Category Archives: Philosophy

Evaluating Ideas

 

good ideaHow can we tell if an idea is a good one, or if a claim is true or false? When should we take a theory seriously or discard it? In an information age it is not always easy to separate the wheat from the chaff. One can find conformation on-line for just about any idea. When we are growing up, we tend to believe just about anything. For the most part, we accept what adults and authorities are telling us. We are also less likely to question what we read, what’s on television or the internet. However, at some point we have to grow up, and part of growing up is evaluating the validity of ideas.

How Can We Know What’s True?

scale 2Unfortunately there is no fail safe method that will always give us the right answer. That being said, there are modes of thinking that are more likely to get at the truth, or something close to it. A scientist would almost certainly evoke the scientific method as the best course of action. The empirical approach has proven effective at getting to the bottom of things. However, for the general public the scientific method is not always applicable. In everyday experience we are often faced with making assessments on the fly, or even if we have plenty of time to contemplate an idea, we are still left to our own devices. We don’t necessarily have access to the tools of science. It needs to be said nonetheless, that in some cases we can use established scientific knowledge as part of the evaluating process.

Idea Evaluation Checklist

ideas check listLife situations often demands that we buy in or reject certain ideas or claims. In everyday experience we need a way of moving forward, even though in most cases we can’t apply the scientific method. For what it’s worth, I present to you my idea evaluation check list. This list can be applied to a variety of ideas, claims or theories. It consists of 10 questions one might consider:

  1. Where does the preponderance of the evidence point to? This is a pros and cons way of looking at a situation. In other words, the evidence for vs. the evidence against.
  2. Is there a plausible explanation for how a proposed idea works? Here I am not suggesting that we need prof, but a sound explanation that makes sense on the surface. Such an explanation gives us some degree of confidence in an idea.
  3. Can this in principle be a shared experience? Can the idea proposed be tested or experienced by others?
  4. How reliable is the source? It is impossible for an individual to test or challenge everything. By necessity we must accept information from outside sources. Therefore, reliability of the source becomes important.
  5.  Do I want this to be true? If you want something to be true; a red flag should immediately be raised. In these cases one must be extra vigilant, not to let wishful thinking get in the way of sound judgement.
  6. Is the strength of the idea threatened by new information? If an idea can’t absorb new information, then it is substantially weaken. The knowledge base is constantly evolving. For that reason, some ideas need to be re-evaluated or even discarded as we learn more about the world.
  7. Can the idea be defended if challenged? Plain and simple, if you can’t defend your idea, why hold on to it?
  8. Is this how the world normally works? Does the idea comply with your understanding of the world? Or does your thinking need to be compartmentalized in order to make room for the idea?
  9. Are you confusing coincidence with causation? Just because two events happen in sequence, it does not automatically mean that one caused the other. A clear link between cause and effect needs to be established (beyond just A happened before B). Many false claims gain momentum because of this confusion.
  10. Does it ring true? On its own this is not enough, but if you need to tip the scale one way or the other, resort to what your gut is telling you.

So there you have it, my check list. Of course it is arbitrary; one could alter it and still come up with something as good or better. Nonetheless, I think that an exercise such as this one encourages critical thinking. Our world view is largely arrived at by what kind of ideas we accept or reject. What follows is: what we believe, what we don’t believe, and how we live our lives.

 

References: Michael Shermer: Baloney Detection Kit, Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, Published on June 5, 2014.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aNSHZG9blQQ


 

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The Anthropic Principle

the astronomerWhy are we here? This is perhaps the most fundamental philosophical question. One can imagine contemplating this question at any time in human history. Many stories have been inspired by this question, usually taking the form of myths, or religious and spiritual traditions. Today, ‘why are we here’ is also a scientific question. The anthropic principle arose as a response to the question of human existence. The idea was first proposed in 1973 by theoretical astrophysicist Brandon Carter. Since then it has been expanded and stated in several forms.

What is the Anthropic Principle?

