An Introduction to metaphysics

This post is the beginning of an attempt to briefly explain metaphysics from start to finish with the help of some volunteers to keep things on course. The challenge is that by the time it is complete the participants in the discussion should agree that when looked at in a certain way metaphysics is quite easy to solve and has a quite obvious solution. Whether it is the correct solution cannot be established in a blog post for this would require an empirical or experiential investigation, but it can be established by reason and analysis that it would work and that it is unique among metaphysical solutions in this respect.

The post will grow over time guided by comments received and should eventually become complete. As a framework for a wider discussion, and in order to make it very clear what is being said, a series of perhaps ten or so brief and clear philosophical statements will be presented and examined in turn. These statements will be presented as definite philosophical facts, true in all universes at all times, and not as matters of opinion. Once this list of statements is complete then metaphysics will have been solved and explained.

The approach will be to avoid the chaos into which metaphysics ineluctably descends when it begins by examining particular philosophical problems prior to gaining a clear overview of the field. To solve the details of the puzzle we must first be able to see the picture on the box. Metaphysics is the search for a general theory or ‘theory of everything’ and for this we must fly high above the landscape of knowledge looking down at the grand picture. The details are largely dealt with in the mainstream academic literature and need only be summarised here.

The goal is to show that metaphysics is, after all, really quite simple and surprisingly easy to solve, albeit that it may be extremely difficult to understand the solution, and to persuade you that the solution would be a metaphysical theory that has an almost complete explanatory reach and is simple, elegant, well-defined, systematic, comprehensible, unfalsifiable, irrefutable, well-developed, well-tested and well-known as the ‘perennial’ philosophy.  By the end participants should be in a position to walk into a staff-room full of tenured philosophers and effortlessly hold their own against all comers.

There are four people involved directly in the project, this group having initially discussed it elsewhere. The content of each section must be understood and agreed by all four before we move on so that we are always moving forward together and not building on sand and leaving loose ends to which we will have to return. Kant tells us that metaphysicians are always having to retrace their steps and do not know why this is. Here we will not have to retrace our steps and by the end we will know exactly why this is.

If the original participants would like to begin their first comments by introducing themselves and saying a few words about their current views on metaphysics then this would serve as a useful entry-survey in order to later track changes in beliefs and attitudes, and it may also help the discussion if it is clear where we are each coming from, but don’t feel obliged. Feel free to play Devil’s advocate.

Each new section will be successively added to this post so that the ever-lengthening post and its associated comments will stay on this one page. At the end I may re-write the whole thing into an organised and readable dialogue and quote a lot of the comments,  but for now we can only make it up as we go along.

 

I – An Initial Survey

Before getting going properly let us conduct a quick survey of what we know about metaphysics in order that we can all start on the same page.

A review of the literature of academic western metaphysics will reveal that it exhibits no sign of progress since Plato. This is a vital fact for any study of the subject and it should not be overlooked. It is often skipped over as an all-too-public embarrassment but a great deal can be learned from facing up to it and considering its ramifications.

One obvious question that arises would be that of what it is, exactly, that renders metaphysics so difficult that for over two millennia a host of our greatest minds have failed to make any sense of it. Let us not assume that we are great geniuses able to succeed by being more clever than them for this would surely be arrogance and hubris, but, rather, conclude that there is something that they are not noticing or have not considered, something important but well-hidden such that anyone could easily overlook it, and that we would need to be very careful right from the start of our study not to make the same mistake. We cannot follow their example because they failed. Clearly we would need to take a different approach, one that would allow us to succeed despite our modest intellects.

Here we might think of both the ‘hard’ problem in philosophy of mind and the problem of deciding the Riemann Hypothesis in mathematics. These problems can appear to be fabulously difficult and complex, but in both cases experts working on them often speculate that their solutions may turn out to be quite simple or naive and discovered outside of, respectively, philosophy of mind or mathematics.

I’m going to assume that everybody here has spent some time wrestling with a few metaphysical dilemmas and so has gone at least some way towards verifying the situation in which metaphysicians invariably find themselves.

If we were to make a list of metaphysical theories and conjectures it would take the form of two columns, where each theory in the first column would be paired with a counter-theory in the second to form something rather like a DNA double-helix. These pairs would include all the ‘isms’ such as Materialism–Idealism, Internalism-Externalism, Theism-Atheism, Freewill-Determinism, and then One-Many, Mind-Matter and so on, and also any other contrasted pairs of views, such as the view by which space-time is either a continuum or a series of points, the view by which the space-time world would be real or unreal and so forth.

The reason that this structure resembles DNA would be that the theories in each list are not just linked to their counter-theory but are also vertically within their list by logical implication.  For a metaphysical theory we would need to organise the lists so that the sub-theories in each list are mutually consistent, do not contradict each other. Thus Materialism cannot be placed in the same list as Freewill. If Materialism is placed in the first list then the Freewill-Determinism pair would have to be switched around so that Freewill appears in the second list. A believer in freewill cannot be a materialist without suffering cognitive dissonance.

The list of paired metaphysical conjectures would be a long one. Luckily, we would not need to examine them all for a global solution. It is well-known that that none of them work. This is, after all, the reason why academic philosophy cannot make any progress. Anyone who pursues a metaphysical question with a little perseverance will end up facing an impossible choice between two demonstrably absurd theories. For some questions, for instance the ‘Something-Nothing’ problem of ontology and origins, this would be fairly easy even for a beginner to verify.

Except for the fact that this is a particular presentation of the issues and way of looking at them all this is well-known and quite easily established. But it is not always properly taken into account, and rarely is it made clear in introductions to the subject. The first of a few books I would recommend as background here is the English philosopher Francis Bradley’s 1895 metaphysical essay Appearance and Reality. In a wonderfully elegant manner he takes us through a succession of contradictory and complementary pairs of metaphysical conjectures and shows that in every case both sides of the pair must be rejected, such that metaphysics ‘does not endorse a positive result’. Many published philosophers seem unaware of this basic fact. It would be vital here that we pay it close attention, for if we do not see what the problem is then we cannot hope to solve it.

There is no need to say more about this issue for now, but if we do not recognise this initial rough analysis then we must discuss it until we do. We do not have to agree with yet, but we should not have any objections that we feel would force it to be changed.

Note that there is no attempt here to gainsay anybody. We are merely conceding a fact. I am unable to think of a philosopher who has attempted to refute this fact, albeit that many ignore or do not see it. We will return to it shortly since it is central, but for now it is mentioned as a preliminary to the main event in case it needs some initial discussion. I’d like to get this point out of the way before proceeding or else it may come back to clutter things up later. Also, once agreed it establishes some sort of baseline of understanding. If this summary of the problem of metaphysics is clear and not strongly objectionable to anyone then we can move straight on to building a metaphysical theory that would not cause cognitive dissonance.

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POST II

Discussions of metaphysics are usually plagued by woolliness and over-complication. One can reach the end of a book or article and still have no idea why it was written or what it is trying to say. I purchased The Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics a couple of years ago and could understand no more than perhaps 25% of it. The rest was incomprehensible to me. For anyone who thinks the approach taken here is complicated I would recommend this book.

Let us not go down that road to nowhere. For each of the following posts the proposition at the head of it together with its accompanying definitions are all that really matter. The rest of the post will be explication and ‘matters arising’. For the underlying formal argument that is unfolding the only issue that matters would be the truth or falsity of the propositions. These propositions are global, truly metaphysical, and thus condense a great many issues and claims into very few words. As a consequence they are completely crucial.

 

Proposition 1

The universe is reasonable.

 

Definitions: As this is a metaphysical discussion, the term ‘universe’ here will generally be used to mean ‘Reality’, ‘Cosmos’ or ‘Everything’, such that there would be no plural. The term ‘reasonable’ would mean that a true explanation would be consistent with Aristotle’s ‘laws of thought’ and rules for the dialectic, or, if you like, with the way human beings usually think.

Discussion: This proposition states that a true description of the universe would not require a modification to the laws of the dialectic as described by Aristotle nor ask us to abandon our usual way of thinking. There would be no true contradictions. The universe would not be paradoxical, logically absurd or terminally incomprehensible. There would be no reason why omniscience, were we ever to achieve it, would cause us cognitive dissonance. The universe would make sense, in principle, even if it might be extremely difficult to make sense of it.

Here this proposition is stated not as a fact but as a necessary initial axiom for any investigation and for the construction of a formal metaphysical theory. If metaphysics is the intellectual/logical analysis of questions about the world as whole then we might as well begin by assuming that there is some purpose in all this activity. If the universe is unreasonable then logical analysis cannot be trusted to reveal its true nature and we might as well not bother, other than to discover that this is the case. In metaphysics logical analysis is our principle method and we have no choice but to trust it. Philosophers must begin by assuming the reasonableness of the universe and maintain this assumption unless and until they feel forced to abandon it. It is also relevant, as Bradley notes, that it would be impossible to logically refute the claim that the universe is reasonable since no reasonable counter-argument could ever be effective. It would be self-defeating. Accordingly, this first proposition is logically unfalsifiable and safe as houses. Whatever its truth or falsity, only if the universe is reasonable can logic and reason be of much use to us in our efforts to backwards-engineer it in pursuit of an understanding of its origin and nature, so we might as well start by adopting its reasonableness as an axiom, especially as we know we will never be able to prove it is not the case. We can always return to this axiom later if problems arise that force us to retrace our steps.

Usually philosophers adopt this ‘reasonableness’ proposition as a starting assumption and then go on to assume, in addition, that it must forever remain no more than an assumption. We must start in the same way but we need not go on to make this second assumption. Later we will present this proposition as a definite philosophical fact, one that can be demonstrated in metaphysics. For now we can only adopt it as a theoretical axiom and basis for our methodology, but it is on our list of factual propositions because it can be left out of our initial axiom-set and established as an analytical result. The proof is too tautological to be overwhelming in my opinion, but it is good enough for me.

Oddly, it is not important to our argument that this first proposition is true, but completely vital that we assume it is true. If it is not true then we must abandon Aristotle’s dialectical method for a different logic that better describes the world, or abandon logic entirely, but our argument is otherwise unaffected. We are searching for the best theory, the one that best accords with our reason, but metaphysics is not about establishing what is actually true and false in the world. That would be an empirical matter. If we do not assume its truth, however, then we have no method for making decisions or comparing rival theories, and our investigations and arguments cannot even begin.

