Monday, 20 April 2015

The Golem

This is a sample chapter from The Sacred History of Being:

On a rainy day in spring 1993 I attended a talk by the sociologist Harry Collins at the Edinburgh Science Festival. The subject of the talk was the sociological aspects of scientific investigation. One of his subjects was the observational confirmation of Einstein’s theory of relativity through the displacement of star positions by the gravitational field of the Sun. This was observed first during an eclipse in 1919. Photographs taken during that eclipse under the supervision of the astronomer Arthur Eddington indeed showed stellar displacement, but not all of the plates taken showed displacements in accord with the prediction of the theory. Some showed stellar displacements up to two times what was required by the theory.

The point of discussing these photographs was to illustrate the heavy subjective component involved in the identification of reliable evidence. The plates represented a range of displacements, and from these the plates used to supply the data to verify the theory were chosen. The plates which were rejected were not rejected because they contained false data, but because they contained data outside the range in which the data which will support the theory ought to be found. This is simply a feature of experimental and observational data – not all data which is collected, for a variety of reasons, points the researcher in the right direction. The researcher has to have a nose for the right data. [1] It is this subjective element in the identification of quality evidence which makes good science so hard to do. If the researcher does not have a nose for selecting his data, other researchers will soon tear his work apart.

Harry Collins is of course famous for his subversive view of science as a social construct. In other words, the rules of science are set by the practitioners and those living and working within the paradigm in which science and scientific activity have meaning. In a sense this is a reapplication of the Greek notion of the importance of convention in determining how things are, and how they are understood. I do not share the extreme view of some sociologists that all of science is a social construct without any essential root in an apparently objective and public reality – the inverse square law for example, was not conjured into existence as something required for our model of reality. Though it is perfectly true to say that the idea of the laws of physics which describes the inverse square law is a social construct.

In any case, it seemed that Harry Collins was not attacking the essentially rational character of the practice of science. Rather he was illustrating the complexity of the activity.

Which made the closing part of his talk deeply shocking.  What happened was that he put a high contrast image on an easel – of the type where a spotted dalmation is photographed against rough ground, so that the outline of the dog disappears, and the eye has to determine the nature of the image from other than the obvious clues.  What the image seemed to show (to me) all too obviously was a very conventional representation of Christ with detail represented in fairly low resolution chunks, against a similarly textured background. He asked for a show of hands from those who thought they could recognise the image, and almost exactly half of the audience responded. Apparently all of those who responded recognised the nature of the image. After telling the audience about what the representation was supposed to indicate, he pointed out various features of the image for those who were unable to pick out the embedded image of Christ. He then asked those who had been unable to see the image before it was described, if they could now see it. Not one said that they could.

The impact of this response does not entirely depend on whether or not it was an honest one. It might simply be that the second group were still unable to see the image presented to them, or they might have chosen to remain unseeing after the details of the image were described. The surprise for me came because the representation was not publicly recognised and acknowledged through its description. What is most shocking about this is that what was seen by some was apparently impossible to bring to the notice of the other half of the audience, for whatever reason, and therefore it could not be brought into a discussion bridging the whole group. It was possible for some to apprehend it directly, but for others, not to have any perception of it they were willing to acknowledge, even by description.

An explanation for the invisibility of the image to half of the audience can be attempted. The image was highly abstract, and required the viewer to have an easy facility with abstraction, and to infer details which ought to be present, but, owing to the low resolution of the image, were not in fact present. Some people are constituted in this way; they can grasp the whole of something without having all of the details. This is the essence of the facility required when decisions have to be made where not all of the relevant facts are available: it is the capacity to make synthetic judgements. Those who could not see the image, even after it was described and its details pointed out, may not have the synthetic facility, at least not in the same way and to the same degree. They do not make the inferential jump from what can be seen to what might be there, even as an experimental or playful process, after which they might return to more certain inferences. The information for them simply is not present, and so they do not see the image.

This is not a matter of intelligence and unintelligence, but of different kinds of reasoning. One is synthetic in nature, the second is analytic. Analytic is painstaking, precise, missing the minimum number of steps. The former is intuitive, generalising, and skipping as many steps (in the first instance) as is practical. Neither by itself allows sound judgement about whatever reality is in the frame, but though analytic thought cannot put together the grand picture, the faculty is essential in supplying the evidential infrastructure to a hypothesis. Likewise, without the synthetic faculty, there will be no grand picture to motivate the pursuit of the right kind of evidence.

