Daniel Sportiello | Wednesday, September 30, 2009
I chose, as a freshman, to major in both philosophy and English. I told myself that they would complement one another, but this proved a fiction: philosophy looks outward, seeking the world in which we live, while English looks inward, seeking the stories that we tell ourselves. In the end, my choice to pursue philosophy over English was largely arbitrary, and I bore for a long time the sorrow that followed this insight: although I joked afterward that I had overcome a disability, I often felt that I had lost a part of myself, for I knew in my heart that I was not only a rational animal but also a teller of stories.
The sorrow faded in time. I learned, in philosophy, to seek the world, to grapple with experience for the truth, wresting from it an understanding of the world – a theory that would allow me to predict further experience and, perhaps, to survive it. But the theory I sought proved subtler than expected.
There rages, in the philosophy of science, a controversy between instrumentalism and realism: the former holds that the objects of science are “really” just convenient fictions – that things like electrons and genes are just stories that we tell ourselves in order to predict experience – while the latter insists that these objects are real – “really” real, and only convenient because real. That one cannot tell, even in principle, whether these objects are “really” real is a fact that is rarely mentioned amid the foot-stomping.
I once took this foot-stomping rather seriously. It was a long time before I was shown, in the words of Wittgenstein, the way out of the fly bottle – before I came to see the controversy as a confusion. Quine, in his “On What There Is,” concedes that things like electrons and genes are nothing more than convenient fictions – nothing more, that is, than stories that we tell ourselves in order to make sense of experience. But the same is true, he points out, of things like tables and chairs: just as we posit electrons in order to make sense of streaks of light in a cloud chamber, we posit chairs in order to make sense of certain shapes in our vision. The objects of our everyday lives are no less fictional than those of science.
But if all objects are fictions, then any of them is as real as anything could ever be: electrons, genes, tables and chairs are, though fictional, hardly arbitrary, for they are based on experience. And insofar as they figure in a theory that allows us to predict and survive experience, that theory is true – even as it is nothing more than the story that we tell ourselves. We are indeed rational animals, for we seek to understand the world in which we live – but to be rational is just to be tellers of stories. In choosing philosophy, I had chosen English as well: in turning away from the inner and toward the outer, I came to learn that they were one and the same.
Quine suggests that, “from a phenomenalistic point of view, the conceptual scheme of physical objects is a convenient myth” – and that, moreover, the conceptual scheme of abstract objects “is, from the point of view of a strictly physicalistic conceptual scheme, as much a myth as that physicalistic conceptual scheme itself is for phenomenalism.” Quine might have gone further: just as positing concrete objects makes sense of experience and, in turn, positing abstract objects makes sense of concrete objects, positing a transcendent object makes sense of the rest.
This is, of course, exactly what Aristotle and Aquinas realized when they argued for the existence of God: we posit God as the ultimate explanation of experience, the necessary object that gives rise to a contingent world. God is, in other words, the last and greatest story that we tell ourselves: he is our final hope for survival in the face of experience.
But if God is a story that we tell ourselves, the reverse is also true: God is, in his necessity, the author of our contingent world. In knowing himself, God knows the world as a finite manifestation of his infinite being. His fiction unfolds in the opposite direction: it bears the weight not of explanation but rather of creation. For in making sense of himself, God posits – that is, creates – a great chain of abstract objects, concrete objects, and phenomena. And all of these are ordered back toward their author – a fact made manifest by our contemplation, which inverts that of God and of which he is the final posit.
We are, then, the story that God has told himself. And insofar as our story comes to echo his – insofar as we learn the truth – we return, posit by posit, unto him.
Daniel John Sportiello is in his second year of the Ph.D. program in philosophy. Listen to his radio show every Sunday at 3 p.m. He can be contacted at email@example.com
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not
necessarily those of The Observer.