Trent Dougherty has a good post at the Prosblogion where he cries foul on the attacks on the case for mental causation, or the existence of God, or etc., when such attacks base themselves on the grounds that the objects of their attack are "weird" or "spooky." Dougherty finds this dismissal unacceptable. "If anyone should be able to get past the weird, it is philosophers," he says. This cannot but remind me of Harman's reiterated point that "The real is much weirder than common sense can imagine."
This calls to mind some recent posts by Fabio Gironi at Hypertiling and by Ben Woodward at NaughtThought, regarding the pertinence of the category "weird." Gironi wants to urge caution when it comes to weirdness, e.g. a frequent recurrence to Lovecraft in certain quarters of the philosophical blogosphere (on which fad I have weighed in here). Certainly, Gironi concedes, the world is very strange, and exceeds our capacity to theorize it; but this does not mean that there is no knowledge. Both philosophy and weird fiction share a focus upon the meaningless of the in-itself, Gironi thinks, but this overlap is a potential liability for the philosopher who is tempted too strongly in the direction of a kind of overwrought style in which connotation swamps precision.
[A] balance must be reached. An excessive emphasis on the weirdness, inaccessibility and incomprehensibility of reality in itself (re)produces a secular form of a vacuous mysticism of darkness (which is more self-congratulatory than philosophically fertile) and undermines naturalism by re-imbuing nature of ‘supernatural’ traits. On the other hand, we should be cautious with hyper-rationalisms, relying on the sheer power of pure thought to comprehend everything, for that is just the flipside of the old theological coin: on the one hand negative theology (which is always about meaninglessness for-us), on the other confidence in the lumen naturalis of reason (which ultimately banishes meaninglessness in-itself). The limits of our epistemic grasp cannot be overcome via either poetic talk nor via a mysteriously efficacious intellectual intuition. They can only be probed and pushed by rational inquiry.This fine paragraph, which in some ways is the center of Gironi's contention, not only lays out his via media between effusive weirdness and triumphalist apodicticism, but also suggests that the weird is a contemporary modulation of ancient apophaticism ("negative theology"). This is certainly right in one sense, and several thinkers are starting to re-appropriate certain moves of medieval negative theology. (I am thinking, for instance of Eugene Thacker's engagement with pseudo-Dionysus and Nicholas of Cusa in After Life.) I can only agree with Gironi that the moves of negative theology will not accomplish anything by themselves-- but I obviously disagree with him if he means that apophaticism per se is a cop-out or a symptom of a discredited rationalism. I would sooner say that the discreditation of rationalism is a symptom of the abandonment of a real apophaticism-- negative theology that was aimed not at formulating an ingenious system for the intellect to recite, but at leading the whole person, including the intellect, into the cloud of unknowing. This is not the conclusion of an argument but an experience.
To some degree this would seem to put me more on Woodward's side, when against Gironi he invokes Pierre Hadot in his account of why Lovecraftian weirdness is useful in his own philosophical project. Hadot, too, believed in the cultivation of philosophy for experiential ends, though he came to hold a somewhat chastened estimation of the availability of mystical experience. But of course this alliance is not perfect, as Woodward's account of his motives indicates:
I do not see myself as making nature supernatural – Lovecraft and the weird are extremely useful for me in cracking the dense aesthetic/affective shell around nature, nature as caught between what Pierre Hadot has set up as the Orphic and the Promethean. That is: to weird nature, to set it as something which gives rise to and eventually undoes thought, is not to make it supernatural, it's to de-supernaturalize thought, to break a certain degree of the (ungrounded) transcendental quarantine on thought.Woodward here is referring to Hadot's distinction, in The Veil of Isis, of two attitudes towards nature, the technological "Promethean," and the poetic "Orphic." It's an oversimplification but one may gloss this by saying that the former tries to wrest nature's secrets by force (the famous Baconian move of putting her to the rack) while the latter is an attitude of attentive listening.
As I read Woodward, he sees the weird is an unsettling effect, which enables him to reject a legacy of (perhaps unexamined) supernaturalism in the self-thinking of thought. I on the other hand am willing to bite the supernaturalist bullet--at least as an admissible description of the weird reality we inhabit. To say "admissible description" does not mean that I am agnostic about this--nature is grounded (I hold) upon something deeper, and something which is neither Nietzschean nor Meillassouxian hyperchaos--but I am open to various vocabularies for discussing this ground, since for me the relevant category is not causality but meaning.
This brings me back to Dougherty's post. What follows is the gist of a comment I posted there,
Heisenberg's account of physical explanation seems pertinent here:
It is impossible to explain...qualities of matter except by tracing these back to the behavior of entities which themselves no longer possess these qualities. If atoms are really to explain the origin of color and smell of visible material bodies, then they cannot possess properties like color and smell.This really is just to say that one cannot explain how opium works by postulating a dormative property.
Analogy is dangerous, but I want to suggest, in the spirit of Aquinas' cosmological arguments, that all ordinariness will be satisfactorily accounted for only in terms of the not-ordinary; which is to say, some version of the weird. Dougherty puts the reason for this very succinctly:
we face a choice among mysteries, not a choice between mystery and something else.However this choice may be delineated, the most relevant terms I see are those between a weird that is meaningless, or a mystery that is meaningful. The present age is dominated by the drive to explain the latter in terms of the former. I am concerned to understand the former in terms of the latter.