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Philosophical Absurdities

May 29, 2019

A large part of philosophising seems to be the engaging in reasoning consistently from certain premises and taking it through all the absurd conclusions it seems to lead to.

Recent examples I could give come from the philosophy of mind where I am currently reading some books: Dennett for instances takes as his premises the need for an objective account of consciousness because his premise is that only as objective can it be scientific, since only third person phenomena can be neutrally and openly verified. From there he goes about dismantling consciousness, excavating the big hole that is subjective feeling of consciousness, hoping to leave nothing in there, so he can rest comfortable on his scientific theory in line with his premises.

John Searle on the other hand takes as his premises, matter in motion and the theory of evolution and as such is committed to the notion that the brain must cause consciousness and in a non-reductive way. So he is left having to give a scientific account of how this first person phenomena could exist and how it could have evolved to serve a useful purpose in a brain, and has to rely on making what many would claim are dubious distinctions between epistemological objectivity and subjectivity and ontological objectivity and subjectivity. All this so he can argue we can have an epistemologically objective account about ontologically subjective phenomena such as consciousness.

Having said that I do see that Searle is trying to avoid some other conclusions, such as Dennett’s that are arguably even more absurd. He is not willing to face the absurd view that the mind is reducible to a brain, so he has to accept what may appear an equally absurd view that the brain somehow causes this mind, despite the mind not being reducible to it. The difficulty Searle faces is in bridging the gap from the physical matter to the intentionality that humans exhibit through our actions and through consciousness. This aboutness quality is difficult to account for, for anyone.

Historically there was the example of Descartes himself, who postulated mind and matter. The indivisible mental realm with no extension in space and time, somehow being able to causally influence the world of matter defined by extension. This absurdity was soon noticed by the likes of Leibniz and the occasionalists, who were quick to replace it with a doctrine that could be argued to be almost as absurd, if not more absurd! That the mind and the matter work in parallel and the appearance of a causal connection is merely an illusion maintained by a pre established harmony between events in the physical world, and events in the mental world by God who gave order to the whole thing with his initial creation. A bit like Aristotles first mover, but this time we have a first organiser.

The thing is that all these ideas are actually really fascinating to consider. It can get a bit like empty hypothesising sometimes almost like creating a science fiction scenario just for the fun of it. Interesting here is the case of David Chalmers, who like Spinoza, feels compelled to consider the case that all matter has consciousness. If it is impossible or absurd to give a genesis of how consciousness at some point arbitrarily emerged into being, maybe it was always there, so we don’t need to give such an account. Of course this panpsychism is itself then accused of being absurd in its turn. Another notion Chalmers plays with is the sci-fi idea of a kind of information grid underlying all of reality. This is something that David Icke also takes as his basis, and it then allows him to even specifically bring up science fiction movies like the Matrix and The Hunger Games as support of his theses.

All of this can be very captivating, and this surely is one of the great things about philosophy. Maybe we should not always be so quick to bemoan these absurdities and these tendencies for us to get tied up in philosophical riddles and paradoxes. Provided we are making the effort to improve our awareness and understanding of reality, and we are not too militant in our attachment to some of our premises then this can be a great voyage for the imagination. Naturally also at times we need to get serious about our premises because we are talking about a basic level of reality that can actually influence how we go about living our life, based on the kind of meaning, purpose and direction it gives us in life.

Through all of this absurdity it is absolutely key not to despair of an answer. Faith in God may often be militant and misguided as likewise can be the reverse, faith in a world bereft of God. But faith that reality may throw some surprises our way, a faith in the potential absurdity of some of our premises that we may have to be willing to adjust. This is a faith worth having, and what is it other than a faith in the philosophical spirit and the philosophical enterprise.

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