By Luke Hauser – copyright 2017 GroundWork – visit DirectAction.org
Back in my garret I leafed through the manuscript of The Being of Nothingness and the Nothingness of Being (Part II), struggling to decipher the nearly-illegible scrawl.
That I was in possession of the treasured document was the result of a hasty and perhaps not entirely sagacious decision that the irreplaceable pages were better in my hands than lying prey to a would-be philosophy thief. Once I got my bearings and figured out whom I could trust, I would pass the manuscript on to more worthy hands.
Of course, if I got caught with the priceless handwritten manuscript my name would be mud in philosophy texts for the next millennium. Regardless of my later prodigious achievements in numerous and varied fields and the notable awards that might inevitably accrue to me, the opprobrium of attempting to steal Mr. Testascrittore’s proof would cling to my name.
Maybe I should quickly change my name. That way the mud would bespatter the new name, and I could later change it back to Jeff Harrison and be none the worse for wear. I made a mental note to explore the option.
Thanks to my youthful apprenticeship reading Mr. Copleston’s History I could follow the main thread of Mr. Testascrittore’s argument, which traced the trajectory of the quest for a proof of existence from Ancient times through the most recent treatments of the issue.
In the painstaking if rather predictable estimation of our own Mr. Testascrittore, all previous attempts at proving existence had failed, although each had offered new insights into the problem.
Medieval thinkers from Mr. Augustine to Mr. Anselm and beyond based their proofs of God’s existence implicitly on an assumption of the reliability – hence existence – of unaided human reason. But who had such blind faith in human reason after a century of eugenic science, nuclear horror, and environmental devastation?
Mr. Descartes’ cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am – seemed airtight for nearly three centuries until Mr. Sartre showed the nullity of the Cartesian ego, or self.
Mr. Hegel’s Idealist dialectic founded self-awareness on the existence of a subjected Other whose awareness validates our existence – a master-versus-slave theory which perhaps not entirely coincidentally crumbled about the same time that old Honest Abe the Railroad Splitter signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
More recently, Mr. Heidegger’s Phenomenological description of time and temporality was based squarely on his explication of human existence as the self-evident “being-there” (dasein) of consciousness.
As I squinted over the penultimate chapter of the manuscript, I found my hands trembling at the approach of the crowning moment of Western philosophy – Mr. Testascrittore’s long-awaited proof of his own existence.
I paused and took a deep breath. A lifetime of prior studies – from my youthful flirtations with the overheated Mr. Nietzsche to my more recent forays into the cold logical investigations of Mr. Husserl – had been but a propaedeutic for this moment.
Philosophy students for generations to come would thrill to the same experience, approaching the text with fear and trembling. What an extraordinary honor to be the first.
I turned the page and awaited the epiphany. To my dismay, what I beheld was a gaping hole adorned with a bright red post-it: “Insert Final Proof Here.”
Insert Here? The proof was still in process?
I sagged, then felt a surge of anger. This is people’s existence we’re talking about, for God’s sake! How can anyone be expected to make long-term plans based on a red post-it?
I slogged through the rest of the final chapter, hoping an explication of the missing proof might lay buried in the erudite references. But if it was there, it eluded my Hermeneutic skills. Disappointed, I tucked the pages back into their envelope and slid it under my futon.
I stood up and stretched, irritated by the debilitating lacuna in Mr. Testascrittore’s manuscript. How could he leave us dangling on the most important of all questions? Clearly he had at least an inkling of the solution. Had he written it down somewhere?
I paced around my cramped quarters, wishing something would distract me from my obsession.
An elegantly-inscribed graffitto in blue felt-tip caught my eye: “I thought, therefore I was – Descartes.”
Had his ghost visited the Institute and written the line? Or had Mr. Descartes simply been looking ahead?
Of course, he probably didn’t write the graffitto himself. It could have been anyone, when you think about it.
I cringed. Don’t get started on that line of thought. I’d had enough sleuthing for one day. Just read the graffitti. I made my way slowly along the wall, absorbing the wisdom of the past:
- Russell is an egghead
- Truth will be truth when truth is truth
- The future will be just like the present, only more so
- Aristotle got a blister
- What do you think they think we think?
- Hemlock smoothie
The last one made me thirsty. I stirred up a big glass of Ovaltine, mulling over the “truth will be truth when truth is truth” aphorism. It made sense, in a satisfyingly tautological way, even though it offered no criterion for ascertaining precisely when “when” arrived.
It was only after I’d finished my Ovaltine and flossed my teeth that it really hit me what a close brush I’d had with death in Mr. Testascrittore’s office that evening.
I stared into the sink. Here I was on some amateur paper-chase, thinking if I could just locate the exact volume of Mr. Copleston’s History to which a dead professor’s foot was pointed, I could save the world – and a ruthless murderer had likely been standing inches from me. If he’d discovered me, I could be dead right now.
Although on the plus side, I’d have a pretty solid idea who Mr. Testascrittore’s murderer was.
If a detective discovers the murderer, but is killed before he or she can communicate the discovery to anyone, can they be said to have “solved” the crime?
Technically, I suppose so. But it can’t be a very satisfying achievement.
And that would have been my fate. What in God’s name was I thinking? Completely alone in the office with a cold-blooded killer.
One thing puzzled me – the guy had a key. Where did he get it? Had someone else dazzled Johann with their logic? Did he hand out keys to anyone who got him high? Thank goodness I didn’t confide in him.
And he’d probably smoked all the weed to boot. I’d gone back to the boiler room after I left the office, but the door was locked and Johann didn’t answer.
On an impulse I’d taken his key back to my garret. By a stroke of good fortune I’d brought with me to Terre Haute the portable high-speed key duplicator I’d been required to purchase as part of my custodial apprenticeship at USB. I didn’t bring most of my tools – I figured you can always find a double offset counter-wrench or a left-handed philips head screwdriver somewhere. But how many philosophy departments have their own key-cutter?
Although I was quite proud of my foresight, the custodial ethics of copying a borrowed key were a bit sketchy. However, given my dedication to the cause of bringing Mr. Testascrittore’s killer to the bitter bar of unrequited justice, I would surely be remiss if I didn’t make a copy or two.
Having availed myself of the opportunity to obtain my own key to Mr. Testascrittore’s office, I’d gone back to the Albertus Magnus Empirical Metaphysics Building and slid Johann’s key under the boiler room door.
I resolved to ask about the weed later. I’d specifically asked him to save some for me. Even if he’d smoked it all, I owed it to my own holistic process of infradialogical self-actualization to get closure.
Besides, I needed to find out who got the second key to Mr. Testascrittore’s office. That information alone might solve the mystery.
I dropped onto my futon and groaned. What was I thinking? I had to be done with this murder business. Forget Johann, forget the police. The best way to honor Mr. Testascrittore’s legacy was to attend my classes and study hard. A string of straight A’s would justify Mr. Testascrittore’s confidence far more than wasting time trying to solve the mystery of his death.
Anyway, if I wanted to be effective, why didn’t I put my trusty Berkeley organizing skills to work, instead of trying to play Sherlock Holmes? I could instigate a media campaign to demand that the police re-open the investigation. Circulate a petition. Organize a community forum.
The key to that sort of grassroots outreach, I knew, was to immerse myself fully in Terre Haute and the Institute. And that meant engaging with my academic program. I closed my eyes and considered making a resolution to attend all of my classes for the rest of the term.
I made such a resolution once as a USB undergrad. I kept it for almost two entire days. Which doesn’t sound like much. But it’s better than nothing.
Mr. Russell, dapper as always in black coat and bow-tie, winced. “Two is not ‘better’ than nothing. One number is not better than another.”
I leaned up on my elbow and greeted him with a nod. “I beg to differ, sir. To my mind, certain numbers have more dignity and elegance than others. Am I the only one who feels a secret yearning for particular numbers? How could 26 possibly compare to 25? Who can deny that 44 is more satisfying than 43?”
“Okay, granted that,” my visitor said. “Is it fair to compare zero to a number? It’s a cheap victory – any number would come off better than zero.”
“You’re right,” I said, a tad embarrassed. “I suspect it comes back to the crypto-Manichean basis of the entire Western moral and epistemological attitude: ‘Being is better than nothingness.’”
“As if we’re in a position to say,” Mr. Russell said skeptically.
“Well, being in class would probably be better than not-being in class,” I said. “At least in the professor’s eyes.”
“Quite right,” assented the pride of Cambridge with a smile.
I bade Mr. Russell adieu and focused on a decision that I knew would almost certainly irrevocably change my life forever.
Resolved – to prioritize my classwork and to meet all academic deadlines for the entire semester. Any sleuthing I felt compelled to undertake must take a back seat to that commitment.
Steeped in a newfound sense of purpose, I drifted off to sleep – only to be stirred awake by a chill permeating my garret.
I woke in the dead of night to a damp chill filling the room. As I fumbled around for the blankets, I noticed a hazy specter hovering near the door.
The cloud, which seemed to swirl around its own center, drifted toward me, gradually condensing into the shape of a smallish man with grey hair, or rather a powdered grey periwig. His clothes were silvery green satin, with a frilled white shirt poking between the lapels.
“What? Who…?” I managed to articulate.
The floating apparition came to a halt next to my bed. “Monsieur Pierre Arouet de Voltaire at your service,” it said with a sweeping bow.
“Mr. Voltaire – or is it Monsieur Arouet? I am but a humble American graduate student. If I have in some inadvertent way offended or disquieted your ghost, please forgive me.”
A smile played over his thin lips. “Not in the least, my good man. I ran into Mr. Copleston this evening, and he said that you might need my assistance.”
I assumed he was offering to write some of my term papers for me, an offer I heartily appreciated, knowing what a great stylist he was.
Of course, his writing had landed him in the Bastille, so maybe I ought to proofread what he wrote before turning it in. But if it would free up my time for more important projects, I could hardly refuse the offer.
“I must confess,” he said, “solving murder mysteries is not my forte. But Mr. Copleston thought perhaps you needed a bit of encouragement.”
“Oh, that…” Should I tell Mr. Voltaire that I was retiring from the detective trade? Or would that just earn me visitations from less convivial philosophers? “Yeah,” I told him. “I feel like I’m in a bit over my head. I almost got myself killed tonight, trying to track down a clue.”
He flashed a smile. “Risking your life in the service of Truth? Not a bad start.”
That’s a different way of looking at it, I thought. Maybe if I did a Phenomenological analysis of the experience, I could get extra credit in my Descriptics class.
But for the moment, I was more concerned with the ghost hovering next to my bed. “I, uh, well, I think that… I mean…”
“Speak up, my man. This is no time to lose your wits.”
“I thought wit was your province.”
“Once it was. But I must admit, death takes the edge off one’s sense of humor.”
“I see. So what should I do?”
He shrugged. “I think you’re supposed to ask me some deep, searching questions, or beseech me for supernatural guidance.”
“Wow, really? You can do that?”
“I didn’t say I could do anything. I’m just telling you what you’re supposed to do.”
“Okay.” I thought for a moment. “Well, it’s simple. Can you tell me who killed Mr. Testascrittore?”
He closed his eyes, and his breathing became slow and regular. I thought for a while he’d fallen asleep on his feet, which ghosts probably can do. But suddenly his eyes snapped open. “Yes, I see it all now. Someone came into Mr. Testascrittore’s office as he worked on his ultimate manuscript. He gained Mr. Testascrittore’s confidence, then when the victim wasn’t looking, the intruder plunged an ice-axe into his skull!” He shuddered as the vision passed through him.
I was speechless for a moment. “Uh, Mr. Voltaire, that’s amazing – but I think you’re getting a vision of Mr. Trotsky’s death, not Mr. Testascrittore’s.”
He drew his smallish frame to its full stature. “It’s easy for you to criticize! It’s not like they’re wearing name tags!” The apparition started to dissolve before my eyes.
“No, wait! I meant no offense. I need your help!”
“I’ve done what I can,” he said, sounding airy and far away. “Now I’m off to the Philosophers’ Parliament.”
“The Philosophers’ Parliament. The great thinkers of the Western lineage meet and try to settle the deepest questions of all time. Plus there’s an awards banquet and a swap meet.”
“The Philosophers’ Parliament,” I repeated slowly. “For real?”
“Absolutely. We’re debating the fundamental nature of reality, and I don’t want to be late.”
“What about my case?” I said. “What should I do?”
“Seek justice,” he tossed over his shoulder. “Demandez justice!”
“What? Seek justice?”
“Oui, justice!” His voice was so ethereal now that it sounded as if it were echoing inside my own head. “But beware of those who find it!”
And I was alone again in the darkened room.
I woke in a sweat. Was I late? Where was I supposed to be?
Class. I was in grad school in Terre Haute. How did that happen? Only a week earlier, I’d been sitting in a Berkeley cafe catching up on my correspondence. I opened a message from Professor Testascrittore inviting me to study at the Institute. Before I could catch my breath I was swept into the maelstrom of Terre Haute.
How far away USB and Berkeley seemed. How past-tense. Sure, my current program was only seven years. I could go home after that.
But I knew that if I was serious about philosophy, my future was here in West Central Indiana. Or, if my talents were deemed of lesser rank, perhaps a tenured position at Oxford, Cambridge, or the Sorbonne. If all else failed, there was always Yale or Harvard.
But a return to Berkeley? What an admission of failure!
Not that I was ashamed of my hometown. I thought of all the great Medieval writers whose cognomens reflected their places of origin: Mr. Siger of Brabant, Ms. Christine of Pisa, Mr. Giles of Rome, Mr. Marsilius of Padua.
In acknowledgement of the high likelihood of my making significant if as yet unspecified and belatedly recognized contributions to the dignity and honor of Western culture, I would like to lay claim to the appellation Mr. Harrison of Berkeley, as an homage to the good people of provincial California from whom in my callow youth I unwittingly imbibed my passion for knowledge, truth, and the correct answer on the upcoming exam.
Exams. My resolve not to miss a class played through my mind. I wondered how much it mattered to the professors. Those who bothered to notice.
