Sunday, 22 December 2019

Mirror of the Cosmos: Farrerian Reflections on Mind and Nature, Again!

by Simon Smith

We apologise for the interruption in service last week. This was due to foreseen circumstances. And now, welcome back to the hottest series on the world wide web. The series in which the cosmos gets down and dirty with some seriously sexy symbolism. Oh yeah. Let’s get funky with it. 

Part 3: Birds, Bees, and Dirty Diagrams
To see how this works, consider Huxley on a most potent force of nature. In his discussion of love among the birds and beasts, the many splendoured facets of human love, as manifest in human action and relation, are used as explanatory constructs, a via analogia that illuminates the meaning of animal behaviour and its causes.[1] Huxley’s use of our emotional lives is analogical, of course; we cannot take literally his talk of ardent grebes, great tits, and blackcocks.[2] As Farrer reminds us, he who psychologises animals is himself an ass. With only a ‘very ill-defined’ sense of what other animals’ “subjectivity” might be like, we cannot suppose that having emotions is the same thing for them as it is for us. Thus constrained, we apply the model of our own action and experience, so get the animal’s action and experience into focus by sympathetic appreciation. How else should we even begin to understand animal behaviour or the action of evolution on it? What other interpretative key is there?
Such natural passions figure large among the birds and beasts in my backyard, but the fundamental constituents of the cosmos are energy and process. That is to say, concepts such as ‘process’, ‘energy’, and ‘activity’ are the basic elements of our cosmological maps; and they too are borrowed from the logically primitive experience of being an active agent. For, as Farrer showed, the model of our own activity is essential if we hope ‘to give content to the general idea that it [whatever “it” is] does act’.[3]
Thus, empirical metaphysics learned the lesson of empirical psychology. Before Farrer, the psychologist Jean Piaget, and before him, Feuerbach, found that the notion “object” originates in the child’s conception of “I”, the “I” objectified and projected.
This does not mean that our maps are constructed from simple anthropomorphisms. Rather, Farrer argued, we ‘erect a pseudo-genus of which “thing” and “self” are species’.[4] We construct a model from shared or common factors; the most common being ‘interference capability’. This ‘pseudo-genus’ supplies the framework within which those realities may be understood. Crucially, this analogical erection is dynamic: it may go up or down depending on the nature of the interference. Insofar as any interference resembles my own, I must suppose it to be the expression of an agency like me; but only to the degree that it does resemble my own. Those that are recognisably personal – loving, linguistic, or merely logical, for instance – reveal themselves on the upgrade; the more so as they outstrip my capacity to undertake them. When dealing with birds, beasts, and the basic processes of the universe, however, those “higher” features of personal consciousness are ‘washed-out’ and ‘an indefinable discount’ paid.[5] In seeking to comprehend such forces, that is, we downgrade the analogy accordingly.
As our interactions with, and understanding of, the world become increasingly sophisticated, our application of this graded model must do likewise. Complicated maths, the lingua franca of cosmologists conversing among themselves, is a prime example. Mathematics is a language; its terms as analogical as any other; its symbols, co-ordinates on our cosmological maps. Once again, we are not so naive as to suppose there is anything “out there” that precisely corresponds to them. Moreover, mathematical symbols and their configurations remain grounded in the analogy of our agency. The most basic calculations - on which the most complex ultimately rest - share the operative principle of all languages and substitute symbol for object. The very possibility of symbolising objects depends on being able to identify and re-identify the objects in question. This, in turn, depends on the capacity objects have for exercising ‘disturbance-effect’, to act on me and so distinguish themselves from me. For that, as suggested, is our criterion of real existence, what Buber might call the first ‘category of being’.[6]
However, complicated maths plays a more important role in our story. For it is not merely a symbol system; it is a vitally important one which enables our explorations and explanations to reach into the darkest regions of the cosmos. In so doing, it exemplifies the ampliative extension of consciousness which is to come. This is because the cosmologist’s calculations are not just diagrams of the universe; they are diagrams of a diagram. The cosmologist’s mathematical maps are symbolic representations of a matrix of forces which is itself a symbolic representation constructed from analogies of our own activity.
Farrer described our ordinary conception of “the universe” as resembling a ‘linear diagram of historical developments chalked on a classroom blackboard’.[7] The sciences have brought the image into sharper and, consequently, more poignant, focus. Our most advanced conceptions of “the universe” do not resemble such diagrams, they are such diagrams, mapped out in the hermeneutical imagery of mathematical equations.
Here, in the redoubling of our analogies, we see the defeat of simplistic anthropomorphisms, those lares and penates masquerading as “real beings”. Analogising our analogies elevates the analogising consciousness high above the realist’s household ghosts and gods; most pernicious of all, his Perfect Personal Agent.
Equally, it reminds traffickers in mathematical and other scientific models of the foundations of their own constructs. Moreover, the very “impersonalism” which, we are told, is the true character of the cosmos, is itself such a construct, one rinsed almost clean of any hint of personality; almost, but not quite, since the basic idea of activity must remain. This much we cannot do without; abandon action-concepts and the entire edifice of our understanding crumbles; we make a nonsense of both the diagrams and diagrammatising procedure which is scientific exploration.
“Impersonalism”, then, is an abstraction, a projection that is meaningful only because of the personal action from which it springs; the two cannot be coherently separated.
But this is not the end of the story. To fully understand Farrer’s via analogia, we must turn to philosophical psychology.

