Friday, January 23

Reflections on our state of being and existence.


As our level of self-awareness developed this prompted questions about our state of being -as in the underlying nature of our existence to facilitate a more purposeful existence. The ability to ask such questions, as abstract thoughts, distinct from notions connected with simple survival were thought to arise only very late in the evolutionary cycle and varied between different cultures and their belief systems. There is even evidence of isolated pockets of tribes people whose language only includes the present tense; an existential state where their sense of being can only embrace the present.
Aim and structure of this paper
What I aim to do in this paper is to trace the changing ideas underpinning our state of being as it relates to living a more purposeful existence. The approach is to examine philosophers whose ideas are relevant to this theme in tandem with new discoveries in science.  Inevitably such a question will include ideas on the extent or otherwise a creator GOD is involved, which I will attempt to illustrate along the way. 

However what must be acknowledged from the outset, there remains a high degree of subjectivity in choosing those philosophers relevant amongst the many who conceivably could have been included, in support of this modest paper.
The justification for beginning with Aristotle, who expanded on his ideas of his mentor Plato, was he is considered the first philosopher to comprehensively detail the various modes of being as the very essence of existence and to indicate how a virtuous life was a more purposeful one. Galileo, then placed more emphasis on the basis of mindful enquiry to suggest we are capable of determining superior purposeful outcomes though a more thoughtful approach. He was the first to demonstrate that Aristolean physics and the later Copernican model were fatally flawed.
Descartes said if a thing does not think, it is not a mind, to add clarity and to introduce us to the idea the mind can overcome the passions to achieve more purposeful ethical outcomes. Kant’s added insight was to introduce the idea of a reasoned moral law from enhanced human understanding, which was then repudiated by Nietzsche whose idea was we can become free spirits capable of a superior masterful, purposeful self. Finally, on the same theme I introduce Albert Schweitzer.   

But the human pathway of discovery is not one of a linear progression, for in some respects is may be posited we have become too reliant on reason to explain our state of being and need to return to our spiritual roots.     
It was not until late in what is considered the more modern era, that the first formal paper set out to describe our state of being and our existence by the scholar Aristotle (322 BC-384 BC). He attributed GOD only to the primary causes or those not understood, with the balance known as secondary causes, evidenced in mechanically described processes.
Aristotle mostly endorsed the views of his mentor and teacher Plato, who posited the idea that the life of virtue adds meaning because it gives rise to personal satisfaction and happiness.  The link to happiness is a more tenuous one, in which Aristotle, whilst acknowledging the plurality of individuals, posits through reasoning on one’s ability to live a purposeful life. This was based on Aristotles reasoning that the universe had a definite purpose and that humanity exist as a product of that purpose.
The extent of his influence can be ascertained by the fact his ideas remained virtually unchallenged for over a thousand years. Even today they have influence and relevance within the Christian, Muslim and Jewish religions.

In fact his aristolean physics remained relevant for over a thousand years and were further endorsed under 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.

But Aristotle’s ideas about living a more purposeful existence were very practical and extended to the build environment, which is of relevance to day as evident in his "Beautiful City” concepts. He posited enhanced societal outcomes can be engendered simply in the warmth and appeal of a welcoming design layout for a model city. For a fascinating paper presented at a philosophy conference I attended a few years ago on this subject, click on the reference to read this well researched paper.

For further reading on Aristotle:

For it was not until the invention of the telescope and Galileo’s observations that the Aristotelean view of a fixed central planet earth was finally refuted, but which met with stiff opposition. Galileo also cast considerable doubt on Aristotle’s ideas on religion to attribute GOD only to the primary causes or those not understood with the balance known as secondary causes and evident as simply mechanical processes. He was to take a much broader view to incorporate the idea that GOD had bestowed the sense of thoughtfulness that enables humanity to gain new knowledge and understanding through diligent enquiry.
René Descartes also expanded the then known horizons to take a more holistic approach, integrating what was known in the fields of physics, biology and psychology. His most famous phrase was “I am thinking, therefore I exist’.
Descartes said if a thing does not think, it is not a mind, to add clarity and to introduce us to the idea the mind can overcome the passions to achieve enhanced more purposeful ethical outcomes. He posited the idea of the self-having the ability to form perceptions about things separate to the senses.

