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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Is it irrational to know that reason cannot reach everything?

…or is not it perfectly rational to know the reason's limits?

Whenever I talk about my primary interest, i.e., epistemology in Mīmāṃsā, I have to face the objection that the Mīmāṃsā school is not philosophical, since it accepts inconditionally the authority of the Veda. Today, while reading the (excellent) book Reflexion und Ritual in der Pūrvamīmāṃsā, by Lars Göhler, I met a similar statement, explaining that the Mīmāṃsā introduced the dialectical method (the topic is mentioned, a doubt is raised, several objectors are allowed to speak, after objections and counter-objections, one achieves a final conclusion, which is then applied to the topic) into Indian philosophy (p. 123). Nonetheless (allerdings), writes Göhler, one should remember that the Mīmāṃsā accepted the authority of the Veda. Why "nonetheless"? Does the fact of accepting an authority de facto disqualify you as a philosopher? Does it mean that your dialectical method is not pure?
What would remain of Western philosophy if we were to apply the same criterion to it?
More importantly, Mīmāṃsā authors distinguish two domains: the domain of what is perceptible and that of what is beyond perception. In the former, the Veda has no authority. No one would believe that the sun stops moving just because the Veda might have said it. By contrast, as for the domain of what lies beyond perception, either we believe in some authority, or we are completely at loss. How to decide whether sacrificing rice grains or going to the Mass on Sunday is good or not? Sense perception (and all the other means, which ultimately rely on sense-data), just does not help.

Is not it rational, then, to accept that one needs an authority?


Jayarava said...

Hi Elisa

This is an interesting issue. The authority of authorities is central to contemporary religious discourse.

Surely if we are going to compare Mīmāṃsa with other philosophies shouldn't we compare them with their contemporaries - in medieval Christian Europe many philosophers had a similar attitude to the authority of the Bible.

If we compare ancient philosophy with modern we can only be critical of the past - we've had centuries more to unravel some of the knots. And the benefit of 200 years of scientific knowledge.

This distinction between the perceptible world and the imperceptible is similar to much of Western philosophy I think: phenomena and noumena. Yes? Religion these days stakes it's authority on insights into the imperceptible - it seems to me that contemporary Christians (or Protestants at least) have a similar attitude: physics tells us about phenomena, and the Bible tells us about noumena. Many modern Buddhists make a similar distinction.

The idea that reason has limits was introduced by the Romantic movement to counter the European Enlightenment view that reason had no limits. Reading Thomas Metzinger (esp. The Ego Tunnel) I think there are arguments for reason having fewer limits than is generally supposed. But in the field of human relations empathy seems more important than reason. Reason has a clear limit in relating to people.


And btw I'm impressed that you can also read German!

michael reidy said...

It’s certainly rational to accept authority on matters that you have no expertise in. To accept the authority of scripture on matters beyond the empirical is a matter of faith which is a non-rational adherence. I say non-rational to distinguish between it and the irrational. It’s interesting that there are no proofs of the existence of God in the Bible. Shankara for instance does not believe that there can be proofs of the existence of God. Thomas Aquinas offered 5 so are we to say that if you still are not convinced you are stupid or that it requires some sort of grace to allow your intellect to surpass its fallen nature.

elisa freschi said...

Thanks Jayarava. I agree with your general point: it does not make sense to compare classical Sanskrit philosophy with contemporary authors, also because we lack the detachment needed for a comparison (and might tend to overestimate today's achievements as if they were "thre truth", by definition).
Would you summarise/point to me a summary of Metzinger's points? I don't think I will be able to read another of his books (I struggled enough with his Being No One).
btw: German has been my "first love" and knowing a little bit of several languages is the main advantage of not being an English Native speaker!

elisa freschi said...

@Michael, I agree with your distinction between non-rational and irrational. But is not it perfectly rational to know that through sense perfection, inference, etc., one cannot understand anything about, e.g., rituals? If you allow this (and I can't understand how you could not), and if you also admit that there are so many issues which cannot be decided through sense perception etc. in our everyday life, than would not it be rational to look for a guidance? Of course, one has to choose the "right" one.

michael reidy said...

We are likely in agreement on the basic rationality of trust. However the agnostic and the sceptic may point out that causal connections that we take for granted in rational procedures are not present in pujas . Take for instance the various stanzas of Saundarya-Lahari.: e.g. no. 25:
O spouse of Siva! the homage rendered to Thy feet comes by itself the homage rendered to the three gods born of Thy three Guna-s. It is, therefore, meet that these (gods) ever stand by the jewelled seat on which Thy feet rest, with their folded hands adorning their crowns.

There is a yantra depicted, a triangular shape with a Bija in the middle. It is to be inscribed on gold plate worshipped for 45 days with 1000 repetitions of the stanza, honey the food offering and the fruits of the japa are Places of honour and emolument.

My main reason for proposing the non-rational belief in this procedure is to avoid the endless wrangling with the devotees of science Ma. My own philosophical sense of the grounding of reality in consciousness (Sat Cit Ananda) makes prayer a force. Can I prove this Q.E.D.? No, It has a personal subjective force and is rational for me aligning as it does with my general experience. Others cannot believe this and I think there is a sense in which they should not believe it.

Jayarava said...

Metzinger's own summary of his work is on Scholarpedia: Self Models.

I think neuroscientists are gaining insights into subjectivity that we could not have imagined eve 20 years ago.

You may also be interested in this artice which suggests that the belief in a soul (i.e. the independence of cognition from the body) might arise from out-of-body experiences. "Out-of-Body Experiences
as the Origin of the Concept of a “Soul”"

elisa freschi said...

@Jayarava, thanks for the links. I will try to be brave enough and to try again to read and understand Metzinger.
@Michael, thanks for the intriguing comment. The point about avoiding to argue with devotees of mainstream science (who are usually not scientists themselves, since scientists are aware of how science is perfectible) seems very clever to me. What do you mean by *should* not believe? That belief only works if one adheres to it? Else, it is useless, hence better to believe in something else?

michael reidy said...

I don't think that faith is something that we go from 0 to 100% in immediately. It builds. Take for example the walking on water episode in the Gospels specifically Matt.14.22-54. Peter in that case comes out of the boat and walks towards Jesus on the water but when he feels the storm begins to sink. That inner assurance decreases. Faith is gradually established and is I believe first planted by a gift of grace. The sceptic has nothing to go on so it is his 'epistemic duty' (horrible phrase) to decline to believe. In that sense he should not believe.

elisa freschi said...

@Michael: does absolute scepticism (as "unability to believe") really exist? Is not scepticism also a matter of degree? It is healthy to be able to doubt. One could think that it is unhealthy if it is precludes all possibility of belief. But to think that there are people who are unable to believe is tantamount to think that they are a priori condemned?

michael reidy said...

To clarify the scepticism I'm talking about is the scepticism about religion, faith, prayer, miracles etc.not the general sort of global scepticism about knowledge and certainty.

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