Saturday, 17 September 2011

Professional Amateurs

Bryan Magee.  Have you heard of him?  You haven’t?  You should.  Broadcaster, Labour MP, Social Democrat, professor, music critic and writer; he has many insightful things to say across a range of topics: politics, music, literature, and his core interest philosophy.  His book, Confessions of a Philosopher, is a classic, with many acute comments about the British intellectual scene, the cold war, academics and the arts.  It includes two wonderful portraits: of Karl Popper and Bertrand Russell.  Both are unforgettable, once you have read them.  And yet Magee isn’t regarded as a serious philosopher; for he is not an academic, in the purest sense; he is not part of the profession, using its language and codes, the always-fashionable jargon, those glass-topped walls that keep the amateurs away.  Only the professionals count!  Christopher Janaway in the bibliography to his short book on Schopenhauer calls Magee’s own monograph on the same philosopher a “sometimes idiosyncratic account of [his place] in the history of ideas”.  Personally I would take that as a compliment.  I don’t think this is what professor Janaway intends.  It is more a warning about a dangerous minefield than an invitation to explore new territories.  This guy is odd.  He is not one of us….  A bureaucrat doesn’t like an outsider mucking about with his files…[i]

In his Schopenhauer book Magee notes that modern philosophers tend to concentrate on a thinker’s arguments, believing these are the most important, indeed sometimes the only, elements of their work.  This assertion was strangely confirmed when he later interviewed Frederick Coppleston about Schopenhauer for his TV series the Great Philosophers.  Coppleston actually criticised this thinker because his ideas went beyond his mentor’s original premises...[ii]  The logical consistency of the arguments is all that matters, it seems.  He thus ignores the very stuff that in Magee’s view produces a great philosopher: the original insights that create their immortality.  Arguments are important but they are secondary phenomena; buttresses to support the original idea, the core of a philosopher’s worth.  For great thinkers, he argues, and I think correctly, are creative artists, deep sea diving in the unknown waters of hard thought and reasoned speculation.  They are also highly intelligent and usually academic; these latter qualities hiding their real value and originality. 

It is not surprising that unsophisticated academics will gravitate to those qualities they recognise, and for which they have sympathy, and ignore what they cannot see; in this case the very essence of a person’s greatness and value.  In the process they reduce thought to reason, art to exposition; and Schopenhauer to a filing cabinet of premises and conclusions.[iii]  

A collection of essays on David Hume illustrates Magee’s point rather too well.[iv]  In this essay Hume on Religion J.C.A Gaskin looks at a number of Hume’s arguments against miracles; and raises some questions about them.

What is meant by a law of nature, and how can one distinguish between an event that falsifies a law (shows that it is an inaccurate description of the way things are in the natural world) and an event that results from a suspension of the law or an intrusion into the natural world by a supernatural agent such as a god or other invisible spirit?

He has read Hume, but he has not understood him.  We can guess at why this is so: he has received too good an education, which has turned experience into knowledge; and hidden the outside world behind a row of bookcases.

Hume believed our intellectual task is to understand reality;[v] and to achieve this we have to accept we know very little about it. This was the foundation of his thought: we are ignorant!  We live in a dark room and the only light is from the cracks in a boarded-up window.  Our one hope is to force those cracks a little wider through prolonged investigation…[vi] Like Locke before him this was a revolutionary idea.  For in accepting there were many things we didn’t know it undermined the existing theories of knowledge, and the theologies on which they rested.  And what a liberating view it was!  We must look at the world afresh; opening it up each morning with new questions. Every morning uncovering another hidden element, exposing a different perspective…  The result is a world of human creation, which we inhabit as naturally as the woods and the valley floor.  So natural is it we take it for granted and do not realise how much our fellow humans have constructed it; especially over the last four hundred years.

