Philosophical Assumptions

two dolphinsOne reason for creating this website was to condense my years of reading, learning and teaching into some ideas and propositions that readers can easily use for themselves. Writing it down also forces me to explain my own ideas and convictions as simply as possible. But doing philosophy is not easy, so this project quickly became more challenging than I expected. The results hopefully give rise to other beginnings; I hope the following reflections will activate the visitor’s own philosophical efforts.

Philosophy is a particular discourse that began roughly 2500 years ago. Early on, the form of philosophy was defined by Plato’s dialogues. The participants in these conversations are sometimes ignorant, or they are caught up in various illusions, but the discussions will produce some insights or at least remove erroneous ideas. The period of German Idealism defined yet another style, characterized by the heroic figure of the lone philosopher, engaged in deep self-reflection – the mysterious activity that we call thinking, and that can only be done alone. In between these poles, various systems, schools, and methods have been developed and have carried the project of philosophy forward.

The following paragraphs encapsulate timeless philosophical topics and questions. These propositions are incomplete and sometimes very abstract; their purpose is to get you to think about them for yourself. They move from the more general (nature of reality) to the more specific (nature of the human being.) I will also address questions about the nature of language and the mind-body problem, which is still one of our most perplexing puzzles. The human being is located somewhere between nature and society, so I will conclude with propositions about the social and political dimensions of our lives.

1. Reality itself – the “real” – is incomprehensible.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant makes a distinction between “reality in itself” and “reality as it appears to us.” 1 He argues that reality in itself – the “real” – is incomprehensible. Is his proposition true?

Our most advanced theories of physical reality are extremely complicated mathematical models; very few human beings will ever be able to understand them. Furthermore, our theories for the largest structures of the universe (general relativity), and our theories for the smallest aspects of reality (quantum mechanics) cannot be unified at this stage of physics research, even though they describe the same reality. Not only is the deep fabric of reality incomprehensible for the average human being, our mathematical language for describing this reality is also insufficient, and our theories of reality are fragmented, and possibly even incompatible. Scientists can push the limits of understanding, but each breakthrough leads to even more questions: Reality seems to be not only extraordinarily strange; but also forever mysterious in relation to our ability to comprehend it.

This incomprehensibility ensures that human curiosity will never be exhausted. Our attempts to bring order to reality are inextricably linked to the strangeness of reality; they arise from the entangled mix of order and disorder, where causation and randomness are materially intertwined.   We also know that scientific observation itself disrupts and alters the observed reality; this means that the theory that tries to understand reality fragments it by analyzing it. Theorizing becomes a process of speculation: It is only the thought process that brings coherence to our highly sophisticated observations of reality. We conclude that the order we detect in nature can never be identical with the order that already exists, because the order of nature itself has an origin that is entirely inaccessible for us.

2. Radical immanence – nothing is outside.

“I do not pretend to be able to prove that there is no God. I equally cannot prove that Satan is a fiction. The Christian god may exist; so may the gods of Olympus, or of ancient Egypt, or of Babylon. But no one of these hypotheses is more probable than any other: they lie outside the region of even probable knowledge, and therefore there is no reason to consider any of them.”
Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects

Some philosophers and many theologians accept that there is some kind of transcendence – a beyond to this reality. I disagree with this position. The concept of reality is inclusive: If nothing can be outside, everything is immanent.

The idea that there is a dimension of reality that is radically different from the reality we inhabit is wrong. If there is any trace of this supernatural realm, it would have to exist in our reality, and if we have some kind of sign or manifestation, we can construct a model that can be investigated.  We cannot even think radical otherness. Therefore, the idea of an absolute God who is transcendent in relation to this world is meaningless. Theologians have tried to get around this problem by claiming that the basis of religion is revelation, not natural knowledge. A philosophically-based theology, however, can only proceed through the “Via Negativa,” or as “negative theology.”  Any “outside” can only be thought of as a nothingness in relation to our world, the emptiness as the  background in relation to which our reality appears.

The whole problem results from an erroneous use of language: We can distinguish between the inside and the outside of our bodies, but we cannot use the distinction between the inside and the outside of reality. If we try to do this, we create a false philosophical or religious world view, with dichotomies that can only lead to unsolvable contradictions. Unfortunately, this is what Western Religions did for thousands of years, thereby confusing the minds of billions of people.

If nothing is outside, nothing can be lost either. We simply make distinctions based on language, and this is the fundamental philosophical problem: How did it happen that we humans became biological entities in which the universe begins to see itself?

