Appeals to the crowd; different takes on existentialism; science and religion; cause and effect; the inadequacy of knowledge; wild postulations on empathy; misleading appearances; anecdotal conclusions.
Consider this a layman’s introduction to that most nuanced and miasmic of disciplines: philosophy. As an introduction it will do less to explain concepts and more to give you a sense of how messy philosophy is to the uninitiated, how mathematical too. If you don’t know the frankly weird symbols and regular equations of maths – it seems insane. Or inexplicable. Philosophy too. But that doesn’t mean it’s inaccessible. It’s just a matter of being willing to learn, and since philosophy uses words more than mathmatical symbols, it’s probably easier to learn. Anyway, if this seems like too much rambling, there will be more, and better structured, to follow.
So, what’s this thing that all people could agree on?
Existence. Right? And existence also has certain interesting connotations that might help bring peace on earth and good will to all. But first: what could we all agree on about existence?
Well, that it is. The whole, big concept of things being. Despite all the various philosophical weaslings out there, existence has never been and probably can’t be disproven or denied. Human existence – can get out of that to some extent. Existence of the individual, also debateable. But existence in general – nah. It’s clearly a thing.
This is interesting when you start thinking about what it means for existence to be. Two things:
1. It doesn’t involve non-existence. We have no actual evidence of nothingness. I mean it might sound obvious but nothingness isn’t. Doesn’t. Is not a thing. Etc. The darkness of space apparently has dark matter in it, light and radio travelling from one place to another, and other forces besides.
2. Nothing stops. Put another way, everything changes. Existence is a process of change, nothingness would be the absence of change.
What do these points mean? Well, they could be seen as evidence that when we “die”, we don’t go to nothingness. Instead, we get reabsorbed into existence. Now, my personal theory about the consciousness side is a bit of a weird one, and still under development, but I’d hold that your consciousness probably gets broken down when you die. Again, not destroyed, since nothing properly does get destroyed. Clearly though, you don’t carry on as the same individual when your body dies. It’s another big point of change, whatever comes next.
Existence also implies some degree of evolution, of development. I mean things do develop as part of the natural changes integral to existence. Earth is here now. We’re here now. We weren’t always. And, contrary to what the Greens sometimes say, we don’t only destroy as a species. We’re more creative than destructive, it’s just that we’ve also not been very efficient in our creations.
Existence implies constant creation or re-creation: development. Good development requires a kind of efficiency – we can probably agree on that. So, one could suggest, existence implies a moral guideline of efficiency. Now, efficiency, that’s a word with many interpretations – we’ll have to go into it later – but the point is that existence itself suggests that we might want to live in certain ways with certain ‘moral’ rules. Damn, moral is one of those “let’s go into it laters” as well. Still, existence suggests that certain ways of behaving are better or more useful than others.
Now, everyone could agree on substantial parts of this potentially quite interesting philosophical induction. Maybe less when it comes to my side rants, but they’re mainly related to issues of terminology anyway. If I call existence existence and someone else calls it god, why should I care?
Most religions believe in an afterlife – and these ideas about changing rather than ending don’t discount that one. The interconnectedness of things provides an explanation for where your physical assets go. You die, your body goes into the soil or whatever. No problem for most religion – perfect god wouldn’t imprison you in a squishy meat sack forever anyway. However, the consciousness/soul bit is still up for debate. The soul is clearly not the same as a person. People are imperfect, and most religions hold that the soul/atman/spirit is pretty perfect. At least relatively speaking.
And the nothingness, the possibility of nothingness, well, if you have a god that’s perfect or whatever I’m kind of assuming that god wouldn’t be into absence. If god’s omnipresent, say, then it would negate the possibility of nothingness.
This chat about existence shouldn’t offend atheists and agnostics either – there aren’t any leaps of faith or moral judgements going on. Well, maybe some very vague moral judgements, maybe a misuse of context-heavy terms – but that’s all. The theory here is just trying to describe what happens. Bodies decay etc, consciousness probably decays or stops too. Probably. Things change all the time. Empty space may or may not be empty after all. That’s science, more or less.
Where any theory gets particularly controversial is when we try to work out the stuff beyond our knowledge. Beyond even our experience. Like asking where existence comes from. We’re used to feeling that things have a beginning and an end, even though it sounds like they definitively don’t.
