Feb 28, 2010


Recently I've been reading Todorov's "In Defense of the Enlightenment" (good book). Todorov points out something I hadn't really considered before, an inherent restriction in the concept of freedom (p5):

To engage in [individual autonomy], one must have total freedom to examine, question, criticize and challenge dogmas and institutions: none can be regarded as sacred. An indirect but decisive consequence of this preference is the restriction as to the character of authority: it must be on the same dimension as human beings, meaning it must be natural not supernatural. This is the sense in which the Enlightenment produced a 'disenchanted' world, obeying the same physical laws overall and, insofar as human societies were concerned, revealing the same mechanisms of behavior.

In other words, if we have total individual freedom, that implies that all concepts are equally open to being questioned, criticized and challenged. This means all concepts must be of the same order - there can be nothing above criticism (since that would limit freedom). This in turn restricts the character of authority - there can be no authorities above reason. Consequently if we choose freedom we must give up a supernatural god, since a supernatural god is formulated as a being of a different order, hierarchically above critique. So individual freedom implies we must reject certain concepts, in other words we are not totally free.

This style of argument reminds me strongly of Gödel's incompleteness theorems, from 1931. Gödel showed that, for any formal system T that met certain basic criteria, "T includes a statement of its own consistency if and only if T is inconsistent." In other words, all formal systems have the equivalent of the liars paradox: "this sentence is false." Mathematical systems are inherently incomplete: we can never have a grand theory of everything, since all sufficiently complex mathematical reasoning systems will contain statements that are contradictory.

I wonder, then, if philosophical reasoning is also incomplete: do all philosophical absolutes contain within them a paradox or contradiction which renders those absolutes incomplete? Anyone?

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