The World Knot

Welcome to the blog.

The writings here explore the relationship between metaphysics, science and religion.  Metaphysics is a muddle in western academia and widely undervalued as a result. Over the centuries the problems of philosophy have been tangled into a knot of such complexity that they can seem intractable. The World Knot is an attempt to show that they are not intractable 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.

Despite some critical comments the blog is not anti-academia or anti-science. Quite the reverse. It is against over-complication of the issues for the sake of sophistry, publication schedules and protectionism. In particular it is against the dire treatment of metaphysics and religion by a large part of the professional academic community. Now that we have the internet and google it is inexcusable and inexplicable.

The claims made here are often bold and uncompromising but the writings 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.  Please report mistakes, and feel free to suggest improvements.

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The Legacy of a Truth Seeker by Bernardo Kastrup – The Video

With another hat on I mix music and occasionally even sell a download or CD. I don’t usually wear two hats at once but here’s a cross-over project. The poem is the work of Bernardo Kastrup, whose writings on science and philosophy are, I believe, important, and represent an attempt to explain the inexplicable in a language that works in physics and western academic philosophy. This is from a book of poetry due for publication in the New Year.

Video rendering and Youtube conversion rather wrecks the audio, but the poem is the thing.  As far as I can tell it is rigorous and consistent with the world-view and metaphysical scheme promoted on this blog. The music is by Helices, a London based electronica outfit, and the track is ‘Percolate’. The youtube notes give links for the author and the band.



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Nicolas de Cusa on God, Motion and the Transcendence of Contradictories

Metaphysics demands that we seek for the origin of existence beyond the conceptual categories with which we perceive and organise the world.  This is what is meant by the failure of all positive metaphysical theories, that we must look elsewhere for a solution that works. This may seem a dry and dusty analytical observation of use only to scholastics but this is far from being the case.

It would be the philosophical approach required by any apophatic theology, and as such provides a logical foundation for this form of theism. It may be argued that this is not theism, and this would be my view, but it hardly matters one way or the other.  There would an inconceivable phenomenon, call it what we will, that is our origin and existential foundation. About this phenomenon we can say nothing positive since to do so would be to mis-describe it. Thus it becomes indescribable, and with it the entire world.   It then becomes possible to say with no provisos, ‘Words that are strictly true seem to be paradoxical’.

This is a conclusion that can be reached in discursive philosophy with or without reference to God. Here is Nicolas de Cusa showing us by the use of a theistic language that experiment and theory will lead us to the same place.

Apart from thee, Lord, naught can exist. If, then, Thine essence pervade all things, so also doth thy sight, which is Thine essence. For even as no created thing can escape from its own proper essence, so neither can it be from Thine essence, which giveth essential being to all beings. . . .

Accordingly, Thou, Lord, seest all things and each thing at one and the same time, and movest with all that move, and standest with them that stand. And because there be some that move while others stand, Thou, Lord, dost stand and move at the same time, at the same time Thou dost proceed and rest. For if both motion and rest can be individuated at the same time in diverse beings, and if nought can exist apart from Thee, and no motion be apart from Thee, nor any rest; then Thou, Lord, art wholly present to all these things, and to each, at one at the same time. And yet Thou dost not move nor rest, since Thou art exalted above all, and freed from all that can be conceived or named.

Wherefore, Thou standest and proceedest, and yet at the same time dost not stand or proceed. . . . Wherefore I observed how needful it is for me to enter into the darkness, and to admit the coincidence of opposites, beyond all the grasp of reason. and there seek the truth, where impossibility meeteth me. . . .

Wherefore I give Thee thanks, my God, because Thou makest plain to me that there is none other way of approaching Thee than that which to all men, even the most learned philosophers, seemeth utterly inaccessible and impossible. For Thou hast shown me that Thou canst not be seen elsewhere than where impossibility meeteth and faces me. Thou hast inspired me, Lord, who art the Food of the strong, to do violence to myself, because impossibility coincideth with necessity, and I have learnt that the place wherein Thou art found unveiled is girt round with the coincidence of contradictories, and this is the wall of Paradise wherein Thou dost abide. The door whereof is guarded by the most proud spirit of Reason, and, unless he be vanquished, the way in will not lie open. Thus ‘tis beyond the coincidence of contradictories that Thou mayest be seen, and nowhere this side thereof.

