One Magisterium: a review (part 1)

by Sebastian Benthall

I have come upon a remarkable book, titled One Magisterium: How Nature Knows Through Us, by Seán Ó Nualláin, President, University of Ireland, California. It is dedicated “To all working at the edges of society in an uncompromising search for truth and justice.” It’s acknowledgement section opens:

Kenyan middle-distance runners were famous for running like “scared rabbits”: going straight to the head of the field and staying there, come what may. Even more than was the case for my other books, I wrote this like a scared rabbit.”

Ó Nualláin is a recognizable face at UC Berkeley though I think it’s fair to say that most of the faculty and PhD students couldn’t tell you who he is. To a mainstream academic, he is one of the nebulous class of people who show up to events. One glorious loophole of university culture is that the riches of intellectual communion are often made available in open seminars held by people so weary of obscurity that they are happy for any warm body that cares enough to attend. This condition combined with the city of Berkeley’s accommodating attitude towards quacks and vagrants adds flavor to the university’s intellectual character.

There is of course no campus for the University of Ireland, California. Ó Nualláin is a truly independent scholar. Unlike many more unfortunate intellectuals, he has made the brilliant decision to not quit his day job, which is as a musician. A Google inquiry into the man indicates he probably got his PhD from Dublin City University and spent a good deal of time around Stanford’s Symbolic Systems department. (EDIT: Sean has corrected me on the details of his accomplished biography in the comments.)

I got on his mailing lists some time ago because of my interest in the Foundations of Mind conference, which he runs in Berkeley. Later, I was impressed by his aggressive volley of questions when Nick Bostrom spoke at Berkeley (I’ve become familiar with Bostrom’s work through MIRI (formerly SingInst). I’ve spoken to him just a couple times, once at a poster session at the Berkeley Institute of Data Science and once at Katy Huff’s scientific technology practice group, The Hacker Within.

I’m providing these details out of what you might call anthropological interest. At the School of Information I’ve somehow caught the bug of Science and Technology Studies by osmosis. Now I work for Charlotte Cabasse on her ethnographic team, despite believing myself to be a computational social scientist. This qualitative work is a wonderful excuse to write about ones experiences.

My perceptions of Ó Nualláin are relevant, then, because they situate the author of One Magisterium as an outsider to the academic mainstream at Berkeley. This outsider status comes through quite heavily in the book, starting from the Acknowledgments section (which recognizes all the service staff at the bars and coffee shops where he wrote the book) and running as a regular theme throughout. Discontent with and rejection from academia-as-usual are articulated in sublimated form as harsh critique of the academic institution. Ó Nualláin is engaged in an “uncompromising search for truth and justice,” and the university as it exists today demands too many compromises.

Magisterium is a Catholic term for a teaching authority. One Magisterium refers to the book’s ambition of pointing to a singular teaching authority, a new one heretofore unrecognized by other teaching authorities such as mainstream universities. Hence the book is an attack on other sources of intellectual authority. An example passage:

The devastating news for any reader venturing a toe into the stormy waters of this book is that its writer’s view is that we may never be able to dignify the moral, epistemological and political miasma of the early twenty-first century with terms like “crisis” for which the appropriate solution is of course a “paradigm shift”. It may simply be a set of hideously interconnected messes; epistemological and administrative in the academy, institutional and moral in the greater society. As a consequence, the landscape of possible “solutions” may seem so unconstrained that the wisdom of Joe the barman may be seen to equal that of any series of tomes, no matter how well-researched.

This book is above all an attempt to unify the plurality of discourses — scientific, religious, moral, aesthetic, and so on — that obtain at the start of the third millenium.

An anthropologist of science might observe that this criticality-of-everything, coupled with the claim to have a unifying theory of everything, is a surefire way to get ignored by the academy. The incentive structure of the academy requires specialization and a political balance of ideas. If somebody were to show up with the right idea, it would discredit a lot of otherwise important people and put others out of a job.

The problem, or one of them (there are many mentioned in the first chapter of One Magisterium, titled “The Trouble with Everything”), is that Ó Nualláin is right. At least as far as I can tell at this point. It is not an easy book to read; it is not structured linearly so much as (I imagine, not knowing what I’m talking about) like complex Irish dancing music, with motifs repeated and encircling themselves like a double helix or perhaps some more complex structure. Threaded together are topics from Quantum Mechanics, an analysis of the anthropic principle, a critique of Dawkins’ atheism and a positioning of the relevance of Vedanta theology to understanding physical reality, and an account of the proper role of the arts in society. I suspect that the book is meant to unfold on ones psychology slowly, resulting in ones adoption of what Ó Nualláin calls bionoetics, the new united worldview that is the alleged solution to everything.

A key principle of bionoetics is the recognition of what Ó Nualláin calls the “noetic” level of description, which is distinct from the “cognitive” third-person stance in that it is compressed in a way that makes it relevant to action in any particular domain of inquiry. Most of what he describes as “noetic” I read as “phenomenological”. I wonder if Ó Nualláin has read Merleau-Ponty–he uses the Husserlian critique of “psychologism” extensively.

I think it’s immaterial whether “noetic” is an appropriate neologism for this blending of the first-personal experience into the magisterium. Indeed, there is something comforting to a hard-headed scientist about Ó Nualláin’s views: contrary to the contemporary anthropological view, this first-personal knowledge has no place in academic science; it’s place is art. Having been in enough seminars at the School of Information where anthropologists lament not being taken seriously as producing knowledge comparable to that of the Scientists, and being one who appreciates the value of Art without needing it to be Science, I find something intuitively appealing about this view. Nevertheless, one wonders if the epistemic foundation of Ó Nualláin’s critique of the academy is grounded in scientific inquiry or his own and others first-personal noetic experiences coupled with observations of who is “successful” in scientific fields.

Just one chapter into One Magisterium, I have to say I’m impressed with it in a very specific way. Some of us learn about the world with a synthetic mind, searching for the truth with as few constraints on ones inquiry as possible. Indeed, that’s how I wound up at as nebulous place as the School of Information at Berkeley. As one conducts the search, one finds oneself increasingly isolated. Some truths may never be spoken, and it’s never appropriate to say all the truths at once. This is especially true in an academic context, where it is paramount for the reputation of the institution that everyone avoid intellectual embarrassment whenever possible. So we make compromises, contenting ourselves with minute and politically palatable expertise.

I am deeply impressed that Ó Nualláin has decided to fuck all and tell it like it is.