And you know what they say: philosophical psychology is the sexiest kind of psychology!
Remember to come back next week – or possibly the week after, given that it’s Christmas – for more wet and wild adventures, of:

Is That an Analogy of a Personal Cosmos in your Pocket or are you just Anthropomorphising?

Mirror of the Cosmos: Farrerian Reflections on Mind and Nature

[1] Huxley, J. New Bottles for New Wine (London: Readers Union Ltd., 1959), 213-232
[2] It is, perhaps, worth noting here that, while the word “love” roams free about Huxley’s article, unconstrained by parenthetical qualifications, the word “courtship” is more firmly anchored to its analogical origins with quotation marks.
[3] Farrer, The Freedom of the Will, 189.
[4] Farrer, Finite and Infinite, 67.
[5] Farrer, ‘Causes’ in Reflective Faith, 213.
[6] Buber, M. I and Thou, trans. Ronald Gregor Smith (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 43.
[7] Farrer, Faith and Speculation, 169.

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Mirror of the Cosmos: Farrerian Reflections on Mind and Nature, Again!

by Simon Smith

Part 2: In which we put Barry White on the stereo and Physics and Metaphysics Get IT On!

‘Science,’ Martin Rees observes, ‘wouldn’t have got very far with pure thought alone’; especially pure thought about ontologically pure things.[1] Newton, of course, was well aware of this, as his gruesome optical experiments clearly demonstrate. Indeed, any teacher will tell you that learning is a product of interaction; knowledge is earned by deliberate interference with things. Farrer, too, followed this empirical path, devising his ‘causal solution’ to the ontological and epistemological disjunct entailed by classical metaphysics. We know things, he observed, as they impact on our explorations, disturbing and diversifying the field of our activities.[2] The world can be explored because it is ‘the playground of human thews and human thoughts’.[3] 
Thus the ‘great Newtonian fiction’ transformed into ‘a complex of interlocking biographies’: a manifold of interpenetrating patterns, ‘infinitely complicated, minute rhythms of active process.’[4] In the Farrerian’s Latin catch-phrase, esse est operari: real “being” is being-in-action. No ‘solid and stupid lumps of physical matter’, then; at the ‘bottom of substance is ceaseless act’.[5] So Farrer designated ‘[e]nergy, rather than stuff…our ultimate’.[6] Echoes of Einstein.[7] Furthermore, ‘[f]or energy, not to act is not to be’; hence, ‘[t]he notion of energies in a pure or simple state, prior to mutual engagement is physical nonsense’. We cannot coherently conceive of energy in vacuo, ‘that is, action without interplay’;[8] action is inevitably interaction. Being active, therefore, real ‘being’ is also interconnected.
With a Whiteheadian flourish, Charles Conti captured Farrer’s visionary metaphysics like this: ‘[n]o actualities without full and proper integration with other actualities, themselves in the process of becoming’.[9] This applies to the very foundations of the universe. Even space and time are no longer inert, as Stephen Hawking shows. In Einstein’s hands, space and time became, ‘dynamic quantities that influenced and were influenced by events that took place in them’.[10] The patterns of process and energy which constitute our universe have a physical impact on the space-time in which they operate. And little wonder, for ‘process’ and ‘energia’ mean reciprocal interference: actualities disturbing a field of activity comprised of other actualities. Real things, including space-time itself, are in and as the mutual interplay of what Conti dubs ‘interference capabilities’ and Farrer, ‘disturbance-effects’.[11]