Nicolas of Cusa (b. 1401),  The Vision of God

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Krishnamurti’s Notebook and the Meaning of Enlightenment

It is often asked what the word ‘enlightenment’ means in Buddhism. Not many people would be qualified to give a secure answer, and much nonsense can be the result when anyone else attempts a reply. In the literature there is much talk of it and ten thousand clues as to what it is, but this is not something that be described so no decent answer can be expected.

But there are lots of helpful writings. I’m in the middle of reading Krishnamurti’s Notebook, the published version of a notebook Krishnamurti kept for seven months in 1961. He discusses and describes his states of mind over this period and in doing so gives us an unusually detailed insight into a process and state of mind that is normally invisible in the third-person. Exactly how far he is along the path at this stage only an enlightened person could judge, but clearly he is not aware of the world in an entirely mundane way.

As a metaphysician, or, at least, someone overly obsessed by it, I find it fascinating that his style means that often his psychological and meta-psychological comments shed light directly on formal logical and metaphysical issues. The relationship between psychology and metaphysics is immediate unless we refuse to allow it, and ‘original mind’ would be the solution for important problems in both disciplines. We see this from the previous post, where we find the Buddha talking about psychology yet solving a metaphysical problem in the process. (Link).  Kant famously does the same when he reduces psychology to the study of a phenomenon that would be ‘not an instance of a category’, or beyond the categories of thought. The solution for a number of philosophical problems can be found in this notebook if we do the translation between the different ways of looking at things.

July 25th

Woke up this morning, rather early, with a sense of mind that had penetrated into unknown depths. It was as though the mind itself was going into itself, deeply and widely and the journey seemed to have been without movement. And there was this experience of immensity in abundance, and a richness that was incorruptible.

It’s strange that though every experience, state, is utterly different, it is still the same movement; though it seems to change, it is still changeless.

Here we arrive at the argument between Parmenides and Heraclitus over whether change is real or whether all that is truly real is that which never changes. Zeno’s paradoxes may have been designed to show, on behalf of his master Parmenides, that our usual view of change and motion cannot be correct. As history shows, to reify change in metaphysics is to turn the subject into a snake-pit of impossible problems. Underneath change there must changelessness. As well as Appearance there must be Reality.

July 26th

How easy it is to deceive oneself, to project desirable states which are actually experienced, especially when they are pleasure. There’s no illusion, no deception, when there’s no desire, conscious or unconscious, for any experience of any kind, when one is wholly indifferent to the coming and going of all experience, when one’s not asking for anything.

This addresses the problem of how to reduce the duality of experience-experiencer to a unified phenomenon or nondual ground-state. The Holy Grail is said to have the power to dissolve all distinctions. It would be the end of (the experience of) the experience-experiencer distinction. If we think of Nibbana as an experience then we have adopted a form of dualism and reified a distinction that would be conceptual according to my interpretation of Nagarjuna and the Buddha. The Christian doctrine of Divine Simplicity would state, it seems to me, that God’s experience, if we can make sense of this idea, would be identical with what He is.

Aug 11th

Sitting in the car, beside a boisterous maintain stream and in the middle of green, rich meadows and a darkening sky, that incorruptible innocence was there, whose austerity was beauty. The brain was utterly quiet and it was touched by it.

The brain is nourished by reaction and experience; it lives on experience. But experience is always limiting and conditioning; memory is the machinery of action. Without experience, knowledge and memory, action is not possible but [that] such action is fragmentary, limited. Reason, organized thought, is always incomplete; idea, response of thought, is barren and belief is the refuge of thought. All experience only strengthens thought negatively or positively.

Experience is conditioned by experience, the past. Freedom is the emptying of the mind of experience. When the brain ceases to nourish itself through experience, memory and thought, when it dies to experiencing, then its activity is not self-centered. It then has its nourishment from elsewhere. It is this nourishment that makes the mind religious.

Perhaps this represents an explanation for a common effect of recreational drugs that damage or suppress normal brain functioning. My first contact with them, in 1969, was finding a newly acidified friend standing on the lawn at a party staring fixedly at a single blade of grass in his hand and muttering ‘wow, wow’. I thought he was nuts. William Blake would have understood.

Perhaps these entries shed some light on the question of whether enlightenment or Nibbana is an experience. They would have immediate implications for the relationship between Mind, Brain and Pristine Awareness. They imply that when David Chalmers concludes that scientific consciousness studies is missing an ingredient, without which the ‘hard’ problem cannot be solved or explained, he would be exactly correct. It would be missing the phenomenon that can be almost rigorously described as Everything.  This phenomenon can only be studied in metaphysics and mysticism, theory and experiment.

