Monday, November 23, 2009


When Nietzsche uttered his famous words “God is dead” he was under no illusion about the significance of the phrase. He meant more by it than some possible victory achieved for atheism by the scientific spirit and the mechanistic-deterministic-materialistic dogma. The phrase was a strange mixture of exultant triumph and horrified regret, for Nietzsche knew that it indicated an event of world-shaking importance. He knew that the complex cultural achievement that the phrase encapsulated would lead to a shattering of almost everything that had held human life and human society together for many centuries and that this shattering would leave in its place a vacuum that nothing seemed ready to fill. To that extent he had an understanding of the consequences of God’s demise that the little media-atheists of today do not even begin to appreciate.

So what was it that disappeared with the death of the Almighty? What evaporated was any notion of a moral or rational world order or indeed any detectable structure at all to human life in a world seen as completely contingent, accidental, not to say chaotic. Why was that important? It was important because, in Europe at least, the entire structure of society had depended for the entire span of its history upon the sense that an all-powerful, beneficent God took personal interest in the affairs of men, directed them to a certain extent, rewarded those who did well and restrained those who did evil. The entire history of Christendom, and indeed of the world, was considered by the most eminent authorities to be of a piece with the universal history of human salvation. The history of the world had a definite shape. It started with the Creation and the Fall, it included the rise and fall of the Chosen People, it was decisively altered through the redemptive life and death of Christ and it was moving towards some divinely planned consummation at the end of time, when God’s plan of salvation for the human race would finally be entirely revealed. All world history was, from the point of view of European Christianity, the outworking of a divine intention and a divine purpose. Governments, civil authorities and religious authorities were all regarded as instruments of the divine plan and commensurate respect for them was fostered.

But not only did the powerful and privileged have their role to play, the common man did, too. Of course, the role of the common man was to be conscious of his position, not to get above himself and to preserve due respect for his superiors, for after all, the hierarchical social order was instituted by God, too. For the entire medieval period, this overall structure to the world held people intellectually in its grip. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, other movements were gathering momentum, movements based on quite different attitudes to man and nature, but the essentially medieval world-view continued to exert its power well into the nineteenth century. Even in the middle of the twentieth century, the great psychologist C. G. Jung could still say that Europeans were still plunged in medieval values up to their ears.

But those other non-Christian movements alluded to above were to win the day in the end. In the fifteenth century, a new optimism and self-confidence was born in response to a re-discovery of the classical authors of Ancient Greece and Rome. The Greek philosophers, particularly Plato and Aristotle, but also a large number of lesser figures, had already, well before the rest of Europe had any culture to speak of, developed a view of the world that considered it as a rationally ordered whole, in which the road to salvation lay perhaps, not in yielding to the plan of a personal God, as much as arriving at the right rational understanding of the entire system by personal effort and reflection. Both Plato and Aristotle postulated an intelligent co-ordinating principle to nature that to be understood required nothing more than the application of the human intellect rightly trained in logic and dialectic. For the Greeks, salvation, happiness, a perfect social order and everything else of value in human life were there to be obtained by human effort, principally by the effort of the intelligence. They were almost infinitely optimistic in the ability of man to comprehend and master the world and achieve his own salvation.

Now while most of the theories of these philosophers had been gratefully adopted by the Christian Church since its becoming the official church of Europe, after the reign of Constantine, the element of self-redemption in them was distinctly played down. The moral world-order of the Greek philosophers was grafted on to Christianity, but the Church was never happy with the element of rationalism in this. For the Church, man could never be the author of his own salvation – that was something that was to be delivered to him by the grace of God, the saving work of Christ and the mediation of these benefits by the priesthood. The Church had a vested interest in keeping the population of Europe in a state of credulous submission, submission to the grand vision of meaning, maybe, but submission in which it could be manipulated for a variety of political ends. The confident self-sufficiency of the Ancient Greeks was definitely not an idea that medieval Christianity encouraged on anyone’s part. It is all the more remarkable, therefore that the Renaissance, having rediscovered this essential idea, developed from it a new optimism in human nature, a new interest in the world and a new determination to explore both to the limits with nothing else but the human intellect. It was this movement that eventually brought about the Reformation, the splitting of the Church into many factions, the resultant weakening of the centralised religious control over daily life and the rise of the scientific spirit. The Reformation reawakened the spirit of personal enquiry in matters religious and this led ultimately to the Enlightenment with its enthronement of unaided human intelligence as the only authority in the universe. The Enlightenment led to all the philosophical and scientific discoveries that ushered in the modern age and it was this irresistible movement, driven by the determination of people to think for themselves, that brought about the state of affairs in which Nietzsche pronounced his celebrated phrase, “God is dead.”

The effect of all this on the European mind was electrifying. Everything suddenly seemed possible by human effort alone. The physics of Newton seemed to have delivered into our hands a method not only of perfect understanding of the world order, but also of its complete manipulation. Whereas in the past, man had had his life mapped out for him by authorities whose power was rooted in the notion that they were delivering the will of the Almighty, now man could decide for himself; he was free to be and to do whatever he chose, within the limits of what is possible. We just had to discover what was possible. Whereas in the past, the human person had had its structure and essence defined for it by the entire system of which it was a part, now, modern man was free of all that and at perfect liberty to make and re-make himself in whatever form he pleased. The dream of the Comte de Laplace included the notion that even the knottiest moral problem of humanity could now be decided, not by appeal to tradition, revelation or authority, but merely by calculation. It seemed that paradise was almost visible just ahead, and not the paradise of the Church in some ill-defined, celestial place, at some unknown future time, but rather an earthly paradise achieved by the wit and effort of man alone. The optimism of the nineteenth century in the ability of man to achieve his own salvation was unbounded. This was the century in which the Utilitarian philosophy flourished and in which the Socialist movement was born. The spirit was definitely meliorist: things could only get better since the human intellect had been freed from the trammels of entrenched religious authorities with their irrational superstitions and fantasies concerning the nature and destiny of human life. The word ‘modern’ acquired a value-laden meaning that suggested that all previous historical epochs were merely periods of error to be superseded by the arrival of the truth.

Nietzsche, however, who summed up this entire phase of European history in his negative, funereal, ominous phrase, knew that something altogether less encouraging was entailed. He knew that the optimistic spirit of melioristic Utilitarianism, the optimism of men of ‘modern ideas’ was grounded in something of an illusion. It was as if prisoners had suddenly been released from their bonds and were dashing out with loud cries of victory into the sunlight. Their glee would be understandable, since the dungeon had been exchanged for the pure air of freedom. Possibilities seemed limitless. What Nietzsche feared was that this freedom from the intellectual tutelage of the divinely directed world-order was freedom to very little or nothing at all. It was as if the prisoners had rushed out of their cells and beyond the walls of the prison only to find themselves in a waterless, foodless, trackless desert. It was for this reason that Nietzsche set himself the task of taking upon himself all the consequences of the sudden meaninglessness of the world after the death of God a meaninglessness rendered all the more stark by the growing influence of the Darwinian narrative. Not only had any overall moral or rational structure to the world vanished, any form or shape to human life had vanished with it. The moral world order had disappeared and with it, for Nietzsche, so had the rational world order upon which it depended. Life after the death of God was shapeless, formless and directionless. In the words of Dostoyevsky, “everything is permitted,” and if everything is permitted, nothing has value.

Nietzsche set himself up as the prophet of the coming nihilism – the view of the world that claims that nothing has meaning or sense or value and everything is essentially shapeless, worthless and chaotic. Nietzsche knew that the psychological consequences of such a catastrophic shift in attitudes for the common man and for the powerful were disastrous. The departure of meaning from the world meant that meanings derived from social structures were a mere pis-aller and the self was in effect left with no other resources for the achievement of happiness than those of the self. The self was free, but it no longer had any sense of direction. Whereas formerly it had fitted into an entire world-order, now it was left scratching around trying to find any little structure at all into which it could scuttle and in which it could find a sense of meaning.

For this reason, Nietzsche developed his vision of the world as a monstrous self-devouring, self-regurgitating system of undirected energy, without end, beginning or purpose, eternally self-repeating, cyclic and absolutely unredeemed by the slightest glimmer of sense. Within such an “Eternal Return of the Same”, he proposed that the only role for man, the only duty for man, the only meaning for man was that of self-creation: man had to push his Will to Power to the limit; he had to will to become the next thing in evolution: the Superman. Although Nietzsche claimed to be persuaded by the scientific view of the world, the element of teleology in this appeared to escape him. But then he was not renowned for his respect for purely scientific logic. This vision of the self-creating, self-fulfilling human self became the only replacement for the Church’s vision of the human soul as given and designed by God to be saved by obedience to him and to fulfil a destiny decided by him.

