Bryan Magee, Confessions of a Philosopher, Scenes from Childhood (Three Groups)

…By the time I had grown into adulthood I had become familiar with a number of general attitudes to experience that seemed to embrace among themselves most people, at least most of those I met, but none of them was at all like mine. There seemed to be three main groupings. First, there were people who took the world for granted as they found it: that’s how things are, and it’s obvious that that’s how they are, and talking about it isn’t going to change it, so there’s no purpose that perpetually questioning it is going to serve; discussing it is really a waste of time, even thinking about it much is a waste of time; what we have to do is get on with the practical business of living, not indulge in a lot of useless speculation and ineffectual talk. That seemed to be roughly the outlook of most people. Then there were others who regarded that attitude as superficial, on religious grounds. According to them, this life was no more than an overture, a prelude to the real thing. There was a God who had made this world, including us, and had given us immortal souls, so that when our bodies died after a brief sojourn on earth the souls in them would go on for ever in some “higher” realm. Such people tended to think that in the eye of eternity this present world of ours was not all that important, and whenever one raised questions about the self-contradictory nature of our experience they would shrug their shoulders and attribute this to the inscrutable workings of God. It was not that they used this as the answer to all questions, because what such people said seldom answered any actual questions: they felt under no pressure to do so. God knew all the answers to all the questions, and his nature was inscrutable to us, therefore the only thing for us to do was to put our trust in him and stop bothering ourselves with questions to which we could not possibly know the answers until after we died. It seemed to me that this attitude was at bottom as incurious as the first; it just offered a different reason for not asking questions and equally obviously it did not really feel the problems. There was no awareness in it of the real extraordinariness of the world: on the contrary, people who subscribed to it were often marked by a certain complacency, not to say smugness. They seemed to be happily lulling themselves to sleep with a story which might or might not be true but which they had no serious grounds for believing.

Finally, there were people who condemned both  of these other sets of attitudes as uncomprehending and mistaken, on what one might call rationalistic grounds. They critically questioned both the way things are and traditional religious beliefs, and challenged the adherents of either for proof, or at least good evidence; for some justification, or at least good argument. These tended in spirit to be either children of the enlightenment or children of the age of science, and in either case to have a kind of outlook that did not begin to exist until the seventeenth century. They seemed to believe that everything was explicable in the light of reason, that rational enquiry would eventually make all desirable discoveries, and that in principle if not altogether in practice all problems could be solved by the application of rationality. Most of my friends and fellow spirits seemed to fall into this third category, and indeed I tended to agree with their criticisms of the other two. My problem was that their own positive beliefs seemed to me manifestly untenable, and their attitudes – well, perhaps not quite as comfortable and complacent as those they criticized, but comfortable and complacent none the less. They seemed to think that the world was an intelligible place, and I did not see how in the light of a moment’s thought this belief could be entertained. Their faith in the power of reason seemed to me almost unbelievably unreflecting and misplaced in view of the fact that it was the application of reason that perpetually gave rise to insoluble problems, problems that were brought into existence by thinking but could not be removed by it. With  many such people belief in the power of reason was an ideology. They believed in it uncritically and on principle, and were totally dismissive of any dissenting voice. They never reflected seriously on the narrowness of the range within which reason is applicable, or its propensity for self-contradiction, or its manifest inability to solve most of the fundamental questions about experience. Any attempt on my part (or anyone else’s) to draw their attention to these things smacked to them of religion, which they equated with superstition, and of which they tended to be contemptuous. It was self-evident to the that this world of experience is all there is, and anything we do not as yet understand about it we can reasonably hope to discover in the course of time. All meaning and all purpose inhabit this world: value and morality are created by human beings, which in practice means that value and morality are created socially and historically. Any suggestion that reality is hidden to them was unintelligible, and therefore any suggestion that the significance of our experience might lie outside the range of our understanding a kind of gobbledygook – and again, crypto-religious. What cut me off most deeply of all from this attitude, and what I also found hardest to understand about it, was its lack of any sense of the amazingness of our existence, indeed of the existence of anything at all – the sheer miraculousness of everything. After all, you do not have to reflect deeply, you do not even need to go beyond what a child is capable of thinking, to realize that our experience is unintelligible to ourselves in its most general and basic features – and yet the sort of people I am talking about seemed not to have made that discovery. To them it seemed self-evident that some sort of commonsense view of things must be, by and large, right, whereas I saw it as self-evident that common sense could not possibly be right, since reasoning logically from it as a starting point led one almost immediately into a morass of incomprehensibility and self-contradiction. In fact, to put it badly yet truthfully, they found the denial of the commonsense view of the world ridiculous whereas I found the acceptance of the commonsense view of the world ridiculous. Their whole outlook was one that could survive for only so long as they did not reflect on its foundations. Not only was it superficial in the extreme, it was also detached, floating in mid-air, unsupported and unsustainable. Any fundamental questioning of it by anyone was dismissed as uninteresting and pointless. If one drew their attention to the fact that there seemed to be no way in which our reasoning powers could make sense of this or that basic feature of the world or of our experience, this was seen by them as a reason for not raising the question. What they wanted to do was confine their lives to the domain within which they could make sense of things. So at an only slightly deeper and more critical level they really turned out to share most of the attitudes of the first of the three groups.


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