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Fr. 509

April 16, 2014

An excerpt from Robert Anton Wilson’s Prometheus Rising appearing elsewhere elucidates two functions joined in the human cognitive economy: the thinker and the prover.

As the excerpt makes clear, the thinker and the prover are intimately linked, human thought processes leading naturally from one to the other. The thinker functions as the arena of conceivability. Mere conceivability does not worry itself with questions of probability or even plausibility. At issue is whether the human mind can conceive of some state or other as a possibility amongst others. Faced with an infinite array of elements, their combination and association, just what can the thinker present to the waking mind?

By contrast, the prover functions as the arena of justification or, perhaps better, of coherence. In other words, the problem shifts from that of conceivability to probability and plausibility. At issue is how the human mind can make some state consistent with both itself and others. Once a possibility highlighted, by what means can the prover provide an explanation to the waking mind on how this is the case?

While an appealing, even intuitive account, the jury is still on how far such an account can be pursued. More simply, it remains to be seen precisely what this account has going for it. There seem to be two major considerations that gesture in the (general) direction of this approach. The first stems from the work done by the “thinker-prover” presentation itself. Does the presentation provide sufficient warrant for its claims? If correct and properly ground, the argument itself must fall under the strictures of the thinker-prover paradigm. Indeed, the argument seems to fit this paradigm: the author conceives of a certain situation and then goes on to show why this thing is the case, i.e. coheres with our experience of the world. Impressively, we come to much the same conclusion when setting out from the premise that the argument is false or ungrounded. If incorrect, the author’s thinker nonetheless sets out from possibility and assembles from the information available a more or less plausible justification or proof for this point of view. This justification proves coherent with the larger view espoused, independently of its bearing on the “objective” world. In this way, the author’s presentation would prove its point indirectly and in opposition to the straightforward conclusion with which its incorrectness would otherwise leave us.

The second point weighing in its favor derives from this view’s similarity to other positions presently available to us. Certainly, there are echoes of such a position in contemporary discussions in epistemology, as concerns conceivability and the broader school of coherentism, terms in which we framed the presentation above. The author’s position approaches the situation in which developments in moral sources and intellectual currents have left us, a sort of crisis of affirmation and vision, as described by Charles Taylor in Sources of the Self. Quite simply, both authors seem in agreement that an objective order, independent of ourselves, is not immediately available to us in the way that it might have once been or, at the very least, seemed to be. Of this crisis in human thought, Taylor writes:

“[I]t becomes possible for us to see a crisis of affirmation as something which we may have to meet through a transfiguration of our own vision, rather than simply through a recognition of some objective order of goodness. The recovery may have to take the form of a transformation of our stance towards the world and self, rather than simply the registering of external reality. Put in yet other terms, the world’s being good may now be seen as not entirely independent of our seeing it and showing it as good, at least as far as the world of humans is concerned. The key to a recovery from the crisis may thus consist in our being able to ‘see that it is good'” (p. 448).

Despite similar views on the inaccessibility of this objective order through direct apprehension, the author and Taylor differ on what is to be done in view of this vision. Although recognizable as a moral source, the author’s commitment to scientism and humanism is not one to which Taylor is likely to grant the “be-all and end-all” status that the author ascribes to these positions. We need merely consider the author’s discussion of “truth”, a sort of bare reality on which knowledge could eventually come to rest and to which we are brought via the scientific method. In neither of these is much room left for the sort of self-interpretation to which Taylor seems to hold.

Such are the considerations nonetheless working in favor of the basic approach. A host of other questions can still be raised, not the least of which concern the practical applications that the author envisages as the natural follow-up to our coming to awareness of the thinker and prover functions. Some of these are: are there more figures in the mental economy than the dualism of thinker and prover?; where does the scientific method fit into this picture of thinker and prover (perhaps as corrective)?; if so, does it exist outside of this economy?; is the double solution described above too neat, as it were?; does objective truth, as it seems, issue from individual thinkers while all the while arising independently of them?; would it perhaps be preferable to change terminology, e.g. to that of  conceiver and justifier?; does the prover’s proving in some sense make such and such a proof the case in the most relevant sense?; is there, on the contrary, still another jump from this “relevant” reality to reality proper?; etc.

Regardless, the author’s case is a thought-provoking one, and any case for self-examination is a welcome one. What comes out clearly is just to what extent it is unthinkable, contrary to older views, that our task is simply that of uncovering an independent, already existing order, inert, static.

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