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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


At the end of Part 3 I wrote:

When I finish the book, it may be interesting to mount a comparison between Kauffman's two models, "classical" and "quantum," and Kant's two species of imagination, "productive" and "reproductive." We-- or maybe just I-- shall see.
Now that I've finished Kauffman's REINVEINTING THE SACRED, I'm still only able to offer such a comparison in theory, though I won't do so here.  Kauffman offers some general models for his "classic/quantum" synthesis, but he admits that his theory at present remains in a speculative phase:

...well-known facts about cells and recent quantum chemical theory raise the possibility that vast webs of quantum coherent or partially coherent degrees of freedom may span large volumes of a cell... What I describe now is partially known, and partially my own scientific speculation. (p. 216)
Though Kauffman cautions the reader to remember that as yet there has not been adequate experimental proof to support his speculation, he asserts that the reductionist paradigms have already proven fallacious: not only in respect to the early paradigm I mentioned-- Weinberg's idea that all biology reduces down to particle physics--  but also to the paradigm of the "mind-brain identity theory, in which first person experiences are identical with specific brain states."  Chapter 13 is devoted to demonstrating the problems with this "classical" reductionist schema, and suggesting, in keeping with his earlier remarks on "partial causality," that the human mind may mirror the nature of biological creativity as a whole:

The idea that the human mind is non-algorithmic raises the possibility that it might be acausal, rather than a causal "machine," and the only acausal theory we have is quantum mechanics. Therefore the mind may be partially quantum mechanical.

I remarked in Part 2 that I observed parallels between the attitudes of reductionists in physics with those in literary criticism.  By way of supporting this observation, I'll focus on just one of the philosophical problems Kauffman analyzes in the book; that of "free will."

If every event, mental or physical, has sufficient antecedent causes, then as Aristotle said, there can be no "unmoved mover."  But free will is supposed to be just such an unmoved mover, free to do what it chooses, hence an "uncaused mental cause" of our actions. This led the 17th-century philosopher Spinoza, and others since him, to conclude that free will is an illusion.

Obviously a history of the concept of "free will" is impossible on this blog, but I have found this online essay, CHANGING PERSPECTIVES ON FREE WILL.  Among the essay's many capsule descriptions of philosophical stances, I found this one most representative of the attitude I myself see in literary reductionism:

Harriet Martineau, translator of the works of Auguste Comte and herself a founder of sociology, was another who struggled mightily with the free will meme. In the end, in spite of the alternatives provided by the philosophers of her time, she rejected the notion altogether. "In a practical sense," she wrote, "all the world is determined. All human action proceeds on the supposition that the workings of nature are governed by laws that cannot be broken by human will... The very smallest amount of science is enough to enable any rational person to see that the constitution and action of the human faculty of Will are determined by influences beyond the control of that faculty".#10 She referred to the notion of free will as "that monstrous remnant of old superstition". Here Martineau was expressing the logical implications of a Newtonian causality as applied to the type of radical monistic philosophical stance then being developed by Ernst Haeckel #11. In so doing, she was repudiating the dualistic Kantian world view which had prevailed for almost a century.

 I draw attention to Martineau's remark that "the very smallest amount of science is enough to enable any rational person" to see that everything is "determined" by contingent causes and that therefore free will is a "monstrous remnant of old superstition."  I find this language to be highly elitist in that it posits a radical difference between "rational persons" and those who lack such rationality-- a division no less absolute that the division made by one such "old superstition" between "the sheep and the goats." 

The Christian religion, though it may have formulated the basic outlines of the debate on free will, certainly did not originate its dynamic.  Most if not all religions are grounded in some sense of causal consequence.  Choose X and you are saved or illuminated; choose Y and you are damned or condemned to meaninglessness.  The idea that "free will" was not a gift given to mortals to guide them on their path was tantamount to saying that it did not matter what men chose; their choices were determined by the factors of their experiences and their fundamental natures.

How did this anti-will position translate into literary criticism?  A literary critic, as much as a religious pundit or a philosopher, wants to have some way to convince others of the rightness of his path.  I propose that for many critics the validation  they sought was that of a perceived greater rationality.  One might know, intellectually, that one's rationality was as predetermined by contingent circumstances as another man's irrationality.  I submit, however, that just as religious proselytizers insisted that the "right choice" reflected adherence to some higher supersensual reality, literary and philosophical proselytizers insisted that people who "saw the light" with regard to the contingency of human existence were a cut above those who did not. 

It should be easy to find any number of critics, professional or amateur, who support this elitist "sheep and goats" attitude.  I know that I can find, and have found, this attitude in many of my favored targets-- Gary Groth, Noah Berlatsky, Chicken Colin.  But I hate to keep falling back on these "old reliables."  Ideally I would like to find and refute some critic, whether in the comics-game or not, who evinces this specific blend of reductive pessimism and covert self-glorification.

If all fails, I suppose I could always go back to kicking at Theodor Adorno.

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