Friday, January 28

A philosopher’s guide to reality.




As our level of awareness increased, natural curiosity prompted us to ask questions about reality and how one can philosophically define our state of being or existence. The first formal paper on metaphysics (which is a term used to describe our state of being) was by the scholar Aristotle (322 BC-384 BC )whose output remains firmly etched into our societal framework and who completed the first known works on logic.
His writings remain fresh and thought- provoking …..The first philosophy Metaphysics) is universal and is exclusively concerned with primary substance. ... And here we will have the science to study that which is just as that which is, both in its essence and in the properties which, just as a thing that is, it has. ....That among entities there must be some cause which moves and combines things. ... There must then be a principle of such a kind that its substance is activity.” (Aristotle, Metaphysics). You can read a summary of his treatise on metaphysics by Stanford University here.

A measure of his contribution to metaphysics was his ideas remained virtually unchallenged for over a thousand years. Today they are the cornerstone for the Christian, Muslim and Jewish religions to define our state of being from a religious philosophical perspective. It is not my perspective however to rigidly assert all the Abrahamic faiths are totally reliant upon the Aristotelian view, rather his broad metaphysics profoundly influenced or was a cornerstone to much of it (with varying degrees) although I acknowledge in some sects they went entirely different ways inclusive of splits in Christianity.

But Aristolean logic was hostage to the Copernican notion of a central earth about which the stars and planets revolved. It was thought then impossible for the earth to move on its axis and orbit the sun as otherwise you must feel the rush of wind in your hair just as you would when riding a horse. Many simply believed humans might fall apart if exposed to speeds exceeding that of a galloping horse. John Gribbon- Science A History -1543-2001.


All of our ground breaking major scientific discoveries are counter intuitive and most discoveries did not follow on logically to seem at first to be against common sense. Science tells us how things are but not logically how things are. However, the fact that a philosophy is underpinned by a false scientific notion does not in its itself discredit the whole of the body of that work. All revelations in science reveal is that a particular model of reality conforms to a verifiable observation from that perspective. New scientific discoveries and insights will prompt quetions about the status quo for debate and become the catalyst for changed thinking. The modern dichotomy existing between science and philosophy is only a very recent affair as previously science was called philosophy. Philosophers want to understand science as a tool to help underwrite philosophy.

It was not until the invention of the telescope and Galileo’s observations that the Aristotelean view was finally refuted in the seventeenth century. Galileo reduced Aristotle’s metaphysics in religion to attribute GOD only to the primary causes (or those not understood) with the balance known as secondary causes comprehensible as mechanical processes.

His refutation of the Aristotelean idea of a fixed central planet earth met with stiff opposition as his note to Kepler testifies:

I wish, my dear Kepler that we could have a good laugh together at the extraordinary stupidity of the mob. What do you think of the foremost philosophers of this University? In spite of my oft-repeated efforts and invitations, they have refused, with the obstinacy of a glutted adder, to look at the planets or Moon or my telescope. (Galileo Galilei)

The most dominant philosopher at that time was René Descartes who expanded the idea of a mechanical view of the world to include physics, biology and psychology. His famous phrase ‘I am thinking, therefore I exist’ denotes his idea of a distinct human intellect for all human perceptions unaffected and separate to the senses.

Hence his metaphysics talked about a distinction between the mind and the substance of a material world comprehensible from a mechanical perspective.
His ideas were plausible then, given the feeling of solidness to the world and the predictability of observable outcomes for mechanical systems.

He makes a valid point that the senses provide only obscure information and concludes therefore clear perceptions must only occur in the intellect.However I think you can also say that the senses don’t have to make rational sense to us individually or for us to be aware of a composite of sensory perceptions manifesting as intellect.

His ideas about the mind were referenced in more recent times to support the theory that a computer with self conscious software would be capable of emulating a human mind. This idea may have some tiny vestige of plausibility if you remain convinced about Descartes mind distinction – but I remain somewhat unconvinced even on that score. Descartes ‘concluded that the essences of all things and those calculable mathematical truths’ perceivable from enquiry were immutable and eternal causes established under the hand of GOD.

