SPIRITUALITY AND INTELLECTUAL HONESTY

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To begin with, a general image of our intellectual history emerges. Historically, the first thing that existed was clearly religion: belief systems that were shared by ever-larger groups of people, that took away people’s fear of death and considerably strengthened these groups’ cohesion. Those belief systems not only strengthened cohesion externally, but also internally, by stabilizing the individual’s self-esteem through the systematic denial of one’s own mortality and by effectively reinforcing existing hierarchies, for example in conflicts with other groups. Historically, these fideist-dogmatic models of reality developed from burial rites, ancestor cults and shamanism. The historically most recent developments were the ideal of intellectual honesty, enlightenment and self-critical rationalism. The ideal of intellectual honesty in this sense is something completely new, something that is only now beginning to be realized in a few places on our planet, in very few societies, and only in its very first manifestations. What made intellectual honesty possible, however, were the originally religious ideals of unconditional truthfulness and sincerity towards God. These ideals led to a turning inward, a reflexive turn on ourselves, towards the individual human being itself, led to the development of the ethical ideals of unconditional truthfulness and sincerity towards ourselves, the relentless openness, the unconditional commitment to the growth of knowledge. However, one central insight, which has always been at the very foundation of the spiritual stance, is that there is more than one form of knowledge, and more than one form of epistemic progress. Continue reading “SPIRITUALITY AND INTELLECTUAL HONESTY”

EXCHANGE FOR FIRE: I WENT IN SEARCH OF MYSELF

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The ordering (kosmos), the same for all, no god or man has made, but it ever was and is and will be: fire everliving, kindled in measures and in measures going out.

…I have so far characterized the new Ionian cosmology by three fundamental features: (1) a geometric model for the heavens, (2) observation and numerical measurement of astral cycles, and (3) the interpretation of physical change as a conflict of elemental powers within a periodic order of reciprocity and symmetry recognized as just. To these must be added a fourth, less original feature: the tendency to explain the present state of affairs by deriving it from some initial situation or first beginning. In place of Hesiod’s theogony, the natural philosophers give us cosmogony. The reports on Anaximander and the quotations from Anaxagoras show that Ionian cosmology began, like Hesiod and the book of Genesis, ‘in the beginning’. It described the emergence of the world order as a gradual process of generation or development from an archē, a starting point or ‘what came first of all.’ And there is some evidence to suggest that Anaximander, like Empedocles and the atomists later, applied the principle of symmetry to foresee a reversal of the cosmic process, so that the earth which had emerged from the sea would sink into it again, and perhaps the whole world process might begin anew. Continue reading “EXCHANGE FOR FIRE: I WENT IN SEARCH OF MYSELF”

THE FALSE MIND-MATTER DICHOTOMY

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The notion of a dichotomy between mind and matter arises from language. In order to speak of the substrate of experience we must give it a name, such as “mind” or “consciousness,” thereby linguistically objectifying the subject. Then, we conflate language with what language attempts to describe, implicitly assuming that mind is an object just as matter allegedly is. We forget that there is no epistemic symmetry between the two.

Indeed, because the concept of mind-independent matter, as an explanatory abstraction, arises in mind, as an “excitation” of mind, to say that mind and matter constitute a dichotomy is akin to saying that ripples and water constitute a dichotomy. Dichotomies can exist only between different kinds of ripples – say, those that flow mostly to the right versus those that flow mostly to the left – not between ripples and the substrate where they ripple. Mind is the substrate of the explanatory abstraction we call matter, so when we speak of a mind-matter dichotomy we fall into a fundamental category mistake.

The notion that idealism and materialism are mirror images of each other arises from a failure to grasp this point. Lucid contemplation of these ontologies shows that idealism attempts to reduce an explanatory abstraction (physically objective matter) to that which articulates and hosts the abstraction in the first place (mind). This is prima facie eminently reasonable. Materialism, in turn, attempts to reduce mind to mind’s own explanatory abstractions, an obvious paradox that constitutes the crux of the “hard problem.”

There would be no “hard problem” if one did not conflate explanatory abstractions with concrete ontological primitives, if one did not attempt to paradoxically reduce mind to abstractions of mind. The “hard problem” is not something empirically observed but the salient result of internal contradictions in a logico-conceptual schema.

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The pervasive but unexamined assumption that mind and matter constitute a dichotomy is an error arising from language artefacts. Members of dichotomies must be epistemically symmetrical and, therefore, reside in the same level of abstraction. Physically objective matter – as an explanatory model – is an abstraction of mind. We do not know matter in the same way that we know mind, for matter is an inference and mind a given. This breaks the epistemic symmetry between the two and implies that materialism and idealism cannot be mirror images of each other.

Failure to recognize that different levels of epistemic confidence are intrinsic to different levels of explanatory abstraction lies at the root not only of the false mind-matter dichotomy, but also of attempts to make sense of the world through increasingly ungrounded explanatory abstractions. Lest we conflate science and philosophy with hollow language games, we must never lose sight of the difference between an abstract inference and a direct observation. Keeping this distinction in mind allows us to construct useful predictive models of nature’s behaviour – which ultimately is what science is meant to do – without restrictive and ultimately fallacious inferences about what nature is. This, in turn, liberates us from thought artefacts such as the “hard problem of consciousness” and opens up whole new avenues for making sense of self and world.

Kastrup, Bernardo., 2018. Conflating abstraction with empirical observation: The false mind-matter dichotomy.

