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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Exploring Mysticism and Physics

I have been wondering about the properties of an ‘ideal gas’ in relation to mysticism, specifically a ‘Bose-Einstein condensate’. It was a thought put into my head by Schrodinger, who speaks of the mystics as ‘particles in an ideal gas’.

It seems that the Pauli-exclusion principle usually limits the number of bosons that can occupy the same energy level. But if the bosons form an ideal condensate then they can all occupy exactly the same energy level. They would no longer interact with each other. That is, they would no longer behave as a multitude of discrete entities causally linked. They would now be in a state of quantum entanglement such that they might as well all be the same boson, a choir in perfect harmony. Or something like this. I wish I had a better grasp of the science.

There is some talk of the early universe being a condensate of such a kind. There is also a Gnostic creation story that tells of a choir of angels singing in perfect and timeless harmony, until one voice wavers, and this disturbs its neighbours, and soon there is a disharmony out of which arises the world of Maya. This sort of symmetry-breaking appears to be just the right sort of idea.

What I am wondering is whether it would be accurate to say, in some sense at least, that a truly perfect Bose-Einstein condensate could be said to be a multitude of things and a singular phenomenon at the same time. If so, then it seems very likely that an ideal condensate would be a useful idea in discussions of global consciousness. This would be a turn up.

I’m way out my depths here and wouldn’t dare discuss this on a physics forum. Still, I have a feeling this is the right way to go for a physical description of an Idealist universe. Any physicists around for a comment?

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Common Philosophical Mistakes I – Abusing the Laws of Dialectic Logic

One would think that nearly all philosophers would understand Aristotle’s laws of logic well enough, especially since these laws are supposed to be merely a formalisation and idealisation of the way in which we usually think. Yet the regular misapplication of these laws leads to all sorts of problems in philosophy. The trouble starts with a lack of clarity as to the precise definition of the contradictory and complementary pair of propositions denoted ‘A and not-A’, the dialectical pair to which Aristotle’s three laws would apply.

Quite often we are told that quantum mechanics would require a modification of these laws, usually on the basis that an electron seems to break them. To many people it appears that a ‘wave-particle’ is a case of A/not-A such that an electron must be one or the other, while it appears to be both, or perhaps neither. The law of the excluded middle seems to prevent it being something else, and yet it must be something else.

On the same basis, mysticism is often said to require the abandonment of dialectic logic. In a classic case Heraclitus states ‘We are and are not’, and this is often be taken to be definitive evidence for the ‘illogic’ of his worldview. Priest and Routley cite Heraclitus in support of their argument for dialethism, a theory for which the universe would contain true contradictions. (A ‘true’ contradiction here would be a real one, out there in the world). On analysis, however, it is dialethism that would require the abandonment of dialectic logic, for it flagrantly flouts the rules. For another example, and a far more important one, Nagarjuna’s argument against extreme metaphysical positions as presented in his Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way is regularly cited as evidence that mysticism requires the rejection of Aristotle’s laws. In fact it is an object lesson in the application of those laws, and depends on them entirely for its success.

Consider an electron. Is it a wave? Is it a particle? Neither answer would be adequate. We could say that it is both. This would be closer to the truth than saying it is one or the other, and it is what we usually do. We are forced, when describing the universe at this level, to speak in a seemingly contradictory language. It would not be rigorous to say that an electron is a wave, and it would not be rigorous to say that it is a particle. In this case, would an electron break Aristotle’s rules?

Not at all. Reality cannot break Aristotle’s rules because they make no predictions for Reality. Aristotle was a genius and well ahead of the game. His definition for a true contradictory pair of propositions A and not-A states, very simply, that one of the pair must be true and the other must be false. Where this is not the case for a pair of propositions then the laws of logic can have nothing to say about whether either of them is true or false. They may both be true or both false, and there may be a third, fourth or even twenty-fifth alternative. If an electron turns out to be neither a wave nor a particle then the laws of logic comfortably allow for this situation.

Likewise with Heraclitus’ famous ‘contradiction’. When he states, ‘We are and are not’, there is no contradiction. He is not claiming that either half of this statement is true or false, but that there are these two ways of describing our situation, neither of which is strictly true or false on its own. On its own, each of them would be inadequate to the truth and not true for that reason. This is a difficult claim, certainly, if we try to follow its implications for metaphysics, but it causes no problems in dialectic logic and gives us no reason to suppose that Heraclitus had abandoned the laws.

Nagarjuna may suffer more than most philosophers from this common category-error, for it is made by many of his interpreters. One university encyclopedia states clearly that Nagarjuna refutes ‘all logically possible metaphysical theories’, so convinced is the author of the entry that Nagarjuna’s view is logically ridiculous. Buddhist philosophy is reduced to irrationality at a stroke. But this is an absurd interpretation.

