Wednesday, 10 May 2017

What I assume: the metaphysics of everyday life

What I assume: the metaphysics of everyday life

Bruce G Charlton

Preface

I begin this Preface at 13.13 on 10 April 2017; and I mention the fact because, in the case of this book, the preface is being written first.

I can do this because I know what the book will contain; or, at least, I have outlined the chapters on one page of my notebook, and I have been thinking about this topic and making copious notes for many months – more than a year, indeed.

What has enabled me to begin today, now - is clarity about where I am going and a feeling for the model. The key was given by my recollection of Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols – A book I read and liked a lot more than 20 years ago. Nowadays, I don’t like what it says – but I find its form and style exhilarating.

Another model is a little known book called Criticism by the musician Hans Keller, which I read about 30 years ago. Again, it is the way the book was written, rather than its assertions, that stuck in my mind – and Keller used this same device of writing the Preface before composing the book linearly from that point; and merely corrected, rather than revised. That notion has liberated me for this endeavour.

As usual for me this will probably be a short book – an inevitability given the aphoristic style I have developed in seven years of daily blogging; and, anyway, it seems to suit my way of thinking.

But the main point I wish to make in this preface is that the book is a statement of my assumptions – that is my metaphysics; those basic ideas or beliefs which underlie my whole way of thinking – stated as clearly and honestly as I can manage. It is not, therefore, an attempt to argue my point or to persuade others – except insofar as a clear statement is persuasive in and of itself…

This happens to be the way of some of my favourite or most influential books were done; such as some of those by Nietzsche (already mentioned) - or indeed Wittgenstein’s books, as they eventually reached print - or my Penguin volume of Pascal’s Pensees - which was selected from the assorted notations by the editor and translator AJ Krailsheimer.

Since nobody is likely to do the same brilliant editorial job for me – indeed, since even I myself could not face the tedium of wading through and ordering the shelf of scribbled A4 volumes that have accumulated over the past 18 months or so; I have decided to follow Keller’s practice of writing entirely from memory and without any reference to these notes, or to any other source; on the basis that anything which I have failed to think-through and assimilate – such that it is available to my memory without consultation - is probably not valid anyway.

Furthermore – to enforce this upon myself – I will be posting the book onto a blog as I write it, as it emerges; like those Victorian novelists who wrote serials, or Samuel Johnson who composed his Rambler essays unrevised, and sent them off to the printer a page at a time and before he had finished the whole thing.

So. Here goes…

Metaphysics

The great need for me, for everyone, is first to know our metaphysical assumptions and then to reflect on them. Nobody is exempt in modern times; because there are so many forces at work to poison our metaphysics. And a poisoned metaphysic will run life, and beyond life.

For many years I didn’t believe in either the importance or even the reality of metaphysical assumptions; I had the idea that we could and should stick to matters of evidence that were applicable to the business of life. For example, science obviously ‘worked’ – so why not just get on with it? It was perhaps when I realised that science no longer worked, and that people were not getting on with it – but doing something almost entirely different and just calling it science – that I began to realise the importance of metaphysics. When it was too late.

But it is at the personal level that assumptions matter most personally. Life has no Meaning when our basic assumption is that Life has no Meaning (but Just Is – and might not have been) – and Life has no Purpose when it is assumed that everything which happens is either passively caused or else random. 

On the other hand; Life feels very different when our metaphysical assumption is that Life is created, and for a reason.



God

I have to start with God. We live in God’s universe; and that is the source of all meaning and purpose; and the reason why its meaning and purpose can be known. God is also our Father and we his children: more, he is our loving Father. That is why there is a place for us, it is why we can understand, it is why God made us so that we can understand.

This kind of basis is much more essential that most people realise. We don’t just need an idea of how things are, but how it is that we are able to know how things are. At bottom; we need at least two things: a description of the ultimate realities – and we need assurance that this description is true.

First we formulate the description of ultimates… then what? Then we seek validation by means of what counts at the ultimate validation. What is that? – and is it the same for everybody? We have to stop questioning somewhere and accept  that It Just Is; but how do we know when we could or should stop?

Well, any answer to this question of validation falls into an infinite regress of validation; because it can be (will be) asked why the validation method is itself valid; and any answer to that is subject to the same question… The point is, do we actually want an answer, or do we want to ‘prove’ that an answer is impossible? Because there is an answer, implicit in our behaviour – implicit in our questioning. All questions proceed from assumptions; what are these assumptions?

