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2018 Series Conclusion

This is our concluding blog post for the 2018 Edinburgh Gifford Lectures. Below Dr James Henry Collin offers some philosophical reflections stemming from Fuentes’ lectures. Collin is Lecturer in Philosophy, Science and Religion at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on the intersection of issues in philosophy of religion, epistemology, metaphysics, and pragmatist conceptions of language. He holds an MA in Philosophy from the University of St Andrews and an MSc by research and PhD in Philosophy from the University of Edinburgh. We would like to thank Prof Fuentes for giving and excellent series of lectures and for all those who took the time to engage with them, both online and in person. The blog will now be inactive until next year’s series.


What are we? Reconsidering an Enchanted Understanding of Ourselves and the World

– James Henry Collins

In Prof. Fuentes’ excellent Gifford lectures, he weaves together compellingly a rich skein of biological, anthropological, philosophical, and theological issues, to tell us something about what we are – what distinguishes us from other creatures, organisms, or, for that matter, mere matter. Here I want to riff off these insights, and draw our attention towards more philosophical – or more purely philosophical – aspects of this question. As John Maynard Keynes once famously said ‘Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.’ And what goes for defunct economists goes doubly so for dead philosophers. A good deal of what we take for granted as sheer common sense – the unshakable bedrock of premises that guide our thought and action – are in fact the conclusions of philosophical arguments that were thrashed out in our recent or distant past. Some philosophical ideas have sunk so deeply into our collective conceptual substratum that we cease to recognise them as being suppositions of any kind, let alone obvious or commonsensical ones.

What we are is a good example, because to many contemporary thinkers, what we are is quite mysterious. It is itself a mystery that we should be mysterious. Surely there is nothing we can be more familiar with than ourselves. Why should what we are be a source of so much philosophical puzzlement? Well, some of the most intimately familiar facets of what it is to be human are precisely the things that cause the most philosophical grief. The source of grief arises from puzzlement about how physical creatures could come to have the sorts of features that human beings have. There is a seemingly intractable mismatch between what we are capable of and what we are made of; for whatever capacities we human beings enjoy must arise out of the stuff of which we human beings are constituted. Take belief. Belief, as Prof. Fuentes illustrates, is central to what makes us distinctively human. But belief is puzzling, because beliefs have content and meaning, and the question of what institutes content or meaning is puzzling. Where, after all, does meaning come from? Take the orthographic inscription ‘The cat sat on the mat’. This means something, but whence the meaning? Increasing our knowledge of the microphysical structure of the inscription, for instance, wouldn’t help. For one thing, the inscription ‘The cat sat on the mat’ and the utterance “The cat sat on the mat” mean the same thing, but are physically very different from one another (the first is an arrangement of pixels, the second is a series of sound waves). A more plausible route is to say that meaning is somehow instituted by our human practices. But what elevates something to the status of a practice as opposed to a mere sequence of events or causes? Perhaps practices are distinctively normative; i.e. there are standards of correctness or incorrectness, of how we ought or ought not to behave, that apply to them. (Chess is a common, but useful, illustration of this.) Or perhaps they are distinctively goal oriented. But here we run into more philosophical troubles. Take normativity. Humans are reasoning creatures, and reason is normative. Reason has to do with how we ought to think. If we hold that Socrates was a man and that all men are mortal, we also ought to hold that Socrates was mortal. This is what distinguishes reasons from mere causes. A lump of iron will rust in a wet environment, but it’s nonsensical to suggest either that it ought or ought not to rust. As David Hume said however, one cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. Facts about what is the case don’t (on their own) entail facts about what ought to be the case. No matter how much knowledge we accumulate about what is the case, we will not learn anything about what ought to be the case (unless we already come to the table with at least some knowledge of what is the case). So where do norms come from? (We could say ‘from our normative attitudes’, but that just takes us back to the problem of meaning.) Or take being goal oriented. That which is goal oriented acts for a purpose, its behaviours are directed towards achieving a particular end. We are goal oriented creatures. At least some of what we do is for a purpose, sometimes explicitly so and sometimes implicitly so. But here too, philosophical troubles abound, because it seems mysterious in principle how purposeless stuff could aggregate to form something purposeful. It would be as if combining lots of stationary objects somehow produced something in motion. And then there’s that old chestnut, experience. Being human comes with a rich phenomenology. There is something it is like, in a peculiarly first-person sense, to smell coffee, hear a cello being bowed, or have an annoying itch. Experience is mysterious because … well, the astute reader will have noticed a pattern emerging. Appending insentient stuff to more insentient stuff does not seem sufficient to somehow produce experience. The difference between the two is not quantitative, it’s qualitative. The gulf between the sentient and the insentient is more than one of mere size or complexity. (In fact, one of the most common, and the most empty, responses to this kind of philosophical puzzlement is to appeal to complexity. But why would big aggregates of the fundamental building blocks of the physical world – with, say, lots of complex causal interactions between them – somehow start to churn out meaning, purpose, and experience, and normativity? When a qualitative difference is at stake, size doesn’t matter. Another surprisingly common response is to deny that we have experiences in this sense. But this should be seen as the act of desperation it is. Denying consciousness is an example of the special kind of idiocy that only the highly educated are capable of.) The net result of all this is that the most familiar parts of lived human experience look worryingly as though they are inexplicable. This of course is all just the sketchiest of précis. (A crisp, more philosophically adequate account would take a lot more text.) But by this point the gist should be clear: we are puzzling to ourselves.