Nagarjuna’s argument refutes all four possible answers to all dialectical metaphysical questions. While Lao Tsu simply states that for an ultimate view the world is in no case this or that, Nagarjuna is more expansive and lists the things that the world is not. He gives a more complex argument, one by which in no instance would it be correct to say that the world as a whole is this or that, this and that, or neither this nor that. How then, can a contradiction arise in Buddhist metaphysics? Where could we find a true contradictory pair among a collection of metaphysical theories that are all supposed to be false? There could be no such pairs. Freewill and Determinism? Neither would be true, so there would be no contradiction. Materialism and Idealism? Same again.

Nagarjuna’s argument does not break the laws of logic but utterly depends on them. He shows that extreme views give rise to dialectic contradictions and must be rejected. If we do not reject logical contradictions then this argument against extreme metaphysical positions does not work. Nagarjuna’s argument shows that his philosophical scheme contains no contradictions nor, inevitably, the universe it describes. Contrary to one prominent encyclopedia, when Nagarjuna refutes a metaphysical theory he is showing, deliberately and very specifically, that it is not logically possible. This is what he is proving. It would be why he rejects certain theories and is his only justification for doing so. How could logic refute a theory that is logically possible?

Nagarjuna’s global refutation leaves just one theory standing, namely his own. He shows that his worldview is the only one that cannot refuted by the use of Aristotle’s laws of logic. Often his proof is described as showing that all positive or partial metaphysical positions are logically indefensible, which is to say that all such positions can be refuted in the dialectic. In this case, on what grounds can we argue that Buddhism requires the abandonment of dialectic logic? Would not any such argument have to be based on a mistake?

This muddle is caused by a misunderstanding of Aristotle’s laws. Nagarjuna’s argument is a vindication of ordinary logic, a proof that logic can lead us to the truth. But it can only do this if we do not make category-errors along the way. A is not the contradictory complement of B, but of not-A. That is to say, the opposite of Materialism is not Idealism. Rather, it is not-Materialism. Our tendency to see Idealism as the opposite of Materialism has grounds in logic, it makes some sense, and the two conjectures can be formulated as precise opposites for the purposes of a legitimate dialectic debate. What we cannot do, however, if we are using logic properly, is assume that either of them is true. This assumption is unnecessary and cannot be justified on grounds of logic. It is a betrayal of rational philosophy. If we do not know that one of a pair of propositions is true and the other false, whether empirically or for logical reasons, then we do not know whether they would form a true contradictory pair. If we cannot think of a third alternative this may not be a logical problem but a lack of imagination. The assumption that one of Idealism or Materialism must be true is an extra-logical assumption. There would be no contradiction, no breaking of the LEM, if we assume that both of them are false. Indeed, Nagarjuna shows that there would be a contradiction if either of them were true.

It should be stressed that all this applies to Idealism only where it is a mirror-image of Materialism. There are forms of Idealism which stand up in logic and Nagarjuna’s view could be seen as one of them, but in these forms Idealism it is not simply the antithesis of Materialism. This is a terminological issue, of no concern here. The form of Idealism discussed here would be the one that Nagarjuna refutes.

In his book The Paradoxical Universe Melhuish rejects Buddhism. This is noteworthy and directly relevant here. He sees that all partial metaphysical positions give rise to contradictions, but he cannot see how to abandon them. The view that would remain once they are abandoned seems incomprehensible to him. Thus he sees no other option than to reify these contradictions for a paradoxical worldview, a world in which there would be true contradictions. This view would be an important alternative to logical positivism and it is similarly motivated. What Melhuish does not see, no more than did the logical positivists, is that the metaphysical dilemmas that push him towards this paradoxical view are not contradictions according to Aristotle. Thus it would be perfectly possible to abandon all of the problematic metaphysical positions that give rise to them while maintaining a rational and reasonable worldview free of contradiction. Nagarjuna shows us how to do it. Melhuish rejects Nagarjuna, however, and so ends up with a paradoxical philosophy. This is a prominent example of a common misuse of logic. Nagarjuna rejects all cases of A/not-A in metaphysics and so ends up with a perfectly reasonable worldview. There would be no reason to suppose that the universe is paradoxical. There would be no reason to doubt that Aristotle allowed for all possibilities.

What we often miss, it seems to me, is this. Materialism and Idealism may be formulated so as to be mirror-images. But they cannot be formulated so that either of this pair of images would work as a fundamental theory. If we think that according to the laws of dialectic logic one of these opposing theories must be true and one false, then we will see this as a metaphysical paradox or ‘barrier to knowledge’. One of these positions must be true, but neither of them can be. But if we think that one of them must be true we have made a very important assumption that has nothing whatsoever to do with logic. ‘Dilemma’ means two truths. Idealism and Materialism cannot form a dilemma if neither is true. In the same way, the statement, ‘We are and are not’ may seem paradoxical, but Lao Tsu says true words seem paradoxical not that they are. They will often appear paradoxical precisely because it is common for people to misunderstand or forget Aristotle’s definition for a true contradictory pair. Heraclitus will seem a lunatic to anyone making this mistake. But this is just an appearance. True words will not seem to be paradoxical, just confusing, if Aristotle’s laws are properly taken into account.

