Posts for ‘The Argument’


For my twenty-first birthday I received five gifts from my parents: a signet ring, a wristwatch, a red tartan travel rug and two books.  One book was the then most recent collection of Allan Curnow’s poetry A Small Room with Large Windows and the other Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus.  Both contain identical inscriptions in my mother’s hand-writing. 

Congratulations and Best Wishes for your
21st Birthday Christopher
Harry and Mum
 x x x

An oddly formal message, it seems now.  My mother never called me Christopher in real life and the ‘Best Wishes’ seems unduly restrained.  I think, too, that this is the first and only time she used ‘Harry and Mum’ rather than ‘Mum and Harry’.  I suppose the tone marked the solemnity of the occasion or, perhaps, there was some tension in the family that I don’t now remember (was the travel rug a subtle hint that I’d lived at home long enough?).

I can only think that I chose the books myself.  I doubt that anyone else involved had heard of either author and if Harry, my stepfather, had known what the Camus was about he might well have burnt it rather than risk anyone reading it.  He was a kind and generous man but his years as a psychiatric nurse had left him with a deep distrust of airy-fairy theory. 

I first heard of Camus a year or so before my 21st when I was going out with Vanya Lowry.  I have a strong image of a group of us sitting round the table in the Lowrys’ kichen with the sun streaming through the windows.  I am not sure if we were eating but we very likely drinking – something out of a flagon, maybe.  Vanya and I were on one side and Vanya’s sister Judy and her boyfriend David Mitchell on the other.  Bob and Irene Lowry were at either end.  It was David who started talking about Camus.  I don’t remember what he said, only his enthusiasm and the fact that his words struck a chord with me.  I knew immediately that this was a writer who was saying things I needed to hear.  I bought a copy of The Outsider soon after and, over the next couple of years, I read everything by Camus that I could lay my hands on, even the plays, which I don’t think are much good. 

The Myth of Sisyphus is an essay of about a hundred pages written in occupied France in 1940, when Fascism and Nazism had conquered most of Europe.  It asks if life has any meaning and if it doesn’t, whether or not a rational person should therefore commit suicide.  Camus answers this question not by appealing to God or to some set of abstract values but by an existential argument, which is in one sense a piece of intellectual trickery but in another, perhaps, a beguiling insight into what it is to be a human being.  Life, he says, is absurd and, because of this, its absurdity is the only truth we know.  The only way to preserve the truth is to preserve the consciousness that apprehends it.  Suicide is not a logical outcome of this situation.  On the contrary, it is an irrational act.

I think Camus sits at a midpoint in twentieth-century literature between the gloom and the nostalgia of the modernists and the exuberant irony of postmodernism, between a temper that takes ultimate questions seriously and one that finds them slightly ridiculous.  This balance appeals to me and I still think Camus’s conclusion is right although these days I’d want to argue it differently.

I’ve always felt that the experience of absurdity has two faces, the comic and the tragic, and that one way to understand it is as a sometimes sudden and often inexplicable change in point of view accompanied by a dislocation of value.  You are playing golf or making love or painting the ceiling and you suddenly realise how ridiculous you look.  You feel a surge of surprise.  You want to laugh.  Perhaps you are overcome by a fit of giggles that disconcerts the people you are with.  You have to stop and readjust, try to absorb yourself again in the seriousness of the activity.  This is the comic face and it results in delight and a sense of irony.  The tragic face can have a more negative and profound effect.  You suffer some trauma or maybe you just wake up one morning and you realise that the career or the relationship or the political cause you have devoted your life to means nothing to you anymore.  It is as if you have been walking on solid ground and it suddenly gives way beneath your feet and you are sucked into a void.  Such a moment can be deeply disruptive – a sudden loss of meaning or significance that seems to threaten your identity.  Thoughts of suicide might not be far away.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the philosopher Thomas Nagel suggests that to be conscious, to be fully alive in the human sense, is no more and no less than having a point of view.  The essence of a point of view, however, is that it can change.  To be a human being then is to be capable of seeing things in different ways from one moment to the next.  It is to be capable of enjoying or suffering the absurd.  This, I think, is Camus’s point. 

People like my stepfather – sane, sensible people – suppress their experience of the absurd before it can take a hold.  They rely for their direction on religion or common sense or sound reasoning, all of which help to maintain a sense of stability and purpose.  I’m not like that.  Stability and purpose have always seemed hopelessly beyond my reach, despite all my best attempts to achieve them.  I seem to have always lived on the frontiers of meaning where there is a constant risk of falling into the void.  I am not sure why this is so although I think that while some are born with a sense of the absurd and others achieve it, some just have it thrust upon them.


Now is a point
   in space time.
Any point.
If you’re there
   that’s now.
What are you, though?
And what’s a point
   but an abstraction?
Is there any point?
If there’s no point,
   where are you?
 Now is
   where you are
   and the difference
   between the agent
   and the observer
   the living
   and the dead.
 You and this
   is now.

Explanation and Understanding

It’s Writers’ and Readers’ Week at the International Festival of the Arts and Richard Dawkins is in town. When I first saw he was on the programme I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go and hear him or not. I’m still not sure but I doubt I would have a choice now; his sessions will be sold out.

I feel ambivalent about Dawkins because he comes across as being utterly convinced that he is right. Complete certainty bothers me. Even though I often sound completely certain myself, I am easily convinced that there is another point of view worth considering and, even though I sometimes pour scorn on other people’s opinions, I sometimes get a sneaking sympathy for anyone who is viciously attacked by a third person. Thus, when I picked up Dawkins’s The God Delusion six months or so ago, I expected it would make me angry. It didn’t. Instead, I agreed with almost everything in it. Dawkins gets wound up at times but, for the most part, he presents what I believe is a pretty good argument against the notion of a Supreme Being.  Where I tend to part company with him, though, is in his capitulation to the power and beauty of science.

Here is a quote from a report of an interview Philip Matthews conducted with him recently (the Dominion Post magazine, Saturday 27 February 2010). In response to the question “What is it about science that really gets your blood running?” Dawkins answered:  

“It’s so thrilling, so exciting to feel that during our few decades in the sun we have it in our power to understand why we’re here. To understand the really remarkable detail. To know where the world comes from, why it’s here, how old it is. Why life is here, why life is the way it is. Why humans are here, why humans are the way they are. How the universe is going to go on in the future.

“This is absolutely enthralling and anybody who wastes their life by not getting to grips with these great questions of existence, given that in the 21st century we have that privilege, is really not living life to the full and that’s tragic.”’

Perhaps the key to the problem I see here is Dawkins’s use of the word ‘understanding’. Science gives us a certain kind of explanation, arguably the best kind. The history of thought is littered with the dead claims of people who said ‘Science will never be able to explain X’ but, nonetheless, I am bothered by the assumption that explanation is the same thing as understanding.

Take, for example, a violin. You could explain to me how it worked. You could explain in some detail how to play it. You could tell me its history or how it’s made or tuned. You could expound the theory and the physics of music. You might even give me reasons why the particular sounds of the violin appeal to (a lot of) human beings. All of this might help me understand the violin but none of it is sufficient. Unless I hear it played, and played well, or, better still, unless I play it well myself, I don’t believe I can be said to understand the violin.

(Note that understanding, here, is not the same as appreciation. It is not necessary to like the violin in order to understand it. Someone who listens to Yehudi Menuhin or Stephane Grappelli and thinks it is the most awful sound he has ever heard nevertheless understands the violin in a way that a person who was born deaf does not.)

Scientific explanation is based in a particular point of view: one that involves maintaining the distance and the detachment of an observer and using reason to interpret and extrapolate that which is observed. Understanding, to my mind, requires the point of view of an active agent, someone who is engaged and involved in all the different ways in which a human being can be engaged and involved. In this sense, doing science leads to an understanding of only one thing: doing science.

Of course, the questions Dawkins asks in the above quotation can all be answered by scientific explanation. Why are we here? Well, we are here because we evolved through the process of evolution. What does this mean? Basically, the physical conditions in the universe, as it developed over many millions of years, permitted the precise molecular combinations that constitute the human genome and the biological structures based on it and, in addition, the random or chaotic flow of events that in fact occurred where such that that genome and those structures did indeed come into being and did survive. Or, to put another way, in the words of an old rugby song best sung to the tune of Auld Lang Syne:

We’re here because
We’re here because
We’re here because
We’re here.

