Justin Robertson discusses science, the brain, academic austerity, the Muppets and why the world does not exist with...prof Markus Gabriel.


Justin Robertson discusses science, the brain, academic austerity, the Muppets and why the world does not exist with...prof Markus Gabriel.

There is a rather peculiar trait within Western thought, it manifests itself in a psychological need for austerity. Like the pages of an Ikea catalogue, some would have you believe that reality is all straight lines and neat boxes. let’s call it ‘Curmudgeonly empiricism’ or perhaps ‘The Kill joy hypothesis’? Advocates of reduction will often tell you that they have a unique insight into what is really going on, and that the rest of us are simply struggling with a profound delusion. Quite simply, we are not to be trusted with reality. They can be found knowingly wagging their fingers at you when you are enjoying any particular activity, you name it, they will be there to suck the wonder out leaving only a hollow husk. Those people who think smiling is just:

‘an aborted grimace which has evolved into a ritualized human greeting’ (V S Ramachandran ‘Phantoms in the brain’),

or that the Goosebumps you get when listening to a piece of beautiful music are due to you having;

‘a higher volume of fibres that connects the auditory cortex to the areas associated with emotional processing’ (Mathew Sachs ‘Brain Connectivity reflects human aesthetic responses to music’)

The kinds of people who see everything as some kind of blind mechanical process:

‘To choose a spouse, a job, a religious creed- or even to choose to rob a bank – is the peak of a causal chain that runs back to the origin of life and down to the nature of atoms and molecules’ (Colin Blakemore ‘The Mind Machine’)

The kinds of people who are no fun to go to the pub with.

This is by no means a modern phenomenon, though it has been accelerated and focussed in recent years by our willingness to see ourselves as fleshy computers. In the 6th century BC, in what is now modern day Turkey, Thales of Miletus looked out at the many wonders of the universe and declared that ‘All is water’, thus beginning the tradition of western philosophy. ‘Look Thales! Do you see the wondrous birds soaring in the sky, the fish leaping from the oceans and the stars illuminating the dark fabric of night?’, ‘Meh, its all just water you know’.

People seem to be attracted to these types of parsimonious explanations, it’s rather like those ‘declutter your home’ programmes where you are encouraged to chuck out the unnecessary accumulations of a lifetime, to create a more efficient you. Again, the choices seem to be as much about aesthetics as anything else. One could argue that Einstein’s theory of special relativity, for example, supplanted Hendrik Lorentz’s preceding ideas, not necessarily because it accounted for anything Lorentz’s theory couldn’t, but because it was neater and more elegant. So when you open your paper to read that scientists have found the gene responsible for happiness (Daily Mail 2016) or that Neuro biologists have discovered the mechanisms in the brain that account for wisdom (Thomas Meeks and Dilip Jeste, neurobiology of wisdom), some people are very happy to see that those complex conundrums have been neatly solved, no matter how ridiculous the explanations are. But in theoretical austerity lies a host of problems, many of them deeply ideological.

‘Formal reductions do not spring up on their own, like weeds in a garden. They are not value- free. They are always parts of some larger enterprise, some project for reshaping the whole intellectual landscape, and often our general attitude to life as well. When we get seriously involved in reductive business, either as supporters or resistors, we are normally responding to these wider projects.....It is not hard to see the general imaginative appeal of ideological reductivism. In our increasingly confusing world, the picture of knowledge as modelled on a simple, despotic system of government is attractive’. (Mary Midgley ‘The Myths we live by’)

One might trace back this theoretical minimalism to Pythagoras, this is where theory and reality really started to diverge. Pythagoras loved numbers, they were pure and unsullied, free from the pesky contingencies of reality, he even went as far as eliminating one of his followers, Hipparchus, for revealing the secret of irrational numbers like pi. He was that determined to maintain mathematical order.

