Review: Birth of a Divine Revelation by Ernest Moyer

When I learned of Ernest’s publication I ordered it direct from author and promised him a review. I’ve known Ernest, not personally, but through the medium of correspondence, for ten or more years. I know he is a good investigative reporter, an eloquent writer, and harbors certain pet theories about the future of our world, and the processes that will lead it there. Make no mistake, this book is pure Ernest. He leaves little to the imagination!

Ernest subtitles his book “The Origin of the Urantia Papers”, and indeed this is the core of his subject matter. While others have told this history in simple narrative form, Ernest takes a more indirect approach preferring to let the history tell itself though his making of several strategic points. concerning the parties involved, and the events surrounding them.

Ernest declares several purposes for his substantial effort. These include:

1. A refutation of Martin Gardner’s URANTIA, THE GREAT CULT MYSTERY (Prometheus books 1995)

2. Establishment of William Sadler as the real “contact personality” (though Ernest is quick to point out this does not mean he was the “sleeping subject”), and a refutation of the Wilfred Kellogg as sleeping subject theory.

3. Expose the corruptions to the text of the Urantia Papers added between 1939 and 1942, both in content and source.

Along the way, Ernest reflects on a litany of structural problems in the Urantia movement in general, and the Urantia Foundation in particular, briefly tracing their consequences to the more recent history, and present day conflicts within the Urantia Movement. He traces the origin of some of these problems to the human fallibilities of those who formed the closest advisory circle around William Sadler as well as W.S. himself who, after the death of his wife Lena in 1939, and the ending of contact with the sleeping subject, may have lapsed in certain critical facilities.

Does Ernest prove his case? I don’t have any problem with his over all refutation of Martin Gardner. Ernest and I both believe in the divinity of the source of the revelation as a whole. Gardner certainly ignored or perverted a lot of evidence to arrive at his hatchet job. I don’t think that any of us who are believers in the UB are going to fault Ernest for his observations in this direction. His disproof of the Wilfred Kellogg as sleeping-subject theory is a part of his refutation of Gardner, and he is pretty convincing here as well. Ernest does relate his tale of his trying to uncover the real identity of the sleeping subject, and his failure to do so, but in conducting this investigation, several things, not the least of which were records of where the two men (W.K. and W.S.) lived during the period of sleeping subject activity, should lay to rest the notion that W.K. was the sleeping subject.

I think Ernest achieves his second purpose as well. Here he asks the question: If you had to pick the kind of man in whom you would entrust the initial launching of a new revelation, what kind of character would you want? Ernest amasses a considerable collection of testimony, documentary (letters, reviews) and anecdotal, demonstrating the unusual combination of factors that made up the character of William Sadler Sr. He was, indeed an unusual individual, Jesusonian in his devotion to God via service to mankind. He even shared some of Jesus’ more personal characteristics such as his abilities as a public speaker and storyteller, the ability “to hold an audience with his words.” Sadler also had considerable energy, and an ability to function at all hours, under pressure, sometimes with little sleep.

It does seem that Sadler was an extraordinary person in his youth and middle age. Ernest points out that events surrounding W.S. in relation to the Seventh Day Adventist Church, and the personal decisions that followed from those experiences, uniquely prepared him for his role as first shepherd of the revelation. Ernest’s case here is a good one. I could almost feel the angelic hands that guided W.S. to his first encounter with the sleeping subject.

Ernest’s contention is, that while W.S. is not the sleeping subject, he is the real person we should be calling the primary “contact personality.” The sleeping subject, was merely a means of engaging W.S. in the revelatory process without producing too-overt (perhaps more easily traceable), a conversion point from the celestial to the material. W.S. was the real engine behind the process of give-and-take with the revelators which culminated with the appearance of the papers in 1934 and 1935. All the basic Urantia movement mysteries, the real purpose of all the preliminary documents handled through the contact commission (those few who directly observed the behavior of the sleeping subject) and forum (the 400+ people who reviewed the preliminary and then later finished papers), where and when exactly the final papers appeared, etc., remain in place.  I can’t fault Ernest for this, he tried. I sympathize with his desire to clarify the facts though. Personally, I wish he had found some of the details he sought.

Ernest nicely distinguishes between human engagement in the preliminary first phase of contact, and human contribution to the final outcome in the finished revelation delivered in the mid 1930’s, but he fails to discover the why of it all which is also too bad in my opinion, though one can not fault him for that failure either. Indeed one is tempted to ask why all the fuss? Surely some more direct means of engaging W.S. could have been found. One can only suggest, and Ernest leads us to speculate, that the revelators were enjoined to reduce or restrict the direct appearance of divine intervention in human affairs to the maximum possible degree. The decades long involvement of human beings in exchange with divinely produced material through the mouth, pen, and possibly other means involving a mechanically manipulated sleeping subject established a long human interaction with the process that masked the direct points at which the divine was responsible for the appearance of revelatory text. Who is to say here that Ernest isn’t correct? Indeed it appears to be a style that is characteristic of the Urantia Revelation, presented in such a way that one can at least try to make a case for a human origin.

ERNEST’S MAIN PURPOSE

Ernest’s third purpose is far more problematic. It is a complex set of arguments involving many factors, and ultimately influencing not only thought and criticism of the Urantia Book, but also the structure of the present day Urantia movement. Ernest’s tenets along these lines can be summed up as follows:

1. Something happened after the last of the papers was delivered in 1935.  Dr. Sadler mentions a “third series” of revelation, the first referring to all the preliminary work of the forum with the revelators, the second being the delivery of the final papers themselves in 1934-35, and the third, being some clarifications that appear to have entered the text between 1939 and 1942.

2. Christy, Emma Christensen, was the focus of the reception of these clarifications. In addition to serving in this capacity, Christy has other very important influences on the character and direction of both the Urantia Foundation, and early prominent leaders in the Urantia movement.

3. Caligastia is, ultimately, the source of the various corruptions in the text itself, and other apochryphal material found in the politically influential literature of the Urantia movement.

Ernest then spends considerable time discussing the most serious of the corruptions, really contradictions of one kind or another, in the text. His analysis, he concludes, leads one to see an intelligent hand, a deliberate perversion in the nature of the contradictions. He is quite detailed about what he takes to be the content and implications of the particular contradictions he examines. Alas, I find in much of this section a failure on Ernest’s part to consider alternative, and actually much simpler explanations that, in many cases, eliminate the contradiction altogether. In short, much of the worst of the textual corruptions that Ernest thinks he (and others) have discovered, are not contradictions at all, but skewed interpretations of the UB text itself. Perfectly plausible alternative explanations exist that are contradiction free. I’ll discuss these in detail below.

As with the other sections of the book, Ernest does his best in this first part of his argument for the devil’s hand! He amasses some considerable evidence that some changes in the text took place in the 1939-1942 period, that Christy was the human source of the new material, and that the misguided efforts of Harold Sherman who desired to incorporate his own changes, probably shocked W.S. into stopping any further changes in 1942. Why, if Sadler realized that making changes was wrong, he could not simply undo them all (the book hadn’t been printed yet) I’m not sure. Beyond 1942, Ernest offers three corroborating testimonies that messages continued to be revealed (by Christy) certainly through the 1960’s, and likely well beyond that time, almost to Christy’s death in 1982. He also provides something of a psychological background for the emergence of this phenomena. Sadler’s beloved wife Lena passed away in 1939 leaving him extremely lonely. By this time, the activity of the sleeping subject had ceased, leaving him without his connection to divine advice of several decades. W.S. had, at this point, whole heartedly accepted the reality of divine contact, and thus was the stage set for his acceptance (and lack of critical examination) when his own adopted daughter (a strange story right there), Christy, began to claim contact with spiritual beings who wished to deliver further clarifications to the revelation!

Christy and the changes are inextricably connected. Christy began to channel in the traditional sense. Ernest claims repeatedly that it was Caligastia she was channeling, but he also notes that she was a bad channeler; that her own mind got in the way of the message and distorted its final expression (406). Personally, it seems plausible to me that all of what Christy said or wrote in these years emanated from her own mind. It is easy to see a combination of midwestern conservatism mingled with a sense of recent history (WWII began in Sept. of 1939) in the documents adduced by Ernest to be the distorted sayings of Caligastia.

Still, there are mysteries afoot, of that no one should doubt. There is a document, written by Carolyn Kendall and reproduced by Ernest (chapt 26), which refers to “verbal” instructions during and after 1939. Ernest claims on page 372 that W.S. (and possibly others alluded to by Carolyn’s document) heard ‘”voices” coming out of the thin air’, but I can not find this claim anywhere in Carolyn’s document, only that the witnesses (contact commission) heard a voice, which may or may not have emanated from Christy. Ernest insists that “The creation of visible images and audible speech is prevalent in the ‘spiritualist’ community.” Ernest directs the reader to his own paper on the subject “Spirit Entry Into the Human Mind” which I have not read, but I do, for now, reject this idea on principle, especially as concerns visual effects. Such things require the cooperation of physical controllers who would not have been cooperating with Caligastia in the 20th century.

Ernest is not talking about fraud. The material Ernest offers as evidence does not compel us (in my opinion) to believe that rebel spirits were the only possible source. Some of what Ernest claims is “pure Devil talk,” the well known “word made book” phrase, for example (374), seems patently human to me. Truly, as Ernest has surmised, such sloganism does not strike one as being from the “true source”, but Carolyn never says that she was quoting the revelators [the channeling Christy], only relaying the substance of the messages. For all we know Clyde Bedell suggested this particular phrase. Human or celestial, the channeling is what lent Christy her authority in the movement. That authority set the stage for Christy’s two other big influences, the selection of Martin Myers for the Foundation, and the discovery of and subsequent influence on Vern Grimsley.

While Ernest doesn’t prove his case that “the Devil made ’em do it” to my satisfaction, his considerable effort in these parts of the his book (Chapters 24-27) does build a strong case that the very structure of the Urantia movement, especially the Foundation, along with all the problems engendered by that structure since the publication, not to mention the unraveling (as Ernest himself puts it) of what ever unity the movement had going into the mid 1980’s following Christy’s death, can be very much traced to these critical years (1939-1954). If nothing else, Ernest’s collection, into an organized volume, of the various apochryphal documents of the Urantia movement is a contribution to the movement’s understanding of itself. Though his viewpoint on movement politics differs from my own, no one would bother to deny that there have been some serious miscalculations and lack of wisdom exhibited in the actions of the leadership in both the Urantia movement and the Foundation in the now 45 years, almost two generations, since the Book’s first printing. Who is to say that this “third series” of revelatory changes, and the other messages that followed them prior to the Book’s first printing did not have some, and may even have been “the” major causative influence on who we are today.

THE CORRUPTIONS THEMSELVES

Three broad kinds of corruptions exist. Typographical errors, errors in scientific fact and known history, and internal contradictions between sentences or paragraphs in one part of the book and another. These last have to do with dates and other contradictions in content.

No one is worried about the typographical errors, most of which were corrected between the first and second printing. These were the obvious ones, but there are a more subtle sort that appear to be more substantive, for example the transformation of “external” into “eternal” (102:8:4 first sentence), is a seemingly obvious typo given the sentence’s context, that has never been corrected in UF sponsored printings of the book.

Some of the “scientific errors” do indeed exist. Some of the more interesting of those have not even been mentioned (the second clause “…if for no other reason…” of the sentence beginning “Ever will the scientist…” in the first paragraph of paper 65 section 6 is not true for modern biological sciences, yet the sentence suggests it will always be true), while other more famous examples have proven on further analysis to be nothing of the sort, like the “gravitational friction” statement in 57:6:2 which cleverly left room open for the fact that Mercury was discovered (in the 60’s I believe) to be still rotating, even relative to is revolutionary period!

Ernest here poses a legitimate question. If the book was delivered paper by complete paper in 1934 and 1935 why would there be any obviously erroneous scientific statements as seen from the viewpoint of but a few decades later? Why would there be any error in the book that couldn’t be attributed to imperfect transcription to type, and from type to plate, or that didn’t become, on second glance, a clever device by the revelators to anticipate future science? His answer is that any error small or large casts doubt upon the veracity of the work as a whole, and this indeed is what Caligastia found himself limited to doing in his effort to corrupt the revelation. In correspondence with me, Ernest was quick to point out that he did not here intend to refer to believers, but to those who find reason to reject the Book’s revelatory claims based on what amount to errors too simple for genuine revelators to make. That these errors have, on occasion, had this effect, one can not deny.

Yet even if errors did creep in thanks to Dr. Sadler’s uncritical acceptance of Christy’s channeled material, the ultimate source may lie elsewhere than the personal doings of Caligastia, namely Christy’s fertile subconscious. To prove Ernest wrong about the timing of the changes, that is to demonstrate that the errors were present in the original text, one would have to have access to the original papers of the second series as they appeared in the possession of W.S., and were delivered to the forum. Of course, these have been destroyed, and one finds oneself wishing, again, that that was not the case so that we might now clear up some of these mysteries. Ernest claims that some of what Sadler changed (corrected) between the first and second printings suggest some, but not by any means all of what was changed in the “third series” of presentations. While we can not be sure of any of this, no one has suggested any alternative to Ernest’s contentions in this regard, other than that Caligastia was not responsible for them!

