Showing posts with label philosophy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label philosophy. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Science and the Realm of Values

The major issue I have with current philosophy is the presumption that the methods of the objective sciences can be applied to questions of value and meaning with regard to human life.

This was the subject of a contentious essay from late 2013 by Steve Pinker, called Science is Not your Enemy (linked at right, together with some critical responses.) Pinker says in his essay that 

the worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science. Though the scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values, they certainly hem in the possibilities. By stripping ecclesiastical authority of its credibility on factual matters, they cast doubt on its claims to certitude in matters of morality.

One issue is that 'spiritual values' do not necessarily rely on 'ecclesiastical authorities'. This blog, and most of my spare time, is devoted to consideration of the questions of moral and spiritual values, about which I have consulted neither scientists nor priests. From a Buddhist point of view, the Buddha points out the source of values, which are oriented around what steers you towards nirvana, but nirvana is not reliant on 'ecclesiastical authority' and in fact Buddhism arose as a reaction against that very thing.

But then, Pinker also relies on a 'straw God' definition of religion:

There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers—though the discrepancy between the laws of probability and the workings of cognition may explain why people believe there are.

The scientific refutation of the theory of vengeful gods and occult forces undermines practices such as human sacrifice, witch hunts, faith healing, trial by ordeal, and the persecution of heretics.

Now I would take strong exception to the peremptory dismissal of 'karma', which in its most basic form, is simply the observation that moral choices inevitably entail consequences. The difference between acknowledging that and dismissing it, itself has great consequences, which again are not dependent on 'ecclesiastical authority'. 

And who does really promote 'human sacrifice, witch hunts, trial by ordeal and the persecution of heretics?' What would be the point in 'scientifically refuting' such archaic practices in this day and age, and why would such refutation constitute a general argument against religion? It implies a pretty jaundiced view of what religions mean.  How many of those advocating religious arguments endorse any such thing? 

That is what I mean by a 'straw God' argument: it is an argument based on a notion of 'religion' that hardly anyone actually entertains.  If one were to argued against science on the basis of the failure of phrenology or eugenics then surely one would be taken to task for misrepresenting science.

Anyway, at issue in all of this is the question of 'the meaning of being human' - the domain of values and meaning. I maintain this is categorically different to the kinds of questions which the scientific method is intended to address on its own term, as it is by definition a qualitative matter.  

On the one hand, the advocates of the scientific approach frequently state that the Universe itself is natively 'devoid of reason, purpose or value', which are, in their view, wholly and solely subjective (or inter-subjective, i.e. social). Then, having dismissed the possibility of 'real values' we are told to look to science, which claims to have dismantled any basis for values outside the utilitarian. 

One can fully and completely accept the utility of science, and even the ability of science to ongoingly reveal profoundly important facts within its domain of applicability, without however agreeing that it is a source of values as such.

I think the basic problem is a very deep confusion about the nature of knowledge with regards to questions of meaning and value. Religious ideas are clearly often couched in terms of mythology and symbolism; but I think both religious fundamentalists, and scientific atheists, somehow loose sight of the meaning of that. The fundamentalists insist that the symbolical and mythical accounts are actual or literal (''mistaking the finger for the moon" in Buddhist parlance); on the other side, scientific atheists take them to be simply mistaken scientific hypotheses, i.e. claims about actual entities which are to be understood in by the same means as the kinds of things which can be examined scientifically. In this way, atheists and fundamentalists are strangely alike (a point which has often been noted.)

So why do myths and symbolic forms have such a prominent role in religious ideas? It is because they are attempting to depict intuitive understandings and visions which really are of things that are 'over our cognitive horizon', as it were; among other things, they provide a way of relating to the unknowable. But the unknowable is actually something real in the midst of human affairs; the domain of knowledge shades into that of the unknowable on all sides; this has become abundantly clear even from physics with the appearance of dark matter~energy and the notions of parallel or multiple universes. 

Religions, however, have a tacit understanding of the unconscious and unknowable dimensions of human experience; which is something which not only does science not have, but can't be expected to have.   The domain of values and meanings plumbs the depth of the psyche and the predicament of 'the human condition'1; in doing so, religious thought charts things completely out of range for quantitative judgement and analysis.  

But what this is in service to, is the disclosure of a different way of being.  However neither its advocates nor its proponents seem very clear about that (with some notable, and noble, exceptions.) This type of understanding of the meaning of religions, is far more characteristic of comparitive religion and depth psychology (think Jung, Eliade, Hillman) than mainstream religious thinking (although again there are exceptions).

1. From Gloria Orrigi's review

Philosophers and humanists are interested in what has been called, in  20th-century continental philosophy, the human condition, that is, a sense of uneasiness that human beings may feel about their own existence and the reality that confronts them (as in the case of modernity with all its changes in the proximate environment of humans and corresponding changes in their modes of existence). Scientists are more interested in human nature. If they discover that human nature doesn’t exist and human beings are, like cells, merely parts of a bigger aggregate, to whose survival they contribute, and all they feel and think is just a matter of illusion (a sort of Matrix scenario), then, as far as science is concerned, that’s it, and science should go on investigating humans by considering this new fact about their nature.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A question you ask with your life

From the Dhammapada verse on 'Old Age':

147. Behold this body — a painted image, a mass of heaped up sores, infirm, full of hankering — of which nothing is lasting or stable!
148. Fully worn out is this body, a nest of disease, and fragile. This foul mass breaks up, for death is the end of life.
149. These dove-colored bones are like gourds that lie scattered about in autumn. Having seen them, how can one seek delight?
150. This city (body) is built of bones, plastered with flesh and blood; within are decay and death, pride and jealousy.
151. Even gorgeous royal chariots wear out, and indeed this body too wears out. But the Dhamma of the Good does not age; thus the Good make it known to the good.

From the 'Sermon on the Mount'

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Spirituality is the search for what is beyond birth, death and decay; that is 'what your heart should treasure'.  It's no use asking whether anything of that nature exists, from a hypothetical or lounge-chair perspective; you have to engage yourself in the quest for it; that is what it takes to ask the question. It is a question you ask with your life

This can be easily differentiated from a 'naturalistic ethic', as anything in nature is, by definition, subject to birth, decay and death; whereas, in the realization of the 'true identity', one is seeking that which is beyond birth, decay and death.

The dharmachakra represents 'the means to navigate the ocean of existence towards the further shore of liberation'. The symbolism is that of the wheel of the vessel (yana) used to cross over the river of suffering.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Factual Basis of Idealism

(Originally posted 2007, edited and updated 2014.  Also previously posted in Philosophy Forums.)

According to evolutionary biology, homo sapiens is the result of billions years of evolution. For all these thousands of millions of years, our sensory and intellectual abilities have been honed and shaped by the exigencies of survival, through billions of lifetimes in various life-forms - fish, lizard, mammal, primate and so on - in such a way as to eventually give rise to the mind that we have today.

Recently, other scientific disciplines such as cognitive and evolutionary psychology have revealed that conscious perception, while subjectively appearing to exist as a steady continuum, is actually composed of a heirarchical matrix of thousand, or millions, of interacting cellular transactions, commencing at the most basic level with the parasympathetic system which controls one’s respiration, digestion, and so on, up through various levels to culminate in that peculiarly human ability of ‘conscious thought’ (and beyond, although this is beyond the scope of current science.)

Our consciousness plays a central role in co-ordinating these diverse activities so as to give rise to the sense of continuity which we call ‘ourselves’ - and also the apparent coherence and reality of the 'external world'. Yet it is important to realise that the naïve sense in which we understand ourselves, and the objects of our perception, to ‘exist’, is in fact totally dependent upon the constructive activities of our consciousness, the bulk of which are completely unknown to us.

When you perceive something - large, small, alive or inanimate, local or remote - there is a considerable amount of work involved in ‘creating’ an object from the raw material of perception. Your eyes receive the lightwaves reflected or emanated from it, your mind organises the image with regards to all of the other stimuli impacting your senses at that moment – either acknowledging it, or ignoring it, depending on how busy you are; your memory will then compare it to other objects you have seen, from whence you will (hopefully) recall its name, and perhaps know something about it ('star', 'tree', 'frog', etc).

And you will do all of this without you even noticing that you are doing it; it is largely unconscious.

In other words, your consciousness is not the passive recipient of sensory objects which exist irrespective of your perception of them. Instead, your consciousness is an active agent which constructs reality partially on the basis of sensory input, but also on the basis of an enormous number of unconscious processes, memories, intentions, and so on. And this is the way in which the ancient philosophy of 'idealism' does indeed recieve support from modern science.

"...this thing we call “the world” isn’t something wholly outside ourselves, something we experience in a detached and objective way. It’s something we create moment by moment in our minds, by piecing together the jumble of unconnected glimpses our senses give us—and we do the piecing according to a plan that’s partly given us by our biology, partly given us by our culture, and partly a function of our individual life experience.

That point is astonishingly easy to forget. I’ve long since lost track of the number of times I’ve watched distinguished scientists admit with one breath that the things we experience around us aren’t real—they’re just representations constructed by our sense organs and brains, reacting to an unimaginable reality of probability waves in four-dimensional space-time—and then go on with the very next breath to forget all that, and act as though matter, energy, space, time, and physical objects exactly as we perceive them are real in the most pigheadedly literal sort of objective sense, as though the human mind has nothing to do with any of them except as a detached observer.  What’s more, many of those same scientists proceed to make sweeping claims about what human beings can and can’t know and do, in blithe disregard of the fact that these very claims depend on the same notion of the objective reality of the world of experience that they’ve just disproved."
John Michael Greer 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Values (and their absence) in modern thought

A common modern debate invariably begins with the view that 'science shows the Universe has no purpose'. That is of course a rather simplistic way of putting it, but the point remains that many who subscribe to what they would consider 'a scientific worldview' express this idea often. 

Take this snippet of dialogue from a Forum exchange:

(Me) I think the most basic philosophical question of all is 'why are we here?' Many will regard it as a meaningless question, others will already have worked out an answer to it. But two points I want to make are, first, the fact that we can ask this question is significant, because (to our knowledge) no other 'product of evolution' can do so. We are self-conscious, and aware that we live and will die. In this sense, we represent a unique point in the process of evolution: the point of self-awareness. We represent, if you like, where the whole process of evolution has become aware of itself.
So to ask this question is to wonder whether existence has any purpose. Is it solely what I make it? Is it to get rich quick? Is it to serve mankind? Do we live our threescore years and ten, and then vanish into eternal blackness?   And so on. These are all deep questions, with many possible answers. But this is not the question that the theory of evolution ever set out to answer.  So the fact of physical evolution does not really have anything to do with this question. But the fact that evolutionary biology doesn't ask, or answer, this question, ought not to be taken to mean that there isn't an answer, or that the question is not a serious question. And I think that is what is happening all the time in the background of this debate. I think that evolutionary scientists tend to belittle or dismiss any such questioning, because it is out of scope for the discipline. Then, this dismissal becomes a philosophical viewpoint in its own right: the viewpoint that whether there is purpose is not even a question.
(Responder) Evolution can in fact answer the question "Why are we here?":  to propagate as much of our genetic material as possible into the next generation.  Not very existentially satisfying, perhaps, but that is all evolution "cares" about.  Evolution doesn't preclude intelligent agents from devising their own goals and purposes -  it's just that such purpose and goals are not inherent to the evolutionary process.
Notice that the response actually affirms the very point I was making -  but without even understanding or acknowledging it! 'The evolutionary process' is, as an axiom, unintentional, undirected and blind. The fact that human intentions arise from that - are caused by it, in effect - introduces a dichotomy or division between (intentional) man and (unintelligent) nature. We can have our own aims, but because they don't reflect or correspond to anything in reality, they are subjective or at best social; they are not connected to anything in a greater reality.  That is the predicament of the materialistic mentality.  

Existentialist philosophers, like Camus, Sartre, Dostoevski, Nietszche and Kafka, all grasped the absurdity of this predicament and wrote books about it. But our apparently sophisticated modern thinkers don't even see it!  'To be, or not to be: what was the question?'  They may be 'scientifically literate'  - but they are essentially oafs. This also comes across in their insistence that people are animals (another axiom of theirs). In their view, life has no purpose other than 'my' goals and 'my' intentions; while this can be expanded to include social and civic aims there is no purpose beyond purposes that can be enacted in one's existence, or for the benefit of posterity; but nothing is transcendently or intrinsically good, or really simply 'good' in its own right and for its own sake. 

Goddess Prajnaparamita
Real Values

In contrast to relativism and subjectivism, the aim of a true philosophical spirituality is knowledge which is intrinsically good; it is to understand something, the very understanding of which is beneficial. The understanding itself becomes the aim; just to understand it is to be liberated by it, to the extent that you understand it. That is the nature of Prajñāpāramitā, supreme transcendent wisdom, in Buddhist philosophy (depicted iconographically at right.)


Monday, September 29, 2014

Western Buddhist Review of Mind and Cosmos

From review on online Buddhist journal: 
I think [Thomas Nagel's 2012 book, Mind and Cosmos] is of great interest for western Buddhists, because it puts forward a critique of, and ideas for alternatives to, the predominant materialist worldview of our times. Nagel’s starting point is not simply that he finds materialism partial or unconvincing, but that he himself has a metaphysical view or vision of reality that just cannot be accommodated within materialism. This vision is that the appearance of conscious beings in the universe is somehow what it is all for; that ‘Each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself’.  Nagel’s surrounding argument is something of a sketch, but is entirely compatible with a Buddhist vision of reality as naturalism, including the possibility of insight into reality (under the topic of reason or cognition) and the possibility of apprehension of objective good (under the topic of value). His naturalism does this while fully conceding the explanatory power of physics, Darwinian evolution and neuroscience.  Most Buddhists are what one might describe as intuitive non-materialists, but they have no way to integrate their intuition into the predominantly materialistic scientific world view. I see the value of Nagel’s philosophy in Mind and Cosmos as sketching an imaginative vision of reality that integrates the scientific world view into a larger one that includes reason, value and purpose, and simultaneously casts philosophical doubt on the completeness of the predominant materialism of the age.