But surely existence couldn’t just have always been, and keep being…and if it does then…well, why?
Let me tell you, apart from scaring me, this “why” word has got equal hatred from all sides of the philosophic-religious-scientific-existentialist spectrum. Sometimes I want the scientific, atheist types to be right: they tell me that “why” doesn’t really mean anything, or doesn’t really ask anything. “How” is where it’s at for them. And I’d love to be able to embrace the simplicity of that kind of explanation, but, sadly, things don’t just go away when you stop believing in them. People ask “why” rather than “how” for a reason.
Basically, it tends to mean “this thing is beyond what I understand, and I want to have the information that would allow me to understand it”.
“How” has more of a sense of “I get what you’re saying but where are the details?”.
Some scientific types are uncomfortable with the “why” question because it means admitting the presence of something we don’t and maybe can’t understand, rather than another thing we just haven’t researched yet. I feel the discomfort too, but sometimes folks we just have to be honest with ourselves and confess to all the different levels of things we don’t know.
And then, hopefully all agreed on the broad strokes of things, what we do sort of know and what we don’t, maybe we can make some collective progress.
I mean I see it like this: science and religion are both essentially attempts to resolve the same question, a “why” question. However, Hitchhiker’s Guide – we don’t really know what the question is. Doesn’t matter about the exact wording though, the point is that it relates to the unknown.
Now, broad strokes, scientists are more interested in analysis through physical examination and construction, religious types are more interested in analysis through the contemplation of ideas and things that seem a little more ephemeral. This probably comes from the consciousness/body dichotomy. Not mind/body (that’s a different debate) since the mind is clearly a part of the body. Consciousness probably is too, but it doesn’t feel like that. It feels weird. It feels distinct. Religion is probably a lot more interested in starting from that weirdness, while science is more interested in the ample and solid ground of a body and mind we can open up and analyse with relative ease.
We have to make this all about ourselves, by the way, because that’s sort of how we work. It doesn’t have to stay all about us, but it has to begin there. I like to think there’s a similar argument with emotion. You don’t have to like emotions, don’t have to be a slave to them, but you have to accept that they’re there, accept that they will have some influence on you like so many things in the world.
Now, for the scientific cutting edge you have the internet and schools of all sorts, and it’s relatively clear. Clear, at least as compared to the religious “cutting edge”, which many people think can’t exist at all because of all the disagreement. It’s unfortunate that sciences and religions have often become like warring tribes in our species’ past, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. And in the mean time you can do two things with religion – you can try and suggest a sort of “average” belief system composed of bits of all the others, or you can just join the religious debate while trying not to be religious. In fact, these aren’t two separate things. You have to do both. With science and religion – there are disagreements all around, and the only way towards some kind of better or impartial or accurate knowledge is dissemination of everything we have so far by a relatively neutral or disinterested party.
In this case, me.
But I don’t have the knowledge required, or the impeccable credentials, so you’ll have to take my thinking with a pinch of salt so to speak. Maybe even a few bags of salt, whatever works for you.
Science tells us about cause and effect. Religion tells us about purpose. These look to me to be the three parts of that core process that keeps everything going: change.
Cause progresses towards effect, we know this. But why?
Someone in the crowd there has called out “just because” but I don’t think that’s enough. Just because isn’t enough of a reason for atheists to believe god exists, so why should “just because” be enough reason to believe in random, unmotivated change?
So, I posit the motivator: purpose. Really I’m just reconstructing Aristotle here, who was probably reconstructing someone else. Have you heard of the Prime Mover? The purpose-giver? Well, I think it’s less of a Prime Mover and more of a Prime Movement.
Cause progresses to effect because there is a sense of purpose. Because, and here’s where it gets weird, at every step of the way there is something with a sense of purpose.
I’m happy to step out here and admit, this could be totally human-centric and therefore wrong. But bear in mind – sometimes when you think about your motivations, they do bear some resemblance to the motivations and workings of other people, and because they’re people they can confirm such a resemblance. We see a similar situation with animals, only they can’t confirm it so well. Why shouldn’t we expand this and apply it to other parts of existence? Imagine that core atomic reaction: one atom losing an electron, the other one gaining. Suppose, in some almost-impossibly simple way, those atoms perceive a need to behave like that…
But, you might say, it doesn’t need to perceive anything. Its interactions are decided by smaller interactions within the atom, with strings and things, and eventually there’s something so small that just does what it does because. And that goes all the way up the chain to us, making us effectively random automatons with only an illusion of purpose and meaning. I mean, maybe that’s true. But surely some infinitesimally small reaction still poses the same cause and effect issue: why does one go to the other? “Just because” isn’t made more convincing by being applied to insanely small and weird things. Well, rhetorically it might be more convincing, but we’re trying to be reasonable here.
