Wednesday, January 9, 2008

A Few Words on The Last Word

In The Last Word (Oxford, 1997) Thomas Nagel defends the objective principles of reason against the idea that "the first person, singular or plural, is hiding at the bottom of everything we say or think." This question touches upon issues raised by Matt concerning foundationalism. I don’t think it’s possible to say, as he does, that "Modern foundationalism is the same as ancient foundationalism," for the reason that ancient philosophy was grounded in solid realism and modern philosophy has ever since Descartes begun with the idealist premise, namely that the real is what is in our minds. The whole tenor or climate of thought is different, although philosophers may have in both cases wanted to ward off skepticism and relativism.

I am not going to spend time recapitulating Nagel’s argument in any detail, for I am already inclined to a certain kind of rationalist tenet, in the sense in which Chesterton defined the realism of Thomas Aquinas: if we do not affirm that the primary act of recognition of any reality is real, we may as well give up, for there can be nothing more to say. He says, "… the essence of the Thomist common sense is that two agencies are at work; reality and the recognition of reality; and their meeting is a sort of marriage. Indeed it is truly a marriage, because it is fruitful… [and] produced practical results, precisely because it is the combination of an adventurous mind and a strange fact."

We all know that this bracing realism did not survive the succeeding centuries intact, to the extent that some four centuries later it came about that Descartes sought to receive assurance of his own being from his thought. Well, we are placed another four centuries distant from Descartes, and what do we have to show for it? In our time it is thought itself that seems to be tottering about in the ruins of cultural relativism, subjectivism, skepticism, and numerous other ills. Thomas Nagel, in summarizing this landscape of philosophical ruins, basically returns us to the lap of Descartes. He says that there is this about fundamental reason: we cannot get outside of it. Thus he returns to the first, primordial, mysterious and irreducible interiority of our thought. That a modern philosopher recognizes interiority as a principle surely is a sign that serious thought has gotten sick of philosophical promiscuity. For thinking is promiscuous if it does not take account of itself, and it cannot take account of itself unless it accepts itself. I count this as a solid gain.

Yet I am of two minds. The first and most important thing to say is that Nagel’s contention is a grand advance, a true progress, a landmark. But the second, and less important thing to say, is that we should have known that this interiority of thought was already the true significance of Descartes. It was not his geometry, his res cogitans and res extensa, his beneficient God, the support of his being, the tool of science, the subject-object division. None of those things was as important as the sheer act of asserting what he did about the act of thinking. But it took us four hundred years, and now Thomas Nagel, just to point this out. So we made a wide circle with many detours and dead ends only to return to the cogito at last. To have suffered so much and to be dragged along by the tail of so many false hopes only to regain what we should have already realized – this seems to me a sad comment about our real state of affairs. One can only call it a persistent stagnation of modern thought. There is something in Nagel’s return to Descartes that hints of resignation rather than of creative renewal.

It was Descartes’ misfortune – and ours – that the assurance he received from the interiority of his thought did not extend in equal measure to the rest of the world. There was this problem of how disembodied thought connected to embodied reality, as one of his more astute critics, the Princess of Bohemia, put it. So we embarked on a long train of subject-object problems such as Pirsig has written of. The latest edition of this problem concerns how a being, such as ourselves, a product of natural history, can possess capacity for objective thought which penetrates to the true nature of the world. Evolution, in other words, does not explain reason, and it is refreshing of Thomas Nagel to admit as much. For obviously, we must employ reason in discussing evolution (or anything else). With a certain timid hesitation Nagel offers the thought that, despite the fact that we seem to be here as the result of a long sequence of physical and biological accidents, nevertheless, "the basic methods of reasoning we employ are not merely human but belong to a more general category of mind." Like a creature emerging from a cave, blinking in the light, Nagel proffers this startling idea - which is actually quite important if not overwhelming! But he soon scurries back into the darkness because this thought, if taken seriously, might lead to the Land of Anathema… the land at whose borders loom Intelligent Design.

