The Philosophy of Commensurablism
In this essay I will lay out my what my general philosophical views are, and my reasons for holding them, before I begin diving into the details of the implications of them on other broad approaches to philosophy, and on the many narrow subtopics of philosophy.
My general philosophy could be most succinctly summed up as the rejection of both unquestionable answers, and unanswerable questions. By this I mean the commitment to questioning everything, and rejecting anything that's beyond questioning, but also to trusting that there are answers to be had, and entertaining the possibility of anything that might be an answer:
- I say to hold that there is some opinion or another that is actually correct in a sense beyond merely someone subjectively agreeing with it, a position that I call "objectivism"; in contrast to its negation that I call "nihilism", by which I mean the view that holds there are no genuinely correct answers.
- I say also to hold every opinion open to questioning, a position that I call "criticism"; in contrast to its negation that I call "fideism", by which I mean the view that holds there are some things that are beyond question.
- I say to freely hold some tentatively opinion or another on what the answer might be even if you don't have conclusive justification to say that it definitely is that, a position that I call "liberalism"; in contrast to its negation that I call "cynicism", by which I mean the view that holds that no opinion should be held until it can be conclusively justified from the ground up.
- And I say to reject any opinion that is not amenable to questioning because it is beyond any possible experience that could test it one way or another, a position that I call "phenomenalism"; in contrast to its negation that I call "transcendentalism", by which I mean the view that holds that there are some things that are utterly beyond the ability to discern from our experiences.
(Henceforth I will use each of these terms in these specific senses only, to have clear labels for these positions. I am aware that many of these terms have uses other than the ones I am putting them to here, e.g. "objectivism" being used as the name of Ayn Rand's philosophy and "liberalism" being used in a variety of different political ways, and unless specifically mentioned I do not mean to imply any association with those usages where they differ from these ones).
Phenomenalism, as anti-transcendentalism, is entailed by criticism: if you are going to hold every opinion open to question, you have to consider only opinions that would make some experiential, phenomenal difference, where you could somehow tell if they were correct or incorrect. (At least, unless you're willing to also reject objectivism for nihilism, and say that there are some questions about things beyond experience that simply can never be answered). And liberalism, as anti-cynicism, is entailed by objectivism: if you are going to hold that such a thing as a correct opinion is possible, you have to give every opinion the benefit of the doubt that that one might possibly be it, otherwise you would be forced to dismiss all opinions as equally incorrect out of hand. (At least, unless you're willing to also reject criticism for fideism, and say that there are simply some foundational opinions that are beyond question). Because of this, "criticism" and "objectivism" are enough to summarize my entire general philosophy, and it would suffice to name that general philosophy "critical objectivism" or "objective criticism".
However I prefer a different, more succinct name: "commensurablism". For two things to be commensurable is for there to be some way to compare and measure them against each other, and I call my philosophy "commensurablism" because, all of the above taken into account together, its defining feature is that opinions of any sort can be compared and measured against each other to see which is more or less correct than the other. That right there implies:
- that there is such a thing as correct (objectivism);
- that there is a question as to which opinion, and whether or to what extent either opinion, is correct (criticism);
- that the initial state of inquiry is one of several opinions competing as equal candidates, neither either winning or losing out by default lest the other can successfully challenge it, but both remaining live possibilities until one is shown to be worse than the other (liberalism); and
- that such a contest of opinion is settled by comparing and measuring the candidates against a common scale, namely that of the experiential phenomena accessible in common by everyone (phenomenalism).
The underlying reason I hold this general philosophical view, or rather my reason for rejecting the views opposite of it, is my metaphilosophy of analytic pragmatism, taking a practical approach to philosophy and how best to accomplish the task it is aiming to do. As explained above: this view, commensurablism, is just the conjunction of criticism and objectivism, which are in turn just the negations of fideism and nihilism, respectively. If you accept fideism rather than criticism, then if your opinions should happen to be the wrong ones, you will never find out, and you will remain wrong forever; and if you accept nihilism rather than objectivism, then if there is such a thing as the right opinion after all, you will never find it, and you will remain wrong forever. There might not be such a thing as a correct opinion, and if there is, we might not be able to find it. But if we're starting from such a place of complete ignorance that we're not even sure about that — where we don't know what there is to know, or how to know it, or if we can know it at all, or if there is even anything at all to be known — and we want to figure out what the correct opinions are in case such a thing should turn out to be possible, then the safest bet, pragmatically speaking, is to proceed under the assumption that there are such things, and that we can find them, and then try. Maybe ultimately in vain, but that's better than failing just because we never tried in the first place.
