Friday, October 31, 2008

IMPOVERISHED NOTIONS OF THE SELF

Discourse that has ethical significance, and therefore understanding between people, is bedevilled by impoverished, crude and simplistic notions – often referred to as ‘commonsense’. Among the most nefarious of these are impoverished notions of the self. Discourse in many fields works with a notion of the self which regards it as the trajectory of a qualityless, dimensionless point, a mere abstraction adopted for convenience in that it provides a focus for the perceptions of the machine made of meat that is the human being. The self, in this type of discourse, is simply the illusory focus of a host of mostly random events in the kilo and a half of grey matter we call the brain. The trajectory of that point is linear through time. It may be described by a parabola: the self emerges from the primordial humus of matter – one can imagine this as a sort of swamp – rises briefly into the air above the swamp by virtue of its complex organisation and then falls back with barely a plop: that is how the self is viewed by much of the scientific and philosophical communities. During that trajectory, experience impacts upon that qualityless, dimensionless point in a mostly random way which has no sense, no rhyme, no reason beyond the poor reasons provided by the individual’s powers of cogitation.
I would like to break free from this notion of the self and propose a conception of the self which is not tied to a linear trajectory, a nugatory and pointless trajectory which describes a parabola from one point on the surface of the swamp to another, from relatively disorganised matter through an organised state, to relatively disorganised matter. I would like to propose a model of the self which views it as fundamentally a process of expansion, a global expansion from a centre that depends upon the brain for the initial stages of this expansion but that very possibly separates itself from this dependence at some stage in its expansion. For another homely illustration, perhaps we can turn to a kind of myth: let us imagine that in the swamp there is a host of tiny creatures - the era is a very primitive one on our earth and there is no atmosphere which we can breathe, there is no oxygen. The tiny creatures in the swamp feel their life ballooning, feel themselves ballooning, and they balloon because they generate oxygen; and as they generate oxygen, they rise to the surface of the liquid and burst. And in bursting, they release a puff of oxygen and so create the breathable atmosphere in which life flourishes.
I would like to view our self as a bubble of awareness rising to the surface of the humus of matter to burst and in its bursting to create the new medium, the new dimensions of creation in which new dimensions of mental life can flourish.
Of course, in order to work with this sort of model, one has to abandon the notion of reality as essentially a collection of three-dimensional objects and posit a much richer reality. One has to be wedded to notions of purposiveness, not necessarily notions of teleology in any simplistic sense where the goal of the process is decided in advance and resembles the sorts of goal which we as humans would set ourselves. That is not necessary at all. The point about reality as we perceive it is that it is a meaningful and intelligent accumulation, it is an overlaying of levels of complexity, ‘complexification’ to use Teilhard’s ugly word. That drive towards complexity is in itself goal enough; and that ever-achieved, ever-to-be-achieved goal provides purpose enough. It is the prime source of evidence for the existence of a universal intelligence. We must regard the intelligent self in the same purposive light. If we regard the self as that which expands globally from the centre, according to its own inner principles – self-conscious life seems to be intrinsically linked to expanding consciousness – then another aspect of the impoverished notion of the self has to be dealt with and done away with. This is the notion that experience impacts upon the self in a random way, almost as the rain drums on an old tin roof. Experience hits us, in the current model of the self, much in that way. The roof has no defence against the rain; it just has to put up with it, endure it and willy-nilly be modified by it, apparently at random. I would like to propose that the model of the self which more closely fits reality is one in which the self is the true agent, active in choice, selective and directive of its own experience and of the effects this experience has upon it. This choice and this selection are similar to the choice and selection exercised by the creative artist, who only knows where he or she is going by actually going there.
The self is always a focus of choosing; and we do not have to construe that process of choosing as in any way associated with the so-called problem of free will. The very structure of the self is choice. If one contemplates the autobiographies or autobiographic reflections of great creative people, they have viewed their life as expansion from the centre. They have viewed their work as in many senses the development of a single thought. All the symphonies of Mozart were a single thought, sometimes present in his mind all at once. The literary works of Goethe were all aspects of a single confession, as he said; and surely that single confession must have constantly been there, so to speak, as a single thought. All great creative people have shown that their experience has been chosen by them as grist to the mill of the self, not just accumulated like the debris in some wind-blown corner. Their experience has not been simple random impacts from without; and their self has not been a qualityless, dimensionless point, but rather to a much greater degree, a source of gravitational attraction for types of experience to give form to a growing consciousness. The great creative artists are not so different from the ordinary, unexceptional individual in this. Experience is chosen by an elective, expanding self in the interests of an articulation of a single thought, inchoate to begin with, but acquiring greater clarity and elegance of expression as the chosen experience and the chosen language derived from that experience facilitated the expression. That this process sometimes goes wrong and leads nowhere in no sense refutes the view that the individual consciousness is the creation of a unique work.
We must suppose that the models of the self which are applicable to the most creative members of the human family are the most representative models, even though they may be derived from the rarest of individuals; but these rarest of individuals are the most human of human beings.
Now if we postulate this expansionary model of the self, we have to regard the form which is generated by the creative individual as, if you like, the efficient cause in the expansion. The form generated, in turn generates the self. It is a two-way process insofar as the self becomes aware of itself through externalising itself, recognises itself in the externalisations and re-internalises the externalisations in order further to modify them into further externalisations. The process is an uninterrupted cycle, a recycling of old insight into new. And that does not mean to say that the self is identical with and exhausted by this cycle of externalisation and internalisation. It is the combination of expanding self and impacting experience which gives rise to the formalism – the language, that is to say – of self-expression. The creative individual then can be seen as generative of the formalism and the formalism itself as, to that extent, generative of the creative individual. It is humanity that has generated languages of all kinds by means of its choosing of experience to expand consciousness.
This sort of model of the self seems to me to be much more helpful in the understanding, if you like in the metaphysical understanding of life, than any linear, timebound notion of the self. It is helpful because one can recognise that human beings are not the only creatures given to creative activity. Evolution is driven by the same choosing, the same creativity, on lower levels of consciousness. When evolution becomes the sum total of countless creative acts on the part of humble creatures, it becomes legitimate to refer to the history of life as ‘Creation’.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

