In Defense of Armchairs

Welcome to The Armchair! This is a place for Pagan philosophy, theology and apologetics.

The armchair has become something of a symbol hasn’t it? We’ve all heard the phrase “armchair psychology”, usually meaning that one is psychologizing another without having the skill or experience needed to do so. But, there is a deeper concern represented by the imagery of an “armchair”: how can we come to know things about the world just by thinking about them? People, for example, are very complicated, and coming to conclusions about them without ever having left the armchair is probably just asking for trouble. Moreover, time and again people have come up with brilliant theories about how the world works that go on to fall flat on their face when tested against experience. Sheer reflection does not strike many as a reliable way of coming to know things about the world: it may as well be guess work before we can check whether things actually are as we have imagined them to be.

This sentiment is widespread throughout Western societies, and comes in varying degrees: from a pronounced view that our most reasonable beliefs come from the hard sciences to a simple and unarticulated suspicion of beliefs attained purely by reason. We’ve inherited a deference to the empirical that can limit our very capacity to think critically about this deference.

A lot of the work we’ll do here will take place from the armchair, so to speak: we’ll think hard about a number of issues such as the nature and operation of the Gods, whether we survive the death of our bodies, why evil and suffering occur, what the point of life is, and then we’ll draw conclusions. There will be no need to test our theories against experience (though there will be opportunities to do so): our reasoning will suffice in and of itself to warrant us in drawing our conclusions.

But, in light of what has been said about armchair theorizing, why should anyone care what we end up finding? By way of response, I’d like to do two things. One, I want to argue that the spirit of empiricism is hopelessly flawed. This will in turn raise the question of why anyone should care about what we find through experience more than what we find through reason. Second, I want to argue that what really matters to us is simply what seems to be the case, regardless of whether that is through reason or experience. This will in turn answer the initial question: people should care what is found through reason insofar as it seems to be the case.

The Unempirical Empiricism

Allow me to acknowledge and validate something about the spirit of empiricism before evaluating it: sheer thought is an inappropriate method of coming to know certain things about the world; perhaps most obviously for those facts that are only accessible to us through experience. Take, for example, “the” fact of what the Eiffel Tower looks like. One may access this fact either directly — by seeing the tower — or indirectly — by visualizing its description. But, if one has never had any visual experiences; say, because she has always been blind, she can neither see the Eiffel Tower nor visualize its description. Whatever impressions such a one forms, they are not visual. Of course, this is not the only fact like this: in general, facts of what a sensation is like are accessible only through experience — whether direct or indirect. But, sheer thought is an inappropriate method for coming to know other facts about the world too, even ones that may not be accessible to us through experience. For instance, how many stars are there in total? Surely, this is not the sort of question we can positively answer just by thinking about it!

So, of course there are facts about the world that we can’t come to know by sheer reflection. But, that doesn’t mean all facts about the world are like this: the assumption otherwise is non-sequitur. Worse, the claim that we can’t know any fact about the world through sheer reflection would itself be a fact about the world known through sheer reflection. Why? Because it would be sheer reflection about our experiences and not those experiences themselves which revealed this fact. That is to say, the founding moment of “empiricism” as we are here calling it is not any experience, but a judgement either about pure rationality or about the world. For that reason empiricism inescapably rests upon the foundation it then seeks to undermine, militating against itself.

However, this has not stopped its unbridled march across Western societies. Many are at least disposed to believe that there are no facts about the world which can be known through sheer reflection because what they view as our best ways of finding facts about the world – viz. our scientific methods – have not found any. But, inferring that there are no facts about the world that can be accessed by reason alone simply because our scientific methods have not detected any is like inferring that there are no non-metallic objects because our metal detectors have not detected any. Scientific methods study those portions of reality which are susceptible to being studied by scientific methods. If one wants to say that all of reality is susceptible to being studied by scientific methods, she must give an argument, and in the very act of doing so, purport to access a fact about reality using only her reason.

The spirit of empiricism that pervades Western society is not as obviously true as we have been led to believe. At the very least, it should not enjoy the privilege of being the default or assumed view. However, in light of the severe difficulties it faces such as those raised above, it doesn’t deserve our credence.

