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, 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.

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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John Hopkins Survey on Non-ordinary Experiences – Looking for Subjects

Forwarded message…

Dear Friends, I am writing to ask for your assistance.

My Johns Hopkins colleagues and I are conducting a fascinating, important, anonymous, internet-based survey to characterize experiences that some people have of a personal encounter with God or Higher Power. My hope is that, ultimately, we will receive thousands of responses to the survey so that we can better understand how such experiences differ across different religious traditions and different occasioning events (e.g. prayer, worship, meditation, deep breathing, spontaneously-occurring experiences etc). I’m writing to encourage you to take the survey and to forward this message and links to your email lists, website, and social media sites to help us connect to individuals with relevant experience.


1. The survey is an opportunity to revisit an uplifting and meaningful experience in your life, to reconnect with the feelings you had at that time, and to share that experience. We have had many spontaneous expressions of gratitude from respondents, who after completing the survey, reported feeling an even deeper appreciation of their unique encounter.

2. Because the survey questions prompt deep reflection on a seminal religious experience, completing the survey may provide a fascinating topic of discussion for members of a congregation.

3. By telling your story, you will make an important contribution to science.

BACKGROUND: Our research group has previously conducted several studies investigating various aspects of spirituality, religion, and non-ordinary states of consciousness brought about by prayer and other spiritual practices. We have been intrigued with occasional reports of experiences that might be broadly described as a personal encounter with God or The Divine (i.e. the God of their understanding). We have developed the survey to gather data in order to better characterize these experiences. This work will complement our published and ongoing research on mystical experiences, spiritual transformation and religion.

The survey link is here:

For simple 1-click ways to share information about the survey on Facebook or Twitter:

We deeply appreciate your help. Thank you,  Roland.

Roland Griffiths, Ph.D. Principal Investigator Professor, Departments of Psychiatry and Neuroscience Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine IRB approved application NA_00054696

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Metaphysics in a Nutshell: A Lazy Philosopher’s Guide

When it comes to philosophy I’m all in favour of laziness. The less work the better.  For this it would be necessary to get to the heart of issues as quickly as possible and avoid all distractions.  The most effective approach would be the same as that required of a CEO running a complex business. Stay out of the technicalities and get the decisions taken. If you like the idea of cutting out the middle-management details I’ve had yet another go at simplifying and condensing metaphysics into some kind of executive summary here.

If this is not the correct solution for metaphysics then it is about time somebody explained why not, or at least came up with a viable alternative. As far as I know nobody has ever proposed a viable alternative other than the conjecture that the world is paradoxical and incomprehensible. This conjecture becomes redundant when we have a solution that is reasonable and comprehensible, such as the one described in this essay.

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Logic and Spirituality: The Dream Team

It may appear that by defending metaphysics and human reason so vigorously on this blog I am overvaluing the role of the intellect on the Spiritual Path.

Far from it. It is just that the blog is about how to do metaphysics and not about how to get to Heaven. I am not a trustworthy source of meditation advice other than to say that it seems to be indispensable for a happy death. The idea is not even to promote the use of mind-altering koans over Zen Master Hongzhi’s method of ‘Silent Illumination’. It was this Master’s poetry that first opened my mind to a world that had no existence for me before the age of fifty. After having solved metaphysics by logical analysis, a result that took me completely by surprise, the very first book I read was Taigen Dan Leighton’s Cultivating the Empty Field, lent to me by the very first Buddhist I had ever met at the end of the very first conversation I had ever had about mysticism.

It was a good decision to read the poetry before reading the Preface and Introduction. Hongzi’s poetry was meaningless to me. Nevertheless it was beautiful, effortless and still, and it’s effect was cumulative. He conveys a state of being that is sharply aware in this world and yet also far beyond it, a state of mind uncannily simple and attractive, not entirely unfamiliar yet also utterly foreign and incomprehensible. I’d never before read anything like it and I knew that it would change my life. The Forward, Preface and Introduction, which I later came to realise are works of art, explained Zen to me about as well as could done in the space given the direction I was coming from. I shall always be grateful for the wisdom of the person who lent this book to me. I had no understanding at all of what was being talked about but could see that it was the same phenomenon that logical analysis had led me to think must be the origin of consciousness and space-time. It exactly met the requirements of the theory. The Zen world-view could not be wrong if I’d just worked out that it must be true before having heard of anything vaguely like it.

