Consciousness and reality

Matthew asked:

If reality of any given organism is true, yet do not coincide with one another, then what does that mean for reality? If individualistic perceptions of reality can be true then what role do we play in reality? If we play a role then what does that mean for concepts of which we create that we accept as true of reality?

Where does Time fit in reality when only perceived by organisms? If we took out the concept of time then wouldn’t there still be movement? If movement is not constrained by the concept of time, would that not then explain our own bodily movements more?

Could consciousness be another facet of matter? If we accept the thoughts of Kelly then could we not say we are 5d organisms that biochemically interact with 3d selves while perceiving a 4d forming the image of our 5d selves?

Last one but more personal, you see I wonder, that if one mind without any other mind to contradict it can form any truth it wants, then another mind arrives in contradicts those truths, yet finds some truths that are true to both, then how did the first mind find those truths without anything?

That wording might be strange how about this, if god is alone then all things are true as long as god believes it to be so, if another god showed up to contradict the first then wouldn’t everything they didn’t share in common then disappear, leaving only truths they shared to remain, How then did those entities find these common truths without the knowledge of the other?

Honestly I hope for a reply of any kind to any of these questions that preoccupies my mind constantly.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Seems to me you have set yourself an agenda for a life of thinking and study, Matthew! One thing I want to say ahead of my reply, which I think is important: That philosophy is not problem-solving, but a search for understanding. Most of the issues you raise belong into this class. They don’t really look for a solution, but for a way of handling them intellectually.

Your first paragraph is a case in point. An obvious riposte would be: Reality precedes all these criteria, because an organism’s survival hinges on whatever is ‘true’ for it. Perceptions may differ; and intellectually they can be interpreted in innumerable ways — e.g. reality meant very different things to a scholastic than to an empiricist thinker. Also of course, for a beetle in contrast to a fish. Nonetheless all organisms seek out the ‘truth’ of their reality as they have to live by it, including humans; and the scholastics were still empiricists to the degree that alimentation and other ‘facts of life’ could not be ignored, irrespective of the concepts that governed their thinking.

Re time, the situation is no different. We are today in a position where quantum events highlight the full ambiguity of our concepts. In terms of understanding, time cannot be classed as a perception — cf. a prisoner locked into a dark cell, who would quickly lose all sense of its passage. In other words, it seems motions are converted into temporal intuitions by our sensibility to establish a locus of ‘when’ in the context of a living present, so that it gives us a sense of ‘what was’ and ‘what is’ coupled to necessary anticipations. It pre-supposes a self-reflective capacity. We think that this capacity is only rudimentary in animals, sufficient to lay down instinctual adaptations; but they probably have no genuine sense of passing time. Whether true or not, it seems to make no difference.

For us humans, however, it is very vexed issue and always has been. The mountain over there appears to be timeless, as it doesn’t move for untold ages; and the stars are ‘fixed’, measuring out the wheel of eternity forever rotating on the same axis. Whereas, apropos Herakleitos, I “cannot step into the same river twice”. But does this mean the river must be copulated with time? Could it be used as a wobbly kind of clock? Hardly; and it reminds us that his adversary Parmenides, about 2500 years ago, offered a set of logical propositions designed to show that both time and motion are illusory features generated by our phenomenal estate. We alone among all creatures co-ordinate our experiences with a putative steady flow of successive events which grow out of the past into an unknown future still governed by the same of law of ‘tick, tock’.

Recently a cognate ambiguity posed by strobe lights was highlighted by Julian Barbour, which invites the notion that time (or rather, our experience of temporality) can be accelerated, retarded and made to stand still by changing the rhythm of impingements on our vision. In other words, the on/off patterns of light can be calibrated so that a rotating disc is perceived as motionless. For this context and its ramifications on our concept of temporal flow, I recommend you to read his book “The End of Time”, which opens a real can of worms on the question.

Re your third question, I am far from convinced that dimensions above 4D can be meaningfully discussed outside of their special scientific terminology. Moreover I regard the suggestion that consciousness has anything to do with matter as egregious nonsense — maybe fit for scifi aficionados, but in every other respect of the same calibre as the medieval conundrum of how many angels can dance on a pin’s head.

Lastly, “one consciousness” alone. You will be surprised, perhaps, that John Scotus Erigena around AD 900 worried the same problem and came to the conclusion that God could not know himself, i.e. be conscious of his own existence, because consciousness is a relatum, it hinges on the consciousness of something ‘other’ with which to compare it. Of course he believed in God; but wanted to find a rationale for the creation of the world. And so he surmised that his lonely God pulverised himself into ‘prototypa’ (in our language, particles), each of which is a partial mirror image of himself. That this has to be a temporal event landed him in trouble with the Church; but it seems a respectable proposition to add your list of questions.

