Now we recall that theoretical thought, often under the name “reason”, was linked to the divine and seen as capable of revealing the whole meaning of reality to us. Here, many a philosopher has thought, is our true Archimedean point, a watch tower we can ascend and overcome the limitations of our body and senses to survey reality from a “Gods-eye-view”. Rene Descartes, considered the father of modern philosophy, put it like this: “Archimedes used to demand just one firm and immovable point in order to shift the entire earth; so I too can hope for great things if I manage to find just one thing, however slight, that is certain and unshakeable.”. Famously he proposed the cogito, the self as a thinking thing, to be his Archimedean point. Reason then becomes a form of pseudo-revelation; it takes upon itself the role of revealing to us what is divine.
Right from the beginning of philosophy there was a faith in theoretical thought that it would lead us to the true picture of reality, a picture that sets itself against the changing diversity (and richness) of everyday experience. This meant that the result of theoretical thinking was identified with true reality. Put in another way, the fallible and limited outcome of human thinking became the standard for what is truly real and important. Given that theoretical thinking involves isolating and focusing on a specific feature of the world, the identification of the result of our theoretical thinking with true reality has led philosophers to take what they had isolated in thought to be the independent and fundamental basis of all reality. This shows a kind of forgetfulness because what is isolated in thought is isolated only as a result of our activity of separating it from its everyday context and not because it really is isolated and independent. We forget, at our peril, that what our thinking gives us is just a small focused part of reality and not its true, underlying nature: what philosophers often call essence or substance.
Now, to take something in reality as the independent and fundamental basis of all reality, is to take that part of creation and give it a divine like status. By seeking the answer to the boundary question of unity and diversity within the confines of what reason reveals to us leads to a form of intellectual idolatry. Not only that, it also fails to solve the problem. Let’s see why that is. Philosophers have tended to identity one or two features as basic to reality. If just one feature (monism), then there remains the problem of how we can get from this one feature all the diversity we experience. For example, how from matter we can get life, consciousness, morality and so on. If two features are made fundamental then the unity of what we experience, and the way things in God’s world seem to fit together become problematic because we are now required work out how these two very different features can interact with each other. For example, in addition to matter Rene Descartes added mind, but then had great difficulty in explaining how the mind can affect the body and how the body can affect the mind.
A further problem is that since created reality is not absolute, and since the feature that our thinking has isolated for investigation is not truly isolated and independent but in actual fact intertwined with the rest of reality, then taking it to be the key to reality leads to irresolvable problems. These can be seen in the various paradoxes and antinomies that crop up throughout the history of philosophy, perhaps none as famous as those identified by Zeno of Elea. He developed a number of arguments to support his view that motion was not real. The most famous is known as the Achilles paradox (after the famous Greek hero), or sometimes as the ‘tortoise and the hare’. Here we are to imagine a race between a tortoise and Achilles (or a hare). Achilles being a good sport allows the tortoise a head-start but doesn’t realise that in order to overtake the tortoise he must first reach the place where the tortoise started from, by which point the tortoise has moved on. Now Achilles must cross an admittedly short distance to arrive at the position the tortoise has now got to. Unfortunately, by the time Achilles has got there the wily tortoise has kept going on to a further point and so it seems the same will happen ad infinitum (to infinity) meaning that Achilles will never be able to overtake the tortoise! This paradoxical conclusion, that Achilles will never overtake the tortoise when we know that in reality he will, is a result of Zeno’s attempt to explain everything in terms of space. Since motion is different from space, it cannot be explained on its basis and so a consistent reduction of all of reality to space will end up denying the reality of motion.
One more problem we mention now is that due to the great diversity exhibited in creation there are many modes of reality that can be isolated and made into the fundamental starting point of our explanations. This variety means that it becomes quite arbitrary what choice is made as regards what is taken to be ultimately real. This is revealed in the changing fashions of -isms that one encounters in the different fields of scholarship, such as rationalism, behaviourism, psychologism, organicism, historicism, economism, physicalism etc. Each of these has been equally successful (and unsuccessful) at organising its explanation of all reality around just one dimension of reality. Later we shall see why reductionism can meet with a certain degree of success. For now, to give a sense of how arbitrary the choice is, compare the following positions of Rene Descartes and David Hume. First Descartes:
Yet I certainly seem to see, to hear, and to be warmed. This cannot be false; what is called ‘having a sensory perception’ is strictly just this, and in this restricted sense of the term it is simply thinking. (Descartes Meditations II)
Now compare with Hume:
To hate, to love, to think, to feel, to see; all this is nothing but to perceive. (A Treatise of Human Nature, Book I, Part II, sec. vi)
Descartes reduces all the phenomena of human experience to thinking, while Hume reduces the same realities to perception. While the consequences are significant, it is difficult to know why one form of reduction should be favoured over the other. Both in their own way are expressions of faith. Both reductions rely on the abstractive and isolating activities of thought. Now, since theory focuses on elements and cannot comprehend the whole, it is itself one element of the whole. This means that the answer to the problem of unity and diversity must be found prior to theory, including philosophical theory. A vision of the whole, as a vision of ‘life, the universe and everything’, is a vision of faith whether one is “religious” or not. The conclusion is that philosophy cannot give us an Archimedean point.