Bookmarks: Brief reviews of new and overlooked books

Philosopher, author and scholar of speculative fiction, Martin finds the avowedly down-to-earth are not on the solid ground they (very unreasonably!) presume. There's maybe evidence of design in the universe, but it supports no fundamentalist churches.

Bookmarks: Brief reviews of new and overlooked books
[8 September 2006]

This week: Philosopher, author and scholar of speculative fiction, Martin finds the avowedly down-to-earth are not on the solid ground they (very unreasonably!) presume. There's maybe evidence of design in the universe, but it supports no fundamentalist churches.

Does It Matter?: The Unsustainable World of the Materialists
by Graham Dunstan Martin
Floris Books (Edinburgh), October 2005, 288 pages, £20.00

Of Matter As Not a Fact?

Graham Dunstan Martin's first major book, the massive Language, Truth and Poetry (Edinburgh University Press, 1975), was titled in rejoinder to A.J. Ayer's 1936 positivist manifesto Language, Truth and Logic, whose concern was less with Logic than with a claim that only formal scientific presentations mean anything. Beyond them there were only descriptions of feelings, and feelings were not allowed to have any cognitive character. Some readers felt angry; Ayer maybe missed noting how smug he felt.

Martin denied the attempted circumscription and dismissal of feeling, and the dualism on which it is founded. He insisted moreover that in poetry -- and the word 'poetry' was for Ayer and much subsequent Oxford philosophy a byword for meaningless discourse -- 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. Martin was at one with Renaissance Humanism.

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 a concern with French literature, especially poetry, integral to his work as a university teacher of French and 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, some addressed to older children. Second-hand copies of the last feature in some number on Amazon sellers' lists, though now alas 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.

One of the pressing questions in his new book is that of the boundaries not simply between disciplines, but circumscribing what current supposed representatives of academic disciplines actually do. Longstanding issues of intellectual specialization and overspecialization bother Martin, as does an affair, which isn't freedom of research but research-centeredness of the sort enslaved by the current Research Assessment Exercise in British universities. Modeled on aspects of scientific practice, but without actual knowledge of actual science or the context of research in the sciences or what research scientists actually do, current research practice in the humanities pursues narrow results in ways which leave crucial questions unanswered. Thus was the case when Martin, like his Oxford near-contemporary Bryan Magee, recoiled against the analytic tradition and more in current English philosophy. Where research in Physics, for example. is performed within a continuing context of that discipline's long-standing continuation, mimicry of research Physics practice by the humanities has taken up narrow question-excluding issues, to the distortion of the entire field. Assumptions simply pile up, the soundness of some theories is taken for granted, where others which are assumed to have been long refuted have no more than been forgotten, unconsidered by the uncritical mass.

Shadows in the Cave is notable for its revelation of the baselessness of assumptions dominating recent interpretation and application of philosophical arguments at least as old as Aristotle. It's a potent atheist critique of errors attributable to theophobia, to wishful thinking, which may well deny much of the actual Universe along with God. That fallacy is generally less well recognized than are habits of hanging on to many superstitions irrelevant to belief in the existence of God, and even in some form(s) of intelligent design in the universe. Theophobes and uncritical theists alike harbor too many unquestioned notions, victims of an arrestment of research and a suspension of observation, which Martin identifies as current academic malaises.

Perhaps some writers whose work he subjects to intensive critique could no more credit the existence of Martin, so unlike their stock stereotypes of their opponents, than they do the existence of consciousness, a topic Martin approaches in this new book with considerable informed reference to recent work in neurology. He won't accept 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 that there is any such thing as consciousness: these denials must assume the existence of consciousness, and of evidence of and from consciousness before they can assume anything else. He refers widely to claims as to the localizable and isolable character within brains of processes, which his adversaries claim are mistaken for consciousness.

He's 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 won't allow Gould's presumption of a complete separation between religion and science. They are different categories of human consideration, but not separable. They ought not to confuse or interfere with each other, but be in informing relation.

