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.


Tom said...

Hi Lindsay; I liked this paper, but it is not one on which I can make quick comment. It requires some time, re-reading and further thought.

The one point which did come to mind, and I need to pursue this line of thinking further, is that the one idea of God which seems to have been ignored is the one in which God Him/Herself is in a state of becoming. Of course that would still posit the need for some form of psycho-spiritual Prime Mover to get things going.

Lindsay Byrnes said...

Hi Tom
Thanks for your comment. Indeed I thought the idea of God Him/Herself as is in a state of becoming, might conceivably be in the form of continuing modes of love and joy that does not entail any human imperfections. Any further thoughts are most welcome. Best wishes

susan said...

Schopenhauer noted that logic only relates to objects of experience, and won’t work when turned inward and applied to experiencing subjects. Introspection allows us to watch ourselves experiencing, providing the conviction that as the experiencing individual we understand ourselves to be conscious beings. The benefit of such thought processes is that the more often we engage in introspection the clearer a sense we get of the nature, functions, and potentials of consciousness - a sense that over time opens up in some remarkably interesting directions.

Under ordinary conditions, though, we can’t do that with anyone else’s consciousness, because we can only know them as objects of experience. We can’t know them as experiencing subjects, the way you know yourself. Logically speaking, as a result, we can’t prove that there’s anyone home in any of the apparently conscious beings that we encounter.

However, most humans behave more like conscious beings than like meat robots. If we act as though they’re conscious beings, and take their consciousness into account as a factor in their behavior, we get better results than when they're treated as automatons who can be made to follow orders if the right manipulations are applied. It’s largely because modern industrial society is so prone to try the latter approach - to try to push people around by mechanical manipulations, rather than finding ways to enlist their conscious cooperation - that it’s facing a shattering crisis of legitimacy.

Schweitzer was certainly correct.

Thanks for a very thoughtful post, Lindsay.

Lindsay Byrnes said...

Hi Susan
Thanks for your interesting comment on Schopenhauer, who was influenced by both Plato, Aristotle and Kant. Your may not be aware that Nietzsche owed his passion for philosophy to Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation who he attributed as one of the few thinkers he respected in his essay "Schopenhauer as Educator".
Nevertheless he later became critical of some of his work.
Schopenhauer posited the idea of the “will” to arise from deep self-analysis in determination of the essence of oneself and that of the universe. His philosophy was predicated on the idea that energies flow throughout the universe, both through objects, perceived as double sided so as to all have an inner aspect and subjects. As subjects the inner part of the body is our self-consciousness.
Hence Schopenhauer didn’t made distinctions between subjects and objects as such, but did believe universal principles of reality are gained through introspection. He elevated the ideas emanating from self-, as a product of the creative process to the status of a divine creation. Thanks again for your valuable insights.

Best wishes