Gordon White and the New Animism

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Okay, it’s not really “new” animism at all. It’s actually the oldest animism but I’ll get to that in a moment.

Over the past few months, I think I’ve read every book by Gordon White and have listened to at least fifty hours of his podcasts and presentations. This is odd because his subject matter (as advertised) revolves around chaos magic, alternative history, anomalous events, etc. Not typically what was included in my “Great Books” education nor even remotely close to my current interests. However, as far as public intellectuals and metaphysicians go, I think he is an extraordinary thinker and onto something profound. He presents a cohesive philosophy that is internally consistent and exceedingly well-developed. I’m not convinced he is right, by the way, but he presents a worldview which is orderly and utterly aligned with the history of religious, philosophical, and folk thought that has largely disappeared from the public conversation. It warrants review and discussion. In short, the guy is brilliant.

Let me explain. Continue reading

Alan Watts as a Philosopher of Language and Process

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I came upon this passage in “The Wisdom of Insecurity” and was a bit marveled at the philosophy of language and process philosophy contained therein. I think he nails it in an easily understandable way.

Alan Watts:

The root of the difficulty is that we have developed the power of thinking so rapidly and one-sidedly that we have forgotten the proper relation between thoughts and events, words and things. Conscious thinking has gone ahead and created its own world, and, when this is found to conflict with the real world, we have the sense of a profound discord between “I,” the conscious thinker, and nature. This one-sided development of man is not peculiar to intellectuals and “brainy” people, who are only extreme examples of a tendency which has affected our entire civilization.

What we have forgotten is that thoughts and words are conventions, and that it is fatal to take conventions too seriously. A convention is a social convenience, as, for example, money. Money gets rid of the inconveniences of barter. But it is absurd to take money too seriously, to confuse it with real wealth, because it will do you no good to eat it or wear it for clothing. Money is more or less static, for gold, silver, strong paper, or a bank balance can “stay put” for a long time. But real wealth, such as food, is perishable. Thus a community may possess all the gold in the world, but if it does not farm its crops it will starve.

In somewhat the same way, thoughts, ideas, and words are “coins” for real things. They are not those things, and though they represent them, there are many ways in which they do not correspond at all. As with money and wealth, so with thoughts and things: ideas and words are more or less fixed, whereas real things change.

It is easier to say “I” than to point to your own body, and to say “want” than to try to indicate a vague feeling in the mouth and stomach. It is more convenient to say “water” than to lead your friend to a well and make suitable motions. It is also convenient to agree to use the same words for the same things, and to keep these words unchanged, even though the things we are indicating are in constant motion. Continue reading

21st Century Science and Panpsychism

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Credits: By Godehard Brüntrup and Ludwig Jaskolla

The traditional view puts forward the idea that the vast majority of what there is in the universe is mindless. Panpsychism however claims that mental features are ubiquitous in the cosmos. In a recent opinion piece for “Scientific American” entitled “Is Consciousness Universal?” (2014), neuroscientist Christof Koch explains how his support of panpsychism is greeted by incredulous stares–in particular when asserting that panpsychism might be the perfect match for neurobiology (see also his piece for Wired in 2013):

“As a natural scientist, I find a version of panpsychism modified for the 21st century to be the single most elegant and parsimonious explanation for the universe I find myself in. … When I talk and write about panpsychism, I often encounter blank stares of incomprehension.” (Koch, 2014, n.p.)

Yet despite abundant skepticism, in the end of 20th century, panpsychism has seen nothing short of a renaissance in philosophy of mind–a trend which is also beginning to be mirrored in the sciences: Physicist Henry Stapp’s “A Mindful Universe” (2011) embraces a version of panpsychism heavily influenced by the works of Harvard mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead.

Panpsychism has a long, albeit unfortunately sometimes forgotten tradition in the history of philosophy. Philosophers including Giordano Bruno, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Teilhard de Chardin, and Alfred North Whitehead have embraced different forms of panpsychism, and indeed the presocratic Thales of Miletus claimed that “soul is interfused throughout the universe” (Aristotle, De Anima, 411a7).

In in his seminal 1979 work “Mortal Questions,” NYU philosopher Thomas Nagel put forth the idea that both reductive materialism and mind-body dualism are unlikely to be successful solutions to the mind-body problem. Specifically, a reductive world-view leaves the mind lacking any purpose, while a dualist conception deprives the non-spatial Cartesian mind of any connection to spatial matter. Additionally, the idea of an emergent mind seems inexplicable, even miraculous; it merely puts a label on something that otherwise remains completely mysterious. Thus some version of panpsychism might be a viable alternative–and may even be the “last man standing.”

Yet it was not until David Chalmers’s groundbreaking “The Conscious Mind” (1996) that debates on panpsychism entered the philosophical mainstream. The field has grown rapidly ever since.

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“Spirit in the Body” painted by Herb Greene. Used with permission.

