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Saturday, March 12, 2016

Philosophy Departments, Nihilism, Psychic Research, and the Continental / Analytic Divide. And a few other things you didn't think were related. Part ii


Last post I ended with a question: could the "new psychology" -- the empirical psychology being forged into a science in the late 19th century and whose departmentalization in universities triggered the responding departmentalization of philosophy -- have attained its final, deadly form in the rise of the neurosciences? When RS Bakker argues that logic is neurons and phenomenology is neurons and that any attempt at higher-level neuronic reflection on these patterns is an illusion, is this anything but a final, scoffing fulfillment of the anxieties Reed claims motivated the founding of philosophy departments in the first place?

This would be the triumph of just what, in the previous post, we saw Socrates lampoon in the Phaedo. "The Good" will have been exhaustively described as "sinews and bones," or neurons and glia, "arranged 'good'-wise." If we go all the way with Bakker, this simply means that philosophy is, and has always been -- not just since 1901 or 1879 -- an enormous act of denialism. But we need not go all this way. In my last post but one, I claimed strongly that it is untrue "that our circumstance has somehow encountered a game-changer in science:"
The void was not discovered by science ...I absolutely deny that our dilemma is in any decisive sense completely new and without precedent. Nihilism has always been "at the door," to those who had the skin to sense the chill. If there was ever a real response to it, there remains one now.
Then I remembered that Brassier had anticipated this argument:
‘Nihilism’ in its broadest sense, understood as the predicament in which human life and existence more generally are condemned as ‘meaningless’ (i.e. ‘purposeless’), certainly predates the development of modern science (think of Ecclesiastes). But the emergence of modern science lends it a cognitive import it did not previously enjoy, because where pre-modern nihilism was a consequence of a failure of understanding – “We cannot understand God, therefore there is no meaning available to creatures of limited understanding such as we” – modern nihilism follows from its unprecedented success – “We understand nature better than we did, but this understanding no longer requires the postulate of an underlying meaning”. What has happened in this shift is that intelligibility has become detached from meaning: with modern science, conceptual rationality weans itself from the narrative structures that continue to prevail in theology and theologically inflected metaphysics. This marks a decisive step forward in the slow process through which human rationality has gradually abandoned mythology, which is basically the interpretation of reality in narrative terms. The world has no author and there is no story enciphered in the structure of reality. No narrative is unfolding in nature, certainly not the traditional monotheistic narrative in which the human drama of sin and redemption occupied centre stage, and humanity was a mirror for God.
Quite a bit ago, I remarked (following up on a comment by my friend dy0genes) on Nihilism as a sort of ghost story, and I have since had many occasions to point out the magnetism between nihilism and the literary genre of horror. And what makes a ghost story more compelling than the preface: this story is true ?

Brassier holds that science gives us reasons for nihilism: rather than finding its motive in human insufficiency ("Even if one were to by chance hit upon the truth," as one of the preSocratics glumly put it, "one would not know"), contemporary, science-powered nihilism has a robust case for itself grounded in human capacity.

I have no knock-down response to this. But I do disagree with the way Brassier reads the motive for nihilism past. His claim that this was ignorance about God is especially striking. This ignorance has never been in question and remains axiomatic, for the infinite God and the finite (or even differently infinite) mortal human intellect are by definition incommensurable; but the strong voices in the tradition were always those who, while thinking this total incommensurability through, nevertheless found this an insufficient reason for despair, since God could and did reach out from the other side of the unbridgeable ontological gulf. The prophet Isaiah, St Gregory of Nyssa, Ibn Arabi, Simone Weil -- all are insistent that we do not reach God via some rope-ladder of syllogisms, let alone by rolling balls and inclined planes; but they know from experience that God breaks in upon the human condition nonetheless. Now if this assertion about "experience" sends your eyes rolling, there is nothing I can do about it. No argument is stronger than rolled eyes; but that is because rolling your eyes prescinds from argument.

Comes the rejoinder: "Bah!! It's your invocation of some unverifiable "experience" that prescinds from argument!" But everything hinges on what counts as "verifiable" here. I am not going to rehash the whole "everyone-takes-some-things-on-faith" line, not because I don't think it's true or relevant (it is both) but because it usually doesn't work as a front-line tactic. I'm going to argue, rather, that what counts as evidence is heavily skewed in the official courts.

