The Novels of Philosophy

… we have first raised the dust, and then complain, that we cannot see

George Berkeley, or Thomas Jefferson, or Murray Gell-Mann, Marilyn Monroe, Einstein, or somebody else off the internet

Philosophy bears a curious resemblance to the novel in the way it creates concepts analogously to the way characters in a novel are set up and then interact.  But the characters themselves are a creation.  We passively observe the world, and ‘take notes’, either scientific or novelistic, but we also actively create. And just as the novelist doesn’t know how things will pan out until their characters actually do stuff, so it is with philosophy… which is how it is of course with us players on the stage of life… 

Postmodern philosophy, of course, seems quite aware of this self-created aspect, but it does tend to get tangled up in its self-referential cleverness. It can be fun, it can very much not be. Where it gets contentious is in more postmodern philosophies such as, say, those concerning gender.  For example, we are asked to assume there is a male gaze, something for which there is no evidence as such according to the rigorous standards of scientific proof demanded so often in other areas of discourse, but which nonetheless is somehow an essential bit of structure in the whole field of gender studies.  If however you point out that an aspect of this given fact is that if a woman finds the man looking at her attractive then this is much less likely to count this as an example of the dreaded male gaze, this somewhat weakens the whole structure built around the concept because it implies that there is another aspect to the whole dynamic of the gaze – something has been left out, but how that might be, and what the implications are, is not examined for some reason. Discourse so often finishes there instead of going further. And so often people who are proud of their irreligiosity will defend the concept of the male gaze with ironically religious fervour.  But such concepts are like a character in a novel that isn’t entirely believable – or even turns out to be an unreliable narrator.  We’re asked first to take various concepts as givens, then library-loads of academic studies are built around the various ramifications of the interplay between the components of the system and all their myriad implications, which implications of course then feed back into more of the same intellectual ecosystem.  The outside world also has a role to play, especially when it’s fed into the academic research that’s part of that system.  Perhaps this is why questionable concepts such as the male gaze are guarded so ferociously.  But there is always a creative component to observation of the world, and thus always a creative component to concepts that ‘objectively’ describe the world.

The point is, though, that philosophy aims for Truth.  Postmodern philosophy says truth is still a thing but not in any ultimate sense but that’s OK (apparently).  But both classical and postmodern philosophy share this curious trait with the novel that there is an initial framing of ideas that then lead to an interplay with many ramifications, but not so much examination of how the initial concepts are formed/created.  If we consider concept A that we have constructed, and concepts B, C, D… and using these various concepts we explore their interrelations and differences in different ways, we don’t actually know in advance how it’s all going to pan out.  It’s like this for philosophy, the novel, and science, despite the way the latter is constantly pushed, and surface-understood, as a somehow purely objective endeavour.

It’s weltanschauung stuff.  But with rickety components in the foundations.  We are asked to believe people as a matter of principle because of their ‘lived experience’, yet it’s a commonplace outside of these more postmodern philosophical areas that people can believe things that are mistaken.  It isn’t very nice to be on the receiving end of having your mistakenness pointed out to you, but that’s more to do with ego than truth.  And of course it goes both ways – people can be 100% right but find themselves subject to not being believed. 

But.  Let’s not draw the wrong conclusions here. For the curious thing is that novels despite being ‘fiction’ can nonetheless still speak to profound truths of what it is to be human.  (“Fiction is the lie that tells the truth.”) And this is the case with philosophy.  So it’s not like saying ‘there is no male gaze’ – far from it.

This way of thinking about philosophy is a good riposte to scientism, though.  You can see something ‘novelistic’ in statistics with the Bayesian approach, i.e. getting your setup right before analysing anything, analysis itself being a process fraught with all manner of problems and far from the off-pat descriptions of supposed ‘determinism’ or supposedly disinterested ‘objective’ science that are squirted about the place in public.  There’s a reason for that quote about lies and statistics.  Statistics veer into the counterintuitive so quickly and easily, just as they always quickly become part of a sociological and political ecosystem, despite supposedly being ‘objective’. It’s not even that statistics are useless, either.  It’s just again there’s that ambiguity, that nuance, that phenomenological aspect always found in life.  The more we try to grasp, the more it slips away.

To keep things contentious – consider that atheism (as opposed to agnosticism) depends on a particularly intense use of reason to somehow show that any kind of supreme being apparently doesn’t – or even can’t – exist.  But as is stated in the Bhagavad Gita, ‘Brahman is beyond existence and non-existence’.  Perhaps this is why atheists like to spend so much time attacking a supposed version of the God of Christianity and/or claiming that Vedanta Hinduism is atheist really (in spite of its own traditional description of itself in Sanskrit as astika – theistic).  Who knows.  As soon as you see that the reasoning, logical intellect is a subset, or just one aspect of, consciousness, and that consciousness in itself is beyond any labelling, things straight away take on a very different aspect.  But of course we all have our egoic intellect, which is always fragile, angry, insecure and defensive, yet paradoxically rather arrogant, not willing to admit it’s but a part of true selves. 

You can see one way that the egoic intellect is limited, however, by the way that the arguments about God’s existence or lack thereof go back and forth without end – there’s always a response from the other side.  Despite what either side may say, or believe, neither side lands a knockout blow. (Let’s hope they never do – imagine if for example an intellect-only knock-down proof of God’s existence was constructed that everybody could intellectually see was unarguably right, and what that would do to humanity and society, and ironically religion too.)  This in itself suggests that the answer isn’t being sought in the right place, that egoic intellectualising is only part of the story of the mind, a subset of consciousness per se.  And indeed, the fact that you can’t actually prove a negative – an old philosophical chestnut precisely because there isn’t a way round it – means that in that one particular solely technical sense, the theists actually win.  As the saying has it, the arguments for God’s existence may be a bit rubbish, but the arguments against are even worse.  But the theists’ intellectual arguments seem quite off in the face of the sheer evil of the world, the evil of humanity, the numberless tragedies, the ruined lives.  And the reason they don’t sit right because they aren’t an answer for the heart, which is ultimately all that matters. It’s a forceful reminder of the way that life is so much more than intellect. Life isn’t about technicalities.

And this is the heart of the matter.  The arguments for and against the existence of God ultimately aren’t a matter of the intellect alone.  In the end they are found in profound depths of the heart.  The analytical, egoic intellect is important of course, but it’s become so disconnected from the heart with which it’s meant to closely work and this is the cause of so much suffering, so much lostness.

Which is quite momentous, because it points back towards this key aspect of our humanity that the intellect is meant to be in harmony with but which has instead been denigrated and/or heavily suppressed for millennia now – the heart.  Atheism is ultimately born of pain in the heart.  Hence the anger – it comes from hurt. And that pain ragefully fires up the mind and the egoic intellect, which expresses its pain in terms of being insulted by the very idea of a loving God.

But ultimately the intellect and heart are joined, and intellectual proofs of ultimate truths are never going to satisfy the heart. This can be seen quite easily by this consideration – that all the metaphysical discussion and decision in the world as to the ultimate nature of reality is as nothing if you’re not able to behave decently towards your fellow human being.  And therein lies the key to true understanding.  That is where you see something about what it is to be human, what it is to live human life.

It isn’t exactly easy to put this knowing in terms that satisfy the intellect, but that deeper, true understanding is in us all nonetheless.  And that’s the next key.  Which is that if it’s in us all, and we’re all so very different to each other, we must nonetheless share something with each other.  This knowing comes first, before all the intellectualising.  But what is that knowing? And that’s the key to the next understanding…