Aug 14th

One is aware of the increase of sensitivity of the brain; colour, shape, line, the total form of things have become more intense and extraordinarily alive. Shadows seem to have a life of their own, of greater depth and purity. It was a beautiful quiet evening; there was a breeze amongst the leaves and the aspen leaves were trembling and dancing. A tall straight stem of a plant, with a crown of white flowers, touched by faint pink, stood as a watcher by the mountain stream. The stream was golden in the setting sun and the woods were deep in silence; even the passing cars didn’t see to disturb them. The snow-covered mountains were deep in dark, heavy clouds and the meadows knew innocence.

The whole mind was far beyond all experience. And the meditator was silent.

Extracts from Krishnamurti’s Notebook, Harper Collins, (1976)

Endnote: I am always fearful that writing in this way will create the wrong impression.  My proposal is always the same. Logic and reason, rational analysis, is capable of disentangling the World Knot.  Enlightenment may bring with it little or no understanding of discursive metaphysics, and may not even bring literacy and numeracy. Nor is an understanding of discursive philosophy anything like enlightenment. An understanding of E=MC2 is not an understanding of mass and energy.  The point of the post is to suggest that we would not have to be skilled practitioners in order to calculate the implications of Krishnamurti’s words for metaphysics. We would just have to spend some time studying metaphysics.

I think this time must always be worth it. Not every meditative practitioner will immediately discover evidence that they are not wasting their time, and it may take a commitment of some  years to get beyond the superficial benefits of practice.  Motivation is an issue.  If we can work out that the Buddha’s teachings would be a solution for metaphysics, once they are backwards-engineered into a formal metaphysical theory, then this cannot be a bad thing.


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Something and Nothing

The problem that led me into Buddhism was the metaphysical dilemma that arises when we ask whether the universe began with something or nothing. Paul Davies writes about this problem at length in his book The Mind of God, and gets nowhere with it. Most philosophers, scientists and theologians struggle with it in vain.  This would be because they do not see how to ‘sublate’ this distinction and thus overcome the dilemma.  So we see physicists arguing for ex nihilo creation as if it were a sensible idea, and others arguing for the eternal existence of matter on the same basis.  It is always found, however, that neither idea is sensible, and this would be why the dilemma is still a very real one for modern science and western academic philosophy.

Accordingly, when first delving into Buddhism I scoured the sutras for clear metaphysical clues on such problems. I found very few. They are there of course, but well hidden.  I did find one very relevant passage, however, and we see in it the solution for the Something-Nothing problem. Not a clear and transparent clue, maybe, but at least a discussion of the problem and the suggestion of an available solution.  Here is what the Buddha has to say to his audience of monks.  ‘Demons’ here would be mental disturbances, and not little men with horns!

Further, in his cultivation of samadi which, as a result of his pointed concentration of mind, can no more be troubled by demons, if the practiser looks exhaustively into the origins of living beings and begins to differentiate between views when contemplating the continuous subtle disturbance in this clear state, he will fall into error because of the following four confused views about the undying heaven.

i. As he investigates the origin of transformation, he may call changing that which varies, unchanging that which continues, born that which is visible, annihilated that which is no more seen, increasing that which preserves its nature in the process of transformation, decreasing that whose nature is interrupted in the changing process, existing that which is created, and non-existent that which disappears; this is the result of his differentiation of the eight states seen as he contemplates the manifestations of the fourth aggregate. If seekers of the truth call on him for instruction, he will declare: ‘I now both live and die, both exist and do not, both increase and decrease,’ thus talking wildly to mislead them.

ii. As the practiser looks exhaustively into his mind, he finds that each thought ceases to exist in a flash and concludes that they are non-existent. If people ask for instruction, his answer consists of the one word “Nothing,” beyond which he says nothing else

iii. As the practiser looks exhaustively into his mind, he sees the rise of his thoughts and concludes that they exist. If people ask for instruction, his answer will consist of the one word “Something,” beyond which he says nothing else.

iv. The practiser sees both existence and non-existence and finds that such states are so complicated that they confuse him. If people ask for instruction, he will say: “The existing comprises the non-existent but the non-existent does not comprise the existing,” is such a perfunctory manner as to prevent exhaustive enquiries.

