Glimpse of Light: New Meditations on First Philosophy, by Stephen Mumford (Bloomsbury Academic), £10.99/$14.95
Philosopher Benedict Chilwell faces a crisis of confidence. Has his life’s work been a mistake? Is philosophy a worthless pursuit? Are there in fact no objective truths of the sort he has spent his life defending?
Worried by arguments from post-modernists, relativists, and anti-realists, he has suddenly come to doubt objective truth. He decides that if he cannot convince himself of such truths, he will give up philosophy and go and make furniture. If he can prove that such truths exist, he will continue working as a professional philosopher. So, he takes himself off for a week in January to a cabin in Bakken, in the north of Norway, which does not see the sun for two months.
The cabin belongs to the Norwegian family of a philosopher friend. During the course of the week, Benedict will interact with the family and various neighbours, but his intention is to keep interactions to a minimum so that he can focus on his ideas. Benedict is a proud, introverted and somewhat pompous person, but also quite likable in his earnestness.
His cabin is primitive with a wood stove and no running water. So, he is dependent on his neighbours for showers and most sustenance. He works for six days, and on each day, makes some important discovery. He calls these meditations, in a self-conscious reference to Descartes.
Benedict starts out by considering the idea of his opponents, that all “facts” are social constructions. He then notes that this would mean that society causes these facts to be true. But in that case, causation would exist and not be itself a product of social construction.
Social construction also presupposes the existence of society, which is itself a causal notion. Causation, it seems, is the central notion of the novel. Mumford, via Benedict, argues that causation is the most real phenomenon in the universe.
Benedict argues with a scientist who claims that science has no real place for causation. After this angry exchange, he comes to believe that science itself would be meaningless without causation, since science requires us to do experiments, which must be causal interventions. We then observe the results, observation in turn being a causal notion; and finally, we apply the results of our experiments to change the world, adjusting medications, etc. Without causation, none of this would be possible.
Benedict proceeds in this way, interacting with various neighbours, including a very attractive young Sami woman, and a dour retired pastor. In the end, he has established the objective existence of most things that matter, including God, although the exact nature of God is slightly non-traditional.
I found some of the arguments intriguing and plausible, perhaps because I am by nature a realist myself. I do not know how many of the arguments are entirely original to Mumford. There are no footnotes or bibliography, an omission that makes sense in a novel, but which seems problematic if this work is to be read as a work of philosophy.
Some of the arguments struck me as a little facile. One wonders whether it is really possible to establish the existence of society, the self, language, and the physical world, in just 150 pages of a priori reflections. One also wonders whether this exercise might mislead the unwary, or alienate opponents who can see obvious faults in the reasoning. As a first few moves, however, it seems promising.
How are we supposed to read the work? It is a novel, but don’t expect Pride and Prejudice. It doesn’t have a light touch. It is really a work of philosophy put into a setting with somewhat engaging characters to have debates – more like Hume’s or Plato’s dialogues than a contemporary novel. Aside from the lack of footnotes, the main character doesn’t hesitate to lay out his arguments as a regular philosopher would, to consider objections, make distinctions, make adjustments to his arguments in light of objections. This is not to say that the work fails. It is just best to know the sort of work one is reading.
I enjoyed it, and I imagine it would work well as an introduction to some philosophical ideas for an intelligent layman or in an introductory philosophy class. In spite of the complexity of the ideas, it is a very easy and smooth read.
One aspect I especially enjoyed was the very evocative setting of wintry northern Norway. The novel comes to an end on the last day of Benedict’s stay in Bakken, which happens to be February 1st, and, in this place, also happens to be Soldagen, the day when the sun first appears over the horizon. It is a solemn day of celebration and a fitting symbol for a philosopher finding his first truths.