Sunday, July 17, 2011

Spirituality 5

Philosophical Prolegomenon

(i) Certainty

Mallard ducks, Malahide Estuary, March, 2011
Certainty, like clarity, is a double-edged sword.  What are the things in life that I am certain of?  I'm certain that I was born, that I am living in this moment and typing these words on the screen of my PC.  I am also certain that I am ageing and going to die, that the night will fall around 10 p.m. or so tonight and darkness will cover the face of the earth in this area of the world, and that day will rise with the sun around 6. A.M. or so.  This phenomenon has been happening for millions upon millions of years, so it is very unlikely that this will cease.  Many of the things we are certain of, we simply can not prove or demonstrate.  As John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) argued that people believe things on faith and trust in others and that they also believe as true the knowledge they have been taught by others - otherwise they should literally do and learn nothing.  Indeed, he would argue that we don't have to prove these things, that it is normal and human to accept them on faith.

(ii) Clarity versus Unclarity

In 1994, in my S.T. L. thesis I wrote the following with respect to clarity:

The first point that strikes a careful reader is Newman's perception of the sheer difficulty in coming up with an adequate philosophy of knowledge or epistemology.  In a letter of 1840 he writes: 'the human mind in its present state is unequal to its own powers of apprehension; it embraces more than it can master.  I think we ought to set out on our enquiries, I am sure we shall end them, with this conviction.'  Ward quotes the first sentence of this quotation quite often in his lectures as being Newman's starting point for his theory of knowledge.

In one of the Oxford University Sermons (preached in 1839) Newman recognises the ineffable mystery of God and seems somewhat pessimistic about fathoming that mystery by any human method: 'Who shall give method to what is infinitely complex and measure to the unfathomable.'  In approaching mystery one advances tentatively; the method of approach being often indirect and circuitous.  If Camus sought clarity and ended up in the abyss of absurdity and despair because he could find none, Newman was deeply conscious of 'that lack of clarity that is part of our human condition.'  (Faith and Theological Method in the Works of John Henry Newman, unpublished STL thesis, Milltown, 1994, pp. 46-47)
Long before I wrote the above thesis I had read much of Albert Camus' writings and philosophy under the guiding hand of Fr. Patrick Carmody, M.A., M.Phil., a brilliant and inspiring lecturer.  I learned the value of reading widely from this great scholar and of questioning radically one's presuppositions.  Camus’ life and work were dominated by the juxtaposition of an indomitable will towards happiness and justice on one hand and the indifference and hostility of the world on the other hand. That juxtaposition in the concreteness of one's everyday life constitutes the absurd.

Camus’ longing for clarity to which I alluded in my thesis is to be found in all his work, but most especially in The Myth of Sisyphus.  In fact it can also be cogently argued that most of Camus’ work is a development of the themes dealt with in that particular book and of the problems that arose from them.  As one reads this philosopher one learns quickly that the absurd is a disproportion or conflict between our expectations or ideals and reality. In particular it is the confrontation between our longing or nostalgia for order, meaning, and clarity on the one hand with the chaos, confusion, and irrationality of the world on the other hand; between the human longing for happiness and the evil in the world. The absurd is not in man alone nor in the world alone, but only in the juxtaposition of the two: “The world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrationality and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart.” (The Myth of Sisyphus)

What can we know at all?

It is widely accepted that we can know what phenomena are through our senses.  That is the very meaning of the word "phenomenon", which refers to anything that appears to, or is an object of, the senses.  However, we are very aware today that the apparatus for perceiving that I use (i.e., my brain or mind) is limited and finite and subject to my own distortions.  How then can I "know" the actual thing itself?  This led the great philosopher Immanuel Kant to come up with the concept of noumenon (or at least resurrect the concept from antiquity).  The idea of noumenon is defined as a posited object or event that is known (if at all) without the use of the senses.  The following quotation from the WIKI is clearly and succinctly put:

Modern philosophy has generally denied the possibility of knowledge independent of the senses, and Immanuel Kant gave this point of view its classical version, saying that the noumenal world may exist, but it is completely unknowable to humans. In Kantian philosophy the unknowable noumenon is often linked to the unknowable "thing-in-itself" (Ding an sich), although how to characterize the nature of the relationship is a question yet open to some controversy. (See this link: Noumenon )
Many accounts of Kant's philosophy treat "noumenon" and "thing-in-itself" as synonymous, and there is textual evidence for this relationship. However, Stephen Palmquist (b. 1957, expert on Kant, philosophy of religion and political philosophy in Hong Kong) holds that "noumenon" and "thing-in-itself" are only loosely synonymous in as much as they represent the same thing but viewed from two different perspectives. However, such moot, if interesting points, need not delay us here

Today's Wake-Up Story from de Mello

Malahide Estuary, March, 2011
You are probably saying to yourself, and with great justification, what has all the foregoing to do with spirituality.  Well, a lot, I believe, because the Eastern way of looking at reality and concentrating on, or observing the actual phenomenon or thing that appears to our senses cuts through a lot of the above Western style of thinking.  As one schooled in the Philosophy and Theology of the West, it is very hard for me to slough it off because I find it rivetingly interesting.  Once again, I believe that these two ways of looking at things have to be taken together in a healthy tension of opposites as I have been arguing for in these posts over the last six years.  In the story here, de Mello is asking us to wake up and just look at the thing itself, the phenomenon, not the imperceptible thing-in-itself:


"Don't look for God," the Master said, "Just look - and all will be revealed."

"But how is one to look?"

"Each time you look at anything, see only what there is and nothing else."

The disciples were bewildered, so that Master made it simpler:  "For instance: When you look at the moon, see the moon and nothing else."

"What else could one see except the moon when one looks at the moon?"

"A hungry person could see a ball of cheese.  A lover, the face of his beloved."

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