Monday, July 31, 2017

Mysticism and Logic, Chapter I, second part

The second numbered section (pages 18-21) of “Mysticism and Logic” is titled “Unity and Plurality.” (The first section, which began on page 12, was “Reason and Intuition.”) Section II is followed by section III, “Time,” pages 21-26, and Section IV, “Good and Evil,” pages 26-32.

Beginning with Parmenides, a mystical turn in philosophy has been to emphasize the inherent oneness, the unity of all things. The differences that we sense are apparent, not real. There are moods that seem to predispose us to believing in the deception of appearances and the existence of a separate reality, and this belief is based not on logic, but on revelation. After the mood passes, we look for logical reasons to buttress our belief in the higher unity. The logic that is produced is faulty, purpose-built to generate the called-for paradoxes, and makes philosophers unable to speak with authority on either science or quotidian existence. Nonetheless, philosophers who never experienced the seminal (but misleading) moment of insight nevertheless adopted the resulting mis-logic, and remain unperturbed by the gulf between their logic and science. They choose to read Nature with contradiction as their motive, with the aim of verifying that all is illusion.

The mystically-inspired contention of the unreality of time is the subject of Section III (“Time”). And there surely is some sense in the notion that the differences between past, present, and future are superficial. “The importance of time is rather practical than theoretical, rather in relation to our desires than in relation to truth [p. 21].” The recognition of the larger “unimportance of time is the gate to wisdom [p. 22].”

We differentiate the past from the future because we have some control over the future, but not the past. All pasts were, previously, futures, and all futures will become pasts, so the difference between past and future arises in their relations to us. From an impartial or disinterested viewpoint – the viewpoint of wisdom – past and future are indistinguishable. [Recall the phrase of Henry Sidgwick, reconstructed by Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer as “The Point of View of the Universe.” – RBR] This notion is contrary to systems of philosophy, sometimes drawing upon evolution, that are based on notions of progress, of some built-in improvement over time: Nietzsche, Bergson, and pragmatism provide examples.

Evolution and astronomy have rendered humans as less special, less distinct from other animals. Species are not fixed, nor are planets and suns. But philosophers were able to reassert human exceptionalism through claims of evolutionary advance, the progression from amoebas to man. Not every thinker can accept a fixed ideal, however – they need the goal to change along the path, so that there is no end point, and the rules or truths which characterize any finite time stream do not apply along the rest of the eternal river. Nonetheless, there remains an implicit assumption that the stream that heads towards the future also constitutes progress.

Evolutionary philosophies, by incorporating progress as a necessary component of change, depart from the disinterested approach that science requires. Knowledge of the future cannot be achieved on the cheap through philosophical speculation; when it is the type of knowledge that falls within the boundaries of other sciences, it must meet the standards of those sciences.

To possess its own ambit, philosophy must aim at knowledge that cannot be achieved by other sciences. Evolutionary philosophies with their underpinnings in progress make a despot of their considerations of time, as they abjure impartiality at the outset. Avoiding this misstep does not mean that the reality of time must be denied; nevertheless, the motive that leads to such denials, the recognition that past, present, and future have symmetric connections to reality, is worth preserving – though it is a recognition contrary to the approach of the evolutionary philosophies.

Section IV (pages 26-32), “Good and Evil,” opens by noting that the mystical approach to philosophy tends to identify two types of “good” – Russell references Heraclitus and Spinoza as examples. Our everyday conception of good and evil, in this view, is our own imposition upon the misleading appearances of this world, not a feature of reality. The actual, higher reality, cannot help but to be good. “It is difficult to give a logically tenable account of this position without recognising that good and evil are subjective, that what is good is merely that towards which we have one kind of feeling, and what is evil is merely that towards which we have another kind of feeling [p. 27].”

In our active life, we must make distinctions between better and worse actions. But as a matter of disinterested speculation, we can see the unity of good and evil. The mystics must go farther still, however, and view the world in its entirety as a blessed thing – Russell quotes Wordsworth without attribution.

In terms of happiness, the ability to see the good in everything is valuable. The mystical stance helps us to see the potential for a nobler life; what it cannot do, however, is to provide us any general truths about the universe as a whole.

Earlier we saw how evolutionary philosophies end up in a slavish relationship with time, through the assumption of progress. Likewise, they cut themselves off from the “reality is wholly good” notion, given their conception of inferior states giving way to better ones.

Many of the greatest philosophers and religious figures put substantial focus on good and evil. Nevertheless, philosophy should be shorn of ethical considerations – it is the scientific and the ethical approach to take!

We might like to believe that the world possesses desirable ethical characteristics, but philosophy’s role is not to cater to that hope. Love and hate are quite analogous from the point of view of philosophy, as attitudes that we possess towards things, though their differences are fundamental for psychology. Philosophers might find inspiration in their work through ethical considerations, but they must leave those considerations behind when they engage in their scientific speculations. Note how modern biologists or chemists are not expected to prove the high ethical quality of their discoveries. Astronomy developed out of astrology, which was motivated to look for the influence of heavenly bodies on human affairs. Once “the apathy of the stars” was established, many people lost their interest in astronomy. Even the advance of the science of psychology requires an ethically neutral stance.

Most philosophers have not sought to be ethically neutral. People make intellectual speculations that are in accord with what they want to believe. But seeking the good, like seeking happiness, might be self-defeating: seeking the facts is more likely to promote good than is hoping to uncover evidence of the ubiquity or inevitability of the good. This is the sense in which a disinterested approach to philosophy is more ethically sound than imposing one’s preconceptions of good and evil on reality. Note how common it is in religion to promote the recognition of the weakness of human action. Adopting a disinterested approach to speculation reflects a similar submission in the realm of thought, but philosophy’s advances have resulted from such submission.

“The good which it concerns us to remember is the good which it lies in our power to create – the good in our own lives and in our attitude towards the world [p. 31].” We compromise this achievable good when we devote ourselves to forcing the world to fit a procrustean vision of the good, one that does not comport with facts.

Scientific philosophy is the pinnacle of human thought, bringing us the closest to understanding reality. For primitive people, everything is met with liking or hostility. Philosophers go the furthest when they jettison such judgments; evolutionary philosophy, by embracing an interested approach, is hampered from the outset. Let us instead eschew the flattery of our hopes, and accept the world as it is.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Mysticism and Logic, Chapter I, first part

"Mysticism and Logic," first part, pages 1-18

The first chapter in the book Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays is itself entitled "Mysticism and Logic;" I have elected to break its summentary into two posts on Reading Bertrand Russell, and this is the first of those posts.

An impulse towards mysticism and another impulse towards science together propel the development of philosophy. Hume was dominated by the scientific urge, Blake by the mystical one. The best of philosophers draw from both inspirations, and in the process metaphysics can appear superior to science or religion alone.

Consider Heraclitus, he of the “all is change” notion. The fragments of his thinking that come down to us are suggestive of a predominantly scientific, empirical, approach, though science has moved beyond Heraclitus’s specific claims. But even the “can’t step into the same river twice” trope has a more mystical version in Heraclitus: “’We step and do not step into the same rivers; we are and are not [p. 2].’” Mysticism reveals itself as “a certain intensity and depth of feeling in regard to what is believed about the universe [p. 3].” In Heraclitus, mystical statements often take on a rather moving quality [appropriately enough], sometimes via the assertion that opposites are, in fact, identical: “’To God all things are fair and good and right, but men hold some things wrong and some right [p.3].’”

Such refashioning of scientific facts through the application of an intense, emotional flame yields the utmost brilliance of which human thinkers are capable. We see it again in Plato, although at the end of the day, the mystical side takes precedence in Plato’s thought – as is evident in the parable of the cave in Plato’s Republic [which Russell quotes at length, pages 4-6]. The parable leads to Plato’s conflation of what is real with what is good, and this coerced identity harms the scientific search for reality as well as the philosophical investigation of ethics.