The Universe is Waking Up, Western Buddhist Review

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

'Adharma' and Contemporary Society

After quite a few years of debating on philosophy forums, I have formed the view that few of the atheist critics of religion and spirituality have much insight into what it is they don’t believe in. Writing from the perspective as a kind of ’spiritual-but-not-religious’ practitioner of Buddhist meditation - although I am finding that the distinction is hard to maintain! -  I think there is a profound truth in this observation by E. F. Schumacher (of Small is Beautiful fame) in a 1957 radio broadcast called The Insufficiency of Liberalism, about what he termed ‘the three stages of development’ in society:

The first great leap was made when man moved from Stage One of primitive religiosity to Stage Two of scientific realism. This is the stage modern man tends to be at. Then, he said, some people become dissatisfied with scientific realism, perceiving its deficiencies, and realize that there is something beyond fact and science. Such people progress to a higher plane of development which he called Stage Three. The problem was that Stage One and Stage Three looked exactly the same to those in Stage Two. Consequently, those in Stage Three are seen as having had some sort of relapse into childish nonsense. Only those in Stage Three, who have been through Stage Two, can understand the difference between Stage One and Stage Three 1

In all my debates, I encountered only a few who seemed to come from a ‘Stage Three’ perspective. There were some followers of the perennial traditions and those with an affinity for mystical spirituality or philosophical idealism in various forms. But the great  majority were scientific realists, who naturally assumed that any talk of higher truths was a throwback to religious literalism and fundamentalism. And they were so resolute, so absolute, in their rejection of ‘anything religious’ that it conditioned their response to any such ideas. Anything spiritual whatever was obviously, simply, a trojan horse for fundamentalism, or mysticism, which they seemed to detest just as much (whilst showing little comprehension of it. The aversion of analytical philosophy to 'mysticism' is so great that the term itself is a pejorative.)

A Straw God

From all this I have come to the view that anti-religion is a belief system. It is based on the firm and unswerving conviction that there is no God, and nothing that can be called ‘supernatural’. However those who advocate such views - and they are legion  - have very odd ideas about what might constitute Deity and the supernatural. They are generally very literalistic and concrete; Richard Dawkins frequently expresses incredulity about the notion of the 'super-complex being' that a God must be, on the basis that something that designs must be more complex than what it designs. Quite why this is mistaken then turns out to be impossible to explain, because such philosophical and theological notions as 'the divine simplicity' are impossible to describe or imagine.  And this is the case with virtually all the atheist depictions of Deity I have encountered - on account of which, I feel that if 'God' was as atheists depict God to be, then I would certainly be one of them. The God which Dawkins and others so vociferously insist could not exist, certainly does not; but, as David Bentley Hart points out, such a God never has existed, so Dawkins is effectively criticizing a 'straw God'.

Fingers Pointing at the Moon

There is a Buddhist idea that Buddhism itself - all the teachings, liturgy, sutras and commentaries, and everything else, are but ‘fingers pointing at the moon’. The Buddha points the way, but you have to walk it. Even Dharma must be abandoned in the end to say nothing of 'adharma'. 

However according to anti-religion, there is no moon, nothing to point at, no 'way' to traverse, and no such thing as ‘release’ or ’nirvana’.  There is only our momentary life in the world, book-ended between the non-existence that we have fortuitously and momentarily sprung forth from by entirely material processes. It follows from this that the only aims in life are utilitarian and technological - things which aid material comfort and well-being. Certainly there are intellectual and artistic aims, but these aren't related to the cosmic order - only to social, civic and personal aims and virtues. They are always ultimately subjective and relative. But if you point this out, they say 'What else is there?'

There is an asymettry in this: for the materialist, it is only about the denial of 'a belief', and furthermore one which has no 'empirical referent'; whereas, for the awakened, what is denied is a dimension of being-knowing-bliss (sat-chit-ananda) which is as real as the ground we stand on (or even more so, being the ground of the ground). So for the atheist, reality is simply the world of appearances, that is known, imperfectly, through the sciences and the senses, into which we are born, by chance, and from which we eventually disappear; whereas for anyone of whatever spiritual persuasion, this life is simply one chapter in the overall story, one facet of a larger whole. So from the atheist point of view, it is simply a matter of a false belief, whereas for the spiritual, what is at stake is the very nature of life itself. 

But it seems it can only be understood in terms of an archaic Sky-Father-God image by many people - both believers and atheists. So even if that is not what you mean, that is what they think you are talking about, and then they proceed say that you're irrational or retrograde for believing such a thing. (I'm sure that many theistic believers actually believe in something very similar to Jupiter, which is derived from the Indo-European word for 'Sky-Father'. After all 'Jehovah' and 'Jupiter' are very similar words, even if from completely different etymological roots. Although it ought also to be considered that this might be necessary at some stages of development. )

Poisoning the Well 

I think the main cause behind contemporary anti-religion goes back to the reaction against the influence of fundamentalism in the Christian mainstream. The shadows of Calvinism and the Inquisition and the related conflicts loom large in the Western psyche. It has poisoned the well, so to speak, and given rise to entire generations who are cut off from any sense of the spiritual. One of the last dialogues I had on Philosophy Forum was with a friendly contributor who could sort of see what I was getting at, but seemed to think it must always mean 'a return to the past' -  to the judgemental, inquisatorial Sky Father God and all the associated baggage. How to explain to him the 'bliss that comes from within'? Can it be explained? Maybe not, or maybe it no longer has anything to do with the subject of philosophy, which after all nowadays seems more and more to be 'talking about talking'. 

Inner Experience

Right now I am reading David Bentley Hart's The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness and Bliss, and finding it generally congenial to my outlook. There are some basic points of dogma that I don't go along with, but, having been awakened to some small degree by meditation, I now am more sympathetic to Christianity as a spiritual philosophy, than I ever could have been previously. (Although I still think there are perspectives that are missing from the way that both its advocates and opponents portray it. Some books I encountered which helped me to see alternative perspectives were Inner Christianity by Richard Smoley, and A Different Christianity, by Martin Amis; they both put a lot of emphasis on the path of meditation and are generally 'gnostic' in some sense.  The absence of that perspective of 'inner knowing' is what drove many people to Eastern spirituality, although I am now beginning to recognise the treasures of the tradition I was born into.)

The basic issue in all this is, that the aspect of spiritual philosophy that is important is concerned with a different way of being. It is not, as many atheists depict it, 'an hypothesis' about a being. Metaphysics requires metanoi - and 'metanoia' means 'change of mind' or 'change of heart'. This doesn't mean suddenly adopting a belief in a super-natural designer - whatever that might be! -  but discovering a different way of being, and the very different perspective that comes out of that.

