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.

Is separation an illusion?

Robin asked:

Hi, before asking my question, I just wanted to say that I’m 17 years old and this question just came into my mind.So excuse me if it sounds somewhat strange.

A few days ago, I read an article that proposed that separation is an illusion. I personally think this thesis can be expressed in multiple ways. For instance, scientifically speaking everything is made of stardust. Therefore, everything in the universe is actually one and the same. Even though we do not perceive it this way. Another way this thesis can be read, is on a more ‘down to earth’ way: pretty much all humans live with the idea of separation. People from Africa for instance, feel more connected and can identify themselves more with other Africans, than with let’s say Asians. Even though, we are all humans and share the same ancestors. But (most) humans see themselves as separate from each other instead of one with each other.

Thinking about this, I thought ‘If more people would be aware of this, this would put an end to racism, sexism etc.’ However, would it really? Would it really change anything? Is this statement convincing enough to stop all of these problems?

Answer by Peter Jones

The idea that separation is illusory is not about connectivity. If two things are not separated then they are not two things and cannot be connected.

The idea is deeper. It is the claim that the Universe is a Unity such that there are not two things. In Indian religion the word advaita (not-two) is used to refer to this view. If you search for this word you’ll be overwhelmed with information. This idea of the Unity of All is basic to the Perennial philosophy or ‘mysticism’ and the literature is vast.  A doctrine of Unity is ‘non-dual’.

The idea is not that we are all made out of stardust since even two specks of stardust are separate phenomena.  They would be two instances of separate phenomena.

The idea would be that we are not made out of anything but are living in something like a dream, a creation of Mind, a little like Neo in the Matrix. Extension in space and time would be a self-deception and metaphysically-speaking all points in space and time would be the same point. You are always here and the time is always now.

A short explanation is not possible but there are many non-duality teachers on YouTube and more books than you could ever read.

You’re right about Unity putting an end to racism, prejudice and so forth. But this is not the case where non-separation is only a theory.  If it is an experienced reality, as it is for the realised meditator or mystic, then no fundamental separation is experienced and none of the negative results of feelings of separation occur. To get to grips with this idea as a theory you’d need to study Buddhism, Taoism, Sufism, Advaita and so forth. To really get to grips with it you’d have to follow the advice of the Oracle at Delphi and ‘Know Thyself’.

It’s a big topic but well worth pursuing. Good luck.

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?’

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.