Metaphysics from a clean slate

    • This page is part of a group of pages looking at answers to the ‘big questions’. ‘What is the purpose of life?’ and ‘How should I live?’ are probably the biggest. For more on my motivations and approach, see Journey to a Path if you haven’t already read it. As I said there, I looked first at the foundations of logical reasoning, science and philosophy – ‘Metaphysics’, here – and then at the major ‘Established Religions’ to see what might be useful.

Metaphysics

For a long time the purest, most rigorous application of logic was in mathematics and especially in Euclid’s geometry. Formal geometry depends explicitly upon axioms – statements that have been accepted as true without ever having been proved and have been declared foundational. Axioms are, by definition, unprovable (if they were provable, it would show that they rely on something even more fundamental). They are given the status of facts, incontrovertible knowledge, although different geometries (e.g. spherical vs planar) have different axioms, and mathematicians draw freely on them for work on any problem.

Philosophical writing uses a similar scheme of logical argument but the beliefs underpinning it (1) vary from one writer to another and (2) are rarely stated explicitly. Often, I think, it is because the writer is unaware of the fact that they may not be true, or even that they exist. It seems to me that any philosophy needs to identify and justify its starting points before it can proceed safely. If it doesn’t, it is building on sand. I think the underlying assumptions or beliefs should be stated as axioms.

Axioms

My chosen starting points are truth and fairness. Every step of the journey will be tested against these two ideals.

Truth might seem to be such an obvious and essential requirement of any serious enquiry that it need not be stated as an axiom. However, it can not be taken for granted in philosophy or religion: particularly in religious contexts, the ‘truth’ of a given text may be beyond question and therefore forever indeterminate, neither provable nor disprovable.

What I have called ‘fairness‘ is my only other axiom; I hope it is all I need. What do I mean by it? I mean that no beliefs (except this one) are privileged over any others – and therefore that no beliefs are exempt from enquiry or rejection, while all beliefs are equally entitled to respect until they have been examined.

I have chosen it because anything else presupposes some truths without stating them or being able to examine them. In other words, it is a way of clearing a working space, a way of saying that everything is in doubt. It makes any point in the territory as good as any other, and it guards against special pleading or favouritism. (e.g. ‘We should be allowed to do this but you are not, because we are male/white/the Chosen People,’ fails the fairness test.)

Finally, its immediate consequences in the social sphere seem good. It means that everyone has an equal right to life, freedom of expression and freedom of belief; and it leads straight to the Golden Rule (treat others as you would like to be treated) which is about the best, most universal basis for ethics known to me.

From ‘fairness’ to the Golden Rule:
If no person or belief has a privileged position, ‘What should I do?’ is exactly the same as, ‘What should my neighbour do?’ and, for that matter, ‘What should my enemy do?’ — the questions must have the same answer.
Therefore, if others ought to treat me as I want to be treated, I ought to treat them as I want to be treated.

Truth rules out anything that is in direct conflict with science, because science is organised, self-consistent, tested and testable knowledge – and, because there is so much of it, no single statement or set of beliefs can overturn it.

Truth is a property of statements. Words are our only means of formulating and clarifying ideas but are one step removed from reality. Some religions (e.g. Zen Buddhism) distrust words because statements have no necessary connection to reality, and I do too. But they are the best tools we have.

Tools

Logic is the tool of choice for dealing with statements. It cannot generate new ideas or guarantee truth but it can protect against muddled thinking.

Ockham’s Razor (see http://skepdic.com/occam.html) is part of my toolkit and when in doubt I am likely to call for it.

Consistency is valuable but is not primary. Truths can’t be inconsistent with each other (if they seem to be, one must be untrue or one or both must be incompletely stated). But consistency is not enough, because falsehoods can be consistent with each other.

The validity of shared (common) sense-impressions, i.e. the existence of consensus reality may be a necessary axiom too, but seems to be strongly suggested, if not proven, by fairness plus Ockham’s Razor (e.g. I believe I see an apple; we both hear you tell me that you see an apple; therefore the apple probably exists). For now I will just accept that the commonsense view of the reality around us is a good enough description of the world. Science provides a more detailed description, but it is still only a description and it takes for granted the commonsense view.

Knowledge : belief, religion : philosophy

Two pairs of overlapping terms need to be sorted out before we go much further: knowledge and belief, and religion and philosophy.

Religion and philosophy are easy to separate. Philosophy is (literally) ‘love of knowledge’ and is scientific in method (provisional, open to debate and to change) whereas religion is (literally) ‘binding’, bringing people together under a set of laws, traditions and, of course, beliefs which are not usually open to debate or change.

Knowledge and belief are harder to separate. Truth and knowledge, in science, are always provisional, liable to be overturned by a new discovery. That makes knowledge more like what most people call belief. My best definition is that abstract knowledge is a subset of belief – more solidly attached to the world, better attested, less likely to be overturned. It might even be reasonable to call abstract knowledge, ‘well supported belief’ and other beliefs, ‘poorly supported beliefs’.

We must remember, however, that not all knowledge depends on words: there is experiential and bodily knowledge as well, such as knowing how to walk.

On the other hand, there is (in my opinion) no such thing as ‘innate’ knowledge or morality (or ‘innate’ musicality): everything we know, we have learned from the world around us, and especially from the people in it. If you need evidence for that, think about language acquisition, read about infants brought up by animals and look up the story of the neglected babies in Romanian orphanages.

