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Not the Matrix, Pal

Not the Matrix, Pal

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September 7, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: The Slightest Philosophy , Quee Nelson (Indianapolis: Dog Ear Publishing), July 2007, 296 pages, (paperback). $19.95.

Spring 2009 -- If you’ve ever been queried by a skeptic who doubts the very existence of reality, you know how aggravating such banter can be.  I’ve had my share of these kooky conversations, not infrequently in the philosophy section of the local bookstore here in Rockford, Illinois.

It goes something like this: You’re perusing a book with the intriguing title, The Enemies of Knowledge. Suddenly, a lanky fellow with beady eyes approaches. “It seems to me that one first has to ask if there even is such a thing as knowledge,” he asks smugly. You, slightly flabbergasted, inquire as to the meaning of his statement. “Well,” he asks, “How do you know the book exists? How do you know that the book doesn’t just disappear when you are not looking at it anymore? How do you know you can have any knowledge about reality?”

How can you be sure an external world even exists?

Soon you find yourself involved in a discussion about whether you and the book you hold in your hand exist or whether you are really just a brain living in a vat hooked up to a giant supercomputer that simulates all your past, present and future experiences. If, the guy says, it is possible that you are deceived in this way into thinking that you and the book are real, how can you be sure that you can acquire any knowledge of an external world, or, for that matter, that an external world even exists?

The skeptic keeps dishing up new scenarios questioning whether you can really trust your senses to give you knowledge of reality. What about the straight stick that looks bent when you put it in water? What about the coin that looks round when you look at it from above but oval when you look at it from a certain side angle? What about philosopher Rene Descartes' evil demon who makes you think you exist when you really don't? The point of all these scenarios is that you cannot trust your senses to give you access to a real world, and if you cannot trust your senses all bets are off. You might as well be in The Matrix for all you “know.”

Talking with people like that in a bookstore might be fun and entertaining for a while, but if you have to put up with them professionally, it gets old very quickly. As a philosopher in training, I usually just wanted to wring my hands around their necks and say: “You feel that? Don't tell me that you don't know I am about to kill you!” But I always thought that a good dose of common sense is not a convincing argument for these folks. Apparently, my naïve realist view of the world is just not a sophisticated enough philosophical match.

So, I was pleasantly surprised to find that a self-publishing “laundress” (albeit it one with a graduate degree in philosophy) would come to my aid. Quee Nelson's The Slightest Philosophy should be a welcome addition to your arsenal should you be engaged in a philosophical brawl with a skeptic at the local bookstore—and anyone else who otherwise finds himself having to defend realism.

Nelson's style is a rare treat in philosophy: mostly jargon-free, refreshingly clear and straight-forward.

Nelson has written one of the most entertaining and lucidly written epistemology books I have read in recent years. The title is a play on philosopher David Hume's famous assertion that even the slightest philosophy will make a skeptic out of the “vulgar” (read: common) man who believes that there actually are things like tables, boats, chairs and, perhaps to his dismay, argumentative philosophers who try to persuade him otherwise. But, so Nelson argues, the attitude of modern philosophers that naïve realism cannot stand up against radical skepticism is precisely what has led to the disease of postmodernism that has infected academic philosophy in the past century. Postmodernism is what happens when philosophers take too much stock in the radical skeptical and anti-realist arguments coming out of modern philosophy. Nelson's project then is to attack postmodernism by its epistemological roots and give naïve realism the revival it so desperately needs and deserves.

Author Quee Nelson

Nelson's style is a rare treat in philosophy: mostly jargon-free, refreshingly clear and straight-forward. She writes in an almost conversational tone, with much disarming charm and razor-sharp wit. Take for instance this gem from the introduction. Trying to find a good selection of naïve realism defenders in your local bookstore's philosophy section, Nelson says, is “not unlike looking for atheists in the Religion section. ... [I]f twenty of the world's most popular epistemologists since Berkeley were made into baseball cards, you might not find a good champion of the vulgar in the pack.”

The problems of postmodern philosophy are the result of modern skeptic and anti-realist philosophers having received too much esteem, Nelson argues, and the reverence for Kant and Hume, but mostly Hume, should take the lion share of the blame.

After all, it was Hume who argued that “our senses offer not their impressions as the images of something distinct, or independent, and external, is evident; because they convey to us nothing but a single perception, and never give us the least intimation of any thing beyond.” What makes us think that the table continues to exist even when we close our eyes or leave the room—in other words, that its existence is independent of a mind perceiving it—is simply the result of some natural habit. Even the slightest “philosophy would render us entirely [skeptical], were not nature too strong for it.”

The author skillfully exposes the fallacies of radical skepticism and defends naïve realism.