SELF-CONFIDENCE AND SECRETS

Let us start with two definitions. Secrets are mental contents that are of great importance to the mind concerned (since we are talking about personal secrets) but that the individual concerned finds it difficult or impossible to reveal. Self confidence is belief of the self in itself, in its identity and capacities; the apparent self-confidence of the conman is simply a self-confident persona covering up secrets.
Self-confidence is considered a desirable human trait; and indeed for good utilitarian reasons, it probably is. It helps the well adapted individual achieve the success associated with his or her chosen role in the human group. It is associated with such virtues as reliability, stability, decisiveness, honesty, personability, and, of course mental health. Secrets, on the other hand are regarded as something rather grubby, something less than honest, something to be treated with suspicion. The contention here, however, is that self-confidence and secrets are intimately and fundamentally related. In order to possess self-confidence, the self concerned must have a firm sense of who and what it is. It must be some recognisable thing. It must say with firm conviction ‘I am a policeman’, ‘I am a doctor’, ‘I am a politician’, ‘I am a boss’ etc. When the self identifies all its functions and capacities with those of its principal role, self-confidence is automatically guaranteed and established. The other little functions that may not entirely fit the principal function of the persona – and there are always such things – may well exercise an underground life of their own and emerge in odd dark moments; but as long as they are kept secret, they need not trouble the self-confidence of the dominant self-system and may happily co-exist with the latter, even though they might negate its values. They may come out in dreams, reveries, parapraxes and suchlike; but since they remain unofficial, they are of no great consequence. They may be so secret as to be entirely outside of the range of the individual’s awareness. Sometimes the values of the one side of the self even require the antithetical values of the other, perhaps unconscious self; and a cosy symbiosis is assured.
This tidy relationship is, however, rendered impossible as soon as the self realises that all social roles, all personae, all successful adaptations to the demands of the human group by the individual fail utterly to satisfy the self that is in search of a more authentic and intrinsic identity, an identity that concerns its essential nature and dynamics. (One could use the phrase ‘essential identity’ here if it did not evoke all the pitfalls of essentialist conceptions of the self and the attendant dangers of a restrictive or reductive conceptions of selfhood.) If the self, on account of its refusal to accept limitations, has no firm conviction concerning its function and role, if it teeters on the edge of a bottomless abyss of possibility – continuously and uninterruptedly – self-confidence is impossible and uncertainty in all things is its normal state. Now nothing undermines self-confidence more than lack of certainty. The self can in certain configurations be so completely uncertain of who and what it is that it doesn’t know, for example how to characterise itself at all. Such a state has been called ‘ontological insecurity’ and it is intimately related to the state of ‘existential anxiety’ described by the Existentialists. The uncertain self, insofar as it continues to function and to reflect upon its status, insofar as it continues to make use of its intelligence and acquired knowledge in order to obtain the certainty it lacks, works at its own structure night and day and, if it observes a rigorous honesty, discovers something essential about this structure. It discovers that this structure can no longer be provided by any purely relative set of characteristics or identity-elements. The structure cannot be that of any of the roles that human society provides for an individual. The structure, on the contrary, has to reflect nothing less than the whole universe if it is to be of any use. And this is indeed what the rigorously honest self that has abandoned all relative identities discovers about itself: it discovers an intimate relatedness between itself and the entire world. Such a self has to begin to identify itself with the entire universe and to see itself as a reflection of the entire universe rather than as the representative of any particular type of creature within it. Such a state is one of mystical identification that is often considered to be incompatible with the robust practicality that human society requires from its members. With this mystical state of self-identification with the whole comes an inability to use language in the easy referential manner that goes along with an identifiable role and an identifiable persona. The self concerned cannot express itself in a language, the words of which have self-evident reference and meaning. Such a self uses language allusively, indirectly, poetically , ironically – in a word it cannot embody the so-called virtue of directness or frankness. Not that such a self is dishonest, far from it. It is simply that its consciousness is no longer structured by a set of responses to the world that are unproblematic and straightforward. It has abandoned convention altogether. It is no longer capable of that other indispensable accoutrement of the identifiable persona: common sense. It loses its common sense, because common sense is no more than the evolutionarily determined response of the human to the environment that the self does not question as long as it does not identify itself with the entire cosmos. Necessarily, then, when directness and common sense leave the self, self-confidence goes out of the window, secrets, masks, irony and indirectness come in. But individuals remain members of human society whatever their identity and the building of a total self requires a mask in order to maintain normal concourse with everyday people, everyday, self-confident, functional people, who quickly sniff out the dizzy abyss within a person for whom the ego-governed persona has ceased to be of use, but who nevertheless wears an ego-mask. Such masks are, however, indispensable given the undeniable fact that selves that have left behind the ordinary, everyday roles and personae of human beings and the ordinary consciousness of the world that goes with them potentially bring an enormous creative contribution to mankind that contemporaries may be unable to recognise, but that those of the future may appreciate. Why are artists and poets ironic? Why are philosophers and prophets mysterious or obscure? Why are the wise self-effacing and authoritative and why is their language allusive and sometimes delphic? The reason is obvious: such selves no longer speak the readily understandable language of the socially identifiable self because they are not structured by the exigencies of identifiable roles. Such selves are structured by nothing less than the structuring principle of the world as a whole that they sense operating at the very centre of their being. Such selves, to use the old language of ancient Greek metaphysics and Christian theology, hear the voice of the Logos within. They may not grasp this fully themselves, but they may nevertheless speak with the authority or the depth of such a principle. Such selves are the nodal points of the human world, the growing tips of the new creative departures within that world. It is for this reason that they are at one and the same time both consummately confident and hidden, sometimes arrogant and enigmatic, but always worth listening to.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

