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Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Aristotle was never one to ignore a challenge.  His curiosity about the world was unbounded.  His thinking laid the foundations for what we should call scientific thought.  When we insist on making accurate and detailed observations ; and close and controlled reasoning ; we are borrowing the words and thoughts of Aristotle.  His calm and rigorous thinking is, in large part, what has made our modern world.  If he had never lived, we should all be the poorer for it.  He lived to be just sixty-two.  What else might he have bequeathed us if he had lived another twenty years?

His principal teacher was Plato, an Athenian aristocrat who rejected the easy (and corrupt) life followed by his contemporaries so that he might follow his curiosity about the qualities of life and the world.  In fact among many ideas, he invented a new and important word, poiotes – the ‘whatness’ of a thing or ‘of-what-kind-ness’.  Cicero translated this as ‘qualitas’ ; we know it as ‘quality’.  It is strange to realise that, before Plato, nobody had a word for the ‘whatness’ of anything.  And, if there is no word for a thing, it cannot be properly examined.  When we pass a shop window where we see a sign telling us of the ‘best quality’ of some item for sale there, our minds are at once connected, by an invisible thread, to a man who lived nearly twenty-five centuries ago.  And, if we follow that thread to its source, we discover much, much more.  Plato founded his Academy, the first institute of higher education in the Western world.

And now, moving backwards in time again and still feeling the thread, we come to Socrates, the jobbing sculptor (or maybe stonemason) who had been a soldier (heavy infantry) and who was the teacher of Plato the aristocrat.  Perhaps he was the most peaceable man in pagan Europe.  But he wrote nothing.  Almost all we know of him comes from his pupil, Plato.  He was sentenced to death by a corrupt democratic court – ironically on a charge of corruption.  He was afforded the chance to escape into exile but refused it, for he preferred to die in his beloved Athens.  So he drank the prescribed chalice poisoned with hemlock and went without a fuss.

We owe so much to so many for the good that we enjoy here in the West ; but for our understanding of worldly things and of philosophy, we come close to owing the most to these three pagans.  Without these three pagans, our arts and sciences would be very much the poorer ; perhaps they would not exist.

It was quite a long time after the lives of these three that their philosophies took a practical form.  Perhaps the strangest thing of all is that their ideas should pop up in the last place on earth we should expect – in a place where for long centuries the native philosophy had been hard and severe ; in a place where long lived a hard and warlike nation ; in a place called Nazareth.

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It’s amazing what you can think of on a blowy Wednesday morning.

It’s sometimes amazing how people can be persuaded to believe in far-fetched tales.  I don’t say fairy tales, because it is easy to see how a loving and beautiful tale can fire the imagination.  No, I mean the sort of far-fetched tales that are usually found in serious publications.

For example.  Most people have no great difficulty in accepting the common explanation for those odd things called rainbows.  They have read how a rainbow requires three things for it to exist.  It requires sunlight : water droplets : and an observer.  Take away any one of those things, and the rainbow ceases to exist.  And most people also understand that if you approach the place of the rainbow too closely, so as to see the water droplets, the rainbow also disappears ; it ceases to exist.

The really startling thing about a rainbow is that it exists only in a sentient mind.

But how many people have thought about another of the ordinary common things that also disappear when you get close to them?  Take the leaf of a tree, for example.  From a distance, it appears to have a shape and a certain solidity about it.  But physicists assure us that the leaf is actually constructed out of minute particles called atoms ; and these atoms are constructed out of even smaller things such as neutrons, protons and electrons.  And when you approach the leaf so closely that these tiny things might be ‘seen’, you will find yourself looking at what is mostly emptiness.  And the leaf disappears entirely.  Just as the rainbow disappeared when you got too close.

We are not talking about metaphysics here, just everyday experience.  The whole world is made up of two parts ; or are there two worlds?  Firstly we have the world of rainbows and leaves (and rivers, mountains, flowers, cattle, etc., etc.) ; and secondly we have the world of what we might call the ‘particles’ (the atoms, etc.).  The first world is made up of representations in our conscious minds ; representations that arrive to us via our senses.  The second world is not represented to our minds at all, because its constituents are out of reach to our senses.

