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 —


“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:


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.

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

Forwarded message…

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

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


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

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

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

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

The survey link is here:

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

We deeply appreciate your help. Thank you,  Roland.

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

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Metaphysics in a Nutshell: A Lazy Philosopher’s Guide

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

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

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Logic and Spirituality: The Dream Team

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Only untruths can be experienced.”

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

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

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