It was like reading a recognisably authoritative explanation of the implications of my metaphysical theory. The theory made no sense to me because I had no interpretation. All I had was a logical result that seemed incomprehensible to me. It seemed clearly the only available solution for metaphysics but what did it mean? Here in this book was obviously the correct interpretation, explained in the Introduction and somehow demonstrated or revealed by the Master’s poetry. It would be for this reason that I’ll always defend the power of logic wherever I can.

There is a twist in tale. It took me a further five years to figure out how to reconcile Zen with classical logic, and this was a central problem for me right from the start. How could I argue for the Zen view while being unable to show that it would be reasonable? When I eventually saw how to achieve this reconciliation my jaw dropped at the simplicity of it all. Twenty centuries of metaphysical argument since he lived and here was the solution, buried in the small print of Aristotle’s laws for making philosophical decisions.

Since then I’ve been scratching my head wondering why so few people have seen this solution for metaphysical antinomies when it is always right there under our noses. Perhaps it is so obvious and simple that nobody can quite believe that it could be a solution. I notice that many people are expecting the solution for philosophy to be so complicated that they wouldn’t be capable of understanding it. We are very pessimistic in the West, a characteristic noted by the Dalai Lama on first getting to know us. Buddhists assume they will be omniscient sooner or later, if not already. In earlier times our failure to solve metaphysics is understandable and easy to explain. Now that we have the internet and well-funded multi-disciplinary academic disciplines called ‘Philosophy of Mind’ and ‘Consciousness Studies’ it seems utterly inexplicable.

Except for one thing. There is a widespread view that non-dualism, which is, I was to learn over time, the common name for the solution for metaphysics that I had stumbled upon, would be ‘illogical’ or formally unreasonable in some way, giving rise to contradictions that would reduce it to absurdity. The cause of this view would be the assumption that metaphysical antinomies, all those undecidable pairs of theories and counter-theories that form the dilemmas that seem to prevent us from making any progress in metaphysics, are formal dialectical contradictions that must be decided according to the laws of classical logic, namely the LEM and LNC. We tend to make this assumption whether or not we have heard of Aristotle, and are probably more likely to make it if we have not.

Yet it is trivially obvious that if all these theories and counter-theories are false then no two of them can be combined to form a dialectical contradiction. As a pair they would not obey Aristotle’s Rule of Contradictory Pairs, which states that one member of the pair must be true and one false. Consequently whether either of them is true or not would be an empirical matter and nothing to do with logical analysis. Classical logic would allow for the possibility that they are both false or both true.

This slight misuse of logic is quite common in ‘Eastern’ philosophical thinking but here it would not matter very much. Here experience takes priority over reason and if the world seems to contradict human reason then what else would we expect? It is outside of religion that this issue matters so completely, for it leads to the view that for religion we must abandon our reason and this is more than most people are prepared to do. Quite rightly so I would say.

Yet I believe that if one day in the future we manage to build an Artificial Intelligence that is an Ideal Reasoner, and one sufficiently miraculous that it is able to do metaphysics, then it will become a Zen monk within a fortnight. As Nagarjuna shows, the argument is overwhelming if we use classical logic rigorously.

If we stand back it is easy to see that a great many philosophers despair of deductive metaphysics, the process of proposing and attempting to defeat dialectical propositions in order to identify which ones stand up to the tests and which do not. They conclude that none of the available theories survive the tests. They do not see that there is one theory left over that they have not tested. They do not notice this theory because they have confused Aristotle’s Law of Contradictory Pairs with the Principle of Bivalence, (which states that all meaningful assertions must be true or false). Thus they set up false dichotomies and forever wonder why they are intractable. The do not see that there is a third alternative, the middle way, because they have made a series of category-errors and opposed pairs of assertions improperly.

