Schopenhauer – interview with the author

We recently sat down with Robert Wicks author of Schopenhauer. In this interview, Bob tells us about his abiding interest in this enigmatic and outcast figure, and along the way covers such diverse topics as Hinduism, Zen, Afghanistan and anchovy-and-onion pizzas. Enjoy!

Hi Bob. So, why did you decide to write Schopenhauer?

Well, I can’t say that I ever had the idea to write a book on Schopenhauer.  I’ve been teaching a class here in Auckland called “Schopenhauer and Nietzsche” for awhile now, and the book materialized by itself over time.  It just happened, really.  When I was putting the manuscript together, though, I did have an idea about who the ideal audience might be.  So this is who I wrote the book “for,” one could say.  It was for those who are on the edge, who live in the so-called “real world” Continue reading “Schopenhauer – interview with the author”

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What would it take for you to believe?

Would this be sufficient...?

What would it take for you to believe? It’s an interesting question to put to any atheist, and often the answer can come as quite a surprise…to them. Given that you are aware of the arguments for God’s existence and find them to be un-compelling, which of any of the standard religious experiences would manage to make a believer out of you? A voice from the heavens? “I would probably dismiss that as some sort of audible illusion. Probably thunder, or an airplane, that I’m mishearing and falsely interpreting as a voice.” A direct appearance, before your very eyes, of an angel, or even of God Himself? “Likewise, I’d think I was hallucinating. I’d probably ask myself what I’d eaten that day! Or who had spiked my drink!” What if the apparition came back day after day, and you knew there was no extraneous cause? “Then I’d think that I had gone mad.” Really, the answer is that for many atheists there is simply nothing that they could experience that could convert them from their position. And then they are surprised when they meet the exact same attitude in their theistic opponents!

So, considering this, a sentence caught my eye recently in the abstract for an article on ‘Militant Modern Atheism’ that I happened to stumble across; in talking about the contemporary debate between theists and atheists, “The challenge [for the militant modern atheist] is to develop a well-articulated and convincing version of secular humanism.” This is followed by, “Meeting that challenge is, I claim, one of the central problems of philosophy today.” The author is sensibly responding to the deficiencies of the particular variety of ‘militant modern atheism’, and is pointing out that they need to offer a little more, by way of an incentive to the believer that they wish to persuade to their position, than merely Continue reading “What would it take for you to believe?”

Does Nirvana Have a Neural Signature?

What are we looking for when we look at neurological studies of spiritual figures?

We are used to thinking of Siddhartha Gautama as having spent his life seeking to attain wisdom and the release from unwanted thoughts and passions. We are less used to conceiving of Siddhartha as having been in pursuit of a specific brain state; and yet, we might be curious as to whether or not the mental state of nirvana is a physiological possibility for us, and if so, what characterises it? What was the Buddha’s brain doing at the moment of enlightenment; what does the brain of an advanced buddhist monk do whilst the monk is nearing what we might term a pre-nirvana state?

Despite the fact that East has met West so many times in the last few centuries that they must detest being continually reintroduced to one-another, NYU researcher Zoran Josipovic (as the BBC reports) is continuing, as he has been doing for the past decade, to use fmri in order to study the neurological states of Buddhist monks. Yet in the last few years, he has advanced a compelling hypothesis. The human mind, as we know from experience, vacillates between total or near-total involvement in the external world, a state where we experience little or no self-awareness, to states that are self-conscious and self-aware to the fact that we may have little recollection of what was happening around us. Josipovic refers to these alternate kinds of experience as intrinsic and extrinsic networks.

Buddhist monks, whilst meditating, display a kind of neural activity that few, if any, non-meditating subjects have ever demonstrated: dual, equal, and simultaneous activity in the intrinsic and extrinsic networks. Of course, the relationship between these networks is by no means one of two distinct, unrelated systems– they work together to provide our ordinary, everyday experience of the world (an experience that involves some side-commentary and some focus or attention on the external world). The interesting aspect of Josipovic’s results is that, during meditation, no one system is dominant, which leads Josipovic to conclude that the resulting first-person experience is permeated both by a feeling of total involvement and oneness with the environment, and also with a self-awareness of being so utterly involved. The apparent contradictoriness of the description appears to us only because we have rarely, if ever, occupied this median neurological state.

However, we might also wonder: do we tend to over-estimate the experiential exoticness of advanced states of meditation? Is it possible that the feelings of tranquility and oneness enjoyed by advanced meditators are not so experientially different from our own, but merely prolonged? Why do we expect Buddhist monks to feel and experience the tenets of their philosophy, rather than merely to affirm them and find comfort and resilience within them? Are we filling the heads of Buddhist monks with fictional, super-states of consciousness?

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R.I.P. Alexander Piatigorsky

The Philosopher’s Eye was sad to see that the charismatic and idiosyncratic philosopher Alexander Piatigorsky passed away earlier this month. Piatigorsky was a professor at the London School of Oriental and African studies (SOAS) until his retirement in 2001. (Sir Isaiah Berlin had intervened to ensure his appointment after he fled the USSR.) The topics on which he wrote ranged from the failures of totalitarian communism to Buddhist thought and even to Freemasonry. Piatigorsky was also a talented linguist – he compiled the first Russian-Tamil dictionary – and a novelist.

But the volume which is perhaps best known amongst philosophers in England is “Symbol and Consciousness: Metaphysical Discussion of Consciousness, Symbolism and Language” (1982), which he co-authored with Merab Mamardashvili. Continue reading “R.I.P. Alexander Piatigorsky”