How Science Empowers Philosophy

It’s pretty amazing that we can still understand Plato 2400 years later. Our world would be unrecognizable to him, yet a lot of his ideas make intuitive sense. But we know vastly more about the world, the universe, and the forces that govern things than he did. If we want, we can go back, nitpick, and make almost any philosopher look like a quack. But science is changing that.

Touching A Nerve: Our Brains, Our SelvesRecently I picked up Touching A Nerve: Our Brains, Our Selves by Patricia S. Churchland. It is a philosophy book through and through, but her approach to philosophy is modern, empirical, and diverse. She draws heavily from neuroscience, psychology, sociology and evolution to answer questions on the soul, morality, and free will with minimal assumptions. When she makes a claim, she provides factual evidence to back it up, showing why she thinks the way she does, often with citations for more curious readers.

I’ve read some philosophy from different periods of history for pleasure, but it gets old. It’s hard to read Kant these days without getting frustrated; so many underlying assumptions, perfectly common in his time, now seem groundless and misleading. Without any recourse to empirical proofs, we’re left trying to sort through his assumptions and figure out why he thought the way he did. His reasoning is correct in spots however, and it’s easy to get caught up in the flow an accept propositions because they sound right, even when they’re totally wrong.

The Ptolemaic universe probably made perfect sense to ancient world, but Copernicus showed it was false. Newtonian physics probably clicked for many people, but Einstein proved it wrong. When the next revolution in philosophy comes, we’ll be able to go back to philosophers like Churchland and Dan Dennett and precisely analyze the basis of their claims. If future science disproves or modifies a finding, we’ll see plainly how this changes the philosophical propositions resting on it.

Churchland’s writing is personable and entertaining. She sticks to the issues and draws her material from modern science, providing us a temporal touchstone on the state of philosophy today. I’m really enjoying this book, and wish more public intellectuals had her epistemic standards and clarity.

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

waking upSam Harris is the co-founder and CEO of Project Reason, a non-profit organization dedicated to spreading science and secular values. Many of its members speak openly against the dangers and evils of religion, so I find it significant that in 2014 Harris released Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.

It’s significant because it’s a risk. It doesn’t play to a large audience. According to the jacket, Waking Up is for the “20 percent of Americans who follow no religion but who suspect that important truths can be found in the experiences of such figures as Jesus, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, Rumi, and the other saints and sages of history.”

Most of Harris’ fans are hardline atheists and anti-theists who probably wouldn’t deign to admit that there is such a thing as “spirituality.” Even Harris’ brilliant contemporaries like Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens haven’t entertained “spirituality” with much respect, and I suspect that a large number of people simply never will. So this book is not for them, and Harris has risked alienating himself from some of his own team.

There are also a number of other public meditation advocates who portray reason and rational thinking as an enemy to spiritual progress. Shunning reason has left many of these gurus open to absurd beliefs about consciousness and the cosmos. I assume advising against critical thinking is one of the reasons some of them remain so popular.

When I first became interested in meditation, yoga, and various techniques for the manipulation of consciousness, I went to the beginning. I read several ancient Indian yoga books, doing my best to account for cultural differences. I took claims about conquering death and walking on water with an arched eyebrow, and tried let the exercises and proofs of experience speak for themselves.

As I worked my way through history, things clarified slightly, becoming more contemporary and palatable, but even now the amount of pure garbage written about consciousness is staggering and time-consuming. I wish I had found Waking Up years ago when I first began.

Harris’ writing is clear, his claims based on evidence and experience, and he adds no metaphysical nonsense to the completely practical, physical, real-world exercise of meditation. He also expresses many of the philosophical issues about consciousness in a tidy fashion, peppering in humour and sharp skepticism along the way.

Much of the opening explains what he means when he says “spiritual.” Transcendent experiences are valid, he says, and they have long been misinterpreted through the lens of religion. Granted, some people may never have these experiences, and many will confuse transcendence with moments of aesthetic contemplation or ecstatic bliss (both of which may be extremely valuable), but for Harris, transcendence is the subjective experience of consciousness in a state prior to thought, when the illusion of the self is annihilated.

Of course, we’re all thinking all the time, so getting to that state can prove quite difficult. With years of meditation training, a firm grounding in philosophy and a PhD in neuroscience, Harris gives straightforward advice, tips about the snags and traps one can find on the path of meditation, and ample evidence that meditation is for most people an entirely beneficial practice.

Harris has successfully written a brief but engaging overview of meditation from scientific, philosophical, and personal perspectives. At 237 pages, Waking Up provides ample explanations and citations in the endnotes from a wide variety of sources. Waking Up will hopefully serve as an olive branch to people searching for peace without the usual religious baggage.

Change Your Brain – Pt. 2

One of the earliest influential philosophers is Thales from ancient Greece. Since him there has been a continuous succession of thinkers who built upon their predecessors, criticizing what they don’t like, correcting what they can, and emphasizing what makes the most sense. Since Thales we can trace the path of Western thought through to today, mapping the brain change of the world, and it’s all pretty interesting, minus the Dark Ages.