One notes however, that until Ernest’s last couple of chapters, the corruptions discussed are all pretty trivial. A word here, a phrase there a, syllogism on page 3 involving three levels of perfection (who could have guessed that they yielded 7 possible relationships?) that appeared in print 6 years after 1935 (why people can’t believe the author was influenced by something someone said who knew someone, who knew a member of the then 300+ person forum is beyond me), some of which do constitute interesting mysteries of the Urantia movement. When, however, Ernest attempts to analyze what he claims to be more serious contradictions he fares not so well in the opinion of this reviewer.

THE MORE SERIOUS CORRUPTIONS

First up is the 40 day problem! Ernest devotes parts of two chapters to this one. It comes down to this. At the opening of paper 194, the apostles are in prayer with 120 believers when at about 1:00 pm there comes into their midst the Spirit of Truth. This is May 18, Jesus made his final appearance to the apostles that morning at 7:00 am and ascended to his Father. If you start with the date of the crucifixion which was on the day of passover (passover beginning at sundown of that day), 42 days have passed counting the crucifixion day as 1. Now section 1 of paper 194 begins as follows: “The apostles had been in hiding for 40 days. This happened to be the Jewish festival of Pentecost,…” (194:1:1).

The trouble arises because the word “this” beginning the second sentence is assumed to be referring not only to “this day”, the day of Pentecost, but also to “this day of the arrival of the spirit of truth”, and that “40 days” is taken to mean “40 continuous days.” The two events (the day of the ascension and Pentecost) are easily conjoined in the mind of the reader, and the midwayer’s literary transition from the introductory section to section 1 of paper 194 certainly contributes to the confusion, but this is not actually what the first two sentences of section 1 say. The Spirit of Truth arrived on day 42 following the crucifixion, Pentecost begins on day 50 (a week of weeks if you begin counting the day after the crucifixion), and the apostles have been hiding for 40 [of the last 50] days! This great problem (which apparently bothered W.S. himself) is resolved if you do not assume that the word “this” refers to the same day of the arrival of the Spirit of Truth, and that the “in hiding for 40 days” means no more than what it says, that is, that they were not in hiding for 8 (42 + 8 = 50) of the last 50 days as indeed they were not (they were in Galilee with Jesus, on mount Olivet, etc.).

Ernest’s investigation of this problem leads him to discover one of the more significant date issues. In 191:3:3, the statement is made that Jesus entered the “embrace of the Most Highs of Edentia” on May 14, yet he ascended (by way of Edentia and the Most Highs) on May 18 (193:5:4). Ernest thinks he has discovered a date error here, a corruption, but there are two other and much simpler possibilities. One is that the statement on 193:5:4 refers to a different event. Might it not have been possible for Jesus to have visited with the Most Highs more than once during his morontia transit? Another possibility is simply another typographical error, that the date given in 191:3:3 should have been May 18, not the 14th!

Others of his suggested targets of corruption can be explained equally easily. For example, another of Ernest’s contradictions has to do with the following two sentences…

“Gabriel and the Father Melchizedek are never away from Salvington at the same time, for in Gabriel’s absence, the Father Melchizedek functions as the chief executive of Nebadon” (35:1:2)

“These three conversed in a strange language but from certain things said, Peter erroneously conjectured that the beings with Jesus were Moses and Elijah; in reality, they were Gabriel and the Father Melchizedek” (158:1:8)

Indeed how could Gabriel and the Father Melchizedek both visit with Jesus on Earth if one or the over must always be present on Salvington? The answer is simple. The “never” in the first sentence is not a categorical imperative, but a declaration of convention and normal behavior. The terminal bestowal of a Creator Son happens but once in every local universe, enough of a rarity that Gabriel and the Father Melchizedek might make an exception to normal practice and be both briefly away from Salvington.

Ernest cites other examples, but in every case, they can be easily enough explained away (as above), or attributed to misinterpretation. For example, the UB cites many examples of contact between celestial beings and humans that did not appear to require midwayer mediation, and are therefore in conflict with the following: “Contact personalities. In the contacts made with the mortal beings of the material worlds, such as with the subject through whom these communications were transmitted, the midway creatures are always employed. They are an essential factor in such liaisons of the spiritual and the material levels.” (77:8:8)

It is clear from the context of the quote that the book is speaking of a certain limited class of contacts, a certain kind of contact, and not of contacts in general, many of which may be directly engaged in by higher celestial beings.

THE GOVERNMENT PROBLEM

In one of what Ernest believes is among the most serious corruptions, his examination of the Urantia Book’s discussion of the evolution of government and society, he exhibits the least understanding of what the UB is trying to say.

The UB extols the virtues of representative government (45:7:3, 52:4, 70:12:1, 71:2, 74:5:7, 134:5-6), for example:

“The entire universe is organized and administered on the representative plan. Representative government is the divine ideal of self-government among nonperfect beings.” (45:7:3). The second sentence sets the context for the word “universe” in the first sentence. The revelators are referring to the seven super-universes (the outer space levels not being populated yet) in the present era, prior to the completion of the Supreme. What constitutes “ideal” government in the central universe and/or paradise we are not directly told.

Ernest derives two problems from the UB’s favoring of representative government in the universes of time. The first stems from this seemingly contradictory statement:

“While there is a divine and ideal form of government, such can not be revealed, but must be slowly and laboriously discovered by the men and women of each planet throughout the universes of time and space” (70:12:9)

What is it that can not be revealed, especially to the laboring men and women for whom the revelation is intended, that the revelators have not already told us with their exultation of representative government? As far as governments go, the UB tells us that on a developed world nearing light-and-life, and especially *in* light and life, the social structure can, in some phases, reflect not the administrative needs of a vast set of universes, but the perfection of Havona! This is possible, because the people of these worlds, like ourselves, are all indwelt by the Father directly! The lowest level becomes a reflection of the highest! This is a pattern in the theology of the UB, and Ernest completely misses this implication.

Ironically, the very paragraphs in the UB that make this case for perfection are Ernest’s next candidates for corruption. In 52:7:5, the book is talking about a planet well along the path to political settledness, even a spiritual manifestation of the brotherhood of man. The Book goes on to say: “Representative government is vanishing, and the world is passing under the rule of individual self-control.” In 55:5:4 we find the following: “Government is gradually disappearing. Self-control is slowly rendering laws of human enactment obsolete.”

Ernest says “The only condition under which representative government would vanish is that of the existence of perfect beings. Will our world eventually achieve perfect mortals?” (461)

Ernest first fails to note that government is “vanishing”, it hasn’t vanished. Even if it did vanish in light and life eras, that would not contradict the UB’s statement concerning the rest of the universe because the answer to Ernest’s question is yes! Provisionally and for the limited sphere of life we call politics on an evolutionary planet, human culture, and individuals will eventually become perfect enough to rise above the need for formal government! Ernest misses a key clue to this reality on 70:8:1 “The mental and physical inequality of human beings insures that social classes will appear. The only worlds without social strata are the most primitive and the most advanced. A dawning civilization has not yet begun the differentiation of social levels, while a world SETTLED IN LIGHT AND LIFE has largely effaced these divisions of mankind, which are so characteristic of ALL INTERMEDIATE STAGES.” Emphasis mine.

Having missed this simpler interpretation of this material, and in so doing also missing one of the most important revelations concerning our social future, Ernest declares: “This is the theme of the Caligastia betrayal: ‘individual liberty consequent upon enhanced self-control.'” (460) Ernest does not perceive the reality of the vast gulf between the Caligastia declaration of self-determination in primitive peoples, and the perfection of self-control gained over countless centuries of following the Father’s will! He forgets that “Most of the liberties which Lucifer sought he already had; others he was to receive in the future. All these precious endowments were lost by giving way to IMPATIENCE and yielding to a desire TO POSSESS WHAT ONE CRAVES NOW and to possess it in defiance of all obligation to respect the rights and liberties of all other beings composing the universe of universes.”(54:4:4 emphasis mine)

Ernest can’t fail to see that the paragraphs describing the rebel teachings (see 53:3:6, 53:4:2 53:7:2) use the words ‘self-assertion’, ‘self-determination’, and ‘unbridled liberty’. Ernest actually makes the claim that the substitution of ‘self-control’ in section 52:7:5 and 55:5:4 for ‘self-assertion’ in 53:4:2 is nothing more than a Caligastic sleight of hand to delude us into believing that such political achievement is possible. Why, given the contextual emphasis on the far future, this should be a problem anyway is beyond me, but the bottom line is that Ernest ignores or forgets the UB principle that TIME matters. Immature self-assertion is  TRANSFORMED into advanced self-control over TIME, and that there are eons of difference between them! They are not the same!

In addition, we see that the very sentence that Ernest offers as evidence of corruption (“…such can not be revealed…”) is in fact another hint at the end point of the planetary political process, a state that is beyond representative government; beyond, because the individuals living on such worlds (and their Father fragments) have, within their planetary frame, collectively superceded it.

Ernest says that “Caligastia’s method in perverting the Revelation was to alter words, phrases, or sentences and insert them into paragraphs where they could easily slip by without notice.” (462). Although I have not here examined every example that Ernest suggests to us, I have, in reading through them, discovered that most can be attributed to the application of a singular viewpoint causing various paragraphs to be interpreted together in a way that makes them appear insidiously contradictory when in reality, and in their normal context, there are alternative interpretations and viewpoints for which no, or only trivial contradictions exist. That there are mysteries that sometimes appear to be unexplainable contradictions in the UB I do not doubt, but none of those that Ernest classifies as the most serious, those pertaining to the social evolution of the planet and the timing of events in Jesus’ life are, in my opinion, contradictions at all!

To sum up, Ernest has set himself a number of tasks in his book, some of which he handles convincingly, while others he doesn’t. Along the way, he leaves us with an interesting collection of Urantia memorabilia, and a well told tale of investigative endeavor. His refutation of Gardner carries through the work well, as do his theories concerning the real role of William Sadler Sr. While I think Ernest’s contentions concerning a Caligastic hand in UB affairs are a bit of a stretch, in trying to make that case, he does at least show us that our own history was fraught with error and human (at least) self assertion.

Matthew Rapaport, June 2000

Gardner, Moyer, and Mullins: Three Histories of The Urantia Book

This review, first published on the Urantia Brotherhood website ( I cannot find it there any longer) in 2001. It deserves to be here since I am writing lately about the book explicitly. As usual, I unclude links to the books reviewed. Excellent E-copies of The Urantia Book itself are found here for only $4

At the opening of the 21st century we find ourselves with 3 large histories of the Urantia Papers. First published,Urantia: The Great Cult Mystery by Martin Gardner in 1995, followed by Ernest Moyer’s THE BIRTH OF A DIVINE REVELATION: The Origin of the Urantia Papers, and then A History of the Urantia Papers by Larry Mullins, both published in 2000. For a more detailed review of the Moyer book (with extensive philosophical and theological commentary) see this link

From a believer’s perspective, Larry Mullins’ story of the revelation is the most orthodox with all the phases through which the papers traveled overseen – however infrequently – by divine authority until the actual year of first printing in 1955. While this is, essentially, the down the middle story, it is full of interesting suprises and well clarifies some of the conflicting aspects of even the official histories as they’ve been recorded since the first printing. It is also the most severely critical of the present status quo in the Urantia Movement.

Martin Gardner’s book, while often funny – and you better have a sense of humor about yourself because he’s poking fun at us – is so interlaced with misinterpretations, out of context statements, even outright lies and slander “Below I AM are billions of lesser gods” Gardner declares on p19, that his insightful observations may be too easily dismissed by UB readers.  Gardner paints a picture of utterly human invention, deceit, and betrayal that explains the existence of the UB. He selects out-of-context events of UB history, especially those surrounding Harold Sherman and Harry Loose, that best suit his purpose, and then weaves a story around these isolated facts.

In between this telling, he does manage to make some interesting observations however, and it is a shame that the insights are mixed in with so much that is misrepresentative. Gardner’s only concession to the divinity of the revelatory process is the acknowledgement that there was a sleeping subject, and that this person (he thinks its Wilfred Kellog) made statements and/or wrote things whose content is part of that which makes up the UB. He does not share any opinion on whether this material really had a celestial origin, or was merely the product of the sleeping subject’s mind. For Gardner, the UB comes down to some unexpected (and unexplained) channeling on the part of Wilfred Kellog coupled with a conspiracy, on the part of Dr. Sadler, to inject into the spiritual ferment and literary stream of his time, a fantastic fraud. The saddest irony of Gardner’s book is that if he had employed the services of a UB reader merely to delete the out rightly false statements concerning the UB’s contents (I know he had offers), what would remain would still be pretty damning.

Ernest Moyer, like Larry, believes that at core, the UB is divinely authored. Moyer however looks at the unfolding events of the late thirties and early forties and forces us to ask the question: What is the deposed Planetary Prince (whom we all suppose for the sake of argument is still on the planet) doing about the UB? We all take for granted that he (Caligastia) would desire to obstruct or otherwise thwart the fundamental purposes of the UB. We differ in our estimation of just how much potency he has in this regard, with Moyer casting his history in the light of his presupposition of Caligastia’s ability to enter into and dialog with any human mind who sits back and says “come hither spirit and talk to me.” Ironically, for his version of things, Caligastia’s worst couldn’t have been more damaging than what the movement, particularly the Urantia Foundation, has done to itself! If old Cal was involved, it wasn’t the text that appears to have been his target, as much as the movement.

Larry Mullins manages to deal well with both Gardner and Moyer, but only if you accept some of his central propositions to be fundamentally factual. Mullins claims that no communication with celestials ever took place without the presence of the sleeping subject and at least two of the human contact commissioners. If his claims are correct, then it would have been impossible for either Christy or Dr. Sadler to have believed that the celestial revelatory commission could be reached by channeling, let alone that Dr. Sadler would have taken channeled messages as the product of celestial intelligences. Mullins addresses other of Moyer’s evidence as well, pointing out for example that the Book’s 1934, 35 “indictment” statements mean only that the sections were begun in those years, not that they were a finished product.

Most people in the Urantia movement take for granted that a small amount of human error began to filter into the revealed material as soon as the original handwritten papers were typed. Further minor errors were introduced during the typesetting process, unnoticed by the proofreaders. The original set of nickle-plated stereotypes thus contained errors, which appeared in the first printing of the Urantia Book. Everything that went before the plates – the handwritten pages, the typed manuscripts, etc. – was destroyed. At that point, the plates became the canonical Urantia Book.

Imperfections were supposed to distance the Urantia Book from anything that might appear supernatural or unduly extraordinary. They were, I’d supposed, mostly typographical in nature, with a few typos making some semantic difference. I had also learned that alterations were made to the text between the various printings and that some of them went beyond the correction of obvious typos.  This was not of great concern to those of us who noticed these things as the number of these semantic modifications was very small (fifteen, according to Mullins), and could easily be analyzed and evaluated by an enlightened readership. Mullins observes, however, that dispite revelator involvement through 1955, they apparently never mention these imperfections. This fact fits nicely with Gardner’s version of events.

Gardner attacks UB content on scientific grounds, on its uncanny similarities to some Seventh Day Adventist doctrine (in which W. S. Sr. was heavily involved in his earlier days), and upon it’s over all theological silliness. His theological criticisms are unfounded. He misunderstands the theology of the UB, and likely got much of it second hand. He notes for example that the UB’s concept of God The Supreme is reflected in the early 20th century theology of Teilhard de Chardin, but utterly misses the fact that Teilhard thinks he’s discovered the whole of God while the UB places the Supreme in a context much wider than anything Teilhard imagined.

The parallelisms Gardner identifies between the doctrines of Seventh-day Adventism (as expressed in the writings of Ellen G. White, one of the sect’s founders) and some of the teachings of the Urantia Book, are intriguing. Also interesting are the connections he draws between the UB’s teachings and some of Dr. Sadler’s philosophic beliefs and scientific views, as expressed in Sadler’s early books. Gardner suggests that Sadler must have felt betrayed when he discovered, in about 1906, that the supposedly prophetic revelations of Ellen White were often little more than plagiarisms of other human writers. Stung by this sense of betrayal, Sadler decided to create a new religion, adopting not only material from Seventh-day Adventism but White’s plagiaristic methods as well.

In this case, Gardner’s criticism finds a ready answer in the canon of UB thought. Revelation is not entirely new, but expresses itself largely from what exists. The Seventh Day Adventist connection could, after all, be one of the reasons W. Sadler Sr. was chosen by celestials for the task!  Gardner notes however, the number of coincidental agreements with Dr. Sadler’s other writing is very large on subjects as diverse as eugenics and humor. Gardner wants us to conclude that the UB was largely written by Sadler. Gardner, however, is at a loss to explain how the language of the UB, while reflecting Sadler’s own work, also makes distinctions and qualifications that Sadler’s thought lacks. Gardner does not notice that revelation is not utterly new. It borrows from the past, and filters it. Why shouldn’t Ellen White’s recognition of “soul sleep” happen to be a genuine insight?

Gardner’s criticisms of the science of the Urantia Book are very telling. He does a service to the Urantia movement by highlighting the “timebound” or erroneous data sprinkled through the first three Parts of the UB. He makes it clear that much of the UB’s science reflects the views, and is expressed in the style, of popular 1920’s scientific and semi-scientific literature. He also finds the UB’s political philosophy dated, characterizing the book’s call for world government as simply an echo of views advocated by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. It never occurs to Gardner that a world government of the kind the described in the UB makes sense regardless of its historical associations.

One begins to wonder, though, about the amount of timebound or erroneous information in the Urantia Book, and whether all of its material should be taken literally. Were Adam and Eve real people? Were they in fact “biologic uplifters” from Jerusem, or are they mythical characters created by the revelators in an attempt to foster a “creation myth” suitable for the early to mid 20th century. Gardner sees echoes of the Adam and Eve story in Sadler’s view of genetics and eugenics. They would be Dr. Sadler’s “creation myth”.

Moyer thinks that the more significant erroneous time bound data is the work of Caligastia via the channeling Christy, his attempt to corrupt the revelation. Indeed no one seems precisely to know just how many changes took place during this critical years from 1935 to 1942, the period on which Moyer focuses his attention. Moyer, and Mullins, based on Sadler’s off handed remarks concerning them, take these changes to be relatively few in number. Gardner, on the other hand, paints a picture of broad discrepancy between the UB and modern science. In the opinions of this reviewer, some of his criticisms are legitimate while others are not.   Moyer believes that Caligastia began influencing events through a channeling Christy in 1939. He grants (in personal conversation) that since she was personally responsible for small changes to the UB between the first two printings, and even up to her death in 1982, Caligastia would still have possessed a channel into the Urantia Foundation at least until that date.

Moyer alludes to events and policies that punctuate the history of the Urantia Movement since 1955. Gardner, not surprisingly, portrays this history as nothing but a parade of silliness and gullibility based upon a colossal fiction. It is left to Mullins to provide us with the most detailed and helpful analysis of everything that had happened in the history of the UB and the movement that surrounds it.

From the autocratic structure of the Book’s controlling body, unpopular with some as far back as the 1930’s, to textual changes unknown and unapproved by more than one of the original members of the Urantia Foundation, Mullins builds a case for the Urantia Foundation’s legal and moral default of its own declaration of trust. He also elaborates on the significance of the elite circle within the elite group that became the Urantia Foundation. Three of the original members of the Foundation were also contact commissioners, those involved directly in the receipt of the revelation. This gave them, and Emma Christensen in particular, a special status that has had its continuing impact to the present day.

Gardner does not understand Christy’s significance to the whole UB story. Moyer and Mullins well understand it, and both point a finger firmly at her as the focal point of much of what has occurred in the Urantia Movement even after her death. Christy believed that she received communications from midwayers (presumably) and/or other members of the celestial planetary government. Other prominent persons in the movement (including the other two contact commissioner Trustees) since 1955 and up to her death also believed this, or at least accepted the claim as a means of justifying policy. Moyer believes this process began in 1939 after the death of Lena Sadler. If Larry is correct about the sleeping subject mechanism being in place at every instance of communication until 1955, this would have been impossible.

What happened after the last 1955 contact was made however is another matter. Both Moyer and Mullins note that changes to the text between the first two printings were primarily Christy’s responsibility. Larry notes carefully that the change process, and the belief (on the part of some members of the UF) that Christy had a “special relation to the text” and continued if infrequent contact with celestials, is a critical component in their default as a body, but more importantly continues to have consequences for our present situation. Mullins’ patient examination of the mechanisms of the real – pre 1955 – contacts cast serious doubt on the veracity of any of these contact claims.

Too bad no body thought to examine these matters in the early 1960s! Christy’s stature brought both Martin Myers and Vern Grimsley into prominence. She saw something she liked in both young men, and invested them with early authority in the movement thanks to her continued relationship to celestials. Myers subsequently grew to become the goliath of the Urantia Foundation slaying creative initiative in the use and distribution of the content of the UB on the part of reader-believers with ceaseless litigation. No one more than he, a believer in Christy’s messages, was responsible for the schism that still rends the Urantia Movement today, while Vern Grimsley picked up the mantle of Christy’s contact with celestials itself!

Less than a year after Christy died, Vern was contacted by the midwayers! What followed that episode sent Urantian’s all over the U.S. literally and figuratively packing for the hills. The events that occured between that date and dissolution of The Family Of God Foundation (FOG), Vern’s organization, in March of 1984 changed the Urantia Movement forever. Ironically, Myers recognized that his fraternity brother was deluded and stood fast against the early pull to consolidate power in Grimsley’s hands. In a double irony, the disaffected members of FOG still retained a measure of power and respect in the Urantia Movement, and ended up among the strongest opponents of the policies of Martin Myers with whom they had, until the time of Grimsley’s contact, been allies!

Based on Mullins work, one might go as far as to say that even if the UB is certifiably divine, the entire history of the Urantia Movement since the first printing of the book has been, and continues to be, based on a tissue of lies and false belief starting with Christy’s continued contact with celestials! Even this notion continues to find expression throughout the Urantia Movement! Like the “religion about Jesus” begun on that fateful day of Pentecost by Peter, The notion of contact with celestials is a very powerful draw.   In the early 1990’s, after languishing for half a decade following the WWIII episode, not one, but numerous people came forth claiming to have been contacted. A whole new “phase of the revelation” was manifesting before our eyes (one way or another I’m afraid), and now, anyone could be contacted who desired it!

To Larry, this newest twist is yet another divisive event possibly fostered by the Urantia Foundation’s open declaration of their belief in the channeling activities of Christy: “We have reason to believe that none of the changes were made without the approval of the Revelators” they declare. Why shouldn’t celestials be talking to all of us? For Ernest, the present channeling wave is yet another channel of involvement by Caligastia who can disguise himself as anything and talk to anyone who simply declares him or herself open to chat! Lastly for Martin Gardner, it’s just another cycle in the silliness of UB readers proving only once again that some people will believe anything!

July 2001

As I was working on this review, another watershed event occurred in the history of The Urantia Book, and the movement. Both Martin Gardner and Larry Mullins touch on the subject of the Urantia Foundation’s litigious nature, a pattern solidified by Martin Myers, and based on a continuing Foundation claim to owning a copyright on the UB. Their original copyright expired in the early 1980’s, but they renewed it based, on a manifestly false claim, the UB was a “work for hire.”

Since that time, numerous Urantia Book readers have stepped forth in one way or another to challenge the Urantia Foundation’s right to a renewed copyright. The Foundation has predictably and consistently acted to protect its copyright claim by litigation, a process that has wasted millions of dollars and polarized the movement far more than even the recent spate of channeling. Gardner notes all of this infighting and suggests that it is still more evidence of the manifestly human origins of the book. Mullins more correctly recognizes that it is a reflection of the Book’s power; that many groups, some with conflicting claims, seek to attach themselves to it. Although Moyer doesn’t address these issues, he might justifiably note that all of the infighting that has gone on around this issue for the past 25 years might be in Caligastia’s interest.

The Urantia Foundation briefly lost its copyright in the mid 1990’s, but a judge’s order was overturned by another judge after a brief hiatus in the public domain. Now, in June of 2001, a jury in Oklahoma has now decided that the copyright renewal was invalid and The Urantia Book is once again in the public domain, this time, more securely (presumably) than it was before, though the Foundation has, of course, said it will appeal. This certainly presages a new era in the history of the Book. We can look forward to alternate printings in a variety of formats that may appeal to a wider audience. Whether this results in some resurgence of interest in the Book is difficult to predict. As in times past, we seem to take for granted that many people will be interested in this “pearl of great value”, but time and time again, our visions do not appear to materialize.

At least one of the missing ingredients has been the armies of dedicated believers whose lives are changed by contact with the UB and who subsequently share those changes with others. For decades those opposed to the copyright have argued that this continuing claim (and of course the litigation that follows from it) has acted to suppress the growth of private and public ministries that will elevate the Book into the religious consciousness of the Earth’s people. If this was a suppressive influence, it is now mostly gone. It remains to be seen if its absence makes a significant difference.

Matthew Rapaport

Review: The Despot’s Apprentice by Brian Klaas

Another of my review of Trump books. This one not about the daily doings of the administration, but more a psychological profile of Donald Trump and what he is doing to imitate autocrats and tyrants in an effort to erode American political institutions. Why? Like many autocrats (Trump a wanna-be autocrat, Klaas illustrates with many examples of real ones throughout the book) Trump does not seem strongly wedded to a political ideology. Rather his aim seems to be to keep himself in power as long as possible while enriching himself and his family.

Most autocrats leave it at that, but some become also despots by adding to the mix a fragile ego that thrives on self-aggrandizement, a characteristic of those who commit atrocities.  Trump is, alas, in this group as well, or would be if there weren’t powerful institutions around to constrain him, the very institutions he is doing his best to erode!

Most interestingly, this book was written in 2017, less than a full year into Trump’s first term. Even then, he has exercised (or attempted to exercise) every trick of every autocrat (or despot)  Klaas uses in his examples!

The other book reviews in this series (Trump) are listed a few paragraphs down in this link here.

 

The Despot’s Apprentice (2017) by Brian Klaas

Another in what is now a considerable series of books about the problematic Trump administration. Unlike the others I’ve reviewed, this one is less about day to day happenings in the West Wing, nor any history of how we got here. It is rather a comparison between the sorts of things Trump does personally (berate the media, accuse non-partisan government agencies of conspiring against him, dissemble, amass family wealth, and much more) and the acts of autocrats around the world both past and present. As it turns out, most of the autocrats do most of these things, but Trump does all of them. But Trump also adds in a fragile ego, and relative ignorance of the political process, something even most (though not all) of the real autocrats used for comparison, do not suffer.

The book’s chapters are not divided up by time or crisis, but by type of autocrat-like behavior. For example Trump’s attacks on free press, the politicization of non-partisan institutions (Trump has accused the Office of Management and Budget of conspiring against him), nepotism, personal and family financial gain, misdirection in foreign policy, and so on. Klaas begins almost every chapter with a brief review of one or more famous examples of such abuse either from history or today’s headlines. He does not neglect past American presidential examples either. The amazing thing about Trump is that he engages in all of them at the same time. More unbelievable still, this book was written less than one year after Trump formally took office! Now, almost four years into his term, the most alarming thing is that so many of these abuses are to a great degree taken for granted, or “the new normal” by the institutions that should be calling them out! The free press has stopped beating the drum because their audience has largely dialed out, and what used to be non-partisan institutions (the OMB, intelligence agencies, FBI, NASA [believe it or not]) are largely cowed into silence with “trump loyalists” dominating the upper echelons of their leadership.

To be sure, Klaas notes, America is not an autocratic nation, and Trump is no autocrat. But he does show every inclination to want-to-be an autocrat and that in itself is dangerous particularly when surrounded by other powerful people who want much the same thing. Further, the degree of political polarization in the United States, a social and political phenomenon that began long before Trump, becomes much more detrimental to the survival of a plural society and democratic regime when a want-to-be autocrat comes along and takes advantage of it. Trump has leveraged the polarization for his own personal gain and in so doing amplified it. If it was always difficult to bring both sides of the American polity together, it is rapidly becoming impossible.

Despot’s Apprentice is a short book that says a lot. Unfortunately, those who dislike Trump basically know all this about him already. For them this book will do no more than apprise them of the vast depth and breath of his malfeasance. For the others, the 30% of Americans who now believe (so the polls say) that a free press are the “enemy of the people”, such books as this will not be read thanks to the magnified political polarity Trump has deliberately fostered, and that is precisely the point of it all!

Book Review: The Room Where It Happened by John Bolton

Once again, for consistency sake (there being little of additional philosophical import) I include this review of John Bolton’s memoir of 18 months working as National Security Advisor from April 2018 to September 2019 for the Trump administration. It would I think be unfair of me to criticize Bolton on the basis of my politics compared to his. In point of fact I do not disagree with some of his assessment of threat situations. Iran and North Korea will never give up development/possession/proliferation of “weapons of mass destruction” (nuclear or otherwise). Bolton is quite right I think to believe that the only way to stop these developments is with overwhelming military force, but he is far to sanguine about assessments that, in response, millions of people (especially South Koreans) would die.

Is there any other option? India and Pakistan (bitter enemies for 72 years) possess nuclear weapons (Pakistan also a known proliferator) for some decades now and neither have used them (the potential collapse of the Pakistani State being another kind of problem). Perhaps there are sensible means of preventing N. Korea or Iran from ever using their weapons? In this respect, not sanctions, but trade and economic engagement make more sense. Why? Because when you tighten economic and diplomatic screws to the point where a people figure they have “nothing else to lose”, you provoke war rather than prevent it. Bolton knows history well enough to know this. He also knows what happened to Qaddafi in Libya after he gave up his weapons programs, yet dismisses this history as though it mattered not to Iranian, and especially to N. Korean calculations.

So I differ from Bolton on these matters, but I am not sure enough about my own views to say Bolton must be wrong. In any case this chasm between us does not take away from his observations and criticism of Trump’s administration concerning both substance and (more importantly) its lack of consistency, not to mention Trump’s self-serving, ego-maniacal fixations.

Like the other books reviewed in this series (“Fire and Fury”, “Fear”, “A Warning” “Devil’s Bargain”, “A Very Stable Genius”,  and “The Despot’s Apprentice”), this is a frightening book and the only one of the six reviewed focused on foreign policy.

The Room where it Happened (2020) by John Bolton

People mostly either like or dislike John Bolton based on their alignment with his politics. I do not see him that way. I have had jobs (never in government) where my role was to highlight and advocate for some specific aspect of a corporate hardware and software infrastructure. Bolton’s job was to advocate for the national security interests of the United States, and of course the recommendations he made (like mine) flowed from his background, experience, and yes, politics.

His experience is the key here, for Bolton has consummate knowledge of the workings of international institutions and also the governments they serve. He has also an appreciation for geopolitical history and isn’t afraid to call out a pointless exercise when he sees it. In part his politics is informed by his historical knowledge, for example the duplicity of nations like Iran, North Korea, and yes also China and Russia, with regard to respecting treaty obligations. But if anything makes Bolton more angry than Trump’s waffling and sometime expressed admiration for tyrants, it is his treatment of our own allies, the EU (NATO), Japan, and South Korea in particular. All this is revealed!

This book is about what Bolton found himself facing from April 2018 until September 2019, Eighteen short (must have seemed very long to him) months in the middle of Donald Trump’s administration. Reorganization of the NSA early in his tenure, the book touches on every new and on-going global threat of the time stemming from North Korea, Syria, Iran, Venezuela, Russia, China, and others. Each of these regions is a fount of over-lapping threats.

Bolton is in a unique position to appreciate the complexity of these situations. He castigates the Obama administration on a few matters, but points out, with some irony, that Trump’s instincts sometimes paralleled Obama! With regard to North Korea he is fair enough to note that none of the past four administrations (two Republican and two Democratic) have accomplished anything useful. When he alludes to differences in procedural style between Trump and former administrations, he mentions only the prior Republican administrations for whom he worked.

Very much this book is a detailed account of the operation of the Trump administration as concerns foreign national security issues with an occasional domestic matter (the Mexican border, Russia’s 2016 election interference) crossing the line. Although the NSA is involved in these matters, Bolton does his best to minimize his role in them, preferring the more global threats whether immediate or more temporally distant. As with my own some-time role in corporations, Bolton does not expect his boss to agree with his every recommendation. He notes that as goes national security, Trump’s instincts are often like his own. The problems threaded throughout the book are concerned with Trump’s flip-flopping almost constantly on matters where waffling, with mixed signals sent via tweets to the world, is universally detrimental to the outcome we want, that is a more, and not less, secure United States. There are a even a few examples, (to my politics not Bolton’s) where the President made the right call (even if for the wrong reasons) over Bolton’s recommendation as when Trump chose not to risk Iranian lives (Iranian body bags would make him look bad) in exchange for an American drone!

The bigger problem, as Bolton sees it, is that the decisions Trump does make, whether coming out right or wrong for national security, are made only on the basis of what Trump thinks makes him look good in the press, helps him in the 2020 election, or furthers the enrichment of his family! Along with all of this come also problems with the bureaucracy surrounding Trump. Bolton is an astute critic of bureaucracies in general (see his “Surrender is not an Option” also reviewed) and where warranted, individuals who do little to serve the organization’s purpose. In this regard the Trump administration is no different than others except for the extraordinary number of musical chair events and as consequence the style and substance variations already and still passing through this administration — including of course now Bolton himself.

In only a couple of places in the body of the book does Bolton call attention to what his government book reviewers forced him to remove. In an epilogue he describes a little more of this process but on the whole does not seem too unhappy with its results. He also offers a critique of the House impeachment process that got going after he left the NSA. This short analysis is among the most telling of Bolton’s real feelings about his time as National Security Advisor. He does not say that Trump should not have been impeached. The Ukraine matter over which the House obsessed was, in Bolton’s opinion, only one, and a lesser one at that, of Trump’s potentially impeachable offenses! The House should have taken more time, let the court processes (for documents) complete themselves at their own pace, and evidence of more serious malfeasance would have turned up! By rushing the job for political reasons, the Democrats shot themselves in the foot, and left Trump more unconstrained than he was before. No one, after all, is going to try to impeach him again!

Book Review: The Once and Future Liberal by Mark Lilla

I include this book and commentary here on the blog because it is an important contribution to the American political debate, not that anyone will be listening. There are few philosophical implications not brought out in the book itself. My purpose in this commentary is to note other of my reviewed books that address this issue, and to describe, briefly, my own experience with identity politics.

First Slavoj Zizek who in his recent book “The Courage of Hopelessness” (linked) and several other recent books, gets into this subject at some length making, in Zizek’s inimical style, exactly the same points. Another is Cathrine Mayer’s “Attack of the 50 Foot Women” (linked), and also Mickel Adzema’s “Culture War, Class War” (reviewed, but not on the blog. Link is to book on Amazon) which touch broadly on the same issues. All four of these books make the same point: Identity Politics has had a corrosive impact on the ability of liberal voters to come together with a coherent program offering any hope of countering the rise of intolerant Right-Wing politics. Adzema blames all of this on the political Right, but the other three note correctly that the Left is complicit in the process.

My own experience with identity politics comes from social media, the 21st century editorial arena. I was some years on Google+ (now defunct) and so now with an outfit called MeWe (MeWe.com) which is structurally similar. I am also on Twitter. As for Face Book, I have no account, but my girl friend has and she shows me plenty! All of these forums both illustrate and facilitate the corrosive impact of identity politics. This has become especially noticeable as we enter the 2020 election cycle. Identity politics narrows dialog between groups. Social media reinforces that constriction (the “silo” or “bubble” effect well noted by many authors) by allowing users to choose those and only those whose views they will see and to which they respond.

The various identity factions simply do not (or very rarely) talk to one another. I have been hammered (and blocked) by those identifying with the LGBTQ+ community, sub-segments of the black community, American natives, or sex workers, merely for suggesting that their political interests might be better served if they aligned, politically, with a wider community. None of them seem to get it. Hyper-narrow political self interest cannot foster the kind of broad consensus needed to take and hold political power in the United States.

The present Democratic field illustrates the problem. Half the candidates in the race are perceived (rightly or wrongly) as supporters, primarily, of one identity or another. Back on social media I cannot tell you how disappointed I am to note how many of their various supporters say they won’t vote if their favorite candidate is not the nominee, exactly the attitude (on the part of Bernie Sanders supporters) that got Trump elected in 2016. If I try to point this out to people, if I try to say in one way or another that electing a broadly liberal democrat, whomever it might be, is more important than any emphasis on a particular identity I am summarily rejected from the community of that particular silo.

You might think that climate change would be the sort of issue that could unite everyone. It is, like world war, a matter that impacts everyone. But climate change, while it will become far more disastrous than any world war to date (not to mention possibly spawning the next one), grows more impact-full over generational time scales, far longer than an election cycle. Compared to the immediacy of perceived identity discrimination, no one today has the patience to work for a solution to the already-upon-us effects that will continue to grow more severe for the next three or four generations even if we acted, as a world, both decisively and immediately.

In his conclusion, Lilla extols liberals to find a vision that will transcend narrow identity issues and gather the flock. Roosevelt did it in the 1930s, but his vision promised, and mostly delivered, change-for-the-better that could be felt over a single generation. I do not know what can be offered now that will fill that requirement!

The Once and Future Liberal by Mark Lilla (2017)

This is the story of what ails the American Left, really the center-left, the vanishing species called “the American liberal”. Lilla begins with what he takes to be the furthest left America has ever been, roughly that period from 1934 to 1970 (the “Roosevelt Era”), quickly fading and dead with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The American Left wasn’t socialist, and certainly not communist. It did represent the redistribution of tax wealth into projects that uplifted the broad swath of the American people producing infrastructure, regulation, and services that made possible all the subsequent wealth coupled with a clean environment generated from 1980 to the present. It also kicked off the social movements that resulted in a more inclusive American society. Not only was it inclusive, it was a vision of shared moral responsibility, citizenship. A vision that motivated even the hippy movement of the 1960s.

In a sense the left did too well. The social fabric of the country and its booming economy made it possible for individuals to abandon the moral demands of a citizenship and focus instead on their individual aims, goals having no moral obligation to the nation. By 1980, the Roosevelt vision of a shared America where people and their government worked together to uplift all had lost its luster. In his re-election campaign, Jimmy Carter told the American people that recovery from the excesses of “Great Society” spending and the Vietnam war would take work, conservation, a shared vision of doing the hard work now so things would be better again in the future. In short, Carter advocated austerity (ironically, had America taken that path we would be now much farther along in the process of curtailing greenhouse gas — this an aside, not Lilla’s subject).

Reagan guessed correctly at the new national mood. He resurrected the myth of American hyper-individualism in a later 20th century form (ironically beginning the debt-fueled-growth America remains locked in today). Moral obligation to “the nation” disappeared from the American dialog, all the way down to the elimination of civics lessons in public schools. This, the “Reagan Era” has continued on down to today. The election of Donald Trump marks the logical conclusion of this doctrine, the idea that if everyone just does the best he or she can to get what he or she wants, the country will do fine. But when a national people are shorn of any obligation to think in national terms they gradually lose the ability to do so. The result is a loss of shared identity, a reason to compromise with others with whom you may have political disagreement.

Meanwhile back in the late 70s, on to Reagan’s election and beyond to today, the Left, the liberals, having accepted that things had changed, made a strategic blunder, really two of them. First, they put their energy into higher education figuring that a technologically savvy America would require large numbers of people with advanced educations. Surely their choice proved correct from an economic viewpoint, but not the political. The universities became separated from the broad middle of the country, their graduates perceived as effete snobs “out of touch” with the average person.

The second blunder was worse. Liberals abandoned the “all in it together” vision that had given liberalism its power in the post WWII period. Instead, liberals began emphasizing more narrow definitions of identity, dissipating what had been previously unified. This proved highly popular with students because it reinforced their natural tendency to identify with people more like themselves instead of making broader and more difficult connections demanding compromise. The result emphasized the Reagan vision of hyper individualism and helped corrode away any pull that a broader concept of “belonging as citizen” might have had.

