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Risk the Game: On William James | The Nation

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Risk the Game: On William James

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The centrality of the observer in a universe of indeterminacy is a concept with a very modern sound. James describes "a pluralistic, restless universe, in which no single point of view can ever take in the whole scene." The physicist Stephen Hawking says, "Quantum physics tells us that no matter how thorough our observation of the present, the (unobserved) past, like the future, is indefinite and exists only as a spectrum of possibilities. The universe, according to quantum physics, has no single past, or history." And he says, "We create history by our observation, rather than history creating us." This would seem to enhance the efficacy of the observer, since James's "impotent" human perceiver concedes and in some sense apprehends that a million unencountered potentialities inhere in any experience. James's discipline of tact would not allow him to endorse Hawking's interpretation of our circumstance that it "makes us in a sense the lords of creation." But James's model of reality asserts an equally essential role for the observer. Unlike Hawking, James proceeds from profound attention to the actual workings of consciousness. He is the mind's observer as he is the observer of other reality, in order to engage the epistemological problem to which consciousness is central. In this James is not modern at all, though his approach seems eminently sensible. Hawking takes what is now the conventional view, that intelligence is an artifact of the complexity of physical reality, and free will an illusion. He seems not to find it strange that the lord creator of the glorious cosmos should itself be of marginal interest to the study of the reality it makes and has made.

The Heart of William James
Edited by Robert Richardson.
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About the Author

Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson is a novelist and essayist. Among her books are Gilead, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for...

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James does not exclude categories of thought or feeling from among the data that are of interest to the perceiver, and therefore from the fact of the given world. He says, "If a certain formula for expressing the nature of the world violates my moral demand, I shall feel as free to throw it overboard, or at least to doubt it, as if it disappointed my demand for uniformity of sequence, for example; the one demand being, so far as I can see, quite as subjective and emotional as the other is." Subjectivity is for him profoundly human, honorable, distractible, fallible—indeed indistinguishable from a thinking self. In his acknowledging its centrality he assumes that what matters in human and subjective terms matters in fact. That is to say, the phenomena of perceived meaning are for him a fully legitimate part of the universe of things. He says, "To be rapt with satisfied attention, like Whitman, to the mere spectacle of the world's presence, is one way, and the most fundamental way, of confessing one's sense of its unfathomable significance and importance." This is quoted from the essay titled "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings." The blindness he describes is precisely the failure to perceive and value the interior universe that is the reality of any other life, any other mind. Awareness of it, he says, "absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us. Hands off: neither the whole of truth, nor the whole of good, is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands." His epistemology yields a social and political ethic because he takes seriously the observer as a phenomenon within the phenomenal world.

Even if one grants the harmony of this ethic with democracy and with the consciously American identity James chose for himself, nevertheless his keeping the reality of the observer, and its human character, active as a factor in his thinking is entirely warranted, not only from the perspective of philosophy and psychology but also from the perspective of the science that follows him in positing its centrality. Physicists use the term "observer" in ways that are special to the discipline and defined by context. A molecule can be said to "observe." But however the term is used it clearly describes something continuous with human awareness or attention—of an experimenter, for example—and Hawking uses it only in this sense. Yet his observer is a disembodied potency, collectively lord of creation, free of the tedious burden of mortal limits. This vision has much in common with mysticism, and might be seen as a vindication of mysticism, of Solomon's "Wisdom, the fashioner of all things" who is "more beautiful than the sun, and excels every constellation of the stars." James, on the other hand, gives the observer flesh and particularity, phenomenal this-worldliness, complicating every problem Hawking's abstraction passes over. Words like "beautiful" and "excellent" inevitably become subjective and elusive precisely because they are factors in any actual humanly embodied construction of reality.

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The controversy that engrosses certain of us at present, called, however accurately, the argument between science and religion, is a good illustration of the precedence vision takes over logic in these matters. The brilliance of the physical world, the superb intricacy of the cell, the antic indeterminacy of the electron, are used by one side to prove there must be a Creator and by the other side to demonstrate that nature is sufficient unto itself and God an unnecessary hypothesis. Both theists and atheists feel their case is made, on the basis of exactly the same evidence. This is interesting in its own right. The vision that pre-exists their logic is surely determining in the great majority of cases, "logic only finding reasons for the vision afterwards." Looked at directly, this common feature of the thinking of the two sides should yield significant insight into the workings of the mind, and should in any case alleviate the rancor that comes with so many years of mutual incomprehension. James deals with this old controversy in the essay "Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results." The dispute, he says, is not really about "hair-splitting abstractions about matter's inner essence, or about the metaphysical attributes of God. Materialism means simply the denial that the moral order is eternal, and the cutting off of ultimate hopes; theism means the affirmation of an eternal moral order and the letting loose of hope. Surely here is an issue genuine enough, for anyone who feels it; and, as long as men are men, it will yield matter for serious philosophic debate. Concerning this question at any rate, the positivists and pooh-pooh-ers of metaphysics are wrong."

If human presence in the cosmos has the centrality James—and Hawking—claim for it, then "this need of an eternal moral order," which "is one of the deepest needs of our breast," is not to be dismissed. Such intuitions could as well reflect our incomprehensible (though struggling and error-prone) ability to comprehend the universe as physics and astronomy. Scientific materialism, says James, is "not a permanent warrant for our more ideal interests, not a fulfiller of our remotest hopes." For scientific materialism, our ideals and hopes have nothing to do with the nature of things and will die an absolute death. In James's understanding, it is theism that places us in the cosmos whole and wholly human. "A world with a God in it to say the last word, may indeed burn up or freeze, but we then think of him as still mindful of the old ideals and sure to bring them elsewhere to fruition; so that, where he is, tragedy is only provisional and partial, and shipwreck and dissolution not the absolutely final things." But metaphysics is only half the conversation, so "as long as men are men," as long as we are human, there will be voices in this vast, cold universe debating ultimate things. And this is also beautiful.

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