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An Introduction to Philosophy
Tragedy attends every slightest misconception.
Click on any of the terms in the diagram to jump to a explanation.
"A thousand monks, a thousand religions" So read the inscription over the gateway to many an ancient retreat. If true of religion, it is more so of philosophy, since it covers the gamut of human experience and understanding. Any comprehensive classification of philosophical ideas and systems must therefore include an impossibly wide range of ideas, so a practical discussion must be selective and to some degree exclusive. The practical outcome of philosophical enquiry is the forming of certain ideas and attitudes within the student's own nature, and his own life and actions become the test of the validity and worth of his philosophy. Thus the most impersonal and wide-ranging of intellectual adventures is ultimately and inevitably subsumed in the personal and specific.
However, there are certain broad conclusions that have been and are shared by many philosophers, and a relevant spectrum of these makes a useful starting point. The many philosophical schools can be ranked according to their attitude to life - what it is and whence it arises - from an uncompromised denial of its existence to unquestioning acceptance of it. A fivefold division will suffice:
- Materialism. Both life and consciousness are mechanical consequences of atomic and molecular interactions, and have no independent or autonomous existence. Self-consciousness is an illusion, and questions as to why or how are meaningless; "this is how the Universe is, has ever been, and ever will be so long as it exists." Philosophy is mere semantics.
- Naturism. The processes of life and/or consciousness are somehow engendered by and within the mechanisms of atomic and molecular structure created by Nature, but are only manifested by those which we designate as organic.
- Vitalism. Living systems possess a substance, energy or quality which is distinct from physical matter and endows them with life. Dead or inorganic entities either have lost this or do not possess it. Different schools of thought assign differing degrees of existence and autonomy to the vital principle, and differing degrees of independence of material bodies, permitting an explanation of many varieties of conscious experience.
- Theism. The Universe and the life within it are creations or expressions of a supreme being or God. Monotheism acknowledges only one God where Polytheism acknowledges several, of which one is usually regarded as supreme. Men partake of the consciousness of God or the gods in possessing self-consciousness, and thereby become creators themselves on a smaller scale.
- Eternalism. All substances and manifested phenomena are products of consciousness, and all are therefore living and conscious in varying degrees, from atoms through living creatures, and on to suns and galaxies. Consciousness is the ultimate source and creative force of the entire Universe. Objective existence is seen by some to possess its own autonomous reality, and by others to be only a reflection of more subtle realities within the veils of matter.
The viewpoint named Eternalism has never achieved explicit recognition in Western philosophical thought, although it has occasionally entered into theological dispute, since the opposite view to Materialism in the West has invariably been some form of Theism, usually Christianity in recent times, in which the ultimate creative principle is a divine being or God. Arguments have raged as to the degree of immanence or transcendence which God exercises in regard to his creation, but since all gods are beyond human understanding in greater or lesser degree, such ideas are and have been antithetical to objective empirical science.
The adoption of a specific philosophical outlook is inescapable when formulating scientific principles, but the success or otherwise of the ensuing science does not in any way validate or disprove the underlying philosophy. Each philosophy bears fruit according to its nature; a wide, generous and enlightened attitude, though certain to meet with disappointments, will eventually give rise to similar individuals and societies, whereas a narrow, selfish and domineering one will surely create the opposite.
By adopting materialism as the basis of modern science, the range of scientific enquiry has been greatly narrowed, thereby simplifying many questions and focussing thought on essential principles. But such questions and principles exist within a much larger framework of existences and activities, and the success of Science in providing narrow explanations does not disprove the existence of the larger world. And if the world adopts the narrow view of Science, it will achieve the same successes, and share the same limitations.
It is distressingly obvious that Science has completely missed the main purpose of its enquiry, which is surely to enlighten Man as to his own nature and place in the larger scheme of things. It therefore seems useful to ask whether the doctrines of Science are not compatible with other and more enlightened philosophies, and this has been done increasingly often of recent decades, though not always with happy consequences. For example, Darwin's theory of evolution has been interpreted by some as describing the process by which God performed the acts of creation, and has generated a resurgence of fundamentalist ideas which seek to have Science 'prove' the correctness of Religion, an impossible undertaking.