But Descartes also ‘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. John Gribbon- Science A History -1543-2001.
In his book entitled meditations, he outlines his ideas written in the appealing style of continuous meditations over a period of 6 days, for the full text: 

 The next great advancement of science was from Newton (1643-1727) who took a 7-year fellowship with Trinity College in 1667, to be the first of the Scientists to demonstrate the laws of science are universal laws that effect everything. For Newton, 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. 
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 idea 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 possibly was the first to recognize the mystery of the human mind and provided a highly creative solution; reasoning how we might expand 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 our sense of being but from prior knowledge (which he called a priori) the mind is capable of joining up with analysis to understand how to proceed, to ensure the greater good in a more purposeful way of living. This may seem a rather straightforward matter today but it was a major move forward in thinking then to run counter to existing philosophy.
Hence Kant invented 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 argued that the nature of the external world arose by way of an inquiry into the features and activity of the mind that knows it. So our state of being according to Kant, allows us, through the mind, to give objects their characteristics and uniformity within its structured conceptual capability.
According to Kant, purposefulness in life is from GOD as in “He is the ultimate purpose of creation here on earth, because he is the only being upon it who can form a concept of purposes, and who can by his Reason make out of an aggregate of purposively formed things a system of purposes.” The Critique of Judgment” by Immanuel Kant.

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. 
 19th & and 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. John Gribbon- Science A History -1543-2001.

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 ideas described so far, are by necessity, based upon our everyday experience with human interaction to define the reality of our state of being. But once Einstein developed his theory of relativity with the only absolute of space time, our ideas about reality changed.
Furthermore his ideas led to the quantum entanglement discovery by Schrödinger who demonstrated particles called protons and electrons were inextricably linked in time and space. Herein it was proven light could behave as a wave or as a stream of particles; so that the measurement of either will force the other distant photon into a corresponding same spin cycle as if still connected.

Hence in modernity philosophers struggled to show how we are able to provide a comprehensive theory on reality or our state of being. All that seems to be generally concluded is our minds give us a comprehension of reality (although 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 can be argued it is real to the extent it needs to be real for us to exist.
One of the prominent philosophers of great influence just before the era of Einstein 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’. Nietzsche championed the idea of a self, whose being is predicated on the basis of the exercise of power, as in the will to power and not truth.

Nietzsche was apt to ferociously attack any philosopher or philosophy captive to universal principles which he proffered was to reduce our state of being into one of a slave mentality that risks descending into nihilism. He was scathing in his criticism of Kant and described his “transcendal argument “as a contrived invention divorced from reality.  Rather, Nietzsche 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 uncover the conscious drivers of  our wills.
Nietzsche’s hope then was for humanity to become free spirits unbounded by the shackles of dogmatism and willing and able to embrace hardships in a constant state of becoming, to become a higher being. In his view, such a state of being, would lead to both a better understanding for humanity and a higher morality.

Another philosopher Albert Schweitzer, was influenced by Nietzsche, but went down a different path with his insightful ‘Reverence for life -to grasp the infinite, inexplicable, forward-urging Will in which all Being is grounded.’
Schweitzer’s world view was influenced by Spinoza, Hinduism, Buddhism, and the Native American religions and aimed at providing a bridge for Christianity to be revitalized; to return to the ancient mystical links for a naturalistic world view. Schweitzer’s ideas were to embrace life (life affirmation as he calls it) to share with all living things in the world in which we live. His ideas came from his concern about civilization which he thought had lost its spiritual roots because of our lack of reverence for life as in the post enlightenment world view which had become too reliant on reason. His philosophy was not a utopian ideal nor could it be quantifiable, as was the case for Nietzsche in terms of given values, outcomes, behaviours or morality. Rather he encouraged a way of thinking which would return us to our spiritual roots, a way of being to share in the communal ancestry of all living things which he referred to as ethical mysticism. His thinking is much more deep seated than a casual observation might first conclude. It requires crucial self-examination, to ensure the values we hold show reverence for all living things, in respect to how we might lead more purposeful lives.  

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, and how enhanced understanding facilitates a more purposeful existence.
But just as clothes keep us warm to add colour to our character, I think all of the great philosophers and scientists I have subjectively mentioned add meaning to our life. In that respect, even when views may be at variance to the ones we hold as precious, I can still relate the experience as if we are having conversations with a trusted friend, whose intention is to simply share in understandings about this mystery we call life . At least that is my experience and my hope it is yours.
Let’s have your thoughts.

