In the opening two posts of his blog, my dear friend Connor Clarke proffers his views on a slew of grand and interlocking matters. The first of these essays — ambitiously entitled “Postulations on a Metaphysic of the Universe” — sees him dilate on reality, physics and God. The scope of the second is no less interesting, as he ponders purpose, art and morality.
It will come as no surprise to Connor that I disagree with much of what gushes forth from his flighty pen. His thinking is, as ever, both fresh and stimulating, but its flaws are sadly legion. Without further ado, I should like to lay them out.
Science plays a central part in Clarke’s postulations. Accordingly, it is introduced right away. ‘[O]n the nature of physics in general,’ he says, ‘all I can do is defer to the greater knowledge of higher minds. I am no physicist.’ But Clarke’s so-called deference is rather undermined by his adoption of the ideas of Peter Lynds, an Antipodean autodidact whose very existence has been called into question. More importantly though, similar doubt has been cast upon the mathematical power of Lynds’s theses. Clarke of course concedes this, but, rather than defer to scientific consensus, he goes boldly forth and attempts to provide a purely philosophical explanation for an eternally recurrent universe.
Such attempt goes like this. Clarke explains what eternal recurrence means for time and space. Like all things, he says, they are contained within the universe. Thus when the universe collapses, they, like all things, ‘go with it’. When it expands again — presumably from a singularity — time and space necessarily unfurl in precisely the same way.
But this, on a philosophical level, is deeply unsatisfactory. If all things exist within the universe, then causation is no exception. If time and space disappear into a singularity, causation too must disappear. It is one third of a trinity. Why should it remain? Even if it did, what is to say that expansion would occur again in exactly the same way? And if it did not, then how might such expansion occur at all? Clarke addresses none of this directly. Nor does he explain why the idea of eternal recurrence is to be preferred over, say, the idea of the Big Freeze. All in all, then, Clarke’s argument on this matter rings hollow.
His deference to science is problematic elsewhere too. In his second set of postulations, Clarke asserts that ‘[a]ny objective morality must only be established from the objective laws of the universe’. The inadequacy of this view can be demonstrated through a spot of cerebral jujutsu; that is, by illustrating the contempt that Clarke’s Polaris felt towards it. Fresh from fleshing out his own, physics-free conception of eternal recurrence, Nietzsche excoriated the faith that some had in ‘a “world of truth” that can be mastered completely and forever with the aid of our square little reason.’ ‘Above all,’ he had written, ‘one should not wish to divest existence of its rich ambiguity’.
Clarke exhorts us ‘to work, once more, from the ground up, from the absolute laws, to establish new, irrefutable values.’ But Nietzsche forestalled him one hundred and thirty years ago, scolding ‘mechanists’ with the air of a schoolmaster:
A “scientific” interpretation of the world, as you understand it, might therefore still be one of the most stupid of all possible interpretations of the world, meaning that it be one of the poorest in meaning. This thought is intended for the ears and consciences of our mechanists who nowadays like to pass as philosophers and insist that mechanics is the doctrine of the first and last laws on which all existence must be based as on a ground floor. But an essentially mechanical world would be an essentially meaningless world.
At this stage, Clarke could turn on his erstwhile ally. After all, he might well prefer certainty to ambiguity, sterility to life. And after all, no one can displace these preferences or prove them wrong. But even so, it is manifestly clear that moral certainty could never flow from laws of nature, unless such laws are simultaneously moral maxims. Of course, we know that they are not. There are no commandments to be found in a Bogoliubov transformation, and gravity will not give us any either. Thus the leaps required to travel from objective laws of nature to objective moral maxims are too great even for the agilest of minds. And one chasm yawns wider than the rest: that which lies betwixt is and ought.
It can be seen, then, that Clarke’s foundations are of quicksand. When disturbed, they collapse. His deference to science is undermined by his argument; his argument is undermined by his deference to science. This will not do.
Let us move on to Clarke’s fourth postulation, which concerns God. It begins promisingly, as he abandons the priggish and preposterous ‘ignostic’ position. Like atheists, ‘ignostics’ dismiss all conceptions of God for being utterly incoherent. Unlike atheists, they yet hold out for some better definition. In so doing, they apotheosise the idea of God, despite claiming that ‘God exists’ is a meaningless proposition. It is a wonder, then, that they engage in more vigorous intellectual onanism over such proposition than does the average atheist. That Clarke seems to have realised all this is terribly welcome news.
