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Militant Agnostic

Ultimate Questions, by Bryan Magee, Princeton University Press, 144 pp, $16.95, ISBN: 978-0691170657

In a recent article for The Guardian, Richard Dawkins discusses writing about science. Like any fundamentalist, he endorses the use of rhetoric rather than reasoned argument when communicating with uninitiated minds (“If your readers can’t cope with higher mathematics, prose poetry is a good resort.”); and, perhaps thinking of himself, complains that science writers don’t get Nobel prizes for literature. He goes on to quote the allegedly “glorious” prose of chemist Peter Atkins: “We are almost there. Complete knowledge is just within our grasp.”

For several decades, Bryan Magee has distinguished himself as one of the finest popularisers of philosophy in the English-speaking world. His BBC television interviews with philosophers, broadcast in the 1970s and ’80s and now available to watch on YouTube, are excellent examples of how complex ideas can be dealt with in a popular medium. In his books Magee never resorts to the Trojan horse of “prose poetry”: he presumes intelligence on the part of his audience, and goes about rendering hard concepts accessible without oversimplifying them. When he fails it is usually because he pitches at too high a level – better surely than falsely dumbing down.

Magee dedicates his latest book to the argument that “complete knowledge” is necessarily forever beyond our grasp. He describes the notion that “we human beings have emerged from Nature by processes which science can, in principle, explain fully” as “deeply uncomprehending”. He rejects religious explanations as “intellectually impoverished” and at the same time admonishes atheists for underestimating the level of our ignorance: we cannot rule out the existence of a god. Magee therefore recommends a kind of extreme agnostic attitude. He summarises our predicament as follows: “So we, who do not know who we are, have to fashion lives for ourselves in a universe of which we know so little and understand less.”

The central argument of this work is largely drawn from the metaphysics of Immanuel Kant. Magee believes that, despite Kant’s stature and the centuries we have had to digest his writing, the full implications of his work have yet to be taken on board. The reason for this is not the difficulty of Kant’s arguments, nor the notorious impenetrability of his prose, but a lack of imagination Magee finds typical of the modern professional thinker.

Kant introduced the distinction between “things-in-themselves” (loosely synonymous with the “noumenal” world) and things as we experience them (the “phenomenal” world). Information about the external, physical world comes to us through our (passive) senses, and is processed by our (active) mental faculties. The result is our experience of the phenomenal world of material objects. In our everyday way of thinking, we presume that the world of our experience corresponds to how the world “really is”. Magee believes, with Kant, that this cannot be the case.

Sense organs can be thought of as filters, each designed to take in a certain type of information: the eyes register light, but not sound; the ears take in sound, but not taste. It seems likely that there is a quantity (and qualities) of reality to which we have no sensory access. We have but five senses; it is reasonable to assume that there is information out there which cannot be taken in by any of them. Magee asks us to consider the congenitally blind person: they may learn the vocabulary of colour and light, but can never fully conceive of what it is like to see the world; nor does their lack of sight call into question the existence of the visible world.

The other mechanism by which experience is generated, in conjunction with our senses, is our mental apparatus. This processes the information conveyed by the senses; it has been calibrated to do so in a particular way, giving rise to our mode of awareness of the world. Our minds are constrained in the way they can process sensory data and the manner of experience they can thereby produce.

It is not that the sum of what we can perceive, plus what we can’t, equals the “noumenal” world. The objective realm does not include the objects we directly encounter, but lies behind them. That is, what we experience is the “real world”, but distorted by the process of our apprehending it, such that what we can never have direct access to how things are “in themselves”. In tautologous summary, we can only experience the world in the limited way in which we are able. As Magee puts it: “our apprehension of [objects] is mediated by our senses as well as by our central nervous systems … so that only forms of apprehension made possible by those media are available to us”.

It must follow that the objective, noumenal realm remains beyond the horizon of our knowledge, and always will. Magee is convinced that this is so: “What exists independently of us cannot … exist in the forms that our faculties yield to us”; which means that “it is as certain that anything can be that unimaginably vast amounts of reality exist which our apparatus cannot mediate”.