‘Useful as mathematics has turned out to be, the postulation of timeless mathematical laws is never completely innocent, for it always carries a trace of the metaphysical fantasy of transcendence from our earthly world’ (Lee Smolin)

Pythagoras influenced Parmenides and then Plato. Plato also found, reality as we experience it, to be a messy, unpleasant place, a facsimile of perfection. Real truth lay elsewhere and it could only be accessed by the privileged few who had been trained in the arcane arts, the rest of us would have to make do with illusion. Matrix fantasists peddle a similar vision today. Plato’s ideas filtered down and blended with early Christian thought, early Christians like Saint Paul:

‘We look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal’ (Saint Paul)

Early Christians thought nature and the world were rubbish, they even had a name for this grumpy doctrine ‘Contemptus mundi’. On it went, the separation of theoretical reality from experienced life. Again Humans were not to be trusted. From Descartes to Francis Crick, the implication is that we are mistaken about what is happening out there in reality, beneath it all, is a far simpler explanation. Whether it be ‘the selfish gene’, the actions of atoms, or the Homunculus in our brains envisioned by some branches of Neuro Science, the universe is not what it seems, we are guided by unseen uncontrollable forces. Give up! ‘All is water’.

This reductive habit has been energised by an ever increasing specialisation, especially within the Sciences. Where once the disciplines from chemistry to history hoped to describe our wonderfully complex lives in a pluralistic fashion, now there seems to be a competitive urge to colonise and supplant other disciplines by the more successful ones. It is hard to see how the rigours of physics can be applied to biology or neuroscience, let alone anything else, and yet many are attempting just that.

‘All science is either physics or stamp-collecting’ (Ernest Rutherford)

A particularly unhelpful attitude one would have thought? Stripping reality of its colour, texture and complexity, leaves us with a tremendously depleted understanding. There are plenty of other examples of this boorish chest puffing. All seem either, to peddle a very simplistic model of humanity, or mistake the necessary for the sufficient.

A.I enthusiasts, coffers full to the brim with research grants, inform us that the ‘Singularity is nigh’, like medieval fundamentalists looking forward to the Rapture. Do not be concerned for the future of our planet, the true believers can upload their consciousness to robot bodies and jet off into space to find other planets to fuck up.

Neuro-science, as fabulous as it it is in many ways, also suffers from serious hubris. Again research grants are generous, witness the billion euros plus poured into ‘The Human Brain Project’, for example, but a retreat into our brains is not going to deliver us reality either.

‘Everything we think, do and refrain from doing is determined by our brain. The construction of this fantastic machine determines our potential, our limitations, and our characters; we are our brains’ (Dick Swaab ‘We are our brains’)

Neuro science here, has clearly become more than attempt to describe an organ of the body, it now claims to be able to unlock the mysteries of who we are. (Incidentally, this is the same Dick Swaab who claims that the hormone prolactin makes women enjoy cleaning more than men). But we are not wet machines controlled by the ‘Wizard of Oz’ inside our skulls. If we are to find ourselves, or the key to consciousness, it won’t be in the brain alone. That is not say that all Neuro Science fails to recognize that fact, its just the ones with a more holistic vision don’t seem to make the headlines, or get the book deals.

How then can we hope to make sense of our complex selves and the world that we interact with daily? Markus Gabriel has some refreshing ideas that might help. Markus Gabriel holds the chair for Epistemology at the University of Bonn and the is the director of the International Centre for Philosophy, in Bonn also. Two of his books stand out, with their compelling ideas and accessible prose. The eye poppingly titled ‘Why the world does not exist’ and his most recent work ‘I am not a brain’. Both offer clear critiques of the scientific world view, a view that in many cases smuggles in many wonky philosophical assumptions. Professor Gabriel achieves this with the aid of, not only Kant, Schopenhauer and Thomas Nagel, but also Dr Who, The Walking Dead and the Muppets.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to Ransom Note. I thought we might start by talking a little about ‘Why the world does not exist’ your 2013 book that dramatically re imagines our approach to metaphysics, it seems to underpin a lot of your arguments in ‘I am not a brain’ also? Despite its dramatic title, it isn’t a ‘pass me the reefer dude and check this out’ book, it is quite liberating and grounded in Realism, not the escapist fantasy of the modern day ‘hologram’ buff. Can you unpack the ideas a little for us?

