Sunday, February 18, 2007

Incoherence in the New York Times.

Jim Holt, "Self Centered," The New York Times Book Review, February 18, 2007 at p. 14.

I am under a massive computer attack at the moment. I don't know whether I'll be able to continue writing. I hope that I can keep posting essays because some things I find in the press simply call out for comment. In today's New York Times, for example, I encountered a self-contradictory and incoherent review of a new book by Michael Frayn, a review which takes my breath away. ("Book Chats and "Chits.")

It is uncharacteristic for Mr. Holt to produce something like this. I can only hope that this was an editorial error or that there were "additions" to his text. I am embarrassed for him. I believe that Mr. Holt must be better than this. I am not able to devote the time and attention necessary for a detailed exposition of all the flaws in reasoning and philosophical mistakes in this piece. I will simply comment, briefly, on a few of the most glaring errors.

Mr. Holt begins by telling us that: "In philosophy, you can be a 'realist' or you can be an 'idealist.'" Actually, Jim, you can be lots of things: "internal realist, phenomenologist, idealist, materialist, "mixed" realist, monist, dualist, pragmatist, pluralist." Michael Frayn suggests that "nominalism" may be more helpful in understanding his views than idealism. This makes Neo-Thomism and philosophers of process -- such as Alfred North Whitehead -- useful to interpreting The Human Touch.

There is an area of overlap between Hegel's dialectical absolute idealism and Kantian critical realism/idealism: Compare Friedrich Beiser, "Solipsism and Intersubjectivity," in Hegel (New York & London: Routledge, 2005), pp. 177-178 ( '' ... connection ... between realism and intersubjectivity ...") with Jacquelin Ann K. Kegley, "The Contextual Human Person: Reflections on the Philosophy of Marjorie Grene," in Randall E. Auxier & Edwin Lewis Hahn, eds., The Philosophy of Marjorie Grene (Illinois: Open Court, 2002), pp. 69-72 ("Grene's reinterpretation of Kant" as Critical realism should be compared with Roy Bashkar's "dialectical critical realism").

There is a long list of positions available in epistemology, metaphysics and ontology. Mr. Holt writes: "You are a realist if you believe that the universe exists [as distinct from being knowable?] independently of our minds, and that it would be more or less the same if we weren't around to observe it. [How would you know that?] You are an idealist if you believe that reality is somehow mentally generated, that we make the world."

The point, Jim, is not that some aspects of the world "are projected on to it by our mental faculties," but that there is no knowable world without a knower. Reality is mentally-generated by each one of us for ourselves, since if it were not, there would be no knowledge or world for each of us. Notice that this refers to KNOWABLE reality and says nothing about what is real that may be UNKNOWN, to us, or UNKNOWABLE to our minds at any time.

This is not a claim concerning what exists, in other words, but a statement concerning knowledge. To do this mental-generation of a world is to participate in such SOCIAL realities as languages (hence, objectivity is "real"), but it is still for the knower to do so as a subject. This is a point which is, unintentionally, established by Jim Holt during the course of his review -- a review in which Mr. Holt does his best to dismiss idealism in a high-handed manner. I am pretty sure that this reviewer did not read the book that he attempts to review. Please remember that there is a difference between absolute application of doctrine or truth and the Absolute (F.H. Bradley).

We seem to know two mutually contradictory things to be true, Michael Frayn writes. This paradox is something I have been puzzling over for most of my adult life. So have many other people, in many generations before me. It's the world's oldest mystery, and it has taken many different forms. Are the qualities that distinguish one thing from another objective realities, are they subjective imposition upon things? ... Succeeding schools of philosophers have reached for one horn of the dilemma or the other, but it is impossible to seize both horns equally at the same time. ...

The Human Touch, pp. 7-8.

Mr. Frayn develops a position indebted to Kant, but also -- as I shall argue in a forthcoming essay -- relying on Aristotelean and Thomistic insights, drawn from the thinking of Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Amscome. I venture to suggest that Philipa Foot ("the doctrine of double effect") may also come in handy in interpreting Frayn's philosophical work. Mrs. Anscome is thinly disguised in Frayn's novel, A Landing on the Sun. Frayn's meditations on time in this work should be compared with his screenplay for "Clockwise" -- which was made into a film starring that great philosopher, John Cleese. Yes, Frayn also wrote "Copenhagen." Compare these two crucial statements:

The thoughts that one thinks in the privacy of one's own head tend to be elusive -- and often prove nugatory or false when one attempts to bring them into the light of day. The possibility that someone might be listening ... makes us all more coherent.

The Human Touch, p. 8.

Guess who might be listening, Jim? Here is Frayn's alter ego in The Trick of It:

Writing on the back of things again! I suppose that's what my entire life consists in. If it's not cheques or discarded typescripts it's other people's books, other people's imaginations, other people's lives. Actually you may find the stuff on the other side of these particular pages more interesting than my hopeless adventures in Hell-on-Thames. (p. 54.)

"Writing on the back of things or other people's imaginations" is a way of describing not only literary effort, but any entry into the philosophical conversation of our civilization or thinking -- and it's that bit about "other people" that explains where the "objectivity" enters into this novelist-philosopher's or "subject's" efforts to understand the world in which he finds himself, then to tell others about it.

