Robert C. Priddy

Writings on diverse themes from philosophy, psychology to literature and criticism

  • Robert Priddy

    In this blog I post information and critical views concerning ideologies, belief systems and related scientific materials etc. I am a retired philosophy lecturer and researcher, born 1936.

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Archive for May, 2011

Stephen Hawking: “philosophy is dead!”

Posted by robertpriddy on May 26, 2011

Stephen Hawking: “… almost all of us must sometimes wonder: Why are we here? Where do we come from? Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead”
Now, there are other interpretations of why we are here and where we, as individuals, came from than the astrophysical ones. Hawking really ought to know enough about philosophy to realize that it is highly misleading to make sweeping generalizations (i.e. imprecise and therefore are open to differing interpretations). Such as the old slogan statement “Philosophy is dead”.

Of course, on his kind of interpretation he is wholly correct. Philosophy is neither capable nor actually trying to add anything to the fundamental questions of the natural of the physical universe. The origins of philosophy as the first natural science are long since superseded. But philosophy embraces much else than physics (which it still embraces as the most valuable source of information about the composition and origin of nature). Physics is itself limited in important ways – it can add nothing to the philosophy of law, to medical ethics, to the interpretation of meaning and the comparative analysis of language, to pragmatics and semantics, even to logic. We even have eco-philosophy and meta-philosophy of the cultural, psychological and social sciences. Still, there is real substance in Hawking’s claim that ““Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” and that new theories “lead us to a new and very different picture of the universe and our place in it”. He also wisely notes, of course, what all know – that physics’ most complete ‘M theory’ is not yet fully or satisfactorily verified by a long chalk.

Another sense of ‘philosophy is dead’ might be that it is no longer practiced – properly and within its legitimate scope.  (However, we may wonder whether some of those professional academician philosophers are alive in a wider connotation of the word). It would be easier to defend the generalization “Theology is dead” and Hawking would surely agree with that, even though there are as many theologies as Gods or religions.  Despite all the faith of theologians in God as a being which is more alive than ever, they deal only with the dead matter of scripture – the past warmed over and projected into the future. His latest book ‘The Grand Design’ claims that no divine force was needed to explain why the Universe was formed. “Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist.”

Thereby Hawking has rejected his former musing about a possible mindful God. He denies the existence of such a being – other than figuratively as equivalent to ‘the law of science’ – including any ‘personal god’ is. In this he is an outright atheist, and it should be pointed out that this amounts to a conviction, a belief… and, if he were a philosopher, he would reserve absolute judgement (until all the facts about everything may finally be in). This would give no substantial succour whatever to religionists, but only to the principle of scientific inquiry and scepticism. On safer ground, one is inclined to say, Hawking ridicules the idea of heaven as a “fairy story for people afraid of the dark”. He might have added that hell a myth for those afraid of fire (or a place suggested by the inside of volcanoes)!

He has a liberating view – parallel to his liberating life: “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail.” No need to fear beliefs that no one can every test, like the existence of an afterlife, rebirth, the continuance of one’s accumulated karma (good and bad). Instead, with here and now sanity he says: “We should seek the greatest value of our action.”

Posted in Atheism, Ethics, Philosophy, Psychology, Science, Theology | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

On moving towards grasping the mystery of existence

Posted by robertpriddy on May 24, 2011

On paranormal phenomena and the explanations sought to explain them: That the brain is claimed to be merely a frequency receiver, which I once also tended to believe possible (also because it fitted with spiritual beliefs I held then) I now find to be almost wholly unsupported. Empirical studies show it has some subliminal precognitive features (seconds before an event, it can ‘react’). Yet to derive from this an entire ‘mentalist’ and ‘spirit’ philosophy is stretching credibility too far. Current such theories (like the ‘holographic universe’ speculation) seem to be based on the thinnest of empirical observations in nuclear science, most probably not correctly interpreted. Such ideas had the briefest life in European though, such as with Bishop Berkeley.  I am of course also well aware of the uncertainties of sense perception (it’s lesson one in philosophy) – and also the limits within which our senses operate, but that does not alter my views on the uncertainty of all spiritual ‘hypotheses’ about sense inputs having an extra-sensory – pre-sensual – input (‘hypotheses’ usually put forward as established doctrine). The truly astonishingly vast extent of phenomena to which technological instrumentation and computing has brought within our scope does exceed and so extend the human senses vastly, and the pace of development has been accelerating enormously along with the miniaturisation and multiplying computing power. The evolution of science and the direction the technologies it made possible took in the last decades was totally unimaginable in mid-C20 – and even in most science fiction then.

One small item comes to mind: it is now established in neuro-science that the human uses the entire brain all the time… and real-time magnetic imaging even illustrates this clearly. The once much bandied idea that we use 10% (or whatever) was a primitive judgement which first gained prominence back in the 1950s. One believed that there had to be a massive unused capacity because of the so-called ‘transcendental’ experiences, such as can be reproduced with certain psycho-mimetic substances and by diverse other means. The underlying reason for the myth of the 10% capacity was the belief in a God Creator who made human beings in his image, which is of course ‘creationism’. It is, however, most unreasonable to believe that the brain evolved with a large unused capacity, for nature soon abolishes ‘useless’ appendages and genetic developments. Just today research has shown that parts of the brain may temporarily react as if ‘asleep’ (see scan on right)  Evolutionism is not a doctine but a particularly well-established master theory the only creditable fact- and empiri-based explanation of life on earth and human origins that can already account for the larger part of all variations we find in living nature.

Personal development: My own case is the best know to myself, so I proceed from it. I have studied a wide range of books with embracing all manner of paranormal and/or spiritual phenomena and a range of suppositions about their origins and all-explanatory theories of many kinds. Some are based on holography, on transfigural mathematics, on solipsist assumptions, on quantum theory (usually by amateurs), on ancient Indian psychological speculations (not empirical), mysticism, even shamanism and more besides. Now, all these now appear to me to have a similar epistemological status as, say, the Continental rationalists and other metaphysical and pseudo-theological system-builders. Kant’s view of sense perception was, for its time, more advanced than that of Kapila, Triguna, Nagarjuna or other Indian thinkers reaching back apparently even to the Indus civilization. Most of what makes up so-called New Age theories came through the spiritualist movement and Madame Bravatsky from India, most of these ‘alternative’ traditions being prefigured in speculative Indian thought reaching back to former centuries where one knew almost nothing about the ‘secrets of nature’ compared to present day (developed on the basis of the Vedas – virtually a set of hymns, myths and some primitive natural philosophy)

Which ideology a person adopts – whether a political theory, a religion or a philosophy – is partly a matter of choice, partly chance, What one is brought up to believe, or else what one comes across firstly is seldom intelligently chosen. Everyone has to start somewhere and it takes a long time to investigate each ideology philosophy and evaluate it. Many will not even get so far as to think, question, analyze or put to the test the assumptions and beliefs in the culture in which they grow up and live. Many will be more or less unwittingly attached to the set of beliefs, doctrines or systems of thought they happen to be taught or come across early on.

I investigated many movements, political, scientific, social, humanist, and religious too, but always moved on, impelled forward by the need to break false boundaries and learn more, go beyond conventional limits in search of greater understanding.  I soon gave up writing philosophy papers and planning books (my professional status being already sufficiently secured) because publishing and conforming to peer standards slowed down progress in investigation and freedom to search.  After my interest in mysticism was awakened through a very powerful personal experience, several inspections of gurus and various ventures into that sphere ended up in each case with unsatisfactory results. In my mid’40s, unusual circumstances (recorded in my now out-dated and deficient book ‘Source of the Dream’) eventually caused me to threw myself wholeheartedly into a ‘spiritual quest’ in relation to the Indian self-proclaimed divinity Sathya Sai Baba. His claims were so special that I was drawn to visit and see him for myself.  For 18 years my definitive plunge with total commitment into what I would call ‘the spiritual world’ in practice. I did eventually obtain a great deal of new self-knowledge from it, because otherwise I would still be involved in it! Not of course what I expected and not what was supposed to result! On the contrary, I find myself more in tune with certain Zen ideas (except that they supposedly have none, as such). When I allowed myself to raise serious doubts and bring to bear all my former insights and knowledge on the whole thing, I progressively rediscovered the value of critical, analytical thinking (which had been my forte before I put it on ice for the purpose of spiritual endeavor). The advances made in world science even since I has ceased to pursue it thoroughly were so astonishing that, looked at with a clearer eye and on a much broader basis, it uncluttered and cleared my mind in many ways and also necessarily brought me more down to earth than ever (a liberating experience after decades of self-sacrificing idealism and largely wasted ‘spiritual efforts’). The result so far does not seem at all to have been a matter any single set of choices, but rather the sum benefit of my whole life so far. There is no philosophy I could choose today, none are adequate in enough respects… life has pushed me beyond any one set of assumptions on which any philosophy is necessarily constructed.

