CERTAINTY – SYNTHESIS – PART VI (CONTINUED)

The sixth most confident proposition of ultimate reality is I am a part of something larger (the unity of the universe). Unless one denies the existence of an external world and other people, one is only a part of a whole. Participation in and identification with that whole is a fundamental understanding for a person seeking a meaningful life. In its extreme form we get the wonderful ancient Hindu truth atman = brahman; your inner self is the same as the ethereal self of the cosmos.

Next is Something always existed. This is perhaps more accurately a metaphysical principle based on the logic that something cannot come from nothing. It is echoed in our own being: while we “know” nothingness as that state before our birth, we concede, nonetheless, that our existence was caused by something else. The corollary is of a lower degree of certainty, but remains the most rational explanation of eternal existence – Somethingness is necessarily existent. No other explanation offers equal justification and plausibility.

Eighth in order is Nature and others should be respected. Since nature and others are that portion of the cosmos with which we make contact and we are undeniably one with the cosmos, this follows as a mixed ultimate and ethical principle.

Ninth is I sense the divine at times. Most of us will have at least transient experience of an ethereal realm of beauty and oneness, which phenomenologically we recognize as integral to the human condition. Only the strictest materialist will deny this experience, and here I follow Husserl in bracketing the source of that experience.

Last of the top ten is Contemplation is one means to participation in ultimate reality. This proposition is far too vague to stand up to rigorous philosophical or scientific scrutiny, but is subjectively true. Detachment from the everyday and internal meditation on the fundamental nature of reality brings one to the ultimate, but its internal origin means this truth cannot be shared directly with others. Readers will have to discover this on their own.

We are ready now to tabulate our results again with addition of a few additional propositions important in thinking about practical philosophy.

PROPOSITION DEGREE OF CERTAINTY COMMENTS
1 The cosmos is a unity 99.6+
2 There is a state of nothingness. 99.5+
3 God defined as the origin of the universe or the universe itself exists. 99.4+ Other characterizations of God are of low certainty.
4 The cosmos is governed by rational laws. 99.3+ Mixed empirical and ultimate principle.
5 Creativity is an element of the universe. 99.1+
6 I am a part of something larger (the unity of the universe). 99.0
7 Something always existed. 97.9 Somethingness is necessarily existent.
8 Nature and others should be respected. 97.8 Mixed ethical and ultimate principle.
9 I sense the divine at times. 96.9 Others’ mystical experiences are less certain.
10 Contemplation is one means to participation in ultimate reality. 96
What is, is supposed to be. 92 There is no alternative possible world.
I am here for a reason. 91
World religions incorporate authentic ultimate reality. 80

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1See the section on God on this site, especially blogs dated 3/18/2019, 3/20/2019, and 3/22/2019.

2See blogs this site dated 7/20/2020, 7/22, 2020, 7/29/2020, and 7/31/2020.

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LIFE AND DEATH

“The goal of all life is death.” – Sigmund Freud.

Before we can talk of what happens after death we must understand exactly what life is, or perhaps what it means to be alive. Webster’s dictionary’s first definition of the word ‘life’ is:

“the condition that distinguishes organisms from inorganic objects and dead organisms, being manifest by growth through metabolism, reproduction, and the power of adaptation to environment through changes originating internally.”1

The German biologist and philosopher, Bernhard Rensch begins his defining of life by pointing out that the distinction between the animate and the inanimate is not easy, as most distinguishing characteristics are shared by both groups. After an extended introduction, he concludes that living things have about a dozen major characteristics, one of which is temporary constancy, by which he appears to mean temporal continuity.2

On the other hand, the Webster dictionary defines ‘death’ as “the total and permanent cessation of all vital functions of an organism.”3

The philosophical implications of our definitions are self-evident.  First there are the two corollary principles: life requires continuity and death is permanent. Thus, by definition, there can be no life after death – it is logically impossible. Either the living being never died which meets the criterion of continuity or it is dead, which is irreversible.

Second, traditional conceptions of soul do not represent life as defined above, and therefore the soul cannot be the basis of eternal life. The consequence is that when most traditions speak of ‘immortality,’ they are not referring to unending life in the biological sense. It turns out there is ‘immortal’ life on planet earth, i.e. in the form of unicellular organism which multiply be asexual means, so that the original organism continues and in theory can continue to live indefinitely. However the price of multicellularity for humans is sexual reproduction and the inevitable death of the parental organism.

In addition to the epistemological proofs above, we have the experience of humanity – all human beings die, and none is later found living (we will discuss contradictions raised in the Bible in later posts). The only coherent conclusion is that human life is not eternal on either a logical or empirical basis. The concept of human immortality defined as eternal biological life can be discarded.

1Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Barnes & Noble, Inc. 2003. ISBN 0-7607-4975-2, page 1110.

2Bernhard Rensch, Biophilosophy, Columbia University Press, New York, 1971. ISBN 0-231-03299-X, pages 35-66.

3Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Barnes & Noble, Inc. 2003. ISBN 0-7607-4975-2, page 513.

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CURRENT READING – BEFORE THE BIG BANG (cont’d)

Sternglass, a physicist, takes a different approach in this book. He develops Georges LeMaitre’s original theory of the ‘primeval atom’ as an extremely heavy and rapidly rotating electron-positron pair within which the mass of the universe is contained by virtue of its energy (think E=mc2). The origin of the this pair is hypothesized as coming from a ‘vortex ring’ or superstring that vibrates so violently that it pinches itself in half with the two ends rotating at 180 degrees relative to each other creating the first pair of charges.

Subsequently 270 divisions of this original pair over about 15 trillion years led to the Big Bang and the mass and structure of the universe with all parts still rotating and including some ‘seed pairs’ – clusters of more massive electron-proton pairs that divided later to become galaxies and stars.

One advantage of the theory is its explanation of the stability of the universe as the balance of the centrifugal force of the rotating universe (Einstein’s “cosmologic constant”) to the gravitational attraction of its parts. It also relies on simpler factors than the standard theory – just the mass and charge of the electron, the speed of light, and Planck’s constant. It may also explain Guth’s inflation, quasars, continued star formation, dark matter, and the relative small size of distant galaxies detected by the Hubble telescope.

However Sternglass’ theory has not been readily accepted by cosmologists who see it as inconsistent with the body of astronomical knowledge. It counters the prevailing opinion that the universe began as a singularity. It depends on the vortex occurring with an ether like one proposed by the ancient Greeks, but dismissed by modern science. There is little evidence the universe is actually rotating. And it does not predict the more recently identified Higgs particle as foreseen with the standard model.4

It is not the purpose of this post to attempt to resolve the issue of what preceded the Big Bang, rather to reconcile scientific thinking with the concept of a divine creator. Perhaps not surprisingly Flam does not use the word God in her article, but God as creator appears five times in Sternglass’ book. Once when speaking of Robert Millikan who tried to reconcile science and religion by saying matter is still being formed as evidence that “The Creator is still on the job.” A second when referring to rotation as having meaning only relative to a pre-existing ether that Isaac Newton regarded as ‘the body of God.’ The third appears when he is thinking about the specificity of Newton’s gravitational constant as unlikely to have come about by chance and the design of the universe as both elegant and understandable by humans – mentioning Albert Einstein’s famous quotes: “I cannot believe God plays with dice with the universe,” and “God is clever, but he is not malicious.”

The other two times he alludes to God are in the first and last chapters when he tries to come to terms with his own theory. His closing paragraph starts, “The architect of this design and the energy required to bring this about remain a source of mystery, awe, and wonder beyond the ken of science.” He gives the philosopher and the scientist a lot to contemplate.

1 Sternglass, Ernest J., Before the Big Bang. Four Walls Eight Windows, New York, 1997. ISBN 1-56858-087-8.

2Hoyle, Fred, The Nature of the Universe.  Harper & Brothers, New York, 1950, p. 124. Fred Hoyle argued in the 1940s for a cosmology based on the Steady State theory in a series of BBC radio broadcasts in which he gave the moniker “Big Bang” to the competing theory held by Georges Lemaitre.

3Flam, Faye, Sky and Telescope. F+W Media. Volume 137, No. 2, pages 16-21.

4 www.news.pitt.edu/news/pitt-scientists-unified-theory-origin

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CURRENT READING – BEFORE THE BIG BANG

February 22, 2018

Before The Big Bang by Ernest J. Sternglass1

 

“Continuous creation…can be represented by precise mathematical equations whose consequences can be worked out and compared with observation. On philosophical grounds I cannot see any good reason for preferring the big bang idea. Indeed it seems to me in the philosophical sense to be a distinctly unsatisfactory notion, since it puts the basic assumption out of sight where can never be challenged by a direct appeal to observation.”2 – Fred Hoyle.

While meeting up with my daughter in Fairfield, IL (population 5029), I went to the local library and purchased this book almost in passing. I had not opened it until I noticed the February 2019 issue of Sky and Telescope with the cover line, “What came before the Big Bang?” I thought this would be a fantastic opportunity to think through scientific thoughts on the origin of the universe.

