The Stone is a philosophy blog published by the New York Times. The idea is to “feature the writing of contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless.” It’s a good idea, and sometimes it even works nicely. Several colleagues have written excellent entries for The Stone, including Graham Priest on paradoxes; a thoughtful recent essay by Gary Gutting on the reliability (or lack thereof) of the social sciences; and one by Timothy Williamson about the neutrality (or not) of logic in philosophical discourse.
Then again, The Stone has had its share of really bad posts. Some of them are simply obscure and clearly not aimed where they should be, at the general public. Others are downright idiotic (sorry, but that’s the only appropriate word), like the recent musings by Michael Marder about the morality of eating peas, which Leonard has cut to shreds here at Rationally Speaking (we opened a can of peas to celebrate). This mixed record is highly unfortunate, because it is a rarity that the philosophical profession gets such high profile exposure, something that it needs now more than ever.
Anyway, when I heard that The Stone was beginning to publish a three-part series on the philosophical aspects of one of my favorite science fiction authors, Philip K. Dick, I was at once excited and worried. Turned out the latter feeling was more justified than the former.
The basic idea of the series is a good one: exploring the links between high quality sci-fi and philosophical themes, essentially treating sci-fi literature as a version of philosophical thought experiments. Hell, I even just taught a very successful course at CUNY on sci-fi and philosophy (using this text).
The Dick series has been penned by Simon Critchley, a continental philosopher who teaches at the New School in New York, and who some of my colleagues blame for the unevenness of the Stone blog. I do not know Critchley, though I have to admit at a standing position to concerned skepticism about continental philosophy in general (authors in that tradition often have good points and raise serious concerns, but more frequently than one would wish they waste them via obfuscatory writing, bad arguments, and hyped claims — just pick up any Derrida or Foucault to see what I mean). Still, I began to read Critchley’s analysis of Dick with much interest and high expectations. And the more I read the more my skepticism about the continental philosophical approach found itself validated. Let me give you an (extended) taste.
From part 1. Not much philosophically going on here. The entry is a set up for what’s to come, introducing readers to Dick’s work, but especially to the recently published “Exegesis,” a 950 page edited collection of the author’s notes to himself that were meant to explore and explain his “2-3-74” episode. This refers to a series of what can only be described as drug-induced mystical experiences that Dick had in February and March of ’74, and that are credited with spurring him to write like a madman until he died at age 53 in 1982 (he managed to pen an astonishing 45 novels and 121 short stories!).
Here was the first sign that Critchley was about to take an unnecessary turn in his analysis of Dick’s experiences and writing: “Could we now explain and explain away Dick’s revelatory experience by some better neuroscientific story about the brain? Perhaps.” No, not perhaps. At the very least “very likely,” and better yet “almost certainly.” And there is a difference between explaining and explaining away, with neuroscience being in the former, not the latter business. Of course, just because Dick (or anyone else) was under the influence of drugs when he had his moment of illumination doesn’t diminish at all the literary value of his writings. As for their philosophical value, well, hang on, we’ll get there.
I thought Critchley was getting back onto a reasonable track (there are several good ideas scattered throughout his posts, but see my comment above about Derrida and Foucault) when he wrote: “The book is the most extraordinary and extended act of self-interpretation, a seemingly endless thinking on the event of 2-3-74 that always seems to begin anew. Often dull, repetitive and given to bouts of massive paranoia, Exegesis also possesses many passages of genuine brilliance and is marked by an utter and utterly disarming sincerity.” This is a well balanced assessment of something of value that still suffers from major deficiencies and that, remember, was not meant to be a work of fiction. As Dick himself put it, “My exegesis, then, is an attempt to understand my own understanding.”
Things become philosophically interesting when we learn from Critchley that Dick made heavy use of two large sources of information he had at his disposal while writing Exegesis: the Encyclopedia Britannica (15th edition) and Paul Edwards’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Dick paid particular attention to Plato, Spinoza, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Heidegger, among others (the full list clearly leans toward continental sensibilities, uh oh!).
From part 2. This is where Critchley begins to seriously veer off the road and where I felt increasingly hedgy, eventually deciding to write this commentary. He explores the possibility that Philip Dick can be read as a modern gnostic. The gnostics were an early Christian sect that held some pretty heretical (by Christian standards) ideas, including that knowledge was the way to salvation (ouch!) and that the world was created by a Demiurge — a sort of intermediary god responsible for evil.
Critchley tells us that Dick talks a lot, in his Exegesis, about the Logos (the Word), a concept that is not limited to Christianity, but goes back at least to Heraclitus. For Critchley, the core of Dick’s vision “is the mystical intellection, at its highest moment a fusion with a transmundane or alien God who is identified with logos and who can communicate with human beings in the form of a ray of light or, in Dick’s case, hallucinatory visions.” Okay. One could reasonably ask what this has to do with philosophy (as opposed to mysticism), but carry on.
Critchley again: “The novelty of Dick’s gnosticism is that the divine is alleged to communicate with us through information. This is a persistent theme in Dick, and he refers to the universe as information and even Christ as information.” I’m not even sure what this means. First off, of course X communicates with Y through information, how else would one communicate? Second, what constitutes information in this context? Third, and relatedly, what does it mean to say that Christ is information? And, most importantly, how the hell did Dick know any of this, as opposed to hallucinating it under the influence of drugs?
