30 October 1997
Thank you for your letter of 20 October, with your notes on unit4 of The Possible World Machine,...
What you say in your letter about the life force puts me in mind of the contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel, as well as the system created by A.N. Whitehead in Process and Reality (Macmillan 1920), one of the great works of twentieth century metaphysics. The technical name is 'pan-psychism'. (Whitehead also did work in mathematical logic, collaborating with Russell on the Principia Mathematica.)
In his excellent book, The View From Nowhere (OUP 1986), Nagel builds on his earlier criticisms of physicalism in his essay 'What is it Like to be a Bat?', suggesting that physicalism has not reckoned with the ineliminability of the 'subjective viewpoint'. (Science will never comprehend how things are from a bat's viewpoint. Ergo, there is something in reality that can be accessed from the objective viewpoint of physical science.) However, Nagel does venture the speculation in a footnote that there may come a time when mental and material properties are discovered to belong to some third, as yet unconceived of substance.
In Whitehead's metaphysics, the world is composed ultimately of events or 'actual occasions' rather than things. Tables and chairs, you and me are merely logical constructs of actual occasions. Each actual occasion, however, has a mental as well as a physical aspect. The consequence of this view is that 'mind' is spread everywhere through the universe. There is a good book on Whitehead by Dorothy Emmett 'Whithead's Philosophy of Organism' (Routledge). It may be out of print now; I don't have the publishing date with me.
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Turning to your response to unit 4, there is a central core of philosophy that is concerned with 'Human Knowledge, its Scope and Limits' (to borrow the title from Russell's book). The study of Epistemology (to give it its technical name) goes far beyond the question of how to respond to radical scepticism. The logic and methodology of science is just one example of fruitful epistemological investigation.
Constructive scepticism is indeed very much the trade mark of the philosopher. When claims are made about parapsychology, fortune telling, visits by aliens etc. philosophers are always spoiling the fun by asking whether we are really considering the most economical hypothesis consistent with the known facts.
However, within philosophy too the same approach applies. F.H. Bradley described his metaphysical work Appearance and Reality as a 'sceptical examination of first principles'. By 'sceptical' he was adverting to the fact that the metaphysician's knowledge is mainly negative and dialectical in character. Kant, in a similar sceptical vein, argued that the philosopher must 'deny the claims of reason to make room for faith'.
I do think, however, that strong scepticism presents a challenge for the philosopher to meet, a legitimate problem to be 'gripped' by. Unlike the problem of free will, it is harder to take seriously (as I have found with my students). But it is worth the trouble trying to put yourself into the radical sceptic's shoes! As I argue in the course unit, a response to radical scepticism which engaged with the sceptic rather than merely dismissing them would be a 'contribution to philosophical knowledge'.
Incidentally, this is a difficulty which is by no means confined to the problem of scepticism, as you will discover as the programme proceeds. There will be more than one occasion where you are tempted to ask 'what is the use' of considering this or that question, or seeking to solve this or that problem. The answer is, Don't look for a 'use'. Let the problem grip you. One of the skills you will acquire in studying philosophy is a certain capacity for sympathetic imagination, a sensitivity to questions and problems, analogous in many ways to the 'ear' one develops in learning more about music. In philosophy, the capacity for vision is as important as the capacity for logical thought...