Fifteen years ago I wrote a short piece, ‘What I Believe’. I reproduce it here, and an afterthought prompted largely by the experience of the last year.
My most basic intuition is that I am not here on Earth just to have a good time. My relationships with others lay on me obligations, which I acknowledge but am not always strong-minded enough to discharge. So arising out of my intuition is my belief that I am self-determining or have free will. However I have never found an intellectually satisfying account of free will and find phrases such as ‘unmoved mover’ and ‘transcendental ego’ unhelpful. I am left with the sense that the essential nature of human beings transcends their ability to reason about it. In recent years I have become more aware of the link between the free will question and the nature of consciousness. I can express this succinctly in the rhetorical question ‘What possible role could be assigned to consciousness in an externally determined being?’
Our existential aloneness (possibly not experienced so intensely by those whose lives in extended families or tribes) is manifested by individual physical separateness from all other beings in space and from an earlier self or selves in time. Certain mystical experiences suggest that the sense of aloneness can be annulled at least for short periods. I choose to believe that such experiences may at least sometimes represent insight rather than wishful thinking.
In a world of change is anything substantial? What of my identity for instance? If everything in the phenomenal world is adjectival, what is being qualified? I have difficulty with the word God, but in a world of flux there must be anchorage points for knowledge to be possible. What is a thing, organism, person seem important philosophical questions to me.
It shakes me still to realise how much, as a child, I dreaded the possibility of the early deaths of my parents. In the event they both lived past my fiftieth year. Now that they are dead, and I miss them deeply, I am able to face the notion that we will never be reunited. Everything changes and yet I believe beyond all evidence that in some sense nothing important is lost. Perhaps Plato was right, what are most real are the Platonic forms which are transpersonal and outside time. But I agree with Wittgenstein that what we cannot think, we cannot say either.
I appeal to intuition – we go to great Art for truth:
Mozart (especially Figaro) and Charlie Parker (especially the Dial and Savoy recordings) increase my awareness of sensuous beauty. The joy of being alive but tinged with melancholy – the knowledge of the transience of physical perfection. This is also perceptible in the poetry of Keats and the painting of Watteau. All four died young.
Shakespeare’s tragedies, Beethoven’s late string quartets, Michelangelo’s sculpture speak to me of the potential grandeur of human existence, its agony and triumph, in a word its sublimity.
Goethe’s remark, ‘Character is formed in the full current of life, genius in lonely places’ has great resonance for me. Through these contrary impulses each of us forges a unique outlook on life. My vision is characterised by my recognition of human wickedness, and less commonly human goodness. My need for a consoling faith and inability to find one is a daily reality, despite which I am extremely grateful to be alive. I am conscious of deep flaws in my humanity, which must I suspect, prevent me seeing further than I do. I see great potential value for myself in wordless meditation and from time to time I am troubled by a sense of guilt. At these times I find T.S. Eliot’s phrase ‘the purification of the motive in the ground of our beseeching’ has enormous power. I also wonder that a saying as remarkable as ‘ Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God’ could ever have been conceived at all, although strictly speaking I should say it exceeds what is sayable.
To which fifteen years later I would add this. After a year of pandemic, I might have expected to find some time to meditate more intensively than I have ever done before. This has not happened. What has happened is that I have once again wrestled with philosophical problems largely with the aid of a map provided by Kant’s thought. But philosophical thought is for me a propaedeutic: if the thought is sound, it should lead towards spiritual awareness and the unsayable. The imperatives that drive our most weighty and transformative decisions have origins as obscure as the beginning of the world. They challenge the dogma of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, which we should think about very much harder than we seem to. The banal philosophy of Scientism rests on its lazy assumption.