To get anywhere, we must start from somewhere; some common ground that we can all agree on, at least provisionally, for the sake of discussion. So what would that be?
Our treatment of Truth depends on whether we see it as the reality preceding thought, or thoughts that correspond to that reality. The latter is conceptual, the former is not. Our concepts have our experiences for their content.
Being-here-now is the most general statement about our predicament, how we find ourselves abiding in the world, specifying nothing beyond the obvious, but indicating self-consciousness, basic linguistic apparatus and at least some level of abstraction.
When we have realized that All is One, and are satisfied with that barely articulated realization, then that’s it. => But any further elaboration cannot escape from that Truth or falsify it: later conceptual analysis reconfirms the truth of that pre-reflective intuition, it sees that it cannot be otherwise.
“This” and “that” is the first distinction and the prototype for all others. Language (concepts are expressed in words, words are symbols) imposes a conceptual matrix over the original unity, breaks it up and creates apparent multiplicity for us. Reality precedes minds thinking it, so the primordial unity of all is not severed by conceptual distinctions – those come afterwards.
We can , as Milton Scarborough notes in his work on Comparative Theories of Non-Duality, have distinctions that do not imply any dualisms.
We can divide, and divide well, but without effecting in the least the unity that precedes all thought, welcomes it in its wake, and persists indefinitely after its cessation.
“Separation is not reflected in thought, but produced by it.” Emmanuel Levinas
Embodiment itself involves the phenomenological experience of being spatialy localized and temporaly situated , although those senses can cease at times, leaving one either disoriented or forgetting about coordinates altoghether, giving us the impression that our thinking about those categories is what makes them real…for us? or at all?
That very distinct mode of being-in-the-world, where one center emerges out of the all-embracing isness of the natural world to differentiate itself as a particular subject, whether semi or proto-conscious. This already implies some level of cognition, which, it is not unreasonable to say, rests on a certain level of bio-hardware capacity, connected, in cases familiar to us, with brain size, complexity and interconnectivity.
Exactly at what point does pre-conscious turn into semi-conscious or conscious and for what reason (if any), driven by what force?
Wherever we draw the line between different stages of evolution, different kingdoms in nature, different ages past etc., even between living and non-living matter – those sharp borders will always be somewhat arbitrary, however intrascientifically convenient they may be (independently verifiable differences stand on their own feet).
Is the current state of affairs the only way things could’ve worked out? Was the highest state of development in nature and the production of self-conscious life its goal all along? Can there even be word about ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ in nature? Is there some kind of intelligence guiding the development of natural things, some kind of pattern according to which things are unfolding? Or are we just left with purposeless randomness? Is any talk of teleological directionality justified?
Nietzsche, for one, would fiercely oppose any kind of logocentric grounding of philosophy – projecting the mind’s craving for order onto the natural world.
Reality does not conform to our categories and expectations, and it’s never as simple as a diagram.
(Philosophy and its Others: Ways of Being and Mind by William Desmond p. 226)
Here we find a kind of conceptual non-realism – apes who invented knowing! (On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense – 1) … Are they to be trusted?
Their futile attempts to construct grand systems of philosophy on an unstable foundation of an unruly world – that house of cards had to crumble.
(Nietzsche’s aversion to systematicity is reflected in his fragmented style of writing.)
Letters are always slipping through the fingers of these logoids who’re trying to push the envelope; and that is so ’cause the nature of the case. We expect the world to be predictable and to unfold in a lawful manner – our minds always like things sorted out neatly.
Terence Mckenna and Rupert Sheldrake both figured out how antropomorphic a metaphor “law” is; extending it from human jurisprudence to natural phenomena may not be totally adequate. It may serve us better to think of Nature’s tendencies as ‘habits’. ( Sheldrake at the roundtable…Bonus! )
Nature does not unfold according to strict, set, mathematicaly precise progressions, but displays more freedom in its ways – such is the nature of the organic, influenced by both the genetic code and the environment (but determined by neither), leaving room for variation and mutation, thus novelty, emergence, creativity. This may be closest to the ‘divine’ that the postmodern world is willing to go – it needn’t involve any kind of personal agency behind events; creativity here being not an attribute of the divine, but equated with it.