Where A and not-A are metaphysical theories, the question of which of them is true and which false is not something that can be decided in logic unless we know that A/not-A is a well-formed contradictory pair. If it is not, then all bets are off. The output of our logical calculations will be gibberish, metaphysics will seem a morass of undecidable questions, an electron will appear to be impossible, Heraclitus will appear to be a fool and Nagarjuna’s philosophical position will appear to be irrational. It seems possible that this error in the application of Aristotle’s laws is the principal cause of the suspicion with which many philosophers view mysticism, since once we make it the idea that world is a unity beyond all conceptual distinctions is bound to look logically absurd.

All in all, then, this is a crucial mistake that is to be avoided at all costs. It is very easy to avoid it if we are mindful. The problem is only that when we carefully avoid this mistake, the worldview that emerges from any logical analysis of metaphysical questions becomes difficult to understand. The difficulty is not that of having to conceive a paradoxical world that contains contradictions, but a world that is a unity, that contains no true contradictions, that is perfectly reasonable according to Aristotle’s laws of thought.

We see, then, that this misunderstanding of Aristotle’s rules for the dialectic, of logic itself, has catastrophic consequences. It renders Nagarjuna’s view untenable, thus ruling out from consideration the only known workable solution for metaphysics, and it leads a great many people, even many of those who endorse and practice the mystic arts, to assume that for the Buddha’s view we would have to stop using our reason. It leads to the extraordinary idea that Nagarjuna refutes all possible metaphysical positions, as if he had no coherent view of his own.

To avoid this mistake in metaphysics we only need to be on our guard. When faced with what seems to be contradiction between a pair of metaphysical propositions, statements, conjectures, theses or theories, all we would need to do is ask ourselves two questions: If one of these propositions is true, then must the other be false? Must one of these propositions be true? If the answer to both these questions is ‘yes’, then we are facing a true dialectical contradiction and must decide it according to the rules. If the answer to either of these questions is ‘no’ then all bets are off. The law of the excluded middle would not apply and both answers may be false.

Immediately metaphysics is transformed. Elsewhere I liken this approach to being given a subtle knife or a magic sword with which to cut through the problems of metaphysics. No longer are we stuck on the horns of a thousand dilemmas. All the dilemmas disappear at once, to be replaced by a large heap of unwanted partial theories all of which do not work and that can be rejected. Nagarjuna’s view is revealed as the only one that is logically defensible.

For other real life examples of this mistake it is usually only necessary to examine the arguments of somebody who believes that metaphysics does not produce a result and is a waste of time. Almost invariably, and perhaps even always, this view will be found to derive from the category-error described here.

For a full and complete discussion of Aristotle’s laws and their correct application I would recommend C.W.A Whittaker, Aristotle’s De Interpretatione: Contradiction and Dialectic. I am deeply indebted to it. There is also a directly relevant essay by John Corcoran, ‘Aristotle’s Prior Analytics and Boole’s Laws of Thought, History and Philosophy of Logic’ ( For an introduction to Nagarjuna I would recommend Khenpo Tsultrim Gyatso, The Sun of Wisdom, trans. Ari Goldfield, Shambala (2003).

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Sri Krishna Prem and the Language of the Seers

The following is a passage from Sri Krishna Prem’s book, Initiation Into Yoga, from an essay entitled ‘Symbolism and Knowledge’.  Thanks to Don Salmon for posting it elsewhere so that I could borrow it. The point about language here, and the variability in the language of mysticism, would be of crucial importance, since this variation in language might be seen as a variation in the message, while any such variation would render the message implausible. If the knowledge of the seers is empirical, as is claimed, then it should not vary from case to case except in extent and depth of insight.


“Many who study mystical literature from outside think that because the descriptions of the Path vary, they therefore refer to different paths, and some even make the further inference that they are ‘purely subjective’.  But no conclusion could be further from the truth.  The teachings of all genuine seers are in reality in complete agreement; it is only the verbal descriptions which vary. All descriptions, whether those of ordinary common-sense or those of so-called exact science, are symbolic.  The words refer to something beyond themselves, something whose nature they can only suggest.

There is a story of a small boy who was being given a lesson in elementary astronomy by his teacher.  Having been told that such and such a star was Sirius, and such another Aldebaran, the boy became thoughtful and said, “how do we know that those are their names?’ It is doubtless a truism, but it is one which we too often forget in practice, namely, that words mean only what we have agreed that they shall mean. 