That is why meditation puts a lot of emphasis on inner silence rather than on discursive thought.
The true meaning of sitting Zen is to cut off all thinking and keep not-moving mind. So I ask you: what are you? You don’t know; there is only “I don’t know.” Always keep this don’t know mind. When this don’t know mind becomes clear, then you will understand. So if you keep it when you are talking, this is talking Zen. If you keep it when you are watching television, this is television Zen. You must keep don’t know mind always and everywhere. This is the true practice of Zen.2

 'Always keep this don't-know mind'. That is the way to higher truth, which is actually and simply 'what is' when the monkey mind is in abeyance.

(This kind of understanding can be found in Christian teaching also, if you know where to look, but you generally wouldn't learn about it in Church.)

Fear of the Unknown

And I think another problem is that atheism projects a lot of unconscious fears onto religion rather than understanding that it is really about inner peace and understanding the nature of mind (as Buddhists would put it). Furthermore it does this unconsciously, that is, without really being aware of what it is doing and why. You can actually see this in the deep hostility that 'the new atheists' have towards religion - a real 'fear and loathing'. Hence also the long-standing aversion in analytical philosophy to metaphysics, which it disparages as 'woo'.

I think that this fear and loathing is a manifestation of the unconscious awareness of aspects of our own being - the unconscious, which is ambiguous, fluid, not subject to quantification, but at the same time foundational to existence. So there is the constant, relentless drive to 'prove' what 'the real ground of being' is, in terms of science, physics and quantifiable, external data - what can be made explicit, what can be made manifest and objectified. So whether it is 'the selfish gene' or the theory of the ultimate material entity, perhaps in some ways it is always the sublimated search for the immortal, for that which is beyond change, decay and death. But it has to be external, objective, 'out there somewhere', as people say nowadays -  that in terms of which everything else can be explained (on which point, see The Gospel of Scientific Materialism). But the very search itself has now overflowed, so to speak, the vast Universe itself, into many worlds and multiple universes - which is something for another post.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The European Enlightenment and Buddhism

In the European enlightenment, there was an underlying presumption that science ought to replace 'religion' as the source of normative judgement. However science is not directly concerned with ethical questions - it is mainly concerned with measurement, prediction and exploration of the natural world. The scientific attitude has been generally associated with the tendency towards positivism in philosophy, which is the rejection of metaphysics and many other facets of traditional philosophy.

‘Positivism’ was a term devised to differentiate the empirical and natural sciences - 'positive sciences' - from prevailing religious and metaphysical philosophies of the age. Auguste Comte, who coined the word, saw a progression in the development of society from the ‘theological’ to the ‘scientific’ phase, in which data derived from empirical experience, and logical and mathematical treatments of such data, provide the exclusive source of all authentic knowledge. The general conception of the evolution of society from theological to scientific - a model which might be called ‘historical positivism’ - has remained an important component of the modern outlook. In this world-view, the mechanistic model and the idea that the underlying reality of the Universe was matter was, then, the culmination of the idea of Progress. In important respects, science assumes the role that was previously occupied by religion, to become something like a 'religion of scientism' which has recognizable exponents in modern society.

Secular thinking, conceived as a systematic philosophy which does not make recourse to anything metaphysical, accepts the natural sciences as the umpire of reality, understanding of which is always to be sought in objective terms. Within this view, individuals are free to practice within any religious or spiritual tradition of their liking, with the proviso that it ought not to be harmful to others. But note that this radically subjectivizes the question of the validity of the truth claims of any such traditions. In practice, it is impossible to differentiate such truth claims from matters of opinion, because they are basically subject to individual conscience and beyond the purview of the objective sciences.

What I think is lacking in all of this is a model which accomodates the fact of spiritual enlightenment. There was really no idea of such a thing in the ecclesiastical traditions that the Enlightenment reacted against, where 'spiritual enlightenment' in the Eastern sense was generally the subject of ecclesiastical censure and persecution. If such an understanding is to be found, I think it has to be sought through comparitive religion, anthropology, and the study of what William James called 'the varieties of religious experience'. And I think if you do study it that way, with an open mind (which is a very hard thing to come by in regards to this question) you can see the outlines of what 'spiritual awakening' across many different cultural traditions really consists of. 

One of the groundbreaking popularisers of comparitive religion, Huston Smith, addressed this in his book Forgotten Truths in which he says that in all the sacred traditions, there are "levels of being" such that the more real is also the more valuable; these levels appear in both the "external" and the "internal" worlds, "higher" levels of reality without corresponding to "deeper" levels of reality within. On the lowest level is the material/physical world, which depends for its existence on the higher levels. On the very highest/deepest level is the Infinite or Absolute, which might be identified as God in the theistic traditions. (The key point, the single most important understanding that was lost in the European Enlightenment, was the notion of a 'hierarchy of being'.)

Basically his Forgotten Truths is an attempt to recover this view of reality from materialism, scientism, and "postmodernism." It does not attempt to adjudicate among religions (or philosophies), it does not spell out any of the important differences between world faiths, and it is not intended to substitute a "new" religion for the specific faiths which already exist.

Nor should any such project be expected from a work that expressly focuses on what religions have in common. Far from showing that all religions are somehow "the same," Smith in fact shows that religions have a "common" core only at a sufficiently general level. What he shows, therefore, is not that there is really just one religion, but that the various religions of the world are actually agreeing and disagreeing about something real, something about which there is an objective matter of fact, on the fundamentals of which most religions tend to concur while differing in numerous points of detail (including practice).

I would hope that some kind of common vision is beginning to emerge from the Western encounter with Buddhism as well as from other sources. If we are able to construct a cosmology within which the fact of spiritual awakening retains the pivotal importance that it has always had for Buddhism, there is no reason why this can't accomodate, and also counter-balance, anything which the objective sciences discover. In its absence, however, we are facing only ever-increasing and more sophisticated forms of avidya which is a threat to both the human and natural environment.

(Originally posted on Dharmawheel).

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Armed and Dangerous

In the ancient world, it was understood that the ordinary condition of people was one of delusion. In the wisdom traditions, this was encoded in various symbolic terms and allegories  -  but the underlying idea was that 'man is a stranger to himself' and lived in an unreal world of dreams and fantasies, which he mistakes for reality (for example, the Allegory of the Cave, in The Republic). And even though a person might have had great learning, skill and fortune, as long as s/he remained in 'ignorance', in this philosophical sense, this remained the case.

It seems to me that most of what passes for philosophy in this day and age is simply a way of rationalizing this state of affairs. Materialism, which is basically the rejection of any real philosophy, is the determination that the world of appearance is the only world, the real world, and that the conscious ego and the forces it can master is the real self. Any notion of a truth that has to be striven for or aspired to through self abnegation and renunciation is laughingly dismissed.

