/ HAS MAGAZINE
Our Fundamental Problem: A Revolution For Philosophy And The World
Nicholas Maxwell
Science and Technology Studies, University College London
How can our human world exist and best flourish embedded as it is in the physical universe? That, according to Nicholas Maxwell, is our fundamental problem, encompassing all others of thought and life. In order to do justice to this problem, we need a revolution in philosophy, education, science and academic inquiry

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How can our human world—the world we experience and live in—exist and best flourish, embedded as it is in the physical universe? That is Our Fundamental Problem. It encompasses all other problems of science, thought, and life.

It is the proper task of philosophy to try to improve our conjectures as to how aspects of Our Fundamental Problem are to be solved, and to encourage everyone to think, imaginatively and critically, about it. We need to put the problem centre stage in our thinking, so that our best ideas about it interact fruitfully, in both directions, with our attempts to solve even more important, more specialized and particular problems of thought and life. Philosophy pursued in such a fashion would have fruitful implications for science, for scholarship, for education, for life, for the fate of the world.

If everything is made up of fundamental physical entities, electrons and quarks interacting in accordance with precise physical laws, what becomes of the world we experience—the colours, sounds, smells, and tactile qualities of things? What becomes of our inner experiences? How can we have free will, and be responsible for what we do, if everything occurs in accordance with physical law, including our bodies and brains? How can anything be of value if everything in the universe is ultimately just physics? These are some of the questions that fall within Our Fundamental Problem.

These questions arise because of a fissure in our thinking about the world. Our scientific thinking about the physical universe clashes in all sorts of ways with our thinking about our human world. The task is to discover how we can adjust our ideas about both the physical universe and our human world, so that we can resolve clashes between the two in such ways that justice is done, both to what science tells us about the universe and to all that is of value in our human world—the miracle of our life here on earth as well as its heartache and tragedy.

René Descartes may be interpreted as attempting to solve Our Fundamental Problem with the doctrine we now call “Cartesian Dualism.” According to this view, physics will one day describe, predict, and explain everything that exists in the material world. All that which physics does not and cannot predict—the colours, sounds, smells, and tactile qualities of things as we experience them, and the inner sensations, feelings, imaginings, and thoughts that we are conscious of—have no existence whatsoever in the physical universe. They exist in an entirely distinct realm of the Mind. According to Descartes, Minds are linked to the physical universe via brains. There are, thus, two distinct realms—the physical universe and the Mind.

This doctrine of Cartesian Dualism, if successful, solves Our Fundamental Problem at the expense of creating a new problem—the problem of how the Cartesian Mind can be related to the brain. If Cartesian Dualism is correct, then almost everything that we seem to perceive does not really exist. Our perceptions are perpetually delusional. Colours, sounds, smells, and the tactical qualities of things that we seem to experience do not really exist out there in the world. It is all inside our Cartesian, conscious Minds. But presumably something of what we perceive does exist—the size and shape of things in visual perception, perhaps. But if that is the case, then the physical processes going on in our brains must cause visual experiences to occur in our conscious Minds. There must be a causal link between the physical brain and Mind. Furthermore, if free will is to be a reality, then it must be the case that decisions to act—mental events occurring in our Cartesian Minds—must cause physical processes to occur in our brains, that in turn cause our bodies to do what our mental decisions to act intend them to do. The Cartesian Mind must interact with the physical universe. Inside our heads, tiny, poltergeist events must occur persistently—minute versions of the poltergeist events that occur in horror films, when an angry adolescent causes items of furniture to fly about the room by thought alone.

Thus, if Cartesian Dualism solves Our Fundamental Problem, it does so by creating a new, very serious problem. The impact of Cartesian Dualism is to transform Our Fundamental Problem—an immense problem that encompasses all other problems of thought and life—into an intense but tiny and quite specific problem, that of how the Cartesian Mind is related to the physical brain.