If it were me, I’d take it personally. When I’m a professor, I’ll give pop-quizzes all the time, so students have to show up. I want them on the edge of their seats.
Philosophy is a risky business – the sword of Damocles and all that. Mr. More’s commitment to truth cost him his life at the hands of Henry the Eighth. Mr. Socrates chose hemlock over exile and silence. Mr. Abelard sacrificed his manhood in the service of his craft.
Given the dangers lurking within the covers of philosophy texts, little surprise that there have been demands for warning labels.
Crude proposals have included a black and white sticker:
“Warning! Contents Under Pressure! Not to be taken internally except on the advice of your metaphysician.”
More sophisticated ideas envision easy-to-remember letter-symbols identifying the suitability of a given text for impressionable young readers.
Mr. Plato and Ms. De Pisa might rate a G for General consumption, while Mr. Baudrillard would probably receive an F for Foreign Influence – even in France.
Mr. Bruno and Mr. Valentinus would be classified O for Obscure. Mr. Duns Scotus and Mr. Aristotle would share a B for Boring.
Idealists and Scholastics would get a U for Unreadable, while the incomparable Mr. Voltaire and his inspirator Mr. Apuleius would rate an H for hilarious – even centuries later.
I had to get ready for class. I dragged myself out of bed. One day at a time, I thought. Just commit for one day.
But attending all my classes for two days in a row would break my all-time record. Okay. Two days at a time. Starting today.
Even as I prepared to leave for my first lecture of the new era, though, I couldn’t quite shake the thought of the manuscript that lay tucked under my futon. I wasn’t writing off the mystery of Mr. Testascrittore’s murder altogether. I could keep my eyes and ears open for suspicious signs.
If my hunch was correct, the truth lay somewhere within the confines of the Institute.
As the clock rang 10am, I settled into a desk-chair in the back row of the classroom. “Analytic Sartrics.” Back in Berkeley, I’d have been mystified as to what such a course could encompass.
But here in Terre Haute, it was obvious – Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the Logical Positivists. Basically the Analytic tradition with a dash of Mr. Sartre thrown in for form’s sake.
As a token of my resolve to be more fully engaged in my academic pursuits, I got out a brand new notebook.
My neighbor two seats to the right already had his notebook open and dated. Not to be outdone, I opened mine to the first page and wrote “Analytics – September 17th” at the top.
September 17th. Convenient, having months. Otherwise we’d have to remember it was the 260th day of the year.
Which I would have little trouble doing, since I was already looking forward to the weekend on days 264-265.
It’s a trouble most people choose to avoid by naming particular durations of time after Norse and Roman deities. An excellent idea, we must admit.
And while we’re at it, let’s hear it for the inventor of the “day.” What a great organizing device.
The existence of discrete days is one of those little serendipities that incline me to believe in a benign intelligence behind the apparently mechanical unfolding of Time. Without days as a fundamental organizing tool, we’d have to date our lives minute by minute for the entire year.
Which admittedly has a certain entertainment value. I scratched out the date, performed the requisite computations on my fingers, and wrote: “Minute #373,560.”
My neighbor glanced over as I was counting and scooted his chair-desk a little further away.
Up front, the professor, Mr. Denkenschnelle, was talking with a couple of students at the front of the class. Let’s go, I thought. We’re paying good money for this class.
Actually, I wasn’t paying any money at all, having received a full fellowship which covered not only tuition, room, and books, but also included a year’s worth of coupons for free meals at Logico’s, Home of the Hot & Hunky Humeburger, in the heart of Terre Haute’s Historic Latin Quarter Preservation District.
But some people were paying tuition, and they presumably wanted class to begin. I was only showing solidarity.
As for myself, what was I expecting from this class? If I had some expectations, I could engage more readily.
Suddenly it struck me – why not use my Analytics class to clarify the mystery of Mr. Testascrittore’s murder? What a great idea!
Not that I was the first person to apply the tools of logic to solving mysteries. In fact, it was a long tradition.
Sherlock Holmes got so good at logical deduction that even death couldn’t stop his powers of raciocination.
Miss Marple’s forensic methodology rested on the bedrock of her belief that every detail and every clue would ultimately fit into a logical, coherent picture of the quaint country gathering at which the story was taking place.
Sam Spade, better known for his bare-knuckled approach to truth, always trusted that at the end of the story the various clues would all “make sense” – even when their rational implications meant sending his lover up the river.
Detectival ancestors from Auguste Dupin through Nancy Drew and beyond implicitly trusted in the ability of rational inference to produce true knowledge.
As the literary record attests, their faith was well-placed.
Stepping into this proud lineage, I could do some critical thinking about potential suspects as well as conduct a methodical review of the clues I had gathered thus far – the position of the corpse and its pointing limbs, the reference to Mr. Copleston’s History, and the disturbing gap in Mr. Testascrittore’s manuscript wherein should have been found the long-awaited proof of his own existence.
Or former existence.
If someone succeeds in proving that they exist, then dies, does the proof carry over, so that we can remain convinced that they existed? Or is a new proof needed after death?
Does such a quest commit us to metaphysics? Or is it merely a matter of having one’s soul properly probated?
The incessant recurrence of these sorts of epistemological questions threatened to bring my entire investigation grinding to a halt.
I needed to prioritize. It was simple, really. First I needed to figure out what I needed to figure out first, before I figured out the other things I needed to figure out after that.
So – what exactly did I need to figure out? Well, everything. Most of all, I needed to get clear on where I was confused.
With this pressing concern foremost in my mind, I pledged to use my Analytics class to shine a lamp into the shadowy recesses of my troubled mind.
After all, what is philosophy for, if not to illuminate our confusion?
Mr. Denkenschnelle was a shorter, stouter version of the Man behind the Curtain in The Wizard of Oz. As he lectured he paced the front of the room with his hands meshed behind his back. Every few moments he would stride to the chalkboard and write – always on the lower half, since he could only with effort reach above the mid-point – key words from his disquisition.
Although I specifically planned not to cut out of class early, I appreciated his diligence at the chalkboard. You never knew when an emergency might develop. A predictable chalker was a boon in such contingencies.
Mr. Denkenschnelle actually took the “Sartre” component of “Analytic Sartrics” seriously enough to introduce him together with the renowned Mr. Russell.
“Mr. Russell and Mr. Sartre,” he declaimed in a high-pitched voice. “Mr. Sartre and Mr. Russell. Seldom indeed do we hear their names uttered in the same breath. Yet here I have done it not once but twice.
“To some, it must seem far-fetched to lump together these exemplars of competing philosophical currents of the twentieth century: Mr. Sartre the dean of Existentialists, and Mr. Russell the champion of the Analytic school.
“But were they really so different, after all? That is what we are here to explore.” He gazed portentously around the room. “As we delve below the surface dissimilarities, we may find a deeper resonance that defies our expectations.”
With the final phrase he thrust the chalk-stick into the air like a beacon of truth, then whirled and strode to the chalkboard.
Reaching as high as he could on the chalkboard, Mr. Denkenschnelle carefully inscribed the names Sartre and Russell side by side and drew a line under each. For each item he named, he wrote a short phrase under the name:
“Words – Jean-Paul Sartre named his autobiography ‘Words.’ Bertrand Russell titled the first chapter of his book on knowledge ‘Words.’
“Resistance – Mr. Sartre served time in a Nazi prisoner of war camp and then joined the French Resistance. Mr. Russell served time in a British prison for resisting the First World War.
“Opus Magnus – Mr. Russell never read Mr. Sartre’s major work. Mr. Sartre never read Mr. Russell’s major work.”
He turned back to face the class. People leaned forward eagerly, tilting their desk-chairs onto the two front legs. One guy’s notebook slid off his desk and clattered to the floor, marring the dramatic suspense. Mr. Denkenschnelle waited a moment for the silence to gather, then continued in a hushed tone:
“This series of incredible ‘coincidences’ culminates when we consider the amazing fact that Mr. Russell’s name starts with R and includes two S’s, while Mr. Sartre’s starts with S and includes two R’s.”
Around me, pens raced across paper, capturing the insights. I thought it sufficient to jot down “Rss/Srr” as a synopsis of the entire lecture to this point. I might have omitted it altogether, but you never knew, we might be tested on this material.
As he wrote another word on the board, I found myself wondering about Mr. Denkenschnelle’s relations with Mr. Testascrittore. Like many a professor at the Institute, Mr. Denkenschnelle must have felt cramped by the dominance of the Sartric paradigm. To be compelled to filter the mighty Mr. Russell through the prism of Mr. Sartre must gall him.
Or was I building castles in the air? So far Mr. Denkenschnelle had spoken of the two men with equal respect. I’d expect the killer to unconsciously deprecate Mr. Sartre, as if to justify his murder of the Institute’s leading Sartrean.
Mr. Denkenschnelle resumed his lecture. “The primary way in which the two titans differed was in their treatment of metaphysics.” He stopped to spell the word on the chalkboard. “Mr. Sartre dove in headfirst, from the ontology of Being and Nothingness to the dialectics of his later work. Mr. Russell, on the other hand, scorned metaphysics as meaningless and incoherent.
“I think,” said Mr. Denkenschnelle in a thin voice, “that we shall find a great deal of value in Mr. Russell’s views. Metaphysics is, in a word, nonsense.”
He turned and wrote “nonsense” in large letters under the word “metaphysics.” Around me, people carefully recorded the word, but I was transfixed.
Had he just tipped his hand? Did I have my murderer? What more of a motive did I need?
I needed to be certain. Deliberately I raised my hand. “Did I hear you correctly? Metaphysical statements are nonsense?”
“That’s correct,” he said. He turned and drew a sharp line under the word. “Knowledge can be defined as ‘justified true belief.’ First, we must believe the proposition. Second, it must actually be true. And third, we must be justified in so believing. Metaphysical statements refer to no verifiable object or state of affairs. Whether they are true or false is impossible to determine within the bounds of empirical experience. Thus there can be no ‘justification’ of the belief, hence no knowledge.”
I put on an incredulous look. “How can you so blithely dismiss all metaphysical propositions? Have you heard all of them and weighed them carefully? In making that claim you are going beyond the empirical and making a metaphysical statement. Or rather, it’s a meta-metaphysical statement. And you can’t avoid metaphysics by doing meta-metaphysics.”
Several other students picked up the phrase “meta-metaphysics” and whispered it at odd intervals, so it sounded like we were in an echo-chamber.
Mr. Denkenschnelle rolled his eyes. “Metaphysical assertions have no referent in the real world. They can neither be verified nor falsified. This is the very essence of a meaningless statement. One must be allowed to hold certain statements meaningless without being accused of meta-metaphysics. ”
“Sir,” I insisted, hoping to provoke him into repeating his anti-Sartre jibe so I could study his facial expression. “You’re the one doing metaphysics. You’re going beyond the physical, verifiable realm, and then on beyond metaphysics, to claim a ‘universal standpoint’ from which you – and you alone – can survey the entire universe. From this lofty vantage point, you have ruled out all possible verification of metaphysical statements. That sure sounds like meta-metaphysics to me.”
“You’re turning this into a parlor game,” Mr. Denkenschnelle said in a tight voice. “The point is, what cannot be verified by experience is meaningless.”
Realizing that I needed more space for the bold gestures that would augment my dialectical points, I stood and pushed my chair-desk aside. “And I insist that is not a consistent assertion,” I said, sweeping one arm to the side to indicate my rejection of his view. “You claim that metaphysical assertions are without meaning simply because you personally are unable to discover an adequate method of verification?”
“Nor has anyone else,” Mr. Denkenschnelle countered.
“Not in your estimation,” I said. “And you draw from that judgment the conclusion that no one, anytime, anywhere, could possibly verify a single metaphysical assertion?”
“That’s a good summary,” Mr. Denkenschnelle said blandly.
I smiled, recalling my introductory logic class at dear old USB. “Your claim of unverifiability is finally based on induction, is it not? It asserts that whatever has happened many times in the past will likely hold in the future.”
Mr. Denkenschnelle eyed me carefully and said nothing. I continued: “Of course, you know that inductive conclusions are always open to revision. So what you are actually stating is, ‘So far, no one has convinced me that they can verify metaphysical propositions.’ That may be a defensible conclusion. But it hardly allows you to proscribe such statements for all eternity.”
Mr. Denkenschnelle was unfazed. “My conclusion was not inductive. It is based on an analysis of the meanings of the terms involved. If you grasp the meanings of the words, you see that metaphysical propositions have no empirical referent. Hence they are logically incapable of verification and therefore meaningless.”
I could see the circularity of his argument – he was defining “metaphysics” in such as way as to render the term odious, then scoring points by affecting to scorn it. But how did I convince my professor of his error?
How did I convey my knowledge to such a skeptical auditor?
What was my own knowledge worth if I couldn’t communicate it to others?
A slight breeze wafted through the room, and a tall, athletic man in a freshly-laundered toga strode forward. “Mr. Plato,” I exclaimed. “Perhaps you can lend a hand here?”
Mr. Denkenschnelle seemed not to notice the entrance of the Greek sage. I shot a glance at my classmates. They were frozen – pens hovering over notebooks, fingers scratching noses, mouths drooping open.
“Epistemological concerns, eh?” Mr. Plato said to me. “I grappled with those sorts of questions myself. Really – what is knowledge?”
I started to formulate an answer, then realized it was a rhetorical question of the Socratic variety.
“Knowledge,” he continued, “is a recollection of the true reality – the Eternal Forms, the Divine Ideas. These Ideas are the actual forms of things, of which mundane life is but a dim shadow.”
I nodded appreciatively, recognizing the notion from the early chapters of Mr. Copleston’s History. But I was less than convinced. Was Mr. Plato saying that Mr. Testascrittore’s murder was only a shadow?
What would be the Ideal Form of a murder? What is its true Being, such that an earthly death is but the pale shadow?