Those who propose this are what the gnostics call the 'somatics' or 'hylics'. They are the common man, the puttajana, the unreformed, the mass of people. The aim of post-Enlightenment philosophy seems to be making the world safe for the ignorant: enabling you to stay in your slumber of delusion, while enjoying the illusory pleasures that it provides to the utmost degree. Of course, this situation is completely unsustainable, and the source of a great deal of our current crises, large and small. But you can't explain this to anyone - because they don't really grasp what it is that they don't understand! Any attempt to explain it meets a barrage of fire which is designed to preserve the egoic illusion. And as this egoic illusion is now equipped with weapons of absolutely unprecedented potency, the world is indeed on a knife edge. We have generations of people who have no real idea of the distinctive nature of wisdom, yet who have the most advanced technology the world has ever seen.

One grand irony in all this is that science itself has actually seen through the delusion of materialism. Science has dissolved matter into probability waves, and realized that 'the observer' occupies the pivotal role in the creation of the world of appearances. So this materialism is no longer even really supported by the science that it trumpets to everyone. But try telling that to anyone - it is taboo, forbidden. The lords of this world won't allow it. So, the problem then becomes that materialist philosophy doesn't comprehend what it is ignorant of. As far as it is concerned, there is only scientific knowledge, even though it is by now obvious that the world itself, the entire arena of scientific discovery, does not contain its own ground or its own origin. The profound nature of this shortfall is not admitted, however. The best we have is 'fallabalistic and approximative hyptheses' which will forever be subject to falsification.

So in this mentality, the very absence of wisdom, in the sense of the vision of the eternal, is now called 'wisdom'. We are told to 'live in the moment' - quite a different thing to the 'eternal now' of the sage - because life is only a moment, a flash of light in the eternal blackness of the material universe. But those who propound this teaching have no idea of what it is they are criticizing, having never gone through the dedication and effort required to actually ask the question about the nature of ultimate reality properly. So they are teaching ignorance as wisdom. That is the nature of the age we live in.

It is interesting that I find the following statement in two completely different sources. The first is by A W Tozer, an American evangelical, but a very unusual and insightful one, in my opinion:

There are two spirits abroad in the earth: the spirit that works in the children of disobedience and the Spirit of God. These two can never be reconciled in time or in eternity. The spirit that dwells in the once-born is forever opposed to the Spirit that inhabits the heart of the twice-born. This hostility began somewhere in the remote past before the creation of man and continues to this day. The modern effort to bring peace between these two spirits is not only futile but contrary to the moral laws of the universe.

A W Tozer, The Once-Born and the Twice-Born.

Then I found this statement on a Sikh website:

It is repeatedly indicated in the Gurbani that there are only two different groups of people living together on earth: Gurmukhs (followers of Divine Hukam, Truth (ਸਚ), Wisdom of the Gurbani ...) and Manmukhs (deniers or opposers of Divine Hukam, Truth (ਸਚ), Wisdom of the Gurbani ...).

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Religion is....

...the vision of something which stands beyond, behind and within the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realised; something which is a remote possibility and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest.

A N Whitehead, quoted by James le Fanu

Friday, July 20, 2012

Reality is not what you see out the window

Reality is not what you see out the window. Reality is you looking out the window. What is the difference? Well, 'you looking out the window' includes the observer. And it is obvious that, in fact, reality does 'include the observer'. Insofar as science wants to understand reality as if there is no observer present - 'the view from nowhere' - then what it actually sees is only a slice or an aspect of the totality.

The totality, the whole picture, always must include the observer; and to pretend that it doesn't is a kind of conceit, and maybe even a kind of deceit.

It has occurred to me that 'scientific materialism' is actually a degenerate form of Christianity. From Christianity it has inherited the idea of 'truth', however now materialism understands this as 'scientific truth'. The problem with this is that there really isn't such a thing as 'scientific truth'. There are scientific hypotheses, which are, by their nature, limited and falsifiable. There are enormous amounts of data, far more than any individual can ever hope to know. But the idea of 'Truth with a capital T' is very much inherited from Christian Platonism. It is the remnants of the idea of a realm of truth, a place or a state of mind, where 'all is revealed'. (Think 'the allegory of the Cave'. Perhaps this really was the vision at the beginning of the scientific enterprise.)

Now what it has come to mean is that there only certain kinds of things which we will consider to be real, namely,  'the kinds of things which the natural sciences are able to investigate'.  Basically these are things which are amenable to quantification and explanation in third-person terms and are potentially explicable in terms of the laws of physics. Anything whatever which is deemed to 'contradict the laws of physics', is anathematized with all of the passion with which the doctors of the Church used to condemn heresy. An example was John Maddox' (Then editor of Nature) outraged reaction to Rupert Sheldrake's A New Science of Life:

"I was so offended by it, that I said that while it's wrong that books should be burned, in practice, if book burning were allowed, this book would be a candidate (...) I think it's dangerous that people should be allowed by our liberal societies to put that kind of nonsense into currency. It's unnecessary to introduce magic into the explanation from physical and biological phenomenon when in fact there is every likelihood that the continuation of research as it is now practiced will indeed fill all the gaps that Sheldrake draws attention to. You see, Sheldrake's is not a scientific theory. Sheldrake is putting forward magic instead of science, and that can be condemned, in exactly the language that the popes used to condemn Galileo, and for the same reasons: it is heresy".

That is why the so-called 'sceptics' (so-called, because many are actually ideologues rather than actual sceptics) are so vehement in their condemnation of anything  they deem metaphysical. Theirs is basically a quasi-religious stance, created around the religion of scientism, which, as I say, has descended from the ruins of Christian idealism. This understands the nature of reality solely in terms of material processes; life as the outcome of chance, in a multiverse which is inherently meaningless and chaotic, to put it in a nutshell.

They conceive of 'the laws of physics' as somehow prohibiting or outlawing anything they regard as psychic or 'spiritual'. In fact, many will also dispute any kind of order whatever, and any notion that the intellect is anything more than the material brain.  In this respect, 'scientific laws' now occupy a very similar place to 'God's laws' in medieval society - from which, it must be recalled, modern society has descended. They are, to all intents, proscriptive, rather than simply descriptive, in stipulating what kinds of things ought to be considered.

But if you even have a little imagination, the discoveries of 20th century science did nothing to undermine a kind of pan-religious view of the Universe. The very notion of the 'Big Bang', which seems to say that the universe exploded into existence in the literal blink of an eye, from an infinitesimally small point to the vast expanses of space we see today, is very easy to accommodate within the overall notion of creation ex-nihilo. There is an idea floating around that the universe expands and contracts through endless cycles of Big Bangs, which dovetails very nicely with the 'myth of the eternal return'. In the (disputed) Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics, matter is dissolved into 'probability waves' which are intelligible rather than material. Physics is alive with ideas of multiple dimensions and unseen matter.   Now matter itself is ultimately mysterious, something understood in terms of waves and potentialities instead of absolute point-particles. There is plenty of space with all of this for a spiritual view of life - arguably more so than there was 100 years ago.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Experience and realisation

Reality is realised. Existence is experienced.

