Wednesday, August 02, 2006

On weatism..

Lying in bed last night, my philosophical muse started plucking on her harp. I decided to go back to basics and define the human condition from first principles. There are three fundamentally human responses to the pre-existing world:
First: desire
Second: reason (rationality, conceptuality, intellect - call it what you will)
Third: spirituality

Each of these responses comes from the body - not thought of as a purely physical entity, but rather in the sense of embodied being. This is a vital point that has been lost in western philosophy for the most part post-Descartes. Spirituality is of the body, as is reason. Another significant point is that each of these modes of being-in-the-world are not privileged or set in any hierarchical order. We do not begin with desire and hope to end up with spirit along the lines of some kind of linear eschatology. Desire inhabits reason, as spirit must always be conceptualised, or at least held in relation to concepts. We love, we pray, we consider; each action has its space and its moment, none should be viewed as more significant than the other.

Of course, there's much more to say on this alone. But being a blog, I'll keep it at that.

The second insight I had was that these three responses to the world are themselves components of a more fundamental relation: the ethical. Desire, reason and spirit must always be articulated in terms of an ethical response to the world. Without the underlying ethical relationship, all three spin off into autonomous circuits and various forms of dysfunction. Ethics is therefore a fundamental ontology - the very form of being and becoming.

So what I mean by ethics does not refer to any particular act - of doing, giving etc. Rather, it is that relation which enables all particular acts to take place. From a pyschological perspective, it is an attitude; but then it should not be reduced to pyschology.

I hope you are following me. The final insight I had was that this fundamental ethical relationship to the world is itself fundamentally a question of time. In simple terms, our ethical stance to the world is a question of a present, a before and an after. It is through an understanding of causation that we become ethical. Without a sense of consequences, we are locked into the guinea-pig-wheel of the moment, without any sense of pathways, ramifications, aftermaths.

So, we have the beginnings of Weatism:
1. Desire/reason/spirit as embodied and non-hierarchical responses to the world which exists before us
2. Ethics as the more fundamental form of the worldly response
3. Ethics is always expressed as temporality.

This philosophy (a collage of the hundreds of philosophers I have read in the past 15 years) allows us to love the body as much as the spirit. It stresses the importance of ethics and how the ethical response requires a strong sense of causal processes. It is perhaps above all a philosophy that is sensitive to the world that comes before us and carries on after us, and pushes to the surface the twinned questions: how are we to arrive in the world? How are we to leave it?

Calling this chain of thoughts Weatism is partly tongue-in-cheek. We do not control the way our names enter into worldly circulation, or rather, any concerted attempt at doing so risks hubris. But the obverse thought is this: should not all of us attempt in our time to work out a philosophy that fits the way we respond to the world? If we don't attempt to construct our Weatisms, our Deleisms, our Cassandraisms, are we not just material in circulation by dint of other forces?


the flying monkeys 1:14 pm  

Dr Weate, you are such a good philosopher

confused,  2:41 pm  

Huh? Speak Englees please:)

culturalmiscellany 6:43 am  

jeremy, think the malaria may be getting to you again......very thoughtful piece though

another philosopher,  1:16 pm  

I was discussing theology with a fanatically Christian friend this weekend (always a bad idea) and (after she expressed the opinion that the current war in Lebanon is a fulfilment of biblical prophecy) she asked me, point blank, if I "believe in God." The answer to that question, of course, isn't always straightforward: "Which God? What are the features of this God that I might have a belief in?"

We had a little back and forth, mostly because she didn't find anything complicated or nuanced in the word "God." Until I finally said, "I don't know about belief, and I don't know about God, but I do seek to relate myself to the Ground of Being."

Now this friend of mine is a year or so away from a PhD in Religion. But she had no clue what the "Ground of Being" was, or what it might refer to. She'd never even heard the phrase. And she was just as lost after I explained the concept to her. How can there be a notion of the ultimate, she wondered, that isn't identical with the petulant, male and frankly aggresive God of Israel. Well, if you have to ask, I thought to myself, you're not ready for the answer.

Sigh. I guess life takes us all in different journeys, and closes certain doors to us. My friend was unable to separate reality from the mythical Demiurge of the Old Testament.

In other words, philosophy is only useful when your interlocutor is as ready to receive as you are to give. Otherwise, it's all a bunch of sand mixed with garri, signifying nothing.

Anonymous,  3:57 pm  


Raven 9:32 pm  

Just had to leave a few comments, randomly ordered and imperfectly thought through.

(1) Desire, Reason and Spirituality
Can we really describe these as “fundamental” response to the world? Even if I accept the first two [by broadening the definitions such that by “desire” we come to mean all emotional responses to the world (love, hate, fear anger etc) and by reason we refer to all cognitive responses (including belief, which is a cognitive stance)], I am still stuck with “spirituality” which appears to me to be far from a fundamental response (in the sense of not being based on other responses). Spirituality derives from our desire for wholeness, for ultimate significance, and for a sense of context within the universal scheme of things. Its expression is based on a certain cognitive reading of the world and on our affective responses to that reading. (I for one do not have a perspective of the world –or response to it - that could be properly described as spiritual)

(2) Body and spirit
I am not entirely sure how you are using these terms. For one thing you describe “spirituality” as being clearly of the body. One wonders what function is left for the spirit if that is the case. More fundamentally, you take it for granted that there is a “spirit” as distinct from the body (and not merely, for instance, a manner of speaking about a certain functional organization of certain aspects of the body). Being a reductive materialist myself I feel that (with regards to human beings) the body is all that exists and that the mind and spirit are metaphorical ways of speaking about certain patterns of brain activity. I am aware that the mind-body problem and other related issues have a long philosophical history but it is also true that for the most part (at least until the second half of the last century) these discussions were largely uninfluenced by findings from neuroscience and biology.

(3) Ethics as a fundamental response
Exactly how is the ethical response “more” fundamental (in the sense in which we have been using the term) than the other previously described responses? The ethical questions is “what ought I to do?” and is, properly conceived, a cognitive response. It is also a response one may fail to make – and if we are to go by the newspapers, several politicians exhibit just this failure, moving from desire to the gratification of desire with no ethical impulses intervening.

(4) Ethics always expressed as temporality
This appears to me to be self-evident (maybe not precisely as stated: I can accept ethics being dependent on temporal causation but the expression “ethics is always expressed as temporality” is, well . . .too much for my little brain to handle).

(5) Should not all of us attempt in our time to work out a philosophy that fits the way we respond to the world?
C’est vrai, c’est vrai . . . and to this end I present The Three Tenets of Corvism (or Ravenism or Chukwuism):
(i) Each human being consists entirely of his/her body – and this body is often imperfectly sculpted, rather less than desirable and intermittently afflicted with malaria.
(ii) There is not much time given to us. We come into the world naked, helpless, and screaming and a few moments later we are dead. Nothing we do will endure. None of our noble thoughts will survive; none of our emotions are ultimately of any consequence.
(iii) In light of this, there is only one thing to do. Practice being naked. Practice screaming. But this time with someone else.

Jeremy 12:07 am  

Hmmm, Corvism. Much of what I say you misconstrue. I detect a prediliction for the cognitive which leaves me cold. My thinking desires the ground of being, as does my spirit. Ontology beats pyschology any day. Analysis can only get us so far.

Spirit emerges from the body, how can you not know this already (you must have forgotten)? How else to explain the poetry of mountains, the verdant lure of the forest, or the fascination for the fractal spectacle of the megalopolis? These are not mere atomistic or disconnected brain events; they are of the world, creating that world through events of perception. The history of the world is, on one level, a history of different forms of perception.

Perception should not therefore be reduced to a series of neurological-cognitive events or activities within a 'subject', if we are to understand the human condition or the world it makes. Of course, contemporary pyschology has more or less recognised the philosophical cul-de-sac cognitivist paradigms have created, hence the move towards embodiment and the return to phenomenology that is sprouting out, not just in mainstream pyschology but across disciplines. We are starting to realise that if a computer really is to think, it probably has to have arms and legs and desires. In other words, it has to approximate to the human.