But we are humans still.  That has never changed.  Still exposed to the danger that yesterday’s questions become today’s answers, explaining tomorrow’s discoveries.  Scholasticism, that symbol of arid academicism, arose out of the fruitful breakdown of a previous worldview; but later, although intellectually sophisticated, it hardened into dogma and academic ritual.  It is too easy, because it is very natural, to think that our present knowledge is sufficient to explain the world. It is an odd person that doesn’t suffer this delusion.  It is probably a sign of our maturity; that moment we think we have enough information and insight to understand the world and our place in it.  It isn’t long before that knowledge becomes an obstacle to our understanding.[vii]

For Hume, as we investigate the universe we should be aware there are huge territories we know nothing about; that our current understanding, and ongoing inquiries, coexist with vast ignorance even within the subject areas we are studying.  Much will have to be left unexamined; mysteries for future generations to solve.  Such self-conscious clarity rarely occurs.  Instead we jump to conclusions too readily, are too quick to accept the easy answer; and are wary of questions that return us to our ignorance.  We have strived for years to gain this knowledge, so it must be the truth!  Too often we satisfy ourselves with too little; keeping to what we already know.  This is quite natural and arises from a particular propensity of the human mind; it is what Noam Chomsky has called Plato’s problem: we know so much from so little evidence.

To the great Empiricists past thinkers too often created theories and expounded arguments about things they knew absolutely nothing about; they had whole systems of thought that were based on no empirical foundation at all.  It was all mind generated; huge pyramids built of out words. This was Locke’s insight.  We have to explain the world, and in order to do so we must limit our understanding to what we can actually know; our experiences and the solid achievements of experimental science (and the recent discoveries of Newton which seemed to provide the “natural laws” of the universe).  Experience trumps knowledge, which must be dependent upon it.  We can explain away reality, which is very easy according to Hume, that is why he rejected the sceptics, but ultimately if there is a conflict between reason and experience we must succumb to our natural instincts and reject our reasonings.  Thus his famous remarks about leaving his desk behind, his agonizing over personal identity, to join friends for dinner and social repartee.[viii]

Gaskin has reduced Hume’s insight to a mere argument, which he can then undermine by simple academic means.  This is something trivial and completely beside the point.  Because for Hume the first and only question is: where in our world do we see a “suspension of the law”; where in the universe can we witness the effects of a “supernatural agent”?  These questions defined empirically through experience and scientific observation.  To be quite blunt: where in Edinburgh in the 1770s could someone show him a Christ raising a Lazarus from the grave?

Can Hume, on the basis of what he says elsewhere in the Treatise and first Enquiry, formulate any concept of natural causation strong enough to give content to the notion of its violation?

For Hume causation comes from experience: through custom and habit we acquire the idea of cause and effect.  By demanding such a “strong concept” of natural causation is to ignore the rest of Hume’s theory, and to misunderstand it, almost completely.  Because the brilliance of Hume was this insight: our sense of an inviolable link between cause and effect is a fundamental error.  We assume there is such a thing as causality, but when we investigate it we find it is an utter mystery.  It is really only a belief, acquired through our experiences, a habit we have not thought about. 

Particular beliefs can be wrong.  We can mistake individual causes and see effects that are merely coincidences; while a whole world of thought that we think is a given, and quite natural, is actually a construct, something our minds make up, and which is mostly acquired through customs and habits of the countries and centuries in which we live.  If we want to understand the world all this knowledge has to be tested against our individual experiences, on which our minds then reflect.

The other scientific method, where a general abstract principle is first established, and is afterwards branched out into a variety of inferences and conclusions, may be more perfect in itself, but suits less the imperfection of human nature, and is a common source of illusion and mistake in this as well as in other subjects.  Men are now cured of their passion for hypotheses and systems in natural philosophy, and will hearken to no arguments but those which are derived from experience…. They should… reject… every system of ethics… which is not founded on fact and observation. (David Hume, Enquiries)

In Gaskin’s essay there is a lot of special pleading, or at least it seems so to me:

Is Hume’s definition of a miracle (which is entirely reportive) in need of supplementation, particularly by the qualification “of religious significance” so that mere inexplicable freaks of nature do not get counted as miracles?

A sly rhetorical device to muddy the waters.  Curious in a book that is supposed to explicate a great thinker, not argue against him.  Hume takes it for granted that miracles cannot occur – “a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature”, which is proven by fact and observation.  In his chapter on miracles he is actually writing about the revelations on which Christianity is built: the reports of miracles in the Bible, and which have a very particular meaning for believers.  It is that testimony that he questions, while he takes it for granted that miracles cannot occur:

A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as an entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined…

…And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle; nor can such a proof be destroyed, or the miracle rendered credible, but by an opposite proof, which is superior.