The scientific temperament receives better treatment elsewhere in Plato, such as when Parmenides advises young Socrates not to despise lowly things like dirt, when philosophizing about beauty and goodness. “It is with this impartial temper that the mystic’s apparent insight into a higher reality and a hidden good has to be combined if philosophy is to realise its greatest possibilities [p. 7].” But much philosophy ignores such a grounding (!) in reality, to its detriment.

Much modern mystical philosophy of the logical variety, such as that of Hegel, also draws upon roots in the thought of Parmenides. In particular, Parmenides claims that what can be spoken or thought of must exist, because one cannot think of a void, a non-entity. In this sense change is impossible, as the past must still exist.

The mystical approach privileges flashes of insight over patient, analytic thought; it leaps from the sensed unreality of the quotidian world – a phenomenon that is quite common – to a trust that phantasms of the brain are more real, constitute a deeper reality. Mystics, like poets, give to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.

“The mystic insight begins with the sense of a mystery unveiled, of a hidden wisdom now suddenly become certain beyond the possibility of a doubt [p. 9].” It is the certainty, and not the whole array of beliefs, that is central to the approach. But some beliefs are shared by all mystics, including the belief that insight trumps reason, and that appearances do not capture actual reality. Artists, poets, and lovers can glimpse that reality, but the mystic takes in the entire panorama. Mystics also share a belief in an underlying unity, and hence are led to claims of the type that “A” and “not A” are identical. A common corollary is that time is unreal, that past, present, and future are of a piece.

Finally, mystics are prone to believe that evil (and sometimes good) is an appearance, not part of the deeper reality. The unity that mystics sense (or profess to know) lends an acceptance to all appearances, an attitude of peace and contentment.

So the mystical mindset presents four questions: (1) are reason and intuition two separate paths to knowledge, and is one of these paths privileged?; (2) are differences and distinctions unreal, camouflaging a deeper unity?; (3) “[i]s time unreal? [p. 11];” and, (4) what is the nature of the reality of good and evil? The mystical answers to these questions are incorrect, but nevertheless the mystical approach does offer some value that is otherwise inaccessible. “If this is the truth, mysticism is to be commended as an attitude towards life, not as a creed about the world [p. 11].” Mysticism’s emotional framework leads not to truth, but does lend itself to inspiration and intensification in life. “Even the cautious and patient investigation of truth by science, which seems the very antithesis of the mystic’s swift certainty, may be fostered and nourished by that very spirit of reverence in which mysticism lives and moves [p. 12].”

[Russell now (page 12) introduces section I (“Reason and Intuition”), informing us in a footnote that this section and some later paragraphs were previously printed in Our Knowledge of the External World, 1914. Recall that this current RBR post provides a summentary of Chapter I only through the end of section I, with an ensuing post picking up the remainder of the chapter.]

The flash of insight that mystics experience is no guarantee of the truth of their revelation – even though many advances have their genesis in such a vision. Reason and instinct (or intuition) needn’t be opposed, as a cursory view of the Enlightenment versus the Romantic movement might suggest. Instinct or intuition provides hypotheses which reason then can test. “Reason is a harmonizing, controlling force rather than a creative one [p. 13].”

Instinct leads us astray when it causes us doggedly to hold onto beliefs that are inconsistent with what else we know. Instinct is pretty discerning when it makes us wary of others, for instance, without being able to articulate our concerns. Reason can help us discard those instinctual beliefs that cannot stand up to scrutiny. Contra Bergson (an intuitionist), both intuition and reason have evolved because of their usefulness to survival. Either reason or intuition can become harmful when the guides they give us diverge from truth. It seems that older and more educated humans rely less on intuition than their younger or less educated brethren, and less than dogs do, too. The primacy of intuition might be fine for savage forest dwellers, but doesn’t serve us well in civilized society.

Intuition isn’t even reliable in bringing self-awareness; in fact, it is notoriously unreliable. But intuitive beliefs are held with unwarranted certitude. Nor do novel situations require intuition – though they do require the senses to collect the new information. Generally it is intellect that is best situated to process that information in a useful way. Intuition develops to handle customary situations, and becomes more unreliable in unfamiliar environments.

