Monday 27 May 2019

REVIEW ARTICLE: Metaphysical Imagination

From The Philosopher, Volume CVII No. 1 Spring  2019  

Carl Jung surrounded by books in his study. A popular quote attributed to Jung gives the flavour of why Michael Moran elevates him to a key modern metaphysician: ‘Thinking is difficult, that’s why most people judge.’


Review article

By Martin Cohen

If the Philosophical Society of England has few claims to have actually produced any ‘philosophy’ over its 100 years or so, it has at least some associations. One, of course, is its historical link to the journal, The Philosopher, which originally existed to print the work of members, but now serves thinkers far and wide, and another, perhaps rather surprising one is to this book. Because Michael Moran says (in a closing note) that early versions of many of the chapters were read out to ‘the Sussex Circle’, a group of philosophers, hosted by Brenda Almond, loosely inspired by the ‘local groups’ tradition of the society. And indeed I myself had the pleasure of attending one or two of these circles and meeting Michael Moran there who was always, as he would explain, ‘in the process’ of writing his account. For me at least, this brought to mind the comment of the great Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard about the great projects of philosophers:
‘The System is almost finished, or at least under construction, and will be finished by next Sunday.’
Kierkegaard’s point being, that philosophers do not in fact ever achieve what they promise, and their great systems remain always in the process of being completed.

And yet here at last is Michael Moran’s ‘system’, or at least key parts of it, completed just before his death in 2016. The book has been self-published and no doubt it is too long to be suitable for a commercial press, and it will probably find only a small readership. But in this Moran is in a long and reasonably honourable philosophical tradition: much the same was true for Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and even Hume, although of course the writings of all these later reached the widest possible audience.

And all these are also unconventional thinkers, as too, it turns out, is Moran. He frequently challenges philosophical conventions, defenestrates sacred cows and freely puts on pedestals alternative figures such as J.S. Mill or José Ortega or even C. J. Jung. He recalls a letter by the painter Friedrich Pecht (quoted in Ronald Taylor’s 1983 book on Wagner) describing how he visited Wagner one day in Dresden only to find him:
‘... passionately absorbed in Hegel’s Phenomenology, which he assured me with characteristic extravagance, was the best book ever published. To prove it, he read me a passage that had particularly impressed him. I did not completely follow it, so I asked him to read it again. This time, neither of us could understand it. He read it a third time, then a fourth, until in the end we looked at one another and burst out long laughing. That was the end of phenomenology.’
Similarly, figures such as Heidegger, Derrida and Foucault likewise are regularly accused of ‘various kids of obscurity and obscurantism’ and in the process harming the cause of philosophical clarity. Nonetheless, Moran describes at length some of Hegel’s ideas, particularly in the area of aesthetics, and the question of the origins of his famous ‘dialectical’ theory. After all as Moran puts it, ultimately ‘what I think matters most in our engagement with any thinker is our own considered response to their works’.

However, to understand what drives philosophers to make their claims also requires us to first work out what need it serves. Because, as he quotes John Dewey in a revealing opening epigraph:
‘Philosophers are part of history, caught in its movement, creators perhaps in some measure of its future, but also assuredly creatures of its past.’
It is in a bid to see a little further, that Moran asks to include the ideas of the psychologist Carl Jung. Jung was, he points out, ‘determined to look in to the forbidden areas’ of human thought, and sought always to project a message of open-mindedness and the need to avoid either scholasticism or ‘preaching’, both of which aims Moran salutes while warning that the inverse tendency presents ‘serious dangers at the present time’.

This then is the context of the work: a book not for ‘fellow academics’ but rather for ‘individuals who are deeply concerned with ideas’. Thus revealing that he sees the two groups as belonging in separate categories.

The essays in this volume are chosen to focus on thinkers who similarly have embraced ideas. Plato, for paradigm example, is a thinker who seems to have embraced the imagination, or ‘insight’ as it is more usually allowed. Apart from the rather obscure analogies of the Cave and the Line, there is the passage in the famous ‘Seventh Letter’ in which ‘philosophical knowledge is not to be achieved solely by discursive, dialectical means but by a kind of vision’, as Moran puts it, rather formally. But then, warming to his theme, Moran explains:
‘From the time of the founding of the Platonic Academy at Florence in 1462 to the appearance of Bacon’s Novum Orangum Scientianum (1620) almost every major thinker discussed the question of the function of the imagination in philosophical, theological and magical knowledge.’
Indeed, Paracelsus, remarks Moran, ‘sometimes writes as if he thinks magia and imaginatio might be etymologically related terms’, before adding: ‘Sense perception and reason are the cognitive organs of the physical body; imagination that of the sidereal body.’

