What is real? Great question. Just the sort of question to tackle in a blog post. Such is the hubris of bloggers.
Hubris is a word that's used a lot in David E. Cooper's "The Measure of Things: Humanism, Humility, and Mystery." Wikipedia clues us in to the meaning of hubris. Not a good quality to have if you seek to know the nature of reality.
Hubris (pron.: /ˈhjuːbrɪs/), also hybris, from ancient Greek ὕβρις, means extreme pride or arrogance. Hubris often indicates a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one's own competence or capabilities, especially when the person exhibiting it is in a position of power.
I'm enjoying Cooper's book.
Can't remember how I came across it. But I recall that the ending of a description in the Amazon listing made me think "right on, brother!", after which I bought the cheapest used copy Amazon had.
Philosophers, both western and eastern, have long been divided between "humanists", for whom "man is the measure of things", and their opponents, who claim that there is a way, in principle knowable and describable, that the world anyway is, independent of human perspectives and interests.
The early chapters of The Measure of Things chart the development of humanism from medieval times, through the Renaissance, Enlightenment and Romantic periods, to its most sophisticated, twentieth-century form, "existential humanism".
Cooper does not identify this final position with that of any particular philosopher, though it is closely related to those of Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and the later Wittgenstein. Among the earlier figures discussed are William of Ockham, Kant, Herder, Nietzsche and William James.
Having rejected attempts by contemporary advocates of modest or non-metaphysical realism to dissolve the opposition between humanism and its "absolutist" rival, Cooper moves on to an adjudication of that rivality. Prompted by the pervasive rhetoric of hubris that the rivals direct against one another, he argues, in an original manner, that the rival positions are indeed guilty of lack of humility.
Absolutists - whether defenders of "The Given" or scientific realists - exaggerate our capacity to ascend out of our "engaged" perspectives to an objective account of the world. Humanists, conversely, exaggerate our capacity to live without a sense of our subjection to a measure independent of our own perspectives.
The only escape, Cooper maintains, from the impasse reached when humanism and absolutism are both rejected, lies in a doctrine of mystery. There is a reality independent of "the human contribution", but it is necessarily ineffable.
Drawing in a novel way upon the Buddhist conception of "emptiness" and Heidegger's later writings, the final chapters defend the notion of mystery, distinguish the doctrine advanced from that of transcendental idealism, and propose that it is only through appreciation of mystery that measure and warrant may be provided for our beliefs and conduct.
I love mystery. A Google search of "mystery" on my blogs reveals a large number of postings about what can't be talked about. Seems contradictory, but a reviewer of Cooper's book, A.W. Moore, explains the difference between talking about ineffability and talking about what is ineffable.
Cooper defends a version of 'humanism': the view, roughly, that man is the measure of things. But 'a version of' is the operative phrase. Cooper is as keen to distance what he defends from 'raw' humanism, the view that man is the measure of everything, as he is to distance it from 'absolutism', the view that man is the measure, ultimately, of nothing.
What man is the measure of, on Cooper's conception, is what can be described. (This is equivalent to saying that what can be described can be described only from a human point of view.) Not everything.
...Cooper draws a basic distinction between talking about what is ineffable and talking about ineffability; and he insists that there is no obstacle to our doing the latter, even though it is impossible for us to do the former.
Science deals in what can be talked about. Not everything. And even the something that can be talked about necessarily is described in human terms. To believe otherwise is to fall into an unwarranted scientific absolutism.
However, religion, mysticism, and other forms of spirituality also suffer from their own variety of absolutism: the claim that it is not only possible for us humans to know ultimate reality, but that this reality can be described by holy people.
And that, to use an apt non-philosophical term, is bullshit.
In a chapter I finished reading this morning, "The Hubris of Absolutism," Cooper notes the extreme hubris of someone claiming that, of all the possible ways there are to understand reality -- not only human and animal ways, but ways that might exist elsewhere in galaxies far, far away in the unimaginably vast cosmos -- some person believes that he or she not only has grasped ultimate truth, but understands why that mode of grasping is superior to all the other possible ways of knowing that could exist.
No human being could be warranted in thinking that he or his fellows possess the cognitive capacity to exclude the possibilities that must be excluded if some one candidate account of the world, whatever that is, is reasonably to be regarded as an absolute account.
...In order to win immunity from the charges of hubris, the absolutist must make the greater retreat to the position that, while there is a discursable way the world anyway is, it is impossible for human beings to arrive at an account of this way.
...What is common to those who urge the greater retreat is the conviction that there is an independent, discursable reality combined with a refusal, whether firm or tentative, to regard this reality as within our compass.
...Relatedly, once an absolutist account is held to be forever and necessarily out of our reach, it cannot play the role that made it seem an attractive prospect -- that of enabling us to explain (away) our competing perspectives on the world.
Yes. The teachings of absolutist prophets, gurus, masters, enlightened beings, and such attract us for several reasons.
First, they claim to know ultimate reality in an absolute way. The cosmos isn't mysteriously ineffable. Theyve eff'ed it! And they're more than happy to tell us about what they've found via books, discourses, Q and A sessions, retreats, seminars, and such.
Second, they claim that their way of knowing ultimate reality is better than all those other false prophets, gurus, masters, enlightened beings, and such who claim to know Truth with a capital "T." So not only are they privy to absolute knowing, that knowledge includes knowing why all other ways of knowing are crap compared to theirs.
The height of ego. Amazingly, they and their followers usually claim that the Knowing One is the most humble of all humans, as well as the most knowledgeable. Again, bullshit.
Cooper reminds us that true humility is saying "I don't know" when faced with the question of what lies at the heart of the awesome mystery of the cosmos.
I agree with him that there is some heart independent of human consciousness. But what it is... no one knows.