Haven't added anything for a while, but here's something I'm presenting at the Crown on monday!
Being an atheist does not mean being amnesiac. Humanity is one; religion and irreligion are part of it. Religions are part of history, society and the world (immanent). There are weaknesses in all the supposed proofs for the existence of God. Comte-Sponville is a ‘non-dogmatic atheist’, who does not claim to know that God does not exist, but believes he does not exist – ‘People who believe they have the truth…should know they believe it, rather than believe they know it’ (Lequier).
There is a God we must be silent about (unknowable, ineffable) or a God we anthropomorphise (too human and comprehensible to be god). Being is a mystery. How could we possibly explain its’ existence, given that all forms of explanation depend on it? Contingency is the shadow cast by nothingness, or imagined reality, within the vast space of being and becoming.
Being is intrinsically mysterious – the existence of being could be explained only by entities that are – we need to assume what we are attempting to explain. The mystery is irreducible because we are inside it. Why the big bang rather than nothing? Why everything rather than nothing? These questions confront us with the mystery of being, sending us back to our original astonishment.
What is a human being? One who is finite, but can conceive of infinity. An imperfect creature who (unlike other animals) possesses an idea of perfection. But, because we are human, our ideas of infinity and perfection are finite and imperfect. Man is a finite being who opens out to infinity, an imperfect being who dreams of perfection.
To be an atheist is not to deny the existence of the absolute; it is to deny its transcendence. It is to deny that the absolute is God. But, to be not-god is not to not be. Otherwise we ourselves, and the world itself, would not be. If the word ‘absolute’ is taken at its most ordinary sense, as that which exists independently of any condition, relationship or point of view – for instance the sum of all conditions (nature), all relationships (the universe) and all possible points of view (the truth) – it’s existence is impossible to refute.
Spirituality is limited to a small part of our lives, although that part is limitless – the absolute, the eternal and the infinite. Whether or not you believe in god…you are confronted with the infinite, the eternal and the absolute – and with yourself. Nature is the totality of reality. It exists independent of spirit, which does not create it, but is created by it. Everything is imminent to the All. That there is only one All is part of its definition. We are in the All and it goes beyond us, surpasses us in every direction.
Spirituality is not the highest thing from the universes point of view, but from ours. Spirit is the most impressive effect of nature, but not its cause (materialism).
The great ocean of All is reassuring; the dissolving of the ego giving us the ‘oceanic feeling’. Our petty worries fall into perspective. Why need God, when the universe suffices? (Camus – ‘the tender indifference of the universe’). Yet, people fail to see the wonder because they replace it with a theory or get lost in introspection. There is room for the universe only in the universe. In the face of reality silence is important; the silence of sensation, the silence of attention. (Kant – ‘we must break free of our precious little selves…our petty concerns…not dying to oneself but opening up to life’). We get lost in the known, repetition, habit. We try to contain the universe through reason, which in the first place is part of the universe.
Yet there are moments of grace, when we cease to hope for anything other than what is, those moments of plenitude. Freed from yourself, no longer split between the you who does and the you who observes the doing, between souls and body, between I and me, we lose ourselves in that oceanic feeling. Good and evil do not exist; things can be good or bad only for us. Spirituality is an experience, not a faith.
As we attend we find a suspension of time - a future which is not yet, a past which is no more and a present instant that divides it, and which is nothing, with no duration. The present changes every instant, but continues and remains present. We no longer talk of aion (abstract time), but chromos (concrete time) - the universe as presence, or what Spinoza and Bergson called duration. The present cannot be divided, it is not a duration, it is duration itself. We are eternal here and now. (Wittgenstein – ‘If by eternity we mean not infinite duration but intemporality, he who lives in the present has eternal life’).
This is philosophically similar to monism or pantheism – Spinoza’s ‘unity of substance’ or materialist material unity. Like Spinoza’s third type of knowledge, which has no need of a sign and signifies nothing, it is not to be interpreted, but known and contemplated. It is the objective essence of things; a Buddhist ‘thusness’.
