July 25, 2013
Experience has taught me that this is an unusual and unpopular cast of mind. Fideistic and dogmatic is the norm. Empirical and dogmatic sells plenty of books. Fideistic and skeptical is too unusual even to be unpopular.
The philosopher Thomas Nagel (whose 114-page introduction to philosophy is an ideal gift for a curious high-schooler) coined the phrase “the view from nowhere” for the objective way of looking at our own mental events. We should strive, says Nagel, to see our beliefs not as cosmic truths but just as things that some person believes.
I agree with that and the general outlook it implies. Apart from anything else, it’s the foundation of good literature. I remember my delight as a young teen on reading the concluding paragraph of Vanity Fair:
Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?”come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.
All those real-as-life characters, with all their vivid thoughts, feelings, and beliefs”the guy just made them all up! Now they go back in the box, like toys.
Thus primed by a view-from-nowhere novelist, I was ready to encounter, soon afterwards, a poet applying Thackeray’s image to actual people:
“Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.
A memorable image from this past week was a photograph of our planet from the neighborhood of Saturn, taken by the Cassini spacecraft. It was a view from somewhere, I guess, yet it was somehow encouraging to those of us who like the view from nowhere.