Philosophy is for Everyone

Have you ever found yourself wondering why the world is the way it is, or why you sometimes feel completely at ease with your life and, at other times, completely confused about everything? Have you ever marveled at a spectacular sunset or felt exuberant for no particular reason and wondered why? These and other similar questions could very well have resulted with an unintended brush with philosophy.

Although the very mention of the word can be intimidating for some, (from the Greek philos-loving + sophos– wise – love of wisdom or knowledge) we all have had thoughts, ideas, and questions that are directly probed by philosophy. Should we be content and never wonder? Should we merely accept our lives and our world just as they are? Should we simply abandon the search for knowledge if it requires speculative thought?

The question of what matters in our lives is largely a matter of individual prerogative. For some of us, there are very few matters that are of consequence in life, and to others, the world and their lives are overflowing with concerns that require serious contemplation. But there is much more to our existence than simply being alive, and there are also limits as to how much we can resolve in a lifetime. Somewhere between disinterest and obsession lies philosophy.

The fact that we do exist infers that something caused us to exist. We did not decide, “Today, I will exist!” Modern science has been able to determine, with a reasonable degree of certainty, an explanation of the evolution of life on this planet, and most scientists generally agree on the basic concepts of physics that explain the development of the universe itself. Anyone with basic intelligence and reasonably functional senses can acknowledge themselves (self-awareness), observe the world around them (sense perception), and with good cause conclude that they exist (cognition). Rene Descartes (1596-1650), the French scientist and philosopher, expressed this idea in the now famous quote, “Cogito ergo sum, — I think, therefore, I am.” The true nature of that existence, and any conclusions that can be drawn from our study of it, constitute some of the central issues of philosophy.

As a species, our continued existence can arguably be attributed to our ability to think and to be self-aware, combined with our other inherited natural endowments for survival. When threatened with death, our natural inclination is to at least try to survive. The philosophical question, “Why?” is a natural one for any thinking person, and typically one of the first that we ask as children. The search for the answer is fundamental to our nature as human beings. Recent advancements in the scientific realm have raised other important philosophical questions. The discovery that our universe had a beginning called “The Big Bang,” immediately suggests the question, “What caused it?” Thus far, we have been unable to uncover the cause empirically, and it may be that the answer lies beyond the reach of science. Once we venture outside of empirical methodology, we enter the realm of speculative thinking and philosophy.

There are many other less profound questions from everyday life that can lead to this same kind of thinking. Unfamiliarity with the subject or reluctance to attempt an examination of it because of not knowing where to begin prevents many people from enjoying the benefits of philosophizing. In order to prepare to investigate philosophy, it is a good idea to establish a few ground rules that will make it easier to avoid some of the common problems associated with its speculative nature. In his book, “A Preface to Philosophy,” author Mark Woodhouse provides some very helpful suggestions for anyone who is interested in philosophy but is unsure where to start. He offers four basic traits for a good foundation:

1. The courage to examine one’s cherished beliefs critically – This is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for some people to overcome. We seldom challenge our beliefs on our own, but rather only when challenged by someone else. By initiating the examination on our own, we avoid becoming defensive or feeling criticized.

2. The willingness to advance or assume a tentative hypothesis and react to a philosophical claim no matter how foolish that reaction might seem – In order to appreciate and understand a philosophical argument, it is sometimes necessary to suppose that a particular claim were true. Then, ask yourself some questions and consider the consequences as if it were factual.

3. A desire to place the search for truth above the winning of a debate – The goal of any philosophic discussion should always be, above all, a search for the truth, not a competition among the participants to see who can demolish the arguments of the others.

4. The ability to separate one’s personality from the discussion content – Philosophic statements and discussion can sometimes cause emotional reactions due to the nature of the subjects that arise in conversation. If you can stick to the subject and judge statements on their merit alone, discussion will be more productive.

