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‘The Strangest Conference I Ever Attended’

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David Birnbaum believes he has unified the fields of religion and science. He told me so in an e-mail. A book he wrote, Summa Metaphysica, Volumes I and II, “unifies the two fields—elegantly—and seemlessly” (sic).

In April of last year, Bard College devoted a three-day* conference to the role of metaphysics in science and religion, prompted by the “reflections flowing” from Birnbaum’s books, according to a program e-mailed to participants from prestigious institutions including Dartmouth, Grinnell, and Oxford. “We are especially pleased to announce that David Birnbaum will be present during discussion,” the program enthused.

Left unmentioned was that Birnbaum helped finance the conference, that he has no academic affiliation, and that his works are published by an entity that he himself runs, called “Harvard Matrix” or “Harvard Yard Press” or, as sometimes printed on the spines of its books, simply “Harvard.”

So who is David Birnbaum?

Well, he is a man with many Web sites, including Womb1000.com, Philosophy1000.com, and Potential1000.com. He is a very successful private jeweler to Hollywood stars who deals in diamonds worth millions, according to this clip from a 2004 television show. And he is a man who, while not a philosopher by training (he has an M.B.A. from Harvard, the university for which he named his publishing operation), is very much interested in answering life’s big questions and “cracking the cosmic code.”

I skimmed the two volumes of Summa, as Birnbaum usually calls it, and dipped into his other books, including God’s 120 Guardian Angels and Cosmic Womb of Potential. Here is a representative excerpt from Volume II of Summa:

DIVINE POTENTIAL ignites the “journey” from
“POSSIBILITY”
through
“the METAPHYSICAL”
onward through
“REALITY”
and onward through ever-ascending levels of
“CONSCIOUSNESS”
and presumably toward
INFINITE DIVINE EXTRAORDINARIATION

While it wasn’t immediately apparent to me how that unites religion and science, the author does not suffer from a lack of energy or confidence. Curious assertions and koanlike queries abound. The approach to capitalization is idiosyncratic, and the line breaks are seemingly random or, if you like, poetic.

I learned about Birnbaum after following up on an odd post on a philosophy blog, Leiter Reports. It seems that a letter announcing a book of essays on the work of David Birnbaum was mailed to roughly 2,000 philosophers around the world. That letter stated that Garry Hagberg, a professor of philosophy at Bard, was a co-editor of the book.

This was news to Hagberg, who issued a statement explaining that this was not the case. He had never agreed, he said, to help edit a book on Birnbaum’s writing. Hagberg had agreed, mostly as a favor to a colleague, Bruce Chilton, to serve as co-chair of the conference last April—the one prompted by “reflections flowing” from Birnbaum—but Birnbaum’s metaphysics didn’t strike Hagberg as terribly metaphysical. “His work so far as I can see does not (this is description, not criticism) intersect at any point with what the discipline of philosophy considers to be within the field of historical or contemporary metaphysics,” he wrote in an e-mail to me.

Birnbaum has since promised to stop using Hagberg’s name in conjunction with the book project, though in an e-mail sent to The Chronicle it sounded more like Birnbaum was graciously releasing Hagberg from a commitment, something the professor said is not true. Hagberg called the idea that he would endorse Birnbaum’s writing by co-editing a scholarly volume on it “a kind of defamation by implication.”

A virtual program posted on David Birnbaum's Web site bard1000.com

A virtual program posted on David Birnbaum’s Web site bard1000.com

So maybe there was a misunderstanding. There are worse things than a mix-up over who is editing a book.

But it does seem hard to fathom why Bard College would play host to a multiday conference prompted by the self-published work of an amateur philosopher. Chilton, a professor of religion at Bard and executive director of the college’s Institute of Advanced Theology, organized the conference after a chance meeting with Birnbaum. When I asked what he thought of Birnbaum’s work, he replied: “I would refer to his work as being, at the very least, interesting.” Would Birnbaum’s work have merited a conference if he hadn’t helped pay for it? Chilton said yes. He declined to say how much Birnbaum had donated, noting that it was college policy not to release such information.

I spoke to several of the conference’s participants, including Tammy Nyden, an associate professor of philosophy at Grinnell College, who called the conference “so bizarre.” She felt hesitant about the invitation to begin with, but because it was taking place at a venerable institution like Bard, she decided to go. The conference covered expenses, and it sounded intriguing. But she thought it strange that almost no one attended the presentations, and she was surprised to come across a pile of T-shirts with Summa Metaphysica, the title of Birnbaum’s two-volume work, printed on them. Her brief interactions with Birnbaum did not put her at ease. “It was a very weird experience,” she said. “He keeps saying he has this unifying principle, and it’s ‘potentiality,’ and that’s the most sense I can make out of anything he’s said.”

Nyden’s presentation, on theology and physics in the 17th century, did not touch on Birnbaum’s work, and she said she found talking with fellow presenters “delightful.” Her impression of Birnbaum’s involvement was less favorable: “Here’s someone with a lot of money, and they’re buying a lot of legitimacy.”

Like Nyden, Marcelo Gleiser, a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College, found the experience unusual, calling it “definitely, absolutely the strangest conference I ever attended.” Also like Nyden, Gleiser gave a talk that had nothing to do with Birnbaum’s books, which he only briefly scanned. “I looked at the book and said, ‘Oh my God, what is this?’” Gleiser recalled. He said he and other invitees had developed a theory about the conference. “What the conference was about was trying to give credibility to this person’s book,” he said. “We were appalled by it because, frankly, it was a lot of nonsense. He was a very wealthy fellow, and we had no idea what he was talking about.”

For his part, Birnbaum believes such criticism to be evidence of academics circling the wagons against an outsider with threatening ideas. In an e-mail he employed the prose-poetry approach of his books:

The story is about
‘the club’
militantly
resolutely intent on quashing
any/all intellectual overtures
not coming from ‘the club’

I asked him if calling his operation Harvard Matrix (or “Harvard Yard Press,” as he called it last year) might cause confusion with the actual Harvard University. Birnbaum pointed out to me that he is a graduate of Harvard University’s business school and that he includes disclaimers in his books. One volume, for instance, says the publisher “operates independently of Harvard University.”

“There is no possibility for any reasonable person who has opened up a Harvard Matrix book or site to believe that Harvard Matrix is Harvard University-sponsored,” Birnbaum wrote.

Harvard University seems to disagree. I sent a spokesman for the university a link to the site and received the following response: “We are aware of this infringement of the Harvard trademark and are evaluating appropriate steps to address it.”

Bard now also seems to have concerns about how Birnbaum has portrayed his connection to the college and used Bard’s trademark. After a site called Bard1000.com was brought to the college’s attention, Mark Primoff, the university’s spokesman, said Bard would contact Birnbaum and ask him to remove it and other similar material. The university issued the following statement: “It was never the college’s intention for this conference to serve as platform for any particular person to promote their own work. In no way does the fact that we held this event mean that the college endorses the work of any individual, or supports any efforts on their part to use our name and good reputation for personal or commercial purposes.”

During the conference’s final panel, which you can see on YouTube, Birnbaum held forth on what he said was the importance of his books. He acknowledged that he was not a “famous academic” and that he had not “proven every last iota of my theory.” But he said he believed he knew why organizers at Bard would hold a conference prompted by his work. “They did not go out on a limb here with their credibility or Bard’s credibility because I wrote a paper,” he said. “They went out on a limb here for only one reason: that I might be right.”

UPDATE: Garry Hagberg points out that the conference was not actually “weeklong” as Birnbaum describes it in the virtual brochure above (and as I originally wrote) but actually lasted from a Monday evening to a Wednesday evening.

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