For a summary of the metaphysics of Descartes (1596- 1650) click here

Reference ;
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/descartes-modal/


The next great advancement of science was from Newton (1643-1727) who took a 7-year fellowship with Trinity College in 1667 which was reliant on him swearing an oath ‘I will either set Theology as the object of my studies and take holy orders when the time prescribed by those statutes arrives, or I will resign from the college’

He was the first of the great Scientists to show the laws of science are indeed universal laws that effect everything. For Newton and many of his contemporaries God was the architect of it all. Newton even went on to say God was a "hands on” architect who might interfere from "time to time". John Gribbon- Science A History -1543-2001.

To read more on Newton’s metaphysics click here
Reference :
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/newton-philosophy/.


18th century

At the beginning of the 18th century the famous botanist Linnaeus ( 1707-1778) who was responsible for over 7000 descriptions for species of plants and most European animals rejected the Aristotelean metaphysics which defined plants as substance with properties. Instead he proposed their being was based upon the provision of nutrition and in the propagation of their species.
Thus the interconnectivity of all living things was beginning to take root- if you will excuse my pun!

Immanuel Kant (b. April 22, 1724- 12.4.1804) was a German philosopher who greatly influenced all subsequent philosophy. Kant recognized the problem of the human mind and provided a solution as to how we can escape from the confines of our mind to a reality of an outside world physically beyond it.

Kant’s solution posited that prior known truths are insufficient to describe metaphysics but from prior knowledge (which he called a priori) the mind is capable of joining up with analysis to understand how to proceed. This may seem a rather straightforward matter for us today but it was a major move forward in thinking then to run counter to existing philosophy.

His ideas ensured a much better understanding about how the mind joins past knowledge and links to analysis to posit judgments about our interaction with the outside world.

Kant employed in his thinking what is known as the transcendental argument about the minds ability to be aware of things outside of the minds existence about which it has no prior knowledge by joining with a partial priori to give rise to analysis and subsequent comprehension. E.g. the mind itself is aware of its own experience. Kant then argued (convincingly from my viewpoint) that a philosophical investigation into the nature of the external world must be an inquiry into the features and activity of the mind that knows it.

Kant argued the mind gives objects some of their characteristics in accord with its compliant nature to bring uniformity within its structured conceptual capability.

Kant’s transcendal argument however does not mean philosophically he saw grounds for ideas such as, ‘God is a perfect being.’ as Kant maintained that the mind was a tool to formal structuring that enables the conjoining of concepts into judgments, but that the mind possesses a priori for judgments, not a priori of judgments.

This idea is confirmed in studies undertaken into cognitive neuroscience which conclude the frontal lobes of the brain assemble all of the information (including that which is conveyed from the senses) from other parts to make judgments based upon all of the assembled information to hand. Elkhonen Goldberg – The Executive Brain.

For a summary of Kant’s metaphysics click here

Reference : http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-metaphysics/


19th & 20th Century

It was in the 19th century the pace of change quickened with the social upheaval of the Industrial Revolution; discoveries of Carbon Dioxide, water as an element, The Steam Engine, Electricity, Oxygen and Darwin’s theory of natural selection, to offer a scientific explanation of evolution.

But during this time science was also transformed as in 1905 Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity was published. The foundation stone was the constancy of the speed of light and that nothing exceeds the speed of light which was supported by experimental evidence.

He went on to develop the special theory of relativity to include the warping effects of gravity.

Many of the metaphysical ideas described so far are by necessity based upon our everyday experience with intelligence human interaction to define the reality of our state of being.But now Science is telling us the only absolute to relativity is the concept of space time. This idea took firmer root as accepted orthodoxy as the quantum revolution (study of sub atomic particles called protons and electrons) demonstrated beyond any doubt that light could behave as a wave or as a stream of particles. Scientists can only postulate theories about the behaviors of electrons and protons inside or outside of atoms. The bizarre notion of quantum mechanics postulate where two photons were entangled any successful measurement of either will force the other distant photon (however far away- even were it to be on the other side of the universe) into a corresponding same spin cycle as if it is still connected (even though it isn’t) rather than behave in accord with expected probabilities.