They didn’t teach us that at Berkeley. Or maybe I missed that day. It was a bad habit I had as an undergrad – a habit which I was determined to break here in Terre Haute – signing up for classes that looked so fascinating in September and so stale in November. Or October. Or late September.
Unfortunately, no matter I signed up for, right away I’d want to study the opposite. Register for Nietzsche, read Hegel. Sign up for Hegel, read Kierkegaard. Take a class on Kierkegaard, read Skinner. Sign up for Skinner, read Nietzsche. A perpetual motion machine of the intellect.
I mulled over Mr. Plato’s Eternal Ideas, or Divine Forms, as they were sometimes called.
“It’s an appealing theory, I admit – that Truth exists once and for all, and all we need to do is discover it. None of the shifting sands of time or relativism. But suppose I try to apply your paradigm. That means that all of the clues I’ve gathered regarding Mr. Testascrittore’s death are nothing but shadows.”
“Yes,” he said. “But in the realm of the Divine Forms are to be found the corresponding Ideas – the Eternal Clues, you might say.”
“Fair enough,” I said. “But how will I know an Eternal Clue when I see it? How will I know it isn’t just one more shadow?”
Mr. Plato pondered my question for a moment, then said, “Contemplate the Divine Forms, the Eternal Ideas. Look past worldly appearances and see Beauty. Look past your obsession with facts and correctness and learn to see Truth. Look past the mundane goods and desires that you pursue, and see The Good.”
Mr. Plato started to fade. “Sir,” I said quickly, “I see much merit in your program. But how do I know that I am focusing on the real Good? What if I discover The Better? Should I cling to The Good? Or should I transfer my allegiance to The Better? And as for The Best – assuming it comes along – how does one know it’s The Best?”
“Contemplate the Ideal Forms,” came his distant voice. “Look to the Truth.”
My classmates stirred again. Mr. Denkenschnelle’s face was sullen as Mr. Plato disappeared. Had the Analytics professor been listening? Or was he oblivious to the classical challenge?
I studied his visage. Despite Mr. Plato’s instructive visit, I felt no closer to establishing Mr. Denkenschnelle’s attitude toward Mr. Testascrittore.
Was he the killer? My only evidence so far was Mr. Denkenschnelle’s general distaste for all things Existentialist. It seemed like a flimsy basis for a first-degree murder charge.
As he came back to life, Mr. Denkenschnelle resumed his raillery. “As I noted, that which is incapable of verification if falsification is by definition meaningless. Thus there are no meaningful metaphysical propositions.”
“Of course there are,” I countered in a bold voice, thinking of Mr. Plato’s Divine Forms. “We speak of ideals that never yet existed, and of truths that will never be instantiated in this realm.”
“Not meaningfully,” the stout man countered.
“Of course we can. Suppose I say ‘Justice is an ideal worth pursuing.’ If you deny my meaning because we humans never actually experience the ideal of Justice, how would you even be able to respond to my claims? If you allow no metaphysical propositions, then you have no way to evaluate or critique my metaphysical statements. You’ve rendered your own words meaningless.”
“I’m afraid I’m finding your talk meaningless,” Mr. Denkenschnelle said with a patronizing smile. “Maybe you should plead your case in Philosophy Court.”
“Philosophy Court? Where’s that?”
The whole class burst into laughter, and with chagrin I realized I’d been played for a rube.
Philosophy Court. They probably pulled that old chestnut on every newcomer.
As the laughter died away, Mr. Denkenschnelle took up his position at the front of the class and put his hands on his wide hips. “Mr. Harrison, I fail to understand what you intend by this pernicious defense of metaphysical speculation. If you can offer no verifiable proof of your assertions, I must ask you to take your seat.”
I glared at him, then dropped back into my seat. I wasn’t about to admit I was wrong, but I didn’t see any way to convince a dyed-in-the-wool Analytic Positivist of the value of metaphysics. I understood what I meant – but damned if I could prove it.
Seemed like a theme lately. After all, I knew that Mr. Testascrittore had been murdered. But damned if I could prove it.
So what about Mr. Denkenschnelle? Could his aggressive anti-metaphysics stance extend to the complete elimination of his academic adversary? He certainly seemed sensitive about any abridgement of his Analytic principles.
Of course, maybe it was just insecurity, the result of an absentee mother and overprotective father who failed to prepare him for the onslaughts of the Existentialist-dominated academic world.
During my time at dear old USB I took a Psychology class where we learned to spot this particular Analytically-retentive type, clinging to sterile deductions that re-assured him the world was a cold and meaningless place.
If addiction to Analytics went untreated, who knew where the victim would wind up? Would it lead someone like Mr. Denkenschnelle to kill? Had it already?
The manuscript, I realized, held the answer.
If the killer was also the would-be manuscript thief, it seemed a safe inference that the contents of the manuscript must reflect particularly poorly on said killer or on the historical philosophers with whom the killer had the closest affinity.
If Mr. Testascrittore had undermined the entire life’s work of Mr. Denkenschnelle (or his mentors Mr. Russell or Mr. Wittgenstein) – if the essential narrowness of Analytics and the need for a Phenomenological approach to the deepest problems of Western philosophy were demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt Q.E.D. – no wonder Mr. Denkenschnelle might react irrationally.
The manuscript was the key. Luckily, it was mine to study. I needed to pour over it line by hand-scrawled line.
But if the manuscript was all so valuable or incriminating, why had the thief returned it to Mr. Testascrittore’s office and then conducted a further search? Clearly he was looking for something more.
Another manuscript! The thought struck me like a bolt of lightening. There must be a second manuscript. Mine was merely a rough draft!
A second manuscript. Was it the final version, or just another draft? Had Mr. Testascrittore re-shuffled his chapters? Had he reached any new conclusions? Was the handwriting any better?
And most crucially – did the second manuscript contain the proof of his own existence? What wouldn’t I give to find out!
I’d have to settle for the first draft for the moment. At least I could start familiarizing myself with the outline of his arguments.
But right now I was stuck in class. I looked up at the clock. 9:20. Thirty more minutes. And I had another class immediately after. It would be at least two hours till I attained the intellectual liberty to peruse the manuscript again.
I contemplated slipping out the back door when the professor turned to the chalkboard. But as the lecture wore on, Mr. Denkenschnelle developed a most annoying habit of jerking around to face us, almost as if he were trying to catch someone cutting out early.
Anyway, what was my rush to play detective? My last round of sleuthing had almost gotten me killed.
Or had it? Why was I so certain that the murderer was in the office with me? Logically, it could have been anyone who wanted to get their hands on Mr. Testascrittore’s writings, whether to claim them as their own, to peddle them on the underground market, or to destroy them.
In fact, I’d seen the manuscript lying on his desk the first time I was in the office, so the murderer clearly didn’t steal it when he or she did the killing. Why assume there was a connection between the murder and the theft?
But surely the two acts were connected. Probably the killer was so unnerved after crushing Mr. Testascrittore’s skull that he didn’t have the presence of mind to take the manuscript with him.
Or maybe he was frightened off? Of course – I remembered Perkins going to see why Mr. Testascrittore was late, and running back into the classroom in shock. His footsteps must have scared the attacker away before he could grab the manuscript.
It all made sense. The killer fled, returned later, and stole the manuscript. Then, realizing he had only a rough draft, he returned and searched for a second manuscript while I hid under the desk.
I hadn’t noticed any other manuscripts. Not that I’d looked through all the drawers. But the intruder had been more thorough, and he’d apparently found nothing either.
Where could it be? Did professors rent safe-deposit boxes for such things? Obviously they would if they knew that they were about to be murdered. But the first manuscript was laying there on his desk for all the world to see.
So where was the second?
At his villa. Of course. In my short time in Terre Haute, I’d caught word of Mr. Testascrittore’s luxurious accommodations on South Sixth: a faux-Roman villa and sculpture garden. He probably preferred working there, rather than sitting in his office. The manuscript might be laying in plain sight.
An impulse rushed through me to cut out of class and head for the villa, but I fought it back. It’d be my luck that the killer – armed and dangerous – would pick the same moment to show up.
Should I go to the police? But they weren’t going to pay any attention. They had declared the matter a malfortuitous incident of accidental death. Asking them to post a sentinel at Mr. Testascrittore’s villa was only likely to get me on some sort of “crank caller” list.
Maybe I was a crank. I was spinning elaborate theories when I had no evidence that another manuscript even existed, let alone that it contained the missing clue to the identity of the killer.
Once again my over-zealous imagination was running a marathon on a sprinter’s breakfast. I took a breath. What I needed to do was concentrate on my class work for a few more minutes…
What a great touch! Actual school-bells to signal the moment of freedom. I felt a rush of appreciation for the Institute’s commitment to the highest ideals of Western civilization.
The sense of release was truly exhilarating, even if I had to return to class in ten minutes. It must be this feeling that got people hooked on attending classes. It wasn’t a conscious choice, but simply a behaviorally-conditioned response.
I have long been intrigued by behaviorism’s attempt to discount “consciousness” and “choice” and get down to the material, animal core of behavior.
During my time at USB I conducted a series of experiments involving Watson, a time-share cat who frequented my quarters.
It started innocently enough with my efforts to improve his social habits. But soon I found myself locked in an epic struggle over who was going to out-condition the other.
I was aiming to teach Watson acceptable social behavior. He was trying to get me to buy him fresh fish for dinner.
My strategy was to reward him if and only if his behavior improved. His strategy (which I have reconstructed with the benefit of hindsight) was to feign good behavior long enough to secure the fish.
The duel of behavior-modificational wits went on continually at first and intermittently for some months afterward. I experimented with different schedules of reinforcement, carefully tabulating the results and adjusting the protocols as necessary.
In the end, Watson got fresh fish daily, caught a mouse now and then, and seemed possibly to improve his social graces slightly, at least when company was present.
For my part, my understanding of symbioperant conditioning deepened immeasurably, adding a starkly materialist dimension to my philosophical outlook. The only drawback was that I found myself salivating whenever a bell rang.
From which I learned a valuable lesson – you have to be careful when you conduct scientific experiments.
Of course, isn’t there a built-in problem with behaviorism and other theories which discount the role of consciousness? In order to propound a theory that says that consciousness doesn’t matter and expect others to consider our ideas, we have to assume that consciousness does matter.
Mr. Skinner was standing near the drinking fountain wiping his wire-rim glasses. Thick white hair swept back from his high forehead.
As our eyes met he forced a smile over his tight features. “I think you’ll find,” he said, putting his glasses back on, “that what you call ‘consciousness’ or ‘knowing’ is simply a series of conditioned behaviors.”
“Greetings, sir,” I said. “I’m all down with your ideas about conditioning. But what about the ‘self’ who experiences this conditioning?”
He laughed slightly. “The ‘self’ is just patterns of conditioned responses.”
“But according to your ideas, humans can be aware of and attempt to alter our conditioning – doesn’t there have to be some ‘self’ which is conscious of these patterns and can ‘choose’ to alter them – some ‘consciousness’ which can choose to defy our previous conditioning and try a new approach?”
He shook his head emphatically. “Everything you call ‘self’ or ‘choice’ is a result of reinforcement,” he said. “In point of fact, we are conditioned all the time – stupidly and blindly. With no plan and no control groups, without a shred of awareness, we continually reinforce anti-social and destructive behaviors. Now, facing the threat of extinction brought on by our own myopia, we must choose – take rational control of our social evolution by applying behavioral science, or perish from the continued reinforcement of counterproductive behavior.”
“You’ve got a point,” I admitted. “But even supposing your ideas are correct and you had the finest plans for creating a utopia by modifying our behavior, it seems to me there is a serious flaw in your theory.”
I paused dramatically, but he didn’t seem impressed. I continued: “The flaw of behaviorist experiments is that they try to address one behavior at a time. When the pigeon performs the specified task correctly, a pellet of food is dispensed. All other behaviors are treated as irrelevant, correct?”
Mr. Skinner stared at me as if this were sufficient response.
I pressed ahead with my point. “But sir, a pigeon is a complex creature exhibiting myriad behaviors simultaneously. When we reinforce the bird for pecking the bar at the right moment, we also reinforce every other behavior occurring in temporal proximity to that peck. We reinforce accidental behavior, anti-social behavior, nervous ticks – all for the sake of the one item we desire.”
I drew an audible breath to underscore my ultimate point. “My suspicion, sir, is that you produced severely neurotic pigeons.”
“Well,” said Mr. Skinner, pulling his head back, “the rest of you are producing severely neurotic human beings.”
That annoyed me, since I had as yet produced no human beings whatsoever, neurotic or otherwise. But taking a collectivist position I accepted responsibility for the biological and cultural reproduction of the species into which droll Fate had cast me.
“Perhaps we humans can be a bit socially challenged,” I countered. “But still I think you contradict yourself. You want humans to condition ourselves differently. But that implies a choice, and a ‘self’ with some measure of freedom from the constraints of behavioral conditioning, does it not?”
He scrunched his mouth and shook his head sharply.
I nodded my head in return. “Your theory seems to imply,” I said, “either that I am free to believe that I am conditioned, or that I am conditioned to believe I am free, or possibly both.”
He harrumphed. “It hardly matters. What you call freedom is just invisible conditioning,” he said. “All behavior is conditioned.”
“Suppose I toss a coin and allow it to determine my choices?”
“The decision to toss the coin was conditioned.”
“So are your comments,” I said.
“So are yours,” he rejoined.
“No fair – I said it first!”
“That’s because you were conditioned to say it first,” he said.
“Well, you were conditioned to respond…”
As my voice trailed off, Mr. Skinner smiled triumphantly. “Exactly,” he said, and turned away “Come visit me sometime at Walden Two and I’ll show you how behaviorism can create a new social order. I’m dining there tonight with Mr. Bentham and Mr. James.”
I scowled, irked not just by his smug behaviorism, but by Positivist-scientific reductionism in general.
I’d never had much truck with attempts to base philosophy and knowledge in one of the empirical sciences such as psychology, sociology, or sports therapy. It seemed like the point was for philosophy to provide a foundation and critique of other fields, not vice versa.
Still, my innate if occasionally overactive curiosity sometimes got the better of me, and one semester at USB I found myself researching an arcane new life-centered theory of knowledge called Bio-Epistemics.
The life-centric approach supplanted earlier physics-inspired theories which posited entities such as the epistetron, the deciditron, and the expositron as the sub-atomic bases for knowledge and philosophy.
Those theories reached a zenith (or nadir, depending on your viewpoint) with the application of Electro-Chromo Epistemics and the claim that quanto-epistemic tunneling lay at the root of such mysterious phenomena as deja-vus, hallucinatory apparitions, and the way it’s always the cheesiest songs that get stuck in your head.
But an undercurrent of resistance soon developed, critiquing Quantum Epistemics as simply the latest incarnation of mechanistic Cartesianism.
From this counter-current grew Bio-Epistemics and its recognition of the biological, chemical, and genetic factors underlying knowledge.
After some initial forays down the blind alleys of genetic logical determinism, a more subtle strand emerged in the recognition of the role of enzymes. The discovery of epistemase, logicase, and notional polymerase drew attention to the molecular roots of philosophizing.
Growing awareness of cellular functions such as factoid transfer chains and source uncertainty gradients revealed the microscopic details of the processes of acquiring and communicating knowledge.
And the use of genetic labeling allowed scholars to trace the influence of such progenitors as Mr. Plato and Mr. Ibn Rushd to a far greater degree of accuracy than cruder textual methods allowed.
Recollections of taking part in a Bio-Epistemic experiment known as Dessert Cramming (where you stuff yourself with pastries while speed-reading required texts) whetted my appetite for my upcoming class: Foundations of Quantitative Metaphysics – better known as Metaphys Lab.
The metaphysics laboratory occupied the penthouse of the Albertus Magnus Empirical Metaphysics Building, a skylit hall half the size of a basketball court. Aisles of immaculate black formica work benches were lined with flasks and retorts, rune-stones, and other experimental apparatus.
A huge Periodic Table of the Elements adorned the front wall, with a predella of hand-painted Tarot arcana beneath it. At the corners of the Periodic Table were silver medallions showing symbols of the four classical elements – earth, air, fire, and water.
I hadn’t taken a lot of lab courses back in Berkeley. Mainly I’d been in the theoretical end of the human sciences. During my years at the University of Southeastern Berkeley I’d changed majors a few times, trying to get to the root of the matter.
I started off in Modern Philosophy, focusing on the foundations of logic and mathematics. A critique of Psychologism led me into studies of the mind, and I majored in turn in Psychology, Anthropology, Neurology, Noetic Science, and Pharmacology.
Each fell short of my expectations of clarity. Feeling I lacked a sufficiently diachronic approach, I focused in succession on European Economic History, Lineages of Medieval Art, Origins of the Universe, Non-Darwinian Evolution, and the History of Rock and Roll.
These studies were supplemented and occasionally displaced by periods focused on Anthropophilic Sociology, Contra-Saussurean Linguistics, Trans-Marxian Structuralism, and Pre-Post-Colonial Studies, interrupted by a semester in which I majored in Australian Rules Rugby (basically, you have a ball and a field, and whoever goes home first loses – a tad amorphous for my steadily sharpening intellect).
Attempting to synthesize my studies, I undertook to create an interdisciplinary major in History of the Sociological Psychology of Philosophy, then in Sociology of the History of Philosophical Psychology, then in Philosophy of the Historical Psychology of Sociology, and finally a Foucaultian joint major encompassing the entire panoply of Western culture in roughly chronological order
I might have lost my way but for the fortuitous introduction of a new major called Theory. I took my first class out of curiosity, wondering “theory of what?”
Soon I realized the naivete of the question, and found that it was Theory’s meticulous avoidance of sullying entanglements with traditional disciplines that gave it a special brilliance in the Trans-Postmodern era.
I was certain I’d found my passion. But mordant fate had other ideas in her grim mind, and before I could complete my thesis on Certain Theoretical Theories Regarding Theorizing about Theory – indeed before I could even complete my prospectus for this admittedly baroque topic – I was whisked off to Terre Haute and a grandeur of which I had scarcely dreamed.
Breathing the rarified air of the Queen City of West Central Indiana, I could see that all my prior studies were but a prologomena for what was doubtless now my true calling – to read, understand, and help propagate Mr. Testascrittore’s proof of his own existence.
But first, I had to deal with Metaphys Lab. I didn’t have a lot of experience with experimental philosophy. The Ontology and Epistemology labs at Berkeley were seriously underfunded, and they didn’t even have an Ethics lab.
The one lab I enjoyed at dear old USB was Aesthetic Qualitology, where we learned to test artwork to see if it was any good or not. The development of verification protocols had removed the guess-work from art appreciation, rendering it an exact science.
I thought again of the classical bust in Mr. Testascrittore’s office, pointed to by the late professor’s left hand. Hardly an accident, I was sure. It must have been an attempt to identify his murderer. But what was he trying to say?
I pictured the bust, a generic “Roman sage.” When I first saw it, I figured that Mr. Testascrittore might have been indicating someone who loved classical art. But now, with the leisure to apply my Qualitology skills, I had to laugh. If the killer did appreciate sculpture, he would certainly be repelled by the mechanically-rendered imitation – a fact that surely would not escape Mr. Testascrittore’s keen perception even at the moment of his death.
No, had Mr. Testascrittore intended to indicate an art-lover, he’d have chosen the Venus de Sappho across his office, an objectively beautiful work.
No sooner had that last phrase passed through my mind than a misty cloud began to coalesce next to a cabinet of beakers.
Gradually it assumed the shape of a young, pale-looking man wearing a heavy jacket and wrapped in a wool scarf: Mr. Feuerbach, the voice of early nineteenth century materialism.
“Objective beauty?” he scoffed. “This is a scientific laboratory. It’s a place for physical investigations, not subjective projections.”
“Wait,” I said, fearing that my carefully-wrought chain of deductions regarding the aesthetic proclivities of the killer was about to collapse. “I don’t see how you can say that beauty is ‘subjective.’ After all, it’s the object that’s beautiful. What could be more objective than the Venus de Sappho’s beauty?”
Mr. Feuerbach grimaced. “If we want to understand knowledge as the image or expression of reason, we must be clear on what the objective realm is. For the statue, it’s the material, physical object – the stone, the way it’s cut, the play of light and shadow – as well as the specific figure or symbol that is being portrayed. That’s the objective substrata.”
“And you would consign the Venus’s obvious beauty to the realm of the subjective?”
“Absolutely. To speak of ‘beauty’ as if it shared in this objectivity is Idealist obfuscation. The judgment of beauty varies from one person to the next, and is dependent on culture, class, education, family background, and personality. These projected aesthetic meanings are the epitome of the subjective.”
I fumbled for a reply. Aesthetic meaning as subjective? That couldn’t be right.
But I couldn’t exactly say why, aside from a vague feeling that it would lead to aesthetic solipsism.
- Pop Quiz
(A) a speech defect which causes the sufferer to mispronounce “aesthetic.”
(B) the belief that sooner or later, given an infinite universe, everyone will be reincarnated as the Sun King.
(C) one of the five standard elipsoids delineated in Euphonius’s brief treatise on standard elipsoids entitled A Brief Treatise on Standard Elipsoids.
(D) the belief that my consciousness is the only consciousness in the world, and that all other beings are either illusions or bio-mechanical automatons.
While you ponder your answer, I’ll tell you about a BBC documentary on solipsism where they interviewed various specialists and experts. Apparently the condition is nearly incurable, although one expert claimed to have perfected a treatment which could bring certain cases of solipsism under control.
However, the side effects included the patient talking endlessly about their former experience as a solipsist, so the treatment had not proven popular with victim’s families.
And – the correct answer to the quiz is D: Solipsism is the belief that mine is the only consciousness in the world.
Honestly, this theory would explain a lot, and I have been tempted to undertake a systematic proof. That way I could demonstrate to the automatons around me that they are not conscious.
The Enlightenment philosophe Mr. La Mettrie claimed to prove that humans were nothing more than sophisticated machines.
History of course proved him completely wrong, as any notion of sophistication went out the window amid the political and architectural atrocities of the twentieth century.
But it didn’t discredit his machine theory.
Suppose the automatons are programmed solipsistically? I’d wind up having to prove my own existence to them before they would even allow me to question theirs.
Which brought me back to the necessity of recovering Mr. Testascrittore’s proof. Without proof of my own existence, I wasn’t sure of the wisdom of debating an automaton.
What if I am the automaton?
Is wondering a sufficient refutation? Can an automaton be programmed to wonder whether it’s an automaton? What evidence would we accept to confirm that it was indeed engaged in wondering?
The Legendary Samuel Johnson had a clever response to solipsistic thinking. Perhaps I embellish Mr. Johnson’s story slightly, but after all, if you’re going to make your mark in history by sitting in a London tavern spouting apothegms, you have to accept that your myth may be embroidered from time to time.
The Legendary Samuel Johnson actually went by the title “Dr. Johnson.” This is of little import in a day when academic titles are considered vestiges of ostentation rather than signs of true wisdom.
Indeed, it was Terre Haute and the Institute which led the international movement to spurn honorifics in recognition of the communal quest for Truth. Henceforth, all philosophical aspirants were to be known simply as Mr., Ms., or simply M.
Gone were the days when doctors could lord it over masters and plebeian bachelors. Besides, a lot of those so-called “doctors” couldn’t change a band-aid if their life depended on it.
Now, about that story concerning The Legendary Samuel Johnson.
It seems, at least in my telling of the tale, that a certain man expressed solipsistic views to Mr. Johnson, stating that he sincerely believed that his was the only operative consciousness in the world, and that all the rest of humanity, including the illustrious Mr. Johnson, were but a product of his imagination.
The great man thereupon stood up, kicked the wannabe solipsist in the shins, and declared: “Sir, I refute thee thus!”
It’s a story I tremendously admire, and I shared it with Mr. Feuerbach. But my spirit-guest seemed to find little humor in it. “If you have nothing more to offer than threadbare tales,” he said, wrapping his grey wool scarf tighter, “I will assume my views on objectivity and subjectivity have prevailed, and take my leave.”
“No, wait,” I insisted, refusing to accept his contention that beauty and meaning were merely subjective – a theory which implied that an obviously derivative and inferior work of art such as the Roman bust could be construed as indicating an art-loving murderer.
He stopped and looked at me petulantly. “Yes?”
I was sure there were answers to Mr. Feuerbach. But unless I found them quickly, he was going to claim victory.
“Help, Mr. Copleston! Help!”
To my relief, my guide materialized in the aisle near us. I explained my predicament vis-a-vis beauty and objectivity. Mr. Copleston listened carefully, then gestured like a baseball manager making a pitching change.
From out of the mists came the lone figure of Edmund Husserl, early twentieth century pioneer of Phenomenology. He was a rather delicate man in a grey tweed jacket and round wire-rimmed glasses.
His broad forehead rippled with intensity as he addressed Mr. Feuerbach. “A word with you, good sir.”
Mr. Feuerbach squinted at the goateed man with the receding hairline, but said nothing.
Mr. Husserl paused to catch his breath. “If beauty is subjective, as you say, how can we talk about it? How exactly do you and I discuss our separate, inner experiences? That sounds about as exciting as hearing someone talk about their dreams.”
Mr. Feuerbach gave him a suspicious look. “We don’t talk about subjectivities. The true object of our discourse is the objective painting, not its subjective beauty.”
“Really?” said Mr. Husserl. “By your reasoning, the painting itself is ‘subjective.’ After all, ‘objectively’ it is simply a piece of canvas covered with oil-based chemical compounds which reflect various wavelengths of light. To call this ‘a painting’ is to grant the material elements a meaning, which is a subjective act by your account. If we are consistent and scrupulous materialists, the painting disappears entirely.”
“Ah,” said Mr. Feuerbach. “There is a difference. With aesthetic judgments, we find widespread disagreement. For instance, there is no general agreement concerning whether Espressionist paintings are beautiful or not. But no one disputes that they are paintings. That’s clearly objective.”
“My friend,” said Mr. Husserl, tapping his fingertip into his open palm as if citing a text, “you’re basing your definition of ‘objectivity’ on what a bunch of ‘subjective’ observers happen to agree upon. If our meanings are subjective, why would a bunch of them taken together suddenly become objective? You’re sounding positively Hegelian.”
Mr. Feuerbach clenched his fists, groping for an answer.
Mr. Husserl smiled. “If we can talk about an ‘object,’ whatever it may be – a material object, an idea, a fantasy – it’s objective. The task of Phenomenology is to describe our experience of objects and situations, not to pass metaphysical judgments on whether they are ‘real’ or not.”
As my guests faded, I pondered Mr. Husserl’s argument. My opinion of the faux-classical bust certainly was ‘objective’ in the sense that I could state and discuss it. And even with just a single semester of Aesthetic Qualitology under my belt I could safely conclude that the cheaply-wrought bust could not possibly indicate an art-lover.
Clearly we were dealing with a reference to an Ancient philosopher. Or at least to his head and neck.
A rustling to my right distracted me. I looked around the metaphysics lab. The other students were hard at work. My neighbor had her goggles on and was heating a clear liquid in an Erlenmeyer flask, distilling it into a round-bottom flask at the other end. Across the workbench from me, another student worked with an identical apparatus.
Oh, no – what had I missed?
I quickly hooked together tubing looking more or less like theirs, poured a little water into the first flask to keep it going until I figured out what they were working with, and cranked my bunsen burner up to high. The lab assistant walked by and gave my work an odd look, but said nothing.
As her flask bubbled, my neighbor would cast her rune stones, then scribble furiously on her paper, while my compatriot across the table worked at a more methodical pace. I could see that he was writing three- and four-digit numbers in columns that seemed to correspond somehow to the casting of the runes. I imitated his approach, using lots of 8’s and 2’s, which research has proven are the most sympathetic numbers.
I filled three pages with numbers in neat columns, stopping now and then to look at my flask, which was in danger of boiling dry. When no one was looking, I added some water. Then I cast my rune stones and wrote more numbers.
Gradually people wrapped up their experiments, turned off their burners, and disassembled their apparati. I followed suit and passed in my paper along with the rest.
Not the steadiest of starts. But at least I had done the experiment.
Or had I? Even supposing that my results were acceptable and I got a passing grade – a longshot at best – I had no idea what I was doing or what the point was. Could I be said to have “done the experiment”? It seemed like stretching the meaning of the verb “to do.”
But enough of academics. It was lunchtime. And I had important business.
The relief I felt on completing the lab session was decidedly less than what I’d felt following my first class. Diminishing returns of a continuous schedule of operant reinforcement, no doubt.
But there was no time to dwell on the niceties of behavioral psychology. I had just two hours till my next class.
Reviewing Professor Testascrittore’s manuscript was the most pressing concern. I needed to familiarize myself with its contents if I was going to deduce who was trying to steal it – and who might have killed for it. I decided to cash in a food coupon at Logico’s and then head home to study the handwritten draft.
The streets of the Historical Latin Quarter Preservation District were alive with noontide bustle. The narrow cobblestone streets were lined with eateries ranging from purist ristorantes such as Aventine’s Roman Hoagies to provincial cafes like Parisian Cheesebreads or Sangria de Madrid.
No place hopped more than Logico’s, whose flashing neon sign declared it The Home of the Hot & Hunky Humeburger. I squeezed inside and looked around. The decor was Italian Retro Chic – speckled formica table tops, plastic-lined booth seats, vintage ketchup and mustard squeeze-bottles, and authentic bent silverware.
The walls displayed ageing photos of famous Institute philosophers wearing white and red Terre Haute sweaters and posing alongside antique Fiats and Maseratis. I half-expected to recognize my professors, but they must have been children when these photos were taken.
The jukebox, unrivalled in its Latinate selections, looked like it hadn’t been updated since the end of the Middle Ages aside from a few remixes. The speakers were especially trebly, designed no doubt to cut through the rumble of philosophical dialog.
I joined the To Go line and scanned the lunch menu. To my delight I spied, alongside the various philosophical offerings, a Berkeley Burger! A wave of nostalgia almost led me to order the sandwich for everyone in the house.
Then I realized that the Berkeley Burger wasn’t named for the city, but for its namesake, the good Bishop Berkeley of Cloyne.
That gave me pause. I mean, this is a guy who cast grave doubt on the reality of the material universe, who took great pains to argue that the only true substance derived directly from God.
I had the feeling that the Berkeley Burger was either going to pack all the punch of an air burrito or wind up tasting like a communion wafer.
I decided to play it conservative and go with the house specialty: the Hot and Hunky Humeburger with a side of Frege Fries.
Swapping a coupon for my fare, I started for home to review the manuscript, when another impetus seized me – I should visit Mr. Testascrittore’s villa on South Sixth!
Who knew, the second manuscript might be sitting there in plain sight, with the servants dusting around it. Why should I spend time reading the first draft when I might have the second, just for the asking?
Besides, my query might save the irreplaceable pages from further risk. The simple curiosity of an unintrusive yet civic-minded graduate student might render an invaluable service to the future of Western philosophy.
I wolfed down my lunch and trekked across town to South Sixth, where the Institute’s more distinguished professors built their luxury palaces.
Like its neighbors Mr. Testascrittore’s residence was set back from the street. The main building was modeled on a Roman villa. Classical structures were sprinkled around the grounds, which were surrounded by a black iron fence partially overgrown with hedges. A stone gatehouse punctuated the tall fence.
I looked around the arched gatehouse for a bell, but didn’t see one. Although the gate was unlocked, a weather-beaten sign declared No Trespassing.
The meaning of the sign was plain enough. The only question was, was it intended for me?
How could it be? When the placard was painted, no one could have had any idea I was coming to Terre Haute, let alone that I would visit the villa. Even the most paranoid of residents couldn’t have planned against that contingency.
Even supposing that it was intended specifically for me – can someone give me a sign? Or can a sign only be “taken”? Don’t I have to accept and interpret a sign for it to function for me?
Semiotically speaking, do signs exist apart from interpretation? Is there any sign so clear that no interpretation is needed?
Nuclear waste engineers puzzle over this problem. Our society has created toxic waste that will last for tens or hundreds of thousands of years – vastly longer than the paltry 5000-odd years that historical civilizations have blessed the planet.
Based on what I’ve seen in my lifetime, I’d say it’s a long shot that we’ll be around for another 100,000 years to keep an eye on the mess we’ve created.
And so the problem arises – what sign can we place on our waste repositories to let future species – Earth-bred or alien – know that the contents are highly radioactive, and will fatally poison any creature who comes in contact with them?
Can we create a sign that cannot possibly be misunderstood, regardless of what language the creatures read or speak?
I suggest a pile of bones. Or better yet, a bunch of rotting carcasses strewn around the grounds.
A future species interprets the carcasses as the sign of a picnic area and holds a barbeque on the grounds.
But all is not lost – the trespassers die on the spot, and their carcasses become the sign for the next visitors. Sort of a Darwinian test of a species’ ability to interpret signs.
Concluding that the sign at the villa could not possibly have been intended for me personally, and seeing no one in the front yard, I let myself in the gate and followed the stone walkway to the main building.
A ring at the front doorbell produced no answer, which wasn’t surprising, since the occupant was deceased. I tried the doorknob, but it was locked.
As I stepped off the porch a fluttering in a window caught the corner of my eye. A curtain had moved. I jumped back onto the porch and rang again, knocking for extra emphasis. I braced myself. But no answer came.
I stepped off the porch and studied the window. The curtains hung limply, blocking any view into the interior.
I made my way around to the back. The villa was studded with windows, but curtains were pulled over every one. Unless I found an open door, my visit was going to be short and unproductive.
Of course, suppose a servant did answer. What was I going to say? “I’m here to let you know Mr. Testascrittore was murdered, and that it’s highly likely that his final manuscript is laying unguarded in this very house. Do you mind if I have a poke around?” That would practically invite the servant to pad their own account by stealing the papers.
A new thought occurred to me. Was it possible that Mr. Testascrittore was killed by a servant? They’d know his schedule, his habits – and any of them might have a personal grudge. The fact that the body was found at the office presented no problem. By doing the deed at the Institute the killer cleverly diverted attention from the villa staff.
Why hadn’t it occurred to me before? Here I’d been focusing exclusively on the Institute. The villa servants and grounds crew presented a different problem altogether.
A door slammed. Heavy footsteps stomped across the back porch. I pressed my back against the house and sucked in my breath, ready to deal with any contingency.
No one emerged. They must have gone the other way. I jumped onto the back porch and tried the doorknob. Locked.
I looked out over the huge back yard, which was centered around a kidney-shaped pool ringed by classical columns and statues. Clusters of shrubbery provided lush backdrops for various sculpted ensembles.
A rustling further out in the yard caught my attention. I focused just in time to see a man leap up and clamber over the stone wall that bounded the rear of the property.
I leapt off the back porch of Mr. Testacrittore’s villa and dashed across the yard to where the fleeing man had so unceremoniously exited. I hoisted myself up and peered over the stone barrier.
My view of South Seventh was unobstructed. Light traffic flowed up the old two-lane avenue. A delivery truck spewed exhaust fumes at me. But the only people I saw on the street were a mother and her kids.
I dropped back into the villa yard and landed in a puddle, splattering mud across my shoes and socks. I grimaced as the water soaked through a hole in my tennis shoes. I tried to wipe the mud on a patch of grass nearby, but it just smeared around.
Who was the fugitive? I reminded myself that they weren’t necessarily sinister. It could have been a publicity-shy servant, or a housekeeper taking an unauthorized break.
Or was it the manuscript thief from last night in the office? Had he arrived before me, found the second manuscript, and fled with the stolen document?
A wave of dejection crept over me. Once the manuscript was in the thief’s hands, I didn’t see what I could do, especially when I didn’t even know who the culprit was.
I started back toward the house. It was worth one last try. Maybe the person I’d seen fleeing had kept the servants from answering my previous knock. Maybe now they could tell me who it was.
But before I reached the porch, an older man hollered at me from the far side of the pool.
“Hey – what are you doing here? This is private property.” The man bustled toward me carrying a wicked-looking pair of pruning shears. A tiny dog completely covered in long grey fur except for its bare head bounded along by his side.
“Oh, sorry,” I improvised as he approached. “I was just looking for a shortcut.”
“No shortcuts,” he said. The dog started barking, a high-pitched yapping that made me laugh.
The gardener gestured at me with the shears. “Feller, I wouldn’t be laughing if I was you. This dog is a cross between a pitbull and a pekingese.”
I tried to restrain myself, but another laugh escaped me. “He’s pretty ridiculous-looking.”
“Yep,” said the man without a trace of humor. “And he knows it. Makes him vicious.” He held the wooden handle of the shears toward the dog and snapped his fingers. The dog lunged and sunk its teeth into the handle.
I stopped laughing. The gardener, struggling with the shears, looked at me. “Exit by the front gate. Now.”
I found the dog quite persuasive, but I urgently needed to pump the guy for information. “Sorry,” I said. “I saw the other guy hop the fence, and thought I’d try it, too.”
“What other guy?” His eyes narrowed. “There’s no one here but me and Anaximander.” He indicated the dog, which let go of the shears and emitted a guttural growl.
“Anaximander,” I said, trying to keep the conversation going. “Interesting name for a dog. How’d he come by that?”
“He’s named for a Greek philosopher who held that Earthly beings were formed from a collision of opposite elements. Suits him well, don’t you think?” The pitbull-pekingese eyed my leg and bared its miniature fangs.
I gave it one last shot. “No idea who the other guy was, huh? You’re sure someone wasn’t in the house?”
Anaximander growled again, and the gardener glared menacingly. Obviously the guy was under orders to get rid of me. The whole situation was getting more suspicious by the moment. But I wasn’t going to risk an encounter with a vicious doglet.
I made my way back to the front gate. The gardener didn’t follow, and I surreptitiously stuck a pebble into the lock-jam. I had the feeling I might need to come back. And next time I’d definitely bring some dog-biscuits.
I headed up Sixth Street toward campus, stopping at the corner to scrape the mud off my shoes. It mostly came off, but on my socks it had dried to a greenish shade that clashed with the grey cotton.
Green mud, I thought. A sickly yellowish-green, to be precise. Not something you see every day. Had I stumbled into some long-forgotten waste dump? Who knew what sort of toxic soup the Medieval Alchemy department had cooked up?
Back in my garret for a brunch break, I pulled off my soiled socks. The greenish mud still disturbed me, and I considered taking the socks to the Metaphysics Lab and running a few tests.
Not that I had a clue what sort of tests to run. But it seemed like a good idea, in principle.
Half an hour till my next class. I sat down on the futon and pulled out Mr. Testascrittore’s manuscript.
The scrawl was starting to sort itself into recognizable patterns, and I could make out entire phrases like “the being of the for-itself projects the nothingness of the in-itself in the act of negating itself,” and “The negating of the for-itself becomes the being of the in-itself toward which the for-itself transcends itself.”
I nodded appreciatively. The man certainly had a gift for clarity.
If only he had sketched out the proof of existence half so clearly! Surely he had some notion of what he intended to propose. Couldn’t he have jotted a few preliminary thoughts on the red post-it for the sake of impatient posterity?
And what of the second manuscript, which might well contain the proof? Surely that was why someone had broken into Mr. Testascrittore’s office, and now apparently into his residence – to get their hands on the fabled proof.
Whoever it was wouldn’t have taken the risk without having a further scheme for profiting from the contraband. If they had gained possession of the final manuscript, it was only a matter of time until they published the proof as their own, or auctioned it to a wealthy private collector.
As for stopping them, the situation looked grim. I had no idea who it was, and not a clue as to what their plans for the purloined proof might be. All I knew for certain was that in all probability their nefarious plans were quite likely underway.
Up till now, I’d been able to work at my own pace. But if the revised manuscript was in the hands of an unknown desperado, I was racing against the clock.
The urgency made it even more difficult to face my final class of the day. It was with grim resolve that I trained my sights on the classroom door.
As I made my way down the crowded hall, I overheard Mr. Testascrittore’s name spoken in a little cluster of students. I elbowed closer. The circle was dissolving as the class-bell sounded, but someone mentioned the villa in a concerned tone.
The villa. I stopped in my tracks. Had something more happened? Better not act too interested. Maybe I’d pick up some information during class.
The classroom door was already shut. I opened it noiselessly, thinking to slip in and find a seat at the rear. But as luck would have it, my point of entry was directly across from the professor’s rostrum.
“Sorry, sir,” I muttered.
Mr. Zeitenschreiber was a tall thin man with high cheekbones and a hooked nose. His coat hung limply on his narrow shoulders. “So, I see Mr. Testascrittore’s star pupil is following in his mentor’s footsteps when it comes to understanding temporality.”
Was it a sarcastic jibe at me, or was he using me as a vehicle to insult Mr. Testascrittore? Kind of rude to speak ill of the dead.
Actually, though, Mr. Zeitenschreiber stood in a venerable tradition which had only grown stronger in the past century – the philosophical insult.
As philosophers became more intimately acquainted with the thought of the past, cross-generational feuding escalated to new heights. It became a fashion to pick bones with the Pre-Socratics, and the Idealists and Early Moderns were regularly raked over the coals.
Of course, as many a dead philosopher has discovered to their dismay – it’s better to have the future speak ill of you, than not to speak of you at all.
I made my way to the rear and settled into a chair-desk. The course was called Foundations of Existentialist Sartreanism, which I had expected would review the basics of Mr. Sartre’s thought.
But Mr. Zeitenschreiber turned out to be an expert on the Early Heidegger, receiving his doctorate from Terre Haute for his massive treatise on the opening sentence of the second paragraph of Section 66 of Being and Time.