In the Sky and Telescope article by Faye Flam, she notes that traditionally it was thought impossible to determine the origin of the Big Bang. But now cosmologists posit that it occurred in existing space, another universe, or a multiverse. Specific proposals on the setting of the Big Bang include:

1)  a sea of rapidly expanding space,

2) a bland expanse of empty space,

3) a comeback of a contracting universe (Big Bounce), or

4) a collision of two existing universes in a higher-dimensional space.

Many cosmologists accept Alan Guth’s theory of inflation whereby shortly after the Big Bang, the universe expanded extremely fast and extremely briefly due to a peculiar and perhaps inexplicable repulsive force. But increasingly cosmologists consider the possibility that inflation preceded the Big Bang. Some cosmologists, for example Andrei Linde, see patches of inflating space emerging from an existing chaotic universe creating a ‘pocket universe.’

Meanwhile two other theories are developing. First the bouncing universe of Paul Steinhardt offers a solution without the inexplicable inflation or need for a multiverse. Another is Sean Carroll’s theory that empty space at the highest level of entropy (disorder) contains formless ‘vacuum energy’ which can generate an occasional baby universe based on the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics.

Of course untestable speculations of this type border on metaphysics rather than science though Flam concludes by discussing some recent attempts to sort through these possibilities using observable data.

(continued next post)

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SPECIAL PROBLEMS

“Shall I teach you what knowledge is? When you know a thing, to recognize that you know it, and when you do not know a thing, to recognize that you do not know it. That is knowledge.”  – Confucius

 

Unfortunately before we can reasonably move forward to outline the path to philosophically based happiness and meaning, we need more than makes up the  broad outline on the tiers of reality and ethics. If they are the highways on a cross country drive, the ‘special problems’ are the roadside stops on that journey. Each of the special problems will require careful analysis as part of developing one’s concepts of reality and ethics. A short cut now may divert one from the correct route or lead through a maze of confusing dirt roads. They require separate analysis and are distinct from lesser problems in that one’s view in these areas will color one’s personal philosophy at every level.

The key special problems I will discuss include, in logical order:

1.    Good and evil

2.   The existence and nature of God

3.   Body and soul

4.   Death and immortality

5.   Free will and fate

6.   Teleology

7.   Suffering

During my discussion, I will focus on defining terms, providing context, reviewing traditional viewpoints and debate, and choosing the most reasonable resolutions. I will search for means to accommodate rejected alternatives in order to minimize the consequences of error. This may be done by identifying common elements, exploring metaphorical meanings, or assigning likelihood of truthfulness.

As always we cannot expect certainty, nor can we wait for it; rather we must make choices and live life within a framework of informed uncertainty. Following this phase we will be ready to draw up a blueprint for living a flourishing life.

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CURRENT READING – THE PHILOSOPHER’S MAGAZINE

The Philosopher’s Magazine1

“Philosophy is not a theory, but an activity….”– Ludwig Wittgenstein.

 

While perusing the incredibly useful book, The Philosopher’s Toolkit2, by Julian Baggini and Peter Fosl, I noticed that Mr. Baggini had founded a quarterly philosophical magazine and decided on a whim to subscribe for one year. What a delightful decision! I received my first issue in December and thought it might be interesting to blog about its contents.

I’ll begin by noting the quality of the publication is excellent with a thick glossy cover and heavy stock paper. This issue has 120 pages of content with about 10% being aesthetically produced photos and illustrations. The advisory board consists of four women and eleven men; five of the twenty-four essays are written by editors or advisory board members.

There is a medley of subject matter starting with an editorial essay memorializing a British philosopher by the name of Mary Midgley who at age 99 wrote a book titled What is Philosophy For?, wherein she tries to “make sense of this deeply puzzling world”. Then come additional articles such as ones on fake news, sustaining the planet, and the esoteric What is dirt? There is also a challenging article on time as conceived by Henri Bergson and reflected in Doctor Strange.

This issue’s forum is on neuroscience, looking at some philosophically relevant features of that field including neuroexistentialism, transcendence, free will, utilitarianism, and the relationship of neuroscience to philosophy of consciousness. I enjoyed the book review on Iddo Landau’s Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World, written by Kirsten Egerstrom, a philosophy professor whose research focuses on the topic of meaningfulness in life, an area of particular interest to me. The final piece is an interview of Matt Teichman, whose podcast is known as Elucidations, but who also refers readers to The History of Philosophy podcast which is one of his favorites.

