Does It Matter? by Graham Dunstan Martin

by Robert R. Calder

14 November 2006


The title of Graham Dunstan Martin’s first major book, the massive Language, Truth and Poetry (Edinburgh University Press, 1975), was by way of rejoinder to A.J. Ayer’s 1936 positivist manifesto Language, Truth and Logic, which was not about Logic so much as a claim that only formal scientific presentations meant anything. The rest was simply descriptions of feelings, and feelings were not allowed to have any cognitive character: Do you feel only you?

Martin denied the attempted circumscription and dismissal of feeling, and the dualism on which it is founded. He insisted moreover that in poetry, which for Ayer and subsequent Oxford philosophy was a byword for meaningless discussions, there was a model for scientific formulations, and an access to knowledge, an avenue of meaningful and not as Ayer in 1936 had it “meaningless” discussions. A modest succession of books has followed, including what is in effect an attack on aesthetic formalism in The Architecture of Experience (1980), lively as are all Martin’s books, and concerned with the shaping factors enabling and determining cognition of reality. Martin subsequently directed his attention, beside concerns with French literature and especially poetry, which relate directly to his work as a university teacher of French, including French philosophy, to works of fiction, notably fantasy. He discussed fantasy as a profusion of genres not taken duly seriously in his An Inquiry into the Purposes of Speculative Fiction (Edwin Mellen Press, 2003). Religious, mystical, philosophical, and political themes (notably totalitarianism) are treated in his several independent works of speculative fiction, SF or fantasy, two addressed to older children, but listed in some number on Amazon, though, as now out of print). The concluding chapter of his 2003 book is ‘Fantasy as Philosophy, or, Stanislaw Lem’. Shadows in the Cave (Arkana, 1990) develops a concern with not ignoring the parapsychological. Martin takes religion seriously, and not merely as a topic to be studied from outside, describing himself as an atheist from adolescence onward.

cover art

Does It Matter?: The Unsustainable World of the Materialists

Graham Dunstan Martin

(Floris Books)

One of the pressing questions in his new book is that of the boundaries not simply between disciplines, but between what current supposed representatives of academic disciplines actually do. Longstanding issues of intellectual specialization and overspecialization bother him, as does not freedom of research but the very sort of hegemony of research-centeredness represented with power by the current Research Assessment Exercise in British universities. Modeled on aspects of scientific practice, but without actual knowledge of actual science, of what research scientists do, and of the context of research in the sciences, the humanities and philosophy especially in the analytic tradition (which Martin recoiled against and criticizes as does Brian Magee, an earlier near-contemporary at Oxford), current research practice in the humanities in pursuit of results leaves crucial questions unanswered. And where research in, say, Physics is performed within a continuing context of that discipline, narrow question-excluding practices within the humanities distort the whole field. Assumptions simply pile up, the soundness of some theories is taken for granted, and others are assumed refuted where in fact they exist forgotten, unconsidered, and entirely unharmed.

Shadows in the Cave is quite notable for its revelation of the baselessness of assumptions dominating interpretation and application of older philosophic theory. It is a useful atheist critique of errors, which can be attributed to theophobia, wishful thinking which throws out quite possibly a great deal of the Universe along with God. The fallacy is less well recognized than the habits of hanging on to a great deal of superstition irrelevant to convictions as to the existence of God, and even of some form(s) of intelligent design in the universe. Theophobes and uncritical theists alike harbour too many unquestioned notions, suffering alike from an arrestment of research and suspension of observation which Martin identifies as a current academic malaise.

Perhaps some writers whose work he subjects to intensive critique could no more credit the existence of Martin, so far from their stock stereotypes of their opponents, than they do the existence of consciousness, a topic Martin approaches in this book with considerable and informed reference to current neurology. He will not take the fundamentalist-like blind faith of some that what is called consciousness is a by-product of operations within large complex things called brains. He has philosophical objections to denials of any existence of consciousness, which he argues must assume the existence of consciousness and evidence of and from consciousness before they can assume anything else. He refers widely to claims as to the localizable and isolable character with brains of processes, which are said by his adversaries to be mistaken for consciousness.

