Friday, March 30, 2007

On science and rabbitness

I am rereading The myth of Sisyphus, Camus’ meditation on suicide (this time in English: I fear my French is not up to it these days), and I will be writing a few posts on things that occur to me while reading it. This won’t constitute a review or a response even to Camus. I do not know enough philosophy to pretend to be able to do either. It will simply be a few wanderings of my own. I am beginning here, with the following quote, which struck me as getting to the heart of the aridness of science. Whether science’s being arid is something to concern us is a question that arises if we take the view that it is the only way to look at the world. The recent birthday of Richard Dawkins gave me cause to reflect on that: he certainly does take that view, and I wonder whether he is satisfied to be in that way limited, or whether he truly feels that the understanding of the world that science brings and the world itself are close to the same (I feel sure that he would not say they were the same, because, like me and every other person who was ever taught physics, he would have been told in lesson one that physics – and by extension science – is a model, an approximation, as Wittgenstein so brilliantly noted, a mesh that we view the world through). I have read some Dawkins but not enough to be sure that he concludes that science maps the world completely and that there is nothing it cannot describe. He is the hardest-core rationalist I know though, so I assume that he does. Yet you cannot help wonder whether he has a little tweaking of the soul (yes, I know, he does not have one but he is not so darkhearted as to deny us a metaphor, so long as we are not naughty enough to mistake it for a real entity).

To Camus:

I realise that if through science I can seize phenomena and enumerate them, I cannot, for all that, apprehend the world.


Camus is an interesting thinker, in particular because he will wander, stroll almost through a field of thoughts (one would not say “follow a train of thought” because although he is following a clear enough line from A to B, he likes to cover every fraction between them; after all, he is a Frenchman, and thinks in that continental way, the honest method that they have that does not boil the world down into fighting over words, like the analytical Anglo-Americans, but crams everything into their thesis: messy, seething with contradiction and difficulty, but comprehensive), and then bang! He drops a piercing insight, an atom bomb of thought, which pries open your mind and allows you to glimpse an idea that is startlingly clear. Here is one, expressed beautifully: science can describe but does not explain.

This insight strikes a chord in anyone who has been tempted to ask why or what does it mean about something science says. Science can answer that these are meaningless questions – and its terms they are. But they are not meaningless to us. I can understand that an atom is a nucleus composed of neutrons and protons, in turn composed of quarks, surrounded by electrons, the nucleus bound by the strong force, the electrons by the electroweak force, but I do not understand atoms. I do not comprehend them at all. I don’t know what they are, how or why, and neither does anyone. All we have achieved, in investigating the world, is to reduce it ever further, so that we understand how it is made in greater detail. But who, on learning the pyramid of parts that build the world: compounds of elements of atoms of particles of quarks of strings of whatever strings are has felt that that explained it all. As humans, we do not feel that describing is explaining. We take situations and happenings from our lives, and we can describe them to the smallest detail, but we still ask: why? Even if there is no why, we feel that there is something ineffable lingering in the spaces between the things we describe.

Camus is clearer than I think I can be in explaining why there is something ineffable in those spaces. But I’ll try. Things are. They are what they are, but we cannot come to terms with what they are. I think of it like this: think about a rabbit. Think what you know about rabbits. They are rodents of this species in this genus in this family. They eat this and this; they live like this and this. By doing this, I describe a rabbit. But describing it does not allow me to know what it is. It is impossible (I urge the reader to look at Camus’ reasoning on why we cannot know; but my understanding of him – and I share his view, if I have him right – is that we cannot know because we cannot represent to ourselves what a rabbit is). We feel sure that there is more to a rabbit than that: some sort of rabbitness. Science cannot talk about rabbitness. It cannot speak to what it is to be a rabbit. I think this is the key to existentialism. You cannot know rabbitness. You can only know – or experience, I should say – how a rabbit intersects with the world.

If you know Camus, you know where that is going. In the same way, you cannot know yourself. You can only know how you intersect with the world. As an aside, I feel that Camus is suggesting that the Absurd is the realisation that we cannot make rabbitness have a place in the world: that the world utterly refutes there being rabbitness. We can then only exist by moving on from there to thinking about how a rabbit’s intersecting with the world can transcend the Absurd. (Not a sentence I think you write twice in a lifetime! But the point is clearer, I think, than I’ve made it: it boils down to saying that you cannot make what you are make sense – it doesn’t have any meaning – but you can make how you are make sense. This is what the book is about, so far as I remember: the notion that you are Sisyphus at the bottom of the hill does not have meaning – you just are – but that is not the end of the story but the beginning; now you must decide whether how you push your stone has meaning.

But Camus is also clear that rabbitness is not a thing that is; it is not something in the spaces between what we describe; it is something in the spaces between how we describe it. How we describe things is entirely interior to us. The stone that you have to push is not a thing that is, merely something that exists.

Here is the central dichotomy of existentialism: on the one hand, what is, that we cannot comprehend; on the other, what exists, which we control entirely, but cannot impose on what is. The translator’s choice of “apprehend” is inspired. Understood as “taking hold of and taking into oneself”, it is exactly right that one cannot apprehend the world.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

boots sez:

Having set aside my reading in expectation of furious activity that has not been realized, I have lately been going through book withdrawl. Is Camus (in English, my French never was) suitable for the semi-retarded or does it require a bit of intelligence?

March 30, 2007 at 5:03 PM  
Anonymous Dr Zen said...

It's a bit like reading signals in the mist, boots. You might enjoy the signals but become frustrated by the mist.

I would recommend The Plague to you. In novel form, Camus is an easier dose to swallow. I think it's a better place to begin than The Outsider, but others might disagree.

March 30, 2007 at 5:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

boots sez:

I was near the library just yesterday, and decided to drive past because the furious activity is looming closer. No doubt that means I'll end up sitting around with nothing to read for a while longer. At least now I can look for a couple titles when I decide that I prefer being interrupted in my reading to not having any reading to interrupt. Thanks.

April 1, 2007 at 7:52 PM  

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