This explanation is important. For one thing, it eliminates any hope that there is a supreme being that created us for a purpose. I am not sure, however, that it gives us all we need to know to understand what being alive means. Nor am I sure that I would be wasting my life if I remained ignorant of the Darwinian explanation.

Dawkins seems in awe of the fact that he has got rid of God. Isn’t it wonderful, he says, that all this (i.e. human life) could come into existence by means of this simple Darwinian principle? I am as prone as anyone to feel the special aesthetic thrill that comes from a great idea but I also think that ideas are only one ingredient in understanding. The wonderful thing is not the principle but the fact of being alive and it is wonderful precisely because there is no good explanation for it.

Every idea has its time. Tomorrow evolution will have gone the way of Newtonian mechanics – it will be old hat – but, with luck and good management, human beings will still be waking up in the morning.

The Same Blue

There is a puzzle that sometimes occurs to the metaphysically unwary. It comes in several forms but a convenient one is the question ‘If you and I were standing together, looking at the sky, would we see the same blue?’

The common sense answer to this might be ‘We are both looking at the sky. We see the same thing. The sky is blue. End of story.’

A physiologically more sensitive response might point out that there could be differences in the way our brains were wired. One of us, for example, might be blue-yellow colour-blind, in which case, we would not see the same thing. In order to answer the question, therefore, we may need a series of tests to eliminate the possibility of any such abnormalities. The results will enable us to say whether or not we see the same thing.

Neither of these answers satisfy the metaphysical enquirer, who is probing for something deeper, something that is better captured in the question ‘Is my experience of blue the same as your experience of blue?’ or, even more precisely, ‘If I were looking through your eyes, would I see the same blue that I see if I were looking through my eyes’. This second question takes us back to Jurgen’s conundrum. It suggests a dualistic view of what it is to be a person.

We can picture a human being as consisting two parts. The first is a kind of biological machine – the body. The second, which we can imagine as being inside the first, is a control room – the mind. Information is gathered by various sensors, the eyes, for example, and transmitted to the control room. There it is presented to the controller, the ‘I’, in the form of mental images, sense data or what have you. The controller makes decisions and sends out instructions that the body performs. The question now becomes ‘If I were in your control room rather than in mine, would I have the same mental images as you do?’ Answer: maybe, maybe not. It is impossible to know because I can never be in your control room, nor you in mine. I can never have any idea what actually appears on the screens in your mind.

This view of things goes further. It suggests that everything that goes on in my mind is utterly private and inaccessible to you or to anyone else. I do not know what you are thinking. I cannot feel your pain. I do not have your memories or your dreams. I do not see the same colours and shapes that you see. I am alone in my mind, locked in the private world of my subjective experience and I can have no direct knowledge of what is going on in your mind. In fact, we are so separate that it might well occur to me to wonder if you have a mind at all. Maybe your control room is empty.  All I can detect on my sensors, after all, is your physical part, your body. Then again, there is an even more radical possibility – maybe there is no world out there at all. Maybe all that exists is my mind, with its manifold contents.

These slightly mad conclusions, which nobody takes seriously except certain teenagers, lunatics and drug addicts, are very hard to combat once we have accepted the initial metaphor. The problems arise as soon as we start thinking of the mind as a container for all subject experience, a directly knowable in-here as opposed to an indirectly knowable out-there. If this is what the concept of mind involves then it is, at best, confusing and, at worst, dangerous and ought to be abandoned.

Instead, we should be thinking in terms of whole persons, who have different kinds of experiences, including memories, dreams, reflections, perceptions, sensations, emotions, intuitions, and so on. My experiences belong to me by virtue of being things that I attend to. They are objects of my point of view in other words. Some experiences are of such a nature that I can keep them to myself if I wish to. Others I share with other people. Still others I have in common with other people.

If I stub my toe, I have a pain in my toe and not in my mind. I can choose to keep the pain to myself but there is nothing especially private about it. You can’t feel the pain in my toe but you can know what it is like to have such a pain. You can share my point of view, in other words. If there are any differences in how we experience pain – if one of us is more sensitive than the other for example – then those differences are, in principle and probably in practice, discoverable. The so-called privacy of the mind is not much difference from the privacy of the bathroom.