And that is essentially where we are today, though the picture has become decidedly more complex as a consequence of our increasing acquaintance with non-European cultures. The Existentialist movement, particularly in its European form, developed a vision of human life as thrown together by chance, endowed with an intellect that served simply to discover the senselessness of existence, situated in a world of things to which it had no possible relation, going nowhere and meaning nothing. Such a life, for the Existentialists, could only be made tolerable by means of a kind of revolt. The revolt was to be a revolt against the cruel absurdity of a senseless existence and it was to be a revolt that asserted the identity and value of human life in the face of anything that an inanimate and unfeeling world could throw at it. There was no point, the Existentialists argued, in taking cowardly refuge in little ready-made systems of second-hand values, in what little meaning could be salvaged from the ruins of the Christian world-view. Such a policy was snivelling, inauthentic and unworthy of the self-declared dignity of man. The only decent policy, according to them, was to shake one’s fist at the meaningless cosmos and create oneself, entirely by one’s own efforts, and with this self-creation, help others to create themselves.

For a world devoid of values, this was no mean accomplishment. This was quite a set of values. The values of self-help and niceness to others seemed to come out of nowhere, bolstered as they were by the human spirit of defiance. But it didn’t help much. It sounded like so much loud, hearty singing designed to raise depressed spirits. We were still unhoused, orphaned, alienated and alone. We were still confused, disoriented and unconvinced.

The Post-Modern movement with its eclectic, ironic spirit followed hard on the heels of Existentialism, but essentially served up a diet of warmed-up and unsatisfying left-overs. All sorts of formerly oppressed and slighted groups began to flex their muscles in the pervading ‘anything-goes’ atmosphere. The youth culture came and went. Deference disappeared entirely from public life and for good. Church, monarchy, aristocracy, class – all of these traditionally valuable structures became material for stand-up comics, no more than ridiculous pretensions appropriate to a world structured by illusion. Splenetic little atheists began crawling out of the woodwork all over the place and gleefully enunciating their negative truth, convinced they were on to something new, but actually just ignorant of the history of the matter.

And so here we are in the twenty-first: unless one embraces a traditionally religious structure, nothing is in essence of any more value than anything else. And yet the world has not come to an end. The ruling values are those of materialism and consumerism despite much hand-wringing about the state of the planet; and although many agencies, including western governments, try to recommend traditional values, the embarrassment is palpable. The mass media, in cahoots with the industrial-commercial complex, foster conspicuous consumption and the accumulation of things as the meaning of life, but actually as the motor of the political and economic machine. People go along with it, but they are not fooled. They know that there is something amiss.

There is a void at the heart of modern increasingly mechanised, increasingly controlled human life that is troubling. Traditional value-systems still exist, but they are becoming more beleaguered and therefore more fundamentalist, more strident and less intellectually persuasive as they batten down the hatches against the surging tides of relativism. Everyone knows that consumption and materialism only palliate the pain. As we enthuse about the wonders of technology, we choke in the effluent from our industry. There is something deeply wrong with human life in the twenty-first century and there is not even a diagnosis of the problem, let alone the suggestion of a cure. The meaning appears to have gone from life for good, but we remain the creatures we always were: creatures who crave structure and meaning, not only to our individual everyday routine, but to the world at large, to the universe as a whole, and if we cannot have this, we feel ill. So what is the future for meaning?

The answer to this question would be equivalent to finding the Holy Grail and there is no pretension to do so here. We have tried scientific meanings, tried the perfect parallax of mind, world and language, hindworld, foreworld and midworld, and it has not worked. Of course, it was doomed from the start. How could anyone possibly find solace in a theory, in a bunch of sentences or mathematical equations, particularly given the undeniable fact that theories come and go and no possibility of a definitive one was either envisaged or desired? How could the banal, repetitive mechanism of some clever-dick ‘proof’ possibly satisfy? A mechanical world-system is a tomb in which to be buried alive. That is the sense of Nietzsche’s “Eternal Return of the Same”. So if meaning is not to be found in some formula, some incantation, some form of words or symbols, even some very big binary number, where on earth can it be found?

Since we’ve tried all the formulae, it can only be in praxis, in an activity, in a discovery of a connection between self and world between hindworld and, not foreworld, but hyperworld. Only in the establishment of a living, dynamic link between the self and the universe, a link of great intimacy, a non-mechanical link that establishes for us, for all time, the conviction that we are at home in the universe as a whole, can we begin to shed our alienation, our sense of disorientation and confusion, our sense of worthlessness and anxiety and begin to live. It may well be that there is an arduous road of apprenticeship to be followed along which all the midworld structures – including practices – considered to be redemptive have to be studied, if only then afterwards to be found to be inadequate, laid aside, emptied of the possible illumination they provide, and transcended. But the end of the process cannot be a definitive state of some absolute ‘knowledge’ in an exhaustive theory of the world, a linguistic structure, an orthodoxy, a dogma. If it can not be a form of words, then it can only be praxis. What the nature of that praxis is, is by no means easy to discover, but some start towards its discovery can certainly be made by considering notions such as ‘contemplation’, ‘meditation’, ‘revelation’ and the like within the context of a general examination of the nature of creativity.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


Today is world philosophy day. If it is anything it must be a day on which individual, untrammelled, rational reflection is promoted. Why is that of any importance? Well, if you believe Socrates, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. So if you’re living a life that does not include habitual reflection in your own unique way on the significance and purpose of what you’re doing, then your life is not worth living. What this ‘not worth living’ means roughly corresponds to the Existentialist idea of ‘bad faith’ – that is to say, you are living a life that is borrowed from others and therefore not your own.

Pretty harsh eh?

The thing about this sort of rigorous commitment to thinking for oneself is that it’s fiendishly difficult to maintain. Even those thinkers who make great public virtue of it and bang on about the necessity of thinking for yourself often show allegiance to this or that particular school of thought. Do they then think for themselves? They affix a badge to themselves – ‘rationalist’, ‘atheist’, ‘humanist’, or whatever and proceed to articulate the received wisdom of their tribe as if the arguments there in vogue somehow issued from the very purest of unprejudiced rationality. Very often, however, these free thinkers represent the essence of unfree thought, thinking within a particular box and appearing not to realise it. They cite this or that major prophet – Einstein, Darwin, Marx etc. – with great regularity and imagine that their chosen authority is somehow indisputable. We seem as humans incapable of avoiding this sort of credulity.

So is it at all possible to stick to the essential ideals of World Philosophy Day, and if so, is there any point? What’s wrong with a second-hand existence? Why should we not simply scuttle into little shells of belief like panic-stricken hermit crabs? What’s so wonderful about trying to come up with the answer to the world-riddle with nothing but one’s own resources? Perhaps, after all, there’s something wrong with our urge to believe the first set of propositions that strike us as reasonable.

Since all philosophy is a linguistic activity and since language is a group activity, it would seem impossible to practise it outside of a group. Practising it inside a particular group seems to condemn one to the speech and thought patterns of the group and eo ipso to second-hand thinking. The freest thinker still has to follow certain prevailing assumptions and thought-patterns. The point about examining one’s own assumptions is to get out of the straightjacket of prejudice, preconception, received wisdom, dogma and other similar rigid thought-patterns that afflict the human race. So what’s the point?

The point of sloughing off all inherited and acquired thought-patterns and linguistic conventions does not appear obvious at first. It seems to lead to extreme scepticism, cynicism, nihilism and related negative states of mind. But that is merely a first impression. Scepticism is analogous to depression in that it is a highly disagreeable, negative state that once worked through brings real benefits. The trick is not to connive with the depression or the scepticism by adopting it as one’s (more or less fashionable) attitude and thereafter wearing it like a badge. Scepticism is only a means to an end and the end in question has been discovered by some of the greatest philosophers in history. It is the insight that there is an insight beyond language and that it is this that generates all insight expressed in language. Something analogous happens in ethics, when the understanding dawns that virtue lies not in obeying rules, but in grasping the essence of vice.

Philosophy that a) relies wholly on language and logic and on the rules of discourse and b) promotes some particular brand of knowledge as final, will never do any more than create a cosy little huddle of consensus. In creating consensus it will inevitably create opposition to the consensus. So philosophy would seem to be able to accomplish only the creation of yet more second-hand thought and the perpetuation of discord. Unless, that is, the insight of some of the greatest philosophers of all time (Socrates, Kant, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein to name just four) is taken seriously. This insight involves seeing that language can only take us so far and that beyond language there is only the attitude of listening. One listens to the world and to oneself listening to the world and one leaves the generation of new insight to the strange chemistry of mind and world that generates all philosophy. A common word for this is ‘creativity’. Creation is a universal, unpredictable process; and one is oneself inseparably a part of it. But far from rushing into language, having gone beyond scepticism one simply recognises one’s own intimate and dynamic connection to all that is. Giving voice to this subsequently in language is a tricky business, but that is where real philosophy begins.

Fostering the ability of true critical thinking, the ideal of World Philosophy Day, is not as straightforward as many who advocate it seem to believe. So a word of caution: develop a fine nose for intellectual despotism and beware of little ideologues and dogmatists disguised as free thinkers.

