Knowing, Thinking and Being: The World, Knowledge, and the Dawn of Modern Science
Welcome to part 6 of Magic 299 and my ongoing effort to articulate and examine some of the historical, philosophical and religious foundations that contribute to two important concepts held as axioms by many Neo-Pagans, Pagans, and Magickal and New Age communities. Again, these are variations on what is known as reality formation, i.e. “We create our own realities”, along with the related concept of “responsibility assumption”, or, “Each of us is 100% responsible for the occurrences in their lives.”
It is my hope that this exploration will be of service as it attempts to uncover a context for these ideas while it also examines their spiritual and philosophical significance.
In part 5 I blogged about relevant characteristics of mysticism and metaphysics as well as touching upon some medieval ideas that relate to our topic.
The broad nature of this subject (both in terms of the swathe of time covered here, as well as the abundance of writing by the many great thinkers considering related ideas) requires me to make some careful choices in an attempt to summarize the important topics and to cherry pick those thinkers and ideas that come closest to our particular threads here. This means, of course, that there is a whole lot more out there! I hope that some readers choose to take some time to follow some of the links I’ve provided from Wikipedia, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy and elsewhere. Each of those links lead to yet further information–the magic of stepping onto those threads that tremble outwards into the far-reaching world wide web. What an amazing thing to have so much of our world–including information about the world’s “physicality” and insights into the “world of the mind”–all linked in this manner!
References to “the world” are common in mystical traditions, along with a call to be separate from at least the “mundane” aspects, often maintaining a detachment analogous to emptiness. One key to the malleable and enigmatic mystical and metaphysical expressions mentioned in part 5, lies in the perspective that “the world” of appearances reflects only learned beliefs – based on the limitations of time, culture and relationships – and that an unquestioned faith in those (mis)perceptions limits a person’s return to a divine state.
The mystical approach seeks the discovery and/or development of a highly effective set of practices which will lead to union with the Divine and an enlightened mind and/or soul. This results in practices which are focused upon the intrinsic world, for example, chanting, certain carefully orchestrated physical practices (yoga asanas) breathing techniques, fasting, dietary restrictions, clearing the mind in an effort to achieve a non-thinking awareness, etc. There is a wide range of mystical and metaphysical practice and belief, and not a lot of agreement on which practice works “best”, despite the cross-“platform” similarities to be found in most mystical groups.
Mystics and metaphysicians give a variety of reasons for their preference for one metaphysical belief over another. Some propose that metaphysical beliefs derive their justification from the positive consequences of maintaining a certain belief, for example they provide hope, or give meaning to existence. Others suggest that their metaphysical speculations offer the best “fit” with what is accepted knowledge in science or other empirical disciplines. Each of these practices is related to some sort of interpretation of reality–and usually some sort of distinction is made between types of reality.
As the Middle Ages drew to a close, metaphysical speculation about “types of reality” which had characterized and even dominated much of Western philosophy, began to give way to careful analysis as to what can actually and reasonably be posited about reality and the material world. Thought thus shifted again from intrinsic perceptions and ideas to extrinsic and provable observations.
In the court of Queen Elizabeth (and later James I) there was an important voice for this new focus, that of Francis Bacon (22 January 1561 – 9 April 1626) who said:
“Men have sought to make a world from their own conception and to draw from their own minds all the material which they employed, but if, instead of doing so, they had consulted experience and observation, they would have the facts and not opinions to reason about, and might have ultimately arrived at the knowledge of the laws which govern the material world.”
Bacon’s efforts to come up with a clear method for doing this resulted in his articulation of what is called the Baconian Method, which together with the contributions of scientists and thinkers like Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton has come to be known as the “scientific method” also see Wikipedia‘s article on the scientific method. For the history of the many other thinkers and scientists who have contributed to the scientific method see Wikepedia‘s timeline on the topic.
Bacon crafted a set of procedures for distinguishing among probable causes and then determining the actual cause of an observable fact. These procedures include the methods of agreement, of difference, and of concomitant variation. Employing these methods entails noting and then listing that which occurs in and about the phenomenon in question and also separately noting that which does not occur. The ensuing lists are then compared and the items in each list are ranked as to degree of occurrence or relevance. In this manner, by a process of elimination and inductive reasoning a practitioner of this method can determine both what is not involved, what is involved, and what has changed, or changes, and therefore it is possible to arrive at the underlying cause of a fact.