Well, these are my thoughts; a small surrogate for a library that your questions demand. Hope they give you something more to mull over!

Knowledge versus ethics

Kenneth asked:

Which is better, being knowledgeable or being ethical?

Answer by Paul Fagan

At first glance, the way this question is phrased seemingly begs a simplistic answer, but with some consideration a few differing answers may be uncovered and three are illustrated here.

Firstly, from an individual viewpoint very subjective answers may arise. If being knowledgeable is considered to be paramount to living a worthwhile life, then a person holding this opinion will tend to view being knowledgeable as being better. Of course, some will hold the opposite view.

However, from a second collective viewpoint, the question is intriguing as there seems to be a very strong relationship between being ethical and having knowledge. As an example, those living in the present age will generally be aware that climate change is occurring and that it needs to be tackled. But consider the following scenarios detailing how persons who are not equipped with the knowledge of how to tackle climate change may be perceived:

  1. A person without knowledge of how to tackle climate change and who inadvertently tackles the problem will be perceived as a person who lives a good life.
  1. A person without knowledge of how to tackle climate change and who remains inactive will be perceived as a blameless person.

In these two examples, those without effective knowledge would not really be judged as acting either particularly ethically or particularly unethically.

However, notice how the addition of knowledge into the mix intensifies the judgment that may be collectively felt:

  1. A person with the knowledge of how to tackle change and who tackles the problem will be expected to be held in high esteem.
  1. A person with the knowledge of how to tackle climate change and who remains inactive can be expected to be held in low esteem.

The introduction of knowledge into the equation allows persons to be perceived as more ethical if they act upon that knowledge, as in case 3: but it also allows persons who ignore that knowledge to be perceived as the most unethical, as in case 4.

A consensus of opinion is likely to give most praise to the person who is both knowledgeable and ethical, and supporters of such a view may argue that being knowledgeable is ‘better’ as the most ethical behaviour is dependent upon first acquiring knowledge.

However, a third point should be noted: being knowledgeable does not necessarily mean that you will act ethically, as in case 4. Certainly, human beings often act irrationally, are not perfect and may even make choices that are not in their own interest. Hence, some may argue that acting ethically for its own sake, as in case 1, should be valued as a better life as it has not been tainted by human failings; moreover, some may even encourage living such a life and following the person’s actions.

Overall, individual subjectivity, human collective psychology and reasoning may give different opinions as to whether knowledge or ethical behaviour is a superior good. Bearing these in mind, readers may be asked to arrive at their own opinion on the matter.

Aristotle’s substance and accident

Bader asks:

I’m interested in Aristotle’s philosophy and I study his concepts of substance and accident. Aristotle says that an accident is that which exists through another or present in another and not in itself. My question is how exactly can I conceptualize the phrases “being in itself” and “being present in another” with some examples to clarify how something can be in another and what sort of relationship exists between them.

Answer by Craig Skinner

Aristotle’s metaphysics of potentiality/ actuality, substance/accidents, matter/ form, essence/ existence, and four causes/ causal powers is increasingly recognized as the framework underlying the physical and biological sciences, after a long period of misrepresentation and neglect beginning with early moderns such as Hobbes, Descartes and Locke, and I’m pleased you’re interested in it.

As regards substance and accident, these refer to the individual, naturally occurring, concrete items of the world (plants, planets, cats, humans, and so on) and their properties. So, a substance is a thing or object (consisting of prime matter taking the form of that particular thing), and its accidents are its properties (qualities, attributes, features), what can be said of it (predicated of it). For example my cat is a substance having the accident “black”, my grandchild is “female”, the tree in the garden is “leafy”. You can readily see that the substances (cat, grandchild, tree) are self-standing items, existing “in themselves”, but they cant be a property of something else – nothing can be “cat” or “tree”,  so they cant be “present in (as a feature of) another”. Accidents (“black”, “female”, “leafy”) on the other hand can only be present as features of things (substances) , they  are “present in another” not “beings in themselves”. Thus, you never come across a big or a black, an old or a female, it always has to be a big, black or old something. By the way, Plato thought that properties were instances in the everyday world of universals which exist in another heavenly world of Forms. So the black of my cat instantiates the Form of the Black (blackness). Even if every black thing in the world were destroyed, the Form of the Black would remain, just uninstantiated. But Aristotle thought blackness existed only as and in its instances. “Goodbye to the Forms, for they are nonsense” he said.