The work of scientists is seen to refer to a common body of experience because we have hammered out a common terminology.  If, instead of being in very general touch with one another, scientists had to work in little, independent groups, scattered in time and space, each group evolving its own terminology, it would by no means be easy to correlate their researches, though it would always be possible for one who had both sufficient first-hand experience of science and sufficient patience.

The writings of seers are in a somewhat similar case to such hypothetical scientific studies.  They are the products of isolated individuals or groups of individuals, often quite out of touch with similar groups elsewhere, and each of them has used such terms to describe his experience as were suggested by the tradition with which he was most familiar.  The results often appears chaotic; but anyone who cars to follow the Path for himself will soon find that the chaos is only apparent, and that the various terms used in any one system are easily translatable into those of another. There will not always be a one to one correspondence, for the groupings of experiences under one head is also largely a personal matter. Whether a given complex of experience is to be taken as a whole or divided into aspects which are given various names is a matter which will vary with the point of view of each individual experiencer.

In the ancient world such ability to translate from one symbolism into another seems to have been more common than it is at present.  We read how Greek priests could visit Egypt or Chaldea and at once recognize a given ‘foreign’ God as a correspondence of such and such a Greek one. The equation of Thoth with Hermes is a well-known example, but its by no means unique.  It was possible for any initiated priest of the ancient religions to wander, like Apollonius, over the whole world and recognize his own Gods wherever he went.

The decay of this ability seems to have been connected with the development, somewhere in the first millennium B.C., of the power of abstract thought.  Such thought is itself a symbolism, as philosophers are now once more beginning to realize. It is a symbolism, and a very powerful one for certain purposes, but it seems to carry with it a fatal tendency to take itself too seriously and to pose as being more than symbolism.  To say that the world is  a product of the union of consciousness with content-form is no less symbolic and no more true than to say that it is the marriage of the sun and moon, the union of the Sky God with the Earth Mother; and to say that the universe is an interrelatedness of atoms is as definitely symbolic a statement as that it is the morning stars singing together.”

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Sticking Up For Philosophy

Yesterday I again bumped up against the claim that philosophy does not produce answers. This issue is a constant source of irritation. It would not be rigorous to say that philosophy does not produce answers. It is something that is said all the time at all levels of philosophy, and it goes without saying in physics. Nevertheless, it would not be a rigorous statement. The truth is that not everyone agrees about this. In reality, it is more the case that some philosophers say they have found the answers, and all the rest don’t believe them.

Of course, they may not have found the answers. They may be deluded. This is irrelevant. What matters is whether we can actually prove that they are deluded. If we cannot do this, then we cannot prove that philosophy does not produce answers and should not be simply stating it as a fact.

So, can we prove that they are deluded. No, we cannot. Not all of them. The answers given to philosophical questions by the mystics of all recorded ages, cultures and lands are unfalsifiable in philosophy. This is how we can know that we have found the correct interpretation of their answers, that they are unfalsifiable. It is considered good practice in mysticism never to say anything that is falsifiable.

This immunity from prosecution would be both possible and necessary. It would be an ineluctable consequence of the nature of Reality that words that are strictly true will seem to be paradoxical, and it is very difficult to falsify a statement that seems to be paradoxical.

Heraclitus says we are and are not. So do Nagarjuna, Plotinus and Al-Halaj. This would be an answer to a number of philosophical questions, perhaps even all of them by extrapolation. Can we prove it is not a correct answer? If not, then we have no choice but to qualify any claim that philosophy does not produce answers with the phrase, ‘in my opinion’, or ‘so it seems to me’, or ‘according to the Western tradition of philosophical thought and most people working in the natural sciences at this time’.

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Reductionism and the Limits of Science

I first began to participate on internet forums and chat groups as part of a research project. I had worked out in logic that Buddhist doctrine was almost certainly true, but still knew very little about it. Perhaps there were objections I had not yet spotted, problems it could not address. Accordingly, for some years I travelled around the internet making bold statements in hostile environments in order to encourage objections and learn whether they could be dealt with and how best to do it.

I had many surprising adventures. Quite early on I found myself on the private chat group for a well-known astrophysicist. My background is not academic, and I was extremely nervous. It was my first opportunity to talk to a group of professional scientists about the ideas I was exploring, or, come to that, about anything. It was also the first time I realised that scientists are not immune from being utterly confused about religion and philosophy and tend to assume that everyone else, since they are not scientists, must be equally or even more confused, and therefore feel free to pluck their views out of a hat with almost no thought let alone any honest research. It was the beginning of what quickly became a complete mistrust of professional academics when it comes to matters of religion and philosophy. Over time I have come to see the professors as no better than the priests, keeping the truth from us because they themselves are fearful of discovering what it is, or want to protect their commitment to some pet conjecture or dogma. I remember mentioning Erwin Schrodinger, who preached the truth of the Hindu Upanishads for forty years, in order to give my comments a vaguely respectable background, and was informed authoritatively that Schrodinger chose the religious view that best suited him, just like everyone else, as if he was a brilliant physicist and philosopher and a blithering idiot all at the same time.

