On The Presence of Things

IMG_1991My father died in January and his death has forced me to face a question for which I still have no answer. The issue is the relation of the psyche, or what I will call the “spirit,” to the material world. Since Plato, we’ve tended to think of human beings as defined more by their minds than by their bodies. This view is probably most pronounced among religious people, for whom the material world, including our physical bodies, are encumbrances from which we will one day be liberated. Our attachment to material things, or to physical reality more generally, is viewed as a kind of disease of which we cannot help but long to be cured.

Strive as we might, though, it appears we cannot be cured of it. When a person we love dies, we are almost never content simply to commune with their spirit, or to remember them in our thoughts. We crave relics that testify to their earlier physical reality, their tangibility.

When my father died, I took on the task of clearing out his apartment. This was not merely to help my siblings, but because I wanted to be among his things. It was comforting. In the beginning, when the apartment was just as he left it, it seemed almost as if he were still alive, as if he had just stepped out and might walk through the door any minute. I knew he wouldn’t, of course, but there was something comforting in the fact that his home was still there, just as he had arranged it. It was a physical expression of who he was and it gave him a physical presence even though he could no longer be physically present himself. As the days passed, though, and the apartment was gradually emptied as things were boxed to be shipped or given away, it became excruciatingly painful, like witnessing a wasting away of flesh.

I had difficulty parting with anything and, in fact, I kept many of my father’s things, things I know I will probably never use. Some things, such as the little metal box my sisters and I had bought him when we were children, and which he always used to store his cuff links, I have kept purely as mementos. That box sits now on my own dresser. I open it periodically and examine its contents. There’s nothing in it of any value, only a few pairs of cuff links, and some screws and safety pins, but looking at my father’s things makes me feel closer to him somehow.

My father was a writer. I also have his papers. It isn’t just the thoughts expressed in them, though, that are important to me. I’m attached to the papers themselves, to the faded and dirty typescript of his unpublished novel, to the yellowed copies of his newspaper articles. I’m scanning everything to preserve it and so I can share it with the rest of my family. If I were “prudent” I’d dispose of the originals once the process is complete. I don’t have a lot of storage space. I won’t dispose of the originals, though. I debated doing that and that debate is what prompted these reflections.

Religious people often think that contempt for the material world is supported by scripture. I suppose it is, at least to a certain extent, or in a certain respect. And yet, Genesis has God looking on physical creation and pronouncing it “good.”

Most contemporary philosophers are materialists of some sort. That is, they don’t believe in the non-material “mind” the way Plato did. And yet, the difficulties of reducing inherently subjective mental phenomena to inherently objective neurobiological phenomena, as Tom Nagel famously showed in his now classic article “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” appear intractable. The philosopher John Searle is as uncomfortable as are most contemporary philosophers with what is called “substance dualism,” or the view that reality comprises both physical and non-physical substances. To his credit, however, he is unwilling to ignore the difficulties of what is known as “mind-brain reductionism.” Even if you can map all mental phenomena, such as the joy one feels on being in the company of a loved one, onto neurobiological phenomena, you can’t actually completely “reduce” the former to the latter. Something is lost when you do that. We can all see, in principle anyway, the neurobiological phenomena, but we don’t experience the joy they represent. The experience itself is lost in the reduction.

Searle wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to acknowledge the intractability of the problems associated with mind-brain reductionism while at the same time avoiding the stigma of substance dualism. His answer is a new kind of substance monism –– not materialism, but “physicalism.” He believes that materialists operate with a very crude understanding of what it meant for something to be physical, an understanding that had remained essentially unchanged since the Enlightenment. People in the Enlightenment thought they knew what physical substance was. It was solid. It had extension, etc., etc. Searle argues, however, that since the advent of quantum theory we can no longer claim to have a good grasp of what a physical object is, that all of physical reality had become profoundly mysterious.

