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Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

Do you get those experiences where something catches your eye, then when you stop to reflect on it, its significance gets deeper and deeper?

Last week I was in Paris, and on one of the rainy days was heading for a restaurant at lunch time but this scene caught my eye. Despite the fact it was raining, I stopped and took a photo. In fact, I took two….the first time my camera slipped as I pressed the shutter and I only caught the top of the scooter!

These electric scooters are everywhere in Paris just now. You can hire one using an app and drop it off anywhere you like. In fact, that’s become a bit of a problem. People are falling over them on the pavements and sustaining injuries, so the authorities are starting to consider new regulations to control them.

I took the photo because I thought it looked funny. To see this serious gentleman either looking down at the scooter somewhat disdainfully made me smile. Then I thought maybe he’s actually thinking about jumping down onto it!

When I got home, I decided to find out who this man is – turns out he is “The Marquis de Condorcet”, a leading Enlightenment thinker and writer, a mathematician and philosopher. One of his most deeply held beliefs was “progress”. He thought we humans, through learning and communicating with each other, would steadily increase our understanding of the natural, social and political worlds, continuously progressing and improving society. “However, Condorcet stressed that for this to be a possibility man must unify regardless of race, religion, culture or gender”

The wikipedia entry on him goes on to say this –

Condorcet was concerned with individual diversity; he was opposed to proto-utilitarian theories; he considered individual independence, which he described as the characteristic liberty of the moderns, to be of central political importance; and he opposed the imposition of universal and eternal principles.

He was a champion of diversity, equality and individual freedom. But he was also a champion of thinking – that progress required us to deepen our understanding of the world and of each other, comparing and reflecting on our individual experiences. He campaigned against slavery and for women’s civil rights.

So, it took an electric scooter to get my attention, but I’m glad I’ve discovered Condorcet. I think we could learn something from him about the importance of values, diversity and justice.

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I recently visited the Chateau de Clos Lucé in Amboise, in the Loire valley. This is where Leonardo da Vinci spent the last years of his life. He was invited to live there by François I in 1516. The king provided Leonardo with a place to live, 700 gold ecus a year, and financed his works, in turn for the pleasure of his company and daily discussions with him. Leonardo only lived three more years, dying in 1519, which is why, on this 500th anniversary year of his death, the chateau is hosting a major exhibition of his work. (As an aside I find it fascinating and inspiring that Leonardo was given free range “to dream and work” – what kind of society could we have if we funded creatives and academics to “dream and work” together, without goals, funding applications or publication demands?)

There are a number of Leonardo quotations around the chateau and the gardens. This one caught my eye –

You know that medicines when well used restore health to the sick: they will be well used when the doctor together with his understanding of their nature shall understand also what man is, what life is, and what constitution and health are. Know these well and you will know their opposites; and when this is the case you will know well how to devise a remedy.

After a lifetime career in Medicine, I’m less sure now that medicines do “restore health to the sick”. I think it’s biology which restores health. Human beings are complex adaptive systems, and all such organisms have both “self-healing” and “self-making” capacities. The best medicines stimulate those natural processes of healing. The next best support the processes. Many of the ones we use reduce symptoms, or reverse an imbalance in the body, both of which are reasonable goals and acts, but are they directly involved in restoring health to the sick? Do you think that’s just semantics? I don’t. I’d have a hope for the future that we’d develop the treatments which really do support and stimulate the natural processes of healing, and that’s what Leonardo says, in other language, at the end of that quotation – “when this is the case you will know well how to devise a remedy”.

When what’s the case?

Oh, yes, understand “what man is, what life is, and what constitution and health are”.

Ah! Well, there lies both the problem and the signposts to the solutions…..

A couple of years into my work as a General Practitioner I started to wonder what health is. Nobody taught us what health is at university, and the clinical training of a young doctor focuses on learning diagnostic and therapeutic techniques – identifying pathologies and treating disease states. I went back and looked at my Clinical Medicine textbooks. I searched the index for “health” – no entries. Nope, not one. That set me off on an exploration, looking for an understanding of what health is. The medical school textbooks were no help. Oh yes, there was that old World Health Organisation definition –

“a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

But all that really does is substitute the word “well-being” for “health”. It does suggest health is multidimensional – physical, mental and social – and it does suggest health is something positive, not just the absence of disease or infirmity. But does it really take us much further that irritating “Brexit means Brexit”?

