The Perennial Philosophy Revisited

Author’s Synopsis for The Perennial Philosophy Revisited – A trilogy.
Volume 1: 
Mind in Transition
Volume 2:  The Babylonian Lottery
Volume 3:
The Case Against Fatalistic Determinism.

The basic premise of all three books is that there is a shallow end to both humanist and religious thinking. Shallow humanism and shallow religious thinking are defined throughout as materialist and reductionist, as embedded in history and bound to ideas in alliance with science on the one hand, and with theology on the other. In this sense science is shallow humanism’s theology, theology shallow religion’s attempt at science. Which is of course to postulate the possibility of a deep form of humanism and a deep form of religion, and that suggests, in turn, that they are potential partners rather than irreconcilable opposites. Depth cannot help but resonates with depth, it is argued, and that being the case we are confronted with the necessity to re-evaluate our stance in relation to humanism and religion. They may in fact be identical, their mutual depths constituting a focusing of the mind where the human dimension reveals itself to be a conduit into alternative dimensions of experience.

This transformative potential of the human mind is equated throughout with mysticism, but it is a mysticism rescued from supernaturalism’s grasp and resituated in terms of heightened awareness. Which separates mysticism from religious projection and places it in relation to heightened forms of perception where self and other are traditionally said to collapse into one experiential field. Spontaneous epiphanies are well documented, prolonged epiphanic states and the route into them not so well known. Nor the difference between primary humanism’s premise that all questions be limited to what the human mind can rationally fathom, and the tendency of secondary, science-saturated humanist thinking where this perfectly sensible way of functioning is transformed into a rationalistic parody of itself. Rational thinking is a necessity in all fields of inquiry, that is a given; thinking reduced to a mechanical equating of everything experienced by human beings with science’s hardcore, utilitarian findings an inappropriate assumption where thought itself becomes no more than a firing of neurons. This tells us that an already hardened humanist, postmodern perspective has disallowed the notion of ‘depth’ in favour of ‘surface’, and that we are in the shadow of a philosophy of mind where consciousness has been disallowed and self-presence reduced to no more than an orienting capacity in the brain. Felt sentience, too, has suffered, it being viewed as no more than a system of blind affective responses provoked by world referencing back on itself as information. We are no longer selves selfing. We are now world worlding, language languaging, information phenomenalised as mind or mind conjured into existence via computation at the quantum level.

The problem that arises here is that the claims emanating from our major intellectual disciplines are not mistaken in their basic claims; their claims are based on sound observation in alignment with sound scientific principles. There are core correspondences between brain and mind and world that cannot be refuted, verifiable connections between body and mind that appear to cancel out prior notions of mind or self having a phenomenal dimension. We are faced with what appears to be a philosophical fait accompli, a cul-de-sac of reasoning from which escape seems impossible. Hemmed in by studies in philosophy, psychology, sociology and physics where the question of what it means to be a human being is not merely under scrutiny, but held to be a question already settled, we are intimidated towards accepting a view of existence that systematically unravels us at our existential core. And we’re supposed to be pleased that this is so; we’re expected to applaud the findings of those specialists because their findings constitute a form of ultimate truth that religion, in its naivety claims, but is known not to possess. Science is about ‘process’ on all levels of expression, the accusation of nihilism posted against it no more than a lack of courage or unwillingness to face the scientific ‘facts’, a subjective hankering for ‘meaning’ beyond ‘meanings’ that cannot be detected. There is, we are told, no over-arching meaning to life or the universe, just strings of meaning generated by the human brain out of the chaos of physical matter. What matters is ‘matter’, and that simple linguistic anomaly ought to tell us something important about ourselves. That, in essence, is the tenor of the postmodern humanist argument, and it is a strong one.

The existence of irrefutable facts is not in question, but there are also ‘extrapolated’ facts, comprehensions of fact that rest not on facts but on a predetermined disposition on how facts are to be conceived and used. Facts are one thing; our perception of what facts contextually signify a quite different thing. What a fact ‘signifies’ can be simultaneously correct and incorrect, that is, correct in relation to function, but incorrect in that we may place this fact in the company of other facts supporting an unfounded prejudice. Physicalism, as a theory, is a case in point, and that in spite of its quite obvious factual base. The ‘facts’ of brain science are all but beyond question, the interpretation of what those facts mean not at all certain. Are thoughts brainwaves, for instance, or are brainwaves thoughts? That sounds like a silly question, but it isn’t. If thoughts are fundamentally brainwaves in form, then our thoughts are blind neuronal reactions to environment embedded in the mysteries of self-orientation, language and information. If, however, brainwaves are merely reflective of thought, then there is a phenomenal aspect to ‘mind’ signalling that we are more than the sum of our physical parts. There is undoubtedly a correlation between thought and brainwave, and, for that matter, between thought and affective body states, but neither need be grounded in an overt physicalist conception of mind where thinking is no more than brainwaves ‘waving’ and the delicacy of evaluative feeling is equated with reactive emotion alone. Feeling in terms of emotional outburst is observably reactive, whereas delicacy of feeling is that whereby we evaluate our situation both physically and mentally. Hence two words rather than one to represent the play of energy within psyche, the so-called ‘subjective’ element in the gathering together of sensibility a factor without which meanings fail to register as meaningful.

