On Philosophy, Philosophobia and Mysticism


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 Duce, 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.”

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.”

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/


“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.


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/)


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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On Why I Cannot Quite Agree with Bernardo Kastrup

My previous post was a review for Bernardo Kastrup’s new book Brief Peeks Beyond. This is an excellent book discussing the most profound topics and I was very happy to recommend it to amazon readers everywhere.

Yet I cannot quite agree with its author in every respect. We have discussed our disagreement on a number of occasions but they remain unresolved. Such are the subtleties of the issues that it is not easy to pin them down and fully dissect them.

Two problem arise for me in BK’s books. Given that they are about philosophy, religion and science this is approximately none at all, but both of them seem crucial.

First, the cosmological doctrine being promoted is called ‘monistic idealism’. Second, it is proposed that the universe is logically absurd.

There may be no disagreement as to the facts. BK explains his idealism as being consistent with the Buddha’s nondualism and thus not a new theory but a re-presentation or re-conceptualisation using a more simple, modern, scientific and manageable language. If so then I will not be arguing with it.

Yet in this case the phrase ‘monistic idealism’ seems highly misleading. In some circles Mind-Matter has long been considered a formal dilemma and here ‘idealism’ would suggest the adoption of an extreme view. For the sake of maintaining a consistent language I would be happy with ‘idealism’ as a synonym for nondualism only where it is qualified with ‘Absolute’ or ‘Transcendental’ and even then would prefer to avoid it.

The categorisation of Mind as the monistic basis of all phenomena requires an initial reduction of the world to two phenomena, Mind and Matter, and then that we subsume one within the other. A great deal of my blog is devoted to suggesting that as a method for solving metaphysical dilemmas this does not work. It has never worked, and hence the stagnation of the discipline.

For a formal solution, a solution that works as mathematics, it would be vital to have three terms to work with. We would need a word like ‘Tao’, defined as undifferentiated and thus indefinable in positive terms, in addition to the dualistic terms required for bivalent logic. All formal system require at least one undefined term.

Without this third option we cannot speak of a ‘neutral metaphysical position’, and I believe that this is the position upon which rests the whole edifice of mysticism. It may be possible to speak of nondualism as a form of idealism and also as a form of monism, but to give the doctrine these labels without some prominent ‘scare’ quotes would cause me many problems since I spend much of my time arguing that idealism and monism are logically absurd and false. So while I may agree with BK’s worldview and do seem to in nearly all respects, I could never endorse the phrase ‘monistic idealism’. It would cause linguistic havoc.

What about the idea that the universe is logically absurd? Again, most of my blog is devoted to arguing for exactly the opposite view. I like to think it is demonstrated well enough to withstand objections. The issues are technical, to do with the correct application of Aristotle’s ‘laws of thought’, and they have been explored here in various posts.

I will not rehearse the debate here but will simply state my conclusions. If we reject all positive metaphysical theories then our position is irrefutable in the dialectic. This is demonstrable. To say that the resultant view is logically absurd is to say that it is refutable, and in this case Buddhist doctrine can be refuted. In fact, of course, it is irrefutable. It can only be reached as a result of logical analysis, as Nagarjuna, Bradley, Brown and others have shown, and must be reached if our analysis is complete. It certainly cannot be shown to give rise to ‘true’ or formal contradictions but, rather, denies even the possibility of such things.

Accordingly, if ‘monistic idealism’ leads to the idea that the universe is logically absurd then perhaps this indicates that it would need a tweak in order for it to make complete sense. If, on the other hand, it is supposed to be a synonym for nondualism then I am fully geared to do battle on behalf of the sanity, logical coherence and non-absurdity of the Buddha’s view. There are a few people who share Bk’s view including most notably Graham Priest and George Melhuish, but I believe they are all mistaken.

At any rate, if they are not mistaken then a lot of my blog is nonsense. I have testified that my introduction to Buddhism and the nondual doctrine was working out that it must be true. If it is logically absurd then I could not have done this.

This post hardly moves the discussion forward but it is a sketch of the issues and of my position. I’ll ask Bernardo if he wants to comment but don’t see this a something we’re ever going to get to the bottom of in a blog chat. It’s not a parochial post though. I feel that the two main issues here are important across most of philosophy and cause endless problems. Crucially, and very unfortunately, it leads to the view that for mysticism we must abandon Aristotelian logic. As I spend much of my time trying to persuade folk that it is possible to work out in logic that the Buddha’s view is correct I could never endorse breaking, modifying or ignoring Aristotle’s ‘laws of thought’. They are the principle tool we would need for any success at all.

I’m not sure about BK but it is clear that the approach taken by Priest, Routley and Melhuish does not lead to an understanding of metaphysics. Rather, it leads to a paradoxical universe in which no such understanding would be possible. I do not think it a good idea to take ones metaphysical ideas from people who claim no understanding of metaphysics, even though this seems to be normal practice in the profession.

The mistake that I feel is made by Priest, Routley, Melhuish, Kastrup and indeed most western thinkers who look into the logic of the via negativa or ‘doctrine of the mean’, as well as most of those who don’t, and which once made will prevent us from solving philosophical problems, is described here…


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A‘Brief Peeks Beyond: Critical Essays on Metaphysics, Neuroscience, Free Will, Skepticism and Culture’ by Bernardo Kastrup. A Review for Amazon.