As for Plato’s ‘big idea’ of mathematics as the key to unlocking the universe, Moran sides with Francis Bacon and others who sees thinkers from Pythagoras to Descartes (but surely on to today’s quantum physicists) ‘approaching nature with preconceived notions of its harmonious mathematical structure’ and ending up with theories that are little more than ‘the speculations of one who cares not what fictions he introduces into nature, provided his calculations answer’.

That’s the phrase of Francis Bacon, in a text called Globi Intuallectualis. It is for detail such as this that Metaphysical Imagination is both to be valued, and also critiqued, as the book stretches on for nearly 800 pages with little sense of the needs to select the essential from the merely interesting.

But back to the nature of science and Moran notes too that Didérot substitutes the notion of scientific intuition for scientific induction, saying that the great scientific insights came about from an instinct or feeling - an esprit de divination - for what would be their fruitful conjecture. (Indeed this is the idea also explored in Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander’s book Surfaces and Essences: Analogy As the Fuel and Fire of Thinking published in 2010.

Actually, their book  is also something of a magnum opus of 500 or so pages and yet Diderot himself makes not a sole appearance there despite having asked, very relevantly, in the 18th century:
‘Is not experimentation often preceded by a supposition, an analogy, a systematic idea which experiment will either confirm of destroy?’
Anyway, it is interesting to be reminded that Kant (who himself was a respectable scientific thinker, indeed arguably a better scientist than a ‘philosopher’) worried that scientific investigations have the character not of a pupil who listens to everything the teacher chooses to say, but rather of a judge who ‘compels the witnesses to answer questions he has himself formulated’. Even Martin Heidegger is praised (and Moran is generally a critic) for having upgraded imagination ‘virtually to the level of metaphysical cognition’, the ‘formative ground’ of ‘ontological knowledge’.

However, if the role of imagination has been increasingly marginalised by both philosophers and scientists, so too has much else. Context and starting points, definitions and intentions have all been curiously ignored in the study of not only the history of philosophy but that of science. Moran recalls how Plato, for example, was studied at Oxford in a curiously artificially constrained manner. ‘What is X’ would be the topic of a seminar, and a singly passage of Plato would be examined from the particular perspective of one paragraph of one of his dialogues, with the rest of the dialogue let alone other ones, let alone an assessment of the wider context, simply ignored.

And yet, asks Moran, what was Plato really doing in asking his ‘What is X’ question’? What did he actually mean? These huge issues were simply not raised, instead Plato (and the other ancients) was treated as an honorary member of the circle of contemporary thinkers. Yet, as another writer, Peter Hubral, has detailed, in fact what Plato was doing was very different and had much more to do with a vanished mysticism than any modern linguistic analysis.

In consequence, Moran notes, his professors were often guilty of ‘assuming the future’ and reading into the ancient texts ideas and beliefs that did not become explicit until later. In the words of Quentin Skinner, a great many scholars imagine that they are approaching texts historically when in reality they are not being historical at all. It is the Hegelian Folly (we might dub it), where:
‘… the whole of Western philosophy is viewed, with unprecedented narcissism, as culminating in Hegel’s own system..’
And it is a folly where instead of celebrating books that are ‘works of witchcraft’ from which are conjured up all kinds of disturbing and provocative images (as Anatole France urges us to celebrate) instead books have become things that produce ‘the sort of arrested attention that makes us state into space’. (This phrase is that of France’s younger compatriot, Paul Valéry.) Or as Goethe once put it, ‘certain books seem to have been written not in order to afford us any instruction, but merely for the purpose of letting us know that their authors knew something’.

Likewise the view that a learned reading of a text is ‘the only important sort of understanding’ and that unauthorised, perhaps ‘deviant’ responses and interpretations are worthless has become normalised. Moran condemns this approach, and he is surely right to do so. Indeed, a cursory glance at the lives of many great thinkers and innovators find them drawing inspiration from just such idiosyncratic responses to things that they have read.