I feel it is important that we strongly believe that the universe is reasonable, even insist on it, because in my experience this usefully pushes us to rely on cold and clear logic when we investigate metaphysics, and, most importantly, to assume that where the world seems paradoxical to us there is something we are not understanding which we might be able to understand with more work. Bradley’s calls metaphysics an ‘antidote for dogmatic superstition’, (for examples he cites materialism and ‘commonplace’ theism), and this is because he approaches it as he would mathematics, convinced that whatever else the world may be it cannot be logically paradoxical and trusting to his calculations.

Another reason for beginning with this axiom is to make it clear here right from the start that the approach we will be taking to metaphysics is essentially rational. It will lead us to the view of the Buddha and Lao Tsu, admittedly, (might as well reveal the plot), but it makes no ‘appeal to mysticism’, miracles or ignorance along the way, or to any privileged knowledge. The common idea that there is some clash between logic and mysticism such that a ‘rational’ philosophy must exclude the possibility that the perennial philosophy is correct is catastrophic for metaphysics, and in this internet age, with so many fabulous explanatory texts available on demand, it can reasonably be called a beginner’s mistake. The correct approach would be to logically prove that a rational thinker must reject the perennial philosophy. When we attempt this we discover that no such proof is possible.

Proving that Buddhism, Taoism and so forth are a lot of nonsense is the sort of thing I used to assume professional philosophers got paid for doing. After all, they usually express strong views on these matters. I was very naïve. It turns out that those who get paid to do philosophy rarely think about these issues, preferring to endorse a communal fantasy rather than do the research. And then they wonder why they cannot understand philosophy! Colin McGinn’s book The Making of a Philosopher, in which he charts his intellectual development from teenager to tenured professor, seems a very useful and entertaining introduction to philosophy and I often recommend it. I do so here. I envy his communication skills. It is also a very good illustration of what happens when we buy into the modern philosophy department’s absurdly blinkered idea of what constitutes intellectual development. The tenured professor can no more solve a philosophical problem than the teenager, lost in a world where everybody knows that metaphysics is incomprehensible and that mysticism is nonsense. It does not seem to occur to the inhabitants that these two beliefs might be causally connected.

A lot is implied by this simple first axiom and it is worth pondering. If the universe has a reasonable explanation then only its true explanation would be reasonable. This gives us a sure-fire way of testing theories and making clear decisions in metaphysics. A metaphysical theory must be completely general and leave nothing out. In this case, only a reasonable explanation of the universe can be complete. A false explanation would become unreasonable at some point, making it impossible to complete, and thus would not qualify as a genuinely metaphysical theory. In this case we could argue that there is only one possible metaphysical theory. When we examine metaphysics we find some evidence for this.

The failure of western academic metaphysics to solve any of its problems is a symptom of its failure to construct a systematic metaphysical theory within which these problems would not arise. What we see are arguments for and against this or that local metaphysical conjecture, and only very rarely do we see an attempt at a global theory. Where we do, as in Kant, Hegel, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Bradley and a few others, it is usually dismissed for being too ‘mystical’ and thus, of course, not at all ‘rational’. Once they are dismissed no global theories remain, just lonely isolated conjectures about freewill, materialism and so forth, like darts thrown into a board by a blind man.

This first axiom, then, implies that there is just one possible metaphysical theory and that it is reasonable, namely the correct one, while all other contenders must remain partial conjectures and scattered hypotheses. In the natural sciences a theory might focus on some sub-group of phenomena in the way of, say, the Standard Model, so that its completeness is not an issue. All will be well as long as it is as complete as it needs to be and works for the phenomena it describes. But a metaphysical theory must, in order to qualify, be complete in the same sense that the universe is complete. If a theory is not complete then it is not a genuinely metaphysical theory but a hypothesis about some aspect of metaphysics. One the greatest mistakes we can make in metaphysics, in my opinion, would be to assume that we can solve its problems one at a time. If we stand back we can see that they are too closely interconnected for this approach to work. We must think globally at all times and have no choice but to attempt to solve them all at once. As Heidegger observes, there is really only one metaphysical question and many different ways of asking it.

Note that by remaining above and beyond the details of any particular metaphysical problem we are able to keep things quite simple. Later we will see that the solution for metaphysics endorsed here is so astonishingly simple that it can be stated in just four words. Understanding the solution would be another matter, of course, and would require a study of the details, but first let us solve metaphysics at the level of principles so we know what it is we would need to understand.

It will be vital later that we closely examine Aristotle’s rules for the dialectic and when we do the meaning of ‘reasonable’ here will become more clear and explicit. In order to move on, however, we would only need to be happy to accept this first proposition as an axiom. Not a big ‘da da’, but it needs to be got out of the way, and it also serves as a statement of intent. I am fed up with all this ignorant idiocy about mysticism being irrational. It is this objection that is demonstrably irrational.

I’ll pause here for comments, objections, questions, criticisms and so forth, and for time to write the next episode. In case you’re wondering, we will need just two more propositions to dispose of metaphysics at the level of principles, so apart from the chit-chat we are actually moving along quite quickly.

 

POST III – The Plot Thickens

Let me be very clear here about the seriousness of my jokey opening ‘money-back’ offer. By the time we have come to the end of this discussion and list of propositions the participants should feel that they have a better understanding of formal metaphysics than Plato, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Russell, Wittgenstein, Feynman, Kripke, Searle, Dennett, Chalmers and, more generally, almost all living professional philosophers, or they can ask for their money back.

It is difficult to say something like this without it seeming off-hand, or for it to come across as hyperbole, even lunacy. Yet consider this. Bertrand Russell was of the opinion, and firmly states that it is the case, that there is no knowledge to be gained in metaphysics. He was well read, and yet he could see no sign that even one of his illustrious philosophical predecessors or contemporaries had gained any knowledge from their study of metaphysics. He thought it perfectly safe to say so and not even rude. He is speaking two thousand years after Plato and summing up the results of an entire tradition of thought. How hard could it be, then, to surpass this level of understanding? It would certainly not be hubris to imagine that we can do better, and according to Russell it would be impossible to do worse.

I offered this generous hostage fortune for two two reasons. Crucially, the course is free. It is just a chat through the issues. But the real reason is my belief that just about anyone can outperform Russell at metaphysics. How can this be so, when most university philosophers still cannot do it? I’m not entirely sure. One factor may be that people usually investigate metaphysics by endlessly examining the individual pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. We are not doing this. We are concerned only with the picture on the box. We are starting at the point where most people are trying to end up in order to be able to then turn around and explain how all the details fit together within a global theory. This is a much easier way of doing metaphysics. We could think of it as the difference between seeking the centre of a circle by starting at the circumference and seeking the circumference by starting at the centre.

I do not have a new theory, there is no need for one, just a modern and simple way of discussing, viewing and logically proving a very old one in the context of formal metaphysics. That the result of this approach is a very simple view of metaphysics would be explained by our humble acceptance of the facts. Philosophers commonly rant and rage against them, determined to prove that this or that positive metaphysical position is true, the gladiators in Kant’s ‘arena for mock fights’. We, to the contrary, are stating that they are all logically absurd, as is the case. Immediately we have done away with the need for all the complex sophistry that would be required to argue against or disguise this fact.

These posts are an explanation of the doctrine of the mystics, the perennial philosophy, nondualism, the philosophy that emerges from the description of the world given by those who explore consciousness to its limits, in the limited technical form in which it has to appear in formal metaphysics. As a metaphysical theory this is not only unfalsifiable but demonstrably so, for reasons that we will begin to examine in this post. There is no chance whatsoever of anyone proving that what I am proposing here is incorrect. It is bullet-proof. If you endorse this view no metaphysician will ever be able to rattle your cage.

The real issue here is whether you will agree by the end that looking at metaphysics in this simple way – it should seem simple by the end or we will have not reached the end – helps us to better understand it, and whether you would agree that logical analysis can logically prove that the teachings of the Upanishads are the only workable and plausible explanation of everything.  If so, then you would have to agree that you have a better understanding of metaphysics than those on the list above, and cannot ask for a refund. Hopefully the analysis should also shed light on what the Upanishadic view actually is

We will not, by the end, needless to say, know whether any particular metaphysical theory is true or false. The map is not the territory. What should be true according to logic may not be. We may have concluded, however, that there is only one theory that works in metaphysics and be able to see that nobody could ever falsify it. This is quite a lot. We can know these things because they are matters of logic.

We come now to our second proposition. This is the big one. It encapsulates the whole of metaphysics.

 

Proposition III

All positive metaphysical positions are logically indefensible

Definitions: The word ‘All’ here makes this a global proposition. It is an unequivocal statement about one entire class of metaphysical positions and it takes no prisoners. A ‘positive’ position would be one of the two extreme position (the horns of all those famous dilemmas) that we might take up on any metaphysical question. Synonyms would be ‘partial’, ‘extreme’ or ‘selective’. A metaphysical ‘position’ would be our answer to any of these questions. ‘Logically indefensible’ would mean capable of being reduced to absurdity in the (Aristotelian) dialectic by demonstrating that it gives rise to a self-contradiction. Synonyms would be ‘unreasonable’ and ‘logically absurd’.

Discussion: I have written at length about this proposition in various posts and essay on this blog. The best of them are up at the philpapers archive, and perhaps Is Metaphysics a Waste of Time? would be a relevant essay at this point. I feel it is revealing as to the appalling state of academic metaphysics, and the price it must pay for refusing to take the Buddha and Lao Tsu seriously. http://philpapers.org/profile/16982

We all know that metaphysics is hopeless when we do it in the way that university students are taught to do it. This second proposition explains why this is so. Students are taught to examine a long list of problems and to assume that their solution in each case would be the adoption of a positive metaphysical position. We have known for centuries that none of these positions work, but academic tradition demands that we carry on regardless generation after generation.

Kant stated long ago, ‘All selective conclusions about the world as whole are undecidable’. Why is this? It would be because our second proposition here is either true, unfalsifiable or both. As a consequence, endless metaphysical dilemmas arise in the form of the question ‘Does two plus two equal three or five’.  More recently Bradley has stated, ‘Metaphysics does not endorse a positive result’.  He might as well have said that the problems of metaphysics as formulated and approached by philosopher who endorse the view that mysticism is not worth studying are intractable and will forever remain so.

The typical university philosopher would struggle to concede this point. He or she would concede that all positive positions fail, since this is discovered by anyone who studies metaphysics for a week or more, but they would insist that one of them must be true, after all, and may spend much of their life trying to prove it. They will assume there is no alternative since they will not normally be students of philosophy as a whole but just what is left over after they have rejected the perennial or Upanishadic explanation of philosophy. Here we are going to concede the facts. If all these extreme positions fail in logic then according to our first proposition they are all false or inadequate. In this case we must abandon them and move on.

