Being open to the world

I wrote this almost 15 years in my first year as a sociology student, having abandoned a planned political philosophy PhD to take a social research MA instead because of a sudden fascination with empirical research.

I’ve been fascinated recently by the idea of being open to the world. Methodological naturalism in ontology is a gross impediment to this: if we concieve of the world as a neutral collection of objects “out there” about which we form opinions “in here” then meaning, atmosphere, mood, morality, significance (etc) all become ideas in our heads. We come to see their ‘subjectivity’ as standing in contrast to the (neutral) ‘objectivity’ of the natural order. The further we proceed with such naturalism, the more disposed we are to regard the human subject as one natural object amongst others. The significance we accord to things comes to be an ephemeral and ultimately arbitrary response to an objectively meaningless world. This view is deeply flawed and leads to a paradoxical conclusion: in its self-concious striving for objectivity it entails a rampant subjectivism while simultaneous stripping away the features of the human subject that most profoundly define our humanity.

There’s more to the human being then there is to the human animal. This is not to say that we stand apart from nature or that we’re not animals. It’s simply to observe that human beings are partly constituted by their self-interpretations. Who I am is not exhausted by the biological facts of my being. In a very real sense, who I interpret myself to be is part of who I am. Biology does not exhaust what we can meaningfully (and interestingly) say about the human being. Yet from the perspective of the methodological naturalist, our self-interpretations are not objectively part of the world. Self-interpretation is at least partly constitutive of personhood yet methodological naturalism must deny this if ‘objectivity’ is seen to extend solely to the interpretation-free natural order. The core creative expressive aware part of our being drops out of the ‘objective’ picture. The obvious ontological problem here is that it is objectively the case that human beings are self-interpreting beings yet self-interpretation can not be admitted as an objective feature of the world. Much of what’s problematic within naturalistic explanations of culture and psychology (behaviourism, sociobiology, evolutinary psychology) comes from the attempt to square this circle.

Yet at the same time if the significance we find in the world comes to be seen as “our” response to a natural order objectively devoid of significance then “man is the measure of all things”. Significance is not “out there” but is rather our “response” to the reality out there. It’s seen to come from within and be expressive. Look at the list: meaning, atmosphere, mood, morality, significance. How many of these do we actually experience as coming from within? Leaving aside philosophical speculations about their ontological status, how are they experienced? I’d suggest that we very rarely experience these things expressively. Instead we experience them as imposing on us from without. I don’t choose the moral values that guide me. I may rationally reflect on them and over time that reflection may shape the direction they move me in. An ethos doesn’t grip me because of my deliberation on its virtues. It grips me on a more primordial level, underlying the rational choices I make, giving me energy and passion as I push myself towards higher goals. There are values which give our lives meaning. The things I see as highest goods are prior to my reflections upon them. They provide the background which gives my life and my choices meaning. They frame the moral space within which I move.  They’re not expressions of something inner to me but things I respond to. The ‘feel’ of a place is not “my” response to an “objectively” neutral environment. On a visit to America when I was quite young, I remember being overcome by the sense of transition and change, hope and fear, that reverberated through Ellis Island. The experience was an experience by me but it was an experience of something outside me. The subjectivism that methodological naturalism leads to must deny the objectivity of the meaning that permeates life. Yet, as I read someone write recently, the subjectivity of subjectivity is objective. It’s a cumbersome but strangely effective way of putting across a profound point. Subjectivity is objectively part of the world. It’s the ontological reductionism of methodological naturalism which insists on treating it as somehow “less real”. Methodological naturalism was an attempt to respond to the obvious deficiencies of  metaphysical naturalism. As Steven D. Schafersman puts it, methodological naturalism is:

the adoption or assumption of philosophical naturalism within scientific method with or without fully accepting or believing it … science is not metaphysical and does not depend on the ultimate truth of any metaphysics for its success (although science does have metaphysical implications), but methodological naturalism must be adopted as a strategy or working hypothesis for science to succeed. We may therefore be agnostic about the ultimate truth of naturalism, but must nevertheless adopt it and investigate nature as if nature is all that there is.

I don’t see how anything is gained by this slide from metaphysical to methodological naturalism beyond dialectic point-scoring. If you treat nature “as if nature is all that there is”, you inevitably close yourself off to the centrality of meaning to human experience. It’s not just philosophical speculation peripheral to daily life because it involves a deep appraisal of categories central to our day-to-day experience of the world. It unavoidably leads to a desensitisation to the meaning that is there in the world because it amounts to a refusal to accept that meaning is actually “out there”.  The obvious response of the critic is to ask “how do you know it’s really there?”. If humans were not here then the meaning would not be there? Yet this question profoundly misses the point, relying as it does on a representationalist epistemology which asks for criteria by which we can ‘know’ that our “representations” of the world (in our minds) match up to the reality “out there” in the world. Without humans what is there? To say that the natural world is out there implicates a scientific realism that methodological naturalism attempted to escape. Our scientific concepts are not ‘read off’ the world. They are concepts constructed in a certain sort of (dis)engagement with the world. To say this is not to impugn the objectivity of science or to deny the existence of a mind-independent reality. It’s simply to observe the odd contradiction at the heart of the claim that the ‘natural world’ would exist if we were not here: the mind-independent reality which scientific engagement has characterised would certainly exist but the characterisation itself wouldn’t. Other lifeforms, possessing different phsyiological characteristics, would experience the ‘natural world’ in a different way. It would still be the same mind-independent reality they experienced but the concepts that mediate that experience (on the most basic level our understanding of what it is we are experiencing) are the way we cope with the reality in which we find ourselves. I stress again: this is not a denial of realism, or a denial of the objectivity of science. It’s a denial of a (bad) philosophical thesis: the notion of a “view from nowhere” grounded in the world as it really is beyond human representations of it. The persistence of this notion is the root of scepticism. As Kockelmans describes:

Among other things Kant affirms that it is a scandal for philosophy that there is still no conclusive proof for the real existence of things outside of us. According to Heidegger the “scandal of philosophy” is not that this proof has yet to be given but that such proofs are expected and attempted time and time again.

You don’t need to try and get to this “view from nowhere” for science to ‘work’. The unfortunately rather widespread idea to the contrary is a product of the mistaken equation of objectivity with this “view from nowhere”. Objectivity is not metaphysical, it’s methodological. The objectivity of the sciences is not a result of getting to the “view from nowhere”, the really real reality beyond human distortion. It’s a product of a disengaged method. This is a local feature of our otherwise engaged involvment with the world. Once you start to reject the ontological bagage of this sort of metaphysical/scientific realism and the epistemological bagage of representationalism, the question of whether meaning and significance (indeed ethics but that’s a more complex issue) would exist if human beings were not here ceases to have cash-value. It’s difficult to understand what the significance of the question is. More so, it suggests a straining to get beyond the ‘limits’ of the human ‘perspective’ that can only occlude the richness of experience that human life can entail.

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