This then is the problem we face today and for the next (2020) election cycle. The Right’s hyper-individualism has wiped out much of the middle class creating a nation of the hyper-rich few and the mass of the rest whose economic prospects have steadily dimmed over the past 50 years. But the modern left (the liberals and progressives) have offered no unifying vision. Instead they are trapped in the monster they created, the intolerance-of-difference of modern identity politics. Lilla ends here, extolling the liberal-left to articulate a new “all in it together” vision. Alas, I see no evidence of this happening.

All of this is the subject of Lilla’s book. I have tried to summarize it here, but there is more in the details he gives us.

Book Review: The Universe in a Single Atom

Picture of me blowing smoke

We’ve all heard of or noticed it… The solar system: a sun and planets, mostly empty space. The atom: a nucleus and electrons, mostly empty space. As above, so below! The analogies are in-exact, but they still serve to illustrate that the stuff of the universe is mostly empty. That part is true unless you count fields. Fields aren’t made of atoms but they do pervade empty space. In this book there isn’t much discussion of fields, though they are mentioned. Mostly the book is about consciousness, but I’m going to focus on the metaphysics of Buddhism as the Dalai Lama summarizes it because as must be the case it grounds the Buddhist view of consciousness, identity, and has implications for the matter of free will.

It all begins with that emptiness. It is worth quoting some key passages here because they hold in their language the key to their truth and error.

“At its [the theory of emptiness] heart is the deep recognition that there is a fundamental disparity between the way we perceive the world, including our own existence in it, and the way things actually are. In our day-to-day experience, we tend to relate to the world and to ourselves as if these entities possess self-enclosed, definable, discrete, and enduring reality. … The philosophy of emptiness reveals that this is not only a fundamental error, but also the basis for attachment, clinging, and the development of our numerous prejudices.”

“All things and events, whether material, mental, or even abstract concepts like time, are devoid of objective, independent existence. To possess such independent, intrinsic existence would imply that things and events are somehow complete unto themselves and are therefore entirely self-contained. This would mean that nothing has the capacity to interact with and exert influence on other phenomena.”

“Effectively, the notion of intrinsic, independent existence is incompatible with causation. … Things and events are ’empty’ in that they do not possess any immutable essence, intrinsic reality, or absolute ‘being’ that affords independence.”

“In our naive or commonsense view of the world, we relate to things and events as if they possess and enduring intrinsic reality. We tend to believe that the world is composed of things and events, each of which has a discrete, independent reality of its own, and it is these things with discrete identities and independence that interact with one another.”

Is his eminence correct about our ordinary, commonsense way of seeing things? I do think my automobile is a discrete particular I can positively identify in part because it endures through time. But those existence (enduring through time) and identity (my car, is a different particular from your car) criteria exist only because a mind (mine or yours) abstracts them from the concrete reality of the object. Independence here (in both the commonsense and philosophical view) implies only independence of a particular from mind. The object exists and has certain characteristics that I can name, but I do not create them. Nor, however does it imply that there endurance is any more than temporary, for a time, and that one day they will cease to exist.

Obviously automobiles can interact with the world causally. Certain of their properties, mass for example, have causal implications. If all the Dalai Lama is saying here is that no object, no event, is permanent, eternal, then this is but a trivial truth. It seems to his eminence that “independent existence” entails changelessness, not merely “mind independence”. Of course he is right that material object or event is eternal, but that does not mean it lacks all independent existence if only “for a time”. The object is not empty, even though it is temporary.

I do not agree with a lot of what Graham Harman believes, but he does handle this issue well. In summary:

1. Everything (material things, events, thoughts, intrinsic and extrinsic relations, etc) is an object.
2. Every object has both an essence and dispositional properties. The dispositional properties can be enumerated and quantified, the essential properties never entirely known.
3. Even given #2, objects and their essences are temporary. They come into existence at a time and go out at another time.
4. It is through their dispositional properties, not essences, that objects interact causally and relationally.

Harman claims to be a realist albeit from a continental background. While he need not represent here the majority opinion in modern philosophy he is comfortable with objects having an essence which does not participate in events (causally or otherwise) and at the same time dispositional properties that do. I suppose what makes this possible is temporal dependence, something the Dalai Lama denies is possible for essences. Because no eternal object exists (East and West [mostly] agree), they cannot (in the Lama’s view) therefore have essences. In the Western view (if one holds there are essences), this object, essence and all, had a beginning and will have an end. Putting this another way, the one physical phenomenon to which essences relate, or in which essences participate, is time!

Another quote is telling: “By according intrinsic properties of attractiveness, we react to certain objects and events with deluded attachment, while toward others, to which we accord intrinsic properties of unattractiveness, we react with deluded aversion.”

If there is one thing all modern western philosophy has in common it is the assumption that there is such a thing as “mind-independent reality”. The debate in Western terms is over what can be said or known about the mind-independent world, not its existence. To a realist, real objects (whose dispositional properties are discoverable by mind) exist and have all their properties, essential or otherwise, prior to and independent of their apperception by any individual mind, human or animal. Not all objects are like this of course. Thought-objects (Harman a big fan) of course do not, but even some material objects. A particular automobile, once built and prior to its someday destruction, is mind-independent now, but its origin in the past, its coming into existence as a mind-independent object, cannot have been possible without some mind’s intervention in the causal stream.

Who today, in the Western tradition, would say that attractiveness was an intrinsic property? It is in the Western sense, a relational property between some (possibly) presently-mind-independent object’s dispositional properties and some mind! One of the insights of modern science is that the mechanisms of the mind-independent universe (essences or not) are teleology-free (see “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”)! Attractiveness, by contrast, is implicitly teleological. It is attractiveness for the purposes of some mind whether for some pleasure, survival, or merely aesthetic appreciation.

In the Dalai Lama’s view, the ground of all reality is empty of all properties. At this ground, there is no distinction to be made between mind-dependent and mind-independent reality. All are equally empty. His eminence takes this to be a fundamental truth. So when we get to what amounts to an illusion of a differentiated world he does not, other than superficially (from within the illusion) distinguish between mind-dependence and mind-independence, emptiness all!

There is yet another problem. The emptiness doctrine might be incoherent. If the fundamental ground of everything including space and time is emptiness where does all this illusory stuff come from? That is to say where does anything that can have illusions come from? Emptiness at least implies quiescence. Not only must it be free of any real, mind-independent, stuff, it is free also of any process. Nothing happens! How is it that anything comes to be at all?

How does the emptiness doctrine impact the matter of free-will? If the differentiation of everything is an illusion, then that we (an illusion) have an effective will must also be illusion. One of the great differences between Hinduism, and especially Buddhism, as compared to Judeo-Christianity and Islam is that the former religions aim at being a “vessel of the divine”. The personal goal of those religions is to realize the emptiness of all that is. The net result is quiescence, merging with emptiness as a drop of water merges with the ocean. Will, among our illusions, has nothing therefore to do. In fact doing anything, willing anything is counterproductive, and precisely what leads to desire and misery. It isn’t that God wants us to do nothing, it is that like everything else God is empty. Technically speaking there is no “divine” only the empty ground of all that is.

Western religions, by contrast are religions of action. God and the universe are not nothing. They have positive existence. The goal of these religions is to bring what God wants (ultimately for us to love one another) to fruition and this takes place only when we freely will (of our own volition) and so act (or attempt to act) to bring that state about now and in the future. If free will does not exist (not because all is empty but because only brain-states have any causal efficacy) obviously this would be impossible; impossible that is to “freely choose” to do God’s will.

If a transcendent God of a sort envisioned by Western religions exists (this is not to say the real God would in all qualities be what is said of him in Western holy books see “Prolegomena to a Future Theology” for a less conflicted portrait) not only must free will be real, it must be the linchpin of the process for getting from the present to the future God intends (see “Why Free Will?”). But why would an omnipotent transcendent God set things up this way? Why not just make the universe the way he intends it to be from the beginning? The answer can be inferred from our sensitivity to values (see “What are Truth, Beauty, and Goodness?”) free will itself. What God intends must be that universe resulting from the mass-exercise of value-sensitive minds freely electing to instantiate (literally “make instances of”) the values.

If the Dalai Lama’s metaphysics of emptiness was true, and everyone on Earth achieved union with it, human history would end; everyone would starve to death! By contrast if the transcendent God exists, and everyone freely chooses, to the best of their evolving capacities, to do his will (the collective instantiation of truth, beauty, and goodness being love) the life of every individual on the world would be paradisaical! Because we (who are not illusions in this view) are partnering with God, freely choosing his way rather than what might be our own, the universe ends up better (apparently) than what God could have done by himself because all value-discriminating wills in the universe are freely on board!

The Universe in a Single Atom by the Dalai Lama 2005

Who can critique the Dalai Lama? He is a smart, wise, man with a curiosity about pure science, and a pragmatic streak about technological applications. Should they benefit mankind, alleviate suffering, they are good. The Dalai Lama seems to have wanted to write this book thanks to a life-long fascination with science coupled with insights of his years of Buddhist training. He tells us as a boy growing up he had no training in western science whatsoever, but he was fascinated with a few (first-half 20th century) examples of western technology belonging to his predecessor. As a young man, once vested in his office, he availed himself of a new-found access to many of the world’s greatest minds, philosophers, scientists, artists, and so on. He has gone on talking and learning from great minds ever since.

After this introduction, the book looks at the physical (cosmology, quantum mechanics, relativity) and then life sciences. I was hoping he would not get into a “Buddhism discovered it first” argument, and mostly he does not. He comes close on the subject of quantum mechanics but I think mostly because at the time, the people from whom he learned it still took seriously the idea that individual human minds (for example that of a researcher) could be responsible for wave-function collapse. If this were true (the idea has long been put to rest as concerns individual minds) the tie-in with the Buddhist mind-first world-view and deep exploration of that first-person (consciousness) world would indeed be strong.

Even within quantum mechanics his eminence is sensitive to the great gulf between the western scientific paradigm and the focus of Buddhism. He well illustrates these differences while pointing out to scientists that much of what they take to be the “structure of reality” is a metaphysical assumption. It does not follow necessarily from scientific methodology which so well illuminates structure as concerns the physical world.

But this same methodology can say very little about consciousness. It is with consciousness that he spends much of the book examining the views of modern brain-science and how they might relate to Buddhist discoveries. The views of these different worlds stem as much from the purposes of their separate investigations as the technique; empirical 3rd-party evaluation versus highly-trained rigorous introspection. Becoming a master monk takes as many years as obtaining a PhD in physics (more in fact), but he mis-uses the term ’empirical’ here. What the monk does and what the monk learns in the doing should not be dismissed by western science, but it is still subjective and for that reason not empirical. He advocates for joint research. Neuro-scientists together with trained monks, he thinks, might help unlock some of the mind’s mysteries. He also is aware that not all mysteries are unlock-able!

In the book’s penultimate chapter he uses the then-new technology of genetic manipulation to plead with the scientific community to take it slow. He wants us all to be asking the right questions concerning the long term affects of the possibilities on our humanity. Here the contribution of Buddhism is the importance of compassion, of constant awareness of the mission to alleviate suffering. He is very good at identifying frightening possibilities in the technology and lists them. At the same time, aspects of the field, the need to produce more food, provided it isn’t motivated purely by financial gain, can be good. In his last chapter, his eminence returns to the same subject, a cooperation between science and Buddhism’s focus on bettering the human estate, not only physically or biologically, but socially, psychologically, and spiritually.

The book is full of interesting philosophical implications I will perhaps explore on my blog. These have more to do with physics, cosmology, and what western philosophy calls metaphysics than with consciousness which Buddhism takes more or less for granted. The idea that the stuff of the universe is fundamentally phenomenal suffuses all schools of Buddhism, while in the West the idea, while not unknown, is viewed with great suspicion. Where consciousness is concerned, his emphasis falls on intentionality, our capacity to direct our attention, but he never mentions free will. Like consciousness itself, perhaps Buddhism takes free will for granted.

Review: Philosophy of Mind by Edward Feser 2006

One would expect a book on this broad subject to leave some dangling issues. Dr. Feser’s sympathies clearly lay with Aristotelian dualism, even theism. He begins with a nuanced statement of Cartesian Substance Dualism. His aim is to explicate the logical strength of substance dualism, aware also of its primary weakness (the “interaction problem”) and then ask if the various alternatives to it, particularly those promulgated by materialist philosophers of the 20th and 21st centuries, are coherent in their own right and if so, successfully defeat dualism’s logic.

As noted in the review (reproduced below with a link to the book on Amazon) Feser spends the bulk of the book on this latter task. He demonstrates that none of the suggested alternatives actually work. Some (eliminativism of two kinds and epiphenominalism) are incoherent, while others (functionalism, behaviorism, and many others) fail to capture the substance of subjective first person experience, in effect explaining it away. Most of these critiques focus on epistemological issues, but some also run into metaphysical issues, indeed the same “interaction problem” faced by Cartesian dualism (see also “From What Comes Mind” and “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”).

Having demolished the contenders, Feser asks if there is something else, a different sort of dualism that might work and yet not require or point to theism? His solution is Aristotelian Hylomorphic dualism. Alas, as noted in the review, here he fails but doesn’t seem to notice it. Either the form emerges from the facts of the assemblage that is the brain, or it is added intentionally from the outside. Hylomorphism either collapses into reductive (or supervenient) materialism, or it leads back to something that must stand in the place of, if not be, God. Feser leaves this matter dangling.

