Section 2

Causality and the Method

Chapter 1

Apparently contradictory situations

At any rate, we now have a starting-place that seems to be more unassailable than Descartes' "I think therefore I am," because instead of using a "clear and distinct idea" as the criterion of certainty, our criterion is that the denial of what we have asserted involves the affirmation of it, so that even those who would disagree with it agree with it.

Unfortunately, Descartes' method was just as flawed as his starting-place; and so even though we have now got something more secure than he started with, we can't proceed to go on from here and "mathematically" deduce the universe; and as a matter of fact, we are going to move rather rapidly from absolute certainty to physical certainty.

Actually, the method in philosophy that I think will work is very close to (and is in fact a generalization of) scientific method; so that what you come up with is philosophical theories which are at least in principle (and often in practice) verifiable or falsifiable in the sense that other scientific theories are. We have already seen a hint of this at the end of the last chapter, where the theory that "knowing that I know" is due to a second act is falsified on the grounds that if you draw out the implications of it, you get into a worse contradiction than the apparent one that an act can know itself.

But it is well to be clear just what we are doing and why it works, and so now let us look at an application of the Principle of Contradiction.

Let us suppose that there is a situation where you have (or think you have) evidence on both sides of a contradiction. You know that there is no such thing, really, as a contradiction, and so there has to be something wrong about the evidence as it presents itself to you.

You wouldn't call this situation a contradiction, then, because you know that it really isn't a contradiction; still, it's peculiar, because as far as you know, it's a contradiction. "That's funny," you say.

Actually, being confronted with a contradiction is three different types of experiences, depending on the point of view you take toward it:

First of all, the situation is regarded as comic if you just notice this fact and it doesn't distress you or motivate you to find out how to make sense out of it. We laugh, basically, because we are accepting the world as nonsensical.

That is, for the thoroughgoing rationalist, there is no "funny-haha," but only "funny-peculiar," because the rationalist can't simply rest on seeing that the facts of the world as they present themselves to him contradict each other. "I had my keys in my hands just a minute ago. Where could they have got to? They couldn't just have flown away. There has to be an explanation!" he will exclaim. The person who laughs will answer, "Well yes, I suppose there is one somewhere, but meanwhile, you should see the look on your face!"

A second attitude toward at least one type of "apparently real" contradiction is that of suffering, when you aren't particularly trying to straighten out the intellectual conundrum and find how the situation isn't really contradictory, but you think that things ought not to be this way.

The person without the keys, for instance, may very well not be interested in how the keys could have got out of his possession without his realizing it, but in the fact that he hasn't got his keys, and he needs his keys to get into his car and house and to keep others out. The solution to the problem that he dropped them twenty feet back and someone picked them up is not going to give him any satisfaction, because he is evaluating the situation, not trying to understand it.

But it is the third attitude that interests us here: Curiosity is the attitude you have if you think that the real situation can't be that way and you begin look at the evidence to find out if you misread it somehow or if there's a fact missing which would straighten out the unintelligibility.

It is in this sense that I take Aristotle's statement that is usually translated, "Philosophy begins in wonder." I would interpret it, "Science begins in curiosity."

That is, the scientist is not simply a person who wants to "know more"; there are all kinds of facts (for example outside their fields) for which scientists give the impatient response of Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson, "Very well, Watson, and now that I have heard it, I shall do my best to forget it," on the grounds that they don't want to clutter up their minds with information that's not relevant.

What focuses their attention? Curiosity. It isn't what they don't know that drives them into the laboratories; it's what they do know that doesn't make sense--and the conviction that things have to make sense.

Curiosity, then, implies a problem. But just to be completely clear about this, I should point out that there are two kinds of problems: theoretical problems and practical problems.

Both of these can be formulated as contradictions. The practical problem is of the form, "I intend to do X, but there is evidence indicating that I cannot do X." The theoretical problem is of the form, "There is evidence that X is the case, and also evidence that X is not the case."

The most significant difference between the two is that the practical problem is not necessarily solvable; but it is absolutely certain that the theoretical problem has a solution. (Not necessarily that you can find it--that's another practical problem--but that there is one somewhere.)

