If philosophy becomes irrelevant in the world, that means that we, human beings, become irrelevant. Impoverishing the world (and our lives in the process) is the result of the fact that present philosophies have failed us. It is time to renew our philosophical springs and sources as well as our philosophical thinking; especially in view of the grave events that took place on 11 September, 2001 which have more far reaching philosophical consequences than we have so far understood.
As philosophers we cannot be locked up in ivory towers of isolation while the world is tottering. The old fashioned objectivism and being totally detached from the world are now passé. Moreover we have to reconstruct the whole corpus of contemporary philosophy. Especially important is reshaping of our misfiring and dysfunctional rationality. The development of a new holistic rationality is one of the most important tasks for our times. Once we have got a new rationality in place we can reformulate the multitude of things.
I. The Necessity of Philosophy
We philosophers cannot allow ourselves to be reduced to technicians, that is to say expert technicians in our own fields be it logic, semantics, analysis of language, history of ethics. if we are reduced to being technicians, then important problems: existential, moral, social, cosmological remain unanswered. But nature abhors vacuum in the absence of philosophers, economists and ideologists step in, and attempt to solve these problems in their simplistic way. The results are lamentable, if not catastrophic as we have experienced this during the last 50 years. This is the first conclusion: the world without a deeper philosophical reflection as its guide and light becomes scattered, disjointed, chaotic and even pathological.
The second point I wish to make is as follows. We all remember the XI thesis on Feurbach, by Karl Marx: "Philosophers so far only interpreted the world. The point is to change it." Well, we have been changing the world during the last 150 years. Alas, we have changed it in an undesirable direction, so often by destroying it. Now I wish to reverse Marx's thesis and say: we have changed the world too much. The point is to understand it deeper and better.
We surely do not understand the world if, through our rational knowledge, we destroy it so mercilessly and systematically. The embarrassment of traditional philosophy on this point is especially acute. Contemporary analytical and rational philosophy is so proud of its sharpness, exactitude, rationality. Why doesn't it want to understand that rationality has become such a destructive weapon. Why doesn't it want to understand what has happened? And what has happened is bizarre. Philosophers are analyzing minutely leaves on the trees, while the whole forest is burning.
Let us come to the third point, which concerns the influence of Aristotle on western philosophy. I just came from India. In India philosophy still has not been separated from catering to the spiritual ends of human life. Philosophy is still part of Moksha (Liberation). In the West we have been proud that philosophy became a totally independent quest. For what? This is a good question. The first answer is for knowledge which liberates, which enables us to live in dignity and freedom. Alas our best cognitive and philosophical knowledge did not bring us more freedom, dignity and happiness.
Now we remember that Aristotle separated various branches of philosophy while elevating reason, truth and rationality to the supreme position. Aristotle lived in the shadow of Plato and of the constraints of Plato's philosophy. To liberate himself from this shadow, he put forward a new philosophy, on a more rigorous and analytical path. In the dialogue, Aristotle versus Plato, Aristotle won. With staggering consequences; some would even say disastrous consequences. The whole western world was refashioned in the Aristotelian mould. As the result we have lost the spiritual, the mystical, the tender, the beautiful. We have become hard, rational people.
Let us thus be aware that at a certain point of our history we had a choice: to follow Plato or Aristotle. We, as western civilization, chose to follow Aristotle. This may have been a great mistake of the western mind.
Now this mistake has been compounded by another mistake, which we made a millennium later. In the fourteenth and fifteenth century we had a choice within the Christian civilization to follow St. Francis or to follow Thomas Aquinas. We chose, or rather the church chose, to follow Aquinas. And Thomas Aquinas was an Aristotelian thinker through and through. By following Aquinas, we reinforced the influence of Aristotle and his cold, detached rationality. In the process we have lost, or at least suppressed significantly, the tender teaching of St. Francis, his solidarity with all creation. If St. Francis were followed, we would not have had the ecological crisis in the 20th Century. John Paul II nominated St. Francis as an ecological saint, which has been admirable, but not good enough. Instead of canonizing St. Francis as the ecological saint, the Pope should have announced the Enclical Letter proclaiming the sacredness of all life and of all creation. This would have stopped within Christian faith other forms of life to be treated as subordinate and survile to man.
The next point I wish to make is as follows. Within the ancient western philosophy we did not have only one alternative, either Plato or Aristotle. The rivalry between the two eclipsed other choices, other philosophies. Let us be mindful that both Plato and Aristotle were essentialists. They believed in irreducible essences as the foundation of all there is, as underlying and explaining the structure of the entire reality. Let us be aware that this essentialist philosophy has failed. It has failed in its deistic version, whereby by the ultimate essence of the universe we consider God or some ideal forms (God-like in their nature).
