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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Wittgenblogging: Proposition 4 and the Cartesian Circle
November 11, 2010

Meditationes de prima philosophia - Renatus Ca...
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Peter highlights one of the more intriguing findings of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus’ fourth proposition, regarding the slipperiness of trying to describe or prove logic itself. Logic is the underlying framework of the universe; you can’t construct a proof to demonstrate the validity of logic, or precisely describe logic itself, because doing so would require stepping outside of logic. That’s not something we’re capable of. Peter has a good analogy:

Sort of how I can’t really tell you what it’s like to be alive, because both you and I would have to be dead first to actually comprehend the contrast.

I first encountered the problem of how to demonstrate that logic or reason were useful tools for understanding the universe in Descartes’ Meditations. Early on in the Meditations, Descartes decides that if he can’t be certain of the validity of his perception, then reason is all he has to rely on. But then he starts asking himself why he has any reason to think that reason itself is reliable, and the result is the painfully contorted piece of reasoning we call the Cartesian Circle.

It goes like this:

  1. Whatever I clearly and distinctly perceive (meaning, essentially, can hold in my mind and understand wholly from a mental picture) is true.
  2. I know that my clear and distinct perceptions are accurate because they are given to me by God, and God is not a deceiver.
  3. I know God exists because I can clearly and distinctly perceive Him. I just imagine a perfect, infinite being, and understand that it is more perfect for something to exist than to not exist.

I don’t think I need to spell out the problems here. And it shouldn’t be hard to see why I prefer Wittgenstein’s far more elegant answer to the question: “How do we know reason itself is valid?”

A Priori Judgments
May 27, 2010

Portrait of René Descartes
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Since commenter zosima used the term a priori I figured it would be worth giving a quick and dirty definition for those who are unfamiliar. It’s a concept that comes up a lot in philosophy, so expect to see more of it.

An a priori judgment is one you can make that is founded on nothing but reason. The best example of this is Descartes’ Meditations, which most of you are probably familiar with—in it, Descartes (pictured) tries to make as many judgments as he can starting from a position of total skepticism about the world around him, his own perception, and even his own existence. In other words, it is a work dedicated to testing the limits of his a priori knowledge.

A posteriori knowledge is the opposite: knowledge that can only be gained through external observation. All knowledge gained through scientific experimentation and empirical observation is a posteriori.

A large portion of epistemology—the philosophical study of the nature of knowledge—is dedicated to figuring out what knowledge we can have a priori and what can only be learned a postiori.

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