Appearances Matter

I’m a big fan of Michael Huemer. He has devoted his career as a philosopher to defending commonsense beliefs from philosophically motivated objections. The heart of his efforts is the following position — called “Phenomenal Conservativism”: it is reasonable to believe that things are as they seem to be unless and until one has good reason not to. As Huemer sees things, we commonly experience a state of mind he calls an “appearance”, which occurs whenever something seems to be the case.  Of course, we know that appearances can be deceiving – as with illusions – and so “appearance” is not the same mental state as belief. Thus, for example, we believe that a 2 by 4 submerged under water is straight, even though, due to the way that it refracts light, it appears to be bent. Rather, appearances relate to beliefs as cause to effect: when something genuinely seems to us to be the case, we very often believe that it is. In the preceding example, we have conflicting appearances, though one is stronger than the other, and so causes our belief:  to oversimplify, it appears to our eyes that the 2 by 4 is bent, but in light of what we know about the illusion, it appears to our mind that the 2 by 4 is straight. On top of causing us to believe things, appearances are also what make us reasonable for believing them: we believe things precisely because they seem to us to be the case. Appearances are the aura of truth around beliefs that convince us they are true.

Appearances often arise in us because we’ve had some kind of sensory experience. For example, I might see an empty road, and this triggers the appearance that it is safe to cross; or I might open the door and experience something which makes it seem to me that it is raining, and so forth. But, sensations are not the only things that cause appearances. For instance, consider that no object is completely red and also completely white, or that nothing is older than itself.  These propositions just seem obviously true when we hear them.  We don’t need to test that the shortest path between two points is a straight line before we know that it is. Huemer calls these appearances “intuitions” because our minds apprehend them in an immediate and spontaneous manner, not through inference or sensation.

Experience and reason are vehicles for appearances. One might hold that experience delivers appearances more frequently than reason does, or that it delivers appearances of a better quality than reason does, but even if either scenario were the case, neither would change the fact that reason does deliver appearances and that those appearances make us reasonable for believing them. It’s not what causes us to have appearances that make us reasonable for believing them, it’s the appearances themselves.

A lot of the work we’ll be doing here at The Armchair will rely on what appears to be the case through reason (whether inferentially or intuitively). It’s my hope that this very brief primer will give confidence to Pagans in their theorizing and at least open skeptics up to hearing non-empirical arguments in a new way. After all, if someone thinks I’m wrong, it’s because it seems that I’m wrong. Think about it.

3 Comments

  1. Your 2×4 example redefined “appearance” to mean something that it is not, and you never returned to your original argument regarding reason vs praxis. In what situations would you say armchair reasoning is more effective than praxis? Can reasoning speculate on anything without empirical data and knowledge to reason about? What topics do you intend to reason about? Are those topics somehow more well suited or reason than empirical testing or praxis?

    1. Hello Critter, thanks for the comment.

      Appearance is simply a mental state in which something seems to be the case. Two things seem to us to be the case with respect to a 2×4 submerged underwater: first, that it is bent and second, that it is not. The first appearance is delivered to us by our senses, the second by reason. But, in either case it is the same kind of mental state at work: an appearance.

      I’m skeptical that we can speculate without any empirical data to speculate about, but my concern in this post was whether reason can be trusted without needing empirical verification. I argued that it could because it is of itself a vehicle for appearances.

      We’ll be speculating about philosophical, theological and apologetical topics here, such as the nature and operations of the Gods, whether we survive the death of our bodies, why suffering and evil occur, and what the point of life is. While our discussions will involve empirical data, it will not be our experiences that make our conclusions seem to be the case, but our reason. Insofar as experiences do not of themselves deliver the appearances we’ll be taking a look at, they will be less relevant to our purpose than reason.

      I hope this clarifies!

  2. Everything I think comes through my mind — even my actual experiences are filtered through my mental apparatus. I don’t ever perceive the world directly. “Reality” is largely speculation, is what I’m saying. There is definitely a place for armchair thinking — I’m looking forward to your future posts.

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