3. Reality emerges towards more complexity.

Traditionally, physics operates with a reductionist approach: it breaks down complex phenomena into simpler parts that can be studied independently. Once the basic laws are understood, scientists try to explain complex phenomena with simple rules. This approach works to some degree, but it is equivalent to the idea that the whole is only the sum of its parts. The paradigm begins to break down in complex systems where the elements interact with each other. Subsequently, an idea was formulated and applied first in the fields of chemistry and biology, that the sum of the parts is more, or different, from the elements or forces that constitute it. Biology, the study of life itself, cannot be explained as a chemical process only. Chemistry cannot be reduced to a sub-discipline of physics. Human behavior is not just a function of biology, and sociology or political science is more than applied psychology. We get the view of a dynamic universe, structured by spontaneously emerging self-organization. The universe is a continuously evolving process; it has layers of complexity and each layer has its own structural laws and is at the same time organized and shaped by its environment. As we begin to understand these layers better, new scientific disciplines are created that integrate traditional scientific fields, and bridge the gap between natural and social sciences, like chaos theory, or the theory of complex systems. 

If we apply the idea of emergent phenomena consistently, we realize that organisms are themselves expressions of emergent order, and they are simultaneously the agents of higher levels of emergence. Reality itself may be an emergent phenomenon, which creates new structural laws on each level. This means that it is useless to speculate about a transcendent order, but it is very possible to view our reality as a constantly self-transcending (and imperfectly self-organizing) phenomenon. 2

4.  Semiosis: We transcend physical reality only through language.

If there is no transcendent world, but material reality is characterized by emergence and self-organization, then it must function by information exchange, which requires the existence of signs. Natural signs constitute a semiotic dimension to everything that exists. Signs allow the emergence of language, and language is the aspect of reality that enables its self-transcendence. It is the only non-physical dimension to reality. Language becomes human when it becomes self-referential. Our words can refer not only to real objects, but also to the speaker, to other words, and to language itself. Without the possibility of self-reference in language, no identity or self-identity can ever be expressed. If someone says: “I am going to the movies tonight” she made a statement about herself, and in order to do this, she has to be able to represent herself within a symbolic universe of language. This symbolic universe enables the anticipation of the future, and the recall of the past, thus transcending time as well. 3

5. The mind-body problem is insurmountable.

Feelings have no electrical charge, and thoughts have no weight. Mental states cannot be expressed with physical qualities, and vice versa. The mind-body problem has occupied philosophers from the beginning, and it can take many forms. If there is a soul, how does it connect to the body? Where does my will reside? I am not the cause of my own existence, I don’t even know consciously how I breathe or walk. And nevertheless, I somehow imagine myself to be the originator of my actions, and I believe that my will functions autonomously. Is free will simply an illusion, or is it “real?” This question is another fundamental problem of philosophy. From a physicist’s point of view, the universe consists only of interrelated particles, fields, and energy, and this is also the material that makes up the physicist or the philosopher. So how is it possible that the universe can see itself, or even create a free agent? The astonishment arises less from what can be seen or known, and more from the act of seeing or knowing as such. What would the universe be without this mirroring function? But when we think about ourselves, we are caught up in a self-referential relationship that functions like a barrier and cannot be avoided easily. Subsequently, the scientific field is divided into natural sciences on the one hand, and social or human sciences on the other, depending on the methods used. We can approach the gap between mind and body from both sides, because we exist in both dimensions, but the connection itself cannot be explained by scientific methods, nor can it be grasped through self-awareness. This leads to the paradox of free will stated above: does the human being have autonomy over its actions, or is self-consciousness only an effect, and not a cause?

The mind-body problem, and the paradox of free will, is related to an epistemological problem. The human being itself is also nature. It is in us that nature tries to comprehend itself, but since nature is incomprehensible, we also face a limit in knowing ourselves. If knowledge is akin to light, it is light in a sea of darkness, and we cannot fully understand the nature of knowledge itself. The process of understanding ourselves remains opaque; and once this anchor of knowledge is gone, the rules for the creation of any other knowledge are undetermined as well. We have no external reference point from which we can judge the validity of knowledge.

