Philosophizing is a two-hand job

Plato, the idealist, promoted the idea that our world is governed by forces beyond the physical realm.

Aristotle, the naturalist, believed that there is no force whatsoever beyond the natural world.

These two great minds with opposing perspectives represent the divide over the concepts of “there is something up there and out there” and “what you see is what you get.”

There are countless variations and expansions of these themes, more evident than ever in modern times, keeping us all staggering and stumbling through the uninteresting mire of new versions of the same arguments people were having 3,000 years ago.

Let’s face it: we’re stuck, spinning our wheels in a deep pit of mud, perpetually shackled by polarizing viewpoints.

Plato, with his hand towards the heavens, and Aristotle with his hand towards the earth, neither philosopher quite certain about what to do with his other hand.

A great error of thinking is to falsely classify individual beliefs as inherently perfect, objective interpretations of reality.

Under this pretense, people are stuck in endless cycles of defending “what is right”, unaware that a worldview is only a narrow and unique perspective of the totality of the universe.

Our perspectives are obviously essential as tools to interpret existence, but no singular worldview is equivalent to complete truth.

To illustrate, imagine that two men are approaching an enormous tree. One man from the north, the other from the south. Both men have been independently searching long and hard for the tree, for it is known to represent absolute truth. Legends say that anyone who merely looks at the tree will be endowed by instant and radical enlightenment.

Upon finally beholding this tree of enlightenment, the man from the north falls to his knees and surrenders to the rapture of the tree’s incredible beauty.

He gasps in awe as he takes in the sight of the massive, healthy tree, and suddenly his whole life makes sense. He sees a tree that is vibrant and brimming with life, the leaves lush and green, the grass at the trunk rich and thick. Birds sing sweet songs from the branches, and the man finds himself feeling safe, secure, looked after. After basking in a sense of providence he rushes back to the north to tell everyone he knows that he has seen the truth!

He has seen that the world is beautiful and that it is surely guided by some greater force. He’s been sold on idealism. Be believes in love and providence.

The man from the south has approached the same tree, but the southern edge creates a direly different picture. The surrounding ground is dry and cracked; there is no vegetation. Most of the leaves have fallen, the branches appear brittle. There is a large hollow in the side of the tree, and scarcely a sign of life to be found.

The man, knowing what he sees to be the absolute truth of the world, returns to his kinsmen and relays his experience to eager ears.

He tells his people that the world is desolate and fragile, and that there surely is not any master plan, no kismet to speak of. The meaning of life is decay and nothingness. The only reason to live is to die. People are not looked after or protected by any force apart from self, do so we as well get used to it and do the best we can.

As a result of these contrasting revelations, the tribe from the north and the tribe from the south cannot seem to agree on what the truth really is.

The southern tribe speaks of a gaping hollow in the tree and brittle branches, whereas the northern tribe describes a completely solid surface and strong, life-filled branches.

Both tribes know that their prophets have witnessed absolute truth, and neither are willing to budge on their conclusions.

This goes on for thousands of years until the argument gets so boring, futile, and drawn out that there is nothing left to do but for me sigh melodramatically as I hammer out this totally contrived but hopefully-digestible metaphor.

Here, the tree indeed represents absolute truth, but the northern and southern perspectives of that truth are incomplete.

The problem is, the perspectives are interpreted as being complete on their own.

If the southern tribe would circle around to the north, they would see the side of the tree that is full of life and solidity, and the northern tribe could witness the giant hollow and barren soil if they were to circle around to the south. Alas, all parties are stubborn in their clinging to that little morsel of truth they presume to have found, so rigid in their ways that they cannot imagine the virtue of other perspectives.

And it should go without saying that not even the northern and southern perspectives together can paint a true picture of truth, for there is also east and west to consider. There are furthermore the vantage points of birds flying overhead and the point of view of termites living in the wood.

The only way to understand the tree to the fullest extent possible is to do exactly the opposite of what people traditionally do.

We need to differentiate between our worldviews and the total essence of truth itself, and then make logical connections with other available worldviews in order to ascertain a broader, more complete view of reality.

When Plato and Aristotle pondered the “tree” of reality, they came to seemingly contradictory conclusions.

Their conclusions do not have to contradict.

Of course the world and everything in it is governed by the laws of nature, but by what means did the laws of nature come to be?

Could the laws of the universe be a component in a grander scheme?

The naturalism perspective is hard-pressed to answer these questions on its own, as with raw idealism raw idealism. By plugging different aspects of these perspectives into one another, however, a broader idea emerges, almost kind of a natural idealism where seemingly conflicting notions unify into ideas that take us to new heights of understanding.

Plato and Aristotle were free to do whatever they wanted with their hands, but I like to use them both- one to the heavens, the other to the earth; and a mind to connect the space between.

(originally written in 2013)

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