Buzzword Books - unusual, intriguing, intelligent, perceptive

Here, you'll find musings from our authors and staff. We don't promise daily updates. Just posts worth your time.

Monday, 22 March 2021


 Our last post was actually the first chapter of a forthcoming book by Clint Smith. Here is the second. Now read on:

We have reviewed the mystery of existence from the scientific aspect. However, physicists are not the only specialists studying the nature of reality. The riddles of cosmology and consciousness also exercise philosophers. 

Here we find monists, dualists, pluralists. And, in the Western tradition, sub-categories such as epistemologists, idealists, logical analysists, positivists, empiricists, existentialists, phenomenologists, postmodernists, utilitarians… All have notions about the world, mind, existence, conduct and morality, generally expressed with a sophistry even academics find obscure.

 There are more than a hundred established philosophers in European history and to catalogue them opinions would need a second book. So we have selected a representative few who tried to fathom the enigmas of reality.

We will leave Socrates and Plato for the present and begin much later with the first of the early modern philosophers, Descartes (1596-1650). He was a dualist who believed in two substances ─ mind and matter ─ and is known for his assertion Cogito, ergo sum. (I think. Therefore I am.)  This maxim is derided by quietists who point out that discursive thought is a barrier to consciousness and that 'I think. Therefore I am not.' is closer to the truth. While this is obvious, it is also out of context because Descartes first established the fallibility of sensations. He said that our senses were too limited to experience reality.  And, as it was possible to think independently of sensations, he reasoned that thought, and thought alone, proved that he existed.

Spinoza (1632-677), a neutral monist, believed in one supreme infinite substance named god or nature. Contrary to Descartes, he believed that this was a material entity and that mind and matter were aspects of the same substance. All was god or nature. 

Leibniz (1646-1716), an idealist and theist, claimed that everything must have a reason for existence. And this reason must lie in something outside the world of appearances.

Berkeley (1685-1753) claimed that we have an intuitive knowledge of ourselves and that 'To be is to be perceived.' Therefore, there was no such thing as matter. As matter was inert and senseless — neither perceived itself nor was perceived — it simply didn't exist. Then where was a bucket, for instance, when no one perceived it? Ah-hah, said Bishop Berkeley, a benevolent God perceived it and so it was sustained by the mind of God.

Hume (1711-1776), an empiricist and sceptic, had a secular philosophy and doubted human experience could yield knowledge. He disputed Berkeley's claim that we had a self and said that we are nothing but a bundle of perceptions ─ that we know the mind only as we know matter, by perception. Therefore, the mind is merely an abstract name for ideas, perceptions and feelings. As mind does not exist, reason is no final test. He said, 'If we take into hand any volume of metaphysics, let us ask, does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number. No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter or fact or existence? No. Commit it then to the flames for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.' 

So, for Hume, mind did not exist. And, for Berkeley, matter didn't either. As one wit said of them, 'No matter. Never mind.'

Enter the Prussian philosopher, Kant (1724-1804) who rejected both empiricism and rationalism. He said that the apparent world derives its structures from the nature of the mind that perceives it. 'What objects may be in themselves remain completely unknown to us. We know nothing but our mode of perceiving them.' He said that the world is an appearance constructed by our minds and that there must be some kind of reality beyond the phenomenon. This would be the thing in itself — the noumenal — but that we can never know this reality.

Therefore, cosmic conundrums are beyond us. Space and time, he said, are not things perceived but modes of perception. So, for instance, when knowledge tries to decide whether the universe is finite or infinite, the mind rebels against either proposition.  
Similarly, the question of time, and whether all we know had a beginning. Just as we can't conceive eternity, we can't conceive a first cause because a first cause uncaused is inconceivable. Is there an escape from these blind alleys? Kant said there is. It is to remember that space, time and causation are modes of thought and not external to our limited perception.
Equally, he said, religious concepts can't be proved by theoretical reason. He contrasted the symmetry and unity of nature used by religion to indicate creationism or supernatural design with the other side of nature — waste, duplication, suffering and death. He considered design no proof of providence. For him, design was internal design — the design of parts of the whole. He then attacked the concept of life springing fully formed from dead matter. This can't explain, he said, the growth of even a single blade of grass.

So Kant, at one swipe, deconstructed science, religion and the mechanistic view of evolution.
Later philosophers such as Heidegger (1889-1976) claimed that existence is fundamentally a 'being there' which is entangled in the world that surrounds it and that the part serves to disclose the whole. He coined the term Dasein, meaning the being which we ourselves are, or the primacy of being in the world. Our being, he said, is grounded in what we do, culminating in a stoic reverence for the possible, despite the meaninglessness of life and the inevitability of death. 

Then came the pessimism of Schopenhauer, the nihilism of Sartre and the romanticism of Nietzsche. The 'death of God'. The primacy of ego and the will. Man stripped bare — thrown entirely on his own resources.

We again became lone truculent voyagers in the arid waste of space and to think otherwise was a dream. An impractical ideal. Humanism now paralleled the purposeless universe of science, providing thin gruel indeed for the young and impressionable mind. Even theism's emotional nourishment dwindled.  Western thought foundered on the unyielding rock of despair.
So much for the thought-addled West. The East had a different approach.

The Vedic sages (1500BC) were concerned to discover the one thing, which if known, could allow them to understand everything else.
By disciplining the mind, they intuited that nothing is separate. They said that only Brahman, the supreme entity, is real. That 'Thou art that'. And that the Self is Brahman. That when the separate observer disappears, our innermost essence is revealed as identical with the Unformed, beyond time space and causality. 

