“Could anything truly exist in such a fashion that it could never be either perceived or thought of, even if only in principle? How would such a reality be distinct from absolute nothingness?”
This is a question posed by David Bentley Hart in his recent book You Are Gods: On Nature and Supernature. I think it’s an interesting question and it touches on some of the most foundational issues in philosophy.
I’ll call that which could never be either perceived or thought of the “intelligible remainder”. It’s that which is left unperceived and unknown in all our perception and knowledge of things because it is intrinsically imperceptible, unknowable, and unintelligible to intelligent beings. To frame this idea it’s helpful to refer to the philosophy of John Locke and Immanuel Kant. The concepts of subject and object are important to both. Philosophically, a subject is a being who has a unique consciousness and unique personal experiences. An object is something that the subject observes, perceives, or relates to in some way. Both Locke and Kant concerned themselves with how thinking subjects relate to the objects of their experience, and in particular the limitations, or unintelligible remainder, of the subject’s grasp of the object.
In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding John Locke introduced what he called the primary and secondary qualities of things. As an example, for a light wave or a sound wave one primary quality would be its wavelength. Those are things that are in the objects themselves, independent of our perceptions of them. A secondary quality, by contrast, would be like the color of light or the pitch of a sound. These secondary qualities are not in the objects themselves but are products of our modes of perception. Secondary qualities are our own quirky human ways of perceiving things.
Immanuel Kant had some similar ideas. Instead of primary and secondary qualities, in his Critique of Pure Reason he used the terms noumena and phenomena. The noumenon is the thing-in-itself, the object as it really is, independent of our perception. The phenomenon is what we perceive of it. Kant stressed that we cannot know the noumena, the things themselves as they really are. We can only know the phenomena. Our knowledge of the world outside our heads is necessarily filtered or mediated.
Sometimes you might hear this in the form of the claim that we never actually see things themselves. What’s really happening is our brains are responding to a series of physical processes and biochemical reactions, as photons impinge on our retina and induce phototransduction in photoreceptor cells, resulting in a cascade of signals carried via the optic nerve to the visual cortex, and so on. In effect we are several layers of mediation removed from the world outside our heads. And a lot is left out in the process of translation.
What I call the unintelligible remainder is a feature of this kind of philosophy in which there is a gulf between things in themselves and our perceptions of them. There’s always something inaccessible to us. A remainder that is inaccessible or unintelligible. To put it in the form of a conceptual equation.
Things In Themselves – Our Perceptions of the Them = The Unintelligible Remainder
The unintelligible remainder is what’s left over; the aspect of things that remains inaccessible and unintelligible to us. What would that unintelligible remainder be? Well, it’s impossible to say because it’s intrinsically inaccessible and unintelligible to us. But then there’s another question. Why should we think that there is such an intelligible remainder? Why should we think that any such remainder exists if it’s something we can never really know anything about?
Let’s break such remainders down into two different types:
1. Things that we don’t know about but could know about
2. Things that we don’t know about and never could know about
How different are these? Maybe the difference is slight. Or maybe it’s huge, even ontological.
We can reason inductively that there are a lot of things that we don’t know about but that we could know about because in the past there have been things that we didn’t know about at one point but later came to know about.
For example, even though we’ve always been able to see light and color we weren’t always aware of the quantifiable spectrum of wavelengths, and that it extended into wavelengths that we can’t see with our eyes, like with infrared and ultraviolet wavelengths. But we can quantify and detect those wavelengths now. The fields of optics and quantum mechanics have further increased our understanding of light.
We can reason that we will continue to come to know about more things that we don’t currently know about. For example, we’ll certainly continue to learn more about the nature of light. Such things are obviously knowable and intelligible because we have come to know about them.
But we can’t reason inductively in the same way about things that we could never know about. Trivially, we’ve never come to know about something that is unknowable. Obviously. Why should we think that such unknowable things exist as an unintelligible remainder?
I think the reasoning about these two kinds of remainders is quite different so I want to dwell on this difference for a bit.
