Wednesday, June 01, 2016

The Return of Metaphysics.

Saturday, June 11, 2016 a day-long seminar devoted to "The Philosophy of Iris Murdoch" will be held at Oxford University, Seminar Room East, Mansfield College, Mansfield Road, Oxford OX1 3TF. 

Primary Sources:

Robert H. Franks, "Why Luck Matters in Art, Careers[,] and Public Policy," The New York Times, Sunday Business, May 22, 2016, p. 4.

Andrew Pollack, "Private Talks Are Conducted About a Synthetic Genome," The New York Times, May 14, 2016, p. A11.

James Gleick, "The Inheritance," The New York Times Book Review, May 15, 2016, p. 1. (Reviewing Siddharta Mukerjee, The Gene: An Intimate History Scribner's, 2016.)

A.O. Scott, "A Rallying Cry for Intelligent Species," The New York Times, May 25, 2016, p. C1.

Unique Achievement:

Stephen Cave, "There is No Such Thing as Free Will: But we may be better off believing in it anyway," The Atlantic, June, 2016, p. 68. (If we can choose whether or not to believe in free will then there is, in fact, free will. Hence, this author argues the exact opposite of what he/she believes to be the case in this essay. The person writing this essay is also, occasionally, "Manohla Dargis" and "Jennifer Shuessler." This person -- or persons -- is certainly not a philosopher. "Are we free to believe in free will?" and "Stephen Hawking's Free Will is Determined.")

Secondary Sources:

Bruce Aune, Metaphysics: The Elements (London & Minn.: U. Minn. Press, 1985).

Simon Blackburn, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford U. Press, 1994).

Errol E. Harris, The Reality of Time (New York: SUNY, 1988).

A.W. Moore, The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics (Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 2012). 

Walter Pater, "The Renaissance," in Harold Bloom, ed., Selected Writings of Walter Pater (New York: Signet, 1974).

America's urgent need for philosophical discussion of controversial issues seems to be illustrated in any number of recent articles and reports appearing in popular media. 

Paradoxically, this curiosity is often best revealed by the sort of "journalists" who are most contemptuous of philosophy and humanistic scholarship even as they admire science and technology as means of achieving ever-greater social-meliorism and efficiency. 

We all want those things -- especially efficiency -- but few of us seem to believe that we need or should be interested in philosophy and the arts.

What pop-journalists actually prove -- usually unconsciously -- is the vital importance of philosophical awareness in areas where science is most helpless to illuminate our intellectual lives and/or to assist in efforts to make things better (meaning more just as well as comprehensible) for everyone.

The newspaper articles listed above are far from impressive descriptions of developments in society or advances in fields of learning, but they are paradigmatic examples of the confusions that may -- and often do -- result from philosophical illiteracy and errors concerning history and other areas of the humanities. ("Robert Brandom's 'Reason in Philosophy.'") 

I find it particularly fascinating that metaphysics is lurking under the surface of many discussions ostensibly concerned with the miracles brought to us by science and the technologies to which science is likely to lead in the future. 

It is ludicrous to suggest, for example, that human beings may be created "synthetically" in the laboratory because human DNA may be "recombined" using "bio-chemical" technologies currently being developed by biologists:

"The prospect is spurring both intrigue and concern in the life sciences community because it might be possible, such as through cloning, to use a synthetic genome to create human beings without biological parents." (NYT, 5-14-16, p. A11.) 

This statement is scientifically absurd. It is also reflective of philosophical perplexities and needs that are unrecognized or that seem to be a matter of embarrassment for the author(s).

Any human being is the result of millions of years of evolution of life on our planet. Hence, any human DNA sample points to this lineage -- or inheritance -- that stretches back not only 1,750,000 years ago (at least) to the appearance of our semi-human ancestors, but even earlier to the first creatures emerging from the oceans on to the land. 

No human DNA can be created ex nihilo in a laboratory without donors supplying the "base" material from which new possibilities for the development or continuing evolution of human life must emerge. 