The Hermetic view coincided. The tablet of Hermes Trismegistus (127BC) states that all things come from the One and from the mediation of the One and have their birth from it by adaptation. As above, so below. That which is above is the same as that which is below. And its force is above all force, for it vanishes subtle things and penetrates all solid things. And that we need to separate the subtle from the coarse.

Lao Tzu (around 300BC) asserted that non-existence is not equivalent to nothingness but is the condition before existence came into being. That existence and non-existence are co-dependent. 'The wheel is useless without the centre hole in the hub.' So the sage should see, as his inner goal. absolute vacuity. 'Forever tarrying in purposelessness.' He who knows himself is enlightened. Not knowing that one knows is best.
'He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know. The great Way is always inactive yet there is nothing it does not do. All things come from existence. And existence from non-existence. By non-action everything can be done.' 

The Buddhist Mahayana teachings (100AD) include the seminal Heart Sutra which states that form is not other than emptiness and emptiness not other than form. That all things are marked by emptiness — not born, not destroyed, not stained, not pure, without gain or loss. 'This is truth,' it adds, 'not mere formality.' 

The sutra's connection with quantum states has been eulogized by New Age enthusiasts. It also coincides with Vedantist and Taoist views. Buddha refused to engage into the cosmological speculations of his disciples, declaring them 'matters not conducive to edification.'
Plotinus (204-270) said that an ineffable 'One' structures all existence. And that this being/non-being is everywhere, nowhere and beyond all language and thought. But, as it wills itself to lower graduations of unity, it becomes multiple and material. And that the undifferentiated unity can be experienced intuitively by a person able to strip themselves bare of all concerns and concepts.

Shankara (686-718), who reformed Hindu philosophy, said that the objective universe has no real existence. That the ineffable is reality itself and that it intrinsically has no diversity whatever. That it is stainless, indivisible, unbounded, unmoved, unchanging, beyond all action and absolute, without beginning or end. That the world is nothing but utter consciousness, knowledge and peace. That the cause of our bondage is the mind. And a pure mind leads to liberation. That the aim of the philosopher should be to free his mind from all distractions, to attain dispassion and bask in the consciousness of the ineffable.

Avicenna (980-1037) a Muslim born in Bukhara, said that we know we exist and that existing things come and go. They do not exist by themselves so arrive through a cause. And, as a chain of causes cannot be infinite, they must end in a sole self-subsistent entity. This is considered, by Islamic scholars, as a proof of the existence of God.

The Sufi poets (1000-1029) used mystical analogies to express their ecstatic cosmology:

The Centre is within me and lies as a circle everywhere about me.
I am the Merchant and the Pearl at once.
Time and space lie crouching at my feet.
I plunge into myself and all things know.

There is none but Him. But, alas, no one can see Him.

First you must cross seven oceans and a very long road.
Then a fish will draw you to him — such a fish that
When he breathes, he draws into him the first and the last.
This marvellous fish has neither head nor tail.
He holds himself in the middle of the ocean.
He sweeps away the two worlds
And draws to himself all creatures without exception.

There is a fundamental difference between Western and Eastern views. The Western approach is intellectual — the mind fussing with the attempt to rationalize infinity. But the Eastern approach doesn't start with the mind at all. It begins with quietening the thoughts and attempting to be present enough, nakedly aware enough, to arouse raw insight and intuition.
Kant, for all his intellect and sincerity, never achieved this insight and never met anyone who had. So it may seem odd to see his conclusions equate with Sufi mystics, Plotinus and the Vedanta. 

Gurdjieff, the monumental being who changed Eastern insights into Western terms remarked, 'If Kant had introduced the idea of scale into his arguments, many things he wrote would be valuable. This was the only thing he lacked.'

The idea of scale? 

This is expressed in the Hermetic teaching, 'As above, so below.' This cryptic statement needs to be investigated or, as people now say, 'unpacked'. It means that, if everything is an aspect of the One, then the individual is the Universe in miniature. That the Microcosm mirrors the Macrocosm — of course, on an infinitesimal scale. 

According to this theory, we are an image of the universe and subject to the same laws. And that, by studying ourselves in depth, we will be able to understand everything else.
Is there any evidence for this view? There is in so-called esoteric teachings where methods of practical psychology (the 'how' of religion) have presumably been preserved.

Maharshi: 'When the creature sees and knows himself without attributes, that is knowledge of the Creator, for the Creator appears as none other than the Self. The whole cosmos is contained in one pinhole in the heart.'
Shankara: You yourself are the non-duel Brahman, spotless like the ether, without inner or outer, without attributes, changeless, timeless, without dimensions or parts. What else is there to know?
Attar: 'The Centre is within me and its wonder lies as a circle everywhere about me. I am the merchant and the pearl at once. I plunge into myself and all things know.'
Zen Master: 'You must realise that the centre of the universe is the pit of your belly.'
The New Testament claims that the Kingdom of Heaven is within us.
And so on and so forth.
This brings us to Plato's teacher Socrates (469-399BC), the man who said, 'Gnothi seauton.' 'Know thyself.'  
Do you see the implication?

It suggests that we cannot know anything by simply thinking which is, at best, a peripheral, superficial process that occupies one aspect of ourselves. But if we truly are the Microcosm, the mirror of the greater world, by looking into ourselves profoundly, we can understand the cosmos. 

Here is an extract from a book of Eastern wisdom, quoted by Gurdjieff:

'To know means to know all.
To know a part of something means not to know.
It is not difficult to know all, because in order to know all one has to know very little.
But in order to know that little, one has to know pretty much.'

Hence the assertions of the Vedic sages.
By truly knowing ourselves, can we understand all?
Is the way in the way out?


No comments:

Post a Comment