Intuition is not helpful for highly civilized pursuits such as philosophy; rather, its comparative advantage lies in ancient concerns that we share with non-human animals. “In such matters as self-preservation and love, intuition will act sometimes (though not always) with a swiftness and precision which are astonishing to the critical intellect [p. 17].” In philosophy especially, we must beware of sudden, supposedly deep (but unanalyzed) insights. Taking a disinterested, encompassing view of matters philosophical is the scientific method, but also corresponds in approach – though often not in ultimate conclusions – to the remote mindset that many religions advocate. The animating spirit of mysticism counsels for a scientific approach to knowledge.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

RBR Revival, A Bonus Book: Mysticism and Logic

Two years ago today the original Reading Bertrand Russell plan was completed. Today, on Bertrand's 145th birthday, the question surfaces: why not expand the plan? (For that matter, why expand the plan?: a question not to be asked.) In any event, a bonus summentary of a Bertie book now emerges to halt the hiatus. The subject of the surprise supplemental summentary is (supposedly? suspiciously? surreptitiously?) Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays, henceforth known here (And thence in Heav’n) as Mysticism and Logic.

The book Mysticism and Logic (the first essay in the book also is named “Mysticism and Logic”) apparently was originally published in 1918 – and hence is no longer in copyright in the US, rendering the text available for free on the internet. The publication history is slightly confusing at first glance because on a pre-Preface page is the claim “First published as ‘Philosophical Essays’ October 1910.” But only two of the seven essays in Russell’s 1910 book, Philosophical Essays (pdf), re-appear in Mysticism and Logic; those essays are “A Free Man’s Worship” (in Philosophical Essays, “The Free Man’s Worship”) and “The Study of Mathematics.” (Russell’s Preface to Mysticism and Logic (page v) indicates as much, too, and also notes that these two essays were composed in 1902.) The essay “Mysticism and Logic,” according to the Preface (p. v), appeared in a journal in 1914. The pre-Preface page also lists December 1917 as the publication of the second edition (of the 1910 book), this time under the title “’Mysticism and Logic.’” Blackwell and Ruja's Russell Bibliography indicates that indeed some copies were available in December 1917.

My copy of Mysticism and Logic identifies it as the eighth impression, though this seems to count Philosophical Essays as a first impression, so my copy is more likely the seventh impression of Mysticism and Logic, published in 1949; the publisher is George Allen & Unwin LTD of Museum Street in London. Russell notes in the Preface (page v) that he has somewhat changed his mind since “The Free Man’s Worship” first was published, in that “I feel less convinced than I did then of the objectivity of good and evil.” Following that brief Preface recounting the publication history of the various essays is a Contents page; the ten chapters are:

I. Mysticism and Logic
II. The Place of Science in a Liberal Education
III. A Free Man’s Worship
IV. The Study of Mathematics
V. Mathematics and the Metaphysicians
VI. On Scientific Method in Philosophy
VII. The Ultimate Constituents of Matter
VIII. The Relation of Sense-Data to Physics
IX. On the Notion of Cause
X. Knowledge by Acquaintance and Knowledge by Description

Onwards with our bonus march, through the century-old tome Mysticism and Logic. Happy Birthday, Bertie.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Promised End

Eight years ago today I initiated this blog, as a sort of loose commitment to read, summarize, and lightly comment upon ten of Bertrand Russell's works. Today, Bertrand's 143rd birthday, the plan is complete. (OK, there was that one plan revision.) Thanks to the many visitors to this project, visitors from Pakistan and India, Russia and Ukraine, the US and the UK, along with visitors from other points adorning our globe; it has been a pleasure sharing this journey with you. Perhaps the future holds revisions and updates, or further destinations; but for now, the tiny Reading Bertrand Russell river merges into the mighty cyber sea.

