Saturday, September 13, 2008

A delicate balance

In the second volume of Robinson Davies' The Deptford Trilogy, the narrator, David Staunton, the son of the friend of the narrator of volume one, is reflecting upon the progress of his analysis with the Jungian Dr. Johanna von Heller in Zurich:
But what am I headed for? Where has Dr. Johanna been taking me? I suspect toward a new ground of belief...which might be called esse in anima: I am beginning to recognize the objectivity of the world, while knowing that because I am who and what I am, I both perceive the world in terms of who and what I am and project onto the world a great deal of who and what I am. If I know this, I ought to be able to escape the stupider kinds of illusions. The absolute nature of things is independent of my senses (which are all I have to perceive with), and what I perceive is an image in my own psyche.
Not felicitously stated, but he is confronting explicitly for the first time in his life the central problem of being in the world: Living with a reality that is partly of our own making.

The two greatest mistakes we can make philosophically (I will boldly suggest) are 1) to imagine that the world in our head is the world as it is, or 2) to think that the world in our head is the only world we can know. Naive realism or naive idealism.

The first mistake is made by very few philosophers any more, and even fewer scientists. But the great majority of people assume they are in touch with reality when in fact their thoughts are deeply shaped by accidents of birth, education and culture. These can be Staunton's "stupider kinds of illusions," which can be a source of much mischief.

The second mistake is common these days among so-called postmodern philosophers who argue that every world view is of equal worth; the Big Bang and Coyote throwing the stars into the sky are equally valid myths of beginnings, for example.

The importance of science as a way of knowing lies precisely in the ways it tries to minimize the personal and cultural: quantitative measurement, mathematical theories, double-blind experiments, peer review, specialized languages, and so on. Few, if any, scientists believe their theories describe the world as it is, but all hold as an act of faith that the world as it is shines through their theories more reliably than through any alternative versions of reality.

That is to say, the sanest among us are those who walk a middle path between the illusion of objectivity and the illusion of subjectivity. It is a delicate balance to achieve, for science, and for each of us personally. For David Staunton it is only achieved at the end of deep soul-searching in the company of his analyst.