In the case of things that we don’t know about but could know about, we can reason that such things exist through inductive reasoning. We know this is how things have worked in the past. There have been aspects of things that we didn’t know about before that we’ve come to know about later. For any particular thing we can’t conclude deductively that there’s nothing left about it that we don’t know. But we kind of expect that there’s more there because that’s how it’s always been before.
But this kind of inductive reasoning doesn’t work for things that we don’t know about and never could know about. Why is that? Because we’ve never come to know about something that we could never know about. So it’s completely different.
But we kind of want to say still that things exist that we could never know about. Or that there are aspects of things that we could never know about. Why is that? Part of it may be a spill-over effect of our inductive reasoning about things that we didn’t know about but later came to know about. It seems like if there’s all this unknown stuff there should be stuff that we could never know about. And maybe there is a lot of stuff that we never will know about. But that’s different from stuff that we never could know about. Maybe another reason is humility, recognition of our own finitude and limited capacities. Humility is certainly admirable. But I’m not sure it’s enough to make that kind of positive claim. The only way I can see that we could really conclude that there do exist such unknowables would be some kind of indirect argument of impossibility, similar to the halting problem or Gödel’s incompleteness theorems. I don’t know of any such argument of impossibility for unintelligible remainders but it’s an intriguing possibility.
What about the alternative possibility that there is no unintelligible remainder? That everything that exists is intrinsically intelligible and could be perceived and thought of? Are there reasons to think that could be the case?
We can call the foregoing picture with Locke and Kant one of the “Cartesian subject”, which owes its name to the philosopher Rene Descartes. The basic model is of me here “inside” my head as a thinking subject, receiving sense data from objects “outside” in the world. So there’s this stark division between subject and object. This model of the Cartesian subject is quite powerful and intuitive. And it fits with the idea that there is an unintelligible remainder to the objects in the outside world, albeit inconclusively as previously discussed. But there are alternatives. I’ll talk about two: the philosophy of Martin Heidegger and the classical philosophy of Logos.
Martin Heidegger was working out of the field of phenomenology, which is the philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness. But his primary focus was ontology, the philosophy of being. His work was an effort to explain the meaning of being, what it means for a thing to be. In Being and Time he first approached this question through the being of human beings, what he called “Dasein”, a German neologism for “there being”. He discarded the concept of the Cartesian subject, a subject separated from the world of objects, with its split between subject and object. Instead, for Heidegger we are “being in the world”.
The philosophy of Being and Time and Heidegger’s later philosophy is extremely vast so I’m only sticking to a few key points related to my topic. One way he describes being is as disclosure, as things being revealed. Many of his circumlocutions have the effect of keeping the active role away from any kind of Cartesian subject. Instead of us as subjects perceiving objects there is disclosure and being revealing things. Another interesting concept of his is the “clearing”, like a clearing in the woods. In the dense forest it is dark and obscure but in the clearing there is space to see things. I am like a clearing in the woods, a site of disclosure and revealing, where things are revealed around me. It’s a very unusual way of speaking but these circumlocutions have the aim of directing our thinking away from the subject-object split.
Another important Heideggerian idea is that the disclosure of being to us comes in terms of our projects and interests. Things like tools are disclosed to us in the first place as tools rather than as atomic facts that we then deduce to be tools in a secondary way. Heidegger’s example is a hammer. In the Kantian view we’d receive raw sense data, percepts, that our minds would use “categories”, sort of like mental modules, to process into concepts. We’d see the raw sense data first and then our minds would process that it is a hammer. But Heidegger rejects that idea. For Heidegger we’re not isolated in our own minds looking out at the world, receiving raw sense impressions. We’re already in the world. We’re already in the workshop, smelling the sawdust, engaged in the activity of building something. The hammer is a tool for hammering as part of our project. We may not even “see” it when we’re using it if we’re really in the zone. It’s just part of a seamless flow of activity. This is a very different way of thinking.
One of the fascinating things about this is that it has very tangible implications in the field of artificial intelligence. If you think about the different approaches I’ve described here you can imagine that it will make a really big difference whether you approach AI in a Lockean, Kantian way versus a Heideggerian way. And I think this is actually one of the best ways to approach Heidegger’s thought. One of the major players in 20th century artificial intelligence was the Heideggerian philosopher Hubert Dreyfus. Here’s his account:
“In 1963 I was invited by the RAND Corporation to evaluate the pioneering work of Alan Newell and Herbert Simon in a new field called Cognitive Simulation (CS). Newell and Simon claimed that both digital computers and the human mind could be understood as physical symbol systems, using strings of bits or streams of neuron pulses as symbols representing the external world. Intelligence, they claimed, merely required making the appropriate inferences from these internal representations… As I studied the RAND papers and memos, I found to my surprise that, far from replacing philosophy, the pioneers in CS had learned a lot, directly and indirectly from the philosophers. They had taken over Hobbes’ claim that reasoning was calculating, Descartes’ mental representations, Leibniz’s idea of a ‘universal characteristic’ – a set of primitives in which all knowledge could be expressed, – Kant’s claim that concepts were rules, Frege’s formalization of such rules, and Russell’s postulation of logical atoms as the building blocks of reality. In short, without realizing it, AI researchers were hard at work turning rationalist philosophy into a research program.”
“…I began to suspect that the critical insights formulated in existentialist armchairs, especially Heidegger’s and Merleau-Ponty’s, were bad news for those working in AI laboratories – that, by combining rationalism, representationalism, conceptualism, formalism, and logical atomism into a research program, AI researchers had condemned their enterprise to reenact a failure.”
“…To say a hammer has the function of being for hammering leaves out the defining relation of hammers to nails and other equipment, to the point of building things, and to the skills required when actually using the hammer – all of which reveal the way of being of the hammer which Heidegger called readiness-to-hand.”
“…It seemed to me, however, that the deep problem wasn’t storing millions of facts; it was knowing which facts were relevant in any given situation. One version of this relevance problem was called ‘the frame problem.’ If the computer is running a representation of the current state of the world and something in the world changes, how does the program determine which of its represented facts can be assumed to have stayed the same, and which would have to be updated?”
I think that’s quite fascinating and one of the best examples I’m aware of where we can see that the opaque writing of a Continental philosopher is not just meaningless gibberish or gratuitous navel gazing without any actual implications. If we ever end up creating artificial intelligence with true self-consciousness – and I think we will – I suspect that one of these approaches will work and the other will not. And in the process that will tell us a lot about the generalized nature of self-consciousness as such, including the nature of our own self-consciousness. It may also tell us about the nature of being itself, what it means for things to be.
How does this relate to the question of the unintelligible remainder? I don’t think Heideggerian ontology addresses that as much as the approach I’ll be talking about next but I think there are some interesting things here to think about. What I see with Heidegger isn’t as much the elimination of a remainder as much as the presence of certain indispensables. And these are indispensables that in other frameworks seem less real or fundamental to the being of things; in other words, quite dispensable. We might think that what a hammer “really” is is a meaningless collocation of atoms. But in Heidegger’s ontology this is not how the being of the hammer is revealed to us. Far from it. That may not seem like a big deal. Why should the way we see things be so important or say anything about the way things really are? But here I’d go back to AI. For a self-conscious AI certain things are going to be indispensable for it to make its way around in the world. AI without the indispensables won’t work. And I’d say that’s because it won’t approach the world correctly. A self-conscious AI will have to see the world in terms of projects, activities, and interests, populated with things in terms of these interests. Those are the indispensables that make up the reality of our world. So in a reverse sort of way it may be that the Lockean-Kantian approach does have a remainder that the Heiderggerian approach is able to account for.
The second alternative to the Cartesian subject I’d like to talk about is the classical philosophy of Logos. I talked about this in some detail in a previous episode, “Logos: The Intellectual Structure of Being”. Logos has its roots in Greek philosophy but has since been most developed in Christian philosophy. The two philosopher-theologians I’ll refer to here are Joseph Ratzinger and David Bentley Hart.
Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, gave an excellent overview of Logos in his book Introduction to Christianity, in which he calls Logos the “intellectual structure of being”. He says, “All being is a product of thought and, indeed, in its innermost structure is itself thought.” What implication does this have for the way we perceive and understand things? Ratzinger says: “There is also expressed the perception that even matter is not simply non-sense that eludes understanding, that it too bears in itself truth and comprehensibility that makes intellectual comprehension possible.” That’s the key. With the Logos all of reality is intellectual or, in other words, thought. There can be no unintelligible remainder to things when all of reality is itself thought in its innermost structure.
The process of perceiving the world in this view is not one of processing mere matter with our mental faculties. It’s a process that is parallel to the structure of reality itself. As Ratzinger says: “All our thinking is, indeed, only a rethinking of what in reality has already been thought out beforehand.” As we conceive of the world through thought we are retracing the thought that comprises its essence. “The intellectual structure that being possesses and that we can re-think is the expression of a creative pre-meditation, to which they owe their existence.”
Does this kind of intellectual structure to all of reality entail the existence of God? Ultimately it may. But I think there are a couple other ways to think about it. Consider three possibilities:
1. The rationality of reality is a conditional property, conditional on there being intelligent beings in reality.
2. The rationality of reality is independent of any intelligent beings.
3. The rationality of reality is the rationality of a mind that grounds reality.
Only the third requires God.
In the first option the rationality of reality is a conditional feature, a feature that reality would have if certain conditions were met, even if they are not otherwise actualized. Something of the form:
1. IF there are intelligent beings in reality.
2. AND IF any existing intelligent beings obtain some degree of accurate understanding of reality.
3. THEN such intelligent beings will find reality to be intelligible and rational.
This is probably the option that seems most immediately plausible and straightforward.
The second option moves away from a subjective understanding of rationality to an objective understanding. We can think of this just as consistency. For intelligent beings instrumental rationality is consistency between actions and intentions. But apart from intelligent beings we could think of consistency between states of affairs. At a most basic level, noncontradiction. For some state of affairs, S, it won’t be the case that both S and not-S.
Ratzinger calls this kind of objective consistency “objective mind”. There is at least an “as-if” quality to the intelligibility of reality. It is structured “as if” rationally constructed. I think it’s possible to work within that framework. But ultimately I follow Ratzinger in his view that “objective mind is the product of subjective mind and can only exist at all as the declension of it, that, in other words, being-thought (as we find it present in the structure of the world) is not possible without thinking.”
Let’s turn now to David Bentley Hart and his discussion of this in his book You Are Gods. He says:
“We are accustomed, here in modernity’s evening twilight, to conceive of our knowledge of the world principally as a regime of representation, according to which sensory intuitions are transformed into symbolic images by some kind of neurological and perceptual metabolism, and then subjected to whatever formal conceptual determinations our transcendental apperception and apparatus of perception might permit.”
This is a restatement of the fundamental problem at hand. As a thinking subject, I’m stuck inside my head, separated from the world out there, receiving and processing raw sense data, and trying to come up with a picture of the objects out in the world as best I can. But that picture is always incomplete and eludes intelligibility. As Hart says:
“Being in itself possesses an occult adversity or resistance to being known. All that we experience in experiencing the world, then, is an obscure, logically inexplicable, but unremitting correspondence between mind and world, one whose ontological basis is not a presumed primordial identity between them, but rather something like a pre-established harmony or purely fortuitous synchrony—or inexplicably coherent illusion.”
Some opaque language here but I’ll explain. What Hart calls the “occult adversity or resistance to being known” is what I’m calling the unintelligible remainder. As I sit isolated inside my head looking out into the world putting a picture of it together, the picture that I see has order and regularity. But why? Ratzinger says it’s because the world is intrinsically rational. If that were not the case the order and regularity would be remarkable indeed. This is what Hart means when he says it would be “purely fortuitous synchrony–or inexplicably coherent illusion.” But Hart rejects that idea and, like Ratzinger, sees reality as intrinsically rational. Like Ratzinger he understands our perception and knowledge of things to be a process that is parallel to the structure of reality itself.
“Mind and world must belong to one another from the first, as flowing from and continuously participating in a single source.”