To this extent at least our intellectual apprehension of reality is subjective, and subject to the collective will of the society in which evidence is collected, examined, and arranged in its support. The right evidence now is not necessarily the same as the right evidence yesterday, or tomorrow.

As things stand, the argument of this book is on the edge of what it is possible to discuss in the modern west. It addresses the nature and properties of Being - an issue which has long been abandoned except as the subject of dry academic exercise. Being is as far from the centre of our social and ideological engines as it is possible to be, except where the question is abandoned to those for whom rationality is of less importance than faith. [2] It is nevertheless a legitimate subject for rational discussion, even if we are unaccustomed to the effort involved, and currently disinclined to rate questions of Being as of any worth.

It is now a commonplace of scholarly understanding that the development of modern science from the renaissance onward has to be understood against the background of late medieval and renaissance magic: here I argue that, in a similar way, the roots and early development of philosophy lie in the religious cults of both Greece and the ancient Near East. We cannot develop our understanding of the early development of philosophy unless we recognise its origins in the environment of religious cult, and that it has its origins in cultic practice and thought, both in Greece and further afield.

Not everyone will accept the argument which follows in the chapters of this book, irrespective of whatever coherence and competitive plausibility it may have. Some of those who will reject it will do so, not because they cannot understand the argument as presented, but because they do not see the need for the case at all. For them, the readjustment of our perspective on our past will seem like a completely unnecessary and even undesirable complication of an already coherent picture of the world. There is little I can do about this, except to outline the case as clearly as possible, in the hope that some aspects of the importance of this subject, and its tortured history over at least four millennia, will become visible once more.

The Context of Being

‘…we are estranged from ancient Near Eastern thought by the sway which Greek philosophy and biblical ethics hold over our own…’[3] - Henri Frankfort

‘Being’ is a concept which, over time, and to different groups, has meant different things. It can be applied to things which exist, such as human beings and inanimate objects, which exist physically in space and time, at least for a while, or it can refer to that state which some presume to have its reality beyond the world of existence. Clearly, if Being can be defined both as something which has come-to-be, as well as something which perpetually ‘is’ and does not come-to-be, it is clear that it is a concept which depends for its meaning very much what the context dictates it is.

Sometimes the property ‘existence’ is attributed to a thing to indicate that ‘it is’, or that it has Being. In which case the meaning of the object’s Being is that it has the property of existence. The phrase ‘things which exist’ might be used to refer to a vast range of objects and living beings, from the atom, through bacteria, through man, all the way to the idea of God. Just to say that something is ‘a thing which exists’ does not at all indicate whether this thing which exists has the properties of things which come-into-being in the physical world, or whether the thing which exists has its existence without the properties of things which come-to-be in the physical world. If we speak of God in a way which implies a physical existence, by describing God as an existent Being, will other people understand what we mean and agree?

Other ideas are associated with the notion of Being. It is possible to speak of an existence which is transcendent, meaning that it is of a nature which is beyond the nature of a physical existence, if we choose to use the idea of transcendence in this way.  The nature of the existence of a transcendent God, for example, is of a different nature from a God who is not transcendent of the nature of the physical world.

We could however use the term ‘transcendent’ in such a way as to indicate that the concept of God merely referred to a relative status within the same physical world as beings and objects in the world which do not have a divine nature. When Hollywood gossip columnists referred to Marilyn Monroe as a ‘goddess’, they were using the term to indicate a relative status of the actress, rather than attributing to her a genuine divinity (whatever they would have understood by that). However they might also have been indicating by the use of the term a certain physical perfection, and perfection is another quality which is sometimes regarded as a property of God.

If we regard God as a concept which has its transcendent reality beyond the world of physical existence, does that mean we would be correct to suggest that God has no existence, since God is not present in the physical world?

What we find discussed in the writings of the Greeks is an idea of Being which is regarded as transcending the secular world, in that it is apart from the world of time and space, and has different characteristics and qualities. Since it does not participate in time, at least as far as we understand it, it is eternal, and ultimately beyond time. It is however the ultimate, unmoving, unchanging, indivisible reality which stands behind the moving world of change and multiplicity. This reality gives rise, in some mysterious way, to the world of appearance in which we all live. [4]

Why do people think like this? Not everyone one does. Some people pursue an explanation of reality which is structured on a framework of the known, such as empirically observed and verified laws, and precedent. This is an essentially analytical approach to reality, which does not strive to understand why the world of movement and change exists at all. It simply attempts to establish consistencies and relationships within the world of appearances. What may lie behind this world is of little concern, and might be dismissed as ultimately beyond our capacity to know, and it is fruitless for us to pursue such knowledge. Or, it may be decided that there is nothing there for us to understand, and that synthetic knowledge of this sort is not there to be had. Only analytical and deductive insights have any meaning.