Every philosopher -- especially Michael Frayn! -- is Gulliver reporting on his or her adventures.

Idealism was neither created nor "brought to respectability" by Immanuel Kant, as Jim Holt suggests, since the position may be traced at least to Plato (who is still a pretty respectable philosopher). In fact, idealism was probably around even earlier. Kant's position is not that behind the mentally knowable world there is something hidden or other, another world; rather, Kant argues that the same world that we can know only in very specific ways, on the basis of our perceptual faculties, may be very different apart from what is -- or can be -- revealed to those perceptual faculties (something increasingly borne out by contemporary science).

We know the world as rational agents must (objectively), even as I see the world from one rational agent's perspective (subjectively), from my perspective. Each of us brings a pebble to add to the pile of knowledge. ("Why I am not an ethical relativist.")

Mr. Holt's history of philosophy is skewed and inaccurate, since it neglects the Continental tradition, which has kept both idealism and rationalism alive. He neglects the Aristoteleans and neo-Thomists (who are relevant to Mr. Frayn's approach) ; and is, seemingly, unaware of the work of American philosophers such as Brand Blanshard, Paul Weiss, John Rawls and of British philosophers such as T.L.S. Sprigge and Bryan Magee, or British thinker John Finnis. I suggest that Mr. Holt read the introduction to Frayn's book again, this time with a highlighter. ("Hilary Putnam is Keeping it Real.")

It is not simply Jacques Derrida, but the entire phenomenological tradition from Edmund Husserl to Paul Ricoeur -- and even the elusive Michel Foucault with his talk of "epistemes" -- that is indebted to this great strand of Western thought called "idealism, representationalism, conceptualism or constructivism" and allied movements, such as rationalism and "mathematical realism," which is also a kind of idealism. See Roger Penrose, Abner Shimony, Nancy Cartright, Stephen Hawking, The Large, the Small and the Human Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 1-49. ("Spacetime and Cosmology.")

To "do" mathematics is to enter a mental realm of forms and shapes, an icy and beautiful realm of abstractions described in symbols, which reminds me of religion for some reason. Sure enough, Mr. Holt, unknowingly, outlines a defense of belief in God and a version of the "ontological argument":

"Just as a ghostly mixture of quantum possibilities snaps into actuality only when an observer makes a measurement, so too a human action takes on a determinate meaning only when a narrator molds a plausible explanation for it. Thus are the storyteller and the scientific observer held up as exemplary world-makers." ("'Inception': A Movie Review.")

In the absence of humans or any other knowing agents, Holt's adoptive logic (allegedly, borrowed from Frayn) suggests that the only way an independent and knowable external world can make sense, is if there is a "story-teller" or "scientific observer" of some kind -- guess who that might be? Ever heard of God, Jim, as both story-teller (transcendent) and story (imminent)? Ninian Smart, "On Understanding the Meaning of Life," in The Philosophy of Religion (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), pp. 75-99. (I believe that I have now corrected the spelling of the word "transcendent" at least three times in the foregoing paragraph.)

The universe, by this reasoning, may be said to "snap into actuality" when the great scientist in the sky begins to describe or measure it by "speaking languages." Mathematics has been called "the language of nature." For our purposes of description of empirical reality, math seems to do the job "truthfully." In the Catholic "Angelus," the faithful say these words: "... et verbum caro fatum est." (The word was made flesh.) Mr. Holt comments:

"If the known world is our handiwork, just what are the constraints on our creative freedom? Surely, common sense tells us, there is a hard core of stubborn facts that we are powerless to alter."

If we are dead, then there are no more stubborn facts FOR US, as far as we know. We don't have to worry about "altering" anything. The limits for each of us on what can be "the known world," Jim, are the limits of our intellects and imaginations. This is fortunate -- since there is a whole lot of stuff that we don't yet know, which collective human intelligence may yet reveal to us. It is also unfortunate, if the limits of one's imagination and intellect (as in Jim's case, perhaps) are somewhat constraining. ("David Stove's Critique of Idealism" and "David Stove and the Mental Capacity of Women.")

Several reviewers have noticed the influence of David Hume, few have detected the guidance of Bishop Berkeley on Frayn's theorizing. The best defense of idealism that I have read for some time is offered to readers of The New York Times by Jim Holt, who is under the impression that he is refuting idealism.

"There may be something godlike in the way we 'bring into their various forms of existence all the receding ontological planes of the world we inhabit,' but we are also at the mercy of that world's whims. A brick to the head and the whole show comes to an end."

I thought the world was independent of the knower? How can it come to an end with a brick to the head of the knower? Oh, you mean for the person who gets hit on the head it comes to an end. Right. Now suppose everyone gets hit on the head with that brick and there is no one left to know or observe anything, then does the universe continue to exist? Jim says it does. Then Jim says it doesn't. For whom would it exist, Jim? Everybody's dead. In the absence of conscious bricks as knowing subjects, guess who might be around to keep the stars in place and the music of the spheres sounding in eternity? A short word will do. ("Is it rational to believe in God?")

Do you hear someone laughing? I do.

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