Other issues dangle. Feser cites many authors I’ve read, among them David Chalmers, but as I read Feser, he seems to misunderstand Chalmers’ “property dualism”, more or less equating it with epiphenomenalism,  the idea that our mental arena is merely an accidental by-product of brain function with absolutely no causal consequence. It is precisely the point of Chalmers’ property dualism that it does have causal consequence and so is not epiphenomenal but rather a radical emergence.

From the physics of brains alone emerges what amounts to a substance with novel properties, the upward property of subjective experience itself, and a downward causal power, subjective will, on that same physics. Chalmers, being bothered by the radical character of the emergent subjectivity, speculates on panpsychism or various types of monisms that might be embedded in physics and so support such an emergence (see above linked “Fantasy Physics…” essay for details). These various ideas for sources of the phenomenal in a hidden property of the physical are quasi-material in Feser’s taxonomy.

Another matter of interest to me is Feser’s characterization of substance dualism. His sketch is more nuanced than that usually given by his materialist peers but there are other possibilities that yet remain broadly Cartesian. For example, a property dualism supported by the presence of a spacetime field that is not physical but also not phenomenal (or proto-phenomenal).

The field need not be mind as such. It need have no phenomenal/proto-phenomenal properties of its own. Viewed from the material, mind is a radical emergence (upward) and has, as a result of its novel properties, also downward causal qualities. Its appearance, however, its form and nature, is the result of an interaction with this everywhere present (and yes, mysterious) field and not equally mysterious undetectable properties embedded in physics. For a detailed explication of this model see my “From What Comes Mind?”

Of course an “interaction problem” comes immediately forward. This hypothetical field is, after all non-material. But this interaction issue is the same faced by property dualism generally along with panpsychism, and Russelian or dual-aspect monism. All of these theories propose proto-phenomenal properties embedded in micro physics or the universe as a whole, but none ever say how exactly to identify the proto-phenomenal, in what exactly its properties consist. Nor do they speculate on their origin, and how they interact with the physical we know; how exactly they perform their teleological function driving the physical towards [genuinely] phenomenal expression.

Feser notes that materialist philosophers always cite “Occam’s Razor” as reason for rejecting theism and so any sort of substance dualism. He should somewhere have noted Occam’s Razor is supposed to apply to two or more theories that equally explain all the data! Theism answers two of the questions left dangling by quasi-materialisms. It explains why it is we find the phenomenal, any phenomenal proto or otherwise, only in association with brains. It has also an origin story in theistic intentionality, the phenomenon we find at the core of the recognizably phenomenal, our phenomenal, itself!

Quasi-materialisms deny intention in the proto-phenomenal leaving the transition to intention in brains hooked (metaphysically) on nothing. None of this, not the postulation of a field or the proto-phenomenal explains how exactly interaction occurs. The problem with theism isn’t merely the interaction (about which at least “God knows the trick”) equally suffered by all the non-eliminative materialisms. The problem is the postulation of an intentional source of the field supporting intentionality as we experience it. Yes this is a big pill to swallow, but without it we can say nothing about how any of this works anyway. Rejecting the possibility of theism leaves behind more mysteries than it resolves.

Surely suggesting that there is an intentional (minded) source of intentional, subjective mind begs the question. Of course it does! It remains, however, a coherent, possibility! God can not only be conceived, his necessary qualities can be specified to considerable detail (see my “Prolegomena to a Future Theology”). It isn’t clear that the proto-phenomenal can be conceived, and even if we allow its conceivability there seems to be nothing that can be said at all about any  of its qualities.

I said at the end of the book review I would say something about free will. Feser does not mention it. Free will is related to intentionality. The ability to direct our attention purposefully is the core of the matter and some (Schopenhauer) would say it, is the essence of the conscious self! “Mental causation” or in Rescher’s terms initiation is, when not subconscious, agent-directed. We experience our agency as will (and this why the ‘free’ in ‘free will’ is redundant’ see “All Will is Free”). Will’s  relation to “philosophy of mind” should be obvious. We experience our volitional agency in mind, and like qualia and intention, the nature of volitional agency is mysterious, doubly so because it is a mystery on top of a mystery!

I have said much about free will and its associated agency elsewhere in the blog. On the negative side (the absurdity of denying it) see “Arguing with Automatons”, and “The Nonsensical Notion of Compatibilism”. On the positive side, “Why Free Will”, “Why Personality”, and “The Mistake in Theological Fatalism”.

The two best books on the subject are “Free Will: A Philosophical Reappraisal” by Nicholas Rescher and E. J. Lowe’s “Personal Agency”. My own books, “Why this Universe” and “God, Causal Closure, and Free Will” both address the subject.

 

Philosophy of Mind by Edward Feser (2006)

I picked up Feser’s “Philosophy of Mind”, a book in an introductory series, for the sake of little else to read at the time, but I’m glad I did. It is, perhaps the best basic-evaluation of this subject (one of my specialty areas) I have ever read. It doesn’t merely introduce and review the subject. It makes an argument, a point about the present philosophical state-of-the art on the nature of mind, and does it very well.

Feser begins by introducing the subject and settles on representative-realism (the external world is real more or less as we experience it, but what we experience as subjects is nevertheless a representation of it) as the fundamental datum which a philosophy of mind must account. He then moves to examine the various proposals put forth by modern philosophers, some with their roots back in classical Greek times. He begins with Cartesian (substance) Dualism, a rather more sophisticated treatment than is usually accorded by modern philosophy. He shows us that substance dualism rests on more solid logical foundations than is usually acknowledged even if it smacks of being unscientific thanks to its infamous “interaction problem”.

From that point Feser looks at what has been offered as alternatives to Dualism, various materialisms (eliminative, functionalism, behaviorism, pure epiphenomenalism, causalism, reduction and supervenience) and quasi-materialisms (panpsychism, Russelian-monism, property dualism). All of this treatment constitutes the bulk of the book and as he covers each solution there emerges the best taxonomy of philosophies-of-mind I have yet seen. The modern emphasis on qualia is explored thoroughly but he argues that intentionality, even given the representational realism with which he begins, is more important, more central to mind and consciousness, than qualia.

In doing all of this Feser drives home the point that none of the alternatives is without serious metaphysical or epistemological problems. All of the quasi-materialisms, in fact, come up against the same interaction problem as substance dualism, and the others are either incoherent (two sorts of eliminativism), or simply do not get at two core problems: why do we experience anything at all and why does the subject that appears throughout all experience seem so obviously causally potent?

In the last chapter Feser asks if there is anything else that does address the core issue without having to invoke what ultimately comes down to God? His answer is Aristotle’s “Hylomorphic Dualism” (also championed by Thomas Aquinas though his variation relies directly on God). To explain consciousness, to get at its core and resolve the ever-present interaction problem, Feser says all we have to do is reject the contemporary physicalist insistence that material and efficient causes (two of Aristotle’s four leaving out formal and final cause) exhaust causality in the universe. This would be, to say the least, a big pill for 21st Century science, and most of philosophy, to swallow.

Further while Hylomorphic dualism might deal nicely with the epistemological issues Feser everywhere touches, it does no better than the quasi-materialisms concerning the metaphysical. Either the form of the human mind springs entirely from the arrangement and dynamics of physical particles, in which case we are back to reductive or supervenient materialism, or it does not. But if it does not, where does it come from? That physics cannot detect any teleology in the physical universe does not mean it isn’t there. It does mean that it has to come from somewhere other than physics and be prior to individual human minds. We are on the way back to God.

There is also a notable absence. Feser never mentions free will. A discussion might be beyond Feser’s scope in this book, but I’m surprised he did not at least note its obvious relation to intentionality. I will cover this and other implications in a blog commentary.

Why “One Size Fits All” Ontologies Never Work: Horgan, Harman, and DeLanda

There are three books from contemporary philosophers advocating for “one size fits all” ontologies. Each of them is strikingly different. In this commentary I’m going to focus on the meta-philosophical issue of a problem common to all of these ideas and by extension, all “one size fits all” ontologies. Ontologists do one of two things. They describe or catalog “what exists” or “what is real”, or they try to say something about the foundational qualities or properties of reality; what is “most fundamental” about what exists. All three of these philosophers are doing “what exists” sorts of ontologies.

As always, the three books I discuss are listed below with links to their editions on Amazon. Each title (except Horgan, I’ve linked my separate review of him here) is followed by the text of the review I posted to Amazon. I write these commentaries because their issues are out of place in a book review as such.

I’ll begin quickly with Terrence Horgan whose book “Austere Realism” I’ve reviewed separately (see link above). Horgan is the extreme minimalist. There is for him only one object that fully exists in the universe, and that is the universe in total (he calls it the ‘blobject’). Everything that we humans envision as existing (atoms, stars, animals, artifacts, and our own minds) exist only as affectations of language, a “fashion de parler”. As affectations, and for pragmatic purposes such “existence talk” is all well and good, but it is false to move from there to an ontological commitment; to the literal existence of any of these things. But Horgan is also a realist. The differentiation within the blobject (or of the blobject) are real. They are “mind independent differentiations” of the blobject. They are not “objects in their own right” but merely variations in the one object.

I’ve written before about Graham Harman here, and his collaborative work with DeLanda here. But I haven’t written about this particular book, “Object Oriented Ontology” in which Harman tries to address an issue I brought up in my review of other books, his “ontological idea” seeming to pop out of nowhere. In this book Harman describes more or less where his OOO idea comes from. It reinforces my idea that while proclaiming himself a realist he somewhat straddles the line between realism and anti-realism.

Harman’s approach is exactly opposite that of Horgan. Everything, stars, governments, ideas, relations between ideas or things, arbitrary sets, fictional characters, events, all real, all distinct objects. His is the ultimate ontological plurality but he is careful to say that while all are objects, not all objects are of the same sort. Some for example, like fictional characters, are real yet do not exist. Harman’s goal is a univocal causality. If rocks, governments, corporations, and ideas can be causes what does this say about the nature of causation in general?

Of the three authors, DeLanda’s ideas are the easiest to reconcile with common sense. Basically he observes that most differentiated things in the universe are composed of other things. They have parts that are extrinsic to the phenomenon of which they are parts. That means such parts can be removed and replaced by something similar (but not identical) and still retain their identity. In addition, these things composed of parts can become parts of other wider or larger things exhibiting new causal potentials.

As concerns ontological commitments, for Horgan, planets and governments do not exist as such, only the blobject actually exists but it happens to be differentiated into recognizable particulars that we can label in any way we see fit for pragmatic and scientific purposes. Horgan is interested mostly in what makes scientific discourse (say about stars) true even if stars do not, strictly speaking exist.

DeLanda agrees with Horgan that governments and stars do not belong in a strict ontology. What exists are assemblages each existing in a hierarchy of assemblages. Presumably the hierarchy goes all the way up to Horgan’s blobject, and all the way down to protons. But DeLanda does manage to clearly distinguish between social assemblages having physical expressions and potentials (governments, banks), and physical assemblages like stars and galaxies. What is important in both cases is that it is the assemblage that has ontological gravitas because it has causal potentials whether those are the potentials of a government or an asteroid.

Neither Horgan nor DeLanda are “essentialists” as concerns either what does or does not “strictly belong” in an ontology. There is no “hidden center” or essence to what belongs in ontology. If we had a complete description of everything (which for various reasons, linguistic, and perspectival, we cannot have) we would have fully exhausted being. Harman says no, that each object has an essence or being that we cannot even in principle ever exhaust. This includes “real objects” that do not exist like fictional characters. It is precisely this essence to which an object’s qualities are attached. Like objects have like qualities but their essence makes them individual. Objects are not merely “bundles of properties” described by a spacetime worm. Properties inhere in something and the being of that object, what makes it real, is whatever that something is.

Horgan is after the truth and meaningfulness of scientific discourse. He establishes this even in the face of his extreme ontological claim, and I believe this may be his point; “even given the blobject, science can be true”. Harman is after causation and he gets there but at the cost of an ontology as copious as Horgan’s is sparse. To make it all work, Harman’s objects must be divided up in various ways, much depending on what amounts to the classical distinction between mind and the mind-independent world. Harman does give us a nice account of fictional characters, but not really different from yet another “new realist” Maruzio Ferraris (reviewed here) who gives us the same account without the causal metaphysics. I am not sure how DeLanda would handle fictions. They surely have expressions in the physical (books, films) but I am not sure they could be said to have causal properties of their own. Certainly not outside minds that encounter and interpret the physical expressions.

Horgan and Harman are the two strictest “one size fits all” ontologists, DeLanda is less so, but even viewed as a one size fits all proposal, assemblages require little ad hoc maneuvering (Harman) or stipulation (Horgan and Harman) to fit in with most if not all of our experience. The common sense fact is that almost everything is made of other things. None of these views address mind very well though to be sure all are implicitly physicalist so brains are surely objects, assemblages, or proper differentiations of the blobject.

Harman, taking us back to Heideggar, claims that the contents of consciousness are all objects. This works fine as concerns sensory representations, even beliefs and memories. It is less clear how attitudes and intentions are objects. To the extent that both amount to ideas they have an object-hook. Both intentions and attitudes have causal properties. Ideas can lead us to actions. If that qualifies them for object-hood, so be it.

DeLanda’s ontology is “one size fits all” in the form of things and not the things themselves. He does not insist that literally everything real (fictional or otherwise) is an assemblage. By contrast Harman and Horgan do claim that their ontologies cover everything. That they likely do not is demonstrated by how they must each be twisted to make them work. For Horgan, scientific truth, even epistemology in general, floats free of the “true ontology”. For Harman, objects must be distinguished into partly overlapping classes or kinds, universals like existing and non-existing, symbiotic and dormant, real and sensual (both of these last categories real in the strict ontological sense), and so on.

Only Horgan claims there is literally but one existing thing. Harman counts literally everything (remember even thoughts and arbitrary relations) as real objects but must then divide them up into many categories to make the idea come out. Why not merely objectify the category and claim that these universals are the foundation of the real? For DeLanda it is a structure of relations that is [almost] universal, but what emerges from such a structure is, like Harman, both distinct and real provided we are careful to distinguish between the abstraction naming it (star, or government) and the reality (an assemblage) of its composition and history.

Horgan and Harman are “ontologies of the now”. Neither takes much account of time. Time is involved in the differentiation of the blobject (Horgan) of course and objects (Harman) come, go, and change through time, but neither theory demands time to make its basic point. Only DeLanda’s ontology demands time because both the coming-to-be of assemblages and their impacts have intrinsically temporal dimensions. Assemblages include as a proper part their own history and possible future effects on events, other assemblages.

Though each of these ontologies are different they all suffer from a species of triviality. If literally everything is an X, then to say that “only Xs exist” is a difference that makes no difference. Horgan shows that scientific truths can remain firmly grounded even in the face of a stipulated truth: “all is one”. Harman’s idea is also, ultimately, a stipulation. He can’t really deliver an equivocal causation, only one that can be “thought of” like that. If all cause lies between categories (the real and the sensual) that doesn’t tell us much about it. It also might be that there is something important about the difference between the categories and not merely the objects in them. Non-arbitrary categories (perhaps material particulars and some universals) might indeed exist, while arbitrary ones (random sets, trivially contingent relations — “taller than”) do not.

Harman’s distinction between the important and the trivial is also arbitrary. What appears dormant or unimportant from our perspective might be symbiotic from another. DeLanda’s triviality is a little different. Remember that each of these philosophers is a materialist and so ultimately, whatever should be both “real and exist”, it must begin with atoms that are surely assemblages. So while Harman and Horgan’s ontologies ultimately come down to stipulations, DeLanda’s, by contrast, is observational, and if he is right, if everything is some part of everything else (the universe at least), his observation must be true (at least of the material world) and so is also trivial.

In the end none of these “one size fits all” ontologies fit the universe of our experience because the universe is not a one size fits all arena. If there is a God then there are three fundamental mind-independent joints in reality (see Prolegomena to a Future Theology), spirit, mind (not individual minds but the phenomenon of mind in general), and matter — the material world experienced by individual minds. Even if there is no God and individual minds emerge only from the functioning of brains (i.e. brains are sufficient, a dubious proposition disallowed by physics — see Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind), it is prima facia absurd to assert that mind is material, even more absurd to say it doesn’t exist. Individual minds, once emerged, have an impact on the unfolding of events. Mind is not physical and yet causally efficacious notwithstanding that what propagates its causal effect in the physical is a physical body controlled by a mind.

Aside from these three authors (Ferraris does not try to construct a universal ontology) I haven’t encountered another “one size fits all” ontology. If I do in the future I am confident that like these three any truth it contains will be but a trivial truth.

——————

Austere Realism by Terrence Horgan 2008
See my review and commentary here

Assemblage Theory by Manuel DeLanda 2016

Manuel DeLanda’s book is a mature attempt at explaining what “assemblage theory” is and its relation to the philosophical sub-discipline of ontology. Assemblage theory can be applied to other philosophical domains but first you have to understand what it says about what there is. To put it in its simplest form, most things in the world are assemblages. They are (1) made of parts that might be exchanged for sufficiently similar parts (parts are “extrinsic”), (2) have properties and potentials that the parts do not have other than as the assemblage, and (3) they can, in turn, become parts of larger assemblages having novel properties and potentials in part made possible by the contribution of its sub-assemblages.

Assemblages are rather intuitive in fact. We are all familiar with many of them. We are a part of some of them, and it is natural to see in the world differently scaled phenomena (from atoms to galaxies, even the universe) that all appear to be assemblages. DeLanda then begins from a place that matches most intuitions about the world, and he does not insist that everything that is MUST be an assemblage. There are things of the world that are not, but by-in-large very much of our familiar world consists of assemblages.

DeLanda then explores many of these familiar things as encountered through human history. He explores tools (machines), people themselves, language, cities, society, wars, and so on. A particular point he wants to make is that every noun I used in the last sentence is a made-up “making real” (reification or “to reify”) of things that don’t really exist simpliciter. DeLanda understands that to make up these concepts is perfectly legitimate for ordinary discourse, but he is not committed to “their existence” as these things. Rather his commitment is to the assemblages from which they are composed and the higher-level assemblages they can and do contribute to composing. To understand an assemblage we name, “the government”, or “the market”, we really have to understand what it is made of (more assemblages) and how it comes to affect the wider world, other assemblages in which it participates. It is the assemblages and their expressions that “are real” as far as ontology is concerned.

The examination of human institutions is followed by a chapter on the doing of science; the best encapsulation of “philosophy of science” I’ve read! He moves down from social reality to particles, atoms, and molecules in order to introduce us to the concept of a “diagram” by which not only can assemblage be described (its history) but also what future paths in could (possibility) and is likely (disposition) to follow. DeLanda moves away from social phenomena for the sake of simplicity. Future paths for a molecule are vast but still restricted compared to that of a city or person. In theory it is simpler to understand what he is driving at on this level and its significance can be felt in philosophy and other disciplines. Importantly, the same principles apply whether we are talking about a protein or a nation.

He gets a little technical here in the last chapters. Simpler or not I could follow all of this only because I’ve had just enough mathematics background to get the difference between the levels and types of mathematics he talks about here. Some readers will have trouble with this though DeLanda nowhere USES mathematics; there are no formulas or mathematical demonstrations. His aim is to show us that there are mathematical tools that can be applied to assemblages describing their history as well as dispositions and possible futures. DeLanda is keen to show that assemblage theory as philosophy is (can be) firmly grounded in mathematics. Again as from the beginning, this makes intuitive sense. That mathematics can be applied to the regularities of the universe is well known. If those regularities are “qualities of assemblages” it makes sense that math can be used to describe them.

All of this then comes together very well in this book. I have read and reviewed others of DeLanda’s books, but this is the one to get if you want a grounding in his idea from the fundamentals on up.

Object Oriented Ontology by Graham Harman 2018

In reviews of earlier books by Harman I complained that his “object oriented ontology” (OOO) seemed to pop out of nowhere. He never (before) tells us how ideas preceding it, those of other writers, built up to his central insight. He seems to be making an attempt to correct that lacuna in this book. I think he succeeds in the effort to enlighten us about OOO’s origins, but my issues with the substance of the theory itself are not here resolved.

Harman begins by introducing a distinction between truth and knowledge along with their relation to the doing of philosophy. For him philosophy is not about truth or knowledge though it seeks and approaches both. Instead it is about reality which cannot, nevertheless, be approached directly but only indirectly. With this he begins to give the reader an introduction to his version of realism which is not very realist as I understand that term. But nor is Harman an anti-realist in the traditional sense. Rather he seems to straddle the fence.

The mind independent world is perfectly real and filled with particulars (objects), this being the realist thread. However we never encounter those objects directly but through their qualities, sensual qualities (he should have used the word ‘sensuous’ here not ‘sensual’ but I’ll let you look up that difference), which are qualities of the object as it is reflected in the content of our consciousness. The tree in the yard is a real object. The tree in my mind is its sensual counterpart. But neither the tree in the yard, nor the counterpart in our mind ever reveal themselves fully to us. They are “real”, but their core is always hidden. This is the anti-realist thread in Harman.

In Chapter two Harman gives us the key insight that also belies his Continental inclinations. Philosophy is metaphor and theater. He doesn’t mean here play acting. He means that to do philosophy the philosopher must replace the metaphor with herself to understand what it reveals about the real object. Even the metaphor never completely succeeds in exhausting the object, but it gets us further into it than does any literal or scientific statement. Harman knows that language is metaphorical. In fact (for Harman) the literal tells us less than the metaphorical. No word or collection of words captures everything about that which they denote. But he rejects the notion that language alone is responsible for failing to grasp everything. There is always more to the object, real or sensual, than we can ever know.

From this beginning he investigates social and political discourse and then returns to a more detailed view of objects (real and sensual), their qualities, and the relations between them. Harman divides his ontological universe into four different types, the real and sensual objects, and their real and sensual qualities. He does a pretty good job on the objects and the sensual qualities, but I have trouble understanding what a “real quality” can be since like the real object, real qualities also withdraw from direct contact. Harman does a good job of analyzing fictional objects, and we are introduced to his distinction between passive and symbiotic object-relations. Again (as in other of his books) Harman insists that symbiotic is not only about importance to humans, but in fact it always seems to end up being that in the final analysis.

His ultimate target in this part of the book is physical causation (like two billiard balls colliding, though the idea is supposed to apply to causation of all sorts). Even billiard balls do not make contact directly but through their sensual qualities. This part of OOO makes no sense to me unless “sensual qualities” are taken to be something independent of mind. I suppose this interpretation is possible, but Harman does not make his thought clear here at all.

The book moves then to challenge some of Harman’s peers who have accused him of stealing ideas from others. He focuses on Deleuze and Foucault arguing that their views, which some have taken to be foreshadows of OOO are not really that at all. Following this he reviews the work of a number of young philosophers who have broadly adopted an OOO orientation. Harman does a good job here of sketching both the similarities and differences between his work and the others reviewed.

It is not until here, near the end of the book that Harman lets drop his disdain for matter something strange for a realist. He explains himself a bit more in the last chapter, but his explanation fails to bridge a gap. It may be true NOW that there is no undifferentiated matter in the universe. Everything is differentiated and hence all are objects. But this was not the case in the opening Planck times of the universe when there was nothing but undifferentiated radiation. Harman’s ontology, even if it captures the universe’s present (and I don’t think it really does) misses its history, something for which ontology should surely account. In this latter part of the book he also lets slip that all relations between objects are also objects. He has said this in other books, but other than this one parenthetical aside, he doesn’t elaborate on this claim at all.

In the end, this book does the job of explaining the origin of Harman’s OOO idea and some (but not all) implications. I remain not a fan. There is too much about OOO that seems ad hoc to me, but after all, differences of opinion are what keep philosophy going and as Harman notes at the very beginning we do not get all the way to knowledge or truth, but only aspire to find ways to get closer to both.

Book Review: “Ontology and Metaontology”

As with most of the philosophy I review there are matters, lines of inquiry, alternate points of view, that illuminate more to be done, or resolve issues raised, that are not appropriate in the context of a book review. A review should focus on what the author says and perhaps how (s)he gets to what is said, not on differences of opinion between author and reviewer. And so I publish book reviews on Amazon, and then republish them here along with a link to the book for my reader’s convenience, and commentary whose purpose is dredging up those differences of opinion.

The first question that comes to my mind is the relation between metaphysics and ontology. The authors do not address this very much other than to say that the latter is usually considered to be a sub-discipline of the former, but no relation is clearly delineated. As a result an issue I noted in the review is the authors attribution to ontology (an alternative “fundamental question”) of a question I normally associate with metaphysics; the “fundamental ground” of what is real. If ontology is about “what is real” or “what exists” independent of mind (including such mind-managed entities as propositions, numbers, and sets), it only gets to be about the fundamental ground of what is real if, as some ontological systems do claim, that fundamental ground is the sole existent entity, everything else being nothing more than various assemblies of it and “are real” only in a derivative sense.

But while trying to understand what might be real even of the assemblies (natural and artifactual kinds for example) surely mind itself is among the [presumably] “natural kinds” for which we must account. Drs. Berto and Plebani ignore this singular question choosing instead to narrow their survey to a few well-worked channels of thought about reality “besides mind”. Idealism (everything is mind) is ignored because their focus is on what can be said of “mind independent” reality. Taking for granted that there is such a thing, we can characterize it in variously useful ways, and thus reject idealism. But even if idealism itself is false, the question of what exactly mind is matters a great deal.

Natural kinds like stars and animals, and artifactual kinds like chairs and statues are, after all, physical particulars while propositions and numbers clearly are abstractions and the mind-independent status of abstractions surely depends on the status of mind itself? If mind “substantively exists” then we can argue about the ontological status of abstractions. If mind does not exist (eliminative materialism) or is merely epiphenomenal illusion, then abstractions cannot in principle have any “mind independent” status.

On the matter of “fundamental ground” there is no explicit discussion of the distinction between substance and process ontology. The authors come at their subject mostly from a “substance viewpoint” but they do also address the ontological status of events which are processes. They address the causal status of agency versus process in events, but the chicken and egg problem (are all substances process or is process merely the causal interaction of substances) is not specifically covered.

I have another small issue with this book. When reading books on ontology written in the last few years (this one in 2015) I look for references to E. J. Lowe who, in my opinion, was among the best thinkers on this subject (he passed away quite young in 2014 or so). I rarely find him, but these authors do cite him (from a 1989 book) in their examination of particulars. But the authors discuss not only particulars, but kinds (classes), tropes (or modes), and global universals (all are after all well-worn ontological subjects). Yet they make no mention of Lowe’s “Four Category Ontology” (2006) in which he brings each of these four elements into harmonious and logically consistent relation. Of course Lowe’s is but one idea among many, but it is the only recent treatment (and I have looked having read many of the authors they cite in the text) that so neatly ties them all together. There should have been at least some mention of Lowe’s book.

