A Comic Vision of
Great Constancy
Stories about Unlocking the Wisdom of Everyman
A Reading of “The Knight’s Tale”
and A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Letter On Incommensurate World Views From Me to a Scientist

Dear Reader,
I wrote the following letter to my brother, David Griesinger. As far as I’m concerned, he and I represent quite concretely the two worlds that I write about in the body of the letter. I don’t have to imagine the relationship of the two; I have lived it with my brother.

He went to Harvard as an undergraduate and eventually earned a doctorate there in physics. From early childhood he had a passionate interest in music and sound reproduction, and this has been the focus of his professional life. David has worked on the acoustics of concert halls all over the world and has developed important innovations in audio engineering, like surround sound, that people all over the world enjoy in their cars and living rooms. In the spirit of his Biblical namesake, for decades now he has researched and experimented to take out the Goliaths of his profession, the entrenched scientific myths about the way human beings actually experience sound. His motivation, though, has always been the joy of music, which (in my opinion) moves his mission out of the realm of science and into that of aesthetics and practical reasoning. Music, as it turns out, is our common ground. For both of us, it’s a world where the improbabilities of life on earth (when viewed scientifically) are resolved in a melody. You can read more about David on his website, davidgriesinger.com.

I’m posting the letter because it puts the issue I discuss exactly where it belongs. The issue isn’t just an abstraction; it’s the life blood of real people, like David and me. It’s like the stories in the Old Testament about brothers. Yes, there’s Cain and Able, but further on there’s Jacob who is reconciled with Esau after Jacob stole Esau’s birthright and Joseph who is reconciled with the brothers who abandoned him. I maintain in the essay that the scientific world and the human world (as I call it in the essay but which can be called whatever the reader fancies) are better understood as members of a family. We see things differently, but we may live life more fully if we accept more wholeheartedly that these points of view derive from the same source. Our survival, no less than thousands of years ago, depends on whether two brothers, by honoring that which has given them life and a reason for being, can reconcile on that common ground.

Dear David,

My second book will be published on February 7th, Mom’s 100th. Fancy that! I had nothing to do with the date, by the way.

It’s a companion piece to my first book in that the subject is still a comic vision, as the titles indicate. Birds have to fly, fish have to swim, and I have to build a brand (a body of work) to get my project moving. A lot has happened since I finished the book a year ago so I’ve written a new preface called “The Return of Odysseus and Why It Matters” to introduce the theme. Let me know if you can’t open the attachment.

The new preface is like an archeological dig; you can go into it or not as much as you like. Part One, the first layer, tells the whole story in a general way. Parts 2, 3, and 4 take you by degrees deeper into the theme. The new book excavates at some length, and my first book is still the deepest look into it.

I’m sending the new preface to Sally and Peter as well, but yesterday as I prepared the emails I found myself compelled to add this letter to you. I wonder whether the things about which I write hold any interest for you. I believe they would have when you were younger. I remember a time, for example, when you read and admired the poems of Wallace Stevens. To bait the hook and to get you to look at these scribblings, I have included at a critical point a little bit about music and the recording of music which I thought might get your attention, unless, of course, you have already completely considered he matter.

I address in the new preface the most basic vexation of the human condition—the experience (that we all have had) of being cast out into a world of objects. We find this described in the adventures of Odysseus which suggests it’s a constant for human beings. Odysseus is a mythical hero, but in this respect he is also Everyman. His story includes an exile into the world of objects, but this only makes his return home to the human world, his Ithaca, all the sweeter. Classical and Christian writers and artists actively sought a balance between the two worlds, the world of objects and the human world, but in my reading of history it would appear that for some time now the balance may have been tilted toward things, which, Emerson protested 171 years ago, are in the saddle and ride mankind.