Introducing the course syllabus, he spoke with barely-concealed disdain of Mr. Sartre’s “borrowings” from Being and Time. As he honed his grudge, I got another whiff of intra-Institute politics: in the prevailing Sartrean wind, Heideggerics could only get sufficient enrollment if it were disguised as Sartrics.
The course focused on what Mr. Zeitenschreiber termed the “essence” of Being and Time — sections 45-53. I was concerned that Mr. Zeitenschreiber was teaching outside his paragraph of expertise. But around me heads nodded slowly, as if acknowledging the inevitability of the material. I nodded too, although I was embarrassed to admit I couldn’t quite recall what those sections were about. Authenticity? Temporality? Discourse?
“Death.” Mr. Zeitenschreiber spoke the word dispassionately, as if stating the answer to a mathematical question.
Come to think of it, why are we so dispassionate about math? What if we really cared about 143 + 86, or the cube root of 2197? Imagine how different life would be.
Billboard magazine runs weekly charts of the most-used equations, numbers, and operations. For a while, they feature a list of the most popular square roots, but it never catches on, and is replaced by a ranking of favorite fractions.
Among the Top Ten, the number 7 is voted number one to almost universal acclaim. The number 1 itself comes in a distant fourth, trailing 4 and 9. The biggest loser is 6, which garners so few votes that proposals are heard for dropping the number entirely.
“Death is the pivot of Mr. Heidegger’s entire early project,” Mr. Zeitenschreiber was saying as I tuned into his lecture, “and remained central to his thought as long as he lived.”
Yeah, and look where it got him.
Mr. Zeitenschreiber’s heuristic style mixed meandering synopses of Mr. Heidegger’s writings on Death with platitudes about “living each day as if it were our last.”
Seriously – what would you do if you were told this was your last day on Earth?
Return overdue library books? Have a party? Study philosophy?
Would you visit loved ones? Rob a bank? Spend your final hours in wild and wanton sex – possibly with a partner?
Would you floss?
“When we face our own mortality,” Mr. Zeitenschreiber intoned, “we’re thrown face to face with what truly matters to us – and this reveals who we really are.”
I could see where this sort of approach to the deepest questions of my ownmost mortal existenz might increase my chances of living uniquely and authentically in each moment. Not to mention finding the right seat at a dinner party.
Mr. Zeitenschreiber rambled on. Surely death was more exciting than this.
I glanced up at the clock. 31 minutes and 34 seconds to go. Somehow I had to re-engage, if only to keep myself from snoring.
Ask a question. Reframe the discussion so that it interests me.
Of course, if there was anything I hated, it was people who asked rhetorical questions intended more to display their own erudition than to elicit any insight from the professor.
But having decided to engage, I couldn’t refrain from sharing my doubts as to the wisdom of the entire Heideggerian project.
“Excuse me, sir,” I said in an especially polite tone. “I don’t mean to interrupt, and I assure you that I grasp your point that we never finally know who we are until the moment of our death. But at the moment of death, we don’t know anything at all, do we? So at the moment when I finally can be ‘known for what I truly am,’ I’m no longer there to witness it.”
“Precisely,” Mr. Zeitenschreiber said.
I scowled. “So we never know ourselves until it’s too late to do us any good. What plainer declaration of the utter futility of this desolate journey we call life?”
The professor shook his head. “I didn’t say that.”
“No, but you implied that life is ultimately meaningless.”
“By what nihilistic logic did I imply that?”
He had me there. What logic applies to situations which are by definition devoid of meaning? “I withdraw my question,” I said with ill grace.
“No, I insist we see it through,” Mr. Zeitenschreiber said. “As long as you are alive, the sheer existence of a future makes it impossible ever fully to know yourself. Are we agreed?”
“Well, yes,” I said. “I’m not complaining about having a future. The problem is that when we DO finally achieve self-knowledge in the face of death, we’re no longer in a position to appreciate it. Seems sort of hollow.”
“And your problem is?”
How was I supposed to answer that? I tried to return to my own thoughts, but Mr. Zeitenschreiber persisted in making me the butt of his lesson. “I believe your problems might lie in confusing ‘death’ with ‘demise.’”
“I apologize,” I said. “I didn’t know we got a choice in the matter.”
The remaining color drained from his long, bony face. “This is no joking matter. ‘Demise’ is the end of the human as a physical being. ‘Death’ is a condition – we might also call it ‘Mortality.’ As such, it is the human condition, hovering over our entire existence. To be human IS to be mortal, to live constantly in the face of death.”
His mouth spread into a razor-thin smile. His teeth gleamed through the crack in his lips. “Death is not a one-time occurrence at the end of life. Death is the future toward which we live every day!”
He glared at me triumphantly, then spun on his heels and strode to the front of the room. As the final bell rang, he called out: “For tomorrow, read Being and Time. Dismissed.”
Free at last! I was the first one out the door, shedding my exasperation at the first breath of hallway air.
What a distraction, all his jabbering about death. It was like he was obsessed with the topic. Enough already. I had a mystery to solve.
But wait. Was I overlooking something? He must have said “death” a dozen times. Was there something more than Mr. Heidegger on his mind? In my concern to counter the Heidegerrian miasma had I missed a veiled confession of Mr. Zeitenschreiber’s involvement in Mr. Testascrittore’s death?
Or was it just a standard academic trope designed to shock students into an appreciation of the depth and profundity of Zeitenschreiberian thought?
Confession of murder or academic flourish? I wished I’d paid closer attention to his inflections.
Luckily I’d be seeing Mr. Zeitenschreiber again soon.
Despite my disappointment at not having paid sufficient attention to a possible confession of murder, I was exhilarated at making it through all three of my classes. I was on target to break my all-time record.
Would I feel the same tomorrow?
How would I know? How can I have a feeling today and say, “that’s the same feeling as yesterday”?
What criterion could I possibly apply that could go back in time to measure yesterday’s feeling?
Face it – wasn’t that the problem I faced with Mr. Testascrittore’s murder? Just because I was sure of something today, how did I know I’d feel so sure the next day?
Even if I did feel the same, how would I know that I did? I might think I was feeling the same, when really I wasn’t at all. How could I tell the difference?
Sheer material necessity drew my attention back to the present moment. Time to head to Logico’s and cash in a meal ticket.
But wait. Didn’t I have more pressing affairs? I’d still never found out who got the second key and came into Mr. Testascrittore’s office, and whether they got it from Johann.
A simple answer to that question would tell me who was after the manuscript, whereas evasion would suggest that Johann himself was involved. Either way, I’d save myself a lot of other sleuthing.
As I made my way down to the basement, I thought about Johann – a wizened veteran of Institute infighting. Even if he had been demoted to custodian, he knew the terrain. As such, he could prove an invaluable source concerning jealousies and professional feuds.
On the other hand, having once been in the thick of the academic tumult Johann doubtless still operated from his own private motives.
How did I know that he would share honest information? He might use me as a pawn to advance his personal agenda, leaving me twisting in the wind.
Yet I urgently needed to trust someone. I wasn’t going to unravel this mystery on my own. I had to find an ally who grasped the labyrinthine workings of the Institute,
What was I supposed to do? Take a leap of faith and trust Johann? I’d have to turn off my critical faculties.
One semester at USB I took a class in Non-Critical Theory, where we practiced trusting a selected authority figure. In hopes of securing a better grade, I made a tactical decision to dump my usual good-natured skepticism on the scrap-heap.
“From this moment forward, I will believe whatever I read in the newspaper. Unless it contradicts what I hear on TV, in which case I’ll listen to the radio to break the tie.”
Unfortunately, I was unable to stop thinking critically about the decision not to think critically, and in the end I was compelled against my better practices to accept an Incomplete in the class.
Reaching the basement hallway I followed the pipes to the boiler room. The door was open just a crack. I knocked lightly. No answer. I knocked again with more urgency.
At first I heard nothing. But then, faintly, came the muffled sounds of a struggling voice.
I stepped cautiously into the boiler room and inched my way around the huge water heater.
“Down here,” came Johann’s raspy voice. “Give me a hand!” An arm stuck out from under the boiler. I grabbed hold and pulled.
A sweat-streaked, soot-begrimed face appeared. “Thanks. Damn, it’s messy under there!”
Johann stood up and rubbed his hands on a towel. “Have a seat. I’ve got to finish this emergency repair or we won’t have any cold water in the drinking fountains tomorrow.”
“Since when are water fountains an emergency? Don’t you think you might be taking your job too seriously?”
“Excuse me?” His eyes grew large. “A well-placed cold water fountain has prevented many an epistemological meltdown. True, no one has suggested that Mr. Testascrittore’s death was a result of overheating. But I don’t want the fountains broken when there might be investigators roaming around.”
“Why would there be investigators around?” I asked. “I thought the police considered the case closed.”
He shot me a quick glance. “Yes, I suppose you’re right,” he said. “Still, best to err on the side of caution.”
He selected a dozen wrenches, connected a blow-torch, and crawled back under the water tank. A valve on the side of the tank started sputtering and hissing. Johann, cursing a multi-colored streak, reached out from under the tank and twisted a knob that made it sputter even more.
From underneath came the sound of a wrench hammering on a metal pipe, alternating with blasphemous curses. The sputtering and hissing increased. Johann pulled himself partway out and grabbed a hydro-electric steam drill.
Sliding back under, he began to jack-hammer the tank. His curses blended in a symphony with the hammering. The hissing built to a crescendo. I edged over by the door, ready to run for my life.
A sharp explosion pierced the air. The hissing stopped abruptly. Red smoke poured from the tank.
Johann scrambled out and staggered to his feet, hands clutching his eyes. He banged his fist on the door, then tugged at his eyelids.
“What happened?” I cried.
“I got dust in my eyes!”
I got him a cup of water, and gradually he cleared the debris from his eyes. “Are you okay?” I asked again. “That must have been terrifying, having it explode while you were under it.”
“Oh, I’m used to that,” he said. “It’s the dust I hate.”
“Why don’t you wear goggles?”
“I suppose I could do that. Seems like a lot of trouble, though.” He wiped his face with a cloth. “I need to wash up. Make yourself at home.” He gestured loosely around the smoky room. “There’s a new issue of Ontology Today.”
I sat back in the overstuffed recliner. Although the glossy periodical was published in Paris, several of the Institute’s celebrity professors were pictured in the “People” section, and on the back cover was a full-page ad for Epist-o-Rama, scheduled at the Institute on homecoming weekend.
A short article on “Refurbishing Your Modes of Being” caught my attention. In the opinion of the author (a contributing editor to the much more prestigious Ontology Yesterday), most people’s modes of “being-with” and “being-alongside-of” were chronically out of alignment.
A simple ontologico-physiological attunement which could be done in the privacy of your home or office in just minutes promised to produce crisper deductions, to foster more daring inferences, and to keep one’s razor blades sharp for months.
I sat up straight and tried to focus on the exercises, which involved resolutely aligning my present mode of being-in-the-world with that being-toward-the-future which was in the last instance authentically my ownmost.
I did my best, but my mind kept wandering to Johann and whether I could trust him. Maybe I just needed to take the plunge.
But something didn’t sit quite right.
Suppose I did trust him – it wasn’t like we communicated all that well. Even if Johann had no intent to deceive, I could still misinterpret his motives or his words – wouldn’t the effect be the same?
Or what if I understood him perfectly, but was so wracked by doubts that I failed to act on the knowledge I had attained? The end result would be the same as if he’d lied to me.
What if he lied to me, but I didn’t believe him, yet out of self-doubt I failed to act on the non-belief that I so ardently held?
Was there no end to my enquiry concerning human misunderstanding?
Johann came back into the room toweling off his wet hair. “Well, glad to have that done.” He reached in a drawer, pulled out a little plastic bag, and tossed it to me. “Here’s your weed. Thanks for sharing, it was great.”
I felt embarrassed for having suspected he’d smoked it all. Didn’t I feel any more solidarity than that with my fellow custodian?
He sat down on a folding chair. “I guess you heard the big news?”
“No, I’ve been stuck in classes all day. What happened?”
“Someone broke into Mr. Testascrittore’s villa.”
“A break-in at Mr. Testascrittore’s villa?” I almost choked on the words.
Of course. The figure I saw flee across the yard and over the wall – he’d been ransacking Mr. Testascrittore’s villa! And I had almost caught him.
And almost been caught myself. I pictured the gardener, so adamant that there was no one else in the house or yard. Was he in league with the thief?
“Was anything stolen?” I asked as calmly as I could. “It might have been related to Mr. Testascrittore’s murder, don’t you think?”
His eyes narrowed. Immediately I realized I’d said too much. Was his expression conveying skepticism – or fear? Did he think me a lunatic? Or had I just tipped off the killer as to my suspicions?
“Mr. Testascrittore’s death,” I said hurriedly.
His expression didn’t change. “Well,” he said flatly, “the police aren’t saying a lot, but they’ve ruled out any connection between Mr. Testascrittore’s demise and the villa incident. After all, one case involved a death, and the other was breaking and entering. Doesn’t sound like the same criminal mindset, does it?”
“Well, no,” I said, although I was anything but convinced. I wondered where Johann had been that afternoon when I was at the villa. Was it he who ran from the house and jumped the fence?
Was Johann the killer? I hated to suspect the only person I’d befriended since I got here. But if I was serious about this sleuthing business, I couldn’t rule anyone out.
Truth be told, I had pretty much ruled myself out. If I was the killer, I was not only an amnesiac, I had been in two places at once. That sounded like a solid defense: “Your honor, not only did I not do it – I was insane at the time.”
I thought again of Mr. Testascrittore’s manuscript. Suppose the intruder who hopped the fence at the villa had purloined the hypothetical second version, and the gardener’s job was to stand lookout while the thief made off with the papers.
Could it have been Johann? Hardly surprising that he knew the gardener. They probably worked together on occasion.