This is the need for ‘faith’, which is trust. If there is no trust, there are no answers – and there can be no life. The question ‘but who can I trust’ may be answered by the counter-question: ‘who do you trust already?’ Once that is known, then its adequacy may be apparent; we may learn that we are trusting somebody whom we actually – now we think about it – do not trust. (Like when we repeat a story that everybody knows, and argue against an experienced and knowledgeable friend who asserts something else; then realise that our information came originally from a newspaper. Knowing the basis of our assumption, we can then ask: do we trust the friend or the newspaper. But we can only ask this question when we know the nature and source of our assumption.)

There is a cynical pose (most people have adopted it at some time) which effects to doubt all and everything. In practice, when assumptions are exposed and traced, cynicism is either the grossest credulity or more often a false argument used to demolish only that which the cynic wishes to deny (such as a limitation on his desired behaviour).

But, as well as the cynic, there is the despairing doubter – who lives on the verge of paralysis due t uncertainties concerning the validity of… everything. The despairing doubter is transfixed by the possibility that life may really, behind everything – and whether or not this could ever be known, have no meaning or purpose or relevance to us. The despairing doubter is not, fundamentally concerned with the status of knowledge claims or the validity of ultimate descriptions; he is simply unsure about everything – lacks any inner sense of reality.

Whether the despairing doubter actually exists in a full and coherent form is doubtful, but a tinge or tendency of this is characteristic. Yet how seldom is this taken seriously – least of all by its sufferers! The doubts extend to doubting the doubts – such that nothing is done about them, nothing is done about trying to settle the doubts…

Clearly a pathological state; yet common, mainstream, almost universal as at least a fleeting experience. It was the problem that CG Jungs wealthy and leisured private patients often consulted him about, and which he tried to solve by going back to childhood or dream instincts, and building upon them; finding something – some activity, like playing with mud, or sketching pictures - that was apparently self-validating, and using this as a foundation to build upon.

But in the end Jung came back to God; and late in his life he was clearly religious, a kind of Christian; and said that he ‘knew’ the truth of God (did not ‘believe’, but knew). His earlier and more therapeutic answers had proven insufficient, or else his later knowledge rendered them unnecessary.

At any rate, I think we need to know of the reality of God, and of his nature; and we need to know this for ourselves – it is not something that can be learned from others, or taken on trust. We need to know – and what that means, what that implies, is individual and indefensible because it is the basis of other knowledge.  But that is what we need to do, and we therefore need to keep working on it – making it our priority – until it is achieved and we know the reality of God.


A loving God?

While many people find it easy to acknowledge some kind of deity; there is an idea prevalent that to assume God loves us, each as individuals, is a belief that smacks too much of wishful thinking; or else is just a plain denial of the nature of the world.

But if a loving God is understood to be a metaphysical assumption, then matters become much clearer.

A metaphysical assumption is not based on ‘evidence’ – so the personal or global balance of good and evil, pleasure and pain, nice and nasty is irrelevant to the question of whether God loves us: completely irrelevant. Until this is understood, there will be hopeless confusion on this question.

The way I think about it is that a child’s experience of the world – the extent to which the child is wicked, or in pain or experiences nasty conditions; cannot be used to infer how much that child’s parents love him.

Of course, some people conflate that question of God’s love with an assumption about God being omnipotent – and then they recognise the problem that if God is both loving and omnipotent, then the world God made seems to be significantly sub-optimal.

But in reality, there is no reason to assume that God’s power and God’s love are both necessarily true. Or that what these concepts mean is clear. In sum, lovingness and omnipotence are two separate questions, and they must be considered separately.

The idea that God loves each of us is indeed unusual in world religions – probably most religions have had an unloving God or gods; so why do I believe it is true? What grounds for such belief could there be?

The most convincing grounds are a personal conviction that it is true.

However, this leads on to the question of how we might know such a thing, even if it was true; and I understand the answer to be that God is within me, as well as outside of me. Because God is within me, I can have direct personal experience of God and of his nature. I can know God, and know what he is like.


A Child of God

It is metaphysically important that we are children of God, because this is the reason why we have been made such that we can understand reality.