The word anthropic is defined by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary as: “Of or relating to human beings or the period of their existence on Earth.” That’s a start. For simplicity I will stick close to Brandon Carter’s original formulation, which he expressed as two variants. I will paraphrase based on the description from a few sources:

  1. The Weak Anthropic Principle refers to our special location in the universe (both in time and space), which is conducive to our existence. The fact that we can observe the universe means that planet Earth must have the conditions necessary for our existence.
  2. The Strong Anthropic Principle refers to the fundamental laws of physics, which are precisely set for our existence. The strong principle takes into account the properties of the universe as a whole.

The Burden of Proof

habitable zoneIn a vast universe it is not surprising that a planet, like the Earth, has a special location (usually called a habitable zone or a Goldilocks zone). The specific laws of the universe needed for human life are more difficult to explain (usually called fine tuning). Using a legal metaphor, the strong anthropic principle has a greater burden of proof than the weak anthropic principle. In this case, burden of proof is a figure of speech, because the anthropic principle is as much a philosophical idea as a scientific one. 

In The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow describe the weak anthropic principle as an environmental factor. They write:

“Environmental coincidences are easy to understand because ours is only one cosmic habitat among many that exist in the universe, and we obviously must exist in a habitat that supports life”

The strong anthropic principle is all-encompassing and generally more controversial. Hawkings and Mlodinow go on:

“The strong anthropic principle suggests that the fact that we exist imposes constraints not just on our environment but on the possible form and content of the laws of nature themselves”

Stating the Obvious or a Profound Insight

Is the anthropic principle a satisfying explanation? On the surface, it seems like an obvious statement that explains very little. But as I reflect on the idea, I am not so sure. Maybe it is suggesting something profound. Perhaps the answer to why we are here is simple: it could not be otherwise.

Lawrence KraussFor example, Lawrence Krauss provides an anthropic interpretation to one of the universe’s properties. In the book, A Universe from Nothing, he examines the relationship between the energy density of matter and the energy density of empty space. Yes, space has energy and it can be measured. The density of matter in the universe can also be measured. It turns out that now is the only time in cosmic history that both values are comparable. That’s a curious result.

The universe has been expanding since the big bang, and as it expands the density of matter decreases. Matter gets diluted as galaxies get farther apart from each other. Meanwhile the energy in empty space remains constant (there is nothing to dilute or increase in empty space). Therefore at the time galaxies formed the density of matter was greater than the energy in empty space. That’s a good thing, because the gravitational effect of matter was dominant, which allowed matter to come together.

However, if the values for matter and energy had been comparable at the epoch of galaxy formation, galaxies would not have formed. Empty space exerts a repulsive force, which would have canceled out normal attractive gravity. Matter would not have clumped together. Krauss writes in A Universe from Nothing:

“But if galaxies hadn’t formed, then stars wouldn’t have formed. And if stars hadn’t formed, planets wouldn’t have formed. And if planets hadn’t formed, then astronomers wouldn’t have formed!”

It seems highly coincidental that the energy values for matter and space are roughly equal now, but they could not have equalized too much earlier. Otherwise, no one would be here to observe it. Similarly, if one of a number of physical properties were slightly different, we would also not be here. That’s when anthropic reasoning steps in: An observer must observe the conditions of the universe that allows the observer to exist.

astronomersMaybe a change of perspective is needed: Instead of focusing on our present circumstances and looking back, we can look at the evolution of the universe. Life is a latecomer to the process, of which an incalculable series of events occurred. Our existence is the result of all that came before. Although it does appear that the universe was made for us, it is in fact, the universe that made us. We were formed from the conditions that were set long before conscious beings could observe any of it.

Is Physics an Environmental Science?

The traditional approach of physics is to discover and understand the universe we live in. The fundamental laws and the values for the constants of nature are consistent throughout the observable universe. The physical laws discovered on Earth can be applied to the universe as a whole. But there can only be one exact set of laws and history that allow for our existence. That’s unless our universe is not the only one.

For some, recent scientific evidence is suggesting that there are many universes (a multiverse). Others point out that inferring a multiverse is not science; because by definition other universes cannot be observed directly (they would exist outside our observable universe). If we apply the strong anthropic principle to the multiverse theme, it does partly explain the exact parameters of our universe.

