Who, Or What, Said That?

It isn’t unique to the discipline of philosophy that certain established subject areas or concepts become so entrenched, so axiomatically accepted, that even when substantial errors or problems arise because of them everyone seems blind to that cause. Philosophy is perhaps a contender for worst culprit, especially since it often treats differing viewpoints that do not even admit of the validity of those areas or concepts, and so their attendant problems, with contempt. This is childish. Just as to pose a question does not guarantee the validity of that question or entail there be an answer, so identifying a problem does not guarantee the validity of that problem or entail there be a solution.

An area where philosophy is perennially shackled in this way is the notion of identity, and shackled such that it doesn’t recognise the chains. One ancient formulation of the problem (and it may as well remain the ancient one, since nobody bothers anymore) is that of Theseus’ Ship. The thought experiment goes that, over time, ships timbers are replaced, so too with sails, rigging, the keel etc. Eventually a point comes where a majority, if not all, components of the ship are no longer the original ones. In what sense, then, do we refer to the same thing as ‘Theseus’ Ship’ at those various points? Notice the embedded axiom here? That we do refer to the same thing. Insofar as this is ever questioned it is simply to say any other conception of identity is too great a sacrifice.

Recall that this is philosophy. The sense in which ‘same thing’ is employed here is not the same as when one might say ‘my toothbrush’ in consecutive instances, and all the useful consequences of that such as not using the toothbrushes of others, or retention of a particularly fine exemplar. It is a sense in which we worry about whether it is still my toothbrush, to reprise the above, if the head has been replaced, or, more artificially, if every component atom had been replaced in some unlikely (alright, in isolation they are all ‘unlikely’) quantum tunnelling event, leaving it isomorphic in every way. Typically it would be unquestioned that there is some way it would not be different, because, also unquestioned, is the axiom that there is some sense in which ‘my toothbrush’ is my toothbrush which cannot change.

As useful as the dental hygiene analogy is it may be more illuminating to advance to where the consequences of such thought are more generally applied: human identity. Immediately we can see why there is a lack of questioning at the fundament of the issue. For various reasons – theological, psychological – so many are desperate to retain a sense of identity utterly independent of ostensibly contingent factors. Unsurprisingly I will dismiss the theological: the soul, the hackneyed vessel of this idea, isn’t real, makes no sense and is the most juvenile example of wish fulfilment on this issue. But psychologically (and practically) we want to say that simply because we change jackets, or have a prosthetic limb installed, we have not changed identity. We are less certain when we match our beliefs, motivations, and personality generally, as children against who we are as we become much older, but nevertheless the notion of a persistent ‘I’ somewhere continues unquestioned.

But this is the flawed consequence of the unquestioned axiom. And it is the tension between a laudable pragmatism and an idiotic adherence to something we seem to be admittedly hardwired to do. The pragmatism is easily explained, and at once understood to be a fiction and yet the only element of this subject worth retaining. Say we have named and so identified a river. We continue to refer to the river by its name, despite the fact that it comprises of flowing water which is always different over time, that erosion changes its size, its course, its depth and so on. The flawed understanding of identity has to accept there is some sense in which the river has an identity independent of that, and of course fails to provide one.

If we dispense with that, accept that there is a very pragmatic sense in which we refer to the same river over time, while it usefully stays in the same place, generally goes the same way, can be used in the same manner, without positing any other level of identity, we never encounter the problem.

And similarly with everything. We are not the same thing as we were when we were children, or if we lost a body part (and how do you define such a ‘part’? Where are the lines of demarcation drawn when we continue to accept any discrete entity as persistent?), or when we changed a belief, or shed a skin cell. But that is no bullet to bite, because it is simply a recognition and hopefully a demotion of that thing we are hardwired for: being, over becoming. We have so little mental space for becoming over being. We focus on being: we are, and so we are, in some sense, independently of our constitution and our experiences, even to the level of life and death. We (readers, presumably) are alive, and yet even healthy lifeforms possess dead, non-functional components. Heart-stopped, even braindead, people can be revived over periods which themselves change as techniques change. And yet we persist with clunky, concrete notions such as ‘alive’ and ‘dead’, or ‘that’ and ‘not that’.

Becoming – that is change, flux, evolution, entropy – is a far greater feature of the world than being – that is persistence, unchanging form and the Platonic hangover of ideals. Simply because it is understandable that we find the pragmatism of mesoscopic and meso-temporal entities most natural does not make it excusable to ignore this. Less still to leave it as philosophical bedrock which causes nothing but imagined problems.

Humpty Dumpty

We all know the rhyme – wall, fall, King’s men etc. What fewer people realise is that another interpretation suggests Humpty represents the Empire and its fragmentation. Imperial historians, for example, argue over whether HD can/will/should be put back together and, at this time of decentralisation and threatened referendum, it seems apt to look at this in a little more detail.