I no longer adhere to any particular philosophy – I have my own relation to all of them, and my own Weltanschauung is not a system – rather, it is more of a refined reflection of my entire mental and experiential life – the end product of all that went before gathered and sorted in an on-going process or dialectic. It is about extracting the truth content of each ideology – for few lack all truth – and carrying this over as one progresses ‘holistically’. My views today at age 74 are the result of a lifetime of intensive search after knowledge wherein I have plunged into one theory and practice after another, finding the inadequacies and unanswered questions in each new enthusiasm and – by and large – retaining the valid content on into the next venture. My Weltanschauung is therefore very intricate and embraces a great variety acquired knowledge of human experience.

On the meaning of being: The word ‘existence’ is perhaps the most ambiguous there is… so misunderstandings involving it are bound to be very considerable. It is extremely difficult to define existence, for a start. Perhaps the most precise definition is in terms of a protocol sentence (i.e. x is observed). No being can exist without there having been an evolution prior to it’s existence. No human can grown and develop without coming under the influence of doctrines of various kinds (some are not even formulated as doctrines) …  For whatever reasons or causes, most people (seems to me) do not seek the truth sufficiently to free themselves from the sway of doctrine, and thereby live in a relatively illusory world-view. Human being is so multi-perspectived that it would be virtually meaningless to speak of anyone having (or being) ‘pure being’. Only a highly abstracted generalised idea of existence can seem ‘pure’ .

I do not want to make ‘scientific’ sense out of existence, not unduly at any rate. That is the trap, to apply any doctrine to it, and especially primitive speculations by awestruck early humanity (i.e. dawning religious ideas). I find that there is a great deal of meaning in existence, though it is admittedly incomplete and often problematical to live out. I have not come to my own conclusion, but have rejected a great many unsatisfactory conclusions… which amount to knowing much more than before. Systems which are totalizations – especially spiritual theories, doctrines, religions, ‘ways to realization’ etc. – are largely predetermined not to discover the meaning, but sustain or invent further constructions, for it and give the illusion that one knows all the answers (more or less, or potentially – i.e. a subtle mental straightjacket). Looking back, faith of such kinds I now consider the very worst way to find meaning, nothing but a means to generate personal confusion and resignation to fate!

Posted in Creationism, Evolution, Ideology, Religion, Science, Understanding | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Sam Harris, Religion, the open mind and traps for the unwary

Posted by robertpriddy on May 13, 2011

Sam Harris has a knack of stating what is wrong with religion in such a succinct and convincing way that I cannot do better than this quotation from his book ‘The End of Faith’:-

Of course, there is a lot more to be explained for the benefit of those who cannot absorb this due to lacking insight into the labyrinth of errors called ‘theology’ or not having the knowledge – or the critical mental tools to extract it from out of the confusing tapestry of human ideologies.

Young people who have not been too much surrounded by a church, a sect or religiously minded educators are all too often left unprepared to think for themselves and are thrown out, so to say, into the maelstrom of warring beliefs, sectarian theories, doctrines that promise this, that and the other (even without all the conspiracy theories). That is why it is so essential that they should understand how what is called ‘critical thinking’ is not a negative scepticism but rather the investigative spirit of have a genuine openness to knowledge and the facts, wherever they may lead. Critical thinking is a basic and unavoidable element in a humanist and secular attitude.

History demonstrates to the full that there are many pitfalls to the seeker of truth. Among the more obvious is outright deception by those who would mislead for their own purposes. Much less obvious but more insidious and difficult influence to detect is that of excessive group identification. This applies with full force to those who are brought up within a religious community or subjected to groups which they find agreeable and which hold common beliefs or faith. The spell of a major world religion is difficult to break, especially if one is unaware that it is but one of many entirely different religious belief systems, themselves in conflict with many other accounts of the nature of reality, especially those based on science, such as the marvels of the genetic code and paleontology, what they demonstrates about evolution and the origins of mankind and life itself in clearer and yet clearer ways with the massive advances made through hyper-advanced nano-research and the use of super-computers of unimaginable capacity.

So finding that someone agrees with us  –  even about relatively trivial matters such as a favourite film or book –  is undoubtedly one of life small pleasures. But now scientists appear to have put their finger on why we take such delight in being of the same mind. Discovering that we are agreed with lights up the brain’s pleasure centres, they say.

Researchers at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL (University College London) in collaboration with Aarhus University in Denmark have found that the ‘reward’ area of the brain is activated when people agree with our opinions. The study, published today in the journal Current Biology, suggests that scientists may be able to predict how much people can be influenced by the opinions of others on the basis of the level of activity in the reward area. This article at machineslikeus. com makes interesting reading (Even to neurons, the opinions of others matter).

Posted in Belief, Lifestyle, Philosophy, Religion, religious faith | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »