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I still remember my freshman year Philosophy 101 professor asking the class to define reality. There were frosh in the class but also upper class students fulfilling some missed requirement. Some of those juniors and seniors chuckled quietly. I looked around and thought “Don’t call on me.”

It is still a difficult or silly question for most people. How would you answer? “It is everything out there,” you might say as you gesture in front of you. “It’s the things you can see and touch and hear.”

I had a lot of problems accepting the theory of solipsism presented in the class that says that I am the only person that exists. Knowledge of anything outside one’s own mind is uncertain and I can’t know the external world or other minds, so nothing might exist outside my mind.

I think I might have told the professor that I didn’t believe that to be true, and he said that it’s irrefutable, and that as a solipsist I would believe that I was the only true authority, I can only know my own reality. I can’t step inside another person and experience their reality.

I didn’t want to be a lonely solipsist.

Most of those views haven’t changed over the years and I read online that in considering the nature of reality some people will say that reality is all in your mind. What does that mean? This is not easy to conceive, but perhaps there are no actual things, colors, sounds or smells outside of your brain. It’s not philosophy; it’s science.

Consider that we do know that color consists of electromagnetic waves. Those colors we see depends on the length of those waves.

And sound? Sound is compressed airwaves.

Those smells are just pungent air molecules.

It is our brain that interprets these things as color, sound and smell. And we don’t all even interpret them exactly the same way. And I am not even getting into how dogs or bats or other creatures perceive their reality which certainly is not our reality. Bats use sound to navigate and dogs have a much keener sense of smell but poorer eyesight than us.

Reality is billions of neurons firing in your brain.

I know that the surface in front of my home that is green and keeps growing in warm weather is grass. I know this from repeated experiences. These experiences allow me to categorise and catalogue things.

This is what is known as our “internal model of reality” and we all need that model to navigate through the world and our lives.  But can our senses deceive us? Not only do animals have a different reality, but different people perceive reality differently.

That philosophy professor gave us readings about reality, and he told us that there were also scientists that believe that what we call reality is an illusion.

The article I read reminded me of the “thought experiment” (so far thankfully not duplicated except in films) where a brain is removed from a person and somehow kept alive and operating and is connected to a powerful computer that can act as its senses. Would the brain know the difference in its reality?

That is the premise in stories and films like The Matrix where Neo discovers that he is living in a computer-simulated reality.

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one,” said Albert Einstein. Quantum physics (which Einstein had some issues with accepting) suggests that particles do not exist until they are observed. Without perception, we cannot exist. If we fall in a forest and no one is there to perceive it, did we fall?

“What we observe as material bodies and forces are nothing but shapes and variations in the structure of space. Particles are just appearances.” Erwin Schrodinger

Well, I think that I exist, so that must constitute some kind of reality.

Prometheus

L’Homme formé par Prométhée et animé par Minerve (Prometheus creating man in the presence of Athena, detail), 1802 by Jean-Simon Berthélemy

According to the ancient myth, Prometheus risked eternal torment to bring mankind the gift of fire that would unlock the secrets of civilization.

That myth supplies the title for Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal.

I think the authors actually see themselves as modern day Prometheus bringing us a new secret knowledge. I think of the subtitle to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – The Modern Prometheus.  The doctor also believed that The title and subtitles doesn’t really let you know where they are headed 

The recurring theme or word in the book is ecstasis. This is an elevated mental state of flow and transcendence. In the book, they examine people who achieve it through various paths from taking controlled substances, to participating in extreme sports.

It is an elusive state of mind. You may have had moments of ecstasis. Have you ever been so engrossed in a task (not in a movie or book) that everything around you, including time, disappears? Performing artists, athletes, writers, scientists report a highly creative state that we might casually call being “in the zone” where their consciousness reaches another plane.

The philosophy of ecstasy is not new. Ecstasy, from the Ancient Greek ekstasis, meant “to be or stand outside oneself, a removal to elsewhere” coming from ek– “out,” and stasis “a stand, or a standoff of forces.” It is a word that occurs in Ancient Greek, Christian and Existential philosophy, though different traditions using the concept have radically different perspectives.  

Plato described ecstasis as an altered state where our normal waking consciousness vanishes completely, replaced by an intense euphoria and a powerful connection to a greater intelligence. The final characteristic of ecstasis is “richness,” a reference to the vivid, detailed, and revealing nature of non-ordinary states. The Greeks called that sudden understanding anamnesis. Literally, “the forgetting of the forgetting.”

In our time, it has also become a buzzword philosophy. The authors mention that billionaires “in Silicon Valley take psychedelics to help themselves solve complex problems.” 

It has even entered the business world, as one Forbes article points out, as the result of “finding your natural fit” in the world or in the world of work. 