From a scientific point of view one thing remains crystal clear; we remain unable to provide a metaphysical model about reality - our state of being and their ontologies. All I think we can say is our minds give us a comprehension of reality (even if it's not reality) verifiable by independent scientific means. All that proves is comprehension is correct according to the observation but not that it is real. Of course it is real to the extent it needs to be real for us to exist but that is all above the quantum level and according to large scale physics which works very well.


One of the prominent philosophers of great influence was Friedrich Nietzsche ( 1844-1900) whose work today is subject to countless interpretations (or should I say misinterpretations) and who is better known for his quote ‘God is Dead’- symbolized the death of a even wider definition of metaphysics than is contemplated in this paper. Another is 'All things are subject to interpretation whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.'

As an insightful and enigmatic philosopher whose unusual style (he often wrote in aphorisms) Nietzsche was apt to ferociously attack any philosopher or religious philosophy captive to universal principles which he proffered was to reduce our state of being into one of a slave mentality to descend into nihilism.

The key to Nietzsche's philosophy from my perpective is his will to power and his metaphysical claim this is the essence of being. He posits our being comprises of instinctive interactions – the true, false, real, fictitious or unintelligible. His claim was 'that all sciences are now under the obligation to prepare the ground for the future task of the philosopher, which is to solve the problem of value, to determine the true hierarchy of values.


In his works entitled 'Beyond good and evil' he gives rise to the idea of ‘free spirits’ to emphasize ones self-knowledge that allows one to go beyond the bounds of morality to be free to unearth or uncover the conscious drivers or our wills.
Nietzsche hope is for philosophers to be free spirits unbounded by the shackles of dogmatism and willing and able to embrace hardships in a constant state of becoming.


Another philospher Albert Schweitzer, although heavily influence by Nietzsche, eventually went down a different track to Nietzsche; ‘Reverence for life means to be in the grasp of the infinite, inexplicable, forward-urging Will in which all Being is grounded.’ 'Reality is the Being which manifests itself in phenomena'

Schweitzer’s world view was influenced by Spinoza, Hinduism, Buddhism, and the Native American religions aimed at providing a bridge for Christianity to be revitalized; to return to the ancient mystical links for a naturalistic world view. He posited eschatology entrapped Christianity to a journey of unjustified value judgments to fuel unwarranted pessimism about the intuitive human spirit. His world view was based upon our link to mysticism as a basis for reasoned understanding- not the other way around. Eschatology was central in his thinking as the catalysist s for the pessimistic renunciation of a human society which was bound and captive to the continual overtures to an approaching kingdom of God.

What Schweitzer attempted to do was to remove the metaphysical Jesus of love housed in the God/ man / creed/ dogma entrapments to be supplanted within his reverence for life based upon his life affirmation and unity for life themes. Wherever you see life – that is yourself!”

This is what has attracted me to his philosophy – complete with all the flaws which must beset any philpospher.

But Nietzsche was of great interest subsequently to a philosophical movement called existentialism: the investigation of the meaning and mode of being given endless individual existential possibilities and the relationships with all things. - A being in the world.

Noted physicist Stephen Hawking also brings his own brand of scientific gloss to the table since he thinks our minds are all wedded to a belief dependency what he calls ‘model-dependent realism,’ which allow us to make sense of our assumed reality from our sensory model input. He makes the point however our assumed reality is based upon what we believe to be both true and real to reflect observations -but not reality.



We zestfully explain events on the basis our mind models ably match reality (even if they do not); so that when the models are able to make accurate predictions we become excited to think we have discovered the truth which we have. The truth is that the mind model agrees with those observations- not if it is real or not. Stephen Hawking


Conclusion

What I have tried to do is to illustrate how science and human thinking evolved historically to bear fruit with elegant theories about our state of being.
My aim was to show how successive philosophers and scientists built up a step by step approach to metaphysics only to find in the end we are almost back to when we first started within the context of this paper. I have included references to Stanford University to ensure anyone wanting to check what I am saying or required more expert elaboration could refer to the references.

