J'ai une plume

"Qui plume a, guerre a."

Month: July, 2012

What ‘real’ money (still) isn’t

The criticism of an economy which is now composed of primarily virtual movements of capital is naive and betrays a lack of understanding of the real nature of money. It is not entirely unheard of for those imparting folksy wisdom to seek to smugly ‘remind’ us that most of the money we use is now merely a set of digits within a computer database and is not ‘real’ money at all. In this case the urge to retort petulantly in order to wipe the knowing smile off our would-be mentor’s face is entirely justified. Far from being a clever observation on changing times, this amounts to no more than an embarrassing sign that one has failed to understand what money is. Or, more commonly, that one has fallen into a state of fetishism.

Even those of us who have never given it much thought would be quick to conclude that money is simply a symbolic representation of value and not a magical object in itself. Much early economic analysis is concerned with precisely this demystification of money. Karl Marx’s great inversion was to recognise that while money appeared to be this simple object, on the level of ideology we are nevertheless apt to treat it as though it was in itself a desirable object. We disavow this belief and rationally accept that it is simply a method of exchanging value and yet our actions betray an unconscious commitment to money as an end in itself, rather than a mere means.

Rightly or wrongly, a suspicion towards the digitalisation of financial transactions is a suspicion towards the structure of the monetary system of exchange itself. Our elderly strawman has accidentally hit upon an entirely different insight, not into the slow destruction of ‘real’ money, but into the fundamental lack of such a Thing in the first place. To a pre-coinage society, the introduction of currency must appear arbitrary, abstracting the real value of goods (providing food, shelter, protection, pleasure, etc) into some sort of mutually agreed token. Opposition to such a system would nevertheless crumble under the weight of expediency. Likewise the transition from a gold or silver based economy to one founded on government fiat must also appear to remove to ‘real’ value on which money seems to be based, leaving it as a mere signifier without a signified. The more recent transition to card-based consumerism disturbs the very fetish itself, the material object imbued with excess value although, again, no real change has actually taken place.

There is a whole library’s-worth of books which could be written on the role of money within personal and social psychic reality. Indeed, there are a few authors who seem to be attempting to fill such a library on their own with their unstoppable torrent of words. Philosophers rarely worry about adding to the deafening din of second-rate ideas, but this little piece of muddy thinking gave me an itch and I do apologise for scratching it so publicly.


How Hume clarifies the ‘God debate’ (part 2)

Yesterday we had a very brief look at Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and their implications for theism. Before we move on to his better-known work on miracles I would like to reiterate how frequently the first half is misunderstood despite its simplicity. It is important and acts as foundational to what comes next.

At the end of the previous post we granted that one or more of the proofs of God’s existence might hold (although it is not clear that any of them do) but the debate is not over. In fact it has just begun. It is rarely the case that one who is convinced by the proofs is willing to leave the matter there. Having established the existence of some entity which deserves the title ‘God’, they will usually begin to assert all manner of things about the nature of this entity, which is absolutely fine if they remain strictly in the realm of the a priori. However, most (if not all) will stray into statements which can only possibly be supported with empirical evidence.

It is here that Hume strikes his second blow. Real belief is more often produced in one who has witnessed a miraculous occurrence than in one who has read a philosophical treatise supporting the existence of God. To one who believes they have witnessed a miracle, Hume simply asks whether it is more likely that the laws of nature have been temporarily suspended in your favour, or whether you are deceived by another person or by your own senses. In every instance you should reject whichever is more unlikely (the ‘greater miracle’). The matter is even more serious if it is not a miracle you have witnessed yourself, since written or verbal communication adds another level of separation from the actual event. We all know of stories which get altered in the retelling, whether by deliberate lying or by exaggeration. Nor is it convincing for a record to talk of an event being ‘witnessed by many’ – without independent verification the record still counts as a single report (and one is tempted to reply ‘nice try’ when authors of scripture are at pains to assert that hundreds of other people saw an otherwise unrecorded event). Hume recognises that lure of a sense of wonder – believing in fantastical occurrences is certainly enjoyable, but he warns that this in itself is no form of evidence.

A common misreading of Hume’s Of Miracles is to conclude that Hume was committed to disbelieving in the occurrence of any miraculous event whatsoever. This is not the case, and he gives the example of a hypothetical situation in which records from isolated corners of the Earth all document the sky growing dark for several days at a particular point in the past. Hume’s algorithm would simply lead to the conclusion that the greater miracle would be for a set of inaccurate records to correlate with one another precisely in spite of the lack of any possible contact between the authors. In a situation such as this, Hume would be forced to admit that the miraculous darkness had in fact occurred. His point is simply that there is no such evidence for any of the miracles reported by religious authorities. Or if we are to believe that the miraculous had occurred, then what is allowed for one religion cannot be denied to another. This is a problem because – to put it simply – they can’t all be right.

Overall Hume wishes to know why the faithful believe what they believe, and to challenge them to question themselves and others. We close with a rather affable scepticism which makes better arguments than many within the so-called ‘New Atheism’ movement and does so without descending into vitriol. It is the friendly debate of the philosophical sceptic with the academic theologian and is probably best conducted over a good meal and a bottle of wine.

How Hume clarifies the ‘God debate’ (part 1)

David Hume, who is perhaps the greatest Scottish philosopher, recognised two primary sorts of argument in favour of religious belief. The first were arguments from natural theology, the second concerned miracles. Into the first category fall arguments for God’s existence such as the argument to design or the cosmological argument. It seems highly unlikely that anyone is ever moved from a position of scepticism to a position of belief by these sorts of argument, but it is true that many who already hold religious convictions can (and often do) call on these arguments to supply a rational foundation for their faith. Hence Hume saw it as important that they were taken seriously.

Hume plays with these types of argument in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. An example of this comes when he parodies the teleological argument, which proposes an analogy between the world and the human mind (or products of the human mind such as Paley’s ‘watch in a field’) by pointing out that the world has just as much resemblance to a vegetable as it does to a mind. Throughout the dialogue it is clear that the character Philo – who advocates scepticism, although not outright atheism – has the upper hand, which makes it slightly mysterious that the dialogue closes with the narrator awarding victory to Cleanthes, the advocate of teleology. One possibility is that Hume was simply being ironic, using a technique he had employed elsewhere of blindly reaffirming Christian orthodoxy at the end of his pieces to reinforce his view of its absurdity.

In his recent book on Hume, Simon Blackburn gives an insight into Hume’s overall project concerning religious matters. He argues that Hume is quite happy to allow these classic philosophical arguments for God’s existence precisely because they prove almost nothing. At the end of a serious wrangling over the cosmological or teleological argument, what is one left with? The so-called ‘God of the Philosophers’ about whom we know next to nothing. It is here that time and time again philosophers and theologians commit an unforgivable non sequitur by moving from an apparently successful argument in natural theology to a full-blown theism which simply assumes what it must prove.

To put this all another way, Hume’s (and Blackburn’s) thought on this matter is that even granting that any of these arguments hold, we are in no position to now assert that any particular God (or group of gods) exists. To go from a successful demonstration of the cosmological argument to the assertion that the God of the New Testament sent his son to die on the cross is just as invalid as moving to assert that God’s angel Jibril dictated His final word to the prophet Muhammad. Indeed, it is no more or less outrageous to reason to ignore both of these major religions and move to Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism or the Rastafari movement. For the theist, all the really important work is yet to come.

Once this has been laid out it may all seem rather obvious. But consider the mind-numbing God arguments beloved of debating societies. If the problem is not correctly identified it is inevitable that both sides will talk past each other. The lesson to learn from Hume’s discussion of natural theology is that proofs of the existence of God should be no part of the theist’s arsenal in such debates since they are apt to misfire or even backfire in the presence of members of an incompatible religious confession. Hume’s work on religion is not exhausted here, and I shall touch on the second prong of Hume’s attack in a future post where we shall consider his ‘Of Miracles’.

Schopenhauer’s advances on Kant (part 2)

Where we left off last time, Schopenhauer had deduced an indivisible, undifferentiated noumenon as the identity of Being. He needs a name for this entity, although this will be difficult since it is nothing like anything we experience in the world of phenomena. He has so far negatively defined it as something which does not possess spatial or temporal properties in itself. It is at this point that he makes mistake of nomenclature which still hinders true appreciation of his work today.

Schopenhauer points out that everything we can experience has some sort of temporal existence, for otherwise it is outside our direct apprehension. The same is nearly true with spatial existence. The one exception in his eyes is the will. Schopenhauer understands will to be the basic force underlying all thought. Emotions are merely expressions of a will satisfied or thwarted. Knowledge is slightly different, but knowledge alone does not have the power to produce action, only will does. In fact this is slightly off the mark. Schopenhauer does not identify my willing as the cause of my raising my arm, instead willing an action and performing an action are really two sides of the same thing – not unlike the noumenon/phenomenon distinction we encountered last time. Schopenhauer makes the very good point here that I almost never consciously will these movements, and yet the mental and physical components of an action cannot be isolated.

