H. P. Lovecraft wrote his famous story, The Call of Cthulhu, in 1926 and saw it published in Weird Tales in the February 1928 number of that pulp periodical. The story pieces itself together through the gimmick of having its narrator, the nephew of a mysteriously deceased scholar of ancient Semitic languages, sort through his uncle’s papers – among which figure prominently a cache of documents under the label of “CTHULHU CULT.” In the last few years of his life Professor Angell had fixed his interest on this esoteric topic. Evidence indicates that the cult, traces of which appear worldwide, dates back to prehistory; it also manifests its existence in the archaeology of historical religions, particularly those that center on human sacrifice. The deceased scholar had concluded that the cult’s reality extends into the present and that, after a dormant period, it had resumed its activity. As the reader makes his way through Lovecraft’s deliberately fragmented story line, he learns that Cthulhu, the entity whom the cultists worship as a deity, belongs not to the category of the supernatural (nothing in Lovecraft does) but rather to that of the superhuman in an implacably materialistic and Darwinian version of the cosmos. In the immensely distant past, Cthulhu, one of the “Great Old Ones,” descended to Earth from a distant star and enslaved the primitive humanity through his faculty of telepathic manipulation. A rival power, indifferent to humanity, checked Cthulhu and condemned him to hibernation in the sunken city of R’lyeh in the South Pacific. In the final paragraphs of the story’s first section, the executor describes a sheaf of newspaper clippings that Professor Angell had collected. These items, the narrator avers, “touched on cases of panic, mania, and eccentricity,” which betoken Cthulhu’s return to potency. As the nephew records: “A fanatic [from South Africa] deduces a dire future from visions he has seen; and “a dispatch from California describes a theosophist colony as donning white robes en masse for some ‘glorious fulfillment’ which never arrives, whilst items from India speak guardedly of serious native unrest toward the end of March 22-23.”
A proposition that can’t be acted upon must be false, or even meaningless. So its contradiction must be true. Thus you can’t think that you can’t think, e.g.; so you can think, period full stop.
The corollary is that if you cannot avoid acting as if a proposition is true, then it must be true. You must at every moment act, willy nilly; so it is true that you can act. Your agency is real. There is literally no way around this operational presupposition. There is no way for us to be, except by an implicit presupposition of its truth. And the only way for us not to be – namely, suicide – is a way that, again, implicitly presupposes its truth. You can’t kill yourself if you can’t act. You can kill yourself. So you can act. QED.
You can’t act as if you can’t act, for example. So, it is not true that you can’t act. Likewise, you can’t think that you can’t think; can’t be aware that you can’t be aware; can’t mean that there is no meaning; can’t yourself suffer the illusion that your self is an illusion; and so forth.
This is the practical aspect of the fundamental epistemological criterion of truth, which is adequacy to quotidian experience.
Extending this notion a bit further: you can’t say that there is no such thing as metaphysical truth other than by asserting a putative metaphysical truth. Ditto for moral truths, and aesthetic truths: you can’t say that morals or aesthetics are relative except by asserting a moral or aesthetic absolute. Indeed, this holds for any sort of truth. You can’t say there is no political truth other than by asserting a putative political truth, for example.
Nominalism and positivism both fall before this scythe. Nominalism can be asserted only by means of the very universals it reprehends. Positivism itself is among the propositional systems that cannot be logically or empirically demonstrated, and insists are therefore meaningless; so that its assertion is its contradiction.
Also, of course, you can’t for very long successfully live as if an important falsehood were true. We’ve all proved this for ourselves a million times.
Thus the very rejection of God is an implicit recognition of him. You can’t rebel against a nonexistent Lord.
This one is so simple, I’m shocked it took me so long to get it. But it eliminates ab initio a whole raft of perplexing conundra; not least, the puzzle of self-reference: of how it is that we can apprehend ourselves.
The basic idea is that we can only apprehend what is, and is therefore definite: definitely itself, and not some other thing. To the extent that a thing has not yet finished becoming, and thus become forever fixed in its character, it is not yet in fact out there for us to apprehend. It is invisible to us, and to all others, because, being as yet indefinite, it has as yet no definite character that we might grasp and evaluate. It just isn’t yet finished becoming. And until it is finished becoming, it isn’t yet anything in particular. It isn’t itself. It isn’t.
Until it is, and is therefore definitely itself and not something different, it cannot act qua itself. It cannot have any effect. We cannot be affected by it. We cannot feel it.
We hear often from our adversaries on the Left that race, sex, nation, and so forth are all merely adventitious social constructs, and so presumably, as fundamentally adventitious, therefore nowise suasive or authoritative, but rather, only, and simply, and completely, specious.
But the notion of the social construct redounds to and devours itself. It is autophagous. It cannot therefore be true.
If reality is socially constructed, and if that social construction is by itself a legitimate generator of truth, then one of the social constructs that can be legitimately constructed, and therefore treated as true, is the social construct that reality is not socially constructed. If on the other hand reality is socially constructed, but that social construction is not a legitimate generator of truth, then one of the social constructs that cannot be legitimately constructed, or therefore treated as true, is the social construct that reality is socially constructed.
Finally, if reality is not socially constructed to begin with, then the notion that reality is socially constructed is simply false.
All our notions are affected by society, to be sure. But that does not mean, as the Social Justice Warriors would like it to, that they are all just made up for no good reason, so that we can modify them as we wish and without serious consequence; that they are not, in other words, simply true, more or less.
To think that our social constructs are adventitious is to suppose that we are a society composed mostly of inveterate liars or fools. But if that were so, how could we have managed to survive thus far?