Some accidents can be lost but the substance remains the same thing. My dog, for example, is long-haired, but can be clipped and still be the same dog. Its shagginess is a contingent accident (one that could be otherwise). Other accidents are essential to a substance ie without them it wouldnt be the substance it is. Water for instance boils at 100°C at sea level, and dissolves salt. If it didnt have these properties, it wouldnt be water.

Some scholars take “accident”, to mean only non-essential features (accidental ones as it were), others take “property” to mean only essential attributes (“proper” accidents). And for Aristotle “accident” applies widely, including not just intrinsic qualities like colour or hardness, but also attributes such as place, position, length, relation to other things, actions being undertaken, in short the various categories he applies to things.

Note that only natural things are substances (or substantial forms). Artefacts, whether designed, such as knives or computers, or chance arrangements like a heap of stones which happens to be table-shaped, are not substantial forms but rather accidental forms (dont confuse the “accidental” here with “accidents” as discussed above). A natural form has an intrinsic, sustained tendency to maintain its identity, an artefact hasnt. So wood, say, when in the form of a tree, maintains and repairs its shape and function  (its form) over the years, but when in the form of a shed, it rots and falls apart with the years. The shed, unlike the tree, has no inbuilt tendency to become and remain a shed. And if you plant a bit of a tree, another tree may grow, but a planted bit of shed wont grow another shed. Of course, accidental forms, just like substantial ones, have attributes (accidents) as discussed earlier.

I agree with Aristotle’s view that things are a compound of substance and accidents. Modern rivals, such as the bundle theory and the substratum theory are incoherent. The bundle theory says that a thing just is all of its properties: take away all the properties and there is nothing left. But what is it, then, that binds these properties together to make a particular thing?. If on the other hand we say that there is a bearer of the properties, a bare substratum, what sort of entity can this be? If the substratum has no properties whatsoever, we could exchange the substrata of a dog and a stone say. But now the entity with all the properties of a dog is really a stone. Absurd.  No, the bearer of the properties is the substance itself.

I hope I’ve said enough to give the general idea:

  • Substance + accidents ­­=  thing + attributes.
  • A thing is a “being in itself” and cant be “present in another thing”.
  • Attributes arent beings in themselves and can only be present in, or exist through, (other) things.
  • The substance/ accidents view of the constitution of concrete things is superior to the bundle or the substratum views.

Ontology or epistemology?

Craig asked:

Does a researcher adopt an ontological and epistemological position and then use the position to study the subject matter? Or does the subject matter get ‘assigned’ an ontological and epistemological position which is then used by the researcher to study the subject matter? Would the answer affect the selected stance, methodology, and method?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

A really good question, Craig! Let me answer the last sentence first: Yes, absolutely! However it depends on the species of research being done, for when you say “researcher”, you don’t specify the branch of research. This makes it almost impossible to give a valid answer that might apply throughout. Accordingly I’ll give you three specimens to ponder.

Consider quantum science. It is highly questionable (indeed improbable) that this research deals with definable items or even definable processes. The debate on what a ‘particle’ might be is only provisionally settled, i.e. there is a consensus of a sort, but nothing remotely certain. Accordingly the old saw that “all research is theory-laden” applies here in full force, for a scientist conducting an experiment must bring an appropriate frame of mind to it beforehand. It will guide the set-up and expectations, and it will prejudice the results. This cannot be ontological, as the doubts clinging to ‘particles’ render this approach almost useless. Whereas an epistemological approach can under given circumstances compensate for the lack of certainties by emphasizing probabilities.

On the other hand, an anthropologist looking for bones in an antediluvian habitat has no such problems to cope with. Here the agenda is completely different. Ontological facts surround him; he can pick them up and put them in his bag of samples. Epistemology enters the picture only in relation to the effort of assigning his objects to a category. But in contrast to the quantum scientist, this researcher needs not bother with questions such as “does it really exist?” A typical issue like “do these bones belong to Homo afarensis or Homo faber?” can usually (if not always) be settled by comparing their anatomical features to known precedents.

The really problematic aspect of your question arises from contentions in research areas that deal with non-physical items like life, thoughts, intentionality, teleology, psychology and the like. In our day, there is a vast industry and literature devoted to this essentially epistemological philosophy which they would like to ground in the ontological research of chemistry. But despite a great deal of clamour on the pro side of the fence (not to mention pop science and entertainment media), ontological certainty is waver thin and cannot lend a hand to epistemology on the question of “what kind of phenomena are we dealing with?”

