The World Knot

Welcome to the World Knot. The main topic here is metaphysics. Metaphysics is a muddle in western academia. Over the centuries the problems of philosophy have been tangled into a knot of such complexity that they may seem intractable. The essays here are an attempt to show that they are not, and that all that would be necessary for their solution is a rigorous simplification of the issues and a rough understanding of the perennial philosophy.

There are very few topics that are not relevant to metaphysics, however, and vice versa, and so there will also be discussions of mathematics, psychology, physics, biology, music and other things.

The writings on the blog should be systematic regardless of the topic. This may not be the case but it is the intention.

The pages are more like essays than posts and are usually longer, and the topics covered are not linked to the tag cloud.

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Buddhism and Christianity

 

I am not a theologian. Theology is an area of study more dangerous and difficult than almost any other. Still, I’m going to risk some words.

It is not uncommon these days to hear Christians reporting that a study of Buddhism or some experience of its practices has helped them to understand their own religion. It has certainly helped me. I was brought up a Christian, regular church attendance, Sunday school, eventually the dizzy heights of an ‘O’ level in ‘Divinity’. But I found that the doctrine made no sense to me just as soon as I started to think about it, somewhere around the age of twelve. Nor did it make any more sense until about forty years later, when I discovered Buddhism. The explanatory power of Buddhist doctrine can be explained by two features. It is fundamental, and its explanatory literature is vast and homogenous.

Because it is a fundamental doctrine it does not end in a confusing muddle of irresolvable conflicts of opinion over the logical and ontological relationship between the three terms of the Holy Trinity and other such conceptual muddles. It is almost beyond belief how much trouble this problem has caused Christianity over the centuries. Arianism, Nestorianism, Modalism, Subordinationism, Adoptionism, Sabellianism and so on, all have had their day, and none have ever quite gone away. Nor have Unitarianism and Binitarianism. Nor has the idea that Trinitarianism is simply a false interpretation of the teachings of the Apostles.

Whitehead notes of Christianity that it is ‘a religion is search of a metaphysic’. If we view this religion in the broadest terms then this may be an unfair criticism, but the most metaphysically sound form of Christianity is not the most popular, and it is not the one adopted by the Western Church, the one of which Whitehead would have been speaking.

Because it did not interpret Jesus as a Buddhist would, at least in the mainstream of its institutional history, Christianity evolved as a dogmatic monotheism for which the Buddha’s teachings would be not merely heterodox but profoundly heretical. Consequently, it has been left without a fundamental theory. It cannot make sense of the relationship between the parts of the Holy Trinity. The council of Nicea settled the matter by decree but a decree is not an explanation. The issue rumbles on today.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus states, ‘I and the Father are One’. If Father and Son are One, then how can we say that Jesus was truly a man, just as we are? Yet the entire message of the New Testament is that Jesus was truly a man. We might easily see this as a dilemma. The problem, if I may risk an opinion, is not that it would be wrong to believe that Jesus was a man, nor that he was somehow both God and Man. It would be to believe that these are essentially different things. If we believe this, then the relationship between the parts of the Trinity becomes paradoxical.

This where Buddhism’s ‘Middle Way’ doctrine and theory of emptiness comes into its own. It is reductionist with a vengeance, and has no problem with reducing the whole of existence. It does this by a trick known as ‘nondualism’. On this view there would not be two things, and it would be impossible for a man not to be God. It would, of course, be all too easy to forget it. (Of course, ‘God’ here would be a misleading term, but we’re walking a tightrope between quite different terminologies).

On this view Jesus would be Man, just like you and me, and also God, just like you and me. This would be explained in Buddhism by the doctrine of Two Worlds or Two Truths as formulated by Nagarjuna. There would be these two worlds but for an ultimate view the two worlds would be one. The Holy Spirit gives us an extra variable, and it may be the most elusive, but the solution would be same. Reality would be advaita, ‘not-two’, and ultimately all relationships would be one of identity.

