I opened a book on philosophy today that my daughter gave me and I happened across the chapter on Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy.
This is how it began:
The seeker after truth must, once in the course of his life, doubt everything, as far as is possible. Since we began life as infants, and made various judgements concerning the things that can be perceived by the senses before we had the full use of our reason, there are many preconceived opinions that keep us from knowledge of the truth. It seems that the only way of freeing ourselves from these opinions is to make the effort, once in the course of our life, to doubt everything which we find to contain even the smallest suspicion of uncertainty.
What is doubtful should even be considered as false. Indeed, it will prove useful, once we have doubted these things, to consider them as false, so that our discovery of what is most certain and easy to know may be all the clearer.
This doubt should not meanwhile be applied to ordinary life. This doubt, while it continues, should be kept in check and employed solely in connection with the contemplation of the truth. As far as ordinary life is concerned, the chance for action would frequently pass us by if we waited until we could free ourselves from our doubts, and so we are often compelled to accept what is merely probable. From time to time we may even have to make a choice between two alternatives, even though it is not apparent that one of the two is more probable than the other.
The reason for doubt concerning the things that can be perceived by the senses. Given, then, that our efforts are directed solely to the search for truth, our initial doubts will be about the existence of the objects of sense-perceptions and imagination. The first reason for such doubts is that from time to time we have caught out the senses when they were in error, and it is prudent never to place too much trust in those who have deceived us even once. The second reason is that in our sleep we regularly seem to have sensory perception of, or to imagine, countless things which do not exist anywhere; and if our doubts are on the scale just outlined, there seem to be no marks by means of which we can with certainty distinguish being asleep from being awake.
I was looking up at the moon this evening which is rapidly coming up to the First Quarter and it got me thinking about the notion of limits. The moon is a brilliant teacher of this because it grows larger and smaller but it never goes outside its own limits when it is at its maximum fullness. The same goes for the tides which the moon influences. They ebb and flow, filling up at high tide and emptying at low tide but there is a limit and when it is reached the cycle begins again. Perhaps this time of lockdown is a time of the ebbing of the tide for all of us. The activities of our lives have had to slow down, growth has slowed and perhaps even gone into reverse. There are many who will be struggling.
However before we start back on the road we were on, perhaps we could pause and reflect on what this situation has been telling us. We have as a global culture been in expansion mode for such a long time, perhaps we now need to think about contraction or at least a stabilisation of the seemingly endless expansion. We have learned to harness the vast resources of energy that our planet can provide, a lot of which ultimately was derived from life-processes driven by the sun. We also have learned about generating power from matter as physicists have shown us to be possible. But in a way with all this power at our disposal are we just like the child who discovers that a magnifying glass on a hot day can be fun but also destructive. We use the power generated to plumb the depths of matter even further with giant atom smashing particle accelerators, but for what? To learn more about a potentially more powerful source of energy to harness? Do we need it?
Nature has limits. We know that and the moon shows that. We should start to consider the moon and be less obsessed by the sun. When the natural limits of nature are exceeded there is disease. An overproduction of white bloodcells is the manifested state of leukemia. A tumor is an abnormally large growth. The limits have been exceeded. Cancer is the other name for this disease. And it is something that this lockdown has reminded me of because right now there are people who have loved ones that are ill but whom they can’t see or be with. And this was the case when my nephew was ill over the last four years but due to circumstances I wasn’t really able to do as much as I would have liked to be with my family or help them with their burden. Thankfully the crisis is now in the past but lives have been irrevocably changed. The white bloodcells are back within the limits that correspond to health.
The questions for me though are: will we heed the moon and pull back our activities into the zone of limitation that nature shows us? Can we take a rest from our incessant desire for expansion? Can we continue to contract for a little while until we settle into a natural pattern once again?
Last night I went to check out the new movie with Christian Bale called “Le Mans ’66”. I’m not a big fan of car racing nor of Matt Damon I have to admit, but I usually go to Christian Bale films if I can as I think he is an extremely talented actor. The trailers didn’t show his best acting and I was kind of hesitant about going because I didn’t want to go and see him doing something awful (plus the above reasons). However he didn’t disappoint. There was one scene in particular which I thought was really outstanding when he was on the tarmac of the place where they were developing the race car which was an airfield runway. He started to explain to his son about the state of mind he was in when he was racing that allowed him to calculate and judge all the necessary actions to achieve the best lap time and he was describing it as opening up or widening out his awareness so he could see all the seemingly insignificant markers. He delivered this scene with his characteristic focus which made it instantly believable.
