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What We Can Never Know by David Gamez
David Braid peers at the limits of what we can possibly know anyway.
The potentially all-encompassing title gives a good indication of the sweep of Gamez’ argument. Drawing together several of the main streams of philosophical thought, the author offers much more than just an overview of various attempts to surpass the limits of our knowledge of ourselves and everything else. Beginning with a concise, clear discussion of ‘stable’ versus ‘collapsing’ theories, he applies these categories to a number of disparate yet related subjects, including ‘Evidence for the Brain’, ‘Impossible Speech About Time’, and ‘Merging Madness and Reason’, making the connections between the limits of our knowledge explicit, and explaining why they are essentially unsurpassable.
Gamez finds common ground between writers as diverse as Baudrillard, Dawkins and Philip K. Dick. What We Can Never Know also bears the influence of Derrida, except that he’s trying to deconstruct not texts but philosophical and scientific theories. The self-reflexive limitations of those theories are exposed in the main chapters, where they are turned into models. Gamez claims that this process of model-building enables us to see our theories in a different way: “The process of condensation and abstraction into a model can highlight how utterly absurd some theories are; how they are all-embracing monstrous metaphysical visions.” (p.3).
The first chapter gives details of Gamez’ framework of ‘stable’, ‘collapsing’ and ‘unstable’ explanatory circles. This framework is used to show the limitations of theories in subsequent chapters. Chapter 2 examines theories of mind and deals with the question of whether the qualities of experience can be explained using the brain. Gamez argues that this is only possible if our bodies and our physical environment are represented within a single virtual reality, with our brains becoming virtual as well. This avoids the problem of how the mind can interact with something that’s non-mental, as everything is now in the mind, at least potentially. But if so, we are led to the conclusion that our entire world consists of virtual impressions: “Virtual bees sup at fake flowers beneath a cyber sky.” (p.84). Neuroscience is therefore confronted with the paradox that it is based on evidence taken from our experiences with ‘real brains’, and yet this evidence leads to the conclusion that we have never seen or touched a real brain: “there are just virtual arms, virtual tongues and virtual lips. All my evidence for the brain hypothesis has also vanished; virtual observations take the place of this lost objectivity, and the brain hypothesis becomes an absurd metaphysical and theological leap.” (p.84).
In Chapter 3, Gamez examines Relativity Theory and uses Bergson and Ouspensky’s philosophies to build an elaborate model of time as a kind of cinematic projector. Koj ève’s reading of Hegel is used to argue that if we were living in objective [independently-existing] time, we would be unable to speak about it. Despite a number of imaginative thought-experiments, this chapter was not always easy to follow, and probably the least convincing.
The chapter ‘Merging Madness and Reason’ brings to light the acute and ruthless way in which madness is diagnosed according to what are fundamentally little more than the mores of a particular society. By making madness relative in this way, Gamez suggests that there is something arbitrary and artificial about the distinction between madness and sanity. Indeed, this blurs the distinction to the extent of eliminating it altogether: “there is just a single ‘homogenous zone’ of madness and reason” in which “we have always been foaming fools pouring out an endless stream of fantastical metaphysical, scientific, religious and cosmological imaginings.” (p.178). Unfortunately, this dissolution of the distinction between madness and reason is self-defeating – if I am mad, how can I ever know that I am? Or indeed, how can I ever know that I’m not mad? Gamez handles these problems using his notion of the ‘unstable hermeneutic circle’.
The final chapter sets out a contradictory, labyrinthine understanding of knowledge, influenced by Pyrrhonic (absolute) scepticism and Nietzsche’s perspectivism. Questions about self-reflexivity are never far away – a theory of knowledge has to be able to account for itself – and Gamez places his theory of knowledge right in the centre of his ‘labyrinth of conflicting aspects’, accepting that this makes it both true and untrue at the same time – another unstable hermeneutic circle…
With its eclectic mixture of aphorism, detailed thought-experiment and academic argument, the style of the book has a touch of the informal throughout. Like Descartes, Gamez speaks from the first person as the initial point of reference. This has the effect of amplifying the sense of the subjective, thus underscoring the limits of our experience-ability and therefore our knowledge about what the ‘outside’ may consist of, if anything at all. However, he argues from first principles, employing a bottom-up approach whereby one can clearly follow the construction of his theory.
Ironically, a book that takes as its subject the grandest notion of all – the possibility of some form of ultimate knowledge – and then goes on to systematically destroy the very idea of even attempting to consider it as a possibility, may find particular strength in its application to more everyday fields such as the notion of madness and what it may mean for the individual and the culture in which they reside.
© David Braid 2009
David Braid, a composer of contemporary classical music, has researched the temporal perception of music and its effect on musical form. His new CD of vocal and chamber music One Year Lighter will be available from Toccata Classics later this year. Please visit www.davidbraid.net.
• What We Can Never Know: Blindspots in Philosophy and Science by David Gamez, Continuum, 2007, 304 pages, £12.99, ISBN: 0826491618