(This line of argument bears similarities to Blaise Pascal's "Wager", or pragmatic argument for believing in God, wherein he argued that if we cannot know whether or not God exists, we nevertheless cannot help but act on a tacit belief one way or another, by either worshipping him or not, resulting in four possible outcomes: either we believe in God, and he doesn't exist, and we lose a little in the wasted effort of worship; or we disbelieve in God, and he doesn't exist, and we save what little effort we would have spent in worship; or we believe in God, and he does exist, and we reap the infinite reward that is heaven; or we disbelieve in God, and he does exist, and we suffer the infinite loss that is hell. Pascal argues that it is thus the practically safest bet to believe in God, whether or not he turns out to actually exist. My pragmatic argument for commensurablism bears a formal similarity to that, in that I am also arguing that if we cannot know whether there are answers to our questions to be found, we nevertheless cannot help but act on a tacit belief one way or another, by either trying to find them or not, resulting again in four possible outcomes: either we try to find the answers, and there are none, and we lose a little in the wasted effort of investigation; or we don't try to find the answers, and there are none, and we save what little effort we would have spent in investigation; or we try to find the answers, and there are some, and we reap the unknown but possibly immense reward that is having them; or we don't try to find the answers, and there are some, and we suffer the unknown but possibly immense loss that is never having them. The important key difference between Pascal's Wager and mine is that Pascal urges us to "bet" on one specific possibility, when there are many different possibilities with similar odds — different religions to choose from — leaving one forced to choose blindly which of those many options to bet on, and necessarily taking the worse option on all the other bets; whereas I am only urging one to "bet" at all, to try something, anything, many different things, and at least see if any of them pan out, rather than just trying nothing and guaranteeing failure. To analogize the respective "wagers" to literal wagers on a horse race: Pascal is urging us to bet on a specific horse winning, rather than losing; while I am only urging us to bet on there being a race to bet on at all, rather than not.)
As Henri Poincaré rightly said, "To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the necessity of reflection." (La Science et l'Hypothèse, 1901). Or as Alfred Korzybski similarly said, "There are two ways to slide easily through life: to believe everything or to doubt everything; both ways save us from thinking." I would argue that to do otherwise than to try (even if ultimately in vain) to find answers to our questions, to fall prey to either nihilism or fideism, to deny that there are such things as right or wrong opinions about either reality or morality, or to deny that we are able to figure out which is which, is actually not even philosophy at all. The Greek root of the word "philosophy" means "the love of wisdom", but I would argue that any approach substantially different from what I have laid out here as commensurablism would be better called "phobosophy", meaning "the fear of wisdom", for rather than seeking after wisdom, seeking after the ability to discern true from false or good from bad, it avoids it, by saying either that it is unobtainable, as the nihilist does, or that it is unneeded, as the fideist does. Commensurablism could thus be said to be necessitated merely by being practical about the very task that defines philosophy itself. If you're trying to do philosophy at all, to pursue wisdom, the ability to sort out the true from the false and the good from the bad, you end up having to adopt commensurablism, or else just give up on the attempt completely.
To further elaborate on the worldview entailed by this general philosophy:
I hold that there are two big mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive questions, neither of which is reducible to the other, and between the two of which all other smaller questions are covered. One is the descriptive question of what is real, or true, or factual. The other is the prescriptive question of what is moral, or good, or normative. There are many more concrete questions that are each in effect a small part of one of these questions, such as questions about whether some particular thing is real, or whether some particular thing is moral, that are the domains of more specialized fields of inquiry. And there are also more abstract questions about what it means to be real or to be moral, what criteria we use to assess whether something deserves such a label, what methods we use to apply those criteria, what faculties we need to enact those methods, who is to exercise those faculties, and why any of it matters, which are the philosophical questions to be answered in the bulk of these essays. But in the middle of it all are those two big questions, in service of which all the other questions are asked: "What is real?" and "What is moral?"
