The Measurements of Decay is K.K. Edin’s debut novel. Described as both “a tortured love letter to philosophy and a space opera spanning centuries,” the book touches upon perennial philosophical themes like evil, identity, and knowledge. I asked Edin about the ideas motivating his book, the philosophers mentioned in it, and the reason he uses the novel format.
In one of the other interviews you did for your book, you cite Descartes as an influence, in particular his search for certainty and his method of doubt. You say that exploring this line of thought can lead to “somewhere between absurdity and nightmare.” Can you explain what you mean by this, and how it motivates the narrative of the book?
I am very grateful for this question, as the answer I provided in that interview was aimed at a general audience, and I can now get into more technical depth about it. First and foremost, I should clarify that I did not mean that following Descartes’ line of thought per se leads to absurdity and nightmare. Although Descartes’ thought experiments have absurdity and nightmare as integral elements, in the form of the Evil Demon and the passage on dreams, that isn’t what I was referring to either.
What I meant is the following. If you accept everything Descartes says up to the end of the Second Meditation, and reject all of his arguments subsequent to the discovery of the Cogito (as many if not most philosophers do), then you end up in a kind of epistemologically solipsistic world: the sphere of the Cogito, the winking point of light in the dark void, as Paul MacDonald puts it. You end up in a position wherein you have certainty of the thinking I and the perceptions attached to it, but nothing else. That might not be so bad, because you might still believe in the external world and the reality of other people and so on, even if you lack certainty of them.
The line of thinking that might lead to the kind of absurdity and nightmare described in my novel is when you imagine how you might try to obtain that certainty of the external world and other people and their minds without ever leaving the confines of the Cogito. The reason is that despite having also rediscovered the epistemic rule of evidence (clarity and distinctness) by the Third Meditation, Descartes then faces the problem of actually knowing external objects and “escaping his own mind”, so to speak. Since, in the context of the Mediations’ narrative, he does not acquire the tools to speak of external objects independently of his mind before giving his (allegedly circular) proof for God’s existence, he initially confronts the possibility that all objects of knowledge, are contained within (potentially) or generated by (actually) his own mind.
How could you get out of that conclusion without invoking the Cartesian Circle? Being a thinking thing, in the Cogito’s sphere, is the final frontier of epistemic evidence. It’s both the hammer and the hand that holds it. So your only possible condition for certainty of something, in that case, is to be that thing. Let’s suppose that’s true. And let’s say you want certainty (and, for the purposes of my novel, understanding and generally knowledge, too) of a chair. Would you have to be the chair in order to theoretically be able to have certainty of it? Would you have to be your friend in order to know her? How could you really be her (or, become her) without losing your own being in the process?
Since you can’t leave the Cogito’s sphere, maybe one theoretical solution would be to drag the whole world and it’s beings into the sphere with you. But you wouldn’t just be dragging perceptions of the world and people and minds, or their outer ‘objective’ content, but their interiority and subjectivity as well. You could think of it as turning the space of the Cogito non-Euclidean, or as having monads within monads, if we want to get Leibnizian. But now more questions erupt. You end up with interiority within interiority, minds within minds. But is it simulated interiority, or the real thing? What happens to identity and self? Is there a hierarchy within this structure?
As you can see, this is where the absurdity lies. It’s fun to think about, but isn’t a really something worth debating too seriously. It’s where the science fiction comes out. You couldn’t actually subsume the world into the Cogito because the Cogito, by its very nature and structure, cannot contain other Is. It’s a thinking thing, not things. It is individualistic. More particularly put, our minds aren’t capable or structured to contain other minds within them. But if you tried, via the speculative power of science fiction, to think of what it would really look like, to remove the superficial absurdity of it, that’s where the nightmare enters the scenario.
I am of course not suggesting that this is the proper way to interpret Descartes or the Cogito, even if you reject everything after the Second Meditation. The reason is that, for Descartes, clearness and distinctness, not being, is the criteria for certainty. And in order to draw the inference that the only clearness and distinctness to be had is in virtue of being, a lot of potentially incorrect inferences have to be made. It also ignores the possibility of an epistemic tower, where knowledge might be ultimately founded on your being, but not every piece of it directly dependent on it. That being said, I do think there is still some truth to this approach to Descartes. Namely, the question: how can you reason towards knowledge of the external world and other minds from the restricted position of the Cogito? Descartes’ answer leaves many dissatisfied as it ends up being a form of the ontological argument, but there are other answers, too. And, as far as being is concerned, I think it is generally true that you have to invoke it as part of the epistemically foundational quality of the Cogito. Without that, you can’t really talk about the phenomenology or the role of intuition, and you can’t really give particularity to the thinking I. Then Descartes’ project is in real trouble.
