Imagination and Reality in Borges’s “The Circular Ruins”

You are enrolled in a class with the highest of stakes. The payoff for success is your existence. Or so it seems. This is a classroom conjured up, along with you and all its other pupils, in the imagination of the man in the circular ruins. Like many of Jorge Luis Borges’s short stories, “The Circular Ruins” explores the boundary between imagination and reality. How much of what we perceive as reality is the product of imagination? And what kind of reality do the objects of our imagination have? What is the nature of the boundary between imagination and reality?

The man in the circular ruins is preoccupied with one great task: “He wanted to dream a man; he wanted to dream him in minute entirety and impose him on reality.” What an audacious task! There would seem to be an immense ontological gulf between these two categories. Reality is the realm where things exist independent of our imagination. Objects in the real world actually have mass and extension in space. The tree falls in the forest whether anyone is there to hear it or not. But imagination is a realm fully dependent on the mind. Our dreams don’t actually exist. How can these dreams possibly pass from the imagination into reality?

But maybe the divide isn’t as sharp as it seems. The tree falling in the forest is the classic, overused and parodied example of the dependence of certain phenomena on a perceiving subject. Does it make a sound without anyone there to hear it? There are vibrations in the surrounding air but these noumena would not become the phenomena of sound to any person because sound is an experience, a quale of a conscious subject. What we perceive as the real world is composed of such qualia and that’s our only way of perceiving it. In other words we only experience reality through our imagination.

From the other side, artifacts like tools, art, music, and literature begin as dreams in the imagination. Through a creative process we give these objects physical form in the real world. A sculpture takes form in stone, a musical composition takes form in thermal energy, a painting takes form in the arrangement of pigments on a canvas. Even then these physical objects require the imagination of the perceiving subject to be understood as more than just objects occupying space, to be perceived as art and artifacts. The dreams of imagination and objects of the physical world overlap.

An eccentric but intriguing idea thrown around among the cognoscenti these days is the possibility that our universe is actually a simulation created by intelligent life in some “higher” universe. What would that make us? Does that mean we don’t live in the “real” world? Borges explores a similar concern in “The Circular Ruins” but in a less technological guise. His version of a simulation is the dream. If you are a subject in someone else’s dream what kind of existence do you really have? One way to collapse the problem is to say that to be the kind of being who can even ask such a question, to be anxious about the nature of your own existence, is to exist in the most significant sense already. Once you are a self-aware entity who can worry about your own existence you simply do exist, in the most meaningful sense. What more could be added to that to make your existence real?

This Borgesian idealism is explored in many of his other works, most explicitly in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, in which Borges refers to the idealist thought of George Berkeley. A classic problem of modern philosophy is what could be called either the hard problem of consciousness or the hard problem of matter, depending on how you approach it. How does our seemingly non-physical consciousness interact with the physical world? The more popular route is to reduce or eliminate consciousness to the material so that there is no more troublesome dualism. The seemingly non-physical aspects of consciousness are illusory, epiphenomena, useful fictions, etc. Another route, taken up be Berkeley is to dispense with the notion of matter instead, to see mind as primary and view matter as the useful fiction. In “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” Borges imagines a world in which people take Berkeley’s idea seriously, in a kind of reductio ad absurdum, to the point that they speak in a language lacking nouns.

Among the entities in the dreams of the man in the circular ruins there seems to be a spectrum of autonomy. Some of his dreamed up entities do no more than parrot his instruction while others challenge him and demonstrate capacity for independent thought. He sees this as a key criterion for assessing their worthiness to be instantiated in reality. “He could expect nothing from those pupils who accepted his doctrine passively, but that he could expect something from those who occasionally dared to oppose him.” Borges makes the intriguing statement that the more autonomous of his dreamed entities “preexistían“; they “pre-existed to a slightly greater degree”. In other words the self-aware ideas in this idealism have some kind of independent existence that the man in the circular ruins apprehends in his imagination. The more autonomous of his dreams are not fully his own creation but existed in some ideal form prior to his dreaming of them.