If we abandon them and move on then we have abandoned the ‘western’ or ‘rational’ tradition of thought as usually defined for the global phenomenon that is mysticism, out of which emerges the perennial philosophy with its ’empirical’ claim that all partial metaphysical views are not just logically indefensible but also false. This seems to be the main reason why university philosophers refuse to take this step./ As long as they go on refusing to take it the rest of us will easily be able to surpass their progress.

This second proposition was logically proved by the Buddhist philosopher-monk  Nagarjuna in the second century CE for his exegesis of the Buddha’s cosmological scheme, placing Buddhist metaphysics on an unshakable and clearly-defined foundation. It is  later proved less formally and at far greater length by Bradley in his metaphysical essay Appearance and Reality. Philosophers can hold whatever opinions they like, but they will never be able to second-guess Nagarjuna. They must take him seriously or fail to solve metaphysics. The evidence is overwhelming.

If we can see that this second proposition is true, and that it would explain why philosophy can seem so difficult, and that it has vast ramifications, then we have a gained a pretty good handle on metaphysics. One or two more posts and we will have dealt with it once and for all. This proposition states the central problem of metaphysics and we can move on to solving it. Note that this proposition will have no strong implications or force to change our thinking unless we assume that our first proposition is true. This would be the ‘get out’ clause for those who wish to avoid facing facts. We can always claim that the universe is absurd, and if we do this then we can believe whatever we like, regardless of common sense or logical analysis. It is surely setting oneself up to fail.

I will not add more for the moment although there is obviously a great deal more that could be and perhaps should be said, but will wait for questions and objections. I’ve written so much about this proposition that I would rather refer you to other essays (via the link above) than repeat it. If we are not sure that this second proposition is true then we are not ready to move on, however, so we must stick with this one until we are sure. It may help to go back to the DNA-helix model of metaphysics discussed at the start. This proposition states that all of the theories we listed in the two columns of contradictory and complementary positions (theories, conjectures, hypotheses) are wrong and must be abandoned. This proposition represents, therefore, a massive and almost total simplification of the issues. A study of first principles should lead us towards ever-greater simplicity, and so we are probably heading in the right direction.

Over to you for any responses. I hope it makes sense and is not too scrappy to follow. The next proposition will give the solution for the problems raised by this one, but first let us be sure we agree on this one and that it is clear what it states. Note that shorn of the definitions and accompanying discussion our explanation of metaphysics and argument for its solution consists so far of just two short sentences.

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Post IV

I must apologise for some very sloppy writing in the previous post. It should be a little better now.

Right, with Proposition II we have diagnosed the problem of metaphysics, now we can begin to solve it.

 

Proposition III

A neutral metaphysical position is logically defensible

 

Definitions: A ‘neutral’ metaphysical position is the rejection of all positive positions. It represents a ‘Middle Way’ solution for all the famous undecidable questions that arise when we do not reject them. The phrase ’doctrine of the mean’ would be a suggestive synonym. ‘Logically defensible’ would mean irrefutable in the dialectic, unfalsifiable or in accordance with the ‘laws of thought’.

Discussion: This idea of calling the metaphysical scheme of nondualism ‘neutral’ may be the only novelty in this discussion. The only other use of it I’ve noticed is by Charles Peirce, and he uses it to mean something quite different. Wherever a metaphysical theory or conjecture has a contradictory and complementary counter-theory it would imply the possibility of a neutral position. We would follow Lao Tsu, for whom the universe cannot be described as this or that in any respect. The universe would be a unity and all division and distinction would be a conceptual overlay.

A neutral position has an explanatory reach that extends beyond properties and attributes, describing a world that transcends not just our physical senses but even the reach of our intellect. Kant, exploring this idea in respect of psychology, concludes that that basis for our intellect, or any intellect, must be a phenomenon that is ‘not an instance of a category’, a unity free of division and distinction. Plotinus calls it a ‘Simplex’. Peirce calls it the ‘First’. Kant proposes that this phenomena is the ‘proper subject for a rational psychology’. If only he had had access to the internet. The evolution of the academic tradition that claims him as theirs might have looked quite different had he had access to a wider world of philosophy.

A neutral position would see the space-time universe or ‘world of opposites’ as being constructed from the categories of thought, which by reduction (or Hegel’s more profound psychological process of ‘sublation’) would be emergent and thus metaphysically unreal. ‘Emergent’ here would be a vague term but it should strongly imply an original or fundamental phenomenon. A neutral metaphysical position rests solidly on a foundational phenomenon, and would not entail Nihilism or an appeal to ex nihilo creation.

This third proposition is perhaps the most complex on the list because establishing its truth would require a study of Aristotle’s logic, about which there is much confusion in philosophy. To save time here and save repetition let me refer you to a longer discussion. If you have objections please make them here. I’m having a devil of job raising any objections from the pros.   http://philpapers.org/archive/JONDWR-2.pdf

In his Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way the Noble Nagarjuna famously makes clear the connection between the soteriological teachings of the Buddha and the neutral metaphysical description of Reality given by the perennial philosophy. Nagarjuna shows that Proposition II is true and his proof, as a process of dialectical refutation, takes Proposition I for granted. Some of his interpreters conclude that he rejects all positive or extreme views and puts nothing in their place, as if he did not have a view of his own, but this, in my opinion, is an utterly implausible and wildly ungenerous interpretation. It would make his metaphysical argument a logical proof of his ignorance. Better to assume that his argument endorses a neutral metaphysical position, the abandonment of all wrong views for the one he knew to be the correct one, the universe as described by the Buddha.

The logical issue would be this. If we see the two horns of a metaphysical dilemma as ‘A’ and ‘not-A’ for a logical argument, such that one is the opposite of the other and together they exhaust the possibilities, then we will become stuck where most philosophers become stuck, with a long list of undecidable problems that seem to be intractable dilemmas and mysterious paradoxes. Aristotle would not endorse this approach to logical analysis. He would say that whether two propositions about the world form a contradiction would be an empirical matter, a matter of fact, not something that can be decided in logic.  Thus if we see, say, Materialism (matter-only) and Idealism (mind-only) as the two horns of a dilemma, as a contradictory pair for the dialectic, such that one must be true and the other false, then we will have painted our intellect into a corner. We have made a guess at the truth and by so doing artificially limited our options to dualism, the idea that a unity can be divided into this and that in any other way than conceptually. This particular pair of selective theories is undecidable because neither works, so to assume that there could be no other option would be philosophical suicide. Better, surely, to assume that they do not work because they are wrong, or inadequate to the truth, and look for an alternative.

If this is a new idea to you then I would suggest picking a metaphysical dilemma of your choice and exploring the possibility that it is not a dilemma after all, but a false contradiction. Philosophers quite often see this possibility in the case of Freewill-Determinism problem, adopting compatabilism of some sort, but rarely do they see that the same solution would work across the board. They continue to reify the distinctions on which all these problems depend, thus placing an immovable barrier to knowledge across their path. This is, I believe, due to a misunderstanding of Aristotle and a misuse of his logic. A neutral metaphysical position would state there is no such thing as a true contradiction, out there in the world, and that no logical contradictions would arise for a true description of it.

A neutral position is not quite the opposite of a positive position. It would state, rather, that positive positions, while wrong, may represent aspects of the truth, not entirely false ways of imagining it but woefully inadequate. Hence Heraclitus, when he says ‘We are and are not’, rejects both these views if stated in isolation but endorses them as aspects of the truth, aspects about which we must speak in order to speak of it at all.

Here we come to Nagarjuna’s doctrine of ‘Two Worlds’ or ‘Two Truths’, which explains that we can speak conventionally or ultimately about the world, but not both at the same time unless our words become seemingly paradoxical and self-contradictory. This explains the Buddha’s ‘three turnings of the wheel’ whereby he speaks differently depending on the level of truth being discussed, and also Lao Tsu’s remark, ‘True words seem paradoxical’. This is sometimes translated as, ‘Words that are rigorously true seem paradoxical’, and this longer version may make the meaning more clear and indicate the rigour with which Lao Tsu himself invariably speaks.

But we are wandering off-topic, or too deep into the topic. Proposition III makes what is really a quite simple claim that is testable, and the first question for philosophers is not about its myriad ramifications but simply whether it is true or false. If it is true, then we have found the solution for metaphysics, or the best we will ever have. We have rejected all theories except this one and this must be judged the ‘best’ and most plausible metaphysical theory according to logic and reason. If this proposition is false, on the other hand, then we will have to reject all theories and must endorse the idea that the universe is unreasonable, after all, such that there are true contradictions and it is incomprehensible, as we would have to for Priests’ ‘dialethism’, Melhuish’s paradoxical universe, Chalmers’ ‘naturalistic dualism’, Carnap’s logical positivism, McGinn’s mysterianism and Russell’s general pessimism.

Don has commented that the East-West division as applied to philosophy is misleading, since geography has nothing to do with anything. I agree, but still find it a useful shorthand. The first two propositions are fairly harmless to ‘Western’ thinking and may be encompassed within it, at the cost of some cognitive dissonance, but this third proposition requires that we abandon this tradition and investigate the philosophy more often associated with the East. We are heading where for the most part the professionals fear to tread, or cannot be bothered.  The professional website and bulletin board dailynous.com currently has up the results of a survey of university philosophy reading lists, and it reveals an impoverished approach that could almost be called propaganda for the philosophers that are carefully omitted.

What we have so far is this.

PI – The universe is reasonable

PII – All positive metaphysical position are logically indefensible (unreasonable)

PIII – A neutral metaphysical position is logically defensible (reasonable)

Ergo, a neutral metaphysical position is the only one that survives analysis and so must be judged the most plausible of all possible metaphysical theories.

We would need to explore the ramifications of this theory in order to test whether any absurdities arise when we assume it is true, for they yet might do so, and also to understand what the theory really means. But the main work of metaphysics is done. For our global theory we have narrowed the possibilities down to one by a process of refutation, and in a formal analytical kind of metaphysics we cannot do more than this.

We now have all the weaponry we need to defend our view against all comers. The historical evidence clearly suggests that nobody can falsify these propositions. All three are demonstrably irrefutable. The first proposition is as yet an axiom, but if we say that the second and third are true, such that a neutral position would correctly describe the universe, then the first can be seen as a conclusion rather than an axiom. If a theory of the universe works, is reasonable and is the best available then universe must be judged reasonable.