Meanwhile, despite these shortcomings, this is a good read. The authors address only a tiny slice of the whole ontological field, but they do a good job with that slice, broadly illustrating how ontology is done and the salient factors that enter into it.

Ontology and Metaontology by Francesco Berto and Matteo Plebani (2015)

I’m not much for reading “overview books” in philosophy, they tend to be over simplistic and misrepresent as much as they enlighten. Once in a while a title appeals to me and this one looked rich enough to be worth a read. It was.

Dr.’s Berto and Plebani (“the authors” from here on) begin very deliberately setting out the distinction between ontology from metaontology. The former (covered last in the book) is about answering the question: what things are there in the universe, or what kinds of things are there, and are “kinds” (for example) among the things there are? As it turns out trying to answer such questions, since they are so fundamental to what we take our experience to be about, raises many questions of procedure. From what set of assumptions do we begin to address such issues and by what methodology? These latter questions are the subject of metaontology.

In a moderate length book covering a 2500 year-old field, the authors cannot possibly address all the viable proposals for answering these questions. They choose several lines of thought taken to be the dominant contemporary themes of the field in the analytic tradition and follows them out. Beginning with what they entail for the procedural questions, and then using each of the various meta-positions to address the main questions of ontology proper: material things (natural and artifactual), abstract things (propositions, numbers, sets and classes, fictional characters), and events. They do a superb job tying the procedural approaches covered in the first half of the book to the meat of the subject in the second. They never answer the question “what is there” but then they are not advocating a particular ontology, rather showing how the possible set of answers follow from different approaches to the subject. The book illustrates how different meta-approaches affect the possible range of answers to the ontological questions themselves. He is successful here, but the reader does have to pay attention.

There are a few holes (and yes the ontological status of holes is addressed) in the presentation. Ontology is a sub-discipline of metaphysics and the authors do not ever clearly distinguish between them; not that this is easy to do in any case. For example, they present “grounding theories”, as the idea that the big question of ontology is not “what there is” but what is the “fundamental ground”, the “basic stuff” of “what there is”? As I understand it, the matter of grounding is the core of metaphysics and not ontology per se, though to be sure the line between them is very ill defined. They also note from the beginning that matters of mind are not at issue. Propositions and the quality of redness are mental phenomena. The ontological question is would we still, hypothetically, count them as entities in the universe if minds did not exist? Fair enough, but the ontological status of mind itself is controversial in philosophy. Some discussion of this question from the viewpoint the metaontologies he covers would have been interesting.

In the telling of all this, the authors include many dozens of references from philosophers of the 19th and (mostly) 20th Century. The book’s bibliography is a who’s who of metaphysical and ontological thought, and yet there is far more left out (God theories, ontological commitments in Continental philosophy, or Eastern philosophies are ignored) than included. Again I do not fault the authors for this. They had to find a way to narrow the material or the book would be a thousand pages long. This is a superb book for philosophy students at the undergraduate level who have an interest in these questions. It can be read by anyone however and does not presuppose any familiarity with the presented material.

Review: Terence Horgan “Austere Realism”

As I noted at the top of my Amazon review (see inclusion below), Hogan’s “Austere Realism” and Graham Harman’s “Object Oriented Ontology” are, near as I can tell, exact inverses of one another. Harman’s view is that everything is real, everything is an object. Every star, planet, building, book, nation, thought, and all their relations, a virtual infinity of relations between everything and everything else taken individually and in sum. “All objects”. Horgan’s view it the exact inverse. For Horgan there is only one ontologically genuine concrete object in the universe, that being the universe taken as a whole, across all time, what he calls “the blobject”.

Both theories, in their own way, amount to saying the same thing. Whether “all is one” or “literally everything is an object”, both declare that “everything is the same”. On a strictly ontological level, there is no distinction to be made anywhere. This is not to say that the two theories say the same thing, not at all. But because they are both at the extreme ends of the metaphysical spectrum they both collapse all distinction and end up explaining nothing.

Horgan doesn’t mention Harman; not in the book nor the copious end notes. None of Harman’s books are even listed in the bibliography. I am surprised. Although the polar opposite of Horgan’s ontology, I would think the common feature of “being at the extremes” of ontological speculation would be worth a mention. I have dealt with Harman in several book reviews and essays here on the blog. Now it is Horgan’s turn.

In my review I do point out that Horgan’s book has two purposes; to set forth his “blobjectivism” and to show how, even if there is but one concrete particular in the universe (the universe itself) this idea is perfectly consistent with talk about a multiplicity of objects. “The United states dollar is the primary reserve currency on Earth” is true even though “the United States”, dollars, currency, and “the Earth” do not strictly exist. The same is true for more purely physical assertions. “Mars is the fourth planetary orbit outward from the sun” is true though there is no Mars, planets, orbits, or the sun. These statements can be true because their truth lies in semantic contexts that only “indirectly correspond” to some as yet unspecified phenomena of the “mind-independent world”, something both Horgan and Harman must accept as real or they wouldn’t be “realists” at all.

It is the social construction of language and so the presence of varying semantic contexts that make such statements true. They are true not because the things they purportedly reference (planets, money) exist, but because they meet the semantic standards of speech concerning posits about distinctions that exist only in a mind-dependent way. This connection between ordinary speech and ontology is a nice touch, but what is it about these “pseudo object posits” that makes them unreal ontologically speaking? Horgan points to vagueness (which he also calls boundarylessness) and the “Special Composition Question” introduced by a short detour through the work of Peter Van Inwagen. Much of this Horgan illustrates with what philosophers call “sorites problems” the most famous of which (and perhaps because of this Horgan doesn’t use it) is the “ship of Theseus”.

Theseus has a ship made from wooden planks. At some point one of the planks rots and must be replaced with a new piece of wood. Is it still the same ship? What if two planks are replaced, or ten, or all of them? Somewhere along the process some people would say that it is no longer the same ship though others would disagree. But the point is there is no definite point where the replacement of just one more plank makes a different ship. This observation suggests that the ship of Theseus (and most everything else) is vague and it is an axiom of Horgan’s ontology that “vague objects” do not actually exist as such. There is no such object as “the ship of Theseus” even though Theseus (who also does not exist) is plainly sailing in something.

The “special composition question” is related to this but has to do with what is and is not a proper part of a larger construct. Does a chair (some chairs) have parts? Does it have legs, a back, a seat, and perhaps arms? The chair is subject to sorites issues; if I remove a leg and replace it with another is it the same chair? But also we notice that legs, arms, seats, and backs, not to mention chairs, are all made of atoms. Perhaps the only real parts of anything are the atoms. A chair (Van Inwagen’s famous example) is nothing but “atoms arranged chair-wise”. It has no other proper parts because they are all merely atoms arranged leg-wise, seat-wise and so on.

So what does Horgan say is the chair in the mind-independent world? He says it doesn’t exist. It is not a “proper part” of the universe. Instead, what he believes, is that the blobject, the whole universe just is in some particular spatiotemporal location arranged chair-wise. Instead of a composition from atoms on up, the key insight for Horgan is that the differentiation goes from the top down. The mind-independent “whole universe” happens to be differentiated into everything that we take to be mind-independent about the world and according to Horgan (he is explicit here) this differentiation is both real and precise; not vague.

Yet, since the blobject is differentiated into something or other not-vague (chair shaped, rocks in orbits, suns, gas clouds, radiation) literally everywhere, and all of these differentiations have effects (gravitationally or otherwise) on other differentiations around them, how is saying what Horgan says any different from saying that all of the differentiations, taken mind-independently, are simply real objects with a genuine compositional structure? If the blobject’s everywhere differentiations are not vague, where comes from that vagueness he uses to insist that suns, rocks, gas clouds, and chairs don’t really exist? If the blobject differentiates precisely and the differentiations are mind-independent, the vagueness can only come from what is not mind-independent, namely the machinations of mind both pre-linguistic and linguistic!

The problem comes fully around to bite Horgan when he speculates on mind itself. If there is mind in the universe, the blobject also is differentiated spatiotemporally into minds! Mind itself, our phenomenology taken as a whole (Horgan suggests) is also a differentiation of the blobject and for that reason precise, though the contents of any given mind, for example propositions, can still be vague. But even with this little escape for vagueness’ sake, Horgan seems committed to mind-independent mind!

This result does not appear to have given Horgan any pause, but I think it is enough to show that there are difficulties with his view he does not address in the book. In the end philosophy is always trivially right when it takes positions at the extremes of ontology or epistemology. One cannot in the end refute a pure idealism, nihilism, solipsism, or a realism that says, one way or another, that “everything is the same”. In the end Horgan is not wrong. Nor is Harman. But Blobjectivism, like Object Oriented Ontology, is a difference that makes no difference! As concerns the “mind-independent world” saying everything, including all properties, are localizations of the blobject is the same as saying that all the localizations are real and exist. As goes ontology, Horgan (though not Harman) need not worry about baldness, nations, money, or even language since none of these phenomena are strictly mind-independent.

Austere Realism: Contextual Semantics Meets Minimal Ontology. Terence Horgan 2008

Interestingly this book is a counter point and the ultimate theory is exactly the inverse of Graham Harman’s “Object Oriented Ontology” (see my reviews of various Harman books). Ironically, the universality of their views cause both philosophers the same problem. If what exists is univocal (everything is an object [Harman] or there is only one object [Horgan]) you explain everything while explaining nothing. However delving into such philosophical matters is not the purview of a book review and I will talk more about this in my blog. Meanwhile, one of my criticisms of Harman is that he never really tells us why or how he came to his position, a complaint I cannot level at Horgan as that telling is the very purpose of this book.

Horgan first introduces us to realism in general and then austere realism. He spends roughly one third of the book (at the beginning and again at the end) characterizing austere realism and in particular his version of it, something he calls “blobjectivism”. Roughly two thirds of the book he spends not on his ontological theory as such but on how that theory relates to statements in ordinary and scientific discourse. If we want to say that planets, stars, buildings, and nations do not exist, how is the scientific statement “Earth occupies the third orbit outward from the sun” or the economic observation “the U.S. dollar is the world’s primary reserve currency” true? He says such statements are true not because the “objects” they purportedly name exist, but because talk of these categories only “indirectly corresponds” to the mind-independent world. The indirection goes through the process of conceptualization.

Much of the book is an exposition of this process works; how it is that many statements in ordinary and scientific discourse can be true even though the objects they purportedly talk about do not really exist. His direct argument for their non-existence has to do with vagueness, what he also calls the boundarylessness of discursive subjects, and the related “special composition question”. In stipulating a mind-independent world he also stipulates that no mind-independent object can be vague or boundary-less. Vagueness can always be made to look inconsistent. He gets into this issue by introducing what philosophers call “sorites problems” (take a man with 5000 hairs on his head. If I take away 1 hair is it still the same man? And this is only the beginning of a sorites problem). Anything we might call “an object” within the universe is subject to this sort of breakdown. Horgan insists that this being so, none of these postulated things exist in the mind-independent world. Objects of the mind-independent world cannot be intrinsically vague.

Horgan slides between mind-independence that cannot be vague, and discourse following general and not-fully-specifiable linguistic standards (themselves vague), to what he calls the vagueness of linguistic posits about the world. The problem here, the problem Horgan doesn’t seem to see, is that all the vagueness is mind-dependent. There isn’t any vagueness about the man with 5000 hairs in the mind-independent world. The vagueness enters only when mind directs itself at analyzing the concept of that man. Horgan is quite correct I think in that all that is mind-dependent is vague. I believe this is necessarily so, though Horgan does not (and says so). Nevertheless these indirectly corresponding posits cannot be real though propositions about them can still be true. Besides introducing us to the blobject, the point of the book is the [mind-dependent] connection between Horgan’s ontology and the correctness of ordinary talk thanks to semantic context and indirect correspondence.

To my mind, Horgan fails to appreciate some of the implications of his ontology. For him, the stuff of the mind-independent world are not parts of something greater but rather spacetime localisations, differences, of “the one concrete particular that exists”, the blobject. If this is the case, and he says this, these spatiotemporal localisations must be precise, not vague! There are many issues arising here I will leave for another venue (see my blog), but the bottom line is that if they are not vague we might as well call them objects! It isn’t that Horgan is wrong (let’s say). It isn’t that ontology cannot be as austere as he claims. But it doesn’t matter. Giving an inch here is worth a mile. If spatiotemporal variations in the blobject are real and precise then conceptualizing those variations as objects, saying “they exist” and “directly correspond” (in Horgan’s semantic scheme) to mind-independent particulars amounts to saying the same thing.

Still all in all Horgan does a great job putting this together. I gave the book four stars not because of philosophical issues but because Horgan’s writing is not as clear as it might be. There are many long sentences with multiple and parenthetical clauses. Sometimes his argument is a little difficult to follow. But what was worse, the Kindle version of this book (the version I have) has a serious problem! This is not the author’s fault. The publisher was way too casual with this conversion. There are a lot of end notes in this book. A considerable amount of detail in the author’s exposition is in the end notes! But while the notes are flagged in the text, flags are not made into links. You cannot press on an end note and go to the note as as is conventionally the case in most of the Kindle books in this and other non-fiction genera. Such features are, after all, part of the point of e-books! This is a serious omission in a scholarly work like this, and makes the whole, if you really want to see the end notes as they come up, way more difficult than it should be.