Critchley then gets into Dick’s “theory” of orthogonal time (please, shall we not be a bit more careful with the use of words? I mean, is this anything like, say, evolutionary theory? Quantum mechanics?). For Dick time contains “everything which was, just as grooves on an LP contain that part of the music which has already been played; they don’t disappear after the stylus tracks them.” Which leads Critchley to conclude that this is “like that seemingly endless final chord in the Beatles’ ‘A Day in the Life’ that gathers more and more momentum and musical complexity as it decays. In other words, orthogonal time permits total recall.” Oh crap. This is reasoning by poetic analogy, but not philosophy, as far as I can tell. And it is an analogy that is being deployed in order to explain a “theory” of time that is neither philosophical nor scientific.
I’m sorry but I have to quote Critchley extensively here, because I don’t want to be accused of paraphrasing him into a straw man: “[Dick] also claims that in orthogonal time the future falls back into and fulfills itself in the present. This is doubtless why Dick believed that his fiction was becoming truth, that the future was unfolding in his books. For example, if you think for a second about how the technologies of security in the contemporary world already seem to resemble the 2055 of ‘Minority Report’ more and more each day, maybe Dick has a point. Maybe he was writing the future.”
Or maybe he — like many other brilliant sci-fi writers — simply intuited one likely direction in which humanity may go, given the simple assumptions of a continued technological advancement and a pretty much constant (and base) human nature. And what on earth could it mean to say that Dick was writing the future? Was he creating it? Was he reading it in some sort of clairvoyant fashion? Or what??
Back to the (alleged) connection to gnosticism, Dick himself wrote: “So there is a secret within a secret. The Empire is a secret (its existence and its power; that it rules) and secondly the secret illegal Christians pitted against it. So the discovery of the secret illegal Christians instantly causes one to grasp that, if they exist illegally, something evil that is stronger is in power, right here!” Without rhyme or reason, Critchley interprets this mysterious “Empire” (of which, needless to say, there is no evidence) as the major corporations of the 21st century, ending his second essay with the paranoidal sounding: “[The secret is that] The world itself is a college of corporations linked together by money and serving only the interests of their business leaders and shareholders. The second secret — ‘a secret within a secret’ — belongs to those few who have swallowed the red pill, torn through the veil of Maya. In other words, they’ve seen the ‘matrix’ — a pop culture allusion that may lead us to some surprising, even alarming, contemporary implications of the gnostical worldview.” Wait, wait! Did the NYT readers get the reference to Maya? In what sense is the second secret inside the first one? How do we know any of the above? And perhaps most obviously, what was he (Critchley) smoking when he was writing this stuff? And is this really the way we want to present philosophy to the public? Ah, but there is more...
From part 3. In the final installment of the Dick series, Critchley is all over the place, and that place seldom has to do with anything written by Dick, as far as I can tell. Indeed, I suspect it has little to do with the actual theme of this Stone series, gnosticism (unless the term is taken to be so broad as to essentially lose meaning).
Critchley tells us that Dick’s take on the world was responsible for the so-called “dystopian” turn in science fiction that began in the 1960s (though, of course, dystopianism had been a very well established sub-genre all along, just think of H.G. Well’s The Time Machine). This “turn” consisted in embracing the idea, as Critchley puts it, “that reality is a pernicious illusion, a repressive and authoritarian matrix generated in a dream factory we need to tear down in order to see things aright and have access to the truth.”
Fine, but then — again with very little apparent connection to either Dick or actual gnosticism — the author simply cherry picks a number of examples from recent sci-fi movies, including, of course The Matrix, the awful Melancholia by Lars von Trier, and Avatar. Avatar? Seriously? I would think that any Philip Dick fan would throw up at the bare thought of the comparison, but whatever.
Crithcley now is on a roll, connecting more or less imaginary dots that go from Dick to Avatar to Rousseau and the Romantics, to traditional Christianity, to Goldman Sachs, to Nixon and Watergate, to Mitt Romney, and to Julianne Moore, to mention but a few. It’s a great example of continental philosophical writing, and I mean “great” in the most ironic sense possible.
Finally, Critchley asks us (rhetorically) what he seems to take as the crucial question to which his meanderings have inevitably led us: “what does one do in the face of a monistic all-consuming naturalism?” To which his answer is that there are two paths: either one embraces it and buys into whatever the latest prominent scientist says, or one rejects it in favor of “some version” of dualism.
What? Where? How? First off, it is entirely unclear what “monistic all-consuming naturalism” has to do with Dick and gnosticism. Second, the “irrepressible rise of a deterministic scientific worldview [that] threatens to invade and overtake all those areas of human activity that we associate with literature, culture, history, religion and the rest” is — depending on what exactly one means by that — either a very very recent push by ultra-atheists a la Dawkins-Harris-Rosenberg-(E.O.) Wilson-etc. or something that goes back at the very least to the Enlightenment. Oh, what the heck, perhaps it can be traced to the pre-Socratic atomists of ancient Greece, who knows. Lastly, what do these two choices (contrived, as even Critchley himself seems to admit at the very end of his third essay) have to do with philosopher Hans Jonas’ contention that the possessors of gnosis can either turn ascetic or libertine? And why bring in Jonas, other than because Critchley is Hans Jonas professor at the New School? Are you confused? Good, you should be.
I guess after this column I can kiss my chances goodbye of ever writing for The Stone (and they probably won’t pick any more Rationally Speaking entries as their suggested links, as they have done multiple times recently). But I had to point out that it is a shame that such a huge opportunity to bring philosophy to the general public through the leading newspaper on the planet is being wasted with silly posts on the morality of eating peas and obscure ramblings about gnosticism and the insights one gets about the world from heavy doses of sodium pentothal. Please bring back logic and arguments, and keep mysticism where it belongs, in the dustbin of intellectual discourse.