However my favorite essay is Philosophy as a Way of Life, by John Sellars, professor of ancient philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London. In the article his stated goal is to move philosophy away from modern concerns of what we can know and how we know it to philosophy as a guide to living. He discusses Pierre Hadot’s book (of the same name as the essay) which starts with Socrates’ emphasis on “care of the soul” and traces that approach to three later schools of thought. The first is developed by Epicurus whose efforts to explain natural phenomena scientifically is directed at alleviating unwarranted fears to bring about ataraxia, or untroubledness. The second is the stoicism of Zeno which identifies philosophy as the “art of living,” with a focus on control of the emotions, and seeing nature as a unified whole. The third is Pyrrhonism which renounces all beliefs, and suggests cogent counter-arguments lead us to ‘equipollence’ (the midpoint between two sides of a debate), and an involuntary confusion, resulting in an unexpected tranquility. Cicero, Seneca, and Epictetus progressively refine these Hellenistic philosophies into approaches to real life problems and emphasis on deeds over words. Later philosophers such as Montaigne and Nietzsche also adopt the principle of philosophy as a guide to living rather than a simple mental exercise.

Overall the material in this periodical covers an amazing spectrum of philosophy in a succinct yet robust fashion. I found it very helpful in learning about current approaches to philosophical questions and for comparing my own thoughts with those of some academic experts. My only caution is that the content is by and large most appropriate for more advanced readers.

1Garvey, James (editor), The Philosopher’s Magazine. Issue 83, 4th Quarter 2018.

2 Baggini, Julian and Fosl, Peter S., The Philosopher’s Toolkit. Blackwell Publishing. 2003. ISBN  978-0-631-22874-5.

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SYNOPSIS OF THE BIG PICTURE (continued)

Second, external and cultural reality require care to avoid misperception and overcome bias. Observation of external reality requires caution – the world does in fact appear flat and the Earth does not seem to be moving, which is why it took millennia to get even intelligent people to believe otherwise. Multiple sources of data and detailed knowledge of history will reduce the chance of error in understanding society or how we got here.

Third, acknowledge the power of science. Whatever religious or personal beliefs you have, science has consistently proven to be the most reliable means to truth. It must be studied to avoid blatant error and to fully understand the physical world and cosmos. While much of science is designated as ‘theory’ (such as the ‘theory of evolution’), the real world utility and astounding predictions of science are proof of science’s validity (think of the technology in your cell phone or of the success of medicine in treating illness). Denying or dismissing science is done at great risk – consider the possible death of your child from refusal to vaccinate her.

Finally, accept that absolute certitude will not be possible in most or any of these areas. The degree of confidence should be a factor in how strongly any given notion of reality is embraced. For instance, in politics, recognizing the uncertainty of most political views is essential to social virtue. The less secure you are in an area, the more you will have to develop an ethical approach that minimizes the consequences of potential error, while accommodating the largest number of possibilities. Wisdom is not intrinsically dogmatic; rather adaptive and balanced.

Ernest Becker in his book Escape From Evil and J. Bronowksi in his towering television series and book, The Ascent of Man, highlight the horrific consequences of mistaken certainty. Ethical behavior requires an open mind in dealing with others and pursuing a better world.

If the goal is a meaningful life, errors due to a rush to judgment, denial of science, and over-reliance on imperfect perception and pre-existing bias are among its greatest dangers. In addition, there are some special problems that need to be worked out before we can finalize a pathway to that end. The reader is advised to review the following chapters to complete his or her preparatory work.

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SYNOPSIS OF THE BIG PICTURE

“The ancient precept ‘Know thyself.’ and the modern precept ‘Study nature.’ become at last one maxim.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

 

In the last thirteen sections, we have defined and examined the nature of reality and the philosophy of human conduct. The big picture of philosophy then distills into thinking about the five tiers of each of these  two basic components:

REALITY                                                       ETHICS

Internal                                                            Self-Mastery

Proximate                                                      Conduct to Others

Cultural                                                            Societal Duty

Cosmic                                                            Relationship to the Ultimate

Ultimate                                                          Supererogatory Duty

As you begin your process of sorting out these 10 areas, a few principles may be helpful to keep in mind.

First, internal reality and ethic will require intense self-examination. You are likely to find the self consists of three parts: external, internal, and primal. The external self is that which makes up your visible persona, the person you present to others; it is likely to be least important. The internal self is the psychological and mental self, most of which you share with very few others or no one. The primal self is the ineffable being Heidegger calls dasein and the Vedas call Atman– the ‘you’ that exists without adjectives, your newborn self that you have carried since before your first coherent memories; it is the being or identity which exists independent of participation in the world.

Each of these parts of the self needs defining and understanding. Phenomenology with its concept of ‘bracketing’ of the uncertain elements offers an excellent tool in this exploration.

In addition self-mastery will require long periods of reflection and lifelong commitment. Its five components of self-discipline, selflessness, self-knowledge, self-improvement, and self-actualization will accompany the journey that makes up the meaningful life. The importance of humility cannot be over-emphasized; one simply need look at the large number of historical figures brought down by hubris. Another crucial factor in the ultimate worth of life is to be guided by a strong moral compass. But in the end, the greatest reward may be the final connecting of your primal or ontological self with the unity of the cosmos in a transcendental act of enlightenment.

(continued next post)

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CULTURAL REALITY (continued)

Politics is perhaps the most challenging division of cultural reality. The word originally referred to the ancient branch of philosophy that investigates governance. Of course political science is the more modern technical discipline, although again it lacks the precision of the natural sciences. The truth of real world politics is found by the same process as history and current events, though one needs to have an even higher level of wariness and seek more sources especially in the present environment. One key principal to bear in mind is that in situations of political disagreement, no position is likely to be completely correct or incorrect, in fact, all may be either mostly correct or incorrect depending on the vantage point of the spectator. Herbert Spencer in Synthetic Philosophy 1 concludes on his analysis of truth in the realm of politics (as elsewhere) that between the most diverse beliefs there is usually something in common or taken for granted in each which has the highest probability of truth. It is the philosophical person’s task to identify those underlying truths.

More general interpretations of human behavior can be found in texts of psychology, sociology, and anthropology, with the same cautions. I personally have been influenced most by Ernest Becker who in The Denial of Death attributes key actions of great historical figures and common men to the enigma of finding meaning in a finite life through a subconscious striving to illusory heroism or significance. I was also deeply impressed by J. Bronowski’s essay Knowledge and Certainty3 where he notes that dogmatic certainty may lead to tragic consequences, and that every judgement stands on the edge of error. Meanwhile, John Dewey attributes human conduct to a mix of habit and impulse where (learned) habit encourages societal stability and impulse informs the change required of a varying environment. Intelligence then is a proper balance allowing a thoughtful reconstruction of society- the alternatives being stagnation or disorder.4 Each of us needs to try out a variety of theories in the context of our experience and observations to derive our particular picture of society.

Cultural reality is perhaps the most vital level of reality to grasp for everyday living. We can survive and even thrive without concentrated attention to the other components of reality, although life’s meanings may be obscure and fixing a direction in life may be a struggle. But as long as we are social animals, cultural reality is likely to remain the most important aspect of reality to access from a purely practical standpoint.

 

1Spencer, Herbert, Synthetic Philosophy.  D. Appleton and Company, 1903, page 8.

2Becker, Ernest, The Denial of Death. The Free Press, 1973. ISBN 0-02-902310-6.

3Brownoswki, J., The Ascent of Man. Little, Brown, and Company, 1973. Page 374.

4Dewey, John, Human Nature and Conduct. The Modern Library, 1930. Pages 125-180.

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CULTURAL REALITY

Man’s mind cannot grasp the causes of events in their completeness, but the desire to find the causes is implanted in man’s soul. – Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace.

 

The next tier up from proximate reality is cultural reality. By this phrase I mean social, political, and historical facets of reality. It differs from the earlier strata in that for the most part we do not directly perceive what happens within our community and nation, the realm of politics, and most importantly the historical context of the world we live in. Rather this reality comes to us second hand, typically from the testimony of others, sometimes in person, but more commonly via print and other media. For this reason the certainty of cultural reality is particularly limited.

Starting with history, of course nothing in the past can be known for certain. Most historians reconstruct history from physical evidence seeking at least two separate documents or other forms of substantiation to confirm any putative fact. This gives history the gloss of science, though it is of course much less exact than the natural sciences. Philosophers of history are most concerned with the interpretation of past events where they note it is difficult and perhaps impossible for a historian to generate a truly objective thesis independent of his or her underlying bias or opinion. It seems to me that the best approach is to read multiple historians on the same period to increase the scope of evidence reviewed and permit the reader to determine which interpretation is most consistent with the aggregate or to cultivate his own opinion.

To my knowledge there is no systematic philosophical discussion of real time cultural reality, i.e. current events, but more than other types of reality seems to call for familiarity with epistemology, the study of truth and what makes a statement true. The process of confirmation of the truth of current events should mimic that of history. The most trustworthy sources must be identified and scrutinized bearing in mind the apparent or potential bias of the source. Then the reader will be in a position to decide on the logical consistency of the sources and their interpretations of events as they occur.

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