The basic idea of the no-world-book is quite easy to grasp. Ask yourself the question what things exist and write down a random list. It might include stuff like London, the number 7, the cookie monster, pain, Theresa May, economic injustice, baryonic matter, and haircuts. Even if you believe that some of the things on my random list are suspicious (the cookie monster?!), your own list will contain either some things some other person finds suspicious or be extremely austere so as to leave out things that some other person deems inevitable (God or an immaterial divine Jesus, say). Whatever can be found on our lists, seems to have something in common, right? Theresa May and pain equally exist. They are different, but they nevertheless exist. This easily leads to the following extremely widespread view: to exist is to part of reality. Now the action begins. For one thing, is reality part of reality? If reality was part of reality in the same way in which, say, Theresa May is part of London (as long as she is around), it would just be one item on your list. But then you could not explain why reality is special. Also, did you ever notice reality next to Theresa May? Did you ever
see, for example, the entire universe? And if so, from which standpoint? Roughly, the idea of my no-world-view is that there simply is no such object as “reality” or “the world”, a big thing out there comprising all that was, is, and ever will be. This is simply a huge mistake, so huge that no has noticed it in the right way.

Here is what I mean by that: of course, some people have denied the existence of the world. This is rather widespread in Indian philosophies and polytheistic religions. However, typically denial of the world-whole is associated with the view that we kind of magically make things up in our minds. Kant, for instance, realized that the world cannot exist, but then claimed that it is nevertheless an indispensable and useful illusion, a “heuristic fiction,” as he writes.

What is new in my account is full acceptance of the real without any reductive, simplifying tendency. The real is – hold your breath! – as real as it gets and it makes no sense to unify it into one big block. The stance I defend under the banner of New Realism is an attempt to stick to reality, to overcome the age-old flight from the real towards a simplified model of what there is. After all, philosophy is all about figuring out what there really is, and part of my answer to this question is that the real is internally maximally complicated. Nothing is more complicated and irreducibly manifold than what there is. Like it or not, our parochial attempts of making sense of things with big notions such as “society”, “the world”, “the mind”, “the universe” etc. are profoundly delusional.

Does it follow that attempts to arrive at a ‘theory of everything’ are doomed to failure? does your ‘Field of sense’ approach help to clarify what we can hope to achieve in science?

A literal theory of everything is completely doomed to failure from the outset. Of course, in actual physics the term has a somewhat different meaning. It does not imply that literally everything (including the unicorns in the movie The Last Unicorn or Brexit can finally be figured out by some version of futuristic physics) can be integrated into a single overall theory. Often, a restricted sense of the grand unification in physics and a metaphysical explanation of absolutely everything are run together both by physicists who have no clue about philosophy, and philosophers who have no clue what actual physics says.

My ‘fields of sense’ approach indeed tells us something about science. For one thing, it predicts that science will never be unified into one big enterprise. There are many sciences and many kinds of science (political science, literary studies, classics, astrophysics, theoretical chemistry, molecular biology, sociology are all equally sciences, at least in German which in this case is equipped with the capacity to express a better concept than contemporary English...). But there is much more to be said here. I recently created the Centre for Science and Thought which I co-direct with a physicist. We run interdisciplinary conferences where we try to figure out the relation between models, simulations, and reality in physics (among other things) as to shed light on the role metaphysical assumptions play in actual physics today. This is a wonderful setting where I can put my ontological approach to work in conversation with actual natural science. It turns out that actual natural science is not necessarily and not even typically similar to how Stephen Hawking, Max Tegmark or some other hobby metaphysicians present it to the larger public. This is typically just terrible philosophy.

Here is my answer to what I think natural science can achieve at its very best: insight into the structure of the universe where the term “the universe” refers to the material-energetic structures observable within the reach of our instruments. This domain, the universe, is, of course, limited in many ways. It does not comprise the Federal Republic of Germany even if there is some overlap between the material parts of Germany and natural science, for instance, in the realm of technology. But Germany is not an object of natural science and, hence, not in the universe in the precise meaning of the term. By the way: morality and mind are also not in the universe. Natural science will never achieve insights into morality and mind. At best, it can tell us something about nature insofar as it is a necessary condition for the existence of morality and mind, but not about morality and mind as they actually are. Natural science is constitutively myopic, but this is also why it can achieve great things and is such an important contribution to human knowledge! It is bad for science itself if it transgresses its borders. It then turns into materialistic religion, which is a widespread phenomenon in the Anglophone public sphere, but slightly less common in my neck of the woods (although far from absent).