While developments of this process contribute to much of the more recent or “modern” attempts to describe what we can see, measure, and know–that is to determine causes for “reality”; of particular significance to our two threads of personal reality formation and outcome responsibility is Bacon’s discussion of what he referred to as the “Idols of The Mind“. These “Idols” are what Bacon determined to be aspects of human thinking which obstruct a correct and reasoned scientific approach. He is using the word “Idol” in the Greek sense as illusion or false appearance, as fantasy; he does not use “idol” in the sense in which it directly refers to some worshiped divinity. Idols in Bacon’s usage of the word are eidola, the transient (and therefore to Bacon likely to be erroneous) images of things. The tendencies described by these Idols are important not just to explorations of causality in science, but are also important for us to take into account when we consider how or whether we as individuals can be a causal nexus in our own lives.
Bacon identified four Idols of the Mind (the quotes from Bacon below are from his Novum Organum, edited by J. Devey, 1911):
1. Idola Tribus, the Idols of the Tribe, refers to the tendency to apply preconceived notions to what we see and to perceive a greater order and regularity in systems than actually exists. In Bacon’s words:
“The idols of the tribe are inherent in human nature and the very tribe or race of man; for man’s sense is falsely asserted to be the standard of things….(p. 20). [They]…arise either from the uniformity of the constitution of man’s spirit, or its prejudices, or its limited faculties or restless agitations, or from the interference of the passions, or the incompetence of the senses….” (p. 28).
Bacon’s Idola Tribus describe our general tendencies to be deceived, tendencies which are inherent in human nature. These tendencies include ignoring countervailing evidence against our views, relying in an uncritical manner upon our sense perceptions, over-generalizing what we perceive, and the inclination to jump to conclusions.
2. Idola Specus, the Idols of the Den (or Cave), are errors in perceptions resulting from individual weaknesses in reason, caused in turn by personal preferences and personality.
In Bacon’s words: “The idols of the den are those of each individual; for everybody (in addition to the common errors in the race of man) has his own individual den or cavern, which intercepts or corrupts the light of nature, either from his own peculiar and singular disposition, or from his education and intercourse with others, or from his reading, and the authority acquired by those whom he reverences and admires, or from the different impressions produced on the mind, as it happens to be preoccupied and predisposed….” (p. 21)
Bacon’s Idola Specus are therefore those distortions which arise from our particular viewpoints and intrinsic insights (Bacon bases this metaphor upon Plato’s myth of the cave); to counter these particular Idols, Bacon reminds us that whatever our mind ‘…seizes and dwells upon with peculiar satisfaction is to be held in suspicion’.
3. Idola Fori, the Idols of the Marketplace, involve miscommunication of ideas rooted in semantics, particularly those due to differences in language usage. An example of this is the uncertainty arising when words in science have different meanings than their usage in common parlance.
In Bacon’s words the Idola Fori are: “…formed by the reciprocal intercourses and society of man with man….for men converse by means of language, but words are formed at will of the generality, and there arises from a bad and unapt formation of words a wonderful obstruction to the mind. Nor can definitions and explanations with which learned men are wont to guard and protect themselves in some instances afford a complete remedy – words manifestly force the understanding, throw everything into confusion, and lead mankind into vain and innumerable controversies and fallacies.” (p. 21)
Bacon’s Idola Fori are not simply errors that come in the course of interpersonal communication, but also arise from abuse of word usage in a language.
4. Idola Theatri, the Idols of the Theater, refer to the tendency of humans to unquestioningly adhere to religious or philosophical dogma, remaining either incidentally or intentionally blind to reality.
In Bacon’s words: “…there are idols which have crept into men’s minds from the various dogmas of peculiar systems of philosophy, and also from the perverted rules of demonstration…for we regard all the systems of philosophy hitherto received or imagined, as so many plays brought out and performed, creating fictitious and theatrical worlds.” (p. 22)
Bacon’s Idola Theatri thus specifically arise from errors which are introduced by previous theories, for example, Aristotelianism’s abstract schemata, along with the introduction of theological ideas into science. Bacon was comparing extant philosophical and religious systems to theatrical spectacle, which therefore likens them to imaginary and fantastical representations and worldview.