Friday, November 13, 2009


Telling stories to account for the world and everything that happens in it, whether to ourselves or to others, is something that we as humans do instinctively. Our stories, however, have to have beginnings, middles and ends, origins, developments and dénouements, causes, phenomena and purposes. It seems that we find it difficult to account for anything in the world without giving overarching reasons for events as well as historical causes. But even more significantly: we would not get up in the morning if we could not see a purpose in doing so, since there would be no reason to prefer one impulse to another. We would be like Burridan’s ass, paralysed by indecision. Our moral existence is rendered impossible if we cannot attribute purposes to processes.

When the first attempts at a purely rational account of the world were made by the Ancient Greeks, the thought that natural processes were governed by inherent purposes seemed to these early investigators self-evident. Purposes were considered to be quite legitimate as reasons for events. Natural purposes were another of those things that just appear ‘obvious’ to humans. The Pre-Socratic philosophers, who were much more interested in what we would regard as natural science than in any abstruse questions of epistemology or ethics, worked out systems of sweeping universality, tracing every phenomenon in the world to some basic arche or fundamental reason for the world, water, air, the formless, fire, mathematical relations, and so on according to which the natural world ‘grew’ (phusein ‘to grow’ – the origin of the words ‘physics’, ‘physical’ etc.). With this approach, they founded in a sense the method of reduction that was to become exclusively valid in our culture. But the systems they built up on these basic concepts were imbued with teleological notions: things happened for reasons that were not simply a column of antecedent historical ‘causes’ on which the present was supposedly balanced like a ping-pong ball on a spout of water; and the world was thus a comprehensible whole working according to principles of co-ordinated functioning that the human mind could appreciate as intelligent. As old Thales put it: “everything is full of gods”.

It was Aristotle who put the notion of the natural purposes of the world on a firm conceptual footing. He postulated that every separate thing in the world has an inbuilt natural purpose, even if it be only the humble stone whose purpose is always to seek, despite the hindrance of other objects, its ‘proper place’ at the centre of the earth. Aristotle was principally a biologist and interested mainly in living systems. It is not surprising, therefore, that he viewed everything in organic or quasi-organic terms. When he considered the living world, he theorised that each living unit was animated by a ‘form’, a kind of organising principle that guaranteed that the matter composing the creature would be organised during its individual history into the various stages of the organism. This form was a kind of essence, a kind of template, a kind of natural definition of what it meant to be the creature in question; and thus the creature’s existence was, as it were, mapped out from birth to grave in definite formal terms. But Aristotle also knew that matter became organised in the world not just from internal forces but also owing to external forces, heat, cold, water, earth and so on. He knew similarly that different types of material systems organised themselves in different ways. But he postulated that whatever the forces acting upon a natural system, it remained always under the guidance of another principle that as it were functioned as a sort of future goal. Every natural system tended inevitably to the realisation of what, thanks to its inner form, it was destined to become.

This goal or telos was not only the organisation, let’s say of the fully formed adult organism, but also the achievement of the range of typical roles that such an organism was designed to play within the whole system of the natural world. Thus Aristotle came upon his theory of the four types of ‘cause’. He called them individually the ‘formal cause’, the ‘efficient cause’, the ‘material cause’ and the ‘final cause’. In many senses, the first three of these could be grouped together and fused into the one single type of cause that modern science uses. But the last of these was used by Aristotle to construct a complete, coherent and co-ordinated system of nature based upon rationally comprehensible reasons for which everything happened. Every creature in nature, including man, fitted into an intricate and completely orchestrated nexus of interdependences in which each individual existent contributed intelligibly to the functioning of the whole. This conception of nature was to rule European thought for nigh on two thousand years after Aristotle had invented it and it has only been in the last three hundred years that the notion of natural purposes, what is called ‘teleology’ has been condemned as an illegitimate concept in any approach to the world based upon scientific method. The scientific method accounts for all process historically and only allows consideration of the future to exist as an extrapolation of past regularity into the future – what is called ‘induction’.

Aristotle’s four causes were reduced by the modern scientific attitude to just one. The material and the efficient causes were fused, the formal cause disappeared (except, perhaps as the notion of a genetic code which is anyway just another thing with a causal history) and the final cause was simply thrown out of the window as incomprehensible because it required an intelligence in nature that took into account the future of things as well as their past. Modern science set itself the task of constructing a complete and exhaustive world system on the historical cause alone. Only antecedent causes (what Aristotle called ‘efficient causes’) could be regarded as explanatory. Final causes suggested that the changes in nature were either due to some mysterious attraction from the future, or to a planning, quasi-human intelligence and neither of these would do.

Since the science of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries set about exploring purely mechanical principles, only the prior, historical cause mattered because only the historical cause could be understood solely in terms of the properties and motions of physical objects. The result of this was that not only did the notion of ‘purpose’ disappear from scientific language; the very idea of a purpose to any natural system was banished with loud cries of ‘mysticism!’ or ‘mystification!’, or worse. The sciences in which this loathing of the concept of purpose was most evident were the biological sciences. This was perhaps understandable, given the Aristotelian heritage. But the enthusiastic embrace of ever more arbitrarily mechanistic, ever less meaningful principles in the explanation of the origins and functioning of living systems culminated in the Darwinian theory of the survival of the fittest by natural selection, a theory in which any notion of inherent purposefulness to the natural world was pronounced to be erroneous. This was no bad thing, since it reined in the speculative impulse and prevented the religious from pontificating on the direction of natural processes.

After Darwin, the biological sciences developed his insights in increasingly mechanistic ways and the blind struggle for survival, the meaningless competitive development of adaptive advantage, the senseless and directionless battle of all against each became the means by which the natural world and its exquisitely tuned systems were accounted for. Of course, the very notions of ‘struggle’, ‘survival’ ‘adaptation’, ‘competition’ are teleological because they are inseparable from purposes; and the biological sciences have to use all sorts of contortions of language to avoid slipping inadvertently into the language of teleology. Natural systems evolve ‘in order’ to adapt, they adapt ‘in order’ to compete, they struggle ‘in order’ to compete and they compete ‘in order’ to survive after all. The ‘purpose’ of evolution is adaptation and survival. This sort of language, though it is everywhere in evolutionary theory, is huffily pronounced to be no more than a convenient shorthand way of talking, for in fact, everything happens strictly at random and for no other reason than those that are built into the ‘necessities’ of matter.

The principal reason for this reflex-rejection of any hint of purpose in the processes of nature had not so much to do with the philosophical teleology of the Greeks and of European philosophy influenced by them. It had more to do with the fact that the Christian Church in its various forms and deisms and theisms in all their forms had enthusiastically espoused this philosophical teleology and were busily finding all manner of subtle and not so subtle purposes in the course of nature. Most of these purposes, however, were blatantly human purposes and the originators of these teleological theories seemed intent on demonstrating that God had organised the entire course of nature for the convenience of man. This notion was after all at the heart of the founding myths of Judaism and of Christianity, which grew out of it.

Despite the rigorous arguments of David Hume and Immanuel Kant in the eighteenth century concerning the impossibility of arguing rationally for any detectable purpose in the course of nature, many people in the nineteenth century – usually religious people with propagandistic intentions, and most notably William Paley – argued that the exquisite order in the natural world that was in the process of being uncovered by an increasingly exact science could only have one explanation: intelligent purposiveness or, to use a more contemporary phrase, ‘intelligent design’. Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection and the later theory of random mutations of the genome, however, put paid to the breezy optimism of these theories. But something of them remained. Something like a worry remained in the minds of the biologists for the temptation of purposive accounts of natural phenomena was ever present. In the popular mind, natural purposes seemed self-evident, as they had to the earliest philosophers. It was for these reasons that the biologists became almost inquisitorial in the rooting out of teleological ‘heresy’ and in the denial of the role of purpose in nature. There is no more touchy and sensitive area in modern science than the issue of purpose in evolution. The witch-finder general still stalks the land in defence of Darwinian orthodoxy. It was for this reason that the biological sciences became the most mechanistic and dogmatic of sciences and post-Darwin, the most fertile fund of anti-religious and atheistic arguments for the essential futility, cruelty and senselessness of all life.

This banishment of any hint of purposiveness in nature was an important factor in the development of philosophical theories concerning the total absence of any sort of sense, meaning, structure or direction to human life that have largely characterised modern philosophy. Religion had provided complete structural accounts of the world within which the individual human life could be seen to have an overall shape, a beginning, a middle and an end and perhaps a destiny beyond that. Everything was under divine guidance and distinctly going somewhere. The post-Darwinian world, by contrast saw human life as just one episode in a meaningless story of struggle for survival, a story that was going nowhere and meant nothing, that was mere senseless gibberish.

Many philosophers, most notably Nietzsche, rubbed their hands at the discomfiture of the religious believers, whose cosy world-system was exposed as an unsustainable fantasy, a mere fiction. With the ‘death of God’, purpose disappeared entirely and even the short-term purposes that human beings give themselves to structure their lives, though explicable in terms of power-relations, were seen as completely meaningless. From this basic perception arose the atheistic version of Existentialist philosophy and the theory that, far from having any essential structure and sense, human life is intrinsically nonsensical and without value. The doctrine of ‘absurdity’ had arrived and, with the support of trendy French intellectuals, enjoyed a very great vogue. The heirs to this nexus of philosophical persuasions are the splenetic little atheists that appear regularly on our television screens and bill themselves as scourges of all who believe in religious fairy-tales.

