On the Avoidance of Becoming Victor Meldrew

David asked:

As a middle aged man. Wondering what life is really about. Reading about stoicism and being reminded that… ‘well what ever happens you pop your clogs like everybody does anyway’ doesn’t energise me much. Is there a philosopher that can provide meaning and cheer me up? I don’t want to turn into a Victor Meldrew!

Answer by Peter Jones

Stoicism has a lot going for it and it comforts many people, but it is not an explanatory theory and perhaps this is why it does not energise you. You have to take it on trust and it provides no answer for philosophical problems. It teaches the Unity of All but only as an article of faith and there is no developed metaphysical theory to ground this faith.  It appeals to those who do not wish to venture into religion and mysticism yet would like to have some system of ethics and some life-style advice even if it is speculative and philosophically ungrounded.

You will not find a philosopher who can ‘provide meaning’ in the European tradition. Every attempt fails because no fundamental theory is possible within dualism. From your question it seems you have already noticed this.

For something more useful and hopeful you’d have to look elsewhere. I would suggest a study of the literature of the perennial philosophical tradition, for which speculation is supported by empiricism and dualism is banished.

If you know Stoicism then it is a small step to the philosophy of Middle Way Buddhism and to the idea that life is learning experience which in the long-term cannot go wrong. We can only learn faster or slower. There is a vast literature from which to take pot-luck. In the perennial tradition there is only one method and this is self-enquiry. The entire idea would be to follow the Oracle’s advice to Know Thyself. Only this would be a full cure for the sufferings of temporal existence. Nevertheless, there is a fully developed explanatory theory that explains how the world works and which allows us approach philosophy as an intellectual investigation.

It is said that once we know ourselves for what we truly are the question of meaning and purpose is answered. Thus the pessimism of Russell’s ‘Western’ philosophical approach is not found in the philosophy of non-dualism, where philosophers tend to be filled with excitement and joy by the astonishing wonders of life and death and the possibility, open to all of us, of transcending them for a knowledge of what the word ‘Unity’ really means.

There’s no predicting what you might enjoy reading since everyone starts from a different place. For a flavour of this other more helpful and hopeful philosophical view you could check out Rupert Spira, Mooji, Osho or Sadhguru on YouTube   For an analytical approach explaining the metaphysics of this view the obvious name to mention is the Buddhist master Nagarjuna. Then there is Francis Bradley, George Spencer Brown, Hermann Weyl,  Erwin Schrodinger, Douglas Harding and others who come at the issues from various intellectual directions, one of whom might appeal and perhaps even energise you. If you are coming from a Christian background I’d recommend Paul Ferrini and if he doesn’t cheer you up I’d be surprised, or perhaps Keith Ward or David Bentley Hart.

Ferrini and teachers like him such as Wei Wu Wei, the Buddha and Ramana Maharshi rarely deal with the metaphysical details, leaving them to others, and so if you are a philosopher you’ll want to get to grips with Nagarjuna and his proof of the Unity of All. For an introduction to this tricky topic I always recommend The Sun of Wisdom by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso. Books on Nagarjuna by Western philosophers tend to be over-long and unnecessarily complex even where they’re trustworthy.

In short, I would suggest opening the window and letting in the whole of philosophy before giving up on the discipline and becoming Victor Meldrew.  No amount of footnotes to Plato is going to help. For a survey of the perennial teachings on the meaning and purpose of life and death some search-terms would be ‘non-duality’, ‘advaita’, ‘neutral metaphysical position’, ‘Unity’, ‘Emptiness’.  This may lead you out of the terminal pessimism of our failed academic philosophy and into something a lot more intellectually plausible, hopeful, helpful, systematic and organised.

It’s a drastic solution but afaik the only one available. The alternative is the doom and gloom of our modern university philosophy which self-avowedly understands nothing and is not even as useful as Stoicism. For any optimism an explanation of death would be required and mysticism is the only discipline that studies this issue as an empirical matter rather than merely speculate. A theory of death is never going to dispel our worries, but a taste of it is known to do away with them entirely.

