Thursday 14 February 2019

Philosophy without God is just self-help - or self-harming... (Colin Wilson and William Arkle)

This struck me as I was considering Colin Wilson's discussion of the prevalent pessimism in philosophy - worse in the past 200 years, but always prevalent.

Most philosophy is an act of self-harm, insofar as it devalues life; insofar as it has the view that it would either be better never to have been born, or that life may be pleasant or unpleasant, but ultimately makes no difference to anything...

I have always affirmed Colin Wilson's basic optimism - but in a not-created world and absent a creator who is good and who loves us; I would have to admit that the pessimists are correct!

Because CW avoided metaphysics, his discussion operates at the level of feelings. He argues that our happiest and best, most meaningful feelings are correct about life - yet in the deepest analysis, if these are just feelings, then that basic situation is a pessimistic one.

In contrast is the Nobel prizewinning author Samuel Beckett, whose work is an act of self-harm, directed at harming others - designed to make life pessimistic, to persuade that despair is the rational response to this world. The read Beckett with seriousness is the psychological equivalent of slashing one's own wrists, or drinking poison.

Of course we want to be happy and optimistic (at least, we want this with a part of ourselves) but this happiness must be True. To mean more than just a fleeting emotion, flickering in the mind of a finite being; happiness needs to derive from Good news about Reality. Otherwise the situation would be that Beckett is describing reality correctly; and Wilson's denial of pessimism is merely a way of feeling, and perhaps functioning, better - in what is otherwise an intolerable universe. 

So philosophy is only about what we feel unless real-life really-is Good.

For William Arkle his optimism was based on his knowledge (and awareness) of the fact that this is a created reality, and the creator is our loving Father - so reality is designed-around each of us, and what we most need.

Furthermore, Arkle is convinced that we personally chose to be born into our lives. So - with these underpinning convictions - we have an essentially 'optimistic' situation, in which our life is has purpose, meaning, is specifically what we need; and this actual life (its situation) was specifically chosen by our-(pre-mortal)-selves. Therefore William Arkle's philosophy is more than just about feelings.  

What 'evidence' does Arkle have? Quite simply: intuitive conviction. Arkle asked basic questions of reality, and knew the answers directly. He asked - is there God, is this reality created - answers came yes. Then, he knew by direct apprehension that this God was Good, and loved him. Looking around at life - he recognised meaning and purpose everywhere and in everything. 

Arkle might have been happy merely because he was optimistic by nature - as was Colin Wilson. The two men were indeed good friends, and would have long conversations together, keeping in touch from the 1950s into the 1990s. And on the surface, they were saying similar things.

Implicitly, I suspect that Wilson did have similar beliefs to Arkle - but he was not aware of them, and did not state them explicitly. Therefore, Wilson's work can reduce to self-help - to advice on how to be happier and more optimistic.

But the fact that Arkle stated his fundamental assumptions meant that his happiness and optimism were linked to, and derived-from, ultimate reality by means of stated assumptions. Thus Arkle, unlike most philosophers, broke-through from self-help to metaphysics. 


Francis Berger said...

This uplifting post inspired two thoughts:

1. Many who read or have read Colin Wilson don't fully recognize his inherent optimism. Perhaps this has to do with his being lumped in with the Angry Young Men? Or the rather bleak titles of some of his works - The Outsider, The Age of Defeat, Ritual in the Dark, etc.

2. I really need to start exploring William Arkle more intensely. Your William Arkle blog appears the best place for a novice like me to start!

Francis Berger said...

I can't stop thinking about this post today. Colin Wilson recognized the needless pessimism infecting Western philosophy and developed his own synthesis to conquer it which, if I remember correctly, was based on realigning the senses and thought to make both more capable of peak experiences and higher (truer) perception and life.

What, in your opinion, prevented Wilson from going that extra step - that metaphysical step that Arkle succeeded in taking?

I find this particularly fascinating since the two were friends, so this certainly must have entered into their discussions.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Francis - If you word search Arkle Wilson you will see may various attempts to answer this. Firstly, I think CW turned against Christianity after writing Religion and the Rebel - published in 1957. In that book he is a Romantic Christian - by the next book (Age of Defeat) he seems to have abandoned the idea, never to return.

One factor seems to have been the sexual revolution - Wilson seems to have settled down to a faithful married life, second time around; but he never regarded the sexual revolution (in his era, mainly a matter of extra martial promiscuity) as an error or wrong. I get the impression his attitude was just that it didn't suit him, would interfere with work, or would upset his wife. He didn't see that it was A Bad Thing in a 'cosmic' or metaphysical sense.

Another is that the churches were not sufficiently individualistic and mystical, and - like many people - he seems to have regarded independent, unaffiliated Christianity as an oxymoron.

(Despite the example of Arkle. But it seems he saw Arkle as a kind of fascinating, gifted naive; blissfully unaffected by sordid reality; a 'one-off' and not somebody whose example could be followed. That, indeed, was how Arkle seemed to me when I first encountered him.)