Because I am a son of God, I am partly divine; and this is why I can understand the truth about things.

If I had been a creature that was purely and only the product of natural selection, there would be no reason at all why I should be able to discern the truth about things – since I would be optimised only with respect to reproductive success, not truth.

However, since I am partly divine, and since God created this reality; I am potentially able to know the truth about reality.


Destiny and purpose

Furthermore; my being a child of God is the reason for my destiny; in the sense that my understanding is that God ‘had children’ in order that they may be able (potentially) to grow-up to be fully divine, like God.

So, another metaphysical assumption is that we begin as partly divine, and by choice and experience may become more and more fully divine – and indeed reality is set-up with the primary purpose that this be possible and encouraged.
The world is as-it-is not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end; the world is intended to be an educational process, not a final result.

How is this known by me? I think it is a further insight built upon those previously mentioned. Given a conviction of the reality and lovingness of God, and the fact of being able to understand God from within – knowledge of my personal destiny – my purpose in this world - is also available, directly.

Is this reasoning merely circular? Not merely – because it is based on assumptions that such-and-such Just Is. These assumptions necessarily include that such and such Just Is sufficient ‘evidence’ to confirm the earlier assumptions.

So metaphysics is an incremental matter of discovering, making explicit, what we actually are assuming – which may then lead to us changing these original basic assumptions to make new basic assumption that we can endorse fully.

Having established these basic assumptions about the nature of things (to our own satisfaction) they may be built upon, and extrapolated – such inferences themselves being retested (at various stages and phases) by the same basic mechanisms that established the basic assumptions.

There is a testing and feedback mechanism, as well as a process of extrapolative reasoning. If, for whatever reason, we begin to feel uncertain, to doubt; then we can go back and start again, as often as seems necessary. 


A walk in the country

The vital importance of metaphysics in everyday Life can be seen by considering a typical walk in the country - first from the perspective of mainstream modern metaphysics, then from how things ought to be.

How modern metaphysics demeans life

Imagine walking on a beautiful day through beautiful countryside - and how everything that is experienced is undermined by our typical modern metaphysical assumptions...

The sky is a glorious, electric blue... and I feel elated; until I reflect that this apparent blueness is some kind of perceptual illusion caused by the interaction of the earth's atmosphere with light from the sun.

The sun is warm, and very air feels soft between my fingers and I am at peace... until I reflect that 'really' the sun is merely a ball of incandescent gas, of terrifying temperature; and the softness of the air merely an effect of some specific combination of moisture and temperature acting on the nerve endings of my skin.

I feel filled with well-being... until I recognise that this must merely be due to some combination of neurotransmitters and hormones, a product of ancestral evolution which was shaped merely by traits that led to reproductive success.

That magnificent beech tree, with its translucent green leaves outlined against the blue of the sky, seems like a wise companion to this walk... until I reflect that it is just a plant with no feelings; and the leaves are only that colour due to the chlorophyll which is used in photosynthesis.

That sandstone boulder has a remarkable shape, which seems significant... until I reflect that it is just a dead lump of inert unconscious matter - shaped randomly by the forces of wind and water...

You get the idea? Modern metaphysics works to destroy the validity and significance of our best and highest moments - reducing them to contingent, random or merely-causal effects; and reducing our own responses to similarly meaningless factors.

Our metaphysics is that everything that happens is either merely the inevitable cause of something equally meaningless that happened before; or some random and pointless event. The ideas of meaning, purpose and the notion that any of this has anything significant to do with me and my hopes is written off as a delusion - a delusion that may be explained only in similarly meaningless terms.

But suppose we had a better metaphysics? How might things look then?

A better metaphysics

I walk in the country and I know that everything I perceive, everything I think, has meaning - even when I do not know what that meaning is exactly; even when I cannot understand it ever - I know that there is meaning.

I know that the meaning has to do with a divine purpose - that this world around me is in fact a creation - not just a collection of arbitrary stuff.

I know that the divine purpose has the unity which comes from creation being the product of a personal God - what is more, a God like myself, a God of whom I am a child.

And that, because I am a child of God; I too share in divinity; and indeed share in some knowledge of God's nature and purposes - I know that I can know enough of these matters such that I can lead my life well.

What, then, of all the specifics I have mentioned above - sky, sun, warm air, physical sensations, tree and rock? I know that they have meaning, purpose and relevance... but what, exactly?

Well, I don't necessarily know their individual meaning and purposes, and especially I don't know exactly. But I do know in a general sense that they are all alive in some shape or form; all conscious in some way and degree; and that they are all potentially beings with whom I can have a personal relationship of some kind.

I know this because they are all creations; and all of creation has to do with myself specifically, as one of God's children generally - our fates are interwoven.

Instead of nothing having any meaning or purpose - everything has meaning and purpose and is in communication and in relation... even though this is almost-wholly mysterious I know this is true, and that specific knowledge on such matters is possible, at some point or in some circumstances nothing meaningful is unknowable; everything is potentially knowable, experience-able.

That - then - is the difference metaphysics can make: all the difference in the world.


Alienation

The main problem now, and for a couple of hundred years, is alienation. It is more obvious now than ever before, because so many people have led lives of peace, comfort, convenience and prosperity – lives that might have seemed paradisal to those in the past. Yet people are deeply discontented; and indeed expend great time and effort on distracting themselves and in blotting out consciousness with intoxication.

Materialism says we ought to be happy and fulfilled; but daily, hourly experience is of emptiness, meaninglessness, purposelessness and disconnection. Modern people are lonely from simple lack of human contact with those (mostly family) who love them; but modern people are also existentially lonely in the deep sense that even when surrounded by others, they feel cut-off – even when surrounded by pleasures and comforts, they are pressed-upon by a horrible recognition that it is all arbitrary, futile, temporary…

Some of us can remember times in our childhood when this was not so; when everything around us was alive, conscious – we were part of the world and the world was extended from us. Life might be pleasurable or miserable; but it meant something, and it was going somewhere – and we were immersed in this process, an integral part of it.

This childhood relation to reality was not, of course, an explicit awareness – indeed that was a vital part of its reality. Our lack of awareness of our selves as separate was the reason why we experienced life as an undivided whole. And it was the incremental increase in self-awareness which caused us to become cut-off from the world: which led to us regarding the rest of the world as things rather than beings.

Indeed, so extreme is the alienation of the modern world that not only do we regard the rest of reality as things – we even regard ourselves as things. In public discourse it is normal, in a sense compulsory (if you don’t want to be seen as crazy) to speak of humans as accidental products of contingent evolutionary processes, as passive ‘victims’ of our childhood experiences; and of personality and ability and uniqueness as being the kind of information pattern that could n principle be downloaded into a computer, or transferred to another person.

The expression ‘meat robot’ encapsulates this mainstream world view – the view underpinning the mass media; the single, linked mega-bureaucracy of the modern state; the world of mainstream arts and ideas… it is constantly pressing upon us as an underlying and mostly explicitly-denied anti-reality.

Our thought world is one in which everything solid and objective points to the meaninglessness, purposelessness and isolation of life – that our life is indeed an illusion, a self-deception – and at the same time all this is being implicitly denied by the demands for our compassion, generosity, hard work, good behaviour… and all the idealisms of mainstream politics which must be taken with the utmost seriousness – egalitarianism, anti-sexism, anti-racism… all that socio-political stuff we ‘meat robots’ are supposed to be committed to, to sacrifice our livelihoods and futures to…

Alienation is a nightmare – a self-contradictory state which imposes itself and denies itself simultaneously. We are blamed for not being contented with materialism, and it is demanded that we feel and express ‘concern’ for vague ideals; we are manipulated and pressured into the shallowest consumerism and slavish fashion-following and mocked for it. Alienation is a nightmare because all possibilities within that world are bad, incoherent, and purposeless – according to the world of the nightmare there is nowhere to escape from the nightmare – the nightmare is everything and everywhere because it is metaphysical. We have been trapped by our assumptions. 

But change the assumptions and we are free.


A world of thought…

Alienation

The main problem now, and for a couple of hundred years, is alienation. It is more obvious now than ever before, because so many people have led lives of peace, comfort, convenience and prosperity – lives that might have seemed paradisal to those in the past. Yet people are deeply discontented; and indeed expend great time and effort on distracting themselves and in blotting out consciousness with intoxication.