Reassuringly, according to the perennial view of Buddhism. Taoism. advaita Vedanta, Sufism and so forth it would be impossible for the real you to ‘pop your clogs’, but this could only be known by discovering who one really is.

Footnotes to Plato?

Louise asked:

Alfred Whitehead famously wrote: ‘the safest general characterisation of the European philosophical tradition consists of a series of footnotes to Plato’. Do you agree and if not why? How could this be argued/ refuted?

Answer By Peter Jones

I would strongly agree with Whitehead. His view is easily justifed by a review of the literature. The entire profession is busy these days trying to prove his view wrong in order to justify departmental funding but with no success. Thus we see the rise of scientism and the ludicrous idea that a good university does not need a philosophy department. I do not believe his view can or should be refuted but that we should concede his point and do something about it.

Doing something about it would mean abandoning the narrow approach to philosophy adopted by stereotypical Western thinkers. Unfortunately, at this time most professional philosophers seem unable to think outside the box or even see they’re in one.

Note that Whitehead is careful to condemn Russell’s ‘Western’ philosophy, not philosophy as a whole. It is very easy to escape from studying dull and endless footnotes if we open the window and let the rest of philosophy in.

The explanation for this problem, I will venture to suggest, is, as Heidegger notes, that Plato’s school abandoned the idea of ‘Unity’, cutting itself off from the perennial philosophy and painting itself into a corner from which it cannot escape. It will be writing footnotes forever unless it studies the whole of philosophy but it cannot do this while it continues to suffer from Russell’s allergy to the nondual philosophy of mysticism and the incomprehension of metaphysics that naturally accompanies it.

The state of professional European philosophy is an academic scandal and Whitehead’s low view of it will be inarguable as long as it continues in the same way.  There are some signs of change but most professionals today still think philosophical problems are intractable and are probably more convinced than Plato. The views of Russell and Carnap as to the pointlessness of metaphysics are still current today and the amateur philosopher can expect no help from the professionals.

As you may have guessed this is a hobby-horse for me. The situation is ridiculous. The trick of being able to do more than writing footnotes to Plato would be to study those areas of philosophy that are not studied in our European universities. The internet allows us all to do this quite easily, for the first time in history, with no tuition fees required.

if you wish to begin an exploration of the rest of philosophy I’d recommend a study of Nagarjuna and a book by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso The Sun of Wisdom: Teachings on the Noble Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. If nothing else it may reveal what philosophy looks like when it is not footnotes to Plato.

Philosophy and science (2)

Lasmii asked:

I am a literature student. I am deeply interested in philosophy and science. Who are the philosophers who probed into scientific ideas?

Answer by Peter Jones

Some names that might be relevant would be Erwin Schrodinger, Arthur Eddington, Neils Bohr, Albert Einstein, Bernardo Kastrup and Ulrich Mohrhoff. Most scientists doodle with philosophy but these names do more than this. Schrodinger is an excellent philosopher. Kastrup argues from science to Idealism and has a new book out. Mohrhoff explores the area between quantum mechanics and non-dualism.

Generally scientific ideas are not much help to philosophers but the birth of QM changed this and among the early pioneers many recognised this.  With the passing of that pioneering generation scientists seem to have gone back to not being interested.

The list could be longer and stretch back to Democritus and might include the Alchemists, but for me it’s only with modern physics and ‘scientific’ consciousness studies that physics becomes interesting in philosophy.

What is metaphysics?

Finnegan asked:

What is metaphysics for a contemporary philosopher? Is there agreement that it is still considered a valid field of inquiry within contemporary philosophy?

Answer by Peter Jones

Metaphysics is the same subject that it was on the day it was named and always will be. Among contemporary philosophers there are two schools of thought.

