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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One Last Question For The Reductive Materialists
December 5, 2011

Which is a more accurate picture of joy? This:

Or this:

This is only a hard question if you make it one. Or if you’re not into Sam Cooke.

Why Even Atheists Need Myths
December 23, 2010

God is my Partisan
Image via Wikipedia

So yesterday I alluded to the notion that you can’t coherently rebut arguments for the existence of God without either confronting them on their own turf (metaphysics) or challenging the whole concept of metaphysical fact. Ever since I finally rejected the argument from empiricism, I’ve preferred the latter.

Crudely speaking, I’m a logical positivist. My view is that there is no such thing as metaphysical fact, since facts are statements about the word that are verifiable and either true or false. You can create a false statement pertaining to metaphysics if you claim a metaphysical force (like, say, the mind, a ghost, etc.) somehow interacted directly with physical objects, because such a phenomenon is logically impossible. However, statements that are of a purely metaphysical nature can be neither true nor false.

So if you ask me if I think there exists an interventionist God who has agency in the real world, I’m going to give an emphatic no. But if you asked me if I think the God of Einstein and Spinoza exists — an impersonal, abstract intelligence who “reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists” — then I would say you’re asking the wrong question.

When it comes to purely metaphysical claims about God, both the people making them and the people listening tend to mistake them for statements of fact about the universe. Instead, I see them as statements about the conscious state of the speaker, and the structure of her perception and cognition. “God is all around me” isn’t a factual statement like “the dog is brown,” but an expression of sentiment. A clearer way to phrase this expression of sentiment might be: “I am having the experience of being surrounded by an omniscient being.”

Put that way, most forms of metaphysics might be better understood as wayward children of phenomenology, or the philosophical study of the structure of our experiences. This discipline is where philosophy overlaps most closely with good old-fashioned psychoanalysis. It also has a certain literary quality to it: phenomenology can illuminate the inner workings of the human psyche in a manner very similar to (but more direct than) that of brilliant first-person narration. It’s no coincidence that phenomenology overlaps quite a bit with existentialism, probably the one school of Western philosophy to have directly inspired more fiction than any other. The phenomenologist, the psychoanalyst, the existentialist and the fiction writer all share a common mission: to articulate what it means to want, fear, and feel like a living person. We remain fascinated by these efforts because they help explain us to ourselves and make us better at being what we are.

Religious narratives do the same thing, although stylistically they’re obviously closer to fiction than phenomenology. This is why it’s disappointing to hear other atheists refer to them as “myth” and use the term derisively. Since when have myths been less than fascinating? Since when hasn’t pretty much everyone used some fictional narrative or another (whether they were aware it was fiction or not) as an explanatory tool for understanding the self? Even phenomenology is more or less a myth: it’s an ongoing attempt to put into words a structural understanding of our “mind” and “consciousness.” These things are purely metaphysical beasts, not real-world entities. Any attempt to articulate them can only end in crude metaphor.

But if crude metaphor is all we have to go on, it suffices. It may not be capital-T true, but it still reveals something in us we couldn’t even catch a glimpse of otherwise. That’s why I compared it to literature, and that’s why I think religion still has something to teach to the atheist. Remember: When we want to commend authors like Herman Melville and Cormac McCarthy for the richness, beauty, purity, and sheer, awe-inspiring might of their fiction, we have a word that encapsulates all of that. We call their work Biblical.

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How could a Deity display its omnipotence?
October 4, 2010

Wow, that is … a very difficult question.

I think this question might actually be a good example of why the concept of an omnipotent being is logically incoherent. It’s sort of a variation on the old, “Could God make a boulder so heavy he couldn’t move it?” question. Presumably, an omnipotent being would have some way of conclusively demonstrating His omnipotence, but the manner in which He would do so eludes me.

Certainly, none of the miracles in the Bible could, in isolation, be taken as proof of omnipotence. As the Oxford logic professor Alfred Ayer points out in Language, Truth and Logic, verifiable phenomena demonstrate only themselves, and not any metaphysical properties you might want to associate with them. So, for example, if we had definitive proof that the Biblical parting of the Red Sea did, in fact, occur, and that there was no other readily available naturalistic explanation for that phenomenon, you might be tempted to say that it was a miracle and proved the existence of God. But all that it really proves is that there exists something we don’t yet understand which caused something else to happen. If the word “God” is exhausted by the definition “that which parted the Red Sea,” then yes, its existence is undeniable. But it doesn’t follow that this entity is omnipotent, or even sentient.

So perhaps the only way to directly experience the existence of an omnipotent God is to be that God.

“Philosophy is Dead”
September 8, 2010

NASA StarChild image of Stephen Hawking.
Image via Wikipedia

So says Stephen Hawking, apparently, in his latest book. I wish I knew the full context for this claim, but right now I can only speculate based on the range of responses he’s received. I suppose the argument he’s making here is that empirical science can answer or make irrelevant all of the questions we typically associate with philosophy.

Bold statements like this are evidence, I think, of why scientists should stick to science and philosophers should stick to philosophy (and philosophers of science and experimental philosophers should, well, keep doing their thing). But I think it’s worth making two not-at-all-novel observations: that philosophy is the mother of science, and in fact that the English term for science used to be “natural philosophy.”

Even if you take a strictly empirical view of the nature of the universe, that is a philosophical position—one closely associated with the British empiricists of the Enlightenment and best expressed in the modern era, I think, by Alfred Ayer. In Language, Truth and Logic, Ayer took the position that all metaphysical claims were incoherent, full stop.

Let’s take a charitable view of Hawking’s remarks, and assume that this is what he meant. What does that do to ethics? Epistemology? Well, Language, Truth and Logic is a work of epistemology and philosophy of language, so suffice to say those two disciplines remain intact. And while Ayer argues that ethics is only slightly less incoherent than metaphysics—that moral claims tell us about the disposition and emotional states of the speaker, not a true or false fact about the universe—that matter is by no means settled.

There’s a lot in empiricism I’m sympathetic to, but I’d caution Hawking and other scientific triumphalists like Sam Harris to learn a little intellectual humility and recognize the limitations of scientific inquiry. Speculating on matters that lie outside of science’s explanatory power doesn’t mean we need to abandon logic and reason entirely, but it does mean recognizing that empirical models are not the only tools in our cognitive toolbox.

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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