But the really startling thing is that the everyday first world cannot without the second, occult world.

So we have a first world of representations and also a second world of the unrepresented.  A manifest world and a hidden world.  And it is easy to think of these two quite different worlds when we set our minds to it ; but it is very difficult indeed to keep them near the front of our minds in our everyday living.

When we stroll in the countryside or in the town, it is hard to bear in mind that the things we see, touch, hear, etc., – the fields, the sky, the clouds, the trees, the telegraph poles, the ground under our feet – are actually comprised of entities, such as atoms, electrons, protons, etc., which are quite beyond our senses and are not represented to our consciousness at all ; and that occult world is mostly empty space ; a sort of ghost world.  There is no light there, no colour, no solidity, no softness or hardness, no heat or cold, no sounds, no scents or flavours ; for these are all sensory qualities.  And our senses cannot reach down to that world.

Is it a sub-sensory world?  or a super-sensory one?

At any rate, it is not a material world, for matter is defined by our senses.  It is a world that exists in consciousness only in the form of ideas.  And these ideas are described in complex logical propositions that only a few specially trained mathematical people understand.  And even those specially trained people do not have a satisfying explanation of what the propositions mean.  So it is that this non-material, non-sensory world is a mystery ; a mystery that can never be represented to our conscious awareness.

Either we must accept that our familiar world of things – trees, meadows, clouds, rivers, other people, etc. – is a representation (re-presentation) of the insensible world of atoms, etc., or we must reject the theories of physics as nothing more than an elaborate delusion.  We cannot have it both ways.

What are we to call this non-sensory, occult, mysterious world that underlies our familiar world?  This invisible world that we are quite sure exists, but whose existence cannot be proved by the evidence of our senses?  It sounds very much like a spiritual world.

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I would that I might see the world anew

Too long had I surveyed the world with eyes
A-jade by sights imagined, deeds performed
By lifeless bits of fair-named dust,
For which no purpose might I then discern.
Then on this hopeless tangle, Reason shone
Her bright and sturdy beam ; to lay upon
That rhymeless scene the sense that might espy
A happy answer to the question, Why?
Why Reason ‘mid a world of matter made?
Why speculation ‘mid determination?
Why, then, is our imagination laid
Upon that foreign field of desolation?
From cause to hard effect, I thought me thence
To subtle reason, rhyme and consequence.

Jamie MacNab 2012
 ====================================

Some people see the universe as a place of causes and effects ; a place where matter acts upon matter, like innumerable billiard balls rushing around and colliding with one another.  And what happens in such a universe is afforded by (and limited by) only the material nature of the universe itself – the natural laws as commonly understood.  It is an exciting vision of reality, if only because it leads us to ask, “Who established these laws?  “How far does the writ of the Law run?”

Other people see the universe as a place of reasons and consequences ; a place where every tiny event occurs for a reason and every outcome serves a purpose.  This too is an exciting vision of reality, if only because it leads us to ask, Whose reasons?  and, Whose purposes?

Yet others see the universe as a kind of synthesis (or association or collaboration) of these two views.  And this is an exciting view for a number of reasons, the most exciting of which is that it may validate our intelligence as a proper means for suggesting hypotheses about the workings of the world as a whole.  It is apparent to me that a purely cause/effect, mechanical understanding of the world offers no hope of our science being anything more than a delusion.

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Are we ready to become aware of ourselves?

I have been fascinated with the material world for as long as I can remember.  It isn’t true that young children take the world for granted ; some at least do ponder on the origins of things and their destinies.  But there was one thing that I did for long take for granted – my consciousness ; in fact, when I was very young, I did not even think of consciousness.

But what is consciousness?  It is one of those things that is not revealed to us through the senses.  Rather it is our consciousness that informs us that we have senses.

We have a difficulty in describing what consciousness is without using metaphors.  For example, some psychologists have described it as a screen on which our world is projected.  But a screen is a material thing, while consciousness is not ; and so it is a potentially misleading linguistic device, for people have a habit of treating metaphors as if they were literal descriptions.

