01 February 2013

How to Explain Philosophy

Andrew Paul Wood

Fate & Philosophy: A Journey Through Life’s Great Questions, by Jim Flynn (Awa Press, 2012), 250 pp., $32.99.

If The Torchlight List of good books may be glossed as Emeritus Professor Jim Flynn’s genially Quixotic attempt to out-Bloom Harold Bloom’s magisterial Western Canon, then Flynn’s Fate & Philosophy: A Journey Through Life’s Great Questions could be described as a cross between Boethius’ The Consolations of Philosophy and some Alain de Botton pabulum mash-up for the masses. Flynn was Head of the Politics Department at the University of Otago for what seems like forever, has been profiled by Scientific American, and even campaigned to enter Parliament as an Alliance candidate for North Dunedin in 1993 and 1996. Apparently he has written a book of poetry too, somewhere along the line. Perhaps best known round the world for his research into IQ (The Flynn Effect is the proven continual increase in intelligence test scores internationally from circa 1930 to the present day), and the rather unfortunate misrepresentation put about by some dunderheads in the mainstream media that he was pro-eugenics, Flynn is no fool – though like Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane or Saint Thomas, he has doubted. As he says: ‘Today is my seventy-seventh birthday, so it has taken sixty-five years to replace Catholicism with a personal philosophy I can live with. This book is intended to give you a head start.’
             Cheers mate, but I’d kinda worked that out for myself at my Catholic high school when I found myself disagreeing with the Church’s stance on contraception, homosexuality, women and rather a lot else, but thanks for the concern. That said, I didn’t particularly feel need to fill the vacuum left by one dogma with another. I’m a bit ad hoc that way.
            Certainly Fate & Philosophy (Faith & Philosophy?) has its uses. It offers a very reasonable introduction to a few of of the problems and paradoxes of moral philosophy, but by no means is it a broad overview. Names whiz past like BMWs overtaking a Skoda on the autobahn, so that one gets the impression that it is assumed the reader will have some prior knowledge of the theories of the best of European thinkers: Plato, John Stuart Mill or Nietzsche – a dangerous assumption for a book intended for the local popular market. Names are dropped and schools of thought are alluded to in broad brushstrokes, but with very little in the way of historical or broader theoretical context until later in the book, if at all – which is actually somewhat frustrating, as one tries to orientate one’s self. Worse, he seems to swap sides in mid-flow, a confusing rhetorical flourish for the newbies this book is supposedly aimed at. Really, one would expect an experienced lecturer to know better.
            And then there is the mysterious jabber encapsulated in text boxes, which are borderline incoherent – except I rather gather that Flynn really, really doesn’t like Jacques Derrida for being iffy about science; and he finds weaknesses in Ludwig Wittgenstein, which is pretty remarkable given the many brainiacs who haven’t managed to wrap their cerebella around Wittgenstein’s aphoristically dense writing at all — the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is hardly bedtime reading — though given the little digs Flynn makes about the eccentric Austrian, one can’t help but wonder if it is more the case that he just has no patience with the contrarian historical personage who stalked the halls of the University of Cambridge.
            Another big negative is that one is left in no doubt that Flynn believes his interpretation of the live minefield of moral philosophy is the only one right and true one, which is somewhat absolutist. Flynn’s writing brooks no arguments and clearly comes from the perspective that everything is cut and dried in many areas (at least for Flynn), particularly in his rejection of moral objectivism and his tendency to get stuck into the religious whenever the opportunity avails itself (which is ironic given the weird photo of a woman wearing angel wings, climbing some stairs on the cover – what is that supposed to mean?). There is little discussion of alternative views or competing theories: for just one example, Flynn is openly dismissive of Compatibalists  — the cool kids call it ‘soft determinism’ —  the belief that free will and determinism are compatible ideas, not that Flynn really seems to state that as clearly as he might. Compatibilists believe free will has bugger-all to do with metaphysics. Courts of Law, for example, don’t need to invoke philosophy. So, basically, Flynn is saying the Stoics, Hume, Hobbes, and Schopenhauer were all talking out their arses.
            In summary, from the outset we are bludgeoned with the World According to Flynn. The whole tone of the book strongly hints that while some of these questions have baffled the greatest minds for millennia, we are indeed blessed to live in the era of Flynn, who has solved many of the conundrums of the ages to his own satisfaction and now, generously, will explain them to us, or modestly state that he simply doesn’t know. Neither position is particularly helpful.
            This air of smug pomposity is difficult to shake, but that being said, there is undoubtedly brilliance at work here. The logical deconstruction of racism in the chapter on the definition of goodness should be taught in schools; however his attempt to highlight the absurdity of nationalism in the same chapter  — because, presumably, no one can love an abstraction like a nation —  is less convincing, as is his chapter on the existence (or rather, lack thereof) of God. Personally I am agnostic leaning towards atheist, because while I believe the universe doesn’t need the existence of an invisible, white-bearded, thunderbolt-wielding, Bronze Age sky fairy to explain it, it is philosophically and scientifically and logically impossible to prove that the big ‘I AM’ exists, or  indeed doesn’t exist, one way or another. To take a more adamantine position than that cannot be justified, and therefore I fail to see the point in including a whole chapter on the subject, except possibly to bait the God Botherers and those who frequent the assorted Jacuzzis of the Blood of The Lamb in all their variety. Confusingly, while Flynn rejects the existence of Jehovah-Yahweh-Allah-Brahma-SpongeBob SquarePants, he believes in the possibility of ‘the mystical experience’. I still don’t quite grasp that one.
            I am also not entirely sure why the chapter on Free Will manages to completely gloss over neuro- and behavioural science except to mention they exist, when recent discoveries have shown fairly conclusively that Free Will is in part an illusion of brain chemistry and brain wiring – probably because this would smack of the sort of determinism and objectivism he regards as detrimental to humanity and the concept of the individual.
            Anyway, Faith & Philosophy is apparently part of a planned trilogy, the final book being How to Improve Your Mind: 20 Keys to Unlock the Modern World. Again, surely such a tome is redundant: Daniel J. Boorstin crossed with Chicken Soup for the Soul? I can’t help but think that it’s a bit presumptuous to assume that the vast majority of adults living today, or indeed in the good old twentieth century, or the nineteenth (and so on), hadn’t worked out some sort of system for getting through modernity without going insane or becoming immoral, inhuman brutes. But to return to Fate & Philosophy, there were fascinating moments of intrigue and enlightenment, yet these were rather outnumbered by the unfascinating moments of groaning and flinching. I come away from my textual encounter with Fate & Philosophy knowing a damn sight more about Flynn’s specific Weltanschauung, but not measurably all that much more than I already knew I didn’t know about the book’s teaser questions of ‘What is good?’ ‘What is possible?’ ‘What exists?’ 

ANDREW PAUL WOOD is a Christchurch-based writer, critic, art historian and translator. His current projects include a biography of the émigré Indo-Dutch artist Theo Schoon.

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