I greatly enjoyed this book and would happily recommend it to anyone capable of reading it. It deals with issues that could not be more important or urgent. They are addressed in a straightforward way without any unnecessary intellectual basket-weaving. This is what rational philosophy might look like if more scientists got involved. Simple and clear, honest, logically sound and bang in line with the data.

For a committed materialist it will be an uncomfortable book since it is intended as a cure. For a person who finds materialism plausible, or who respects the current scientific-philosophical orthodoxy on the assumption that it is probably well-considered, yet at the same time desperately hopes that materialism is not true on the grounds that the universe would be meaningless and life would be pointless, it will be a very encouraging book. Properly considered, it turns out that science and philosophy is on your side.

For a committed theist adhering to an ‘exoteric’ or literal interpretation of the scriptures the book may seem a mixed blessing. Sentient beings become whirlpools in an ocean of consciousness, ‘centres of experience’ adrift in a psycho-physical causal matrix of their own making. If monotheism seems implied it would be something like the subtle and metaphorical theism of A Course in Miracles and the Nag Hammadi Library, the Kabbalah, the writings of Rumi, Al-Halaj and the Sufis, something a lot more like Taoism and Buddhism that our Church would usually countenance. Nevertheless, it lends credence to religion.

This ocean of consciousness is termed ‘Mind at Large’ in honour of Aldous Huxley. For readers who endorse ‘nondualism’ as a world-view and philosophical position it may be with this ‘Mind at Large’ that a few issues arise. Is this a fundamental or emergent phenomenon? If it is emergent then the author’s ‘monistic idealism’ would be non-reductive. Not necessarily wrong but not quite the whole story. Yet if it is fundamental then we would have to justify the use of the term ‘Mind’ in the absence of space-time and entirely ‘beyond the categories’ and thus, it would seem, beyond all possibility of thought.

Perhaps this is what is so clever about the book, that it takes us all the way to the penultimate metaphysical step but does not hopelessly confuse the issues by trying to go all the way. To go all the way would mean descending into the weird and wonderful language of the mystics, and to do this would be utterly counter-productive to the authors’ cause. The first task would to de-reify matter and acknowledge the ontological priority of consciousness.

The ambiguity that slightly clouds the ontological status of ‘Mind at Large’ seems unimportant everywhere except during the discussion of freewill. Here the author states, in italics, that this phenomenon ‘certainly has metaphysical freewill’. It is even said that this phenomenon has wants and desires. And yet it is also said that the intentions and actions (or perhaps the ‘unfolding’) of this phenomenon would be entirely the consequence of what it is. It is what it is so it can only act as it acts, want as it wants and so forth. This is the view that Lao Tsu endorses when he tells us that the laws of Heaven and Earth are as they are ‘Tao being what it is’, and perhaps it is also the Christian doctrine of ‘Divine Simplicity’. Yet this identity of action, attribute and being would not be consistent with freewill, and if ‘Mind at Large’ is to be equated with Tao and fundamental simplicity then we cannot claim freewill for it. For this reason we might prefer the solution given in A Course in Miracles, where it is stated ‘Choice is meaningless’.

Fortunately there would be a way to reconcile these two seemingly different statements on freewill. This would be to assume that the phrase ‘metaphysical freewill’ is meaningless. It is a notoriously difficult phrase to define and the whole idea seems to slip through our fingers when we try to do so. Perhaps this is because it does not make sense. If we take this approach then there would be no necessary disagreement between the two statements.

This reader had just one more quibble. The author suggests, ‘…all conceivable structures and functions of conscious beings can, in principle and under materialistic assumptions, be achieved without consciousness.’ A thought experiment is provided to illustrate this. Perhaps some readers will be convinced. For myself I have never been able to understand this view and it seems to be blatantly ridiculous. I refuse to believe that it would ever occur to a non-conscious being to write a book about consciousness, and it would certainly not be an achievable goal. This naïve objection, however, in no way weakens the more general argument being made.

It was genuinely cheering to read a short discussion of materialism in relation to animal welfare. The vast suffering of the animal kingdom caused by human activity is made possible by a lack of compassion dependent on a complete failure of empathy and an unsystematic philosophical view that denies any meaning to life and bestows power with no understanding. Seen in this way materialism is a sickness, not merely a logically indefensible conjecture in science and philosophy but a self-serving abdication of intellectual rigour and ethical responsibility that benefits nobody and least of all the believer.

The discussion of culture and society was a highlight and seemed to me to be the heart of the book. As a strong advocate of the power of logic it was also good to read a sound defence of discursive philosophy as compared with ‘revealed’ or direct knowledge. In mysticism the experimentalists do the real work and they can be a bit snooty about philosophy. These two approaches to knowledge are presented as complementary and mutually beneficial, albeit that in cases of perceived disagreement the latter would trump the former

Many people will enjoy this book and perhaps many will be heartened by it. With a cautionary (and probably rather churlish) word regarding the occasional variance between this description of the world and that given in the nondual literature of mysticism, it seems an ideal recommendation for anyone who either doubts or hopes that there is some truth in religion or who feels oppressed by the idea that they are merely mortal beings and can never be more.


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