Sunday, October 29, 2017

Mysticism and Logic, Chapter III

"A Free Man’s Worship," pages 46-57

Russell begins with a lengthy quotation from Faust, where Mephistopheles explains how the Creator, bored with the praises from angels whose situations he had made joyous, decides to allow worlds and living creatures to develop – living creatures who can be led to worship Him even though they receive only torment, not joy. Eventually men succeed in this task, and even name as Sin the pursuit of their natural instincts. So the Creator destroys these worlds, that He might enjoy a similar pageant once again from the beginning. Russell endorses the fable: “Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief [p. 47].” We must accept what our best knowledge makes all but certain, that what has been built has been accidental, unplanned, that the grave is our full ending, and that a similar grave awaits the solar system.

What though the field be lost?/All is not lost.” The interim is ours (and perhaps ours alone), “to examine, to criticise, to know, and in imagination to create [p. 48].”

Savages, knowledgeable of their vulnerability to nature, worship power, even being willing to shed much blood in a fruitless attempt to appease brutal gods. The size of the sacrifice is indicative of the slavish commitment to suppressing any doubts as to the worthiness of the worshiped idol. They cannot conceive of a better world, so they worship what is powerful, not what is benevolent. Today’s might-makes-righters, including social Darwinists and militarists and followers of Carlyle and Nietzsche, are similarly in thrall to power.

The standard religious view is now different – it asserts that our world in fact comports with the benevolence of the all-powerful creator, but in a manner that is unfathomable to mortal minds. This claim is not easily reconciled with the fact that the world contains much evil. We must choose whether to accept that God is evil, or whether to accept that God is unreal, our own invention.

To worship strength is to sacrifice our ideals to mollify the powerful. If strength must be idolized, why not choose to idolize the strength shown by those who are willing to recognize that “is” does not imply “ought,” and the fact that there is much wrong with our world? Our actions must respect the unavoidable constraints of an imperfect world, but our vision – the vision that motivates our actions – should remain fixed on what is good.

The alternative of taking umbrage at the evil of the world is not a real alternative at all: it allows evil to preoccupy us. “Indignation is a submission of our thoughts, but not of our desires; the Stoic freedom in which wisdom consists is found in the submission of our desires, but not of our thoughts [p. 51].” Art and philosophy emerge from the visions of beauty that are licensed by unconstrained thoughts, thoughts uncontaminated by the need to serve our desires.

Austere religions are right, more often than not, in their contention that what is desired is bad. Even those things that we desire that really are beneficial should not become fetishized, if they cannot be attained. And though it is not understood by young people, those who are older know that many wonderful things will be unattainable. “What fates impose, that men must needs abide;/It boots not to resist both wind and tide.”

Along with our renunciation of desire, we need to make it possible to deify our ideals, through our embrace of reason and culture. “In all the multiform facts of the world – in the visual shapes of trees and mountains and clouds, in the events of the life of man, even in the very omnipotence of Death – the insight of creative idealism can find the reflection of a beauty which its own thoughts first made [p. 53].” Tragedy is the queen of the arts in that it takes evils such as death and despair and fashions beauty out of them. Even in the recognition of loneliness, loss, and powerlessness, we can forge a bond with the world, and overcome the sway of these potent adversaries.

The past’s beauty lies in its fixity and purity. “The Past does not change or strive; like Duncan, after life’s fitful fever it sleeps well; what was eager and grasping, what was petty and transitory, has faded away, the things that were beautiful and eternal shine out of it like stars in the night [p. 55].” The past’s beauty can provide a sort of religious rapture.

Appreciating the force of nature in its tragic form is a source of power and freedom. “To abandon the struggle for private happiness, to expel all eagerness of temporary desire, to burn with passion for eternal things – this is emancipation, and this is the free man’s worship [p. 55].”

We are united in the tomb, our common end. As we march along our path, our comrades (along with us, eventually) fall off the cliff, lost forever. We do not have long to ease their steps, to light their path. We shouldn’t concern ourselves with their desert, but with their need. They, too, are fated to be players in a tragedy. When they pass into eternity, let us hope that we did not stoke their sorrows, but rather eased their pains and enhanced their joys.

Old Man River keeps on rolling; we can be proud in our temporary defiance, as we briefly construct and maintain a world based on our ideals.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Mysticism and Logic, Chapter II

"The Place of Science in a Liberal Education," pages 33-45

This essay is divided into two untitled parts, with part I covering pages 33-39, and part II covering pages 39-45.

Most people see science through the persistent parade of new technological marvels. Man’s growing control over nature is a good reason to promote scientific research, but there are other strong, though less appreciated reasons, including the inculcation of a scientific cast of thought. Inventions like wireless telegraphs stem from impressive and fundamental theoretical advances, with the eventual application in useful products valuable but possessing less of a broad sweep.