Efforts by the very experts quoted in this article to explain this point in order to avoid all hysteria and hype were ignored by the author(s):

"George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and an organizer of the proposed project, said there had been a misunderstanding. The project was not aimed at creating people, just cells, and would not be restricted to human genomes, he said. Rather it would aim to improve the ability to synthesize DNA in general, which could be supplied to various animals, plants and microbes." (NYT, 5-14-16, p. A11.) 

Intercourse between a man and woman taking place in a laboratory need not occur for any DNA "product" created in the same laboratory to be the result of, among other things, donations of DNA materials from male and female human beings serving as biological parents. 

Such "materials" may be recombined in ways that encourage the development of some characteristics as opposed to others in the resulting organism, theoretically, depending on uncertainties (such as environmental factors) for any human embryo carried to term by a surrogate, for example, then subjected to an incalculable range of additional external stimuli that may (or may not) lead to genuine "enhancement" or development of the projected or desired qualities. 

There is no need at this time to fret about a race of artificially created super-Einsteins. ("David Stove and the Intellectual Capacity of Women.")

Underlying the discussion alluded to above, however, is a much more interesting set of issues only dimly recognized by the author(s) of this essay: 

What is life? What is a human being? What is a person? And what is identity? In what ways do new reproductive and genetic technologies "threaten" or "undermine" or "create tensions" for traditional understandings of these crucial concepts in our ethical and cultural lives?  

These are metaphysical and ethical questions to which science provides (and can provide) no answers. These are "open-ended" questions (Karl Popper) rather than inquiries yielding potentially determinate empirical solutions. 

An "open-ended" inquiry need not have a determinate or single factual solution while retaining the possibilities of objectivity in any answers offered by those pursuing such inquiries; a "closed-inquiry" is a study with at least a potential factual resolution. 

As Bertrand Russell remarked philosophy is more difficult than science because in science there is at least the hope of getting things right whereas in philosophy the answers and questions can never be resolved definitively. 

More absurd, perhaps, is the assertion by the reviewer of a documentary focusing on the lawyer representing "Tommy the Chimp" that apes have a moral status comparable to humans because they:

" -- feel pain, understand their surroundings [allegedly] and, as he puts it, possess a 'theory of mind.' ..." (NYT, 5-25-16, p. C1.)

This statement strikes me as laughable and ridiculous. The "theory of mind" assertion is attributed to Steven Wise and not challenged or seen as ludicrous by the author(s) of this article. 

"Theories of mind" are abstract formulations (or general explanations and accounts) of phenomena usually requiring representation in symbolic form, that is, language, as well as the capacity for higher consciousness and thought. No ape can define the word "mind" let alone develop a "theory of mind." ("Ape and Essence" and "Primates and Personhood.") 

Scientific helplessness on these issues is the result of what science and scientific method are by definition as compared with metaphysical speculation. More on that later.

Yet another confusion concerns both the role of luck in our moral and aesthetic lives focusing on the nature of art as distinct from the aesthetic experience of recipients of works of art. ("'Inception': A Movie Review" and "Bernard Williams and Identity.") 

According to an article in a recent Sunday's newspaper: "The Mona Lisa would most likely be just another old painting if not for its highly publicized theft in 1911." (NYT, 5-22-16, p. 6.)

The absurdity in this instance is not only about a lack of taste on the part of the author(s) of the article, but also results from ignorance of the history of art and other kinds of ignorance also. ("Arthur Schopenhauer's Metaphysics of Art.") 

Vasari was among the first to recognize the unique greatness of this astonishing work by Leonardo da Vinci within the painter's lifetime. The European aristocracy was aware, immediately, of the "most famous" portrait in the Renaissance world that was sought by many collectors and only fell into the hands of Francis I of France at the death of Leonardo. 

"Mona Lisa" was whispered about in many European courts from its creation by the most mysterious and celebrated genius in an age of genius whose every work was immediately valuable and collectible as well as expensive. 

Historians of art from the seventeenth century until today have referred to La Gioconda (or Mona Lisa) as the greatest portrait painted in oil on canvas (Kenneth Clark) as demonstrated, for example, by Walter Pater and Henry James writing well before the 1911 theft:  

"La Gioconda is, in the truest sense, Leonardo's masterpiece, the revealing instance of his mode of thought and work. ... no crude symbolism disturbs the effect of its subdued and graceful mystery. We all know the face and hands of the figure, set in its marble chair, in that cirque of fantastic rocks, as in some faint light under the sea. Perhaps of all ancient pictures time has chilled it least. As often happens with works in which invention seems to reach its limit, there is an element in it given to, not invented by, the master." 

Walter Pater, "The Renaissance," in Harold Bloom, ed., Selected Writings of Walter Pater (New York: Signet, 1974), pp. 45-46. (1st Ed., 1869.)

Motivating this bizarre rejection of the notion of unique objective merits to the Mona Lisa is profound confusion about the issue of "What constitutes a work of art?" ("Is Humanism Still Possible?") 

It occurs to me in reading this article that the author(s) may not be all that clear about what he, she, or "they" are referring to when they speak of the Mona Lisa: Do they refer to the painting in the Louvre? Or do they actually refer to the icon in Western civilization that is immediately recognizable to almost everyone, including the millions of individuals who have never visited Paris to see the work in person? Is the focus of the Times article a specific painting which the author(s) of the essay may also never have seen? Or is it all that this image "represents" or symbolizes in cultural theory and history? Is it the idea of genius and classical as well as Renaissance notions of beauty, or alleged Western "elitism," that is to be discredited by dismissals of the work's fame as due to luck? Does all human achievement diminish when luck is taken into consideration? Can the same criticism be made of scientific discoveries? (Compare "Dialectics, Entanglement, and Special Relativity" with "A Night at the Opera" and "Shakespeare's Black Prince.") 

There is a puzzling hostility to the very notion of "genius" and/or to achievements of unique brilliance by any artist in our nihilistic and skeptical age. Many people appear frightened and resentful of what is exceptional or powerful in the arts (or scholarship) and even in the sciences. ("'The Da Vinci Code': a Movie Review" then "Nihilists in Disneyworld" and "'Irrational Man': A Movie Review.") 

These are important questions that are not -- and cannot be -- primarily scientific. ("Has Science Made Philosophy Obsolete?")

We need to ask these questions and to struggle to answer them for ourselves, individually and collectively, but we seem less qualified or capable of doing so today than we were in the past, partly (I believe) because of a knee-jerk scientism in American culture combined with dismissals of philosophy and the humanities together with a drastic reduction in the articulateness and general fund of knowledge of a generation of non-readers. 

According to Simon Blackburn, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 240-241 metaphysics is ... 

" ... a term that is now applied to any inquiry that raises questions about reality that lie beyond or behind those capable of being tackled by the methods of science." 

Much is made of the hostility to metaphysics that, partly, results from twentieth century logical positivism and related movements or other forms of scientism that have now been discredited. 

Ironically, it is often the very people who are most passionate in their metaphysical curiosity raising ultimate ontological questions who seek to fit any answers discovered into exclusively empirical disciplines or notions of reality. Calling your philosophical opinions "science" will not insulate them from criticism: 

"A useful distinction is drawn by [P.F.] Strawson, between descriptive metaphysics, which concerns itself with describing the basic framework of concepts with which thought is (perhaps at a time) conducted, as opposed to revisionary metaphysics, which aims for a criticism and revision of some hapless way of thought." (Oxford Dictionary, pp. 240-241, emphasis added.)

Some of the errors discussed in this essay are examples of the misuse of basic logical and ontological categories such as "identity," "substance," "essence," or "value." Other errors are simply the result of historical and logical as well as cultural ignorance. The misuse of the rhetoric of science may be seen as a "hapless way of thought." ("Is Western Philosophy Racist?" and "Behaviorism is Evil.") 