First of all, the reason why the practical problem might not have a solution is that we know, practically speaking, that we're limited in our ability to do things. We don't have a "problem" about whether we can walk to Jupiter, because we know that it's simply out of the question; but there might be a problem about whether we can somehow get there, because with rockets and so on there's reason to say that we can; but with the expense and the enormous mass of Jupiter to contend with (which would make us weigh much, much more than we weigh on earth), there might be no way it could actually be done.

But the situation is different with theoretical problems, because it is absolutely certain that there really aren't any contradictions; and so either (a) the "evidence" on at least one side wasn't actually a fact, or (b) there is some fact missing which, when found, would show that there is no real contradiction between the ones known at the moment.

For instance, the person who suddenly discovers that he doesn't have his keys, and who treats this as a problem, is interested in the apparent contradiction implied in "I had them in my hand a minute ago" and "They aren't there now." The reason this appears as a contradiction to him is implied in the statement, "They couldn't just have flown away"; and what that amounts to is this: "I had them in my hand a minute ago, and they didn't get out of my hand (in any way that I know of); and so they are still there. But they aren't there."

The reason the parentheses have to be there is that no one can accept the following: "I had the keys in my hand a minute ago and in fact they did not leave my hand; and so in fact they are still in my hand--and in fact they are not in my hand." The first two statements (in the original formulation, but without the parentheses) tend to the conclusion that the keys are still in his hand, but he knows that the conclusion is false, and so he knows that the parentheses have to be there; one of the two premises (or the connection between them) is false.

The dilemma is obviously solvable if (a) he didn't have the keys in his hand in the first place, and only thinks now that he remembers having them, (b) he inadvertently dropped them, (c) someone stole them from him, or (d) they self-destructed or vanished in some other way that he didn't notice, or at least doesn't remember now.

The first alternative isn't intellectually interesting, because all it means is that there wasn't really any evidence in favor of a contradiction. But, as can be seen from the example, it is perfectly possible (by asking others, for instance) to know that you had the keys; and by searching and so on you can also know that you don't have them now; and once that happens, it is certain that there is a fact that you do not know. Furthermore, there may be ways to discover what that fact is.

Now I don't want at this point to go into how this forms the basis of scientific method (which is precisely a way of finding such facts), because the way we are going to be using it is slightly different from the way the empirical sciences use it; and much later, in discussing the modes of thought, I will try to show how this little fact of being presented with evidence on both sides of a contradiction accounts neatly for all that scientists do.

For the moment, let me remark that when there is evidence on both sides of a contradiction, it is usually the case that one of the sides consists in a logical conclusion from facts already known ("They couldn't have just flown away.") This is why Thomas Kuhn has said that scientific advances come about from difficulties with "paradigms." The scientist who is about to make a "breakthrough" is confronted with some fact that "doesn't fit" what the scientific knowledge of the moment (based, of course, on the accepted theories) says must be the case. And the result, when "refinements" of the theory cannot be made to make sense out of the fact, is that the previous theory is scrapped and something devised that accounts for both (a) what it accounted for, and (b) the new fact.

Thus, the fact that light did not alter its apparent speed through the "aether" whether you were moving toward the light source or away from it did not "fit" with light's being something traveling through a fixed medium; and what Einstein did with this was basically throw out the idea of there being any meaning to "the space" that light was traveling "through" as some kind of entity that was statically just there, and to see what happened if you just took the objects in question as the only real reference-points.

I would grant that most new theories in science come about because facts are discovered that don't fit what the current theory says must be the case; but I don't think that this would have to be true in all cases. It is quite possible that the scientist could find a set of facts that just don't fit together, and either neither of them comes from a previous "mind-set" or both of them do, but they contradict each other. That is, I think that Kuhn was describing one (and perhaps the most common) way we get presented with evidence on both sides of a contradiction. But I think that what is relevant is that it is the fact that there is an apparent contradiction here, not how it arises; because even if it didn't arise in Kuhn's way, it would still generate scientific investigation.