Saturday, July 08, 2006


East of Eden

In my last post we were continuing the examination of this apparent split between science and philosophy and where it might have begun. As I have said the main division can be given as who answers the “how” questions and who answers the “why” ones. This split as I have shown has created some major differences of opinion as to what certain aspects of the physical world should be expected and allowed to contain. More importantly we have come to discover that certain basic concepts like random in nature are viewed differently between many within the disciplines. It has been demonstrated that in the Greek brand of philosophy/science the focus was on nature as a whole where man was only one component or aspect of it. In many of the modern and now the contemporary philosophies man had come to be at the center. These philosophies range from those described as religions, where all of nature and its intent are focused on the creation and fate of man, plus many other western philosophies, which although they are not viewed as religions, also have man as its central theme. Science on the other hand has gravitated towards the conclusion that there is no scheme of nature to be discovered and so only questions how the whole things fits together. This could be more or less equated with how a mechanic might view a automobile and its workings without considering its intended use.

So when did this all start to occur? The first thing we might look at is to ask when did philosophy become homocentric or man focused? If we go back into our history we might say that early man probably started out this way. Then perhaps one should better ask when did our thinking become less homocentric? To begin if we look at Judeo-Christian philosophy we will find that it was so at the beginning and remains homocentric. If we look at the major eastern philosophies, we find that they were early on and continue to be for the most part still today, nature centered. . There is another major difference between western and eastern philosophies and that is in terms of personal growth or exploration. In general, with Western religious philosophy, it is all laid out for you. Here one is not supposed to pose questions, but rather just to accept the given answers or dogma. In the eastern tradition one is told that not all the answers are to be found in the text or teachings, rather that these form a basic guide and that enlightenment is something you will have to achieve through personal exploration.

To give you an example of what I am talking about I quote below from the Hindu Rig Veda and its Creation Hymn. This is estimated to have been composed more than 12,000 years ago. In a sense it is like the beginning of Genesis in the Old Testament.

Not even nothing existed then. No air yet, nor a heaven. Who encased and kept it where? Was water in the darkness there? Neither deathlessness nor decay. No, nor the rhythm of night and day: The self-existent, with breath sans air: That, and that alone was there. Darkness was in darkness found. Like light-less water all around. One emerged, with nothing on. It was from heat that this was born. Into it, Desire, its way did find: The primordial seed born of mind. Sages know deep in the heart: What exists is kin to what does not. Across the void the cord was thrown, The place of every thing was known. Seed-sowers and powers now came by, Impulse below and force on high. Who really knows, and who can swear, How creation came, when or where! Even gods came after creation's day, Who really knows, who can truly say when and how did creation start? Did He do it? Or did He not? Only He, up there, knows, maybe; Or perhaps, not even He.

In reading this you will find it has much in common with Genesis I. There is as you notice one major difference, for in the Hindu version one finds all these question marks. In Genesis there are no questions. With Genesis we are simply offered answers with no thought that there be any need to question. Now true, that in the Hindu version nearly all the questions are of the “what“ or “how” type. The “why” they take as a given and that is simply “to be”. However, although they feel they have the answer to the question “why”, they imply that they find it important to total understanding. It also suggests that motive is central to the “why” question. So now we see that both the "how and"why" question, in relation to other philosophies was thought to be important many millennia ago. We also find that with the dawn of Western Philosophy and the Greeks this continued and was expanded. In contrast, we have discovered that the now dominant religious philosophies of the West do not at their centre seem to ask any questions at all. This all has had us go further in our search for why science and philosophy have parted company and "how" and "why" those divisions formed. This is still only a beginning, no pun intended.

I openly question whether or not that passage is 12,000 years old. We have only had History for 7000 years. I can see the ancients SAYING it was that old, but even the first Sumerian texts that make sense severely distort time-lines.

In any event, interesting stuff yet again, Phil. Yes, the commonalities of the passage from the Rig Veda and Genesis I are well noted.

On all things Religion including Eastern Philosophy, I cannot possibly recommend too strongly the following book:

The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions

The "basis" of the 4 common and most ancient religions it contrasts and compares the following, in the period 900-200 BC:

China - Daoism and Confucianism
India - Hinduism and Buddhism
Palestine - Judaism, which led to Christianity and Islam
Greece - philosophical rationalism

Preceding all of these is what appears to be a "parent" Religion (and therefore Philosophy), that being Zoroastrianism, and its spokesperson: Zarusthra. From the Washington Post review:

"The Axial Age was anticipated, Armstrong writes, by the prophetic priest Zoroaster. Outraged at the violence of the Aryan warrior culture, Zoroaster conceived of the cosmos as a battle between the forces of good and evil, and he envisioned a great judgment that would eventually culminate in a world of peace and justice. Zoroastrianism is now known to us largely as a historical relic, but his "passionately ethical vision" and his determination to find a spiritual idiom that promoted peace bore fruit in the religious traditions of the Axial Age.

"Other sages also emerged from the conflicts of the era: In India, the Axial Age coincided with the collapse of the Harappan civilization; in Greece, spirituality and philosophy flourished as the Mycenaean kingdom gave way to the Macedonian empire. Socratic philosophy was forged in the brutality of the Peloponnesian War. Breaking sharply from the Greek tradition of vengeance, Socrates argued that retaliation was always unjust and that the key to enlightenment and social virtue was acting with forbearance toward everyone, friend or enemy. The Buddha similarly taught that focusing on the self led to envy, conceit and pride; only a movement into "no self" would lead to "non-distress" and "unhostility."
Hi Steven,

Thanks for the most interesting an pertinent comments and I must admit the more I hear the more I would agree we having much in common as to what we think about, how we carry it out and why. I would not contest you on doubting the Creation Hymn as being 12,000 years old, yet the first versions of it were found to be written in the earliest uncovering of Sanskrit (1500 B.C.) with it having been passed through and from a strictly verbal tradition earlier than this . Yes one could say that Egyptian hieroglyphs preceded these by as much as 2000 years, yet when it comes to the type of philosophical center they don’t really appear to relate.

The whole point I was trying to convey was what you picked up on and this being this man focused vs nature focused philosophical centering, with the Greek religious vs philosophical thinking marking a distant division and segregation of the two ways for considering things more generally. However, what I find most fascinating about the Hindu thoughts on the process of the beginnings, is one could say that things related to Aristotle, Descartes, Darwin, Einstein, Hubble , Sagan, Allan Guth, Penrose, Smolin and others are simply an evolutionary continuance of such thinking.

However, the prime reason for such focus is to demonstrate how such a split in considering the world leads to misunderstanding, discourse and violence, with mistaking spirituality with what’s tolerated as being right and just, while having a curiosity and questioning nature being the only thing truly significant and valuable found at times among some of our species. It would be better if more people wondered as to why this should be, rather then so strongly being convinced that they know whether they be philosophers or scientists.


Thanks Phil. When I started back on my boyhood love of Math/Physics approx 1 year ago, I swore to myself I would allow absolutely zero "Philosophy" at the time.

I was young in the field and therefore ignorant of course as those two things have a way of going together, and thanks to you and Plato I learned not to confuse "Philosophy": with "Pop Philosophy", which I abhor and continue to abhor.

What you taught me was to rather, focus on the 3 men, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, on which our entire culture is built, and stray not a whit (or at least as little as possible), and I have you to thank for that.

I also appreciate the whole "Descartes v. Leibniz" debate thanks to your blog, and how under-appreciated Leibniz is in the pantheon of the greats. My mind in more open now because I am more knowledgeable.
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