GROWING TO PERSONHOOD

Every living system is generated, grows to maturity, ages and dies. We humans are apparently no different. But as soon as one says that, something within us says, ‘wait a minute’ and we pause to reflect. We are similar to a tree that sprouts, grows, turns gnarled, withers, falls and rots; but we are clearly different from it only because we appear to have the ability to reflect upon this banal biography. We appear to ourselves different, too, from the animals that move around the world, scurrying, crawling, climbing, running around their habitat in an instinct-impelled daily busyness, the object of which is to maintain their own existence and that of their offspring. We appear to be different from them because we are not so comprehensively programmed to do what we do: we think we have to the ‘freedom’ to choose our own existence. How far this is a delusion is an interesting question. We are not like the trees in that we thrive on the society of our fellows. We are not like the animals in that we have a point of view that we call our ‘person’ that is endowed with the ability to entertain abstract thoughts about experience, thoughts that we express in symbolic languages of various types.
In growing to personhood, in ‘becoming what we are’, rather than in acting out what our genes compel us to be, we consider that there is more to us than the chunk of matter that is our body. We are convinced that we are really and truly what we invent, what we discover, what we create that is entirely new and not just the enactment of a mechanical routine. We believe that what issues from the unique set of circumstances that combine to form our unique point of view is ours and ours alone, though it may ultimately be of benefit to the whole of mankind. This being the case, we are convinced that there is something essential in us that cannot be captured by the description of those physical characteristics that we share with all the members of our species and in certain cases with the members of other species, also. Thus there is little point as we grow to personhood in striving to define ourselves by reference to either all or to any part of our physique. The brain, be it human or non-human brain, is a very sophisticated machine, tinkered together by countless generations of adapting to circumstances, countless creative leaps in strategies for living. The brain is a programmable device that permits the most staggering range of behaviour. Some of the most amazing brains are not human. One only has to watch a wildlife programme to be convinced of this fact. But in our case, the brain is not us; or at least it is impossible to get at the essence of what we are by means of a description of our grey matter. We are by a whole dimension different from even the most gifted of animals; and this dimension puts us in a quite different league from them. Even if we were to understand in the minutest detail of their brain chemistry how the animals perform their amazing feats, this would not help us to understand ourselves. The reason for this is that the brain does not control us: we control it – at least in those areas of our consciousness in which we create radically new interpretations of our own experience. In discovering new angles on our experience, we rise above the level of creatures whose daily lives are governed by obeying what their brains command them to do. We for our part, if we have become conscious of our non-functionaity - our 'uselessness' in nature's terms - ‘play’ the brain as a virtuoso his Stradivarius. The playing is for most of our lives so self-evident to us that we do not realise that we are doing it. It seems to be self-evident in this sense for the animals. But in order to understand ourselves, in order to grow to personhood and gain our independence from the tyranny of our brain, we have to unlearn this instinctive virtuosity. We have to learn a different sort of unique, creative and non-functional play. We have to get beyond the brain and reach the level of conscious awareness at which we apprehend our pattern and our connectedness within the implicate order, rather than the explicate order, of the world. The implicate order is that order of the world that is not available to direct sensory examination but that includes the mind and all mindlike entities. This development beyond the brain may be accompanied by a loss of that supremely competent functionality that we may share with the animals. What we gain, however, is nothing less than a mode of being that begins to transcend the mode of existence that is entirely governed by the biographic archetype of a particular species - in our sense that of the human.
To grow to personhood is in a sense to get beyond any imprisonment in those cycles of nature that are detectable by the methods of natural science. It may not be equivalent to the apprehension of that World of Forms that Plato presented as the ultimate goal of the individual mind; but Plato’s images are not bad as instructive myths. They express in pregnant form the nature of the trajectory that takes the individual consciousness from brain-bound functionality to unique, post-human personhood.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