Knowing something is actually a ‘sensation’ before it is anything else. Lose the sensation of knowing something and knowing ceases to meaningfully register on the mind: comprehension withers into the equally important sensation of not knowing, an existential emptiness that forces sensibility to rally. Which tells us that ‘forgetting’ is an absence of the sensation of knowing, the difficulties we have in remembering some particular thing due to an inability to arouse the sensation of knowing that we know, or are about to know. Depressed states of mind may also be in this target area in that the meaning of something remains intact, but in some curious sense loses its affective edge and becomes experientially dead. This is a known pathological condition that leaves an individual with the anomaly of meaningless meanings, the experience of not having the sensation of meaningfulness required for the experience of meaningful meaning to fully form. It is, in other words, meaning shorn of a living context, meaning drained of its affective juices, meaning deadened to a point where its presence as meaning is pointless. How can such a thing be? How can meaning become pointless? What is pointlessness? Is meaning only something ‘known’, or is it a condition of mind rather than a system of separate bits and pieces within mind? If meaningful meaning is dependent on sensation to exist, indeed, cannot exist unless imbued with the ah experience that accompanies knowing that one has understood something, then meaningfulness and meaning are not one and same thing. To have meaning meanings have to become meaningful, but meaningfulness in itself is not a having of anything, it is an affective, subjective capacity for meaning that exists prior to objective realisation in relation to our aliveness. Before it is anything else, ‘knowing’ something is a sensation that subjectively forms, an affectively based realisation of ‘meaning’ expressive of our existential core. Meaning is then not some disembodied objective form conjured out of language or information alone; it is an embodied state that no robot can experience. Robots have no affective sensibility; they have no sensation of being a ‘thing’, and as such have no meaningful comprehension of the information they so dexterously handle. Pathologically disabled individuals for whom meaning has lost sense of meaning are better off than robots due to their having, at least, the memory of meaning having once had meaning as a personal experience.

This is of course to seriously question how meaning is presently conceived by hard-line, postmodern-influenced humanists, for if meaningful meaning is fundamentally dependent on evaluative feeling as its trigger, as its crucible or alembic, then meaningfulness can be said to have a context beyond plurality of meanings. Meaningfulness is then a condition of our being alive, a state of deep sentience prior to the registration of individual meanings in relation to other meanings. We do not conjure sense of meaning out of meanings. Sense of meaning is not knowing something; it is the subjective matrix within which meaning forms as an experience. Which is to say that the ‘experience of meaning’ is altogether different from that of ‘meanings experienced’ meaningfully. They are not the same thing. We are ourselves the living context within which meanings come alive, or, conversely, the context within which meanings either die, or become truncated and distorted. Each and every act of comprehension is then an act over and above the functional nature of meanings in relationship; it is a bringing to bear of an integral meaningfulness on meaning independent of any surrounding constellation of meanings.

The above argument, radical as it may seem to some, laces its way through all three volumes of The Perennial Philosophy Revisited, and in doing so it sets in full view the nature of the problem I perceive ourselves to face, the problem of explaining how meaning has come to exist at all. We take the existence of meaning for granted, the professionals among us viewing the mystery of conscious intelligibility as no more than a quirk of our reflexive minds. To do so is, I suspect, a profound mistake, a mistaken calculation based on perfectly viable evaluations of fact run out of methodological control. As already noted, facts are one thing; our perception of what facts contextually signify a quite different thing. What a fact ‘signifies’ is an interpretation of reality; it is an intricate system of extrapolations in constant need of refinement due to facts not being wholes. Facts are bits, and in being such they describe neither self nor world with the precision we sometimes imagine them to have. Anomalies abound in every direction. The unthinkable is suddenly thinkable, the unimaginable imaginable in spite of facts suggesting otherwise. And so with ‘meaning’ and what meaning might mean in itself, and to itself; we are, for the first time in our collective history, faced, I believe, with an intellectual shallowness of such depth it may well overwhelm us. Hence this trilogy and its attempt to address the problem of personal meaning in its many guises; there is perhaps more to us that we have come to think, less to us than we sometimes so arrogantly assume.