I hold that in answering either question, it is completely irrelevant who thinks what is the answer, or how many people think what is the answer. All that matters is whether there are any reasons at hand to prefer one answer over another. In absence of any reasons, any proposed answer might be right, no matter who or how many people agree or disagree. But no matter how many reasons to prefer one answer over another, that preferred answer still always might be wrong, no matter who or how many people agree or disagree: the reasons to discard it may merely not be at hand just yet. All of inquiry, on either factual or normative matters, is an unending process of trying to filter out opinions that we have reasons to think are the wrong ones, and to come up with new ones that still might be the right ones. But no matter your current best answer to either question, there is always some degree of uncertainty: you might be right, but you might be wrong. All we can do is narrow in further and further on less and less wrong answers.
In a way this is somewhat comparable to the "spiral-shaped" progress described by Georg Hegel, if we imagine an abstract space of possible answers, with the correct answers lying most likely somewhere in the middle of that space, and our investigations whittling away further and further at all opposite extremes, theses and their antitheses, and then again at the remaining extremes of the resulting syntheses, again and again, indefinitely. Hegel's "spiral-shaped progress" of theses, antitheses, and syntheses is, I think, a bit too much an idealization of this process, but it is at least in the right general direction relative to its predecessors, in a way that is itself an illustration of this very process. Eliminating first the extremes, the thesis and antitheses, of viewing worldviews either as constant and static, or as progressing linearly in a given direction, a first approximation at a synthesis could be the notion of circular change, alternating between opposites in a constant pattern. Hegel's notion of spiral progress is a further refinement upon that, a synthesis between linear progress and circular change, a view of alternating between opposites but narrowing in constantly toward some limit. My view is a refinement further still, which can perhaps be framed as the synthesis of Hegel's view, and the view that there is no pattern at all to change, just random or at least pseudo-random, unpredictable change: in my view the changes of worldview are largely unpredictable and unstructured, but by constantly weeding out the untenable extremes, the chaotic swinging between ever-less-extreme opposites still tends generally toward some limit over time.
With regards to opinions about reality, commensurablism boils down to forming initial opinions on the basis that something, loosely speaking, looks true (and not false), and then rejecting that and finding some other opinion to replace it with if someone should come across some circumstance wherein it doesn't look true in some way. And, if two contrary things both look true or false in different ways or to different people or under different circumstances, commensurablism means taking into account all the different ways that things look to different people in different circumstances, and coming up with something new that looks true (and not false) to everyone in every way in every circumstance, at least those that we've considered so far. In the limit, if we could consider absolutely every way that absolutely everything looked to absolutely everyone in absolutely every circumstance, whatever still looked true across all of that would be the objective truth. In short, the objective truth is the limit of what still seems true upon further and further investigation. We can't ever reach that limit, but that is the direction in which to improve our opinions about reality, towards more and more correct ones. Figuring out what can still be said to look true when more and more of that is accounted for may be increasingly difficult, but that is the task at hand if we care at all about the truth. This commensurablist approach to reality may be called "critical empirical realism", as realism is the descriptive face of objectivism, empiricism is the descriptive face of phenomenalism, and what I would call a critical-liberal methodology is more commonly called just "critical" as applied to theories of knowledge.
With regards to opinions about morality, commensurablism boils down to forming initial opinions on the basis that something, loosely speaking, feels good (and not bad), and then rejecting that and finding some other opinion to replace it with if someone should come across some circumstance wherein it doesn't feel good in some way. And, if two contrary things both feel good or bad in different ways or to different people or under different circumstances, commensurablism means taking into account all the different ways that things feel to different people in different circumstances, and coming up with something new that feels good (and not bad) to everyone in every way in every circumstance, at least those that we've considered so far. In the limit, if we could consider absolutely every way that absolutely everything felt to absolutely everyone in absolutely every circumstance, whatever still felt good across all of that would be the objective good. In short, the objective good is the limit of what still seems good upon further and further investigation. We can't ever reach that limit, but that is the direction in which to improve our opinions about morality, toward more and more correct ones. Figuring out what what can still be said to feel good when more and more of that is accounted for may be increasingly difficult, but that is the task at hand if we care at all about the good. This commensurablist approach to morality may be called "liberal hedonic moralism", as moralism is the prescriptive face of objectivism, hedonism is the prescriptive face of phenomenalism, and what I would call a critical-liberal methodology is more commonly called just "liberal" as applied to theories of justice.
