Idealism, stupid

A strange thing happened yesterday. I was at a conference full of scientists and none of them thought materialism worked.

This strange phenomenon might seem a little less strange in the context of the conference being a conference about psychedelics, but still. People were talking about DMT, its mechanisms, its applications to our understanding of how consciousness works and how best to analyse the peculiar visual and perceptual trends common to people using it, regardless of their cultural background or setting.

One of the common threads of discussion was whether it made more sense to take these visions and perceptions (all of which tend to invoke elves, in much the same fashion as the old northern European shamanic traditions) at face value – the elves are real entities out there in the world and DMT offers a way into seeing them – or as a sort of mental construct.

Conventional materialism would fall into a bit of a hole here, because if you agree that stuff in consensus reality, like the table and chair in front of you, are actual real things, it troubles the question of how real the real things are. Problem is, the elves have all the same apparently real qualities as the real things. If the real things are real, you are in danger of finding yourself believing in elves: not a respectable materialist position to hold.

At the end, I asked the speakers which metaphysical position was best fit to make sense of the elf story.

Idealism, said Andrew Gallimore, as though it were obvious. Which, to anyone who has taken psychedelics, I suppose it is. And to people who have chipped away at the thorny issues of establishing mathematical and philosophical fixity, and concluded that it doesn’t really work unless you keep on changing the script in an attempt to account for the unaccountable, too. The philosophy festival I work for finds more of these people each year. And, perhaps more significantly, idealism is a position that sits with increasing ease for the mostly lay audience. We might have got over God, but there is an inchoate folk metaphysics out there that thinks naive realism is a bit silly upon inspection.

I gave a paper last week on The Hunting of the Snark and Flatland which wasn’t really about either book but the backdrop of developments in Victorian metaphysics. Both, I argued, alluded to the story of an attempt to project what seemed (as it always does, for philosophers love nothing better than to reinvent the wheel) like the New Speculative Realism out of new mathematical techniques, and its ultimate collapse. The unhuntable Snark turns out to be the ineffable Boojum; the Zen master of a non-man, the Baker, who succeeds in meeting with it is sublimated into thin air in something like an encounter with the Absolute; the proliferation of additional possible dimensions in Flatland, which then starts to sound a bit like a DMT trip, results in the impossibility of any particular perceptual account of the world being mind-independently true.

What I would now like to know is which particular flavour of idealism Gallimore was on about. Even if we’re agreed that the notion of a fixable mind-independent reality is a bit silly, there are different ways of understanding that too. Where are we headed? Later speakers alluded to holism or monism, in the guise of spiritual practitioners like Gurdjieff and Steiner whose followers, in my admittedly limited experience, tend claim special insight by virtue of their guru having uncovered it, as though the entire histories of Eastern and Western philosophy alike weren’t a thing. Do we see mind-dependent reality as a big, interconnected cosmic mind, or do we take a more austere line?

I also got excited about how it might be possible to take an idealist position and create a consciousness-as-GUI metaphor in which different modalities of consciousness take hold, like layered operating systems, when different phenethylamine or tryptamine-based neural networks are fired up. More on that soon.

Nature, naturalists and naturalism

Observing the Great Nature Schism, as it is unlikely to be called in the future, I found myself thinking about naturalism too, in both its philosophical sense as the empirical study of the material world and its literary sense as the supply of detail to create a staged impression of the material world.

It seems as though the sort of writing the avengers of the correct, pure type of nature writing are advocating, at least on the surface of it, is mimetic writing. It is as though we need more writing that seeks to identify the fine detail of things – in this case living things that are not human – and to pin them down in the collector’s case of Nature Writing. If you muddy the pursuit of mimetic detail with things that are less pindownable, like allusions or ideas or, heaven forfend, sub-plots, the illusion of the text providing an image of reality falls apart a bit.

It’s not just the professional naturalists who seem to like naturalism. Most readers do. We like something concrete that feels authentic and real. It reflects a more general literary trend over the last hundred years or so, which is the relentless pursuit of naturalism in fiction and non-fiction alike.

Erich Auerbach famously saw this as a good thing – that it was somehow more honest and demotic to create pretend detail to furnish the reader’s perception of a scene. But Mimesis was written in the 1940s, when the full impact of the new technologies of television and film, among other things, had not yet been fully realised.

One of the outcomes of access to instantaneous and granular televisual detail is that it makes reading feel a bit like hard work. And if reading is hard work, reading that necessitates a bit of imaginative stretching is bloody hard work. When I read the early chapters of Mimesis, I feel mournful not for our ancestors’ lack of literary technique but for our desiccated imaginations. I recently considered adapting the Satyricon into a contemporary setting and was struck, among other things, by the lack of narrative detail in it. Once upon a time, the act of reading involved a fair amount of furnishing too.

I’m not going to get stuck into Mimesis, tempting as it is, because Terry Eagleton did a much better job of it twelve years ago and I therefore wouldn’t dare. But I do think that Auerbach’s pursuit of the really real struck a chord in a post-war world that was increasingly industrialised – and thus nostalgic for an imagined idea of authenticity, like the pure, big-N Nature – and also a bit intellectually lazy thanks to the more passive pleasures of watching telly.

[Auerbach sees a progressive political project in the fall of high art, which, given the Wagnerian fasco-epic predilections of his immediate cultural predicament seems fair enough, but the flipside of it is ideological in its own way. Perhaps we could note, in counter-example, that the apparent realism of the novel lends itself, in a similar fashion to film, to an efficacious provocation of emotive responses. It makes it easy to construct an apparently convincing moral framework and to sell it. This can work for good and for bad.]

The rise and rise of the exhaustive biography is, perhaps, the literary apotheosis of this search for the Real. Somehow, the mimetic detail of a novel doesn’t quite cut it. We need a mimesis-upgrade to historical fiction, so that rooting it to a Real Time and a Real Place makes it more comfortingly real to read. But the fictive element of fiction then becomes disconcerting. Let’s cut to the chase and go for biography instead.

I think something analogous, if not similar, is going on with nature writing. Rather than looking inward to the imagination for the constant supply of detail that readers increasingly appear to need, or outward to the realm of ideas, it is naturalistic detail that is the only valid sort for the nature police. It requires a particular exhaustive specialist knowledge honed by years of love and attention to detail that the rest of us might never even know was there.

The nature of looking closely at anything is that you unpack new bits of detail with every close-up: it has a fractal quality. There is also a magic to the worlds you can find within it, and a further magic to the notion that I am certain must occur to most readers of these sorts of books that somebody was able to develop the love and attention to detail in order to write it in the first place.

But there is something else going on. There is a pursuit of fixity and a desire to tell, journalistically, the truth in a precarious world in which a new wave of extinction promises to render the diversity of non-human species more precarious than ever. We tend to place value on scarcity, and the existential threat we pose to the non-human natural world makes it seem all the more precious by virtue of its precarity. When trees, hedgerows or wildflower meadows appear not only exceptional but finite it seems like an important political statement to try one’s best to capture them as they are now. We need to create a representation of their material reality because it is a reality that looks as though it might slip away terrifyingly soon.

And I get all of that. It all seems sound. But it isn’t what art should necessarily be about. And it also isn’t the case that a thing exhaustively created to provide a full, round picture of something that feels real is really real. It is only ever a mimicry of the great outdoors, framed by human aims.