RATIONALITY, CHAOS, EGOISM AND FAITH

For most of recorded history human society has been governed by a faith of some sort in quasi-anthropomorphic agencies that dominated the world and the lives of human beings living in it: gods, demons, demiurges and so on. The European Enlightenment was in many respects the end of that long phase in human history. Mankind saw that most of the faiths that had governed human affairs were matters of naive and infantile fantasy and that the parental imagos were simply keeping humanity in a state of perpetual infantilism. The European Enlightenment announced to the world that from now on, man would take his fate into his own hands, shake off the tutelage of these imaginary beings and find his own approach to the universe. Whereas formerly this approach had been one of fear and submission tempered by attempts at placation and ingratiation, now it was to be a matter of human rationality and nothing else: man would decide his own fate on the basis of his reason and dominate the universe by the same faculty.
Two centuries of rationalistic development later, in the middle of the twentieth century, this movement away from religion had reached its apogee and optimism concerning the ability of reason to solve all problems and conquer all difficulties was at its maximum. And this was in spite of ruinous wars, economic collapses and the still untamed perils of disease and climatic upheaval. It was believed still in the nineteen-fifties that the mechanistic science of Laplace and Newton would reveal the essentially deterministic functioning of the world to our reason, after which it would simply be a matter of filling in the detail until all would be understood and controlled. Faith in overarching powers and agencies that did not necessarily have our best interests at heart was definitively abandoned in favour of belief in a future in which the all-conquering human ego, equipped with the all-conquering methods of mechanistic-deterministic science would have grasped every process in the cosmos and bent it to human will. The scientific ego imagined that nothing stood in the way of the human ego’s becoming what it had always wanted to be: master of the universe. The human ego, armed with the methods of reason, had finally usurped the position of the Judeo-Christian deity and was set on a course of omnipotence of its own.
This entire movement of deterministic science was based upon linear mathematics and the notion of mathematical predictability of systems. According to this view, once a mathematical model of a system – be it the economy, the weather or whatever – had been worked out, it was simply a matter of feeding in the values that corresponded to future states of the system in order to foresee how everything would turn out. The linear equations would perfectly capture the linearity of natural systems and we would have in our hands the perfect crystal ball for the anticipation of the future. With this ability to anticipate would go, of course, the ability to manipulate in similar mechanistic manner.
Unfortunately the arrival of the mathematics of chaos on the scene in the decades following the fifties changed all this. Poincaré and one or two others had already realised that there was something radically wrong with linear mathematics and with the models of systems based upon it, but it was not until the chaoticians got going that it was realised that systems are inherently unstable and exquisitely sensitive to initial conditions. The upshot of this realisation was the insight that we will never have enough knowledge perfectly to predict the future of even the simplest of systems that will always retain the power to surprise us by their instability and chaotic behaviour. The result of this realisation was, to cut a long story very short, a dawning understanding that human intellect was in principle incapable of grasping nature so perfectly that it would be able to predict and manipulate the future. With this insight, determinism and mechanism withered and died or at least were demoted into mere model-making tools that produced imperfect approximations to natural systems.
The chastened scientific intellect abandoned the Promethean optimism of the previous two centuries (optimism that had in fact gone back to the Ancient Greeks, though in less generalised form) and settled into a gloomy awareness that the human intellect would forever be limited to understanding its own models, rather than reality as such and the understanding that these models would forever lack the necessary detail to be perfectly faithful to the reality they were intended to model.
At this point it became evident that two choices lay before the human intellect: either it soldiered on with its burden of ignorance, ploughing its own furrow as best it could; or else it found a new entity in which to put its faith. The new entity it found (at least for a while) was the power of chaotic systems spontaneously to generate order. There was no understanding how this happened, but it allowed all sorts faith. For example economists developed an entirely mystical faith in the market to deliver benign results for humanity. Physicists developed a faith in spontaneous order and biologists developed a faith in complexity, that is to say the tendency of living systems to settle into ever higher species of order in response to the chaotic situation of universal competition. There was, it was believed, a kind of ‘invisible hand’ in all of these domains guaranteeing a return to order, however the tipping into chaos may affect them temporarily. This touching and comforting faith was in many ways a compromise between the towering egoistic optimism of the determinists and the modest, awestruck reverence of the devout. But the emphasis remained on comprehensibility: the human ego was still to an extent in control since there was no intelligence governing the tendency of systems to create spontaneous order and the scientific ego could still understand and manipulate the order once it had been established. The self-love and self-regard of the ego was saved by this device and things could go on much as they had for several centuries. Rationalistic science could continue to apply the mechanistic model and act accordingly.
Unfortunately, it soon turned out that this rationalistic science and its interference in the course of nature was precisely the sort of disturbance that was likely to tip the exquisitely balanced systems of nature over into chaos. The rationally designed processes of industry that ran unchecked for decades, pumping filth into the environment and filling the atmosphere with destabilising gases turned out to careful observers to be the source of a new set of problems, problems this time that were not part of a manipulable and controllable nature, but that were potentially devastating for the whole of our planet. We discovered that our activities had unleashed a process of change that could end in a runaway heating of the planet that could signal the end of our civilisation and ourselves with it. We began to realise that we and our reason were the cause of our own problems. We began to realise that we could not have faith in the essential benignity of nature and its essential amenability to our reason. Nature, we began to feel, was perhaps fundamentally opposed to us and could well destroy us if we continued to tinker with its systems on the basis of our imperfect understanding.
So what is left to us? We no longer have our own towering faith in our reason; or if we do, we are naive and misguided. We no longer have faith in the tendency of nature to do what we want it to do. We no longer have faith in a deity co-ordinating and controlling the whole process of reality. So what do we believe? The anxiety generated by this question is at the heart of the post-scientific age of the twenty-first century. What do we believe? How do we structure our approach to reality? Faith or reason? It seems that we now have neither. We can no longer trust our own intellect to deliver the goods and since we do not trust God, it seems that we have no reason to trust anything.
But maybe this is part of growing up.
Our conception of our all-conquering ego and its rationalistic intellect derived ultimately from a religious notion: that of the monotheistic Creator and his omnipotence, omniscience and so on. Once such a Creator no longer struck us as a likely inhabitant of the heavens, we simply took over the powers we had attributed to him and bestowed them on ourselves. The notion of God that we had nurtured had been infantile and the notion of ourselves that grew from it was alike immature. Perhaps we need to generate a new conception of God and from that a new conception of ourselves. That seems to be the way every major cultural advance has been achieved. It seems that faith and reason have always gone hand in hand, the first giving rise to the second in a spiral development of ever more sophisticated conceptions of the universe and of our ability to grasp it.
Our mathematics can only ever provide models of the order we seem to perceive in nature. It can never claim that the models it generates are the order of nature itself. Our models remain just that: toys, toy universes for growing minds. Our models allow us to grasp the order we perceive to some extent, but the quest for understanding is unending. The staggering creativity of nature is beyond us. We don’t know how it proceeds and we can’t know. We can still contemplate it in awe and gratitude and attempt to grasp it by our models, however provisional and inadequate. The awe and gratitude are primary; the understanding is secondary. If we maintain this order of priorities, we shouldn’t go far wrong. Faith now has to be faith in the volcanic creativity of the world, wherever it is going, for that creativity is reality; it brought us forth and we depend upon it. Reason is the only means we have of grasping this creativity after the event. We can revel in the creativity; but let us never believe that we control it. Perhaps this is what is meant by the old phrase of Anselm: fides quaerens intellectum. Believing in order to understand, not understanding in order to believe.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