So I would say that Thomas Nagel wants reason without taking account of the fundamental faith of man, which is, that our reason is capable of understanding things about the world because intelligence is embedded in the world. This fundamental faith is greeted by the bien-pensants of modernism with something approaching violent horror, as if those who espoused it were afflicted with a leprous contagion. Nagel is at pains to clarify that he is not that sort of person. He is indeed a very nice kind of non-believer. He says, "I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that."

I have thought quite a bit about those last two words, "like that," which arouse all sort of associations all the more sinister for not being explicitly tabulated. Descartes’ "beneficient God" has been turned on his ear after all!

Or perhaps not – for Descartes "beneficient God" was an abstract beneficence just as Nagel’s "like that" is vague, an abstractly malignant presence. The result is that the problem with Nagel’s rationalism is the same problem that Descartes had with his rationalism. Both of them want interiority without intimacy. And when I use the term "intimacy" I do not mean merely physical or emotional closeness. I mean by this term a sense of intellectual coherence, of a destiny that wears an outward face in things and an inward dimension in thought, and that our human thinking, when sufficiently developed, can penetrate to this level of … "Quality."

Let me attempt to spell out what I am saying. First of all, "intimacy" in the sense in which I use it means that there can be Quality. For there can be no Quality in a world haphazardly arranged, whose objects and bodies, and thoughts corresponding to these entities, are mere aggregates of bodies at a simpler level of organization. If haphazard aggregation did characterize the essential nature of things, then pragmatic considerations of mere utility or Matt’s "ad hoc" arrangements would be entirely appropriate.

It is for this reason that I do not see Pirsig’s Quality metaphysics as pragmatist in any sense. Or rather, the only pragmatist element I see in the Metaphysics of Quality is Pirsig’s desire and intention to get to real life – to get to "the stuffy, hot-ground floor of life as soon as possible" as Matt poetically puts it. But the actual tool of thought which the concept of Quality provides is miles away from pragmatism. The problem Pirsig had was there was no rationalist framework in which his magisterial tool could make sense and unfold. For, if you say that Quality presupposes an intelligence in the world in which human reason can share and participate, because this intelligence partakes of a deep structure common to both the world and to human minds, where’s the dynamic element in reason itself? It is at this point that Owen Barfield’s insights bring considerable assistance, for Barfield speaks of an evolution of reason, or rather of an evolution of consciousness. This concept is the missing key, for it enables us to attach the concepts of Static and Dynamic Quality to reason itself.

I urge Matt to read Barfield’s Saving the Appearances for further elucidation of this point – and I will be particularly interested in whatever responses to it he cares to make.

Finally, let me note that the Cartesian cogito was a sort of new Genesis for modernity. The last time something like that (to use Nagel’s phrase!) occurred was in the Garden of Eden. Recall, dear Reader, that it was Woman, Eve, who was hidden in Adam’s "within-ness" – and that the making explicit of what was inward and interior began the world we know today . . . for good or for ill – for history. But what is hidden in the within-ness or interiority of reason today?

Thomas Nagel doesn’t want to go there. It’s an odd modern twist on the fear of God – not the fear of God but the fear that there might be a God. Nagel has shown a rare candor in stating it. It’s the deepest place of all rationalism, the foundational point of irreducible intimacy of intellect and world. And at that threshold a man chooses fear… or love.


Mike Roth said...


I have no special interest in Thomas Nagel, but some of the things Caryl is saying here excite my thinking muscles. It begins with:- “…our reason is capable of understanding things about the world because intelligence is embedded in the world.”

Yes. I take it that intelligence is embedded in the world in quite a subtle and complex way. It must be, first and foremost, embedded in the pattern of our interactions in the world. I think, further, that it is in this pattern that we find embodied both static and dynamic Quality. And I think this is the same territory in which dwell the multiple levels of static Quality which Pirsig has provisionally mapped out for us.

In another post, Caryl quotes Pirsig as saying that the four levels of Quality are discrete and non-continuous. Here, for me, is the crux of the difficulty in characterizing or navigating these levels. How are we going to think about them? I am sure this multi-level mapping takes us decisively beyond Descartes horrible and out-dated disjunction of “extended substance” and “thinking substance” (the disjunction which has caused “body” and “mind” to be seen as discrete, non-continuous and totally non-navigable in practice, for the past 400 years).