Where did these ideas come from before he imagined them? One answer available in Borges’s universe is that they existed in “The Library of Babel”, another of Borges’s short stories and probably his most famous. One way to think of the Library of Babel is as a reified, physical instantiation of platonic forms as texts in a library. The library is filled with books of every possible combination of characters. In Borges’s library the books are limited to a certain set and number of characters. But it’s possible to throw out that constraint and imagine a library of infinite possibility where every possible combination of characters is produced in some book somewhere in the library. This would mean that anything you could possibly dream would simply be a reflection of some book somewhere in the Library of Babel. Everything pre-exists there. But crucially, most of the books are absolute nonsense. Hidden among the nonsense there are books with intelligible, meaningful text. But the share of meaningful text in the Library of Babel is infinitesimal.

The autonomous entities dreamed up by the man in the circular ruins, who are able to oppose him, would seem to have a special kind of character that enables them to act independently. They are among the infinite number though infinitesimal portion of books in the Library of Babel with sufficient complexity and coherent structure to endow them with consciousness and self-awareness. What then does it take to impose these entities onto reality? If they pre-existed and already have some kind of independent capacity for thought and anxiety over their own existence what more could be added to make them real? What is it that breathes fire into them to make them living souls?

Steven Hawking asked a similar question of the mathematical structure of the universe. “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a Universe for them to describe?” Max Tegmark posits something analogous to the Library of Babel in abstract space, an infinite library of “mathematical structures” of every possible form, one of which is our own universe. What breathes fire into a mathematical structure and endows it with physical existence are “self-aware substructures” inside the mathematical structure that perceive elements of the structure as physical reality. In other words, the presence of self-aware entities creates what they perceive as physical reality. Nothing more is required than this condition of self-awareness.

The man in the circular ruins labors countless hours to dream a man in the most minute detail. To endow this man with physical existence he must make special supplication to the deities of the ruins. But what is it that the deities can do to make the man more real than he already is? There seems to be one crucial step. Before supplicating the deities “He dreamed an entire man – a young man, but who did not sit up or talk, who was unable to open his eyes. Night after night, the man dreamt him asleep.” After he makes his request to the deities “In the dream of the man that dreamed, the dreamed one awoke.” This awakening is the crucial step. There’s no clothing in earth or matter. It’s simply the awakening of self-awareness. At that point the dreamed one is imposed on reality.

The deities eventually require that the dreamed one be sent off to another temple to repeat the same task as the man in the circular ruins, to create a man of his own. But the man worries that the dreamed one will discover that he is a dream. To all other men the dreamed one appears as a man like any other. Only fire knows his true nature and only fire can reveal it: fire will not consume him. The story concludes when fires approach the circular ruins and the man, having completed his life’s work, submits himself to the flames but then discovers that they do not consume him and that he is himself someone else’s dream. What does this mean for his existence? Is he any less real because someone else is dreaming him? What if the one who is dreaming him is also someone else’s dream and so on, as Borges implies?

What seems crucial in this story is that the capacity for imagination is its own reality. To be the kind of thing that can imagine and be self-aware is already to exist and nothing more is required to breathe life into it. Speculations about our universe as a simulation include the idea that we are several layers below “base reality”. That our simulators are part of a simulation whose simulators are also part of a simulation and so on up to base reality. But what would distinguish this base reality from any other simulated reality? In what sense would entities in that base reality exist that we do not? What is it that makes their physical reality more real than ours? Certainly there would be a difference of some kind but it wouldn’t seem to be a difference in the nature of our self-awareness. That would seem to be the same in all levels of reality.

It may just be that we are the dreamers, dreaming ourselves into existence. If the idea of the conscious self is a useful fiction it is certainly quite useful indeed. Perceptions are undoubtedly occurring and it’s much easier for these perceptions to have some single, stable reference point to give them continuous and coherent structure.

The problem of course is that this is viciously circular. How can an entity dream itself into existence as unified prior to its unification? Some form of pre-existence seems to be necessary, on some kind of stable substrate from the outside. If the universe is a simulation the information content of our self-aware substructures subsists in this simulation. In traditional Christianity, supplemented by Neoplatonic thought, we subsist as ideas in the mind of God. And in Borges’s universe these same ideas subsist as books on the shelves of the Library of Babel. In the end the differences between these metaphors are perhaps less significant than their similarities. Among the books stacked in the shelves of the Library of Babel some infinitesimal but infinite number will have the complexity and coherence to dream and dream of themselves as living souls.

Review of Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Analysis

 

Carl Sagan said in his classic television series, Cosmos, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” That line kept coming to mind as I read Roger Scruton’s Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation. If you wish to understand sexual desire, you must first understand human nature. Scruton investigates sexual desire by developing an understanding of its foundation in our lived experience, our first-person perspective. The essential feature of sexual desire in Scruton’s view is its interpersonal nature.