How ironic if Mr. Testascrittore, who was responsible for the employment and perhaps even the introduction of the two men, met his fate at their hands.
I studied Johann’s profile. The scruffy shadow of a beard softened a sharp jawline.
Was Johann the villa intruder? And if so, had he found the second manuscript? It might be hidden right here in the boiler room, within easy reach. If only I had thought to look around while he showered!
He hadn’t sat down, and I started to feel like I was overstaying my welcome. I groped for a way to question him about his whereabouts that afternoon. Plus, I wanted to ask about the duplicate key from the previous evening, which I’d still never found a suitably subtle way to introduce. I had to keep him talking.
“Want to have some dinner? I’m going over to Logico’s.”
“No, thanks,” he said. “I’ve got plans tonight.”
“Oh, come on, I’ll buy you dinner.”
“No, really, I’m busy.” He wiped his hands on his pants, then smoothed down his unruly hair as if preparing himself for an important date.
I stood there facing him. I needed to find out about the key, regardless of whether it tipped him off as to my suspicions. I had to know where we stood.
“Last night,” I began carefully, “after I borrowed your keys and went to Mr. Testascrittore’s office, someone else followed me there. They also had a key. I was wondering if you had any idea who it was, or how they got a key?”
His brow furrowed. “I don’t know anything about it,” he said, avoiding my eyes. “I smoked some weed, then put on headphones and fell asleep in the recliner. I didn’t talk to anyone else.”
“And you’re sure no one came in and got a key?”
He looked right at me. “I locked my door.”
I nodded silently. Any further questioning would practically accuse him of lying. And I wasn’t yet ready to make a formal charge.
Frustrated with Johann’s evasion, I excused myself and headed across campus toward the Historic Latin Quarter Preservation District. The night was warm, with a low fog that obscured the moon and stars.
Along a dark block, a knot of street urchins clustered around me, tugging at my clothes and trying to draw me into a Socratic, or more accurately Socratistic, dialog.
Besieged by their incessant prodding, I instinctively grabbed for my wallet, then remembered I never carried one.
Knowing that if I were to engage in authentic dialectic I would be there a while, I opted for Protagoras’s strategy in the Platonic dialog of the same name: whatever the other party says, you just keep going uh-huh, right, of course, indubitably. Sooner or later even Socrates runs out of steam, although it might take the better part of the night.
As for the urchins, once convinced that I would play no hapless Gorgias to their rag-tag Socrates they settled for giving me a few good thwacks and moving along to their next victim.
Logico’s was hopping when I got there. I ordered a Lockeburger and felt a sudden craving for a side of Potatoes Malebranche. After the waiter left, I noticed the smell of the deep fryers. Had the aroma of the hot oil sparked my desire – or was my desire simply the occasion for savoring the scent?
Potatoes Malebranche was an old-world appetizer named in honor of Nicolas Malebranche, the 17th century French Occasionalist – a radical follower of Mr. Descartes’ dualist philosophy, which postulated an unbridgeable split between mind and matter.
Mr. Malebranche held that all causation came directly from God, and that any human action or thought could not possibly cause its so-called effects, but was simply the “occasion” for the good Lord to bring the effects about.
If Mr. Malebranche’s rather lengthy nostrils itched and he wished to scratch them, this desire would become the occasion for the God of the one true Catholic Church – for our devout Occasionalist managed to reconcile his unusual doctrine with orthodox Christianity by granting God all power and majesty – the desire, I say, became the occasion for God to cause the muscles in Mr. Malebranche’s arm to contract and lift his index finger to his nose.
How far to carry this is an open question. My guess is that once God gets the arm in motion, it’s probably up to each of us to do the actual scratching. Divine grace may be necessary, but it can only carry us so far.
But a strict Malebranchovian might impute the precise pressure and motion of the scratching to God as well.
As I waited to eat, I looked over the jukebox selection. The music was mainly Medieval hits, all naturally sung in Latin. Dropping a coin into my tabletop selector, I punched an electronic remix of Perotin’s “Viderunt Omnes” which I remembered dancing to on Pride Night back at dear old USB.
The waiter brought my Potatoes Malebranche. After a moment’s reflection I grasped how the steamed spuds were in no way the cause of the cheese-and-ketchup compote in which they were smothered, but were simply the occasion upon which the omnipotent short-order chef had concocted the recipe.
They were excellent in any case. But the same could not be said for my Lockeburger. The patty was fine, but the lettuce and tomatoes were wilted and uninspiring. Coming from Berkeley, among whose proudest cultural achievements was seasonally fresh lettuce, I was a trifle annoyed.
I started up to the counter to complain, but found my way barred by a woman of middle years with wide-set eyes and full lips. “Bringing your California expectations to Indiana?” Ms. Beauvoir said in a Parisian accent. “A slight shift of context, n’est-ce pas?”
“Perhaps,” I said, aware of the French’s reputation as sticklers with regards to matters culinary. “But something as critical as the trimmings on a Lockeburger should be expected to be of the highest quality regardless of the context.”
“All human culture is contextual,” she said, lighting a cigarette. “As is all knowledge.”
I didn’t want to argue with so eminent a thinker, particularly if it put my lunch on hold. But I felt she was confusing the content of knowledge with the context of our knowing it.
“Perhaps a truth can only be known in a given context,” I said. “But the truth itself is beyond context. Soggy lettuce is soggy lettuce.”
“I don’t think so,” Ms. Beauvoir said, blowing a wreath of smoke over my head. “Truth is shaped by its context, and appears differently to each generation, to each race, to each class, to each gender. There is no absolute truth apart from context.”
“Okay,” I said, “I can see where the quality of lettuce might be contextual. But what about a fact like the identity of Mr. Testacrittore’s killer? That’s true outside of any context, isn’t it?”
“Not at all,” she said. “It’s true within a context. It’s true in this time and place, not in some timeless, eternal ledger of facts. The more you recognize and study the context in which that fact is embedded, the more likely you are to see the truth. Look to the context, not just a list of facts. Truth is contextual.”
She faded up the aisle, and I found myself sitting at my booth at Logico’s staring at my meal. I glanced around, but no one seemed to take it amiss that I had just been conversing with Ms. Beauvoir. My Potatoes Malebranche hadn’t even gotten cold.
Sadly, the lettuce on my Lockeburger looked less appetizing than ever. I started again for the counter to ask for replacement. But Mr. Carnap, a brusque man with combed-over brown hair, headed me off with a bit of linguistic analysis.
“I believe if you analyze the name of the item,” he said, “you will conclude that the only grounds for complaint would be the burger itself. No amount of analysis of the words ‘Locke’ or ‘burger’ can lead one to a necessary expectation of fresh lettuce.”
I gave a sharp laugh. “Excuse me, but where I come from, the trimmings are deemed part of the order. I consider quality lettuce to be implicit in the association of the name of the great Mr. Locke with the concept of a burger.”
Mr. Carnap craned his neck as he adjusted his thin black tie. “In all seriousness,” he said crisply, “your chances of prevailing on such an argument are extremely slim. Even if you are the prevailing party, by the time you’ve paid your attorneys’ fees your settlement will never justify the ill will that such an action will gain you throughout Terre Haute.”
“I just want some fresh lettuce,” I said plaintively. “I wasn’t threatening to sue.”
He laughed coldly. “You think the management will recognize that distinction? If you make a scene about your lettuce, you’re likely to wind up talking to their legal department anyway. So unless your attorney is present and prepared to begin filing motions, I suggest you hold your tongue.”
With ill humor I settled back in my booth. I opened my Lockeburger and scraped off the wilted lettuce, and was none too pleased with the texture of the pickles and onions. The white-bread bun was nothing to write home about, either. Except for the patty itself, the Lockeburger did not appear to be one of Logico’s finer efforts.
Of course, that implied that the proprietors of Logico’s were morally responsible for the sandwich, which was at best a dubious proposal. Given that the management grew up in the midst of a corrupt and greed-driven culture, can they be held culpable for cutting a few corners when it came to ingredients?
Really – is it fair to hold a human being individually responsible for their actions? How can a reasonable society hold its members responsible for being warped by that very society?
Do we not act within the constraints and parameters of the broader society? Are we not the misbegotten children of our depraved culture?
Yet if this were true, what would that imply about Mr. Testascrittore’s killer? Should he not be held accountable for his crime?
Clearly the killer was the immediate cause of Mr. Testascrittore’s death, whatever the larger context.
Unless we say that the Cambridge Dictionary was the immediate cause, and the murderer merely a mediate cause. Or maybe the dictionary was a mediate cause, and massive loss of blood was the immediate cause of death.
When you came right down to it, the safest statement would be that the immediate cause of death was dying, and everything else simply led up to it.
A mist swirled next to my booth. Accustomed as I had become to my spirit visitors, I was still taken aback when Mr. Hume himself pulled up a chair. Immediately I wished I’d ordered the Hot and Hunky Humeburger. Eating the house special with the eponymous philosopher would be like having Ben Franklin pay you with a hundred dollar bill, or hearing Jesus doing a dramatic reading from the gospels.
As I collected myself, Mr. Hume took a sip of cognac and stared at me warmly. He had a round, reddish face with a long nose and arched eyebrows. A silky white wig ended in curls over his ears.
“Young man,” he said pleasantly, “you are certainly postulating a lot of causes.”
“Well, sir,” I said between bites of my Lockeburger, “something was the cause of Mr. Testascrittore’s death. It’s not like people die of no cause whatsoever.”
“Really? Have you ever actually seen a ‘cause’? A succession of events, yes. A highly regular succession, yes. But a ‘cause,’ never.”
“Let me think about that,” I said. “If one lifts a huge dictionary into the air and brings it down on someone else’s head, would not the effort be said to ‘cause’ the book to rise and fall? I can’t precisely explain the anatomical workings of the human arm. But how would the book rise and fall apart from such impetus? And if you don’t call that a ‘cause,’ what would you call it?”
“I would call that a ‘regular sequence,’” Mr. Hume said, taking up a cheese danish and eyeing it judiciously. “When people perform actions such as lifting and lowering their arm, we observe a regular sequence of events. The regularity of the occurrence leads us to postulate that there is causation and necessity involved. But we never actually witness a ‘cause,’ do we?”
“No,” I said, “but I’m using the word ‘cause’ to encompass the various steps that led up to the act in question.”
“Oh, I see,” he said. “So a ‘cause’ is just a word? That doesn’t sound particularly efficacious.”
Great, I thought. Just when I was about to solve the murder of Mr. Testascrittore, the Law of Causality lets me down.
Mr. Hume carefully adjusted his elegant white curls. I couldn’t resist pointing out that his action presumed that causality would operate as usual. “You lifted your hand and touched your head because you assumed you would actually affect your wig. How could you live your daily life if you really believed causality doesn’t operate?”
“My boy, I don’t live my daily life by such principles. My reason shows me these cold truths. But I don’t have to let them dominate my life. One can know the hard reality of the world, and still enjoy the softer pleasures now and again.”
I scowled. “So you don’t exactly see philosophy as a guide to life?”
He held his wine glass aloft and studied it. “Well, in a way, yes. The chief aim of philosophy – aside from ethics, which is of course the highest aim of all philosophizing – the chief aim of philosophy is to analyze the formation, connections, and justification of our inferences.”
I couldn’t help laughing. “How’s that supposed to help us live a better life?”
He daubed his puffy lips with a silk napkin. “It helps us recognize and avoid errors. There are so many sources of mistaken inference, and they wreak havoc on our lives: limited information, biased hypotheses, superstition, prejudices, overconfidence in human testimony, speculative metaphysics, improper methodology, rash causal inference, and certain functions of the mind.”
“I think you forgot being in a bad mood,” I said with a hint of sarcasm.
Mr. Hume ignored my tone and savored a sip of wine. “That’s included under ‘certain functions of the mind,’” he said.
I found that I’d lost my appetite. Mr. Hume wiped his pudgy fingers on a napkin, then excused himself.
Even if I didn’t buy his line of argument, I envied Mr. Hume’s cavalier ability to think the most harrowingly skeptical thoughts, then wash his hands and sit down to a fine meal. I doubted that he ever let a bit of epistemological legerdemain spoil his appetite.
Perotin’s song was winding down on the jukebox. I wiped my mouth and stood up.
Where to? I should head back to my garret and do some studying. Clearly that was the best use of my time. If I was going to keep up with Terre Haute’s pace, I needed to stay on top of my lessons right from the start. On that I was firmly resolved.
Although maybe I should check up on Johann and see if he really had plans for the evening, or was just making an excuse to avoid talking to me. If he was down in the boiler room, it was a good sign he’d been lying to me, and I’d know where I stood.
As I stepped out into the night air of the Historic Latin Quarter Preservation District, a familiar figure caught my eye. Mr. Zeitenschreiber, my Heideggerics professor, strolled by with a gaggle of students on his heels.
Recognizing an opportunity to observe him candidly in his natural habitat, I followed their rat-pack down the block to The Vienna, another of the legendary Thousand Taverns of Terre Haute. The interior resembled a big yurt, with a circular bar in the center.
Mr. Zeitenschreiber took a seat at a large table. His devotees pulled up chairs and fell to arguing among themselves about whose being-toward-the-future was most authentic.
Their debates were of little relevance to me. I had a mystery to solve. With my customary relentless yet fluid determination, I prepared to study Mr. Zeitenschreiber at close range, scrutinizing him as he bantered with his minions.
Then, when his guard was down, I’d pose a few seemingly innocuous yet slyly probing questions that would lay bare his baser motives.
But first, I needed a beer.
If I were to properly observe Mr. Zeitenschreiber here on his home turf, I needed to get into the spirit of things.
I worked my way up near the big circular bar. The bartender seemed more intent on polishing the beer steins than in serving anyone, making the patrons more urgent in their cries for service.
Waiting for the queue to thin out, I pondered my strategy for interrogating Mr. Zeitenschreiber. I had to be careful. If I showed too much interest in “death,” he might become wary and clam up.