Afterwards I was sitting watching the credits roll. Everyone else had left and only the guy cleaning the cinema was left in the room. He probably wanted me to move but didn’t say anything, we merely put up with each other. But at the end of the film I saw that it said that over 15,000 jobs had been supported by the making of the film and I guess you could say that his job was one of them. On the way back home on the bus I couldn’t help thinking that it is kind of crazy in a way that what is essentially just some lights dancing on a screen could have such an impact. I’m not trying to diminish the film industry but really when you think about it that is all it is. That is the final product which keeps the whole machine ticking over. You never actually see any of what is conveyed by the film directly. I’ve never seen Matt Damon in person nor Caitriona Balfe and yet they are instantly recognisable to me. As key members of the cast the film and the process of movie making would appear to revolve around them. All those other people who are involved play their parts too including the other actors but also everyone behind the scenes and the producers who actually bring the project to fruition.
One of the scenes where I got a bit emotional was when Christian Bale’s character slows down to allow his other teammates to catch up with him so they can cross the finish line together. This means he unwittingly forfeits his victory due to some treachery but it is a key moment for me in which the individualism which is so pervasive in film which also is reflected in the society at large is overcome for the sake of the collective (or so it seems). Again how this is conveyed is through something which is altogether illusory but it still stirs something in an individual’s psyche and perhaps others were feeling it too who were watching the movie. I hope so because some of the people in the theatre didn’t appear to be very interested in concern for other people. We all are wrapped up in our own little bubbles. Even a group experience like the movies doesn’t seem very sociable anymore. And a lot of the trailers were for things that featured on streaming services like Netflix and I also saw an advert for Virtual Reality headsets for gaming which really is the apex (so far) of full immersion in a bubble.
The experience of seeing a movie though as I said is really an illusory one. If you could put your head right up to the screen to focus on a small section of it (which you can’t do of course because you would obscure the screen with your own shadow) all you would really see is a flickering range of colours and light and you might see it as interesting but not really anymore than that. It wouldn’t be able to convey any meaning. But when you pull back your view you see the whole picture and the context of that one little flickering part is revealed and there is a sense of meaning. Those same flicking lights are there at that point on the screen but with all the other points around it filled with their own flickering lights it now seems to make sense. However it is just our minds that are making sense of it all because of their close approximation to what we perceive with our eyes in the world around us. It is still no more real and even has a double layer of illusion because the people on that screen are actors. We know that the same person has played many roles before but we are for that moment in the illusion that they are the character they are portraying. It’s another trick which our minds play on us but without this dual illusion we wouldn’t have the huge film industry with all the jobs it creates and all the lives it supports. It’s no wonder that people have some difficulties sometimes distinguishing where reality and fiction begin and end.
I’ve already gone on quite a lot now about the illusion that movies consist of but in this case I have another level to come to terms with in my mind. That is, unlike Matt Damon who I’ve never seen in person, I have seen Christian Bale in person. Not only that but he was also someone I considered to be a really good friend, my best friend in fact. I’m not sure if he thought about me the same way though. We were both at primary school together. We are exactly the same age, well he’s a bit older than me by a few months. Funnily enough I don’t remember the details of our friendship all that much. I posted a picture of us and some other friends in my bio which is also below:
You can see I was standing next to him and bear in mind at this time I still had a quite distinct American accent having recently moved from the States to the UK. I was also good friends with the other kids in the picture. Owen who you see to the right was a neighbour and I hung out with him a lot but you can also see that he’s standing apart from the small group clustered around Christian. It has to be said that even then he had quite a lot of charisma and there was something about him which was quite intense. Although I felt he was my best friend he could also be quite dismissive and I got quite jealous when he would hang out with Marcus and James who were on the opposite side of him from me. At that time I felt like I was a bit of an odd one out and there was something about Christian that I think made us kindred spirits in this regard so I felt quite attached to him. So I was pretty devastated when he suddenly left the school and I never saw him again. This had quite a big impact on me and was probably a pivotal moment in my life as it has been a repeated pattern where I’ve not had any really good lifelong friends with whom I have actually been in regular contact with. I certainly have good friends but they live far away. In a funny way Christian’s life has been a lot like mine in that he moved around a lot and went from the UK to the USA (so the opposite of what I did). However I do wonder how much of the real Christian Bale I actually knew because he was even then an enigma. The only thing I really remember that well about him personally, that is true to him as opposed to being an act, was that he disliked the name Christian and would have preferred to have been called Morgan.