Enamored by Hume, Kant was able to deliver the killer punch to naïve realism. He claimed that our senses can never reveal to us the Ding an sich—the object as it really is. This is so because our senses have an identity of their own. Their structure and mode of operation are like a veil; they give us at best a distorted impression of an object, thus preventing us from seeing it as it really is. And, since we cannot step outside of our minds to verify that when we experience seeing a table, there actually is a table, what we think of as the “real world” might just be a subjective creation of our senses. Says Kant, “[I]f I remove the thinking subject, the whole corporeal world must at once vanish.” As Nelson aptly proves, from effectively abolishing our access to the real world, it is only a hop and a skip to the postmodern view that there is no real world at all.

The really fun part of Nelson's book is the third and fourth chapters of the book, where she skillfully exposes the fallacies of radical skepticism and defends naïve realism. These chapters are written in the form of a Socratic dialogue between a student who has not yet “drunk the Kool-aid” offered by contemporary academic philosophy and a postmodern professor who is positively sloshed from it.

The defense of naïve realism Nelson employs in the dialogue is not explicitly Objectivist and she does not cite Ayn Rand or use her terminology. Nelson primarily relies on reasoning to the best explanation. For the skeptic to throw us off the realist track, there has to be evidence that it is at least as likely that evil demons exist, that brains actually survive in vats, or that supercomputers can create complex human experiences, than that there is an external world which we can come to know through our senses. Given that there is no such evidence, the naïve realist simply has the more plausible explanation.

And that is where Nelson is not in line with Objectivism . Objectivism does not pose realism as the best explanation; rather, it recognizes existence as an axiom. An axiom is a self-evident truth, a foundation of knowledge that requires no proof. Indeed, it cannot be proven. As Ayn Rand wrote in Atlas Shrugged : “An axiom is a statement that identifies the base of knowledge and of any further statement pertaining to that knowledge, a statement necessarily contained in all others, whether any particular speaker chooses to identify it or not.”

Moreover, Ayn Rand recognized that “an axiom is a proposition that defeats its opponents by the fact that they have to accept it and use it in the process of any attempt to deny it.” A skeptic who asks you to prove that an external reality exists and that you can have knowledge of that reality, presupposes the very things he wants you to prove. He presupposes existence, consciousness and knowledge. Why? Because the concept of proof means (1) that something exists as the premises for proof, (2) that by means of that something you can prove something else, (3) that an entity exists that can be conscious of that something, i.e. that you are real and are conscious of reality, and (4) that the skeptic and you both know how to distinguish the proven from the unproven.

In essence, being asked to prove the existence of reality requires that you use non-reality to prove it. The same applies to consciousness. Someone who wants you to prove that you are conscious is asking you to prove it by means of un-consciousness, which is nonsense. Hence, that reality exists and that we can have knowledge of that reality must be treated as axiomatic truths. That is where Objectivism has a leg up on Nelson’s naïve realism.

Nevertheless, though it differs from an Objectivist defense of realism in this crucial respect, I still recommend Nelson’s book as a great introduction to the main arguments of the skeptic/anti-realist and the naïve realist response to them. What I like most about the book is that it is a perfect example of what Nelson thinks doing philosophy should be about. If you agree with Hume that engaging even in the smallest bit of philosophy will turn you into a skeptic about knowledge and reality, then philosophy can be of no guidance for living. Any philosophy that denies reality, or at least closes us off from being able to know an external world, cripples our minds by depriving us of the ability to discover the principles and actions we need to lead a happy life.

In contrast to Hume, Nelson thinks that doing philosophy right helps people to “learn how to reason more carefully, to identify and guard against common fallacies. To check ourselves for consistency. To find plausible beliefs and correct, or at least improve on, them. To combat false and harmful doctrines that people are suffering from. False beliefs are a hazard ... Knowledge, on the other hand, is power."

To empower people to live the good life by engaging in philosophy, philosophers need to attract the “common man's” attention by defending realism and common sense, and they need to do so by writing in an accessible, thought-provoking and engaging manner. Notable examples include Thomas Reid's Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense, pretty much all of Ayn Rand works, and Stephen Hicks' Explaining Postmodernism.

Now we can add Quee Nelson's The Slightest Philosophy as well.

Anja Hartleb is Vice President of Research at Intellectual Takeout. Anja holds a bachelor's of art in philosophy and psychology from Rockford College, a master's in political theory from Northern Illinois University, and a master's in organizational leadership from Gonzaga University. She has taught at Northern Illinois University, worked at the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship at Rockford College, and has been with Intellectual Takeout since the beginning of 2010. Anja grew up behind the Iron Curtain in East Berlin and Moscow.

Anja Hartleb
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Anja Hartleb