A contemporary Schopenhauer

A prominent jeweller claims to have figured out the key to existence:

The academics could be forgiven for never having heard of Summa Metaphysica’s author. But, in fact, he was far from unknown: David Birnbaum is a prominent figure in the New York jewel trade, a private seller of high-carat diamonds and other rare gems, with a clientele that has included celebrities – Goldie Hawn, James Gandolfini – but consists mainly of the anonymous super-rich. For some time now, aided by his wealth, Birnbaum has been on an altogether different mission: to convince the world he has made an astonishing breakthrough in philosophy. It is a quest that has seen him accused of “academic identity theft”, epic levels of arrogance, and the unauthorised use of Harvard University’s trademarks. But it also raises fascinating questions. These days, only a tiny number of people understand enough theoretical physics, or advanced philosophy, to grasp what these disciplines tell us about reality at the deepest level. Is it still conceivable – as it was a century ago – that a gentleman amateur, with some financial resources, could make a real, revolutionary contribution to our understanding of the mysteries of the universe?

There is no shortage of people who would say no, at least in Birnbaum’s case. His work, said a commenter on the Chronicle’s website, “reads like L Ron Hubbard had drunken sex one night with Ayn Rand and produced this bastard thought-child”. One scholar who became professionally involved with Birnbaum described the experience as “unsettling, unfortunate and, to my knowledge, unprecedented in academic circles”. Another just called him “toxic”.

But then again – as Birnbaum pointed out to me, more than once, during the weeks I spent trying to figure out exactly what he was up to – just suppose that a scrappy, philosophically unqualified Jewish guy from Queens really had cracked the cosmic code, embarrassing the ivory-tower elites: well, isn’t this exactly the kind of defensive response you’d expect?

Arthur Schopenhauer, a man who held an academic position only briefly, published a two-volume work called The World as Will and Representation, which offers an attempt to explain the nature of existence in terms of his concept of “the will”.  He was ignored for most of his life, although he would exert a strong influence on later Germans like Nietzsche, Freud and Wagner. Spinoza worked as a lens-grinder for most of his life, turning down an academic position. So the idea of an amateur, peddling his own cosmic theory has something of a pedigree in philosophy. Anyway, what is Birnbaum’s idea?

The answer, after years of fruitless reflection, dawned unexpectedly. Birnbaum was in Barbardos on holiday in 1982, sunbathing on a beach and turning matters over in his mind. “I’m good on the beach,” he explained. “My brain is working a little better… And then” – he snapped his fingers – “it was clear to me.” The answer was: potential.

This part takes a little explaining.

Birnbaum considers his specialism to be metaphysics, that hard-to-define corner of philosophy that deals with the most basic questions of what there is. It’s the territory into which you cross when you reach the limits of what biology, chemistry or physics can tell you. Metaphysical explanations aren’t supposed to be substitutes for scientific ones, though; they just claim to be even more fundamental. And what could be more fundamental than potential? What must have existed, before everything else, but the potential for all those things that later came into existence? If you believe in God, the potential for God must have been there first. And prior to the Big Bang, there must have been the potential for the Big Bang.

Rising from the Barbadian sand, Birnbaum saw the world in a new light: everything and everyone around him was an expression of cosmic potential, working itself out. Why? Because that’s what potential does. Birnbaum calls this process “extraordinariation”. It is explained in depth in the hundreds of pages of Summa Metaphysica, but the core idea is concise enough to fit on a T-shirt. The universe itself is potential, actualising itself.

You may be raising your eyebrows at this. But Birnbaum’s perspective isn’t without precedent. Since Aristotle, some thinkers have been drawn to the notion that the world must be heading somewhere – that there is some kind of force in the universe, pushing things forward. These teleological arguments are deeply unfashionable nowadays, but there’s nothing inherently unscientific about them. In his controversial 2012 book Mind And Cosmos, the US philosopher Thomas Nagel argues that teleology might be the only way to account for the still unsolved mystery of why consciousness exists. Still, as Birnbaum explained his theory, I must have looked underwhelmed, because he leaned forward in his chair to emphasise his point. “It works!” he said. “It’s powerful! And with all due respect to Harvard, Oxford, etcetera… it’s more powerful than anything you got!”

Okay this kinda misunderstands what teleology is, and that it is a separate concept from the notion of potentiality, but the point is that there is very little that is new under the (philosophical) sun.

The early Greek philosophers were deeply puzzled by change, because it seemed to involve things coming into existence from non-being vice-verse. Something cannot come from nothing, etc. Furthermore, there was the question of how identity could persist over change. Aristotle’s solution of potentiality was rather elegant: things pass from potentiality (or relative non-being) into actuality. Relative to how I exist now, there exists certain potentialities which can be actualized (having gray hair, for instance).

But here’s where Birnbaum gets into some trouble: potentiality is always relative to actuality. If I potentially have gray hair, it is because there is already an actual state of affairs which could actualize that potentiality. My gray hairs cannot will themselves into existence. Actuality is more fundamental than potentiality. Absent any preceding actuality, potentiality is just non-being.

And this is of course used in Aristotelian/Thomistic arguments for the existence of God. Since if actuality precedes potentiality, we either have an infinite regress of potentialities being actualized, or we terminate the causal chain at some reality or agent which is pure actuality. Whether that reality constitutes some sort of brute fact, or whether you want to start predicating the divine attributes to it is another story. In any event, it doesn’t make sense to talk about the potentiality of God’s existence, or if it does, what you have isn’t God, but rather some sort of demiurge.

Perhaps I should do a post in the near future explaining teleology, since I do indeed think that a teleological model of the universe makes more sense than a mechanistic one.


About Josh W

Scribbler and doodler
This entry was posted in Aristotle, fragments of culture, higher education, Stuff other people said, What Is This Beast Called Man and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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