In the course of reading philosophy, I sometimes find myself objecting to philosophical ideas not on the grounds that the ideas are demonstrably false (although they very well may be) but rather that, even if they were true, we simply couldn’t live as if they were true. I have been thinking about this principle, and for a while it has struck me as somewhat ad hoc and itself illogical. Whether or not someone can live a principle is irrelevant to whether or not the principle is actually true. For example, I think Christianity is true, but sooner or later, we reach a point where we simply cannot live exactly as Christ did during his earthly life and commanded us also to live.
I think I finally hit on why this principle would reasonably apply to, say, determinism or radical skepticism and not, for example, religious principles or the categorical imperative. The difference is not only that the principles are, eventually, unlivable but that no one even wants to live them. We praise Jesus’ teachings and the categorical imperative even if we know we can’t follow them completely, but nobody wants to live like rape or murder are the unavoidable consequences of either divine predestination or mechanical interactions. Nobody even wants to try and live their daily life in a radically skeptical way, doubting that any knowledge is attainable. Christians want to be like Christ, and Buddhists want to be like the Buddha, but even Hume doesn’t want to be Hume:
Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? … I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.
Most fortunately it happens, that since Reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, Nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends. And when, after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.
I tie this observation into reason by noting that, if human reason can discover truths that no human can possibly live let alone want to live, reason must be either useless or suspect. Since reason leads us to truths that are antithetical to our continued existence, we must either profess truths that would destroy human existence if lived truly, or we must hide these truths and profess statements that are not true but convenient for continued existence. The former would ensure there are no humans, let alone philosophers, after a few generations, and the latter should be anathema to anyone who considers himself or herself a philosopher.
I by no means present these thoughts as air tight. They came to my mind while driving down the interstate and listening to a CD lecture on ethics. But I think we should walk through why we reject some claims out of hand but not others. Why am I ok, at least upon cursory inspection, with Christian ethics or the categorical imperative, but I instinctively reject determinism and radical skepticism? Is it simple prejudice, or is reason at play? Or both? Are we prejudiced against certain ideas because we subconsciously know the dangers to reason these ideas present?