Spirituality, then, is our finite relationship to infinity or immensity; our temporal experience of eternity, our relative access to the absolute. Plenitude, simplicity, eternity leave little room for belief. Beauty gives us access to the absolute, but is not the absolute itself. Everything is present. Why hope to live in eternity; why wait for God - the all as other, when you inhabit the all itself?
Comte-Sponville sees materialism as the answer to misanthropy – for animals produced by nature, we are not without qualities and merits. He calls for us to live in, ‘Fidelity rather than faith; action rather than hope; love rather than fear or submission…Love, not hope, is what helps us to live. Truth, not faith, is what sets us free…We are already in the kingdom. Eternity is now’.
Twenty-six people form London, Wales, Oxford, Leicester and Merseyside completed a two day Community Philosophy Facilitator course at Hope University. Steve and Graeme led the course and passed on their skills and know-how to a group which included experienced PIPS facilitators and people hoping to set up community based philosophy groups for the first time. After finishing the course, I came across this, from Henry Miller, on the always excellent Brain Pickings website:
“Our whole theory of education,” Henry Miller famously lamented, “is based on the absurd notion that we must learn to swim on land before tackling the water.”
Earlier in the day I'd been in conversation with Rod, Gerry and Arthur at the course. We were discussing noise levels, and a particular Liverpool hotel where the owner had triple-glazed the windows to isolate people from late bars and traffic noise. The result was people complaining about the lack of real noise coming from the streets. Perhaps, Rod suggested, ironically, much like the piped bird-song you can buy on C D, the hotel could use piped traffic noise to create a more realistic feel. We're used to pounding running machines, going nowhere, in an ersatz environment; we're used to the artificial smell of bread in supermarkets and virtual life, sometimes to the exception of a real one, but how did we get to this?
How about this (also from Brain Pickings), from the always interesting Susan Sontag, as a suggestion for a more real education?
Why not eliminate schooling between age 12-16? It’s biologically + psychologically too turbulent a time to be cooped up inside, made to sit all the time. During these years, kids would live communally — doing some work, anyway being physically active, in the countryside; learning about sex — free of their parents. Those four ‘missing’ years of school could be added on, at a much later age. At, say, age 50-54 everyone would have to go back to school. (One could get a deferment for a few years, in special cases, if one was in a special work or creative project that couldn’t be broken off.) In this 50-54 schooling, have strong pressure to learn a new job or profession — plus liberal arts stuff, general science (ecology, biology), and language skills.
This simple change in the age specificity of schooling would a) reduce adolescent discontent, anomie, boredom, neurosis; b) radically modify the almost inevitable process by which people at 50 are psychologically and intellectually ossified — have become increasingly conservative, politically — and retrograde in their tastes (Neil Simon plays, etc.)
There would no longer be one huge generation gap (war), between the young and the not young — but 5 or 6 generation gaps, each much less severe.
After all, since most people from now on are going to live to be 70, 75, 80, why should all their schooling be bunched together in the first 1/3 or 1/4 of their lives — so that it’s downhill all the way
Early schooling — age 6-12 — would be intensive language skills, basic science, civics, the arts.
Back to school at 16: liberal arts for two years
Age 18-21: job training through apprenticeship, not schooling
Wonders of Life, with Brian Cox, is a clear attempt to look through Science in such a way as to instill awe and wonder at the complexity of life. It is a rejoinder to the idea that Science dis-enchants the world, captured in Lamia, where John Keats used the memorable line ‘Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings’. Of course, getting into the science of ‘Life’ itself sometimes requires a wielding of the analytic knife. Nevertheless, seeing Cox addressing a lion cub with the words ‘I’ve got a few scratches now…because of your proteins’ struck a false note. Proteins alone will not do anything – they need to be embedded in a living form, which is in turn embedded in a wider world, and in turn within a wider universe. Of course, proteins are part of a causal chain that will lead up to the lion cub eventually scratching Brian Cox. Some of these considerations came up in yesterday’s enquiry at the Crown in Liverpool where Sam presented the topic of Emergence. In short, Emergentism is a belief that some emergent properties have a degree of independence and are not reducible to the systems parts. It stands in contrast to reductionism. With regard to consciousness emergentism seems to be a sort of new vitalism.
