Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 18

Note that this is the Concluding part

(Read Part 17 of the series.)

Nowadays, there are still large numbers of people who, even if they do not entirely accept all of the claims made by their religion and no longer recognize it as an authority for their everyday behavior, nevertheless pay lip service. And sentiments such as ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’ do seem to contain great wisdom, finding a balance between the two extremes given above.

But with all of our values no longer ‘supplied’ by religion, people have been forced to develop them for themselves. In the absence of expert guidance, the principal influence now tends to be the media and we have such ridiculous situations as the cinema’s cult of the anti-hero. It is now normal for films to conclude with the thief in some luxurious setting surrounded by money and women and no sign whatsoever of justice or retribution. It is acceptable for the individual to triumph over the perceived constraints of society, including its laws. And it is far more usual for the governments, police and similar bodies to be portrayed as corrupt, with ‘hidden agendas’ and secret conspiracies against you and me. And we have been brainwashed into cynically believing this to be normal.  Continue reading

Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 17

(Read Part 16 of the series.)

Morality (part 2)
One way of classifying the various theories is as follows:

  1. Morality might exist as absolute truths – so-called Moral Realism or Ethical Absolutism. Just as we believe that 1 + 1 = 2 must always be true, so perhaps it is somehow necessarily true that we should not kill another human being. This is effectively what Plato believed, with the truths somehow existing in the world of Forms. We discover these principles through philosophical insights rather than inventing them or devising them to suit our own purpose. And they necessarily apply to everyone irrespective of their inclinations or the nature of the society in which they live.In the absence of absolute certainty regarding these truths, we are obliged to act according to what we think they are.In this view of morality, things are ‘good’ irrespective of whether a God decrees them. We ought to be able to see that ‘loving our neighbour’, for example, is going to be beneficial to ourselves and society, whereas committing adultery is likely to upset a few people. We should not really need any outside agency to endorse such attitudes.

Continue reading

Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 16

(Read Part 15 of the series.)

Conclusion
So, do any of these philosophies provide us with the answer for which we are looking? It has been a very cursory overview and obviously much has been omitted, particularly the ideas of more recent philosophers. Again I must remind the reader that I have not studied all of these philosophers and my findings are the result of reading histories, dictionaries and overviews and of research on the Internet. I have extracted only those ideas that seemed relevant.

Philosophers typically take an interest in many areas, even if they concentrate principally on one or two and they often devote much effort to supporting, or more frequently refuting, the ideas of their predecessors. If you should attempt to go into any significant detail on any aspect of what has been outlined above, you would soon find yourself reading many books and studying often complex arguments on all sides of the issue. All that I have attempted to do was to find some relevant ideas and I have to say that none of the ones that I discovered seem entirely appropriate for today’s society.

Somehow, they leave a feeling of incompleteness or even emptiness. Maybe they provide excellent guidelines for discriminating between potential course of action in a specific situation but there is no overall sense of purpose and meaning. If I want to know whether I ought to go out to the cinema or visit my ageing grandmother, there is much material to provide guidance – in fact, I could decide to stay in and read all about it for the next few weeks instead of going anywhere. But when it comes to giving me a raison d’être for my life, it seems that, unless I adopt a religious outlook and acquire faith in a heaven and hell, then I am left with little of substance. Continue reading

Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 14

(Read Part 13 of the series.)

Pragmatism and William James to Linguistic Analysis and Wittgenstein

Pragmatism
Developed originally in America, and to some extent in rebellion against the metaphysical theories current in Europe at the time (especially Idealism), Pragmatism is effectively a method for determining the worth of philosophical problems and their proposed solutions. What was thought to matter was not all of the intellectual speculation and theorising usually associated with philosophising but the practical worth at the end of the day. Is a theory actually of any use to us in our day to day life? Will it make any difference to me if I follow it or am even aware of its existence? The word ‘pragmatic’ has now passed into everyday usage as referring to an approach that actually works.

The original ideas were developed by C. S. Peirce, who saw himself as following up the system devised by Kant. He thought the only purpose in philosophising to begin with was in order to solve problems that we actually encounter. We should then use the scientific method to enquire into the problem, drawing up hypotheses, experiments to test them and so on. Once we have an answer that gets us over the original problem we should simply stop there. A proposition is ‘true’ if everyone who investigates sufficiently thoroughly comes to the same conclusion. Continue reading

Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 13

(Read Part 12 of the series.)

Utilitarianism

When deciding whether an action should be deemed good or bad (as opposed to whether it is something we ourselves want to do), people will sometimes try to calculate whether the result will benefit the majority. This principle was expressed in the 18th Century by Francis Hutcheson: ‘That action is best which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers’. It is effectively the opposite of what Kant was saying. Whereas he insisted that it was the motive alone that determined whether an act should be deemed to be ‘good’ and that we should act from a sense of duty, Hutcheson was claiming that motives were ultimately irrelevant, it was the outcome alone that mattered.

