Ideas, Ideally

I have been trying to reclaim (see 1 and 2) the philosophical tradition of ldealism that in the West was first articulated clearly by Plato. Idealism is one of two threads of discourse that attempt to explain the relationship between ideas and our experience of the world around us. The paradox for Plato was that the real world does not contain perfect representatives – no line is absolutely straight, and no horse manifests all the ideal characteristics of horses (fast and powerful, for example). Convinced that the world originated from a source of absolute good, Plato therefore held that the idea of a perfect line or perfect horse was the original, with the physical examples as imperfect manifestations.

To the scientific thinker, this assertion fails to satisfy because it does not specify a mechanism for the manifestation, and therefore cannot be disproved. The solution proposed by scriptural literalists is that the ideals did exist when the Holy will created the world, and were accessible for our appreciation during the inhabitation of Eden. It was through our selfishness and disobedience that the connection with the divine source was sundered. Not only human nature was corrupted in the Fall, but all of Creation.

Reacting against Plato’s idealism, Aristotle advanced the program of Empiricism. From our observation of the world around us, we intuitively recognize similarity between things. We might choose to call some things “dogs.” There is no ideal dog, but all dogs share certain characteristics. Through the mechanism of the syllogism, we can therefore transmit a great deal of understanding by simply designating the type of something. The most famous syllogism is “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.” In general form, we might write “All A are B. If C is an instance of A, then C is B.”

Aristotle employed this program to a comprehensive classification of the world around him. The power of classification becomes most obvious in the physical sciences, where saying “an electron is massive and charged” allows us to apply mathematical deduction to predict its behavior. But classification is also conditional: Linnaeus, the inventor of the phylogenic scheme for categorization of living creatures, recognized only plants and animals. Modern biochemistry has demanded the addition of three new phyla, with the consequence that things once considered to be “plants” have been reclassified as “fungi,” which recognizes that all along they actually lacked some of the characteristics of “plants.”

Aristotle recognized that all ideas are abstractions, and so that when applied to a specific instance, information is lost. This should be unsettling – it means that the world is populated by exceptions to our ideas. This is consequential: If a member of a tribe asks you to care for his dog, how do you know which among the dogs is his pet ‘Akela’?

Ultimately, the pragmatic successors to Aristotle re-introduced the concept of moral good to deal with this problem. What is important is whether ideas have practical utility. This has both good and bad consequences: Darwin’s theory of natural selection was used to justify ethnic prejudice in Nazi Germany and in certain parts of America. Against that, we have housing codes that ensure that disasters do not displace entire populations, such as occurred after the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco or the great urban fires of the 19th century.

So let us now return to the larger umbrella: I hold that philosophy is the study of the operation of the intellect, which manifests as the capacity to synthesize mental states. Among the sources of mental states, I listed sensation, emotion, thoughts and spirits. Where are ideas in this categorization? They seemed to be related to thoughts, but thoughts can also be random associations without plausible manifestations, such as – Kia Soul advertising not-with-standing – “my hamster is break-dancing.”

As might be expected, the exclusion of ideas from the list of mental states is not an oversight.

I have asserted elsewhere that Idealism reflects an affinity in its adherents for soul-relation. This manifests most powerfully to the mystic as a gift of energy that suffuses moral good with joy. This is the experience that I believe informed Plato’s affiliation of ideas with “The Good.”

Where I depart from Plato is in the belief that all ideas originate from The Good, only to be expressed in corrupt form in the world around us. To me, this is the terrible deficiency of scriptural literalism. It denies us agency in moral progress in the world. In The Soul Comes First, I take this head-on, using paleontology and evolutionary biology to demonstrate that the seven days of creation and the trumpets in Revelation actually correspond to a process of uplift from primitive forms of life towards an intelligent integration that will heal the spiritual wound of selfishness.

The role offered to humanity in this process is to sort through our thoughts to identify those that empower the expression of moral good. This is “the Knowledge of Good and Evil,” and the serpent’s characterization of the Fall in Genesis is a political posture that seeks to delay the perfection of our discernment.

In re-interpreting scripture through the lens of science, I show obvious affinity for Aristotle’s empiricism. Where I depart from his formulation is in the belief that ideas are merely abstractions of experience. Thoughts are those abstractions.

In the model of physics I have offered, I understand the human mind as the interaction of soul with the empirical world through the interface of the brain. In that interaction, our thoughts are temporary modifications of our soul. An idea is a thought reinforced by multiple successful episodes that instills energy that causes the thought to bloom into the world of spirit. An important consequence of this penetration is that the thought becomes accessible to other thinkers. In other words, Plato’s Ideas do not originate from The Good, but rise into the realm of spirit most readily when they serve a moral purpose, increasing the life-time of their subscribers, and therefore gathering ever greater energy through continued application to the survival of living things.

In terms of the framework I have established, with stimulation and combination as the two types of intellectual synthesis: ideas arise from the intellect’s capacity to stimulate thoughts from sensation, and then to combine thought and spirit. Ideas do not originate from The Good, but the strength of an idea is ultimately determined by the degree to which it allows us to improve our moral discernment. When mature discernment is realized in a personality such as Jesus of Nazareth, The Good that seeks to facilitate our healing actually touches the material world, shattering all of our categorizations with consequences unimaginable to the empiricist.

