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Re-Orientating my Thoughts

November 6, 2019

I now find myself back in the UK, greeted by the cold weather and the dull days. It is so very quiet here, is the first thing I recognise. Compared to the hustle and bustle in the towns of Ecuador. I spent a total of 9 months abroad: 2 weeks in Peru, followed by almost 6 months in Colombia and 3 months in Ecuador. I took Ayahuasca in the Amazon of Peru. I danced salsa in Cali, Colombia. I volunteered at three English institutes: 2 in Tunja, Colombia, and 1 in Latacunga, Ecuador. I walked on volcanoes at Cotopaxi, Ecuador.

Through all of the experiences, I also wrote 2 books. Nothing to do with my travels directly. But certainly incentivized by my travels. The travelling situation gave me the self confidence to sit and write in book form some of the ideas that have been going through my mind ever since I started thinking about philosophy. The spark for writing that first book was lit when reading a book in Spanish, of a book I read many years ago in English, by Bertrand Russell.

There is something particularly fascinating and important to me in the whole debate around where philosophy in its use of critical reason can sometimes differ from the methods and claims of science. Areas such as the philosophy of mind and consciousness in particular show to us the difficulty of squaring good reasoning with certain ontological assumptions we now tend to make about the world based on scientific methodological approaches and discoveries.

Bertrand Russell strived to separate philosophy from ontological debates, connecting it with logic solely, and making it dependent on the scientific world view for ontology. This process was being undertaken and furthered by many thinkers in the 20th century. The idea seems to be that philosophy always gets stuck in paradoxes and interminable debates when it addresses ontology. Such as, reaching back to Zeno’s famous paradoxes. So, it should avoid this area, and leave that to science.

The weakness and problem I saw in what Russell was doing was this presumption that logic and ontology could be neatly separated. The supposed neat separation was never truly achieved. And the implication was that all reasoning makes some ontological presumptions, and the debate is to do our best to locate them. It is very dangerous when we imagine we have no ontological presumptions, because then, rather than being able to reason about them, we have fixed beliefs not open to discussion.

The current era, for all its post modern pluralist, relativist claims, is still very much attached to some core ontological premises, it has just become unconscious of them and unable to gain awareness and reason about them. We cannot bracket away our own perspective on the world. The attempts at scientific philosophy were an attempt at precisely this impossible task.

In seeing the failures and limitations of this, we can learn better what the true nature of philosophy is, and what the limitations are to the scientific mechanisation of awareness, knowledge, thinking and reasoning.

The key debate we were left from the 20th century analytical philosophy efforts, for me, is the discussion about how meaning is connected to reality. For all the attempts to separate language meaning from the world it refers to, it kept coming back at them. Two mainstream choices are to follow Searle’s direct realism or Kripke’s names as rigid designators. Each has it’s own strengths and weaknesses. But one strength they certainly share is this emphasis on the direct connection somewhere between language meaning and the real world.

The other popular option, more commonly pursued, is to defer the connection with reality to what current science has to tell us about reality. Quine and more recently David Lewis are classic exemplars of this position. It is not easy to choose among these two directions. On one path we open up the whole scientific ontology, while sacrificing our reasoning capabilities in certain key areas of ontology and logic. On the other path we retain these reasoning capabilities and faculties, but we leave ourselves exposed to a much more sparse and paradoxical ontological reality.

Both of these paths can be seen in Bertrand Russell. He tends to leave his ideas open to both interpretations, depending on which part of his career you choose to emphasise. I think the truth will lie in pursuing this debate further. Somehow a provision for unique reasoning perspectives is going to have to be allowed for in the scientific ontological edifice. Because it is only through these perspectives that we have any connection to reality in the first place, and it is only as a result of that, that language comes to have a meaning for us.

The significance of this to our Being cannot be overstated. We cannot bracket our involvement in the world and hide in models and abstractions of our own construction. We have to connect up to reality in order that it can rejuvenate our reasoning and our awareness.

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