Seismic Philosophy by Ciaran Healy
For many centuries people assumed that the universe was a certain shape. That reality was a certain shape. That shape was this – that you have the Earth at the centre, a sphere. Around the sphere are other spheres, made of crystal. In those spheres sit embedded the stars, the planets, the moon, the sun. Everything you see in the sky is embedded in a crystal sphere.
It wasn’t really crystal, though, that was just a kind of metaphor for a transparent substance, they could have said glass and had it mean the same thing. Their word was ‘quintessence’, a fifth element.
The point is this, that was what reality was shaped like, from the point of view of the understanding of countless millions of people for many, many centuries. There were some shifts in this understanding, but nothing seismic, not until a man called Copernicus came along.
Now, there’s something very interesting about all this, and it’s that the fundamental understanding that human beings had of the shape of reality itself was quite strikingly wrong. It had been derived rationally enough (the stars had to be ‘set’ in something, right? They never move relative to each other, so something has to be keeping them in place…), but there’s no way of getting away from it. It wasn’t just slightly off – it was howlingly, toweringly and irredeemably wrong.
There was no salvaging it, no salvaging even a part of it. Entertainingly (if you’re an appalling geek, like me) people like Tycho Brahe threw their entire life’s work into attempting to somehow reconciling this ancient and utterly incorrect theory with the ever-more insistent and consistent results being generated in Italy by this annoying Galileo person.
And the mad thing is this – we’ve learned much from the revolutions of science, but it seems we still have yet to learn humility. We consider ourselves immune to such seismic shifts that would require an utter abandonment of entire branches of human enquiry, because of course, we are so very much more enlightened than those strange and cloistered magisters of old, wrapped as they were in habits of hessian and habits of superstition also.
No more seismic, that is what we know.
There are some very fundamental assumptions about how the universe works, what we are. Things like the basic nature of human rationality. Things like the nature of time.
Each one of these is equally as fundamental to our understanding of the world as the shape of the solar system. Indeed, you could argue that they’re far more fundamental – the assumptions that underlie rationality, the assumptions that underlie time – these things are far more intimate and immediately connected to our moment-to-moment experience of living than the circuits of the stars or the planets.
But there’s a problem. Because of their intimacy, it’s not safe to question them. And I mean that in a very specific way. If you start raising genuine questions about the nature of rationality, for instance, then all of a sudden you find yourself in a profound state of insecurity.
Oh, of course you can ask dry questions about rationality in the abstract, but that’s not really asking. That’s not the kind of thing that gets answers, that’s the kind of thing that the worst kind of careerist ‘philosophy’ is about – filling page after page with contrived mental gymnastics that look very clever, and have no heart, no soul, no intention of looking for a genuine answer, and no right to be called philosophy.
But that’s not really asking, is it? Really asking is where you genuinely question the foundations of your own rational nature, in real life, as a human being. Where everything is open to the question. That’s a different proposition entirely. That takes balls.
Which is to say, it takes balls if you take yourself seriously, if you take your life seriously. If you take all the little stories and tales that you tell yourself about yourself, that you tell others about yourself, and how good you are, and how moral you are, and how clever you are. If you take those seriously, as some people do? If you take those so seriously that they are all you live for – as some people do? If you take those so seriously that you live or die by your reputation, and by how others think of your tale of self?
Well, in that case, you’re not going to want anything to raise any uncertainty whatsoever about such foundational issues. You would instead act ruthlessly and with vicious intent to suppress and shut down any such questioning. You wouldn’t admit to yourself you were doing it because you were trying to protect your pretty little tale, of course. You’d tell yourself another pretty tale about how moral you were defending ‘real’ philosophy, or science, or whatever, from such spurious questioning.
And then you’d redefine ‘real’ philosophy, or ‘real’ science, as the analysis of small problems only. Tiny little minutiae, the things that aren’t big enough to threaten. What would they be? Well, let’s take a look, shall we?
Some of the winners of this year’s Ig Nobel prize:
For confirming, by experiment, that people who think they are drunk also think they are attractive.
For discovering that some people would be physically capable of running across the surface of a pond — if those people and that pond were on the moon.
For making two related discoveries: First, that the longer a cow has been lying down, the more likely that cow will soon stand up; and Second, that once a cow stands up, you cannot easily predict how soon that cow will lie down again.
Now, it’s easy to laugh at these sillinesses and say that these are the extremes, and aren’t particularly representative.
But a couple of things should stay your dismissive hand. Each one of these studies was funded, and scientific research isn’t cheap. Many hundreds of thousands of pounds (or dollars, if you’re American, or Euros, and my condolences, if you’re from France) were poured into this research.
The point is this – when you live in a world where the big questions are considered settled – and that consideration is enforced – then the small questions is where the money goes.
The other issue is this. I can’t find any hard numbers, but I would say it’s probable that in the last 30 years more money has gone into physics funding than in the 300 years before that. And yet – amazingly – there have been no major breakthroughs in physics the last 30 years. None. Not a one. There have been a lot of Nobel prizes for incremental discoveries, but… you don’t get funding for seismic. You don’t get funding for visionary, you don’t get funding for questioning basic assumptions, core assumptions. You get derided, mocked, and driven to the sidelines of the academy – if you’re lucky.
And then you get a standard ‘knowledge’ in physics that there’s a bunch of questions that ‘can’t’ be answered, or that it doesn’t make sense to ask.
Seismic threatens those who have built their reputations within a certain paradigm, and they ruthlessly sideline and viciously attack those who dare to rock the boat.
Nowhere is this more clear than in the study of philosophy, which essentially ended 100 years ago in the English-speaking world.
The idea that rationality, taken at face value, was the core mechanism for all philosophical advance became enshrined, and might as well have been written on stone tablets. The idea that there were no philosophical problems of any scale left to solve was openly and explicitly made the foundation of philosophy itself.
It is as if medicine, in 1900, decided that all ailments that could be cured were already cured, and that accepting this as fact was a prerequisite for anyone being a doctor.
I am not the only one to have seen this. The amazing (and brilliantly sidelined) philosopher Bryan Magee, for instance, wrote a devastating critique on the foundations of this kind of ‘philosophy’ in his book Confessions Of A Philosopher (buy it today, just do it).
But what do you do? What do you do when the academy isn’t doing seismic? What do you do?
Do you rail against it? Do you attack it? Do you write amazing arguments that shine a light into the terrible injustice of the thing? Do you raise awareness? Do you slug it out? Do you let it go?
No. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t work at all. There is literally no point in engaging with the vast majority of people involved in the kind of philosophy I mention here, or the kind of physics Lee Smolin talks about. The reason they’re doing that kind of thing in the first place is because they’re very, very good at ignoring things, and you will be no different.
There’s no victory in fighting those battles. No victory at all. It’s just not on the cards, it’s not the kind of thing that you can beat by fighting. Words spoken softly will be easily ignored, and any words spoken in any degree of harshness will be easily twisted and caricatured.
This is the reality of the intellectual world which our generation faces. I wish someone had told me this 18 years ago, it’d have saved me a lot of time.
But then, in that, there is something that can be done. This information can be spread. People can be made aware of this. And not argued into thinking it, not convinced of it, not persuaded of it. Just made aware of this. That is all. If it’s really happening, they don’t need you to convince them, and if it’s not, they don’t need you to convince them either, so either way it’s fine.
But to spread this information, just to teach that this is a thing that is happening now. It’s not complicated, it’s incredibly simple. String theory looks complicated, but it’s not – it’s a very simple kind of thing. Analytical philosophy looks complicated, but again, it’s not. It’s a very simple kind of thing.
So yeah, you can make people aware that this is going on. You’ll never win an argument about it, of course, and if you try bringing this into the mainstream of these institutions, you’ll find how rapidly, effectively and viciously such ideas are attacked without ever being considered.
But this isn’t really an answer, is it? Just let people know this is going on? Sure, it’ll save some bruises. Maybe make you a few new friends, perhaps? Make you a few new enemies, definitely.
But it’s not the answer we need.
What do you do when the academy isn’t doing seismic?
There is an answer. It’s one word long.
Do seismic when the academy isn’t doing seismic. When people aren’t doing science, be the one who is. When people aren’t doing philosophy, be a philosopher. Be a real one. A brave one. Do seismic, and nothing else.
Seismic takes a lot of work, and a lot of failure, and a lot of heartbreak and a lot of time. It takes sacrifice and persistence, and involves a great deal of self-doubt and the derision of others. The derision of others who have things like titles, plaudits. Salaries. Rent money. Luxuries like that.
Our opinion is of no value or power. We can disapprove of this kind of behaviour till we’re blue in the face, but it won’t matter.
Seismic will matter. Get it so deep, and so clear, get a new way of thinking so powerful and so real, so groundbreaking that it can rework humanity’s relationship with reality itself.
Make it so good that it just becomes more and more obvious that the people deriding it are humiliating themselves, and not you.
And that’s not crazy talk. That’s what science actually is, that’s all philosophy actually is, if it’s real. It’s that, or nothing. And all the thankless grind, the years of being isolated and afraid, knowing that no matter how deep, your work may never be recognised and may never be seen, you will at least have one consolation.
You might actually do something for real. And all the grants, all the awards, all the conferences, all the respect that you will never get, you are trading for that one chance.
Now of course, this article might be totally irrelevant to you. You might think “well, I don’t want the hassle” – in which case, fine. This isn’t written to persuade you to shake the world.
But there are those – few in number, but great in heart – who cannot do anything else. And they will constantly, throughout their lives, butt up against that one question.
What do you do when the academy’s not doing science? Science.
What do you do when the academy’s not doing philosophy? Philosophy.
What do you do when the world isn’t doing seismic?
You do seismic.
Ciaran will be giving a talk in Edinburgh on the 7th of November 2013.
If you are interested to know more – Click Here