In the modern world, questions of meaning have dominated many areas of philosophy, but meaning has quite rightly been uncovered as a property of sentences, and groups of sentences, not of lives or worlds. Teleology has been expunged from the vocabulary of science. It still exists in ethics, but only as a theory that claims that ‘the end – or purpose – justifies the means’. Modern man lives in a world from which all overriding meaning and purpose has drained; and that is a most uncomfortable state of affairs, because the partial meanings that can be created (job, family, football team, club, collection etc) somehow lose their shine if they are ultimately situated in an ocean of meaninglessness. We, as creatures, crave a sense of direction and structure that transcends our individual life; and we will not give that up just because someone tells us that it’s just a matter of the little purpose-craving circuit in our brains that’s working overtime.

Teleology is proscribed by science because it is considered to arise in a subjective prejudice: humans crave purposes in everything in order to be able to act coherently; and thus they project these purposes onto the universe and structure universal events according to them. Clearly, however, if knowledge is to be objective, then mere human psychology can not be allowed to interfere with this. What is often overlooked in this striving is the fact that our canons of rationality arise no less from the structure of our minds and depend no less on a particular set of gizmos in the brain. We are built to require rationality; our brains force us to demand it just as they demand purpose. But we are also built to require meaning and to abandon this is no more possible than to abandon rationality.

The whole enterprise of science is based on the purpose of achieving understanding and on the ultimate purpose of achieving ultimate understanding. Nevertheless, the official ideological view of the scientific community – not necessarily of individual scientists – is the theory that since the universe can be adequately described as mere matter in motion, questions of value and purpose are strictly irrelevant. This theory and the not very logical corollary that everything in the universe thus has no meaning have contributed more than any other cultural development to a sense of unease in the modern world that finds its voice in many works of literature. The myopic, local meanings – a pretty garden, impressive culinary skills, shoes that don’t pinch and so on – simply do not satisfy. We seem to need something grander, something more universal. And it is precisely this, according to contemporary science and philosophy, that we can not have.

Well perhaps it is time to question this thesis.

If one thinks for a moment about it, the natural purposes of the world, if they exist, do not at all have to be human purposes. If one thinks further about it, the world is full of purposes that are not human. It would, indeed, be extraordinary and incredible if all purposes were human, since humans certainly did not think up, design or construct the world; rather the reverse was the case. The main arguments for the rational impossibility of arguing for the existence of purpose in nature have generally concerned the impossibility of detecting human purposes in the overall course of events. But only a mind convinced of the existence of an anthropomorphic God, a sort of universal Father Christmas, would even want to begin to detect such purposes. A little thought, as usual, is all that is needed to convince us not only of the intrinsic absurdity of such a world – how could there be a human purpose in the existence of so many things that clearly thwart and frustrate human purposes? – but also of its profoundly disagreeable nature: a universe based upon human purposes would be intolerably claustrophobic and even more absurd than a purely chaotic one.

On the other hand, the non-existence of human purposes in nature could easily go together with the presence of ‘purposes’ of a non-human character. The single inverted commas indicate that we could be talking about something here for which we have no word. Of course, these ‘purposes’ might be undetectable and they might even militate in certain respects against merely human well-being; but there is no logical reason why the absence of human purposes makes every conceivable, or inconceivable type of ‘purpose’ impossible. It quite simply does not. Moreover, the presence of non-human purposes in the cosmos would not necessarily vitiate human purposes, it could merely subsume them, just as human purposes subsume those of the creatures we use for our convenience.

There may well be structure and coherence in the course of nature that we cannot detect with the aid of our mechanising schemata alone. There may also be purposive structure and coherence in nature that we can at least partially, if only partially understand as being intelligent in human terms. We could conceivably understand these without being committed to postulating understanding of any overall purposes. This would be a kind of ‘purposiveness without purpose’ (Zweckmäßigkeit ohne Zweck) in Kant’s term, which is, according to him, the basis of our judgement of the aesthetic purpose of the art object, similar to the principle of Gesetzmäßigkeit ohne Gesetz or ‘lawfulness without law’ that governs our tendency to make teleological judgements about the course of nature. There is no reason why we should not assess the ‘purposiveness’ which we imagine we detect in the universe in ways that are analogous to our assessment of beauty in art. After all, we need some principle to moderate the suffocating and outmoded mechanism of the current intellectual paradigm and this mechanism, itself, arises in human predispositions that are no more authoritative than the predisposition to seek purpose.

It is the case that nature is full of purposes from those of the marauding amoeba to those of the pack of hunting chimpanzees. We can by projection understand the purposes of most biological systems, but there is no reason to suppose that purpose does not structure other agglomerations of matter that we observe in the history of the universe. Because these purposes are not human, there is no logical reason why we should not imagine all the systems of the natural world as governed by purpose and therefore by value. The scientific rejection of both purpose and value in nature is something that derives more from prejudice (‘humanism’ where this word designates a prejudice in the series ‘racism’, ‘sexism’, ‘ageism’ and the rest) than from strict reasoning.

What do biologists say about the human craving for purpose and meaning to life and the universe? Man, they tell us, is a creature that has evolved so spectacularly and in such a short time because of his ability to set himself achievable goals, immediate purposes. Man’s entire consciousness is structured by a sense of purpose. He accounts for everything in terms of purposes. It seems to be an intrinsic feature of his right-brain habit of telling coherent stories about his experience. All the stories he tells himself about the world and events in it have a structure, they go somewhere. Man is almost incapable of viewing any set of events without striving to detect his own purposes in them. The search for purpose seems to be a way of life that governs everything man represents to himself, from the immediate intention to feed himself to the entire course of the universe. It is the fact that human consciousness is so suffused with the sense of purpose that philosophers and scientists first imagined that purpose in nature was simply obvious. Now that we think we know that there is no purpose at all in nature, we have to get used to seeing this particular kink in our minds for what it is and become accustomed to putting it to one side as a delusion. We have to develop the habit of understanding that our craving for purpose is simply a projection onto the world of something that structures our minds. Once we have understood this prejudice of ours, we can catch ourselves at it and each time we do so make an effort to stop it – just like a nasty habit. We can reassure ourselves, every time we find ourselves thinking in terms of universal purpose, that this is just a particular tendency of the mind that evolution has built into us, it has no sense and no application to the world and we can rid ourselves of it.

Well, this is all well and good, but if we are built to expect purposes in nature, certain consequences follow. Firstly, that does not mean that there are necessarily none: logically, it is just as intelligent to say that we expect purposes because they are there and we are equipped to detect them. Secondly, and more importantly, the same argument from projection can be applied to many other aspects of our constitution. If we are cognitively and psychologically predisposed to spot purposes where there are none, might it not also be the case that we are cognitively and psychologically predisposed to find patterns, mechanisms, separate things and rational explanations for things where there are none?

Rationality is just as much a property of our minds – rather than of the world – as our tendency to espy purposes. So the rational explanation of our history and origins in terms of the evolutionary theory may be no more than the projection onto the cosmos of a particular (maybe right-brain) prejudice to which we are inclined. You cannot have it both ways: either our cognitive apparatus makes contact with reality by means of the principles upon which it operates, or it does not make contact. You can’t selectively excise bits of the mind and say, “these are inappropriate to a view of the world” and leave other bits, no less part of our constitution and say of them, “these are absolutely authoritative.” Our search for reasons, rational explanations, is clearly no more authoritative than our search for purposes and meanings, since both are apparently programmed into us by evolution. The world has no purpose, O.K., but by the same token, it has no rationally comprehensible structure either. There is no use appealing to technology to ‘prove’ that our rational explanations truly belong to the world, because our ethics, our codes of law, our societies, our entire history, ‘prove’ the appropriateness of our attribution of purpose. Both evolve together and there is no point in singling the one out as authoritative while dismissing the other as illusory. Our minds come up with mechanisms and purposes in equal measure.

It would seem legitimate to suppose that either the whole of our mind makes contact with reality, and as a whole, or no part of it does, for no part is obviously more authoritative than any other. There is no reason to select the logical principles applicable to our conception of three-dimensional objects as uniquely authoritative and to reject the need for purpose: the one is not more ‘obvious’ than the other. It’s just that we have opted to favour the one and refuse the other. Evolution has equipped us with the ability to reason concerning a world of three-dimensional objects; but that approach clearly has real limits, as Kant showed in his Critique of Pure Reason. It has also equipped us with the ability to structure that world by means of purposes; while being conscious of the limits of this approach, there is no reason why we should not use it heuristically. We can use both of these structuring devices critically, but there is no absolutely convincing reason for favouring the one over the other. What is programmed into us by evolution, or by creation as a whole, by hyperworld, is either authoritative in all its parts or not in any. Either the sensory-cognitive apparatus that makes us think in terms of reasons, causes and purposes is authoritative in all its parts or we may as well believe that it is so in none.

