What is understanding?

For many years I’ve taken for granted the power of understanding to change one’s perspective for the better.

But seeking to always understand more, better, or deeper is as much a form of escapism as any addiction or distraction.

The trouble with understanding is that it masquerades as a pure positive. It’s hard to say “I understand well enough” or “I don’t need to understand better” let alone “I’m okay with not understanding”.

Even coming to the realisation that “understanding is escapist” feels like yet more evidence of the value of understanding!

Perhaps it will help to know what “understanding” really means? That might risk us seeking to understand understanding, but let’s give it a try anyway.

Understand literally means “to stand in the midst of”.

In practice, understanding is another word for “knowing”. Yet it implies the kind of intimate knowledge that comes with standing amidst or among the thing known. To me it also implies a kind of immersion in the thing known. That’s why I prefer it to “comprehend” which is literally to seize or take hold of something, with implications of use, mastery, and control.

This linguistic clue is significant.

Some people seek knowledge for the sake of power. Others seek it because “the truth shall set you free”. The difference in intention and locus of control is the difference between thinking you can use this knowledge to attain your desired end, versus thinking that reality itself is already perfect if only we could experience it truthfully.

The latter is theoretically superior from a spiritual perspective. Yet in practice it risks being just another way of escaping from your experience of reality.

This is what fuels the escapist pursuit of understanding: the idea that the more we know about reality and the better we understand our spiritual predicament, the closer we come to a different, more positive experience.

There’s merit to the pursuit of understanding because many of the mistakes we make are due to ignorance. “Understanding” stands for the kind of knowledge that defeats ignorance and saves us from suffering and error.

It is not unusual to have great realisations along the spiritual path, to understand things better, and experience significant changes as a result. The problem arises when we tune in to understanding as the path itself, and seek to replicate these realisations again and again through our own power.

Yet it often feels as though we only had the realisation because we sought to understand in the first place. If we hadn’t tried to work it out, would we ever have found the answer?

Perhaps we should ask instead where this knowledge, realisation, and understanding comes from. Do we really just set out to know, and by applying our minds gain the knowledge we seek? Do we truly control our acquisition of knowledge? Are we really responsible for finding the answers that cause change?

At first it seemed like this was the case. But over time it’s become more and more apparent that we’re not in control of our lives, we are the product of them. We are our lives, our experience of reality.

In that sense it is better to observe that my thoughts – whether ignorant or knowing – arise and fall as if of their own accord.

My sense of control is a delusion, because the ‘me’ and the feeling of control are likewise thoughts and impressions that arise and fall. My mind creates an impression of who I am, and an impression of being in control. It creates an impression of understanding but it also creates the impression of ignorance.

This train of thought is a strange one. It is mysterious and seems paradoxical. It’s as if I’m saying that everything is outside my control, yet that implies a control in the first place.

The truth is that I don’t direct the course of my understanding, because the impression of doing so is just another impression. The struggle to cut through the ignorance is another impression. The sense of “aha!” at finally understanding is likewise another impression.

What is motivating me to write this now, to examine this now, is not “me”. It is all coming from the same source, whether it be the thought of continuing, or the thought of seeking distraction in food or household work.

That’s why one branch of Buddhism says:

As all things are buddha-dharma, there is delusion and realization, practice, and birth and death, and there are buddhas and sentient beings.

As the myriad things are without an abiding self, there is no delusion, no realization, no buddha, no sentient being, no birth and death.

Delusion and realisation belong to a self that is made up of thoughts and impressions but mistaken for the real self. If that mistake is not made, there is no delusion and hence no realisation.

Yet we continually fall back into this non-self that takes up the mantle of a real self and we sustain it continually through thoughts and impressions.

Why do we do that? Well, what if the answer is that we don’t do that. It’s simply done.

It reminds me of something I was trying to write a while ago. We’ve all heard of Descartes’ famous Cogito Ergo Sum – I think therefore I am. What it means is that Descartes was looking for something, some piece of knowledge that he couldn’t possibly doubt.

He settled on the idea that he couldn’t doubt that he exists, because in doubting his own existence it proves that someone must exist to do the doubting. Hence, if I’m doubting, I must exist to doubt.

But subsequent philosophers have argued that this is a mistake. Descartes only assumed from experience that doubts must belong to minds that can doubt. But even that can be doubted.

So what can Descartes know for sure?

Just that thinking is happening.

Is morality rational?

Bonus question: is reason moral?

Matthew asked the following question in response to our discussion of the is-ought problem:

if “there is no rational way to convince me that I ‘ought’ to do anything” then the result is that either I am not compelled to do that thing (adhering strictly to rationality as the basis for action) or I still do that thing independently of what reasons/rationality compels me to do (perhaps out of desire or inclination or external influence). This points to the question of “what is the role of reason?” when it comes to our actions or judgments.

So I wonder in what sense are reasons (or rational justification) relevant to natural law. I haven’t given this much thought but perhaps there might be something to be said about whether or not natural law fits into the “orthodoxy” of moral philosophy which is typically to provide reasons or rational justifications for our judgments about what we ought to do (i.e. moral precepts), from which the is/ought problem arises.