Friday, January 16

Why are we here

I watched the recent BBC television series by that title on the ABC by physicist Professor Brian Cox who I find is an engaging presenter. His earlier brush with fame was whilst he attended university in Manchester, when Cox joined a band as a musician which enjoyed several hits in the UK charts including a number one "Things Can Only Get Better", the anthem that swept Blair into power.
In a similar vein his effervescent presentation style is winning over audiences in increasing numbers, not that anything is particularly new, but rather I think his passionate energy can be contagious.  Furthermore Cox does not appear to have any agenda, other than to inform and entertain his audience, in what he finds interesting, in the belief that will correspond with their curiosity or interest.

He thinks it’s naive to say there is no GOD. In fact he readily admits he hasn’t any of the answers, but rather wants novelists, artists, philosophers, theologians and physicists to debate and discuss the important philosophical questions that confront us. Such questions as:  
Why are we here”? “How did the universe make us”? “What made the universe?”
Cox thinks science is undervalued with the capacity to be a force for good in education and society, a positive view which spills over into his creative approaches. He outlines with some conviction, the precision in relation to the events and conditions over billions of years as was necessary for life as we know to blossom and expand in complexity and splendour.  What we know of these events stands in stark contrast to the extremes that lie elsewhere across the universe. So he asks the question: Are we a happy accident and is humanity either unique or possibly one of the very few planets that can sustain advanced life forms amongst maybe 350 billion galaxies? .
Cox begins his presentation by reference to trainee Hindu priests, and their religion that he asserts is based on a surprising degree of intellectual rigor and then proceeds to draw analogies of meandering rivers, spotty leopards, camels, asteroids, and Samurai swords to illustrate his argument, that whilst science is underpinned by simple rules, it will also lead to evolved complexity. His ideas are similar to what is proposed by Stephen Wolfram who demonstrated in his cellular automata experiments the high degree of complexity that can arise effortlessly just as a consequence of following certain simple rules of growth.

So that the conclusion is, because of the precision of the early universe, and the subsequent inflationary impacts within simple rules that this miraculous set of events ensured the capacity to sustain advanced forms of life.

Science as a Philosophy
Early science was considered philosophy and it is only in our more recent times the two are separated. I think science can help in ensuring we have a new understanding of the world.
But just as yesterday’s history teaches us how we have changed our views on any number of things we should not assume today's science will represent tomorrow's truth, particularly in relation to attempting to explain the mystery of our origins and of existence. So the question is “Why are we here? “Is it a precursor, to gain experiences prior to entering another world once our life on this one ends? 

Your views are most welcome!!


Sunday, January 11

In search of goodness

The idea of goodness attributed to GOD as in religion is a belief which seems to make the most sense to us, as biological beings whose biology effects our current state.  Looking backwards in time my mind struggles to imagine how those first awakenings of self-consciousness were played out in humanity’s journey of discovery, in a move which makes possible altruism. But I rather think many of those first early insights will remain hidden forever in our oral history, in the stories of dance, in the lyrical chants of the ancients or in the wondrous dreamland scenes carved on rock walls up to 60,000 years ago.

This seems to me to posit that evolution and a small mixture of creation, was predetermined by GOD, rather than through randomness, as humanity entered into the more modern era.
Elkhonon Goldberg in ‘The Executive Brain’ suggests religious ideas about this time may have first emerged as we struggled to separate the thoughts we have about others are separate to those we think about. He suggests such self-memories about a deceased person may have been attributed to the current spirit of that deceased person as it became a taboo custom to speak of the dead.

Possibly the idea of goodness arose in our earliest evolutionary path where it become advantageous as in natural selection to foster care and to help others in the tribe , which gave impetus to a better chances of survival. But before that momentous crossover into self-consciousness much earlier a series of seismic events transformed our living planet to create nature’s vision splendour.
They were not random, for without the exact sequence, we would not be having this conversation to day.  The timing of those massive upheavals was necessarily precise to change our planetary environment to enable life’s previous abundant first single cell life to evolve into the multi celled life complexity we see today; as our planet temporarily appearing like Jupiter – totally wrapped in thick ice –then thawed to cause water to carve out the new landscape warmed by immense erupting volcanoes. Miraculously the planetary environment reached a state of equilibrium to give birth to the first evolved multi cell creatures some 650 million years ago which are evident today in the fossilized imprints- as if just recently left in dried mud- in the thin layers of ancient rocks in the remote areas of what is known as the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, which you may have seen in documentaries. 