Remember, Cezanne's experience after 30 years of painting that same old mountain near Aix - St Victoire: "the mountain paints itself through me, I no longer paint the mountain." What does this tell us about the relationship between perception and the world? It is an experience of subject-object boundaries blurring that is shared in countless spiritual traditions across human history, from Shamanic tradition to the austerities of Zen. We have therefore to talk in terms of perceptual faith, and a humility before the endless enigmas of the world: the world preceeds and supercedes us, we are merely conjunctions and constellations within the worlding of the world (the world is a verb, not a noun). We will never have enough knowledge to 'grasp' the world; it will always in the end elude us. That is why the most fundamental response to the world is ethical and asks after the form and content of the conjunction, the nature of the constellation (for of course, in part its up to us to define this). We are not wholly determined beings, we are not robots caught up in the play of massive symbolic and material systems. There is a sliver of possibility for us all that our agency can count and be part of a moment of transformation.

You write, somewhat pessimistically, "None of our noble thoughts will survive; none of our emotions are ultimately of any consequence." This is self-defeating. We are incredibly lucky living in these times: there are lines and lines of precursors to choose from sparking off in all directions - myriad after myriad of artists, poets, cultures, technologies, songlines. The human pathways we can engage with are almost impossibly rich; fantastically complex, totem after totem, talisman after taliswoman of figures, names and expressive energies.

The challenge for us all is to find the names and expressive energies which articulate our most vital space, where we truly become ourselves. If we keep searching hard enough, we might end up becoming another name that releases itself from ego to became one more form of the Ground of Being.

Raven 3:12 am  

Noble sentiments, beautiful ideas.

But the danger is that we are often seduced by ideas that are beautiful and fail to ask if they are true (if they conform to objective reality). When you state for instance that “perception cannot be reduced to a series of neuro-cognitive events” or that “we are not wholly determined beings” you are merely expressing your unwillingness to accept (on aesthetic grounds) points of view that are actually (in most intellectual circles) close to scientific orthodoxy.

There is absolutely nothing about our perceptual experiences that cannot be explained in terms of neurons firing in the brain. All spiritual experiences are in fact reducible to neural ones. Our aesthetic prejudices may lead us to one conclusion but the scientific evidence (and it is overwhelming) points in the other direction. We have to decide if we want a nice comforting story (good for inspirational purposes) or the depressing truth.

I am willing to concede that I probably misconstrued most of your original comments on Weatism – but you must admit that when you use terms like “ethics” unconventionally and without proper definition a little misunderstanding is to be expected.

Corvism was, of course, put forward only in jest. It is, however, true that we are insignificant on an astronomical scale and that in the fullness of time every trace of our conceited little species will have vanished from the universe – but I don’t think anyone loses much sleep over this.

[about “thinking computers”: there has been quite a lot of debate amongst computer scientists and philosophers of mind about what it would take for a computer to achieve “consciousness” or to be seen as having done so. A majority of the AI community feel it is just a matter of software (“thought”, “consciousness” and “emotions”, they posit, are emergent qualities which will develop after a certain degree of functional complexity is achieved). Others feel that humans are in a privileged position, that something about us (the presence of an "immaterial soul", quantum collapse in brain microtubules, or something else) sets us apart from mere machines and hence computers will never achieve “real” thought or awareness. The essential thing here is not really human “hands and feet and desires” but functional organization and, for a minority, neural fairy dust]

Jeremy 12:06 am  

Corvus I just don't share your belief that we can hit some kind of epistemological bed rock with terms such as 'objective reality' or appeals to 'scientific orthodoxy'. Which objective reality, whose scientific orthodoxy? A tour round any decent contemporary university physics department will show that there is little orthodoxy to agree upon when the choice lies between quantum mechanics, string theory, membrane theory, classical Newtonian mechanics, relativity etc etc. It actually seems like the modern scientific paradigm is morphing into myth before our eyes.