I gave up the research project in the end. There is no fault in Buddhist doctrine that I can find. It is perfect. It sheds light on physics, solves metaphysics and is an ideal science of the mind. It is strictly empirical and makes no claims that cannot, according to its metaphysical scheme, be verified in practice. It is easy to defend from telling objections once one has seen why there cannot be any. The logic is unbreakable. Even if it is not true it would be best explanation of everything on grounds of consistency, simplicity, elegance, usefulness, happiness, hopefulness and universal justice. Its explanatory reach is total in respect of what can be explained. Physics looks like a lost infant alongside it. Western metaphysics looks like chaos.

Since then I have been learning, or trying to learn, how to understand and talk about the relationship between the perennial philosophy, of which Buddhism would be one of many examples, and metaphysics, physics, psychology, mathematics, biology and so forth. It is a completely fascinating area of research and although sparsely populated is full of interesting characters and amazing texts. In an earlier post I likened this to playing Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, and although this was only a casual connection at the time it has grown on me as an apt metaphor.

The idea would be to construct an intricate model of the universe from first principles. This is a much easier game than trying to construct the model from the roof down, as it were, in the way that physicists try to do. There is no way to line up the roof with the foundations unless the foundations are already in place, so much better to start where the universe starts, with basic principles. If the principles are correct then the truths of physics, mathematics, psychology and so forth will emerge naturally and fit neatly into place.

To take this approach is not difficult in principle. There is plenty of literature, even if it is often found well off the beaten track of the academic curriculum. The problem would be only that this approach requires that we see metaphysics as coming before and after physics, and although this is how we define metaphysics, and have always defined it, this is not how we treat it these days. Just this week I saw a classic example of the way we ignore metaphysics.

It was a discussion of reductionism, and whether it is plausible that all the detail of the world could be contained, in potential, in the fundamental particles of the standard model and emerge ineluctably. This, so it seems, is what physicists call reductionism. It is as if we have built the whole house except for the foundations, and then tried to sell it to an unsuspecting young couple with a lot of estate-agent hype. Given a moment to think through this matter it becomes obvious that a myriad of particles whizzing about in space-time is not reductionism, not a solid foundation for fundamental theory. The best example of reductionism that I know of, the only successful example of which I am aware, is Middle Way Buddhism and its equivalents. Nothing would really exist and nothing would ever really happen. This is proper reductionism. It is a view that would be too strong for most physicists, however, since for a complete reductionism we would have to concede that physics is non-reductive not just at present, but for all time.

Why can we not simply concede that physics is non-reductive? Do physicists fear for the stature of their discipline? If physics is reductive, fundamental, then what is the point of metaphysics? Why does it exist? It exists because a reduction of the universe that speaks only of physically observable phenomenon cannot reach all the way down. It is certain to fail. There is no hope of success. Until this is widely understood in physics we can have only profoundly naïve conversations about religion and philosophy on internet physics forums.

Thinking that physics is reductive is an elementary error. It would be a more plausible idea if it could be tested, or if it helped explain anything, but as things are it is an idea that clearly does not work. If reductionism (or holism) is ever to work, or be achieved, then it must begin and end in metaphysics. Otherwise it is not reductionism.

In a religious context, reductionism is the idea that religion can be reduced to superstition, misunderstandings, ignorance and so on. Those who endorse the idea that physics is, or ever can be, reductive will naturally gravitate towards this secondary form of it. After all, if we don’t need to reduce physics for a fundamental theory then religious reductionism becomes unavoidable. How a scientist can hold either of these positions is, even after all these years of trying to understand the ways in which people think, quite beyond my comprehension, and I have come to see it as no more than a matter of temperament and prejudice.

Time will tell, but I see no way forward for science, philosophy and religion except a complete reconciliation. I am very sure that this can be achieved by anyone on an individual basis, but it will not be achievable in the academic community until scientists stop refusing to concede the limits of their method of study and grant to metaphysics a reason for existing.

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The Paradoxical Size of the Universe

In metaphysics it is important to keep in mind that our object of study is a totally unique phenomenon. If we forget this then we may fall into confusion on many issues. One such issue would be the problem of the size of the universe. If by ‘universe’ we mean ‘the world as a whole’, all possible mental and corporeal phenomena as well as the container that contains them, or the ‘multiverse’ and whatever contains that, then this question may seem to present us with an intractable paradox.

The universe appears to be extended in space and time. In this case, it must be finitely or infinitely extended. To say that it is finitely extended, like a football, is to say that it is not, after all, the world as whole. This idea must be rejected. To say that it is infinitely extended is possible, mainly because the idea is so confusing, but it would directly contradict the scientific evidence and explain exactly nothing.