There are very few people who can produce grand theories in philosophy even after years of study. Even though you may have no previous background or formal training, your thoughts are no less valid or important. Philosophy is not some mysterious, ancient voodoo ritual. It is a common, everyday investigation of questions and issues that we all have thought about at one time or another. Although you may not have had an interest in the subject generally, you may be surprised to discover that some of the famous philosophers through history have spent years studying questions that you have also pondered. Many people do not even recognize philosophical thinking when they engage in it. It can begin with wondering if something is moral or ethical, and progress to something as complex as life after death or the nature of reality. Everyone inevitably ends up struggling with some philosophical issue, and if you can allow yourself to wonder, you can arrive at philosophy.

The Universal Flow

There is a stream of consciousness flowing within each of us that never ceases, nor diminishes throughout our years as self-aware sentient creatures. In our everyday awareness, we can be consciously connected to this stream to the degree that we seek it out, and as we attend to the matter of nourishing the path which connects us to it. There are many different ways we can detect the stream, and they are limited only by our willingness to be open to them. For some of us, it is simply a matter of persistent effort. For others of us, it may be a struggle to first sift through an avalanche of chaos, before settling into a place where we can discern the flow routinely.

In my early life, it was a constant struggle emotionally and psychologically, to feel the pull toward the flow so strongly, but to be so severely limited in gaining insights; forced to adhere to a strict religious regimen with regard to spiritual matters, every effort to veer away from the established course was thoroughly and effectively suppressed. Once I began my life as an independent person, safely beyond the grasp of my upbringing, the powerful rush of the internal flow burst forth from within me like a volcano. Unprepared for the intensity of its streaming energies, I submitted to it only haltingly at first, stumbling as I attempted to remain with one foot in the past, and the other in the stream.

Intense fear of the unknown nature of my experiences at that time were contrasted by the tremendous excitement I felt at the revelations they contained. While I understood little of what it meant to be connected to this mysterious flow, I sensed immediately that there was a profound nature within it, and was enthralled by my sudden awareness of an expanded potential within me. These many years later, I am finally coming to not only acknowledge my lifelong connection to a universal flow of consciousness, but can now proceed deliberately and willingly towards it.

Even in spite of this advantage I don’t, at every moment, know exactly where I am going or how it is that I feel what is within me now. The moorings seem to have broken loose and I feel often as though I am drifting without direction in an uncertain world. I cannot reconcile my longings with any rationale, nor can I say with certainty that I will find my way. The light in the afternoon sky grows dimmer as I seek shelter. In the distance, the rumblings of a storm can be heard. It may pass or it may strike with full force, I cannot say which. Even so, there are aspects to the uncertainty which can be quite appealing too. Within the discomfort of “not-knowing,” is also the promise of change, however disadvantageous in the immediate sense, and the long term consequences are never completely known.

Breaking loose from the restrictions and suppression of my early life, I stumbled at first, and made errors so glaring now in retrospect, even I have to shake my head at myself. These past few years have been stable enough to gain a bearing of sorts, and having attained some stability, I can at least be said to be considering these ideas from a vantage point. The tumultuous years of my youth, not entirely ill-spent, have not produced the precise figure of my youthful visions. The disparate pieces of my life have not combined as yet to form a complete character that I can identify unambiguously as myself. In retrospect, the course I followed satisfied the obligations I had incurred, and in so doing, performed a necessary function that prevented me from falling off the cliff of self-destruction. It may well have been a necessary adaptation for my survival.

Carl Jung once wrote:

“We do not know how far the process of coming to consciousness can extend or where it will lead. It is a new element in the story of creation and there are no parallels we can look to (nor can we) know what potentialities are inherent in it. If we assume that there is anything at all beyond our sense perception, then we can speak of psychic elements whose existence is only indirectly accessible to us.”

The proliferation over recorded time of the various intellectual and spiritual movements is representative of the entire spectrum of inner human life. As a direct result of these movements, complex social and environmental changes have occurred. Unless all such activity ceases, it seems likely that our species will continue to progress along these lines, transforming our present level of understanding and consciousness to levels never before imagined.

Learning, Sensory Experience, and Consciousness

Max Planck Florida Institute Study Shows: Persistent Sensory Experience Is Good For The Aging Brain Jupiter, FL May 24, 2012

“Despite a long-held scientific belief that much of the wiring of the brain is fixed by the time of adolescence, a new study shows that changes in sensory experience can cause massive rewiring of the brain, even as one ages. In addition, the study found that this rewiring involves fibers that supply the primary input to the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for sensory perception, motor control and cognition. These findings promise to open new avenues of research on brain remodeling and aging.”

