Saturday, December 20, 2008

Philosophical stuff for an Advent afternoon

"Let Φ (a physical possibility structure) be a set of distinct but intersecting paths ji–jn, each of which is a set of functions, L’s, on ordered pairs {t, w} ({time, world situation}), such that for any Ln, Lm in some ji, Ln R Lm, where R is a primitive accessibility relation corresponding to physical possibility understood in terms of diachronic physical compatibility."
That is from David Foster Wallace's senior thesis in Philosophy entitled Richard Taylor’s ‘Fatalism’ and the Semantics of Physical Modality, retrieved last week by James Ryerson for his New York Times magazine essay Consider the Philosopher.

I post this logical explanation because it explains a lot for me and (who knows?) possibly about me. The logical world of symbols is what I cut my intellectual teeth on. Like DFW and many others it is a limited and retarded world, meaning it slows up and prevents further growth and development. The need to move beyond looking at the world through the lens of logical modality is what I believe caused a change in the trajectory of Wittgenstein's philosophical work. After all, it was W who wrote, in notes published as Philosophical Grammar: "One of the most dangerous ideas philosophically is, oddly enough, that we think with, or in, our heads. The idea of thinking as an occurrence in the head, in a completely enclosed space, makes thinking something occult." It was also a way get around the enclosed space of the head that caused Husserl to develop his phenomenological method, by means of which he sought to overcome the hard and fast subject/object distinction posited by Descartes, a problem with which Kant also grappled in his Critique of Pure Reason.

It was in 1985, with the logical proof above, that DFW refuted a problem introduced by philosopher Richard Taylor in his article Fatalism, published in 1962. The thesis set forth by Taylor holds "that human actions and decisions have no influence on the future."

Proving Camus was correct in his contention that "[t]here is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide" and demonstrating that he was perhaps ironically expressing a kind of fatalism when he wrote, "I'll say God seems to have a kind of laid-back management style I'm not crazy about. I'm pretty much anti-death. God looks by all accounts to be pro-death. I'm not seeing how we can get together on the issue, he and I . . .," DFW killed himself on 12 September 2008. I tried reading some of his writings after that as a sort of homage, but I couldn't and still cannot. His fiction is not for everyone, laden with notes and asides and positively teeming with contingencies and sketches of what it is to be human now. Infinite Jest is his most well-known novel and the source of the above DFW quote. Should you read it? I don't know. I remain fascinated by the book, but I don't recommend it often. I think Ryerson hit the nail on the head when he wrote this about DFW:

"But Wallace was also wary of ideas. He was perpetually on guard against the ways in which abstract thinking (especially thinking about your own thinking) can draw you away from something more genuine and real. To read his acutely self-conscious, dialectically fevered writing was often to witness the agony of cognition: how the twists and turns of thought can both hold out the promise of true understanding and become a danger to it. Wallace was especially concerned that certain theoretical paradigms — the cerebral aestheticism of modernism, the clever trickery of postmodernism — too casually dispense with what he once called 'the very old traditional human verities that have to do with spirituality and emotion and community.'" (underlining added by me)
So, what DFW was grappling with was the complex and intertwined knot of fatalism, relativism, and most of all the late modern human tendency to subjectvisim, the most extreme form of which is solipsism, and the (consequent/subsequent?) breakdown of community, especially given the (seemingly contradictory) rise in social (global?) consciousness. Hence, the prominent role that addiction plays in his fiction, something pulled in from his experience. There is a quote in the segment on Thomas Merton from the Hearing Voices broadcast, Yes to God, done by Noah Adams way back in 1980, in which Fr. Matthew Kelty, Merton's last abbot, says something that has some bearing on this, too, while answering a question about why Merton remained a Trappist.

The dangerous idea that human actions have no bearing on the future, which the whole season of Advent refutes, is tackled brilliantly, that is, humorously and humanely in an episode of the only sci-fi series I have ever liked and followed, Red Dwarf. This installment of the series is entitled Cassandra.

Keep in mind that the point here is that what we do now matters and that while we may not be absolutely free, we are, at least in the vast majority of circumstances in which we find ourselves, free enough to be able to do what is good and resist evil. This insight seems simple, but fatalism, in its various forms, many of which are religious and all of which embrace Taylor's thesis, is very prevalent, especially as it pertains to final things, even among Christians. Let us remember what Pope Benedict insightfully wrote in Spe Salvi:

"Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value. Dostoevsky, for example, was right to protest against this kind of Heaven and this kind of grace in his novel The Brothers Karamazov. Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened" (par. 44).
I wrote about DFW six days after his death in a post, the title of which is taken from Kiekergaard's Fear and Trembling, called "if the basis of all that exists were but a confusedly fermenting element . . .", featuring Cake. What I hope shows through is how faith not only complements reason, but completes it, and how this completion results in true knowledge. In other words, reason and faith are interdependent and intersubjective- rationalism, fideism, and solipsism are ways of looking at the world that do not and cannot allow us access to reality. These modes are what Giussani would classify as predispositions, which often lead to dangerous ideologies.


  1. Hi Scott! This post is helpful to me in ways that are hard for me to describe. But thank you.

  2. Scott,

    That was a really interesting post. Like Suzanne, I'm not sure if I can say just how it was insightful, but I'm confident it was.

    A big focus of mine throughout my philosophical studies has been that of subject-object relationality, and specifically the modern tendencies invoking its ultimate fission. (In fact, it's something I'm looking to write an M.A. thesis on.) If you are interested much in this sort of thing—which it seems you are—I have an essay I just finished exploring this very idea from the perspective of 'objective truth'; I evaluate how one might utilize Thomas' nuance of an Aristotelian 'realism' in coming to rectify some modern notions of realism (specifically Hilary Putnam's 'internal realism'). All in all, it's the start of something bigger (I hope), but I'd be curious to hear what you think. You seem to be a very thoughtful author, and I'm sure you'd be a good editor.

    Let me know what you think. Oh, and stop by my blog if you want:


  3. Andrew:

    I would be most interested to read your essay and let you what I think.



God's love is unimaginable

Readings: Sir 15:15-20; Ps 119:12.4-5.17-18.33-34; 1 Cor 2:6-10; Matt 5:17-37 The Church's readings for this Seventh Sunday in Ordina...