This is not the place to delve into Buddhism’s solution for theological problems, but the main point here is that it does offer us one. We are not left with awkward questions begging, like who created God, how could He divide into three, and how, if these are different things, could Jesus be a human being and yet also an incarnation of God.

The Buddhist solution for existence would be in line with certain Christian interpretations of the Trinity but within the Church it has to compete with various other interpretations with which it would not be consistent. The complex and difficult legalistic arguments between these interpretations make Christian theology a no-go area for anyone but a dedicated scholar. Armed with some theoretical understanding of Nagarjuna’s theory of two worlds and his Middle Way doctrine, however, these difficult topics are much easier to approach and it becomes possible to see the wood for the trees. Armed, additionally, with a little understanding gained through meditative practice, we may lose interest in these logico-theological questions, while we may find our faith in Jesus much enhanced.

Christians are often horrified that their fellows may sometimes jump ship for Buddhism. They need not be worried. I doubt there is any better argument or justification for the teachings of the New Testament than the Buddhist sutras. To become a Buddhist is not to reject Jesus but to adopt a certain interpretation of his life and works. His mission lasted a mere two years and it would not be surprising if the teachings of the Buddha, who had forty years to pass on his knowledge, shed some light on them.

At any rate, after forty years of avid scepticism this explorer was not led by his discovery of Buddhist teachings to a rejection of Jesus, who had been long ago rejected in any case, but to a new and much deeper respect for the wisdom and skill of his teachings, and even to a belief in their truth.

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Death, Consciousness and the Upanishads

“‘After death there is no consciousness: this is what I say.’ Thus spake Yahñavalka.

But Maitreyi said: ‘In this, good sir, you have thrown me into confusion, in that you say that after death there is no consciousness.’

And Yajnavalka said: ‘There is nothing confusing in what I say. This is surely as much as you can understand now.

For where there is any semblance of duality, then does one smell another, then does one speak to another, then does one think of another, then does one understand another. But when all has become one’s very Self, then with what should one hear whom? With what should one see whom? With what should one hear whom? With what should one speak to whom? With what should one think of whom? With what should one understand whom? With what should one understand Him by whom one understands this whole universe? With what indeed should one understand the Understander?’”

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
Book Two, II, iv, v12-14.

“To sum up: the Upanishads investigate the nature of reality and their main conclusion is that in both the universe at large and in the individual human being there is a ground of pure Being which is impervious to change. To realize this Being in oneself means salvation. Once this is done, re-birth and re-death are done away with, and man realizes himself as at least participating in eternal Being.”

R. C. Zachner
Hindu Scriptures (xiv)
J. M. Dent & Sons (1966)

Perhaps these quotes may help clear up a confusion surrounding nondualism relating to the common idea of an ‘afterlife’, and distinguish this view of death from that which usually accompanies monotheism.

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The Twin Primes Problem

Any mathematicians out there? I think I can prove the following and am wondering if it might be in any way interesting.

Proposition: Relative to the set of prime numbers below any P there are infinitely many pairs of consecutive twin primes.

It would not follow that there are infinitely many twin primes, worse luck, but still, maybe it’s of interest. Any thoughts?

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Dualism and a Sufi Teaching Story

Dualism is a central problem for metaphysics, or, rather, how to avoid it. If we are dualistic in our thinking we will see metaphysical dilemmas as undecidable questions for which there can be no solution. It will lead us to the idea that metaphysics is incapable of overcoming these dilemmas, and is perhaps even a waste of time, while in fact this is merely a case of a poor workman blaming his tools. In the mystical literature many teaching stories are aimed at the error of dualism and ask us to look beyond it for a more profound view. Here is a nice one.

‘A certain caliph, wanting to test an idea on an unsophisticated person, asked his guards to range into the desert and bring him a bedouin Arab. They surrounded the first one whom they met, who happened to be a Sufi. ‘The Commander of the Faithful requires your presence,’ said the captain of the guard. ‘Who are the faithful, and how do they come to have a Commander?’ he asked. The soldiers concluded that this was indeed an unsophisticated man, and they brought him before the Caliph.
‘I have been told,’ said the ruler, ‘that bedouins are so ignorant that they do not know the simplest things.’
‘Who has told you?’
‘It was during a discussion with my intellectual advisers’.
‘If it is intellect you want, the problem is easy enough. Ask me anything.’
The Caliph ordered a dish of porridge to be brought. The Arab sniffed it and began to eat. ‘What is that?’ asked the Caliph.
‘Something that can be safely eaten,’ said the bedouin.
‘Yes, but what is its name?’
‘Adopting the methods of formal logic, applied to the knowledge available to me, I say that this is pomegranates.’
There was a laugh from the assembled scholastics who had told the Caliph that the bedouins were fools.
‘And how, pray, do you come to that conclusion?’
‘By the same methods that your scholastics use. I have heard the phrase “Dates and pomegranates” used to describe tasty foods. Now I know what dates are, as I live on them. This is not dates. Therefore it must be pomegranates.’

From ‘Esoteric Research’ (Tahqiq-I-Batini).
Reputedly written by Sir-Dan (Knower of Secrets) Daud Waraqi.
In Idries Shah, ‘Caravan of Dreams’, 1968, The Octagon Press, London.

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Philosophy and Science

A while ago I recommended Ulrich Mohrhoff’s recent book The World According to Quantum Mechnics. This is a mathematical text book yet also a philosophical statement, since a specific philosophical interpretation of the mathematics is endorsed, namely that of Sri Aurbindo and the Hindu Upanishads. It can be read, therefore, as an attempt to reconcile science and philosophy. This extract presents the view of Smolin and Einstein on the relationship between these areas of knowledge and study. It seems a correct view to me.

‘Lee Smolin, in his “The Trouble with Physics” laments the loss of a generation for theoretical physics, the first one since the late 19th century to pass without a major theoretical breakthrough that has been empirically verified. Smolin blames this sorry state of affairs on a variety of factors, including the sociology of a discipline where funding and hiring priorities are set by a small number of intellectually inbred practitioners. Ironically, one of Smolin’s culprits is the dearth of interest in and appreciation of philosophy among contemporary physicists. This quote is from Smolin’s book:

“I fully agree with you about the significance and educational value of methodology as well as history and philosophy of science. So many people today — and even professional scientists — seem to me like someone who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historical and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is — in my opinion — the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.” (Albert Einstein)’

It seems odd that Einstein is so widely admired in physics and so seldom emulated. It must be at least possible that any lack of progress is connected with this failure to examine the bigger picture. The generation that included the quantum pioneers were able to think broadly and independently of their prejudices, and with considerable courage, but somehow this ability has, on average, withered away over time.

I wonder if this is because the philosophy department has been so hopeless at dealing with quantum theory. If I were a physicist perhaps I would likewise despair at the failure of the philosophy of the Western universities to deal with the discoveries of physics, and likewise make the hasty assumption that there would be nothing to be learnt from the philosophers. It would be an easy mistake to make.

But it would definitely be a mistake. The failure of one philosophy is a proof by abduction of the philosophy that remains. Mohrhoff and others have shown that a philosophy of nonduality would be capable of interpreting quantum theory for a fundamental theory, just as Schrodinger long ago proposed. What physicists usually miss, or so it seems to me, is that the failure of Western academic philosophy is an important result of analysis, and one that guides us like an arrow to the only viable alternative.

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The Perversity of Materialism

Consequent to a recent argument about Materialism in which I expressed myself badly, sometimes incoherently, made mistakes, became irritable, was occasionally rude and failed to make any headway whatsoever, for all of which I can only apologise to all the participants in case they are around, it seemed a good idea to write an essay about Materialism, so that if I am ever forgetful enough to be drawn into another such argument I can point to it and know that it is reasonably clear and expresses my view. 

It turned out too long for a post so I have published it as a page.  The essay is ‘The Perversity of Materialism’.  It is a touch outspoken, and if I have been unfair to anyone I hope someone will point this out. 