A more thoughtful approach is simply to build differing versions of our theories upon various philosophical foundations, to see what each will yield by way of insight and understanding. In the past this has been done by different individuals, each committed, often vehemently, to a particular philosophy. The present situation demands that each competent theorist should recognize the potential validity of all philosophies, and choose to work with those best suited to the enquiry in hand. This is neither contradictory nor hypocritical; it is merely a recognition that all systems of belief are products of human intelligence, and are therefore intellectual models of reality, not Reality itself. Failure to recognize this has been symptomatic of nearly all schools of thought throughout history, and when continued uncompromisingly, leads inevitably to narrow ideas, closed minds, and philosophical stagnation.
Although the blame for much of the distress that has been visited on the world in recent decades has been laid at the feet of Science, it properly belongs to Philosophy, and if absence is proof of guilt, the case is proven. Philosophy was increasingly ignored as an academic discipline throughout the twentieth century, and is today viewed by most as a quaint and irrelevant relic of a bygone age. Nothing could be further from the truth. The most urgent challenge facing those committed to the scientific adventure is to give clear and confident expression to an enlightened philosophy which can be gladly embraced by all who contribute to it, and which will recognize the new and challenging horizons awaiting all who seek to enlarge their understanding of Man and the Universe.
In the human, those sensations which are experienced in the region of the heart are called emotions, and are perhaps the least understood of all psychic sensations. They both cause physical reactions and are influenced by physical events, and also interact with the mind, yet are independent and autonomous in many ways. Materialist doctrine views them as mere consequences of body chemistry, and since this opinion is formally accepted by the medical profession, many people in Western societies feel trapped and victimized by their emotions. Eastern traditions have a very different understanding of what emotions are and how they can be guided and developed. This is why a new attitude must be sought by Western cultures, since without a correct understanding of the functioning and use of the emotions, both personal and social life will become mechanized and destructive. Those activities deriving principally from the exercize and expression of emotion are listed in the two left-hand columns of the main table.
The term 'philosophy' derives from two Greek words, philos meaning 'lover', and sophia meaning 'truth' or 'wisdom'. A philosopher is one who seeks to understand truth in the most absolute and fundamental sense, and in its most enduring manifestations. As an example, we may take the philosophical attitude to the concepts of 'the pleasurable' and 'the good'. Pleasure is attractive and rewarding, yet an excessive indulgence in pleasure inevitably brings pain, something that is only learned by experience, and thus is known to observant adults but seldom to children. 'The good' often requires abstinence from pleasure, and sometimes a deliberate embracing of discomfort or pain in order to avoid consequences which are far more painful and destructive. Whilst logic and rational deduction are useful in arriving at philosophical perspectives, they are not infallible, if only for being based on limited information and experience. True philosphy must therefore derive, not simply from individual experience and insight, but from the collective wisdom of the race or nation, since much that philosophy teaches covers periods of time far in excess of a single human lifetime.
The intellect is that faculty which operates in the region of the head, and comprises thought, imagination, memory and the sense of 'I-ness' or individual being. As with the emotions, the Western use and understanding differs from Eastern attitudes in considerable degree. The West formally denies an independent reality to the emotions, whereas the East accepts them as the driving force, the 'e-motive' power behind the mind. Careful observation of one's own inner condition will prove that, in order to recall a memory, it is first necessary to recreate the emotion with which it was associated at the time of its creation. This is why so many Western school-teachers (and some in the East) are harsh, punitive and bullying, since these were the emotions present when they went to school and acquired the knowledge that they attempt to pass along to their pupils. The correct use of the intellect requires more than a simple rigorous exercize of rationality, but needs competent use of the intuition - that is, a harmonious interplay between mind and emotions.
The manner of conceiving of something - the image it generates within our mind - is often very different from its practical realization or manifestation. Those disciplines which seek to study and express the conceptual aspects of a subject are the most abstract and 'pure', but can seldom find perfect or even adequate expression in physical reality. However, they provide the ideals towards which practical endeavours are directed, and are an essential evolutionary impulse.
The world of human life and experience tends naturally to focus on its own concerns, often to the exclusion of all else. If carried to extremes this can be destructive of much else, as the present environmental pollution and ecological destruction bear witness. However, there is certainly a place for an anthropocentric or human-centred view of things, even if only to clarify our own thoughts, ideals and aspirations.
