Sunday, April 14, 2013

The End of Desire

In the Peirce reader, I recently read about the logical process he calls abduction. To explain it best, I’ll offer a syllogism.
Major premise (or rule): A student who copies on a test will write many of the same answers as his neighbor, even wrong ones.
Minor premise (or case): Algernon copied off of Edna.
Conclusion (or result): Algernon’s test has many of the same answers as Edna’s, even wrong ones.
This syllogism doesn’t involve necessary truths, only probable ones. As Peirce pointed out, the realm of probable reasoning is where we live most of our time. So the definitions I learned in high school about deduction and induction don’t strictly apply here. (I have to admit it: I learned these in “Detective in Literature” class. I guess I did learn something in that weird English program after all!) Deduction supposedly leads to conclusions that must be true given the premises. (“Once you eliminate the impossible . . . ,” began literature’s most famous detective.) But here in my example the conclusion is not a completely sure thing: if Algernon feels the need to copy from Edna, he may well be the kind of student who doesn’t copy accurately. In any case, deduction is about finding the conclusion, induction about finding the major premise from a string of observed instances.

Abduction, on the other hand, as Peirce explains it, is about finding the middle proposition. Aristotle introduced me to reasoning aimed at finding the middle proposition in the Posterior Analytics. It seems he and Peirce agree that this process (which they definitely didn’t teach me about in high school!) is actually the most common, most practical process of reasoning. We see situations in the world, and we seek explanations. I find Algernon and Edna have many of the same answers, even wrong ones, so I conclude that one copied off the other. Now I want to know who copied from whom – and whether whom let who do it!

Having finished the Schopenhauer reader, I ended with the impression that it was all an exercise in abduction. Schopenhauer may have written as if he were deducing ethics from his premise of the world as Will. But as long as his ethics tells us that we should think of others and be ready to make sacrifices in order to benefit our fellow humans, it doesn’t come off as a deduction. We don’t need a revolutionary philosophy to lead us to that conclusion; most of us know it already. So it seems more likely to me that he started with these evident states of affairs and, seeking an explanation, came up with his theory that the Will that moved his arm is the reality behind every phenomenon that struck his senses, from planets to plagiarism. I kept finding myself agreeing with him on what I was to do in life and how I might learn to see the big picture, but disagreeing with him on the explanation. Whenever I read “because the world is nothing but Will” (or words to that effect) I simply substituted “because the world is the product of one Creator who made all things according to his will.”

The substitution game came to an end, though, when Schopenhauer began to talk of ascetics. People fall into five moral categories, according to Schopenhauer. The wicked take pleasure in others' suffering. The unjust cause suffering in others for their own ends. The just have seen through the “veil of Maya” (the illusion that “I” am an individual) and cause no harm to others. The noble see the unity of all things and balance will out by sacrificing their own pleasure to ease the sufferings of others. And the ascetic tries to break the cycle of suffering altogether by denying the will-to-live. Two details forced my complete break with Schopenhauer’s ethics. First, he says that the ascetic has given up his own will so entirely that death means nothing to him. It seems, though, that it might also mean everything to him in a way, since death brings its benefits to the world. Let’s jump to the punch line and point out that Schopenhauer says that if all humans died, all animal suffering would cease because no intelligent life would be present to know it. (If a deer falls in a forest and no one is there, does it make a sound of suffering?) Secondly, the ascetic who knows what Schopenhauer knows understands that his suffering will actually bring relief to someone somewhere in the cosmos just because Will always stays in balance. Put it all together, and it sounds to me as if Schopenhauer is telling people to hurt and even kill themselves for the sake of the universe.

But then the system is doomed to failure from the start. You can’t have an ethics based on the goal of denying Will: the goal itself is the object of a desire, so as soon as we have the will to reach it, we’ve already left the path to our goal. It’s the ethical analogy to the logical problem entailed in the sentence “I always tell lies.” Desire must have an end, indeed, but that end must be a conclusion, not an annihilation. To cite Aristotle again, without a goal to our actions, no action takes place. God, be the End of my desire!

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