Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The religion of metaphysics

As you may be aware, I spend too much time arguing philosophy at a place called MD, stemming from my falling in love with the book 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' in my late teens. I've posted a few times about it (they're the really long ones that don't get read. This'll be another).

There was an academic conference at Liverpool University recently, filmed by a crew from the BBC, attended by Robert Pirsig (author of ZMM) and convened by Anthony McWatt, who had just been awarded his PhD for work on Pirsig's 'Metaphysics of Quality'. However, it turns out that one of the papers for the conference was a hoax. See here.

This makes me wonder whether all the time and effort that I have put into the MoQ over the last few years is worthwhile (not the first time I've wondered that). Grounds for doubt are:
- the MoQ discussion group often functions like an evangelical cult;
- if you accept Wittgenstein (as I do) then what are you doing with 'metaphysics' anyway?
- haven't I got more important things to do?
- aren't there some severe flaws in Pirsig's presentation, which make the whole thing useless?

Well, sort of. Maybe I do need to scale back my involvement (or refocus it on a more academically significant outlet). But what this episode has crystallised for me is the way in which metaphysics functions as a religion (and this is where I reconcile the MoQ with Wittgenstein).

Consider the role of agriculture in a human economy. At the subsistence level agriculture simply is the economy, there is no distinction between the two. As an economy develops and become more affluent then part of the economy becomes non-agricultural and the economy can support other things. In our modern economy agriculture is a very small percentage of the whole economy, most economic activity is non agricultural and that is where most development takes place. Importantly, there is influence from the non-agricultural sector to the agricultural, for example scientific advances can help to increase crop yields. However, even though agriculture is a very small part of the economy, the economy cannot exist without agriculture, and remains dominated by it. Unless people are fed they will die, and the sophisticated economy supported by agriculture would collapse (which is something that elements of our culture appear to have forgotten). In this analogy, the whole economy represents our lived experience; the agricultural economy represents our bodily or instinctual nature; the non-agricultural sector represents our understanding, our theorising – our linguistic forms of life in all their variety (in MoQ language, the agricultural is the biological level, the non-agricultural is the social and intellectual).

As I understand Wittgenstein he is trying to argue that the mistake made by philosophers is to assume that the non-agricultural economy is all that there is, in other words he wants to resist the attempt to give a global explanation of our life. This is because these explanations are by their very nature linguistic products, products of our understanding, and are therefore irretrievably part of the ‘non-agricultural sector’. When Wittgenstein talks about a practice having ‘depth’ he is referring to the fact that some practices involve more of us than our conceptual understanding, they resonate with our bodily and instinctual nature. With his remarks on Frazer he is not arguing that all ritual is reducible to this instinct; he is trying to remind us of an inescapable part of ritual experience. Most importantly I don’t think for a moment that Wittgenstein would wish to deny the importance of conceptual reflection upon a ritual, or the way in which ritual can develop into liturgy through the benefit of prayerful consideration. Just as there is interaction between the agricultural and non-agricultural sectors of an economy, so too can there be interaction between our intellectual and instinctual natures.

One implication of this is that for Wittgenstein we will never be able to gain a complete understanding of our experience. This seems to me to be the basis of his ‘religious point of view’, for his position seems ultimately to be apophatic. The roots of our religious and moral life lie outside the realm of the conceptually understandable, and can never be fully integrated within a conceptual understanding. In other words, it is impossible to say anything final about God: ‘If such a book were written it would immediately explode the whole world’.

Wittgenstein is concerned to provoke a remembrance of the importance of agriculture within the economy; that is, of our bodily nature in our humanity. He is not concerned to say that all economic activity is agricultural, or that all our humanity is bodily. This bodiliness is far reaching in its scope: ‘the way in which animals are similar to and different from one another and in relation to man, the phenomena of death, birth and sexual life, in short, everything we observe around us, year in and year out’ . For Wittgenstein we cannot understand our language until we understand our embodiment, and it is in understanding our embodiment that we gain a proper understanding of our language. There are (of course) languages that are remote from our bodiliness – eg maths and logic – but for our purposes, in religion especially, we need to be reminded of what actually happens when religious language is used.

Wittgenstein saw the search for an overarching explanation as ultimately pathological. I understand him to be saying that metaphysics is the attempt to understand conceptually that which will always be beyond our understanding: an attempt by the non-agricultural sector to describe the agricultural sector in non-agricultural terms, to return to my analogy. What Wittgenstein is trying to do is to encourage us to recognise the primacy of our non-conceptually mediated bodily life in order that our language does not try and extend beyond itself. Metaphysics understood as a proclamation ‘this is how things are’ is inevitably totalising. Metaphysics understood as poetic ‘this is where I stand (and this is how it looks from here)’ is ultimately religious, a form of theology, and it allows for a proper recognition and validation of our human nature which does not prioritise ratiocination. It allows for the discovery of the new – it allows room for the Holy Spirit. It is in this sense that ‘all that philosophy can do is destroy idols’ for an idol is that which is put into the place of God, whether a golden calf or a metaphysical system.

By limiting, from within, what philosophy can actually do Wittgenstein allows room for our conceptions to be altered. It is the closed conceptual scheme which is idolatrous - and it is the closed conceptual scheme that the MoQ was slowly becoming. As Struan Hellier put it, some language was used pejoratively for those who hadn't 'found salvation' in the MoQ. But it is a perennial human tendency to seek salvation, to seek an understanding that gives peace to our hearts and minds. Trouble is, in a culture which has a terrible blind spot where it's own religion (Christianity) is concerned, that religious thirst will be slaked in stagnant water.

What can be salvaged? Or, what do I actually think the MoQ is worth? I would pick out two things that have stood the test of time for me. The first is the way that it integrates scientific understandings with wider artistic understandings. There are commonalities across the different fields, and I think the language of 'Quality' is an excellent unifying term. Secondly, the levels - how higher levels are built up out of the lower levels, that still makes profound sense to me. But other stuff, especially grounding it all on "experience" (pretending to be 'empirical') and using the phrase "Dynamic Quality" in a parallel way to how religious people use 'God' - all that is garbage, from my point of view.

Interesting (for me at least). I wonder where it'll go from here.

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