It is not surprising that ecstasis is associated with drugs because the state, even if not induced by chemical substances taken, sounds like a drug-induced state. There is even a drug called Ecstasy (MDMA). Certainly, there are naturally occurring neurochemicals in the brain released when people report ecstasis. And so, with a kind of logic, people believe they can gain a shortcut to this state by taking these or similar chemicals. 

Though some turn to microdosing mind-altering drugs, others turn to meditation. The book, in its attempt to be comprehensive, looks at many methods and related approaches that have their own buzzwords, like grit, flow and tipping point:.

You have to accept a modern premise that human achievement, discovery, success and enlightenment have some algorithm that can be found and used.

One review of the book that I read suggests that it is a kind of self-help book, but rather than just offering self-improvement, ecstasis looks to improve the nature of humanity and transform the world.

The examples in the book of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, or Bill Gates or Navy SEALS seem to be outliers who have assets that almost none of us can access.

It is a bit frightening to me that this philosophy has had the most research into generating “flow” and getting “into the zone” has become the domain of elite organizations and individuals, including the military. The book was a bestseller and was CNBC and Strategy + Business Best Business Book of 2017.

Kotler’s earlier book The Rise of Superman, was more about the concept of flow, but there is definitely crossover. In Stealing Fire’s middle section, they examine four ways in which people are finding ecstasis: psychology, neurobiology, pharmacology, and technology.

The last section of the book that interested me the most, but was ultimately most disappointing. It considers how ecstasis can be sustainable, and bridge the extreme (and sometimes dangerous or illegal) examples, and the mainstream.

Another esoteric term I picked up in reading the book is umwelt. This is a technical term for the piece of the data stream that we normally apprehend. It’s the reality our senses can perceive. It’s just a sliver of the world around us.

The authors note that studies of people who did eight weeks of meditation training measurably sharpened their focus, cognition and flow. Not necessarily a state of ecstasis, but on that path.

Some believers say that in addition to our three basic drives (food, water, sex), we should consider this drive to “get out of our heads” as a fourth drive.

Because ecstasis seems to arise when attention is fully focused in the present moment, the immediate connection is to meditation of practices such as Buddhism that also contain that philosophy.

A kind of equation – Value = Time × Reward/Risk has been used as one way to explain the path, where “time” refers to time needed to learn a particular technique until it can reliably produce ecstasis.  They also point to those who do not use one technique but use many; the person who does extreme skiing and psychedelics, along with meditation and yoga, living in extremes. This contrast is thought to make it easier to spot patterns.

Is ecstasis making it into the mainstream? The authors would say yes, as evidenced by a trillion dollar underground economy of exploration. Are you on the path?

 

I was sorting through old, college books in preparation for yet another book donation as I thin out my shelves of the books I read and will likely never reread – or bought and never did or will read. A philosophy class book on Benedict de (AKA Baruch) Spinoza fits into the former category.

I flipped through the pages and saw some of my of notes and marginalia. It is hard to believe I read this and perhaps even understood it at one time.

“everything in the universe is made of a single substance”
“the universe is subject to natural laws”
“soul and body are not separate – 2 parts of same thing”

In a section that I apparently found very interesting and heavily annotated, I noted:

“God does not stand outside the universe”
“the universe IS God”

This was heavy stuff for a college freshman. Now, I don’t recall enough about Spinoza’s philosophy to even fake a decent book report, but that last margin note about God is where I seem to have arrived philosophically at this late stage of my life.

Spinoza was born in Amsterdam in 1632 to a family of Portuguese Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity by the Spanish Inquisition. The family took refuge in Amsterdam, where there was a vibrant community of Jewish merchants and intellectuals. Spinoza fit in but was excommunicated from the Jewish community for questioning the existence of miracles.

He supported himself making lenses, and in his spare time studied mathematics, philosophy, and theology.

He wrote and published three books in his lifetime, but only his first book, Principles of the Philosophy of Rene Descartes, actually carried his name because he was afraid that if he published his ideas, he would be branded a heretic by both Jews and Christians.

spinoza

“Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind,
a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.” -B. Spinoza

 

 

Camus

I noted on a blustery November 7th that it was the birthday of French writer Albert Camus.  I think a lot of people think of him as an existentialist based on his books, but he said that did not describe him. Actually, in an interview, he rejected any ideological associations.

I find Camus more optimistic than some people. I like a few quotes of his in that spirit.

Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.

In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.

His novels include L’étranger (1942, The Stranger), La Peste (1947, The Plague), and La Chute (1956, The Fall). All of them have their grim moments.  When I read Camus, I was only in my teens and I think the sadness in his writing played into some Romantic notions I foolishly had then about being depressed.

In his book, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus did deal with a big topic of existentialism – suicide. Camus wrote that “There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that.”

In Camus’ view, suicide was a natural solution to the absurdity of life. But in The Myth of Sisyphus, he also tries to identify the kinds of life that could be worth living.