Two philosophers in particular were responsible for developing and propagating these ideas and thereby influencing many people’s attitude towards morality. The first was Jeremy Bentham, who is generally regarded as the originator of so-called ‘Utilitarianism’, which says that conduct is right or wrong according to its tendency to produce favourable or unfavourable consequences for the people who are affected by it. It was given this name because actions are judged on the basis of their ‘utility’ or usefulness in bringing about good, or benefit of some kind as opposed to evil or unhappiness. Continue reading

Action – Morality

“When you understand and are able to act from right action, morality is no longer necessary. It’s instantly obsolete and discarded. This is at the heart of the Bhagavad Gita. Arjuna, as a moral creature, throws down his weapon and refuses to launch a war. Krishna converts him to a creature of right action by freeing him from delusion and Arjuna takes up his weapon and launches the war. Right action has nothing to do with right or wrong, good or evil, naughty or nice. It is without altruism or compassion. Morality is the set of rules and regulations that you use to navigate through life when you’re still trying to steer your ship rather than let it follow the flow”

from ‘Spritual Enlightenment; The Damndest Thing’, Jed McKenna, Wisefool Press, 2002. ISBN 0971435235. Buy from Amazon US, Buy from Amazon UK

Q.342 – Teachings of Nisargadatta and Ramana

Q: Is there a difference in the teachings of Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta Maharaj?

A (Dennis): This is too general a question, really. The short answer is that the bottom-line message of any teacher of Advaita must be the same, obviously. But the methodology depends upon the teacher lineage. Nisargadatta did have a lineage, although his own style developed somewhat! And Ramana did not have a lineage at all. The absence of a lineage means that what is said lacks rigor and is subject to differing interpretations etc. This is why the recommendation is always to try to find a qualified, traditional teacher.

Q: I do realize that my question was too general and could not be dealt with in a short answer. What I had in my mind was with regard to their approaches to meditation/ self enquiry or the “path” recommended by them. In self enquiry Ramana stated that while enquiring into “who am I?” the I that is enquired into is the individual or the ego and not the Self. According to him, focusing on the ego or I would make one realize that it is a phantom and thus lead one to the Self. Nisargadatta, on the other hand, seems to suggest that one should focus directly on I am, which is the same as the Self. In this sense, I thought there was some difference in their teaching. Continue reading

Morality in the Brain

Year 2012 is coming to a close and we are getting ready for one more end-of-the-year celebrations. People are already in a festive mood – remembering friends, recalling  favors received and planning for reciprocation with gifts. As you shop and bring home the packets, you plan to embellish them with a hand-crafted insignia to show your extra care and love. So you take a pair of scissors in hand and begin to cut a piece of paper molding it into an attractive shape. Your child suddenly comments: “Why do you purse your lips when you are cutting the paper?”

Fig. 1: Homunculus – Brain Real Estate Devoted to Touch in the Primary Somatosensory Cortex

What? Pursed the lips? You were not even conscious of the face, forget the lips.You were so much lost in the job with all your attention focused on the fingers and the scissors, you were unaware of the tightness in your face. Why should the lips tense up? And you  don’t even know about it!

You may be a six footer weighing 60 – 70 Kg having seen half a century or more of summers (and winters); or may be a short and smart young man of  20.  The wetware weighing less than a Kg and half (about 3 pounds) sitting between your ears contains an encrypted miniature model of who you are. It has all the maps representing your past, your knowledge, your expertise, tastes, likes, dislikes – everything that describes what you call as your ‘personality.’ Continue reading

Book Review: FREE WILL

Free Will by Sam Harris, Free Press, 2012, pp: 83, ISBN 978-1-4516-8340-0

free will book cover sam harris

I always wondered at the American marketing wizardry of bite-size chocolates and peanut butter cups that lure the consumers. If a book on a highly intriguing, tantalizing and no less controversial a subject like Free Will is presented in bite-size, even a die-hard Advaitin can hardly hold his temptation to take a bite! And I did.

Perhaps one should call it a long essay discussed under eight or so subheadings rather than a book. You hardly open the cover and right away, the text begins with “The question of free will touches nearly everything we care about” — no Intros, no Forewords, no time wasted. And then as suddenly, the author explodes the myth of ‘our viewing one another as autonomous persons, capable of free choice.’ He writes:

“If the scientific community were to declare free will an illusion, it would precipitate a culture war far more belligerent than one that has been waged on the subject of evolution. Without free will, sinners and criminals would be nothing more than poorly calibrated clock-work……  And those of us who work hard and follow the rules would not “deserve” our success in any deep sense. It is not an accident that most people find these conclusions abhorrent. The stakes are high.”

The stakes may be high; but Advaitins will surely cheer the author, Sam Harris, a Ph. D. in Neuroscience on those scientific declarations. Continue reading