The classical Greek philosophers (Aristotle, Socrates, Plato) set the stage for world philosophy, and many other cultures absorbed their ideas before the formation of distinct philosophies of their own. Some would claim the Greeks were the fathers of philosophy, who made an art of thinking that benefited the rest of humanity. Others would argue that the Greek philosophers stunted the growth of future free-thinkers, limiting would-be revolutionaries with their categories and strict methods.

A goal of many intellectuals is to surpass their formative history and offer something new to the world, whether it be an invention, a way of thinking, or a new analysis of something we’ve taken for granted. It can be hard to break away from tradition and offer something new, but one thing I’ve learned is that the broader the net we cast for information, the bigger the potential catch. Even opposing opinions offer us a chance to compare and contrast and flex our own intellectual and intuitive genius.

I think reading is one of the best uses of time. The following books helped me to think in new ways.

Critical PathCritical Path by R. Buckminster Fuller

Bucky Fuller is an autodidact, inventor, engineer, and revolutionary thinker. His goal is simple: to make things easier for human beings by thinking about a problem and coming up with a novel solution. It doesn’t seem like he made a fortune, but his perspective has influenced a couple generations of scientists, philosophers and entrepreneurs. A major thrust in this work is the idea of ephemeralization (a term he coined), which describes our technological development trend of being able to do more work, more efficiently, in less time, with less material. Think of what a computer looked like in the 1970s and compare it to your smartphone. The brilliance of this book is that Fuller is truly a systems-thinker, and always has the big picture in mind. And best of all, he’s a little kooky. I recommend this book for the socially conscious.

 

Quantum PsychologyQuantum Psychology by Robert Anton Wilson

Written with humour, erudition, and infectious optimism, this handy little manual offers us a new look at our selves. This book is a guided tour to opening new ways of thinking and acting. It asks us to look at what we know of the world, then to look at how we know these things and why. In 200 pages this book challenges every belief, every behavior, and every excuse to avoid being who we want to be. This is a manual about writing your own life script but it is far from being New Age. Wilson’s voice is authoritative, wise and hilarious throughout, and every chapter offers practical exercises for the reader to begin opening new horizons. Recommended for everyone.

 

StoryStory by Robert McKee

This book, and its author, are a little bit legendary in the film industry for a variety of reasons. McKee attacks the construction of a screenplay using big, fundamental ideas that shed light on what stories have to offer to the human experience and what makes a story satisfying. His aggressive writing style almost challenges the reader to prove him wrong when he explains why character is story, why story must be told through conflict, and why there must be a major emotional value change in every scene, sequence, act, and movie. When I first got the book I assumed, since I like so-called art films, that I would disagree with a lot of what he had to say. After all, Eraserhead doesn’t have much in common with, say, Paul Blart: Mall Cop. But most of the points McKee makes hold true for just about every movie, every novel, every short story, short film, opera, play, campfire story, drunken anecdote…Recommended for anyone interested in storytelling.

Reasoning Skills

I frequently see signs for something called the School of Philosophy. Usually the ads ask vague questions like, “Can philosophy make me happy?” or, “What is the meaning of life?”, and they’ll show a little person staring off into a bright white expanse. Though I never seriously studied philosophy in school I did take a class about reasoning skills. But philosophy has always interested me, so the advertisements usually catch my eye, though I always felt there might be something fishy going on here.

Then I saw this one:School of Philosophy ad“The Best Things In Life Are Not Things.” – School of Philosophy.

“Yes they are.” – Eric R. Schiller.

If I said, “The best doctors aren’t doctors,” someone should quickly respond, “then don’t call them doctors, idiot.” Using a word twice in the same sentence with two different meanings is very confusing. Maybe this doesn’t bother people, but it does bother people.

Language is our most fundamental tool for externalizing ideas. When language is used improperly it creates misunderstanding. This might be because language, improperly used, is a symptom of muddled thinking. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that there is value in a snappy slogan. Corporations like McDonald’s use them all the time. But McDonald’s wants you to give them money and eat cow. I expect more from a “school of philosophy”.

If you read any of the big philosophers, the first part of their major works generally define the terms they will be working with. The language must be unequivocal. Even where there might be confusion, differences in meaning must be strictly delineated. Otherwise ambiguities build up as you read, compounding the confusion until you’re left with a bunch of ineffective ideas and a headache (but a really toned brow).

This seemed like the worst kind of ad for any School of Philosophy, assuming the school aims to promote clear thinking. So I looked at the website, which is very vague. There is no hint of any real lesson plan. I did see pithy quotes from philosophers on the site, then read that “Writings and sayings of great philosophers such as Plato, Ficino, Shakespeare and others, set the stage for enlivened discussions based on personal experience.”

I then read that the school was founded in 1976 and later, in the 60s, was influenced by Eastern philosophy. This is not the only mistake on the site. They inspire no confidence in their ability to teach me clarity and wisdom. Besides, in my opinion, real knowledge comes from self analysis, not slogans.