Scruton begins by distinguishing his approach from what could be called the third-person perspective of science, particularly evolutionary science, in its approach to sexuality. Scruton is emphatically not opposed to the scientific approach and accepts as fact humanity’s evolutionary heritage. Humans are animals and can be understood as products of physical, biological, and genetic factors. But this view of human nature does not exhaust everything that can be said about it. Science may look at human behavior and posit explanatory theories without looking into the reasons humans give for their own behavior. But human behavior can also be understood from a first-person perspective and a second-person perspective. Why am I doing what I am doing? Why are you doing what you are doing? And this is the natural way we understand our own behavior and interact with each other. This kind of first-person approach is in the philosophical tradition of phenomenology and Scruton calls this world of lived experience the Lebenswelt, (life-world) a term used by the founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl. In another work Scruton has named this approach of seeing one reality in two ways “cognitive dualism”, which he contrasts with ontological dualism. While these two approaches may be largely non-overlapping there are instances in his view where one may intrude onto the other illegitimately. Sociobiology and Freudian psychology are two fields he believes commit this error by attempting to explain away the first-person perspective through excessive reduction.

The experience of sexual desire from this first-person perspective is grounded in the interpersonal encounter. Sexual desire is not merely a need for mechanical stimulation of erogenous zones in the body. It is rather dependent on an awareness of the self-consciousness of another person. The look of desire is imbued with a sense of reflexivity in “me seeing you seeing me”. Further, Scruton takes Hegel’s view that this kind of exchange between two persons is the ultimate basis for self-consciousness, we develop a sense of self when confronted with the otherness of another self. Because of this, sexual desire is tied to our deepest source of self-identity, a point which heightens its moral significance. The body is not unimportant in sexual desire. It is of critical importance. But rather than being the singular focus of sexual desire the body is the way a person is desired. Scruton refers to this as “embodiment”. A body is not desired for its own sake but is desired as the self-conscious person.

Scruton’s phenomenological, first-person perspective is by nature subjective. This is both its strength and weakness. The weakness is that the lived experience it points to is not something accessible by methods of science, with its standards of testability and falsifiability. The account he gives relies on the reader to weigh it against his own lived experience. This may not be as satisfying as the objective features of the world which we can measure, irrespective of who is doing the measuring. But there is no other way to talk about such things. And this is the strength of the approach. The features of the life-world Scruton picks out are not objective but they are, if an accurate description of that experience, incorrigible; your immediate experience cannot be inaccurate about your immediate experience, whatever else it may be inaccurate about. Scruton is at pains to stress that he is not endorsing a completely separate inner world that is only comprehensible to the individual, what Wittgenstein called a “private language”. But he does avail himself of the notion that one’s own first-person perspective is authoritative for that perspective. It may be possible still to be dishonest when communicating that experience to others but it is not possible to be mistaken about immediate experience. That is a strength for his argument if his account is accurate.

If it is true to lived experience that the interpersonal encounter is the core of sexual desire this has certain implications for sexual well-being and morality. And sexual well-being and morality are essentially coincident with each other. Sexual experiences that lack this interpersonal character are at least deficient compared to those that have it. At worst, sexual activities divorced from interpersonal interaction can be harmful to one’s ability to have or enjoy the deeper interpersonal interactions of healthy sexuality. Inferior sexual behavior can be literally impersonal, such as with masturbation, or effectively impersonal, as when a person is treated not as a self-conscious subject but as an object, as with pornography for example.

Scruton arrives at fairly conservative positions on sexual morality and sexuality generally. But his approach is neither theological nor traditional by necessity. He contends that the norms of traditional sexual morality need not be absurd even though there may be no God who forbids them. But although his approach is not theological it is not atheistic either. Rather, he seeks to build a logical argument for sexual morality independent of theology and tradition, though he admits that these are the means through which they are almost always learned in practice. Though he does not put it this way explicitly it could be said that he is getting behind the norms of theology and tradition to illuminate the reasons for them; God’s reasons for willing what He wills, as one scholar has put it.