So if you want to think in terms of a world governed by an overall meaning that you may not be able to detect, but that you may wish to trust as coherent, nevertheless, then you may. Science and the modern theory of evolution cannot gainsay you, though the outmoded defenders of the thing-ideology might try. Our very sense of self is connected with our need for meaning and purpose. But this truth is also relevant here and often overlooked: our very notion of rationality is also linked with purpose, since our search for knowledge is closely allied to our human existence. The idea that we can search for knowledge without purpose is simply, absurdly wrong.

The individual sense of purpose and the search for universal purpose – two very different things in fact – seem essential to our functioning as persons. Science cannot forbid us to search for a means to integrate our human purposes into universal purposes on the basis of an argument concerning projection, for to take away projection is to take away any chance of comprehending the world. We project all of our inventions on the world: logic, maths, language, model-making. The astonishing thing is that they seem to fit in so many respects and illuminate the world. Even our emotions at times seem to have cognitive force: think for one moment of the loathing of ugliness that preceded the rational realisation that dirty industry damaged our world. There is no absolutely reliable approach to the world the authoritativeness of which is somehow guaranteed absolutely and independently of us (objectively). The belief in such an approach is a prejudice of a similar order to that which made us believe in absolute three-dimensional space and absolute one-dimensional, linear time. We have to use what we have at our disposal and what we have is a total response to the world, a friction of hindworld against foreworld and hyperworld that gives rise to new structures in midworld. We cannot prejudge which bits of our total response, which bits of our intellectual and emotional constitution are applicable to the world and which are not. We have to play them all off against each other and see if the result is illuminating, if, in our view, it makes contact with reality.

To deny purposes is no more intelligent that to deny rational explanations and it’s time we rehabilitated them in some form. We are not likely to fall into the trap of elevating our immediate human purposes to cosmic significance, but we can think with perfect legitimacy in terms of the intelligent co-ordination of the cosmos in the context of which our existence has sense. A sense of trust in the dispositions of that intelligence would not seem to be in any way irrational. We may think in terms of a mainstream of events in the history of the cosmos, where some hint of accumulation of purpose seems to be detectable – e.g. from the level of the fine-tuned fundamental constants that permit the variety of our world, to the emergence of intelligent carbon-based life on our planet that depends upon them – if not demonstrable in purely mechanistic terms. To trust such a fundamental purpose would not damage in any way the methods or the procedures of science; but it would constitute a source of moral insight that the human race could find extremely valuable.

The moral constitution of man is narrowly bound up with the purpose and value of events. Of course, these purposes and values can be set merely as useful fictions in terms of group conventions and group dynamics. But we want something more; and that ‘wanting something more’ is a total response of the total mind. The total response of the total human being includes every kind of response from the most rational to the most emotional. Listening to all of it at once requires great sophistication. To be able to listen to it and respond to it with intimations (to put it no higher than that) of universal sense and meaning would be salutary indeed for most of the human race, despite the strident opposition of the inflated reifying ego with its pretensions to divinity and its desire to be in mechanical control.

Thursday, November 5, 2009


The delusion that we have harboured, at least since we convinced ourselves that we no longer believed in God, that our truth, scientific or not, can in some sense be final and exclusive of all alternatives, has to go. The opposite of ‘absolute’ is ‘relative’. If our truth is relative, what is it relative to? It can be relative to competing truths, but it can fundamentally only be relative to us, to our point of view, to our capacities, to the extent of our experience or to the kind of language we use. But why should that bother us? It means we are not gods; and it means that we cannot be sure that we are going to obtain godlike omniscience with our truth. But why should that bother us? The old sophist Protagoras was the first to be associated with the doctrine that ‘man is the measure of all things’, that is to say that truth is relative to each human individual. Now this is potentially a nonsensical doctrine because it suggests that consensus is impossible, while we all know that it is not. Nevertheless, it remains the case that we all occupy a unique point of view and our brains present us with a unique picture of the world.

Nevertheless, we all live in the world. We do not know the nature of that world, but by virtue of having evolved in it as a species, we necessarily make contact with it as a group. If we didn’t we wouldn’t have survived for very long. Why is it not sufficient for us to be satisfied with a conception of truth that makes it relative to our needs and goes no further? The reason, we have maintained, is bound up with the sense of self and more particularly with the ego: we have to be in control; and if our knowledge is not absolute – at least potentially – then we lose some of the sense of control that we desire. Our power-seeking, narcissistic ego seems to be motivated to search only for ‘absolute’ truth because only that flatters its self-love. Ignorance is a loss of control and if our knowledge only goes so far, then we are ignorant about the extent of our ignorance and may be deluding ourselves entirely, for that reason, about our knowledge. This thought is unsettling to us and we will do our damnedest to rid ourselves of it. Nevertheless, it seems that the absolute, godlike truth that we have desired for thousands of years and that we have desired with almost fanatical intensity in the last couple of hundred is very bad for us. It is damaging and futile because the principal means at our disposal of acquiring knowledge – the thing-ideology and mathematical logic – only give us access to a narrow band of reality and increasingly narrower bands of that narrow band. Our so-called ‘scientific method’ constitutes a set of very restricting blinkers that make us act in increasingly short-sighted and potentially disastrous ways. The problem is quite simply this: we are searching for a truth about reality that we could never obtain by means of methods that badly distort our ability to understand. But our belief in those methods and our desire to be right are so intense that we continue despite every set-back.

We are manically scrabbling around for ever more detailed reductive ‘truth’ and neglecting the kind of knowledge that we really need as humans. We are amassing ever more facts as our understanding of values diminishes. We are vastly inflating our understanding of the detailed nature of ‘things’ and neglecting utterly the understanding of our complex personalities that allow us to live in the world. Through our obsession with objects, we reify everything, ourselves and our fellows included; we depersonalise ourselves, dehumanise ourselves and deprive ourselves of the understanding of wholes that is required by our personalities and vital to our mental health. Reductive ‘truth’ becomes falsehood when applied to things that have to be treated as wholes possessing emergent creative properties that are not present at lower levels of analysis.

Perhaps what we need is an ultimate holistic truth. The language of wholes requires us to use a vocabulary that is not that of things, so its truth cannot be ‘thing’-truth. We have to use a vocabulary that includes not only ‘thoughts’, ‘minds’, ‘intentions’, but also ‘purposes’, ‘meanings’ and the like, for they are an integral part of any world we can understand. Our understanding is essentially narrative. But our vocabulary also has to include words that as yet we do not have or that are sneered at because they are not thing-words. Thing-words exclude precisely what is of most value to us and we have come to the conclusion that since what is of most value to us cannot be expressed in thing-words, what is of most value to us has no sense nor meaning and therefore, paradoxically, no value. This is a remarkable state of affairs and a remarkably dangerous one. The very essence of our being is under attack by thing-words, by thing-truth, by the obsession with the absolute truth of the thing-ideology – and for no good reason except our misguided sense of precision. The thing-obsession exists only because we have chosen to limit reality to what we can perceive with the senses, or imagine ourselves as perceiving with the senses (things such as atoms and sub-atomic particles), and express in the language of three-dimensional objects. We have to understand this, understand that it is a problem of language, a problem of midworld, and not in any sense a problem of the world as such. It is a problem we have created because of our ego-driven obsession with the need to control a realm of things by means of propositions.

So what is the solution? The solution seems to be that we have to give up exclusive reliance on the thing-language, the thing-logic, the thing-obsessed method, the thing-truth by which we reify the world and ourselves. We have to develop a language of wholes. If we do not do this, then our language is not generative of truth because it is not true to our nature. It destroys us. We are not things and the language of things when applied reductively to us and to the exclusion of the wholes that we require produces the opposite of truth.

Truth, insofar as it is expressible and sharable in language, i.e. ‘objective’, is our truth, it is the truth we need. It has this irreducibly subjective dimension to it. We cannot have some neutral, ‘completely objective’, absolute, ‘final’ truth about the world that pretends to take no account of who and what we are. Such a truth would be a meaningless collection of data. The thing-ideology is no more than our cognitive infirmity writ large. How then could we expect it to yield the kind of magnificent, monolithic, eternal truth we seek? It is time that we evolved a method of establishing our truth about the world as a whole in non-reductive terms. Why is this? The reason for this is that we are constitutionally unable to live in a world that we do not understand as a meaningful whole, that does not have sense and meaning for us as a totality, that has no purpose that we can identify. A world of mobile bits and pieces has no meaning for us.

We have to be able, rationally to form a picture of the world as a whole that strikes us as valuable, redolent of meaning and inclusive of us and our personalities. The truth that does this will be rather different from the truth we have imagined ourselves as seeking for so long a time. It will not be a truth based upon the vainglorious notion of ‘proof’ – which is no more than the desire to inflict a kind of intellectual violence – but rather on the notion of creative ‘insight’. This, of course, requires a lot of good will, a lot of willingness to make compromise and a great dollop of humility. It can not be obtained with the ego’s tetchy determination to thrust through its individual point of view at all cost. It requires great flexibility of mind, a great deal of imagination and a huge ability to see the sense in all of those systems of value that have given meaning and purpose to human life throughout the ages. In short, this new kind of truth requires a lot of wisdom, the wisdom of poets, artists, seers, prophets and visionaries. Such wisdom has, of course been around for a long time; but for us, here and now, it has to be guaranteed by its longevity, by its success in illuminating individual lives throughout the ages and is to be distinguished from incoherent rambling and raving. It has to be consistent with our profoundest convictions concerning science and morality.