6. The dialectic of nature, spirit, and basic emotions.

We realize through reflection that mind and body are irreducibly different dimensions, but we experience ourselves as embodied creatures. The deep intertwinement of nature and human spirit is prior to all conscious self-reflection; but as human self-consciousness wakes up it realizes that it is fundamentally different from its surroundings. The dia­lectic of spirit and nature is determined by this original and primordial shock. Nature, inside and outside, is overwhelming. As Adorno stated, fear is the motor of history. We realize our interrelatedness with nature, but nature appears as otherness, it exposes us to strange and foreign forces.  Fear causes the need for domination. The history of human societies can be explained as a process of widening and increasing control: domination of nature, of other human beings, and of nature within the human being itself. Becoming “civilized”  requires enormous self-discipline; we pay for this by sacrificing pleasure, play, spontaneity, creativity, and contemplation. We are all shaped by the struggle for control and self-mastery, and the more power we gain, the more we are removing ourselves from nature, and thus from ourselves. The question is if we can reverse this trend in the future: Can we curb our ferociousness and hypocrisy enough in order to remember and respect the nature that creates and sustains us?

7. The subject of psychology: psyche, consciousness, or ego.

Not only is there a difference between mind and brain, the mind itself is not a monolithic phenomenon. We have many terms that capture aspects of it, like perception, memory, awareness, the psyche, consciousness, identity, ego, or the self. Psychology demonstrates that the psyche is a multi-faceted phenomenon; the history of the discipline demonstrates the struggle to apply scientific methods to the realm of the psyche. The spectrum of psychological methods ranges from introspection to the statistical and functional analysis of human behavior, as if the human being is just another object of study, except with a much higher degree of complexity. In a broad sense, the mind is an information-processing system that transforms sensual data into experienced reality, and functions as the executive agency for the control of behavior. We still don’t know exactly what creates the identity of the agent, because the mind also functions in many aspects entirely without consciousness. We are largely unaware of the physiological and psychological machinery that transforms sensory input into human experience, or that allows us to remember certain events, but not others. We have emotions, and we dream, which makes us participant-spectators for our own inner dramas. Consciousness itself is a mysterious quality of mental processes, one in which awareness folds back onto itself, and this self-reflection creates a sense of identity that gives rise to what we know as “ego.” Once self-awareness exists, the subject begins to see itself as different from its experience of the world, and different from the world itself. With the emergence of the ego comes a somewhat inflated sense of control over oneself and the environment.

Given these experiences of human identity as a flow between conscious and unconscious states, between process and state, psychology must be more than just behavioral science, or the study of consciousness. It is perhaps adequate to talk about a psychic field, akin to electromagnetic fields, and to consider the mind as a complex phenomenon that occurs at the intersection of several dimensions. According to Lacan,  the ego emerges at the place where language (the symbolic), a biological organ (the real), and subjective states of feeling (the imaginary) intersect. 4 Individuation only occurs because the psychic field materializes in a unique physical body which is an organism with a history, or a life-span.

Animals have minds too, they think and have feelings, and in this regard they have consciousness, but they don’t have self-referential language that separates the speaker from her representation in speech. The ego is a phenomenon of speech, it is the linguistic production of a subject that is fundamentally unconscious of itself. The language we use to talk about ourselves carves up the bodies and the lives of human beings; it creates a network of meanings and definitions that are not simply biological any more, but dictated by social and political conventions.

8. What, or who? Defining the human being as person.

At a certain point in the scientific inquiry, the question changes from “what is a human being,” to: “who” is this human? The transition from “what” to “who” is based on the realization that human beings are not like other objects in the world, they do not just belong to the physical sphere, but they are actors in social worlds that are defined by symbolic meaning systems. As such, we define humans as endowed with reason and conscience, and we attribute to them the freedom of will and self-determination. They are rights-holders, and therefore we treat them with respect. This ethical stance finds its expression for instance in Kant’s Categorical Imperative, where he demands that we should treat others not “merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end in itself.” This view of the human being as an ethical entity requires recognition, therefore it can only function within a group. According to the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” the human being “is born free and equal in dignity and rights” (Article 1). In this formulation, the lines between what is and what should be are blurred. A moral imperative is written into the nature of the human being, but this operation is itself an ethical act that can only succeed if there is a sufficiently strong acceptance of this view within the human community. There has to be a political willingness to codify and enforce it if governments or political groups decide to ignore these  rights.