(See David Ray Griffin : God and Religion in the Postmodern World)
So whatever the case may be, here we have a knowing subject; immersed in the world but never fully reducible to it (the feeling of strangeness, not belonging, being alien).
Is it but another ‘thing’?It’s a special mode of being-in-the-world:a psychism,an egoism:
(Emmanuel Levinas : Totality and Infinity p. 54)
This radical separation, this subjectivity, this individuality, a kind of metaphysical revolt against participation in totality, marks the beginning of independence and ‘atheism’ for Levinas, which is, ironically enough, a pre-requisite for a relationship with ‘God’. This relationship can only be realized through a relationship with another human being, whose eyes are a window into the Other (God being the Absolutely Other). This is what marks the difference between primitive and superior religions in Levinas’ view.
(Emmanuel Levinas : Totality and Infinity)
Conversation with another exceeds the boundary that isolates the self (the same) and opens up the social and the ethical dimension. Justice here consists of a recognition of the otherness of the other, and respect for its freedom and autonomy.
Now, can this subjective consciousness be thought of simply as an epiphenomena of the body? In the on-going debate over the nature of consciousness, multiple views are presenting themselves: from crude materialism and substance dualism to mentalism and subjective immaterialism (along the lines of George Berkeley…The Kybalion also comes to mind as a modern rendering of ancient Hermetic philosophy by “Three Initiates” – most likely W.W.Atkinson again with his pseudonyms, LOL).
I’m inclined towards an explanation that sees consciousness as being irreducible to physical phenomena – as having an irreducible first-person ontology. This position is defendable on purely philosophical grounds; no amount of digging in the brain will get us to subjectivity, which is what is looking. (Dialogue…it’s a dialogue…)
To say that the subjective,experiential element is not reducible to the empirically given is not to deny the reality of the physical and the biological, but to recognize an element that transcends them although it is situated in their midst; not hovers above them in some mysterious way but is closely interlinked with the biological apparatus.
Correspondence between mental and neurological states is significant, but the correlation does not prove causality in one direction or the other.
John Searle, an eminent contemporary philosopher, does not fail to point out that although consciousness is ontologically subjective, we can approach and study it in an epistemologically objective manner – so a science of consciousness is not only possible but on her way.
In the words of Artur Schopenhauer, The Subject is “That which knows all things and is known by none.” (WWI) A metaphor often used to illustrate this is that of a lamp, a source of light, that illuminates everything but itself. This kind of thinking is not uncommon in Indian philosophy, with which Schopenhauer was acquainted. It also captures the interdependence of the subject and object.
Schopenhauer cuts out the weeds of materialism at their root when he says:
“The fundamental absurdity of materialism is that it starts from
the objective, and takes as the ultimate ground of explanation
something objective, whether it be matter in the abstract,
simply as it is thought, or after it has taken form, is empirically
given—that is to say, is substance, the chemical element with its
primary relations. Some such thing it takes, as existing absolutely
and in itself, in order that it may evolve organic nature and finally
the knowing subject from it, and explain them adequately by means of it;
whereas in truth all that is objective is already determined as such in manifold
ways by the knowing subject through its forms of knowing, and
presupposes them; and consequently it entirely disappears if we
think the subject away. Thus materialism is the attempt to explain
what is immediately given us by what is given us indirectly. All
that is objective, extended, active—that is to say, all that is
material—is regarded by materialism as affording so solid a
basis for its explanation, that a reduction of everything to this
can leave nothing to be desired (especially if in ultimate analysis
this reduction should resolve itself into action and reaction).
But we have shown that all this is given indirectly and in the
highest degree determined, and is therefore merely a relatively
present object, for it has passed through the machinery and
manufactory of the brain, and has thus come under the forms of
space, time and causality, by means of which it is first presented
to us as extended in space and ever active in time. From such
an indirectly given object, materialism seeks to explain what
is immediately given, the idea (in which alone the object that
materialism starts with exists), and finally even the will from
which all those fundamental forces, that manifest themselves,
under the guidance of causes, and therefore according to law,
are in truth to be explained.”
(WWI pp. 55-56)
All objects exist only for some possible or actual subject, by the laws of thought.
