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.

PROXIMATE REALITY (continued)

Edmund Husserl concerned about the uncertainty of assumptions of the natural sciences – such as the existence of the external world or the constancy of nature – develops a philosophical system which he calls phenomenology: the philosophy of experience. In this method, one studies experience while suspending any pre-existing beliefs by a process he calls ‘bracketing.’ Given subject matter is converted from external object to lived experience leading to his slogan, “Back to the things themselves.” For instance a tree is not seen as an object separate from experience but as the perception we experience. Proximate reality then is the experience of an object rather than the object itself.2

Phenomenology is picked up by many philosophers and some psychologists in the 20th century. We already alluded to Martin Heidegger who uses phenomenology to investigate internal and external reality in his challenging book, Being and Time. While his initial intention is to understand the concept of ‘being’ in general, he decides the most effective way to investigate it is to use phenomenology to understand his individual being, in German, dasein. Early in his investigation, he notes that dasein perceives at once ‘being-in-the-world.’ From this starting point he determines that the world is a region of human concern, shared with others, and man’s involvement in the world is constitutive of man’s being.3

From these sources, we learn that proximate reality is assembled from sensory perceptions by the organizing process of the mind, and while not absolutely reliable, can be trusted when based on sufficient evidence and confirmatory experience. By suspending judgment on the context of things, we can live the experience of things at hand, and the world we experience becomes integral to our own being.

As always, many philosophers do not agree with all or even any of these assessments of proximate reality, but each of these concepts was derived from deep thinking about the problem. Fidelity to philosophy means giving them substantial thought before discarding them.

 

1 Santayana, George, The Life of Reason. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1953. Pages 17-25.

2 Magill, Frank. Masterpieces of World Philosophy. HarperCollins Publsihers.  1990. ISBN 0-06-270051-0. Pages 502-509.

3Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Harper Perennial Modern Thought. 2008.ISBN 978-0-06-157599-4. Part 1.

PROXIMATE REALITY

“ … reality is a term of discourse based on a psychic complex of memories, associations, and expectations, but considered in its ideal independence by the assertive energy of thought.” – George Santayana

 

Of course an individual’s concept of internal reality will color the interpretation of the other tiers of reality.  Internal reality is by definition accessible without the use of the senses; proximate reality is my term for the composite of things as they present to us directly through the senses.  Now on the face of it, we should have no doubt about the reality within the reach of sensation, especially vision, but philosophically we want to confirm that assumption and investigate the consequences.

For example, in the last blog, I alluded to Immanuel Kant who in his Critique of Pure Reason notes that real things can only be experienced by us as perceptions – in fact we can never know the ‘thing-in-itself.’ For example, a red apple is only red because of the way its surface reflects light to an eye with a certain physiology; it is not red in-itself.  However Kant believes the mind naturally takes perceptions and places them into categories such as cause and effect or possibility and impossibility. From this Kant creates his “Copernican revolution”; reality in not mainly a function of external things but is generated by the mind’s organizing of external perceptions, that is the center moves from the things themselves to man’s mind. His model did in fact start a revolution, that is, a new field of philosophy known as German idealism which dovetailed nicely with 19th century romanticism.

George Santayana provides a critical analysis of the reality of perceptions in The Life of Reason. He agrees with Kant that the perceived world is universally experienced by man as occurring in space and time.  He observes that perception does not define a reality, rather reveals a ‘chaos of multitudinous impressions’ mixed with internal feelings and emotions.  Using the faculty of memory, vestiges of prior perceptions are correlated to current perceptions to give form to reality, a process he identifies as intelligence.  Knowledge is a recognition of something absent in direct perception – representation. In response to the skeptic, he says we cannot expect certainty in our knowledge of external reality, but belief is warranted by evidence (of the senses) as revealed through understanding. That is, pragmatically, reality is the mind’s impression of the immediate world that assures consistency in future perceptions and sensations.1

(to be continued next post)

INTERNAL REALITY (continued)