I’ll pause for matters arising. Please follow the earlier link if you want more discussion. (I need the statistics). Next will be the final proposition, and I thought I’d pick out one metaphysical problem as an example and explore how this solution would work in a ‘live’ situation. That would be the end except for tidying up any loose ends.

 

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Solving the One-Many Problem

It is very difficult to see how the Universe can be One when it is so obviously Many. So difficult, in fact, that to this day western philosophy is unable to reconcile these seemingly contradictory properties and it remains a famous metaphysical paradox. This may be because this tradition of philosophy reifies Time and Matter. It cannot understand how to avoid reifying Time and Matter since it is predicated on the dogma that the doctrine of the Upanishads is false, and this would be the only plausible way to reduce Time and Matter. What allows us to call this tradition of thought ‘western’ is that as a matter of principle it rejects mysticism with its ‘principle of nonduality’ as the solution for such paradoxes. It then has nowhere to go but must remain puzzled forever. If we do not fall into this comfortable and inviting intellectual trap then the non-paradoxical Upanishadic solution for the One-Many problem is available and all such paradoxes cease to trouble us.

In his Divine Life, while speaking of the three ‘poises’ of the Divine Supermind and of how these would be no more than reflections or treatments of the same unified Truth, Sri Aurobindo briefly explains the ‘nondual’ or ‘Middle Way’ solution for the One-Many problem. It would entail the rejection of all partial or dualistic metaphysical views for a unity then can never be achieved in language or thought but which, nevertheless, can to some extent be discussed. Only by a conceptual division of this unity into aspects, reflections and treatments would discussion and analysis become possible. The eternal Tao cannot be talked, says Lao Tsu, but must be talked, and this would require that we talk about its aspects and reflections as does Aurobindo.

His words may shed light on what ‘nondualism’ would mean in respect of formal analytical philosophy as well as psychology and experience. They may also explain that when it is proposed that Prakriti, the space-time creation of Maya, is ‘unreal’, ‘not really real’, has merely a ‘dependent-existence’ or is an ‘illusion’ this is not to reduce human beings to insignificance but just to concede their origin beyond Time and their ‘epiphenomenal’ or emergent status. The proposal would be, to the contrary, that human beings are far more significant than we usually believe them to be.

“The language of the Upanishads, the supreme ancient authority on these truths of a higher experience, when they speak of the Divine existence which is manifesting itself, implies the validity of all these experiences. We can only assert the priority of the oneness to the multiplicity, a priority not in time but in relation of consciousness, and no statement of supreme spiritual experience, no Vedantic philosophy denies this priority or the eternal dependence of the Many on the One. It is because in Time the Many seems not to be eternal but to manifest out of the One and return to it as their essence that their reality is denied; but it might equally be reasoned that the eternal persistence or, if you will, the eternal recurrence of the manifestation in Time is a proof that the divine multiplicity is an eternal fact of the Supreme beyond Time no less than the divine unity; otherwise it could not have this characteristic of inevitable eternal recurrence in Time.”

Sri Aurobindo
The Divine Life (159)

 

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On Philosophy, Philosophobia and Mysticism

Introduction

This essay is a brief and casual but hopefully rigorous attempt to clarify the relationship between the ‘nondual’ philosophy of mysticism, for which Middle Way Buddhism will serve here as the principle example, and the philosophy of professional western academia. There is little written on this subject, or little that is simple and clear. One reason may be that neither side has much interest in the other. Another would be that outside of religion it is only since the arrival of quantum mechanics that the nondual doctrine has stopped looking far too strange to be true. There is also the problem that a person who has travelled far on the mystical path, perhaps even to the end, will not necessarily have any meaningful grasp of formal or discursive metaphysical analysis since this would not be necessary for success. Even reading and writing would not be compulsory for enlightenment. The sayings of the authentic masters will inevitably have metaphysical implications but I know of only one who explains clearly how they can be analysed to reveal the systematic metaphysical scheme to which they will generally conform. This would be the Noble Nagarjuna, the most famous of Buddhist philosophers, who seems to me the most helpful guide for any formal philosophical understanding of Buddhism and mysticism in general.

The explanation of philosophy and mysticism given here might seem too simple and easy to be credible. Few people explore the relevant issues and almost everybody seems to assume that they must be so complicated that nobody could ever understand them. It is not complexity that makes mysticism difficult to understand, however, and it represents an almost complete simplification of analytical metaphysics.

Scepticism of the doctrine that emerges from the practices of mysticism can be intense. Within religion this may quite often be accompanied by hatred. Practitioners state some uncomfortable findings regarding the God of the dogmatic or ‘exoteric’ traditions and reject dogma wherever it appears. Here any scepticism or controversy will be largely ignored. Regardless of whether there is any truth contained in the literature of the esoteric religious traditions its implications for metaphysics will remain the same. The truth or otherwise of the nondual doctrine is not the issue here, only what it would imply for scholastic metaphysics. On the account given here there would be a clear implication that it is true but this cannot be helped. The main idea is simply to suggest that this is an area of philosophy worth studying and not to be ignored, and that if we leave aside the details it is not rocket science.

I hope it may show that the discoveries of ‘experimental’ mysticism can be explained by a coherent philosophical theory that would be amenable to close study without any immediate need to venture beyond formal metaphysics. On the view presented here the idea that mysticism can be safely ignored by ‘rational’ philosophy as being irrelevant to an analytical approach would be perverse, a failure of scholarship and the cause of all its problems.

 

Why Bother with Mysticism?

The Faculty of Philosophy comes in for a lot of criticism these days and the situation seems to be worsening. For the most part this criticism comes not from the lay public but from within academia, very often from within the philosophy department itself. It is possible to shrug off much of this flack by reference to the importance of philosophy as a set of tools, methods and intellectual practices, but there is no getting away from the fact that after twenty centuries of analysis today’s university philosophy is unable to decided even one important question. It hardly seems surprising that some scientist are now saying to the philosophers, ‘Thank you for the tools and methods, now please go away while we do something useful with them, like science’.

Such a rejection of philosophy has been called ‘philosophobia’. This would be a slightly Orwellian term since it is not value-free. It implies an illness, while in many instances this rejection of philosophy could be seen as no more than common sense in action. We would interpret the ongoing failure of our traditional academic kind of philosophy as overwhelming evidence that there would be little point in anyone studying it.

Here I attempt to defend both philosophobia and philosophy. No doubt the former may sometimes be an illness, and there are many prominent cases, but at least it is an honest acknowledgement of the failure of a certain approach to philosophy. Such concessions are often a necessary prelude to progress. It might even be argued that the philosophobics are doing philosophy, and doing it very well, when they bravely reject an approach that has been proven so conclusively not to work. They could almost be viewed as acting as the conscience of the philosophy department. Despite all this, philosophy can easily be defended. This would be because there is more than one approach we may take to it, and once the approach that gives rise to philosophobia is abandoned it becomes possible to solve philosophical problems and actually demonstrate the success of philosophy.

The approach to be abandoned would be the unthinking dismissal of mysticism as irrelevant to the analytical kind of philosophy. Right here, I propose, would be the entire cause of the lack of progress in professional philosophy. A traditional, perhaps ‘knee-jerk’ is the phrase, dismissal of the ‘doctrine of the mean’ cuts this strictly scholastic form of philosophy off from an ancient solution for metaphysics that works, that is unfalsifiable and that is globally endorsed as the ‘perennial’ philosophy.

In order to justify this controversial diagnosis we need not delve at all deeply into mysticism and its doctrine. We are concerned here only with what this doctrine would imply for metaphysics and the ‘problems of philosophy’ as we know them (all too well) in academic circles. These implications, or predictions for philosophy, can be explained and calculated surprisingly easily once we have simplified metaphysics and identified its principle result.

 

Simplifying the Issues  

When we examine metaphysics we discover that all of its significant problems are undecidable. These problems invariably and ineluctably push us into a straight choice between two counter-posed theories neither of which work. It is fabulously frustrating. Yet despite its negative nature this is a very reliable result of metaphysical analysis, endlessly repeatable and not at all inconclusive. It is also highly convenient and useful. It is general and applies to all metaphysical problems, and this suggests that it may be possible to solve all such problems at once. In their meaning metaphysical problems can be seen to be holographic, each containing the whole of metaphysics and so closely interlinked logically that none can be solved in isolation from the others, while in structure they are isomorphic, each taking the same dilemma-like form. This allows metaphysics to be considerably simplified.

A metaphysical theory that has an equal and opposite counter-theory can be called one-sided, partial, selective, dualistic, extreme or positive. Examples would be Materialism-Idealism, Internalism-Externalism, Something-Nothing, Freewill-Determinism, Mind-Matter and so forth. All such theories fail in logic and each pair is usually thought to form a dilemma. Kant puts this result as, ‘All selective conclusions about the world as a whole are undecidable’. This fact provides the motivation for logical positivism, scientism, mysterianism, dialethism and many other pessimistic ideas that assume philosophy is a dead end. It would be the cause of the inconclusiveness of modern academic philosophy, and as such would be the cause of philosophobia as well as its justification.

The failure of positive metaphysical positions is well-established and the suggestion that this would explain the lack of progress in philosophy might therefore seem rather trivial and obvious. If all metaphysical question are undecidable then of course philosophers cannot decide them. How can it be their fault that the world is like this? While at first this may appear a promising defense it would fail in the end. It would fail because it renders philosophy useless and does not acknowledge the possibility of an approach to philosophy that would explain and predict the undecidability of metaphysical questions.

In our universities it appears that we do not usually acknowledge as a fact this negative result of philosophy (the logical absurdity of positive metaphysical theories) or study it closely as a global phenomenon. Rather, it seems that the whole project is to show that this is not a fact after all, a project doomed never to make any progress. The reason for this approach may be that if this really is a fact, and if we accept it as such, then we would have no choice but to rule out all positive metaphysical theories and go looking for something else, while the only non-paradoxical idea that we have not ruled out would be the philosophical scheme associated with mysticism. The absurdity of positive metaphysical theories is, therefore, a highly dangerous fact to concede. It may be a useful fact to concede when we want an excuse for a lack of progress in philosophy, but the excuse backfires as soon as we ask why, if all of these positive theories are known to fail, do we not abandon them and move on.

The philosophy of mysticism and mainstream university philosophy do not disagree as to whether this negative result of metaphysics is a verifiable fact. It is, after all, our inability to decide fundamental questions that causes all the difficulty in metaphysics and this cannot be denied. Where the two traditions and approaches part company is not over the facts but in their very different interpretations and responses to them.

