A reflection on the fragments of Parmenides
Throughout my reflections I have found two rules of thumb of importance when studying philosophy – individuals will wrangle over terms to no end and labels can be just as harmful as helpful when applied indiscriminately. Reading over the fragments of Parmenides – who I had treated rather roughly in my reflections on Plato (see Against Grand Unity) – I began to reflect on the importance of reading divergent view seriously and sympathetically (see Monism Redux). I also wanted to reflect on the importance of understanding the underpinning beliefs of a viewpoint so that its ideas can be understood holistically. With this in mind, I want to use this reflection to demonstrate my understanding of the metaphysical underpinnings of differing schools of thought so that they can be examined for internal consistency and coherence – the importance of which has already been discussed (see on Cosmology). To do this, I will first move through the common understandings of the different ways people conceive of the world, before providing an initial critique and my own view.
When discussing metaphysics and cosmology, the first thought which jumps to mind for the layperson is theology. This is not unusual, as most people’s worldview is dominated by their ethno-religious conditioning – or the reaction against said status-quo. Thus, Individuals are oft to resort to the human penchant of binaries, defining between believers (theists) and non-believers (atheists) in a sliding scale of piety. For those who see either extreme as unattractive, the middle ground exists as a veritable no man’s land, agnosticism.
However, many critics – particularly those seeking civil discourse – have declared this scale a false binary. They recognise the division between belief and unbelief but also want to create a secondary axis based on the scepticism or dogmatism of each party. This results in a Cartesian plane, providing a similarity of belief between those who cleave to absolute knowledge (gnostics) and those who profess uncertainty in their understanding (agnostics).
*note: Gnosticism (from ancient Greek ‘having knowledge’) also refers to an ancient Judeo-Christian mystic tradition, potentially causing some confusion.
However, I think that both these systems provide a flawed understanding of the diversity of metaphysical belief, oversimplifying a heterodox patchwork of irreconcilable opinions and assumed beliefs. Firstly, theism – belief in a god/gods – fails to capture the plurality of religious and philosophical systems which, although spiritual, contain no recognisable deistic figure, for instance: Theravada Buddhism or Jainism. Furthermore, conviction in one’s beliefs is hardly a good indicator of what these beliefs entail – merely a recognition of the doubt that is endemic to the human condition. Thus, I will attempt to posit a broader categorization of thought – in an attempt to better portray reality and thus help guide the amateur thinker.
If we want to understand the diversity in thinking we need to understand the different assumptions people base their metaphysical worldview. Firstly, I would posit that the largest division lies upon whether the individual accepts or denies the material world as true reality. Here there is a unity not only of religion against empiricist atheism but all also a division between all philosophies based on pure reason (intelligible thought) and those which base themselves on the sensate phenomena (empiricism).
The second division lays between those systems of thought which argue for underlying truths which provide a common frame of reference for the universe and those who reject such universalisation. The belief in truths of any type lends itself to the idea of unity (monism) expressed either through the spiritual one, such as in monotheism or Neoplatonism or in materialism as the search for a theory of everything in physics. In opposition to this search for unity we find those who argue for the plurality of the universe, with radical idealists suggesting reality is nothing more than a product of our own minds and nihilists denying that there is any possible meaning within the universe. A rough sketch of how I see different systems of thought against the two measures of material/spiritual and monism/pluralism can be seen below.
There are some issues with regards to this sketch, and some would criticise what they would see as arbitrary lines in the sand. However, in as a preemptive response, I would offer two points. Firstly, I would suggest that any attempt to map a simple, easy to understand guide to the relative position of differing schools of thought is always going to leave out some differences. A key insight would be a third axis showing deterministic/free-will divide. However, I would posit that as a school of thought trends towards monism, the concept of choice is quashed by mechanistic nature or omnipotent divinity. On the other hand, the more pluralistic the worldview, the more likely that it will incorporate aspects of existentialism, free-will and choice.
With all of these systems now mapped, it is necessary to argue what use such this tool plays in our interpretation of philosophy and religion. Firstly, I would argue that if a system of thought is to be taken seriously, the inquirer should systematically examine the coherence of their base beliefs with their derivative systems of ethics, aesthetics and politics. For instance, one cannot be a nihilist and appeal to universal principles such as dignity, truth and goodness. Similarly, one cannot be a dualist and appeal to utilitarian arguments of government.
Secondly, I would posit that rather than the artificial rational vs. irrational divide that is implicit in the division between atheism and theism, this map shows that all these positions come predicated on some basic, assumed beliefs that the subscriber takes for granted. As such, although the pantheist or idealist can be accused of ‘irrational’ faith in the metaphysical, the mechanist or nihilist can be equally accused of reductionism – an assumption that there is nothing beyond the physical. Although modern materialistic science has proved an excellent method of describing how the material universe functions, it still has failed to provide a comprehensive view as to the why. The counterpoint to this is that it is merely a matter of time before science solves all the problems, reducing the mind and metaphysics to mere illusions in the face of a theory of everything. To such millenarian prophets, I would recommend reading the writings of Thomas Kuhn. The progress of science is far from the image of an ever progressing torch of enlightenment – and the history of scientism, eugenics, scientific racism and scientific Marxism provide more than enough warning to the would-be proponent of the ‘natural’ evolution of scientific understanding.
Ludwig Seitz, Faith and Reason united, 1883-87