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.