I caught the end of a TV documentary last night that was discussing an idea that is set, apparently, to revolutionise Cosmology. The idea is that there cannot have been simply nothing at all ‘before’ the Big Bang. Score one for common sense. I wonder if this is the beginning of the end for Materialism, even in physics.     

 

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Some Thoughts on Doing Philosophy

I have been thinking some more about the idea that philosophy can be divided into two activities, where one would be understanding, formulating and solving problems, and the other would be trying to understand the solutions, and where the former would be a quite formal process with measurable outcomes, for we either succeed or we fail, and where the latter might be likened to the Glass Bead Game.

For success at philosophy, it seems to me, we must be rather arrogant. We must believe that we are capable of succeeding where countless others have failed. We need not believe that we are extremely clever. This might actually be a mistake. Rather, we would need to believe that it would be possible for us to simplify the problems of philosophy to the point where we ourselves can see them clearly and simply, and thus solve them, despite the fact that we are not extremely clever, and probably not even as clever as we think we are.

By ‘philosophy’ I do not mean the acquisition of wisdom or any deep understanding of the world. The term is used here in a more restricted or perhaps ‘Western’ sense, as the use of logic and reason to identify solutions for philosophical problems at the level of first principles. To believe that it would be possible for us to succeed at philosophy, therefore, given sufficient arrogance, is to believe that it would at least be possible to solve all philosophical problems in logic.  For this we would not need to believe that it would be easy or even possible for us to understand the solution. We would only need to believe that the world is ‘logical’, such that these problems do have a solution.

The difference between these two beliefs is important. We can understand a theory very well, even become a world-class expert on it, while having little understanding of what the theory supposedly describes. Quantum theory would be an obvious example. Physics is full of such ‘well-understood’ theories. To succeed at philosophy, in the restricted sense that success is meant here, would be to arrive by logical analysis at a theoretical solution for philosophical problems, one that works so well that we ourselves are unable to see what it is wrong with it, consider it a correct solution, and therefore judge ourselves to have succeeded at philosophy. This would not require that we have yet achieved a good understanding of the wider implications of our theory, or even found a comprehensible interpretation. We would only need to see that it works, that it has no discernable faults, that it has genuine explanatory reach, that it is useful, that there is no better theory and so forth, using the same criteria as we would for any other theory.

On this view there would be two areas of activity for philosophy. There would be the process of working out what is true and false according to our reason. This would be largely a matter of mathematics and geometry, the application of dialectic logic to philosophical problems. Then there would be the process of trying to understand what the results of our logical analysis would imply for the world. A philosopher, like a physicist, cannot expect too much from a theoretical solution. A physicist would consider the problem of gravity to be solved if there is a theory that allows its effects to be accurately predicted. Everything else would be interpretation. There would be no requirement that we understand gravity in order for the theory to be judged successful. Discovering a successful philosophical theory is a realistic ambition, therefore, even if it may seem rather arrogant to suppose we could succeed. Even if we do succeed, we will have done no more than identified what it is we need to understand.

Physics gives us no understanding of what things are since it is not ontology or meditation, or of how we know things, since it is not epistemology or meditation. We need not understand such things for physics. To succeed at physics we would only need to be able to predict how things behave under certain conditions and prove that they behave as predicted. In the same way, if we have a philosophical theory that predicts the results of logic and experience for all of its ramifications, and takes full account of them, then we must consider it to be successful. We would not need to fully understand the world described by the theory in order to show that that the theory would fit the data and work in logic, and thus that it is successful. The interpretation of the theory would be a further task, possibly an endless one, and one we cannot even begin until we have identified a theory that would work and that would therefore be worth the effort of trying to understand.

If we do not make this distinction between, on the one hand, the mechanical task of philosophical decision-making that allows us to decide which is the best theory, and, on the other, the indescribable and mysterious cognitive process required for reaching a understanding of a theory, then we are likely to spend most of our time trying to understand theories that are wrong, that are impossible to understand for this very reason, and that will distort our understanding of the world rather than contribute to it.

