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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3 Responses to On Philosophy, Philosophobia and Mysticism

  1. dondeg says:

    This was really great, Peter! One thing kept coming to my mind over and over as I read:

    Question: Why is a philosopher cheaper than a mathematician?
    Answer: The philosopher doesn’t need a garbage can in his office.

    On another note, maybe you’re the one to publish the text that explains nondual philosophy and proper metaphysics. The more I read of your stuff, I am slowly getting why you admire Nagarjuna and his teachings. From my perspective, I would say it like this. Nagarjuna is looking down on the intellect from a higher mystical position. As such, he is able to frame quite precisely the limits of the intellect. Period. Better than Kant did, even.

    Again, thank you, Sir, for the provocative material.

    Best,

    Don

    • PeterJ says:

      Hi Don. Many thanks for the interesting comment.

      This is weird. Just last night I was pondering the old boast that mathematicians only need a pencil, some paper and a garbage can in the office, and how this would be rather extravagant by philosophers’ standards. I like your take on it. I wonder if you mean that philosophers do not use paper, or that they never throw away bad ideas. 🙂

      I would agree with your analysis of Nagarjuna’s relationship with the intellect and with Kant. A good thought.

      As for writing something serious about all this, I have been trying for a long time. Must have thrown away 150,000 words so far. (I definitely do need a garbage can in the office). While being a critic in some ways I have nothing but admiration for the communication skills of senior academics. Your posts are a lesson that I cannot seem to learn. Hence I am very pleased indeed that you are seeing why I feel Nagarjuna to be so important. To me he is the key that unlocks the mysteries of the universe for the intellect. Or, he provides the ladder that Wittgenstein never found, and most considerately does not pull it up after him. Or, he shows the fly how to get out of the bottle in which Wittgenstein and his colleagues later imprisoned it.

      Would you have time for a chat by email?

      . .

  2. dondeg says:

    Hi Peter

    Yes, I meant not use garbage cans!

    I know what you mean about throwing away. I have a couple almost complete drafts of Atom that were trashed too. Easily same order magnitude of words as you mentioned.

    As to communication skills, they are generally better in philosophy than science, although science writing has the advantage of being super terse and to the point. That is its strength and weakness. It is good for communicating technical information to others with the same training, but completely opaque to those without the training. On the other hand, philosophy is generally more expository.

    Yes, please feel free to email. I’ll make time. Things are slowing down anyway with the Holidays rolling around in the next couple weeks.

    Thanks, Peter!

    Best,

    Don

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