Given this understanding of will as the real grounding of thought and action, Schopenhauer goes on to point out that one’s own thoughts, unlike anything else one has knowledge of, do not possess spatial properties. For this reason he concludes that human will is the closest thing to the noumenon which it is possible to have knowledge of and thus he decides to refer to this noumenon itself as Will. His own terms for noumenon and phenomena form the title of his central work The World as Will and Representation.

I mentioned earlier that this name was a mistake and anyone following closely should immediately see why. Schopenhauer is chronically misunderstood to be ascribing some sort of personality or super-mind to existence and his philosophy is therefore often dismissed as fantastical. This is wrong. Schopenhauer makes it clear on numerous occasions that both meanings of ‘will’ are to be taken as distinct. The will as thing in itself is the animation of a human, the growth of a plant, even the falling of a rock under gravity. These are all manifestations of the will. Anyone who has read Dylan Thomas’ immortal poem ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’ will have the best understanding of what the will is in Schopenhauer’s philosophy. Indeed, Bryan Magee speculates that Thomas was probably familiar with Schopenhauer and may have even drawn inspiration from him when he wrote that poem.

All this being the case, we have arrived (by one route of many) at what, for Alain Badiou constitutes the central problem of philosophy. What appears is multiple, but what appears is one. This is a problem which runs as a common theme right the way back to Parmenides. If we are to take Schopenhauer’s philosophy seriously, we urgently need to give an account of how this indivisible, undifferentiated will can be the real thing in itself, and yet what we experience as appearance is a multiplicity of different things. This is not a trivial problem.

Schopenhauer’s advances on Kant (part 1)

In my last post I addressed the problems of infinite time and space from a Kantian perspective. Kant allows that we have access to something in the world, but is against the naive realism of the Humean variety for various reasons, including those which we discussed previously. Because time and space produce antinomies when viewed as inherent properties of things in themselves, Kant concludes that they exist only within the mind of the perceiver. This puts him in the idealist’s camp. Where he differs from philosophers such as Berkeley is that for him time and space do relate to things in themselves directly (and crucially he never denies the existence of things in themselves as Berkeley would) but they are conditions for the possibility of experience. This makes his brand of idealism transcendental idealism.

Kant is now confronted with a host of problems. He has asserted the existence of two worlds or modes of being – that of appearances (phenomena) and that of things in themselves (noumena). To many philosophers brought up in Humean realism, this seems like a piece of ontological extravagance – we now seem to have doubled the number of entities since objects such as my computer have a noumenon and also a phenomenon. Kant only defines noumena negatively, by saying what they are not, since he argues that to say any more than that is to slip into groundless speculation. He is also left with the knotty problem of causation. Kant places causation into his table of categories – concepts which we use to order our experiences. This means he has allowed causation an existence only within the mind, rather than within the world as it is in itself. This should seem slightly familiar to the Humean, who has given up on explaining causation, classing it as an inaccessible relation. Kant’s problem is that he seems to have nullified causation, only to then write as though noumena ’cause’ phenomena, which is impossible in his system.

Our three main problems with Kant’s metaphysics are thus his ‘two worlds’, his relative silence on the nature of noumena, and the ambiguous status of causation. To all of these problems, some sort of answer can be found in Schopenhauer, who believed himself to have completed Kant’s system.

Schopenhauer rejects the ‘two worlds’ interpretation of Kant and instead characterises noumena and phenomena as being two sides of the same coin. He also identifies an implicit contradiction in Kant in the downgrading of time and space – Kant moves both of these into the mind but nevertheless continues speaking about noumena as if they were bare particulars ordered in some sort of spatio-temporal analogue, which can’t possibly be allowed. Instead Schopenhauer realises that the characteristic feature of time and space is that they individuate things – they make existence multiple. For there to be any notion of counting objects (whether concrete or abstract), there must either be a space in which to contain them or a temporal sequence in which they come one after another. Without time or space, we are left with a single, indivisible, undifferentiated thing. Thus the first part of Schopenhauer’s great advance on the Kantian system is to come to the realisation that noumena is the wrong word – we should instead speak of the noumenon – the single thing in itself which underlies all experience.

In my next post I shall continue the discussion of the noumenon and some of the interesting issues it raises. I shall also cover some of Schopenhauer’s other advances on Kant’s system.