Thinking back to that scene again where he explains to his on-screen son about the state of mind he is in when he is racing, if we could perhaps widen our views, so that instead of looking at the screen but beyond that, to the theatre and the outer world, much like the allegory of the cave in Plato, then we could perhaps see a bigger picture which has its own distinct layer of meaning. And also by extension not just the bigger picture in terms of space but also of time, that is by observing the whole as it changes over time, we also might see that again there is a meaning beyond what we might see if we are just fixated on a particularly narrow band around the short-term.
These experiences I think are what has led me to act and think the way I do and that is also perhaps what people find so disconcerting about me. When I meet people I just see them as people, no more and no less. It doesn’t matter whether they are rich or famous or have been deemed important because of their position or rank in a company or organisation. They are just people. And because I think like that people who are impressed by such things, which is really most people, don’t get it or like it very much if I don’t display their same attitude. And this is not anything against them, mostly that is human nature, but my motivations come from a different place and that is just me. And that is also why it happens that I tend to spend about half my time sleeping on a camp bed so my daughter can have more comfort and why I’m happy chatting with a homeless person for 20 minutes and why I feel so angry sometimes about injustices in our society.
I also saw that at the end of the film when the credits rolled almost to the very end that there were special thanks to people in Christian Bale’s family, including names whom I’m assuming are his wife and children. So I hope that he has found his happiness and that his role as a husband and parent are giving him genuine and authentic meaning.
I was really interested to read this article by Robert Macfarlane in the Guardian (a link to it is below). I have thought about this concept before and I’m all for the establishment of “bio-rights” as I regard them as complementary to human rights, and in fact our human rights would just be a subsection within them.
I have just a few comments of constructive criticism about his piece. Although I do enjoy the writing style of Robert Macfarlane considering his surname I would also have expected him to have a less Anglophone focus in his overview of nature literature from the UK. Yes, there has certainly been a lot of truly inspiring nature writing in the English language and I count Ralph Waldo Emerson and David Thoreau in my list of favourites but when discussing the influence of indigenous beliefs and philosophies such as animism it seems a glaring omission to neglect our own indigenous languages such as Gaelic in which so much of the wealth of our heritage (dualchas) lies. Ossian, the warrior-poet of Scottish Gaelic lore was the son of a deer. Human and animal/nature boundaries are fluid in this worldview. Although a literal interpretation of this might have caused a theological dilemma for centuries, the stories are symbolic and have at their root the exact considerations that this article proposes. We are all part of nature. To really comprehend this though takes a leap in imagination and beyond linguistic boundaries. This is why I am learning and will continue to learn about our indigenous languages.
Poetry is beautiful and I couldn’t live without it. Sometimes though it feels like an isolating pursuit because generally I tend to read and meditate on poetry in solitude, particularly when I’m getting to grips with the subtleties of Gaelic poetry which I have to look up in the dictionary. It can feel doubly isolating when you feel as if you have been ostracised by your peers, not in all circumstances but in certain aspects. Yes, poetry can be a social activity and there are plenty of events happening in the literary world which one can go to, if there is the opportunity, unhampered by responsibilities or financial constraints.
Isolation is a state which causes vulnerability to the knocks which life can sometimes hit you with. Shocks to the system are best handled when you have a nurturing and supportive network of relationships such as family, friends and colleagues, in short, a community. And community is really important, perhaps even as important as poetry.
Regardless of where you may find yourself you are always close to nature. Even if you are in a big city or some industrial landscape, nature herself is inescapable because wherever you go you take nature with you. The great winds of the sky blow through your lungs into your body and they dwell inside you. The seas, rivers and streams are always circulating inside your arteries and veins. The rocks and mountains are in your bones and the soil that rests upon them in your flesh. The fires that light up the dark nights or even propel the cars around us are burning deep within our cells driving the life force within, just as the electricity in power cables can be found in our own nerves and brain.
In one of W. B. Yeats’ most popular poems, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”, he concludes:
I will arise and go now, for always night and day I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore; While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, I hear it in the deep heart's core.
W. B. Yeats, whose poetry is full of the hermetic mysteries, knew of the Macrocosm and Microcosm and that the external world of nature was also reflected in the inner world of the “deep heart’s core”. So if we are to live in harmony with nature we must also live in harmony within ourselves as the natural forces inside us which we sense internally are also just as prone to moving out of harmony and out of balance as the Earth’s systems. By listening to the voice of our inner nature we may learn by extension to live harmoniously with the nature surrounding us even in the least “natural” of environments, such as a city with its built landscape, noise, bustle and pollution. It might be difficult however it would do us all good if we could stop and listen for the quiet sounds of nature within the “deep heart’s core” every now and then.