In my intro philosophy courses I would say that one of my main priorities is to persuade my students that ideas matter.  The argument is drawn from Plato and is very simple.  Many actions– I say many, not all because any number of things can lead us to act –are based on our beliefs.  A belief is simply any statement that can be true or false.  Knowledge, if it exists, is one variety or species of belief; whereas opinion is another species of belief.  I keep it basic at this point.  “Opinion” is not synonymous with “subjective”, but is rather a conviction or belief that we hold to be true without knowing the demonstration for that belief.  In short, as problematic as it is, I take Plato’s thesis from Theatetus that knowledge is “justified true belief” when introducing this claim.  Thus, for example, I have the opinion that the earth orbits about the sun.  If, in my case, this is an opinion, then this is because while I believe it to be true, I can’t provide the demonstration that it is true.  I believe this claim based on hearsay and authority.  By contrast, the astronomer down the hallway from me has knowledge that the earth revolves around the sun because she can provide the demonstration for this belief or the supporting evidence.

We see a dramatic example of this thesis in Plato’s Euthyphro.  Euthyphro is at the porch of King Archon to prosecute his father for murder.  One of his father’s servants had gotten drunk and killed another servant.  His father bound the servant and threw him in a ditch and sent another servant to get the proper authorities to determine what to do with him.  While they were waiting for the authorities, the servant died from hunger, his bonds, and exposure to the elements.  Euthyphro classifies this death as murder (it looks more like manslaughter, however, and this is significant as the two crimes carry different penalties).  However, when Socrates asks Euthyphro why he would do such a thing to his own father, he calmly responds that it is his religious or pious duty to do so.  It is his beliefs about piety that lead to his action (prosecuting his father).  Socrates seems to think that Euthyphro’s action will only be ethical or moral if he can demonstrates that he has a knowledge of piety, rather than a mere opinion.  Why?  Opinions can be mistaken and thereby lead to mistaken action that harms others.  What commences is a sort of philosophical therapy where Socrates patiently attempts to demonstrate that Euthyphro is in a state of ignorance, that he suffers from a sort of hubris, and that because he doesn’t genuinely know what piety is, he should refrain from action.

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We don’t need examples as dramatic as those of Euthyphro and his beliefs about piety to discern the relationship between action and belief.  If we reflect on why we engage in actions like washing our hands and dishes, why we don’t eat food that has been left out for long periods of time, the answer is that we believe 1) that bacteria and viruses exist (though most of us haven’t seen them), and 2) that these germs cause sickness.  It took people like Louis Pasteur to convince us of this belief, and that belief brought about a revolution in how we behave or what we do.  After Pasteur, for example, we began to sterilize medical equipment.  Ideas have consequences and impact how we live.  If we support the belief that the frontal cortex isn’t fully developed until around the age of 25 and that the frontal cortex plays a key role in reasoning and impulse control, then we probably won’t support abstinence only sex eduction because the conclusion will be that many younger people simply don’t yet have the impulse control for this education to be effective.  They don’t yet have the hardware to run the software.

We can therefore say of metaphysics and ontology that they are incipient action.  Here I set aside Derridean and Heideggerian critiques of the former as “onto-theology”, instead treating these terms as theories of reality and being).  Our metaphysic, as our theory of what is real or exists at the greatest level of generality, tells us what actions we should engage in, what questions we should ask, what we should investigate, and so on.  We see a glaring example of this in the documentary Jesus Camp:

As the leader of the camp prays over her video equipment, we encounter a metaphysic, a theory of reality, that dictates a certain course of action.  Clearly this theory of reality posits a dualistic metaphysic in which there are material or physical forces and spiritual forces.  Those spiritual forces intervene in the material world, impacting how things happen.  Thus, the forces of evil, the demonic forces, strive to thwart the soldiers of God by preventing the video equipment from working.  The forces of good, led by God, can thwart those forces of evil.  If this is the case, if the material world is bound up with the agency of these entities, then the appropriate action is to pray over the equipment to persuade God to give favor and prevent the forces of evil from triumphing.  A materialist or one that holds that only physical things exist, by contrast, wouldn’t even think to engage in such ritual or symbolic action, but would instead make sure that the equipment is plugged in, that they’ve paid their electric bills, that the slide projector is in good working order and so on.  Their actions, questions, and observations of the world would be entirely different and would lead to entirely different interpretations of the world about them.