The question, for me, is how to make the new mapping useful – useful in the sense that it actually helps us navigate the delicate real-time situations in which we make our actual choices and commitments. For me, the words “discrete” and “non-continuous” are spatialising metaphors which do not do justice to the simultaneous operation of these different levels in every moment of lived time. The need for a more subtle characterization comes out for me in the discussions about Lila herself. Caryl describes her as

“a young and confused woman to whom he is simultaneously attracted and repelled. He is attracted because Lila undoubtedly has “biological Quality.” She’s sexy. He is repelled because she is confused, she doesn’t know who she is, and intellectually, she’s nowhere”.

For me, the reasons given for Pirsig’s repulsion are a bit disingenuous – given his screaming ambivalence towards the very being of the woman. For example, he is already degrading her as a sex object in the very same moment as his blood first begins to stir and he finds himself drawn into the intoxicating Spirit of the Dance. My account of this would run on the following lines: the author's ambivalence is at work on biological, social and intellectual levels all at once. This book comes across to me as an honest account of a real, and tragic, relationship – but this does not mean that the relationship itself is honest (which I think it cannot possibly be, with this intensity of ambivalence continuously in play between both parties, and never really addressed).

I don’t think it helps to say Lila has “biological Quality” (and presumably lacks the other levels) because I think the ambivalence of Pirsig and Lila’s relationship infects every level of their being together. To me, there is Quality in Lila’s astute characterizations of the author (in his state of non-arousal he appears as a horribly dried-up, bloodless and totally self-absorbed intellectual; I am aware that it is Pirsig who put this characterisation of himself into print, but to me it is testament to his “inner Lila” knowing very well who she is, who he is, and what their relational dynamics are about.) I think there is wonderful honesty, and richness, and subtlety in this book – but I am also shocked at a lot of it: for instance the complicity of Rigel and the author in their contempt for “the kind of person” that Lila is, and the way the author begins to plot how to get rid of the actual person, from the first morning of their relationship.

I don’t want to ramble on, but I hope I have at least managed to point out the place where I feel a metaphysics of Quality could really help us out. This is: in tracking down the moments where Quality is surrendered to, or is refused - at whichever “level” the action is most powerfully focused, in our real-time interactions. In order to manage this, we would need to appreciate that we are continuously engaged at all these levels simultaneously. To me Lila and the author are clearly soul-mates, and this is something that cannot be confined to the “biological”.

Caryl said...

Hi Mike-thanks for taking the time to write, and thanks for the encouragement!
I think Pirsig's 4 levels help to clarify social and civilizational values from "hard science" on the one hand (biological and inorganic) and the confusing factors of race, gender, and all the political correctness that has come out of these, on the other. I think such a clarification will be essential if we are to have anything resembling a civilization in our future. Which, at this point, doesn't look too promising.
I don't think that Lila/Pirsig were soul mates. Lila provided Pirsig with a way to reflect on his experience - she gave him understanding accidentally rather than essentially, in my view.

Mike Roth said...

I would like to give a clearer indication of where I stand with these “levels of quality” as outlined in “Lila”. They are important to me because I see them as a wonderfully powerful and liberating tool, if we could only find a way to unlock their potential.

“Lila” is offered as a fiction, about the author’s first groping discoveries in the direction of a metaphysics and an ethics of Quality. I take this as an invitation into a co-operative enquiry – that is: towards exploration and dialogue. This, for me, includes taking up these questions as a practical quest, and not only a theoretical one.

The test of a map, in a practical context, is how powerful a help it can be to us in navigating our way around the field – in this case, around the various levels of Quality. So I take the co-operative enquiry as a call to explore and experiment with the theoretical arrangement of the levels – which also includes exploring what impacts a change in the mapping may have, upon the conduct of my life in the here and now.

