How do we understand The Third Policeman’s atomic theory? Toby and Einat find out via Descartes, the anti-materialism of Leibniz & Berkeley, and 20th century physics.
Toby: Hello and welcome to another episode of Radio Myles with me, your host, Toby Harris. This podcast is supported by Birkbeck College, University of London, and it aims to entertain, intrigue, and maybe change your perspective on the writer we commonly know as Flann O’Brien. This time I’m very pleased to introduce my guest, Einat Adar. She is a lecturer in English literature at the University of South Bohemia in Budvar (I’m going for the German version of the name rather than the Czech version, which I definitely can’t pronounce), and also at the Anglo-American University in Prague. She was awarded a PhD from Charles University, Prague in 2018 for a thesis examining Beckett’s lifelong engagement with Berkeley’s philosophy and its influence on his literary production in prose, theatre and film. Einat’s work explores the interface between philosophy and Irish modernism. She’s published an important essay on Flann entitled ‘“The essential inherent interior essence: The Third Policeman and early modern ontologies” in the 2020 essay collection Flann O’Brien: Problems with Authority. She’s also published in the journals Partial Answers and Estudios Irlandeses and the essay collection Translating Samuel Beckett around the World. She is also the co-editor of Samuel Beckett and Technology, which appeared in 2021 from Edinburgh University Press. So we could talk about a lot of things. However, I think that Einat is exactly the person to ask about Flann O’Brien and philosophy, and so that’s exactly what I’m going to do. So, Einat, welcome to the podcast. How are you today?
Einat: I’m good. Thank you for having me.
Toby: And did I get your introduction right? Is there anything I missed, or mispronounced, maybe?
Einat: I can give you the Czech pronunciation.
Toby: Okay. Please give us the full glory of your institution’s name.
Einat: Yeah. So the Czech name would be Jihočeská univerzita Českých Budějovicích, which just rolls off your tongue, right?
Toby: Super glad I didn’t try to pronounce that. So, quick note, future episode, which is going to get into that. We’ve got to do something at some point on the history of Czechoslovakia and Flann and Irish modernism / Irish late modernism. Got to do that.
Einat: That’s a very interesting topic.
Toby: That will definitely involve being able to pronounce more of it, for sure. But I’ll give myself a run up. So some of our listeners may be completely new to the writer we know as Flann O’Brien, Myles na gCopaleen, Brian O’Nolan – all the names – they might be learning about him just by listening to the podcast. So for the benefit of those new listeners, would you mind giving us a little thumbnail sketch of his life? It can be as short or as long as you want.
Einat: Okay, so Flann O’Brien was born as Brian O’Nolan in 1911. So he was growing up, we could say, with the Free State and the Republic of Ireland. He is an Irish modernist writer, maybe the funniest and most imaginative, I would say, of this period, and in the history of literature.
His books are just hilarious. His writing is quite experimental. He grew up under the shadow of James Joyce and he just went in his own completely different direction. We would, I guess, talk a lot about The Third Policeman today, which is his second novel. And it talks about – it doesn’t sound funny, I know – but the protagonist is a man who killed another man and then goes to hell. So that’s already a very comic set up. But most of the novel is taking place in this hell, which is a really, really weird place, which I guess we would talk about a lot during the podcast. His other famous novel is called At Swim-Two-Birds and it deals with some characters who run away from their author and stage a rebellion with a lot of shenanigans along the way. He’s also famous for his Cruiskeen Lawn column in the Irish Times, which ran for years. And it was a kind of parodic, very funny column. Started in Irish language and then [moved] to English. Yeah, I will stop here.
Toby: That was a good thumbnail sketch. Every guest has a completely different way of doing it, which I really like. And I like the aspects that you drew out. You might as well dive into, like a lot of listeners might be thinking, sure, what are the stakes here? Why is this important? So we’ll go right back to the beginning and let’s look at the most important debate – maybe it begun in philosophy, but it’s now a major issue in science, physics, neuroscience in particular – which is what is the nature of the world and how can we know about it? Nice and easy.
Einat: Well, it’s a small question. We can take five minutes to discuss it, but yeah, we are not going to answer the next question. But it is an ongoing debate and especially the relationship between the human mind and physical reality because we cannot but help sense our mind as being something internal where things happen in our mind that do not influence the external world. Whereas the external world is something that exists even without us and just does what it does without any consideration for our opinion.
And the question is: is this actually the case and what is the relationship between our mind and what we used to think of as physical reality? I’m not going to go all the way back to the beginning, but in the early, like what we call the modern era, which we have the Cartesians also, René Descartes comes up with this idea of – which we now shorthand as cogito –he comes up with this idea of how do you do philosophy? You disregard everything that you learned, everything that you know. You ask, what am I really, really sure of? Not because I read it in the book, but because I know it with my mind.
