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.

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