Objects of thought and knowledge, as far as they are objects, exist for a subject as representations present in his awareness. That’s not to say that the world independent of our consciousness is unreal or that the whole of the object is exhausted in its representation. This leads us to postulating a ‘thing-in-itself’ that is the cause of the representation. But that is in principle unreachable for us. The only object that we have immediate awareness of, from the inside, is our own body. This grants us an insight into the inner nature of things, and by extension, the world, which in Schopenhauer is understood as the will. (helpful article on Schopenhauer)
Nietzsche would immediately part ways with this notion of truth that exists over and above the world; in a realm of perfection and ideal forms, divorced from the concrete reality of life. He sees Greek philosophy as having taken a turn for the worse with Socrates and Plato (arguably earlier, for example as suggested by these revealing passages…): namely the dynamic, ever-changing, fiery, alive! nature (he’s inclined heavily towards the presocratics, particularly Heraclitus) is replaced with an imagined world of phantasms and eternal,static ideas (non-existent, in his view). There is the the contrast between, in his parlance, Dionysian (uncompromising, untamed) aspect, intoxication and celebration of life and the Apollonian (cold, strategic) aspect, detached reasoning, of human nature.
The difference between ‘being’ and ‘becoming’.
Rationality can hijack instinct, override it for a period of time, and direct or prevent certain actions based on what it considers the best option. When this contradicts instinctual preferences, we have a battle of multiple wills which interferes with and is contrary to the advancement of life.
(Nietzsche, Epistemology, and Philosophy of Science: Nietzsche and the Sciences II p. 8)
That is also a part of his critique of the science of his day: it smuggles in a kind of religious ideal of ‘truth’, as an inherent value, an end in itself, as something to be unconditionally strived after. This truth just another metaphor, the last remnant of moral prejudice.
When it comes to the relationship between truth and falsehood (just like with good and evil), Nietzsche rejects a simplistic black-and-white, 0-1 relation, and suggests instead that we’re dealing with a whole spectrum of truthfulness/falsehood, a grey area. Take it or leave it. What tips the scale is more often the usefulness of a given belief, than the epistemic grounds it stands on. Our ‘pure reasoning’ purports to have the last word, but it is far from infallible, and is often painted by our personality traits and character and highly psychologically conditioned. The dream of “a thing-in-itself”.
What causes one set of beliefs to prevail at a given time and place is not due to the coherence or strenght of their arguments, but their social utility.
The fallacy of “knowledge for its own sake” (BGE ch. 4-64) – the will to know is but a facet of the will to power and serves it primarily. Body, which is the self for Nietzsche reigns at the end of the day; instincts drive actions, not ‘reasonings’ or ‘free will’.
The carnal is what has precedence and takes the prize (or not, depending on the strenght of the will). Consciousness, in Nietzsche’s account is a surface level phenomenon (very cerebral), it is subordinate to instinct, its tool and servant. It is used by the deeper will and deeper intelligence of the pre-conscious to present to itself possible routes for enlarging its sphere of influence (not consciousness per se) and increasing its power.
Nietzsche did not go into the metaphysical discussions on the existence of God: he never really took it as a tenable possibility.
“I have not come to know atheism as a result of logical reasoning and still less as an event in my life: in me it is a matter of instinct.” (EH – Why I am so Clever)
His concern is mostly with the social implications of the death of the belief in god, diminishing of the hold that the traditional religious structures have on the plebs, and the effects that a loss of a transcendental, metaphysical basis for value making has on human affairs.
After traditional religious authorities and institutions have crumbled away, or faded into the background, when ground is there for the creation of new values if not the individual himself?
“To create new values—that, even the lion cannot yet accomplish: but to create itself freedom for new creating—that can the might of the lion do.
To create itself freedom, and give a holy No even unto duty: for that, my brethren, there is need of the lion.
To assume the right to new values—that is the most formidable assumption for a load-bearing and reverent spirit. Verily, unto such a spirit it is preying, and the work of a beast of prey.
As its holiest, it once loved “Thou-shalt”: now is it forced to find illusion and arbitrariness even in the holiest things, that it may capture freedom from its love: the lion is needed for this capture.
But tell me, my brethren, what the child can do, which even the lion could not do? Why hath the preying lion still to become a child?