If the cosmos is populated with many universes, possibly infinite universes, then the laws of physics could be purely random. They would simply emerge as an environmental consequence. Some physicists have compared the multiverse to a foam of bubbles (each bubble representing a universe). The laws could be different in every bubble of an endless cosmic foam. Some bubble universes could be similar to ours, others vastly different.

Of course, this is a hypothetical argument. Nevertheless, if we could observe every universe in a multiverse, every single one would be finely tuned for its own existence. Anthropic reasoning would state that there is nothing special about our universe. In all the non-life generating universes there is no one to observe them, in ours there is. It’s that simple. Obviously, the anthropic principle (inferring a multiverse or not) is not a proven argument, but it’s one of many possible answers to the question: Why are we here?

 

References: Stephen W. Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam Books, 2010), 155.

Lawrence M. Krauss, A Universe from Nothing (New York: Free Press, 2012).


 

Free Will: A Great Paradox

In the modern world we are faced with an almost unlimited amount of choices. We all make numerous decisions each day, whether we are aware of it or not. Many of our choices are relatively insignificant, such as: What will we wear today? What will we eat for breakfast? Will we stop at a coffee shop on our way to work? Then there are more important decisions we might tackle at work, depending on our occupation and position. Outside of work leisure time opens up another series of choices.

fork in the roadThen there are the big decisions, which can alter the course of one’s life. Good or bad outcomes often follow based on the decisions we take. For example: The partner we choose, the career we pursue and unforeseen events that will force us to choose the next path. As the saying goes: “When you reach a fork in the road, take it.”

An Introduction to So-Called Decision-Making 

Can we account for the decisions we make? Of course it is easy to rationalize why we do what we do, but what’s behind a decision? Most of us feel that our decisions are ours alone. But is that true? First let us look at different types of decisions (or perceived decisions).

  • Instinctual: There are actions we take that could be perceived as decisions but in reality aren’t. They are actions that are basically reactions to the outside world. For instance, if we cross the street and a car is racing at us, we will get out-of-the-way. Or if a ball is thrown at our face we will try to catch it with our hand.
  • Appetites: My favorite pie is pumpkin pie. As a dinner guest I am sometimes offered a choice of pies. If pumpkin is on the list, I will always choose it. I may have a gene that makes pumpkin pie taste better to me than other pies. Therefore, is my choice of pie actually a decision or a mere consequence of my genes?
  • Desires: Much of our life journey is a response to desires we can’t account for. These include career choices, sexual attraction, hobbies, leisure activities and more. We simply do not know why we are interested, or pushed in the directions we are. Our desires are a complex mix of genetics and cultural conditioning.
  • Contemplative: This is the slow pros and cons type of decision-making, when we take the time to weigh our options before we choose. For example, let’s say we are shopping for a new car. We will look at different models and probably tests drive a few vehicles. Weighing quality and cost we come to a final decision on a new car.

Of the four examples above, the last listed (contemplative) looks and feels most like a true decision. The other three fall more in a grey area where one can’t be sure how much decision-making is involved. As you will see later, even the contemplative type may not be what it appears to be at first glance. That brings to the table the idea of free will.

Free Will

free willWhat do we mean when we say free will? Free will is the idea that we have the ability to make decisions independent of our genetics and conditioning. Another way to think about free will is the belief that we could have done differently than we did in a given circumstance. And likely, the only way we could have done differently, is if we were different at the time. That is, if our genetics and conditioning were different.

We are who we are due to a long series of events not of our choosing. To account for the actions we take, one has to consider evolutionary history. The human brain (presumably key to decision-making) is a product of evolution and each unique brain is genetically based. Also parenting and social conditioning have a significant effect on human development and behavior. One could even conclude that in order to have free will the universe would have to be different.

The Universe on a Pool Table

Let’s do a simple thought experiment. A pool table is used as a model for the universe. In this experiment only one shot is considered (the break). The table represents all of space and the fundamental forces. The billiard balls act as the particles (atoms, sub-atomic particles and so on). The cue stick is the force behind the big bang. At the break, the cue ball is struck and from that point on everything else follows.

pool ballsAs an observer one has to wait and see how the balls will collide and bounce around, but it can only turn out one way. It was all determined by the brake and the way the table was setup. The movement of the billiard balls are a consequence of the characteristics of the balls, the break and the nature of the table. One could say that it is a closed system; after the initial conditions nothing can intervene in the process.