Or worse, he might see me as a threat and decide to kill me. If he had murdered a full professor, I doubted he’d have any compunction about killing a first-semester grad student. Even one on a full fellowship.
No, I needed a more circumspect approach. A disarming parry, preparatory to a subtle yet incisive thrust, following which I’d study his reaction most attentively.
Only one problem – what exactly was I watching for? It’s not like there was an agreed-upon set of signs indicating a person was a cold-blooded killer, and all I had to do was look at the chart and find out whether he was the murderer or not.
Isn’t that the semiotic quandary that sicklies over the native hue of all our resolve? It’s not just that we’re searching for signs of happiness, or love, or knowledge – we’ve also got to establish some criteria so we’ll recognize the signs if we do ever find them.
Sensing a market niche, I briefly considered launching a semiotic services corporation.
“Visit CriteriaMax today! Whether it’s academia, art, or your love life, we have the criteria for you! All criteria are guaranteed free from deductive defects, inferential flaws, or infinite regresses.
“Available singly or in the handy grad-pack. And ask about our refurbished criteria – guaranteed for 90 days or we will replace them with comparable criteria at no additional charge.”
I’d offer the Godel plan – what a business model! No matter how many criteria someone buys, they always need one more. Even if you had every criterion you needed, you’d still need one more to assure you that you had gathered enough.
Now, though, I faced a major problem: Mr. Zeitenschreiber was in all probability about to possibly slip up and reveal a subtle yet unmistakable sign that he was the murderer.
By what criterion was I going to recognize the sign of guilt when I saw it?
Even more, how would I know I wasn’t just projecting the signs that I desperately wanted to see?
Here was the crux of the matter: how did I know that the signs I perceived were really there? How did I know I could trust my own eyes and ears?
Face it – how do I know anything at all about the external world?
“Perception of the external world – back to the basics, is it?” I turned to see Mr. Locke standing next to me. He leaned against the circular bar, wavy brown hair tumbling over his shoulders. His slender fingers curled around a bottle of Tabula Rasa malt.
I greeted him, then explained my plan to interrogate Mr. Zeitenschreiber. “In particular, sir, I’m concerned that even if he shows signs of guilt, I won’t be able to understand them. And even if I think I grasp them, how do I know that what I’m seeing is really there? Especially given that right now I’m seeing the spirit of a dead philosopher. Really, how do I know anything at all about reality?”
Mr. Locke was nonplussed. “A good question,” he said. “Let’s start at the beginning, with external perception. When I look at an object, my eyes and ears and other sense organs receive stimuli consisting of light, sound waves, tactile surfaces, and the like. My mind then connects those stimuli into the objects of sense-experience.”
“Hmm,” I said. “How do I know which sense-data to connect into what objects? I see a lot of room for embarrassing errors.”
“So true,” he said with a sad smile. “Experience is our only teacher. There are no innate ideas or concepts. Every object we see is a synthesis of sense-data. Experience teaches me what sense-data belong together, and groups them into objects based on utility, proximity, and so on.”
I looked away for a moment, weighing his words. “As long as we’re dealing with concrete objects,” I said, “that might work. But what about imaginary objects? What is the ‘data’ when I imagine a unicorn, or some more far-fetched creature? Am I synthesizing ‘imaginatrons’?”
“No,” said Mr. Locke. “You are taking past sense-data from a multitude of experiences, and synthesizing them into a fantasy-figure. It’s no different in essence from when you produce a memory based on selected past sense-data. The key point is, every mental image of any sort comes from past experience. There are no innate images or ideas.”
“Okay,” I said. “But if fantasies and reality are both woven out of sense-data, how can I tell the difference? Suppose I think that I hear Mr. Zeitenschreiber make a suspicious statement. How do I know it’s a real-world experience rather than my imagination?”
“You test your hypotheses concerning the outer world, and correlate your observations with those of others.”
“A correlation,” I said. “Interesting suggestion. But how would we perform such a task? Seems like each of us needs to make an exhaustive list of our experiences, then compare them with others. I suspect most people haven’t done this recently. Maybe we should stop and be sure.”
I stood on my tiptoes and shouted at the top of my voice: “Could everyone make a list of everything they have ever seen, heard, tasted, smelled, or touched? We’re trying to correlate perception with reality.”
The effect was not the widespread recognition of the immediate importance of the task for which I had hoped. But it had the salubrious effect of getting the bartender’s attention. “One Pride City Lager,” I called out.
I paid the tab, then turned to Mr. Locke. “What’s troubling me, sir, is that I believe Mr. Zeitenschreiber may be involved in Mr. Testascrittore’s death. But when I ask for some guidance in recognizing the signs of his guilt, all you have offered is ‘experience,’ which I must note has not invariably proven entirely reliable as a guide to reality.”
Mr. Locke shrugged, as if to say, what’s the option?
Mr. Dewey passed us on his way to the bar. He brushed his center-parted hair off his forehead. “How do we ever know what’s ‘real’ and what’s not, regardless of our epistemological theories? Pure pragmatism. There is no ‘criterion’ that separates reality from fantasy. All we can do is compare the present case to past ones, make our best estimate, and put it to the test.”
I shook my head. “A test can’t distinguish reality from fantasy. Suppose you give me a math test, and I wildly guess the answers, and by chance I get them all right – what does this tell you about whether or not I know math?”
“Fine,” Mr. Dewey said with no rancor. “Show me a better method to ascertain that ‘knowing’ is taking place. Shall I try to intuit your mental state as you take the test? Shall I attach electrodes to your skull and make charts of your brainwaves to prove that understanding is taking place? In defining ‘reality,’ the best we can hope for is a general agreement on what works.”
“But who decides ‘what works’?”
“Ah,” he smiled. “That’s the political question, isn’t it? But as far as one’s personal experience, the answer is clear – no one but you can judge it.”
I exhaled in exasperation, looking from Mr. Dewey to Mr. Locke and back. “So you’re saying that when I talk to Mr. Zeitenschreiber, all I can rely on to corroborate what I observe and experience is more observations and experiences? What kind of criterion is that?”
“Young man,” Mr. Dewey said, “if you can show me a better criterion for discovering what’s real than experience – I’ll modify my views accordingly.”
I promised Mr. Dewey that he’d be the first to know when I found such a criterion. Although I found his lack of “solutions” frustrating, I had to admire a thinker so committed to Pragmatism that he remained consistent by changing his views.
But enough philosophy. I had my beer. It was time to focus on Mr. Zeitenschreiber.
Back at the table, Mr. Zeitenschreiber was holding forth. The students hung on his every Germanic neologism, miming his facial expressions and hand movements.
I elbowed my way in and took a seat near his, setting my Pride City on the table as if opening the bidding.
“Ah, Mr. Testascrittore’s protégée,” Mr. Zeitenschreiber said out of the corner of his mouth. I was flattered that he recognized me, although what followed was none too cordial. “You must be feeling a bit adrift – a condition which, of course, Mr. Heidegger describes most eloquently in section 40 of Being and Time.”
I nodded knowingly, recalling some verbiage from the Cliff Notes version. “I’m just hoping to disclose a bit of truth in the clearing of being-toward-understanding,” I said.
“And how will you recognize that truth when you see it?”
“Because it will correspond to reality, that’s why,” I blurted out, realizing too late that I’d probably just fallen for a classic Heideggerian trick.
“Yes,” he said icily. “And how exactly is it that you will determine whether or not your ideas bear any relation to ‘reality’?”
Committed as I was to the notion of an objective reality, I knew by his sneer as he pronounced the word that I was in trouble.
But it wasn’t like I was the first person to walk down this road. Spying Mr. Russell nearby, I called him over to our table. “Help me out, sir – we need an explanation of how ‘correspondence’ theories of knowledge and truth work.”
As he stepped over, the bar around us seemed to freeze and fade into the background, leaving only Mr. Zeitenschreiber, Mr. Russell, and I in a tight circle.
Mr. Russell straightened his tie and ran a hand through his thick white hair. “Correspondence? It’s simple – take the song on the jukebox. Imagine reading a musical score while listening. The notes on the paper and the audible tones would match up, one-to-one. So we say that the score and the recording correspond, that they are the ‘same’ song.”
Mr. Zeitenschreiber crossed his arms and tilted his head as if he were a skilled barrister examining a key witness. “So you’re saying that we ‘know’ what an object is when our knowledge ‘corresponds’ to the actual object?”
“Correct,” said Mr. Russell, and I nodded.
Mr. Zeitenschreiber leveled his gaze at me. “Only one small problem. Suppose that I am trying to determine whether my perception of an object corresponds to ‘external reality.’ An everyday task, wouldn’t you agree?”
I eyed him hesitantly.
“But how do I test my experience of external reality,” he said, “except by another perception? So in the end, I’m simply comparing one perception to another. As far as any correspondence to a ‘reality’ outside perception, how would we ever know?”
I realized Mr. Zeitenschreiber’s objection was analogous to my own comment to Mr. Locke – if all we have to verify our experiences is more experience, where exactly does this get us?
Mr. Russell started talking about theories of types and problems of totalization. I encouraged him to get another pitcher of beer, and called Mr. Hegel to take his place.
The German Idealist carried the sleek brown owl of Minerva on one arm. He placed the well-groomed bird on a perch and joined our little circle.
The overhead light cast strange shadows on Mr. Hegel’s face, emphasizing his jowls and the deep bags under his eyes. Did he always look so haunted, or did philosophical authority weigh heavily on his shoulders?
“The question we’re puzzling over,” I said, “is how we establish a relationship between our personal knowledge and the external world.” Then I lowered my voice and leaned closer to him. “It’s a question that I believe has a direct bearing on Mr. Testascrittore’s death.”
Mr. Hegel nodded slowly without meeting my eyes. “The link between perception and reality isn’t a matter of correspondence,” he said in a passionless voice. “It’s a question of coherence. At any given moment, I have a world-view which is reasonably coherent and allows me to live in the world. If a new idea ‘coheres’ with my pre-existing views, I hold it true. If it does not, either I deem it false, or my entire world-view needs adjusting.”
“But since when does coherence guarantee truth?” I said. “At one time, the notion that the earth was flat ‘cohered’ perfectly well with other knowledge. That doesn’t mean it was true.”
“I don’t believe it actually ‘cohered,’” Mr. Hegel said. “If we had access to all of the known facts of that period, we would spot the inconsistencies and ‘incoherences.’ And of course subsequent history has borne this out. Only one completely coherent view of reality is possible, and it contains no errors. This one entirely coherent worldview is what we commonly call ‘The Truth.’”
The owl fluttered its wings and nodded.
Mr. Zeitenschreiber leaned back in his chair. “Pray tell, Mr. Hegel – by what yardstick is ‘coherence’ measured? Suppose you discovered – as you claimed – the ‘one truly coherent system,’ but I disagreed and produced a different one. How can we determine whether your theory is ‘more coherent’ than mine? Doesn’t any attempt to evaluate such coherence presume a standpoint of absolute knowledge by which the various proposed coherences are to be measured?”
I expected Mr. Hegel to respond that the bar of history would be the ultimate judge, although I realized that there was nothing very final about historical verdicts. But he took a different tack.
“The guarantee of coherence,” the somber Idealist said imperturbably, “is the function of Absolute Mind, or God – to grasp the final, sublated meaning of the entire process as the culmination of that very process.”
Mr. Zeitenschreiber stifled a laugh as Mr. Russell returned to the table with a pitcher of beer and poured Mr. Hegel a glass. Mr. Hegel thanked him and offered a sip to his owl.
“I think the same problem bedevils both of our systems,” Mr. Russell said to Mr. Hegel. “Both of us tried to construct a flawless, internally coherent system – yours of metaphysics, mine of logic. Mr. Godel’s objection destroyed my system, and I believe yours as well. Namely – in order to know that we have a complete, coherent, perfectly consistent theory of a system, we would need to stand outside the system.”
“Why is that hypothesis needed?” I interjected. “Why couldn’t you see coherence and completeness from within?”
Mr. Russell turned to me with humor in his eyes. “From inside, you never know if you have overlooked some problem or inconsistency. Even God, if He existed, would suffer from this defect. Only if you stand outside the system can you say for certain that it is complete, and therefore entirely coherent and consistent.”
Minerva’s owl cocked its head thoughtfully. Mr. Hegel stroked its feathers as he and Mr. Russell fell to commiserating over the fate of philosophical systems.
Mr. Zeitenschreiber looked at me in triumph. “So much for your correspondence and coherence theories of truth,” he said. “I think we’ll inevitably find that only Mr. Heidegger’s notion of disclosure can account for the primordial experience of truth. And unless you start paying more attention in class, you’re going to be left in undisclosedness.”
With that, he lifted his stein, toasted Mr. Heidegger, and drained the last of his beer. The assembled students, who had sprung back to life as our spirit guests disappeared, echoed his toast and followed him out of The Vienna. I polished off my lager and left with the crowd.
Out on the street, I shivered in the cool night air. A faint scent of the Wabash River wafted past. Mr. Zeitenschreiber signed a few autographs before turning to his waiting limo.
As he opened the door, we locked eyes. His were somewhat glazed. “Mr. Testascrittore’s Sartrean efforts notwithstanding,” he said, “I believe you’ll find that Mr. Heidegger’s is the only viable theory of truth and knowledge.”
I held his stare. “And what exactly is that theory?”
“It takes time to explicate such a profound vision. You’ll have to come to class to find out.”
I studied his eyes. Was he bluffing? After all, why did it take time to convey Truth? Either Truth is evident, or it’s not. This “taking time to unfold” business seemed like a diversionary tactic.
Was it a ploy to force me to attend class, distracting me from my dogged investigation of Mr. Testascrittore’s death?
He waved one last time to his coterie, then stooped and sat down on the back seat of the limousine. As he swung his feet up, a flash of yellow-green mud on his shoes caught my eye.
I jumped forward, bumping several people aside to catch a clear view. I’d seen that color before – that very day, in fact.
It was the color of the mud on my socks and shoes when I left the villa.
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