The dawn of modern philosophical thought is often attributed to Rene Descartes, (also see the Stanford entry ) who posed epistemological questions, or speculations as to the nature of knowledge and its origin and limits.
Descartes approaches knowledge by distinguishing between persuasio, or lesser grades of conviction and belief, and scientia, a rigorous knowledge. He is renowned for defining knowledge in terms of doubt, his discussion of the difference between these concepts was clearly articulated in a letter excerpted below.
“I distinguish the two as follows: there is conviction when there remains some reason which might lead us to doubt, but knowledge is conviction based on a reason so strong that it can never be shaken by any stronger reason.” (1640 letter)
Descartes (1596-1650) is thus credited with articulating the foundational philosophical structure upon which the natural sciences could be built. In order to determine and describe a set of true principles, ideas about which there can be no doubt, he employs a form of methodological skepticism, discussed and demonstrated in his Discourse on the Method (1637) as hyperbolical/metaphysical doubt.
Basically, as a mental and philosophical exercise he rejects all ideas which can be doubted (persuasio) and then seeks to restore them only with a firm foundation for genuine knowledge (scientia).
Descartes did briefly consider ideas of mysticism and of magic but he rejected them in favor of the ideal of a mechanical explanation.
His rejection of suppositions articulated in his Discourse on Method resulted in Descartes’s original French statement “Je pense donc je suis,” “I think therefore I am”, later articulated in Latin as Cogito Ergo Sum. He expands upon this in Latin in 1641 in his Meditationes de prima philosophia, in qua Dei existentia et animæ immortalitas demonstratur (Meditations on First Philosophy, in which the Existence of God and the Immortality of the Soul are Demonstrated).
For Descartes, once one stripped away all preconceived notions and belief, one could not escape the fact that one was still wondering about ideas and existence, and therefore doubting one’s own reality was a fruitless exercise.
From Discourse on Method:
“I had long since remarked that in matters of conduct it is necessary sometimes to follow opinions known to be uncertain, as if they were not subject to doubt; but, because now I was desirous to devote myself to the search after truth, I considered that I must do just the contrary, and reject as absolutely false every-thing concerning which I could imagine the least doubt to exist.
“Thus, because our senses sometimes deceive us, I would suppose that nothing is such as they make us to imagine it; and because I was as likely to err as another in reasoning, I rejected as false all the reasons which I had formerly accepted as demonstrative; and finally, considering that all the thoughts we have when awake can come to us also when we sleep without any of them being true, I resolved to feign that everything which had ever entered my mind was no more truth than the illusion of my dreams.
“But I observed that, while I was thus resolved to feign that everything was false, I who thought must of necessity be somewhat; and remarking this truth–I think, therefore I am–was so firm and so assured that all the most extravagant suppositions of the sceptics were unable to shake it, I judged that I could unhesitatingly accept it as the first principle of the philosophy I was seeking. I could feign that there was no world, I could not feign that I did not exist. And I judged that I might take it as a general rule that the things which we conceive very clearly and very distinctly are all true, and that the only difficulty lies in the way of discerning which those things are that we conceive distinctly.”
(For more of Descartes’s actual words on this topic see “I think therefore I am ” from the Public Bookshelf’s Outline of Great Books.)
Important for our related subjects of reality formation and mental outcome causality, Descartes also distinguished between mind and body. For Descartes, the difference could be found in the distinct forms of their substance; with the mind a thinking, feeling, but immaterial, spatially non-extended substance–a soul, as contrasted from the body which is spatially extended (three dimensional) and is itself incapable of thought or feeling. This metaphysical dualism that distinguishes so radically between the thinking mind, and the three dimensional matter, reveals Descartes’s rationalist metaphysical approach to this topic in that it is based upon Descartes’s postulations of innate ideas of mind, matter, and God, while his physics and physiology, both mechanistic and empiricist are based upon sensory experience.
Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia
Descartes’s mind-body dualism is important to our discussion of reality formation and 100% responsibility, although it is actually the concerns raised by Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia (a brilliant friend who corresponded with Descartes) which are most significant.
Despite recognizing the deep differences inherent in the duality, Descartes accepted the common belief that mind and body causally interact:
“Everyone feels that he is a single person with both body and thought so related by nature that the thought can move the body and feel the things which happen to it” (in Cottingham et al., The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume III: The Correspondence, 1991).