Is it enough just to say that it happens, infinitely small, infinitely big, it just keeps happening? I can’t say it is.
Maybe it’s because I was raised pagan, maybe it’s because I’m a flawed and imperfect human, but I feel like there has to be a little more going on. Not a god as such, just a purpose. A why. Would infinite cycles make more sense with a purpose? Supposing they go off so far they eventually come out in a logic loop, one defines the other…does that loop keep going just because it’s a loop, or does it keep going because all the constituents perceive a need to carry on as they do?
Big bang theory, which might even be out of date by now, had the idea that the universe keeps exploding into being, trying to stay there, ultimately failing and getting sucked back into another bang. What if (so far) we’re in a universe that’s cracked it? That sits in stable infinity?
You know, thinking about this I’m almost glad to be human. It’s all so weird, it seems that it’d have to be even weirder for whatever actually knows what’s going on. At least we’re saved that, and instead we can just have our myriad conjecture.
Speaking of, I’m going to try and get a bit more of a discussion happening about this kind of thing locally. I mean, who doesn’t want to ponder the furthest expanses of human ‘knowledge’? Watch this space – more articles will come, and then meetings will be available if there’s interest.
Now, when I’m writing, I have a strange habit of posing as “not one of those science/atheist types”, leading to the assumption that I must be religious. Well, I’m not. In reality I fit the science/atheist type more than any other, I just don’t want to. Don’t want to be religious either – I’ve seen the history books on that one, it’s not really my kind of scene. I like some of the culture though, some of the lessons, metaphors, metaphysics…but you have to be careful. There’s religion, and then there’s being religious. There’s Christianity and then there’s the Church…but this is a discussion for another time.
We need a conclusion.
I’ve loved philosophy since I was about five. I remember being told about heaven and hell, not in a Christian way but in a matter-of-fact way. I think my parents just wanted me to be quiet for a while, to be honest with you. But I remember being amazed by how strange, how simple, how brilliant the idea seemed at the time. Then two or three years later, thinking it was stupid and my Dad – with more time on his hands by then – starting to teach me about reincarnation.
Reincarnation made way more sense. But then what it meant started to develop over the years. It couldn’t be a simple die and then come back. You had to come back as something else. A human, an animal, a spirit. You had to be judged by the Lords of Wyrd. Great stuff! But none of it made enough sense. I still got the sinking feeling every now and then, thinking about how little I know about death.
After years – years – I finally managed to confront death/nothingness, stare at it, analyse it. That, combined with the idea that I had to reconstruct my life philosophy from nothing up, brought me to existence. And fuck me, the heaven and hell idea was way more complicated than just looking at reality. The layers of cultural assumption and historical determination…instead it’s just enough to look at the fact that we are. That something exists and that we seem to be part of that something, and we seem to behave in certain explicable, predictable ways. Hard to find the easy thing but easy once you’ve noticed it. Well, maybe.
The conclusion is that philosophy is a mess of powerful shouts echoing over the centuries, and you don’t need to hear any of them. They might come in handy, but plenty are just going to distract you if you don’t already have a clear sense of purpose. Look deeply at what you know, deconstruct your life again and again and again until you can’t go any further down. And then assume you haven’t gone far enough. You’ll start looking at existence. You’ll start realising that it tells you a lot, without the academic philosophy glasses worn to obscure professors’ eyes. And then, then you can start leaping into all the extant theories. Religion, science: philosophy. You can wade through any and all of it because you have a strong structural basis for your beliefs. And fuck, I wish someone had written that in the introduction when I was younger. Hopefully this’ll be a help to someone out there. If not, I’m happy to argue points or semantics in the comments below, for laffs.
Existentialism (link to piece incoming)
Language (link to piece incoming)
Purpose (link to piece incoming)
Keep an eye on the site for further developments.
[pic from Wellcome Trust via Wikimedia Commons]