Fundamental to this argument is the belief that the world does indeed exist independently of our experiencing it. The Idealist philosophers who came after Kant seized on a lacuna in his metaphysics: they recognised that he could not give a fully convincing proof for the existence of this realm of things-in-themselves. It remained a matter of conjecture (as Kant said, he “denied knowledge in order to make room for faith”). They held that there was no reason to posit the existence of anything beyond the veil of our experience, and concluded therefore that all of reality was in fact mind-created and mind-dependent. Kant himself, however, was sure that the noumenal must exist as the ground of the possibility of the phenomenal, experienced world. Magee follows him in this conviction, and insists that “we can know that something exists without knowing it”.

Magee wants to impress us with the humbling vastness of the unknowable beyond, in the face of which “We are awestricken by our situation.” For him, the unknown realm is not something distant, like an unmapped region of space, but something with which our world is shot through:

The noumenal does not lie only on the outside of an empirical globe that contains all possible experience: it imbues experience itself, here, now, all the time. We ourselves are it – we ourselves are in some un-understandable way noumenal. … The world itself, as it is, its very existence, brims over with intimations of other realities and other orders of being. The challenge is to live in it (and die in it) without understanding it.

These “intimations” come to us principally in three situations: when we make moral judgements, encounter great art, and examine ourselves in an attitude of introspection. I don’t find Magee’s account of the first two fully convincing: it may be impossible to articulate why we feel something to be right or wrong, or are moved by music, but that is not adequate to prove that that there is anything objective about rightness, wrongness, or goodness. Magee does not satisfactorily deal with certain questions an attentive reader will ask, such as whether our moral and aesthetic convictions can be explained by the fact that we interpret the world subjectively through the lenses of culture and ideology. A parable about a group of people who recognise that it would be wrong to let somebody pay for their dinner in order to get in with the clique does little to dispel the suspicion that moral codes are the product of some combination of self-interest, power dynamics and social contract. A one-time Labour MP who defected to the now defunct Social Democrats, Magee is casually dismissive of Marxist theory as “discredited” and “cosmetic”. That he doesn’t deign to deal with a still prevalent and powerful school of thought weakens his own argument.

The third mode in which we encounter “intimations” of the beyond – introspection – is more compelling. As well as the unknowable beyond, there is the unfathomable within; we do not have direct knowledge of our own selves. Magee defends the notion of the irreducibility of consciousness, a hot topic of philosophical debate in recent decades. The fundamental truth of our situation is that we are matter that “knows itself from within”; this self-consciousness remains mysterious to us; and “it is indefensible to make no allowance for this in our attempts to understand the world”. He asserts the validity of self-reflection as the basis of philosophical investigation: “No one can seriously maintain that only unimportant experiences are unique to the subject that has them. Our inner experiences include some of the most important we have.”

Magee is aware that his argument could be seized on by people with a religious point to prove. His rejection of religion has the feel about it of a pre-emptive strike: “The merest spoonful of religion in philosophy acts like a spoonful of sugar in coffee: it takes away the edge and insinuates blandness into the whole.” But Magee is blinkered in his understanding of religion, which he sees only as a set of easy answers to difficult questions. When he writes that “All religion is an evasion … of the mystery we confront”, he seems unaware of the Catholic penchant for mystery, or the many theological traditions which hold that the nature of God (and hence reality) can never be fully known or expressed. It is hard to disagree when he argues that “Ignorance is a compelling reason for not believing, not for believing”; but given the force of this hostility to faith, some might see as pedantic his insistence on agnosticism, rather than atheism.

Nor does he allow that religious experience could itself represent another valid form of “intimation of other realities and other orders of being”. He sees religious belief as beginning with an illegitimate move – the positing of a divine being, defined in a certain way, which we have no empirical evidence to support. Whatever follows by way of transcendent experience is therefore suspect. Some religious experience surely does work in this way: an individual is taught that there is a God, strains to hear His voice, and calls the intense experience thereby achieved evidence of the truth of his belief. But some would argue that the ubiquity of worship in human societies suggests that the origins of religion are different. The Dutch philosopher Alvin Plantinga has recently resurrected the old Calvinist notion that we all possess a sensus divinitatis – a sense which allows us knowledge of God – and argued that in many people this sense is dysfunctional: they are simply God-deaf. What if religion begins with the genuine intimation of some invisible force, followed by naming, ascribing characteristics, and anthropomorphising until the vaguely apprehended Other becomes all too human? Those may be rationally problematic moves, but they are perhaps inevitable since, as Kant showed us, we are predisposed to order according to our own categories the amorphous stuff of raw experience.