In popular culture, the word “theory” has come to signify a sort of unproven hunch or hypothesis deployed to explain phenomena.  Many people seem to have the idea that things were once theories and that at some point they become facts.  But this is not at all what a theory is.  A theory is a framework of explanation.  Some theories are well supported, others are poorly supported, but all theories have the shared feature of explaining phenomena of one sort or another.  Theories give us a general account of what causes things, what we should investigate to understand things, and– if the theory is a good one –generates questions and problems.

In the theory of atomism as articulated by Lucretius in De Rerum Natura, for example, we encounter magnificent theory.  The theory is very simple and elegant.  It claims that all things are composed of combinations of atoms and void.  These atoms are defined solely by their shape.  They are indivisible.  They are eternal (they were never created, nor, since they can’t be divided, can they be destroyed).  And they are governed strictly by cause and effect relations (with the exception of the mysterious clinamen).  Lucretius repeatedly compares the atoms of the ABC’s or “letters” of nature.  If we follow the analogy, letters are the elementary units of language (sic.) and compose words, which in turn compose sentences.  Likewise, things are akin to words in that they are composed of differently shaped atoms, and combinations of things will be like sentences and will be events or what Wittgenstein would later call “states-of-affairs”.  We thus have the macro or molar level of reality (the things and properties we see about us) and the micro or molecular level of reality, the atoms and their combinations.  Things and their qualities will emerge or arise form how the atoms are composed.  This will take place in one of two ways:  either by adding or subtracting atoms from an assemblage, as we do with words when we’re able to generate different meanings by substituting new letters:  cat, bat, sat, mat, etc.  Or by combining elements of the assemblage in different ways, as we do in words like “Levi” where we can anagrammatically generate “evil”, “vile”, “live”, and “veil”, by changing the organization of the assemblage of letters.  Giving an account of something or its properties will consist in tracing things back to their atomic assemblages or constitution.

Extraordinary and beautiful questions arise from Lucretius’s atomic metaphysic or theory that, to the eyes of one who doesn’t think theoretically, can only appear stupid.  For example, in Book II of De Rerum Natura, Lucretius asks why things are the color they are.  For most of us, it wouldn’t even occur to ask such a question.  They just are this color.  After a moment of reflection, we might conclude that the thing is composed of atoms of the same color.  However, we must remember that atoms have one, sole property:  shape.  They are below the threshold of perception and have no color features.  Yet this is not merely an assertion of Lucretius’s part.  He notes that things like the ocean change color.  The ocean is now blue, now green, now clear, now black, now white.  Granting that the ocean has not gotten any new atoms, how is this possible, Lucretius asks?  A brilliant observation.  If the atoms of the ocean were, say, blue, then the ocean would not be able to change color.  Rather, he says, color must arise form how the atoms are combined (like my name above).  As wind and wave motion recombines the atoms we get variations in color.  Something similar could be said of tomatoes, which change color over the course of their growth and decay.  My point here is not to endorse Lucretius’s theory of color, nor his atomism, but to indicate how theory leads us to explain phenomena in particular ways and, indeed, even notice certain phenomena that might otherwise seem insignificant.