SELF, WORLD AND KNOWLEDGE

What do they tell us in educational institutions? That knowledge is just there for the taking (as long as you follow the approved procedures!); truth is just there like some sort of grandiose monument to be approached after the performance of the right rituals. Knowledge of the truth is something you obtain, something you get and keep. But what do they mean by this? Do you get knowledge like you get a new pair of shoes or a new house, or any other item which becomes one’s personal possession? Or do you get knowledge like a contagious disease, do you pick it us like an infection? I really don’t know what they mean when they talk about ‘acquiring knowledge’. Presumably at its simplest, the acquisition of knowledge is something which the mind obtains and the world provides. The mind ‘gets’ knowledge of the world. The world just sits out there, outside of me and my mind, all monolithic, immutable and indisputably objective. My mind is just in here, all private and insubstantial and subjective. Then, by some sort of commerce between the two (involving the senses and the intellect in some sort of poorly understood process of mediation), the world puts its imprint on my mind. This imprint is in some way a faithful likeness of the world. More, it IS the world. Then when the imprint has been stamped on my mind, I can be said to have knowledge of the world. I possess it for all time and eternity and it’s as unchangeable and solid as the world itself. It all sounds very simple when put like that, but for me, that simple picture just doesn’t add up to anything sensible at all. I cannot find any sense in it at all. For me, knowledge is more like a kind of possession in the old occult sense: I do not posses it; it possesses me and transforms me into the bargain.
For a start, it doesn’t seem to me to be very sensible to talk of ‘world out there’ and ‘self in here’. That sort of spatial language doesn’t get us anywhere. There is clearly a more complex relationship between what I call ‘the world’ and what I call ‘my self’ than that naive picture of inside and out - as though my self was a kind of room into which all sorts of lumber from outside is brought in through the doors or windows to clutter it up.
It seems to me intuitively true to say that without self, there is no world and without world, there is no self. And no amount of insisting that ‘the world was always there before me and always will be there after me’ will convince me of anything different. There therefore must be a close interdependence between the two of them. I know that we’re told that the world just is there like some great block, some great pile of objects and that at one point in its history, we emerge into it as one of those objects - as bodies - and then emerge as selves within those bodies. We’re then told that since this is so, the world will still be there when we vanish as selves at death, because it was just there before we arrived. The world, we’re told, is simply there, in the most obvious way we think it’s there - i.e., as a bunch of three-dimensional objects; it was there in that way before we came and it will be there in that way when we leave. The world, we’re told, is primary; and our self is secondary. The world is what really exists (in precisely the way our everyday common sense tells us it exists) and we are the transient observers who just come and go and are temporarily imprinted with the picture of that world which persists independently of any of us. The self, we’re told, is of no importance, really. The self is just a sort of empty bag into which images of the outside world are put - our ‘knowledge’ of the world - and empty bag which will end up falling to bits, like one of those plastic jobs from the supermarket. The self is in no way primary, it is a secondary phenomenon. The world is primary.
But all this strikes me as totally unconvincing given the simple, obvious fact that without self, there is no world. If you tell me that the world is simply there when I am not, or when anyone is not, I must ask ‘from what point of view?’ because you tell me it is just there because you can imagine it. But you always imagine it from some particular point of view; and the fact is that from no point of view at all, the world is strictly unimaginable. We can have no conception of it at all; and it is senseless to talk of it. I don’t see how you can say that something unimaginable is ‘just there’. The point of view is the self of the observing subject; and without that point of view, that observing self, there is simply no imaginable world. The consensus of a whole bunch of observing selves who happen to agree upon what it is they are observing and have a language to communicate that agreement does not constitute a world that is ‘just there’. I don’t know what people mean by the two words ‘self’ and ‘world’, anyway. I have a sneaking feeling that they don’t know either. The fact that we have two words does not mean that there are indeed two distinct things. There is a consensus about the use of the words, but I think the consensus is wrong. I cannot see my knowledge as no more than a kind of collection of photos of a thing, stuck in a box and kept for a while until the box falls to bits and the photos crumble with it. The whole business seems to me to both more mysterious and more exciting than that. Knowledge, my knowledge is no less part of the world than the galaxies above my head. I don’t see why it should behave any differently from they in gradually transforming into something related but different – for ever.