Even scientists are likely to associate culture not with their own activities but with the productions of those trained in literary or classical pursuits. That is, scientists themselves justify their supposedly inferior activity through the practical gadgetry that results, and not from the careful, disinterested build-up of knowledge that sharpens mental acuity.

An education in the classics has great value, though “I have not myself enjoyed its benefits…[p. 35].” [Russell makes this point elsewhere – RBR] The focus on the past, especially on a rather refined version of the past, however, can lead to insufficient appreciation of the present and future. Such a concern goes beyond the study of classics, to any excessively static and academic education.

What is the aim of education? First, let’s describe what I [Russell] mean by education. I do not mean the broad definition that includes all life learning; nor do I mean the narrow definition of formal instruction concerning specific information, like the three R’s in elementary school. Education here will be taken to mean “the formation, by means of instruction, of certain mental habits and a certain outlook on life and the world [p. 37, italics Russell’s].”

We all are driven by a finite number of primary impulses. Each of these primary drives is supported by a plethora of secondary desires that arise in support of the primary impulse. If we lose a primary impulse, the supportive ones will themselves wither and die: our previous interest in them will be deprived of all zest, all color. Meaning in our lives is always connected to a primary desire – the secondary ones, unlinked with a primary drive, cannot lend meaning to our existence.

Education, therefore, does not create a heretofore non-existent primary drive nor generate new meaning for living, but it can enlarge the scope of our existing primary interests. Unfortunately, much education in practice has attempted to thwart natural impulses, thereby producing “stunted and contorted hypocrites [p. 38].”

A proper education does not serve to impede instincts, but rather hones them, managing their conflicts and limiting negative consequences. It broadens one’s contacts with the world and its people, both across time and across space. “It is this simultaneous softening in the insistence of desire and enlargement of its scope that is the chief moral end of education [p. 39].” The intellectual end is to see the human and the non-human world, and the relations between them, as they are, and not as we might like them to be. Educational success can be measured by the outcome of this de-biasing project.

With the second untitled part of this essay beginning on page 39, Russell returns to discussing science. Relative to art and literature, science possesses the advantage of providing hope, both for the future and for what a dedicated student can accomplish. This hope helps to counter a cost that can accompany science’s other comparative advantage, namely, the independence of scientifically-revealed truths from human desires.

Study of art and literature is backward looking, to Ancient Greece or the Renaissance. The pinnacles reached in the past “actually increase the difficulty of fresh triumphs by rendering originality harder of attainment [p. 40].” Science builds on past successes, but not so art; indeed, civilization produces a sophistication that inhibits the sort of wide-eyed wonder that spurs artistic creativity. Artists cavil at the present, and their impulse for originality is reflected in a bizarre iconoclasm.

Since Galileo, we have had the scientific method at hand, and hence have a recipe for generating progress that is not available to artists. We do not need a person of genius to produce every advance in science, though artistic breakthroughs require such prodigies. Those who contribute most to science are those who develop a new method, though many of the valuable discoveries will subsequently be made by others who apply the method.

Beyond the individual methods is the more general scientific method, which “includes deduction as much as induction, logic and mathematics as much as botany and geology [p. 42].” This method develops from an outlook which understands that the world is what it is, irrespective of how we might wish it to be. Though such an outlook might seem to be the obvious one to adopt, in practice it has proven hard to inculcate. Aristotle thought that the stars move in circles because he viewed the circle as the most perfect of curves – and thereby let his preferences decide questions of fact. Malthus, who wrote post-Galileo, did better: his mistaken population theory derived from a dispassionate view of people as creatures exhibiting consistent behaviors that would bring certain consequences. Darwin, inspired by Malthus, has helped to cement the scientific approach to the study of man.

Philosophy remains rather unscientific, even if philosophers like to deploy scientific terms. The scientific approach requires the abjuration of feelings or anything else that impedes the search for truth, for a view of reality untarnished by preconceptions or hopes. Our attachment to rationality and desire for progress should not, on its own, lead us to believe that the universe coheres with our logic and improves (or deteriorates) over time. Our hopes and fears limit the potential for philosophy.

The desire to build something lasting can be satisfied more intensely in science than in poetry. Our curiosity can realize the payoff of new knowledge when deployed in a scientific manner – it broadens and depersonalizes our interests, promoting our wellbeing. A scientist who makes a new discovery receives the additional satisfaction of public admiration and the knowledge that society has been benefitted. “A life devoted to science is therefore a happy life, and its happiness is derived from the very best sources that are open to dwellers on this troubled and passionate planet [p. 45].”

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.