For the professional academic metaphysics is incomprehensible and a waste of time. This renders the whole of professional academic philosophy incomprehensible and a waste of time. This is made clear in the current edition of the Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics where metaphysics is described as unscientific, inconclusive and absent any decision-making procedure. Most philosophers of the Academy ignore metaphysics and form their opinions on philosophical issues as suits them.

For philosophers who take it seriously metaphysics is not merely a valid field of enquiry but the most important and valuable of all fields, If we do not understand metaphysics then for us philosophy must be a muddle of competing unworkable theories and inadequate conjectures. Thus Kant calls academic metaphysics an ‘arena for mock fights’.

The second school of thought would say that metaphysics is comprehensible and has an excellent system for making decisions and arriving at firm conclusions. This school is called the Perennial philosophy. It explains metaphysics and claims it is comprehensible. This school would include Plotinus, Nagarjuna, Lao Tsu, Francis Bradley, D. E. Harding, George Spencer Brown, Sri Aurobindo and a long list of others who are ignored in the philosophy department. As it would also include me I’ll offer as link to my writings on this topic. You might like the essay ‘Is Metaphysics a Waste of Time?’ https://philpeople.org/profiles/peter-g-jones.

To the question of whether metaphysics is considered a valid field of enquiry, then, there will be different answers depending on who you ask. Russell and Carnap would say not and it is difficult to think of any contemporary scientists who believe otherwise. It is not much easier to think of contemporary scholastic philosophers who believe otherwise. The Blackwell Guide states clearly that it is not a valid field.

The reason for this is that metaphysics is incomprehensible unless we assume that mysticism, specifically non-dualism,  is its correct solution. As a consequence, all philosophers who reject mysticism find metaphysics a hopeless and inconclusive area of study and so they often reject metaphysics as well. Meanwhile all metaphysical problems are solved by Nagarjuna in the second century in his Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way for a position known as the ‘Middle Way’, non-dualism, advaita, the perennial philosophy or mysticism. Those who endorse this view would argue that metaphysics is the way to unlock the secrets of the Cosmos. It’s your choice who to believe, but logic is on the side of Nagarjuna and Lao Tsu.

Thus we have two distinct global traditions of philosophy, one for which metaphysics is incomprehensible and a waste of time and one for which it is a path to truth and understanding. This means an uncontroversial answer to your question is not possible, It has to be you who decides which is the correct view.

Who is doing the talking?

Gary asked:

For a while now I can’t work out where, when I’m speaking out loud, the words come from; it seems like magic. The words come out without my knowing where they originate. They seem to emerge out of nowhere, even when I’m having a normal conversation.

When I want to think, I think in English (my only language), and I can comprehend what I’m saying to myself (obviously?). I’ve successfully ‘gagged’ my internal voice and when I do so, I can’t think. I can see pictures and have feelings, but no more. Perhaps like meditation? This is worrying me a little because it feels that ‘I’ am not in control — something is living my life for me and ‘I’ am merely an observer. I’m sure I’m not mad — can you enlighten me?

Answer by Peter Jones

As you seem to have already surmised, you ask a question that leads you straight into the depths of Yoga and meditation. Stilling the inner voice is a goal and a benefit. You say that when it is stilled you see pictures and have feelings, but the meditator will want to transcend these as well.

Fear not, you are not mad, or not obviously so, for thinking that someone else is living your life and you are just observing. The topic is too extensive for a simple answer but here’s an extract from The Ultimate Understanding by Ramesh Balsekar.  It may not make immediate sense but you’ll see the connection.

“Living volitionally, with volition, with a sense of personal doership, is the bondage. Would, therefore, living non-volitionally be the way in which the sage lives? But the doing and the not-doing — the positive doing and the negative not-doing — are both aspects of ‘doing’.  How then can the sage be said to be living non-volitionally? Perhaps the more accurate description would be that the sage is totally aware that he does not live his life (either volitionally or non-volitionally) but that his life — and everyone else’s life — is being lived.”