This gets to what I see as the value of this kind of investigation. No one needed a philosopher to tell them that sexuality is important. But beyond that fact there is a lot of confusion about the role of sex in human life. It is not clear that reliance on tradition or theology will any longer be adequate for various reasons. For one thing, both religion and tradition are open to challenge. The multiplicity of religions and traditions in a globalized world are also incompatible and lead to different conclusions. For example, both monogamy and female genital mutilation are traditionally and religiously enjoined, but I believe the second of these is horribly wrong. There needs to be some way to understand sexuality and communicate about it across different religions and traditions. A philosophical investigation, working down to the first-person human experience is a method to start from something as general, but foundational, as human nature and understand sexuality in that context.

Review: Ian Shapiro’s The Moral Foundations of Politics

shapiro moral foundations of politicsIan Shapiro’s The Moral Foundations of Politics is a book I first read in 2012 but have revisited many times since. There are benefits to reviewing a book after the first read, while it is fresh and new in the mind. But there are also benefits to reviewing a book after giving it time to settle, a few years even in this case. I first discovered Shapiro through his Open Yale course of the same name. This review will basically apply to that course as well. And the Yale course makes for a good (and free) audiobook version even though it’s not identical.

Shapiro sets out to ask and answer the most foundational question of political philosophy: “When do governments merit our allegiance, and when should they be denied it? This most enduring of political dilemmas motivates our inquiry.” His inquiry proceeds historically, though not always chronologically, from the Age of Enlightenment to the present day. The Enlightenment is the backdrop of the for the whole book. The project passes through three major conceptual stages:

1. Enlightenment
2. Anti-Enlightenment
3. Mature Enlightenment

Enlightenment

Shapiro defines the Enlightenment thinking as a “faith in the power of human reason to understand the true nature of our circumstances and ourselves.” This is what he calls the early Enlightenment, later distinguished from the mature Enlightenment. The Enlightenment is exceptionally optimistic about the possibility of reason and science to answer all natural and human questions. A comprehensive and rational understanding of the world and man will enable man to design systems of good government from first principles. It will not be necessary to rely on tradition, religion, or preference for one’s ethnic group. Through reason, the solutions of the Enlightenment will be universal and independent of cultural, religious, or ethnic particularities.Shapiro includes as part of the Enlightenment systems of thought as diverse as social contract theory, utilitarianism, and Marxism.

The social contract thinkers discussed in the book include John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Rawls, and Robert Nozick. Shapiro frames the foundations of  early social contract in natural law and what he calls the “workmanship ideal”. This workmanship ideal has a theological basis in God’s creation of the world. Shapiro argues that as social contract theories and other Enlightenment theories move away from the theological foundations of Locke’s theory they have a challenge to ground their theories in some other way.

Shapiro focuses on two major utilitarian thinkers: Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. There is an interesting section on the differences between Bentham’s classical utilitarianism and Mill’s neoclassical utilitarianism. This section delves into the economic theory and mathematical models produced by Vilfredo Pareto. While Bentham’s classical utilitarianism allows for interpersonal comparisons of utility the theories of Pareto and Mill do not. This has interesting consequences for redistributive politics.

Marxism might seem an odd theory to include in the Enlightenment along with social contract theory and utilitarianism. But Shapiro argues that it has a similar motivation to create a system of political organization through rational and scientific principles. Marx thought himself to be very scientific in his approach, focusing exclusively on material factors in his theory of history. That his theories are largely regarded today as pseudoscience does not change the fact that they aspired to be scientific.

Anti-Enlightenment

In a very interesting chapter Shapiro reviews many of the challenges to Enlightenment thought in thinkers like Edmund Burke, Alasdair MacIntyre, Richard Rorty, Jean-François Lyotard, Michael Sandel, and Michael Walzer. All are quite diverse but have a common distrust in the confidence of the Enlightenment to provide a foundation for all philosophical and political questions. And on this point they are quite right. The early Enlightenment was vulnerable in its own outsized ambition.

In After Virtue Alasdair MacIntyre worked his way backward in time from the interminable and irresolvable moral and political disputes of the present to their roots in the Enlightenment. In a chapter titled Why the Enlightenment Project of Justying Morality Had to Fail MacIntyre analyzes the theoretical difficulties of attempts by Kant and Hume to justify moral values while prescinding from any sort of tradition or narrative. MacIntyre argues that the failure of the Enlightenment project leads to the irrationality of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.