If you want to bake a cake from scratch, first of all you need to invent a universe. (Carl Sagan)
Consciousness, without being mystical, is one of the great mysteries of life, and, while Science is helping us to deeper understandings, it is Art and poetry which best express the felt-feeling, the qualia, of subjective experience. Like looking through different glasses we use the scientific, the rational, the poetic, the philosophical, to address the world from different viewpoints, depending on our purpose. And somehow all these things, all our experiences and our sense impressions hang together in a unified whole in our consciousness. Occasionally we’re shocked out of taking this for granted, as in Louis MacNiece’s fantastic poem Snow.
The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.
World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.
And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes–
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of your hands–
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.
A warm welcome to the new PIPS website and to the new blog.
It has been some twelve years since I first walked into the vital Brewery pub on Berry Street, Liverpool with my friend John. We were given a warm welcome from a group who were taking their first tentative steps at establishing themselves at the heart of local culture. I can see many of those faces now - Paul, Rob, Mike Naidoo, John Corcoran, Edna, Terry and George, to name a few. The regulars were equally friendly and added an electrically eccentric and always enjoyable colour. Somehow, one evening, after another extended enquiry, I found myself drinking at the home of an ex-'blagger' (if you can apply the prefix), who'd lived in Spain with gypsies and was now an antique dealer. He danced a flamenco while I rolled him an inept looking 'cigarette'. 'Jim, we've landed amongst angels', said John, sagely, after one of those early meetings. The excitement was palpable; it was the kind of community (and who can do without community?) that we'd been seeking all our lives. New people would come through the door bursting with ideas and relishing the chance to express them, though Rob and Paul would ensure that contributions were seen through a philosophical lens.
A real critical spirit was forming itself, and pretty soon there were intimations that what we had was too important to keep all to ourselves. It wasn't just the intellectual side; it was the openness to experience and the range of interests in the group that made many of the experiences and exchanges I was having elsewhere seem lacking. We were making food for each-other, travelling together, playing music, reading poetry and building fires. Of course, some people never adopted the way of being in the group that I'm describing, but enough did to give us a sense of belonging. We often see Philosophy as an abstract practice, but philosophy was there, whether implicit or explicit, in all our engagement.
It is natural to want to hold on to those core values and that spirit which informed us in the beginning, but PIPS has taken on a national character now. For some people PIPS will be something they just engage with once a week or once a month. Some groups will have developed closer connections with each other and with the wider movement. Hopefully, this blog can play a small part in drawing people together. I'll try to keep the personal out, but inevitably the pieces I add, be they on philosophy, art, science, film or literature, will have a personal bias. I just hope you enjoy them.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v1Q6v1xsvcI Cornell West - The Examined Life (Youtube)
If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on. (David Foster Wallace)
It all got a bit weird last week as the Harlem Globetrotters visited North Korea. Dennis Rodman watched the Basketball game alongside supreme leader Kim Jong-un. For the watching crowd it must have been like watching the football match in Bedknobs and Broomsticks or like the moment Dorothy steps from her homely black and white world into the colour of Oz. Totalitarianism met Capitalism and individualism head on and honours were even in a satisfying 110 – 110 draw (hum)! Like worlds colliding, these unlikely encounters intrigue us. Take the marriage of Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, or the moment a lucky cab-driver had ‘that’ Bertrand Russell in the back of his cab and took the opportunity to ask ‘What’s it all about then’?
I began thinking of philosopher Mark Rowlands’ short book Fame, in which he examines some of these polarities. Rowlands suggests that we persist in confusing Individualism and Objectivism with their degenerate forms – namely relativism and fundamentalism. He sees the Enlightenment project as one of rational enquiry into objective truth and value, best produced by individuals living lives of autonomous self-realisation. Individualism degenerates into relativism when we lose sight of objectivism, because if anything you do counts as self-realisation then the idea of self-realisation is vacuous. Equally, the life that is lived too dogmatically will become a joke of a life.
In The Unbearable Lightness of Being Milan Kundera examines these themes existentially.
“The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man's body.The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life's most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?”