Theosophy and Theology
Although similar in meaning, these terms derive from different roots and differ subtly. The common root is the Greek theos meaning 'god', but where sophia means 'truth' or 'wisdom', logos means 'thought' or 'idea'. Thus theosophy seeks to understand the truth about the gods or God, where theology is a body of doctrine about them. These differences may seem unimportant to the layman, but are at the heart of some of the most acrimonious disputes in philosophy.
"The proper study of Mankind is Man" is a saying attributed to Pythgoras, and the Greek word gnosis implies not just 'knowing', but a knowing of oneself. To know oneself is to have control of one's manifestations and therefore of one's outer life. At a deeper level, to know the subtle influences which direct thought and action allow one to steer the course of one's life independently of the 'madding crowd', and remain free of many of the prejudices, errors and discomforts that afflict the ignorant and unobservant. Gnosticism was and is the aim of most older systems of philosophy and education, and although enjoying a modern revival under different names, is perhaps the most difficult achievement possible for an individual, and is therefore not to be taken lightly as an aim. True gnostic insight differentiates the wise from the merely learned.
The Latin word scire meaning 'to know' is the root of the word 'science', a term popularized in the 1880's by William Whewell, who described himself as a 'scientist' instead of a 'natural philosopher' as did most of his contemporary investigators. Much of what philosophy studies cannotbe known in the rigorous fashion demanded by science, since the latter requires proof of a material and indisputable kind for all of its tenets. Pure science is the most abstract and refined expression of that body of ideas deriving from observations of the physical world. A popular misconception, especially amongst scientists, is that scientific knowledge is absolute, and independent of personal opinions or attitudes, but this is true only of mere factual data. We may say, for instance, that titration of hydrochloric acid with caustic soda always produces common salt, but if we attempt to extend this statement from the specific to the general, we must define precise what an acid is, as also an alkali. At this point subtle difficulties arise; if we use the pH of a solution as the determining criterion, we find that many substances which are not acids or alkalis have an acidic or alkaline pH. And so it is for every attempt to generalize accurately about phenomena; whilst they may have many similarities, all are ultimately unique in some way, and since pure science is, in one sense, an attempt to provide the most accurate and comprehensive generalizations about physical phenomena, it must ultimately rely on assumptions which are philosophical in nature, not scientific. All science therefore involves an act of faith or belief, in that philosophical questions must be decided a priori in order to progress in investigating their consequences. It could therefore be said that pure science is an investigation into the consequences of certain beliefs, a definition that most scientists would prefer to avoid.
Once having conceived of an idea or theory, the honest investigator proceeds to test its validity in the real world. This must require an application to practical ends, and the decision as to what those ends are, and the method of their realization, are as crucial to the success of an endeavour as is the original concept. An artist may strive to express an insight through painting, for instance, which would perhaps find more eloquent expression in music; but if the artist lacks skill in the most suitable medium, he or she will inevitably be frustrated in bringing the insight into viable form. Where the insight takes hold in the mind of a skilful artist of appropriate talents and resources, it can find clear and powerful expression. Such a combination is as much due to chance or good fortune as to skill and dedication, which is why exceptional art and science is quite rare. Even where outstanding and worthwhile creations are produced, it often happens that they are ignored by the world at large, and fail to receive the recognition that they deserve. The adventure of experimenting with new paths in art or science is therefore very uncertain, and only for the brave, foolhardy or wise.
The Arts are generally held to include music, painting, sculpture, writing and creative use of what are otherwise regarded as mundane trades - carpentry, metalwork, glass-blowing, jewellery and so on. The artefacts thus created are physical objects, but their impact and success are a matter of subjective judgements, both on the part of the artist, who strives to give objective expression to an inner urge, emotion or insight, and by the audience who may perceive or impute things that the artist never intended. Artistic norms therefore vary wildly both between cultures and across time in any given culture, and collectively can be said to define or express the culture of an epoch or people. Artistic judgements derive from individual convictions or prejudices, and are therefore, in a very real sense, an outcome of individual philosophies.
