Don’t you just love people who precede an “h” word with an “an”?
This is not complaining. But this term I’m teaching over 240 students in all, distributed subject-wise among Metaphysics, Kant & the 19th Century, and an Humanities Breadth Course (“Civilization”). Just the book-keeping end of things is running me ragged. But, as I say, I’m not complaining, since each day I’m finding my head just packed with interesting ideas and questions. Years ago, when I was department head, I was run just as ragged, but my head was filled with stuff so stultifying that I can’t bear myself to try to recall any of it now.
This means I am encountering lots of material for the blog, but little time in which to blog it. But for now let me describe a fascinating (to me) line of questioning that developed from the Metaphysics class. We begin with this:
Does there have to be an ultimate reality?
(“Ultimate” there just for emphasis. Yes, it’s a needless emphasis.) Normally, I would like to answer, “Yes. For something must ultimately explain why it is that my experiences are one way rather than any other way.” But two further questions arise: (1) What makes me so sure that my experience COULD be any other way? and (2) Why couldn’t my experiences be the way they are because of some layer of mere appearance, which is the way it is because of some further layer of appearance, which is … and so on, without end?
Question (1) perhaps quickly turns to question (2), since if I accept that my experience couldn’t be any other way than it is, I’d next ask why it has to be the way it is. And then I would ask whether this question could be answered with infinite layers of appearances rather than through some appeal to an ultimate reality.
So, what about (2)? In response, I’d likely ask (3) What then determines why this infinite series of layers of appearance is the way it is rather than some other way? But the next question is the real kicker:
(4) What makes me so sure that there must be any cause, or any explanation whatsoever, for appearances being what they are?
When I am tempted to reply that there must be some cause, or some structure or something, which ultimately explains why appearances, and my own experience, has the particular qualities that it has, I realize quite suddenly that I’m sitting next to David Hume as he is writing his Treatise of Human Nature (1.3.2). Hume’s infamous doubt is that there needs to be any account or explanation given for the structure or patterns we encounter in experience. Sure, we are all tempted to infer that there must be some necessity in the way experience unfolds, but this inference is never demonstrated by experience itself — appearances never display to us any necessity — and the inference certainly is no tautology of logic. In the end: why not assume that there is nothing but appearance, with nothing grounding anything, and no need for anything to be grounded? And then I realize that Heraclitus and Nietzsche have been in the room all along.
The effect is dizzying. And we may as well add to this, of course, all of the familiar doubts about the permanence of the self. There is no reason not to suspect (as G. Strawson theorizes) that my consciousness is in a state of constant turnover, say every 2-3 seconds or so, with each state inheriting the memories and beliefs as the last state. Or, let’s make it crazier: perhaps my sense that appearances have a certain uniformity is some sense that has just been born, and will live only for a second or two until everything goes to hell and chaos reigns once more. Perhaps, that is, my consciousness at this moment is only an island of apparent order, bordered on each end by a tumultuous world of chaos, less even than a dream, as Kant put it. (Speaking of Kant, one can now see why he felt driven to such desperate measures to provide an escape from Humean skepticism.)
DAMN! Late for a meeting. Gotta run.
Interesting. Between these reflections and Strawson’s Nietzsche lecture, in which he approvingly cited the Falsification Thesis-sounding stuff in BGE 21, I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve been too dismissive of BGE 34 (“Isn’t it enough to assume that there are levels of appearance…?”). Still, as I wonder when reading BGE, how does all this comport with the naturalistic program of finding structure, grounds, mechanisms, etc., and the evaluative commitments crucially made with reference to the deliverances of that program?
That’s a damn lot of students, and a daunting scope of topics you are teaching in a single semester. Curious to know what the readings are for that Civilization course.
The readings for the Civ course, if you’re really interested, can be found here. The text itself is “A Capriciously Selective Set of Fragments Allegedly Representing the History of Western Civilization”, authored and edited by Erudite Ridiculosis.
I need to go back and read BGE again with these worries in mind.
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