By so discriminating he causes confusion and so falls into heresy which screens his Boddhi nature. The above pertains to the fifth state of heterodox discrimination (samskara) which postulates confused views about the undying.

Sakyamuni Buddha, The Surangama Sutra, Trans. Lu K’uan Yu, B. I. Publications, New Delhi, 1966 (p. 222)

The ensuing quote from Chuang-Tsu is typical. Funny, confusing, seemingly disordered, self-deprecating, rigorous, full of meaning and in complete agreement with the Buddha.

Now I am going to tell you something. I don’t know what heading it comes under, and whether or not it is relevant here, but it must be relevant at some point. It is not anything new, but I would like to say it.

There is a beginning. There is no beginning of the beginning. There is no beginning of that no beginning of beginning. There is something. There is nothing. There is something before the beginning of something and nothing, and something before that. Suddenly there is something and nothing, I still don’t really know which is something and which nothing. Now, I’ve just said something, but I don’t really know whether I’ve said anything or not.

     Chuang-Tsu, Inner Chapters, Trans. Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, Amber Lotus Publishing 2000

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Does Philosophy Solve any Problems?

This question is asked a lot these days. If we were to ask it of a philosopher in what is usually defined as the ‘western’ tradition of thought then the answer would be no, it does not. Centuries of scholarly endeavour has failed to produce a consensus on any important problem. Apparently logical analysis does not reveal a theory that works. Every theory has been tested and does not pass the tests. No progress has been made since Plato. The area of study seems to doomed to failure, since every possible metaphysical theory is found to be logically indefensible.

If we ask a philosopher in what we usually call the ‘eastern’ tradition of thought then the answer may vary. Philosophy of the academic or scholastic kind, as opposed to the Socratic kind, cannot prove what is true about Reality. Reality might not obey the rules. Aristotle warns us of this. So perhaps the final answer would be no, it does not solve problems. Philosophy would be cartography, not actual exploration.

Bu this is a rather mystical view, and it is asking more of philosophy than we ask of physics. In physics we solve problems by creating theories, and over time the best theory emerges. In metaphysics we can do the same. Then the answer would be yes, it does.

A number of philosophers have explained how to solve philosophical problems. The solution would be to assume that all of the theories that do not work are wrong, that this is the reason why they do not work, and then to reject them. Simple.

That is to say, the solution would be to assume that western thinkers have got their calculations exactly right, spot on, but that they are not seeing the solution because they are excluding one theory from their consideration, one that they can never consider. This has to be excluded because it is mysticism, specifically nondualism, the very philosophical theory that western thinkers must reject in order to qualify for the geographical adjective. If they were to start investigating the philosophy of the Upanishads as a serious proposition then they would become no different from eastern thinkers. Because of this, all self-professed western-style thinkers must think that philosophy does not solve any problems. They must reject any solution offered by eastern thinkers prior to analysis simply in order to distinguish themselves as members of the opposite club.

The Buddhist sage Noble Nagarjuna logically proves that analysis can solve all philosophical problems in a text called The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. in philosophy it has been found impossible to falsify his logical result and centuries of subsequent analysis have proved it over and over again.

His result: All positive metaphysical theories are logically indefensible.

This functions as a solution, and not a barrier to knowledge, because all we would now need to do for a solution is to infer from this logical result that all such theories are false. This leaves only one theory remaining, and this would be the solution for philosophy. This would be the only solution that western educated thinkers consistently refuse to consider, and this refusal is what distinguishes the members of the tradition. In this tradition the idea that philosophical problems can be solved would have to be deemed heretical. It seems almost obvious that the solution must lie elsewhere.

Regardless of its truth or accuracy as a description of Reality, in logic Nagarjuna’s view would work and this prevents us from simply assuming that philosophy solves no problems. Supporters of Nagarjuna would say that solving problems is the only task that philosophical analysis is for and that it is the perfect tool for the job.

The trouble is, of course, that nobody is going to believe that there might be a solution for philosophy until they’ve understood for themselves how it would work, and this would require knowing a fair bit about the problems of philosophy, while a person who believes that philosophy does not solve problems is unlikely to want to put in the work. The solution would be bound to seem ad hoc unless we have clearly seen the problem.