Jeffrey Kripal argues that you don't need God to blast open the doors of perception; simply taking seriously a precognitive dream would be sufficient to demonstrate that something besides the exchange of sodium and potassium ions is going on. The article in which Kripal made this suggestion (in the Chronicle of Higher Education) drew an intensely dismissive eye-rolling screed by Jerry Coyne in response. "What about all the false predictions?" Coyne asked, as if no one had ever thought of that. But the point is not that we don't make mistakes all the time, and far more mistakes than "direct hits." It's that when some curious event like a precognitive dream or a powerful synchronicity comes upon you, you experience this as meaningful and while you can rationalize your experience away, this comes at a very high cost. In short (say I), such experiences are striking (but by no means the only) counter-examples to Brassier's claim that "intelligibility has become detached from meaning" -- but they also force a revision of just what is meant by "intelligibility."

Amod Lele first pointed me to this thread of Kripal's research in a comment on this post, and I have since read a good deal of him and find a lot to applaud and somewhat to critique; that will come in some later post, perhaps. Here I want only to underscore Kripal's claim that when weird things happen, they count and should not be brushed aside or left unacknowledged.
A paranormal event is one in which the world “out there” and the world “in here” manifest themselves as the same world. It is as if the mental and material dimensions of our experience have “split off” the same deeper Ground or One World. The physical world now begins to behave like a story or a series of signs. Hence the common descriptors of these experiences: “It was as if I were a character in a novel” or “It was as if I were caught in a movie.” These sensibilities, I suggest, are very accurate perceptions, because, of course, we all are caught in novels and movies, which we call culture and religion. A paranormal moment is one in which we realize that this is so. What we then do with this realization is up to us. (Kripal interview)
Elsewhere, remarking on this same self-description (‘it was as if I was a character in a novel’, or ‘it was as if I was inside a movie’) Kripal expands on how and why he thinks people are right to describe themselves thus:
I think they are. I think we are too, right now. We’re written, composed by our ancestors.
What shocked me was how many textual allusions people would naturally use to describe a paranormal event. They would talk about puns, jokes, allusions, readings or messages. It’s a textual process going on in the physical environment.

A paranormal event becomes an invitation to re-write the script. That could be on a personal level, or a cultural level for writers and film-makers. Take writers like Philip K. Dick or Whitley Strieber – these are people who create fantasy for a living. They know their spiritual experiences are fantastic. They know they’re being mediated by their imagination. They’re not taking them literally. And yet they would insist that something very real is coming through.
(interview)
This claim of Kripal's that in such moments, "The physical world now begins to behave like a story or a series of signs," is very far-reaching, and it directly conflicts with Brassier's contention above that "no narrative is unfolding in nature," though it does leave a bit vague the precise contours of the referent "nature" and what the character of this "unfolding" would be. It certainly does not demand that there be one "narrative." For myself, of course, I have already said more than once that if there is any sense to the notion of apprehending a "story" to the context-of-all-contexts, it will be matter not of plot but of theme. This, I take it, is crucial to figuring out how best to get out of the stupid zero-sum game of the analytic/continental divide, which, as I mentioned before, Harman (following Brentano) sees as roughly mirroring the split between the sciences and the arts: slow, collaborative progress vs. the cult of the genius. If the danger is that the Analytic side, in its adulation of science, will simply capitulate to scientism, the answer certainly cannot be to merely laud the artistic model of the Continental side; for the same rot that has corroded science has (differently, but in the same process and perhaps to worse effect) deeply corrupted art. It would take us even further afield in the loop-the-loop paths these two posts are "following" to pursue the matter, but the same arguments about the pernicious effect of academia have been going on for even longer with regards to poetry and fiction and the visual arts, and perhaps music above all. Attackers of MFA programs complain, sometimes in so many words: you can teach craft, to some extent, but you can't teach vision, and sometimes the teaching ruins the vision that was there. Defenders shrug: American poetry is vibrant, diverse, and thriving, and most of the critics teach at MFA programs, so what gives? The debate in music gets less airplay but is just as serious and just as deep-seated. When, the accusation goes, was the last time a great work of music came out of the academy, anything moving enough, or even catchy enough, to compare with Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, Lennon and McCartney, Joni Mitchell, Prince, Radiohead? This sounds anti-elitist, because we think of pop music as being, well, populist in some sense; but it turns out to be just as much a function of the "cult of the genius" as any worship of Haydn or Mahler. It's not a myth we really want to say we believe in anymore, but we do not know what to replace it with.