Phenomenalism may superficially sound similar to nihilism, inasmuch as there being nothing more to things than their experiential qualities sounds superficially similar to there being no actual things at all, only the appearance of them. But as will elaborate soon in essays against both nihilism and transcendentalism, I differentiate clearly between the two, and still hold to objectivism alongside pheneomenalism. Conversely, while objectivism may sound like it could entail transcendentalism, for the same reasons but in reverse, I think it does not, and still hold to phenomenalism alongside objectivism. An objective phenomenalism is not nihilistic, and a phenomenal objectivism is not transcendent, viewing the world as wholly independent of anyone's opinions about of it, but in no part inaccessible to all experience of it.
Likewise, liberalism may superficially sound similar to fideism, inasmuch as not requiring justification to hold a belief sounds superficially similar to condoning appeals to faith. But as I will elaborate soon in essays against both fideism and cynicism, I differentiate clearly between the two, and still hold to criticism alongside liberalism. And conversely, while criticism may sound like it could entail cynicism, for the same reasons but in reverse, I think it does not, and still hold to liberalism as well. A critical liberalism is not fideistic, and a liberal criticism is not cynical, viewing the search for answers as a ongoing narrowing-down from initially unlimited possibilities, not the construction of absolute certainties built upon foundations that themselves rest ultimately on nothing.
I strongly suspect that such chains of inference at least tacitly underlie many philosophical views I disagree with:
- Those who see the rejection of fideism for criticism as leading to cynicism and thus nihilism, and the consequent rejection of transcendentalism for phenomenalism as leading to nihilism again, rightly reject nihilism and cynicism, but also phenomenalism and criticism along with them, embracing transcendentalism and the fideism that it entails as their only hope (so they think) against nihilism.
- Conversely, those who see the rejection of nihilism for objectivism as leading to transcendentalism and thus fideism, and the consequent rejection of cynicism for liberalism as leading to fideism again, rightly reject fideism and transcendentalism, but also liberalism and objectivism along with them, embracing cynicism and the nihilism that it entails as their only hope (so they think) against fideism.
This conflation of liberalism with fideism, or equivalently of criticism with cynicism, and likewise of phenomenalism with nihilism, or equivalently of objectivism with transcendentalism, leads many people, I suspect, to see the only available options as a transcendent fideistic view, or else a cynical nihilistic view. The differentiation of those superficial similarities and so the opening up of possibilities besides those two extremes is the key insight at the core of my entire general philosophy, embracing:
- objectivism without transcendentalism,
- criticism without cynicism,
- liberalism without fideism, and
- phenomenalism without nihilism.
Over the next four essays, I will elaborate further on the implications of my core principles of objectivism, criticism, liberalism, and phenomenalism, as they related to various broad approaches to philosophy:
- In the essay Against Nihilism, I will illustrate how my position against unanswerable questions rules out the possibility of solipsism and egotism, relativism about both reality and morality, and particular kinds of idealism about both reality and morality.
- In the essay Against Fideism, I will illustrate how my position against unquestionable answers rules out the possibility of appeals to intuition, appeals to authority, and appeals to popularity.
- In the essay Against Cynicism, I will illustrate how my position against nihilism in turn rules out the possibility of justificationism about either reality or morality, as well as the reduction of prescription to description (scientism) and the reduction of description to prescription (constructivism).
- And in the essay Against Transcendentalism, I will illustrate how my position against fideism in turn rules out the possibility of supernaturalism and the moral analogue thereof that I term supernurturalism, as well as particular kinds of materialism about both reality and morality.
Continue to the next essay, Against Nihilism.