For the academic philosopher this negative result of metaphysics would normally be seen as a barrier to knowledge, an excuse for lack of progress and a reason for pessimism. This response leads to such a low view of metaphysics that almost nobody is interested in it. For the mystic philosopher, by contrast, this same result would be clear evidence for the truth of the central claim of the perennial philosophy, namely that all distinctions are emergent and must be reduced for a fundamental theory. The universe would reduce to a ‘unity’ beyond the ‘coincidence of contradictories’. All partial theories would be logically absurd for the perfectly simple reason that they would all be wrong.

It would be the profound implications of this metaphysical result that led the second-century Buddhist philosopher-sage Nagarjuna to formally prove it in his most famous text The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, where he both demonstrates and explains the philosophical scheme of ‘Middle Way’ Buddhism. (The clue is definitely in the name). In so doing he also explains the blatant philosophobia of the Buddha, who regularly warns his monks not to bother much with metaphysical riddles. Nagarjuna gives us a philosophical rationale for this lofty rejection of metaphysics. All extreme positive theories would have to be abandoned and this would be as much as we need to know for the sake of soteriology and the cessation of suffering. The remaining worldview would be impossible to properly understand as a theory even if, as suggested here, it may be described by one.

‘Nondualism’ is a term often used to refer to this other philosophy. Note that this is clearly a deliberate avoidance of the term ‘monism’. In metaphysics this would be a neutral metaphysical position, a rejection of all positive positions. This is, as a consequence, a very simple kind of philosophy to approach as a student. We are not asked to study a vast range of ideas but to throw all of them away except one. Life becomes a lot simpler in this respect, but at the same time far more strange.

A Neutral Metaphysical Position

If we were creating a universe, how would we go about creating one for which all positive metaphysical positions would be logically absurd? This is the question that logical positivists and other sceptics always forget to ask, but I feel it is worth ten minutes of anybody’s time. Russell tells us that there is no knowledge to be gained in metaphysics but does not examine the implications of his own claim. What sort of world would we have to inhabit in order for his claim to be true? And how, if metaphysics does not establish any result well enough for it to be called knowledge, does he know that this is a fact?

What Russell means by this rejection of metaphysics seems to be that he, like everyone else, finds that all partial metaphysical positions give rise to fatal contradictions, and as he cannot think of an explanation for this he concludes that metaphysics is an epistemological dead end. He refuses to consider the ideas of Francis Bradley, who in his 1895 metaphysical essay Appearance and Reality goes to great lengths to reproduce Nagarjuna’s result and prove that all partial metaphysical positions give rise to contradictions, but who suggests that this not any kind of problem but a correct metaphysical result and a proof of the nondual doctrine of mysticism. For Bradley metaphysics would be an ‘antidote for dogmatic superstition’ and a source of important knowledge. Nor did Russell consider the ideas of his colleague George Spencer Brown, whose 1967 book Laws of Form encapsulates Bradley’s cosmology as a calculus, one that Russell praises highly on the outer jacket of my copy but seems to have barely understood. In this way the confusion continues. The mystics can agree with Russell on the facts, on the demonstrable and repeatable results of metaphysical analysis, yet differ wildly in their interpretation and response. Right here is where East and West go their separate ways.

Many philosophers who are not otherwise interested in mysticism get around to reading the Tao Te Ching at some point. The difficulty is in the interpretation and here metaphysics comes into its own. If the reader has no prior meditative insight then metaphysical analysis will be vital for any semblance of comprehension. Lao Tsu tells us that the world as a whole is in no case this or that. In other words, all positive metaphysical positions are false. He encapsulates the whole of metaphysics in one remark. He does it again with a more mysterious statement, ‘True words seem paradoxical’. What are we to make of this? In a good example of the globally unvarying nature of the result of ‘mystical’ practice these words can be explained by reference to Nagarjuna’s much later doctrine of ‘Two Truths’. We need not examine this here. It would be enough that a thought experiment will reveal that if we carefully avoid endorsing any partial metaphysical position then when we speak rigorously about the world we are forced to do so in riddles. This would be a general rule, such that C. S. Peirce can claim that it is easy to identify ‘a man still at the dual stage’ by his use of language. ‘We are and are not’ says Heraclitus, showing how it is done, for each half of this statement on its own would be false and logically indefensible. Having some grasp of the metaphysical scheme underlying the sayings of the sages can be useful to their interpretation, and without it a non-practitioner may have little hope of seeing anything much in them but muddle and contradiction.

 

So What Might This Approach Explain?

We are skimming along the surface of many profound issues here for the sake of noting them, but there is really only one that matters. If we assume for the moment that all positive metaphysical positions are false, even if we are not convinced, then what would this explain? Regardless of its truth or falsity, the neutral position that is now the only reasonable alternative has many strong implications that can be explored in rational thought. It is these implications that must be reduced to absurdity if philosophy or science is ever going to refute the proposition that the Buddha gives a correct description of Reality. The ramifications of the failure of all extreme or partial metaphysical theories may be infinite and there is no danger of anybody writing a list of them, but here are a few of immediate significance. Let us assume that all positive metaphysical theories are logically indefensible for the very simple reason that they are wrong.

– This assumption would explain philosophobia. Sufferers complain that metaphysics is inconclusive and thus pointless, and so it will be wherever it is an orthodoxy that a neutral metaphysical position is false, as philosophobics themselves will always believe. Our assumption would also be a satisfactory defense against this disease since, contrary to the claim that there are none,  we are now able to endorse a sound and demonstrable metaphysical fact.

– It would explain the data, specifically the perennial finding that all positive theories about the world as a whole fail in logic. If the world is reasonable and non-miraculous then a false theory will be logically absurd and a logically absurd theory will be false. If the world is reasonable in this sense, and if our assumption here is correct, then metaphysics can be seen to be a trustworthy and valuable study since it identifies false theories conclusively and correctly. Logic cannot be expected to do more. The refusal of metaphysics to endorse any positive or partial theory would be a proof of its reliability and inestimable value as an academic discipline that should be at the core of the curriculum.

– It would explain why so many people, and almost the whole of the profession, cannot make progress in philosophy. Most people assume that the task would be to prove that some positive theory is true. This would be a hopeless undertaking, as history clearly shows.

– It would explain Kant’s characterisation of metaphysics as an ‘arena for mock fights’. The combatants would be attacking each others’ unsound partial positions from equally unsound partial positions and be condemned to hand-waiving forever. The solution would be to reject all these unsound positions and leave the arena, and this is what our assumption allows us to do.

– It would help to explain why mysticism is so difficult to explain. For a start, as we have seen, words that are rigorously true will seem to be paradoxical. In order to achieve rigour and to avoid endorsing any positive position, even by implication, a language of contradictory complementarity is required. Two strategies found in the literature are speaking only negatively (saying only what the truth is not, apophasis) and using a language of (seeming) paradox and contradiction. These approaches are often assumed to disguise ignorance or, even more ridiculously, seen as a ploy to maintain some sort of power-hungry secret society. In fact this is a technical matter easily explained by reference to metaphysics.

– It would explain the reason why many people would date the origin of the Western tradition of philosophical thought to Plato. Western thought is not free of mysticism after Plato, far from it, but it is noteworthy that Heidegger dates the end of the idea of unity and ‘oneness’ in mainstream philosophical thinking to Plato, whose tradition is clearly the loss of it.

– It would explain all the problems of philosophy, why they arise and how they can be solved. They would arise because our intellect struggles with the idea of a neutral metaphysical position and without some work may be able to make little sense of it. This leads many thinkers to shy away and assume that a positive position must be correct after all, despite centuries of proven results showing the futility of this hope. Meanwhile metaphysical problems can be solved, in principle at least, simply by assuming that there is a good reason why they are undecidable and giving up trying to decide them and solve them instead.

 

Two Objections Arising – and the God Issue

To clear up one vital issue, Nagarjuna’s metaphysical scheme would not imply the existence or non-existence of God. It would imply that nothing really exists, or not in the way that we usually think it does, and this would go for God and Man alike, as well as for pianos and electrons.

Most objections to the nondual philosophy are quite easily met since they have been made and met so many times before. There are a small number that are not so easy to meet, however, and the seemingly anti-logical or ‘illogical’ implications of a neutral position would be a prominent and much discussed case. This neutral position may seem to require a modification to Aristotle’s ‘laws of thought’ and thus appear ‘illogical’. As this objection is important and likely to arise immediately let me sketch an answer to it.

A neutral metaphysical scheme would solve all metaphysical dilemmas and antinomies by avoiding extreme views and seeking to ‘sublate’ or reduce the concepts and distinctions on which they will always depend. Philosophers are accustomed to the idea of compatabilism in respect of freewill/determinism, and now we would apply the same solution to all such problems. The solution would be instant and global. In the case of Mind/Matter, Something/Nothing, Internalism/Externalism and so forth this solution may seem implausible or even utterly incomprehensible, and this may be because it appears to violate Aristotle’s rules for the dialectic, specifically the law of excluded middle.

In fact there would be no violation. For a pair of statements to qualify as a dialectic contradiction one must be true and the other false. Where this is not the case then the rules of the dialectic would not apply for there would be no legitimate contradiction. If we examine the question, say, of whether the universe begins with Something or Nothing, we see that we are assuming that one of these ideas is true and the other false. A neutral position would say that both are inadequate, thus false. In this case there is no formal contradiction and no reason not to look for a better idea. If our intellect cannot handle this outcome then this would explain why the inexorable logic of the situation is so often ignored in favour of less mind-boggling ideas that do not work.

A second objection might be that this is all too straightforward. If mysticism normalises on a neutral or nondual metaphysical position, one that can be described formally in metaphysics and studied just like any other theory, then why is this not common knowledge? The present explanation might look suspect, misinformed or idiosyncratic simply because if it is correct then it ought to be common knowledge and covered in a hundred books. I cannot answer this objection since I do not understand why it is not common knowledge. It cannot be called common knowledge even within mysticism, where metaphysics is hardly any more popular than it is elsewhere.

 

In Summary

The cause of philosophobia would be a lack of progress in professional philosophy. The cause of this lack of progress would be a reluctance to concede the logical absurdity of positive metaphysical theories and the consequent undecidability of metaphysical questions, thus a lack of motivation to explore the ramifications of this analytical result. The nondual philosophy of mysticism rejects all such theories on grounds of logic and experience and so does not meet the problems that arise from endorsing any of them. For the most part neither professional philosophers nor philosophobia-sufferers take much notice of mysticism, however, and often not even metaphysics, so they become locked in a battle that need not be fought. As usual for the bitter wars that rage on between science and religion or science and philosophy, mysticism is the unnoticed collateral damage, forever the elephant in the room.

