By “mindset” I mean the sum of all our attitudes to life and all the ideas – including all the unexamined ideas that we simply take for granted – that underpin all our thoughts and moods and actions. 

Again, the range of inputs that influence our mindset is more or less infinite, right back to and including the biochemistry of our brains, most of which evolved before our ancestors were even human, or indeed were recognizably animal. An exhaustive analysis of how and why we think and feel the things we do would take us deep into the realms of depth psychology and is well beyond my compass (and indeed in truth is beyond anybody’s compass). Here, then, I just want to pick out four particular kinds of influence that have the status of formal disciplines: Morality; Science; Metaphysics; and The Arts


Morality

It is fashionable in many  circles to suggest or indeed insist that morality is simply “relative”: that different societies, and different individuals, set their own moral standards – and have a perfect right to do so; that there can be no “absolute” moral standards; and since it’s assumed that there is no God, and that the universe as a whole doesn’t care what we do, there is and can be no judgement of what we do apart from what is somewhat arbitrarily imposed on Earth by tradition, custom, and the law. 

But although I subscribe to no particular religion I profoundly disagree with the above. The idea seems to me to be both a crude and pernicious. I reckon that Aristotle was right: that a good person is one who possesses and cultivates life’s essential “virtues”. I further suggest (though I don’t think Aristotle did) that the virtues have in effect been defined by humanity itself. Thus, although the world’s widely recognized religions differ sometimes markedly in rituals, customs, and manners, they all agree on the supreme importance of three moral principles in particular. They are:  

  • Compassion 
  • Humility 
  • Respect and reverence for the natural world. 

To be sure, the different religions emphasise some of these principles more than others, and sometimes have different words for similar concepts, but  these three, I suggest, are the essence of the shared morality of all humankind —  or if not quite “all”, then at least of the vast majority. This cross-the-board similarity suggests, at least to me, that these core virtues are somehow built into the psyche or indeed the fabric of humanity: that they are on the one hand an aspect of our biology; and on the other resonate with the universe as a whole. 

This last idea – that the human morality reflects the way the universe is – is of course metaphysical in nature. Indeed I want to argue that all moral philosophy must be embedded, in the end, in metaphysics; reinforcing the idea that metaphysics is the most important discipline of all, even though it has of late been most horribly neglected. 

I discuss these ideas up to a point in The Great Re-Think but this in truth perhaps the greatest and in some ways the knottiest question that humanity can face: what is good, and where does goodness come from? The discussion can never end. 

Further thoughts on Morality

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Science

Science is of course wondrous. It is wondrous because of what it reveals to us about life and the universe – far outstripping the imagination even of the most imaginative poets and theologians. 

But at least as wondrous is the fact that we can do it at all. For science itself tells us that the human brain evolved roughly in its present form on the plains of Africa to help our ancestors find food and mates and avoid hyaenas – and how should an organ that was shaped for such down-to-earth pursuits also enable us, or at least the geniuses among us, to see for example that E=Mc2, or that all Earthly creatures in all their variety and magnificence have evolved over aeons from a shortlist of ancestors of very humble mien indeed? (Although in truth the humblest of living organisms are themselves things of wonder). 

But for all its wondrousness science is not the royal road to truth. Certainly not to what the lawyers unrealistically if pragmatically require of witnesses: “The truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth”. Indeed, one of the great mistakes of humanity – manifest in the cult of “scientism” – is the belief that what science cannot tell us is not worth considering. In an ideal world, everyone would be au fait with the big ideas of science. But we all need to be aware too of its limitations – which, apparently, alas, scientists and policy-makers often are not. In short, science should never be taught without the philosophy of science, to put its ideas in perspective, and to ward off the many forms of corruption to which it is prone; and philosophy in turn needs to be embedded in the larger context of metaphysics

Further thoughts on Science

Just to stir the pot a bit more: the concept of “keystone genes”

Colin Tudge reflects on a new bill before parliament that aims to ease the passage of gene editing – and on research from Switzerland that shows once more that nature is not as controllable as some would like.