SUSTAINING AN EVERYDAY HUMAN LIFE

It is only possible to sustain a day-to-day human life and all its petty annoyances, frustrations, indignities and the like to say nothing of its sufferings, by means of a belief in the endlessness of one’s intrinsic nature. Even the suicide is convinced that he or she is going to something better, be it at the expense of the extinction of everything he or she currently considers as life. As soon as it becomes apparent to the intellect that the individual’s life is a succession of trivial and senseless events which have no purpose, no goal and no value, then enthusiasm for living, the vital force, whatever that may be, drains from the body and from the mind. The individual then embarks upon a search for the unchanging, the changeless in the trackless sea of pointless change. The beginning of this search is the origin of all the so-called ‘higher’ activities of the human race: their religion, their art, their science, their philosophy. This is why people prefer these activities to most others. The practitioners of these things no longer live unambiguously in the everyday world. They have in a very real sense died and their activities are greatly enhanced by this fact. They can only continue by means of a contemplation of what is incorruptible and eternal in themselves.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

UNIVERSE? WORLD? SUBJECTIVE? OBJECTIVE?

There is a theory in Particle Physics called 'The Many-Worlds Theory'. Some agree with it, some disagree, some find the arguments convincing, others don't. How peculiar! The Many-Worlds Theory needs no proving nor disproving: it is self-evident fact. Every man, woman and child is a universe. You may say to me, 'No, these are merely individual objects within one and the same universe'. I will ask you, 'What universe? Where? When? Whose?' You will perhaps say to me, 'the universe of science'; you may say, 'the universe of religion'. But I will reply to you, 'the universe of science, religion or any other world-view has no existence except as a cultural artifact, except on paper, if you like: it is a paper universe'. Perhaps it is on some other encoding device, but the point remains the same. I realise that that universe has no intrinsic value, no essential substance, just like paper money, even though, like money, it can be of enormous practical value. But to say that this paper universe is the only universe is arrant nonsense. Burn all the books in the world, abolish every trace of culture, science and religion from the world and from the mind of man and your universe has vanished. It no longer exists. Poof! Not even a vapour remains. However, the universe in the consciousness of every individual human being, the universe of pure awareness will continue to exist for as long as conscious matter exists, a different universe for each consciousness. There will be as many universes as there are consciousnesses. The midworld universe, the paper universe, the universe of science or religion, by contrast, is not THE universe, the only universe. It is a cultural accretion, built up in language, by consensus in the cultural space between the individual centres of awareness called ‘persons’. You may say to me, 'But the universe discovered by science would be discovered again if we abolished all science, it is the objective universe'. I would reply, 'No, another "objective" universe may well be discovered, but it would be different from the first, since its history would not be the same'. This relativity of the consensus-universe leads me to prefer the world 'world' to designate it, since the world is clearly something of our making.
The very concept of 'world' is something problematical, it is non-obvious. Its mode of existence needs investigation. It does not exist in the same manner in which the universe within the head of an individual exists. The word does not mean anything specific: it is an emotion, almost. 'The world' is the most general term which we can give to the sum total of our nameable sensory experience, actual and possible. However, sensory experience does not exhaust our experience. There is unnameable experience. There is inner experience, which is distinct from sensory experience only in its having no immediate vocabulary and linguistic consensus with which to anchor it with other minds. Now this inner or mental experience is only fleetingly and only with great and cautious qualification ours; and to call it ‘subjective’ in an attempt to deprive it of any reality except that of unique privacy and therefore to render it irrelevant is a profoundly misguided policy. It is only ours insofar as it is briefly associated with the point of view of our consciousness. For this reason, we give another more general term, the most general term we have, to the most general object of our experience; that term is 'God'. This does not denote an experience in the same way as the word 'world' denotes an experience; but it nonetheless denotes a reality that is more capacious than the reality of sense-experience, because it includes every other element of our experience, emotional, spiritual, ethical, social and so on. The world of science is an elaborate illusion created by an intense desire to believe certain things on the part of an influential group of individuals and turned into short-lived certainty by means of close observation and rigorous logic. Our ‘subjective’ world in its most general sense, along with all that we experience through the senses, all that we are both inwardly and all that appears to be given outwardly, what the world is and what we are both in what we call our 'self' and in what is not that self, all of this is God; and it is an immediate and self-evident experience. God is the given and to try and pronounce definitively upon what is meant by the word is futile.
Just as there can be no such thing as a static and eternally changeless self (for consciousness is change and development) so by that token, there can never be a static and eternally changeless world. Self and world are so completely interdependent that one can almost say that the principles of the one must be the principles of the other. It is only a short step from that thought to say that the ontological qualities of the one must be the ontological qualities of the other. Too much symmetry as a great man said, 'nuirait à la demonstration', but this essential symmetry of self and world is the foundation of all consciousness and therefore of selfhood. The universe is self-similar from top to bottom: each substance from atom to man to God is a monad that mirrors the whole, a reality that we experience under two aspects, inside and out. Leibniz' insight is not simply the invention of an overheated imagination; it is an archetypal insight vouchsafed by the very nature of the mind. To posit an eternal world apart from the mind - in our case apart from the self - is to posit a fiction of which we have no experience, and a fiction of which we can have no experience: a world is always the world of some self. It is the agreed upon world of a large number of selves that is more of a fiction than the lived world of the self. The consensus world, those who agree upon it agree, could continue to exist even if all those selves were abolished. The consensus world is a paper world and ultimately as fragile as that said substance. Such a world could hardly be imagined as continuing to exist for all eternity in the absence of the selves who created it. The fragility of any world created by consensus, by science or religion, and offered for belief by others is underlined by these thoughts; and it is this fragility of the world of our creation, the world that we wish to create and control but that forever eludes us, that gives rise to our despair. The real world is the lived world of our experience and of that we have only the most limited of notions. The best notion that we can have of it is that of an inexhaustible ocean of barely-imagined possibility that produced and sustains us.
Human intelligence is only an aspect of the universal intelligence, a minor aspect. But it is given to human intelligence to live within the universal intelligence - not in complete nor even representative understanding of it, but in permanent experience of it as grace.
'The self’ said Søren Kierkegaard, ‘is only healthy and free from despair when, precisely by having despaired, it is grounded transparently in God.' He also said, 'What feelings, understanding and will a person has depends in the last resort upon what imagination he has - how he represents himself to himself, that is upon imagination.' (Sickness Unto Death pp 60-61 Penguin Edition).

