Art, Authenticity, Beauty, Being True To Yourself, Blundering Criticisms, Critiques, Free Spirit, Life, Living, Nature, Observation, Outstanding Bloggers, People, Photography, Quality of Life, Robin, Spirituality, The Art of Living Well, Well Being, Writing

Walking With Robin

(About a 2 minute read)

“The morning sunlight, in the spring, bounces off the sconces on the pendulum lights [in my kitchen] and creates a star-like pattern on the ceiling.  It’s a signal that spring has arrived.” — Robin, Breezes at Dawn Blog [Brackets Paul’s].

Anyone wishing to find his or her own true voice — but who is uncertain what that means — would do well to study Robin’s posts on her blog, Breezes at Dawn.

Of course, it is nearly impossible today to express a wholly new idea, especially outside the sciences.  Those who do now and then manage to come up with something even approaching a wholly new idea tend to be keen observers, rather than creative alone.

Robin is quite obviously a keen observer (see above quote), but — offhand — I can’t recall her expressing any more original ideas than the rest of us.  What makes her voice her own are not the ideas she expresses, but the virtually unique and special way in which she expresses them.

In short, her style.

Continue reading “Walking With Robin”

Belief, Consciousness, Cultural Traits, Culture, Enlightenment, God, God(s), Human Nature, Ideas, Intuition, Knowledge, Mysticism, Observation, Religion, Satori, Self, Self-Integration, Self-Realization, Spirituality, Transformative Experience

What Do Mystics Mean by “God”?

“Theologians may quarrel, but the mystics of the world speak the same language.” ― Meister Eckhart

SUMMARY:  Mystics naturally speak of the experience that distinguishes them from other folks using words and terms derived from their individual cultures.  Hence, they typically speak of having experienced “god”, but upon examination, their notions of god often tend to have more in common with other mystics than they do with common cultural notions of god.  Central to virtually all theistic mysticism is the notion that god — or ultimate reality — is an all-encompassing oneness or One, despite any appearances to the contrary.

(About a 10 minute read)

I first became interested in mysticism about 40 years ago.  I was a sophomore at university and seriously concerned with finding an objective basis for values.

At the time, I believed — like many people still do — that unless an objective basis for values could be found, “anything was permissible”.  No evil, however great, could be objectively opposed.  And that frightened me.

Unfortunately, the more I learned, the less there seemed to be any possibility of an objective basis.  But then I came across the writings of various mystics.

Continue reading “What Do Mystics Mean by “God”?”

Christianity, Cultural Traits, Culture, Human Nature, Ideas, Intersubjective Verification, Knowledge, Learning, Logic, Observation, Philosophy, Quality of Life, Reason, Science, Scientific Method(s), Scientist, Subjective Verification, Thinking, Truth

Paul’s Brief and Saucy Primer to the Scientific Revolution

SUMMARY:  Several things or factors had to come together for the Scientific Revolution to take place.  The factors include logical reasoning, empiricism, peer review, and at least two basic worldviews.

(About a 7 minute read)

If you’re like me, your first question about this blog post will almost certainly be, “How did Paul’s briefs ever come to prime the Scientific Revolution?” I myself would say that’s a pretty good question!

On the other hand, if you’re NOT like me, but you instead suffer from a dangerous infestation of sanity, you probably already know that the Scientific Revolution is arguably one of the most consequential events in the entire intellectual and material history of our noble and esteemed species of poo-flinging, fur-challenged super-apes — and that it is still unfolding. Moreover, that knowledge may have gotten you to wondering how such an extraordinary thing ever got started?

As it turns out, that’s a huge question. Huge!

Continue reading “Paul’s Brief and Saucy Primer to the Scientific Revolution”

Abuse, Belief, Community, Cultural Traits, Culture, Ethics, Free Spirit, Hate, Human Nature, Late Night Thoughts, Life, Living, Logic, Love, Morality, Morals, Mysticism, News and Current Events, Observation, Oppression, Passion, Poetry, Reason, Self-Knowledge, Skeptical Thinking, Spirituality, Thinking, Truth, Unconditional Love

Late Night Thoughts: Belief, Love, Mysticism, Blaming, and More (September 4, 2018)

(About a 7 minute read)

Almost immediately following World War II, and American firm was hired to poll the Japanese public on several issues, mostly — as I recall now — regarding the occupation and new constitution.  It was the first time the Japanese public had ever been polled.

The firm soon discovered an unexpected problem.  The Japanese people didn’t know how to answer questions about what they personally believed.

Continue reading “Late Night Thoughts: Belief, Love, Mysticism, Blaming, and More (September 4, 2018)”

Belief, Biases, Cognitive Biases, Epistemology, Intersubjective Verification, Logic, Nature, Observation, Philosophy, Reality Based Community, Reason, Science, Scientific Method(s), Scientist, Skeptical Thinking, Thinking, Truth

“How unbiased is science and how unbiased are the scientists?”

A Special Guest Post by Boyd Stace Walters II

(An 11 minute read)

Boyd Stace-Walters here.  Worldly epistemologist, savvy logician, and adept philosopher of the sciences parachuting in from an undisclosed location and secret hideaway in academia to answer Mr. Bottomless Coffee’s excellent compound question, “How unbiased is science and how unbiased are the scientists?”

As it happens Mr. Bottomless Coffee, that question was the single most frequently asked question at the most recent party I was invited to back in ’96.

Admittedly, the reason it was the most asked question is because I got deliriously drunk on two two many glasses of the old bubbly and started asking it of all the guests.  I was hallucinating they were graduate students, you see.  But I’ve learned my lesson, and never again will I drink at my own wedding.

Continue reading ““How unbiased is science and how unbiased are the scientists?””

Becky, Belief, Delusion, Education, Eric, Friends, Knowledge, Life, Logic, Makyo, Observation, People, Physics, Reason, Science, Scientific Method(s), Skeptical Thinking, Spirituality, Subjective Verification, Thinking, Truth, Wisdom

Becky’s Belief in Spiritual Energy

(About a 5 minute read)

Eric is an online friend who took his doctorate in physics.

I don’t know if he took his doctorate anywhere other than that, but I think he really should take it to a movie or fine restaurant every now and then.  I mean, presumably Eric has mounted his degree by now — he might as well show his degree that it means more to him than a mere quickie.

I’ve told Eric as much, of course, but his phone must be one of those older models that barely functions because the line has always gone dead on me when I’ve encouraged him to be more considerate of his physics degree’s pheelings.

Continue reading “Becky’s Belief in Spiritual Energy”

Belief, Deity, Enlightenment, Epistemology, God, God(s), Knowledge, Mysticism, Observation, Philosophy, Religion, Satori, Self, Spirituality, Thinking, Transformative Experience, Vacilando

Can a Mystical Experience Tell Us Anything About God?

(About an 18 minute read)

One of the greater joys of older gentlemen of an intellectual bent such as myself is cackling at younger people in the park is discovering obscure philosophical problems that most likely won’t be solved within our own lifetimes.  As it happens, that’s not so easy to do these days, since all the really good problems have already been discovered.  Problems like, “If deity exists, then how do we know it exists?”,  “What does it mean to live a good life?”,  and of course, “What is the maximum number of chickens that can cross the same road in the same joke?”

But why indulge oneself in attempting to solve unsolvable problems in the first place?

As it happens, the world population can be divided into two kinds of people:  Those who love their journey more than their destination, and those who love their destination more than their journey.  If you are someone who most loves his or her destination, then you probably are not attracted to unsolvable problems, for such problems are pretty much all journey and no arrival.

Yet, if you most love — and perhaps even crave — the thrill of traveling in and of itself, then perhaps you are one of those relatively rare individuals who cherishes the way pondering an unsolvable problem can get you thinking creatively beyond the common assumptions we all have about things.  And at least sometimes, you will be rewarded — not with a solution to the problem — but with a greater understanding of the issues involved.

As for myself, I fall into the latter category of humans.  I savor the journey quite often more than the destination.  At least when it comes to philosophical problems.  In fact, I have taken to heart Kenko’s maxim, “The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty”, and all but find offensive most efforts to bring philosophical journeys to safe and secure destinations.  Give me the climb, but not necessarily the mountain’s summit.  I like the changing views on the way up best of all.

Now, despite how hard it is these days to discover new philosophical problems that are virtually insolvable, I myself am proud to say that I believe I may have found one.  I’ve actually been mulling it over for a few years, and I believe that anyone who properly understands the issue will agree with me that it has no easy solution, if it has any solution at all.

Yet here’s the rub: The problem takes some explaining.  The explanations are simple enough, once you grasp them, but they run to a little length.   Let’s begin, however, by stating the problem: “Assuming that god exists, is there any guarantee that a mystical experience of god imparts knowledge of god?”

Put differently: “If you somehow first knew that god existed, and you had a mystical experience that at least appeared to you to be of god, could you say with absolute certainty that anything you learned about god during that experience was true?”

Once again, “Even if we were certain that god existed, are self-proclaimed prophets like Pat Robinson justified to believe that the messages they receive from god provide genuine knowledge of god’s will, character, etc.?”

To be sure, there is an easy answer to the question.  Unfortunately, the easy answer seems to rest on a misunderstanding of the question.   The easy way out is to say “no” on the grounds that we cannot know for certain that our experience of god is not a delusion, hallucination, brain fart, etc.  But that answer ignores that the question asks us to assume we know god exists.  Although most people will not make such a silly mistake, my experience of people says some are bound to.

Having said that, let’s now get on with my awesome explanation of the problem.  We should first define “mystical experience”.

People commonly mean upwards of a dozen things by “mystical experience”.  Things like clairvoyance, mind-reading, near death experiences, out of body experiences, and so forth.  In this beautiful essay, however, we will mean one, and only one, thing by “mystical experiences”.  Namely, one’s first cup of hot, fresh coffee on a chilly morning the experience of “oneness with everything”.

The experience of oneness is famously difficult to describe to anyone who has not themselves had it.  Yet, the experience seems to lie at the root of the notion there is some such thing as “spiritual enlightenment”.  That is, moksha, samadhi, nirvana, satori, kensho, etc.  It also seems quite likely to in many cases inform or influence notions of god — especially those notions commonly found in Hinduism (e.g. Brahman), but also in other religious traditions, such as mystical Judaism (e.g. Ein Sof), and even the Christian God.  While many people who have had a mystical experience do not claim it was an experience of god, very many others do.

Now, I’m just enough a god-snob to believe that — if there is a god — the mystical experience is in all likelihood the purest, most authentic experience of that god that our noble and esteemed species of spear-chucking super-chimpanzees can have.  I cheerfully peer down and sniff my perfectly handsome nose™ at auditory or visual “experiences” of god.  How can any sensible person compare merely hearing the voice of god, or simply seeing an image of deity, to the overwhelming,  earth-shattering,  life-transforming, supreme experience of oneness?  The very thought of it!  Tsk. Tsk.

Like most snobs — whether god-snobs, social-snobs, or some other kind of snob — I myself have no extensive personal experience of the superiority I claim to be the highest available standard that can be aspired to.   What modest experience I do have, I recognize as being anything but definitive of the whole range of mystical experiences that humans seem capable of having unless you count that purely blissful moment when  I first saw Terri’s breasts by the moonlight.  So I am quite cautious about defining the mystical experience.

However, after 35 or so years of interest in the topic, I’ve come to the tentative conclusion that all mystical experiences I’ve heard of have at least one thing in common.  That is, they involve a specific, defining change in our perception of reality.

Now, grab hold of your seat, strap yourself in, for here comes the core description of what makes an experience “mystical”.  A mystical experience can be distinguished from a non-mystical experience by the simple fact that it (1) involves an abrupt cessation of our normal, everyday, “subject/object perception”, and (2) its replacement by an awareness or experiencing of the oneness of all things.

I can only imagine, dear reader, that you are now in awe of the sheer elegance of my description.  The experience of god, summed up in 41 words!  Only my scurrilous two ex-wives would seek to distract you from the glory of my accomplishment by daring to suggest that I stole the description from someone!

Which, of course, I did.

I confess the basic idea is derived from the writings of Sam Harris, who — whatever else he is — is an author of beautiful, clear, and concise prose, genuine wit, and sharp insights.  In fact, I am so struck by Harris the author, that I believe his only major flaw as an author is that he’s not me, poor man.  But putting all that aside, what do we mean by “subject/object perception”?

The concept is simple enough once you get it.  Merely look at whatever device you’re reading this on, and then observe that you have a sense or feeling of that device being distinct from your self.  Or take note of anything else in your perceptual field, whether that something else is a sight, a sound, a taste, a touch, or an odor.  Without usually thinking about it, you divide the world into self and non-self.  “I see a tree, but do not see the tree as me.”  “I hear a plane, but I do not hear the noise as part of myself.”  That’s subject/object perception, which is our normal, everyday way of perceiving the world.

Now, it’s relatively rare — but it is still possible — for subject/object perception to come to an abrupt end while yet some form of awareness or experiencing continues.  When that happens, the division of the world into me and not-me breaks down, and you are left with a perception that all things within your perceptual field are really, in some profound or fundamental sense, just one thing.  Or, as Robert Plant famously sings in Stairway to Heaven, “When one is one and one is all”.

It is quite easy to interpret such an experience as an experience of god.  For instance, what could be greater than that oneness?  Absolutely nothing you perceive lies outside it, apart from it.  Everything is included in it.  Everything is embraced by it.

Second, that experience of oneness almost invariably comes with an overwhelming sense or feeling that it is real.  Indeed, our normal, everyday sense or feeling that something is real pales in comparison.   Were you to lower your head, snort like a raging bull, and then charge at full tilt and head first into a brick wall you would — if you survived the experience — have a nearly unshakable conviction that the wall was real.  Perhaps you could later on intellectually convince yourself that it wasn’t real, that you were really a brain in a vat, and that the wall was a delusion, but I think it’s highly unlikely that you could convince yourself of that much beyond an intellectual level.

The experience of oneness is that feeling of realness on steroids.   Which, I think, largely explains why so many people who’ve reported having it come away convinced that our normal, everyday reality is an illusion, and that the reality of oneness is the True or Ultimate Reality.

There are a few other generally present attributes to the experience, such as a feeling or sense of infinity, an experience of bliss or ecstasy, an experience of unconditional love, and so forth.  Some people come away from such experiences convinced they have assured knowledge of god, such as that “God is infinite”.

But how can they be certain that god is infinite?  Please recall that we are assuming god exists: Our question is only whether on not we can trust an experience of god to tell us something about the properties of god.

Now some — but not all — mystics are inclined to say the mystical experience is so convincingly real that it cannot possibly be the case that it is misleading.  “My experience of X as real convinces me that X must be real.”  But we know we can be convinced something is real without its actually being real.  Many people are convinced the sky is blue, but we know the blueness of the sky is not an actual property of the atoms and molecules that comprise the atmosphere, but rather an effect of the diffusion of light through it.  No matter how great the sense or feeling is that something is real, we cannot be certain on those grounds alone something is actually real.

Something else that might incline us to believe our experience of god has given us assured knowledge of god’s properties is the simple faith that “seeing is believing”, or put more precisely, “Experience or observation is conclusive evidence of fact”.  But this too is quite obviously not the case.  The floor lamp beside my desk looks solid, but we know from physics that it is comprised of atoms held in a matrix with more space between the atoms than there is space occupied by the atoms themselves.  In other words, far from being that solid matter that I observe, my floor lamp is largely empty space — much like the mostly empty inside of a politician’s cranium.

So neither the conviction that something is real, nor the observation that something is real, can assure us that something is real.  Hence, the experience of god as infinite cannot be certain evidence that god is infinite on either one of those grounds.  Does that leave any other grounds for such a claim?

As it happens, some mystics make the curious claim that their experience of god is immediate.  By “immediate”, they seem to at the very least mean that their experience of god is not mediated by the senses.  Instead, they have a direct awareness of god, perhaps in somewhat the same sense of our having a direct awareness of the thoughts in our head.

Now, if it is true that mystics can have an immediate experience of god, then that would provide a different sort of grounds for the claim that an experience of god as infinite is conclusive evidence that god is infinite, for how can an unmediated experience be anything but a true experience?

To say that it could be a false experience would be like saying my experience of thinking could be a false experience, and that I might not be experiencing any thoughts at all even when I think I am thinking — a logical contradiction that, so far as anyone knows, has only been accomplished by the membership of the Ku Klux Klan.

Hence,  we cannot say that an immediate experience of god as infinite could be false on anything like the same grounds that we can say the conviction that an experience is real could be false, or the observation that something is the case could be false.  But does that still leave us with good grounds to doubt our experience?

When I think I’m thinking, are there ever any grounds to doubt that I’m thinking?

The answer is quite obviously, “no”.  And yet, there remain good grounds to doubt that my experience of thinking accurately reflects or represents thinking itself.  To illustrate, suppose I think about the most ecstatic experience of my first wedding night: The three fulfilling, blissful hours I spent in bed intimately lecturing my new wife on the epistemology of carnal knowledge.  My thoughts of that taste of heaven on earth appear to me as their content.  But I know from the sciences that in actuality those thoughts might somehow be the product of biological events in my brain, the mass firings of neurons.  In which case, there is a crucial gulf between my experience of thinking, and my thinking itself.

Of course, that gulf is normally hidden from me.  I have much less awareness of neurons firing in my brain than normal, healthy teenagers have of their mothers asking them to do their chores.  Yet — assuming it is the case that all thought is ultimately the product of those neurons, and there is no such thing as a consciousness that exists independent of them — I have here sufficient grounds to doubt that even a direct, unmediated experience of god as infinite necessarily proves that god is indeed infinite.

After all, if there be a gulf between my experience of thinking and thinking itself,  there could be a quite similar gulf between my experience of god as infinite and god’s “infinity”.  For all I can know, my experience bears no or almost no resemblance to god’s infinity.

A somewhat imperfect analogy here might be colors.  Most of us commonly see the various objects in our perceptual fields as having colors.  Green leaves, pink sunsets, purple flowers, and so forth.  But colors are not properties of those objects.  Instead, they are manufactured in our heads.  The objects themselves have no colors at all.  Because they are manufactured in our heads by tiny tiny little elves trust me! we can say we have an immediate experience of colors.  But even the immediacy of that experience does not entail that they really exist apart from us.  In somewhat the same fashion, it seems possible that god’s infinity might be manufactured in our heads.

So, even if we grant that god exists, and that our mystical experiences are somehow of god, we cannot be certain that any knowledge those experiences impart to us is true knowledge.  But if that is indeed the case for what we have been calling here “mystical experiences”, it is also the case for merely auditory or visual experiences of god.  To say — as a Pat Robertson might say — “God spoke to me last night and said, ‘I will send an earthquake to devastate Utah for I am angry with the Mormons who live there’.” is subject to the same uncertainties as mystical experiences.  We have no way of knowing whether that message is assured knowledge of god’s will, character, or intentions.

But why stop there?  If we cannot say with absolute assurance that god is infinite or that god is angry with virtually anyone who fails to contribute lavishly to our TV ministry, can we say that an experience of god imparts any certain knowledge of god at all?  I think not.  Even if we assumed something exists apart from our own brains that is the ultimate cause of our experiences of god, we could not say with complete assurance that we knew much of anything about that something.  For all we could really know, god might be some as yet undiscovered combination of natural causes.

To be sure, quite the opposite of what we’ve been saying could also be true.  Maybe an experience of god as infinite quite accurately reflects or resembles god’s infinity.  The point here is not that such a thing is impossible, but that it is uncertain.

I do not wish anything I’ve said here to be misunderstood as poo-pooing the notion of god, nor as hostile to the notion that mystical experiences can be immensely life-affirming, to say the least.  I have plenty of doubts about the notion of god, and plenty more doubts about certain specific notions of god, but I have far fewer fixed and firm convictions about god than perhaps most of us.  And I have personal experience of how life-affirming seeing Terri’s breasts in the moonlight mystical experiences can be.

Yet, like Jiddu Krishnamurti and some others, when it comes to these things, I believe certainty is largely or even entirely counter-productive.   You might find the god you set out to find, but that god will be a projection of your own convictions about what a god should be.  Or so it seems to me.

So what do you make of all this?  What am I missing here?  Your comments, questions, rants, and mouth-watering insights are welcomed!


For a larger and more general discussion of mysticism, see “Mysticism is a Whore: Allow Me to Introduce You“.

