A Short Guide to Western Philosophy, Part I
He that has the strength, let him arise and withdraw into himself,
foregoing all that is known by the eyes
Since the beginning of time, one of the main issues for philosophers has been the mind/body problem. What is the self? Is there a soul? Are they the same thing and how do they relate to the mind � as opposed to the brain � and how to the body?
Indeed, the famous dictum inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, �Know Thyself�, dating back to the days of ancient Greece, points to the most fundamental question that has featured in man�s consciousness since the start of recorded history: who am I?
Essentially, there are three schools of thought with regard to the mind/body problem: those who believe that only matter exists; those who believe that only the mind exists; and those who believe that both matter and the mind exist, distinct from one another, but linked together in some particular way.
For those people who think that only matter exists � materialists � the �mind� is unreal in the sense that it has no independent existence. More specifically, they believe that the �mind� is essentially a combination of chemical reactions and electrical impulses. The fact that we experience something that feels like a �mind�, with all its sensory experience like memory and emotion, is merely a by-product of these physical processes, an �epiphenomenon�.
Moreover, all human interaction is seen as a chain of cause and effect events, nothing more than responses determined by genetic and behavioural programming coupled with environmental conditioning. On one level, this could make perfect sense � think of someone suffering from brain damage and the effect it has on a person�s ability to communicate with the outside world. But if we then stop and consider the person on the inside � just because they cannot communicate in a so-called ordinary way because their �mind� is impaired, would you say that their sense of self is also annihilated? How can we ever tell, in fact, what is going on in anyone else�s brain and how they perceive the world around them? There are numerous cases of people waking up out of a coma after many years with all their physical and mental faculties intact and fully functioning. And then what about non-human things in the world � how can we ever know what it�s like to be an animal? A plant? A stone?
If one subscribes to the materialists� view of the world, one could go on to argue that computers and robots will one day be able to think for themselves � not functioning as they do now by manipulating input, but by actually having their own self awareness, having what scientists call �Artificial Intelligence�.
Let us pause, then, for a thought experiment. Imagine, if you will, a room. Inside the room is a man who speaks English but knows absolutely no Chinese. He is given a batch of Chinese writing so of course, he has no idea what it is about. He is then given another batch of writing, again in Chinese, along with a set of instructions, written in English.
The first set of Chinese writing is a story, the second set a list of questions and answers relating back to the story. The English instructions essentially enable the man sitting in the room to match up specific Chinese characters, effectively meaning that the man has no need to understand what the story in Chinese is about.
The man is then given a third batch of Chinese writing, this time another set of questions. However, by using the English instructions and the knowledge he has gained by matching up corresponding characters between the first and second sets, he is able to produce appropriate answers in Chinese to the third. If these answers are given to a native Chinese speaker � and assuming the instructions have been followed correctly � that person would automatically assume that the man in the room can also speak Chinese.
So what conclusion can we come to? The man in the room is able to give the impression that he can speak Chinese when in fact he can�t understand one single word of it. A robot or a computer works in the same way � managing information, giving the impression that it can understand it all when in fact it is merely responding to patterns of data.
More importantly, it shows that some form of conscious intelligence must be present for there to be any meaningful response, to be able to appreciate the subtlety of content � in this particular thought experiment, actually understanding and appreciating the story in Chinese.
Let us now turn our attention to the second group of people who believe that both matter and mind coexist � the dualists as they are collectively known. Plato, pupil of the great Athenian teacher, Socrates who lived in the fifth century BCE, believed that each of us has a physical body as well as a thinking, immortal, non-physical soul; this soul has come down from the transcendent realm, which is beyond space and time, and is imprisoned within the body. Unfortunately, the soul has forgotten its eternal nature, owing to human ignorance and it is, therefore, mankind�s lifelong task to recollect the self�s divine origins through philosophical enquiry.
Plato also believed that this transcendent realm is where the universal Forms or Ideas exist, the permanent and indestructible blueprints of reality. In other words, what Plato postulated was that the material things that we see and experience around us are only a representation, a copy of these greater, archetypal Ideas; so for example, a particular bird that we see preening itself in a tree is only a replica of the Idea bird, which is itself held in the transcendent realm. The particular bird, although living and breathing and thoroughly enjoying itself, will ultimately perish; the universal Idea of the bird, however, is abstract and eternal, existing for all time beyond the temporal phenomena of everyday life.
The best way of understanding Plato�s view of life is by way of an analogy, which he outlines in one of his famous books, The Republic. Plato likened human beings to prisoners who have been chained to a wall in a dark cave since their childhood. All their limbs are immobilised, including their heads which can only look in the direction of the opposite wall. Behind the prisoners, and much higher up, is a huge fire. Between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway � when people and objects pass along the walkway, they cast shadows on the opposite wall, which the prisoners are able to see. For the prisoners, then, this is the only reality. How could it be anything else?
Now, let us suppose, Plato continues, that one of the prisoners manages to escape from his shackles. First he will see the �real� people and objects, passing along the walkway and will realise that the shapes reflected on the opposite wall are, in fact, only shadows thrown by the fire. These so-called �real� people and objects represent Plato�s realm of universal Ideas; the shadows on the wall represent the particular people and objects seen in everyday life.
The prisoner then drags himself outside of the cave. As he emerges into the daylight, he is momentarily blinded by the sun � he has never seen anything like it before. But as his eyes accustom to his new surroundings, the truth of his imprisonment dawns on him � this is the ultimate reality. Indeed, the sun for Plato represents the supreme Idea in the transcendent hierarchy � also known as the Idea of the Good � which he believed to be synonymous with God.
Naturally, the prisoner never wants to return to that shadowy abyss ever again and yet he feels compelled to help set free his fellow prisoners. He therefore returns, reluctantly, to the cave; however, he now paradoxically experiences the shock of darkness. He can no longer identify the shadows on the walls at all and his fellow prisoners ridicule him, saying that his sight has in fact been ruined, not illumined, by his foray out of the cave. Hard to believe as it is, there are many people who actually resist being shown the true nature of things.
So, this is the whole thrust of Plato�s philosophy � the difference between the particular and the universal, between appearance and essence, between changing sensory perceptions and the changeless rational truth, and the person who can understand this difference, who is able to look within and reconnect with his inner being, his immortal soul, has a hope of living a more enlightened existence.
This is all very well but how does this all relate to my own experience? Is there really an immortal soul?
How do we actually know that all that we see around us is merely the play of shadows, in effect an illusion?
Many philosophers have challenged Plato�s view over the centuries. Aristotle, his pupil, whilst also believing in a soul, turned his teacher�s philosophy on its head by saying that reality is in fact enshrined in the world of nature and things and people and not in the transcendent realm.
Fast forward a good few hundred years and we arrive at the Scientific Revolution, and the seventeenth century French philosopher, Ren� Descartes, who thought it was about time the subject of the self should be settled, once and for all. Descartes decided to strip away every single theory and belief he possessed in order to find the one remaining constant of which there could be no dispute. And for accomplishing such a noble task, Descartes is often referred to as the Father of Modern Philosophy.
What can any of us know with absolutely certainty? Who am I � really? Think of all the things that define us in some way � our bodies, our thoughts and feelings, our relationships, our work, our political persuasions, religious faith, our nationality and race. But all these things are changing; they are all ephemeral, in a constant state of flux and change.
And these were the very things that Descartes wanted to get beyond. What part of �me� is not subject to change? And what can I ever know for certain? By using a method of systematic doubt, he decided to accept only that which he could know was absolutely true, was beyond any shadow of uncertainty. For Descartes knew that not only could he be deceived by his own senses, he could also be deceived by his own logic. In fact, he even postulated that a malicious demon might be duping him into experiencing a world around him that doesn�t, in fact, exist. Indeed, how can we ever be sure that we are not dreaming, that we are trapped inside the hallucinations of a malevolent being, dictating our every mental experience?
After much deliberation, Descartes arrived at his first fundamental principle � that thought exists. Furthermore, he extrapolated that thought cannot be separated from �me�, even if I am locked in a dream; therefore, �I� must exist. And even if I doubt this very fact, �I� as the thinking subject must be there to doubt it.
So, only of this fact, and this fact alone, could Descartes be absolutely certain � his own existence. This is the conclusion that he comes to � cogito ergo sum, je pense donc je suis, I think therefore I am.
It is important to understand that Descartes also believed in God, since he reasoned that something cannot proceed from nothing. However, whereas he believed that God had created the universe and all its physical components, he also believed that it was left to function by its own devices, without any divine intervention. The universe, as well as the human body � in other words, everything beyond the mind � is therefore akin to a machine, which obeys predictable, mechanical laws.
So Descartes was thinking along the same lines as Sir Isaac Newton who, in effect, also said that although the universe is divinely created, it works by its own internal laws and logic.
After Descartes, the eighteenth century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, took some of Descartes' ideas a step further, in particular the dictum, cogito ergo sum. Kant coined the phrase, �the transcendental unity of apperception�, by which he means that we all possess a pure, baseline self-conscious that forms the very foundation of our awareness, within which all associated perceptions arise.
Similarly, Kant divided the world up into two distinct substances � phenomena arising within the mind, and things-in-themselves existing outside of the mind. All we can known with any certainty are phenomena in the mind; those things which exist in the empirical world, despite possessing an independent, causal existence, can never be known in themselves, owing to the fact that their existence can only be perceived through the senses as phenomena within the mind. In other words, the world as we know it can only ever be an interpretation.
Looking at it another way, you know that you exist. However, as far as I am concerned, you are only an impression in my mind and, therefore, I have no real way of determining whether you exist or not, regardless of the fact that you do. You may tell me that you most definitely do exist but because that fact is filtered through my mind and my senses, it effectively proves nothing. In short, you�ll never be able to convince me whether you exist or not.
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