The Bleak Philosophy: A Preliminary Sketch
By Alan Carl Nicoll
Copyright 2019 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved
A book, a sentence, a proposition, a position, a truth, anything is worthless to me unless I can understand it. Sometimes it requires a great deal of time and effort to understand something, and sometimes it requires more time and effort than I am willing to expend. For instance, I have read some things about quantum mechanics, enough to know that to fully understand it would require at least a year of study, including learning some probably very difficult mathematics. Given my age and interests, learning quantum mechanics and related subjects simply isn’t worth my time, especially as I can see no practical results from the pursuit. Thus my general approach to life is pragmatic.
The understanding I acquire from study is—as far as I can tell—always in the form of a model, which I may define as a simplified version of an underlying mystery. As a map is a model of a territory.
In short, I am of the “simple-minded” school. I came to this realization upon reading this quote from William Barrett:
“[Bertrand] Russell’s chagrin at the course which Wittgenstein’s development took is perfectly understandable as an opposition of two radically different types of mind. The story is told that one day while Russell and [Alfred North] Whitehead were still collaborating on Principia Mathematica, Whitehead remarked to Russell, ‘You know, Bertie, there are two kinds of people in the world—the simple-minded and the muddle-headed. I am muddle-headed; you, Bertie, are simple-minded.’
“The muddle-headed look at the complexities of things and write obscurely; the simple-minded cultivate clear and distinct ideas but miss the complex depths of sheer matters of fact.”
This is a distinction that I find very useful, and as the first paragraph makes clear, I am very much of the simple-minded school. Certainly I endeavor to see into the “complex depths”; but if I cannot see very far, or at all, still, I have to live in the world and I require guides to action. To me, muddles are useless as guides to action.
In other words, to navigate in the world, I require a map; and as has been pointed out, “the map is not the territory.” My expression of this fundamental realization is “models and mysteries.” A map is a model of a mystery, that is, the mystery of the territory that the map represents. A scientific theory, such as Darwinian evolution, is a map to coping with the otherwise impenetrable mystery of the origin of species. Models give us a guide for action and understanding; but it is our actions that provide us feedback on the adequacy of the map.
Here’s what I wrote in my diary of November 9, 2007 (later comments in brackets), my first expression of this “models and mysteries” idea:
What are atoms? This question occurred to me and I thought, “This is the ultimate mystery of the microcosm.” But then I wondered, what is anything? An apple, a rock, a shoe, we can point to these and we know something of their nature and history and so we think we know them. But although we know some few facts about them, that knowledge is superficial, a mere skin that blinds us to the great mystery that is the essence of each of them. When it comes to complete knowledge, we don’t know anything completely. We are in a Sahara of ignorance, trying to dig our way to the bottom, not knowing indeed whether there is a bottom. [9/9/18 I am uneasy with this formulation, but can’t tell what I would want to say in its place, or in addition. Feynman says that physics, or science, is all about “What happens when I do this.” Manipulation of objects and energies in pursuit of our goals—surely this is the knowledge that’s important, and any talk of “essences” is either a metaphor for quantum mechanics (another level of manipulation) and the like, or metaphysical—shall I say—nonsense?]
The best we can do is remember well our ignorance and remain humble in the face of it, and do the best we can with what we have. We must reject what we know to be error, and withhold allegiance to what does not prove itself to us…if I even know what that means.
Our knowledge increases the predictability of life. Regardless of the depth of the sand beneath us, we know of many things which can kill us, and we avoid them. We have much of this kind of practical knowledge, that is, we know how to manipulate the unknowns around us in order to preserve and enhance our daily lives. We build on sand, it is true, but we do build.
I like this early expression very much, because it encompasses so many of my now-settled ideas: avoidance of known error, models as a “skin” over underlying mysteries, rejection of the concept of essences, and the pragmatic approach. However, nothing of this is original with me except the expression.
My approach to ethics is largely undeveloped at this point, but I take as a foundation the following thought: if anything can be called “evil,” unnecessary suffering is evil; so if anything is good, prevention of unnecessary suffering is good. Beyond that, about all I can say is that our natural inclination to empathy, which I think has an evolutionary basis, i.e., “survival value for the species,” teaches us a kind of morality.
Beyond this basic philosophical stance, and in part because of it, I am an atheist. Jean-Paul Sartre said that existentialism is the result of taking atheism seriously. As an extension of this, I like to say that the bleak philosophy is the result of taking neuroscience seriously.
Neuroscience and gestaltism: One of my early studies, apart from schooling, was the psychology of Fritz Perls, the father of Gestalt Therapy. From his books I derived a notion of the gestalt approach: an approach to the reductionist idea of “carving nature at the joints,” that is, that nature has no “joints,” and a human being is—in the most general terms—a process inseparable from its environment. How much of this is gestalt and how much is me, I cannot say.
Neuroscience, as I understand it, persuades me that the “mind” is merely a function of the body, and “free will” is essentially a fiction. Influenced by General Semantics (“G.S.”) and the science fiction of A. E. van Vogt, and wanting to adopt a more “hygienic” approach to language, I added a thing or two to what I might call “G.S.-speak” to develop “bleakspeak.” For example, instead of saying “I,” one says, “this body right now” and adjusts verbs and such accordingly.
The above describes the main conclusions of the bleak philosophy; so it now is an amalgam of pragmatism, “simple-mindedness,” General Semantics, neuroscience, and half-baked ideas.
- Understanding: Lakoff & Johnson: Philosophy in the Flesh; Emerson: “Self-Reliance”
- Pragmatism: William James: “The Will to Believe”; Richard Rorty: Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature
- Models and Mysteries: Life is predictable to us, to the extent that our models accurately reflect the mysteries all around us. Education is useful to the extent that it adds to our stock of models and refines and corrects those that we already have. We ordinarily think about the world by manipulating our models.
- Karl Popper: Conjectures and Refutations
- Evolutionary Epistemology, Rationality, and the Sociology of Knowledge
- Pancritical Rationalism: W. Bartley, III: The Retreat to Commitment
- Population Thinking
 “The Twentieth Century in Philosophy,” in William Barrett and Henry D. Aiken: Philosophy in the Twentieth Century: An Anthology, Random House, New York, 1962, Volume One, p. 32-33.
 Alfred Korzybski (Science and Sanity, 1933) popularized this expression, though the concept is older.
 I have been unable to verify the source of this quote; I had thought I’d read it in one of Feynman’s autobiographical books, but my very limited research hasn’t confirmed this.
 Letting a cat out of a bag: yes, I believe in group selection.
 Another quote I have been unable to verify. It might be in William Barrett: Irrational Man.
 “G.S.-speak” is my name for some rules of expression set out in van Vogt’s The Players of Null-A.
Copyright 2019 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved