THE NATURE OF REALITY
- A transcript from The Hour of Judgment radio series -
Copyright (c) 1995 Kevin Solway & David Quinn
- Dr. Tuan Nuyen - Associate Professor in Philosophy at the University of
- Dr. William Grey - Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of
David: I should warn you that the views expressed in this program do not necessarily represent the board of directors of 4RPH or its staff and management. Hello everyone. I'm David Quinn, with me is Kevin Solway, and together we present The Hour of Judgment. Starting tonight, and over the weeks and months ahead in this time slot, we'll be bringing to you what we believe is a world first in radio history - and that is a program made solely for thinkers. Make no mistake, this is a thinking man's radio program. We aim to get to the bottom of everything. We'll be examining philosophy, religion, science, psychology, feminism, and all the other aspects of human thought, in a bid to uncover what is actually true in life and what is false. To help us in this important work, we'll be inviting people onto the program each week, people who themselves are serious and passionate about life, or who claim some sort of expertise in a particular area. And with them, Kevin and I will discuss and debate and argue and do all we can to get to the very nitty-gritty of the subject matter at hand. Now tonight's discussion will most likely centre around philosophy. Our two guests are in fact professional philosophers from the University of Queensland. They are Dr Tuan Nuyen, Associate Professor, and Dr William Grey, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy. Welcome, the both of you.
William: Thank you very much.
Tuan: Thank you.
David: Welcome also to Kevin Solway who will be our resident expert each week.
Kevin: Good evening.
David: Right, let's get on with it. I'd like to come to grips with what philosophy actually is, and whether it can provide us with answers. Now, Tuan and William, you both represent a particular tradition of philosophy. It has its own style of doing things. I'm sure most of our listeners have some sort of acquaintance with Western philosophy in the sense that it's a very abstract, complex, obtuse, dry and technical subject - it's something that boffins do in the bowels of universities, so it seems. They'd also know that philosophy, or academic philosophy, has been around for a long time. It has its roots back in the ancient Greeks, doesn't it - two and a half thousand years ago. I wonder if, William, you could start off with stating what is the purpose of academic philosophy?
William: Well, the purpose of academic philosophy, I think, is the same as the purpose of inquiry quite generally. If you look at it in its broadest perspective I see the purpose of inquiry is trying to locate us intelligibly and satisfyingly somewhere in the complex web of contingencies that constitute history. So I think that art and poetry and philosophical inquiry are all ways of reflecting on the human predicament and trying to make sense of it. But of course philosophy, I think, has its own particular perspective on this. I think using the methods of abstract thought is the tradition, as you said, which started about five or six hundred BC in ancient Greece, and has really generated a lot of different branches and different styles over the millennia. And I guess we'll explore a bit more about how some of these branches have developed.
David: When I think of the word "philosophy" . . . well, ever since I can remember, philosophy has meant to me the understanding of reality.
William: Literally, it means "love of wisdom" and so it's just a name for enquiry at a quite general level. I think that there are two ways in which we relate to the world - that is, trying to do something, which is technology, and thinking about it, which is the activity of reflective thought. You can see philosophy as the original form of enquiry which successively produced other branches of enquiry. Whenever a technique is developed for pursuing a particular question, it branches off. Mathematics developed its own autonomy very early on, but you can see successively over the centuries that subjects like physics, chemistry, etc - all of these were once called Natural Philosophy. But they all have branched off because they have developed their own methods and their own disciplinary integrity. But you can see, I think, philosophy as being the sort of source of general interest which, as Plato said, begins in wonder or puzzlement about the world, in wanting to make sense of it.
Kevin: Okay, I'd like to narrow it down a little bit more. Philosophy is a very broad term - even children in the playground need some kind of philosophy, some kind of relation to the world whereby they can interact with their fellow classmates and live harmoniously in the world to some degree. But what I'm interested in is this higher form of philosophy which is more than just a wisdom of living in the world like everybody has to do, but an ultimate wisdom, an absolute wisdom. I'd call this real philosophy rather than ordinary human life. I was brought up to think that philosophers were a class above ordinary people. So I'd like to concentrate more on this aspect - this aspect of Absolute Wisdom. What does academic philosophy have to say on this subject? Is there any part of academic philosophy that deals with Absolute Wisdom?
Tuan: Well, I suppose one way of answering that question is to suggest that Absolute Wisdom is knowledge about the Absolute. One way of getting a handle on this question is to ask it a little bit differently so that we could begin to answer it properly. One suggestion is, as I said, is to understand your question of Ultimate Wisdom as knowledge of the Absolute, whatever that may be, and one of the things it could be is what David said when he talked about "ultimate reality". And so if we could find out something about this so-called "ultimate reality", then this would be part of the Ultimate Wisdom that you've been talking about.
Kevin: Yes. So looking at the current state of philosophy after two and a half thousand years, is there any major concern today with the possible existence of an ultimate reality? What are your ideas on this? Is your department at the university concerned with discovering an ultimate reality?
Tuan: Well, that would be part of metaphysics. Metaphysics has always been a concern in philosophy generally, and certainly we do talk a bit about metaphysics. In fact, there is a professional journal called The Review of Metaphysics. I suspect, though, that you may be disappointed in the various discussions that are published in The Review of Metaphysics, because the question of ultimate reality is not discussed perhaps in the way that non-professional philosophers expect it to be discussed. I guess what people have in mind, generally, is whether there is something that is beyond or above - something that is eternal and immutable and so on and so forth.
Tuan: But the Greeks did ask that question. The Greeks, or at least Plato, thought that real knowledge is knowledge of something that is eternal, immutable, and unchangeable.
Kevin: Okay, what about the two of you personally? Presumably, you must have thought about this subject considerably. Can I ask you personally, William, do you believe it is possible to have an ultimate knowledge, or a knowledge of ultimate reality?
William: I think, no. I think that knowledge is always provisional, incremental, evolutionary, changing. I think that we find ourselves on a very curious and fascinating planet, and we devise technological and conceptual tools for making sense of it, and adapting to it, and I think it's a continuing process of modification.
Kevin: So you say that you think this is the case?
Kevin: Do you state this with certainty?
William: Absolutely not. No.
Kevin: "Absolutely not". This is an interesting question. There are a lot of people around today who are absolutely sure that they're not sure of anything. Yet this is a form of absolute. Through some sort of logical process they've arrived at an opinion on something. For example, if we take empirical knowledge, empirical science, which is concerned with the senses - and obviously we can't be sure of anything that we perceive through our senses because our senses can be mistaken, and they always are to some extent - this kind of knowledge is obviously uncertain. But there is another kind of knowledge - logical knowledge, based on definitions - which is an absolute knowledge.
William: Well, even the firm truths of logic are called into question by some thinkers.
Kevin: Well, let's take an example. If we define something to be a "cup", and everything other than this thing to be "not a cup", then we can state with absolute certainty that the cup, and whatever it is that is not the cup, are different things. This is because we define them to be different. So here we have an absolute statement of certainty which is beyond question.
William: Well, I think there are various, to my mind, heroic thinkers who are prepared to entertain, for example, the existence of real contradictions and they would perhaps say that there is no statement at all that can be relied on as being absolutely certain. Anyway, let's go along with you and assume that at least logic is certain.
Kevin: I'd like to arrive at some certainty.
Kevin: If we define a bicycle as having two wheels, well then, a bicycle has two wheels - unless we change our definition. So there is no way that a sane person - I'm thinking about a person who has some kind of logical processes - could then say that a bicycle has three wheels, if in their own mind they know that a bicycle has two wheels. You see, they'd have to be completely insane. I'd say that even an insane person couldn't make the statement. So this is the kind of certainty I'm looking at, a sort of logical certainty upon which Absolute Truth must certainly be based. Because this is the only absolute there can be. Is there work being done in academic philosophy in this area?
Tuan: Can I just get back to the question of definition. In philosophy we make a distinction between two kinds of statements. One we call analytic and the other we call synthetic. An analytic statement is - well, an example of it is the sort of thing you just mentioned in terms of the bicycle, something with two wheels. Another hackneyed kind of example is, "a bachelor is an unmarried man". Now, an analytical statement like that is always true and it is a contradiction to think of it as false. But then there are other statements which are not like that - we call them synthetic statements. If I say, for example, that the door of this studio is shut, then that just happens to be true but it is not absolutely true. I mean, it could well be an hallucination. It could well be wide open.
Kevin: That's what I call empirical knowledge.
Tuan: That's right. Now I guess the question you're asking is, "Could there be a statement about ultimate reality which is true in the way that an analytic statement is true?"
Tuan: Ah, my answer to that is no, because it is knowledge about something and this is always synthetic - unless, of course, you want to make it such that it is true by definition, in which case you're just cheating yourself. So with that in mind, I guess I'm supporting William here in saying that as long as it is some kind of synthetic statement you can never be absolutely certain about it.
Kevin: Well, I'd like to examine this question about cheating ourselves when we assert a truth which is based on a definition. Do you want to continue on this, David, or should I?
David: No, you go on.
Kevin: Okay. If these truths by definitions are the only real truths that we can have, and the only truths that we can be certain of, then surely they are important to us. At least, they are important to me as a man who wants permanence and Truth above all things. Now, I'm going to branch off into metaphysics now - which is real philosophy, I suppose I'd call it - in an attempt to come to some kind of grasp of Ultimate Reality. Now I'll make a statement that "all things which appear to be finite are in fact infinite", and the proof of this is based on definitions. I don't know whether I should go through the step by step reasoning . . . but because things, finite things, are dependant on other things, then things are not separate to each other. You'd probably recognize this as a Buddhist kind of philosophy. The finiteness of things, or the existence of things, is illusory. Things are real enough in the sense that our senses definitely produce them and so they have a practical benefit to our species, but nevertheless, logically, they can be proven to be illusory. This is approaching absolute knowledge. This is what I think philosophy should be concerned with. And mind you, this is not just pure intellectual reasoning here because imagine what a person's life is like when they think like this! - when a person can live in the world knowing that everything they see is illusory. It definitely changes the way they live. Have you ever heard of these ideas before?
Tuan: Well, I have. But if you want to talk about Buddhism, then the problem is that Buddhism doesn't subscribe to the idea of Ultimate Reality. It is true that in Buddhism it is believed that all the things we experience, see, hear and touch, are illusory, as you say, but it doesn't say that there is something behind all of that.
Kevin: True. I'm not saying that either. I think what I'm saying is that when we are no longer deluded, when we no longer believe things to be true that aren't true, then I'm defining that as seeing Reality - even though Reality is not a thing.
Tuan: Hmm, hmm.
Kevin: I'm defining Reality as the absence of false perceptions. So when false perceptions are halted, then Reality - that is, what I define to be Reality - is not an actual thing.
William: How can there be any perceptions that are not false if all is illusion? I see that as one puzzle, and another thing I'm unhappy about is the step in the argument from "everything being dependent on something else" to the conclusion that therefore "everything is infinite" - it seems to me that that is a dubious inference.
Kevin: Okay, let's concentrate on that subject, the last one you mentioned there. If things are dependent on each other, can they still be independent? Well, I suppose it all comes down to definitions again, doesn't it? Take myself. Can I exist separately to other people at the same time as being dependent upon them? I would argue that this is impossible, because these dependencies are relations, and these relations are things which link one thing to another thing. These links are connections, and we have connections going out from our bodies and minds into the environment, and these connections are not numbered - these connections are infinite. Around us, every part of our body and every part of our mind is connected to the environment around us. It's like an umbilical cord which is completely surrounding our entire body and mind. When you look at the world like this, it's impossible to see things as being really separate to each other - even though things appear to be separate to our gross senses. Is this making a bit more sense?
Tuan: Well, let's try to understand this question a little bit better. You talk about dependency and relatedness and so on and make the claim that things are related to each other and so on and so forth. They're not separate as they appear to be. What kind of relatedness or dependency are we talking about here? There are a few possibilities that I can think of. I can think of causal dependency, for example, or causal relatedness--
Kevin: Let's leave it at that - causal relatedness.
Tuan: Causal relatedness means that certain things that I do or say will have causal effects on other people. Somebody who may be listening to this program may be moved by what I'm saying, or may be angered by what I'm saying, or maybe encouraged to enrol in philosophy - that sort of thing.
Tuan: And so this is one kind of relatedness or dependency.
Kevin: I'm thinking perhaps of an even more fundamental causal relationship - causation of a thing's existence. I'm saying that if a thing exists - simply on that level - if a thing exists, then it must be caused to exist. This is by definition because existence is a human concept. Without a consciousness to conceive of existence, we can't rightly say there is existence.
William: Do you think the world existed before there were any conscious beings?
Kevin: Yes, it did - only because we can conceive of it. Because we can conceive of a world existing before conscious beings, therefore it exists. This is by definition.
William: It came to have existed after conscious minds existed?
Kevin: However, we'd like to put it. Whatever seems practical to our minds is true.
William: Well, this is sort of a statement of a pragmatic theory of truth, yes. A rather loose one.
Kevin: So do you honestly think that something can exist without there being any concept of existence?
William: Yes, I do. I think the question of existence, reality, truth and the question of knowledge, understanding, awareness are quite separate questions. And I guess this is a very old dispute in philosophy, which goes right back to its origins, about what extent can we make sense of a world existing independently of minds which might be aware of the world.
Kevin: Well, I'd still go back to what I said before about how we can't really say a thing exists if the concept of existence has never arisen in the universe. For example, let's say one second after the Big Bang, there was . . . well, I suppose we can say that there was "something". Looking at it from our point of view now, at this moment, we can look back and say whether something was there. But at the time, when there was no conscious life, presumably, and it's just bits of atoms spraying in space . . . try and cast your mind back and dissipate your mind until it no longer exists. This is getting very metaphysical now. So when the mind no longer exists, there can be no concept of "self" and there can be no concept of "other", therefore there can be no concept of "existence". I'm not really saying that nothing exists, because for me to say that nothing exists implies there must be something that exists. Non- existence depends on existence. Everything depends on something else. So I would say that, ultimately - before there was consciousness, as well as right now - we can never correctly say that things either exist or not exist. What is consciousness? I'm going to completely break the line of argument here. Well, not completely. Is academic philosophy concerned with what is consciousness?
William: I think the mind/body problem is a very open question and people have been puzzling about this for two and a half millennia or more. We've got a reasonably good, if rudimentary, understanding of physical reality - the way forces govern structures, and the way physical objects behave, and the way that they can be controlled. But how you can make sense of conscious experience and mind, I think, is a deeply baffling mystery.
David: Well, I think that all these problems revolve around the idea of whether things exist or not. Everything comes down to that. Consciousness, for example, is some sort of entity: it is something that we can conceive of, as is anything else like clouds or atoms; it has some sort of existence; it has an identity of some kind. And so the question of whether, say, the mind is separate from the body is really a question of whether the mind can have real existence - whether it can be truly separate from anything else. This is what Kevin was saying before. So I think we should really concentrate on this question.
Kevin: You've talked me into it.
David: It is the most important question of all - the question of how things really exist, whether they can exist separately from other things and so forth - because everything rests on this.
Tuan: Well, I suppose we're getting back to the question of dependency and relatedness and so on and so forth. There is a fairly respectable view according to which everything that exists is caused to exist. Things didn't come into existence on their own and in fact the only object that came into existence on its own, without being caused by anything else, was God.
David: Is this your personal view?
Tuan: No, no, this is not my personal view. I am just saying that the view that everything that exists is caused to exist is a fairly respectable and standard view, and in fact that is one premise of the, well, fairly respectable argument for the existence of God, who is the Uncaused Cause, if you like. And so, if you leave God out of the picture, then everything else exists because it's been caused to exist by something else. My existence was caused by my parents and so on and so forth, and you can say that about everything. This cup here was made by someone or it was manufactured and so on and so forth. You can say that about everything that exists in the world. Now--
David: I'd actually argue that this is an argument against the concept of God, because if everything has a cause then there is no beginning to anything at all. There is no room at all for God because everything is beginningless and endless. But let's assume that cause and effect, as you describe it, is so - the next logical step to that is seeing that you can't find any boundary between where one thing begins and another ends, because everything gets lost in its causes. A cup is caused by human labour, the earth, clay and all that sort of stuff. You can't find the precise point where this cup came into existence. Because at bottom there's nothing there. We ourselves project the boundaries onto the world around us - they're arbitrarily put down. So, again, if we are going to accept this point of view, then it comes down to whether cause and effect is actually true. If cause and effect is true, then the beginningless and endlessness of everything is also true.
William: Well, the boundaries may be a bit vague, but a vague boundary can be a perfectly workable one.
David: Yes, but the boundaries still can't exist outside a conscious mind. Boundaries are created by conscious minds in order to deal with day to day life. But when you change your perspective, the boundaries change. You get a different view of reality. In other words, these boundaries have no real existence.
William: Well, I'm of the view that there are boundaries that exist in the world - natural divisions in the way reality is structured that are quite independent of the way we think about it.
David: Can you give us an example?
William: Oh, for example, there are ninety-six elements that naturally occur - the chemical elements. Now it seems to me this is not an invention of human enquiry. It's a discovery. These separate elements with their own particular characteristics existed long before there was any consciousness in the universe to discover this fact.
David: Well, I would say that Nature lends itself to be divided up in particular ways. It's more practical for us to divide the elements into the ninety-six different elements there are. But when you analyse their existence, they disappear. I mean, these elements are made up of atoms and these atoms share a common bond, if you like. You can see that these boundaries begin to dissolve when you analyse them. These elements may exist on a crude level - as all things exist on a crude level - but when you analyse and look for where they begin or end they disappear.
Kevin: All the elements are based on hydrogen, basically. All the elements are just different levels of evolution of the hydrogen atom.
William: The proton seems to be the fundamental building block.
William: Protons and neutrons, sure.
Kevin: So where is this existence? Let's take human life, for example. Now a lot of people say that life begins at conception. I was actually never brought up by my parents to think this; I was bought up to think that life begins at birth. So when I began hearing people say that life began at conception, I thought, "Oh well, all of a sudden I've grown nine months older!" I've heard someone say recently that life begins when a mother accepts the child, so this "life" depends on what other people think of your life - this is taking dependency to extremes here. When we analyse where our life begins we can't find it, and the reason we can't find it is not because it's difficult to find but because it's logically impossible for there actually to be a beginning to our life.
William: Well, yes, I think I'm going to concede that there is no such thing as the point at which life begins. If you're dealing with the process of development of the organism that starts off with conception and then goes through the slow process of embryological development, then there is a succession of phases. It does seem to be arbitrary to say that any point is the critical moment.
Kevin: Yes. So really, in other words, our lives have no beginning.
William: Well, that doesn't follow. I mean, it seems to me you've made a giant leap.
Kevin: Can you explain to me how we could possibly have a beginning? Could you make one up?
William: Well, it certainly seems to me that, say, in 1900 I did not exist in any sense. William Grey was altogether absent from the scheme of things back then.
Kevin: Oh, I think you will find that you were still around then.
William: No . . . well, perhaps the constituent components that ultimately came to constitute William Grey were around in the world, somewhere or other.
Kevin: But, actually, the William Grey that exists now in this moment didn't exist five minutes ago. You're continually changing. Every part of your body and mind are changing. So you are a completely different William Grey to the one five minutes ago, even though we call you by the same name. We're probably doing you a disservice by continually calling you William Grey. We should probably call people by a different name every single time we see them in order to honour their ability to change. So you are a different person every single moment, and even before your birth you were also continually changing. Of course, we all like to think that we have a consciousness, or a self, which is somehow permanent. Through using our memory, we can remember when we were young, we can remember five minutes ago and we are conscious of ourselves now - so we tend to think we have something permanent in there. Do you think . . . ?
William: Absolutely, yes! I think you just contradicted yourself by saying, on the one hand, that there is no such thing as the William Grey that existed five minutes ago, but now you're conceding that there is some memory, some important continuity, that remains throughout all the changes.
Kevin: It appears to us. Something appears to remain the same throughout the changes.
Kevin: So what do you think? Is there really something permanent?
Tuan: I must confess . . . I've lost the plot here. I'm not sure of what question we're dealing with.
Kevin: Well, I think it is all related to existence. In particular, the existence of a human life is what I'm trying to strike at here. The existence of a human person. What is the person? What is the self? Is the existence of such a thing possible? If it is possible then there must be a beginning to our life and our consciousness. Now if everything has causes and those causes go back infinitely, by necessity, and the causes of our consciousness goes back infinitely, can we really exist? Do we really have a consciousness? What is this consciousness? Do you want to say something, David?
David: Well, yes, I think we should have a break here. Paul, do we have any music lined up?
Kevin: Well, perhaps we could play, seeing this is the first program, the theme music which we started with. That should give us two minutes to think of what we are going to say next.
[ MUSIC BREAK ]
David: What was that Kevin? C.P.E. Bach or something, wasn't it?
Kevin: I don't know, but it was good though, wasn't it?
David: Yes. So what were we talking about? We were talking about this idea of whether things can come into existence, of whether there is a boundary.
William: Beginning and ceasing to exist.
David: So what are your thoughts on this, Tuan? Have you thought about it?
Tuan: Well, in my own case, I have a pretty rough idea of when I came into existence. I guess the biological answer to this is perfectly acceptable to me, in that the entity continuously develops. This entity came into existence when the two sets of chromosomes joined together at the moment of conception, and also, biologically, I can anticipate the moment when the disintegration of the unit, of the entity I now call "myself", occurs. But we are talking in terms of biology now. You mentioned before the idea of a person . . . when a person came into existence - when this person ceases to exist is a slightly different question - has to do with how you define a person. You might want to define a person as somebody with consciousness - I know this is a question we haven't resolved, but let's assume that we know what it is - then that person begins to exist when consciousness comes into existence and ceases to exist when consciousness goes out of existence. So even if this biological unit continues to live on in a state of permanent coma, you might want to say that the person no longer exists.
Kevin: Let's keep it on a simpler level. Ignore the person for the moment and the level of consciousness. When the chromosomes come together we have a complete genetic complement, as the biologists call it. This is like a blueprint for a house. The instructions are there to build a human being. But we don't call a blueprint for a house "the house", it's just a blueprint. It's just a piece of paper - little more than toilet paper. So really, when the chromosomes come together there's nothing important there. If the chromosomes come together and we put them on a petri-dish then nothing much is going to happen - this magical life won't spring into existence. So I'm trying to extend this idea - and I'm choosing this particular subject of human life because people have such an emotional attachment to it - and come to the conclusion that life literally has no beginning. This can then be extended to all things in Nature - human life is no different to anything else in Nature. Consciousness is just a "thing", no different to any other "thing" in the universe,
David: This is in relation to this particular point of existence.
Kevin: Exactly. Obviously, consciousness is different in that it has different characteristics and attributes, but fundamentally it's just a "thing" - a thing we can conceive of.
Tuan: Well, it seems to be two different things that we're talking about here and I think it would be useful for us to separate them. Are we talking about life in general, whatever that means, or are we talking about an individuated life - for example, my life or William's life?
Kevin: Let's talk about life as a thing. So without asking questions about what life is, let's just assume that there's something . . . there's something called life. And we were trying to uncover whether it is possible for this thing to really exist - in other words, to have a beginning. If it has a beginning, I will grant that it exists. If we can't find a beginning to it, or if it is not possible for there to be a beginning, then we can extend that to say that it is not possible for anything to really exist. Remember, we are talking about life as just being a "thing" - we don't need to concern ourselves with anything more detailed than that.
William: Generally speaking, I think biologists have got a fairly clear understanding of when organisms begin and cease to exist. When single-celled organisms divide, that seems to be a point of discontinuity which marks the life of these individuals. For the multi-cellular varieties like ourselves, conception and disintegration at death seem to mark a fairly natural end points, even though you cannot state exactly when the critical moment or the absolute precise threshold occurs. I don't think this matters.
Kevin: I think my point is, though, that it is not possible for there to be any critical moment.
William: That's fine.
Kevin: Because everything is part of a process, as you said earlier. There is no critical moment. Every moment is absolutely dependant on everything around it - absolutely dependant on the environment, absolutely dependant on what has happened previously.
William: I think it was Dr Johnson who said that the fact of dusk doesn't prove that I can't know day from night, and these fuzzy boundaries don't mean that you can't distinguish existence and non-existence.
Kevin: Okay, David and I both live in this world and we both definitely believe we exist.
Kevin: In fact, we agree that we exist so much that we even decided to do our own radio program. But, at the same time, I think David and I are aware that this existence is only an appearance. And being a rational being, and not being able to avoid it, I accept the appearance that is being forced upon me - through what I have inherited. But my reason tells me that at no point in my past did I actually come into existence. It might be practical sometimes to say, "Oh yes, I began at conception", or it might be practical sometimes to say I began at childbirth - which is what my parents chose to tell me when I was a child. It might be practical to be like that person I was telling you about who said that life begins when the mother accepts the child. It might be practical to say that life begins at age twelve, when a child has more analytical thought- processes and is able to think about the past and future, and generally becomes a more conscious being with responsibility. So all these things have their practical uses. But I think the point is that that's all they have - they're just practical, depending on what we value in life. For example, if we don't value intelligence, if we don't value conscious responsible behaviour, then we might not care when children arrive at the point of being responsible and intelligent. So this age of eleven or twelve, when the mind has evolved to this certain level, we may not care about this - we might not even have a word for it; it doesn't exist as far as we're concerned. We create these existences. We create these boundaries - depending partly on what our senses throw up in front of us, and partly on what we value. Personally, I value Truth and Wisdom - Wisdom about the Ultimate Reality. So all of the boundaries, or as many as I can manage, that I perceive are based on these values. I judge people according to what benefit they are to Wisdom. If a person has no benefit to the survival of Wisdom in this world, then this person has very little value to me - maybe none. I can see no reason for their existence.
William: Well, presumably they might have very good reasons for their existence from their own perspective and point of view.
Kevin: I'm glad you pointed that out!
Kevin: Okay, but let's get back again to the beginnings of things--
William: Well, just to take up that very point, you said that it seems to you that there is no point at which you began to exist. Now I agree. Perhaps there is no point at which you began to exist, but it doesn't follow from this that you didn't begin to exist. It just means that your beginning to exist is not the sort of transition that requires a particular threshold point - a precise moment at which this occurs.
Kevin: Ah well, there is a precise moment when it occurs, but we decide when that moment is.
William: Okay. If you want to precisify it, as they sometimes say, then you can do so. Sure.
Kevin: But do you think it's fair then for me to say that, if this is the case, then our lives don't really exist in the way that people commonly believe that they do?
William: I don't think that follows.
Kevin: Well, just take the average person who wants to be loved. Okay?
Kevin: They want to be appreciated because they have a definite idea that they exist. They look at the big wide world and the big universe around them and they see that it is so big and so cold and so dangerous, and that they're so small and insignificant. So they need something. They need something warm and loving. This obviously comes from a view that they had come into existence at some point and they'll have a limited amount of time on this earth and then die. Now, of course, these thoughts don't occur to me because I know that my life never had a real beginning, other than what I arbitrarily talk about. And because my life has no beginning I know it has no end - other than in appearance to the gross senses. So it is very important what position people take on this philosophy.
William: I think there is lurking there a very misleading inference that somebody might draw. By saying that there is no precise end to my life, you can slide into saying that "therefore there is no end to my life", and that "therefore my life is eternal". Now it seems to me that we should resist that slide.
William: Why . . . ?
Tuan: Well, as we philosophers say, it's a bad argument!
Kevin: Oh, that convinces me! No, really, if there is no beginning to my life other than what I project . . logically, what has no beginning cannot have an end.
William: Well, there is a beginning, even though there is no precise point you can call the beginning.
Kevin: But there is a beginning?
David: Can you explain that, William?
William: Just thinking once again to that example I gave earlier. In the year 1900, I clearly did not exist. Now you might say that trying to specify the exact moment when William Grey did begin to exist - whether it's at conception, or the gradual development of conscious awareness or whatever . . . . maybe it's going to be just a matter of convention or decision when we are going to say, "Okay, no William Grey before then but there is one after that point". This seems to be entering into the artificial business of boundary drawing. Nevertheless, it seems to me to be very clear that there was no William Grey in 1900 and there will be no William Grey, say, in 2100.
Kevin: Well, if I can perceive some of William Grey back in the 1900's, would you concede that you did exist back then?
William: I don't know how you can perceive anything except in 1995!
Kevin: I can perceive that a lot of your thinking and consciousness has evolved out of the English philosophical traditions. I can see some of this in you - going on my intuition.
Kevin: So I see some of your immortal nature here. I can see your own self, what you really are - your spirit if you like. I'm not talking some New Age stuff here, just simple cause and effect. I can see you going back to what you have come from. I can see what you have been made from. And what you've been made from surely is a part of you, just like the atoms in your body are a part of you. The academic philosophical tradition you've been made from is to some degree part of you. So, in this sense, it's very real to think of a person as existing in this immortal way.
William: Yeah, well, I would deny all the causal antecedents for any particular item, object, or person are a part of that person. It seems to me that that would mean the entire history of the universe was a part of us all. I know a lot of people would regard this as being a perfectly reasonable conclusion to draw, but I just regard that as metaphysically extravagant. I am aware that there are lots of respectable dissenters from my view.
David: I tend to see it this way. Christians, in order to see God in nature around them, they first have a faith. Their God is a faith - they don't really have any evidence or reasons for His existence. But once they have this faith, then they go out and look for Him. They look about in their environment for God and, lo and behold, they see Him! So in the same way people have a kind of a faith in "things" and in "life". There are no real reasons to believe in "life". Yet, like the Christian, we go out into the world and, lo and behold, we see it! Have you got anything to say, Tuan?
Tuan: Well, to me, the relevant question is: What is the importance of all this? What hangs on this business of having a beginning or end or whatever? At one point, you were talking about knowing how to relate to other people and knowing how to behave properly, and so on and so forth. It just seems that as far as this goes nothing much hangs on the metaphysical issue that you raise unless and until we can sort out the relationship between the knowledge of when my life came into existence, if it ever did, and that of how I should behave towards you and other people as my fellow human beings. Until then, it just doesn't seem to matter all that much.
Kevin: Well, okay, just to close up, I'd like to sort of state the obvious, I suppose. For a person who believes he never came into existence and never goes out of existence - which is my faith, if you like, a faith in what I know to be true, which is very hard to do because some truths are very hard to believe - it takes away the need for love. It takes away the need for everything that people emotionally need. It takes away the need for violence; it takes away the need for warmth; it takes away the need for fashion and lies and all the nonsense that fills our whole society and replaces it with a life which . . . sometimes you consider as existing, and sometimes you consider as being the entire world. It's a marvelous thing.
William: Some echoes of Spinoza, I think.
Kevin: Perhaps he was a past life.
David: Alright. Kevin and I will be back next week. Thanks to Dr Tuan Nuyen and Dr William Grey. Thank you very much.
William: A pleasure.
Tuan: Thank you.