But lo and behold, they do teach meditation. I soon discovered a strong undercurrent of Hinduism on the site.  It seems like a secularized, modernized, and disguised school of Hindu philosophy and I doubt it takes any serious look at philosophy at large, but grabs pieces that fit and ignores piece that don’t. I’m not terribly surprised.

This isn’t all bad necessarily. There’s value in learning the language of philosophy so we can think about these things fluently. But I wonder if $185 per course is worthwhile. Anyone interested in philosophy can go to the library and discover at their own pace for free. So what does that $185 tuition buy me?

The School of Philosophy is not for profit. And according to their website, all their instructors volunteer their time. So where does the money go? With no diploma and no course text, it seems that the money goes into the pocket of the person hired to collect it. After paying, the registrant is allowed to sit in on discussions between other students and instructors. So what are the qualifications of the instructors? It appears they are all former students.

Curious, I clicked “Registration” button. The message I received was “Fatal Error”.

Touché. The site seemed to have collapsed under my piercing scrutiny.

I definitely agree with meditation and yoga as a road to knowledge and wisdom. You might point out that yoga came from the ancient Hindus. But that doesn’t make Hindu philosophy right. To believe that would be to make the philosophical error known as a syllogistic fallacy. “I believe yoga works (A). Yoga comes from the Hindu tradition (B). Therefore I believe the Hindu tradition (C).” This is false logic. Reasoning skills!

So if you’re interested in learning about philosophy, go to the library before you shell out $185. The internet is such a repository of knowledge we can learn almost anything on our own, even meditation techniques. Or better yet, just send me $100 and we’ll talk over coffee.

 

P.S.

If you’re interested in “living in the now” so the universe can rain gifts of bliss down on you, sit still and take notice. Last night was possibly the best meditation of my life. Today gifts of free music rained down all day. So full-screen these beauties, sit back, and open up to the mystical transmissions of Yo La Tengo, David Bowie and Roy Montgomery.

YO LA TENGO

 

DAVID BOWIE

 

ROY MONTGOMERY

 

Cinematic Ontology: “World on a Wire” vs. “The Matrix”

Ontology is the study of being, or reality as it pertains to our existence. Film is arguably the most absorbing art form for dealing with this issue. After all, films represent realities of their own. 8 1/2; Blade Runner; Solaris; Inland Empire and The Tree of Life are all masterful ontological film-essays. Film effectively orchestrates sense data to engage the mind. In this way, it’s kind of like real life.

I just had the pleasure of watching World on a Wire, recently released on Blu-Ray by the Criterion Collection. Rainer Werner Fassbiner offers up a three-and-a-half-hour psychological detective story set in the merging realities of a dystopian future and the virtual reality it has created. This German masterpiece is Chinatown set in the world of The Matrix, though it predated both.

World on a Wire is a smooth, stylized film noir that that happens to be “science fiction”. It avoids projecting future technologies that might in time look outdated or embarrassingly naive. Here the technology is incidental; it’s the psychological journey that counts.

Fassbinder’s protagonist leads the action, and this is what makes the film great. All philosophers and scientists at some point, despite their metaphysical babble and mathematical systems, have to deal with reality through experience. Whether experience is sensuous, cerebral, or mysterious depends on the individual’s character, and character is story.

People may say that plot is story, but I would argue that plot is simply the sequence of a character’s actions and reactions. There are, after all, no stories devoid of characters.

The protagonist is the character the audience empathizes with. You can get a sense of the intended audience of a movie by looking at the protagonist. In World on a Wire, Fred Stiller is a smart, cynical guy searching for meaning. By contrast, Neo from The Matrix is a confused geek.

I remember people raving about The Matrix. Watch World on a Wire. Originality in The Matrix took the form of newly-realizable computer-cartoon effects. The ideas behind The Matrix were good enough, just unoriginal. Obviously ridicule is the only reason for me to mention Avatar. Ever.

I once saw a philosophy book based on The Matrix in which the Wachowski brothers claimed they crammed more philosophy into the movie than anybody will ever know (I’m paraphrasing; I didn’t read the book). This strikes me as the statement of someone who wants you to think they’re smarter than they are.

Don’t get me wrong, when I saw The Matrix I thought it was okay. Films made as showcases for new special effects have a way of being amusing. This is a dangerous thing. In this way, producers get kids to spend their time watching stupid nonsense. See Transformers or 300 for an example of a bunch of stupid nonsense.

Perhaps the most recent film along these lines is the remake of Total Recall. I don’t remember enjoying the original movie despite it being based on a short story by Philip K. Dick (I’m an admitted Philip K. Dick-head). By the looks of the trailer, they’ve put most of their efforts towards making the movie look like a video game. Does anybody else get the impression that, since The Matrix, the plan has been to assault our senses to distract us from the story?

World on a Wire, though made for German television in 1973, felt fresh like a true classic. It isn’t afraid to ask about reality, and its final moments roll out a beautifully enigmatic truth.