In my mini essay above, I was pondering on the human propensity to try to seek neat, simple solutions to complex problems. In ‘Why the world does not exist’ you say:

'The Contemporary fetishizing of science contributes to a situation wherein we project our desire for order and our representation onto a council of alleged experts, who are supposed are supposed to relieve us of the burden of having to decide how we ought to live’

This seems to be an almost Existentialist position; do you think a more pluralist approach to knowledge will help us to realise our potential as free thinking human animals?

This is exactly right! In I am not a Brain as well as in its follow-up books (Neo-Existentialism, forthcoming 2018 and The Meaning of “Thought”, probably 2019 in English, in German earlier) I argue for a view I call “neo-existentialism”. It is not exactly existentialist, in that it locates the “existence precedes essence” bit in the constitution of the human mind. Our mindedness is the source of the insight that we have no trans-historical first-order essence, that we are not simply objects next to other objects (endowed with a brain etc.). This has the consequence that we can evaluate every theoretical position in light of the question of its liveability, which is a core existentialist move.

Generally, I explicitly defend an epistemological pluralism. Knowledge is not unified either. The reality of knowledge is internally manifold too. As a matter of fact, I would even argue that we could not come to know anything whatsoever, if there were only one kind of knowledge tied to an alleged “scientific method”. Human knowers do all sorts of different things, as they come to know what there really is. This is also a consequence of the fact that reality itself is not unified, but spread out in infinitely many different dimensions I call “fields of sense”.

What kinds of areas do you see the human spirit or Geist defying a natural- scientific explanation?

Pretty much all areas of actual human spirit defy natural-scientific explanation. What we can actually explain is typically very limited, even though helpful for medical research and so on. Take perception. What I actually perceive when I look out of my hotel room as I write this sentence is Ipanema at night. I hear the noises of Prudente de Moraes (a major street down there), I hear the busses, bikes, A/C, I see the Christ statue and the Lagoa. But none of this comes anywhere near a full account of how I actually perceive Ipanema, as I left out how it feels to sit on my chair as my fingers are moving over my keyboard and my thoughts are forcing their way into my field of consciousness which consists of infinitely many layers as it unfolds in this tiny moment of my life. I can break down my actual experience into some more or less general patterns so as to begin to study them natural-scientifically. This is somewhat hard, as we know from science, but it can be done to some extent. Yet, no manner of breaking down actual episodes of perceptual experience is capable of fully grasping what is really going on, as we have no clue from our experience. Natural science can only explain what we first understand. It needs experience in order to map bits and pieces of it on to scientific models of it.

Now, someone like Sophocles, Jane Austen, Beethoven or a shamanic priest deep down in the Amazon likely undergo experiences I currently cannot even imagine. Currently, we simply assume that our parochial kind of modern experience as academic or economic elite in the so-called West is typical for the human mind as such so as to then break this model of the mind down into further models, where none of them is sufficiently grounded in the reality of the human mind. I am saying that most of our scientific views of the human mind are really parochial over-generalizations of provincial features of the minds of, say, Harvard psychologist or Chicago behavioural economists. This is a problem on many levels including the fact that leaving out reality from your picture of it itself not very scientific...

Your latest book ‘I am not a brain’ develops some of the ideas in ‘Why the world does not exist’, but this time focussing on Neuro-science, and more specifically the tendency towards ‘Neuro centrism’, the idea that ‘we are our brains’. You see this as an ideological problem as well as a philosophical one, what do you mean by that? What implications might there be for human freedom from Neuro-centrism?

In the book, by “ideology” I refer to a distorted view of our own mindedness. For instance, I believe that both someone who believes that she has an immortal soul which lives in her and someone who identifies herself with her brain, are struck by an ideology. More generally, an ideology is a system of belief about our mindedness which identifies mindedness with an object “out there in reality”. Fundamentally, there is no difference between neuro-centricism (“I am my brain”-stuff) and soul superstition. Christian fundamentalism about the human soul and scientific fundamentalism about the human brain are equally misguided in their self-objectification. I here draw on the good old analyses of ideology as commodification and objectification known through Marxism and critical theory, but I try to turn these insights into arguments that can help us understand our own time and philosophy in a much more conceptually articulated (analytic) manner than available to the writing style of a Marx or Adorno. Unfortunately, Marx and Adorno made the (Hegelian) mistake in believing that they can only attack a delusion by creating a new fancy language not subject to the illusions they wanted to overcome. But this assumes that the mistakes are somehow linguistic or laid down in language, not in thought. For me, neuro-centricism is simply false thought about ourselves as agents and thinkers.