Now let’s look at the actual universe. The big bang created spacetime, the fundamental forces and particles. All the particles behave as a consequence of the conditions at the big bang (the break) and the acting forces. Can anything after the initial conditions intervene in how the universe unfolds? The universe is also a closed system, it just happens to be unimaginably larger that a pool table. We should be mindful not to confuse our ignorance of the future with the prospect of altering it.

A Game of Dice

What I just described is a deterministic picture of the universe. It is sometimes referred to as the Newtonian view or classical physics. Here the universe unfolds like clockwork. If the present conditions are known, then the laws of physics can be applied either forward or backwards in time with great accuracy. Nevertheless, it needs to be mentioned that another set of physical laws described by quantum mechanics seems to contradict the classical picture.

At the scale of the atom randomness is introduced and outcomes can only be predicted in terms of probabilities. There is no sure way to determine what a single sub-atomic particle will do. Only if a sufficient number of identical experiments are run, will the aggregate of outcomes reflect the assigned probabilities. So what we are left with is a deterministic framework at the large-scale and a probabilistic understanding for the small-scale.

Some people believe that quantum mechanics seems to erode determinism and opens the door for free will. However, I would argue that randomness and probabilities doesn’t get us any closer to free will. If the universe is essentially deterministic, or on occasion tosses a dice, how does any of this grant us free will? Whether classical or quantum laws apply, the universe is presumably still subject to those laws, and so are we.

The Great Paradox

 Does something change when consciousness arises?  Conscious beings are made of the same kind of particles that permeate the universe. There is no reason to think that brains are any different. If our thinking faculties are caused by natural forces acting on particles in our brain, how can we conclude that our decisions are ours alone?

To examine this question let’s do another thought experiment. Let’s say you are asked to name the first city that comes to your mind. After a few seconds of reflection you say Rome. Can you account for why you did not think of Paris, or any one of hundreds of other possible cities? Even if you were given a little more time and asked to choose a city, you would still be limited to a list that your mind could produce. It would appear to me that we fundamentally do not choose our thoughts, they simply arise. How can we get to free will if we don’t choose our thoughts? I suppose one could make the argument that from a collection of thoughts that do arise, we can then choose and that constitutes free will. However, that would mean that our decisions are influenced by a stream of thoughts that our conscious mind does not produce.

Scientifically and Philosophically, the idea that we have free will makes little sense. Some people realize this, but if we adopted this principle on mass, it could be the collapse of society as we know it. The idea of free will touches everything we do. Without free will (or we could call it personal responsibility) everything about our society would change. We would have to rethink our justice system, religions, morality and relationships. Nevertheless, if we all agreed that decisions are caused rather than made, it would undoubtedly lead to a more compassionate world. We would probably still have to hold people accountable for their behavior, but we would be less inclined to be judgmental, angry or resentful.

From a personal decision-making stand point, without free will, we would also be easier on ourselves for perceived bad decisions that often lead to regret. This we can do right now, regardless of how society at large thinks about free will. Nevertheless, going forward we are confronted with an unavoidable paradox. How can we possibly go through the normal decision-making process without the feeling that we are in control? And there lies the great paradox. Even if one accepts that free will is an illusion, I don’t see any other reasonable choice (a choice that is fundamentally not ours) than to live as if we have it.

 

References: Sam Harris on “Free Will”, Published on March 27, 2012https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pCofmZlC72g.

Free Will — What Sam Harris Gets Right and Wrong, Published on April 10, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8pJXt3LclcY


 

The Most Life-Altering Concept in Philosophy

The human ego is an illusion. Breaking free from this illusion, at least periodically, is a critical step towards spiritual growth. The ego is nothing more than a mental construct, which identifies with ones thoughts; it is empowered when we believe we are what we think. The ego strings together past events and projects into the future. It is the part of ourselves that compares and separates us from others. For most people their sense of self is closely tied to the ego.

