Therefore I Am

Today is the end of this March of coronavirus pandemic. We know now that it really began late in 2019 and hit China hard in January and moving through Italy and Europe in February. But America was not reacting as seriously as it should have been until this month.

Rene DescartesSerendipitously today, I saw that today is the birthday of philosopher René Descartes. As a student of philosophy in college, if you had asked me to sum up Descartes in a word I would have chosen “doubt,” and that is a word that has filled this month for many people including myself.

Descartes was born in France in 1596 is sometimes called the father of modern philosophy, even though he considered himself a mathematician and scientist. His interest in philosophy began with his finding out that the Catholic Church persecuted Galileo for his scientific theories, especially the idea that Earth was not the center of the solar system.

This doubt seemed to follow him. His own theories were controversial and he believed that doubt is necessary for scientific inquiry. This doubt always seems to me to have almost lead him into depression. He wrote about doubting everything in his life. He even began to doubt his own existence.

As he worked his way through this problem, he realized that one thing he could not doubt was the existence of his own thoughts. From that conclusion, he came to his idea that has lived on in one Latin philosophical proposition: Cogito, ergo sum which is translated into English as “I think, therefore I am.”  In his book, Discourse on the Method, it is written in French as je pense, donc je suis. It has been translated and interpreted in other ways, such as “That cannot doubt which does not think, and that cannot think which does not exist. I doubt, I think, I exist. (Krauth, 1872) Descartes wrote, “I concluded that I was a substance whose whole essence or nature resides only in thinking, and which, in order to exist, has no need of place and is not dependent on any material thing.”

I didn’t intend this post to be a philosophy lesson but, like poems, writing your thoughts often leads you down paths you had not planned to walk. What inspired me on the month-ending day and Descartes’s birthday was the idea of knowledge in the face of radical doubt.

The full title of his book is A Discourse on the Method of Correctly Conducting One’s Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences and that last part – “Conducting One’s Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences” seems most relevant in the past few months.

The very act of doubting – in one’s own existence or in the way our government is handling this pandemic – is proof of the reality of one’s own mind and a necessary part of the constant inquiry we have with the world.

From “I think therefore I am,” Descartes moves to the existence and nature of the physical world, human and animal nature and God. That may be further than we want to walk in the month ahead, though I suspect some of us have been moving in that direction consciously or unconsciously.

A Perennial Philosophy

water lily buds

I saw a reference this past week to the “perennial philosophy” and though I studied some philosophy in college and sometimes still read in that section of the library shelves I have to admit I couldn’t define what that meant.

This version of philosophical thought has been around since the Renaissance and had a resurgence in the 20th century.  The perennial philosophy is one way to view the practice of many religious faiths.

Aldous Huxley wrote back in 1945 that a perennial philosophy “recognises a divine reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent ground of all being”.

What first appealed to me when I did study this philosophy was the idea of identifying common mystical experiences across cultures and traditions.

From Aldous Huxley’s introduction to the Bhagavad Gita:
“More than twenty-five centuries have passed since that which has been called the Perennial Philosophy was first committed to writing; and in the course of those centuries, it has found expression, now partial, now complete, now in this form, now in that, again and again. In Vedanta and Hebrew prophecy, in the Tao Teh King and the Platonic dialogues, in the Gospel according to St. John and Mahayana theology, in Plotinus and the Areopagite, among the Persian Sufis and the Christian mystics of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance — the Perennial Philosophy has spoken almost all the languages of Asia and Europe and has made use of the terminology and traditions of every one of the higher religions.”

I also had read some William James who wrote that an essential mark of the mystical experience is that it is ineffable or indescribable. Of course, that hasn’t stopped “mystics” from talking about, publishing and capitalizing on their experiences. It hasn’t stopped non-mystics from wanting to read about mystical experiences in the hope of having their own at some point.

In the Perennial Philosophy, all of the world’s religious, spiritual and wisdom traditions share one universal truth. It’s Einstein’s dream of a unified field theory but or religion. If you accept this, you would agree that all of these traditions are trying to make sense of the same thing.

What is that thing? Huxley thought it was “divine reality.” He thought that although all the traditions vary in their teaching, they all are a search for meaning in life. That’s not THE meaning of life. It is finding meaning in our life.

Clearly, the ethics, beliefs, principles and teachings of the world religions are very different. It’s easy to say they share one divine ultimate goal but it is more difficult to see everything that leads to that divine reality.

Would the Perennial Philosophy mean the creation of yet another religion? It’s not a religion. It’s a philosophy.

Can an atheist follow the philosophy? Yes. How does someone follow it? What is the path?

Maybe Huxley’s own book, The Perennial Philosophy, is a place to begin. He doesn’t abandon religion. In fact, he uses Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Christian mysticism, and Islam and explains how they are united.

There’s no building to go to for meetings. There’s no leader. There really isn’t a book to follow. The Perennial Philosophy might seem lonely or you might like following a path on your own. What is definitely perennial is our desire to find the meaning.

 

Tasting Vinegar

I wrote here recently about Benjamin Hoff‘s two books The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet. In The Tao of Pooh, Hoff writes about “The Vinegar Tasters” which is a traditional subject for Chinese painting and religious and philosophical allegories. You may be interested in learning about that short lesson. I wrote about it on another blog at https://ronkowitz.blogspot.com/2019/08/the-vinegar-tasters.html

Still Wandering the Hundred Acre Wood

Hundred Acre Wood

E. H. Shepard’s 1926 map of the Hundred Acre Wood, based on the Winnie-the-Pooh stories by A. A. Milne.

The Pooh books of A.A. Milne had their influence on me when I was slipping into being a teenager. They were not books of my childhood. A girl friend who I wanted to be a girlfriend was a big fan of Pooh and so I started reading them. My relationship with Milne has lasted a lot longer than my relationship with that girl.