When I was a sophomore in college, lo these many decades ago, I was totally stoked to be learning about psychobiology, cybernetics, and philosophy of mind. It was intoxicating to feel my understanding growing so rapidly. I could begin to see how experience might be translated into neural circuitry, in principle at least. I kept thinking, “Oh! So this is just that! Nifty!” Once that happened in respect to any particular perplexity, I could stop worrying about it, and move on. The process felt as though it gave me terrific intellectual leverage. It was exhilarating, to find that such complex things – such mysterious things – could be explained so simply.
This is I think why improper reduction is so popular. It vastly simplifies the problem of understanding reality. It makes everything easier.
It is alas a philosophical cheap shot. For, unfortunately, it does this by making everything altogether too easy, altogether too simple. It makes reality too simple, too easy. That makes modeling reality much easier, no?
It is by building an intellectual model of how a thing works that we come to feel that we understand it. The easier it is to build an adequate model of something, the easier it is to understand; and the simpler the thing you are trying to model, the simpler the task of modeling, and the cheaper the understanding you gain from the procedure.
As Einstein said in his famous emendation of Ockham’s Razor:
Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.
The simplest theories are so parsimonious that Ockham’s Razor has sliced away the very sort of entities they were in the first place intended and devised to explain.
Of all the Philosophical Skeleton Keys I have written about, this one is the hardest. Not because it is inherently complicated, but rather because it is so simple, and so powerful; and because the moment I understood it so many perplexities so completely vanished that I have now but little recollection of them. So well did this Key dispose of so many problems, that I cannot now well remember what most of them even were!
I use this Key all the time; so often, that I don’t usually notice having done so.
It opens all sorts of locks, but I suppose that the most important of them is the Hard Problem of Consciousness, as David Chalmers has called it: namely, how do you get awareness out of the coordinate activities of trillions of particles that – on the usual modern construction of “matter” – are not themselves at all aware? The Hard Problem is the difficult and apparently incorrigibly perplexing nub of the Mind/Body Problem; the other aspects of the Mind/Body problem are what Chalmers calls the Easy Problems. Translating the Hard Problem into the terms I shall employ in what follows: how do you get lively acts from dead facts?
I have several times remarked that, on the most popular modern doctrine of matter – that it is dead stuff – eliminative materialism is the only consistent sort. If the universe is nothing but dead stuff, it is impossible for us to be alive, or therefore conscious. You can’t assemble a living conscious mind out of nothing but dead stuff. Thoroughgoing, consistent materialists, who have the courage of their convictions, forge ahead and, on that basis, deny the reality of consciousness.
There are few such.
There are of course some problems with eliminative materialism. In the first place, it insists that there are no conscious minds such as those that confide in eliminative materialism. In the second, because eliminative materialism is not itself composed of dead stuff, on its own terms it has no concrete existence.
On eliminative materialism, there’s no such thing as eliminative materialism, and no one exists to believe or disbelieve it.
So it can’t be true. It can’t even be wrong. It cannot be meaningfully asserted; so it cannot be meaningful.
Reality is a knotty problem. It is terrifically difficult to unsnarl it, so that we understand it. It won’t do to cut through it, as (according to the most famous version of the legend) Alexander did with the Gordian Knot. To do that is in the final analysis to surrender to befuddlement, even as one defies it and forges onward, damning all torpedoes. So while Ockham’s Razor is amazingly useful as a way of clarifying and simplifying our understanding, it is not itself a way to arrive at understanding. You want to shave with it, rather than slash.
When Ockham’s Razor cuts away entities that are inherent to the experience of understanding, it forestalls understanding, rather than facilitating it. For example, if you find that your explanation of consciousness is so wonderfully parsimonious that it eliminates consciousness from the universe altogether, you’ve cut too deep.
I used to deal with gnarly knots all the time when I was working as a whitewater boatman. [I’m not working on the River these days, but I’m still a boatman; it sticks with you.] When you put enormous tension on a knot, as happens when it is doing what you wanted it to do under stressful conditions, it can tighten so much that it becomes impossible to untie with fingers alone. It is tempting at such times to just say the hell with it, and cut through the knot. But that’s a bad idea when you are hundreds of miles from the nearest supply of line, in the deep wilderness. You never know when you might need that piece of line uncut. So an outdoorsman will never cut line unless he must.
Instead, sailors and boatmen use a fid or marlinspike:
The marlinspike is not a sharp cutting blade, but a smooth dully pointed stout poker. Poked into the interstices of a knot, a marlinspike can be used to pry apart the recalcitrant strands without cutting them, and allow for a good grip on the one that must be pulled through in order to loosen the doggone thing (sometimes pliers are needed for that).
To unsnarl the world knot, you want the right tool for the job. A razor is the wrong tool for undoing knots. What you want is what might be called a Thomist Marlinspike: neither affirm nor deny, but rather first distinguish. Once you’ve pulled the strands apart, untangled the knot, and laid it out nice and straight, then you can get to work on the line with Ockham’s Razor, shaving off the frayed bits to make things all nice and tidy, shipshape and Bristol fashion.
Divine Omniscience and our own creaturely, partial, imperfect knowledge – our partiscience – are categorically different sorts of operations. Both are sorts of discernment – from the Latin scindere, “to cut, divide,” thence from the PIE root *skei-, “to cut, split” – but they are fundamentally different sorts of cut. They cut in opposite directions.
Omniscience cuts, and so differentiates. Partiscience cuts and so sorts the resultant differentiae, so as to integrate them (so far as it can).
Thus the Perennialist intuition, altogether correct, that creation is outward from an Original Unity, whereas creaturity is a return toward that Unity from Partiality.