Archive for August, 2010

People are constantly talking of reality.  How often do we hear words such as : “get real” : “the reality is” : “it really is true”.  It is as if we believe that the human senses and the human mind possess a mystical quality that enables them to transcend the material world and take a privileged view of it.

But is it true that human beings are capable of perceiving reality?  Might it not be case that a herring has a better, truer appreciation of the world than we do?    Are we wise to assume that the size and complexity of our brains has made us better at perceiving?  Is it possible that all our complicated vocal expressions that describe the world are merely noises without any particular meaning?  Might it not be the case that our consciousness is simply an elaborate deception – an evolutionary accident that is leading us to a dead-end?

There is so much to ponder here.  And we will not be the first to ponder it, for certainly the world’s great religious thinkers have given much thought to the matter since the very earliest times.  In fact, most likely, it is with this pondering that religion began.

It is interesting to reflect that, if we did perceive reality, we could never make a mistake about what we see.  We could never mistake one person for another or one thing for another ; we could never mis-hear somebody’s words.  Also, if we did perceive reality, there would be no science being done today ; all knowledge would have been completed long ago.

But, as ever, there are other ways of looking at the matter ;  and some of those ways offer hope to those who believe that reality is within our grasp.


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Language is fun.  Do our words convey what we are really experiencing?  Are words connected to, or related to, reality?  For example, linguists say that there is probably no word we use now that did not begin its life as a metaphor ; as a colourful figure of speech ; not ‘literal’ or ‘concrete’ at all.

We’re all familiar with the word sunbeam ; also we all know, when we think about it, that a beam is a plank of wood.  But no-one believes that the sun has planks of wood radiating from it.  And then there’s one of my favourites – understand.  Who really believes that, to understand that 1 + 1 = 2, we must either stand it under us or we must stand under it?  It must have been a mind-boggling metaphor when it first appeared from the quill of a scribe.  It was a word that first needed to be explained to us, and then became a word that we had to think about when we used it ourselves.

But that’s the point.  A metaphor may be so arresting, so staggering, and also so unlikely that it becomes popular quite quickly.  Thereafter, its use becomes a habit ; and then we forget that it is a metaphor ; we take it as ‘literal’.  At this stage, the word is something that is no longer thought about consciously.  Meanwhile the original literal word is oft forgotten completely.

We do a lot of thinking automatically, without realising it.  We do a lot of thinking without consciously thinking about anything.

Imagine I hear a section of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata that just happens to be playing on the radio.  As soon as I become aware of the sound, I say, “Oh, yes, that’s the Moonlight.”  Almost instantly, I have formed in my mind a figuration of the sound.  And I do not stop to think what a curious thing this figuration is.

For what is really happening is something like this.  First the radio emits some vibrations in the air ; then the vibrations fall into my ears.  What I hear in my consciousness ought to be just a noise.  But it isn’t just a noise ; I recognise it as noise I have heard before, so it is has meaning ; it is really a sound.  And, not only that, but I recognise the sound as a particular piece of music – the Moonlight.  All this happens in an instant.

But, in order to recognise the noise, I must have referred it to my memory.  And when my memory has located it, it informs me what the sound means – or do I infer the meaning?  Whatever, there is a lot of thinking going on here.  We can guess how much thinking by imagining hearing a little-known sound ; we have to comb our memory to try to recognise it ; and sometimes it eludes us.  But, in the case of a familiar sound, our complex thinking has become automatic through practice.

So, merely to be able to use a word like sunbeam, we have to think about it ; and merely to recognise a piece of music, we have to think about it.  But that thinking is so sublime that we do not even know that we are doing it.

It can be interesting to reflect just once in a while, as we gaze upon a familiar object such as a teacup, that we have done a lot of thinking simply in order to see it – to make a picture of it in our minds.

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It has been said that all good art is imitative, if only because it is a rendering some real object in a different medium. Art is a wonderful thing.  And it is a mystery.   It is wonderful because we wonder why we do it ; why on earth should we make an imitation of something when the thing itself already exists?  and when the thing itself is better than our imitation of it?

Suppose I were to paint a portrait of somebody ; my efforts at imitation amount to no more than some lines drawn on a piece of paper or canvas ; perhaps I might add some coloured paints to try to make the portrait more lifelike.  To a viewer, my effort is obviously artificial.  Nobody is fooled into thinking that it is the real person.  It is obviously art.

I might be unsatisfied with my effort so, in order to achieve a more lifelike portrait, I might take a photograph.  This portrait will likely be much more lifelike ; but a viewer will not be deceived into thinking it is the real person, if only because he will see the edges of the photograph and the sheen of the paper.  It is obviously art.

But there are ways of displaying a photograph which conceal such giveaways as the edges and the sheen ; you can display the photograph so that the image does appear somewhat lifelike.  In this case, the portrait and its setting are trying to pass themselves off as real life ; as something other than art.  It is not obviously art.

You can imagine that, with a really good photograph and a really clever display, it is possible to deceive a viewer as to what he is really looking at.  You can, in effect, tell a big lie to the viewer, so that he thinks he is looking at a person when, in fact, he is only looking at a picture.

There is a general saying in art, “The better the likeness, the bigger the lie.”

Our mediaeval ancestors knew this better than we do.  That is one reason why they made their pictures with deliberate mistakes in them.  For example, they knew that God is pure spirit and that it is ridiculous to try to make an accurate portrait of Him.  So, to avoid making silly mistakes, to avoid supreme idolatry, they painted God as a man (suitably old and therefore wise!).  Also they knew that the spiritual world was not this everyday world ; so they drew the Old Man high in the sky to make that point quite clear.  But the main point is that everybody knew that these representations were metaphorical.  Nobody in those days ever believed that God was an Old Man in the sky.