I am especially concerned with the meaning of conflict – and its relationship to multiple levels of Quality. My own explorations have moved me away from what I take to be Pirsig’s main characterisation: of the biological, social and intellectual levels – as being fundamentally at war with one another. Before “Lila” came out I had already reached the conclusion that the endemic conflicts of human life take their origin as much from within any given level, as from a conflict between levels.

The issue for me is: if we locate the conflict at the wrong place, our potential solutions to the conflict will be misapplied. And so it makes a big difference to me, if I see a conflict playing out within the biological level (and this is how I have always seen it, in the hapless adventures of Lila and the Author). And I suspect that the author’s characterisation of the war between biology, society and intellect may be part of the problem which propels these two sad people into their tragi-comedy of misapprehensions and misunderstandings.

For me, it is a crude characterisation of “biology” which sets it up in a war with Lila’s mercenary aspirations – or, as in the case of the Author and Rigel, in a conflict of “biology” versus "social" prudishness. What we actually see being played out, in all these cases, is a conflict of motivations. One question then, is where does the conflict take its origin from. And there is a difference, for me, between a conflict at the biological level – which may be re-interpreted at the cultural level, and conflicts in the way different cultural commitments cause us to interpret our biological realities. Culture frequently makes use of biology, so as to impose its own definitions on (for instance) sexual arousal – converting it into masculine kudos, a meal ticket, hedonistic pleasure, a term in a philosophical argument, or an excuse for the enforcement of conventional moralities.

I don’t think we can make proper use of these different levels (biology vs culture vs intellect), unless we can learn to be more open and honest with our biology. (I mean: the biology that lives and breathes within us, not the biology of the men in white coats and rubber gloves). The biology of sexuality, so far as I can understand it, is about pair-bonding, and entering into a new phase of the life-cycle, as much as it is about a particular conjoining of various people’s anatomy. At the level of biology it already matters a great deal: who you do it with, and who you refuse to do it with. (Pirsig is very clear about this, in his characterisation of Lila, or Life, being a judge of his Quality - manifest in her act of giving or withholding sexual consent. This, most especially, in the emotional tenderness of her last coupling with him. And then he seems to throw it all out the window, in his claim that “almost anyone would do, and most would do better than he”.)

To me it is very clear that the Author and Lila are both alike, in having strong biological motivations: to couple and not to couple. Between deeply embracing each other, and rejecting one another out of hand. Both collude in a drunken, desperate and hedonistic pursuit of the sexual “act” – but this kind of coupling is not pure biology; I think there is also a refusal of surrender, encoded in the deep reservations each have about the other – and I take the resulting complex, contradictory personal action to be a cultural form in its own right. To me it is a conflict within biology, and another resonating conflict within sociality - rather than a conflict between the two levels.

I have written elsewhere, of my own view of the fundamental conflict within human reality – as a conflict that arises first and foremost within our own individual biology. I see this conflict being re-created at the higher levels; there are rival cultural formations, embodying variant strategies for dealing with the fundamental human flaw. These cultures go on to construct perspectives on one another, in which the other is seen as inferior, or “wrong” – simply because each offends their opposite number in the kinds of Quality they identify, and value positively. And then there are rival intellectual formations, each presumably encoding rival cultural commitments - though the latter may not be explicitly thematised. (What fringe-benefits do Descartes and his followers derive, from their stark separation of physical and mental existence?)

I see this revised formulation of the struggle as offering major advantages over the “biology vs society vs intellect” account of conflict. In the first place, it opens up possibilities of evaluating our rival cultural commitments. For example: what quality of life is opened up by an open-hearted spiritual commitment to the undefined but supreme Good (which, I hope, is what Pirsig is inviting us towards) - as compared with a fundamentalist cultural ethics which insists upon rigid conformity with the demands of a self-appointed elite?

In the second place, (given my strong preference for the first-mentioned version of the ethical path, in spite of the more demanding and ambiguous personal choices which such a path entails) the reformulation offers a better chance of pin-pointing the actual choice points, where a higher or more dynamic quality may put in command, or alternatively may be betrayed and disappointed.