While the ego is a psychological concept that can be used to describe the “what-ness” of the human being, we need a concept that fully expresses our “who-ness.” 5 Such a concept was developed over centuries in the Western tradition; we find it in the idea of the “person.”  The concept was formed by Christian theologians in the first three centuries of the Common Era. They  borrowed the distinction between the actor and his role from Greek theatre. The actor’s role, his “persona,” is different from who he is in his nature. The distinction gets transposed into the theological and later the anthropological realm. Christian theologians finally agreed that Jesus is one person with two natures.  A person is someone who “has” a nature, rather than “is” nature, but therefore the “who” remains undefinable in physical terms. Kierkegaard went so far as to define the human being as  “synthesis between the finite and the infinite.”

Over the centuries, the concept became secularized and moved from the theological and philosophical realms into the domain of legal thinking. Today, we understand a “person” to be a rights-holder. “Person” is not identified with mental functioning, and does not even have to be a human subject. Companies, organizations, and even states, are also treated as “legal persons,” which allows us to hold them liable for their actions, and separates these institutions from the people who represent them.

9. The root of politics is power, justice,  and self-organization of social bodies.

Human self-consciousness can only emerge within a group, and the ability of groups of humans to act in concert creates the political realm. Politics is prior to the form of government; it is the process by which these groups come together and make decisions for themselves. This is necessary because many of the problems we face can only be addressed collectively. The political dimension is intrinsic to any group process; no group can exist without some kind of political decision-making or leadership process in order to define itself. Political power, which is based on the authority to define group identity, and therefore the inside/outside of the group, is itself an emergent phenomenon.

Societies are hierarchical as a consequence of decision-making about the boundary and the structure of the community; there is no natural hierarchy or norm that precedes it. Nothing “anchors” social order prior to politics and history; there are no God-terms or sacred origins for any kind of social group. Seen from this point of view, societies are the result of emergent self-organizing processes that interact with factors like geography, language, religion, history, or distinguishing traits like skin color, culture, or gender. They also define themselves in relation to each other. This self-organization, however, is often not a peaceful coming-together, but a process rooted in violence, of fighting it out, and imposing order based on discrimination and the subjugation of people. The emerging group identity is often aggressive, as we can see by the size and skills of our armies. Human history is mostly a history of warfare.

The specific politics of a state result from the determination of the boundary, and from the question who is friend and who is enemy? The determination of an external enemy or a threat is also a simple way to internally unify the group. What counts is the perception, not the reality, of the threat. Political action cannot be deduced from a general norm, or from ethics or morality alone. It is determined by the powers, interests, identities, or fears of political actors in their current or historical contexts. Therefore, one cannot design a general political theory; one can only identify some basic elements that are constitutive for politics.

Governments are the executive organs of states. States are social entities that have their roots in warfare; their first task is to claim a monopoly of power over their territories. We commonly use the term “Sovereign” to identify the independent political authority to rule and to make laws that govern a society. Governments act on behalf or as the Sovereign for their country, and in order to accomplish this, they need not only the actual power to do so, but they also need legitimation. The justification for the use of power requires the agreement of a majority, at least in principle. Governments therefore have the duty to align power and justice, and to seek broad acceptance for their actions.

Notes:

  1. Critique of Pure Reason, 1781.
  2. Here is some further reading:

    • Brian Goodwin, 2001: How the Leopard Changed Its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity.
    • Laughlin, Robert B. 2006. A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down. Basic Books.
    • Emergence
    • Reductionism or Emergence? 

  3.  Further Reading:  Atkin, Albert. 2013. “Peirce’s Theory of Signs.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Summer 2013.http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2013/entries/peirce-semiotics/.
  4. See Lacan’s theory of the Real, the Imaginary, and the Symbolic. In: Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire De Jacques Lacan : Livre 23, Le Sinthome. Seuil, 2005. Print.
  5. See Spaemann, Robert. “Personen. Versuche Über Den Unterschied Zwischen >etwas< Und >jemand<.” 1996 : n. pag. Print.
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  1. These points are brilliant. I’m a lowly first year English student. The problems of language are a constant obsessional bane to me… Sometimes I feel that ideas woven in language and thought so yearn for meaning and expression through a simpler signifier – so that you can hold them in comprehension in their totality for just a second – that you end up reducing them to a point where they become something like a mnemonic and you must try and grasp the entire thought process from its tail over again (just look at all these metaphors and signs in all these pretty typed letters)… those are just my experiences of language’s self referential capabilities and its annoyingly immaterial and illusory nature… I want to revert back to a sort of Lacanian ‘real’ sometimes…

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