What this means is that no one can live volitionally or otherwise; that, indeed, ‘volition’ is the essence of the ‘ego’, an expression of the ‘me’ concept, created by ‘divine hypnosis’ so that the ‘lila’ of life can happen. It is this ‘volition’ or sense of personal doership in the subjective chain of cause-and-effect which produces satisfaction or frustration in the conceptual individual.

Again, what this means is that it is a joke to believe that you are supposed to give up volition as an act of volition! ‘Let go’ — who is to let go? The ‘letting-go’ can only happen as a result of the clear understanding of the difference between what-we-are and what-we-appear-to-be. And then, non-volitional life or being-lived naturally becomes wu wei, spontaneous living, living without the unnecessary burden of volition. Why carry your luggage when you are being transported in a vehicle?”

I hope the connection with your question will be apparent. For a deeper understanding of this view and the meaning of this feeling you have that your life is being lived while ‘you’ simply observe  you would need to study mysticism.

For the full story you could try Krishna Prem’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. This would be diving in at the deep end. To just get your toes wet you could try any introduction to Buddhist doctrine. If you search on YouTube for teachers of non-dualism  there are many relevant talks.and interviews. Rupert Spira, Mooji and Sadhguru would be three good examples and all talk about the issue you are asking about. For a gentle introduction you could try Carlos Castenada’s entertaining series of stories about his meetings with his teacher Don Juan, who spends much time persuading Carlos to still his inner voice and learn to live without it.

The only way you’ll get to the bottom of this issue is to study it by way of meditation since being told about it is not really much help, but there is a vast literature explaining that what we usually think of as ‘me’ is not ‘me’ at all but a fiction, while it is the observer who is non-fictional. This is the Perennial philosophy, and the Enneads of Plotinus would be as good a place to start as any.

It’s a fascinating, exciting and life-changing area of research. Good luck with it.

Utilitarianism and moral choices

Chrisie asked:

Utilitarianism weighs the moral worth of actions based entirely upon the amount of pleasure (or pain reduction) that results. Outcomes, or the consequences of actions are the determining factor of morality and not the intention of the person before (or even while) the act is being performed. Discuss whether a moral position that is entirely based on evaluating the consequences of actions provides an adequate foundation for making moral choices. Is more needed or not?

Answer by Peter Jones

Utilitarianism is not so one-sided as it might appear. If we act to increase the well-being of others then this will require assessing the outcomes of our actions and attempting to maximise their benefit to others. We are basing our action on predicted future outcomes but those actions are motivated by good intentions right now. If our actions have counter-productive consequences, as is so often the case for well-intended actions,  then it remains the case that they were well-motivated and will be defensible on the ‘day of judgement’ if there is to be such a thing.

The problem is that we cannot know which actions will be beneficial or harmful unless we have a thorough grasp of how the world works. Very rarely does anyone have a grasp of this so we have to make do with guesswork. Our idea of what will benefit someone else may therefore be utterly wrong.  For instance, if we give money to a beggar they may use it to kill themselves with heroin or to to buy a meal and improve their health. If we don’t know which it is going to be then out outcome-based decision procedure runs into trouble.

So I would say no, utilitarianism is not an adequate method for decision-making but is just one aspect of the procedure. We would help others more by pursuing a thorough understanding of ‘life, the universe and everything’ for without this we will be a bull-in-a-china-shop causing havoc by trying to be helpful. in the same way, we do not perform heart-surgery on others to save lives before we have had a medical training. Our intentions might be good but our reasoning would be ridiculous.

Utilitarianism is what ethics is all about since it is for the sake of its outcomes that we perform ethical actions. But what would we say of someone who with the best of intentions helps an old lady across the road without first checking that she wants to cross it? Our ethical responsibility must include coming to an understanding of the situation.