I hope that in this formulation that faith and science recognize the shape of a reconciliation that can organize collaboration that will speed the development of moral discernment, fundamentally changing our relationship with reality, and liberating Life in general from our vicious cycle of angry and ineffectual claims to authority defended by reference to incompatible and ultimately meaningless standards of “truth.”

On Intellect

In Reductio ad Consterno (reduction to the point of alarm), I threw out the idea that philosophy, considered properly, is the exploration of the operation of intellect. The thought wasn’t deeply considered – it was rather a convenient bridge in the essay, a way of linking what preceded with what followed.

But as I continue my reading of The Philosophy Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained (TPB below, by Buckingham, et al. with DK Books) I am realizing that it’s actually central to the project of my life. In Ma, my celebration of the feminine virtues, I illustrate various expressions of intellect (as defined below) through the main characters. This has the unfortunate effect that the narrative is rendered disjoint by the shifts in perspective. As I thought about this post yesterday morning, I considered the subtitle “The Philosophy of Ma and Golem” with the hope that readers might gain some insight into those works. But, given that after my father’s passing I am the only extant reader of that collection, I must now conclude (with some chagrin) that the earlier works were a type of “narrative study” for the thoughts that are crystallized below.

To set the table again: TPB contrasts the viewpoints of Plato and Aristotle as the central issue in philosophy, which the authors characterize as the search for a firm foundation for knowledge. Plato held that all events are ephemeral and rendered indistinct by our senses, and so that all knowledge is in the realm of ideas. Aristotle countered that ideas that do not arise from experience are not knowledge, but fantasy. As the history of philosophy is traced, the Aristotelian perspective is bolstered by scientific study, and in fact the proponents of Plato’s view appear less and less coherent.

Of course, the Aristotelian empiricists materialists have a huge advantage in this quest. Science, in the large, is the study of things without personality. That means that the subjects of scientific research don’t evolve new behaviors when we study them. An insulator will not start to conduct electricity, and an electron won’t shed its mass. Conversely, Plato and all of his followers insist that knowledge emanates from some form of “The Good,” which was understood to be “God” in Islamic and Christian cultures. The Good does not reveal itself, but must be courted with disciplined moral intent. So while empiricists materialists can describe things that anyone can experience, the mystic must grope for terms to describe perceptions that often are completely foreign to the reader. The empiricist materialist is popular; the mystic is obscure.

This insight sets us on a path to reconcile the two primary views of philosophy. Indeed, while much of modern philosophy tends toward  a social focus, often that is driven by reaction to cultural dysfunction that arises from trying to force people to behave as if only one view was valid. But I do not believe that our reconciliation is sufficient. There are unexamined deficiencies in Philosophy as a whole, manifested most obviously in the fact that almost all of its luminaries are men.

So I am going to conclude this post with a definition of intellect that may serve only to make it clear just how complex the problem is.

Intellect manifests in the capacity to synthesize mental states.

Our mental states are not only thoughts. They are a complex amalgamation of sensory perceptions, physiological response (or emotions), thoughts and spiritual interactions. Synthesis is accomplished through either stimulation or combination of those states.

The job of philosophy, as I asserted before, is to understand the virtues and pathologies of intellect, and to establish means to strengthen the first and heal the second. The complexity of the problem is seen in that most of the history of philosophy was spent in a fruitless search for some solid ground to stand on – some truth beyond Descartes’ “I exist.” Fortunately for humanity, most of us continued to carry on with our exploration of what is possible.

In that search, we must recognize that the intellect also has variable expressions. Just as species adopt different forms in the struggle to secure an ecological niche, so does the intellect vary. There are those dominated by sensory perception, those immersed in emotion, those lost in the whirlpool of their thoughts, and those with their eyes locked on the heavens. Each of them brings a piece of the puzzle to our attention. No perspective can be denigrated or ignored without threatening the integrity of the whole.

Reductio ad Consterno

In the Darwinian sense, humanity’s greatest asset is its intellect. The expressions of human intellect are so unique in the animal kingdom that it is not possible to understand its character and limitations by study of other creatures. Furthermore, the creative power of intellect is such that for many of us the natural world is no longer part of our experience. This is true even in the Third World, where most land once wild is now cultivated (where it has not been rendered arid), and the predators that dominated those ecosystems may be slaughtered to produce aphrodisiacs for the Chinese market.

And so man is the most self-involved of all creatures.

In the animal kingdom, evolutionary advantage is a simple proposal: a creature either lives or dies. In human societies, however, methods such as agriculture demanded attention to politics. Freed from the daily concerns of physical survival against the natural tyrannies (hunger, disease, the elements and predation), the danger is that our fellows will organize to seize our goods, break up our families, and take our lives. To a large degree, our survival depends upon inventing reasons for them to not do these things, and indoctrinating them to live according to those constraints.

