PRINCIPLE OF INTELLIGIBILITY
My first book, Let Us Philosophize (1998, 2008), was divided into three parts, Book One: Intelligibility, Book Two: Reality, Book Three: Integrity. That covered my philosophy as a whole: epistemology, ontology, axiology. For some time I have been intending to write an essay explaining what I mean by the Principle of Intelligibility. As I sat down to begin working on this essay it occurred to me that I should follow it with two essays on Reality and Integrity, which I hope to do fairly soon.
With the birth of philosophy (as distinct from the wisdom of the oriental sages) the human mind threw down the gauntlet to the universe demanding that it be intelligible. That was the challenge issued to the World by Thales and his Milesian successors. The human mind no longer accepted to yield slavishly to the unknown powers behind the happenings of the natural world. The primitive mind sought to appease and/or if possible sway the gods behind thunder and rain and fire, behind birth and death. The Hellenic mind knew full well that the powers of nature could crush him; that was as nothing to him; he demanded to know what those powers are and how they function. When Thales said that all things were full of gods that was not a polytheistic dogma; it was a rational conviction that there was a reason for the doing and for the being or becoming of everything; that there was motive power in all that happens. That was the insight that Plato, some two centuries later, encapsulated in the assertion that everything that is in any sense real is at bottom nothing but dunamis, power, energy (Sophist 247e). That – the insight of Thales and the formulation of Plato – is far in advance of the position of our present-day ‘materialists’ (under whatever newfangled designation) who think that their ‘laws of nature’ control and move the world. (More on the ‘laws of nature’ below.)
Not long after Thales and his immediate successors we find Heraclitus speaking of the Logos that holds always and Parmenides who affirmed that to be intelligible and to be is the same thing (tauto gar esti noein te kai einai). Jumping over millennia we find Einstein, relatively quite recently, saying: “The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.” But what are we to understand by the ‘comprehensibility’ of the world? Perhaps earlier than (or contemporaneously with) the Milesian school Pythagoras noted that things (beginning with musical notes) had an amazing affinity to number. Modern science is fundamentally and basically built on this affinity. Thus in all things scientists look for their quantitative aspect. This enables them to formulate relatively constant equations that render possible for scientists to make predictions of happenings in nature — predictions that are always approximate and always provisional (despite Laplace’s confident prophecy). In support of this statement, especially as I claim no scientific competence, I will quote words of two scientists of the highest rank of scientific genius.
Eunstein said: “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”
Stephen Hawking who departed only the day before I began this essay said: “… you have to be clear about what a scientific theory is. … a theory is just a model of the universe, or a restricted part of it, and a set of rules that relate quantities in the model to observations that we make. It exists only in our minds and does not have any other reality (whatever that might mean). … Any physical theory is always provisional, in the sense that it is only a hypothesis: you can never prove it.” (A Brief History of Time, first chapter)
Let this suffice for the ‘comprehensibility’ of the universe, only let us keep in mind that number is a creation of the human mind and the equations of scientists are creations of the human mind. Now, as we jumped millennia forward from Heraclitus and Parmenides to our present day, let us jump millennia back to Plato.
The much maligned Platonic ‘theory of forms’ boils down to this: We understand nothing but what our mind clothes in forms of its own creation. This is the same insight we find in Kant who said that reason finds in nature nothing but what reason itself has put in nature (Critique of Pure Reason, first ed., xviii). The bare sense impressions that Locke called ‘ideas’ mean nothing, say nothing, until the mind confers on them a character born in the mind. But the ideas of the things in nature, of things outside the mind, including the human body, though they enable us to speak of things and to manipulate things yet they do not give us understanding of the inner nature of things, of the reality of things. This too was affirmed by Kant: things in nature are only known to us as phenomena. The ‘comprehensibility’ of the universe that Einstein spoke of does not take us far. The model of the universe that Hawking speaks of does not take us into the inner reality of things. All knowledge of things outside our own inner reality is nothing but a pattern, a shape, into which the mind moulds the otherwise meaningless phenomena of the outer world, just as a lad reclining leisurely on a grassy hill shapes the sailing clouds into giraffes and elephants and swans. Wittgenstein insightfully describes as illusion the modern belief that the scientific ‘laws of nature’ explain the phenomena of nature (Tractatus Logico-Philosphicus, 6.371).
In the ‘divided line (Republic 509d-511e) Plato ranges the levels of knowledge from eikosia (image) concerned with images to pistis (belief) relating to commonplace acquaintance with actual things in the natural world, through dianoia (thought) relating to the area of empirical knowledge, to the topmost level concerned with pure ideas and principles (the field of philosophical reflection), in the ‘divided line’ designated as nous or noêsis, but elsewhere Plato names it phronêsis (reason, intelligence).
Thus with the Milesian thinkers the human mind begins its long journey in quest of understanding by proclaiming its self-awarded right to know the world as a whole. At a crucially important station in that heroic journey Plato declared, as stated above, that all things that are in any sense real are nothing but dunamis. I know of no one other than A. N. Whitehead who noted the importance of that seminal declaration by Plato. Regardless of that philosophers have been drawing their mind-bred models of the world and of ultimate reality, visions of reality I call them. Strictly, they are that and nothing but that, mind-bred visions of reality.
[Warning to the Reader: What follows you will find truly crazed, for who dare aspire to look Reality in the face and preserve his sanity?]
Well then, seeing that there is no knowledge and no understanding of reality but the knowledge and the understanding that the mind creates for itself, I say that the mind, creating all reality, is itself the ultimate Reality. To put it somehow paradoxically, the mind in its quest of ultimate Reality, by finding its own inner reality to be the only reality and the whole of reality, brings forth Reality into being by what Plato calls tokos en kalôi: its visions of ultimate Reality are portrayals of its own inner reality. The Delphic gnôthi sauton is the beginning and end of the mind’s quest of Reality. And since I say with Plato that all reality is essentially dunamis, I say that the reality of the mind or the ultimate reality that is the mind is sheer creativity. Further, the mind that is itself ultimate Reality, I say, is not an entity that is creative and intelligent, nor even a God that is creative and inte;;igent, but is wholly and purely creativity. I also say that it comes to the same thing to say that ultimate reality is creative intelligence or intelligent creativity. I name it Creative Eternity. The justification of this name is given in my books and will be taken up again when I write the essay on the Principle of Reality.
In conclusion let me emphasize two things. (1) My vision of Reality is just that, a vision that gives my mind satisfaction and is one of many possible visions. If I say that ultimate Reality is mind, it is consistent with this to say that my vision of Reality is a reflection of my own inner reality which is strictly ineffable and consequently all representations of it can be nothing but myths aspiring to speak the unspeakable. (2) My vision of Reality does not seek or claim to be applicable to, or to be true of, the actual world. Scientific ‘models’ of the universe are, as Kant saw, confined to phenomena.
Whitehead contrasts Plato’’s Timaeus myth with Newton’s Principia in a passage that philosophers and scientists would do well to study carefully. (I am sorry I don’t have the reference to hand but it is in Whitehead’s Process and Reality.)
D. R. Khashaba
March 17, 2018
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