Descartes’ separation of man into the two aspects of mind and matter also became the principal way in which Westerners subsequently viewed the world. Matter is extended in space, can be divided and so on, while mind is indivisible and seems to exist separate from the body, somehow outside of space. This is the theory known as Cartesian Dualism. Unfortunately, he was never able to explain how such completely different ‘substances’ were able to interact. The idea of an immaterial ‘little me’ somehow sitting in the brain (Descartes thought the soul resided in the pineal gland) and interpreting the information transmitted from the eyes and other material senses just did not make sense. How could this interface work? The so-called ‘mind-body problem’ has intrigued philosophers ever since and no universally accepted model of the nature of the self has yet emerged.
One of his disciples, a Dutchman called Arnold Geulincx, suggested that the mind and body were separately governed by God, who kept the two in synchronisation, like clocks. Thus, when we decide to do something and it happens, such as getting out of bed, there is no actual interaction between the two, no ‘willing’ as such, it is simply the consequence of the two being synchronised. A similar theory, called Occasionalism, was proposed by the French priest, Nicolas Malebranche. He said that neither mental nor physical events cause other events. Instead, what we call a cause is simply the occasion for God to exercise his will and instigate what we call the effect; there is no actual connection between the two events at all. All of this meant that life is strictly deterministic, with no place for free will and everything happening according to physical (or divine) law. Continue reading →
The age of increasing importance of science is usually claimed to have begun with Copernicus in the early 16th Century when he argued that the sun is the centre of the solar system and not the earth as the church had always insisted. (This is stated in the Psalms of the Old Testament and by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy in the 2nd Century.) In fact, so afraid was Copernicus of incurring the wrath of the clergy that publication of his beliefs did not take place until after his death. Even Galileo, later confirming the facts by telescope, was forced to deny it since he wished to stay alive. Galileo advocated that all prior beliefs and opinion should be kept out of scientific observation, which should be completely objective. Needless to say, once such ideas gained support, the authority of the church began to diminish and their dogmatic pronouncements about the nature of everything began to be supplanted by more tentative suggestions based upon specific observation and experiment.
Isaac Newton was born in the same year that Galileo died and his discoveries were to have a devastating effect on religious faith. Once it became accepted that the workings of the universe could be understood through scientific laws, the idea of a divine creation became suspect. Man was just a tiny phenomenon in a vast universe, no longer the centre of everything. This had a profound effect upon man’s self-image and outlook. Previously it had been believed that our earth was effectively the creation and that man was the most important being in it, capable of communing with God and aspiring to union with Him. Henceforth it became increasingly apparent that the earth was insignificant in the immensity of the universe and the concomitant conclusion was that man himself was nowhere near so important as had previously been supposed. Continue reading →
During the second century AD, Plotinus attempted to revise Plato’s concepts relating to the nature of reality in order to incorporate the objections that Aristotle had raised. Most people lived at a level below that at which the intellect was able to comprehend the ‘Forms’ that Plato had spoken of, the eternal and unchanging basis for the worldly approximations of concepts such as beauty, justice and so on. The highest of the Forms was the ‘Good’. From it, the entire universe emanated, becoming increasingly less ‘good’ as it spread outwards but nevertheless still being ‘one thing’. The origin, God if you like, first becomes mind (intellect) and then soul. All things, including ourselves, are souls. The purpose of man was to return to the original state by examining the world and following the good back to its source. It was concepts such as this that greatly influenced Christianity, though the philosophers themselves rejected it because of such notions as salvation through grace. The ideas also had a resurgence during the Renaissance, when the writings of Plotinus were translated into Latin. Continue reading →
The Sceptics, noting that different peoples had differing opinions on many subjects, wondered how one could ever justify holding a particular belief. Arguments for one view rather than another were founded on unproven premises and there seemed to be no means of ever being certain about anything. They concluded long before Kant in the 18th Century that we could have no real knowledge about the nature of things and believed that in situations where we were essentially ignorant we ought not to make judgements. This course of action (or perhaps we should call it ‘inaction’) was thought to lead to peace of mind. The outcome was that adherents behaved in whatever way those around them behaved and did not really believe in anything themselves (what we might now call cynically!). Again, this philosophy offered some consolation to those seeking escape from a difficult life – don’t worry about the future since you can never know anything about it anyway. In fact, the above description seems remarkably similar to the way that the modern generation seems to behave so that it has clearly lost little of its force as a philosophical outlook on life. Continue reading →
Socrates is famous for claiming that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. If we simply go through our lives seeking pleasures for their own sake without ever looking for some sense of purpose and meaning, then we might as well not have existed. The hedonist’s retort to this is that, if we spend all of our lives searching for significance and fail to find any (whether or not there actually is one), then we have wasted our opportunity to enjoy it while we are able. The fact that many claim that there is a purpose, and that they themselves have realised this, is not really any help. Most of such people will be held by us to be deluded religious fanatics and their opinions will carry little weight. If there is meaning then it does seem that we must discover it for ourselves, perhaps by systematically examining all of the claims and deciding whether they are in any way justified. Continue reading →
This is the first part of an 18-part overview of Western Philosophy. Originally written to be incorporated into ‘Book of One’, it became far too long and detailed. I posted the first 15 parts to Advaita Academy around 5 years ago but these are no longer available. Since we have a current interest in the subject with both Charles and Martin posting articles and comments, it seems like an opportune time to begin to repost the series!
Note that the depth to which the subject is addressed is fairly shallow for the most part. I am not a philosopher by education or employment and most of my understanding has been gleaned from secondary sources – I have read very few original philosophical texts! But I hope it provides a general introduction to the key ideas of most well-known Western philosophers so that the reader may go to the original source (or a good commentary) if interested. Needless to say, I tend to ‘cherry-pick’ those aspects that related to Advaita!
What Western Philosophers Have Said
A site such as this would be unthinkable without reference to what has been thought and written by Western philosophers. Philosophers used not to limit their investigation to those areas that we now think of as philosophy. Aristotle for example wrote books on physics, biology, mathematics, psychology, politics and meteorology, to mention just a few. Their interests ranged across the entire spectrum of human endeavour. It should not be too surprising, then, to find that many philosophers do not seem specifically to have addressed those questions that concern Advaita – there were simply too many other diverting subjects to investigate. Nevertheless, since the question of what we ought to do with our lives in order to achieve fulfilment and happiness is rather more important than most, it is perhaps surprising that it seems so difficult to discover clear guidance from this intellectual elite. Continue reading →