Michael Moran notes that the empirical philosophies of the Anglo-Saxon tradition reflected the close links of their thinkers to the developing ideas of science, whereas over on the European Continent, writers like Hegel existed in a semi-feudal situation of sovereign principalities barely touched by the industrial revolution. And that where Hegel and Kant were professors, many of the British philosophers had a parallel life in the world of affairs: John Locke worked as an administrator for the government, Hume as both a diplomat and a civil servant; John Stuart Mill as a colonial administrator. If the British warn of their philosophers living in ‘ivory towers’, it is surely worse to find the Russian-born French philosopher Alexandre Kojève writing in 1946:
‘It could be that the future of the world, and therefore the meaning of the present and significance of the past, depend on the last analysis on how one interprets Hegel’s philosophy.’
Indeed, writing this review now at a time when the talk everywhere is of the ‘rise of populism’ and the threat to liberties, it is telling to find Mill warning over a century ago of the dangers to democracy of the ignorance of the masses (particularly about economics and international relations) and the ease with which organised groups can manipulate voters preferences and shape their beliefs.

It is reassuring to think that Mill’s own reading of history is that there is trend towards the better, but this is tempered by his conviction that progress is not steady but rather piecemeal and erratic. But more to the point for Moran’s book, is that Mill like so many of the continental thinkers saw a relationship between the dominant philosophy of the time and the political realities. It is not clear however, whether it is as Marx put it, that the ideology is the superstructure of the economic ship, or whether on the contrary, the ship emerges from a philosophical blueprint. Nonetheless, it seems sure that Moran thinks philosophers should be addressing such realities rather than engaging in parallel ‘language games’. Words like ‘being’, for example, (which seems to have been most effectively explored not by the philosophers in their heavyweight tomes at all but rather by Lewis Carroll in his humouristic explorations of nonsense such as Alice in Wonderland) and also everyday terms like ‘green’ or ‘bald’ (as in Russell’s endless explorations of the issues surrounding the claim that the present-day King of France is bald’). Moran comes down heavily on the vast edifice of 20th century linguistic philosophy, exemplified by Russell’s efforts to provide ordinary language with a supposedly more rigorous logical syntax, saying flatly:
‘What is remarkable about this convoluted procedure is that at no point does Russell face the simple fact that most of us have no difficulty in finding proper names and definite descriptions meaningful, even when - and here are many cases of this - they refer to imaginary, fictitious, or mythological entities.’
And he adds, one can well understand why Oxford Professor of Metaphysics, Peter Strawson, worried that Russell’s translations of ordinary language expressions into more rigorous logical form might strike many people as ‘pointlessly perverse’.

The Philosopher’s verdict: ‘Many’ useful warnings about the complexities of simplistic thinking.

Metaphysical Imagination: and Other Essays on Philosophy and Modern European Mind
By Michael Moran

Fastprint 2016

ISBN-10 : 1784563161

Wednesday 1 May 2019

Why is there Something Rather Than Nothing? (2019)

From The Philosopher, Volume CVII No. 1 Spring 2019

Artwork by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Ana Kova for an essay in Symmetry Magazine on our intimate relationship with subatomic physics 


By Muneeb Faiq

Three centuries back, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz argued, ‘The first question that should rightly be asked is, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Martin Heidegger, in his book What is Metaphysics asked somewhat the same question: ‘Why are there beings at all, and why not rather nothing?’ Philosophers and thinkers have acknowledged this proclamation and agreed with Leibniz. This question invokes a deep inquiry which is perhaps among the fundamentals of human thought structure. While this question is among the first questions to be asked, I argue that it may not necessarily be ‘The First Question’ per se. Why not? The answer may appear to be absurd at the outset but, as Albert Einstein maintained ‘if at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it’ so let us, nevertheless, inquire.

Give a readymade universe for physics, it will make sense of all that is going on up to the precision of first trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. But ask why this universe and why these laws - and it mumbles miserably. Physics has been afflicted by the pathology of a never ending paradigm since millennia which persisted through Greek theories, classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, general theory of relativity as well as Maxwell’s theory of electrodynamics. String theory and inflation theory also seek refuge under the same umbrella. The paradigm is ‘Universe is a continuum of states evolving as per certain laws’. This paradigm never addresses the questions: Why a universe? Why does anything exist at all? Jim Holdt puts it in an neat perspective maintaining that contemporary physics at its best replaces God with a set of laws (laws not too different from God Himself) when it comes to bursting of the Universe into existence from nothing. He articulates that the original theological equation of ‘God plus nothing gives rise to Universe’ has been transmogrified by cosmology into something like ‘Laws (of physics) plus nothing yields the Universe’ - or Multiverse (or Multiverses if you will).

