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Pathways to Philosophy   Book   Preface   Chapter one   Avebury flyer   Download preview

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Naive Metaphysics: Chapter One

1. LOGICALLY, the world ought not to exist. — Brute fact is an affront to human reason, which always seeks the sufficient ground for every contingent given. Yet neither can reason be persuaded to accept (pace Spinoza, Leibniz) that it is necessary that our little planet Earth should have come into being. Or that I should be writing this. Or that the Holocaust happened. Fortunately, as finite beings, we are never brought to the point of having to make that impossible choice. The chain from consequences to grounds is (as Kant observed) never-ending. However, a contradiction that will never have to be faced is still a contradiction. Between logical contingency and logical necessity there is no third modality: either our world is or is not the only logically possible world. If it cannot be either, then it cannot be.

Taking our stand, then, in an ultimately illogical universe, we shall not ask why our world exists, or indeed why there is any world. Still, if there is no explaining contingent existence, nor even accounting for its inexplicability, there remains the modest but important task of definition. What is a world? What is it to be the world? or this world? or our world? (Whence the definite description? Whence the indexicals?) What is it, of which we were once prompted, so foolishly, to ask the question, Why? whose existing in the face of all the alternatives — including the awesome possibility of nothing — has led human beings to wonder, to worship, to speculate, even at the certain risk of talking nonsense?

One might call the state of mind which questions the existence of the world naive metaphysics. It is an attitude anyone can fall into or stumble upon, even if one has never heard of a discipline called philosophy — let alone a philosopher called Aristotle. It could be argued that human beings are by nature naive metaphysicians. (Kant thought that the impulse to transcend its proper boundaries was built in to human reason.) We should not make so strong a claim. Perhaps the impulse indicates merely a serious defect that will one day be eradicated from human consciousness; or, failing that, from the minds of those creatures destined to succeed humankind in the course of evolution. In that case, this book speaks to those who do not wish to be cured (or saved) but who do wish to understand the nature, and consequences, of their affliction.

There is more, however, to naive metaphysics than just a state of mind. Naive metaphysics embodies an implicit theory; a theory which up until now philosophy has, for logically impeccable reasons, either ignored or distorted out of all recognition. In this chapter, we shall identify that theory; the rest of the book is concerned with its defence and application. (In the last chapter, the theory will be extended in response to dilemma put forward in paragraph 1.) For the claim of identification, the author will not cite empirical evidence, but rely upon intuitive generalization from his own case. In saying how things are with oneself, one's aim is always to speak for others. How wide that class of others is meant to be, however, depends upon our view concerning the historical, psychological or even biological roots of the metaphysical attitude.

There is always a risk that, as a trained philosopher, one's intuitions concerning the thoughts or visions of other persons not trained in philosophy may be wide of the mark. However, we intend to make naive metaphysics a partner in the dialectic, to bring it in easy stages to recognize the strange vision to which it is in fact committed. The final, simple test of success or failure is whether the shoe fits; a matter which, ultimately, only the reader can decide. By contrast, the defence of the theory so attributed, rightly or wrongly, is a matter of logical necessity. This might be termed the strictly philosophical component, but the word is only a conventional label. No conclusion of any philosophical interest was ever proved by means of pure logic alone. In both cases the author is aiming to describe something that he sees, and expects the reader to see also.

2. Consulting one's intuitions, it seems that when naive metaphysics asks the question, Why is there anything? it is asking two questions, not one. The first question is why there is a world; the second question is why there is such a thing as I, or my world. (Throughout this book we shall be reserving the first person singular for the cartesian voice.) Consider the familiar expression of perplexity, Why am I here? One may ask why God chose to make a world, and in particular a world like ours containing someone like me. Yet one may also ask why God chose to make me, and there is a compelling sense that there is something extra in this second question that is not in the first. The question, Why am I here? is not intended as an instance of the schema, Why is....here? If it were not about me then it would not be the kind of question that it is. For it is not as if another person could put the question on my behalf, simply by substituting the third- for the first-person pronoun. In so doing, she would merely be repeating the question why the world contains a person with my particular attributes, a person like me.