The easiest way to accomplish this is the path of illusion – to invent entertainments that consumers believe will bring them benefits greater than the price of entry. The trick of tyranny, of course, is to replace the suckers just at the moment that they start demanding more than they contribute. That makes primitive societies terribly unstable.

The alternate path is the path of reason, which is properly understood to be philosophy, or the study of the operation of the intellect. As urban societies arose, three great cultures gave rise to distinct philosophical traditions: China produced Confucianism, India gave birth to the Veda (and its outgrowth, Buddhism) and the Occident sired Hellenism.

Despite their differences, these three threads of philosophical thought share similar concerns. Given that the intellect exists, what does it operate on? What are its virtues and pathologies? How do we strengthen the former and heal the latter?

Those explorations were formalized and documented in societies that were all making the transition to urban culture. This meant, on the one hand, that their ideas were made stronger through competition with the ideas of other thinkers. But many of the early philosophers also stood in opposition to the moral decay (one of the pathologies of intellect) that festers in urban societies. They celebrated a life in harmony with nature – nature that in its forms and behaviors expresses the most durable truths.

The Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle neatly encapsulate the tensions that arise in the study of the intellect. Socrates was a man of leisure in ancient Athens who set out to discover truth, and rapidly learned that his questioning attitude revealed the emptiness of what others heralded as wisdom. Socrates broke the spell of illusion, and was sentenced to death for his troubles.

Socrates’ student Plato realized that the forms of nature were too diverse and imperfect to yield to rigorous categorization and analysis. What differentiates a fox from a dog from a wolf? Where is there any perfectly straight line in nature? Plato and his followers therefore celebrated the abstractions of the mind – or ideas – which were perfect and infinitely malleable, and therefore could be synthesized. Eventually, Plato came to believe that ideas had an independent existence, and were actually the originals from which arose natural phenomenon.

Observing that ideas in of themselves were of no practical use, Plato’s student Aristotle asserted that it was from the study of nature that ideas arise. The concept of “dog” arises naturally in the mind of those that interact with dogs, as a kind of convenient short-hand (a “categorization”) for the similarities of our sensory experiences when interacting with real dogs. Aristotle did not stop there, however, but built a formal logic that could be used to assess the internal consistency of our sets of categories, and applied it to categorization of the natural world around him.

One way of reconciling Plato and Aristotle is to observe that ideas allow us to improve the forms of nature. While perhaps a perfectly straight line cannot be created, rulers are really useful devices, helping us to build sturdy homes, roads and aqueducts. And an understanding of the characteristics of dogs and their variability allows us to benefit greatly from their companionship and hunting skill, while preventing us from trying to get them to serves as mules.

But there was another thread in this conversation in the ancient world, a thread that many modern philosophers tend to deprecate. Plato celebrated ideas not only for their malleability, but also because he was convinced that the mind participated in forms of experience that were not tangible to the physical senses. This was evident in Socrates’ statements just before taking his hemlock, in which he consoled his followers with the assurance that he was simply laying down his physical form to take up conversation with the great thinkers of the past. It is also evident in the rites of passage in pre-urban cultures, which often include a merging with animal or divine consciousness – mergings that have no obvious physical manifestation but that can be sensed by the wise.

This thread is exposed most directly in Indian philosophy. Trying to find a solid basis for managing the natural world, Indian philosophers rapidly realized that we do not have direct experience of nature – everything is mediated by our senses. Diving into a study of the senses, they encountered the vagaries of the mind: two people observing the same phenomenon emphasize different things. A beautiful woman may be an object of desire to one man, but “mother” to another. Plumbing the depths of how we form intentions, the Indian philosophers consistently encountered, beneath all of our corrupting interests, an eternal presence of universal love. As mystics withdrawing from the world of things to celebrate that presence, often reduced to penury, they became irrelevant. Prompted by the longing of love to be revealed in service to all people, the mystics began to study to problems of their peers, which were almost always practical. And so the cycle was renewed in the study of nature.

In the West, the turning of this cultural wheel was impeded by the rise of Christianity and Islam, both of which celebrate prophets and propagate rituals that purport to guide the faithful into the presence of the love celebrated by the Indian mystics.

The key word here is “purport.” Because relationship with the divine is discerned reliably only by the wise, religion falls all-too-easily into the pattern of illusion. This is not only a fault in the leaders of religions. who find it all too easy to turn their authority to material benefit (witness the success today of those peddling prosperity theology). Many adherents are also seeking charity, and not always from legitimate need. Blocked by self-seeking, they often fail to attain any meaningful mystical union.

What saddens me about modern academic philosophy is that it has succumbed almost entirely to Aristotelean materialism. It ignores or trivializes the Platonic experience of soul relation. It therefore surrenders fully half of the power of the human intellect, and in particular the half that allows us to tap into the energies that give strength to compassion and charity.

While they may appear narcissistic, my writings here are an attempt to give courage to those that recognize this great want in our hearts. In attempting to surrender myself as a servant to love, I have had many great and joyful experiences. But it is not of me that the greatness arises. From me arises only the hungering to feel joy, and the hope that it will not be denied me.