Most philosophers who came after Descartes rejected Cartesian Dualism, but then a quite extraordinary thing happened. Instead of returning to the original problem that Cartesian Dualism tried to solve, John Locke, George Berkeley, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and many of the philosophers who came after them continued to struggle with problems created by Cartesian Dualism even though they all rejected the very view that gave rise to these problems in the first place. What these philosophers failed to do was to return to the problem that we may take, and should take, Cartesian Dualism as trying and failing to solve, namely Our Fundamental Problem. Even worse, the doctrines that these philosophers developed made it impossible even to formulate Our Fundamental Problem. In order to formulate the problem, it is necessary to specify, in general terms, what it is that physics tells us about the universe—that it exists entirely independently of us, and is made up of fundamental physical entities interacting in accordance with precise laws, with exclusively physical properties such as mass and electrical charge. Berkeley denies that there is any such physical universe. Hume and Kant (influenced by Cartesian Dualism) don’t deny that physical reality exists, but they deny that we can know anything about it since, according to them, we can have no experience of it. And many philosophers, and even some physicists, who came after Hume and Kant, echoed this sort of viewpoint.

All this has been a disaster for the philosophical tradition.1 It has meant that philosophy has lost sight of its fundamental task, which is to keep alive imaginative and critical—that is, rational—thinking about Our Fundamental Problem, and to keep alive rational thinking about how Our Fundamental Problem interacts with more specialized and particular problems of science, thought, and life. Instead, it has been preoccupied with the much more specific problems generated by Cartesian Dualism, even though Cartesian Dualism itself is rejected. This has led to a disastrous trivialisation of philosophy. Academic philosophy has been lost in a tangle of esoteric puzzle-solving that seems to have nothing to say beyond philosophy, whether that be science, politics, or life.2

In my recently-published book, Our Fundamental Problem,3 I argue that philosophy needs to return to what ought to be its central concern—keeping alive rational thinking about Our Fundamental Problem, and how it interacts with the more specialized and particular problems of science, thought, and life. Our Fundamental Problem arises because these two great continents of thought clash—our scientific thinking about the universe, and the way we ordinarily think about the world we experience and live in. It is all but inevitable that even the smallest adjustments to what we take science to tell us about the universe, or to what we hold to be the nature and value of our human world, will have all sorts of potential repercussions for fields outside philosophy—for science, for thought, for life. And indeed, revolutionary ideas do emerge in the book, which sets out to explore, and to try to solve, aspects of Our Fundamental Problem.

First, there is a revolution for philosophy and education. A new kind of philosophy emerges, which I call Critical Fundamentalism. This philosophy tackles Our Fundamental Problem, and in doing so seeks to resolve the fundamental fissure in the way we think about the universe and ourselves, in such a manner that this resolution has multiple, fruitful implications for thought and life. Critical Fundamentalism has the important task of ensuring that Our Fundamental Problem has a central role in education. Children should have the opportunity to encounter and think about the problem at school. Every university should have a symposium, to which everyone at the university is invited, that meets regularly, and that is devoted to the imaginative and critical exploration of Our Fundamental Problem and how it interacts, in both directions, with more specialized and particular problems of thought and life. Such a symposium is urgently needed, to counteract rampant specialization and to explore how universities might do more to help humanity solve grave global problems such as the climate crisis.4 

Second, there is a revolution in what we take physical science to tell us about the world. It is concerned, not with everything about everything, but only with a highly specialized aspect of everything—that aspect that determines, perhaps probabilistically, how events evolve with the passage of time. Physical science is concerned exclusively, in other words, with what may be called the causally efficacious aspect of things. Once this point is recognized, it becomes obvious that the silence of physical science about other aspects, such as experiential matters, provides no ground whatsoever for holding that these other aspects do not really exist.5

Third, there is a revolution in our entire conception of science, and the kind of science we should seek to develop. Science does not just seek truth. Rather, it seeks truth presupposed to be unified or explanatory—explanatory truth, in other words. More generally, it seeks truth that is of value in one way or another. Furthermore, science seeks truth of value so that, ideally, it may be used by people to enrich their lives. There are, in short, highly problematic assumptions concerning metaphysics, values, and politics inherent in the aims of science. If science is to serve the best interests of humanity, it is vital that the scientific enterprise seeks to improve its problematic aims as it proceeds, with scientists and non-scientists cooperating in this effort. We need to adopt and implement a new conception of science that recognizes that science and philosophy must fuse together to form a modern version of natural philosophy.6