Additionally I included references to john Gribbin’s ‘Science a History’ to join scientific discoveries to hopefully show how scientific discoveries shaped philosophy. My aim was to show how this change in thinking would have felt then as such discoveries impacted their lives so that today life is barely recognizable to that which preceded us. There is no inference it’s a better or worse world view to what preceded it, but rather this post is an illustration of the journey of formal metaphysical knowledge.

Hence my subjective inclusion of just a handful of the great philosophrs and scientists will hopefully capture sufficiently the essence of some of their ideas to whet your appetite for further enquiry. It seems to me each has made a major contribution to better understanding the nature of being within the constraints of societal or religious prejudices or flawed science.

But as we began to feel secure under the certainty of Newton’s universal laws we discovered at the quantum level those laws no longer applied. It is as if in our quest to be suitably clothed in more and more knowledge we now know the clothing is only temporal and underneath as always we remain naked before GOD.

But just as clothes keep us warm to add color to our character all of the great philosophers and scientists I have subjectively mentioned add meaning to our life just as if we are having a conversation with a trusted friend. At least that is my experience and my hope is it is yours.

9 comments:

arulba said...

I'm not familiar enough with the scope of philosophy to make any major comments on the wonderful comprehensive outline you have provided. My personal experience is what I have also noticed in my own children. I think that maybe we have a fairly solid view of things by the time we are teenagers. It's not so much that philosophers tell us what we should think, but rather that certain philosophers resonate with what it is we already think?

My son and I were discussing this last night. We tend to borrow the thoughts of others in order to better portray our own. If a shift in our thinking occurs, it is merely the undoing of something that had been implanted by our education, not necessarily something we had thought ourselves.

The truth is the truth is the truth and we all tap into it - not just the great philosophers.

lindsaylobe said...

Hi Laura,
Thanks for your comments. I think we are all philosophers whether we acknowledge it or not and naturally we will have affinity reading about those holding similar views or values akin to our own. But in studying philosophy I think one engages in examining a logical way of thinking more than anything else - to discover the truth as it relates to the particulate perspective of that philosophy.

That may challenge us to think about that perspective.

Talking about youth I thought you may be interested to know (if you don’t already) that in Albert Nietzsche’s formative years he expressed his deeply religious views in this poem:

Deeply inscribed upon them glows
the words: To the Unknown God.
I am his, although up till this hour
I've remained in the company of sinners:
I am his—and I feel the noosed ropes
That pull me down in the struggle
And, should I flee,
Still force me into his service
I want to know you, unknown one,
You who have reached deep within my soul,
Wandering through my life like a storm,
You incomprehensible one, akin to me!
I want to know you, even serve you.
—Translation © The Nietzsche Channel. In: Friedrich Nietzsche in Words and Pictures.. Nietzsche's School Years and Military Service: 1858-68

Best wishes

susan said...

This is a fascinating and well-executed essay, Lindsay. Having read a number of the philosophers you've referred to as well as my general interest in comparative religion over the years I've also had a couple of thoughts. The self both exists (has ‘being’) and doesn’t exist (we can't ‘grasp’ it – thus it has ‘no-being’). All we can do is search for the essence of the self – which is ‘becoming’ (inherent in the couplet being/non-being that we find at the heart of the self). I thought it was very nicely put by Wallace Stevens:

“It is in that thought that we collect ourselves,

Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:
Within a single thing, a single shawl

Wrapped tightly round us, since we are poor, a warmth,

A light, a power, the miraculous influence.
Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.

We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,

A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous.

Within its vital boundary, in the mind.”

Best wishes as always.

lindsaylobe said...

Hi Susan,
Thanks for your comments and interest to include the poet Stevens whose lovely poetry simply overflows with wonderful imaginative ideas.
I don’t know a great deal about his philosophy except I gather imagination was central to his idea as to how we interpret reality although he readily acknowledged a direct knowledge of reality is not possible.
Hence from my limited understanding of his works I gather he suggests an existential tension between what we imagine (inclusive of all unconscious and conscious perceptions to form our world view) and the reality of an ever changing world washing over us.
However, he contends we can find a temporal peaceful home once the imaginative drives are relaxed sufficiently to accept ‘what is’ which I guess is similar to the idea of a constant state of becoming.
Best wishes

Mercutio said...