Nota bene: in this activist revision of metaphysics, we may discern the contours of a philosophical psychology. Persons are agents, active explorers in that playground of concrete connections. Consciousness is interactively extended, physically embodied, and fully engaged in the mutual interplay wherein the world is and is discovered.
Farrer was not alone in developing this new metaphysical model. Its roots lie in the Thomism which framed his magnum opus, Finite and Infinite. Both Whitehead’s ‘philosophy of organism’ and Bergson’s elan vital of biological and cosmic evolution also pursued such a course. The similarities between these thinkers are clear and important; we shall not gainsay them. No less important, however, are the differences, the most crucial of which is Farrer’s acute awareness of the analogical or diagrammatic nature of our metaphysics. The febrile fantasies of neo-realists notwithstanding, this has become common scientific currency in recent years, if Hawking and Gould are to be believed. Their cosmological constructs are, they concur, merely maps of the universe.
And yet, given the advances suggested here, one might wonder why we must resort to the antiquated doctrine of analogy. It will profit us little to protest that dusty old “being-concepts” have been superseded by a vigorously energetic analogy of doing. The question is “why must we use analogies at all?” Does not our interactionist metaphysics overcome abstract essences, bridge the gap between agents and their objects? Do not interpenetrating patterns of activity carry us right to the heart of real “being”?
In the spirit of Heisenberg, our answer must be both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. On the one hand, those processes subject to our interference and control are those of which our understanding will be widest and deepest. But our explorations cannot be restricted to those events in which we directly participate, even collectively as a species. Such a policy would radically restrict the extent of our knowledge. Thus, on the other hand, our explorations reach beyond our capacity to act by deploying inferences and extrapolations.
Admit this, however, and we draw to ourselves unwelcome company. The ghost of David Hume stands hard by, eyeing the inferences and extrapolations in our other hand. We may no longer live in a “billiard-ball” universe, but his critique of casual thinking retains its force. Let science get on with probabilifying the cosmos; we cannot ignore the fact that our physics and metaphysics illuminate a universe of merely seeming effects. For we have, the ghost cheerfully reminds us, no more access to the causal forces “behind” those effects than we have to agencies allegedly “behind” their acts.
Indeed we do not; but it is not quite true to say, as Hume did, that we have no access at all to causal agency; nor that, as a consequence, all our causal inferences must refer to constant conjunctions. As a matter of fact, we do have access to one causal agency and the force it applies to the universe; access which is direct, immediate, and reliable; access which is, moreover, analogically extendable. Our own capacity to act, to interfere with patterns and processes which are not our own, is our standing example of causal agency. It is also the model used in thinking all others.