The way this truth will be fostered will be by a change in the paradigm that rules the culture of the west. This change will involve a shift of view within precise science, away from exclusive devotion to analysis and reduction, towards a preparedness to consider the entire universe as a co-ordinated, creative whole, an intelligent whole. This view will require us to see that from the basic filaments of matter, to (and perhaps beyond) the level of the most complicate object known to us – the brain – the world functions as an information-driven and thus intelligent system, in which all parts are intimately connected to all other parts.

It is time we enunciated this basic truth: the whole universe gave rise to us and gave us the characteristics we possess, including our desire for truth. Thus there must be some sense in which every aspect of our nature – including our intelligence – is essentially related to this whole, just as the matter of our brain is intimately related to the whole of matter. That relatedness of our personality is the essence of the truth we need; and it is not illuminated by analysis alone: it needs a synthetic narrative that includes those aspects of our nature that make us human. It is a logical fallacy to deduce properties of wholes from parts and properties of parts from wholes, sure, but we are not practising deduction here: we are simply asserting an intuitive understanding that generated the old notion of the microcosm mirroring the macrocosm and that threw up the idea of self-similarity in complexity-theory. We are fundamentally related to the universe and its history; so it is unlikely that our intelligent personality is an incomprehensible and freakish anomaly any more than our materiality is freakish or anomalous. It is far more likely that intelligence is a property of reality as such and it is that that connects our minds and those of other beings to the world. Why, after all, should our relatedness to the world be material alone?

The kind of connectedness within reality that is involved here is a connection that the word ‘intimate’ does not get across with sufficient force. It is a connection that implies complete interdependence of all parts, such that the dynamics of the part are inseparable from the dynamics of the whole. The part is unfolded in the whole and the whole is enfolded in the part. The sub-atomic particle enfolds the entire universe (the hologram could provide an analogy here) and unfolds its own nature only in the context of the whole universe. Since this is true of sub-atomic particles, it is true to a much more intense degree of brains and of those entities that use brains for their self-expression, minds. The notion that the mind is somehow generated by the brain, analogously with the hum of an electric motor, as some have supposed, is untenable. The connection ‘brain-plus-the-rest-of reality’ may indeed constitute the mind; but the object-besotted, counter-intuitive dogma that decrees that ‘this 3D object that we can handle and dissect just is the mind’ can now be ditched.

Truth concerning connectedness can to a certain extent be obtained by analytical methods, for it is the exploration of matter by these methods that has convinced physicists of the interdependence of all the ‘things’ in the world. But the analytical methods have to be supplemented by synthetic methods in which the flexible, non-rigid language of wholes presents humanity with a benign picture of the universal milieu it inhabits. These synthetic methods will have to make use of the entire resources of imaginative literature and spiritual tradition of the entire planet insofar as this literature and this tradition has earned its keep by its longevity and potential for development. A careful and sympathetic study of the vocabulary of this ancient language will reveal insights about the symbiosis of man and world that arises from our long evolutionary past and that cannot be neglected. If we neglect it, it will be on account of the thing-dogma and nothing else. The mind, if left to itself regulates itself. It is only when dogma infects it that the mind begins to produce the aberrations that we have seen in recent history. Throughout the history of the human race, humans have sought a spiritual sense to life that was not obvious from a study of the items of their environment revealed by the senses. We have to re-discover this spiritual connectedness and re-discover the truth of wholes in order to supplement the one-sided language of parts. If we do not do this, we will continue to know more and more about less and less as far as our humanity is concerned. We will continue to pile up ‘facts’ about ‘things’ and neglect utterly the understanding of ourselves that is vital to our survival. It is the dogmatic logic of the thing-ideology that has led us to devastate our planet and this can only be reversed by an understanding of the intimate connection between our mind and our world. It does not stand over against us as a brute and insensate lump of stuff: it is us and we are it. These pronouns hide too much.

The holistic truth we need is as much an indispensable component of our cognitive acquisition as our precise science. The fact that it arises from creative insight and not by reductive logic should not put us off. The point of contact between reductive science and holistic insight is in the concept of ‘pattern’. Much of our search for truth arises from the urge to categorise the items of our experience. But the urge to categorise arises in a more fundamental ability which we share with every living system (and perhaps with non-living systems): it is the fundamental ability of pattern-recognition. Pattern recognition is not under our control. It is one of those things that simply happen to us within the pattern-rich cosmos. Pattern-recognition is not the result of the use of language, because animals without language exhibit it; language is rather the result of it. Language allows pattern recognition to take off and effect quantum-leaps in mental functioning, where layer upon layer of pattern-recognition within pattern-recognition is added to the original ability. The origin of self-consciousness is in this multi-dimensional reflectivity of midworld.

Yet truth is a matter not only of pattern-recognition, but also of pattern-generation. The extent to which we can establish a correspondence between the patterns we detect in our experience and the patterns we generate in the manipulation of the formalism (the language) that structures our minds constitutes our ‘truth’. Needless to say, any ability to decide if or when these patterns are definitive eludes us because we lack the ability to approach nature except by the linguistic patterns that we develop. We have no way of knowing to what extent these patterns actually correspond to what is ‘there’. Contact is obviously made with reality our grasp of certain patterns allows us to manipulate natural systems. The correspondence theory of truth is of value for technology and other mechanical modelling, but for our mental well-being, we need another sort of truth: moral truth. A fundamental aspect of such moral truth is this: we ourselves are part of the universal pattern-generation; we ourselves are aspects of the perpetual meaningful innovation of nature. If our insight suggests to us that we are in the process of being created by a universal Creator, then maybe that is the ultimate pattern we need.

Our patterns are not mere banal repetitions; why then should we suppose that those of nature are? The extent of the ultimate ‘correspondence’ of our truth will elude us for ever, since the patterns we generate in our language are reflective of but not reproductive of reality. Moreover, in order to judge the ‘exactness’ of such a correspondence we would have to view nature from a vantage above and beyond the patterns we perceive and generate. In our objective truth, this is impossible. In our moral truth, however, we need to see this ability as indeed in a sense being ours, to the extent that we find existing truth inadequate and have hunches concerning a more capacious truth yet to be discovered. We have to live as if we understood the world and the direction it is taking; and in our ‘objective’ knowledge, we do not. It is a perpetual surprise. In our moral ‘knowledge’ we feel we understand the way the world ‘should’ be; and it is in that type of creative hunch that we can be said to understand the future.

The vantage-point beyond and above our formalisms permits us to expand and improve those formalisms, it does not permit us to perceive the full extent of their power. We can discover nature by expanding our formalisms and we have no guarantee, in so doing, of our approaching absolute ‘truth’. In all probability we are doing no more than extending prosthetically our human ability to perceive. But to equate human perception with access to all that is, remains folly. Nevertheless, our pattern-recognising intellect must be trusted, for we have ultimately no other source of authority at all. Our pattern-recognising and pattern-generating intelligence is the intimate link between mind and world, between self and non-self and this relation is our ultimate truth.

So if we do give up the notion of absolute truth and of one day achieving the absolute correspondence between our models and reality, what is the significance of pattern-recognition for our humanity, what is the moral truth of pattern-recognition? The answer to this must again be found in the fundamental guarantor of our ability to espy both holistic patterns and reductive patterns: the essential relatedness of mind and world. Mind and world are fundamentally one. The world creates itself and in creating itself, creates us. Being created and creating are for us the same thing. Our creativity is part of the creativity of nature and reflective of the self-similarity of the world at all levels.

We have to take seriously our incorrigible impulse to espy purpose and meaning, intelligence and creative innovation, where the thing-ideology says we must see only banal, repetitive things. We have to take seriously the archetypal human emotions that drive us to think in certain ways. The relatedness of our minds and their world is not something we can choose. The ego cannot decide to believe only what flatters it. The monopoly on truth supposedly held by reductive science is an illusion bolstered and reinforced by the gizmos of technological progress. It is an ideology and no-one has the right to dictate what constitutes the ‘truth’ of a proposition on the basis of an ideology. If our pattern-recognising intellect espies patterns that present the mind with intimations of an intelligence in nature of which our own is an aspect, then it is simply illegitimate to denounce such perceptions of pattern on the basis of a belief that only things are real. We are not at liberty to suppress the archetypal thought-patterns of the human species. They have to become the basis of a new type of faith.