In the 1980s, historian David Fieldhouse’s inaugural lecture at Cambridge was titled ‘Can Humpty Dumpty be Put Together Again?’ In his paper, he discussed the fact that as Britain was losing its Empire, there was perhaps no further need for the study of Imperial History. He argued that to view history this way was increasingly anachronistic and yet, thirty years on, Britain seems to be moving ever closer to an Imperial revival – a rose-tinted view of how powerful Britain was and a hope that it can be so again. Fieldhouse was in favour of revitalising the study of Empire but the question arises in this global age as to whether Humpty Dumpty should be put together again.

At the rise of Imperialism in the Early Modern period (I’m only stating this as for different Empires it happened at different times) many nations spread out their sticky fingers and began to taste how sweet their new colonies could be. Imperial History has traditionally taken the view of the colonisers and not the colonised which, as one can imagine, leaves a very one-sided argument.

Yes, Britain was strong despite its small size but I would suggest that it is now a time of internationality and not imperialism. Britain is no longer in a position to jostle with the superpowers for trade. I believe that the UK needs to be linked with Europe to remain competitive. However, those in Government seem to believe that Britain still has the capability to function alone, on its own terms, without assistance from its closest neighbours. Surely it is time to let the old stereotypes and illusions of imperial grandeur rest?

I would argue that Fieldhouse’s argument was right in that Imperial History is outdated but disagree with his desire to resuscitate it. The time, I believe, for small and limited vision is past. The fact that the spread of empire affected so many in a plethora of ways would open the door for debates and studies on the early roots of globalisation – and this has begun in some areas of academia. The study, not just of Imperial but of National and Atlantic histories, all limit their scope thus neglecting all the differing branches that affected and affect peoples and places in history. In this way, Humpty’s resurrection should represent the combining of multiple histories and disciplines to provide a more thorough and inclusive look at the past.

Perhaps the King’s men were fortuitous that they could not put Humpty back together again after all.

Miracle Go

Originality (or at least, first recognised authorship) can often seem a cruel condition for laudation. Of course it receives that valuation because of the thankfully widespread notion that parroting or plagiarising are not activities of much worth. But seemingly nobody took into consideration the frustration which can ensue when one has developed a perfectly valid idea or argument which turns out to have been presented hundreds of years earlier by someone else. One could present such an idea or argument as originality-in-isolation, but one would be laughed down. No, the simple lack of standard originality condemns the no-less creative thinker to the status of nothing.

So here follows a strand of thought attributed to Hume. And no one else. Even those who had not heard of Hume before coming to the same conclusion.

I speak of miracles. I will not speak of whether miracles exist in terms of whether violations of the laws of physics are possible (or whether that is even a coherent idea), rather there is a more human consideration that should give any adherents of such events pause. However one wishes to define these events, their nature would seem to be of impossibilities under normal conditions, transgressions against expectation and understanding, and general showiness which in itself should have one thinking of a human source.

Miracles look like what we would expect of magic, or hugely advanced technology, though we are to understand them as neither (has anyone explained why divine acts are not magic…?). They are generally noteworthy overturnings of the natural order (though there are exceptions, Mr Aquinas and your herrings), which is to say they stand out to us as events that in some way defy the constitution of the universe.

So. What we have is something of a pivotal choice in where we place most of our confidence. Either that such events do happen, that at least in localised areas physical laws can be bent or broken, that in such cases there would normally be some kind of intention behind the event (an intention no one has any knowledge of), or that there may be a mistake occurring. It seems fair to assume that physical laws would be quite universal and stable, otherwise the uninterrupted billions of years required to produce, for example, you, would be hard to account for. But we don’t even need this assumption thanks to the second part of the above disjunction.

A mistake. Human perception consists of signals relayed from bits of meat and processed by a bag of lumpy water. It involves interpretation and assumption, is affected by the environment, internal and external. Differing levels of wakefulness or intoxication or emotion alter it. And, let us not forget, people lie. For countless reasons they lie. Are we really so unaware of the endless, manifest ways our perceptive faculties can fail us, and what a collective mass of calumny we are as a species, that we would ever think it may be the world which has apparently broken down in cases of ostensible miracles? Still, if you are the type to believe miracles, I’m sure this moves you not in the least.

A Brief History of…

History is my worthy co-author’s discipline, and I would not presume to step on her toes, but this is an eye on part of the history of myself and so unproblematic. My discipline is Philosophy, and so much within it aims to present itself as objective, disinterested and ahistorical. It is not. This is the story (and we are all stories we tell to ourselves) of how I became a philosopher.

I am an atheist. I always was, not withstanding those nine or so initial years when I thought some kind of deity presided over us, mostly because the large, wise and authoritative creatures surrounding me displayed the reality of this deity as if it were merely an ultimate court or level of government.

I am an atheist. I am not one because of clever argument or sophistry, I am not one even because of the utterly overwhelmingly convincing weight of evidence against any theistic view. I will argue for my position, and I will gather this evidence in my hands, where that is my only way of presenting my position, but it is a sideshow. In truth my atheism is in itself a kind of faith, in that it justifies itself.

I was young when I dispensed with any notion of the supernatural, around nine, as indicated. The supernatural explained nothing, had no support, and was hopelessly contradictory. Yet do not think too harshly of a child: I had no answer to every consequence of such a view. To paraphrase another philosopher, I did creep to the graveside of god when night fell and wept. As a child, because I was rejecting fabulous fantasy realms, and later because so much justification for valuation was not replaced by the worldly knowledge that explained so much else.

And so, years spent. Years spent, in a sense lost, but with hindsight so richly used, devoid of anything approaching certainty, exploring every position or thought process I could find, yet ultimately paralysed, unable to satisfy myself as to why anything I might value or choose was any more worthy or justified than any other viewpoint. A period, I might add, that every person would likely benefit from. Even if later one comes to a settled place of belief of whatever kind it allows a tentativeness and a window of understanding into differences.

Being so paralysed is not a viable position, however, especially for one who had to resent it, knowing somehow there was a justification for those things he wished to assert. And it was collision with the work of a philosopher. A work, and a philosopher, not in the tradition of bloodless analysis and logic, but in affirmation and unapologetic synthesis. How I had floundered, unable yet to articulate what I (I now tell myself) was striving toward. That divinely-derived meaning was not only empty, it was depreciatory. It would be humiliating. It was derogatory to the intellect, it was a tyranny imposed by the smallest among us on false behalf of something non-existent. To choose, to evaluate, to decide, was justified on one’s own terms and life to be lived as best one can as an aesthetic phenomenon.

Of The Otherworldsmen

Friedrich Nietzsche, the self-confessed Antichrist (though admirer of that untimely hippy), was far too kind toward religion. He tells an amazing story about how the noble-hating, life-denying spirit-diseased purveyors of hate-dressed-as-love overturned the ancient Apollonian ideals and poisoned their worthy possessors. A story unimportant as to whether it is true or false, because it is beautiful. It is an ugly consequence, of course, for all earthly joy and affirmation to be turned to abnegation and eschatology (and you can’t spell ‘eschatology’ without ‘scatology’). Nietzsche said at the least this priestly method of conquering – by raising weakness and misery as hieratic (something far more achievable for most than their opposites), until the few paragons of higher spirit cannot hold out – made mankind more interesting. Too kind! More complex, perhaps. Certainly no other animal could achieve the kind of oblivious double-thinking idiocy to believe the reason why we justify suffering now is because over the hills and above the clouds is eternal bliss.

Personally I would have liked a counter-example. I would have liked to have seen the result of the history of life without that poison, without the whisperings of those sick and ugly spirits. I would have liked to have seen a world where good did not come to mean bad, and bad to mean good – not least because superficially reading that would ascribe some kind of triumphant revival of pre-christian values to American urban sub-culture.

Nietzsche condemned christianity, leaving me without sufficiently stronger concepts to outline my thoughts. That nothing of value came from it. Not art, not music, not literature, not depth, not love, not joy.

It is a hideous chimerical monster. When it teaches us to love our neighbour it tells us only to hate those further from us – further from us not in distance, but in thought and value. Besides, we hate our neighbour, anyway. If we deem our neighbour better than us, we resent him. If we deem our neighbour less than us, we condemn him. And yes so what? That is simple evaluation – we wouldn’t judge something better or worse unless we respectively valued or deprecated those things, and so equally respectively wanted or didn’t want those things. A joyful spirit can encompass and let go of these all-too-human feelings without marring itself, but when you are obligated to pretend (and not just pretend, to believe) an attitude of love? Is it any wonder it sticks in collective throats, hiding fractiously behind the eyes and lifting hands to strike as if it were a caress?

Nietzsche was not only too kind, he was too optimistic. Although he knew the time was not yet come, he proposed another revaluation to come, where the death of god reopened our eyes, brought us back to the earth and our own capacity to bring meaning to the here and now. Christianity managed what even Carthage could not achieve (and they managed to send a fictional princess 3000 years into the future to enjoy impressive chart success), it killed Rome. Could those who have spent millennia grinding under the heel of christ’s sandaled feet truly rise once more? Individuals, perhaps. Now and then.

Fanatical Sabbatical

So, it seems that Scientia Incognita has been offline for a few months – sorry for that.  There are two main reasons – one for each of the administrators of the blog.

Firstly – Scientia herself (i.e. me) became a parent in March so has been getting to grips with the gradations of poop instead of the intricacies of academia.

Androclast, the other contributor and wordsmith has taken up the challenge of an MA which has been keeping his brain ticking over through the Winter months.

Now that life seems to have calmed down (a little), the blog will reawaken and our posts on all things academic or trivial will make a comeback.  I can’t promise that there won’t be references to babies and poo but I will try and keep them to a minimum.

Keep watching!