He is as much at odds with Professors Dawkins and Dennet as was Stephen Jay Gould. He shares Gould’s critique of Dawkins as guilty of crypto-anthropomorphism, but differs from Gould in respect of a complete separation between religion and science. They are different not wholly separate categories of human consideration. They ought not to confuse or interfere with each other, but be in informing relation.

Martin follows Magee in alleging Common Sense to be generally wrong. If I disagree, it’s because Martin seems to follow Magee in accepting the notion of Common Sense broadcast from Cambridge by G.E. Moore, misrepresenting Thomas Reid’s doctrine, and inviting observations Moore’s early critic J.S. Mackenzie made, pretty well to the effect that Common Sense is as Clifford Geertz puts it a “cultural product”.

For Reid it was a gift of God, which when accepted vindicated itself in successful, unconfused practice. Moore was an atheist who strove to impose what he called common sense beyond the scope Reid allowed it. Martin is certainly not at odds with Reid about the centrality of consciousness, He does however attribute more to it than the 18th century Reid, the latter at odds with fanatical emotionalism, where Martin would claim his adversaries are fanatical in different ways. Unlike a lot of British philosophers Martin like Reid has a considerable interest in and knowledge of the science of his day. Where critics of Martin’s discussions of mysticism and elevated states of consciousness might regard these as belonging to the fantasy side of his work, along with his argument as to what consciousness might possibly contribute to the constitution of actual reality, Martin’s exercises in fantasy literature and his discussion of “speculative fiction” do make a case for these critics being wrong if they suppose that identification necessarily implicates him as having written nonsensically or pointlessly. He is for investigation, not the bounded, separated-off sort of research, which makes no sense without attention to specific scientific topics.

The notion that the nervous system circumscribes consciousness of what there is to be conscious of does echo some arguments of Kant and Schopenhauer and may not be the worse for differing with the former. As regards where consciousness is, that topic is to some extent bound up with Martin’s attention to contemporary Physics, quantum theory, or indeterminacy. It’s plain he knows that Eddington preceded him in some speculations, but he is also sure that there is nothing to be said on either side as between nineteenth century materialist determinism, and a fashion for citing indeterminacy which doesn’t support arguments for human freedom but presents rather a case for everything being wholly arbitrary. Chance versus absolute determination is a false binary. The province which Thomas Reid affirmed was God’s does for Martin demand discussion, because dogmas about it, unconstructive dismissal, are the sham foundation of a great deal of the unexamining theorizing whose unsoundness he has been arguing for over 30 years.

Minds or consciousness may be somehow (it is hard to be sure one can say somewhere) in the universe, but not in a way in which brains allow consciousness of. The hypothesis of an infinite number of universes is not one which makes sense to Martin. He conjectures a universe whose complexities might only ever be hinted at by quantum and such other theory which apparently runs counter to common sense and generally valid human reason. When the editor of the Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy sought to divert readers with reference to the curiosity of a Russian philosopher alive well into the 20th century (N.O. Lossky) denying the absolute reality of space and time, he missed the fact that in Professors Stout and Ward Cambridge had another two at the same period.

Martin conjectures further, with reference for instance to the apparent purposiveness of processes inscrutable before the arrival of technology which made current genetics possible, design and even a designer or Designer. This or He or She is however absolutely not identifiable with either the God of Thomas Reid’s Christian Common Sense, the God of State Department Fundamentalist prayer meetings, or Islam or pseudo-Islam.

The nature of consciousness seems to Martin such that something like personal immortality, and everyone finally knowing in the Last Days, is by no means ruled out. He does not however have the faith of Dennet that Dennet’s knowing (and errors!) will some day be snuffed out but later vindicated by what will after a passage of centuries be recognized as the justification for ignoring everything which as a matter of unfounded faith the heirs of Victorian materialists insist should be continually, continuously dismissed if anyone should be daft enough to stop ignoring it. Readers will also recognize that Martin has no time for rebarbative formulations, and both the theories which I’ve tried to set out, and the discussions of Neurology, Religion, and Quantum Physics lack neither detail nor clarity.

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