â€• Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The characters in the novel are, to varying extents heavy or light. Tereza is heavy - she longs to transcend, but is ashamed of the corporeality of her body; she is devoted to Tomas; she is a serious photographer. Tomas, who is light, is a philanderer who largely avoids political commitment. Sabina is the lightest of the characters, symbolized by her use of her sole possession from her father, a bowler hat, as a sexual prop. She emigrates to California, where she dies, and has her ashes scattered to the winds.
As societies and individuals we exist somewhere between these poles – objectivism and individualism, lightness and weight. How attached are we to ideas or to others? How much do we listen to our own inner convictions? The important thing is to make good choices. As Rowlands suggests,’a moral failure is also an existential failure – a failure to be true to yourself’.
Baring the Device
Baring the device
In his Epic Theatre Bertold Brecht was concerned with highlighting the way drama works on us, so as not to conceal its effect. The ideal spectator was an alienated observer who was able to be detached through Brecht’s Alienation Effect. Brecht favoured Reason over feeling and wanted to stir the audience from passivity to action. Where, in Dramatic Theatre, instinctive feelings were preserved, the Epic Theatre brought the spectator to a point of recognition. Theatre was not about catharsis; instead we would be constantly reminded that we were watching a play, and baring the device allowed the observer to see how dramatic works use their theatricality to manipulate and seduce.The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui provided us with an allegory of rise of Adolf Hitler, its title suggesting our power to change things.
There was a time when the disingenuousness, lack of integrity and Machiavellian intrigue of party politics was something we intuited, but were not directly aware of. As politics became more public tales of intrigue, spin doctors and career (not conviction) politicians entered our vocabulary and our consciousness. The device was bared and surely the Houses would come tumbling down. But nothing happened. Instead we learned to see these things as part of the entertainment business, which party politics was now entrenched in. Last weeks’ documentary Boris Johnson: The Irresistible Rise provided us with a devoutly anti-Brechtian title and depicted the inevitability of ‘loveable buffoon’ Boris one day ascending to his rightful place and ousting Cameron Minor. Political ineptitude, throwaway prejudices, numerous affairs and colluding with Etonian fraudsters added mere colour, given Boris’ flaxen hair, bumbling charm and winning smile.
Remember the Milli Vanilli ‘scandal’? Two popular singers who, it was revealed, did nothing but lipsync on their videos. People were up in arms and serious questions were asked. Today, programmes like the X Factor have no such worries. Pixelated teens of no discernible talent are turned into ‘stars’ with the input of image consultants, gurus, other people’s songs and enhanced vocals. The device was bared again, but to what effect? Once, the ultimate term of abuse was that a band was manufactured. Today, audiences vote for such people…sometimes in greater numbers than for their politicians.
Recently, I completed a free online Philosophy course entitled ‘Know Thyself’. The course took in a range of perspectives on the self, starting with Socrates, through Descartes, Locke, Hume and Freud towards Buddhism, where, it was suggested, the course became ‘No Thyself’. I was struck by one particular point the lecturer made about our feeling of selfhood. These things can strike us any time, when we’re ready to hear it or when it comes like a bolt from the blue and we just can’t ignore the call. The lecturer made the point that, if we see ourselves as a process, our emotions are fleeting, and, what’s more, our emotions may be experienced in this locus of self, but they are not specific to us. Imagine yourself in a room with family, in social groups or in your community. There are a range of feelings and emotions flying around and some of them just happen to be experienced by you. This thought came to me spontaneously a couple of weeks after hearing it when I was taking part in a writing competition. The finalists were in the room, nervously awaiting the outcome and I suddenly had a real sense of everyone feeling the same emotions as I was feeling. Suddenly, winning was no longer important. I had a real sense of being unattached to my emotions and there was a kind of democratisation of emotion. Everyone was feeling similar feelings, so what did it matter that I won? It’s something which has stayed with me and something which I hope I can build on, a piece of wisdom I was just ready to hear.
Im interested in any feedback from the forthcoming 01 02 2016 Leek discussion on fracking
because a year or two ago I led a discussion there on the issue
at the Blue Mugge -using the piece I wrote in Nerve from about 2012.
07444 31 30 11
About 3 yrs ago at the Blue Mugge Leek discussion group I introduced the fracking issue with my take on it from a 2012 Nerve page and wondered if there might be feedback from the same topic ,same venue on 1/2/2016.