The root of this topological problem is our idea of extension. This seems a harmless enough concept in our everyday classical or Newtonian universe, but it unravels in quantum mechanics and metaphysics. If the ‘world as a whole’ means what it says, then the idea that it is extended in space and time is incoherent. Then space would be extended in space and time would extended in time. It would be unsurprising if this idea caused paradoxes and contradictions. If we remember that in metaphysics we are dealing with a unique phenomenon, a phenomenon that encompasses all other phenomena, and thus adopting an ultimate perspective on the world, we can avoid this paradox. To think of the universe as a giant football or as infinitely extended is to make it incomprehensible. For an ultimate level of analysis our everyday Newtonian idea of extension would have to be abandoned.

The mathematician Hermann Weyl wrote much that is relevant to this topic. I discuss his thoughts in a previous post. He concludes that the idea of an extended continuum is paradoxical and has no empirical support.

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Taming the Tiger

From Taming the Tiger: Tibetan Teachings for Improving Daily Life, by Akong Tilku Rinpoche.

Unfortunately, our background as members of a modern civilised country does little to equip us for accepting things as they are. Our kind of society has an altogether different approach to situations which are held to be disagreeable or imperfect in some way. For example, we invent complicated machinery to take the boredom out of certain kinds of work. Then we have to make lots of people redundant, leaving them more bored than they were before. Moreover, we bulldoze whole communities and build high-rise flats to improve living standards, only to find that no-one wants to live in them; while the people who must live in them feel isolated and miserable. We are always trying to increase and improve things without realising the consequences or knowing where to stop.

Rather than directing all our energy into futile attempts to make life perfect, we could be using some of this effort to develop our tolerance and appreciation of the way things are. Such inner peace brings deep and lasting happiness…

It seems highly unlikely that there are many of us who could not benefit from this advice, regardless of our religious views. Buddhist practice is such a simple thing, and it is quite easy to verify its efficacy. It is only by way of a lot of sophistry that we can justify rejecting its underlying cosmology as untestable, and testing its daily practices for their effect on our inner peace and happiness is a simple project. Not even a telescope would be required. This book is brilliant and completely practical. It is about how to get the job done in the least difficult way. The ‘tiger’ in the title would be our ego, so it might as well be called Taming the Human Race.

This is only one of countless excellent books saying the same things but to me it seems a particularly useful one. If only it was as easy to do the work as recommend the books.

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The Turing Test

Here is an inexpensive set-up for a Turing Test that anybody can try.

Talk to someone in an online forum until you are completely certain that he or she is conscious. You can use a volunteer or just pick someone at random and not let them know that they are a test subject.

If you are able to reach complete certainty that they are conscious and not an insentient computer programme, then you must have reached complete certainty that a computer programme could never pass the Turing Test. You ruled out this possibility when you became certain you were not speaking to one.

If you cannot reach complete certainty, and have not yet found a way of settling the matter, then you must believe that an insentient computer programme could pass the Turing Test, just as long as you are running the test.

It is questionable whether it matters to anything whether a machine could ever pass the Turing Test. All the same, it is an interesting game to play, reading other people’s posts as if they were part of such a test and then seeing whether it would be possible to be completely certain that they are conscious, and, if it is possible, what it is about their messages that makes it so.

The same experimental procedure can be used to examine the plausibility of philosophical zombies, creatures that behave exactly like human beings on internet forums but who have no idea that they are doing it.

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The Hindu Swami Initiation Ceremony and its Implications for Metaphysics and Physics


The biddidisa or elaborate initiation into swamiship includes a fire ceremony, during which symbolical funeral rites are performed. The physical body of the disciple is represented as dead, cremated in the flame of wisdom. The newly-made swami is then given a chant, such as : “This atma is Brahma” or “Thou art That” or “I am He.

This description is taken from Paramhansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi. A footnote explains, “This atma is Brahma” means literally “This soul is spirit.” It continues,

The Supreme Spirit, the Uncreated, is wholly unconditioned (neti, neti, not this, not that) but is often referred to in Vedanta as Sat-Chit-Ananda, that is, Being-Intelligence-Bliss.

Many people would read of this ceremony and immediately dismiss it as superstition and fantasy, as having no bearing whatsoever on science, perhaps even as having no bearing on rational philosophy.

In fact, this short passage explains the founding principle of a systematic philosophical doctrine that solves all metaphysical problems and which would, if physicists would only award it some study as a community, allow the construction of a fundamental theory that would serve as a workable interpretation of quantum mechanics.

The case can be put quite briefly. The four phrases; “This atma is Brahma”; “Thou art That”; “I am He”; and “neti, neti” have the same meaning. The Universe, Cosmos or Reality would be reducible to a phenomenon that cannot be spoken of as being ‘this’ or ‘that’, because ‘it’ would be undifferentiated. All metaphysical theories asserting otherwise would be false. This claim is made plausible by the well-established conclusion of philosophers the world over that all counter-theories are logically absurd.