In Praise of Idleness, Full Time

While the first half of In Praise of Idleness centers on a critique of the profit motive under industrial capitalism, the second half moves away from the economics sphere. The movement away is only partial, however, in that the effects of the rise of science and industry (largely in the advanced capitalist countries) dominate the second-half subject matter.

Science and industry, for Russell, are the hallmarks of Western civilisation. Technological advances in warfare require the cooperation of huge swaths of people, prompting the government to seek ways – including promulgating propaganda – to develop political cohesion. (Though cooperation is necessary, achieving it through appeals to a fervent nationalism is a mistake, and one that makes other countries wary.) US-style industrialization brings about a cultural and political homogeneity that contributes to political cohesion, though possibly at the cost of an intolerance of difference and a decline in individualism. [Russell’s view of the narrow political spectrum in the US still seems right to me, but the notion that US politics are somehow less contentious doesn't seem to hold – perhaps Russell overlooked Freud’s “narcissism of small differences”?] The comfort that comes with high living standards, political cohesion, and freedom leads to a cynicism in intelligent youth, who have little recourse except to serve ignorant but wealthy masters.

The problem of cynicism can be overcome if the masters are not so ignorant; thus, a broad education is key, and not just for the masters. The general goal of education is to promote civilisation, which involves knowledge but also an array of individual and social virtues, including openness to novel ideas and people. This goal is best served through a considerable degree of freedom for schoolchildren, when they are in the hands of teachers who should not be overtaxed, and who enjoy their company.

The world is full of harm, and this is a reality that cannot and should not be kept from children. Dangers (such as death) should be acknowledged but not dwelt upon, sometimes diluted even to the point of missing opportunities to reduce the probability of harm. The encouragement (through education) of broad, other-regarding interests can help avoid a fixation on potential disasters. No one would develop self-control in the face of danger if they were always shielded from danger; but an avoidance of excessive coddling should not be used to open the door to sadism and cruelty on the part of teachers and parents. A young person who is attracted to a valuable goal will discipline him or herself in an effort to achieve that goal.

Our species is doomed, though that doom is temporally remote (assuming the insects don’t get us), and therefore we do not exhaust psychic energy in worrying about it. This is the message that we should send to children curious about their own deaths, too: inevitable but quite distant, and no cause for brooding. Our commitment to truth-telling to children rules out that we tell them that the soul is eternal. Broad interests forge a connection to the human past and future, even to a future in which one’s body and one’s mind, or one’s soul, are no longer present. As Russell wrote elsewhere, our lives are like a river joining a larger sea.

As a whole, the essays that comprise In Praise of Idleness are an impressive achievement [MRDA]. The idleness essay itself is part of a wider “idleness” discourse that was unknown to me until I read Professor Woodhouse’s Introduction and Woodhouse's mention of Karel Capek’s much different essay. (One of the better pre-Russell contributions comes from Karl Marx’s son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, writing in 1880 (republished with revisions in 1883). Lafargue goes Russell one better, calling not for a four-hour workday but a three-hour one: "If, uprooting from its heart the vice which dominates it and degrades its nature, the working class were to arise in its terrible strength, not to demand the Rights of Man, which are but the rights of capitalist exploitation, not to demand the Right to Work which is but the right to misery, but to forge a brazen law forbidding any man to work more than three hours a day, the earth, the old earth, trembling with joy would feel a new universe leaping within her.") But I was most struck by the extent of the overlap between Russell’s ideas and those of William Morris. The four essays by Morris that are reprinted in this short collection presage the first three chapters of In Praise of Idleness, including thoughts on the non-necessity of long working days – especially if war were rationally avoided – and on the importance of architecture. Morris also presents, as Russell does in Chapter 7, a case for socialism.

Incidentally, the Russellian case for socialism, as a rational response to the conditions brought about by industrialization, seems quite convincing to me; I prefer it to more recent (even identically named) treatments. The Russell version avoids both envy of the rich and warm feelings for the Bolsheviks.