GMOs: Seven obvious questions in search of straightforward answers

The commercial-political-scientific momentum is nudging us step by step towards a world of GM crops and livestock. Yet the fundamental questions remain unanswered. Does GM really solve problems that need solving? Is it really intended to save the world, or to maximize short-term wealth and centralize control?

Metaphysics

Science, said Sir Peter Medawar, is “The art of the soluble”. And by the same token, metaphysics might reasonably be seen as “The art of the unknowable”. For as all modern philosophers acknowledge, not all the problems that the universe confronts us with are soluble by the methods of science, even in theory; and the problems that are not soluble include the biggest of all – what many have called “the ultimate questions”. 

These include, I suggest – 

  • What is the universe really like? 
  • What is goodness? 
  • How do we know what’s true? and 
  • How come things are as they are? How come there is anything at all? 

Since metaphysics addresses the biggest questions of all, it is practice at the roots all the biggest ideas. Both science and moral philosophy, which provide the “bedrock principles” that should provide humanity’s guidelines, are rooted in ideas of a metaphysical nature.  Metaphysics indeed provides the link, or at least lays out the common ground, between philosophy and theology or, even more broadly, between science and religion. 

All in all, then, metaphysics should surely be seen as the most important pursuit of all. And yet, as an independent discipline, metaphysics has more or less gone missing from conventional education — and so it is that all our cogitations on all the world’s biggest issues are in effect rootless; or rather are driven by the political circumstances of the day, and by think-tanks that usually have vested interests, and by individuals, ancient and modern, known as “authorities”.  To be sure, the world’s religions do provide more coherent roots, but although all bona fide religions (as opposed to ad hoc cults) tend to agree on the things that really matter, they seem to have preferred historically to emphasize their mostly superficial differences and so tend to add to the world’s confusion, and in practice are a prime source of conflict (or at least provide an excuse for it). 

In short, metaphysics needs to be returned to the centre stage, whence it should never have been allowed to depart. I discuss all this at length in The Great Re-Think, but here are a few particulars by way of follow-up. 

Further thoughts on Metaphysics

Bring back metaphysics, or: The art of the unknowable

The “ultimate questions”  Metaphysics asks what many have called “the ultimate questions” – which sounds pretty impressive, and is. But although these metaphysical questions are clearly so important and ever-present, and indeed are at the root and at the heart of all bona fide religions, metaphysics as an independent discipline has largely gone missing. And … Read more

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The Arts

The arts are of course for our delight — but much more than that, they express the human imagination in full flight. And the unfettered imagination takes us to places where mere rationality cannot. Science requires imagination too of course – and although science and the arts are often seen to be in opposition, there can and should be synergy between them. So it is that Niels Bohr’s sorties into the mysteries of particle physics are said to have been encouraged in part by contemplating the newly emerging perspectives of cubist painting.  

Much more to the point, though, the arts affect attitude — and attitude is the sine qua non.  How we treat each other and the world at large depends in the end on attitude. The poetry of Coleridge, the music of Schubert – or indeed the yearning implicit in many a folk-song – profoundly affect our attitude to nature. And no-one can have quite the same attitude to politics after reading George Orwell’s 1984. People think in stories and a mere political treatise could not have had such power. In general, most of us have learnt most of what we know about social history from novels and movies, do we not? 

Then again, of course, the arts take us willy-nilly into issues of a psychological and metaphysical nature, for example on the nature of aesthetics. (“What is beauty sayeth my sufferings then?”, as Tamburlaine asks in Marlowe’s play). 

In short, any system of education that truly intends to improve the lot of humanity and of the natural world must emphasise the arts. The sharp division that is still drawn in traditional universities between the faculties of science and of the arts is a huge mistake. 

Further thoughts on The Arts

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