It is a strange fact that today homo sapiens is passing through a very difficult, dangerous multi-sided existential crisis, while, at the same time, philosophy —homo sapiens’ historic way of probing deeply into conceptual territory to get a broad handle on things— is in an attenuated state. One would have expected that the response to the existential crisis would be a worldwide raising of consciousness about the kinds of deep probing necessary to secure our future. It has indeed produced an increased quantity of so-called ‘philosophy’, but of a pretty dismal, superficial kind. The need today is for a fearless, bold, comprehensive re-conceptualisation of the human condition —one which makes sense of the failures of recent thinking, and which points the way to a brighter future.
What we are getting instead —for example in The Philosopher— is an increased flow of partial, subjective, pessimistic reflections… on our inability to see straight, often coupled with the common view that we have got to learn to love this wretched condition. Some supposedly superior academic philosophy is still trapped in the discredited mindwarp associated with the notion that a scholastic dissection of the meaning of abstract words is a worthwhile step in the right direction. Such theorists have failed to learn the lesson we were taught by Wittgenstein, namely that one can only get a clearer vision of the meaning of words by looking at the way they are used robustly in a range of everyday contexts by the most scrupulous speakers, not by a supposed ultra-fine, nominal, logical dissection. This scholastic way of handling abstract words —as Frank Ramsey observed a 100 years ago— treats the indistinct as if it were precise… or if you prefer it is still operating as if the job of philosophy is to produce footnotes to Plato.
So what should serious philosophers be doing at this dangerous juncture in the homo-sapiens saga? The first thing is that they should be straining every muscle to get a correct view of how disillusion has come about and taken over, shaking to bits the blithe confidence-in-the-future enjoyed by our Victorian predecessors. For most of the 20th century the common view was that the Victorians were naïve, and that it was much more authentic to be baffled than to be trapped in a fool’s paradise. But this line of thought begins to lose its point when bafflement grows to the point where it dominates everything. It is not “more authentic” to be reduced to incoherence by too much disillusion. We are forward-looking creatures who thrive on optimism and positivity. We wilt under a blanket of endless self-doubt and muddle. The very nature of language is to put messages and thoughts into circulation which will benefit our listeners <<going forward>>, not, as a large majority of philosophers of the past have tended to suppose, to put down prestigious academic markers about the final, timeless nature of things.
We are aware of the dreaded days in 1887 (when Michelson-Morley discovered the relativity of light) and in 1901 (when Bertrand Russell discovered the contradiction in set theory). Previously ultra-secure, supposedly timeless, assumptions about physics and mathematics were shown, in a flash, to be deeply flawed.
These days were the darkest, blackest moments-of-truth which have finally resulted in demoralising the human race.
To measure up to these challenges properly, bold revolutions were needed in physics and mathematics.
So what happened? In physics Albert Einstein came along and wheeled-out an even more timeless, absolute, quasi-platonic vision than what had previously been in place. It was new, and it made correct predictions, but it wasn’t ‘relativity’.
In mathematics the priesthood —who decide such things— brazenly decreed that a set should never be allowed to satisfy its own membership criterion, even though it was sometimes obvious that it did. This was an exercise in 100% King Knutist type wishful thinking. Under this edict the subject has not fared as well as that produced by the inadequate response in physics: because physics is still a respected science, whereas mathematics is —from the point of view of the public anyway— in the dog house.
So we know why the human race is in despair, but we are doing far too little to tackle the root source of the two unsolved problems which were given fudged so-called “solutions” in the 1920s. The unsolved problems present challenges with which, it appears, the technicians of the two sciences are hopelessly ill-equipped to deal. This is the area where philosophy needs to show the way —how to throw off some deep mesmerisms which are paralysing thought.
The fudged solutions don’t help, because they were not clearly tagged as “provisional” at the time, and they have been in place for so long, virtually unchallenged, that they look more and more like solid, venerable “foundations”. This has the disastrous effect, that any intrepid person who subsequently offers proper solutions, automatically gets the cold shoulder treatment.
The point of philosophy is its universality. It is the discipline which is supposed to offer the best possible perspective on human knowledge and human behaviours. It is absurd to try to do philosophy in a thoroughly demoralised (short-sighted) way like today, without tackling the unsolved problems which caused that demoralisation.
Philosophy cannot provide knowledge about physical or human-emotive reality. (That would be “armchair thinking”.) What it can do is apply clarified imagination and fearless logic to the possibilities which are available to us.
History tells us that the objects of mathematics which seem so real today were created (reified) by stage after stage of epistemological definition. These epistemological definitions were creating new objects of attention based on inert tallies, on the very frontier of human knowledge. Their success may be deduced from the fact that many of the gurus of higher mathematics treat them as palpable metaphysical “realities”.
Enquiry tells us that there is a second potential building block and that we can use it via epistemological definition to create much more credible models of physical reality than mathematics, lumbered by its timelessness ever can.
We can’t directly experience the final level of physical reality. The best we can do is to find a way of representing it —i.e. talking about it—which meets all (the full range of) relevant criteria.
This has happened, and the result is a glorious vindification for Emmanuel Kant, who realised 200 years ago that the laws of science are imperatives…arising from the principles which underly the very existence of our consciousness and freewill. We are aware of their necessity, because we are subliminally aware that if this necessity were not the case, we would not be here.
CHRISTOPHER ORMELL 1st March 2022