Derided today in the West, mysticism is properly understood as the exploration of the emotive aspects of one's inner being, and is therefore a personal and private adventure. Such experiences are often very intense, but are difficult or impossible to communicate accurately, if at all, to others. Just as reading a travel guide has little in common with travelling to another country, so too the mystical literature is a poor guide to the mystical experience. The most successful mystics are thus perhaps those who remain silent about their experiences. The ridicule and derision accorded mysticism by many intellectuals derives not from a true understanding of the experience, but from a lack of the inner sensitivity and courage needed to approach it. True mystical experiences leave lasting impressions and insights, and are amongst the most rewarding events that can occur in one's life.
Regarded by most with the same skepticism and derision as is mysticism, occultism, from the Latin word for 'hidden', takes an intellectual approach to intense subjective experiences. It has produced a body of literature which is mostly obscure to the point of being impenetrable, since much of what is being described lacks a formal terminology, at least in the West. The Vedic literature of India, by contrast, is replete with terms that convey little to the Western mind, since they refer, not to objective phenomena but to inner experiences; without those experiences, the terms are meaningless, no matter that one may spend years in studying them. Occultism and mysticism are related, the former being in one sense an attempt to intellectualize and communicate the latter, and both can be seen as providing the next unknown frontier for scientific and intellectual enquiry.
Empiricism is both an attitude and a technique of investigation of objective phenomena. It seeks to establish causal or deterministic relationships between phenomena and events in order to test the validity of a theory or conjecture, and where rigorously applied forms the basis of the scientific method as commonly understood. Empirical methodolgy demands repeatability; an phenomenon which cannot be repeated is impervious to empirical enquiry, and thus falls outside the purview of science. This is seldom understood by laymen, who accept such studies as cosmogenesis as being empirical. Cosmology is amenable to empirical methods and is thus a science - the spectra of stars, for example, can be measured repeatedly under conditions similar enough as to be identical for practical purposes. Cosmogenesis - the origins of the universe - is by contrast impossible of empirical verification, since the birth of the universe cannot be repeated, at least not within the bounds of present-day capabilities, and is therefore a branch of philosophy, not science.
Once a concept has found acceptance within the cultural or scientific experience of a people, it acquires accepted forms of expression which are held to be 'true' and, in many cases, self-evident. it has been famously remarked that all scientific theories pass through three stages of development; in the first they are held to be impossible, in the second to be possible but unlikely, and in the third to be self-evident. Many long-held 'truths' are eventually found to be inaccurate or erroneous, and are replaced by new 'truths' which soon assume the same air of self-evident impregnability, only to fall in their turn. However, since it is these truths which are the foundation of an epoch or society, their arising, dominance and decline occupy generations of men, and are often the cause of bitter struggle and bloodshed. Those who challenge the formal doctrines of a culture are seldom welcomed by the majority, often pay dearly for their impertinence, but are both necessary and inevitable outcomes of human evolution.
By culture is normally implied those influences, activities and disciplines which tend to the betterment of individuals and societies. The term is usually taken to include the literature, traditions, laws, religion and outlook of a people, and is generally seen as those things which must be striven for or earned, rather than acquired through habit, imitation or instruction.
Derived from the Latin religare, 'to believe', religion is one of the most influential and contentious aspects of human culture. As a body of doctrine concerning the nature of Man and his relationship to Nature, it was held in earlier times to constitute truth of a more or less absolute sort, especially where dissent incurred retribution of a painful sort. The rise of the scientific attitude in the West has seen religion reduced to mere superstition in the opinion of many, but in the East it is still understood as a valuable if unadventurous guide to one's inner nature and activity. There are many who see science and religion as being necessarily inimical an irreconcilable in outlook, but although perhaps true of modern Western thought, the two are quite distinct, and where they do exist to complement and extend the other, social harmony and intellectual endeavour can both flourish and prosper society.
As with all subjective phenomena, magic is derided in the West as a form of nonsense or superstition. Perhaps the best definition of magic is 'the art of bringing about changes in consciousness at will'. If this seems superficially facile, a change from 'at will' to 'by means of the will' conveys the true challenge which practical magic offers. The state of our consciousness in modern society is almost totally dependent upon external circumstances and events. When things go well we are happy and optimistic; when things go bad we are unhappy and pessimistic. The competent magician adopts a state of consciousness in line with his aims and intentions regardless of external circumstances. Few today are so practised or capable, yet here lies the secret of true success in life.
When scientific ideas are applied to practical ends, much that seems necessary to theory and ideals is put aside in favour of achieving desired outcomes expeditiously. Man made fire by rubbing two sticks together before ever he knew about friction or combustion; such knowledge is scientific in the most rudimentary sense, but as practical knowledge it certainly has a value. Atomic energy was developed at a time when understanding of atomic structure was incomplete and often wrong, but the end result was achieved. The subsequent problems of waste disposal and toxicity are reflections of our continuing ignorance of these matters, but since applied science is concerned with outcomes rather than insights, many scientists deny any responsibility for the undesirable consequences of their work. In one sense they are right, in another tragically misguided. Pure science is often dismissed as the idle speculation of dreamers, but solutions to the problems caused by applied science can only come through a preference for understanding rather than outcomes, and thus pure and applied science are necessary complements of all scientific activity.
Ideas give rise to actions. Once certain actions are known to yield known outcomes, the underlying ideas are often forgotten by or unknown to those who employ the actions solely for their results. People in the West shake hands on meeting as an automatic gesture, but few remember its genesis in the open display of the hand which could otherwise wield a sword. Many of our daily actions and activities are of this type, especially with the spread of high-technology, to the secrets of which very few are privy. These practical aspects of experience and understanding have their value, but as time progresses and they lose their relevance, they often become restrictive, punitive and destructive. This is particularly true of religion, which has failed to keep abreast of modern developments and is a cause of entrenched ignorance and inner conflict for many simple folk.
Customs and Traditions
Members of a race or nation are as often recognizable by their customs and traditions as by speech or physical characterisitcs, and it is these that give continuity to their societies. Being based on the insights and wisdom of an earlier time, many of them seem pointless or inconvenient, but those who discard them without thought for their true purpose or function often find their lives and society disintegrating around them. For this reason, there is a world-wide resurgence of interest, not only in re-establishing many older customs, but in rediscovering their meaning and purpose, if only to adapt them to modern requirements.
Ritual and Ceremony
Often viewed with suspicion and mockery, the time-honoured actions repeated in rituals and ceremonies have a definite power, which some regard as inherent in the actions themselves, but others as being in the states of mind which they engender in the practitioners. Whatever the case, they serve definite social functions, and like customs and traditions should not be abandoned without an understanding of the purposes they serve. Few people in the West preserve any personal rituals other than occasional church attendance and perhaps solitary prayer, but those who employ them consciously and with conviction will attest to the power they possess.
The Latin ducere means 'to lead', and e or ex means 'out from'. Thus true education implies a 'leading out' of the capabilities and aspiriations within a person into realization and actualization. Whilst retaining this lofty name, modern education has largely degenerated into institutionalized indoctrination, perhaps the direct opposite of the avowed intent. True education is a subjective activity, whereas indoctrination is an objective imposition upon the subjective nature, hence the resistance and rebellion of the young to much of today's schooling. In this the universities have a large share of the blame, since their obsession with form over substance and conformity instead of expression has produced a generation of 'educators' who too often see subtle indoctrination as their function, no matter that it be couched in flowery and abstruse language.
Few people who drive a car or use a computer have more than a vague idea of how these devices work, yet this ignorance is of little practical consequence in the use they make of them. Such is the wonder, and the danger, of technology. With automatic use of vehicular transport, physical ill health and obesity are becoming epidemic, and the same is likely to prove true of computers and the mind. The ability to mentally total a shopping bill is now rare, and with information replacing understanding, the enslavement of society to machines and those who control them is increasing alarmingly. Technology can be a faithful servant to the scientifically literate, and a ruthless master to the race of trained monkey-men who may one day inherit them.
Those events and phenomena occurring within our own consciousness are termed subjective. Materialism sees them as unreal and illusory, but as those who have undergone great pain, struggle or joy can attest, the ultimate reality is in fact subjective. If one is happy and contented within oneself, external circumstances can vary widely without disturbing one's equanimity, whereas one who is deeply unhappy and disturbed can find no pleasure or satisfaction though every external desire be satisfied. Subjective phenomena cannot be measured in any meaningful way except by comparison with one's personal aspirations and ideals, and are difficult to communicate to others.
Objective events and phenomena occur in the consensus reality of the physical world external to our own being. Most are amenable to accurate measurement, and can be observed and verified independently by others.