Wednesday, June 16, 2004

The Attraction of the Incoherent: Edward Abbey on Thought and Reality

There is no denying the charm, the attractive power, of incoherent ideas. They appeal to adolescents of all ages. Edward Abbey writes, “I sometimes think that man is a dream, thought an illusion, and that only rock is real.” Well, Cactus Ed, is this thought an illusion too?

Cactus Ed’s thought is a conjunction of three sub-thoughts: man is a dream; his thoughts are illusory; only rock is real. If our thoughts are illusory, then each of these sub-thoughts is illusory, and Abbey’s clever formulation refutes itself. But this won’t stop Abbey or his admirers from finding it attractive. Man, and especially the literary type, is a perverse animal. He will believe anything and say anything, no matter how false. He will assert himself even unto incoherence. He will not be instructed.

Thus if I were to run this little argument past Cactus Ed and his admirers they would most likely snort derisively and call me a logic-chopper. Their misology would make it impossible for them to take it seriously. You see, literary types are too often not interested in truth, but in literary effect, when it should be self-evident that truth is a higher value than literary effect. But it is more complicated than this. Abbey is trying to have it both ways at once: he wants to say something true, but he doesn’t want to bother satisfying the preconditions for his saying something true, one such precondition being that the proposition asserted not entail its own negation.

But perhaps I am being uncharitable. It may be that what Abbey is trying to say in the passage quoted is simply that man and his thoughts are less real (and perhaps less important) than rocks, with rocks representing nature in general. This interpretation would fit with his overall position which blends misanthropy and nature-idolatry. He may be saying something like: These inconclusive and fleeting thoughts, endless, easily contradicted, leading to nothing but more of the same – they lack reality, weight, definition, solidity. But this magnificent rock of the American Southwest – it is real and substantial! To hell with all your yapping and gassing off; here in pristine nature is the real!

But what is it to be real? What is the reality of the real? I too am a lover of the rock of the American Southwest, and I have explored my fair share of it. But climbing and camping on it, I have never encountered its reality among its empirical properties. Hard, soft, hot, cold, red, yellow, smooth, rough are among the adjectives that pick out its empirical properties. But real is not. You can sense hardness and roughness, but not reality. The reality of rock is no empirical property of it. Nor is it a property of any of its constituents. Smash a rock to bits, grind it into sand, resolve the sand into silica and what all else, take it down to the molecular, the atomic, the subatomic level – you will not find the reality of the rock, or the reality of any of its constituents, at any of these levels. Should we conclude that the reality of a rock is a property of it that is empirically undetectable by our senses and their instrumental extensions? Is reality a property hidden in principle from all detection? That would be obscurantist. It would be better to say that reality is just not a property at all. It is not one property among several, nor a conjunction of all of a rock’s properties, nor the property of having properties.

And yet we have it on Cactus Ed’s authority that rock alone is real. Subtracting off the literary exaggeration, it is surely true that rock is real. If some post-modern decadent thinks that rock is not real, then I will take him on a serious hike through the Superstitions in June and teach him the reality of rock and sun. I’ll teach him that it is like no text he has ever encountered, that it is not interpretation all the way down, that Nietzsche was wrong, and that there is a hard fact of the matter that can break his bones and fry his post-modern brain.

Here is a rough way to formulate the puzzle. Rock is real: it is ‘out there’ transcendent of my believing, desiring, wishing, willing. But the reality of rock is not itself something real that is ‘out there.’ So what is the reality of rock, the reality Cactus Ed so blithely invokes as if it were the most obvious thing in the world? The reality of a rock is not one of its parts, whether a spatial part, a temporal part, or a property-part. It is no kind of part, and no kind of property. It is not a property of the rock, nor of something distinct from the rock, a unique description of it, say. The reality of the rock belongs to the rock, not to something distinct from it. On the other hand, the reality of a rock is not identical to the rock. This is clear from the fact that a given rock might not have been real, might not have existed. If a rock is real, then it is self-identical and necessarily so; but its reality cannot consist in its self-identity.

Is the reality of a rock a concept we impose on it? This can’t be right either: the reality of a rock is its independence of mind and concept. A thing’s mind-independence cannot be reduced to its falling under one of our concepts. And yet reality has something to do with mind, since it is defined in terms of independence of mind. If there were no mind at all, would the rock – and the universe in general – be real? Would it exist? Would it be? If there were no mind, what could its reality consist in? The reality of a thing is not that thing. So reality is different from the real. The temptation is to say, with Heidegger, that there is Being only if there is Dasein, the human being.

But then Being is not what makes beings be, but something extrinsic to them. The rock would then be what it is whether or not it is, whether or not it is real or exists. The rock, in itself, would be a completely determinate but nonexistent object.

The solution to all this is absolute idealism. The reality of the rock is at once independent of my fragmentary experience while being dependent on the creative experience of Absolute Mind. The reality of a thing is an intrinsic determination of it only because the thing is wholly dependent for its Being on Absolute Mind.

Cactus Ed, however, idolater of nature, sensualist and God-denier, cannot admit Absolute Mind. So we must leave him in his incoherence. He wants the ultimately real and finally important, but, blinded by his sensuality, he looks for it in the wrong place, namely, in nature. For him, nature is the paradigm case of reality. But nature cannot be such since is is merely something real, something that might not have been real. The paradigm case of reality, however, that with
reference to which alone anything is and can be judged as real, must be absolutely and necessarily real, which is to say that it must be identical to its reality. To his credit, however, Abbey sees that nature is more real than society; but he cannot see beyond nature to its Ground.