Aesthetics, Authenticity, Beauty, Being True To Yourself, Community, Consciousness, Cultural Traits, Culture, Ethics, Evil, Human Nature, Humor, Idealism, Ideologies, Internet, Introspection, Knowledge, Law, Life, Morality, Morals, Observation, Relationships, Self, Self Identity, Self Image, Self-Knowledge, Society, Thinking, Tomoko, Ugliness, Wisdom, Yin Yang

Late Night Thoughts: Nipples, Yin and Yang, Self-Knowledge, Yakuza, and More

(An 11 minute read)

Yesterday afternoon was bright and crisp.  The snow from a couple days before had melted, leaving the grasses verdant, albeit destroying the pink crab apple blossoms.  I wondered if their seeds had made it through the cold.

Late in the afternoon, one of my next door neighbors walked past my window, carrying his tiniest child in a car seat.  The little one was kicking joyfully — apparently at the sunlight on his legs, perhaps attempting to dislodge it.

A few moments later, the woman appeared, and then the toddler.  The man and the woman walked purposely towards their car.  The toddler had other ideas, though.  Every three to five feet he was stopped in his tracks by the sight of something interesting!  Green shoots!  Dog poop!  More shoots!

Suddenly, his parents were calling to him, demanding he hurry up.  Green shoots forgotten, he ran towards them, his legs almost a blur trying to keep up with his head, which — in the manner of a toddler — was improbably far in front of his body.

◊◊◊

Some years ago, I was introduced to internet chat rooms by a computer savvy friend.   “Here, I have something to show you, Paul.”  Mike said, turning towards his desktop computer.   A click or two, and suddenly the room was engulfed by the shrieking death throes of the Loch Ness monster.

“Paul?  Paul, you can come out of the closet.”

“Is it gone?”

“It’s only my modem, Paul.  I’m dialing up the internet.”

“You’re dialing up who?”

“Paul, get the hell out of my closet right now!”

Later that same evening…  “Look, Paul!  She’s come online!  It’s Jolene!”

“Jolene?  Do you mean, ‘PussyVentura’?”

“Yes, that’s her username.”

“Username?”

“I’ll explain later. ”

Several minutes later…  “What I need from you right now is a poem.  Write a poem to her, so I can impress her with it, Paul.”

“I don’t know, Mike, the last time you got romantic about some…”.

“A poem, Paul, that’s all I’m asking for.  I’m certainly not asking for a recap of my romantic history!”

“But, Mike, a Russian bride?”

“Poem! Now!”

Five minutes later…  “Where’s my poem, Paul?”

“I’m still working on it, Mike”

“I need it now!  She said she was logging off, so I told her to wait.  Give me what you’ve got!”

“Um…try typing this:  Your beauty cleanses me of sorrow, my Jolene.”

“Your beauty cleanses me of sorrow,  my Jolene.”

“It gives me courage to live for tomorrow, my Jolene.”

“It gives me courage to live for tomorrow, my Jolene.  Oh, Paul, this is going to be good, I can tell.  See?  You can do it!  What’s next?”

“You even make me want to face”

“You even make me want to face”

“With grace”

“With grace…That’s pretty good, Paul, I like that.  What’s next?  Quick!  What’s next?”

“The challenge”

“The challenge”

“Of your morning breath, my Jolene.”

“Of your mornin…  Are you kidding me, Paul?  Are you kidding me!”

“It’s all I got, Mike.”

“Oh, Jesus!”

“Too passionate?”

◊◊◊

I’ve heard that in placental mammals, the number of nipples divided by two strongly correlates with average litter size.  A species, like ours, with two nipples typically has one offspring per litter.   But a species that has six nipples will on average have three offspring per litter.

Of course, it all gets complicated when you realize that some species have no fixed number of nipples.  Pigs, for instance, range from 6 to 32 nipples, depending on the breed.

◊◊◊

My second wife, Tomoko, was educated in an elite Japanese school that required her to learn how to read and write classical Chinese, much as some elite Western schools require Latin of their students.  She also had a large set of books — each one beautifully bound, printed, and separately encased — that contained the works in Chinese of nearly a hundred ancient authors.  Most of them never published in English.

At times, she and I were in the habit of dining out, and I coaxed her into regularly bringing along a volume or two of her set so that she could translate them for me after we’d finished our meals.  One of my favorite authors was Kan Chu (circa 600 – 550 B.C.), who — in Tomoko’s translation — once said this, “Clothes, food, shelter: Satisfy these first, then teach people to be human.  When people have those things, it will be easier to govern them.”

To put that in context, almost all ancient Chinese wisdom literature is nominally addressed to the rulers, and couched in terms of how to govern the people, regardless of whether it has much to do with governing or not.  When you think about it, that made a lot of sense since it was the ruling class for the most part that could read and write.  So Kan Chu was probably not being cynical in urging his audience to make sure the people had “clothes, food, and shelter” in order to more easily govern them.

More likely, I think, he was genuinely concerned with the people’s welfare.  But whatever the case, his advice to take care of necessities before teaching people the finer things in life impresses me as good advice even to this day.  Especially today, when “clothes, food, and shelter” are once again at risk for larger and larger numbers of people.

◊◊◊

 I don’t know about modern Chinese, but classical Chinese had about twenty words for “no”, not one of which meant “absolutely no”.  The closest you could get to an absolute no  — that is, the closest you could get to the Western sense of “no” — was a word that meant, “almost always no”.

This was completely in keeping with the ancient Chinese understanding of yin and yang, the two principles which are the immediate manifestations of the Tao in the world.

Yin and yang are not opposites in the Western sense of “yes and no”, “feminine and masculine”, or “good and evil”.   Yin, sometimes called “the feminine principle”, is an aspect of yang, sometimes called “the masculine principle”.   Yang, in turn, is an aspect of yin.

So far as I’ve been able to find out, there is no truly dichotomous thinking in ancient Chinese wisdom literature.  Instead, even the Chinese equivalent of polar opposites reveal an underlying unity.   The most common Western expression that I know of to the Chinese way of thinking is to speak of apparent opposites as “really being two sides of the same coin”.

   ◊◊◊

One day in the 1960s, when Tomoko was about seven years old, her school was called to an unscheduled assembly.  There, the principal announced that the students were being dismissed for the day, and that they were to immediately go home.  No one should stop to play, loiter, or visit with friends.  Straight home and no detours!  Your parents have been called.  They are expecting you!

Strange as it might sound today, even very young schoolchildren in the 60s typically walked to and from school — if the distance wasn’t far — and even in big cities like Tokyo.  But that’s a digression for the benefit of my younger readers, who might never have heard of such a thing!

When Tomoko reached her home, her grandmother was already watching the television to see what had happened.   Soon, the news reports started coming in.  The police around the country were raiding the Yakuza dens!  They were, the reporters said, “attempting to peacefully arrest the bosses, but unfortunately, often finding themselves engaged in gun battles.  Several bosses are reported killed with no injuries so far on the police side.”

I don’t know when Tomoko learned the full story of that day’s events but here is what she told me many years later.  The Japanese mafia, or Yakuza, had grown out of control.  The bosses no longer knew their proper place.  Consequently, something had to be done.  The schools in major cities across the country were closed in case the situation got out of hand.  Then the police, armed with grenades and assault rifles, raided numerous “dens” and slaughtered without warning at least 100 ranking Yakuza and many times that of lower ranking members.

“Did they get them all”, I asked.

Naturally, Tomoko explained, they didn’t even try to kill all of them.  That would have left a void in society that some other group would then have to fill, upsetting the nation’s harmony.  Instead, the goal was to knock them down to where they were no longer a threat to the social order, and could instead provide their services to the community in peace.

I think it is sometimes hard for Westerners to understand the Eastern concept of opposites.  “Good and Evil” belong to the West, “Yin and Yang” (or “In and Yo”, in Japanese) belong to the East.  Our good and evil is dichotomous, where the one is, the other is not.  But yin and yang are not dichotomous.  Where the one is, the other is also.

Because yin and yang are the way of opposites in the East, so often the goal is not to eliminate or annihilate one (or the other), but rather to insure that they remain in harmony or balance with each other.   When the Yakuza got out of balance, when it was no longer in harmonious relationship with the rest of society, it became necessary — in the Japanese way of seeing things — to put it back in its proper place.  No more, no less.

In the West, no politician could ever get elected promising to conscientiously stop short of annihilating the mafia, the gangs, the cartels.  That would be the equivalent of professing to be soft on evil.

◊◊◊

Every real thought on every real subject knocks the wind out of somebody or other.   — Oliver Wendell Holmes.

◊◊◊

It seems most of us at one time or another confuse the map with the terrain when we believe our thoughts about ourselves are ourselves.

That’s to say, the map is our thoughts about ourselves. The terrain is who we are. Yet, so often we think what we think about ourselves is who we are.

I can think of myself any number of ways that are not likely to be borne out by my experience of myself. I can believe all sorts of things about myself that simple observation will disprove.

It seems to me that if one wishes to know who they are, the best place to start is with the non-judgmental observation of oneself in relationship to other things, very much including people.  It is key that the observation be as dispassionate, as non-judgmental as possible.    This can be exceedingly difficult to do because all your life you have been taught to praise or condemn yourself according to whether or not you measured up to some ideal, some person, some standard.

Yet, without non-judgmental observation, you will not come to know yourself as deeply as possible.  Judgments, although useful in many circumstances, are worse than useless here.  They are worse than neutral.  They actually distort who you really are.  To look at yourself through judgmental eyes is like looking at your image in a fun house mirror.

Moreover, you should look at yourself in relationship to things.  You should not simply introspect because doing so is quite likely to lead you into mistaking the map for the terrain, into mistaking your idea of yourself for yourself.  To really understand yourself you need a reality-check, and observing yourself in relationship can provide that reality-check.

Last, it can help immensely to create a journal in which you write down your observations on a daily basis, then review your journal regularly.  After a few weeks or months, if you do not discover many new and significant things about yourself, you can sue my lawyer.  By the way, I hereby grant all my powers of attorney to Donald Trump.

◊◊◊

“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.”  — Kong Qui (Confucius).  I wonder now what my neighbor, the toddler, thinks of dog poop.  Probably thinks it’s beautiful.  At his age, I believe, most of us do.   Sometimes the only thing that separates a child from a sage is age.

Consciousness, Creativity, Goals, Human Nature, Life, New Idea, Observation, Purpose, Thinking

The Observation of New Things

(About a 1 minute read)

It’s about 30 minutes before dawn.  I hear a wild goose off in the distance, and then my neighbor cough. Now and then a car passing on the distant street. My thoughts come and go.  I feel I should grab one of those thoughts, wrestle it into submission, and present it as a blog post.

But that can wait.  For now, I’d rather just watch the night turn into day.  The refrigerator comes on.  The furnace creaks.  I hear wind chimes from across the yard.  A morning dove.

The sky is light enough the trees are silhouetted against it now.  The early dawn.

I think an odd thing about observation is that we so often want to give it a purpose and then guide it. By guide it, I mean we want to weed out some of what’s happening because it doesn’t fit in with our purpose — with what we’re looking for.  Then, too, we want to hold onto other parts of what’s happening because those parts actually fit our purpose.

Yet — when we observe with a purpose in mind — we more or less observe what we expect to observe.

It seems to me that it can be extraordinarily difficult to observe without any purpose.  For the most part, we’re looking for something.  Often, that “something” is beauty, pleasure, or whatever we expect to find because we’ve seen it before.  But whatever it is, we are actively looking for it, whether we are fully conscious of actively looking for it, or not.

Still, it’s in those rarer moments when we are not looking for anything — when we do not seek beauty, pleasure, or this or that thing — that we are most likely to discover the new.

Bad Ideas, Belief, Boyd Stace-Walters, Consciousness, Delusion, Epistemology, Guest Authors, Humor, Knowledge, Logic, Memes, Observation, Philosophy, Reason, Science, Scientist, Truth

Scandalous! The Shocking Truth About Objects!

(About a 9 minute read)

It will surprise few of my familiar readers that, when I was but a tender child, my devoted mother would lullaby me to sleep by softly chanting over and over again four sweet questions:

What is truth?
What is belief?
What is knowledge?
What is justification?

Eventually, I was to discover at the age of seven, in one the most significant revelations of my life (second only to the understandably puzzling revelation that my first wife desired for us to indulge in sexual congress on our very wedding night!), that my mother’s four questions were the four foundational questions of epistemology.

Perhaps you can imagine the ecstatic, blissful joy I felt upon it being further revealed that the four questions could actually be studied, pursued with zeal, and that there might be answers to them!  Altogether, it was one of the happiest moments of my life.

Soon afterwards, my happiness was made nearly complete by my very first ever discovery in philosophy: Namely, that objects do not exist.

To be sure, I was reinventing the wheel, for the notion had long been known to philosophers and scientists.  Yet, the discovery encouraged me to write my first academic article, which was published in the even then strangely unpopular, Journal of Philosophical Investigations for Children, Ages 3 to 11.  I was off!  Off to becoming the epistemologist and logician that I am today!

I now wish your indulgence as I guide you on a wonderful trip down memory lane to revisit my “old haunt”, the scandalous problem of the object!

Exposed! The Sordid, Hidden Nature of Objects!

We should in all propriety begin with a definition: An object is anything that exists as an independent or discrete physical reality.

Now, perhaps nothing seems more obvious to us than that objects do exist. For instance, my copy of Gettier’s Almanac appears to physically exist independently of the desk it graces.  So why should I think Gettier’s Almanac is not an object?

Dear Reader, the astonishing fact is that claiming objects exist entails dreadful conclusions.  Simply dreadful conclusions!  I must strongly advise you to have your smelling salts at hand as we proceed with our revelations! Philosophy is not for the mild of heart!

The True Nature of Physical Reality Revealed!

Barring such implausible notions as that we are all disembodied consciousnesses, I believe the physical world is real, and that it exists apart from our minds.  Moreover, it appears to be made up in part of fundamental units of highly concentrated energy — call them what you will, “strings”, “quarks”, or even “atomic particles” — which when arranged in various ways, produce the material world that we empirically experience.

Purely for the sake of our convenience, we conceive of the various arrangements of those fundamental units as “objects”.  But the fact we conceive of them so, does not make them so.  For objects do not exist as physical entities, but only as concepts in our own minds.  And that, dear reader, has several implications, a few of which are actually quite stimulating even to very worldly minds, such as my own.

Objects Discredited by the Change Problem!

The notion that objects do not exist has ancient roots.  Around 500 B.C., Heraclitus had the imposing insight to observe, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”.  Thus Heraclitus raised what I call, “The change problem”.

The change problem is, as the name implies, the fact that objects tend to change over time and circumstance.  Heraclitus’ river, for instance, is in a constant state of flux — as is virtually everything else, albeit quite often at a slower pace.  But if that is so, then how is it possible to define something as an object?  Constant physical change raises the issue of what it means to say an object “physically exists”.

For instance, a high mountain over time is worn down by the elements until it becomes a mere hill, or even flat land.  So, precisely what can we mean when we call the mountain an object?  Do we mean the mountain as it was a million years ago?  A half million years ago?  Today?  And if today, do we mean today at 10:59 AM, or today at 3:23 PM?

There is basically only one way in which we can rationally claim all of those different mountains are in reality one and the same mountain.  That is to assert that, the mountain possesses some essential nature that has remained constant and unvarying though-out all the physical changes that the mountain has undergone.  But we must ask,  what could be the nature of that essential nature?  For it certainly cannot be something physical.

Frankly, the problem has driven some philosophers into raving madness.  That is, into scandalously metaphysical speculations!  The poor, depraved creatures have ended up imagining the mountain remains the same mountain by virtue of its possessing an indemonstrable metaphysical essence.  That is, an essence or nature “beyond the physical”.  But how can they possibly justify such an appalling delusion?  There is, in my opinion, simply no good argument for that distastefully speculative notion.  Simply none.

I shall not, however, digress into the reasons I am convinced, absolutely convinced, most days of the week that there is no justification for the metaphysical speculations of my poor, depraved colleagues.  We — by which I mean you and I, dear reader — have already put ourselves at sufficient risk of a coronary arrest from the sheer excitement of discussing the steamy topic of how the concept of the object so frequently seduces us humans.  Thus, I will reserve the alluring topic of metaphysical speculations for another day.

In sum, we cannot say that the mountain exists as an object in reality, but only as a concept in our own minds, without resorting to wild metaphysical speculations.  And what applies to the mountain, applies to all alleged objects.  They exist only as concepts, but not as physical realities.

Objects Compromised by the Boundary Problem!

The “boundary problem”, as I call it, is a philosophical dagger plunged by the passionate force of logic straight into the very heart of the notion objects physically exist independent of other objects.

To illustrate, first suppose you had a pile of sand.  Allow such a pile of sand to stand in for objects.  All objects.  Now, further suppose you were to diminish the pile by removing just one grain of sand at a time until no sand at all was left.  At which point in the process does your pile of sand cease to exist as an object?

You see, dear reader, if the pile of sand is actually an object — that is, something that exists as an independent physical reality, rather than as a mere concept of the mind — then there must necessarily be a precise boundary between when it is a pile of sand, and when it is no longer a pile of sand.  Were we to say, “There is no precise boundary, but it is still an object”,  we would be indulging ourselves in the terrifying sin of self-contradiction!  For then, we would be arguing that one object can merge into another object while yet remaining independent of the object it is merging into.  Frightful!

And the very same problem — the boundary problem — applies not just to our pile of sand, but to all objects.  When, for instance, does a shirt become not a shirt if we start picking away at it, one molecule at a time?

Shocking as it might be to us, we must now come to the full realization that we have been shamelessly seduced by our own imaginations into believing that physical reality is promiscuously strewn with objects.  In truth, those “objects” are nothing more than wanton concepts in our mind.

A Most Titillating Implication!

No doubt the natural excitements of the discussion have so far been just as robust and numerous for you, dear reader, as they have for me.  Perhaps you are even thinking, “Too much!  Far too much fun!”.  But I must ask you to stick with me for only a few words longer, for I now aim to briefly expose an astonishing implication of all that has gone before.

 You see, if objects are merely concepts, then it follows that scientists can not actually study them as physical realities.  But this logically raises the question of how can scientists, when studying physical realities, distinguish one physical reality from another?

The question is a large one, too large to explore here in this one post.  I propose, however, to explore it in a future post to be published on this same blog.  For now, it is time to bring to a close what, doubtlessly for some of my readers, has been a day of strenuous excitements!

Belief, Boyd Stace-Walters, Epistemology, From Around the Net, Guest Authors, Humor, Knowledge, Logic, Observation, Philosophy, Poetry, Reason, Thinking, Truth

The Shocking Truth About Truth!

(About a 10 minute read)

What is truth?  That question is certain to excite the latent epistemologist in all of us.  Consequently, I would be remiss were I not to inform you, my beloved readers, that the material we are to cover today may periodically induce you to reach for your smelling salts, such is the very nature of epistemology.

As myself not only an epistemologist, but a worldly epistemologist, I cannot properly tell you how appalled I am by the most common answers that I have heard made to the question, “What is truth?”

At the risk of causing you momentary heart palpitations, I would like to quote here an alarming exchange that I discovered on the internet!  On the internet and, I might add, in plain view of impressionable, young children who could thus have their tender, budding notions of logic warped forever by such a savagely circular exchange:

First Person: “I only know the truth according to me…my truth.”

Second Person: “How are you defining ‘truth’?”

First:  “The quality or state of being true.”

Second:  “Ok. And what makes something true?”

First:  “The quality of being true.”

Second: “What makes somethings have that quality and somethings not have that quality?”

First:  “It either does or doesn’t.”

Of course, the good news here is that the First Person in that exchange still has something left to look forward to in life, something as tangibly exciting as a first kiss, a massive job promotion, or the birth of a grandchild.  Namely, they have The Correspondence Theory of Truth to look forward to!

I myself believe it’s a safe wager that those scurrilous wags who say, “Epistemologists are stuffy and no fun”, have never yet partied with an epistemologist holding forth on the topic of The Correspondence Theory.  Why, at the last party I was invited to, back in ’86, I so enthralled my audience with the Theory that they fell one by one into blissful sleep, just as if I’d sung them the sweetest lullaby.  Even my wife later remarked how “creatively” I’d returned the best man’s toast on our wedding day!

Of all the theories of truth (and there are five major ones), the Correspondence Theory is both the oldest and most popular.  It dates in some form or another all the way back to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, roughly 2,400 years ago.   The gist of it is that the truth or falsity of a statement is determined only by how it relates to a reality, and that a statement is true if it corresponds (i.e. describes) a reality, and false if it does not.

For example:  Were I to say to you, “The scholar is sipping wine”,  that statement would be true if it were indeed the case that there was a scholar sipping wine.  And the statement would be false if that were not the case.

Now, the key take-away here is that the word “truth” is not synonymous with the word “reality”, but rather describes a quality of the relationship between a statement and a reality.  This is very much like the relationship of a map to its terrain.