Mature Enlightenment

Shapiro does not deny that the Anti-Enlightenment critiques have merit. But he does argue that they go too far: “Rorty and other postmodernists move too quickly from this compelling critique of the early Enlightenment obsession with foundational certainty to the wholesale abandonment of the idea that science can and should aspire to get at the truth more reliably than opinion, convention, superstition, or tradition. Under the strong influence of the later writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rorty embraces his idea that truth is nothing more than adherence to the rules of a language game—the norms and conventions we have come to accept. So Rorty defines truth in terms of social consensus and ‘solidarity’ and rationality as ‘civility’—the result of conversational agreement.”

Rather than abandon the scientific outlook tout court Shapiro follows another path toward what he calls the mature Enlightenment and democracy. The scientific outlook of this mature Enlightenment is a fallibilistic science: “This rests on an inherently critical stance toward all putative knowledge claims. It involves recognizing that although the best evidence may suggest that x is the case, there is always the chance that we are wrong, and that, if future research proves that we are, then this will be because the world operates different from how we think presently. Science advances, on this view, not by making knowledge more certain but by producing more knowledge. That knowledge-claims are recognized always to be corrigible is a mark of science’s superiority to opinion, convention, superstition, and tradition, not its equivalence to them.”

This difference, the introduction of fallibilism, addresses one of the critiques from Anti-Enlightenment which is most poignant to modern minds, the danger of authoritarian hyper-confidence. I like the way Shapiro put this in one of his Yale course lectures:

“Many years ago when I was teaching this course, before I had written Democratic Justice, and indeed one of the events that caused me to write it was a question from a student in the class. I had been teaching Rawls and I had gone through the principles, the difference principle and all of that, and I had explained that Rawls was the most influential political philosopher of his generation, and that this theory of justice had completely revolutionized modern political philosophy. And this student put up their hand and said, ‘Professor Shapiro, now that Rawls’s theory has been established, why hasn’t The Constitution been changed to include it?’ and many of the students in the class laughed. And they laughed why? Does anyone have a guess? Why do you think people laughed? It seemed like a naïve question, why though? John Rawls got the answer, so our Constitution doesn’t reflect that answer, why haven’t they changed it?… So let’s suppose it’s true that Rawls got the right answer, and Nozick didn’t, and Dworkin didn’t, and Shapiro didn’t. Rawls got the right answer. He solved the problem. Why don’t we just implement it? This was, after all, what Bentham thought. Bentham thought he’d figured it all out and he went running around the world with his constitutions and was deeply disappointed when countries wouldn’t adopt them. Why do we resist this idea?”

In the Twentieth Century such uncompromising and confident implementation did occur many times, though it was more Marx’s  rather than Rawls’s system that was implemented. And the effects were disastrous. The mature Enlightenment is tempered against such extremism:

“If there are indisputable right answers to questions concerning how the state should be organized and what policies it should pursue, then it makes sense to give political power to those who know the answers, be they philosopher kings, utilitarian calculators, or ideological leaders of a revolutionary working class party. By contrast, although the mature Enlightenment view of science does not go all the way with the postmodern critique, it differs from early Enlightenment views in recognizing that knowledge claims are invariably corrigible and subject to revision. Moreover, from the perspective of the mature Enlightenment we are bound to recognize that enduring differences of value and interest mean that in politics there will always be people with incentives to misrepresent and obscure the truth. As a result, partisans of the mature Enlightenment have good reasons for skepticism of all forms of political vanguardism.”

In view of the fallibilism of the mature Enlightenment the superior path is not the implementation of any of the systems derived from first principles but rather democracy. The key notion of democracy according to Shapiro is that “governments are legitimate when those who are affected by decisions play an appropriate role in making them.” The values of science and rationality are not absent under democracy but neither are they supreme. Rather they are used as tools in the democratic processes and indeed should be used in that process. Shapiro’s review of democratic theory includes the work of James Madison, Joseph Schumpeter, and Alexis de Tocqueville. He also review classical theories or Plato and Aristotle, which presented important challenges to democracy.

What distinguishes the democratic views of Rorty and Shapiro is the place of science and reason. Though written in 2003 The Moral Foundations of Politics has special relevance after 2016. In a time when tribalism, ethnic conflict, racial tension, censorial political correctness, and general illiberalism seem to be asserted in many corners the need for a return to Enlightenment principles is all the more urgent. There may seem to be some plausibility today to the notion that truth is nothing more than an assertion of power. But giving in to this notion would be a mistake. Rationality is still the best path forward. Shapiro’s book makes that important case well.