More on atheism

Jamie asked:

I watch a lot of online debates and discussions with Atheists and theists I watched many with the late Christopher Hitchens who was one of the first people to interest me in the subject. In the opening of one of his debates he made the point that if we knew at the infancy of of species what we know now religion would never have had the chance to really take off. He said that we have much better explanations to our questions now and religion even though it may have benefited us in the past has been made redundant. He said that the chances of any religion being true was in the highest degree improbable but how does one measure those odds? Is it because there are many other different religions and Christianity is only one of them or is it because the actual concept of a god is unlikely? What is the method or tool he used to determine the probability? Thank you.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Writers of this ilk are a tiresome lot; and when one considers the brain power they claim to possess, one wonders why they leave them at home so often.

So Hitchens posits an “infancy of the species”? Which year was that? Two million BC? But maybe 1935 when Albert Einstein told Niels Bohr that God doesn’t play dice — presumably from his lack of advance on hominid belief systems? Moreover it seems to me that old and new religions are still infecting highly educated and knowledgable people in every corner of the globe, and it would be presumptuous in the highest degree to call them primitive or stupid.

As for the concept of god(s) being unlikely, Tertullian knew it 2000 years ago and said, it is precisely because of its absurdity that faith is such a powerful magnet on our intellects. Kant 200 years ago proved with cast-iron logic that we humans don’t command the intellectual wherewithal to nail down an argument for or against god(s). Therefore neither faith nor atheism are genuinely philosophical positions; the only choice a disbeliever can adopt with a clean conscience is agnosticism, namely the intellectual honesty to say “I don’t believe in god(s) because I cannot reconcile this idea with my conception of the constitution of the world.” Which could then be reinforced with the only two factual arguments at our disposal, namely (a) that all gods are anthropomorphisms and (b) that all documentations of human commerce with divine beings are products of a human mind — with all the ramifications such claims might entail.

After such thoughts, what’s left of Hitchens and likeminded confreres? Methods and tools? Well, what are they if not discrediting without evidence? Or sleight of hand with unproved presuppositions? Sorry, buster, but on questions like these, one has to do better than bluster!

Christopher Hitchens and religion

Jamie asked:

I watch a lot of online debates and discussions with Atheists and theists I watched many with the late Christopher Hitchens who was one of the first people to interest me in the subject. In the opening of one of his debates he made the point that if we knew at the infancy of of species what we know now religion would never have had the chance to really take off.

He said that we have much better explanations to our questions now and religion even though it may have benefited us in the past has been made redundant. He said that the chances of any religion being true was in the highest degree improbable but how does one measure those odds? Is it because there are many other different religions and Christianity is only one of them or is it because the actual concept of a god is unlikely? What is the method or tool he used to determine the probability? Thank you.

Answer by Peter Jones

Christopher Hitchens knows very little about religion. I would advise you to read people who know more. It a strange world we live in where such an ill-informed person is considered to have a worthwhile opinion.

His comment about the ‘infancy of our species’ is blatantly idiotic. Philosophers should not get personal but when a person is guilty of poor scholarship and sloppy thinking on the scale of Hitchens there seems no other choice. If you look around you’ll see that thanks to the internet the human race is beginning to realise the true meaning of religion and any interested layman can quickly exceed Hitchens’ level of expertise.

Do you see today’s scientists and philosophers sitting around  patting themselves on the back for having disposed of religion? Of course not. Hitchens seems to equate religion with some sort of naive monotheism so of course it looks daft to him. It’s his idea of religion that is daft, not religion. This will become obvious to you if you continue to study the subject.

The atheistic academic establishment does not have better explanations for metaphysical problems than it had two thousand years ago. Sure, we’ve learned some science, but all the important problems fall outside of the natural sciences. This hardly needs saying.

He said that the chances of any religion being true was in the highest degree improbable but how does one measure those odds?

I see no purpose in measuring the odds. The fact that Hitchens mentions the chance of a religion being true tells us that he cannot prove it is not. We need not measure the odds, we need to establish truth of falsity or at least logical consistency and coherence.

Is it because there are many other different religions and Christianity is only one of them or is it because the actual concept of a god is unlikely?

The multiplicity of religions is often used as an argument against the truth of any one of them, and on the surface it’s a powerful argument. However, it only works if we take a superficial view. There is a profound interpretation by which all significant religious traditions arise from the same underlying truth. I would recommend Frithjoff Schuon’s wonderful book The Transcendent Unity of Religion, or perhaps Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy. These two authors actually know something about religion.