Moreover, in the novel, the character who is chiefly associated with these thoughts, and with philosophy in general, almost always perverts the theories he discusses. There are character reasons for that (the novel is, after all, a novel before it is a treatise), but also the exaggeration is there to highlight the problem rather than solve it.
Getting away from the novel for a second, I think anyone interested in this question may want to read James Van Cleve’s paper on the Cartesian Circle. I think Van Cleve is right about how to interpret Descartes’ moves after the Second Meditation. Husserl also addresses some of these points in his lectures, The Idea of Phenomenology.
The synopsis of the book describes a future where humans can escape into hallucinations at will. The role of hallucinations plays a big part in many schools of thought, such as psychoanalysis, philosophy of mind, and rationalism. What position does your book take on them, and how does it engage some of these other theories?
Hallucination plays multiple roles in the novel. In the future depicted in the novel, every person has a device called a procrustus that allows them to enter “metempsies” (yes, from the Pythagorean ‘metempsychosis’). Life in this future is structured around the procrustus, but also around metempsies. It’s the main activity. It’s video games, movies, smartphones and hard drugs all rolled into one. It’s abandoning political and social life for comfortable sedation. It’s artificial solipsism to make you happy. So the most prominent point of discussion regarding hallucination in the novel is in terms of ethics, especially in relation to technology.
The trouble with hallucination from an epistemological and existential point of view is that you seem to have no criteria for determining what is and isn’t real (thus Descartes’ dream and Evil Demon arguments), except maybe yourself. Well, that’s terrible for someone who cares about reality. But what if people didn’t care about reality? Or rather, what if they didn’t see hallucination as contrary to reality? I am a fan of Nozick’s Experience Machine thought experiment, but I have concerns with it. I think it presupposes that the person standing in front of the experience machine, agonizing over her choice, is someone who has thus far experienced an authentic, non-simulated life. That sort of person, the kind of person like you or I, might indeed prefer hard reality over a pleasureful simulation. She believes there is a difference. She might believe that difference is worth suffering for.
But imagine this society hundreds or thousands of years in the future. That society has been conditioned over many generations to experience hallucination as a feature of reality. That is, for someone in the novel’s sci-fi society, there is no hard difference between hallucination and reality. It’s something people dip in and out of. For them, it is a regular part of reality and of existence to partake in the most extreme form of hallucination imaginable––that of having your identity temporarily obliterated and replaced with an avatar, for a video-game type simulation. In phenomenological terms, the whole structure of intentionality gets pulled into the hallucination––not just the object of intentionality.
The scary, cautionary part of it for me is that I think we really are at the beginning stages of a process that would lead us to such a situation. It’s not just technological, but political, too. It’s subjectivism and relativism pushed to the extreme. Post-truth is the start of post-reality. Smart phones, video games, VR, and Google are all warm-up prototypes. You could argue movies were the start of it, or even novels if you want to get really meta. Am I saying all these things are unethical in and of themselves? Of course not (that would be to commit the slippery slope fallacy). Fantasy is a core component of living. Just because something may lead to something bad, that doesn’t make the thing itself bad. But there is a certain trajectory I can’t help but notice.
Additionally, there is some explicit discussion of hallucination in terms of philosophy of mind and rationalism, but it occurs in parallel to what is happening in the future. To say much more would be to spoil some of the plot. But I can say that those discussions deal with the Narrator’s attempts to defeat his own solipsism.
It returns to the discussion of the Cogito from the previous question, but also of Kantian epistemology. The Narrator feels dissatisfied with the world of appearances. He cannot stomach the fact that there may be noumena. So for him, even if the world of appearances is not hallucination––that is, even if we are perceiving true appearances––it’s still just as much a sham. He wants to get so close to the object as to be the object. He wants to take panpsychism to a freakish extreme. He wants to fulfill Thomas Nagel’s question: “What is it like to be a bat?”, and a tree? and an electron? and the man driving that car? and only then will he find the world complete. To some extent, he’s fighting Aristotle’s thesis that there can be no science of the individual.
In that way, the Narrator departs from rationalist discussions of trying to ascertain reality by way of reason. If reason is part of the problem because it structures reality incompletely (i.e. not a God’s-eye perspective), or in terms of mere appearances, or even in terms of the distance between subject and object, then it isn’t through reason that he is going to apprehend noumena. I see him as related to Melville’s Captain Ahab in that way. If you read the chapter called The Quarter Deck in Moby Dick, you’ll find a surprisingly Kantian Ahab hateful of the nouemena behind the “pasteboard masks”. That’s the whale’s eye. It’s what he wants to stab. He’s angry because reality isn’t proportional to his supernatural wrath in terms of truth, though it is proportional in terms of danger, and it dared to wound him. So too with the Narrator. So too with many such Satanic characters.
Towards the end of your book your character discusses philosophy’s relationship to dystopia, saying “Hegel came closest to the right idea.” Without giving away any spoilers, what were you trying to say in that passage?
I am not sure I will be able to accurately discuss this passage without giving away minor spoilers, so I will do my best, but advise readers looking to avoid all spoilers to skip the parts with spoiler tags below.
The passage in question isn’t so much exegesis on Hegel but a moment of character development for the Narrator. That being said, Hegel is key to understanding the novel’s Narrator, though, so I’ll start by summarizing some aspects of Hegel that feature in the novel.
One of the core philosophical inspirations for the novel is Hegel’s discussion of Antigone and the Ethical World in the Phenomenology of Spirit. Hegel’s idea is that for every political and social arrangement, you have people acting on the basis of implied reasons. The society may not be explicitly aware of these reasons, but they act on them nonetheless. Once people start to gain rational awareness and try to articulate the reasons for their actions, contradictions that were not obvious at the implicit level emerge. In the case of Greek life, this is the contradiction between divine law and the law of the state. These suddenly apparent contradictions spark a long journey involving conflict, revolution, and sublation (philosophically, but also politically).
Epistemologically, this distinction between implicit and explicit knowledge is very much related to Plato’s Meno. Sometimes you don’t know what you know. For example, you don’t need to ask why in order to implicitly know that murder is wrong. Reasons could be sufficiently supplied, especially for an obvious proposition as that. But you don’t need to know those reasons in order to know murder is wrong or for the moral gravity of it to be conserved. The trouble is that not every proposition survives rational inquiry. This, for me, is where philosophy, but especially Kant and Hegel, are related to Lovecraft––dig deep enough into seemingly mundane claims and you could quickly end up wrapped up in otherworldly tentacles.
In any case, for Hegel, the entity that undergoes these developments is “Spirit”. Spirit is in great part constituted of the actual, concrete whole of human social interaction as it processes its internal web of mutual contradictions, tensions and recognitions. Hegel also frequently talks about Spirit as if it is God. He himself is a bit obscure (intentionally, I am sure) about the relationship between Spirit and God, but there is minimally a conceptual overlap between the two.
At a very general level, all of these movements are contained within developments in Spirit’s process towards self-certainty. It’s a process by which Spirit gains awareness of itself and begins to mutate, suffer and grow across history. Self-certain Spirit achieves its self-certainty as a result of sublating its internal conflicts, and thereby acquiring explicit knowledge of what it is. Spirit is the most general developmental category, but it is made up of more particular processes that have the same developmental form. That is true of politics, and also of philosophy. This is generally the theme of that passage.
For Hegel, philosophy as such is constituted of each and every particular philosophy. As he says in §13 of the Encyclopedia of Logic, “In part, the history of philosophy presents only one philosophy at different stages of its unfolding throughout the various philosophies that make their appearance.” For Hegel, each philosophy also contains within it the principles of each and every previous philosophy, for it is only in virtue of succeeding those previous philosophies, whether by negation or sublation, that it has any concrete reality. Aristotelian philosophy, for example, contains within it the philosophy of Plato, of Parmenides, of Heraclitus, of Thales, and others; and furthermore, Platonic philosophy also contains within it Parmenides, Heraclitus, etc. Hegel says, “The architect of this work of millennia, however, is the one living spirit whose thinking nature is to become conscious of what it is, and, in having thus become an object, to be at the same time already elevated above it and to be in itself a higher stage.” You might start to see how this relates to my dark fantasies about Descartes’ Cogito, and the minds within minds.
Okay, having gone through all that, I can talk about what is going on in that passage regarding the Narrator and Hegel. The arc of the Narrator’s philosophical journey generally follows a kind of Hegelian development––involving Hegel himself. The Narrator begins in Chapter 1 failing to write a treatise that his lover, Sophia, accuses of sounding like a bad Hegel rip-off. It’s a joke that turns all too serious by the end. After abandoning the treatise, he embarks on a (terrible and bloody) journey of self-discovery. Part of that journey tracks the history of philosophy. After his dissatisfaction with Descartes, it seems he will make a Kantian turn but even Kant’s concepts are not enough to give him what he wants. It’s too limited. He can’t bear to be behind the noumenal realm. By the end, he returns to Hegel, except this time with explicit knowledge of why he was attracted to Hegel in the first place. And what he’s attracted to Hegel’s promise to defeat the notion of noumena by way of immanent critique. The ironic element of Hegel is that you always end up back where you were at the start of the journey––but not quite. It’s like coming home, and home is the same place materially, but is different for the journey you undertook. It’s the ouroborus eating it’s own tail. Structurally, that was the tail-eating moment for the Narrator.
So why does he end up with Hegel? By the time we arrive at the passage in question, he has become quite empowered, and seeks to make good on his vision of changing humanity to having absolute empathy for each other. So he gives us his political theory. In true Hegelian fashion, he explains to us how every philosopher up to him (including Hegel) has only been a rung in the ladder. He styles himself as “architect of this work of millennia”, and it is both profoundly arrogant but also tragic. It’s him trying to understand himself. The political philosophy account starts out quite neutral. But, by the end, his darkness takes over. He claims that the dystopia that all of political theory seeks to avoid is in itself a necessary stop on the road to true freedom. So he is kind of an accelerationist––willing to go through dystopia, even willing to be the architect of it, if it will end with Self-Certain Spirit. And if you read the end of that passage, as well as the subsequent chapter, you’ll find that for him, Self-Certain Spirit is silence. It’s the death of language, the infinite articulation of propositions brought to an end, because all the arguments are finished.
But the catch is that he sees himself as Hegel’s Spirit––as a kind of God of Reason. Combine Hegel’s thoughts on philosophy and Spirit with Cartesian solipsism, science fiction and a dollop of arrogance, and that’s sort of what you get with the Narrator. He’s an anti-philosopher in the truest possible sense: using philosophy against itself. That isn’t meant to be any kind of subtextual critique of Hegel, by the way. In fact if you follow the course of the Narrator’s thoughts through the novel, he consistently perverts the ideas of every major philosopher. This ranges from the kind of Cartesian distortions I mentioned in the previous question, but even minor little jokes. For instance, at one point, he commits a murder and calls it an “accident, in an Aristotelian manner of speaking.” In the end, Hegel provides him with the most powerful, all-encompassing concept to harness: the sum total of all human interaction, existence, and thought.
End of Spoilers
What impact do you hope your work will have on philosophers? On the public?
For the public, I hope the novel will draw readers to philosophy and to engage with some of the ideas. So far, I have been pleased to see that happen. For instance, I’ve noticed a discussion group for the novel on Goodreads, and was so pleased to see people arguing about one character’s ethics.
I do have a worry that some people will interpret the novel as a kind of argument against philosophy, simply because the Narrator is such an awful person. That really is not what I intended whatsoever. I hope people take it as a fantastical exploration of fascinating ideas.
For philosophers, I hope it will revivify the creative dimension of philosophy a little bit, which I think is somewhat lacking in contemporary philosophy. I also hope it will make more stark the distinction between intelligence and wisdom. We are lovers of wisdom, after all, and I doubt very much whether there is any correlation between intelligence and wisdom, or ethical behavior. That being said, most philosophers I have met are fantastic people, so that is more an “in principle” thought than a veiled criticism.
I should say one of the biggest challenges for me in writing this novel was keeping it relatively accessible while maintaining serious philosophical depth. That is, the Lovecraftian tentacles waving about under the surface–-some of them even poking out. I slaved over the novel to make sure philosophers would pick up on the references, but also for those references to appear as more mundane words for non-philosophers. I hope that has worked. The best fiction, for me, is fiction that works coherently at multiple levels. At one level you have plot and characters and all the concrete elements. You have conflicts and resolutions at that level. Then you evaporate all the concrete elements and end up at the level of ideas. And the same structural co-ordinates map onto conflicts and resolutions at that level. Then you evaporate again and you have the structure itself, and again find conflicts and resolutions and so on. I’ve tried to create a work that reaches that ideal.
There is a lot going on in the novel, and I hope it works for people. I recognize that there are three big risks with the novel that will drive away plenty of readers: (1) the intensity of the philosophical content, (2) the style of the prose, (3) the unpleasant Narrator. If readers are willing to entertain these aspects of the novel and, in Hegelian fashion, view them as immanent to the novel, I am confident they will come away from it with benefit, if not enjoy it.
Why did you choose to espouse your philosophy in fiction rather than nonfiction?
I think it must be said that the book is not a kind of fictive diary that puts forth my philosophy through the mouth of any of the characters. I first and foremost set out to write a novel. I had characters and story in mind first and foremost. The book isn’t aimed at a mainstream audience, but it also isn’t aimed strictly at philosophers. The fact that one of the main characters is a philosopher of sorts (a very evil one!), further contributed to the book’s philosophical dimension. Furthermore, the novel is more exploratory than it is didactic. If “my” philosophy is to be found in the book, then it would be at a very emergent, dialectical level. You could also argue that my own philosophy comes out as a reductio ad absurdum of a certain character and his thoughts, but that might be too reductive a way to describe the novel. In that sense, the novel wouldn’t be too different as a piece of philosophy to the Republic, at least if you follow Allan Bloom’s ironic reading of it.
That being said, as a lover of philosophy, it was pretty much impossible for that not to bleed into the novel at every level. Overall, I wanted all of the tension in the novel to revolve around ideas in philosophy that are usually highly abstract. How could they be given particularity? These include ideas in moral philosophy, but also in epistemology, metaphysics and so on.
I think the novel also allowed me to exercise an aspect of philosophy that is difficult to hold on to the more one studies. That is, the creative dimension. In the classroom, we are trained, for better or worse, to be ultra precise. We are taught to put forth our ideas in very analytical and rigorous ways, and to have exceptional reasons for advancing a thought. A lot of good philosophy wouldn’t be accomplished without this, of course, but I think it can also sap one of the creative dimension of philosophy––the kind of creative dimension that produced Descartes’ Meditations, Plato’s Republic or Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. So I also wrote the novel as a creative outlet to experiment with and test certain ideas that I don’t necessarily agree with or would write a paper about.
As for the form of the work as a novel (as opposed to being a dialogue, or treatise), I think that has to do with the level of detail you can get into with a novel. I took the ‘experiment’ side of ‘thought experiment’ quite seriously. In an academic paper or book, the form is usually that of arguing, analytically or didactically, for what one believes to be true. In that sense, the novel was an attempt to help me figure out what I believed to be true. So I wanted to build out a massive thought experiment in which I could describe elements of it down to very particular phenomena. I didn’t want to be limited to concepts. I wanted to explore the psyches of those putting forth ideas, and not just the ideas. There are also certain ideas that I thought could only be shown and not explained. For instance, one of the concepts I wanted to explore required me to be able to saturate the reader in phenomena at points, in highly poetic form. That isn’t possible in strictly academic work.
The fact that the novel is so frequently dark in tone, I think, is a reflection of the philosophical horror I encountered while experimenting with these ideas and pushing them to their extreme conclusions. I always thought that H. P. Lovecraft’s awful, tentacled monsters were the perfect incarnation of Kant’s antinomies or the void of metaphysics Hume alludes to. I am not skeptical of metaphysics myself (quite the contrary). But the complications associated with metaphysics do pose obvious problems. I think I felt that, through fiction, I could explore my ideas without committing to them. That felt like a safe way to get down into the pit of tentacles, so to speak.
Who and/or what has influenced your writing style?
I am attracted to beautiful and daring language, intellectual ideas and poignant characterization. The novels that I enjoy the most tend to be ornately written, poetic and philosophical in some degree.
In terms of fiction, I draw from the psychological investigations of Dostoevsky, Knut Hamsun and Thomas de Quincy, the immortal masterpiece that is Moby Dick, the speculative powers of science fiction from Alfred Bester and Ursula K. LeGuin, and the magnificent prose of Cormac McCarthy.
Most of the ideas I like to base my themes on are drawn from the history of philosophy, though not always.
What are you working on now?
I have ideas for three more novels, each very different from the other, and different to The Measurements of Decay. I am also focusing very much on my professional career and my personal life, with much less time for writing, at the moment.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Decide from the beginning if you want to write mainly for artistic or entertainment or commercial reasons. If you decide to write for mainly artistic reasons, your standard should be nothing short of an absolute masterpiece. You will in all likelihood fail, but it will probably force you to increase the quality of your work. Aim for the stars, as they say.
In terms of writing itself, I like to think of the first draft as a process of excavating marble from a quarry. After the marble is prepared, you can begin sculpting. I also do not believe in inspiration as a necessary requirement to writing. I have found that inspiration only makes starting easier, or helps in generating ideas. It provides no noticeable increase in quality.
If you are writing for purely artistic reasons I would also avoid any business related information about the world of publishing until you are finished with at least the second draft. The knowledge may poison your vision. On the other hand, if you are writing mainly to entertain or for commercial reasons, make sure to read up as much as possible about the publishing world, and, in particular, about the constrictions of your respective genre.