Perhaps one way of understanding this distinction is to say that 'what is real' and 'what exists' are different, and this relates to the difference between 'realisation' and 'experience' and between the noumenal and phenomenal. Reality is much greater than what just exists, because it includes possibilities, meaning, and more.

There are those who object to the idea of 'noumenon'  because it seems to imply some 'world behind the world', a real world as opposed to an illusory one that we normally inhabit. Perhaps not. Perhaps 'what is', consists not just of 'things which exist' but, more importantly, the relations between those things, which is, of course, changing in every instant, because everything is in motion. So 'what is', which is 'the noumenal', is actually always fleeting, because it is changing at every moment, while 'what exists', which are those things that we actually can know, measure, and talk about, are of a lesser degree of reality than 'the totality'.

In this understanding, 'what exists' is indeed what can be measured, ascertained, photographed, captured, and so on. So it really does exist. But 'existence' itself is simply a momentary aspect of the totality - and the totality is what is real. I think this is why the sages see things as they do - they are alive to the totality, which is why they say that 'all is one'.

Another way of considering this. Reality is the totality of your experience at this very moment. It includes everything you can see, know, think about, and of course an indefinite or infinite amount more which branches out into the vastness of space around you and also down into the depths of your own unconscious processes. The nature of 'awakening' is to be completely awake and alive to the immensity of this current moment of reality.

In practice, this state always being occluded by the conditioned outlook, the constant interplay of memory-and-expectation, desire-and-aversion, and the many other states, both conscious and subliminal, that constantly arise and pass away from one moment to the next. This is what dictates our actual experience of life moment to moment, or what you call 'yourself' or 'your life'.

Now the point about a 'purified consciousness' is that it is intensely alive to each moment and to the sense of immensity which this brings. There is a sense in which one's own aliveness and the aliveness of all that lives intermingle in this awareness. But of course we cannot appreciate this immensity precisely because of the burden of self-hood, of the weight of who we are and what we own.

Existence, on the other hand, is your life considered longitudinally, that is, through time. It relies on time to introduce the sense of continuity, which established a series of moments, which comprise your conscious existence through time. It describes all that you know, measure, think about. 'You' are that process which exists through time, which measures and knows and hopes and so on.
If you are able to meet each moment completely, live it with complete attention, without any effort, then it doesn't leave any marks on you. Everything just falls off you like water off a duck's back. But of course I am not like that, I am always thinking, planning, getting, doing, the very thought process is always creating itself according to its previous experience.

So this is the purpose of spiritual discipline: to realise that state of intense aliveness and awareness. With it comes an increased sensitivity to the nature of things which really can't be captured by thought, no matter how subtle, clever or refined. Because thought itself is of the nature of time.

Now I make no claims to be in this state or to know this state. However I do, now, understand that it is something real.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Matter, Spirit, Logos - a Sketch

Evolutionary materialism, which is the mainstream view of much of the modern world, supposes that living things arose as a consequence of the spontaneous reaction of certain kinds of molecular substances, which, when combined under particular circumstances, will give rise to primitive life forms, after which Darwinian principles kick and life begins to evolve (although the details are still regarded as very unclear and even contentious.)

While I am convinced of the fact of evolution, I have never accepted the materialist account because I don't think it is complete. I don't believe that matter itself, on the molecular or atomic level, acts. It doesn't do anything  - at least, not anything which cannot be described by the laws of physics and chemistry. And I don't believe the laws of physics and chemistry describe the nature of living beings, nor provide any philosophical basis for the very high degree of order which even the simplest of life forms exhibit, let alone life forms such as humans. In other words, I am not a reductionist; I don't believe that the level of complexity which is exemplified by living things arises solely as a consequence of forces that can be understood on the level of chemistry and physics. Something else is at work, or at least, there must be an explanation that works at a different level; however I don't wish to depict this in terms of the action of a deity. So this is not an argument for the existence of God.  But I have never felt that the materialist account comes to terms with the ontological difference between living and non-living things; in my experience, materialists are obliged to deny this difference, a denial which seems implausible to me, but which is fundamental to materialism.

The obvious question that this raises is, what is the nature of the power which causes things to come into existence? Am I positing 'spirit', as opposed to, and in distinction from, 'matter', in the sense that a dualist would?

One difficulty presented by this arises from the fact that the act of thought itself can only proceed either in relation to objects or things, or by the logical operations of mathematics and reasoning. Consequently if you think about 'spirit', then you will generally think of it as something, some fine material essence or substance -  something which is distributed everywhere, but which we can't see. I am sure this is the very kind of notion of spirit -  as a 'geist' or 'ghost' - that has been rejected by modern naturalism. This is similar to the notion of the 'ghost in the machine', which was used as an argument against Cartesian dualism.

I don't believe there is any such thing as spirit conceived in such terms either. But in saying this, I am not denying the reality of what has been spoken of as 'spirit' or 'being-as-such'. I am simply denying the possibility of thinking about it objectively.  I think that what has been described as 'Spirit' can be thought of as 'the universal potentiality for things to come into being' (among other meanings). In other words, the nature of the universe is such that, given the appropriate combinations of circumstances, it will spontaneously give rise to living beings. However, this does not mean that matter itself 'acts' or causes anything to come into existence. Nor does it mean that 'Spirit' is any kind of essence distributed throughout the Universe; to conceive of it on those terms is to put it on the same level as matter. (The question in regards to the nature of 'spirit' ought never never to be posed in terms of 'what', but in terms of 'who'1.)  It is more that there is an inherent tendency for evolution  latent within the fabric of the Universe. It could be described as inherent, implicit, or unmanifested;  but were it not real, nothing would come to be. It precedes existence, and while it does not in itself exist, in the manner that material things exist, it is that which causes anything to exist. (In this view, evolution is a result, not a cause - specifically, the result of this inherent tendency for conscious life to evolve.)

This could be seen as being suggested by the idea of the 'anthropic principle' which  observes that the causes and conditions which give rise to living beings are attributes of the very nature of the universe itself, and had they been slightly different, no life forms would be able to exist. So these very attributes and characteristics characterise the nature of the Universe, which is such that, given the correct circumstances, living beings will evolve within it.  In this understanding, the Universe has just those properties and attributes which will inevitably give rise to conscious living beings. (See also  'Just Six Numbers' which discusses universal mathematical constants that underpin nature.)

As a consequence of these regularities, the Universe is lawful.  Nature exhibits regularities which we are able to describe and summarize as formulae or scientific laws. Such regularities reflect the very deep structure of nature itself, as expressed in the classic essay, The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences by Eugene Wigner. And surely the intuition of the deep relationship between mathematically expressible laws and the fabric of the cosmos is an attribute of the Pythagorean philosophy, without which neither Western philosophy nor mathematical physics could have developed.