Human brain glowing lateral viewThe concept of self that I want to point out is a wider state of human consciousness. It is pure awareness in the present moment, independent of other experiences. The words enlightenment, awakening, transcendence and mindfulness have been used to describe something similar. I see self-awareness as a fundamental result of consciousness, while the ego is a mind created entity.

The illusion I want to point out is that when we define ourselves, more often than not, we are describing our ego. By doing this we are missing out on a more complete sense of self, one that numbs our subjective individuality in favor of an interconnected reality with the outside world.

The Illusion

I am only beginning to recognize the full deception of the illusion, and the power to be transformed by becoming aware of it. For me, it is still a work in progress, although I have already experienced a shift in how I see myself.

The idea that the ego is an illusion is difficult to explain. Even if it is understood in principle, it still has to be internalized and applied to one’s life. So convincing is the illusion of the ego that for some people the words on this page will be meaningless. They are totally convinced they are their ego (nothing more, nothing less). However, once the illusion is identified the implications can be profound and life changing. Realizing that the ego is not what it seems can be the first step towards spiritual transformation.

Our ego is derived by the continuous stream of experiences. Our memories and experiences are woven into a coherent story, the story of me and the story of you. The stronger the attachment we have with our story, the stronger the identification is with the ego. In addition, the story is also projected into the future. Contrary to popular thinking, someone with a large ego does not necessarily believe he/she is better than other people; they simply identify more strongly with their story (their past and future).

The ego identifies with the external world in different ways, and misinterprets the external reality for the internal reality. To the ego, we are what we do, have, own, make and look. Our sense of identity is tied in with possessions, money, status, occupations, roles, appearances, and the opinion of others. These are things mostly outside of us, and they become part of our story. But things we identify with are not who we are.

The Collective Ego

There is another aspect to the ego which is just as prevalent. These are the things we identify with as a group (the collective ego). Being absorbed by our ego creates a mental position that separates us from life and other groups of people. Collectively, these mental positions are strengthened and become even more destructive. The collective ego takes several forms, such as: nationalism, race, religion, politics, ethnicity, tribal and ideologies.

world war 2 tanks

As long as we can say: “We are right and they are wrong,” or “We are good and they are evil,” or “It’s us against them,” then the door is open for all kinds of abuses. The collective consciousness that completely separates humanity into distinct groups is the root of war and violence. Contemporary spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle writes in A New Earth:

“By far the greater part of violence that humans have inflicted on each other is not the work of criminals or the mentally deranged, but of normal, respectable citizens in the service of the collective ego.”

Breaking Free From the Illusion

Eckhart TolleEckhart Tolle has written several books on spiritual growth. Central to his message, in The Power of Now and A New Earth, is the human dysfunction associated with the ego. And that an enlightened state of consciousness is possible by dissolving the ego. This can only occur when we access the dimension of the present moment. The ego arises through the stories in our minds; fully focused on the present there is no story. The ego exists only as a mental construct, just like the past and future. In reality, only the present is real.

In the The Power of Now, Tolle recalls his experience of breaking away from identification with the ego. After a lengthy period of anxiety and depression, one simple thought completely changed his perspective of life. On one especially dreadful night he thought:

“I cannot live with myself any longer.” This was the thought that kept repeating itself in my mind. Then suddenly I became aware of what a peculiar thought it was. “Am I one or two? If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: the ‘I’ and the ‘self’ that ‘I’ cannot live with.” “Maybe,” I thought, “only one of them is real.”

The Transformation of Consciousness

Tolle realized that his suffering was caused by his identification with the ego. This was the ‘self’ he could not live with. He learned that by relinquishing the ego, his anxiety and depression would also disappear; his state of mind shifted to deep peace and bliss.

The core problem is the stress that arises in order to maintain the false self. The ego is never satisfied for very long, as it always needs to be built up. What arises in most people is a deep-seated feeling of longing, of never having enough or being enough. It is an endless game of striving, struggling, competing, fighting, arguing, and so one.

We all have an ego, a form of self-preservation I suppose. No doubt it evolved as a survival mechanism. A strong sense of individual identity must have been an advantage in a highly competitive environment. We still compete today on many levels, but for the most part it is not life or death. The key insight is to see it for what it is: an unavoidable part of the human condition that has to be kept in check.