So, we must carry on as ever, with one tradition failing to make any progress and yet, nevertheless, refusing to think outside the box, and the other tradition having had it all done and dusted for a couple of thousand years or more but unable to find a way to explain the solution to anyone who doesn’t actually want to listen, and why would anyone want to listen when they already think they know that philosophy does not solve any problems? Pessimism is always an enemy of progress.

All this talk of ‘eastern’ and ‘western’ philosophy is misleading but convenient. Really there is just good thinking and not so good thinking. But ‘eastern’ and ‘western’ are a useful shorthand. We are in a situation where one of the two main tradition of philosophy cannot solve any problems but claims to know, we know not how, that any solution offered by the other tradition is wrong, while the other tradition insists that it can explain all these problems if only the other tradition would listen, and has a vast literature doing just this.  Yet both traditions are in complete agreement on the logical calculations, down to the last letter, and differ only on their interpretation of the result. They even agree that the western interpretation does not work. As usual for human society, there’s no making it up.

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Mathematics, Theism, Psychology and Logic: Examining a Shared Problem

It is fortunate that metaphysics requires little mathematics. What it does require would be crucial, indispensable, but the boundary between the two lies deep in the foundations of mathematics where the main issues can usually be stated in elementary arithmetical terms.

Many decades ago the author defied all expectation and passed his mathematics ‘O’ level exam, and it remains his highest qualification in this arcane art. By a fabulous piece of good fortune he sat it in the year that the examination Board introduced simple set theory into the curriculum. The examiners were not quite sure how it would go down so played it safe, and the exam was a doddle. A few Venn diagrams to sketch and hardly any calculations. And yet, this turns out to be exactly what is required for metaphysics.

If we cannot understand the basic principles of set theory then we cannot understand the basic problems of metaphysics. They would be different ways of thinking about the same logical issues. When a metaphysician looks at a logical problem it comes with external referents attached: Something-Nothing, Mind-Matter and so on, When a mathematician looks at such problems the logic is freed from any contingent meaning and the problem is reduced to its simplest and most general logical form: Zero- One, One-Two and so on. In either language we can ask: Which came first? What comes before number and quantity? Can Zero exist without One, or One without Zero?

Two books, one recent and one long famous, usefully illustrate the relationship between metaphysics and mathematics. The first would be The World According to Quantum Mechanics by the physicist Ulrich Mohrhoff. Almost the whole of this book is incomprehensible to me. It is a text book covering the mathematics of quantum mechanics explaining how all the parts fit together with occasional fun tests to which I cannot even understand the explanations of the answers let alone the questions. Yet there is the odd remark here and there, and one chapter in particular, where the language becomes more simple. These are the thoughts of the author most relevant to metaphysics, and they can be understood with little reference to anything but the most basic arithmetic. Such thoughts must nearly always focus on the basic principles of set theory for these form the foundation of mathematics, the structure of thought that we uncover when we reduce mathematics to its most basic logical and numerical operations. Here we are almost in metaphysics and are already in psychology.

The second would be Das Kontinuum by the physicist, philosopher and mathematician Hermann Weyl. Again, most of this book is incomprehensible to me and would be to most people. Yet the pattern is the same. There are passages, and one chapter in particular, where things become, if not simpler, much more general, and that therefore require little more of the reader that than the simplest set theory. This is where the discussions gets down to basics and address the metaphysical implications of the mathematics. These two books appear to be in complete agreement as to the nature and meaning of what these implications are, and thus about the nature of reality.

In metaphysics set theory could be called ‘category theory’ and it would be all about the categories of thought. Suppose we were to take all the ideas in our mind, every single one of them without exception, and put them into one category called the ‘set of all ideas’. No problem, one might think. In fact it would be impossible. The ‘set of all ideas’ is itself an idea. In mathematics this problem is called ‘Russell’s Paradox’ since it stopped in its tracks Russell’s ten year attempt to ‘axiomatise’ set theory.

Such a simple problem, and yet one that causes important and difficult problems in mathematics, psychology, theism, consciousness studies, metaphysics, logic and, as some physicists would see it, theoretical physics. Paul Davies’ Mind of God is all about this problem. It is a problem of self-reference. The most general set has to contain itself, in which case it is not a set but a more complicated idea. Simple stuff but not trivial. If the set of all ideas cannot be an idea, then would this be a proof that the origin of the intellect cannot ever be an idea? Kant thought so, and the Buddha insists on it.

