Sunday 6 October 2019

The problem of residual abstraction (maths, geometry, physics) in philosophical (and theological) thinking

This is a really, really Big problem! What is more, it affects the very best and most important thinkers and writers in my pantheon of influences for Romantic Christianity - Steiner, Barfield, Arkle...

The problem is that the understandings and explanations of such people are/ remain rooted in abstract phenomena - despite that these are intending to advocate a personal, 'animistic', 'anthropomorphic' metaphysics.

Their basic idea is that reality is a matter of Beings in Relationships... That the ultimate entities are Beings (alive, conscious, purposive) and that what holds things together and provides structure is the relationships of these Beings.

Yet ni advocating a metaphysics of Being and Relations; these authors fall back, again and again, into abstraction; into the use of examples drawn from physics, geometry and mathematics.

eg. Steiner in Philosophy of Freedom develops his argument wholly abstractly, in terms of categories of percept and concept, and his example is the geometrical figure of the triangle.

Barfield uses physics as his primary mode of explanation; the rainbow is his most famous example; and he calls his new way of thinking 'polarity' which he describes relationships between beings in abstract-mathematical-physics ways - using magnetism and electricity as explanations.

Arkle's main book, A Geography of Consciousness, uses geometrical and physics graphs, tables and diagrams to explain his 'system' - despite that he explicitly asserts everything is alive and conscious.

This could be regarded as a prime example of Residual Unresolved Positivism (RUP) as described by Barfield - and the fact that Barfield himself was prone to it (as was his Master, Steiner) shows how difficult it is to shake-off. This difficulty is most apparent in Barfield's most deep and rigorous book - How Coleridge Thought - when the clash of perspectives is the source of greatest difficulty in understanding the argument. Barfield seems unaware of how his abstractly-structured schemes are so fundamentally at-odds-with what he is trying to prove using these schemes. The key term 'polarity' is mathematical and derived from magnetism (later electricty) - and as difficult to understand intuitively as most such ideas are.

The problem is so old that it can seem inevitable - it goes back to the ancient Greeks, who nearly always used (the ancient equivalent of...) physics as the basis of their metaphysics - with principles such as fire or water underlying 'everything'.

Another example is that 'form' is taken as primary (as with Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas) - and 'form' is conceptualised in geometric terms and often using geometrical examples. (A modern instance is Sheldrake's morphogenetic fields.)

Whereas the primary reality is actually A Being, not A Triangle; is a Being's motivation, not a force or principle.

This abstraction then leads on to the problem (the error) of regarding Time as... optional. The delusion that Time can be set aside, redefined etc. When a world is seen as abstract as its reality and bottom line - then Time loses its function; indeed Time becomes a nuisance!

Yet, if the world is of Beings, beings exists In Time, and only In Time. In cross-section, there are no Beings - because in a 'zero' timescale there is no Life, no Consciousness - if Life and Consciousness are primary, then there is and always must be Time...

Thus one error leads on to another,

But what this does show is the need for further work for Romantic Christianity; because Steiner, Barfield, Arkle are all in error by using maths/ geometry and physics as their models and explanations.

There us work to be done to restate their arguments in terms that are coherent with the conclusions of their arguments.

The good news is that - when thus restated - the metaphysics and theology of Romantic Christianity becomes something intuitively understandable by a child; rather than requiring advanced training in the natural sciences. 



Adil said...

Some people are really good with music theory, but not so technically proeffecient with playing and improvising their instrument. Others just let go and play. I think Jimi Hendrix said as soon as he starts to think he can't play anymore. He must be one with his instrument. I wonder if this parallells what you are saying. Like a natural musical talent just is able to play, a spiritually realised humanity would be able to know by direct insight.

This topic resonates with me because I've always struggled with math, but still have an intuitive bodily mathematical sense of rhythm and feel for order. I also tend to think metaphorically/visually rather than linearly or abstractly, which has not helped me in school.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Eric - I recall that ability with rhythm is not well correlated with analytic intelligence; and the ability to perform music not well correlated with intelligence either. SO that many of the best folk musicians are not highhly intelligent in terms of IQ or 'g'. However the picture is blurred by classical music, which is often extremely complex - so that high level conductors and composers (and to a lesser extent pianists) need to be extremely intelligent.

My point here is rather more philosophical; but an analogy might be if someone tried to explain why a great blues singer was great; but used a complex musical analysis of tone, pitch and rhythm to do so - and ended up implying that the musician was somehow actually doing this analysis and then performing it, in order to be great.

I saw this done - to an extent - with a piece of Northumbrian Pipes playing by Billy Pigg, who was an instinctive and inspiration (and somewhat inaccurate) amateur folk musician (regarded as one of the greats); which purported to transcribe what he actually played... the result was kind-of interesting (as I recall, it had him changing time signatures between bars, and all sorts of complicated stuff), but did leave a strange impression

David said...

"The good news is that - when thus restated - the metaphysics and theology of Romantic Christianity becomes something intuitively understandable by a child; rather than requiring advanced training in the natural sciences."

It took me most of my adult life to realise that it's that simple. And that is what Jesus taught also, to approach the divine as a Child!

Watch out for adolescence though...

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - I think that it is understandable how people like those I mention were tempted to make things complicated enough to be 'taken seriously' by intellectuals, scholars and the like. (It is embarrassing to say outright that everything is alive and conscious!) But, looking back, we can see that it did not work; and indeed confused things.

Adil said...


Interesting, sounds plausible. But then again, from what I've understood being able to do anything well implies a high 'g'. The best instrumentalists soloing with technical mastery does require a good sense for structure and indirectly math. And the best musical improvisers almost always seem to be men, who are able to go off-script.

I have never ventured into classical music, but it doesn't strike me as rhythmically complex more than musically complex. Naturally since rhythm doesn't have a big role in classical music? The most rhythmically complex music I have found to be traditional Indian music. They have so many odd-time signatures, and recite all notes and compositions verbally before playing them. No abstraction! Westerners clearly are more in their minds than in their bodies.

William Wildblood said...

I wonder if the characteristic you draw attention to is because all these people felt they had to prove themselves to intelligent people and intelligent people all have a scientific world view. To see the world in terms of beings would be thought too close to how a child operates. Then , of course, all of us are educated in a positivistic way and it's hard to throw that off.

Having written this I now see you said the same thing in your last comment!

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - But it is worth saying more than once!

Could this be an aspect of the End Times? that what we Most need to know is 'too obvious', 'too simple' - 'hidden in plain sight'.

There is nothing to prevent anybody learning and accepting this stuff; *except* their pride - and (of course!) that is in practice a really-HUGE reason Not to accept it!