Furthermore, this internal logic, as logos, is the reason why anything works. It is the basis of ratio, of harmony, of proportion and even of reason itself (because A, then B). But this can never been seen directly, only in the way it manifests, again, because it is implicit or given, rather than explicit or consequential. But as empiricism only considers the 'manifest realm', trying to explain the basis of reason on the basis of what appears in the manifest realm is like looking into the electronic circuitry of a television to locate the characters in the television show.

They are not there.

So my feeling is that the latent intelligence of the world is not the attribute or characteristic of any kind of fine material substance, stuff, or thing, conceived in the way that modern natural science would conceive it. If we have to conceive of it at all, it is much more like the inherent tendency of certain types of things to form, or to form along certain lines, which is an expression of the inherent logic, or logos, of the nature of reality itself.

And, of course, we ourselves are an expression of that, even a particular outcome of it; in fact, as 'the rational animal', we are uniquely able to appreciate this fact, in our realm of existence. Of course, this view is rather Hegelian, but Hegel himself was an inheritor of the Pythagorean tradition. (Also perhaps similar in meaning to Simon Conway Morris' 'Life's Solution'.)


1. 'Substance is that which is always a subject, never a predicate' ~ Kelly Ross, Meaning and the Problem of Universals

Monday, February 27, 2012

Being is Not an Object

I have been casting about for some way of understanding 'being'. I am considering the idea that 'being is not an object'. Being is never a 'that', whereas an inanimate object is a 'that', wholly describable in terms of its constituent parts (not that anything ends up being 'wholly describable', but I will leave that for now.)

I will argue that the proper designation for objects, as distinct from beings, is that they exist. This is based on the etymology of the term: 'ex-' outside of, apart from; 'ist' from 'to stand' - 'to stand apart'. So to 'exist' is to be apart from, to be this thing as opposed to that thing. But existence is not the same as being. Yet there are a few philosophers I have read who distinguish the verbs 'to be' and 'to exist', and it is a very important distinction to be able to make. In the absence of this distinction, there is no philosophy possible, only science; because science concerns itself only with what exists, where is philosophy asks questions about what 'being' means.

In this usage, 'existence' pertains to the realm of phenomenal objects and realities. Human beings participate in this realm insofar as they are physical beings; as physical beings, they are in a sense objects, although the fact that we are hesitant to describe people as objects is significant here. But insofar as a being has mass and location and the other properties which material objects have, the being is 'an existing thing'. However what is different about beings are that they are also subjects, as distinct from simply objects.

Now I think that 'being' in this sense is in fact the fundamental basis of reality 1. Of course, the materialist view is that particles (or something) are the fundamental basis of reality, and that more complex things evolve from these simpler things by some means. However, what this account never explains is the means by which the self-organizing properties of beings actually do the job of seeking homeostasis, growing, evolving and breeding. In other words, what makes living beings alive? What quality or attribute do living beings have, that material objects don't? Nowadays you're not even allowed to ask the question - the question itself is banned.

I am tempted to say that evolution itself is all the process of being realizing its potentiality for existence. In lower beings, such as simple organisms and plants, being is barely conscious compared to human beings and the higher animals. Nevertheless it is the same element or essence, but in a lower degree of development, but in this sense, sentient creatures are 'beings', rather than objects or things. They have, to put it very awkwardly, being-ness, rather than simply existence. In other words, they have some interior nature, some basic and elemental sense of 'I am', even if, as I say, it is extremely rudimentary.

Now this leads back to the whole idea of 'degrees of being' and 'the hierarchy of being'. From Ken Wilber, we have this  simplified diagram:

This schema reflects the idea of an hierarchical ontology (or great chain of being) wherein different kinds of being exist in different ways, or modes. The 'being' of an inanimate object such as a mineral element is of a different kind to the 'being' of an intelligent creature such as ourselves: it is, as I say 'mere existence' rather than 'being as such'. And it is not as if our being is 'composed' of those other, lesser types of object, of things which merely exist. No combination of mere objects could give rise to a higher level of order than they themselves possess. They only act as they are directed to act by some process, which is, in our case, the tendency for living systems to form and evolve. But I think this is much easier to understand as the manifestation of an implicit reality, than the chance outcome of Bertrand Russell's 'accidental collocations of atoms' (a 'theory' which can hardly be graced with that name!')

The cardinal feature of being is that it is 'that which knows' - if you take 'knowledge' in the broadest sense as signifying the ability of a thing to respond, namely, as 'cognition' (c.f. Descartes' 'res cogitans'). Furthermore, a conscious knowing being (such as ourselves) actually 'constructs' the world in which they live - the brain is a 'reality simulator' that relates sensory experience to memory, judgement, expectation, and so on 2. And that process is reality. It is not as if this is one thing, and reality is another. We never get outside that - there is no 'outside' of it. Outside of it is the 'world in itself', which, as Kant rightly said, we will never know.

It is felt by current science that the process by which being emerges is described by evolutionary theory. However, this theory only operates in terms of material causation and actually is philosophically unable to even pass judgement on the nature of being, as such. However it is obvious that in the current worldview, the understanding of being that is proposed here would generally be viewed as religious or teleological or orthogenetic, and rejected on that account. But I won't go into that here.

What I am interested in is the nature of being as such. This is not anything we can see in the phenomenal realm. Of course, philosophy used to understand that, and in recent times, some schools of theology have understood it as well. Next I will look at some examples of this idea.

1. I was surprised to discover that many of those who understand this distinction are actually theologians rather than philosophers. See for example, this chapter in John MacQuarrie's Principles of Christian Theology, an extremely sophisticated book which is informed throughout by a reading of Heidegger's Being and Time albeit from a theistic perspective.

2. See column 'God does not exist', at right.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The View from Nowhere

Picture a tranquil mountain meadow. A stream meanders peacefully through the middle of it, and a small herd of cattle graze contentedly upon on the lush pasture not far from a stand of stately firs. Butterflies flit back and forth amongst the bluebells and daisies, and off in the distance, a snow-capped mountain range provides a backdrop. The melodious clunk of the cow-bells, the buzzing of crickets, and the calling of birds provide the soundtrack to the vista, with not a person to be seen.

Now picture the same scene - but from no location. Imagine that you are seeing it, from every possible point within it, and around it. Furthermore, you are seeing it from every possible scale: as if you were a mite on a blade of grass, in every location, and then also, as a creature of various sizes, up to the size of an enormous creature, in every possible location.

Then subtract from these images, any sense of temporal continuity - any sense of memory of the moment just past, and expectation of the one about to come.

And then, having done all that, describe the same scene.

Impossible, you say! How can I imagine any such thing! It is really nothing at all, it is just a complete impossibility, a jumble, what you are asking me to imagine!

That is the same scene as that described in the top paragraph -  but from no viewpoint. And this is the 'mind-independent reality' which many seem to believe is 'the reality'. 'The real world' is quite indifferent to us humans, you will say. It rolls majestically on, whether we are there or not. The 'real world', is that vast universe, compared to which we are but specks.