“Lila” - as a fictional creation and as an illustration of philosophical questions - is a complex kettle of fish, to be sure. Do the author’s choices, of what kind of character to make his heroine, embody his own ethical or cultural preferences? I notice that the character is not only sexually attractive – but that she also seems to be a true embodiment of dynamic Quality:-

”There’s something ferociously Dynamic going on with her. All that aggression, that tough talk, those strange bewildered blue eyes.”

There is another indeterminate factor, in the question of how far Lila may be a real person – and to what extent she is a convenient fantasy manufactured by the author. We cannot know what motivated the writer to give Lila a “back story” which includes indiscriminate allegiances with criminals and potential murderers – but this certainly makes it easier for the Author to abandon Lila with a clear conscience and much relief, at the end of the book. I worry, however, that biology and Dynamic Quality have both been covertly repudiated by the decision to send this woman to a mental institution.

I think that a more subtle characterisation of the different levels can help us towards more tuned-in, sensitive, exciting, caring and spontaneous relationships. Meetings between humans in which we can welcome one another’s biological dimension, and also the Dynamic Quality which may arise between us. We do not always have to be plotting how we can get out of our relationships with as few scars as possible. This, of course, is Another Story. In the meantime I remain appreciative of the richness and the subtlety of the story which Pirsig has given us; I simply want to urge the possibility, 16 years after publication: that we still have the power to create very much more value, more Quality, more evolutionary potential, for and with one another - we lost, stolen and strayed human individuals - out of the complex invitations that are implied in this book.

David Buchanan said...


You keep insisting that Pirsig is not a pragmatist but Pirsig himself says otherwise. Would you care to explain such a discrepancy? While I have some pretty serious differences with our friend Matt Kundert as to what kind of pragmatism best fits the MOQ, I don't see how it is possible to get around it altogether.

In any case, thanks.
David Buchanan

Matt K said...

Now, it's not altogether a good practice to preempt somebody their own answer, but I don't think Caryl should get bogged down by it (nor, as she's already aware that Pirsig hooks his wagon at least somewhat to pragmatism, does she).

From my understanding of what Caryl is doing, she's more interested in making use of Pirsig's philosophy, which means sometimes disagreeing with Pirsig. And the tricky thing about position labels (pragmatist, realist, skeptic, etc.) is that how you define one is going to determine how you apply it. For instance, you've occasionally taken the tack with Rorty of saying that he isn't a real pragmatist, against his own self-descriptions. When confronted with them, you're always allowed to say that he was wrong about what is alive and dead in pragmatism.

I take Caryl to be doing the same sort of thing: making a decision about what's alive and what's dead in Pirsig's philosophy. And she's spent a bit of time sorting out and engaging with pragmatism, so we can't accuse her of totally ignoring the subject. On the other hand, I would keep pressuring her on Pirsig's pragmatism, I just don't think Pirsig's self-descriptions are always in point. It's a commonplace that we aren't always our own best judges.

Caryl said...

Hi Dave, Hi Matt,
Thanks for your comments. I realize that I've got a bit of a beef against pragmatism, especially as Pirsig himself claims to be a pragmatist. As I wrote in an older post, on this point I disagree with Pirsig himself.
I think Pirsig's MOQ is pragmatist in the sense that pragmatism is/was in the air, it was/is American, and it has/had a pungent value for life and experience. But these are, as it were, accidental and geographic reasons, not internal ones. To me the pragmatist element in the MOQ is the meeting with real life of the pure indefinable concept, "Quality." That is the absolute affirmation that thinking begins with life - or one could put it otherwise, experience begins with thinking.
So which end of the stick do you want to emphasize?
The problem with pragmatism, in my view, is that "pure experience" (which the pragmatist claims as well as the radical empiricist) is basically a romantic fiction. I do not agree with John Dewey -- as quoted in your article, Dave,-- "No transcendental gaps are posited; we are of nature, live with nature."
If this were the case there would be no call for philosophy. But this seems to me so patently absurd that it is hardly worth discussing.
My second problem with pragmatism is the emphasis on utility. I think that the best creations of the spirit are essentially non-utilitarian. I believe that the utilitarian dogma has degraded our minds and our culture.
Pirsig's MOQ, therefore, seems to me to take the best element of the pragmatist tradition but does something dramatically new with it.
"Quality" is a mediator, and it has the possibility for allowing an intellectual structure to unfold by which we may attempt to grasp and order our experiences. To me this is the creative task of philosophy: namely, to create a space for thinking and to allow for the possibility of beauty and order.