Thursday, October 2, 2008

MIDLIFE CRISIS?

What is called ‘the midlife crisis’ is probably an organic awareness of the body that it is mortal and that death is now the next major event to which it can look forward. We are told that life begins at the age of 40. This is both true and false. It is false because in a real sense it is at forty that death begins. After the long climb upwards to maturity, responsibility and respectability, there is no plateau, only a long slide downwards towards toothlessness, sclerous joints, breathlessness and dissolution. But mercifully, it is also true, because it is with the discovery of death that the discovery of creativity can begin for everyone, even for those who deem themselves uncreative and have so far exercised no creative activity. But there is a condition: you have to admit that you are approaching death; you have to embrace your death, and in embracing it, you have to view as secondary everything which so far seemed to you to constitute life. The discovery of death can be the transcendence of life; and the transcendence of life can be the liberation of the spirit. When human life is transcended, the spirit asserts itself in all its potential creativity. With increasing decrepitude of the body, the spirit can begin to assert itself with all its intransigence, its timeless indetermination, its unquenchable curiosity and need for movement, novelty, change

AGEING

THE CULTIVATION OF AN INNER LIFE.


When a practical man - and all these remarks go for women, I just can’t be bothered fitting in all the qualifiers – who has spent a full life immersed in practical affairs of whatever nature, looks back in the consciousness that death is not far off, what does he see? He may see a fortune made, monuments to his eminence, civic honours, a dynasty founded, institutions which bear his name and so on. But these things must all shrink to mere insubstantial wraiths and vanish if they have not built up a spiritual life in him which he can view as his unique, indestructible, incorruptible good amassed over the time of his life, a possession that is inalienably his – for ever. When he has asked himself, ‘What am I? What have I done? What has it all amounted to? the monuments to his use of time, insofar as they stand outside of himself, even if they are as awe-inspiring as Mount Everest itself, must shrivel in value and disappear to nothing as he contemplates them, for they are no longer his nor him. Something else has to constitute a value in old age. This something surely has to be the degree of development of the inner life. The expansion and population of that inner space that alone connects him with all that really is. A man can accomplish much, can build empires, can move mountains, can gain the whole world and yet still be without any appreciable inner life. Indeed, his whole active life can be a protracted flight from the possibility of developing an inner life; and the expert function which he exercises can be at the expense altogether of an inner life. His activity can very frequently prevent the development of an inner life and as such it provides one of the greatest catastrophes that can befall the individual.
That there can be a cumulative development of inner life, which increases with old age is beyond dispute. That one can be wise in old age and have much to say to one’s fellows is likewise indisputable. Unfortunately, this is very infrequently the case. The silly old fart is as common as the house sparrow. Yet the evidence from those who do grow old suggests that this wisdom is most frequently sacrificed to the accumulation of things of quite a different value. The self desires to perpetuate its endurance in time by the most pitifully inadequate means: offspring, legacies, artistic works, follies and so on. This means that in death, the individual concerned has preserved the same values as he had in life, in his animal life: material values. He tries to perpetuate his existence by a continued application of his material values. In vain. The result of this can only be disappointment - except on the part of those who inherit his possessions. Even if – as is most frequently the case – they feel no gratitude to him for their windfall.
The cultivation of an inner life, even if it creates the impression of withdrawal and uncommunicativeness in the minds of those observing the cultivator, has more value than the most impressive monument, be it in the finest stone and sculpted by a master.
There is an intent listening which goes into the development of an inner life and when one is listening, interruptions from outside are not always welcome.

PHILOSOPHY OF OLD AGE

THE BIOGRAPHIC ARCHETYPE

There is a strange belief abroad that members of the human species reach some sort of optimum adulthood - some time around middle age - in which all the functions which an individual has been developing in the course of a lifetime somehow achieve their final and definitive perfection. This period of optimum adulthood, so the belief goes, is then characterised by constituting the best that that human being is capable of. It is generally believed that a lifetime of honing skills eventually produces things such as excellent philosophy, mature science, mature art, successful business, skilled politics, and so on. Youth, then, becomes no more than a period of optimistic preparation for these excellences and old age no more than a dismal period in which they are lost.


I think that this view contains more nonsense than sense.


There is a good selection of reasons for taking seriously Aristotle’s essentialist view that there is a biographic archetype for the human species, that there are ways of thinking and expressing which are appropriate to every stage in an individual’s development from childhood to old age. The young Turk in his twenties, discovering his intellectual muscles, despises the old hoary heads and regards their obsessions, perhaps that of pottering around in the garden, or that of evoking distant memories, with contempt and describes them as activities symptomatic of decline and dotage.

But it may well be that these activities give evidence of a much more fundamental insight into the processes of nature and into man’s interaction with them than the cerebrations of the twenty- and thirty-year-old. It may well be that the reminiscing of the aged and the very aged is a kind of myth-making. The evocation of memories could be the operation of the philosophic wit at its highest level: the making sense of an entire life, from birth to death, by means of a review, rather than merely the making sense of a relationship to the world which is conditioned by the values of the middle years (career-ambition, orthodoxy, sexually-conditioned time-independence etc.).