The Church also encouraged artists to avoid trying to portray angels as they believed them to be.  That is why many mediaeval paintings portray heavenly angels as ordinary-looking people in ordinary dress ; no white robes, no wings, no luminous eyes.  Thus they avoided being drawn into falsity.

Today then, much art is a mystery that needs explaining.  Our ancestors would be puzzled at why we need such explanation.

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It’s always fun to analyse things.  We do analysis so readily because it is easy ; synthesis (imaginative thinking) is a lot harder.  Science makes such good progress because it involves mostly analysis.

But, easy though it is, the results of analysis are still a puzzle.  For example, we might do a hundred experiments in which an object is raised above the ground and then dropped.  In every experiment we observe that the object falls towards the earth.  We then reason through the event.  And our reasoning leads us to infer that something must be causing the object to fall as it does.  Then we give a name to  that something ; we call it gravity.

But note : nobody has ever seen gravity : nobody has ever heard it.  We know of it only by the effects it has on objects, including the effects it has on our own bodies.  Mystery.

And then we can try a different experiment ; not quite as simple, because we need the right conditions.  Let us shine a powerful, narrow-beamed searchlight into the night sky.  Let’s choose a clear night when there is no dust or moisture in the air.  If we stand behind the light and look along its length, we see nothing.  The light is quite invisible.  It becomes visible only when it shines directly in our eyes ; or when some of the light is reflected back into our eyes by dust or moisture.  So, the light is not a property of the beam.  So what is it that is coming out of the searchlight?

Then we might take a pair of billiard balls ; a white one and a red.  If we cue the white ball towards the red one, we see it roll across the green table ; then we see the white ball and the red move off in different directions.  We infer that the white ball caused the red one to move.  But we can look as hard as we like, and yet never see that cause.  The cause is ours, not the ball’s.  Did the white ball really cause the red one to move?  or is that just what our minds made of it?

In each of these experiments, we have inferred something ; we have reasoned about what we have seen.  And it is interesting to note that the results of our reasoning are not self-evident.  We can be sure of this because, when we investigate the findings of people who have quite different cultures to ourselves, they come up with different results ; and that is not due to their faulty thinking ; it is due to their having quite different ways of thinking.

We might wonder whether, as human consciousness evolves, what other ways of thinking there might be awaiting us.  Will we still be doing the same kind of science ten-thousand years from now?

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Bless my soul

Even a short while ago, people spoke without embarrassment or affectation about their souls.  Some remnants of their speech survive in expressions that are still quite common : Bless my soul : there wasn’t a soul to be seen : soul music : the soul of *****, and so on.  But, to what extent is the soul still believed in?  To what extent do we nowadays believe that there is a part of us that is not a material thing but a spiritual one?  A non-material entity ; the opposite, as it were, to the material body.  There are lots of ways of putting it without getting too technical.

When we say something like, “I have arms,”  we must ask, Who is this “I” who possesses the arms?  Or, when we say, “He has strong feelings,” we must ask, Who is this “he” who possesses the feelings?  do we refer merely to the body?  or to something else which is the essential person?

When we use those remnants of the older speech, such as Bless my soul, are we using the word soul with its original meaning?  or as a metaphor which simply means the body?  These are important questions, for the answers will have momentous practical consequences for all of us.

If we use the word soul to indicate some property or quality we possess that is not a material thing, then we open the possibility that there is a part of us that will never die.  On the other hand, if we are purely material beings, then we are no more than perishable machines.  And biological machines are, in principle, no different from the kinds of machines that we manufacture – cars, aeroplanes, and so on.

And, if we are just machines, is there any reason why we ought to value ourselves any more than we value any other animal? – or any car or aeroplane?

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Everybody knows that to be in love is to be bound.  It is love that holds close and it is love that ties the knot.  But everybody knows also that to love is to be able to let go ; it is love that is not cloying and it is love that grants freedom.  This is all part of the essential duality of the world in which we live ; a world of opposites and contrasts.  A world in which we have to make adjustments and reconciliations.

Bearing this essential duality in mind, it is interesting to follow the fortunes of one of the great sociological experiments of our time.  Some forty years ago was unleashed on the world a great movement for women’s liberation ; a movement that reached the proportions of a crusade.  The aim of the crusade was to liberate women from the constraints that womanhood itself imposes.

For example, women were to be freed as far as possible from the constraints that naturally come with being a mother.  The bonds which naturally tie the mother to her child were to be loosened so that the mother would be free to pursue other interests.  Instead of being a constant companion to her child, she would be a part-time companion.  Instead of being ever-present to educate her child, by playing and reading, she was to use her liberty to set aside ‘quality time’ with her child ; time in which both mother and child could cram as much ‘interaction’ as an hour or so would allow.

The plan also allowed women to take up paid employment, so increasing the family’s income.  But not only to increase income, but also to achieve an even greater objective : equality with men.  If men were to be allowed to earn money, then so were women.  And, while the mother was away working, the child would be placed in the care of professional minders ; it would be a member of a group outside the family.

It is not difficult to enumerate the results of this policy of freedom, though they would make a long list.  It is surely no accident that children are becoming more difficult to educate at school ; it is no accident that standards in education have declined ; it is no accident that examinations have had to be downgraded.  Likewise, it is no accident that house prices have escalated to the point that it now requires two working people to afford a mortgage, whereas once it took only one.  And it cannot be due to mere chance that youngsters are now so ill-behaved.  These are just a few of the ills that the new freedoms have brought in their wake.

But, it will be argued, the freedoms that women have gained are real ; and freedom is, in itself, an unquestionable good thing.

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