Its probably the biggest question of our age, and one you tackle at length in ‘I am not a brain’, but can you distil your view on ‘the hard problem of consciousness’?

Ugh, answering this adequately could take me forever, so allow me to be blunt. First of all, Chalmers’ actual formulation of the hard problem in The Conscious Mind relies on possible worlds metaphysics. But there are no possible worlds (not even an actual one). This entails that the hard problem in its actual formulation does not even get off the ground. It is a non- starter. Yet, often this is not what is meant by the term. Right now, it roughly picks out the problem made prominent by Leibniz and Thomas Nagel that we cannot possibly come to see how brain stuff could ever be conscious. Why is some neuro-stuff associated with consciousness while wood is not? What is so special about neurons, brains or whatever is the natural precondition for mindedness? Is anything special or might tables and fermions not be conscious too? Maybe everything is? etc. But that version of the hard problem is misguided too.

Here is how I look at the issue and solve or dissolve the hard problem. I recently began to call my view “Conditionalism”. Its basic idea is simple to grasp with the help of an analogy. Think of the activity of riding a bike in order to buy some beer. Without a bike you could not ride a bike to buy some beer. True. But this clearly should not trick you into believing that the bike is identical with the activity of riding a bike. Bicycling is not a bike. Yet, a bike is necessary condition for bicycling. Slightly more theoretically: bicycling is a whole of which the bike is a part. Analogously, consciousness is a whole of which the brain (and our entire organism) is a part. Consciously riding a bike to get beer involves even more: beer, a functioning economy, roads, the production conditions of bikes etc. This mereological (part- whole) relation does not lead to idealism in the sense of a view according to which the brain or the body is somehow “in the mind”. It is not. It is a part of the mind as a much richer structure.

Also, the brain does not cause mind or consciousness into existence, as it were. Bikes to not cause bicycling. To be sure, there are only so many things you can do with your brain. If it decays due to biological forces (which will happen to all of us sooner or later), at some point you will simply not be able to ride it. But the brain never rides itself.

“Conditionalism” is tied to another view I am currently working on. I call it “biological externalism”. It means that our mentalistic vocabulary (mind related words) necessarily refers to something that is essentially biological. Let me add that what is essentially biological can only come to exist via the very slow processes accounted for by the actual theory of evolution, not its pseudo-scientific interpretation à la memes and technology as cultural evolution. This is all bullshit triggered by functionalism, the false attempt to think of the mind apart from its biological implementation.

In what way should we approach the challenges posed by the rise of Artificial Intelligence? Are we still approaching this area like teenage sci-fi fans?

My next book The Meaning of “Thought” will deal with this most recent ideological turn. I think A.I. is irresponsibly overrated. If anything, this debate is a prime example of ideology, even in a more classical Marxist sense of the term. This debate serves actual politico- economic functions, it justifies the unjustifiable and unfair distribution of material goods and human rights on our planet in terms if sci-fi fantasies of the type: A.I. will make us immortal, answer hard ethical questions, solve the hunger problem, the ecological crises or what have you. In this case, I would rather recommend betting on the good old God rather than on his Silicon counterfeit.

In what way can we harness some of your ideas to help us help ourselves and the world we seem intent on trashing?

As a philosopher, I believe that we are trashing our planet largely due to misguided conceptions of reality, of ourselves and our place in what there is. As in individual life, we cannot solve our problems by ignoring how things are. Part of the call to a New Realism is precisely this idea that we need to find an understanding that is in line with the reality of human life. Human life is minded life. It is geistig in the sense that we are who we are in light of our conceptions of who we are. Yet, we are fallible and, thus, capable of objective thought about our own Geist. A deluded self-conception has large-scale ethical and socio- economic consequences.

Can we talk a little about your writing style?