I use the word ‘philosophic’ here advisedly; because philosophy is not an academic subject, not a puzzle-cracker’s pastime, but rather a vital instinct possessed by every undamaged human individual. The puzzle-cracker and the clever-dick really have no place in philosophy for they are truly damaged and have become separated from their instincts. Philosophy is much too important an activity to be equated with the aims which such persons set themselves. The puzzle-cracker and the clever-dick do often perform valuable services in the clarification of detail within the various formalisms appropriate to philosophy; but they never rise above a kind of academic nit-picking, they never achieve an authentic philosophic vision on the basis of puzzle-cracking alone. The philosophic vision arises from the roots of the personality and has little to do with the myopic intensity of the academic logician.

Philosophy is a vital instinct and potentially expresses itself at all stages in the development of the human individual. There is a philosophy of creative and discovering play, within which children discover themselves as selves and as agents. It is at this stage that most of the big, abiding questions are posed for the first time in a life and posed with a crystal clarity of their implications which is rarely achieved later on: questions concerning the existence of other minds, concerning the extent and limits of the self, concerning the infinity of time and space and so on. So why should it be seen as peculiar to refer to a philosophy of old age, where the individual, as thoughts of death become pressing, is forced to integrate himself into the entire process of nature - in which creation and destruction are two sides of the same coin? The philosophy of the middle period - the philosophy of cerebration, the prime-of-life philosophy - is very often little more than a mental equivalent of gymnastics or arm-wrestling. This is often because the activity is related to a pre-existent social structure - university, business, political party and suchlike - which prescribes a particular set of emphases and a particular method. This period is characterised by survival, by living, not dying, precisely not dying; competitiveness, outdoing one’s competitor, beating the other chap, is perceived as the essential business of life in the middle period and therefore of philosophy.

The philosophy of old age could perhaps be seen as a synthesis of the other two varieties. The metaphysical urge which rises in childhood like a pure stream is side-tracked to a certain extent in middle life, when the formal tools of expression are being honed in obedience to the pressures of an ancient culture which values the sophistication of its technical expertise. But this metaphysical urge returns in old age to flow into the sophisticated forms available to the mind by virtue of its technical mastery. Often the metaphysical urge is revivified by the onset of old age with its thoughts of the imminent extinction of that very feature of human life which seemed so mysterious in early youth: the possession of selfhood. Of course, the philosophy of old age does not have to be immediately identifiable as philosophy. It may be light-years away from the academic study of that name. It may be expressed in gardening, in model-making, grand-parental care - all practised as meditation - or in wordless mysticism. The point is that the philosophy of old age is no less legitimate than the philosophy of other periods of life, even though it may not have left the cultural traces that these latter have. It may be that it leaves no traces because its most important accomplishments are the transcendence of life and the transcendence therefore of language. It may sometimes be “second childishness and mere oblivion”, but it doesn’t have to be; it may be second childishness allied to the formal expertise of a lifetime, whatever that expertise may be.

HUMAN?


THE TRANSCENDENCE OF THE HUMAN CONDITION: 3 questions




The first question is this: is it possible for the individual to transcend the human condition, i.e. become something more than human? It is universally conceded that a person may become something less than human in certain circumstances, - great stress, illness, deprivation, criminality etc. If that is conceded, one should at least be able to entertain the opposite idea. If becoming more than human is possible then the next question is: is there any point is spending the best of one’s life pursuing this aim or is it not better to simply pursue pleasure? The last question is this: is there any point in spending one’s life doing anything else other than pursuing the goal of becoming more than human? ‘Human, all-too human’ was Nietzsche’s characterisation of the bulk of human life. That was a condemnation. One doesn’t have to be a disciple of his to recognise that there is something deeply disappointing about much that goes by the name of ‘human’.

It seems difficult to deny it: personal evolution is progressive departure from those things which are aspects of our animality. In the past, in religious contexts, this personal evolution would have been tied to the abandonment of the lusts of the animal in us. There may have been something in that although ‘abandonment’ is a bit strong since it is more a question of detachment; but much more than the abandonment of or detachment from animal lusts – this happens naturally with ageing anyway, – is the departure from the cognitive modalities of the animal. This essentially means the abandonment of the assumption that one’s knowledge – yes, knowledge and not just belief – is unquestionably, not to say absolutely reliable. There is a sort of knowledge that is given to us by virtue of our sensory-cognitive apparatus; and we call this knowledge ‘common sense’ and consider it folly to question its validity. Science is common sense writ large. What we overlook in our devotion to our common sense is that other consciousnesses apprehend and understand things quite differently because of the way they are constituted. But even our common sense is riven by contradictions. Since philosophy has always regarded the summum of personal evolution as the intellectual appreciation of the timeless abstractions and generalities governing the physicality of life (the laws of nature, if you like) why is it that we generally remain stuck in polarised position-taking, for example in either defending the physical as the source of everything or holding up some incomprehensible ‘spirit’ as the source of novelty? Why can we not come up with a sensible theory of creative advance or transcendence which would get us out of the boring servitude to reductive modes of ‘explanation’ in which the final arbiter of truth is common sense? What is the point of ‘explaining’ if that is always a matter of pronouncing the new always to be the old in another guise, yet more and more common sense? Why can we not see creativity as the action of the inherently innovatory intelligence of nature upon her own structures? Why can we not discover the uncommon sense that yells at us from all of reality? The human devotion to common sense is the principal obstacle to a person’s turning into something that is no longer merely human.