Where Martin follows Bryan Magee in alleging "Common Sense" to be generally wrong, they both unfortunately refer to a notion of "Common Sense" broadcast from Cambridge by G.E. Moore, pretending to affinities with Thomas Reid "Philosophy of Common Sense". Long ago, Moore's early critic J.S. Mackenzie ventured some criticisms to the effect that Common Sense is as Clifford Geertz puts it a "cultural product".

For Reid Common Sense 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 as a set of assumptions 'no sensible man' would challenge. One of the assumptions included the soundness of the post-Eisteinian physics Martin allows to challenge some of Moore's other assumptions. Martin is certainly not at odds with Reid about the centrality of consciousness, He does however attribute more to it than the eighteenth century Reid, the latter at odds with fanatical emotionalism, where Martin would claim his adversaries suffer more from a fanaticism of complacency.

Unlike a lot of British philosophers, Martin, whose academic career was not in philosophy department, shares with Reid a considerable interest in and knowledge of the science of his day. 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. Yet Martin's exercises in fantasy literature and his discussion of "speculative fiction" do make a case for these critics being wrong if they simply suppose that identifying the present book with his works of literary fantasy necessarily convicts him of having written nonsensically or pointlessly. He's for investigation, not the bounded, separated-off sort of research, which deals only with bounded, separated-off topics.

The notion that the nervous system circumscribes consciousness of what there is does echo some arguments of Kant, but like Schopenhauer Martin sees in these arguments implications Kant certainly couldn't have approved. As regards where consciousness might be located, Martin finds no reason to avoid hypotheses, which refer to contemporary Physics, quantum theory, indeterminacy. He recognizes Eddington's footprints on the ground he's himself exploring, and knows there's nothing to be said in favor either of the 19th century materialist determinism which lives on in the influence of Nietzsche, or the sometime fashion for citing indeterminacy theory as if that supported a case for free will, or human freedom. Such indeterminacy arguments support only the hypothesis that everything which happens does so quite arbitrarily. Chance versus absolute determination is a false binary opposition. The province which Thomas Reid affirmed was God's does for Martin demand discussion: dogmatic dismissal of the whole field as unworthy of attention really disguises the unfoundedness, and unexamined character. of much of the contemporary theorizing whose unsoundness Martin has been arguing for decades.

Minds or consciousness may be somehow (it is hard to be sure one can say somewhere) in the universe, but in such a way which brains do not allow immediate awareness of. The hypothesis of an infinite number of universes doesn't make sense to Martin, who did play with it in one of his fantasy novels. He conjectures a universe whose complexities might only ever be hinted at by theories, which like quantum theory run counter to any common sense or other conceptions and reasonings valid in everyday experience. When the editor of the Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy sought to divert readers by citing the (to him) curiosity of a Russian philosopher active well into the twentieth century (N.O. Lossky) and denying the absolute reality of space and time, he missed noting that in Professors Ward and Stout, and others. Britain had two very distinguished professors of philosophy who entertained the same views at the same time.

Martin conjectures further, referring for instance to the apparent purposiveness of biological processes inscrutable before the arrival of the technology which makes current genetics possible, evidence of design in the universe; and even a designer or Designer. This or He or She is however absolutely not identifiable with the God of Thomas Reid's Christian Common Sense, or the deities presupposed in US State Department Fundamentalist prayer meetings, or of their pseudo-Islamic opposites.

The nature of consciousness does not seem to Martin to rule out possibilities of something like personal immortality, and everyone finally knowing in the Last Days. He does not however have the faith of Dennet that while Dennet's knowing (and errors!) will some day be snuffed out, Dennet will nearer the end of days be recognized as having been justified in ignoring whet the blind faith of nineteenth century materialists insisted should be ignored. Readers will also recognize that Martin is a lively, lucid writer, and shuns rebarbative formulations. Neither in arguing the theories he advances, nor in his expositions of Neurology, Religion and Quantum Physics, is there any lack of detail or clarity.

Robert R. Calder Amazon

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