Tolle also realized that the entry point towards enlightenment is the present moment. That is The Power of Now, the transformation of consciousness that emerges by letting go of our story, and living fully in the present. The true self is the conscious awareness behind our thoughts, the ego and our story. Living in the now, free from the grip of ego, is the simplest and most practical philosophy for well-being and mental health. That is the most life-altering concept in philosophy.

 

References:

Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth (New York: Plume, 2006), 73.

Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now (Vancouver: Namaste Publishing, 2004), 4.

Bruce Hood, The Self Illusion (Canada: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, 2012.


 

The Tao Does Nothing, But Leaves Nothing Undone

This is the opening line in the 37th verse of the Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese book of wisdom. The Tao (pronounced dow in English) is an indescribable force that permeates all things. The Tao does nothing in the sense that it can’t be identified in precise terms, but leaves nothing undone in the sense that all things contribute in an interconnected way. And speaking of way, the word Tao is generally translated as the way. The way, meaning a path that one follows, which is in harmony with nature. Te is translated as power or virtue, and Ching is a book.

The Tao is a mysterious concept and its true meaning is almost impossible to express in language. The 1st Verse of the Tao Te Ching begins as follows: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.”

Some contemporary spiritual teachers have written and lectured about the wisdom of the Tao Te Ching. Although I am sure there are many, 3 influential figures come to my mind: Alan Watts, whose lectures from the sixties and seventies are still posted on You Tube. In recent years, Eckhart Tolle and Dr. Wayne W. Dyer have incorporated Tao philosophies into their teachings. In his book, Change Your Thoughts-Change Your Life, Dyer describes his interpretation of the concept that is called “the Tao.”

“The Tao is the supreme reality, an all-pervasive Source of everything. The Tao never begins or ends, does nothing, and yet animates everything in the world of form and boundaries, which is called “the world of the 10,000 things.”

The Legend of Lao-tzu

Loa-TzuLegend has it that a wise old man, named Lao-tzu, wrote the Tao Te Ching (sometime between the 6th and 4th century B.C.). Lao-tzu was the keeper of the archives of imperial China. He became frustrated with the unrest in the empire. He decided to leave and headed west, where he was recognized by a border guard. Lao-tzu was asked to write down his wisdom before he left, which became the Tao Te Ching. Afterwards, he left the kingdom and was never seen again.

There is, however, no way to verify if this is historically accurate. Lao-tzu actually translates to old master. It could be that the original text is a collection of proverbs from various sources, or perhaps what has survived is an incomplete version. Nevertheless, the book has been translated thousands of times in many languages. A few centuries later a movement began, which became Taoism. There is also some speculation that the Tao Te Ching may have influenced the birth of Buddhism.

Religion or Philosophy

The core concept of the Tao has led to the development of the Taoist faith. I use the word faith as opposed to the word religion, because Taoism is fundamentally different from other world religions. The Tao is not a God in the traditional western sense. The concept of God as a controlling figure is absent in Taoism. In the Tao, there is no controlling center; everything is allowed to be, and each component is viewed as part of a harmonious system.

Based on the Tao, there are no prescribed directions to follow; it is left to individuals to find their own way. The Tao Te Ching is a guide for living in harmony with nature, but it is not a manual. Taoism is as much a philosophy as it is a religion.

The Way of Nature

The flow of water is a powerful symbol for the Tao. Flowing water finds the lowest or easiest path. There is also the inevitability of the direction of the water. Take for example, the flow of a river; much better to go with the current than to try to go against it. There is a way to nature and the universe, but it is difficult if not impossible to pinpoint. The main goal is to experience the Tao by allowing and accepting nature as it is, not by trying to control it.

Ying and YangThe Tao Te Ching also points out the paradoxes of nature. Even polar opposites are viewed as working together. Hence the terms and symbols of yin and yang, which represent opposite forces in nature; they are seen as complementary and interconnected. For example, there is a balance between high and low, soft and hard, hot and cold and light and dark. Or one could say there is no light without darkness. Following the way is living in balance.