Materialism says we ought to be happy and fulfilled; but daily, hourly experience is of emptiness, meaninglessness, purposelessness and disconnection. Modern people are lonely from simple lack of human contact with those (mostly family) who love them; but modern people are also existentially lonely in the deep sense that even when surrounded by others, they feel cut-off – even when surrounded by pleasures and comforts, they are pressed-upon by a horrible recognition that it is all arbitrary, futile, temporary…

Some of us can remember times in our childhood when this was not so; when everything around us was alive, conscious – we were part of the world and the world was extended from us. Life might be pleasurable or miserable; but it meant something, and it was going somewhere – and we were immersed in this process, an integral part of it.

This childhood relation to reality was not, of course, an explicit awareness – indeed that was a vital part of its reality. Our lack of awareness of our selves as separate was the reason why we experienced life as an undivided whole. And it was the incremental increase in self-awareness which caused us to become cut-off from the world: which led to us regarding the rest of the world as things rather than beings.

Indeed, so extreme is the alienation of the modern world that not only do we regard the rest of reality as things – we even regard ourselves as things. In public discourse it is normal, in a sense compulsory (if you don’t want to be seen as crazy) to speak of humans as accidental products of contingent evolutionary processes, as passive ‘victims’ of our childhood experiences; and of personality and ability and uniqueness as being the kind of information pattern that could n principle be downloaded into a computer, or transferred to another person.

The expression ‘meat robot’ encapsulates this mainstream world view – the view underpinning the mass media; the single, linked mega-bureaucracy of the modern state; the world of mainstream arts and ideas… it is constantly pressing upon us as an underlying and mostly explicitly-denied anti-reality.

Our thought world is one in which everything solid and objective points to the meaninglessness, purposelessness and isolation of life – that our life is indeed an illusion, a self-deception – and at the same time all this is being implicitly denied by the demands for our compassion, generosity, hard work, good behaviour… and all the idealisms of mainstream politics which must be taken with the utmost seriousness – egalitarianism, anti-sexism, anti-racism… all that socio-political stuff we ‘meat robots’ are supposed to be committed to, to sacrifice our livelihoods and futures to…
Alienation is a nightmare – a self-contradictory state which imposes itself and denies itself simultaneously. We are blamed for not being contented with materialism, and it is demanded that we feel and express ‘concern’ for vague ideals; we are manipulated and pressured into the shallowest consumerism and slavish fashion-following and mocked for it. Alienation is a nightmare because all possibilities within that world are bad, incoherent, and purposeless – according to the world of the nightmare there is nowhere to escape from the nightmare – the nightmare is everything and everywhere because it is metaphysical. We have been trapped by our assumptions.  

But change the assumptions and we are free.


Utopia and Imagination

While it is an error of the first order to suppose that we can make a solid paradise around us during our earthly mortal life; it is also an error of similar magnitude to suppose we can do without an earthly utopia to aim at.

Lacking any reasonably clear and comprehensible notion of what kind of earthly mortal society we want, we become either short-termist/ expedient or demotivated/ suicidal.

My conviction is that none of the past utopias are viable - being either too unbelievable or else too uninspiring - therefore our future utopia must be imaginative.

For example; the 'Shire' like utopia of William Cobbett/ Distributism/ Small is Beautiful/ Self Sufficiency - I mean an agrarian society of free peasants (and no Lords), each with 'three acres and a cow' - has proven itself to be unviable and (in practice) unappealing... insufficiently motivating.

More exactly, it needs to be imagin-ative but not imagin-ary.

I think the creative thinkers, poets, artists and dreamers of the past have already told us what this imaginative utopia should be - in broad brush-strokes.
If we can identify empathically with the visionary mental landscapes of William Blake or Wordsworth, we can get some idea of the glorious scope and depth I am thinking of. Or, more exactly, there is the mindscape of Goethe or his amplifier Rudolf Steiner; or some of Jung's accounts of the Collective Unconscious - with its vivid myths and archetypes...

My contention is that all these are perspectives on the same thing, the same place; a real place - objective, universally accessible and of primary importance and yet/also a country 'of the mind'.
We need to develop that understanding - pioneered by ST Coleridge, and clarified by Owen Barfield - which recognises that we already live in a world co-constructed by our own imagination.

And we have the possibility of first becoming aware of this world of imagination - and dwelling in it; and then, ultimately - and this is the utopia - becoming an active participant in its creative processes.