The concept of a God is not necessary to religion. This is the catastrophic flaw in many arguments against religion, that they argue against some naive anthropomorhpic idea of God. The best arguments against such naive ideas are found in religion. Meister Eckhart would dismiss Hitchens’ writings as meaningless prattle.

It is very easy to interpret the teachings of Jesus as endorsing the ‘non-dual’ view shared by all traditions within the Perennial philosophy. If you visit the home page for the publishers of the Christian book A Course in Miracles and read the explanation and summary you’ll  notice that this is an explicitly ‘non-dual’ presentation and explanation of the teachings by which ‘God’ is nothing at all like the straw-man Hitchens’ and most atheists argue against. This is the sort of literature Hitchens seems never to have read despite the vast quantity of it. Opponents of religion rarely take the trouble to read the literature and mostly tend to argue against the Sunday-school ideas they grew up with and never allowed to evolve.  Sometimes it seems like they’re arguing against the theory that babies grow under gooseberry bushes.

What is the method or tool he used to determine the probability? Thank you.

He appears to have no method or tools.  To a large extent logic can establish the plausibility of a theory, and generally where a theory causes contradictions we reject it. But logic cannot establish the truth of a theory of Reality unless we know Reality obeys the rules, and to speak of its probability is probably meaningless. In this context probability would be just a measure of our ignorance for a religious doctrine must be true or false.

This answer is something of a rant, admittedly, but it agitates me to think anyone would consider Hitchens worth reading on religion. He has no more understanding of metaphysics than Carnap, Russell, Rand or Dennett. He is baffled and waiving his arms around. You should note his poor scholarship, lack of metaphysical understanding and temperamental approach and be very suspicious.

If you’re asking this question as a wavering Christian I’d recommend the writings of Paul Ferrini for the simplicity of his approach, with A Course in Miracles as the post-grad version of the same message.  If you do some research and are averagely intelligent you’ll soon know a lot more about this topic than Hitchens.

Life is not a dream

Carla asks:

To what extent does Descartes dream argument threaten our knowledge of the external world?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

In the first Meditation of his Meditations on the First Philosophy, (1641), Descartes is seeking for a secure, indubitable foundation on which to base human knowledge. He begins by exploring what he perceives by means of his senses.

The senses have been and are deceptive so cannot be afforded uncritical accuracy. Yet surely they cannot be excluded from providing perception tout court? Descartes writes that he is aware of him sitting by a fire, attired in a dressing gown with a paper in his hand. To doubt the truth of this would be an act of madness — on a par with people who suffer from delusions and hallucinations.

Yet when sleeping, Descartes remarks that he dreams of equally improbable things — such as being seated by the fire ‘whilst all the time I was lying undressed in bed!’. So, he concludes that there are no certain marks distinguishing waking from sleeping. Surely the images experienced in dreams are copies and compositions of perceptions experienced when awake as they do display a certain regularity. More, such copies and compositions are based on the corporeal nature of objects in the world experienced when awake. Objects of a corporeal nature display extension, shape, quantity and magnitude and endure through time and in space. Disciplines which deal with such objects such as arithmetic, geometry employ content that is ‘certain and indubitable’.

“For whether I am awake or dreaming, 2 and 3 are 5, a square has no more than four sides; and it does not seem possible that truths so evident can ever be suspected of falsity.”

So there are certain truths which, whether sleeping or awake, are beyond doubt. These deal with a real, independently existing world that continues to exist when we are sleeping. Objects are real and sleeping with dreams is precisely that. Unfortunately, such ‘a priori’ truths can be doubted as, contends Descartes towards the end of Meditation One, a malevolent demon can be deceiving him into thinking they are correct.

The ‘Dream Argument’ begins Descartes dialectic of questioning what can be construed as providing Truth and certainty. In itself, I don’t think it threatens our knowledge of an external world. Firstly, the distinction between dreaming and not dreaming is employed which betrays an already existing epistemological understanding between the two. This distinction is pace G.E. Moore, part of our everyday, natural living. Secondly, the distinction between dreaming and waking can be upheld on the grounds that regularity and order are experienced when awake; whereas dreaming is qualitatively different. Thirdly, the questions can only be asked by means of Language. Language is arguably socially acquired and used. This presupposes the existence of other human beings existing in a social world. So the very use of language refutes the sceptical doubts Descartes is pondering.