Hume deals at length between supposedly “freaks of nature” and miracles.  Any factual claim must be based on our knowledge and experience, on the probability of the event, and if there are witnesses, their wisdom, and circumstances (are they in the midst of a revivalist meeting?).  The point Hume would make is that a “freak of nature” isn’t a miracle, but something we have yet to find the cause of:

It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen.  But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age of country.[ix]

Hume was anchored in the real world: this is what he wanted to understand, and to explain to others.  He wasn’t interested in mere arguments, which he knew can live a life of their own.  Any fool can deny that the world exists.  Gaskin seems unable to understand this, and reduces Hume to mere academic play:

Is Hume correct in implying that in order for something to be a miracle it must not happen more than once?  And if, as in biblical reports would seem to suggest, he is not correct, at what stage will repeated “miracles” become clusters of “para-normal” phenomena in need of explanation within the natural world?

Does Gaskin really believe that the Bible is a factual document and that its reports of supernatural events are unimpeachable?  To accept this argument would be to accept that the metamorphoses of Ovid and the fairy stories of the Brothers Grimm are in fact true.  They are stories and they make factual claims, and extraordinary things are described that often happen more than once; and yet few would assume their historical verity.  Gaskin has made what seems a very common kind of academic mistake: he has conflated two different kinds of evidence, giving them the same value status.[x]  Hume was far more profound: you have to distinguish between testimony and experience; and you have to weigh up the probability of an event with the quality of the witnesses; and you have to accept that there are causes of which we are ignorant, though they operate on natural laws, founded on fact and observation; and on science.

Can Hume, or anyone arguing on his behalf, or on behalf of those who need such a concept in their definition of what is a miracle is, give adequate content to the notion of a physically impossible event?

This is an extraordinary statement, for again it reduces Hume’s thought to a simple intellectual argument, when his whole philosophy is based on experience.  Life as we live it, through the senses and our direct engagement with the world, is the test of all knowledge.  This was an epistemological revolution for the time, because it reversed the usual order of things.  Knowledge became the servant, and experience the master.  And what a terrifying autocrat he was: we must reject everything that is not based on fact and observation! 

When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make?  If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number?  No.  Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence?  No.  Commit it then to the flames:  for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

What does this mean in the context of Gaskin’s exposition?  Hume is saying we cannot experience a “physically impossible event”: it simply doesn’t exist for us; although we can argue about it – to infinity.  It is our body not our mind that is the final judge in these matters; even if our arguments (“proofs”) are superior to our actual experience.  All the rest is metaphysical talk, trivial and irrelevant.[xi]