If it is not necessary to provide a rational justification for why we ought to for example, “fulfill our essential nature”, or if somehow this whole enterprise or rational justification is based on a misconception about morality, then it would seem that reason/rationality is not essential to moral knowledge (or moral understanding) according to natural law theory and therefore natural law theory fits outside of the “orthodoxy” of moral philosophy.

Do you think this distinction between natural law theory and “orthodox” moral philosophy exists?

I think the key question is “what is the role of reason?” with regard to actions and judgements.

During my ill-fated PhD studies I took a closer look at the intellectualist perspective of the will, which informs the Natural Law perspective. Aquinas is pretty much the poster-boy of intellectualism, and in his view the will is defined as the appetite for the good as perceived by the intellect. In this sense, we are hard-wired to do whatever the intellect (reason) tells us is good.

What the intellect identifies as good is an open question. A skeptic can become paralysed by moral doubt, genuinely unable to decide what is truly good. An ordinary person might think twice about eating meat after seeing some horrific mistreatment of livestock. A tasty piece of food might suddenly become unappetising when you realise your three year old son dropped it in his potty by accident.

All our choices are underpinned by reasons. But the motive force – what moves us to make choices – comes not from intellect/reason but from will.

The purpose of Natural Law is to straighten out the operation of the intellect so that the goods it presents to the will are genuine goods. In other words, it seeks to ensure that our reasons are rational ones.

But how does the intellect know what is good? Doesn’t that just bring us back to the problem of how the intellect (reason) can determine what is good and what isn’t? Won’t we just get mired in meta-ethical debates at this point?

This is a genuine problem, by which I mean a practical one in addition to a theoretical one. If good means “that which the will desires” but the will desires based on what the intellect tells us, then good must be whatever the intellect determines it to be.

But as we’ve already explained, the intellect cannot reach those kinds of determinations without a given premise. Pure reason gets us nowhere. A pure moral skeptic cannot recognise any criteria for ‘good’, and thus doubt can stymie the will, the appetite for (unknowable) good.

Nonetheless, there is a way out of this cul-de-sac. There isn’t space to turn around, but we can hit reverse and find our way back to the open road.

While it may be true that, starting from scratch, we cannot determine what is good on purely rational grounds, it is also true that we cannot justify “starting from scratch”, nor the demand for purely rational grounds.

In the first instance, this means that Aquinas and his ilk set out not to create a rationalist or skeptical ethical framework from scratch, but to determine through observation how it is that we already make choices, how we already do ethics, and whether we can improve on what we already do.

This is where the analogy to psychology is quite reasonable. Psychologists don’t really know what mental health means as some absolute or refined category. They define it in the context of people’s ordinary lives, where the line between mental health and illness is drawn fairly broadly in terms of whether or not you can get on with living.

It would be a strange and (ironically) an unreasonable step for Aquinas to decide arbitrarily that from today he would start determining good and evil from a purely skeptical premise. He’d have to – to put it crudely – be a real believer in skepticism.

Instead, he took the much more reasonable approach of looking at how people – including himself – already identified things as good or evil, and sought to find clarity in that dynamic. That doesn’t mean he abandoned reason at all, rather, he identified the reason implicit in people’s ethical choices and judgements, and found that it was coherent even if it wasn’t absolute.

That is, there’s a reason why people prefer truth over falsehood, just as they prefer eating bread over eating dirt.

In this sense, the good in its varied forms is something Aquinas discovered through observation and analysis of human behaviour (and reading Aristotle). These goods are rational, which is to say, there is an order and a proportion and an appropriate relationship between the many things consistently and coherently identified as goods.

And the reason behind them can be compelling. But compelling in the hypothetical sense that presumes we all already have this practical ‘natural’ inclination toward certain things as good for us, not compelling in the sense that these reasons can move a skeptic. But then, a skeptic is someone who has chosen to take an immovable position.So I would agree that Natural Law is outside “orthodox” modern moral philosophy, but I think the is-ought problem and the question of rational justification are just symptoms of a deeper problem.The is-ought problem in its historical context was not a response to Natural Law, but to Moral Rationalists. Ironically, the group Hume sided with sound much more like Natural Law theorists:

The moral sense theorists (Shaftesbury and Hutcheson) and Butler see all requirements to pursue goodness and avoid evil as consequent upon human nature, which is so structured that a particular feature of our consciousness (whether moral sense or conscience) evaluates the rest. Hume sides with the moral sense theorists on this question: it is because we are the kinds of creatures we are, with the dispositions we have for pain and pleasure, the kinds of familial and friendly interdependence that make up our life together, and our approvals and disapprovals of these, that we are bound by moral requirements at all.

The ‘deeper problem’ I mention is simply that the approach to ethics changed. I’m not sure if it changed with Descartes, and the more general philosophical revolution, but change it did. As a result, subsequent theories of ethics seem to want to reproduce not Natural Law but Divine Law outside of a religious context.