Tag Archives: ethics

In Search of Truth

Prior to university, I was like many students ignorant of philosophy and I was not expecting the trashing of my long held ideas and beliefs, that a study of philosophy entailed. After this numbing experience, I began to realise that there a something that I could take from philosophy, a more well founded and subtle understanding of the nature of truth.

When I started the study of philosophy, I and my fellow students were warned that it was not about the big questions of life. It was something much more modest in its ambitions. Our study of ethics was not about how to achieve the good life, but a study of what philosophers had to say about the nature of good. A course that contained a strong element of scepticism about it. One of the first texts we were introduced to was a G.E.Moore’s essay on the non existence of good. Locke’s statement on the purpose of philosophy perhaps best explains our course in ethics. He compared the role of the philosopher to that of the under labourer. The under labourer cleared the ground prior to the builder constructing a building on that site. A philosopher cleared the ground of the intellectual rubbish cluttering up the site, and in that act of clearance left or identified the key questions that had to be answered. In our study of ethics were learnt why all previous ethical philosophies of the good life were flawed. They had been looking for the answers to the wrong questions. They had muddled the study of ethics. Study after study had failed to demonstrate the nature of good, so the obvious conclusion was that what was called good, was in fact something else, an emotion or sentiment, not a thing as concluded by GE.Moore.

Probably in trying for brevity, I have done a disservice to my tutors by over simplifying their teaching.

As a student Ernest Gellner was the philosopher who impressed me most and who gave me a life long love of philosophy. His lectures were enlivened by his use of metaphors, which suggested a clarity of thought, not always apparent in others. One metaphor he used that has since remained lodged in my mind is this one. Imagine he said that you get of a train in a town with which you are unfamiliar. You immediately look for familiar buildings such as a church, you use these familiar seeming buildings on which to construct a mental map of the area. Without this internal map from which you can judge your location at a particular moment you would get lost. What he was stating was that without a prior orientation or commitment to a philosophical perspective, any intellectual investigation was doomed to failure, as it would lack a coherence of purpose becoming instead little more than a collection of interesting facts.

However he was not prescriptive, he never said what those philosophical reference points might be. It was up to the student to discover them for himself. Philosophy was an open ended pursuit, the last thing he intended was to recruit the student to a particular philosophical perspective. I studied philosophy in the 1960s, in what was the heyday for academic freedom. Since then there has been a closing down of the academic mind. Now an intellectual checklist has to met by students wishing to get a degree. Algis Uźdavinsys is justified in summing up so much contemporary philosophy as ‘The modern scholarly pursuit that also too often resembles a sort of self-confident obsession enacted by a host of hypocritical and angry ‘grammarians’. The emancipated philosophical discourse – their object of torture – is treated in accordance with certain language games and imagined history, which paradoxically, ends, by rejecting as ‘irrational’ the love of wisdom itself.’ *

What I think leads to a misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of philosophy is the failure to recognise the paradox that lies at the heart of it. Philosophy is simultaneously both a nothing and an everything. The nothing is the irony of Socrates who demonstrated in market place of Athens that its citizen’s of new nothing. He observed the truth of the Delphi oracle, by demonstrating that although he knew that he knew nothing, others did not, until he informed them of the fact. Using his dialectal method he could show they thought was truth or justice was wrong. This philosophic nihilism can threaten to reduce everything to a condition of meaninglessness. Perhaps the exemplar of philosophy as nothing is Heidegger. All that existed is, what is, beyond what is, there is nothing. Underlying conscious thought is a nothing, the abyss, and human culture was a something constructed on this nothing. In consequence there is no must have belief system, the individual is free to choose. Unfortunately Heidegger choose Nazism, a choice he would come to regret as it that meant he was barred from teaching in post war German universities.

This philosophical nihilism is continued in post modernism. For post modernists truth, is the truth of or for a historical period. Socialism and Fordist capitalism etc. were the competing foundational truths of the modern age. They were not both timeless universal values. An age that is generally reckoned as ending in the 1960s.

However there is a contradiction inherent in post modernism. They use truth in two different but contrary ways. Truths are both something of a particular time period and that is a statement this is a truth. These two meanings of truth are in conflict. In making this statement they are using truth as a judgement of correctness or rightness,; truth that is the timeless and universal statement of rightness. If they assert that truth is time relative, they must admit that this is not a true statement, but a something else.

What I find true is Wittgenstein’s statement that if you have untruth, you must have truth, as without its opposite untruth is meaningless. We are trapped within our language and to communicate we must use the conventions of that language. Communication is only possible because we obey the grammar of our language. If we try to say things contrary to that grammar, they become nothing more than a jumble of words. Those who deny the foundational grammars of our language, that is the binaries of truth/untruth, good/bad are denying reality.

Truth may be one of the foundational grammars that I cannot know completely, as words cannot adequately express that fundamental something that gives them there meaning. Not knowing truth etc. in its entirety does not prevent me and others from using it. Accepting this truth does not mean we are trapped within this grammar of language. These grammars give an infinitely flexible structure and fluidity to language. Once these grammars are accepted, an infinite variety of beliefs, ideologies and understandings can be constructed using language. Yet with the proviso these constructions must remain within the limits imposed by the foundational grammar or they become meaningless. Rather than language trapping the individual within a particular reality, it provides the means for transcending the immediacy of the lived experience. Philosophers will hopefully continue to offer imaginative solutions to the problems humanity faces, particularly those of the lived experience of humanity.

Going back to my earlier paragraph, that critical study of philosophers of the past that we as students found to be wrong; revisiting that now I would claim that what those philosophers offered was an incomplete statement of the truth. There writings although flawed contained elements of rightness, that have added to man’s understanding of himself and nature. Reading them gives the individual not an incorrect or wrong understanding, but read correctly they add insight and depth to current understandings.

*Algis Uzdavinys Philosophy and Theurgy in Late Antiquity

Religious mysticism and economics

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Javanese Mystical Beliefs The New York Times

All my adult life I have been trying to come to terms with what I learnt in my undergraduate philosophy classes. Coming from a relatively isolated rural Anglican background I had a belief in moral absolutes such as good and truth. Such terms where regularly used in conversation in my rural community, local villains were known as such and there was no ambiguity in our moral understandings. However at university I was introduced to a critical philosophy that undermined my belief in moral absolutes. One such example were the writings of Gilbert Ryle in which he dismissed the concept of a moral good. Good he explained was a term incapable of definition, as people would give differing explanations of what good meant, therefore could could be no more than an emotion. The same philosopher dismissed human consciousness as the ‘ghost in the machine’. He was sceptical of the notion of a special quality called consciousness existing apart from the biological mechanisms, which produced emotions and feelings. The idea of self was suspect, it did not fit with the understanding that biologists had of the human being. Consciousness and self were unscientific, their existence could not be proved, so it was illogical to believe in them. I guess I like many students felt the moral tectonic plates shift beneath my feet and realised the moral truths in which I believed had no firm foundation. Using the biblical analogy I was living in a house built on the shifting sands of contemporary morality.

However these relativist philosophers had not abandoned any notion of moral good. In practice they saw good as having some functional value, they behaved as would good men and women. They were fair in their treatment of us, turned up regularly to lectures etc. If they had behaved immorally the whole system would have collapsed. The first lesson I absorbed as that even if they did not see good and truth as moral absolutes, they saw them as having a practical utility.

I never really abandoned my Anglican beliefs, although I ceased to be a practising one. The 1960’s and 1970’s were an age of secularism and I used to enjoy discomforting my friends by telling them I was a Christian. Christians were for them a kind of pre-modern being, who were as distant from modern man, as were the Neanderthals from Homo Sapiens. Intelligent people for them could not believe in the myths and fairy stories of which organised religion was composed.

What I have sought since my university days is some intellectual underpinning or substance for my pre-modern beliefs in good and bad. I could not accept that there only purpose was that of enabling men to live together in an organised society. Interestingly I did learnt of one community in the Pacific, where stealing and dishonesty were valued. However this particular community, because of its dysfunctional nature was dying out.

Obviously I read widely, there is probably not a major philosopher of whom I do not have some knowledge, but it was not until I studied theology as a postgraduate that I began to make progress in finding solid ground on which to found my beliefs. The answer lies in the paradoxical nature of the unknown God, whose is both unknown and known. All theologians are to some degree negative theologians, they admit God is beyond human understanding, yet they claim some knowledge of this unknown God. Bertrand Russell scoffed at these theologians who believed in an unknown God as he pointed out that it was absurd to claim belief in a being that had no existence. However he misunderstood what theologians mean when they say they have no knowledge of God. God is unknown because he cannot be known through the usual methods of human understanding, as he exists beyond human existence. There can be no book of God as it is impossible to describe or explain what God is in language. There can be no science of religion, the science of observation or the laws of cause and effect have no relevance to the study of God. Yet this God can be known to the individual, but not through the usual means of human understanding.