BELIEF, TRUTH & METAPHOR

Iain McGilchrist

A consensus is emerging from the literature that religious experience tends to be associated with the right hemisphere. This conclusion is supported by a book- length study of spirituality and the brain, by the comprehensive review of Devinsky and Lai (2008), and by McNamara (2009). McNamara largely implicates right fronto- temporal networks, a view supported by Trimble and Freeman (2006) and by Devinsky and Lai (2008), the latter of whom distinguish what they call the ‘religion of the everyday man’, with its characteristic ongoing belief pattern and set of convictions, predominantly localised to the frontal region, from ecstatic religious experience, more localised to the temporal region, both in the right hemisphere. Continue reading “BELIEF, TRUTH & METAPHOR”

LIBER SCRIPTUS PROFERETUR

VV: What have you learned from science?

EC: Only one thing: that one ought to wash one’s hands before touching nature.

VV: You want to imply that most scientists don’t deserve science?

EC: Yes. But they have made science into something that they deserve.

VV: What is the remedy?

EC: There is no remedy.

VV: At the place where you are now it is not for you to blow the trumpet of the Apocalypsis. Another tuba will spread its miraculous sound. I repeat my question.

EC: The first step would have to be to make science small again and to disengage it from technology and from the pursuit of power.

VV: How would you do this?

EC: I don’t think it can be done according to a blueprint, and it will not take place without a series of catastrophes of a dimension that would make mankind stop and look. Our kind of science has become a disease of the Western mind. We were taught that by digging deeper and deeper we should reach the center of our world. But all we find is rock and fire. So we take the stone as our heart and the flame as our hope.

VV: Is that all that has been found?

EC: We have been lured into a search for the ever-diminishing dimensions. Each new decimal opens a new grotto of delights. Drowning in precision, drunk with controls of controls, we lose ourselves in the quick and dead sands of eternity. It will be too late when we finally become aware of our error. The center of our world is not where we have been looking for it.

Erwin Chargaff, Liber Scriptus Proferetur (from Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life before Nature).

THE SILENCE OF THE HEAVENS

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I CAME TO BIOCHEMISTRY through chemistry; I came to chemistry, partly by the labyrinthine routes that I have related, and partly through the youthfully romantic notion that the natural sciences had something to do with nature. What I liked about chemistry was its clarity surrounded by darkness; what attracted me, slowly and hesitatingly, to biology was its darkness surrounded by the brightness of the givenness of nature, the holiness of life. And so I have always oscillated between the brightness of reality and the darkness of the unknowable. When Pascal speaks of God in hiding, Deus absconditus, we hear not only the profound existential thinker, but also the great searcher for the reality of the world. I consider this unquenchable resonance as the greatest gift that can be bestowed on a naturalist.

When I look back on my early way in science, on the problems I studied, on the papers I published-and even more, perhaps, on those things that never got into print- I notice a freedom of movement, a lack of guild-imposed narrowness, whose existence in my youth I myself, as I write this, had almost forgotten. The world of science was open before us to a degree that has become inconceivable now, when pages and pages of application papers must justify the plan of investigating, “in depth,” the thirty-fifth foot of the centipede; and one is judged by a jury of one’s peers who are all centipedists or molecular podiatrists. I would say that most of the great scientists of the past could not have arisen, that, in fact, most sciences could not have been founded, if the present utility-drunk and goaldirected
attitude had prevailed.

It is clear that to meditate on the whole of nature, or even on the whole of living nature, is not a road that the natural sciences could long have traveled. This is the way of the poet, the philosopher, the seer. A division of labor had to take place. But the overfragmentation of the vision of nature- or actually its complete disappearance among the majority of scientists-has created a Humpty-Dumpty world that must become increasingly unmanageable as more and tinier pieces are broken off, “for closer inspection,” from the continuum of nature. The consequence of the excessive specialization, which often brings us news that nobody cares to hear, has been that in revisiting a field with which one had been very familiar, say, ten or twenty years earlier, one feels like an intruder in one’s own bathroom, with twenty-four grim experts sharing the tub.

Profounder men than I have failed to diagnose, let alone cure, the disease that has infected us all, and I should say that the ostensible goals have obliterated the real origins of our search. Without a firm center we flounder. The wonderful, inconceivably intricate tapestry is being taken apart strand by strand; each thread is being pulled out, torn up, and analyzed; and at the end even the memory of the design is lost and can no longer be recalled. What has become of an enterprise that started as an exploration of the gesta Dei per naturam?

To follow the acts of God by way of nature is itself an act that can never be completed. Kepler knew this and so did many others, but it is now being forgotten. In general, it is hoped that our road will lead to understanding; mostly it leads only to explanations. The difference between these two terms is also being forgotten: a sleight of hand that I have considered in a recent essay, Einstein is somewhere quoted as having said: “The ununderstandable about nature is that it is understandable.” I think he should have said: “that it is explainable.” These are two very different things, for we understand very little about nature. Even the most exact of our exact sciences float above axiomatic abysses that cannot be explored. It is true, when one’s reason runs a fever, one believes, as in a dream, that this understanding can be grasped; but when one wakes up and the fever is gone, all one is left with are litanies of shallowness.

In our time, so-called laws of nature are being fabricated on the assembly line. But how often is the regularity of these “laws of nature” only the reflection of the regularity of the method employed in their formulation! Lately, many tricks have been discovered about nature; but these tricks seem to have been specially produced by nature for the imbeciles to find out; and there is no Maimonides to guide them out of their confusion. In other words, science is still faced with the age-old predicament, the lack of ultimate verification. It is written in the Analects of Confucius (XII, 19): “The Master said, Heaven does not speak.”

Erwin Chargaff, The Silence of the Heavens (from Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life before Nature).