Among the errors widely shared in American popular culture today is bafflement about the scope of scientific method and limitations resulting from the use of empirical methods regardless of the subject-matter of study. The human need for "meaning" cannot be met by exclusively scientific efforts to define reality. This is not to suggest that this basic human need for meaning is unreal or unimportant. ("Drawing Room Comedy: A Philosophical Essay in the Form of a Film Script" and "The Wanderer and His Shadow.") 

To limit efforts to obtain knowledge to procuring ever-greater collections of facts is to avoid the responsibility to interpret the facts in order to decide what possible explanations or meanings may be attached to factual knowledge. In other words, we need to understand facts in relation to the general aims of human life and science. ("John Finnis and Ethical Cognitivism.")

More than science is needed to discover (or create) the meanings that are necessary for human flourishing. Furthermore, all attempts to limit knowledge to what science yields also requires or depends upon metaphysical and other philosophical assumptions that are simply taken for granted by scientists: 

"Self-awareness and reflection go hand-in-hand with an insistent demand for self-knowledge, for understanding of ourselves and our place in the world; and the demand carries with it the inevitable need to unify and systematize our experience of the world and of ourselves."

Errol E. Harries explains and elaborates upon the recent "return of metaphysics" in which hermeneutics plays a crucial role:

"As Kant unerringly taught us, the center and source of this systematization or (as he calls it) 'synthesis,' is the undeniable and inescapable unity of the apperceptive subject, always aware of itself as 'I' and of its objects as 'mine.' Accordingly, the experience of each one of us, necessarily related as it is to a single subject, is a unified experience of interrelated and interconnected elements constituting an organized whole. The demand, in consequence, is to grasp -- to conceive (begreifin) -- all of it as a whole, to understand each of its elements and phases as exemplifying the principle of order which unifies the whole. This is what we mean (or should mean) by explanation; and it is in response to this demand that we seek to systematize our experience in the sciences and in philosophy, so as to see it, in the final outcome, as a single systematic unity. That is the task of metaphysics." 

The Reality of Time (New York: SUNY, 1988), p. 11. 

Scientists focus on "closed inquiries" that yield "facts" apart from all values or meanings that we may subsequently "impose" on reality.

This method assumes that meanings and values are not features of reality. Additional assumptions are made concerning the contents and scope of "reality" (meaning the observable empirical world) as opposed to human social reality. 

These "scientistic" assumptions have been subjected to powerful criticisms for more than a century to the effect that: 1) "facts" are themselves human conceptual judgments or "creations" resulting from a complete metaphysics and value-system inherent in the scientific enterprise; but 2) science is entirely inadequate to satisfy ALL human cognitive concerns, including philosophical concerns that necessitate more "open ended" forms of inquiry where the so-called "facts" are subjected to any number of interpretations depending on the meaning and understanding sought (or to be created) by inquirers.

The concept of a "person" is fundamental to our social reality, for example, and it is under threat from misunderstandings of scientific findings that have nothing to do with the moral idea of the person. Much the same is true of many other philosophical doctrines and concepts placed under great stress at the moment. The new understanding of metaphysics undermines:

" ... the positivistic denunciation that because of its lack of empirical evidence [metaphysics] can have no factual meaning. In any case, the recent rediscovery (becoming, at long last, generally recognized) that empirical evidence is always theory-laden has undermined empiricism so fatally that the accusation itself has lost all its plausibility. [emphasis added] Likewise, the outworn slander that metaphysics is mere elaboration without practical significance loses all force in an age when science and technology have permeated our entire way of life, frequently to its detriment, so that the examination of the presuppositions of science can scarcely fail to have practical relevance." (Harris, p. 17.) 

A focus on science exclusively can result in overlooking crucial "realities" that should be examined and understood but that are not amenable to comprehension within the scientific method. This is especially likely when focusing on human subjectivity and the products of that subjectivity, such as artistic works and ethical or legal systems, where empathy and historical understanding as well as cultivation of taste and moral sensitivity may be far more helpful than the methods of the laboratory.      

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