Perhaps all of reality is one substance, one substance pronounced “good” by God. Perhaps that’s why we are so attached to things, to the things that have meant something to us in our lives, such as toys from childhood, awards we have won, things we’ve created with our own hands, or gifts from those we love. Perhaps that’s why we are so attached to the things that meant something to those people, even if that meaning was merely utilitarian. Perhaps it is because our things are a physical extension of our selves. Perhaps we feel diminished when we lose something because we are diminished. The artist Al Gury lost nearly everything he had in a fire recently. I can’t even imagine what that would be like. Memories cannot substitute for the actual physical presence of one’s things. Memory is important, of course. If you couldn’t remember the meaning a thing had for you, then its physical presence would be meaningless. The presence of the thing adds depth, though, to one’s experience of the memory of its significance.

Even more mysterious, I think, is the fact that it is enormously important that the thing in question is the original. A facsimile of a treasured object does not elicit the same depth of emotional response, the same feeling of connection with the past, that the original does. This isn’t a physical property of the object, of course. We can be fooled when some cherished object is broken and then surreptitiously replaced. If we find out this happened, though, we’re disappointed. We want the original. A facsimile is better than memory alone, but it is not the same as the original. Why? Perhaps Searle’s insight holds the answer. Perhaps, if he is right that all of reality is made up of one substance, then it makes a difference whether one has the right bits of it. A facsimile is less “right” than the original.

My father’s things are now spread about my house. His cuff-link box is on my dresser. His books are on my bookshelves. His pictures are on my walls, and the hutch that he made is in my kitchen. I look at these things as I move about the house, and I feel closer to him. Religion, with the exception, to a certain extent anyway, of Catholicism, has tended to discredit this feeling. That is, religion has tended to give spiritual significance to only the non-material, to our memories of those we have lost rather than to their things and the meaning those things have for us. This does a disservice I would argue, however, to human beings, because human beings are physical beings who cannot help but have a deep emotional attachment to physical reality. It does a disservice to creation as well, because physical reality, whatever it ultimately is, is a part of reality, even if, perhaps, it is not the whole of it.

I am taking careful care of my father’s things, and this act of caring for them is comforting. It is, in a strange way, almost as if I am caring for him. It isn’t just his things that have come, since his death, to command my attention. I’m so grateful for the fact that my father existed, that he was a part of physical reality, that I am trying to be a better steward of the whole of it, and that has been enormously comforting as well, though I am still uncertain concerning how best to articulate why.

(An earlier version of this article appeared in the  March 7, 2018 issue of Counterpunch. I’m indebted to the editor, Jeff St. Clair, for his excellent suggestion of a title. I am indebted, as well, to a reader, Henry Galmish, for reminding me that Catholicism is better than Protestantism at recognizing the spiritual significance of material reality.)

Education and Philosophy

Mind CoverOne of the things I love about philosophy is how egalitarian it is. There’s no “beginning” philosophy and no “advanced” philosophy. You can’t do philosophy at all without jumping right in the deep end of the very same questions all philosophers have wrestled with since the time of Plato, questions such as what it means to be just, or whether people really have free will.

This distinguishes philosophy from disciplines such as math or biology where there’s a great deal of technical information that has to be memorized and mastered before students can progress to the point where they can engage with the kinds of issues that preoccupy contemporary mathematicians or biologists. There is thus a trend in higher education to create introductory courses in such disciplines for non-majors, courses that can introduce students to the discipline without requiring they master the basics the way they would have to if they intended to continue their study in that discipline.

Philosophy programs are increasingly coming under pressure to do the same kind of thing with philosophy courses. That is, they are essentially being asked to create dumbed-down versions of standard philosophy classes to accommodate students from other majors. Business majors, for example, are often required to take an ethics course, but business majors, philosophers are told, really do not need to read Aristotle and Kant, so it is unreasonable to ask them to do so.

Yeah, that’s right, after all, they’re not paying approximately 50K a year to get an education. They’re paying for a DEGREE, and the easier we can make that for them, the better!

But I digress. I had meant to talk about how egalitarian philosophy is. Anyone can do it, even today’s purportedly cognitively challenged generation. Just to prove my point, I’ll give you an example from a class I taught yesterday.

We’re reading John Searle’s Mind: A Brief Introduction (Oxford, 2004) in my philosophy of mind class this term. We’re up to the chapter on free will. “The first thing to notice,” Searle asserts, when examining such concepts as “psychological determinism” and “voluntary action,” “is that our understanding of these concepts rests on an awareness of a contrast between the cases in which we are genuinely subject to psychological compulsion and those in which we are not” (156).