These insights into our past are only made possible by the evolution of our self-consciousness which enables us to makes sense of such things; to ponder the sequential events needed for one single cell to become the trillions estimated to make up the human body. The mechanism to enable enjoyment of our enhanced understanding is in the architecture of our frontal lobes which allow us to retrieve information stored in the older ‘limbic’ areas of the brain for dynamic processing in the frontal lobes area coupled with repositories of self-awareness. Elkhonon Goldberg in ‘The Executive Brain’
Interestingly just as these frontal lobes are our most recently evolved brain area they remain by far the most vulnerable or fragile to trauma and the onslaught of dementia which exhibits those frightening losses of cognitive memory ability. It is not that memory is lost in dementia patients but rather the circuitry connections to memory are either damaged or severed, - Eklhonon Goldberg ‘The Executive Brain’.

Self-consciousness is thought to be only evident in humans and maybe in other highly developed life forms albeit such views continue to be debated and constrained by a lack of any known developed animal language.
In Bruce H Lipton’s (Ph.D.) book ‘The Biology of Belief’ In Cells as Miniature Humans he introduces to us to the idea that every cell in our body – and there are roughly 60 trillion of them – is a smart cell capable of fulfilling all of the known bodily functions we attribute to our mind and body as a whole. This intelligence is resident in the cell membrane and reacts to its physiology through controlling proteins able to override the genetically encoded DNA resident in the cell nucleus. That is to say that although the DNA which is resident in the cell nuclei does determine our pre-programmed genetic characteristics their operation can be turned off and on by the controlling proteins within the cells membrane environment. Hence the author contends our ‘belief systems’ are instrumental in the control of our biological functioning rather than by genetic determinants. Lipton explains the trend scientifically towards genetic determinism was adopted since the discovery of genes provided the final missing link to show how Darwin’s species adaption’s or changes were all transferred genetically into each new evolved generation.

An analogy to help explain the Magical Cell membrane
Lipton uses the analogy of the test pattern appearing on old TV sets. Those of us old enough to remember will recall how a test pattern appeared on our TV sets once the day’s program’s came to closures traditionally after midnight.

Think of the pattern of the test screen as the pattern encoded by a given gene, say the one for brown eyes. The dials and switches, TV fine –tune the test screen by allowing you to turn it on or off and modulate a number of characteristics , including colour, hue, contrast, brightness, vertical and horizontal holds .By adjusting the dials, you can alter the appearance of the test pattern on the screen, while not actually changing the original broadcast pattern. This is the role of the regulatory proteins.
My conclusion is I think the idea of goodness and GOD goodness is something that has been etched into humanity and continues to develop along our evolutionary journey.  

Moving into modernity, with the benefits of an evolved sense of higher consciousness, we can now discern a very wide range of beliefs and practices. But mostly such beliefs and practices are underpinned with the idea of goodness, embodied in a higher spiritual life to be continued beyond that which can be conceivably contemplated within ones earthly  existence.  But we can equally in the modern era lose the sense of a reverence for all life and fall out of  sync with the natural seasons that sustains all life.

 Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.”
Albert Schweitzer


Thursday, January 8

Multiculturalism verus nationalism

When I was working we decided to have an “International Luncheon” to celebrate our work place multi cultural heritage.

Although there were only about 40 employees in our specialist risk section, most participated by bringing a dish, prepared at home and representative of their traditional cuisine. We were treated to dishes from India, Sri Lanka, China, Malaysian, Vietnam, Cambodia, Fiji, Latvia, England, Poland, Ireland, Greece, Italy, Chile, Malta and the Philippines. We also had good old Aussie Pies, with each dish identified by its flag. It was a very long enjoyable luncheon that enhanced relationships. 

Sine we moved to Melbourne in 1983, we have largely found the city to be both welcoming and usually respectful of an individuals heritage. In fact the city is probably one of the most multi cultured in the world with citizens from 140 nations living in harmony together. This is the result of four main waves of migration, firstly the Europeans, then Chinese with the gold rush and more recently many from Vietnam, Cambodia, China, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, making up the largest source countries. But I do think there is a fundamental difference between Australia and say nations such as the USA, which to my mind engenders a culture of nationalism born from a deep sense of allegiance to one’s country. That's a feeling that's not so deeply rooted in Australian culture.