Useful and beautiful ideas

Reading about religion and philosophy over thirty-odd years I have encountered a lot that I liked and …the rest.

One concept I liked very much, and still do, is the Taoist idea of ‘according with the spirit of Heaven’ or (in its hippie formulation) ‘going with the flow’ – seeing life as a river and learning to recognise its currents and accommodate to them. (Recent reading suggests that ‘dharma’ and ‘tao’ have much in common.)

Another is from Hinduism: that there are several paths to wisdom and the seeker’s personality type dictates which is most appropriate: (analytical) knowledge, love (devotion), works (service to others) – head, heart or hands – though any without the others is eventually found to be incomplete. (My preferred path is obviously ‘head.’) Similarly, in Buddhism, wisdom and compassion are seen as complementary.

‘Karma’ is central to both Buddhism and Hinduism. It is often erroneously thought of as ‘fate’ (as in, ‘No man can escape his karma’) but is more correctly interpreted as a law of cause and effect: whatever we have done in the past will inevitably affect what happens to us in the future. Sometimes we will be able to see the connection and sometimes not, but the connection is still there.

The Sanskrit word Karma (or kamma in Pali) literally means action. In Buddhism however, karma mainly refers to one’s intention or motivation while doing an action.

The shortest explanation of karma that I know is: ‘you get what you give’. In other words; whatever you do intentionally to others, a similar thing will happen to yourself in the future.

Our largest obstacle to understanding or even believing in karma may be time. The results of our actions show up with a time delay, and it becomes extremely hard to tell which action caused which result. Actions done in a previous life can create results in this life, but who can remember their past life? For ordinary humans, the mechanisms of karma can be intellectually understood to some extent, but never completely ‘seen’.

The idea behind karma is not only found in Buddhism and Hinduism; it seems that the Bible certainly conveys the same essence: ‘Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A person reaps what he sows.’ (Gal. 6:7)

… Two of my personal favourite reasons to believe in karma, are that it represents ultimate justice as everyone will harvest the results of their actions, and even if karma would not exist, as long as I try to avoid negative actions, the world would be a better place to live in for everyone anyway.

(quoted from Kalachakranet in 2007 but no longer on that site in 2022)

See also: Karma by Thanissaro Bhikkhu on Dhamma Talks.

The next part of this series examines Established Religions.

Created 21 Jan, 2007;
refined and first published 2008;
added to this site (links updated, minor clarifications) Feb 2022

Journey towards a path

  • I wrote this in 2007-2008 primarily for my own benefit but then decided to put it on my website in case anyone else might find it useful. Nearly fifteen years later (2022) I find that I still agree with most of it so I’m moving it across to my new site rather than simply deleting it as I close down my old site.

I seem to have set out on a journey, and to have surprised my family and friends more than myself by doing so.

It is actually more accurate to say I have found time to recommence a journey that began when I was teenager but has mostly been on hold for the last twenty years. (That alone is probably enough to explain why my family and friends were more surprised than I was.) My journey re-started when it did (2006-07), rather than years earlier or later, for a mixture of personal reasons: events just combined to urge me to redefine my relationship with the world.

The journey is a quest for answers to the big questions that most of us ask from time to time and usually set aside. ‘What is the purpose of life?’ and ‘How should I live?’ are the biggest, but they lead to questions about society’s relationship with our increasingly fragile environment.

Why bother asking them, or attempting to answer them? Because anyone travelling without a destination in mind is likely to arrive somewhere they didn’t mean to get to – and don’t particularly like. Also, perhaps, because it has recently become apparent that the major religions present problems to which the world needs solutions.

But why bother writing about it? Initially to explain my ‘new’ preoccupation to my family and friends and to learn more myself. (We all know that teaching a subject is a great way to learn it.) As that progressed, I decided to put it on the web in the hope that it will help others on their own path.

Finding a starting point

Because of the kind of person I am, I have spent some time looking for a starting point. The journey has to begin by clearing away errors and other obstacles. Changing metaphors midstream, I know that if I start from insecure foundations I will not be able to build a bridge over the swamps of unreason and superstition.

To be clear: I cannot and will not accept any answers or explanations which conflict with reason or with scientific knowledge. The standards against which we test religious or philosophical knowledge should be the highest we can find and should certainly be no lower than those applied to scientific knowledge. I am prepared to believe there are things I don’t know or that science doesn’t know, but not to believe things which cannot (by virtue of internal inconsistency or conflict with rationally established truths) be true. I know it’s not possible but I would like metaphysics to be as rigorous as physics. (Wouldn’t that change the world!)

Starting any journey with a completely blank map is not only impossible (since we must have some knowledge to frame questions) but also time-wasting, so examining existing maps of the territory – the answers that others have found – was part of establishing my starting point.

I looked first at the foundations of logical reasoning, science and philosophy – see ‘Metaphysics‘ – and then at the major ‘Established Religions‘ to see what might be useful. That exercise led me to look more closely at Buddhism and therefore to ‘An introduction to the main schools of Buddhism’ and ‘Core Buddhist Beliefs’. The associated Reading List, fiction and non-fiction, includes a variety of related books – philosophy, religion (pro and anti) and the environment.