All this is not even up to the level of my long-forgotten set-theoretical examination questions. Yet it is profound and important. Kant’s solution to this problem was to adopt as an axiom for psychology a phenomenon that is not an instance of a category. This would be a phenomenon that we cannot think or imagine, but, rather, what would be required in order for us to think or imagine in the first place. He proposes that this is the proper subject for any rational psychology, thus for any theory of the mind.

In mathematics Russell’s problem is solved by George Spencer Brown, at one time a colleague of Russell, and in just the same way. In his Laws of Form he describes a calculus (a formal system of sets) which is axiomatised on a phenomenon that cannot be categorised.

In metaphysics this would be same solution as is given by the Buddhist philosopher-sage Noble Nagarjuna in his Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, where he logically refutes all other metaphysical theories. In the Tao Te Ching we find Lao Tsu proposing that in no case can we categorise the world as a whole as this or that. Hence Russell’s Paradox would not arise for their view.

In this way a little set theory can reveal that an effective solution for Russell’s problem as it appears in metaphysics, psychology and mathematics would be to assume that the origin of everything is a phenomenon that is not available to our minds as an idea. It could never be an idea since it would be their origin and environment. This approach would also be very much required by physics if it is ever to explain why it cannot describe the world completely.

The whole debate between religion and science, to the extent that it is about reason and logic, may come down to how we go about solving this simple problem of set theory. It is this problem that creates the gap that some people would put God in. It appears in many guises. The Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity will seem incoherent unless we solve it. The doctrine of Divine Simplicity would be a solution. The transcendence of dualism in philosophy would be impossible without a solution, since the only solution would be to abandon dualism. Unless it is solved metaphysics is a dead end, and then consciousness studies would have to see consciousness as some sort of conjuring trick. Set-theory would have no fundamental axiom. Cosmology would be the search for a theory to describe a clearly impossible event. The problem could hardly be more important or interesting.

Yet simple. This is typical. All the most important questions are simple. Unfortunately it can take a lot of time and effort to realise this, which makes them not so simple after all. We can, if the Buddha is to be believed, verify his solution for the ‘set of all ideas’ in our own experience. But this would not usually be an easy way to do it. In set theory it is not so hard, and Russell was happy with Brown’s simple solution. He failed to see that is also the solution given by the perennial philosophy, or ‘mysticism’ in my terminology, but he did see that the solution works in logic.

It works everywhere. If this is not strong evidence for the truth of the Upanishadic view of Reality that can be accepted by doubters then I doubt if there is any, unless it is a miracle on the road to Damascus.

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Sages and Scientists: A Symposium on Science and Consiousness

Here is a shortened cut of the “Science and Consciousness” panel held in the first evening of the “Sages and Scientists ’14” Symposium, which took place in Carlsbad, California, in August of 2014. The participants in the panel, sitting from left to right, were:

Neil Theise (
Stuart Hameroff (…).
Rudy Tanzi (…).
Henry Stapp (
Bernardo Kastrup (
Menas Kafatos (…).
Erhard Seiler (…).
Leonard Mlodinow (…).
Michael Shermer (…).

Moderator: Deepak Chopra (



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Iggy Pop and the Music Biz: How to Get In and How to Get Out

A few days ago and quite by chance, as I idly flicked through the TV channels, I arrived on the BBC right at the beginning of the annual John Peel lecture, given this year by Iggy Pop. I was spellbound. It’s one of the best things I’ve seen on the TV for years.

in case there’s anybody who doesn’t know, John Peel (Blessed be His Name) is the God of British Music Radio. Iggy Pop everybody knows. He currently does a weekly show for BBC Radio 6.

Not everyone is interested in the music business but Iggy’s talk ranged a lot wider than this and it’s a great performance. His advice for young musicians entering the music biz includes the line, ‘always maintain a spiritual exit’.

I thought it was worth re-promoting since I nearly missed it. These old pros, the ones that survive, pick up a lot of wisdom along with the bruises. It’s here…

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The Doctrine of Divine Simplicity and The Problem of Attributes


In ‘western’ or dualistic philosophies the problem of attributes arises and is intractable. It is one of many such ‘barriers to knowledge’ collectively known as the ‘problems of philosophy’. Here is Colin McGinn wrestling with this problem as a teenager from his (very readable) book The Making of a Philosopher (2002).