Innocence is the child, and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelling wheel, a first movement, a holy Yes.
Aye, for the game of creating, my brethren, there is needed a holy Yea unto life: ITS OWN will, willeth now the spirit; HIS OWN world winneth the world’s outcast.”
(TSZ: The Three Metamorphoses)
Nietzsche’s main problem with Buddhism is that it sees suffering inherent in life as something to be avoided, while he praises it for its strengthening and transformative possibilities. In his view, pain and pleasure are not distinct from each other, let alone opposites, but merely different modifications of the same sensation.
(Nietzsche, Epistemology, and Philosophy of Science: Nietzsche and the Sciences II,
from the section “We Sensualists” by Robin Small)
His notion of eternal recurrence struck me as a challenge and a question:
If you had to re-live your whole life, every second of it, beginning to end, with all its ups and downs, over and over again infinite number of times, would you be able to do it? And not just tolerate it, but rejoice in it? That would be the ultimate affirmation of life and the whole spectrum of human experience.
“Transcendence of the Ego” is a phrase often repeated as stating a goal, maybe the goal of spiritual practice. This is an example of what someone once comedically called McDonald’s spirituality.
This kind of mystical urge for self-annihilation is sharply contrasted with the urge for self-preservation, subsistence, continued existence as an individual entity – as Levinas rightly observes, in self-transcendence individuality is kept.
Transcending the ego does not mean going to the pre-egoic state (which is impossible) and child-like purity does not mean infantilism. A cat is not an enlightened Buddha. Although it may seem tranquil, it is not wise. That’s not to say that it is a mechanical automaton (to part with Descartes’ injustice!) – Again, we’re talking gradations of freedom here.
Innocence of the Edenic state plus the experience of being fully immersed in the world is what makes us complete, (w)holy : Being fully Divine and fully Human – complementarity of involution and evolution.(A tripartite series of lectures on Esoteric Christianity heavily based on the readings of Rudolf Steiner    )
Theosophy in general, and H.P. Blavatsky in particular, fully recognized the
multi-layered nature of the Ego, it being more than just a psychological construct, but, in the broadest terms, the Individual Spirit of Man. (This article does justice to the intricate conception of the Ego found in Theosophy)
A. O. Hume, an associate of Theosophy, notes duly in his Fragments of Occult Truth how inextricably connected body and spirit are, Individuality being a special feature of the embodied modality of existence:
“Immediately on the severance of the spirit, whether at death, or (as, we have already hinted, is sometimes the case) before death, the spiritual Ego is dissipated and ceases to exist. It is the result of the action of spirit on matter, and it might, to render the matter more clear, be described as a combination of spirit and matter, just as flame is the result of the combination of oxygen with the substance being oxygenized and might loosely be described as the combination of the two. Withdraw the oxygen and the flame ceases, withdraw the spirit, and the spiritual EGO disappears. The sense of individuality in spirit cannot exist without combination with matter. Thus the pure planetary spirits, when first propelled into the circle of necessity, have no individual consciousness, only the absolute consciousness which they share with all fragments of the spirit hitherto entirely uncombined with matter. As they, entering into generation, descend the ladder and grow gradually more and more hemmed in by matter and isolated from the universal spirit, so the sense of individuality, the spiritual Egoship, grows. How finally on re-ascending the circle, step by step, they regain on reunion with the universal, the absolute consciousness, and simultaneously all the individual consciousnesses which they have developed at each stage of their descending and ascending progress, is one of the highest mysteries.”
Coming to a close, here’s some Levinas’ thoughts on Metaphysical Congition and Multiplicity:
Here’s William Desmond’s explanation of the interdependence of the self and the other, how the “I” is deeply interwoven into what he calls the ‘metaxological web’ of finite existences:
Sri Aurobindo captures beautifully how The Absolute Self-Awareness rests in itself, stays superior to the world of dualities, while still delighting to witness the play of the multiplicity of beings:
(Sri Aurobindo: The Life Divine, some page or another)
Our rational instincts call for a reconciliation of all opposites. If this attempt is not sufficient, just remember where we started.
If you went through all that, congratulations. I leave you there.
Author: Miodrag Vujaković