And one of the things that he kind of knows with his mind is that he has a mind, right – ‘I think, therefore I am and I’m asking this question’. So there is someone asking this question and this mind is contained in the body. Like the difference between the body and mind is one of the things that he’s really, really sure of. The body comes after the mind, but it is there. And what Descartes says is that the body and the mind are of completely different realms of existence. So the mind is part of the spiritual world. It is given to us by God. It has nothing to do with the external reality, whereas the external reality is a material world that is working completely mechanistically.
So God has created the material world, but basically to serve the spiritual world as some kind of basis – I don’t know even exactly what, there’s a discussion of what exactly he has in mind there – but the point is that the world of nature works mechanically and according to predictable laws. If you know what is the exact state of the world and you know all the laws that govern the action of the natural world, you can calculate backwards and forwards in time and know everything that is going to happen because there is no freedom, there is no chance. Everything works in a very mechanistic manner.
Whereas the spiritual world allows some freedom, right? In the spiritual world you can make a decision: shall I steal my neighbour’s sheep or shall I not? Right? You have this kind of moral responsibility and moral freedom to sin or to do well – it’s completely different. And this separation of the material and the spiritual has been a big problem for philosophers. First of all, even Descartes’ time “okay, they are completely separate, so how do they interact?” Because we know that there is a connection, right? If I decide to raise my hand, my hand rises. But how is this done if these are two completely different modes of existence? There are many answers not going to go into that. We’re going to talk probably about Berkeley and Leibniz. So these are two answers. So this is a problem from the beginning.
In O’Nolan’s time this becomes complicated because of the material world, because of the physics of the time, with the relativity theory and quantum mechanics that really do not support Descartes’ view of a mechanistic materialist existence, right? Because we have a role for chance in the physical world. So we don’t have this kind of determinism that says we can calculate exactly what is going to happen on one hand and on the other hand, the observer in Einsteinian physics – the theory of relativity – the observer kind of interferes with things and then there is a kind of place for the mind within the physical world. These are, of course, more metaphors than actual physics. But even in physics, theoretically, every experiment in physics should start with describing the position and the speed of the experimenter because they matter, right? And so it brings the mind right back into the material world in a much more basic way than the science of Descartes’ time. And so this raises this question of … what do you do with that?
Toby: There’s a great part in the Three Dialogues by Berkeley where the guy who doesn’t believe the figure representing Berkeley [Hylas] has to give, in response to the argument, a really ‘Flann O’Brien’ sounding and absurd description of matter to allow it to exist. He says of matter:
‘I know not where it exists, only I am sure it exists not in place. There is a negative answer for you and you must expect no other to all the questions you put for the future about matter.’
So not only is that kind of ‘here’s a negative answer for you’ very reminiscent of various moments and sequences in The Third Policeman, but I made a note: this guy, Hylas, he kind of gets it right, because that’s what we started to learn. It’s very hard to assign – if you look into matter at the subatomic level – it’s very hard to assign it a place, a position; very hard to assign it properties like how big is it, or how do you measure it? It is a bit like that.
Einat: Yeah. And it’s also like an action, right? It’s not that a particle has a place. When you measure it, it gets a place. So it’s like all kind of vice versa. Hylas is speaking in riddles in some parts of this. For Berkeley, he would like to say it’s completely illogical and no one could accept this view of the world. And yet here we are.
Toby: Here we are. Yeah. Having to accept it. So let’s reframe this question just to get our audience kind of going on this topic. So all of the above leads us into a debate which, as far as I can tell, is still I’m not a specialist in this at all, but it’s still quite active about whether such a thing as inert matter – non-conscious, mechanistic stuff inert matter – really, what seems to be as plain as day, it exists around us in day to day life. We pick up pencil and put it on a table. It doesn’t move on its own. We’re sure, right? We feel sure.
But unfortunately, these questions about mind and body do lead us to question: does inert matter exist or is everything somehow alive? And I think the modern version of this is a debate about consciousness whereby some neuroscientists and philosophers have to argue that consciousness doesn’t really exist and is a kind of magic lantern show put on by our brains to kind of keep us busy somehow because it’s hard to make it logically work, because it’s very hard to say where does consciousness start and where does it stop? Because it seems to be everywhere. And the other solution is to say, well, maybe matter is itself conscious and adopt a kind of pan-psychism approach: everything’s conscious.
I think that’s where obviously with artificial intelligence becoming more and more powerful, you can see why this debate is growing in its intensity and importance now. But it goes right back. Leibniz, I think is concerned about this debate and the Irish philosopher Bishop Berkeley – Bishop George Berkeley – he takes the position that right, matter doesn’t exist. He poses the idea of immaterialism matter is an illusion, it just not there. So could you just maybe with some reference to Flann O’Brien, could you just take us through what’s going on here with this doctrine that matter doesn’t exist and why it seems to become so important?
Einat: Yeah. So just to kind of position ourselves in time, I would just mention that Leibniz is a 17th century philosopher and Berkeley is an 18th century philosopher. So they are working still within a view of science that really precedes the atomic theory and believes in a very mechanistic and stable universe and predictable – but they don’t like it, both of them, both of them quite religious people – and one of the things that this cartesian divide between matter and spirit does is kind of taking God out of the workings of the world because everything… Okay, maybe God laid down the rules whereby matter operates, but then the role of God is finished. And so it gives religion a very, very small place in the universe. Whereas both Leibniz and Berkeley are trying to kind of recentre the spiritual realm and both of them imagine – and I think it is very interesting and close to the atomic theory – they both imagine a world that is not what it seems.
They’re telling us: okay, we think, as we said, that the pen is just out there waiting for us to pick it up. But in reality something completely different is going on and this is a kind of illusion or an emergent property of a world that is actually spiritual. So for Leibniz he would say matter is… there is no matter. Everything that there is…
Toby: Got to stick by that tenet!
Einat: Yes… it’s very easy: ‘let’s solve the problem: there is no matter!’ The only thing that exists in the world are souls that have desires. So if iron is going towards a magnet, it’s because it desires it. And law of gravity would be a kind of desire of objects to go towards the ground and so on … and perceptions. Now, not all souls are exactly the same, so some are darker and their perceptions are very limited and so they basically just stay where they are, there is very little change and it seems to us like a stable object, whereas some souls are much more active and they have memory and so they persist in time, they change, they develop, they have clearer perceptions.
And so we feel them as our minds or the minds of our friends and so on. So you would have this hierarchy of souls from the – not inert, but from what seems to us the material world – stable, to, I don’t know, animals that have some perception, to higher beings such as ourselves and all kinds of spirits and angels and, of course, God.
So this would be Leibniz’s solution. And it is not so far from these little atoms of the Parish that are riding around because these atoms have a personality, right? If you like – to take an example from the novel – if you like chasing the women and you exchange atoms with your bicycle, your bicycle will get your personality of chasing women, which is not what they teach you in physics classes, right?
So you get like this very personal view of objects and vice versa. Like the bicycles, they like to lean on walls. It’s their personality. And if you become part-bicycle, your personality is like partly ‘leaning on walls.’ So in this, it is kind of really reminiscent of one another. So this is Leibniz.
For Berkeley, he also doesn’t think matter exists. He calls his doctrine immaterialism, and what he says is that basically there is nothing that is not mind. And the way he gets to this, he says, how do I know that the world exists? I see things outside me. I feel things outside me. I hear things outside me. But these sights and sounds and tactile sensations, I feel them in my mind, right? By definition, I cannot feel anything that is outside of my mind. And even if I take a magnifier and I look through it, I still see something with my mind. And because my mind is a spiritual thing and it is not involved in matter, everything that I know is of a spiritual nature. And why would I assume even that there is anything else beyond that? And this is a position that, later on, Kant took to an extreme by saying we cannot know anything about what the world is like outside of our sense impression – of what we can know of it. And I think even to this day, this is kind of the underlying assumption of the philosophy of science. You can only know what you can sense either with your own senses or, I don’t know, with modern science. Like, I don’t know, our technological sensors. But we don’t really know what is out there. Yeah.
Toby: So I think one of the important things to distinguish Berkeley from, say, a German idealist philosopher is, as far as I can tell, really believes in the value of common sense and what he sees around him. He really doesn’t like things that don’t stand up and can’t be rigorously inspected. And it’s worth mentioning that he does allow for ‘real’ things in the sense that ‘real’ ideas as he called them, are simply ideas that exist in the mind of God. And he’s fond of quoting a passage from the Bible about how we kind of live in and through God. So God is kind of everywhere. So God provides this kind of inscrutable constant to his reality. But we are talking about the materialists and the people who were different people entering to this debate. There’s one way in which Berkeley is weirdly – like, I think Nietzsche actually – in that he dismisses abstract concepts completely. He rejects the idea there can be abstract concepts. So although in one sense he makes this very strong argument for a kind of total subjective idealism, quite different from Kant, for example, because he has no truck with abstract concepts at all. It’s like, no, they definitely can’t exist. And so we’ve got to just start with what we can sense around us. And that’s quite different, I think, that’s quite, almost quite even – though he saw his enemies as sceptics because for him scepticism was equated with doubt, doubting, and he was sure – he’s actually, to our eyes, he’s quite sceptical, in many ways, of philosophy because philosophy is categories and systems and abstract concepts.
Einat: He has a hard time persuading people of his theories. And so he has to basically tell us that what we think is happening is not happening and that the philosophy up until his time was just wrong, right? The philosophers got it wrong. So yeah, the way he deals with the first problem is he says: okay, some ideas are in the mind of God and therefore they have consistency. When I go out of the room, God is still observing the table, so the table does not disappear. That is fine.
But what to do with the philosophers? And one of the things that he does is he develops this criticism of language and he says: we say a lot of things that are kind of shortcuts and do not refer to anything in the real world. And if we try to imagine or specify what exactly we mean, we find that we don’t know what it means. And abstract concepts are this kind of thing: I can perceive of an object or I can imagine even in my mind I can imagine of an object that is being red or blue or yellow, right? I can imagine a yellow ball, I can imagine a blue ball, but I cannot imagine a colourless ball. So to say that an object has a colour, the word colour is not standing for any particular or any well-defined concept, it is just a shortcut that instead of saying that the ball is either yellow or red or green or blue or all the spectrum. This is not a very economical way to express yourself. Think of what it means to be Irish, right?
Einat: I think both Berkeley and O’Nolan would not like to think that there is a clear, distinct, specific thing that is Irish, but rather that it is a kind of shortcut for all kinds of things that can come under this heading.
Toby: Yeah, when we were preparing for this podcast, we were kind of hunting a bit in Cruiskeen Lawn for where a Berkeleyan influence might emerge. And in the end, I think we found something, thanks to the excellent work of Katherine Ebury in the recent Problems of Authority collection. So it’s the essay ‘Physical Comedy and a Comedy of Physics in The Third Policeman, The Dalkey Archive, and Cruiskeen Lawn’, which is talking about responses to popularizations of the theory of relativity by Arthur Eddington, which is where we started with this discussion: the new physics and what that meant for our understanding of the universe.
And I wanted to read a quick passage and just kind of anatomize who is being voiced here and what’s going on in the column, because he makes, as Ebury points out, a five point critique of the new physics. I’m just going to read out the first three points.
‘The following statements are statements of fact ex authoritatis natura, having been made by me:
- The ‘science of theoretical physics’ is not a science at all but a department of speculation. Its speculative materials are incomplete and fallacious: incomplete because elements incapable of human observation are excluded; fallacious because the limited observation possible is undertaken by humans. Insofar as it purports to be concerned with investigating the causation of life according to rational criteria, it is sinful
- Its procedure is the observation of what appear to be natural ‘laws’ and the deduction therefore of other ‘laws’ and ‘facts’. A serious fallacy derives from this obsession with order. All science is meaningless unless referable to the human race. Physicists are deluded by the apparent orderliness of the universe. They do not realise that the forces of disorder – being energies residing in the human brain – are immensely more powerful than those of order and are such as to reduce planetary and other examples of order to inconsequence […]
- All major ‘scientific discoveries’ do not add to what is already known but merely push farther back the horizon of human ignorance (i.e., the only sort of ignorance that exists): Example.– Before the atom bomb existed researchers were addressing the finite and soluble problem of making the bomb. […] But the instant the bomb was made and used, there was created a limitless ignorance as to how a defence against the bomb could be devised’
Einat: It’s funny, but you also want to cry, right? Because, yeah, we were able to make this super destructive device and now we have no idea how to protect against that. Of course, he’s not choosing the atom bomb as a neutral example, random example (“I was looking around me, I was thinking, what would be a good example? The atom bomb, great!’). I mean, The Third Policeman it has to be said is written in the middle of the Second World War, right – in 1940 – very quickly.
That things suddenly take on or lose a dimension or take on a sinister turn is something that I think is related to this. And Cruiskeen Lawn, of course, when he talks about physics … usually we tend to look at science, or science as has been sold to us as this power for the improvement of our situation and ongoing progress. A lot of people view science as an ongoing progress and a force for the good. But really it is the human energy of disorder that takes the physics, that uses the laws of the world in order to destroy the world. This is something kind of hellish, maybe even like the traditional devil. There is always the temptation and our fallen nature kind of ruins everything.
Toby: Yeah. Back to that … did you know that the atomic theory is at work in this Parish?
Einat: Exactly. The local council must take it up.
Toby: Yeah, exactly. The lock, stock and barrel of it all is the county council.
Toby: I think we’ve come to the end of our time, but thank you so much, Einat for a really rich discussion. We didn’t solve any of these problems, but we didn’t we didn’t set out to.
Einat: Out to we solved the problem matter. We didn’t solve the problem of God, but we did solve the problem of matter.
Toby: Yeah. I mean, maybe I’m giving us about – I think maybe we did come maybe a little bit close to solving the problem of God and the madness of the world – so maybe giving us a seven and a half out of ten here.
Einat: We made a major contribution here.