It is the logical absurdity of partial positions that renders metaphysics in Western academia a muddle, so there is no doubting it. Philosophers here, on average, simply cannot make sense of their result, but they almost always reach it. For the swami it would be inevitable that all such positions are absurd. This would follow inevitably from the fact that they are false. This is precisely what the chants of the swami’s initiation ceremony are asserting. By reduction the world would never be ‘this’ or ‘that’. This is the perennial philosophy. It is stated simply and clearly by every sage from the Buddha and Lao-tsu to Rumi and Nicolas de Cusa.

So, this deals with metaphysics. If the world is neti, neti then there can be no such thing as a metaphysical dilemma. As for physics, the implication is immediate. If the Ultimate is undifferentiated, or if for an ultimate view the world is undifferentiated, then physics will never find the Real. This God of the Gaps, by being absent from physics, renders physics nonreductive. Its absence means that physics cannot explain what anything is or where it came from, and many phenomenon – nonlocal effects would be a clear example – become utterly incomprehensible. This is not a criticism of physics, but a recognition that it stops where metaphysics properly begins.

The phrase neti, neti gives us a solution for metaphysics and for all philosophical problems. The world would be a unity. It would be extended in space-time and not extended in space-time. It would have these two aspects. It would be as if there two worlds. Non-local effects would be local after all. Ulrich Mohrhoff and the Sri Aurobindo school has shown that a philosophically sound interpretation of quantum mechanics is made possible by this axiom of unity.

For this reason and many more, the idea that religion has nothing to offer science and philosophy is ridiculous. It is only that they do not take what is offered. The constant refusal to concede that the world’s oldest and most well-developed philosophical doctrine might be true, after all, accompanied by an almost complete lack of effort to show that it would not work, begins to look more and more like a fear of being found out in a mistake, or a blatant instance of ‘not invented here’ syndrome.

The primary aim of religion, metaphysics and physics is to discover what is true. It would not be surprising if discovering the truth required some joined-up thinking. To divide these three methods and areas of knowledge up and then to study one or two of them in isolation or exclusively would be a recipe for confusion and failure, and the evidence is all around us.

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The Case of the Missing Ingredient – Episode Three


Episode III


A Walk in the Park


“You have a grand gift of silence, Watson,” said Holmes, “which makes you an invaluable companion.”

They had walked briskly through the cold, quiet streets to St. James’s Park, and having warmed up now strolled at a more leisurely pace through the fallen leaves of the great elms that lined the southern promenade.

“Well, I suppose that is something.”

“It is a great deal, Watson. Perhaps more than you know. Have you given further thought to our problem?

“I can’t make head or tail of it. There seems to be no piece of evidence that might not be doubted, in which case there is nowhere to begin.”

“And yet we must begin, Watson, and we must do much more than that. If we cannot solve this problem then we cannot rebut the charge laid at my door by your fellow in the Times, who predicts that an obstacle in my intellectual make-up will prevent me from ever doing so.”

Watson shakes his head in wonderment.

“It is surely only you, Holmes, alone among all men, who would see in this speculation a personal affront.”

“That may be so, Watson, but I rather doubt it. By implication the charge is levelled against all men equally.

“No doubt. But I don’t suppose many of them would feel so offended as to attempt to refute it personally. To me it seems more reasonable to assume that if it is beyond the abilities of professors of philosophy to overcome this mysterious obstacle then there wouldn’t be much point in me trying. Whole thing is far too confusing.”

“Such an assumption may well appear reasonable, Watson, or not, as the case may be, but it remains an assumption either way. If we took this attitude whenever we were consulted by a client with a problematic case then where would we be? We would be of little use to them if we began by assuming that because they cannot solve the problem, nor can we.”

Watson claps his gloved hands together to warm his fingers.

“Well, if you put it like that, Holmes, I suppose you’re right. But is it not true that more often than not in our investigations we depend as much on your ability to uncover fresh evidence as on your painstaking methods of deduction? What if there is no more evidence to be found than has already been found and is already available to everyone. This lessens the likelihood of your succeeding where so many have failed.”

“A good point, Watson. I think it more than likely that this is the case regarding the evidence. At any rate, I must admit to being temporarily at a loss as to where any fresh evidence might be sought. Here we seem to have one of those cases where the art of the reasoner must be used rather for the sifting of the essential data than for the acquiring of fresh evidence. The problem is so uncommon, so complete, and of such personal importance to so many, that the outcome can only be a plethora of surmise, conjecture, and hypothesis. This muddies the waters. The difficulty in such cases is to detach the framework of facts – of absolute, undeniable facts – from the embellishments of theorists and reporters. Having established ourselves on this sound basis, it is our duty to see what inferences may be drawn, and which are the special points upon which the whole mystery turns.”

