those kids still determine the length of their stride, how hard they work, and, of course, whether to accept that prescription at all.  If you’ve free will, even doing nothing at all creates a different future (than the ones in which you did something).  Thus, it doesn’t really make sense to speak of surrendering free will; either it doesn’t exist, in which case, you can’t really get rid of it, or you can accept limitations on it, but not eliminate it.
            Happiness, meanwhile?  You can’t define happiness, not entirely.  You can define parts of it—the absence of suffering, general contentment, etc., but such definitions are contestable and incomplete.  Without full and all-encompassing definition, you can’t formulize happiness; you can only feel it.  You certainly can’t guarantee it via surrender of some modicum of agency, though, for me, surrendering some agency (enough to function in a society, at the very least) is a necessary prerequisite to happiness.  Regardless, as our presenters indicated, formulized, certain happiness is a myth.  With that, I think I’ve rambled on long enough.

No comments:

Post a Comment