Romantics are attracted to the emotional drama in an image like that and have made a great deal of hay with it, but you know probably better than I do the very serious research in neuroscience, biology, and evolutionary psychology which seeks a scientific explanation for human behavior. Also, the success in artificial intelligence and robotics (machines that are human which proves that humans are machines) may further influence our self-understanding as that project goes forward. Since I still have a voice to speak of these matters, I can employ, as Emerson did, the unscientific discipline of poetry to compare the great power of these trends to that of Charybdis, a whirlpool that sucks us down and drowns us in a world of things. This statement exists in a world quite different from that of science. It’s a judgment, but surely you would agree that judgment is a very real phenomenon in the world we inhabit. So as someone who lives in that world and as someone who can live in no other world, I wonder whether, as we build up the world of things in which we are no more than things, we can ever go home again. And what, after all, is the human world?

Modern philosophy, it might be said, begins in the ontological dualism of Descartes who deduced that consciousness would always be left over from any purely physical account of human thought and action. He triumphantly proclaims the cogito, but at what a cost. We gain the certainty of the objective world through a Cartesian slight of hand involving the necessary existence of a perfect infinite being, but the mind is still cast out, left over from any account of the physical world.

 Kant improved on the Cartesian model, but he, too, has to separate the phenomenal and the noumenal worlds. Like Descartes, he told us we could be confident in our knowledge of phenomena. We are the bearers, the creators of knowledge. Still, there’s a shadow across his system, the terrible strain, the burden of our subjectivity; heavy is the head that bears the weight of these powers. This, too, is alienating.

Are these the thought seeds that eventually bloom in Romantic sensibilities into a painful alienation and disaffection with human life, the lonely little mind lost like a planet in deep space at the mercy of Whatever, a paradigm for defenselessness and victimhood? (In acts of terror like that near us in Fort Lauderdale last Friday the shooter projects this paradigm onto others with his weapon.) In Descartes’ case, it took a strong faith to overcome the alienation intrinsic to his system. In Kant’s case, he lived in a time when a person could have, as he did, a sublime faith in reason and in himself as its embodiment. In our case, when faith in a perfect, infinite being or in the perfectibility of human reason is weak or non-existent, we are left holding the bag, as it were, a regular Pandora’s box filled with all the vexations that tend on Entropy.

Maybe this sounds like a scholastic argument, as pointless as counting the angels on the head of a pin. But I know from personal experience that this picture of oneself in the world is a cause of great suffering. For some I have known, it’s a killer. For others, it’s a near miss.
 
I confronted the issue as a teacher in the classroom and discovered that the comic vision of Homer, Chaucer and Shakespeare presented a way to work through the feeling of alienation, which is so acute for adolescents. This was the subject of my first book. The second book addresses the issue through the ideas of Adam Smith and Edmund Burke, for they, too, would reengage us with the human world of human subjects interacting—the world that science, they intuited, has to leave out. The second book concludes with commentary on two texts by Paul Johnson. The first, Modern Times, describes the appalling wreckage over the twentieth century left by movements that suppressed the human world to enforce murderous, pseudo scientific visions on millions of human beings, and the second, A History of Christianity, presents a comic vision that still may rescue our culture from exile in a world of flying projectiles.

So what is the human world? I’ve been studying the works of English philosopher Roger Scruton carefully since last summer, and he proposes an approach that reconciles the incommensurate points of view I have been describing. I believe he is saying as a philosopher what I have been trying to say as a student of literature. He would rescue the Enlightenment project from the unsettling cognitive dissonance left in the wake of Cartesian dualism with an argument that he establishes over many stages. Since it takes him hundreds of pages, I can only describe it imprecisely in a few paragraphs, but here goes.

He builds his case from what he calls the first person point of view. The human world is made up of persons who use the pronoun “I.” People are subjects. Borrowing from Kant’s insights into pure reason and practical reason, he proposes that the use of the pronoun “I” presupposes the knowledge that I am a single and unified subject of experience. This doesn’t have to be proved. Scruton writes (quoting and summarizing him) that the unity of consciousness transcends all argument since it is the premise without which argument makes no sense… This unity contains also a claim to identity through time. Having established persons, he then places them in relationships. As a person, people often ask what will I do, and the question assumes that I am free. This is the premise of practical reasoning, not its conclusion. In the human world, we are persons interacting with other persons, and we are free to respond, to ask what they will do, to ask why they do something, and to judge what they have done. In the scientific world, we look for causes; in the human world, we seek reasons.