…[P]icture me sitting on a bench staring at a British mailbox on a blustery spring day in Blackpool. I had just been reading about the questions of substance and qualities, and was suitably transfixed. Is an object the sum of its qualities or does it have an existence that is some way goes beyond its qualities? The mailbox had a variety of qualities – it was red, cylindrical, metal, etc. – but it seemed to be more than just the collection of these; it was a thing, a “substance,” that had these qualities. But what was this substance that had those qualities? Did it lie behind them in some way, supporting them like the foundation of a house? If so, what was this underlying thing like – what qualities did it have? If it had some qualities, wouldn’t there be the same problem again, since it would also have to be distinct from these qualities? But if it had no qualities, what kind of thing could it be? How could these be something that had no qualities? So maybe we should say that there is nothing more to a mailbox than the qualities it manifests. And yet how can an object be just a set of abstract qualities? Isn’t it more solid and concrete than that? … I had a vague mental image of a grey amorphous something that constituted the underlying mailbox, to which its various manifest qualities mysteriously were attached… Yet as soon as I replaced this fuzzy image with the qualities by themselves, trying to think of the mailbox as just a “bundle of qualities,” the object itself seemed to disappear.

Here we see one of the fundamental problems with materialism and other such forms of realism, which is the reification of objects on the basis of their phenomenal attributes. When one looks, there is no object there. If the attributes are real then the object must be unreal. This logical and empirical problem is insurmountable once such a reification has occurred. Mysticism solves this problem as it does all metaphysical problems, by refusing to reify anything at all. It makes the claim that experience shows that objects and subjects, and all the products of division and separation, are not metaphysical absolutes but emergent, evolved, epiphenomenal, illusory, not really real.

The monotheistic religions seem at first to be cut off from this solution since there is a tendency to reify God and to define Him in terms of His attributes. If we follow McGinn’s thinking, then this reification of God’s attributes entails the de-reification of God. It is the same problem as afflicts materialism, albeit that it is not so troublesome in philosophy and physics where God can be denied, and where the problem can be more easily stated in terms of English letterboxes. It can be overcome within theism, however, as long as we do not mind our theism becoming consistent with mysticism and the perennial philosophy. Many Christians and Muslims would be horrified at the idea that the seemingly heretical doctrine taught by the mystics might be a correct description of the world and the correct interpretation of the scriptures, but it is not very difficult to make a case and when it comes down to brass tacks the logic of the situation forces us to consider this possibility.

For a solution to the problem of attributes we would have to return to a classical definition of God. This definition would be a great deal more sophisticated than most modern ideas, many of which make easy prey for critics, so easy that they might be called straw-men. A more sophisticated idea of God allows us to consider ideas from Christian mysticism, Buddhism and Sufism, which are at the limit atheistic but which nevertheless find the idea of God perfectly acceptable. We can see the way they overlap in the doctrine of ‘Divine Simplicity’. In the final analysis the problem of attributes can be solved in only one way, and this is by assuming that attributes do not adhere to an object but are what an object actually is. An object would then be no more than its phenomenal attributes. This would be why McGinn can find no more than this, that there is no more. The object is a conceptual imputation. We see the attributes and assume an underlying carrier that binds them together. This gives us an idea we call ‘Matter’. Matter, however, is not something that can be identified, observed, verified or found by any means. All we could ever find is phenomenal attributes. For physics this is all there ever is and ever can be. But for physics the logical relationship between these attributes and whatever it is that they are attributes of is incoherent. A fundamental dualism of object and attribute prevents us from making sense of objects or ever finding one.

In theology this problem may be sidestepped if we endorse the doctrine of Divine Simplicity. Then we will have available to us the solution given in mysticism. It would be phrased in theistic terms but this would be a subtle theism and its terms would represent classical concepts and not one of the naïve ideas about God that abound these days and that are so popular with debunkers. Here is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Divine Simplicity. It seems to me that in this context the term ‘God’ might be replaced by the ‘Real’ or by Plotinus’ ‘First’, which he describes as a ‘Simplex’. We must now think of the whole of the phenomenal world as an attribute of God, thus by reduction identical with God, such that dualism of any kind would be false. All would be a unity, and all division would be conceptual.