David Buchanan said...

Caryl and Matt:

First, let me say that I don't want to disrupt your debate. Since Matt has a very different idea about what pragmatism is, my interjections might just be too confusing at this point.
Secondly, contrary to what Matt implied, I'm not questioning Caryl's RIGHT to disagree with me, Pirsig or anyone else. That would be silly. Yes, my objection does imply that Caryl might be mistaken about pragmatism and/or Pirsig's metaphysics. And I've framed this objection in a way that reiterates Pirsig's veiw of himself as a pragmatist. Obviously, I think he would disagree with her but this is an inquiry into the reasons for that disagreement. Its not about one's right to disagree but the legitimacy of the reasons for that disagreement. That's only fair, no?
Caryl's first first point - that Pirsig's pragmatism is only a geographic accident rather than an internal match, I'd object for the most obvious reason. Pirsig disagrees. He re-examined the philosophy of William James as he was writing his second book and declared there that James was saying the same thing and in the case of "static" and "dynamic" was even using exactly the same terms. Of all the thinkers that have been compared by reviewers, James was the one that Pirsig saw as actually comparable.
Caryl's second point - that experience begins with thinking - is a reversal of what Pirsig and James say about the relationship between experience and thought. Both say that concepts are secondary, that they are derived from experience.
I'm not even sure what to say about the assertion that "pure experience" is a romantic fiction since the notion was key to James's efforts to get rid of philosophical fictions. His radical empiricism says that our accounts of reality can not exclude any kind of experience nor can it add anything that is not experienced. What counts as real, then, is only what we can know from actual experience. And if it is actually experienced, it makes very little sense to call it a fiction. In what sense is this experience not real? Both James and Pirsig say that pure experience is the first thing we know, what we know before we know anything else, as in the hot stove example.
Dewey's denial of a transcendental gap is the gap between subjects and objects, between our perceptions of reality and reality itself. I'd argue that this gap is Dewey's central target as well as Pirsig's and James's. This is an attack on SOM and just one more reason why Pirsig is so fond of the classical pragmatists. They think this gap is the most troublesome fiction in all of philosophy and the radical empiricism they share is designed to close that gap, or rather to deny that it even exists. This move does have the effect of giving philosophy a different task. It says the search for objective truth is a wild goose chase, but there are still plenty of things for philosophy to do. Hopefully, it'll do things that are more fruitful and useful.
As far as utilitarianism goes, I agree with you. It is probably the emptiest and most superficial of all philosophies. It also happens to be very boring. The utilitarian has a calculator for a heart and its idea of what counts as "good" seems to grow out of an accountant's imagination.
Maybe one of the key points on which James and Pirsig agree, is the idea that "truth is a species of the good". This asserts that intellectual truths can be more or less useful rather than being THEE truth. This is consistent with their rejection of objectivity but doesn't have to lead to relativism, as neopragmatists like Rorty might like to construe it.
These are just a few thoughts to ponder, and only if you like.


Mike Roth said...

Dear Caryl,

Another word on "The Last Word"

I continue to ponder your last posting on Thomas Nagel - partly to try and understand where I might fit into the conversation. I wonder, then, if I am hearing you right - is Nagel really talking about a disembodied Reason that lives in the world - living its own life - as if independent of the enquiring subject? How can he be saying this, more than a century after Charles Peirce?

(I thought - perhaps mistakenly - that everybody understood Reason, by now, as an experimental (fallible) device for making good decisions between several hypothetical alternatives. In this frame of reference the idea of Reason doesn't even arise until there are several (embodied) points of view in play, contending amongst themselves as to which shall prevail.)