Published in the May 24, 2012 issue of Neuron, the study was conducted by researchers at the Max Planck Florida Institute (MPFI) and at Columbia University in New York.

“This study overturns decades-old beliefs that most of the brain is hard-wired before a critical period that ends when one is a young adult,” said MPFI neuroscientist Marcel Oberlaender, PhD, first author on the paper. “By changing the nature of sensory experience, we were able to demonstrate that the brain can rewire, even at an advanced age. This may suggest that if one stops learning and experiencing new things as one ages, a substantial amount of connections within the brain may be lost.”

http://www.maxplanckflorida.org/press.html?newsid=129

Consciousness is not only about interpreting the world around us and organizing all the data and stimulus we receive through our senses. Experience, while vitally dependent on cognition and our central nervous system, is not simply and only a phenomenon of the intellect and the body. Our biological organs and systems support our existence and are each dependent on the other. When all systems are nominally balanced there is harmony. Our brain and nervous system provide a platform for our intellectual powers and organize the relentless stream of data received from our environment.

“In the woods, a man casts off his years, and at whatsoever period of life is always a child…In these plantations of God…a perennial festival is dressed, and the visitor sees not how he could tire of it in a thousand years.” –Emerson in “Nature.”

This excerpt from Emerson struck me upon first reading as precisely my own sentiment regarding the “experience” of being in the forest while camping. Simply visiting the woods on a particular day would be uplifting in its own way, and one could get a sense of what Emerson was describing, but staying in the woods for days at a time, experiencing everything from daybreak to nightfall, participating at every moment in the daily rituals of our lives outdoors, one begins to actually “dwell” in the plantation, and a richer understanding of Emerson’s words begin to unfold.

My own interests in camping for days at a time cover everything from a temporary escape from the trials of everyday life to the pleasure provided by the natural settings, to the solace and quiet of remote areas which are absent the noise and traffic of modern living. I often spend time in contemplation of the sunrise, (a particularly sought after experience) where the stillness of early morning is so soothing as to be a sedative of the most pleasant sort, and the gradual brightening of the sky awakens and stirs the forest creatures to their daily routines almost imperceptibly increasing as the sun ascends.

Behind the tent is a sunlit path leading through a brilliant array of greenery which is immensely inviting. A nearly cloudless blue sky, dotted with an occasional floating cloud brings the day to life in a most satisfying way. Having arranged in advance for a visit which happened to coincide with a period of moderate temperatures and congenial weather, increases the pleasure ten-fold, as experience has taught me, that the adjustments for inclement weather, while necessary and appealing in their own way, alter the experience by occupying my attention and time, which I would prefer to spend reading, or writing, or just walking along a trail, or paddling in a canoe.

But beyond even these temporal concerns, with all conditions being optimal, my focus almost always ends up turning within, and from dawn to dusk, my heart and mind embrace the awareness of the natural beauty and inherent pleasure of communing directly with the natural world, unmitigated by the trappings of civilization to which we have grown accustomed, and in a way that is far easier and agreeable than it is during the course of everyday life in the modern world.

By far though, is the appeal of preparing and tending to the campfire each night, which may include gathering and chopping of the wood for consumption in that evening period, as well as the many adjustments to the supply as the night progresses. After many years of practice, I have managed to accomplish these tasks with minimal effort and attention needed to sustain the flames, which provides the maximum enjoyment of the experience, as well as ample opportunity for contemplation. I often find myself reluctant to relinquish this portion of the experience as it provides much of the solace from the concerns which normally occupy my travels. In a way, the fire evokes a fundamental connection to the ineffable which escapes me many times otherwise, and immediately upon recognition of my arrival at the doorsteps of my inner world, I feel a sense of fulfillment and reconnection to the vastness of the world of contemplation, made possible by an unrestricted pathway to the invisible. Watching the fire dance and swirl, smoke rising swiftly, illuminating the surrounding area with fluctuating shadows from the flames, the aroma of burnt timbers mingles with my thoughts as I drift into reverie.