Panpsychism is the thesis that mental being is an ubiquitous and fundamental feature pervading the entire universe. It rests on two basic ideas:

(1) The genetic argument is based on the philosophical principle “ex nihilo, nihil fit”–nothing can bring about something which it does not already possess. If human consciousness came to be through a physical process of evolution, then physical matter must already contain some basic form of mental being. Versions of this argument can be found in both Thomas Nagel’s “Mortal Questions” (1979) as well as William James’s “The Principles of Psychology” (1890).

(2) The argument from intrinsic natures dates back to Leibniz. More recently it was Sir Bertrand Russell who noted in his “Human Knowledge: Its Scope and its Limits” (1948):

“The physical world is only known as regards certain abstract features of its space-time structure – features which, because of their abstractness, do not suffice to show whether the world is, or is not, different in intrinsic character from the world of mind.” (Russell 1948, 240)

Sir Arthur Eddington formulated a very intuitive version of the argument from intrinsic natures in his “Space, Time and Gravitation” (1920):

“Physics is the knowledge of structural form, and not knowledge of content. All through the physical world runs that unknown content, which must surely be the stuff of our consciousness.” (Eddington, 1920, 200).

Panpsychism is a surprisingly modern world-view. It might even be called a truly post-modern outlook on reality–mainly for two reasons:

On the one hand, panpsychism bridges the modern epistemological gap between the subject of experience and the experienced object, the latter of whose intrinsic nature is unknown to us. Panpsychists claim that we know the intrinsic nature of matter because we are familiar with it through our own consciousness. Freya Mathews argues in her “For the Love of Matter” (2003):

“… the materialist view of the world that is a corollary of dualism maroons the epistemic subject in the small if charmed circle of its own subjectivity, and that it is only the reanimation of matter itself that enables the subject to reconnect with reality. This ‘argument from realism’ constitutes my defense of panpsychism.” (Mathews, 2003, 44)

On the other hand, panpsychism paints a picture of reality that emphasizes a humane and caring relationship with nature due to its fundamental rejection of the Cartesian conception of nature as a mechanism to be exploited by mankind. For the panpsychist, we encounter in nature other entities of intrinsic value, rather than objects to be manipulated for our gain.

We’d like to end this post with an interview of David Chalmers discussing panpsychism at the Emergence and Panpsychism – International Conference on the Metaphysics of Consciousness held in Munich, Germany in 2011, which brought together almost all the major players of the current debate. You can watch interviews with attendees with our conference playlist.

The Spooky Nature of Self and Knowledge

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When Einstein famously wrote of “spooky action at a distance,” he picked an odd way of describing things. The word “spooky”, with origins tying to spectres, ghosts, and other strangeness, is not one you see every day and certainly not one you see coming from renowned scientists. Yet, seemingly, Einstein’s use is an appropriate one because the nature of reality that he was attempting to refute is genuinely vague and uncanny. Contrary to Einstein’s hopes, concerns about nature acting “spooky” have been repeatedly proved wrong. We now know that nature and all things in it are indeed spooky and much more akin to these immaterial ghosts that you may have believed in as a child than to the solid and scientific certainty in which you steadfastly anchored your worldview as an adult.

There is simply no doubt that we are living an illusion. Science and the unbending logic of mathematics and philosophy have clearly, and repeatedly, shown that the world as we believe we know it simply does not exist. If that wasn’t bad enough, the person who we think we are really doesn’t exist either!

Let me explain.

  1. For us to know anything about what we think in the world around us, conventional wisdom holds that we learn it largely through our senses. What could be wrong with that? It seems pretty self-evident. However, since Descartes, philosophers have shown that there are real difficulties with that position because there are so many instances where we cannot trust our senses. This could be as simple as Kanizsa-type optical illusions, the fact that when we are dreaming we actually think we are awake and sensing, the way that our brain actively makes up for blind spots in our field of vision, etc. In other words, our senses cannot be fully trusted.
  2. To make matters worse, even if we could trust our senses, they really aren’t all that effective for more complex tasks. They are ideal for identifying threats against ourselves on a sub-Saharan savanna but not so much for thinking about and sensing “reality.” For example, we only sense less than 1% of the visual and auditory spectrum. In addition, we are incapable of experiencing so much of the electromagnetic spectrum to the point that we are surrounded by birdsfishshrimp, and countless other animals who have senses much more refined than us. They see, hear, and feel things that we cannot. If we did encounter those experiences, it stands to reason that our notion of reality would be different.
  3. Furthermore, our memories have been shown over and over again to be faulty, at best. In fact, memory itself is a really lousy way of understanding your continuity in the world due to its unreliability for even basic recollection.
  4. It gets worse, and weirder! So much of our daily existence is based on what philosophers call “secondary qualities.” These include such key human experiences as seeing color, hearing music or any sound, taste, smell, the sensation of hot or cold, etc. As you know, those things don’t exist out in nature. The color of the sunset or the taste of the apple are not scientifically real. What actually exists are wave formations that make up the color and chemical compounds that make up the apple. Our minds create all of these secondary qualities from those stimuli. So, no, rainbows are not real – they exist only in your mind. The same with the taste of coffee or the smell of a rose. Chemicals are everywhere but characteristics (bitter, sour, sweet) are not. They are our perceptions.
  5. Now even weirder! The great philosopher Immanuel Kant (and so many others) pointed out that not only do secondary qualities not exist “out there” in reality but nor do they in space, time, or causation. That would be an interesting tid-bit from the history of philosophy if had not been proven to be true by contemporary physicists. Let that sink in for a minute. Time, space, and causation do not exist in genuine reality. Things are indeed getting spooky!
  6. But wait – there’s more! The very nature by which we talk about things (using language and metaphor) also impacts how we think of and experience them. While subject, objects, predicates, and adjectives all make sense in grammar – how are we to know that they are part of the real world? In fact, we have strong evidence that our language contributes much to what we call the real world. If this discussion was in Sanskrit or among medieval Westerners, it would not be the same discussion.
  7. It gets weirder!! We haven’t even started looking at your “self” yet. For example, would the fact that 90% of the cell life in “your” body actually belongs to the microbes in your gut surprise you? In other words, well over 90% of what you think is materially you is not you at all but rather a complex microbiome that has taken up residence in your large intestine.
  8. What about the rest of my cells – those are certainly me? Not necessarily. The cells you had yesterday or back when you were a child are pretty much all gone. Maybe 1% of the cells you had as a child are still in you. This is the Ship of Theseus problem. If an object has had all of it parts replaced over time – is it still the same object? If so, what makes it the same?

To be honest, I could go on at book length outlining the reasons why we simply don’t have solid knowledge on who we are or what the world is. This has been pretty much a “given” in Philosophy since the 1700s and science since the very late 1800s. Things are not what they seem yet we lumber about thinking that the world as we perceive it is the actual real world. This, in philosophical terminology, is called “naive materialism” or “simple realism” and has been discredited so many times that one would think none of us would buy into it. However, for a bunch of sociological and other reasons it is the operating framework that most of us use in our daily lives.

What is the bottom line? Our senses are not enough when it comes to understanding the world around us or the nature of ourselves. Our brains are good at identifying and consuming high energy foods, scanning for potential mates, and protecting ourselves and our families from obvious and imminent physical threats. These are ideal traits for primal survival and reproduction – they just aren’t so good in terms of understanding the nature of reality or the self. By using the tools of philosophy, mathematics, or quantum physics we see that things are not at all as they seem.

Vivekananda On Schopenhauer & Will

 

An interesting distinction between the notions of Will in 19th century German philosophy and Vedanta as understood by Vivekananda.

I think Schopenhauer’s philosophy makes a mistake in its interpretation of Vedanta, for it seeks to make the will everything. Schopenhauer makes the will stand in the place of the Absolute. But the absolute cannot be presented as will, for will is something changeable and phenomenal, and over the line, drawn above time, space, and causation, there is no change, no motion; it is only below the line that external motion and internal motion, called thought begin. There can be no will on the other side, and will therefore, cannot be the cause of this universe. Coming nearer, we see in our own bodies that will is not the cause of every movement. I move this chair; my will is the cause of this movement, and this will becomes manifested as muscular motion at the other end. But the same power that moves the chair is moving the heart, the lungs, and so on, but not through will. Given that the power is the same, it only becomes will when it rises to the plane of consciousness, and to call it will before it has risen to this plane is a misnomer. This makes a good deal of confusion in Schopenhauer’s philosophy . . . . Continue reading

The Banned TED Talks

I’ve been fortunate enough to go to some TEDx events and I have to admit I enjoyed myself. However, I think I enjoyed myself in the same way I did when I was a kid going to church with my parents. There were smiles all around, mock pleasantries, lots of people who looked like me and had my tastes while we all got to marvel at the moral uprightness or genius of the speakers.

Debate of the matter at hand would have been inappropriate and shoo’d away like poor behavior at a dinner party. The speakers were sincere and trying to communicate an idea, a business model, or whatever, to those of us who were willing listeners. It wasn’t pretentious or insincere but it really wasn’t challenging either. Who isn’t against novel ideas of ending poverty? Who wouldn’t like to see a mildly disturbing (but not too disturbing) academic discussion on sexual tastes? It must be a comfortable venue for der letzte Mensch to enjoy.

The problem is that the presentation and milieu has all the authenticity of a dinner party taken out of an Oscar Wilde script. I sense that behind the utmost sincerity is something of an evangelical spirit that technology, right politics, and right reason are the way to the promised land. That seems particularly evident in the drama surrounding three talks that were banned. All three of them are unique and actually challenge the audience. They make us think and question some of the preconceived worldviews with which we entered the arena of ideas. I wish we had more of these.

One special talk I had the chance to see live was extraordinarily well done while also being challenging. It was Rick Steves’s on travel. Marvelous and bold.

The three that were banned call us to question some basic presuppositions. Like them or not, they are great representations of the type of discussion we should be having in the public square. Here they are: