Sunday 19 May 2024

The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Tolstoy


After the rosary we always prayed for the grace of a happy death.  If you want to pray for anything that the very act of praying for it might make happen that is a candidate. The Ivan Ilyich household must have neglected this petition for what the novella depicts is a deeply unhappy, protracted, painful and unresigned death.  Why be resigned, why not cry out ‘de profundis clamavi’, why me?  The bad news is that there never will be a rescue.  You are manacled to the tracks and the train has set out.   Ivan when he reviews his glory days as a lawyer, the obiter dicta of a fine forensic mind grinding out judgements, the respect of his peers, the difficult decisions about curtains and sofas, these important events in the life of a man who has attained to a respected position in society are nugatory, trivial and not a fit preparation for the final examination.  Eschatology is one of those subjects that one must mug up daily.  

Tolstoy first did the death then he did the dying which inverts the normal procedure allowing him to demonstrate how the passing of a personage can cause difficulty for a bridge evening.  As soon as the wife has sounded a colleague about whether there might be additions to pension entitlements the mourner can slip away after the service in the room where Ivan is laid out.   

The dying as related by Tolstoy and God ought to induce recollection in the religious or, in that charmingly deflecting locution, mortality salience, in the secular humanist.  Terrifying or bracing, death is there and is waiting.

Friday 17 May 2024

Rene McGinn and Colin Descartes


Leaving Descartes is hard.  If you pose the body/mind problem according to a consequence of his view then you will arrive at an analogous position.  The connection between the brain (material) and the immaterial (consciousness) is like that between the extended and the unextended. The property P of the brain that is expected to account for consciousness was taken by the pineal gland. The part taken by god in guaranteeing that we are not ensorcelled  by a demon is taken by a refusal to offer any sort of reason for the reality of the ‘external’ world. Mystery and God are convertible as any theologian will tell you.

When you pose the problem according to the Cartesian rubric your excogitation will have that shape.

Tuesday 14 May 2024

McGinn and the Presence of a Sage

 When I use the expression ‘pervade’ of the inert body/mind that is pervaded by consciousness I do not wish to imply that consciousness is an external force that lights up the inert.  The being of things is consciousness.  To be is to be conscious.

This is counter to the idea of consciousness as an emerging power.  What is of its nature conscious has nothing but complexity of structure added to it to gain in awareness.  The self luminous awareness of man is the pinnacle of this evolution.  

Going back to McGinn it must be admitted that this is also a mystery overcast by the cloud of unknowing.  All that the seeker can do is put themselves in that luminous darkness which he realises by his being but which he cannot know in an objective sense.  The comprehension is rather transformative and not apodeictic.  Put yourself in the presence of a sage.  That helps. 

Can we solve the Mind-Body problem? with Colin McGinn (1983)

If you want to feel the force of the body/mind problem as classically posed Colin McGinn is your only man. He’s the mystery man and though he elaborates his central insight into many pages of very clear and distinct prose it may be expressed as the insuperable difficulty of discovering the property that turns the cerebral events into concomitant consciousness. Unless that property is available as data then all the clever hypotheses such as identity, consciousness as epiphenomenal, as divinely tuned, etc cannot be tested. We are beached on this island of consciousness and we cannot discover how the extended and the unextended interact. This is a brute fact and there is no getting away from it. What he presents (Can we solve the Body/Mind problem ‘1983) is a problem that arises out of a classic Cartesian presentation i.e. Causal closure between the extended and the unextended). Other non-dualistic ways of cutting this knot are dismissed. In a typical footnote:
“I would also classify panpsychism as a constructive solution, since it attempts to explain consciousness in terms of properties of the brain that are as natural as consciousness itself. Attributing specks of proto-consciousness to the constituents of matter is not supernatural in the way postulating immaterial substances or divine interventions is; it is merely extravagant. I shall here be assuming that panpsychism, like all other extant constructive solutions, is inadequate as an answer to the mind-body problem-as (of course) are the supernatural 'solutions'. “
The mystery slays all solutions. Yes fine but there are data points from which to throw out the putlocks to support a transcendental hypothesis. First: we all come from rocks and gas. Second: increase is complexity and diverse capacity of the brain is linked to the evolution of the human mind. Let me just state my point in a nutshell: The human being can talk into his own ear. That is what allows one to raise the problem of the self, the mind and the body. The advaitins cut through what they call the chit jada granthi or the knot between the conscious and the inert by suggesting that the mind is itself inert and that instead of a yoked mind and body we have a bodymind that is pervaded by consciousness. The effect of this pervasion is to give us awareness that is reflective of the level of complexity of the bodymind. The interaction conundrum is obviated and awareness is somatically distributed. Vestigial centres of awareness are the relics of evolutionary development. We are aware in our guts etc because in our passage to our present refined state it was the chief organ connecting us to the world. Find this classic paper here

Monday 6 May 2024

Note on A.N. Whitehead's 'Science and the Modern World'.

When you are on a topic everything seems to feed into it. A journalist that reports on the government’s ‘most substantive meeting’ gets you pondering whether there can be a superlative of ‘substantive’. A substance is a free standing thing of which things are said. The expression noun substantive preserves this meaning but I will not bore you with a discussion of the Aristotelian implications of what H.W. Fowler calls a genteelism:
By genteelism is here to be understood the rejecting of the ordinary natural word that first suggests itself to the mind, and the substitution of a synonym that is thought to be less soiled by the lips of the common herd, less familiar, less plebeian, less vulgar, less improper, less apt to come unhandsomely betwixt the wind and our nobility. (Modern English Usage - 1966 ed.)
A. N. Whitehead avoided words that were polluted by a history of discussion that tended to draw the mind down dead ends:
“These transcendent entities have been termed ‘universals.' I prefer to use the term ‘eternal objects’ in order to disengage myself from presuppositions which cling to the former term owing to a prolonged philosophical history. Eternal objects are thus, in their nature, abstract.”
What Whitehead is at here is moving away from that solid thing substance to the realm of the possible which may or may not issue as an entity that is manifest. When they do the eternal objects are evident as ‘actual occasions’. His emphasis is on the nature of the universe as a monistic holistic pattern of interactions which can themselves be ‘eternal objects’. His breaks down mind/body dualism into a dyad of dual aspect:
“Thus the mental cognition is seen as the reflective experience of a totality, reporting for itself what it is in itself as one unit occurrence. This unit is the integration of the sum of its partial happenings, but it is not their numerical aggregate. It has its own unity as an event. This total unity, considered as an entity for its own sake, is the prehension into unity of the patterned aspects of the universe of events.” (from Science and the Modern World)
It is as though we then graft on to that totalising moving through events an ontology of subject and objects.
“The private psychological field is merely the event considered from its own standpoint. The unity of this field is the unity of the event. But it is the event as one entity, and not the event as a sum of parts. The relations of the parts, to each other and to the whole, are their aspects, each in the other.”
How this relates to my understanding of the theory of superimposition in Advaitic Vedanta is a topic for another occasion. �

Monday 29 April 2024

I blame the British Empiricists.

I bang on like an untethered gate about Idealism and Realism but I take consolation in the fact that I am in good company. Practically all philosophers have spurned Idealism even if like a mutating virus it comes on in waves weakening as they put about their noxious fumes. Even so, some philosophers share Kant’s dismay at the lack of proof for an external world and take pains to work abstruse demonstrations which commit the usual error. They attempt to move from an inner conviction to an outer reality. That can be about God for Descartes and Berkeley. Like the writer to the editor ‘I blame the parents’ or The British Empiricists in the case of the inner turning to found an outer reality. Following them one is balked from the world by the direct acquaintance with our sensations merely and their cause devolves into an inference. Occasional error damns us as though not knowing everything were to condemn to universal ignorance. My philosophic chums of the moment are Etienne Gilson and Thomas Reid, champions of common sense. Can you prove causality? Can you prove the excluded middle? Are there limits to demonstration? For them common sense is not folk epistemology though it may require work to show its depth. Guided by Gilson’s ‘Thomist Realism’ I and Reid’s ‘Intellectual Powers’ I follow that trail. Sankara the advaitin has words on that topic addressing the Buddhist vijnanavadin (subjective idealist).
“So also it has to be admitted that the regularity in the simultaneous appearance of the cognition and its object is owing to the relation of causality between them and not owing to their identity.” (B.S.Bh - commentary on the Vedanta Sutras)
There is much more to say on this but why is it important? In a nutshell: de-incarnation is a very subtle and powerful mind virus.

Monday 15 April 2024

Iran shows its wares to three airforces.

 Reading the commentary on twitter and elsewhere the significance , it seems to me, is missed,  of the Iranian show of force.  They are demonstrating the palette of weaponry like arms salesment.  We are giving you a small selection of what we have and telling you in advance what they are so that you can be prepared. Today the Israelies will be reflecting that this sample took the airforces of three countries to shoot down which is long as they remain willing to continue to do so.  Will their allies stick around?  Genocide is not a good look and the grabbing actions of the settlers alienates.  The Americans will dump them just as they did the Vietnamese, the Afghanies, Iraqis, and so forth.  Consider the cooling of ardour for the Ukraine.  They are not reliable long term allies, AIPAC or not.  The Palestinians will not quit any more than the North Vietnamese did.  Israel is no longer a safe place to ignore the demands of justice.  They should make an equitable peace now or risk losing everything.