The relationship between the three phenomena in the title seems to be this. In order to justify philosophobia we would have to show that the philosophy of mysticism is unworkable. If it works then philosophobia cannot be justified. In order to justify philosophy and defeat philosophobia we would have to show the exact opposite result, namely that this other approach would work and would solve problems. The third option would be the status quo, and it seems to me that very few people could be happy with this.

 

Further Reading

I have yet to find a published text that explains the nondual philosophy in a way that would be most appropriate and effective for (quite understandably) sceptical scientists and scholastic philosophers, but every mainstream text will be relevant. Each person will have their own interests and will want to go a different way. Once we have grasped the meaning of a neutral metaphysical position sufficiently well to at least deduce its implications for language, we will begin to recognise this language whenever we see it, and then we will see that metaphysical neutralism it is a constant that runs through the literature of the world’s wisdom traditions, an ineluctable implication even where not explicitly discussed, informing its language and content at all times and vital to any interpretation. This would be the philosophical theory that describes the logical or conceptual structure of the world in which the true mystic lives, for whom its ramifications would be not merely theoretical but a lived reality.

I would pick out just four helpful titles. If anyone doubts the difficulty of simplifying Nagarjuna for western consumption there would be Jay Garfield’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (OUP, 1995). This should be mentioned as a major work of scholarship but I cannot recommend it since it is impossibly complex. A more recent book by Mark Siderits and Shorya Katsura, Nagarjuna’s Middle Way (Wisdom, 2013), would be a lot clearer as an introduction. Simpler still but less ‘philosophical’ would be Khenpo Tsultrim Gymatso’s The Sun of Wisdom (Shambala, 2013). For a full discussion of Aristotle logic relevant to the brief comments made here there would be C.W.A Whittaker’s Aristotle’s De Interpretatione (OUP, 1996).

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Baba and the Nilkanthwala Mast

Only recently did I come across Meher Baba, whose disciples believed him to be an Avatar of God, along with  Jesus, Mohammed and Krishna. It seems that towards the end of his life and the ‘dropping off’ his body, Baba summoned a famous mast to come to stay with him for a time. A mast would be a ‘God-intoxicated Soul on the Path’. This particular God-intoxicated Soul was Nilkanthwala.

During his time with Baba this man, who maintained silence (and I think perhaps nakedness) for much of his life, seems to have spoken freely on many topics. Having mentioned here a while back an ancient Buddhist prophecy about what is in store for humanity, I was surprised to immediately come to this passage.  I fear it will not cheer anyone up.

“He used to cook his food with the help of Baidul. During the cooking he went on talking, saying mostly words which one could not understand. Among the sentences which he spoke to himself, the following is a trans­lation of his utterances in Hindi:

“The earth will split; men will become helpless and shelterless like beasts roaming on a plateau. Men will die in large numbers and will take birth again. Due to forced circumstances, men will be compelled to eat grass and leaves. Old human habitations will be wiped out and new ones will be established. The place of the in­digenous languages like Hindi will be replaced by the English language. Rites, rituals and religious ceremonies will be eliminated. A very big cloud will appear.”

An internet search led me to the same passage with some further background taken from a book on Baba called Avatar. I have been reading the account given by Ivy Druce, a disciple who assisted Baba for many years and who went on to run a Sufi group in the US. Her book is called ‘How a Master Works’. It is remarkable what turns up in my rural second-hand bookshop.

 Baba and the Nilkanthwala Mast

Just before the 10th of July, 1958, Baba ordered one of his close disciples at Dehra Dun to go to Hardwar and bring with him the Nilkanthwala Mast to Meherazad, to be near Baba in His seclusion. The following is the account of the Mast as given by the disciple:

On the 4th of July, 1958, when I reached the place where Nilkanth Mast stayed, I found him as if ready for some long journey. We looked at each other and before I was able to pay my respects to him, he ordered me to come and sit in front of him. This he communicated to me through gestures. He has the habit of communicating through gestures quickly in an authoritative manner.

After a while I requested him to come with me to Ahmednagar to meet dear Baba. I told him that the journey would be made in 2nd class according to his usual habit. He conveyed his willingness for the journey by clapping his hands loudly. We reached Hardwar Railway Station five hours before the scheduled time for the arrival of the train, so the Mast had to wait in the waiting room.

The Mast continued observing silence and remained in a particular posture almost throughout the journey. I took him once to the dining car, where he handled his spoon very efficiently. Half-naked as he was, the sight of his handling a spoon while eating amongst cultured persons and military officials in the dining car proved most unique.

When we reached Meherazad the Mast was assigned a separate room and Baidul was ordered by Baba to look after him. It was on the 10th of July when Baidul sent word that the Mast had broken his silence; after that, he talked on all sorts of relevant and irrelevant subjects practically every day, such as saying “Tindamindy, Udia bhai” . . . or, “Cooly lok,” etc. Some of his short sentences were rich in sense, such as “The world is a zero and in it is God.”

Whenever dear Baba visited him, the Mast took special care to offer Baba a seat, saying, “Please sit here.” Sometimes he praised Baba in Sanskrit verses: “We play with You, we speak with You, we take food with You, and we make jokes with You, in our ignorance.”

The article from which this is taken can be found here. http://www.theawakenermagazine.org/avol06/av06n03/av06n03p12.htm#Previous%20Page

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The Sages on Happiness and How to Find It

Here are some extracts from the esoteric literature on a topic dear to all out hearts, happiness and how to find, maintain and eventually transcend it. No use being happy one minute and unhappy the next and a permanent state would be the ideal. Just as for ethical behaviour and an untroubled soul it is ignorance that would be the enemy,  a failure to perceive ourselves and our world as they really are.

“It is possible to live in a state of stable happiness only when we are completely free of ignorance. Awakening puts an end to unconscious rebirth, and then the conditions and causes of painful effects disappear. This is the realization of a state of happiness which no longer depends on our external circumstances, nor on our emotions.”

The Dalai Lama
Reflections from the Journey of Life (2002)

“It would be absurd to think that happiness begins and ends with the living-body: happiness is the possession of the good life: it is centred therefore in Soul, is an Act of the Soul – and not of all the Soul at that: for it certainly is not characteristic of the vegetative soul, the soul of growth; that would at once connect it with the body.

A powerful frame, a healthy constitution, even a happy balance of temperament, these surely do not make felicity; in the excess of these advantages there is, even, the danger that the man be crushed down and forced more and more within their power. There must be a sort of counter-pressure in the other direction, towards the noblest: the body must be lessened, reduced, that the veritable man may show forth, the man behind the appearances.

Let the earth-bound man be handsome and powerful and rich, and so apt to this world that he may rule the entire human race: still there can be no envying him, the fool of such lures. Perhaps such splendours could not, from the beginning even, have gathered to the Proficient; but if it should happen so, he of his own action will lower his state. If he has any care for his true life; the tyranny of the body he will work down or wear away by inattention to its claims; the rulership he will lay aside.

While he will safeguard his bodily health, he will not wish to be wholly untried in sickness, still less never to feel pain: if such troubles should not come to him of themselves, he will wish to know them, during youth at least: in old age, it is true, he will desire neither pains nor pleasures to hamper him; he will desire nothing of this world, pleasant or painful; his one desire will be to know nothing of the body. If he should meet with pain he will pit against it the powers he holds to meet it; but pleasure and health and ease of life will not mean any increase of happiness to him nor will their contraries destroy or lessen it. When in the one subject a positive can add nothing, how can the negative take away?

But suppose two wise men, one of them possessing all that is supposed to be naturally welcome, while the other meets only with the very reverse: do we assert that they have equal happiness? We do if they are equally wise.”

Plotinus
Enneads I, 4
On Happiness 14-15

“True happiness does not depend on any external being or thing. It only depends on us.”

The Dalai Lama
Reflections from the Journey of Life

“Sometimes it is necessary to sacrifice a small thing in order to obtain a greater one. If the circumstances are favourable, and we are led to choose between our own happiness and the greater happiness of other beings, then we should not hesitate to choose the latter.”

The Dalai Lama
Reflections from the Journey of Life

“We should never confuse happiness with pleasure.”

The Dalai Lama
Reflections from the Journey of Life 

“Suppose the soul to have attained: the highest has come to her, or rather has revealed its presence; she has turned away from all about her and made herself apt, beautiful to the utmost, brought into likeness with the divine – by those preparings and adornings which come unbidden to those growing ready for the vision – she has seen that presence suddenly manifesting within her, for there is nothing between: all distinction fades: it is as lover and beloved here, in a copy of that union, long to blend; the soul has now no further awareness of being in body and will give herself no foreign name, not man, not living being, not being, not all; any observation of such things falls away; the soul has neither time nor taste for them; This she sought and This she has found and on This she looks and not upon herself; and who she is that looks she has not leisure to know. Once There she will barter for This nothing the universe holds; not though one would make over the heavens entire to her; than This there is nothing higher, nothing of more good; above This there is no passing; all the rest however lofty lies on the downgoing path: she is of perfect judgement and knows that This was her quest, that nothing higher is. Here can be no deceit; where could she come upon truer than the truth? and the truth she affirms, that she is herself; but all the affirmation is latent and is silent.

In this happiness she knows beyond delusion that she is happy; for this is no affirmation of an excited body but of a soul become again what she was in the time of her early joy. All the she had welcomed of old – office, power, wealth, beauty, knowledge – of all she tells her scorn as she never could had she not found their better; linked to This she can fear no disaster, nor even once she has had the vision; let all about her fall to pieces, so she would have it that she may be wholly with This, so huge the happiness she has won to.”

Plotinus
Enneads, VI. 7,
How the Multiplicity of the Ideal-Forms Came into Being; and on the Good

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The Price of Industrialisation

Here’s an interesting comment on modern industrial society. Have we really made progress? In some ways no doubt, but there has been a price to pay.

I do not have the title, (for some reason I did not note it and now cannot track it down), but here are some extracts from an article in Green Magazine-Sept 93 on the work of Marshall Sahlins, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and of Social Sciences at University of Chicago.

Since this time Sahlins has published more along the same lines. There is a more current comment here — http://livinggreenmag.com/2014/07/16/people-solutions/affluence-view-anthropology/

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“Sahlins used field research to argue that ‘primitive’ societies enjoyed a great amount of leisure time, satisfied material desires and survival needs with little difficulty, did not work very hard, and consciously chose subsistence economics. They deliberately did not accumulate surpluses.