You say, "There is absolutely nothing about our perceptual experiences that cannot be explained in terms of neurons firing in the brain. All spiritual experiences are in fact reducible to neural ones."

I hold almost the exact opposite perspective. Given that we can now scan the brain and measure neural activity in many different ways, isn't it a little puzzling that the gap between the physiological and the pyschological is still nowhere near being closed? For instance, there is still precious little understanding from a neuroscientific point of view about the function of memory, apart from which parts of the brain seem most involved. Contrast that with the millenia of poetry and writing on memory that humankind has produced. Doesn't this suggest that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon that precisely cannot be reduced back into physiological terms of reference?

This is perhaps the nucleus of our disagreement: we both agree that consciousness is an emergent property (emerging out of a certain level of functional complexity); however, I do not think that emergence entails reduction back into physical terms of reference (a.k.a objective reality), whereas you do. I think that emergent complexity imposes its own emergent forms of explanation (ineluctably involving all the flowery acoutrements of conscious activity: wonder, awe, the poetic etc).

The universe seems to be one huge empty space, full of mysterious dark matter that is deduced into existence rather than explained by the men and women in white coats with their big telescopes. And here we are, conscious beings, reflecting on our condition. Doesnt it seem remarkable to you that there is this mystery around us, and this mystery within us, and that terms such as objectivity and orthodoxy can quickly seem like comfort blankets torn threadbare? How much objective reality has our scientific orthodoxy really uncovered yet? Is light a wave form or a photon form? Undecideability seems in fact to be built into to all forms of measure (whether scientific or experiential).

Raven 12:10 pm  

Yes, our understanding of the universe is limited. Vast swathes of it are shrouded in mystery. This is only to be expected given the limitations of our minds: Perfectly suited to making pragmatic decisions about our lives on earth (what to eat, where to go and whom to sleep with), they nonetheless rapidly slip into error when we turn our attention to the vastness beyond. It is precisely for this reason that we cannot trust our gut feelings when it comes to the Big Issues. (such as The Origin of Life, The End of the Universe and The Nature of Consciousness.) I too am, from time to time, moved by the beauty of poetry, the warmth of affection and other such ineffable feelings but I know that regardless of how special these feelings may be to me and how much I may have come to value them, they may all be produced by a skilled neuroscientist placing appropriate electrodes in my brain.

With regards to objectivity and “scientific orthodoxy”: do not mistake the presence of debate for the total absence of agreement. There is a huge body of scientific fact (in every field) that is beyond question - that has been reproduced time and time again experimentally. The fact that string theory, for example, remains experimentally unverified (and possibly unverifiable) does not alter the fact that astrophysicists are able – to cite a random example – to plot the motion of the planets to exceedingly high degrees of accuracy. [And it is misleading to think of classical Newtonian mechanics, relativity and quantum mechanics as competing theories. It is also misleading to think of light as either a wave OR a particle – it is rather an entity with both wave-like and particle-like properties].

The truth is, we’re never going to come to an agreement. You believe that there is a supramaterial reality and I do not - and neither of us is likely to say anything that will convince the other. But we do agree (my facetious promulgation of “Corvism” notwithstanding) that we are nonetheless to act as if our thoughts have consequences, as if life is inexpressibly beautiful and as if we have spirits capable of soaring beyond the limited confines of our bodies because there is a sense, even it is merely a poetic and metaphorical one, in which these things are true.

Jeremy 2:38 pm  

Corvus I don't believe in a supramaterial reality at all; I simple reject your conception of matter and offer an alternative. You hold a reductionist perspective - that everything (the contents of consciousness in particular) can be reduced to neuronal firings; I on the other hand believe emergent properties deny the possibility of reduction.

Another language for describing this difference is in terms of pattern language. It is like reducing the patterns made by ants in their collective behaviour, or by bees when they make hives, to the work of individual ants or bees. In fact, it is only when we look at how the simple rules of behaviour combine en masse to create pattern complexity (and pattern intelligence) that we can begin to understand the phenomena. Consciousness itself is simply another example. It occurs within an embodied being, but cannot simply be reduced to various physical aspects of the human body.

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