The irony would be that the reason they give for giving up on philosophy, that it reaches no clear result, is that they have completely succeeded in solving it! They abandon it because they have refuted all positive, selective, partial or dualistic theories of the world as a whole. This is no small achievement and it should be a matter of pride. So what is the problem?

The problem would be their belief that these refuted theories exhaust the possibilities. This idea turns a great intellectual victory into an utter failure. Because they believe that the two horns of all metaphysical dilemmas, (strictly speaking ‘anti-dilemmas’), can be represented as A and not-A for the dialectic, with complete disregard for the rules, they do not see that in every case there is a third alternative. They unthinkingly rule out this alternative because it seems to them to contradict the rules of logical reasoning. The specific problem is their assumption that one half of these polarised or extreme metaphysical positions must be true and the other false. They forget that this is an assumption and start think that it is actually the case.

Because of this they miss the fact that nobody has yet refuted non-dualism and its associated neutral metaphysical position. They do not see that there is still hope for metaphysics. By refuting all other theories they have proved that non-dualism is the most plausible description of Reality. They just don’t know that this is what they have done. They do not see that the arguments of, say, the Logical Positivists are strong arguments for Middle Way Buddhism.

If we look at things in this way then the fact that Western metaphysics is perceived as a failure by so many of its practitioners can be interpreted as a formal proof of Buddhism as well as being overwhelming evidence. This tradition of metaphysics is a complete success in respect of its deductions and result, and a complete failure in respect of the interpretation of this result. It does the calculations correctly but does not see that its endlessly repeatable result implies that the world is just as the Buddha describes it.

This would be the price of misusing Aristotle’s Rule of Contradictory Pairs, which states that the LEM and LNC should not be applied to a pair of propositions unless one member of the pair is true and the other false. If we are not sure that this is the case then all bets are off. We may have made a category-error and there could be any number of alternatives.

An example. Does the world begin with Something or Nothing? How do we know that these two options exhaust the possibilities? If we do not, then classical logic allows that there may be an alternative. Since metaphysical problems are holographic this approach can be taken to all of its many antinomies and dilemmas. The result of taking this approach would be the philosophy of Middle Way Buddhism or the ‘doctrine of the mean’. This would be a neutral metaphysical position. We would reject all extreme views for a unified reality in which all distinctions, including even life and death, are emergent and not truly real. Hence we can escape from the cycle of birth and death by realising the deeper truth that lies behind this world of suffering, beyond the ‘coincidence of contradictories’ and thus beyond the reach of the calculating intellect.

In this way arrive at the first main line of the poem by Bernardo Kastrup The Legacy of a Truth-Seeker:

“Only untruths can be experienced.”

This would be because Truth would lie beyond the division between experience and experiencer or, equivalently, because Truth is not an experience. An experience must be untrue because it requires a division and thus a duality, and this division would be purely conceptual. Truth is Being, not knowledge, and this is made very clear in A Course in Miracles and in the above poem. The universe would be a unity.

Nevertheless, it would not follow that metaphysics can be of no use as a path to the discovery of these things. Logic can prove the unreality of all distinction and division and thus can shed light on our meditative practice and motivate it. It also allows us to defend the nondual view of reality against all reasonable objections. It can also help us to make sense of it intellectually. So I’ll go on defending the power of logical analysis even though it seems to be a distasteful topic for many spiritually-minded people. It is not a substitute for Silent Illumination but a motive for discovering what it is, and this may be its most beneficial effect.

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Do We Regularly Make a Mistake in Metaphysics?

We should cherish metaphysics for its power to overcome false views and yet we admonish it for its ongoing failure. Is it possible that this is for the embarrassingly simple reason that we usually ignore Aristotle’s definition for a true contradictory pair and so infect our philosophical calculations with errors?

I believe so, and in an essay recently posted I explain why. I wish it was better organised and shorter but it covers the ground and may be decipherable.  It explains, in my opinion, the principle reason for the continuing failure of the western tradition of thought to solve metaphysics.  My apologies for not being able to put it all more clearly.


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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 definite 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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