Sahlin found that aboriginal communities in Australia (studied for several months) worked three hours 45 minutes per day average. The Adobe bushmen of southern Africa work on average a fifteen hour week. Only 65% of the population worked at all. ‘One man’s labour among the bushmen will support will support four or five people.’

Today in the US only 5% of the population feed the rest of the country thanks to technology. But in primitive societies those who provide food free the rest of society to not work at all. In our own society, in which there is virtually no sharing, the non-farming 95% are not freed from work; they are strapped to some economic machine other than farming to produce the money they need to pay for food.

A common misconception is that primitive societies survive at only the bare minimum of existence. …Aboriginal and Bushmen hunters keep bankers hours, notably less than modern industrial workers. They eat as much for pleasure as for sustenance..

In primitive societies the people choose not to produce at maximum levels. Incredible as it may seem to us ‘there is a conscious disregard for the notion of maximum effort from a maximum number of people’. ‘Labour power is under-used, technological means are not fully engaged, natural resources are left untapped. The work day is short. The number of days off exceeds the number of work days’.

The immediate environments of many hunter-gatherer communities could easily support triple their populations, but deliberate control of population growth, and deliberate underuse of the environment’s full economic capacity has kept the ratio of people to resources very small. Rather than using up the productive potential of the environment, stone age communities choose to let some fruit fall to the ground and some animals exist in peace. The people, meanwhile, hang out sleep, dance, flirt, and engage in rituals and relationships that have meaning within these societies. ‘Maximum effort’ indeed.

Stone age cultures are vulnerable to food shortages but no more vulnerable than any other society. Today more than one person in three living on the planet goes to bed hungry every night. ‘This is the era of unprecedented hunger’ says Sahlins, ‘the amount of hunger increases relatively and absolutely with the evolution of culture’.

In the US today the average work week is 47 hours. More than one third of the male employed population works longer than the average. Official figures reveal that nearly six million men and more than one million women work more than 60 hours per week at paid jobs. This does not include the unpaid domestic work of most women. Heads of corporations average more than 60 hours of work per week.

In the Middle Ages urban workers had 130 days of no work – holy days, vigils, Sundays and some Saturdays. Rural workers had only 180 days of real work. As for Roman times, there were some 150-200 public holidays per year.

‘Those of us who enjoy the fruits of the technological juggernaut have more stuff in our lives. We are cleaner living and live longer. Yet our devotion to gathering and caring for commodities has created an extraordinary modern paradox: a scarcity of time, loss of leisure, and increase of stress amidst an environment of apparent abundance and wealth. A decrease in the quality of life and experience.’

‘It seems quite obvious that native cultures that have lived successfully in one place for millennia have been abiding by successful economic practices, including wildlife and resource conservation. But if we listen to our Western scientists and governments we would think that native societies can barely manage another day without computers, quotas, satellite mapping, and ‘maximum sustainable yield analysis’. How, I wonder, do scientists rationalise how natives have survived for thousands of years? Instinct?

The assumption that out modern system of wildlife and resource management is more efficient – despite the fact that we ‘manage’ without any understanding of the environment or the way the people have managed prior to our arrival – is not only hubristic, but racist.

When native societies decide to employ Western-style wildlife management techniques we tend to consider them to be acting rationally. American institutions become willing to invest. The World Bank offers development funds. And yet the Western mode, by failing to include the more holistic dimensions of native thought and practice, may ultimately be the less rational approach. It is surely less rational in the long run for native people.

Capitalist management systems emphasise numbers and individual gain. Native management emphasises relationships among human and animals, believing that balance is what feeds people and helps animals thrive. There is no such thing as ‘maximum sustainable yield’ in the native economic outlook.

One example (from Milton Freeman – University of Alberta) concerned caribou hunting on the Ellesmere Islands of Arctic Canada. Wildlife managers told the Inuit that they should hunt only large and-/or male caribou, and only a few animals from each herd. The Inuit argued that the practice would destroy the caribou herds, but their pleas were ignored. The result was as the Inuit predicted. Though their new limit was far less than the Inuit had hunted before the formerly abundant population dropped sharply because older/larger animals are important to the survival of the group, for they have experience and the physical strength to dig through snow for food.

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Death and the Art of Music

Many years ago, aged about sixteen, I found an old cassette tape (those were the days) and put it on for a listen just to see if I could wipe it and reuse it. What I heard nearly blew my socks off and it changed my life in such a way that much of it has been spent in and around the music biz, with far too much time spent on trying, against all the odds, to become a decent musician.

What I heard was Victoria Los Angeles  in the lead role of the opera ‘Dido and Aeneas’ by Henry Purcell.  A few days ago it occured to me to see if I could find the same old recording on youtbe and I did find an extract.  The whole opera is fabulous but this is the well-known aria that first opened my teenage ears to a world beyond poprockfunkpunkjazz.

Best to make tea, light up and sit back for a while.  What a voice, what a bassline, what a melody! (There’s a couple of minutes of scene setting before the ground bass comes in.)

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What is Wrong with Professional Philosophy?

It is clear that philosophy as practiced in our universities is not a method for discovering the answers to any important questions. Professional philosophers are invariably clever in many ways and so the problem cannot be pure incompetence or mere error. It must have a deeper and more obscure cause.

The usual response to this general criticism is to blame it all on the universe. The idea would be that Reality must always be incomprehensible to human beings and in this case nobody need be blamed for a failure to comprehend it. The problem for this view would be that many people claim that Reality is comprehensible and that they do comprehend it, at least well enough to deal with formal metaphysical problems. It is just that only very rarely are they a professional philosopher and this means that they do not need to be read.

After fifteen years of wondering why academics seem to miss what is right under their noses I have no clear answers but do have some ideas.  There is a lot of overlap, but on my list would be:

Pessimism and Lack of Self-Belief

If all of our past heroes failed to comprehend philosophy then it would be natural for us to assume that we cannot hope to do so either, and perhaps even that it would be arrogant and hubristic for us to assume otherwise. Once we fall into his trap we are doomed.

Poor Scholarship

In my experience philosophy professors rarely have a good knowledge of the literature but only an excellent knowledge of the official reading-list. This official list, however, may well be the locus of the problem.

Self-Perpetuating Group-Think

Every new generation of students is taught by someone who does not understand philosophy and who may even believe that nobody ever could.

A Variety of Goals

On average the goals of professional philosophers do not appear to have much to do with understanding philosophy.

Trivialisation of Outsiders

It may be useful to be well-acquainted with a thousand philosophers who did not solve any problems, and perhaps it would be indispensable for an understanding of why ‘western’ philosophical thinking fails, but it would surely be much more useful to be well-acquainted with just one who did. It is still a common view in the profession that nobody has ever achieved this, as if the work of ten thousand philosophers over thirty centuries can be waived away because they are not in the club.

Naïve Views of Eastern Philosophy

Professional philosophers who closely identify themselves with the ‘Western’ tradition of thought, usually reckoned to begin with Plato and to proceed onwards from there in a myriad different directions as mapped out in the university reading list, do not understand the ‘Eastern’ tradition of thought, which tends to normalise on just one doctrine. If they did then they would see that it is ridiculous to reject a philosophy that solves problems for one that only causes them. They may dismiss this alternative view, trivialise it, mock it, despair at it and rant against it but they do not understand it. Nor do they understand why they cannot refute or falsify it. Nor do they understand why they cannot find an alternative solution for philosophical problems that works. This is not because they are unintelligent but because nobody studies ideas that they strongly believe to be nonsense. The role of a philosopher is to refute views wherever possible but Eastern ideas seem to escape this treatment. To refute a view one has to get to know it.

Not-invented here’ Syndrome

This is a problem for everyone. If someone has already solved philosophy then this would seem to make the rest of us followers and not, after all, intrepid explorers into uncharted territory.  We could speculate that this is one reason for the widespread rejection of Nagarjuna’s carefully-crafted and well-explained ‘Eastern’ solution for philosophy, (viz. a neutral metaphysical position), that it would take all the fun out the game if this solution is correct. Yet reaching an understanding of an existing philosophy that is not our own may be a far more dangerous and exciting adventure than simply fishing around for new ideas, and it may require a great deal more courage, imagination and conceptual re-engineering. For Socrates philosophy was all about remembering, not inventing. Thus he is usually considered to pre-date the ‘Western’ way of doing philosophy and to be merely wise.

Poor Thinking

The average layman would be gobsmacked by the prevalence of poor thinking in professional philosophy. This is possible because this kind of philosophy is so mind-bendingly complicated that it becomes difficult to know what anybody is actually saying. This can be true even for our own thoughts, which as a result can quite easily become an unsystematic muddle of opinion and conjecture hidden under a veil of fancy words. In the case of the recent Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics this reader could not understand two-thirds of the contents while the preface clearly states that nobody can or ever will understand metaphysics. This is not a coincidence. This Guide stands as a metaphor for the entire discipline.

Being too Clever by Half

See above.

Extrapolating from our Failure to the Failure of Everyone

It is commonly assumed that all the people who claim to have solved philosophy are, without exception, deluded. This does away with any need to demonstrate what is wrong with their solution. It also does away with the need to solve any problems.

Holding Temperamental Views of Religion

Professional philosophers seem as prone to this problem as the average layman.

Holding Poorly-Informed Views of Religion

This follows from holding temperamental opinions, or perhaps it can be either way around. Even where there is some sympathy for religion there is rarely much attempt to reach an informed view. Astonishingly, it is not a condition of employment that philosophers should have one. Philosophy of Mind is awash with books and articles written by people who clearly have little clue about religion and who seem to want little to with it other than to put forward theories that entirely depend on it being nonsense. Progress is just as one would anticipate.

Being Frightened of Physicists

The failure of philosophy leaves it open to endless criticism from physics, some of whose practitioners would abolish it. Every time there is new attack the philosophers get all up in arms and print a million defensive words in reply attempting to explain why their work is important while succeeding only in making it clear that they are not quite sure themselves. It is physicists who should fear philosophers given the naivety of the philosophical views that currently prevail in physics, but why would they worry while according to all the philosophers that these physicists tend to consult philosophy is hopeless and we might as well believe what we like.

Externalising the World

Professional philosophy pays lip-service to our internal world but seems to be largely about denying it. ‘Cogito’ is treated as a valid kind of axiom but to claim any more than this as evidence from direct experience would be to dabble in ‘mystical’ knowledge and to leave behind ‘rationality’. Meanwhile there is no indication that our external world is any more real than our internal world, and Descartes’ choice of axiom implies it may well be less so.