Knowing God is a peculiarly individual experience, it is not as Kierkegaard states something that can be picked up from an afternoon’s study. There are no texts of instruction as such or a required reading list. Following Kierkegaard we cannot use direct language to speak of God, he cannot be described, but instead the language of God must be indirect language. The great religious teachers of the past are largely ignored but to learn the way to knowing truth or God it is to them that one must turn. It’s a knowledge quite unlike the knowledge of science or the humanities. Indirect learning or knowledge is the means of accessing these higher truth. The twentieth century philosopher Jasper explains that myth is one very successful way in which these truths can be accessed. Probably he’s thinking of Plato’s myth of the cave, in which he compares humanity to a group of men chained in a cave facing a wall behind which is a fire. Behind that wall are passed images which cast shadows of the cave wall and the chained men believe that those shadow images are reality. When one of the chained men escapes and goes into the sunlight and returns to tell the chained men what he has seen they refuse to believe him; they prefer the shadows or appearances with which they are familiar. What Plato is demonstrating is that the knowledge for understanding everyday existence is inadequate for the task of understanding what he and his Islamic successors (Sufis) would term the real. Plato has another a myth that explains the link between the real and the world of appearances in which we live. The creator God fashions the world and humanity out of clay and he uses as his model for creation the ‘real’. We are but copies of what the creator God could see, but which are concealed to us. Plato never believed the myths he created were ‘real’ but they was the only way he could explain, the complex nature of reality and existence. Jaspers put it more succinctly, there are some truths that can only be told through the use of myths.

Plato’s separation of the world into two spheres that of appearance and reality has remained influential. It is an understanding of existence that has been developed within the religious traditions of both Christianity and Islam. Rather than myth the Sufi sages use poetry, metaphor being a substitute for myth. One of my favourite phrases is taken from Rumi’s poem ‘The North Wind’

‘No matter how hard you stare into muddy water
you will not see the moon or sun’

It’s one of the best summaries of the Platonic need to search for truth beyond the world of ‘appearances’. However describing this world as one of ‘appearances’ does contradict our understanding of reality. Doctor Johnson gave the best retort, when he criticised Bishop Berkley’s theology, which saw the world as a product of God’s imagining. He said the pain he felt when stone he knocked his foot against was all too real, and was not a product of somebody’s imagining. All I can say is that Plato was trying to describe a level of reality that as it was not immediately visible and it could be distinguished from a reality that was all too apparent, which appears to us.

A person such as myself is described as a mystic, a term which I feel is derogatory as I believe my approach to knowing truth is quite rational. There is however a good reason for writing about my understanding of mysticism as a economist. Mysticism gives a very different understanding of the world to that of a practitioner of a science of the world of appearances. Economics judges the world in quantitive terms, using terms such as cost, loss and profit; it has no place for values. Therefore its practitioners are capable of making the most inhumane decisions, as they lack any sense of value. Milton Friedman could approve the torture and killing of trade unionists because their destruction paved the way to the free market. Ian Duncan Smith the minister for welfare can pursue a policy that through the removal of benefits impoverishes the poor and which even in extreme cases has led to suicide, as a means of incentivising people to return to work. To an economist misery and suffering are good if they produce the right result. Religious mystics could never accept such an inhumane belief system, they value the individual human too highly. Inflicting suffering is never an option for them, one hungry child is never the justification for this cruel method of incentivising work. Only an economist of the Neo-Liberal persuasion could be indifferent to human pain. Economics will constantly fail as it lacks a value system that would enable it to satisfy human wants. What economics so lack as a contemporary science is a knowledge of the old.

Notes
Plato (428/427 or 424/423 – 348/347 BCE) Classical Greek philosopher
Jelaluddin Rumi (30 September 1207 – 17 December 1273) Islamic jurist, theologian and mystic
Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (5 May 1813 – 11 November 1855) was a Danish philosopher, theologian, poet, social critic and religious author
Milton Friedman (July 31, 1912 – November 16, 2006) American economist