Kant on infinite time and space

Lucretius presents us with the famous problem of the size of the universe in De Rerum Natura. He argues that the universe must be an infinite space for otherwise what would happen if a man travelled to the very edge and threw a spear outwards? Would the spear stop in mid-air? If so, what would be stopping its flight? How could the nothingness outside the universe act as a barrier? To allow that the spear would continue flying would be to admit that the man in question had not reached the edge of the universe – or that to do so was impossible. To allow that the spear would stop would be giving a substantial nature to the ‘outside’ of the universe. Of course the notion of an ‘outside’ to the universe is incoherent because it amounts to the postulation of a ‘thing which is not contained in the set of all things’.

In his Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant agreed with Lucretius’ objection to a finite universe. However, he did not believe that this was the whole story. Kant points out that, while we can use infinity as a concept within mathematics, to allow any sort of infinity a concrete existence was to fall into incoherence again. The set of natural numbers is obviously infinite, but numbers are not concrete objects, merely conceptual entities within the mind. An infinite set cannot, by definition, be completed, so both infinite space and infinite objects produce problems.

The same argument can be applied to time. If time is finite we are at liberty to wonder about what happened ‘before’ the beginning of time and what will happen ‘after’ the end of time. Kant’s point is that we cannot help but think of time as an infinite series, since if we imagine a timeline, we can always imagine it extending further forwards and backwards into the ‘nothingness’ which contains it. The point here, as with space, is that the ‘edge’ of time can only be imagined as an ‘edge’ separating time from something else. The notion of a pure edge to time makes no more sense than in the case of Lucreius’ spear. On the other hand, the concept of infinite time also presents us with problems, since if time were infinite then the present moment could not exist because an infinite time (without beginning) would have to have passed before this moment, which means this moment could never be reached.

These are two of Kant’s antimonies which he presents later in the book. Probably the eternal lesson to be learned from philosophy is that if neither of the two possible answers makes sense then the question is wrong. Kant points out that it is not just up to us how we intuit time and space – we necessarily have to think of them as infinite, even though such a thing is impossible for concretely existing things. He therefore presents his own solution which is that time and space do not actually exist in objects as they are in themselves but are merely a method of ordering the experiences of the subject and rendering them coherent. If Kant is right it is no great worry that time and space produce these antimonies since they are simply a way of structuring our interactions with the world – and they do a perfectly good job of that.

Of course, the question remains as to what things in the world actually are if they are not chunks of matter existing through time and moving through space. How are we to understand the ‘thing in itself’?

A meditation

There is no way that the dualists can a priori restrict the types of substances to just mental and physical. They could be emergent from a third, higher property, or they could coexist with such a substance. There is no reason to simply posit the one either – there could be a whole pantheon of substances along with the mental and physical which have not, or indeed cannot, be discovered by us. The only thing which prevents us from considering the universe in this way is the merciless cut of Occam’s razor. Here we return to the realm of the sceptic, for whom neither Occam, induction, nor deduction will suffice.

There are thousands of ways the universe could be which would lead to an experience consistent with what we view as reality, assuming our sensory apparatus were tuned in the right way. It is impossible to link qualia of different sorts except in the most basic ways (and even then, it seems clear that such links are learnt rather than inherent – what does yellow smell like? Perhaps lemon? Only through experience) so why should we stop at five, ten or twenty distinct senses? The old phenomenological question about whether my experience of the colour red could be the same as your experience of a middle C is laughably limited in its scope. Why should any of my experiences stand in coherent comparison to yours? This is the real meaning of Nagel’s ‘What is it like to be a bat?’

I imagine a dark landscape which is not really a landscape, nor is it properly dark, for it has neither colour nor form. It is only comparable to a dark landscape in the emotions it provokes in me – I feel alone, uncomfortable and lost. It is a connection to something (reality? The inside of my own head?) which should be ‘passed over in silence’ as it is not describable in terms of other phenomena. It is the closest I can come to seeing what you see. For all I know, this is how you interact with the noumenal world. The feelings I have for such a landscape are alien and disturbing only because they are unfamiliar. They may only be one of many ways in which we differ. What about time and space? Do you understand them as I do? Is your human exterior to which I feel warmth and familiarity merely a projection that you yourself would not recognise, indeed could not recognise because the sensory apparatus or intellectual make-up required to comprehend (in my sense) is absent, or warped, or more correct than my own?

These may sound like the ravings of a madman (or merely a sceptic), but this is mainly down to the mode of their presentation. We shall be able to consider these thoughts systematically and render them more comprehensible when we come to a treatment of idealism.