Russell’s faith in the social healing power of architecture seems a bit extreme, but his analysis seems to run in the right direction. In the recent book Happy City, Charles Montgomery notes (p. 90) the excesses of the architecture-as-cure crowd: “The messianic certainty of the high modernists of the last century makes it easy to pick on them.” But Montgomery also verifies (p. 55) Russell’s contention, that suburban life breeds unhappiness and undermines social and political activity.

The reference to Montgomery’s 2013 book is itself a nod towards Russell’s continuing relevance. The essays that make up In Praise of Idleness were written more than 80 years ago, but they are dense with useful information (or useless information, that’s fine), and that informational richness is combined with a writing style that makes them easy to digest. This Russell fellow has a promising future ahead of him.

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter Fifteen

“What is the Soul?,” pages 170-174

Progress in science has a way of undermining what (we had been confident) constituted knowledge. When I [Russell] was young, everyone knew that humans had a body and a soul. The materiality of the body was self-evident, and questioned only by philosophers. But now, we learn from physicists that the existence of matter is suspect. Simultaneously, psychologists tell us that the existence of mind is suspect; indeed, many psychologists think of the mind as a wholly material phenomenon. And the body seems to be a construct of the mind, completing an unpalatable circle. [So far we are covering ground further adumbrated in an essay in Portraits From Memory – RBR] “Evidently this cannot be quite right, and we have to look for something that is neither mind nor body, out of which both can spring [p. 171].”

Surely as a first impression, material objects exist, and you can bump into them. [Russell does not mention Samuel Johnson’s “refutation” of Bishop Berkeley – RBR] But physicists challenge this interpretation, as bumping has something to do with electrons and protons but little to do with you touching something, even though your brain registers the sensation of touch – and your brain can be mistaken. These electrons and protons are waves or probabilistic clouds, not fully material themselves. Nor can science find the mind or soul in what passes for matter.

The world, then, is events, some of which involve causal connections that make it sensible to lump those events into what we refer to as a material object, and others that we might want to collect and refer to as a mind. An event in your brain is of both types, involving the brain, seen as a physical object, and the mind. We can group events into mind or matter at our convenience, choosing one or the other form to serve our present purposes.

Mind and matter are ephemeral. The sun loses matter by the ton, and a person’s memories do not seem to survive his or her own demise.

Though materialism is not an accurate portrait of the world, our emotional connection to the world would not be much changed if materialism were descriptively precise. The spurs to anti-materialism, perhaps, are the hope that mind is eternal and the hope that mind, in the long run, trumps physical power. The materialists have the better of the argument, however. Despite our accomplishments, it is the limitations to our mental powers that stand out. It is only on the surface of the earth that we can see any real effect of mind, with the rest of the universe being untouched by human ideas or desires. And even on earth, it is the energy from the sun that fuels any power we do have.

We can achieve more in the future, but science suggests that one day, humans will cease to exist. This future non-existence exacts no psychological toll today, we are not that emotionally invested in humanity’s fate millions of years down the road. The science that foretells our end has its opponents, but it is tolerated, because though it anticipates a bleak future, modern science brings comforts in the here and now.

Monday, May 4, 2015

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter Fourteen

“On Comets,” pages 168-169

Comets have an honored history of foretelling events such as the death of Caesar, and hence our astronomical visitors were accorded respect by our forebears. Highly educated people such as the Venerable Bede and John Knox were cognizant of the prophetic nature of comets. The American colonists recognized the role of comets in the deaths of notables, and in providing warnings about indulgence in vice. Alas, the work of Halley and Newton revealed that comets were orderly in their travels, and this knowledge, though suppressed, eventually became general.

“In our day, it is difficult to imagine a world in which everybody, high and low, educated and uneducated, was preoccupied with comets, and filled with terror whenever one appeared [p. 169].” Now, thanks largely to artificial lighting, we don’t even notice comets or the rest of the cosmos, either. Our man-made environmental cocoon offers safety, but also makes us self-centered and unaware of deeper matters. The appearance of a comet now, if it were noticed, would probably not stir us enough to forgo our own indulgence in vice.