While researching the issue of the absence of health in medical textbooks, I discovered there was a kind of parallel anomaly….biology textbooks didn’t have a definition of life. Really? Well, yes, it wasn’t uncommon to find a biology textbook without the word life appearing in the index.

So what is life?

One of the more satisfying descriptions I read was from Maturana and Varela’s, living organisms demonstrate a “self-making” capacity, which they termed “autopoiesis” and that lead me down the path of the complexity scientists and their definition of “complex adaptive systems”. I still find that a good starting place.

That leaves us with two more areas to explore, according to Leonardo. What is man? and What is a constitution? Remember he was writing 500 years ago, and we would probably now say “What is a human?”, rather than “what is man?”. Let’s leave constitution aside for just now, as it’s pretty embedded in the issues of what is a human and what is health?

What is a human being?

There have been a couple of books published recently which put this question centre stage again. Douglas Rushkoff’s “Team Human“, and Paul Mason’s “Clear Bright Future“. Both of these books are concerned about the impact of technology on human beings and on our societies. Rushkoff says –

being human is a team sport. We cannot be fully human, alone. Anything that brings us together fosters our humanity. Likewise, anything that separates us makes us less human, and less able to exercise our will.

In other words, he focuses on the innate sociability and need to act co-operatively in human beings. I’ve heard Paul Mason say at least two interesting definitions of what is a human – human beings “use energy to counter entropy” – in other words we are a creative species. And human beings are “co-operative, imaginative and linguistic” – the combination of which makes us a unique species.

All of these ideas are interesting to me. And I find it refreshing that these questions are coming to the fore now. Surely this is a timely and positive response to the mechanical, data and statistics driven reductionism which is so utterly de-humanising.

I continue to explore what it means to be human, and I find some of the more impressive answers in the works of philosophers, from the classical schools to Spinoza, Bergson and Deleuze (to name just a few!)

Of course, I could write about this for hours! Ha! Ha! But I’ll stop here and leave the possibility that these are questions you might like to pursue for yourself.

Let me summarise – because I think this is a lifetime project as well as potentially the basis for a whole curriculum –

  • What is Life?
  • What is a human being?
  • What is health?

The answers which appear from those studies could, possibly, give us the remedies of the future – the ones which actually do “restore health to the sick” – and, yes, more than that, allow us to create healthier societies filled with people who fulfil their potentials, creatively, co-operatively, and artistically…..can I even say “spiritually?”

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We’ve had a very hot, dry spell recently here in the Charente. Temperatures rising to the mid or high 30s (centigrade) each day which made the leaves of the plants curl up and wilt. Then this last week we’ve had rain, wind and storms. Yikes! What chance have they got?

Well, look what all that varied weather has done to this bush in the garden.

First it suddenly bloomed, going from zero flowers to dozens of them over about 48 hours. Then the wind and rain has knocked off more than a few of them.

But when I walked outside yesterday evening and the bush caught my eye I was transfixed.

Just look how beautiful this is! Not just the bush itself but the way the fallen flowers have made a pinkish purple circular rug on the grass around it.

This is the kind of beauty which Nature makes.

In “The Great Work”, Thomas Berry talks about the interplay between discipline and wildness…..between order and chaos (or disorder). This is a great example, I think, of the beauty the wildness and disorder brings…..effortlessly.

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We all live embedded in multiple environments, or contexts…..webs of connected flows of energy, information and materials. I wonder how aware we are of them? I wonder how conscious we are of the signals and messages we are receiving as we go about our every day activities?

When I was in Segovia recently I took a couple of photos, which, with hindsight, I think say something important about one kind of environment – the cultural one. By that I mean the web of meanings and values which bathe a town, a city, or a region in waves of a certain kind….the kind which contribute to what someone means when they talk about “a way of life”, or “an identity”.

The first photo is of these two nuns walking around the corner of a building. Segovia has a history of convents, and many of them are still active.

The second is more secular.

The matadors. Local heroes. Bull fighting evokes strong reactions in people, with some deeply attached to it, and others considering it barbaric. Whatever your reaction, however, you can’t deny this aspect of the cultural environment in a place like this, exerts a powerful influence on the minds and lives of the people who live here, and the people who visit.