Not Beginning at the Beginning

Few of the previous errors could arise were it not for a dreadful habit that philosophers have of starting half-way through the story, as if they are not a beginner but already know a lot.

A Dislike of Simplicity

Philosophy is a simple subject in essence and most of its important questions could be asked by a child. The problem is its profundity and the challenging and iconoclastic character of its results. This problem can be avoided by making the topics so complicated that no result need ever be reached. Complexity is also useful for disguising failure.

Complacency

The world is falling apart for the sake of a metaphysical theory which would bring us all together and ground our world-view on a sound logical basis. Academic philosophy has proved itself utterly useless in this project and the whole world suffers as a consequence. Do we see any attempt to pursue progress? Or do we see the same old arguments being rehearsed over and over again to no purpose? Meanwhile students are trained to continue the tradition. It is almost as if philosophy does not matter.  Performance targets for professionals do not include solving any problems.

Misuse of Logic

While all of the above problems cannot be entirely excused even for an amateur investigation of philosophy  this one is rather more technical and it would be unfair to actually expect non-specialists to avoid it. A specialist, by contrast, must be expected to avoid it.  As it is, however, few academic philosophers seem to grasp the rules for Aristotle’s dialectic. As a consequence they see no legitimate solution for metaphysical dilemmas.  Yet according to Aristotle’s rules they are not dilemmas.  I doubt any layman would believe that this mistake is so widespread and will doubt my sanity, but it is almost universal and easy to identify. (For more discussion see:  https://theworldknot.wordpress.com/do-we-regularly-make-a-mistake-in-metaphysics/)

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The net result of these tendencies is to render ‘Western’ academic philosophy useless as a path to truth and understanding. We could, in response, imagine that philosophy as a whole is useless, that the universe is incomprehensible, or find some other pessimistic explanation. We could equally well assume that the world is just as the Buddha says it is and that philosophy can be solved just as his philosophical commentator and explicator Nagarjuna proposes. Unfortunately this option is not usually available to professors who want their salary to go on being paid, nor is it offered by them to their students. The word ‘Mysticism’ might as well be pronounced ‘Voldemort’ in academia. Everybody knows it is nonsense due the above list of errors.

It would all be a fun game were it not for the effect on society. I believe that the failure of professional philosophers is the greatest part of the cause of the mess we are in. Some people call for a new mythology to unite us, but what do we want with a speculative mythology when we have all the tools required to determine what is actually the case? It was only ever ‘Western’ or ‘scholastic’ thinkers who denied this possibility. Socrates would not have done so but something went terribly wrong after his time.

Thanks to the internet and the easy availability of a vast literature explaining why the Western philosophical approach, grounded as it is in dualism, must forever fail, we might hope that a revolution is on the way. It may already be underway but it seems as yet a very fragile thing. What is required is some soul-searching in the Academy but it is not known for its powers of self-criticism. I suspect it may take another five hundred years of lobbying to persuade its members that philosophy is not useless, so well-entrenched are those who find it so.

[If the reader has more ideas for the list please mention them in the comments. If any seem unjustified please argue back. I’ve given up pulling punches but don’t want to land any unfairly.]

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Nagarjuna’s Doctrine of Two Worlds and Two Truths and the Reason Why Words that are Rigorously True Seem Paradoxical

The second century CE Buddhist philosopher-sage Nagarjuna is famous for his philosophical exposition of the Buddha’s teachings and for his explanation of its philosophical foundation. The language of Buddhism is riddled through with paradox and contradiction and in his Fundamental Versus on the Middle Way Nagarjuna explains why this must be so. Here is an extract from an excellent recent book Nagarjuna’s Middle Way by Mark Siderits and Shoryu Katsura, (Wisdom Books, 21013). It briefly and neatly outlines the reason why this dual-aspect language is used, which would be that a statement may be true at one level of meaning and false at another.

“There are two ways in which a statement may be true, conventionally and ultimately.

a. To say of a statement that it is conventionally true is to say that action based on its acceptance reliably leads to successful practice. Our commonsense convictions concerning ourselves and the world are for the most part conventionally true, since they reflect conventions that have been found to be useful in every day practice.

b. To say of a statement that it is ultimately true is to say that it corresponds to the nature of reality and neither asserts nor pre-supposes any mere conceptual fiction. A conceptual fiction is something that is thought to exist only because of facts about us concept-users and the concepts that we happen to employ.  For instance, a chariot is a conceptual fiction. When a set of parts is assembled in the right way, we only believe there is a chariot in addition to the parts because of the facts about our interests and our cognitive limitations: We have an interest in assemblages that facilitate transportation, and we would have trouble listing all the parts and all their connections. The ultimate truth is absolutely objective; it reflects the way the world is independently of what happens to be useful for us. No statement about a chariot could be ultimately true (or ultimately false). ”

When we speak about chariots in ordinary life we meet no problems. But if our words are to be rigorous we would have to take into account that the chariot is a fiction. Accordingly, we might say ‘Chariots are vehicles with two wheels but there is no such thing’, and we might even buy a chariot knowing there is no such thing.

Thus in metaphysics, where we are always concerned with both of Nagarjuna’s two truths and must always take into account both the conventional and ultimate ‘worlds’, we will often be forced to speak in riddles. A classic case would be Heraclitus’ statement, ‘We are and are not’. This is not a contradiction but the recognition that there are two ways we might speak about our existence, one that is indispensable for everyday communication in daily life and that respects our shared conventions and one that indicates the ultimate truth independent of our mental constructs.

The doctrine of two truths would be vital for an interpretation of most of the Buddhist literature and, as the message remains always much the same, most of the world’s mystical literature likewise. Where a statement seems non-paradoxical we would need to know which level the writer is speaking from, and where it seems paradoxical we would need to know why this is so.

If we do not grasp this idea of conventional and ultimate truths than we are likely to interpret the contradictory-seeming words of the mystics as signifying true contradictions, as if it is the world itself that is paradoxical rather than the language needed to describe it, and so entirely miss the reason for the use of this language of contradictory complementarity.

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Enlightenment, Time, Attachment, Attention and the End of Experience – A Passage from Krishnamurti’s Notebook.

A while back I posted an extract from Krishnamurti’s Notebook, the published text of the diary Krishnamurti kept for a few months during 1961. I felt it shed a useful light on what the word ‘enlightenment’ means in mysticism, bringing it to life a little. Later in the book there is a wonderful passage that expresses key ideas about enlightenment, time, attachment and experience in words that are more clear and direct than I have come across elsewhere. I reproduce it below, but first a few comments.

My 67,000 regular readers will remember that a few months I put together a little video for a philosophical poem by Bernardo Kastrup. https://vimeo.com/117902959

The first line of the main text reads:

Only untruths can be experienced.

At first glance this is not obviously a sensible statement. Krishnamurti’s words below may shed some light on what it might mean. It is not insignificant that the author describes this poem as the outcome of experience/being and not merely of cogitation. The attitude towards experience of the mystics and sages causes much confusion and here we see why. The journey would take us beyond experience.

The next line runs:

Hence only untruths can exist

Again, this might appear to be cryptic nonsense. Krishnamurti’s words again offer an explanation. The journey would take us beyond existence.

My immediately previous post here expressed some disagreement with Bernardo Kastrup over the use of language in his books (not in the ‘Legacy’ poem), in particular the idea that ‘all is consciousness’ or ‘all is mind-at-large’, as might be implied by his ‘monistic idealism’. Krishnamurti’s words might partly explain this linguistic disagreement, for they speak of what is beyond consciousness, thought, time and experience, where the terms ‘idealism and ‘monism’ may become inappropriate or misleading.

The central issue in the quoted passage would be attention, what it means and how it is achieved. It may be an explanation or description of Eckhart’s ‘Perennial Now’. I searched my file of quotations for ‘attention’ and it came back with more references than I could deal with, so important is this topic to the philosophy and practice of enlightenment. As a preface to Krishnamurti this seemed a good one.

One day a man approached Ikkyu and asked:
“Master, will you please write for me some maxims of the highest wisdom?”
Ikkyu took his brush and wrote: “Attention.”
“Is that all?” asked the man.
Ikkyu then wrote: “Attention, Attention.”
“Well,” said the man, “I really don’t see much depth in what you have written.”
Then Ikkyu wrote the same word three times: “Attention, Attention, Attention.”
Half-angered, the man demanded: “What does that word ‘Attention’ mean, anyway?”
Ikkyu gently responded, “Attention means attention.”

(The Little Zen Companion, Ed. David Schiller, Workman Publishing (1994))

In his notebook Krishnamurti expands on Ikkyu’s explanation.

“In complete attention there is no experiencing. In inattention there is; it is this inattention that gathers experience, multiplying memory, building walls of resistance; it is this inattention that builds up the self-centred activities. Inattention is concentration, which is exclusion, a cutting off; concentration knows distraction and the endless conflict of control and discipline. In the state of inattention every response to any challenge is inadequate; this inadequacy is experience. Experience makes for insensitivity; dulls the mechanism of thought; thickens the walls of memory, and habit, routine, become the norm. Experience, inattention, is not liberating. Inattention is slow decay.

In complete attention there is no experiencing; there’s no centre which experiences, nor a periphery within which experience can take place. Attention is not concentration which is narrowing, limiting. Total attention includes, never excludes. Superficiality of attention is inattention; total attention includes the superficial and the hidden, the past and its influence on the present, moving into the future. All consciousness is partial, confined, and total attention includes consciousness with its limitations, and so is able to break down the borders, the limitations. All thought is conditioned, and thought cannot uncondition itself. Thought is time and experience; it is essentially the result of inattention.

What brings about total attention? Not any method nor any system; they bring about a result, promised by them. But total attention is not a result, any more than love is; it cannot be induced, it cannot be brought about by any action. Total attention is the negation of the results of inattention but this negation is not the act of knowing attention. What is false must be denied not because you already know what is true; if you knew what is true the false would not exist. The true is not the opposite of the false; love is not the opposite of hate. Because you know hate, you do not know love. Denial of the false, denial of the things of non-attention is not the outcome of the desire to achieve total attention. Seeing the false as the false and the true as the true and the true in the false is not the result of comparison. To see the false as the false is attention. The false as the false cannot be seen when there is opinion, judgement, evaluation, attachment and so on, which are the result of non-attention. Seeing the whole fabric of non-attention is total attention. An attentive mind is an empty mind.”

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

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