This essentialistic philosophy has also failed in its materialist version. After Aristotle was adopted as the backbone and foundation of science, his essentialism has become atomistic materialism. Atomistic materialism as the foundation of all there is, is a form of essentialism. The essences, in this case, are irreducible material atoms. With the collapse of classical mechanics or traditional physics, this approach has been rendered invalid; or simply collapsed. Thus both forms of essentialism: Platonic, (Deistic) and Aristotelian (or materialistic) have failed. We have been slow in understanding this important process. By 'we' I mean philosophers and scientists. We still behave as if Aristotle's philosophy can carry the day, especially in the cognitive or scientific discourse.
Now I mentioned that the choice between Plato or Aristotle was not the only alternative. The third choice was Heraclitus, with his philosophy of everything flows, everything changes, everything wears out. This was a philosophy which insisted that in order to understand the nature of things we need to understand the nature of their growth and change. This was not an essentialist or atomistic philosophy but a process philosophy. A better expression still would be to call it dialectical philosophy. The term 'dialectical' has been tarnished and abused by the Marxists. And we are reluctant to use it. Yet has term has had a great and noble tradition.
Thus we need to revisit Heraclitus and his dialectic thinking in order to understand our changing world and particularly the turbulent changes in the 20th Century. In the 20th Century, in addition to Marxists who were preoccupied with dialectical thinking, there was another important figure who commands our attention. This was Karl Popper of Vienna. He was not a Marxist. Indeed very critical of Marxism. Yet, in his own specific way, he resuscitated in his philosophy of science the dialectical way of Heraclitus. Popper was one of the most acute minds in the 20th Century. His dilemma was as follows: how to rescue the rationality of science and of the human discourse in the age in which it was acknowledged that classical physics has collapsed? Popper was very clear as he argued: since best established knowledge, as embodied in Newtonian mechanics was not absolute, nor was it certain but only tentative, holding only for a while, we must conclude that all human knowledge is tentative, established for a while and then pushed aside by new knowledge. The dream of certain and indubitable knowledge is just that a dream.
Popper denied the entire empiricist epistemology and the view of knowledge which is presented as a solid cathedral, one and the same unchanged through the centuries. Instead, he viewed the history of science and of all knowledge as a Shakespearean tragedy full of drama, blood and murder. New princes come on the stage to slay old princes in order to take the throne and the stage.
Popper's new methodology cum epistemology was based on the idea of conjectures and refutations. We don't have indubitable laws, we don't have scientific theories. We only have conjectures, which is to say, tentative hypotheses. These conjectures sooner or later are refuted. And what do we do then? We set up new conjectures. This is a typical dialectical thinking, which is to be found amongst Marxists.
Thesis - Antithesis - Synthesis
Conjecture - Refutation - New Conjecture
This way of thinking proved very powerful. It allowed Popper to reshape the whole vision of knowledge; as well as to create his own distinctive school which in the 20th Century overshadowed the old empiricist school.
At the time when Popper's philosophy was finally acknowledged as superior to that of Logical Empiricism, in the early 1960's, Thomas Kuhn came on the scene with his slender volume The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962/63) and he stole the glory that was due to Popper. Kuhn's view of science and of knowledge was Popperian, dialectical through and through. However, instead of proceeding from theory to theory (like in Popper), according to Kuhn we proceed from paradigm to paradigm, via scientific revolutions.
A fierce controversy ensued between Thomas Kuhn and the Popperians. To Kuhn's idea of the scientific revolution, the Popperians responded with the idea of revolution in permanence science is always in the state of revolution. In this whole controversy we witness a very imaginative and also sacrilegious thinking about the nature of science. This controversy involved a number of scintillating minds, among others Paul Feyerabend and Imre Lakotos; but also Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper. The outcome of this debate was quite unexpected a total undermining of the traditional view of science and of human knowledge. Finally, Feyerabend announced "Anything goes". This idea was later adopted by post-modernists, although they were not fully aware of the subtlety of the process leading to Feyerabend's thesis.
Now what I am describing is not merely a controversy between two schools within the philosophy of science. I am rather describing a slow collapse of the whole Aristotelian world view which also includes the Thomistic world view of Christianity. This all in pieces. All coherence gone.
Over the last 30 years a slow but profound change in the
scientific consciousness and in human consciousness has occurred. This
process has allowed the New Physics to come upon the stage without fear
of being clobbered by the guardians of traditional scientific orthodoxy.
The New Physics comprises a multitude of theories and even world views,
which are not congruent with the traditional scientific world view. Among
these theories or hypotheses, one should mention the idea of the astrophysicist
John Archibold Wheeler that "The universe is home for man" (1974);
the idea of the Anthropic Principle, introduced in 1981; but also many
ideas and views of ecological philosophy which, via a different route,
has been arriving at a similar world view: holistic, evolutionary, reverential,
friendly to human meaning and human spirituality.
We have thus arrived at our times the times of the enormous ferment, enormous search, sometimes amidst despair and gloom, but often times guided and inspired by fierce hope and new cosmic ideas. My conviction is that philosophy is not dead but on the contrary, it is a great luminous force which can get us out of the present mess, precisely because all other economic and technical means and fixes are unable to do so, to begin with they are unable to see the depth and complexity of our predicaments. On another level they are the culprits which have got us into trouble. As a matter of fact, it requires a searching philosophical mind to perceive our predicament properly.
We shall now attempt to summarize the various aspects of my discourse. Rationality is a subtle and powerful thing. We need to be mindful that in building a new holistic world view based on a new holistic rationality, we are not manipulated and controlled by the old rationality.
Let us remind ourselves that rationality of science is the distilled essence of the structure of mechanistic cosmology. Rationality of science consists of isomorphising or mapping the structure and features of mechanistic cosmology onto scientific rationality which becomes its mirror image. One mirrors the other: that is scientific rationality and mechanistic cosmology.
With the collapse of classical science there is no referent, no reality which scientific rationality can capture and express in its indubitably true statements. Now, if there is no firm reality, there is no firm truth about it. On a larger plane, the collapse of scientific rationality signifies a collapse of the whole culture, which is at present in a state of disarray; including our consciousness of who we are and what it is all about.
The reaction to this cosmological and existential crisis can be twofold: accept it with a resignation, which is the road of post-modernism. Post-modernism accepts nihilism and disintegration of culture with a kind of desperate bravado: it is all in pieces, all coherence gone. Isn't it fun?
The second road is not to accept the present chaos, but to attempt to build a new holistic world. This is the road of eco-philosophy, but also of the new physics. I have already mentioned J. A. Wheeler. In his famous article of 1974 he asks: "Why is the universe as it is?" And he answers: "Because we are here, because the universe is home for man." This is an altogether new response different from traditional science and different from the tenets of post-modernism.
To build a new holistic universe requires reconstructing the present rationality (still based on the assumptions of traditional science). This old rationality is tenacious. It has almost convinced us that it is the only rationality possible and that whoever tampers with it is bound to slip into the realm of sub-rational or irrational. But this is the myth of scientific rationality. There have been many forms of rationality in history. The two basic forms of rationality we can distinguish are:
1. Holistic Rationality (HR); or Holistic Rationalities
2. Atomistic Rationality (AR); or Scientific Rationality
Holistic Rationality means:
a). Preeminence of the whole context
b). Preeminence of relationships between parts of the whole
c). Recognition of both physical and trans-physical phenomena.
d). Hierarchical nature of large wholes.
Holistic understanding or holistic rationality attempts to grasp the whole first. Parts have meaning only within wholes. The parts are integrated into and related to the whole by specific relationships. It is important to understand the nature of these relationships. Furthermore, traditional cultures and systems of knowledge are not shy of trans-physical phenomena, for so often to understand their nature is vital for the understanding of human life and of the universe at large. Holistic rationality accepts the hierarchical arrangement of cultures and systems of knowledge. What is deemed most important within the system takes precedence and subordinates other parts of the system. So often religious and spiritual beliefs have been driving forces and defining characteristics of traditional cultures and their systems of knowledge.
Now Atomistic Rationality (AR) means:
a). Preeminence of atoms
b). Preeminence of logic as the backbone of the system
c). Preeminence of the physical in understanding everything
d). Preeminence of reductionism
The strength of atomistic rationality consists of the fact that it is so homogeneous. All is of the same kind physical, logical, reduced to physics via logic. But this is also the weakness of atomistic rationality. It applies only to a very small segment of the universe. It only explains the physical. Everything else that it attempts to explain is simply forced onto procrustean bed of reductionism. It is actually a torture story of forcing the elements of life, of psyche, of art, of culture, of metaphysics, of spirituality, of divinity, as each is slowly annihilated or changed beyond recognition. This is not rationality. It is a torture chamber of the mind.
The strength of holistic rationality is that it attempts to understand the whole amazing cosmos without forcing it into some superficial (physical) boxes. It attempts to understand the subtlety, the variety, the depth, and profundity of the phenomena; it does not stop at the surface.