‘What can be said at all can be said clearly’ (Wittgenstein)

As the famous quote goes! You use, often hilarious examples from everything from ‘Curb your enthusiasm’ to ‘Fargo, Philosophy, is not often known for its easy reading style, but thankfully, as a discipline it seems to be re connecting with a wider readership a bit more these days. Podcasts and online forums are becoming more and more popular, and there are a host of excellent sites on the internet. Do you think it’s important for your work to be accessible in that way, and do you see Philosophy as a practical discipline at its heart?

On this topic, I agree with my favourite bits of the tradition. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel etc. all practice philosophy in two ways. As Kant puts it, there is the “scholastic concept of philosophy” on the one hand and the “cosmopolitan concept of philosophy” on the other hand. Philosophy as an academic discipline works out technical ideas in the form of systems of concepts that can be justified in high-pressure conditions. Yet, it is essential for philosophy to communicate philosophical thought in the public sphere. The very idea of a public sphere (a res publica in the original sense of the term) is precisely a public dispute over who we are and want to be. But such a dispute should not be left to people who are deluded just in that area of thought! Philosophy fundamentally is thought thinking itself. We all do this all the time to some extent, as we think about what we think and what others think etc. Philosophy is simply a clearer and more disciplined way of doing this. Unfortunately, there is a lot of obscurity in academic philosophy. So-called “analytic philosophy” in our time enters a stage of technical decadence where philosophy begins to matter much less than a peer-review publication record un irrelevant topics in order to get jobs. Academic philosophy in the Anglophone world is more and more absorbed by a crisis of the academic job market. Yet, there is hope. There are many outstanding philosophers in many parts of the planet who realize that it is urgent to ask the relevant big philosophical questions, find new answers and communicate them to humanity in general. Philosophy is, after all, love of wisdom. If you reduce it to its scientific presentation (by turning it into the kind of bad linguistics that fills so many philosophy journals these days), you are clearly unwise.

Writing in German, have you found any concepts or ideas that have been hard to translate into English? For all its wondrous variety, there do seem to be one or two ideas that German captures better?

Well, I am universalist about thought. What can be said, can be said in any language. Of course, the philosophical writing happens to be much more sophisticated in the German tradition. Most Anglophone philosophers who happen not to read actual German texts, often believe that Hegel or Heidegger are bad writers. But this is merely pure ignorance. If you read Hegel or Heidegger in the English translation, the problem is the translation. The problem with English as a language used to do philosophy is its academic hegemony (another prediction: this is also coming to an end rather sooner than latter, at least in philosophy). This leads to nationalistic deformations such as the ignorant belief that mainstream contemporary Anglophone philosophers are better writers than Kant, for example. Recently, I heard a well-respected philosopher and Wittgenstein ‘specialist’ say at a conference that Wittgenstein was a much better writer in English than Sartre. The only problem is that Wittgenstein wrote his masterpieces in German and Sartre did not write anything in English. Also: which of the two won the Noble Prize for literature? Or take Russell vs. Bergson. Again, who is the bad writer and who won the Noble Prize for literature? I wish that professional philosophers would learn more languages so as to understand what language does and can do. Isn’t it strange how the majority of specialists in philosophy of language at most speak and write in one language (namely English)?

Finally, with all the turmoil and change that we have endured as a planet, do you have a sense of optimism about the future, or should I build my under sea city and run away?

The future of humanity depends on what we do today. We are free through and through. History is not an automatic process of any kind. There are no laws of dialectical-historical materialism or whatever. This means that neither optimism nor pessimism are justified. Humans are what they do and they can change that. To be sure, there is the crisis of global capitalism, which is due to limited material resources on our planet. But humanity is hearing the wake-up call right now. Whether we will survive as a species under conditions of globalized capitalism as it currently is, remains to be seen. In addition, we are facing a crisis of values. Brexit and Trump undermine faith in the so-called West. There is no such thing anymore as an occidental value unity and there probably never was such a thing. But figuring out what this means and how to actually account for the manifold political turmoil we are witnessing, is too big an issue for the final question of such an interview. Just one more word on this: Constructivsm (roughly the idea that society is based on contingent mental and social constructions) and naturalism (here: the idea that society is basically an automatic natural process) both misconstrue our situation. We need a radically new paradigm in philosophy. You know what my proposal is. Thanks for asking me such important questions and for the occasion to address them.