A map is said to be accurate or true to the extent that it corresponds to a  terrain.   But we do not think of a map as being the same thing as its terrain.  Just so, we should not think of truth as being the same thing as reality.  To do so would, among other atrocities, make the word “truth” a mere redundancy.  Perhaps more importantly, it would tend in practice to close off any attempt to answer the question, “How do we know something is true?”

As it turns out, that question — “How do we know something is true?” — is far from suitable for bedtime reading.  One desires then only to be gently lulled to sleep by some fast-paced action/adventure or steamy romance novel, and a heart-pounding foray into the finer points of epistemology is the very last thing one needs!  The wise reader will thus be forewarned to grip their desk or chair in preparation for my next revelation!

How do we know something is true depends on, among other things, what we mean by “reality”.

Suppose we were to take the ghastly tack of defining “reality” in such a way that it could not — even in theory — be fully known to us!  Let us say, for instance, that at this very moment there exists an undetectable leprechaun singing inaudibly beneath my windowsill.  What on earth could I possibly mean by saying, “I know it to be true”?  You would be quite justified in asking, “How?”

For if the leprechaun is indeed undetectable, and if his singing is indeed inaudible, then there would seem to be no basis at all for my claim that he exists.  Of course, there is always the possibility, however remote, that he exists — if only because there is always the possibility that we might someday come up with a method of detecting him.  But we can no more claim that we are certain to come up with such a method as we can claim that we know today he exists.

Moreover, suppose I cannot even give a purely logical argument for why my leprechaun exists.  For it is possible for something to be known — not through empirical observation — but through logic alone.  For instance, 2 + 6 = 8 can be known through logic alone.  It can also be known through observation, but that does nothing to change the fact it can be known through logic alone.

If I can give you neither empirical evidence nor pure logic to support my claim that my leprechaun exists, then what can I possibly mean if I were to say, “The truth or falsity of my claim rests on its relationship to reality”?

It should be quite obvious to us now that The Correspondence Theory of Truth depends on “reality” being something discernible, if only in theory.

It can be discernible through pure logic, or it can be discernible through empirical observation, or through a combination of empirical observation and logical reasoning, but for The Correspondence Theory to make any sense at all, the “reality” it refers to must be discernible.

Now, despite being an artist, a creative genius, a mystic, a visionary, and a madman, William Blake had his limits: He was also a poet.  Perhaps for that reason alone, Blake tragically failed to leave us with a decently well-formulated epistemology.  Hence, precisely what he meant by, “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.”, has ever since his death been scandalously open to promiscuous interpretation.

Did Blake mean to imply by it that truth is different for different people?  That the tree the fool sees is just as legitimate as the tree the wise man sees?

I think not!

We can logically believe that only if we believe that the tree can be two separate, but epistemologically equal, things.  To illustrate, suppose the fool sees the tree as “yellow”, the wise person sees the tree as “blue”, and neither sees the tree as the other.  Can the tree be both discernibly yellow and discernibly blue at the same time?  Apart from some interpretations of quantum mechanics, they cannot.

Not, that is, if the fool and the wise person are using the same exact method of discernment or inquiry.  For it is possible that they could both arrive at legitimate differences of opinion if they were using different means of inquiry.

Many of my beloved readers might now be reaching wildly for the smelling salts, for I am admittedly come close to positing that the truth can be legitimately different for different people!  But I daresay “Epistemology is not for the faint of heart! To boldly go where no sane groom epistemologist has gone before is but the bread and butter of my days! I am a man of passions, huge, towering passions! It means practically nothing to me to toss out the possibility that truth might be legitimately different for different people.   To toss it out and then — properly qualify it!”

To my thinking, the most perfected description of a reality would be an operational definition of the method of inquiry used to establish the reality.   By an “operational definition” I mean a step by step description of the process one uses to discover or arrive at the reality.   For instance, the operational definition of the cake I made last Wednesday would be the step by step recipe I used in creating it.  Or, the operational definition of “oxygen” may be described as the specific tests and measures one uses to recognize its presence.

So, for example, were I to say, “There is a cake on my table”, then the most perfect way for me to define the reality would be for me to offer every possible operational definition of what I mean by there is a cake on my table:  “I see a cylindrical object on my table.  The frosting tastes sweet when I lick it.  The body appears light and airy when I cut into it.”  And so forth.

Put differently, the most perfected — if seldom the best — way to describe a reality is to describe it in terms of the operations used as a method of inquiry into its existence.  For when we do so, we make precisely clear what we truly mean by the reality.

For instance, were I to say, “I lost my virginity at the age of 16”, you would know very little for certain about the profound experience I had.  That is, the extraordinary reality I am referring to.  But were I to truthfully add, “I lost my virginity at the age of 16 by reading a biology textbook”, you would at once know how remarkably worldly I was even at such a young age.  Thus we can see how specifying the method of inquiry can properly qualify, and much further define, the reality being discussed.

I would submit then that, apart from quantum mechanics, reality is most likely the same for everyone, provided that “everyone” is using exactly the same method of inquiry under the same or similar conditions [(and is qualified to assess the results of their inquiry) an offer not good where the truth is prohibited by law, such as within the city limits of Washington D.C.].

We have now reached a point where we may safely hazard a summary of all that has gone before.  First, we found that “truth”, according to the oldest and most popular theory, is a matter of the relationship between a statement and the reality it refers to.  Next, we had an exciting romp through the notion that there are two kinds of knowledge — knowledge that requires no experience to know it is true, and knowledge that requires experience to know it is true.   Next, in a truly climatic moment, we discovered that some method of discernment or inquiry is logically implied in any meaningful claim that something is true. Finally, in the afterglow of our blissful romp, we experienced the epiphany that a poet — of all people! — was undoubtedly right about something.  Exactly what though, we’re not sure, given his appalling failure to leave us with an extant epistemology.   That’s the trouble with poets, you know; why they don’t properly footnote their truth claims must remain one of life’s greatest mysteries.


For a much more thorough discussion of these topics, see my lively little book,  How Do We Know It’s True that “the Eggs and Ham are Green”?: Conversational Breakfast Table Gambits in Truth Theory for the Layman.  Tokyo: Taikutsuna Publishing House, 2004.  Print.

God(s), Knowledge, Logic, Myth, Observation, Philosophy, Reason, Science, Scientific Method(s), Thinking

What is Philosophy?

Like most normal people, I have my days when I bounce out of bed in the morning enthusiastically eager to discuss the origin, nature, and uses of philosophy.  If today happens to be one of those days for you, you’re in great good luck because the origin, nature, and uses of philosophy are by chance the very topics of this exquisite blog post.  How happy you must be now!

A few months ago, I was discussing the origins of philosophy with someone, and they insisted that philosophy dates back some 4,000 or more years to a certain Egyptian whose name I have sadly forgotten now, but who wrote a book of wisdom literature.

They were quite sure that particular gentleman had created philosophy because they had read about it on the internet.  Of course I have nothing against ancient Egyptian wisdom literature.  (“Dost thou not spit upon the Pharaoh’s face, my son, unless his beard be upon fire”.)  But in my view of things, wisdom literature — no matter how good and wise it is — is not necessarily philosophy.   In fact, most wisdom literature even today has absolutely nothing to do with philosophy at all.  Absolutely nothing!