But, I say, the idea of reality as being something that exists 'from no viewpoint' or 'what exists, in the absence of any observer', is precisely a figment of the imagination. It is a projection, a fancy, a trick of thought. Now none of this is to say that the world, outside of the perspective and the order that the mind brings to perceptions, does not exist. It is simply to say that the manner in which it exists, apart from that perspective, is not and will never be known to us. And it is useless to speculate about what it might be; because even to speculate is to provide a viewpoint, if only an imaginary one.

So, by all means, be as objective as is possible. But don't believe that you are being any more 'realistic' than an artist, a landscaper, or a cowherd, looking at that tranquil meadow. Without a perspective, nothing whatever can be said about it. And a perspective can only exist from a viewpoint, and in a mind.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Curing the Illness of Ignorance

"As long as the dark foundation of our nature, grim in its all-encompassing egoism, mad in its drive to make that egoism into reality, to devour everything and to define everything by itself, as long as that foundation is visible, as long as this truly original sin exists within us, we have no business here and there is no logical answer to our existence. Imagine a group of people who are all blind, deaf and slightly demented and suddenly someone in the crowd asks, "What are we to do?" The only possible answer is, "Look for a cure". Until you are cured, there is nothing you can do. And since you don't believe you are sick, there can be no cure." 

Vladimir Solovyov 

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Being vs Object

What makes a view naturalist is the belief that the ultimate constituents of the world are a that - some type of thing, object, substance, force or energy, or combination of them, which is ultimately going to be possible to understand in objective terms (i.e. via the objective sciences).

During the heyday of the scientific revolution, this was thought to be the atom. However quantum physics has put paid to that idea. Now it is thought to be a string, or a brane, or some other kind of esoteric physical object. But in the materialist view of life, it must always be an object or substance. If that is lost, then really the view cannot be called 'materialist'.

The alternative view, which I call idealist, will posit that the ultimate reality must be conceived in terms of being (not necessarily a being, because if it is a being, then there must be at least one other being who can refer to it as a being.) The idealist view is that in some sense my being is a paradigm of being-at-large.1 I think that is a statement that almost anyone on the idealist side of the Western tradition could agree with. The distinguishing feature of being-as-such, of 'my being', is that it is not an objective phenomenon of any kind. The naturalist response to this is that it tends to relativize any such idea - if it is not 'objective', then it is a personal, subjective, internal, or cultural matter. Hence it will dismiss any kind of discipline concerned with the first-person perspective as 'subjective' and 'unreliable'.

Types of Idealism
Dan Lusthaus

'The term "Idealism" came into vogue roughly during the time of Kant (though it was used earlier by others, such as Leibniz) to label one of two trends that had emerged in reaction to Cartesian philosophy. Descartes had argued that there were two basic yet separate substances in the universe: Extension (the material world of things in space) and Thought (the world of mind and ideas). Subsequently opposing camps took one or the other substance as their metaphysical foundation, treating it as the primary substance while reducing the remaining substance to derivative status. Materialists argued that only matter was ultimately real, so that thought and consciousness derived from physical entities (chemistry, brain states, etc.). Idealists countered that the mind and its ideas were ultimately real, and that the physical world derived from mind (e.g., the mind of God, Berkeley's esse est percipi, or from ideal prototypes, etc.). Materialists gravitated toward mechanical, physical explanations for why and how things existed, while Idealists tended to look for purposes - moral as well as rational - to explain existence. Idealism meant "idea-ism," frequently in the sense Plato's notion of "ideas" was understood at the time, namely ideal types that transcended the physical, sensory world and provided the form (eidos) that gave matter meaning and purpose. As materialism, buttressed by advances in materialistic science, gained wider acceptance, those inclined toward spiritual and theological aims turned increasingly toward idealism as a countermeasure. Before long there were many types of materialism and idealism. Idealism, in its broadest sense, came to encompass everything that was not materialism, which included so many different types of positions that the term lost any hope of univocality.

Most forms of theistic and theological thought were, by this definition, types of idealism, even if they accepted matter as real, since they also asserted something as more real than matter, either as the creator of matter (in monotheism) or as the reality behind matter (in pantheism). Extreme empiricists who only accepted their own experience and sensations as real were also idealists. Thus the term "idealism" united monotheists, pantheists and atheists. At one extreme were various forms of metaphysical idealism which posited a mind (or minds) as the only ultimate reality. The physical world was either an unreal illusion or not as real as the mind that created it. To avoid solipsism (which is a subjectivized version of metaphysical idealism) metaphysical idealists posited an overarching mind that envisions and creates the universe. A more limited type of idealism is epistemological idealism, which argues that since knowledge of the world only exists in the mental realm, we cannot know actual physical objects as they truly are, but only as they appear in our mental representations of them. Epistemological idealists could be ontological materialists, accepting that matter exists substantially; they could even accept that mental states derived at least in part from material processes. What they denied was that matter could be known in itself directly, without the mediation of mental representations. Though unknowable in itself, matter's existence and properties could be known through inference based on certain consistencies in the way material things are represented in perception.

Transcendental idealism
contends that not only matter but also the self remains transcendental in an act of cognition. Kant and Husserl, who were both transcendental idealists, defined "transcendental" as "that which constitutes experience but is not itself given in experience." A mundane example would be the eye, which is the condition for seeing even though the eye does not see itself. By applying vision and drawing inferences from it, one can come to know the role eyes play in seeing, even though one never sees one's own eyes. Similarly, things in themselves and the transcendental self could be known if the proper methods were applied for uncovering the conditions that constitute experience, even though such conditions do not themselves appear in experience. Even here, where epistemological issues are at the forefront, it is actually ontological concerns, viz. the ontological status of self and objects, that is really at stake. Western philosophy rarely escapes that ontological tilt. Those who accepted that both the self and its objects were unknowable except through reason, and that such reason(s) was their cause and purpose for existing - thus epistemologically and ontologically grounding everything in the mind and its ideas - were labeled Absolute Idealists (e.g., Schelling, Hegel, Bradley), since only such ideas are absolute while all else is relative to them.'

One of the descendants of idealism is the phenomenology, which recognizes the primacy of first-person experience, but seeks to understand it in a scientific manner. This is very much the understanding that informs the 'embodied cognition' approach mentioned above. I suppose phenomenology is not the same as what we understand as 'philosophical idealism' however I think that all such efforts can be seen to be descended from Kant. However they are generally not at all connected with traditional 'metaphysical idealism' which in the West anyway is usually connected either with Thomism or Platonism. Idealist approaches are many, varied, and extremely heterogenous, including for example process philosophy, and also the various types of Eastern philosophy that have started to become absorbed into Western culture. But what they all have in common is the idea that the fundamental reality is 'being' rather than 'object'.

1. "It is a perennial philosophical reflection that if one looks deeply into oneself, one will discover not only one's own essence, but also the essence of the universe." - S.E.P.