My question is “Is this realistic or appropriate for Australia ?” or are we better to follow the American model and embrace a common nationalistic purpose to represent all ethnic groups ?.

An extract of the opening gambit to our governmental policy , from the website is as follows: Australia is a culturally and linguistically diverse society and will remain so. Australia’s cultural diversity is a key part of our national identity. The government’s multicultural policy responds to this diversity, seeking to meet the challenges and maximise the benefits, for all Australians.

I would be interested to hear what people think? Can we have both ? Is there really a distinction?

Thursday, January 1

Island in the sun under pressure


We visited the island atols of Kiribati in the mid nineties, staying at Tarawa and Abiang. Recent graphic footage clearly indicates the effects of climate change and risks to their water supply, so that inevitably they will be underwater. I have fond memories and below is a story about our trip from  Abiang to what we thought was a deserted coral island.   

The deep blue sea was tranquil and shimmered like a precious stone sparkling under the noonday sun as our small boat headed for a deserted island not far from Abyiang. The oceans in that region can be treacherous; a sudden squall or storm turns the ocean into a cauldron of white tips and high waves like our journey so far; a mixture of excitement and relief. We had left the most populated island of Tarawa to visit Abyiang; to be guests of volunteer Australia and Canadian teachers who worked for the local Catholic mission school. Previously we planned to fly to Abyiang but the plane service was cancelled due to a breakdown. We had negotiated the trip with local boatmen but it soon became apparent they were not sure of the way. Finally, after spotting a landmark, we all trekked across the coral reef, knee deep in water with our boatman carrying our provisions to finally arrive both hot and exhausted.

I remembered my wife sitting quietly in the bow; fully recovered from an earlier ordeal when she awoke as if from a sudden nightmare to a raging shivering fever in an unfamiliar thatched hut on Abyiang. The schoolchildren brought us coconuts, confident the juice from the green adolescent coconuts would immediately restore her to good health. True to their word my wife was soon up and about as if the fever was no more than a bad dream, to our mutual relief. During the course of the week we joined in with school activities, then were told of a trip organized for us to visit a nearby deserted Island.

The first glimpse of the island from our boat was one of undisturbed pristine white sand and crystal clear water with almost jungle like thick foliage intruding in a wide arc onto the foreshore, hopefully imaginable from the above photo. .
After landing we cleared an open space within the thick foliage to make up a rough camp but were soon interrupted by the arrival of a local family. Oh dear! We soon leant the island was not only inhabited but the islanders were concerned over our lack of protocol; strangers were expected to introduce themselves to the spirit of the Island by traversing it from one end to another.

The family finally departed amicably and we were left to explore the coral reef and its wondrous underwater sites. To our surprise the family returned again but this time with a number of large brightly coloured crayfish, caught specially to be consumed for our lunch. Furthermore after learning some of us were to soon return to Australia, they performed a special ceremonial dance of farewell on the sand. A most elaborate and complicated long dance ritual; in the spirit of friendship- extended generously to strangers, to whom they were unable to converse or ever likely to see again.

The dance reminded me of the ceremonies that must have been performed to farewell canoes long ago from Polynesia and Melanesia as they set out to populate the many Islands that now make up what was once known as the Kingdom but now a Republic ( since 1979) of Kiribiti.

Their history is recorded in the many dances and songs, words to exquisite harmonies lasting for several hours, never written down but handed down orally from the one generation to another.

When I was in Tarawa earlier on I witnessed these dance ceremonious and singing, representative of an oral history from first migration, maybe from Tahiti about 10,000 years ago in giant canoes. The training and rehearsal extended over several months before each important celebration and the elaborate dance routines were both graceful and beautiful.
I learnt from a local volunteer from Canada, who had decided to learn their language and dance that they were arduous and difficult to remember.

She recounted a story to me of a young man who had kindly dedicated himself to train her for a dance but died several months before the intended celebration. During the dance she lost her way as her mind went blank. Immediately the image of the man came to her and she had no further recollection other than when it was completed several hours later. Many complemented her on her performance afterwards.