So consciousness is not a material thing, not detectable by the senses.  And what, therefore, is its proper classification?  It must surely be spiritual ; i.e., a known real thing which is not detectable by the senses.  And it is a thing which has the thoughts of psychologists tied in knots as they ponder it.

We are in the habit of asking, “Where does a thing come from?”  We are fascinated by origins.  But where does consciousness come from?  The current orthodoxy in psychology says that it is an ’emergent property’ of the brain.  According to this hypothesis, the complexity of the brain somehow causes consciousness to arise from it.  But still nobody knows how this occurs and nobody is any wiser as to what consciousness is.

But then the idea arises, “Why should it be matter that gives rise to consciousness?”  For isn’t it at least equally likely that it is consciousness that gives rise to matter?

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I have never been an habitual reader of the Bible.  This is a failing, I know, but my carelessness goes back to my childhood, at a time when I suppose I identified the Bible with school assemblies – and I more or less hated school.  It is the same with our great authors – Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens, et al ; I associate them all with school, and I have more or less ignored them all until comparatively recently.

As a result of all this, I am not like a cradle Christian, and for that I am somewhat grateful for my early life.  I am grateful not least because I spent so much time trying to make sense of the crazy world of the adults in my life that I became insatiably inquisitive about all things.  But, most of all, I became inquisitive about people and what makes them tick.  In other words, I am religious without being hampered by religiosity.

Of course, much of what I learned came from books ; for it’s all very well to observe behaviour in order to learn, but it is vain to try to invent theories that explain that behaviour without reference to greater minds who have given the matter more thought.  And in the course of my explorations, I have learned that it is also vain to trust the theories of others uncritically.  There are few experiences more depressing than a correspondence or a conversation with someone who quotes Shakespeare by the yard or the Book of Genesis by the metre ; or a blogger who pastes whole column-feet from Wikipedia.

With regard to my approach to learning, I recently came across two kindred spirits, and I stress that they are both far more clever than I ; and the second of those spirits is possibly far more clever than most people give him credit for.

DH Lawrence is not particularly well-known for his philosophy and his religion.  But I do recommend his very last book, published a year after his death.  It is called Apocalypse.  In it he addresses the meaning of the book, and compares his understanding with the many other opinions that have flourished since the earliest times ; opinions which range from the scholarly to the downright loony.  I have skimmed through Lawrence’s Apocalypse, as I usually do with a new book, and have only just begun to read it.

In the Introduction, there is a quotation which caught my eye : Lawrence wrote this :-

I am no ‘scholar’ of any sort.  But I am very grateful to scholars for their sound work.  I have found hints, suggestions for what I say here in all kinds of scholarly books, from Yoga and Plato and St. John the Evangel and the early Greek philosophers like Herakleitos down to Frazer and his ‘Golden Bough,’ and even Freud and Frobenius.  Even then I only remember hints – and I proceed by intuition.

Now here we have someone who is no mere book-learner.  He gathers information and proceeds to think about it ; and from his thinking he receives trustworthy intuitions – spontaneous realizations about the meaning of what he has read.  He does not feel bound by what he has read, but uses his readings as a springboard to deeper understandings.  He is a true seeker of knowledge.

Also he writes elsewhere that you can divide books into two classes : those that do not bear re-reading : and those that do.  A good book, he says, will offer new revelations at each successive reading.

Now all this is just what I should have said if only I had Lawrence’s skill with thoughts and words.  For, surely he is right on both counts.  For books by even the great writers are not there to be taken at face value ; they are not there to be slavishly believed and slavishly quoted from.  Even the greatest books are there to be intelligently interpreted and re-interpreted ; this is the secret of their greatness ; this is the seat of their power ; this is the key to the evolution of human consciousness.  Any other approach comes close to idolatry.

But there are limits to interpretation.  The aim is to allow the meaning of the original text to evolve ; to keep its spirit alive ; for it is the spirit that gives the text its life.  The aim is not merely to change the meaning of the text, for that is not evolution, but substitution, and that is likely to end in meaninglessness. I regret that many interpreters make that mistake.