Despite Descartes’s nod to a causal link between mind and body, the radically different types of substance comprising mind and body make it difficult to see just how they might causally interact. Descartes was well aware of the difficulty. He dedicated The Passions of the Soul  which partly treats with these questions to Princess Elizabeth, who on May 6, 1643 wrote him asking:
“…how the human soul can determine the movement of the animal spirits in the body so as to perform voluntary acts—being as it is merely a conscious substance. For the determination of movement seems always to come about from the moving body’s being propelled—to depend on the kind of impulse it gets from what sets it in motion, or again, on the nature and shape of this latter thing’s surface. Now the first two conditions involve contact, and the third involves that the impelling thing has extension; but you utterly exclude extension from your notion of soul, and contact seems to me incompatible with a thing’s being immaterial…” (letter in Anscombe and Geach 1954).
Elizabeth is expressing the prevailing mechanistic view–working (as was Descartes) within the framework of Galilean mechanics which expressed the dominant physical theory of the era. She is asking Descartes to provide a causal explanation for how the body works, positing that it must involve some cause’s impelling of the body, where impelling requires some form of contact between the cause and the effect. Since a soul as described by Descartes could never literally come into contact with a body—as souls are spatially unextended—an immaterial soul could never impel, and so could never causally interact with a body.
The ensuing exchange therefore has a direct bearing upon our larger discussion:
On May 21st Descartes responded to Princess Elizabeth that the explanation she seeks can be found in a discussion of three “primitive notions”. Among these he distinguishes bodies, souls [minds], and body-souls [body-minds] and claims that each of these “notions” cannot be explained “…except through itself.”
On June 10, 1643 Elisabeth (correctly) responds that he has not explained things yet:
“…it would be easier for me to concede matter and extension to the soul, than the capacity of moving a body and of being moved, to an immaterial being. For, if the first occurred through `information’, the spirits that perform the movement would have to be intelligent, which you accord to nothing corporeal. And although in your metaphysical meditations you show the possibility of the second, it is, however, very difficult to comprehend that a soul, as you have described it, after having had the faculty and habit of reasoning well, can lose all of it on account of some vapors….”
On June 28, Descartes responds with an elaboration on the three “notions”:
-soul is properly conceived by the understanding alone,
-bodies are properly conceived by understanding aided by the imagination,
-unions of bodies and souls are properly explained by the senses.
He notes, however, that the proper understanding of the “union” is difficult.
On July 1 of the same year Elisabeth responds: “I too find that the senses show me that the soul moves the body; but they fail to teach me (any more than the understanding and the imagination) the manner in which she does it. And, in regard to that, I think there are unknown properties in the soul that might suffice to reverse what your metaphysical meditations, with such good reasons, persuaded me concerning her inextension [non 3-D nature-MM]. And this doubt seems founded upon the rule you lay down there in speaking of the true and the false—namely, that all our errors occur from forming judgments about what we do not sufficiently perceive. Although extension is not necessary to thought, yet not being contradictory to it, it will be able to belong to some other function of the soul less essential to her.”
This unsolved problem clearly relates to our discussion of 100% responsibility for personal reality causality. If it’s unclear and difficult to conceive of how consciousness can even move the body in which it “rides”, how much more difficult is it to articulate the “how” of creating intangible yet external events and “reality”. As far as the second axiom of personal outcome responsibility, this unexplained causal nexus is operating not just with the “substance” of external “things” but also across time and space.
Regardless of the circularity of some of Descartes arguments, or the failure to adequately answer Princess Elizabeth’s important questions, Descartes provided later philosophers and thinkers with a useful moral code for quests for the truth in The Discourse where he recommended that seekers of truth: obey local customs and laws, make decisions on the best evidence and then keep to them firmly as though they were certain, change desires rather than the world, and always seek truth. He also offers us in The Discourse and his other works a simile for knowledge which he describes as “like a tree in its interconnectedness and in the grounding provided to higher forms of knowledge by lower or more fundamental ones. Thus, for Descartes, metaphysics corresponds to the roots of the tree, physics to the trunk, and medicine, mechanics, and morals to the branches.” (from Encyclopedia Brittanica‘s discussion of Descartes.)
We’ll continue with further issues of Epistemology and philosophy of knowledge and science in a later entry.
All material included here is copyright Maerian Morris and Westernesste. All rights reserved.