The truth is out there: a philosopher’s journey in Norway

Stephen Mumford tells Matthew Reisz about his desire to bring his discipline to a wider audience, why Norway was the perfect place to write his Cartesian debut novel and why insights into causation have more practical relevance than might first appear

June 29, 2017
Boat on a lake in Norway
Source: Stephen Mumford

Today’s boxers don’t get a chance to slug it out with Muhammad Ali. Philosophers, by contrast, spend much of their time sparring with the intellectual heavyweights of the past, interpreting, criticising and developing ideas first articulated by the likes of Aristotle, Hume or Kant. Yet the first novel by Stephen Mumford, professor of metaphysics at Durham University, takes things a good deal further than that, seeking to, in a sense, re-run one particularly iconic rumble – although in a very different setting from the Congolese jungle.

Glimpse of Light is subtitled “new meditations on first philosophy”. It tells the story of a philosopher called Benedict Chilwell, who has “in many articles and books over the years, developed a philosophy of realism”, based on the view that “a world [exists] outside of our own minds”. No doubt that view is uncontentious to most non-philosophers, yet Chilwell’s position has been subjected to intense criticism from sceptical colleagues, such that he has begun to doubt the value of his life’s work. He therefore decides to retire to a friend’s remote hut in northern Norway for the six days preceding the return of the winter sun, so that he can go back to first principles and try to rebuild his belief system on firm foundations.

Consisting of six meditations followed by a section of “objections and replies”, the book’s structure and thrust is, as anyone who has taken an introductory course in philosophy will realise, closely modelled on René Descartes’ landmark 1641 Meditations on First Philosophy.

Descartes’ Meditations also explore what, if anything, we can know with certainty, articulating in the process philosophy’s most famous argument: I think, therefore I am. Other aspects of Mumford’s novel – a heated dinner party debate, a discussion about a ring of invisibility, characters who emerge from darkness into light – make clear allusion to Plato. Mumford says that while working on the book, he “used to joke that I was rewriting Descartes’ Meditations but taking out all the mistakes – although that might mean I’ve just added new mistakes”.

By the end of his meditations, Descartes believed that he had managed to prove the existence of God and, thereby, the existence of the external world (since a perfect God would not permit him to be so grievously deceived). In a similar vein, Chilwell’s crisis leads him to examine the nature of causation and results in the conclusion that “the very first thing to exist must be causation itself...It must be, then, that God is causation: they are identical, for nothing in the world would deserve the name of God more than the uncaused cause”. And “once there are causal connections in the world...then we can start to form theories about the world, make our plans and offer explanations”.

Causation may be one of Mumford’s own areas of expertise, but isn’t it a rather technical topic for a novel aimed at an audience well beyond professional philosophers? And, for that matter, why write a novel at all, given all the pressure to produce articles and monographs to be entered into the research excellence framework?

Writing desk in cottage in Norway

The answer has a number of strands. In 2006, Mumford was invited to teach at what is now UiT The Arctic University of Norway, the most northerly higher education institution in the world. There, he befriended a Norwegian with a hut in the middle of nowhere – one of Mumford’s striking photographs of it appears on the novel’s cover (others illustrate this article).

This struck him as “a beautiful romantic setting. I like films and books set in a microworld. I went there in winter to see the return of the sun – novelists have to do their research, just like academics. I was amazed how long it takes to light a stove in the morning!” Glimpse of Light evokes the dramatic scenery, physical demands and limited social life of its setting. As Chilwell develops his ideas, the whole small village – a retired cleric, a pair of scientists, a fellow philosopher and a young Sami woman he is attracted to – gets involved, challenging his thinking and spurring him to develop it further.

Mumford is very impressed by the fact that Norwegian higher education is free, informal and well funded. He also admires the way that its philosophers are “very truth-focused” and “would never argue for something they didn’t believe”. For that reason, “Norway is the place to go if you are searching for the truth”, according to Mumford – even if Descartes himself died of pneumonia in neighbouring Sweden, where he had been engaged to tutor the queen.

The novel ends with Chilwell trying to convince the other characters of the almost absolute importance of seeking and discovering the truth. They are all, Mumford points out, “living in a world of perpetual darkness, because it’s the Arctic winter. I began to think about how we are living in a world of Donald Trump and post-truth politics, waiting for some illumination to come.”

At present, Mumford is using a fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust to investigate “the metaphysics of absences and negative properties”. This will address questions such as how we perceive that there isn’t a hippopotamus in the room. Even he admits that this topic is of largely specialist interest and that he was surprised to win funding rather than be mocked for “a proposal to work on nothing for three years”. On the other hand, he is adamant that philosophers’ insights into causation can be of urgently practical relevance. As evidence for this, he cites a big interdisciplinary research project he has been working on at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences about causation and medicine.

The starting point, he explains, “is that you have to understand what causation is in order to look for it – and if there are some philosophical misunderstandings, it can mislead us when we’re doing science”.

Many people, Mumford goes on, work on the assumption that “causes are just like blocks you can add together and that they don’t change each other when you [put] them all together”. In reality, however, “multiple causes can interact and change each other”, so “two drugs that both lower blood pressure individually can raise it when taken together”.

This has major implications for research: “When you run a randomised controlled trial, the way it works is that you have to introduce an intervention in the treatment group that the placebo group doesn’t get. But assuming that a drug is safe and works in this context, does it mean that it is safe and works in every context?

“Furthermore, to be eligible to be a subject in a trial, you can’t be at death’s door but need to be otherwise fairly healthy. But the drug is developed so that it can be marketed to people who are very unhealthy. We have all seen elderly people who start each day with a big tray of drugs, a chemical cocktail – and that particular combination of drugs has never been tested. That would be OK if causation worked in an additive, linear fashion, but that’s not the way it is.”

The medical professionals he collaborates with, claims Mumford, value the way that philosophers can help them think more deeply about causation. But we don’t have to take his own word for the practical applicability of his work. On one remarkable occasion in 2011, he was flown across the world to take part in a workshop on “understanding and influencing the causality of change in complex socio-technical systems” organised by the US Air Force!

Cabin in snow in Norway

Although Mumford hopes that Chilwell’s arguments in Glimpse of Light have “a prima facie plausibility”, he is also careful to distance himself from his protagonist by revealing him to be both prickly and pompous. He is not, he insists, using the novel just to popularise ideas that he has already developed elsewhere, in more technical terms, for specialists.

So what is he trying to do? Part of his motivation comes from a certain regret about the way that philosophy has developed into a highly technical discipline. “The great works of philosophy aren’t full of footnotes,” he says. “Descartes’ Meditations start as a bit of a story. The same is true of Plato, of course. But the subject became professionalised and lost a literary dimension...Because of things like the REF, people want to produce technically sound, watertight papers – and one way to do that is to make them smaller and smaller.”

As an example, Mumford notes that he is “sympathetic to the idea that science can’t answer every question, but it would be hard to present that argument in a contemporary philosophical setting, because people would just think that it is too big. A lot of times when you get rejected from a journal, it’s because you are too ambitious, trying to say too much.”

Instead of such minimalism, Mumford loves the great philosophers of the past who dared to develop big, bold ideas, even when they were completely wrong: “One of my favourite philosophers is David Hume – and I disagree with him on virtually everything!” Mumford says. “The reason for his greatness is that he articulates a particular view absolutely flawlessly.”

Writing a novel about a philosopher who broadly shares his perspectives but is by no means identical to him, therefore, allows Mumford to do things that he could never do in his day job.

“Ben overreaches his position in a way that I couldn’t have done in an academic monograph,” he explains. “He’s taking it an extra 20 per cent beyond what the argument warrants – I like having the freedom to be able to do that in a work of fiction.

“I am flying by the seat of my pants when he talks about causality as an uncaused cause – even God could not have created causation. That’s pretty mind-blowing! I could never write a scholarly paper on that, but it’s a great idea to put out there and get the reader to explore.”

And that is perhaps his most fundamental goal of all: Mumford is an eloquent enthusiast for his subject and would like to “stimulate readers to start thinking philosophically. I would be delighted if this was the first philosophy book someone had read.”

Stephen Mumford’s Glimpse of Light: New Meditations on First Philosophy has just been published in the UK by Bloomsbury.

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Reader's comments (1)

'As Chilwell develops his ideas, the whole small village – a retired cleric, a pair of scientists, a fellow philosopher and a young Sami woman he is attracted to – gets involved, challenging his thinking and spurring him to develop it further.' Wishful thinking?