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/.
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
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.