I was born in Scotland, in Stirling, the city on the edge of The Trossachs, an area rich in lochs, forests and hills. Stirling Castle stands on a rocky outcrop high above the town and casts its own historic influence on it, and on the people. My gran used to tell me that boys born in Stirling were “Sons of the Rock”. Is there any better example of how culture and place intermingle to create influential environments where ideas of how to live and who I am have their roots?

What is your cultural environment like?

Could you take a photo or two which would give someone else a sense of it?

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I noticed this emblem in the Alcazar in Segovia, Spain. This is where Isabella “The Catholic” was crowned queen Isabella I of Castille in 1474.

The most prominent part of this image is the magpie. So, here’s my first question – what is the symbolism of the magpie in this context? I know the magpie represents both good luck and bad (the old rhyme starts “One for sorrow, two for joy….?) but what’s it’s significance here, in the Alcazar? Secondly, there are two trees, clearly different species. The one on the right looks like a palm tree, but the one on the left? What is that? What are these trees symbolic of? The tree of life and the tree of knowledge? Islam and Christianity? Does anyone know?

Finally there is the five pointed star. A symbol of the Divine?

I’d love to hear any ideas or insights you might have……

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There’s an ancient philosophical “spiritual exercise” known as taking the “view from on high”, or “the view from above”.

It involves casting your imagination and thoughts high up above the Earth to see the world as a whole and to see how small people look as they busy about their daily activities on such a tiny speck of a planet in the vast universe.

When I stood above the aqueduct in Segovia I got one of those experiences. It’s an immense structure built in the late first century AD using stones which were carved to fit precisely on top of each other. There is no mortar or cement holding this together. It’s like a giant “dry stane dyke” (as we say in Scotland).

Although the structure itself is astonishing, what amazes me is how the town of Segovia grew up around it. You can see, in these two images, both to the left and the right of the aqueduct and you can see how small the people look, living their lives in their cafes, their shops, houses and streets around this structure. In this second photo you can see the mountains beyond, and you just know that if you were standing up there, how small the aqueduct and the whole town of Segovia would appear.

This view from on high somehow transports us into not only an overview of the present, the here and now, but above the flow of time, seeing centuries of human life and activity laid out before us.

Isn’t that quite a perspective?

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When I stroll along a quayside in any fishing village, I frequently come across heaps of nets, and bits of nets. There’s something engagingly beautiful about them.

One of the thoughts they provoke is the idea of the red thread…..that essential whatever it is that runs through our lives. There’s a red thread which ties all of our experiences and stories together. It’s a kind of metaphor of the self, the narrative self. For each of us that red thread is unique. No two threads have exactly the same point of origin, the exactly same length, twists, turns and knots.

And the red thread doesn’t exist in isolation. There is no red thread which doesn’t weave itself through all the other threads….the fibres which make up existence.

Whether those fibres are neurones, or storylines, or energy flows, or manifestations of “String Theory”, none of them are unconnected to others. It’s a kind of essential Truth of the Universe isn’t it? That every single thread is connected to others, and ultimately, if we start to follow one thread it will lead us onto and along ALL the others?

There are layers upon layers of these webs and nets. More dimensions than we can imagine, intersecting, co-existing, inter-acting, producing both wholeness and uniqueness.

There are more colours, more shades, more thicknesses and lengths than we can imagine. The diversity which exists in the universe is astonishing. And don’t you think this diversity is beautiful? Doesn’t it thrill you?

Whenever I see nets like these I think of the two fundamental elements of all webs – nodes and links. I find that such a helpful way to see Life, to see a human being, a community, a city, a planet……

Have you come across the increasingly large number of words which end in “-ome” these days?

Genome – the network of genes

Proteome – the network of proteins produced by our cells

Microbiome – the network of bacteria which co-exist with our own cells in and on our bodies

And other networks too – of the nervous system, the immune system, the hormone system.

Of family networks, of social networks, of cultural networks….

Of biomes – the environmental niches, each nested in ever larger networks of biomes.

As we evolve our understanding of the universe from the simplified, reductionist model of separate entities floating in empty space, we are moving towards a more holistic, more realistic understanding based on the inter-connectedness of everything.

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