Rather than this being a straightforward opposite to synthetic thought however, this analytical approach to reality does not utterly disdain all aspects of synthesis. If consistency in law and precedent (in causes) are pursued, this activity itself partakes of the notion that there are unchanging and universal aspects of reality. The difference is that this pursuit of a synthetic understanding of the world is confined purely to things which can be observed and measured by us, and does not involve us in a hypothetical understanding of things which cannot be directly observed and measured. This view represents an unwillingness to go beyond what can be commonly understood, to become involved in areas of thought and understanding which throw up contradictory and paradoxical results, and much uncertainty. This view represents a form of pragmatism, which would be likely to brand much speculative thought as a waste of time, and which produces only profoundly unreal results.

A pragmatism of this sort is common to those studying ancient civilization and ancient philosophy in our times. A synthetic understanding of ancient art, sculpture, theology, ritual behaviour, religious liturgy, poetry, and philosophy, is not sought, for a number of reasons, ranging from the notion that a synthetic structure behind ancient social and intellectual thought and practice is not there to be had at all, through to the suggestion that we cannot understand it even if it is present, since it is dependent on esoteric doctrine which is not available to us, and so we have to interpret the materials as best we can, in a way which makes them as useful to us as possible.

And so there is no real interest in ancient thought. The Neoplatonists have been given a separate category of their own in the history of philosophy on purely phenomenological and parochial grounds, though they did not understand themselves as other than Platonists or Aristotelians. [5] We can apparently therefore not learn much of use about Plato and Aristotle from a study of their works, since they belonged to an essentially separate tradition. Plato and Aristotle are endlessly examined for similarities and difference in outlook and belief. But the purpose and meaning of many of their works remain obscure. We can learn something of logic, epistemology, ontology, ethics, moral thought, the relationships between things which are similar and dissimilar, great and small, the ideas of justice, of virtue, of beauty, of the nature of rulership, magnanimity, and of the nature of the divine to the Greeks, and so on. These things are useful to us, as they have been over the past two thousand years and more, even if some of the discussions are distinctly unsatisfactory from our point of view.  In other words, we approach ancient writings on philosophy and theology in the same way we approach other aspects of ancient civilization: out of the original context, and in a wholly inappropriate alternative to that context, which addresses a modern academic agenda.

The idea of Being addressed here is the one which was endlessly discussed in the ancient world, and was a central focus of the writings of Plato. When Proclus was writing commentaries on Plato in the last days of the Platonic Academy, he was writing about the same idea of Being, though the passage of some nine hundred years changed some of the language, the metaphors and images used, the frame of reference, and also allowed other related traditions into the narrative. It is a mistake to look at both ends of the narrative as if they were written on the same day, but it does not mean they have nothing useful to say about each other.

[1] Of course the selection of the right data is not the same at all periods for the same phenomena. A researcher seeking to support a phenomenon within the frame of Newtonian mechanics would inevitably choose different data to that chosen by a researcher framing the phenomenon within Einsteinian mechanics. It is not a question of right and wrong data. The models we bring to bear on a phenomenon determine the evidence which seems significant to us.
[2] At the time of writing I read on an Ancient Near Eastern mailing list an exchange about the language and grammar of the Quran, between a western and an islamic scholar. The response of the latter to an inference by the former was to say that if such a remark had been made by a moslem he would have invited a stoning.  This is a very clear way of indicating that certain articulations of thought are off-limits.
[3]  From the introduction to The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient, 1954
[4] Interestingly, though this is the basic form of argument for Being, there is no common agreement about the implications and consequences of this transcendent nature of the ultimate reality, and no agreement that in fact it is one, and that it does not participate in the moving image of reality. This lack of common agreement is extremely significant, and the question will be returned to later in this work.
[5] The works of Simplicius are almost entirely in the form of commentaries on Aristotle. The texts are good enough for scholars to mine quotations from the pre-Socratic philosophers, but not good enough to be reliable as a guide to Aristotelian philosophy. The frame erected around the development of pre-Socratic philosophy is a modern conjecture built on interpretation of these quotations, supported by writings on the history of philosophy written in the early centuries of the modern era.

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