So utilitarianism will always be a factor in our decision-making but it describes only a part of the process. If we are ill-informed then we are not able to assess the utility of our actions.  Hence in mysticism and much of religion it would be for their utility that we perform ethical acts but our global ethical responsibility would be the acquisition of knowledge, selflessness and compassion in order that our ethical acts may be effective. If we ignore these areas of practice and knowledge then we can be as well-meaning as we like when we act, we are still shirking our ethical responsibilities. If we do not think carefully about what we are doing then again, our lack of attention to the situation might count against us when later, in hindsight, we judge our own actions. For this reason in Buddhism there is more to this than motivation. A lack of mindfulness and care may be a more important ethical issue than the outcome of our actions, which are largely unknowable in advance anyway.

I need to learn how to stop thinking

Daniel asked:

Hello. For two weeks I have found myself unable to generate a concrete thought as well as unable to avoid generating a thought, my body reacting to philosophical contradictions that always lead to nihilism. I can do almost anything except vomit and puke, and I feel as if my body is vanishing from space. This all seems ridiculous to me, as I have read existentialists such as Camus or Nietzsche (perhaps almost to the point of obsession) and I agree with their vitalist approach. However, my relentless mind and previously conditioned mindset to seek the truth and nothing else has stripped me of every other instinct. I need to know how to simply stop thinking about life and start living. Surely, an actual philosopher may have had a similar experience and learned how to control such things. I would greatly appreciate any form of advice.

Answer by Peter Jones

Hi Daniel.

It seems you have thought yourself into a corner. This may be something to do with studying existentialism.

If you were a meditative practitioner your state of mind would be considered a wonderful place from which to begin and make progress. You have spotted the contradictions that plague the world-view of most people, you are committed to truth, you have recognised your conditioning, you’ve begun to wonder if you’re disappearing in a puff of smoke and you want to stop thinking and start living. These are perfect conditions for a truth-seeker.  It takes some effort to reach this point.

You now have choices. You could try to control these thoughts and feelings. I would not advise this. It would be counter-productive and a waste of all your work so far. Or you could make use of of your situation. To build on this beginning you would need to forget all about existentialism and all other ‘isms’ and set out to discover what is true.

Meditation is the usual way forward. This entails doing just what you wish to do, namely stopping your wayward ordinary mind from controlling your life.  The topic is too extensive to discuss properly here but there is a vast literature. It will take you beyond the mind entirely.

I’d suggest a study of Zen. Perhaps you could try a book Cultivating the Empty Field by Dan Leighton, a compilation of the poetry of Zen master Hongzhi. His poetry says much about his state of mind and reveals a peace and tranquility that should appeal to you while the preface and introduction deal with the philosophical issues.

As for philosophical contradictions, which as you say can ‘do our head in’ and lead us into nihilism, for Zen and the Perennial philosophy there would be no such thing. This would be what is discovered in meditation. All contradictions would be misunderstandings. For more on this issue Nagarjuna would be your man. I’d recommend ‘The Sun of Wisdom: Teaching on Noble Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamptso.

I know of no other method for dealing with the problems you describe than meditation and a study of the non-dual philosophy of the mystics. This will require leaving behind the muddled and purposeless philosophy of our Western universities and it seems you’re keen and ready to do this. Frankly, while I admire Nietzsche I see a study of his thoughts as a fairly direct road to depression and insanity. The problems you describe do not arise for meditative practitioners because they don’t deal in theories or guesswork and become able over time to see the tricks of the mind for what they are. The purpose of the practice is to realise the truth about Reality so this is the go-to method for truth-seekers. The Oracle at Delphi was no fool.

YouTube is your friend. Try watching a few talks by, say, Rupert Spira, Mooji or Sadhguru. You’ll see that they show no signs of suffering from your problems.  They will explain that your body cannot ‘disappear into space’ since neither your body nor space would be truly real. Perhaps you’re intuitively sensing this. If you explore further you’ll find no need for nihilism or pessimism and your mind will become much easier to live with.

Good luck!