Fourth, there is a revolution in biology—in Darwin’s theory of evolution—so that the theory does better justice to helping us understand how life of value has evolved. According to this view, the purposive actions of living things influence the course of evolution. Thus, a change in where an animal lives or what it eats can have an impact on what has survival value, and thus on the course of subsequent evolution. The stretching of the proto-giraffe to eat leaves high up in trees does not cause the necks of offspring to be longer, but it is a vital factor. If the proto-giraffe were not striving to eat leaves high up in trees, mutations for longer necks, when they came along, would have no survival value, and so would not persist. We need to interpret Darwinian theory, not as eliminating purposiveness from nature, but rather as providing an explanation of how and why purposiveness has evolved in the way it has, to take on the multitude of living forms that it does today, the purposive actions of living things themselves contributing to the path that evolution takes. The Darwinian mechanisms of evolution themselves evolve as evolution proceeds!7

Fifth, there is a revolution in the social sciences. When done properly, these are not sciences. Rather, their proper basic task is to promote the cooperatively rational solving of conflicts and problems of living in the social world. In addition, they have the task of discovering how progress-achieving methods, generalized from those of natural science (as these ought to be conceived) can be got into social life, and into all our other social endeavours—government, industry, the economy, and so on—so that social progress toward a more enlightened world may be made in a way that is somewhat comparable to the intellectual progress in knowledge made by science. Social inquiry emerges as social methodology or philosophy and not, fundamentally, social science.8

Sixth, there is a much broader revolution in academic inquiry as a whole. We need a new kind of academic enterprise, rationally designed and devoted to helping us resolve the grave global conflicts and problems that confront us—habitat destruction, loss of wildlife, extinction of species, the menace of nuclear weapons, the lethal character of modern war, gross inequality, the pollution of the earth, sea, and air, and above all the impending disasters of climate change. These problems have arisen in part because of the gross structural irrationality of our institutions of learning, devoted as they are to the pursuit of knowledge instead of taking, as their basic task, to help humanity resolve conflicts and problems of living in increasingly cooperative, rational ways, thus making progress toward as good, as wise, a world as possible.9

Seventh, there is the all-important social revolution that might gradually emerge if humanity has the wit to develop what it so urgently needs—academic inquiry rationally devoted to helping us make progress toward a better, wiser, more civilized world.10 

Academic philosophy, whether so-called analytic or Continental philosophy, is not noted
for its fruitful implications for other areas of thought and life. How come, then, does Critical Fundamentalism have these dramatic revolutionary implications for science, for academic inquiry, for our capacity to solve the global problems that menace our future? The answer is that Critical Fundamentalism, unlike academic philosophy as it is mostly pursued in universities today, gives absolute priority to Our Fundamental Problem—the problem of how our human world can exist and best flourish, embedded as it is in the physical universe—and sets out to solve aspects of this problem with unflinching honesty, the more specialized and particular problems of science, scholarship, and life being kept clearly in view as a part of, and as interacting with, Our Fundamental Problem. According to Critical Fundamentalism, philosophy, when done properly, is a vital, integral part of science, scholarship, politics, life. It sets out to help us discover how we may best cherish and love that which is genuinely of value in the real world.

Notes

1 For a much more detailed account of the decline and trivialisation of philosophy since Descartes, see Maxwell (2020, especially appendix). See also Maxwell (2017a, especially chs. 3 and 4; 2019b).