This weekend while I am away from the early winter of Paradelle in summerish weather, I’m thinking a lot about how season and location affect our attitude and mood. Though I have been rereading some Camus this past week, I am not feeling the inherent meaninglessness that seemed to overcome him at times.

In 1957, Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. On January 4, 1960, Camus died in a car crash.

“I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn’t,
than live as if there isn’t and to die to find out that there is.”

 

Despite the persistent ticking of clocks and our almost constant attention to time, quantum physics says it doesn’t even exist. Theoretical physicist  Carlo Rovelli writes that “There is no time variable in the fundamental equations that describe the world.” At the quantum level, durations are so short that they can’t be divided and there is no such thing as time.

And yet, he has spent most of his life studying time.

Rovelli’s book, The Order of Time, is about the way we experience the passage of time.

One of his premises is that chronology and continuity are stories we tell ourselves. We need these stories to make sense of our existence.

He asks tough – or maybe crazy – questions, such as “Why do we remember the past and not the future?”

These are questions for physicists and philosophers, but not ones most of us consider as we move through a time story from past to future that we think is uniform and universal.

His view is hard to grasp. His universe is made up of countless events. Things that happen and even physical “things” are in a continual state of transformation. No space nor time—only processes that transform physical quantities from one to another.

Time is our measure of change.

Rovelli’s short collection of essays, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, was a bestseller and one of the fastest-selling science books ever.

If all this seems out there, remember that Einstein said that our clock time is an illusion. Time zones – a 20th Century invention – was a business decision, not a fact of the universe. Einstein said that time passes at different rates from place to place. It passes faster at the top of a mountain than at sea level. Perhaps imperceptibly to us, a clock on the floor will move ever so slightly slower than a clock on top of the fireplace mantle.

Time’s passage is a mental process, a story we tell ourselves in the present tense. It’s your own story. It’s our collective story.

But I have trouble accepting all this when explanations keep saying things like “Time runs slower wherever gravity is strongest, and this is because gravity warps or curves spacetime.”  I guess Rovelli has to use the term “time” to explain that there is no time in the way that atheists need to talk about god in order to explain why there is no God.

Benedict Cumberbatch reading the opening of The Order of Time

“I stop and do nothing. Nothing happens. I am thinking about nothing. I listen to the passing of time. This is time, familiar and intimate. We are taken by it.
The rush of seconds, hours, years that hurls us towards life then drags us towards nothingness …
We inhabit time as fish live in water. Our being is being in time.
Its solemn music nurtures us, opens the world to us, troubles us, frightens and lulls us.
The universe unfolds into the future, dragged by time, and exists according to the order of time.”

I never thought of myself as a stoic, but I might be wrong. If you have heard of Stoicism, it might be because you learned about it briefly in some high school or college course. It is philosophy. You might say that Stoics are calm and almost without  emotion. They don’t show what they are feeling. Stoics can endure pain and hardship without showing their feelings or complaining. They accept what is happening.

But all that isn’t really accurate to the origin of Stoicism. For example, another misconception is that Stoicism is a religion. Although the Stoics made references to the gods in their writing, this was a philosophical, rather than religious, doctrine.

The Stoics were a group of philosophers who first began teaching their ideas in the Hellenistic period. Stoicism was founded by a man named Zeno, who lived from 335-263 BC.

Stoics were not opposed to emotions entirely. They were opposed to negative emotions, such as anger, anxiety, jealousy, and fear.

I don’t think many people today would label themselves as stoic, but some of the principles of Stoicism can probably make you happier and a better person.

Zeno put death in the forefront of things to consider. But what that means is that you should cherish each day of life. Stoicism is certainly not the only philosophy that encourages living in the present. (Buddhism is another.) It seems quite modern to be “mindful” of the present moment and to make that a practice. That might involve meditation, or solo walks in nature.

It also means you are more conscious of being thankful for things that we do have. Zeno wouldn’t have kept a gratitude journal as some people do these days, but he would probably approve of the practice. This little act of mindfulness does have value, like keeping a food journal when you’re on a diet so that you consciously spend some time considering what is happening to you.

In writing about what Stoicism is not, William Irvine says:

Although Stoicism is not itself a religion, it is compatible with many religions. It is particularly compatible, I think, with Christianity. Thus, consider the so-called “Serenity Prayer,” commonly attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

It echoes Epictetus’s observation that some things are under our control and some things are not, and that if we have any sense at all, we will spend our time dealing with the former group of things.

Stoicism was modified by the Romans, most prominently Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus, and you can still read their words, even on an e-reader.

Stoicism has evolved and a kind of modern stoicism exists. How would the Stoics of old cope in our times? Seneca said, “Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own.” People are still finding reasons Stoicism matters today.

Maybe more of us are Stoics than we thought.

 

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