We need a truth that is multi-facetted and human. We have a surfeit of truth about ‘matter’ and ‘proof’ about objects. More and more of this kind of truth will not get us the understanding that we need to live in the world in harmony with the environment and with each other. The old idea of Gallileo that we could obtain knowledge of the ultimate laws of all reality is now defunct. We have to change our mindset with regard to truth and begin to entertain assumptions about those patterns that reveal to us wholes, whole people, whole societies, whole worlds, the whole universe, that we have not allowed ourselves to entertain because of our monomaniacal, ego-impelled obsession with the control of the universe of things. We could profitably adopt as an assumption the positing of the intelligently co-ordinated nature of the universe as a whole. Of course some people are going to throw up their hands in disgust and despair with a cry of “there we are, this is just another appeal in favour of belief in God,” and with that consign the entire notion of truth about wholes to the dustbin. But such people should examine their own reasons for reacting thus. We may not need the word ‘God’ and indeed it is a word so loaded with silly association that it may not be of very great use. But the word ‘intelligence’ as a property of the whole universe is altogether more neutral. There is no use at all in pleading the cause of any particular religion, but we could at least have the intellectual honesty to see whether some of their insights might not be valuable. We should be honest enough to admit that our obsession with parts is what blinds us to the whole. This is the thesis of the biologist Stuart Kauffman’s ground-breaking books At Home in the Universe and Rediscovering the Sacred.

If the universe is a meaningless mechanism, then we may do well to shrink into some comforting shell of our own making. If, on the other hand, the whole universe is intelligently co-ordinated, then that is surely a matter of extreme importance to us. We can never ‘prove’ this insight, because proof is about applying 3D categories, local truths, in language. But indulging in a sort of knee-jerk denial on the basis of the thing-ideology is of no help whatever. Rather than ruling the possibility of universal intelligence out of court on the basis of the thing-dogma, we should admit that we tend to see the world as intelligently co-ordinated and ask ourselves what are the benefits of seeing the world according to this fundamental tendency of our minds? They are many; but surely the most essential is the morally vital link they create between us and our environment. There is a literal world of difference between, on the one hand, seeing the universe as a collection of meaningless objects and oneself as one of them, albeit endowed with an anomalous intelligence and, on the other hand, seeing oneself as integrated by virtue of one’s intelligence into the intelligent process of the whole of reality. In the one view, we are shut out of a reality that is alien to us; in the other we belong and are catered for within reality, even though the universal intelligence – not being human – may not ultimately be comprehensible by us. The moral difference could not be greater. As far as truth is concerned, exploring the nature of this belonging by the methods at our disposal would be truth enough. If our intelligence has been generated by a more capacious, universal intelligence, then to trust the latter is rational in the extreme. It may well be that as we investigate it, more methods of approach will be developed and our consciousness enhanced.

But we should also think thus: the thing ideology is only a view of the world based upon a set of assumptions and these assumptions, being exclusive rather than inclusive, are restrictions upon our minds rather than liberations. Why should we cling obsessively to 3D truth as the only possible form of truth? Why should we cling to a restricting dogma that is damaging us because it is reifying us, when we could liberate our intellect and our imagination by the adoption of an assumption that would open up an infinity of dimensions to reality that we have up to this point only feebly imagined? If we entertain the possibility that the entire universe is an intelligently co-ordinated totality, we do not put ourselves in thrall to the old gods, who as Nietzsche pointed out, have died; we rather liberate ourselves absolutely. We liberate ourselves absolutely because as a mere aspect of universal intelligence our own intelligence is clearly limited and the discovery of the nature of universal intelligence is infinitely fascinating to it. The ever-renewed discovery of the connection between the two is perhaps, fundamentally, what we mean by our concept ‘truth’. And it may turn out that we are able to thrive on a perpetual rediscovery of this truth.

The question is this: would the entertainment of such an assumption be any more than a kind of humming a jolly tune in the cold, inhospitable universe of matter in order to cheer ourselves up? Would the adoption of the assumption be any more than pie in the sky? Would it be any more than comforting fantasy? Would it be any more well-founded than infantile craving for parental images? It is far from obvious, given many developments in physics, that the answer to these questions is ‘no’. These developments include the Anthropic Principle, the Uncertainty Principle, Quantum indeterminacy, the Implicate Order and many other insights in precise science that seem to cry out for a new discovery of the totality of the world in non-analytic, non-reductive, non-reifying terms.

Truth is not a set of absolute and final descriptive declarations concerning a collection of things thought to represent the ultimate ‘state’; though a set of provisional propositions may be part of truth. Truth has also to be a set of insights that provide us with what we need in order to live with each other and with our world. Thus our truth has to be both technological know-how and vision of coherent totality. We can no longer sustain our world without the first, but we cannot live without the second either. It is probably only by the second that we can humanise the first and render it benign. We have the first in abundance; the second is rudimentary. We have only a short span of time before the exponential development of our technological expertise allied to our moral ignorance will lead us to complete our sawing through the branch upon which we are sitting and plunge us into disaster. If that were to happen, it could well be the judgment upon our feeble understanding of the intelligent world. It could be the enactment of our self-inflicted death-sentence.

We have to re-assess our holistic view of the world as a matter of great urgency and ask ourselves whether our craving for control is not destroying us, whether we would not do well to abandon the means of our control – the thing-ideology – and take up a stance that integrates our intelligence into the universe such that ours is dependent and precisely not in control. Our truth is dependent upon a source of creative insight we do not control, but by which we are controlled. Learning to trust this source of our creativity may integrate us into creation and convince us that our creativity is the same as our being created. In the end, truth has to be our awareness and understanding of our role within the universal process of creation. This would of course in a sense be the rediscovery of something we had lost and imagined we were better off without; but it would be a rediscovery of ancient insight on a higher level of consciousness and would combine, as in a myth, science, religion, art, morality and all the other accomplishments of the race.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


...the truth shall make you free... (Bible)

We take truth to be something that it is not; and many of our severest cultural problems arise from this confusion. It is in the understanding of truth that the ‘bewitchment’ of our minds by language is at its most dangerous. We consider it to be 1) something we can possess forever in a form of language; and 2) something definitive, final and absolute. The very idea of ‘absolute truth’, however, is a contradictio in adjecto, unless we consider the truth we create to be identical with all that was, is and will be. But we can’t and we don’t. Truth is a human creation. We know what we mean by ‘truth’ when the contrast with ‘falsehood’ is obvious, as for example if I say, in order to gain an advantage, that I have no money whereas my bank account is well furnished and I have no debts. The trouble is that from this obvious conception of truth, we extrapolate to a ‘true’ state of the universe that is accessible to us in sentences. When truth becomes something that a person will die for or – worse – kill for, then we know that the bewitchment of the mind by sentences has become complete.

Truth is a question of sentences or symbol strings in a language. This language insofar as it is rigorous is nowadays largely mathematical. We believe that a series of mathematical propositions can express all that is the case concerning a state of affairs. But mathematics is only the precisest form of expression that we have and it achieves its precision at considerable cost: by ignoring semantic imprecision. This means that it works by simplifying for semantics is a tricky business of levels or areas or overlaps of meaning. This means that what mathematics says is a simplification. This means that the truth of such a body of propositions is necessarily less than what it is supposed to be truth about. Reality is anyway always different from and more than our truth. How could it be otherwise? How different and how much more, we cannot tell; but what could be more different than these two: a bunch of sentences or symbol strings, and the rich pageant of reality? This means that such truth that we hold – if we hold it to be absolute – is false in proportion to what is left out. This means that our precisest truth, since it is partial truth, is always false. And since we do not know how much is left out, we do not know how false it is. We can know the extent of the truth or falsehood concerning statements about my financial position; but we will never know the extent of the truth or falsehood of statements about the universe as a whole. For even if our statements concerning the universe as a whole apparently correspond to the facts as we experience them, we can never know if we have all the facts. We can never know whether there are facts that are out of our range.

The notion that we could come up with the ultimate set of true sentences about the world as a whole is thus fundamentally misguided. If reality did not continue to present us with matters that are not dealt with in our truth, our truth would be identical and interchangeable with reality. But identity with reality is clearly a nonsensical notion since sentences are intrinsically and essentially different from reality. Midworld is not foreworld. Sentences are fixed patterns of sound or symbol, whereas reality is the given and is never the same from one moment to the next. Reality, moreover is not present in its entirety to our sensory-cognitive apparatus; whereas sentences, insofar as they are precise, hide nothing. Truth can thus never be true in the manner in which we want it to be true. There is no limit to the number of sentences to describe reality. The best conception of truth would seem therefore to be this: sentences that make some useful contact with reality and allow the transfer of meaning concerning reality without being empowered to pronounce themselves definitive. Truth is clearly always capable of becoming more true, i.e. possessing more contacts with a reality. Thus it is to be understood as an unattainable ideal and not a concrete possession. Such truth as we think we hold should be held very lightly.

Since truth can always be improved and since the seeker after it commits him or herself to it both as a possession and as a continuing search, knowledge of it bears far more similarities to faith than is commonly supposed, even to the point of being capable of becoming bigotry as religious belief often can. Truth is indissolubly linked with enduring but outdated ideas of divine knowledge. The truth we still seek is the truth we used to think of as the possession of the divine. I may be able to know all the facts of the matter concerning your financial position and to be able to compare this with your statements concerning the same. Since that sort of truth is available to us, we used to imagine by analogy, that God could know all the facts of the matter concerning the universe, past present and future. Then, when we pensioned God off, we continued to imagine that His knowledge was available to us. It is time we realised that such knowledge never existed, any more than the ego-God who held it ever existed.