I always thought there was something wise in the words of Pooh, Piglet, Christopher Robin, and their friends. The Tao of Pooh was published after I had stopped being a student in classrooms, but it would have been on my bookshelf in those days. When it was published (1982), I was married, teaching and a few years from having my own children. I had rediscovered Pooh because the books were also a favorite of my wife-to-be. It was also a time that I was rediscovering Buddhism which I had started to study in college. This book about Pooh’s “philosophy” by Benjamin Hoff is an introduction to the Eastern belief system of Taoism intended for Westerners.

The book does use the Milne characters’ words but more so it allegorically uses the characters to illustrate the basic principles of Taoism.

Tao (or Dao) is a Chinese word meaning the “way” or “path” and sometimes more loosely “doctrine.”

I like the story (hopefully true) that Hoff wrote the book at night and on weekends while working as a tree pruner in the Portland (Oregon) Japanese Garden in Washington Park. Pruning and weeding my garden are two of my favorite practical meditations.

Hoff later wrote The Te of Piglet, a companion book – both are available in one volume.

But Hoff’s relationship with publishers was far less pleasant than a day in the Hundred Acre Wood.

In 2006, he denounced the publishing industry and announced his resignation from book-writing.  He has published five books including The Singing Creek Where the Willows Grow which won the American Book Award in 1988.

“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.” – A.A. Milne

The character of Winnie-the-Pooh is a good personification of wu wei.  Don’t confuse this Taoist concept of “effortless doing” with laziness.  Imagine if you could do your work “effortlessly.”

Pooh also illustrates for us pu.  This Chinese word means “unworked wood” or “simple” and was an early Taoist (or Daoist) metaphor for the natural state of humanity. Pooh is an exemplar of this concept of being open to, but unburdened by, experience.

Owl and Rabbit are characters that are quite the opposite. They over-complicate and over-think situations and problems.

Eeyore (who I fully identified with for a long time) is a pessimist. always complaining and fully burdened.

Piglet: “How do you spell ‘love’?”
Pooh: “You don’t spell it…you feel it.” – Pooh”
― A.A. Milne

The Te of Piglet is the 1992 companion book to The Tao of Pooh. It was also a bestseller. In this book, Piglet acts as our model of living Te.

The Chinese concept of Te, which means “power” though often interpreted as  “virtue,” is particularly suited to Piglet in the Taoist concept of “virtue of the small.”  This second volume is really an elaboration on the first book’s introduction to Taoism, so they should be read together.

Piglet has power, though small, because he has a great heart or, in Taoist terms, Tz’u.

“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.”  – A.A. Milne

The Hundred Acre Wood of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories is based on the Five Hundred Acre Wood in Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, England. Milne’s country home was just north of Ashdown Forest. That Wood is one that young Christopher Robin Milne would explore.

I am still wandering in my own One Hundred and Fifty-Seven Acre Wood on a regular basis. I can be found there practicing (rather badly) Qigong and Tai Chi and trying to identify plants, playing Pooh Sticks in a creek and picking up plastic bottles and trash so that I leave the Wood cleaner than when I entered.

“You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”  –  A.A. Milne

I have learned that Laozi in the Tao Te Ching explains that the Tao is “not a name for a thing” but the underlying natural order of the Universe. That order is perhaps impossible to describe as it is peskily non-conceptual. But it must exist.

Laozi also said that the Tao is “eternally nameless” in a world filled with named things that are manifestations of the Tao. The universe is a confusing place to wander.

“Weeds are flowers, too, once you get to know them.”  –  A.A. Milne

Tea As Philosophy

“Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful
among the sordid facts of everyday existence.
It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity,
the romanticism of the social order.
It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect,
as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible
in this impossible thing we know as life.”
― Kakuzō Okakura, The Book of Tea

I enjoy tea. I’m not alone, as it is the most popular beverage in the world after water.

It can be a simple thing to make and enjoy. But it can also be complex.

From a simple cup of the very common orange pekoe to a more unusual pu-erh tea, the choice of teas even in tea bags has become an almost overwhelming series of grocery store shelves. The way it is made and enjoyed can also be complex and even ceremonial.

I came under the spell of The Book of Tea (which is really a long essay) when I was a college student. It was originally written in English and was meant for Westerners.

In the book, I learned that tea began as a medicine and later became a beverage. But in fifteenth century Japan, it was elevated to a religion of aestheticism known as Teaism.

Teaism is not merely the appreciation of te but an adoration of the beautiful among the sordid in everyday existence. It worships the imperfect.

This “philosophy of tea” is far more complicated than this short post can summarize. It involves ethics and religion, our relationship with nature, even cleanliness and economics.

I saw it described as “moral geometry” in that it tries to define or refine our sense of proportion to the universe.

“You can never get a cup of tea large enough
or a book long enough to suit me.”
― C.S. Lewis

But that cup of tea, if you go deeper, is more complex, subtle, varied, challenging and interesting than you would have imagined. Perhaps you simply drop a tea bag into a mug of hot water or put it into the microwave, but tea is still hand-crafted and treated like a bottle of wine, in some places and by some people.

Can tea have a positive effect on your brain, mood and attitude? Perhaps.

Can reading the tea leaves predict the future. Probably not.

Can you follow the way of tea? Absolutely.

“Drink your tea slowly and reverently,
as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves –
slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.”
― Thích Nhất Hạnh

green tea incup on rocks

Reality Isn’t Real

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.