Other philosophers approach internal reality from a different point of view. Immanuel Kant shows that the world we experience can only reflect our perceptions of things (that is only our sensory inputs of them) and that we can never truly know thething-in-itself.’ Arthur Schopenauer counters that  we should be able to know the ‘thing-in-itself’ as it applies to ourselves. When he looks for it, he finds ‘will’ – that is, ‘will’ is the thing-in-itself for human beings.3 Friedrich Nietzsche drawing on Schopenauer uncovers within himself the more active and assertive ‘will to power.’ Sigmund Freud delving through the lens of psychology identifies the ceaselessly conflicting tripartite self as ego, id, and superego. Martin Heidegger uses phenomenology to explore human ‘being-in-itself’ which he calls dasein, and which is revealed to him as ‘in-the-world’, subject to mood, and in search of authenticity.4

Thinking about internal reality also leads to examination of the manifestations of the self – external, internal, and primal – most profoundly investigated in mystical traditions. External self is that persona we allow the world to see perhaps tailored to the expectations of others, often imperfect, even selfish. Internal self is the more complex personality generally known only to the individual himself, capable of virtuous transformation. It is the focus of the Western religious mystics such as Meister Eckhart. The primal self is that unthinking, non-egoic being which underlies and precedes personality and intellect, seen in the consciousness of the not yet self-aware infant. It is the point of emphasis for the great Eastern spiritual teachers such as the Buddha.

Philosophy offers much to the understanding of internal reality. Each of us needs to take the time to contemplate deeply our mind and inner self as part of meaningful growth. It appears that the likely conclusion of deep internal reflection for us will be a mixture of these  great philosophers’ impressions –    a thinking, willful, assertive, emotional, conflicted, individual being that feels both distinct from and part of the world, in search of an authentic existence.

Along the way , we will need to resolve the issue of monism versus dualism. But perhaps the greatest reward will be the profound insight gained from reconnecting with your primal self.

1 Magill, Frank. Masterpieces of World Philosophy. HarperCollins Publsihers.  1990. ISBN 0-06-270051-0. Pages 224-228.

2Berkeley, George. Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge.  The Great Books, Volume 35.  1952. Pages 403-444.

3  Schopenauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Idea, Everyman. 1995, ISBN 978-0-4608-7505-9. Page 32.

4Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Harper Perennial Modern Thought. 2008.ISBN 978-0-06-157599-4. Part 1.

INTERNAL REALITY

“I think, therefore I am.” – Rene Descartes.

The first stratum of reality is internal reality, that is, the reality of an individual’s mind. Rene Descartes is the prototypical example in the philosophical literature of exploration of internal reality at the elemental level. It is not surprising that as a mathematician he approaches philosophy as an attempt to find absolute truths that he can build into an indisputable understanding of reality. In his Meditations on First Philosophy, where by first philosophy he means metaphysics, he is sitting by a cozy fire in his home, and decides to doubt every belief he has ever held, even his own perceptions, and to try to identify what truth he can uncover from scratch purely by thinking.

He decides the most certain reality he can identify is his own existence – Cogito ergo sum – “I think, therefore I am.” He also notes the corollary is true: “I am a thing that thinks.” Then in an amazing contortion of thought, he decides the initial choice to doubt everything presupposes the possibility of certainty. Taken one more step, as an imperfect being, he can only be aware of certainty and perfection if the idea came from a perfect being, hence there must be a God. Also as a perfect God would not deceive him, the senses are generally reliable and the world is in fact real. But he determines that the mind’s knowledge of matter is limited by the imperfection of the body from which he receives impressions of external reality and error is unavoidable given his finite intellect within an infinite will.1

The consequence of Descartes’ line of reasoning, splitting internal concepts from external objects, results in what philosophers call dualism – reality as two parts: mind and body or immaterial and material. But this position is controversial, and many philosophers do not accept a separate status for the immaterial, believing the mind is simply the manifestation of organic processes within the physical brain. Another less common challenge to Descartes’ dualism denies the existence of the physical body and world altogether, that is, it asserts that only the immaterial is real, in which case the world is merely a projection of the mind. This position is advocated by the 18th century Irish bishop, George Berkeley (for whom the city of Berkeley, California and its University were named).2 These systems are known as monism, that is, reality as only physical or only immaterial.

(to be continued next post)

THE NATURE OF REALITY

WHAT IS REALITY?

