Blueprints to the Universe
February 13, 2012

In which Slate pulls an old classic out of the archives of the now-defunct Lingua Franca magazine. The topic: an enigmatic millionaire and amateur philosopher who, under the pseudonym “A.M. Monius,” wrote an audacious metaphysical treatise called “Coming to Understanding.” From the article:

“Coming to Understanding” is a remarkable document. As Ermanno Bencivenga observes in his review, in its sheer temerity the work resembles such philosophical landmarks as René Descartes’s Meditations, Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea. (Bencivenga describes it as “a self-standing piece of reflection which asks to be judged on its own merit.”) With few citations and nary a footnote, the manuscript seeks to provide “a large-scale account of reality, its origin, purpose, and how it hangs together.” The questions it engages are grand: Does reality have a purpose? Why are things intelligible at all?

As a work of metaphysics, “Coming to Understanding” picks up where science leaves off. The purview of science is the world of “contingent beings”—things that might not have existed, or might have been otherwise, such as you, me, electrons, mountains, and the law of gravity. Science strives to explain the nature, properties, and causes of these contingent beings, which as a whole make up our physical reality.
But science does not and cannot explain why there are contingent beings in the first place. That is a question for metaphysics: Why do contingent beings exist? Or, put plainly, why is there something rather than nothing?

In answering that question, A.M. Monius laid out a new vision of the underlying architecture of reality:

“Coming to Understanding” proposes replacing the theists’ God with reality as a whole, or Being. It also advocates replacing God’s personal intention (that contingent beings come to love God) with an impersonal, fundamental good (that contingent beings come to understand the form of Being). Having made these substitutions, A.M. Monius reaches the following conclusion: “Contingent being exists for the sake of the coming to understanding of the form of Being Itself by contingent being.” In other words, “the central theme of the whole drama of reality” is that beings like you and me and A.M. Monius come to understand the purpose and structure of reality.

And as it happens, the purpose and structure of reality are precisely what A.M. Monius has on offer. In sophisticated detail, the last two-thirds of “Coming to Understanding” are devoted to a discussion of categories similar to Aristotle’s, such as the Universal, the Particular, the Spatio-temporal, and the Cognizable. A.M. Monius believes that these categories demarcate the fundamental types of Being and—in light of their interrelations—suggest the purpose of contingent being.

Silly? Maybe a little bit. But what makes A.M. Monius such an intriguing figure — both to myself and, I think, his critics in academia — is his ambition and fearlessness; his willingness to look silly for the sake of answering really big questions. If there are many contemporary analytic philosophers out there who share Monius’ temerity, I haven’t encountered them.* (That said, if you do know of any, please leave their names in the comments.) Maybe it took a precocious amateur to do what no sane, reputation-conscious academic would ever attempt.

I often miss these grand projects, unrepentant skeptic that I may be. Regardless of whether you think they describe anything true about the universe — regardless, in fact, of whether you believe there’s any such thing as a metaphysical fact — they at least give you a different lens through which to view the world. Think of it as accidental phenomenology.

*Some philosophy nerds would probably point to On What Matters, but Parfit’s subject matter there is limited to ethics.

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Nietzsche Blogging: Homer’s Contest
August 23, 2010

The Death of Socrates
Image via Wikipedia

I’m about 30 pages into The Portable Nietzsche now, and a few prominent themes are already becoming pretty obvious. The most obvious one: Nietzsche loves himself some Greeks. Homer, of course, gets a major shout out in “Homer’s Contest,” but the German philosopher’s greatest affinity seems to be for the Athenian philosophers: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and so on.

It turns out that Nietzsche likes the ancients for a lot of the same reasons I do: he takes issue with the utilitarian, enlightenment-era notion of aggregate pleasure or utility as an ultimate moral end. Nietzsche sees truth as a worthwhile end in and of itself, not to mention excellence.

I’m completely onboard with truth as an end, but on the fence regarding virtue and excellence. Or, to put it more accurately, I think virtue and excellence are fine things, but that it’s nonsensical to think of them as something that could put you above other persons in any morally relevant sense. I’m not sure how I feel about the second formulation from Kant’s categorical imperative (the part that says: never treat others as means, always treat them as ends in and of themselves) as a set in stone law ad absurdum, but I think there’s considerable merit to it as a general rule of thumb.

Nietzsche clearly disagrees. To him, the lives of the vast majority of humankind are valuable only to the extent to which they serve as means for the truly virtuous, excellent people. Or as he puts it, when discussing why we have civilization: “The hope is that with the preservation of so many blanks one may also protect a few in whom humanity culminates.”

To my delicate liberal sensibilities, the idea of calling any person a simple “blank” with no moral weight of their own is morally repugnant. But what little I know of Nietzsche’s work suggests this will grow into a major preoccupation of his, and I’m interested to see how he develops it.

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Comments/Philosophy and Science
May 23, 2010

First off, good news! The disqus comments section is finally functional. My hope is that a lot of people will take advantage of it—philosophy is a continuous dialogue or it’s barely anything.

Next: I wanted to answer in a little more detail Emily’s question from my previous post: “How do we reconcile philosophy and science?” The answer, I think, is that we don’t really have to; any philosophical theory that’s directly contradicted by empirical evidence should just be discarded. Or, at the very least, there needs to be a philosophical theory that can reasonably call into doubt the empirical evidence.

But remember, science itself is a philosophical construct. We wouldn’t have it without Aristotle or David Hume, and both of them—along with any reasonable proponent of the scientific method—recognized its limitations as well as its strengths. Just because empirical observation can lead to value-independent explanations of causality does not necessarily mean that value does not exist in some sense; it just means that discussions of “value” are outside the realm of scientific inquiry (at least for the time being; metaethical naturalists, those who believe that morality is a natural fact, would disagree).

Those moments when science seems to most undermine philosophical inquiry are when philosophers are no longer content to address the philosophy of science, and instead play at being actual scientists. For an example of why that’s never a good idea, see here.

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