The family resemblance between faith and rational knowledge of truth is obscured by the fact that in real faith certain elements that are distinct in the search for truth are left fused together. These elements, however, emerge separately as soon as the faith in question is rationally defended or attacked; and the desire to defend faith or to attack faith is one of the most potent sources of what is considered to be knowledge of the truth. Two of these elements are 1) a passion to understand and 2) the sceptical suspension of belief. These conflicting elements are both vital because although truth is highly prized, dogmatism is considered by the most honest minds to be worthless. Nevertheless an absolute conception of truth has been fostered for millennia in the western philosophical tradition. All of the major philosophers from Plato to those of the nineteenth century had the passion for truth; not all of them, regrettably, easily suspended belief. Some of them rushed to absolute conclusions to which they had no right. Some scientists then followed suit.

Plato, for whom the objects of knowledge, the Forms and the Form of the Good were intrinsically ineffable, nevertheless claimed the possibility of rational knowledge of these things that could be expressed in the language of men. Aristotle reasoned that the universe was the creative work of God, but then he proceeded to lose interest in the divinity and treat him as irrelevant to human knowledge, which in the view of the great man was rational and nearing completion in his own philosophy. The Medieval philosophers, too, while possessing a fine understanding of the ineffable nature of the essential ‘truths’ of Christianity, began to put reason if not on the same footing as faith, at least nearly there and created the climate in which reason could potentially supplant faith’s role in the quest for knowledge.

With the Renaissance and later, the Enlightenment, faith’s role in knowledge was reduced progressively and its importance eclipsed by loud and confident appeals to reason. Reason became the only route to knowledge and faith was demoted to a most inferior status in which, although a certain cognitive potential was recognised in it, this cognitive value was considered to be childish and inchoate, to be illuminated and clarified by reason. Faith was equated with credulity. For Hegel, there was a point in the evolution of human culture, not far in the future, at which the definitive truth about the entire universe would be ours to possess forever. But Hegel was as confused about the nature of reason as the ancients and allowed his confusion to efface the distinction between reasoning in language and the essential process of reality.

It was only with the works of the Romantic thinkers and later in the writings of thinkers such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche that signalled the definitive waning of the Enlightenment confidence in reason, that things began to change. The limits of reason were becoming all too evident. The ability of reason to impose a carapace upon thought and lead it into orthodoxy and dogmatism was becoming widely recognised.  Thus though the passion of the search for truth remained, the sceptical aspect of things, the suspension of belief began to dominate.

Truth in the works of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and later in those of the Existentialists and Wittgenstein, became increasingly separated from the structure of language and from the ability of language to convince on account of its formal properties. Truth became something that in Wittgenstein’s words, one would do better to keep silent about (“verschweigen”) rather than rushing confidently into noisy celebrations that this or that formulation had finally captured it forever. Deconstruction then finished the job; truth was unmasked as wishful or manipulative ideology, the tool of the power-hungry or the vain.

Thus scepticism and passion to know, while remaining prominent in the search for truth, led to a conception of it in which it became in a sense too valuable to be wrapped up in words. Just as the lover shrinks from a theoretical or mechanical explanation of his love for the beloved, so the searchers after truth recognised that their passion was never assuaged by this or that formulation, but that the formulations could only, again in Wittgenstein’s image, constitute a “ladder” to understanding, that would have to be discarded as soon as this understanding dawned. If they persisted in claiming absolute status for their verities, one pitied them for their lack of philosophical sophistication.

A further discussion of the nature of truth was conducted in psychological circles, particularly those influenced by psychoanalysis and the various schools spawned by Freudian theory. There, particularly in the works of the revisionists, truth was unmasked as potentially no more than the ego’s means of burnishing its own self-regard. Both the individual ego and the tribal ego are flattered by the thought of their being in possession of a definitive cultural good that other inferior individuals or tribes do not possess. The ego’s truth is linked with the sense of personal identity and personal accomplishment and for that reason it comes to be regarded by the ego in question is sacred. It is for this reason that all truth tends towards dogma. The ego believes that what appears self-evident to it is indeed self-evident absolutely. In many formulations of our truth, we cannot grasp how it could be false. The rational ego is thus the sole criterion of truth for reasons that are more expressive of limitation than authority, though the ego is prevented by its self-regard from seeing things that way.

The upshot of all this is to return to this thesis: truth is not what we think it to be. Our local, commonsense notions of truth and its difference from falsehood cannot be extrapolated to the universe at large or to the nature of reality by the observance of some method, be it logic, empiricism, maths or whatever, except as tentative model-building. There is, however, another conception of truth available to us that does not depend entirely upon dignifying sentences with some kind of equivalence to reality itself. This sort of truth, however, involves taking seriously the possibility of truth as a state of being and not a series of sentences, a kind of skill rather than an intellectual possession.


Truth, in the twentieth, and a fortiori in the twenty-first centuries is not one unitary thing with a single precise definition. On the one hand, there is pragmatic, contingent truth, the truthfulness of which is confirmed by the repeatable ‘experiment’ (‘if I do x, y will follow’) and by the fact that it produces real effects, that it works. On the other hand, truth has much more to do with a fundamental attitude and orientation than with formulation, or with the establishment of a definitive set of final propositions. Fundamentally, what we are seeking with our notion of truth is a close relationship between our mind and the structure of reality. Kierkegaard’s objections to Hegel are in this respect most instructive: Hegel believed that absolute truth was to be obtained by rational means alone and that religion and art were the childish gropings of the human race towards this rational absolute. Kierkegaard recognised that down that road lay dogmatism, mechanical rigidity and totalitarianism of the mind – the totalitarianism that had been present in Western thought at least since Plato and that was massively reinforced by belief in the monotheistic divinity. Kierkegaard recognised that knowledge and truth had far more to do with the relation of the mind to the unpredictable creative process that drives the entire cosmos, and humanity along with it, than with some form of words that claims to sum up the essence of all reality. He considered that to possess the truth, as a finite mind, was to be attuned to the creative activity of that intelligence that generated the universe at every moment of its existence. He recognised, too, that this relation could never be one of descriptive and explanatory propositions to a definable reality thus represented. The only possibility of a state of knowledge, for the human mind, was to be creatively aware of one’s role as part of the universal creative process. One could not say the truth but only be it through a leap of faith. To put it in its briefest terms, knowledge was not the possession of the truth, but the living of the truth by means of the mind’s throwing itself completely on the conviction that only in the complete commitment to a perpetual reliance on the ineffable activity of the absolute within the events of history could the mind possess anything like truth. This reliance was for Kierkegaard the essence of faith. Thus for him, faith combined, in equal quantities, the scepticism of the seeker for truth with the passion that motivates the search, and its difference from truth was less evident than for Hegel. In Kierkegaard, the scepticism became total and the passion too; we can never possess in propositional terms the definitive truth of the universe, but we can ‘embody’ it and thereby satisfy our passion, our love. This of course means giving up any notion that the ego is in control by means of its truth.

The search for ‘total’ understanding, as a possession, remains nevertheless a deeply human quest; and it is difficult to see how it could be satisfied if not in the establishment of some dynamic, indissoluble link between the individual mind and the nature of the world. The notion of its being satisfied in a final set of rationally coherent sentences is plain delusion.

Kierkegaard, the Christian, worked of course with some traditional Christian notions. In his work, the love of truth is inseparable from the love of God, since for him, God is the ultimate truth about the universe: He is its generator and its sustainer and the reason why it has the character it does have. Of course little can be maintained about such a God except that He generates the universe and therefore has to be trusted, however risky such trust may feel. The truth about the universe is therefore not found in the universe, as an object of possible experience, not in any set of sentences that one can pronounce about what is experienced in the language of men, but only in the absolute commitment to a reliance on the unseen, unheard, unknown source of all that is. Faith therefore in this view is an attitude of mind: the attitude of complete trust. Truth is the knowledge that one is, here and now, in the state of being nourished by the object of that trust.

It would seem that between the two possible extremes, between this kind of mystical, ineffable ‘being in the truth’ on the one hand, and the possession of the definitive set of propositions that may dogmatically be considered to be the final truth, although vulnerable to scepticism, on the other, there is only the local, contingent truth of pragmatism. The ineffable truth has no form, and on its own is sterile. The dogmatic truth allows for no increase in knowledge and is for that reason divorced from the world: unchanging truth in a changing world can not be true. The practical truth at least has the benefit of being of immediate value, however false it may become tomorrow; but the mind will always demand more than this. Thus any one conception of truth fails by its very nature to satisfy our requirements. It is perhaps only in the comprehension, the ‘taking together’ of all of the contrasting conceptions at once that these requirements can be satisfied. This is intellectual pluralism of the most extreme kind.