And that ain’t all, oh no! 
For more hot, throbbing, science-on-philosophy action, tune in next time to…

Thrust While You Think: Adventures of a Black Market Cosmologist
Mirror of the Cosmos: Farrerian Reflections on Mind and Nature 

[1] Rees, M. From Here to Infinity: Scientific Horizons (London: Profile Books, 2011), 134.
[2] Farrer, A. Finite and Infinite (Westminster: Dacre Press, 1959), 234.
[3] Farrer, A. The Freedom of the Will (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960), 171.
[4] Farrer, A.  ‘Does God Exist?’ in Reflective Faith, ed. Charles Conti (London: SPCK, 1972), 40.
[5] Farrer, A.  Faith and Speculation (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1967), 166.
[6] Farrer, A.  Faith and Speculation, 82.
[7] Echoes, too, of Whitehead, for whom ‘the actual world is a process, and that process is the becoming of actual occasions’. Whitehead, A. N. Process and Reality (Corrected Edition, edited by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne. New York: Free Press, 1978), 22.
[8] Farrer, A. Faith and Speculation, 167.
[9] Conti, C. C. Metaphysical Personalism (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995), xxii.
[10] Hawking, S. ‘Einstein’s Dream’ in Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays (London: Bantam Books, 1993), 66.
[11] Conti, ‘Austin Farrer and the Analogy of Other Minds’ in For God and Clarity: New Essays in Honour of Austin Farrer, ed. Jeffrey C. Eaton & Ann Loades (Pennsylvania: Pickwick, 1983), 56; Finite and Infinite, 235.

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Mirror of the Cosmos: Farrerian Reflections on Mind and Nature, Again!

by Simon Smith

Having graced your delicate eyeballs with the abstracted highlight a few weeks ago, I thought I might as well inflict the entirety of my Farrerian Reflections upon you. Go on, admit it, this is just what you wanted.
This, rather long, conference paper is, of course, yet another demonstration of just how much I love the sound of my own voice, especially when it’s written down. It was presented at the BPF’s 1st International Conference: British Contributions to Personalist Philosophy – Duns Scotus to the Present Day. We were at the prestigious Oriel College, Oxford, those few, sunny days in March 2015. To me, the whole event remains particularly memorable for three reasons:
Firstly, James T. Beauregard flew in from New Hampshire to attend the conference. Yes, his arms were tired. It was a true delight to see Jim in the flesh; it was the first time we’d actually been able to meet up since the Lund conference in 2013 where we had, in fact, first met. It was even more delightful to have the chance to sit with him in, if Guinness-soaked memory serves, the Eagle and Child and get gently sozzled. All in the name of philosophical enquiry, of course.
Second, the accommodation provided by Oriel – accommodation occupied by students during term time, accommodation occupied by students paying upwards of £9k for the privilege, accommodation for which we were paying quiet handsomely – reminded me of nothing so much as a domestic violence shelter. Grimy, cold, and unutterably miserable, the rooms would have provided the perfect backdrop for a suicide attempt.
Third, it was the first, and thus far only, time a fight broke out during one of my presentations. I’ve had things go awry before, but never an actual punch-up. I kid you not.
The aim of my presentation, as per the abstract, was to provide an embarkation point for a grand metaphysical experiment in mapping the physical, epistemological, and psychological outreach of ‘personhood’ (whatever that means). My hope was – and still is – that, by modelling our conceptions of the universe on the dialectical extensions of consciousness, we will be able to overcome the impasse between personalism  and ‘impersonalism’. Such models, as you will discover, provide a better integrated conception of mind and nature than anything the currently dominant, closed-category thinking which dominates speculative cosmology could possibly allow. In so doing, they also supply the conditions for a deeper and more profound rapprochement between scientific and religious belief.
So there you have it; and here, for your entertainment and edification, it is:

The first part of it, anyway. 