As it stands, however, this intuition is shot through with ambiguity. In order to delineate the second question sharply from the first, it seems one would have to consider a number of obscure counterfactual suppositions such as, Could God have chosen to make me Napoleon? or Mother Theresa? Could God have chosen to make a person situated at this place and time, with a history identical to mine, indistinguishable in bodily substance (and soul substance if I have a soul) — who was not me? In asking these questions, we have left naive metaphysics far behind. Nor would it serve any purpose to press the point. Philosophical thinking is a search for consistency, and under pressure from such questioning the inchoate vision that we are seeking with its fundamental inconsistency is just as likely to be destroyed as brought into the open. The picture of the world as one thing, and of me or my world as something else not included in the world, something extra on top which might or might not have been there leaving the world as such untouched is, as we shall soon discover, sheer paradox. It owes its long survival only to the fact that naive metaphysics is not equipped, or at any rate does not have the energy to examine it.

How then can philosophy hope to describe this curious vision of two worlds without destroying the very thing it seeks to uncover? Logic is hard pressed to speak consistently of what is by its very nature inconsistent. One is reminded of parallels in psychology and physics: the neurosis which disappears in the course of its being brought to light, the particle which moves when we try physically to observe its position. Yet still, neuroses are uncovered, the positions of particles are observed. In each case, the relation between knower and known reveals an internal complexity, a special dynamic which each form of knowledge works through in its own way. The illusion to be got rid of is that this is somehow second best, the thought that ideally what one would like to have before one's mind is the object itself, rather than the mere knowledge of that object. There is an important moral to be learned here. The knowledge we seek as philosophers is whatever waits to be revealed in the course of the dialectic. Whatever emerges, if one succeeds in avoiding the pitfalls, is no more or less that what was there to be known.

3. It seems that no sooner have we encountered the worrying question mark raised against the world as a whole, than there appear one or other of two standpoints from which we can think about our relation to everything that exists, two ways of making the world as such the object of our thought. It is these two standpoints which give rise to two distinct meanings for the question, Why is there anything? Yet neither standpoint is aware of its opposite, nor is there any logical route from one to the other. For each sees the question, Why is there anything? as having no ambiguity, sees only one question to answer.

Thus it is that on occasion, perhaps during moments of intense perceptual experience, when the self seems to lose itself in a world of sights and sounds, or, by complete contrast, during periods of complete self-absorption, it becomes apparent that the question, Why there is anything? is none other than the question, Why is there anything for me? Why do I exist? The existence of something rather than nothing is simply the existence of a world for me. Take this away from the world and there is nothing left. Make this and you have made the world. By thinking in such a way, I am adopting the standpoint of my own existence as subject of experience. Whenever I try, in this frame of mind, to imagine or think about anything happening in the world, I find myself representing the events in relation to what is happening to me here and now, or impinging on my senses; even when I picture events on other planets or galaxies, or in the distant past or future.

There are, no doubt, many things which I cannot think about because I lack the requisite concepts, and, moreover, many concepts I shall never have the wit to grasp. Yet my apparent inability, in this mood, to conceive of things happening independently of my I is of a different order. Let my power of thought be extended ever so far, it seems it will always remain tied down to the same egocentric starting point. It follows that the world is in every respect and in total my world; the sun, moon and stars are all mine just as surely as the objects attached to my arms are my hands. Everything that exists, exists for me; and without me there would be nothing. — We shall call this the subjective standpoint.

4. The frame of mind in which one finds oneself thinking about things from the subjective standpoint appears to most of us only as a passing mood; it is not a point of view which we maintain for very long. Indeed, it soon comes into conflict with our most basic beliefs. For example, if the subjective standpoint were the only point of view from which I thought about my relation to the world, then I could attach no determinate sense to the thought of my own death. The destruction of a body or a brain — or a soul if there are souls — is something that happens within the world. Yet at the moment of my death there is no world for the event to happen in (as the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus observed). Clearly, however, there is no such barrier to my conceiving of the deaths of other persons. Why, then, should I be a special case?

Recognizing that I am just like any other person, and in no way a special case, instantly transports us to the second point of view from which we may grasp our relation to the world as a whole. This second standpoint appears simply that of the world by itself, a world in which I happen to exist but equally well might not have existed. I am merely one amongst the multitude of self-conscious beings who happen to inhabit the world. (In terms of the sheer probability of my having existed, it must be noted, given the state of the world at some arbitrary point in the distant past, it seems that things are, on the contrary, far from equal. Lucky I!)

Now, if I have special characteristics that no-one else has, that is equally true of everyone else. As conscious subjects, we are all the same, for all the uniqueness of each person's physical and mental attributes. Only on the basis of such identity, it seems, could there be such a thing as communication between persons. If the world were only my world, then by seeming to converse with another person, I should in reality be merely altering the state of one of the objects in my world; in effect, I should be talking to myself. For in the world of my subjective standpoint, the sole function of other persons consists in their being there for me, in their playing a part in the story of I. By contrast, from the standpoint of the world itself, what I call the world is simply the one world we are all in, a world which is no more my world than it is my neighbour's. — We shall call this the objective standpoint.

5. The problem with sticking exclusively to the objective standpoint is that it leaves me with no way to express the special, incommunicable meaning that my own existence has for me; the indescribable something I seem to see when I grasp my relation to the world from my subjective standpoint. For once I ascend to the objective standpoint, I have to think of myself as just another person in the world, a subject who exists for other persons to encounter or observe, in just the same way as they exist as subjects for me. The substance, the actuality of all that I experience, all that appears immediately to my consciousness, is translated into a neutral subject matter we can all talk about. The one thing that cannot be talked about, however, is the thing that seems the most important of all: the this, which, whether I look into myself or out onto the world, presents itself exclusively to me, but which as soon as I talk about it ceases to be this and becomes instead a tickle or a pain, a tree, a house, the sky.

Objectively, what it is to be me is not there being this, but simply there being some individual with my unique physical and mental attributes. One of these attributes, let us say, is that I am now perceiving a chair. I, the subject, am seated at my desk in the computer room, having just noticed a broken swivel chair turned over on its side in the corner. In my brain, scattered amongst its intricate workings, there is now taking place the complex information processing, the flickering pattern of physico-chemical reactions, which science tells me constitutes the process of discerning a visible object, such as a chair. Meanwhile, in my consciousness, there occurs a certain experience (therein I differ from my computer) which I describe as my seeing the chair, and which others may attribute to me on the basis of where I am and what I say. Yet the thisness of the chair is nowhere to be found.

6. We have been seeking a way in which each of us can grasp our relation to the world as a whole; and we have discovered that neither the subjective nor the objective standpoint alone is adequate. Each standpoint misses out something that only the other can supply. Now the first, most natural response to this difficulty is to try to locate the common ground, to work out a compromise between the two standpoints. This might seem easy. If I wish to tell the whole truth about my relation to the world, then why not simply combine together the two standpoints, in the way that a novelist might tell a story, first from the point of view of the main protagonist, and then from the imaginary point of view of an all-seeing observer? Surely, once that is done, there is no further story to tell?

On closer examination, however, this analogy appears fatally flawed. In the novel, the full story is the one which would result if the novelist granted the all-seeing observer access to each character's thoughts and feelings. The objective standpoint from which no-one is picked out for special treatment does indeed give the whole truth. The crucial difference between the novel and the account of my relation to the world is that in my case one of the characters in the story is myself. And we have already seen that the objective standpoint cannot accommodate what appears to me as the special, incommunicable meaning of my existence for myself, the thisness of my experience.

One can anticipate an obvious objection to this argument. In a novel, it is not always made explicit how the all-seeing observer is supposed to have acquired its knowledge of the various characters' thoughts and feelings. One way of acquiring this knowledge, the way we normally use, is simply to talk to the persons concerned and encourage them to confide in us. Indeed, one can imagine it written into the novel that the person telling the story has shared the full confidence of all the protagonists. On the other hand, the novelist is free, without having to offer any further explanation, to place the observer in the position in which we imagine God to be, reading each person's thoughts and feelings directly by looking into her mind. Now, if in reality there did exist such a deity, who could see not only the objective chair, not only the process in my brain which constituted my seeing the chair, but also my own subjective experience of seeing the chair, then surely nothing would have been left out of account. For then God would see me, not merely with the limited access of a interlocutor, nor even a scientist of the future probing the hidden recesses of my brain, but would directly intuit my conscious experience as I myself experienced it.

In short — so runs the objection — from God's super-objective standpoint, the view that takes in every side of every existing object, as well as experiencing the world through the eye and senses of every living subject, nothing is left out of the account of my relation to the world. In that case, far from seeking a compromise between the subjective and objective standpoints, we ought instead to reject as superfluous a subjective standpoint which defines itself in opposition to the objective, since it adds nothing to what is given to the standpoint of an all-seeing deity.

This objection is invalid. The reason why it is invalid, however, is highly instructive, for it brings the paradox of the opposition between the subjective and objective standpoints into sharpest possible relief. (It is of course no defence against the objection to insist that the existence of a God first be proved; we are considering a hypothetical deity, to whom we may attribute any cognitive powers that are not logically self-contradictory.) The problem is, to put it succinctly, that God knows too much. Just because he knows everything, there is one thing that God cannot know. While God knows what it is like to be me, just as he knows what it is like to be each one of his creatures, he still does not share in the awareness I have of simply being me. Obviously, he cannot have the sense of being me, since he is not me. The indescribable thisness of my experience, that which marks it as being essentially mine, remains invisible to God; for as far as he is concerned, every person's experience is equally Ôthis'. (In a similar way, we shall argue in a later chapter, for a God who knows all times, past, present and future, there is no such time as now.)

7. We are left, therefore, exactly where we started. The subjective and objective standpoints each present a different account of my relation to the world as a whole. These accounts stand opposed: from the subjective standpoint, I find myself unable to conceive of the possibility of my own death; yet from the objective standpoint, where my death becomes just another event that occurs, I cannot find myself at all. Our natural reaction, when we first encounter this opposition, is to seek a compromise between the two standpoints, a middle ground that somehow encompasses both. Only that cannot be done. Any attempt to compromise with the objective standpoint or incorporate the subjective standpoint into a wider view renders the subjective standpoint invisible. My subjective standpoint stubbornly refuses any kind of absorption into the objective.

In describing the opposition between the subjective and objective standpoints, we have not yet explicitly spelt out the fundamental inconsistency, the paradox implicit in the vision of naive metaphysics; but we are very close to it. Each standpoint has proved defective: by itself it appears incapable of comprehending the whole truth about my relation to the world. It is a fact that I am going to die; but my subjective standpoint cannot see it. Equally, it is a fact that I exist; but the objective standpoint cannot see that. In effect, each cannot see the other, for each denies the very existence of the point of view, the logical space, which the other claims to occupy. From my subjective standpoint, the objective standpoint is inconceivable. From the objective standpoint, there is nothing to which the words Ômy unique subjective standpoint' could possibly refer. The contradiction arises because neither will own up to this logical blindness as any kind of defect. Neither standpoint can be eliminated; each appears absolutely necessary. Yet each proclaims that the other is impossible.

In our everyday lives, we pass back and forth between the subjective and objective standpoints without ever thinking what we are doing. All language and communication presupposes the objective standpoint; the objective account of our relation to the world may never once come up for discussion, but it lies permanently in the background, as the logical condition for the very possibility of language. Similarly, the sense that each of us has of being an existing self-conscious individual presupposes the subjective standpoint as its logical condition; even if we never once explicitly think about it as such. We are not aware of any contradiction between the two standpoints because for practical purposes the endless to and fro works perfectly well. Even when we stand back and allow ourselves to indulge in naive speculation about the existence of the world or of our own selves, there is no sense of any strain or inconsistency.

Sooner or later, however, there comes an unnerving experience which calls this easy-going compromise into question. In trying to comprehend the mystery of love, when subjectivity contemplates, in serenity or despair, the enigmatic countenance of the other; or human suffering, where the distance between self and other seems unsurpassable; or the inevitability of our death, we find intimations of a duality impenetrable and absolute. We begin to realize, however obscurely, that no stable compromise between the subjective and objective standpoints could ever be achieved. Each of us stands alone at the centre of our own unique world; we all share one and the same world. Both propositions are true, and at the very same time both propositions are also false. To comprehend that contradiction is the fundamental task of metaphysics.