I wrote at great length in the new book about Edmund Burke’s description of human freedom long before I read Scruton’s argument for it. Writers for thousands of years have been debating the question of free will, and it’s a question for which Burke gives an important and very subtle answer. I find both descriptions enlightening and persuasive. They admit the obvious: there are compelling arguments on the other side that we are not free. Nevertheless, they wrestle with those views (as I have done in my essays on Burke) to find the opening in the lock box of conditioned, hereditary, and evolutionary behavior. Freedom for them is the fruit of honest work, not a get-out-of-jail-and-into-political-office card.

As to the reconciling of two incommensurate points of view, instead of the ontological dualism of Descartes and Kant, Scruton proposes what he calls a “cognitive dualism.” The scientific world view, he admits, is prior. Ontologically, it’s a world of objects, and science can deliver knowledge of that world. But for us, a world of individual subjects who interact with other subjects “emerges” from that other world in a way that can’t be accurately described by science. He compares this phenomenon to music. A melody, he observes, emerges from a series of pitched sounds, but a melody exists in a world quite apart from the science of recording it. The pitched sounds are prior. The melody cannot exist without them, but the melody itself exists in an otherworldly musical time and space.

The shift from an ontological to a cognitive dualism may seem once again as sophomoric hair splitting, but it’s a shift, I believe, that truly impacts our being in the world. In his book called The Soul of the World Scruton uses his musical analogy to make the larger argument that science can’t account for the idea of sacrifice or the sacred. Some anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists have tried, but he finds their arguments unpersuasive. Science, he maintains, cannot explain a soldier falling on a grenade to save the lives of others. Science can’t explain it, but sacrifice and the sacred, like the burning bush in Exodus that’s in and out of ordinary time and space (which makes it unscientific), serve as touchstones for membership in the human world, which he calls the lebenswelt. As a philosopher he observes that the thought of sacrifice and the sacred is still active in the mind even as the old faiths are fading from memory. He would explain “the crucial fact: that our thinking ‘latches on’ to a realm of necessary truth, reaching beyond the puzzles that we need to solve” for our own survival. He has in mind here especially the necessary truths of mathematics. The world that science describes exists and is prior, but people live in the lebenswelt, a realm of necessary truth—that is, as long as human beings continue to value and cultivate it.

But what about the dualism which has been the focus of my letter and the effect if it is no longer ontological? Descartes was mistaken; the mind is no longer a mysterious something separate from physical reality. It may appear that, as subjects, our experiences are entirely subjective, especially in a culture so profoundly influenced by Cartesian dualism, but in Scruton’s approach this is not the case. His view reminds me strongly of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments that I write about in the new book. As subjects we depend on others for knowledge of ourselves and the world. We are both a subject and an object-in-their-eyes as they are a subject and an object-in-our-eyes. This intersubjectivity defines the human world.

We are what we are “out there” in a real, physical world. We may think we can hide our thoughts, our ambitions, our loves and shames from others, but we’re actually an open book read primarily, Scruton writes, in the face. Yes, we lose the hoard (guarded by a dragon) of secret ambition and self-gratification, but at the same stroke we say goodbye, for better or worse, to alienation. Those of us (I speak for myself) who see ourselves as tortured isolated souls, channeling the Romantic genius/hero, have been seduced by an illusion, a story as old as the one in Genesis about the fall. Like it or not, we are married to the people around us, and there’s no retreating or hiding. It’s all out in the open. We’re married, liable for our actions, and vulnerable to judgment, but we’re also free to speak and to act—as I do here and as I have done in publishing these two books.

Love,

Alan

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