The weakness of holistic rationality is that there are so many different contexts and therefore so many different holistic rationalities. This last point leads to a disturbing or at least an unnerving conclusion. For within holistic world views, rationality is not objective; it is not one and the same; simply because different contexts spell out different rationalities. Are we then in the land of subjectivism? Furthermore, who is to judge which of the many rationalities is a superior one? These questions are disquieting and unnerving a little. But we need to face them bravely and without evasion.
First of all, we should realize that objectivity is a myth of the physicalist system; or at least the idol of physicalist epistemology. It does not have any referent in nature. Nature is not objective. Objectivity is a construction of the human mind. It is meant to help us to read the universe "better", more objectively. But objectivity itself does not have any objective justification. It is a postulate of a certain system of human knowledge. After of a while this postulate has become a dogma of the scientific-empiricist system of knowledge.
Secondly we need to realize that objectivity is not impartial, that is to say "objective" in the best possible sense. It serves the interests and values of a certain cognitive system. It also serves a specific world view. As it has happened, objectivity is a supreme value of the mechanistic system of western post-renaissance cosmology.
Objectivity is also a value in a more subtle and devious way. It suppresses and often invalidates other values, while claiming that it is value free. This is the perfidy of objectivity and of the whole empiricist epistemology. While proclaiming value neutrality, they promote through their cognitive pronouncements specific values, which serve specific interests and which effectively suppress other values.
Another point we wish to make is that all rationalities serve hidden values and some human interests. Sagacity and wisdom consist of distinguishing systems which are more universal from these which are whimsical, subjective, or even pathological. Holistic Rationalities throughout history (also and in our present times) should be judged by the following criteria:
Impartiality is not the same thing as objectivity. But it is a clear guide that our rationality cannot be whimsical or subjective. It must serve human beings and other beings; yes with compassion and preferably within a universal context. For we are living in one world, in one cosmos, we are one.
An important question in front of us is: what holistic rationality should
we assume in the third millennium? The point is that not any kind of holistic
world view is suitable and adequate for our times. For instance the Amazonian
cosmology was based on a holistic rationality, and so was traditional
Christian cosmology. It is not that kind of rationality that we should
seek for the third millennium.
I propose that our new holistic rationality, as the backbone of a new holistic world view, should embody the following elements, all woven together.
Firstly, it should embody ecological sanity based on the assumption that the world is a sanctuary. This new image of the world immediately implies that you have to take care of the earth and of all nature. You have to observe nature's constraints and limits, nature's laws of well-being. If you don't, you live in a filthy and poisonous world. Observing nature's constraints and limits immediately suggests that not "anything goes", that you cannot do as you please, that for the benefit of a larger whole, for a larger earth's community, you need to limit your wants and excessive consumption.
Secondly, from the overall context that the world is a sanctuary follows spiritual sensitivity, the realization that saving the earth and the sanity of our lives is a theological project unprecedented in history. The ecological and the spiritual are one; or at least overlap and co-define each other.
Thirdly to live in dignity and with a modicum of grace, we must be responsible. Human responsibility is a defining characteristic of our status. Also a dimension of our spiritual status. We want to be responsible for our lives and for all creation because we don't want to be marginalized, defined by others, manipulated, and ultimately annihilated. Assuming responsibility is important for the preservation of our existence and of the existence of the planet. It is also important for the maintenance of our dignity, integrity and identity. We don't want everything to be done for us, by specialists and experts, because in the process we lose our identity and dignity.
Fourthly, our new holistic rationality must be tolerant of the divine. I do not say must be of a religious kind or identified with any concept of god or any church. The miraculous nature of the universe is so inspiring that we can treat it as divine. Evolution itself is divine, or can be seen as divine; art is divine; our particular individual lives are divine. This is not a fideistic pronouncement calling for a return to the past religious slavery, but an attempt to free the human mind from the Babylonian slavery of empiricism and materialism.
In conclusion, philosophy is not dead as long as our thinking is not dead. Philosophy cannot be dead especially at the time of crisis. A deep crisis requires a deep rethinking of the foundations of a given society or a give culture. On such occasions it is only through original and inventive thinking that a new light can be shed, a new path discovered.
I have tried to demonstrate that although our times are very complex and chaotic, and our thinking quite confused, there is the light at the end of the tunnel. To get out of the tunnel requires tenacious and original thinking, while transcending old dogmas and old consciousness. It is on such journeys that the beauty and necessity of philosophy is indubitable.