Several times, Magee refers to his interview with Noam Chomsky for the BBC series “Men of Ideas”. Also published this year, Chomsky’s book What Kind of Creatures are We? refers to a school of thought known as “new mysterianism”, which holds that human consciousness can never be fully explained, by science or philosophy. The term was invented by neurobiologist Owen Flanagan, who disapprovingly characterised it as “a postmodern position designed to drive a railroad spike through the heart of scientism”. Chomsky himself does not endorse the mysterian position – for the reason that he finds it so blatantly the case as to be almost banal. Central to his neo-Kantian philosophy is the presumption that there exist aspects of reality which are inaccessible to our capacities, and that we encounter the boundary of our ability to think, form knowledge, or conceive of the world when we consider those phenomena, including our own consciousness, for which rational thought struggles to provide explanation.

There is often an autobiographical element to Magee’s writing. His memoir Confessions of a Philosopher was also an excellent introduction to philosophy. Now in his ninth decade, he is much given to musing on the mystery of death. In Ultimate Questions he looks back on a life which has been enriched by his engagement with philosophy, including at the level of the everyday: “Even life at its simplest has been vastly satisfying: just walking around and looking at things, meeting people, sitting about, eating, drinking, talking.” And he is adamant that the questions he is dealing with are not rarefied or self-indulgent but vital to the living of an authentic life:

What I find myself wanting to press home more than anything else is that the only honest way to live and think is in the fullest possible acknowledgement of our ignorance and its consequences, without ducking out into faith … and without any other evasions or self-indulgences.

This short book can be seen as a sustained argument against not religion nor science but the mistaken belief that defending the Enlightenment value of Reason necessitates insisting that all darkness can be explained away. Magee asserts that rational argument leads inevitably to the conclusion that the scope of human understanding has limits, and that we must take account of this fact if we are to not progress in error: “We may not know where we are, but there is a world of difference between being lost in daylight and lost in the dark.” It is a conviction convincingly argued in lucid prose. Those who value the rare writer who can render complex ideas accessible without dilution will hope this is not Magee’s ultimate contribution.


Matthew Parkinson-Bennett lives in Dublin and works as a writer and editor.

Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, will be published this month. Selling in the shops at €25, it is available now for pre-order at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.

One piece featured in Space to Think is Seamus O’Mahony’s “The Big D”, a study of medical interventions and how we come to terms with mortality. Here is an extract:

Even those within oncology, or the “cancer community” as they sometimes call themselves, accept that the current model of cancer care in developed countries has now become unaffordable and unsustainable. The Lancet Oncology Commission (not exactly a cranky fringe group but a gathering of the great and the good of modern oncology) produced a lengthy report in 2011, a few months before [Christopher] Hitchens died. They pointed the finger squarely at “overutilisation” and “futile care”. “One factor driving over-utilisation in oncology,” says the report, “is time. It is sometimes quicker and easier to discuss a plan of treatment than to discuss why treatment might not be indicated.” Do something is the default setting of modern oncology; indeed, it is the default setting now of all modern medicine. Futility is at the core of the problem: “Many forms of cancer are currently incurable and patients will eventually die from their disease. If we could accurately predict when further disease-directed therapy would be futile, we clearly would want to spare the patient the toxicity and false hope associated with such treatment, as well as the expense.”

One of the root causes of this crisis in cancer care is sentimentality. I am often told by well-meaning family members that their stricken relative is a “fighter”, by which they mean that the known biological statistics appropriate to other, lesser souls, do not apply in this particular case. The psychologist Bruce Charlton has written about the sentimentalising of medicine: “There is a whole school of subjectivist thinking about ageing, disease, death and the other unavoidable biological realities, that downplays the inevitable and the intractable, and instead asserts that for every health problem there ‘must’ be an answer – somewhere, somehow, if only you fight hard enough, shout loud enough, travel far enough – and shell out enough money.” To his credit, Hitchens dismisses this notion of struggle: “… the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving like a sugar lump in water.”



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