One of the things that I've noticed in reading various philosophers is that very few of them make distinctions for the non-ordinary.
For example, a hand missing one finger is still a hand. Were the hand missing two fingers, it would still be a hand; and the same with the thumb. Even with all the fingers and thumb removed, the portion which remains is a hand.
But clearly, this is not the ordinary state of a hand.
Even in the earliest days of enquiry, it was widely acknowledged that being existed apart from substance. Aristotle wrote of the soul, ascribing to it many of the functions that Descartes assigned to intellect.
And still, at this point in the investigation of the matter (pardon the pun), I can throw a rock, but I can't change its mind.
It could well be that such arguments simply do not appeal to the lion's share of substance to be had.

lindsaylobe said...

Hi Mercutio,
Thanks for your visit and thoughtful comment.

Metaphysics under the Aristolean influence talked about things considered eternal and which were outside the then known physical sciences.

Hence Aristotle’s students were all assumed by Aristotle to have already studied physics before coming to study metaphysics which simply means ‘after the physics”.

That is the original meaning whereas and I have gravitated to a more modern day terminology.

However under Aristotle’s metaphysics substance is that which exists in its own right. A hand or arm or part thereof severed from the body does not exist in its own right; therefore it is not a substance.

It is the function of the hand (when it was hand or a partial hand) that determines it as a substance under his metaphysics.
The partial nature of it is not important.

Note that Aristotle is exclusively concerned with primary substance. ... And here we will have the science to study that which is just as that which is, both in its essence and in the properties which, just as a thing that is, it has. ....That among entities there must be some cause which moves and combines things. ... There must then be a principle of such a kind that its substance is activity.

I hope what I have said now explains this point more clearly as indicated above.

Hence to ask a question what is a rock according to Aristotle is to ask a meaningless question ! - since he wants to know what it's essence ? is or what it is used for ? to denote its primary substance.

To refer to a rock as such would be to refer to the physics you study before you study the science of metaphysics.

But a rock fashioned into a tool or object or used to make something else has a substance.

Aristotle wants to know what is its use? or what is it in essence ? to denote its primary substance.

Of course, there are numerous flaws in his philosophy as indicated by the subsequent philopshers included in my post.

But his thinking is very elegant for 2300 years ago dont you think ?

You can gain a comprehensive view of what he meant and the subsequent philosophy from the references to Stanford University which are very well set out.

I make reference to the famous botanist Linnaeus (1707-1778) who rejected the Aristotelian metaphysics which defined plants as substance with properties.

Instead he proposed their being was based upon the provision of nutrition and in the propagation of their species. Thus the interconnectivity of all living things was beginning to take root- if you will excuse my pun!

The idea that being is explained by listing the substance and interactions of those substances and their characteristics was refuted by Heidegger.


He suggested an alternative approach to introduce the idea of substance, equipment and being as defined in what it is to be human with intelligent interaction.

But whatever philosophers you refer there will always be a flaw of one kind or another.


Today philosophers talk about mental and physical things, whereas Descartes said there are mental substances and physical substances- the mental defined by the essence of consciousness as distinct to the physical things in the world.

Best wishes

Mercutio said...

Quite right.
In Aristotle's terminology, a specific instance of a thing is an "accident;" and since he was much more concerned with forms ("genus" I believe it was), and so never did really come back to "accidents" for the most part.

I really Aristotle, even where he's a bit off. He does seem particularly elegant in his speech, and especially so compared to Spinoza, though I like Spinoza's form.

Schopenhauer was really the only philosopher that I couldn't stand at all. In whatever it was I was reading, he made a questionable leap early on, and then returned to the point over and over to build on it. I found him to be irritating.
It's a shame, really; because I'm told that I would really like Schopenhauer if I didn't find him too irritating to read.

I feel a bit shy at this point at pronouncing categorical imperatives such as, "Form cannot exist independently of substance," (although that's really what I'm driving at, more or less) but I believe it might at some level, even though such a form-without-substance might well be beyond our capacity to readily utilize.

lindsaylobe said...

Hi Mercutio,

Reference -Aristotle's terminology, a specific instance of a thing is an "accident;" and since he was much more concerned with forms ("genus" I believe it was), and so never did really come back to "accidents" for the most part.

Response: Yes- According to Aristotle matter in its purest sense has no characteristics as opposed to matter which takes on various forms. E.g. an acorn becomes an Oak. One state is always becoming another- the form is what it becomes. His teleological world view claims a purposeful universe of matter exists of all potentialities as a consequence of its form.

Any potentiality for accidental form was something I think medieval philosophers gravitated towards rather that Aristotle although I believe he did mention it.

Reference: Aristotle, even where he's a bit off. He does seem particularly elegant in his speech, and especially so compared to Spinoza, though I like Spinoza's form.

Response: Spinoza said that GOD and nature were one and the same substance. So that everything in the universe according to Spinoza’s metaphysics is represented in the attributes of GOD or nature.

Reference : Schopenhauer was really the only philosopher that I couldn't stand at all. In whatever it was I was reading, he made a questionable leap early on, and then returned to the point over and over to build on it. I found him to be irritating.
It's a shame; I'm told that I would really like Schopenhauer if I didn't find him too irritating to read.

Response

Schopenhauer invokes the idea of sufficient reason to link different categories of objects (material, mathematical, abstract or psychological forces etc ) to in turn to require different modes of reasoning ……..e.g. you cannot use logic to talk about abstract concepts.

It is an extension of the categorization in Aristotle’s thinking.

But building on Kant he postulates a different idea to declare individual objects (together with the forms of space and time) are sufficient in themselves to explain all human experience.

In other words the individual objects dispersed through space and time all casually relate to one another.

He believes that to come into contact with the universe is to come into contact with oneself.

To understand Schopenhauer is to understand his idea of a foundationalistic ‘Will’ which is central to everything- the foundationalist being of all of our instinctual drives; the foundational being of everything.

Schopenhauer's conception of the Will is of something that is separate to rationality.

Schopenhauer considers every object in the word to metaphysically be double sided - so that the human body has an inner consciousness apart from the body itself.

So that in an aggregation the world at large or universe it comprises of a “will’ and all its properties.( 2 sided )

You could say that Schopenhauer was a brilliant yet pessimistic German philosopher whose suggested the expression of a will’ would inevitably lead to suffering but one can gain respite could in aesthetic experiences.

Those who read him may applaud his eagerness to combat idealism at the time in history but rally against his atheism.

Reference: I feel a bit shy at this point at pronouncing categorical imperatives such as, "Form cannot exist independently of substance," (although that's really what I'm driving at, more or less) but I believe it might at some level, even though such a form-without-substance might well be beyond our capacity to readily utilize.

Response;
The form of a proton light particle has no mass at rest but in motion (which is its constant state) it must have mass- which it has – but only to the extent necessary to have continual motion. Quantum mechanics is almost outside the human imagination!

Best wishes

Mercutio said...

I believe that both Aristotle and Spinoza noted four stages of realization.
Spinoza:
Substance --> Mode --> Attribute
and there's one other that I forget, but I think it comes before substance.
With Aristotle, it's:
Genus --> Accident
as the last two, and I don't remember the others.
Aristotle's terms make more sense to me, but I wonder how much of that is simply translation.

Thanks for going through a bit of the Schopenhauer for me. I can see now why it would be said that I would like it.
I don't care for his use of the term "will" though. To my line of thinking, the will is necessarily secondary to the willer; it's the cart/horse hitch that disturbs me.

Granted, I now consider you to be a man of incredible patience, having made it through Schopenhauer.
Perhaps if I had a bust of Schopenhauer on hand to throw the book at every once in awhile, I would have made better progress myself.