2 Philosophers themselves have begun to complain about the triviality, the uselessness, of contemporary academic philosophy. Thus Daniel Kaufman, in a recent article, declares “philosophy’s decline within the Academy is already well underway”, and goes on to say “Daniel Dennett recently said that ‘a great deal of philosophy doesn’t really deserve much of a place in the world’ and has become ‘self-indulgent, clever play in a vacuum that’s not dealing with problems of any intrinsic interest.’ Jerry Fodor wondered why ‘no one reads philosophy’ and could not ‘shake the sense that something has gone awfully wrong.’ Just last year, Susan Haack went so far as to publish an essay entitled ‘The Real Question: Can Philosophy be Saved?’ She is not hopeful.” (Kaufman 2019). William Lycan, in a recent article, argues that there has been no contribution to philosophy, made in recent times, which would be generally recognized as undeniable and really important: see Lycan (2019).

3 Maxwell (2020).

4 See Maxwell (2020, ch. 9).

5 See Maxwell (2020, ch. 3). See also Maxwell (2019a, ch. 1).

6 See Maxwell (2020, ch. 4). See also Maxwell (2017a; 2017b).

7 Maxwell (2020, ch. 6).

8 Maxwell (2020, ch. 7).

9 Maxwell (2020, ch. 7). See also Maxwell (1984; 2014; 2019c).

10 See note 9.

References

Kaufman, Daniel. “The Decline & Rebirth of Philosophy.” Philosophy Now 130, Feb/March 2019. See: https://philosophynow.org/issues/130/The_Decline_and_Rebirth_of_Philosophy.

Lycan, William G. “Permanent Contributions in Philosophy,” in Metaphilosophy 50, No. 3, 2019, 199-211.

Maxwell, Nicholas. From Knowledge to Wisdom: A Revolution for Science and the Humanities, 2nd edition, 2007, revised and enlarged, London: Pentire Press, 1984. See: https://philpapers.org/archive/MAXFKT-2.pdf.

Maxwell, Nicholas. How Universities Can Help Create a Wiser World: The Urgent Need for an Academic Revolution, Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2014.

Maxwell, Nicholas. In Praise of Natural Philosophy: A Revolution for Thought and Life, : Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017a.

Maxwell, Nicholas. Understanding Scientific Progress: Aim-Oriented Empiricism, St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2017b.

Maxwell, Nicholas. The Metaphysics of Science and Aim-Oriented Empiricism: A Revolution for Science and Philosophy, Springer, Switzerland: Synthese Library, 2019a.

Maxwell, Nicholas. 2019 “Natural philosophy redux”, in Aeon May 13, 2019b. See: https://aeon.co/essays/bring- back-science-and-philosophy-as-natural-philosophy .

Maxwell, Nicholas. “How Wisdom Can Help Solve Global Problems,” in Sternberg, Robert J., Nusbaum, Howard, Glueck, Judith (eds.), Applying wisdom to contemporary world problems, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019c, 337-380.

Maxwell, Nicholas. Our Fundamental Problem: A Revolutionary Approach to Philosophy, Monreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2020. See: https://www.mqup.ca/our- fundamental-problem-products-9780228001522.php

Nicholas Maxwell is an Emeritus Reader in History and Philosophy of Science at the University College of London, in the United Kingdom.. In 2003 he founded Friends of Wisdom, an international group of people sympathetic to the idea that academic inquiry should help humanity acquire more wisdom by rational means. He has published fifteen books spelling out different aspects of the argument for an intellectual revolution, from knowledge to wisdom, and has contributed to over thirty other books. He has published over eighty papers in scientific and philosophical journals on problems that range from consciousness, free will, value, and art to the rationality of science, simplicity, scientific realism, explanation, time and quantum theory.

 

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Truth and Belief
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Nicholas Maxwell is an Emeritus Reader in History and Philosophy of Science at the University College of London, in the United Kingdom.. In 2003 he founded Friends of Wisdom, an international group of people sympathetic to the idea that academic inquiry should help humanity acquire more wisdom by rational means. He has published fifteen books spelling out different aspects of the argument for an intellectual revolution, from knowledge to wisdom, and has contributed to over thirty other books. He has published over eighty papers in scientific and philosophical journals on problems that range from consciousness, free will, value, and art to the rationality of science, simplicity, scientific realism, explanation, time and quantum theory.

 

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