Part 1: Persons and Nature
One of the most serious difficulties facing personalist thinkers is how to account for the emergence of persons in a universe seemingly so ill-equipped to host such an event. How, moreover, are we to do so without resorting to either the impoverished superficialities of flattened naturalism or the tawdry theatricalities of over-inflated transcendentalism?
Naturalist reduction has proved highly successful in mapping the universe. And yet, personalists have fiercely opposed what they regard as its illegitimate extension. Personhood, consciousness, is, as Austin Farrer reminds us, a ‘social product’. The begetting of persons is a personal business; it takes ‘I’s and ‘Thous’.
Add to this the literal nonsense of reducing knowledge to sheer physical process and we have some very good logical and psychological reasons for resisting reduction. We are here; surely this much cannot be denied.
And yet, our personalist ‘and yet’ must confront what we are told are the physical ‘facts’: all things shall be explained by underlying physical processes. But we are not quite done with the ‘and yets’ yet. For a number of scientists have sought to communicate their vision of the cosmos beyond the confines of their own field. And yet, in so doing they have – not, I suggest, remotely by accident – been driven to use the language of persons. Instances abound in the writings of Stephen Hawking, Rupert Sheldrake, and Stephen Jay Gould; even Richard Dawkins needed moral concepts to describe our selfish genes. Another evolutionary biologist offers an example more poignant still. In the complex narratives of evolution, Julian Huxley saw a profound ‘one-ness of man with nature, not merely in respect of biological descent and chemical composition, but because nature is the indispensable basis of his material existence, and also the indispensable partner in his mental and spiritual achievements.’[1]
To regard such talk as merely the poetical flourishes of one struggling to convey the complexities of the cosmos to a scientifically illiterate audience would be short-sighted. In this case, it would also be quite mistaken. Huxley’s remarks come from the Royal Anthropological Institute’s 1950 Memorial Lecture for his grandfather, T. H. Huxley.
Even when the intended audience is not so august an institution as that, however, we should be chary of dismissing too lightly such invitations to cosmological intimacy. We must beware, that is, of underestimating writers, readers, and their cosmological concerns. Both the form and content of Farrer’s works offer such a warning. For, as he well knew, it is in those concerns and the personal images which frame them that we shall find the clues to a resolution of our difficulties.
The first clue lies in a rapprochement between science and theology. Huxley’s words set the scene; to fully uncover their transcendental import, let us turn to physical and metaphysical basics.
When Einstein, Friedman, et. al, began to probe deeper cosmological depths, our conception of the physical universe evolved dramatically. The underlying ontology, Farrer saw, would have to do likewise: a new physics demands a new metaphysics. The classical model of discrete ‘reals’ bouncing around mechanically inside a static system proved as metaphysically untenable as it was scientifically inadequate. Farrer agreed wholeheartedly: ‘[t]he old definitions [of reality] accepted by Sir Isaac Newton and his followers were not merely incorrect,’ he declared, ‘they were nonsensical’.[2] Driving the point home – somewhat unfairly, given the role of philosophers in this metaphysical muddle – he said ‘[i]t is not merely that Einstein’s very special and advanced physical observations proved that this isn’t a Newtonian world. You couldn’t have a Newtonian world.’
Constructed from ontologically independent units of existence, the old model offered no insight into the nature of its contents. Newton’s theories mapped the motion of things with a high degree of accuracy; but their underlying ontology retained a clear-cut separation between those things and their activities; in antiquated Aristotelian parlance, between essences and accidents. However accurate the theories, accidents reveal nothing about essences; that is, their reactive or operational properties.[3] This is because the inviolable inertia of things-in-themselves and apart from any activity violates the basic conditions of coherent epistemology. It disconnects knowing subjects from objects known, so puts the world beyond our reach. But if the world is beyond our reach (Wittgenstein and Feuerbach wondered) what possible reason could we have for talking about it?

Good question! Find out the answer in the next heart-pounding instalment of…
Throbbing Passions!
Mirror of the Cosmos: Farrerian Reflections on Mind and Nature

[1] Huxley, J. New Bottles for New Wine (London: Readers Union Ltd., 1959), 122; my emphasis.
[2] Farrer, A. Saving Belief (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1964), 67.
[3] As Whitehead pointed out, in doing so, he left us as unable to ‘ discover the natures of the relata by any study of the laws of their relations’ as we are to ‘discover the laws by inspection of the natures’ Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1948), 135.