Newton tried to understand gravity, but what chance did he have while he was trying to understand an incorrect theory? He was trying to understand his theory of gravity, not gravity itself, and it was derived from inadequate data. For a reasonable understanding of a feature of the world we must first ensure that we have a theory that is correct, within the limits of its area of description, for only then would it become worthwhile trying to understand the world with the help of it.

How often do we see people trying to make sense of Materialism, Freewill, ex nihilo Creation, the Holy Trinity and so forth, and failing, and then blaming philosophy for being too complicated to understand and impossible to win? Is it philosophy that they are trying to understand? Or is it some philosophical theory? What if the theory is incorrect? How likely is that an incorrect theory will ever make sense to us? How likely is it that we can understand the world by studying an incorrect philosophical theory? How likely is it that the study of an incorrect theory will lead us to a correct understanding of the world?

The claim that it is possible to succeed at philosophy may still seem implausible. The arrogance required may be difficult to foster when so many have failed before us. If we look at the history of philosophical thought in the West we see that it has been rooted to the spot for thousands of years. Its problems never change, yet today’s professional academics are on average just as confused by them as were the early Greeks, possibly even more so. How, then, can it be possible to solve them? Step one, it seems to me, it to be arrogant enough to think that it is worth trying.

At the same time, humility would also be an important attribute. We must be aware that it easy to make mistakes, so that we will remain ever alert to them. Also, it may take a little humility, or something like humility, to be able to honestly distinguish between our opinions about what is true, what we hope is true, what we take on faith to be true, what we have always believed to be true, what other people say is true, what some book or other says is true, what our peer group usually assumes is true, and what we know is true beyond any possibility of doubt. The task would require that we doubt ourselves with complete humility wherever possible. We are not an ideal reasoner, after all, and our beliefs are not necessarily facts. In philosophy we are looking for exactly one theory, the correct one, and the chances of it turning out to be the one that we like most when we begin our investigation, and that would fit best with our existing beliefs, is approximately nil. We must be able to abandon all our conjectural views and preconceptions and admit our ignorance. Humility, the recognition that we are studying philosophy because we do not already know the answers, may make this shedding of baggage easier to do and more likely to be done thoroughly.

And then, we must have some arrogance to trust our reason. Not many people do this in philosophy. One would think that entire point of the discursive philosophy of the West is to place our trust in our reason, but this is a misperception. It is the method of this philosophy to use logic and reason to solve logical problems, but this method says nothing about whether we should trust our results. On the whole academic philosophers do not trust their results. Thus we see many of them promoting the idea that their craft should be a purely rational, coldly intellectual and more or less scientific endeavour, while happily endorsing views that contradict logic and reason, and that have nothing to do with science. This is a hopeless strategy. We must be sufficiently arrogant to trust our reason, certainly, even if we must humbly concede a capacity for lapses and mistakes, but not so arrogant that we feel able to reject logic and reason for our own opinions.

It is remarkable that so few philosophers trust their reason. There is almost an epidemic of mistrust. Indeed, the whole of ‘western’ philosophy could be seen as a rejection of trust in logic and reason. One result of metaphysical analysis is that all selective conclusions about the world as whole are undecidable, or equivalently, that all selective metaphysical theories are logically indefensible. This is well known. In the discursive philosophy of the western academic tradition do we trust our reason when faced with this result? No. We do not understand it, and so what we normally do is reject metaphysics. We reach a result, but we do not trust our reason enough to believe that it is a correct result. So we judge ourselves a failure and conclude that it is not possible to succeed at philosophy. A little more arrogance might allow us to take a more confident view and assume that our reason and our methods of reasoning are to be trusted and are up to the task, while a little more humility might allow us to concede that where we do not understand the result of our reasoning processes this would not invalidate the result, and may indicate no more than a failure of understanding.

This may seem pretty obvious. Yet one sees a surprising number of philosophers and scientists rejecting metaphysics simply because they do not understand its results. They do not seem to have the humility required to concede that this might indicate a personal problem rather than a problem with metaphysics. I do not think this is a useful kind of arrogance.

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