Bloggers’ corner

Ancient Wisdom in a Twitter World                                    

Whenever someone talks about something that they really love, that person often expresses their ideas with raw passion. The listener sees the brightness of the Self shining through the presenter’s eyes, hears the warmth of the Self in every word said, and feels the unity of the Self in that moment. That’s exactly what happened in Toronto on October 28 at the School of Philosophy on 29 Madison Avenue in Toronto. Mr. Dennis Blejer and Dr. Marie Antonios Sassine arrived from Boston and Ottawa, respectiverly, to give presentations on topics which they love and have pursued for decades through the School. On that crisp fall day, the practicality of Advaita was palpable, hypnotic and generous as our School hosted its First Symposium on Practical Philosophy. The topic, Ancient Wisdom in a Twitter World, struck a familiar chord with the 20 plus participants, and they could not have been more engaged. By lunchtime, though hungry, everyone was beaming, new friendships were forming and it was as though attendees could not get enough of the philosophy of science. The scrumptious vegetarian buffet lunch brought together dishes from multifarious cultures, and by the end of the day the post event discussions seemed to go on forever. Discussing Plato’s ideas and ideals never fails to open the heart and whet the appetite. It was a fantastic day! Here is a report on these dynamic and stimulating presentations

A Practical Philosopher’s Perspective

From the perspective of a practical philosopher, Dennis was able to demonstrate that science and scientific laws exist because of the Absolute, because the Absolute is unchanging, ever present and without cause. This engaging and ‘down-to-earth’ talk was introduced with the ancient story from the Rig Veda of “The Elephant and the Three Blind Men.”  In the story, three blind men each touch a different part of an elephant and then describe what they believe is an elephant.  Of course, they disagree as one touched the trunk, another a leg, and another the tail.  The story is often interpreted to mean that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that in order to have a full understanding of anything, one must understand the whole of it”.  As the story comes from the Rig Veda, the elephant is interpreted to represent the Absolute, or the whole Universe. On the other hand, modern science, understands the elephant as being the physical universe.  In summary, the Absolute is permanent and unchanging, whereas the physical universe is constantly changing.

The Unchanging can be recognized through philosophical practices which ultimately lead to authentic appreciation of the Absolute.  One underlying question that remains, however, is: Can the physical universe be understood through the methodology of modern science?  Well, the nature of illusion is that it is always changing, which simply means that it has an ever-changing form. A noticeable example of this is the ocean’s surface.  It is always changing. Knowing this: Can such an ever-changing form be understood?  Modern scientists would answer “Yes”, without hesitation, and with that answer, believe they have the tools and skills to gain such understanding. Modern scientists would point to observation, hypothesis, experimentation and analysis, as their primary “gear” for undertaking such questions. They would repeat processes until a viable conclusion or theory is formulated.  This cycle is traditionally called the scientific method.

The scientific approach to understanding the physical universe has led to the many laws of physics – classical and atomic. There are laws for moving bodies, heat, light, and matter, as well as laws about quantum mechanics, ie laws about the interaction between elementary and sub-atomic particles. These approaches are like the blind men touching different parts of the elephant.  Scientific knowledge is often useful and practical, yet it does not explain the universe as a whole.  These laws are expressed in mathematical forms that describe how some element (for instance, the temperature of the air), changes in space and time, given some set of conditions and sources.  Thus, the physical laws that physicists formulate are about how things change.  Physicists consider these laws to be unchanging.  They are considered to be not only unchanging, but, always present, and existing independently of other beings or causes.

The Absolute, is that which is without cause, existing independently of other beings and present in each and every being, thing and process. So, the error in thinking is that physicists have come to ascribe the qualities of the Absolute to the laws of physics.  Consequently, it stands to reason that without permanent and steady laws, the universe would be chaotic. As a result, isn’t the Absolute the foundation of all of science?


The Care of the Soul: Plato

Marie presented rich and inspiring evidence that Plato’s mission was to educate mankind about how to care for the human soul and how to live a full and happy life.

Marie opened her talk by suggesting that, contrary to the usual readings, Plato was indeed a practical philosopher.  For Plato, philosophy was a practical discipline to develop the capacity for living a truthful life.  He saw human freedom as nothing other than the capacity for truth.  He called the practice of philosophy “the care of the soul”.  Plato goes to great lengths to describe what the care of the soul means in all practicality. According to Plato, this journey requires leaving all assumed forms of knowledge behind and turning fully to the present for inspiration, motivation and emancipation.

To be fully present means ‘experiencing’ the capacity for truth as the most significant human potential and beginning to discern the always-available fundamental laws that govern the cosmos, the individual and the community.  To this end, Plato left us the discipline of ‘Dialectic’. Dialectic is the process of conversing whereby the aim is to discover truth, not to show off knowledge.  The practice of dialectic is intended to be a transformative practice, because it tends to unify knowledge and virtue and ultimately bring the individual into harmony with the cosmos.

Plato’s insight was that a human life can be an experience marked by good or bad fortune, driven by events over which one may think one has some control. In his time, the control may take the form of appeasing the gods or relying on science (the knowledge of the day), or in the search for glory. In all these cases, the individual is enslaved and can only hope for the best.

The fact of the matter is that it is only through discovering our fundamental capacity to live a life in truth that we can be genuinely free and happy. This discovery is available at all places and all times. That is the work of philosophy- to help us see the weight we carry and to give us a way forward, without the weight, in the present and only in the present.  This, however, is not some vague ‘idealism’ but a living and disciplined practice. It is a practice that can help enlighten, transform and create ourselves and our lives, and therefore our communities too. Such knowledge is as relevant and important for us today as it was during Plato’s time.

Next Steps

Due to society’s enthusiasm for true and tried strategies that make the love of wisdom practical, and happiness a natural experience, Toronto is making arrangement to hold a 2018 Symposium on Practical Philosophy.

Allison D Thorpe, January 2018