some basics

I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
And there I found myself more truly and more strange.
-- Wallace Stevens, "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon" (1921)

For those who are interested in the most fundamental questions, it has often proven useful to ask about the thinker rather than what is thought. We can derive insights about the world by first understanding our own predispositions and limitations.

Hence the early Buddhists went searching for the self and found only the five aggregates (form, sensation, perception, volition, consciousness), Socrates tested various kinds of expertise, Aristotle based his system on logic, the sixth Chan patriarch Huineng found truth in his own original nature once all attachments fell away, Ibn al-Haytham explored optics to understand space and matter, Descartes proposed to ground philosophy on a critical theory of reason, Hegel analyzed the logic of history because he saw reason as cumulative, Husserl turned to pure experience, and Wittgenstein looked to the ordinary language with which we express thoughts.

These are examples of examining the subjective to understand what is objective.

For me, the most basic truth about our thought is that we use brains that evolved for specific needs, leaving us with severely limited cognitive powers and motives that are dubious, even by our own lights.

Indeed, we come into the world knowing almost nothing and hold most of our beliefs because of what other members of our species have told us. We are able to believe many different things, but what we actually believe depends in large part on who has influenced us, which is the result of our surrounding social structure–things like schools and publishers and churches and governments. And all social structures are dubious, even by our own lights.

I would believe very different things if I were a medieval Catholic, let alone a dolphin. Each organism has its own Umwelt (self-centered world), or kyogai (bounded consciousness, in Zen), or “mundo” in Stevens’ idiosyncratic vocabulary.

This relativism is grounds for humility but not an excuse for blanket skepticism. We can make and test specific inferences. Our understanding can accumulate, albeit from many starting points. We are obliged to think as well as we can and not to ignore what we have reason to believe.

Considering the knowledge that has accumulated for me, I think I discern two main pillars.

One is natural science, which assumes and reinforces a picture of nature as impersonal, purposeless. Things happen because things previously happened.

The other is ethics, in the very general sense that what matters is experience, not only my experience. “Without exception, no sufferings belong to anyone. They must be warded off simply because they are suffering” (Shantideva, 8.102-3).

Science and ethics stand separately. Neither lends support to the other. Each can be doubted in a very abstract way. Many human beings have denied each of them, and I could deny them as well. But such doubt is abstract because I have been formed by accumulated thought that supports both pillars.

Further, these two assumptions are responsible. Not to care about others is selfish; not to accept the basic purposelessness of nature is sentimental. We are to address suffering in a world that will not offer respite by itself. To doubt science or ethics is a mere temptation, not a responsible option.

On this planet, the general principles of a purposeless nature have generated the logic of natural selection, which causes increasingly complex organisms to proliferate against the current of entropy. In earth’s animal kingdom, this complexity has yielded sensitivity and, ultimately, experience.

Nothing suggests that evolution would tend toward happiness. On the contrary, a sensitive animal is more likely to survive if it experiences negative emotions, such as fear and aversion. Nor is there any reason to expect that an evolved brain would be able to understand itself. The first-person world–the stream of consciousness–is a slippery thing for us because we are not well designed for meta-cognition. We can describe the Umwelt of a deer-tick but not our own. We resort to crude words like “self” and “world” or “cause” and “effect” that seem inadequate to what we experience.

Recognizing the abstract idea that the world is experienced differently by other kinds of people and species reminds us that it has unplumbed depths. Attending very closely to our own experience offers hints of what we normally miss. Listening to others describe their experience enriches our own and encourages compassion by directing attention to their emotions and the causes of their experiences, something that our evolved brains seem able to do.

Genuine compassion demands action, and action to address suffering keeps one from marinating in one’s own concerns. We should listen not only to homo sapiens but also to other sentient creatures. But it is a mistake to attend only to others, since each of us is usually best placed to hear and respond to our own stream of consciousness, which is easy for us to ignore. If we can find ways to share what we find within, without burdening other people with self-indulgent confessions, then what we share about ourselves may be a gift for them.

Modern philosophers call the very close description of one’s own experience “phenomenology.” This practice has ancient roots. For Husserl, the ancient Buddhist Pali Canon was exemplary of phenomenology. He wrote that understanding its “joyous mastery of the world … means a great adventure” for those who start with different assumptions–in his case, with concepts derived from Protestantism (trans. in Hanna 1995). In other words, the Pali Canon offered both a skillful description of human experience in general and an alternative to Husserl’s local context. Exploring this alternative liberated him from himself.

Not only ancient Buddhist scriptures and dense modern phenomenological treatises but also many literary texts and images offer hints about consciousness as experienced by specific people. Since the mind is constantly attentive to the world and to other minds, a work that describes nature or people is also an account of the one who experiences such things. Thus a poem about a nightingale or a painting of a haystack or a fiction about one day in Dublin is also a kind of phenomenology. As Stevens said (I am on a Stevens kick right now), “Poetry is one of the enlargements of life.”

We have brains designed for survival, which means that they are destined for suffering. But this inheritance has equipped us with the capacity to “enlarge” ourselves by listening generously–listening to others, to nature, and to ourselves.

Again, to listen seriously compels compassionate action. If we act for the sake of a good outcome, we will inevitably be frustrated, so we must act just to be compassionate (which, however, implies thoughtfully choosing the most effective means). And since each of us is cognitively limited and motivationally flawed, we should almost always decide what to do together. This is where the inner life and civic life come together.

Sources: F.J. Hanna, “Husserl on the teachings of the Buddha,” The Humanistic Psychologist, 23(3), (1995) 365–372; Shantideva, The Bodhiicaryacatara, trans. by Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton (Oxford University Press, 1995). See also: Cuttings version 2.0: a book about happiness; verdant mountains usually walk; Montaigne the bodhisattva?; Wallace Stevens’ idea of order; the fetter; thinking both sides of the limits of human cognition; joys and limitations of phenomenology; and a Husserlian meditation.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.