[i] For an extensive discussion on this subject see my Russian Climate.
[ii] See footnote xx in my Dropout Boogie for discussion of a particular case.  The whole piece puts one kind of academic under the microscope. Inevitably it shows up some very interesting things.
In the above case Coppleston argued that Schopenhauer’s thought was faulty because it didn’t follow the logic of Kant’s original reasoning.
[iii] For a sideways look at this influence in poetry see my The Triumph of Literary Politics Over Honest Criticism.
[iv] The Cambridge Companion to Hume.  I assume a standard reference for Hume studies.
[v] This may seem obvious, but is not so.  It is arguable that the primary role of intellectual practice is a religious one, to mould reality into the shape of the local religion; in whatever form that may take: whether it is Shia Islam or Western Neo-Liberalism.  Richard Dawkins’ Neo-Darwinism is an interesting variant: it is a religion that doesn’t realise it is one.  Over the years his atheism has become somewhat fanatical; an evangelical strand of religious fundamentalism.
[vi] In a fascinating discussion on the origins of cognitive science Noam Chomsky reiterates this idea: to understand the world we need to be puzzled by it.  Too often, and you see this particularly amongst a certain kind of highly intelligent academic, this is not even recognised, let alone understood.  We know it all already!  All we need to do is extend our current understanding just a little further; develop the theories just a little more, and we will have found the secret of the human mind.  The assumption here is that the big questions, the fundamentals on which our understanding rests, have been established beyond doubt.  In this case, that the mind can be reduced to a physical explanation, based on our contemporary understanding of material reality.  It is a large, and probably incorrect, assumption, which Chomsky questions in his important book New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind.  See the footnotes of my Dropout Boogie for quotations and further discussion.
            Steven Pinker, who acts as moderator of this discussion (The Golden Age.  A Look at the Original Roots of Artificial Intelligence, Cognitive Science, and Neuroscience), is a good example of this kind of personality.  His introduction is a clear illustration of his limitations.  For Pinker feels sorry for the old thinkers of the past.  They didn’t have the conceptual tools to understand the mind like we do.  Often they refer to outdated metaphors, like hydraulics, to explicate how the mind works.  How old fashioned and cognitively weak they were!  Today we live in a much more enlightening period, we know the mind is like a vastly complicated machine…
            He doesn’t seem to realise that he has replaced one metaphor with another, which in time may come to seem equally misguided.  Such a position is based on assumption that the current wisdom is essentially correct, and that the fundamentals have been grasped – we are really a species of machine - when in fact they may only be approximations to an even more complicated and mysterious reality, that at present we cannot even begin to comprehend.  What Pinker doesn’t seem to realise is just how time bound he is.  What he takes to be the essential nature of the mind is really a product of the cultural conditioning of modern industrial society, where the machine both governs our lives, and provides its mythic sub-structure.  Adam Curtis explored this brilliantly in his recent All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (reviewed in my Strange Comforts).  Steven Rose in an interesting discussion with Pinker makes essentially the same point:
“Now we come to the issue of reverse engineering. He's quite wrong when he says that physiology was studied by reverse engineering; when William Harvey likened the workings of the heart to the workings of a pump, this wasn't reverse engineering, he was drawing a metaphor as to how you could understand the mathematics of heart function. It was a tremendously revealing and important metaphor. The problem we have in science, particularly in biology, is to distinguish between metaphor, like that, which gives you mechanical properties; analogy, when we say that a brain is like a computer, which can be very misleading in a variety of ways on which both he and I would agree; and strict homology, when we say that a process is evolutionarily developed and depends on mechanisms that are identical in our reptilian ancestors and ourselves. The mistake that evolutionary psychology makes in this reverse engineering discussion is constantly to mistake metaphor and analogy for homology, and draw what I regard as both horrendous scientific and horrendous political conclusions from it.” (The Two Steves (Part I))
Later in this debate Rose returns to this idea of metaphor; this time arguing that Pinker’s ideas are conditioned by the dominant economic theories of the time:
“Steve has provided a neat cost benefit analysis of the merits of love, and it's precisely the point that I was making before about metaphors which he was so uneasy about. Here's a metaphor and a mode of thinking that he's taken over lock stock and barrel from a particular set of economic theories, and applied with enormous energy and ingenuity by evolutionary psychology. I happen to think it's a very impoverished way of trying to describe much more complex phenomena.”
[vii] And which may account for a certain dogmatism.  Simon Conway Morris writing about the attitudes and intellectual practices of the ultra-Darwinists notes their:
            “…almost unbelievable self-assurance, their breezy self-confidence.”
To support this opinion he quotes Philip Kitcher’s review of Matt Ridley’s Genome:
            “Ridley obviously has a fine time sharing his delight [of the genome].  Indeed, perhaps he has too good a time.  For the booming voice of conviction that sounds through the chapters, from the initial discussion of the origins of life to the philosophically limp conclusions about free will, is utterly certain about everything.  Like the village squire to the Victorian parson with “doubts”, Ridley prescribes fresh air and exercise.  He seems quite unworried by the thought that some of the scientific claims he reports might be controversial or even unfounded, and even less disconcerted by the possibility that… scientific truths might lead to social harm.”
            Interestingly he echoes Steven Rose’s point in his discussion with Pinker:
            “…a sophistry and sleight of hand in the misuse of metaphor, and more importantly a distortion of metaphysics in support of an evolutionary programme.  Consider how ultra-Darwinists, having erected a naturalistic system that cannot by itself possess any ultimate purpose, still allow a sense of meaning mysteriously to slip back in.” (Life’s Solution; Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe)
            He goes on to write about the religious aspect of their thinking, and their simplistic and poor grasp of religious thought – they tend to attack caricatures.  The two are almost certainly linked.
[viii] See my In Pieces for the quote.
[ix] Of course someone may appear dead, and the causes that brought him to life may be unknown – no miracle, but a limit to our understanding.  Gaskin’s inability to see the difference between a freak of nature and a miracle is curious, to say the least.  For Hume, I would imagine, a miracle is a freak of nature: the Christians have mistaken the cause, and given it a supernatural explanation.
[x] My I Believe in Pavements has an extended analysis of another example.
[xi] Of course I simplify.  Both Locke and Hume recognised, and were quite explicit about, how the mind operated on the sense data it received.  Dropout Boogie has an analysis of Locke’s position.  Found You! of Hume’s.

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