“All the same, Holmes, I still cannot see where your deductions will begin. After playing the guinea pig in your experiments this morning I’m having some difficulty deciding what I do think is a fact and what I don’t. How on earth do we know anything at all?”

“We must begin where we always begin, Watson, with the facts as they appear to be. Later, perhaps, we will discover that they are facts only in appearance, or that they are irrelevant facts, or even that there are no certain facts to be found, but we must start from what appear to be the facts. We have no other option. When asked to solve a difficult case we do not usually ask our clients to go away and come back when they are more certain of the facts. It is our first task to discover the facts, and we can only start with the facts as they appear to be.

“Alright, yes, I see all that. But what I mean is that there don’t even appear to be any facts.”

Holmes stops and consults his pocket watch.

“Let us turn for home here, Watson. If we do so now we can stroll along and still be in time for Mrs Hudson’s glorious tea and crumpets.”

“I certainly shan’t object to that. Indeed, I daresay I’d rather walk more briskly and persuade her to make tea a little earlier than usual.”

“A capital idea. Let us make haste.”

Half an hour later Watson and Holmes are once again settled in their armchairs by the fire. They do not speak for a while. Watson breaks the silence.

“So, Holmes, what are your thoughts? Can the obstacle be overcome?”

Holmes carefully places his cup and saucer on a table at his side and takes up his pipe and tobacco.

“Of that, Watson, I am not yet certain. But I have begun to discern the shape of it, and I see now that almost as soon as we have begun to examine the problem of consciousness we are confronted by this obstacle.”

“We are?”

“Consider, Watson, the simplicity of this problem. In virtue of tight shoes, drops of water and suchlike, there is no doubt that material objects appear to exist, and in virtue of the thoughts that we have about these objects there is no doubt that mental objects appear to exist. To whatever extent either of these phenomena are real or illusory, it remains the case that either one gives rise to the other or both arise from something else. Your two philosophers have concluded that they could not have arisen one from the other. Were they not very sure of this they would not be speculating in the Times that we cannot solve this problem without an extra ingredient and talking of metaphysical problems. They conclude that in order to explain mind and matter we would need an extra ingredient. The case is quite clear.”

“Why not God, then?”

“Why not indeed. This was my first thought. But during our walk I realised that He is not the only suspect. There is at least one other.”

“And this would be …?”

“Awareness, Watson, or what your philosopher chap calls ‘what it is like’, the very thing we are trying to explain. You were aware of what it was like to feel discomfort at the tightness of your shoes, but for which you would not have needed to borrow a pair of mine for our walk. This awareness cannot be the same thing as the experience, otherwise you would have become unaware when you took them off. ”

Holmes gazes into the fire and follows his thoughts. . .

“Had there not been something that this discomfort was like for you, Watson, then you would not have noticed they were too tight. Yet what is it that noticed? Awareness must precede experience, for experience, or ‘what it is like’, if it is not identical with awareness, must be contingent. As for the rose we discussed earlier this morning and my remarks about religion, it was not the rose that turned my thoughts to God while I examined the window frame for clues on that summer’s day, but my experience of its beauty, for while it seems undeniable that this beauty was in my experience, nonetheless it seems inevitable that its beauty lay only in my eye as the beholder, and not in the rose itself. That we may experience the beauty of the rose despite this therefore seemed suggestive. But I am wandering. It is an odd idea, I must admit, that it may be the thing we are trying to explain that is what is missing from our explanation, and I cannot say it will not turn out to be a red herring of an idea, but as we noted this morning, if there is a mysterious ingredient missing from our mind-matter theories, in the absence of which we cannot explain experience, then the fundamental condition for experience will be what is missing. Yet immediately, before we have hardly even begun to explore this innocent idea, we meet what is surely at least a temporary obstacle in our make-up, for it is not easy to imagine a phenomenon that is neither mental nor physical, yet which would serve as the condition for experiences, including our experience of our thoughts and even of the tightness of our shoes.”

“Some believers say that we cannot imagine God. Perhaps this is not a coincidence.”

“The point had not escaped me, Watson, but I would rather refrain from making such bold conjectures quite so early in the investigation. Let us rather follow the facts.”

A light knock at the door is followed by the entrance of Mrs. Hudson, but it is not, as expected, for the sake of the tea tray.

“Mr. Holmes, I’m very sorry, but there’s a gentleman downstairs says he won’t go away without seeing you. I told him this is Sunday and not a day for calling without a by your leave, and at tea time as well, but he takes no notice, and so I must leave it to you to send him on his way. This is his card.

Holmes takes the card and examines it with his customary care.

“It is alright, Mrs. Hudson, perhaps our visitor might provide us with a break from our arduous philosophising. You may scold him and tell him that I will make an unusual exception, and that I require five minutes to become presentable. Please show him up at the end of that time.”

Holmes turns back to his friend.

“Quickly, Watson, we must make ourselves ready for visitors.”



To be continued….

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