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Increased stimulation of our sensory experience now appears to be essential to our continued growth and to the expansion of our evolving consciousness as a species. We cannot stop learning and experiencing new things and must continue to challenge ourselves by seeking out different environments and opportunities to expand our awareness. As the foundation for our awareness of possessing consciousness, neurological functioning may facilitate its unfolding, allowing it to become manifest in the physical universe of human endeavor, and provide a common platform for meaningful interaction amongst our fellow cognitive creatures, but it cannot constitute the whole of it.

Shakespeare Lives!

In an age when the appeal of the classical arts can sometimes appear to have dimmed, compared to the popularity of the 21st century sparkle of dazzling special effects and digital technologies, I find it especially gratifying to know that the best and the brightest hope for the preservation of what is timeless in our humanity still lives and breathes in the performance arts. A generous gift from my sister presented me with the opportunity to attend the 15th season of the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, which included two extraordinary performances by the current company of players, of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and “Titus Andronicus.”

As the deadline for the end of the season approached, I had to scramble a bit to arrange to attend each of the two performances, but as is sometimes the case, all the particulars of both logistics and serendipity combined to bring the fullness of the experience to the fore. The weather was perfect on both days of each performance, so I was able to walk from the train to the theater building along the “Avenue of the Arts,” and it made the trip both times a very pleasant and relaxing experience getting to and from the theater.


Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640)

The first performance was “Titus Andronicus,” thought to be Shakespeare’s first tragedy, and it is a fairly grim story that was told in the play, about revenge and its consequences. There are all varieties of intrigue and violence depicted in the story, which apparently was popular in Elizabethan England. In the Philadelphia performance I attended, Aaron Cromie directed the company of players in a remarkably inventive approach, utilizing puppets and silhouettes of characters to suggest scene changes and events that take place outside of the main performance stage. As the play opened, we see the actors adorning themselves in their costume pieces, each one suggesting the role they were about to assume. There was a sense of the original flavor of Shakespearean performance in the air that never left you. It was a bit unsettling at first to see humans interacting with and reacting to the puppets, but after a short time, they became accepted as characters by the audience, even when the puppeteer was visible on stage. I found myself cringing many times during the performance at the suggestions of violence, and there were audible gasps from the audience at such times that demonstrated the effectiveness of the puppet characters.

During several scenes, particularly gruesome acts of violence are committed against puppets, and even though the audience was well aware of this, you still felt a cringe when the damage was revealed. At several points, the human actors were very realistically bloodied and bleeding in front of us. The final scene is so violent that I found myself recoiling at the depiction by such talented actors, who very convincingly did away with each other. It was a tragic series of events convincingly and expertly executed by the players that left me emotionally drained, but successfully entertained. Thankfully, the company of players took a bow after the play ended that reassured us that they were still intact. Brilliant in its design and execution, “Titus Andronicus,” was captivating and satisfying.

The second offering for the fifteenth season at the Shakespeare Theatre was “Twelfth Night,” directed by Carmen Khan, which according to the program is a “…meditation on romantic delusion, intertwined with a sense of poignancy at life’s impermanence,” which results in “…an irresistable, poignant symphony of miscommunication, mis-conception and non-comprehension, all fueled by the longing of romantic desire.” There were moments of downright silliness, laughable rants by drunken characters, and plenty of laughs for the audience, along with the unfolding romantic delusion and confusion, which thankfully is resolved by the end of the play.

Once again, the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s company of players dazzled and delighted the audience with a beautiful rendering of Shakespeare’s melancholy treatment of life’s paradoxical circumstances. Each of the players brought Shakespeare’s intentions to life and expertly responded to the script’s challenges and opportunities. The style of the costumes and the setting was intended to evoke the 1930’s style and “the jazz age,” and it was enormously appealing in its originality and flair. The production was over three hours long with a fifteen minute intermission, but I found myself wishing it wasn’t over at the end. It swept the audience off its feet and the time seemed to fly all along the way. Again, the production was so satisfying and engaging, that the audience was on its feet at the conclusion, shouting praise for a most delightful performance.

For further information about future productions, visit phillyshakespeare.org.