Thursday, December 06, 2007

Mike's Concluding Thoughts on Schopenhauer

Below is the last part of Mike Wiest's review of and reflections on The World as Will and Representation, Volume One. The first two parts are here and here.

Well, I guess you can tell because I wrote this that I was impressed by Schopenhauer’s book. It seems to me to belong among the greatest works of philosophy ever, and to be the first (only?) time a major Western philosopher really absorbed the Eastern insights. But I may be still in the infatuated stage.

I guess the theory of determinism and freedom I gleaned from Volume 1 is not entirely satisfactory, but I think it is more than the usual semantic sophisms that attempt to make freedom and determinism compatible. Although S comes off as mainly determinist, I think it is an open question whether his scheme could be adapted to a quantum ontology (for example if quantum events are determined by nonlocal factors scattered all over spacetime including in the future). Maybe I’m also more open to him than most determinists because he admits and explains a much greater range of phenomena, such as the claims and behavior of mystics, than hard-core 19th-century-style determinists.

I fell in love with Kant when I read his abridged Critique of Pure Reason, I think mainly because of my pet interest in quantum and mental holism, and he was constantly talking about the various unities of the mind which people seem not to appreciate anymore. But reading S gave me a perspective from which to realize that a lot of Kant really is obscure (and according to S actually motivated by a perverse desire to symmetrically fill out tables of 12 categories), and a pretty clear and intuitive way to separate the baby from the bathwater. So S boiled down Kant’s baroque a priori subjective framework to basically spacetime and causality. I think this might be a great insight that survives the invention of non-Euclidian geometry and relativity theory. Why? Because, for example, it does seem that our perceptual intuitions really are in Euclidian space, and when we envision curved spaces we do so in Euclidian space, such as a 2D spherical surface in 3D.

That said, it is still hard to go along with S (or Kant) when he concludes that there is no space or time for the thing-in-itself. That is, it is relatively easy to accept that each of our subjective worlds are subjective brain constructs, but to take the next step to say that real objects are not objects at all, and don’t exist in an external spacetime, even though we can independently experience them and “cross-check” their existence, is difficult. [cf. Zen koan #43 Shuzan’s staff: “Shuzan held up his staff before the assembled monks, saying “If you say this is a staff, you oppose its reality. If you say this is not a staff, you negate the fact. I ask you, what is this?”] Maybe the relational interpretation of quantum mechanics gives us a framework for realizing S’s version of “empirical realism, transcendental idealism.”

Before reading S, I thought that maybe his pessimism was overstated by religiously-minded critics as a lazy way of dismissing his theory. Now I have to admit that his pessimism is pretty deep. It’s almost funny at times—at one point he even remarks how depressing the discussion is getting. If he gives up the purposelessness of the will, though, he will lose a major advantage over every optimistic philosophy—namely, that the problem of evil and suffering is not really a (philosophical) problem for him. (It remains a personal problem.) There is no good or even intelligent God to be paradoxically responsible for evil and suffering.

On the other hand, he is arguably no more pessimistic than Buddhism, since he affirms a path to a form of salvation. Also, the will in his theory seems to harbor a hidden dynamic—or will—towards realization, where realization means individuation and objectification but also enlightenment. Thus, although he argues against the notion of any permanent progress, his own contribution to the real progress of philosophy might be seen as part of a universal evolution towards “universal enlightenment” or “heaven on earth.” It’s a bit of a stretch…

Bottom line: In terms of his utility for us as students of the mind-body problem, I don’t think we get any new ideas about how the line between conscious and unconscious brain processes would show up in biology. What we may get is a (provisionally) consistent metaphysics that relates mind and matter without elimination, and explains the real basis of our moral sentiments. It’s also a pre-Freudian explicit theory of the unconscious. If you’re into this kind of thing, it’s an exhilarating ride!


Justin said...

Thanks for the S post's Mike and Steve- he looks very much worth delving into.
Mike - I was wondering whether you've read Bryan Magee's book on S and if so, what you though of it (looks like it could be a good intro).

Steve said...

Mike passes along that he has not read Magee's book (nor have I). It looks like it might be a good one. - Steve

Mike Wiest said...

I just checked out Magee's book on Amazon and it sounds great. One concern might be that books about S seem to focus on his relation to art more than say the mind-body problem, but this one sounds pretty balanced.

One comment from a reviewer is a little worrisome:

"His criticism of Schopenhauer is also very important and to the point.
Schopenhauer denies mankind free will. But if there is no free will, there is no morality."

I.e., that's oversimplifying S's conception of human freedom and morality. But I suspect that might be cause the reviewer didn't read the whole book...

Anyhow let me know if you get to Magee's book before I do...