Another gorgeous question Lucretius asks is how vision is possible.  Recall that for Lucretius, all events are governed by cause and effect relationships.  Cause and effect relationships require things to touch.  Here atomism generates a mystery, a problem.  My dog Zoe is over there, I am over here.  I see my dog, so there’s a causal interaction taking place, yet we are not touching.  Within an atomistic universe this shouldn’t be possible.  So what’s going on?  The atomists theorize that all things (the molar level) excrete a very fine “bark” or “skin” akin to the skin that snakes slough from their bodies.  These “phantasma” or “simulacra” travel through the intervening void and act on our nervous system, producing our experience of vision.  While the details of the atomistic theory of vision are wrong, the the atomists were nonetheless largely right.  Vision is made possible by photons of light raining down upon things, vibrating at different frequencies when they hit the object, and then bouncing off of them to affect our nervous system.  Similarly, the atomists ask bizarre and insane questions like how we’re able to hear sound through walls.  Sound must be something if it produces causal effects (and on this they were right yet again, as their is no sound in a vacuum such as space; there has to be atmosphere).  If this is a mystery or a problem, then it’s because walls are solid and nothing solid can pass through another thing that is solid.  They thus conclude that things only appear solid and that all things (the molar level) must contain void that allows other solid things to pass.

Who thinks to ask such strange questions?  Only a person that has a theory.  Theory transforms the mundane and ordinary, what might seem to be insignificant, into a series of symptoms to be explained.  And theories will, when they’re good, have implications for action.  If we side with the materialists, if we hold that everything is governed by cause and effect relations, then it will never occur to us to engage in ritual or symbolic activity to treat a disease or end a drought, because it will follow that there is no cause and effect relations between the voodoo doll or the prayer and the thing we wish to affect.  There’s no touching.  Likewise, if we hold that only physical or material things exist, we will no longer worry about the afterlife because it will follow that we have to have a body in order to have a mind and that the mind ceases to exist when the body ceases to function.  No doubt this is why people sometimes find anesthesia so traumatic because, unlike sleep where we still have some minimal awareness and sense of the passage of time, under strong anesthesia our minds are literally “turned off”.  We cease to exist.  It’s like death.

Today theory has everywhere fallen into ill repute.  In literature departments we see calls to abandon theory and simply “read” texts.  But how can we read texts if we don’t have a sense of what it is that we’re looking for in texts and what it means to give an account of a text?  In politics, of course, we have the so-called “centrists”, who claim to have abandoned “ideologies” (theories of the polis) and to simply “solve problems” through careful research and practical, “pragmatic” solutions.  However, often these solutions have the effect of exacerbating the problems.  Without theories of society, we have no means of determining what causes the problems in the first place and what, therefore, the appropriate response to these problems might be.  We don’t see the unity across difference of various problems, instead treating them as all disconnected and unrelated.  We don’t see how these problems are symptoms of an underlying structure or system.  Thus, for example, one proposes entrepreneurial activity as a solution to the problem of climate change, failing to see that the dynamics of capitalism and its voracious extraction of materials in the pursuit of profit are at the heart of our climate problems.  We see the problem of stagnant wages and skyrocketing personal debt as one problem, and climate change as another problem, failing to see that they are both symptoms of a common structure or system and its dynamics.  If I were to list one fundamental criticism of contemporary democrats and liberals, it would be that they lack theory.  They stumble about like blind men, unaware of their own poor assumptions, thereby tilting, like Don Quixote, at windmills as they strive to solve problems.  Their hubris is twofold:  They believe they can act and address problems without theory, and they believe that they do observe, act, and address problems without theory.

Anglo-American analytic philosophers have accustomed us to the idea that all observation is “theory-laden”.  To this, we could add that much action is “theory-laden”.  The idea here is that what we observe, how we interpret our observations, is premised on an underlying theory of the world that we have.  To those who claim to be without theory and without any metaphysic, we should respond that they are merely bad theorists, who hold their theories in a crude, non-reflective, and unconscious matter.  Not only are the theories that inform their action and understanding of the world often a contradictory hodgepodge of conflicting theoretical frameworks, but often their theoretical frameworks are incredibly crude.  They therefore stumble about in the world in a state of darkness, causing all sorts of chaos and destruction as a result of their blunt instruments and the “solutions” they suggest.  There is no escaping theory and for this reason we have a duty to attempt to make our theories explicit to determine whether or not they are truly adequate to the phenomena they are attempting to thematize and respond to.

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