According to the classical theism of Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas and their adherents, God is radically unlike creatures in that he is devoid of any complexity or composition, whether physical or metaphysical. Besides lacking spatial and temporal parts, God is free of matter/form composition, potency/act composition, and existence/essence composition. There is also no real distinction between God as subject of his attributes and his attributes. God is thus in a sense requiring clarification identical to each of his attributes, which implies that each attribute is identical to every other one. God is omniscient, then, not in virtue of instantiating or exemplifying omniscience — which would imply a real distinction between God and the property of omniscience — but by being omniscience. And the same holds for each of the divine omni-attributes: God is what he has. As identical to each of his attributes, God is identical to his nature. And since his nature or essence is identical to his existence, God is identical to his existence. This is the doctrine of divine simplicity (DDS). It is represented not only in classical Christian theology, but also in Jewish, Greek, and Islamic thought. It is to be understood as an affirmation of God’s absolute transcendence of creatures. God is not only radically non-anthropomorphic, but radically non-creaturomorphic, not only in respect of the properties he possesses, but in his manner of possessing them. God, we could say, differs in his very ontology from any and all created beings.

Despite many years studying comparative religion this idea of God and his attributes escaped me until last week. This may be because I find theology an impossible field of study. It is not only that it is complicated, but I find that logic immediately leads me to the idea that the thing I am supposed to be studying does not exist in the way that theology usually assumes. But Divine Simplicity is an idea that transcends theology. It can exist and function without need for the word ‘God’. This word would become optional, as we see from the wisdom traditions and the perennial philosophy. Here the principle of non-duality takes us beyond theism and there is no attempt at the reification of phenomena.

The idea of Divine Simplicity in Christianity suggests that it is possible to move from an exoteric version of this religion with its objectification of God and the world, back to a more classical notion that is ambiguous on God’s existence, and from there onwards to mysticism, without the need for a great deal of mental gymnastics. Divine Simplicity is such a profound idea that much can be learnt from an analysis of what it claims whatever one believes about God, and it quickly becomes apparent that the God it endorses, since it is ontologically unique and transcends existence, would make a very promising ontological primitive for a theory of everything.

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On Time and Doing Our Epistemic Duty: The Philosopher and the Wolf by Mark Rowlands


Philosophers often consider that actions that are immoral are the result of a failure of duty on the part of their perpetrators. There would be two kinds of duty involved. Here is Mark Rowlands on this topic from his book The Philosopher and the Wolf. He is speaking in part about some highly unpleasant, extensive and frankly barbaric laboratory experiments on dogs carried out by three Harvard psychologists involving electric shocks and deliberately induced panic, pain and suffering.

On the one hand, there is a failure to do ones moral duty. The particular duty in question is to protect those who are defenceless against those who deem them inferior and therefore expendable. If this is not a basic moral obligation, it is difficult to imagine what it is.

There is, however, another kind of duty involved: something that philosophers call epistemic duty. This is the duty to subject one’s beliefs to the appropriate amount of critical scrutiny: to examine whether they are warranted by the available evidence and to at least attempt to ascertain whether or not there exists any countervailing evidence. Today we have scant regard for epistemic duty: so sparingly is it honoured that most people would not even regard it as a duty (and this, itself, is a failure of epistemic duty).

… Whenever we look closely at evil, in its various forms and guises, we will always find staring back at us failure of epistemic duty and failure of moral duty. Evil that is the result of explicit intentions to cause pain and suffering, and to enjoy doing so, is a rare exception.

Rowlands’ book is an interesting mixture of philosophical chat alongside instructions on how to rear and live with a wolf. Well, you never know, it might come in handy. The psychology of wolves and humans is compared and not always favourably. The philosophy is good and not stuffy although of course most readers will want to argue, and there is a very good discussion of time couched in psychological terms which compares the extended time of humans, created out of memories and anticipations, hopes, regrets and fantasies, for which the moment has no depth or meaning in itself, and that of his wolf, which resides almost entirely in the richness of the moment. Some years ago I read a study of feral children who grow up in the wild with no ‘civilising’ influences, and it was striking that those who are later re-integrated with human society invariably express a great sadness at having been torn from a vivid and vibrant life lived in the ‘now’, moment by moment, to be saddled with the dissipating distractions of the past and the present. Rowland discusses this difference of perception at some length and in an interesting way.

I found it an enjoyable book and I think any philosophically inclined animal lover would like it. The philosophy and psychology is not trite or simply derivative, there is some substance and insight to it, and the animal training advice seems spot on. From the perspective of anyone who wants the academic and scientific world to wake up and see what is right under their noses, the insanity and utter implausibility of the currently orthodox world-view and its disastrous consequences, it may be the short note on epistemic duty quoted above that will seem the most important passage.

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