Saturday, 21 January 2012


First let me say I am philosophical by inclination, not by training. Some might say that this immediately makes anything that I have to contribute of lesser value, but I would suggest that such a viewpoint is impoverished. Philosophy should be about individuals’ existence and experience, and their thoughts on matters that arise from those things, then their ability to express those things coherently, and finally about how those thoughts fit in, or don’t.

The vast majority of people want some kind of explanation of their existence, something understandable, clear and consistent. This is amply illustrated by the thousands of religions in the world today. Though it would be fair to say that characterising most religions as 'clear' is to ignore the inconsistencies that they are riddled with, and the huge number of religious philosophers, apologists and theologians tasked with interpretation and explanation. This issue is down to the time, place and people involved in the documentation of these religions, and implies a failure on the part of multiple gods to do what most people would agree is a strong indication of high intelligence: explain the complex in a simple fashion.

Philosophy seeks to explain the complexities of existence, amongst other things, but it has become as cloudy and impenetrable as religion in many ways. There are branches, theories and schools of thought (analogous to major religions, sects and cults in some ways), and there is jargon and form (just as there are in places of worship) such as to boggle the mind of the uninitiated. This is not a criticism; rather it illustrates that there are no simple answers, least of all to simple questions, and that, as humans, we’ve done remarkably well in exploring this, but also in complicating it. Of course another area of human endeavour that has branches, theories and schools of thought, jargon and form is science (mostly because it used to be a branch of philosophy).

To add my own twist on something that Sam Harris said: Religions are philosophies based on failed sciences. This is not to denigrate religions (which may come as a surprise to some having seen the word ‘atheist’ elsewhere in my writing), they have played an extremely important part in the development of what we now call science and philosophy. Indeed, the creation stories were attempts to explain the world in which we lived in terms that could be understood, but by that very fact they were limited to the knowledge of the time. The creation stories then had philosophies attached to them - implying a causal relationship – attaching philosophies to beliefs about reality that have no basis in fact would tend to lead to philosophies that have questionable value in reality. That said, the truth of this is entirely down to how contingent on the religion’s science the religion’s philosophy is – I suggest, though, that there is not an outright poisoning of the well, but a tainting that requires further investigation.

Religions were important, and to an extent still are, as thought exercises, as foils to the rational mind. As an outspoken atheist of almost no repute I regularly find myself debating the existence of god(s) with people of faith. It is through doing so that I can strengthen my thought-processing, logic and argumentation. By subjecting my ideas to scrutiny and refining them as new information of possible value is presented. So what I deem to be irrational is important to me. This might seem like a strange thing to say when espousing a rationalistic approach to life, but the arts, for example, are not rational. They are ways of expressing a perceived reality, or re-framing an accepted reality – they are the distillations of individual experience which, ironically, do a very good job of connecting all of us in ways that transcend so many of our limitations, some of which are entirely self-imposed. Rigidity and failure to adapt is deadly to all fields of endeavour and the ultimate barrier to progress.

Building barriers, both personally, in reaction to society, and societally as a reaction to each other, is probably the single biggest hurdle to human progress. Pre-historically, evolutionarily, the tribal mentality, the in-group/out-group survivalist instinct, was entirely necessary. In this day and age it is rapidly becoming an impediment to the furtherance of the species. We can find the truth of this in many of our behaviours, the so-called ills of modern society. What does humanity do, almost ritualistically? Try and break down those barriers, be it by alcohol or other de-sensitising or disinhibiting drugs. We try to get over our inhibitions, be it to try and chat someone up or to engage in deep philosophical discussion. Of course we also sometimes find ourselves over-shooting the mark and disinhibiting ourselves too much and falling foul of those societal barriers that generally do have merit.

Society is in a perpetual struggle to find an equilibrium between all of its members – to accord personal rights and duties to each – and this is generally according to their ability, or rather their presumed ability. The reaction to the discovery of an individual’s inability to get on in society runs the gamut from virtual disinterest and an expectation that, given time, the person will figure ‘it’ out, to charity and altruistic help, to institutional ‘help’ (be it financial, mental, medical, or judicial). Of course the reverse is also true, we all too often simultaneously venerate and despise those who get on too well. Just as irrationality is both a catalyst and a curse for rationality so, too, jealousy and those other human emotions we often don’t like to admit to ourselves that we feel, are both motivational and de-motivational.

As a species we are naturally inclined to react in ways that solve problems at an individual level in the here and now, and at a societal level by applying historical fixes for perceived future problems. Religion is riddled with prognostications of future events predominantly those of doom, destruction and death. Of course these are framed in the context of the failed science in question and are generally not applicable to reality. But this does show that we have a belief in ourselves; that we have the need, and the ability, to predict future events. We even manage it, to an extent, in most branches of science. Societally, however, we fail time and time again, regardless of the framed political ideology or fiscal model. Is this because the further removed we are from the problem, especially in the behemoth that is whatever form of government we engage in, the less altruistic we can genuinely be in finding a solution?

Is our evolution letting us down by not breeding out certain negative behaviours, or is it that our breeding has let down the evolutionary process? We have to educate ourselves to transcend our limitations. Too many people give little to no thought to the reality of their lives, and whilst doing so requires a certain level of intelligence to undertake, as with any woe in the world, the key is education and communication. If we co-opt the power of the human mind to actually engage in thoughts about self, without being selfish (or detrimentally selfless, for that matter), to communicating needs, wants and desires in a manner that is respectful to others we could take a massive stride forwards. Our education systems are geared towards teaching facts, but very often not how to learn, be critical, and actually think. Religious education has demonstrably failed to imbue ethical and moral behaviour in its adherents, and in extreme cases outright teaches how to not think, just accept, and then act accordingly. It’s to the point where the disseminated work of humanity, which is to say the sum of published opinion, is evolving significantly more quickly than our ability to discuss, much less adopt, the good ideas and values presented therein. Because of this we fall further and further back from a conceivable utopia/heaven/Eden/Nirvana.

(To Be Continued)

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