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.

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