“Being and knowing must, then, coincide in some principle of form.”
Being and knowing are fundamentally linked in such a way that ontology, the philosophy of being, and epistemology, the philosophy of knowledge, “coincide as a single event of manifestation, of Being’s disclosure, which is to say also, of the full existence of what is made manifest.” There are some interesting similarities here with Heidegger in Hart’s idea of the “disclosure” of Being. In Hart’s view, being and knowing are ultimately one and the same. He’s very skeptical of the idea that the way things “really” are is something intrinsically unintelligible that we could never access or perceive.
“Under the regime of representation, the intelligible is a veil drawn before the abyss of the unintelligible, and the unintelligible is more real than the intelligible.”
This is the view he is going to criticize. That the unintelligible is more real than the intelligible.
“But what would it really mean to say that something exists that is, of its nature, alien to intelligibility? Can Being and knowing be wholly severed from one another without creating an intolerable contradiction? Could anything truly exist in such a fashion that it could never be either perceived or thought of, even if only in principle?”
“In principle” is a modifier that should not be overused but I think it’s appropriate here. The issue is not whether something currently is or can be perceived and thought of by finite human beings. As I said before, there’s been a lot of stuff that we haven’t been able to perceive or know about in the past that we’ve since gained the ability to perceive or know about by extending the reach of our innate capacities. Our innate capacities are the same as those of our ancestors 10,000 years ago. The things that are, in fact, perceivable and knowable to us were, in principle, perceivable and knowable to them. By analogy, there are things that are, in principle, perceivable and knowable to us that are not currently perceivable and knowable to us, in fact. With that in mind, Hart is asking if, with this most expansive possible understanding of the perceptive and intellectual capacities of intelligent beings, could anything exist that eludes them? That would be the unintelligible reminder. And he asks:
“How would such a reality be distinct from absolute nothingness?”
I’ll bring up again my distinction between things that we don’t know about but could know about and things that we don’t know about and never could know about. Certainly the first of these is distinct from absolute nothingness. We can reasonably conclude by inductive reasoning that lots of things exist that we don’t know about. But we cannot conclude with that same kind of inductive logic that there are things that exist that we never could know about. We might want to say that there are such unknowables out of humility. Or maybe we can reason toward their existence through some kind of argument of impossibility. But Hart thinks that: “The more rational assumption is… that in fact mind and world must belong to one another from the first, as flowing from and continuously participating in a single source.”
“It certainly seems reasonable to assume that Being must also be manifestation, that real subsistence must also be real disclosure, that to exist is to be perceptible, conceivable, knowable, and that to exist fully is to be manifest to consciousness.”
Why is that the more rational assumption? Hart doesn’t really explain that but I don’t disagree. Everything we do know about the world indicates that it is rationally structured and we have no knowledge of anything that isn’t. That’s not an absolutely conclusive reason but I think it’s a compelling reason to think that everything that exists is rationally structured, perceivable, and intelligible.
“So long as any absolute qualitative disproportion remains between Being and knowing, then, Being cannot become manifest, and so is not. Being must be intelligible, or even intelligibility itself. The perfectly unintelligible is a logical and ontological contradiction.”
There are some interesting ideas here that I think could use some further development. If the perfectly unintelligible, what I’ve been calling the unintelligible remainder, really is a logical and ontological contradiction that would be a compelling refutation of the existence of the unintelligible remainder. It looks like that argument for such logical and ontological contradiction would involve a demonstration of the necessary connection between being and manifestation, or being and disclosure as Heidegger put it. That what it means for something to be is a process of unconcealment and disclosure.
So going back to the opening question. “Could anything truly exist in such a fashion that it could never be either perceived or thought of, even if only in principle?” Is there an ineliminable, unintelligible remainder to all our knowledge and perception? I don’t think there is. I suspect that a great deal falls into the class of things that we don’t know about. Probably the vast majority of the things that make up reality. Nevertheless, I think they are all things that we don’t know about but could know about because all of reality is rationally structured and mind and world, thought and being, flow in parallel from the same source.