Unless.  Unless we are defining “philosophy” the way many of us commonly do define it.   For many of us, the word “philosophy” is almost synonymous with the word “opinion”,  and especially an opinion that might be seen as wise. “My philosophy about people is that if you treat them with the respect and decency they deserve as humans,  then it’s far easier to snooker them into giving you the money you wish to cull from them.”   I call this kind of philosophy “street philosophy” or, when I’m trying to be fancy-pants about it, “informal philosophy”.

Street, or informal, philosophy should not be confused with academic, or formal, philosophy.  The latter is philosophy as practiced by such great and polished minds as Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Sunstone, and  a host of others.  I’ll have more to say about the distinction between the two kinds of philosophy later.  For now, it is sufficient for us to recognize that formal philosophy is quite distinct from mere opinion, no matter how wise that opinion might be.

The origin of formal philosophy is traditionally assigned to one man, Thales, a Greek who once lived in what is now Turkey.  About 2,500 years ago, Thales somehow came up with the-radical-for-its-time-notion that natural events — such as thunder,  an eclipse of the sun, or a good harvest — can always be explained in terms of natural causes discernible to human reason.

Put a bit differently, Thales insisted that whatever happens in nature has, not a divine or supernatural cause (or at the very least, not just a divine or supernatural cause), but a natural cause.  Then he went a step further to also insist that we can figure out what that natural cause is via our ability to reason about things.  So, for instance, instead of simply supposing that thunder is caused by a god, we can sit down, reason about it, and perhaps figure out what is the natural cause for thunder.

This was an entirely radical new idea. You can read one ancient text after the other, and no one else anywhere in the world before Thales is trying to explain all nature events in terms of natural causes discernible to reason.  Not in pre-Thales Sumerian writings.  Not in pre-Thales Egyptian writings.  Not in pre-Thales Indian writings.  And not in pre-Thales Chinese writings.  Instead, everywhere it is commonplace to assume that natural events can and do have supernatural causes, unless some natural cause of them is quite obvious.

That is, while you might be aware even before Thales that the arrow you shot through the heart of a deer caused the deer to die — because the cause of the deer’s death is immediately apparent to you — you would not before Thales assume that any and all natural events have natural causes.  If the natural cause of a natural event was not immediately apparent to you, you would most likely guess that the cause of the natural event was something supernatural, or at least mythical.

Even more importantly, before Thales, people did not assume that the natural causes of any and all natural events could be figured out via reason.

As Thales’ influence began to spread outward from his home in Asia Minor, people began to increasingly demand rational explanations for how natural processes made things happen.  And, eventually, this mode or way of thinking about things not only got philosophy off to its start, but also in the end gave rise to the sciences.

So, formal philosophy got started about 2500 years ago with one man, Thales, who somehow came up with the radical notion that natural events have natural causes, and that human reason can discern those causes.  Isn’t it exciting to know that?  I’m excited; I hope you’re excited!

Are you excited yet?

To go on: Reason, as you might suppose by now, is the core of formal philosophy.  Or, to be a bit more precise, the core is logical reasoning.

Academic or formal philosophy, then, differs from street or informal philosophy primarily in what constitutes good grounds or good reasons for holding an opinion.  In street philosophy, just about anything goes.  Sometimes, the only criteria for accepting something is that it emotionally feels right to you, or that it makes you feel good.  So, if someone says to you, “The meaning of life is to find your gift”, you say, “Yeah, that’s right” or “Yeah, that’s true”, if the statement feels right to you, or if it makes you feel good to believe that it’s true.

Formal philosophy is very different from that.  It crucially depends on logical reasoning, and — at least, ideally — rejects any notions that can be demonstrated to be irrational.  It is like a game with only one crucial rule:  You can claim pretty much whatever you want to claim as true, but you have got to back up your claim with logical reasoning.  If you do that, then you score.

Of course, if you fail to do it, then your opponents (other philosophers for the most part), who are always on the lookout for flaws in your reasoning, will gleefully reduce your arguments to finely chopped tears-inducing pieces of onion, which they will then saute on high heat before your very own watery eyes — all the while using logical reasoning of their own to accomplish the cookery, and probably cackling to themselves while they do it.  But that’s the game of philosophy.  It’s one crucial rule is that you must back up your truth claims with logical reasoning, the more rigorous, the better.

Now, to be reasonably cautious, that’s a little bit over simplified, but I nevertheless do believe it to be largely true.

Of course, Good Old Thales was wrong about one thing. He believed that reason alone was sufficient to discern the natural causes of events.  And that was the popular opinion for quite a few centuries after him.  But, as we now know, reason alone is not sufficient.

About 500 years ago, Galileo demonstrated by making several discoveries about the natural causes of various things, that logical reasoning requires a partner: Empirical evidence, or observation.  Alone, both reason and observation are each inadequate to reliably discern the natural causes of natural events.  But woven together, they become that powerhouse of knowledge that we know today as the sciences.

It is commonplace to point out that “philosophy never solves anything”, and in a way, there’s truth to that.  Philosophy has a traditional set of problems or issues, such as “Does god exist?”,   “What do we know and how do we know it?”,  “On what ethical principles, if any, can we base our morals?”, and so forth.  And it is true those problems have been discussed by philosophers for hundreds or thousands of years without the philosophers for the most part coming to any ultimate agreements.

Yet, even though philosophy seldom arrives at any ultimate agreements (e.g. “God does indeed exist.”) it often arrives at agreements about what is a rational or an irrational approach to a problem or issue.  For instance, philosophers long, long ago agreed that “I simply feel there must be a god because if there is not,  my life will be without meaning” is not a rational basis for believing there actually is a god.  There might still be rational grounds for believing there’s a god, but everyone now agrees that is not one of them

But, if philosophy is not useful to reliably discern the natural causes of events, then of what good or use is it?  There are a small handful of answers to that question, but perhaps one of the simplest ones is this: Philosophy has worked reasonably well — or even quite well — as a means to asking the right questions.

The crucial importance of asking the right questions was pointed out by Einstein, who said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes”.

Indeed, when Thales insisted all those many years ago that natural events have natural causes discernible to reason, he was in a very effective sense changing the question of what causes things to happen, and in doing so, he  eventually (and fruitfully) opened the door to the scientific investigation of nature.  It is in fact possible to view the whole 2500 year history of philosophy as a dialog conducted over the ages — a dialog whose main benefit to us has been the discovery of the right or most fruitful questions to ask.

There are a few other uses of philosophy, but that seems to me one of the most important.  I hope this essay will be of some use to you in furthering your understanding of philosophy.  If it happens to be so, I should like to point out that grateful donations of cash can be made to me by calling 1-800-SunstonesScam.  On the other hand, if it has not been of any use to you, I should as readily like to point out that I am personally just as surprised as you are about that, and that I have a very strong suspicion some god wrote the whole thing while I was sleeping, and then signed my name to it.