But why should this be, and is this kind of anthropological puzzlement inevitable? It might be surprising to hear that the answer, or at least part of it, has its roots, in the foundations of mathematics. But intellectual revolutions can have a kind of butterfly effect. The butterfly flaps its wings on one side of the globe, and weeks later a tornado strikes on the other; Bernhard Riemann makes pathbreaking developments in differential geometry, and one hundred years later Richard Rorty declares ‘since vocabularies are made by human beings, so are truths’. (It’s no joke that the latter two are connected – but that’s a story for a different place.)

Back in the seventeenth century, René Descartes helped to usher in a conceptual revolution: a revolution in the very way we make sense of things. This was Cartesian geometry. In Cartesian geometry, instead of describing points, lines, and surfaces, and the relations of order, incidence, and congruence between these things directly (as was done in classical geometry), you represent spaces with coordinate systems, using ordered triples of numbers. Every point in space is assigned an ordered triple of real numbers. All this is familiar today from high school mathematics, but it’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of this innovation, because it allows us to represent physical systems using equations. But along with this revolution in the foundations of mathematics came a metaphysical revolution.

Cartesian geometry lets us represent physical things qua extended things, i.e. as things that have sizes, shapes and positions. Size, shape and position are the features of things that Cartesian geometry allows us to represent, and, ultimately, to predict. Descartes however went beyond these premises about scientific representation to draw some metaphysical conclusions. What is is to be a physical thing, thought Descartes, was to be an extended thing. And, more importantly for our purposes, that’s all there is to being a physical thing. The only properties physical things have is size, shape and position. All of this has something to do with what the nineteenth century sociologist Max Weber called ‘disenchantment’. The ‘Classical world view’, common to Plato, Aristotle, and the various Platonists and Aristotelians that followed them, took the world around us to be, fundamentally, meaningful, purposeful, and normative, in short: enchanted. The new, austerely mathematical forms of representation available, sieved out meaning, purpose, normativity and experience from the world around us, and so, the reasoning goes, all these things were never there in the first place. Herein lay the source of our current philosophical puzzlement. If the fundamental building blocks of the physical world lack meaning, purpose, experience, normativity and the rest of the gamut of what is manifest in lived human experience, then how could aggregates of the fundamental building blocks of the physical world give rise to anything with these features? Descartes was quite explicit in his metaphysical theorising. Treating extension as the essential feature of the physical was something he discussed. That meant that his reasoning was laid out in the open, for others to discuss, examine and assess. But more often than not, the metaphysics sneaks in through the back door. Conclusions about the fundamental nature of reality – and, hence, the fundamental nature of ourselves – are drawn unconsciously, or just unreflectively inherited from one of those dead philosophers. When that happens, the chain of reasoning that leads us remains in the shadows, and never has to face the light of rational scrutiny. Today, most of us are the inheritors of a roughly Cartesian way of understanding the world around us. But relatively few of us grasp how we arrived at this understanding. Those practical souls who believe themselves to be free from the taint of philosophical navel gazing are in the grip of a particular philosophical world view (and all the more so for not being aware of it).

Of course, it would be foolhardy to pronounce too confidently on the eventual outcomes of these debates and discussions. The wheels of philosophy turn slowly. Give it another five hundred years or so, and we may be in a better position to take stock. But, for the time being, I want to put something on the table that is too often left off. Perhaps the problem of puzzlement about ourselves has to do with our most fundamental conception of the nature of reality. Perhaps the mistake was in holding (consciously or unconsciously) that reality doesn’t outstrip those facets of reality which we can represent mathematically. Perhaps, in other words, disenchantment was never really mandated by the new ways of representing the world ushered in during the seventeenth century. Put simply, it’s quite possible to hold that our mathematical grip of the nature of reality can get us at the truth, without holding that it has therefore to get us at the whole truth. It can tell us something (indeed, a lot) about the nature of physical world, without telling us everything about the nature of the physical world. If the fundamental building blocks of the physical world can be pervaded by meaning, purpose, experience, and normativity, then the fact that we are may not seem so intractably weird. There are aspects of classical thought we can never recover in good faith. Geocentrism, for instance, is something we know to be wrong on solid scientific grounds. But this kind of ‘disenchantment’ rests on what we might think to be pretty shaky philosophical foundations: the profoundly enthymematic inference from These are all the aspects of reality we can represent mathematically to These are all the aspects of reality there are. Being human is something that is shot through with meaning, purpose and experience. We are enchanted creatures. And perhaps the universe we inhabit is enchanted too.

2 replies to “2018 Series Conclusion”

  1. In my experience at first it seemed like common sense then you lost me. Truth is never discovered but evolves through our experience (whatever that is) and through learning from philosophers,scientists and theologians.Meaning is a mystery and I don’t know God certainly does and one day through faith and our death we too shall know. Seems a bit tangential to what Prof Fuentes was saying but there again I know nothing. Kind regards.

  2. Basheer Ahmed says:

    Wheels within wheels. Very thought provoking.

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