Despite stubborn efforts to remove God from the equation, Lawrence Krauss’s book, A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing, could not live to its expectations. His book is a peculiar demonstration of the persistent handicap of this sort. That is why David Albert came up with a negative review of Krauss’s book to which Jerry Coyne appears to agree to an extensive scope. Krauss’s own acquiescence presents far better a testimony when he enunciates ‘I don't ever claim to resolve that infinite regress of why-why-why-why-why; as far as I’m concerned it's turtles all the way down’. Sean Carrol also says ‘Nothing about modern physics explains why we have these laws rather than some totally different laws, although physicists sometimes talk that way- a mistake they might be able to avoid if they took philosophers more seriously’. George Dvorsky claims that there are certain questions that we will never be able to solve and the first question in his list is ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’

A caveat should be presented before we move on. How many things in total are there which we can collectively call ‘everything’? That begs the question; how do we define a thing? What is a thing? Physics has a contextualised definition of a thing (that is what we adopt in the present paper) which may or may not superimpose with the definitions in other subjects. If a thing is a thing if we can think or talk about, then anything that we can refer to as thing is a thing. This way, ‘everything’ turns out to be difficult to imagine because things can be real, they can be imaginary, they can be possible, they can even be impossible (an impossible thing may also be a thing), they can also be existent and also be non-existent. Nothing can also be a thing, nonetheless.

The question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ is based on two fundamental suppositions viz. there is something rather than nothing and ‘something’ and ‘nothing’ are different entities. The first question should be the one that does not need to invoke any assumption. In the case of ‘The Question’ in focus, the underlying beliefs are:
  • (1) something exists (or nothing does not exist) and 
  • (2) something and nothing are distinct entities. 
While “something exists” might appear to be profoundly obvious and intuitive, there is no raison d'être to hold this belief. Before accepting Leibniz’s proposition, it is important to have sufficient ground for the thesis that there is something rather than nothing. What if this decree that appears to be the most fundamental truth may not necessarily be as exact as it appears? Let us, for a moment, be sceptic of the basic premise (consideration of the existence of something) of this question. Let us consider this; may be the existence of something is not true. In that case the first question would be ‘Is there something rather than nothing?’ The absurdity of this question may seem to be obvious as it defies the most intuitive knowledge that we possibly can have.

René Descartes started with doubting the existence of anything and everything that he could think of. After doubting the existence of every conceivable thing, he went on to be skeptic of his own existence. No matter how hard he tried, he could not doubt his own existence and finally concluded cogito, ergo sum usually rendered in English as ‘I think, therefore I am’ indicating that even if the denial of existence of everything is accepted, one cannot deny his or her own existence. People have experimented with this thought and finally accepted Descartes’ avowal. If it is the ultimate answer to scepticism about existence then the first question would be ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ But if the Descartes’ method/conclusion is not immune to the lancet of scepticism, then we may have to reconsider Leibniz’s view. For that to happen, we have to give rise to scepticism about ‘I think, therefore I am’ and transform it into ‘I think does not mean I am’ or at least come up with ‘I think, therefore I may or may not be’.

Consider you are sitting in a room in front of fire. You see the bright color of the fire, you feel the heat and hear the crackle of the burning wood. If you put your hand in the fire, it will burn you. But if you apply Descartes’ method you can doubt the existence of this fire, room or the chair you are sitting in. You may think that this fire does not exist because may be the heat, color, sound, chair, room and everything else is an illusion/apparition created by what Bertrand Russell called ‘sense data’. It is easy to agree that this fire may not exist as it may be an illusion but since you are experiencing this illusion, no matter how much you try to deny the fire and everything in the room, the room itself, your hands, feet, ears, skin, eyes; there is still some entity that experiences the fire and that is you. Now let us consider that you suddenly woke up and found it was a dream and you are now convinced that the fire, the chair and the room did not exist. Yet you are sure that you exist as you are the one who experienced it and are experiencing things in the world outside ‘the dream’ that you just woke up from.