“…the majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities and are often more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are.” – Niccolo Machiavelli

 

So what is this ‘reality’ we will talk about? Webster’s Dictionary gives two definitions of the word under the category of Philosophy :

1. Something that exists independent of ideas concerning it.
2. Something that exists independent of all other things and from which all other things derive.

Neither of these quite meets our needs though the second is closer to a working definition. Philosophical dictionaries and encyclopedias are of surprisingly little help; they do not typically define the word ‘reality’, rather they allude to it under other ideas such as being, truth, appearance, and nature. While all of these fall within the domain of reality, they are each too restrictive. Therefore I believe it is necessary to synthesize a definition and stratification of the word ‘reality’ for our purposes.

For this site, I will use the word ‘reality’ to mean the state of all being and all individual things corresponding to being itself and the things themselves independent of observer bias or error. The reader may choose to accept this perhaps ambiguous and circular definition or use Webster’s second definition or even use his or her own intuitive sense of the word ‘reality’.

Regardless of your preferred definition, there appear to be five distinct tiers of reality that can  further our understanding of the word and therefore require additional clarification.

1.  Internal
2. Proximate
3. Cultural
4. Cosmic
5. Ultimate

We will next define and clarify reality by fine tuning these strata.

THE TWO FUNDAMENTAL QUESTIONS (continued from last post)

Now do not be misled; the first question incorporates a variety of extremely difficult challenges that make up entire disciplines within philosophy. First there is the nature of truth, classically called epistemology, but now more commonly known as theory of knowledge. I would include within that topic the field of logic as a means to truth, and the domains of the philosophy of science, history, and language. Second is the subject of metaphysics, the investigation of being, causality, free will, and material versus non-material reality. Third is the giant issue of the existence of God and the discipline of theology. An especially important subtopic within the nature of reality is death particularly with respect to the possibility of immortality or an afterlife. (The remaining fields of Aesthetics – the philosophy of beauty and art, and Politics – the philosophy of justice and governance, are less vital to most of us in a personal philosophical system.)

If you are new to philosophy, the breadth of study may appear daunting. However while much of our work will investigate these subjects, fortunately as one reads great thinkers of the past, it becomes apparent that the fundamental question of how to live life is not dependent on a complete understanding of all of these disciplines. In fact none of the great thinkers had absolute answers in any of these areas, but nonetheless they made great progress in understanding reality and the wisdom required for a good life. Our first task is to define the scope of reality necessary to derive a program of personal conduct and meaning. Then we will critique the most valid perspectives using simple logic, experience, and common sense. This approach will allow a pragmatic understanding in a much shorter time frame.

It is worth repeating, practical philosophy comes down to just two clearly defined elements: a reasonable understanding of the nature of reality, and sound guidance as to how one should conduct oneself in the world. Not quite as daunting as you thought.

PHILOSOPHY: THE BIG PICTURE

         THE TWO FUNDAMENTAL QUESTIONS

“Each man flees from himself; but as one might expect, the self which he cannot escape cleaves to him all the more against his will. He hates himself because, a sick man, he does not know the cause of his complaint. Any man who could see that clearly would cast aside his business, and before all else would seek to understand the nature of things.” – Lucretius, De Rarum Natura (On the Nature of Things)

As complex as philosophy is, the context in which it presents to most people’s immediate need comes down to a single vital issue – how should I live my life? Or perhaps the similar, but less strictly accurate question – what is the meaning of life? It should be immediately apparent that neither form of this basic question can be answered without some level of preliminary consideration on the nature of reality.

Therefore the two fundamental questions in logical order that underlie the very core of each human life are:

(1) What is the nature of reality?
(2) How should I conduct myself in the world?

Alternatively we might say the two supreme rewards of philosophy are understanding and guidance. They are the precious treasures of philosophical study. Together they define the word wisdom.

(continued next post)

PRACTICAL VS. ACADEMIC PHILOSOPHY

“In philosophy there is generally no accepted definitive knowledge” – Karl Jaspers, Way to Wisdom.

Now that we have at least an initial definition and justification for philosophy, it is time to decide on our approach. Academic philosophy typically looks for rigorous, arguments for or against a particular point of view that can be subject to critical debate. Professional philosophers often rely on rules of logic such as those presented by Aristotle in his Organon. A classic example is the syllogism, tying two premises to a conclusion: For instance: “All men are mortal and Socrates is a man; therefore Socrates is mortal.”

In the late 19th century a modern form of logic developed first by Gottlob Frege was taken up by some important 20th century analytic philosophers such as Bertrand Russell, and Alfred North Whitehead who attempted to derive a completely logical basis for mathematics. But logic ran into limits demonstrated by annoying linguistic paradoxes such as “This sentence is false.” or “What set does the barber belong to in a town where everyone who doesn’t shave himself is shaved by the barber?”. Kurt Godel proved in the 1930s that any set of rules would either be unsound or incomplete, thereby undermining the potential of logic to perfect human understanding.1,2

Speculative philosophy is more intuitive or derived from personal experience of the world. Examples includes the teachings of the Buddha or the thoughts of the existentialists. It is based on careful reasoning and reflection which seeks to be internally consistent, but rigorous arguments are generally not applicable to its development.

After this brief introduction, I believe it is best to candidly admit that I have limited proficiency in sophisticated logic. On this site I will use some of the basic logic developed by Aristotle and deployed in most undergraduate college philosophy classes (watch for example YaleCourses: Philosophy of Death by Shelly Kagan on YouTube for excellent rigorous, but understandable logical arguments).

However most of my constructions will be more subjective and thus less amenable to formal verification. My method will be to start with some historical positions on an issue and then argue the reasonableness rather than the certainty of those positions. Support for a position may include a logical argument, but other defense may be based on intuition, experience, history, science, philosophers’ texts, common sense, and even general consensus. As we will discuss later, truth is at last subjective especially in speculative philosophy. My goal is not logical proof of hypotheses, rather the development of internally consistent practical positions on those matters which cannot wait for certainty or ever be known for certain. Formal logic may be vital in mathematical modeling, but is only one tool of many in thinking through life’s meanings. However as in all things on this site, I am open to any arguments that follow strict rules of logic that contribute to clarification of our discussion.

1 The Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida, Lawrence Cahoone. The Teaching Company, 2010.
2 Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science, Steven Gimbel, The Teaching Company, 2015

WHY DO PHILOSOPHY (continued)

Now it is possible that you think science and religion can fill those roles and are better choices as they have more defined processes to follow. But further deliberation undermines those alternatives. Starting with science, it is difficult to imagine anyone in today’s world not considering science in thinking about philosophical issues. I want to make clear that I believe that science offers the most definitive answers to questions about the nature of physical reality and science-driven technology clearly is the best means to solve most everyday problems and enhance our daily life. Science is also incredibly useful in arguing many points in philosophy, such as the nature of the mind.

However it seems to me science breaks down when trying to answer larger questions such as those posed by ethics (right versus wrong actions) and metaphysics (e.g. free will). Science struggles with being molded to answer a question such as whether there is a God. It cannot easily answer questions about happiness, justice, beauty, or even love and friendship. It is best at telling us how the material world works, but is often not designed to answer many questions about why things are as they are. Psychology, to suggest a specific scientific field, can give us fascinating insights into human behavior, but is less well equipped to show us the means to contentment, self-worth, and human meaning.

On the other hand religion appears to be useful to many people, and I do not wish to detract or even argue against personal beliefs. However religion is based on faith which appears to be unevenly distributed among people and is of variable intensity even among its proponents. Religious experiences are so individualized that they appear unreliable or illusory. Religious dogma is strongly dependent on revelation which may be inaccurately or even untruthfully recorded throughout history. Spiritual texts are frequently enigmatic, metaphorical, and open to varying interpretations. Philosophy is useful within religion as a tool to analyze sacred documents. Moreover faith can be further strengthened by reason. At a minimum, philosophy is a tool that allows religious practitioners to develop an internally consistent understanding of their religion and faith, perhaps avoiding harms like those done in the name of religion in the past.

At the end of the day, the greatest scientists and theologians (for example Einstein and St. Augustine) have fallen back on philosophy as vital to understanding their beliefs about life, mankind, and the universe. I’ll take their word for it that philosophy has much to offer the thoughtful scientist and person of faith.