“What do you think of that statement?” I asked my students. “Is there anything wrong with it?”

“It’s begging the question,” responded Raub Dakwale, a political science major.

“Yes, that’s right,” I said smiling. “Searle is BEGGING THE QUESTION!” Mr. Big deal famous philosopher, John Searle, whose book was published by Oxford University Press, commits a fallacy that is easily identified by an undergraduate student who is not even a philosophy major. That is, the issue Searle examines in that chapter is whether we have free will. He even acknowledges that we sometimes think our actions are free when they clearly are not (the example he gives is of someone acting on a post-hypnotic suggestion, but other examples would be easy enough to produce).

But if we can be mistaken about whether a given action is free, how do we know that any of our actions are free? We assume that at least some of them are free because it sometimes seems to us that our actions are free and other times that they are compelled. But to say that it sometimes seems to us that our actions are free is a very different sort of observation from Searle’s that we are sometimes aware that we are not, in fact, subject to psychological compulsion.

To be fair to Searle, I should acknowledge that he appears to associate “psychological compulsion” with the conscious experience of compulsion, as opposed to what he calls “neurobiological determinism,” which compels action just as effectively as the former, but which is never “experienced” consciously at all. So a charitable reading of the passage above might incline one to the view that Searle was not actually begging the question in that an awareness of an absence of psychological compulsion does not constitute and awareness of freedom.

But alas, Searle has to restate his position in the very next page in a manner that is even more conspicuously question begging. “We understand all of these cases [i.e., various cases of unfree action],” he asserts, “by contrasting them with the standard cases in which we do have free voluntary action” (158, emphasis added).

You can’t get more question begging than that. The whole point is whether any human action is ever really free or voluntary. This move is in the same family with the purported refutation of skepticism that was making the rounds of professional philosophers when I was in graduate school, but which I hope since then has been exposed for the shoddy piece of reasoning that it was.

Back then, philosophers would claim that the classical argument in favor of skepticism rested on cases of perceptual illusion (e.g., Descartes’ stick that appears broken when half of it is submerged under water but which appears unbroken when removed from the water), but that perceptual illusions could be appreciated as such only when compared with what philosophers refer to as “veridical cases” of sense perception. That is, you know the stick is not really broken because removing it from the water reveals that it is not really broken. But if sense experience can reveal the truth about the stick, then the skeptics are mistaken.

But, of course, you don’t need to assume that the latter impression of the stick is veridical in order to doubt that sense experience could ever be veridical. All you need is two conflicting impressions of the same object and the assumption that the same stick cannot be both broken and straight. That is, all you need is two conflicting impressions of the same object and the law of non-contradiction to support skepticism. That seemed glaringly obvious to me when I was still a student, and yet scads of professional philosophers failed to grasp it.

Professional philosophers can be incredibly obtuse, and ordinary undergraduates, even today, with the right sort of help and encouragement, can expose that obtuseness. It’s a real thrill for a student to do that, to stand right up there with the big guys/gals and actually get the better of them in an argument, so to speak. It’s a thrill that is reserved, I believe, for philosophy. That is, it seems unlikely that anything comparable happens in the average calculus or organic chemistry class.

My point here is not to argue that philosophers in general are stupid, or even that Searle, in particular, is stupid. They aren’t, and he isn’t. Despite Searle’s occasional errors in reasoning, he’s one of the most original philosophers writing today. My point is that philosophy, as one of my colleagues put it recently, “is freakin’ hard.” It’s hard even after one has been rigorously schooled in it.

There’s no way to dumb down philosophy and have it still be philosophy. Philosophy is training in thinking clearly. There’s no way to make that easier for people, so why would anyone suggest that there was?

Perhaps it’s because philosophy is the discipline most threatening to the status quo, even more threatening than sociology. Sociology can educate people concerning the injustices that pervade contemporary society, but only training in critical and analytical thinking can arm people against the rhetoric that buttresses those injustices. This country, and indeed the world, would look very different today, if the average citizen back in 2001 had been able to recognize that “You’re either with us, or against us” was a false dichotomy.

(This piece originally appeared in the Nov. 22-24, 2013 Weekend Edition of CounterPunch)