What would a philosophy look like, though, that rejected the binary of "art" vs "science"? I am unsure, but Kripal provides us with another hint. At the very same time that the psychology and philosophy departments were differentiating themselves from each other, one towering figure was conducting intense research into just such strange phenomena as Kripal insists we ought to "put back on the table." That figure was William James, who straddles philosophy and psychology and is by any account one of the most important American thinkers in both; but whose tireless investigation into what we would call paranormal phenomena has been systematically marginalized by the unofficial archive-keepers, Kripal contends.
James was a also very active psychical researcher... I spent 20 years studying mysticism and never really thought about the paranormal or psychical phenomena.... We all read James, and we all taked about his pragmatism or his comparativism, but nobody ever talks about his psychical research. That really was a revelation to me, and I wanted to address the question of why we’ve taken that William James off the table.... Which William James are we talking about here? (about 5-6 min in.)
Kripal is overt about his resistance to scientism. For my part, while I do not consider scientism the same thing as nihilism (for one thing, it's often shallower), neither do I consider it the same thing as science. I would hope this need not be said, but as Coyne's misreading of Kripal makes clear, it does. I consider the scientific drive for truth, for as accurate as possible an account of the universe, to be a non-negotiable part of the philosophical spirit; the critique of superstition and of fear of thought must be cultivated intentionally (and it is not easy -- for thinking can indeed be frightening, and anyone who sneers at this hasn't done enough thinking yet to know.) I consider Scientism, on the other hand -- which I will gloss here as an inflation of methodological naturalism into an ontological presupposition, with attendant casualties elsewhere, including science, and in ethics above all -- as one of the main alibis of nihilism today. Thus it is, not without some mild amusement, that I find myself lending tentative credence to the case that a really good ("true"?) ghost story could be an antidote to nihilism.

Edward Reed notes that
The projects on which James expended the most labor -- his stream of consciousness psychology, his studies of psychic powers, his analysis of religious experience and conversion -- have never been taken up seriously by those who claim to be his heirs in philosophy and psychology throughout the United States. (p 201)
This is somewhat overstated if one includes disciplines like religious studies, but as regards the second item on Reed's list, it surely stands. I don't have a well-thought-out explanation of this neglect, except to suggest that it stems from an obvious consensus-reality discomfort with such phenomena, "alleged" or not. Nor do I have an over-arching moral to draw. It is surely not the case that James' interest in psychic research by itself would provide some watertight response to nihilism. Nihilism is compatible (if it can be said to be "compatible" with anything) with any number of ostensibly paranormal hypotheses and phenomena, including robust ghost sightings, alien encounters, and the ESP that Jerry Coyne hand-waves away. It is important to note that Kripal does not limit his interest in the "paranormal" to these rather lurid examples. His main anecdotes -- which is not a dirty word to him -- are those very private and unverifiable events that steal upon us, or overwhelm us; unsought-for mystical encounters (whether thus labeled or not), like Philip K. Dick's 2-3/74 (which Kripal treats at length in chapter six of Mutants and Mystics), or Nietzsche's Sils Maria realization (which as far as I know he doesn't mention), or his own powerful kundaliniesque experience. What I want to insist upon is not the lab-ready status of such events but the importance of Kripal's claim that in these situations the world seems to be more like a story than like an equation. If, in our modern democratic hearts, despite wanting to lean towards Continental philosophy's concern with the good (and rightly-conducted) life, we don't want to unreservedly embrace the notion of "towering geniuses," the notion of the world itself as "art" seems -- while not a philosophical panacea -- clearly apposite.

"Never trust the artist," says D.H. Lawrence; "Trust the tale."

3 comments:

  1. It’s a tattered flag but I salute it. Agree on all points.

    In the Stanford Encyclopaedia’s article on Henri Bergson it is claimed that Bergson’s mysticism in The Two Sources of Morality and Religion’ works against his reputation. His presidency of the British Society for Psychical Research is mentioned and a certain coolness is evident about his conversion to Christianity. He was, as is clear from ‘Two Sources’, an undocumented Christian.

    Others Philosophers interested in Psychical Research were Henry Sidgwick who was the first president of the S.P.R. Anthony Flew wrote a nice little book on the subject (A New Approach to Psychical Research).

    Analytic Philosophers can get to be like cabinetmakers who are tool fetishists but who don’t actually make much furniture.

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    1. Yes, this pair of articles is a looser string of beads than I usually try to proffer. I hope the transitions are clear to the patient reader.

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  2. I forgot C.D. Broad (Mind and its Place in Nature) who was also president of the S.P.R. in 1935 and 1958

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