In sum, to become and remain a Christian, and to have developed it, would have required approaching it in the same way - and with the same intensity and perseverence - as CW approached the problem of consciousness. It would have had to be an active matter - wheras I think he was hoping to find a Christian church/ life into which he could 'slot-in' (for example, he came close to becoming a Benedictine monk - for the lifestyle mainly), and since no such thing existed he abandoned the idea.

Francis Berger said...

I know the simple answer to my question would have simply been - Wilson did not believe in God; thus, I appreciate the insights you have offered in response.

What you stated here makes sense to me. Wilson certainly did not see the potential negative side of the sexual revolution. Your point about the insufficiency of most churches is likely spot on in Wilson's case. It makes me wonder how many potential Christians have refused or refuse to become or remain Christians on this point alone.

It's too bad Wilson regarded Arkle as an example that could not be followed. It would have been interesting to see how Wilson's writing and thought may have developed if he had regarded Arkle as someone that could be followed.

Thanks for again for the insights. The way you presented the contrast between these two thinkers and the deficiency of Godless philosophy in your post today was very coherent and effective (not to mention thought-provoking).

Bruce Charlton said...

@Francis - Ive seen it from both sides.

My first encounter with both Wilson and Arkle was Arkles A Geography of Consciousness for which CW wrote a long introduction. This encounter was 1978, just after I had moved 400 miles away from being a 'nextdoor neighbour' to Arkle.

At the time, I much preferred Wilson's Intro to Arkle's brilliant but very dense and difficult book (and CW was a far better writer, and I was an atheist) - so that set me off exploring CW for the next thirty years (including publishing in a charming home-made CW magazine called Abraxas, before eventually re-engaging with Arkle after he had died and when I was becoming a Christian.

Epimetheus said...

I was thinking yesterday that the True Self Arkle talks about is an apt description for God. Just as each human has a True Self obscured by various false projected personas, reality itself has a True Self - our Creator. Only our True Self can interact with God "out there." Only our True Self can connect with reality, and save us out of our existential alienation.

Bruce, do you believe that children have Original Sin, or was that added to Christian doctrine by St. Augustine. It seems to me that the original True Self is less obscured in children, and Jesus seemed to hold them in high regard.

Bruce Charlton said...

@E - No I don't believe that original sin is a real thing - I don't know who is responsible for it, but not Jesus.

I've written about this a few times over the years (if you do a word search) but in essence I think OS was introduced in order to explain why Christ was necessary, in the context of an abstractly conceived omnipotent God (a monotheistic deity derived from Greek philosophy, not from the Old Testament, nor from Jesus - who always talked about his father as a person).

Faculty X said...

I would infer from his writings that CW wouldn't be into conventional, faith-based belief. Instead, his belief would be the greater development of mind's latent faculties would reveal the truth about God directly.

In The Mind Parasites and The Philosopher's Stone he writes of an evolution of consciousness schema that focused on developing latent powers in self, with others, and in contact with non-human entities. Those ideas were common in branches of the human potential movement in the 1960s and '70s.

The focus was to train the ability to have direct experience in exploring the realms of consciousness, including the spiritual realm.

Similarly to CW's fiction, today there are devices for changing consciousness beneficially through electromagnetic therapies and EEG and biofeedback devices. Many aspects of consciousness can be altered such as mood, focus, and even perception of inner light and angels and God.

All of it comes from learning to focus the mind in a certain way, as CW wrote about often. We are only at the beginning of what can be done.

Bruce Charlton said...

@FX - "his belief would be the greater development of mind's latent faculties would reveal the truth about God directly." - You may be correct about Wilson's beliefs - but I think it is a 'materialist' mistake to suppose that the truth about God is something that would 'force itself upon us, given the right kind of consciousness. It is something that we must meet halfway, by our own choice and will.

We can't 'discover' the creator of the reality in which we dwell, by the same means we use to discover a new species of bird.

As CW knew from Husserl, consciousness participates in our reality - but as Steiner showed, this goes beyond our attitude to reality - and consciousness is part-of *making* reality - all reality, not just our subjective reality. I don't think CW ever took this step of inference, never took seriously Steiner's analysis (which he knew-of).

William Wildblood said...

The tools for expanding consciousness are not that different from psychedelic drugs in that they approach the matter from the wrong way round, focusing on effects rather than causes. Consequently they might change a person's conscious experience but not the actual quality of the individual and it is that, the heart for want of a better word, that really brings a person closer to God.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - As you know, I think that modern people have a double problem - atheism and alienation; and to be effective both need to be addressed (pretty much) simultaneously.

So we need both theistic metaphysical reconstruction - which is acknowledging that we live in a creation, and that there is a personal and loving God; and also we need to reconnect with the world - which involves some kind of work on consciousness, *experiencing* the world as alive and purposive etc.

Separately, neither is sufficient; together they mutually reinforce.

William Wildblood said...

Yes, one alone gives an earthbound religion which neglects the immanent and the other alone gives a me-centrd approach that neglects the transcendent.