There is perhaps only one disadvantage in thinking of oneself as a whole person characterised by embodied experience. There is little room in this picture for an immortal soul.

And the sky is blue. At least, it was yesterday.

The Meaning of I

One of the characters in my novel Black Earth/White Bones is Jurgen Wolff, the neurotic son of an almost-famous Austrian philosopher. In the course of the book Jurgen becomes deeply troubled by the thought that he might not exist. The argument that leads him to this disturbing conclusion goes something like this.

Words obtain their meaning through a process of reference. The term ‘Eiffel Tower’ or ‘Ohakune Carrot’ refer to particular objects in particular places. We might say such names are labels that pick out things. In a similar way, the term ‘dog’ picks out a member of a particular class of animals.

In English, and in many other languages, there is a group of words, which philosophers call ‘indexicals’, that work a little differently.  This group includes words like ‘now’, ‘here’, ‘today’, ‘you’ and ‘I’. Indexicals obtain their reference from the particular circumstances in which they are used. ‘Now’ refers to the time that it is spoken, ‘here’ to the place. ‘Today’ picks out 20/12/09 on 20/12/09 but not on 1/6/10. ‘You’ picks out the person who is addressed, ‘I’ the person speaking. We might say that the meaning of an indexical is determined by a particular point of view.

Jurgen’s problem in Black Earth/White Bones comes from the use of the word ‘I’ and its objective variant ‘me’.

Generally speaking, we think of a person as consisting of a body and a mind or a mind incorporated in a body or a physical part and a mental or conscious part. Some of us might want to call the mental part ‘a soul’. What, precisely, do the words ‘I’ and ‘me’ pick out in this context?   

I can say ‘I am 1.85m tall’, which implies that the object that ‘I’ refers to is physical. I can also say ‘I am not my body’ without talking obvious nonsense or ‘I like my body’. Such sentences suggest a reference that is non-physical. What about ‘I do not like the way I look?’ This seems to imply two referents for the word ‘I’ one of which is purely physical and one of which isn’t. How about this one?

‘When I die I don’t want to be buried I want you to cremate me and scatter me in the Rose Garden and, don’t forget, I’ll be watching to make sure you do.’

It seems here that the referent for ‘I’ and ‘me’ shifts around from the physical to the mental, from the live person to the dead body to the ashes to the immortal soul.

This slipperiness leads Jurgen to wonder whether the word ‘I’ refers to anything at all and, if it doesn’t, then his only conclusion is that he does not exist.

The idea that a person consists of a mind and a body is deeply rooted in human culture. It is implicit in the notion of ghosts and ancestor spirits and traceable through early thought into philosophy and the traditional doctrines of religions such as Christianity and Islam. When we die our souls go somewhere: to Hell or Heaven or Valhalla or Paradise or maybe just to wander the world among the living.

I think there are two impulses behind these beliefs. First, if you hold to your own perspective and refrain from adopting an ‘outside’ view of yourself, your own death is inconceivable. It seems impossible that you could cease to exist. What is it like to be dead? Well, nothing. The belief in an afterlife is not just a comfort and an antidote to fear. From a certain perspective, the immortality of one’s soul is an entirely rational conclusion. This does not, of course, mean that it is a correct one.

The second reason for belief in the separate existence of a mind or soul is that, on occasion, we experience ourselves that way. I can adopt a point of view in which my foot or my waistline or the shape of my ears or, conceivably, my whole body becomes an object of my attention. Anything that can be an object considered in a point of view is logically distinct from whatever it is that does the considering. It is tempting to call the considerer, which is intimately bound up with one’s sense of self, a soul or a mind or a consciousness and then begin to analyse it as we would any other object. Such projects are fraught with difficulty, as Jurgen’s conundrum shows. The problem is not that we are our bodies, as reductionist science or philosophy wants to claim, but that we cannot be the objects of our own analysis. Like the speck in the field of vision that moves as soon as I try to focus on it, the subject of my point of view can never become its object.

Happy Hollyhocks and Great Seasonings!