Body Snatchers; Learning outside the Field; and Big Tent.

By | August 29, 2011

by Juan Bernal

Invasion of the Body Snatchers:

After working hard at a recent group discussion to fend off the aggressive thrusts of some philosophical Dualists (those who believe that the body is an incomplete and inadequate reality without a dual non-material reality, e.g., soul, mental ego, or independent mind), I was struck by the similarity between such Dualist campaign to downgrade physical views of human beings and the story of aliens who snatched the bodies of human victims and replaced them with strange facsimiles. Of course, it may not appear that dualists and spiritualists are out to snatch away one’s body and replace it with an alien likeness (a strange pod which ‘hatched’ into a strange in-human likeness of the original), as were the aliens in the popular movie. But they do seem intent on reducing the human body-brain to mere matter-in-motion, a primitive form of material existence that cannot support the complex and high level of activity that we justifiably credit to our corporeal nature. If we argue that evolved human animals with their large brains are very much capable of reason, language, and culture, the Dualists reply that materialism is committed to the view that such animals are nothing but “matter-in-motion” which, of course, is far from being capable of reasoning, language use, and development of culture. So in a way, they have metaphorically “snatched away” our real bodies-brains (impressive organisms capable of great deeds) and replaced them with a strange pod of mere “matter-in-motion” capable of nothing but motion and mechanical interaction with other bits of matter-in-motion. Hence, they draw their invalid inference that a scientific materialistic philosophy either paints a frightening, alien picture of human beings or falls into obvious contradictions when applied to human, social reality. But, of course, this is definitely an invalid inference.

Those Outside the Field Have been my Teachers:

Since my early days as a college student when I first developed an interest in philosophical thought and inquiry, after I accidentally came upon Walter Kaufmann’s Critique of Religion and Philosophy, I have gravitated to writers outside the mainstream of philosophy. It is the works of such writers such as Walter Kaufmann, Friedrich Nietzsche, Spanish writer and philosopher, Miguel de Unamuno, the American-Spanish writer, George Santayana, and others who are more literary figures than academic, professional philosophers, that have given me the nourishment to sustain a life-long interest in philosophy. Although Walter Kaufmann was a philosophy professor at Princeton University, he was better known as an interpreter and commentator on Nietzsche and Existentialist thought, and as a scholar of religious history and scripture, than as an academic philosopher.

Later, while working on graduate degrees in philosophy, I developed great interest in the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the author of the Philosophical Investigations. As anyone familiar with the story, Wittgenstein was an engineering student who became interested in some problems in the philosophy of mathematics being worked on by Bertrand Russell. With little or no background in philosophy, Wittgenstein became Russell’s student for a time, before breaking with him to lead not one, but two, innovative philosophies of analysis and language. But he mostly worked independently and outside the academic environment of most professional, academic philosophers; and was often very critical of the mainstream English-German analytical philosophy of the twentieth century.

After my years in philosophy graduate programs ended, I went to work in the computer field as a business applications programmer and was able to reflect on the field of philosophy from the outside. My interests then became those of the logic of computer languages, the relationship to logic, linguistic analysis and natural languages, an amateur’s interest in the new field of artificial intelligence, and some curiosity as to how all this related to the philosophy of mind.

Later as I had more leisure to pursue “philosophical issues and questions,” it was the sciences that provoked my interest more than academic philosophical topics and research. First it was the physicists, with their deep puzzles and maddening paradoxes of modern physics (Einsteinian Relativity Physics, Quantum Physics), that drew my attention. How did all this affect traditional views of physical reality? How does all this affect our traditional philosophical thought? (Taner Edis’s book, The Ghost in the Universe, was very helpful here.) I did not see much in traditional philosophy that answered or even clarified the mysteries, finding more help from scientific writers such as Taner Edis and George Johnson. Then it was evolutionary biology and Darwinian evolution by natural selection that gave me an entirely new orientation to philosophy. Here I owe an intellectual debt to an academic philosopher, namely Daniel Dennett. His book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, was as much an “eye opener” for me as the Walter Kaufmann book had been twenty five years earlier. But it was Dennett, as a scientific-oriented philosopher, not one focusing on mainstream philosophical issues, who proved to be such a great influence on my thinking. It was Dennett working outside the philosophical mainstream that I found so instructive, provocative, and inspiring.

After my initial look at the importance of Darwinian thought to many crucial issues in philosophy, I went on to read works by such neo-Darwinians as Richard Dawkins and Ernst Mayr in order to get at least a layman’s grasp of Darwin’s revolutionary insight – his theory of evolution by natural selection. This was followed by an interest in related evolutionary sciences – such as evolutionary psychology and anthropology. All this eventually led to the contemporary works on the philosophy of mind (Dennett, Doug Hofstadter), on neurological work as it relates to philosophy (Antonio Damasio), artificial intelligence and the incompleteness theorem (Doug Hofstadter) and the cognitive sciences (Steven Pinker).

Add to all this my discovery of a self-taught writer, Eric Hoffer, and his most insightful book, The True Believer, and we see that I had an uncanny tendency to seek out non-philosophers and non-academics when looking for enlightenment and intellectual stimulation.

Finally, in the past year I accidentally came upon a long book, Philosophy in the Flesh, by George Lakoff (linguist) and Mark Johnson (Philosophy Professor), in which the authors argue that a philosophy of an embodied mind which bases itself on the empirical findings from the cognitive sciences — instead of a-priori philosophical assumptions — yields a revolutionary perspective on much of philosophy. Here I found many of the ideas which I had only previously seen obscurely, ideas which the authors expressed, developed and argued impressively. Again, I am influenced by a scientist and a philosopher working outside the mainstream of philosophy.

Although I studied and earned degrees in philosophy, I am drawn to sources and teachers outside the field in my effort to reach some degree of philosophical understanding.

Go figure.(?)

“Big Tent” Philosophy:

Sometimes I see the field of philosophy as a big tent which holds a variety of inhabitants; and sometimes I’m impressed by the strange variety of philosophical species that share this tent. The inhabitants are so strange and exotic that it is a wonder they can ever communicate at all, much less engage in meaningful discourse. Consider the variety of tent inhabitants that we find inside the tent: academic and non-academic scholars of philosophy; people interested in the history of ideas; Libertarians and those who look to Ayn Rand as a great teacher, Socialists and Marxists, those engaged in Christian Apologetics; Thomists; enthusiasts of some far eastern religion and mysticism; promoters of the Ba’hai; Phenomenologists who still value Husserl, Hegelians, Kantians, Cartesian Dualists, Empirists, Promoters and defenders of Atheism, Theistic philosophers, Naturalists or those who are scientifically oriented; mathematicians who are Platonists, Humanists, Skeptics, Logicians and Analysts, Wittgensteinians, Heideggerians, Pragmatists, Spiritualists and Idealists, Existentialists, Post-Modernists, and so on. (This does not list all the wonderful species and varieties; I just got tired of typing!) It is a wonder that those who call themselves “philosophers” or more realistically, see themselves as students of philosophy, can even talk to one another. As it happens, sometimes they really cannot; and sometimes it is a mystery why all fall under the heading “philosophy.” Besides claiming the label “philosophy,” I’m not sure they all have much in common; in fact, I’m fairly sure they do not.

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