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It’s strange how we seem to spend so much time either looking forward to the future or else remembering the past.  How often are we in the here-and-now?  Aristotle recommended that we take up the art of contemplation to remedy matters.  And who better to make that suggestion?

How to begin?  First, ensure that you will not be disturbed for the next fifteen minutes or so.  Then make yourself comfortable.  Close your eyes.

Contemplating, Aristotle said, is simply paying regard to a series of statements or ideas which are infallibly true.  They must be so, because if there is any doubt about the truth of a statement, then you will start thinking about it – and contemplation must involve no thinking.  It is just regarding, or ‘looking’ at ideas that come to mind.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?  Well, try it and see.  Aristotle himself found that there are not very many of our notions that are truly infallible.  Like his masters, Socrates and Plato, he concluded that, while we have lots of opinions about the world, not much of what we know is truly true.

He began his exploration of contemplating something like this.

“I am a man.”  (Well, that’s not a bad start.)
“My name is Aristotle.”  (No!  The name my creator gave me is unknown to me.)
“People call me Aristotle.”  (That’s sort of OK)
“I live in Athens.”  (No.  Has this place always been known as Athens?  Will it for ever be called Athens?)
“I live in a city people now call Athens”  (OK)
“I am fifty years of age.”  (No.  I have no proof of my exact age ; I have only the opinions of others.)

…. and so on ….

And so he indeed went on.  And, as he went, he had to amend almost all his ideas about himself and the world ; he had to compromise on the exact truth ; he had to admit opinions under the guise of truths.

It’s awfully hard to live fully in the here-and-now.  Maybe that’s why my own thoughts turned back to school-days while I have been writing.  I remembered a puzzle that Mr Fryer set us all those years ago.  “You think that one plus one equals two, do you?”

“Of course!”  we replied.
“Well, arithmetic is a language,” he said, “And its meanings all depend on how you use it.”

To the blackboard ….. (and I hope I remember this right!) :

a = b
a+a = a+b
2a = a+b
2a-2b = a+b-2b
2(a-b) = a-b
2 = 1

Well, it took us a bit to work that one out (we were young and thought we knew everything).

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There are few things more enlightening than to listen to what people say about themselves.  In most cases people are far too modest.

For example, there is a growing tendency in these modern times for people to think of themselves as essentially machines.  Some will openly declare as much ; while others speak of themselves as if they were but machines,- leaving that conclusion as a strong inference.  Ask someone how his eyesight works, and he is likely to reply that it is something like a video camera that registers whatever objects he happens to look at.  And his ears are like a tape recorder that registers whatever sounds happen to fall in range of hearing.

In other words, people see themselves as passive observers of the world ; the world does what it must, and the senses merely register and record what is going on.   But this way of thinking can have pernicious effects, which politicians and other clever people with ‘an agenda’ are not slow to take advantage of.

Also this way of thinking says that the world does what it likes to us ; and, being mere machines, all we can do is respond mechanically to what the world does.  Thus the world makes us what we are in the minutest details of thoughts, words and deeds.

So, we are just machines ; but the world also is just a machine, and so we are nothing more than cogs in its complex mechanism.  It is a world of causes and effects, and nothing more.  Whatever happens must happen ; and there could not have been an alternative, except by chance.

And yet, when people reflect more deeply on their relationship with the world, they are not convinced that everything is mere mechanism ; in particular, they have feelings that they themselves are more than just machines.  They feel that they have the will to act somewhat independently of what the world is doing ; they feel that they have the power of making real decisions ; they feel that they have the ability to perceive the world, and act upon it, in their own ways.

If it is true that we can perceive the world in our own way, then at least one interesting conclusion arises : that the world is becoming as we make it.

But, it will be objected, How can our perceptions of the world affect the world itself?  How can our consciousness (which is non-material) affect the world (which is material)? Surely consciousness and matter are different kinds of substance ; therefore, how can they affect each other?  How can they act and react upon each other?

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