Even if you are certain that the fire did not exist, you are convinced that the realm (let us call it realm) you now woke up in must exist. And even if the world you woke up in does not exist (as it may also be a dream), but you exist. May be a dream within a dream within a dream ad infinitum is the scenario and nothing in these dreams exist, but in no way, does it repudiate the existence of the entity that experiences the things in the dream (that is you). So here we fail to prove your own non-existence even if the fire, the heat, the color, the sound, the shape, the room, your body, hands, ears, eyes may not exist. It follows that ‘you’ as an observer do exist. In other words whatever you witnessed in the dream did not exist. It looks like even if there are multiple layers of dreams, you (the observer) do not pop out of existence though the ‘you’ that existed in your dream may not exist.

Does this ultimately prove Descartes’ assertion? Though it seems to be so but let us consider a slightly different scenario. We have agreed to the possibility that you (as an observer) do exist yet whatever you observed may not. We thought this because we considered that when you woke up from the dream, you moved into another realm of experience which may be similar or dissimilar but does not affect your existence because you as an observer may be dreaming at multiple distinct levels or realms. No matter each level turns out to be non-existent but you as an observer still exist because as soon as a particular realm turns out to be non-existent, you immediately wake up in a separate realm. But wait! Did we consider that there may not be a series of dreams which are serially and gradually broken into different realms of wakefulness? What if there is alternate/reciprocal dreaming? What is alternate/reciprocal dreaming? So far, we have considered that you woke up into a different world which is separate from the dream. And then this different world also may be a dream considering it to be a linear series of dream within a dream ad infinitum. 

What if there are two realms alternating/reciprocating with each other (or a loop of realms that move into one another; for explanation sake, let us keep our discussion to only two alternating realms). These two realms of alternate or reciprocal dreaming in which one dream is broken and you wake up into another dream and when this dream is broken, you again wake up in the first dream.

Since everything in the first dream does not exist, by the same principle everything in the second dream does not exist. It is important to note that if you are a part of dream, you will also be subject to same conclusions. If the chair in the dream did not exist, the person sitting in the chair also does not exist. So if both the realms do not exist and everything in both the dreams (which includes you in both the dreams) does not exist, it can be inferred that nothing exists (which includes you). This is because you are a subset of everything in any of the two dreams. You are a part of everything in first dream (if you were there) and you are the part of second dream (if you were there). And you will be subject to same laws as everything else in these dreams.

This indicates that you have two forms: You in the first dream and another you in the second dream. So you are in a realm. Since the first realm turns out to be nonexistent, you do not exist (because you are a part of the realm). Looking at it the other way round, you do not exist because second realm is also subject to same principles. Since these non-existent realms oscillate with each other, the cumulative inference would be that you don’t exist leaving the question about your existence open to skepticism.

It is interesting to note the happenstance that the total energy of the universe cancels out to be zero and that is why Krauss thinks that the universe can burst into existence. A fundamental particle emerges into the observable universe with correspondence appearance of antiparticle. Matter and antimatter annihilate each other. Can it be that energy and anti-energy (as we may call it) annihilate each other in the same way (maybe the photon-antiphoton like particle-antiparticle analogy)? More remarkable is the coincidence of the so-called ‘oscillatory/cyclic model’ of the universe advocated by many modern physicists including Neil Turok.

According to this model, the universe bursts into existence from another universe imploding (the Big Crunch) onto itself and going through the implosion (an imaginary point of intersection with a zero value of time and space and presumably matter and energy also) to explode (the Big Bang) on the other side (so to speak) as a new universe. Through this process one universe pops out of existence to give birth to a new universe.

Doesn’t it look much like the reciprocating dreams we just discussed? One dream implodes and the other explodes into existence. Is it that the consciousness in one world implodes/collapses to explode into the other realm? Can this be happening in the above reciprocal dream analogy where the observer is just a point (much like an imaginary intersection without any existence of its own)? Howbeit, from above given dream argument, we can assert that ‘nothing exists’ is a possibility and therefore the first question should not be ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’

It may be something deeper and original which does not invoke any assumptive axiom. Before arriving at this question it seems that we have confront some other questions like ‘Is there something rather than nothing?’ Or maybe ‘Is something different than nothing?’ Or ‘Is something the same as nothing?’ Or even ‘What is nothing? What is something?’ These questions disturb the sediment of Cartesian certainty of our existence or of the existence of the universe in the first place.

About the author: Muneeb Faiq is a neuroscientist who recently described diabetes type 4 and is exploring intricate connections between brain, mind and human health.

Address for correspondence:
Muneeb A. Faiq, Neuroimaging and Visual Science Laboratory, Department of Ophthalmology, New York University School of Medicine, New York, NY-10016, USA