The Way Forward

We could do worse than adopt an open philosophy of life that aligns with nature. When we consider the immense problems caused by extreme and competing religious dogmas, and financial greed and inequality that disregard the well-being of the environment, it should make us pause: “Where are we going?”  If humans are going to find their way in such confusing times, we will have to incorporate principles that are compatible with nature.

waterfallI find it refreshing that ancient concepts contained in the Tao Te Ching are lining up with a modern scientific view. Science has discovered a multitude of interconnected parts that make up our world. Life is so interconnected that it is sometimes difficult to determine when one living system begins or ends. The whole planet (or even the universe) can be viewed as one system or organism. Everything that exists is compatible with the whole. If it were not, it wouldn’t be here. Alan Watts summarizes the Tao in the following manner:

“The whole conception of nature is as a self-regulating, self-governing, indeed democratic organism. But it has a totality, it all goes together, and this totality is the Tao.”

 

References: Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, Change Your Thoughts-Change Your Life (United States: Hay House Inc., 2007).

Alan Watts – The Taoist Way, Published on Jan. 13, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iv9zocKASsM

In Our Time Philosophy: Daoism (Dec. 15, 2011).


 

Descartes’ Famous Phrase: “I Think, Therefore I Am”

DescartesRené Descartes was an influential figure in the scientific revolution, and is considered to be the founder of modern philosophy. In 1637 Descartes wrote his well-known phrase: “I think, therefore I am.” He wrote this to rescue himself from doubt (the doubt of his own existence). He equated thinking with existing; therefore the awareness of his thoughts meant he was certain he existed. Descartes believed that the senses were unreliable, and ultimately, it was through the mind that one could arrive at the truth. Only reason could ascertain what was fundamentally true. He used examples such as: to the senses a stick in water appears to be bent, and the sun and the moon appear to be the same size.

The Evil Demon

For Descartes, doubt was central to his method of acquiring knowledge. He would tear down an idea through doubt and skepticism, and see if anything survived. His system has a likeness to the modern scientific method, as nothing is taken for granted. A hypothesis needs to be verified by tangible evidence in order to become accepted as knowledge.

He even went as far as imagining an evil demon, which created an illusion of the outside world and his own body. He concluded that if the deception was real, the fact that he was doubting his existence meant that someone was doing the doubting. Descartes concluded that the one thing he could know with absolute certainty was that he was thinking.

I Think…I Am

If we break up the phrase we see that Descartes’ statement is only a partial truth. To be aware of ones thoughts, there must be another dimension of consciousness apart from thought (something to witness the thoughts). The “I think” is separate from the “I am.” This was the insight of 20th century philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre when he examined Descartes’ statement.

To be thinking one must first be conscious. Although neuroscience is still trying to decipher the nature of consciousness, scientists are proceeding with the assumption that the secrets lie within the brain. Our experience is largely influenced by the activity in the brain. As it relates to consciousness, our thoughts are similar to our senses, as contributors to consciousness. Our thinking brain is a tool (a very valuable one), but it is not the totality of our existence.

The Power of Unconsciousness

There is still another level of existence that requires no thoughts or awareness. This is the unconscious processes that underlie all of existence, including ourselves. As familiar as conscious experience is to us and as complete as it feels, ultimate reality is much deeper. We generally accept that much of the world around us is without consciousness. For example, inanimate substances, plants, water, air, etc.

When it comes to humans (and animals to a lesser degree), we see ourselves as sentient beings. Yet consciousness emerges from a collection of unconscious processes. Focusing only on physiological functions, we can see how this works: we are unaware of our cells, blood, hearts, neurons, hormones, nerves and other bodily functions. Yet they all play a role in creating our experience. Clearly the brain has some critical input in regulating these activities, but that is mostly the unconscious brain.

It seems that Descartes’ conclusion was in effect describing the outer layer of self-awareness. Like an onion, the “I think” is the outer skin. The “I am” (consciousness beyond thought) is a deeper layer. And the core (unconscious life) is essentially the source that gives rise to experience, or as Descartes would have called it, existence. You could also say that Descartes was identifying solely with his thoughts. His sense of self was derived by his thinking mind, but he was much more than that.

 

References: Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth (New York: plume, 2006)

BBC Radio 4, In Our Time Philosophy: Cogito Ergo Sum (April 28, 2011)