Response 7 (to C8 by Joseph S Johnson)
CONVERSION INTO A MORE USEFUL TOOL
by Herbert FJ Müller
5 April 2008, posted 19 April 2008
JS Johnson writes <1> that he has come to generally reject the idea of mind-independent reality (MIR), but then immediately adds that many people would ‘reject the 0-D notion of structuring from no structures’, and furthermore he adds that 0-D might ignore the most important underlying structures <7>. This is of course true because the acceptance of 0-D means denying underlying MIR-structures; 0-D and MIR-assumptions are mutually exclusive : a principle of 0-D is that there can be no structures without subjects. He then asks whether there are ‘structures that are so fundamental that we take them for granted’; this I think happens all the time, for instance we take visual gestalt-formations to mean MIR-entities. He wants to identify such structures in order to find meaning. He sees himself as an extension of a cosmic creative process imperative, with no scientific explanation <2>. This is a possible way of putting it, because the need to create structures is universal, and objective science cannot explain its own origin as structuring within encompassing consciousness; that requires a phenomenological description.
Without going into his particular quest for such an underlying MIR-structure, one can examine the reasons for this turn of events in the development of peoples’ thinking. The history of epistemology in recent centuries shows that there have been many attempts to eliminate metaphysics, because it is impossible; and even if metaphysics were possible, it would be impossible to know. But there are just as many relapses into metaphysics, for the reason that metaphysics is necessary for thinking. This can be demonstrated in the history of the most diverse philosophical views, like empiricism, positivism, phenomenology-existentialism, analytic philosophy, etc. (for details see my TA93). On lesson one should draw from this history is that one cannot simply throw away metaphysics-ontology (= MIR); it will come back. Many scientists, including Dawkins, and even some philosophers, skip this whole debate and simply assert that they are able to know mind-independent reality, under labels like ‘nature’, ‘reality’, ‘ontology’, or ‘noumena’, which some of them seem to assume are not metaphysics.
This simple neglect of the subject works for much of science (for instance for genetics), but not for questions dealing with the mind, some areas of physics, ethics, religion, art, etc. My own reaction is rather to prevent the return of traditional metaphysics by accepting both the impossibility and necessity of traditional MIR : this changes it to working-(or as-if-)-metaphysics-ontology (see my TA57). MIR is a human-structured thinking-tool, akin to language or mathematics. It implies being aware (a) that one uses MIR, thereby converting it to as-if-MIR, and (b) that one structures it. The mind-independence too becomes a working aspect : people feel more comfortable relying on fictitious mind-independent authorities and/or supposedly ‘given’ structures than on structures that they have themselves produced. For instance, in whatever we assume to be a ‘natural order’ <4> the ‘natural’ probably means that we hope to find a particular structure, or set of structures, to be viable in many circumstances, for instance with respect to natural science.
This change of view results in a practical problem : the knowledge (that the mind-independence belief is a human device for feeling more comfortable in thought and action) results in a conflict of purposes; in effect the knowledge undoes the leap of faith to an external agency or entity. If one acknowledges authorship, doubt always remains (or at least it ought to remain; there is a possibility of hybris). This also concerns religion, the topic of Dawkins’ book. One of the most frequent types of central beliefs is that of a mind-independent God; that leads to the undertaking of Dawkins and others to demonstrate that there can be no MIR-God. On the other hand, his argument misses the most important point, if we consider that the subject-inclusive human need for such a holistic structure is the reason for the belief (as I have tried to show in TA106[3-6] etc). The need can be met in different ways, of which theism is one. But it may be possible to resolve the conflict by starting from a meditative position, where the agency rests with the individual even in the absence of structures, and then all structures automatically become secondary. For the ‘meaning of life’ that implies a life-long task of structuring, rather than something to be found ready-made.
Herbert FJ Müller
e-mail <herbert.muller (at mcgill.ca)>