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As we all know, the scientific way of seeing the world has brought immeasurable benefits to all mankind ; so many benefits, in fact, that many decent people cannot bring themselves to see the world in any other way.  They just know that the only realities are those which arrive to us through our physical senses.  If a thing may be seen, touched, heard, tasted or smelt then it is real ; if not, then it is fantasy.

The principle that underlies this way of living is the very respectable m.k.s. system.  The m.k.s. stands for metres, kilogrammes and seconds, which are the standard units of length, mass and duration – the very bedrock of good science.

Once upon a time, when people were generally better educated than they are today, it was understood that this way of seeing the world was intended to provide a very specialised form of knowledge – scientific knowledge.  Such knowledge was never intended to provide a comprehensive understanding of the Universe and all the things in it.  A scientist’s specialised way of understanding the world was no different, in principle, from a carpenter’s specialised way of seeing the world ; or a plumber’s, or a farmer’s, or a train-spotter’s.

But, with generally falling standards of education, a truly extraordinary state of affairs has arisen.  It is now seriously proposed that, if a thing can be measured, weighed and timed, then it is real.  And many people of a scientific disposition now say that, if a thing cannot be measured, weighed and timed, then it is illusory ; and they add that anyone who believes otherwise is either mad or evil.

Mr Gradgrind would have thoroughly approved of all this, of course – before his daughter, Louisa, through her sufferings and by God’s grace, came to his rescue.  If he were alive today, he would be ashamed.

One of the sadnesses that arises out of today’s scientific outlook is that its more zealous believers are now quite incapable of seeing in any other way.  For them, life has lost its meaning ; in place of life, they have mere existence.  But there is hope, even yet ; for a few of them are asking, “Why is our civilisation in decline?”  In decline at the very time we should expect it to be entering a new phase of development.

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Bright the World

Bright the World

You asked me where the light, that springs anew
Each lovely morning of the world, is born.
But ready answer had I none to view ;
My mind so misted, thoughtless and forlorn
That I was sightless to the inner ‘scape
Where sense and reason meet to make a blend
Of that which cannot else be given shape.
How oft do our inquiries sadly end !
And yet necessity impels us all
To seek illumination at its source ;
It’s been so ever since our shameful fall,
When destiny near lost its holy course.
Had insight been in darkness left, unfurled,
How seek the Love and Mind that brights the world?

 Jamie MacNab 19 September 2011

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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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Before Descartes, roses were red and violets were blue.  Since Descartes, that has changed.  Since Descartes, body and mind have been split asunder ; the world and the person have become two distinct (and some say incompatible) things ; matter and spirit have been divorced.  This was not all Descartes’ fault ; it was not his intention ; but it resulted from people adopting his philosophy.

So why are roses no longer red?  Because the rose of itself has been split from our perception of the rose.  The rose is one thing ; our perception of it is another.  The rose is a material thing, while our perception of it is a psychic, or spiritual, thing.  The rose exists in the world, while our perception of it is a cognitive model of that existence.  This view of things is quite logical but it has some puzzling consequences.

The rose is now no longer red, because redness is a psychical quality ; redness  exists in our consciousness but not in the material world.  It is a quality that exists in our consciousness, but not in our material brains.  You may examine a brain as closely as you like, but you will find no redness in there ; in fact, you will find no roses in there either.

After Descartes, the relation between our selves and the world has become bewildering.  So bewildering that many people are now afraid of psychology ; afraid of psychical phenomena ; in fact, afraid of themselves.

And yet, they are fascinated by it all.  They feel drawn to it willy-nilly.

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The life of Man is the life of the mind.  Not for us the unconscious or semi-conscious world that the lesser creatures inhabit.  We are not automatons that simply ‘behave’ ; we are much more than our instincts and biological drives.  It was one of those frightful eighteenth-century agricultural scientists who remarked, “What is a sheep?  It is but a machine for turning grass into meat.”  But that’s not us ; we are not mere machines, however much our half-educated scientists try to make it so.  In fact, I doubt if even a sheep is a mere machine.

So, we have Mind, we have Soul, and we have Psyche (which is perhaps the broad boundary between the other two, or maybe a synthesis of the two).  These somewhat mysterious qualities of ours are impossible to describe.

Now it’s a strange thing that if you ask people, “What is the mind for?” most will answer that it is to think with ; and, if you ask them what they mean by ‘think’, they’ll usually give an answer that involves solving problems or formulating arguments.  They tend to see thinking as an effortful, even laborious, business.  Oh yes – and “thinking is for clever people”.  But actually they are referring to only one kind of thinking. They are referring to only one of the things the mind can do.

What is the point of having a mind unless you are going to use it?  And why not use it to develop new talents?  Talents that are new to you, but that are not new to your mind.  Your mind knows how to do many things that you don’t know about yet ; and usually you don’t know about them because you’ve been busy doing other things ; you’ve been too busy to listen to what your mind has been telling you.

You might like to think of something like your emotions.  Some emotions, such as pain, are unpleasant.  But the pain, like all emotions, is merely the messenger ; it is impelling you to do something.  It comes with a message for you, so why  not just comply with the message and file the paperwork away?  Why not  read the message and then put the pain behind you?

There’s so much to be said about pains ; too much to say it here and now.  But – just to whet your appetite – you might remember that pain is an emotion ; and you might remember that you can either enjoy an emotion or you may contemplate it ; but you cannot do both at the same time.  There are ways of contemplating pain which require no effort and which take only a little of your time.

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Hardly a day passes without some sign of the profound mystery of the world coming to mind.  Thinking of its origins : the universe, in its early stages of evolution, is completely invisible to us. It is known to us only by essentially geometrical expressions and, because the universe had no objects in at that ‘time’, the geometry is non-metrical. It is all numbers.

But then, isn’t almost the whole of science numbers? science requires measurements and quantities. But where do these numbers reside? If we wanted to know how many stars there are in a particular cluster, we should not expect to find each star sporting a plate with its serial number on it. The numbers exist, not on or in the stars, but in the mind of the person who counts the stars. Likewise, there is no plate bearing the figure for the mass of each star. Neither do the stars present a direct figure to express the distances one from another. If we mentally construct three lines to join three stars, there is no direct apprehension of the angles subtended by the lines – and the lines themselves exist only in the mind that constructs them.

Mathematics is a language and, like all languages, it is a peculiarly human mental construct. In the English language, does the word ‘orange’ have any necessary connection with the orange itself? Words can be seen as signs which refer to things ; but are they the things themselves? Numbers can be seen as signs that refer to things ; but are they the things themselves? A road sign pointing to Birmingham has no necessary connection with Birmingham except that we say so.

Perhaps it is human beings that decide the meanings of numbers – but the universe might be quite indifferent to our opinions and decisions. I wonder what the implications might be?

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I can remember words Pascal the wise
Left us to ponder , which gave rise
To other ideas, much paler than his own.
All worlds and suns, and even yet
The brightest stars that nature did beget,
Compare with dust in light of human mind.

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