But the position he embraces instead is no more satisfactory. It is a sort of pantheism, and would be better for addressing a number of closely connected points. Firstly, Clarke affirms that the universe is omniscient. He implicitly and correctly recognises that knowledge needs a knower, and that a knower needs consciousness. He suggests that consciousness takes the form of Nietzsche’s will to power, and thus that the universe’s consciousness comprises its will to power. But this is total nonsense if one believes, as Clarke does, that the universe is all power. It is ‘master over all space’ and there are no other bodies to resist it. It may be composed of the will to power of all its constituents, but it may not have an overarching will to power of its own. It may not, then, be conscious under Clarke’s definition, and it may not have knowledge. Thus it cannot be omniscient. Perhaps causation or the will to power, rather than the universe, are better candidates for God on Clarke’s view.
Secondly, if the universe cannot be either conscious or omniscient, how can it be omnipotent? Clarke defines the latter term as ‘encompassing all power’, but this a subtle distortion or paring down of the meaning often used in many theological parlances — namely that God has an unlimited range of ability, and may do whatever he chooses to do. The encompassment of all power is a necessary condition for omnipotence, but not a sufficient one.
Thirdly, one might ask why Clarke’s conception of God, synonymous as it is with the universe, is necessary at all. It is not quite Spinoza’s pantheism; nor is it, say, Coleridge’s mawkish brand of the same. There is not even a hint of divinity about it, and certainly nothing in it that is worthy of worship. Clarke says that ‘atheists and theologians have become so caught up in the notion of a personal or anthropomorphic ‘God’ that they have overlooked the obvious’, but his attempts to show that God is conscious and all-knowing and all-powerful are hardly a far cry from those that might be made by adherents of the Abrahamic faiths. And his conception is unlikely to be accepted by such adherents, ignoring as it does their belief that God is the fountainhead of objective morality — something which Clarke believes can be deduced only from science. Indeed, in his confused efforts to sew together monotheism, pantheism and Nietzsche, Clarke has shown himself to be deaf to the resonance of the latter’s three most famous words.
The last of Clarke’s postulations that I should like to scrutinise is his sixth, which concerns art. ‘[T]o qualify as art,’ writes Clarke, a ‘piece [must have] no purpose, other than itself… It [must be] autotelic’. This is essentially the same as the old slogan: art for art’s sake. But when such a statement is advanced as a definition of art, it appears to be riddled with problems.
Firstly, Clarke states that ‘anything… done for its own sake is indeed also to be considered art’. Some might say that this is so ludicrously wide a definition as to be absolutely meaningless. But Clarke is cornered into it: if certain things which can be done for their own sake are not to be considered art, then there are necessarily other factors involved in art. Such factors would be impossibly difficult to pin down, which is precisely why Clarke broadens his definition.
Secondly, one implication of Clarke’s position is that anything which is not autotelic or done for its own sake cannot be art. How, then, does he see the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or Shakespeare’s plays, or Beethoven’s Ninth? None were created purely for their own sake, yet all are commonly understood as being art.
The preceding point segues nicely into a third: what exactly does it mean to do something for its own sake? What exactly does it mean for something to have a purpose in and not apart from itself? Is this possible? And if so, how does one go about establishing whether something has in fact been undertaken for its own sake, or is indeed autotelic? These are questions which Clarke might do well to muse upon.
Fourthly, and lastly, there is this:
[A] universe without meaning would also [be art]. Certainly everyone finds their own interpretations and meanings within it[;] this is the perspectivism I commented on previously. Nietzsche himself summarised this view when he claimed[,] “The world is a work of art that gives birth to itself”. He too believed in the eternal recurrence discussed previously, which, with the universe thought of as a perpetual motion machine, defines this point nicely. To this extent, art is the closest man gets to the metaphysical[: a] production of something on what appears to be an objective law of the universe, something from which holds purpose in itself – and therein art is a reflection of the truth.
Clarke manages to sully his thoughts on the matter by way of a series of undeveloped assertions and apparent non-sequiturs.
On the whole, then, Clarke’s postulations — interesting though they are — can be summed up nicely in four lines of Byron’s verse:
And Coleridge, too, has lately taken wing,
But like a hawk encumber’d with his hood,
Explaining Metaphysics to the nation—
I wish he would explain his Explanation.