I take my bearings here from a whole tradition of philosophy, from Peirce through James, Royce, Dewey, Whitehead, Mead, Randall and Buchler. (It is nicely surveyed in V.Tejera's American Modern - the Path not Taken (1996). And I note that at least half of these people believed God to be an active principle in the universe, so this appears not to be a theological dispute as such) All of these reinforce the principle that Reason is something we do, in the attempt to reconcile contending perspectives.

I always had the sense that Pirsig is part of that very broad tradition - and that he is genuinely trying to reason in this very sense. If Nagel hasn't taken this kind of thing on board (and I for one don't want to waste time reading him, if he has not) - then I want to know what he is doing, taking up air-time on a blog devoted to the Metaphysics of Quality!

Mike Roth

Andrew said...

you state, "I think that the best creations of the spirit are essentially non-utilitarian."
This being a statement in defence of your non-pragmatic stance.

I'm wondering if you could provide an example of this. There too, what do you consider to be utility, and what do consider non-utility?

Mike Roth said...

An example of non-utilitarian creation popped into my head out of A.N.Whitehead's Introduction to Mathemetics: the Greek fascination with the properties of sections, cut through cones (they make parabolas, ellipses and hyperbolas - which is how these strange curves were originally discovered). Loads of mathematics was discovered which had no application whatsoever, until the time of Kepler and then Newton - when these curves were discovered to mirror all sorts of real behaviour of things like planets, pendulum and so on and so forth.

But most creation anyway is done for the sheer joy of it. This doesn't contradict pragmatism anyway - the principle (as I understand Peirce and James) is that inventions need to be tested in terms of their real or pragmatic consequences, it doesn't mean the moment of invention, or its motivation, has to be utilitarian. ("Utility" for me has connotations of "useful" - but "useful" in its turn depends upon there being real, more-or-less reliable consequences of something I do.)

Andrew said...

I don't curve my pragmatism at objective utility.

Creations of the spirit, or better put of the passions, (whether they be ultimately utilitarian in an objective sense) nonetheless serve the purpose of exiting and driving our passions. It is in this way that they are quite pragmatic, and vary much usefull.

Seen in this way you cannot escape pragmatism. Everything you do is in "service" of something, if only for yourself, and perhaps only for the sake of your own delite and curiosity. Whatever that thing is, is utility for that purpose, and whatever the result was, is ultimately (in a static sense anyway) unimportant. For example, the Greeks cut through cones. This exersize as you pointed out was not usefull for anything at the time, but it was usefull to the satifaction or driving of they're curiosity.

JimR said...

Nagel's comments on atheism are revelatory for me. I can't say that I've read any of the current heavyweight atheists, but in reading about them (God's Slow Death - The Walrus April 2007) there was something off-putting that I couldn't put my finger on that Nagle has illuminated for me: there are two fundamentally different kinds of atheist. I'll post just enough of the article so that my letter to magazine makes sense, but here is my thought on what turns out to be the other kind of atheist:

...A few weeks later, I went to the office of a professor of divinity, expecting to discuss the nature of faith in the twenty-first century. The shelves in his narrow, congested office were packed floor to ceiling with books — on theology and the history of religion, of course, but also on cognitive science and evolution. Raised and educated a Mennonite, he had spent thirty years of his career attempting to resolve the apparent conflict between science and religion. It was not long before he told me that a few years earlier he had, finally, lost his faith. “But I still have a Christian body,” he told me. “My lifestyle is still the same as it was before.”

“Do you think it’s possible that we simply can’t bear to see life and the world as it really is?” I asked him.


renahaji: There is a lot of man's creation of God in the author's final question, with "really is" betraying the absence of God, for the author, despite the need. I fail to see how life or the world changes to the dramatic extent implied based upon the presence or absence of God in it. I have a theory that, offered a binding coin toss to determine the existence of God (binding, that is on God, not just on human belief in God,) non-believers would gladly accept the terms wanting only to know, while believers would refuse the terms wanting only to believe.

Finally, why would intelligence in world be evidence of anything? Please describe a world without the intelligence, say, of the laws of nature.

"Time was created so that everything wouldn't happen all at once."

Yusof said...

This is so splendidly well- written!! Thank You !!

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