Thursday, January 19, 2012

Responding to Barfield, Part 1: Pre-History Never Happened

(It may be helpful to read my recent review of Saving the Appearances before jumping into this series.)

I'm going to do something a little different with the Owen Barfield quotes from Saving the Appearances. This is promoted by the fact that when I finished with retyping the "best" parts of the book, I had 11 pages of quotes (as opposed to the 4 pages from Poetic Diction). Also, the book builds on itself so much that I think half the quotes are unintelligible without reading the book. Yet I want to remind myself of these quotes and mull them over! So rather than perform a quote dump, I will take a quote or paragraph (entirely out of context, of course) and react to it here. That's probably more appropriate for this electronic context anyway.

Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances, p. 37: "It can do no harm to recall occasionally that the prehistoric evolution of the earth, as it is described for example in the early chapters of H.G. Wells’s Outline of History, was not merely never seen. It never occurred."

In "City of Death", a classic Doctor Who episode, the Doctor and companion travel four billion years into the Earth's past, which of course is a red and brown volcanic mess. This is what would happen, in fact, if we could travel to that point in time. I don't think Barfield argues that. But he does argue, what does it matter because we can't. For something to happen it has to be observed. And if a mind is not there four billion years ago, watching the lava bubble and the molecules organize, we can develop an idea of what it would have looked like, but we didn't see it. And if we don't see it, it didn't happen, Barfield says.

It should be clear what side of the "if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it did it make a noise?" debate Barfield is on.

This seemed extreme to me at first, but Barfield would say that's because my mind's been infected with the mechanical idols of the age that look at everything (man included) as being a mechanism/machine of some sort, when observation and participation is a crucial part of the process, which requires a mind.

All the pictures of the primordial earth, including that of the Doctor Who episode, look and feel fake. That's because they are fake: they are projections and models of what it would look like if we (or someone who thought like us) were there. Not only is that not true for billions of years ago, it's not even true for 500 years ago! People didn't just use different languages long ago, they thought differently and saw differently. (For that matter, most medieval films and stories feel fake too.) This is one of Barfield's main points, and upon reflection, it's a good one.

This is why Barfield insists that matter did not create mind, but that mind must have created matter. The concept of "matter" required a mind to organize it and create it. Whatever happened before that mind was there is a fascinating process but is at the end of the day only a process recreated by the mind studying it. It can reveal some things but is very limited. In this sense, it is a model and projection, and it did not happen.

A lot is made of the vastness of time and space in the universe, and how small man is, how seemingly insignificant. But if there was no observer around for those billions of years to be bored, does it matter that a billion years rolled by, rather than a million, rather than a thousand, or ten? And if there is no method for traveling to the nearest star before dying of old age, much less another galaxy, does it matter that there's so much space out there? We'd never actually be able to go there anyway, so why does it worry us? Or does it only matter as something we can look at, observe, think about for an instant, wonder at, make hypotheses about, and move on to more important things like the family dinner?

(This series continues in Part 2 here.)


Geoff said...

Intriguingly, the word to type for comment verification with this post was 'death'.

But, to my point: this is, of course, a perennial question in all of philosophy, not just philosophy of science. It is the question of whether the 'world' can be said to have 'existence' without any conscious subject there to conceptualize that world's existence. I think most philosophers today would reject the radical anti-realist view of someone like Berkeley (i.e. when you leave the room, the room doesn't exist anymore). Ok, maybe that's a bit unfair to Berkeley. But anyway...

It seems that the most commonly accepted view is that while, yes, the world as we conceptualize it today can't be precisely the world that existed four billion years ago, it seems reasonable to say that *some* kind of world existed. The question then becomes, are we exercising this question in futility? That is, as much as I agree with Barfield's point, at what point should we also simply admit that a world *something* like what we can conceptualize must have existed, so it does us little good to privilege the kind of anti-realist view Barfield proposes, practically speaking.

Ben McFarland said...

For the record, Barfield presents and then rejects Berkeley's view: "This involves the, for me, too difficult corrolary that, out of all the wide variety of collective representations which are found even to-day over the face of the earth, and the still wider variety which history unrolls before us, God has chosen for His delight the particular set shared by Western man in the last few centuries."

There's some good quotes to come about how science has been good for scouring the old idols (e.g., ancient Greek gods and spirits) from nature, but Barfield would say now we need to take what we know from science and move forward, consciously putting things together in a way that we used to unconsciously. It's really important to note that this is not a rejection of science or the fact that it is a very good model of reality. Barfield's point is simply that reality must always be more than the scientific model of it, and that the observer must participate in it. This actually goes well with quantum phenomena in physics like Bell's inequality and the confluence of time and space in the four-dimensional models of general relativity. Too much for a comment obviously ...

Matt D Segall said...

I've only tonight discovered your blog, but I've really enjoyed your engagement with Barfield here. I might be willing to call myself Barfieldian, depending on my mood.

Just thought I'd stop by to drop off a link to some relevant thinking over on my blog: