David Birnbaum Buys His Way into Philosophical Debates. Should We Care?

I find myself more than a little intrigued by this story about amateur philosopher David Birnbaum. He is a jeweler by trade, and he’s gotten very wealthy off of the work, but his real passion is philosophy. Basically, he wants nothing less than to crack “the cosmic code.” And he believes he has done it with a book he has written, called Summa Metaphysica:

. . . Summa Metaphysica is actually two books: a 270-page preliminary volume, then the 560-page main event. (He has also published at least 15 ancillary works and operates, by my count, at least 12 websites, including philosophy1000.comwomb1000.com and potential1000.com.) It is an exhausting read, partly thanks to its length – volume two alone has 90 appendices – but also because much of it is written in a kind of rapturous, mystical prose, liberally peppered with capitals. A typical sentence reads: “The cosmic trajectory is from the bottomless VOID to the limitless EXTRAORDINARY.” Birnbaum’s big idea is what he calls “the Quest for Potential theory”, or Q4P, or occasionally Q4P∞. The sense that he is unveiling hidden, pan-historical connections sometimes gives his work the flavour of Dan Brown.

[. . .]

. . . Birnbaum was in Barbardos on holiday in 1982, sunbathing on a beach and turning matters over in his mind. “I’m good on the beach,” he explained. “My brain is working a little better… And then” – he snapped his fingers – “it was clear to me.” The answer was: potential.

This part takes a little explaining.

Birnbaum considers his specialism to be metaphysics, that hard-to-define corner of philosophy that deals with the most basic questions of what there is. It’s the territory into which you cross when you reach the limits of what biology, chemistry or physics can tell you. Metaphysical explanations aren’t supposed to be substitutes for scientific ones, though; they just claim to be even more fundamental. And what could be more fundamental than potential? What must have existed, before everything else, but the potential for all those things that later came into existence? If you believe in God, the potential for God must have been there first. And prior to the Big Bang, there must have been the potential for the Big Bang.

Rising from the Barbadian sand, Birnbaum saw the world in a new light: everything and everyone around him was an expression of cosmic potential, working itself out. Why? Because that’s what potential does. Birnbaum calls this process “extraordinariation”. It is explained in depth in the hundreds of pages of Summa Metaphysica, but the core idea is concise enough to fit on a T-shirt. The universe itself is potential, actualising itself.

You may be raising your eyebrows at this. But Birnbaum’s perspective isn’t without precedent. Since Aristotle, some thinkers have been drawn to the notion that the world must be heading somewhere – that there is some kind of force in the universe, pushing things forward. These teleological arguments are deeply unfashionable nowadays, but there’s nothing inherently unscientific about them. In his controversial 2012 book Mind And Cosmos, the US philosopher Thomas Nagel argues that teleology might be the only way to account for the still unsolved mystery of why consciousness exists. Still, as Birnbaum explained his theory, I must have looked underwhelmed, because he leaned forward in his chair to emphasise his point. “It works!” he said. “It’s powerful! And with all due respect to Harvard, Oxford, etcetera… it’s more powerful than anything you got!”

There are a lot of people who look upon Birnbaum with . . . shall we say . . . a great deal of skepticism:

. . . His work, said a commenter on the [Chronicle of Higher Education’s] website, “reads like L Ron Hubbard had drunken sex one night with Ayn Rand and produced this bastard thought-child”. One scholar who became professionally involved with Birnbaum described the experience as “unsettling, unfortunate and, to my knowledge, unprecedented in academic circles”. Another just called him “toxic”.

So, I think that it is safe to say that Birnbaum has his detractors.

Now, I am not likely to read Summa Metaphysica, or anything else that David Birnbaum writes. And the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which is cited in the piece, strikes me as a very good refutation of Birnbaum’s argument that “the universe itself is potential, actualising itself.” The Second Law does not say that “everything is getting worse,” as the story quotes Peter Atkins as saying; it tells us that “entropy increases,” which means that there will be more disorder. But whether disorder is “better” or “worse,” is beside the point. The important thing is that disorder is not order. It is not “perfection.” It is not “the universe” showing that it is “potential, actualising itself.”

So I have objections to Birnbaum’s thesis. I also have objections to the way in which he very clearly used his money to get academics to pay attention to him, and to like being looked after by him at academic conferences where that atmosphere was comfortable and luxurious thanks to his financial donations. I doubt, after all, that any amateur philosopher without Birnbaum’s money would be able to generate similar amounts of attention from academia when it comes to publicizing his/her theories.

And yet, the statement that “[a]t least Birnbaum continues to ask the big questions” is plainly correct and I find myself with some sympathy with Birnbaum for being intellectually adventurous. His ideas are likely completely wrong, but at the very least, he is engaged in the search for larger truths even though he could live a life of luxury outside of the public eye and away from public criticism and scrutiny. Maybe the world could use some more amateur philosophers. I hope they come up with better ideas than David Birnbaum has come up with, but let’s face facts: Some of the professional philosophers who have comfy tenured chairs in academia do little but recycle old theories and arguments and try to attack and tear down any and all intellectual opponents in the most dishonest and reprehensible ways.

Compared to these particular professional philosophers, David Birnbaum is the very model of propriety and good sense.

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